Sweet and Sour

           I am totally out of sync.

            The Jewish calendar sets aside certain times of year for joy and others for sadness. In late winter, the month of Adar ushers in a time of celebration. However, this past year a string of familial illnesses and problems began on the first day of Adar and continued through the spring. The happiest time of the year for me was a fun-filled summer spent with my children – which coincided with the month of Av on the Jewish calendar during which Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This fall, “zman simchatenu,” the time of the joyous holiday of Sukkot coincided with a new period of sadness for our family – as my step-grandmother was hospitalized. I feel intense emotional dissonance. What do you do when you feel like dancing on Tisha B’av and mourning on Simchat Torah?
            In this week’s Torah portion, Noah and his family must have felt an overwhelming mix of emotions. After the flood, they must have felt tremendous loss at the scope of the destruction, yet also relief that the flood finally ended, offering them a new chance at life. Once the flood concluded, God forged a brit, a covenant with Noah and his sons, along with their descendents (i.e. all humanity) and all living creatures. The covenant elaborates responsibilities for humanity to keep key commandments (including not committing murder), and God promising never to flood the world again.
            This first brit between God and humanity foreshadows the second brit that God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants in next week’s Torah portion. This second covenant includes more commandments for the Jewish people to keep and more promises by God. As Jews, we are subject to three different covenants – the one with all humanity, the one with the Jewish people, and the one we make with our family.
            Each of these covenants has emotions that go along with our responsibilities, which do not necessarily overlap. We may experience familial joy during the Jewish season of mourning. Conversely, a familial tragedy can occur on a joyful Jewish holiday, as can a horrific event in the world – such as the shooting in Nairobi that happened during Sukkot. In such moments our emotions are mixed. We experience discord between how we feel as a person or as a family member and as a Jew at that moment.
            Our tradition recognizes emotional conflicts and symbolically represents them. On Shabbat, salt is placed on the challah to remind us of the sadness that accompanies celebration. Likewise, a glass is broken under the wedding canopy to signify that even at our happiest moments, our joy is inherently incomplete. Somehow at joyous times, we are even more aware of the passage of time. We wish such moments could last forever, and we know that they can’t.
            Perhaps then the emotional dissonance that I’ve been experiencing is an inevitable bi-product of the blessings of being in multiple covenants – connected to family, community and all humanity. While synchronicity between these realms is not always possible, we can hope that joy in one realm can offer some comfort for sorrows in another.

Passing the Baton

            “Who is coming for dinner this week?” My nine-year-old son Jeremy asked.
“Dror and his family and Rachel and her family are coming because they’re becoming rabbis next week, so we’re going to celebrate.”
“Okay,” Jeremy said and walked away.
I was struck by how unremarkable what I had said seemed to my son. He knows that Dror is married to David, and it would never occur to him that this fact could possibly hinder his becoming a rabbi. By contrast, I remember nervously waiting one spring, six years ago to hear whether the Conservative movement’s committee of Jewish Law and Standards would decide to admit homosexual students into the rabbinical school, so that I could write Dror’s letter of recommendation. Dror had given me the form for the letter just in case, and I put it in my desk drawer for months as we waited for the ruling to come. I remember the moment of joy when I got to take the form out of the drawer and write that letter; it felt like a miracle.
To Jeremy, though, the idea of a man married to a man as a rabbi is as natural as the fact that his mother is a rabbi – which was a possible for me but unthinkable for my mother’s generation. Likewise, my kids didn’t understand what a big deal it was when Barak Obama was elected President. They enjoyed the excitement of watching the states being called for each candidate and then hearing the announcement that Obama had won a second term. Yet, they couldn’t comprehend the historical significance of the moment because it never occurred to them that skin color could possibly be an impediment to becoming president.
I remember as a child, my brother once teasing me that he was better than me because he could be President and I couldn’t. I retorted that he couldn’t be President either because he’s Jewish. He agreed, and the conversation moved on. Both of us understood as a given that one had to be male and Christian to be President. Fast forward twenty five years, and I remember crying as I held my infant daughter in my arms and voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary because I never imagined that I would be able to vote for a woman for President. I hope to live to see a woman President and then for my daughter, it will be a given that a woman can lead this nation.
The hard-fought victories of one generation feel natural and normal to the next. With each new child, the world gets a fresh chance at redemption.
This interchange with my son shed light on one of the Torah’s greatest enigmas. In the Torah portion of Hukkat (rules), when the people complained about lacking water, God told Moses to take the rod, assemble the community, and speak to the rock to produce water from the rock. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation, and Moses said, ‘Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He hit the rock twice, and water flowed from it. God then told Moses and Aaron that since they didn’t trust God enough, they won’t lead the people into the Promised Land.
Commentators for centuries have been puzzled by this story. What precisely was their mistake? Was the problem the words that they used or in striking the rock? Why were Moses and Aaron punished so severely for a seemingly small error?
Some modern commentators note that God had previously asked Moses to hit a rock to elicit water, which had worked well in the past. Perhaps then, Moses’ mistake was in using a prior approach rather than listening to precisely what God wanted from him in the moment. According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, God’s response shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment, but rather “a recognition that their time of leadership was over,” and it was time for a new generation to take the helm.
No matter how great the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the role of being head of the community or High Priest (like President or rabbi) is a temporary job. Only a generation born into freedom would be ready to take on the next set of battles of settling the Promised Land. Liberation is a relay race.
In the end, I wonder if Moses and Aaron saw the conclusion of their service as a punishment or rather if they were filled with pride to watch Joshua who they had mentored grow into leadership. I imagine they felt more joy than regret.
Although I can’t know for sure how they felt, I know that’s how I feel. This year I had the extraordinary opportunity to mentor Dror’s chevruta (study-partner) Rachel, a senior rabbinical student, wife, daughter, and mother, as she prepares for the rabbinate. I shared with her lessons I learned both from my successes and struggles as a rabbi and a mom. I hope that I can help her go further in the rabbinate than me by giving her a head start and awareness of a few pitfalls to avoid along the way.
I realized that the evening on which she and Dror will be ordained is the Hebrew date of my fortieth birthday. Forty is an important number in the Torah. Noah’s family and the animals were in the ark for forty days; the people journeyed in the desert for forty years. Forty represents the completion of a significant journey. Personally, I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate my birthday than to watch Dror and Rachel be ordained and to listen to Dror give the commencement address.
As I appreciate the historical significance of the moment, I’m glad for now that my children, Rachel’s child, and Dror and David’s child don’t. I hope they won’t know the heartache of fearing one’s gender or sexual orientation may be an impediment to their dreams. Then they can take us on the next leg of the journey and truly enter the Promised Land.

In the Groove

This winter break, one of the greatest joys has been watching my kids learn to ice skate. My husband grew up in Israel where there were no winter sports. He tried to learn to skate once or twice as an adult without success. In contrast, I grew up skating each winter in Washington DC.  As a result, I knew that if I wanted my kids to ice skate, it was up to me to teach them.

Earlier this winter, I took my five-year-old daughter Hannah to an ice skating birthday. She went from holding both of my hands during skating to only one. Over winter break, I took her skating again. As a few weeks had elapsed, Hannah felt uneasy at first but soon remembered how to skate while holding only one of my hands. Towards the end of the session, she succeeded in skating around on her own. 

By happenstance, my folks invited us to ice skating the very next day.  Hannah then really got the hang of it. Since it had only been one day later, Hannah didn’t have time to forget what she had learned the day before. Skating came smoothly and easily to her, and she skated on her own the whole time. Hannah was so proud of herself, and I was thrilled to watch her skate with confidence. Even the rink staff member noticed, and said, “Look at you go!” 

This week’s Torah portion recounts the beginning of a major change for the Jewish people, as they begin to move from slavery to freedom. Moses conveys God’s request that Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me.” Following God’s instructions, Moses explains to Pharaoh that they need to travel for three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to God.

God’s plan here is curious. Why three days? God wants the people to leave slavery permanently – not just for a weekend! Like a good negotiator, did God encourage Moses to ask for three days because that is the most time Pharaoh might accept?

Or perhaps, like a good educator, God understood that the people need to enjoy three consecutive days of freedom to get the hang of it. Once they had a sustained experience of freedom, then they would never be able to go back to slavery. Perhaps, God knew that three consecutive times is the charm. 

I recently read an article in The Los Angeles Times by a woman named Corinna Nicolaou, who called herself a “none.” She used this descriptor because, “that’s what pollsters call Americans who respond on national surveys to the question, ‘What is your religious affiliation?’ with a single word: “None.” Corrinna was raised without religious affiliation, but this year, she wants to make a change. She looked in the “Worship Directory” of her local paper, and for her New Year’s resolution, she decided to visit each congregation.

When I read the article, I was impressed by Corinna’s openness to try new experiences and embark on a spiritual search. How brave of her to seek as an adult something she missed as a child! Yet, I wondered whether her approach would work. In the column, she didn’t specify whether she would visit each congregation once, or more often. As with ice skating and freedom, one day is not enough to learn the sport of worship. Following God’s advice in this week’s parasha, she may want to consider attending each congregation for three consecutive visits to get past the initial awkwardness of a new setting and become familiar with the melodies and the people.

I saw this phenomenon at work in my congregation. One day a young woman (named Jalzalla) came to visit the synagogue. At first, she sat alone, not knowing anyone. She seemed a little out of place, as she was about sixty years younger than most of the congregants who regularly attended. She came again the following week, and a lady came to sit next to her and showed her how to follow along in the prayer book. As she came to services week after week, Jalzalla became closer to the ladies. When Jalzalla eventually decided to convert to Judaism, the ladies bought her a necklace with the Hebrew name she chose and cheered her on as she was called to the Torah for the first time. By coming week after week, she got into the groove of the community.

The experience of ice skating reminded me that while we can learn new tricks at any age, some skills are more easily acquired as children. I wondered: what activities do I want to be in my children’s repertoire before they leave home? (Maybe next year, we should try skiing!) When it comes to winter sports, sacred community, or freedom, I’m grateful that we won’t be “none”s.