Saturday, November 29, 2014

To Tallit or Not to Tallit

Eighteen months ago, I bought several tallitot in Israel hoping that my husband, my daughter and I would all be draped and wrapped for her upcoming bat mitzvah.  My daughter picked the one she liked, my husband clung to the one he always wore, and mine sat in a drawer.  I wanted to wear it but I felt like an imposter.  I thought it was a sign that I was more observant that I am, followed more rituals than I did, or one might think I am more knowledgeable than I am and therefore might ask me to participate in a synagogue ritual that I am unable to perform.

And then, something shifted.  The desire to wear the tallit came strong during a conversation about egalitarian prayer.  How can a synagogue be truly egalitarian if men and women don't perform the same rituals?  How can I expect my daughter (or son) to want show up more, to learn more, to participate more if I don't do the same?

Some say, "What is the big deal?"  For me, it is the desire to be part of a community and not outside.  So I made myself a deal.  Even though I became a bat mitzvah almost 10 years ago as an adult, I still felt as though I hadn't earned it.  I decided to do some research about my Hebrew name Leah (see previous blog) and once I understood more about Leah, I could wrap myself in my tallit.  As I began to read about Leah (and I have so much more to do), I was struck by her connection to prayer.  And there was my moment, I may not know every ritual, speak Hebrew or even read all the prayers, but when I am in meditation or services, I am deeply connected spiritually to God and my community.  And to go one step further, I found a deep sense of connection within me to my whole being.  The tallit is now a symbol of my journey, a reflection of the work that I have done for myself that has brought me closer to God, my family and to my community.

Today in shul I wore my tallit.  I fumbled over the Hebrew prayer, but I recited it perfectly in English.  And it felt great. It felt natural.  It was my celebration and my alone.  And no one made a big deal, no one noticed (except my sweet husband who smiled when he saw me wearing it), and I was proud to be in this moment in time.

So what is the big deal?  The big deal is that for years the tallit belonged to others - men mostly.  And now mine is no longer sitting in the drawer.  My tallit means something to me - I'm wrapped in my family, my community, and my own learning.  And that is a big deal.

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha'olam
asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hitateif ba'tzitzit.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe,
who has sanctified us with commandments,
and commanded us to wrap ourselves in fringes.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך-הָעולָם
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו
  לְהִתְעַטֵּף בַּצִּיצִית

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Story As Leah

At 42, I studied to become a bat mitzvah.  At that time, the Rabbi asked me if I want to change my name to reflect the moment.  I thought about it as I had never really connected to my Hebrew name Leah.  As a believer that there are no coincidences and out of respect for my parents, I chose to keep my name.  The day was powerful enough as I released years of "missing out" when I read a few short lines of Torah surrounded by family and friends.

Curiosity of my name continued and I wanted to know, "Who was Leah?"  All I had read was the sad beginnings of her story, she had dim eyes, married a man who loved her sister, and she wanted her husband to love her.  And then I began to learn a little more about her.  With the birth of each child, Leah's spirituality grew.  Her desire to be loved by her husband was great, but it was her deepening connection to God that grew over time and drew me closer to her.

"The Rabbis are lavish in their praise of Leah. She was like the rafter of a house, on which the entire world rests; she was a prophet, and the names she gave her sons allude to each tribe’s future. The midrash asserts that from the day that God created His world, He was not praised by anyone until Leah came and said (Gen. 29:35): “This time I will praise the Lord.” This act was a positive example for her offspring, who learned from it, followed in her ways and also praised the Lord. "  JWA - Leah Midrash

I was happy to read this passage.  It states that Leah was the first to be written as one who praises God and she was a role model to her children.  While I too felt a deeper connection to something greater than myself after my children were born, I also became more vulnerable.  Following the birth of my second child, I worried about the world we lived in and had serious anxiety about my children's future.   Working in the Jewish community gave me a sense of purpose and allowed me to feel as though I doing my part to solving some of our community's problems.  And then with time, I found Jewish meditation and Torah study.  It is how I learned to pray.  It became my way to "praise God."  My spirituality, my curiosity and my love of Judaism grow as I continue to devote my life to our community.  And it gives me even greater pride and joy that my children want to share this with me.

Through my work in the Jewish community and my commitment to our Jewish life, I have found a way to be Leah.  I have a lot more research to do about my name and today I am proud to continue sharing it with our matriarch.

Lessons from Meditation - Toldot

Over the past three years what I have learned most from meditation is that as I sit amongst my group, I am always in awe of our groups' diversity in experiences.  This past week, as we studied Toldot, we shared our impressions of how digging the wells is a metaphor of our lives.  

* * * * *

18 And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.
19 And Isaac's servants digged in the valley, and found there a well of living water.
20 And the herdmen of Gerar strove with Isaac's herdmen, saying: 'The water is ours.' And he called the name of the well Esek; because they contended with him.
21 And they digged another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah.
22 And he removed from thence, and digged another well; and for that they strove not. And he called the name of it Rehoboth; and he said: 'For now HaShem hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.'

* * * * * 

During this study, we shared about digging up the wells of our past allows us to be released from whatever it is that might be holding us back.  And as we begin our journey to the past, just like in the Torah, the first well, Esek, might bring some contention.  And as the journey continues to the second well, Sitnah, one may still find strife as the look deeper into one's past. And finally we come to Rehoboth, where we have found our place.   This allows us to expand our hearts and let others in.

This session made such a profound impact on me.  If every journey has a beginning, middle and end, not just moving forward, but also going backwards, perhaps we can take time to "dig up our past." When we are far from it, then we can have the perspective to review it with new healthier insight.  I know that meditation and study led to great interest in prayer and learning, which then lead to more study of Jewish ritual and text. And through all this I have found some resolution to old traumas, wounds or simply bad habits.

I am enriched by my meditation group and I even surprise myself by my weekly dedication.  Through meditation, I have found healthier and more productive ways that now follow me into my work week.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am truly blessed by all that surrounds me, by the weekly Shabbat teachings, by the moment that led me on this journey, by the richness of the spirituality and lessons that guide me, and by my teachers, friends and strangers all whom share their lives and allow me to learn from them.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hope at the Airport - on my way to the GA

In a cab, arriving at the airport, I see LOVE.  I am witness to LOVE and my imagination bursts with stories of couples leaving each other, families traveling together to reconnect, and single individuals traveling to who knows where or for why?  But in my mind, I can make up some great stories of heroes, lost souls, magical love stories and comedic family reunions.

The airport has always made me feel adventurous, excited and full of hope.  When I was little and my parents told me we were moving from NY to LA, I was excited.  And I remember that a friend who was sad to see me go asked, "Aren't you sad?"  And as I was getting into the car, I responded quite strongly, "No."  As far as I was concerned, I was moving much closer to Disneyland and for an 11-year-old, that is prime real estate.  (The truth is that I wasn't as close to Disneyland as I thought and we didn't go as often as I thought we would).

As a young professional, I traveled with business people which is a completely different and fun experience.  I was lucky to start my career in the entertainment business which allowed me to attend several conference that really were the epitome to networking and fun.  I would travel with great confidence as a professional woman and enjoyed this time in my life very much.

Once I changed my career, the conferences that I chose to attend took on a different tone.  I began a path of learning, finding any resource that would help me grow as a professional and in my personal life.  Women's conferences, Jewish conferences, local lectures, and fortunately, even my job and my synagogue gave me extraordinary opportunities for learning.

As I sit on the plane, I wonder, "How did I get from LOVE at the airport to my own love for learning?"  Not that giant of a leap I guess.  As I make my way to the General Assembly, I am filled with excitement and hope to learn with my colleagues and partners from all over the world.  To be among like minded people who are all working to create a better world for the Jewish community and beyond is a gift for which I am truly grateful.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Lessons from Meditation, Lech Lecha - Journey from Famine to Feast

On my way to meditation yesterday, I saw a beautiful rainbow, straight ahead, in my path, my eyes would have had to be closed to miss it.  So obviously beautiful and powerful if you think rainbows are either in the spiritual or scientific sense.  So when our meditation and study reflected on thoughts about one's journey, good/bad, feast/famine, divine/random, and expectations/disappointments, the rainbow's beauty stayed with me all day, even a day later as I write this.

In contrast to the rainbow, the word that I connected to during our study was famine.  We learn about Abram going forth "to a land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1) and once he arrives, he finds famine in the land.  Today, famine is a reality for those who are homeless and hungry.  Many experts and volunteers work hard to help those who need food, shelter and clothing.  Personally, I struggle with turning my concern into action as I walk by or drive by those who are truly dealing with physical famine.

And then, those of us who are happily clothed, fed, and living in our most comfortable homes, still struggle with spiritual famines.  The question for me is, "Can I recognize a spiritual famine in those moments that I get stuck, sad, lost, or simply wandering?"  The answer is sometimes.  There have been times in my life where feeling overwhelmed with sadness was a spiritual famine.  For simplicity, I will use the anniversary of my father's death as an example.  Yesterday was five years since my dad passed away.  Immediately following his death, I was overwhelmed with sadness, confusion and relief that he had been released from his pain.  I remember telling others that "sad" is such a trite, small, three letter word that cannot and does not fully express how I was feeling.  There must be a bigger, multi-sylabbic word that is better and more fitting, but no, the truth is that there are no words that fully describe how one is feeling during such a difficult time.  The complexities of my feelings during such a great loss and pain felt so unique and impossible to rebound.  Yet, somehow, I got up and went to work, seemingly able to handle my life during that time.  Smiles brought on guilt and laughter brought on tears.  Until it didn't.  Six months later, I noticed a change.  It seemed sunnier outside, my heart felt lighter and I felt as though I walked through a new door.  The famine was over.

Yesterday, I saw the rainbow and thought how one of the saddest days of my life is now a clear and colorful day.  I am now able to fully remember moments with my dad as they had happened, and  more importantly, laugh at old jokes he told, enjoy a restaurant that I know he would have liked, toast him with a terrific glass of wine and share his wisdom and spirit with my kids.  And this is what I  recognize as the journey from famine to feast.  

Thank you Rabbi Ruth Sohn and our circle of learners for an incredible meditation and discussion.