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
Of course, the hour and a half we spent putting pasta into sealed and labeled packages was much more than fun. We thought about what it means to provide food for parents of hungry children, survivors of the Shoah, or people who are mentally ill. Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Director of Pantry Packers, challenged us: “Do you know what it means to be hungry? Really. Truly. Hungry?” We were proud to begin our day by providing help with dignity. You can help at: https://pantrypackers.org/.
Next we drove to Gush Etzion to hear first-hand about the courageous work of Shorashim (Roots), a program of dialogue, understanding and bridge building between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The story we heard was one of “us versus them,” an existential conflict, and a deep sense of fear that is common to both sides. According to Noor and Shaul, participants in Roots have enough courage to meet each other and take responsibility for their stories. As Shaul said, “We must come to see that we belong to the same land.
Before we left, I asked Noor to offer a poem or prayer for peace before we sang Oseh Shalom. In English and Arabic, he quoted “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish:
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace)…
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).
Our final tour experience was an exhilarating visit to Hadassah Hospital where we were honored by Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Executive Director of Hadassah Offices in Israel, who gave us a complete explanation of the Chagall windows in the hospital synagogue.
She shared a lovely story about Mark Chagall‘s response when asked if he would create windows for the hospital. He said, “Thank you. I have been waiting to be asked.” What did he mean? He said, “I have been waiting to serve the Jewish people.” Barbara challenged all of us, “How have you served the Jewish People today?”
We were inspired to hear from Dvir Musai, a young man who owes his life to Haddassah Hospital. In 2002, doctors at the hospital saved three young boys, one of whom was Dvir, who were the victims of a terrorist bomb while on a school trip.
Dvir told us, “I imagine that my surgeon must have thought to himself that a 13 year old boy is too young to lose his legs.” Against all odds, and 30 surgeries later, Dvir is the father of two boys and an employee of Hadassah Hospital. He was given back his life in the trauma unit and given two new lives in the Mother and Child Pavilion. There was not a dry eye when Rhoda Friedman gave to Dvir infant caps she had crocheted for newborns at the hospital.
As I write this from Sarah and Sagi’s apartment, most of the travelers are getting ready to board the flight home, filled with memories to last a lifetime. I will be home soon too, after a celebration of the wedding of Sagi‘s brother Roi to Lera and a Shabbat with my kids here in Tel Aviv.
Maybe next time you will be the one to travel to Israel with an OJC trip?!
Warmest regards from Israel,
At the newly renovated Beit Hatefusot, Museum of the Jewish People, we appreciated the way that Jews from all over the world are part of one people. I had visited this museum two decades ago and remembered well the exhibit on synagogues from around the world. I shared with the group the following Yehuda Amichai poem, which he wrote after the original museum opened on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
Poem Without an End
The second museum we visited was the Israel Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. For almost two hours, we were guided through Rabin’s life, both personal and professional, Israel’s history and world history, all wrapped into one amazing, complicated story.
On our drive along the Tel Aviv promenade we were blessed with a breathtaking sunset over the Mediterranean.
We ate dinner “in the dark” and watched the play Not by Bread Alone, with actors who are blind and deaf. The lesson of the play is that we should never assume we can know all about a person because of how they present in the world; we all have dreams.
Monday has been a day spent in the Old City. We began as archaeologists, doing artifact sifting from the Second Temple period. We found pottery, blown glass, and bones. Our guide did not enter into the politics of the mindless bulldozing at the site of the Temple in the 90’s. She simply said, “Excavation without supervision, whether legal or illegal, is immoral.”
We continued on to the Jewish Quarter. Our fantastic guide, Nir Ofer (veterans of Rabbi Scheff’s November volunteer missions might remember him) said, “Look at the Western Wall. In reality, we see only stones. And so, if we feel anything spiritually, it must come from within us. Thus the Wall epitomizes a religion that taught the world to worship a God we cannot see.”
As always, we shopped in the Cardo, the main shopping avenue of ancient Jerusalem, and found gifts, jewelry and tallitot.
The tour of the Western Wall Tunnels was challenging but enlightening – so much history in Jerusalem, so little time.
In the evening, we watched the sound and light show at the Tower of David and were able to use today’s Hebrew word of the day most appropriately: magniv (wonderful)!
With love from Jerusalem,
This Shabbat in Jerusalem, we turned toward the Wall itself, at Ezrat Yisrael, the Egalitarian platform of the Western Wall. As our voices rose together in the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat, our hearts were intended toward friends and loved ones back at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We brought into our minds all those we wish could have been with us on such a beautiful evening.
Shabbat dinner at our hotel was enhanced by our guests, Sarah Machlis, Drill-bits, and two lone soldiers. We each shared a highlight of our week and the hardest thing was choosing just one thing to say. Shaya, one of the soldiers, adopted Eileen Rogers as his grandmother before he left us. Who could blame him?
Shabbat morning, we were welcomed to the Masorti synagogue attached to the Fuchsburg Center for Conservative Judaism, Moreshet Yisrael. The chanting of Chazzanit Saralee Shrell Fox lifted us through the entire service, but especially as we joined her in singing Hallel. Rabbi Adam Frank moved us with a drash about the command: Be fruitful and multiply. Why did God so badly want humanity to continue that God made it a positive command? And why do we humans bring children into a world that is so difficult? Rabbi Frank suggested that we believe we can continue to improve the world into the next generations. Judaism teaches that we can.
After lunch, we learned Torah with a Conservative Yeshiva student, Liza Bernstein. She challenged us with a comparison of Noah, a pure man who walked with God, to Abraham, a pure man who walked before God. Participants on our trip brought honor to the OJC through their insightful and enthusiastic participation in the Torah study. Liza will begin rabbinical studies next year at the Hebrew college in Boston, and she will make a wonderful rabbi one day.
After just a little bit of time to relax in the afternoon, we gathered for Havdalah.
Chazzanit Shrell Fox, who led us on Shabbat morning, happens to be an old friend. Among many other talents, she creates beautiful women’s kippot. After Shabbat, she met us in our hotel lobby with samples of her work.
Our current OJC Hazak Israel trip possesses a unique blessing of radical amazement and appreciation because more than half of our group has waited 60, 70 or more years to travel to our homeland for the first time. Almost all of the rest of our group has not been in Israel for 20 or 30 years.
Each experience of these first three days feels precious. Each moment is over-filled with emotion and joy. Like the rabbis of medieval Europe who waited a lifetime to fulfill the mitzvah of putting their feet in the holy land, our pilgrims too are filled with gratitude and pride to be here.
As we approach each experience, we acknowledge its place in Jewish and Israeli history, geography, and spirituality.
Afterward, we share our thoughts — about the layers of history at Caesarea, an introduction to Kaballah through making candles (“The human soul is the candle of God”) in Tzefat, wine tasting at Dalton Winery, the awesome safari to the middle of the Hula Preserve to watch firsthand the migration of thousands of birds coming to rest for the night in the swamp, and a meaningful visit to the residence for children at risk, Kfar Ahava.
There is present in each experience a great tourist moment, and embedded in that same moment, there is a pilgrim’s experience, emerging from connection to Rabbinic thought, Torah, and the stories we tell ourselves.
1. During our hour-long visit to the Hula Preserve, we watched thousands of birds land to rest for the night along their migration route. The air was filled with the calls of cranes and the dramatic flight of thousands of birds of many varieties. After our visit, we read “I Want Always to Have Eyes to See” by Natan Zach, excerpted here:
I want always to have eyes to see
The world’s beauty; and to praise
This marvelous faultless splendor; to praise
The One who made it beautiful to praise,
And full, so very full, and beautiful.
… And then we recited a blessing: Praised are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe Whose world is like this! (Shekakha Lo b’Olamo).
2. During our walking tour of Kfar Ahava, we turned a corner and suddenly there we were – in the peaceful space created by OJC volunteers to remember Rob Katz z”l and Danny Klein z”l. The ability to speak about these two beloved people in the context of a visit to a healing program with powerful ties to OJC was meaningful to all of us.
Rabbi Paula Drill
When I was a child, I overheard conversations about the shanda of my Poppy’s brother, Uncle Jake “the Horse Thief,” his jail time and his drinking issues. The implicit and explicit messages I received growing up were: Jews don’t do illegal things. Jews aren’t alcoholics. Jews drink a bit of wine in moderation for celebrations. But Jews don’t lose control; Jews aren’t addicts.
On Rosh Hashana this year, I spoke about addiction because Jews can, and obviously do, develop life-threatening problems with drugs and alcohol. To believe otherwise leads to an unwillingness to ask for help. The “shame” of having a problem Jews aren’t supposed to have prevents many from seeking support and treatment.
I chose to speak about addiction because addiction is an issue in our OJC community. On Rosh Hashana I spoke about addiction because the path of teshuva – redemption – is parallel to the path toward sobriety.
Most of all, I spoke about addiction because people struggle and suffer quietly, in isolation, with a profound sense of loneliness. They and their families carry a burden of shame and embarrassment because of the stigma attached. When I listen to their stories, I want them to know that the Jewish community is here for them, that we can hold it, that we will fight against the stigma and sorrow. I want them to feel affirmed, to hear their stories in public, to know that this Jewish community can speak their truths and not look away.
For our community to be as inclusive as we say we are, we must open our eyes and our hearts to the stories of those who are struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol. And more than this, we must open our arms to the families of those who are addicts. Their suffering and powerlessness is never ending. Relief is not in sight. . . only endurance will get them through to the next day. I shared the stories of three OJC congregants and their struggles with sobriety, with loved ones’ addiction, and with feelings of extreme loneliness.
People were moved by the stories. I believe that they listened open-heartedly. But now is the time to take action. First, I encourage you to learn more about addiction in the Jewish community. Getting educated is one way to make a tikkun (a repair) in the world. I learned so much in preparing for the sermon. I hope that you will too:
- Olitzky, Rabbi Kerry, Renewed Each Day, Volumes 1 and 2
- Shapiro, Rabbi Rami, Recovery – the Sacred Art: the Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice
- Steinberg, Rabbi Paul, Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality
- Twerski, Rabbi Abraham J., MD, Living Each Day
Resources for Help:
- Twelve Step Programs: https://www.na.org/ or http://www.nnjaa.org/ (in Northern NJ) and http://rocklandnyaa.org/meetings (in Rockland County NY)
- JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) 212-632-4600 and their website: www.jbfcs.org/JACS.
- Smart Recovery, a scientific, behavioral approach to recovery: http://www.smartrecovery.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwu7LOBRBZEiwAQtfbGNQ_KXOOJWtd0X6Cr8qKmRqxJifgE3qJNfUhKUsdOZM3nLAsr28PMRoCku0QAvD_BwE
- Another useful organization: https://www.chapter9couplesinrecovery.org/
In my sermon, I spoke about another way for our community to make a tikkun, to bring the problem from outside our walls within. Most sobriety programs take place in church basements. If you are interested in working to bring a meeting or a support group here to OJC, please be in contact with me. Our congregation is dedicated to #OJCSupportsU, our program of mental health awareness and support. We are thus perfectly poised to open our doors to those in need of sobriety support. What a shift that would be for us here at the synagogue, knowing that we are not just acknowledging that addiction exists, but offering our holy space to be a part of people’s recovery.
The director of counselling services at an inner-city rehabilitation center for teen heroin addicts described why the center is successful: “This is the first place they’ve ever been that gives them unconditional love. We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say No.”
The unconditional love paired with limits and boundaries that supports struggling teens is just what God does for us each year in these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We make mistakes, some small and some devastating. We could carry on like this indefinitely, harming others and ourselves, were it not for the High Holy Days calling us to account for our sins. At this time of teshuva, if we open our hearts, we encounter God. And God offers us unconditional love and cares about us enough to say No.
That ultimate no is tough business. Too often we ignore warning signs that our friends or family, or we ourselves are in trouble. Perhaps we are not aware that there is a problem, or are too embarrassed to seek help. And sometimes, we actually enable our teenagers to indulge in substance abuse, perhaps by buying the alcohol and serving it in our homes, by partying with them, or by driving our teens to and from parties where alcohol is served so they do not “drink and drive.” The message in these parenting choices is that using drugs and alcohol is normal, and harmless. . . which it is… till it isn’t.
“Choose life” is a core Jewish value. Choosing life includes being fully present to the abundance and blessings of our lives. It means not anesthetizing ourselves from the beauty or the pain. It means not causing harm to our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
In this season of repentance and atonement, I pray that we take the first steps toward awareness. Chemical dependency, whether it involves alcohol, narcotics, or cocaine, is a destructive, malignant condition. It claims as its victims not only the user, but the family members as well. Judaism teaches: Choose life. May we do so today and tomorrow and throughout the year 5778. Shana tova.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Earlier this evening, more than two hundred people gathered at the Allison-Parris County Office Building in New City to speak out against the rise in hateful action and rhetoric. After the terror of Neo-Nazi white supremacists spewing anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic speech in Charlottesville, VA, Rockland Pride Center joined forces with the Jewish and African American communities to stand up for acceptance and understanding. You can read more on Facebook and watch a video of the rally at Unite the Fight, #UnitethefightRockland.
I share with you here, in part, my words in the hope that it will motivate all of us to take action in some large or small way, every day.
When I was a kid of twelve or thirteen, some of my friends got into a big fight, choosing up sides and being mean to each other. I remember growing so tired of the whole situation and complaining to my dad, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”
My dad answered, “Tough. You have to deal with it… because they are your friends and they matter.”
I’ve gotten a little bit older since then, and my circle of concern has gotten a bit broader. Today, not just my friends and family matter. All people, because we are all created in God’s image, matter. But some days, I really want to say, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”
That’s when I hear my dad’s voice reminding me: You have to deal with it, because people matter.
We have gathered on an auspicious day, the first day of the new month of Elul, when Jewish people look forward to the New Year and attempt to return to our best selves in a process called teshuva, repentance. We cannot do it all at once. But each of us can effect change one degree at a time.
This hopeful thought can allow us to say, “If we are able to change ourselves by one degree, then all of us together can change the direction of our country with that same one degree of change.
Consider the fact that we all showed up here in New City today. Instead of turning on our neighbors, instead of finding differences, we are committed to identifying all that brings us together.
We have gathered for freedom, democracy, and our trust in justice. This week in the Torah portion we read: צדק צדק תרדוף
Justice, justice you shall pursue. The way that we pursue justice now is by rallying together and uniting the fight.
When Brooke Malloy, Executive Director of the Rockland Pride Center, asked me to speak tonight, she suggested that I share how the Jewish community is feeling now after the events of Charlottesville a week and a half ago. I can’t speak for the Jewish community as a whole, but I can tell you how I am feeling. My response is encapsulated in the story of the president of the Charlottesville synagogue who stood on the front porch with two hired guards while white supremacists and neo-Nazis walked by shouting, “There’s the synagogue. Let’s burn it down!” and “Jews will not replace us!” As a congregational rabbi, nothing steals my breath as much as the fact that fifty people inside, finishing their Shabbat morning prayers, were told to sneak out the back door of their synagogue for their safety. In the United States of America.
As I thought about what Brooke asked me to do here, however, I realized that sharing my story is only the beginning. My work against hate must continue by asking questions instead of telling. What does this violence and hatred mean to you as a gay person? As an African-American? an Hispanic or Asian or a person who came from Haiti or Dominican Republic?
Our task is to prove that love truly is stronger than hatred despite the evidence of the past weeks. Love arises from knowing the other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing God to remake me in His.”
Let me return to the idea of one degree of change. As Rabbi Scheff taught in his sermon this past Shabbat, we could create change if all of us dedicate ourselves to get to know one new person every day, a person we do not know, a person who might look different from us. Try looking someone in the eyes who is in your office or in your class or at the store where you shop… someone you have never spoken with before. Say hello. Tell them who you are. Ask them who they are. And let us change the world together one degree at a time.
Because love is stronger than hate.
With prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill