Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not just once, but four times!

Like any other normal day, I received an email from the synagogue/beit knesset that I go to every week here in Jerusalem, Mizmor le David. Usually, I delete them because I know the prayer times and have my meals already planned. But with all the chaggim/holidays, I read through the mass email to make sure I didn’t miss anything. There was an announcement that on Simchat Torah women could read from the Torah. It’s an orthodox beit knesset, so I was shocked and excited at the opportunity. Before I knew what I had done, I emailed back to tell them that I wanted to read.

At this point, Simchat Torah was about ten days away. So while sitting in a shiur about sukkot, I picked out the part of VeZot HaBracha (the last reading in the Torah) that I wanted to read. I picked a short one, I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew. I chose the fourth aliyah, it is only four pasukim/sentences. This is what I chose:

Chapter 33

And to Zebulun he said: "Rejoice, Zebulun, in your departure, and Issachar, in your tents.
יח. וְלִזְבוּלֻן אָמַר שְׂמַח זְבוּלֻן בְּצֵאתֶךָ וְיִשָּׂשכָר בְּאֹהָלֶיךָ:
They will call peoples to the mountain; there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices. For they will be nourished by the abundance of the seas, and by the treasures hidden in the sand."
יט. עַמִּים הַר יִקְרָאוּ שָׁם יִזְבְּחוּ זִבְחֵי צֶדֶק כִּי שֶׁפַע יַמִּים יִינָקוּ וּשְׂפֻנֵי טְמוּנֵי חוֹל:
And of Gad he said: "Blessed is He Who grants expanse to Gad; he dwells like a lion, tearing the arm [of his prey, together] with the head.
כ. וּלְגָד אָמַר בָּרוּךְ מַרְחִיב גָּד כְּלָבִיא שָׁכֵן וְטָרַף זְרוֹעַ אַף קָדְקֹד:
He saw the first portion for himself, because there, the portion of the lawgiver is hidden. And he came at the head of the people; he did what is righteous for the Lord, and what is lawful with Israel."
כא. וַיַּרְא רֵאשִׁית לוֹ כִּי שָׁם חֶלְקַת מְחֹקֵק סָפוּן וַיֵּתֵא רָאשֵׁי עָם צִדְקַת יְהֹוָה עָשָׂה וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל:

I practiced a lot. My trope teacher recorded if for me to make sure I was pronouncing all the words correctly. I kept referencing my trope book to make sure I had the notes right. I made my friends and roommates listen to me sing it over and over.

I always think reading Torah is important and a mitzvah, but this seemed extra special and extra important. One, I was going to read on a holiday. A holiday that is all about celebrating the Torah itself. So to read from the Torah on the day that celebrates Torah was extra special. Secondly, on a personal note, this was the first time that I would be reading Torah at an orthodox place that wasn’t Pardes or NFTY. I had read Torah many times for NFTY and the reform movement.  I have the utmost respect for the reform movement and it is one of my deep passions to work for them. I am usually one of the most educated Jews when I am reading Torah, and there are few people, if any, who know when I make a mistake. (I still take it very seriously and practice for weeks before I read for them.) And I also have read Torah a few times at Pardes. This is also nerve wracking, but it is a place where people know that we are students who are learning and people are gentle in correcting others and everyone is supportive. At Mizmor le David, people know what’s going on, they know exactly how it is suppose to be read. It’s serious, it’s a mitzvah.

I arrived so early in the morning, I was the first woman, and there wasn’t even a minyan of men yet. I was nervous. I put on my tallit and felt wrapped up in God’s presence, (I had asked before if it was okay if I could wear it, and they said it was fine!) and I started davening/praying which helped me relax and later we danced with the Torah for hours which also helped me calm down. Finally, it was time for Torah reading. It was already noon, I was ready, (and my amazing friends who came to support me were more than ready as well!) The women went outside and formed a separate minyan. At first I was annoyed, like the women were being kicked out. But I realized it’s too loud for two Torah readings to be going on at once. With the women, ten or men came out to insure there was a minyan.

On Simchat Torah, they read the torah portion many times. They do this to make sure that anyone who wants to do an aliyah, saying the blessing over the torah reading, has an opportunity. The person then receives a blessing called the Mi Sheberakh/May the One Who Blessed. It’s a blessing for healing and good health. It is traditionally read when the Torah is open. So this is a time for everyone to receive this blessing if they want.

It was finally my turn to read. A friend of mine did the blessing, I started, slowly and I tried to be loud. (It was hard to hear the people who read before me.) My friend had given me the advice to breathe and, “give yourself time” he said. It gives you a split second to think, annunciate, and look ahead. So I did. It was good, but the women thought I may be lost and “helped” me a little, even though I didn’t mess up. It was great. The after blessing was said. I stayed up there and did my own aliyah on the next torah reading, and received my own blessing.

Then we started over and I was waved up to read again. The women struggled over the blessing, but did it, and I read again. Perfectly.

There were so many people who wanted to say the blessing, they set up a third minyan in a side room and ten men crammed in to form yet another space to read torah. (In an orthodox setting, ten men are needed to read torah.) They asked me to go into that room because they needed more people to read. There was a man reading most of the portions, but when it got to the part that I knew, I asked if I could read it. They thought I wanted to say the blessing, but I told him I wanted to read the torah, and he asked again, “You want to read?” and again, I said yes, and the man stepped back and I took the yad/pointer from his hand. This time there were only three or four women in the room with the ten men and I was reading for a man who had said the blessing. And...I rocked it. It felt amazing.

I waited for one more read through of the Torah, and when it got to my part, the man handed me the yad with a nod. And I read, didn’t get boring, it was more and more amazing every time. I did better every time. I was more confident with each reading. I became aware that it wasn’t just about my own reading, but that I was truly helping/assisting someone else fulfill a mitzvah. By my reading (four times!!!), they did the mitzvah of reciting the blessing and they received a blessing. I know I already said it, but it was so awesome!

Everyone who wanted to do a blessing did it. It was after one in the afternoon, I was starving, it was time to go home. I went to say bye to the man who I had originally emailed to say that I wanted to read Torah. He was smiling, happy and grateful that I read. He told me that next year I could read two portions! Be’ezrat Hashem/with God’s help, I will.

On my walk home, I was glowing. I felt so alive, so proud of myself. So proud of my own reading and that I helped other people do their own mitzvah. Maybe it was just torah, or maybe it was what torah helped me give to others that made me so happy. I’m not sure. But now that we are starting over on Shabbat with Bereshit, at the beginning of the torah again, I can’t help but think about what this year of torah is going to bring me and I can’t wait to get started!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

NFTY, I'm shaking what?

Sukkot is a holiday that is really about joy. We are commanded to be happy. We build a booth outside in the elements of the weather to show God that we trust and depend on him. We are told to dwell in the booth/sukkah that we made. The rabbis interpreted this to mean that we eat and sleep in it.

So, great, I will build a booth, eat and sleep in it, and be happy. But we all know there is something else that has to do with Sukkah...the four species, or better known at the lulav and etrog. And we're suppose to shake it...

In Leviticus 23:40 the Torah names them these four plants:
  • ets hadar (פרי עֵץ הָדָר ) magnificent trees
  • tamar (כפות תמרים) palm trees
  • ets avoth (עֵץ־עָבֹת) boughs of thick trees
  • aravah (ערבי נחל) willows of the brook

The terms we are more familiar with now come from the Talmud:
  • etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree
  • lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree
  • hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree
  • aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree*

Why these specific four species of plants and why did God command us to gather them? One thing that is very cool, is that all the plants grow in the land of Israel. By gathering these plants God is taking us through our Jewish history. It's almost the same route that we took this summer on our NFTY in Israel trip. 

We were wandering in the desert, lost and following Moshe. I'm sure you can remember seeing from your bus window all the oases with palm trees in the middle of the desert. Those are the same date palms (lulav) that we use on sukkot. 

When Bnei-Israel (the Jewish people) entered the land of Israel that God gave them, they had to cross the Jordan River.  Not only did we cross the Jordan, we rafted down it. If you would have stopped paddling (or splashing your friends) and looked around, you were have seen willows lining the banks. The same willows (aravah) that we collect and use. 

In Jerusalem we talked about the first and second temples (the first built by Solomon and the second built by Herod.) All of Jewish life was centered around the Temple, and Jews would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem...I'm sure you're catching on by now. On the hilly country sides that surround Jerusalem, it's the perfect place for myrtle (Hadas) to grow.  

After the destruction of the Temple, Jews started to settle in other places. One of those places was the coastal plain region, all the way up and down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Can remember sitting at the Port of Yafo talking about the geography of the land? I'm sure your guide told you about the delicious oranges that are grown still to this day. But another famous citrus that is grown there is the etrog from the citron tree. 

I'm sure you're amazed! It's really awesome if you think about it. God is reminding us of how He brought us into the land of Israel and how we settled . Another interesting thing, is that all of these plants need a lot of water to grow. And as I'm sure you all remember from your rainless trip, Israel doesn't have a lot of water. So once again we are reminded about how we need God to provide rain for us. 

One last cool thing to think about when you're shaking away. All the four species come from different parts of Israel.
  • etrog (אתרוג) – the west - along the Mediterranean Sea 
  • lulav (לולב) – the south - in the Arava Desert
  • hadass (הדס) – the east - in the Judean Hills 
  • aravah (ערבה) – the north - along the Jordan River
Just like you did, in order to collect these plants, you have to go ALL over Israel. I hope you think a little more about Israel this year when you're holding your four species! HAPPY SHAKING!! 

Group 9 (Summer 2013) in Yafo - I'm sure there were etrogs near by! 


Friday, September 13, 2013

A NFTY Gmar Chatima Tova (A good signing into the book of life.)

During Yom Kippur, we are commanded to "afflict ourselves." "עינוי נפש" The gemara has a very lengthy discussion of what this could mean. Does it mean we don't have sexual relations, does it mean we physically hurt ourselves? No, the gemara concludes, it means that we don't eat or drink. But how do we know that? 

One of the proofs the gemara brings is that we were also afflicted and starving in the desert and it's the same word עינוי (affliction.) And since we were starving before God brought the ma'an to feed us, we know that we don't eat and drink. (Maybe a stretch, but that's what the gemara says.) So how is the desert like fasting? Why do the rabbis in the gemara make this connection?

Any NFTY in Israel alumni knows that there is definitely affliction when someone wanders in the desert. In every NFTY in Israel trip, hike for three days in the Arava desert, we sleep outside, we complain, we moan...this desert is the same desert that Moshe and the Israelites wandered through. 

Why did God afflict us in the desert? God just brought us out of Egypt and out of slavery, isn't it a time to provide for us and take care of us? I want to suggest that the desert is where religious experience begins. We go to a place where you have no where to hide. It's an open, vast, and dangerous place. When we fast and don't have food and water, we become more like animals following instincts of survival. Fasting is about confronting your nefesh/self/soul. One is forced to face the physical side of being.  

The desert is about a journey and so is Yom Kippur. It's not just about the day, or the time in the desert. It's what we take from it and how we grow and become better. From this weak vulnerable state, how do we act, behave, and change? How do we come out of Yom Kippur? I know that all four of my NFTY groups came out of the desert as better people. They all overcame challenges. They were patient, strong, and helped others. I wish all of you the same for Yom Kippur, when you're tired, hunger, and cranky, that you all still have patience and love for one another. That you confront God from not just an emotional and mental place, but also a vulnerable and physical place. And ask God for forgiveness and for a wonderful future. 

So NFTY, if you're sitting in services, and not feeling connected, think about the desert, think about how you grew and changed. You are a better person, probably for many challenges you faced this year, but also because of the times you were most vulnerable and came out triumphant. That's what Yom Kippur is about...going into a vulnerable state to become a better person. Be proud of yourself. 

I wish you all a meaning fast and Yom Kippur. Gmar chatima tova! גמר חתימה טובה! 

 Our not so afflicted selves in the desert this past summer! Happily overcoming challenges together!