Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Deliver Us!"

Two years ago, I spent three months on bed rest, a month of that in the high-risk maternity ward. My condition threatened the lives of our baby and myself, although thankfully it was painless. The doctors from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit sketched out survival rates and made it clear that every day brought the baby closer to life.

Away from my family, with many of my familiar and favorite activities contraindicated, my various selves and roles sloughed off, narrowing down to an essential few, most prominently, gestator.
As I waited to reach the magic number of weeks, I internalized a new level of patience, appreciating that I had no choice but to operate on G-d’s time, that simply by progressing another day in the pregnancy, I was “doing” something. I suddenly found myself with lots of time for introspection; I devoted more time and concentration to my prayers, instead of my usual cursory prayers as a working mother of a lively household.

On Hoshana Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot, the eve of the festival of Shemini Atzeret, considered the final day of the new year’s divine “judgment”) my husband brought me a bunch of willows. One of the primary observances of Hoshana Rabbah is the recitation of the poetic Hoshanot prayer, followed by the taking of a bundle of willows and striking it against the ground, symbolizing the “tempering of harshness.”

I have to confess that I’d never recited the Hoshanot prayers before, busy as I always was with all the physical holiday preparations. As I read through them, I was struck by their beauty, and saw echoes of my own search for surety. “A heavenly voice is heard by all the inhabitants of the earth – the voice heralds: ‘Israel, His people, tended by Him from the womb, has been newly born as a babe from its mother’s loins.’ The voice heralds: ‘She has travailed and given birth to a people that shines forth as the dawn.’
Today is Hoshana Rabbah; yesterday Gilad Shalit returned home. His gauntness and haunted air pains me, even as I rejoice for his rebirth. I can’t begin to imagine what Gilad endured these past five years, but from the little I’ve read and seen, he has deep internal reserves; he said that he never gave up hope on being returned.
I wonder what Gilad learned about himself during his 1,940 days in captivity. Did he think to himself each evening, “I have survived another day,” or, “One day closer to salvation”? Did he pray? I hope that in the days and months ahead, once Gilad returns to full health, he will share his story. I am sure there is much we can learn from him.
As we all search for surety, for the knowledge of G-d’s embrace and protection, I find comfort in the words of the Hoshanot. “Deliver Your people and bless Your heritage; tend them and exalt them forever… Remove the iron barrier that sunders us from You… Seal our judgment in the Book of Good Life.”

For more about these mystical prayers, see here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Sukkah Round-Up

Here's a little Sukkot fun to get your holiday rolling. 
  • For those of you flying, have no fear, the TSA knows about the four species and will not stop you from passing "Go." 
  • In spite of Egypt's ban on selling lulavim to Israel, the holiday will continue!
Ancient mosaic floor from synagogue in Tiberias, Israel
  • Hoping to grow your own etrog after Sukkot?  It helps to live in the right clime.
  • Wanted to ask someone to shake lulav and etrog but were unsure?  Click here.
  • Wanted to shake lulav and etrog but were too shy to ask?  Click here!
CT Scan of Etrog

Friday, October 7, 2011

Peace Unto You

“Anyone I ran into on the bus would want to know where I had been, and where I was going, and what I had been doing, and what did I think. What would I say? That I had been in the war? That I had met my own self there?”

Rabbi Haim Sabato’s roman à clef takes us back to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Childhood friends and study-partners Haim and Dov leave the synagogue services to join their tank battalion. Separated in the chaos of soldiers searching for their gear and divisions, Haim faces battle alone, all the time wondering what happened to his friend.

Sabato captures the confusion and fear that war brings, as well as the comfort that religion and ritual offer. His lyrical writing draws youinside the hearts and minds of young men fighting for their lives and the life of their country, documenting how even those who survive war must mourn a part of themselves that dies, as a new part is born.

Sabato conveys the preciousness of Shabbat observance under grueling conditions, how he searches for hot water to bathe in honor of Shabbat and saves a little of his army rations to make a Shabbat feast. We meet soldiers in pain who turn away from G-d, and those for whom war is the impetus to connect with Him. We struggle with Haim to climb the hills to new understandings about fear, war, and the meaning of life. With spare and beautiful writing that interweaves childhood memories, snatches of songs and chants, and Judaic texts, Sabato crafts a whole world. The author does not try to resolve every question he raises, but leaves us – as does real belief – with powerful questions existing alongside equally powerful connections to G-d and faith.

“Peace unto you.”  “And unto you peace.”  “May there be a good omen and a good Mazal for us and for all Israel.  Amen.”  With these words, Sabato concludes his tale of Yom Kippur 1973.

In some spiritual sense we find ourselves spiraling back thirty-eight years, as the United Nations considers Palestinian attempts to get a land without peace; this time the weapons pointed at Israel includes the world media.  And so my prayer this Yom Kippur is that we all be sealed for a good year, with Israel in the forefront!  Peace unto you.  And unto you peace.  May there be a good omen and a good mazal for us and for all Israel.  Amen.

Rabbi Haim Sabato was born in Cairo and hails from an illustrious Syrian rabbinical family. Following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the Jews of Egypt. The Sabatos immigrated to Israel, living in a transit camp that was a melting pot of Jewish ethnicities. Today, Sabato heads the Birkat Moshe Yeshivah in Ma’aleh Adumim, and is the author of four books. Tiyum Kavanot (Adjusting Sights) was translated into English by the gifted author Hillel Halkin, and won the Sapir Prize for Literature and the Yitzchak Sadeh Prize for military literature.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Today is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, of blessed memory, mother of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It is also the yahrtzeit of my bubbe, Zissel Reichel bas Akiva HaKohen. They both passed away on “Shabbat Shuvah” (the special Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the 6th of Tishrei, albeit thirty-four years apart.  Four days after Rebbetzin Chana’s passing, on Yom Kippur of the same year, my other grandmother, Perl bas Yehoshua Dovid also returned her soul to G-d. Every year I think about this congruence and wonder what lesson I can learn from it.

Bubbe Zissel was born in a small town in what’s now Ukraine. Although there were no Jewish schools for girls and her parents struggled to feed their family, they scraped together the money to pay a knowledgeable woman to teach their daughters Torah. This treasure stayed with my grandmother her entire life. She’d often quote our Sages: “If you want to eat on Shabbos you have to prepare on erev Shabbos!”  Bubbe looked at every situation with a good eye, even taking the jingle of a popular radio commercial, “Don’t get mad, get glad,” as a slogan for life.  By example, Bubbe taught me to be careful with possessions, with time, and with words. Once, a woman Bubbe hadn’t seen for a year stopped by to say hello.   The last time they’d met, she had been pregnant but now she didn’t have a baby with her -- Bubbe noticed and refrained from commenting. When Bubbe later found out that the baby had not survived, she repeatedly said how happy she was that her silence had spare the woman sorrow and pain.
Bubbe and Zayde at their 60th Wedding Anniversary

My grandmother Perl was born to a religious family in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. At a time when many American Jews were leaving Judaism, her parents strove to give their children a Jewish upbringing, even if it meant walking 20 blocks in the winter to pray at the Hungarian shul.  Among the few pieces still remaining from my grandmother’s artwork, is a small painting of her family observing Sukkos.  The greenery roof and brick floor frame her parents, sisters, and herself sitting inside (I do wonder about her brothers, who are not shown.)  Although orphaned as a young woman, Perl carried on these lessons from home and made sure to do all that a Jewish woman should.

One of these three girls is my grandmother, Perl

So, what is the connection to Rebbetzin Schneerson?

In spite of my bubbe and grandmother’s religious childhoods, in spite of the sacrifices their parents made, they were not successful, for whatever reasons, in transmitting all this to their children. In the short gap that existed between my great-grandparents and my parents, so much was lost. But the self-sacrifice of my great-grandparents was not. The seeds they planted did grow – just not in their lifetimes.

Instead, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbetzin Chana’s son, who coaxed these seeds to sprout and then blossom. Rebbetzin Chana’s deep devotion to Jews and Judaism flowered in full-force in her son, the Rebbe, who endeavored to gather every precious Jewish child and grandchild and bring them back to their rightful heritage. And in so doing, Rebbetzin Chana became the bubbe of hundreds of thousands, across the world. May her merit continue to protect and inspire us.

Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, of blessed memory

And so, over the next four days I will be observing the yahrtzeits of three of my grandmothers . . .