Year-End, End-of Life Rituals

I enjoy perusing the New York Times’ year-end top-ten lists of books and movies even if I’ve read or seen few of those listed. More moving and enlightening for me is “The Lives They Lived,” an end-of-year Sunday Magazine dedicated to some of the famous and not-so-famous who died over the year.
It’s often fascinating and moving to read obituaries: what didn’t I know about well-known people? What did this little-known person accomplish, and against what odds? How was this person a pioneer, that one a great team player?
Since I started serving the Beth Judah/Shirat Hayam community some four-and-a-half years ago, I have conducted more than 50 funerals. I have met some fascinating deceased people…by association, through the stories told by their children, grandchildren and friends.
I learned of challenges and triumphs; aspirations realized or thwarted; blessings or fracturing of family; joys and sorrows; peaceful, timely deaths; slow, steady declines. When I meet with family members before the funeral, I try to minimize the focus on the dying and turn the conversation to the life of their loved one.
And what lives! A woman who, with the staunch support of her extended family, overcame physical disabilities to lead a full and fulfilling life. A man with irrepressible curiosity and a vast wealth of knowledge who freely offered (often unbidden) advice.
Others…A 98 year-old who had been a “Top Secret Rosie,” a female “computer” working on ENIAC, the first super computer. A man, just a couple of years older than I, who was remembered most for his kindness and generous spirit; another who, through his work at the National Institutes of Health, sought to help people even as he juggled a complicated family life.
They were variously described as quiet and non-competitive; devoted spouse; loving parent; driven to succeed, to transcend modest beginnings; proud of military service; dedicated to education; of deep faith even if not religiously observant.
They contributed to synagogue community through time, money, social involvement, singing, leadership, committee work, gardening. They were married 25 to 70 years. They had children, some of whom were estranged from them and others who were devoted to their well-being, some who don’t speak with one another and others who spoke about their parent with one voice and heart.
In closing every eulogy I recite, “יְהִי זִכְרוֹ/רָה בָּרוּךְ yehi zichro/ra baruch / may the memory of ____ bring blessing to the lives of those who knew and loved him/her.” For every family I have come to know, I believe that the enduring memories enrich their lives.
The sage Ben Zoma (in Pirkei Avot 4:1) offered this teaching: “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הֵשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ Eizehu ashir? Hasameiach b’chelko / Who is wealthy? The one who is content with one’s lot.” May we find contentment in our lives, and may we bring blessing to others well before it is our time to be remembered.
Best wishes for 2019!

Ma Tovu

Commemorating the merger between Temple Emeth Shalom and Congregation Beth Judah, and with an eye on the structural and cosmetic changes made to our building, the two-year mark seemed like a propitious time for a party. I titled it a “reDedication” (initially it was re:Dedication, get it? but wiser heads prevailed) and intended it to be a celebration of collaboration.
In mulling over what would be appropriate for the event, Ellie suggested that I write a new melody for something that the Reform and Conservative services could use and, therefore, could sing together. “Ma Tovu”, a text from Torah (Bemidbar / Numbers 24:5) seemed most fitting.
“Ma Tovu” is a verse that we are to recite upon entering a prayer space; in my translation, “How pleasing your homes, b’nai yaakov (desccendants of Jacob), the places you pray, am yisrael (people Israel).” The melody works as a round.
Sheet music and MP3 of the melody are posted above.
A group of singers, representing both constituencies, will premier the piece at the reDedication celebration on Sunday. When I have a recorded version with music and lyrics, I will post that on the Shirat Hayam web site.
Meantime, you are welcome to hum or whistle the tune as you enter your personal or communal prayer spaces.

Marching Against a Plague: A Prayer

On this Shabbat haGadol, this Great Shabbat, across the country and around the world, many thousands of people, especially young people, are rallying in support of action against the plague of gun violence that afflicts our country.
This plague manifests itself in mass murder. This plague manifests itself in the panicked purchase of pistols. This plague manifests itself in the grief of family members, friends and communities, and in the physical and emotional life-scarring wounds of survivors.
This plague casts a pall of fear upon our citizenry, fear for personal safety that drives some to acquire weapons and others to seek constrained access to weapons; fear that drives some to withdraw and raise arms and others to reach out and open arms.
Next week, we will celebrate Pesach, our festival of freedom. It pains some of us that the straw that broke Pharaoh’s back was God’s killing all the first-born in Egypt. Why the deaths of many innocents before the Egyptian leader was moved to take action?
Today, we can ask why the deaths of so many innocents have not motivated our government to seriously address this scourge, to determine that there must be a balance between the American ethos of self-determination and the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This is a prayer for our country, for our children, and for their parents and grandparents:
Dear God, We offer You praise for opening our hearts and our lips in supplication.
We pray for and we are grateful for those who serve the public with generosity and with justice.
We pray for and we are grateful for the armed forces who safeguard us and this sweet land of liberty in which we are privileged to live.
We pray for and we are grateful for the unarmed forces — first responders, teachers, volunteers — who work to protect our safety and freedoms.
We pray for and we are grateful for our elected officials who understand that strength comes not only from military force but also from moral conviction.
We pray for and we are grateful for those in power who see that our fraying social safety nets might not be strong enough to catch the weakest among us, and who are willing to mend those nets for the benefit of all.
We pray for and we are grateful for all who recognize the dangers of unfettered access to weapons and who support common-sense regulation for instruments of lethality.
We pray for and we are grateful for the opportunities we have to participate in healing this world. As Rabbi Tarfon said nearly two thousand years ago, it is not incumbent upon us to complete that task, but we are not free to abstain from it.
We pray for and we are grateful for the strength to do our part. O’se shalom bim’romav; just as You, Adonai our God, make peace in the heavens, please help us make peace among one another — and within us — here on earth.
Together, we say, “Amen!”
Shabbat shalom!שבת שלום

Movement

About 500 years before the Parthenon was built, King Solomon constructed in Jerusalem a magnificent temple as the worship center of, and earthly abode for, the God of Israel. Our sacred temple was a massive undertaking requiring tens of thousands of laborers and great quantities of stone, wood (from Lebanon), gold and other precious materials. Our temple was first destroyed in 587 BCE, rebuilt in 515 BCE and demolished in 70 CE. Nothing remains of the structure though parts of the retaining walls and entrances to the Temple Mount (har habayit) continually undergo archeological exploration. Unlike the Parthenon, the site of our temple is a place of active veneration, though (also unlike the Parthenon) it is a sore point of dispute over how God can be worshiped there. The debates/disputes in Jerusalem are many, and some of these have
resonance throughout Israel and beyond: non-orthodox prayer at any area along the Western Wall is denied by Orthodox authorities; ultra-religious men close down major traffic arteries to protest being included in national conscription; a new kashrut-certifying organization is challenging the traditional rabbinic monopoly on certification… Then there’s the major announcement this week that the United States’ embassy will be moved to Jerusalem as “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement.” Israeli papers report that responses to the announcement run the expected gamut, from praise and gratitude that the “reality” is finally being recognized by a major world power to apprehension over the price that anticipated Palestinian violence will exact from Israel’s citizenry. Individual Israelis’ opinions likewise run the gamut. One was both resigned to and resentful of the likelihood that Israelis will be attacked. A former US citizen asked when the “process” of which this announcement was a part would be publicized. Still another Israeli felt supported by the U.S. in the face of Palestinian intransigence and irresponsibility over the decades. A friend who is a geographer explained that cartographic convention calls for capitals being set in a particular style of type. His company has at least two versions of Israel maps; depending upon the usage, one shows Tel Aviv as the capital, the other shows Jerusalem. “Most Israelis really don’t care much about the issue,” he said. Meantime, Israelis are dealing with the high cost of housing, continuing to innovate in technology of all sorts, debating religious-secular issues, attending concerts and folk dance sessions, and, today, throughout the country, getting ready for Shabbat.

Thank you for listening

Maybe it’s the radio, maybe the reception in our bedroom; we can get only pop stations on the bedside radio/alarm. Over time, we’ve gone through the top-40 choices we could get, moving up the patter/banter/humor levels from middle school to high school to working world. On our current default wake-up morning show, there is a fair amount of brief call-in comments or conversations on the air. To me, the most notable thing about those calls (other than the respect shown to every caller) is that, without fail, the host thanks each caller for listening to his program. It struck me this morning that, despite the relative bathroom humor and celebrity-centered talk, this was something worth emulating. We generally remember to thank those who do things: kitchen or office volunteers; event or committee chairs; regular service attendees; lay leadership. I feel that I do not offer enough personal thanks to them and to the people who are, in effect, our listeners: you who read this blog; you who occasionally attend a service or participate in an event, class or program; you who keep Shirat Hayam in mind when marking occasions with donations; you who entrust your children to our teachers and caregivers; you who call the office to check on the time for a service or for Shabbat candle-lighting; you who make calls through the Caring Network; you who make the effort to patronize our gift shop; you who enable a loved one to be active at Shirat Hayam. It takes a lot of people to keep Shirat Hayam vibrant, and, of course, more ideas and more hands and hearts are always welcome. Thank you!

Timeless

For a number of years, I went through life without wearing a wristwatch, except as a decorative accessory on the rare occasion we went out to a classy affair. It wasn’t hard to get to that point: I was not comfortable with metal bands (concern about them catching my wrist hairs and a mild aversion to the aesthetics), and the sweat factor over a couple of summers didn’t make me happy about leather or fabric bands.
At some point, maybe when we got a car with air conditioning, I started wearing watches again. But not on Shabbat! Shabbat was my day off from the tyranny of time. If I really needed to know, someone nearby had the time, or a clock was generally within view. However, I was free, free of the compulsion to often check the time, to remind myself of the date, or to see how short or long was a couple of seconds. Taking off my watch (and winding it so it would still be running Sunday morning; yes, I like analog watches that “tick”) was one of the rituals through which I prepared for Shabbat.
Then, some three years ago, I became acutely aware of my time-bound responsibilities. Unlike the decades during which I had been self-employed and had few regular time-sensitive obligations, stepping into the rabbinate meant taking a new view of time.
Even though it was nearly impossible to not know the time — it was on every phone and computer screen and on nearly every electronic appliance, not to mention the designer clocks that often were part of office decor — I became acutely aware that we needed to start and end on time, be it a meeting, a service or an event.
I reasoned that 12 people are at a meeting that begins five minutes late, collectively, they’ve an hour of time. The challenge of beginning a daily service without a minyan has made me bend a bit, but I strive to begin on time and end when whatever it is should end.
And on Shabbat, I now wear a watch. About a year ago, I got my first metal-banded, battery-powered watch; I wear it nearly every day. On Shabbat, however, I wear my first “adult” watch, a mechanical, wind-up with a simple face and a sweep second hand.
This is my gesture of separating ordinary weekday time from the sacred Shabbat time as I am suiting up for work, as it were. I am using a profane tool on a sacred day, but, in good rabbinic tradition, I am doing it with a “shinui,” a difference.
Try to honor the sanctity of Shabbat time by doing the everyday things you need to do on Shabbat just a little differently, even if the only change is that you are mindful that it is Shabbat.

Close Encounters

Moshe espies a burning bush in the wilderness. Curious, Moshe approaches the bush. Adonai (God) calls out to him, "Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!" (exodus 3:5) It’s a good thing Moshe was told that he was on holy ground, for there seems to have been no indication of it. Moshe is not told about how long the ground would be holy nor where the holy ground ends (so that, at least, he can put his sandals back on). God continues speaking, charging Moshe with leading the Israelites from Egyptian bondage to freedom. Moshe is not necessarily happy about the mandate, but he follows it. "The earth, and all that is in it, is Adonai’s," declares the Psalmist (24:1). We are reminded, poetically in Psalms and straight out in Torah, that we are tenants, residing here by the good graces of our land Lord. The issue of land ownership in the Promised Land is unsettled in the Torah description of the Jubilee, in which land holdings revert to those initially granted them. The issue of land stewardship is less ambiguous, and in many respects we are told, "you are not to pollute the land in which you live." (numbers 35:33) This "pollution" is at least as much moral as it is physical, but the message is still powerful: pollute the land and it will "spit you out." Again, from Psalms: "The heavens are heavens for Adonai, and Adonai gave the earth to humankind." (psalms 115:16) This planet is ours, and ours alone, to maintain, exploit, preserve. Just down the street is the ocean shore, and I am in awe of the waves and the vast waters they edge. I am grateful that my kitchen faucet dispenses clean, safe water. And I am reminded often that the water we have on this earth is the water that was at creation; it has been with us from the start, and it is all the water we will ever have. The same can be said of the dirt, of the rock, of the air; we abuse them, we pollute them at our peril. It is not only the Promised Land of Israel that can "spit out" its inhabitants for morally contaminating the land. We can be driven from where we live, and from how we live, by the ways we physically – and, by extension, morally – pollute our land. We could view wildfires, clear-cutting by means of fire, creeping desertification, drought, increasing temperatures as burning bushes: the ground is holy but we are not listening. We would do well to take off our shoes, take a deep breath, drink some water, go for a walk on the beach and hear the voice of God.