The Angel's Cry

This morning, I turned on CNN for a few minutes to catch up on the day’s events. The program showed pictures of the teachers and students murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary school whose funerals were being held today. The reporter then offered the latest update on the investigation at the gunman’s home. Finally, the newscaster said that after commercials they will have a segment on bullet proof backpacks that kids can wear to protect themselves when in school.
            ‘Good God!’ I thought. ‘What has this world come to?’ I’m supposed to be writing a speech for a baby naming that I’m conducting next week. But how do you welcome an innocent, new life into such a world – where kids need to wear bulletproof backpacks to school?!
            This coming week’s Torah portion is called Vayechi which means “And he lived.” The Torah portion which concludes the book of Genesis, describes the deaths of Jacob, and later Joseph. Yet the portion refuses to be named or defined by death; rather itemphasizes life.  Similarly, the Torah portion which describes Sarah’s death is called, Chaye Sarah: “The Life of Sarah.” In both accounts, the quality of the person’s life is emphasized, rather than their death. These titles echo God’s words in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live.”
An ancient Jewish group at Qumran understood life as a battle between the forces of death and darkness and those of life and light. That’s what life feels like nowadays. As wreaths and teddy bears pour into Sandy Hook, people are trying to bring any kind of light and love after the death and destruction that was brought to that community and to the whole country.
One small ray of light that came out of the massacre is that there now seems to be an awakening happening. In addiction work, people often talk about hitting “rock bottom” – the lowest point within a person’s life where they decide they have to change. It feels like we’ve hit rock bottom as a country, and have realized that our laws, which fail to prevent murder, and our culture, which glorifies violence, must change. My inbox fills with petitions from every conceivable group calling for common sense gun laws. From Obama on down, every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, and teacher, has been weeping, hugging the kids in their lives a little tighter and feeling a call to action.
Issues that seemed unfixable – causes that seemed politically unfeasible – suddenly seem like they must and will change, if we come together. We hear the call of the angel of God, who when Isaac was bound on the altar with a knife to his throat screamed to Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do any harm to him.” We’ve finally decided to heed God’s call and choose life.
In one loud voice, the souls of the entire country are crying out the prayer with which Jacob blessed his son Joseph before his death, a prayer that is recited at bedtime by Jews all over the world: “Hamalach ha-goel oti mi-kol ra, yivarech at hanearim: May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the children.”

The Bedtime Question

“Why does Abbah (Dad) want to listen to Israeli radio so much?” My eight year old son Jeremy asked me as I was tucking my five year old daughter Hannah into bed.
Oh no, I thought. I had hoped to avoid this conversation. I had hoped to spare my children from worrying about our family in Israel and my daughter’s best friend who is in Jerusalem for the semester. But the kids could tell something was up.
            “There are some problems in Israel now.” I began gently.
            “What kind of problems?” Jeremy asked.
            “Some fighting,” I said. Jeremy kept asking questions, so I explained that there are some rockets being fired into Israel and Israel is trying to shoot down the rockets before they hit the ground. (I tried to offer as G-rated an explanation of the recent events as possible).  
Then, Hannah asked, “Are rockets going to fall here?”
“No,” I reassured here. I thought of my cousins and friends in Israel who aren’t able to offer their children such an unequivocal reassurance of their safety.
            This week’s Torah portion echoes the fear that those parents felt. The portion begins with Jacob poised to meet his brother Esau from whom he had fled twenty years earlier fearing that Esau would murder him after Jacob tricked him out of his father’s blessing. Jacob learned that Esau is coming along with four hundred men, and “Jacob was very afraid and was distressed.” Bereshit Rabbah explains that two verbs used for his fear indicate that he had dual fears. He was afraid that Esau would kill him and distressed that he might be forced to kill his brother in self-defense.
            Jacob prepared for the impending confrontation in three ways. He geared up for battle by dividing his family and entourage into two separate camps – (so that even if one group were attacked, then the other group would survive). He also sent Esau a large group of animals as a gift – hoping that diplomacy would avert a military clash. Finally, he prayed and wrestled with a mysterious stranger (or angel) through the night.
            Fortunately, the anxiety-provoking encounter between Jacob and Esau did not lead to violence, but rather to an embrace. Jacob told his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”        
            Reading this story in light of recent events in Israel and Gaza, I felt a number of parallels. After the kids were in bed that night, my husband and I watched Israeli television which had several powerful segments. The first was by a military commander who explained and showed the recent technological advances in weaponry that Israel was using in response to the rockets coming into Israel to target Hamas’s operations while trying to avoid civilian casualties. He showed how the person aiming the missile at a Hamas target can redirect the missile if any civilians enter its range. He quoted the Mishnah’s famous saying that anyone who kills a person, it is as if they “destroyed an entire world.” He explained that this appreciation for the sanctity of each human life is such a central part of Israeli culture that many strikes are cancelled or averted at the last moment to spare civilians. He explained that errors will occur but when they happen, they will be assessed to learn what can be done better to spare civilians.
            Jacob’s two-fold fear – both of being killed and killing others – was readily apparent in the commander’s words. The general conveyed the ability of recognizing the other as also created in God’s image – which Jacob expressed to Esau when they reconciled.
            The news also had two other interviews – one with an older man in Ashkelon who kept his bakery open despite the rocket-fire. He explained that his son was called up into the army, but he continued working to provide for his family. He said he hoped for “quiet.”
            The other segment was an interview with an attorney also in Ashkelon who was staying home with his family and had only gone to the grocery store to get some food. He explained that although his kids were afraid, he was trying to look on the bright side and use the week as an unusual opportunity to spend lots of time with his family. He mentioned that because both he and his wife are lawyers and normally very busy, now that they were home with their kids (since the schools and offices were closed), they had an opportunity to play cards, talk and reconnect.
            I was struck by the resilience and perseverance of these families. Like Jacob they prepared for the worst but prayed for the best. Even in the crisis, their actions reflected their deepest values.
            I am not so naive to believe the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas will end in mutual embrace, the way that Jacob and Esau’s encounter did. Nonetheless, I hope for “quiet” – so that the bakery shop owner can sell his food in peace, and that the lawyer couple can find other ways of having quality time with their kids. Most of all, I pray for a world in which no child has to ask: “Are rockets going to fall here, Mom?”

The Piano

            As dance class was about to begin, I struck up a conversation with my friend Dana, who was trying the class for the first time. “You’re going to love this class,” I told her, and  explained how I’ve been enjoying these classes for the past couple months. I haven’t danced frequently since college, but now I’m getting back into it. 
In January, I attended a dance class by accident. Sara, the mother of a child in my daughter’s preschool, invited us to a Chanukah dance jam which I thought was for children. As it turned out, the session was for adults, and I enjoyed it so much that I ended up going to Sara’s classes regularly. On days when I take the dance class, I feel more energetic and upbeat for the rest of the day and focused when I’m with the kids. I feel a bit funny about spending time and money on myself, but dancing is so uplifting that it’s worth it.
            Dana explained that she had studied piano when she was younger. She has wanted to buy a piano for years but other expenses always take precedence. She’s been thinking that since playing piano for fifteen minutes each day will relax her and make her a better mom then it might be an important priority after all. Dana explained that she noticed that around age forty a lot of women are finding or rediscovering their passions, and it’s exciting to see. Some friends are going back to school; others are changing careers or pursuing new hobbies.
This week’s portion contains a reiteration of the famous commandment to honor our parents. A central chapter of the Torah called the Holiness Code begins with a broad proclamation of principle: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am holy.” The very next line offers the first specific instruction on how to achieve that goal: “Each person shall respect their mother and father…”
Perhaps in addition to honoring our parents, we also need to respect what makes us better parents. This spring I’m taking that commandment more seriously.
With both my step-mother and mother-in-law living locally, Mother’s Day is normally a very busy day for our family. On Mother’s Day, I typically have lunch with my step-mother and dinner with my mother-in-law – making sure to call my grandmother in Connecticut and step-grandmother in New York between meals. Fittingly, the anniversary of my mother’s death falls on the day before mother’s day this year, so l said kaddish (the memorial prayer) for her at synagogue yesterday. 
This Mother’s day, I’m making one change in the usual plan. Before heading off to pay tribute to my “mothers,” I started the day off with a dance class.
Each one of us has things that can help us be more patient with our kids and more passionate in our activities. This mother’s day, in addition to honoring our parents, let’s also honor what we need to be great parents and vivacious people.
I hope that Dana decides to get her piano soon. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be dancing.

The Gifts We Make

My son recently celebrated his eighth birthday, and I spent the few days prior to his party baking the birthday cake. On Friday, I bought ingredients and on Saturday night I baked a rectangular cake as well as a circular one. On Sunday, I decorated the cake. First, I made white, red and black frosting. I then shaped the rectangular cake into a bowling pin and frosted it accordingly — even adding a red liquorish for the stripes of the pin and black liquorish for the bottom. I frosted and decorated the circular cake as a bowling ball to accompany the pin.

I don't cook much in general, and I'm not an artsy kind of person. But for some reason, for my kids' birthdays, I become obsessed and feel compelled to make elaborate cakes. Every year, my husband asks: Why can't we just buy a cake from the store? Wouldn't that be easier? He's right; it would be far simpler to buy a cake (which would take about 10 minutes rather than three days). However, my mom always baked our cakes with us as children, and even though baking the cake takes longer, I can't imagine doing it any other way.

In this week's Torah portion, the Jewish people also embark on a consuming art project. In the parasha, God gives extensive instructions on how to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which housed the ark and the tablets during the forty-year desert trek. These detailed architectural plans fill nearly the entire last third of the book of Exodus. Thirteen chapters of the Torah are devoted to this topic. By contrast, the creation of the world takes only two chapters!

The instructions for making the tabernacle are incredibly specific and frankly tedious to read. Why then does the Torah devote so much attention to this topic?

The reason God gives in Exodus is: "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (a 19th century Hasidic master) noted that God did not say, ‘that I may dwell in it' meaning in the sanctuary, but rather "that I may dwell among them," – among the people. Kotsk explained that each person should build a sanctuary in their heart for God to dwell there.

The reason the Torah devotes so much attention to the mishkan construction is the same as why I feel compelled to bake the birthday cake each year. When cooking with my children, we create a kind of magic. The joy of the birthday begins not on the day of the party but in the anticipation of baking together. It's my way to thank God for another year of life.

Likewise, after fleeing Egypt and entering the covenant at Mount Sinai, the people needed to do an art project for God. They longed to thank God for the covenant -- not through words but by making something beautiful. They yearned to express their gratitude for their precious freedom and newfound relationship with the divine.

When we were finally done with the three day cake ordeal, my son turned to me and said, "Wow, Mom, it looks like a real bowling pin and ball!" At that moment, I smiled and knew that all the effort was worth it. I imagine that my mom and God were smiling, too, from above.

Praying Feet

Last week, I went to a dance class which differed from any I had previously taken. What was unusual to me about the class was the setting. Rather than being held in a dance studio, the class took place in the living room of an orthodox family. The living room was emptied of all furniture to make space for the class. The sidewall of the room was wall-to-wall bookshelves filled entirely with sefarim, sacred books – the Torah, biblical commentaries, law codes, and books of musar (ethics). On the central wall, the only decoration was a large picture of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavicher Rebbe, many of whose followers believe to have been the messiah.

The ladies at the class were warm and welcoming. The instructor was fantastic. However, I must admit that I felt a little funny doing butt lifts and shaking my hips with the picture of the rabbi with his long white beard and black hat, staring down at me. I was struck by the contrast between the men on the walls and the women filling the room with movement. I wondered what all the rabbis whose words filled the sacred texts on the wall would think of our gyrations.

This week’s Torah portion, in the book of Exodus – recounts the cataclysmic shift from slavery toward liberation. I felt connected to the Torah portion because like the Israelites, I began to feel freer than I have felt in a long time. With some professional projects behind me and the kids in school, I have a little time to myself – more than I’ve had for years. I thought this freedom would feel fantastic, but mostly it feels peculiar.

My first response to this freedom was to seek out movement. At risk of sounding like a cliché, my resolution for the secular New Year was to get in shape. After years of a sedentary lifestyle, I’m eager to fix into my schedule set times for exercise. I’ve been going to the gym for a while but I feel that a fixed class time would help me become more consistent about a healthier lifestyle. In discussing Jewish prayer and Torah study, the rabbis set forth twin concepts of kevah (routine) and kavannah (intention). They discuss how routine in study and prayer is essential to convert plan into action. The same paradigm can be applied to exercise. I need a bit more kevah (routine) to go with my kavannah (good intentions).

For me, exercise has become a religious practice of sorts – a way of caring for my body, as a gift from God. Yet, this dance class had an additional dimension. After marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I felt my feet were praying.” I would describe this class in the same way. Although at first, I felt funny about dancing with the sefarim beside me, I soon came to feel that the rabbis in the books understood. After all, what was the first thing that the Israelites did to celebrate their freedom after crossing the Red Sea? Miriam the prophetess took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.

Reflecting on MLK’s birthday, I came to feel that the rabbis and biblical heroes whose stories lined the walls were somehow dancing along with us in spirit – swirling through the room with us across time and space, celebrating freedom by singing as Miriam did, “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously.” Together, our feet were praying!