The Newness of Choosing Life

“Choosing life” gained a whole new meaning for me this year.

On September 2, my son was getting ready for his first day of kindergarten.  As I saw my mommy friends around me preparing and anticipating, I felt as if I was standing on the outside looking in.  I should have been worrying about books and notebooks and bags.  Instead, I sat waiting for a phone call, a phone call which would tell me if my grandmother, Grandma Arlene, had survived the night.  My friends were counting hours until the beginning, while I was counting hours and days since she had had her last bite of food, her last sip of water.  Days without nourishment.  Weeks of knowing that a phone call would be coming.  Hours of joining my parents, my aunts, my sister at different moments in a bedside vigil.

I wanted to be there for my son with all a mother feels and experiences as her first child begins kindergarten.  I wanted to embrace the key experiences that encompass that first day:  the new, pristine outfit worn for the first time, the moment he stepped on that school bus and turned around for one last good-bye, the expression on his face as he bounded off the bus after a long first day.  I wanted to be there and truly be present, but I was scared that it had become impossible.

How could I focus on the world of the living as I continued to wait for the inevitable moment when I knew I would lose my grandmother forever?

“I call heaven and earth as witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). On this Yom Kippur, as we read these words once again, they have come to have an entirely new and different meaning for me.

I saw this choice so clearly before me that day:  life and death.  Could I embrace the life around me or would I just collapse in the despair of loss?

What is remarkable about this passage is that it allows for both.  The statement acknowledges the reality that, in life, we experience the good and the bad, the blessing and the curse.  We live with loss and pain and despair just as we live with joy and comfort and hope.  And there are moments when the choice to embrace the latter in the face of the former becomes that much more difficult.

And so I awoke on the morning my son would begin school and I sat with my little boy as he ate his breakfast, laughed with him as he amused us both with his usual morning silliness and hugged him as he stepped onto that bus.  I did my best to choose life.  And I continue to struggle to do the same, embracing life not in the absence of death, but as I sit engulfed in its reality; choosing life for myself and for him.  And in making that decision, maybe, just maybe I will be carrying forward the life that my grandmother has given us both—her strength, her strong opinions (as anyone who knew her knew well), and her fervent hugs—the pieces of her which are a part of us today and will continue to be a part of us even now that she is gone.


My grandmothers, Grandma Arlene on the left and Grandma Horty on the right, when my son was 1 month old.  My Grandma Arlene died on September 7.  Zichrona Livracha. 

All of Us: A D’var Torah on Netzavim-Vayelech

U.S. Embassy, Tel Aviv, 9/3/2012

Today you are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your chieftains, your tribes, your leaders and your officers — all the men of Israel,  along with your little ones, your women and your resident aliens here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water. – Deuteronomy 20:9-10

When Moses officiated at the solemn ceremony of the covenant between God and Israel described in Deuteronomy he began with this preamble. The verb netzavim has a special meaning that mere “standing” doesn’t fully convey. The people are officially present to make a sacred promise. The closest usage of “stand” in English is “to take a stand.” The People of Israel are not just hanging out; they are ritually and officially present to take action.

In case “all of you” might be mistaken for “just the guys,” Moses made it clear that he meant everyone from the heads of the clans to the lowest hanger-on. He is specific: all the men, plus children, women, and foreigners, including day laborers. This vow was not to be taken by proxy: no one “stood in” for anyone else. No one is “understood” to be there, and no one is excluded.

In other words, everyone mattered. The covenant is both communal and personal, and no one is left out. There are no second-class Jews in the eyes of God.

A version of this d’var Torah appeared on Rabbi Adar’s blog Coffee Shop Rabbi.


Far Too Busy?

spinningby Rabbi Wendy Spears

The High Holy Days season is the most frenetic for rabbis as they prepare for the largest crowds of the year attending synagogue worship. In addition to writing and editing multiple sermons, rabbis are also focused on the opening of synagogue membership season. New folks are coming in the doors to check out what the synagogue can offer them, while veteran members are re-evaluating their involvement in on-going activities. As a community rabbi rather than a synagogue rabbi, I am a step removed from this although I see my colleagues trying to juggle a lot of plates.

The end of August and beginning of September is also the time many families make the transition from the relative relaxation of summer schedules to the fast-paced action of the new school year with its requisite renewal of sports practice, music and art lessons, homework, and Hebrew practice. I see many of my friends consumed by busy-ness. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte writes about all of this frenetic activity in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything on the to-do list completed.

Happily, I find myself in a very different place. I’ve entered a new chapter in my life in which I am succeeding in putting mindfulness into practice. I have one child in college and the other in high school. They have begun to take charge of their own activities. The hard physical work on my part of their early childhoods is completed, as is the need for constant conversation to stimulate their developing brains. I am devoting more time to my rabbinate, to my enjoyment of attending cultural activities with my husband, and to my own spiritual sustenance. I take time to reflect and be present much more in the moment. I used to admire my colleague Rabbi Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, for his ability to do this on a regular basis. As Brigid Schulte writes, “Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness. Then we starve the capacity we have to love. It creates this ‘unquiet heart’ that is ever desperate for fulfillment.”

With Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning on the evening of September 24, we have a tremendous opportunity to be present in moments of holiness within community. It is the time to begin reflecting on what we’ve accomplished and experienced this past year and to rejoice in that, while also recognizing the mistakes and hurts we’ve caused others and to make amends. I plan to read again the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes during the many moments of silence during worship. The wisdom literature attempts to teach us how to live a good life when we know that the people and things in this life are ephemeral. Much of the literature sounds as if it was written today rather than thousands of years ago.

While many people I know complain about being too busy, I find that I’ve really stopped feeling that way and saying those words. I make time for what’s important to me, whether it’s for myself or to spend with friends and family. As I think back on this odyssey of raising my children, I didn’t over schedule them with sports, lessons, and other activities. I tried to leave them enough time to just be. Sometimes we went on field trips to explore the culture of Los Angeles. Most often, we were at home on the weekends and available to each other or to be with friends and extended family.

While it’s in my nature to push forward and get a lot of stuff done, I’ve tried over the past year to stop cramming so much into each minute of the day. Previously, I was constantly looking at the clock, trying to determine how much I could get done before the next activity or appointment. I was consistently late, and I really hate being late. This year, I’ve been a bit easier on myself and have even left some things on my to-do list undone. I’ve started to exercise again and have let go of some hobbies. I can honestly say that I feel calmer, even though my calendar of activities looks as full now as it did last year. And I feel more prepared and eager for the opportunity for spiritual introspection on these quickly approaching High Holy Days.

#overwhelmed #busy #roshhashanah #rabbis #highholydays #mindfulness

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at

One Land, Two Conflicting Stories

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

It seems like everyone has become an expert in how to solve the crisis between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. With the 24/7 news cycle, the myriad details of this issue are examined, analyzed, and discussed ad nauseum. It is very easy to be an armchair critic from afar. However, there is no easy solution for this complex problem.

There are two groups of people who claim ownership of the country Israel: Jews and Arabs. Both groups claim to be indigenous people, and it doesn’t much matter which group was there first since both are there now. Jews claim the land based on the biblical and historical narrative that this is the place God promised to the descendants of Abraham. While much of the Jewish population was exiled from the land by the Romans, a remnant remained. It was the Romans who changed the name of the place from Judea to Palestina (a variant of Philistia, one of Judea’s enemies), as an insult to the conquered population.

The Jewish story has been one of longing to return to Israel over the course of their history from the Roman period onward. Jews lived in their ancient homeland under the governance of the Ottoman Turks and under the British Mandate. They accepted the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 to apportion the land to both the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs.

The Arab story is that they, too, are the indigenous people in the land and see themselves also as descendants of Abraham. Like the Ottoman Turks and the British, they see the Jews as European imperialist usurpers who must be expelled rather than tolerated. They don’t consider Jews to be indigenous people like themselves. They didn’t accept the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan.

These two narratives don’t combine well, and have been the underlying reason for the continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jews have given land for peace: the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1982 and is Jew-free; Gaza was given to the Palestinian Arabs in 2005 and is Jew-free, and currently controlled by Hamas. A portion of the West Bank is under the control of Fatah.

But there is suddenly a glimmer of hope for peace. Mahmoud Abbas, the official voice for Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank said in an interview with Ha’Aretz newspaper in Israel (July 8, 2014), “I am totally committed to the vision of a two-state solution, normalization and peace with our neighbor – Israel.” Pretty astonishing, considering the history and the current conflict being staged by Hamas.

I continue to pray for peace between Israel and all her Arab neighbors. May it come soon in our lifetime.

#peace #Israel #Palestine #Hamas #Fatah #Abbas #MidEastConflict

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at

A Prayer for Healing

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

Vayivra Elohim et-ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto.

God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God created them. (Gen. 1:27)

May the One who created our ancestors in the Divine image, and blessed them with bodies of infinite variety, bless all who are in distress today.

From Divine Wisdom, Chochmah, grant each of us the Wisdom appropriate to our roles: to doctors, give skill; to nurses, give patience and perception; to caretakers of all kinds, give endurance and the wisdom to know when to seek help and where to find it.  Amen.

From Divine Understanding, Binah, grant us the understanding to see sufferers as they really are, to perceive the Divine Image within them even when it is hard to see. Whatever our own suffering, grant us the understanding that we are not alone, that sometimes it is in comforting another that we can find some comfort.  Amen.

From Divine Lovingkindness, Chesed, grant us lovingkindness, to listen to troubles as many times as they need to be heard.  Amen.

From Divine Compassion, Rachamim, grant us compassion for those who are sick in ways we do not fully understand. Give us compassion for those who are ill in ways that frighten or disturb us. And give us compassion for ourselves, when we fail to meet our goals.  Amen.

From Divine Kingship, Malchut, grant us the self-discipline to do what we need to do to guard and restore our own health.  Grant us also restraint in expressing our opinions: give us the humility to accept that sometimes we do not know what is best for others.  Amen.

From Divine Strength, Givurah, grant us strength to endure what must be endured, to persist in treatment if treatment is prescribed, to support those who are fallen ill with all of our strength, and finally the strength to accept those things which must be accepted.  Amen.

And from Divine Beauty, Tiferet, grant us the ability to appreciate the beauty in this world, no matter what troubles surround us. Let us walk daily among miracles with our hearts wide open to one another and to You.  Amen.

May the One who blessed our Ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel bless all who are sick, all who are troubled in mind, body or spirit, and grant them healing.  And we say, AMEN.

Image: “It’s Raining at the Broken Bridge” by Vinoth Chandar. Some rights reserved.

Member of the Tribe

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I am saddened and fearful each moment due to the current situation in Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization which controls the Gaza Strip, is firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel. For my own family members, the Israeli people, and the beautiful country itself, I am anxious.

It’s challenging to feel connected to Israel if you’ve never been there. As a first-year graduate student, I lived in Jerusalem. It was an opportunity to see the places about which I’d only read, as well as experience life in all its complexity. Good thing I took Hebrew classes while at UCLA; I was able to communicate a little bit with my neighbors and the local shopkeepers. My Hebrew language skills greatly improved over the course of that year.

I enjoyed riding the bus from my 4th floor walk-up apartment to campus, buying fresh flowers and the English language newspaper The Jerusalem Post on Fridays, and walking all over the city by myself without fear of crime. All those soldiers with guns are there to protect civilians. And wow! Israelis certainly know what to do with a vegetable. It was easier to be a vegetarian in Israel than anywhere else I’d been before that.
When many of my clients talk about being Jewish today, they refer to holiday celebrations at Hanukkah and Passover, going to funerals at Jewish cemeteries, and attending bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies – either their own or those of family and friends. They rarely talk about some of the aspects that continue to engage me in Judaism: stories which express our values and history, new understandings of keeping kosher (Jewish way of doing and being), connections with Jewish people and places where we’ve lived over the course of our peoplehood. Wherever I go, whether at home in Los Angeles or traveling, I search out Jewish people, places, and experiences.

Heed these words from my colleague Rabbi Aaron Panken: “If you have plans to be [in Israel], come. If you do not yet have plans to be [in Israel], make them soon. . . Sign up now to reserve your place for a trip that will expose you to everything [Israel] is now and is becoming. If you cannot spend time in the near future, then it is incumbent upon you to become informed – read Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, and try to stay on top of events as they develop. Only with a long-term commitment to reading regularly can one hope to become knowledgeable enough to understand the many aspects of Israel’s complex mélange of culture and faith, memory, and history.”

A sense of peoplehood is essential to being Jewish. This happens best by seeking out just those experiences that I’ve mentioned in the preceding section. And while it may seem unsafe to visit Israel at this particular moment of Hamas rocket fire, this situation will eventually pass. I encourage all my readers to make it a priority to visit Israel, either for the first time or again. It will help to connect you more strongly to what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at
#Israel #Jewish #peoplehood

Women and Work: Who is Our Moral Leader?

Take a look at the non-fiction New York Times Best Seller’s list and you will find that #11 is “Lean In” and #17 is “The Confidence Code.”  Both books deal with the subject of women’s success in the workplace and obstacles to success.  On the one hand, we can be excited that authors are stepping forward and exerting some leadership in addressing the question of why women are still not advancing at the rate of men.  That’s a good thing.  What is a bit troubling is that both of these books examine what women are doing wrong and how we are responsible for our own dead ends and glass ceilings (my words not theirs).  I like that there are women leaders who are set to coach us on being more assertive and more confident.  I appreciate that these authors are encouraging women to harness and utilize their natural skills of team work, multi-tasking and nurturing to get ahead.  But in the bigger picture I miss an old-fashioned feminist voice.  Where is this generation’s Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.  In fact, why has Steinem, herself, stopped shouting?  We should maximize our talents and be more aggressive to get further.  But someone needs to spell out and remind everyone of the painful truth that misogyny is alive and well.  We need to be reminding ourselves how we should be raising our boys.  Yes, there are men in positions of power who are “gender blind” and who consequently give women a totally equal shake.  There are even men in positions of power who kvell at women’s success and go out of their way to help women get ahead.  But there are still many, many individual men and groups of men who use their power to keep women down, who harass women and who delight in repressing their advancement. Women’s equality is not a war that was won in the 1970’s and therefore is an achieved goal. Rather, the enlightenment of men and women on the subject of women’s true equality of opportunity in the workplace is a battle that needs to be fought again and again, an education that needs to be reaffirmed in every generation.  It’s like the study of Torah–you never finish.  Every year we read and study the meaning of stories like the brilliant coordinated efforts among Yocheved, Miriam and Batya in rescuing Moses.  It’s not a one time learning.  It’s a forever and over again thing.