Archive for the 'Life Cycle' Category

Looking for a Place to Rest: A Meditation in Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting

As a Rabbi, a Jewish professional, and a father, this past week has been difficult both personally and professionally.  After a long and intense week, I am ready for a peaceful Shabbat at home. Or at least I thought I was, until a colleague asked me how I was going to talk about the events of  last Shabbat with my children. Shabbat has always been a meaningful practice for connecting as a family and with the Jewish people. Last Shabbat, however, during what should have been a peaceful celebration of the creation of the world, 11 members of the larger Jewish family were taken from us, and their worlds violently destroyed. My colleague’s inquiry raised questions in me: Will Shabbat ever feel the same for our family, and for the larger Jewish community? In the wake of what has happened, how do we find comfort in Shabbat this week and in the future? I suspect other people share the same concerns.

I realized that I needed to go back to the foundation and think about all of the aspects of what has made Shabbat meaningful to me. One idea that has comforted me this week has been singing the chorus to Yom Shabbaton, which is one of my favorite Shabbat Zemirot– songs. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075 – 1141), this poem describes the complete rest and peace of Shabbat. As we sing in the chorus:

Yonah matz’ah vo manoach v’sham yanuchu y’giei choach.

The dove does find her rest, and there rest those whose strength is spent

On one level, the dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove. Seven days after the dove was first sent from the ark to check if the flood was gone, it found rest on the dry land (Genesis 8:12). Hidden in the chaos of a world that is destructive and painful far too often, the Shabbat is a small island poking out from the vast sea of chaos. While the world still needs to be rebuilt, this small perch for the dove is the first glimmer of hope. In seeing how many Americans of every creed and color have shown up to support the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, I find hope – a safe place to land and rest before we begin the work to rebuild our broken world.  

We can also interpret the  chorus as a reference to the Jewish people, who are often symbolized by the dove. Throughout time, we have been forced to move from place to place due to cruelty, oppression,and violence at the hands of others. Like the dove, we desperately seek a place to rest. While America has always been a relatively safe haven for the Jewish people, the events of Pittsburgh this past Shabbat force us to recognize that the long history of anti-Semitism – and its existence in contemporary America – is far from over.

Throughout history, gathering to observe Shabbat has been a revolutionary act, a public affirmation of our ideals of peace, life, and community in the face of oppressors who’d deny us all three. It may seem contradictory, but in creating a weekly space to find rest despite the events in the world around us, we actively reject anti-Semitism and bigotry. By gathering together to observe Shabbat, we connect to the shared cultural history in which Jews have observed Shabbat throughout challenging and difficult times, and physically reaffirm our commitment to Jewish values.    

“Birds in Flight”, photo of stone cut from my parents’ home

In both interpretations of the chorus, Shabbat manifests not only as a weekly time, but as a sacred space as well. Shabbat is not just an aspiration, but a destination. All I can do – and all any of us can do – is fill the space of Shabbat with love, peace, and hope for my nuclear family, my larger Jewish family, and the world. My plan for this Shabbat is to hug my children a little tighter, invite others to join us in this holy space, and share this song of hope with the world.

-cross-posted FJC blog

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Yadid’s Upshurin

When our son Yadid approached the age of three, I began to think about the Jewish tradition of upshurin, when a boy’s hair is cut for the first time on his third birthday. I grew up in a family where this was not practiced. But in my own home, where an Orthodox rabbi (me) and a Reform cantor (my wife, Adina H. Frydman) are raising children in a loving Jewish mélange, it started to look like a potentially amazing and meaningful ritual.

Research into the halakhic roots of the tradition got me even more interested. I discovered the links between upshurin and the agricultural laws of orla, which forbids harvesting from a fruit tree within its first three years, and pe’a, which requires a farmer to leave a corner of his field aside for the poor. Parallel to this, a boy’s hair is left uncut for the same period of time (three years), and when it is cut we are required to leave pe’ot, corners (side locks). At three years of age, like a fruit tree, a Jewish boy is considered to have reached a landmark. With diapers out of the way, and with his consciousness developing, he is considered ready for learning, wearing tzitzit, and his first haircut.

But I felt that interest alone in the custom was not a good enough reason for us to perform it. Would we even consider this if we had a daughter? But then we began to think about how we could make the upshurin into a full-blown mitzvah that we would want to perform for our children regardless of gender. For us, mitzvot are not just doing what is right or not doing what is wrong according to some other worldly law. Our ideal is to model commitments that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish.

That is how we got the idea to have Yadid wait past his third birthday to get his hair cut. Yadid was going to wait until his hair was long enough to donate. Instead of a strange tradition performed by rote, it would become a religious experience of giving.

I am not sure if he understood at first. But at that  time he was undergoing a shift from mere repeater to becoming an understanding being and Yadid began to develop a language of altruism. At the party we finally had for him when he was three and a half, his grandmother gave him a tzedaka box, which he began to fill. I asked him why, and he said that when he had hair he gave it to someone who needed it, likewise when he had money he would give it someone in need.

If I have to put my finger on what raising children as Jews means for us, it is this. The community, its history and laws are not just a backdrop to the bedlam of parenting.  In this case, they provided a way of getting Yadid to think, before he was even aware he was doing so, about what it means to live a halakhic moral existence. We look forward to repeating this ritual with his brother Yishama and his sister Emunah. Our upshurin has provided us with a platform for a discussion with a three-year-old about what it means to be a mentsh.


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