Miracles & Wonder

I stood in the middle of the happy chaos that is Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok just looking around. And I thought: is this real? Did I really do this? By myself? Am I really in Southeast Asia? And yes I was. The wonder of it was just that. Although the place itself revealed many wonders throughout my trip (more on that another time), the miracle was that I had actually done it.

So I dragged my suitcase around until I found the area, thanks to some good instructions, where most tour operators waited for their charges. This, of course with a slightly travel addled brain – roughly 25 hours of travel. Fortunately at this point my suitcase was lighter than it would later be. After three walks up and back the outside sidewalk of the terminal I found an official looking person and said “Bamboo?” (The name of my tour company.) And I was directed to the correct corral where I met a driver and was bused off to the hotel.

The details of hotel and food and group are for another discussion. What matters here is courage. I find that if I think too much, I will not take a risk. I heard about this tour company, looked them up, saw this tour and immediately sent a deposit. Why? You might ask. Not sure, just that it sounded amazing and like something I had never done, would never do. So this trip became my post retirement gift/adventure.

After a ridiculously long time of taking care of other people both personally and professionally, I did not know if I would have the courage to follow through with this plan. But I made a commitment to myself and by God I was going to follow through and just not think too much.

The funny thing is, just after returning home I was offered an opportunity for another trip, life altering in a very different way. And because of this adventure, I said yes without thinking for even a moment. Something I never would have done in a previous phase of life.

The payoff, for not thinking too much, was a life altering trip. A journey of body and spirit that was entirely unexpected in many ways. I was the oldest in my group by a decade or so but mostly found myself “keeping up”. I roomed with a stranger and spent nights in a bunkhouse in the jungle with a group of strangers. I was blessed by Buddhist monks and prayed in their temples. I was of service in many ways and was served up gratitude and smiles all along the way.

In the mountains outside of Changmai they grow wildflowers for commercial purposes, acres and acres of them, and they grow strawberries. Because the strawberries are allowed to ripen fully in the sun on the vine they are almost unbelievably sweet. Something we rarely experience in this country where everything is picked early, stored in cold and shipped long distances. I purchased there a box of natural, pure, unsweetened dried strawberries. They are in my refrigerator still and every so often I take one, close my eyes, and savor the taste of courage.

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.

Secrets & Courage

I had the great privilege of leading my Congregation’s Shabbat service tonight, what follows is the d’var from that service.

This week’s Torah portion is vayeishev, essentially the story of Joseph.  Often we who are not great Torah scholars think of Joseph as the story of the multicolored dreamcoat – perhaps you are old enough to remember that.  In my case it puts me in mind of a beautiful song written by the great song writer Dolly Parton called the Coat of Many Colors.  Both of these cultural references to the story of Joseph’s coat present a fairly sweet or optimistic picture.  Unfortunately, the story of Joseph is not, overall, a happy one.

My wonderful seventh level religious school class has been working through the early portions in the book of Genesis and each and every one is about family relationships; parents and children, brother and brother, husband and wife.  And most of these stories are full of conflict, violence or at the least deception.  And Joseph’s story is much the same, his brothers hate  him and he is exiled, going from place to place, away from his family.  Oddly he is generally oblivious to their hatred, tremendous self absorption.  But it is important to note here that no matter where Joseph went, through all his travels and travails even when he was the only Jew in Egypt, he determinedly retained his identity as a Jew.

What my students discerned is that in all these stories, there is a missing piece, much midrash but a big missing piece.  And that is the communication, the dialogues, the conversations that must have taken place between family members.  We are told the action, the facts of what happened, but not what was said.  It is hard to imagine that Cain and Abel went from nothing to murder with no talking or interactions between.  Or that Isaac trudged up the mountain with his father in complete silence.  These conversations are left to our imagination.  One hopes that the conversations took place and were just lost in the telling and retelling of the stories.  So it is with Joseph and his family, we know what happened but not what was said.

This portion generally falls on or near Chanukah so the challenge is to find the connection.  A side note here, the Chanukah story is not in the Torah or the Hebrew bible as a whole.  It was in the two books of Maccabees but when the Hebrew bible was canonized, the Rabbis left them out.  The Catholics, interestingly, did not – they included them.  There are many theories and as with so much of our tradition,  a great stew of debate.  But I digress.

This time of year is a time when many end their lives either intentionally or by simply giving up. And how much of that stress and sadness finds its roots in family relations, quite a lot  I think. And how much family dysfunction is a result of a failure of communication?  Again, quite a lot I think.  How many of us have families in which there are secrets? Those things we “don’t tell mom” or “don’t tell dad”.  In my family it depends on the subject as to who we don’t tell.  How many conversations have you had with family members in which you began or ended with the words “don’t tell…..”.  There are many reasons to keep secrets, some good, some not so much.

Maybe the story of Joseph is meant to remind us to bravely retain our identities, to fight for them as bravely as the Maccabees did to be public Jews.  This is the crux of the Chanukah story.  Maybe it is also to remind us to speak kindly to one another, to overcome our difficulties with family members, to listen to each other’s feelings and needs.  And maybe to remind us to reach out to the isolated, lonely, sorrowing or frightened among us.  To remember that a kind word or a civil dialogue can have enormous impact on someone or on a relationship.

As we light our channukiahs in the window, because we can, to symbolize our religious freedom, let us be proud of who we are and teach our children thus.   And may we be free from the bondage of silence, conflict, disunity and hatred.  Let us all be a light for kindness, freedom and peace.  Shabbat Shalom.

Vayeira – Do you believe in Magic?

This Torah portion, seminal, climatic, critical, is often cited as one of the most difficult in the Torah because it includes the story of the binding of Isaac among other things.  This portion also includes the story of Hagar and the near death of her son Ishmael and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah again, among other things.  As if this wasn’t enough.

But this portion is full of magic.  G-d reveals himself to Abraham three days after the first circumcision.   Angels appear to Abraham predicting the birth of a son.  Sarah and Abraham have a son, Isaac, when they are 100 and 90 respectively.  Could only be magic.  Hagar, having been banished with her son from Abraham’s house faces Ishmael’s death in the desert.   But she is shown water like magic; saving his, and presumably her, life.  Lot is saved, although his wife is not.  Finally, Isaac is saved from being slaughtered by his father by a voice from heaven and the miraculous appearance of a ram to take his place.

Miracles and wonders.  Do we believe in miracles in this our modern world? Perhaps they are not so plain or easy to see.   Do we stop and try to see the miracles all around us.  Faith as magic.  I wasn’t 90 when he was born, but the birth of my son felt like a miracle.  [tweetshare tweet=”Singing feels like a miracle. The wind on my skin feels like a miracle.  Every time I can say my bills are paid and there is nothing I need, that is a miracle.  Waking up every morning; every breath I take, those are miracles.  Love is a miracle.” username=”@trienahm”]

So whether you take these stories literally, or like me consider them allegorical, as morality stories, there is magic in them.  Two children are saved by the grace of G-d.  A son is given to two aged seniors.  Angels appear.

And there is magic all around us.  It is hard to find, to see in the crazy world we are living in, but it is there.  In the setting of the sun, in the rising of the moon, in the stars and the waves.  In the laughter of our children and the wisdom of our elders.  In the reaction of salt and acid and the unconditional love of a dog.  Make your own list.

Do you believe in magic?  I do.

 

Lech L’cha ~ Where do I go from here

Every time I study this Torah portion I think of Debbie Friedman’s beautiful song Lechi  Lach.  Abraham is commanded to go forth, to leave his land, his birthplace, his father’s house to a place unknown to him.  G-d says I will show you the land where you are going and make of you a great nation.

I am always amazed at what Abraham is required to do, in Genesis, without knowing why or what, and at his willingness to to just do. As always, many other things happen in this portion, not the least of which is the birth of sons to Abraham and Sarah, the start of two great nations.  These sons come very late in their lives and I can relate as the mature mother of a son, but that is another story.  And G-d seals the covenant promising Abraham the  land that would be our eternal heritage, the land he will never see. Would we still be Israel if Abraham had not been so willing?

Leaps of faith, think of times in your life when you have had to make such a leap.  I have known those moments. I stood, for example, in a hospital lobby and was handed a five day old baby boy with only a promise, no papers, that he would be mine.  He was, he is, and he is 24.  When I needed help, I was told that there was a group of people that could help me change my life, I did not know how or them, but some 30 years ago they did and still do.

I find myself again at one of those life moments.  Much of the time, the future is generally somewhat predictable with the exception of extraordinary or catastrophic events.  But then there are those times when the future is not only unpredictable, it is unknowable, imponderable, unimaginable.  Where will I live, what will I do, who will I love, who will love me?  I no longer have my parents home to leave or return to, one left for good some six years ago, and one soon enough. Despite the roots I have put down, I feel rootless, grounded only in faith.  Is this how Abraham felt when he journeyed to Canaan not knowing what came next, knowing only G-d’s promise of the good to come?

There is a Lubavitcher midrash that says that this moment, the start of Abraham’s journey to becoming, is the start of the search for the spark of holiness in everything in the material world.  What a quest, to find holiness in everything.  Isn’t that the search we should be on?

So, blind faith. The willingness to journey on despite the not knowing.  The willingness to believe that there is yet good around the next bend.  Blind faith, the leap.  Abraham was willing and we became Israel.   I am willing, are you?

Shabbat shalom