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Toldot – Hunger and Desire

From the Pen of Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

I am currently supporting a number of people with my Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.  I thank God that I have this fund so that I might be in a position to help people overcome their hunger pangs. I am just an instrument delivering generous gifts that people give to my fund. And in this year’s economy, we need to help one another.

And yet, in my mission, helping families overcome their awkward situation in life, I am faced with a conundrum. Because I see that at times, being hungry is helpful.  How is being hungry helpful?   In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot is not focused on actual hunger, but on the daily feelings of desire and extreme desire that bring us to a lot of pain and suffering.  In Toldot, Esau experiences not actual hunger, but a deep feeling of craving that seems to bring him a lot of pain and suffering.  Esau experiences a type of hunger that causes him quite a bit of suffering and one day, as he comes home from walking in the fields, he insists that his brother Jacob give him porridge to mitigate his tremendous feeling of hunger. Esau is so hungry that he accepts Jacob’s exchange of a third rate meal in exchange for his birthright.  In Genesis 25:32, Esau exclaims, “I am about to die.  So, why do I need this birthright?”

It wasn’t that Esau faced death.  I am confident that he had eaten the day before.  But Esau felt what many of us feel. Esau felt what so many people who visit me in my office feel – a deep emptiness, a void at the center of their being, a hunger that all the porridge in the world can’t fill. Esau feels a terrible sense of loneliness. I see this, and pray with people who experience this. People who have lost a child or a spouse or a best friend. This can be so painful. Each one of us knows someone who has suffered such a loss.  Rather than steal his birthright, each one of us should try to be an empath, to understand and relate to this person. This is why it is so important for us to feel hunger.  You know what it is to have lost someone very important to you. Visualize that feeling. Don’t bury this hunger that you once experienced in your life—but bring it to the forefront and stay hungry for a short while.  Remember what it felt like to be alone.  I know how loneliness feels.  I was 35 years old, and I was all alone. I didn’t even have a small cat. And so, I prayed to God for a wife. And within half an hour, I met the perfect woman.

In our Shacharit service, each morning, we pray, “V’ani T’filati lecha YHVH, et ratzon.  As for me, my prayer is for You, my dear God. May it be for you a time of desire.”

I felt a deep emptiness, a place where no love could reach me. I reached out to God and instead of porridge, I found Peggy 35 years ago, and we are married happily to this day.

Godcidences & Giving

November 29th is Giving Tuesday, a worldwide holiday that encourages giving back to our communities.  With one voice, non-profits reach out on Giving Tuesday to ask for our time, skills, and dollars to make a difference in other people’s lives.  Giving back to the community is a long-standing Jewish tradition.  Isaiah 32:17 says, “and the work of tzedakah shall bring peace.”

I asked Hebrew Seminary professor, Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub, to share a “Giving Tuesday” teaching with us.  Rabbi Vaisrub agrees that Tzedakah speaks to something greater. 

My favorite teaching on the obligation to support people in our community comes from Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Rules of Gifts to the Poor 10:1:

“We are obligated to be careful with regard to the commandment of tzedaqah to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because tzedaqah is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as [Genesis 18:19] states: “I have known him, because he commands his children… to perform tzedaqah.”

“The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through tzedaqah, as [Isaiah 54:14] states: “You shall be established through righteousness [tzedaqah].”

“And Israel will be redeemed solely through tzedaqah, as [ibid. 1:27] states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity [tzedaqah].”

Note how Maimonides enumerates [and thus connects] four seemingly disconnected ideas, all through tzedaqah:
1. Personal righteousness
2. Proper governance / political stability
3. True faith proper religious belief
4. National redemption

In this rule, Maimonides is NOT merely teaching us why tzedaqah is important: any one of the reasons he enumerates would more than suffice, so why waste ink and parchment?

Rather, Maimonides teaches us how tzedaqah binds these different aspects of people’s lives together: the personal, the social, the religious, and ultimately the redemptive. In a particular way, acts of tzedaqah, which encompass justice and kindness, create individuals, and communities, and religious movements, and ultimately a nation, capable of actualizing human potential. Tzedaqah is thus the glue that ultimately binds people together, which speaks to its power to transform the world, micro and macro, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Dr. Goldhamer wants to add that it is a Godcidence that we celebrate Giving Tuesday, during the same week that we read Parshat Toldot, the scriptural reading for this week.  The essence of this parasha is good and evil. Jacob represents good and his twin brother Esau represents evil.  I believe this simplistic understanding misses the point. What is evil?  In Kabbalah, evil is selfishness.  We are all concerned about our own welfare. We are all concerned about how to improve our own lives. We all do things to benefit ourselves. This is considered evil in Kabbalah.

Everyone is created with a desire to receive for oneself alone. There is a difference between receiving for yourself and receiving in order to share. The second form of receiving is considered good in KabbalahKabbalah comes from the root word meaning “to receive.” But Hashem wants us to receive in order to share and do tzedakah. And so, our Kabbalistic tradition teaches us to receive in order to share.

Nothing is wrong with accumulating millions of dollars and becoming wealthy. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing to accumulate wealth–but we need to accumulate so that we can share what we accumulate. This is the essence of the teaching of this week’s parasha.  We need to receive in order to share.  When we receive and we do tzedakah, we are doing a high mitzvah in Judaism.  This is the essence of this week’s teaching of Toldot and Giving Tuesday.

For Giving Tuesday, Hebrew Seminary is asking that you donate food and/or funds to  Congregation Bene Shalom’s The Brian Glassenberg Food Pantry at Congregation Bene Shalom, 4435 W. Oakton Street Skokie, IL 60076 or call 847/ 677- 3330.

 

Finding Possiblity In Bad News

By Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We look to Abraham to teach us advocacy. Last week we read of God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom. The story teaches us to argue with the powers that be when lives are at stake. Abraham teaches us to argue for the rights of all people and there is no doubt that we need to step-up our advocacy here in America. Allow me to share some examples of why we need to put ourselves out there and allow me to offer Jewish teachings that may inspire us to do so. I do believe God is with us every move we make. I believe in a God of love and possibility. I do not accept impossibility.

“On November 20, hundreds gathered for an anti-hate rally at a vandalized Brooklyn park named in memory of the late Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch. The rally Sunday at the Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn came after the park was defaced with swastikas and the message ‘Go Trump.’” (Jewish Telegraph Agency)

An Anti-Defamation League report issued in October identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets between August 2015 and July 2016 with an estimated reach of 10 billion impressions, which the task force believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language – particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements — on a massive scale.”

As an introduction to its “Hate Crime Statistics 2015” report released this November, the FBI wrote: “Earlier this year, a Florida man pled guilty to threatening to firebomb two mosques. A Virginia man was charged with assaulting a gay victim. And an Iowa man was convicted of stomping on and kicking the head of an African-American victim.”

I do not accept this foreboding news. Let us bring about a prevailing wind of kindness. Let us be upstanders, people who speak up even to their peers when a wrong is being perpetrated. Humans are social and prone to group think. We need to conspicuously role model mutual respect, act for social justice and unequivocally leave no one to fend for themselves. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, each and every person has a piece of the truth. When Rav Huna would eat a meal, he would open his door and say, “Whoever is in need, let that person come and eat.” (Ta’anit 20b) In our communities, many read the newspaper and simply put it down. Children fallen in the street are set aside. The Wisdom of our Fathers, Pirke Avot 2:5, echoes through the house: “Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community.”

Think about what it means to be inclusionary. When we are open to everything and everyone, we don’t define ourselves or make decisions based on subconscious fears. We draw back when demagogues venomously tell us what to think. We sit with our initial response to a choice or a person different than ourselves and witness it. Being with our fears and prejudices allows them to dissipate. Then we can be open to possibilities. Then we can be open to being our best self. Snap judgements close countless doors. Grudges epitomize the certainty of only one possibility.

Psychologist Erich Fromm believed that God is a metaphor for our best self. He theorized that we believe in and seek to connect with our ideal self. Fromm was searching for meaning, a way to respond to the inevitability of change. The definition of time is change. We often don’t know why things change, we can only weigh change against what is the most good for the most people. As a rabbi once said: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

Philosopher John D. Caputo beckons us, “The religious sense of life has to do with exposing oneself to radical uncertainty and the open-endedness of life…. The Scriptures are filled with narratives in which the power of the present is broken and the full length and breadth of the real open like a flower, unfolding the power of the possible, the power of the impossible beyond the possible, of the hyper-real beyond the real. … faith, hope and love are what we need to keep up with what is really going on in the real beyond the real ….”

I believe that the possible, my ideal self, love, and the hyper-real beyond the real are all different names for The Source, The Name, HaShem. I am assured and inspired by the words of Kabbalist Kedushat Levi, “Now He is giving His people life!” The creation of man into Yesh (existence) happened in the past tense and is happening right now. God is continually creating us and we are part of Her creative activity here on the physical plane.

Each and every moment of our lives, God gives us possibility. These possibilities exist for everyone equally and we are responsible to recognize and actualize those possibilities for our self and all fellow human beings. We thank God for our gift of possibility by assuring that our brothers and sisters, all of them, can actualize their gifts. We show our gratitude by assuring equal rights for all, which opens doors to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, health care and education, which opens an inner door toward our ideal self.

Acceptable Norms & A Vision of Oneness

After each and every General Election, and during the intervening years, we need to let our elected officials know what norms or standards we will accept and won’t accept.

We look to our Jewish tradition for these values and boundaries. Remember, we are all connected: “When Adam was first created, he was pure. His purpose was to raise the system of worlds – Assiyah, Yetzirah, and Briah — to their highest root in Atzilut, and ultimately into Adam Kadmon, which serves as a bridge to the infinite Ayn Sof. But instead of drawing the transcendent light of the Ayn Sof into these worlds, Adam chose to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Before disobeying God, Adam and Eve lived in a world where everything was one. All the worlds were one. All the animals, Adam, Eve, God were connected. But after eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve embraced a duality of birth and death, good and evil, light and darkness, happiness and sadness. This disconnected them from the Creator, with the result that the soul of Adam HaRishon was disconnected from the Spiritual world and shattered into many fragments, called individual souls. The Kabbalists call this ‘the breaking of the soul of Adam HaRishon.’ The soul fragmented into 600,00 root souls, which broke down into six billion individual souls.

To succeed in our work, we need to recover our Vision. We need to see again that the 600,00 root souls in the Universe are spiritually connected. We need to see that each of the millions of cells that comprise a root soul has its own mission and service to perform for the Creator and must come into a life all its own.

Each of us has long been a piece in a shattered puzzle that was once a single common soul. Now it is time for correction, tikkun, to regroup, reintegrate the pieces. This is the function of our world in this time, according to teachings of Kabbalah.” — Healing With God’s Love, Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, PhD, DD, with Peggy Bagley

Lech Lecha, Go to Your Authentic Self

 

From the pen of Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison Brown

First thing every morning my mind begins its chatter. What is the order of my day? What needs doing at work? What needs doing after work? In my mind tasks skirmish for priority. On the occasion that I disengage, I pat myself on the head with compassion. The mind works loves to conjure up problems and solve them. We are master puzzlers! It is no wonder that we are drawn to the practices of meditation and mindfulness.

People need space. We need space to Lech Lecha, to “go to yourself” in the words of Genesis 12:1. Jewish practices can support this effort to get in touch with our best self, our piece of the divine truth, to then go forth moment-by-moment, interaction-by-interaction to make a better world, if only through kindness. I hope to get in touch with myself so that I can act as often as possible from no-self.

Chaim Vital wrote that, “Every person must search and discover the root of his soul, so he can fulfill it and restore it to its source, its essence. The more one fulfills himself, the closer he approaches his authentic self.”

Our authentic self can be radically free and empty. In this state of consciousness there is no me and you. I am you.

After school yesterday my daughter shared something of her workload with me. Sometimes, having practiced lech lecha, I am able to listen from my authentic self. If I spoke from my chattering self, I would proceed to direct my daughter. When you get home do this, don’t take a break until you get this done, be sure you get plenty of sleep, so on and so forth. Speaking from my authentic self, my empty and full of wonder self, I empathize and offer the thought that she be compassionate with herself. I am confident that she will be her best self. She has no need for my chattering self.

A wise man knows nothing – well, maybe one song — Ikkyu

 

 

 

Speak Out Boldly and Strongly

From the Pen of Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

“Then God said to Noah:  leave the Ark…then he took some of the clean animals and some of the clean birds and offered sacrifices on the altar.” (Genesis 8:15, 20)

The Sitrei Torah is a text that is part of the Zohar.  It asks how did Noah feel when he emerged from the Ark after the flood? And why does he offer sacrifices after he emerges from the Ark? Is he giving thanks that he has been saved? How did God respond to Noah when he had left the Ark, saw the world destroyed and began to cry?  Noah said, “Ruler of the Universe, You are called merciful.  Why were You not merciful to Your creatures?”

God responded, “Foolish shepherd!  Now you say this! Why didn’t you say this when I said to you, ‘For I have seen that you are righteous before me.’ (Genesis 7:1) Or again, when I said, ‘Look, I am bringing a flood of water.’ (Genesis 6:17)  Or when I said, ‘Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.’ (Genesis 6:14)  At any point I could have delayed and said to you, ‘I will refrain because you asked for mercy for the whole world.’  And as a result of this decision, the world could have been saved by your repentance, but it never occurred to you to ask for mercy for the entire world.  If you did so, I would have saved the world, but now that the world is destroyed, you complain and you weep.”

When Noah perceived this, he brought sacrifices and burnt offerings.  “Then he took some of the clean animals and some of the clean birds and offered sacrifices on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20)

In this passage, Noah’s anger is once again directed toward God. I often see anger directed toward God – for example, at God’s alleged indifference to the Holocaust. How could God allow such evil to occur? The answer is clear – why didn’t Noah take responsibility for his world.  That might have averted the catastrophe.  Why didn’t the nations of the world fight to admit Jews into their countries? Why didn’t we work harder to save our fellow Jews around the world? Noah’s anger and our anger is misplaced.  It should have been directed against himself and ourselves. The sacrifices Noah offers are intended to assuage the guilt he bears for his failures. The task of the righteous is not merely to pray or to yell at God, after things go wrong. It is our responsibility to do as Noah should have – to speak out boldly and strongly and to recognize that hundreds of thousands of people being displaced from their homes is highly immoral and cannot continue, with our indifference.  We are facing an ecological catastrophe, potentially every bit as dangerous as the flood Noah faces in the Torah. We would do well to bear this in mind.

 

Cantorial soloist, theatrical entertainer, and rabbinic student

This month we meet cantorial soloist, theatrical entertainer,
and rabbinic student Charlene Clinkman Brooks!

 

Charlene, you have been enrolled in Hebrew Seminary’s rabbinic program for a little more than a year now.  As a cantorial soloist at Congregation Bene Shalom (CBS), were this years’ High Holidays any different for you given all that you have learned at seminary?

I’ve always loved to share my passion during services by singing the liturgy and writing songs that reflect Rabbi’s sermons, but this year was different.  People seem to look at me now not only as the cantorial soloist but as a rabbinic student.  This gives me tacit permission not to hold back.  People have responded well to me throughout the years, but this year there was a different intensity and connection to my involvement.

My enhanced understanding of Hebrew and Jewish history has brought me such joy and appreciation for our services.  I feel even more grateful for the opportunity to participate and I feel deeply the blessing and responsibility I have.  I want every prayer to have meaning even if people don’t understand all the Hebrew.  I hope I am able to convey the intention and the passion of the liturgy.  I believe Judaism can be a very passionate religion, and I think people appreciate that through the singing of liturgy.

Rabbi Goldhamer was unable to be at Yom Kippur services this year and people commented that there were three of his students on the bimah this year – Rabbi Shari Chen, Sari Daybook and myself.   I believe we rose to the occasion and we all felt his inspiration encouraging us to reach further into our soul than we ever have before.  The congregants were very receptive to us.

This year you sang a song that brought tears to your eyes and we all felt your connection to the lyrics.  Can you tell us about that experience?

I sang “Feels like Home.”  It has deep meaning for me because this temple is my home and this rabbi is my teacher.  The song touches me because I’ve raised my family here at CBS.  I’ve grown as a human being here; I’ve come from a secular background and now am a student in the seminary.  This temple has changed my life and yes, I’m emotional about it being my home

You are a part of CBS’s Kabbalah services and I sense that you have a real commitment and connection to these practices.  Can you tell us about your experience studying Kabbalah with Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer and how these meditations have touched your life?

Kabbalah is a spiritual, intellectual, and emotional journey.  I have always appreciated its importance, but it means something more to me now.  I intellectually understood the meditations, but as I’ve learned to teach them and incorporate them into my life they have become far more meaningful.  The practice of Kabbalistic meditation is not an easy journey or a quick fix.  In healing meditation Rabbi urges us to feel the Sephirot’s vibrations and that takes practice.  The first time I had an overwhelming experience with vibrations was as we were praying on my leg after surgery.  I was surrounded by our two rabbis, and people I care about.  I felt the vibrations so strongly it actually made me cry.  There was no denying the power and its effect.

Using the meditations that Rabbi Goldhamer teaches with congregants and friends I’ve seen them reap the benefits right before my eyes.  In my own daily life I call upon the chants and the meditations that I feel will help me at different times.  I’ve come to rely on them.  It’s wonderful knowing that there is something available like this to focus and center me.

At difficult moments I will do the Shema chant in my head.  I do the Shiviti chant to give me strength.  I also do the Modeh Ani every morning to start my day with gratefulness.  You can find these meditations and chants here: http://beneshalom.org/sounds-of-shabbat/

Tell us about your career performing as a singer in the Chicagoland area.

I’ve been performing for 35 years.  I started in clubs singing with trios, then with bands and orchestras in a variety of different formats. Then I began doing my own theatrical shows and I’m still doing that.

I’ve had experiences from the humorous to the magnificent.  I traveled for years with The WGN noon show at state fairs all over the Midwest.  I’ve performed before audiences in the thousands and on a stages located by the pigpens at the Illinois State Fair, sometimes w/in the same week.  It’s a very interesting life.

20 years ago I started singing at Congregation Bene Shalom.  I joined with my family as a congregant 22 years ago and a couple of years later became the cantorial soloist.  Coming from a secular background, I got my Jewish education at CBS.  I continue to learn through leading the services and now through classes at the seminary.

You often include personal and historical references to your Jewish background as part of your stage persona.  Tell us about that choice.

I always have a point in my theatrical shows where I include a message.  I find the right moment and it works because they’ve been entertained, and laughed, and shared in some joy.  When I take it to a place where it’s very real, very important to me. People are willing to hear it, it makes me very happy.  For example, I remind the audience to enjoy today.  You never know what’s going to happen.  I tell that to myself and my husband all time.

We worry so about the micro-moments and lose sight of the big picture.  You can’t put off moments with your family until it’s convenient for everybody.  Grab those moments.

My shows are so very different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago.  I think what makes them unique is that I come to them with all my experiences, even if they are not always visible in the shows.  When you sing at the temple you are not just singing, you are singing liturgy with all its meanings.  When I do theatrical singing, I always try to convey the meaning behind these songs as well as just having fun.

Do you have a vision or goal for how your life might unfold once you are ordained as a Rabbi?

There are so many possibilities, although I will say that I want to work with the Rabbi doing healing.  I love working with the congregants.  And, I will always sing.  I find singing the liturgy is a wonderful way for me to share it.  As a rabbi, I hope to work with people in all their simchas as well as funerals.  I have an investment in helping people with funerals.  My parents’ family perished in the Holocaust and none of them had a funeral and this has bothered me my entire life. So helping families rejoice in their loved ones life and show respect to their lost loved ones and their families is one way I can give back.

 

 

High Holiday Narrative

When you find yourself amidst the soul-searching Jewish holidays, your personal narrative can offer contemplative passage. Bring awareness to your narrative. Does your self-talk, your story, lean toward self-criticism or towards an inflated sense of self-worth. Perhaps your narrative is somewhere in between and also offers room for both growth and self-compassion in the New Year.

Rabbi Alan Lew, Jewish meditation ‘guru’, views our identity, reflected in our narrative, as a construct we fear will crumble so we spend too much energy on propping it up. In the process, we live at some distance from ourselves. Estelle Frankel, Rabbinic Pastor and psychotherapist writes:

“The very formation of the ego and its defenses can be seen as a descent into a mitzrayim [narrow place, i.e. Egypt] of sorts for our spirit, which is essentially limitless. To some degree, the narrowing of consciousness that accompanies ego development is inevitable and necessary, for in order to function in the world we have to develop a healthy sense of our own autonomy and will. But that very sense of our separateness becomes a mitzrayim, which we must transcend in order to embrace the fullness of our true being.”

Mindful awareness can support the transcendence of our ego-heavy narrative. We develop and rehearse our story in an effort to make sense of our internal and external worlds. Occasionally this story, our narrative, does not “embrace the fullness of our true being.” When we bring awareness to the self-professed reasons for our life’s unfolding we can ask, “Is my narrative empowering?” From our narrative emerges our future choices.

“Awareness makes choice and change possible,” maintains neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel, MD.  “… applying the power of narrative in healing can liberate a life. Narrative is the overarching integration of our life’s past experiences with our ongoing awareness and the way we create our future life of possibilities.”

“Our future life of possibilities” is indeed our High Holiday wish for all: Gmar hatima tova, a good signing/sealing! Perhaps in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance עשרת ימי תשובה, we could have the intention, the kavannah, of witnessing our narrative.

Designate a routine task as a prompt to bring awareness to your thoughts. For example, before you start the car or as soon as you sit down on the bus, take a few deep breaths and do nothing else but listen to your own narrative. Pick a narrative strand. Hold onto it long enough to discern what it expresses. Then let it go and continue witnessing. If you discover that possibility is the overarching theme of your narrative, share that energy with the world! If your narrative is holding you back somehow, try-on a Jewish spiritual practice or two throughout the coming year. Read Jewish texts. Ask the Shechinah to help you recognize your possibilities. During the High Holidays, she is closer than ever.