Monday, December 20, 2010

Parashat Shemot - My commentary for Jewish Federations of North America

Parashat Shemote
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York
There is no more appropriate way to start the story of our meta story than with the name of this week’s parasha and thus the whole book of Exodus, Shemot - Names. Our story of salvation, first from famine in Canaan, then from slavery in Egypt, to the blessing of the Sinaitic revelation and finally settling in the Promised Land, begins and ends with names.
But they are not just any names. They are the names of the great and not so great. Judah and Joseph, Moses, Aaron and Joshua are intertwined with Gad, Zevulun, Noa and Milka and it is this that makes the Torah and the Tanach resonate with me. The great people and the “regular folk” are intertwined just as they are in our communities today. For me, this makes our sacred text real.
We all know names are important. From the earliest age we respond when we hear our name. We are called to Torah by our names and we are buried with them. Through all of the blessings of our lives and through all the challenging and painful times we carry our names with us.
So it is perplexing to me that in our day and age in our tefillot, our services we seem to only focus on names during the challenging and painful times. For centuries we have read longer and longer lists of the deceased. In more modern times we call out the names of sick and ask for blessing and healing for them. It almost as if the the only reason to come to shul is to deal with pain.
We do celebrate major occasions - namings, upcoming weddings, B’nei Mitzvah and in some shuls birthdays and anniversaries. But why, with a few exceptions don’t we ask people to share the “regular” joys in their lives - a child receiving a good grade, a promotion, hearing from a friend after a long absence, recovery from illness...? Our tradition has blessings for occasions like these and so many others, why do we not emphasize these personal joys? If remembering our beloved deceased with our community brings comfort and if praying for the healing of our ill brings some peace, how much the more so would celebrating our joys and accomplishments add to those positive feelings.
I am as guilty as any other rabbi about this but I am committing myself to changing the services I lead and asking people to share their names and their blessings. It will not be easy or quick. It took time before people were ready to share their hard times publicly, and some still are not. It will take time for people to be willing to share their joys. But think of the change it could bring our lives and our services.
The Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet
Cabinet Chair: Rabbi Steven E. Foster
Vice Chair: Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Vice Chair Rabbi Les Bronstein
Vice Chair: Rabbi Fred Klein
Vice Chair: Rabbi Larry Kotok
President: Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer
Honorary Chair: Rabbi Matthew H. Simon

Director of the Rabbinic Cabinet: Rabbi Gerald Weider

1 comment:

  1. My experience has been that sharing the sadness and request for prayers in a service doesn't bring anyone down or up. The mentioning of sad things is compulsory in any service and people say that they will pray, but do they remember to, be it in ANY faith?

    I don't know how you do it, but sharing blessings or requests for prayers requires, on the part of the listeners, a moment of empathy. "Pray for Sarah's mother, Glicka, because she is sick." (Oh, OK. Whatever, I'll tell Sarah that I am praying for her. I might remember this week and ask G-d to please blah-blah-blah.) I think part of it is in the delivery to help people empathize and grasp that Glicka is a person needing prayers to get better: "Sarah's mother Glicka has not yet met Sarah's baby, David, and Glicka is in the hospital battling pneumonia and a heart condition. Please pray for Glicka to get better." A lot of us could identify with this better than a run of the mill request with names and know that perhaps Sarah might not be able to travel with her other kids to see her mom and we'll think of her mid-day and say a prayer after we see or talk to our own mom. Tie a request in with something that everyone can relate to without telling too much about the family. As a rabbi, you can even ask your congregant who might not have much to saym a question like, "Where is your mom from?" If nothing else, Mom is from Vermont where they make maple syrup-- I don't know, but she starts to be real.

    For good things, so people are not wondering why someone shared something perhaps meaningless, tie them in with something that they can relate to in their own lives. My 4 year old announced that her baby sister was potty trained. Of course she was cute and everyone smiled as she lisped her happy news. Then one of my teenagers added, "This is saving my mom and dad $50 a month in Huggies!" OK, we were saving money! (There was some clapping!)

    I think it is about what people can relate to. When my dad was sick, I prefaced it with mentioning, "My father, the cowboy in Arizona. . ." Another friend mentioned his mother, "who drove up the Al-Can Highway with five kids in a Chevy" when she died, so the sick/deceased are thought of as a life, perhaps a verb/action as opposed to a proper noun.

    (Am I too long in my explanation?)

    Anyway, this is a great blog post! I didn't even think about what is said in the 10-30 seconds that most people spend sharing, but a lot gets said in those moments.