A Prayer for Eleanor

ElanorWhen I was young, I decided that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her Elanor, after the tiny, tender yellow flower described in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

As a middle-aged woman, I met an Eleanor. She reminded me of that little blossom, the small, star-shaped flower brought by the Elves to the earth, a blossom of grace and beauty.

The Eleanor I met was mostly called ‘Ellie.’ In our first meeting, at a Shavuot picnic, she sat on a park bench, spotlessly and elegantly dressed in summery whites and pastels. Her face spoke of composure, introspection.

In our early year, I accompanied Ellie through the death of her brilliant and gentlemanly husband, Dr. Irving Joffe, a man who held a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Irving Joffe held patents in his first profession and then went on to become a doctor of radiology at Tufts University, at the University of Rochester, at the Yale School of Medicine.

Ellie bore her loss with grace. And then, her own decline with like grace.

Ellie has struggled for years with a brain tumor. First, she could walk less and less. Then she was entirely confined to her wheelchair. In the past months, she has been unable to get out of bed.

She is a considerate, thoughtful woman. She loves to learn. Until very recently, I never visited her without seeing a stack of books nearby.

This past year, she lost more and more control over her speech. Now and again, I would see a tear of frustration as she struggled to speak, to find the words.

“I know what I want to say,” she said. “I can’t find the words.”

One day, as she fought for words, finally giving up with a gentle smile, I said: “Ellie, your eyes are trying to tell me what you are thinking. I will try to read your eyes.”

Over the past year, she would compose herself, I could tell, for every visit. I had to name the challenges she was facing before she would acknowledge them. Slowly, a little reluctantly, she would nod if I asked her if she was feeling sad.

I visited her this morning. Now, Ellie is having trouble swallowing. Her caretaker told me she was not communicating. She was sleeping, mostly. I expected her to sleep through the entire visit and decided to play soft prayers so she could rest.

I took out my guitar. “Shalom Aleychem,” I sang. “Peace be on you.” Then I sang a lullaby of angels, B’shem Hashem. “May Michael be on my right, and on my left Gavriel. Uriel before me and behind me, Rafael. And over me, Shekhinat El.” I sang the prayer of peace, Oseh Shalom.

But I did not sing Ellie to sleep. Her tender eyes were open, observing me the entire time. She twice wiped a tear from her right eye while I was singing “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Listen, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Finally, I sang Adon Olam.

I knew what I was doing, and it hurt.

Adon Olam is sung as a final prayer in Friday night services. But it is also recited in the room of a dying person. The last stanza reads “Into Your hand I entrust my soul both asleep and awake. And with my soul, my body too. You are with me; I am not afraid.”

“God’s palm,” I said, “is holding you tenderly, Ellie.”

I believe that. I believe that God knows Eleanor Joffe for the quiet, loving lady she is. I believe she is treasured and held. She is beloved.

After I sang, I blessed her. I asked God to give her ease and shalom. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me. I tried to read her eyes. But all I saw there was her exhaustion.

I kissed her head. “I bless your kepe,” I said.

I stood at the door, speaking softly with her caregiver, when I heard, suddenly, Ellie’s voice.

“I love you,” she called out hoarsely. “I love you. I love you.”

I turned. Her arms were outstretched.

I put down my guitar, my notebook. I went back to her hospital bed and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. “I love you, too, Ellie. I love you, too.”

And she said, again and again, “I love you. I love you.”

Ellie, tender, star-shaped, yellow flower of generosity and kindness, of beauty and grace. When the time comes, I pray that the Holy One of Blessing gathers you up like one would gather a flower. With the tenderness a fragile, elegant, lovely thing deserves.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.

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Healthy Irreverence

Jesus in Brasil 1Everyone needs a dose of healthy irreverence now and again. Two such doses are found below. My advice: Avoid like a biblical plague, should you feel disinclined to laugh at religion. Including your own.

Part 1: In which I make fun of relatives and an excessively large statue of Jesus

I am not certain why, but I grew up with Jewish people who frequently called on Jesus. As in: “Jesus! I can’t believe that guy just ran that light. What in God’s name was he thinking?”

You could have all sorts of fun with this. Who would Jesus be in this formulation? Who is God?

Certain relatives of mine invoked Jesus’ name with middle initials included. Or they described his actual location. You can imagine.

For many decades, I have worked to purge myself of the remotest tendency to follow examples set by my relatives. Seriously, how would I feel if I overheard someone saying: “Adonai on Mt. Sinai, what the hell just happened here?”

I will admit it. I regressed last Sunday.

My husband, Ralf, and I were watching the World Cup finals between Germany and Argentina. It would take time to explain, but it happens that I am a die-hard fan of the German team.

The broadcast kept getting interrupted by shots of the second-largest statue of Jesus in the world (the other one is in Poland, as you might expect). The 98-foot tall soapstone and concrete statue in question is located at the top of the 2,300-foot Corcovado mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Jesus looks down at the city below, arms outstretched. A huge sun was burning over Jesus’ head. Very dramatic.

We have seen a good deal of this impressive statue during the tournament.

Naturally, the first time the statue appeared on the screen, I was annoyed. After all, pictures of this statue are everywhere. Just google “Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro” and you will get twenty-four million hits. (And now, for full effect in actual numerals: 24,000,000 hits.)

So why did we need to see it just then, I ask, when the Lionel Messi was very likely to make another crazy-beautiful run for the German goal?

The second time the image interrupted the game, I felt the ire rising.

“Crikey!” I said.

I used to think this was a harmless, meaningless expression. But I just discovered, whilst looking it up, that it is a 19th century euphemism for “Christ.” Um, sorry.

On Jesus’ third coming, I leapt up from my chair and shouted, “Jesus! Can we please watch the game?”

Yup, my bad.

Part 2: In which I make fun of my own people

Jews across the world, when citing the only creedal statement Judaism possesses, generally do not know that what they are saying actually contradicts what they are saying.

I shall explain. Jews possess one essential dogma: the Shema. The whole phrase goes like this: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.” Most translations say something to the effect of “Listen, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Jews think they are making a steadfast declaration of God’s oneness when they chant the Shema. No loose and irregular ideas about any family relationships or separate components. God is a unity.

Just say “one.”

I should first mention that the word “Lord” is not actually to be found in this text. Jews apply the vowels for the Hebrew word “lord” (adonai) over the letters that represent the personal, private name of the deity so they won’t try to pronounce said name. This was once the prerogative of the High Priest. Now, no one gets to try.

Some people add other vowels in to come up with the transliterated name “Yahweh,” but this is mere speculation. The letters in the scroll don’t have vowels. This is what you get, and that’s all (transliterated, of course): YHVH.

The second salient word for our purposes is “Eloheinu” which means “our God.” I will not get into the complex fact that the source for this word is “Elohim,” which can also mean “gods” and does sometimes mean exactly that in our scriptures (as in “other gods” – see Exodus 20:3 where you will find exactly this expression).

Once upon an ancient time, there was a Canaanite deity who went by the name of El, sometimes referred to as El Elyon. And if you look about in ancient texts and archeological evidence you will find that our forefathers of long ago knew quite a lot about the Canaanite pantheon in which El had subsidiary deities. One of these went by the name of YHVH.

I can go into all the detail in another blog post and when I do, we will hang out in Deuteronomy for an excellent illustration of what happened to biblical texts when their editors tried to cover up our messy theological history. The important facts in this particular blog are these: Long, long ago, in some parts of the Ancient Near East, El and YHVH were two different deities, one subordinate to the other. Eventually, our ancestors did the work of conflating names for those deities into varying appellations for the one god we worship.

We mean it when we say that God is one. But we use the names for two different ancient deities when we say so.

Religion is funny.

Given the many terrors in the world that religion produces, I like to take it tongue-in-cheek now and again. Only now and again, though.

Today is the 17th of Tamuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached in the 6th century BCE. The destruction of Jerusalem was just weeks away.

Here’s why I make sure my irreverence is a sometime thing.  Because I am, in fact, certain that divinity is both in all of us and ever around us, eternal and beautiful. I like to look for it, hope for it, and be thankful for it.

Given the world we are living in, that’s one thing I am never irreverent about.

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Horror Upon Horror – And Hope?

Three Israeli Boys
Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel

There is never enough horror.

In the first week of July, we learned that Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar, the three Israeli boys kidnapped on June 12 were, in fact, murdered – within hours of their capture. Likely, the authorities were aware of that fact, given, among other things, the frantic cell phone call from one of the teens played at the burial.

Mohammad Abu Khdeir
Mohammad Abu Khdeir

Israel reacted with a massive round-up of over 400 Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. Five Palestinians died in the crackdown, including another teen, 15-year-old teenager Mohammed Dudeen.

The burial of the three Israeli boys was followed, also within hours, by the brutal beating of a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was then set on fire.  He died sucking in the flames consuming him.

Terrors unfold so fast that there is no keeping up or holding back the bile.

Yesterday I read an eloquent analysis of the horror of acquiescence.  David Grossman’s essay “On hope and despair in the Middle East” was published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Today,” Grossman wrote, “in an Israel that has known so much disappointment, hope (if ever mentioned at all) is always hesitant, a bit timid, and apologetic. Despair, on the other hand, is utterly confident and self-assured, as if speaking on behalf of a law of nature, an axiom that states that between these two peoples there shall never be peace, that the war between them is a heavenly decree, and that altogether, it will always be bad here, nothing but bad. As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer, and at worst, a traitor who weakens Israel’s wherewithal by encouraging it to be seduced by false visions.

“In this sense, the Israeli right has won. The right, which adheres to this worldview – certainly over the last decades – has managed to instill it in a majority of Israelis. One could say that the right has not only vanquished the left: It has vanquished Israel.”

It is eloquent, impassioned reading.

For days I have remembered the nightmare years of the early 1980s, when I went on radio shows in Columbia, Missouri, as a local peace activist.  I was asked to speak about the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.  The Israelis were complicit, it had been discovered, in the Phalangist-perpetrated Sabra and Shatila massacres.  Palestinians were murdered en masse while Israeli Defense Forces surrounded both camps, stationing troops in order to stop any residents from escaping the slaughter.

And now, today in Israel?

Tens of thousands of “likes” on a Facebook page calling for “revenge” for the murder of the three teens.

Explicit calls from all directions to kill Arabs (or political leftists).

Members of the Knesset quoting Torah to prove that there is a God of revenge who backs their murderously inflammatory rhetoric.

And the like, as one would expect, from the “other side” is just as pernicious, just as hateful, just as ever-present.

This is not “mere” extremism.  None of this is spontaneously generated by the particular horror of the way those boys died.  It is the result of years of hope suppressed, perverted, dismissed.

In my lifetime, I have watched – yes, in horror – as Israel’s hope has been highjacked.

I was lucky to have been ordained by ALEPH – The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the same year as Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who was born and raised in America and has lived and worked in Israel on a kibbutz for decades.  Recently, he wrote: “I am very much aware that history is playing itself out on so many different levels and that recent events look very different from different vantage points… The more I read, the more I feel that the distinction is not between Jews and Arabs, but really between those who believe in using physical force, violence and fear, and those who believe in ‘live and let live,’ in using tools of peace and coexistence, in creating peace by de-escalating at EVERY OPPORTUNITY.”

He signed, as he always has as long as I have known him, “pray for peace.”

And so I shall.  Because there is enough horror.

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Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – Jewish, With Feeling

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l

My copy of Jewish With Feeling wasn’t on the shelf.

“Oh,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “I remember. I lent it to someone. Again.”

Jewish With Feeling is one of many books by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on my shelf. It is also a book I lend out more often than any other in our library. It is a book anyone can read – without fear of knowing too little; without fear of knowing too much.

It is a reflection of Zalman’s spirit: Light-filled, opening, welcoming, rich.

Reb Zalman died this morning, just weeks away from his ninetieth birthday celebration.

He was the founder of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The ALEPH seminary has ordained over 80 religious leaders. I am among them. I learned, at this seminary, the difference between rebbe and rabbi; I learned to be the former even when I was called the latter.

He was friends with countless other religious leaders across the world. One was the Dalai Lama. Their encounters were described in Rodger Kamenetz’ book The Jew in the Lotus.

I read the book well before discovering Jewish Renewal. I very much liked the Reb Zalman I met there – years before I got to like him in person.

Reb Zalman reached out to the disaffected, to the secular Jew, the alienated Jew, to any Jew. You only needed to stop for a moment and he could hold you with a story – each blessed with an unforgettable punch line that always, inevitably, elicited a smile, outright laughter, a nod, or a tear.

This morning I told a friend, “He gave something to everyone.”

Wisdom, first and foremost. I learned from Zalman to put aside the siddur and listen for the prayer that needed to be voiced. I learned, from Reb Zalman, to recover the Jewish practice of spontaneous blessing, though I am certain he would have understood why I so closely observed Christian friends practicing their own take on that art.

I learned from Reb Zalman that it was the task of the rebbe to look into the soul of a congregant.

Zalman was a seer of souls. The first time I met him was after he attended a service I co-led in 2005. He remarked on my “singing smile.” Later, that very day, he dedicated one of his books to me, to one “who delights in tefillah.”

Of all the facts of my life, this is one that has never failed. Give me any opportunity to sing prayer and I will know God’s presence for the gift it is. Zalman (fore)saw that.

In his book, Wrapped in Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, Zalman quotes his friend, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z”l: “How do you know that you have met your true teacher? Whatever this person teaches you, you knew it all along.”

Reb Zalman taught people what they knew all along – that went for everyone, Jewish or not.

I teach his work. For me, his most gorgeous teachings were these: Look into the soul before you. Help make our texts speak. Tell our stories and live them in the telling.

Show others what it is to be Jewish with feeling.

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