Thursday, October 20, 2011


I run two miles in 20 minutes from 5:45 to 6:05 am.  That's what I do, on a treadmill in front of the early morning news, so in my mind that's what I can do.

But earlier this month, I ran about four miles miles in 45 minutes, on a country road in the north hills of Wisconsin. It was an opportunity to spend time with colleagues and enjoy clear, brisk air and extraordinary autumn colors.

I was quickly back to my 20-minute run.  Now I know: it's not about what I can do, but about time and circumstance.  On a typical day, twenty minutes is all I'm giving up to running.

I thrive on schedules and like them full.  Holding to them matters to me.  My day goes by more quickly, I feel more accomplished, and I know what to expect.  With a clear view of my agenda and the strategic goals  underlying it, I also adjust more nimbly to changes and interruptions.

But a changing perception of time has crept into my experience.

When my father died on August 20, time changed.

First, there was that day, a Saturday.  Before the call I'd bought groceries and had my nails done, which took about two hours combined and felt like two hours--the passage of time was identifiable and quantifiable.  After the call, moments both merged and stood still; time collapsed and expanded.  All at once.  It seemed then chaotic and confusing and yet in crystalline relief, and it's how I recall it now.  However illogical this sounds, it holds logic for that day.

That time had changed first entered my consciousness that evening, when I reentered the room in which I'd received the call hours before.  I saw my shoes on the floor, my full glass of iced tea on the table, my book open on the sofa, border markers of the Dina who had been there earlier and been lifted out of the scene into another time.  After.  At first I could not fathom how those items had arrived where they lay.  Before seemed too distant for its artifacts to persist.

Sunday and Monday filled with activity, but not on any schedule I had devised.  That existed somewhere, in Before, but it no longer mattered in After.  Funeral arrangements, people arrangements, family, rabbi, funeral director, medical examiner, phone calls, phone calls, meetings, phone calls.  And the funeral.  The family ushered into a room where we see my father's body, and suddenly I shift from constant movement to a halt.  A breathtaking halt.  Until we are in the sanctuary, and the pace accelerates, people come, they greet us, the service proceeds, we speak with love of my father, we move on to the cemetery, we're ushered home, people arrive, so many who loved my father. And so many who love me make sure I have what I need.  It's all decided what the pace will be, that's clear to me, I just wasn't consulted and have no inside knowledge.  So I follow, adjust, feel thankful that others know and I don't have to.

And from there, a week of a nothing-that-is-not-nothing punctuated by evening visits from those mourning my father and comforting us. Nothing but home.  And yet time did not seem to slow. Reflection takes time. Mourning takes time. They may not be on the calendar or fit a schedule, but they occupy time, and the time given over to them possesses its own texture, density and color, as though physical.  Mourning and reflection do not simply take time, they give it also, provide a gift of knowing time in a new way.  Painful yet sweet.

And Now I live in Before and After.  Appointments, full schedules, productivity.  Reflection, appreciation, sadness.  Speeding up and slowing down, sometimes it seems in the same moment.  Slow not equaling drawn out.  I don't know for how long this will last.  I expect that Now will become more and more like Before, but it's not on a time line.  And I can work with that, just as sometimes I can slow down, look at the scenery, and run twice as far.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Remembrances of Dad: Bernard Wolfman, July 8, 1924 to August 20, 2011

Remarks at Dad's Funeral, August 22, 2011

When I google the term “Bernard Wolfman,” it’s not until I get past the 40th page of results that many of them no longer refer to my father.

Thirty-some years ago, when I was in high school, I sat in on one of my father’s classes.  I took a seat in the back row of the lecture hall.  The students around me glanced over several times until one asked, “Who are you?”  The reply “Professor Wolfman’s daughter” was greeted with momentary silence and then the question, “He has a daughter?”

Indeed, many knew my father for the breadth and force of his intellect and influence as a legal scholar.  But he did have a daughter.  And four sons, ten grandchildren, a sister, niece, nephews, parents… and the privilege and joy of having been married to two women whom he deeply loved.   For all of these people, and the further extended family and his dear friends, his intellect made him all the more interesting and exciting to be around, but it did not define him. It is my father’s love, warmth and generosity for which we have always appreciated him and will remember him.

I should add that we’re not likely to forget his stubbornness either.  Then again, most of us share that trait so we’ll have constant reminders.

Even Dad’s stubbornness was in the service of his love for us.  Shortly after we moved to Cambridge, the window air conditioner in my bedroom broke and he arranged for a technician to come to the house to repair it.  While he was at work I hosted the service call.  I don’t recall the specifics, but the technician in some way cheated us.  My father was furious, not at me but at the technician for seizing on the opportunity to take advantage of my youthful naiveté and gullibility.  The combination of his protective, paternal instinct, and his stubborn inability to let anything go, ended with me – scared witless – speaking in small claims court after he had thoroughly prepped and rehearsed me.

My father was an extremely difficult person for whom to select gifts, a trait he generously handed down to the other men in our family.  So I’d put great energy into coming up with ideas, sometimes even holding brainstorming sessions with my co-workers.  For one major birthday Brad and I gave him a trip to adult space camp, as he always was enamored with space exploration.  True to form, he rose to captain of his team in the simulated space flight, and he loved the experience save for the terrible food (space camp seems to serve the adult groups exactly what they supply to the child campers) and the ruination of his team’s excellent record with his crash landing at the end.  On another occasion, we gave him a very fine, vintage bottle of red wine. He liked it as he would any bottle of red, never realizing it was anything different, but at least the sommelier standing by during the celebration feast was mightily impressed.

Despite these attempts to somewhat lavishly overcome the difficulty of finding the right gift for my father, it was the simple letter that I sent him to mark Father’s Day 1999 that was most effective.  My father was not raised in an era that promoted the emotional side of men.  However, Dad managed to defy that.  My letter thanked him for being so emotionally available to me because – especially during my mother’s illness and in the four years between her death and Dad’s marriage to Toni – that made all the difference in my life.  I recall one night while my mother was hospitalized; I came down from my room, unable to sleep and feeling terribly sad.  He took me into his lap, as he sat in a chair in the family room of our house in Elkins Park, and not only held me while I cried but cried with me.  In response to my Father’s Day letter, he drafted to me a heartfelt note in return, one I have kept.  I believe that it was for him the best gift I ever gave.  My father didn’t need great things from us, just love.

Marrying Toni was a one of my father’s choices that made a tremendous difference for me.  Toni, I want you to know how much I appreciate what you have brought into my life as a friend and as a mentor. You have been far more than the term step-mother can encompass, and your love for Dad has extended to love for and generosity to the rest of us, which we deeply feel and appreciate.

It is hardly surprising that Dad would have loved someone so giving. He generously gave of his deep well of affection, never short on hugs and kisses. He held my hand when we’d take walks together no matter how old we got (except during my adolescence, when I found this mortifying).  I learned from Dad not only love for family, but also for friends.  He offered unbounded loyalty and connection to lifelong friends whose meaning in his life he would readily articulate.

My father loved his family, loved his friends and loved the law.  He also loved baseball – though here he showed less loyalty as he rather capriciously switched allegiance from the Phillies to the Red Sox, after moving to Cambridge, much to the dismay of his children. He was really looking forward to a Phillies / Red Sox World Series this year.  And he loved natural beauty, taking us for bike rides and picnics on the Schuylkill River in Philly, later for walks in the extraordinary arboretum of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, and on outings to garden centers and nurseries.  Technology fascinated him and he became a computer user before I did, explaining to me DOS with complete awe and remarkable competency. He did this because he believed we should not simply do, we should understand.  To this end, my first driving lesson consisted not of driving but of learning how and why, behind the scenes of the automatic gears, they were shifting on my behalf.

Dad also had an extraordinary appreciation for and knowledge of language.  He was facile at foreign language, something I failed to inherit, but it was his interest in the English language over which we often bonded.  When I was in high school, after he’d acquired an edition of the OED that required a magnifying glass to read, he and I would pore over it together looking up words, and then the words from which they derived, and on and on.  Whenever I’ve been unsure of a grammatical choice, and could not arrive at a clear decision through my reference sources, I’d simply call my father.  He’d respond immediately and always accurately.  Then I’d receive a series of follow-up calls or emails with further explanation as he thought more about reasons for and nuances to the usage he’d recommended.

I will miss Dad’s calls and emails, his knowledge, his appreciation of nature, his joy for language, his enthusiasm for baseball (albeit for the wrong team), and even his stubbornness.  I will miss his love.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Memory, Empowerment and Pictures

This afternoon I enjoyed the privilege of reading my book, I Remember Mommy's Smile, to the 7- to 12-year-old children participating in bereavement camp at Chandler Hall in Newtown, PA.  Each child had lost a parent--unusually, in this group all were fathers. My book presents my memoirs, in my child's voice, of my mother's illness and death when I was ages 9 to 11.

I had barely begun when one child asked whether I still miss my mother.  Yes, I said, I miss her all the time even though I live a happy life.  And I told them how fortunate I am, though it has been so many years, that I still have her memory. I assured them that they will never forget their fathers. At that point, one boy (who otherwise rolled himself around in his blanket but peaked out at the end of every page to see the picture) said that today is the anniversary of his father's death.  Others followed by calling out the dates of their dads' deaths.  It was a simple, brief and moving moment of memorial.

Each child responded to different portions, based on his or her experience.  Mostly, I saw this in their eyes or body language.  But when I read about learning that my mother had cancer, one boy whispered "My father had cancer," and when I recalled the funeral a little girl teared up.

Upon inviting questions at the end, I learned that the children were particularly fascinated by the funeral vignette, in which I kicked away the funeral home employee who tried to lead me out when I began crying during the sevice.  The question, "Why did he want you to leave?" led to a discussion of well-meaning adults who may not understand what we need.  But mostly, the children were fascinated by my defiance and had a spirited conversation about what they would have done if kicking had not been enough.  I gathered that the empowerment of fighting for my place at my mother's funeral held great appeal to all the children.  If they came away believing in their right and ability to claim some strength in their situation, then I feel good about the reading.

When there were no more questions, and I got up to leave, two of the girls came up to me with their picture albums, so I could see the photos of their fathers that they cherish as I do the one I mention in the book of my mother at my dance recital.  I'd donated one of my books to the Chandler Hall library, and one of these girls had already decided to take it home this evening.

I am 40 or so years older than these children, but we share a bond: a deep understanding of how valuable memory can be after loss.  And I hope that, through my book, they found the assurance of empowerment and even normalcy in their future--without ever forgetting.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Church-and-State and the Politics of Leadership

Note: I delivered this as a d'var Torah (sermon, or literally "word of Torah") at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA, on July 23, 2011. To learn more about my sermons, click here.

Let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson. I’m thinking about a particular doctrine attributed to Jefferson that has relevance to a religious setting.  What might that be?


Yes, the separation of church and state.  The “church and state” phrase comes from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, who had complained that in Connecticut religious liberties were seen as “favors granted” rather than as rights.  Without commenting on the role of state government in his reply, regarding the federal government Jefferson wrote:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

In his draft version he included a statement that further defined this separation as “Congress [being] thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorized only to execute their acts.”  His marginal note indicates that this portion was to be removed so as not to offend members of his party in the eastern states. What interests me about this private version of the letter is that the language “acts respecting religion" seems to take the implementation of separation beyond the concept of establishment.

Let me tell you why I have Jefferson on my mind.  As I read Mattot in preparation for this morning, I was looking for an angle different from those I explored when I spoke about the parashah in 2007 and in 2008. Perhaps because of Rabbi Glanzberg-Krainin’s terrific d’var on leadership two weeks ago at Beth Sholom Congregation, I found myself drawn to the issues of leadership in Mattot and the sticky relationship that emerges with the interplay of politics and spirituality.

That led me to the haftarah that we read today because, despite it being one of the three prophetic readings of admonition preceding Tish-ah b’Av rather than thematically connected to the Torah portion, I find some alignment between them where leadership is concerned.  Finally, as I contemplated these issues, I thought of a piece about the separation of church and state that my brother, Jonathan Wolfman, recently published on his blog (click here to go to the posting).

According to Jon,

“The reason Jefferson wrote with such terrific thought and passion on state and church separation is that he knew both secular civil society and religious institutions are safer from each others’ often over-arching power when basic law keeps them apart. Jefferson also knew that people are often weak and often afraid, and when they are they’re pleased to give over to their religious leaders and the religious institutions of their parents and ancestors what may for the moment appear to be the knottiest, most resistant social, economic and legal concerns. Jefferson understood that this was a devil’s bargain.”

I have great respect for my brother’s intellect and know that he has read far more broadly and deeply than I on such matters.  Nonetheless, I thought I’d do a quick review for myself of Jefferson’s writings on the subject rather than take his word for it.  For the most part, Jefferson stuck to the protection of religion from government, and not the other way around.  But he did express strong skepticism about the impact of religious authority on civil liberties, believing, as he wrote in 1800, that “by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, [the clergy] have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.”  In 1813 and 1814 respectively, he wrote: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,” and “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.”

So with this as the philosophical legacy of the 3rd US president and principle author of the Declaration of Independence, as Americans and as Jews how do we reconcile a Jewish literary tradition that inextricably links politics with religion, where the laws governing society are handed down by God and prophetic writings delve into the reigns of kings?

I find that in Mattot, and in the words of Jeremiah that constitute today’s haftarah, the literature grapples with the mix of spiritual and political leadership.

Let’s look at the last portion of Numbers 31, beginning with verse 48.  We read of the sacrifice that the commanders make on behalf of their troops, giving far more than required from their booty as an offering to God, so those in the ranks can keep all theirs for themselves.  It would seem they make the political decision to reinterpret the commandment around supporting the Levites and the Tabernacle in a manner that would yield the required financial result while helping to bolster the fortunes of their charges and thus their allegiance, not to God but to the officers.  Moshe and Eleazar accept this independent political decision without comment, and the text fully attributes the gift to God as being “in behalf of the Israelites.”

Going back to the opening lines of Mattot, Moshe imparts God’s words about the obligatory nature of a vow. Unlike the more typical scene, in which God speaks through Moshe to the Israelite people as a whole, this time the narrative confines the audience to “the heads of the Israelite tribes.”  Though all of us bear the responsibility of vows,  Moshe tells only the leadership about this obligation.  Might we assume, then, that the leaders bear responsibility for informing their people, giving them an opportunity to exercise authority and thus a political voice somewhat separated from the voice of religious authority?

Perhaps part of their role is setting an example; the Israelites are not simply to hear the laws of vows, but to witness their leaders adhering to them.  Or, as leaders, do they have the power to make vows on behalf of those under them, so they must be all the more cognizant of their implications?

We see this last paradigm play out in Numbers 32 verses 20 to 24.  The leaders of the Gadites and Reubenites have requested to settle west of the Jordan, rather than with the others on the east.  Moshe strikes a bargain, exacting from them vows, as leaders, that their tribes will serve as the shock-troops in conquering the land to the east. Moshe declares, “But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against the Lord; and know that your sin will overtake you. Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do as you have promised.” The leader’s vow is binding, for himself and for all his people.

How fascinating that this deal-making allows what seems to be an adjustment of God’s intended outcome, negotiated entirely as a political—and in this case socio-economic—matter among the leadership.  As with the disposition of the spoils of war, a secular approach to governing seems to emerge in parallel to the religious, though Moshe certainly fills both political and spiritual roles.

In the haftarah, Jeremiah takes a Moshe-like stance, insisting that he is not equal to the role of prophet and acquiescing only when God insists.  His objection is that “I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy,” in response to which God “put out His hand and touched my mouth, and Adonai said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth.”  Returning to my argument earlier, that leaders have a special responsibility regarding the spoken word because of their positions of power, it makes great sense to choose as prophets those who express modesty with regard to the use of language.  This implies a leadership of humility and selflessness, which we can see as a valuable asset for the community particularly when political power is at play. 

And certainly this is about politics.  God appoints Jeremiah “over nations and kingdoms” with the authority “to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”  Jeremiah is to pit himself against a leadership of arrogance and self-interest in which “they shall come, and shall each set up a throne” in opposition both to the “towns of Judah” and to God.  And the humble Jeremiah is to prevail.

In both the Torah and the haftarah readings, we find that religious and political leadership intertwine, and in each case God’s intention for the people faces opposition from those who want political or socio-economic status. For Jeremiah, there is no negotiation independent of God’s word, but for Moshe and Eleazar it appears that they do have and exercise this authority.

Of course, that’s a far cry from Jefferson’s stance that religious leaders represent a danger to civil liberties and that government imperils religious freedom.  But do we see here an early acknowledgement of how difficult it is to mesh political and religious institutions?  And if so, is that the lens through which we, as contemporary American Jews, can begin to reconcile our dual traditions as represented by Torah and by the writings of Jefferson?

Torah does not separate church and state, but certainly it recognizes the difficulty of merging these two sources of power and shows an early example of negotiating purely political solutions.  And it acknowledges that power in the hands of humans can be destructive unless tempered with humility and an overriding drive to serve. It took some time, but the evolution to Jefferson’s legal construct of a wall separating church and state seems logical: both his worry that, given the opportunity to amass power by dictating religion, political leaders would crush citizens’ freedom to worship as they choose, and his concern that religious leaders, given the opportunity to broaden their reach, might lack the requisite selflessness to preserve civil liberties.

Yet the separation of church and state still suffers ongoing assault and this affects us as Jews.  In my brother’s essay, he invokes Jefferson in the context of decrying Texas Governor Rick Perry’s plans for a state-sponsored, evangelical Day of Prayer on August 6, using—in Jon’s words—“tax monies collected from Christians, Jews, Muslims and adherents to every other religion represented in Texas, along with money from agnostics and atheists, in part to rent Reliant Stadium in Houston.”

And here we are nearly 50 years after the school prayer decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp, a case my father helped to initiate as an attorney volunteering with the Philadelphia ACLU. He learned in the process that his own, Jewish first-grader could recite the Lord’s Prayer by heart as a result of his public school education in Cheltenham, PA. Yet school prayer remains an issue still under debate and in the court system.

As we see in Mattot and in the haftarah, the politics and power of the church-state relationship aren’t easy. But we do need to tease them out and, I believe, more definitively apart than we have yet achieved.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Parenthood Transcends Terminal Illness

In a disturbing story that has hit the news, a child custody battle nearly turned on whether the child should stay with a mother suffering from terminal cancer.

During two and one-half years of my childhood--when I was 9, 10 and 11--I experienced the illness and death of my mother from cancer. As someone who has been there, I find it sadly misguided that anyone might consider taking a child from a dying parent with whom she has a healthy, loving relationship.

I cherish the time I had with my mother, from her healthy years to the last few weeks when she was fading away in a hospital bed. My book for other children in this situation, I Remember Mommy's Smile (, chronicles not only the sadness of this time but also its beauty and hope. Had my mother and I been separated, I'd have been robbed of precious moments and the quality of my mother's last days would be have been diminished. Perhaps the professionals considering such cases should speak with those of us who have been there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I actually was, considering the circumstances, quite lucky.  People have pointed out to me that in the early 70s people felt a young child could not understand death and talking about it would traumatize them.  But my family knew better. We were incredibly open with each other and I had constant access to adults who listened and who expressed their own feelings--my oldest brother, my aunt, my best friend's mother (who was a holocaust child, so certainly understood childhood trauma), when she was still with us my mother, and most of all my father, who has always been remarkably emotionally available and emotive for a man of his generation.

It was only as an adult, when I met others who'd lost their mothers at a young age, that I realized many fathers simply went silent, finding it hard enough to face their own feelings let alone help cope with their children's.  Yet even with the support I had, I still felt incredibly different--this just was not a circumstance I saw among the other children I knew (thankfully).  Feeling different is not something that children that age relish.  My friends were uncomfortable, but I understood--because my father had the insight and foresight to warn me--that this was because I represented their greatest fear, and in time they would stop seeing me as the kid whose mother died and go back to seeing me simply as their classmate or friend.

I also was fortunate to have my cousin and my best friend--still such a close friend that she is flying in from Salt Lake City for my 50th birthday celebration!--as they provided peer support and never stopped seeing me as just me.

Probably the bravest person is my husband. It's not easy to decide to spend your life with someone whose world view is shaped by the very tangible fear of losing those closest to her.

All in all, I was lucky.  And I still am.  I hope I can help others feel hopeful, as well.  That's why I've published I Remember Mommy's Smile, a book for children going through the illness and death of a parent--to help them and the adults in their lives establish the healing dialogue that goes such a long way.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Beyond the Four Questions: A Grown-up Seder

This year, our family’s three youngest children could not make the seder.  But even they are adults in their very early 20s.  Their older cousins and siblings, ages 22 and 23, were the babies present.

Coincidentally, in preparation for Pesach, I had studied Rambam with my rabbi, Andrea Merow.  I came to appreciate that the emphasis is not on the traditional four questions, but our goal is inquiry that leads to the telling of the exodus story.

So I prepared for a more grown-up seder.  On March 30, I sent an email note to our seder’s attendees:

Hi, all.  The four questions are not a seder requirement.  However, according to Rambam we need to raise questions that would lead to the telling of the story--with it feeling as much like a reliving of the story as possible.

So, in preparation for this year's seder, please send me some suggested questions that might get us there--in as serious or as silly a manner as you like--and I'll do my best to weave them in.  Please get  them to me by April 10.

My family stepped up to the plate (an apt metaphor, given that the Phillies ended up playing an extra-innings game on seder night… one that, sadly, they lost in the  12th …making many of our group’s attention to the seder an extraordinary testament to their engagement in the story-telling that resulted from their input). Here is the discussion guide from which we narrated the exodus:

Questions / Telling the Story – Part 1

Why were the Jews slaves in Egypt to begin with?


"As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent." -Martin Luther King, Jr.

With this in mind…how did the Jews gain their freedom, and at what cost to others?


At the time of the Exodus, was the land of Israel uninhabited?  How were the Israelites “directed” to deal with whomever was there? Are there any lessons to be drawn regarding how Israel is today dealing with new settlements on the West Bank and around Jerusalem?


Return to the Hagaddah for The Ten Plagues

Questions / Telling the Story – Part 2

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." -James Baldwin

Considering Baldwin’s words, why do we read the Haggadah every year?  Why tell the story?

Why don’t we tell new stories?


Connecting the story to history: Should we try to reconcile the Exodus story with archaeological findings/historical reporting?

Connecting the story to modernity: Many use the story of the Exodus as a template for understanding the modern world, e.g., American Slavery as Egyptian Slavery, Miriam as feminist symbol, etc. What risks do we run when we map the Exodus story onto present-day narratives?


Connecting the story to contemporary issues :  What does the ancient history of the region, beginning with the story of the exodus, teach us about current events in the region and inform US policy, e.g. on Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq?


Connecting the story to our personal experience:  Why on this night are the youngest children not present? Their freedom to be who they want to be?


Taking inspiration:  Tell about a person, living or not, most embodies freedom for .

The meal

In preparation for the meal:  Why on this night do we restrict what we eat even more than usual and is God really that interested in what we eat?


In the past, we’ve sought to keep the seder within the confines of children’s attention spans.  Each year, we’ve incorporated a new, creative addition—for example, decorating our own reclining pillows before sitting down at the table (we still use those pillows 10 years later)—but never had we purposefully lengthened the requisite elements.

Our seder—the discussion around our questions, the remaining required components and the festive meal—lasted 3-1/2 hours.  We loved every moment.  The conversation went in many directions, touching on the holocaust, American slavery, Jewish slave holders, the civil rights movement, military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya…and more…and in the process we did tell the full exodus story. Participants ranging from age 22 to age 86 shared equally in the discussion, sometimes sparring though always with mutual respect and open to learning from each other. In appropriate Pesach parlance, this year was different from all other years.

Our 20-somethings reverted to childhood when it came time to hunt for the afikomen (anyone without progeny was qualified to search).  When the time comes again that there are young children at the table, we will take joy in encouraging them in the traditional four questions and will happily keep the seder short enough to meet their needs.  But for now, it’s fun being grown ups.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Original Capital Campaign

(Sacred Deeds, Sacred Time and Sacred Space)

D’var Torah for Parashah Va-Yak-Hel
February 26, 2011

In the Etz Hayim commentary before T’rumah, the parashah we read a few weeks ago, we learn that we can maintain the feeling of Sinai through a combination of sacred deeds, sacred time and sacred space.
Sacred deeds are the stuff of our reading four weeks ago, in Mishpatim.  There we learned how to treat a slave; the consequences of assault, murder and kidnapping; the responsibilities for animals, assets and people under our charge; the expectations for appropriate sexual behavior; how to treat strangers; the rules of fair lending; the requirement to speak justly; laws that provide for the needy…in short, we learn how to act under a legal construct that helps assure a people that carries out sacred deeds in its daily living.

Why has the text now veered away from sacred deeds for several parashiot?  I believe that we need more than rules to govern our actions.  We need a context.  This is where time and space come into play.

Parashah Va-yak-hel begins with sacred time, the text reading: “These are the things that Adonai has commanded you to do:  On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai.” (Exodus 35:2)  This identifies Shabbat as sacred time and, almost paradoxically, instructs that the building of the Tabernacle—of sacred space—may occur only outside of that sacred time.

We then move on to a painstakingly detailed description of the materials required for building the Tabernacle and the process of gathering those materials and constructing what is to be God’s home in the wilderness.  I believe that the level of detail indicates the tremendous importance of sacred space.  What’s more, the narrative tells us that the creation of such space was a deeply emotional experience.  The project called for an extraordinary amount of finery, yet the people—who brought their most beautiful possessions of their own free will and not under compulsion—gave even more than was required.  In repeated instances the text tells us of an impassioned response with phrases such as:
- Everyone whose heart so moves him,
- Everyone whose spirit moved him came,
- Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, and
- The men and women whose hearts moved them

In his book The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Bradley Artson sees in Va-yak-hel an affirmation of the important role of art in Jewish tradition.  He writes:
“God directly inspires the artist, so that sculpture, architecture, music, and other forms of artistic expression provide a privileged path of religious expression. … Art gives voice to those mute, inaccessible parts of our souls.”

In November, my husband Brad and I enjoyed the privilege of visiting the Amano Museum in Lima, Peru, a small but extraordinary private collection of pre-Incan ceramics and textiles dating from several thousand BCE to about 800 CE.  To see the artistic, whimsical, creative pieces from those periods makes it clear that aesthetic appreciation and creativity are fundamental to being human; this collection is the best answer to those who would argue to cut public funding of the arts because it’s not a basic necessity…or that we need not invest in maintaining the beauty of our surroundings as an integral element of our religious experience.

But, as Rabbi Artson points out, this human passion for art is not necessarily holy.  Last week, in Ki Tissa, we learned about the passionate, artistic expression that became the unholy golden calf…while now that same impulse brings us the space of the mishkan. Of course, the Israelites created the golden calf before they had the law—the context for sacred deeds—and their sacred time had been disrupted by the long absence of Moshe and the extended encampment at Sinai, with no knowledge of when their leader might return and bring them back to a sense of God’s presence.

Thus we see the critical combination of the three sacred elements of deeds, time and space in the Israelite community.

It is no different in a contemporary Jewish. We have all been asked to participate in capital campaigns that to
help raise capital funds for the future of our congregations. The very premise is that by attending to sacred deeds, sacred time and sacred space we can make a long-lasting impact on our community and establish a legacy for future generations.  The current effort for meeting my synagogue’s needs seeks to assure our strength into the future through:
- Sacred time by providing funding for innovative expansion of our religious and educational programming;
- Sacred deeds with endowments to help perpetuate tuition subsidies and with investment in accessibility; and
- Sacred space to ensure the ongoing beauty, safety, security and longevity of our spiritual home—a physical context that helps nurture our religious life.

Sometimes we may find ourselves arguing about which is the right—or perhaps righteous—target for our funds.  But our text teaches us that there is no choice to make; we need all three, united, in order to function as a holy people.  And, it teaches that women have a critical role in helping meet that need.

In The Women’s Torah Commentary edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Rabbi Nancy Weiner writes that this parashah is the only one in which “women… are identified as a significant group within the larger whole” and that “gives us a taste of the variety of ways that women contributed to the vitality and maintenance of the people’s material and spiritual life.”

In Va-Yak-Hel we hear of women with—yet independent from—men, with references to their talent, their participation in the community, and their free will in their choice of bringing their possessions for the tabernacle; and we hear of them having their own possessions.  The women essentially form a donor group within the Israelite people.  Just as women’s auxiliaries raise funds for their congregations.  Just a Jewish Federations develop women’s philanthropy groups.  These are not contemporary phenomena, but part of our tradition as Jewish women, reaching back to the capital campaign that made it possible to build the mishkan.  With that in mind, as our own communities of women—collectively and as individuals—passionately invest in the sacred deeds, sacred time and sacred space of their congregations, they do so in sisterhood with those at Sinai who led the way.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Midlife Crisis

My husband just marked his 50th birthday.  In preparation, he delved into a midlife crisis about 3 to 4 months ago.  It was unlike any midlife crisis I'd ever expected.  Brad sunk to no depths--of depression, crutches or unsavory activities.

Instead, he began asking and noticing. He has asked where we keep pots and pans we've had for years, rather than leaving them to wait for someone with greater knowledge of the kitchen to put them away.  He has noticed clothing he's never seen before and asked when and where I bought it (never mind that I may have worn it in his presence dozens of times; this truly was the first time he'd knowingly seen it).  He watched me apply lipstick appropriately hued to the deep red turtleneck I was wearing and asked whether I match my lip color to my outfits.  "Yes," I replied, "as I have for about 30 years."

Brad seems to have stumbled on the sweetest of midlife crises, and to make it sweeter he fails to see anything new or remarkable about his behavior.  I comprehend the sweetness, and certainly I appreciate my good luck considering the midlife crises with which many spouses contend.  In fact, I ought to be thankful for the gift of such an attentive husband.

Yet Brad's questions and obervations stop me in my tracks not because they thrill me but because they throw me entirely off guard.  I don't know how to answer a question or comment that I cannot imagine him voicing.  It's hard for me to comprehend that the man I've known since 1979 and married 5 years later is the person saying these things.  Not that he previously was insensitive; he's always been a good, kind, well-intentioned man.  He's also been entirely disconnected from a slew of things including where I keep the pans, when I buy my clothing or the color I apply to my lips.  It's as though he suddenly developed broader peripheral vision that captures a range of experiences he'd simply never seen were there.  And as nice as that may be, despite what it suggests about me I find it easier to get used to his sudden need for reading glasses (in which he looks quite distinguished, by the way)