Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
My mother, now 96, is in rapidly failing health. Always a model of vitality, it has been difficult for me to imagine the world without her. Yet, as she becomes increasingly frailer, my brother and I decided that it was time for us to tie up loose ends at the cemetery so that when her time came to die, all we would need to do is make a call and set a funeral date.
Twenty-five years ago, our mother told us that she had made arrangements to be buried in a double grave with our father, who had died in 1959. She said we would have no worries and that she had taken care of everything. We believed her.
However, last week, just to be certain everything was taken care of, I made an appointment with a pre-need counselor at the cemetery. It was then that I learned that other than my mother having requested in writing to be interred with my father, she had done nothing else nor paid any costs relative to her funeral and burial.
As my mother’s sight, hearing and strength diminished precipitously over the last two years, along with increasing dementia and changes in her demeanor and behavior, I began mourning the mother I once knew. I felt, nevertheless, emotionally ready to deal with her funeral and burial arrangements.
My pre-need counselor was kind and thorough and covered all the details and costs. About thirty minutes into an hour-long meeting, I stopped her and asked, “As someone who has officiated at hundreds of funerals, guided people through the mourning process, and understands the cemetery ‘business’ as well as I do, this must be for you relatively easy working with me. But what is it like for you to help people who, suddenly, in the shock and grief of a death have to do everything from scratch to prepare for the funeral and burial of their loved ones because nothing had been arranged in advance?”
“John,” she said, “It is very hard! These meetings take a long time and there is much pain and confusion. Sometimes, there is rage directed at me, and people fall apart emotionally in my office. I try and help them in every way. These meetings are often difficult and painful to get through, for them and for me.”
What is the take-away? For the sake of our spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings, and friends, I urge everyone to make arrangements for and pay for our own funerals, burial and internment now, long before it is necessary for others to do it on our behalf.
It is unfair, I believe, to leave the funeral and burial details to those we love. It is also unfair to leave them with the bill in the midst of their grief.
I understand why so many of us fail to make these arrangements. We’re afraid, and/or confronting our mortality is deeply distressing to us, especially if we have significant health problems. Some of us do not want to spend the money and we decide that our children will pay for everything after the fact out of our estates.
There is much to consider as we think about options. To assist you, please see a 45-page guide called “Preparing for Jewish Burial and Mourning” that I wrote two years ago that covers everything you will need to understand and consider in Jewish tradition and cemetery practice (click here or here).
This is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one.
May you and your dear ones enjoy long and healthy lives, and may you sleep well at night knowing that what you do now will relieve the people you love the most from having to do after you die.
Kol tuv – Best wishes!
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July 26, 2013 | 9:53 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Ameinu (Heb. “Our People”) is a national, multi-generation community of progressive Zionist North American Jews that believes that “a secure peace between Israel and its neighbors is essential to the survival of the democratic Jewish state.” Ameinu is committed to a “negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Thankfully, this is no longer the position solely of progressive Zionists. PM Netanyahu and a majority of Israel’s Knesset members support this proposition today, as do a majority of Israelis and Palestinians polled in recent surveys.
Yet, cynicism from the right, distortions from the left and distrust between our two peoples make negotiations complicated and difficult going forward.
I have always believed that the more one understands what the truths are on all sides of the conflict, the better prepared one is to support reasonable options that guarantee security for both the Palestinians and Israelis in an end-of-conflict two-state peace agreement.
To this purpose has Ameinu produced a readable and helpful 25-page pamphlet called “The Third Narrative: Progressive Answers To The Far Left’s Critiques of Israel.”
The pamphlet was written by Dan Fleshler, a media and public affairs strategist and author of Transforming America’s Israel Lobby – The Limits Of Its Power and the Potential For Change (Potomac Books, 2009). Fleshler is a frequent contributor of Op-eds and features in The New York Times Opinionator, Jerusalem Report, Forward, New York Jewish Week, Ha’Aretz, Reform Judaism magazine and other publications. He serves as a board member of Ameinu and American’s for Peace Now and on the Advisory Council of J Street.
This booklet addresses most of the accusations against Israel that one might find on the Web, on college and university campuses and in other settings. As Fleshler notes in the introduction:
“Some of these attacks come from the far left, from activists trying to appeal to Jews and non-Jews who are committed to human rights and social justice. Often, these critics are not just attacking specific, objectionable Israeli policies and behavior. They treat Israel as the epitome of evil. They portray the entire Zionist enterprise…as nothing more than a racist, colonialist and immoral land theft.”
The booklet head-on addresses the following assertions:
• Is Israel An “Apartheid State?”
• Is One, Binational State A Solution To the Israel-Palestinian Conflict?
• Is Pro-Israel And Progressive An Oxymoron?
• Should Palestinian Refugees And Their Descendants Be Granted the “Right of Return?”
• Should Boycotts, Divestment And Sanctions (BDS) Against Israel Be Encouraged?
• Does Zionism = Racism?
• Is “Ethnic Cleansing” Inherent To Zionism?
• Does The Pro-Israel Lobby Have A Stranglehold On The U.S. Government?
As Israel and the Palestinians prepare to enter into negotiations, many of these canards will be raised by the left and by the Palestinians themselves. It is important that the Jewish public possesses informed responses. To that end, Fleshler and Ameinu suggest that the history of Zionism, Israel and the rise of Palestinian nationalism are complex, and that there are multiple truths that must be acknowledged by Jews on the left and right, and by Palestinians themselves.
The following appeared in the Times of Israel about Ameinu’s progressive Zionist approach.
You can learn more about the Third Narrative at http://thirdnarrative.org/
Those interested in acquiring a copy of the pamphlet, call Ameinu at (212) 366 1194 or refer to its website – www.ameinu.net.
July 24, 2013 | 7:28 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
What I appreciate most about Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (publ. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), is not only his gifts as a writer, story teller and psychologically sophisticated observer of people, but that he actually knows something about Judaism, Jewish history, modern Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy, the secular Jewish world, the state of Israel, and the place of the Holocaust in the psyche of the Jewish people.
Mr. Englander was born in 1960 in New York, raised on Long Island and educated in Orthodox schools through high school. In his mid-thirties, he moved to Israel where he lived for five years, but returned to the states and moves between Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin where he teaches fiction and creative writing.
His Jewish/Israeli/secular background plays itself out in all his stories. He is at once an insider and outsider, sympathetic to the Jew as victim and vanquisher, and he knows Jewish tradition, though I suspect he is no longer Orthodox himself. I sense, as well, that despite the darkness that undergird his stories, he sees the world through a comic and ironic eye as some of his stories are at once absurd and hysterical.
Englander’s eight stories, mostly involving Jewish characters and 20th century Jewish experience, touch upon many themes; the limits of love using the Holocaust as a backdrop in the title story (“What we Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”); the very different fates and destinies that befall two Israeli sisters who move into the West Bank after the 1967 Six Day War with their husbands and children to establish a settlement that eventually grows into a city (“Two Sisters”) - one sister loses her husband and all her children in war and a freak accident and the other survives with 9 children; the revenge-filled encounter with an anti-Semitic bully in America that is reminiscent of Bernard Malamud (“How We Avenged the Blums”); a dream sexual fantasy of a married protagonist who has lost his faith but is still plagued by Orthodox Judaism’s moral strictures (“Peep Show”); the influence of a person’s family history, familial bonds and memory on his heart, mind and soul long after everyone has died (“Everything I know About My Family On My Mother’s Side”); the ease towards paranoia among Holocaust survivors who, in an unlikely setting of an American seniors summer camp, accuse another survivor of being a former Nazi (“Camp Sundown”); the pain and loneliness of a once famous writer whose fan base is now old, dying but ever-demanding (“The Reader”); and the legacy of the death camps on a boy survivor who returned after the liberation as the only one left in his family to his boyhood home to discover his “governess” plotting to murder him in order that her family will keep his family’s farm (“Free Fruit for Young Widows”).
Every story is provocative, imaginative, engaging, entertaining, moving, and memorable. As a whole, they challenge the modern Jew to think about the nature of one’s Jewish identity in modernity, the role of religion, God, faith, culture, and history in forming who we are, and our capacity for evil and revenge. These stories are complex and operate on multiple levels from the real to imaginary to allegorical. They will leave you impressed by Englander’s skills, moved and wondering – who am I?
July 22, 2013 | 9:30 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Much will be said in the coming days and weeks about what negotiations mean, what Israel and the Palestinians are willing to do and give up, whether the gap is just too wide, and whether a two-state solution is possible given current thinking on both sides.
I have just begun reading an important new book published last year called Side By Side – Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine edited by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-on (zal), and Eyal Naveh of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME). Developed over the last 15 years by Palestinian and Israeli scholars and educators, this work represents a wholly new way of teaching the Middle East to Israeli and Palestinian High School students. Regardless of one’s identity, both sides likely will be surprised that, more often than not, each holds a one-dimensional view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will obstruct peace-making.
The two narratives and interpretations of the meaning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are set side by side in 400 pages. Clearly, we live in two worlds and our understanding of the same historical events are very different.
Each side's better understanding of the “narrative” of the other will hopefully result in a softening and opening of the heart to the other’s identity and experience.
No one in the Middle East wants to be a fry-ar (Israeli slang; “sucker”). Negotiations will be very difficult.
We here should be giving Secretary Kerry every benefit of the doubt in his efforts to facilitate negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of this conflict. Criticism of Kerry should be silenced. Mocking him, especially by Jewish media pundits, should be quelled. What is important now is to support this renewal of negotiations. The alternative to a two states for two peoples resolution is more war, more suffering and a darkening of the landscape to death and the destruction of dreams.
July 11, 2013 | 7:07 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
One of my hobbies is collecting quotations. Over the years I have gathered thousands of bits of truth, wisdom, insight, light, poetry, sayings, one-liners, and more extensive passages on virtually every conceivable theme. My ever-growing collection draws from the famous and the unknown, from ancient and modern Jewish and world literature, from family, friends and mentors.
I have posted above my desk six quotes in particular to which I refer whenever I need a hedge against spiritual and emotional fragmentation, fear, despair, and inordinate stress. None needs additional comment. All speak for themselves, and I offer them to you:
“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” (Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862)
“Grant me [O God] the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” (Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971)
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” (William Shakespeare, 1654-1616)
“A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no mensch.” (Mensch is German for “man.” In this context it refers to a compassionate, kind, just, courageous, purposeful, strong, and wise man, woman or child). (Rabbi Israel Salanter, 1810-1883)
“B’Yisrael ye-ush hu lo optsia – In Israel, despair is not an option.” (Yaron Shavit – b. 1958 - Chairman of the Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism in Israel (IMPJ), Tel Aviv Business Attorney and Consultant, Colonel in Reserve Duty in the Israel Defense Forces)
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” (Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955)
July 9, 2013 | 7:13 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
If you have ever wondered what is so significant about the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguably the most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century, and would like a handbook to explain it all, this book by Dr. John J Collins, Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University, is for you.
The author has studied the more than 900 scrolls (some of them little more than fragments) for more than three decades. He tells the fascinating story of the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd looking for his lost goat, reviews all the theories about the small community at Qumran near the Dead Sea whose nearby caves kept the scrolls preserved for 2000 years, and describes the bitter battles swirling among Christian and western scholars since the scrolls were first discovered.
These scrolls are among the most famous archeological finds ever, and Dr. Collins explains why:
“The reason why the Scrolls…caught the imagination of the public is due to the fact that they come from a time and place of exceptional importance in the history of the Western world. As primary documents from Judea in the time of Jesus, they offer a window on the context in which Christianity was born, if not directly on the movement itself. More directly, they give us an unprecedented view of what Judaism was like before the destruction of Jerusalem and the rise of the rabbinic movement…before the church and synagogue constructed their official genealogies. The stakes, then, for both Judaism and Christianity are considerable, since the new discoveries potentially place official accounts in question and undercut the authority of religious authorities.” (p. 236-7)
A central figure that appears in many of the scrolls who was called “The Teacher of Righteousness” has inspired many Christians to believe that this was another name for Jesus, but there were a number of people at the time who were regarded as Messiah figures and there is no credible evidence that clearly identifies this figure as the Christian Savior. The question is, was this community Jewish or proto-Christian? Dr. Collins, a practicing Catholic, is categorical:
“As scholars have increasingly recognized in the last quarter century, the Scrolls are documents of ancient Judaism. Despite sensationalist claims, they are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape.” (p. 240)
The scrolls include portions of every Biblical book, except the book of Esther, along with many other manuscripts that have been found nowhere else. They are primarily sectarian documents (though some are apocalyptic) and delineate rules governing the behavior of those who lived in the Qumran community. Dr. Collins notes that the Essene sect, as they are known, came into being because of disagreements with other Jews on the exact interpretation of the Torah, the proper cult calendar and the state of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. It did not come into being because it believed in the coming of the messiah or the final battle between the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness.
Though not mentioned explicitly in Hebrew or Aramaic sources (nor, for that matter in the New Testament), the Essenes are known in Greek and Latin sources including Philo, Josephus and Pliny. Collectively, these ancient authors described virtuous cult members who refrained from animal sacrifices and spurned city life, who spent their time praying and copying texts, who shared common meals, eschewed ownership of property, held no weapons of war, rejected slavery, and were concerned about ethics. It is debatable about the degree of monasticism in the community, as suggested by the female skeletal remains in the Qumran cemetery, though some may have been married with children while others were celibate and misogynist.
As is the case today, there was great diversity in the Judaism of the era:
“Rival sects and parties hated each other with a perfect hatred. Nonetheless, there were also unifying factors— the belief in a single God, shared scriptures, widespread concerns about purity and correct observance,…shared ethnic identity. The people were arguably extremists who disagreed with the ruling priests in Jerusalem in particular around the setting of the Jewish calendar.“ (p. 179)
The Essenes vanished from history after 200 years and had little discernible influence on later Jewish tradition. The movement separated itself from the priestly traditions in Jerusalem and from the emerging Pharisaic rabbinic tradition that focused on interpreting the fine points of the Oral and Written Laws. In the end, the Essene cult was a small sectarian movement outside mainline Judaism and too extreme to have enduring appeal.
This very readable volume explains it all, and I recommend it both to students of the Temple period, early rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, and anyone else who wants to understand what the Dead Sea Scrolls are really all about.
July 7, 2013 | 6:43 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Studies indicate that 70% of American adults and 30% of American kids are overweight or obese. When considering that staggering figure, how widespread today are common eating disorders, and the huge cost of medical care for those who suffer weight-related illnesses, it seems that most of us need to pay greater attention to our health.
When I was young I ate everything I wanted and could lose weight at the drop of a hat. But as I got older, the pounds accumulated and it became increasingly difficult to lose. Experts say that at age 30 if we change nothing in our eating habits or exercise routines, each year we will gain a minimum of one pound. By the age of 60, we will be 30 pounds heavier at least.
I raise this now because after I was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago, my wife and I decided that it was time for us to take control of our health, and make some changes in what we ate and how much we exercised (for those with eating disorders and food addiction, professional help is warranted).
I have developed a list of 10 things we continually strive to do to be healthy, most of which are recommended by experts. I am not always consistent, and maintaining my ideal weight is a daily struggle, but I work at this every day. Here is what we do. If any of this helps you, dayeinu:
1. Move more – We can build our strength and stamina to run, walk, swim or ride a bike one hour every day, four or five times a week. Some recommend walking a minimum of 10,000 steps daily. We can add steps by changing other habits. For example, I now never take an elevator unless I am climbing more than five floors, and even then I might take the stairs. I park my car far away from my destination to force me to walk the rest of the way. I rarely use valet unless it is raining or bloody hot.
2. Eat less – I do not fill my plate as I used to do, and I stop myself (most of the time) going back for second helpings. If I snack between meals I choose something healthy - almonds, vegetables, fruit, 100% whole wheat bread. I avoid eating anything white (milk products, sugar, or salt). Eating late at night anything other than fruit is a bad idea!
3. Avoid most saturated fats – They raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease. This includes fatty meats and poultry, steak, hamburger, and beef sausage. Dieticians give the green light on lean cuts of meat (I eat almost no red meat anymore, and I don’t miss it), and skinless everything, as well as fish that is rich in omega-3 fats. If I consume milk products, it has to be non-fat milk (the only time I cheat is when I use whole milk in coffee), and I avoid most cheese unless it is very low fat. Dark chocolate, for me is a necessity, but I limit myself to a square inch or two daily. Scientists say that dark chocolate is actually a good thing, as is 3 or 4 cups of caffeinated coffee a day. Thank God!
4. Avoid trans fats – This is found in spreads of all kinds, packaged foods and mixes, frozen foods, fast food, breaded anything, baked goods, chips, crackers, breakfast cereals (except oatmeal and some cereals without sugar and additives), candy, toppings, and most dips (except low fat yogurt-based or guacamole).
5. Eat only 100% whole grain – In bread, cereal, cookies, and cakes.
6. Add no extra sugar or salt - Avoid all sugar syrups, all sugared drinks, and experts say diet sodas as well.
7. Eat lots of fruit, vegetables and fish.
8. Drink alcohol in moderation – I drink red wine because it is great for the heart and soul, an ounce of scotch (on occasion) and only light beer.
9. Drink water often – I do not use plastic containers as they are cancer causing.
10. Weigh yourself every day – I adjust my daily intake of food and increase my exercise routine if I find, to my horror, that I’ve gained weight (even a pound) from the day before. If I have lost weight I resist hard rewarding myself with more chocolate.
Losing weight requires not a small measure of self-discipline, will-power, patience, persistence, optimism, and self-forgiveness.
If weight gain is your problem (and clearly, say the surveys, it is for most of us) it is best to think long-term (months!!!) and delight in small successes. When you reach your goal, however long it takes, reward yourself by going out and buying new clothes.
July 4, 2013 | 12:56 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Twenty years ago the physician and Zen Master, Jon Kabat-Zinn, wrote a book he called “Where Ever You Go There You Are.” The book’s title has stayed with me and it has helped me to focus not only on why I do what I do, but also on why others might behave as they do.
We are who we are where ever we are, and that means that we carry with us trunk loads of emotional baggage – fear, trauma, anger, resentment, disappointment, as well as our loves, passions, joys, dreams, and hopes. Consequently, for better and worse, we often respond to situations not based on who or what stands before us, but rather out of the “stuff” we carry in our emotional trunks that have nothing to do with present circumstances.
The idea that “Where ever you go, there you are” begs the question – Can people really change their orientation in the world, or are we fated because of our personal histories to think, feel and behave as we have always done?
Judaism affirms that we can change and evolve, though slowly, incrementally and often with sacrifice and pain.
In this week’s double Torah portion Matot-Masei, our sages affirm this truth as they reflect upon Moses’ list of 42 places through which he and the Israelites passed during the 40 years of wandering (Numbers 33).
The book of Numbers as a whole (the 42 places act as chronological signposts) enumerates the people’s disillusionment and struggle, temptation, rebellion, and broken faith. If there is a common theme to Numbers, it’s that the people wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else than where they were.
Commentators asked why Moses enumerated these 42 places. The Malbim (1809-1879) suggested that because their experience in Egypt was so filled with suffering, it was necessary before they entered the Land of Canaan to exorcise, a little bit at a time in each of the 42 places, a measure of the pain, resentment, humiliation, and defilement that they bore. Then they would be able to meet God in a pure state in the land.
Their redemption from Egypt, therefore, was gradual and progressive spread out over 40 years. With this understanding of the Biblical narrative, the Talmud says that when we are brought before God for heavenly judgment, we’ll be asked Tzapita l’yeshua (“Did you anticipate redemption?") (Shabbat 31a). In other words, did you undo wrongs you committed? Did you do restore your relationships with family and friends, colleagues, community, the Jewish people, and God? Did you forgive? Did you act from fear or faith? Did you restore justice and mercy? Did you live with high moral standards, with kindness and integrity?
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught
“…we should feel that we are like a limb of a great organism….that we are part of a nation, which, in turn, is part of humanity. The betterment of each individual contributes to the life of the larger community, thus advancing the redemption of the nation and the universe.”
The end of Numbers finds Moses and the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan River near Jericho. They had not as yet entered the land, but, say the commentators, they did as individuals and as a community relieve themselves of the burdens and defilement, humiliation and degradation of Egypt, and so they could answer collectively “Yes” to the question, Tzapita l’yeshua – Did you anticipate redemption?
What about us? What fears, trauma, anger, resentment, and disappointment do carry with us that we need to release in order to encounter others as individuals and as a community appropriately?
The good news is that we can make choices. We do not have to do things the same way we have always done them. Nor do we have to presume the same responses of others that we’ve experienced before. We have the capacity to be self-critical and, by an act of will, transform who we are and where we are in our lives.
“Where ever you go there you are?” This is a true statement, but the supplementary questions are as important to ask and answer - Where are we? Who are we? And do we need to remain where we are if fear, distrust, pain, and resentment keep us in Egypt far from the Promised Land.
This is what I believe our Torah portion is asking of us as individuals and as a people this week, to break from the chains that keep us far from redemption.
May our journeys transform and uplift us.