Category Archives: parents

Conversations for Life and Legacy

I am excited to announce the launch of Conversations for Life and Legacy™.

Conversations for Life and Legacy™ is a whole new approach to sharing our wisdom, making meaning in our lives, and connecting beyond ourselves drawing upon the insights of Jewish tradition and text.

Conversations for Life and Legacy™ goes far beyond an Ethical Will to share our sacred stories in unique new ways. Among the particular innovations are using a rabbi trained in chaplaincy to guide the interview and capturing it all on video.

Please look at our new website: www.ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy.com to explore this new approach; see what it can mean to you and how it can be brought to your community.

Today we also launch a Facebook page: ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy and we will be on Twitter as well @rabbidavidlevincll.

It’s time to have the Conversations of your Life!

Conversations for Life and Legacy™

www.ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy.com

 

V’Etchanan- Our Legacy, What Do We Leave Behind?

Moses continues his review of the journey through the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. He recalls the trials and tribulations and what it means to be in relationship to God. Moses tells the people that he will remain behind; Moses will die here in the desert and they will move forward to the Promised Land. Moses reviews the Law and we encounter a core Jewish teaching, the Shema followed by the V’ahavta.

We all know the words to the V’ahavta. It has been committed to our memory due to the recitation more times than we are able to count. In it we learn that loving God requires the active practice of the laws we have been given and that active practice requires that we teach these laws to the next generation, our children. We hear Moses recite this prayer to the people, but how might it sound if Moses internalized the V’ahavta as he accepts his fate preparing B’nei Israel to leave him?

If Moses was speaking personally, the language of the V’ahavta prayer might change. He might wonder if his children, the fledgling nation of Israel, have learned the lessons he spent his life living and teaching. In that, Moses resembles us, or rather, we who are parents resemble him. We invest our lives nurturing and teaching our children, hoping we instill good values so they may find a meaningful life based on a solid foundation. Are they ready to “fly on their own from the nest” is a question we all ask. We look back on our lives as parents and wonder; “Did I do it well enough? Were these lessons embraced?” I imagine Moses’ personal V’ahavta entreaty, and ours as well, might go something like this:

“I pray I have taught you well.
I hope the lessons and values I shared you have embraced,
And you will carry them and me in your heart
Down whatever path you choose for your life.
May these principles guide you
In the choices you make and the actions you take
From the moment you wake in the morning
Until it is time to rest at night.
Wear them proudly in your deeds and in your thoughts
So that everyone you meet will know
They have entered the presence of someone who tries to live life
Virtuously and with integrity.”

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To the mothers of Baltimore and mothers everywhere

My heart goes out to Ms. Toya Graham and every mother trying to raise their children and protect them from harm in Baltimore and everywhere danger threatens.

It is too easy for us to be critical in our quiet reflective and comfortable places casting aspersions on her character or questioning her parenting techniques. This was not her submission to white supremacy nor an homage to corporal punishment, rather this was a mother’s desperate attempt in the heat of a seminal moment to keep her son from spiraling into the horrible and destructive violence that threatened the lives of everyone in the riots and confrontation, including her young son. And in the moment, Ms. Graham admits she “lost it.”

 My friends of color speak of the breakdown of trust between police and people of color. They have shared the difficult and sad messages they teach their children of the special ways they must interact with police officers because they are African-American. They have shared the deep-seated fears for the safety of their children, only because of what they look like, to those who are supposed to protect them, let alone the challenges of living in a poor urban environment.

 Our society struggles with severe problems and social ills that need to be addressed. The issues with the police in the United States are a symptom of larger and systemic problems, which have been ignored for too long. The boiling over of pent up rage and anger should not surprise anyone. But engaging in lawless and riotous action in the heat of confrontation only risks life and limb. It does not effect change and likely delays or prevents constructive change to deal with these underlying issues, which have festered for years.

 Instead of criticizing Ms. Graham we should be demanding that she is given the tools and support necessary to offer hope to her son. We ignore what has been created at our own peril: a permanently disenfranchised underclass, without access to a life of peace, security, education, the ability to earn a living to support themselves and their families; A population living without hope or access to the life we hold dear.

 Some may find Ms. Graham’s physical act unpleasant, extreme or even wrong, but arguably she rescued her son Michael’s life. She had the courage to dive into the horrible sea of violence and despair and rescue her son from drowning. So although Ms. Graham “lost it,” in that moment she saved her son.

 Let us not be so quick to condemn Ms. Graham’s actions and turn instead our efforts to the important work of rebuilding our society. Let us focus on bringing the disenfranchised back into a place of belonging.   Let us work to promote justice and opportunity under the law and a system that protects all its citizens. Let us remember as a nation we are all affected, that the Michaels and Freddie Grays are our children. Now it is time for us to get to work.

A New Chapter

 Naomi and I have entered a new chapter in our lives. A new phase in the journey that has brought us to an interesting, sobering and new place.

 I do not have a formal name for it, but people approximately my age/generation are becoming aware of it and those of you in the generation that has preceded us remember this time as well. I guess we are officially “middle age.” With all the talk of 40 being the new 30 and similar reframing, the fact is that in our 50’s we are in the place where mortality is showing itself as a real part of life. We have those krenks and pains, and some body parts are not performing as they once did. But even more sobering, some of our friends are not faring so well. They have real issues, confronting things such as cancer and heart disease, and some have died. Our parents are aging; many slipping, and many of them too are dying. We have entered that phase where these things are becoming the common and expected part of daily life, no more the stories of others from another generation, or the extraordinary event of someone we know. I am not sure precisely what this phase may be called, except for possibly “our new reality,” this next phase of our lives.

 It is strange and as a new experience it creates separation and aloneness. Yet it is a phase that we all experience. This is a time when our older generation can truly reach out to us younger people and help us make sense of this new place; for they have been here and have lived through it. Their experience gives them an understanding that we could use. If we could talk about it, the wisdom of the older would help us make some sense of it. We both would benefit from the conversation and the bonds that this sharing could foster. When we open up about our fears and how we navigate through them, we deepen the relationships between us figuratively and literally holding each other’s hand.

Finding Relevance in Eikev

Robin Williams’ untimely passing touched the hearts of many of us.  He touched our hearts because we had a personal connection.  His gifts of comedy and acting his brilliant artistry found a way into each of us.  And now we lament his passing on a personal level.

My father died about the time that Debbie Friedman passed away. Debbie was an iconic figure. Her passing created a tragic sense of personal loss in the Jewish community.  And as deeply as I cared for Debbie, I was more focused on the loss of my dad.  It was then that I noticed how we routinely find some losses to deeply affect us and others devolve from a human connection to a mere statistic.  

This approach to death is a coping mechanism;  If each death affected us deeply, we would be overwhelmed by the emotions and paralyzed.  The mind and heart do what they need to do in order for us to move on about our lives.  But beneath this, for those who are lost, what do they leave behind?  

This is the question I find myself asking about Moses in the Torah portion Eikev.  Moses is the iconic humble servant.  And yet, in this portion, Moses repeats several times that it was because of what he did that saved the people from oblivion.  Moses’ humility moves to the background as the need to be relevant takes over.  

Might Moses be scared?  He is the last of his generation, the generation that was to completely perish before the people would enter the Promised Land.  Might Moses be scared that he would fade into oblivion, and be a simple footnote to history?  The extraordinary experiences of creating a nation over the past 40 years might be obscured while the people are so focused on moving forward into the promise that the future holds.  

History and our entire tradition holds Moses up as the great leader and teacher.  We still recall Moshe Rabeinu with awe as we retell the stories of his life inextricably bound to the unfolding of our people’s destiny. But Moses did not know that at the time.  In this, his second discourse, Moses knows the end is drawing near.  In the remaining time left to him, Moses struggles to share the highlights of forging of a rag-tag group of slaves into B’nei Israel, about to enter and conquer the Land.  He can hope that his entire life’s work means something to those he has shepherded.  But it is only his hope that they will remember him, embraced his teachings and teach the generations to come; that they will become the people who God has offered as possible.  Yes Moses, we did hear and we did learn and we are still struggling to achieve the vision set before us.  

For our elders, this might explain the strident moments in your conversations with your children.  For our children, this might offer insight into the motivations of your parents.    Knowing this might help us to better understand the personal connection between parent and child.  We will feel the loss when our parents are gone.  But we can share and appreciate the wisdom of our elders now, while they are present in our lives.

My father was God

A beautiful poem I shared for Yizkor Shavuot by Yehuda Amichai-

My father was God and did not know it.

He gave me
The Ten Commandments
neither in thunder nor in fury; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat         In a single melody and he pleaded and

cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,“Do not take the name of God in vain,”       do not take it, not in vain,I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”           And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear“
Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”

And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.“Honor, love, that your days might be long On the earth.”  And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.

אבי היה אלוהים / יהודה עמיחי

אבי היה אלוהים ולא ידע.הוא נתן לי את עשרת הדיברות לא ברעם ולא בזעם, לא באש ולא בענן אלא ברכות ובאהבה. והוסיף לטופים והוסיף מילים טובות, והוסיף “אנא” והוסיף “בבקשה”. וזמר זכור ושמור בניגון אחד והתחנן ובכה בשקט בין דבר לדבר, לא תשא שם אלוהיך לשוא, לא תשא, לא לשוא, אנא, אל תענה ברעך עד שקר.וחבק אותי חזק ולחש באוזני, לא תגנב, לא תנאף, לא תרצח. ושם את כפות ידיו הפתוחות על ראשי בברכת יום כפור. כבד, אהב, למען יאריכון ימיך על פני האדמה. וקול אבי לבן כמו שער ראשו. אחר כך הפנה את פניו אלי בפעם האחרונה כמו ביום שבו מת בזרועותיי, ואמר:”אני רוצה להוסיף שנים לעשרת הדברות:הדבר האחד-עשר, “לא תשתנה”והדבר השנים-עשר,”השתנה, תשתנה”כך אמר אבי ופנה ממני והלך ונעלם במרחקיו המוזרים.

—Yehuda Amichai

Remembering- Seders past and Yizkor

Yizkor Pesach 2014

The Seder Table at my grandparent’s houses was one of those interesting affairs.  The table started in the dining room, made its way past the wall into the living room and hung a right turn into the foyer.  This was unlike my great-aunt on my father’s side, where the table started in the living room, ran through the dining room and into the kitchen, where the kids sat.  Now I realize why the two families never got along; I always thought it was because one was Galitziana and the other Litvak…

At Nanny and Grandpop’s house, my mom’s parents, the table seemed to groan under the weight of the Seder Plates and bowls of salt water and bottles of wine and the platters upon platters of food. The table was laden with a stuffed breast of veal and brisket, homemade gefilte fish and chicken soup with dill and soft matzoh balls that my father mocked because they were not hard enough.  My mom made them like rocks, which according to my father who actually loved them, could be used by the Israeli army as provisions to be eaten or if necessary as a weapon to be thrown.  I recall my hand being slapped by my grandfather as I tried to take the Afikomen a bit too early in the affair.  I eventually would get it, but only after an appropriate amount of time and tries had elapsed according to his calculations.  I recall the mixing of English and Hebrew, the raucous noise of talking, singing, laughing and of course arguing, and sharing the story from the Hagaddah. The three major denominations of Judaism were all represented and all joined together to celebrate this mix of religion and family at the festive table.

I can trace my life through my movement along that table.  I moved from the kids table, where I once chanted the “four questions,” to the main table where I chant the Kiddush, and ultimately now to sit at the head of the table to help lead the Seder.  And there I sat this year, with my wife’s family.

They have their own interesting rituals and traditions, as does each family.  But one is particularly worth noting.  At the conclusion of the Seder, my mother-in-law plugs in the cassette player with a very special recording.  They recorded her mother on one of her last Seders at the table, telling stories sharing recollections of times past and a poem.  My mother-in-law sits transfixed, the voice carries her someplace else as she listens to her mother re-tell the telling of the Exodus.  She drinks in her mother’s words and for those brief moments, Rose Mandel comes alive for her.  That is truly the high point of the Seder.  And why we need to commemorate those we loved this Yizkor.

For Yizkor is our time to remember.  It is our time to reflect back on those we loved.  This is our time to recognize how much they continue to mean to us.  Often they fade into the background.  We are so caught up in the day-to-day things that fill our time.  Kids, food, shopping, the house, the spouse and our own selves, just to name the short list.  But now is our time to remember them.  Those we loved, those who we have lost, often too soon.  Oh to have a few more moments of them.  For when we remember them, we remember the blessings they brought to our lives.  The richness that is ours because of them, the history that is uniquely our individual own because of the way they shaped and influenced our lives.  We remember to offer gratitude for their being in our lives.  We remember their best as a means to help propel us to be our best.  And therefore we remember them as we strive to create the memories for those who come after us as the legacy we leave to them in an unbroken chain of loving and caring.