Tag: Healing (Henaynu)

On the Airplane: Alone within a Crowd

Miles above the earth, sitting snuggly in my seat, surrounded by 200 other travelers on JetBlue’s LAX-JFK shuttle, I felt alone. Not one to make conversation with strangers on a plane (who, once discovering I am a rabbi, begin to tell me about every Bar Mitzvah they ever attended), the usually outgoing me becomes very introverted. I sat quietly, pondering in silence and sadness about how easy it is for an individual to feel invisible even amidst a crowd of people.  If connecting with others requires openness, self-disclosure, and a willingness to feel vulnerable for a moment, it also needs an impetus: someone or something that invites an interaction. 

It made me think about Or Ami, about how much attention and energy we devote to making people feel welcome, and about how there still must be are people – even members of our congregation – who feel uncomfortable or invisible. Yes, Or Ami does so much to try to break down barriers. We offer explicit welcomes on the website to interfaith, special needs, LGBT, and multicultural/racial individuals and families. We insist on nametags (with first and last names) at all programs and services. We begin each service by inviting guests to introduce themselves.  We call the entire congregation three times a year, just to check in and to convey the message that “you matter to us.” Henaynu, being there for each other, defines our congregation.

Yet thinking about the other me, that man sitting in silence on the plane, I wondered how else might we model a welcoming atmosphere?  What could we do to be more proactive, welcoming those for whom being quiet or introverted are part of their self-definition? Since my best ideas always come from others,  I invite you to share your thoughts. 

The Ick Factor: Rabbi Denise Eger on Tazria/Metzora

This from my colleague Rabbi Denise Eger on Tazria/Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33):

This week’s double Torah portion Tazria/Metzora describes spiritual defilement by means of child birth, physical ailment, and discharges of both semen and blood by men and women. A small section of this week’s portion describes a kind of tzarat or affliction that attacks houses and fabrics. This week we enter an ancient mindset that seemed to revile some of the natural functions of the body along with physical ailments that were poorly understood. It made everything from menstrual blood to semen as something to revile rather than as natural and normal functions of the body. Both blood and semen in these Torah portions with the potential for life are treated in a special category that can cause spiritual impurity.

The opening of the portion describes the conditions of childbirth that bring the mother spiritual impurity or uncleanliness. When a woman gives birth there is a lot of blood. It is part of the process of the body. And so according to this portion she must purify herself following the ordeal of giving birth and coming into contact with blood that holds life. Depending upon whether she has a male child or a female child there is a different ritual for restoring her spiritual purity. For a male child she is unclean for 33 days. For a female child it is double the time for 66 days. According to tradition she has to account for both her own and her daughter’s potential to bear children later on.

In the ancient mind and certainly the Biblical mind blood and semen were the sources of life. When blood or semen was spilled or oozed from the body they understood that the potentiality of life was being leaked. Thus ancient mindset called for a spiritual and holy state of being that needed to be restored in the individual. Balance needed to be restored, the balance of life and life giving forces. And this week’s portions describes ancient methods of restoring that spiritual balance put out of whack by contact with blood, semen and whatever the affliction of tzarat may be. There is an intertwining of the physical disease of tzarat which is some kind of scaly skin affliction and a notion of spiritual impurity. This idea gets further reinforced because the priest acts as diagnostician and also has a role in figuring out when the person is no longer impure but clean. The priest is in part doctor and shaman.

But the tzarat mentioned in this week’s portions is not only in human beings but can also be a condition in houses or fabrics. Scholars believe it is some kind of fungus or mildew that brings impurity to the household. This week’s portions also describe ways of cleansing the house and fabrics of this “ailment”.

Today for us moderns these two chapters of Torah give us much consternation. It is hard to relate to the ancient attitude that holds these very normal conditions as something unholy. But this ancient mindset continues to inform our own attitudes about sicknesses. We continue in our own day and time to sometimes see certain disease as punishment rather than as the random acts of contagion or functions of the body. We are sometimes reviled by skin conditions and turn our heads when someone is afflicted or looks different. We sometimes don’t affirm a person humanity who is ill. We isolate and ostracize those who are sick and the “ick” factor is high! Indeed a ritual of re-entry to the community might be exactly something that would help. The Torah portion has within it ways for all these people with these various afflictions to re-enter the community and to be cleansed. No one stays outside the camp forever.

And perhaps that is the message for today. There are times when our own health issues take precedence and we need to attend to them. We need our doctors and nurses and health care professionals to diagnose and help us on the road to recovery and healing. But healing doesn’t just happen physically. We can understand that there is a spiritual dimension to our physical realities. And this spiritual reality also needs attending to. Whether through prayer like a healing Mishabeyrach or going to the ritual bath to celebrate recovery, these acts help us reintegrate our spiritual and the physical realms. And that is exactly the point of these two portions. We have to recognize how the spiritual can express itself physically and how the physical expresses itself spiritual. And when we do so we can rebalance our lives. Perhaps that is the message of this week’s parasha.

Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package

These are difficult times. As our financial markets continue to nosedive, we are forced to find new resources of strength to pull ourselves up out of the abyss. In a world of individuals, we might expect to do this alone. Circle the wagons and protect your own. Survival of the fittest.

But Judaism teaches a different way. We hold each other up like we hold up Torah.

Two teachings, actually. First Talmud teaches Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another, reminding us that we will never be alone. Because we are responsible for helping each other. Since communal ties are stronger than individual pain, we are commanded to hold each other up through the most stressful of times. Then we learn from Torah, tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue. The doubling of the word tzedek (justice) reminds us that pursuing justice is paramount. We seek social justice when times are good AND we seek social justice when times are bad. A difficult economy provides no excuse to shirk our responsibilities. We care because we care. Both for for those we know and for those we do not.

Thus Congregation Or Ami has been enacting our own Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package, a comprehensive plan to reach out to congregants. Supported by our Board of Directors, this Stimulus Package includes no pork. Rather our Stimulus Package addresses three goals: (1) to provide real resources for job acquisition, financial relief and mental/physical health; (2) to offer low/no cost activities for individuals and families to break the isolation brought on by crisis; and (3) to utilize all forms of communication (high tech internet and low tech one-on-one conversations) to reach out, check in and take care of our congregant community.

For a community that values B’tzelem Elohim (we are created in God’s image), that we are each valued, and in Petucha (openness), where we courageously talk about the difficult truths in life, this Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package answers the call of Henaynu, that we are there for each other through both joyous and difficult times. May we weather the storm together. Remember, I am always here to listen and help.

In response to this article, I received an email:

I wanted to thank you for your inspiring article this month. I always find your words meaningful and empowering but this month really touched a chord.

We also so appreciated getting a call from a congregation member asking how we were doing. It meant a great deal.

As you are so aware, this is hard times for everyone. It is wonderful to know that there is a caring community there to help and to listen.

I wish you and your family a wonderful Pesach and Shabbat Shalom.

I forwarded this email, anonymously, to Or Ami’s Board and Staff with the following message:

She is specifically referring to my article in the bulletin. But understand this…

After 16 years in the rabbinate, I have learned that the rabbi often comes to personify the community/institution. While this congregant is thanking ME for MY article, she is also thanking this congregation, its leadership and staff for all of our efforts to reach out to people during these hard times.

She is thanking:

  • The people who made calls for/with Kim Gubner to check on people
  • The people who have hosted hikes, and adult gatherings, job search assistance, and no cost childcare and…
  • The people who have caringly dealt with those who cannot pay their commitments
  • The people who warmly welcome others coming into services, to programs, on the phone
  • The people who take the occasional abuse from others because the stress is so great, it must spill over somewhere
  • The people who wrote articles, blurbs, announcements which communicate our caring and outreach.
  • The people who … are you!

Thank you for all you are doing to make sure our Jewish Spiritual Stimulus package is successful in touching people’s lives during these difficult times.

You all – staff, board, clergy, interns – and everyone in between. You are amazing, and I am proud to be part of this community.

To which Or Ami’s Board and Staff members responded with the following comments:

  • I feel such a sense of pride for Or Ami as we all do and it shows in all that we are and what we do!
  • Everyone is so very supportive and caring for each other. We have such a wonderful home at Or Ami.
  • It is truly an HONOR to be part of this amazing community! Let’s keep this feeling forever, no matter how large Or Ami grows!
  • Thanks for great leadership, to the Or Ami Team, all of you are great which is the reason we joined, got involved and have stayed. We don’t just say we are a warm loving community we show it in our actions day to day. A nicer group of people you could not find anywhere. My life has been enriched through our membership at Or Ami and most importantly building friendships and relationships with so many of you.

How enriching that a Jewish Spiritual Stimulus Package has touched many: those who are receiving its assistance, those who are watching from the sidelines, and those who are responsible for delivering the assistance!

The Gift of Caregiving

Or Ami Congregant Linda Fingleson received an award for this essay entitled, “The Gift of Caregiving” from Caring Today website. Linda writes:

“Mom ‘n Dad, I’m here.” How many times a week doyou say that? If you are a caregiver of loved ones, you would be saying it almost every day of the week, for months at a time, possibly continuing for years.

I have calculated that between my twin sister and me we have said it at least 2500 times in the last three years. When our parents could not drive anymore, they became totally dependent on us. When my father fell and broke his wrist and hip, we knew they could not be alone anymore. We hired a full-time caregiver to be with them during the nights and the few hours we could not be with them because of our own families. We are responsible for all their basic needs, food, clothing, medicine, doctor appointments and entertainment. That first year it felt like a chore, and both my sister and I were somewhat resentful because how did we end up with this job? If we went grocery shopping and the next day my mother called and said she forgot something, we became angry. Doctor appointments became a nightmare: By the time we got them in and out of the car, waited for the doctor, had the blood work done, it was a three-hour ordeal.

But the most amazing thing happened about a year into our caregiving duties. Instead of being angry or resentful, we started to fell like we had been given a gift. Yes, a gift! Those long lines at the market or the even longer waits in the doctor’s office became an opportunity to have conversations and find out things we would never have had the chance to do-the stories and long talks about the different lives they both lead and how it made them the people they are today—memories and snapshotpictures in our minds that can never be taken away from us. I think the biggest gift that my sister and I have received from our parents is the appreciation—the appreciation they feel for what we have given them of our time and energy, and most of all, for our unconditional love. We feel blessed to have been given these last three years to give care to our parents and hope and pray that there will be many more memories and stories to come.

There is a bond so strong between us that it is unlike anything we thought possible. We have become an inspiration to our friends and family who in the beginning thought we were crazy for taking on this task, but now see the opportunity we have made of it. Yes, it is hard; yes, some days are more difficult than others. But anyone who is giving care to loved ones has made a commitment to make the lives of those people the best it can possibly be. Both my sister and I feel that this, initself, is a gift from God!

Prayers for Peace

As the war in Gaza intensifies, let us offer these prayers. Each comes from a colleague in Israel:

The first, from a colleague in Israel, Moshe Yehudai, Raanana:

Dear Friends,

Regardless of your political views, I call you at this moment, a few hours after the beginning of the ground incursion to Gaza, as ever, to be sensitive to human life, who are now in such a tremendous danger.

Jews and Arabs, men and women, young and old, soldiers and civilians – they are all created in the image of God. – This is my fundamental belief, and my fundamental prayer is that the bloodshed will be minimal.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hoo yaaseh shalom aleynu, al kol israel, al kol Yishmael ve’al kol bney adam. May the One who makes peace in the High Heavens, bring peace to us, to all Israel, to all Yishmael (Isaac’s step-brother, the father of Muslims) and to all people.

Another prayer:

A Prayer for Times of War
by Rabbi Yehoram Mazor, Av Beit Ha’Din of MARAM, Israel

May the Everlasting One who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah bless all the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces and all those who are protecting our people. May the Source of Blessing protect them and free them from all trouble and anxiety, and may all they do be blessed. May God send safety and redemption to all our soldiers in captivity.

May the Eternal have mercy on them and bring them from darkness to light and from enslavement to salvation, give them strength and save them. May the Eternal listen to all the prayers of our people.

Merciful God, may Your compassion be with us, and remember Your covenant with Abraham. May you spread the covering of Your peace over the descendants of Ishmael, son of Hagar, and over the descendants of Isaac, son of Sarah, and may it be fulfilled that they shall hammer their swords into spades and their spear into plowshare. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall learn war no more. And each shall sit under their vines and their fig trees and none shall disturb them.

And let us say: Amen

Death and Dying: Talking to Kids about…

We recently heard about two tragedies in our Conejo Valley educational community:

  • An Oak Park elementary teacher’s husband committed suicide. He had 2 small kids. He was a local photographer who was there as many of the children became B’nai Mitzvah.
  • A Medea Creek Middle School 8th grader, Cody Badalato, died on Sunday after being in a coma for a week. Last Friday night, Cody was having difficulty breathing and after his parents called 911, suffered cardiac arrest. He was airlifted to UCLA, where he was diagnosed with leukemia lymphoma, which caused a large mass in his chest. This condition was unknown to anyone until the emergency. Up to that point he was a healthy 13 year old boy. Cody’s 14th birthday was this past Saturday.

Understandably, students, parents, teachers and the whole community might be feeling a jumble of intense emotions. (Read the complete eLearning with Rabbi Kipnes eNewsletter)

One of the most challenging tasks confronting us all is how to explain death to a child. In the midst of one’s own grief or in the attempt to comfort another, a child’s need to know and understand is often overlooked. Or, adults decide that a child simply won’t comprehend what is happening. Or the tremendous upheaval in the normal routines of the household throws the child into a kind of chaos of unexpected events and uncertainty about his or her future. Yet psychologists tell us that children today, shaped by the constant barrage of death portrayed on television and in the movies, are far more aware of death and its consequences than many adults realize.

The decision about what to tell children will depend largely on the age of the child, her or his sensitivity to the subject, and the child’s relationship to the deceased. As with the “phases” of grief, much of the actual response of a child will depend a great deal on the relationship between the parent and child, and how the parent chooses to discuss the death itself.

In conjunction with the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting, we offer these resources to help guide those of you touched by these tragedies. Please forward these to your friends.

Resources for Helping Your Child Cope

Talking to Your Child about Death and Dying, including

* Informing the Child
* Should I Bring a Child to the Funeral?
* Deciphering what is on a Child’s Mind
* Guidance for Talking to Childen of Different Ages
* How to Comfort the Mourner
* What to Say and Not to SayWhen a Child Dies
* Prayers for When a Pet Dies

Facing a Suicide: Talking to Kids about It, including

* Five Initial Thoughts when Dealing with a Child after a Suicide
* Six Warning Signs of Suicide
* Seven Things to Do: When You Suspect Suicidal Feelings

Caring for the Mourners, including

* Writing Condolence Cards
* Supporting the Mourners

A Prayer for a Cure for Cancer

May you find the courage and fortitude to face the realities of life:
that some live and some die
that sometimes things just don’t make sense
that we can chose:
to hold those we love closer
and to count our blessings.

“When Money is Sucked from a Community, What’s Left is Community”

Worried about your portfolio, your mortgage, your kid’s college, or your own retirement? Where do we turn? The quote of the week, from Jewish Journal Editor Rob Eshman, hits the nail on the head.

When the money is sucked from a community, what’s left is community. Sure, there is less for now to sustain services it provides, but the bonds of acquaintance, friendship and family abide. When your real estate business skids, when Zell’s L.A. Times defers your buyout payments indefinitely, when a trusted friend loses your millions, there are still friends to go to for support, for commiseration. Stripped of its financial successes, the community Jews have built here is revealed for what it is: bonds among people, not among donors.

This is what our community, Congregation Or Ami, is all about. People supporting people, through good times and bad. Not talking about being a community. But living it. Its about Henaynu, being there for each other. Everyday. All the time.

Said differently:

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, Emerson wrote. I suppose we’ll learn the richness of community now that much of its wealth is gone.

Henaynu: Check out how we do it

A Rabbi’s Dream: Attending Services Cuts Risk of Death

I’m bracing now for a flood of new worshipers…

JTA reports: Study: Attending services cuts women’s death risk (November 25, 2008)

Regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death for women by 20 percent, according to a new study. The study by researchers at Yeshiva University and its Albert Einstein College of Medicine was published Nov. 17 in the Psychology and Health journal. The researchers evaluated the religious practices of 92,395 women aged 50 to 79 participating in the Women’s Health Initiative, a national, long-term study aimed at addressing women’s health issues and funded by the National Institutes of Health. Those who said they attended religious services at least once a week showed a 20 percent mortality risk reduction compared with those not attending services at all. The study did not attempt to measure spirituality; its authors stress that it examined self-reported measures of religiosity. The study adjusted for the women’s participation in organizations and group activities that promote a strong social life and enjoyable routines, behaviors known to lead to overall wellness. “Interestingly, the protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption,” said Dr. Eliezer Schnall, the lead author of the study. “There is something here that we don’t quite understand. It is always possible that some unknown or unmeasured factors confounded these results.”

Rebecca’s Pregnancy Problems: Finding a Way Through the Pain

As we read in the Torah (Toledot, Genesis 25) about Rebecca’s pregnancy problems and the pain it brings to her life, I recall a sermon I gave during one of my first years as a rabbi. Talking about infertility brought forth a whole series of emotions: those who were dealing with it and were pleased to have their rabbi recognize it; those dealing with it who we pained to have to face their pain; those with kids who did not understand what was the big deal; those who thought the issue had no place as discussion on the High Holy Days.

I learned a great deal from that sermon: about contextualizing such issues, particularly about those that touch only a specific group – so that larger messages of healing and caring come through. Nonetheless, I remain aware that infertility is one of the most painful of issues we face.

Rabbi Natan Fenner, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, offers this touching drash on Rebecca’s infertility this week’s parasha:

In the unfolding narrative of the first Israelite family, Rebecca and Isaac experience a period of infertility, followed by a difficult pregnancy. In the depths of her pain and fear, Rebecca cries out, voicing profound uncertainty and existential doubt (see Genesis 25:22). She is given to understand that she is carrying twins with vastly different personalities, struggling even in her womb and destined to part ways from their earliest days. Thus is the stage set for a life of conflict and irreconcilable differences between sons Jacob and Esau, which Rebecca will witness and try to manage as a mother.

Where can one turn when in the midst of overwhelming or long-term suffering? When facing a persistent family conflict; a chronic and painful condition; a seemingly bottomless or endless personal trial? Reflect on your experience, or with a conversation partner: In such circumstances, when the pull toward despair may be strong, what allows us to tolerate the pain and fear, to endure with some sense of hope?

Rebecca’s prayers to God are answered not with an immediate end to the painful experiences of her pregnancy, but she emerges with some clarity about what is happening (she is carrying twins); with the knowledge that some element of her suffering (the intense internal ferment preceding the boys’ birth) is finite; and with the assurance that God is aware of her condition and is in some way accompanying her in this journey (in the promise of the “two nations” that would ultimately flourish from out of her womb). While the text does not state it explicitly, we are left to infer that Rebecca finds a renewed sense of purpose and determination both during the remainder of her pregnancy and beyond.

Whether we cry out in the depths of our hearts, to God, to a trusted confidante, or out into the Universe, we are following in Rebecca’s footsteps. And when we have understanding companionship in response, we may be soothed, or strengthened, even as our underlying condition remains deeply challenging. Realizing that we are in motion, if only in our
yearning or in the expressions of our grief, can counterbalance a sense of stagnation or being stuck in an interminable state. Similarly, having a sense of direction for “afterward”, or having some confidence that aspects of our situation will eventually improve—even having the mental and spiritual space to allow for that possibility—can similarly bolster us as we “hang in there”.

Take note also: in response to the spiritual dimension of Rebecca’s plea for help and understanding, she connects with a new contextual frame and a part of life that transcends this moment of anguish. Like Hagar and Sarah before her, and like countless generations that follow, Rebecca finds strength in a vision of her place in the flow of life as she reconnects with the Divine and with a larger future.

May we, too, in our times of deepest fear and existential questioning, our wearying seasons of bleak horizons, our moments without apparent comfort, find ways to cry out and to direct our pleas where there might be a compassionate ear, an understanding heart, a spiritual perspective, or a Divine embrace; and may all who wrestle with despair receive the strength and support to endure and reach a place of greater fullness and blessing.

Recovering Addicts are Our Teachers

Choose Life That You Should Live:

Recovering Addicts are Our Teachers

By Lydia Bloom Medwin
Former Rabbinic/Education Intern (pictured at left)
Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA

“Acquire for yourself a teacher…” This passage from the Mishnah encourages us to seek out those more knowledgeable than ourselves and to become their students. After meeting with four Or Ami congregants, each recovering from alcoholism or an addiction in one form or another, I have found for myself some wonderful teachers.

During the past month, I met with three alcoholics or addicts and one spouse of an addict. Each had a unique history with their own addiction – the first time she drank, the transformation of his alcoholism into a heroine addiction, her sifting through the credit card bills to find her husband’s unknown charges – yet all four had so much in common. The most important commonality emerged in discussions around a twelve-step program. Each day they surrender their lives and their will to God – their lives depend on it.

My teachers are some of the most spiritually centered people that I have ever met. They have all developed close relationships with God, however they define their Higher Power. They know that when the world becomes overwhelming or when something makes them fuming mad, there is only one solution: give it over to God. These moments of prayer and meditation, both spontaneously spoken and ritually observed, anchor them in the truth on which their lives depend. This truth is comprised of the first three steps in a twelve-step program: 1. I can’t do it. 2. God can. 3. I think I’ll let Him.

But these are only the first few steps on the journey toward recovery. Even in recovery, the addict (and even the spouse of an addict) can find that he or she becomes consumed by the fear and pain that pushed him or her towards addiction in the first place. They are forced to learn completely new ways of dealing with their problems, because they cannot turn to the bottle or the pills or whatever addiction used to dull their pain. They know that if they ignore these fears, the disease of addiction can progress on. If the alcoholic stops drinking but does not deal with his or her fears, the addiction continues to intensify. When the addict returns to the addictive substance, the abuse of that substance is far more serious, as if they had been drinking and getting progressively worse during the entire period of sobriety. Talking about their fear and pain is just as much a part of recovery as abstaining from the substance itself.

My teachers taught me that they can only find the power to face their fears by constantly refocusing on “giving over one’s problems to God.” This is the only path that can lead to recovery and healing. I was amazed by the incredible strength they evidenced as they moved from addiction to recovery. Imagine truly believing that “I will not survive unless I continually remind myself that I must give my life over to God.” Would you have the strength to surrender to your Higher Power? But it is only this surrender that helps the alcoholic/addict choose to abstain from using. In the Torah, we are commanded to choose life that we may live. An alcoholic actually chooses life every day.

“Only a drunk can help another drunk.” This quote from the movie The Story of Bill W. completely baffled me when I first heard it. How could two people with such a disease help one another get sober? What does this mean for me, a rabbinic/education intern who wanted to be of service to the recovering alcoholics in our congregation? Once we realize that the only way to stop the addictive behavior is to continually find fellowship with others who understand, we can embrace the truth: No one can understand the internal life of an alcoholic like another alcoholic. No matter how much the person’s loved ones care and want to help, only a community of people who have the same disease can speak the language with and feel the empathy for the alcoholic or addicted person.

It was this seemingly simple discovery that led Bill Wilson, an alcoholic himself, to develop the first twelve-step program, a system of recovery, lifetime support, and anonymity for people with addictions of all kinds. It remains the only known way of helping people who struggle with addiction. Presently, there are over two thousand Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery meetings each week in the greater Los Angeles area, including many in the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys. AA has a rich, proud, and private history; its members are protective of their meetings and the organization because of its incredible healing power in their lives.

As a rabbinic intern, I thought that through these discussions, I would be able to better to talk to the Jewish alcoholics or addicts that exist in every Jewish community. I learned instead that it was my role to listen: to their stories of pain, of hitting rock bottom, of survival. Then it was my responsibility to educate others about the disease of addiction and to the program of recovery, about the ones who don’t make it and the ones who do, and the ones who thrive despite all of the odds against them. I would like to thank those people who shared their experiences and their lives so openly with me for the sake of our communal learning. I deeply respect their incredible journeys. It also means a lot to me on a professional level, as their stories will certainly inform my rabbinate for years to come. You are four really great teachers. One of you said to me, “In seeking God, I find relief.” I pray that you all find many moments of relief.

We can all learn from the addicts in our lives and in our community. They have so much to teach us in terms of hope, personal change, strength, and spirituality. Or Ami is a place that strives to better understand addiction and the Twelve Step program. We are a place to come for understanding, acceptance, and spiritual support. We welcome all those struggling with these issues to contact Rabbi Paul Kipnes (rabbipaul@orami.org) or Rabbinic Intern Sara Mason-Barkin (Sara@orami.org) for support or Jewish resources regarding addiction and recovery.

During Economic Crisis, a Sukkot Lesson of Hope

My colleague, Rabbi Aliza Berk of the Bay Area Healing Center, poignantly illuminates the lessons that the festival of Sukkot bring to bear on the fragility we all are feeling during this economic crisis and recession:

Now we are celebrating the Fall harvest and pilgrimage festival of Sukkot; and the focus of the holiday shifts from the synagogue to the home. Sukkot is also known as zeman simhataynu, the festival of our rejoicing. It is a time to count our blessings. Sukkot comes to teach us to appreciate what we have and to hold our loved ones close. A sukkah is a temporary hut with a leafy roof used for Sukkot holiday meals, similar to the huts built during harvest season in ancient times. The sukkah reminds us of the delicate spiritual balance between recognizing our fragility and vulnerability and feeling sheltered by God’s presence. This is a time to reach out to those who need us and are in pain and aching from the battles of life.

This last year, our country has experienced devastating wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and a major financial crisis. Many of us wonder how we can rejoice when our hearts are heavy, filled with fear about our future. During times of anxiety and fear, our rabbis remind us to focus on the words of prayer. One prayer that I always find very moving includes the words, “Ufros aleinu sukkat shelomeha” – “spread over us your sukkah of peace.” When I read these words, I feel a sense of calm and serenity. I imagine God’s loving embrace promising me shelter and protection from life’s challenges. I try to focus on the present moment and appreciate the gift of sitting in a fragile hut beneath a star-filled sky. Each of us can feel a sense of joy that in this moment life feels safe. Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that whether people “live in palaces or huts, it is only as pilgrims that they dwell, both huts and palaces form our transitory home. In this pilgrimage, only God is our protector and it is God’s grace which shields us.”

Why is the sukkah associated with peace and unity? There is a Hasidic teaching that observing the mitzvah of Sukkot draws down to this world a transcendent spiritual light. This divine light erases the differences between people and fills the world with an awareness of how we are all connected and we are all one.

On this festival of Sukkot, may we take stock of our lives, our homes, and the ways we organize our lives, and express our gratitude to the ultimate Source of our protection. May the Holy One of Blessing help us learn to fill our lives with acts of lovingkindness and look up in gratitude to the One upon which the sukkah of our life is based. May this be a zeman simhataynu, a time of joy, hope, faith and personal renewal.

© Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, Rabbi Aliza Berk

For more Bay Area Healing Center Torah commentaries, click here.

Six Steps of Teshuva (Turning or Repentance)

Tashlich, the ceremony at the beach in which we throw breadcrumbs to symbolically cast away our sins, is powerful symbolism. But the real work of teshuva (literally, “turning” but easily understood as cleaning up your life) is more complex and time consuming. Jewish tradition teaches that we need to engage in the process of teshuva year-round. The High Holy Days are a reminder for those procrastinators among us to get moving on this life-fixing process. This distillation of the medieval rabbi Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance can help guide all of us as we do the work we need to do. Click here to read my Six Steps to Teshuva.

Forgiveness: A Favor We Do Ourselves

A few years ago, our then Rabbinic Intern, now Rabbi Alissa Forrest, gave a sermon on Erev Rosh Hashana about forgiveness, which focused on forgiveness for particularly aggregious sins. In it, she quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People):

One year, my Yom Kippur sermon was on the theme of forgiveness. The next day, a woman came to see me, very upset about the sermon. She told me how, 10 years earlier, her husband had left her for a younger woman and she has had to raise two children by herself for the past 10 years. She asked me angrily, “And you want me to forgive him for what he did to us?”

I told her, “Yes, I want you to forgive him. Not to excuse him, not to say that what he did was acceptable, but to forgive him as a way of saying that someone who would do that has no right to live inside your head any more than he has the right to live inside your house. Why are you giving a man like that the power to turn you into a bitter, vengeful woman? He doesn’t deserve that power over you.”

Forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us. It is a favor we do for ourselves, cleansing our souls of thoughts and memories that lead us to see ourselves as victims and make our lives less enjoyable. When we understand we have little choice as to what other people do but we can always choose how we will respond to what they do, we can let go of those embittering memories and enter the New Year clean and fresh.

From Egypt to the Promised Land: Coming Out with the Help of Rabbi Paul Kipnes

We rabbis offer support and counseling to people through the many transitions in life. I recently received this from someone who years ago called me for help:

Coming out in my 50s was painful in the extreme, but having emerged at the other end of a prolonged coming out process, I am so grateful that I had the courage to finally live my truth…and it was Paul Kipnes, rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, who pulled me through the darkness and into the light.

I came home one day a few years back, and my ex-wife asked me if I was seeing anyone else. After having tried for so many years to keep my gayness secret from myself and then, when I could hide from myself no longer, to hold my family together until my youngest child left home, I finally said, “yes,” and all hell broke loose. She became so angry that I had lied to her, not told her of my struggles, not let on how tormented I was. From that moment, my life became almost too much to bear, as all my carefully constructed fictions crumbled.

Rabbi Paul was my refuge. When I called him up, he met me that very afternoon. We sat for hours. I cried, I mumbled, I stumbled my way through my story…and he held me, hugging me and providing me a safe space to try to figure out my life. He talked with me about the Jewish master narrative, leaving the narrow places of Egypt, wandering aimlessly in the desert, and finally arriving at the promised land. In my darkest moment, he showed me a flicker of light.

Today, I am filled with gratitude that I am in the promised land. I have achieved serenity, I have a serious relationship that is almost a year old, I have strong relationships with my grown children, and most important, I have a strong relationship with myself. In those dark hours when I first met with Rabbi Paul, I could not see a way out. He showed me that like Jews and gays so many before me, I too might one day arrive at a promised land.

I could not have seen that on my own. Because of Rabbi Paul, I was able to leave my personal Egypt, was able to muster the courage to wander through my own personal wilderness, and arrived joyously to today. When I say shehechiyanu thanking God for sustaining me, keeping me alive, and allowing me to reach a joyous day, I recognize that I am also thanking Rabbi Paul Kipnes and the divine within him that he showed me that dark day.