The Spirituality of Hand-Washing

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by Rabbi Wendy Spears

As we approach Passover, I’ve come around again to thinking about hand-washing. When I was growing up, my family didn’t do this part of the Passover seder ritual. I didn’t learn about it until I was an undergraduate participating in a student-led seder at Hillel. At that time, it seemed to me to be a pretentious substitute for just getting up from the table and going to the sink to get our hands good and clean before eating the meal.

But hand-washing isn’t really about physical cleanliness. It’s about spiritual readiness, marking the transition from the ordinary or difficult to the realm of the spiritual. It is truly a practice of mindfulness. It’s part of Jewish culture to wash hands upon leaving a cemetery. This is where hand-washing has gained ritual power for me.

The process of ‘laving,’ the particular way of moving the water back and forth between hands so that each hand is bathed three times, requires a lot more thought and attention than a simple washing with soap under a gushing faucet. As I leave a cemetery, I take a few moments at the washing waterfall to say a blessing, bathe my hands, and read the sentence from Isaiah 25:8. This gives me some time to separate myself from the death experience and put myself in the frame of mind to drive home to my ordinary routine.

Hand-washing is most powerful to me when I’ve heard memory sharing of difficult circumstances. I recently officiated at a funeral where the deceased knew of abuse to other family members and did nothing at all to aid the victims. One of the victims revealed the story at the funeral and was validated by friends of the deceased that the information was known, and yet, the deceased felt powerless to intervene due to his own complicated relationship with the abuser.

I felt the need so strongly to wash away the immediacy of sadness. I didn’t want to forget the story, rather to not have the emotions cling to me in the moment when I needed to be able to focus on driving. Laving my hands had the immediate effect of clarifying my minds and cooling my emotions. The anger and sadness for the victims was put on hold momentarily.

No amount of washing can remove the memory of pain and suffering. And yet, it can hold the memories at bay temporarily. The beginning of the Passover story deals with the anger and sadness of bondage in Egypt. When I view the hand-washing through this lens, I can become more spiritually prepared to walk the path of the story as if it happened to me. It’s a process of being more aware of nuances in the Exodus narrative. As a participant in this narrative, I will be redeemed from that which enslaves me, that which prevents me from feeling truly free.

It’s so easy to get stuck in the ordinariness of life, to feel bound to errands, chores, paperwork, the commitments of the day to day activities. Like Shabbat is an oasis of rest in the rush of the week, so has laving my hands with water given me a small spiritual space to be mindful that there can be blessings, joy, and healing, even in the midst of pain and suffering on many levels. For this small mitzvah (a Jewish way of doing and being), I have become truly grateful.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

 

A Biblical Space-Time Continuum: Mishkan Ohel-Moed

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by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I am privileged to partake in learning Torah from student rabbis at the congregation where I am a member. As a group, we are reading each portion together and sharing the various commentaries at the bottom of each page of text.

During the last session, we read about the architectural and interior design details of the traveling tabernacle of the Israelites which they created in the wilderness while they were wandering. It was a place for God to dwell amongst them. It seems like these details were recorded in order to recreate this tabernacle at some point in the future. Creating this beautiful place in the midst of their wanderings was an amazing and cooperative effort.

The English words ‘tabernacle’ and ‘tent of meeting’ obscure the multiplicity of interpretations that can be found in the Hebrew. The first word in Hebrew is mishkan. This has a similar meaning to Shekhina, the in-dwelling presence of the Divine that is in all people, a presence that the Jewish mystical tradition also imagines as the feminine aspect of the Divine. It is similar in meaning to the modern Hebrew word shekhoona, a neighborhood or residential area. I understand from this that there is a sense of closeness, of intimacy, from this word. It is something that brings spirituality close to hand, so much so that you could reach out or reach in, and touch it.

The special tent (Ohel Mo-ed) in the wilderness, that the people could pack up and take with them wherever they went, was a place for God to live in the midst the people. It was a real place filled with holiness (a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night). The Place, ha-makom, is another name for God; it is somewhere in your own reality where you can find a sense of spirit, of wholeness, and of peace. It could also be a physical place where you experience the Divine.

The last word, translated in English as ‘meeting,’ is mo-ed in Hebrew. This word has to do with time, with being present in the moment. Mo-adim l’simkha are times of joy, celebrations and holidays. Ed is also the word for ‘witness’ in Hebrew, so mo-ed might mean ‘witnessing.’

This phrase Mishkan Ohel Moed seems more mysterious the more I think about it. It seems to recognize a concept learned relatively recently in science: Space-Time. It can be about setting aside a place and time for ourselves to begin to breathe slowly and deeply, to recognize the sacred all around us and inside of us. It encourages us to recognize beauty and create beauty, so that we see ourselves as beautiful and spiritual. It is also a community endeavor; when we are in relationships, we can experience holiness that we couldn’t reach alone.

The journey of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is one of the core stories in Judaism that teaches us many of our values; hospitality, community, rest from work, the worthiness of adventure and pushing our boundaries. The idea of space-time certainly pushes our intellectual boundaries. It seems possible that the ancient Israelites were trying to express this idea with Mishkan Ohel Mo-ed, creating time and space to experience the sacred that was also portable across space-time. That is truly remarkable and worth exploring.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Spirituality of Nurturing

Imageby Rabbi Wendy Spears

Over the course of many weeks, I was privileged to be in partnership with my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Zimmerman as we planned and shepherded a one-day retreat for a Mindful Journey Through Shabbat on January 18, 2014, over the long weekend celebrating the birth of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The retreat was intended to make space for the 60 participants to breathe in and experience the true peace of Shabbat (the Sabbath) while making time for themselves to be mindful of their own spirituality as well as that of those taking the journey with them. We sang, prayed, meditated, studied, conversed, did yoga – so many different levels of connecting as a community and opening ourselves to one another as well as our inner life.

My journey for the day centered around nurturing everyone by making sure that I took care of the details. By sitting at the registration table, I had the opportunity to greet the participants in joyfulness and welcome them into creating sacred space. I directed folks to restroom facilities. I coordinated meal set-up and clean-up with my colleague Rabbi Cindy Enger, Rabbi Jill’s husband Ely, and our staff – two snacks and the lunch, and arranged care packages for people to take home.

All of this may sound mundane, but it truly felt like I was stretching spiritually to be present for people in this way. I am often the scholar at events like these, and I know that role very well. I also know how to be a mother to my children and a life partner to my husband. Being the caring ‘mom-like’ presence for a large group felt new to me, and like an exercise in spirit. As I wrote out the name tags in preparation for registration, it was my intention to write in a beautiful way so that the little pieces of paper contributed to a lovely welcome. I chose a variety of colored folders for the learning materials to add to an eye-catching display. As I shopped for the snacks and ordered the lunch, I wanted to make sure that everything was delicious and abundant so that the participants felt that someone was looking out for them and caring for them.

There were many comments at the end of the day that everything ran smoothly, so that the participants were able to relax into each moment. Each hour of planning that went into the retreat contributed to its spiritual and peaceful atmosphere. There was warmth and connection, facilitated by people being able to let go and not worry about any details other than their own experience. I was truly blessed to extend my spirituality through hospitality. I think we don’t value enough the warmth and grace we can provide to ourselves and others in creating sacred space on the physical level. There is a teaching in Jewish mysticism that we come to understand God’s presence in our lives on four levels: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. The physical level is the first gateway, where everything begins. When we are hungry, too cold or too hot, uncomfortable, it is difficult to feel spiritual. It is often only when our physical needs are well-met that we can let our spirits soar.

As I looked out over the community of 60, I could see that they were comfortable. And my spirit soared.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

The Value Of Quality

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

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I love a bargain! Whether it’s for goods or services, I enjoy feeling I’m getting a good value for what I pay.

The main issue for me is quality. I admit that I shop at Target and CostCo. I use coupons. I’m mainly looking for nationally known brands for a lower cost, since I’ve had the experience that most name-brands are of higher quality than store-brands. However, CostCo’s store brand – Kirkland – is often as good in quality as the name-brand. When I asked a customer service representative about this, I was told that as a large retailer, CostCo often has the ability to work with the name-brand manufacturers to offer the same product under the Kirkland label.

While I don’t want to over-pay for goods and services, I’m willing to pay more for quality. In our often discounted marketplace, it’s easy to think that everything should be on sale for less all the time. We are fooled into thinking that high quality can always be available for a discount.

It is more difficult to assess quality when the product for which I pay is a service. It’s often very challenging to determine the credentials and experience of a service provider. The website Angie’s List was created for just this situation. Consumers rate providers on the services they’ve received. I also count on recommendations from family and friends when I’m looking for a plumber, air conditioning technician, or house painter. These are professionals for whom the average person can determine if they’ve received good service; i.e., the paint job looks smooth, the drain is unclogged, the air conditioning feels cold. Professionals like these also need a license from a government agency, so I ask to see proof of their license.

This process becomes more opaque when the professional offers a service that is more difficult to assess. Is the oncologist a good doctor if some of the patients die of cancer? How do you determine the value of dental care? When do you really know if your financial advisor is investing your retirement funds wisely? Most of us have heard of the Bernie Madoff financial scandal; he knew enough about the real deal to deceive his clients and steal their assets.

We all hope to avoid the disaster of a Bernie Madoff. I believe that most people are good people who aren’t out to cheat me. I want to be prudent in searching for a professional I can trust. In these situations, I need to investigate further and more in depth. I look at the quality and reputation of the institution where the professional was educated and, ideally, if the professional was near the top of the graduating class and/or received awards. I also want to know if the service provider is a member in good standing of a recognized professional association which can provide redress of any grievances. Then I rely on a referral from other professionals in the same field. While this process isn’t as easy as perusing Angie’s List, it is important if I want a quality experience with the professional who is providing the service.

This is exactly the same situation in choosing a rabbi or cantor, whether that professional is leading a synagogue or providing spiritual counseling in preparation for or in the aftermath of a wedding, funeral, or other learning situation in the community. A rabbi is more than an electrifying sermonizer or teacher of Jewish texts. A cantor is more than a beautiful voice singing Jewish songs and prayers. It’s about the whole package. There is a difference between teaching about the religion or singing a song and representing Judaism.

Genuine rabbis and cantors offer valuable quality in education and experience while being examples of living Judaism rather than merely selling a ceremony or class. Reform rabbis and cantors attend the nationally accredited Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion for 5 years of graduate study beyond their undergraduate educations. This involves rigorous training in Jewish literature and music, history, philosophy, human relations, and pastoral care with careful mentoring by professors and colleagues in the field. Rabbis are members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis while cantors are members of the American Conference of Cantors, both professional organizations that vet their members to ascertain that they are properly trained and educated as well as providing a forum for ethical behavior and redress of grievances.

There are people out in the community who are impersonating rabbis and cantors, using the titles without any authentic education, credentials, or ethical professionalism. Perhaps they have ‘good prices,’ but their value is questionable. They do not provide the same quality as the real deal; they are not the name-brand, but rather a pale facsimile. Just because someone has a wedding website doesn’t mean they are authentic rabbis or cantors. Quality and authenticity are valuable to me. I pray it is valuable to the Jews and spiritual seekers that I encounter in my life and work.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Thanksgivukah, a Once-In-A-Lifetime Gift

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

thanksgivukkahThese earrings are created by the artistry of my friend Susan at Yontifications.com. She calls them “When Worlds Collide.” Here’s what she says about them: “Chanukah and Thanksgiving together, again. We’ve waited 114 years and now it’s here! Now available, for that once in a lifetime experience.” It will be another 76 years before Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincide with each other exactly like this.

I love that title – When Worlds Collide. It certainly feels like that to me as a Jew with a spiritual and cultural practice that differs from the average American. More and more I feel like a salmon swimming up stream. It is challenging to continually make Jewish choices that set me apart even from other Jews. I truly love the richness and beauty that living Judaism brings to me and my family.

The irritation that I’ve heard expressed among people about this Chanukah-Thanksgiving combination is understandable if one thinks of Chanukah as the Jewish Christmas. Really, Chanukah can’t even come close to the extravaganza that Christmas has become. I’d like some separation between the celebration of two holidays that I enjoy, too. But I don’t feel nearly as put out as others seem to be. In some ways, it’s convenient for me this year since my older son is away at college. He’ll be coming home for a Thanksgiving break, so I’ll enjoy observing Chanukah with him rather than without him.

Really, Chanukah and Thanksgiving are the same holiday anyway, at least from a Jewish perspective. When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem from the Assyrian Greeks and rededicated the Tabernacle, they were preparing to celebrate the fall harvest festival of Sukkot. Thanksgiving is that celebration of the fall harvest, secularized.

I see this once-in-a-lifetime event as an opportunity to teach again about the importance of standing up for Judaism. We are a people that appreciates the differences between our Jewish culture and the American culture that surrounds us. It is a time to be grateful for the opportunities of America and the freedom we have to celebrate our uniqueness. We stand for the relationships that we create with one another and the stories we tell when we gather around a table of delicious food. We value the conversations and variety of opinions shared, illuminated by candles and refreshed by wine. Truly, this is a situation for which I’m very thankful.

So, forego the mashed potatoes this year and eat some yummy potato latkes with your turkey. Happy Thanksgivukah!

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

The God In Whom I Don’t Believe

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

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(“Red Canna” by Georgia O’Keefe. Owned by University of Arizona Museum of Art)

In the recently published study from the Pew Research Group, it’s been found that two-thirds of American Jews are not synagogue members and 25% don’t believe in God. I think these two statistics are related. It’s likely that Jews who don’t believe in God would have a very difficult time being synagogue members when much of synagogue activities continue to revolve around worship.

As a community rabbi, I don’t work for a synagogue. I am, however, a member of a synagogue. My colleague who is the rabbi of this synagogue is one of the warmest, kindest, social justice minded, communally oriented Jews I am privileged to know. At the synagogue, we rarely speak about God. The activity that holds pride of place on the synagogue calendar is worship. Using the current prayerbook is very difficult for me. The prayers of supplication and praise are directed to a God in whom I do not believe.

This is not to say I don’t believe in God. For me, that would be like saying I don’t believe in love. I believe in God with all my being. My authentic Jewish God is the unifying force in the universe, and the still, small voice of conscience and comfort in my mind. My God is that which connects us, one to the other, and my sense of being. My God is also the sense of awe and reverence I feel out in the world and in nature, that there is something bigger than myself of which I am a part.

My understanding of God is not the dominant image I see in the prayerbook. That God is a military commander, a harsh judge, an angry parent, a distant royal personage. The God of the prayerbook needs to be complimented before being asked for support. It is short-tempered and taciturn. It is male. I have an extremely difficult time reciting those prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe.

When I speak to couples planning their wedding or families experiencing the death of a loved one, nearly all of them say they believe in God. However, in 22 years as a rabbi, I’ve yet to meet any who believe in the God of the prayerbook. Admittedly, my clients are not members of synagogues. Perhaps they believe in God as I do, or some other permutation of Jewish theology. They are less Jewishly educated than I am, and often don’t relate their faith to anything Jewish. I imagine they’d have the same struggle with the prayerbook as I do.

If we changed the main focus of synagogue life from worship to meaningful conversation, I wonder if more Jews would want to become members. I think we, as a Jewish community, need to rethink the mission of synagogue life. As a community, we need common activities to help bind us together, to relate to one another on a more personal level, to support each other through challenging times, and rejoice with one another on holidays and in celebrations of life. Worship doesn’t need to be the primary activity any longer. I propose putting heartfelt and intellectual study in its place, accompanied by communal song, and snacks. Then we will be able to more effectively bring God amongst us, however we image that spiritual presence.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

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One of my very close friends is hosting an exchange student from Brazil this year. This particular student, of course, is a speaker of Portuguese. She has taken two years of English in high school. She will probably be a brilliant speaker of English by the end of the school year in 2014, after she has lived with my friend’s family. But not right now. Now, she is struggling to make sense of her life in a community where no one speaks Portuguese. All her classes at the neighborhood high school will be taught in English. I am worried about this straight-A student being able to navigate a strange environment without any of the aids of her native language, let alone maintaining her grade point average to get accepted at a decent university. I suggested to my friend that even though the student strongly desires being in an English immersion environment, it would be worthwhile to write to her parents and have them send some of her text books and literature in their Portuguese translations. I remember how I felt in Israel, breaking my teeth on Hebrew. I wouldn’t want to translate Pride and Prejudice from Hebrew back into  English.

For most of my rabbinate, I have been doing community outreach amongst Jews who are not members of any Jewish organization (“unaffiliated”). As we navigate the waters of the life cycle together, I sometimes use Hebrew terms to describe the various prayers and objects: huppah – wedding canopy; ketubah – wedding promise document; kaddish – the prayer of holiness recited at the end of a funeral; kri’ah – the torn black ribbon a mourner wears on the lapel to symbolize the tearing feeling of grief. Without the English explanations, the Hebrew terms are meaningless to the Jews with whom I work. They are often woefully uneducated about the Jewish rituals in which they are about to participate, let alone in Hebrew language.

I see myself as a tour guide of Judaism, opening the door and welcoming people into a rich and delicious environment filled with wonderful stories, tasty food, joyous holiday celebrations, and a mission to care for one another and make the world a better place. Some of my clients have had negative experiences of Judaism and Jewish people. Some have never had an identifiably Jewish experience. Some have had Jewish experiences in the past, but very long ago – their own bar/bat mitzvah or that of a friend or family member. Most of them have no idea how much they don’t know. They are often working with me to please a parent or grandparent, rather than looking for a Jewish experience specifically for themselves.

Working with unaffiliated people gives me the opportunity to sell Judaism, to help them see the gorgeous gems of thought, story, celebration, and ritual, that will enhance, broaden, and deepen their lives. But if I use too much Hebrew, that opportunity is often lost to me. Some of my colleagues, who have witnessed me officiating at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, or funeral, have accused me of being inauthentic and misrepresenting Judaism. It is difficult for them to recognize that Hebrew terms are a barrier for uneducated folks to appreciate the deep beauty of Judaism. Hebrew can make Judaism all but incomprehensible to folks who don’t know any Hebrew and are unfamiliar with this vocabulary. God understands all languages, even when people can’t. Jewish concepts continue to have meaning, even without the Hebrew terminology. Once a person falls in love with Judaism, they often want to learn Hebrew for themselves. Until they get there, those Hebrew words are like doors slammed in their faces that keep them away from Jews and Judaism. I aim to be the key that opens the doors.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Renewing Love Day By Day

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by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I had the privilege yesterday of participating in a renewal ceremony for a couple married 18 years. They formally recommit themselves to each other every year on their anniversary. Their 12-year-old son spoke during the ceremony to say how much he admired his parents in their love and commitment to each other. When he grows up, he wants to have a marriage like theirs. With so much divorce in our society, it is truly wonderful to experience on-going love and joy.

There seems to be very little support in our society for people to stay in long-term relationships. In film and on television, we enjoy watching romances blossom as much as we enjoy the drama and conflict of divorce. Chris Harrison has been hosting the reality t.v. shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for 11 years. He recently told Parade magazine that he never gets tired of the show or the people. In some ways, this makes me feel like we are still living in a Jane Austen novel; conflict, whether serious or frivolous, between various couples resolves in marriages. We rarely get to see couples after the wedding, or even several years down the road.

Even in Jane Austen’s novels, it’s the conflict that moves the story along. Our general society has a prurient interest in the problems of others. We seem a bit gleeful when we hear news of a divorce – “Well, they weren’t that good together anyway.” I was in the check-out line at Target the other day, when a couple of ladies behind me started to exclaim over one of the celebrity magazines in the news rack: “Omigod! I thought they would always be together! I wonder who he seeing behind her back!”

As a community rabbi, I’m also in the wedding business. The average cost of a wedding in Los Angeles is $60,000. That’s a huge chunk of change, but everyone is so happy to be spending it to celebrate together. I truly wish that this kind of money could be amortized over a couple’s marriage to help them build a treasure chest of joyful experiences and sharing together so that they can draw on that account when times get tough.

Judaism has so much wisdom to offer us in nurturing our relationships on a daily basis. It teaches us not to take them for granted. We sit down to a meal together where we share blessings along with the food. We are given the mitzvah (a Jewish way of doing and being) of having sex with our partner on Shabbat. There is a teaching in the Talmud that instructs a man to speak kindly to his wife and to touch her gently. (There’s also a teaching in the Talmud that advises a man that if his wife orgasms before he does, he is more likely to have sons. Hmmm.) At the end of the Passover seder, we read Song of Songs aloud. This biblical book is full of the most lyrical and erotic love poetry. Talking, touching, spending time together so that we can really see and understand our partners. I imagine if we did this, there would be less divorce and certainly a lot more joy in our relationships. We can, and should, enliven each other.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

“A Mask To Cover A Monster”

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by Rabbi Wendy Spears

This is a quote from Juan Perez to a reporter after 3 kidnap victims were rescued in his Cleveland neighborhood. Perez was talking about Ariel Castro, who owns a house 2 doors down from Mr. Perez and often chatted to him at neighborhood parties. Surface friendliness. No one actually knew the man who kidnapped 3 women and kept them imprisoned in his house for 10 years.

Do we really know our neighbors? I can tell you that of my 5 neighbors, I know one well enough to call her a friend. The others I know by name, but I don’t really know them. This is not for lack of effort on my part. The folks across the street have come over for dinner, but they’ve never reciprocated. I’ve invited the others for coffee and cookies, but they consistently turned me down or canceled at the last minute. I’ve never been in their houses. It’s not in my nature to be suspicious of people, but because I don’t truly know my other neighbors I can’t vouch for their goodness. The street where I live is not a community. I don’t know the others who live on this street at all, not even by name. I wouldn’t recognize them at the supermarket or the gas station. Most of them are at work all day and don’t come home until well after dark. They don’t seem to be home on the weekends, either. I suspect that their houses are really just places to store their stuff. So, if there was a monster on my block, I wouldn’t know it.

I don’t know if this situation is the same for others in different cities around the country. In each neighborhood where I’ve lived over the years in various cities – Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Sydney – people kept mostly to themselves. In contrast to this, I try to live the truth of two mitzvot (Jewish ways of doing and being) that I value most in Judaism: community and hospitality. I not only enjoy connecting with others to create and maintain community, I feel a responsibility to do this.

We learn one of these mitzvot right at the beginning of the book of Genesis – “It’s not good for a person to be alone.” Later in Genesis, when Abraham sees strangers walking toward his tent, he and his wife Sarah rush around to prepare a warm welcome for them which includes a meal and a foot bath. In my own life, I enjoy hosting holiday celebrations and informal gatherings for family and friends. There’s always good food and good conversation as we deepen our connection to each other. I model these values for my children and see how much the enrich my life.

In this time of Facebook and the other social media venues, it seems like people are connecting with each other. And yet, consistent reports show that they are lonelier than ever before. It takes effort and planning to be in relationships with others. It doesn’t just come automatically. I have friends and family members who are happy to be invited to an event or activity, but don’t return the favor. I have acquaintances who aren’t friends because they put very little effort into their relationship with me. It seems like they are often waiting for a ‘better’ offer when they say, “I don’t know yet what is happening on that day; I’ll need to get back to you.” I don’t think this really has anything to do with me. The people in my life who are willing to be in relationship make the time to do so because they value relationships. They’re not too busy or looking for some other activity. I find that we share other values besides being connected with and hospitable to each other. Being in relationship allows us to reveal our values and deeper selves to each other. This is a risk, but also a tremendous blessing. By opening ourselves to others, we can perceive the divine spark that dwells in our hearts, and welcome God’s presence into our lives. 

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Mourning and Money

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

There is the old adage everyone has heard: “You can’t take it with you.” This means, of course, that when we die and make our journey to Olam HaBa (the next world or afterlife), our leftover possessions and money stays in this world for our descendants, friends, or charities. In my 22 years as a rabbi, I’ve never seen a U-Haul truck following after the funeral coach.

Money left in a will is often perceived as an indication of love. For example, if my parents love my brother and me equally, their assets will be divided between us equally. The expectation in families is that if there are assets from the deceased person, those assets will be distributed equitably among the surviving family members who were all loved equally well. When this is not the case, the mourning for the deceased person is interrupted and relationships amongst the family are usually damaged, sometimes beyond repair.

Unfortunately over the past few years, I’ve seen many love relationships damaged by the insensitive handling of money matters, especially when dealing with inheritances that are inequitable. More times than I’d like to remember, money often takes precedence over relationships.

When parents make an inequitable distribution of their estate, it sends a message beyond the grave that they valued one child over another. The hurt that leaves behind cannot be easily healed. The person who took that action is gone from this world. The child might be able to forgive, but oftentimes they can’t. A second aspect involves the surviving family members, and the hurt that has been injected amongst them. The survivors didn’t cause the mess, but they are left to clean it up. The questions remain: do they clean it up and how do they do it? In my own family, I actually have a happy memory about how an inheritance was made equitable.

When my maternal great-grandparents Izzy and Toby were ready to retire, they sold their bakery business in New York and moved to California to be closer to Georgie and Larry, two of their three sons. Their eldest son, my grandfather Georgie, died 15 years later, predeceasing them by four years. When that happened, my grandmother Ruthie, their daughter-in-law, assumed caring for Izzy and Toby – visiting, preparing meals, looking after their accounts, accompanying them to medical appointments – as Georgie would have wanted. She was the best and most loving daughter Izzy and Toby could ever have wished for. She was present in their lives in meaningful ways, even while their youngest son Larry was not, although he lived in a nearby city. Izzy and Toby used to brag to their friends about how great Ruthie was to take such good care of them.

Unbeknownst to Ruthie or her two brothers-in-law Lenny and Larry, their parents changed their will and estate plan after Georgie’s death in favor of their surviving sons so that Lenny and Larry would divide Izzy’s and Toby’s estate equally between the two of them. This served to disinherit Georgie’s family from the estate. When the will was read, Ruthie was understandably shocked and hurt.

Fortunately for her, Lenny loved and respected Ruthie enough to convince Larry that what Izzy and Toby had done was wrong. After a bit of haggling, the brothers agreed that the estate should be divided in three equal portions rather than two so that my grandmother Ruthie received her husband Georgie’s portion.

Saying, “this was grandma’s wish,” when a “favored child” has the power to correct things is a telling moment. This can divide families for generations, or it can be a powerfully positive story of real family values – family unity is more important than money. “I won’t let grandma drive us apart. She did something wrong, but I have the power to correct it.”

Money is a powerful symbol of love and regard. It is ultimately the responsibility of the person who has inherited the largest share of the estate to protect his/her relationship with other members of the family by making the inheritance equitable. The responsibility to living family members and caring for those ongoing relationships must be held more dear than the extra share of an inheritance. Whether it was the wish of the deceased or not, love and care for one another needs to come before money. If the money becomes more important than the love, the relationships are often damaged for years, if not forever.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com or like her page on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.