Friday, December 24, 2010

Shemot and Thoughts on Being Called

This week, a new documentary titled,The Calling, executive produced and directed by Camp Ramah in Wisconsin alumnus, Danny Alpert, aired on PBS over two nights.  This powerful and inspiring film follows: young, vibrant, thoughtful and vastly different Americans as they embark on the most extraordinary journey of their lives. Representing Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant faiths,  each is ignited by the "call" to serve humanity and has decided to join the clergy. The Calling ...follows them from their first days of training, through years of challenges, doubts, triumphs and surprises, and into their early practice as ordained professionals. (The Calling provides an) ...intimate look behind cloistered seminary walls and into the hearts of future religious leaders provides a rich, nuanced portrayal of faith never before seen on national television.
From The Calling Website

As the website points out, the word “Calling” is derived from the Latin term, vocare, “to call.”  But the translation leaves open one very clear question: from where does the call originate?  Does it come from the outside, from some external source, voice, being? Or does it come from within, either placed there by someone, something, or The One from the outside, or is it sitting inside quietly waiting for the moment to make itself known?  Is this a religious experience?  Can it be a secular experience?  And what do people do when they experience being called?

The filmmakers created a companion website for The Calling that is extraordinary in many ways.  At , you can view segments of the documentary and follow-up pieces by theme, by which are most popular, or by the speaker it features.  After viewing clips, you are invited to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts either on the response of the person in the clip or in answer to the question or challenge raised in the clip.  The creators of The Calling want to include you in the discussion and in the pursuit of hearing your own calling.

One of the companion pieces on the website consists of students from Auburn Theological Seminary answering the question: “What do you think of when you hear the term “Calling”?  The answers range from “Something you just can’t get away from” to “...knowing what I am supposed to do”  to “...something that is really inside even though it sounds like it should be from the outside - a really small voice” to “...some larger, external force” to “predetermination.”  In other words, and as noted above, a calling can be an internal knowing, whose origins are unclear, to a grand voice calling out and telling you what you have to do.  It can be a strong sense of purpose to change the world in a specific way or it can be the knowledge that God expects something specific of you in this world.  There is no consensus among the students at Auburn; rather, they reflect the full gamut of understandings of the term “Calling.”

The move from the Creation Stories and the early origins of the world in general to the specific creation story of the Jewish people comes in the form of a Divine Call to Abraham - לך לך - Go forth.  The Book of Exodus also opens with a “Calling”, the call from God to Moshe at the bush on Mt. Sinai.  In film and in literature, both Jewish and not, the Calling is portrayed both as a commanding outside voice or a demanding interior one.  It is described as the Grand Divine Instructor, the Cecille B. DeMille voice speaking to Charlton Heston, clearly telling Moses from outside himself what he is to do and how he is to do it.  Similarly, it is painted as the quiet voice so similar to his own, emanating from within while appearing to originate from the bush, as in this case the that of Val Kilmer who plays both The Divine Voice and the voice of Moses in The Prince of Egypt.  

We know from tradition and experience that “Callings” can be frightening.  Moses demurs by raising doubts as to whether or not the Israelites will listen to him, let alone Pharaoh.  Jonah flees, running to a boat to take him far away.  Yet neither is able to escape the mission which they know they must complete.  It is not uncommon for people to know deep within their souls that there is something that they are supposed to do, something that will change the world and themselves, and to know let it go un-acted upon for years.  Some will know it forever and fear failure or success and thus refuse to act on it.  Others, however, follow the calling to places they cannot imagine and touch lives, change lives, and transform worlds in the most Divine ways.

This week, the Torah reminds us of the call to Moses, the call to bring freedom to the oppressed; to bring law to the lawless; and to bring redemption to the captive.  This week, Danny Alpert and The Calling push us to confront our own souls, to listen to the still small voice that comes from within or that emerges from an encounter with another, and to go and change the world.  If you have not yet watched it, take time to view The Calling which is now available from PBS and at The iTunes Store, visit the website, , explore there, listen to the voices of others, join the conversation.  And then focus on your calling and go, get started.

Yasher Koah to Danny Alpert and the entire team of “The Calling.”  

Shabbat Shalom.

This post also appears on the blog of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Judah, Joseph, Self-Revelation and Autism

The following were words of Torah that I was honored to share at the Bar Mitzvah of Jack Rosen, the magnificent son of my friends Wendy and Michael Rosen, as well as their son, Charlie.

Jack became a Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat, Parashat VaYigash, at Bnai Joshua Beth Elohim in Northbrook, Illinois. Mazal Tov Jack, Wendy, Michael, Charlie and Jan.

These words are dedicated in honor of Jack and other Jewish children with Autism and to their incredible families who deserve the greatest support the Jewish community can provide.

The air is heavy with anticipation.  Emotions, already running high all morning, reach a crescendo of tension.  The speaker completes his impassioned plea for mercy, an edited retelling of a family story: a bitter tale of favoritism and selfishness, of jealousy and hatred, of love for a father and his inconsolable pain of loss.  Threatened with the possibility that he will be the cause of his father Jacob’s ultimate demise, Judah pleads with the listener for mercy and for the release of his youngest brother, the most beloved, Benjamin.  This morning, we read one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah, the moment when Joseph, now second only to Pharaoh in power and authority, reveals his true identity to his brothers.

Joseph the listener, identified until now to the brothers by his Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach, is completely overwhelmed by Judah’s words:

א וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.  ב וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-קֹלוֹ, בִּבְכִי; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּשְׁמַע בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי; וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all of his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I AM JOSEPH!  Is my father still alive?”  And his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified before him.”
During their previous encounters, Joseph conceals his identity.  Only now, hearing Judah acknowledge their brotherhood and realizing that continuing the ruse puts Jacob’s pain and most likely death on his own shoulders, does Joseph reveal himself.  Until this moment, everyone, the brothers, Pharoah, those in the room, have one picture of who he is and what he can do.  Now, Joseph screams out, “This is who I really am!  I am Joseph!  I am not Tzafnat Paneah!  I am not who you think I am!  I am different.  I am human!”  Joseph, the whole person, is revealed.

The Torah tells us that Joseph “can no longer control himself before all of his attendants” or
לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו .  In other words, Joseph can’t hold back anymore in front of all of these other people.  That translation raises the possibility that perhaps if he was alone in the room for the entire speech, Joseph may have been able to hold back and not show himself but with everyone watching, Joseph simply crumbled.  One commentary understands this phrase to mean that along with all of his brothers and servants, the room was full of people coming to ask things of Joseph.  The combined pressure of his brothers, members of Pharaoh’s house, and all of these people with expectations of who he was simply overwhelmed Joseph.  Revealing himself, in this understanding of the verse, is actually a sign of weakness.  There are numerous commentators who give varying explanations for why this moment is so overwhelming for Joseph, why he chooses to show his true self at this exact minute.

For me and on this morning in particular, these three verses paint a very different picture.  Imagine that most people have one picture of you, of who you are, of what you are about, of what you can do.  Imagine that they have expectations based almost exclusively on what they see on the outside, what their first impressions are.  They have decided who you are.  Not you.  Them.  And then, in one exquisite moment, all you have to do is say your name and their picture of who you are completely unravels.    It transforms completely and forever.  It is no surprise then that the revelation can be terrifying for them.  For years, they were able to pretend that you did not exist, not as an individual and not as a category.  But now you have told them who you are and they can no longer deny your existence.  Imagine the power of that moment.

Sadly, in most places in the Jewish world, people and institutions do not see children and adults with autism.  Some choose not to see them, to not acknowledge in deep and real ways that there is autism in the Jewish community while others are simply unaware. Far too often, our synagogues, our Federations, our day schools and religious schools, our summer camps make it virtually impossible to know that there are children with autism in the Jewish community because we close our doors to their families:  the child is too different, too demanding, too expensive.  We deny their existence or we decide what they can or cannot do, who they are, what they are about.  And then, a moment comes and the child reveals himself and shouts out to the world, sometimes in phrases, sometimes in chirps and tweeting sounds, sometimes in silence, “I AM JOSEPH!”   “I AM A REAL PERSON!”  “SEE ME FOR WHO I AM ON MY TERMS, NOT ON YOURS!”  At that moment, of course the outsider is terrified - they are forced to confront their own limitations and their own nearsightedness.  And, at the same time, imagine how freeing it must be for the child to shed everyone else’s expectations and be who they know that they are.

On this morning, in this specific synagogue, with this specific family and friends, we are part of an exceptional revelatory moment.  Today, Jack shouts out to the world that he is a beautiful soul, a precious young Jew, the vessel that holds a warm and powerful Divine spark.  He announces that he is who he is, on his terms.  Other b’nai mitzvah talk about how they become a “man” on this day.  Today, Jack demands in his own sweet way that the Jewish community sees him, comes to know him, values him.  

What makes our Jack different from Joseph is that there is already a whole world that sees him as he is, that loves him for being exactly who he is, that shuns its own limited view of who he can be in order to embrace who he fully is.  From this bimah, I watch my friends Wendy and Michael, Charlie and Aunt Jan, beam with love for Jack, a love so powerful and deep that there are no words to describe it.  Everyone here today loves and values you Jack for who you are.  They don’t measure you against any other.  They love you for who you are.  Cantor Frost and all those who worked with you to prepare for this day love you, know that you are capable of so much, of changing worlds, and are so very proud of you.

This is a synagogue that welcomed Jack and his family when so many others could not or, honestly, chose not to.  Rabbi Kedar, who is so sad not being here today, was a visionary among rabbis who did not recoil at Jack’s autism but, rather, perceived the strong Godly spark that lives in Jack and in his family.  BJBE opened its arms and its doors and welcomed in an entire family where others were only willing to open the door to three, not four people.  In an era where we fret about our shrinking numbers, where philanthropists and organizations devote tens of millions of dollars to convincing those least interested in being connected Jewishly to do something, anything Jewish, too many institutions close their doors to families like the Rosen’s who want Judaism and the Jewish community in their lives, who want to give to and be supported by the Jewish community, slam doors in the faces of Jack Rosen’s all over the country.  Yet, BJBE, Keshet, the Ramah Day Camp, Camp Beber and Camp Yofi and others open those very same doors and are changed for the better because of it.  They are examples of how the Jewish world should be and I pray that others learn quickly from their example.

Jack, everyone here this morning that knows you loves you and knows how truly exceptional you are.  They have been blessed to see through a window that you opened into your soul so that they can see the sweet, smart, beautiful Jack that you are.  When I think about when that window opened for me, it was at Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism.  I was sitting at the pool with your Mom and we were catching up, sharing stories of growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the golden era of John Hughes’ movies.  And you and your dad and your brother and your Chaver, Asaf, were in the pool.  You would splash and sing and then you would dive under the water and stay there for long periods of time.  There, splashing in the water, there enveloped by the pressure of the warm, clear water, you allowed yourself to emerge, to shine, to blossom.  This was a new moment for me, not you, a moment where I saw a spark that could only be seen through the prism of the water.  It was the moment where I got to see you clearly, to see the fun spark of God in your soul.  It is a moment that I cherish and that I will never forget.  I know that Susan Tecktiel, Sue Kabot, Christine Reeves and the staff of Camp Yofi learned you at those kind of moments as well, that they too love you for who you are, and that they send congratulations and love to you and your family on this magnificent day.

And those who are here this morning that did not know you before are also changed for the better because they got to meet you.  Today you become a ben Torah, a son of Torah.  You said the Shema, you said the blessings over the Torah, and like Abraham our Father, you are a blessing.  And when you said the blessings, your glorious smile let us know that you understand what being Torah is all about, being a living examplar of good and of Godliness.

On the global Jewish level, let today be one where those standing in the virtual room, with all of their expectations, be shocked into seeing that they are obligated to recognize Jews with autism as full members of the community and that they are thus obligated to provide a space for them equal to all other Jews.  Let this be a day of reckoning for those organizations who, pressed in difficult financial situations, may look to reduce or eliminate funding for special needs programs.  Let this be an uncomfortable day of reflection, of being forced to acknowledge and open the doors fully to all of those who are like you Jack.

And for those of us in the actual sanctuary, sharing this moment with the קדוש ברוך הוא - The Holy Blessed One - let us enjoy this moment of celebration together for a truly beautiful and exception soul who shouted out so quietly and tenderly, “I am Jack.  I love the tradition of my parents.”  And after Shabbat, let’s make sure that the rest of the Jewish world learns how to celebrate you as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A New Sefer Torah Comes to CJDS - Mira's Words of Torah

On Thursday, Chicago Jewish Day School, under the magnificent leadership of Judy Taff, celebrated the donation and dedication of a Sefer Torah to the school from the Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation.  Once a flourishing synagogue with a fantastic USY chapter, Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation recently sold its building and a piece of suburban history came to a close.  However, the congregation lives on in the vibrant Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago through the gift of the Torah.  

Our daughter, Mira, was asked to deliver the D’var Torah at the celebration.  The following are her words of Torah for the occasion:

Who here has a Mezuza at home?
Who here knows what Tefillin are?
Who has ever held a Torah?
Who knows what these three things have in common?

The Shema appears in these three important items, the Torah of course is the most important one, which is the reason for today’s special occasion.

In the Shema it says,
וכתבתם על מזוזות בתיך ובשעריך

Inscribe it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Shema tells us that we need to have Mezuzot on our doors as a constant reminder of these rules, and of yetziat metzra’im - the Exodus from Egypt.  It is also supposed to remind us of the Torah when we walk into our homes and out of them.

The Shema also teaches us to wear Tefilin:
וקשרתם לאות על ידיך והיו לטוטפות בין עיניך

Bind it as a sign on your hand, and let it serve as a symbol on your forehead.

Tefilin is a sign of love between Bnai Israel, and HaShem, and we see that when the mitzvah of Tefilin appears in the paragraph after the Shema where the first word is  ואהבת -  love.

The Tefflilin on our arm is close to our heart.   The Tefillin on our head is close to our mind. I think that this shows that we can’t have an idea with only our mind, and we can’t have an idea with only our heart, so we have to use them both.

This summer I had an amazing opportunity, I was allowed to make my own Tefilin with the Israeli artist Noah Greenberg. He not only showed us how to make Tefilin, but taught us about it, and I learned how the Shema is one of the prayers tucked into the boxes at the top of the Tefilin.  At camp, I get to learn from experience.  We are lucky to do this at school too.  

What I like about how I learn Torah at school is that no one sits us down to tell us what’s there.  We get up and do it together.  I like how when we don’t understand something, we can have a discussion about what we get, don’t get, and what we think. When I have a question about Torah, I get to ask it, and say what I think with the full support of my class.  

Here at CJDS, the teacher doesn’t just talk to us, but we have big discussions, and we can debate about what we think. It’s more interesting and it’s more fun to learn.  I love it how not only the students are in the conversations and debates but the teachers are too.  They’ll take sides, and it takes everything to a whole new level of learning.  
I get to share what’s in my head and my heart, and I know my teachers do too.  

I think that we say Shema so often because it reminds us of HaShem and HaShem’s rules.  I think that because in what Orly is going to read this morning HaShem says a lot about love and loyalty. I think that G-d says that so that we stay on track in our lives, and we always remember that G-d loves us.

Thank you so much for giving me the chance to share some Torah with you this morning, I would like the chance to thank the members of The Northwest Suburban Jewish congregation for giving us this amazing new Torah. I know that we all appreciate your generous donation to CJDS.

Boker tov.

Mira’s words of Torah are a synergy of all that she has learned over the years at The Epstein School, Camp Ramah Darom, our home and, most recently The Chicago Jewish Day School.  We are so proud of her and feel fortunate that she and Amalya are learning in such a special place.