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”.

 

 

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#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 21: Love

Shavua Tov - a good week
Havdalah at my home

 

Tonight, in most Ashkenazi congregations will begin the recitation of selichot, a word in the plural form meaning “forgive me”: these are prayers and poems that are getting us in the mood for the “big day” of Atonement which will occur on Yom Kippur.

If this series of Elul blog posts has not yet set you in the mood for the highly spiritual period that is awaiting us ahead, there are other chances with Selichot to get ready: you could start listening to the melodies that are in a different trope or tune than during the rest of the year at regular services. You could start reading poems and prayers that are listing the things that we are all going to atone for, collectively, whether we have actually committed the deed or not.

This is the time when the blast of the shofar should have acted upon as it is supposed to: a call to assemble, a call to get together and feel the commonality between human beings, in one place, with a common purpose, even if we are all bringing an individual fate, experience, array of emotions, way to process and way to express ourselves. Something from our soul is calling to unite and connect. Something stronger than words, something contained in a powerful feeling that can trigger tears of joy, excitement or smile, happiness and well-being even in the face of the daily challenges, even for as long as it takes. Something coming from a place of love.

Bonus – a niggun (melody without words) in the high holy day trope

 

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 18: Ask

Hebrew chai symbol
Eighteen in Hebrew – also “‘hai” = living

Eighteen is a favorite number in Jewish tradition. And multiples of eighteen too. Asking a question is also a big favorite in Jewish folklore. Who does not know the joke of this guy enquiring:

  • “Why do you always answer me with a question?” and the response without missing a beat:
  • “Why not?”

So, it feels extremely fitting that today’s blog post would combine both the number 18 as well as the possibility that you would ask me any question you want!

But because I am aware that you might feel a bit shorthanded with such a pirouette (and I checked that the word was in an English dictionary as well, and not only a French word… meaning that I am not entirely trying to cheat you out of a “real” blog post!), I want to redirect you to a past blog post I wrote answering exactly eighteen questions that you might very well have asked me about my being Jewish! So, please, click on this link to read the answers to these eighteen random facts that I revealed about my Jewishness! 

And, of course, if you are still left with burning questions you would like me to answer today, feel free, as always, to leave me a comment and I will do my best to answer the question… with a reply even though it might lead to another set of questions!

 

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 11: Trust

Donkey
Photo by Antranias on Pixabay.com

Trust is easier said than done.

For some reasons, we tend to record one bad experience as a rule for all what will happen in the future, should a slightly similar experience present itself.

The habit of expressing gratitude for all kinds of experiences is difficult to accept: being thankful for even a traumatic experience seems counterintuitive. However, only practicing gratitude can build a trust muscle that will flex enough to turn bad experiences into learning experiences.

I remember the first time I learned how to mistrust a grown-up: I was a child and had been going regularly to the dentist because of many issues with my teeth. The dentist was a wonderful man and his assistant a sweet and gentle younger man who never failed at holding my hand when I was asking him to do so if I was afraid of what the dentist wanted to do in my mouth. Both of them were kind and giving me time to ask questions and get my answers before they could start working. I never suffered any pain and it was never a visit that I was fearing, even if they were very frequent visits.

I remember one extraordinary day that my mom took me to another place, not the regular dentist, we did not have to take the metro (I am talking about the time I lived in Paris), we walked to that place, and I can still point the building to whoever would ask me. I don’t remember the name of that dentist, and I don’t remember why I had not been taken to MY regular gentle dentist, but I just remember that he abruptly told me that “it would not hurt me” and started to quickly operate on removing a tooth in the back of my mouth after he cauterized with some blowtorch or so it seemed to me, that scared the hell out of me.

The pain of this tooth extraction felt excruciating.

I was out of that place very quickly for sure, and in tears and furious that I had been lied to. I resented the entire world and my mother for the betrayal. Because of such experience, I learned distrust very young and I started to add suspicion, wariness, and doubt to my outlook on adults who were not listening to me, or giving me time to process. Even when they were not dentists! I extended one bad experience to all slightly similar experiences: someone may have little patience with me because in a hurry, not because of me, and I tend to consider the person as menacing or threatening me. It made the world a pretty difficult place to navigate and to compensate, I became too naive and unsuspecting of real abusive behaviors when they came my way.

In the Jewish tradition, we learn of a wonderful character named Nachum Ish Gamzu because his favorite quote was “גמ זו לטובה” gam zu l’tova which means “this too, is for the good”. There are numerous stories about him, both in folk tales and also in the Talmud, and he fascinated me because of his attitude in life that made it possible for him to turn the most horrible adventures and experiences into something natural and positive. And everything actually turns out good in the end if we learn to trust that it will: because each story can be read with different angles, and some unexpected outcomes of the misery come to light when least expected (or remain unknown but will unfold in the future).

So in the end what good was this evil dentist? I am telling the story today! and pain is always forgotten: no need for us to add the mental and emotional pain of resentment and anger. Let us trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt to release our fears, and this too, will be for the best!

 

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 7: Choose

elul7

Choices. They are everywhere. Each and every single moment since we wake up until we go to sleep is a moment of choice. Of choices. We may even have to make a decision between multiple choices, but in the end, it amounts to making decisions that can be summed up: choose between life and death, right or wrong.

Or it feels like it is.

Of course, our Torah says, in the famous passage of Deuteronomy 30:19

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—

Choose life always. That is what it means, does it not?

And now? How do you do that? How do you know for sure that you are choosing life always? There are some decisions that can be obvious. Others, not so much.

What about driving and texting? Seems obvious that it is not choosing the right decision and that it can mean immediate death. For yourself or for someone else. And what about taking the wrong turn that can send you to the wrong place at the wrong time ~ or that can save you from actually being at the wrong place at the wrong time: you never know in this case, that your decision can have cost you life or saved your life. How to decide, then?

Well, at this time of the year, and at that point in my life, I can say that I have been mulling over the question more often than I can count. And it is something that I can really understand people have problems with when it comes to religion and trusting that there is a kind and loving message in the Bible. The language can seem so harsh and so severe at times especially if we know that at the same time human behavior is flawed behavior, that we keep stumbling and failing and making mistakes and being overwhelmed especially because of the choices we have: simply because we were granted free will! and we certainly want to exercise that freedom.

Freedom of choice.

And how can it be freedom, if there is a wrong choice? It could be seen as a punishment for not gaming properly: but this is not how I have learned to understand this, and that passage in particular (which I admit I am very fond of, despite its harshness).

I understand that our free will is in the way we are going to look at what we have done that we may have seen as a mistake ~ I mean a mistake that still gave us a chance! not the kind of mistake that killed us (literally, but I assume that we are still alive right now). Until the very last moment of our lives we can choose life, and we can choose to redeem ourselves for our misdeeds: this is what Yom Kippur helps us to do and the litany of mismarked deeds that we recite and confess is the reminder that there is a choice in everything at every moment if we do not forget.

This past year, I made so many choices, at several turns of the year. This year, I noticed them while I was making conscious decisions: I may have given myself reasons, some to ease the feeling of guilt that may have arisen from the decisions I was making, but because last year at this season, I had been pondering about the theme of choice during Elul preparation, I remembered to look at each of my decisions with that lens of choosing life and it became my compass.

For instance: in January, after nearly six months of driving everyday to a daily minyan to say Kaddish for my mother who had died in August, I chose life because this obligation that I had undertaken willingly at the time of the death of my father – and had proven to be a life savior for me at that time – was now killing me.

It had been much more difficult to simply afford the journey and to experience the relief during the commute which had been the beautiful experience when mourning my father.

I, therefore, wondered why? Why had it been such a beautiful and rewarding mitzvah for my father who was the worst apikoires (someone who denies divine providence or existence) I have known and why was it becoming depressing and scary for my mother who was probably not religious at all but certainly more open to seeing her daughter practice and be observant?

I really pondered my decision to stop driving at night and say a daily kaddish before I was not obligated to do so anymore which was to occur on August 14, about six months after I stopped. And I started to feel life come back to me from the moment I did so. You may know that I suffer from bipolar disorder, and this year the depressive moods hit me extremely hard in the winter. I struggled to contain the symptoms and gave me a pass as this could have been seen as self-preservation – not to have to over drain my energy with the daily duty, but it was more spiritual than rational: my mother’s neshamah (soul) was actively hovering in so many ways already and I just needed to listen quietly from home to hear the calls and response of an imaginary kaddish even without a minyan. So I stayed at home and healed one day at a time.

Same with going to Shabbat services regularly. It had become so painful for some reasons, that it was killing me. I chose life.

Last Friday was my mom’s first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death, on the Hebrew calendar): at sundown, it was Shabbat and I went to Shabbat services at my temple where Beth Styles lead the musical services with our Cantor. Believe it or not, it was like my mom sang with me while I was singing with them.

And it felt the year of mourning was well over. And it felt good.

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 would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, I would be honored that you sign up to subscribe! You can do so if you 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 6: Believe

cacti
I brought these cacti home today.

It had been an emotional morning, and it felt like I was not the only one to sense it. It may be the news, it may be the weather, it may be the time of the year, it may be the arrival of the anniversary of 9/11. It may be all combined or just one of these. I found people on edge, I felt tight nerves. It felt right to bring cacti at home.

They are resilient.

They remind me of self-care.

They remind me of my core belief in beauty even in the midst of hardship.

It tells me all the stories of the wilderness, where you stand alone with your anxieties and the awe at nature and silence.

I studied Psalm 27 today. Another of the psalms that we repeat daily during the month of Elul. When ten times in the short poem we mention enemies and ten times we ask for help and ten times an action can be taken. And always it resolves in the strong belief that Adonai will take us up from the depth of the anxiety.

And now Shabbat will be here soon with its delights. Shabbat shalom!

 

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 would like to receive the daily blogs in your inbox, I would be honored that you sign up to subscribe! You can do so if you click on the link below to sign up

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