Jewish Guide for Stressful Times

Al sheloshah d’varim        Upon three things

ha-olam omeid.                  The world stands.

Al ha-torah,                          Upon torah,

V’al ha-avodah,                  And upon prayer,

V’al g’milut chasidim       And upon acts of loving kindness.

—Pirkei Avot

These are stressful times. Whether you are fearful about the future or regretting the past, whether your stress stems from politics or health issues, whether your worries are about your parents, your children, yourselves, or the planet (or all of the above), it seems few of us are relaxed these days. We don’t know which way to go, which way to turn, what to fund, what to sign, whom to support, and whom to condemn. We are lost in a sea of news and social media, all while needing to keep up with the strains of every day life. No matter what we read on Facebook, Twitter or the New York Times, there are still sick children and parents.  There are still groceries that need to be purchased, homework that needs to get done, bills that need to be paid, and career woes that need to get solved. Lately, it seems many of us wake up in the middle of the night finding we’ve been grinding our teeth and sweating through uncomfortable dreams as our subconscious works through its agitations. We find ourselves a little more testy, a little less patient, and a little less thoughtful.  We feel afraid and alone.

But Judaism offers a simple statement that can carry us through, if we listen, one day at a time…

Upon three things the world stands. Upon torah, upon prayer, and upon acts of loving kindness.

In some ways, this quote from Pirkei Avot is all we need to guide us. It won’t solve our problems, but it is a three-step road map to action and to inner-peace if we follow it, and for now, that will have to do.

My old Rabbi and mentor used to talk about big T Torah and little t torah. Big T is for the text of the Torah scroll itself. Little t moves beyond those Five books of Moses to all forms of learning, teaching and study of wisdom, Jewish and otherwise. So, the world first stands upon knowledge: spiritual, scientific, social, political and personal wisdom. The world stands upon learning our personal truths and the truths of the universe.

How does this relate to feeling stressed and out of control? Let’s all choose one element (I suggest just one to start when we are feeling like there are so many issues to face) of what is worrying us, and learn, study, and understand that issue. Let’s get the facts (oy, please let’s not be part of this “post-fact” world we keep hearing about!), rather than rely on hearsay or headlines or word of mouth. Let’s gather truth, and whether these truths are about the world’s problems or about what a doctor or teacher may have reported about a loved one, let’s make sure we are as armed with wise, factual information as we can. That’s step one.

Ready for step two?

According to Pirkei Avot, the next thing the world stands upon is prayer… well, only sort of. The Hebrew word for prayer actually means “work” or “labor.”  So, this means that the world doesn’t only stand upon prayer but stands upon our efforts. It means the actions we do can be prayerful.  So, let’s act! Let’s put some effort towards improving the situations about which we just educated ourselves. This may mean going to meetings or therapy, donating to a cause, or marching, demonstrating, or volunteering. You decide what the right action is, but they key is that there is action. The key is doing. Let’s not sink into a sense of defeatism over what crushes us, but get up on our feet, “pray with our legs,” and get out there, even if the action itself seems small… even if our efforts will only make a difference to ourselves, knowing we gave it our best shot. 🙂

Finally, we are told the world stands upon acts of loving kindness. G’milut is actually a giving, it’s charity. And chasidim? Boundless kindness and love. G’milut chasidim is giving away boundless kindness.

So here we are at step three. While we are improving our knowledge, and going into action, let’s try to remember to be full of endless kindness as we do. After all, a big part of the knowledge we seek is to understand what and whom we don’t already understand. So, let’s look into opposing eyes with openness. Let’s face dissenting voices with strength wrapped in grace. Let’s stare into the depths of illness and issues and fear, holding ourselves tall. Let’s allow our power to filter through kindness with every encounter, no matter how difficult it is. Remember what our first lady said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Knowledge… Effort… Boundless kindness… Three simple Jewish ingredients for spiritually surviving trying times. This road map won’t solve everything, but we will be bathed in truth while marching toward resolution with grace in our hearts. Maybe that is enough for us to gain control over what appears to be out of control.

So, the next time we feel ourselves spinning, let’s remember this post. Let’s learn, act, and do our best to offer boundless kindness as we take it one step at a time, one day at a time.

B’shalom (with inner-peace),
Rantor Diane

stress-image

If Only Bannon were Abraham

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. – Hillel

An aged Abraham, recovering from his circumcision, is sitting at the entrance of his tent with the hot sun gleaming above him.  When he looks up, he notices three men standing near.  As soon as he sees them, he runs to greet them.  He bows to the ground and offers them food, water, shade, and to bathe their feet.

Think of this man, nearly 100 years old, with searing pain between his legs, running toward strangers.  Why run?  Why not walk gently and calmly?  Could he sense that they were messengers of God?  Or did he simply not want to lose the opportunity to do the right thing… to offer some travelers food, water and shade on a hot day, even when he, himself, was suffering?

We all, but particularly those of us (Jews, Christians and Muslims) who are the descendants of Abraham, have an opportunity with this week’s Torah portion to be inspired by him, and to run, not walk, toward what we think is right, even when it’s painful.  And if we are paying attention, we will not miss that Abraham is running toward strangers… not after they asked for help, but simply to do something that might make their lives a little brighter.

There are many ways we can interpret who our “strangers” are.  But for now, let’s consider those we think of as strangers because they hold on to different ideals than we do. It is essential that we take the opportunity to try to understand those with whom we do not agree, even on the most fundamental issues.  This does not mean we have to alter our own opinions.  But it does mean that our compassion and willingness to listen must reach beyond our comfort zones.  It means we try to stand in another person’s shoes.  It means we never forget that they have journeys full of love and pain and disappointment that brought them to their place, and that we, too, travelled through love and pain and disappointment to get to where we stand.  But we share some common experiences, and so we don’t walk toward this conversation, we run toward it.

That being said, we also have to run toward conflict when we believe human decency is at stake.

Now, as a spiritual leader, I try to stay out of public politics, and I never, ever told my community for whom to vote.  In fact, my community is centered around acceptance no matter who you are, who you love, or what you believe.  But we are also committed to protecting those individuals.   So what I’m about to say isn’t about party lines or politics.  My disgust has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats or Independents.  We need to talk about the basic human rights we treasure in this country and that we can’t have an America where we believe anyone who isn’t exactly like us is a stranger to avoid or harm rather than run toward with good will.

I’m lookin’ at you Steve Bannon. 

You seem to think the opposite sex are the “strangers”:  Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy (title from Breitbart News article).

Anyone with color to their skin is a “stranger”: There’s little question that Breitbart has regularly published materials designed to stoke fears about African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and other groups, and to explicitly normalize white-nationalist and white-supremacist beliefs (New York Magazine).

Those of other religions are “strangers”: Mary Louise Piccard said in a 2007 court declaration that Bannon didn’t want their twin daughters attending the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles because many Jewish students were enrolled at the elite institution.  “The biggest problem he had with Archer is the number of Jews that attend,” Piccard said in her statement signed on June 27, 2007. “He said that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews,” Piccard wrote (NY Daily News).

A loving relationship you don’t experience yourself is “strange”: That’s why there are some unintended consequences of the women’s liberation movement. That, in fact, the women that would lead this country would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. They wouldn’t be a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England (Bannon quote as reported in Cosmopolitan Magazine).

And in case that isn’t enough for you, my dear readers, check out this guide to Bannon and Breitbart News’ “alt-right” language in the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-alt-right-terminology-20161115-story.html

This is not my America, or Obama’s, or Bush senior’s, or Bush junior’s, or Regan’s, or even Paul Ryan’s.  Don’t tell me this is politics.

But, you know what?  Even with all that, I stick to what I wrote.   It is my responsibility as a Jew, as a child of Abraham, to welcome someone I don’t yet know or understand.  And so, Mr. Bannon, I invite you to come to California and speak to our Jewish communities.   Explain to all of us how these quotes and reports don’t define you. Explain to us whether or not we should accept sexist, racist, homophobic, anti- diversity attitudes in the United States of America.  Help us explain to our non-Christian, non-white, non-straight family and friends why they should not be afraid.  Help us understand what you feel when you look at the statue of liberty and read these words written by a female, Jewish author, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

We will welcome you if you come, Mr. Bannon, in fact run toward you as our “stranger” with open arms, and offer your food, water, shade, and an opportunity to be understood.

But we will also run, not walk, toward human rights, human dignity, and caring for one another if you can’t. 

strangers-image

Argue with the Torah!

Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish, and even more difficult being a teacher of Judaism.

What do I tell my Bar and Bat-Mitzvah students when we read in their Torah portions that the God we pray to washed away all of human and animal kind except for one family?  Or opened up the earth and swallowed not just rebels but their households?   Or didn’t just save the Israelites but made the Egyptian army get stuck in the mud so they would drown?  These portions can send our students running, and I must say it’s hard for me not to run too.

So, what do we do?  Well, we follow the advice of the author and Torah scholar George Robinson who said, “To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust.”  So, I ask my students questions such as: Who do you think wrote the Torah?  Why do you think the people were meant to be afraid of God?  What is the essence of the lesson we can take with us in a modern context, now hopefully evolved enough not to have to be frightened into action?  

You’d be surprised by the wisdom hiding in a 12 or 13 year-old’s mind. 🙂

Well, last Shabbat, we had a portion that is full of text that is easily loved.  After all, the ten commandments are there, the Shema the first paragraph of the V’ahavta are spoken, all pointing us in the direction of living spiritual, noble lives through a filter of love. 

And yet… at the end, we have something that trips me up, especially as a Universalist Rabbi.

Moses is speaking to the people of the many nations they are to defeat once they enter their promised land.  He says, “… and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them: you shall make no covenant with them, nor favor them; neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son.  For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their sacred trees, and burn their engraved images with fire.”

Now, I became a Rabbi through JSLI, and I chose to be a part of the Jewish Universalist movement because I believe deeply in the Universalist ideals.  On the UJUC website (www.ujuc.org) it states, “JU teaches that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth and that God equally chose all nations to be lights unto the world.  We reject the concept of a G-d who would choose among G-d’s children… JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.”

Imagine if today we, as Jews, entered a new land, completely destroyed all non-Jewish religious houses, shrines, and articles and burned it all to the ground.  What if we acted as the Torah suggests here, as if our religion was to be the only one and refused to spend even a tiny bit of energy finding ways to leave peacefully side by side with other religious practices?  What if we denied their right to exist? 

Doesn’t sound very Universalist, does it?

And what about the refusal of interfaith marriage?  Now, I know that many Jews still do not approve of interfaith marriage, but again, this directly goes against the doctrine of Jewish Universalism.  I was taught, and I believe with every fiber of my being, that when an interfaith couple seeks me to officiate their wedding, my role is not to judge them or tell them a set of requirements they must meet in order for me to be satisfied that the couple will be “Jewish enough.”  My job is to create the most loving, embracing, comfortable, meaningful Jewish experience I can for them.  My job is to create a sanctuary of sorts for the non-Jewish partner to explore his/her spirituality without fear within this Jewish experience. My job is to help both members of the couple leave my presence knowing that Judaism can be a nurturing, understanding, flexible framework, and that choosing to live their lives within that framework  could and should feel like falling into a large embrace.  My job is to honor and acknowledge the non-Jewish partner, not frightened him/her away with a judgmental, Rabbinic glance.

Anyone who has ever worked in a synagogue with interfaith families can tell you that very often, it is the non-Jewish parent who volunteers for the Chanukah party, runs the Purim Carnival, brings the family for Shabbat, and makes sure the child studies for her Bat-Mitzvah.  By making sure Judaism’s umbrella is large enough to cover all of us, Jewish or Jewishly curious or related to Jewish, we are better ensuring the survival of this most amazing peoplehood than if we shoo them away or treat them as secondary citizens.

I understand that in a different time, when the Jewish peoplehood was in its infancy, that we may have had to behave in a certain way to stay together.  But in this time in history, teaching that all religions have a place in this world is what I, and the Jewish Universalist movement, are all about.  The lesson of this Torah passage isn’t to fear or destroy the unfamiliar.  The lesson is to hold on to the beauty of our faith, share it with others, and learn from others with open hearts.  If Judaism has wisdom to offer, it will survive not out of fear, but out of its own merits.

coexist

Taking it out on the Little Guy

Snape

Hope you all enjoy this commentary I offered during the Sim Shalom online Shabbat morning service.  Join me next time August 6 at 8:30am PST/11:30 EST by going to www.simshalom.com.


In the portion for this Shabbat, we have a king named Balak.  Balak is not too happy about the fact that the Israelites (who, by the way, are still in the wilderness heading toward the Promised Land) seem to be able to conquer whatever enemies they encounter.  Knowing the Israelites are protected by their God, Balak figures he needs some strong magic to defeat them, so he calls upon Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse them.

Now, Bilaam is not an Israelite, but he’s caught on to the power of their God and not only believes in that God but seems able to have full-fledged conversations with God.  So, when Balak sends messengers to ask Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam talks to God and says no.   But over time, they wear him down, and God says he can go as long as he only says and does what God tells him to.

So, off Bilaam goes with the king’s soldiers, riding on his donkey, when an angel of God stands in their way.   Apparently God decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all to let Bilaam hang with the king’s soldiers.   Perhaps God could sense that Bilaam’s allegiance was wavering.  The donkey can see this angel, and she stops in her tracks (yes, this is a girl donkey).  Bilaam is quite angry at the donkey because he can’t see the angel, so he beats and beats her.  And then, the donkey does the unexpected.  She speaks.  She says to her rider, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?  Look, I am the she-ass you have been riding all along until this day!  Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”  

Bilaam realizes the error of his ways, and with that, his eyes also open so he can see the angel of God too.  Now all is understood about what he must do.  In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them, naturally angering the king to no end.

As I was thinking about this portion, it occurred to me that it has a great deal in common with the Harry Potter story.  Once I chatted with my 14 year old (who knows all things Harry Potter), I was sure.

In Harry Potter, the king Balak is played by, of course, the evil Lord Voldemort.  Both of them are powerful.  Both of them act out of fear of their own deaths.  Both of them send others to do much of their dirty work.  God is represented by Dumbledore, the ever-wise, good, and powerful wizard who is lovingly protective of his “nation”, but will kick butt if he needs to, in spite of his peaceful soul.  Balak is Snape, the teacher who picks endlessly on Harry and whom no one quite knows if he is an instrument of Lord Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s until the very end.   The angel is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, who comes to the rescue only to those who believe in the Good and is no help to those who don’t. 

And who is the donkey?  Why, Harry Potter himself!  He is “ridden” constantly by his teacher Snape… cornered, accused, and threatened at every turn.  And why?  Because (at least while he’s young) he is easy prey for Snape’s anger, and because Harry has his mother’s eyes which are wide open to the Good while Snape’s are too confused to fully see. 

It’s easy to understand why fantastical stories such as this one in the Torah or Harry Potter are popular.  They have obvious sides of good and evil, and there are clear heroes for whom we can root.  But most intriguing are the middle-men, Bilaam and Snape, the ones we aren’t quite sure whether they are part of the light or part of the dark.

They are us.

None of us are Voldemort and none of us are Dumbledore.  None of us are Balak or God. We are all somewhere in between.  We all serve something that might be considered a “dark lord”.  It could be an abusive relationship, a nasty boss whom we feel we have to appease, our egos, or an addiction of some sort no matter how minor that addiction is, but we’ve all got something. However, we all serve light masters too… children who remind us who we really want to be, supportive spouses, mentors, parents, communities, faith structures, and friends.  We find ourselves battling with these two sides all the time, and often the negative voices seem to be louder than the positive.  And while we are arguing with those voices in our heads, we may find there is someone younger or smaller or weaker we can let out some of our frustrations on because we believe they won’t fight back.  Maybe we find ourselves being less than our best to an employee, or a waiter, or a less popular kid in class, or a bagger at the market…  Maybe we hurt the ones we love most, like our children or our spouses, because we know they will forgive us. 

But maybe, just maybe, those “little guys” are the guys who can see the Truth, who can see the angel, who can be heard by Fawkes.  We might not consider them enough, or give them enough respect to notice that they are staring straight into the eyes of an angel of God.  We miss the opportunity to learn from them because it appears they have nothing to teach. But let’s remember the idea that we should treat every human as if he/she was the Messiah, because if a Messiah comes, it might not appear as a king or as a president, but as some kind of quiet request.  The student.  The employee.  The waiter.  The homeless. 

We may not be sorcerers or wizards, but we all harness an enormous amount of power over each person we encounter every day.  Which master do we serve as we engage with each one?  Do we act from love or fear?  Let’s be truthful with ourselves, and when we catch ourselves operating from fear, let’s try to open our eyes, see the angel before us with a hand open-palmed in a gesture of “Stop!”, and try again from a place of love.

The Feminist Torah

Hope you all enjoy this d’var I gave on the online Shabbat service with Sim Shalom.  Please make sure you are part of the Cool Shul email list to know when the next online service will be (email Rabbi Di at diane@coolshul.org to get on our mailing list).


There is so much going on this week in Parshat Nasso, it’s hard to even know where to begin.  So, I’m going to focus on 3 elements that I am going to attempt to tie together in the name of feminism.  Now, This is definitely not a favorite parshah for feminists, but I am actually going to do my best to turn it into one.

In this parsha, the ordeal of the sotah (going aside) is outlined by God.  It goes like this:  If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful – innocent or not, he takes her to the Priest with an offering.  The Priest sprinkles dust from the ground of the tabernacle into a vessel of holy water.  He lets down her hair and musses it up (in a degrading way, not a Pantene commercial kind of way).  Then the Priest tells the woman to swear to her innocence and he announces that if she is innocent, the curse of the waters (the dusty water he created)  will have no effect on her if she drinks it.  If she is guilty, the magic potion will make her thighs fall away and her body swell (believed to mean she will become infertile).  The Priest writes these curses on a scroll and then dissolves the text into the waters. The woman drinks these waters of “bitterness.”  If her body swells, she’s guilty.  If nothing happens, she is innocent.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  This section of the Torah sounds far from a feminist statement.  However, I wonder if the complete opposite is true.

Most commentators agree that this process was probably never carried out, or that if it was, the cursed waters had no chance of making the woman’s body swell or her thighs fall.  Whether you believe in human or divine authorship of Torah, one thing is clear to me, whoever came up with this system of determining innocence or guilt wanted the families to remain in tact and for the woman to be perceived as innocent, whether she was or not. 

Even Imagine that perhaps a WOMAN author wrote this, or at least, God’s feminine voice. 

See, here’s what’s really going on from a feminist point of view — Allow the men to feel they are in control.  Allow them to think they have humiliated this woman.  Allow them to think that the truth is about to be uncovered in a most demeaning way.  Allow them to believe in the magical properties of the water… but actually, the men are duped.  The woman has zero chance of being biologically affected (unless her guilt allows some psychosomatic symptoms to appear).  Maybe even the priest knows she will be safe!  I can hear the priest now, whispering to some poor feminine soul standing there scared out of her mind, “Don’t worry, I have to do this to appease them, but nothing is going to happen to you.  Just play along.” 

So, Is it possible this was a woman’s idea?  A feminist idea?

The next section of this Torah portion deals with the rules for when one takes the vow of a Nazarite, giving himself or HERSELF completely to God.  That’s right, I said HERSELF.

The Torah clearly states that either a man or woman can make this special vow.  Yet, the following 19 verses, which outline the rules and regulations of becoming and being a nazarite, use only male pronouns.  HE shall separate HIMSELF from wine.  Shall no razor come on HIS head.  HE shall be holy.  The Torah makes a choice here, long before the days of saying “he or she” to describe these acts in the masculine only.   The Torah adheres to the male pronoun even when women are specifically named and included.

So, this made me think… well, how often does the Torah remain in the masculine when the feminine is supposed to be implied?  Even God is mostly referred to in masculine pronouns and possessives, but is the entire Torah like this moment?  Is it ALL supposed to read “he or she”? 

Before this chapter is even over, we have the Priestly Blessing.  God tells Moses to tell Aaron that he should bless the children of Israel (assuming this includes the ladies too) using the following words… words used and beloved, since these ancient times, that are now essential pieces of Judeo-Christian practice…

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishmerecha — God will bless you (masculine) and protect you (m)

Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka – God will shine HIS face upon you (m) and be gracious to you(m).

Yisa adonai eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom – God will lift HIS face toward you (m) and place in you (m), peace.

All of this is in the masculine, both as it refers to God and in the masculine form of the word “you”.  But by what we learned just a few verses ago, this masculine form very well implies the feminine too.  

For modern men and women, no matter how much we try not to give God a gender, or to think of Jewish practice as being for men alone, all of this masculinity weighs on us.  Even if we know there is a feminine aspect of God, understand the feminine of these rules, are aware of the feminine existing beneath the surface of all of those male pronouns… we just can’t FEEL it in our bones.  We women feel excluded.  We can’t help but feel like visitors in this male Jewish world.  But let’s try this, with all of that femininity that is implied being brought front and center…

 Ladies AND gentlemen, imagine you are about to be blessed by the words of God.  This is a feminine God.  A God that knows these waters will cause no harm.  A God who welcomes women into complete service for Her.  A God who wants to protect you with Motherly love.  The priest raises his (yes HIS) hands before you and says:

SHE will bless you, brothers and sisters, and She will protect you.  SHE will shine her face upon all of you and be gracious to you.  SHE will lift her face to yours, Her sons and Her daughters, and will implant within you an inner-completeness known as “Shalom”.

How does that feel?  Any different???

Shabbat Shalom to all of you.  May we all embrace our masculine sides, our feminine sides, and never forget that the Torah is for all of us.

Feminist Torah

The answers are blowing in the wind

This Torah commentary is dedicated to those in San Bernardino who need to be strong in the face of yet another senseless storm.

There is a species of tree that exists in which each tree is actually either a male or female.  The male trees produce pollen and the female trees produce flowers which will become fruit IF (and it’s a big IF) they are pollenated.  You see, bees and other insects are attracted to the pollen from these male trees, but they are not so attracted to the flowers of the female tree.  This variety relies on wind to carry the pollen from the male to the female, and if the trees aren’t close enough together, it just won’t happen.  “Tree procreation” for these guys is not so easy.

I can see one of these trees out my bedroom window:  tall, slender, covered in 5 inch thorns for protection, blowing in the breeze, not only surviving in the wind but begging for the gusts that might harm most other plants… for this is her only way to have her children.  No romance.  No birds.  Not even bees.  Just wind.

This is the date palm.  In Hebrew, “Tamar.”

A date palm can grow in unusually salty soil that would destroy most other plants.  It thrives in intensely hot, dry, and sunny environments.  As I just mentioned, it’s pollination relies on chance.  In other words, The date palm, “Tamar,” is a survivor!

So it is with our Tamar of the Torah this week.  She was married to a son of Judah, one of Jacob’s grandsons, but he was a man so despised by God, God chose to wipe him away rather than allow him and Tamar to have a child.  After her husband’s death, Tamar was given to her brother-in-law (as was the custom of the time for a younger brother to have children in his older brother’s name), but this was a man so selfish he rather spill his seed to the ground than allow his inheritance to be diminished by having the children who would be his older brother’s heirs.  After he died, Tamar was cast aside by her father-in-law, Judah, and sent to live with her own father.   Judah promised that when his third son came of age, they would marry, but never acted out of fear that that son would also die by her side.  So she lived with her father… waiting… promised to the third son, but never delivered.

What was this woman to do with her life?

As she sat in her own father’s household, now widowed twice and childless, bound to a husband that was never going to come, she realized what she had to do.

Tamar had learned that her father-in-law, Judah, was coming near. He had just completed his own grieving period for his wife and was surely lonely.   So this “date palm,” Tamar, removed her widow’s garb, planted her feet onto the salty earth, wrapped herself in a veil of thorns, and sat, waiting for a wind storm to blow so she could have a child.  And blow it did as Judah approached her, and entered into her arms, believing she was a veiled prostitute.

Of course, when it was discovered that Tamar — a widow still bound to Judah’s household — was pregnant, Judah called for her death.  But when Tamar could prove Judah was the father of her unborn child, he admitted that he was as wrong as she because he never gave her the promised third son.  Tamar lived, and gave birth to twin boys.

It is certainly no accident that our heroine this week is named after this tough tree that survives in harsh environmental conditions and faces such challenging pollination.  Date farmers actually have to hand pollinate their date trees in order to ensure a healthy harvest.  They do so at great risk, having to cut away the thorns of the tree, climb to dizzying heights, and participate in an intricate process of fertilization and harvesting.  So, Tamar too, had to withstand great planning and danger in order to have the offspring she so desperately needed.

What made Tamar so strong?  So able to withstand the circumstance she was handed?  So clear on her mission even when she knew it was morally questionable at best and punishable by death at worst?

Nowhere in this text does it say that Tamar heard the voice of God, but I believe she was a prophetess, worthy of praise on the level of Abraham who heard “Go to yourself,” Rebecca who heard, “And the older shall serve the younger,” or Jacob who heard, “Remember, I am with you.”  I believe Tamar heard the voice of God, perhaps a feminine Godly voice, that said, “You were named Tamar by me, for I knew in your life you would have to withstand terrible conditions in order to have a child.  But you will be the mother who will birth the ancestors of great leaders and saviors.  Go to your father-in-law, Judah, and by his seed blowing in My wind, you will be impregnated with twins who will replace the wretched two he lost.  They will take their rightful places at Jacob’s table.  You will be the mother of a future generation of Kings.”  And it is said that Tamar was the matriarch of King David’s line.

There have been times or will be times of tragedy in all of our lives when we feel we must be date palms —  feet rooted in the salty earth, bodies holding strong against a windy storm, somehow able to survive the elements against all odds and walk boldly into the future.  It is in those times when many of us, no matter how religious we are, turn to prayer.  When we do… when we speak to God, sheepish and unsure if anyone is listening, do we ever hear an answer?  Do we hear a voice, whether we believe that voice to be from a God on high or just our inner-selves shining a light on what we know we must do?  And if we do hear a voice, will that response ever be recorded in a scroll, or a book?  Probably not.   Our conversations with our Godselves will remain private like Tamar’s.  But in Tamar’s time of tragedy, she heard a voice, and that voice showed her that motherhood was her destiny.  In our quiet moments of pain, don’t we, too, sometimes see or hear Truth more clearly?  Don’t we realize what is important?  What is right or wrong for us?  Who and what we could or should be?  And don’t those realizations sometimes go against the social norms of our family or community or society, just like Tamar?   Are we as strong as she to act anyway?   Do we follow the voices from within or without?

I invite all of us, you and me, to think of Tamar when we find ourselves needing to be grounded deeply in the earth while our limbs are waving in a storm.  In those moments when we ask the Universe, “Why?  How?  When?  Me?,” let’s promise to try to listen.  The answers may not be easy to accept, but if we act upon them, perhaps we will not just survive but thrive.

Perhaps we are to be the mothers or fathers of greatness.

Please join Cool Shul for a pre-Chanukah Shabbat celebration, menorah candle lighting, and Chanukah jam session.  For info, click here.