Friday, September 28, 2012

Post Yom Kippur 5773: Return Again

I believe in Signs from God. That I just got one certainly colors my view. That it was the same sign as I got seventeen years ago just rattles me. While I’ve written about this before, there is a bit of my old history that you need to understand what happened this Yom Kippur.

Just after my Bar Mitzvah, after great Haftara reading, I was asked to do the afternoon Torah reading for Yom Kippur. In more traditional liturgy, this is Leviticus 18, the odd inclusion in the service which lists prohibited sexual conduct and other prohibitions like turning your child into a burnt sacrifice. In retrospect, it was not very smart of our rabbi to give me a NC-17 rated reading like that. It soured me, not for any one line*, but the entirety of the piece. It shattered my Hebrew school image of Judaism, and in the emptiness left I went elsewhere of a spirituality that worked for me. For many years, into my adulthood, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism.

Everything changed on a summer study abroad program to Rome for graduate school when I had a dream. In the dream, a Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, somewhere in the middle of Haya Im Shmoah, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a upside-down tornado.

I had never had a dream like it. It began a search for a place I would belong as a Jew. A year later, almost in the same place as the first, I had a second dream which told me a lot of where I would go. That place turned out to be a Jewish Renewal Congregation on Chicago’s South Side, Makom Shalom.

After my return, I wondered where the dream came from. Was it all original material? It took me a few years but I had an idea of its source. In the Yom Kippur liturgy is the stories of the ten Talmudic martyrs. One of these was the story of Hanina b. Teradyon:

His death was terrible. Wrapped in the scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death....His heartbroken disciples then asked: "Master, what seest thou?" He answered: "I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward."(Avodah Zarah 17b et seq.).

By the time I learned that fact I was entrenched in the masters of Jewish studies program at Spertus, and could read that passage not only in english, but the original Aramaic. Shlomo’s Drash was born in the period, and for quite a while I was writing regualrly.

While I was faltering for a while before my mom’s death, as I wrote last time, her death killed Shlomo’s Drash, and in my anger towards God for taking her away, just about killed my motivation for anything Jewish. Then came this Yom Kippur, when God made absolutely sure I got the point. It started on Rosh Hashanah when a friend of mine was looking for people to do readings for the part of the Yom Kippur service she was leading.Without ever looking at the reading I agreed.

I looked at it Yom Kippur morning as I was getting dressed for services, and burst out crying. It was a poetic interpretation of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina b. Teradyon.

...He who will see this desecrated Torah avenged will make good, somehow, my dying I see the parchment burn but the Letters are soaring to their source You may burn a Torah But Torah will not be consumed You may kill Jews but the Jews will survive and serve witness to the Genesis-- patterns of creation and the Isaiah -- prophecies of hope. [ Danny Siegel pg 902 Kol Ha Neshama Mahzor]

When I got to services, I asked the friend who assigned the reading, if I had told her the story of the dream in Rome. She had no idea what I was talking about. Not to leave that to coincidence, while I wandering about, waiting for the doors to the sanctuary to open, there was a new display in this synagogue we were renting for services. It was a Holocaust torah, one of many the Nazis collected and stored when busy destroying everything else Jewish. It has been damaged to the point it could not be repaired, and so was on loan as a display piece. On the display was the words of Hanina b. Teradyon.

Maybe some will take this a coincidence. Maybe some will say it was my subconscious. playing tricks on me. I’m still of the belief that it was all too strange to be any of that but a sign from God. Like it did the last time, I was to return. As I got my seat and put on my talit for services to begin, I thought of the song that was popular at my renewal synagogue way back when:

Return again Return again Return to the land of your soul.
Of course that was when services started with the choir singing, yes, Return again.

The song makes sense. The word teshuvah means not only repentance, but return. Nothing like a blatant message from God. So, unlike Jonah’s vain attempt at fleeing, I’m back, returning once again.

Don’t think I have much choice, unless I want more signs.

*Though Lev 18:22 would dog me for my entire adult life, cause some of the most serious swings in my life-path, and in ways I never would have imagined. But that's another story and another Drash all together.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shlomo’s Drash Yizkor 5773

I went to visit mom in the cemetery Sunday. After driving there, my wife and I sat with her at her bronze grave marker for about a hour talking to her and then talking about her. Most of our talk centered around about how unfair it was for her to die, how unjust God is for taking her away from us. We talked about many other things as well. About an hour later, the cool but sunny day became cloudy and colder, and we decided to leave.Before I left I knew I would have some writing to do again.

Here I am in the days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with Yom Kippur looming ahead. Like last year, I dread it because of Yizkor. For those unfamiliar with the traditions and the liturgy of Yom Kippur, a holiday whose whole point is getting in our last shot at repentance before our fate is sealed for another year. Yizkor is the memorial service, a time in the middle of all this to remember loved ones who have died. The juxtaposition of these two has bothered me for the last year and a half. On one hand we have the Netana Tokef declaring our doom and how it is decided by God. Leonard Cohen’s adaptation, Who by Fire gives some of the spirit of the Netana Tokef and a lot of Yom Kippur, a solemn, hard core fast holiday. While we are trying to keep ourselves alive for another year, we are remembering and honoring the dead.

 I remember Yom Kippur of my youth, when Yizkor was a welcome break in the service. There is a tradition to not tempt fate by those whose loved ones are still alive. They leave the sanctuary so not to hear or say words about the dead. Like most young families, our family would leave for the time of the Yizkor part of the liturgy. As we grew older first my dad, then my mom stayed to remember their parents. Last year, and now this year I stay for my mom.

Both the English and the Hebrew of Yizkor has a core word: memory. We remember someone we lost. While I said it was a welcome break, over a decade ago I began to stay for Yizkor, not for my parents but for those who had no one to say yizkor for them. I wonder now if I did tempt God to take away my mom because of that. Yet I think what I did was a righteous act. How horrible would it be to not be remembered but to be completely erased. Whether they died in the Holocaust or were abandoned somehow by their families, the dead needed to be remembered. They could not be completely erased, So I stayed.

 It’s different now of course, there is someone who I am remembering.

 In 5772, I watched her memory erased. In places and spaces where she spent a lot of time, she was erased. Visual cues to her existence were in these places. The space contained her spirit, memories of her were sparked by these objects around these spaces. As they were erased and replaced, I find those places that were once warm, cold and ugly. There are others besides me who bear the pain of her loss. It is not for me to decide how they bear it, or if by erasing her space and spirit it is so much easier to deal with the pain, not seeing reminders of her make it easier not to miss her as much. It might be an easy way to stop the pain, though far from a cheap solution, for erasers also lose something when they erase.

 It has me thinking of memory, how we have it and how we use it. I’m glad I took so many pictures on the trips I took with my mom. The ones of her are reminders to me and I can be transported back to times where we adventured together in Israel and Jordan, the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, and Africa. They are so precious they are stored not in one place but several, so I never lose them and no one can take them from me.Kiker Rock at Dawn, Galapagos Islands.

Memory can be hard because we remember what we have lost. For two reasons I have not been writing this blog for the last year. One is I’ve been mad at God for taking her from us. It’s been a matter of spite and a lack of spirit to write. There is a second reason: my biggest fan, the one who wrote me almost every week to say she’s proud of me and that she learned something new in what I wrote is gone. Remembering that and seeing the e-mail or comment absent from her is a horrible feeling. I too temporarily erased a memory that was too painful to bear — erasing memory is also my sin, and a very selfish one at that.

Yet it is one that I can change, I will have to listen to the silence, the lack of a comment or e-mail from my mom. That will always hurt. I will miss one of the two people who tell me regularly they are proud of me. I still will hear from my wife the thoughts on what I wrote, either over dinner or in a comment somewhere. That is a big comfort and a bigger blessing.

During these Days of Awe a few things happened that I realized writing is a part of me — it is part of the work I have to do. It is part of developing who I am and it is something that inspires others, as it did my mom. There are other comments on my blog besides my mom, and I have to remember that too.

 Elsewhere we are told to blot out the Memory of Amalek, it is indeed a mtizvah. During Yom Kippur to blot out the memory of a loved one seems to be a sin. If so, the placement of Yizkor is not counter to the point of Yom Kippur — it is the point. To erase memory is a sin, and it hurts the eraser as much as the erased. We inherit who we are from our parents and loved ones, not just genetically but emotionally and spiritually. If our parents hurt us, we can take that and rise above it. If our parents taught us good like my mom, who was compassion and caring personified, we need to take that inheritance and spread it through the world.

 I never heard my mom’s will — for whatever reason I was excluded from the reading, never told when it was. I have my inheritance anyway. The rabbis said that prophecy and wisdom can be transmitted like a candle. It lights another light, but does not diminish the first – so unlike an eraser. So too with the good in a soul, and that is what I got as an inheritance. It is a huge burden, one I’m not sure I’m capable of holding up, for to be my mother’s son is to risk being erased myself. But I will try. Because I will remember.