Yes, I am off to Israel again. Saturday night. And I will be back Friday morning. It is one of those quick visits. Yes, I will see my family on Sunday evening upon my arrival, but from Monday through Thursday night I will be busy fulfilling my responsibilities as chairman of Israel Bonds’ Rabbinic Cabinet. I will have the honor of representing a group of 32 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis from North America (4 from Rockland County!) for the last time as chairman, after serving the organization for three years. On Wednesday night, Rabbi Drill will preside over relieving me of my obligations and appointing a new chairperson.
It is a joy to know that you share these trips with me through my daily summaries from Israel. On this trip, Rabbi Drill and I will alternate sharing daily reports Monday through Thursday via the OJC Rabbis’ blog. PLEASE NOTE THAT WHILE THIS BLOG POSTING IS BEING SHARED VIA OUR “CONSTANT CONTACT” NOTIFICATION SYSTEM, NEXT WEEK’S UPDATES WILL ONLY BE ACCESSIBLE VIA THE OJC BLOG! SO PLEASE CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO OUR BLOG (IF YOU ARE RECEIVING THIS VIA E-MAIL) AND TO RECEIVE OUR DAILY REPORTS!
These last three years have afforded me a wonderful opportunity to get to know Rabbinic colleagues and laypeople who are passionate about Israel. I have gained new insights into, and appreciation for, the many advancements made within Israeli society in the areas of science, technology, and medicine. I have met so many people who have played major roles in Israel’s economic successes and who serve as Israel’s exporters of hope. I have come to appreciate why so many countries, institutions, businesses and individuals today are choosing to invest in Israel. It is one of the safest, and most rewarding, investments that can be made. It is certainly satisfying to know that your money is earning money; it is even more satisfying to know that you are owning–or giving someone else the gift of owning–a piece of the dream-come-true we call Israel.
I want to thank you for supporting and sharing this passion. I look forward to sharing more opportunities to renew these bonds. Perhaps you’ll join Rabbi Drill and me on Sunday morning, February 9 (you’ll pardon me if I am a bit jet-lagged!) as Rockland County Women’s Division of Israel Bonds celebrates its annual Premiere Brunch. Tamar Weinger will be our honoree, and our own Janice Wertheim is being celebrated as JCC Rockland’s honoree. Contact our Israel Bonds office at 800-724-0748 if you want to attend, to invest, or to give the gift of a bond! Congratulations to them, their families, and to us all for what we have been able to build together.
I love the story of the rebbe who sees one of his young students galloping through their town on the back of a fast horse. “Where are you going with so much speed?” calls the rebbe.
“I have no idea,” shouts back the young student. “Ask the horse!”
So often, this is exactly what life feels like for me! I have no idea where my life is flying to; I just hold on to my routines and schedules and To Do lists for dear life and they take me at full speed from day to day.
I was thinking about this story today because yet another snow storm called a halt to my full-tilt gallop. At home this morning with a sun-filled winter wonderland outside my window, I sat quietly and asked myself if I know the direction in which I am running. Note that I am not asking for a destination. I would just like to know that I am guiding the horse and not the other way around.
What is important and valuable enough in our lives to convince us to grab the reins and take charge? Can we change our routines just a little bit to bring something new into our days, something rewarding and meaningful? Can we find the way for Jewish living and connection to God to be at the center of our journey rather than another activity on the To Do List of our lives?
A congregant recently shared with me that she had been living life full tilt, but had forgotten to nourish her soul. She loves and cares for her family, does meaningful work, and takes the time to keep her body healthy. Her life is full and rich. She shared that she started to feel that something was missing and realized that she had not been in synagogue since Yom Kippur. She returned one Shabbat morning for a simcha and has been in services every Saturday since. “The quiet and the peace of the service gives me something I cannot otherwise find. I love my life, and take good care of myself physically, intellectually and emotionally. But I came to know that I must take care of my soul as well,” she explained to me.
This congregant reined in the horse. She asked, “Where exactly am I headed?” She reminded me to do the same, and I in turn pass on her wisdom to you.
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
We hear of “The 10 Commandments” and we think Charlton Heston, fire and brimstone, an awe-inspiring and perhaps frightening and coercive encounter. And perhaps at some level we are intended to quake in our boots when we consider how the Israelite experience at Mount Sinai (no matter how you understand it)–and the resulting written words–have shaped the course of humanity.
That being said, I believe we get a bit too hung up on the “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” language, and in so doing we often miss the gift of the beautiful and simple wisdom inherent in these utterances. (Note: the Torah never refers to the big 10 as mitzvot, or commandments. They are called dibrot, from the root meaning “speak”). So I offer you below my personal restatement of the 10 expressions:
And as such you need rely on no other.
Don’t overstate or minimize my presence.
One day each week, appreciate the ability to just BE, and treat it as a gift from me.
Don’t forget who brought you into this world.
No one life is more precious than another.
Control your physical appetites.
Control your material appetites.
Be honest in pursuit of your personal sense of justice.
Work for what you want, and live with the reality that you won’t always get it.
Live these statements, and perhaps we too will experience the Divine.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I dedicate my writing this week to the memory of Abraham Mordecai Akselrad, z”l
It is fair to say that I attend more funerals than the average person. I am usually in the room with the family tearing the black ribbon, standing behind the lectern, driving the first car behind the hearse in the processional. The honor of performing the mitzvah of kavod la-met (honor to the dead) or of nichum avelim (comfort to the mourners) is very great but it is also very difficult. As rabbi, I gain strength knowing that I can truly help in many ways: standing steady for a family when the world is tilting, explaining a ritual with compassion, educating a community about how to pay a shiva call, or calling a grieving daughter a month after shiva has ended.
This past week, I remembered with full force what it means to perform these mitzvot, but without the designation of “Rabbi” as I did so. I realized with humility how performing kavod la-met or nichum avelim as a rabbi provides a layer of protection to me as a person in such sad times.
Just before Shabbat last week, Jonathan and I lost a dear friend of thirty years after a heroic battle with cancer. Abe Akselrad loved life completely and fought for every day and every hour he could spend with his wife Claire, his four children, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. The entire community of our synagogue in Caldwell attended Abe’s funeral this past Sunday, and he was buried in a downpour.
As friend in the pews rather than rabbi at the podium, I learned many lessons that I want to share with you. I believe that in the OJC community, we are supportive, appropriate and understanding of the laws of mourning and comfort. But we can also improve and grow. In that spirit, I share my learning of this past week.
One of my friends called me on Friday midday and asked how she could help the family who were overwhelmed by people stopping by with their sorrow, their condolences and their fruit platters. I suggested that they hang a sign on the door: “According to Jewish custom, it is not traditional to visit a family until after the funeral has taken place.” When Jon and I entered the funeral chapel, we saw long lines waiting to enter the room where the family sat before the service. We chose to enter the chapel directly instead and sit quietly. After the service, I saw friends clinging to Claire, crying with her, when I thought that she probably wanted to just get into the limousine and prepare herself for the cemetery. I thought about the way all of us have a need to ensure that the bereaved know we are there for them. Sometimes our need to be known outweighs common sense about what true comfort means. Claire and her family would never complain. I know that they have felt the love of family and friends. My first lesson is that all of us need to check our motivation in comforting very carefully: are we acting out of our own need or what we believe to be the needs of the bereaved?
As Jonathan and I sat in a row waiting for the service to begin, we were joined by friends from the Caldwell synagogue. At the end of my row was our friend Rabbi Michael Jay. Both of us have been well-schooled by Rabbi Scheff to sit silently in the presence of the dead. As rows all around us filled with chatting people, our row, anchored by Michael’s and my respectful silence, remained relatively quiet. The second lesson is that we can carry our learning wherever we go and model behavior that shows compassionate understanding of mourning ritual.
Presiding at the funeral was Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel, the Drill family’s rabbi for more than thirty years. He spoke about Abe as a congregant and as a cherished friend; he presided at the baby namings and bris and b’nai mitzvah of all four Akselrads, and at the oldest, Aviva’s wedding. His words brought comfort and an uplift of the heart not just because they were beautiful, heartfelt words, but because Rabbi Silverstein was speaking from a true relationship with the family. The third lesson I share today is that I came away from the funeral affirmed in the rabbinate that Rabbi Scheff and I have created at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We know you. We know your passions and your sorrows, your celebrations and your questions. “Relationship” is the mantra of our rabbinates. . . and for good reason. Truly knowing you allows us to be there with our full selves, as rabbi and as person, in your greatest joys and times of need. If we don’t yet “truly know” you, call one of us for a cup of coffee or a meeting at the shul. We do not want to wait for a time of loss to establish our relationship with you. Visit with us to make a meaningful relationship so that we can continue to build our community together.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
2014! We ushered in a new year this week, perhaps with a bottle of bubbly, an evening with friends, watching a ball drop with Miley Cyrus (oy!), or a morning to lazily lounge around the house. Perhaps we even resolved to change something about our personal habits or exercise routines.
What distinguishes the calendar’s new year from the Jewish new year, however, is the amount of preparation that goes into the celebration. The Times Square event may take months to prepare and rehearse, but most of us don’t put much effort into preparing for our personal celebrations. Perhaps we make a phone call to establish whom our company will be for the evening; perhaps we prepare a dish or buy a new outfit. Perhaps we make a resolution to lose 10 pounds as the ball drops.
Contrast with this our celebration of the Jewish new year. Traditionally, we spend a month preparing for Rosh Hashanah. We reflect, examine, resolve and repair in order to bring about real change in our relationships. And while the potential lies within us all year, it is in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah that we harness the energy to do the necessary work that will bring about change.
Today is the first day of the month of Shevat. According to Beit Shammai, it is also the new year of the trees. You may be more familiar with Beit Hillel’s ruling that we celebrate the new year of the trees on the 15th of this Hebrew month (Tu Bi-Shevat). But two thousand years ago, the date of the trees’ new year was a matter of debate. And this year, Beit Shammai’s new year of the trees fell one day after we celebrated the arrival of 2014. The proximity is significant because the new year of the trees can inform the way we mark and celebrate the passage of time. We plant for the future; we explore that which has been dormant within us; we gather the energy to bring forth new fruits; we express gratitude for those things we enjoy.
Oh yeah, then there are those 4 cups of wine, symbolizing the 4 seasons: white, pink, rose and red. So go ahead, drink a toast (or four) to the new year! Just don’t forget to add boreh p’ri ha-gafen!