Hand in hand we are walking up the smooth brownish limestone stairs; a canopy of dusty pines and bright bougainvillea above us, tasty honeysuckles leaning over the fences and red geraniums in the windows above. I bend down to pet another stray cat, mewing in the bushes. Somewhere behind us, the sun is setting and the traffic dies down. The Haifa neighborhood of my childhood smells like soup, and potatoes and chicken. I have my pretty, white, flowery dress; black shiny shoes that buckle on the side with a strap, and a pinkish bow in my hair. My dad is wearing his white shirt, dark slacks and jacket; the blue velvet kippa in his pocket. People greet us with Shabbat Shalom: the shopkeeper who sweeps the last flower petals; the lady shaking the rug, waving from her balcony; the group of Bnai Akiva youth rushing to the minyan at the big synagogue on the hill; the family returning from the beach, sandy and barefoot, plastic buckets in hand, towels draped over their shoulders, just off the last bus, which shuts its noisy engine with a huff.
At Moria, the Conservative / Masorti synagogue on the Carmel, we are greeted warmly. My dad is one of the founding members, and is often the gabai, ba’al kore, chazzan, chatan Torah. Early on, I become familiar with these terms, which would be mostly outside my otherwise “normal” upbringing. The tall usher at the door is ready with a job for me, and I stand there, handing out small siddurim (prayer books) in brown cover to those coming in. Once I know how to read, I am invited up to the bimma to lead the ve’ahavta and when I’m really good, the hashkivenu prayer too. People nod their head at me. They smile and tell my dad I’m a little rebetzin.
I spend my teen years in a youth group, where, interestingly, I do a lot of the same things I do today: talk, sing, learn, argue, teach, write, volunteer, hang with friends, and wrestle with Torah and life. Sometimes, I’m asked to chant the Torah reading or haftara; my scribbles become drashot, and at times, appear in the synagogue’s newsletter. People lean over to my mom, and whisper that she’s has raised a real rebetzin.
No one bothers telling me that rebetzin is actually the wife of the rabbi, not the woman in the front of the shul.
As an adult, this pattern continues. Torah in its broadest sense is essential in my life, and I find myself in various community leadership positions, many of which you are all part of. I seriously consider the rabbinate, and reconsider when my then 4 year old son tells me he’s going to be a fireman, because ‘rabbi is a job for mommies’, trying to juggle and balance my “ima on the bima” roles.
This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, starts with a beautiful description of Aaron, the High Priest, lighting the menorah in the mishkan, the mobile Tabernacle. Except that, the Torah does not use the word for ‘light’. Rather, it uses a very unusual term, which translates to something like ‘when you bring up’, hence beha’alotcha, from al, on top, and aliya, going up, and also aleinu, it is on us (to do something).
Variations on this root, a.l.h. repeat over and over in the reading. The direction is upwards. We are at a very pivotal place in the desert journey: up until the end of Numbers, chapter 10, we’re heading forward to the Land. In fact, this should have been the last portion in the Torah! Ok, maybe Moses would review the commandments once again in a much shorter version of Deuteronomy, but other than that, we have everything we’ve come for: freedom, the Law, a place to connect with G-d, a structure how to run our society, physically (the camp), legally and spiritually. Next stop Israel!
And then, right on the verge of entering the Land, the people start complaining: ‘remember those zucchinis we ate back in Egypt?? The watermelons and eggplants? And the leadership? That board needs refreshing; and I tell you, the view? Enough already with this cloud and pillar of fire!’ What are they complaining about? Anyway they’ll be in the land in a day or two!! They’ll grow their own food; leadership structure will be different; everything will be great, great!
But, for whatever reason, the people are not ready. What starts on chapter 11, is the beginning of what ends up being a 40 year detour, before the eventual arrival at the Promised Land. Yes, we know they were slaves, but as always, the story is not just about them. It’s mostly about us. And we too, sometimes, take yet another detour. Maybe the conditions are not yet right for us; maybe we’re a bit scared; we need some more time; we need space to grow. And yet, the underlying message is that throughout it all, the direction is always upwards, be’aliya.
Which is my hope for my own journey too.
In 2009, a new program was launched by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Horwitz, offering the title Maharat, which an acronym for מנהיגה הלכתית, רוחנית, תורנית: leader (in) halacha (Jewish law), spirituality and Torah. For the first time women have an official path for gaining the skills, training, and certification they need to become spiritual leaders within the Modern Orthodox community. This program has been for me like a lighthouse, twinkling in the distance for the ships to come in. This past winter I finally applied. I am honored to have been accepted, and plan to start this coming fall.
Wait, what?! You’re moving?? Yes. CA has been my home for longer than anywhere else, even longer than Haifa, and I’ll no doubt miss everything about it. And yet, it seems like the seeds for this “sudden move” have been there since those Shabbat afternoons, walking up the path with my dad, and so it continues.
There will be an opportunity to learn and celebrate together on Shabbat, July 30 before I head east. Message me for more details. Until then, enjoy the journey with all its detours, for they too are part of the way.