Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
I always spend some time as Rabbi in Residence at Camp Tawonga in California each summer, and it is always a highlight of my year. Camp’s Jewish theme changes each time, and this year we are focusing on the word from Torah “Hineni,” which means “I am present.” Many biblical heroes, notably Moses at the burning bush, respond to a challenge or opportunity by proclaiming, “Hineni!” or “I am here and I am spiritually ready.” This week, we offered campers a way to cultivate a state of Hineni through a mindful eating practice.
The hardest part for most campers was when they were handed a raisin and instructed to refrain from eating it until the end of the exercise to get the most out of the experience. We placed a raisin in the palm of their hands and asked them to contemplate every aspect of the morsel. What does it feel like? Smell like? What were the physical forces in the universe that made it possible for this bit of sustenance to arrive into our hands? Who were the people who contributed to its creation?
Campers talked about the laborers in the grapevines, the wind, sun and rain, the workers at Sysco’s plant who packaged the raisins and the truck drivers who brought them to camp. They were especially cognizant of the water necessary to sustain the vines amidst California’s water crisis. What a miracle to be holding this piece of food that was the result of so many complicated forces!
Finally, we thought about whether the food about to be consumed came from a tree or the ground so we could say a Jewish blessing before eating it. Pausing to think about where our food comes from and choosing either traditional Jewish words or creating our own prayers can turn every eating experience into a moment of Hineni. Prayer can be a ritual reminder in a fast-paced world to stop for a moment, bringing to mind all of the varied forces that went into the production of that bite of food.
When asked about the experience, campers had many responses:
“A raisin has never tasted so good!”
“It really made me appreciate the raisin a lot more, because we stopped and thought about where it came from.”
“I never thought about what it takes to get a simple raisin to a box.”
Others remarked on the fruit bursting with more sweetness than they usually notice. And in a few rare cases, kids who previously hated raisins reported liking them for the first time. Some remarked that they felt Hineni in their bodies after trying out this practice. The campers thought about other moments that seem to pass by unnoticed in their daily lives that they could mark as notable and sacred.
Rabbi Mychal with campers (and raisins) at Camp Tawonga
Some people are naturally inclined toward Hineni. Most of us struggle to slow life down and be present for the moments large and small that make up our complicated lives. Watching the campers experience this exercise reminded me that being present or some might even say “spiritual,” is not necessarily an inborn character trait with which we are either gifted or denied. Most people need to cultivate those skills, but they are completely learnable and need to be reinforced throughout our lives.
This sense of connectedness to ourselves and the world around us is available whether or not we grew up within a religious tradition or with more than one religious background. Many interfaith families struggle with how they are going to manage “religion” in their homes. But a first step might be to identify spiritual abilities or skills we want our kids to possess to deepen their experience of being alive: being present, expressing gratitude, feeling connected to other human beings and our environment.
Here at camp, kids are learning that Jewish prayer is one tool for cultivating that mindset which we have at our fingertips. In past years, my own kids have returned from camp wanting to sing the Ha’Motzi prayer of thanks for bread at our home table. I believe this was in part because there was such a boisterous energy in the dining hall when hundreds of kids sang the words together. But perhaps they also unwittingly wanted to bring it home because the rote repetition of this prayer three times a day provided an automatic moment of reflection and pause, lending an aura of the sacred to a monotonous, daily occurrence. This is just one of the ways campers at Jewish overnight camps learn the tools to be more present in their lives and more attuned to who they are who they are becoming.
To learn more about the array of interfaith-friendly Jewish overnight camps in the Bay Area, including URJ Reform Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, Maccabi Sports Camp, and the brand new Conservative Camp Ramah Norcal, get in touch with me at email@example.com or check out the list here!
In college, I was a Jewish representative on the student Multi-Faith Council. I have always been fascinated by other religious traditions, cultures and belief systems, while feeling strongly rooted and passionate about my own.
Like many in the more liberal branches of religion, I do not believe that Judaism is the one right religion, but rather, that there are multiple ways of living righteously and of reaching God or a higher power.
I picture a large mountain, with many paths up to the summit. Some paths meander by mountain lakes. Others offer wonderful vistas of the valley below. They all have rougher and smoother patches, and some are steeper than others. They all offer opportunities to challenge ourselves and rejoice in the beauty of the world around us. So why pick just one?
For me, I choose the path of Judaism for many reasons. It is the path that my parents and some (not all) of my grandparents walked before me. I have felt a sense of kinship and connection with other Jews who come from all over the world. I love the songs that echo through the hills and the teachings on signposts along the way. And I have found comfort and meaning on this trail at those key moments in my life—after my father died, on my wedding day and in sharing Jewish holidays with my son.
Being in an interfaith marriage adds another layer to this metaphor. I see paths that intersect my own, perhaps merging for a while to diverge and wander off again; maybe looping back on each other at different times. My husband walks his own path, although he does not adhere to another particular religion at this point in his life. (He was raised Protestant and drifted away.) And our paths definitely join together for certain stretches, particularly around holidays that we share as a family, and the core values we want to pass on to our son who we are raising Jewish. But I am walking on a deeply grooved part of the trail, while in this vision he is sometimes on the grassy edge.
Then I think about families who want to incorporate both religions into their homes and family life. Can one path be wide enough to actually overlap with other paths? What do you gain in experience and what might you lose in that image?
I also think about the fellow travelers I have invited to walk with me, my mother-in-law in particular. Even when we are walking together, I expect that her perspective on the view is a little different than mine. Her history is different, and maybe I haven’t done as good a job as I could explaining the different rituals and holidays that we’ll encounter on the way up.
I always love to hear stories from hikers on other trails, and maybe I’ll join them on their path for a while to take in a special sight or moment, but I keep coming back to Judaism. My path is right for me, and I hope my son will find meaning in it, too.
But I like to think about intersecting trails. Interfaith families help form a bridge between paths. We don’t have to shout across the chasms at each other, but can walk together for all or part of the way. This mountain has many sides, and all invite us to look with wonder, appreciation and amazement at the world around us and at the people who share in this journey.
As the sun began to set on a Friday night in June, 15 professional women in their 20s & 30s gathered in a gazebo to sing and welcome in Shabbat. The gazebo was next to an organic vegetable garden and overlooked a beautiful field that was surrounded by the woods. Most of us traveled about an hour to get to the Am Kollel Sanctuary Retreat Center in Beallsville, Maryland. Others came from San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and New York. We gathered for the At the Well East Coast retreat.
This was a retreat in its truest sense of the word: out of the city, , fresh air, a respite in nature from our hectic lives, delicious Shabbat meals cooked by DC chef and baker Julia Kann, morning yoga, small group conversations and a hike. On Shabbat, we had an opportunity to both study a Torah text about the spring holiday of Shavuot in which ancient Israelites offered the first fruits of their labors at the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as learn about women’s cycles as they connect to the phases of the moon and the seasons.
It was also what At the Well’s founder and chief momma Sarah Waxman called a “Meeting of Minds and Hearts.” After Shabbat, we turned our attention to the organization, hearing Sarah’s mission and vision for supporting groups of women (called Well Circles) who gather monthly to learn about Jewish spirituality and health and wellness. These Well Circles meet all over the country. Sarah sends out a monthly resource packet that is gorgeously designed with teachings about each Hebrew month, poetry, suggestions for discussions and activities to do in one’s Well Circle, ancient wisdom and modern day intentions. The idea of the Well Circle is part ancient gathering in celebration of Rosh Chodesh, the holiday of the new moon/first of each Hebrew month, and part modern Lean In circle.
Having been part of Rosh Chodesh circles on and off for the better part of a decade and having led my own Rosh Chodesh group in New Haven for two years, I was thrilled to connect with the At The Well project just as Sarah was launching it. Over the past eight months, I’ve been a rabbinic adviser to the project—writing for some of its monthly resources, supporting the cause and co-sponsoring the retreat with IFF/DC. While I love this project for what it is, I also love it for what it can be—and that the mission is expansive enough to support Jewish women and those female-identified in their 20s and 30s, as well as women from interfaith homes or in interfaith relationships, those who are exploring Judaism or conversion and even women of other faiths or no religion at all who are interested in what Jewish wisdom has to teach us about reconnecting with our bodies and our souls.
The ample time for one-on-one and small group conversations allowed participants to share their own stories. One woman who grew up in an interfaith household and did not have as much Jewish education as a child as she wanted, told me how much more comfortable she felt at the retreat just because I was there, knowing IFF/DC was part of it. She is moving to New York for graduate school in the fall and going to reach out to a former friend and mentor to explore Jewish learning.
Another woman I met who grew up in a more traditional Jewish household recently married a man of another faith. I told her more about IFF/DC, our Love and Religion workshops and Interfaith Shabbat dinner meet-ups. I also spoke with a woman who is exploring what Judaism means to her; having been very involved with Jewish life on campus she is no longer interested in institutional Judaism. She is in the process of figuring out her own connection to Judaism in her life now and how to share that with her boyfriend who is not Jewish. I look forward to continuing this and many other conversations.
As I listened to each participant speak about her journey, I realized over and over how important it is that our Jewish spaces be open enough to have these kinds of conversations. I am so glad that the At the Well project can be one of those spaces.
I know there are more women who are looking for intentional community, looking for peers to discuss and learn with, who may want to become part of a Well Circle. If you are, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to Sarah Waxman for more info and to receive the monthly teachings at email@example.com.
The At the Well East Coast Retreat was co-sponsored by the Schusterman Family Foundation, InterfaithFamily/DC and Jewish Food Experience. Learn more at atthewellproject.com.
“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.” –David Gregory, April 5, 2016
You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.
Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.
Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.
Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”
It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”
Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”
Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.
What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.
Last week, my son started wondering about the edge of the universe. What is at the end? Is there an end? What does the word “everything” really mean? Is there anything outside of “everything”?
I could tell as we talked that his mind was trying to expand enough to picture our expanding universe. We weren’t just talking big. We were talking about something larger than our imaginations could hold. He was awe-stricken.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… To be spiritual is to be amazed” and, “Wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe.” Sometimes we are privileged to experience or think about something that religious mystics would say lifts the veil, exposing something deeper, clearer or more intense about the universe and our place in it. At those moments, we become overcome by a sense of the grandeur of life that is hard to describe. Religious writers would say it is ineffable, impossible, to convey in words.
When my son had this experience, we wanted him to know that some people call that expansiveness, that interconnectedness, or that feeling he was having—G!d. The medieval Kabbalists called that expansiveness, “Eyn Sof,” literally describing G!d as “Endlessness.” But do we need religion to feel that sense of being connected to the entire universe? Do we need to call it G!d?
Of course not. Some people may label such experiences “holy,” “miracles” or even “G!d,” while many others would not. Richard Dawkins, contemporary atheist and scientist, imagines himself as a child lying under the stars, “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way” (The God Delusion, p.11).
Although no two experiences of awe are alike, the feeling of interconnectedness and awe in the face of the vastness of the universe Dawkins describes is akin to the writings of many mystics across religious traditions. He wonders in the book why he could have such an experience and become a scientist while his friend could have that same type of experience and go into the priesthood. This is his premise for undoing religion. For me, his observation only reinforces that it doesn’t matter what we call it. His friend called it G!d. He didn’t. Why should it matter, when what is truly important is that they both had an expansive experience of awe as young children? They both went on into lines of work where they could cultivate that skill, living in awe of the universe. For Dawkins and the rest of us, those moments of clarity can influence the way we live our lives.
Dawkins is far from being alone. According to a Pew Research study, a rising number of Americans across the religious spectrum report that they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a sense of wonder about the universe. But what is more surprising, especially since fewer and fewer Americans affiliate themselves with any religion, is that a rising number of atheists also reported feelings of wonder about the universe. That number rose from 37 to 54 percent from 2007 to 2014, which means that their sense of awe is even higher than those within some religious traditions.
What has changed for atheists that they are reporting a sense of increased wonder? Perhaps one of the reasons that the “nones” and atheists are finding awe is that it has become clear that wonder in no way negates the intellectual, the scientific. For Dawkins, a feeling of “becoming one with the universe” is eventually tied to his reverence for science.
The 20th century Jewish thinker, Aaron Zeitlin, warns us in a poem that if we look at the stars and yawn, then we have been created in vain. Although Dawkins rejects any religious explanation of his experience, he would never look at the stars and yawn. In the words of sociologist Ryan Cragun, “It could be that those who are now admitting they are atheists … are also more willing to admit that they do experience what many people consider ‘spiritual’ feelings. Perhaps normalizing “atheism” has benefitted those seeking non-religious language to express wonder.
We certainly do not need religion to feel a sense of the grandeur of life and the universe. But religion at its best is about the cultivation of awe. Embedded in most religious traditions is a deep sense of wonder, and an examination of the self in relation to the vastness of the universe. We all begin life with innate curiosity, but where is that ability to live in awe cultivated as we grow up? Our religious spaces could—and should—be the places we take those questions that shake us and challenge us. Not to answer them, but to provide the space to wonder. And religious practice can serve as a catalyst to invoke these feelings. Many religious rituals are designed to lead us to those spaces of awe and wonderment on a regular basis, and encourage us to feel gratitude at the magnificence of the universe.
Judaism has a blessing for everything, from the appearance of a rainbow or an unusual sight to the seemingly mundane, daily miracles of eating food and using the bathroom (yes, that is truly awe-inspiring when you think about it). Daily life is filled with large and small moments of awe. Amidst the busyness of our everyday lives, from time to time we slow down for long enough that we are allowed to glimpse something deeper: the magnificence, the terrifying immensity of it all.
Because the blessings are associated with specific moments or acts, they are not allowed to pass by unnoticed. We learn how to better notice and embrace these moments. I hope to teach my kids not that one needs religion to feel awe, but that religious rituals and language can help us cultivate a sense of awe and express gratitude for the universe we live in. I want to give them a religious language to talk about wonder and perhaps to feel comforted by the fact that people have been feeling that sense of grandeur and awe for ages.
However you find your sense of awe, embrace it. Don’t worry too much about what you call it. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to seek it out within religious structures. You might find new language and more opportunities to discover your own Radical Amazement.
Note on the spelling of G!d’s name: Traditionally the divine name is written G-d. But here I use G!d to connote the idea that the divine is one way of expressing Radical Amazement.
A few weeks ago, I bonked my head while getting ready for bed and got a concussion. This was not my first time experiencing brain damage. I bruised my tender brain two-and-a-half years ago after a small car accident when I was living in Philadelphia. The air bag went off and temporarily knocked me out. It took two years to fully recover from this intense blast. My doctor informed me that I was more prone to “re-concuss” my brain because of my previous accident and wasn’t at all surprised that this recent slight blow to my head was so traumatizing.
My symptoms include mega migraines, difficulty focusing, memory loss and utter exhaustion. The path to healing includes copious amounts of sleep, hours of meditation, brain rest, bed rest, no screen time, asking for help, accepting help, radical acceptance and deep surrender.
As a type-A, physically and socially active 40-year-old in a new city (I moved to Atlanta in May of this year), I find slowing down to be quite challenging. I love being out in the world; hiking in the North Georgia Mountains, biking on the Beltline, yoga-ing at Kashi and exploring various cafes and shops. I also love catching up with friends on social media and reading articles about social justice and spirituality. To lie in bed all day, every day, for weeks without much human contact or brain stimulation is very challenging. Needless to say, practicing radical acceptance and deep surrender don’t come naturally to me.
At first, I was in complete denial. “This is just a really, really bad headache. I feel like an anvil is smooshing my head, but I’ll be OK. I’m just overtired/dehydrated/stressed out,” I justified.
As the pain and the fuzzy thinking worsened, it became obvious that I had acquired a second concussion and that’s when I began to suffer. “How could this happen to me…again?!?!?!? How will I work, make money, make friends, go on dates with my partner, exercise, shop at the farmer’s markets, buy a house? How can I possibly slow down again and survive this intense pain and boredom? Didn’t I already go through this a few years ago?WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?”
It can be very difficult for me to accept when things don’t go MY way. I’m fairly certain that I know how my life is supposed to unfold and putting it on hold was not an option. Being present with what is, is countercultural. In a culture that likes to numb out with instant gratification, instant messaging, fast food, home delivery and smart phones, we are trained to avoid discomfort at all costs.
In Mussar, a Jewish spiritual movement that started in the 19th century, there is a spiritual concept called “Accepting Suffering” (Kabbalat Ha’Yissurin). In this practice, we are first asked to explore the difference between suffering and pain. According to Alan Morinis in his book With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings To Transform Your Life, “Pain is a direct reaction to an invasive stimulus and reflects simple cause and effect. Suffering, on the other hand, arises from interpretation and expectation.” In other words, when we experience physical pain and think, “Ouch! That hurt!” That is pain. While we try our best to avoid pain, sometimes it is unavoidable. But when we think, “why me?” we are entering into the world of suffering.
Once we have discovered our suffering, our challenge is acceptance. We are called to be present with it. It is only when we are present with our suffering that it can pass. How can we be present with the suffering and accept our lack of control?
For me, this is not easy. It is not about pushing it away and stuffing it down. That only allows it to further manifest itself in another way. And it isn’t about becoming a victim and allowing everything to happen to me. It is about accepting my powerlessness in life. There are some things that we just cannot change. When we practice acceptance, we are allowing the world to run as it does. We are accepting our reality.
A prayer that has helped me tremendously with acceptance comes from the 12-step recovery model: “G-d/Higher Power, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I cannot change the fact that I bruised my brain a second time. I am powerless over my limited abilities and the speed of my healing process. But what I do have power over is my perspective and attitude. Every day I have a choice: I can choose faith or I can choose fear. When I choose fear, I spiral into panic. “This. Is. Not. OK.,” becomes my matra and I am only able to see how this is just plain wrong. It doesn’t seem right or fair. But, when I move into faith, I feel a deep sense of peace and am able to surrender to what is. I am able to observe my body as it heals and relax my brain. My heart opens as I practice gratitude. When I accept my situation, I ask for help and receive the gifts of living in community.
May this new year of 5776 bring moments of radical acceptance, deep surrender and inner peace.
I wasn’t always into Judaism and my journey to become a rabbi was not typical. While I grew up steeped in Jewish tradition and community, I spent my twenties rejecting the religion of my childhood. I grew up in the Conservative Jewish movement in Schenectady, New York and to me, Judaism felt homophobic, misogynistic and exclusive. The traditional teachings and practices didn’t seem relevant to me. I was out as a lesbian, I was a feminist and my partner at the time was Christian. I did not feel welcome.
It was while praying, singing and dancing at ecstatic prayer services in Berkeley, California, that I experienced a passionate connection with a Higher Power and felt the spiritual calling to become a rabbi. I knew then that I wanted to share the beauty, traditions and deep spirituality of Judaism and help others to connect with the Holy.
Some of my friends did not feel welcome, either. I was pained every time my Jewish friends married their partners of other faiths. NOT because they were committing to their sweeties who were not Jewish, but rather because they felt rejected by so many Jewish clergy. It was disheartening to watch them struggle as they tried to find someone willing to officiate at their interfaith weddings. Many times this rejection was coupled with the fact that members of their own families were judgmental of their choice of partners.
Through my discovery of inclusive, queer and spiritual Jewish communities in the Bay Area, I reconnected with my Jewish heritage. While working as an educator for over a decade, my relationship with the God of my understanding deepened. I practiced yoga, meditated daily and eventually joined a welcoming synagogue. After several years, I felt compelled to immerse myself in Jewish studies and to join the tradition of God wrestling as a Morat Haderech (spiritual guide).
Today, inclusion is at the heart of my rabbinate. My passion is creating inspiring and relevant rituals and ceremonies and invigorating Jewish practices. As I teach, I empower people to make choices that feel authentic and meaningful to them. I am honored to officiate at interfaith weddings and to guide couples as they navigate their journeys together.
I am thrilled to serve as the new director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta!! After living in Virginia Highland for only a few weeks, I am already fully enjoying all that Atlanta has to offer including the beltline, Piedmont Park, weekly festivals and that sweet southern hospitality! I am looking forward to partnering with local organizations, connecting with people in interfaith families and relationships, and now that all marriage is legal, I can’t wait to officiate at legal local weddings!
Please be in touch!! I am always available by email to answer questions or discuss anything interfaith. Also, we have a local Facebook group and are in the planning stages for lots of workshops and resources for different life stages and events. Let me know if you would like more info or have any ideas about how we can make InterfaithFamily/Atlanta thrive.
I am a counter and a list maker. I use the calendar on my phone/computer and I have a paper calendar. I create a to-do list each week and sometimes add things I have already accomplished for the simple pleasure of being able to cross it out. I have a countdown app on my phone that provides me with the exact amount of time, down to the second, until an upcoming event. I am fascinated by the fact that time never changes and yet five more minutes until recess or your lunch break feels interminable while five more minutes with someone you love is never enough.
We all mark time in our lives in different ways: Facebook reminds us of birthdays, there are myriad apps to download and calendars in every size and color if you’d rather a physical book. If we take a step back from our ever present and much appreciated technology, we are reminded of the passage of time with every sun rise and set, with the changing of seasons, the warm fresh spring air following a difficult winter, even the beautiful and mysterious patterns of the stars in the vast inky blue on a clear night.
And so we all count, individually and collectively, slowly moving along with time, whether we like it or not.
Naturally, Judaism spends a lot of time contemplating and marking the passage of time as well, especially this time of year. On Passover we celebrate freedom, the bonds of cruel slavery broken as the Israelites follow Moses and Miriam out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land. We know the story, we’ve heard it, perhaps have even seen the animated version (I highly recommend The Prince of Egypt). Passover is both the culmination of this tale of slavery and the beginning of a new era of freedom and peoplehood.
So it only seems natural that Judaism would begin a count, called the “omer,” beginning on the second day of Passover and counting the 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the moment on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Torah, the story of the Jewish people and the laws, values and ethics by which to live. Each day Jews around the world say a blessing for this count as we move ever closer to the next defining moment in our collective life as a community.
Whether you vigilantly count the omer each day or you have never heard of this before, it is an interesting concept. While we often assume that the biggest moments in our lives deserve that special mark on our calendar, a card and maybe flowers, the counting of the omer suggests that remembering the journey, taking that brief moment for a simple blessing, a moment of perspective, also counts (please, pardon the pun).
These in-between moments aren’t always splashy or exciting; no one is parting a sea or forming a nation every day. Just like the Israelites wandering through the desert, we complain, we bemoan our busy schedules, worry about what’s to come, wonder if we made the right choices. And this lovely April, all of that pent up energy collected during a particularly vicious winter has been released and we are all running around, making up for lost time, attending that that spring dance recital or those little league baseball games, maybe soon a weekend visit to your favorite beach. And just as those dark, dreary, snowy winter weeks moved at a snail’s pace, these lovely spring days seem to be flying by. And how often are we simply going through the motions, waiting for that next big event, cruising on autopilot?
So perhaps this year, amidst the craziness, on those average, nothing-special days, find a single moment and simply notice it, make it count. Give yourself a rest from the worry, from the anticipation or excitement of what’s next. It is the joy we find for ourselves in the most mundane of moments or the peace we create in a single deep breath that allow us to embrace, prepare for and celebrate the most life-changing events that we put on calendars and count down with apps. The tick of time will always be constant, but we can choose how we spend it, even if only for one brief tock. So this year I’m going to count the omer and try my best to make it count as well.
When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: “The lovers, the dreamers, and me…”
On our family’s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didn’t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dog’s collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of God’s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was present—even those who were yet to be—at that most awesome moment in our shared history and “memory.” So, what about people who aren’t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.
There are more and more projects sprouting up around the country to encourage people to have Sabbath meals or Shabbat experiences with others. In the non-Orthodox world, many people who grew up with Judaism or are exploring it as adults do not have a Shabbat practice and so it takes programs to support this new practice people are willing to take on. In fact, as we make spiritual promises and resolutions for our new Jewish year, one of my personal goals is to make more frequent and regular my own family’s Shabbat practice.
Why so much emphasis on “doing Shabbat?” It’s funny because Shabbat is thought to be a cessation of work and adding Shabbat to your routine does take a little planning and organization. However, whatever input is needed, I think the results will feel worthwhile.
Here are my top 5 reasons for why it’s so important to have Shabbat in our lives:
1. Rest: Shabbat is a Hebrew word that comes from the words for rest, sit and pause. This is an ancient nugget of wisdom which is timeless. If we never get off the merry-go-round we get dizzier and dizzier. It’s fun for awhile when we’re whirling and twirling and building speed and laughing and getting things done, but eventually we need to slow it down and gain equilibrium and perspective. Pausing on Friday evening or marking a time apart on Saturday can do this for us.
2. Beauty: We need beauty and poetry in our lives. Sometimes the school/work week seems to make us as efficient, robotic, programmed and structured as possible. These qualities are needed to keep schedules intact and to get everything done, like homework and people to where they are supposed to be. Hopefully, the school day or work day does have moments of creativity, new experiences, closeness, nuance, fun, learning and more which is beautiful, but the week as a whole can feel bland and monotonous. Shabbat is beautiful. The glow of the candles is mesmerizing. Communal prayer can be uplifting. The adorned ritual items like a Kiddush cup or challah cover bring art to the table.
3. Perspective: It’s one thing to say that we should not sweat the small stuff but when so many small things pile up it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. When the car breaks down and you forgot to pack your child’s lunch and your child is having problems with friends at school and you are not seeing eye-to-eye with your co-worker and you need to make the second trip to the pediatrician that week because the first child got strep and now the next one’s ear hurts and you are sleep deprived, and, and, and, (and sometimes there are big, chronic things we are dealing with) it’s easier said than done to keep perspective.
Shabbat doesn’t take away our troubles. Shabbat doesn’t make the woes of our week go away. But it provides us a respite. Even if your respite is only thirty minutes on Friday evening over dinner when the mood feels different and the rituals and prayers usher in a connection to the Sacred, it helps. This time, however brief, takes you out of your own little bubble and brings you a taste of paradise, of perfection. And if we can store up this feeling, this mood, these images, it sweetens the difficulties we endure. And the messages about creation that are woven through a Jewish Sabbath remind us to help create the world we want to live in.
4. Gateway: There is an idea in Judaism that one mitzvah (commandment: often thought of as ethical and ritual living) leads to another. One mitzvah may encourage us or inspire us to learn about and try out another. The more one observes, the more connected one can be to Judaism, to the People, history and culture. I don’t think more is “better” and that there is an ideal way to practice one’s Judaism. However, I do feel that observing Shabbat reminds us of the rubric Judaism provides throughout the whole week to add order, purpose, social justice and awareness to our lives. If we love taking time to observe a Sabbath, then we may also be inclined to wake up each morning listening to Modeh Ani, a prayer exclaiming one’s gratitude for the new day. If we live by the rhythm of the Jewish week and usher in some time of observing Shabbat, we may be inclined to observe Jewish holidays and to see how the sonar-lunar calendar connects us with nature and with history and narratives in powerful ways.
5. Intimacy: Maybe it’s because we are tied to our phones, but many of us crave a time when it feels safe to put the phone away for a minute. We use our phones as distractions, as entertainment, as sources of information, as ways to stay connected and as a safety net for knowing what is happening all the time. I for one like to be able to be reached almost all the time. But, I also love having a moment when I don’t need to hold my phone. For me, that moment is Friday night Shabbat.
The way our Friday nights shake down is that our Sabbath consists of the three main prayers—it doesn’t, incidentally, involve dinner most weeks. This is because my kids usually eat early and my husband is a congregational rabbi. He is often preparing for his services and may grab dinner somewhere before he comes home. Also, we are not foodies. I am not a good cook and I don’t enjoy it. I am working all day on Friday and it’s hard for me to get the family dinner piece together with our schedules. See, I sometimes feel a bit defensive about not basing our Sabbath on the Friday night family/friend dinner.
What we do is we light candles, we say Kiddush (Hebrew word meaning holy referring to the prayer over the fruit of the vine; often wine or grape juice), we eat challah and my favorite part is when we bless our children and each other. I take my kid’s head in my hands and I whisper to them my prayer for them. It is specific and spontaneous. I also say Aaron’s blessing to them. The traditional prayer said to sons and daughters is too gender-binary for my family (this is the topic of another blog). I look at my partner and we soak each other in, what we have, what we hope for; we breathe. We kiss. We hug each other. It is intimate. When we have friends over, we bless one another with our words and we feel each other’s actual presence. When you are alone on Shabbat, this last piece especially, may feel sad or distant. It is not good to be alone on Shabbat. This is why Jewish organizations are working hard and putting resources into creating opportunities for people to find one another over Shabbat.
There are many more reasons to do something to mark the Sabbath each week. Among your Jewish New Year’s resolutions, will adding or creating a Shabbat ritual be among them? If you are not Jewish but you love someone who is Jewish, how does this all feel for you? Let us know what you are thinking about doing or what you already do. When we hear from one another, we get ideas for what we might want to try. Here’s to opening this ancient gift and making it come alive in ways that work for you.