Balak and my body: unexpected blessing

By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

When I was in first grade, we were lining up to go back inside after recess and a kid next to me asked me if I was pregnant.  I don’t think I even knew exactly how a person became pregnant at that point, but I knew that I wasn’t pregnant.  And I knew that he was referring to my belly.  For whatever reason, I have always been fairly thin but have had a little bit of a belly that, yes, I suppose could make me look like I’m a few months pregnant.  

I became very self-conscious about my belly after that first-grade comment but I don’t think I mentioned it to any friends or family for years.  I just let it stew in me.  I’m sure that my classmate didn’t mean anything malicious by it, but the question was seared into my memory.
Fast forward 25 years.  I’m now actually old enough that I could be pregnant.  I’m not, though.  I’m not even in a relationship.  Though those two things don’t necessarily have to go together, they are related in my mind.  Over the course of a year or two, three different co-workers of mine in a hospital stop me in the hallway, somewhat excitedly, to ask me if I’m pregnant.  NO.  I’m not.  I try to play it down as if it doesn’t affect me, but it does.  I think more consciously about the outfits that I wear.  Maybe the shirt was just too fitted.  Maybe I should work out more.  It’s not about working out – I try to remind myself – I’ve run several half marathons and am in good shape.
It’s just how I look.  Each and every one of us have parts of our body that we love and parts that we wish we could swap.  I love my shoulders and my arms.  My legs are toned; a friend saw me a few weeks ago and commented on how great I look.  And honestly, most of the time, my belly doesn’t bother me.
Until someone says something.  I don’t just feel like I’m in first grade again.  There’s another piece now.  They aren’t saying that I’m fat.  They are actually happy for me, trying to wish me positive thoughts on a pregnancy that isn’t there.  It reminds me that I want to have a family and I am not there yet.  It reminds me that I’m not getting any younger and that the biological clock is ticking somewhere out there.  They are trying to bring me joy and instead they end up bursting open my insecurities, both about my body and now about my relationship status and yearning for a pregnancy of my own one day.  The intended blessing feels like a curse.
Today, however, the same interaction became a blessing.  The words that I had come to feel as painful transformed themselves into something empowering.  Maybe even holy.  I just finished a run and was meeting some of the others in the running group.  A woman introduces herself to me and we start talking; friendly and casual enough. Then it happens, totally unexpectedly.  “Is there a child in there?,” she asks, as she motions toward me.  Then, for the first time, I really truly brushed it off.  I said, “Oh…no, that’s just the way I am.”  She paused, maybe apologized – I’m really not sure – and then asked if I wanted to get drinks with her and some of the other girls.
I realized tonight that I am finally confident in who I am and how I look.  Maybe when I finish training for this race,  I’ll have a slimmer torso.  Maybe not.  Who cares?  My ability to slough off this vulnerability that I have been carrying for so long is something powerful.  And that unexpected blessing is rooted deep within our Jewish narrative and within this week’s Torah reading.
By the time we reach parashat Balak, the Israelites have become quite numerous as they continue to journey through the wilderness.   Balak, the king of a neighboring nation, feels threatened by their size and asks Bilaam, a diviner, to curse the Israelite people on his behalf.
Bilaam hears God that night, who tells him that he cannot curse the Israelites, as they are already blessed by the blessings that they inherited from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Balak doesn’t settle for no; after the second request, God allows Bilaam to go with Balak’s people to the Israelites under then condition that Bilaam must follow God’s commands when he gets there.
Twice, Balak asks him to curse the Israelites but his words are dictated by God to be words of blessing and praise.  As Balak takes Bilaam to the third vantage point to look upon the Israelites and curse them, he actually blesses them with words of his own.  In the first two instances, God tell Bilaam to “speak thus” and Bilaam parrots back God’s words . This third time, though, he isn’t prompted directly.  Instead, God’s spirit, ruach Elokim, is upon Bilaam and he articulates the words on his own.  In those words, he notes that his eyes are uncovered.  Now that they are uncovered, he can see God more clearly and he can see his role and own self more clearly.  He opens this speech and the subsequent one announcing himself:
“Word of Bilaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled” (Numbers 24: 3-4)
He is taking ownership of the words.  When the phrase “God uncovered Bilaam’s eyes” occurs a bit earlier (Numbers 22:31), the 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra explains that it may mean that Bilaam gains an extra ability to see.  Just as his eyes were opened, leading him to claim his role, I was able to see in a new way tonight. I could now see my exact same body with different eyes.
After years of people asking if I was pregnant and jabbing at my insecurities, I too was able to stop the curse and see the blessing that God had placed in front of me.  I am happy and healthy and have a body that does everything that it should.  For all the hours that I have looked at myself in the mirror, perhaps my eyes weren’t fully uncovered until today, when I was able to truly see myself, whole and wholly intact.  No one can take that away.

Counting the Omer

hayom chamishah yamim ba’omer.
היום במשה ימים באמר
today is the fifth day of the omer.

The Omer is this incredible time between the second day of Pesach and Shavuot – when we remember leaving Egypt and when we recall standing at Sinai.

After dark, each night, we say the blessing for counting the omer and then we say the new count, getting us one day closer to Shavuot. The Omer is meaningful to me for two reasons – (1) the limbo of this time as we have left the grasp of Pharaoh’s hands but have not yet affirmed a covenant with God. Until we stand at Sinai, we haven’t yet exercised our rights as a collective free people to opt into God’s rule.
(2) the mystical or kabbalistic notion that the Omer is also seven weeks of focused self-improvement. Each week is associated with one of the sefirot and then each day within each week (day 1 of week 1, day 1 of week 2, etc) is also associated with one of those same sefirot. Each sefira has its own set of values or emotional traits. As we combine the sefira of a given week with the sefira of a given day within the week. we end up with 49 permutations of sefirot, each with a slightly different nuance of values to dwell on that day, as we prepare ourselves for that fateful day at Sinai.

In the days leading up to Pesach, we try to clean out our chametz. In the three days leaving up to the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites stay away from the mountain and prepare by cleaning and separating themselves. We prepare in these 49 days by cleaning out our inner selves and our the ways we relate to others. I can’t think of a better way to get ready for reaffirming our relationship with God on Shavuot.

This year I bought an Omer Calendar – a little booklet that takes you through each day of these seven weeks and explains the combination of sefirot for each day and how that might translate into ways you could change your interpersonal actions.

For example, this first week’s sefira is chesed. And today, as the fifth day of the Omer week, is Hod. Today is Hod of Chesed.
Chesed, often translated as “loving kindness” is being present to someone else and being attuned to their needs in the moment. Hod is related to hodaah or thanks. So the goal for today is to be thankful for the present moment that you spend with someone – not what was or what could be, just the awe of right now.

I just spent a few hours driving with a good friends, as we headed up to the mountains for the Yom Tov that will bring Pesach to a close. I have found myself getting caught up in what could be better about life but in reflecting on this hod of chesed, I realize how special it is to have that kind of friendship where you can be in a car for hours and keep talking and telling stories. I want to let people in my life know how much I appreciate them, but I don’t do it nearly enough.

Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder’s omer guide ‘The 50th Gate – A Spirited Walk Through the Counting of the Omer’ offers this practice for today: “reach out and make contact for the purpose of experiencing the relationship itself rather than with some goal in mind. Engage in a positive conversation, full of compliments, recognition and gratitude, celebrating the relationship itself rather than what is could become.”




I recently went to the mikvah to help someone mark the end of her cancer treatment.  It was her first time at a mikvah and I hadn’t been in a while.  I had forgotten how powerful it is to be in all-female Jewish liminal space – space that holds transitions.  
In a split second, it all came flooding back to me.  I remembered the power of the water.  Water.  Mayyim.  Living waters.  Mayyim chayyim.  
As I have mentioned before, I work in a hospital. Not surprisingly, hand washing is a crucial part of my job as a chaplain.  Before I see a patient and after I see a patient, I must wash my hands in the prescribed way for the prescribed amount of time.  The goal:  to rid myself of germs or bacteria that may be lying latent on my hands, waiting to infect me or another patient that I might see later.  
When someone goes to the mikvah, she goes to purify herself. The goal: to transition between one state of being and another; to connect with purity.
Some of the most traditional uses for the mikvah are for niddah, when a woman immerses monthly after menstruation and for gerut, conversion.  The context of this visit was different but the overarching idea is the same:  when you go to the mikvah, you immerse in the water three times and in that process, let go of the past in order to embrace and look forward to the future.  Like the way in which we mark the end of Shabbat with havdalah, you can’t just let that liminal moment go by without acknowledging it.
When I wash my hands at the hospital, I am using the soap and water to eliminate certain things that might be on my hands.  That concept may resonates with the mikvah too – a woman might be using the water to wash away the painful memories of treatment. But that seems to be less significant that what you are hoping to receive from the water.  Again, to go back to the hospital hand washing, the water is simply a vehicle for washing things away.  It doesn’t add anything. At the mikvah, the water has its own powers.  The waters are living. They are holy.
The waters of the mikvah must have a certain amount of water that is not drawn by human hands, which is most often naturally-collected rainwater.  That naturally-collected water is the definition of the mayyim chayyim, the living waters.  Water comes from the sky as rain.  In doing so, it transitioned from one state to another.  Had that rainwater landed on the nearby dirt instead of the mikvah’s collection pool, it would indeed have been instrumental in giving life to a plant of some sort.  We, too, are like the plants.  We need that water for life – not just physical life, but in this case, spiritual life.  When the rabbi or the mikvah guide instructs a woman to remove all her jewelry, her nail polish, and even comb her hair to catch any loose strands, she does so in order ensure that every part of the mikvah-goer’s body comes into contact with the water.  The water will touch her and give her new life as she immerses in it.  It is really like a rebirth; an incredibly raw moment to stand before God. 
It is intimate and personal and beautiful.  
One more note – the word ‘mikvah‘ itself comes from the shoresh,root, ק-ו-ה and means to collect (water).  However, that shoresh has another meaning as well.  ק-ו-ה also means to hope.  Tikvah.  
I see the waters of the mikvah as waters of hope.  I know that the woman who I accompanied was hoping for long term healing.  If you might to the mikvah for niddah, you might infuse that experience with hopes for the month ahead.  If you are converting, you are absorbing the hope for your new Jewish life from the waters that surround you.  The mikvah allows us to physically feel ourselves immersed in hope.  
And especially in this week following the tragedies in Boston and Texas, we all need some hope.  
Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. 

Purim and Faith…

Purim is a holiday of opposites and reversals.  That is not news to us.  But it is also a story of faith and identity. After Esther hears about Haman’s plans to destroy Mordecai and the Jewish people, Mordecai tells her to plead with the king.  She replies to him and says that no one can go and speak with Ahashverosh without an invitation – not even the queen – else he put them to death.  Though she knew that her people’s lives were at stake, she was not willing to risk her own. We don’t quite know what Esther thought might happen if this were the end of the conversation – was she giving up and assuming that the Jewish people would be massacred?  Did she think that she would still live since the palace did not know of her heritage?  Did she hope that Mordecai would find another way to intervene with Haman’s vicious plans?  Was she scared?  
I would imagine that she was overwhelmed  to say the least.  Mordecai’s response offers her encouragement; he seems to know her role and have little fear that Haman’s wishes would actually come true.  He says, “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4: 13-14)
He is saying that Esther is one of us.  The fact that she is royalty does not protect her.  But if she does not speak up, she and her family (Mordecai) will perish and yet the Jews will still find relief and deliverance.  I am fascinated by the notion that Mordecai doesn’t worry about the people’s fate – he seems certain that they will ultimately be fine.  In a book where God’s name is not mentioned even once,  this seems to speak of some Divine intervention or protection.  That faith is rare today and perhaps something we might aspire toward.  And yet, that deep trust in God – or simply in the people’s salvation – doesn’t stop him from persuading Esther that acting is her responsibility.  
If the Jewish people will be okay anyway, then why does it matter if Esther petitions the king?  First, Esther then becomes a representative of the Jewish people instead of someone standing outside of it.  She must take a risk and feel the vulnerability that the Jewish people in Shushan were feeling as they fasted and mourned and wore sackcloth and ashes.  Second, her voice must speak on behalf of Mordecai’s voice – his fate is bound up with hers.  
Esther then asks for the Jewish community of Shushan to fast on her behalf, while she and her maidens do the same.  In that moment, she becomes intertwined with the Jewish community in a stronger way.  She acts for them and they act for her.  She does not stand silent in the face of a potential injustice for herself of her people.  
Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
May we, like Esther, feel connection to our community.  And may we, like Mordecai, strive to have faith that we need to empower others to take a stand as well as the faith that our people will endure.


By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel
Kippot as kodesh?
Ever since my first year of rabbinical school, I’ve worn a kippah when I’ve prayed.  That first moment of placing a kippah on my head of thick, curly hair felt contrived; it felt like something my brother or father wore, or something that a friend who considered herself a serious feminist would wear to make a statement.  I wanted to make it mine, the same way that a tallit and even tefillin have become mine, but the kippah has been the hardest for me.  I hoped that it would bring me more kavanah or more yirah (awe/fear) of God, and occasionally it does, but mostly has simply been part of distinguishing holy time from chol time.   As it turns out, that distinguishing – the why of wearing one or not has become far from simple for me.  Did I wear a kippah when I was sitting in class during my days at HUC?  Learning in a classroom and taking notes on my laptop just didn’t feel like avodat kodesh. I tried wearing a kippah in that context but it felt artificial to me.  Teaching, though, was different.  One synagogue asked boys in its religious school to wear kippot during class and explained to girls that kippot were optional.  None of these 7 year olds wanted to wear kippot, but if I had any chance of getting them to do so, I knew that I had to model it.  Egalitarianism is a core principle for me.  I couldn’t wholeheartedly tell half the class that they had to do something that the other half didn’t need to do and I didn’t need to do either.  So I committed to wearing a kippah while I was teaching.  I watched several of my male friends begin to wear kippot regularly through the day and a piece of me longed to do the same.  Did I want to wear a kippah regularly as an outward symbol of my Judaism?  Or could I feel just as confident about taking it off when I ended a holy time as when I put it on? 
Rote or ritual?
Still, the nuances continued to blur.  A year after ordination, I was teaching at a Jewish day school and it seemed like the majority of what I would be doing during the day fell into my ‘praying or teaching’ bracket.  So I started wearing a kippah throughout the school day – in meetings, at recess, in class, in tefilah, anywhere and everywhere while I was on campus.  I aimed for it to all be holy work, although, of course, in the midst of middle school drama and constantly changing plans, I often forgot that I was even wearing a kippah.  I had hoped for those transitory moments of connection when I put it on before I prayed at HUC to remain throughout the years and infuse my days of teaching.  Sometimes feeling it on my head did help me refocus my priorities.  But on the days when it didn’t have that role, was I wearing it because I hoped for that kavanah in the future?  Because I felt like it gave me a different sense of symbolic presence with my students?  Because it was now simply what I did?  During that time, my reasons to wear a kippah kept evolving.  I wore a kippah because it symbolized my love of Judaism a certain context.  Unintentionally, it also started to symbolize my being a rabbi.  When I realized that I spent more and more time at Jewish communal events that weren’t exactly learning or praying, but were very explicitly about exploring Jewish identity, it felt appropriate to continue wearing a kippah in those contexts too.  Since wearing a kippah is not a mitzvah like wearing tzitzit, a tallit, or tefillin, each person is even more free to find his or her reasons for wearing (or not wearing) one.  
A few months ago, I was at a lovely gala for a Jewish organization.  I was talking with someone who I was just meeting and a rabbinic colleague – the three of us were talking about our mutual connections – and my new acquaintance remarks that she sees four or five women in the room wearing kippot, including us.  Can she assume that they are all rabbis?  Stumped.  I was almost certain that all of the women who were wearing kippot that night were actually rabbis but I did not want to make her think that the only women who wore kippot were rabbis.  Would she have asked that question about the men in the room?  Doubtful.  When did wearing a kippah symbolize my being a rabbi?  I’m not entirely sure when or where that started but there it was, staring me in the face.   There are moments when it’s useful that someone is able to identify me as the rabbi more quickly because of a kippah, like when a patient’s family saw me in the hospital and before I could even introduce myself, grabbed me and said, “You’re a rabbi?  We need you now!”  Yet I hope that does not become the sole reason that I wear it (or any other religious item, for that matter).  At the end of the day, I hope and pray that I am always rooted in the person who I am primarily, followed by the role that I fill as a rabbi.  Otherwise, how could I be authentic in my work, as I sit with patients and families in their pain and pray for God’s comfort?  I would offer the same words whether or not I was wearing a kippah.  I would pray the same Amidah tomorrow morning.  And yet, it might feel different. The family might feel less connected to me if I am wearing one.  If they were looking for a peer to hold their hands and the see my kippah as signifying my being a rabbi, has my role changed?  How much does it matter what you wear?  Do symbols speak louder than your own voice or your own actions?  Is the kippah about my role in someone else’s life or about God’s role in my life?
In this week’s parasha, God tells Avram, “lech lecha” – the Mei HaShiloach explains this as “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”  When I put on a kippah and fasten it with those two little clips, I ask that it digs me into a deeper awareness of God’s presence.  And on the other hand, I ask that as I listen to God whispering lech lecha that I know my authentic self and only wear a kippah when it feels true to my sense of who I am.  Jill.  Rabbi.  Woman…and when it feels true to my sense of what I am doing.  Learning.  Praying.  Teaching.  Comforting.  Building community and creating connections to Israel or social justice.  All avodat kodesh
Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Elul 6 – Faith – “You Never Know What”

By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

Like the ladies of the last five days, I am writing with the themes listed by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer for the month of Elul.
I hung up the phone with my dad earlier this week after sharing with him some relieving news about my work.  I could now be a bit less stressed and breathe a sigh of relief.  He has always told me that things somehow work out.  “One day”, he told me before we hung up, “tell your grandchildren that your father taught you that even when everything seems so tough…you never know what.”  I paused, touched and smiling, told him that he didn’t teach me that.  My favorite childhood book did – “A Fish Out of Water.”
“A Fish Out of Water” is a children’s book by Helen Palmer, Dr. Seuss’ first wife.  A boy buys a goldfish at the pet store and received one instruction from the shop owner – “Feed him only pinch, so much and no more, or something may happen, you never know what.”  Of course, the boy looked at his hungry, sad fish and fed him more than a pinch and the fish grew so much that he outgrew the bowl, all the pots in the kitchen, the family’s bathtub, and eventually almost outgrew the town’s swimming pool.  Mr. Carp, the pet store owner, saves the day, and restores Otto, the goldfish, to his original size.  “What?  You fed your fish too much? I’ll come at once!” When the boy is scared and unsure of what to do, he makes one call, and Mr. Carp is on his way.  As a kid, I loved the feeling that someone would drop everything at once to help you.  And your fish.
Ever since I first read that book, my family has used that phrase around the house – “something may happen, you never know what” to touch on those raw moments of uncertainty that can be so hard.  I never saw that book as a book about faith.  It’s about a boy who feeds his fish too much.
But after hanging up with my dad, I changed my mind.  The ability to hope and dream and believe that things will work out, even if you can’t imagine the specifics of how or when they might work out – that’s faith.  אמונה. Looking back, I can say that there was a divine spark in the way things unfolddd.  In the moment, though, it can be so hard to believe in the yet-unimagined future and the role that God may have in shaping it.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or even alone as you stare into that vast expanse of possibilities.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen, in the last blogpost, discussed trust and faith together, and I am going to take the liberty to do the same but with a different spin.  The root of emunah א.מ.ו is about believing.  Ani ma’amin she’machar yavo.   I believe that tomorrow will come.  But one of the roots for trust?  ב.ט.ח – depending on the context or the conjugation, it’s security.  promise.  insurance.  It brings safety. Faith might just be the best security blanket out there.  It’s also relational.  When I make a promise, I promise something to someone. If I were a security guard (איש בטחון), I would not just being working to maintain security as a value.  I’m trying to keep someone, or a group of someones, safe.
As a chaplain, I am awed by the faith of my patients.  Early yesterday morning, a patient found out that she would be getting a liver transplant in a few hours.  She had been praying for that liver for months.  Soon after that fabulous news, she was told that it wasn’t viable.  When we spoke, she said that she was disappointed, but didn’t miss a beat before saying that she knows she’ll get one soon – God wouldn’t have brought her this far and kept her this relatively healthy, as she glanced around the ICU, otherwise.  In a moment when she might have instead been angry and deeply upset about not getting this liver, she saw the positive elements of it and she saw it as a moment of checking in with God and checking in with her hopes and her deep faith that those hopes will come true.   She felt safe and protected even though, factually, she has no idea what may happen.  But deep in her heart, I heard her saying “you never know – I might get my liver tomorrow” with a bittersweet smile.
So here’s my hope for Elul.  I hope that we can keep hoping.  I hope that we can discover faith in ourselves to achieve our goals and faith in God to meet us in doing so.  If you, like me, have moments where too much seems up for grabs, can you grab onto a sense of believe?  Maybe it’ll ground you.  We say that Elul is an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  Sometimes we need our partner to have faith in us before we can wholly have faith in ourselves.  And sometimes, our partner is calling out, lonely, wondering if we have forgotten about him or her, because we have been feeling so silent and hopeless about our own situations.  On those days, we try to remember that we’re not alone.
Shabbat Shalom.  May it bring us renewed hope and faith – ken y’hi ratzon.  May it be God’s will.

Tisha B’Av

By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

Tisha B’Av begins this Saturday night.   
I think that I started fasting on Tisha B’Av during the summer that I went to Kutz Camp – between my junior and senior years of high school.  I don’t remember, but I doubt that I’d even heard of the holiday before that summer.  I also don’t remember if the day itself fell while I was at Kutz or slightly afterwards; I had left the session a bit early to join some peers from San Diego on a Black-Jewish dialogue trip that began in the south and continued up the east coast, which was transformational in a host of other ways. 

However, I do remember being pulled by the idea of collective sadness and loss.  I remember trying to put myself in the shoes of those people living during 586 BCE or 70 CE and I’d imagine feelings of displacement, hopelessness intermingled with a glimmer of home, fear, and anger.  Mostly, though, I imagine feeling sad.  I can’t imagine what the Temple might have meant to me if I were living in those times and I can’t imagine wanting to recreate a Temple of that sort, but I can imagine loss.  I know what sorrow feels like.  I know that I am lucky to be living as a Jewish person – and a rabbi – in a time and a place without that same sense of abandonment, loss, and lamentation.  I have no idea what such a communal experience of sorrow might have felt like, but that is what Tisha B’Av is for me.  That’s why I fast.   I do it to connect to my people’s history in a visceral way that I might not otherwise be able to do – in solidarity with those ancestors who, in utter shock and grief, went to the waters of Babylon and wept. 

Our calendar around this time of year is powerful for me, and as I have been doing pastoral counseling work in a hospital, I find it all the more meaningful.  We inch up to Tisha B’Av with the three weeks leaving up to it, beginning with the 17th of Tammuz, when we are traditionally taught that the walls of Jerusalem were breached before the destruction of the Temple.  We are also taught that this is the day on which Moses broke the first set of tablets, as he descended Mt. Sinai and saw the Israelites with the Golden Calf.  I am less concerned with the historicity of all this or with the centrality of the Temple than I am with the built-in tenuousness of these weeks.  The Shabbat leading up to Tisha B’Av is known as Shabbat Hazon; the haftarah reading is Isaiah 1:1-127, in which we hear first about the people’s transgressions and then about the notion that there is hope for reconciliation if they stop doing even and focus on good.  Had Tisha B’Av appeared completely out of nowhere each year without any warning, it might be all the harder to emotionally or collectively connect to this sense of suffering, lamenting, and loss.  But in these three weeks, even if I think about it for just a few minutes on one or two days, it’s out there.  In chaplaincy terms, we refer to these three weeks as a period of anticipatory grief. 

There’s something cathartic about ritual and I find that to be true here too.  When we transpose some of our mourning rituals onto our collective mourning, it becomes more real.  It’s not about any one thing – not the fasting, not the somber melody with which we chant eicha (Lamentations), not the custom of sitting on low stools.  It’s the experience.  I am not encouraging  anyone to take on any of these, but perhaps to simply be aware of the day and its sense of loss and longing for wholeness. 

I have stood at the Kotel countless times, visited the Davidson Center on each Israel trip that I’ve staffed to experience multimedia simulations of the Temple, and stared at the Second Temple Model in Jerusalem.  I know that it was magnificent.  I know that I would have stood in awe at the space i I had been there before 70 CE.  I know that my relationship to God and to Jewish community would have probably been remarkably different had I lived in that period.  But here I am in 2012.  I wrestle but I believe that I have an obligation to be in relationship with the Jewish world from the time when the Temple stood.  Even though Judaism has been transformed so much since then, we are still standing on the shoulders of that time. 

And after Tisha B’Av, our calendar continues in this period of mourning.  The next Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, which offers some comfort in the midst of the emotional wreckage that Tisha B’Av brings.  We read Isaiah 40: 1-26, beginning with nachamu, nachamu ami- be comforted, be comforted, my people…this is the first of seven weekly haftarah readings that deal with consolation starting the week after Tisha B’Av through Rosh HaShanah. 

May we all feel sadness and acknowledge the losses in our personal lives and our collective story.  And may God then comfort us and carry us forward.

Separation and Connection

By Rabbi Jill Cozen Harel

At the end of Shabbat, we taste wine, smell sweet spices, see the glimmer of light from the havdalah candle shining on our fingernails, and then experience that moment of separation when we hear the fizzle of the havdalah candle as it extinguishes itself in the wine.

There’s something about that liminal space of havdalah that I love.  We separate the kodesh from the chol, the holy from the usual, and yet it’s not that simple.  It’s always my hope that I can bring some of Shabbat into the other six days of the week, whether that’s a nap, services, amazing  meals with friends, or relishing a quiet hour to read.  It’s easier to think about that transition as a  thick black line, but more often than not, it’s a dotted line.  We bring aspects of the rest of the week into Shabbat and we hope to take some of Shabbat into the coming week with us.  Perhaps it’s that intermingling that is the holiest.

Shabbat is often on my mind.  Either it just happened or it’s coming up.  This week, I caught myself saying  “Shabbat Shalom” to someone on Wednesday, which was arguably too early, but nonetheless brought both me and the person I was speaking with into a deeper awareness that Shabbat was indeed approaching.  On Friday, as I was saying goodbye to some colleagues, one of them nonchalantly said “Shabbat Shalom” to me and almost instantaneously, I replied “Shabbat Shalom.”  Then I heard another colleague say “good yuntif” and I stopped in my tracks.  Wait.  Was there a holiday coming up that I somehow missed?  Did I mishear him? 

I turned around. Gut Yuntif?  (Yiddish for ‘Good holiday’) “Yeah, Pride.”  Of course. Not necessarily a Jewish holiday in terms of our liturgical calendar but absolutely a San Francisco holiday and a time that’s marked in different ways by many Jewish communities as well.  “Right, sorry, it took me a minute.  I couldn’t think of the holiday that you were referring to but I didn’t have the right context.  Gut yuntif.  Oh, and chodesh tov!”  This past Thursday, we began the month of Tammuz.  Pride weekend as a Jewish holiday?  Definitely another one of those intermingling moments. It’s not the holy and the profane, but it is the Jewish and the secular.  He could have said “Happy Pride weekend,” which is definitely heard in the streets on San Francisco, but he didn’t.  By using Jewish rhetoric, he was transforming this weekend of acceptance and celebration into something that is wholly Jewish.  Language, for me, has that extra power.

The root of the word for holiness, kedushah, is kuf.daled.shin. It literally means separation, but I find that holiness also lies in tying together ideas or people that would otherwise be separate and finding the commonality between them.

That’s what happened in this little interchange.

Rosh Chodesh – the new month.  A few days ago, we transitioned from the month of Sivan to the month of Tammuz, each with its own holidays.  Each Rosh Chodesh, that marking of the new month, is also a check-in for me.  Where am I this month in comparison to where I was last month? What have I accomplished and what do I still hope to accomplish?  What new relationships have I cultivated?  What about last month do I hope to release and let go?  What beautiful parts of the last month would I like to carry with me?  Another in-between; another liminal moment.

And lastly, the transition from one parasha (weekly Torah portion) to the next.  Traditionally, we read the week’s parasha on Shabbat morning and then at Shabbat afternoon services, we read a preview of the following week’s parasha.  The transition from one week’s parasha to the next happens right there.  Shabbat afternoon.  So on Sunday, today, we have said goodbye to Korach and are looking at Chukat.  In parashat Chukat, both Miriam and Aaron die.  After Miriam dies, the Israelite community suddenly finds themselves without water.  Rashi, an 11th century commentator, explains that we learn from this that during the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, they had a well which followed them along their journey because of Miriam.  In that time of transition, not only did they need to cope with losing Miriam’s presence but they also had to address their new need for water.  Perhaps only then did they realize that the well which satiated them throughout these years was connected to Miriam.  In my current hospital chaplaincy work, I find that as a patient approaches the end of his or her life, that time is often wrought with grief, loss, and sadness, but also with new connections and realizations about the impact that each person had on one another.  Amidst the chaos of the hospital, there can bekedusha,holiness.  Holiness isn’t always joy;  it isn’t always easy.  But it is deep and true and connected.

May we find holiness in the transitional and liminal moments that we encounter this week.

Shavua tov.  Gut yontif.  Chag sameach.

Rabbi Jill Cozen Harel is a chaplain resident at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.