Let’s Celebrate Love

Last week’s parashah was Chaye Sarah. An eventful portion, it includes the death of Sarah, and the remarriage and then death of Abraham. Between the two deaths, however, Abraham arranges to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his most trusted servant, Eliezar, who encounters Rebecca at the well. Rebecca learns of Eliezar’s mission and consents to return with him to become Isaac’s wife. Upon their arrival in the Negev, where Isaac was living, the text tells us:

Isaac was out walking in the field … and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master, [Isaac].” So she took her veil and covered herself. Then the servant told Isaac all … that he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

This passage includes the first mention of romantic love in the Torah. We’ve already met Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, Noah’s sons and their wives, and Abraham and Sarah. But we never read of love in any of the previous relationships. It’s possible to infer love, even possibly romantic love, but the Torah is completely silent until Isaac and Rebeccah.

Rabbi Ya’akov Weinberg once used a business analogy to describe marriage. “A marriage is not a partnership,” he said. “A marriage is a merger. In a partnership, each partner demands an accounting to settle a proper distribution of profits. Although each partner engages in a joint effort for the benefit of the partnership, each still has his personal interests in mind. A merger, however, fuses the interests of both business entities. Two separate and distinct companies integrate into a new, unified whole which functions for one common goal. No longer is each entity centered on promoting its own interests.”

I like these words – that marriage is a merger, not a partnership – perhaps because in my relationship, I am denied the right in most parts of the country to use the word “marriage” and I instead I must use the word “partner.” In fact, in my former state, New Jersey, unlike New Hampshire where I live now, the legislature rejected the effort to eliminate civil union partnerships for same-sex couples and replace them with same-sex marriage.

On more than once occasion in my life, the person with whom I was speaking assumed my partner Shira and I were in business together when I referred to her as my partner.

We are thrilled to finally live in a state in which our legal marriage is recognized as such. It wasn’t easy to get there. We have had five ceremonies in three different states to achieve legal marriage. It happened in 2008, when we were in California during the brief window when same-sex marriage was legal in the Golden State.

In states that have civil unions, those laws are supposed to provide same-sex couples with 100% equality of benefits and treatment that are afforded heterosexually married couples in that state. The reality, however, is far from that. Couple after couple is denied rights or treated differently. Many employers in New Jersey refuse to recognize civil unions as equal to marriage, and therefore do not grant equal health benefits to partners of employees. Employers and hospitals say that if the legislature intended for the civil union law to be the same as marriage, the legislature would have used the same name.

Civil unions will never achieve the equality of marriage. Vermont enacted the country’s first civil union law in 2000, inventing the term “civil union.” For nine years, Vermont waited for civil unions to grow to be the equal of marriage, but it never happened. That’s why Vermont changed its civil union law to marriage equality in 2009, as did New Hampshire.

Just about a year ago, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee passed a bill to repeal same-sex marriage law and re-replace them with civil unions. Thankfully, the bill failed to get out of committee.

What happened on election night this year was monumental. Maine, Maryland, and Washington State all enacted same-sex marriage, after 32 straight defeats in previous statewide ballot referendums on marriage equality. And Minnesota rejected an effort to define marriage as one man and one woman.

Add to this the election of Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. Tammy will enter the Senate as the first openly gay or lesbian person in the U.S. elected to that body. The outcomes of these five initiatives and candidacies – along with openly gay or lesbian candidates of both parties being elected in various state and local elections – represent a qualitative shift in our society. And for me, the most important message it sends is to our young people – that no matter who you are, how you feel, and who you love – you are a child of God, created in the image of God, and you have much to live for. Perhaps these votes will lessen the bullying … and the suicides. I can’t thank the voters of this country enough for speaking loudly and siding with fairness, equality, and love.

In last week’s parashah, Isaac knew love and married Rebecca. Their son Jacob, too, eventually married the woman he loved, Rachel, after first marrying her sister, Leah.

Several years ago, I asked a seventh grade class to tell me all the reasons two people may be denied the right to marry. We began with Jacob and Rachel – they could not marry at first because in their culture the older daughter must get married before the younger. The kids listed tons of other reasons – age, religious differences, war dividing nations, class barriers, and being of the same sex, to name just a few. They focused on that last one and thought it was utterly ridiculous for same-sex couples to be denied the right to marry.

These seventh graders are now in college. Many voted this past Tuesday for the first time. The direction our society is heading in is in their hands, and they let us know what we can expect. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s celebrate love. Let’s celebrate a table, a tent, even a chuppah, that is big enough to hold us all.

Robin Nafshi, ravnafshi@gmail.com, serves with joy as the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob, in Concord, NH.

Happy Birthday

Today (September 12) is my birthday. I remember during my first year of rabbinical school, Dean Michael Marmur at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus posed the following question to our class: Who is the only person whose birthday is mentioned in the Bible? No one could answer. Being the smart Alec (Alexa?) that I was, even at age 40, I asked, “Would that be the Hebrew Bible?” Dean Marmur looked up at me, somewhat in disbelief and responded, “Yes, Robin, now that you are in RABBINICAL school, when someone refers to the Bible, that would be the Hebrew Bible.”

Class ended and still no one had answered. I went back to my apartment and researched until I found the answer: Pharaoh! (See Genesis 40:20-22.) I emailed Dean Marmur and he congratulated me on having redeemed myself.

For Jews, birthdays are thought to be relatively unimportant. Unlike Americans, who remember deceased people on their birthdays (Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), we remember people on the date of their death. Yahrtzeit plaques may include both a birth date and a death date, but the lights next to them are turned on for the day (or month) of death. That’s also when we light a yahrtzeit candle and recite the name for Kaddish. Birthdays seem so ordinary, so perhaps even … pagan. After all, only Pharaoh’s birthday is mentioned in the Torah. The date of death, on the other hand, feels sacred.

Yet, we Jews have many traditions surrounding birthdays:

At age of five, a child is to start studying Torah.

At age ten, a child is to start studying Mishnah.

At age thirteen, a boy becomes a bar mitzvah and at age twelve, a girl becomes a bat mitzvah — and is obligated to perform the mitzvot.

At age fifteen, a person is to begin studying Talmud.

At age twenty, a person is to pursue a career.

At age thirty, a person has strength.

At age forty, a person gains understanding.

At age fifty, a person can offer advice.

At age sixty, a person becomes wise.

At age seventy, a person is respected.

At age eighty, a person is considered to be a hero for achieving that age.

At ninety, a person is considered to be old.

And perhaps our most frequently-invoked birthday tradition: when a person reaches any age, the greeting we offer is ad meah v’esrim, (may you live) until 120, the age of Moses at his death.

With this birthday, I can offer advice though I am not yet wise, and won’t be for another eight years. That’s fine by mean.

I won’t do much to celebrate, as I, like most of our bloggers and readers, am in the throngs of High Holy Day preparations. I am simply grateful to God for helping me to reach another year.

Robin Nafshi serves as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.

One Crack, Two Bam

I lived in San Francisco for 16 years – after law school and before rabbinical school. During that time, I was invited to join a mah jongg group that had been going for many years. The group consisted of four Jewish women of multiple ages looking for a fifth so that one person – usually the evening’s host – could sit out during some games. This was important, as the group rotated homes and the host served dinner. I jumped at the chance to join what I perceived to be an exclusive and somewhat secretive club.

My mother did not play mah jongg. Well, she played once, but didn’t like. I asked her why. “All they did was gossip and eat,” she replied. “How could she not like it,” I wondered. Those were her two favorite activities.

My grandmothers (I have been told – they both died before I was born) did not play mah jongg, either. A cousin did, weekly, until the day she died a few years ago well into her late 80s. But it’s fair to say we were not a mah jongg family.

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I fell in love with the game. I loved the sound of the tiles bumping up against each other. Once, our group in San Francisco was invited to the home of a Chinese co-worker of one of our group members. The co-worker and her family played mah jongg, but a very different version than we did. The various Asian versions of the game are free flowing and flexible, sort of like gin rummy. The American (read: Jewish) version took that flexible game and established acceptable and unacceptable hands, laid out on a multi-colored cards that change each year. What does it say about our people that we spend during our leisure time playing a once-flexible game that we changed to fill with rigidity and rules?

The Jewish-Asian evening was a blast. We watched them play and then they watched us, mostly shaking their heads in disbelief at how different (and strict) our game was. Then we shared an amazing Chinese dinner and some great wine.

When I left San Francisco to enter rabbinical school, I met my partner, Shira, who is now a cantor. It turned out that her parents (yes, even her father) played mah jongg. We all taught Shira how to play, and now when we are together, it doesn’t take long for the tiles to emerge. We spend many an evening playing game after game until someone starts falling asleep and calls it a night.

But alas, Shira’s parents live in Florida and we in New Hampshire, and so our visits and mah jongg games are infrequent.

Luckily for us, we have found a new group where we live. Several women from our congregation have been playing for years. We discovered them the weekend two and a half years ago when we came to visit and meet the congregation before they voted to engage me as their rabbi. I was out with the search committee on Sunday morning. Shira was brought over to the Temple. Three of mah jongg playing women were sitting at a table, tiles spread, looking for a fourth. Shira walked right over and introduced herself. “You don’t happen to play mah jongg?,” they asked. “Well, yes, I do … and so does Robin.” An hour later as I walked into the Temple, I heard Shira’s voice saying, “mah jongg!” I knew this was the place for us.

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And It is on so many levels. Not the least of which is the mah jongg group. We’re hosting this Saturday night. A little wine, a potluck dinner, havdalah, and one crack, two bam! I am honored to be counted among the sisterhood of Jewish women across the world who have embraced the tradition, passing it down l’dor vador, from generation to generation.

Robin Nafshi serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire. You can email her at ravnafshi@gmail.com.

Chaplain to the Throwaways

It was a gorgeous December day in Florida. Driving from Miami to Key West, we stopped to visit my partner’s cousins in their boutique along the highway. As we caught up on the last several years of our lives, my cell phone rang.

“Hello.”
“Is this Rabbi Nafshi?”
“Yes.”
“This is Reverend Estelle from the State Penitentiary for Women in New Jersey. I received your letter. I have some Jewish inmates who would be interested in having you visit.”
“I’m on vacation in Florida. Can I call you next week when I’m back?”
“Sure, I look forward to hearing from you.”

After I hung up, my heart started pounding. State Penitentiary? Inmates? Visit them? What had I been thinking?

I had started a job two months earlier as the Jewish chaplain in a three-county area. I sent letters to the hospitals, nursing homes, organizations for the disabled, psychiatric facilities, county jails, and state prisons letting them know that I was available to provide pastoral counseling for their Jewish patients, residents, clients, and inmates. Calls had been coming in, but this was the first from a prison.

I tried to put the call out of my mind to enjoy our vacation, and mostly I succeeded. But every so often, I considered what awaited me when we returned home. How would I react when learned of their crimes? Would I be alone with them? Would I feel safe? My mind raced. My thoughts were neither linear nor logical. My stomach twisted and turned. I wished that Reverend Estelle had never called. And I was thrilled that she had so that I would be forced to move out of my comfort zone.

I met Reverend Estelle after we returned home. She escorted me into the prison. “You’re on ‘Grounds,’” she told me. “This is the minimum security area. Most of the women here have relative freedom to come and go as they please.” I saw women dressed in heavy khaki winter coats walking among the buildings, chatting with each other, and working to remove snow from the roads and sidewalks.

We entered a building and settled into a small conference room. “So what made you send that letter?” she asked me. “Well, as I began this job, I decided to reach out to the must vulnerable and most alone in our community. I wanted them to know that the Jewish world had not forgotten them.”

“Have you done prison work before?”
“No, never.”
“I’ve been doing it a few years. It’s different, but really rewarding. I’m glad you wrote.”

“On Grounds, women don’t stay too long – a couple of months or years. A few are Jewish but they are fairly isolated from each other and their religion. Some come to me for counseling, but I can only do so much. So you’ll be a great asset to them. Up in Max (maximum security), we have three inmates who are Jewish. A Chabad rabbi visits them. He teaches a Bible class. And he provides information about the Jewish holidays. These women have a hard time relating to him, and have asked me to find a more liberal rabbi to meet with them. Your letter was a true gift. They want someone to provide counseling. And they are hoping to be able to celebrate the Sabbath together.”

I agreed to visit the prison three times a month: Once to offer pastoral counseling on Grounds, once to offer pastoral counseling in Max, and once to celebrate Shabbat. It turned out to be the most rewarding work I have ever done as a rabbi.

All three women in Max had been convicted of murder. Two had been in prison for over twenty years. They, along with the women on Grounds, taught me about teshuvah, repentance, in ways I had never encountered before. They taught me about vulnerability and fear, and about love. They taught me about loyalty and loneliness, and about judgment and sin. I later had opportunities to visit men in prison, but it was the experience with the women that stayed with me.

I visited them for two years, until I moved to another state to begin working as a full-time pulpit rabbi. I am incredibly happy in my new position and wouldn’t trade it for the world. And still, I miss my days as a chaplain to society’s throwaways.

Rabbi Robin Nafshi, ravnafshi@gmail.com