The whole world is a narrow bridge

Studying Torah with Rabbi Burstein, z"l

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid ~ Rabbi Nachman of Breslav

כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוּ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לאֹ לְפַחֵד כְּלַל

This was one of the favorite quotes of my rabbi, Marcus L. Burstein, z”l

As this past day of Yom Kippur ended, and after the gates closed at Neilah, the soul of a tzaddik  (a righteous man) went back to its Source to make sure we would be sheltered under the sukkah of peace.

 

He had been my rabbi since 2013. At a time when things were not very easy for us, he came  with a mission to serve us and lead us towards change.

He had the smile that made you forget about grudge or bitterness, he had the heart that made you melt even when you were angry or upset, he had the listening skills and the wisdom of a very old and gentle soul.

I will always remember when he arrived in our congregation and the first Shabbat service as our new rabbi: because we were worried about the dwindling attendance at Shabbat services anyways, and moreover that Shabbat falling on the Fourth of July weekend, we feared about being not able to welcome him nicely with at least more than a minyan, so we had made sure to communicate well about that service: what we had not understood yet, was that this particular rabbi had already established such a personal connection with each and every one of the congregants, during the preliminary meetings and not only for the search committee members but for all who had been able to attend those “Meet the new rabbi” events (not more than two or three, if my memory serves well) so the sanctuary was filled to capacity and beyond!

And the ambiance was astounding in that room, our cantor was on fire and the ruach (spirit) was stronger than it had been in a very long time.

Rabbi Burstein was the first one to be delighted and surprised: he had no idea we were so musical, and so passionate maybe, but he also had no idea he had the power to bring the very best out of us. That was the first public encounter with our congregation. From then on, until his very last worship with us on Rosh haShanah second day of 5777, he radiated only love from others and the perfect connection with everybody. This is a gift that is rare.

And this was only at the end of his first week of working at our congregation.

Rabbi Burstein had also asked me to assist him setting up his computer on his first day. And I will remember that day all my life too.

You see, that day was a Monday, July 1st, 2013.

I do remember exactly that Monday morning because torrential summer storms had battered our county. I had made an appointment maybe around 10 am with the new rabbi and was still at my gym when it poured. At about the same time,  Rabbi Burstein was still at his home and the same storm had suddenly flooded his basement. He made it to our appointment late because of the incident and arrived a bit shaken. He told me how he had nearly died because he foolishly tried to stop the water from rushing into the place, but the force of the current was terrible and dangerous; he escaped harm but it had truly been frightening.

At this point of his retelling the story his office phone rang and because it was his first day he asked me to answer (we had no caller ID on those phones) and it turned out it was his mom so I left the office for privacy and they talked while I went to work in the main office on my computer.

Rabbi Burstein came then to let me know he had finished his conversation after a while and that I could come back to set up his computer and just by his looks, I saw that he needed to be somewhere else than in an office setting up a computer: I asked him:

– Rabbi, would you like your mother to hug you right now? I am good at this and can provide too!

He laughed with his absolutely wonderful laugh and without missing a beat gave me a “Marcus Hug” and I held him tight in what felt like one of the most reassuring hugs I could give when my son has escaped a great danger. We went back to his office, sat, and I said that we should recite the gomel, which we actually did at that Shabbat service I mentioned earlier!

We had started the most amazingly significant relationship that day. I was crying writing this memory during the shivah period because I knew that his soul was still remembering with me and I want to never forget those feelings for they are such blessings.

 

Rabbi Burstein impacted me as a person in the much too short years I got to know and learn from him. He made me a much better person and a certainly better Jew.

There are special moments in the too short period I got to call Rabbi Burstein, z”l “our rabbi”.

“BLTs” as illustrated by the very nice picture that is opening this blog post  embody the spirit that I want to convey so well.  BLTs here stands for Breakfast and Learning Torah (or Brunch, depending on whether the Talmud Torah was taking place early before a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony or later when there was only a 7th Grade class that Saturday morning).

This was a new program Rabbi Burstein had started. Before his arrival, Torah study took place on Sundays during Religious School. For some reasons, parents did not really sign up for that class when it shifted to Saturday morning, so for a couple of years most of those Shabbat mornings were my “date” with my rabbi and I loved it!

The first one who would arrive in the morning would prepare the coffee. I had my mug, and rabbi Burstein had his, I knew how he liked his bagel, he knew which ones I did not like, we discussed the merits of the cream cheese choices and of course talked about food on that occasion, a topic that gave him a chance to talk more than I since he was a cook and I was not, but I could bring up sephardic menus as I recalled them from my family and sometimes we even exchanged recipes. Because do not be mistaken, cooking is torah!

Once our breakfast would be prepared, we would sit and say the bracha laasok bedivrei torah and go into the portion he had prepared… or not. Because sometimes, we had many other things to discuss as soon as the first verse we had read was taking us to an idea, or because I needed some spiritual guidance in a time that was not easy for me to navigate: you see, I was not very happy with the direction the congregation was heading to and I was struggling with negative feelings a lot.

Rabbi Burstein did not only listen. Sometimes, he opened up about his own struggles.

Often, we traded roles because I was happy to bring some of the interpretations of the text I had studied with my previous rabbis. Rabbi Burstein’s openness was the most wonderful thing I can remember. I never felt judged, I never felt I was wrong (nor right, in that matter! it was just a shared discovery because most of the times, the ideas we were laying out were taking their own path to make new meanings that neither of us had anticipated and it made us simply happy!).

It was often too short. I was always surprised how refreshed I felt after our BLTs. I know that after we cleaned up there was either a service that I would enjoy and sing my heart out or if it had been after a class, I would go back home and have the rest of the Shabbat with my boys and continue to think about all we had brought up. And it was helping me grow.

Rabbi Burstein was so humble and accepting.

When my father died, in April 2014, shortly before Passover,  I told him bluntly that no rabbis were allowed because my father was such an apikoyres that I did not want his soul to be upset if a rabbi officiated at his shivah!

Rabbi Burstein stood with us in my condo among all the other friends who had come to comfort me, and my son lead the service with me. But I still asked him to sing the El Male Rahamim for us. This was so special too. A memory that I can only cherish. On my father’s first yahrzeit, I recorded Kol haOlam Kulo, which rabbi Burstein had taught me to understand and love.

When you have to cross a narrow place, you should not fear having to do it. Keep going.

Even if scared.

Just keep going.

Rabbi Burstein did just that. When he learned of the dreadful diagnosis that explained why he had not felt so good for a few months, around the time of Rosh haShana 5776, he went for very aggressive and devastating treatments to fight the tumors from the rare form of cancer that had taken over his body. Even when he was afraid, he kept being the same giving person, listening to us, thanking us for our notes and making plans for his congregation that was going through a significant transition, that felt difficult for many of us, especially without his guidance and physical presence.

We had mourned our cantor less than a year ago, and some of us had lost their best friend and musical director when Kathy Storfer died also prematurely in November 2015. Our sanctuary had closed and we were worshipping in a very different place with different customs. Each time, Rabbi Burstein was joining us, he was delivering a powerful message of hope and resilience, and always making sure we were okay.

I have been struggling to publish this post for too long now. I wanted to give some of the memories that were personal to me, like the hydrangeas that he brought me when I returned from burying my father in France. We then shared the stories that this plant was bringing to my mind, from the time my father was a young teen in occupied France during WWII.

I wanted to share how grateful I was that he had played such a significant role in my own son’s life as a teenager who faced heartbreak and had to navigate his age’s turmoils without a father figure around, and rabbi Burstein played this role so smoothly and without being asked, it was the best gift I could receive and I had very few words to express my gratitude in an appropriate manner.

I prepared to chant some verses of the first chapter of the Torah on the second day of Rosh haShanah. I had not expected rabbi Burstein to attend the service because I knew how exhausted he was at the time nearing the end. But he was there. It was truly special, I could spend a few private time with him when he gave me the book I had asked him the references, as I wanted to make sure I would remember the sources of the teachings I had loved most from his sermons for the High Holy Day seasons he had served our congregation. Not only he gave me the actual book, with his handwritten marks and post-its still in it that will guide me to the places he valued or questioned most, but he inscribed it with the loveliest of inscriptions for me.

Rabbi Haddon summed up the essence of Rabbi Marcus Burstein, z”l by saying that he was the essence of tsimtsum, צמצום / the contraction: allowing others to grow through his own contraction. As Rabbi Haddon added: “Quite remarkable”.

 

 

#BlogElul 5776 #ElulGram – Elul 29: Return

sefardic_rh_sederWhen you read this final blog post of the #BlogElul series, we will be in the Days of Awe, with a new moon, a new month of holidays, a new year 5777 with its celebrations, reflections, worshipping and deliberate renewal of vows to be better persons.

This time, thanks to all of you, I feel so much more prepared to the notion of “returning” and I am immensely grateful for what I have received through the exercise and the commitment.

I learned a lot during the process, mostly that when you commit publicly to something you are more likely to accomplish what you promised.

Also, that because others give you a feedback, you receive so much more than what you give: you feel motivated to pursue, you feel loved and valued, you feel you matter and you want to be up to the challenge as a thank you for such a gift.

This is how I saw more clearly the importance of a community of people who care, who enjoy sharing and getting to know each other through common discovering.

Even though the introspection is a very intimate work, the presence of the witnesses of the process is a wonderful gift: the road seems so much more pleasant and less scary. It makes it worth to decide to undertake the journey of returning to the Source!

I feel so much stronger and less afraid. I feel ready to account for my mistakes and my shortcomings. I feel I understand the pains of others better for having traveled with them and listened as much as I could.

As I am getting ready to set a table for a Rosh ha Shana seder, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for having been faithful readers of this series, through some long, some short and some better than other posts, and I hope that the joy I took sharing them with you reached the joy I want you to experience always in feeling connected to each other.

Because, in the end, this is all that it is about: being connected.

 

May you be inscribed for a good year,

L’shana tova tikatevu

 

This year,  I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I have dedicated this endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of   מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).

#BlogElul 5776 #ElulGram – Elul 28: Give

positive_energy

I am writing this penultimate post of the series of #BlogElul after a very uplifting Shabbat I spent with loved ones and with the community of my small town that had gathered for a musical concert to promote peace and reconciliation.

Several Gospel choirs, musicians, and clergy from the area were invited to present their message of peace through stirring music. Our Jewish Choir had chosen to open our numbers with the shared Psalm 133 that reminds how good and pleasant it is to dwell together, brothers and sisters of the human kind; we sing it in Hebrew, and there is no need to know a foreign language when you are singing to understand the words of love and the message of peace.

As we sang it in the next piece “music speaks louder than words” and it may be true that it is the only thing that the whole world listens to. It certainly brought the feeling they belonged to all attending that event and while we were all brought together for that uplifting afternoon through singing, clapping, moving, the hope that our voices were able to march together towards peace was real.

For more than three hours, musicians of all colors, voices, ages, shapes, cultures, languages, traditions, lifestyle, faiths, backgrounds, personal stories gave their energy in love, not in fear, and made a powerful statement.

It was an honor and a joy to participate in the event and to feel that for some it may have been the first time they saw the similarities and the commonalities we all share by being so unique and so different.

Our emotions were high when we left the church and for many, it was a physical drain, I am sure because giving so much takes a toll on the body for singers and musicians, and also for all who organized and made this beautiful event possible and so warm and welcoming. My hope is that this act of extreme good will towards understanding goes further always.

As we prepare for a renewal of proclaiming the Creator of the Universe our everlasting and loving King, source of peace, Shalom, I hope that the message that was delivered today has touched and will grow and reach high.

Great is peace,

for all blessings flow from peace.

Great is peace,

for without peace, no blessing is complete

Great is peace,

for even in times of war, the hope for peace is undiminished.

Great is peace,

for peace is granted to the humble.

Great is peace,

for peace is granted to those who do justice.

Great is peace,

for God’s name is peace.*

*from the Midrash Sifrei B’midbar 42, excerpts

 

ברוך אתה יי עושה השלומ

Blessed is the Source of shalom, salaam, peace.

 

This year, I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I will dedicate my endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of   מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).

If you are new to the series and would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, you may click on the link below to sign up

Yes, please send me an email when you publish a new blog post!

 

#BlogElul 5776 #ElulGram – Elul 27: Bless

Photo by Condesign on Pixabay
Photo by Condesign on Pixabay

As we are nearing the end of this month of Elul, I am starting to feel the urgency of the season. Usually, when it is the sixth day, the last day before Shabbat enters, I always speed up to finish most of what I deem urgent so that I can relax and not have a pending  “fire” on the back burner when the evening comes and when I go into Shabbat mode.

So I am used to being a bit frantic once a week, but never as much as when the High Holy Days are approaching: will I be truly ready, will I have done all that could have been done to honestly look at my actions, thoughts, behaviors, intentions, relationships, promises, commitments, dreams, responsibilities?

Of course, the answer is “no”: I can always discover a new angle, another area where I made a pass, gave myself an excuse, told a white – or not so white – lie to someone or worse to myself to cover up for a lack of courage, when I thought something was too difficult or when I decided that it did not matter, to discover that it did.

The way we use time is very strange: we measure it as if it was a thing we could own, buy, give or trade: and then Shabbat is here, and that is when time tells us “I don’t belong to you, I can’t be controlled by you, look: I can stretch as much as I want and I can be a blessing for eternity“. Well, maybe time does not speak to everyone with these kinds of words, but I am trying to give the gist of what the feeling of  the day of rest is when Creation stops to go on and on and just ceases in peace. And time belongs to another world of which we can get a glimpse for as long as Shabbat is around us and as long as we have set ourselves to experience it.

 

This year, there will be one last day after Shabbat ends to get everything ready before the Day of Judgement starts. I know that I will be busy with very earthy occupations, that many people I love and care for have anticipated with me as well, in a joyful way. Not only, my son has been counting on the new month for cashing on his reward to go to the carousel, but I would love that my home also reflects the new season we will enter. Focusing on a lot of material details is often a source of stress that can easily derail one person from being present to the spiritual experience that the holy day is supposed to bring. I have lists and notebooks, there are recipes and checklists, and there are reminders and timetables. But there are all the elements of life that no one controls because there are those elements that we do not own and they belong to the categories of “what ifs” that anxious people like me tend to bring to mind too often to make sure I have scanned every possibility so that I would not lose my temper because of the unexpected.

This year, I have decided that after Shabbat enters (this post is scheduled to go out during Shabbat but it was written before, thanks to the technology that allows the prowess!) I will not fret about the unexpected and welcome anything that comes my way as an added blessing to teach me to let go.

So that I can let go of the year 5776 completely and take only its blessings for what awaits me next.

Shabbat shalom!

L’shana tova umetuka! לשנה טובה ומתוקה ! A good and sweet year to all!

 

This year, I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I will dedicate my endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of   מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).

If you are new to the series and would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, you may click on the link below to sign up

Yes, please send me an email when you publish a new blog post!

#BlogElul 5776 #ElulGram – Elul 26: Create

oakridge_lake_september

Yom Harat Olam is another way to call Rosh Hashanah and it means “the day of the creation of the world”.
In our congregation, it has been a tradition to read the story of the Creation of the World in Genesis, chapter 1 to remember this birthday and this year, I will be chanting some of the verses from that chapter recalling the creation of the fourth day: the story describes how heavenly bodies were said to be in order to separate day from night and to be signals for the holy days, the days and the years, as well as to bring light to earth.

I have never understood how some people would take this beautiful allegory as literally as they do and compare this very poetic and meaningful description of how our world functions and came into being to a very narrow understanding they have from what the words describe.

And I am not talking about the words that we use to explain or to translate or to give meaning. I am talking about the words that are chanted in a very particular trope, with their rhythm, repetition, music, and balance.

Every year, we repeat the cycle of reading the same texts, but every year they bring me new meanings, new gleanings that seem to have been produced by my experience during the past year.

There have been many moments and events that were so dark, so scary and at times it felt like the light would never come back, but it did always. And it seems it is really wise that the light and darkness are so separate, so distinct because the feelings they bring can be clearly identified and recognized and honored. There is also beauty in the darkness because it will be followed by light. Always.

 

This year, I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I will dedicate my endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of   מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).

If you are new to the series and would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, you may click on the link below to sign up

Yes, please send me an email when you publish a new blog post!

 

#BlogElul 5776 #ElulGram – Elul 25: Intend

intend

There is a very beautiful concept in Judaism called כַּוָּנָהkavanah” which would translate as “the intention” and is actually a movement, the movement of your heart that you can feel when you really mean something – when you really mean it.

It can definitely be experienced physically. It may depend on how you are attuned to your own body and if you pay attention to very subtle sensations when trying to connect your words and your mind, your spirit and your body at the same time and in the same movement. It is a matter of awareness. It is also a matter of practice: setting an intention may take some preparation, like a ritualistic one.

If we intend to really delight our guests with a feast, we will set a beautiful table, take our fine china out, make sure we get the mess out of sight, clean our surroundings and be prepared on time.

If we intend to deliver a good speech to our public, we will make sure to prepare our text, maybe time our delivery and rehearse our movements.

When we take stock of our year before the high holy days, it should be as important as setting a beautiful table and getting our thoughts all in good order. This is when I think of kavanah as residing inside my heart because I can sense a bit of heaviness settling in advance which is different from simple “stage fright”, or this instinct to flee from something that would be scary. The questions that come to my mind are all about my honesty, my sincerity: do I really mean what my words say?  Sometimes, because I talk too much, I feel like the words are just cover-ups, that there should not be that many words to express the real intention. That is when my heart wants to jump forward and just show what it is capable of doing by just loving, opening up and praising the beauty of Creation.

 

This year, I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I will dedicate my endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of   מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).

If you are new to the series and would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, you may click on the link below to sign up

Yes, please send me an email when you publish a new blog post!

#BlogElul 5776 #ElulGram – Elul 24: Hope

yellow_flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most difficult things, when you suffer from depression, is to understand the feeling of hope: it is one of those feelings that can elude you completely and it becomes only an intellectual thought when confronted with the word or the description of “hopeful”.

I can do my best to picture something I hope for and I can try to elicit an emotion that will go with anticipating the event I have pictured. I want it to make it feel exciting or motivating. It is certainly wiser to act towards an outcome with the hope it will happen. This is when the hope is real and can be carried on with integrity. It takes a lot of perseverance and not to despair ever even in the face of setbacks.

Hope and resilience seem to go hand in hand. Hope is a light in the night, towards which you walk while you continue dreaming. Sometimes it is enough to have the dream. Sometimes it requires a little bit more action, in order to transform the hope into a wish and from a wish into reality.

Holding onto hopes is a nice way of celebrating life. The human spirit needs it, especially when it is difficult to find meaning to too many events.

 

This year, I have committed to a daily blog in English to participate in @imabima’s project of Elul. I will dedicate my endeavor for the רפואה שלמה complete healing of   מרדכי אלעזר בן חנה מרים (Mordechai ben Chanah).

If you are new to the series and would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, you may click on the link below to sign up

Yes, please send me an email when you publish a new blog post!