We heard about the shootings in Pittsburgh at our synagogue after services during kiddush. Not yet knowing details, and a bit in shock, we sang Shabbat songs with joy, belting out medieval poems to the tunes of the Bumblebee Tuna jingle and “Sloop John B.” That’s what we do when we gather to celebrate Shabbat: we pray, eat, laugh and sing.
On the way out of synagogue, our security guard filled us in a bit more. An Orangetown police car, he told us, would be staying at the synagogue all afternoon. It started to become more real.
After Havdalah, I turned on my phone and found a plethora of messages on Facebook from colleagues and friends, expressing a range of sorrow, outrage, and fear.
I reached out to a dear friend who lives in Squirrel Hill with support and concern. Though her family attends another synagogue, I know that everyone in that close-knit community knows each other. She appreciated my contacting her, and wrote back, “It could have been any synagogue anywhere in America.”
Over this past day, I have heard many versions of that sentiment. “They are my family members.” “I am connected to them all.” “What happens to one Jewish community happens to us all.”
What do Jewish people do with this overwhelming sense of connectedness? How do we respond to a tragedy when we live by the dictum:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
All of Israel is responsible one for the other.
We seek to be together as a community. As one of my congregants said to me, “We need to claim our seats after something like this happens.”
And once we are together, what are we meant to do?
How do we cope with the feelings of sorrow and helplessness when confronted with senseless hatred? We look hatred in the face and we answer it with love.
How do we grieve?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are three ascending levels of mourning: with tears — that is the lowest. With silence — that is higher. And with a song — that is the highest.”
It was perhaps a coincidence, but I believe it was Providence… the OJC had planned our singing extravaganza, Kol OJC, the Voice of OJC, for this morning. Amichai Margolis, our Music Director, had been rehearsing with our band for a month. We had videography and sound engineering in place. 175 of us, of all ages, came together to learn a song in five parts in under an hour. We began with a moment of silence and dedicated our singing to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
And once again, Providence played a hand in the songs that we sang: “Hineh mah tov,” How good and pleasant it is to sit, brothers and sisters together, and “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha,” Love your neighbor as yourself. The messages could not have been more meaningful or more timely.
Koolulam, the amazing Israel project which inspired us to organize Kol OJC, gathers thousands of singers. But we had just as much excitement and energy in our sanctuary as Koolulam gathers in any stadium throughout Israel. (Watch for our video around Chanukah time!)
When we feel afraid, sorrowful, and devastated by events over which we have no control, we have a choice about how we will respond. We can despair or we can take action.Today, at the OJC, we powerfully experienced the way that taking spiritual action can lift up a community.
May we go from strength to strength. May the community of Tree of Life Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue feel our solidarity and support in the face of their devastating loss. May the Squirrel Hill community, and Jewish people everywhere discover reservoirs of strength and optimism. May we remember that we are God’s partners in repairing our world. May we never give in to despair.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
One of my childhood friends told me that he decided to go to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that he could say prayers for my healing. Knowing that he is a non-believing, non-practicing Jewish person, I was very touched by his impulse.
But, I wanted to warn him against his plan. Instead, I let him find his own way.
Afterward, I called him to find out how it went.
He told me, “Honestly, this is why I never go to synagogue. I felt empty and lost and very lonely. I could not understand the prayers and they seemed to go on forever. I was to nervous to even say a prayer for you.”
I was not surprised. I told him, “It is not that synagogues are empty of spiritual space for prayer. As a novice, you just went on the wrong days.”
Trying to find a sense of peace, connection to God, and deep prayer experiences on the three most fearsome, awesome and busy days of the Jewish calendar is like trying to learn to speak French by sitting in on a college literature course taught entirely in French… or trying to learn to ice skate by gliding out onto the ice in the midst of a Stanley Cup playoff match.
And yet my old friend is not the only one who tries to pry open the treasure of Judaism once a year for three days. So many of us come to synagogue just for the High Holy Days, and as a rabbi, believe me, I am very glad to see you.
But every year, just five days after Yom Kippur, we enter the joyous festival of Sukkot and I wonder how to convince my fellow Jews to come on these days instead! We sing praises to God while shaking branches of the palm, myrtle, and willow together with an etrog (a lemon-like fruit). It’s inexplicably awesome! We line up with these agricultural treasures and parade around the synagogue singing to God, “Save us!” It’s crazy fun! Everyone is grinning because no one can exactly explain what we’re doing.
After these prayers, we go outside into a sukkah (a temporary booth) decorated with lights, flowers, fruit, paper chains and posters and partially open to the sky to study, eat and sing. We live in these booths for seven days.
At the end of this lovely festival of connecting to nature, community, and our best selves, we celebrate Simchat Torah (Monday evening 10/1 through Tuesday 10/2), rejoicing as we finish an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and start again “In the Beginning”. We dance with the Torahs and ensure that everyone gets an honor to the Torah. It’s a raucous Jewish holiday of merriment and true joy.
Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is meaningful and important. I am not telling you not to do so. But only doing so means that you are missing out on some of the most spiritually connected moments in the Jewish calendar.
Think of it this way:
On Rosh Hashanah your Parent calls you into the study and says: “Let’s just take a look at how you’ve been behaving over the past year and make a plan for you to improve. Perhaps it will help us feel more connected.”
On Yom Kippur, your Parent calls you back into that study and says: “Okay, what have you done about showing some progress over the past 10 days?”
But on Sukkot, your Parent comes out to you in the backyard and says, “Let’s have a great celebration for a week. Let’s enjoy each other’s company and feel close to one another!”
Who would really want the disciplinarian Parent without the celebrating Parent as well?
I’ll take both! I hope you’ll join me.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Every year, by the time I finish reading the name of the book by Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, I wonder if I actually need to open the cover. The title says it all: This is real and you are completely unprepared. I read Rabbi Lew’s book about the Days of Awe as spiritual transformation every August.
I dedicate myself to preparation for Rosh Hashanah during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the new year. (By preparation, I do not actually mean rabbinic preparation though I must, of course, do that too: writing sermons, finding new inspirations for the service, figuring out how to welcome all the people who come to the doors of the synagogue for services and programs.)
When I write “preparation for the New Year,” I mean Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of my soul.
I take the work seriously every year.
This year, I take it even more seriously.
“In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding… only there that the horn sounds 100 times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home…”
How do I prepare? How do I go below the surface of my ordinary life to do the work that Rabbi Lew so eloquently describes? I pray. I make lists of what I am proud of and what I need to improve. I apologize with full heart to anyone I might have harmed.
Most of all, I get very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world can I go below the surface.
This year, because of my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy regimen, I have less energy for this work. Yet the work that I am able to do feels more poignant and so much more real.
I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism. Because I am tired more often, I am quiet more often. It is amazing what my soul has to say when I stop and listen.
When I greet my community this year at services for Rosh Hashanah, I intend to be shining.
I am so grateful for the strength and health that I do have.
I am blessed by wise and compassionate physicians and nurses.
I am held by family, friends and community.
I have so many plans for the future, and this forward focus fuels my healing. I am filled with creativity and spiritual energy, almost as if God is saying to me, “Have no fear. I have many more plans for you.”
For the first time in my life during the month of Elul, I am indeed not entirely unprepared.
I encourage all of you not to wait for a crisis to find yourself able to truly prepare for a new year. Feel the urgency as this year comes to a close and a bright new year awaits you.
L’Shana Tova Tikateivu. May you be written for a good new year.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I like schedules. I like lists. A lot. I like to fill my oversized Daytimer with schedules and lists, checking the items off as I complete them. I keep track of my phone calls, visits, classes, meetings and sermon preparation. At the end of each day, I look with satisfaction at my to-do list to measure all that I have done. I feel gratified as each day comes to a close and I imagine accomplishing, in incremental steps, my mission – the building up and support of my OJC community in the context of the Jewish world and the world-at-large.
A life of doing is a Jewish way. Just consider what the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers: “The day is short, the task is great…and the Master insistent!” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)
A life of doing is my way of living.
And so it was, until it wasn’t.
These months of illness have catapulted me right out of the life of doing. My calendar is empty except for doctor appointments and treatments. My to-do list includes taking a walk and making a phone call, on a good day.
What I have learned is the benefit of a life of being.
I do not mean being sick in my bed.
I mean those days when I am well enough to go out and walk in God‘s world or re-enter my OJC world filled with gratitude.
Only in a state of being can I truly appreciate the wonders of God’s world and the preciousness of our community.
One month ago, our butterfly bush was cut down to its very roots to allow for new growth. If I were busy doing rather than being, I would have missed the first visit of a butterfly, way ahead of schedule.
My favorite tree at the end of our driveway lights up to an incandescent red at just the right moment of sunset. I would never notice if I were busy doing rather than being.
We all notice the deer in our yards, with different responses ranging from annoyance to tenderness. This spring and summer, I have gotten to know the families of deer who congregate in my yard, watching the baby fawns grow up and naming a few of them. I would never have time for deer-watching if I were busy doing rather than being.
The OJC has been a powerful partner in my treatment. When I am in the synagogue, I have no to-do list. I am simply being with people who are seeking to connect to something bigger than we are. These times lift my soul. It is such a different way to be a rabbi. It is a way of being.
Doing is most definitely a Jewish way. But being is also a Jewish way.
In a state of being, we notice enough to experience gratitude and see that our world is filled with blessings. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”
I do not want to be in a state of being only. I yearn for a return to my state of doing, a natural rhythm that suits me best. But I will carry this very important lesson with me into my healthy future. Some days, I will leave my Daytimer blank. I will spend the day just being, filling myself with spiritual amazement, ready to return to my to-do list and my schedules… another day.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
On Israel’s Highway 40 South to Bahad Echad, the IDF Officers School, Jon and I stopped with my in-laws at Sde Boker, the burial site of David and Paula Ben Gurion.
As we looked out over the awe-inspiring desert view, I thought of David Ben Gurion’s words: In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.
His words seemed to apply to me directly in that moment. Of course, he was speaking of the entire endeavor of Zionism. And I was only thinking about my own unshakable plan to be at Josh’s graduation from Officers School on June 20. Is it true? Was I in Israel thanks to a miracle?
Josh had a large cheering section at the graduation: family, friends, his host parents from kibbutz, and my cousins.
When I expressed gratitude to my cousin Elchanan for traveling so far to be with us, he said, “Is it far or is it close from Hoshaya? It just depends on the story we tell ourselves.” He is correct, of course, about the three and a half hour drive from the north to south of Israel. And he is also correct about how we all choose to live our lives.
For me, I understand this period of dealing with cancer according to the story I tell myself. It might be a horrible, unfair trial or it might be a series of many small and large kindnesses. And yes, perhaps even miracles. It just depends on the story I choose to tell myself.
From the very moment of my diagnosis, I was clear to myself and to everyone with whom I spoke that I would be at Bahad Echad on June 20. I was not missing Josh’s Siyyum Kors Katzinim (Completion of the Officers Course).
I healed from surgery faster than my surgeon thought possible, and he gave me a clearance to go after just three weeks. My oncologist started my chemotherapy early, scheduling it so that I would be as strong as possible for the trip. My healing has been supported and speeded along by the prayers and energy of family and community. And I have worked hard too, keeping a positive outlook, walking every day and trying to eat even when I did not feel like it.
Perhaps my understanding of how one experiences a miracle is best expressed in a traditional Jewish proverb: “We hope for miracles but we don’t count on them.” My intention was clear and I did everything in my power to bring it to fruition. Next, the kindness and support of others is required. But I believe with all my heart that the final essential element of a miracle is God’s will. God makes miracles happen.
זה היום עשה ה’ נגילה ונשמחה בו
Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nism’cha bo!
This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice in it and be glad.
Shabbat shalom and hope to see many of you at Orangetown Jewish Center this Shabbat as Josh and his grandparents continue touring in Israel.
You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your accounting will make fifty days. — Vayikra 23: 15 – 16
When it was time to count the first day of the Omer, I was not at a second night seder. I was not standing with family and friends, turning to the final pages of the Haggadah and reciting the blessing and counting for the first time this year. I did count the first day of the Omer, but I was prone on an emergency room bed, felled by an intense case of what turned out to be pancreatitis.
Ever the optimist, I expected the nurse to tell me I was being discharged. Instead, she told me that something had been detected on my pancreas and I was being admitted into the hospital. Day One of the Omer. A new reality began.
I have not missed counting each day of the Omer since. No carelessness, no jumping up out of bed half asleep because I had forgotten, no catching up the morning after to save the pattern in the nick of time. Blessing and counting became serious business for me this year because the days of the Omer have entirely encompassed this strange odyssey in my life. From Day One through Day Forty-Nine (which will be counted tonight) I have experienced unexpected illness, a shocking diagnosis, major surgery, the unexpected death of my brother, a limited ability to fulfill the mitzvah of shiva, learning protocols for chemotherapy, and rising up from shiva and shloshim with the onset of Shavuot.
Certainly, the coincidence of time cannot be ignored. Certainly, there was much for me to learn along the way as I counted diligently each night and wondered what the new day would bring.
The Omer beat out a consistent rhythm for me. Do not despair. Count each day. There are blessings present in every single moment.
I know that life is not easy. Faith is a challenging, ephemeral thing to hold. But despite my training in the world of yogic philosophy, I have never accepted that life is about suffering. Despite the many sorrowful experiences I have shared with cherished congregants, I believe that life is in the joy despite the sadness. And though we struggle with faith, God is always right there for us, just one request for help away.
To me, life is not a battle. Life is a precious gift and sometimes we are challenged by illness and loss to hold on to that primary Jewish belief. The Omer helped me remember each day that life is a gift.
Throughout this Omer period, God has felt entirely present to me. My son-in-law, Sagi, asked me a profound question. He wanted to know if I was acting strong and whole or if I was feeling strong and whole. I explained that the way I am behaving is because of how I feel – held by family, friends and community, and most of all, held by God. I am strong and whole.
I have found that God is present at all times. I broke down completely one of the first nights in the hospital. Rather than receive any positive results at all, I was instead receiving worse and worse news. I gave in to my fears and grief, lay in my bed weeping for all that I was going to miss. I railed against God, asking why I had to have cancer when I have so much to do, so many ways to serve God, and so many family obligations to fulfill. I asked God, “How can I do this without You?”
Just as I was drying my tears and collecting myself, my kind nurse Nadine came in to check on me. “Oh, my dear,” she comforted. “What is the matter and why are you so sad?” I told her about the diagnosis I had received that afternoon. She huffed a bit at my news, looked me straight in the eye and began to preach. “You are one of the Children of Abraham, you are God’s chosen child and God will not let you falter. Remember that God loves you and is with you. I know you have great faith. God has great faith in you.” I wish that I could remember all that Nadine told me that evening. She was speaking to me from another faith tradition but it was clear to me as I looked into her compassionate, beautiful face that she was my angel, delivering to me the answer from God for which I had just been praying.
As it turned out, the pancreatitis that was so painful (and inconvenient, happening on the first day of Pesach) was also my personal miracle. If I had not had such an acute case of the inflammation that sent “stubborn me” to the Emergency Room after a day of “waiting for it to pass,” the small, encapsulated tumor at the head of my pancreas would not have been found.
I will stand by my certainty that I was blessed by God with a miracle. I will not try to defend this belief theologically because it is indefensible. Why should I receive a miracle and not the patient in the next hospital bed? Why would a murderer potentially receive the same miracle as me if this were all part of God’s special gift to me? God is neither cancer nor oncology. I know. It is indefensible. Yet it is true for me. God granted me a miracle for which I am grateful.
I have learned also that the power of prayer and positive energy is a curative. I have read research, studied Jewish texts and taught about the power of prayer. Now, I have experienced it for myself. My healing has not been easy, but it has progressed faster than one might expect. The Circle of Psalms of congregants and friends has had a profound impact on me, reminding me that I am surrounded by love. Each evening at 7:30 when I read Psalm 121, I wonder who else is reciting a psalm. I am always buoyed by the thought of just how many have joined with me in that moment. When I told my surgeon, Dr. Langan that many people were praying for his wisdom and steady hands, he responded, “That means so much to me. I have been praying for you too.”
And then, in a startling confluence of time, on my first day home after surgery, we received the shocking news that my brother Dr. Eric Mack z”l had died in his home in California. I was unable to fully ingest the reality, manage any of the decisions that needed to be made, travel to Maine for the funeral or sit in a complete shiva. In case I had any final reservations about the need to protect myself and care for myself first through this period of time, losing Eric was a complete and final lesson in this regard. I had no choice. I had to choose life – my own life.
Eric’s greatest joy in his later years was sharing insights into the weekly Torah portion with his fellow congregants at his shul, Etz Hadar in Redlands, something that he and I would discuss almost every week. How appropriate that the shiva for my brother and my days of mourning as his sister come to a completion just as we rise up tomorrow evening, for the holiday of Shavuot, to receive the Torah at Sinai. This year, Revelation will feel especially sweet with one more student of Torah studying at God’s Table for the holiday.
I will never again take for granted the mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. We count up to remind us to cherish every day. Despite the great trials of these seven weeks, I have indeed felt every day heightened by gratitude and blessing. The world has felt more beautiful, people have seemed kinder, and love has seemed to be present in every moment. I have felt truly held by God.
As we all step forward toward Revelation at Sinai, may we be ready to enter into relationship with God. May we be willing to serve God with our gifts and blessings. May our hearts be open to miracles and prayer and Torah. May we always be kind.
Chag sameach, Happy holiday,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Why did we choose to spend our first Shabbat after the Passover festival joining with a nationwide commitment to Rohingya Justice Shabbat? The primary answer is: How could we not?
The lessons of Pesach are at the forefront of our minds. We were strangers in Egypt and we suffered there for four hundred years before God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Our history of slavery comes to shake us out of complacency. We must protect those who are vulnerable because we know what suffering is.
The lessons of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) are implanted in our souls. Here at the OJC we spent the 24 hours of this Memorial Day guarding six candles in our sanctuary as we have done for the past fifteen years. Our people is forever changed by the Nazis’ attempt to destroy us. The Jewish people is commanded “Zachor!” Remember! We remember to mourn, to honor and to hold on to the stories, but we also remember in order to take action.
Such is the responsibility and privilege of being Jewish. We cannot stand idly by. In our community, holiness does not mean only to attach to God. Holiness requires us to attach to humanity, to all people, created in the image of God.
On August 25, 2017, the Burmese army embarked on a massive and deadly ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people, setting entire villages aflame, committing sexual violence against women, and murdering civilians. Since August, more than 671,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes in the western Rakhine state of Burma and made the perilous journey to crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, joining more than 300,000 other Rohingya people who had fled previous violence. In the camps, lack of food, water, medical care, security and mental health aid for those suffering trauma make the fate of the Rohingya the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world. The Rohingya refugees are now facing yet another perilous obstacle: the upcoming monsoon season, which will bring mudslides, flooding and outbreaks of waterborne diseases.
While many Rohingya refugees would like to return to their homeland, the Burmese government is preventing repatriation from occurring. For those Rohingya people still remaining in Rakhine state, violence has continued. United Nations investigators, international NGOs and press are not allowed access to those left behind in Burma. On March 6, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum announced its decision to rescind its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award from Burmese leader (and Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Aung San Suu Kyi. In an open letter, the Museum explained that its decision to revoke her award was based on her failing to halt, or even acknowledge, the ethnic cleansing happening in her country. The Holocaust Museum’s rebuke is an important reminder that the Jewish community has a moral responsibility and a strong moral standing in the international community with which to speak out on the injustices against the Rohingya people.
Life hangs in the balance. How can we take action? First, we must overcome the impulse to be overwhelmed and stymied by the enormity of the crisis. As Ruth Messinger, founder of American Jewish World Service, has taught: “We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
As I urged our congregation today during Shabbat services, we can educate, advocate and assist.
First, we must become educated ourselves and then we can talk with others about this humanitarian crisis. Learn more about the Rohingya people and their plight at:
Second, we can become advocates for aid to these far away people, so different from us, but created in God’s image. Go to AJWS Get Involved Activism to sign a petition to urge Congress t oppose the President’s proposed cuts to Foreign Aid and to write to your Senators thanking them or urging them to sign on to the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017. This is an important opportunity for our nation and our elected officials to demonstrate real moral leadership on the international stage, and work toward a lasting, peaceful solution for the Rohingya people.
Finally, we can donate to the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network’s disaster relief fund. AJWS Rohingya Donation Page. This fund will provide immediate and longer-term humanitarian aid—including food and water— to refugees who have fled across the Burmese border into Bangladesh. The Network is also supporting Rohingya human rights activists in Burma in their efforts to stop military violence against the Rohingya community. 100% of this fund goes directly to American Jewish World Service aid and grantmaking in response to the Rohingya crisis.
It is difficult to face the trauma and crisis in the world around us. It is impossible for us to turn away. Every one of us can take one step today. I pray that we all do our part to create the kind of world in which we want to dwell.
Shavua tov and Hodesh tov, A good week and a good new month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill