Monday, August 3, 2015

Grasshoppers and Spiritual Growth? OK, Sure!


When I undertook the task of cross-stitching 4 verses from the Book of Leviticus for the Torah Stitch by Stitch project conceived by textile artist Temma Gentles, I knew it might be a bit of a challenge to mine these particular 4 verses for some deeper theological or even spiritual meaning.  What profound message from the divine was there in the short litany of insects that are ok to eat?  How did it nourish my soul in any way to know that I could eat a grasshopper (especially as I have never had a wish to eat a grasshopper, not even when they are presented in lollipops)?

 Leviticus 11:20-23 

20 “‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. 21 There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean.

 I studied what commentary I could find, to see if perhaps I was missing something that would’ve been obvious to another theologian, and without exception, commentators explained (in rather less detail than commentators often use) what the text already said: here are the insects you may eat, and here are the insects you may not eat.  This couldn’t be the point, surely.

 Leviticus is a book full of laws – thou shalt and thou shalt not, verse after verse, chapter after chapter. So what was the point of the laws, then?  Well… they could have been intended as a test of our obedience (though we didn’t prove ourselves so attentive with that apple…).  They might have been intended to teach self-denial (you’ll note that escargot, even sautéed in butter and tucked into mushroom caps, are not on the approved list!).  Perhaps this list, like many such lists, was to ensure that the Israelites remained a distinct nation – Jews have also been taught to make distinctions between what we call the sacred and the profane, the holy and the unholy, and it may well be that this list of insects was another exercise in this differentiation.

 


And while this makes some sense, it didn’t really lead me to the spiritual enlightenment for which I had hoped.  Was I expecting too much from this project?  Recalling the work in embroidering my tallit, I remember well the constant feeling that each stitch was, in a sense, a prayer.  I remember the surprising joy that accompanied the tying of the tzitzit.  These things weren’t happening with my 4 Levitical verses.

Would I have felt different if I’d been cross-stitching a different verse?  What if I’d been embroidering the Shema?  And if that could be the case, then did I mean to suggest that these verses weren’t as important?  They are part of the canon – we’ve kept them for millennia, and so they must still count.


I wasn’t coming up with any definitive answer, so I simply continued to work at my verses, and in July, something began to happen.  I was on vacation, needlework often in hand, and I discovered that cross-stitching the Torah makes for an interesting conversation.  In fact, it makes for many interesting conversations.


Sitting in the sun in the Public Gardens in Halifax, NS, sipping coffee, listening to the hum of conversation around me, the laughter of children, the letters seemed to be stitching themselves.  I was kind of in a cross-stitch zone and really enjoying the work.


Then one day, I realised that someone was watching me.  I glanced up, and a woman said, “That’s really beautiful!  What is it you’re making?”  So I told her about the project, and about my verses. I told her about the challenge I’d been experiencing in that I’d thought that this might be a valuable spiritual exercise, as I got to work intimately with the verses – kind of the way a Torah scribe might do. She had done some needlepoint in the past but hadn’t done any for a while – still, she knew the technique and the work involved.  There are things you just don’t have to explain to someone who knows how to do cross-stitch! Her husband was interested in the letters – “Hebrew, obviously,” he observed.  He wasn’t Jewish, but rather, Muslim, so it’s not such a great surprise that he’d recognised the lettering.  “What are your verses about?” he asked.  Who could have imagined when I told him that he would find it quite as interesting as he did?  Well, when you talk to an entomologist about insects in the Torah, you will find that he is interested! (I even wrote down the passage reference for him to look up at home!)

Another day, but still in the Gardens… a woman sitting across the patio from me came over and excusing the interruption, asked what I was working on.  Again, I explained the project, and again we talked about why I was doing it, and whether it was having the effect I had anticipated when I undertook the project.  She told me that her late mother had done a lot of cross-stitch – “Between the 5 children, and my dad, and her projects,” she said, “her hands were always flying.”  I knew that feeling myself – right down to being one of 5 children!  My own mother had been an embroiderer, a smocker, and a knitter, and children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends all benefitted from her talent.

The next conversation was with a woman visiting from Australia, who’d also been watching me work and finally came over to take a look and to talk stitchery.  She was equally fascinated by the project – this seemed a universal response whenever I shared it with anybody – and told me that she also enjoyed cross-stitching.  (She is currently working on family trees – one for each of 5 grandchildren!)  We talked about the challenges of making round letters look round when cross-stitching.  And I explained to her about the challenge I found in cross-stitching Hebrew – we read and write Hebrew from right to left, precisely the opposite to writing English, and I found that if I were stitching from left to right, as I did at the start of a new line in a new section, the zen of my work was abrupted, because I knew I was doing it backwards!  If I didn’t know any Hebrew, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, because the characters would simply have been characters that had no particular meaning to me as letters.

And now I think I’ve got it.  I think I know what it’s about.  The spiritual connection here is perhaps not precisely with the text, but with the conversations that the work has encouraged!  I’ve gotten to share my work, and Temma’s awesome project, with people from several countries.  And while it may be that not one of them will decide to sign on for a passage themselves, the conversations about the project have taken place with people who were genuinely interested and who learned something new.  There have been conversations with people who probably didn’t ever think of Torah (and why should they, really, if they’re not Jewish themselves?), and with people who didn’t necessarily believe in God at all. Despite the many differences between us, there was space for common ground, for learning, and for connection.  And maybe that is the point.  And it’s a pretty good one.
 
 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Dog's Life - If You're Lucky

This is a story of a girl and a dog.  In March of 2010, my daughter – who spent way more time than she probably should’ve done on animal rescue sites – found a Bernese Mountain Dog that had been surrendered to animal control authorities.  We knew that he’d been found wandering at large, and while there was no evidence that he’d been beaten, he certainly had been neglected.  He was between 3 and 5 years old at the time (we never did figure out just how old he is), and was intact, which contributed to a certain amount of aggression on his part towards other dogs.  My daughter already had a Bernese, one she’d raised from a pup, and while Wylie didn’t seem to be suffering for the lack of another dog in the house, it made sense to think that he’d enjoy some company.  And that’s how the rescue began.
 
Bentley (for that was his name) was in Quebec, at least a 10-hour drive from our home in Halifax, but that didn’t deter my daughter. Not even in March.  Fortunately, there were no late winter storms to impede progress, and on March 14th, 2010, Ben came home.  Some things we discovered almost immediately:  he smelled rancid.  As if he’d never had a bath.  He was utterly filthy.  His teeth were a mess, very likely a combination of malnourishment and trying to chew his way through collar and chain to freedom. 

 Ben’s first day in Nova Scotia. Even here, you can see he looks thin through the body, at odds with that big head and those huge paws.

Ben was introduced carefully to Wylie, and it went really well.  No posturing, no jockeying for position.  Wylie didn’t seem to have a need to be the dominant dog, and Ben seemed content to just take it slow.  They adjusted to one another rather quickly, which was great.
 
Ben’s first big trip was to the dog wash.  And here’s where we found out something else about him: once he was in the tub, soaking wet and getting scrubbed, we realised that this dog was not so big after all.  In fact, he was much smaller than we had realised – with that huge head, and those massive paws, the broad and long body, he LOOKED like a BIG Berner.  But when he was wet, we realised that he was not much more than a stack of bones held together inside a fur coat.  At that point, he probably weighed the same (or even less) than Wylie, who, though a purebred Berner, was a smaller dog.  It made sense, then, that what Ben needed was love and food – in that order.


Ben tolerated the dog wash – he seemed to know he was being cared for.  But as he was rinsed, we could see just how heartbreakingly thin he really was.
Once he was clean and fresh-smelling, we were all much happier.  And this is when we learned something else about Ben.  He would stand around the house staring intently at whomever happened to be home.  REALLY intently.  And panting while he stared.  At times, I honestly wondered whether he was going to attack someone, because the panting was sometimes close to a growl, and the stare was more like a glare.  We really couldn’t figure that out, and it was very disconcerting.
 

A girl and her dogs.
My daughter worried that Ben was not too bright – he would watch her give commands to Wylie: “Sit!” “Down!” “Stay!” but showed absolutely no inclination to follow suit.  Even when spoken to directly, even when issued a command with his name attached to it, Ben would just stand there and stare.  We couldn’t figure this out, either.
Eventually, within a couple of weeks (it seemed like much longer to us, and probably longer yet to poor Ben), we figured out part of the puzzle.  Firstly, Ben was rescued from Quebec.  La Belle Province.  The place whose official language is FRENCH.  Ohhhhhhh…. Ben didn’t comply with “Sit!”  But he knew what “Assiez-toi!” meant.  OK, he was French.  We could teach him English!  The second thing we figured out was the panting and intense staring… he didn’t hate anybody.  He didn’t want to eat anybody.  He wanted to be TOUCHED.  That was all.  Just to be touched.  As soon as a hand went on that big head , nails gently scratching, the panting and staring stopped.  How long had this lovely boy been ignored, we wondered?  Ben never did lose the need for touch – if you were sitting there, with Ben leaning on you, you were going to scratch him.  And if for some reason you stopped, he butted his massive head into your hand, reminding you that your job was not done. 

This need for touch also manifested as a desperate need to be with his people – well, with his PERSON, really.  He was almost glued to my daughter – she was his rescuer, and he knew it.  And she loved him, even when she was sometimes exasperated with him.  And he knew that, too.  We learned very quickly that if she went out, even if Wylie was with him, Ben didn’t do well without her.  And it was proven to be a very, very bad idea to leave Ben altogether on his own, because he tried – literally – to get through a window to get to her.
 
Ben had issues, all right.  This attachment disorder meant that he really couldn’t be left on his own – it might have been possible to keep him physically safe, but emotionally, he was going to be a wreck if he were on his own.  And the house was going to be destroyed.  Thus began 5 years of ensuring that Ben was never utterly on his own.  That changed all of our lives, and it made for a huge balancing act.  It was at times unbelievably frustrating – but my daughter persevered.  Ben was a member of the family now.  He was loved, he was safe, and he and my daughter belonged to each other.  Both Wylie and Ben looked to my daughter as the leader of their pack, and they both wanted to please her.  Ben might not ever have been quite as clever as Wylie (personally, I always thought that he simply felt no need to do as many tricks as Wylie did – I suspect he felt it beneath his doggy dignity!), but he grew more secure and seemed to understand that where my daughter was would always be his home.

Happy Ben – is there much better than letting the wind race past you while you sit in a convertible?!

We all fell into a pattern with the dogs.  Even the Siamese cat, Sacha, accepted the invasion of another giant dog into his world.  Occasionally (usually when it was cold, if I’m honest), you might find both Berners and Sacha curled up napping together.  Sacha took it upon himself to inspect the boys’ food dishes, in case there was something there that he wanted.  Both dogs, each of whom was easily 6 times the cat’s size, stood by helplessly, imploring with desperate eyes any nearby humans to get that cat out of their food.  They knew better than to nudge him out of the way themselves!

Ben and Wylie kept a respectful distance from Sacha, though if it was very cold, you might find Sacha tolerating their presence close enough to him to generate more body heat!


Ben loved to go out with Wylie and my daughter.  They’d go to the beach, where he’d run in joy – galumphing around the water’s edge, carefully selecting just the right bits of seaweed for his snack, always with a huge smile on his face.  They’d go to the park, where he was generally ok on-leash but always happy to reach the off-leash section, so he could run again.  We learned here that Ben wasn’t fond of other dogs – he seemed to consider Wylie his brother, and bore him no ill will.  But he did not want other large dogs around.  Smaller dogs didn’t bother him so much – he’d look at them somewhat bemused, but with no ill intent.  Larger dogs, on the other hand, seemed to incite him to attack.  And so we had to be careful about that as well!

Ben gets a new cushion!

Ben was a kid magnet, as most Bernese are.  Children look at a Bernese and think (and often say), “Oh, look!  It’s a teddy bear!”  And Ben did kind of lumber around bear-like, so it made sense.  Children often approached to say hello to both dogs, and my daughter would nudge Ben forward, keeping Wylie a bit behind – Wylie isn’t too sure of children.  They make him skittish, and rather than risk that he might snap at a small, friendly hand, my daughter felt it would be better all around if Wylie were in the background for these events.  Ben, on the other hand, was built for children:  they wanted to hug him, pat him, scratch him.  He’d sit there forever (or until a hapless parent dragged away a child who insisted s/he was not ready to go yet), enjoying the attention.
 
Within a year of bringing Ben home, he’d grown from about 70 lbs to 115 lbs.  His coat grew thick and glossy. He panted less and smiled more.  He ran with Wylie.  It wasn’t all perfect – he was terrified of thunder storms (but let’s face it, many dogs share that fear), and he really did turn out to be a pretty needy dog.  But I don’t know anybody who met Ben who didn’t like him.  He just brought out the best in people.

One of their favourite places – a beach where they could run. Ben wasn’t crazy about the water, though he’d paddle a bit if persuaded.  He did like to select choice bits of seaweed for snacks, though.

We knew that Ben was older than Wylie.  We knew it was likely that he would die first.  If we thought about that at all, I suppose we thought that perhaps he’d just quietly die in his sleep, with no pain, no fear.  That’s probably the best way for anybody to shuffle off the moral coil, whether they are canine or human.  But that’s not what happened.
 
Over the past year or so, Ben began to slow down.  He didn’t run as much.  He wasn’t quite as interested in play (though he still would play with Pig, a plush toy with a squeaker of which Ben was inordinately fond).  He began to have a harder time getting around – we thought it might be because ceramic tile and hardwood floors were difficult to navigate, often leaving him splay-legged and somewhat helpless.  He began to sleep more, and we thought, “Well, it makes sense.  He’s getting older, he’s got arthritis, it makes sense.”  We reminded ourselves that after all, he could be as old as 10 or 11, which, for a large-breed dog, is significant.
 
But then, about 2 months ago, my daughter brought him to the vet.  Something wasn’t right, she knew.  It wasn’t just arthritis.  It wasn’t just age. Something was wrong.  My daughter knows her pets as well as any new mother knows her baby.  She knows every inch of their bodies.  She knows where there are lumps, and where there aren’t.  She knows where there are patches of dry skin.  She knows the spot where they love being touched best of all.  So when she said that something was wrong, it was very easy to believe her.  This was one of those instances, though, in which we all wanted her to be wrong.
 
Ben had cancer.  Were there treatments?  Some, for sure.  But would they really extend his life?  Give him a better quality of life?  Ben was a senior dog, remember – it was possible that the treatments themselves would be too much for him.  And if they did keep the cancer at bay, how long?  And what would his quality of life be like if he was treated.  After consultation with the vet, much research and deliberation, my daughter decided that it would not be doing the best thing for Ben to provide treatment.  She would continue to love him, to treat him with care, and to spend time very deliberately doing with him the things he loved to do.  And when the time was right, she would bring him for one last trip to the vet.  Ben had a ‘bucket list,’ not one that he created, obviously, but one created for him by his girl, the person who knew him best.  And last week, we crossed off the last two things on the list – a trip to the beach, and some ice cream.
 
Trips to the beach used to be extended adventures.  This trip, with Ben alone, and no Wylie, was not such an event.  On June 30th, we headed for the beach. Ben loved being there – you could see that.  But he tired very quickly.  After 15 minutes, he was lying down in the sand, happy to be there with us, but not interested in prolonging the running.  We stayed another few minutes, and headed back to the car, Ben loping happily along.  We stopped on the way home for ice cream, and my daughter snapped the bottom off her cone, filled the miniature cone it created with a tiny bit of ice cream, and gave it to Ben to enjoy.  Then we went home.  When we got back to the city, she had to lift Ben out of the car.  He couldn’t manage on his own.
 
On July 1st, I visited with my daughter and Ben-sat while she took Wylie for a short walk.  I was getting ready to go to Quebec myself, and she pointed out what I hadn’t even realised: this would be the last time I would see Ben.  I was leaving the next morning, and upon my return, there would be no Ben.  I sat there in her dining room, hugging and scratching this big, happy dog.  He had grown noticeably thinner over the past 6 weeks or so, hardly eating, and sleeping 20 hours a day.  He felt more like the scarecrow dog she’d brought home 5 years earlier.  This Ben loved, though, and was loved.  As much as I felt his bones, I could feel that.  And I cried.  I cried in part because I knew my daughter’s heart was sore, and there was nothing I could do to make it better.  But I cried for me, too.   I had no idea how much I would miss this dog.
 
When I left my daughter’s home that evening, I checked myself.  “Get a grip,” I said sternly to myself.  “This happens.  You know it happens.  And this is what’s best for Ben.”  I knew that, all of it.  But barely off her street, I saw a man walking his dog… a Bernese Mountain Dog, as it happens.  And I started to cry.  Sobbed all the way downtown, chastising myself as I went.  How silly, really – everyone knows that owners typically outlast their pets.  This was no surprise.  And it was especially no surprise, because Ben had been sick.  Oddly enough, that made no difference at all.  There would be no Ben when I came home, and my heart was bruised just thinking of it.

Wylie turned 7 on July 3.  Ben was there to celebrate.

I spoke with my daughter on Sunday, July 5th.  That was the day of Ben’s last vet appointment.  He had gone out for an early solo walk with my daughter – no Wylie.  My daughter wrote:
 
                Our beautiful, sweet Benny crossed over the rainbow bridge on Sunday afternoon.
For those who don't know, Ben was diagnosed with Lymphoma in May and has been steadily declining since then. In the last few weeks, he essentially stopped eating and was rapidly losing weight. He did enjoy his daily PB sandwiches though, and treats for the most part.
His body was failing him, and his mind was tired. Our previously 120 lb boy weighed 97 lbs in May and was down to 86 lbs on Sunday. As much as it crushed us, we knew it was his time.
We spent the last several weeks working through a bucket list with Ben, and thankfully had the time to accomplish everything on the list, and were able to make our last weeks with Ben as positive as we could.
Saturday night we had a movie night, equipped with snacks and loads of love. We also had a big brushing session (a Benny favourite). Sunday morning, Ben gobbled up two PB sandwiches and handfuls of treats and went for a solo walk with me. We went as far as his body would allow us, the majority of it was off leash with him walking by my side. The walk only lasted 10-15 minutes or so, but they were glorious minutes.
I am honoured to have been able to welcome Ben into my family and to have loved him unconditionally for the past five years.
I wish I could write more, but my heart isn't ready.
Rest in peace, my sweet boy.









It’s going to be very strange to go back to Halifax with no giant, gentle Ben to lean on me.  There will be no brick-shaped head to nudge my fingers into action if I lapse and stop scratching him just the way he likes. 
 
I don’t think my daughter would change her life had she known that Ben’s life would end this way.  Neither would I.  We bring animals into our world and care for them, love them, and in return get unbridled love and joy.  They leave muddy pawprints around, they sometimes eat things they shouldn’t and barf all over the living room.  Sometimes they bark too loud, or too long.  Maybe they’re so afraid of storms that even giants like Ben try to climb on top of you for protection.  But our hearts are better for knowing them, even when their leaving hurts us.
 
Ben is a prime example of how rescue works.  If my daughter hadn’t found that smelly, scrawny, attachment-addled Berner, our lives might have been a bit easier, but they wouldn’t have been as much fun.  She loved him into the wonderful dog he became, and he was as bonded to her as any puppy is to its mother.  She was his girl, and we all knew it.  What I know is this:  if my daughter hadn’t found Ben and brought him home, his life almost certainly would’ve been shorter.  And it would not have been as good.  She gave him all she could, and what she gave him was good.  I am glad for them both (and yes, for me as well) that Ben came into her world.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fancy a grasshopper?


No grasshopper?  What about a locust, then?  A cricket, perhaps?  Me, neither.  And why the heck am I even talking about insects, anyhow?  Well, I’m glad you’re thinking about that!  It’s not a conversation I expected to take up before breakfast, that’s for sure.

I’m participating in a most awesome project, in which women and men, Jews and Gentiles, each commit to needlepoint 4 verses of Torah onto a piece of fabric, which will be returned to the artist who conceived it, Temma Gentles.  She will have all those individual pieces of work stitched into a massive Torah scroll, which will be exhibited publicly.  You can read lots more about that here:  http://torahstitchbystitch.temmagentles.com/ - and you can also sign up to participate.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the insects.  The reason I’m thinking about them is that this week, I received word of my 4 verses for the project.  Temma’s email said that they were from Leviticus.  “Oh,” I thought.  (Leviticus is not one of my favourite books of Torah – it’s very prescriptive and has rules upon rules upon rules.)  And my verses are Lev. 11:20-23.  Here they are, so you don’t have to look them up:

20 All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you.  21 But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground – 22 of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. 23 But all other winged warming things that have four legs shall be an abomination for you.

 
To be honest, I was kind of hoping for something more… beautiful, perhaps.  Or profound.  Perhaps something from the Song of Songs – “Ani le dodi, ve dodi li…” (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”).  Or maybe from Exodus, the Song of the Sea (which my father used to sing, albeit not the melody we use at synagogue), Oz ya shir Moshe…  I just love that one.  But no, I get locusts.  And grasshoppers.  And crickets.  And what am I going to do with this?!

Well, firstly, I am going to honour my commitment, and do the best work I can do at stitching my verses.  That goes without saying, really.
Let me introduce you to some kosher insects.  Below, top to bottom, we have a bald locust, a grasshopper, and a cricket.  I have never had any desire to eat any of them.  Several years ago, I was given a gag gift (and I did kind of gag at it, actually) – a lollipop with a cricket inside.  I couldn’t even lick the candy to taste it.  The ewww factor was way too high!  (But if it had been prepared under rabbinic supervision, it would've been kosher!!)





So here I am with Leviticus and the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary rules).  I’m pretty much ok with them, even though one or two of them cause me to roll my eyes.  I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and I don’t mix meat with dairy (that’s an eye-roller for me, in case you wondered).  My friend Jen says, “Show me a chicken that can give milk, and I’ll stop eating chicken Alfredo!”  I completely get what she’s saying.  Chickens can’t give milk.  And the cheese you have on your hamburger certainly doesn’t come from the same cow that gave you the meat.  My rabbi suggests that perhaps one way to consider it is that by not mixing meat and dairy, we’re not mixing the dead (the meat, obviously) with the living (a cow doesn’t have to die so that we can have cheese).  That makes it a little better, but only a little.  Fortunately, I have no great love of cheeseburgers and am happy with a veggie cheeseburger, so it’s all good.
Because I’m observant, I also don’t eat pork or shellfish, and that’s fine.  Occasionally, I miss some dishes, but generally it’s ok, and I don’t feel especially deprived.  Observant Jews also do not eat snails, though – escargots – not even when they are sautéed in butter, with a bit of garlic, tucked into mushroom caps, and topped with just a soupçon of fine breadcrumbs and cheese and broiled to the perfect moment of golden deliciousness.  Because, you see, I have eaten all these things.  I didn’t start out as an observant Jew.  Not eating pork and shellfish, not mixing meat and dairy – these are changes I have made, and commitments I have made as a Jew.  I don’t think it’s quite the same for someone who has never eaten those things.  And I rather miss escargots.
What if I slip up?!  Seriously!  What if cross-stitching 4 verses of Torah about the things I ought not to eat reminds me so much of the things I’ve given up that I go out and get some escargots?  I am not certain that this could not happen.  It might.  I hope it won’t, but the temptation pops up whenever I smell garlic in a restaurant!  And if I do go ahead and order some escargots, does that invalidate all the work I’ve put into becoming an observant Jew?  Or am I already looking for a loophole?  The commentary in my Eitz Chayim (the book containing Torah readings that we use at synagogue) says, “What is important is to be on the path of observance, to be, in the words of Emet ve-Emunah, a ‘striving’ Jew.”  Well, I’m striving, all right.  But then, I’m always striving. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be looking at this as a loophole… but… escargots…
I know from having made my own tallit (ritual prayer shawl) that creating a holy object can in itself be a kind of prayer.  In fact, embroidering a tallit turned out to be one of the most profound, most holy, most prayerful things I’ve ever experienced – most particularly when I was tying the tzitzit (the fringes at each of the four corners, that remind us of the mitzvot – the commandments).  I thought that perhaps I would recapture something of that – and maybe even a little more.  Because while I will never be a sofret (a female Torah scribe), I thought that perhaps the feeling of doing this work might be something close to that – it’s certainly as close to writing a Torah as I will ever get.
I had hoped that participating in The Torah Project would help bring me closer to God, and closer to Torah, and found myself a little … disappointed … in the verses I was given.  Disappointed?!  I’m disappointed in Torah?  Well, I’m rather bold, aren’t I?  Every single verse, every single character of Torah, is important.  Are there some that are more important than others?  That’s entirely possible.  Some verses make me incredibly happy, and some of them make me really angry – but whether I am happy or angry, the verses cause me to have a dialogue with God.  Disappointed?!  All verses of Torah are important – but it occurs to me that my disappointment with those verses (not merely with my assignment of those verses – with the verses themselves) is kind of arrogant.  If I am disappointed, maybe I’m missing something.  If I don’t know immediately upon reading these verses why they are important, then it’s high time I blew the dust off my graduate school education and did some exegesis.
While I wait for my fabric and thread to arrive from Toronto, I am going to start looking hard at Leviticus.  The whole book, not just my 4 verses.  I will read it, and study it, and pray over it and with it. I will mine it for meaning, as my professors taught me to do.  I will do midrash.  And when I push the needle through the fabric for the first time, perhaps I will say a Shehechiyanu (Jews have prayers for pretty much everything – including one for the very first time of doing something.  I think that fits here.)
This is a journey, and I’ve barely taken the first step.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel...


It’s said that writing a Torah scroll is for Jews the 613th and greatest commandment. We believe that we are given the direction for this from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verse 19: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”  In fact, Torah scribes – sofer (or sofret, when we refer to the very small number of women who have written Torah scrolls) ­may dedicate their entire lives to only this work.  Most sofrim are men, not because women are prohibited from becoming ritual scribes (as some believe), but rather, because Maimonides explains that women are not obligated to fulfill this mitzvah.  This is simply because through history, women have been exempt from the mitzvah of studying Torah simply for the sake of studying Torah.  Tradition has dictated that women as the keepers of the home ought to be concerned more with mitzvot that concerned living Jewishly at home - keeping Shabbat in the home, for instance, and lighting candles on Friday evening.

Writing a Torah is a religious act – very nearly a prayer.  The materials on which the scroll is written and the implements used to do the writing are very specific, so that the scroll will be kosher.  The scribe is specially trained, and is expected to approach each letter with great kavanah – mindfulness, or intention – so that the integrity of the finished scroll should be above reproach.

Each letter must be as perfect as the human hand, guided, some say, by God, can make it.  It takes about a year to write one single Torah scroll, consisting of more than 300,000 Hebrew letters, painstakingly calligraphied by hand, and it may in some cases take even longer.  My own Hebrew is poor enough when davening (praying), and so the very thought of ever writing a Torah scroll is not one that has ever held great sway in my mind, as it is so far from the realm of what is possible for me to be confident that it is simply impossible.

Recently, though, I read an article in the Canadian Jewish News (http://www.cjnews.com/arts/project-reveals-torah-%E2%80%94-stitch-stitch), and suddenly the idea of being a part of creating a Torah scroll didn’t seem quite so impossible anymore.  While I will never become a sofret, I could perhaps be a part of something greater than I, and join this group of people committed to a rather audacious act of art.  I have designed and embroidered both my tallitot (the prayer shawls which accompany me to synagogue, and which I use for daily prayer), and every stich of each of them felt to me like a prayer.  Every stitch felt like a conversation with my mother.  I wanted to know more about this!

I checked out the website (http://torahstitchbystitch.temmagentles.com/) and contacted them to ask whether it was still possible to join the hundreds of volunteers already committed to the project.  Very promptly, I received an email message from Marilynne Casse, the Executive Coordinator of the project, who explained how it works – and it’s quite simple.  Volunteers complete a short registration form and make a payment of $18 (probably not at all coincidentally – 18 is numerically significant for Jews, as the letters which form the word also make the Hebrew word chai, or life), which nets you a kit that includes the Aida cloth, embroidery floss, and needles required for you to create a 14” x 14” square on which you will cross-stich four verses of the Torah.  In the end, more than 1,400 canvases will have been completed and stitched together to create a Torah scroll that is nine-feet-tall and about 100-yards-long (approximately 3 M by 90 M).  When it is finally completed – probably in about 3 years – the scroll will be the subject of a public exhibition – this in itself will be another tremendous undertaking, as it will require quite a lot of fundraising to accomplish.

The project is the brainchild of textile artist Temma Gentles, who conceived of it while on sabbatical in Israel as a way for people to connect intimately with the words of the Torah.  Volunteers are not required to be Jewish, nor must they be women.  There are women and men of many faith traditions participating, each of whom has particular reasons for wanting to participate.  For me, it is about Torah, yes, but also because every time I embroider something, I feel closer to my mother, who died in 2003, and who taught me to embroider when I was a girl.  I think that she would love this project.

So the next step is to receive my kit, and to begin my part of this project.  From time to time, I’ll post updates – perhaps even with photos.  Right now, I’m going to contact a friend in Israel, who is herself a textile artist, to invite her to check out the website as well, because she might also like to be a part of this.  And perhaps you would, to - so you should go ahead and click that link, and get in touch with the project!
 
 

 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trying to be ready for Yom Kippur


In Judaism, confession (Hebrew וידוי, Viddui) is a step in the process of atonement during which a Jew admits to committing a sin before God. In sins between a Jew and God, our confession occurs without others present (The Talmud teaches that confession in front of another is a show of disrespect).  However, confession pertaining to sins done TO ANOTHER JEW is permitted publicly, and we make this confession on the morning of Yom Kippur (in fact, we make this confession several times on Yom Kippur – and when we do so mindfully, it’s a profound experience. Stay with me, here!)

The confession of a sin marks a point in time after which our demonstration of the recognition and avoidance of similar FUTURE transgressions show whether we have truly recovered from the sin and therefore whether we deserve forgiveness for it.  Forgiveness does not come with the immediate acknowledgement of the sin.

We say the Vidui in plural, confessing transgressions that we clearly know we have not committed (see below!), a firm reminder that our moral responsibilities go beyond our personal realms.  Judaism teaches that if we see a friend acting wrongly we are commanded by the Torah to privately and politely rebuke him or her, and when we don't, it is considered as if we share their wrongdoings.

 
The Yom Kippur confessional consists of two parts: a short confession beginning with the word Ashamnu (אשמנו, "we have sinned"), which is a series of words describing sin arranged according to the aleph-bet, and a long confession, beginning with the words Al Cheyt (על חטא, "for the sin"), which is a set of 22 double acrostics, also arranged according to the aleph-bet, enumerating a range of sins.  The humbling thing about this is that even if we can absolve ourselves of some of these wrongdoings, we have ALL fallen in SOMETHING on this list.  Darn it.  Just when I thought I was being a better Jew… Yom Kippur reminds me (as if I needed it) that there is always room for improvement!)…
 

We say,

 

Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibbarnu dofi;

He-evinu, vhirshanu, zadnu, hamasnu, tafalnu sheker;

Ya-atznu ra; kizzavnu, latznu, maradnu, ni-atznu;

Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzarnu, kishinu oref ;

Rashanu, shihatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.

 

We mean,

 
We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer, we kill, we like, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we perfert ,we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind, we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes.

 

And we say,

 
We have done wrong and transgressed, and so we have not triumphed.  Inspire our hearts to abandon the path of evil, and hasten our redemption. And so Your prophet Isaiah declared: “Let the wicked forsake their path, and the sinful their design.  Let them return to Adonai, who will show them compassion.  Let them return to our God, who will surely forgive them.”

 
The High Holidays are about return in both literal and figurative ways – children return home from university to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with their families; often, adult children return to their parents with their own children in tow to mark this beginning of our new year.  The biggest return, though, happens with Yom Kippur, when we are enjoyed to return to God.

 
Beginning with the Kol Nidre service on the evening before (this year, that will be this Friday, October 3rd), we work to prepare ourselves for a spiritual and often emotional marathon.  If you’ve never attended a Kol Nidre service, I recommend it – it’s beautiful, moving, powerful, and profound.  When sun sets on Kol Nidre, we begin a fast from all food and liquid until after the sun sets – and the shofar sounds for the last time – on Yom Kippur.  We abstain from all food and liquid so that we can concentrate only on what is important: relationship.  Relationship with one another, and relationship with God. 

 
This is the time of year at which Jews – even those who might not be so observant during the rest of the year – are conscious of making amends with those they feel they’ve wronged.  We are mindful of t’shuvah, or in English, return.  This is a time of reconciliation, return, making things right if we can, because this is the time in which we are written in the Book of Life.  Be Rosh Hashanah, yika tevu, u’v’Yom Kippur yika tehmu: On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.  May you be inscribed into the Book of Life this year.  May your new year be a time of remembering the importance of the prayers we say on Yom Kippur, and may you have the kavanah – the mindful intention – of being the person you were created to be.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Weathering your death


Weathering your death

I didn’t think you’d really do it –
Say goodbye to everything like that.
Even though you’d flirted with death before,
I believed you could get better.
I know that you wanted to get better –
Nobody could have tried harder.
And so now I’m weathering your death.
Last night, when the wind was so high
I wondered whether we might have a hurricane –
Was that you?
This morning, wind and rain finally stopped,
Snow all but gone,
Sun shining high in a sky that I think of as Israel-blue,
I wondered –
If the weather had been like this,
An unseasonably mild January day,
With sun shining,
Would you still have wanted to go?
Or would you have taken a deep breath and said,
“I can do this?”
No matter what happens now,
It happens without you.
The sun shines, the wind blows.
Rain will fall today, they say (or it won’t) –
And it doesn’t seem possible
That you will feel none of it,
Know none of it.
No striding down the road
(on a good day, when you could go out),
Hands shoved in pockets, face down, out of the wind,
On a mission to normal (whatever that is).
I’m weathering your death,
Only I didn’t think it would be so hard,
The knowledge that the sun will never kiss your skin again,
That you’ll never rub hands briskly against the cold
Because you forgot your gloves.
I remember that sometimes,
Even on the most beautiful summer’s day,
It wasn’t always easy for you to come out anyhow.
What cheered me and made me hopeful, optimistic,
Often didn’t reach you.
You wore your sickness not like a cape,
But more like a second skin.
Try as you might to shed it, it was going nowhere.
And now you are nowhere –
At least, you said that you believed that
Death was a void, a nothing.
I still don’t think you were right,
And I hope that now your soul is somewhere beautiful.