Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Sunday, November 17, 2013


My dad brought me up to believe in The Who.  Sure, there was some talk of God in our home, but deification seemed to be reserved for Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and their crew. Quadrophenia was the ancient music of our ancestors.

A crash course in Quadrophenia – it’s a rock opera about a boy named Jimmy who’s
having, to put it mildly, a really hard time. At a certain point, he hits bottom and sings the epic song: “Love, Reign O’er Me.” A lot of things make the song distinctive, but its really unique because it begins with the sound of rain and thunder. Pete Townshend was a believer in the guru Meher Baba who taught that God lived in the rain and the thunder.

In fact, Pete Townshend said the following of God’s connection to Quadrophenia and “Love, Reign O’er Me”: “Quadrophenia is music, it's angry music, it never lets up, it's full of energy. But it's also simply a story of a kid who has a bad day. It rains and he goes and sits on a rock. And he contemplates the future and the present, and he decides to do something that he's never done before - he prays.”

Jimmy (or rather, Roger Daltrey) sings the lyrics:

Only love can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky
Only love can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high

Love, reign o’er me!

What does it mean for God’s love to pour over us, or at least to be coming our way at all? Love is a human attribute…an attribute we very often assign to God. This can be acceptable to you or not, depending on what sort of God concept you believe in. It is easier to say “God loves you” if you believe in a single, definable entity you call God. It becomes much harder if you have a different sort of notion: that God is a unifying force, or a process that’s driving in our world. How can a process “love”?

We can begin investigating “God’s love” with mystical thought. The medieval kabbalists believed that God's self could not be understood, but that God has revealed attributes that interact with each other and the world. One of these 10 attributes is hesed, usually translated as “lovingkindness,” an English word that in it’s own right needs a translation. The kabbalists say that hesed, lovingkindness, represents the generous, benevolent side of God, the quality of unconditional Divine Love. Hesed is often translated in the mystical context as "love," "compassion," or "grace."

Rabbi Bradley Artson, the dean of the rabbinical school at American Jewish University, draws on these ideas of benevolent generosity.  Drawing from the ideas of Martin Buber, reminds us that love, even between people, is covenantal, meaning it is a two-way street. He says,

“Covenantal love, we are told, nurtures understanding and generosity; seeing the best in your lover; seeing the best in your children; in your community; in humanity; in the world; and then with similar generosity, sharing in their struggles; sharing in their efforts…Chesed is the integration of values and emotions with deeds…There is so much bounty manifest in this world, a harvest which we did nothing to deserve. We were simply born into a world that was prepared across the millennia for our arrival. Our task in the world is to savor the bounty, to delight in it, to steward it and to help each other to do the same.”

Artson points to a crucial aspect of hesed – love is not just a feeling; it’s an action. Perhaps it is the same with God. Not is not a “thing,” God is an action. As love is a process, God is a process. Maybe it’s not that God loves, but that God is love. God is within the love we
manifest human to human. God is in our actions of generosity and compassion.

So then, if we keep with the platitude, “God loves you,” perhaps God “loves” differently than we “love.” I manifest my love to my daughter by taking care of her daily needs. I change her diaper, I feed her, I hug her, kiss her goodnight. We say God takes care of our daily needs, but not in the same way. God doesn’t feed me, but God certainly exists in the processes that make the plants grow, enables the workers who make my food, etc. God loves through us. God loves Noah because I love Noah. God loves our religious school kids because we as a community love them. God loves you because this community loves you and, hopefully, most importantly, you love it back.

But there’s one more piece to the hesed puzzle. There’s also an overwhelming aspect of “generosity” to the word hesed.

Alan Morinis, the founding director of the Mussar Institute shares: “Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a master of Mussar, pointed to the close correlation between love and acts of generosity and asked, “Do we give to the people we love, or do we love the people to whom we give?” His answer: “We usually think it is love which causes giving, because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the person he loves. But there is another side to the argument….A person comes to love the one to whom he gives.” To foster love, he taught, be generous: extend what you have in your hands and in your heart toward other human beings. Love will grow along the lines of your giving. Dessler says: “That which a person gives to another is never lost. It is an extension of his own being.”

What a nice way to look at things as we head into the Hanukkah season, a time when we will give material things. Of course we give to the people we love…but a wonderful challenge is how we can come to love others by giving to them first. Morinis adds: “The linguistic root of ahava, the Hebrew word for love, literally means “to offer” or “to give.” The act of giving bridges the gap between souls and initiates the process of soul-merger that is the very definition of love.” Those boxes out in the hall for “The Gift of Hanukkah” and “Toys for Tots” are not full of presents, they are full of love.

And so in this way, shifting our language may help us to understand God and “God’s love.” Rather than God gives (which conjures up images of a Divine hand outstretched towards humans, delivering things out of nothing), God is giving. God is loving. God doesn’t necessarily love you with a big bear hug, but God is loving you by cradling you in community. Love is a manifestation of God, rather than something God does.

A midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 33:3):

There was a drought in the time of R. Tanchuma. Tanchuma declared a fast in order to ask for rain. Three days went by, no rain. He then entered the synagogue to preached to them: “Be good to one another, give tzedekah to the poor, and then God will be filled with compassion for you.” As they were distributing tzedekah, R. Tanchuma’s students saw a man giving money to a woman he had no business talking to. “Why would you give to that woman?” Tanchuma asked. The man replied, “I saw she was in trouble and I was filled with mercy for her.” Tanchuma then turned his face to the sky and exclaimed, “Ruler of the Universe! This man saw this woman in distress and was filled with mercy for her – even though he owed her nothing. As we are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the moreso you should have compassion on us!” Immediately the rain descended and the world enjoyed relief.

A more anthropomorphic God, sure. Yet, we’d be shortsighted to only see the love in this story as the love God bestows on the community through rain. The love the rained down in this midrash is also found in the bonds of human to human. The giving from one to another is the love, and that love is God. May we find that love in our own community, our own relationships, in our lives. Ken yhi ratzon.


Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” other than the rain and thunder, is the way that Roger Daltrey sang it with a shriek in his voice. Apparently, Pete Townshend intended the song be sung quietly, while Daltrey interpreted it as a scream. Same prayer, different feeling. So it is with love. Sometimes love is passionate, sometimes it is quiet. Sometimes ostentatious, sometimes private. And God too. Sometimes we feel God close, or loud. Sometimes God feels hidden. God’s still there, may we just remain open to that. Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Wholly Beautiful: What We Say to Girls

Sarah is a kindergartener here at Woodlands. She’s great: energetic, curious, and loving. She’s got the face of a kindergartener: bright eyes and big, enthusiastic smile. I was thrilled when she and her dad came in to see me this summer.

When they walked into the office, Sarah was, as usual, beaming. She had the look of a kid who had been playing outside for the last few weeks – she even had a bright pink cast on her right wrist to prove it. Despite the cumbersome cast, though, she was carrying a pile of no less than 5 books, clearly from the public library. She had on her usual mismatched outfit of different patterns and colors, including some bright pink sparkly shoes.

They walked into the office. “Look at your SHOES!” I exclaimed with glee.
She beamed back and modeled them a bit, pointing her toes and clicking her heals.

And in that moment, I disappointingly thought to myself, “I did it again.”

Because while it was a great moment of connection, and Sara had no problem showing off her kicks, I wish I had chosen to comment on something other than her clothes. I could have inquired about the stack of books in her arms, or even the story behind the cast on her wrist…but instead, her shoes.

It’s a small thing, I know. And, really, truly, I think pink glittery shoes are awesome. I do! But I want to do better.

I want us all to do better when it comes to how we speak to young women. For sure there have been hundreds of sermons on the topic of how the media affects a girl’s impression of her body and of her self-worth, or how our tradition encourages us to care for our mental and physical wellness. But what I want to draw your attention to is something much more discreet, much more subtle, much more subconscious – the little things we say to females every day that have more of an impact than we think. It’s the comments we make about what a girl is wearing, or comments like, “look how much weight you lost!” Or it’s simply commenting more frequently on how pretty she is, rather than how smart she is. Subtle changes in the comments we make could make a world of difference in building a better future for our girls.

Now, I acknowledge that this is something that affects both genders. Young boys and men are just as subject to chatter about their bodies and style choices. We make judgments everyday about a boy’s masculinity and therefore his toughness and his worth. But today I will focus specifically on girls, because I do believe that the attack on them – through comments on their physical appearance - has taken a bigger toll in a quantifiable way.

For example, in 2004, adolescent females (ages 12-17) were more likely than adolescent males to report getting treatment for mental health problems – with close to 24% of the female population seeking help[1]. Girls were also were more likely than boys to engage in disordered eating with 6% of females reporting vomiting or using laxatives to control weight compared to just 3% of males.[2]

What’s driving these statistics? Our society is notoriously obsessed with a person’s body and their looks. But there are a number of reasons why girls might report more difficulty maintaining their mental health and self-esteem in such a society. According to the US Department of Education, girls physically mature about two years earlier than boys. As a result, girls have to deal with issues of how they look, their popularity and their sexuality before they are emotionally mature enough to do so.[3] Studies show that self-esteem in girls peaks at the age of nine, then, for many, begins to plummet.[4] It plummets so much that by the age of 15, girls are twice as likely than boys to become depressed.[5] Our emphasis on sex, beauty, and overall desirability hits girls harder than boys and it is hitting them hard.

This incredible pressure to look and act a certain way at an early age causes depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and a general sense of low-self worth. We exert this pressure every day in even the littlest ways, most often subconsciously and unintentionally. But in a time when the news and media are buzzing with messages to “lean in,” and that girls have more opportunities and choices today than ever before, we have to take a good, hard look at ourselves and challenge ourselves to do better in regards to the subtle messages we are sending.

Because too often we think this is not something we are guilty of. We cringe when we hear reports of women in religious countries who are beaten for showing too much skin from under a veil. We feel shame when we hear of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men throwing rocks and spitting at schoolgirls who are walking to school in uniforms – calling them prostitutes and other slurs. We distance ourselves from these groups and claim them radical. But we should not dare to think that we are not throwing stones and slurs ourselves. Lest we think we are different, consider that we too are throwing rocks at young women when we:

- Give a girl a hard time for needing a bigger dress size (I have actually heard this conversation in the Marshall’s dressing room –  shame placed on a girl for growing and assurances that the little girl can and should do something about it),

- We too throw rocks when we make more mention of the outfits our girls wear up to the bimah, rather than the fact that they are up there at all,

- We throw rocks when we comment on a young person’s weight – even positively! Indeed, studies have shown that appearance compliments – positive comments about a person’s body – can lead to higher body surveillance and body dissatisfaction.[6] When you think the message you are sending is “good for you for losing the weight,” it likely be received as: “keep it up…you’re better because you’re smaller.”

- And indeed, we are throwing rocks at young women when we ourselves talk openly about how dissatisfied we are with our own bodies.

This last rock, this last thing we are guilty of, is the one we can start with. Experts call it “fat talk,” and most of us, men and women, are guilty of it. New York Times contributor Jan Hoffman reports that “fat talk” is so endemic in our society (93% of women admit to engaging in it!) because we find it empathetic and a way to build relationships. Fat talk, according to Hoffman, often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about it.[7] Hoffman offers an example:

“First friend: “I can’t believe I ate that brownie. I am so fat!”

Second friend: “You must be joking — you are so not fat. Just look at my thighs.”

The second friend’s reply, an “empathetic” self-deprecating retort to maintain the friendship on equal standing, includes reflexive praise of the first friend’s body, supposedly feeding the first friend’s hungry cry for affirmation...But to do so, the second friend has eviscerated herself, a toxic tear-down by comparison.”

We are slowly tearing ourselves down.

This happens between friends, and very often, between mother and daughter. As the Girl Scout Research Institute reports: “A daughter's dissatisfaction with her weight is greater if her mother is also dissatisfied with her own weight, in spite of how much a daughter actually weighs.”[8]

This statistic is what makes me most scared, now as the mother of a young girl. I try to take account of what I say around her to try to establish better patterns for when she can actually understand. But in doing it for her, I realized, I need to be doing it for me. I, you, we, deserve to speak better to ourselves. The toxic tear-down and the comparing benefits no one.

Folks, this isn’t about young girls, young boys, or teenagers of either gender – this is about us and how we treat our minds and bodies. This is about the way we choose to view ourselves, and therefore others. Best selling writer Geneen Roth offers,

“The most difficult part of teaching people to respect and listen to their bodies is overcoming their conviction that there is nothing to respect.  They can't find any place in them that is whole or intact. . . . The possibility that there is a place in them, in everyone, that is unbroken, that has never gained a pound, never been hungry, never been wounded, seems like a myth. . . But then I ask them about babies.  I ask them to remember their own children and how they came into the world already gorgeous and utterly deserving of love.  They nod their heads.  They realize that brokenness is learned, not innate, and that their work is to find their way back to what is already whole.[9]

The rabbis teach that after Moses broke the ten commandments, he rose up Sinai to receive a new set. The day he came down with the new set was this day: Yom Kippur. The Israelites placed the broken set of tablets in the ark with the new set.  They laid them together in order to remind the people that despite the brokenness and imperfection we feel, we must always strive toward the goal of wholeness - the way we were supposed to be before we let others drive us to angrily smash our self-image.

Indeed, our Torah portion this morning will declare that “It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30).

This is our responsibility and it is not beyond us to achieve. We have the words here in our hearts and in our mouths.  In order to help the girls in our community live fuller, more positive lives, we must start with helping ourselves. We have to love ourselves and our bodies first.  We have to take “fat talk” out of our vocabulary and believe that even if we don’t look exactly the way we want to, we are still deserving of happiness and love.

We have to start reading new cues. Instead of commenting on the sparkly pink shoes Sarah wears, I need to comment on the stack of books. I should ask her which one is her favorite. I should celebrate her mind, not what she puts on her body. This morning I pledge to try to do better and I hope you will too. On this day when we purposefully fast - as you feel the hunger pains and the rumble in your stomach - understand that others inflict this on themselves daily and that the pain is not only physical, but spiritual as well. Our changed comments may be small, but their impact over time can be tremendous.

I found a favorite book to read to Noah. It’s called The Paper Bag Princess.  There’s a beautiful young princess named Elizabeth who’s set to marry the young prince Ronald.  Unfortunately, a dragon comes and destroys her castle, burns all her clothes, and takes Ronald away. Elizabeth is left covered in ashes, with nothing but a paper bag to wear.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth begins a quest to get her future husband back. Sure enough, Elizabeth uses her wits and outsmarts the dragon.  As she opens the door to free Ronald, he says, “Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”

“Ronald,” says Elizabeth, “your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”

And the book ends: They didn’t get married after all.

End of story. The last picture is one of Elizabeth dancing toward the sunrise.
This is the message we should be teaching our young women. No, on second thought, it’s not a lesson we owe them, it’s an apology. We have to do teshuvah. We should say, “I’m sorry I get so fixated on how you look and what you weigh. Through the ashes of societal pressure and the paper bag clothes of the latest trends, through all that, you are smart, you are resilient and you are courageous.”

While Rabbi Billy was on sabbatical, I had the great fortune of officiating at the b’nai mitzvah services. At the end of the service, I would stand with the child in front of the ark, and offer a blessing, taking care to specialize it to the young man or woman in front of me. Through the weeks, I discovered that (subconsciously) a theme arose. I found myself saying, “Be kind to yourself. Nurture yourself – honoring all those beautiful traits inside of you. Only when you do that, can you go out into this great big world and make a difference.  Make the difference with you first.”

It took me weeks to discover the pattern and even more time to figure out why it quietly entered my blessings.  I found that as much as I was talking to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I was talking to myself.  A young woman of 13 who needed to know that her curly hair was beautiful; that her changing body was something to be cared for and treasured.

We all need to speak to that 13 year old inside of ourselves – the one who started to internalize all the negative press and all the comments, either good or bad, that people make. Lay a whole set of tablets alongside your broken ones and find the power already in your own heart so that it may manifest through your lips – creating a world of positive speech and of love. 
Ken yhi ratzon.

Closing Words

This morning we chanted Isaiah’s hopeful words:
9  If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday…
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Will you be the yoke that hangs heavy on the self-esteem of our young people or will you speak words of nourishment, becoming the repairer of the breach? We have the potential to rebuild the ruins and raise up a foundation for the next generation – if only we would join our voices in words of strength. This Yom Kippur day, let us stop pointing the finger at others and at ourselves. It is the day of God’s judgment, not ours. What a relief.

G’mar hatima tova, may we and our children be inscribed in the Book of Life.

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2005
[2], Child and Youth Indicators Databank: Disordered Eating—Symptoms of Bulimia, 2006
[8] The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006))
[9] Geneen Roth, Women Food and God (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2010), 64-65.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

40 Years Later (MLK Shabbat)

Picture: an individual comes before the highest leader in the most powerful nation in the world.  The individual is hesitant but knows what they must do.  The law is wrong; it must be changed.  There have been many appeals, many of which were met favorably only to be overturned.  Now standing again before the supreme power, everything is on the line.  With one favorable decree, this individual and all those like them, could live according to their own laws and their own sense of dignity.  The individual has worked hard to get here, and after repeated struggles, he demands one more time: “let my people go.”

This week’s Torah portion recounts the last of the ten plagues: the ten wonders God displays in order to change the official status of the Israelites. Moses acts like the legal counsel, approaching the bench of a hostile government numerous times, advocating for a righteous decree.  After years of being whipped to build bricks and living in poverty, it is time for the Israelites to repossess control of their bodies and their lives.

Yet, in telling the story, we tend to rush past those moments when Moses comes before Pharaoh and demands safe passage for the Israelites.  We take it for granted that at least ten times Moses had to insist his way into Pharaoh’s palace chamber to stand there surrounded by armed guards and disapproving eyes…all to advocate on behalf of his people.  After how many refusals would you have turned back?  After how many refusals would you just have accepted the status quo?

Moses is the archetype of a process that still goes on today: protesting to the highest authorities to speak to our highest morals. He teaches that we must keep stepping forward, even when we encounter setbacks. This is often what we encounter when we seek change through the political process.

MLK experienced it in his era – appropriately being dubbed a “modern day Moses.” The world saw Moses cry “let my people go” when King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his “I Have a Dream speech.” His choice of venue was an demand to the government, it connected him to the century of appeals made to the highest courts and representatives – all the way back to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. He too was demanding: let my people go.  Let them go forward into a better society, girded with all the tools they need to succeed.  Let them be the agents of their own destiny.

Ultimately, MLK, like Moses, understood the power of the political process.  In a collection of sermons, King shared this thought: “Let us never succumb to the temptation of believing that legislation and judicial decrees play only a minor role in solving this problem. Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

This sentiment is highly applicable to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Now, in regards to reproductive rights, we cannot put words in King’s mouth.  I don’t know how he stood on abortion.  What we do know, though, is that he supported family planning, stating as much when he accepted an award from Planned Parenthood in 1966.

Yet regardless of where King stood, his words, “Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless,” resonate.

We forget what the landscape was like for women prior to 1973.  Single women who became pregnant were fired from their jobs.  They were sent away, out of sight, to maternity homes for unwed mothers.  Married women who became pregnant were forced to carry their pregnancies to term even if they could not afford to feed that child, or if the mother was sick, or even if the fetus would never be able to live outside the womb because it had not developed the necessary organs.

The way women were treated was heartless.  They had no choice in their fate.  There was no trust that they could think and feel enough to make decisions for themselves.

40 years ago, Roe v. Wade changed that.

The historic decision codified what we know, what we have known for a long time: choice is the backbone of freedom.  When you’re free, it means that you determine your destiny.  You are the keeper of the keys.

This concept of choice stands at the center of Judaism.  When Moses demands the Israelites be let out of Egyptian slavery, it is ultimately so that they may trek towards Sinai and willingly, freely, choose a better life through receiving the Torah. Even today, the Reform movement thrives on the concept of choice and creating personal meaning.

Because what is slavery? The tyrannical seizure of a person’s body and life choices. Freedom is being released into a world where one can develop their own moral compass and make decisions for him/herself.

Unfortunately, maintaining this freedom is an ongoing struggle. Just as Pharaoh would offer freedom and then revoke it, in the 40 years after Roe v. Wade, individuals and groups have tried to take back a woman’s right to choose. 40 years later, women are being forced to listen to fetal heartbeats, to pay out of pocket for simple health care screenings, and, in the most blatant seizure of her body, forced to invasive transvaginal ultrasounds.

Yet we should not be discouraged.  Like Moses, like Martin Luther King, we can continue to step forward in the name of justice.  We can be on the front lines.  We can be diligent in making sure that women, minorities, and all others are afforded the freedom that our ancestors eventually won.  We may feel like we’re standing before the Red Sea and that the challenge is insurmountable, but if we dive in, the seas of change might just part.