Sunday, September 15, 2013

Rabbi Cahana's Yom Kippur Sermon

Below is the text of Rabbi Cahana's sermon.

Yom Kippur 5774: Reduced and Contained

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman, for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

Genesis chapter2:21 - 3:10

It is very important for the Rabbis to report in their midrashim that two figures of the bible were born circumcised: Adam, the primordial man and Moses, the humblest prophet of the Jewish people. The circumcised membrane on the Jewish male newborn presents a partnership, a covenant, a bris with G-d that to create life with a woman, man must never use his stronger power to overpower her. Power in Judaism is never to oppress, but to uplift. In community the downtrodden must be upheld, life is for protection and enduring love for the delicate, fragile and vulnerable. Judaism teaches that man should seek the splendor of beauty found deep within a woman, through her natural qualities of compassion and exquisite kindness, as it’s recited when men put tefillin onto their weaker arm every morning: “I betrothe myself to you forever... I betrothe myself to you with kindness and sublime compassion.”

There are two forms of knowledge, teach our sages. Firstly, knowledge is meant to discern between what promotes closeness to G-d and what distances from him. This is what is meant by the injunction not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Evil keeps G-d apace, the good draws us nearer. The other form of knowledge, the Torah explains is intimate knowledge. The Torah says Adam knew his wife and then child birthing was in process. This is how life is in partnership with G-d. Creation happens through soul-to-soul knowledge between two human neshamas as opposed to biological procreation, which is found throughout nature.

It is so strange to read the story of the fall of Adam and Eve on account of eating fruit. Could this really be defiance to the Creator of the universe? Additionally, the text says that Eve saw the beauty of the fruit and therefore wanted to consume it. It was sight over taste that was the undoing. What is it that we really want when we take things not given to us? What are we trying to find? What is missing for our feeling of completeness? On Yom Kippur we try to get to the bare bones of the matter. Who am I? What is there there at essence? I obviously have these questions in me swirling and echoing throughout my body. Where is the I inside my I? In other words how do I know that I have a soul? Today our senses have been working in withdrawal. We do not taste. We minimize fragrance and color. White is the absence of a variety of hues. We are told to seek the still small voice inside us. A real prayer is recited in silence like the Amida. We are living a full day of sensory deprivation just to find what is real at core. And there we present ourselves to the G-d we think we know and who we want to judge us. There is our judgment on Judgment Day today. Today we establish the breadth of our value systems, our reference points and our ownership of what our effect is in G-d’s world, which is not our own.

Chapter two of the book of Genesis ends with the sentence “A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife.” The next chapter begins with the statement that the snake was the most conniving/naked of all creatures. We wonder why was the snake at the very center of paradise, wrapped around the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? How did G-d allow Evil there at all? And where was Adam who was supposed to be cleaving to Eve during her exchange with the snake? Adam was told previously that he couldn’t eat from the tree of knowledge, but Eve wasn’t given that restriction. It was when Adam ate the fruit indiscriminately that a spiritual death was introduced to humankind. What looked good to Eve was a poisonous death knell to Adam. This was the point of no return to Eden. Eden in Hebrew means delight, but we know there is heavenly delight and animal delight. Human beings decide whether they are at base animalistic or angelic. Each of us has to know if we are looking to control our universe, which is what animals do, or if we are willing to trust any universe we inherit from G-d and grow to stature and substance within. G-d is the gardener of Eden, and we, our lives, are its produce. The moral tenor of our actions make the senses replete. Our actions, when honoring, have a sweet savor to G-d. G-d hears the language of our heart and signals an acceptance if we are genuine. G-d calls out to Adam: Tell me what you know? He hears the emptiness in Adam’s reply: I am naked. He finds Adam and Eve clutching each other, trembling and hiding. Exposed but hidden from themselves. Their translucent skin lost their light and G-d clothed them with skin (that covers us to this day). They had become conniving like the snake and now they were robed in leather. This is what it is.

Have you come to Yom Kippur hiding beneath layers of self-made false fronts? You are not a profession. You are not even a mother or a father. There was a time that you weren’t and there will be a time when your children will leave you. You are not even defined as a person that loves. We all know how fickle affection plays with our emotions. What we were given was an image of G-d inside us, a potential to be a creator. We are souls that want to define the glory of G-d in our lives. How above the ground can we rise? The midrash tells us that Adam was created from the ground of all the corners of the earth. And many people believe that we will be buried in that ground as well. From dust to dust. Yom Kippur speaks to a lofty creation that we make in partnership with G-d, a spiritual height of being, a skyward aspiration of our space.

I obviously live now in a reduced place. I am confined, constricted, refrained and contained. That may be the reality objectively to everyone else. But it is not mine. I feel my life force coming through. No barriers but me in freefall happiness. I’m jumping here and everywhere endlessly and without restraint. A mind believes what it wants to believe, and my mind believes that G-d owns the future and gives it to me now. I feel like a pioneer, introduced to my body at first glance and able to enter each sub-atomic particle and chart its dimensions. I have been allowed a world of timelessness, a Shabbos forever to investigate the pure unmitigated energies of life. Why be anywhere else? We live in the possible, not the improbable. This is why a person can look forward to the day of judgment and not tremble beneath it.

How could Adam and Eve leave a father and mother that they never had, unless of course G-d was the mother and father that they did leave in the attempt to shortcut their way to eternal life? The text says the snake was naked, meaning exposed to its raw being of convolution and connivance. In Hebrew the word snake, nachash, means to guess, to approximate. It is always the opposite of true knowledge. The snake was on the bark of the tree and Adam was on the other side of Eve. Eve, in Hebrew, Chava, means innocent existence - existence without judgment. The innocent is always the target of Evil; also, the innocent is the desire of Good. The snake began its chatter to Eve to separate Adam from her, and to separate G-d from them both. That is what Evil means in Judaism, to interfere with a relationship with G-d, to create doubt. Evil cajoles the Good. It flatters us into thinking that we are really self-made, that we play the only part in our own creation stories.

What did the snake gain from this encounter? And what is it that Eve found in the appearance of the fruit that delighted her?

Here is my radical conclusion. Please do not be offended. The rabbis don’t know what this fruit is. Some say an apple. Some say an etrog. Others say the grape. I am in a state now of being reduced and confined. Restraint and constraint. I’ve had this time to try to understand where lies my purpose in life. We are all born flailing and wailing. We are all body. The self of our body is in our mouth. We find nourishment and the suckle of our mother. We are born with contact. Once from inside our mother’s womb, and now outside at her breast. I believe that the fruit that Eve saw was the breast that gave her knowledge of the world outside herself. G-d did not tell her do not eat from the tree of knowledge. It was Adam who had to first go through a Shabbat of heavenly repose in order to prepare himself to know how to discern the fruit of Good and Evil. The breast has been either the downfall of man or the celestial heights of holiness. That is why I believe it was not two trees at all, but one tree rooted on the bottom into the ground as the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and above it, the tree of Eternal Life. For man, learning how to honor the woman brings him directly above the tree of knowledge unto the tree of Eternal Life. How we employ our sexual encounters with our spouse either debases our lives or spiritualizes us. This is why the story of G-d and the snake are presented as the first act of the couple Adam and Eve. It is the judgment of all of us. Do we live in precious realization of what this life means?

May your judgment be pure because you have known eternal life in your own life, Amen.

Rabbi Ronnie Cahana

To read more of Rabbi Cahana’s sermons please visit his blog. wwwrabbicahanacom

Finding My Religion (with slight apologies to R.E.M. - and none to atheists)

I blogged about my Rosh Hashanah experience last week. I wondered why I hadn't shared this part of me with the world outside of my family until now. Perhaps it is because it has been such a deeply moving time in our synagogue, perhaps because of the absurd "Charter of Values" the incompetents in our Quebec government wants to pass (for those unaware of this latest from my province, I unabashedly offer an opinion piece from the Ottawa Citzen which explains it and - obviously - opines). Perhaps just because this year was just outstanding in every way.

But regardless of "why now", I am continuing this theme to recount Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement and how that unfolded in shul.

The morning was a typical service; we sat in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary. We choose those seats for several reasons: it tends to be quieter (most parents keep seats downstairs where they can quickly take their young children out when the kids get bored, as well as easy access to the numerous rooms set up on the main level for kids to do arts and crafts and play with others); it also gives us "front row" seats as opposed to being fairly far from the bima ("stage" in a synagogue). There are seats in the main sanctuary which are reserved for the board, the staff, elders, and volunteers. The synagogue's membership being vast, they open the hall across the vestibule (the hall is where the parties take place and is located just  across the sanctuary and through the lobby), build platforms to circumvent the 3 steps that lead down to the hall, and add the hundreds of chairs to accommodate those who sit downstairs. It is innovative, effective, but for us, too far from the "action". Though the sound system is superb, I like to see as well as hear what's happening. Not being vertically gifted, I usually end up craning my neck to see over those in front of me. The balcony offers a better view.

Yitzkor service is held on Yom Kippur as well as various other holidays on the calendar. I wrote about it in my Rosh Hashanah blog as well. Yesterday's was no different, and it followed Rabbi Nadler's sermon about the soul, which truly led nicely into the commemoration of those departed souls we were about to observe. Rabbi Nadler became the "interim" rabbi when our Rabbi Cahana was stricken in July of 2011, and he's done a great job filling in. His humor came through yesterday when he discussed the different concepts of "soul" and how one school of thought has souls actually bringing back those departed as they were in life. "The worst Zombie movie you could imagine," he said, "millions of Jewish souls coming back, and probably hungry. Their first words might be, 'anyone know where we can get a bite to eat?'" As we were observing the fast, this elicited all-out laughter from the congregation.

After yitzkor, we were informed that the planned sermon by Rabbi Cahana was to take place after mincha (afternoon service) so of course, I knew I would return. In past years, we have not gone back for the end of Yom Kippur, which has been missing in my life; as a child, I went only for the end, slipping into the local shul to hear the prayers and the shofar to signify the end of the fast.

But yesterday was different. I was finally going to go - whether or not I was accompanied by my family. And in fact, I ended up going alone. One kid was sick, the other was tired, so I got dressed again and headed into town. I ended up arriving very early, walking into the sanctuary to find Rabbi Cahana and his beautiful son talking quietly. I hurried over to greet them both, telling the Rabbi I was there to get a front row seat. He smiled and asked me the time. I told him it was 4:45, and I had wanted to get there before the 5:00 service. He gently corrected me, telling me it was to take place at 5:30. I grinned at him and said, "well now you know how eager I am to hear your sermon - a whole 45 minutes early!"

I found an unreserved seat in the 2nd row in the main sanctuary. After the "main event" of morning services, most of the congregation does not return, which stands to reason if they are preparing break-fast meals. I sat in quiet contemplation until the sanctuary filled up and we were about to start.

After some initial prayers, Rabbi Cahana was introduced. Prior to beginning, his daughter had handed out texts of his sermon (found here), and upon skimming it, I saw that it was 3 pages long. We sat back as he was wheeled to the front, the microphone positioned to his level, and we waited. He began to speak but the mic didn't work. One of the synagogue's co-presidents stood, took the mic off its stand, tested it and held it directly to the Rabbi's mouth. Rabbi Cahana's wife stood behind him, holding the text in front of him so he could read. And we listened.

His voice was soft at times, louder other times. His words trailed off at times when he got tired, but he soldiered through. He spoke unhaltingly, painstakingly reading the text he had composed, and the sanctuary - full by now - was so silent, one could have heard the proverbial pin drop. We had the text in front of us, at times it was necessary to follow along, but what came through - besides the words - was his determination. He had written the words. But rather than have someone else deliver them, he was going to address his community.

One passage in particular had me fighting tears:

I obviously live now in a reduced place. I am confined, constricted, refrained and contained. That may be the reality objectively to everyone else. But it is not mine. I feel my life force coming through. No barriers but me in freefall happiness. I’m jumping here and everywhere endlessly and without restraint. A mind believes what it wants to believe, and my mind believes that G-d owns the future and gives it to me now. I feel like a pioneer, introduced to my body at first glance and able to enter each sub-atomic particle and chart its dimensions. I have been allowed a world of timelessness, a Shabbos forever to investigate the pure unmitigated energies of life. Why be anywhere else? We live in the possible, not the improbable. This is why a person can look forward to the day of judgment and not tremble beneath it.
That sums up our rabbi. His strength, his perpetual optimism, and as Rabbi Nadler said in his introduction, his humility in the face of severe adversity.

There were no ovations afterward, but we all felt a welling of pride and gratitude. And hope - could this be the foretelling of our rabbi's eventual return to the pulpit? I wouldn't put anything past him!

The service went a little long because of Rabbi Cahana's sermon but no one noticed. Oh, no one except Rabbi Nadler who jokingly lamented, "if there is one night we have to finish on time, it is this night!" He then asked if there was anyone from the Guinness Book of World Records, as he was about to embark upon about 30 pages of prayer within 30 minutes. For those unfamiliar with Jewish prayer, it is not unusual to find a word in any given prayer that is sung in a prolonged minute. Yes, one word. One minute.

We did make it, and it was beautiful. What was most moving (next to the Rabbi's sermon) was how the children finished our evening. Those youngsters who had been in a room next door with several adults overseeing their crafts, made an entrance, singing a joyous song. There is nothing like the voices of young children singing but at the end of a long day spent in reflection of its purpose, the effects were more emotional. They made their way down the aisle holding baskets of synthetic and handmade white flowers, passing out these offerings to the congregation. When they finally got up onto the bima, the Ne'ilah service was said ("Ne'ilah" literally means "closing" or "locking" in Hebrew. Recited during late afternoon and twilight, it expresses the feeling that the special Heavenly gates, that have stood open all day to receive our prayers, are gradually being closed. The community is now filled with confidence that their sins have been forgiven, and that they can begin the new year in a state of spiritual purity). And when Cantor Benny's powerful singing concluded, the shofar was sounded in a loud, prolonged ancient trumpeting, and Yom Kippur had drawn to a close.

The most important words of the day, however, came when Rabbi Nadler took the microphone: "go eat!" he proclaimed, and I watched the congregants pop gum, candies, and other various pocket-sized offerings in quick acknowledgement of the rabbi's proclamation. I made my way out of my row, received and bestowed the famous Montreal two-cheek kiss on those with whom I exchanged good wishes (from our rabbi, to the cantor, to other congregants I knew), and walked out with one of the synagogue's former VPs, a man I've known since he was interim principal at my kids' elementary school. We wished each other a happy and healthy year, solemnly acknowledging that those were the important ingredients. When we parted to go to our respective cars, I said, "Mr. S? One more wish for you." He raised his eyebrows and I said, "Bon appetit." He grinned wide and said, "oh, you know it, baby!"

As he lives in the same part of the island I do, I assumed I would see him on the road home, as we pulled out of our parking spots the same time. Mr. S must have been hungry - he was gone by the time I hit the highway!

I reflected on my drive home. Listening to quiet music, accompanied by a bright half-moon in a clear sky, it occurred to me once again: for me, it is not only the religion but the feelings that my attending synagogue encompasses. The sense of belonging to a community larger than just the congregation, but belonging to that congregation of familiar faces as well. The sense of acknowledging something we understand to be bigger than ourselves. And the deeply held faith that keeps us driven. The faith that has kept Rabbi Cahana alive but also living his life to its fullest and continuing to achieve new heights in recovery. The faith that there are others who share in this experience and gather to recognize its inner and outer power.

And the faith that despite those who scoff at religion - whether it be government or those among us who would like to see religion invisible or even abolished - we have something special as a cohesive group: an identity that enhances, not defines, our selves and our souls.

To those who observe: G'mar Hatimah Tovah

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Revelations and Reverence

L'Shana Tova!

The words mean "For a good year" - it is what Jews all over the world say this week as our New Year is celebrated. The sentiment is so much more than the words.

Growing up, I did not belong to any synagogue; membership wasn't something my parents obtained, the reasons unimportant to me now. We lived a block from the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, a shul that welcomed the Sephardim (Jews whose roots lie in the Spanish/Middle East portion of the world) and every Yom Kipur my mother, grandmother, sister and I would get all dressed up and walk down the street to hear the shofar (ram's horn) blown, the sound that would signify the break of the long day of fasting.

Even as a youngster, I could feel the joy. The music of the prayers moved me, and the sound of the shofar - which used to make me giggle - touched something I could not, at the time, understand.

When my oldest was ready for his bar-mitzvah, we chose Congregation Beth-El. It was a synagogue that had some history to us, but we chose it mainly because of the Rabbi. Rabbi Cahana was someone we had seen officiate at another bar-mitzvah and we were touched by his wisdom, his serenity, his humor and his incredible warmth. We went to enroll in the program so that our son could become bar-mitzvah.

In order to have a bar-mitzvah at any synagogue, membership is mandatory. We received tickets (security is high in this day and age) for our High Holiday seats and shortly after the wonderful experience of Josh's bar-mitzvah, we went to shul for Rosh Hashanah. It was an experience that changed me. A week later, during the Yom Kipur service, I was made aware of a portion of the service known as yitzkhor. This is a portion where only mourners can attend. Mourners, in Judaism, comprise anyone who has lost a parent, sibling, child or spouse. Mourners are the only ones who can light yahrtzeit (memorial) candles as well. Yitzkhor is a service where the dead are commemorated (our New Year is the time Jews believe we are inscribed in the Book of Life for another year).

As my family filed out with the others who had not earned that dubious honor of allowance into yitzkhor, I sat alone, utterly unaware of what was going to take place.

The rabbi and cantor (the man who sings the prayers - and our cantor is a powerful profound voice and presence) led the service, and as I read along in the English translation, I began to feel the presence of those souls we were all remembering. But more, I began to feel my mother.

I had worn her amethyst brooch that day, in essence bringing her to shul with me. But as we began to recite the prayers for the dead - there are prayers specific to every relationship - I began to choke up. I literally had to hold back sobs as I felt the awe of the moment. It was 2 short weeks since my son's bar-mitzvah, an event at which she was so conspicuously absent. And the emotions literally poured forth.

I, being utterly unaware of what Holidays were like at any synagogue, found something in the depths of my heart that day. I found, not religion but spirituality within the religion. Up until then, I was what's known in our modern-day world as a traditional Jew: marking the "main events", maybe going to synagogue (mostly not), and following the important laws of our religion. But not eschewing driving, electronics or work on Shabbat or holidays, for example. It was what many people who are not Orthodox or even Conservative do.

But that day - and the years to follow - brought home my religion. Our family had been welcomed as  members of the synagogue community and familiar faces soon became familiar friends, but I found a home in Judaism.

I did not become religious. I had a spiritual awakening to Judaism. And that was something that was driven home to me this year.

Our beloved Rabbi Cahana was stricken in the summer of 2011 and it was devastating. We did not know what would become of him, he was completely paralyzed, unable to speak, and our congregation - as well as the city that knows his wonderful reputation - held its breath as we prayed for his recovery.

The news was not good, at first. But then we received email from our synagogue with a short passage the Rabbi had dictated, using blinking to signify the letters he wanted to use to compose the words and then the passages. It was awe-inspiring.

Slowly - but not so slowly when you consider it was just 2 years ago - he began to show miraculous signs of recovery. As a patient with "locked-in syndrome" this was almost unheard of. You can read about him here. 

Rabbi Cahana had been attending shul for a while now, but this week was - for our family - a revelation.

On the first day at shul, I brought my boys to services. We sat in the balcony as we always do, and the shofar sounded for the first time that morning. Suddenly, I was struck by how awesome (in the true sense of that word) the shofar is. See, it is a ram's horn that dates back to the very beginnings of our people. It was used as a call to worship - as it is now - and even to war (as it is not, these days). But as I listened yesterday, it seemed as though I was hearing it for the first time. This ancient, sacred sound was what Moses heard, Jacob heard, Joshua who heard it and captured Jericho as the shofar was his signal to surround the wall with his troops - it was sounded then as it is sounded now, and the transition of years faded away in my eyes, from ancient times to 2013. Where as a girl I giggled at the indescribable honking of this ersatz trumpet, this week the sound evoked a feeling of awe for me. As much as I had to do for my dinner that night (I hosted the 2nd meal and was cooking and preparing for 9 people), everything melted away and I truly worshiped in the moment.

After services were over, we went downstairs to thank our Rabbi (Rabbi Allan Nadler, who stepped in when Rabbi Cahana was stricken) as it was his first High Holidays with our shul (previous years he had pre-committed to his former synagogue), and to greet our cantor (who marveled at how my kids have grown). We saw a line in front of Rabbi Cahana, as he is truly a rock star in our shul (he always has been - everyone wants to touch his hand, talk to him, be blessed by him, get a smile or a greeting from him - when you hear the words "beloved Rabbi", you might want to picture Ronnie Cahana). We stood behind those waiting to see him and when we got closer, he was engaged in conversation with a congregant. Yes, conversation - his speech is soft and slow but it is there.

His eyes wandered to us and he lit up. His face lit up. My younger son - Sam - told me he'd been watching the Rabbi the whole time and saw the transition. Rabbi turned his face to us and smiled that beautiful wide smile. He mouthed, "Wow..!" and my kids grinned happily. He said, "My favorite bar-mitzvahs!" Sam, utterly in awe, said, "Rabbi Cahana, you're doing so well since the last time I saw you!" The Rabbi said, "All because of G-d. Stay close to G-d."

I touched his shoulder and said, "You are making that very easy, Rabbi. You're an inspiration. And you know, you're famous, too!" (my reference to the above article). He grinned and said, "Small-town celebrity."

We talked with him for a few minutes, and after our exchange, we could see him growing tired. We wished him a L'Shana Tova and made our way to the car.

Walking out, Sam - who is not one to rhapsodize - said, "I'm not joking, I'm seriously going to talk about this all day. It meant SO much that he greeted us that way!" I told him to go ahead and talk about it - because it was a Moment for us. We talked about religion, and how it is sustenance for so many and for so many reasons. And Sam did, indeed, talk about this encounter all day, and at the dinner table last night.

Today, we returned to synagogue. As much as I had to do yesterday, I returned to services with the achy exhaustion of having pulled off a truly successful dinner party. But as I sat in our seats in the balcony, the aches and exhaustion melted away and once again, the moment at hand became All.

After services were over, we chatted with our synagogue's Director for a while, and when we went downstairs, the Rabbi and his family were still in the chapel, though there was only one couple engaged with him - friends of ours. From the tears on our friend's cheeks, we knew the encounter was as meaningful to her as yesterday's was to us.

When they left, we moved into his line of vision, and once again, he lit up. This time, I kissed his cheek, wished him a Shana Tova, and showed him that my husband had attended with us (as he was unable to yesterday). Rabbi Cahana looked from one face to the other, smiling as he seems to do so often - and as he always did before the stroke. Sam immediately told him how much yesterday had meant to him, telling him how "..I talked about you all day." The Rabbi smiled happily. He then turned to me and asked about how my father was. He sent regards. He engaged in conversation with us which had us hanging on his every word.

When my husband said, "Rabbi, you're looking so wonderful since the last time I saw you," he responded, "I'm looking so wonderful since the last time I saw me!" (that delightful sense of humor sent music through me)

He told us he has been taking steps. When we expressed our pleasure and surprise, he said, "It's not slow." He told us "I'm so grateful. I'm so grateful for this gift. I love my stroke. I am here. And my family needs me. My shul needs me. G-d is with me."

I was recording this in my head. I needed to remember every word. Some are harder to hear than others, but we expressed to him that we need him. I joked with him that - not yet, but when the time comes, will he officiate my sons' weddings? He loved the idea and showed confidence that he would.

When we walked out of the synagogue, my emotions flooded forth. I ended up in tears I couldn't stop. Not sadness, not really. Though yes, it is hard to see this strong, vital man the way he is. But his words, his gratitude and his outlook shattered any sadness in me; instead, I was moved to my core by his strength.

As we walked to the car, I told the kids, "look - religion isn't magic. And it is suddenly so clear to me what religion does. We know we can't say, 'G-d, I need a million dollars' or 'G-d, please bring my mother back to life' - and it may sound silly but that's something we all know is not what G-d is about. But what we saw in there, what we continue to see with our Rabbi's progress and recovery, is a man whose faith is so unshakeable that it drives him to BE the man he is, the man who wants to live and wants to heal. And how can anyone ever deny the power that invokes?"

It made me think. I know atheists. I have seen them scoffing at religion, or even the mention thereof;  I have seen the extremists as well - (we all have) - from those who give it all and expect the magic, to those who purportedly commit horrific crimes in the name of their religion.

And I have always been proud to be Jewish, proud to be a daughter of Israel, and proud to be a member of the synagogue community I found later in life. But this week, I am struck by revelation of the true power of our religion.

It makes me slightly defensive against those who believe "organized religion is a brainwashing crock" and those who believe it should be invisible. From my Provincial government, to people in my personal circle, I see the dismissal of religion as a viable entity. And so I feel defensive of my newfound revelations but not so defensive that I am losing sight of the spiritual uplifting I have embraced and renewed this week.

Emotions were already on high this week; next week, on Yom Kipur when I will once again (as I do every year) choke back tears during yitzkhor, I will recover from the wave in time for what is sure to be a watershed (and tear-shedding) Moment at our shul: Rabbi Cahana is scheduled to deliver a sermon.

I will, no doubt, be writing about that when I have my words in order.

Until then - I wish you all (those who celebrate, those who do not, those who are Jewish, those who are not):  לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תֵּחָתֵמוּ וְתִכָּתֵבוּ
   L'Shana Tova Techatemu ve tikatevu**

(may you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year)

If you would like to read more from Rabbi Cahana, please visit his blog

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

11 Years Gone, 10 Years Gifted

July 2nd, 2002, in the early hours, my mother left her body. It was a profound loss, as the years would come to show, and we got through the hours and days knowing it was what we had to do.

In her last month in hospital, I was unable to make the transition from her hospital room to my home, where 2 boys (ages 6 and almost 10) were going about their carefree lives, aware that their Bubup was not well but not ready for the finality which - to such young minds - was never as close as it truly was. I would stop at the park on Lake Road, 3 minutes from the house, and walk down the long path to sit by the lake for which it is named. I found solace in the setting sun, the happy voices of children, and most strongly, the ducks and birds which symbolized my mom's love of nature - birds most profoundly.

After the sun had set, I was able to collect my thoughts and go home to be the stable force of motherhood she had provided me, where my boys needed me to be.

On the last day of her shiva, I came home alone, changed clothing, and took my portable CD player (no iPod in those days) with classical music she had given me. I sat by the lake in the 2 p.m. sun, listening to the music, and letting emotions flow because the finality was beginning to hit.

The year brought many changes, and on the first yahrtzeit (Jewish for "anniversary of death"), I took music once again, and headed for the lake. With the advice of One Who Knows, I asked for nothing my mother could not provide, but went with her strongly on my mind, in my heart, and governing my direction.

I sat by the lake listening to music, watching the usual ducks and enjoying being in nature even surrounded by families nearby. And after 2 hours, I was ready to leave, feeling somewhat at peace but still hoping to see a sign.

Just as I stood, a movement from across the lake caught my eye and from the forest across, a magnificent heron took flight, flying across to the side upon which I sat. I was mesmerized. For those who have not experienced this bird "in person", they are without description beyond the superlative. With a grace unexpected of this huge bird, a prehistoric-sized wingspan and a presence of spirit, they must be experienced to understand the beauty. I smiled through tears; heron is one of my spirit animals. I whispered my thanks to Mommy and stood to go home.

A few steps up the path, I felt a tug. I turned and walked back toward the lake, taking a path that veers to the right, and against the forest at the end of the path stood that mighty heron. I took photos as it allowed me to, it took wing and flew across the lake again, disappearing into the forest. I knew I had been graced.

The following year, I repeated my visit on the same day, and was graced with two herons side by side. The 3rd year, 3. The 4th, 4. It seemed almost impossible but knowing that the Universe listens, and the spirits provide when the mind and heart are open, I continued to go without expectation, and be rewarded every year.

One year - the 5th - I spent the night awake, working on some school assignments, and decided as the sun rose, to make my visit in the early hours. I approached the lake to see the heron already waiting for me, on a barrel sunk into the lake to provide perch for the birds. And it has been that way since. Three years ago, my then-13-year-old son chose to accompany me, and it has become a new tradition. Each year, he becomes more adept at sighting "our" heron, and experiences the same thrilling shivers when we see it approach.

This year, the morning dawned grey but not rainy, so we woke at 6:15 and headed to the lake. We were greeted by this: (click on all pictures to see them larger)

When we turned the corner, we found this goose's family, young goslings feasting in the grass.

We watched them for a while; the one single goose keeping watch did not move from that spot but another adult was walking toward us, making motions with his (her?) head as if to let us know we were being watched.

We watched them for a while, then headed to our spot by the lake. Sam had binoculars - the ones bought in Hong Kong decades ago by the lady we were there to remember - and they are extremely powerful. I gave him the job of "scout" and he set to watching for the heron.

The lake was rippling with the wind, and our next visitor was a cormorant. They are the "Loch Ness" birds of our lake, swimming with only their heads and part of their necks above the surface, and they are fun to watch as they dive and resurface great distances away from their original point.

(blurry photo - low light and moving bird)

We watched the cormorant for a while, and were then visited by the various duck families that live on the lake. They were bobbing up and down on the rippling surface of the water, and were - as always - tremendous fun.

This very unique duck returned often

A duck couple swam nearby, coming ashore to preen. They swam together all morning - we figured they were together (despite the homewrecker noisy female that kept trying to crash their party).

We watched them dip their bills into the water and groom their feathers, keeping an ever-watchful eye (and binocular) out for the elusive heron.

A young duck peeping as it swam captured my heart, and I was able to capture his sounds (wind included) as well as another baby duck who stole my attention:

The geese had begun their morning swim, and as they approached the beach, I had to turn on the video camera. You'll hear me call them the "bad boys of the beach" because they truly walk like they own it (I picture them in little leather jackets, strutting their stuff). I was focused on one, until I noticed they had all come ashore - fun ensued!

Suddenly, across the lake, along our side of the shore to the left, I saw what seemed to be a cormorant on a rock. Earlier, Sam had seen the duck family on that rock, watching them with the binoculars until they "plopped" into the water. I pointed out the cormarant, and we watched it for a few minutes. He held the binoculars up to his eyes and said, "wait, he's got some yellow on him." And just then, the bird turned in profile and there was our heron! The low light and the shade of the trees had darkened his feathers, his position (facing us) had hidden his size. As always, my breath caught.

(blurry again - low light)

Of course, I felt her and gave thanks immediately. We watched this bird, marveling at how it must have been in that bluff for the entire morning (almost an hour since we had arrived), and talking about how its patience practically outweighed ours.

He turned to walk away from our view, and still I got photos of his unique shape.

He turned into profile once more:

And I was able to get video. (Sam marveling at how he was a "rat" for hiding out the whole time, and me urging him to fly) But he walked into the forest and was gone from our sight.

As always, we felt blessed by this visit, a sure sign that he was sent to us deliberately. We continued to watch for him, while photographing the ducks on the water. We began to talk about Mommy, and how she loved her birds. We talked about how she watched them from the beautiful windowed room she'd had built in Vermont, and how we never see birds without thinking of her. And then, too suddenly for me to even lift my camera, the heron came out of the forest, took flight, and disappeared around a bluff of trees. There is no mistaking that wingspan, the slow strength of their beating, and the sheer size of the bird they hold aloft. Sam remarked on how we had been talking about his grandmother and that's when the heron took flight for us. He had no doubt we had invoked the action by giving voice to our memories. He went around the corner, up the pathway, to see if he was able to find the heron again, but was unable to.

That's okay. She sent him nonetheless, and as every year, we knew we had been given a true gift. Not of the bird - because many people see many herons in many parts of the world. But of this bird, on this day, in this place, and in this way. Every year when we see our heron, there is a unique way in which we first sight this gift and how we experience it.

I miss her every day. I miss her smile and her gentle soul; I am so sad that she is not here to see my boys grow into the young men they have become, and to share in our joys. But she makes herself known to us in many different ways, the deepest and most spiritual in her birds that she sends.

For those who knew her, or of her, you understand what her absence feels like, and what it means. For those who did not - here is her smile. She could light up a room. And her presence still does. 11 years gone, she continues to bestow her presence upon us in ways that are awe-inspiring, but not surprising. We will always miss her but it is a comfort to know she is just a whisper away.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Teachers We Need

**written wearing all hats: mother, educator, student**

Last year, my son had a difficult grade-9 history experience. His teacher had to leave in the first 2 weeks of school, and in the first semester, the school brought in 6 different teachers to fill the spot. The one who replaced her, at last, was someone I believe just filled the desk and could breathe.

As a result, her entire class (or the majority thereof) failed the course. Many switched into the English stream this year (grade 10) but there were those who wanted the bilingual certificate (in Quebec, French is the first official language and pretty necessary to have if one plans to stay in the province, or at least continue school here). In order to get the bilingual certificate upon completion of high school, grade-9 histoire had to be passed. So my son went to a 3-week summer course and got the failure overturned to a passing grade.

Grade 10. He entered behind the curve because grade 9 was such a dismal non-learning experience. He ended up in a class where the majority of kids came from the enriched stream (super-intensive French) and were comfortable in the course whose per-requisite they had passed the year before. His teacher understood what had happened last year but with her mandate from the Ministry of Education, she had no choice but to teach what was laid out for grade 10, meaning the grade-9 experience would shape a student's ability to succeed.

In a nutshell, my son struggled, and was given a tutor's name by his teacher. The tutor was a grade-11 student who had passed histoire, and though she meant well, she was not a teacher, per se. After a few sessions, my son was not getting what he needed, and came to talk to me.

He asked if I could contact his teacher from the summer course. He said Mr. W was someone he could relate to, and I got on the phone with the school board. They told me they would try to track down this teacher; as a rule, summer school can be taught by regular, part-time, or interim teachers, and the woman I spoke with had to go digging to see who had been in the classroom.

2 days later, Mr. W called me and we arranged tutoring. He came to the house on a Sunday afternoon, and instantly made me smile by insisting they not use the desk in the basement, but relax on the sofa and the armchair. He said he likes kids to be relaxed when they're studying. Within 10 minutes, my son was upstairs with a big grin, asking if we had a $10 bill. We gave him one, and I realized Mr. W was using the symbols from the bill to illustrate whatever they were learning in the lesson. I knew we were in the presence of a great teacher.

He is a high-school teacher at another school in the district, and told me that he will spend the first weeks of school teaching his students how to write an exam. Not answer the questions but write the answers. That is a skill we tend to leave to happenstance, post-high-school education, or good teachers. The English teacher my son had this year taught college-level writing. That, to me, is a superb skill to offer kids who will not learn it by osmosis.

Mr. W continued to tutor my son throughout the year, and we all saw a marked improvement in marks, confidence, and attitude. He came through when there was a big test, tutoring at his school, my son's school, or our house, even if a last-minute session was needed.

And as we speak, my son is writing the final exam.

The Exam (deserving of the daunting Capital Letters) is a mystery. The Ministry of Education changed the format last year, so teachers were unable to truly teach to the test. And when the exam was analyzed, there were controversies over the level of sophisticated French used, obscure questions, and what I call "pot-hole" questions (those designed to catch kids off guard and stop them in their tracks...for whatever reason).

Mr. W did the best he could, even writing his own proto-types of exams he believed could be close to what the kids would face. Yesterday he conducted a 2-hour blitz session with my son, preparing him the best he could.

Armed with all my advice and encouragement, his teacher's assessment that he knows his stuff, and his tutor's deep preparation, my kid went into the school to face this thing.

But what came next was what sent me reeling.

I got a call at 10:30, from Mr. W. He simply called to give me peace of mind. He said he'd gotten a chance to look over the exam, and told me it is a fair and balanced instrument of assessment, not too many of those "gotcha" questions, and that according to the work he'd done with my son, he felt it would not present an insurmountable challenge to my kid.

As any parent will attest, we would all take our kids' burdens ourselves. We would write the exams, do the homework, endure the physical hardships, and leave them only the fun, good, and exciting times to experience. As any parent will attest, walking our kid to the door of their first nursery experience is as shaky a moment as any in the life of a parent; will the child cry? Feel left out? Feel abandoned? Worry? Make friends? Need his mother?

So letting my son off at the door of the school this morning, not asking him if he was nervous but letting him know I have full confidence in him and giving him that last-minute mother/teacher advice ("read the whole exam first, and pace yourself, make sure to answer every question, make notes as they come to you so you can go back to them if you get stuck"), but then driving away, knowing how stressful this particular exam is to a kid whose marks have never been below the higher echelons of evaluation, that brought me back to nursery school all over again.

Getting the call from Mr. W which was solely for me to be able to breathe more easily in the 3 hours of exam time, that brought me back to teacher training, when I was doing my undergrad. We all wanted to be the teacher our kids looked up to. We all wanted the parents to accept us and we definitely wanted the higher-ups in the food chain to notice us so that we could attain seniority, security, and a good reputation.

Mr. W surpasses all those criteria. His dedication to his students is obvious, but his devotion to my son's success transcends the devotion many teachers exhibit. And this is the teacher we need. This is the guy who is in the field for the right reasons. This is the one we all remember when we have our high-school reunions and when we talk about our high-school days with either fondness or shudders of revulsion. This is the guy we all talk about with smiles and nods and attributions of our successes because this is the guy who really, truly cares.

If you are a teacher, or have one (or an impending teacher) in your life, you know how important it is to be that teacher in the lives of the students we encounter. I would love to hear your stories, either as a teacher, or about one, because I've been touched by that rarity of teachers who deserves all the accolades I hope he is getting.

**NB: we found out that Mr. W is not being re-hired for the 2013-2014 year. Yes, my jaw dropped too. Budget cuts and "low totem pole position" instead of quality and recommendation. I am as angry as I am shocked, and my indignation runs as deeply as my admiration for him. I am in the process of trying to do whatever I can to speak up on his behalf anywhere he chooses to go, and if anyone in the Montreal region is looking for an amazing tutor, this guy's the one. Contact me.**

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Heroes: From the the Heart

My Montreal Canadiens, a team I call my heart, got some tough breaks in the playoffs, eliminated in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals by the Ottawa Senators. In Game 1, a player from the Ottawa team ran one of our players and our guy was sent to the hospital after a horrific injury that took him from unconscious and bleeding on the ice to a stretcher off the ice. The coach for Ottawa, a man named Paul MacLean, made some very disrespectful remarks about our team and especially showed no compassion for our injured player. The next day, one of our newly acquired forwards - a man by the name of Brandon Prust - made this statement: (the video shows the passion of our coach Therrien as well as Brandon's expanded statement) He was quoted instantly:

We don't care what that bug-eyed fat walrus has to say.

See, Paul MacLean has a - shall we say, distinctive look to him. See for yourself:

The minute that statement hit social media, we were all talking. It was Friday midday, and by game-time, many photoshopped images (including my own "separated at birth" entry) had hit the web. And Dave Stubbs, a popular sports writer for the Montreal Gazette, had posted that he planned to wear his cartoon-walrus pin to the game, as well as present Prust with a 2nd pin sporting the same cartoon walrus.

At 10:30 p.m., a fan whom I've known on Twitter, posted:

"I wonder if Dave Stubbs gave Brandon Prust the walrus pin...let's adopt a walrus for Prust and name it 'Ballsy Paulsy'!"

I replied instantly: "Or just 'Bug-Eye!'"

That started a Campaign. Between posts on her website dedicated to another Habs player and a hockey-related communal board, and both of us on Twitter and Facebook, as well as Dave generously writing about it in his column after the weekend, the Adopt-A-Walrus Campaign began.

At first, we thought we'd raise 1- or 2-dollar donations so that we could adopt this walrus (from World Wildlife Fund, a wonderful cause that raises awareness and funds for animal conservation), but suddenly, people were opening their hearts and their wallets. The adoption is symbolic but comes with a stuffed animal of the species being adopted.

In discussion, my co-organizer wondered whether we should put the money toward other adoptions for the other players involved in the kerfuffle (Lars Eller - our injured player who was stretchered off - and Raphael Diaz, the player dismissively referred to by Coach MacLean as "Player 61") but it was my husband, fresh from the Bell Center and that very game in which the injury had occurred, who suggested we donate to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation which is dedicated to helping children in need. Anyone who has ever attended a Habs game at the Bell Center knows how dear to the organization this Foundation is; there are constant videos between periods that show the work done by the Foundation, the moneys raised, and - to everyone's delight - the visits to kids by Habs players themselves. (I urge you to visit their website and spend some time there - and keep it in mind when your life affords you a little extra to give to others).

The idea took wing and by the time Dave's column hit the papers, the deadline was extended in order to give everyone a chance to donate.

I am proud to say that we raised enough for the stuffed walrus which was sent to Brandon Prust as well as a total of $470 that was given to Ryan Frank of the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation this morning. He graciously consented to a photo of him with the check,  strategically taken in front of Brandon Prust's and Lars Eller's photos.

Ryan and I talked at length about how hockey is not just a game, at least not to those of us who are avid Habs fans. The injury to Lars Eller (now, thankfully, recovering), the Ottawa coach's subsequent tactlessness and Brandon Prust's most passionate statement, tinged with his unique sense of humor - those became a Story. In 2011, The Story was Max Pacioretty's injury and it got the city energized. This year it was the Walrus. As Ryan said, next year, there will likely be another Story. And each time there is, there is a renewal, a resurgence or just a re-affirmation of how much this team (not just the sport) unites us as a Habs Nation, a family of fans and supporters of the players, the staffers, the behind-the-scene players and now, the Children's Foundation.

I have to think heroes come in all forms. For Habs fans, we have our legends like Rocket Richard, Jean Béliveau, past stars such as Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Guy Lafleur. We have those heroes who used the platform of their notoriety to speak out and make this a Story. We have our current warriors - every single player, too numerous to mention - from the 2012-2013 Montreal Canadiens, a team that rose from last place to give us a season filled with victories, triumphs, and achievements, regardless of where we ended up in post-season action.

But to me, the heroes are the fans who continue, day in and day out, without fail, to show up to games in their seats or on the sofas, online or on barstools, in their Habs gear or in jammies, with their beers, sodas, or juice boxes. The fans who support this team not only on the ice (with voice-straining, eardrum-shattering cheers that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime) but who give of their hearts to these guys on non-game days, in off-season, and in events such as these that raise money directly because of Habs players, to benefit kids who may not have the opportunity to experience this luxury of hockey games at the Bell Center.

To me, YOU are the heroes.

Go HabsFans Go!!!

 (here is the money order given to The Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation, presented to Ryan, in the photo above)