Category Archives: Prayer

On Passover, Parents and Children

joyful-children.jpgYesterday at our Shabbat morning minyan, I noticed a particularly large number of parents and children. Over here was an adult woman helping her elderly mother by pointing along to the transliteration in the siddur. Over there was a man with his four year old in his lap, his tallit falling down across her shoulders. There was also one family with three generations present: a member celebrating his sixtieth birthday, his parents who attended for the occasion, and his son who chanted Torah in his honor.

As it was Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Shabbat,” the Shabbat which falls before Pesach) I thought of the special Haftarah we read for this occasion, Malachi 3, which ends with the classic passage:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with parents…”

The image of reconciliation in these verses are meant to evoke a sense of the messianic era ushered in by the prophet Elijah. I couldn’t help but think yesterday, as I looked around our sanctuary, that we were all getting a little taste of messianic days right there in our modest little minyan.

Children, of course, are central to the Pesach story. The Torah commands us to teach this story to our children, and the seder includes numerous pedagogical exercises that help us instill its sacred meaning and relevance: the youngest child asks the Four Questions; we read about the four different kinds of children who respond differently to the seder experience; we add songs at the end of the seder in order to keep our children (hopefully!) interested and engaged. On a somewhat darker level, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the seder story also includes notable examples of children in peril. In particular, Pharoah’s decree to kill all newborn male children drives home the tragically familiar truth that it is inevitably children – the most vulnerable members of society – who are the first to bear the brunt of communal persecution.

This is for me one central but too often ignored lesson of the Pesach story: the sacred imperative to protect the rights of all our children. It is an imperative that goes to the very survival of society – for the very future of communities and nations are directly related to the extent to which they safeguard the well-being of their youngest members. (In this regard, I am intrigued by the full text of Malachi 3: “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”)

Alas, in the 21st century, our global community is failing their children miserably. According to Human Rights Watch:

The global scandal of violence against children is a horror story too often untold. With malice and clear intent, violence is used against the members of society least able to protect themselves – children in school, in orphanages on the street, in refugee camps and war zones, in detention, and in fields and factories. In its investigations of human rights abuses against children, Human Rights Watch has found that in every region of the world, in almost every aspect of their lives, children are subject to unconscionable violence, most often perpetrated by the very individuals charged with their safety and well-being.

Here at home, the National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that

Twelve million children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level—which is about $16,000 for a family of three and $19,000 for a family of four. Perhaps more stunning is that 5 million children live in families with incomes of less than half the poverty level—and the numbers are rising.

The Children’s Defense Fund offers the following sobering data:

– A baby is born without health care every 52 seconds;

– A child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds – 906,000 a year.

– Over 3/4 of youths in detention have untreated mental health disorders.

– A child drops out of school every nine seconds of the school day.

– One out of every three Black baby boys born in 2001 will spend time in prison during their lifetimes.

If we do believe that Pesach compels us not only to teach our children but to keep them safe, then facts such as these should awaken us to resolve and inspire us to action. Please click the links above and find how how you can help make a difference this Passover.

May we find the means to reconcile ourselves to all our children; may we ourselves bring the Messiah, speedily in our own day.

The Cultivation of Gratitude

gratitude-1.jpgAmong the many sacrifices described in Parshat Tzav this week is the Thanksgiving Offering (“zevach todah”) which is described as one of the sacrifices of well-being (“zivchey shelamim“). The Torah gives few details about the specific functions of the Thanksgiving Offering; the Talmud (Berachot 54b) surmises that they were offered as expressions of gratitude in response to safe passage through dangerous circumstances. (Some commentators believe that the Gomel Blessing which is recited during the Torah service is a direct outgrowth of the Talmud’s discussion of Thanksgiving Offering.)

Gratitude has been considered to be an important spiritual concept by religious traditions from time immemorial. Judaism is replete with expressions of gratitude: the Shabbat and holiday liturgy includes numerous Psalms of Thanksgiving. Modeh Ani, the blessing Jews are prescribed to utter upon awakening every morning, is statement of gratitude for the very breath we breathe. The Blessing of Thanksgiving (“Birkat Hoda’ah”) which is recited during the Amidah prayer is as powerful a liturgical statement of gratitude as we are ever likely to find:

…we thank you for our lives entrusted to your hand, our souls placed in your care, for your miracles that greet us every day, and for your wonders and the good things that are with us every hour, morning, noon and night…

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who has written extensively about the spiritual meaning of gratitude, suggests that gratefulness is a spiritual attitude to be cultivated and lived. He describes gratefulness as the moment of awakening to a true gift: the “full appreciation of something altogether undeserved, utterly gratuitous.” In other words, we experience true gratefulness when we accept the gift of life fully – without discrimination or reservation.

Of course, “living gratefully” can be particularly challenging during those inevitable moments when we are feeling the least grateful – when pain or sorrow invariably enter our lives. It is especially during the more difficult times, Brother Steindl-Rast suggests, that we must find the means to be the live gratefully:

A grateful person trusts enough to give life another chance, to stay open for surprises. Since you are doing this, you are grateful, whether or not you can feel it. Like a ship in dense fog, you will have to go on automatic pilot. But the fog will lift. Better still, your going forward gets you out of the fog. As you stay open in grateful trust, grateful feelings will start to bud.

Times that challenge us physically, emotionally, and spiritually may make it almost impossible for us to feel grateful. Yet, we can decide to live gratefully, courageously open to life in all its fullness. By living the gratefulness we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live.

When we view gratitude as somehow dependant upon a the receipt of a specific gift, we will inevitably come to regard it as an emotion that will ebb and flow depending upon how grateful we happen to feel. But cultivating gratitude means training ourselves to greet each day in the spirit of gratitude – even when we don’t happen to feel particularly grateful. Indeed, to experience this level of gratefulness is to understand the true meaning of the Thanksgiving Offering.

Postscript: Did you know that scientists are increasingly discovering the health benefits of living gratefully? Click here for more info!

Naming the Nameless

iraq.jpgHowever one feels about the policies that have made such a mess of the Iraq war, it is politically and morally unacceptable to be so distanced from those in harm’s way and their families.

Tom Brokaw (Washington Post, 11/26/2006)

There’s been hardly any media interest in the unrelieved agony of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. It’s an ugly subject, and the idea has taken hold that Americans need to be protected from stories or images of the war that might be disturbing. As a nation we can wage war, but we don’t want the public to be too upset by it.

Bob Herbert (New York Times, 4/25/2005)

America is a nation at war. That is a simple and obvious statement, but I believe most of us would be hard pressed to articulate how this fact affects us in any fundamental way. Unless we have loved ones directly involved in this conflict, the war in Iraq war has precious little personal impact upon our lives. We know that American soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying on a daily basis, but for the most of us the dead and wounded are merely faceless, nameless individuals in a conflagration taking place far, far away from our homes.

As of this writing, 3072 members of the Coalition Forces have now been killed in the war. (It has been widely reported that more US soldiers have now been killed than the number who perished during the 9/11 attacks). Iraqi civilian deaths are more difficult to ascertain, but most estimate that well more than 50,000 have been killed since the war began in March 2003. But lest we become inured to these kinds of statistics, we would do well to remind ourselves that each of these individuals is a father or a mother, a friend and a loved one. To paraphrase the Talmud, each person killed in Iraq is a whole world unto him or herself.

Starting last December, JRC began the practice of reading the names of five American soldiers and five Iraqi civilians who have been killed in the war in Iraq during our Shabbat services (before our Prayer for Peace.) It’s our way of very simply reminding ourselves that we are nation at war, that war comes with a real human cost – that war is not just an abstract concept, but a very terrible and daily reality for real life individuals.

We also want to honor the truth that the massive loss of Iraqi civilian life has been a particularly tragic consequence of this conflict. Unlike the US war dead, our country does not keep public record of civilian casualties. – and thus it is all the more critical to name the nameless, to honor the memory of innocent Iraqis who are living and dying in the crossfire of war.

Some might reasonably ask, why are we singling out those killed in this particular conflict? Aren’t there people dying in Israel and the territories, in Darfur and Somalia, in any number of horrible conflicts around the world?

There are certainly no lack of human tragedies that would be worthy of mention when we gather for services. The prospect is truly overwhelming to contemplate. But being overwhelmed is no excuse for paralysis or silence. I personally believe that if we’re to honor the memory of the fallen in our midst, we must find the wherewithal to begin somewhere.

I’d like to think that by naming the nameless of this one terrible conflict, we’re naming the nameless of wars everywhere.

(To read in-depth news and lists regarding US soldier deaths and casualities, visit Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. For news and lists of Iraqi civilian deaths, visit Iraq Body Count.)