Wednesday, April 08, 2015

. . . and then sometimes it's all about the matzah.

היום ארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is four days of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverance in a week of loving kindness

One aspect of eating kosher, especially in an environment where those who eat kosher are very much in the minority, is mindful eating. Yes, there are other reasons for eating kosher and other ways to eat mindfully, but that's the subject for a different essay. My point in bringing this up is that mindfulness is ratcheted up a notch during Passover. You get used to making various food decisions and adaptations of meals during the year, but during Passover the avoidance of chametz brings another layer to think about.

One challenge is making foods that don't involve matzah in any form. It's just not good for the digestion to eat so much of it. But it is the basis of so many recipes, when you add in all the matzah meal that so often is an ingredient.

I happily had my weekly trip to the Civic Center Farmers' Market this morning, and will be cooking with lots of fresh, seasonal vegetables. Tonight it's soup, tomorrow a kugel--which will have some matzah meal, but I will keep it to a minimum.

I'll look at this extra layer of mindfulness as a positive, not something to complain about. It's always good to eat fresh, seasonal foods, liberate myself from the pervasive influence of processed food on our diet.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

It's not just about the matzah . . .

היום שלשים ימים בעמר
Today is three days of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

Now that the seders are over, the tough part of Pesach begins--keeping away from chametz until the 7th or 8th day--depending on your practice and location. But if the focus of the holiday is to tell the story, re-enact leaving Egypt and celebrate our liberation from slavery, what's the point of continuing through the week. And yet, the Torah instructs us even before we leave Egypt that this will be a 7 day holiday:
16 You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. 17 You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. 18 In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. [Exodus 12:16 - 19]

There seems to be a consensus in the commentaries that the 7th day commemorates the splitting of the Red Sea. That is a teaching I have not heard before, and I'm not sure what to make of it. But those commentaries also mention the intermediate days as days of purification, a preparation to cross the boundary that separates the slavery and oppression of Egypt from the time that marks the road to freedom.

So Passover is not just about the initial escape from Egypt, but honoring that first step into liberation. We need to appreciate the aftermath of that first, somewhat traumatic leave-taking--take a breath and get ready for what comes next.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Sharing ancient traditions

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

One of the things I love about Jewish rituals is the many layers of the traditions brought by different interpretations through the centuries. Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that a bit of oil is left of the Torah from the fingertips of the generations as it passes through their hands. I see this also in our celebrations, as different times and places leave their mark on our holiday customs. The deeper the levels, the further back they go, the more intrigued I become. The most ancient ties, linking us back to our roots before Abraham, are the ones that resonate deeply.

Sukkot is the chag-the holiday-that seems to connect most directly to those ancient, pagan times. We shake the lulav, with its myrtle, willow, and palm branches, and the etrog, that special citron, in six directions--north, south, east, west, up down. We march in a circle asking that higher power to please, save us. However the early rabbis justify these rituals, it seems much like magic incantations that seem to hark back to an era that would predate the lech l'cha--the going out of Abraham.

But it is in Chanukah and, I now realize, Pesach, that our ancient rituals feel in sync with people all over the globe. As all my students can tell you, the lighting of the candles on Chanukah has little if anything to do with the story that is told. It is our tribe's ritual of bringing light into the season of darkness. It's a ritual manifested in Christianity with the lights of the Christmas tree and the Hindus with the fireworks of Diwali.

Just as the ancient peoples needed to bring in light to ward off the darkness, they also needed to mark and give thanks for the rebirth of plants and animals that comes with the spring season, bringing life and sustenance. Eggs as a symbol of new life, rebirth, and fertility permeate both Passover and Easter. In Torah time, the first of Nissan, the month of Passover and Spring is the beginning of the year. In the same spirit, the Persians/Iranian/Afghani celebration of No-rooz/Nowruz on the spring equinox to mark the beginning of their year.

I find strength in the rituals of my people and love being able to use them as an entry into the endless stream of time both forward and back. Seeing the connection with other cultures reminds me that global connections have an existence beyond this digital age, with roots in the ancient world.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Re-Counting the Omer

היום יום אחד בעמר
Today is the first day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

We drank the wine, ate the matzah, maror, charoset, and all the other tasty dishes that come with the Passover seder. We asked the questions, re-enacted the story of liberation from Egypt, Mitzrayim, our narrow place, and find ourselves now on the road to revelation. To guide us on our journey, tonight we start the counting of the omer--49 steps of mindfulness.

You can find the how, when, what, and origin of this ritual in this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs and in this entry in the Judaism 101 online encyclopedia. For a brief explanation of the Kabbalistic counting method, you can read this article from Rabbi Simon Jacobson.  In the proverbial nutshell, we count 49 days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot, based on the teaching from the Torah--Leviticus 23:15-16. The Kabbalists added a layer of using 7 Sephirot, attributes that can serve as a connection to the Transcendent spirit, giving us a way to internalize the counting. Each day is assigned an attribute; each week is assigned an attribute. So the counting is not just a number, but a unique couplet of awareness.

I will once again take up my practice of blogging the omer, writing a post each day. As I remarked last year, I add to the count with an accounting of my life. This year I realize another obvious connection that I have manage to miss in this context until now. In Hebrew, the word for counting - ספ'רה - and the word for recount, tell a story - לספר – have the same root. And so, it all comes together.

For those of you who participate in the counting, I'm glad once again to count along with you. For those who have never counted, I invite you to come along for the ride. You are all welcome to download the simple chart you see to the left to help you keep track. I will also be tweeting out the count each evening, California time, so feel free to follow me, @mdivah.

On this day of double loving-kindness, remember that the counting, like life, is a process. There are often bumps in the road, and sometimes our journey takes us in a different direction. But the beauty of our traditions, these rituals we have followed for so many centuries, through so many generations, is that they remain for us to turn to, if not this year, the next.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Teachers of Patience

היום אחד ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is thirty-one days, which is four weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבהוד
A day of compassion in a week of humility

Patience is a virtue that I lack . . . then I look at my plants

My succulents, which looked so sparse when first planted in their box

My lemon tree, which took 3 years to bring that first fruit

Trying to retain the lessons they teach me . . . in spite of myself

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lightening our global footprint

היום שלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is thirty days, which is four weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבהוד
A day of strength in a week of humility

Thursday night is garbage night in my household. The bins need to be filled and put on the curb for pick up tomorrow morning. This may sound like a mundane task, something that goes on in every household. But in San Francisco, garbage can be complicated.

We've got three bins--a blue one for recycling; a green one for compost; and a black bin for anything else. Even that seems somewhat straightforward, but there's always a question about which containers can be recycled and which cannot; which ones can be put in compost and which cannot. There is a webpage that lists what goes where, but still, the questions remain. Which is why they even have to help you figure it out.

There are those who complain about this, probably the same people who complain about being charged for bags in stores. For me, it's a source of pride in my city. We don't just talk about preserving the ecology of our planet--we do something about it. In San Francisco we're working towards zero waste by 2020. And it's easy enough to carry your own bags, especially when it can help save our natural resources for the generations to come.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Happy Pesach Sheni!!

היום תשעה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is twenty-nine days, which is four weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבהוד
A day of loving-kindness in a week of humility

Chag Pesach Sheni Sameach -- Happy Second Passover!!

There are lots of important laws and instructions and rituals given to the Jewish people in the Torah. But there's just one where you literally get a do-over.

At the beginning of Bamidbar/Numbers, chapter 9, we read:
1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: 2 Let the Israelite people offer the passover sacrifice at its set time: 3 you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites. 4 Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the passover sacrifice; 5 and they offered the passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did. 6 But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, 7 those men said to them, "Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" 8 Moses said to them, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you." 9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10 Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, 11 they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, 12 and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the passover sacrifice. 13 But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the Lord's offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt. 14 And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.
I love this sanctioned second chance at a seder, given to those who are not able to participate at the set time. It reminds us of the importance of this ritual of storytelling and remembrance of freedom and liberation. It reminds us that all people, not just our tribe, can be a part of this commemoration. 

And for those who seem to think there is something wrong when families have their sederim at times other than the first two nights of Pesach---please let that go. You can keep and honor the rituals as prescribed in the Torah. But there is also an importance to have the story told throughout the generations, even if it's at a separate time. That is what will help keep this story of freedom and liberation alive throughout the generations to come.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


היום שמונה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is twenty-eight days, which is four weeks of the omer
מלכות שבנצח
A day of nobility in a week of perseverance

Just a place holder, since no writing is happening on this day.

Not very noble or persevering . . .

Monday, May 12, 2014

Looking at Kaddish

היום שבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבנצח
A day of foundation in a week of perseverance

On this day of foundation I take a liturgy class--one of many that I have taken with Rabbi Stuart Kelman. This one was on the various Kaddishes that are said in our prayer services, with much time spent on the Mourners' Kaddish, the prayer said on behalf of a loved one who has died. As often is the case with prayers, the customs go back so far that often their origins are obscured, But because they have been in existence for so many centuries, they are looked at as "law."

The codification of our observances is what unites us as Jews, gives us a tribal connection in this global society. But we need to remember that they are not set in stone. We need to learn what part they play in our lives, how they work, and even look at why they work...or don't. While the connection of tradition is important, keeps us in that stream that has run through the ages, we also need to revisit the customs, and renew their meanings so they can continue to to speak to us today.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In the flow of the language

היום ששה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-six days, which is three weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שבנצח
A day of humility in a week of perseverance

As I continue my daily blog writing for this year's omer practice, I also have to find time each week to write in Hebrew. I have written some posts of some of my trials, tribulations--and even a few triumphs as I continue to work on proficiency in this language that I love. (You can find them by clicking on "Hebrew" in the categories listed in the sidebar.) This year, I can see my relationship with Hebrew represented in this day of humility and perseverance.

Three years ago, I used the day of compassion and strength to write about my Hebrew studies. I ended that post with "I have the strength--and the smarts--to learn Hebrew. I need to add in compassion, give myself the time and space to let the knowledge settle in." Although there have been ups and downs, I do think that has taken place and I've moved forward in my Hebrew comprehension. When I study Torah, I can begin to uncover new meanings by looking at the grammatical structure of the verses and for a Torah geek like me, that's pretty cool.

Being more aware of the flow of the language also makes me a better Torah reader and service leader. People can hear the particular cadence and feel a connection to the writings. Part of the responsibility of a prayer leader is to bring people along with you, help them experience the letting go that prayer can bring. Having an understanding of the language helps me convey the poetry of the words, and allows the kahal, the community, to take them in and cycle them out in their voices, which is part of the point of prayer.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to speak fluent Hebrew. That's a maybe/maybe not. I worry that I won't be able to get enough vocabulary to stick in my brain. But I need use the aspect of humility to be able to learn in my time and not worry what advanced state I should be--again, the message of presence. Remember that like everything else in life, it's a journey. As long as I keep going, persevere, it doesn't matter how big or small the steps.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Kvelling. . .

היום חמשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-five days, which is three weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבנצח
A day of perseverance in a week of perseverance

Today is one of those days that makes a teacher proud. One of my students had his bar mitzvah today. After nine months of learning and studying and practicing (another three :) he shared so much Torah with translation, commentary, and chanting (three again :).

His Torah portion was Lev 25:1 - 28 of Parashat B'har--not the hardest section of Torah for a 13-year-old, but not the easiest either. In a nutshell, it has instructions for having the land lie fallow every seven years, and about the Jubilee year, every 50 years, when all possessions revert back to their original owners. All of this is a reminder that the earth does not belong to people, but to God.

While working on the translation, in verse 17 we came across the phrase, "fear your God." When I see this phrase, which comes up often in Torah and liturgy, I process it as awe rather than fear. When I asked Josh how he would translate it, he came up with "respect the power of God." It was a moment for this tutor to kvell.

His drash, his teaching, centered around how we need to appreciate that the land needs to rest as much as we do. He referenced someone he knows who is a farmer, who reinforced the practice of rotating crops and planting specific crops to bring back nutrients to the land, as well as letting the land rest. I have a feeling these teachings will stay with him--which is, ultimately, what this study is all about.

And then there was his chanting--which was spot on. In fact, there was a point where I thought he needed a correction, but he, very lightly, corrected me---which is the best a teacher can hope for.

Just a wonderful that will stay with me for many years to come.

Friday, May 09, 2014

It's all about three . . .

היום ארבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-four days, which is three weeks and three days of the omer
תפראת שבנצח
A day of compassion in a week of perseverance

A day of threes--twenty-four is eight threes which is three weeks and three days. There is a recurring theme of three in Jewish tradition. Abraham traveled three days when he found the place for the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:4). It was on the third new moon, the start of the third month of the liberation from Egypt that the Israelites arrived at Sinai (Ex 19:1). They spent three days in purification rituals before receiving the Asseret Debrot, the 10 utterances know as the 10 commandments (Ex 19:11). In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our sages, we learn the teaching from Shimon Ha-Tzadik, "The world rests on three things -- Torah, Avodah--Service, and Gemilut Chasadim--acts of loving kindness. And there's the thread that cycles through so much of ritual and liturgy--creation to revelation to redemption.

Three also seems to be the "magic" number when my students are preparing for their b'nei mitzvah. As they learn to chant, verse by verse, in layers. First, read and get comfortable with the Hebrew words and their meanings. Second, decode the trope, the cantillation, that gives the punctuation, the phrasing, and the music. Third, practice the verse as a whole.

And the practice itself has its meme of three. The first time through is very halting. The second time is better, with stops at the harder words and note combinations. It's with the third round that the smoothness starts to come. It's a phenomena I've now seen again and again...and again :)

Maybe it's the ancients of our heritage looking after the generations ahead. Maybe it's part of that eternal stream of tradition that my students enter into in their journey to adulthood. Maybe it's just the proof positive of "the third time's the charm."

Maybe 3 is the number of perseverance . . .