Tag Archives: Memory

Devarim– Moses teaches about him and us

 Devarim is the great repetition that isn’t.  Moses’ speeches in Devarim are a wonderful retelling of a story, but so much of it is not true; at least much of is does not comport with the stories of the previous books of Torah. So what is going on with Moses?

 Viewing Moses as a person and not the mythic Prophet, Teacher and leader, Moses is doing what so many of us do. He is trying to understand his place in history, trying to figure out whether his teachings and leadership from slavery to peoplehood was really worth it. In simple language, Moses asks himself what we ask ourselves in the sunset of our lives: “Did I do good, did I make a difference?” Even the great Moshe Rabbeinu seems to question if he did the right thing and if ultimately he will make a difference in the world. For us, the answer is an unequivocal yes, but for him in that place, he was unsure.

 Moses’ stories are retold with a tweak here and an embellishment there. In these Deuteronomy versions, Moses recalls himself prominently and his actions are above reproach. Here at this place in his life, Moses knows he is at the end of his journey and what he has done is all that he can do. There is a sense of authority in his voice, as he needs to reassure the people who will continue forward without his leadership, and there is a sense of desperation as well as he needs to reassure himself.  It is here that we can relate to Moses the man, as we sometimes find our loved ones doing as he did.

 For those of us with older parents or grandparents we too see similar behavior in their retelling of their exploits during the journey of their lives. And the subtext of their stories echoes the issues and fears of Moses. We are our most compassionate when we lovingly hold them and respect their stories as recounted. It is our way of saying to them yes my dear one, you do matter, you did make a difference to me. I will love you and remember you for these and all the other gifts you have shared.

Your Personal Story- Meaning from the Akedah

We are about to read the story known as the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac. It is the story of Abraham hearing God’s command and taking his son on a journey to Mount Moriah, to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to the Eternal.

What does the Akedah really mean? And why do we read it now, on Rosh Hashanah? It is a hard text to comprehend. It is incongruous, it seems too sparse- so much of the story seems to be untold; the unspoken words in between the words on the page seem almost boundless. It is also a hard text as we grapple to find Jewish values in a narrative that does not seem to explicitly embrace them very well. It is a fascinating example of remembrance.

When we look back, it is interesting to see how we remember. Last year, all 365 days are compressed into some memories. We do not relive every moment. Instead we select highlights, and even those we filter and interpret. For anyone with a partner or spouse, we all have experienced a retelling of a story or event only to be interrupted by our partner with a different recollection of the same event. “No, it was Thursday— at 2 o’clock. And it was YOUR mother, not my father.” And even if you are single, we have all heard someone recall an event to which we think to ourselves, “that’s not how it happened at all.” Who we are affects and where we are in our lives affects what and how we remember. It is like that with the Akedah.

Each time we approach this story it is new. The words are familiar but we see things we had not seen before, often we see things for the first time. We have grown and we have experienced and we are not who we were the last time we encounter the story. And because of this, the story is new, revealing things to us we did not or could not see before.

There are stories and elucidations in our tradition that the rabbis told called Midrashim wherein they attempt to explain what is really happening in a particular biblical story, filling in the gaps that exist. The Akedah is a particularly fertile opportunity; the rabbis attempt to explain what is really going on here. Some Midrashim suggest that Isaac actually was sacrificed. One piece of evidence used to substantiate this understanding is that Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice Isaac. The Angel telling Abraham to stop would not have swayed Abraham from following God’s instruction. It would be akin to a Lieutenant countermanding a General’s order. But ultimately God remains true to the promise and resurrects Isaac. This could account for why Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain together, but Abraham descends the mountain alone.

Why would such an interpretation come about?  Possibly it was in response to a time of great persecution when Jews were being martyred killed for their observance. We needed something to hold on to at a time of great hardship and trial. And it may have fallen into disuse as Christianity embraced the Akedah story as a foretelling of their theology.

And then at other times, the Akedah presents the saving of Isaac as the triumphal expression of God’s love and the prohibition of human sacrifice. Some of the greatest minds, both Jew and non-Jew, throughout history have argued almost every conceivable interpretation. We carry on an illustrious tradition by continuing to grapple with this text.

So for you here today, at this stage of your life what does the story of the Akedah mean to you? On Rosh Hashanah, this time of introspection, we are likened to Abraham. So as you reflect on your year gone by, how do you make meaning from your journey? What do you remember, what do you leave out? How do you make sense of your story as you listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Akedah?

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.

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.

Discipline at what Personal Cost?

Leaders or anyone concerned with the welfare of others can find themselves confronting a challenging personal conflict.  We saw this recently play out in parsha Shimini. Here, the story of Aaron is an extraordinary narrative illustrating the real tension in trying to navigate the waters between public and personal needs.  In parsha Shimini, there was an imbalance between the two competing needs and the cost of doing one at the expense of the other was overwhelming. 

Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed because they brought an offering of “alien fire” before God.  But instead of grieving as any father would, Aaron is admonished not to acknowledge this tragedy in any way.  He is to attend to his sacred duties. The needs of the Kahal outweigh the personal need.  So Aaron tries to fulfill his duties as the High Priest, as Moses instructed.  Aaron is completely silent, suppressing everything related to this horrific incident.  It is only when Moses chastises Aaron’s remaining two sons for improper ritual that Aaron breaks his silence.  Aaron yells at Moses, unable to contain the emotion that has been bottled up inside.

 Moses was so disciplined, that the needs of the Kahal came before everything else including mourning the loss of the two young men, his nephews, Aaron’s sons.  Moses could only see the need to properly perform the priestly service to the Almighty on behalf of the people.  But it is not his sons that have been slain.  Aaron tried to accede to the demands of his position and do as Moses instructed.  He however was unable to maintain the discipline of Moses. But when Aaron broke down and showed his pain, Moses was moved and in an act of humanity consoles his grieving brother.

 How often are we overwhelmed when a decision has to be made?  Often life confronts us with an “either/or” choice.  We do not have the luxury of the “both/and” that we speak of in our theoretical and lofty discussions.  So often we judge others by the choices they make, when in fact, they often do not see that there was a choice at all.  I recall a profoundly difficult time when this happened to me.

 We sat in shock in the hospital waiting area immediately after my mom’s death.  My dad started to cry.  Then suddenly he sucked it all up, steeling himself to the situation saying, “I have to be strong.” And the tears stopped flowing.  I on the other hand, could not “be strong.”  I needed to grieve, whatever form that took.  I remembered a conversation I had with my mom where she asked me if I would cry for her when she was gone.  I did.

 The differences in our reactions to her death created a rift between my father and me.  I needed to mourn in my own way and I could not do it with someone who was trying to impose such control.  How different might our experiences have been if I could have understood the discipline my father was trying to exert upon himself.  We might have found strength in each other and maybe even the space to share this profoundly sad moment in much more supportive ways. If instead of harsh judgment, I could have found compassion.  If instead of toughening himself for some idealized vision of what it meant to be the head of the household, he could have shared his grief with me.  It took me a long time to begin to understand.  If only I knew then what I know now.

Make it a “Day On”

As we prepare for this weekend’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I share the thoughts of a friend and colleague from the Main Line in Philadelphia:

 This weekend, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.  Even more, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, and remember his teachings and challenges to us, we hopefully can embrace Todd Bernstein’s challenge to us (Todd is the founder of the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service) to make Monday not a day off, but a day on–a day of service.  We will commemorate Dr. King’s visions, dreams and hopes as we join with the members of Zion Baptist Church and Rev. Jim Pollard, and of Beth Am Israel and Rabbi David Ackerman, and our Unity Choir at services on Friday night at 8:00 pm and Sunday (note-Sunday services will also be at MLRT) at 11:00 am, and in two service opportunities on Monday-one at MLRT and one at Calvary Baptist Church.

 Rabbi Joachim Prinz, himself a refugee from Germany (my parents were members of his congregation in Newark, NJ), introduced Dr. King before he delivered his now famous I Have a Dream Speech on August 28, 1963.  His words seem as relevant and moving today as then.  He said:  “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things.  The most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem.  The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence…. America must not become a nation of onlookers.  America must not remain silent.”

 I look forward to being with you for this wonderful weekend of prayer, music, fellowship and service.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Straus

Presence is an active not passive activity

 We think of “being present” for the other as being available to hear them and be with them.  We say we reach out to them but often we are really offering to wait for them to come to us.  I have learned that is not enough.  Offering to be there is a far cry from going to where they are.   And I have also learned that when someone needs another, they rarely have the presence of mind to reach out to someone else, instead they are trapped, caught in a place of aloneness.

 A friend recently lost a son, a tragedy that words cannot adequately describe.  He was loved by many, as was his mother, my friend.  People packed both the funeral and the Shiva minyanim, expressing their love and support.  At one minyan, I approached my friend and I said in earnest, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” She responded, “Thanks, you’re the third rabbi who has made that offer tonight.”  She was appreciative, but her  matter-of-fact response was very instructive.

 Two weeks later I called her.  She had heard that I weaved the story of her son into a sermon and was overflowing with gratitude that I had remembered her and him.  The simple act of making a phone call, reaching out to her, rather than sitting waiting for her to call me, was received as a profound gesture of caring.  In those few minutes I truly did something important and meaningful.  I went to her and provided comfort.  Realistically, she never would have called me, and it was unrealistic for me to think otherwise. She was unable to reach out to me.  Whether we are providing pastoral care or being a friend, it is what we do that makes the difference in the lives of others.