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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.

 

Tuesday
Jan282014

Creating a Culture of Despair

Earlier this week, I attended an important evening about suicide put on by the Durham-Chapel Hill Midrasha. The program featured Dr. Elizabeth Ladin-Gross, who has an Ed.D in Educational leadership and a masters degree in social work. After her brother committed suicide in July of 2010, she has dedicated her life to teaching the warning signs, symptoms, and how to cope with the aftermath of suicide.  She highlighted the importance that teens choose "life over loyalty" and how critical it is that we all aquaint ourselves with the warning signs of suicide. The program reminded me of a sermon I gave on the High Holidays for the first time in 2006 following a summer at camp dealing with kids who were struggling with suicidal thoughts.  I shared the sermon subsequently during the 2010 High Holidays with the community of Beth El here in Durham and now, I am sharing it in this space. Now, as I did then, I pray that it will help just one more person to "choose life, so that we and [our] children may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

 Creating a Culture of Despair

A story is told about Dr. Victor Frankel, a survivor of the Shoah, who went on to become a world famous psychologist and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning.  Late one night, Frankel got a call  from a desperate man on the other end of the phone.

“Is this Dr. Victor Frankel?”

“Yes, it is,” Frankel responded, sitting up in bed, trying to get his bearings and figure out if the conversation he was having was real or a dream.

“I’m calling you from a bridge on the east side of town and I want you to try and convince me why it is that I shouldn’t jump off this bridge and end my life.”

Taken aback by the desperate voice on the other end of the line, Frankel roused himself awake and began a more lucid conversation with the man.

“Why would you kill yourself?  As you must know from my own life, I know about desperation and wanting to give up.  You must think about reasons to live,” Frankel began, and he spent the next twenty minutes talking with the man as he had done years earlier in the concentration camps, helping him to find meaning even in the most troubled life.  At the end of the 20 minutes, he asked the man, “so what do you think?”

Frankel heard silence on the other end of the line.

After a long while, the man replied, “I’m still not sure…I don’t know.”

At that, Frankel replied, “Look, there is a coffee shop about 15 minutes from my house and a few blocks from where you are.  Why don’t you meet me there in 20 minutes and we’ll talk further.”

“I don’t know,” is all Frankel heard on the other end of the line before the man hung up.

Frankel put on street clothes and heads out the door.  At the coffee shop he walks in, looks around, and heads over to a table where a young disheveled young man in jeans and an old sweater is sitting, hunched over a cup of coffee.  The man waves him over.

“You must be Dr. Frankel.”

“That’s right.  It’s good to see you.  I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too.”

After a few minutes of conversation, Frankel finally asked the young man, “I know you know, from my life and my writings that I have seen people in your situation many times.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know you were an author.”

“Well then, why did you call me?” asked Frankel, somewhat taken aback.

“I mean, if it wasn’t something I wrote, what was it in what I said, what idea that we discussed, made you get off of the bridge?  These matters are of vital interest to me, not just personally but professionally.”

The man looked at him strangely.  “Look, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea but I had thought of most of the stuff we talked about.”

“Then what made you call me? Why did you get off the bridge?”

“You?  Actually, I just picked your name out of a phone book. After we got off the phone, I almost jumped.  I really didn’t make up my mind until a few minutes after we got off the phone.  As I stood there on the bridge, it occurred to me that the time had come – that if I was going to meet you at the coffee shop, I had to start walking, and at that moment, it hit me.  I figured that if a complete stranger whose name I just picked out of the phone book cared enough about my life to get out of bed in the middle of the night and to come and meet me in a coffee shop to talk, I should care about my own life at least that much.”

 

I learn two things from that story:

First, I learn how much one action, one gesture, one kind word, can mean to another soul in this world.  I am reminded again about how we can be angels for one another.  When Joseph goes to see his brothers, the Torah tells us that he stops to ask directions and “a man” says, “they went to Dothan.”  Noting that the Torah rarely records such a detail, Rashi and the rabbinic tradition ask what it is that we are to learn about this man.  Rashi answers “it was Gabriel, an angel.”  Ramban says something slightly different, that the man was an angel “shelo me’da’at” without knowing it.  What Ramban means is that the man was a human being who was a messenger for God (the meaning of the Hebrew word for angel “malach” is “messenger”) a human messenger doing God’s will without even knowing it.  Each of us can be God’s voice in the world sometimes, and not even know it.

The second thing I learn from that story is just how desperate another person can be in this world, and you’d never even know it.

I remember many summers ago getting a phone call from a friend of mine in the middle of the summer when I was managing a pool.  Kids were swirling all around, the radio was blasting, some of my staff were playing cards and swim practice was getting ready to begin when I got a phone call out of the blue from one of my best friends in the world.  “I was just calling to take some time to say how awesome it is to have you as a friend Dan,” he said.

“Wow, thanks,” I said, “You are an amazing person too my friend.  I really appreciate you calling to tell me.” The call was a bit strange at the time, but we were young and we were best friends and it didn’t seem totally out of the ordinary that he would call to tell me, even if in the middle of the day.  Later that summer, he would tell me that that day on the phone in the middle of the pool office, he was in his lowest hour of despair and had called me to say good-bye as part of a plan that, thank God, he never followed through on.  But he was my best friend.  And I had no clue.

Where does this desperation come from?  Rabbi Harold Shulweis once wrote, “Fear of failure has supplanted the traditional fears of yirat shamayim and yirat chet, the fear of heaven and the fear of sin.  Failure is the secular sin that has replaced moral and religious transgression.  It begins early, in the children’s inability to live up to the fantasies of their parents, who often themselves live in fear of failing their parents’ ambitions for them.  This fear gives no rest to the hurried child and harried adult.”

 My first summer as Director of Camp Ramah in California, a camper was caught smoking pot at camp so he needed to go home too.  We sat at the table on my porch that night when I told him he would need to leave camp.  After the words left my mouth, he started to shake, and to cry, and he buried his face in his hands.  “I want to die.  I want to die.  I might as well just slit my wrists,” he wailed.  “Please don’t.  Please.  If I get kicked out of camp, my high school will find out.  And if they find out, I’ll get kicked out of school.  And if I get kicked out of school, I won’t get into college.  And if I don’t get into college, I won’t get a good job.  And if I don’t get a good job, I might as well just die.  I want to die.”

 “It doesn’t have to be like that,” I told him.  “Your life will turn out another way.”

 “Inadvertently Jewish institutions perpetuate this deformity of the Jewish ethic,” says Shulweis.  “It begins at home, within the family and is reinforced by the surrounding institutions.”  We create very narrow boxes of success for Jewish children, and for ourselves.  Rabbi Gordan Bernat-Kunin of Milken Community High School once explained to me that there are more than 10,000 colleges and universities in the United States.  But it’s only okay for Jewish kids to go to about 30 of them.  There are hundreds of professions a Jew can be, but I’m afraid that only a few of them fit our community’s vision of success.

What kind of Jewish institutions are we creating?  What kind of world to we build for kids? For ourselves?

Dr. Bruce Powell is a pioneer in the field of Jewish education.  He has consulted and helped to found many Jewish days schools and high schools across the country and he once described the fundamental difference between secular education and Jewish education.  Secular education aims to create smart kids.  Jewish education aims to create good kids.

While that may an oversimplification, the distinction is a crucial one because when you create a culture – a school, a camp, awards assemblies, and more painfully, even parental love, however unintentional – whose chief aim is to create SMART kids, then only a few kids, only a few people, have a chance to “succeed.”  But being good, being holy, is something that any Jewish child can be.

Not everyone can be smart but every person can be honest.  Do we value smart kids, who may cheat but bring home the A’s?  Or do we value honest kids, even if they bring home B’s and C’s and yes, even F’s?

Not everyone can be rich but everyone can give tzedakah.  Did you know that the Talmud requires even people who are supported by the communal tzedakah fund to give tzedakah?  Do we admire people who have money?  Or do we admire people for what they give money away? 

Not everyone can be popular but everyone can be kind.  Do we praise our children for being popular and overlook when that popularity may come at other kids’ expense?  Do we support our children when they are kind, even and especially when their kindness comes at the cost of their popularity?

I am worried that we have created a culture where it is easy to despair because our measures of success are limited to a sparse few.  Our compass is not only off; it can be dangers because the answers to these questions are not academic.  As someone who spent 10 weeks, 24 hours a day/7 days a week, I bring you back the news that for some kids, the answers to these questions are not academic: they are life and death.  For some of us in this room, the answers are not academic: they are life and death.  We must measure life, the lives of our children, our own lives, the lives of every human being, using God’s eyes.

In his book, The Halakhic Man, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote about two views of repentance.  He wrote how one views repentence, "only from the perspective of atonement, only as a guard against punishment, as any empty regret which does not create anything, does not bring into being anything new.  A deep melancholy afflicts his spirit.  He mourns for the yesterdays that are irretrievably past, the times that have long since sunk into the abyss of oblivion, the deeds that have vanished like shadows, facts that he will never be able to change..."

"But," he writes, "such is not the case with halakhic man!  Halakhic man does not indulge in weeping and despair...Halakhic man is engaged in self-creation, in creating a new "I."  He does not regret an irretrievably lost past but a past still in existence, one that stretches into and interpenetrates with the present and the future."

When I try to understand what Rabbi Soloveitchik is saying, I think he means: teshuva should not be sad.  Yes, repentence means feeling regret over something you've done, or not done, over someone you've been, or not been.  It does mean looking at the past with a critical eye, but teshuva means that that is not the end of the story.  Teshuva means we look at the past critically, we feel regret, but when we do so, we do so with a creative spirit; we engage in "self creation."  What that means is we say with resolve, "okay, these are the mistakes I’ve made; I'm not proud, I wish I had done it differently.  BUT now I, and only I, not in spite of but because of my past, have the possibility of becoming a new person who can bring a great gift to the world.  If I caused another pain, because I really and truly understand the damage I've caused, I can help, in a way that no other soul can, prevent others from causing that pain.  If I lived for a year or 2 or 5 or 20 or a lifetime in a way I regret, consumed by ego or greed or blinded by a swim race, I, in a way no other soul can, can not only create a new me, but can bring a gift to the world.  Such a process, while not fun, is not sad and full of despair; it is a process of seriousness, of sincerity, and ultimately joy because it is grounded in a profound optimism about the world: that people can change for the better, that the world can change for the better, that you and I all can change for the better.

The shofar, Rosh Hashanah – they are hear to ask again, how are you measuring your life?  God says to us: see the world as I do.  See the ones you love as I see them: not for what they own, for “the whole world is the Lord’s” but for what they give away with a loving heart, says the Lord.  See the children not for the grades they get but for the honesty and integrity with which they walk through the world.  May God grant us this Rosh Hashanah, the blessing of seeing the world through the eyes of the Holy One Who sees in us not what we have, or what we achieve, but who we are, and who we hope to be.

Amen & Shannah Tova.

Thursday
Dec122013

A Podcast

Just a quick note to those who follow the blog. You can click here to listen to an interview I did several months ago with Amy Ziettlow of the Institute for American Values about Faith Unravels. You can also read here for something she wrote based on our conversation called, "Surviving the Holidays with Loss."

Sunday
Nov172013

A Box and Its Costs: Dinah and Esau and What Might Have Been

Those familiar with midrash quoted by Rashi from this past week's Torah portion (וישלח / VaYishlach) likely had heard the story about Yaakov having put Dinah into a box to save her from the gaze of his wicked brother, Esau. For years I'd understood Rashi's comment in the following way: For the rabbis, Esau represents Rome, pretty much the ultimate in evil and cruelty. Tzni'ut / modesty is an important rabbinic value when it comes to women so Ya'akov, our pious forefather, went to great lengths (too great for my taste although when I think about children being hidden in a box, I don't jump to the conclusion that it was some cruel torture but rather I think about Jewish parents similarly protecting their children during the Shoah) to protect his only daughter, Dinah.
The impetus for rabbninc commentary on this passage seems quite modern, even feminist.  Jacob has sent tribute ahead to Esau in the hopes that Esau will forgive him for stealing his blessing so many years ago. Jacob spends the night in his camp and the Torah states that Jacob "got up that night and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok" (Genesis 32:23). Rather than assume that the Torah leaves women out of the story as a matter of course, Rashi asks, "And where was Dinah?" and he seeks to answer it by way of the box story.
What I hadn't read - or paid attention to - before is how Rashi's comment continues: "This is why Jacob was punished, because he [Jacob] withheld her [Dinah] from his brother [Esau]; she might have brought him to good, but she fell into the hand of Shechem." What is fascinating about how Rashi's comment continues is that it seems to expect Jacob - through Dinah - not only to make amends with Esau, but also try to help him do teshuva! As if that weren't enough, when Jacob doesn't deploy Dinah to help reform his wicked brother, Jacob is punished - through what happens to Dinah at Shechem - for his lack of trust that Esau can change and that Dinah could help him to do so.
Admittedly, Dinah is being seen in these sources not as an independent person - as our modern instincts might hope or even expect of Jewish tradition, however anachronistic that hope might be. Rather, Dinah is, in these sources, an extension of her father, Jacob. For Rashi, and the midrash he is quoting, "Jacob is punished" when Dinah is raped by Shechem (see Genesis 34:2). But whenever I've heard this source quoted, I've always heard it formulated as a polemic: "Jacob (the pious) had to protect Dinah (his pure daughter) from Esau (the wicked/lecherous)." The second part of Rashi's comment changes the message entirely.
When Jacob puts Dinah in a box, he committed a sin. For the rabbis, Jacob sinned because he despaired. He lacked faith that Esau, who both represented Rome in the rabbinic imagination but was undeniably a child of Isaac and Rebecca in the Torah text, could "return to good." Jacob not only didn't believe enough in his brother; he also lacked faith that his daughter, Dinah, could be more than just an extension of himself. What might Dinah have been able to accomplish if Jacob hadn't been so afraid for her? Rather than reading Dinah's eventual rape as a consequence of her own licentiousness (cruelly blaming the victim for a crime committed against her) or simply blaming Shechem for his crime (and he surely was responsible), Rashi and the rabbis seem to imply that Jacob's overprotective parenting creates an overly adventurous daughter. They paint a portrait that reminds us of the problems we create by holding on too tightly to those we love.  Further still, in this comment of Rashi, we encounter a tragic vision of what might have been had Jacob allowed Dinah out of her box: What goodness might she have helped Esau to shine into the world? What we are left with is a double tragedy created by Jacob's oppression of his own daughter, for we will never know who Esau, and Dinah, might have become if Jacob had never put her into a box.
Tuesday
Nov052013

A 1/2 Marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina

I ran a half-marathon this past Sunday morning in Raleigh, a first for me. I had never been part of a race with more than 5,000 people, all starting their journey together. The horn sounded. The pounding of feet on pavement began, thunderous and quiet at once as excitement and adrenaline settled into focus and realization that a long road lay before us all. The rhythmic serpentine throng spread before and behind me. According to the Talmud, (Berachot 58a) upon seeing a crowd one says: “Blessed is God Who discerns secrets, for the mind of one is not like another, nor is the face of one like another.” I thought of my own story – how I got to this moment, what the race meant for me, the people in my life I was carrying with me – and of how every person setting out on the road together had a story like mine, infinite in uniqueness yet as common as the human story itself.

We ran through downtown Raleigh, past dancers who’d come up to share their joy with a captive – though mobile – audience. We ran past families who made signs for their loved ones (“Team Erin. Go Mom!) and past people who made signs for fun (“You’re going faster than healthcare.gov!”). We ran past a cupcake store (not fair) and a gym that had put its stationary bikes and elliptical machines outside so the people using them could wave to the runners.  I wore my kippah, something I became quite conscious of as we passed a Catholic Church downtown where the Pastor was outside waving to people and crossing them at the same time, and as we passed a man who reminded everyone that we would “finish the race with strength from the knowledge that Jesus has risen.”

Most race spectators were more ecumenical. I remember the burst of energy I got from running past a group of drummers who played a powerful beat on a city corner and, of course, I remember the joy I felt seeing Jennifer and the boys with signs they made just for me, and the burst of much needed energy it gave me at mile 8 out of 13.1.

 

 

More generally, I remember dozens and dozens of people just standing by the side of the road, calling out encouragement: “You’re doing great!” “You look great!” “Way to go!” I was reminded anew of how sports carry within them the potential to bring forth incredible reservoirs of generosity from within the human spirit.  How often out there in society – at the supermarket or in an airport – do strangers call out heartfelt words of encouragement and support to one another?

As I left Jennifer and the boys, I set out for the last and toughest 5 miles of the race. I decided to truly focus, to get into a rhythm of just putting one foot in front of the other, to concentrate on my breathing and on being fully aware in the moment, to enjoy the colorful trees and the process of pushing myself beyond what I’d done before even though it was painful.  The final few miles were hard. Really hard.

I saw the 2 hour and 15 minute pacer (a person who is in such good shape that they run with a flag and a sign at a pace to finish in exactly 2 hours and 15 minutes) pass me. I tried for ten or fifteen seconds to keep up; that was not to be. As I looked towards the ground and struggled with the pain of lifting each leg off the ground, someone next to me slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come on, let’s do this.”

I looked at him for a moment and said, “Alright, here we go,” and so we set out for the final mile together. I thought of how the word for angels in Hebrew is malakh from the same root as melakhah meaning “task,” and how this person had entered without warning into an important moment of my life to fulfill a task - to give to me and to receive in return – strength to run the final mile together. Angels for one another, for the final mile.

As we saw the finish line from ½ a mile away, Brian (Bryan? I don’t know how he spelled his name) said to me, “I’ve trained for 3 years for this moment, through injuries and a broken marriage.”

“I hear you my friend. I’m carrying some friends with me today, some gone, some struggling, but they’re all here with me.”

And then he said, “Praise Jesus.”

“This is running a ½ marathon in North Carolina,” I thought to myself.  Life, the moment, could carry us this far, but not across every threshold. We were different, brought together by a powerful moment, but not the same. We would run in parallel for the last hundred yards. My blessing for him would be different. “Just keep running towards the light my friend. Good luck with everything. God bless,” I told him as we passed over the timers and left one another into the crowd of people waiting for us.

I took a picture, got a medal and a banana, and wandered alone for a few minutes as the music played and my legs wobbled beneath me.

“Abba!” I turned a looked around. “Abba!” I heard again, and saw Benjamin running between people towards me, followed soon after by his brothers and Jennifer, covered in hugs and kisses. I was home again.

 

Wednesday
Sep252013

A Prayer for the Afternoon

Yizkor, Yom Kippur 5774

If there is a scene that tells the story of mincha, the afternoon prayer, it is well-known by anyone who has spent an extended amount of time in Israel where, inevitably, you’ll see, on Highway One between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv around sunset, some cars pulled over by the side of the road. As cars and buses and trucks roar by, people face towards Jerusalem davening mincha, the afternoon prayer, before the sun goes down over the Mediterranean behind them.

Mincha is a simple offering.  Fine flour, oil and salt made in a pan or a griddle or an oven (Leviticus 2). No leaven. No honey. Nothing fancy. Nothing sweet. 

The service is as simple as it gets. One of the things I like about Judaism is the way it balances between the world of the spirit and the our practical needs. The rabbis say: אין גוזרין גזירה שהציבור לא יכול לעמוד בה which means something like, “We may not decree something that the community cannot practically obey.” And in Jewish law, there are terms like טירחא דציבורא (a burden on the community) and הפסד מרובה (a great financial loss) which are moderating terms; if things are too burdensome for the community or a particular practice is too costly, those are factors that can change the outcome of a Jewish legal decision. Well, mincha – the weekday afternoon service – is short. The full liturgy includes Ashrei (Psalm 145) as a one psalm “warm up,” the Amidah, the central Jewish prayer (which can be abbreviated in a variety of ways if necessary), Full Kaddish, Aleinu and mourner’s kaddish.  When there is a minyan, the service can take 10 to 15 minutes tops; when said alone, it can take just a couple of minutes. The service mirrors the mincha offering of flour, salt and oil.  Nothing fancy. Nothing sweet.  I think the rabbis kept it short for a reason: because by the time the day gets going, we’re busy! Work! Family! Errands! Who has time for more? The word “Mincha” is not quite “a gift,” but rather an offering – the root has the sense of something that we lay out before God, unsure if, in its simplicity, it is something that will be accepted.  But can we take a few minutes in the hubbub of our day?  If evening challenges us to let God and encounter God in precisely those moments we are not in control, and if, as I discussed on 2nd day Rosh Hashanah, each morning interrogates us and reminds us before the day begins that we write the book of our lives with our actions, we declare who we are and what is most important to us by what we do each day, I think the afternoon asks us, “Can we step out of the noise in the midst of our day?” Can we find God in the afternoons of our lives?”

 

The Blessings of the Road

What might an afternoon prayer offer us? The first thing is what I’ll call “The Blessings of the Road.” Let me explain with another Mincha story.  It comes from a trip to Washington DC that I took with Benjamin and his 5th grade graduating class at the Lerner School this past spring.  (Can I take one moment with so many people in the room to say what a blessing it is to have the Lerner school in our community, what a treasure it is for us to have a place where our children can be steeped deeply in the Jewish community and the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew language during such formative years?) So there we are on the Mall; we’ve spent a glorious afternoon visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the monuments for Martin Luther King and World War II and the Korean War. The sun is going down. We’ve just finished a much needed picnic dinner and, while some of the kids start to play catch, a few of us gather under some trees to daven mincha.  And, as I prayed to God and watched the sun paint the white marble of the monuments in gold and bathe the trees in a rich, gentle green, I was filled with gratitude for America, for the freedoms I could enjoy to pray as Jew, in public, unmolested, in this seat of power and influence throughout the world. It’s not that I couldn’t have thought those thoughts without praying, but it felt different to place those thoughts in the context of Jewish history – in a while, as part of the Yom Kippur Musaf service we will include the martyrology, a service that lists place after place and time after time where Jews were persecuted and suffered just for being Jews – it felt different to stand on the Mall with a kippah, praying and to thank God for the precious freedom we enjoy as Jews in the United States in this moment.  And I became mindful of the gifts that praying on the road can offer.  When we are willing to stand – as a Jew – amidst society, under the protection of God, and be seen doing something very intimate in a public space, or to create private spaces in public place, it effects not only us, but our prayers.

 You’ve heard me tell the story of a boy who goes wandering in the woods one morning. He finally returns home and his worried parents ask him, “Where were you?”

“I went to the woods to pray,” says the boy.

“You know God is the same everywhere,” says the father to his son.

“I know,” says the boy, “but I’m not.”

We are not the same everywhere. What blessings might we be offered by saying mincha at the hospital? Or at the university? Or at the office? Or by the side of the road?

 

Compromise

The second possibility mincha can offer us is compromise.  Just a little over a year ago, I performed a wedding for a young couple in our community who, as part of their extended family, have a number of people who are Orthodox. The ceremony was in the early afternoon and the reception would go on late into the evening and so, at the reception, a group of Orthodox men gathered in a corner of the hall, took out their iphones and, without a mechitza, davened mincha as men and women mingled nearby. Right here in our own community, this prayer offered on the road was a constant reminder of the way in which rules must meet life and how that is a good thing, a moment to savor for its richness not mourn because our religious life did not live up to an ideal spelled out in a book. Did you know that there are two opinions one can find in Talmudic commentaries about how the mezuzah should be placed on our doorposts? Commenting on Menachot 33a, Rashi says the mezuzah should be vertical; Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, says it should be horizantal.  But how do we place it? Diagonal.  Why? Compromise.  We see it on the way into our houses – a good reminder of how important it is in our familial relationships to compromise – and we see it on the way out – a good reminder that, on the road, we must be open to compromise because by doing so allows us to learn what life and the road can teach us.


Always Saying Good Bye / Saying Good Bye Ceremoniously

One thought not just about where we say mincha, but when. The word צהורים / tzohoraim means two “tzohars” – two lights or, more familiar, “twilight.”  In the Talmud (Berachot 29b) Abaye bar Avin and Rabbi Hanina bar Avin, these two sons of Avin said that “fixed prayer [which according to Rabbi Eliezer is no prayer at all] is any prayer not offered with דמדומי חמה, the reddening or quieting of the sun.” In other words, to really pray, we must pray in that glorious moment right at dusk as the sun turns red and the world grows quiet. Others disagree – they say waiting that long risks missing the time to offer the prayer altogether. But the Avin brothers insist that we wait until the very last moment of the day. In this debate about when to say mincha is an important idea: how long should we wait to say what is most important to us? It’s true. There is something special about waiting until the end. There are words that come to us in the glorious beauty of twilight, in the reddening of the sun, in the quiet at the end of the day. Their view is recorded – it has a place, but it is not accepted as the halachah. Waiting too long to say what matters most is a mistake.

The book Life of Pi tells the fantastical story of a boy who floats across the Pacific ocean with a Bengalese tiger named Richard Parker until they are finally marooned on a beach on the edge of a Mexican Jungle. The author describes the moment he is lying facing down in the sand:

 "And then Richard Parker, my fierce companion, the terrible one who kept me alive, disappeared from my life....I wept like a child...I was weeping because Richard Parker left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing to botch a farewell…It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse…I suppose in the end the whole of life is an act of letting go but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say good bye. I was never able to thank my father for all I'd learned from him. To tell him without his lessons, I would never have survived. I know Richard Parker is a tiger but I wish I had said, "Richard Parker, it's over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express. I couldn’t have done it without you…Thank you for saving my life. I love you Richard Parker. You'll always be with me."[1]

 

Forty years ago today on the Hebrew calendar, on Yom Kippur and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel. On the Golan Heights, 180 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syrian tanks.  Along the Suez Canal, fewer than 500 Israeli troops with 3 tanks were attacked by 600,000 Egyptian soldiers backed by 2,000 tanks and 550 aircraft.[2] There is no contest of suffering, but comparisons can offer some perspective on the depth of the loss.  2,656 Israelis were killed in the Yom Kippur War; 340 fewer than in the 9/11 attacks 12 years ago.  But the number of Israelis killed was out of a country that, then, had approximately three and a half million people, 1/100 the size of the United States in 2001.  People rushed to the front. A few nights ago, some of us watched a movie that described how people fled the synagogue in the middle of their prayers that day; they drove away to the front and never came back. I wonder what words did they leave unsaid, not knowing they would never see their loved ones again?

Rabbi Eliezer says, “Repent one day before you die” (Pirkei Avot 2:15). Later, the Talmud asks, “Does a person then know when he will die?  Therefore you should repent today; perhaps tomorrow you will die.” You will then find that all your days are spent with tshuva.” (Shabbat 153a). Repent today. Apologize today. Say, “I love you” today.  Should we wait for the reddening of the sun to pray? Or should we pray in the midst of the day, when life is swirling all around us? Our lives keep flowing by, day after day, week after week, and we don’t stop to pay attention, to God, and to those we love the most. They are crying out – our children, our spouses, our parents and friends are crying out. They yearn today to hear the words we plan to say at the end.  Perhaps the skill of mincha is to learn to speak in the middle of the afternoon and not to wait for “the right moment,” not to wait for twilight and the reddening of the sun, not to wait for just the right time to say the words our loved ones yearn to hear, because if we wait, we don’t ever know when the day is going to end. The world is full of hearts broken from words never spoken, words we assumed we would have time to speak, or words we assumed the other person knew so we never gave them voice, words we were waiting to say until just the right time, but the end came too soon.   Perhaps mincha is the prayer we offer because we do not know when the day will end, when the call will come that may take our loved ones from us forever.

 

Meditation

We are going to conclude as we have the past few years, with an exercise leading into the yizkor service. If it is your custom to leave for Yizkor, please take a moment to do so quickly and quietly now.  In a few minutes, Eric will come forward and we will begin the official Yizkor service in the machzor on page 290 but before we do, I want to invite you as before to participate with me in an exercise of memory that can help us to achieve the purposes of the Yizkor service, to feel vulnerable, to feel connected, to remember and perhaps to give us a chance to say some words that were left unsaid to those we loved so much.  You don’t have to do this – if you don’t want to, you may sit comfortably for a few minutes, but please do not disturb anyone around you.  For those of you who feel comfortable, I invite you to sit back in your chair; put your hands on your lap; close your eyes; breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Imagine yourself in a room; it is a comfortable room, safe, warm, you feel good and are sitting in a chair.  Across from you are other chairs in the room, which is empty. [PAUSE]  Across the room is a door and as you look over, it opens.  Through the door comes someone you love whom you are remembering today.

The person comes in, walks across the room, you greet each other [pause] and the person sits down in the across from you.  You are so happy to see each other.  You look into your loved one’s eyes.  See the familiar color there.   The warm smile on the face, the color of the hair, and its texture.  You reach out and take the hand in yours.  It is a familiar touch.  As you sit together, take a few moments to sit in silence and enjoy being together. Tell your loved one the deepest yearnings of your heart. Words of gratitude.  Words of apology. Words of love. Ask them for their advice.  Open yourself up to the wisdom they possess.

Other chairs are there.  Others you are here to remember come in the door – slowly you greet each one, and search their eyes, their skin, their hair, their smile.  Sit with each one and try to see them anew, and to forgive them in your heart if you can.  [pause]  Take some time to say to each one what you have come to say.  [pause].  Spent some quiet time and feel the joy of being together.

Take a moment to say good bye.  You rise and hug each one of your loved ones in the room and they walk over to the door, look at you again, and leave.  When you are ready, please open your eyes.  We rise and turn to page 290.

 


[1] This is adapted from page 316-17 of the book and the movie screenplay

[2] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/73_War.html

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