Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 24, 2021

The End of 2021 and of Certainty

2021 started with isolation and insurrection. Yet we dared to hope when Amanda Gorman climbed the steps of the Capitol and in an affront to the pandemic, the terrorists and cynicsm, declared: “And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

And we clung to her every word. When she had finished, I thought, “we have surely been through the worst of it. Next winter will not be like this.”

And here we are, still eclipsed in the “never-ending shade” of loss, fear and division. Of course, first and foremost on our minds this evening: the pandemic. And then on top of that, even with a change of administration, our nation is still searching for its soul. Reproductive rights are being held hostage by the highest court in the nation. Misinformation swells and a culture obsessed with ME cannot fathom the WE enough to work united toward the public health. Citizens are overworked and depressed. Worldwide, refugees team at war-torn borders and natural disasters remind us that the planet is suffering along with its inhabitants.

I will not diminish the dread that permeates the air right now, God knows I’m feeling it potantly. But then I remind myself: because of the diligent work of scientists, medical personnel and heroic volunteers, my whole family is now vaccinated and unlikely to die from COVID. And then I start to look outside of the pandemic and realize we have moved forward more than it first appears. Gorman’s words from Jan 20th ring clear: I can be optimistic about “our nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” 

As I open my eyes wider, I see the hammers and nails of our cultural carpentry; the demolition of the unstable institutions and the sounder renovation still in progress.

This winter, we sit in this empty and unfinished room, darkened by relentless obstacles. But despite those obstructions, there has in fact been forward progress in 2021. When we call it to mind, it is as if we light the candle of hope and its shine scatters the shadows. They are pockets of light in a heavy darkness, but beacons of belief nonetheless.

For example, the American justice system, operating against its instincts, delivered justice in two high profile cases. Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in broad daylight. The three men who participated in the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted. As Charles Blow wrote for the New York Times: “[the convictions are like] a shooting star that streaks across the night sky, that disrupts the darkness, [and] is worthy of being noticed and appreciated. It doesn’t alter the night. It doesn’t convert it into day.” He’s right. We cannot see these convictions as evidence that racism is dead, but I pray that these miracles of progessive light will one day become a meteor shower and a sustained brightening.

I think also of #Metoo and how it rages on, engulfing the patriarchy and abusers in its avenging rage. Abusers are still being toppled. Workplaces are paying attention to power distribution and the abuses it perpetuates. These same workplaces are changing their cultures altogether as “The Great Resignation” forces us to invest in the happiness of our workers and DEI - Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - has now become part of our vocabulary and a common goal.

And who is leading the way in these arenas? Kudos to us adults for changing our deeply embedded ways, but the real trailblazers are Gen Z and their successors, Gen Alpha. If you’re looking for light, just find their brightly dyed hair and revolutionary spirit. 

I wish you all could experience our young people today the way we do. Abby, Avital, Lance and I often talk about how extraordinary they are. Let me present to you a case study: our current 7th grade.

The 7th grade is working on the Mitzvah Challenge, where the kids do a deep dive into subjects they care about and develop meaningful, sustainable action in those areas. What did today’s 13 year olds choose? Sexual assault, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental degradation, animal abuse, and women's rights. I can’t imagine my 13 year old self understanding half of that.

Then follow me to 7th Grade Family Torah study, where I don’t allow the kids to refer to God as “He.” Usually they correct themselves to use God’s name, abandoning pronouns altogether. But this year, without any prompting, when I called out the use of “He,” the kids corrected themselves, calling God by the pronoun “they.” Calling God by the singular pronoun “they” is pretty authentic to Jewish thought: God’s name Elohim is pretty nonbinary and uses the plural form to refer to a singular being. But this generation is the first to embrace what that means in full force - integrating they/them pronouns into their everyday speech and allowing for fluid and evolving approaches to gender. They do this in the name of authentic expression of self and, from pronouns to fashion to advocacy, are preaching openness and acceptance which leads to healthier, happier humans. 

Sure, I have my moments of Millenial curmudgeonliness, but when I look at our teens, our Kesher kids, and my own children, I’m amazed and excited about where they are leading us.

Which brings us back to Amanda Gorman, the most recent voice of this generation. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, she declared: “So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”

The toll of 2021 is not to be underestimated: our mental health, our physical health, the health of our nation, are all ailing. But we have survived 100% of our worst days. How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? Us…resilient, hopeful, downright stubborn humans who believe in the creative powers God instilled within us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we yet again meet Shifra and Puah - two of my favorite Torah characters. When Pharaoh tells them to kill every baby boy born to an Israelite woman, the women righteously rebel, telling Pharaoh that the Israelite women are “chayot” - vigorous, strong and full of life, delivering the babies before the midwives even arrive.

Like Shifra and Puah, we will stand resolute in front of a year that sought to take us down. Like the Israelite women, we will give birth to 2022 in defiance of all that has been decried against us…and as we hear the cries of the next generation penetrate the darkness, we will know that a brighter future lays before us.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Gathered to his People

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear Jacob’s final blessing to his sons and watch him die, again. “I am about to be gathered to my kin,” he says. “Bury me with my fathers in the cave at Machpelah, in the land of Canaan, where my grandfather Abraham and my grandmother Sarah were buried; where my father Isaac and my mother Rebekah were buried; where I buried my wife Leah.” And then, Torah says, after he finished his instructions, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, was gathered to his people.

Why must we witness Jacob’s death every year? Especially when we, over the course of our lifetimes, will witness the death of our loved ones and already know intimately the lessons of loss and grieving?

I believe there are two important details in Jacob’s death scene that help us not only observe but help us to make sense of a loved one’s passing.

The first is how Jacob “drew his feet into the bed” and then exhaled his last breath. Biblical scholars read this simply as an idiom for “he died.” The sages, on the other end of the spectrum, read it quite literally - that his feet were actually dangling off the bed and he drew them up, lay down and died.

While “drawing up the feet” is not unique to Jacob, I feel like it resonates deeply for him. Afterall, he is the man whose name means “heel” and who journeyed great distances both physically and spiritually throughout his life. 

And while Jacob speaks a lot in the Torah portion, poetically blessing each son, he doesn’t reflect as much on his own life’s journey. We are the ones who assume his emotional transformations. He’s a deeply flawed character who changes over the course of his life, but we never really know what sense he made of it.

If Jacob were to do a life review, I imagine it would it read like this:

“It began with a foot. A heel, actually. The midwives told me that as my brother was born, my mother tried to step off the birthing blocks, to take a breath, maybe two, before starting to birth me. But, I gave her no respite. Holding onto my brother’s heel, I was born in the same laborious heave and belabored breath.

I spent my childhood under my mother’s heels, pulling at her hem, tripping her toes as she stirred the stew, poured the tea and watered the camels. As I grew, I kept my heels beneath me, squatting in a corner of her tent, taking up the mending, threshing the wheat and crushing it on the grindstone.

While dusty, my heels were as smooth as the day of my birth. They had only pitter-pattered about the camp. The strong sandals were made and presented to my brother, who braved the wild and captured my father’s heart.

I nervously curled my toes the day I offered the lentils for his birthright, afraid he’d realize the trick and strike me. The day I took his blessing, I was bolder. I stomped my heels as heavy as I could to pantomime his heft. But I had gone too far. When I fled the camp, my feet bled. The wilderness was thorny and the brush scraped the virgin skin. The night I slept and saw the ladder - you’d have thought I’d try to climb it - but my feet throbbed so much and I couldn’t rise to reach the first rung.

Those same heels, bloody and bruised, carried me to Haran where I met my future. In the seven, then fourteen years where I labored for my wives, calluses grew - thick and strong and unfeeling. The years hardened them: from confronting my brother, to the rape of my daugther…the loss of my wife, the staged death of my son, the famine that left us hungry every night… I lost my name and gained a new one - no longer defined by my heels, but by the struggle of a calloused heart.

My sons carried me to Egypt - my feet could not bear the weight anymore. Upon seeing Joseph, I stood on my heels one last time to kiss him before taking to bed. The night I blessed my sons, one by one, I dangled my feet over the side of the chaise. Then, like a young lad again curled beside my mother, I drew my heels to my chest, released my woes and slept.”

It seems to me that for Jacob to draw his feet to the bed is to come full circle - like a fetus in the womb, a child curled up asleep. I imagine it was a return to a purer, more innocent state after a lifetime of hardship and transformation. A hard life, but a meaningful one.

Perhaps it’s so for all of us. Whereas once our feet carried us on our life’s journey, our use of them represents our development as individuals…at the end we take leave of them. Jacob, more than any of our ancestors, represents the struggle life brings us. He is rewarded with a peaceful end, where he says what he needs to say, bids farewell to his loved ones, and goes to his eternal slumber. He dies knowing that his tumultuous life was full of meaning and that his legacy lives on safely in the next generation. May we all have such peace at such a ripe old age.

But we know the reality. We know that for some there is no peace, and for some it is not a ripe old age. How do we live with the fact that we suffer or die too early or leave this earth having not made our peace?

Here again, Jacob’s death scene speaks to us. Genesis tells us he was “gathered to his people.” Yes, another idiom for death, says biblical scholars. Archaeologists will tell you it’s quite literal: ancient people's bones were placed in family ossuaries and tombs.

And yet, what a powerful way to put it.

Judaism has a poorly defined sense of what happens after we die. The official Jewish stance seems to be, “we have no clue, so we’ll just take some guesses.” It’s similar to the way we define God - it’s something so big and mysterious that we try to capture just one side of it, like concentrating on one facet of a diamond at a time.

When Jacob is “gathered to his people,” it implies a sort of reunion - of souls finding one another in the great-mystery-after-life. Do we join others in the afterlife? Well, sometimes we might not want to overthink it: it can be very comforting to think that we may be reunited with our loved ones in some way, somewhere, after we die.

There’s also a very physical way we Jews manifest this, that, in my mind, is one of the most powerful things we do as a temple community.

Many synagogues, Woodlands included, make bulk purchases of cemetery plots at nearby cemeteries. Woodlands has about 3 sections of plots at Sharon Gardens Cemetery in Valhalla. We do this, first and foremost, because Jews, for centuries, have been taking care of our dead - making sure they are buried in a dignified manner by compassionate, loving hands. Also, we help families in their most dire moment of need. If a loved one dies and they haven’t pre-purchased a plot somewhere, Bob Apter, a member of Woodlands, is always on call. He helps our families acquire a plot in the Woodlands section - making a stressful situation that much more manageable. What Bob does is nothing short of a mitzvah. Thank you, Bob.

But what’s most powerful about this Woodlands section is actually visiting it. I do this, as you can imagine, quite a lot.

A few weeks ago, I was officiating a funeral for a long-time Woodlands member. We rolled up to Sharon Gardens and processed to the gravesite. As the officiant, I’m the first to park and approach the grave. As I walked over, I saw familiar names - Woodlands members, their family and loved ones - the names greeting me like seeing old friends. As I found my place, I looked down. There was the name of a congregant who died many years ago, who I was so, so fond of. Instinctually, I picked up a nearby stone and placed it on the grave. I got a little choked up and I smiled. Then I began the service.

If you want to understand the power of community, just attend a funeral in the Woodlands section of Sharon Gardens. The stones stood proud, like witnesses.  It was as if the community had assembled, present AND past. The living, there to say goodbye to a friend, and the dead there to welcome the latest one to be gathered to her people.

This Shabbat, we must yet again remember that community is formed not just when we walk through the doors of our synagogue. It is in the sacred kinship we have to our ancestors and the familial connection we have by their account. It is what leads us towards righteousness, it is what will hold us up when the world feels bleak.