Please, God, not this week.
I see my daily life through the lens that Torah provides as a construct in time. The parashat hashavua (weekly Torah portion), divided into seven parts, often provides daily insights and a thematic through line for the seven days of my week. There was a time when I considered the connections of my life with Torah teachings as coincidences. But that is no longer the case. Now I look for the connections, and they are usually pretty easy to find.
But this week, I don’t want the connections to be made. This week, I don’t want the story to fit my life.
This week’s parashah, Vayechi, reads: “Vayikrevu yemei Yisrael la’mut,” “The time approached for Israel to die….” After Jacob/Israel gathers the strength to bless his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh, he offers insights into his sons’ lives, and he dies.
My grandfather Israel has reached the end of his years at 100, possibly the end of his months, maybe the end of his weeks. His children and grandchildren have given him their final blessings. His soul knows it has our blessings to be joined with his ancestors and loved ones, to take its leave when it so chooses.
But please God, not this week.
After all, Israel is 147 when he dies. My grandfather Israel is only 100.
Israel calls his son Joseph to his bedside, then fails to recognize Joseph’s children. My grandfather Israel saw his son Joey on Sunday, and recognized his grandchildren without a prompt.
Israel blesses his sons with the prayer that their offspring should multiply for generations to come, having lived only to see two great-grandchildren. My grandfather Israel has lived to see great-great-grandchildren, and has no such need for such prayers. His have been answered.
Israel dies in a foreign land, his descendants about to spend centuries in exile and enslavement. My grandfather Israel brought his family out of exile and enslavement to a land of freedom and prosperity.
Israel looks back on his life as difficult and frustrating, filled with challenges and suffering. My grandfather Israel considers himself the luckiest man alive, blessed with a wonderful life despite having lived through the Holocaust, illness and loss.
My Israel, son of Abraham has so little in common with the Torah’s Israel, son of Isaac. My Israel is a man of generosity and vision; the Torah’s Israel is a man of limited sight and spirit. My Israel is a patriarch who has been loved and respected by the generations that have followed him; the Torah’s Israel spent most of his days as Jacob, forging a twisting path through difficult relationships.
So you see, God, this week’s parashah Vayechi (“And he lived”) should stop right there as far as any connection with my grandfather Israel goes. Next week we’ll begin reading the story of Moses. As far as I’m concerned, his is a story that is a far better parallel to that of my grandfather Israel. Especially the part that we’ll read at the end of Moses’ life: “For there never arose in Israel another prophet like Moses, whom God knew face to face.”
Ken y’hi ratzon, so may it be Your will.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The nine year-old Israeli boy with the large soulful eyes stands alone on the stage, his teacher-counselor-accompanist off to the side on a stool with guitar in hand. The youth looks totally relaxed, the microphone a therapeutic pet in his hands.
The strings begin to reverberate their introduction and the child opens his mouth to sing. Time stops and the tears begin to flow from the eyes of the 18 American guests and the 12 Israeli teachers, therapists and foster parents in the audience. The children gathered as a makeshift audience put their arms atop each others’ shoulders and begin to sway side to side. The boy’s sweet voice ascends and descends like an angel on a ladder, and with it our souls soar, almost out of control with the swing of our emotions.
Knowing that the boy’s biological parents are not present, that the child has suffered emotional abuse (at the very least), that at a tender age his life is broken in so many ways, and that but for the presence of the caregivers in the room he might be totally lost, it is no surprise that the group is overcome with emotion in hearing his sweet and powerful voice. But to understand his Hebrew words is to be filled with awe, appreciation, inspiration and hope:
“Be not afraid to fall in love,
That the heart may break,
Be not afraid to lose along the way.
To get up every morning
And to go out into the world
And to try everything before it ends
To search from whence we came
And in the end always return to the beginning
To find yet more beauty in everything
And to dance until overcome
By exhaustion or love.
(Before it ends, Idan Raichel)
Resilience has been defined as the power to be able to recover readily from adversity or challenge. And it is one of those human traits that I consider to be among God’s greatest gifts.
This past week, seventeen of our community members have been in Israel witnessing the power of resilience. We have seen resilience in the ability of an abused child to sing before a crowd of peers and strangers; in the work of Yoav Apelboim, the executive director of Kfar Ahava Youth Village who sees too much suffering, yet continues to make meaningful improvements in the lives of so many; in a society that resumes school and work a day after rockets rained down on its homes; in a kibbutz that has reinvented itself to stand as a beacon of religious pluralism and an advocate for societal change in the face of extremism.
We have seen resilience in ourselves: in our ability to make the sacrifices of time and resources to do the work that takes us out of our comfort zones year after year; in our willingness to suffer the emotional toll of being inside the suffering of children; in sharing the pains of loss, memory and empathy inside our own community family.
We have seen resilience from afar, as the natural elements have wreaked havoc across the ocean, from fires on the west coast to snow on the east coast, families have abandoned homes to survive and begin anew, and individual acts of kindness and sacrifice have eased the burden of others.
There is something within the human spirit that enables us to get up every morning, to go out into the world, and to try everything before it ends. Despite the disappointment, despite the pain, despite the knowledge that we may not complete our task and that our hearts may be broken yet again. To me, there is nothing more miraculous or more divine.
Join us on Monday night, November 19 at 7:30pm, as we explore “Community preparedness and resilience in the face of threats: Lessons from Israel” with Dr. Danny Brom, Director of the Israel Psychotrauma Center. Please register at OJCcares4U@gmail.com for an evening of learning, reflection and discovery. From the scientific to the spiritual, we’ll learn a little more about what keeps us going, and what we can do to bolster that ability “to dance until overcome by exhaustion or love.”
Oh, by the way, the little boy with the angelic voice? His name happens to be Or, meaning light. And as is his name, so is he. May he always know it, and may he always be.
Shabbat shalom from Israel, and hope to see you on Mitzvah Day Sunday!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Thank you to the hundreds who showed up for Shabbat this past weekend to hear our message, and to know and to love one another a little better. The following is the message I shared:
You don’t know me.
As I stand here on this Shabbat morning welcoming those who have come to celebrate with our Bar Mitzvah and his family, those who chose to show up for Shabbat with their synagogue community, and those who have come from our neighborhood or larger community, Jewish or not, in order to pledge solidarity and unity in the face of hatred, I realize you probably don’t know me. Not the way I’d like you to.
If you did, you’d know that last Saturday, while I was reading a story in my synagogue about my ancestor Abraham—how he welcomed strangers into his tent, providing them food and shelter from the heat of the day—eleven members of my extended Jewish family were being executed for no reason other than that they were Jewish, and that they were learning the value of welcoming the stranger.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that while I was learning this week about my ancestor Abraham and how he purchased a burial place for his wife Sarah, how he saw himself as a stranger amongst his neighbors and thus insisted on paying the full price for his plot so no one would ever question the legitimacy of his presence in their midst, my extended family was burying its dead, suddenly feeling very much like strangers themselves and, by extension, shaking my own sense of belonging.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know the pain I feel as a result of having been offered more wishes of congratulations on my favorite baseball team’s victory than wishes of condolence on my sense of personal loss because of the murders in Pittsburgh.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that in the week ahead I’d be commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night that signaled the start of the Holocaust, sending my grandparents into flight from their home in Poland, to Russia where my mother would be born in a labor camp, then to a displaced person camp in Germany, and finally to the shores of these United States.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past week I made a donation to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the same organization that my fellow Pittsburgh community supported, because I too believe in protecting refugees, and because without its support my family would not be here today.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past Tuesday Rabbi Drill and I took our sixth and seventh grade students around our OJC neighborhood to extend personal invitations to our 35 neighboring homes to join us this Shabbat in solidarity, and again on our Mitzvah Day in two weeks for breakfast, just to know one another and share in doing some good.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that when I was growing up here in this community, I knew my neighbors by name, but my children have grown up in this neighborhood not knowing the people who lived across the street.
Winter is coming. (Yes, I am a fan of Game of Thrones.) And while this winter may not be ushering in the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, I do believe we are on a dangerous path. When I was a child, winter meant shoveling my own driveway and going to my neighbors with a friend to ask if they wanted their driveways cleared or their cars cleaned off. Today, winter means locking your doors, lowering your shades and communicating with a friend virtually.
I do not believe that we find ourselves today in the winter of 1938 Nazi Germany. Most importantly, the police and the law are here to stand with us and to protect us, as they have been throughout this week. Our Town Supervisor and neighbor Chris Day is with us today to assert that an act of hatred against one of us is an act of hatred against us all. Our sisters from the Dominican Convent in Sparkill are here with us to share our pain and our mission in combating violent acts of hate with loving acts of kindness. Our Rockland Human Rights Commissioner Constance Frazier is with us today to share our outrage and determination not to let our community be home to those who target the weak, the aged, the young, those of a particular religion, gender, race, sexual identity or political persuasion.
If you don’t know me by now, I bear partial responsibility for not knowing you, for not introducing myself and giving you the chance to know me and what I value.
If you don’t know me by now, let me share with you that my faith commands me to love my neighbor and my tradition teaches me that I cannot love whom I do not know. In the days ahead may we come to know one another, so that our love for one another and for our neighborhoods, communities and country will truly come to be stronger than the hatred that seeks to tear us apart.
I can go to the polls this Tuesday and vote according to my values and who I am, but that is not going to change my relationship with you. And so I beg of you—as we leave here today and as we head to the polls in the week ahead to elect those with the power to shape our communities on a policy level—to knock on a neighbor’s door this week, to make an introduction, to maybe even extend an invitation, so that we may know one another again.
“What are you going to do Friday night?”
I just heard it again! At first, I didn’t understand the question. My initial answer was, “What I always do on the first Friday of the month! I’m going to go to our OJC family service and and then home to have Shabbat dinner!” But by the third time I was asked the question over the last two days, I understood. One person went so far as to inquire whether I am among those who would leave a television on somewhere in the house in order to watch the baseball game. While I understand that it is the practice of some Sabbath-observant people to stay within the letter of the law in this fashion, I personally don’t believe that doing so would be in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Before 2004, watching the Red Sox (my favorite baseball team) play would instantly result in my blood pressure elevating to 170/110. Not a healthy experience. Since that miraculous fall of 2004, however, I am much less personally bound up with the Bosox (and the bp is normal). Even so, when it comes to playing the Yankees, old wounds resurface and scars are revealed. Honestly, it’s hard to enjoy the moment, and I often feel relieved just to have it behind me, win or lose (though the satisfaction of the win does linger a bit longer than the pain of defeat). Don’t get me wrong—I love the sport and will watch the Sox any time I am free to do so; I just won’t put them ahead of the other priorities in my life … like Shabbat.
As we begin the Torah again this week, we read that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it God desisted (“shavat”) from all God’s work. But to what end? For what purpose? Later we are told that we are to “keep” or “guard” the Sabbath as an eternal covenant for all generations, a remembrance that God created the world in six days, and that on the seventh God rested and recharged, or perhaps more literally “re-souled” (vayinafash).
Shabbat is a holy day because God said so, regardless of how we “keep” it. But its potential effect on us is only realized in how we spend it. If it is not qualitatively different than our other days off from work, we have not truly kept it. If “re-souling” is the goal, our time should be spent reflecting on, and deepening our appreciation of, the world we’ve played a role in creating. We should engage with people and matters that uplift us. We should feed our souls the things that nourish us spiritually; we are not meant to fill ourselves with more agitation and anxiety, or even with the short-lived pleasures with which we engage on any other day.
So why would I choose to ruin the most precious hours of my week over a game that has no bearing on my self-worth, but could only serve to further drain my battery and leave me exhausted, amped up and sleepless, win or lose? If the Sox lose, I’m glad I didn’t suffer; if they win, I’ll watch the highlights. And if they win in some miraculous fashion as if God had intervened (as God did, according to some, in 2004), then I’ll record the replay and save it for posterity.
Not that it really means anything to me. And not that God would punish me or my team if I did sneak a peek through the neighbors’ window . . . .
On the other hand, if it were Game 7 of the World Series, I might need to revisit the question . . . .
Oh boy, do I need to talk to my Rabbi. Or my therapist.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
In the year ahead, our community will feature the many and diverse ways in which our households connect to Israel. As we celebrate her achievements, share in her anguish, advocate for her security, and invest our energies in her promise to be a light unto the nations, a spiritual home to all Jews and a voice of moral governance to the world, we welcome you to share your Israel story with our community. As we usher in 5779, we are pleased to share Rachel Sherman’s story. Thank you, Rachel, and g’mar chatimah tovah!
Over the summer, I participated in a month-long program called TALMA: The Israel Program for Excellence in English. The program brings educators from all over the world to teach English to children in low-income communities throughout Israel. Each non-Israeli educator is paired up with an Israeli co-teacher. As a team, the non-Israeli educator and the Israeli educator co-teach a group of around 30 children.
The 300 teachers were placed in 6 different “living locations” around Israel including Mitzpe Ramon, Ben Shemen Youth Village, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Safed, and in the northern region of Mizra. Schools were located in the vicinity of living locations and teachers traveled by bus, carpools, or walking. The first and last weekends of the program were for the entire TALMA program, first in Shafayim near Tel Aviv and the last Shabbat in Jerusalem. The other 2 weekends we were free to travel to different parts of Israel on our own.
I was placed in the northern region of Israel and lived at the Nof Tavor Hotel next to Kibbutz Mizra. I lived there with 14 other teachers from around the US/Canada and with 4 Israeli educators/mentors from the Teach First Israel (TFI) program. The 19 of us taught in four different locations: Menashe, The Jezreel Valley, Nazareth Lllit, and Migdal Haemek.
I taught at a school called Nitznei Reut in Menashe from 8 am to 1 pm Sunday through Thursday. My school was 40 minutes away and 4 of us were in a carpool with our Israeli mentor. With my Israeli co-teacher Sivan, we taught English to 30 third grade students together. Most knew little English so we taught letters with sounds, body parts, colors, and other topics. They learned a lot including vocabulary and phrases. For example, leading up to the “Café Day”, they learned restaurant/food related vocabulary and phrases that they would use at a café. Each child created a menu and decided whether they wanted to be a waiter/waitress or a customer and they role played using English. The students did art projects, STEAM projects, family trees, sang songs, learned chants, danced, and baked challah, chocolate balls, and pizza. My school had a petting zoo and the principal brought in her poodle every day who is a mascot for the school.
Teaching in Israel was a big culture shock for me. For example, there is no such thing as recess duty and teachers did not supervise the children when they were outside. There wasn’t much discipline compared to what I’m used to in NY schools. If students did not want to do the work given, they didn’t have to do it — it was their choice!
After school, we often swam at the Kibbutz Mizra pool, went to a nearby Café Café, or took a bus to different towns nearby such as Afula, Nazareth, and Ramat Yishai.
During my two free weekends, I went to different parts of Israel. During the first weekend, we rented cars and 8 of us went to Safed, Haifa, Akko, and a winery. The other free weekend I went to Jerusalem with friends and then split up to spend Shabbat with relatives and my family’s close friends.
I had a great time and am so appreciative that I was part of the TALMA Teaching Fellowship this summer. I learned from both the Israeli teachers and other teacher friends I met from around the world. Living and teaching in Israel has deepened my connection to Israel in a different way from previous tourist experiences. I encourage other teachers to explore this opportunity!
There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, or four pairs, to get a new perspective on the things you take for granted.
Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my Israeli sisters, along with her husband and two sons, for a few days of New York-style fun.
On Tuesday morning, we toured the USS Intrepid Museum. I’d been there just last year, but seeing the exhibits through the eyes of the Israelis, I was struck with a new sense of pride. We marveled at the stories of courage, ingenuity and sacrifices of the many Americans who have served our country in air, at sea, and in space.
From the pier we walked west on Fulton Street. As we headed towards the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 memorial, I couldn’t shake the memories in my head, images of ash-covered people walking the streets like zombies on a Tuesday morning 17 years ago.
The Twin Towers once stood like a gateway to our land, much like the two mountains between which the Israelites marched as they entered the Promised Land, with blessings pronounced to them from one and curses from the other. They too represented an idea; to me, they represented the indomitable spirit of America. That same undying spirit is represented today in the energy of the descending memorial pools and in the tower that now skyrockets to the heavens to accompany the souls of all those lost on that tragic day.
For the past 15 years, I have stood with fellow local clergy and Tappan’s first responders in remembrance on the mornings of 9/11. This year, I pray they will forgive my absence from the public ceremony, and I hope our non-Jewish neighbors will be reminded that the Jewish community means no disrespect by its absence, as it will be busy celebrating its holy day of Rosh Hashanah.
That being said, I hope you will join us this second day of Rosh Hashanah during our service to give honor to the memory of those who died, to pay tribute to those who secure our safety and our freedom, and to express our gratitude for the blessings we share as Jews in America. Sometimes we take for granted the lives we have in this country, as Americans and as Jews. Sometimes, in the thick of the public debates and political rancor, we forget the good that is all around us.
If you plan to be with our community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, please consider arriving early, even if it means you’ll leave earlier than usual. We will be interrupting our regular service to make space for communal and individual remembrance with silence, song and shofar. Be on time (8:30am) to honor the day and to participate in our commemoration and prayer.
May our Rosh Hashanah usher in a year that brings us healing, wholeness, peace, and an appreciation of all our blessings.
Rabbi Craig Scheff