Posts Tagged 'Children'

Listening To Survivors: Shemini and Yom HaShoa

Just about a week ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing songs. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. The death of the Egyptians seems to be a moment for silence, or at the least not a time for singing. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson of compassion. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the appropriate response for  the death of a friend or a loved one.

As a parent the voice of God admonishing the angels stings. It is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should silence, forget, or deny history for a moment the atrocities of the Holocaust. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell those stories. Sadly we are in the waning years of having survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone.

While we need to hear their stories about how they survived near death, it is even more important to learn how they lived. My friend Rav Josh Feigelson recently pointed out:

The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 73 percent of respondents said that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to being Jewish,” the highest item on a list that included “leading an ethical/moral life,” “caring about Israel,” “observing Jewish law,” and “eating traditional Jewish foods,” among others.

If we are blessed to hear their stories we need to hear their whole story. As Rav Josh pointed out we, “unwittingly brought about a Jewish self-image in which Auschwitz is not just on par with Sinai, but comes to displace it.”  We need humility and inner fortitude to hear the faint voice of Sinai. It takes a moment to learn how Jews have died, it takes a lifetime to learn how we should live.

In conclusion I want to point out the difference between what we want and what they the survivors need. We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by the presence of survivors. We are here to listen to anything they want to tell us.  We need to need to  give them that time and space to speak, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet.

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Fifty Shades of Anti-Semitism: Talking with Our Children About Purim

When my children were in Kindergarten they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. Five years ago, at the Purim Seudah, or festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim in school.  He learned that, Haman’s punishment (for attempting genocide) was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story. This year at Purim, like every other year, I will try to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman. It struck me this year that I have been acculturated to expect Haman. He is a stock character in our history. As the adage goes, “What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than you are supposed to.” I am thankful that Yadid was not taught of Haman and his sons being put to death, but I realize that in retelling the story of Purim, we have normalized anti-Semitism. From a young age Haman is not excused but he is to be expected.

I was reminded of a Sarah Silverman piece in which she corrects her niece who was astounded that 60 Million Jews died in the Holocaust. After correcting her that it is 6 million Jews, not 60 million, her niece responds “What is the difference?” There is a difference, “Because 60 million would have been unforgivable.” We make fun, but it is astounding to realize that the expectation of anti-Semitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long. As if anti-Semitism is normative, if not normal. That’s black and white.

You might argue that the hatred of Jews is a central theme of Jewish history. You would be correct. But when is it appropriate to share this with our children? Why would you want to raise your children to think that being hated is expected? Isn’t it black and white?

It is particularly scary raising Jewish children in a world in which there is a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, ISIS is on the rise, and Iran is inching closer to having weapons of mass destruction to aim at Israel. In my mind part of the problem is that we have made it normal to hate the Jews. In each story in our history, we are left trying to figure out who loves us and who hates us. It is a sort of pornographic horror- we hate it, but we just cannot pull ourselves away from it. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, the global audience enjoys watching anti-Semitism. Purim is a time of grey, not black and white.  Esther is the queen and also the object of hate. It is the time when we confuse Haman for Mordechai and blessings for curses.

The rest of the year we need to know what is good and what is evil- black and white. Hating people for their religion, racial identity, gender identity, orientation, or ethnic identity is simply wrong and there is nothing normal about it. How will our children understand the horrors of anti-Semitism without trivializing it? We need to confront evil beyond making bad people “pick up the poop.”

-reposted from the Canteen

Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.

Promises for My Gay Children: Reflections of an Orthodox Rabbi for Yom Kippur

As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.

Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.

As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.

I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”

To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):

1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.

2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.

3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.

4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.

5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha– sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.

6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children– not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.

7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi– she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.

8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu– to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.

There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.

-Reposted from the Canteen

 

Making Shabbat

In BeShalach,this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ preparation for the first Shabbat in the desert. There we read:

22 And it came to pass that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one; and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. 23 And he said to them: ‘This is that which the Lord has spoken: Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy Shabbat to the Lord. Bake that which you will bake, and see that which you will see; and all that remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.’ 24 And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses asked; and it did not rot, neither was there any worm therein. 25 And Moses said: ‘Eat that today; for today is a Shabbat to the Lord; today you shall not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day is the Shabbat, in it there shall be none.’ 27 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that there went out some of the people to gather, and they found none. ( Exodus 16: 22-27)

Usually the Manna from one day would be rotten the next, but here on Shabbat it kept from Friday to Saturday. What do we learn from this miracle inside a miracle? God made the manna, why is it a big deal that God made special Manna on Friday with preservatives?

Recently I got a e-mail from a dear college friend who shared with me the recent conversation she had with her child who is about to turn four years old.

Child: Is Israel the most beautiful part of the country?
Parent: Which country?
Child: This country.
Parent: Israel is its own country. It’s a different country in the world.
Child: Is it the most beautiful country in the world?
Parent: It is a beautiful country but there is no one most beautiful country. Lots of countries are beautiful and Israel is one of them.
Child: Does the sun shine on the holy temple and make it shine?
Parent: Where did you learn about the Holy Temple?
Child: I don’t know. I just know about it in my mind. Does the sun shine on it?
Parent: Yes.  The stones are white so when it is sunny, it looks like it is shining.
Child: Is the Holy Temple where Israel makes Shabbat?
Parent: What do you mean, “make Shabbat”?
Child: Is the holy temple where people in Israel make their Shabbat?
Parent: Well, everyone can make Shabbat wherever they live, just like we make it at our house with the Shabbat family you invite each week.
Child: Well, where is Shabbat made in our country?
Parent: Well, Shabbat doesn’t come from a factory. It’s something each family can make on their own each week.
Child: Well, where does it come from?
Parent: (growing desperate) Well, it’s like a present from God.
Child: I know!  God lives really high up.  On top of space.  He sends the astronauts to earth with Shabbat and its a gift from God.  He gives Shabbat to us and Christmas to Christians, but they don’t get Shabbat and we don’t get Christmas.
Parent: That’s right. Each religion has its own special presents and fun times.
Child: The Shabbat family are angels from God. They bring Shabbat to us each week and they live with us and I bring them into the house.  They love coming to our house.
Parent: That’s a nice way of thinking about it.
Child: Where is the guitar for Rock star Elmo?  My sister wants to know for Elmo’s band.
 Scene.
I love this story for many reasons. I often think about how much harder things can get for us as we grow older. When we are young it might have been easier to maintain a simple,but not simplistic notion of holiness. Diversity is just a given.  God is just sharing different gifts with different people. And we see how this can be a model for a child who himself wants to make sure his sibling gets her toy. And of course there is a part of this story that is relevant to our question. Shabbat is beautifully a tangible thing.  Like God made Manna, the people make Shabbat. What does it take to make Shabbat today? Does it mean having to work harder during the week to be able to take off 25 hours? But if we do, we have a Shabbat Family.  So maybe Shabbat is just a story we tell our children. And that would make a Shabbat Family a story in a story that our children tell us. Or maybe that is a miracle in a miracle.  Shabbat  is a lot of work. But, who knows? Maybe making Shabbat preserves us all week.
Shabbat Shalom

Listening for Silence

Just a few days ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing a song. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson in compassion. There seems to be moments for silence, or at the least not singing. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the response for a friend of a loved one.

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should forget or deny history for a moment. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell the story. We are in the waning years of keeping the holy company of survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone. The only things I wanted ask is what do they the survivors want? We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by their presence. We are here to listen to anything the survivors want to tell us. We need to need to  give them that time and space, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet. We can try to drown our sorrows, but never our memories.

From the Heart

The other day Yishama our 5-year-old was laying in bed with my wife and Emunah out 2-year-old. Emunah reached over and caressed his cheek. Yishama remarked to Adina :

I love it when she does that. It makes my heart hurt. You know Mami, when you heart hurts because you love someone so much.

When Adina told me this story my heart just melted. As a parent I aspire to have empathetic children.

I was thinking about it this week in the context of the story of Exodus. There we read how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. As much as I marvel at my own children learning empathy at such a young age, I am stupefied to think of a grown adult not having empathy.

There are so many issues in this world that need to be fixed. I often feel if everyone only cared a little more we could solve some of these problems. But I also realize with the sheer volume of challenges, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. To get anything done at some level we need to have focus and harden our own hearts or else we would get engulfed in the huge number of issues. As parent I hope to cultivate this empathy in my children. For myself, I think I could use a little more toughening, but not too much. Out of the mouths of babes, Yishama reminded me a precious Torah. We all need to let go and be vulnerable. Life without that hurt in the heart would be slavery.


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