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Monday, December 9, 2013

My first drash of Rabbinical School

            Last Sunday December 1st, I delivered my first drash as a rabbinical student on the Torah portion וַיִּגַּשׁ (Vayigash). I delivered it during Mincha (afternoon) services led by my friend Max, who themed his service around discovering who we each are as Jews. It is a very unique experience delivering a drash to a room full of other rabbinical, cantorial, and education students. It gives you the ability to really reflect on the work we are all doing here together as a group, which is the main theme of the drash. Thought I should share it. Sorry it is a bit as we have now moved onto the next parsha. 

Hope you all enjoy! 

This week’s portion is Vayigash, when Joseph reveals to his brothers his true identity after so many years of separation. There are many different ways to look at this portion and today I want to look at the idea of brothers in the Torah and the evolution of a responsibility for others.  Let’s take a brief run through of the brothers in Genesis; and the idea of a brother’s keeper. From Cain and Abel we see fratricide! The bar isn’t set exceptionally high to begin...Next let us look at Jacob and Eisaw, with fear of fratricide as Jacob runs for his life.  Lastly we have the sons of Jacob who contemplate fratricide as the fate of their brother Joseph before ultimately deciding to sell him into slavery. This brings us to Vayigash and the dramatic switch in this chain of fraternal conflict. 

The Torah shows us the magnitude of this transformation of brother relations through the connection of the word Vayigash. Vayigash, meaning approach, appears 7 times weeks earlier in the portion Toldot, the story of Jacob and Eisaw. While we read this week’s portion we are intended to think back to the story of Jacob and Eisaw and see the transformation into a different situation in which each brother is willing to sacrifice for the other. As Benjamin is being framed for thievery Judah makes a proclamation begging to take him instead, that losing Benjamin would be too painful for his father after he was the only remaining son of his favored wife Rachel.

וְעַתָּה יֵשֶׁב-נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי וְהַנַּעַר יַעַל עִם-אֶחָיו.

Please take me as a slave instead of Benjamin and let him return with his brothers.

This is big news in the Torah as it is the first time in our narrative that a brother has been willing to sacrifice his own life for another brother. Here Joseph makes the decision of peace due to his brother Judah’s actions as a response to an intimate test of t’shuva. Once revealing his true identity Joseph then explains how his role as an individual was God’s will for the sake of their family and to not dwell on their past together. 

וְעַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל-יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה  כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים 

Do not cause stress or frustrations on yourselves for selling me into slavery; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.

Jill Hammer, a Rabbi and faculty member of The Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles says that: This new ability Judah has to empathize, to see the world from another’s point of view, is what convinces Joseph that the family is ready to have him as a member again. Finally, Joseph is able to say: “I am Joseph.”  When each of us is willing to truly hear what another feels, we too allow the hidden to emerge. Joseph is hiding in plain site until he feels his brothers are ready to perceive him. By showing empathy and communal value we too make it possible for others to show their true person. 

Rashi suggests a different concept completely, in that each brother would blame the others for having sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph, understanding how guilt manifests, anticipated his brothers' need to blame each other, and he therefore instructs them not to engage in such discourse about the past. Basically Joseph tells his brothers that their actions were not in their control and they cannot change what happened rather simply now live in the present despite their past for a positive future.  
These two pieces of advice are no less accurate in today’s world. To give others the ability to know our feelings provides a platform for better social interactions and communal responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone. This pairs very well with the notion which Rashi eludes to of moving forward, disregarding the small problems which only create drama and focusing on something greater. Ridding ourselves of petty jealousy and unhealthy competition, allows us to embrace teamwork and communal responsibility. I see these points especially valid when I consider the journey of my own community in Jerusalem as first year students with HUC. The values which are strongest in this community are integrity and social responsibility, helping each other to progress as chevruta in and out of classes to become qualified Jewish leaders. Unlike the brothers before, in this week’s portion there there is no benefit to climbing over other students. There is no real importance to what class level you are in, who wrote your recommendation letters, or how often you alone achieve success. What matters is the process of communal growth and achievements of many. For example any one student passing their big midterm is the means to the more important outcome of the collaborative effort of a group of students working together in preparation for the exam to ensure success as a kehillah (community). Exactly like Judah makes evident in his willing sacrifice for Benjamin, understanding Benjamin's importance to his father; each student brings about different resources to help the community grow.
Joseph and his brothers shared a moment that made their bumpy and dark past obsolete. The importance of a family and support system was reinstated immediately and provides the Jewish People with a context of how to understand and value the role of family. Each moment is never as important as the big picture; at HUC the goal is establishing a cohort of future leaders, not simply the completion of an individual's ordination. Much like Hillel's concept of the candles growing in number and intensity each night, we too will shine brightest together. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

An Unexpected Transformation

       I have been in Jerusalem for four months and only now am I able to write my first blog entry of the year. Maybe I didn’t know exactly how to start this process, or maybe nothing felt important or interesting enough that I simply couldn’t forward from a classmates’ blog. Seven weeks ago I began a process that has changed my outlook on my rabbinical school journey and will impact the rest of my life. 

     Seven weeks ago my grandfather became very ill and, for the second time in my life, I found myself across the world while a loved one was sick. I made sure I was in constant contact with my family, aware of the possibility that Jen and I would need to travel home. We ultimately did, and after ten days of my grandfather being in a coma, he was peacefully transitioned into an eternal rest September 23rd. Just a few short days later, Jen and I returned to Israel where I was going to continue the observance of shloshim, the thirty days following the loss of a loved one observed by saying Kaddish (a prayer in honor of the passing of a loved one) and showing signs of morning (i.e. not shaving my face, etc.). This brings me to my journey of transformation, which, until such an event like losing a loved one happens, you would never otherwise see this pinnacle point of clarity. 
      Over the course of the month I discovered three crucial things, all at different moments. The first was the truly supportive nature of my classmates and professors. This program is a community, a safe place that, in my experience, has promoted raw honesty and expression of emotion. I am truly fortunate to have a group here in Israel who I can be vulnerable with and grow as a person. In this supportive environment I was able to redefine what I wanted shloshim to mean for me. The observance of shloshim allowed me to avoid the reality of my loss and instead, gave me the opportunity to reflect on the great times, the memories of my grandfather that have led me to this point in life. Simultaneously, I found my own interpretation of the idea of observing shloshim. Shloshim pushed me each day to examine the qualities of my grandfather, which were now somehow going to be lost to this world.  Rather than settle on this idea, I discovered ways in which I could improve my character, grow to embody these attributes and continue their function in this world without my grandfather. This was a huge struggle for me.

It brought me comfort knowing all that was Ed Sher would continue through those people that he had shaped and molded. I was consoled with the idea that sad moments in our lives have a potential to bring about necessary and promising change in ones character.

This leads me to my last stage of this experience. The shloshim ending really had an impact on me. To be honest, that Thursday morning’s events completely altered the direction I had intended this blog to go. During Shacharit that morning (morning prayer service) my pattern of not emotionally accepting his passing was shattered. Led by classmates Max Chaiken and Laura Stein, I found myself in an experience I had not prepared for when I realized it was the final day of shloshim for my grandfather. Their beautiful execution of the service, including their added reflections, helped cultivate a space that caught me off guard and forced me to deeply reflect of my last month and the result of the shloshim. 

Another classmate, Julie Schnur, gave a drash about how heirlooms are simply an object, and therefore nothing more than a material object. More importantly, she explained, the presence of the person the object is from gives the object it’s meaning (talk about good timing for my personal experience). Prior to the Mourner’s Kaddish, we first listened to Max and Laura lead us in a song about the loss of a loved one. I started to choke up, even more so once I began to recite the Kaddish for the last time in this shloshim. After services ended I thanked Max and Laura for leading the service and Julie for the wonderful drash, I went home. I knew that because of the overpowering rush of emotions, I could not sit in class and be productive at all. When I got home, I wept, deeply and with full emotion. 

Until this tefillah, I had yet to cry at all. Even after sitting in the hospital for two weeks at my grandfather’s bedside, staying at my grandmother’s house the night of my grandfather’s passing, attending the funeral, and the endless, emotional conversations with my family, I did not cry. I saw others during their time of mourning and felt my need to be strong. I had not wept or accepted the emotional idea that I was not going to see my grandfather again and that all of my future accomplishments were now in his honor as opposed to sharing these experiences with him. 

        I thank God that I observed the shloshim, despite my understanding that this was not mandated according to Jewish law. Without this experience I may have never cried otherwise. Life moves quickly and if not for the constant reminder of my unshaven face and my deterring from normal practice by standing for the Mourner’s Kaddish, life may have pushed me right along. However, that Thursday’s Shacharit gave me the opportunity I clearly needed to accept the notion that the world lost a great man last month and I lost a piece of who I was. I needed to cry and let emotion take control of me, even just for a few minutes. Accompanying the thought of losing a piece of me, I know I have gained insight and character of the man I strive to be, my grandfather Ed Sher.

(Jennifer and I with my grandpa at his 85th birthday)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Thanks Google Maps for the Adventure!

Carly, one of Daniel’s classmate’s wives and also ironically Daniel’s senior prom date, and I attempted to go to the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens Thursday afternoon to practice using our insanely complicated cameras. We mapped it out on our iPhones and it seemed like a pretty easy trek. Halfway through our walk we approached the entrance sign to Me’a She’arim, an ultra orthodox Haredi neighborhood and also the second settlement outside the walls of the Old City. I was wearing jean shorts and a loose fitting top with sleeves that hit right above my elbow. Carly was wearing jeans, flip-flops and a short-sleeved shirt. I knew there was no way we could enter Me’a She’arim dressed like this out of respect for the inhabitants and for our own safety and that we would have to go around.

The "modesty" sign at the entrance of Me'a She'arim. It says: "Groups passing through our neighborhoods severely offend the residents. Please stop this. To women & girls who pass through our neighborhood. We beg you with all our hearts. Please do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothes. Modest clothes include: closed blouse, with long sleeves, long skirt - no trousers, no tight-fitting clothes. Please do not disturb the sanctity of our neighborhood, and our way of life as Jews committed to G-D and his torah." When we showed Eric, Carly's husband,  this photo, he noticed how someone covered up the Hebrew spelling of Me'a She'arim in such a way that it spells the word "marrim", meaning bitterness in Hebrew. Coincidence? I think not.

I had been to Me’a She’arim before with Daniel about two and half years ago. I was simply curious at how these people could live without being influenced by modern society. Despite my floor length skirt and long-sleeved shirt, I remember still feeling extremely uncomfortable traveling through the streets of this time warp.

To avoid Me’a She’arim, Carly and I walked away from the “modesty” sign until we felt that we could safely avoid the neighborhood entirely. I was under the impression (and Wikipedia seems to agree with me) that all of the entrances to Me’a She’arim had signs like the one pictured so there is no mistakenly entering their grounds. We both assumed that because a similar sign was nowhere in site, we were ok to make our way down one of the streets. Within seconds, Carly and I were stopped by an orthodox woman who, I would guess, was in her early 30’s. After we got passed the awkward “Do you speak English” moment, she asked us where we were headed and if we had any additional clothing in our bags. Of course we didn’t. The two of us were hot enough in what we were wearing and the thought of bringing a sweater in 95-degree weather never even crossed our minds. This woman was very kind and advised us not to continue walking through this orthodox neighborhood dressed the way we were. It was now clear that we had failed to avoid Me’a She’arim. This woman explained that she was headed home and would check and see if she had extra clothes for us to wear on our journey to the Botanical Gardens. Of course, Carly and I were very happy to turn around and kept insisting that she really did not need to give us clothes. Like many Jewish women, she was very persistent and wouldn’t take no for answer.

Coming from Los Angeles, I would have never ever even considered going into a strangers home. I weighed my options and decided that this woman definitely wasn’t a threat: she was an orthodox Jew living not only in Israel, but also in one of the oldest, most conservative neighborhoods in all of Jerusalem, pregnant and pushing a double stroller. The thought did cross my mind that a group of men could be waiting in her home to kidnap me and sell me on the black market. When I told this story to mom, she said the exact same thing. I wonder where I got it from? Anyways, despite my trepidations, Carly and I went into this women’s home, which was literally one door up from where she approached us. Immediately, this woman locked and then bolted her door and closed all of the drapes behind us. Her actions reiterated that we, as regular civilians, were not welcome here and that there could be dire consequences for her and her family if someone were to see us in her home.

My disguise
She then gave us water and left us in the living room while she went to go find us some clothes. Feeling super uncomfortable, I started entertaining her baby and toddler. She came back with long skirts for each of us to wear and then mentioned that she didn’t know what her husband would do if he saw us there. After her comment, every voice Carly and I heard outside made us jump. We definitely didn’t want to be standing in the living room when her husband came home. After she came back with a long-sleeved shirt for Carly, we rushed out of there! The woman told us we could now enjoy Me’a She’arim and even do some shopping. We would fit right in! She then mentioned that she wished she had a camera to take a before and after photo of us! Carly and I asked if we could please bring the clothes back after we had reached our destination and she insisted they were under her bed waiting to be given away so to please just donate them to someone else when we were done. I felt a little awkward that we never got this women’s name, however I got the feeling she wanted to keep that way.

Carly's disguise
Disguised, Carly and I were on our way! We continued to use our iPhones to navigate to the Botanical Gardens, however tried to keep them hidden in our purses. I had heard that the people of Me’a She’arim don’t like the use of outside technology in their neighborhood. I do know they create their own video games and it is all the children are allowed to play. Talk about censorship! As we continued to walk we realized that the “safe” street we had originally chosen to walk down fed directly into the main street in Me’a She’arim. Oops! At this point we just wanted to get to our destination and didn’t feel like shopping much. The chances that the shopkeepers in Me’a She’arim knew English were slim to none and we were ready to see some flowers! No one really acknowledged us in Me’a She’arim however I still felt like it was obvious we didn’t belong. Who knows, maybe my red Toms were a giveaway or maybe it was all in my head!? After about an hour or so of walking, we finally approached our destination…a dirty, old building on the corner of a highway and the main road in Me’a She’arim. There were definitely no botanical gardens. I guess we have Google maps blame/thank for our adventure.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Different Perspective of the Old CIty

We will be using this blog to record our adventures over the course of the year!

Instead of backtracking (we will save that for another time), we want to tell you all about the adventure we went on last week!

Udi, the Israeli intern at Daniel’s school, took us on a tour of the Muslim Quarter on Tuesday afternoon. We visited the Muslim quarter on our last trip to Israel – Jen insisted we go to the Via Dolorosa and follow the path that Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We hadn’t planned on returning to the Muslim Quarter (one “Christian pilgrimage” was enough for us), however we were intrigued to see what an Israeli-native had to show us!
The Damascus Gate

We entered the Muslim quarter through the Damascus Gate. Udi advised us to speak English as opposed to Hebrew while in the Muslim Quarter. He explained that language is very political here and it is better to be visiting as an American as opposed to an Israeli. It was up to us whether or not to remove any Judaic symbols. Jen didn’t have any on, however she did go in not wearing a jacket, felt uncomfortable and quickly decided to cover her shoulders.

First stop was the tahini plant. I of course was the first to volunteer to try the stuff. It is not really my thing (tasted like gross sesame-butter) and Daniel was not a huge fan either. Daniel bought some anyways from the old man because he allowed all 15 of us cram backstage into his tahini operation, interrupting his work. You would think with modern technology there would be a better/more efficient way to make tahini, but I guess not! Old stones are used to grind the sesame seeds. There are obviously no health codes to adhere to in the Old City. Tahini was all over the walls and the ground was covered in sesame seeds, making it really slippery to walk on.

A Jewish home in the Muslim Quarter
We also checked out an Austrian Hospice, which I think is one of the Old City’s best-kept secrets. If you go on the roof, it has one of the most beautiful views. It is pretty funny seeing century-old buildings with satellite dishes placed on top. One of the things our group discussed on the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice was how we feel about Jews living in the Muslim Quarter and obtrusively hanging Israeli flags out their window (this is done mainly for political reasons) and also about buying things in the Muslim Quarter (as opposed to only purchasing from Israelis). Some felt that everyone is just trying to make an honest living and you are simply contributing to the conflict by refusing to buy from Muslims. Others simply would rather spend their hard earned shekels on Israeli goods. Something to also think about is that on our way to the Austrian Hospice, there was a group of small children that started throwing rocks at us. Our Israeli tour guide was shocked by this. It is difficult to decipher whether these kids were just being kids or if they have been brought up to truly hate our people. Daniel and I don’t think they were trying to hurt us. There were definitely much bigger things they could have thrown. What do you think?
View from the top of Austrian Hospice
We did find some delicious things in the Muslim Quarter. We shared some homemade baklava and Daniel bought some fresh Turkish coffee. Whether or not we are planning to continue to shop here – we are not sure.

One thing I do want to go back there for is for the hummus. This place Udi showed us makes a huge vat of it in the morning and when it’s gone, they close down shop. Unfortunately, since we stopped by in the evening, they were already closed for the day!

Our last stop was Notre Dame, which is a new hotel right outside the Muslim Quarter. Regardless, on the top floor of this church turned hotel, they have an amazing wine and cheese restaurant that overlooks all of Jerusalem. You can even see Jen’s school, Hebrew University, on the top of Mount Scopus! Udi said he would kill us if this place started getting crowded; so don’t go spreading the word! Daniel handpicked all of the cheeses that we ate. We felt right at home here! It was also nice getting to know a few of the other students in Daniel’s program.
The view from Notre Dame
We essentially just took you on our tour of the Muslim quarter. Hope you enjoyed the adventure. Many more to come!

-Jen and Daniel