In the late ’70s, I carried a beeper when it was my turn to be on call for a rape-victim helpline. One evening I had it clipped to my jacket during a faculty meeting at the community college where I taught.
This double parasha brings us to the end of the book of Bemidbar. The Israelites stand at the edge of the Promised Land, following Moses' last military campaign. Before the people can leave the wilderness, the soldiers must go through rituals of purification. They must stay "outside the camp for seven days." Everyone who has "slain a person or touched a corpse shall purify himself" (Numbers 31:19). This care for returning soldiers has relevance for today's veterans.
I had a dream shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) School of Jewish Communal Service.
“Remember the long way that YHVH your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that he might test you, by hardships, to learn what is in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
Shavuot, unlike many Jewish holidays, does not take place on the full moon. This celebration, when we study all night to commemorate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, precedes the night of the moon’s peak brightness by about a week. So, along with the gift of Torah, we are given the two weeks of the moon’s greatest light for our Mount Sinai descent. This allows us to carefully examine our footing as we endeavor to decode each year’s revelation of Torah and affirm our Shavuot insights for “walking in God’s ways” and bringing holiness into the more quotidian world. Under the light of the Sivan moon, we ask ourselves whether the truths we have perceived are the voice of prophecy or self-serving assertions of our ego.
I want to recruit you into an order to which all Jews belong: the Mamlechet Kohanim, the Kingdom of Priests. I begin my campaign as we read of Aaron, the priest, and the instructions given him when he is, according to 12th century commentator Nachmanides, “in the most severe stage of mourning,” a time of sadness when “the Holy Spirit does not manifest itself.”
I am on a deck, overlooking a redwood stand. The tall trees above me, I look down on lesser vegetation. I find myself eye level with a red-headed woodpecker as I revisit the warnings and the promises of Parashat Nitzavim.
I learned about Jewish spirituality in a yoga class in 1971. I lay prone on the carpeted floor, relaxing after achieving the challenging bridge posture for the first time. I had thought that the pose’s name came from its shape: Lying on my back, I pushed my feet and hands into the floor until the trunk of my body rose in an arc that resembled a bridge. But as I regained equilibrium after the posture, I became uncertain about the name. As I lay there, I had the sense that the pose had enabled me to bridge the breach between the living and the dead, the holy and the profane, the body and the soul. Everything felt profoundly connected. I began to weep, and from my unconscious rose the words of the Shema. I chanted and lingered on the word echad (one). I lay there, my cells tingling, sensing the holy connection between all things. Like Job, I knew God in my flesh.
I think of myself as a premature elder. I was initiated into an involuntary priesthood at a young age. Life presented me with a set of mandates that shaped my life in
ways I would never have chosen. Twice before my 24th birthday, I sat shiva. Those seven-day periods initiated me in an unbidden understanding of life’s fragility and preciousness. The wisdom of the elders fell upon me, like the blunt end of an ax, when I was still a relative girl.
Kislev, the month when we begin to light the candles of Chanukah, is the month that contains the year’s longest nights and shortest days. In Kislev we begin in darkness, like all of creation.
“And Abraham expired, and died at a good old age.... His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah ... and Isaac settled near Beer-la’chai Roi” (Genesis 25:8-11).
The phrase “time heals all wounds” is misleading. We hold our breath, and as the years pass we hope that the pain of loss will end. Often we are disappointed. However, it is possible to use time as a healer. In so doing the progression of the seasons can bring comfort.
In a cabinet in my synagogue’s foyer is a small glass bottle with two openings. It is an object from around 100 C.E. which caught and held the tears of those who mourned the destruction of the Temple. According to a legend, it was believed that the Messiah would come when the bottle was filled.
I am blessed with a window seat and a clear day as I fly to New York for my daughter’s college graduation.
Holidays bring up feelings and memories about people who have died. They also offer opportunities to address unresolved issues. The four Yizkor services and the themes of their days correspond to different tasks of mourning.
I am a New Orleans Jew. The values of those identities fuel me like the smooth-yet-caffeinated drink that is the trademark of my hometown. I embrace the changing communal calendars and the rituals for their observances of joy and tragedy. These have taught me what it means to be human and how to extract eternity from the changing seasons.
I have finished my eight rounds of chemotherapy. I feel like someone coming to the end of a year of mourning, about to surrender the status of "mourner" and return to face the world without a label to describe my continuing internal struggle.
Depression is a word that has been cheapened. We forget that it is a diagnosis for a bona fide disease. It becomes a catch phrase for the weighty feelings we experience as we come to terms with life's challenges and honor the process of change.
The wisdom to help others is not privileged information. It is taught to all of us through our life experiences.
It's time for Jonah again. I cherish this prophet, whose Hebrew name, "Yonah" means "dove,"
Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge shining and radiant.
Accepting life's ambiguity has gotten me through a lot over the years, particularly this year, as the extremes of experience challenge any vestiges of hope I have held for things to have predictable outcomes. Say what you will about Katrina and cancer, they can be excellent teachers.
The upfsherin (hair cutting ceremony) took place on the last day of Shevat -- an auspicious time for a healing ritual. The day before Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month) is observed, in the medieval mystical practice of Yom Kippur katan (little Yom Kippur) -- a day for cleansing, purification, and preparation -- just what shaving my head represented, as I began my fifth week of chemotherapy.
I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.
I expected to be dealing with an empty nest when my daughter started college. I projected my availability to friends who had yielded my attention during my childrearing years. I dragged writing projects onto my computer's desktop to await the plane ride from NYU to the rest of my life. Instead, the levees broke in my hometown. I spent the next three months as a relief worker with the Red Cross and the New Orleans Jewish agencies in service to those displaced and/or traumatized by Katrina.
In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, "Someday, we Jews'll all be floatin' down the river."
Just as in California, where we know that one day "the big one" will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.