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
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God has given you, and have possessed and settled it….” These words serve as the Torah’s introduction–in this past week’s portion Ki Tavo— to the thanksgiving ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, the Israelite is to appear in the presence of the kohen, bearing his basket of produce, and offer a scripted monologue detailing the history, context and expression of gratitude for the bounties bestowed.
The timing of this ceremony is a subject of debate among the rabbis. Specifically, does the language of the verse quoted above indicate that the ceremony is performed upon entry into the land, or only after the land has been settled? How this question is answered informs our Jewish understanding of the concept of gratitude. If thanksgiving is to be offered immediately upon entry, the gratitude expressed is in appreciation of God’s goodness, a promise kept, a gift given, even though the gift received has not been opened yet! On the other hand, if thanksgiving is to be offered only after the land has been settled (and it would take years before the land would be entirely settled!), the gratitude expressed in the first fruits ceremony would be accompanied by a very different intention. The gift’s recipient would have had the chance to unwrap the gift, open the box, and make use of the gift. Gratitude would be accompanied by a rational appreciation for the thing itself.
I am certainly not suggesting that we write two thank-you cards for every gift we receive. The trait of gratitude we cultivate, however, should be informed by both perspectives. We should appreciate the generosity of others for the consideration they show us, regardless of the gift itself. And we should recognize and acknowledge the gift itself as we come to recognize its unfolding impact on us.
On this sixteenth anniversary of the life-shattering events of 9/11/01, I remain deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, especially those of individuals who have recently lost their lives as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.
But I also feel gratitude. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy, I was grateful to those who showed supreme heroism, selflessness and compassion in the darkest hours, many of whom gave the gift of life at the cost of their own.
With the passage of time, I have also come to appreciate how these self-sacrificing individuals and their communities of volunteer and professional servants have shaped our neighborhoods and communities. “We are one family” is a refrain I heard repeatedly this morning, and a theme I saw play out in our broader community. As our OJC community joined together in commemoration with our neighbors and volunteers in Tappan, and as we joined in learning with the faith community of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood prevailed.
I am grateful for the care we show one another in the wake of tragic events, and for the human and institutional actions we have witnessed in response to natural disasters Harvey and Irma. Today, I express my gratitude–with a basketful of intentions–to those who serve us each day and to those who work toward creating the kind of community we aspire to be.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The first two holy days of Passover came to an end last night and with the holy days, so went my children. As we made Havdalah, Josh left for the airport to return to Israel and his IDF unit. Noah returned to Maryland, Ben to college finals, and soon Sarah and Sagi will return to Israel as well. Moadim l’simcha, we say, may these middle days of Passover be filled with joy. Forgive me if my joy feels a bit diminished.
And I really mean: Forgive me. I have so many reasons to be filled with an abundance of joy. Like Elijah’s cup at the seder, the joy should be flowing over the top of the cup.
All four of my children became “all five of my children” this year as we added Sagi, a son by marriage to our ranks. On the Sunday before Passover, our daughter Sarah and Sagi stood under the chuppah with Rabbi Craig Scheff officiating. For anyone who might have been second guessing attendance at a simcha on the last really great cleaning/preparation day before Pesach, Rabbi Scheff told us that celebrating the wedding was exactly the kind of Passover preparation we should be doing. The ruach of the wedding was an experience of simcha that no one in our families will ever forget, pouring joy into my cup.
My own preparations for Pesach were put into perspective with absolute clarity. I could not have angst and agita because there was simply no time. On Monday we were serving bagels to thirty out of town guests. On Friday, we were sitting down to our family seder. The lived-understanding that my best was good enough and that the seder is meant to be completely a time of rejoicing freed me from years of self-imposed rigor.
I have taught for years that we don’t need to be tortured in our Passover preparations. This year I walked my talk. The sense of freedom of the seder was another level of simcha poured into my cup.
It was a blessing to celebrate the first two days of Passover with such an abundance of old and new family, a blessing that I don’t take for granted.
Two wonderful seders, sunny days, lunches of matza lasagna with friends, long walks with my new machatenasta (Yiddish for mother of my son-in-law) enhanced the beauty of the chag. The sense of quiet contentment is another kind of simcha to add to my cup.
Still, as the holy day ended last night and the middle days of Pesach began, I felt the diminishment of my joy as one by one, the Drill children and members of the Fainshtain family started peeling away, leaving us with great memories and (forgive me) matzah crumbs. But here is where Jewish ritual came to the rescue, reminding me that given a choice between feelings of loss and feelings of gratitude, I can choose gratitude.
Last night we counted the second day of the Omer. As we continue on the calendar arc from Passover to Shavuot, from redemption to revelation, we count up, not down. Each day toward the holiday of Shavuot reminds us that we choose to make every day one of meaning, to make every day count. I can let go of the lessons learned about simcha or I can hold fast to joy by being grateful. Forgive me If I choose joy!
Moadim l’simcha! Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Those pilgrims who established the first Thanksgiving back in1621 had some chutzpah celebrating gratitude. Fleeing religious persecution, they sailed through dangerous waters, accidentally ending up in Massachusetts instead of Virginia. Arriving in winter, they endured bitter cold, food shortages, bewildering farming practices, insufficient shelter, illness and despair. Within a short time, many had died. When we imagine being one of those pilgrims, it becomes clear that it was an act of faith and courage to sit down with new neighbors and give thanks.
For what did they feel grateful? Perhaps their thanksgiving was an acknowledgement that despite trials and sorrows, it was still necessary to experience gratitude. Perhaps… their gratitude was an antidote to the painful life that was their lot.
Today many of us also struggle. We experience personal challenges, illness, death, family conflict, unemployment. Gratitude is not an emotion that always comes naturally, but Judaism teaches that gratitude is not a choice. As Jews, the expression of thanksgiving is not conditional on whether we have all that we want.
The Talmud teaches that each time we benefit from something in this world, it should be preceded by the recitation of a blessing. Otherwise, we are labeled a thief, stealing from God or the community in which we live. Jews recite berakhot (blessings) to acknowledge the One who provides everything. Jews become blessings when we express our gratitude for the good that is ours by acts of loving kindness toward others. As God’s partners, such behavior is required.
This past weekend, the Orangetown Jewish Center once again remembered to show our gratitude for all the good that is ours by becoming blessings to each other and the general community. For the first time, Mitzvah Day became Mitzvah Weekend. Thanks to the passion and capable organization of Co-Chairs Lorraine Brown and Carolyn Wodar, hundreds of congregants of every age and stage participated in some part of the experience.
After welcoming the Orangeburg Library Interfaith Study Group to Friday evening services led by our youth, seventy congregants gathered for Dinner and Dialogue. We hosted Andrea Weinberger and Rob Grosser, co-presidents of Rockland County Jewish Federation (http://www.jewishrockland.org) and learned together about the organization that anchors all tzedaka in our community, Israel, and around the globe.
On Shabbat morning, just returned from the annual volunteer Mitzvah Mission to Israel with twenty OJCers, Rabbi Scheff reminded us that performing mitzvoth requires stepping out of our comfort zones. Guests from neighboring faith communities joined us at the end of Shabbat for Havdalah and guided conversation to learn about each others’ traditions and beliefs.
Sunday was the culmination of months of planning as congregants volunteered from early morning with Keep Rockland Beautiful and the annual Breakfast Run to deliver warm blankets and food. Throughout the day, congregants danced to Zumba for United Hospice of Rockland (http://hospiceofrockland.org), learned about TAPS (http://www.taps.org) (support for widows and orphans of American servicemen and women) from CFO (and congregant) Scott Rutter, created flannel blankets and other craft projects for area hospitals and nursing facilities, and went out to visit patients and residents in those places. The day concluded with congregants being invited to minyanim in their neighborhoods.
As many of us enter into the joy and contentment of celebrating Thanksgiving, it is important to remember that for many this time offers neither joy nor contentment. What can we do? If we are surrounded by an abundance of blessings, we can give thanks and become blessings to others. If this time of year emphasizes feelings of need and sadness, still we can find ways to give thanks. All of us can show gratitude to God by becoming blessings to each other. We can offer gratitude as a celebration of God’s gifts or as an antidote to despair.
May you be a blessing,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Readers of Torah know that the reason Moshe cannot enter the Promised Land is that he disobeyed God’s directions, hitting a rock twice instead of speaking to it to gain water for the thirsty, complaining Israelites. We probably also know that the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. This servant of God has been intimate with God. He has been a conduit for supernatural miracles, led the people selflessly, argued on their behalf and brought down to them God’s word. After forty years of service to God, he is denied entry to the long promised reward of the Land because of one error in direction following? The story of Moshe’s hitting the rock and being denied entry to the Promised Land stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat.
Although Moshe himself never asks Why me, our commentators through the generations have offered answers to just that question. They say that Moshe diminished God’s greatness by hitting the rock twice instead of once. He claimed power for himself instead of for God; he lost his temper; he humiliated the Israelites by calling them rebels. All of the commentaries that offer answers to why Moshe received such a harsh consequence are responding to the story with the question, Why me.
Why me is a question we ask ourselves when we get bad news, are experiencing a hard time, or have lost someone dear to us. We tell ourselves, “But I am a good person. Why me?”.
There is, however, another way to consider Moshe’s story here in Hukkat, and therefore another way to consider our own difficult times. Instead of asking Why me regarding Moshe’s harsh consequence, we can look at the narrative and ask Why NOT me.
When we ask Why NOT me in the context of Hukkat, we remember that Moshe is not the only one being denied entry to the land. His own brother Aaron and sister Miriam die in this parasha, never to enter the land despite their service to God and to the people in the desert. An entire generation of former slaves will die in the desert, denied access to the land that was promised to them on the Exodus from Egypt. Instead of asking only why Moshe cannot enter the land, we ask why all of these people are denied entry to the land.
Asking Why me puts us into a place of being a victim. We get stuck in Why me. There is no answer to the question except that life is terribly unfair and we don’t deserve our situation. Asking Why NOT me opens us to a recognition of the precious nature of life. Why NOT me reminds us to be grateful for the good that is ours even in the most difficult times. Why NOT me teaches us that we are one of God’s creations together with all of the people around us. When we ask Why NOT me we remember to have faith that God knows us and remembers us. When we ask Why NOT me our hope is restored.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill