Earlier this week, a Facebook friend of mine posted a short Hebrew phrase that needed interpretation for his non-Hebraic followers. He wrote: Gam ze ya’avor: This too shall pass. He was specifically referring to the latest round of unpleasant political news that had come out that day. But the phrase is one that I have heard many times before.
I’ve heard it in both Jewish and Christian preaching – on the premise, I think, that it is biblical in origin. But it’s not. It comes from a medieval folktale that appears in Persian, in Turkish, and in Hebrew. Here’s the Jewish version:
“King Solomon once searched for a cure against depression. He assembled his wise men together. They meditated for a long time and gave him the following advice: Make yourself a ring and have thereon engraved the words ‘This too will pass.’ The King carried out the advice. He had the ring made and wore it constantly. Every time he felt sad and depressed, he looked at the ring, whereon his mood would change and he would feel cheerful.”
-Israel Folklore Archive # 126
The folk tale has popped up throughout the ages, as we look for ways to ease physical pain or emotional turmoil. Some people have taken the story literally and have had rings and amulets made with the phrase, or the Hebrew letters that begin the words, inscribed on them. Some people take it metaphorically, as the Jewish medieval philosopher and physician Maimonides did, when he advised against making yourself sick over something that already has transpired and cannot be changed – or over something that might or might not come to be in the future.
“Now intellectual reflection teaches that thinking about what has taken place and has happened is of no benefit at all, and that sadness and grief about matters that have passed and gone are due to faulty understanding. . . . On the basis of this reflection, acts of thinking leading to depression about something that is expected to come to pass in the future ought also to be abandoned. . . . After all, the expected matter and its opposite are both possible.”
Gam ze ya-avor.
Me, I’ve been mulling it over because of something that has not yet happened but will come to be in the very near future. This coming Tuesday, I’m turning 60 years old.
Yeah, I know. Some of you in this room are laughing because you’ve been there, done that. Others of you are thinking: Wow our rabbi is really old. And I’m hoping still others of you are wondering: Boy, how does she stay so young? I know it’s going to happen whether or not I like it. But I do wonder if I’m going to feel any different.
Will my legs start aching? Will my mind go blank more often than usual? I know my hair won’t suddenly turn grey, because I’ve already taken care of that. In the past I’ve loved my birthday celebrations in the past. Cake. Presents. This time? Hmm. Gam ze ya’avor. I kind of just want it to be over. Although – to be honest – I still would like presents and cake. Chocolate cake.
Between now and Tuesday, Don and I will be at a family celebration, seeing the youngest child of my youngest sibling off to college. The one who identifies himself as my favorite nephew and calls me “Aunt Rabs.” I’m hardly losing him forever. In fact, he’ll be at University of South Carolina, just a 25-minute drive from our house down in Camden. But a large part of my adulthood has been the joy of being a doting and slightly eccentric aunt to some pretty remarkable nieces and nephews. Now they aren’t kids any more. One is already married, and I’m officiating at the wedding of another next summer. Gam ze ya’avor. That part of my life has come to an end.
But another part has not. The next day I’ll be spending a few hours in the hospital, undergoing surgery to remove a growth that has been identified as benign – but given my history of cancer, anything they call a “lumpectomy” is scary all the same. And yeah, gam ze ya’avor. Let’s hope we can get through that quickly. And please give me a good dose of that IV medicine that causes a bit of amnesia.
Gam ze ya’avor. It can be said with a shrug, or it can go with a hug. It can express impatience or it can show affection. We’d all like to think that these words – like all words – would be used kindly. But sometimes, it seems, both the carrot and the stick are necessary.
And even though the phrase isn’t itself Biblical, I think that this is what Moses had in mind, as he continues his final sermon to the people in this week’s Torah reading.
Moses spends a lot of time wielding that stick – stewing over things that, as Maimonides warned, already had taken place and could not be changed. He chastises the people because God has been angry with him on their account. He even blames them for the fact that he won’t cross the Jordan River with them – though we’ve already seen that his own anger and impatience had at last something to do with it.
And he inveighs against them for behaving badly in the future – for things that Maimonides warned might or might not happen, like turning to idolatry.
But Moses knows that browbeating the people for what’s happened in the past, or what may not happen in the future, isn’t the way to leave them. It isn’t the way he wants them to remember him. So he softens all of that with the more kind version of gam ze ya’avor – things will be hard, but you’ll get through it.
He starts this part of the speech by telling them that va’etchanan, he has pleaded with God on their behalf. He reminds them that they must be, at heart, a great nation – otherwise God would not have guided them this far, nor given them the great gift of Torah. He implores them to remember what they have seen with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears – the words and the commands of God, the divine presence on Mount Sinai, the daily miracles that allowed them to survive on a journey through hostile territory. And he reiterates for them the Ten Commandments, which prove God’s eternal love for them, and then shares the words of what we know now as the Shema and the V’ahavta – which express their love for God, from generation to generation.
And he ends here, this week, calling them an “am segulah” – a treasured people with a special claim, not just to the land, but on God’s heart. Any trial, any challenge, and pain can be endured if only they have faith:
יא וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת־הַמִּצְוָה וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לַעֲשׂוֹתָם:
“Only observe faithfully the Instructions – the laws and the rules – with which I charge you this day.”
Gam ze ya’avor. “This too shall pass.” Hey, I know I’ll get through the next few days in pretty good shape. And by next Friday, I’ll have made sure my hair will once again be the color I was born with (60 years ago!). But just thinking about all of this makes me more aware that none of us really knows what is going in other peoples’ minds, or their lives, at any given moment: what they might be stuck on, rehashing from the past, or anticipating in the future. We should never assume we do know, or take those feelings lightly. We may not have Moses’s power of speech – but we can learn from the care he takes with his words, how we must choose ours.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin
So tonight we complete the Book of Numbers – and we come to the end of our story. Oh, I know, we have the entire book of Deuteronomy still to come in the Torah-reading cycle that takes us to Simchat Torah in the fall. But Deuteronomy is Moses’s final discourse to the people – his chance to put his spin on his 40 years of leadership, his failures and his successes, his frustrations and his exaltations. The story of us, of the Israelites in the wilderness, really ends this Shabbat.
The redactors of the Torah could have ended this saga in so many different ways. They could simply have stopped a couple of paragraphs before they did, with God’s command to Moses of how to divvy up the Promised Land among the tribes, when Joshua led them across the Jordan River. But no. Instead of bringing down the curtain with the children of Israel being given their freedom, the book of Numbers ends here with Israel’s women being deprived of theirs.
We first met the five daughters of Zelophechad a couple of weeks ago, after the failed coup attempt led by the Levite Korach, when they went to Moses to plead for the inheritance of their father. The law apparently presumed sons would inherit their father’s property – but Zelophechad had none. “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction . . . but died for his own sin,” the daughters tell Moses. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” Moses is thrown for a loop and goes to God for guidance. And God wholeheartedly supports the sisters’ demands and even establishes a new and permanent law that allows daughters to inherit in such circumstances.
You’d think that, if God says so, that would be the end of it. But apparently not: Now it’s the daughters who are thrown for a loop, as Moses invokes God’s name to change the rules:
“The daughters of Zelophechad,” he declares, “may marry anyone they wish, provided that they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another . . . every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe.”
The text here says that Moses makes this pronouncement “al pi Adonai” – at God’s bidding. But it does not directly quote God, as it did before. It does not even say that Moses sought God’s guidance, as he did before. Is Moses freelancing here? We’ll never know. What we can say, however, is that Moses is changing the rules. In the very, very last verses of the wilderness saga, the Torah declares – in essence – that upholding the patriarchal tribal system is more important than the freedom of women to choose their own futures.
You know, this saga started out with such promise. The powerful stories of Yocheved and Miriam – Moses’ mother and sister – saving his life and placing him in the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. The midwives, saving the lives of all the other sons of Israel. Strong women, all securing the future of the people. It was Miriam and the women who danced and sang, leading the people across the dry sea bed from Egypt to freedom. It was the women – “wise in heart” says the text – who gave their gold and jewels freely, who spun the thread and the animal hairs to create the tabernacle’s fittings. But then it kind of went downhill from there.
In the book of Leviticus, we learn that divorced and widowed women are tainted and unfit to be the wife of a high priest – lumped into the same company as harlots. In Numbers, chapter 5, we see that a man who suspected his wife of infidelity – even if she was, in fact, faithful – could take her before a priest and force her to undergo a humiliating, public and dangerous trial by magic. In Numbers, chapter 30, we learn that, while both men and women may become nazarites, vowing themselves to God, a woman’s father or her husband can nullify that vow. And by Numbers 31, we see that, of the Midianite women taken captive in battle, those with sexual experience were slaughtered, while the virgins were to be taken as spoils of war.
Before the people even make it to the Land of Israel, then, women’s roles and futures have been proscribed and determined by biology, by sexual experience, and simply by gender. Women are tagged as virgins or harlots – though most are neither. Power and control rest in the hands of men.
If this sounds familiar – it’s because, well, it is. As my colleague Rabbi Rick Block has written, “The disparity in treatment of men’s and women’s vows and oaths exemplifies the secondary legal and social status of females in biblical legislation, an inequality that persisted throughout the postbiblical and Rabbinic periods, and has yet to be fully eradicated even in our egalitarian era. From the perspective of modernity, no effort at apologetics can negate the injustice.”
Which makes what’s happened recently with regard to the Women of the Wall and access to the Kotel so important.
The modern state of Israel likes to tout its gender equality – women serving in the armed forces, a woman (Golda Meir) as Prime Minister at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Yet recent events call into question the state’s true commitment to equality and freedom for all, especially when it comes to women. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Haredim – the ultra Orthodox male-dominated hierarchy – not only have broadened their control over issues of personal status like birth and adoption, marriage and burial, who can be considered a Jew – but have also systematically marginalized, sexualized, and objectified women and girls in a campaign that has been especially pernicious.
Little girls – and I mean little girls — are being sent home from school for not dressing modestly enough. And their images are being erased from posters and billboards advertising things like Purim costumes – lest they sexually excite older men. Advertisements for women’s events cannot feature women. Women army officers and politicians have regularly been banned from what are supposed to be secular events like the annual national chanukkiah lighting – which are held in the men’s-only section at the Kotel.
And then there is the long saga of the Women of the Wall, who have won one lawsuit after another regarding their right to pray as they wish at the holiest spot in Judaism – only to have the Netanyahu government, which needs the support of the Haredi parties to stay in power, blatantly ignore lawsuits and legal deadlines.
Recently, the government reneged on its agreement to set up an egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall. At one point, a group of ultra-Orthodox took over the site and set up a mechitzah – a barrier preventing men and women from mixing – and the government did nothing.
Some people – including many secular Israelis – will say: The Kotel? Who cares about the Kotel?
The answer is: All of us should care.
Because the battle over the Kotel is more than just about the Kotel. It is about the treatment of women by a Jewish state that is supposed to welcome us all and consider us all equal. It’s about freedom of religion. It’s about freedom from coercion. It’s about demanding that Israel – which is supposed to be both Jewish and democratic – stop the quasi-official marginalization of women and girls of all ages and backgrounds. It’s about demanding of Israel the recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that represent the vast majority of religious Jews outside of Israel – Jews like us who provide money and support to Israel, whether it’s through our Federation donations, our federal tax dollars that pay for foreign aid, or our children, whom we send on Birthright trips designed to cement their Jewish identities.
Withholding any or all of these may or may not have a financial impact on the Israeli government. But, again quoting my colleague Rick Block,
“It is also well to remember that righteous indignation over historic injustices, if not accompanied by a passionate commitment to continue the struggle against those that persist, amounts to little more than self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and an undeserved sense of moral superiority. Like our ancestors, ancient and more recent, we too will someday be judged in terms of our own action or inaction in combating the inequality of our own era.”
While we persist in our fight, here in our own country, for equal pay, protection of health care, and reproductive rights, we cannot forget that the struggle of women for dignity and equality is a worldwide struggle – and that includes the State of Israel, where men of rank and privilege continue to impose restrictions and wield power in ways that go back to the Bible itself. In the 21st century, principles of fairness and justice trump ancient patriarchal presumptions. We deserve better. And so does Israel herself.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin
The adventure started last Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to Baltimore baseball for the past 25 years. It was a kind of homecoming for me. As a young journalist in the early 80’s I had covered the Orioles at old Memorial Stadium. Cal Ripken Jr. and I had essentially been called up together – he as a major leaguer, me as a major-market reporter. And now, here he was, larger than life – one of a number of Hall-of-Fame statues in the center-field picnic area of the ballpark.
There was Jim Palmer, the great pitcher who was concluding his career as we were starting ours, preparing to let loose his next pitch. There was Brooks Robinson, depicted in the iconic crouch from which he would leap and stab any ball hit his way.
And then there was my nemesis, Earl Weaver, then the manager of the Orioles, who did not care for any reporters in his office, much less one of the first female reporters granted full and equal access by Major League Baseball. The first time I ventured in with the gaggle, he took one look at me and growled, “Are you gonna do something with that tape recorder, young lady?” From then on, I counted on pitching coach Ray Miller, at the locker closest to Weaver’s office, to scout out whether it was safe for me to go in for an interview after the game.
For most fans, the nine-foot statues represent the greatness of Orioles baseball of the past. For me, they were my own story – a large portion of my life, frozen in time, as though nothing had changed at all.
Of course that’s not true. Earl Weaver has passed from this world. Cal Ripken is long retired and now has less hair and more in the middle. Brooksie, God love him, is still going strong at age 80, but I’m guessing he’s not as fleet on his feet. And me, I’m 18 years into my third career – my true calling – and very well aware that time (and baseball) have moved on.
Just twenty-four hours later, I wasn’t so sure. Because the Baltimore I saw on Monday looked very much like the one I had left decades ago. And that was not a good thing.
You may know the name Freddie Gray. He was the 25-year-old black man who died in police custody two years ago after being arrested for possession of what police claimed was an illegal switchblade. Much of what transpired between Freddie Gray’s arrest and death are still unclear. Here’s the way Rolling Stone magazine recently summarized what we know:
“[Gray was] put inside a Baltimore Police Department transport van, and then, 45 minutes later, was found unconscious and not breathing, his spinal cord nearly severed. Following a seven-day coma, Gray died on April 19th; his untimely death and citizen video of his arrest, which showed Gray screaming in pain, prompted both the peaceful protests and headline-grabbing riots.”
Many of us remember the scenes on television: the huge crowds that had gathered at the Penn North intersection, in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore. The police moving in a line, trying to push the protesters out. The violence, the beatings, the torching of the local pharmacy.
Three officers involved in the case eventually were acquitted. Last summer, the charges against three others were dropped. And the deaths of other young black men at the hands of police took over the national narrative.
But in West Baltimore, the story of Freddie Gray remains a central focus of life for poor, black citizens. His likeness appears everywhere, on enormous murals that began emerging on the sides of homes and businesses almost immediately after his death. These murals – like the statues in Oriole Park – depict a Freddie Gray frozen in time. Their artistic beauty is almost painful. They speak to the aspirations, the fears, and the tragedies of a community that has been ignored, of lives that have been wasted, of a Baltimore that is only a few minutes’ drive from the ballparks and the Inner Harbor, yet which is essentially another world.
According to a Washington Post report from last summer:
“The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood covers 72 square blocks and is home to about 9,000 people. About a third of the housing stock is abandoned and boarded up, 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed, and the neighborhood has more people in jails and prisons than any other census tract in Maryland, according to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative.”
But here’s the thing. West Baltimore was like this when I lived there, too. The burned-out buildings, the boarded-up houses, the young black men idling on stoops – that didn’t happen just in the last two years. Or even two decades. The damage in Sandtown took place a half-century ago, in the riots that followed the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.
The money and attention that has been lavished on affluent, gentrified white areas of Baltimore has not trickled down to Sandtown. Successive administrations, both on a city and a state level, have not invested in these areas of West Baltimore. It is an area whose residents are unseen, unheard, and unattended.
Walking through Sandtown on Monday, I was very self-conscious and worried about what the residents would think. Why was this group of white women taking in the scene, taking pictures as they went? We’d been told by local activist J.C. Faulk, who took us around the neighborhood and told us its stories, that neighbors might not be kind. But it turns out that they were. They were friendly, engaging, and interested. They welcomed us, because we cared. Because we were there to learn. Because we were there at all.
These were people who were shopping, walking their kids home, and cleaning their stoops. Who showed us the alleys where rat-infested garbage piled up, because they could not get the attention of amyone in the city to clean it up. Who were trying to go about their lives, in and out of the Penn-North transit station, and small shops, and densely parked cars.
Sandtown is alive. It is not a war zone. It is not a dark cave that people should fear to enter. It is a neighborhood like any other, where people go to work and take care of their kids, where neighbors share meals together. Some things have gotten better over time – fewer overt drug deals, more rehabilitation of homes by community groups. Still, wherever we went, the magnificent murals recording the deaths of Freddie Gray, and so many others like him, looked out upon those rows of those burned out buildings and boarded up houses, signs of the neglect of this community over half a century.
The tour of Sandtown was just the first step for us. That night, we gathered again with J.C. and other activists and citizens who have banded together to demand attention, as well as justice. They are part of an uprising, as they call it, a city-wide movement called Circles of Voices. J.C. had each group there – rabbis, citizens, activists – take a turn in the circle, talking about themselves and their lives, while the others listened and later reflected on what they heard.
It’s the least we can do, isn’t it? – Listen to other people tell the stories of their lives? Break down pre-conceived notions about who they are, where they come from, why they care? And we did listen. We listened to Towanda, the sister of another black man killed by Baltimore city police, who has spent more than 200 straight weeks protesting with a megaphone in front of police stations and the city coroner’s office and other agencies – just getting them to acknowledge her presence and her pain. We listened to a man who had come from Ireland, with an abiding concern for those less fortunate than he. We listened to the ever-passionate activist PFK Boom, who told us of threats against him and his family because of his work. We listened to a mother and daughter who just wanted to know what they could do to get those who do have power to pay attention to the basic human needs of those who have none.
Listening in, I felt such an unexpected connection with all of these people. The fact is that each group’s frustrations and challenges come from the same difficult questions: What can I do? How can I help? How do I get the powerful to pay attention? Listening in, and recognizing all that we have in common – This is the beginning of breaking down walls. Of taking apart the silos in which each of our communities lives, one brick at a time.
The conversation was about Baltimore – but then again, it wasn’t. It was really about every city and town with a power structure that ignores the basic human needs of whole neighborhoods. We members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network represent big, wealthy congregations, as well as small, modest ones. We like to think of ourselves as a diverse group – but the fact of the matter is that we are all pretty fortunate. We all make a decent living. We all can afford a nice place to live. We all can raise children in safety and comfort. We all can travel and explore the world with relative ease.
And we all need to recognize that, armed with a life of comfort and a pulpit that affords us some power, we also bear the responsibility to speak out on behalf of others whose voices are not heard. To listen, and then to speak from passion and from knowledge, if not from personal experience.
On the final morning of our conference, we sat with the wonderful Rabbi Beth Schaefer, who is both a marvelous spiritual leader and a great musical talent. And, with her guidance, we started writing a song for ourselves. It’s still in process. But the chorus we created goes something like this:
“See the unseen
Hear the unheard
Count the uncounted
Rise up in word
In song, deed and prayer
This sacred calling we share.”
For us as rabbis, this is our sacred calling – answering the challenge of the prophet Zecharia in this week’s haftarah. It is a prophecy that promises redemption – but not for us alone. As the angel tells Zecharia:
“Look at the stone that I have set before [the High Priest] Joshua, a single stone with seven facets. Now I am going to put an engraving on it – says the God of heaven’s hosts – and in a single day remove the iniquity of this land. On that day – says the God of heaven’s hosts – you shall all invite each other to sit under your vines and your fig trees.”
The ancients apparently believed that a stone carving like this, with the sacred number of seven sides, had special powers. But we know better. The past is not set in stone, nor is the future. The power is not in a carving, or a memorial statue. The power is in us. Redemption, unity, and peace all come to the world when we make it happen, inspired by the prophet’s vision and God’s command.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin
We generally reserve the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” – a great miracle happened there – for Chanukah and the story of the miracle of the oil lamp. But this year, we found ourselves using the phrase in the middle of Passover. Nes Gadol Haya Sham. On Shabbat Pesach, a great miracle happened . . . at Animal Adventure Park near Binghamton, New York. April the Giraffe finally gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.
The birth had been anticipated for months. The Park set up a giraffe –cam (aptly sponsored by Toys R Us), so that we could sit and watch for hours at a time, for weeks and months on end, as April got bigger, started pacing, set up her birthing area, and finally gave birth standing up, to a big strapping boy who was soon on his feet and nursing. Daddy Oliver, in the next room over, seemed to lord over the whole scene with pride.
So what’s this all about? Why all the fuss about a baby giraffe? Well, for one thing, it was clearly the power of social networking and the bright idea of the crew at Animal Adventure Park to let everyone watch, for weeks on end, 24-7. That could have backfired on them if something had gone wrong. They were lucky, but also pretty courageous. If you thought people were not excited about baby animals, they are now. And not just giraffes. Fiona, the baby hippo born prematurely at the Cincinnati Zoo, has been getting an awful lot of on-line love, too, with the team’s daily updates and video feeds. I’m pleased to tell you that she’s now enjoying the indoor pool, consuming 360 ounces of formula a day, along with some hay, and as of Tuesday was up to 166 pounds. And you can find all that information on Fiona’s own blog.
So yes, some of it was the confluence of social media and baby-animal adorableness. But I’d like to think there was another factor at play: parents teaching their children the art of patience.
The day the April’s baby was born was also the first day of children’s fishing season at Reservoir Park, across the street from our house. As hundreds of kids and their parents and grandparents kept one eye on their lines, they kept the other on the facebook feeds on their phones. The volunteers were watching, too, and made sure they announced to the crowd when the giraffe was finally born.
And on the live feed, people from all over the world added comments about how their children – aged 3, or 5 or 9 – had been watching with them all this time and broke out into shouts and whoops when they saw the baby giraffe’s spindly legs emerge. Giraffe-watching had become a family pastime. One that, like fishing at the reservoir, requires a degree of patience that we presume kids today simply don’t have. And that, too, may be a great miracle.
Kids are bombarded with so much that comes at them so quickly. It’s the nature of social media, but also the nature of the rest of their lives. They are shuttled between schools and endless activities. Weekends are highly structured. Full participation in everything is required. And they are terrified to miss even a day of school, for fear they’ll be too far behind even the next day. It’s not the kids’ fault. Their parents have an ever growing number of responsibilities, and their teachers are inundated with bureaucratic demands. The intense pressure on adults inevitably filters down to the children. Everybody is stressed. Everybody is moving a mile a minute.
The latest unfortunate trend in urban life is pedestrians being hit by cars – because so many people are crossing the street with their headphones on and their eyes on their phone screens.
In an article in Atlantic Magazine, Jessica Lahey lamented what she called “childish impatience” – which she also applied to adults. She looked for guidance to Harvard humanities professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who not only writes about the power of patience but also tries to teach it in her classroom. While students are being pushed toward “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity,” she wrote, “I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”
For one assignment, Professor Roberts had her students write a research paper that required an immersive assignment. They were to write on one work of art, and they had to spend three hours studying it. Three hours! No distractions, no texting, no chatting, just three hours examining a painting for its nuances and its underlying beauties.
Can you imagine the kids you know doing that? I have a better question for you. Can you imagine yourself doing that. Taking the time to immerse yourself fully, for hours on end, in one experience that leads you to a deeper understanding of something special and beautiful? Can you?
Well, that’s exactly the gift that the giraffe cam gave us. But as Jessica Lahey wrote, “access is not synonymous with learning.” It took more than just an occasional peek in, to see what was really going on. It took patience to sit there for long stretches of time to pick up on April’s physical signals that maybe she was getting ready for birth. Was her movement changing? Was she nesting? Was she pacing? Did her body look different? What about changes in her eating habits?
You had to sit and watch to figure it out for yourself, just as you’d have to study a painting for hours to fully understand the intentional uses of texture and color, light and shadow, the mottled features of an aging face, or the grace of an outstretched hand.
To know the story – and not just a few facts – takes patience that we sometimes forget we have.
And that’s why the giraffe baby’s birth was glorious – not just because it happened, which is a miracle in itself, but that it happened on Passover, when we Jews are asked to be at our most patient. When, the hagaddah tells us, we must deal with questions from children who are smart or smart-aleck, eager or bored, sweet or grouchy. When we re-enact our history with such detail that, if we forget to emphasize the pesach, the matzah and the maror, the rabbis tell us we have not fulfilled our responsibility to pass the tale down from generation to generation.
Or take this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini, which begins with the ninth chapter of Leviticus. The sanctification of the high priests in the tabernacle already has been going on for eight days. Eight days of offerings and incense, of precision in all the rituals and recitations. Aaron did his job – but his sons, Nadav and Avihu, apparently got impatient. After watching what their father did at God’s command, they decided to freelance, to create their own fire offerings – not ordained by God – with the tragic result that they themselves were consumed by the flames.
And after all that was over, when everyone was stunned into silence by the boy’s deaths, God laid out for the people – in excruciating detail – the laws of kashrut. What could be eaten and what was forbidden.
That cows are okay but camels are not. That fish have to have fins and scales. That birds in general are okay – but not a vulture and especially not a black vulture. Oh, and no eating mice. As if.
We don’t follow exactly these rules anymore. But really studying this whole chapter of 47 long verses, about yes to this animal and no to that one, teaches us the underlying concept that we ought to pay attention to what we eat. That there is a sanctity in preparing food for our families, as much as there was in preparing offerings to God.
The point is that everything that God teaches us requires patience. If the people thought the Ten Commandments were the be-all and end-all, they were mistaken. They were just the general categories. The mitzvot that follow, about everything from the food we eat to the way we treat our neighbors, to marriage and family law – that stuff matters. The details matter.
The rabbis count up 613 commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It took patience for the Israelites to learn how to integrate them into their daily lives – which may be one reason they needed those 40 years in the wilderness. It takes the patience of a lifetime for us, too, not just to fly through the words of Torah, as they’re chanted in Hebrew from an old scroll every Shabbat, but to sit with them and wrestle with them and question them and find the underlying meaning in them. What takes Torah from a dusty old history book to God’s moral compass? We do.
It takes a lot of patience to be a Jew, just as it does to be a parent, or a child, or a teacher, or a student, or a zookeeper watching for those tell-tale changes that a baby giraffe or a baby hippo is about to be born.
To use Jessica Lahey’s example of teaching a novel like Great Expectations, “we can ease our students back into the skill of patience by asking them to stick with stories that don’t answer all their questions on page one.”
What’s true of literature is true of life. And what’s true for students is true for us all. Access may be quick and easy, but learning is a journey. We Jews ought to know that by now. But the miracle of April and Oliver’s baby giraffe is a beautiful reminder. The miracle was not just the moment of birth: It was the millions of people of all ages, all around the world, patiently sharing the journey together in preparation for that moment.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin
So, one afternoon in Camden, Don and I wandered into the great little local coffee shop that’s tucked into the back room of a fantastic local used book store on the main street going through town. We’d ordered our coffees and I must have mentioned something about having had my guitar lesson across the street. To which the morning barista, who was still hanging out there, pointed at me, mouth agape, and cried out, “Oh, you must be the rabbi!” Such was my 15 minutes of fame (no more than that) during winter sabbatical.
I’m used to female rabbis still being a novelty, 45 years after Sally Priesand was ordained in Cincinnati. But a rabbi (stam) being in town is still fodder for local gossip in Camden, South Carolina. Apparently my guitar teacher, Rusty, joins a group of men-of-a-certain-age (who are basically now my age) for a chat session and a cuppa joe every morning. And when he shared the news with the group that he was teaching a rabbi – “well the heck you say!” was pretty much the communal response.
The response was the same at the hair salon and the furniture store. With the requisite follow-up question: “So…you’re Jewish…???”
Of course there’s not much call for a rabbi in Camden, South Carolina. To say there is a handful of Jews it town would be, as we were told by one of them, a ‘generous count.’ There’s a beautiful little Temple building – just a chapel, really – that is only open for lay-led worship on the High Holy days. But in a town that is still “highly churched,” as they say, a rabbi is a novelty worth talking about.
Which may be why I spent most of my time at home.
Thanks to your generosity, I had the opportunity to spend four months at our Camden home, studying, reading, writing, and synthesizing texts that ranged from ancient to modern, from famous to very obscure, and from clear to “what in the world is that?” The only break was to fly to southern California for a few days, to be Don’s cheering section as he graduated from Concord Law School in late February. Have I ever mentioned how proud I am of him? No? Well, I am.
And while Don was studying to take the bar exam that week, I was able to get about 140 pages into dissertation, finally seeing a light at the end of a tunnel that has taken me 20 years to travel.
First, let me tell you a little bit about my topic. In Hebrew we call it n’filat apayim: the prayer act of falling to the ground, face on the floor, in complete physical supplication. I know, not a Reform Judaism thing. But a very Jewish thing from the time of the Bible onward.
I’ve always been interested in how we offer supplications before God. Asking for God’s mercy is often considered the purest form of prayer. And it turns out it doesn’t need a single word to be spoken.
In the Tanakh we see encounter many situations, from Abraham to Joshua, where God appears or speaks to a chosen person, who is so overcome by the experience that all he can do is fall on his face, often unable to say a word. It’s a posture of a human before a god, of a slave before a master, of a subject before a ruler – one that was common throughout the ancient world. It was adopted by those who crafted the stories in our Bible – as a way to say, yes, we too fall before our sovereign. But our sovereign is God, and God alone. And we believe that when we prostrate before God in all sincerity, God will grant our request.
The physical act of prostration IS a form of prayer – one that is important, one that works.
And so it became part of the formal worship of God after the close of the Hebrew Bible. At the Temple in Jerusalem, every day when the offerings were made on the altar and the incense was lit, not only the priests but also ordinary people seeking God’s favor prostrated themselves. Here’s what we know from the Mishnah:
“When they [the Levites] reached the end of a chapter [of Psalms], they would blow [a set of blasts] and the people [as a whole, ha-am] would bow in prostration. At the end of every chapter, they would blow a [set of blasts], and at the end of each set of blasts [the people] would bow in prostration.”
At Qumran, where the sect known as Essenes had removed themselves, to purify themselves for a coming apocalypse in which they alone would be spared, their so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” record their prayer services. And the instructions to the prayer leaders remind them that n’filat apayim – the stance of supplication – is a crucial element of worship each and every day.
The Mishnah and the Talmud, written and redacted in the centuries after the Temple was destroyed, are inspired by the prayer prostration of priests but also of prophets. The daily prayer routine the rabbis created was based on the daily routine of the prophet Daniel, who was sent into exile and feared for his life. Here’s what the Book of Daniel says:
“So when Daniel learned that the decree had been drawn up, he went into his house, where the windows of the upper chamber opened in the direction of Jerusalem and where, three times each day, he bent down on his knees and prayed and gave thanks before his God for all he had received, as was his custom to do. Then these men gathered and found Daniel praying for mercy and supplicating himself before his God.”
This is essentially what became daily prayer as we know it. By the time the first actual prayer books were put together in the early middle ages, the act of n’filat apayim – of falling on one’s face and pleading with God – was already an established part of community worship. After we recite the Amidah, we are told to fall on our faces, say our own private prayers, and recite psalms and prayers of supplication with the congregation.
The mystics of the late middle ages took n’filat apayim even farther. They believed the worshiper should be so deep into the physical act of supplication that emotionally, it would be a near-death experience, bringing you closer to God.
Now, I know this seems really foreign to most of you. Me, too. The only time I’ve ever seen a full prostration in a Reform congregation was during Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, when we moved all the chairs out for the afternoon service – and when we came to the three recitations of the prayers of the priests at the Temple, everyone went down flat. I understand from Annette Shaw that you did have an interim rabbi once who did the same thing. And I gather it somewhat took you by surprise.
But here’s what I find so interesting. Movement – gesture, posture, dance, waving, stomping – and, yes, prostrating — is an important part of so many religious traditions today. Movement is central to the way black Baptists pray. And Muslims. And traditional Jews. The only way Reform Jews experience it is at Jewish summer camp, when they’re encouraged to experiment with prayer through movement and music. Prayer with no words. Prayer with intent. Prayer with purpose.
I’m not suggesting every Shabbat here should be like summer camp, or that we clear the chairs on Yom Kippur afternoon.
In fact, you may have noticed that I kept things pretty comfortable tonight, for our first Shabbat together in four months. But what I am suggesting is that maybe there’s a way to explore different ways we express ourselves to God on Shabbat. Maybe it’s movement. Maybe it’s music. Not to take away from our prayers – but to enhance them.
Thinking outside the box, and outside the walls of this sanctuary – that’s why I’m studying and writing and synthesizing. It’s not just an academic exercise for me – although it’s one I’d certainly like to finish up this summer. But I want the end of reading and writing to be the beginning of questioning and experimenting. We’ve got a wonderful group here tonight. But we don’t, always. I’m glad to think this means you missed me. But I don’t want us to slip back into old routines.
Thinking outside the box, and outside the walls of this sanctuary – that’s what sabbatical was really about. Not everybody has the ability to take four months off and do something completely different. But deviating from routine is a good thing. It’s a form of self-care – and that, I highly recommend.
Yes, I spent a lot of time at the computer or with my face in a book. But I also balanced that with eating well, walking often, honing my guitar skills with a great teacher, getting a good haircut, and meeting people at the coffee shop tucked inside the book store, all with a unique story to tell.
Each of us can find rejuvenation and inspiration in unlikely places and situations. But we need to open ourselves to that. Deviate from routine, have the courage and determination to take the time for sabbatical, no matter how long and no matter how far.
Passover is the perfect time to start. It’s about our physical redemption, from slavery to freedom. But it’s also about emotional release, too. Of no longer being a slave to routine and tradition. Of being unafraid to walk through the river bed to whatever waited us on the other side. If our ancestors had not had the courage to take that chance, we would not be here today, remembering the gift of freedom they have given to us. The freedom of sabbatical takes all kinds of forms. The fifth question for this year’s Seder might be: What’s yours?
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will. Let us enjoy a meaningful Passover. And let us say together: Amen.
© Audrey R. Korotkin 2017