The Closure

On July 16th and 17th, a ten mile stretch of the 405 freeway will be closed for 53 hours. For the past month, the sign on the freeway has been flashing this warning – as if signaling that the end of the world is coming. The newspapers and internet sites have underscored this message. City leaders have tried to emphasize that alternate routes can’t compensate for the closure of the freeway (which normally serves 500,000 cars each weekend). County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky predicted “the mother of all traffic jams” and recently posted on his blog, “53 ways to survive without the 405.” Metro Board Member Richard Katz said, “This project should be renamed the nightmare on the 405. Everyone is gonna be impacted.”

The impending closure (commonly called "Carmageddon") has caused the city to descend into a panic. A major topic of debate is whether the workers will really be able to complete the destruction of the bridge over the freeway within the two days. My husband wonders whether he’ll be able to go to work on Monday. How long will we be immobilized?

The very idea of being immobilized seems un-American. It goes against the image of the Wild West that attracted the settlers to this area in the first place.

Surely, the closure is a major inconvenience and will impact residents’ lives in countless ways. For example, my father in law’s birthday is July 17th. Normally, we would gather at his home for a barbeque get-together, but not this year. Since his children and grandchildren live in Los Angeles, Monrovia, and San Diego, we won’t be able to get to his home and vice versa. (A three-day slumber party was not what he had in mind!) Instead, my father and mother-in-law plan to leave town for a romantic getaway weekend. As they say: ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’

Perhaps this closure could be viewed as a unique opportunity to take a break from our regular routines. The Torah portion from the Book of Numbers which will be read in synagogues on the week of the closure hints at this message. This Torah portion actually begins with an interruption. The portion is called Pinchas, after a priest by that name, but most of Pinchas’ story appears in the portion read the prior week. At the end of the previous portion, the Israelite men begin participating with Moabite women in an orgiastic, idolatrous cult. Therefore a plague erupts among the Israelites, and God commands Moses to slay the leaders of the rebellion. Before Moses can carry out this command, Pinchas kills an Israelite man and a Moabite woman who were copulating near the sanctuary, and the plague ceased.

In this week's Torah portion, God then bestows on Pinchas a covenant of peace. One question (among many) on this story is: why is there an interruption in the reading of the story? Why did the rabbis divide the biblical portions in such a way that Pinchas’ actions are in one portion, and his reward only in the next? One answer is that this interruption demonstrated rabbinic discomfort with Pinchas’ vigilante style of leadership. As Rabbi Moses of Coucy explained, by delaying the reward until the next portion, the rabbis sent a message that we should not rush to reward extremism.

Yet perhaps, the interruption also hints at a larger message. Pinchas only received his gift after a break in the text. Likewise, to experience life’s rewards, we need to take pauses. Only when we stop driving around can we stop and smell the roses.

Indeed, observant Jews observe a 25 hour freeway closure every week – called Shabbat (the Sabbath) – which entails not driving around town and instead walking to synagogue, each other’s homes, and parks. On Jewish holidays, this closure can last for two days, and if a holiday either immediately precedes or follows Shabbat, then the closure can last for three days.

This cessation from work and travel is intended to cause a shift in focus. In his book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space,” However, “the danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space, we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to be in accord.”

Perhaps, rather than being viewed as a nightmare, the 405 closure should be viewed as an opening – a chance to enter the realm that Heschel described, to have a taste of Pinchas’ peace. For one weekend, the entire city will observe an extended Sabbath. Rather than looking for 53 things to do while the freeway is closed, perhaps we will discover 53 chances to be truly free.

Mother's Day Message

Last December, on the day my children began winter vacation from school, my publisher sent me a list of revisions they needed me to make to the manuscript of my book. I previously arranged to go with two other families to Adventure Plex, a giant indoor jungle gym for a play date. When we arrived, I apologetically explained the situation and asked my friends if they could watch the kids while I worked. I would be in the next room (where there was an electric outlet) if the kids or they needed me. My friends considerately agreed, and I pulled out the computer.

I furiously got to work, but I felt guilty. I recognized the irony of the moment. I was being an inattentive parent to complete my book on how to be a more attentive parent! But I didn’t have much choice, so I tuned out the noise of children running all around and typed away.

At one point, the woman nearby said to me: “I’m so impressed. I can’t believe that you’re able to get work done amidst this commotion. That’s amazing.” “Thanks,” I replied.

In thinking about that day, I realized that if I had been focused on the children, helping them with whatever they needed, and being fully present with them, no onlooker would have said to me: “Wow, I’m so impressed that you were a fantastic parent today.”

For some reason, in our culture, professional achievements seem to draw more acclaim than personal ones. Whenever I reach a professional milestone (such as passing an exam, or giving a particularly good sermon), my husband, parents and in-laws tell me, “I’m so proud of you.” For me, enduring pregnancy and giving birth was infinitely more difficult than any exam or writing project. Yet, when I delivered my children, I received many congratulations, but no one ever said: “I’m proud of you.”

In subtle, but profound ways, in our society, people tend to define themselves and their self-worth primarily by their professional achievements. For example, when we ask children what they “want to be” when they grow up, we assume that they will answer with an occupation – (such as doctor, teacher or lawyer). We don’t expect that question to be answered with identities such as spouse, parent, or friend – even though those may actually be the most significant roles.

This week’s Torah portion centers on a detailed description of the holiday calendar. Throughout this chapter, one refrain recurs. For each holiday, the text repeats, “it is a sacred occasion, don’t do any work.” These holidays are not merely chances to rest and regain our strength to work more efficiently the following day. Rather, they are intended to refocus our priorities from the professional to personal dimensions of our lives.

As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote:

The Jewish festivals challenge us: Do we define ourselves primarily by our work? Or do we define ourselves primarily by our total humanity, our ability to celebrate, to sanctify time, to share special moments with our families?

Ever since I read Kushner’s question, it has been ringing in my ears. After that day at Adventure Plex, I resolved to respect myself and others for their personal accomplishments, not only their professional ones. I pride myself on sustaining a loving marriage and raising children caringly more than any other dimension of my life. I define myself by my “total humanity.”

This mother’s day, let’s recognize ourselves and each other for all that we are and all that we do.

Parashat Emor

Wow! What a week it’s been. Last Saturday, when we sat here for services, none of us would have expected that the next day, Osama Bin Laden would be dead. This week, the only thing we can talk about is the events of last Sunday, and what Osama bin Laden’s death means for us as a country, as a people, as a world.

It always amazes me how on weeks when major events happen, the Torah portion comes alive in a new way. You see in the Torah portion things that you never saw before. These passages were always there, but they now go straight to your heart as never before and reveal their wisdom. What I’d like to do today is simply share with you the connections that I see between this week’s portion and the events of this week, and the insights that the Torah offers us at this moment.

Osama bin Laden’s death is surely one of those moments that we’ll always remember where we were when we heard the news. Let me tell you where I was Sunday night. I was at home. I had just finished writing a eulogy for a man named Sam Tuchten, who was the grandfather of one of my husband’s coworkers. The cantor who was supposed to conduct the ceremony had fallen ill, so I had received a call Sunday morning, asking whether I could officiate at the funeral Monday morning. Sunday late afternoon, I met with the family, and then I went home to write the eulogy. When I finished writing the eulogy, I logged into my email to coordinate further with the bereaved family. My homepage when logging into the internet is CNN, so I saw the headline of Bin Laden's death. I noticed the headline and was surprised by it, but I was so focused on the funeral arrangements that I didn’t focus on it. I logged into my email, coordinated with the family, logged out and fell asleep – exhausted from the day and knowing that I had to officiate first thing in the morning. Only when I got home from the funeral Monday morning was I able to turn on the news and fully absorb what had happened.

I share this with you because the contrast between these two deaths was so striking. Sam Tuchten’s funeral was extraordinary. As funerals go, this one was as good as it gets. Sam had lived until age 94. He was blessed to be married for 70 years in a loving marriage. He had 5 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren. He’d recently had an aliyah at his great-grandson’s bar mitzvah. At the funeral, two of his grandsons spoke about all that their grandfather had taught them and how he had shaped them into the husbands, and fathers that they are. Sam had gone to minyan every day. When he was on dialysis for the last 6 years, he would go to dialysis three mornings a week, and he went to minyan on the other days. Sam wasn’t a saint; I’m sure he made mistakes along the way. Still, I had this feeling at the funeral that having one’s grandchildren say such beautiful things about you is all that one could possibly hope for in life. We should all do so well!

On the same day as Sam Tuchten’s funeral, was buried at sea the demonic mastermind of evil, mass murder, who devised all these attacks and fostered horrific ideology that supported these attacks. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Two men were given the gift of life. One lived it so honorably and humbly, and one so evil – that evil is too gentle a word to describe what he did.

I share this contrast with you because this week’s portion also presents such a stark juxtaposition. The parasha, called Emor (Speak), both begins and ends by talking about death and burial. The portion begins by offering instructions to priests about burying their relatives. In general, the priests who worked in the Temple were supposed to avoid ritual impurity (which was acquired by coming close to a dead body). Nevertheless, God specifies that the priest should make an exception for his closest relatives. In this potential conflict between work and your family, the Torah insists that family comes first. The Torah portion begins with an image that to me seems like Sam Tuchten’s funeral – close family members paying tribute to one another.

The portion concludes with the opposite image. In the end of the portion, a person who blasphemed God was taken into custody. God instructed Moses to take the blasphemer outside the camp, have the community stone him, and tell the people that whoever blasphemes God should be put to death. This image is the polar opposite of the one which began the portion – the priest attending to the funeral of his closest relatives. Here a blasphemer is being stoned to death by the whole community. The last part of the portion struck me as particularly poignant this week because in addition to being a mass murderer, Osama bin Laden was a blasphemer in the deepest sense of the word. Bin Laden said that the murders of innocent people were in God’s name, and he promoted that ideology throughout the world. He was a blasphemer of the highest magnitude.

As the portion begins and ends with these two polar opposite images, the portion also explains what they mean. The portion has one quote which recurs many times. קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם Be holy and don’t desecrate God’s name. The portion says this over and over again at the end of each paragraph. That’s what the Torah of this week boils down to.

I shared with you the beginning and end of the portion and this recurring slogan, but what’s in the middle of the portion? The middle of the portion addresses the cycle of the Jewish holidays.

I thought this too was particularly fitting for this week. I read that for years there’s been a well known joke that a soothsayer tells Osama Bin Laden that he will die on a Jewish holiday. Osama asked: Which one? The soothsayer responded: “Whenever you die, it will be a Jewish holiday.”

It’s fitting that Osama bin Laden did actually die on a Jewish holiday. Surely there could have been no more appropriate holiday for him to die on – than on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Yom Hashoah is when we recall the needless murder of innocent lives and commit ourselves to Never Again – to stand up against the murder of innocent lives and bring murderers to justice. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal center, noted that Sunday’s date was also the same date that Hitler’s death was announced in 1945.

It’s fitting too that Osama didn’t die on Purim, Pesach, or on any jubilant day – but rather on a somber day – of reflection and rededication to the principle of sanctity of human life—precisely the opposite of what Osama stood for.

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about how to react to this news. Are we supposed to be celebratory or somber? Our tradition includes two contradictory answers. One the one hand, the Bible records celebration upon an enemy’s death. In Exodus, Miriam, Moses, and the people sing and dance after the Egyptians are drowned in the Red Sea. In the weekly Torah readings, this reading is coupled with the haftorah from the book of Judges wherein Deborah and Barak sing after Sisera, the Cannanite commander is killed and his armies are defeated. Proverbs 11:10 states: “when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.”

However, a few chapters later, Proverbs says the opposite. Proverbs 24:17 asserts: “Do not rejoice over the fall of your enemies.” The Talmudic rabbis also wrote midrashim (stories) which evince discomfort with rejoicing over the downfall of enemies. In The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, God rebuked the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptian army was caught in the receding waters after the splitting of the Red Sea. God said ‘How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the Sea?’ (Rabbi Jonathan Klein noted this week that God is rebuking the angels in that midrash, not the people for dancing.) This discomfort is symbolized poignantly in the Passover seder by removing drops of wine from our cups when reciting the plagues to commemorate the suffering of the Egyptions.

In noting this debate within the sources and between rabbis this week, I had this feeling of ‘you’re both right.’ On the one hand, the downfall of the wicked is cause for celebration because it makes the world safer in the long-term. We have to be vigilant in eliminating terrorists, and their demise is cause for joy. But that celebration only masks a deeper sadness that terrorists waste their life on this earth by destroying others. So Bin Laden fittingly died on Yom Hashoah; the intense somberness of this week between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (the day of Remembrance of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror) is the mood which is under the celebration.

If you ask the question whether we should celebrate the death of a murderer, then you’re already on the right page. Regardless of how you answer that question, if you ask it, then you already know that evil is real and that life is precious –which is the message of this week’s Torah portion and of the Torah as a whole.

I’ll conclude with a prayer – since these are times for prayers more than for sermons.

May we live in a world where all people follow the principles of decency that Sam Tuchten stood for rather than those that Osama Bin Laden fostered. We pray for the spread of democracy throughout world. May the Pharoahs of the world continue to fall before the courage of those who risk their lives for freedom. May the voices of moderation overpower the voices of extremism; may the voices of peace overpower the voices of terror. May we live to see a time when all people have internalized the words of your Torah: קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם
Be holy and don’t desecrate God’s holy name.
And let us say amen.

An Offering of Wholeness

Last week, my family and I went to Souplantation for dinner. While we were eating, a colleague, Rabbi Morley Feinstein, came over to our table to say hello. He approached my then three-year-old daughter and asked her, “Is there a rabbi around here?” She looked at him puzzled. He responded, “Your mommy is a rabbi.” She responded, “All mommies are rabbis.”

I started to correct Hannah. I explained that mommies could be rabbis or lawyers or doctors or anything they wanted to be. But Morley understood her statement differently. He agreed with her: “You’re right: all mommies are rabbis.”

For each biblical figure, the rabbis had a one word nickname or title. For example, Abraham is commonly called: “Abraham, our father.” Joseph is called, “Joseph the righteous.’ Moses is called: “Moses, our rabbi.” The rabbis considered Moses the model of the quintessential rabbi. Why? All of the patriarchs and matriarchs are spiritual teachers. What did Moses do that was the essence of what they aspired to as rabbis?

This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The project of building the tabernacle and the tent of meeting which consumed the last third of the book of Exodus is now concluded. In this opening portion, God instructs Moses what to teach the people to do in a range of situations. Moses teaches the people how to make sacrifices to atone for intentional and unintentional mistakes and how to bring offerings of wholeness in times of joy. Moses was the prototypical rabbi by teaching the people how to grapple with moments of anguish and celebration.

In reflecting on Hannah’s statement, I realized that’s exactly what parents do too. After the destruction of the temple, each home was considered a mikdash me’at (a small sanctuary). Indeed, parents make a home – a safe place for their children to grow. Within that space, they teach how to reconcile after making mistakes and how to celebrate life.

This Sunday was my daughter’s fourth birthday party. Together, she and I made a Dora the Explorer cake. We made the cake Thursday afternoon, decorated it Saturday night, and served it to her classmates on Sunday. In Vayikra (Leviticus), Moses instructed that the Sh’lamim (wholeness) offering which was given in times of joy was supposed to be eaten that day or the following day or else it needed to be discarded on the third day. This stipulation encouraged the donor to invite many friends to join in the celebration. Likewise, Hannah’s birthday cake was an “offering of wholeness” to celebrate another year of her life.

Being a rabbi (or clergy-person) is one of the most respected professions in our society.
Unfortunately, being a “home-maker” or “stay-at home” parent seems to be one of the least-respected jobs. (Indeed, this profession even lacks a good title.) In some ways, clergy and parent seem to be polar-opposite roles. Leading a congregation is a high-profile position, involving lots of public speaking and dealing with hundreds of people. Being a parent is a largely private affair, without much of an audience, focusing intensely on a few precious souls.

Yet the essential task of clergy and parents is the same. Both teach people how to face times of joy and sorrow; and both create sacred spaces where God can be found.

Hannah was right. All mommies and daddies are rabbis.