The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.
Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.
The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.
In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.
I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.
That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.
May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
At the end of March 2020, in response to the spreading pandemic and the New York State prohibition against gathering in groups of ten or more, I issued an halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that permitted the OJC community to constitute a minyan (quorum of 10 for the purpose of prayer) via virtual participation, so long as ten people could see and hear each other. I was careful to add:
PLEASE NOTE: It is important to recognize that this ruling only applies under these extraordinary circumstances, and does not establish a precedent for minyan in times when we are free to congregate in groups of 10 once again.
We were not alone in following this legal leniency instituted for a sha’at d’chak, a time of extreme circumstances. And there was much discussion among Conservative rabbis at the time, as synagogues were transitioning to remote participation, about whether this bell could ever be unrung.
We have now reached the stage, by virtue of climbing vaccination and dropping infection rates, where restrictions have been lifted and people are gathering publicly in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors.
It is important to recognize that we, individually and communally, have been traumatized at some level by our experience of the pandemic, which still rages on in parts of the world and continues to produce variants and unanticipated effects. Though current science may tell us that our risk of infection once vaccinated is very low and our risk of serious illness even lower, some of us are simply not prepared to place ourselves in a crowd, especially indoors.
For some of us, there is also a certain level of inertia that has set in. The convenience of life coming to us through a screen, the elimination of our commuting time, the comfort of our loungewear—these things have all contributed to a welcomed slower pace to our days. It is difficult to ramp back up to life in the fast lane when our lives have felt more like a Sunday drive for the last sixteen months.
As a Jewish community whose mission is to care for the vulnerable and preserve life, we have moved deliberately and cautiously towards the resumption of in-person programs and services. As a Jewish community whose mission is also to gather people for the full experience of connection through ritual, prayer, study and celebration, we are anxious to provide all the programs and services we can. Our challenge as a community is to balance these competing values.
We must continue to be there for those people who are not ready to join us inside the walls of the synagogue. We will continue to offer our programming through a hybrid of in-person services and live stream along with the occasional outdoor service.
We must also strive to meet the needs of those who wish to gather in person, and continue to expand on our indoor programming so long as we can do so safely and comfortably.
This goal, however, requires a level of individual commitment that we have not yet expected or even requested as a community. If we are truly to be there for each other—and for those not ready to rejoin us—we must regard showing up as a commitment, an obligation to each other.
I recognize that we may not love the language of obligation, that perhaps in some way it undermines the purity of intention. But intention does not create community. A community for the purpose of prayer is only created when ten individuals commit to showing up. The call for our resumption of in-person services had been loud, but the response has been weak.
The halachic process requires that a rabbi consider the practice of their community, or “where the people are at.” Perhaps we should conclude from the unenthusiastic response to indoor, in-person services that we as a community are not yet prepared to commit to creating physical community. Honestly, I can live with that. I am prepared to view the summer as a transitional time, and to continue to count the daily evening minyan virtually; however, barring a resurgence of the pandemic, in the new year of 5782 I am hoping that we can institute a system where we will gather ten people every night in our building so that a proper quorum can be offered to those who are at home and to those who are present.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we read about the obligatory individual sacrifices the Israelites were told to offer at specific appointed times, in addition to their free-will (voluntary) and votive offerings. Are you among those comfortable gathering in person? If so, are you prepared to bring more than your “free-will offering” to your community, to make a commitment to the community that will enable us to serve others and to answer the demands of Jewish law?
Let me know who you are. Together, we will get there, eventually, with and for each other. Together, I believe we will unring that bell.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.
The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.
Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.
April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel
It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.
April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York
In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.
9:53 am, Tel Aviv
Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust. The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.
10:00 am, Tel Aviv
The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.
3:00 am, Orangeburg
I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”
While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.
Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.
Shalom al Yisrael,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)
Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.
On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.
When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.
As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.
I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?
The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.
As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.
We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.
We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?
For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.
These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).
As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God?
I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude.
Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere.
Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.
It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.
In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).
I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
OJC’s Rabbis are happy to offer this space for the words of our JTS Resnick Intern, Jesse Nagelberg
I lay my clothes on my bed – jeans and shirt with a collar.
I put in my contact lenses, brush my teeth, shave, and shower.
I put on cologne – yes, every day – and then my rings, my watch, and my kippah.
I finish getting dressed, including matching socks and shoes.
I am ready to begin the day.
This is my early morning routine and it has not changed – not even during the ten months since COVID-19 upended our lives and most of my days have been spent in my apartment. My routine may seem excessive since, typically, no one is going to see the details of my outfit, let alone smell whether I used cologne! But I want to feel prepared to conquer whatever the day will bring, just like I did when I left the house every day. Whether my day has involved working at OJC or Camp Ramah, studying, teaching, or chatting with friends; whatever the day has had in store, for me, being fully dressed for these daily activities has helped me to feel wide-eyed and alert.
The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is that we can amplify our mitzvot by beautifying them. Shabbat Kiddush can be more special when using a cup made of metal or carefully constructed out of glass. Lighting Chanukah candles takes on more meaning when using a family heirloom or a Chanukiah we have a personal connection to. We can turn the mundane into a mitzvah when we dress it up a bit – literally and figuratively. We can not only show up; we can show up dressed nicely, organized and attentive. In that vein, we can be ready to notice the smallest details that enhance and beautify our lives.
If the last months have taught me anything, it is that there are small gems of learning to be found everywhere. We just have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts and embrace them.
In his book The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”
Picking my head up out of my many rabbinical school books and papers has enabled me to notice many “textpeople” in recent weeks:
- During a Prayer through Music and Movement elective with OJC’s 6th and 7th graders, we have swapped songs that feel prayerful to us. Watching the students discover and introduce each other to music from different genres and decades has infused my life with new music and new ways to connect to the words of the siddur.
- After using an app on my phone for an extended period of time, I received a notification advising me, “It seems like you’ve been scrolling for a long time. Now is a good time to get away from the screen for a few minutes to breathe and relax.” It is amazing that the automatic intelligence function on this app actually prompted me to take a much-needed pause.
- The 8 year old child of a classmate unmuted his mom’s computer during a class about Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush and engaged the professor in a discussion about Moses’ anxieties and intentions. I marvelled at the wisdom of this precocious child and how seriously my professor took his question and made it a part of the day’s learning.
- One of my family’s dogs, Callie, is on hyper-alert all day for stray geese, Amazon deliveries, and Zoom events to join. She is almost always “on”; but when she takes a break, she curls up on the couch and instinctively lays her head on the nearest pillow, literally sleeping like a person. Callie reminds me that at the end of the day, or at the end of a busy or stressful time, it is important to find a soft place to rest your head.
As we move ahead in 2021, children are back in school, either in person or virtually, after a well-deserved break from the screens and Zooms that have become the focal point of their day. Perhaps it is time for all of us to go back to “school” and be more alert to the teachings that surround us. We can show up, even from home, by getting dressed up. We can return to learning from all of the teachers in our lives — our friends and neighbors, our children and pets and even, occasionally, AI technology.
So what did you put on this morning, and how is it helping you recognize the gems to learn from in your life?
Jesse Nagelberg, OJC-JTS Resnick Intern
Way back at the end of August, I wrote in this blog:
“The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 20/20 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.”
Now, as we have endured the summer and fall, ridden out their lows and highs, and taken note of their dark clouds and silver linings, we stand ready to greet the secular new year of 2021. Winter has indeed arrived, yet we are bolstered by the new perspectives on life we have gained, the relationships we have fostered, and the hopes for an effective vaccine that will allow us to come together physically to a greater degree in the year ahead. But of all the lessons taught and learned during these ten unforgettable months of 2020, there is one that I was particularly glad to have internalized personally and professionally almost twenty years ago. Stated most simply by our tradition: Tovim hashnayim min ha-echad, “Two is better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).
For the past two decades, I have advocated that a hierarchical model of religious leadership does not serve the best interests of religious communities or the clergy who serve them. Long before our communities were facing a pandemic, our synagogue community amended its constitution to delete the language of “senior” rabbi, “assistant” or “associate” rabbi, and “cantor.” Instead, the organization consciously chose the broader language of “clergy” with the understanding that the success of our community was dependent upon the ability of our religious leaders and professionals to establish and deepen personal relationships, regardless of their titles.
Moreover, the ability of individual clergy to play to their strengths and to use their diverse talents and skills to cultivate connections would ultimately accrue, we believed, to the benefit of the organization and the entire professional staff. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the individual professionals and our organizations, we acknowledged that it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, for leaders to be true partners when one is expected to answer to or be judged by the other. I am proud that our JTS Resnick Interns, through our Debbie Steiner Mentorship Program, have moved into the Jewish world building partnerships and leading vibrant and growing communities with this model in mind.
This pandemic has reinforced my belief that the partnership model provides professionals the opportunity to shoulder equally the burdens, to process the challenges and opportunities, and to share the personal and professional stresses. Partnership maximizes the potential of each professional to acquire and share skills, to broaden vision and reach, and to establish the relationships that will connect more people to each other, the institution and its mission. Finally, partnership models behavior for professional and lay people alike. The stronger the partnership, the more we generate in each other a sense of empowerment, ownership, and investment in a shared vision. The success of one is the success of all.
As we find ourselves in the midst of a time when communities cannot operate by bringing people into regular and consistent physical proximity, it is all the more important that our organizations have professionals who can connect people by facilitating intimate gatherings and cultivating meaningful connection. Some of us have acknowledged (and the forward thinking leaders knew this prior to the pandemic) that certain modes by which we have been operating must become a part of our business-as-usual way of doing things. For example, aging populations who can be served by virtual connection must be given the opportunity to connect from their homes to spiritual, educational and social opportunities as Jewish law permits. Our communities and leaders require partners to share the professional burden of the work and to share the personal burden of the stress that these new modes of operating generate.
In hindsight, we may look back on 2020 as the year that helped us envision the future of our community more clearly. Perhaps 2021 will be the year in which the steps we must take to realize our finest aspirations come into sharp focus!
Wishing us all a happy, healthy and safe 2021 in which we feel connected, cared for, and empowered to partner with those in need,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. It throws a/ shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no./ Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of/ the fence—and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the/ carnage, mid-limb. It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide./ She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. The/ worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of/ view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two/ young daughters now alone. I want no trouble. Must I/ fight for my wife’s desire/ for yellow blooms when my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade?/ Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love./ Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not/ me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they/ lower the chainsaw again.
The poem, One Tree by Philip Metres, is about conflict at the local level. The struggle is neighbor against neighbor and the battlefield is the back yard. The fence that separates properties cannot keep out the tree’s shade cast from one lot into the next. The conflict, however, is not a two-sided affair. The narrator-husband is a bystander who is sympathetic to both claims. The worker is a combatant by proxy, a participant without an expressed conviction. The poem reminds us that while the sides to any confrontation might be seen from the outside as monolithic, divisions within the opponents might, and invariably do, exist. And unwitting players are bound to get caught in the conflict as well.
The rivalry between Jacob and Esau as described in this week’s parsha, Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9), begins in Rebecca’s pregnant belly. Their conflict is founded in their nature and fed by their nurture. Their methods and their goals couldn’t be more divergent. And their struggle is intensified by the fact that they are family. Neighbors may disengage or move. Siblings remain enmeshed by a shared history, a common bond of blood, and a character dynamic that replays (perhaps subconsciously if not overtly) at every encounter. While the men may grow like branches in opposite directions, they remain attached to the same tree.
In a 2010 interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who passed away on November 7, discussed the dynamics of political and religious conflict. In addressing conflict between faiths, he offered the following: “We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.”
How much more does this teaching apply to us as a human family? Our diversity–of ideologies, of political philosophies, of beliefs, of values, of behavioral patterns–can be traced back to the same singular source. When we ignore how interconnected we are, we “throw shade” across our fences, depriving one another of light and the accompanying growth, and we fail to see ourselves in the other. In recognizing our shared code, we can find common ground between siblings, neighbors and ideologies. In understanding how nature and nurture have shaped the many permutations of that code, we can begin to understand and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of every human family member.
In the ongoing struggle for recognition, for love, for resources, for power, we might make the same mistake as the poem’s narrator. “It’s not me,” they wish their neighbor would know. But, of course, it is me. And it is you. The tree is ours; it is us, our history, our heritage and our responsibility. But it is not ours alone. It belongs as well to our siblings, cousins and neighbors. It belongs to our friends across the aisle and across the oceans. The tree is ours.
In memory of Ruth Ignatoff z”l, mother of Jonathan Drill and his four unique and loving siblings,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I love origin stories.
I don’t care what the critics say. Give me Henry Cavill, Tom Welling or Christopher Reeve as Superman. Give me Christian Bale, Val Kilmer or David Mazouz as Batman. Give me Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire as Spiderman. Give me Richard Donner or Zack Snyder. Give me Tim Nolan or Christopher Nolan. Give me Sam Raimi or Jon Watts. Give me any of these actors and directors, so long as they are giving me an origin story, and I’m hooked.
And I don’t even mind if the origin stories they deliver are competing in details or factually different. So long as the origin story offers me an insight into what drives my hero‘s motor, I’m hooked. And I can go back for more, again and again.
I find myself far more sympathetic to a character when I know that character’s origin story. I want to understand their roots of insecurities, their foundations of confidence, their source of aspirations. The beauty of the origin stories for me is that the creative interpreters—the writers, actors and directors—are ultimately responsible for dictating how we understand what motivates our favorite characters to act. No choice can made, no action can be taken in the foreground without the origin story hanging in the background.
Adam and Eve, in the Book of Genesis, get two (!) origin stories juxtaposed against each other. I imagine the writer and director getting together to offer two different vantage points from which we can watch the story unfold.
Moses, in the Book of Exodus, is given a detailed origin story, one depicting the harrowing circumstances surrounding his birth, the fateful moment he asserts independence from his assigned station of royalty, and the transformative event that calls him to God’s service.
When it comes Noah and Abraham, —the father of the post-flood human race and the father of the Jewish people, respectively—however, the Torah gives us no origin story. Instead, we’ve relied on the artistic and creative storytelling abilities of rabbis through the centuries to propose the origin stories that would provide greater insight into, understanding of, and appreciation for these towering characters. These origin stories are collected in the body of literature we call The Midrash.
My issue with The Midrash is that, while we have attributed some of these proposed origin stories to great and authoritative voices from our past, we all too often rely on them as if they were written by God God-self or discovered in the text of the Torah. In so doing, we relinquish the opportunity to connect the origin stories of these characters with our own experiences. While at some point in my life I may have smashed my father’s idols on a metaphoric level, I would much rather relate to Abraham‘s story of hearing God‘s voice in his life in the context of my own experience.
It is said of the Torah that she has 70 faces. I prefer that one of those faces be a reflection of my own. In studying the stories of Noah and Abraham, I can wrestle with what it means to be sufficiently righteous in this world to merit saving. I can ponder what sacrifices I would be willing to make in order to perpetuate goodness in this world. I can picture children, parents and spouses struggling to discern God’s willing voice in this world.
In the absence of origin stories for Noah and Abraham, the Torah makes room for my own. This origin story is mine.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On the eve of a new year, I offer this prayer on behalf of my colleagues and religious leaders of every faith, who are striving to connect people in community in new and creative ways while maintain an authentic sense of tradition. And I offer this prayer in thanksgiving for a community who has told its faith leaders in a myriad of ways that they trust us, despite our flaws. The Hineni prayer (“Here I am”) is the prayer leader’s plea that God look past the shortcomings of the one appointed to pray on the community’s behalf. What follows is my interpretation of the original text.
Perhaps they don’t see that I am
to confront current circumstance,
Shaken and uncertain
In the face of forces that threaten to overwhelm me.
Yet I must present myself to be heard
on behalf of a community that has entrusted me to represent.
I don’t claim to be worthy or sufficiently informed.
So I seek balance in the Source
of my ancestors’ resilience
In the breath between
Adonai and Adonai,
Compassion and Grace,
Tradition and Self-Sufficiency,
Reverence and Awe.
Carve me a path to success
As I seek the welfare
Of all those who have sent me.
Hold blameless those who trust me despite my shortcomings now exposed.
Guide me to speak with wisdom,
sensitive in tone,
considerate of all needs.
And may the love in my heart make up for the flaws in my actions.
May acknowledging the mistakes of our past transform our futures into joy and celebration,
life and wholeness,
with truth and peace as our guides.
Don’t let me falter on this path.
May it be Your will—
God of Israel and Sonia
God of Stan and Hannah
El, Unfathomable, Powerful,
Source of my resilience
Yet to be known—
That my words will resonate
Until they are understood
For their sincerity
And their intentions
And their justice
And their humanity
And for the way they honor Your Name,
Unfathomable and Beyond Understanding.
Attend to my prayer for compassion.
Rabbi Craig Scheff