Mikvah – Waters of Hope, Waters of Renewal (a shared blog by Rabbi Sharon Sobel and Cindy Morris)

Rabbi Sobel’s Story:

It was a beautiful day for a ferry ride on the Long Island Sound. The sun was shining. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The air was crisp and cold. The sunlight glistened and bounced off the water in golden hues. The gentle calm of the water was soothing to the soul.

Cindy, one of my congregants, and I were taking the ferry so I could bring her to the mikvah.  She had approached me looking for a spiritual way to acknowledge her recent divorce. After some reflection, I suggested immersion in the mikvah. (The mikvah is a ritual bath. For more information about mikvah, click here: Mayyim Hayyim)

Our first experience in life is surrounded by the nurturing waters of our mother’s womb. Those waters envelop us, nourish us, sustain us before we enter this world pure and innocent.

Throughout Jewish tradition, water has always been viewed as a life-giving force, as a source of renewal and purification. In Biblical times, water was used to welcome guests who traveled from afar into one’s home (the tradition was to have the host wash the dust of the road off the guests’ feet). Water was used to refresh and renew.

Rituals can be transformative. They enable us to separate from what existed before, mark a boundary and help make an emotional, inner transformation to a changed status.

Think of the importance of a wedding ritual, or a funeral, or a baby’s brit milah.

As Cindy and I sat on the ferry crossing the Long Island Sound to go to the mikvah, I realized that crossing the water symbolized the emotional journey Cindy was taking: she was leaving her emotional baggage from her marriage on the shores behind her. She was crossing to a new frontier, full of hope and potential.

When we arrived at the mikvah, Cindy went into the luxurious changing room to get herself ready and I prepared the mikvah room:

Mikvah Ritual for Hope and Strength
Mikvah Ritual for Hope and Strength

Unbeknown to Cindy, I created a havdalah ceremony, a ceremony of distinction, of separation, to begin the experience, prior to her stepping into the “living waters.”

When Cindy came out in her robe, I softly sang:

Ozi, v’zimrat Yah, va’yi li, li-y’shua-Ozi v’Zimrat Yah Vayahi li lishuah
Ozi v'Zimrat Yah Hebrew text
My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation (Psalm 118:14, Exodus 15:2)

I used the Havdalah symbols: wine, spices and fire to represent the transition that Cindy was marking. I spoke of finding a new-found sense of of strength and purpose, joy and peace. We asked God for a life filled with compassion and understanding.

I wanted Cindy to be able to smell sweetness in life once again,  to go forward from this moment on with renewed hope for herself, for her boys and for the bright future that was before her.

(Click here for: Rabbi Sharon Sobel’s Havdalah Ceremony at Mikvah to Mark Finalization of Divorce)

And when we completed Havdalah,  Cindy silently entered the mikvah, the waters of transformation, hope and renewal. She emerged with a new-found sense of peace and strength. (The ceremony used for the immersion was by:  Mayyim Hayyim, “After Finalizing a Divorce”)

And when it was all done, we took the ferry back across the Sound, sailing to a new shore of  promise and possibility.

Cindy Morris’ Story

When I first approached Rabbi Sobel about needing to feel God’s blessing for my divorce, I realized that sounded a little crazy. Who blesses a divorce? However, I  felt like my marriage had been blessed by God, that it was not a waste, and that my life was better for it. But I also wanted to ask God to bless my future without my marriage. I wanted to acknowledge to myself that my life without my ex-husband was one full of possibility and light.

All I could think throughout every mediation was that this was the man who had veiled me, stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with me, and who I called my b’sheret (soul-mate). This was the man who I married with God’s blessings.

But when we signed the documents that ended our marriage, we weren’t even in the same room. It felt dirty and shameful, like we were hiding from one another and from all the people who celebrated our lives with us. The same God who we invited into our wedding, our children’t brises, our holiday celebrations and our daily lives, was very obviously not invited into our divorce proceedings.

When Rabbi Sobel suggested that I go to the mikvah with her for a ceremony of transition, my first thought was about being naked. I had never been to a mikvah before, and it felt overwhelming and intrusive. However, when I thought about it, being naked was important. For years, I had built up walls and shields to protect myself, refusing my right to be vulnerable again, to risk pain. I was refusing to open myself up to the possibilities of my life because I felt a need to protect myself. If I were going to live a full life, I had to find a way to risk that vulnerability again, and that moment in the mikvah, naked, was as vulnerable as I could get.

As I sat in the candlelit room, in front of the water, Rabbi Sobel performed a Havdalah ceremony that didn’t acknowledge going from the holy to the unholy, but instead talked of my transition. It talked of strength, courage, and passion. It spoke of finding my life’s path as a mother, a woman and a person.  And then, I silently entered the pool and dipped three times.

I know that my life is blessed, and that whatever my future holds is mine. Some will be good; some will not. My divorce taught me about me, perhaps more so than my marriage ever did. Stepping from the waters, we sang the Shehechiyanu together, acknowledging that moment was a moment of gratitude and a moment of uniqueness.

And then I was in the changing room, so aptly named. I slipped on my skirt and blouse. I brushed my hair. I put on my shoes, and I went out to the world again.

Never Give Up – Reflections on the Israeli Elections

Yesterday, I awoke to find my Israeli friends expressing a sense of despair, anguish and sadness at the result of the Israeli elections.

One wrote that she wasn’t sure how she could find the strength to get out of bed to continue the [excellent] work she does in her position as director of an interfaith organization. She works with people of all faiths on a daily basis to build bridges toward peace, dialogue and understanding. She strives to develop an Israeli society where all peoples can live with dignity and in harmony. Yesterday was a difficult day for her.

Friends were greatly  saddened by the racism that pervaded the election campaign. They were grievously disturbed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s choice to rally his supporters on election day by creating an atmosphere of fear over the participation of Israeli Arabs in the elections, rather than celebrating democracy at its best.

I am not going to do an analysis of the elections – there are enough political pundits, armchair critics and others who are already doing that.

But I can talk about “hope.” So many of us love the land and people of Israel and wonder if there can ever be hope for the future in that region.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was on a long car ride. And I happened to be driving for 45 minutes on a highway behind a car whose license plate read: NEVRGVEUP

Never give up.

Never give up…hope for peace.

Never give up..hope for the future.

Never give up..hope that justice will ultimately prevail.

One of my friends, Cantor Evan Kent, who now lives in Israel full-time wrote: “in spite of the elections, I am proud to remain an irrational optimist. The philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr informs my work and life. MLK said: ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice..’.”

Evan – and so many of us –  will not give up hope that justice and peace WILL ultimately prevail in Israel. It will be a long, slow and sometimes painful road.

As Anat Hoffman (Executive Director for the Israeli Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center) said, “We will find ways to be effective and successful despite a very challenging reality. Now is not the time for despair. Now is the time to fight even more determinedly for the future.”

So, too, WE must not give up hope. We must use our voices, our actions, our words and deeds to speak up for justice and peace.

We must educate ourselves about the critical issues, we must remain united in our commitment to Israel’s security and do our part to make justice prevail and hope a reality.

One way we can impact Israel is to Vote ARZA in the World Zionist Congress. If you have not already voted, you can vote by clicking on this link here:

Vote ARZA in the World Zionist Congress

For some additional understanding about the elections, here is a wonderful blog, by Israeli Reform Rabbi Stacy Blank:

A Modest Post-Election Perspective

For the Reform Movement’s Response to the Elections, click on this link:

Reform Movement Leaders React to the Elections in Israel

As we are taught: “As long as there is life, there is hope.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 9:1)

Esther vs a Hamantashen: What Would You Rather Be on Purim?

When I was three, four and five years old, my mother used to dress me as a hamantaschen (a three-cornered triangular cookie, filled with jam or some other sweet filling) for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

She would cut two large triangles from corrugated cardboard, decorate them to look like the front and back sides of a hamantaschen , thread string through them and put them over my head sandwich-board style. She would also make a triangular hamantaschen hat for me, tied around my neck with a string.

An example of a hamantaschen costume!
An example of a hamantaschen costume!

As Purim approached, I dreaded getting dressed up in that hamantaschen costume. I hated it! I thought I looked silly, it was uncomfortable and who wanted to be a hamantaschen anyway? Every Purim that I had to wear that ridiculous costume, I longed to dress up as Queen Esther. For me, Esther epitomized the ideal heroine – she was beautiful, brave, courageous, a queen, and on top of all that, she saved her people’s lives. Finally, when I was six years old, my mother made a Queen Esther costume for me and I was ecstatic! I lovingly wore that same costume every year until I became too old to dress up as Queen Esther.

Each and every Purim many young girls love to dress up as Queen Esther, their Jewish heroine. Young Jewish girls don’t have very many biblical role modes. The few women we read about in the Torah are most often discussed only in context of their relationships with key male characters.

We hear about these women only in their roles as sisters, wives and mothers. Moreover, for most of them, their stories center around their ability or inability to procreate. If we look at the biblical text, it seems that the only important contribution these women had to offer society was their offspring.

Because the Bible does not give us a complete picture of women and their roles, and since we rarely hear about their accomplishments apart from their roles as sister/wife/mother, we tend to cling to those women who appear to be strong, independent and have contributed something unique and special to the Jewish people.

Esther, at first glance, appears to be such a woman. And, she is only one of two biblical women who have a whole book named after her! Many people have declared Esther to be a heroine and a positive role model for Jewish girls. Even the rabbis of old credit Esther with extraordinary characteristics and qualities. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) says that God’s holy spirit accompanied her when she went to see King Achashversosh to begin the process of saving her people. This midrash elevates Esther’s status to that of a prophetess – someone who has been endowed with “ruach hakodesh” – the holy spirit. And because God’s spirit was with her, the rabbis say, all of her future actions were sanctioned from “above”.

There are many more Talmudic and midrashic tales which show that the rabbis see Esther as a powerful, strong and independent figure. They attribute to her great courage and authority. They portray her not only as the savior of the Jewish people, but also as an halachic authority (an authority on Jewish law) and a great political figure. The rabbis look far beyond the actual text of the Book of Esther to create this powerful heroine. For the actual text of the Book of Esther itself only shows her to be Mordechai’s puppet, unable to make decisions unless prodded to do so. The real hero in the Book of Esther is Mordechai.

The rabbis of old need to be given a great deal of credit for writing their midrashim which depict Esther in such a powerful manner. It is these early rabbis who tried to show that perhaps, the author of the Book of Esther’s portrayal of the character of Esther is andocentric, skewed and not totally appropriate as a Jewish feminist heroine. It is this rabbinic image of Esther which has been handed down to our children. It was this image which served as a model of inspiration to those who were dissatisfied with the feminine role models who exist in our Jewish tradition.

If we want our children to think of Esther as an appropriate role model, then we need to do as the rabbis of old did: we need to go beyond the text itself, to teach them the midrashim that the rabbis wrote about her, and to write our own midrashim as well.

We also need to listen to another silent, female voice in the text, the voice of Vashti. Vashti should get more kudos for sticking up for herself. Yes, Esther saved the Jewish people’s lives, but the credit, at least as the biblical tale depicts, really belongs to Mordechai.

Maybe my mother knew what she was doing all those years ago when she insisted that on Purim, I dress up as a hamantaschen and not as Queen Esther.

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!

“Press HERE for Power!”

I ran my first half-marathon (13.1 miles) this past Sunday: the Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon.

Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015
Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015

For me, this personal milestone was about overcoming obstacles. I sustained permanent neurological damage in my leg after I broke it in a cycling accident three years ago. This impedes my ability to run and train as I would like. I was determined not to let my leg “weigh me down”. I was determined to cross that finish line, despite my leg. And I did!

All along the race route, people held up posters and signs to encourage the racers. One poster in particular caught my eye. The sign said: “Press HERE for Power!” There was an arrow pointing to a star for us to “press.” The woman holding it stood along the trail with a huge smile on her face.  Each of us who passed her sign, touched her star.

This sign, and the woman holding it, made me smile. She gave me that little extra “boost” of encouragement to keep on running. And I smiled again when I saw her a second time holding her sign, cheering us on, during the last half of the marathon as well.

I’ve been thinking about this sign “Press HERE for POWER!” since this past Sunday.

Each one of us needs to find a source of strength – a source of “power” to help us through life’s struggles, life’s challenges, life’s daily strivings.

For some of us, our metaphorical “power button” is our connection to our family and friends. For others, we find strength in our connection with God. For some, that faith is strengthened even further when we establish deep and abiding relationships with a sustaining community. At times, we find “power” in the beauty of nature.  We can even find strength when we reach out a hand to help others.

For me personally, my strength comes from all of the above. I am so grateful to have wonderful family, friends and community who strengthen me, nurture me and support me.

I was able to get through the half-marathon with the wonderful support of my brother Ezra, and cousin Heidi, who ran the race with me.

My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!
My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi with our medals after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!

In my every day life, my faith is an important part of who I am and informs how I interact with the world around me.

As Psalm 121 states:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

The Age of 80 – The Age of Strength: Happy Birthday Rabbi Dow Marmur! (An Open Letter)

Rabbi Dow Marmur at 80: Happy Birthday! (February 10, 2015)

Dear Dow,

Happy birthday! At the age of 80, you have now reached the age of strength, according to our Jewish tradition. (Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – 5:22).

At 80, your strength comes not necessarily from your physical prowess, but from the life experiences and lessons that come with living for eight decades. Each of us has a story to tell, but your particular story is a story of triumph over evil,  and success in overcoming extremely difficult beginnings. You have earned the strength of your years, the strength that comes with time and experience. (To read more, you can purchase Rabbi Marmur’s autobiography here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1552636283/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me= Six Lives: A Memoir, Rabbi Dow Marmur. Key Porter Publishers, 2004).

At 80, your strength comes from the intellect that you have developed and cultivated over the many years of learning, reading, teaching and sharing. You are one of the most gifted teachers I know. People flock to your courses, to learn from your wisdom. Your prolific writing is articulate, concise, thought-provoking and timely. You like to tell people that you have no “hobbies” per se, other than reading and writing. Your goal of reading at least one book/week has always inspired me to broaden my horizons, to stretch beyond my own comfort zone. Your passion for learning has helped to give knowledge, wisdom, learning and strength to so many others over the years.

At 80, your strength comes from knowing that you have done your part to help make this world a better place. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said: “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” You exemplified this ideal throughout your life: speaking out for those who could not/cannot speak for themselves. You taught that we have a moral obligation as Jews to speak out for injustice, to speak truth to power, to work toward a world where all God’s children can live with dignity. You taught that we must head the prophetic call and work for social justice, even if it is not popular.

At 80, your strength comes from the blessings of family and friends who surround you with their love, warmth and caring. Your family is, has been and will always be your number one joy in life. Your beloved wife Fredzia, your devoted children Viveca, Michael and Sarah, Elizabeth and Anthony and your doting grandchildren will always be your “strength of strengths” and the “heart of your heart”. Your dear friends enlarge that circle of love because you have been such a good friend to all of us. We all love you so because you have nurtured us and helped us to be the best we can be.

Dow, you have helped to give me strength. I feel so blessed to have your guidance and friendship for almost 26 years, first as my senior rabbi when I served under you at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Since that time, you have been my trusted advisor and friend. We are also taught in Pirke AvotAseh l’cha rav, u’kneh l’cha chaver. – Make for yourself a teacher, and you will find for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) Dow, your friendship, sage wisdom and counsel always inspires me, guides me and encourages me. You have helped me become the rabbi and person who I am today.

Rabbi Dow Marmur blessing me at my Installation as Rabbi of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook
Rabbi Dow Marmur blessing me at my Installation as Rabbi of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook

So Dow, on this your 80th birthday, this age of strength, I wish you the blessings of continued strength, continued good health, much joy and laughter. Chazak, chazak v’titchazek. May you continue to go from strength to strength!

Happy Birthday!

Lots of love,

Sharon

To read more about Rabbi Dow Marmur, Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple: http://www.holyblossom.org/about-us/rabbis-and-cantor/rabbi-dow-marmur/

(Note: Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbi Dow Marmur’s son, suggested that as a surprise for Dow on his 80th birthday, all those who choose, email him something in writing entitled “Dow at 80″, since Dow is usually the one sending out something in writing to all of his friends. This piece is written in tribute to Rabbi Dow Marmur on his 80th birthday. May we all find the same passion for learning, the same zeal for social justice, the same love of family and friends and the same strength to live life to our fullest as does Dow.)

Remembering Daniel Pearl..and Moaz al-Kassabeh

This week was the 13th anniversary of the horrific murder of journalist Daniel Pearl by Pakistani militants.

Pearl was kidnapped while working as the South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal and murdered by those who supposedly had links to Al Queda.

Since his death, evil in our world has continued to grow. African rebels take children away from their parents in grotesque civil wars.

Thousands and thousands of babies and children are starving and homeless as the war continues to rage in Syria.

The Islamic State (ISIS and ISIL) commits atrocities that know no boundaries.

We are sickened as we read of the latest murder by Islamic State terrorists: they lit a fire in a cage and burned alive the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassabeh watching him die as the flames gathered all around. Of course they carefully recorded everything to show the rest of the world their deadly deed.

Beheadings, burnings, killings…these terrorists have lost all of their humanity.

They do this in the name of…Allah? Allah would not require barbarity and violence.

Allah would not ask that children become suicide bombers and become “martyrs” for their people.

No God who grants life requires death and violence and evil.

We learn in Pirke Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers: “In a place where there are no men (sic), strive to be a man”. (Pirke Avot 2:5)

This world will not be healed unless each of us stands up against the inhumanity, against the terror, against the evil and shows what it means to be a human being.

Each one of us needs to express our outrage, our indignation, our disgust, our shame at the evil taking place around us.

Each one of us needs to find our voice to speak out against evil – where ever it takes place, to take action against it. This is what it means to “strive to be a human being.”

May the barbarity and violence and evil end soon.

 

 

 

 

Mt Kilimanjaro – Symbol of Strength, Fortitude and Resilience

Last Friday evening, I had a conversation with a congregant about overcoming personal obstacles to achieve personal goals.  He shared with me that one of his goals was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Mt Kilimanjaro
Mt Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Tanzania, Africa and the highest ‘walkable’ mountain in the world. The trek to the summit is a magnificent and spectacular five-to-nine day undertaking. It ranks amongst the greatest outdoor challenges on the planet.  One needs to train in a very specific way in order to reach the summit, as often people get altitude sickness and cannot make it to the top.

I thought about Mt. Kilimanjaro as a symbol this past week. A symbol of strength, fortitude and resilience.

This was a difficult week on many levels.

1. Strength of the Human Spirit:  Earlier this week, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Berkinau. As we recalled all those who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, we remind ourselves that we still live in a world filled with hatred, xenophobia and violence.

The Jewish people survived, despite the Nazis. We are testament to the strength, fortitude and resilience of the human spirit in the face of incredible evil.  We can overcome the obstacle of long-held enmity if we work together, just as everyone needs to work together to reach the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. We must pledge to renew ourselves to the task of making this world safe for all who dwell upon it.

2. Fortitude: The Northeast of the United States was clobbered by a severe winter storm. In parts of Massachusetts and Long Island, as much as 24-33 inches of snow fell,  high winds raged and power outages blacked out peoples’ homes. As people hunkered down to brace for the weather, they reached out to their friends and neighbors to make sure everyone was safe, warm and had enough food. People showed their fortitude and solidarity for their neighbors by helping clear driveways and walkways and cars without being asked. We cannot control “Mother Nature”, but we can deal with its effects with our patience, fortitude and helping those around us.

3. Resilience: A few days ago, I learned that a colleague and friend  was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the senior rabbi of a major North American Reform congregation. The letter she sent out to her congregation was filled with grace, dignity and eloquence.

She wrote: “Resilience is a distinct kind of strength. It has something to do with the ability to cope when hardship comes along…Jewish resilience is a distinct kind of resilience. It has to do with time. When the Jewish People is faced with adversity, our greatest evidence that we can endure it is the past and our greatest motivator to endure it is the future…”

She spoke first of the Jewish people, then of her congregation, then of her personal challenge. Her personal “summit” which she now needs to climb – is to overcome the hurdle of breast cancer. She is the very model of leadership and inspiration for her community.

As we approach the days, weeks and months ahead, we will each face our own challenges, our own Mt. Kilimanjaro’s: either by choice or by happenstance.

If we find strength, fortitude and resilience, along with faith in God’s abiding presence in our midst, we too, can reach that summit and rejoice in the beautiful view at the top.

Esa enai, el he-harim, me-ayin ya-voy ezri?

Ezri, me-yim Adonai, oseh Shamayim, va’aretz.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Eternal, maker of Heaven and Earth. (Psalm 121)

 

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit

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