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It’s the 9th of Adar! What are you doing about it?

It is the ninth of Adar Alef on the Jewish calendar. According to the Talmud, almost 2000 years ago on this date, two famous houses of study, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, became so entrenched in ideological battle over eighteen legal matters that they turned to violence. Tradition tells us that their destructive impulses led to the death of 3000 scholars and students all on one day. This tragic day was declared a fast day in the Shulchan Aruch, but it was never observed as one. Perhaps the joy associated with the month of Adar stifled the impulse to commemorate a day of shame and sorrow.

Hillel and Shammai

To me, this day represents something especially tragic as the disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai are most often taught as representative of constructive conflict, the ability to disagree with respect for one another’s viewpoints. What could have gone wrong? I imagine that one scholar or another in either or both of the study houses forgot to practice humility. This scholar or that one influenced his students by appealing to their egos, convincing them that arguments were made to be won. Soon the legal scholars no longer abided by the simple rules of a makhloket l’shem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). They no longer could argue the issues while respecting their opponents, maintaining good relationships with them, and even admitting to being wrong sometimes. The inability to engage in constructive conflict led to violence as it does to this very day.

In 2013, the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution declared the ninth of Adar as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. 9Adar Project logoSteps

We are observing the ninth of Adar this year at Orangetown Jewish Center through a variety of educational opportunities. This past Shabbat, my 9Adar sermon was about civil discourse and the necessity to learn from multiple points of view. Rosh Hodesh Celebrations and OJSalon studied texts about constructive conflict and took pledges to participate on this day in a ta’anit dibbur, a “fast” from destructive speech. The Chafetz Chayim stated that if one chooses to fast for a spiritual purpose, it is far better to fast from speech than from food. We pledged to abstain from lashon hara, gossip. We have worked this past week to notice when we say things that are not truthful, positive, necessary, or kind. On this day, we commit to engaging either in positive speech or in silence.

Will you join us? Never before have the events of the ninth of Adar 2000 years ago felt more compelling and cautionary. In her book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, Rabbi Amy Eilberg offers ten suggestions for practicing the art of sacred disagreement.  (You can read all of them here: 10 Ways to Practice Peace on the 9th of Adar) I offer just three here:

  1. Invite someone of another religion or political perspective to lunch.
  2. Call or email a friend or relative with whom you have felt tension, expressing a desire to reconnect.
  3. If someone speaks sharply or critically to you today, stop and ask yourself what pain or pressure in his or her life might have led to that moment of harsh speech.

If you try any of these techniques and are moved, continue the next day, and the day after. As Rabbi Eilberg encourages us, the health of our community and our world may depend upon it.

handshake

Says Rabbi Tarfon in Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Pirke Avot 2:21

Wishing you empathic, compassionate conversation on the 9th of Adar and all the days that follow,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Healthy Body, Healthy Soul

It is that date on our calendars, December 31. If you are like most people on New Year’s Eve, you will be setting resolutions before the ball drops in Times Square.

Times Square

Many of those resolutions will be some version of being more healthy. We pledge to start a new exercise regimen, eat a healthier diet, relax more, etc.

Healthy Living

And if you are like 80% of people, by February you will no longer be meeting your goals.
I suggest that health and wellness are more achievable as a way of life rather than as a goal to be achieved in the first weeks of January. One of my yoga teachers encourages us to see changing our patterns as a curious experiment. She says that it is more effective to be gentle with ourselves and take several small actions in the direction we want to go rather than setting impossible long-term goals.
“Fine and good,” you say. “But what are these sentiments doing in my rabbi’s blog post?”
I’m glad you asked!
Jewish tradition teaches that our body is the Temple of our Soul. God created each one of us in God’s image; therefore, our body is part of our sacred being, the place where our Godly spark resides. As Rabbi Simon Jacobson has written Read More…

Answer Hatred with Love

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.”

Israelis who come from Pittsburgh organize a vigil in Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv

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

 

The Time of Our Joy

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

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

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.
Lew writes:
“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

 

Counting the Omer of Illness, Loss, Gratitude and Redemption

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.

Omer

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 and me

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.

shavuot2

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

 

 

OJC Hazak Adventure – Post IV

Volunteering at the food security program, Pantry Packers, is a completely fun experience. On Tuesday morning, we put on aprons and hairnets and learned assembly line tasks to package food for hungry people all over Israel.


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.


We were enlightened and inspired by our conversation with Shaul Yudelman and a Palestinian partner, Noor.


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 day was completed by a return to ancient history with a visit to the Israel Museum. We saw the model of the Old City in the 1st century BCE and the Dead Sea Scrolls.



Today, Wednesday, began with a visit to Yad Vashem, a visit I consider to be a moral obligation on every trip to Jerusalem.

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,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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