I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.
The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.
Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.
April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel
It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.
April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York
In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.
9:53 am, Tel Aviv
Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust. The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.
10:00 am, Tel Aviv
The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.
3:00 am, Orangeburg
I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”
While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.
Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.
Shalom al Yisrael,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The video message arrived as an attachment from a trusted source. I opened it and began watching. The scenes of smogless skies, clear waters, and lush fauna served as a reminder that a world was being reborn around us, and that our stay-at-home quarantine was having the side benefit of giving Mother Earth a sabbatical, the chance to catch her breath. The beauty of the world around us could serve as a silver lining of this challenging time.
The second video message arrived within a couple of hours. It came from a name I knew, though someone I hadn’t connected with in quite some time. I opened it and began watching. It depicted similar scenes of smogless skies, clear waters and lush fauna, with facts about how much cleaner our world is today than at any other time in recent history. The video, however, was not a PSA for climate change. Its final scene was a man with the title of “Rabbi” trying to reassure me that the current pandemic was God’s will, part of the divine plan to renew the earth.
I was surprised, to say the least. Did the sender of the second video actually think that I would find comfort in its message? Have I ever given off the sense that I embrace and am comforted by a God who would will the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people to advance a plan? What then could I say about God’s role in the Holocaust? About an innocent pedestrian hit by a drunk driver? About a cancer victim? About a parent losing a child? About a natural disaster that claims dozens or hundreds?
I don’t need to rely on theologians for my answer about the nature of God, instructive though their perspectives may be. Buber, Heschel, Wiesel and Kushner (with all due respect) don’t know anything more than you or I do when it comes to God. The rabbis across the centuries have offered many paths to faith, some that even stand in conflict with one another. God is, after all, infinitely unknowable. What theologians have going for them is that they think about the question of God long enough to develop consistency. Want to be a theologian? Work at it, test your opinion against theological questions, and be consistent!
Somewhere along the line of time, well before The Wizard of Oz, we started referring to God as perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. While God does credit God’s self in the Torah as the Creator, God never uses these other descriptors for God’s self. God changes God’s mind, God admits to making mistakes, God learns and grows. At best, God says God is compassionate and loving, truthful and holy, and more powerful than other gods; at worst, jealous and judgmental, begrudging and impatient. The notion that God is all-powerful and all-good can’t withstand the test of consistency by my standards of goodness and justice. The notion that God is all-powerful but not all-good is untenable personally.
These weeks on the Jewish calendar would be a challenge to Jewish theology without a pandemic raging around us. From the death of Aaron’s sons for their “foreign” sacrifice to the command to be “holy” because “I the Lord your God am holy”, from Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), it can be so tempting to conclude that all is connected in some divine plan that necessitates God‘s intervention at certain times but doesn’t warrant God‘s intervention at others. I cannot and will not place my hope in an omnipotent god who requires the sacrifice of innocents or matyrs for the sake of learning lessons, realizing dreams, or cleaning the air. God promised us: No more floods at God’s direction to destroy the earth.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be floods.
Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that God is perfectly imperfect, as are we. God purposefully gave us free will and God intentionally introduced an element of chance into our existence. Without this measure of unpredictability, we’d be as naive as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, without the ability to make choices that reflect God’s glory (and goodness) in the world. As our sages taught, “Everything is in God’s hands except for the fear of God.” God controls everything except the choices we make. Those choices have long-ranging consequences that God will not control, and those same choices can reflect well or poorly on God. But in God’s love and goodness, God has given us the infinite potential to learn, grow and change course. It’s God’s hope that we see the God-given strength within to persevere, to live, to celebrate and to spread our hope.
We have been divinely inspired to create a way of living that reveals God’s goodness in an imperfect world. It’s that very imperfection that presents us with the opportunity to rise to the level of the divine. I will appreciate that which I perceive as miraculous without understanding what merits such grace. I will bemoan that which I perceive as tragic without attempting to explain, justify or defend. I will hold onto my faith that the goodness of God, as reflected in the actions of others and in my own choices, will raise us all towards a higher plane of meaning and love.
God is hope, faith, and goodness, along with the strength to live our lives accordingly in a perfectly imperfect world.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Okay, I admit that I am not a big fan of the countdown to the new year. I find the experience fairly anti-climactic. Jewish tradition teaches me that time spent anticipating a time to come is wasted time. What matters most is what we do with the time we have.
Our Talmudic sages teach that the reason we ascend from one candle on Chanukah’s first night to eight on the last night, as opposed to counting down the days of the holiday, is that we are meant to ascend in holiness, not to descend. We therefore count up our days after Passover to the day we celebrate receiving the Torah.
The lesson speaks to me. I don’t enjoy counting down the days left in a vacation. I much prefer to look ahead to each day of celebration, adding to the joy, as opposed to counting down the days to its conclusion.
On the eighth night of Chanukah, I lit a chanukiah in my grandparents’ kitchen, reflecting on their 75 years of marriage and a celebration of time that would bring most of their children, grandschildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren together. Their lives have not been easy, though they have certainly had many causes for celebration. Surviviors of the Holocaust who have experienced their share of loss, their lives have been enriched by a generosity of spirit and a sincere appreciation for every relationship they share. A phone call today, a lunch date tomorrow, a card game the next day, a get-together with children on the weekend, a great grandson’s bar mitzvah in the summer — each day presents another opportunity to add a deposit to the time bank of our lives.
On this first day of 2015, we can start counting up to 2016. Each day can present an opportunity. Each experience can be a jewel added to a treasure chest of time and experience. May we never wish the time away, may we never miss today by wishing for tomorrow. May 2016 arrive after 365 days completed with a sense of accomplishment, appreciation and ascension.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2015,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I was one of sixty women, all members of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, who gathered at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Monday and Tuesday, December 9 and 10 to connect, learn and replenish our minds and souls. The title of the conference was “Leaning In, Leaning Out, Learning from Each Other.” The learning, prayer, and opportunity to connect were all valuable.
But that is not what is on my mind as I think about the conference in the days since it ended. I am thinking about what it means to be present, completely and wholly present. In her opening talk, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first ordained woman of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, explained to us that her work has been about cultivating compassion. That work, she asserted, can only happen through true listening, through being present to another and thereby to God. She reminded us that careers in the rabbinate are guided by what we believe God wants of us more than by ambition.
I spent the rest of the day asking myself how I could ever know what God wants of me. As I listened to fellow rabbis, talked in small groups, and took notes, I asked myself the question about what God wants. And then the answer came to me as I pictured myself in our sanctuary at the OJC. Above the ark, the words are carved: “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid.” I place God before me always.
I can know what God wants of me by being quiet enough, in the sanctuary of my soul, to listen. And to do that? I must be present. I must be in the moment with each of you, with the children of the Religious School, with the youngest children and their grown-ups at Early Kabbalat Shabbat. I must be fully present in your loved one’s hospital room, at your kitchen table or across the table from you at Starbucks. I must be present in the moments we share on the telephone.
And then, at the end of our moment, I must listen to my soul deeply enough to reassure myself that I am doing what God wants of me. Did I listen to you? Was I fully present to you?
It is not easy to be fully present in the year 2013. As we rabbis sat in a room, sharing our dreams, our insecurities, our prayers, many of us focused on the faces of whoever was speaking. If I place God before me always, then I must look for God in the faces of my fellows.
But a great number of us were typing away on i-pads, laptops, phones. Several in the room were tweeting. A difficult conversation erupted about this fact when confidentiality was breached with tweets that quoted what specific women were saying. Those who were tweeting defended their actions by stating the importance of sharing what was happening in the room with the public. I wonder how we can be in this moment, however, when we are already shaping it to share it with a nameless public. I understand that tweeting is meant to connect us, but doesn’t it distance us instead?
One rabbi said that she is more focused when she is tweeting than when she is just listening. There is a difference, however, between being focused and being present. Rabbi Eilberg had just told us that we must remember to be present to others. The result of the conversation was to shut down the tweeters. Sometimes it is valuable and important to get the word out. I understand the value of social media; after all, here I am blogging to you all! But sometimes it is much more important to get the word in. Lean in, lean out. Utimately, we chose to lean in, to lean within, to be present to each other and to ourselves — with the hope and prayer of being present to God.