Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This winter break, one of the greatest joys has been watching my kids learn to ice skate. My husband grew up in Israel where there were no winter sports. He tried to learn to skate once or twice as an adult without success. In contrast, I grew up skating each winter in Washington DC. As a result, I knew that if I wanted my kids to ice skate, it was up to me to teach them.
Earlier this winter, I took my five-year-old daughter Hannah to an ice skating birthday. She went from holding both of my hands during skating to only one. Over winter break, I took her skating again. As a few weeks had elapsed, Hannah felt uneasy at first but soon remembered how to skate while holding only one of my hands. Towards the end of the session, she succeeded in skating around on her own.
By happenstance, my folks invited us to ice skating the very next day. Hannah then really got the hang of it. Since it had only been one day later, Hannah didn’t have time to forget what she had learned the day before. Skating came smoothly and easily to her, and she skated on her own the whole time. Hannah was so proud of herself, and I was thrilled to watch her skate with confidence. Even the rink staff member noticed, and said, “Look at you go!”
This week’s Torah portion recounts the beginning of a major change for the Jewish people, as they begin to move from slavery to freedom. Moses conveys God’s request that Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me.” Following God’s instructions, Moses explains to Pharaoh that they need to travel for three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to God.
God’s plan here is curious. Why three days? God wants the people to leave slavery permanently – not just for a weekend! Like a good negotiator, did God encourage Moses to ask for three days because that is the most time Pharaoh might accept?
Or perhaps, like a good educator, God understood that the people need to enjoy three consecutive days of freedom to get the hang of it. Once they had a sustained experience of freedom, then they would never be able to go back to slavery. Perhaps, God knew that three consecutive times is the charm.
I recently read an article in The Los Angeles Times by a woman named Corinna Nicolaou, who called herself a “none.” She used this descriptor because, “that’s what pollsters call Americans who respond on national surveys to the question, ‘What is your religious affiliation?’ with a single word: “None.” Corrinna was raised without religious affiliation, but this year, she wants to make a change. She looked in the “Worship Directory” of her local paper, and for her New Year’s resolution, she decided to visit each congregation.
When I read the article, I was impressed by Corinna’s openness to try new experiences and embark on a spiritual search. How brave of her to seek as an adult something she missed as a child! Yet, I wondered whether her approach would work. In the column, she didn’t specify whether she would visit each congregation once, or more often. As with ice skating and freedom, one day is not enough to learn the sport of worship. Following God’s advice in this week’s parasha, she may want to consider attending each congregation for three consecutive visits to get past the initial awkwardness of a new setting and become familiar with the melodies and the people.
I saw this phenomenon at work in my congregation. One day a young woman (named Jalzalla) came to visit the synagogue. At first, she sat alone, not knowing anyone. She seemed a little out of place, as she was about sixty years younger than most of the congregants who regularly attended. She came again the following week, and a lady came to sit next to her and showed her how to follow along in the prayer book. As she came to services week after week, Jalzalla became closer to the ladies. When Jalzalla eventually decided to convert to Judaism, the ladies bought her a necklace with the Hebrew name she chose and cheered her on as she was called to the Torah for the first time. By coming week after week, she got into the groove of the community.
The experience of ice skating reminded me that while we can learn new tricks at any age, some skills are more easily acquired as children. I wondered: what activities do I want to be in my children’s repertoire before they leave home? (Maybe next year, we should try skiing!) When it comes to winter sports, sacred community, or freedom, I’m grateful that we won’t be “none”s.
1.10.13 at 2:26 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat talks about. . .
12.20.12 at 5:52 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat responds to. . .
11.26.12 at 2:39 pm | Rabbi Grinblat discusses how she responds to her. . .
5.25.12 at 3:03 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat shares a. . .
5.13.12 at 6:45 pm | In this week's blog, Rabbi Grinblat offers a. . .
2.24.12 at 2:05 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat shares. . .
1.10.13 at 2:26 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat talks about. . . (4)
2.24.12 at 2:05 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat shares. . . (3)
1.8.10 at 4:22 pm | In this week's column, Rabbi Grinblat discusses. . . (3)
December 20, 2012 | 5:52 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This morning, I turned on CNN for a few minutes to catch up on the day’s events. The program showed pictures of the teachers and students murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary school whose funerals were being held today. The reporter then offered the latest update on the investigation at the gunman’s home. Finally, the newscaster said that after commercials they will have a segment on bullet proof backpacks that kids can wear to protect themselves when in school.
‘Good God!’ I thought. ‘What has this world come to?’ I’m supposed to be writing a speech for a baby naming that I’m conducting next week. But how do you welcome an innocent, new life into such a world – where kids need to wear bulletproof backpacks to school?
This coming week’s Torah portion is called Vayechi which means “And he lived.” The Torah portion which concludes the book of Genesis, describes the deaths of Jacob, and later Joseph. Yet the portion refuses to be named or defined by death; rather it emphasizes life. Similarly, the Torah portion which describes Sarah’s death is called, Chaye Sarah: “The Life of Sarah.” In both accounts, the quality of the person’s life is emphasized, rather than their death. These titles echo God’s words in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live."
An ancient Jewish group at Qumran understood life as a battle between the forces of death and darkness and those of life and light. That’s what life feels like nowadays. As wreaths and teddy bears pour into Sandy Hook, people are trying to bring any kind of light and love after the death and destruction that was brought to that community and to the whole country.
One small ray of light that came out of the massacre is that there now seems to be an awakening happening. In addiction work, people often talk about hitting “rock bottom” – the lowest point within a person’s life where they decide they have to change. It feels like we’ve hit rock bottom as a country, and have realized that our laws, which fail to prevent murder, and our culture, which glorifies violence, must change. My inbox fills with petitions from every conceivable group calling for common sense gun laws. From Obama on down, every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, and teacher, has been weeping, hugging the kids in their lives a little tighter and feeling a call to action.
Issues that seemed unfixable – causes that seemed politically unfeasible – suddenly seem like they must and will change, if we come together. We hear the call of the angel of God, who when Isaac was bound on the altar with a knife to his throat screamed to Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do any harm to him.” We’ve finally decided to heed God’s call and choose life.
In one loud voice, the souls of the entire country are crying out the prayer with which Jacob blessed his son Joseph before his death, a prayer that is recited at bedtime by Jews all over the world: Hamalach ha-goel oti mi-kol ra, yivarech at hanearim: May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the children.”
November 26, 2012 | 2:39 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
“Why does Abbah (Dad) want to listen to Israeli radio so much?” My eight year old son Jeremy asked me as I was tucking my five year old daughter Hannah into bed.
Oh no, I thought. I had hoped to avoid this conversation. I had hoped to spare my children from worrying about our family in Israel and my daughter’s best friend who is in Jerusalem for the semester. But the kids could tell something was up.
“There are some problems in Israel now.” I began gently.
“What kind of problems?” Jeremy asked.
“Some fighting,” I said. Jeremy kept asking questions, so I explained that there are some rockets being fired into Israel and Israel is trying to shoot down the rockets before they hit the ground. (I tried to offer as G-rated an explanation of the recent events as possible).
Then, Hannah asked, “Are rockets going to fall here?”
“No,” I reassured her. I thought of my cousins and friends in Israel who aren’t able to offer their children such an unequivocal guarantee of their safety.
This week’s Torah portion echoes the fear that those parents felt. The portion begins with Jacob poised to meet his brother Esau from whom he had fled twenty years earlier fearing that Esau would murder him after Jacob tricked him out of his father’s blessing. Jacob learned that Esau is coming along with four hundred men, and “Jacob was very afraid and was distressed.” Bereshit Rabbah explains that two verbs used for his fear indicate that he had dual fears. He was afraid that Esau would kill him and distressed that he might be forced to kill his brother in self-defense.
Jacob prepared for the impending confrontation in three ways. He geared up for battle by dividing his family and entourage into two separate camps – (so that even if one group were attacked, then the other group would survive). He also sent Esau a large group of animals as a gift – hoping that diplomacy would avert a military clash. Finally, he prayed and wrestled with a mysterious stranger (or angel) through the night.
Fortunately, the anxiety-provoking encounter between Jacob and Esau did not lead to violence, but rather to an embrace. Jacob told his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Reading this story in light of recent events in Israel and Gaza, I felt a number of parallels. After the kids were in bed that night, my husband and I watched Israeli television which had several powerful segments. The first was by a military commander who explained and showed the recent technological advances in weaponry that Israel was using in response to the rockets coming into Israel to target Hamas’s operations while trying to avoid civilian casualties. He showed how the person aiming the missile at a Hamas target can redirect the missile if any civilians enter its range. He quoted the Mishnah’s famous saying that anyone who kills a person, it is as if they “destroyed an entire world.” He explained that this appreciation for the sanctity of each human life is such a central part of Israeli culture that many strikes are cancelled or averted at the last moment to spare civilians. He explained that errors will occur but when they happen, they will be assessed to learn what can be done better to spare civilians.
Jacob’s two-fold fear – both of being killed and killing others – was readily apparent in the commander’s words. The general conveyed the ability of recognizing the other as also created in God’s image – which Jacob expressed to Esau when they reconciled.
The news also had two other interviews – one with an older man in Ashkelon who kept his bakery open despite the rocket-fire. He explained that his son was called up into the army, but he continued working to provide for his family. He said he hoped for “quiet.”
The other segment was an interview with an attorney also in Ashkelon who was staying home with his family and had only gone to the grocery store to get some food. He explained that although his kids were afraid, he was trying to look on the bright side and use the week as an unusual opportunity to spend lots of time with his family. He mentioned that because both he and his wife are lawyers and normally very busy, now that they were home with their kids (since the schools and offices were closed), they had an opportunity to play cards, talk and reconnect.
I was struck by the resilience and perseverance of these families. Like Jacob they prepared for the worst but prayed for the best. Even in the crisis, their actions reflected their deepest values.
I am not so naive to believe the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas will end in mutual embrace, the way that Jacob and Esau’s encounter did. Nonetheless, I hope for “quiet” – so that the bakery shop owner can sell his food in peace, and that the lawyer couple can find other ways of having quality time with their kids. Most of all, I pray for a world in which no child has to ask: “Are rockets going to fall here, Mom?”
May 25, 2012 | 3:03 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Who goes first?
This question is central in my household nowadays, as my eight year old son and five year old daughter frequently argue over who gets the first turn at everything. They debate who gets to tell me first at dinnertime how their day was at school. To resolve this issue, I made a chart listing the days of the week with their names alternating as to who gets to recount their day first. Then they argue over a flaw in the chart. They noticed that since there are seven days of the week and two children, one child invariably gets the first turn two days in a row.
The kids also debate who gets snuggles first at bedtime. This time, thinking I was smarter, I made a chart of two weeks (since fourteen days is equally divisible by two), but then they objected that this system too was unfair, because the bedtime chart didn’t correspond to the dinner chart. The same child could end up talking first at dinner and receiving the first snuggles in the same day! As a solution, I suggested moving my daughter’s bedtime fifteen minutes earlier than my son’s so that each of them could have my snuggles “first” at their respective times. Both agreed to the plan, and familial harmony has been temporarily restored.
At bedtime, I tried to explain to my daughter that she doesn’t have to compete with her brother because I love both of them the same amount – infinity, which is bigger than any number. “No, mom,” she corrected me, “The biggest number is a hundred finity hundred finity.”
I now appreciate anew God’s genius in this week’s Torah portion. This week’s parasha begins the book of Bamidbar which recounts the Israelite’s trek through the wilderness. Like children, the Israelites were a quarrelsome bunch, and one of the questions which would have arisen was: who goes first to the Promised Land? But God had a better plan.
In this opening portion, God charts how the people should march through the desert. God arranged the people by family and tribe. But rather than any tribe walking in front of the other , God arranged them in a configuration around the ark which was placed in the center. In this way, no tribe was ahead or behind, each was equidistant from the ark and the tabernacle.
This plan was not merely a wise way to avoid arguments. The arrangement offered an orientation on life. It reminded the people not to measure themselves against one another, relative to their destination. Rather, they should see themselves as dots on a circle in which God is the center – all equally essential, connected to each other by sharing the same focal point.
How fitting then that this portion called “in the desert” is read on the week of the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. In the Mekhilta (a third century collection of interpretations on Exodus), the question is asked: why did God give the Torah in the desert?
One answer is so that there would be no disputes between the tribes, since none of them would be able to say that the Torah was received in their territory. “Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, in a public place that belonged to no one.” The passage further explains that the Torah was given in the desert because just as it is free to all who come into the world, so too the words of Torah are free to all who come into the world.” The Mekhilta underscores the Torah portion’s message that God acts with care to make sure all God’s children feel treasured.
As I try to make my children feel equally cherished, I hope that I can convey to them the wisdom of this week’s portion – that God loves all of us equally “a hundred finity hundred finity.”
May 13, 2012 | 6:45 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
As dance class was about to begin, I struck up a conversation with my friend Dana, who was trying the class for the first time. “You’re going to love this class,” I told her, and explained how I’ve been enjoying these classes for the past couple months. I haven’t danced frequently since college, but now I’m getting back into it.
In January, I attended a dance class by accident. Sara, the mother of a child in my daughter’s preschool, invited us to a Chanukah dance jam which I thought was for children. As it turned out, the session was for adults, and I enjoyed it so much that I ended up going to Sara’s classes regularly. On days when I take the dance class, I feel more energetic and upbeat for the rest of the day and focused when I’m with the kids. I feel a bit funny about spending time and money on myself, but dancing is so uplifting that it’s worth it.
Dana explained that she had studied piano when she was younger. She has wanted to buy a piano for years but other expenses always take precedence. She’s been thinking that since playing piano for fifteen minutes each day will relax her and make her a better mom then it might be an important priority after all. Dana explained that she noticed that around age forty a lot of women are finding or rediscovering their passions, and it’s exciting to see. Some friends are going back to school; others are changing careers or pursuing new hobbies.
Last week’s portion contains a reiteration of the famous commandment to honor our parents. A central chapter of the Torah called the Holiness Code begins with a broad proclamation of principle: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am holy.” The very next line offers the first specific instruction on how to achieve that goal: “Each person shall respect their mother and father…”
Perhaps in addition to honoring our parents, we also need to respect what makes us better parents. This spring I’m taking that commandment more seriously.
With both my step-mother and mother-in-law living locally, Mother’s Day is normally a very busy day for our family. On Mother’s Day, I typically have lunch with my step-mother and dinner with my mother-in-law – making sure to call my grandmother in Connecticut and step-grandmother in New York between meals. Fittingly, the anniversary of my mother’s death falls on the day before mother’s day this year, so l said kaddish (the memorial prayer) for her at synagogue yesterday.
This Mother’s day, I’m made one change in the usual plan. Before heading off to pay tribute to my “mothers,” I started the day off with a dance class.
Each one of us has things that can help us be more patient with our kids and more passionate in our activities. This mother’s day, in addition to honoring our parents, let’s also honor what we need to be great parents and vivacious people.
I hope that Dana decides to get her piano soon. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be dancing.
February 24, 2012 | 2:05 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
My son recently celebrated his eighth birthday, and I spent the few days prior to his party baking the birthday cake. On Friday, I bought ingredients and on Saturday night I baked a rectangular cake as well as a circular one. On Sunday, I decorated the cake. First, I made white, red and black frosting. I then shaped the rectangular cake into a bowling pin and frosted it accordingly — even adding a red liquorish for the stripes of the pin and black liquorish for the bottom. I frosted and decorated the circular cake as a bowling ball to accompany the pin.
I don’t cook much in general, and I’m not an artsy kind of person. But for some reason, for my kids’ birthdays, I become obsessed and feel compelled to make elaborate cakes. Every year, my husband asks: Why can’t we just buy a cake from the store? Wouldn’t that be easier? He’s right; it would be far simpler to buy a cake (which would take about 10 minutes rather than three days). However, my mom always baked our cakes with us as children, and even though baking the cake takes longer, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people also embark on a consuming art project. In the parasha, God gives extensive instructions on how to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary which housed the ark and the tablets during the forty-year desert trek. These detailed architectural plans fill nearly the entire last third of the book of Exodus. Thirteen chapters of the Torah are devoted to this topic. By contrast, the creation of the world takes only two chapters!
The instructions for making the tabernacle are incredibly specific and frankly tedious to read. Why then does the Torah devote so much attention to this topic?
The reason God gives in Exodus is: “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (a 19th century Hasidic master) noted that God did not say, ‘that I may dwell in it’ meaning in the sanctuary, but rather “that I may dwell among them,” – among the people. Kotsk explained that each person should build a sanctuary in their heart for God to dwell there.
The reason the Torah devotes so much attention to the mishkan construction is the same as why I feel compelled to bake the birthday cake each year. When cooking with my children, we create a kind of magic. The joy of the birthday begins not on the day of the party but in the anticipation of baking together. It’s my way to thank God for another year of life.
Likewise, after fleeing Egypt and entering the covenant at Mount Sinai, the people needed to do an art project for God. They longed to thank God for the covenant—not through words but by making something beautiful. They yearned to express their gratitude for their precious freedom and newfound relationship with the divine.
When we were finally done with the three day cake ordeal, my son turned to me and said, “Wow, Mom, it looks like a real bowling pin and ball!” At that moment, I smiled and knew that all the effort was worth it. I imagine that my mom and God were smiling, too, from above.
January 24, 2012 | 3:47 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Last week, I went to a dance class which differed from any I had previously taken. The dance itself was similar to what I had done in countless dance classes over the years. What was unusual to me was the setting. Rather than being held in a dance studio, the class took place in the living room of an orthodox family. The living room was emptied of all furniture to make space for the class. The sidewall of the room was wall-to-wall bookshelves filled entirely with sefarim, sacred books – the Torah, biblical commentaries, law codes, and books of musar (ethics). On the central wall, the only decoration was a large picture of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavicher Rebbe, many of whose followers believe to have been the messiah.
The ladies at the class were warm and welcoming. The instructor was fantastic. However, I must admit that I felt a little funny doing butt lifts and shaking my hips with the picture of the rabbi with his long white beard and black hat, staring down at me. I was struck by the contrast between the men on the walls and the women filling the room with movement. I wondered what all the rabbis whose words filled the sacred texts on the wall would think of our gyrations.
This week’s Torah portion, in the book of Exodus – recounts the cataclysmic shift from slavery toward liberation. I felt connected to the Torah portion because like the Israelites, I began to feel freer than I have felt in a long time. With some professional projects behind me and the kids in school, I have a little time to myself – more than I’ve had for years. I thought this freedom would feel fantastic, but mostly it feels peculiar. I feel a little antsy from the absence of the stress to which I’m accustomed – as odd as that may sound.
My first response to this freedom was to seek out movement. At risk of sounding like a cliché, my resolution for the secular New Year was to get in shape. After years of a sedentary lifestyle, I’m eager to fix into my schedule set times for exercise. I’ve been going to the gym for a while but I feel that a fixed class time would help me become more consistent about a healthier lifestyle. In discussing Jewish prayer and Torah study, the rabbis set forth twin concepts of kevah (routine) and kavannah (intention). They discuss how routine in study and prayer is essential to convert plan into action. The same paradigm can be applied to exercise. I need a bit more kevah (routine) to go with my kavannah (good intentions).
For me, exercise has become a religious practice of sorts – a way of caring for my body, as a gift from God. Yet, this dance class had an additional dimension. After marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I felt my feet were praying.” I would describe this class in the same way. Although at first, I felt funny about dancing with the sefarim beside me, I soon came to feel that the rabbis in the books understood. After all, what was the first thing that the Israelites did to celebrate their freedom after crossing the Red Sea? Miriam the prophetess took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.
Reflecting on MLK’s birthday, I came to feel that the rabbis and biblical heroes whose stories lined the walls were somehow dancing along with us in spirit – swirling through the room with us across time and space, celebrating freedom by singing as Miriam did, “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously.” Together, our feet were praying!
July 14, 2011 | 11:22 am
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
On July 16th and 17th, a ten mile stretch of the 405 freeway will be closed for 53 hours. For the past month, the sign on the freeway has been flashing this warning – as if signaling that the end of the world is coming. The newspapers and internet sites have underscored this message. City leaders have tried to emphasize that alternate routes can’t compensate for the closure of the freeway (which normally serves 500,000 cars each weekend). County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky predicted “the mother of all traffic jams” and recently posted on his blog, “53 ways to survive without the 405.” Metro Board Member Richard Katz said, “This project should be renamed the nightmare on the 405. Everyone is gonna be impacted.”
The impending closure has caused the city to descend into a panic. A major topic of debate is whether the workers will really be able to complete the destruction of the bridge over the freeway within the two days. My husband wonders whether he’ll be able to go to work on Monday. How long will we be immobilized?
The very idea of being immobilized seems un-American. It goes against the image of the Wild West that attracted the settlers to this area in the first place.
Surely, the closure is a major inconvenience and will impact residents’ lives in countless ways. For example, my father in law’s birthday is July 17th. Normally, we would gather at his home for a barbeque get-together, but not this year. Since his children and grandchildren live in Los Angeles, Monrovia, and San Diego, we won’t be able to get to his home and vice versa. (A three-day slumber party was not what he had in mind!) Instead, my father and mother-in-law plan to leave town for a romantic getaway weekend. As they say: ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’
Perhaps this closure could be viewed as a unique opportunity to take a break from our regular routines. The Torah portion from the Book of Numbers which will be read in synagogues on the week of the closure hints at this message. This Torah portion actually begins with an interruption. The portion is called Pinchas, after a priest by that name, but most of Pinchas’ story appears in the portion read the prior week. At the end of the previous portion, the Israelite men begin participating with Moabite women in an orgiastic, idolatrous cult. Therefore a plague erupts among the Israelites, and God commands Moses to slay the leaders of the rebellion. Before Moses can carry out this command, Pinchas kills an Israelite man and a Moabite woman who were copulating near the sanctuary, and the plague ceased.
In the following Torah portion, God then bestows on Pinchas a covenant of peace. One question (among many) on this story is: why is there an interruption in the reading of the story? Why did the rabbis divide the biblical portions in such a way that Pinchas’ actions are in one portion, and his reward only in the next? One answer is that this interruption demonstrated rabbinic discomfort with Pinchas’ vigilante style of leadership. As Rabbi Moses of Coucy explained, by delaying the reward until the next portion, the rabbis sent a message that we should not rush to reward extremism.
Yet perhaps, the interruption also hints at a larger message. Pinchas only received his gift after a break in the text. Likewise, to experience life’s rewards, we need to take pauses. Only when we stop driving around can we stop and smell the roses.
Indeed, observant Jews observe a 25 hour freeway closure every week – called Shabbat (the Sabbath) – which entails not driving around town and instead walking to synagogue, each other’s homes, and parks. On Jewish holidays, this closure can last for two days, and if a holiday either immediately precedes or follows Shabbat, then the closure can last for three days.
This cessation from work and travel is intended to cause a shift in focus. In his book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space,” However, “the danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space, we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to be in accord.”
Perhaps, rather than being viewed as a nightmare, the 405 closure should be viewed as an opening – a chance to enter the realm that Heschel described, to have a taste of Pinchas’ peace. For one weekend, the entire city will observe an extended Sabbath. Rather than looking for 53 things to do while the freeway is closed, perhaps we will discover 53 chances to be truly free.
March 11, 2011 | 3:07 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Last week, my family and I went to Souplantation for dinner. While we were eating, a colleague, Rabbi Morley Feinstein, came over to our table to say hello. He approached my then three-year-old daughter and asked her, “Is there a rabbi around here?” She looked at him puzzled. He responded, “Your mommy is a rabbi.” She responded, “All mommies are rabbis.”
I started to correct her. I explained that mommies could be rabbis or lawyers or doctors or anything they wanted to be. But Morley understood her statement differently. He agreed with her: “You’re right: all mommies are rabbis.”
For each biblical figure, the rabbis had a one word nickname or title. For example, Abraham is commonly called: “Abraham, our father.” Joseph is called, “Joseph the righteous.’ Moses is called: “Moses, our rabbi.” The rabbis considered Moses the model of the quintessential rabbi. Why? All of the patriarchs and matriarchs are spiritual teachers. What did Moses do that was the essence of what they aspired to as rabbis?
This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The project of building the tabernacle and the tent of meeting which consumed the last third of the book of Exodus is now concluded. In this opening portion, God instructs Moses what to teach the people to do in a range of situations. Moses teaches the people how to make sacrifices to atone for intentional and unintentional mistakes and how to bring offerings of wholeness in times of joy. Moses was the prototypical rabbi by teaching the people how to grapple with moments of anguish and celebration.
In reflecting on Hannah’s statement, I realized that’s exactly what parents do too. After the destruction of the temple, each home was considered a mikdash me’at (a small sanctuary). Indeed, parents make a home – a safe place for their children to grow. Within that space, they teach how to reconcile after making mistakes and how to celebrate life.
This Sunday was my daughter’s fourth birthday party. Together, she and I made a Dora the Explorer cake. We made the cake Thursday afternoon, decorated it Saturday night, and served it to her classmates on Sunday. In Vayikra (Leviticus), Moses instructed that the Sh’lamim (wholeness) offering which was given in times of joy was supposed to be eaten that day or the following day or else it needed to be discarded on the third day. This stipulation encouraged the donor to invite many friends to join in the celebration. Likewise, Hannah’s birthday cake was an “offering of wholeness” to celebrate another year of her life.
Being a rabbi (or clergy-person) is one of the most respected professions in our society. Unfortunately, being a “home-maker” or “stay-at home” parent seems to be one of the least-respected jobs. (Indeed, this profession even lacks a good title.) In some ways, clergy and parent seem to be polar-opposite roles. Leading a congregation is a high-profile position, involving lots of public speaking and dealing with hundreds of people. Being a parent is a largely private affair, without much of an audience, focusing intensely on a few precious souls.
Yet the essential task of clergy and parents is the same. Both teach people how to face times of joy and sorrow; and both create sacred spaces where God can be found.
Hannah was right. All mommies and daddies are rabbis.
December 22, 2010 | 12:25 am
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Recently, my kids and I walked from our home to the park a few blocks away. My son Jeremy decided to roller-skate there, even though he’s still learning how. He’s at the point where he can skate on his own during the smooth stretches of sidewalk, but needs help to keep from falling over bumps. We progressed at the pace of snails. (It took us almost half an hour to reach the park only a few blocks away!)
As we moved along, repeatedly letting go and grabbing hands again, I felt that this pattern was intrinsic to human nature. When everything’s fine, we coast. We feel independent and self-sufficient; we can go it alone. However, when we reach bumps in the road, then we feel the need to hold to one another.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people hit a bumpy part of the road – to say the least. This parasha, Sh’mot (names), which begins the book of Exodus, recounts how we became enslaved in Egypt. In this excruciating time, the portion is filled with stories of people reaching out to one another. The Hebrew midwives risk their lives to save babies (who Pharaoh commanded to be killed). Pharaoh’s daughter rescues baby Moses from the river, and Moses’ sister Miriam steps in to ensure he is reunited with his mother. When he grows up, Moses intervenes three times to help a person in need – twice to help an Israelite who was being beaten, and once to assist a Midianite women harassed by shepherds. And throughout, lots of couples are having children: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and grew…”
As a nation, we too hit a tough stretch these past couple years. In beginning a new book of the Torah this week, we are only days away from a new secular year. Each new year offers the promise of a clean slate. Hope for a new start is often mingled with lingering uncertainty about whether the challenges of the past year will continue.
Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about bad times is that they have a way of bringing people together. I know personally that almost all of my closest friendships were forged in the worst periods of my life. Somehow, in the tough times, you find yourself unable to lie and pretend that everything is okay, and that you don’t need anyone else. In those moments, some of the strongest connections are forged.
This week’s portion recounts that “God saw the Israelites” and was moved to redeem them. What did God see? According to one commentator, “God saw that the Israelites had compassion on one another. When one of them finished his quota of bricks, he would help his friend.”
Each year, we read the story of the Exodus not merely as descriptive of past events, but as prescriptive for the future. Sometimes, the most profound truths in life are also the simplest. When you reach bumps in the road, hold hands.
December 14, 2010 | 10:45 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Recently, I was invited to a dinner party at a friend’s home along with many guests. I sat down beside a woman I’d never met. I introduced myself, and she asked, “So what do you do?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. I could have provided a number of responses that were completely true, but none told the whole story. I could have said: ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom’ (or a ‘full-time mom’). Or ‘I teach’ (since I teach one course in the fall at the American Jewish University. Or ‘I’m a writer’ (but my book hadn’t been accepted for publication). Or ‘I’m a rabbi’ (but I wasn’t working in a congregational capacity). Or ‘I’m a student’ – since I’m working on a Ph.D. (albeit slowly, when the kids are in school)…
How should I choose between these possible responses? Should I pick the one that sounded most respectable? Or should I pick the one that was closest to my heart?
Before having my second child, the answer to this question would have been automatic. “I’m a rabbi of a congregation.” I could answer without a moment’s pause, and the response was well-respected. But now, I wondered: why was answering such a simple question so hard?
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s sons faced a similar dilemma. Their occupation was straightforward: they were shepherds in Canaan. But then they came to Egypt during a famine and were reunited with their brother Joseph, who was a vizier in Egypt. When Joseph prepared to introduce his family to the Pharaoh, he warned them that shepherds were held in low esteem in Egypt. He told his brothers: When Pharaoh asks you what you do, tell him that you’re “breeders of livestock,” which was held in higher regard.
Nevertheless, when the brothers were introduced to Pharaoh, and as expected, Pharaoh asked: “What do you do?” the brothers responded, ‘We your servants have always been shepherds, from our youth until now, as were also our fathers.” The brothers answered honestly without hesitation. They were proud of their profession, regardless of what others (even those in power) might think.
A few days after the dinner party, my daughter provided me the real answer to the woman’s question. One day in the back seat of the car, Hannah said: “I’m a mitzvah-girl.” When I inquired further, I discovered that this concept was one she was taught in preschool. In Jewish tradition, a mitzvah is a commandment. When a child in the class did something good (such as helping a friend) the teachers encouraged them by singing a song, which said that the child “is a mitzvah-girl” or “mitzvah-boy.”
Reflecting on Hannah’s statement, I realized that all the activities I do have one thing in common. Teaching and studying Torah, raising a family, and helping others are all mitzvoth (commandments). I’m a mitzvah-girl. That’s what I’ve always been and what I’ll always be.
The brothers’ simple answer to Pharaoh bespeaks a deeper truth. Whatever our job titles may be, our job description is the same. We are all shepherds of each others’ souls.
November 26, 2010 | 5:18 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Recently, I lost my keys, as I walked to synagogue on a Saturday morning. I was pushing my daughter Hannah in her tricycle. Since my dress did not have pockets, I put the keys in a plastic bag which I attached to the back of the tricycle. I enjoyed the cool, crisp morning air and the pleasant walk. After the service, I discovered the bag had a hole in it, and the keys were gone. My family and I searched the synagogue and then retraced my steps for the two miles home to no avail. When I got home, I was sure I’d never see the keys again. Although the keys were replaceable, I felt unsettled to have lost them.
This week’s Torah portion focuses on feeling lost. The portion, called Vayeshev, means “and he settled.” The text opens: “Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived,” but then launches into a series of unsettling stories about strife between Jacob’s twelve sons.
The story unfolds that Jacob’s son Joseph recounted to his brothers dreams about them bowing down to him. Then, Jacob asked Joseph to go check on his brothers who were shepherding the flocks. Joseph searched for his brothers but couldn’t find them. An unnamed man then asked Joseph what he was looking for and told him where his brothers were. When Joseph found his brothers, they threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery.
This story is curious. Why did the Torah bother to include the incident of the man who gave Joseph directions? While this man was kind and helpful to Joseph, his directions led to Joseph’s demise. It would have been better if Joseph never found his brothers in the first place. With friends like this, who needs enemies?!
Yet, perhaps, the juxtaposition of the two stories sends an important message. In a world filled with cruelty, where families can be so dysfunctional, the kindness of strangers can be especially precious. Indeed, this message is one that Joseph seems to take to heart. Later, while in prison, Joseph is kind to those he meets there. He interprets dreams of fellow prisoners. One of these former prisoners remembers Joseph which leads to his release. Subsequently, Joseph pays this kindness forward by administering food to the Egyptian people during a famine.
Last weekend, I too experienced the kindness of strangers. On Sunday morning, I received a message from my gym that they had my keys. The message included the phone number of the man who’d brought them. He’d asked me to call so that he could reassure his son (who’d found the keys on his front lawn) that they were successfully returned. Since my keys had a membership card to the gym, the man took my keys there. The gym then scanned the card and called me.
My kids and I were so excited to hear the message on the answering machine. We immediately went to the gym to pick up the keys. As relieved as I was to have the keys, I was even happier to show my kids that people can go out of their way to help someone they’ve never met. Like Joseph, I will remember this act of generosity for a long time.
This Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for my family and friends and especially for the kindness of a stranger.
October 31, 2010 | 5:32 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This week was tough. Someone in my life lost a job. Someone in my life was losing their home. A friend was physically assaulted by a family member. Another loved one was hospitalized for addiction. A friend’s mother is very sick. And that’s all just this week!
It seems that the more people you know and love, the more tsouris you encounter. Tsouris (which is Yiddish for trouble) has a transitive property. Each person’s struggle not only affects them but a web of family and friends. These supporters consequently walk around, trying to go about the tasks of their day while carrying around heaviness in their heart. Family and friends bear a combination of sorrow and powerlessness over situations that spiral out of control.
With this heaviness, I turn to this week’s portion and ask: what do you have to say to me? What comfort can you offer to my aching heart?
At the opening of this week’s parasha, the characters must have felt heavy-hearted as well. Abraham had nearly killed Isaac in last week’s portion, and Sarah dies in this week’s portion. According to the rabbis, Sarah died because she heard about Isaac’s near-death and couldn’t bear the news. So now, Abraham and Isaac each face dual traumas – that of Isaac’s near-death and Sarah’s actual death. They certainly had tsouris!
So what did they do with their tsouris?
The portion recounts that Abraham immediately sent his servant back to his hometown to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham didn’t leave the servant Eliezer with directions on how to find the right woman; he was left to his own devices. Eliezer’s plan was curious. He went to the well of the town and prayed to God for a young woman to come. He would ask for water, and if the woman gave water not only to him, but to his camels, then he would know that she was The One.
Lo and behold, a woman came and when he asked for water, she gave it both to him and his camels. Eliezer then knew he’d hit the jackpot. After some negotiations with her family, he brought the woman home to meet Isaac. When she arrived, “Isaac took Rebecca as his wife, Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
Eliezer’s bride-selection method seems odd by modern standards, but it highlights what he was seeking – kindness. When Rebecca gave the camels water, she went beyond Eliezer’s request. As Rabbi Harold Kushner explained, “Abraham and Sarah, for all their pioneering religious achievements were sometimes insensitive to members of their own household. Rebecca’s kindness and generosity may have been what was needed to correct those family dynamics.” Like tsouris, caring too has transitive properties; it brings healing to wounded hearts.
In this cruel world, this week’s portion teaches: Seek out kindness, and when you find it, hold onto it with all your might.
July 7, 2010 | 11:03 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
On Monday, I went to the funeral of a member of my former congregation. My husband was off from work for the holiday weekend, and we were out with the kids for the day. In the afternoon, Tal and the kids dropped me off at the cemetery, went to the mall for ice cream, and then picked me back up. I explained to my kids where I was going, and they were fine with that plan. I didn’t think they thought much of it.
When I put my six-year-old son Jeremy to bed that night, I lied down with him for a few minutes, and he said: “Mom, I love you so much. Even if you die, I still love you.” I assured him that I loved him too. Then he asked: “Does everyone die, and when you die do you get to come back?” (Oy vey, I thought, here goes!)
I began by answering as honestly as I could, “Yes, sweetie everyone dies…”
The moment that I said it, I wished I could take it back. Previous to that moment, Jeremy knew about death – since my mother died a year ago. But before that moment, he didn’t know that everyone dies, and by extension that he would die someday. How wonderful that he had lived for six and a half years without this realization. How awful it is to face that knowledge.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses grapples with the fact that he is going to die without entering the Promised Land. Even though he led the people through the desert for forty long years, he would die without getting to experience his life’s dream of stepping foot into the land. I remember as a child one moment when I learned of this story. We were sitting at Passover Seder. (I don’t know how old I was, maybe eight or so.) I remember being so overwhelmed with sadness for Moses that I almost started to cry right there at the table. I suppose that was the moment that I internalized the idea that everyone dies – and also that one can die even without obtaining one’s life dream.
(Now, the story of Moses doesn’t seem as bad to me. In this week’s parashah, Moses draws up plans for the settlement of the land. What a thrill this must have been for him to make these preparations, knowing they would settle the land because of his life’s work. As a parent, one’s dreams shift to focus on the next generation more than your own.) …
“Most people die when they’re old,” I told Jeremy. I explained that “Big Bubby” his great-grandmother, (my mother’s mother) is 91 years old. “Wow,” he said. I reminded him that we attended her ninetieth birthday. “When she reaches 100, we’ll have to have another big party,” he said, smiled and closed his eyes. I guess when you’re six, 91 seems like a billion light years away, so he felt like death was not something he needed to worry about right now. He snuggled in tighter to the bed.
As I lay beside Jeremy, I realized that I had dodged the second part of his question: “Do you get to come back?” In Judaism, particularly in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) there is an idea of gilgul neshamot (cycle of the souls), otherwise known as reincarnation. To be honest, my daughter reminds me so much of my paternal grandmother of blessed memory, for whom she’s named, that I have often wondered whether my grandmother’s soul has returned in her. I once read a book by Rabbi Elie Spitz called: Does the Soul Survive which persuasively argued that reincarnation does take place. But did I believe in this idea? Did I believe in it enough to tell him definitively: “yes, sweetie, you get to come back,” or more tentatively: “I think you get to come back?”
As a rabbi, these questions are not new to me, but Jeremy’s questioning was different from those I regularly received from congregants. This was not an intellectual discussion of the various ideas in our tradition. It was a straightforward, yes or no question as to how the system of life and death works. There was no time to think; he wanted a clear answer right away.
Since Jeremy seemed comforted with the idea of his great-grandmother’s birthday celebration, I figured I’d leave the reincarnation question alone for now. But I did want to leave him with some hope. I didn’t want to leave him with knowing that he would die someday a long time from now, without some kind of further consolation. So, I said, “There is an idea in Judaism that someday God will fix the world and lift up the people, back to life…” Jeremy said, “That’s what my name means: ‘God will lift up the people.’ (On a previous occasion, I had explained to him that his Hebrew name yirmiyah literally means God will lift up and that his middle name Yehudah is also the name of the Jewish people.)
“Yes, it sure does,” I said, and kissed him goodnight as he fell asleep.
May 14, 2010 | 3:53 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Buying Mother’s Day cards was hard for me this year. It was the first time I wasn’t purchasing a Card for my mother – who died last year, just a few days after Mother’s Day. Also the store’s selection didn’t include all the types of cards I needed – such as step-mother. The card aisle didn’t seem to know that families could be complex.
In reviewing the cards, I noticed that the cards describing the “perfect” moms who are the “best in the world” were rather sappy and over the top. Hallmark didn’t seem to know that mothers (like all people) might have some faults too. (I know I do!)
This week’s Torah portion sheds some light on the complexity of parenthood. The parasha begins with a genealogy, saying: “These are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the Lord spoke with Moses in Mount Sinai.” Then the text proceeds to list Aaron’s sons. The rabbis rightly wondered: Why was Moses listed as a father of Aaron’s children?
Rashi, the pre-eminent eleventh century commentator answered that the sons were called Moses’ descendents “because he taught them Torah.” He explained: “This teaches that anyone whoever teaches his friend’s child Torah is accredited as the bearer of the child.” Therefore, Rashi understood that the essence of parenthood was not biology – but rather the imparting of wisdom from one generation to the next.
Like all biblical characters, Moses and Aaron had both incredible strengths and weaknesses. Moses was surely the greatest leader of the Jewish people, who received the Torah and led the people through forty tough years in the desert. The Torah also describes Moses as something of a workaholic, who repeatedly put his communal leadership above his family. (Exodus recounts that Moses’ father-in-law Jethro once advised Moses who was previously working from “morning to night” and encouraged him to set up a system of judges to help him.)
Aaron was a great peace-maker and caring priest for the people. He was devoted to family, but he too had his faults. He was overly permissive, particularly when he allowed the people to build the golden calf.
In the Torah, there are no saints – just real characters with great achievements and shortfalls too. Unlike the Hallmark cards, the fathers and mothers in the Torah are far from perfect, but they seem more real. They can teach us more about life, precisely because they are flawed human beings. We learn both from their achievements and their mistakes.
Unlike the card aisle, the Torah understands that our parents may or may not be our biological mother or father. Yet through our parents’ successes and even failings, they teach us how to live. Like the biblical matriarchs and patriarchs, our parents give us the sacred legacy of their life’s story. Write that in a Hallmark card.
May 5, 2010 | 3:14 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
This past Sunday, my family and I went to a carnival for Lag B’omer. The celebration took place in the middle of a major street which was closed to traffic and filled instead with rides and booths. The day was hot, and the sun beat down upon us as we stood in line for the rides. But when the kids went on the rides, they smiled from ear to ear and waved. When they climbed the slide, I was amazed by my three year-old daughter Hannah’s agility and bravery as she scaled up without a second thought. I was particularly glad to see my six-year-old son Jeremy push her up when she needed an extra lift.
The afternoon was a manic experience. Most of the time, I was hot and bored in line, but then I was happy watching them enjoy the rides. Reading this week’s portion also feels like bi-polar mood swings. This week is a double portion called B’har-B’hukkotai (On the Mountain-In My Laws). B’hukkotai lists wonderful blessings for following God’s commandments and gruesome curses for disobeying. The blessings are absolutely beautiful and uplifting to read, and the curses are downright disgusting and depressing.
The balance also seems out of whack. The blessings are eight verses long while the curses go on for 27 verses – outnumbering the blessings by more than a three to one ratio. The rabbis wondered why the portion dwells on the negative. Several commentators noted that although the curses outnumber the blessings, the blessings outweigh them in quality. The good counts more than the bad.
Indeed, in reviewing our afternoon at the carnival if I added up the number of annoying minutes compared to the joyful minutes, the irritating moments would certainly win by a wide margin. We probably spent 30 minutes waiting for every 2 minutes on the ride. Likewise, if I were to honestly tabulating the experience of parenting as a whole, the moments of frustration would outnumber those of joy. (For example, during pregnancy I spent most of the time feeling sick and miserable, but had some few moments of wonder at how my body was changing. During my children’s infancy, I spent most of an exhausted fog – with some incredible times holding and nursing the baby.)
However, life is not a simple math problem. The good moments mean more. The image of Jeremy helping Hannah on the slide is one I will carry with me long after I forget how hot and bored we were in line.
The next morning, I overheard Jeremy say to Hannah, “Remember how we went on the slide together yesterday? Wasn’t that fun?” She nodded and I smiled, and thought the commentators were right. The blessings of life surely outweigh the rest.