Friday, May 12, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for May 19


 The Shabbat Announcements are sponsored by

Nancy and Jeffrey Herz in honor of their daughter, Mollie,
becoming Bat Mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom.

Coming off of our wonderful Mediterranean Shabbat last week, the beat goes on tonight at 7:30, as we celebrate Lag B'Omer and Mother's Day weekend.  Mazal tov to Mollie Herz, who becomes Bat Mitzvah here this Shabbat. 

Click here to read last Shabbat's Bar Mitzvah d'var Torah by Brandon Shapiro.  And as our 8th graders prepare to graduate, we recently celebrated our final B'nai Mitzvah for that class.  In their honor, I've compiled highlights of the speeches of this past year's b'nai mitzvah class (which includes our 8th graders and a few others).  Reading them in rapid fire succession gives us a greater appreciation of both the timeliness and timelessness of their wise commentary. Click here to see the excerpts.
Sunday is Lag B'Omer AND Mother's Day, a double celebration.
How to be a Jewish Mother's Child


Back in the 1960's Dan Greenberg's book, "How to be a Jewish Mother" perfectly embodied the spirit of Jewish humor (read: guilt) of the "Portnoy's Complaint" era.  It was the best selling nonfiction book in the U.S. in 1965, capturing the national zeitgeist at a time when "Fiddler" was also taking Broadway by storm.  You can read Greenberg's entire book online, and learn the secrets to a Jewish mother's success, like how to make guilt work:

Underlying all techniques of Jewish Motherhood is the ability to plant, cultivate and harvest guilt. Control guilt and you control the child. An old folk saw says: "Beat a child every day; if you don't know what he's done to deserve the beating, he will."

A slight modification gives us the Jewish Mother's Cardinal Rule:

"Let your child hear you sigh every day; if you don't know what he's done to make you suffer,  he will."

Once you've mastered that, you are ready to move on to the "Technique of Basic Suffering."

To master the Technique of Basic Suffering you should begin with an intensive study of the Dristan commercials on television. Pay particular attention to the face of the actor who has not yet taken Dristan. Note the squint of the eyes, the furrow of the brow, the downward curve of the lips-the pained expression which can only come from eight undrained sinus cavities or severe gastritis. This is the Basic Facial Expression. Learn it well. Practice it before a mirror several times a day. If someone should catch you at it and ask what you are doing, say:

"I'm fine, it's nothing at all, it will go away."

This should be said softly but audibly, should imply suffering without expressing it openly. When properly executed, this is the Basic Tone of Voice.

The book is still very funny, in part because ethnic stereotypes like the Jewish mother are making a comeback, even though Jewish mothers have long since stopped being "Jewish mothers," and all the guilt that came with the rapid assimilation of that post-immigrant generation has long since melted away.  We have plunged fully into the Melting Pot, but nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Mother's Day brings out some far more serious lessons that derive far more deeply from our Jewish cultural heritage. The rabbis spoke of a man named Dama, a serious one-percenter, from the Roman upper class, a jeweler who wore a gold-embroidered cloak and kowtowed with the glitterati.  Despite all this, the rabbis held him up as a paragon of piety in one respect - how he honored his parents.

In one story, a precious stone has disappeared from the High Priest's breastplate in Jerusalem. So a Jew comes to Dama seeking a replacement.  Dama goes in the back room, but his father is sleeping right on top of the key that would open the safe, so he tells the man that he can't sell him any jewelry today.  When his father wakes up and hears what has happened, he gets angry at his son for not making a profit.  His son responds, "I am not prepared to disobey the command to honor one's parents for any money in the world."  A week later, the price of gems rises, and Dama sells the needed jewel at a greater profit than he would have made the week before - a happy ending for everyone.

In another midrash, Dama's mother, evidently peeved that her son didn't go to medical school, rips off his gaudy garment and spits in his face.  Despite this, Dama does not shame her, instead referring back to the Torah's command to honor one's parents.

The word for "honor" "kabed" is nearly identical to the word "kaved," which connotes a heavy burden.  It's not always easy to honor our parents.

As Mother's Day approaches, my mom, 93, is in a nursing home, struggling to live a life of dignity, despite the ravages of Parkinsons and related afflictions that have robbed her of much of her ability to communicate.  Although her memory remains relatively sharp - or maybe because of that fact- there is very little that brings her joy at this stage.  A lifelong pianist, her tremors forced her to give up piano a few years ago.  The burden of filling her days with meaning only increases for both of us, and I now can say that I completely understand what the fourth commandment meant to convey.  To honor a parent really is to bear her, to hold her up, just as she once bore me, smiling despite the piercing pain.  We bear our elders just inches from the earth to which they - and we - will return, and we do it not our of guilt but a profound gratitude.

So kids, I'm not asking you to love your elders. You don't even have to honor us, strictly speaking.  The Torah makes it clear: all you need to do is bear the burden of us.  Hold us up when we stumble, as we invariably do.  Our lectures may be onerous, our use of technology embarrassing and our ideas archaic.  But though we may fumble with Facebook from time to time, we do have some wisdom to share.

There are real dangers out there and enormous challenges that we need to face, which have only increased this week, and right now the only way to face them is together.

That's why need Mother's Day.

Crosby Hammerman, 2002-2016


Geriatric humans aren't the only ones whose burdens need bearing.  Our dog Crosby, who was nearly 15 years old, a real old timer in dog years, died last Sunday, after several months of suffering from cancer.   We kept him alive for as long as he was able to garner at least a smidgen of joy, and as long as he could enjoy the dignity of doing basic things like eating, walking and breathing.

My family sincerely appreciates the overwhelming support we've received this week.  This congregation was a big part of Crosby's life, although he entered the temple building only once.  He used to stand guard at the edges of our driveway, saluting those who ventured across to the cemetery or who stopped at the shed for vegetables during CSA season.   He was gentle and affectionate and could have been a true therapy dog.  He would rub up against you and let you pet him for hours on end without moving an inch. No wonder his vet once called him "the Mayor,"  Crosby loved to walk along the edges of the backyard and look out into the woods - his heart was always directed outward.

A true mensch-pup, Crosby reveled in Jewish traditions.  In the fall, he listened attentively to the shofar (and at times would howl in response) and he and sister Chloe loved to play a little game we called "Sukkah!"   He loved Hanukkah as well, but for Croz, no Jewish ritual meant more than candlelighting on Friday night, because when we came together for that blessing, hallah was on the way.  During his final weeks, when his palate became extremely picky, hallah literally kept him alive.  It was to him like mannah from heaven.

Crosby also once played the role of Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof."

And he was the cover boy of our Blessing of the Animals booklet one year (a lovely pet-portrait by Susan Darer z'l), and the featured profile in another.

But no Jewish moment meant more to him than his Bark Mitzvah on Sukkot of 2015.  He entertained a number of new friends and they were all blessed together.  I don't think he was ever happier than he was on that day.  You can see our "hakafa" procession here.

He and Chloe were inseparable from the moment she came home when he was two.  She was clearly the "alpha" but he was OK with that, even as she nagged him relentlessly when he delayed coming back into the house.  Although they were only distantly related (he was her great uncle), they seemed to communicate in a language that only they understood.


Crosby saw us through times both trying and joyous.  He loved the snow (though not as much as Chloe) and was the first to check out the damage during one of our various storm-pocalypses.   


We call this the "I Am Legend" photo.  Crosby would have done well even in a dystopia

His final few months were punctuated by a rare and particularly cruel form of cancer, making it hard for him to do all the things that had given him such pleasure; his jaunts to the edge of the woods to scout for squirrels and deer and  his whiny salutes to pedestrians from the back of the car. When even breathing became laborious and the few steps from our door to the front lawn impossible to traverse, we knew his time had come.

Cosby's years had a typically condensed canine trajectory, but he might well be remembered long after all his favorite humans have left this earth.  His disease was so rare that his case is being closely examined and, quite possibly, Crosby could achieve immortality in veterinary textbooks. 

He had a rare form of testicular cancer.  Why so rare?  Well, Crosby had no testicles.  He was neutered while still a pup.  Yet somehow, a microscopic residue remained, enough to wreak havoc on his body fourteen years later.  Just his luck, Crosby was killed by sex without ever having the pleasure even of humping a single armchair.  Life is so unfair.

The potential for immortality (and the potential to save other lives) brings some comfort, but textbooks don't cuddle on the couch or nuzzle up to you for an extra piece of hallah.  For her part, Chloe is handling her doggie grief in her own way and she is being showered in affection - including a new toy brought over by a particularly compassionate congregant.  Thank you all. 

And Chloe turns 13 this fall, so stay tuned.  Another Hammerman Bark Mitzvah could be on the way.

I've always felt that the loss of a pet, while not on a par with human loss, needs to be treated more substantively by our religious traditions, because grief is not something that can easily be measured.  Nor can it be relegated to private moments. I found myself choking up when leading the mourners Kaddish this week. I wasn't saying Kaddish for my dog, but neither could I turn off the thought of him wagging and barking at that moment.  The pain of loss is amplified by a bond of trust that is tested so severely when caring for such an innocent life, one so dependent and dependable, so loving and loyal. 

Martin Buber, the great religious philosopher, spoke of relationships being either "I-It," or "I-Thou."  An I-it relationship is when we treat others as things, valuing them for their utility.  "I-Thou" relationships occur when we truly encounter and embrace others.   This profound contact gives us a glimpse of God.  God is experienced, according to Buber, only in relationship, in the love expressed not in one being or another, but between them.  

One of Buber's first 1-Thou encounters was with a dapple-grey horse.   As a child, he stroked its neck and mane and an overwhelming sense of connection flowed between the boy and the horse.  The horse was no longer a stranger, or an other; it had become a Thou.  This idea is expressed also in the children's classic, "The Little Prince."

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

"Please--tame me!" he said.

"I want to, very much," the little prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand."

"One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . ."  

No doubt about it, Crosby tamed me.

Rabbi Naomi Levy wrote this prayer, which I have often shared with congregants grieving from pet loss.


A Prayer When a Beloved Pet Dies
You were my good friend. We never had a single conversation, but we understood each other.  I till keep thinking you'll be there waiting for me when I open the door.  The house is empty without you.  I miss you more than others could ever understand.
I thank you for being my companion in times of joy, and my comfort in times of pain.  I was fortunate to have you in my life and I know your life with me was a happy one.
I will remember you with joy and a smile.  May God bless you.  Amen.

One of our TBE family sent me the following cartoon this week.  It's a real tear jerker, but I hope it might bring comfort to the many among us who have been in this same position as my family has experienced this week.
Shabbat Shalom, and thank you, Crosby.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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