Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In Defense of Isaac

It seems inevitable that every year someone will say, "Isaac is boring."

Abraham traveled the world, argued with God, and led armies into battle.

Jacob was cunning and strong, received messages from God in dreams, and wrestled with angels.

But Isaac never traveled beyond the boundaries of his promised land. He re-dug the same wells as his father and re-hashed the same stories. He rarely spoke to God and never wrestled with angels.

I've always been sympathetic to Isaac. I don't think he is meant to be larger than life, like his father and his son. He represents us - bound to the Jewish people by our forefathers, repeating their rituals and re-treading their well-worn steps in the landscape of Jewish tradition, taking God's promises on faith, and promising even more to our children.

Maybe this year we can view Isaac not as the boring and blind forgotten middle patriarch, but as the model for our own Jewish lives.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Coming Together on Thanksgiving

This Shabbat we will read Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, which recounts Sarah’s death and burial, Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, and the death and burial of Abraham.

As so many of us come together with family for Thanksgiving this year expecting harsh political disagreements, I am reminded of Abbey Bartlet’s wise words on The West Wing:
“What most people find it important to remember is that, in the end, the two sons [Isaac and Ishmael] came together to bury their father.”
Skip to 1:30 for Abbey's story

If you are celebrating Thanksgiving this year in a politically-divided home, I hope that you and your family will be able to set aside your differences and truly have a happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dear Trump Supporters

Dear Trump Supporters,

I know that some of you are not racist. Some of you were appalled when Donald mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and attacked the Kahns, a gold star family. Some of you voted for him in spite of those things, because the Maytag plant in your town moved to Mexico, your insurance premiums rose again last month, you're tired of gridlock in Washington, or you just couldn't bring yourself to vote for Hillary.

But some of you are in the Klan and some of you are neo-Nazis. Donald appealed to them too and that should scare you like it scares me. So don't tell me that it's un-American or disrespectful not to support this president. 

It's un-American not to call out those disgusting elements of our society and it's disrespectful to write off my fears - and the fears of so many others - just because "not all" of his supporters are in the KKK and you don't think he will actually do some of the things he promised during his campaign.

I will continue to stand up for what I believe and make my voice heard, because that is what patriotic Americans do. We participate, we advocate, and every two years, we vote. So you and Donald have two years to prove that you are better than the worst of your coalition. 

Ready? Go.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Our President and Our America

I've been seeing a lot of people using #NotMyPresident on social media since Donald Trump was elected, almost inevitably followed by someone telling them that it's un-American or unpatriotic. I don't use this particular hashtag for two reasons: 

First, it's factually inaccurate. Unless I move to Canada or Israel, Donald will be my president. We can debate the merits of the electoral college, but just because I don't like the outcome doesn't change the fact that he was elected and will be the president in January.

Second, if #notmypresident is meant to capture an idea, then I would rather elaborate on that idea than rely on an imperfect and inaccurate phrase. The divisions and complications so starkly laid bare in this election cannot be accurately expressed by any three words or 140 characters. We have this whole beautiful language with which to work and the vastness of the internet to share our thoughts, so let's not sell ourselves short. Among my many criticisms of Donald was his "politically incorrect" style of speech. His supporters lauded him for speaking without thinking, but this is not a virtue; it is a sign of deep disrespect for the person with whom you are conversing. Composing a fully-formed thought is a sign of the seriousness with which a presidential candidate (and certainly a president) should take his position and is a basic courtesy that I can extend to you.

Again, I do not use #notmypresident, but I would like to hope that saying Donald Trump is "not my president" has, among others, these underlying meanings:
  • He does not represent my values.
  • He has not proven himself by his words or actions to be a respectable man.
  • He has antagonized groups into which I fall and about which I care deeply without apology.
  • He has made no visible, concerted effort to be my president - a president for all Americans - even those of us who did not vote for him and who might be uncertain about (or afraid of) his vision for America. Instead of reaching out to better understand and heal the deep divisions in our nation, he is on Twitter attacking the New York Times.
I hope that if you use #notmypresident, you mean it as shorthand for any of the ideas above and if you do, then I would implore you to expound on that using however many characters you need to make your point clearly. But you might just as easily say that Donald is "not my president" as a way to shirk responsibility for him, because you didn't vote for him, and that is un-American. As patriotic Americans, it is our responsibility to hold our president to a higher standard and demand that he represent all of us. Donald is the next president, but this is not "Trump's America;" it's my America and your America too.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Politics, Pain, and Prayer

I unfriended my uncle on Facebook yesterday. I'm sure that he believes it is because we disagree (to put mildly) on almost every political issue, but I have many family members and friends with whom I disagree politically and it has never come to that. This is not really the appropriate place to get into the reasons we aren't "friends" anymore, but I mention it because trying to express myself to my uncle, whose callous disregard for experiences and feelings that are not his own has often left me frustrated, finally helped me put into words the emotions that I have been struggling with since Tuesday night. Much of the feelings below are excerpted from the last Facebook conversation I will ever have with my uncle.

First, of course, I am disappointed that Hillary didn't win, though I am heartened by the fact that she won the popular vote and won my home state of Illinois and my current home, Virginia. I am confident that her vast experience in law and government would have served this country well.

Along with that disappointment is fear. Many, myself included, are now grappling with a President-Elect whose campaign was built on tearing us down. Donald said, among many other insults that: women are either sex objects or else we are pigs who are bleeding out of our "wherevers;" Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; Muslims celebrated 9/11 and are all terrorists; the disabled are deserving of mockery; Jews control the "global power structure;" African Americans all live in crime-ridden poverty in the inner cities; and I could go on. I am afraid as a Jew and as a woman. I am afraid not just for myself, but for friends and strangers dealing with bigots, misogynists, and racists - on Twitter and in real life - who feel emboldened by Donald's brand of "political incorrectness," which is really just a way of saying that they can't be bothered to be kind to others. I am afraid for us and for future generations, to whom we have sent the message that civility and truth do not matter. Our presidents have always been deeply flawed men, but they are role models nonetheless, in whom we hope to find some kernel of decency for our children to emulate and aspire to. I fear for a nation of children who might emulate Donald's pride in ignorance and his dismissiveness if not outright hostility to his opponents. He belittles people with whom he disagrees rather than addressing their concerns. He has no regard for the truth, facts, or grammatically-correct sentence structure. He has a huge ego. Sadly, this has gotten him far in life, but I would personally like to achieve success in a better way and I would hope that we expect better of the next generation.

Since I will be stuck with him as our president for the next four years, I have to hope that my fears will prove to be unfounded. But it is on Donald to build the bridges that he burned with women, minorities, and so many other people who are hurt and afraid. Trust and respect must be earned and he has a long way to go before he has earned that from me.

I will leave you with the Prayer for Our Country from Siddur Sim Shalom, the prayer book of Conservative Judaism, which I think we need now more than ever:
Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst. 
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country. 
May this land under Your Providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more."

Friday, November 4, 2016

Omer 2017 Preview: Go Cubs Go

Before I was done Counting the Omer* last year, I was already planning my blog for next year. Over the past few years, I've blogged my counting, including last year when I paired each day of the Omer with a woman from the Tanakh. 

For 2017, I decided to pair each day with a song and I have been slowly filling up next year's Omer calendar with songs that embody the seven characteristics we examine each year. I add to my spreadsheet whenever a particular lyric or the overall message of a song strikes me and so far I have 29 days accounted for! On May 2, I wrote a blog post for Day 22 of Omer 2017, chesed in netzach or love in victory.

Day 22: Chesed in Netzach, Love in Victory
"Go Cubs Go" by Steve Goodman

Go Cubs Go
Go Cubs Go
Hey Chicago, what d'you say?
The Cubs are gonna win today

Win or lose, I love my Cubs. Someday, the Cubs will win the World Series and generations of faith will be rewarded. You can bandwagon when that day comes, but true fans will get a taste of something incredibly rare and special.


When I wrote the above blog post, the Cubs were 18-6, just one month into the season. On Opening Day, April 4, as I do every year, I posted this:

Every year for 27 years of my life, I have earnestly believed that it would finally be the Cubs' year. I had faith, despite over 100 years of collective Cubs fans' heartbreak, that it would happen for us. Of course, no matter how promising the seasons seemed at the outset, none had actually ended in a World Series win for the Cubbies for 108 years in a row, so I wrote the post above assuming that this year would end in bitter disappointment, just like 2015, 2007 and 2008, 2003 (damn it, Bartman!), 1998, and so on all the way back to 1908. But no matter how often the Cubs ripped my heart out, I was always ready to say with complete confidence the next Spring: This is the year!

Then, an amazing thing happened: 2016 really was the year.

In what should certainly go down in history as the best Series ever played, the Cubs and Indians poured their hearts into the game. It had everything: curveballs, sliders, and 103-MPH fastballs; stolen bases and grand slams; Bill Murray, LeBron James, Eddie Vedder, and Charlie Sheen, just to name a few super-star fans of each team; tear-jerker interviews with elderly fans on both sides who have been waiting decades for a World Series win (the last time the Cubs won it all was 1908; the last time for the Indians was 1948); and then just in Game 7, a lead-off home run, a wild pitch that allowed two runs, a 17-minute rain delay, extra innings...You can't say both teams didn't give it their all up to the very end.

We won two days ago and I'm still reeling. I'm all smiles and tears of joy. I wish my grandpa could have lived to see it. I wish I could be in Chicago to see the river dyed Cubbie blue and sing "Go Cubs Go" in the street with strangers. I would go through all the gut-wrenching errors, runs given up, and Joe Buck drivel just to relive the feeling of Bryant throwing to Rizzo for that last out. I can't wait to do it all again next year!

*Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count 49 days, ending on the 50th day with Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates our receiving the Torah at Sinai. According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), there are seven sephirot or characteristics (loving-kindness, strength, beauty, endurance, splendor, foundation, and leadership) that align with each week and each day of the Omer, so that as we count each day, we can reflect on the intersections of these sephirot within ourselves and hopefully achieve some measure of personal growth.

Monday, August 15, 2016

No, we are not ALL Jews by Choice

Me (and other Jews by Choice): "I am a Jew by Choice."
Jew by Birth: "We're all Jews by Choice."
Me: *cringe*

In the April 2013 issue of Sh'ma, Rabbi Justin Goldstein explained an increasingly common idea - that we are all Jews by Choice. This was not the first appearance of this sentiment and certainly not the last, but Rabbi Goldstein summarized the idea so well: "In our world, even the most stringently observant wake up each morning and make a choice, even if not a conscious choice, to be a Jew and live a Jewish life."

There is plenty of evidence to support this idea - the ease of assimilation into mainstream American culture and rising rates of intermarriage make it easier to simply stop practicing Judaism or performing Jewish culture. Maintaining a Jewish identity in a world where it is so easy not to is necessarily an active choice that we all make. I understand that sentiment and I even agree with it. But I take issue with Jews by Birth laying claim to the phrase "Jew by Choice" as a way to express this idea.

To that Jew by Birth above who says, "We are all Jews by Choice," let me say once and for all, no, we are not.

I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that when he says this, he means well. He means to include me, to say that we are the same, and I appreciate that.

But it often feels like he is erasing a need that I have in that moment. I could just introduce myself as a Jew to him and frequently I do. When I "out" myself specifically as a Jew by Choice, it is usually because it is relevant to the conversation, often as a way for me to explain a gap in my Jewish knowledge. Maybe we're talking about summer camp or Hebrew school or any of the other childhood activities for which I have no first-hand experience. Maybe we're talking about family traditions surrounding Passover or he's recalling his bar mitzvah. Maybe it's December and I'm talking about going home to be with my family for Christmas. In that moment, I need him to understand a difference between the two of us that exists because I came to Judaism later in life and he did not.

This common interaction is why I have stopped using the phrase "Jew by Choice" to describe myself, sticking instead, when need be, with the term "convert."

This is on my mind at the moment because of a series of posts that have been floating around the internet this summer about the phrase "Jew by Choice."

The first, written by a woman who converted to Judaism, appeared in Lilith Magazine in June, and chronicles the author's personal Jewish journey and distaste for the term "Jew by Choice." She argues that: "The phrase 'Jew by Choice' is meant to be affirmational, but instead erases the ambiguities of my experiences and the experiences of so many others...How can I do anything but reject a term that dichotomizes what should be a messy spectrum?"

At the end of July, Mosaic Magazine posted a response. This author (I'm not sure if he is a convert, but if I had to guess, I would say he was probably born Jewish) dislikes the term "Jew by Choice," because "the term conveys a false idea of what Judaism is about. Judaism is about a people—and no people can be a people, much less remain one, without a sure sense of itself that can in the main be provided only by birth, parenting, and belonging to a community from an early age. One can join a people only if there is a people to join—and only if one understands that choosing to join it is more than a matter of selectively identifying with some of its beliefs."

Finally, a third author who was quoted in the Mosaic piece, responded with an attempt to clarify or more fully flesh out his experience of converting to Judaism. "I became Jewish because I hold a set of convictions that I see rooted in the Jewish experience...Of course, I understand and positively appreciate that my being Jewish also connects me to a people and makes me part of a broader community."

I highly recommend reading all of these pieces in full.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Converting the Children of Converts

Last week, I used this blog to answer a question about converting for marriage that was posed during a Shavuot discussion at my synagogue. Today, I want to try to answer another question from that forum:

Do you plan to take your future children to the mikveh to convert them when they are born?
I've heard this question asked before as "Would you convert your children according to Orthodox Judaism when they are born?" I'm not entirely sure of the thought-process behind the question, but as far as I can tell, it is simply an extension of our existential struggle to define who is a Jew and it exposes the ripple effect that these debates have for future generations. I have to imagine that it also stems from a misunderstanding of the conversion process in the different movements of Judaism.

To be completely honest, I find the question pointless. Either, as a female convert, I am Jewish and therefore, my children will be Jewish or the question implies that my Jewish status is not transferable, which, to be fair, it is not in certain circles. The hard fact is that my conversion is not accepted everywhere. I am not Jewish by Orthodox standards, so by matrilineal descent, my children won't be considered Jewish in the Orthodox world either.

To be considered Jewish in every movement,* I would have to undergo an Orthodox conversion and take on an Orthodox lifestyle. I have considered converting again, even consulted an Orthodox rabbi about it, but in the end I decided that Orthodox life is not for me. I am happy with the Conservative Jewish life I have and I am accepted as a Jew by those standards. If I were to undergo an Orthodox conversion simply to be able to say that everyone considers me Jewish, it wouldn't be sincere. I am not strictly shomer shabbas or shomer negiah, nor do I want to cover my hair or give up my short sleeves and jeans. For me to convert in the Orthodox movement (at this point in my life, at least) would be a lie.

Given that I am not planning to undergo an Orthodox conversion personally, the point becomes moot when talking about my future children. For one thing, I highly doubt you could find an Orthodox rabbi willing to convert an infant if that rabbi didn't consider me to be Jewish and we were not planning to raise the child in an Orthodox household. Second, if I didn't convert in the Orthodox movement and don't plan to raise my children in an Orthodox community, what would be the point of converting them to Orthodoxy? If it is just so that no one can question their Jewish status, then I refer you back to my own reasons for not pursuing an Orthodox conversion.

The short answer to this question then is no, I don't plan to convert my children. If I consider myself Jewish and my community considers me Jewish, then my children will be Jewish by the same measure.

If my children grow up and decide to become Orthodox, they will have to undergo their own conversion process. Hopefully, growing up as a Jew in a Jewish home will make that process easier for them, should they choose to pursue it.

*The Orthodox community is not a cohesive organization and not all converts are recognized as legitimate Jews by different rabbis within Orthodoxy. Even if a convert is universally recognized by the American Orthodox establishment, the Israeli rabbinate may not accept them.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Converting for Marriage

Last month, I co-led a discussion about Ruth and modern-day conversions for Shavuot with my synagogue's young professional group. Their questions about conversion and life in the Jewish community as a Jew by Choice were insightful and thought-provoking. This question in particular has stuck with me.

How do you feel about people who convert for marriage?
Three years ago, Rabbi Cosgrove at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York proposed a new approach to Conservative conversions that he hoped would solve the movement's intermarriage crisis: convert the non-Jewish person right away for the marriage. He seemed to think that if both parties were Jewish, even in name only, they would become a "Jewish household." I took exception to his plan at the time and I still think that it would be detrimental to those converts, like myself, who chose to convert to Judaism for ourselves. What Rabbi Cosgrove failed to acknowledge is the stigma surrounding conversion for marriage, which is seen by many in the Jewish community as a sign of the person's insincerity, lack of commitment to the Jewish people, and/or unthinking adoption of a Jewish identity that they don't full understand.

So how do I feel about converting for marriage? Personally, it makes it harder for me as a convert, because there will always be people who assume that I converted for Marc and attach that stigma to me. I've worked hard over the years to learn and grow Jewishly, to develop an identity and place for myself in the Jewish community, so to have it written off as a decision that Marc made for me in a way is hard.

Part of me would like to think that cracking down on conversion for marriage would alleviate the stigma, but I know that people come to Judaism in all sorts of ways. A recent article in defense of those who convert for marriage proves that being motivated by love for an individual does not preclude one from developing a sincere, personal commitment to Judaism. After all, Ruth's conversion was prompted by her love for Naomi, but it blossomed into her acceptance of Judaism, the Jewish people, and God.

I will struggle next week with another frequently asked question: should a convert have to convert their children?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Omer 2016 Recap

Honorable Mention
How many women could I name from the Tanakh before this Omer? Not nearly 49, but I am pleased to report that in the end I had women to spare! Here are some that I just couldn't place in the Omer, but who are nonetheless fantastic and have very interesting stories:
  • Keturah, Abraham's second wife after Sarah's death (Genesis 25). Rashi suggested that Keturah was another name for Hagar, but others disagreed.
  • Timna, Esau's son's concubine (Genesis 36:12). Feminist Judaism makes a big deal about her, because she is singled out among Esau's son Eliphaz's wives as just his concubine, instead of a full wife like the others (WRJ Torah). Another midrash suggests that she wanted to convert to Judaism, but was denied.
  • Elisheba, Aaron's wife (Exodus 6:23) was mentioned only once in passing, but as the wife of the high priest, her life must have been fascinating. She also endured the tragic loss of her sons, Nadab and Abihu.
  • Moses' second wife, the Cushite woman was a source of discord between Moses and his siblings, particularly Miriam, who was very upset that he would marry an outsider.
  • Peninnah, Hannah's rival wife (1 Samuel 1) taunted Hannah for being barren.
  • Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-5). We think of Solomon as a wise and great king, but these 700 wives and 300 concubines managed to lead him astray and in his old age he worshiped their gods.
  • The concubine from Bethlehem (Judges 19) quite possibly has the saddest story that I read in the Tanakh. She was taken as a concubine by a Levite man, but she ran away from him back to her father's house. He then went after her and took her back from her father. He showed no regard for her on their journey back to his home and when his life was threatened by an angry mob, he threw her out into the street, where the mob raped her to death.
In preparing for the Omer this year, I didn't get through the entire Tanakh (I read up to 2 Kings), so I'm sure that there are even more women who would have made great additions to the blog this year.

Below is a list of all the women of the Omer this year. I have put a * next to the ones I am most proud of.
Day 1: Naomi*
Day 2: Shifra and Puah*
Day 3: Rachel
Day 4: Hagar
Day 5: Sarah
Day 6: Rebecca
Day 7: Abigail
Day 8: Michal
Day 9: Potiphar's wife*
Day 10: Jezebel
Day 11: Yael*
Day 12: Lot's wife
Day 13: Yocheved
Day 14: Zipporah
Day 15: The women with the baby
Day 16: Hannah
Day 17: Abishag*
Day 18: Samson's first wife
Day 19: Manoah's wife
Day 20: Zilpah and Bilhah
Day 21: Vashti
Day 22: Rahab
Day 23: Leah
Day 24: Sisera's mother*
Day 25: The woman who killed Abimelech
Day 26: Miriam*
Day 27: Tamar, Judah's daughter-in-law
Day 28: The clever woman of Abel of Beth-maacah
Day 29: The widow who fed Elijah
Day 30: Zelophehad's daughters
Day 31: Deborah, Rebecca's nurse*
Day 32: Jephthah's daughter
Day 33: The clever woman of Tekoa
Day 34: Asenath
Day 35: Bathsheba
Day 36: Orpah
Day 37: Delilah
Day 38: Esau's wives
Day 39: Lot's daughters
Day 40: Eve
Day 41: The sorceress in En-dor
Day 42: Naamah
Day 43: Huldah the Prophetess
Day 44: Deborah
Day 45: Pharaoh's daughter
Day 46: Esther
Day 47: The Queen of Sheba
Day 48: Dinah and Tamar, King David's daughter*
Day 49: Ruth*

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 49: Ruth

Day 49: Malchut in Malchut, Leadership in Leadership

We made it to the end of the Omer! Tonight is Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates our receiving the Torah at Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. But before we celebrate our physical and spiritual freedom with cheesecake and late-night learning, we have to reflect on the 49th day of the Omer, leadership in leadership.

At our Passover seders 49 days ago, we all sat around our tables and read from the haggadah, "In every generation, each person must see himself or herself as if he or she personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt." Over the past 49 days, we have counted the Omer as if we were on a personal journey from slavery to freedom. It is also said that every Jewish person who had ever or would ever exist was present at Sinai when God gave us the Torah. Much of Judaism is about the collective - praying together, studying together, eating, mourning, and celebrating together - but I am reminded today that it is also an intensely personal experience. Each Jew understands Judaism in his or her own way. Each Jew embodies the seven sephirot of the Omer differently. Each of us comes with our own lens on the world which causes us to interpret the Omer differently. Even from year to year, my perspectives on the days of the Omer have changed as my experiences have changed.

Leaders must be able to balance the personal and the communal, their personal goals with the welfare of the people they lead. As the first convert, Ruth stands as the model on which conversions are based, a perfect example of leadership in leadership.

"Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God." (Ruth 1:16)
She is leadership in leadership, because her choice to convert shows an understanding and acceptance of this fundamental piece of Jewish life and leadership. She not only undertook a new personal identity and life, but also embraced the fact that doing so would make her part of the collective Jewish people.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 48: Dinah and Tamar

Day 48: Yesod in Malchut, Connection in Leadership

There has been a lot in the news recently about the Stanford sexual assault case, which ended with a unanimous guilty verdict for the rapist and a disappointingly short six-month prison sentence, which will be only three months with good behavior. Since last weekend, the the moving letter written by the survivor has been widely shared on social media. You can and should read it in full here if you haven't already. It ends with this:

"And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you." -Stanford survivor
Today, Vice President Joe Biden published an open letter supporting her and praising her strength and Texas Representative Ted Poe reiterated to the country that "no means no," because, for an unfathomable reason, that concept still eludes some people.

Of course, this got me thinking about Dinah and Tamar (King David's daughter, not the Tamar who was Judah's daughter-in-law), who both survived rape in the Tanakh. They are important female figures with painful stories, who I had been struggling to incorporate into the Omer this year until I read the Stanford survivor's letter.

Dinah was raped by Shechem, the son of the chief of the land (Genesis 34: 1-4). Tamar was raped by her half-brother, Amnon (2 Samuel 13:10-15). After both incidents, neither woman is heard from again. I can't help but wonder what they would have said if given the chance to speak out against their attackers and against the injustices they faced in their societies. I can't help but reflect in horror and anger on the persistence of this evil in the world. But we cannot despair, because as leaders we must be called to action. We must reach out to each other, build connections where there is isolation, and "never stop fighting" for a world free of rape and violence.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 47: The Queen of Sheba

Day 47: Hod in Malchut, Glory in Leadership
"The queen of Sheba heard of Solomon's fame, through the name of the Lord, and she came to test him with hard questions." (1 Kings 10:1)
When Solomon passed her test and she saw his wealth and success with her own eyes, the queen of Sheba presented him with glorious gifts. There are so many lessons to learn from the queen of Sheba. We should not trust rumors about people, but see who they are for ourselves before making up our minds about them and we should prize and reward intelligence in leadership.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 46: Esther

Day 46: Netzach in Malchut, Endurance in Leadership

"Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: 'Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king's palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.'" (Esther 4:13-14)
Esther proves that leaders have a responsibility to use their positions of power to help others. As the queen, Esther was in a position to save the Jewish people from Haman's plot against them.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 45: Pharaoh's daughter

Day 45: Tiferet in Malchut, Compassion in Leadership

"The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, 'This must be a Hebrew child.'" (Exodus 2:5-6)
Knowing that her father had ordered his men to kill all the Hebrew boys, Pharaoh's daughter defied him to save baby Moses and raise him as her own.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 44: Deborah

Day 44: Gevurah in Malchut, Justice in Leadership

"[Deborah] summoned Barak son of Abinoam, of Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, 'The Lord, the God of Israel, has commanded: 'Go, march up to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand menof Naphtali and Zebulun. And I will draw Sisera, Jabin's army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward you up to the Wadi Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hands.'"

But Barak said to her, 'If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.'

'Very well, I will go with you,' she answered. 'However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.'" (Judges 4:6-9)
Who could better represent justice in leadership than Deborah, the judge and prophet who led the Israelites back to God after they had gone astray and worshiped idols?

As we know, Yael had the pleasure of defeating Sisera, just as Deborah prophesied.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 43: Huldah the Prophetess

Day 43: Chesed in Malchut, Mercy in Leadership

King Josiah was made aware of a scroll that detailed instructions for how to act in the Temple, which generations of kings had disregarded, so he sent priests to seek the advice of Huldah the prophetess. Unfortunately, she did not have great news for them. Because they had ignored the teachings of this scroll and worshiped other gods, God planned to destroy them. However, Huldah continued with some merciful news for King Josiah:
"But say this to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord: Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: As for the words which you have heard - because your heart was softened and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I decreed against this place and its inhabitants - that it will become a desolation and a curse - and because you rent your clothes and wept before Me, I for My part have listened - declares the Lord. Assuredly, I will gather you to your fathers and you will be laid in your tomb in peace. Your eyes shall not see all the disaster which I will bring upon this place." (2 Kings 22:18-20)
Huldah represents mercy in leadership, because, although she was tasked with relaying terrible news, she showed mercy and understanding to the king and was able to give him some measure of peace.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 42: Naamah

Day 42: Malchut in Yesod, Leadership in Foundation

"Meanwhile, Rehoboam son of Solomon had become king in Judah. Rehoboam was forty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem - the city the Lord had chosen out of all the tribes of Israel to establish His name there. His mother's name was Naamah the Ammonitess." (1 Kings 14:21)
Naamah was one of King Solomon's many wives and the mother of Rehoboam, his successor to the throne. According to the Talmud, she was a righteous woman and the only mother of a sitting king who was a foreigner (she was an Ammonite).

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 41: The sorceress in En-dor

Day 41: Yesod in Yesod, Connection in Foundation
King Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed by the prophet Samuel. Eventually he fell out of favor with God and his throne was threatened by David. He wanted to seek advice from Samuel, but by that time, Samuel had died, so he went to a sorceress for help.
"They came to the woman by night and he said, 'Please divine for me by a ghost. Bring up for me the one I shall name to you.' But the woman answered him, 'You know what Saul has done, how he has banned [the use of] ghosts and familiar spirits in the land. So why are you laying a trap for me, to get me killed?'" (1 Samuel 28:8-9)
Saul assured her that she would not be punished and she did as she was asked, providing him a connection into the spirit world. Unfortunately for Saul, Samuel's ghost informed him that he and his sons and all the men with him would die the next day, but for our purposes, the point of this story is that the sorceress was able to connect Saul with Samuel, who had been there at the foundation of his installation as king and fittingly pronounced its end as well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 40: Eve

Day 40: Hod in Yesod, Glory/Humility in Foundation

"And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27)
Eve is the foundation of humanity, created in the image of God (it doesn't get any more glorious than that) and it was through her curiosity that people gained the knowledge of good and evil.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 39: Lot's daughters

Day 39: Netzach in Yesod, Endurance in Foundation

"Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. And the older one said to the younger, 'Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.'" (Genesis 19:30-32)
If your first reaction is "Ew!" then good, you don't believe in incest. The Torah doesn't either and, usually, it is punishable by death, which begs the question: Why are Lot's daughters rewarded with children for taking advantage of their father in this way?

The Jewish Women's Archive has a possible answer: "the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows man's thoughts, judges them by their thoughts and not their deed. The daughters' true intent was not to lie with their father, on whom they had no sexual designs, but to save the world from total devastation." Having just survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, losing their mother and married sisters in the process, and fearing that the whole world had been destroyed, Lot's daughters' primary goal was to survive into the next generation. Their children became the foundation of the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 38: Esau's wives

Day 38: Tiferet in Yesod, Balance in Connection

"Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth." (Genesis 28:8-9)
The Torah made it pretty clear when Abraham was finding a wife for Isaac that marrying a local Canaanite woman simply would not do, so when Esau married Judith and Basemath the Hittites, it was no surprise that Isaac and Rebecca were unhappy about it (Genesis 26:34-35). In an attempt to appease his parents, Esau tried to balance his wives by adding a third, Mahalath, with whom he had a family connection.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 37: Delilah

Day 37: Gevurah in Yesod, Power in Connection

"[Samson] fell in love with a woman in the Wadi Sorek, named Delilah. The lords of the Philistines went up to her and said, 'Coax him and find out what makes him so strong, and how we can overpower him, tie him up, and make him helpless; and we'll each give you eleven hundred shekels of silver." (Judges 16:4-5)
One would think that after being betrayed by his first wife, Samson would have learned a thing or two about trusting women who wanted to know damaging secrets about him, but apparently not. Delilah used her connection to Samson to take away his power, convincing him to confide in her. Like Potiphar's wife, Delilah abuses her power by using Samson's love for her against him.

Delilah teaches us to appreciate and safeguard the trust that others put in us and not to use their secrets for our own personal gain.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 36: Orpah

Day 36: Chesed in Yesod, Love/Kindness in Connection
If you remember from day 1, Naomi had two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. When Naomi's husband and two sons died, she offered Orpah and Ruth the opportunity to go home to their parents and remarry, rather than remaining with her when she had no more sons to marry them or way of providing for them. After some back and forth in which both Ruth and Orpah offered to go with Naomi and Naomi insisted they leave, it ended with this:
"They broke into weeping again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell. But Ruth clung to her." (Ruth 1:14)
Orpah is often treated as a footnote in the story of Ruth, because she chose to go home and start her life over, instead of staying with Naomi, like Ruth did. Don't worry, we will get to Ruth at a later date. For now, Orpah is a fascinating example of love and kindness in connection. Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman notes that Orpah did nothing wrong by choosing to go home and suggests that Orpah's choice is the one that most of us would make in the same situation. She says, "We tend not to see ourselves as active and capable of making a difference in the world. Because of this, we often make the choices of Orpah and shy away from challenging our identities and roles."

We don't know what happened to Orpah after she left Naomi, but because of Naomi's kindness, she had the opportunity to (and we can assume or hope that she got to) go home and start a new life. I can only imagine that her new life was informed by the love she presumably had for her husband and that she clearly showed in her tearful goodbye to her mother-in-law. Orpah may not have chosen to adopt Judaism and leave her native land, like Ruth did, but those connections stay with us, even when we are apart.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 35: Bathsheba

Day 35: Malchut in Hod, Leadership in Glory

When David was on his deathbed, his son Adonijah declared himself to be the next king and started shoring up political support. This (rightfully so) deeply concerned Bathsheba, because her son Solomon was supposed to be the next king. She didn't let the issue slide, but stepped up immediately and went to David to secure the throne for Solomon. She said to David:
"My lord, you yourself swore to your maidservant by the Lord your God: 'Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne.' Yet now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, know nothing about it. He has prepared a sacrificial feast of a great many oxen, fatlings, and sheep, and he has invited all the king's sons and Abiathar the priest and Joab commander of the army; but he has not invited your servant Solomon. And so the eyes of all Israel are upon you, O lord king, to tell them who shall succeed my lord the king on the throne. Otherwise, when my lord the king lies down with his fathers, my son Solomon and I will be regarded as traitors." (1 Kings 1:17-21)
Bathesheba not only acts like a leader, but reminds King David what it means for him to be a leader as well.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 34: Asenath

Day 34: Yesod in Hod, Foundation in Glory

"Pharaoh called Joseph Zaphenath-paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera priest of On as a wife; thus Joseph came to be in charge of the land of Egypt." (Genesis 41:45)
Asenath represented Joseph's elevation and acceptance into Egyptian society and she would become the mother of two tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh. Thus, she is the foundation of Joseph's life in Egypt and his tribal legacy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 33: The clever woman of Tekoa

Day 33: Hod in Hod, Glory in Glory

Lag B'Omer
Today is Lag B'Omer, a day of celebration in the otherwise reflective and mournful period of the Omer. For more details on why the period of the Omer is considered a time of mourning, check out MyJewishLearning.

Today we celebrate the clever woman of Tekoa, who helped King David through a difficult decision in 2 Samuel 14. At this point in David's life, he had been forced to banish his son Absalom, because Absalom had killed his half-brother Amnon for raping their sister (technically Amnon's half-sister) Tamar. We mentioned Tamar before in passing on day 27.

King David missed Absalom, but did not send for him to return for three years. His advisers, seeing his unhappiness, brought the clever woman of Tekoa to help David. She told King David a made-up story about her two sons that was remarkably similar to David's own predicament. One had killed the other, she said, and now the townspeople were threatening to kill her murderous son. In spite of his sin, she begged King David to spare him, because he was all she had left and he was, after all, still her son. King David took pity on her and promised to protect her remaining son from the mob. At that point, the clever woman of Tekoa turned the tables!

"'In making this pronouncement, Your Majesty comdemns himself in that Your Majesty does not bring back is own banished one.'" (2 Samuel 14:13)
Bam! By presenting the same situation to King David in a different family, this woman showed him that he had the answer to his own problem the whole time, if he would just step back and look at it objectively. King David immediately called to end the banishment of Absalom, ending his period of mourning and sadness at the loss of his son.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 32: Jephthah's daughter

Day 32: Netzach in Hod, Victory in Humility

The story of Jephthah's daughter is a kind of be-careful-what-you-wish-for tragedy. Jephthah was a warrior who led the Israelite army in war against the Ammonites. During the battle, he vowed that if God would secure him the victory against the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw upon his return home. Jephthah clearly hadn't read The Monkey's Paw in eighth grade, like I had, or he would have been more careful about the wording of his vow, because (of course), the first thing he saw was his daughter.
"When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, 'Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract.'" (Judges 11:34-35)
His daughter replied with more understanding than I think most of us would in that situation, asking only for an extra two months to live, during which time she and her friends went into the hills and "bewailed her maidenhood" (Judges 11:38). Jephthah's daughter's tragic death is a reminder of the cost of war, even in victory.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 31: Deborah, Rebecca's nurse

Day 31: Tiferet in Hod, Balance in Glory

Deborah, Rebecca's nurse, is first mentioned as departing with Rebecca on her journey to meet and marry Isaac (Genesis 24:59). According to the WRJ's Women's Commentary Torah, the fact that her nurse had remained with the family after Rebecca had grown up suggests that she may have been like a surrogate mother to Rebecca or, at least, that the two shared a special bond. We learn of Deborah's death over ten chapters after her first appearance with the simple line: 
"And Deborah, Rebecca's nurse, died and was buried below Beth El under the Oak, so he [Jacob] named it the Oak of Weeping." (Genesis 35:8)
Deborah's death is remarkable for many reasons, the first and most often-cited of which is that her death was mentioned at all, while Rebecca's death was never stated. This line about Deborah's death comes between the rape of Dinah and God blessing Jacob with the name Israel, followed shortly thereafter by Rachel's death and then Isaac's. So Deborah, who began her story as a nurse responsible for maintaining life, was the first in a series of devastating deaths in Jacob's family. The blessing that Jacob received from God was book-ended by death, a reminder that there is balance in glory.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 30: Zelophehad's daughters

Day 30: Gevurah in Hod, Justice in Glory

Zelophehad's daughters appear three separate times in the Tanakh, each time listing all five of their names: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. As we have seen from some previous days of the Omer, many women's names were not recorded, so it is remarkable in and of itself that Zelophehad's daughters were all named and that their names were repeated each time they were mentioned in the Tanakh.

But wait, there's more!

They are also remarkable for their contribution to Israelite society. Their father, Zelophehad, had died and had no sons, so according to Israelite law before Numbers 27, his property would have been divided among his clan, leaving his daughters with nothing and effectively erasing his name. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah believed that to be unfair and petitioned Moses for the right to inherit their father's land. They won that right, not only for themselves, but for any daughter whose father died without a male heir.

So, they maintained their father's name and gained glory in their own right through their pursuit of justice. You can read their whole story in Numbers 27:1-11, Numbers 36:1-12, and Joshua 17:3-4.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 29: The widow who fed Elijah

Day 29: Chesed in Hod, Love in Glory

Elijah the prophet, traveling through Israel during a drought, was directed by God to find a widow in Zarephath of Sidon who would feed him. When he found her and asked her for food, however, she replied:

"I have nothing baked, nothing but a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am just gathering a couple of sticks, so that I can go home and prepare it for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die." (1 Kings 17:12)
Elijah insisted, promising that if she fed him, God would provide enough flour and oil to get her and her son through the drought, which they did. Their story continues with the death of her son sometime later, at which point she begs Elijah to save him and Elijah begs God until the boy comes back to life.

What is remarkable to me about this woman however is not the near-death (or return from death) experience of her son, but her initial response to Elijah quote above. Knowing that she did not have enough flour and oil for herself and her son to survive past their next meal, she nonetheless prepared to make that last meal before awaiting their inevitable deaths. She did not give up prematurely, but scraped together one last meal out of love for her son and for life, and she was rewarded for it.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 28: The clever woman of Abel of Beth-maacah

Day 28: Malchut in Netzach, Leadership in Victory

During King David's reign, a man named Sheba son of Bichri rebelled and King David's commander, Joab, cornered him in Abel of Beth-maacah. Joab threatened to destroy to whole city in his pursuit of Sheba, but a clever woman talked him down. She said:
"'I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city of Israel! Why should you destroy the Lord's possession?' Joab replied, 'Far be it from me to destroy or ruin! Not at all! But a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, named Sheba son of Bichri, has rebelled against King David. Just hand him alone over to us, and I will withdraw from the city.' The woman assured Joab, 'His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.' The woman came to all the people with her clever plan; and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it down to Joab." (2 Samuel 20:19-22)
The woman stepped up in a perilous situation, appealing to her common nationality with Joab and challenging his authority and moral right.