Sunday, February 26, 2006

This past week or so has been a week of challenge.

Robert Fulghum wrote a book he titled, "I Knew It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It." I confess that I have not read the book, but I love the title. I love it even more after 3 1/2 years of this rabbinical school adventure.

Yes, I knew it was on fire when I lay down on it. I sensed that rabbinical school would be the challenge of a lifetime, and the cautious encouragement I received from friends and mentors confirmed my suspicions: rabbinical school is not for sissies.

However, I had done other things that are not for sissies. I'd given birth twice without chemical assistance. I got my master's degree in half the time usually required, because that was the time I had. A pair of muggers tried to grab my bag on the streets of Chicago, and they regretted trying. I've run my own business, and turned a profit as a working artist. I got my kids out of a house that was falling down in an earthquake, and rebuilt the house afterwards. I pride myself on a certain degree of toughness, and I loved it when one of my sons referred to me as a "titanium magnolia."

Truth be told, I'd gotten a little bit overconfident. The secret behind all those things that I'd done well is that they all played to my gifts. Rabbinical school is another sort of adventure entirely; it plays to my vulnerabilities. I'm shy, I'm insecure, my hearing is not good, I have learning quirks that make languages with different alphabets difficult, and I have mobility issues. None of these things are assets for a rabbinical student.

This week it was the language stuff. I do not question that I need the skills that are so difficult for me to acquire. I know that with enough effort I can take my skills to higher and higher levels. I've been blessed with a Hebrew tutor who is a genius with special-needs students, and with friends and family who cheer me on as if this were an Olympic event (which is what it feels like.) By week's end, I was already seeing improvement. By term's end, I trust that I will be where I need to be, if I keep working.

Certainly, the main purpose of rabbinical school is to train rabbis. I trust that by the time I am ordained, I'll well and truly be a rabbi. But even now, even just 2/3 of the way into it, I like what I see when I look in the mirror: I see a woman who who loves Torah enough to struggle for it, who is tough enough to be the dunce in the class. I see a woman with a lot more compassion than she had at the beginning. Last but not least, I see a woman who can read the Shulchan Arukh out loud with fewer mistakes.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Today I gave my 4th year sermon at Hebrew Union College. The text is chapter 16 of the book of Exodus:

"More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

Ahad HaAm’s famous words are borne out in this week’s Torah portion.

We read about our ancestors, a raggle-taggle band who had a miraculous escape from one of the mightiest armies on earth.

Six weeks into freedom, their food ran out.

Dalia just read us the verses in which the children of Israel grumble that they wish they were back in Egypt.

According to the Ramban, they had been living on leftover matzah from Passover for six weeks.

They went berserk.

They turned on Moses and Aaron, as they had done before and would do again, and God responded with mercy, a promise that there would be a meal of quail that very night, and that the next morning, bread would rain from the sky.

The bread, however, came with instructions: one omer each, no more and no less, with a double portion on the sixth day. On the seventh day, Shabbat, no gathering, and no cooking: just eat the extra portion from the sixth day.

And that is how our people learned to keep Shabbat: they tried to look for manna on the seventh day -- and there wasn’t any.

They learned to gather the second measure of food the day before, and to keep it for Shabbat.

God did not merely command us concerning Shabbat: God provided lessons, forty years of lessons, every week in the wilderness:

Sheshet yamim tilketuhu, uvayom hashvi’i, Shabbat, lo yihiye bo.
Six days you will gather it; on the seventh day, Shabbat, it will not be there.

Our people were sustained in the wilderness by a miracle food that appeared six days a week. On the seventh day, they learned to rest. Granted, later there would be harsher lessons, when some people refused to learn: Their lives ended violently, but the metaphor remained: Jews cannot survive long without Shabbat.

Nowadays Jews live in a different kind of wilderness. We live scattered in diaspora, shuttling between work and home, our families flung far and wide. If we are students, there are lessons to learn, papers to write, internships to attend; if we are teachers, there are papers to grade, meetings to attend, research to do. For all who work in the world, there are jobs and bills and taxes to pay, appointments to keep, groceries to shop. There are all the small, time consuming annoyances: the car that needs service, the doctor’s appointment, carpooling and sitting in traffic.

Just as the ancient Israelites were starving for food, we are starving for time.

The idea of Shabbat seems as crazy and counterintuitive now as the idea that bread could rain down from the sky.

How can we build a "palace in time," as Abraham Joshua Heschel so famously called it, when we have no time to spare?


Who ever said that Shabbat would be made of spare time?

Shabbat is the prime time of Jewish life, it is the heart and soul of our tradition!

We have measured our weeks with it ever since the wilderness, and remembered it under the darkest of circumstances. Our day of rest and connection is what set us apart from all other people in ancient times: we alone were truly free one day in seven.

Its oddness and inconvenience today is our witness to the world that human beings are not merely born to work: we are born to live, and to love, and to learn.

Shabbat is the great treasure of the Jews, and today it is an endangered treasure.

We look at our overloaded schedules and think, I just don’t have time:
I struggle with the keeping of Shabbat, especially when I am at my pulpit, and I imagine that many of you do, too. And in that respect, we are exactly in the position of many of the congregants we serve: ask the average Reform Jew if he keeps Shabbat, and he’ll tell you that doesn’t have the time.

It is up to the leaders, folks, up to us, to make Shabbat the priority that it must be.

Unlike our ancestors in the wilderness, who did not know what Shabbat could do for them, we have the benefit of thousands of years of hindsight:

"More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

We know that Shabbat will keep us, if only we can figure out how we are going to keep it.

And IF we keep Shabbat, we can teach it by example: we can guide this generation of Jews, keeping them safe and connected through the wilderness of "no-time."

Jewish families can rediscover the pleasure of a meal together, of seeing friends at the oneg Shabbat.

Shabbat could enfold our interfaith families! Shabbat honors and supports every member of the family; it is the ultimate welcome.

There is time, on Shabbat, for everyone at the table, for a game of Scrabble, for prayer, for lovemaking, for serious conversation, for silliness and stillness and all the things we are too rushed and tired to enjoy, the rest of the week.

How shall we keep Shabbat?

We have all the resources of the tradition at our service, those and the good sense that our Reform forebears bequeathed us.

I challenge us here at HUC to an honest conversation about Shabbat, a conversation that goes beyond guilt or competitive piety, a conversation that asks, What works? What doesn’t? What does it mean, to rest? What do we need from a Shabbat service? What is a waste of Shabbat? How can we both keep Shabbat and serve our congregations? How can we help one another keep Shabbat?

Shabbat is God’s lovely gift to the Jewish People, a gift we sorely need.

There is a folk tradition that if all Am Yisrael were to keep Shabbat one week, all together, it would bring the messiah on his mule through the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

I don’t know about that, but I do believe that if enough Jews would keep Shabbat, week to week, it would transform our communities. I believe that the joy of Shabbat could re-enliven our people beyond our wildest dreams.

"More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

Let us talk, let us plan, let us dream.

Let us keep Shabbat!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

I ran across this quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt today, and thought I'd share it:

Great minds discuss ideas.
Average minds discuss events.
Small minds discuss people.

Next time I'm tempted towards lashon hara (gossip) I'll keep that one in mind.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I try to pay more attention to found objects than to lost ones, in general, but a news item today made me sad:

The Merritt Bakery in Oakland succumbed to fire yesterday morning. I'm glad no one was hurt, since it sounds like the fire happened very quickly, but I am sad that the old place has been damaged so badly. The food was certainly not haute cuisine or health food, and the service was occasionally quite strange, but it was always friendly and warm.

I've drunk a lot of Diet Coke in that place, usually chatting away with my sons and their friends, catching up on their lives. It's in the part of Oakland I think of as home, and was a grand meeting-place for soul food lovers, blue hairs, and family gatherings. I'll miss it.