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!
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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 | 2:07 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 21, 2010 | 11:25 pm
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 | 9:45 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 | 4:18 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.