Monday, April 27, 2009

Numbers and perfections?

This is a tardy response to a comment posted in March. Here's the comment:

Why do we spend so much time on numbers? 10 this, 18 that, the 1st born and on and on. Then we had to build the tabernacle and everything had to be perfect. Even Noah, who wasn't even Jewish, (I don't think) had to have everything just right. I feel like as a Jew, sometimes we spend a lot of time counting even in todays world, you can't walk into shul without seeing people making sure all ten are accounted for. Shavua Tov. Susan

Lots of issues here! First starting with ten and the shul. Ten is the minimum, not the goal for a communal service. However, ten Jews is how we define community. Really, a small number, and kind of sad that it's often so hard to get ten Jewish people to be part of the community when it comes to prayer and Torah reading. However, Judaism is a communal religion, prayer and Torah are our foundation stone, so it makes sense that Torah would set a minimum number. Otherwise, would we ever have a "communal" presence for the functions that keep Judaism alive and from devolving into just a social group?

The number ten for a minyan comes from -- sadly -- one of the Torah's most negative events -- the story of the spies. While in the desert, Moses sent twelve community leaders to check out the Promised Land. They all agreed it was fertile and good. However, ten of them were terrified that the inhabitants would defeat them and nearly convinced the people to go back to Egypt! If that's the damage ten can do, imagine the good that comes when ten band together for a noble cause!

In a sense, that's still skirting the surface. We fine ten as an important number throught Torah, and generally in relation to creation, whether of a world or a people. God created the world through ten utterances. The ten commandments are Jewishly the aseret hadibrot, the ten statements. Through those ten statements, God forged us into a people grounded in Torah.

Even deeper, the mystics point to ten sefirot, aspects of God. The highest aspect is unknowable. These sefirot also teach us the deepest meanings of the Creation story. The first three levels of creation -- referred to through the three highest sefirot -- take place before the Written Torah even begins. They are unknowable to our mortal minds. The remaining seven sefirot are refllected in the "days" of creation.

We know that numbers are critical to building anything. One measurement out of whack, the edifice fails. I would surely not trust an architect who did not design and build according to exact specifications.

But the Torah takes this practical aspect much further. After all, it could have avoided constant repetition of the numbers. Yet, Torah is amazingly concise. Nothing is superfluous.

That's where the mystical signficance of numbers come in. Also, Hebrew numbers are letters! Words and numbers aren't separate. As repetitive and dry as the numbers may seem, it would take years of deep study to unlock their secrets.

Right now, as we count the omer, our days are literally numbered. Yes, there is kabalistic significance to these numbers. Hopefully, will write more on this soon.

Rabbi Shaina

Comforting the Mourners -- some thoughts

Jewish tradition considers it a commandment to “comfort the mourners.” Good so far, but what does this really mean? This is so easy to say, and so hard to do.

Our first step is to acknowledge someone’s depth of suffering. To do this, we have to understand that death is never easy. In my own experience as a rabbi, the intensity of mourning is not diminished when:
· death is expected, even when the deceased is old,
· there has been suffering and pain leading to the death
· a relationship is troubled and the mourner and deceased are estranged.

We give lip service to a death being a “blessing,” but such a response does not validate or explain the intensity of grief the mourner may be experiencing. We’re all tempted to responses like this that don’t sufficiently acknowledge grief. If a mourner indicates this is comforting, we follow the lead. However, we must take care that by telling people their loss is a blessing -o-r that their loved one is in a “better place” – could make the mourner self-conscious and even reluctant to say: I know this, but I miss him, and my life is irreparably torn.

We must support mourners by giving them a chance to express these feelings, and at the very least, to validate them. If people are in denial, it’s not our job to break them out of it. However, if we encourage denial – by them, by us – we actually delay the healing process for them.

Jewish tradition bids us to follow the mourner’s lead in conversation. We’re not even supposed to speak to the mourner until he speaks to us. We might not go to that extreme, but we must take our cues from the mourner. Often, a quiet presence and saying “I’m sorry” and a word or two about the deceased will lead a person to express his feelings. The mourner might not want to talk at all. We should respect a need for silence. If the mourner answers with small talk, we should follow her lead, but only if that is what the mourner desires. Anything deeper might be too painful at that time. The important ingredient here is presence and caring.

In modern times, we often have the equivalent of receiving lines before a funeral. On one hand, it does comfort the family to know that so many people care about their loved one. However, it can be exhausting as well. The mourners have no choice but to make small talk. They cannot lead the direction of the conversation as tradition recommends. Some mourners find this comforting; others find themselves drained by the effort. This can be even more difficult before the actual funeral, because mourners often haven’t truly come to terms with the death until the funeral actually occurs.

For a number of Jews, tradition itself brings comfort. However, we are all unique and people respond differently. When we let people know we care – both emotionally and through concrete means – we do a great deal to bring them a measure of comfort.

In addition to the psychological component – actively, compassionately listening to the mourners – and not superimposing our needs upon them – Judaism gives us concrete rules for their care.

Their meals, especially the first meal after the funeral, should not be cooked by the mourners but by their friends. Meals traditionally include hard-boiled eggs, for they are simple and remind us of the eternity of life.

For the first week after a person’s death, we gather at their home for daily services. There is a prayer called the “mourner’s kaddish” that mourners generally say weekly or even daily for nearly a year after a death. The prayer doesn’t even mention death but extols God our Creator. For many, that prayer creates a spiritual infra-structure that gives them an additional connection to their loved one. It reminds them of the eternity of the spirit and helps place their loss in the context of the living tapestry of memory and Eternity. An added benefit of this prayer is that it is done in the presence of the Jewish community with at least nine other fellow Jews present. Again, this reminds us that mourning is not done in a vacuum and the community is there for the mourners – and that we are.

The pain of death never goes away. We never stop missing our loved ones. However, we hope to help the mourner turn raw grief into a field of memories that can bring warmth and blessing into their lives.

May the memories of all our loved ones be for a blessing. And, may we do everything in our power to let mourners know we care.

Shalom u’vrachah, in peace and blessing.

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ritual -- why?

We Jews are inundated with ritual at every turn:
  • blessings to say when we wake up and when we go to sleep;
  • candles to light before holidays and always at specific – often inconvenient! – times;
  • ancient prayers said in an ancient language
At this time of year, we’re getting ready for the most “ritualistic” event of all … Pesach!

You know the drill: clean the house; change or kasher your silverware, dishes, and cookware; spend too much time looking for special Pesach foods that cost far too much! What’s the point?

Religion sometimes seems awfully nitpicky. Shouldn’t we be thinking about the Kadosh Baruch Hu – not about housework?!

At the same time, how do we spend our daily lives? Surely, we can and should spend time on prayer and contemplation.

… Let’s get real. How much time do we think we’re going to spend this way?
Yeah, sometimes it does sound tempting …and there are people who – like Buddhist monks -- spend their lives in meditation. However, unless I’m missing something, I don’t think any of us here are planning to pursue this direction.

I do recommend prayer, study, meditation. However, what happens when we get up and re-enter the world? Are we counting on some kind of spiritual “high” to get us through?
… I hope not – real life doesn’t work that way.

Let me throw in a point about study: the first question for people who don’t understand the reason for mitzvot is this: How much have you studied? How hard have you tried to understand them?

Further, is there any point where it matters that Hashem Himself commanded us?
Therefore, we must change our question from: “what’s the point of ritual” –to a more realistic one: how can we bring holiness … God … into our lives?

… Now we have a starting point to examine the role of ritual.

Let’s briefly move away from religious ritual. Don’t we have rituals in our daily lives?

A couple of examples may help illustrate:
· Do you tell your children/friends/spouse/girlfriend /boyfriend that you love them? There's really no point. Surely you already know you love each other!
· Say you get sick and no one offers to help. They can’t, they’re too busy with their own lives. Anyway, you know they care about you … don’t you?

All relationships have built-in signals to show caring and understanding. These are our personal rituals. These rituals vary from person to person, but we all have them. We can’t rely strictly on feelings and thoughts; we must find concrete ways to express these feelings. And so it is with religion.

Ritual is what we do when we get up from prayer or meditation. Ritual is an important way to show Hashem that we care.

I often hear: “Rabbi, I’d do these “mitzvot” if I understood them. They just don’t make sense … to me.” Or: the mitzvot just don’t feel spiritual; or the best, I don’t get anything out of them.
So, who are we doing this for? Ourselves? Or God?

IF religion is about satisfying my needs – it’s not very useful! It has little to teach, and certainly won’t help us make the world better.

On the other hand, there are many things in life that don’t make sense … until you do them … like, having children… even something like getting a pet.

Just try coming up with a rational explanation for this!

It’s hard to understand many things … until we do them. Take Pesach. More Jews celebrate Pesach than any other holiday. Why? It’s a lot of work!

… The reason? It’s a lot of work!

It’s tangible … concrete … and part of an endless tapestry of Jewish life. It’s our connection to our ancestors … our descendants … to all Jews everywhere … and to the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

Rituals transcend rational understanding. IF WE LET THEM -- They reach us in the depths of our souls.

But … if we don’t try them … we’ll never even know!

If we don’t study them … we’ll continue thinking the mitzvot are pointless …

We’ll just assume that the rabbis who interpreted Torah laws … and who formulated Judaism … as we know it today … had nothing better to do than think up arcane rules to make our lives difficult.

What a silly thing to think about such brilliant, holy teachers.

As we move closer to Pesach, I’ll endeavor to explain our rituals. Just as importantly, I hope you’ll study them on your own … and do them.

I don’t mean this just for Pesach … Jewish law gives us many ways to do God’s bidding. These “rituals” are ways to tie ourselves to Him and show that we really do care what He tells us to do!
Thousands of years ago, we stood at Mt. Sinai … as a people … and proclaimed … Na’aseh v’nishmah – We will do, and we will learn.

May our lives echo that proclamation … may we do … and may we learn!