Approaching the eighth decade of life often brings with it terms like downsizing, purging, paring and the freedom to let go. Many of us opt to see our children and grandchildren enjoy their inheritance while we’re here, to eat off the china with them and to see the jewelry sparkle and reflect in our loved ones’ eyes.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a university class about being one of the first generation of women and queer rabbis. At these kinds of talks, I usually tell mostly the same stories – of how a guy trying to pick me up on a ski lift actually fell off when I told him I was studying to be a rabbi,
Although I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, I did not experience a traditional Jewish education and came to Torah in my late teens through influential involvement with a Jewish youth organization called ATID (Hebrew for “future”). A few years later, contacts within the Chabad organization offered another perspective. Still, much time would pass before I understood that having a Jewish soul implies–through thought and behavior–an instinctive understanding of worthy character traits or middos and Torah principles even without the ability to quote chapter and verse in an ancient language.
Parshat Pinchas has been like a stone thrown into the pond of my being; it has rippled out over the decades: from the Rosh Hodesh portion that reminded me of my womanhood, to a challenge to step into my female Jewish authority, and finally to hearing the deep spiritual instruction about how to be at this age. Knowing that our understandings of a particular parsha change over time, here’s my story.
A people-pleaser, and
A freelance speaker of
Curses and blessings,
Had a donkey
That he rode
To his professional engagements.
Each morning at the start of the Shacharit prayers there is a passage in which we praise God for having “fashioned man in his wisdom” and “creating within him life-sustaining organs… If but one of these were to function improperly, it would be impossible for man to survive before Thee. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who endowest man with health and doest wonders.”
As I move through my 70s I find myself increasingly aware of my “senior” status in our society. Suddenly, by virtue of my age I am in a category that labels me vulnerable–I am at increased risk for complications of Covid, of flu, of pneumonia, of failing joints, of falling down. In my head I hear a paraphrase of a Pogo cartoon: We have met the elderly–and they are us.
This creation of glorious Sanctuary comes into being by each of us offering the very best of ourselves. What parent or teacher could want anything more from our children? So, too, with G!d and Moshe. And central to this holy task is the inclusion of the Elders, leading the way for people in wisdom, skill, willingness and heart.
Throughout Vayakhel, we see that this essential creation requires the planning, work, expertise and involvement of all. With this parasha, we have a blueprint for Elderhood. Whatever we bring forward and offer from our accumulated life wisdom has value and worth. We meet Bezalel, Master Crafter, appointed by G!d to oversee creation of Mishkan. He is endowed with
This midrash speaks to me. Just as the people of Israel were about to embark on the next mega steps of their lives in the Holy Land, and Moses was intoning to them that they have “a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear, I too am on the threshold of a new phase of life as I become an octogenarian (80) later this year.
Two geometrical shapes jumped off the pages in this technicolor parasha, Tetzaveh: frames of gold and pomegranates. What often happens when we read and study the richly textured layers of Torah is that, a word, a phrase, a character, an incident, even a geometric design, suddenly appears, we just never saw it before.
Many of us still remember our parents saying, “just wait until you’re older!” I thought they were talking about being able to do more things. Now that I am older, I think they were talking about things we would understand, things we could only distinguish having lived life. I think they were also telling me that then I would earn the right to say, “I know,” and with that, I would have the obligation to share what I knew.
One day, I was perusing my dear friend Karen’s bookshelves because I was always interested in what new finds she had acquired. She commented to me that she had stopped purchasing new books, and instead was beginning to focus on integrating what she already knew. This stopped me in my tracks, because I’m a lifelong pursuer of new learning and inspiration, and a voracious reader with a huge library. She and I shared that in common.
As we age, we become increasingly aware that our days are “numbered;” that our lives will end, and that our bodies and minds have an “expiration date.” Our perspectives on life, illness, joy, art, and relationships change. We may see a longer, more expansive view of everything we encounter. And, at the same time, many of us discover a new focus on details, questions, stories, and points of view that we may have previously missed, glossed over, or ignored.
I am fascinated by this parsha, with its juxtaposition of HOLY days and UNHOLY people. Emor begins by telling us how a Kohen may be defiled/ritually impure–by visiting a graveyard, shaving parts of their heads or cutting themselves, by marrying a divorced woman, by going unshaven or leaving the Temple. It continues with a description of all the people who may not even visit the Temple to bring a sacrifice; those with weeping sores, long eyebrows, broken limbs, the blind, or the lame.
In Parashat Miketz, we encounter Joseph as a person growing in wisdom. For the third time in his life, he is moved to interpret a pair of dreams.
Photo credit: Rabbi Susan Elkodsi, 2021 One of my first classes in rabbinical school at AJR was “Contemplative Practice” with Rabbi Jill Hammer. One of the assignments had to do with “mindful eating,” where you take a small food item–perhaps a grape or raisin– look at...
Yom Kippur 5783 Like many of the quotes and poems that make their way into use, a poem attributed to an anonymous person in a concentration camp, or in hiding, became somewhat of an urban legend, and has often been taken out of context, as well as not accurately...
Kol Nidre, 5783 On Rosh Hashanah, we began our prayers in the hopes of moving God, the Holy Blessed One, from kisei din, the throne or seat of judgment, to kisei rachamim, the throne or seat of compassion. Ten days later, here we are at the eve of Yom Kippur,...
Latest Midrash HaZak
Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe on Flickr Chukat: The Red Heifer and Our Stuff Rabbi Andra Greenwald Is it sacrilegious to feel that some pieces of the Torah just don’t make sense? In parshat Chukat, the Law of the Red Heifer presents us with one of the statutes for which...
Image from Medfield, MA public library, wallaceshealy-com-OPvCP3-clipart The Power of Retelling Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a university class about being one of the first generation of women and queer rabbis. At these kinds of...
Illustration ©2009-Ilene Winn-Lederer Mattot: What Words Can Create Ilene Winn-Lederer Although I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, I did not experience a traditional Jewish education and came to Torah in my late teens through influential involvement with a...
Latest Personal Blogs
This past week, I participated in a Ritualwell class with Alden Solovy on "Writing From One Word of Torah." I distilled 3 stream-of-consciousness prompts on the word "Baruch/Berekh," the root of which can mean "blessing' and "knee, into this poem. Blessing my bended...
Photo: publicdomainpictures.net The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives An email from My Jewish Learning about “A Woman of Valor” prompted me to pivot the next evening’s planned adult learning session to looking at these 22 verses from Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs. These verses...
By Oklahoma Heritage Association, Gaylord-Pickens Museum - Author, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25656727 Live Long and Prosper? January 5, 2022 began the third year of the seven and a half-year cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of...