Our Parsha’s Prescription for Trauma

D’var Torah –  Parshat Vayakhel
Brotherhood Shabbat , March 2, 2019

by Steven N. Broder

Just between us, I don’t think that many in the congregation actually are reading today’s parsha.   After all, it is mostly a tediously detailed blueprint of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which houses the Ark and the Tablets. Lots about cubits. And acacia wood.  And sockets connecting the cubits of acacia wood.  And cloths. And sealskin tapestry.

Further, it is not even the first time we have seen these instructions and constructions, since they are largely a repeat from the last three parshiyot.

However, it is the context of today’s Torah portion that gives it great meaning. Just last week, we read about the Golden Calf and the terrible consequences:  God’s anger is aroused, the people are punished, three thousand Israelites are killed by the Levites, a plague breaks out, and Moses once again leaves.

It is difficult to imagine a more frightening national trauma.

Given a deeper reading, the parsha this morning suggests that if we are willing to look up from the construction details and broaden our gaze, we have in front of us a prescription for how to recover from trauma.

There are many forms that psychological trauma takes. Our speaker, Irwin Harris, will soon tell us about the attack on his Etz Chaim community and the trauma endured by the congregation. As a nation, we are confronted weekly with traumas created by those who take innocent lives. Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland are now localities that are known nationally. Other traumas occur to soldiers, especially as battlefields have become amorphous and combatants blend with civilians.  Many individuals are traumatized in their own homes through abuse and neglect and then re-traumatized when their stories are not believed. Others experience trauma through loss—of loved ones, of health, of status, of financial security.

Although a person’s response to trauma is very much an individual matter, these reactions have several features in common:

  • Feelings of fear, anxiety, rage, depression
  • Experiences of reliving the event, loss of memory and concentration, nightmares, and disturbed sleep
  • Behaviors of withdrawal, avoidance, and reactions out of proportion to the current situation.

Underlying all of these, there is often a terrible sense of lack of control, mistrust, and pessimism.

How does our parsha offer assistance with recovering from trauma? I see four ways.

First, today’s Torah reading emphasizes community.

The Parsha opens with, and derives its name from, this first step. “Vayakhel Moshe et kal edat B’Nai Yisrael.” “ Moses assembled the entire community of Israel.” This phrase is repeated in verse 20.

As we see many times in the Torah, repetition is an intentional device to bring emphasis and to draw our attention. The word Vayakhel has the same root as Kahal, congregation.  Kal, all of you. Edat, community, B’Nai Yisrael, your group identity. Any one of these three words alone would have been sufficient to identify whom it was that Moses was addressing.

But the message is clear: when trauma makes you want to separate and pull away, do your best to remain with others, be a part, reach out or let others reach out to you. As E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect!” and as Rav Chazan Aliza said last Shabbos, “When you feel alone, go to minyan and stay for breakfast.” Not easy to do but necessary for healing.

Next, the parsha encourages self-care.

The first commandment Moses gives to the assembled people is to observe the Sabbath and rest. After trauma, self-care is essential. Many individuals irrationally feel guilty about surviving a community or personal trauma and do not feel worthy of taking time out for themselves. Yet Shabbat tells us to do just that. Stop working. Eat good food. Rest. Spend time with family and friends. Recover.

Third, Vayakhel tells us to give to others.

Perhaps the best known aspect of this parsha contains this third element of recovering from trauma. Moses asks the people to give of their material belongings to contribute to the raw materials needed to build the Tabernacle.  The Israelites respond overwhelmingly to the point that Moses has to say, “Enough already.”

What does this have to do with recovery from trauma?  The research literature and clinical experience tell us that one of the best non-medical ways to treat depression from trauma is to volunteer to help others. Volunteering requires us to commit, allows us to feel useful and necessary, and increases motivation. It promotes a sense of common purpose, and therefore provides meaning. Compassion and empathy for those helped lead to a sense of gratitude. Helping others helps oneself.

Vayakhel offers one more way to respond to trauma: Be creative in how you fashion the new reality in which you live.

In the Parsha, artists and crafts people, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, construct a holy space that is beautiful, portable and inspiring. The people turn their anguish into artistry and the Tabernacle is created.

What is the message for us?  After a trauma, an individual, a community, a nation, must rebuild. We have to reach deeply inside to hold onto what is core, and yet create something new that will help us find hope and go on. We have to play the hand that we are dealt creatively.

In her Torah commentary, Hanna Perlberger summarizes:

“The message of Vayakhel is this: Gather up your broken pieces and rebuild. Construct a holy sanctuary. Don’t wallow in despair and self-defeat. Reconnect. Restore. Repair. G‑d gave us an eternal set of blueprints with which to reconstruct after we self-destruct—a spiritual compass by which to regain our bearings. Then even after we’ve taken a beating and endured loss, it is still possible to achieve happiness. It is still possible to live with joy. “

Shabbat Shalom.

Keep Temple Emanuel Preschool #1 in Newton!

Show your Temple Emanuel Pride and help keep Temple Emanuel Preschool #1 in Newton! 

L’Dor V’Dor – From Generation to Generation – We have been so honored to have been the winner of the Readers Choice Awards for the past two years; let’s make it three! Please take a minute to vote for Temple Emanuel Preschool.

Voting has already begun – It’s quick and easy; under “Local Services” you will see “Daycare Preschool” and tell Newton why Temple Emanuel Preschool should be the #1 Reader’s Choice in Newton!

Purim Is Coming!

Purim Is Coming!

March 20 & 21

We want YOU to read Megillah this Purim here at Temple Emanuel!

PURIM this year is celebrated on Wednesday evening, March 20 & continues on Purim day, Thursday morning, March 21.

We are looking for members of ALL AGES to read megillah in BOTH services, our full reading and abbreviated reading services, on Wednesday evening, March 20.

The ‘Family-style abbreviated service runs from 6:30-7:30 p.m.

The Full megillah reading begins with Ma’ariv at 6:30 with the megillah reading beginning at 7:00pm.

If you’ve read before it’s time to sign up again!
If you’ve never read here at Emanuel but would like to, NOW IS THE TIME!

To read megillah in the Family-style service in the Rabbi Chiel Sanctuary please Email Steve Thompson ASAP

To read megillah in the Full Megillah service in  Adelson Community Hall please Email Dan Nesson ASAP

Rebooting Resolutions

Parshat Shemot
December 29, 2018 / 21 Tevet 5779

By Rabbi Sonia Saltzman

Last month I was in Tel Aviv and I came across a catchy phrase that was written on a blackboard at a restaurant – of all places. I googled the phrase and learned that it was coined not by an Israeli but by an American -a motivational speaker named Michael Altshuler. The phrase read as follows:

The bad news is that time flies, the good news is that you’re the pilot!

This phrase came to mind as I considered what I wanted to share with you this morning. I thought to myself: it’s almost 2019 – time does fly. And while we already “did” resolutions back in September, the start of the secular year gives us an opportunity to re-boot. And this phrase -about us being the “pilot,” pretty much summarizes the framework in which we made these resolutions:

It’s up to us to travel in the direction of our best selves.

The road is unpredictable and we shouldn’t delay.

There will be unexpected bumps along the way.

And where we go and how we respond is for us to decide.

We’re the pilot!

And just by chance, on this Shabbat – the last of 2018, our Torah reading reminded us of this message of “agency” and “urgency.” It’s really quite the coincidence that as we begin 2019, we also begin the book of Exodus – the book that marks our journey from slavery to liberation; from Egypt to the promised land. As you know, in our tradition mitzrayim – or Egypt, refers not only to the great power that enslaved the Israelites but also to the psychological forces that enslave us. We recall this story everyday as part of our liturgy in an effort to internalize it’s message: that radical change is indeed possible – both in ourselves and the world at large.

It’s just the story we need to hear as we welcome 2019 -as we revisit the commitments and resolutions we made a few months ago. But not only because this story carries a message of hope and change but because it’s rooted in an equally radical journey towards dependence and gratitude. This other journey -towards acknowledging dependence and cultivating gratitude, gets much less “air time” but it’s the journey that I’d like to highlight this morning.

I’ll start with the two principal characters in our narrative, Moses and Pharaoh, models of gratitude and ingratitude, respectively. When, for example, the Torah says that “Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph”- what it really means to say, according to the rabbis, is that Pharaoh didn’t acknowledge the great debt he owed Joseph for saving the people from starvation. Pharaoh is incapable of acknowledging anyone or anything beyond himself: not Joseph, not even God. Pharaoh shows us that being ungrateful means worshipping only oneself.

Moses is the exact opposite. Various midrashim point to the gratitude that book-ends his mission to free the Israelites – his gratitude towards the Midianites and to Jethro in particular, who welcomed him when he fled Egypt. The moment the rabbis highlight comes right after the encounter at the burning bush. Moses’s response to this encounter is a bit surprising. He goes straight to Jethro, his father-in-law, who has “been there” for him all along. Moses wants to ensure that Jethro is on board with this mission. And forty years later, when God instructs Moses to take revenge on the Midianites, Moses remembers – says the midrash, what he owes them and stays back. Moses is modeling for the Israelites a radically different way of being. And they sure need it given how much they complain during the wilderness years. Gratitude is far from their strong suit!

But the thing is this: it’s not that we have two parallel themes in our master narrative – one, a journey towards liberation and the other, a journey towards gratitude. These two themes are very much intertwined. Because what makes oppression possible is a culture, a mindset, that refuses to truly see others and to acknowledge our dependence on them. Ingratitude blinds us to the reality and dignity of other people. Rabbi Shai Held, to whom I am indebted for his thoughtful essay on this theme, explains it beautifully when he says:

“Ingratitude constitutes a kind of prison. When we refuse to be grateful we close ourselves off from the possibility of real relationship and connection to others. To be ungrateful is to be be shackled in a prison of our own making; it’s like living in a form of solitary confinement. However, in allowing ourselves to be grateful we free ourselves from the prison of our own self-enclosure and become available to meet and be met by others.” ( The Heart of Torah, Shai Held)

In reading his words, what came to mind was the movie Roma which I recently saw; a movie that is getting a lot of attention as an early frontrunner for best picture. Roma is set in the 70’s in Mexico City and to a large extent it explores just this idea – that ingratitude blinds us from truly seeing others. The main character is a young nanny from the countryside who gives of herself in small and big ways to the family she works for, especially the children. She gently wakes them up in the early morning and gets them ready for school, she feeds them dinner and sweetly tucks them in at night. In between she picks up for all of them, including the dog. But in many ways she is invisible to the family, especially the Mom – until the day she risks her life to save one of the children. It’s a picture – both literally and figuratively, of ingratitude at the extreme.

I wonder how our own lives would change if we brought into sharper focus the ways in which family, friends, colleagues, caregivers have” been there” for us. How paying attention to even the small ways in which we’ve relied on others can help us mend and deepen relationships. The challenge, however, is that opening ourselves up to gratitude isn’t easy:

It’s hard to look beyond the brokenness in our lives; to look beyond the pain we face.

It’s hard to appreciate the partial successes in our lives; to celebrate the small steps along the way.

Our tradition doesn’t shy away from these challenges. In fact, it confronts them head on.

Every year, for example, when we re-tell our master narrative around the Passover table and sing Dayeinu, we are doing just that: celebrating the partial, the incomplete. Most of us join in with great enthusiasm when we finally get to Dayeinu. “Enough will all the recounting,” some might say, “let’s eat!” Of course, that’s not what the song is all about. What we’re really saying is that we’re grateful for each and every step along the way, even when we’re not there yet. Dayenu means that we should take a moment to appreciate each step as if it were enough. It’s about feeling the fullness of the incomplete and pushing on….

Around my Passover table I always turn to my mother to lead us in singing Dayeinu ; not because she has a beautiful voice, she would be the first to admit that she doesn’t, but because Dayeinu is truly her perspective on life. And she has fiercely held on to this perspective even after my father passed away this July. My parents would have celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary next week. My mother, however, doesn’t dwell on the extra years they might have enjoyed together; she pushes on with gratitude in her heart for the years they did have.

Since my father died, I’ve been going to morning minyan at our shul. There is a beautiful tradition at the minyan that when the period of mourning ends, the mourner shares a few words about the person for whom they’ve been saying kaddish. A few months ago, a congregant spoke about her beloved husband; about how he devoted his professional life to helping others and the ways in which he extended himself to family and friends. And then, she spoke about his deep attachment to the gratitude blessing in the Amidah; the blessing that says Modim anachnu lach. I was deeply moved by the fact that someone who gave so much was so eager to give thanks.

And as she spoke, I thought about the midrash that says that in the future all prayers will be annulled, except for the prayer of gratitude. I suspect the reason is because gratitude doesn’t come easily to us; it needs to be nurtured. In fact, the Torah warns against forgetting to express gratitude when things are going well; against thinking that it’s all thanks to our own efforts.

If it’s hard to express gratitude when all is going well, how is it even possible when things are difficult? The rabbis of the Talmud offer us a powerful story that speaks to this. It comes in response to the question (Brachot 7b): “who is the first person in the world to express gratitude to God?” The answer they give is not what we might expect. According to the rabbis, the first person to express gratitude was Leah. Their answer is surprising since we know from Torah that she is profoundly sad. Jacob, her husband, barely notices her. It’s Rachel, the younger sister and the second wife, that he loves. You might remember that Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah and despite the three sons that she gives him, Leah remains unloved.

But when Leah gives birth to her fourth son something happens. Her mindset shifts and all of a sudden she is able to see the fullness of what she has rather than her disappointments. We know that this shift takes place because of the name she gives this fourth child. Her three other sons carried names that expressed the deep sadness of being unloved but when her fourth son is born she calls him Yehudah or Judah which means: “I will praise God.” Her disappointment is real but she allows gratitude to take root in her heart. The Talmud tells us that it’s because Leah discovers the capacity to feel gratitude amidst sorrow that she merits being called the first person ever to express gratitude to God. And from Yehuda we get our name, Yehudim . One might say that a Jew is a person who -like Leah, can express gratitude even when our dreams aren’t fully realized.

You’re probably wondering, however: what about our other name, Israel or Yisrael? This is the name Jacob receives after wrestling all night with the angel of God. Yisrael means to struggle, to challenge God. And so, while one of our names, Yehuda, is rooted in acceptance and gratitude, the other, Yisrael, is all about struggle and change. Our two names, much like our master narrative, reflect this dual identity that our tradition asks us to embrace.

It’s almost 2019. As we revisit the resolutions we made back in September, what would it mean to infuse them with a mindset of both radical change and radical gratitude? What would it mean to do this in our personal lives as well as in our approach to the world at large -which sorely needs our help?

Because, the thing is this: when we can shine a light on what we are grateful for, we are that much better equipped to work towards change. Gratitude re-energizes us and helps us move forward.

Yes, the bad news is that time flies.

The good news is that it’s up to us to take in the blessings in our lives, to celebrate the incremental steps along the way and to travel forward with agency and urgency in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

Security at Temple Emanuel

We continue to reassess our security needs in tandem with Newton police and security professionals.

Due to the hard work of our security committee over the past several years, we have implemented a number of security measures based on their regular check-ins with police and other security experts. In light of the horrific acts in Pittsburgh, we have taken immediate action in implementing the next phase in our security plan in ensuring that armed security guards will be stationed at both doors when the building is opened.

We could use your help as together we can stand stronger:

  • If you notice someone who looks out of place or acts in an unusual manner, please inform a Temple Emanuel staff member Or, if you feel particularly threatened, call 911.
  • Please make sure you bring your fob with you when you come to the building. If you do not have a fob, please contact the office to receive one. Please do not share your fob with anyone else. Please report lost fobs immediately.

As always, we continually strive to strike the right balance between establishing a secure and safe space while maintaining a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact Jeff Lurie, Temple Emanuel’s Executive Director.

Show Up for Shabbat

Pittsburgh is watershed. There is before Pittsburgh and after Pittsburgh.

The massacre at Tree of Life has and will result in more security at Temple Emanuel and at synagogues throughout America.

And it has created more conversation about how truly safe and secure Jews are in the United States. I have heard grounded, rational people share how vulnerable, exposed, and frightened they feel now. That is why we have had, and will continue to have, including on Shabbat, upgraded security measures, including uniformed, armed Newton police officers standing guard. Your safety and security are our first priority.

That is also why it is all the more imperative that we join a national movement, #ShowUpForShabbat, and come together. Not afraid. Not divided. Not missing from the pews. But here, stronger than ever.

Shabbat morning is going to be very powerful.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is going to join us to read the Prayer for Our Country and to offer words of love, presence and support.

I am going to read words from one of our members, Ellen Segal, who is from Pittsburgh, who knew the two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, very well. She and her husband Steve attended the funeral and will share what it was like to be at their service and burial.

Rabbi Robinson is going to deliver a powerful sermon entitled “Tending the Tree of Life in the Valley of the Shadow.”

We will sing America the Beautiful together.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This Shabbat let us radiate light and love,

Join AJC in honoring the memory of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims and standing up to anti-Semitism and all forms of hate by participating in the nationwide #ShowUpForShabbat campaign.

AJC is calling on Jewish communities across the country—along with elected officials, religious and civic leaders, and other allies, both Jewish and non-Jewish—to flock to synagogues this coming Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday, November 2-3).

For those who want to #ShowUpForShabbat but do not belong to
Temple Emanuel, please join us!

Shabbat Alive! or Kabbalat Shabbat Services :  Friday evening | 6:30 pm
Shabbat Morning Services :  Saturday morning | 6:45 am and 9:30 am

Annual Appeal 5779: Turning Storm Clouds Into Sunlight

Yom Kippur Annual Appeal, 5779
September 18-19, 2018 — 10 Tishri 5779

One Shabbat morning an elderly woman who walked into a shul where she was greeted at the door by a friendly usher who offered to take her to her seat.  Where would you like to sit?

The front row, please.

The front row?  Why so close?

Oh, I really want to be able to hear the rabbi’s sermon. I don’t want to miss a single word!

Have you ever been to our services, the usher asked?  The rabbi is a nice guy and all, but frankly his sermons are not scintillating.

Really, she said.  Do you know who I am?

No, he said.

I am the rabbi’s mother.  I think his sermons are fabulous.

Do you know who I am, the usher asked?

No, she said.

Good, he answered. Let’s keep it that way.

I first told this joke a few weeks ago in a sermon about not writing people off.  The usher and the mother write each other off, and in this season we should recommit to not doing that.

I tell this joke again tonight because it points to the inevitability of disagreements in a community. People see things differently. The usher and the mother have different opinions about the rabbi.  So too, people here see things differently. We are like our country. Diverse. Divided. Passionate.   Some think we are too left. Others think we are too right. That has not changed.   The important point is that these very real differences have not stopped our shul from being a place of Jewish values that inspires all of us, in ways consistent with our convictions, to radiate kindness, compassion and love into the world.

When we shared the good news that Quin, the woman from Uganda whose life was at risk because she was gay, was granted asylum by a federal judge, the response from our community was overwhelming.  Within one day more than sixty Temple Emanuel members volunteered to help.  Seven families said we’ll house her indefinitely. One family is doing so.

That’s not to mention the daily rides, calls, meals, shiva visits, sick visits, that happen in our community every day.  Somehow, magically, our beloved member Chanah Berkovitz just happens to appear every single morning at 7:00 for morning minyan, and every single evening at 7:30 for evening minyan, even though she no longer drives.  Immaculate transportation.  The  miracle is the love of our members who  drive her every day.  Small wonder that she calls Temple Emanuel an “oasis of spirituality.”

Kindness, compassion and love originate here and spread out to the world.

But is that enough of a response? Is that perhaps a cop-out?  Isn’t the world in an urgent moment?  Of course it is. Doesn’t our country need your advocacy, not just your kindness?  Of course it does.

But like the rest of the country, we don’t agree on what the right political outcome looks like.  We can agree on the importance of Jewish values, and those values are even more important in these sharply divided times.    These are the Jewish values that our world needs more of, and you can find these values right here: respecting other people, k’vod habriot; personal humility, anivut; the ability to listen, shema yisrael; and that we act consistent with our principles.  That we make a difference in the world, tikkun olam.

That’s why we are sending 25 teens to Israel this December to deepen their love of the land and people of Israel.  Get inspired here, make a difference out there.

That’s why we are doing a family mission on March of the Living, taking our families from Auschwitz to Israel, to confront the history and present reality of anti-Semitism. Get inspired here, make a difference out there.

That’s why we raise money every year for 30 years for the soup kitchen of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church, and why our volunteers regularly serve in the soup kitchen. Get inspired here, make a difference out there.

The services, programs, classes, and events that allow us to get inspired here and make a difference out there take resources.  That is why our Annual Appeal is so important. 28% of our revenue comes from our Annual Appeal. Your support literally allows us to do what we do and to be who we are.

One fine August afternoon this summer, Elias and I were officiating at a wedding for one of our families in Newport, Rhode Island.  All weekend long there was a 70 % chance of rain in Newport.  As Elias and I drove to the wedding, it poured the whole time.

Fortunately, this couple had signed up for the Temple Emanuel Clergy Weather Protection Package where, for a slight additional fee, we guarantee perfect weather for outdoor venues.  Just as we got to the wedding site, the rains stopped, the heavens cleared, the sun shined, and we had a perfect hour of sunlight for a very happy bride and groom.

The storm clouds gathered, but through the power of love and grace the storm clouds were turned to sunlight.

With your help, it can happen again, right now.  With your generous gift to our Annual Appeal, we can turn storm clouds of division into sun light through the power of your love. Thank you, and g’mar chatimah tovah.

A Conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi

On June 3, 2018, the Award-winning author and Shalom Hartman Institute senior fellow Yossi Klein Halevi joined in conversation with Aviva Klompas, Associate VP of Strategic Israel Engagement at CJP, celebrating the launch of Yossi’s groundbreaking new book,  Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor