Been very slowed down for quite some time. Bouts of movement and activity happen in relationship to what needs attending to, but I’m generally not in a rush at all anymore. This has been my preferred setting for self since going away on retreat four years ago. My going to ground has been interrupted by emergencies of either a medical nature or life and death related issues for folks in my family or community.
I no longer have the koach/strength or inclination to be industrious or the way most folks who know me knew me. This puts me at odds with most of the modern world and certainly is a really new way of walking on this earth. I’ve never been fast moving, in terms of walking, running or swimming. Steady as she goes, I can walk a long time, if the pace is slow, same with swimming. I’m super fast when I need to be, addressing an emergency or tending to something time-specific.
What is pulling my attention currently is trying to come to terms with NOT doing and not rushing and not engaging so much with others and the world. This current time of Corona Virus and social distancing has been helpful for me in this regard. I lament the reason for needing to social distance, but having the time to be down has been very helpful. I haven’t wanted to Zoom in groups either. I really don’t want to interact with folks in groups in any format. So, in order to interact or move, I’ve chosen to walk with various friends when I can. We walk responsibly and social distance and go to the Arcata Marsh or in my neighborhood, one on one.
It’s more of a challenge to be on semi-retreat and going to ground in the face of the horrors of the last few weeks. It’s critical to remember that this terrible hatred and violence we are seeing is systematic and very old and entrenched. There’s nothing new here. I saw a video interview with Ava Du Vernay by Ellen Degeneres and I found Ava’s point that the difference in this particular situation with George Floyd’s murder was that the cameras were not just on the victim’s face, but that the multiple videos of coverage showed all the people, the murderer as he was murdering, the bystanders as they were by-standing and the man as he was being murdered and begging for his life. I have not watched any of the footage of him being murdered. I cannot ingest those images, but I do believe in hearing about them and learning about them. I don’t watch rape, murder or beating up of other humans. I have no filter and violence impacts my bones and my heart and my breathing.
My bandwidth has decreased and I’m honoring that.
So, how can I support those who are rising up when I am laying down? I do so in my prayers and in my heart, and by emerging from my silence online for over six months. This situation requires a response. I’m not offline completely and I’m not in my cabin in Ireland far away. I’m just on my own personal retreat recovering from knee surgery in December and navigating this time in my life of connecting and caring for family members that are far away and elderly. I’ve not been silent or unconnected to the folks in my life that need me and with whom I have primary ties and commitments to. This retreat of mine has been about increasing the space in between my interactions with others and letting my being expand and breathe into stillness, quiet, being horizontal and in the dark and watching more movies and shows than I’ve ever done. I believe in the power of story and watching how we tell stories and the stories we tell is something that helps me navigate whatever is going on for me. Lately, I’ve been on a French comedy string of films and am now dreaming in French, which makes me très heureuse/very happy.
And, I’ve been grieving deeply and profoundly several tremendous losses in my life which have truly impacted my joy and natural bounce. I’m not alone in this either, even if I’m curled up in my bed feeling my pain, I know it is connected to the grief of all the people who are losing and have lost loved ones in this time of Covid 19 and due to racism, climate change, greed and fear. Many of us are grieving having a criminal, misogynistic, violent hate-mongering leader in charge of our country. I’ve been grieving this since he was elected and I’m still not recovered and sadly the cost to our planet and to all of our lives has been enormous and it’s not done yet. I think of him as a biblical character, as the pharaoh whose heart was hardened by the Holy One and who was ultimately the precursor to our liberation. May this time of liberation come soon, but if it is still a long way off, I know it will still come.
Folks who support “he who shall not be named,” are still grieving. There is not a single person on this planet who isn’t impacted by all the folks dying alone, without family nearby. When souls leave a body, they need escorts and help and prayers or song and when those aren’t present there’s a time of fear and pain and confusion for those who have died or been murdered. When we also can’t gather to remember or say goodbye, this has a huge cost. So, the suffering of this weighs heavy on us all.
All people have guardian angels or energetic helpers to welcome them as they cross over. I know this, I don’t believe it, it is firmament for me. I am not like others in this regard. Death to me is a transition and a crossing. It is an end to this form of living, but not any kind of end. I can and do swim in the waters of death more than most folks. I connect with folks who’ve left this earth and ask for their help and receive it. I’ve written about this before, so if you are here for the first time, check out my post More than One.
I have hope for our planet and those beings on it who are angry, suffering, put-down, being killed and hunted or just alone and sad. How and why I have hope is connected to my expanding the space and time between things and to my perspective. I can grieve and have hope. I can be sad and outraged and still walk with kindness and integrity and tenderness. I can look at the long sweep of history and recall that there has never been a time when people with more had power over those with less and that in the long arc of our time on this planet there has been a slow movement towards the good. This doesn’t mean we aren’t in a downward cycle, but like the water wheel, we will rise up again. Unlike the endless cycle of ugly and hopeful, there is another deeper well we can draw from. In that well are all those working for others, loving others, loving the planet, taking to the streets in solidarity, educating us all about racism and privilege. All the comedians, the artists, the educators, the nurses, the sanitation workers, the UPS drivers, the post office clerks, the grocery clerks, the folks who every day do their jobs and offer a smile or just do what needs doing are who we can draw strength and hope from. These folks, us, we are a far greater force than that other force.
I know this, it is not my belief, it is firmament.
My dear friend Reuven died tragically in early August of 2019. His Hebrew name was Reuven Uriah. Born Ronald Moore, he was 61 years old. These are the dry facts, but I want to talk about the wet ones; the ones that make the tears flow and have left so many of us wondering and sad.
I need to talk about how many miraculous events have happened around his death and following his death. These stories are the ones that are a testament to his spirit and to the Holy energy present in everyday folks doing good. His life is also something to honor and speak about. Reuven lived his life humbly and with so much kindness and enthusiasm. He was interested in all things green and growing and all creatures two legged or four legged. He was always into music and loved Jewish people and history. He was full of bouncy energy, like a boy in a man’s body. He was on the spectrum and although he described himself as autistic his brain injuries were also the result of severe beatings from his childhood. These are more wet facts.
Reuven navigated his injuries and his differences with the help of so many folks. Why are some people able to solicit kindness and others not? Reuven’s behavior could be irritating, due to his brain injuries and how they manifested. Nevertheless, he was more interested in helping people than in being helped. He was always singing and dancing and getting folks to enjoy something outside. He would offer to take people on walks in the wilds of Humboldt County, along the cliffs in Trinidad, and in the Redwood Forest. He loved to swim in the ocean, lagoons or rivers. Happiest outdoors, he gamboled about like a mountain goat.
In the Jewish community, he was lucky enough to have a member of Temple Beth El as his landlord for over twenty years. This mensch (good person) gave Reuven a great deal on rent, so that he could live on the pittance he got from being on Social Security Income. Reuven always grew a garden and supplemented his meager food budget with things he could grow. Farmers locally, like Eddie Tanner from Deep Seeded Farm and others helped Reuven as well. He loved Kathy Mullen’s Kneeland Glen Farmstand and many, many others in the local community were generous with him.
Reuven’s own generosity was immense and, even with his very limited resources, he would help anyone, in whatever ways he could. For most of his life he was tremendously physically fit and able. Most folks remember him at a yoga class, dancing on the plaza during farmer’s market or at a local music event, hiking in the redwoods, biking to Trinidad and generally being an example of physical fitness. Mike Reinman and his family were his longtime friends, Osher Zelig Galambos, also a dear companion, and so many others gave Reuven bicycles, food, shoes, clothing, vacations and companionship. Although Reuven was surrounded by folks who loved him, he still felt very alone much of the time.
He was deeply held and loved by two Jewish communities here; the more Orthodox Jewish Community Chabad of Humboldt County and my congregation Temple Beth El. He was also involved in B’Nai Ha Aretz out of Southern Humboldt. Over twenty years ago, I remember driving with him to services in Garberville when I first started wanting to observe where Naomi Steinberg would be offering services. Reuven and I loved the singing, chanting and meditating that was happening there. When Rabbi Naomi became the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Reuven would come with me to services there. He would help me lead services when I was officiating as a Lay Leader. When Chabad came to Humboldt, he began to split his Jewish time between the two communities.
Originally from Flint, Michigan, he grew up poor and battered with his sister Deborah, and brothers Daniel and Joseph. At the age of thirteen he was rescued from this painful home situation when he was offered a full scholarship at a religious boarding school in New York, run by the Chabad community. Reuven felt that being here in Humboldt county, surrounded by nature was part of his healing and integral to his well-being. He loved the fellowship of Chabad that he found here as it linked him to his childhood, the parts that had good memories for him. Reuven was not a traditional guy, he swung across the spectrum in many ways. He loved being able to worship and dance with all people of all sizes, colors, persuasions or religions.
You can hear his unique perspective on life and understand some of who he was by listening to this interview of him done by The Humboldt Lighthouse.
As a volunteer member of Temple Beth El’sHevra Kadisha(Jewish Burial Society) Reuven helped me prepare many Jewish men for traditional burial according to Jewish law. This is not something easily done. It requires tremendous presence, kindness and dedication. He would always say when we were done: “Next time for a Simcha.” A Simcha is a joyful event. When I was leading services at Temple Beth El, he would help me set the tables and make our space beautiful to honor the Sabbath. Creating sacred space with room for laughter and song came easily to him. He was on hand to help build my Sukkah/outdoor sacred structure for the holiday of Sukkoth. He was always there for whatever was needed by me or anyone and it gave him joy to offer.
Losing his physical presence is still something with which I have not come to terms. I keep thinking I see him walking down the road or on his bike. I keep thinking I’ll run into him. But, he’s left our shore for the greater Shore of Heaven, probably late on Saturday afternoon, August 3rd. He was last seen dancing and enjoying himself at the Saturday Farmer’s market in the morning. Someone overheard him say he was planning to go for a walk/swim at College Cove, one of his favorite Humboldt spots. He must have lost his footing while walking, either going down some embankment for a private swim, or just too close to some edge. We will never know where or why he fell, but fall he did and that fall was fatal. He was alone and for many of us, this is the most painful part and certainly everyone’s worst nightmare.
Despite having fallen to his death, along a part of our coastline where folks are not found due to the rocks and tides, Reuven was found. It’s a miracle his body was recovered and how that all unfolded is just one of many miracles surrounding his end of time on this earth. As a Jewish person, miracles are common occurrences. Judaism is full of stories about our teachers, prophets, simple folks and even animals who embody or cross over between this world and the next to bring us closer to Olam Ha Bah/ The World to Come.
Sukkot, a fall Harvest Festival, is a taste of the world to come. There is no door making it open to all who want entry. It is a place of peace and sharing of stories and food and joy.
So, back to the wet story of Reuven’s miraculous water rescuers. There is a local group of kayakers called the Sunday Services group. They ocean kayak on Sunday mornings as their religious service. By chance on Sunday, August 4th, 2019 they headed north towards College Cove. They could have gone a different direction that morning, but they didn’t. They spotted his body in the ocean amidst some rocks in a very hard to get to place. They radioed the Coast Guard and the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff asked if they could retrieve the body. These are trained kayakers and they carry ropes and other things for towing someone in the water in case one of them gets injured, or in this situation to rescue a body.
I was crying so much when I heard this story for the first time that some of the details may not be 100 percent spot on. But basically, the kayakers were asked if they could tow Reuven to College Cove beach where a group of search and rescue team folks could meet them. No one knew who the man in the water was at this point. The kayakers were asked to keep him in the water until the team of rescuers could meet them on the beach. This ended up taking two hours. So, the ten kayakers formed a circle around Reuven and guarded/held his body in the ocean waves for two hours, forming a Holy circle of Shomrim (those who guard the body of the dead). This is extraordinary on so many levels. They knew nothing of Reuven’s religion or about Jewish practices, nevertheless he was given the most sacred circle of Holy attendants. They were his first guardians and they performed this kindness among the crashing waves of the ocean at risk to themselves and in a truly magnificent way. Who gets this kind of escort to the other side? Reuven, that’s who!
Due to the diligence of several of Reuven’s friends, who sought these kayakers out, to try and understand what happened to Reuven, we were able to learn of this rescue. This has been important as members of our community have tried to piece together as much of the details as we could to navigate our pain around his ending. Some email excerpts from the kayakers help illustrate how truly incredible finding and retrieving his body so quickly was.
“This morning we did paddle north for the first time since Reuven’s death. We slipped along the shore line where we had delivered Reuven’s body to the Sheriff. At this moment I was struck by the beauty and peacefulness of this place. This for me was significant as from this place he could continue his journey to be reunited with his community.
We then went on to the place we had discovered his body. You should know that this is an area that we are not able to paddle in and explore very often. It can be quite dangerous because of the reefs and the ocean conditions here. How fortunate that we had a calm day for discovering Reuven.” ~ Mike 8/26/19
“I showed Noah the spot where I first noticed something unusual in color, investigated further, and found his friend. Described the orientation of the body and pulling it away from the reef with my paddle. Then how I yelled for Larry and your immediate call to the coastguard and the method of us towing him to college cove. Then we took Noah to college cove and showed him where and how long we waited with the body. Noah is very comfortable in the water and can now take others to the spot. He also can take people to right above the spot on a trail he claims he, Reuven, and others frequented. This area has a good view of the spot without getting close to the cliff edge. Also, when we arrived at Reuven’s location I placed flowers (from Noah) on the water per his wishes. Everything went well and I feel Reuven’s community can now take over…” ~Bruce 8/26/19
Here’s a link to a video by Eddie Arni of the area referenced above.
The local news was full of the story about this unknown man being found. It took the Jewish community a few days to put the pieces together. One of Reuven’s longtime friends, who had been very concerned about his whereabouts, called the police and made a missing person’s report. Then we were told that the body found in the water was Reuven. The local Chabad rabbi Eliyahu Cowen and some of his community went to the coroner’s office to confirm his identity. Another heroic set of events then ensued.
In the Jewish tradition we do many extremely time sensitive practices around death. We do not leave our dead alone from the time of death until the time of burial. We sit shomer. The word shomer means guard. So, we guard the person with our presence. We recite psalms and make sure nothing untoward happens. Then we ritually wash, purify and clothe the person in a shroud and wrap them in a sheet like a cocoon and place them in a plain pine box, or in Israel, just in the ground without the casket. Men prepare men and women prepare women. When we are washing, we always protect the dignity of the person and cover their genitals and breasts. We recite words from the Torah, specifically the Song of Solomon/Song of Songs, exalting each part of the body. Here are some excerpts that we say.
“….Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.
Your neck is like the tower of David, built in rows of stone; on it hang a thousand shields,
His legs are alabaster columns, set on bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars. 16 His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend…”
And, so in this way, the final body experience a person has is this loving honoring of their body. The quotes above are just a few examples. The whole process takes anywhere from two to four hours and requires three or four people. Because Reuven was found and retrieved by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s department, he was at the Coroner’s in Eureka. In order to sit Shiva we had to arrange with them to have folks in their front entrance be able to sit and recite psalms. The local Sheriff and Coroner and all of their staffs were amazingly kind and accommodating. Search and Rescue folks who are usually volunteers also deserve praise for their service.
When the Coroner’s office was closed we set up chairs outside the building. This huge feat was accomplished via Facebook and word of mouth and the organization of this was done by a local doctor from the Chabad community. Rabbi Eli also helped the coroner find Reuven’s next of kin, because Reuven had been part of the Chabad community and they have connections everywhere, so rabbis were called in Flint Michigan to get the phone numbers for Reuven’s sister Deborah who lives in NY. The coroner could not release Reuven’s body to us until permission was granted by his family. It took hours to figure this out and we were all in shock and mourning at the same time. Once Rabbi Eli had spoken with Deborah, a new set of tasks was set in place which had to do with getting a burial plot for Reuven that was kosher by Orthodox Jewish standards.
As a Jewish Renewal and Reform Jewish woman, this is not a requirement of mine nor of my community, but it was for the Chabad community. Since they also loved and claimed Reuven and had the resources to purchase a plot quickly, they started that process. At first we thought we’d have to send Reuven to the Bay Area, but this didn’t really sit well with all of us who knew and loved him. This was his home, his beloved home. He was not a city guy, he was a country man, a wild earth loving man. So, Rabbi Eli and his community set up a fund and raised enough money to buy ten plots at the Trinidad Cemetery. These plots then had to be roped off and consecrated as Jewish land according to very specific rules. All of this took place in the course of two days, which would take most folks weeks to get done.
Jewish tradition mandates burial within 24 hours of death, which we could not do, because of laws around bodies found not in the care of a doctor when they died. The need for all the local agencies to complete their investigations so Reuven’s body could get taken to a mortuary where we could prepare him for burial was just one part of this process. Then, without ever having done so before, Rabbi Eli and two other men from the Orthodox Jewish Community lovingly prepared Reuven’s body for burial. Temple Beth El provided the casket and shroud for Reuven, who had no money or family to pay for the cost of his burial and funeral needs. Chabad created a fund to cover costs as well and between our two communities coming together in his honor and memory, he was lovingly and traditionally cared for. The same woman who had arranged around the clock sitting shomer while Reuven was at the Coroner’s office coordinated it for us at the Ayres Family mortuary where we prepared Reuven for his final physical journey.
He was found Sunday morning August 4th. He was identified positively on Tuesday by our community. He was released by the coroner on Wednesday late afternoon. He was prepared for burial on Thursday and his burial was in Trinidad on Friday August 8th at 3 p.m. We cannot and do not deal with death on the Sabbath. So, getting him buried before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, August 9th was critical.
There were over 150 folks at his burial service led by Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen. It felt right to put Reuven to rest in the sun at the top of the Trinidad Cemetery. We then could begin to grieve and mourn, having dealt with the very intense details around his dying and getting him laid to rest. Rabbi Eli talked about how we were “tucking him into the earth he loved.” He gave a beautiful eulogy.
What’s critical here is that the Holy One hides these folks, even from themselves. It is thought that it is only because of these 36 humans that the world continues to spin. If we are kind to them, things improve on planet earth. If we are cruel to them or harm them, this is not good for us or the planet.
Because Reuven’s burial happened right before Shabbat those of us who are observant all had to rush home to make Shabbat. See my blog post: Shabbat Structre, Simply Divine Spiritual Technology) for more of an understanding of how the Sabbath is observed. Before leaving the cemetery, we let folks know that a memorial would be held on the following Tuesday at the Arcata Vet’s Hall and that all were welcome. Again, this was organized quickly by the Chabad community and enabled folks from all over, who loved Reuven and were not Jewish necessarily, to come and pay homage to him.
Our Rabbi Naomi Steinberg also organized a series of memorial events for the Sheloshim (30 days) from death observations. We traditionally sit shiva which means we mourn for seven days from the time of burial in the home of the mourners. Since Reuven’s next of kin were very far away, different members of the community hosted dinners or times during the first seven days and the Tuesday memorial was one of those. It was at this event that so many disparate groups of folks came together to honor his life and memory. This is where the kayakers were told to come to learn about the man they’d rescued. It’s also where I heard their story for the first time. Their truly spectacular kindness and efforts on behalf of an unknown body floating among the rocks and waves of Humboldt County is a testament to their goodness and the miracles surrounding Reuven.
It’s taken me three months to write this piece and to navigate my tremendous grief. I’m still sad every day. At the Sheloshim observances we did a joint Chabad and Temple Beth El clean-up/pick-up trash in Sequoia park as a way of honoring Reuven’s memory. Being outdoors and doing good were ways to not only remember Reuven but make our sadness for his loss into something positive for the earth. This is also a traditional Jewish practice around death, to donate your time or money to a cause that would have been supported by the deceased. We also had a final coming together back at Temple Beth El where folks could share again, or for the first time, their memories of Reuven. And this was followed by a potluck meal, which Reuven would have thoroughly enjoyed.
As I sat in services for Yom Kippur and we read the names of all our beloveds who have died during the Yiskor/Memorial service. I cried again for the loss of this man from my life and the lives of all our communities and from his siblings’ lives. I still feel his presence and continue to beseech him to act on our behalf and help us take better care of each other and this earth in danger. If anyone can make miracles happen from across the bridge between this world and the next one, it is my dear beloved brother Reuven. In his absence, we all of us who love him, or who are moved by this story, must commit anew to being kinder to each other and more flexible with one another’s differences and finally to skip and cavort and laugh and honor and protect the earth, and all her creatures, as if she was our most beloved dance partner. As Reuven would insist,
“Next time for a Simcha!”
May you be comforted among all those who mourn and let us say Amen.
This article was originally published over two weeks in the Mad River Union.
The teaching below is one I gave about the piece of Torah that I was born under. It’s called Nitzavim and reflects who I am. My Bat Mitzvah was four days after 9/11. Some of my family couldn’t come because planes were still not flying then. Other members got in cars and drove for days. The Temple was full beyond capacity with friends and family and the larger community looking for a place to mourn and be together in the face of the horrible events of 9/11. On Shabbat, Jews have the practice, which we’ve maintained for thousands of years, in the face of pogroms and horrors, as best we can of praising and finding good and resting from ugliness and violence on the Sabbath. I remember my mother remarking that perhaps this was why we were still around, because we found a way to have joy and goodness despite everything.
I’ve been following Greta Thurnberg’s massive impact lately and was remembering my sixteen year old self. Back at Boulder High School in 1979. a long time ago, my friends and I started a club called “Students for a Positive Future.” We were trying to do what is happening now. Of course, if our movement along with so many others’ who have been trying to do what is happening now, had been remotely effective, Greta and her generation wouldn’t be facing the horror they are making everyone face up to now. As, many of you know, this issue is not new or trending. Scientists have known about this for over fifty years. Spiritual people, tribal people, dreamers, artists and visionaries have known all of this as well for a very long time.
It is not impossible to make change, it is not too late. Nitzavim written thousands of years ago, states that if we ignore doing the right thing, there will be consequences. When we don’t care for each other and the earth, this action brings about the curses mentioned in the Torah in Nitzavim. When we honor each other and the earth, Blessings will ensue and miracles and change. I wrote this 18 years ago. I’ve been advocating what I shared then about this reality for my entire life. I will continue to advocate this way for the rest of the days I’m granted on this earth.
by Nicole Andrée Barchilon Frank/Shoshanah Adamah Cohen
September 15, 2001 ~ Elul 27, 5761
Wisdom, Joy and hope are not in some distant time; they are not in Heaven or across a great stream. We have access to the best in life and we indeed are responsible for infusing the world with Joy, Wisdom and Hope or Misery, Greed and Violence. It is our actions that make the world a Holy Place or not. Those actions if they are to be connected to Heaven or to Holiness must be generated in our hearts and then manifested in our mouths “Ki Karov Elecha, Ha D’Var Me Od, B’ficha U’vilvavecha La’soto.” “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart-to perform it.”
Nitzavim is rich; it has a wealth of beauty and delight in it. I was powerfully moved when I learned that Nitzavim was my Torah portion/Parsha; the one I was born under 37 years ago in Paris, France. My whole life has been a journey towards joining the core of my heart to my mouth and actions. The Torah is not just a book to me, but a Holy Living Presence in my life. My birth Torahparsha reflects who I am and who I can be in this world. As Rabbi Mordechai Gafni teaches, each of us has a “soul print,” our own unique essence. Nitzavim is one such reflection of my soul, and sharing my Torah here with you, is my invitation to you, into the heart of my soul.
My choices here today are an affirmation of who I am and how I am choosing to connect to the whole of creation in a covenental way. There are many kinds of relationships and ways of maintaining them. My relationship to my Judaism, profound and deep as it has been in the past, is shifting today. In my lifetime, no one person has insisted that I take on this tradition. This lack of coercion has been a great gift, allowing me to enter into my Judaism without prior wounding or dissatisfaction. No one asked me to observe the Mitzvot or to come into this covenant. It has always been a choice, for which I bless my parents. And yet, I hear my ancestors speaking in my heart. I felt compelled to learn Hebrew, I feel connected to my Jewish family in my kishkas. I have needed to touch the Divine in a uniquely Jewish way. To do that, I have had to learn Torah. Today, I share my Torah with you, with my ancestors and with all those who are here in other than physical form. I am making physical my bond, my covenant, my dedication and my commitment to Torah on this 27th day of Elul.
The great French 11th Century Torah commentator Rashi reminds us, at this point in our biblical story, that we are being bound to Holiness a second time by our presence before Moses on his dying day. Remember that Torah time is different than our time. Moses’ final day was a biblical day. It went on for quite a long time. Rashi quoting Verse 9 states the following about this day:
“YOU ARE STANDING THIS DAY [ALL OF YOU BEFORE THE LORD] –This teaches that Moses assembled them in the presence of the Omnipresent on the day of his death, in order to initiate them into a covenant.”
Moses initiates us into the covenant on his final day. Rashi also teaches that The Holy One is undertaking to make a second covenant with us,
“THAT THE HE MAY ESTABLISH YOU TODAY FOR A PEOPLE UNTO HIMSELF–He undertakes so much trouble (in making another covenant with you) in order that He may keep you for a people in His presence…. because he has promised it unto you and sworn unto your fathers not to exchange their descendants for another nation. For this reason. He binds you by these oaths not to provoke Him to anger since He on His part, cannot dissociate himself from you.”
Not only are we being bound, but also the Holy One is being bound to us. The very nature of creation is woven into the fabric of you and me.
This beautiful weaving is different in Hebrew than it is in English. For many of us it is difficult to connect with the Torah in English. It is only in Hebrew that it has become embodied and exciting for me. Two years of Hebrew studying in between dishes and child-rearing is by no means enough. I’m still a beginner, but a beginner with a deep desire to continue learning. In our tradition, each Hebrew word of the Torah is itself a tree bearing fruit. There is a root within each word and each root has branches. We are invited, once we know these letters deeply, to explore their branches.
The Kabbalists and great Torah Scholars do this all the time. The word Yisrael is often translated as the one who wrestles with the Divine. The Hebrew word Yisrael is often used concurrently to mean the Jewish people or the Holy Land. Shoshana Cooper teaches that if we play with the letters of the word Yisrael, we can get the word Sari-el. She reminds us that our biblical mother Sarah was a priestess in her own time and had the name Sarai prior to joining herself to Abraham’sEl. Women today can claim Yisrael as their name too, because it can mean the El of Sarai. This Sarai El for me is part of the word Yisrael. I am connected through my biblical fore-mothers and forefathers as well as through the action of being a wrestler or dancer with the Divine. There are many ways to refer to Holiness in the Torah. There isn’t one word for the Divine Being. There are feminine words and masculine ones.
The very beginning of this parsha says all of Israel, those who are present and those who are not present, are included for the final binding as they were for the original Holy Sharing at Sinai. The workers and the priests, all of us, those not yet born and those already gone are included. What does it mean when the Torah says all of us are present, even those who are not physically present are included in the covenant? What is this saying about the nature of creation and the universe? The Torah is revealing here one of her deepest mysteries, asking us to enter into a world that is not easily accessible, yet nevertheless present for us.
This task is still not too far away though, “it is as near to us as our hearts and our mouths.” On one level this is simple. It has been understood by generations of Jews. It refers to a different sense of time, of responsibility and of oath taking. The time referred to here is both linear, and circular. It extends forever inward as well as outward. It includes the past generations as well as the future ones. This notion of time is difficult to understand because many people still think of time as only linear and forward directed.
The Torah is not only the first five books of the Bible. The Torah is also considered the body of Jewish thoughts, writings and rulings over time and in time. From the beginning of time beyond our ability to know is Torah. In linear time the Torah includes the knowledge and work of several thousand years. Since ancient times sages and students have been wrestling with these teachings. We have brought these words into our hearts through prayer, meditation and deep thought. We have and still do respond and enter into dialogue with the text. This is the fundamental characteristic of a living tradition. However, despite the wide range of Jewish thought, I believe, there is one Divine code for Jews. It is the one pattern, one DNA, one underlying order to our universe. It is the Hebrew Torah.
That Hebrew Torah speaks not only about relationships in time, but also about our responsibilities in time and across time. In his book Of Water and The Spirit, African Shaman Malidoma Patrice Somé talks about his people’s sense of time and obligation. He points out that, in his tribe’s belief system, he must redeem the actions of his ancestors. If his ancestors hurt another person and that hurt was not resolved or healed in the past, it is likely his life will be affected, and he may be called upon to create resolution. This is a radical concept for many.
This African tribal belief is like many Native American beliefs about time, responsibility and our place on the earth as well. And let us not forget, as Jews, we are a tribal people. Nitzavim reminds us that if we fail to keep our obligations or we fail to follow the teachings, not only will we pay, the earth itself will become barren.
The Torah can be read as an environmental code book. The land must rest, just as we must. Fruit bearing trees are never to be cut down in acts of war, animals are to be treated with compassion and concern. Lack of foresight, vision and respect for our planet leads to ruin. This parsha both cautions us and guides us. It asks us to be both respectful and to use our hearts as guides about how to live.
If I am responsible for the mistakes and woundings of my ancestors then I have a lot of work to do, especially if they weren’t good people. Likewise, I reap the benefits of their goodness and grace if they were devoted to good works and loving-kindness. Conversely, if my great great grandchildren will be paying for my mistakes, then I really want to be careful about what I do. I want to step gently on the earth and work very hard to do no harm. My children reap pain or grace based on my choices.
This parsha describes in detail what will happen to the person who thinks he or she can do lip service to this covenant. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 29: verse 22, we hear of the earth drying up “all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing.” This is the result of not living correctly. This is not some myth, this is the reality of our planet. Those who study and understand the earth, know we are in deep trouble. Too many of us live out our lifetimes as if it were the only one that mattered.
All of this is very close to us, “exceedingly so.” I found Rashi’s teaching on this fascinating. He teaches that even if it were in Heaven or far away, we would be obliged to go seek it and do it. Why are we obliged to seek out the correct path or teaching? This takes us back to our fundamental crossing over or acceptance of the covenant. Being bound to the covenant means it is a part of us, and if we were somehow separated from a part of us, we would need to go looking for it. This teaching also is about Teshuvah as I mentioned earlier. Returning to our center, our originally glorious soul is the way of Torah. It isn’t far away, yet it can seem impossible to reach. Following the correct path means flowing with the current of life instead of against it. It means walking gently on the earth. Being tender with each other becomes an imperative. By doing this, we find that we are connected to Holiness and that we have chosen Life, the honoring of this uniquely complex and beautiful world.
The Holy One has given us a chance to be partners of a sort. Our ways of speaking and being in the world can either be linked to our hearts and leading towards life-affirming choices. Or we can be apathetic, not actively engaged. As Sam and Pearl Oliner’s research shows this is an unfortunate and all too common path. Being a “bystander” can lead to a lack of caring that promotes violence and all the “isms” in our world. We are being asked in Nitzavim to listen to our hearts and to bind our mouths, our expression of self, to the true knowing of our core. Doing this reminds us that we are responsible and capable and that our actions and words have power.
Learning to recognize the Hebrew words and to chant the trope was a completely terrifying and daunting experience at first. My fear of singing goes back to an Elementary school teacher who told me I couldn’t sing and put me in the “B” choir with one other kid. It was too awful and after a few classes full of her impatience and disdain, I gave up. I found my voice again while pregnant with Shira, determined to sing to my child. My voice has surprisingly undergone a transformation while learning to chant trope. With practice, perseverance and help I’ve felt the beauty and the music of the Divine’s teaching flow through me. It became possible to bind my heart to my mouth. By engaging with my tradition and working on my Bat Mitzvah I made a deep connection that carried through from my Lev to my mouth to you!
When I first heard Hebrew as an 18-year-old woman, my whole being was affected. The moment was timeless, as if I were a gong, which had just been struck, the vibrations have carried me through to this day. In The Book of Blessings, Marcia Falk speaks my heart when she says: “English is my s’fat eym “mother tongue,” but Hebrew is my s’fat dam–the language of my blood.”
So, too for me, Hebrew is my s’fat dam. Learning these letters is a way to encounter the source material of my being. This day is the culmination of years of study, of my blood pounding out a steady rhythm of longing for the Divine, for Holiness and for a language that truly speaks my heart. Thank you for being here as witnesses to my process. I am deeply grateful for all of you who have traveled far, both physically and spiritually; for all of you who have helped me to get to this moment and especially all of you who continually support me in my life and choices. I am a very lucky and Blessed woman. I pray that all of you will find the language and messages of your hearts and be blessed with people to share with and be supported by as I am by all of you.
Bibles/Torahs: Kaplan, Rabbi Aryeh. The Living Torah. Jerusalem: Maznaim Publishing Corporation, 1981; Rosenbaum, Rev. M, and Dr. A.M. Silberman et al, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth & Rashi’s Commentary. Jerusalem: The Silberman Family, 5733; Scherman, Rabbi Nosson Editor, and Contributing Editors: Rabbi Yaakov Blinder, Rabbi Avie Gold, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. The Stone Edition, TANACH. New York: Metsorah Publications, 1996.
Other Works Cited: Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 14: Jerusalem: Keter, 1972, Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. The Schocken Bible: Volume I. New York: Schocken Books, 1995., Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. The Altruistic Personality, Rescuers of Jews In Nazi Germany. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan, Inc, 1988; Somé, Malidoma Patrice. Of Water and The Spirit. Winkler, Gershon, and Lakme Batya Elior. The Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1994.
Quotes to put in text: Sherman, Rabbi Nosson & Contributing editors. The Stone Edition TANACH. New York: Metsorah Publications, p. 501; Rosenbaum, Rev. M, and Dr. A.M. Silberman et al, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth & Rashi’s Commentary. Jerusalem: The Silberman Family, 5733.p. 144; Ibid., p. 144. Ibid., p. 144.;Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 14: Jerusalem: Keter, 1972. p. 125.; Winkler, Gershon, and Lakme Batya Elior. The Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1994. p. 21.; Oliner, Sam & Pearl. The Altruistic Personality. 1988; Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. p. xv.
In addition to all of my beautiful friends and teachers at Temple Beth El, I have been Blessed with so many Special Teachers who have helped me find my way. I can only acknowledge some of them here. I hope you will get the chance to experience their teachings: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (May his memory be for a Blessing), Frida Kahlo (May her memory be for a Blessing) Devorah Mann (May her memory be for a Blessing), Emma Goldman (May her memory be for a Blessing) Anne Frank (May her memory be for a Blessing) Etty Hillesium (May her memory be for a Blessing) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (May his memory be for a Blessing), Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, Rachel Heller, Malidoma Patrice Somé, Rabbi Gershon Winkler, Rabbi Marc Gafni, Noam Heller, Gloria Steinem, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Judith Mohling, June Jordan, Rabbi David Zaslow, Rabbi Shefa Gold, Elie Wiesel, Fatima Mernissi, Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, Rabbi David Cooper, Marge Piercy, Marcia Falk, Shoshana Cooper, Alice Walker, Ellen Frankel, Rabbi Margaret Holub, Rabbi Jackie Brodsky, Starhawk, Kendra Moshe, Rabbi Marcia Prager, Ross Albertson, Louise Erdrich, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevitt, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Leonard Peltier, Nawal El Sadawi
I’ve been weepy the last two days and I just figured out why. My body and heart are always ahead of my mind and brain. In Hebrew the word Lev means Heart and also Mind. So, my heart/mind was knowing something that my brain hadn’t figured out yet. I woke up with pain behind my eyes and a headache, yesterday. It was pretty early in the morning, but my husband woke up to hold me. I know when I have that kind of pain it is because I need to cry. I didn’t know why, but the why wasn’t important. So, he held me and I sobbed and released, still not sure what my tears were for or about.
Before falling asleep last night I thought, I need to check about the Jewish date for my father’s Yahrzeit. This is the day we mark once a year on the anniversary of a person’s death. The calendar for us is a combination Lunar and Solar calendar, so it is different than the Gregorian one used by most folks in this country. I knew that we stop saying Kaddish in the eleventh month from the death and since it was May 9th and my father died June 18/19th of 2018, I figured I better check. The Orthodox website run by Chabad.org is where I go when I need to calculate Hebrew birthdays or deathdays. They have a very easy interface and give you the dates for ten years out if you want.
So, I went to their site and plugged in my dad’s information and here’s what I got:
The date of passing for this person was on:
Monday, June 18, 2018 – Tammuz 6, 5778
Observe the upcoming Yahrtzeit on:
Tuesday, July 9, 2019 – 6 Tammuz, 5779
Yahrtzeit observances begin on Monday evening.
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Kaddish is recited until mincha on the afternoon of:
Friday, May 10, 2019 – Iyar 5 5779
About the kaddish end date:
>Kaddish is recited for eleven months from the date of passing. Even if the interment took place a number of days after death, the 11 months are still counted from the date of passing. However, if the burial was postponed for two or more weeks after death, kaddish should be recited until the end of 11 months counting from the date of the burial.
I burst into tears upon seeing the Friday, May 10, 2019 date as the last time to say Kaddish for my father on a daily basis. I haven’t been saying Kaddish everyday for him for the last eleven months, but that didn’t matter. I have been thinking about him and saying the Kaddish whenever I was in a Jewish setting with a Minyan (ten Jewish folks or any ten loving folks will work for me).
I wasn’t, I am not ready to stop grieving my father. And, of course I don’t need to stop grieving him, but this marker hit me hard and I realized again with waves of tears that I am still very, very sad and missing my father every day. Grief is just not a one time thing you feel and are done with. I have been living it and reeling from it for the last eleven months very intensely. So, in the morning, this morning I again asked my husband for his loving arms and I cried some more and shared stories with him about my father.
I had big plans for tonight’s Shabbat dinner. I was going to cook Iranian Eggplant and make Raita and create a sort of pre-30th Anniversary vegetarian feast for my husband. Instead, after my energy/chiropractic/sound treatment with Sarah Griffith and my healing MAT (Muscle Activation Training) with Jazz and then shopping to get groceries, I found myself in a puddle of tears once I got home, barely able to get the groceries up the steps, for emotional, not physical reasons.
No fancy dinner tonight. I finished setting up the altar for my father, pictured above and I’ll make a simple salad and asparagus for dinner. I’ll cook tomorrow, if I feel up to it. Today is about grieving and being sad and surrendering to my sadness, honoring that eleven lunar months have passed since my father was in a body. I don’t have to recite the mourner’s prayer for him everyday any more. Instead, I move into the wisdom of the Jewish practices of saying this prayer for him on the anniversary of his death, and three times more a year during the Yiskor service. So, four times a year, I’ll say this prayer for him, until I’m no longer able for the rest of my life.
Standing up when the Rabbi asks: “Is there anyone observing a Yahrzeit or in the first year of mourning, please stand,” has been a very powerful thing for me. I’ve cried every time I was asked for the name of who I am remembering, not expecting to each time. But, the tears, the body/mind/heart knowing cannot be denied or stopped. I have no desire to change that.
At Passover this year, I was in San Diego at my mother and beau-père’s home. When we got to the teaching and questions about why is this night different from all other nights, something strong came through for me. We ask “why on all other nights do we not even dip our greens/vegetables once, but on this night we dip twice?” This refers to dipping parsley in salt water and charoset into horseradish, so two dippings, double dipping that is encouraged. I was inspired to get honest with my parents about something very hard and sad for me, and so I gave them access to my feelings by introducing the subject through this idea of double dipping.
I shared that usually we all avoid our feelings and on Pesach/Passover, we are being asked very clearly NOT to do that. If we think of the salt water as our tears and ourselves as the thing that needs to dip into them, we can see that our first dip is just a small foray into the emotional realm. Oh, there’s my feeling, yes, I know you’re there, that’s enough. We have that choice, most of the time, to stop ourselves from actually deeply feeling the sadness, grief, joy, fear or whatever emotion we are just lightly touching/dipping into. But, if we have the time or are able and have the support to immerse completely into our emotions, to really double dip, then something transformational and intense happens and we are no longer on the outside looking in, we are fully immersed.
So, this is the territory of emotional work, of grieving. It’s a place, where if we are healthy, we can have some agency and choice. I can’t live in this immersed in pain place all the time. Nothing would get done. It’s also not fair to my friends, family and community because I’m really not able to be present for others when I’m fully immersed in my emotional territory. My husband likes to say that I’m due and can take all the time I want. This is just one of the many things I adore about him. My middle son Issac, upon hearing about some of my sadness a few months back, said: “Mom, you’ve done so much for us, for so many people, if you take the next thirty years off to do whatever you want, that won’t even come close to covering it.” Both these men in my life are deep wells of grounding and tenderness in my life. I’m so very blessed by there understanding of my emotional double dipping.
To be fair, neither one of them likes it when I’m sad, but they don’t push me or aren’t upset by my sadness. I don’t feel as if they’ll topple or be hurt by my pain and grief. I trust their own steady grounding.
The thing about family is that it’s not perfect or fair. Some members are better able to be around and take care of each other than others. Some parts of my family can hold my emotional double dipping better than others. This doesn’t mean the folks who aren’t able to do that don’t have gifts for me and aren’t available in other extremely helpful and important ways. My family is a messy, complex, messed-up and deeply caring for each other family. I think probably, this is true of most families.
As, I let myself be sad today and grieve the passing and end of day to day interactions and laughter and shared toast in the morning over coffee moments with my father, I’m so grateful for all the members of my family still here for me to cherish and honor and love and be loved by.
If I were to put up all the pictures of my sisters, my many G!dchildren, my bonus brothers and sisters and all my friends and community who actually are also behind what makes me smile, this blog post would never be finished. So, to all of you, not pictured here, please know, deep in your bones that you are in my heart/mind/Lev always and enable me to double dip, to triple dip and to just be all around drippy as well as silly and whole.
Matzah Ball Mix (I use a package, and don’t make my own mix, the package version just makes better Matzah Balls than I find I can with my own mixing of plain matzah meal and other ingredients.
two to four eggs
In a large stockpot/soup pot heat the olive oil. Add the chopped onion and/or leaks and sauté for at least ten minutes, then you can add the chopped garlic and some freshly chopped turmeric and let that cook together for another five minutes or so, then you can add the carrots, turnips, celery and fennel. Sauté all of these veggies together for ten to fifteen minutes and add a bunch of the freshly chopped herbs. Then add whatever stock you are using, chicken or veggie.
This recipe requires using a good stock. If you are vegetarian or vegan, use my Roasted Root Vegetable stock, or your own version of a robust vegetable stock. If you have cooked a chicken, you always want to save the bones. If you don’t have time to deal with making stock, throw them in the freezer until you do. To make a simple easy and healthy chicken stock, put the chicken carcass and bones and whatever is left over from your cooked chicken into a large pot of water; you will be boiling this for at least an hour or two, so fill the pot to accommodate the fact that the amount will reduce. Then strain the liquid into another pot, and let cool down and refrigerate or freeze the liquid. Once the chicken bones have cooled down you can pick off all the remaining chicken and freeze this too or use in a chicken salad or add to another soup.
I use the mix, as I said earlier, but I amend it, of course. I learned this trick from my brother Paul. Add turmeric, either fresh or ground, freshly and very finely chopped dill, parsley, tarragon, oregano, etc. The turmeric makes these matzah balls a gorgeous color, plus adds yummy flavor. You have to make the matzah ball mixture ahead of time as it needs to rest in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes or more. I also add a few teaspoons of the stock I’ve made in the mix, even though the instructions on the box don’t necessarily call for that.
You also need to have a separate large pot of boiling water handy. Once your matzah ball mixture has cooled down, you will be forming the balls and dropping them into the very hot, rapidly boiling water and covering them. They need to cook in this water for at least twenty minutes or so. I then transfer them to the soup so they gather the flavors. I only do this the day I’m serving it. If you leave the Matzah Balls in the soup, they absorb the liquid and you don’t have so much soup left. If done correctly, the balls will float and be light and delicious. I hope they turn out this way for you.
I do not know how to make a vegan matzah ball, you can try using an egg replacer of some kind or as my friend Bel-Ami Margoles suggests, just make the Vegan version of this soup and have the Vegans throw in some pieces of matzah to their soup. You can get gluten-free matzah as well, so if you are gluten intolerant and vegan or any combination of these you can try that. The soup itself is delicious, whether it has a Matzah Ball in it or not.