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Audio / Video
Open to Hope - Click here to listen to a radio interview for "Open to Hope" - a non profit organization with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. .
A Gathering in Support of Israel and Peace, August 13, 2014. Click here to here to listen to "Reflection & Text Study: It is written in the Book of the Wars of Adonai, 'There will be love in the end.'" Click here to list to a prayer for Israel's soldiers, a prayer for healing, a prayer for Israel and a prayer for peace.
Click here to watch the burial of ashes from Dachau in the Durham Hebrew Cemetery, Memorial Day 2014.
Clcik here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - February 4, 2014 - on Untimely Death.
Click here to for a podcast with Amy Ziettlow, Host of FamilyScholars Conversations.
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber and Rev Joe Harvard on Your Health Radio for their conversation on "Faith and Death" - August 2013
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber's conversation with NPR's Frank Stasio on The State of Things.
Click here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - December 18, 2012 - on Holiday Loss.
Click here and listen in to minutes 10 to 31 for the conversation for a conversation about Faith & Healing with Drs. Adam Goldstein and Cristy Page on "Your Health Radio."
Click here to listen to a talk given at the Rotary Club of Chapel Hill on June 1, 2012.

 

Friday
Oct282016

Yom Kippur Yizkor 2016 / 5777 - Nurse Logs and Memory  

I want to share with you two stories from the summer and a poem.

First, in August I flew up to Minneapolis to perform the wedding for a young couple that spent many years here in Durham and found a Jewish home here in Beth El. The bride’s family was Russian.  At the wedding reception, while people sang and danced, her father sat next to me and told me his family’s story.

The bride’s father was five years old in June 1941. They lived in Latvia and, when Germany started bombing the area on the first day of the war, his father’s family faced a decision: stay or leave. It might have made sense to stay. Many Jews in this area had served in the German army in World War I and some speculated that the Germans would treat them favorably as a reward for their service just twenty-five years before.

If not for a small bit of - one cannot call it luck, but circumstance - there would have been no choice whatsoever. The bride’s father’s elderly grandmother lived with her son and their family - they could never leave her behind. But one week before the war began, grandmother went to visit her other daughter in a nearby village, leaving them with an excruciating decision. Should they stay and risk being caught up in the impending chaos of war? Or should they depend on their relative’s family to care as best they could for their elderly grandmother and, now being able to move quickly, should they flee through the doorway that circumstance had opened for them? They decided to leave.

There were no vehicles. They let go of their possessions and clung to what is most important: each other. Mother and father walked, the kids took turns riding on bicycles - and they went east, 50 kilometers in the hot summer sun until they crossed the Russian border to relative safety. They would learn later that their village was taken by the Germans on the 2nd day of the war. His elderly grandmother, his aunt and the rest of their family were all killed.

As we sat at the wedding, the bride’s explained, every member of his known family could be traced to that one decision: to leave on the very first day of the war, and to that one shift of circumstance - that their elderly grandmother had gone to visit her daughter a week before the war. As he spoke, I remembered a prayer we sing at Tachanun: Shomer Yisrael, Shmor Sheirith Yisrael - “Guardian of Israel, Guard the remnant of Israel” and thought about how much we are all “Sheirith Yisrael” - the remnant of Israel, the product of accident after accident, the end of a long string of luck and circumstance through Jewish history that brought us alive as Jews to the beginning of the 21st century. Today I think about we are not here as products of our own design, but rather how lucky each and every one of us is to be here on Yom Kippur. It is fitting today to remember, to remember those who came before us.  

The second story is not from Minneapolis or Latvia, but from Olympic National Park in Washington where, as I mentioned on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Jennifer and I recently enjoyed a trip to celebrate our 20th anniversary. As part of our trip, we walked through the Hoh rainforest and the Park Ranger explained how these temperate rainforests are home to Sitka spruce, hemlock, and Douglas fir trees. Some of these trees grow to over two hundred feet high and produce so much foliage that they block out most of the light. The forest floor can sustain ferns and other shade loving plants but beneath the ferns, it is so dark that scientists noticed a problem: Even if seedlings were to germinate, how could they gather enough light for them to photosynthesize? Or, put more simply, how can these giant trees regenerate themselves?

And the answer, I learned, on my walk with the park ranger, and my wife, is something called a nurse log. When one of these huge trees falls, it clears a path of destruction, not only when it hits the ground, but clearing out part of the canopy over the forest and creating a place where more sunlight happens to get in. But it’s not only that.

In his book, The Private Life of Plants, David Attenborough explains that these giant trees reproduce themselves:

...with the aid of their own dead bodies. The girth of an adult tree is such that the upper side of a fallen trunk remains above the ferns. A seed from a neighboring tree that lands on it can thus get sufficient light to germinate. Being perched there brings another advantage: the bark of the prostrate tree is very fibrous and holds moisture like a sponge so the young plant does not lack for water. As the seedling sprouts, it sends down roots. They grow over the flank of the log and down into the rich soil beneath.

These stories - the story of a nurse log and the story of a Russian family wedding in Minneapolis - go together in my heart, not just because I encountered them both over the summer. They each made me think of Yizkor.

Today we remember those who came before us. We remember with gratitude both the miracles we received through no merit of our own and the decisions they made based on values - such as letting go of possessions and clinging to what’s most important - that made our lives possible. We remember how much our lives are like those of seedlings that grow on a nurse log, how we are nourished by the gifts of those who came before us, how our lives would not be the same were it not for the sacrifices they made.

We remember not merely to recall those who are gone, but to allow them to challenge us: can we make of ourselves a nurse log? Can we clear a path for the sun to shine? Can we gather water and food for the next generation to grow? Can we follow the example of those who came before us and gave us the forest floor?

Before our meditation, I want to conclude with a poem by Dana Gioia, not about trees, but about gardens and memories of times spent together with those we love. It is called: The Lost Garden.

If ever we see those gardens again,

The summer will be gone – at least our summer.

Some other mockingbird will concertize

Among the mulberries, and other vines

Will climb the high brick wall to disappear

 

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—

The gracious acreage of a grander age—

So many trees to kiss or argue under,

And greenery enough for any mood.

What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

 

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow

Seems bearable when studied at a distance,

And if we speak of private suffering,

The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale

Describing someone else who shares our name.

 

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.

What if we had walked a different path one day,

Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere

The way a pebble tossed into a brook

Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

The trick is making memory a blessing,

To learn by loss subtraction of desire,

Of wanting nothing more than what has been,

To know the past forever lost, yet seeing

Behind the wall a garden still in blossom

****

Can we make memory a blessing?  We feel loss. Can we still see in our lives that there is a garden in bloom?  I know the temptations of grief.  I know how hard it can feel to move on.  I know that sometimes we feel a desire to return to the way that thing were.  But the trick is to make memory a blessing, and to see a garden still in bloom. Amen.

Friday
Oct072016

Talking About Israel: A Plea for Humility and Love

Video here

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 2016 / 5777

Should a rabbi, or should a rabbi not, speak about….fill in the blank - the elections, Israel, race in America, “that is the question.” So often, I lean towards “no” - First, because I am not a political pundit and second, because there must be some places and times in our lives that are saved from the toxicity of today’s political discourse. And yet, a Judaism that totally cocoons itself from the world is unworthy of our attention.

As a matter of principle, the Conservative movement takes seriously both fidelity to the tradition we have inherited from our ancestors and the necessity - in fact the desirability - for the world we live in to impact and change our practice of Judaism. For example, as American and western society more fully recognized women’s equality in the public sphere, the liturgy of the Conservative movement began to reflect that change by including the foremothers – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – in our prayers as a reflection of the significance of women’s roles in Judaism. The mention of our foremothers makes visible the presence of women as part of our historical covenant with God. For Conservative Judaism, our participation in the world is not a weakness but a blessing.

Judaism must not only evolve by incorporating moral progress, but must also speak to the world in which we live. Of all days on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah is a day when we turn outward, when we celebrate the birthday of the world, when we remind ourselves of one of Judaism’s most important messages: Adonai our God is not god of a particular place nor just the god of Israel, but God is One, Creator of the World.

To believe God is the Creator of the world is to inherit an obligation beyond ourselves, beyond our own tribe, to care for the world we’ve been given. And yet, I am not a prophet. I do not believe myself to have some special insight into the newspapers that you do not. What to say?

What I’d like to ask, beg, for this Rosh Hashanah in myself and in others is: humility in our public discourse, specifically about Israel. When engaged in conversations about things as weighty and complex as the issues that confront America and Israel and the world, the more someone tells me that they have all the answers, the less I trust them. For me, the conversation must begin and continue with a deep sense of: I might be wrong. I don’t know.

In the book of Ezekiel (29:3), we read: Thus said the Lord God: “I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, Mighty monster, sprawling in its channels, who said, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’”

Pharoah’s deep character flaw is a belief that he created the Nile, that he created the world that surrounds him. The Midrash says you can also read that last phrase as, “I created myself,” I am responsible for myself and all that surrounds me.

Today we affirm: God created the world. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar in New York teaches that the human correlate of affirming that God created the world is: I did NOT create the world. No human being has all the answers.

It is a painful irony that the pages of Israeli newspapers are far more tolerant of deep disagreement than the discourse of our own Jewish community. Good people can - and should - ask pointed questions. Judaism has long trusted that wisdom comes from mahloket / shakla v’tarya - the back and forth question and answer between people who hold two conflicting ideas in their hands at once. When we engage in those conversations we should hold in one hand the conviction: “I am right,” and in the other, “tell me why I am wrong!”

The Talmud (Baba Mezia 84a) tells the following story:

After Resh Laqish died,  Rabbi Yohanan grieved for him greatly. The rabbis said, “What can we do to restore his peace of mind? Let us get R. Eleazar b. Pedat and place him before him [R. Yohanan], for his traditions are ready.” The brought him and seated him before him. For every issue that R. Yohanan mentioned he said, “There is a teaching that supports you.” He [R. Yohanan] said to him, “Do I need this? When I made a statement, the son of Laqish would object with twenty-four objections and I would solve them with twenty-four solutions, and thus our traditions expanded. But you say, ‘There is a teaching that supports you.’ Do I not know that my statements are accurate?” He tore his clothes and went crying at the gates, “Where are you, son of Laqish?” He could not be consoled.

Rabbi Yochanan yearned for someone to challenge, not confirm his own views! He longed for someone to raise objections, and from that process - the Torah grew. Wisdom comes into the world when people are humble and say, “tell me how I might be wrong.”

Here in our own community, when my friend, and colleague, Rabbi Eric Solomon proposed a trip that included a visit to Yasser Arafat’s grave on the itinerary. I want you to know that there were good people who wrote and met with him privately and with the respect befitting a teacher and leader of Torah in our community. They urged him to reconsider and asked him to explain his thinking. Reasonable people can and did ask about what is to be gained by standing before Arafat’s grave. In the end, Rabbi Solomon decided to cancel the trip. I want to share with you part of what he wrote to his congregation:

 

While my intentions were pure, my heart broke as I listened to the pain my actions had caused some congregants. I listened carefully to this feedback and discussed what I heard with Rabbi Jenny and synagogue leaders. After deep reflection and soul-searching, I have decided to cancel the trip. To anyone who feels confused, hurt or upset on account of my actions, I sincerely apologize and ask your forgiveness….

I deeply love Beth Meyer and what we, as a family, have built these past 11+ years. And I want to emphasize that my love embraces each and every one of you, regardless of where you land on the spiritual, social or political spectra. I am touched that so many congregants pleaded with me to move forward as planned, but I cannot - and will not - do anything that jeopardizes the integrity of the Beth Meyer family.”

 

I know Rabbi Solomon and his convictions. I know canceling was deeply painful. I publicly commend him - first, second and third for his love - of the Jewish people, of Israel, and for his community. We need more such love to be put front and center.

Friends - Israel used to be something that united the Jewish community. I fear it threatens to tear us apart. None of us has all the answers. In what we do, and what we say, I pray we can express ourselves with love for one another, and with humility.

Let me end with a story shared with me by my colleague, Rabbi Jack Reimer.

When the Baal Shem Tov - the founder of Hasidism -  was young, he was bored in class. The study of the Talmud, with all its legal fine points, did not attract him. Sometimes he spent the hours of class staring out the window, entranced by one beautiful rosebush that grew just outside his classroom. He was fascinated by the beauty of this rose, and he felt that this rose embodied all the holiness in the world. Even though the Ethics of the Fathers clearly states that one who breaks his learning to stare at nature risks his spiritual life, nevertheless, the Baal Shem was entranced by that rose bush and could not take his eyes off it. And so he was thrown out of school that day.

What did he do? He ran off into the forest. And when he got there, he went from one tree to the next, hugging each one, and contemplating the wonders of creation that it revealed.

And then, something wondrous occurred. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and so he turned around, and there was a kindly old man standing there. The Baal Shem had no idea who this man was, even though he lived in a small town, and thought that he knew everyone who lived there. This man he had never seen before. The old man patted Rabbi Yisrael Shem Tov gently on the shoulder, and said to him: “May I give you a blessing?”

The Baal Shem said: “Of course”. The old man put his hands over the eyes of the child, and said to him: “May you always have ‘heilege oigen”. May you always have holy eyes. And then he disappeared.

Who was that man? We do not know. It may have been Elijah the prophet. It may have been a messenger of God. We don’t know. But we do know that the Baal Shem said that this was the greatest blessing that he ever received.

Can we look at each other, can we look at Israel with holy eyes? I want you to know I was given a gift. I had been to Israel more than fifteen times since I first went there in 1993, but I’d never taken a group from my synagogue. It had really been a long time since I’d led a group filled with people most of whom had never been there before. They were able to see it with holy eyes. The nature. The people. My friend, Babi, who tirelessly does security for 19 different communities along the Lebanaon border. To swim in the waters of Sachne. To cry as we arrived to Jerusalem. And we did not paper things over. Rabbi Solomon and I shared a vigorous debate on the way up to Jerusalem about the challenges that Israel faces and the dilemmas that it puts to us. But I was given the gift of seeing Israel again with holy eyes. Not only tsuris, not only issues, but people and history and love and richness.

I pray we can see that in each other when we have these conversations. I pray we can This new year—for you, for me, and for all those whom we love, may we be able to look at Israel with holy eyes. I pray we can struggle together with love about how we can help Israel to protect herself and best embody Jewish ethical imperatives to lift up Jew and Palestinian alike.

And this year, may we too see each other with holy eyes. Beth El is holy not because this room or even the ark or the eternal light: what makes a synagogue a holy place is that people gather here to pray and to be with each other. This place is holy because it is an assembly of holy people, who have come here to reach out to God in prayer and to be with each other in community. We can only know that community if we speak and act with humility, that none of us has all the answers, that God’s image is present in each and every person, and in Israel as well. May we be blessed to see with holy eyes. Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be so. Amen.


 

 

Wednesday
Oct052016

Above the Roar of the Sea: When the Rabbi’s Wife is Diagnosed With Cancer

For video, click here

 

Wednesday
Oct052016

Above the Roar of the Sea: When the Rabbi’s Wife is Diagnosed With Cancer

Rosh Hashanah 1 - 5777/2016

“What patients seek is not scientific knowledge that doctors hide but existential authenticity each person must find on her own. Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.” So writes Paul Kalanithi of blessed memory in his searing memoir, When Breath Becomes Air (p135). Can we not say the same thing about theology and theodicy, our theories about God and the nature of suffering? What we seek when we suffer is not some theory of God hidden away by theologians that, once properly understood, will explain and soothe our pain.  The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in abstract theories; a cancer diagnosis - in oneself or in someone you love - requires honest testimony.

So this High Holidays I can only share my own journey from one year ago - a moment speaking on the High Holidays that honestly is just a fog, a vague memory because while I stood on this bimah and tried to teach, my heart was with Jennifer at home - from one year ago to today. I cannot speak for Jennifer - ever :-) but particularly about what it’s been like to have breast cancer. I can only testify about the particular pain of watching and worrying for your life’s partner; I can only reflect on what insights I’ve managed to glean; I can only share how, successfully and not, I related to God in the year that has passed.

I begin with a confession, a part of my experience about which I don’t feel proud and which I share more as a mistake to learn from than an example to follow: during the year, I experienced self doubt about my suffering. I felt like a “half-sufferer,” I could not silence a voice that minimized the amount of sympathy I would allow myself to feel - the voice came not from Jennifer, not from you, nor from anyone around me except myself. It said things like: “I am not the one who has cancer; Jennifer does. She is “truly” suffering. I am not confronting my mortality, she is.”

The voice also told me I wasn’t having a “true” cancer experience. “Breast cancer, after all, is quite survivable these days,” it said, until it isn’t. Trying to be of comfort, the voice of an actual person told Jennifer and me that she had heard that “doctors have become so adept at handling breast cancer, it is as routine as the flu or a cold.” Suffice it to say that this didn’t feel like a flu or the cold. I felt scared, exhausted, stretched thin by adrenaline and doctor’s appointments. I remember talking to the kids. I tried to reassure them it would all be okay - and wondered if I was lying to them. Jen had dark moments. I had mine. But that awful, accusatory inner voice compared my suffering to people who “have it worse” and made me feel like an imposter, like maybe in feeling all the exhaustion and fear and sadness, I was just being overly dramatic.

In a book, Intoxicated By My Illness, written during the months before he died, Anatole Broyard begins:

So much of a writer’s life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis - real crisis...

Broyard felt a sense of real crisis, but I did not allow myself any “relief” or “elation.” The voice inside me denied that my crisis was “real.” When I wanted to cry out, that terrible voice accused me of being overly dramatic, told me my suffering was more “assumed” or “rhetorical” than “real.” Okay, things were hard, but I was only “half suffering.” Along with my pain, I felt a sense of guilt, as if by taking time or energy for myself to fall apart or rebuild, I was taking something away from Jennifer or others whose illnesses push them statistically closer to death than breast cancer.


Our tradition has a name for that voice - Satan. Yes, Satan. S-A-T-A-N. Or, in Hebrew, Satan - SIN - TET - NUN SOFIT. No, not the character from the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, not a little red figure with a pitchfork on your shoulder. In the bible, Satan starts out meaning “adversary” but by the book of Job and in rabbinic parlance, Satan means “Accuser,” a prosecutorial angel who argues against you before God, pointing out your worst qualities and weaknesses. Satan isn’t someone modern rabbis talk about very much - I imagine I may be the only rabbi in America giving a sermon that includes Satan this Rosh HaShanah - but Satan lurks around the Jewish sources. Jewish tradition is to blow the shofar every day of Elul - the month leading up to the High Holidays - as a way of stirring our hearts to repentance. We blow the shofar every day of Elul except yesterday, the day before RH. Why not yesterday? To confuse Satan. To throw him off, make him think that he counted wrong, that he missed Rosh HaShanah somehow.

What lesson did I learn from this accusatory voice? Don’t believe it. Don’t diminish your suffering. Don’t compare it with others. There is no contest of suffering. Each of our suffering is unique because each of us is unique and special to God.

One Jewish claim for which I can never offer conclusive proof but upon which I will stake my life is: God cares about each life, each person, each soul. Heschel wrote: “God is not detached from or indifferent to our joys and griefs. Authentic vital needs of man’s body and soul are a divine concern.” In my best moments, I was able to silence that voice and accept that my journey was no more and no less deserving of God’s compassion. I was able to hear the song that my teacher Reb Mimi sang to me at the moment of my ordination as rabbi: “חסדי ה כי לא תמו כי לא כלו רחמיו” God’s lovingkindnesses are never exhausted, God’s compassion never ends” (Lamentations 3:2). I was able to allow myself to believe that I too was deserving of God’s love, that God cared infinitely not just for everyone else, but for me too.

Another memory from this past year? Shopping. If illness feels like a great drama of highs and lows, shopping reminds you that life continues in all its banality. Most days in most places most people were nice. But once, someone in the supermarket was a real jerk and, when they were, I thought to myself: “If that person only knew that I just came from my wife’s chemotherapy at Duke Cancer Center, they’d be ashamed of themselves.” Walking the aisles looking for mustard or waiting in line to check out, I felt like a spy carrying an important secret, like I was on some special mission that - if people only knew - they wouldn’t be so careless with my feelings. I felt a sense of entitlement or self-importance like people should move the hell out of the way for the guy whose wife has cancer.

But after a while, I started to wonder, no, not to wonder, but to realize: how many other people were carrying a secret suffering with them behind their eyes in the supermarket aisle? How many people did I pass looking for 1% milk who were struggling with depression? Or grieving for a loved one who died too soon? How many people shopping for bread were an exhausted and lonely caretaker? Or had a child struggling with alcoholism? And, how many times had I been careless and callous with the feelings of a stranger, wrapped up in my own narcissism? “Do not wrong the stranger in your midst” the Torah tells us. Perhaps the verse comes to teach us not only about the careful treatment of new immigrants, but about all of the strangers in our lives, to remind us again that a good life is measured in how much kindness we give to the world.

I think back too on my experience of prayer this year. Did I pray more often or more intently? Surely I included Jennifer in my prayers with an added urgency and the gratitude I feel for the hundreds - if not thousands - of people around the world who included Jennifer in their prayers is beyond what I can express. But...what did I pray for? A small part of my prayers was - for lack of a better term - to cover our bases. :-) If indeed God does control each cell of the universe and could intervene somehow to heal her, well, there was no harm in saying her Hebrew name one more time or with just a little extra umpf! But that vision of God - a vision depicted in the Une Tane Tokef prayer we just finished - when it’s taken literally - that if I pray harder or give more tzedakah or do more teshuva, then God will spare my life - that is a vision that has driven many people away from God, not brought them close. So I “covered my bases” - I gave in to my own superstitious side by praying a little harder for Jen, but it’s also an idea that I found myself having let go of.

I’ve lost a lot of people close to me - my grandparents - who all died before my 27th birthday - my friends - Jay, Joel, Alicia and Karin to cancer, my friend David Knauert whose death, in some ways brought me to Durham and to Beth El - and so many others. Believing God killed them for something they - or I - did or didn’t do, or that their deaths were justified according to some logic that I will understand one day - such a vision of God nearly drove me away from God years ago. This past year, I took comfort in a different part of the Jewish tradition, one where the rabbis acknowledge “the world goes according to its way” - cancer happens, accidents happen and I did not need to hold God directly responsible for those things.

Metaphors about God are all insufficient - in the kaddish this week we emphasize that God is “l’eilah u’leilah” - above and beyond any words we can use to describe God. But words are all we have. There is one image of God I’ve been relating to that has been helpful this year. It comes from an admittedly strange place: a Jewish book for parenting teenagers by Dr. Wendy Mogel called The Blessings of a B Minus. Mogel argues that too many parents make a mistake by trying solve our teenagers’ problems for them. Practicing “helicopter parenting”  as it is known - swooping in and saving our children from themselves before they fail - is an abdication of our responsibility as parents. Mogel argues that instead of micromanaging our children so they achieve momentary success, she proposes a different and beautiful image of good parenting: a mother or father who is around, available to answer their questions and give the best advice we can, someone sitting in the living room - not directly involved - but available so that, when they need to cry, we are there to dry their tears and to sit beside them until they are ready to get up and move on again. That is how God has felt to me this year. Available, helpful, but not someone who I have looked to to solve every problem or make every hurt go away.

It is true - when we are young, parents sometimes punish us if we misbehave. We get grounded if we skip school. So I continue to find some richness in asking myself whether some bad things that happen to me are perhaps from God, are perhaps something from which I am supposed to learn and grow. But just as not every bad thing that happens to us as children is caused by our parents, not every bad thing that happens in this world need be thought of as a punishment caused by God. If we get cancer, it need not be a punishment from God any more than falling down on the playground is a punishment from our parents – sometimes painful, difficult things just happen.

A good parent knows bad things happen - is paying attention and available, can dry our eyes, can help us find strength to continue when we don’t think we can anymore, and a good parent sometimes might even be able to help us understand not why bad things happen but how we can grow from them. I believe God is paying attention, that through our amazing community, God gave us strength, and I have learned - my soul has grown - from this experience.

Sometimes I imagine myself like a teenager sitting in my room, alone and in pain, and then finally coming downstairs, sitting on the couch and leaning not so much on Avinu Shebashamayim - Our Father in Heaven - but more on Eimeinu Sheba’Olam - Our Nurturer here in the world. I see myself coming downstairs and laying my head on God’s lap and just checking in for a few minutes. I might say, “hi,” and God might say, “hello dear one.” and God might ask me, “So how are you this year? What do you want to talk about?”

I want to conclude this sermon by trying to answer what I might say this year if God asked me, “What do you want to talk about?”

Hey. I’m actually doing okay. Last year was hard. Not an easy year. I’m grateful Jennifer is feeling better. Thank you for whatever role you played in that. It’s still hard though. I love the people in this room, but I know there are other people sitting here this year who are scared, just like I was a year ago, not knowing what the future holds for them or someone they love. I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I hope those people find You, not because You are going to cure everyone but it helps a lot just to know You’re here, that noone is ever alone.

Thanks for Beth El - it’s a good place. We’re not perfect but, in our best moments - and we have a lot of those - we bring each other food, we take care of each other. We dry each other’s tears. Yes, I know we argue sometimes - that’s what families do - but we do it out of love, because we care. I hope we are making You proud.

I feel different than I did a few years ago. I can really say now how grateful I am You brought me into this this world. This is a crazy life You’ve given us. I don’t know if You knew  - I guess You did but I never told You about this before. Sometimes, up in my room all by myself, I couldn’t say that, couldn’t feel how lucky I am to be in the world. Life just hurts so much sometimes. Sometimes all the love I felt for my friends who died just turned to pain and I thought loss was all there is. I forgot about love and sometimes it hurt so much that I didn’t want to go on anymore. Sometimes it felt like there was only darkness all around, like rushing waters. King David once wrote a poem about this I like. There were some campers who recorded a beautiful melody to it that I like listening to sometimes:

Psalm 93:3-5

The rivers rise up, Adonai

The rivers raise up their roar, the rivers raise up their waves

But above the roar of the vast sea and the majestic breakers of the ocean

Adonai stands supreme.

 

I’m going to get going now. Thanks for the chat. Pretty neat journey, this thing called life. I’ll do my best to make You proud. Yeah, I know, I know. I’ll try to stay in better touch too. Love you too. Shana Tova.

Thursday
Jul212016

Illness and Love Are Ill-Defined

Illness is ill-defined. Sometimes it’s clear when to start praying for someone who is ill: Cancer. Surgery. Heart Attack. Stroke. Often it’s not.

Should we pray for healing when someone has a cold? What about for a “routine surgery” (such a phrase feels oxymoronic)? What about the flu? Or a broken arm? Or chronic depression? Or diabetes? Should praying for someone be reserved for when life is in imminent danger? Or should we continue to pray for those who struggle with chronic, lifelong illnesses? Can a person be in our prayers for “too long?” What would that mean?

I am grateful these days to carry a different question with me: When do you stop including someone’s name in your prayers for healing? Or, more specifically, should I stop including Jennifer’s name in my prayers for healing? Jen is, thankfully, done with chemo, done with radiation. Her strength is returning. Her hair is growing. She is resuming a regular schedule. Except. Except she still has a port. Except every three weeks until October, she will receive infusions. Except labs and tests. Except, like every cancer patient, we carry the fear of cancer’s return. Do I stop praying now that the toughest part is done? Do I keep praying for healing even though the uncertainty persists and some of these scars are now life’s new normal?

Jewish law defines so many things. How much wine must be drunk in each of the four cups on Passover? (3 ounces). How many ounces of matzah must one eat on Passover night? (2.6 ounces for Motzi-Matza, 1.3 ounces for Korech, and 2.6 more ounces for Afikomen.) How long does one say kaddish for a parent? 11 months. Judaism expresses so much through measurement in an effort to understand when we have – and have not – fulfilled God’s commandments. I’ve yet to find an answer to the question, “Exactly when do you stop including someone’s name in your prayers for healing?”

Someone suggested, “Ask the person if s/he still wants you to pray for him/her.” But nobody can make it alone. We are not always our own best judge. The Talmud (Berachot 5a) relates the following story:

Rabbi Johanan once fell ill and Rabbi Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied: “Neither they nor their reward.” He said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not Rabbi Johanan raise himself? — They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.

Sometimes a person may insist, “I’m fine now,” when they are not. While we should never publicly disclose someone’s illness against their will, does that mean that if we continue to pray privately for someone, we are committing a sin? Is it ethical to pray for people privately even if they don’t want us to?

Every three weeks – at least – I say Jen’s name in my personal prayers for healing. I pray the treatment should go smoothly. I pray her healing should continue. But at a synagogue staff meeting after Passover, I explained to the staff that we feel like Jen is out of the woods. I announced we could take her name off “the list.” Yet Gladys, the matriarch of our synagogue community, continues to say Jen’s name on Shabbat. Even though Jen is officially "off the list," when Gladys says her name, I’m grateful that Jen remains in her heart and the heart of so many others. I’m grateful for the love we have experienced the past nine months from a supportive community of family and friends and I’m okay that it’s hard to tell exactly when all this will be over. The fuzziness of this period will continue for a while and I’m okay with it. Because while it is true - illness is ill-defined – it is also true – so is love.