Friday, December 9, 2016

Parashat Vayetzei: Ramping Up

Delivered at The Riverway Project at Temple Israel
December 9, 2016 ~ 9 Kislev 5777
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

** In memory of my buddy Vito Leybman, who emigrated to Fort Wayne from the FSU, and was tragically killed by a drunk driver in December of 1999.

It seemed like the middle of the night. In sweatshirts and rumpled hair we would pile into the minivan and drive to the airport. We’d park our van and everyone had a job. My mom carried her guitar, my dad carried my sister, and my brother and I proudly held our homemade banner printed from a Commodore 64 on that perforated printer paper that is still perfect for banners. And as a family, we crossed the bridge from long term parking and headed to international arrivals.  As my mom played Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem and a number of other families like us sang together these words of welcome,  down the ramp came one of the many Jewish families from the Former Soviet Union who would make their new home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

As our families warmly greeted this family - the Kutsenoks - with bright smiles, books and toys, apartments readied for living, and support of many kinds, they looked truly tired, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Fort Wayne’s airport is called “Fort Wayne International Airport,” a title that is a bit of a ruse. But in my young mind, I imagined that this family had flown from Ukraine or Russia directly to Indiana in an almost clandestine trip that could only occur in the middle of the night.

As it turns out, it was only perhaps 9:30. And the Kutsenok family who arrived on this particular night, exiting the ramp from the plane tried and grateful became good family friends. I grew up at Temple with Alex; his sister Anya was the same age as mine; our parents sang in the choir together. So the other day, I asked Alex, now a teacher in Miami, what their journey was like. In fact, they did not fly directly from Kiev to Fort Wayne. Their path, despite waiting many years to depart and frankly decades seeking religious freedom, their actual journey was rather quick.  From Kiev to Moscow to NYC to Fort Wayne in a matter of 6 or so days. It was at a time when HIAS was still known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and when Jewish communities could sponsor Russian Jewish families directly. This scene played out numerous times in the early 90s, as I’m sure many of you recall. It had a profound impact on me because Alex came into my world, and Slava, then Vito and his brother Dmitri, and then Galina, and Natasha, and many others. Each one came down the airplane ramp, seemingly in the middle of the night, and into our lives.

Flashback, wayyyy back.
It seemed like the middle of the night. The sun set much earlier than usual. His hair was rumpled. He was tired. He had been walking for days. And amid a pile of rocks, Jacob lay his head down on a stone and he had a dream.
וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃
In Jacob’s dream, a stairway - in Hebrew Sulam - was set on the ground, its top reached to the sky, and angels of God (malachei elohim) were (olim v’yordim) going up and down on it. The rabbinic sages go to town with commentaries on who these angels of God might be, whether or not this is a really a dream, and why this particular place where Jacob sleeps might be significant.  Further, the image of Sulam Ya’akov - Jacob’s Ladder - permeates literature and pop culture. An Israeli short story goes as far to describe the angels going up and down the ladder high-fiving; there is an exercise cardio machine, called Jacob’s Ladder, that costs 4 grand; a 1990s horror film bears this title; there is a cut of beef, short ribs, referred to as Jacob’s ladder (Kosher, of course); clearly Jacob’s dream inspired Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”; and Jacob’s Ladder, akin to cats cradle, was a string game we played as kids. Most of these icons fit pretty solidly into the ladder imagery - the type with rungs that firepeople use in rescues.

But Rabbi Mehlman, our Senior Scholar at Temple Israel and my professor in rabbinical school, illuminated for me the other day a different idea from another translation. In biblical scholarship, every translation for every word is in and of itself a commentary, espousing an opinion, or a particular academic approach to the bible and/or theology. When Scholar Robert Alter from UC Berkeley came out with his Torah translation, Sulam was not a stairway to heaven. Sulam was not a ladder. It was definitely not short ribs. Rather, Alter translates this profound scene in Torah - Sulam Yakov - as Jacob’s ramp. It definitely doesn’t have quite the same ring. In the footnotes, Alter points out that the word Sulam appears only once in all of Torah - in this week’s portion in Genesis. And Alter teaches it’s probably not a ladder. Rather, more likely the descriptive context uses language associated with the Mesopotamian ziggurat. A ziggurat, according to our knowledge of other cradles of civilization, was probably a vast ramp that stretched above terraced landings.

Let’s focus further on this image of a ramp and those people who are maybe angels, maybe messengers, but beings of some sort who are going up and down - olim v’yordim - the Torah text reads. It is significant that these beings are able to move, to enter, to exit, to pursue, and to reach the heavens, too. And here’s the catch: the word olim, as a noun in Hebrew, means immigrant. Jacob himself, Alter teaches, was known “as a border crosser, a man of liminal experience.” And in this portion - he is on the go, like an immigrant or refugee of some sort. His dream, then, and the ramp signify potential.  Taking Alter’s translation and adding it to our current reality, I read this story of Jacob’s dream and the Sulam Yakov, Jacob’s ramp, as a ramp to refuge. Spiritually and literally Sulam Ya’akov is potential.  It is a ramp of access for refugees.
The ramp of access to refuge for the over 60 million people displaced from their homes in the world’s largest refugee crises of our time is long and winding. Unlike the Mesopotamian terraced landscape over which a ziggurat ramp provided access, the opportunity to move up and down - olim and yordim - and through the world and into safety is, as we all know, quite harrowing.

The long process of escaping one’s home, gaining refugee status, and then going through the many un-terraced levels of global and US bureaucracy is equally harrowing, indeterminate at best. And at any moment, one’s emigration process can be halted. And if you make it, thriving is the next challenge. We don’t yet know as our world shifts politically how refugee ramps will be impacted. Regardless, with our community here at Temple Israel and in Greater Boston, in partnership with JF&CS and HIAS, we are serving as a ramp of access for refugees. We are building a ramp of support to help them move from striving to be here to thriving here. We are not able to settle as many families as we would like. And yet, we will settle two families. Unlike my childhood experience, only a select few trained and skilled volunteers will ever have the chance to meet them and know them. We will hear more at the conclusion of services about how we can directly help build this ramp for refuge.

In the meantime, the Torah offers us this spiritual message in order to sustain us in this unstable and unpredictable time. Build a ramp - or build a bridge, or a stairway, or a ladder, or a ziggurat. Build and find other builders to build with you. For those who seek refuge spiritually and those who are refugees most literally, ramp up your energy, ramp up your power, ramp up your voice.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Wet Floors, Holy Ground - Parashat Shemot 5776

Wet Floors, Holy Ground: Parashat Shemot
January 1, 2016 ~ 21 Tevet 5776
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

The flurry of metro traffic swirls by as the sounds of exquisite violin accompany the footsteps of Washington, DC’s, daily commuters. There is a yellow wet-floor sign a few feet ahead of him. People are sure to watch their steps to avoid the wet ground. Just one person stops, notices the exquisite violinist, applauds for a moment, and then runs to catch her train.

Joshua Bell, the violinist virtuoso and an Indiana University graduate, plays in the l’Enfant Plaza metro stop, but most are too hurried to notice.

There is midrash that teaches that so, too, did many pass by the burning bush of this week’s parasha- but only one stopped - only one saw the bush aflame - and he was the emerging virtuoso of the Jewish people - Moses.

The 13th century Kabbalist Bachya ben Asher teaches that this is a moment of gradual awareness. Moses first sees a bush, then he sees it’s on fire, then he sees that it’s not consumed.

Most people at the subway that day saw the yellow sign - Wet Floor- moved around it and raced down the escalator.

Those few that stopped to notice the man beyond the yellow sign -Wet Floor- heard the music,
maybe left some change in his case and then they, too, head down the escalator to the metro platform.

There is, for moments, a gradual awareness of something magnificent in their midst.

Now I’m not one who recognizes famous people even in movies I know they are headlining.
Nor would I have recognized Joshua Bell - especially on a morning commute - but I wish to imagine I would have been like those who stopped because the music stirred something in them and in me. I wish to imagine the music would have sparked in me notice that something was afoot.

In our parasha, the fire stirs something in Moses - his awareness sparked, his curiosity peaked.
“Why doesn’t this bush burn up?” Moses asks. "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight…” When God sees that Moses has turned aside to look more carefully it is then that God calls to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" “Hineni,” Moses answers, "Here I am." 

His awareness more and more ablaze, Moses is able both to see and then to hear God’s voice.  

But before he can engage further, “Stop!” God says. "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Like the metro platform, there is now a yellow sign a few feet ahead of Moses - Holy Ground - it reads. Where most signs such as this warn us to stay safe, be careful, pay attention, be aware,
steer clear - this sign beckons us: pay attention, be aware, and come closer.

But why must virtuoso Moses take off his shoes to fully experience God, the bush, and the moment?

Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, a 17th century Chief Rabbi of Prague, who wrote the commentary Keli Yakar teaches that: "When wearing shoes, it is possible easily to tread upon small stones that are in your path, practically without feeling them at all.  But when you walk barefoot, you feel every bump and obstacle, the jab of every thorn, the pain of every pebble. This is the reason Moses, leader of all Israel, is told:  'Remove your sandals.'  The leader of the generation must be sensitive to every obstacle and snare along his path.  He must feel the pain of the people and be sensitive to the snares they encounter." 

Like Moses then, or like the rare Metro passenger who stopped to unknowingly encounter the virtuous violin music, our goal is to walk through this world with sensitive awareness as though barefoot: to feel the small stones and the large boulders, the bushes aglow with God as well as a wilting weed, to encounter not just the yellow sign warning us awareness of a wet floor, but to also notice the person who placed it there. Our goal is to remove the barriers, the impediments,
the ways we always see and do the world. For if we are constantly rushing down the escalator
hoping we don’t miss the train, we will miss the bush, we will miss the fire, and we will not hear that call…that can bring us closer to one another and to God.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Yom Yevava: Whole, Broken, Whole Again.

Yom Yevava: Whole, Broken, Whole Again.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 | Temple Shir Tikva
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

The golden sands swirled. The air was thick with sadness. She hoped they would return soon. But three days had since passed. And no word. Yet. She forced herself to stand and drawing the crimson cord of a tent flap, she opened it. She looked out. But all that was there were the golden sands swirling and an ever thickening sadness.

And our matriarch, Sarah, cried. In agony, she wailed. She beat her chest. Where was Abraham? And where was Isaac? God gave me Isaac as my joy, my laughter, she recalled between her tears. And for a moment a smile creeped into the corners of her mouth - recalling the laughter in her belly that there would finally be a baby in her belly… But then Sarah remembered her grief, her smile retreated and she cried out, and she sobbed.

Yom Yevava - it was a day of sobbing.  

Can you hear her cries? The anguish of a parent fearing for a child’s wellbeing?

The gravel and stones of the city swirled as her footsteps to the House of God in Shiloh were weighted with sadness. Each year Hannah would return to God and yearn for a child. But many years had since passed. And no word.  No sign.  No change. And no child. Yet. She forced herself to eat and to drink, though there was bitterness in her soul.

And she wept. In her tears, she prayed. Her lips moved; No sound came out. Hannah’s sadness thickened as her heart wailed. Standing before the Holy One, Hannah’s heart sobbed.

Yom Yevava - it was a day of sobbing.

Can you hear her cries? The anguish of an adult wishing to become a parent!

A mother cries for her child as Sarah wails, the midrash teaches us in connection to our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Sarah wails upon learning that Abraham has bound Isaac
upon an alter…

Can you hear her cries?
The anguish of a parent fearing for a child’s wellbeing?

And another cries for a child as Hannah prays, the Rosh Hashanah Haftarah teaches, through her tears yearning for a child…

Can you hear her cries?
The anguish of an adult, wishing to become a parent!

Sarah and Hannah sob and cry, and wail and weep, and whimper and sigh: for fear of loss,
and to fill a loss in their interminable waiting. Will Isaac come back, Sarah bewails? Will I ever have a child, Hannah begs?

For each, it is Yom Yevava - a day of sobbing.

In your own life, have you ever known such a day?

If you have or have not known such a day, according to the Talmud, today is such a day.

In Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, today is also known as Yom Yevava - that day of sobbing, “a day of drawing a long sigh, and uttering short piercing cries.”

But wait, what? Rosh Hashanah - a day of sobbing?

How? This is a day of apples and honey and family dinners! This is a day of pomegranates and promise and potential! HaYom Harat Olam - this is the day the world was created! Yom Yevava? A day of sobbing? Impossible!
On a day like today, what could possibly bring us to tears?

The Talmudic tractate named and about Rosh Hashanah zeroes in on this particular word - Yevava - in a discussion about the qualities of the sounds of the shofar’s blasts.

The conversation is rooted in the Torah text that speaks of this day:

 יוֹם תְּרוּעָה, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם
               Yom Teruah Yihieh Lachem
“It is a day of Teruah to you.”

Today is Yom Teruah - one of the more common names by which Rosh Hashanah is known.
Yom Teruah - a day of blowing the horn or shofar. And we know this word from the shofar calls
[Chanted] Teruah! It is the call made up of 9 successive staccato blasts… [Chanted] Teruah! [with 9 vocalized blasts]

But what does the voice of the shofar, the quality of Teruah, really sound like, the rabbis of the Talmud wonder? And of what should it remind us?

Possible answers hinge on the different types of Hebrew of our sacred texts, the nuances of which grow and change throughout history.

In fact, a very small debate ensues in the Gemara, the rabbinic analysis of the core mishnaic text, as the rabbis try to understand how each set of calls is distinct from the others and what they could mean to us.

[Yes,] Rabbi Abbahu summarizes there is a difference of opinion. [When] it is written, “It shall be a day of Teruah unto you,” we translate it in Aramaic, a day of Yevava. One authority  thought this [word] means drawing a long sigh, and the other [thought] that it means uttering short piercing cries.” For clarity, the rabbis point us to another moment where the word Yevava occurs - so we might understand what the Teruah call of the Shofar must really sound like.
They direct us from this arcane word in Aramaic -Yevava - to its counterpart in biblical poetry in the Song of Devorah in the Book of Judges.  They share with us the story of an unnamed woman who is the mother of Sisera who has just been killed.  As she waits longingly for his return and realizes that he will not, Sisera’s mother cries and moans and wails

בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא
“Through the window she looked forth,
and cried out,”
The mother of Sisera, wailed, says some translations: “Why does his chariot delay? Why do the sounds of his chariot tarry?”

Yom Yevava - a day of sobbing, wailing, and uncontrollable weeping.
Can you hear her cries? The anguish one feels crying out for a loved one?

Thus, the rabbis urge us to consider: the sound of the shofar “is a complex sound” like the sound of a person crying - “beginning with sobbing then developing into uncontrollable weeping. This sound is the combination we hear every Rosh Hashanah as shevarim-teruah.”

[Chant] Shevarim, Teruah - the sound of a person sobbing, wailing, weeping, whimpering, and sighing…

Though aspects of the scriptural readings highlighted from Rosh Hashanah focus on women, of course, it is not only women who cry throughout our sacred texts. There are the tears of Jacob and Esau, once angry rivals, who both cry when coming face to face years later;  and the tears of Joseph that cry out from Egypt who after years of intentional abandonment by his brothers sheds tears of joy upon their reunification; and King David cries out in sadness at the loss of his best friend Jonathan. Throughout our texts, the nuances of language offer us different verbs to express their tears, but little is lost in translation and the sound of tears is universal.

And not only people cry in our sacred texts. The angels cry at the destruction of the Holy Temple and God cries with them. But most especially, a midrash teaches, [that] “when [people] are afflicted, God cries, such that “if the world ever heard God’s weeping, and realized the extent of God’s grief, it would explode. Even a spark of God’s suffering would be more than the world can bear.”

And somehow, thank God (even as or perhaps because God cries) we have arrived once more to Rosh Hashanah. A New Year - where even though the suffering in God’s world, where even though the tears and the sobs and the wailing from brokenness of the world is more than each of us could ever truly bear alone - somehow we have made it together. We have another opportunity, we have another year, another shana, to change, l’shoneh, what breaks, and to heal and fix, l’taken, what cries out to us.

On a day like today, the birthing of a world anew, what could possibly bring us to tears?
Perhaps the news, these days, most days, brings you to tears…

Perhaps your life these days, brings you to tears…

Or perhaps you have so much joy these days, that you also feel wetness welling in the corner of your eyes…

Perhaps you are so grateful for what you have that you, too, are overcome with tears of joy...

Perhaps some days you cry in grief and some days you cry in joy.
And some days you experience both…
at the same time.

Don’t we all enter this sanctuary over these days holding a little bit of both? Just as at our birth when we enter into the world in the same way. Even for those who needed a little slap on the back, we came in with a wail, a sob, a scream - a red-faced desire to turn back - all the while held in the arms of possibility and potential. Every day of creation comes with some sense of loss. At every birthday, every wedding, every new year, something new is created, something that once was is no more. And like little ones we cry and we scream and - Yevava - we sob in cathartic release until eventually soothed by the joy and possibility of what is to come…

Tears and Joy. They come together. The mystical Zohar teaches, in fact, that "weeping is lodged in one side of my heart, and joy is lodged in the other."

The shofar’s cries echo each of our days and in the chambers of each of our hearts.  And somehow the simplest of sounds from a seemingly unsophisticated instrument have such great power to rouse us!

When we hear the shofar’s blast, may we to take to heart in the chambers that weep and in the chambers that hold joy this teaching from the Chassidic Master, Rabbi Aharon of Karlin:

We start with a full, uninterrupted blast - TEKIAH!
‘We are whole!’ the shofar sings!
A 3-part blast - SHEVARIM -  whose name means ‘broken.
The shofar says to us:
‘I was whole, but now I am broken.’
The third set of blasts - TERUAH -
a staccato series of short blasts -
even more broken than the previous set.  
Its message is Yevava -
our weeping and sobbing
‘I was broken, now I'm smashed to pieces.’
But every final blast in each series of the shofar’s song ends with TEKIAH - the uninterrupted blast. Even though there is brokenness and destruction, the promise of wholeness endures.

We are required to sound at least 100 blasts during Rosh Hashanah.
100 times the shofar brings us this message:

"You were whole once; then you were broken;
you may even have been smashed and ground to pieces.  
But soon we shall be whole once more.”

And for those of us who are not yet there - for whom the broken wails of Shevarim and Teruah resonate most profoundly: may those around us who hasten to Kol Shofar, the voice of the shofar, hear our cries and hear our sobs, cradling us, no matter how long it takes, as we journey
from the Yevava sobs of brokenness to Tekiah Gedola -  the enduring, uninterrupted, rousing and stirring sounds of shleimut and shalom, wholeness and peace.

Citations - even though doesn't permit footnotes!
Based on Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, 32
Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashanah 33a-b
The Gemara and Jastrow disagree with Rashi and JPS on the translation of this word.
Rabbah Sara Hurwitz, A D’var Torah for Rosh Hashanah, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance
Tree of Souls: the Mythology of Judaism, Howard Ginsburg. Sourced from B. Berakhot 3a; B. Hagigah 5b; Eikhah Zuta 7; Yalkut Shim’oni, Eicha 1009; Esh Kadosh, from a derashah delivered by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira on February 14, 1942.  
Zohar II, 255a; III, 75a