The custom of kriah, or tearing or rending our garments, is a critical element of mourning in Judaism. Judaism mandates that we ritually tear our clothes, in a physical manifestation and expression of the complicated and painful feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger at the death of a close relative. Nowadays, many Jews opt to wear a black ribbon which is torn in place of clothing. Traditionally this tearing, or kriah, happens right before the start of the funeral, in a private room where the family acknowledges that God is the True Judge. And apparently, as I found out on my recent trip to Israel in December, in many communities it is also traditional to tear your clothes upon seeing the Kotel, the Western Wall.
I was in Israel on the AIPAC Leffell Fellows Seminar, a trip for rabbinical students from the major Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbinical schools. The trip, which featured incredible speakers like David Horowitz of the Times of Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi of “Like Dreamers,” Dr. Einat Wilf, and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, was both about providing the fellows with access to a spectacular range of speakers and experiences, and the opportunity to experience Israel with and through rabbinical students of significantly different political views and religious lifestyles. Some of my peers on the trip shared my exact political and religious predilections, but more often than not, we differed significantly. Some speakers who blew me away with their perspectives and erudition bored my peers, while a few speakers who deeply frustrated me deeply inspired the rabbi-to-be sitting next to me at dinner. The experience of learning about Israel from and, more importantly, with those who do not see Israel the way I do made for a moving seminar.
One of the most powerful moments was when, in anticipation of our trip to the Kotel tunnels, a few of the Orthodox fellows asked if they could have a moment to tear kriah at the Kotel. I was dumbfounded. I understood the words, I could figure out what they meant, but I had never even heard of the custom. Though I am still just a rabbinical student, I was almost completely floored by the idea that there was a custom that I had never heard of, especially given that I’ve spent almost 3 full years of my adult life living in Israel. As we stood outside the main entrance to the Kotel, before entering either the men’s or women’s sections, so as to allow all who wanted to participate, regardless of gender, our Orthodox peers explained the custom, citing from a classical code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah: “One who sees the Temple in its destruction recites the verse ‘Our holy Temple, our pride, where our fathers praised You, has been consumed by fire; And all that was dear to us is ruined’ (Isaiah 64:10) and tears their garment.” (MT, Fasts, 5:16). As they recited the verse, they tore the left side of their white shirts just below the neck, as if mourning the loss of a beloved family member, and then we went on to the next stop on our whirlwind tour.
For those Orthodox fellows, this experience was nothing new; it was routine, mundane, mandated. They simply wanted to share their observance of this obligation with us. For me, however, this was an important moment to dwell upon. How had I spent so much time living so close to the Kotel and never heard of this practice? Had my education been lacking? Did my teachers fail me? Did I fail my students by not teaching them this practice? Moreover, especially given the difficulty many Conservative Jews have in regards to the Kotel, had no one considered that this custom might be relevant and necessary for contemporary Conservative Judaism? Our tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred; and for increasingly large numbers, the Kotel Foundation’s policies against pluralism represent a modern type of sinat chinam. But instead of avoiding the Kotel altogether, as some might choose to do, we must actually look at it, recognizing that the state it is in right now is imperfect and represents the ruination of that which we hold dear. This ritual is a beautiful if painful way of engaging with our traditional values and our modern sensibilities and hoping towards something better.
While I cannot say for certain whether or not this custom will become a part of my regular practice when I go to the Kotel in the future, I know for certain that the next time I lead a trip to Israel, I will bring this custom, and the perspectives of my peers who taught it to me, with me. Even more so, I know for certain that I never would have gained this insight had it not been for the experience of attending the Leffell Fellows Seminar through AIPAC. By gathering Jews of completely different religious and political outlooks, AIPAC allowed and encouraged all of us to broaden our religious horizons, and pushed us to see Israel through the eyes of our peers. By building a wide open tent and inviting each of us in, our AIPAC experience gave each of us permission to share our perspectives, forge new connections, and hold new hopes for Israel. And that is certainly worth tearing a shirt for.
Perhaps you’ll consider an AIPAC experience. Policy Conference is March 4 through 6 in Washington, D.C. It is not too late to register. Join Rabbi Scheff and me, and experience the many diverse ways in which AIPAC is strengthening the American Jewish connection to Israel.
Jeremy Fineberg, Rabbinic Intern
I playfully named my three-month sabbatical “Root, Speak, Stretch” to define the way I had planned my time: visits back to my roots, speaking Hebrew in Israel, and stretching my comfort zone (and body) in yoga teacher training.
Now at the end of my first month, I have learned more about roots than I ever expected.
I begin by an admission that when I practice mindful awareness, coincidences start feeling like intentional signs. As soon as I embarked on a discovery of my roots, I took note of trees everywhere. Trees in Portland, Maine were dressed up for the holidays by artist Pandora LaCasse; trees throughout Massachusetts were dressed up after an ice storm by God .
Trees in botanic gardens in Huntsville, Alabama, West Palm Beach and Sarasota, Florida all seemed to lead me on my path. Banyan trees, the pride of Florida, signified the metaphor I had been seeking:
Roots typically remain unseen, growing solidly just under the surface. They provide nourishment, strength, and the source of everything that grows toward the light. New branches and shoots, fragile leaves, blossoms, and fruit demand attention: pruning, picking, trimming, tending. How easy it is to forget that roots also need tending.
And so I am grateful for this sabbatical pause in my full and busy life that has allowed me the calm space to learn something new. Places that represent my beginnings, people who “knew me when” – all deserve attention, all have deep truths to offer.
The idea of an obligation to nurture roots occurred to me first in the context of someone else’s place of beginnings. I spent an afternoon in Boynton Beach with Rabbi Scheff’s parents, Stan and Hannah. Almost a year ago, Hannah‘s parents, Israel and Sonia Neiman, best known as Zaidy Cha and Baba, moved into Stan and Hannah’s home. Tucked into a corner of the couch where I could hold Baba’s hand and listen to Zaidy Cha’s stories, I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of Scheff hospitality.
What I found of significance about that afternoon is something that they all take for granted. The children of these precious elders come to spend the day, son, son-in-law, cousin and their partners, every single Sunday. I am certain that the shmoozing every Sunday includes weather updates, sports controversies and discussions of the waiting times for certain restaurants. The content of the conversations is not what matters. What matters is the very gathering itself. Zaidy and Baba are blessed by a family that acknowledges and nurtures its roots. This awareness of the value of roots came home to me in that moment and has shaped my understanding of the entire month.
I felt fully the power of my origins when I stood on the rocks of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I respected the strength of memory when Jon and I drove by my childhood home, junior high and high school, and when we drove into the silent, snow-covered Jewish cemetery. At the Maine Jewish Museum (yes, there is such a place and no, it is not as small as a closet!) I looked at pictures of the old Jewish Community Center, my childhood synagogue, and Old Orchard Beach. I had discovered the roots of my roots. These kinds of roots require tending.
Sharing time with Cathy, my best friend in Maine, who has known me longer than anyone else except for my brother and cousins, reminded me of who I was as an eighteen year old. Cathy called my parents Momma and Poppa Mack. She and I lived together after college, back when I had never before written a check to pay rent. Cathy has been there for me through every major transition in my life, applauding my decision to attend Rabbinical School even though it was not in the realm of anything either of us could have dreamed of back in the summer of 1978! These kinds of roots require tending.
I traveled to Alabama and Florida to spend time with my maternal cousins. Pam, Ilene, Beth, and Wendy are my closest family members, and we share what no one else does: stories about our parents and grandparents, all gone now.
We laughed about Grandma Blanche’s afternoon tea parties and Grandpa Lou’s adventures collecting shells on Siesta Key, my Uncle Mel’s terrible jokes and my mom’s rules for making grocery lists. My cousin Pam calls me Paula Ellen, the name my grandparents called me. She is the only person who calls me that today. These kinds of roots require tending.
In between my travels, I spent time with my in-laws, Jonathan’s siblings, and friends from my Caldwell synagogue. These people too represent roots. One Shabbat in Caldwell, at Congregation Agudath Israel, Cantor Joel Caplan asked me to lead musaph. I felt the power of leading prayer before the person who taught me to lead it, in the place where I grew as a Jewish adult. These kinds of roots require tending.
As I have been sharing these experiences by phone with my brother Eric, I know that he understands completely what I am experiencing. My insights are not surprising to him. After all, he has known me longer than anyone else alive today. He knows me from before I knew myself.
And these are the kinds of roots that truly require tending.
Who are you calling today? To whom are you sending a handwritten letter? Are you making a reservation for that flight today? We all have roots that require tending.
We are more than where we came from. But we are not all that we hope to be if we do not acknowledge, remember, and honor from where we came.
With love and friendship, and on to Month Two,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I so clearly remember the day I decided to pursue the rabbinate as a profession. It wasn’t a moment of revelation as much as it was an invitation to recognition. There was no event that suddenly awakened some personal transformation. Instead, there was a suggestion (from my big sister to be exact) that I had been denying my true nature, distracting myself with the pursuit of others’ dreams for me. In that moment, I had a choice: I could ignore the suggestion and continue on my path; or I could take a closer look, be present to the moment, diverge from my course long enough to envision an alternate direction.
You might think that the miracle of the burnish bush, as the event is described in this week’s Torah portion, is found in the fact that God spoke to Moses from the bush, or that the bush itself was not consumed. Experience has taught me, however, that a miracle can be found in Moses’ decision to divert from his path long enough to consider a change in course. “Let me divert from my course and examine this magnificent sight,” he says. Certainly, a revelation to Moses of God’s existence takes place; but even more impressive is Moses’ presence in the moment to recognize the invitation to consider his life’s course. The events of his life might have led Moses to a happy life as a shepherd in Midian; but his true calling was to a different path. His acceptance of the invitation to consider that path was not a given.
The burning bush has always been a symbol present in my life, though I was not always conscious to its relevance. It was the emblem of the summer camp I attended (thank you, Camp Ramah in New England); it was at the heart of a blessing I was given upon becoming a bar mitzvah; it lies at the center of the atarah (collar of my tallit) my mother made for me when I was in college; it is the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Some might go so far as to say it was even a sign, pointing the way to my ultimate destination.
My decision to become a rabbi certainly did not come as a surprise to those who knew me well or who watched me grow up. The signposts were everywhere to be seen. But the combination of experiences that shaped my life did not necessitate one particular path. The invitation to recognize my life’s “true calling” would have passed had I not chosen to give it my attention.
I do not believe that we have only one calling in our lives. We may find contentment down multiple life paths. But each interaction in our lives offers us a choice of paths to travel. Our aversion to change and uncertainty may sometimes limit the options we perceive, getting in the way of our ability to entertain even a minor detour from our current path. But life presents us with multiple burning bushes just calling out to be examined. And we are invited to stop, look and consider the alternate directions our lives’ circumstances have presented us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff