About rebdeb

Debra Bennet is the assistant rabbi at Temple Chaverim in Plainview, NY.

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.

Grandma

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. 

It’s Almost Fall, Isn’t It?

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four_seasons(2)By Rabbi Debra Bennet

It was about two weeks ago when I realized that I had a problem. Somebody mentioned that they would contact me in the fall about a matter we had discussed. My first thought was, “It’s almost fall, isn’t it?” With the High Holy Days coming so early on the Gregorian calendar this year, I feel as if I spent my June enjoying summer and my July in the mind set that summer was already over. I needed to finish my sermons (not quite accomplished yet), prepare my teachings (still have to work on those), learn the Torah reading (I have to stop naming things I need to do since I am getting more anxious with each stroke of the keybroard) and so on and so on. I had an epiphany in that moment: It may still be July, but, in my head, I have skipped forward an entire month by dwelling, thinking, and obsessing about the High Holy Days.

And so, as the new month begins next week, I have decided to observe Elul in a slightly different way this year. The month of Elul, of course, is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. With a blast of the shofar each morning, we are reminded how close we are to those 10 Days of Repentance. For me, during this month in this year, I do not need any cues to prompt me in what is coming. I am more than fully aware. Instead, I need to be reminded that each day is significant in its own right. Elul is not just a direct course leading to the finish line, but a time to reconnect with God, with others and with ourselves. Each day provides this opportunity. Each day matters.

So, hold on for a second, September. Wait your turn, Tishrei. I will be busy living and loving Elul.

Weighing In

by Rabbi Debra Bennet

The weight issue is weighing on me

The conversation is inevitable: I eat a cookie at the oneg Shabbat and I hear, “You are so lucky that you can eat stuff like that and not weigh more than you do.” Or, I choose not to eat a cookie and I hear, “You are so good. How do you have such will power?” It doesn’t matter whether I eat that cookie or not, I still will hear the comment.

Why my actions and these comments do matter is because of a different conversation all together.

The Bat Mitzvah girl sat in my office and said the one thing she wanted more than anything else was to change how much she weighs. “I am going to join the gym and not eat bad food and maybe I will be better.” Close to tears, she sat there struggling and I sat there scared for her that her struggle would never really end.

The trend of teenage girls (and teenage boys and adults both male and female) basing their own self worth on the number on a scale is not a new phenomenon. I know that well. For five years in high school and the beginning of college, food (or the attempt to avoid it) determined so much of my life. Even so, why I am so troubled by this reality is how it has become a mainstay of conversations no matter where we are or what we are doing. A friend, who for medical reasons is on a gluten free diet, gets comments every time there is a cake at work that she does not eat. Recently, she ate the frosting off of a cake just so people would stop telling her how guilty they felt because of the way she was eating. I heard a second grader (an 8 yr old!) refer to her mom’s conversation with a friend about the mother’s weight. The little girl turned to her friend and asked, “Do you think I should go on a diet soon?”

The conversations are happening everywhere.

And so, our children are hearing them everywhere too. They know what is considered “good” and “bad” and how by embracing the former and rejecting the latter they can maybe, just maybe be good as well.

It is essential that we encourage healthy eating in our congregations, providing alternatives to cookies and soda whenever we can. But, it is essential that we alter these conversations around food as well. I am not naively advocating that a change in speech will stop the epidemic of eating disorders which plagues our country. But, if we do not begin to shift the conversation in our own communities, if we do not begin to model what are acceptable ways to speak about healthful eating and what are ways that lead little girls and boys to feel they are somehow bad for weighing more than they think they should, then I do not believe we are properly conveying the message of B’tzelem Elohim. “Bad” and “good” are words that do not even belong in this discussion. The words that do are “you are loved” and “you are holy” and “your body is a gift that you have been loaned to watch over and protect.”

The weight issue has been weighing on us long enough. At least, let us strive to make our congregations a place where our children will know they can learn and grow and be who they are regardless of a number (real or perceived) on the scale.

Remembering

After the shooting in Connecticut, a quote attributed to Morgan Freeman began to circulate around the internet. Popping up on countless Facebook pages, the quote addressed the recent horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Apparently, Freeman had stated “…we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine…Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours…” The quotation went viral. The only problem: Morgan Freeman never said it. Someone had falsely attributed the quotation to him. There can be a lot said about this hoax: how awful that someone is taking advantage of a terrible situation and how frightening it is that we so easily believe everything we see on Facebook without questing its authenticity. But, I keep coming back to the question: Why did this quote became such a popular piece to post? Of course, its connection to the actor provided it with prominence, but I believe something else happened as well. The quote said what so many people were thinking: What do we remember from these horrific instances? Do we rightfully honor the victims or only carry away the memory of the killer and the disgusting act he committed?                                                          

Two days prior to the shooting, I sat in a classroom with a group of women, discussing the power and responsibility of memory in a Rosh Chodesh class. We delved into the questions of what and how and why we remember. Little did we know how relevant our conversation would be in only a few days. That night, we examined an interesting, yet seemingly contradictory text from the Torah. In Deuternomy, we read, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. 18 When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuternomy 25:17-19). As they left Egypt, tired and overwhelmed, the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, even preying on the weakest in the community, those who lagged behind. God instructs us to “remember” what Amalek did. But, we are also told to “blot out his name.” Lastly, God says “do not forget.” So the question always becomes are we supposed to remember, forget, or remember not to forget? Maybe we are bound to do each and all of these things. Maybe God is instructing us to remember what has happened to us, but do not remember blindly or without thinking. God says: “Blot out the name of your enemy” so the focus of our memory will not simply expand the prominence of this enemy.

As humans, our curiosity about the shooter in Newtown leads us to wonder about his motive, his planning, what in his life lead him to that moment on Friday when he committed an unfathomable act. But we cannot allow this questioning to overpower our interest in preserving the memories of those who died that day: who they were and what they gave to the world, even in the limited days many of them were on this earth. May we ensure that those individuals killed in Newtown always be remembered. And may the memories of their lives shine for all the world to see. Zichronam L’vracha — May their Memories Always Be for a Blessing.

The Spontaneous Moments of Elul

By Rabbi Debra Bennet

The month of Elul is all about preparation.  As we quickly approach the High Holy Days, we get ourselves ready for a time of reflection, repentance, and connection with the Divine.  This period of readying ourselves is an essential part of our High Holy Day observance.  However, a few recent events have made me even more aware of how, alongside our preparation, we must be open to the possibility of spontaneous events that create true moments of connection and meaning.

Following the tragic shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin earlier this month, I joined with clergy, government representatives, and individuals of all different faiths and beliefs to mourn with the local Sikh community through a candlelight vigil.  We came to show our support and to provide comfort to the congregation as they struggled with this horrific event.  As we stood beneath the starry night, candles in hand, the members of the Sikh community discussed their reactions, their thoughts and their sense of absolute shock.  They were grateful for the presence of all who had come, reiterating again and again the comfort it provided.  But something remarkable happened that evening.  More than the support we could give to them was the strength that they gave to each of us.  Through the tenants of their religion, a religion emphasizing respect and appreciation for all faiths, they provided us with a true example of responding to tragedy with dignity.  The community focused upon retaining a sense of hope and a sense of the goodness of others even in the face of this horrific event.  They spoke of the gift we had brought them, but I left having discovered this incredible gift that they had given to us.

This past Shabbat, I gathered with a group of Israeli and American teenagers who are part of a program through the local JCC called “Crossing Borders.”  For two years, these teens have been communicating via the internet and exploring the reality of Jewish life in Israel and in America.  Last Monday, they met for the first time.  On Saturday night, we came together to discuss some “hot topics” that affect the lives of Jews everywhere.  I was enthusiastic for the evening to begin, knowing what great conversations would unfold as the night progressed.  But, what came to have the most meaning was something that happened before these conversations even began.  As we davened Mincha and read from the Torah, the Israelis came up for the aliyot.  After the first aliyah was completed, the young Israeli who had read the blessing shared that this night was the first time he had ever participated in the mitzvah of blessing the Torah.  Two other Israelis said the same.  So on that evening, three Israelis stood at the Torah and recited the Torah blessings for the first time in their lives.  As we sang the words of the Shehechianu, I glanced at their faces and the faces of their friends who sat in the pews before them.  Feelings of wonder filled the room as we relished in this holy, yet unexpected moment. Image

Preparation enriches our lives and enriches this season in so many ways.  But, as we focus on our process of getting ready, let us remember to remain open to the moments for which we may not have prepared and could not have expected.  For in those times, we so often find a link to others and a link to the Divine.

Hineini, B’ni

I am sitting at my office at work, attempting to finish my sermon for the following evening.  I receive a phone call from the babysitter at home.  Eytan, my 2 year old son, is laying by the sliding glass door, crying because all he wants to do is go outside.  Micah, my three month old baby, has been screaming for forty-five minutes straight.  He is tired, wanting to return to sleep, but having no luck.  I try to work whatever magic I can from a phone call away and hang up with the babysitter.

My heart sinks and the onslaught of guilty feelings begin. “Why am I not there for them?” I wonder as I return to my sermon, hoping to still find the inspiration I had before.  And then I am left with a familiar voice in my head questioning, always questioning, “How can I devote the time and energy I long to give to my congregation and still be there in the way I need to be for my sons?  If only half of my effort is going into each, will I ever feel satisfied or am I just setting my self up for failure?”  My questions are not new and are not unique.  They echo the struggle of parents everywhere.

In the text of the Torah, there is a word our ancestors used to convey to others that they were available, ready and present.  That word was “hineni” or “here I am.”  Rabbi Harold Schulweis describes hineni as “the initial willingness to respond to the other, the readiness to act on the others behalf no matter what is being asked.”[i]  And this is where I face my biggest struggle.  Am I truly able to respond with the word hineini in my life?  Can I ever say to another I am ready no matter what is being asked?  Can I be there in this way for congregants?  Can I be there in this way for my sons?

Our ancestors responded time and again to the call of God with the response, “hineini.”  However, there are only two instances where a parent responds to his child in this way.  The first is the response of Abraham to Isaac during the Akedah.  As Abraham brings his son up to the top of the mountain, preparing to sacrifice him at God’s request, Isaac turns to his father and says, “Father.”  Abraham responds, “Hineni.”[ii]  The second is the response of Isaac to his son Jacob.  After Isaac instructs his older son, Esau, to prepare a meal and come to his father to receive his blessing, Jacob returns instead.  Jacob says, “My father.”  And Isaac responds, “Hineni.”[iii]

Remarkably, these instances are not times of great certainty.  Instead, they are both periods of upheaval and questioning.  Abraham struggles with an impossible conundrum:  losing his son or responding to the will of God.  Isaac questions the identity of the son who has returned, knowing “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”[iv]

In these examples, it is almost as if the response is less of a sure statement, “I am here and I am ready,” and more of a reassurance to the parent.  Hineni is what that parent needs to say in the moment as much as what the child needs to hear.  “I am not sure what tomorrow brings, but I am your parent and I am here for you.”

So maybe that is where my answer lies.  I do not know how I will be present in all of the areas in my life in the way that I want to be.  I cannot know what tomorrow will bring.  But, I am here for you.

Hineini, b’ni.


[i] Rabbi Harold Schulweis “One Hineini Against Another,” Hineini in Our Lives, Norman J. Cohen, (Vermont:  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003) 163.

[ii] Genesis 22:6

[iii] Genesis 27:18

[iv]  Genesis 27:22