Tag Archives: Jewish

Jubilee Series Number Eight: Fear, Elephants, Angels, Prayers and Things that go “BUMP” in the Night!

Despite my intrepid “fearless” nature in general, there’s something about being alone in a cabin in the woods at night. Surrounded by beauty, surrounded by quiet, surrounded by peace I still was unable to relax at night during my recent solitary birthday retreat. Every sound was something scary, I couldn’t get comfortable sleeping because I needed to face the curtained window that faced the gated entry, just in case that would give me warning when the headlights of some very wounded and crazy person showed up to murder me.

I wish it had been otherwise, but it wasn’t. I have all kinds of tools for navigating fear. I followed my tradition’s practice of the Bedtime Shema cycle, which is extraordinary and addresses all manner of difficult things that could come and attack one, including ones fears about such things. All the prayers reassure one and surround one with the Archangels and speak of the Holy One being our rescuer. They are designed to gird you for the fears and terrors of night. I spoke all of them, felt better and fell asleep for ½ an hour, until the first bird or bat or leaf stirred outside and plunked on the roof.

Basholi Ganesha circa 1730,  National Museum New Delhi
Basholi Ganesha circa 1730, National Museum New Delhi

I spent the nights in the bedroom of my friend’s cabin. They are a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Hindu and their space reflects that. Under the extraordinarily sunny golden Indian tapestry, with mirrors sewn into the pattern to ward of the evil eye, I was still afraid. On all sides of me there were deities of powerful protection. I had three Ganesha beings watching over me and a Buddhist one as well. I tried calling on them and even did a meditation where I imagined myself surrounded by beautiful elephants walking in a circle of protection around me. I just knew they would keep me safe.

I slept for an hour maybe until the next lizard outside scurried under a pile of dried leaves. I tried the Jewish prayers again, tried the meditation, tried getting up and having a cup of chamomile tea, tried turning all the lights on, tried lighting all the candles, tried reading, tried listening to my book on tape, tried listening to meditation music of water flowing, tried and tried and tried and was very tired. No restorative lengthy hours of sleep happened for me, despite all this trying (as in really working hard) TRYING!

I am not a taker of sleeping pills, but I’ll tell you what, I really wanted some and if I’d had any handy, I would have taken them for sure.

So, I napped during the day, here and there, and I kept trying for each of the four nights I spent alone to sleep more than a few hours. The first night of my retreat I had my husband with me and we were able to sleep several hours straight, until the mouse made noises like the apocalypse in the kitchen. Since my mate went and investigated and saw the mouse, he was able to return to sleep and I was as well. I was also next to him and in his arms. But, he wasn’t there the other four nights. So, I had to address my fears.

Or at least be honest about it. What does it mean when I trust the Divine and believe that my time to leave this earth is in the Holy One’s hands? If I really feel that to be true, why would I be afraid at night or ever? Fear is not rational though, it has nothing to do with what you believe or even know, it has a flow and power all its own and it is a VERY deep and core current.

Most of us, myself included, just do everything we can to avoid it. Some folks like dipping into the horror story narratives because it is just enough fear to make them feel stimulated, but then it is all pretend. Real fear, which isn’t about Hollywood zombie take-overs, is another thing entirely. Part of why I am going away on retreat is to look at my fear, so why should I be surprised when it comes to visit me? I just wanted to look at it, not be in it! Darn, it doesn’t work that way.

This territory is well-known to spiritual practitioners or all stripes. There are tools, stories, prayers, guidelines and every manner of helpful teachings to support ones navigating these waters. Clearly, I will need to call on more of them, then I had handy with me for this virgin voyage out alone.

By the final night of my stay, I was pretty sick of my own situation and determined to face this fear head on. I chose to set up a chair outside facing the valley and the front gate. I brought my loud bear horn with me and my small can of pepper spray. I wrapped myself in a shawl and was determined, not to even bother trying to sleep but to face the night and the dark. I had forgone going outside at night, too afraid the other evenings, to appreciate the wonder of stars and half-moon rising and setting. I went outside around 4:00 am, so I knew the dawn was about two hours away and this made me feel safer.

I sang some prayers, I was afraid and I cried and I looked out at the billions of stars shining light years away, who all were singing to me. I remembered that I am their kin and despite the small noises in the night, I stayed put to hear their night song and their long, long history song. I remembered that I am a tiny speck on a tiny speck in a vast Ocean on an expanding Universe journey. My life and its certain end, just are not that big a deal when you put yourself on the deck at night and face the starlight.

Stars singing
Stars singing to me and to you (also known as: ngc 2082 barred spiral galaxy constellation schwertfisch

So, that’s what I did my final night, and I was still afraid, but I managed it. I didn’t sleep, but at least I spent time enthralled by the beauty of night and wow, I survived to write about it! As this month of Elul unfolds, we face all kinds of fears, consciously, like the fear of having hurt others, the planet, and the Divine. Not facing those fears, will not make them go away, they just loom larger. I think I will have to do a lot more sitting outside in the dark before I can comfortably sleep alone in the woods, but I will do it.

Just like I will face the truth of who I am and what I do that is harmful to others, to myself, to the planet. The Jewish New Year is not just about getting a new start, it’s about fixing and aligning oneself with what is right and true. This means looking deeply and cracking open our hearts. Wednesday, September 24th, the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah will be ushered in right before the sun sets with the sounding of the ram’s horn which we call a Shofar. This sound pierces the soul and cracks through all our hardened shells (we call klippot). I invite you to be exposed and vulnerable and to let in something strange, wondrous and transformative and in doing so, I hope you find what is sweet and true in you and in all those around you. L’Shana Tova u’Metuka (To a Sweet New Year)!

~~~~~~ *Nicole unwinds, unwraps and unfurls her thoughts for you from her home in Bayside and she does so sometimes with twinges of fear, but mostly with great gobs of joy and wonder!

*Originally published in the Mad River Union on Wednesday, September 24, 2014


“In lieu of …..”

Tzedakah box (Pushke), Charleston, 1820, silver, National Museum of American Jewish History.
Tzedakah box (Pushke), Charleston, 1820, silver, National Museum of American Jewish History.

“In lieu of…,” these lines often appear in obituaries and funeral programs, encouraging people to make donations to various charitable organizations in memory of the person who has died. In the Jewish tradition, we do not want to spend money on death and prefer to give money to the living or those in need. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the ways of others. The idea being that when you donate money to an organization in the name of someone no longer on this side of life, you enable them to still be doing a mitzvah (good deed/good work). I love this idea and regularly encourage folks to give in honor of one they are missing. This makes the act of suffering into an act of offering and giving. Even small amounts, a few dollars to a homeless shelter or a kid’s soccer team, the amount is not important. What is important is the act of giving in the memory of someone. Also traditional is to give on that person’s birthday or the anniversary of some special event for you and the person who is no longer present.

This holiday season, consider giving “in lieu of” to a local non-profit organization. Instead of buying the person that already has everything a small gift, contributing instead to making someone’s life better in honor of the person they love is a great gift! I am a firm supporter of shopping locally and getting and giving gifts. I eschew large chain stores and endeavor to support all the local Arcata vendors and other smaller stores in our area; Northtown Books, The Garden Gate, and Belle Starr to name just a few. So, for the folks on your lists that need a gift or want one, by all means shop local, and get something for them. For folks who do not need another sweater, pair of earrings, or cute something or other, make a donation to a local organization in honor of them or in memory of a beloved person precious to both of you.

This idea is not mine. The rabbis I know encourage us to put money in our Tzedakah boxes whenever we have a pleasurable experience, or hear good news, or before any joyful event. A Tzedakah box is a regular feature in any Jewish home or congregation. It is where you place coins, or bills and the money is given away to others in need anonymously. You get no credit and the person receiving has no idea which particular family or people put money in. It is traditional to put some money in the box before lighting candles for Shabbat or a holiday. We teach our children about this practice and most young folks have memories of making a Tzedakah box in religious school, or of seeing their cardboard or other media creation proudly displayed on their parents’ mantles long after they’ve left home. The box is not important, but the act of regularly depositing small change or larger bills into the box is.

Tzedakah comes from the word Tzedek in Hebrew and has many meanings. It doesn’t mean charity even if it is most often translated that way. It is better translated and linked to the English word “justice.” Charity, connotes choice; when I have something left over to give I make a donation. Tzedek is an entirely different concept. We are instructed in the Torah to pursue justice all the days of our lives. The word used is Tzedek.

The injustice and imbalances in the world are ours to fix, there are no ifs, ands or buts about this, once you accept the mantle of caring for the planet and those on it.

It is my job to fill the Tzedakah box and to pursue justice, yesterday, now and tomorrow. Even our final act as Jewish folks is supposed to be holding a coin and depositing it into a Tzedakah box as we chant a prayer. Dying consciously, for those who can, depositing/offering and continuing the work of helping to create justice in this world, doesn’t have to be a practice reserved just for moments of transition. As the rabbis suggest, make a donation when you hear good news from the doctor, or when you learn of a new birth, or if you have a particularly delicious kiss or encounter…Turn your joy and your love or your sadness or loss into goodness for others this season. Elevate your giving into the world beyond as well as making this one better.

 Nicole pursues justice, gives, thinks, shops, prays and loves locally and hopes you will do the same!

Column for The Mad River Union: Published Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Life and Death Matters

Life and Death Matters

by Amanda Devons & Nicole Barchilon Frank

 And the days of Israel drew near to die, and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: If now I have found favor in thy eyes, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal with me kindly and truly; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt.” (Genesis 47:29)

The eleventh century commentator Rashi said about this passage: “The kindness which is shown to those who are dead is a true kindness (literally, a kindness of truth) for then one does not look forward to the payment of recompense.”

In 1999, around three years ago, in Eureka the Humboldt Hevra Kadisha was formed. Chevra or Hevra Kadisha means “Sacred Society.” It is more commonly translated as “Jewish Burial Society.” For more than 2000 years, as Jewish communities formed throughout the world, a Hevra Kadisha was one of the first groups to be organized in order to attend to the preparation and burial of the deceased in accordance with Jewish law. Our Humboldt Hevra Kadisha, meets regularly to discuss the work we’ve been doing, learn more about ritual, tradition, and practices, and to find out what needs we have. At our last meeting, we had in attendance both men and women. This was very gratifying because the ritual of tahara is done by men for males and by women for females.

Some of us discussed our feelings about our recent experiences doing tahara. Although it was agreed upon that this is not an easy task, physically or mentally, members of our group said it was one of the deepest spiritually meaningful things we had participated in. Responses from our group have been very positive. People feel they have “been transported to other realms,” “gone to the gates of death and found life,” “received extraordinary spiritual strength” “departed from the mundane and touched the holy!” The work deepens our understanding of life and makes us better able to truly live our lives.

It is difficult to find time in our busy lives to stop and do this work. Often, we have to be available in the middle of the afternoon. Returning to work feels very bizarre! We have also found that having some quiet meditative time together as a group before we begin is very important. Traditionally, men and women do mikva (ritual immersion in living waters), before re-entering their daily lives. Even if we can’t do everything the best way, we all know we are striving to be of service to the person who has passed away. The deceased is referred to as the met (for a man) or meta (for a woman) and by their name (Hebrew name when possible).

Some Terms and Definitions:

Shemira–watching over the body. The body is normally covered with a sheet or blanket upon death. We sit Shemira until the met has tahara and is laid to rest in a closed casket. We also sit shemira with their casket until the person is buried. This practice of maintaining a vigil so that the deceased’s body is never left alone is designed to comfort the neshama (soul) before it ascends to heaven. Selected Tehillim (psalms) are read aloud in either English or Hebrew.

Tahara—the preparation of a deceased’s body involving washing and dressing, by someone of the same gender, accompanied by prayers seeking forgiveness from the deceased and asking for eternal peace. After washing the met is dressed in a shroud of simple pure white linen or cotton, and then wrapped in a sheet called a sovev for burial.

Gemilut Hasadim—support services for the mourner and his or her family. This includes making funeral arrangements, holding a graveside service, and bringing the necessary siddurim to read prayers and shovels to cover the simple wood coffin with earth. Other services include bringing food to the house of mourning, finding a minyan (group of ten Jewish folks) to say Kaddish, and attend to the mourner who is sitting shiva. This is not the traditional purview of the Hevra Kadisha, but due to the small size of our community, we often find ourselves doing this task as well.

Chesed shel emes—the ultimate good deed, since those who perform the deed can never be repaid for their kindness. The members of the Hevra Kadisha are often called upon to serve with little or no notice, since they must spring into action promptly upon death.

Some ways you can get involved:

Even though a person may not have been active Jewishly in their life, they or their families might desire a Jewish burial. If you know anyone not affiliated, and feel comfortable discussing the matter, let them know about the beautiful practices of our tradition. Perhaps you can show them this article.

We need 100% white or off-white cotton or linen material for burial and or sheets to wrap the met in. If you have any white all-cotton sheets, please contact Nicole to donate. (We don’t actually need folks all over the internet to send us sheets!)

Because our services are often needed with very little notice, extra volunteers to help with any part of the process are very welcome, especially the Gemilut Hasadim. We have had great help from many of you.

Our Hevra Kadisha has a form that we are currently working on improving. This form looks at wishes concerning burial, funeral services, internment, memorials, etc. It is very important, within our tradition, to think about end–of–life issues. They often arrive suddenly, as we have painfully been learning of late. Communicating our wishes prior to emergencies makes everything easier for those we love and who love us. Start thinking now about what you want for yourself and those you love. We will be sending you a form to help with this process in the coming year.

~ From the Temple Beth El, Eureka California Newsletter