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

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dear Mother Emanuel, A Letter of Condolence

Dear Mother Emanuel
June 19, 2015 ~ 3 Tamuz 5775
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA

A letter of condolence to Mother Emanuel, the name by which Charleston’s Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church is lovingly referred:  

Dear Mother Emanual, we are so profoundly saddened for your loss. We are so profoundly saddened for your losses. For thousands of years, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing of a death, we recite these words - Baruch Da’ayan Ha’emet, Blessed is the True Judge. And we tear Kriyah - we tear, rip, rend our clothing to expose our hearts. We expose our hearts breaking for you and, dare I say, with you.

Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet, Blessed is the True Judge. Our hearts break for and with you, dear Mother Emanuel. But why, and how could we bless God when our hearts break, why and how could we bless God when another’s heart has ceased beating? We bless God because dear Mother Emanuel - Emanuel OR Im Anu El. You have known this truth, Mother Emanuel, for the nearly 200 years you have enveloped the hearts joined in worship, the hearts joined in prayers, the hearts of your children. We bless God dear Mother Emanuel, because you’ve always known that even in darkness, Im Anu El, God is with us.

And because God is with us God is with you, for nearly 200 years, dear Mother Emanuel, you have shown a resilience unmatched. Not without historic labor pains your children were given birth in 1818, “a free church in the heart of the confederacy, before the Civil War ever began”a resilient “spiritual and political [cradle] divorced from the oppressive white institutions all around them.”  And not without growing pains and grief, did you shelter your children’s adolescence and maturity as they sought to free themselves from the most egregious hate and violence. Dear Mother Emanuel, you enveloped your children in refuge as your son Denmark Vesey organized to liberate your enslaved children in a major slave uprising in 1822. And though you were burned to the ground in retribution that year, you would once again rise to envelop your children in your sanctuary. And though you were forced to meet in secret, dear Mother Emanuel - Im Anu El, God was also with you in secret, the psalm reminds, v’shachanti b’tocham, dwelling among us b’mikdash - in your sanctuary of God’s ever present love.

Dear Mother Emanuel, just years after the earth shattering hatred of the Civil War, your sanctuary was rocked once more by earthquake. But rebuilt, and free, your children could finally worship openly again, and into your enveloping sanctuary they entered.And You sheltered Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, And You embraced Eliza Ann Gardner, and Harriet Tubman, You held Booker T Washington, and Martin Luther King with your resilience unmatched.

Dear Mother Emanuel, we tear kriyah, ripping and rending our clothing in grief as we witness the fabric of our society unravel. Our exposed hearts break; we are a country in need of emergency surgery. Your son, the now slain Reverend Clementa Pinkney, wondered: “Could we not argue that America is about freedom whether we live it out or not? Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness.” He reflected, “And that is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”His words were sadly prophetic, dying with 8 brothers and sisters, pursuing his freedom to fulfill God’s word.

Dear Mother Emanuel, even with broken hearts and perhaps in spite of them, Clementa’s brothers and sisters will continue to fulfill his prophetic vision of what your church, what your sanctuary is all about. And it is in our capacity to march, to struggle, and to be unpopular with them in the pursuit that all should be equal in the sight of God. Because we will not tolerate a society in which you do actually have to die like Denmark Vesey like Reverend Clementa Pinkney, age 41; like Asst. Pastor; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, age 45; like Tywanza Sanders, age 26, or like Ethel Lance, age 70, or like Susie Jackson, age 87; like Cynthia Hurd, age 54; like Myra Thompson, age 59, or like Daniel Simmons Sr., age 74, or like DePayne Middleton Doctor, age 49.

We cannot tolerate a society in which you do actually have to die to make noise for the kind of equality that drowns out the noise of supremacy and racism. Mother Emanuel, yesterday marked 51 years since 15 rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, FL, for making noise - the sacred and joyful noise of praying in an integrated group of worshipers.

In fellowship, I invite my community to join together with one of local A.M.E. communities in Boston. We will make noise together, in memory, in anger, and in celebration of the long history and deep friendship shared between the Black and Jewish Communities.

Dear Mother Emanuel, we are so profoundly saddened for your soul wrenching, society rending, heart breaking loss. Ha’rofei lish’borei lev…הָרֹפֵא, לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב May the one who mends broken hearts [someday] heal your broken heart…”, dear Mother.  As the psalmist reminds: Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” –God is close to the brokenhearted. But I believe you already knew that, dear Mother Emanuel.  For every time you recite your Church’s name, you speak into being this eternal truth that even in your darkest hour, Im Anu El, God is with Us.

Charleston and the Age of Obama, The New Yorker.