Showing posts with label D'var Torah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label D'var Torah. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

God was in this place...

Elaine Clayton is an adult who became a Bat Mitzvah in our congregation this past Shabbat. This is her D'var Torah in word and visual art. The images are full size paintings she brought to the chapel. She writes and illustrates children's books also including books by Jane Smiley (Pulitzer Prize winning author) and Gregory Maguire (who wrote "Wicked") and is also the author of Making Marks: Discover the Art of Intuitive Drawing.

Kol Hakavod, Elaine!

December 10, 2016

God Was in This Place: Dreaming of Jacob 

by Elaine Clayton  

And so Jacob said, “Goodbye Everyone”
And went to Haran
Copyright Elaine Clayton 2016
To wander and wonder
In the wilderness
And I saw him there
“Jacob,” I called out, “How are you?”
“Oh, so-so,” he said in his endearing way
“Why only so-so?” I asked him
Jacob answered, “I didn’t sleep well. For one thing
My pillow was as hard as a rock, and I mean as hard as a rock.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” I said, “Did you remember any of your dreams?
And Jacob said, “No. No, I don’t dream. I don’t remember my dreams.”

It is Shabbat morning in the year 5777
I wake up feeling a longing and sadness
Thank, God, it was only a bad dream
I whisper to myself
Of course Jacob had a dream
And of course Jacob remembered his dream
Its in Torah!
I say to myself
Jacob knew God was in this place
That place
Because where he rested his head
He slept and where he slept
He dreamt
And where we dream, God is

Half asleep, I still hear Jacob talking to me
He says, “I was only kidding about not dreaming!
You can do Freud, or Jung
You can say you ate something
Or saw a movie
That’s why you dreamed what you did
But keep your dreams close by”
He says
“The Talmud states that a dream not interpreted
Is akin to an unopened letter
Some dreams are messages of love
Some are bills
Some are junk mail
Some are invitations
Some are solicitations
Some are citations
All of them are letters
Given to be opened and read
Signed, sealed, delivered
They’re yours”
He says

“They’re your fears
Your desires and impressions
For ordinary time spent
And extraordinary actions
All of your comings and goings
Nobody can dream as you do”
He says
And I say
But some dreams we share
Like the one about going to work with no pants on
Or arriving late to the most important class
The one about flying
The one about monsters
Or lovers
Or things we are glad did not really happen

On the way to the temple on I-95
Jacob sits silently in the passenger seat
I say, Jacob, I am getting to know you
To learn from you
What are you thinking about?
“Just keep your eyes on the road,”
He says

Still sleepy at the temple
I whisper the blessing
And kiss the tallit on its embroidered hem
Swirl it like the world around me
And let it surround me
I clasp it over my shoulders as though
I just emerged from the sea
And close it over my heart

I am wrapped in
Where the sea meets the sky
Where the tides of life
Crash at my feet
Soaking into the dust of the earth

I see the lines on the tallit
Like the waves at sea
And like the rungs on Jacob’s Ladder
I see the waves coming
I sense the desire to
Capture them
To reach for them
Swimming or pulling myself upward
I go rung to rung
Feeling waves of emotion

Waves of despair
Waves of anger
Waves of joy
Waves of days come and gone
Waves of mercy
Waves of grief
Waves of love and sorrow
Waves of gratitude
And lessons learned

Reciting the Shema
The tallit settles like clouds
On my shoulders
Keeping my dreams
Upon me softly
A witness to the dream-letter opened
By Jacob

Chanting V’ahavta
I gaze at the heart of my own days
And close my eyes
Through waves of doubt and hope
And wonder if a ladder will
Appear for me
As it did for

I play with the tassels
613 twists and turns
In the dreams of God
His for us, and ours for Him
Wave after wave
Dream after dream
With or without me
The dreams keep arriving
And disappearing

Our dreams of peace
For our children
Our dreams of justice
For us all
Our dreams of our place in the world
As crazy as the world is
We still dream
God is One

The Ark opens
My heart dares to open also
The prayer chants take us
High and low
Ascending and descending
On the Jacob’s Ladder
within each of us
And what is this ladder within?
Is it the Tree of Life?
Is it the twisting ladder of my DNA?
Is it the way I hold emotions

In my crown
At my mind’s eye
In my throat
In my heart
In my stomach?

I feel myself soar and dip
Slipping and gripping
Through the prayers
A malach is with me
A messenger
On each rung
As I rise and fall

Closing my eyes
During Kaddish
I see Jacob in Haran again
He is wandering expectantly in the darkening twilight
He places his head on
ha-evan, the stone
His pillow
I take off my tallit
And wrap it around him
As he gently falls asleep
Under the stars
To dream
To come to know things
To wake soon and wrestle
With his new name:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Valuing Life

Last week I was given the honor of giving a D'var Torah at Shabbat morning services. The Parshah was Chayei Sarah. The first half of what I wrote has been percolating for a long time. I am convinced Abraham failed the Akedah. The second half has been a long time coming. Midge vVas Nunes was already a matriarch of our community when we arrived in 1995. She became a very important person to me and my family. Life was hard as she entered triple digits, as her mind and body both began to let her down. We celebrated her life this past weekend. I am honored to share a bit of it.

Shabbat shalom.

Our parshah this week Chayei Sarah – begins with the death of Sarah. Some commentators speculated that her death, coming right on the heels of the binding of Isaac, was a direct result of her waking up and discovering Abraham and Isaac had departed. They suggest she knew that Isaac was to be sacrificed and it broke her heart.

I want to suggest that her heart was broken. Not because she believed that her husband was about to kill her only child. I am pretty sure that she expected that God’s promise that her son would be the beginning of a great nation would come true. I think she was heartbroken by Abraham’s failure.

Yes, I said failure. Last week the Torah told us that the Akedah was a test. When I went to Hebrew school, we were taught that Abraham passed the test. He was prepared to offer his son, proving his loyalty to God. The angel came and stopped the killing, saying “for now I know you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” Personally, I think the angel was offering the consolation prize, basically saying “thanks for playing.”

You see, only a chapter earlier, Abraham argued – ARGUED – with God to save the lives of a city full of strangers. Most of whom had been judged wicked by God. Abraham had demonstrated that he understood that God valued life more than anything else. It is what distinguishes Torah from all previous legal codes. But as soon as God “tests” Abraham, out comes the knife. Seriously.

And then what happens?


Abraham comes down the mountain to return home with the servants. Where is Isaac? I assume anywhere far from his father and his knife. Some commentators say he went to study at the academy of Shem and Eber – Noah’s son and great grandson, somehow still alive after 8 generations – near Tzvat for three years and the end of chapter 23.

Medieval commentators, writing at the bloody time of the crusades suggest that Isaac actually died on the mountain top and went to heaven. Later, in mercy, God restores Isaac to life – reflecting the fears and reality of those writers.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, in Woodstock, NY, suggests that Isaac went to visit his brother Ishmael. He suggests that the brothers were very close, until Sarah forced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Isaac couldn’t go home with his seemingly homicidal father, so he went to his brother.


Sarah dies. She must have heard about the debate over Sodom and Gomorah. She understood that their God was a God of life, not death. The Torah doesn’t say whether Abraham told Sarah what God had asked him the night before he set off with Isaac. It also doesn’t say he kept it a secret. Abraham and Sarah were together a long time. I am certain – based on my experience – that marriages built on keeping secrets don’t last that long.

God has been talking to Abraham for as long as Sarah has known him. The story of the Akedah is the tenth conversation. Previous conversations caused them to leave their homeland. I have trouble seeing Sarah just going without some kind of explanation. (Of course I am layering my own 21st century values on them. But that is what we do with interpretation – we put ourselves in the text. And God does include Sarah in at least one of those conversations – when her coming pregnancy is announced. So I think she gets what God is talking about.

When she gets up in the morning and sees they have left, she must have shried “Gevalt!” because she realized then that Abraham had missed the point of the lesson. If God is willing to spare an entire city of deviants if there are ten righteous people among them, certainly God has no intention of killing the young man whom God had given them to live out the promise of more descendants than stars in the sky. She knew that Abraham’s identity was completely interwoven in his relationship with God. And she now knew Abraham had failed the test. And it broke her heart, because she knew this would break the man she loved. Why?

Because Three.
  • God never speaks to Abraham again. Ever.
  • After that, Abraham seems to just be going through the motions of life.
  • Our portion today begins with Abraham in mourning.
  • He rises up from shiva and negotiates the purchase of a field with a cave to create a cemetery.
  • He sends his servant Eliezer back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac once he returns.
  • He takes a new wife, Keturah and has children with her. We hear nothing of his or their lives, just that they existed.
  • He leaves almost everything he has to Isaac and then dies.

I think his heart must have broken when he realized how completely he had failed. And I suspect God was also bereft, at least until he turned to Isaac to continue the covenant.

Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” Later in the parshah, after his return, Isaac moves into Sarah’s tent and mourns her as well. By all accounts Sarah lived a very full life. She lived and loved and was loved. And she gave birth to the Jewish people. And we miss her.

Midge vas Nunes lived to be 104 years old…and tomorrow we will bury her remains as Abraham did Sarah’s. And we will mourn.

When I first came to Bridgeport, among of the first people I got to know were Manny and Midge. Midge always described their story as one of the great eternal loves, like Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet – although with far less drama. She described Manny as Sephardic royalty and was proud that their wedding was conducted by the great Rabbi David de Sola Pool, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. They were blessed with a long and rich marriage.

Midge often regaled me with stories of her family and B’nai Israel.

She has seemed to me to have many of Sarah’s qualities. She will be missed by many, whether they know it or not. I will leave you with my favorite story, one she delighted to tell and retell.

Her grandfather was a dry goods merchant on Golden Hill in the 1850’s and one of the founding members of B’nai Israel. She said he was no taller than her. He told her that he had been entrusted with acquiring our first Torah scroll just before the civil war.

It was purchased through a broker from a family in Europe and arrived by ship in the port of Bridgeport – the name is not a coincidence. When he came to collect it from the customs agents, he realized it was too heavy for him to carry back up the hill by himself. So he left it with the agents, walked to his shop, and returned with his stock boy. He was not a boy but a man, an African American, free man. She said her grandfather described as a shtarker – a big, strong man. And she giggled with delight describing this hakafah – a Torah procession of two: a short, stout Ashkenazi Jew leading a tall, muscular black man carrying a Torah scroll as they climbed Golden Hill. And she would often ask me to take that scroll out of the ark for her to touch.

Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” As we read from Chayei Sarah, I invite you to remember the life of Midge vas Nunes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Arguments for the sake of heaven...

40 years ago...
Forty years ago this past weekend, I became a Bar Mitzvah. Randy Weingarten and I read from Parshat Korach. This past Shabbat I again read from Parshat Korach to celebrate the anniversary. 

What follows is my d'var Torah - from this time around!

Pirkei Avot 5:17 tells us:

“Every argument that is for the sake of heaven will endure, and if it is not for the sake of heaven, it will not endure.” It goes on to give us examples each kind of argument. The debates of Hillel and Shammai are given as being for the sake of heaven. Throughout the Mishnah, these rabbis of first century BCE Judea and their students wrestled with hundreds of issues. Shammai only wins six times. Yet no matter how heated things got it was always clear that the argument was about how to best do what God commanded, how to help us be the best Jews we could.

The Talmud tells us that no matter how different their philosophies were (think strict constructionist and loose constructionist for a wildly oversimplified summary), the sons and daughters of the members of the two schools would still marry one another. And to this day we remember their arguments. Do we add a candle each night of Chanukah or take one away? (Add) Hillel taught us that. And do we load the candles from left to right or from right to left? (right to left) Shammai taught us that. Their arguments were for the sake of heaven and they endure.

Our parshah gives us the example of the

– the argument that is NOT for the sake of heaven. Korach is Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. His father was their father’s younger brother. In Parshat Bamidbar, Elitzafan – another first cousin, the son of the youngest of four brothers, was appointed the prince over the family. While we know that the Torah is filled with younger sons rising above their older brothers (ummm… let’s see…Abraham – younger..Isaac – younger…Jacob – younger…Judah –younger…you get the idea), Korach clearly thought he outranked Elitzfan. As the oldest son of the next oldest brother, the midrash suggests that he thought he should have the next honor after Aaron and Moses. Another Midrash says that Korach had a fairly high ranking job (for a slave) back in Egypt, and so was used to being treated as one with authority. So he challenges Moses and Aaron for the leadership. Essentially saying “You are not the boss of me!” and claiming the right to be the leader.

For Korach it is “all about me.” He reminds me of the wicked child in the Pesach Hagadah who excludes himself from the group. He is told that if had been in Egypt he would not have known redemption. Korach may have made it out of Egypt, but he doesn’t really get redeemed! On the other hand, for Hillel and Shammai, it is “all about us.” They are like the wise son, trying to figure out how to make peoplehood work.

Follow the reading and you will see that Korach and his pals (and 250 others who joined them) end up swallowed by the earth in front of the whole community. They did not endure, and their argument is not one that we find useful today. Respect and the right to lead is earned, not grabbed. May we continue to be led by leaders who have earned it.

There was still a lot of wandering after Korach’s mutiny. Another 38 years – bringing the total to forty years in the wilderness. In that time we learned to leave the slave mentality behind and began to develop a sense of peoplehood.

It was forty years ago – tomorrow – when I was first called to the Torah to read from Parshat Korach. It sure doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. Gone are the baby face and the orange and brown plaid sport coat and the burnt umber and white saddle shoes with the tall stacked heels. Gone is pepper from my salt and pepper hair as well.

I have not spent the past forty years in the wilderness, although it has been a long and amazing journey. The wandering actually stopped after eleven years when I met Audrey in December of 1985. The journey since then has been wonderful and deliberate. It helps that she is willing to stop and ask for directions! I have spent nearly half of the last forty years with you. And it continues to be an adventure. I am happy to say that our congregation is one where nearly every argument is for the sake of heaven. And I hope we have many more of them!

 Kein yehi ratzon!

Monday, July 15, 2013

What is this thing we call fear?

My friend Richard
One of my dearest friends is Richard Walden. Rich is a member of our congregation and has served on the board for several years. Before that he and his wife both taught Hebrew on Sunday mornings (Susan is coming back to the faculty this year!) He studied the classics and ended up becoming a banker. But every Friday, he boards an early afternoon train from New York to be back in time for our 6:00 p.m. Shabbat service. He is back in the morning for our 8:00 a.m. service. He is generous and an all around mensch. I am biased, but I dare you to find someone to disagree! 

Several times a year, he volunteers to read Torah at our service when there is not a 14 year old reprising their Bar or Bat Mitzvah parshah. And when he reads, Rich also likes to give the D'var Torah. This past Shabbat was one of those days. Rich nailed the chanting - he is not a musician but he has a deep resonant voice that brings the emotion of the text right off the page and into your kishkes. And here is his D'var Torah. I felt the need to share. Yasher koach Richard!

What is this thing we call fear? It is an incredibly complex emotion that is woven into Torah in many ways and has been with us from Eden right on through our 40 years of wandering. So what is fear? Is it lack of courage? Is it all about rational or irrational phobias?

This week is parashat Devarim, the opening of Deuteronomy, the book in which Moses retells our journey. In this section Moses recalls the spies who are sent to check out the land promised to us by God. As luck would have it, I met them just a few weeks ago when I stood in as Rabbi for the Friday night service at parashat Shlach. Well, I am with the spies once more and we are getting ready to cross the Jordan. Once again we go out and once again we learn that the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey. Oh but we silly, silly spies. We never learn, and we return, still filled with fear about the giants who live there.

Once again God is angry with us, and sure enough, God punishes us for not trusting—40 years of wandering in the desert AND no one but Joshua will enter the promised land.

So, what is FEAR in Torah? After eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve hide their nakedness from God in fear (Gen 3:10). God tells Abraham to “fear not” when he is sent on his journey in Lech Lecha (Gen: 15:1). At the shores of the Red Sea we are told not to fear Pharaoh’s army (Ex 14:13) and endlessly elsewhere it seems we are told to have no fear.

Does God want us to have the ability to look physical or emotional stress in the eye and say, ‘no big deal, I can take it’? We are tough, we don’t fear anything? We are told in this week’s portion that the spies Moses sent to reconnoiter the promised land “have taken the heart out of us, saying ‘we saw there a people stronger and taller…large cities with walls sky-high.” (Deut. 1:28). Is that what fear is, lack of courage in the physical world?

Well wait one minute. That can’t quite be it. Throughout Torah we are absolutely told to fear God. Later on in Deuteronomy we get the classic turn of the Ve’ahavta to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might”—but FEAR “lest the anger of the Lord your God blaze forth” (Deut. 6:4). We were told directly in Leviticus “you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:14). It would seem that just as many times as we are told to have no fear, we are told also to be very, very afraid.

Maybe fear is more about a lack of trust. Is that what Torah is getting at? We should have complete confidence in God without any need for evidence or support other than ‘God said so’. If we learn to truly trust God, we will have no fear. We do see this theme regularly in Torah. Think about when Moses is told to talk to the rock to bring forth water, but instead, hits it twice. He is punished for this and we are never told why, but it would seem to be because Moses did not trust in the words and needed that physical manifestation of power.

Torah gives us some interesting juxtapositions about fear, courage and trust. Should we have blind faith in God and complete trust only in the divine? Or, is there some level of human free will that plays a role in any enterprise? Where do the physical and divine worlds of trust and fear meet? We still need to drive our cars, we can’t trust in God to steer a car. It would be unheard of in Judaism to substitute prayer for medical assistance—work to save a life is expressly permitted on Shabbat—even if we believe in prayers of healing. Torah recognizes human action and free will, even while demanding trust in God.

Ok, so let’s recap. We need to stand in awe of God and fear God, but we need to trust completely and have no fear, because if God is on our side we shouldn’t fear. But we need to be responsible for our own actions in the world and can’t rely on God to fix things even if we have complete trust and no fear of God. Got that? Simultaneously we need to be fearful, trusting and courageous and take action into our own hands but leave everything to God. Is that it?

For me, the epitome of this amalgam of emotions and actions is the image of Abraham with his knife raised over Isaac, that moment in the Akedah when he is prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s request. He knew very well that to swing down would end his son’s life, yet he has complete trust in God. That agonizing moment just before any movement of the knife he must have been living all those emotions of fear and courage and trust in that same crazed mix that Torah demands of us. The razor’s edge that is the balance between all those values and commandments…and after all, God did send an angel to Abraham at the last moment.

Ok, if that is what Torah says and means, what do we think of it? How can we possibly have this quantum mechanic ability to maintain completely opposite positions at the same time? What is this idealized state of trust and fear balancing against one another?

In that characterization it doesn’t feel much different than all the other themes in Torah. We are always balancing darkness and light; male and female; kashrut and treyf; Shabbat and work; one God versus idols; destiny and free will; Egypt versus the promised land. All of our stories and lessons from Torah are about that cutting edge where all these things exist and don’t exist, all those places and moments where we are all and none.

The archetypal moment is of course Shabbat. The pause after and before everything. That space between that bridges us from trust to courage or from this world to the realm of the divine. Remember, God is not in the noise and rush of the storm on the mountain, but in that pause just after.

Do I really fear God? Do I really trust God? I am sure that at moments I have had both emotions held in limbo simultaneously, but the sad truth is that most of the time I am just working my way through the world and can neither fear nor love, neither trust nor think of God. Clearly Shabbat is important to me, I keep coming back erev and boker looking for some divine connection. What I find is respite from work, the pleasure of a Jewish community, a little learning and every now and then something divine. Maybe the moments in which we are simultaneously fearful and courageous, trusting and doubtful are meant to be few and fleeting. Perhaps instead, we are meant to keep working at it. The balance is found on the journey not at the destination.

The spies only got one chance and they focused on the wrong aspect—they only thought of the destination and forgot that God was on the journey with them. Unlike the spies, we get endless chances to reach out and find those magic, fleeting moments when we can be one with the divine, or even just one with a fellow traveler. This Shabbat, let’s not be spies feeling like grasshoppers with giants ready to crush us. Instead, let’s see if we can take one moment of trust, or one moment of courage and turn it into something divine, our own personal promised land without fear. 

Shabbat Shalom.