Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Choosing to Connect: Thoughts on Shavuot and the Book of Ruth

Note: Much of this information and teaching came from the wonderful rabbis I had the pleasure of learning from last night--Rabbis Andrea London, Michael Balinsky, and Rachel Weiss, so thank you to them for their wisdom insight and source sheets that I drew on to write this blog post.

From what I can tell, the holiday of Shavuot is all about connection, connection to God and connection to the Jewish people, to one another. There's the basics of the holiday: we are connected to the commandments that were said to have been handed down from Sinai on this day, but I think there's a deeper aspect as well.

On Shavuot, we traditionally read the book of Ruth. The book of Ruth has something to teach us about connection to others and about "chosen family." If you're unfamiliar with the story, you can read it here, but for this point, the important part is that Ruth chooses Naomi, her mother and law. When both of Naomi's sons have died, Naomi tells her daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah, to turn back and go back to her people, the Moabites, but Ruth refuses. Ruth "clings to" Naomi and says, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, your God, my God." This seems like a love confession, not necessarily a romantic one, as some scholars would say. Ruth and Naomi are mother in law and daughter in law. They have no blood connection between them and yet, Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, to adopt herself into Naomi's family.

So many of ourselves have found ourselves feeling alone either because of a part of our identity that has not been shared or because or because we are a minority or because we are struggling with something that no-one can see. Ruth and Naomi were isolated too. It was quite unusual in Ancient Israel for a family to just be two women, and yet, as Ruth did, we must take the risk of connecting with others and choosing them for our family. We must choose carefully, but choose lovingly. And at the end of the day, the connections between members of a chosen family can be just as deep or deeper than the ones between a family by blood.

Also, we are the connection between God and the earth, just as the mountain is the physical connection between the earth and the sky. Shavuot is all about receiving the Torah from Mount Sinai, but what does that really mean in the modern day world where we receive things all the time and we live in a world where we can receive information in seconds from devices we keep in our pockets? It means we still have to obligation to study Torah because Torah is what connects the heavens and the earth. When we stand tall, with our hands open, we are ready to be the messengers of Torah; we are ready to receive the Torah we need and if we are open to God's teachings, our help will also come from God, maker of heaven and earth, often in the form of Torah and love from other Jews.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

V'ahavta Lvrarecha Kamocha: Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself Even When It's Hard

I pride myself on loving everyone in my life unconditionally. But I wasn't always this way. So today, I'd like to talk a little bit about loving one another even when it's hard. This past week, in the portions Acharei-Mot-Kedoshim, we read the words "v'ahavta lvrarecha kamocha"--I apologize for the terrible transliteration. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Okay, this seems easy, but I don't think it's supposed to be easy. I think that loving your neighbor as yourself is supposed to be hard:

The first challenge is with loving people who seem to have irreconcilable differences with you. This is difficult. How can I love and respect someone if they are hurting me or if they have beliefs that pain me to think about? And once again, this is not easy, but I think we need to recognize the humanity in each person. You can love a person for who they are even if you don't want to spend a lot of time with them. You can respect someone's beliefs and argue with them instead of cutting them out of your life. You can embrace difference and see it as an asset as opposed to as a problem. This leads me into my second point: Loving people who it's hard to look at.

I know we've all done it. Crossed the street so we wouldn't have to walk past a homeless person, awkwardly avoided the person in the wheelchair at the movies, judged someone for their clothes. Believe me, I have a little sister in a wheelchair. I know what kind of looks we get when we walk down the aisle at the grocery store. We like to throw around buzzwords: inclusivity, diversity, celebrating differences. But how do we actually celebrate differences? In order to do that, we need to stop avoiding difference and start just loving other human beings while confronting difference head on. You can ask me what my sister's name is or just simply wave to her, acknowledging that she is human and your neighbor just like the cashier who you tell to have a nice day. You can spend a little more time listening than you do talking, and maybe, you can realize that all anyone wants is to live a meaningful life and be respected by other human beings.

The last point I want to make is about loving when it's hard in terms of people who are already a part of your life. Sometimes, I'm a hard person to love. I isolate myself, scared that the symptoms of my various preexisting conditions will make me an outcast. I complain of pain, sometimes leaving very little space for other people. It's easy to love someone in the good times. That's not a difficult task, but it is so much more meaningful to love someone in the bad. And at this point, I'd like to thank all of the people who have sat down with me, asked me how I was and wanted a real answer, given me rides places, listened to me talk for hours or just hugged me and told me that I was okay and that I was doing the best I could. These people are the people who love unconditionally. I strive to be one of these people as well: I never turn my phone off, so if someone calls me and tells me that they need me, I will be there in a second. It's just who I am.

We need to strive for love, no matter how much hate and disdain and discomfort there is out there. We need to take this commandment to heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. I'd like to add: even when it's hard.