Tapestry #1 Tishre: The World as We Pray it Should Be
Rosh Hashanah A.M. 5766 10/4/05
Looking at the Old City of Jerusalem from the balcony of my hotel that Friday evening, I was filled with spirituality and a love for being in Israel. The outer wall of the old city was, in the far distance, lit up and golden in the dark Jerusalem sky. It was ideal from a distance. We were together, mother and sons for Shabbat in the holiest city in Israel, and all was right with the world.
The next day, we rushed up from our late afternoon Shabbat nap because we had plans to walk to the Wall before Shabbat ended at sundown. It was a bit warm, but certainly not hot for July in Jerusalem. We briskly walked down the narrow streets, not totally knowing where we were, but certain we were going in the right direction.
We arrived at the Wall with about a half an hour of sun left to spare. The boys went to their side… comfortable and spacious for men. And I proceeded to the women’s side, less than a third the size of the men’s these days, because they are building some kind of ramp, which cramps the women’s side even more.
Jerusalem has changed since I was a high school student in the Galilee of Israel. Jerusalem belongs to the Orthodox now. I was not afraid of Arabs there. I was afraid of the black hats, if I tried to show my religious expression by wearing a yarmulke. A woman can be arrested and jailed for just singing aloud at the Wall. I needed to be careful. I didn’t totally blend in, anyway, because my head was not covered with a hat or a wig. I think I was one of three non-orthodox women at the Wall. All the rest crowded the space – chairs, baby carriages, young and old women packed in front of the wall. I kept moving forward, deeper into the crowd submerged by the sounds and silences. Nothing could prevent me from touching the Wall. So, slowly and respectfully, I pressed through the women and the children.
I can’t approach the Wall without my memories of a Wall cold to the touch to a young sixteen-year-old girl. I remember times when it wasn’t crowded at all. As Shabbat was slipping away, my middle-aged fingers touched the Wall. This time, the Wall felt dirty and sweaty to the touch. The women around me, closest to the Wall were praying and crying. I could feel their pain. In my heart, I could hear the prayerful and the penitent, whispering and softly wailing to God, as women have been doing there for centuries. And when, I touched the Wall, I could feel her pain; pain for the deep divisions among Jews. I could feel the Wall upset that her people couldn’t get along, as the Gaza controversy was ripping the nation in two. I imagine God, sitting with the Book of Life on her lap, like a Jewish mother saying, “Why can’t they get along? When will they learn? When will they realize that they are all my children?
And then I backed away from the Wall. Our brief connection cut off like the dropped call on a cell phone. You aren’t supposed to turn your back on the Wall. So, out of respect for the sanctity of our tradition, I backed up. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I paid more attention to others in my retreat than I had when I was struggling to get close. There among the sincere worshippers and those just looking at the Wall with soft spoken lips, and the few tourists… there, at this most sacred and holy place, were screaming children running around, their mothers in lawn chairs talking and eating – crackers and bagelim, and socializing like this was Coney Island or Ocean City’s pier, with no respect for the holiness of the place.
And then, in a few breaths, I resurfaced out of the throngs of the disrespectful and respectful and ended up beside my sons, who wereveryready to leave. This was not spiritual for them, and hadn’t really been this time, for me either. Yet, we had all wanted to visit the Wall before the sun set. I have had my “Wall moments,” but this wasn’t one of them. We left disappointed and alienated, feeling that our Judaism wasn’t connected to this place the way we hoped it might be. It was getting dark, and somehow, through the winding streets of beautiful Jerusalem stone, and thanks to Jacob’s fantastic sense of direction, we got back to our hotel.
The spiritual moment came an hour later on the balcony outside our hotel room. My son Jacob carries a Havdalah candle in his backpack these days, spices too from the candle store in Tzfat. A Jewish mother’s dream. So, we made Havdalah on the tiny balcony overlooking the lit city of Jerusalem, as Jewish and Arabic music wafted through the gorgeous breeze of a Jerusalem night. We held each other, and sang (Hum Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah melody)… and lit our candle and drank our wine and smelled the spices. And at that moment, the ideal city returned. No one was rude or intolerant. No one was disrespectful to the ancient city. The lit city wall in the moonlight seemed magical. The Jerusalem we dreamshouldexist was in the distance, and filled our hearts. With my beloved children by my side, sharing our prayer, the Israel we imagined possible became reality.
I smiled the next morning, as I stood in Bracha and Menachem Lavee’s house viewing our B’nai Shalom tapestries, because the first tapestry, for the High Holy days, celebrating the new month of Tishre and dedicated to our temple values of pursuing justice and prayer, captured my feelings so perfectly that Jerusalem weekend. For the most important part of the tapestry for me was not in the original design. In the original design, our brilliant Israeli artists drew the Wall asthesymbol of prayer, with all Orthodox men covered in talleisim, tallitot, praying. My immediate reaction was so negative, and I told them that was contrary to all of our Jewish values. In the Judaism we embrace, the Wall would have men, women and children with and without tallitot, all standing together and sharing the experience of praying to God. And so they went back and redesigned the tapestry to reflectthe world as we pray it should be.
There are so many wonderful images of the Judaism we treasure captured in this tapestry. For those who can’t see it from where you are sitting, it is on the front of your service folder. In the far left corner it says L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu” … the traditional greeting for these holiest days, “May you be inscribedand sealedin the Book of Life.” And then, the scales, each saying “justice- tzedek” hover behind the Book of Life, with God’s quill. The Book is resting on top of the name of the month of Tishre, in Hebrew. In the far right corner, are the three words Selichah (Forgiveness), Mechilah (Pardon) and Kapparah (Atonement). The tallit symbolizes “Prayer” according to Bracha. I told her how our young people make their own tallitot and tie their own tzitzit every fall, and she put real tzitzit on that tallit.
To the left, the commandments of Sinai rest beside the symbols of Rosh Hashanah: apples ready to be dipped in honey… and the fish head. The fish head is the Jewish fertility food eaten by young couples on Rosh Hashanah to insure grandchildren. It is a tasty treat for those of you looking for something different on youryontifmenu, and is perhaps the source of why we eat gefilte fish! Then, we have the shofar – blown at Sinai, commanded to be blown at Rosh Hashanah, and promised to be heard to herald the messianic age, when the world as we dream and pray it to be, will at last be realized, thanks to our repair of the world and partnership with God in the ongoing positive creation of the universe.
The pomegranate is in a few of our tapestries, especially the one for Jewish learning, as the rabbis teach that a pomegranate has 613 seeds, one for each commandment of the Torah. Each month I will explain one of the tapestries. I began this summer with Elul, our tapestry for Peace and Love. The sermons will be archived on our website.
The arch says ‘5766’ for us to remember the year we welcomed this new sacred space and our tapestries into our world of prayer and into our spiritual imaginations. Each tapestry is designed as a window into our Judaism and the values we treasure here at B’nai Shalom. The grapes are in a few of the tapestries, symbolic of the fruit of the vine, ever present in our counting of our blessings of life from Shabbat to Simcha, and they are also reminders of the upcoming Sukkot grape harvest, which insured economic prosperity for our agricultural ancestors.
The bottom left corner says, “Adonai yichaper aleichem,” – “may God grant you atonement.” A part of this tapestry that I love are the blue Gates of Prayer in the center, beckoning the worshippers to come to Torah and enter the synagogue. The Wallis notthe place of prayer for us now, nor will it be in the future. We may visit the Wall, but for us the synagogue is our place for prayer. And the Torah isinsidethe synagogue for study and guidance. As American Reform Jews, the blue doors are our blueGates of Prayersymbolic of the praying congregation of which we are so proud. We just added 50 more chairs, taking us to 300, so that everyone will have a seat when you come to pray on Shabbat.
Prayer, for our medieval authors of our traditional High Holy day prayerbook, our machzor, tried to explain the world as it was in a metaphor of kingship and submission that everyone in those dark ages could understand. Prayer, for us, is very different. In our modern world, we use prayer as a bridge from this world to the world we want in our hearts and lives. Our prayer is less about explaining today, and more about our yearnings for tomorrow. That is why not every prayer touches your heart or moves you to a spiritual result this morning. Prayer is like Jerusalem. If you are up close and too critical, you miss the beauty and the possibility.
I totally missed the rainbow in the tapestry design, but it was the very first thing that delighted little Eve Courtney when she was the first to see the tapestries. “Look Grandma, a rainbow!” she exclaimed. Somewhere over that rainbow is the world as we hope and pray it should and could be for Eve and for all of our children.
We come into this newly beautified sanctuary with the same old hopes and prayers and dreams. Beyond seeking forgiveness, we pray for the world to be better, safer, more caring, more fair, more just. We pray for the world that we envision could be. And in the depths of our hearts, we are each asking God for Noah’s rainbow. Let the destruction and floods be over. Let the downpour and disappointment be replaced with hopeful and healing light, reflected and refracted through our prayers. This rainbow will always be for the survivors of Katrina and those who have spent days and weeks trying to help them, like our own Judy Ginsburgh, who has spent all of her time in the shelters of Louisiana where she lives.
I love Rosh Hashanah the years we read the Creation, because it truly feels like the birthday of the world. When we read Creation (which we do every other year or so) I feel that there is possibility and promise. Life is lit up in the distance before us, awaiting our efforts and our attempts at making the world we pray for a reality in our lives.
Sometimes the dream is better than the reality. Our ancestors never took the return to Zion out of the prayerbook. They prayed to a land in their minds and hearts that they only knew from the Torah. “For out of Zion goes forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem – Ki Mitziyon tatzay Torah…” But, they came to the land filled with swamps, and deserts that were as dry as Ezekiel’s bones. As their taste of a Jewish homeland was replaced with that of malaria and dust, they worked and died to make the dream a reality for future generations.
In our broken world, we are often so weary, that it is hard to find the time to build for others, or the strength to dream for the future. So many people are dealing with disappointment, heartache, and hurt. You carry pain and suffering, your own and that of others, and that is why the Mi Shebeirach is such an important part of our prayers. The grief and the memories of those who are not standing beside us are with us every time we open our prayerbooks to say Kaddish and Yizkor. We not only pray for the world as we want it to be, we pray for the strength to make our lives better and more whole. We pray for certainty amidst the uncertainty of relationships and world events. We pray for resolution to the conflicts and struggles.
Ultimately, we are each responsible for making the Torah, Judaism, Israel, our lives, our prayer, and our hopes real. Our prayers become the fuel that lights us from within to have the strength to leave this sacred haven and go out and change our lives. The value of justice demands that we make changes not just in our own hearts and lives, but also in the world around us. We are the ones who need to make everyone welcome at God’s Wall. We need to set a place for the hungry at our seder and Shabbat tables, as we pledge and commit to faithfully bring food for the hungry here in Lorton every time we enter this temple starting with Yom Kippur ten days from now. We are God’s partners tasked with making a world where all good people find welcome and acceptance in every state in this blessed land.
The prayers of our hearts petition God to give us courage and strength to change ourselves, our lives, and our world. If you are unhappy with the world as it is, then leave this sanctuary and do something positive to make a real and meaningful change. We are all able to change…if not our circumstances, then the way we cope or deal with them.
And sometimes we need to put down our swords and shields, when the battle isn’t winnable or worth fighting. So, I will wear my kipah here in our sanctuary, and in the Burke Safeway where I feel safe, and it will have to be enough to pray for a day when I feel safer as a liberal Jew in a city like Jerusalem, a place that should be the center of religious tolerance and acceptance.
On that balcony with my sons, the world was perfect and safe and whole. From a distance, Jerusalem was the city of peace and the light unto the nations. I could count my blessings and feel the connection to my past, as I held my future in my arms.
On this Rosh Hashanah, we have the ability to change and repair our lives with the prayers of our hearts. May our prayers teach us to see the world from a distance, and may we use our values to bring the world we pray for closer in the year to come.