it’s not in heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on Friday, September 11, 2015 (and then again the next morning), on my first Shabbat as the rabbinic intern.

Today is September 11.

Long before that date came to stand for national tragedy, as the twin towers that long stood over the New York skyline crumbled, it was the birthday of my favorite aunt; she long stood as a positive example for me in childhood.

She and my uncle divorced when my cousin, who is close to my age, was very young, and I watched my aunt step bravely into the role of, essentially, single mother to a grade schooler. She took a position as an English teacher at a prestigious college prep school and later became head of the English department. She eventually left as the head of the upper school, to take a position of head of school at another institution.

I recently recommended to my aunt a podcast called “Mystery Show,” which I’ve been enjoying. Each episode, the host solves a different puzzle, and in the most recent one I listened to, she investigates a license plate she saw years before while standing at a red light: It read “I-L-U-V-9-1-1” — “I love 9/11.”

The host is shocked — and then determined to find out the story behind a plate that is probably not owned by a terrorist, as an initial reading might suggest. I won’t give away the ending, but I knew it was something that my aunt would also enjoy.

And the truth is, I love 9/11. September 11 is the anniversary of my conversion. Six years ago, I was standing in the mikveh and made brachot while several rabbis stood nearby as witnesses. I emerged a Jew.

And in a strange turn of events, today is also the day that my divorce becomes official. It’s just a fluke — a combination of court bureaucracy that scheduled the hearing and state law that requires the judgment entered that day to be final some months hence. Last spring, I stood before a judge and averred that my marriage had irretrievably broken down.

This date stands for
The towers stood above
My aunt stood as
The car stood at the light
I was standing in the mikveh
The rabbis stood over me
I stood up in court.

In this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, we stand as the people Israel to enter into the covenant with Gd. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים, the parshah begins: “You are standing.” And it is most definitely we, the people in this room, who are standing.

The covenant that Gd makes is with those who were there in that moment in the distant Biblical past — but also with us, the people who were not there that day: וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. And my standing in the mikveh all those years ago affirmed that I, too, stood with all of them and with all of you.

The Torah emphasizes the breadth of the covenant by enumerating a list of the different sorts of people that stood that day to accept the covenant: the leaders of the tribes, the elders, the officers, children, women, the strangers in the camp.

Also mentioned are two other groups: the woodchoppers and the waterdrawers. I love this strange, ordinary detail. We’ve already been told that everyone is there: כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Why are these two random professions mentioned at the end of the long list of, let’s face it, more distinguished groups of people?

I think it’s because this point really paints a picture of the day: That day, the last day of Moshe’s life, the day that would come to be known as the one on which the people of Israel accepted our covenant with Gd, a woodchopper gets up and begins to go about his day.

He exchanges words of affection with his family. He eats his manna. He talks with his neighbors. He walks to the woodpile. He picks up his axe and begins to swing. And then Moshe summons everyone . . .

כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל is abstract. It’s hard to picture. It’s when we’re told just a small, specific detail about one of the people that stood with everyone else that we can begin to see the scene.

So too with the death toll of the attack on the World Trade Center. It can be hard to comprehend the number 3,000. In his review of the 9/11 memorial in New York City, which stands now where the towers once stood, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik writes about the power of the spontaneous memorials that emerged right after the attack:

“In truth, the simplest memorials of the first days after the disaster, those xeroxed handbills with ‘Missing’ emblazoned on them and the photographs and descriptions of the lost below, still move us more than any other remembrance. ‘MISSING One World Trade Center, 100th Floor, Roger Mark Rasweiler’ ‘We’re looking for Kevin M. Williams, 104th Fl. WTC’ — these signs were made with the foreknowledge that the missing were in truth dead. There’s a wall of them within the museum. They voiced a refusal to accept their passing without protest and insistence: he died here, not some office worker. (Since we take pictures of the ones we love mostly on holiday, some bore apologetic inscriptions: ‘Was not wearing sunglasses on Tuesday.’)

The handbills still move us so because they touch so entirely on a central truth: these people came together one morning with no common purpose beyond making a living, and were killed by people whose evil lay in the belief that without a common purpose life has no meaning. The lesson of these handbills is simple: that life is tragic and precious and fragile, that there is an irreducible core of violence in the world, and of fanatics in love with it, and that we failed once in our responsibility to protect ourselves from them, and from it.”

as beautiful as this cap cod sky is -- the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא: as beautiful as this cape cod sky is — the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In parshat Nitzavim, we are given our common purpose as we stand together as a people before Gd: Torah.

I go back to the mikveh each year to commemorate my conversion. I say shehecheyanu, thanking Gd for another year as a Jew. It’s also my tradition to say during these annual visits the blessing over Gd as giver of Torah, Baruch ata Hashem noteyn ha Torah. Torah is what brought me to Judaism and what now sustains my Jewish identity. It is my belief that I have a stake in our sacred book that made me want to be a rabbi.

Indeed, we are given that most wonderful of gifts in parshat Nitzavim, when Gd tells us לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא — the Torah “is not in heaven.” It continues: כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ — “Rather, it is very close to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

It’s in this last statement that the pronouns change: When we are told that “you are standing,” it’s אַתֶּם, the “you” plural. Y’all. But when we are told that Torah is “in your mouth and in your heart,” it’s “you” singular. In the midst of the crowd of Israelites standing in the desert, Gd gives Torah to each one of us, individually, down to the humble watercarrier and woodchopper.

Parshat Nitzavim reminds us what we have always known: that there is power in standing, just as 9/11 brought home for us the devastating lesson that there is equal power when what once stood falls.

I had to stand before a judge to make the oath dissolving my relationship with my husband — and we all had to stand together to make the oath formalizing our relationship with Gd. These big moments in our life require nothing less than that we rise to meet them. In so doing we indicate our commitment, our intentionality, our seriousness, our authenticity. We stand in order to say: “We know what is at stake.”

Right now, we are all now standing at the gates of repentance. Rosh Hashanah, the new year, begins on Sunday evening. The gates open then, and they close again on Yom Kippur. My blessing for all of us is that we rise to meet Gd, the giver of judgment, just as we rose to meet Gd, the giver of Torah: together, all of us present.

I want for all of us to know that even as we take responsibility for our individual shortcomings and make atonement for our individual mistakes, that we do so as one people, standing before the Gd of the covenant, whose greatest gift to us was accountability on a human, not divine, scale. Gd gave Torah to us, to our mouths, to our hearts. It is not in heaven. It is right here.

through the looking-glass

I made it.

!ברך אתה יי אלחינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

Summer classes ended yesterday, and I passed Hebrew 4, as my teacher told me this morning. She asked me to meet with her the day after the final because I panicked during it and couldn’t quite finish. We talked through the text together, and then she gave me opportunity to answer the questions I hadn’t gotten to. This is just one of the ways in which she is a great teacher.

It was disappointing to leave the last class feeling completely frustrated by my performance (although there was also an odd symmetry to having the last class end in the same way the first class did). But yesterday was not at all indicative of my experience in the second four-week class. I got an A- on my midterm, and almost everyday the teacher told me that my homework was “superb.” I felt relaxed in class, and I even made Hebrew jokes (dorkiness acknowledged). Perhaps most importantly, I feel prepared for Hebrew 5, which begins in just a few short weeks, since I will continue with the same teacher. In fact, I pity my future classmates, the ones who did not share with me in the experience of this summer, because they have no idea what they’re in for. She is fair but tough, and I am so glad that I now know what to expect from her class.

Recalling the anxiety, fear, and complete incompetence that I felt during the first course (Hebrew 3), I can still feel the knot in the pit of my stomach that I had almost every day. In this case, ignorance served me well, as I don’t know that I could have knowingly put myself in this situation. (Well, one type of ignorance served me well: I certainly wouldn’t have minded actually knowing more Hebrew before the start of the class.) But as the cliché goes, I am stronger for this experience.

One of the highlights of the summer was the minyan on Wednesday mornings. Two upperclassmen started it, and we had a consistent if small showing each week, a mix of faculty and students who were still in Boston this summer. I loved starting those days with prayer, quiet, reflection, and meditation. It’s not a surprise that I enjoy davening, but it has been a bit of surprise to me how much I’ve loved it. While I enjoy praying on Shabbat, I haven’t had a more regular prayer practice until now. Even when I was facing the possibility of more sleep, I went to minyan anyway, and I was always glad that I did. I felt calmer and more centered — and so ultimately more ready for class on Wednesdays. Various people led the morning service, and the different selections, melodies, and readings made what can become rote into a new experience each time. This is an intentional prayer community, and I am excited to do this regularly in the school year.

Peeps supervises midterm studying; photo by joe grossberg

I have learned more Hebrew in the past two months than I have in the previous two years, when I started studying seriously to be able to enter the rabbinate. I unearthed all of the skills that I developed in college (most of which were based on already having a good grasp on the material) — and learned new ones (based on generally not knowing what the hell is going on). I also got a glimpse of some of what I might be able to expect of myself as an older student, especially in contrast to the other students in my class, all of whom are 7-10 years younger than I am. First and last days notwithstanding, I felt like I generally panicked less and apologized less, trusting that the instructor would both see my effort and know where I was developmentally, as a good teacher does. And she is an excellent educator.

I also realized the difference between a class taken simply to fulfill a requirement, or even to learn something interesting, and one that is the basis of vocational calling. My success in this class is vital to my future as a rabbi, and I had to be mindful not to let my frustration and anxiety about my limitations become dislike of Hebrew, while still giving myself permission to count down the days and be glad that this intensive Hebrew experience is over. A two-hour Hebrew class three times a week is going to feel like a breeze after this summer!

Orientation starts a week from Sunday. Bring it on.

labor seder

Sunday night was Jews United for Justice’s (JUFJ) annual Labor Seder; for the two months prior, I led the program committee that wrote the haggadah. I was also honored with a reading and with leading the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite prayers. As the graphic to the right alludes, the event this year focused on the issue of immigration in the D.C region.

As my reading, “Why a seder about immigration?,” stated,

In Hebrew, the word for immigration (“hagirah”) comes from the same root as the word “ger,” a word that can mean “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “other.” The word is used frequently in the Torah, most often in mandates to treat strangers living in our midst with respect and decency since we ourselves were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have so often been in the position of the stranger, and much of Jewish history can be characterized as a history of constant migration, forced and voluntary relocation, and resettlement.

In short, the fact that all Jews at some point immigrated to our country obligates us to be concerned about the plight of all immigrants in our country. During the seder, we talked about the demographics of the immigrants in the D.C, their contributions to the region’s economy, and the struggles that they face, including paths to citizenship (for those who came here both legally and illegally). We largely focused on issues related to jobs — of which citizenship is obviously a huge part. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all recently been grappling with laws relating to immigrants, in particular the DREAM Act and the local reaction to the federal “Secure Communities” program.

Immigration issues have become a passion of mine since I studied their local implications as part of the Jeremiah Fellowship, a program that JUFJ runs to train “the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers.” I learned a lot from the unit — and even more from writing the haggadah. I strongly believe in the kind of immigration reform advocated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an ally of JUFJ and a co-sponsor of the seder — to wit, “. . . an effective immigration system guided by the rule of law, the national interest, fairness, and compassion.” There are specifics to this vision which I won’t get into here, for a variety of reasons. At this point I am so deeply enmeshed in this philosophy of immigration reform that it’s really hard for me to understand the ferocious opposition to any realistic — to say nothing of compassionate — action. It’s an issue that progressives don’t even agree on. However, if you seek vitriol, read the online comments on news articles that cover efforts other than the immediate deportation our country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants.

In addition to delving pretty deeply into immigration policy, I also began thinking about my own family’s immigration story. They aren’t Jewish, but they’re not Native Americans either — so they had to have arrived at some point. But it’s a story I hadn’t heard.

I decided to ask my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have the kind of relationship with my father that facilitates these kinds of conversations. Or more precisely, I’m not sure he’d understand why I was asking in this context. Plus, my father is a lawyer, which for him means that he has to give precise answers at all times. It turned out that he had some genealogy, from my maternal grandfather, as well as his own family history. When I asked him about it at the beginning of February, he told me that he had loaned out his “big file” with all of that information to his brother and wouldn’t be able to get it back until mid-March. I told him that was fine, chuckling to myself that he didn’t give me any idea of that file’s contents; he never wants to misstate. A few days later, though, he got back to me with some details.

woody guthrie, apparently a relative

My maternal great-grandmother’s birth name was Guthrie, which family line can be traced back to John Guthrie in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to my grandfather’s notes, John Guthrie arrived in Jamestown in 1652. There was apparently a Guthrie Castle built in 1452, near Guthrie Hill, and that a Guthrie was dispatched to France in 1299 to get Sir William Wallace (“Braveheart”) to return to Scotland to oppose the English. It appears from my grandfather’s charts that the name was spelled “Guttery” until about 1854, when it became “Guthrie” again. My dad concludes this section: “Phil Kastelic [my uncle] may be able to tell you more about the recent Guthrie line: apparently Woody Guthrie is from the Guthrie family tree, and PMK is very proud of that connection.”

On his side of the family, my grandfather recorded Thomas Wilkes as his earliest known ancestor; he was born around 1630, location unknown. His son, Joseph Wilkes, is shown as having been born in New Kent, Va. in 1660. There are separate notes based on correspondence between my grandfather’s father and a Wilkes relative in Maryland that indicate that Thomas Wilkes arrived from England on February 25, 1653, at age 23, as an indentured servant. These notes also indicate that the birthplace of Joseph Wilkes was “just up the York River from Jamestown.”

So, not only did my grandparents’ ancestors both arrive at or near Jamestown in the 17th century — but they arrived within a year of one another! I was proud to tell this story at the seder on Sunday night, during the table discussion of attendees’ own family immigration stories. And I’m looking forward to hearing about my dad’s side of the family.

beit din

Yesterday, I got an email at 7:30 a.m. from the rabbi who married me and for whom I do clerical work once a week (she has a private practice). She needed a third for a beit din and a witness for the concomitant mikveh. I had a meeting that ended when the event was supposed to begin, but I agreed to duck out early, grab a cab, and race north to Adas Israel, the location of the community mikveh in D.C. It wasn’t what I was planning to do yesterday morning, but I am so happy that I did, for many reasons.

The event was a conversion for a 13-year-old boy who was marking his bar mitzvah in Israel in two weeks. Neither of his biological parents were Jewish. His father died when he was very young, and his Jewish step-father adopted him at a very young age (the boy even had the stepfather’s last name). His mother is still not Jewish, but she and her husband have raised the boy so.

A beit din (literally “house of judgment”) for conversion consists of three individuals — generally rabbis, but two can be educated Jews as long as one is an ordained rabbi who is an expert in the rules of conversion. I served along with two rabbis.

adas israel mikveh

I was really impressed with the young man. He was articulate about his desire to affirm his Judaism — and he was honest (saying, for example, that he didn’t like his Hebrew school — hee!). The beit din was mostly just a conversation among everyone. We then headed to the mikveh. The male rabbi and his father actually witnessed the three immersions, but the door to the mikveh was slightly ajar so that we could all hear him say the blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite blessings. We threw candy at him when he emerged from the room. Unfortunately, the rabbi had brought (kosher!) taffy, which he couldn’t have because he had just gotten braces; I was able to scrounge up a piece of hard candy in my purse for him. At the end of the ceremony, the father asked if he could make a donation to a charity I cared about to thank me for my participation, and I asked for a gift to the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, where I serve on the board.

This experience was so amazing — very special to me and incredibly holy. I was thrilled that I made the effort to be there. Plus, the rabbi on the beit din who I didn’t know has already been super helpful. He was very encouraging about my rabbinical school decision, and we’re already having a discussion about a possible fundraising job during school!

I got to sign the conversion certificate, the same template that I received two-and-a-half years ago. (Also, it turns out that I have as much trouble writing in cursive in Hebrew as I do in English. Must practice!) Before the family departed, the father thanked me for participating, noting that “you always remember these moments and those who were there.” I smiled and flashed back to my own beit din, knowing it was true.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,009 other followers