Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again! Pesach Prep

The first time I made Pesach I was literally up the entire night before. I had not accurately calculated just how long it actually took to make all those traditional foods. I learned my lesson. Whether you are hosting your first Seder or your tenth, it is never easy. As the holiday looms a tiny panic tends to set in leading to feelings alternating between trepidation and anticipation. In spite of those thoughts, I love Pesach and even look forward to the preparations. I try to see my efforts as hands-on kind of Divine service. This does not mean however that you must kill yourself in the process. We Jews believe in life!

The second habit of Highly Effective People, according to Stephen Covey is;
Begin with the End In Mind
This chapter is about setting long-term goals based on "true north" principles. Covey recommends formulating a "Personal Mission Statement" to document one's perception of one's own vision in life. He sees visualization as an important tool to develop this. He also deals with organizational vision statements, which he claims to be more effective if developed and supported by all members of an organization rather than prescribed.

Great advice. Here is what works for me. I visualize my two goals; first, a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable Seder experience and second, a positive Jewish memory for family and friends. Both of these cannot be realized if you are harried and exhausted as you sit own to the table. Therefore, you need to be deliberate in your planning.

Begin by creating lists and a thorough timeline. Consider this question as you construct your plan; what is it going to take to get you to the table that night relaxed and ready?

Picture the day of the Seder; what will you need to do the days before so that you are not last minutely rushing to get prepared? Plan accordingly and do not be shy about eliciting help from all other participants. Do these three things:

1. Buy a book. There some really terrific books that help you think not just about getting your home ready for the holiday and the menus but also about the Jewish learning that you want to happen at your Seder.
2. Divide up the parts of the Seder. People who come ready to participate will feel connected involved and less likely to keep asking about when the meal going to be served.
3. Get help. Whatever you can afford. Someone to help in the kitchen the day of, someone to wash up the next day or even consider getting some food items catered.

You will be duly rewarded for all your efforts because nothing is as wonderful as laying your head on your pillow the night after the Seder with a deep feeling of satisfaction that you have created a warm significant Jewish experience that will live on in to the future in the minds and souls of all who sat at your table. Good luck!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Time for a Dry Purim!

Let's talk about the drinking on Purim. I am very put off by the alcohol ingestion. The matter of substance abuse is of great concern, given our time and the challenges we all face in this regard. Drinking and the losing control of one's rationality seems contrary to everything we usually expect from Judaism, we are justified in being disturbed about this aspect of teh holiday! I continue to be put off by the drinking that goes on during the Purim celebrations.
Let's take a look at the sources for the custom of drinking on Purim. The first indication that drinking might be a part of the celebration is the Megillah itself. Notice the number of times that drinking parties occur. From start to finish, with several more in between, I can count a total of eight drinking parties. The imbibing is all-pervasive. The story, and thus the miracle, unfold through the raising of the cup. This may be the origin of the drinking practice, but it is usually a passage from the Talmud that is the source offered for why we drink on Purim.
In the Tractate Megillah 7b, we are told that Raba said, "It is the duty of a man to mellow himself with wine on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordecai.'"
Here it is spelled out. You've got a duty to get drunk on Purim, drunk enough to not be able to tell good from evil, friend from foe or hero from enemy. Though no explanation is provided, there is a clearly a tradition to get intoxicated on Purim. Yet the Talmud does not stop there, interestingly. The passage continues with a remarkable anecdote: Rabah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabah arose and cut Rabbi Zera's throat.
On the next day Rabah prayed on Rabbi Zera's behalf and revived him. The next year, Rabah said, "Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?"
"A miracle does not take place on every occasion," a suspicious Rabbi Zera replied.
The plot thickens. Though we are enjoined to drink on Purim, it's interesting that the text follows the injunction with a cautionary tale, as if to say, here's what happens when you get drunk on Purim -- rabbis have been known to cut each others throats! Though he is invited back to Rabah's Purim celebration, Rabbi Zera's circumspectly begs off.
Ultimately, the Talmudic directive to be inebriated on Purim is tempered significantly by the sobering tale of the accidental death. Rabbi Zera came back to life. But like Rabbi Zera says, none of us can count on a miracle.
Drinking leads to dangerous behavior that may cause loss of life. In our own times there have been specific instances of tragic accidental deaths on Purim. Hence, I am absolutely and indeed vehemently opposed to getting drunk on Purim. To become dangerously inebriated is a misinterpretation the tradition.
It is always interesting to me how many people suddenly become pious and scrupulous about observing Jewish tradition when it comes to this tradition of getting drunk on Purim! Where is that zeal when it comes to other, more sober practices of Purim, such as gifts to the poor and the inclusion of the less fortunate at your celebration? A more palatable practice is suggested by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the Code of Jewish law: to fulfill the requirement of not knowing the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai," drink a small amount of wine and then doze off.
Would it not be momentous if all Jewish leaders were to actively encourage their constituencies to refrain from intoxication on Purim?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mitzvot, Marrow and More

I have been on one of these wonderful gurneys that take you to cold operating rooms before, but this time things are different. I lay here now not fearing the worst and not dreading any horrific outcomes. I don’t sense that hollow empty loneliness you have when you are being wheeled into surgery either. I’m feeling strong and somewhat heroic. I am a bone marrow donor.
This is how it began. Six years ago in Pittsburgh the community organized a bone marrow registration drive for Jay Fineberg. I was one of the organizers. I didn’t have much of a choice but to register. In the back of my mind, way back, I wrestled momentarily with the far out possibility of actually being a match. It wasn’t a long wrestling bout – “Rivy,” I told myself, “register, you’ll never be a match and if you are – we’ll deal with it then.” Gone and forgotten.
But here begins some little piece of irony. We are not settled in Seattle a month, and we are told that Jay Fineberg himself is in town. A match has been found. Something seems to be following me across the continent.
We stop by the hospital and visit briefly with Jay’s father. He says something that stays with me. He tells us that it is especially difficult to find matches for Jews because of the Shoah. The murder of six million Jews has had a profound effect on our gene pools – here’s a-not-so-subtle aftermath of the Holocaust that had never occurred to me; more evidence that Hitler’s killing just keeps on killing. We leave the hospital and I honestly don’t think much more about bone marrow, matches or donors.
Fast forward six years. It is December ’98 and I am going through a neglected pile of mail that has typically amassed on my desk. I open a rather plain looking envelope from the blood bank in Pittsburgh – assuming that it will be a holiday request for funds, I scan the letter quickly. I am surprised to read that I have been identified as a possible bone marrow donor. The letter politely asks me to call for more information. I immediately call Pittsburgh and I am prepared to leave a message on this Sunday morning, but instead a voice answers. We talk for a while. There is an individual who has leukemia and is in need of a bone marrow transplant – I am one of the potential matches, would I consent to being tested further?
After allowing several vials of blood to be collected at the Puget Sound Blood Bank I again relegate this to the back of my mind. Anyone I tell about this seems to have also been tested – but never been matched. No big deal they tell me. Truthfully? I had a feeling that this would not be the case for me. I had a feeling that I would be the match. I don’t know why – but I had this feeling.
Six weeks later – oddly on the one day that I actually remembered that - gee I haven’t heard back yet have I? - the call comes. You are the best match. Would you consider becoming a bone marrow donor?
Is there any other answer to this question? For me no. It’s one of those choices that really isn’t a choice. They are the very Jewish, kind of choices. They usually go something like this - If you want to live then do such and such…if not, not. No real choice.
There are interviews, blood samples, physical exams and more blood samples. People are impressed with my decision, I am not. True, it is a sacrifice, but in the great scheme of things a small one. The date is set. I begin to feel like I am eating for two. My life is a bit more precious now. I fasten my seat belt and look several times before crossing the street. I try to eat well, even press myself to include more chocolate in my diet – this is the extent of my self-sacrifice!
I wonder about this person, their family, their life. I am naturally curious. On one hand the temptation to become familiar is powerful. But the elegance of anonymity is purer. I recall the levels of tzedaka outlined by Maimonides. The value of anonymous giving is the protection it offers both parties. The recipient does not become beholden and the donor cannot become arrogant. But it does not stop me from thinking about them, usually moments before falling asleep at night.
As the day approaches heroes begin to grow around me. The best husband in the world becomes even greater and understanding. Bosses and coworkers offer to pick up the slack and even the kids are being more cooperative than normal. And finally, good friends reassure me that neither I nor my family will go hungry. People are so good, kind and generous. As I prepare for the procedure I include their gifts in my mind - I may be the actual donor but my gift rests on the shoulders of their kindnesses, they too have a share in this offering.
The day approaches and a friend says something to me that I myself have said many times to others – but this time it really strikes a chord. I begin to tear up. She says, “tizkee l’mitzvot”.
It is a traditional response to a mitsvah. For example if we are collecting tzedaka and someone gives us some coins we say “Tizkeh L’mitzvot. You should merit to do mitzvot. We don’t say thank you – that doesn’t quite fit. How can a fellow human thank another human for the performance of a mitsvah? Instead we give a bracha, a blessing – Tizkeh L’mitvot, you should be worthy to do mitzvot.
I am really struck by this blessing. It makes me think. I am eternally grateful. I do not know why, but I have been given the merit to do this mitsvah, to help another person to live. That it is a merit, to do a mitsvah, to deserve to do a mitsvah is a wild concept really. I begin to think and to extend. Is it not true that God Almighty in his infinite wisdom has had mercy on us and decided that we all deserve to do mitzvot, that we the Jewish people deserve the privilege of 613 commandments. We have merited the gift of shabbat and of kashrut and of course this mitsvah, the greatest of all, to save a life. Tizkeh L’mitzvot.
Day of. I have brought a siddur with me to the hospital. I am not by nature a very pious or sentimental person, irreverence is my usual tenor of choice. But, moments before I am wheeled into the surgery room I quickly recite a prayer which I have found and slightly modified. Here is an English version of it:

Master of all worlds. In the time of the Holy Temple a person would sin and would offer a sacrifice. The fat and the blood would be offered on the altar. And You in your great mercy would forgive the person. Now that I am offering this sacrifice and my blood and my bone is being lessened, let it be thy will that this diminution that I am offering today be as if I have offered it to you on the holy altar and that you will be pleased by this sacrifice and grant to me and my family life.

As I am wheeled in I am buoyed by the prayers and the misheberechs being said for me around this town and around the world in schools and in shuls. The experience turns out to have some surprises. But temporary physical pain is just that and spite of some of the messy stuff I would do it again. I donated the bone marrow to save a life and that is what we are expected to do.
A friend and neighbor who is studying in Israel for the year e-mailed his parents a very thoughtful D’var Torah for the shabbat of my recuperation. In short he wrote something like this. Based on the verses in the parsha about saving a fellow Jew from becoming impoverished; he makes the point that to help a fellow Jew one must be willing themselves to suffer along with the person they are helping. Well, this I know to be true. Thanks to all who helped us perform this mitsvah.