A New Life Span (Sukkot 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Sukkot Morning 5781

Did you hear it? The Book of Life was just sealed.

5 days ago as dark descended on Yom Kippur, our Yizkor candle went out. Once again already, our frailty stands before us, challenging, inviting.

What is our lifespan? What is the length of our days? Per Psalm 144 with a little gender equality inserted…:

Adonai, what is a human being

that You should care about her,


that You should think of her?

A human is like a breath;

her days are like a passing shadow.

In the timing of the universe, the human life span lasts a moment.

Ecclesiastes, traditionally read on Sukkot, begins:

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!

What real value is there for a man

In all the gains he makes beneath the sun?

In the timing of the universe, the human life span lasts a moment. The question ever before us and particularly pointed now given Covid-19, unrest, economic closures, and Memorial services: how do we make that life meaningful?

The Mishnah lays out the ideal life span…well, for a male:

At 5 years of age the study of Scripture;

At 10 the study of Mishnah;

At 13 subject to the commandments;

At 15 the study of Talmud;

At 18 the bridal canopy;

At 20 for pursuit [of livelihood];

At 30 the peak of strength;

At 40 wisdom;

At 50 able to give counsel;

At 60 old age;

At 70 fullness of years;

At 80 the age of “strength”;

At 90 a bent body;

At 100, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world. (Avot 5.20)

Many times, we have discussed the message of that lifespan. How focused on study they were – a singular focus through age 17. Yes, it is a problem that our character gets married at age 18 before earning a livelihood at age 20. Unless there is a sizable trust fund, they are living in the in-laws’ basement. We wonder how they were so advanced to have wisdom at age 40 and are offended that the only description at age 90 is “bent”. We won’t even discuss what they say about age 100…

The ideal Jewish male’s life in the year 200 moved from milestones to a focus on the gift of wisdom – well, at least until he was 60 and the breakdown of the body.

What if this were the life span:

At 5, learning to ride a bike and starting religious school.

At 8, going to summer camp despite my fear.

At 9, going back to summer camp because it is my second home.

At 13, after Bat Mitzvah, becoming a madrich at religious school.
At 17, getting my license with its freedom and responsibility

and realizing that my Black friend has to have “the talk” that I don’t.

At 18, starting college.  But maybe college isn’t for me… so I will start trade school or go straight into the job market.  I’ll probably be criticized for that.

At 22, taking a job that influences the rest of my work life.

At 31, meeting my love.

At 37, taking on the name Daddy.

At 42, being downsized and its accompanying fear.

At 43, starting new training and finding work in a field I never imagined I would enter.  I think I’m content.

At 47, beginning to volunteer in the community

At 49, the 13th anniversary of not having a drink.

At 63, taking on a new name: “Grandpa.”

At 64, burying one of my closest friends who was supposed to retire next year but died suddenly of a heart attack.

At 65, enjoying retirement cake and a new beginning.

At 67, going to coffee to celebrate the 4th anniversary of a friendship who is ½ my age.

At 69, celebrating 5 years in remission.

At 72, the 3rd anniversary of learning to play Bridge.

At 73 being celebrated as “volunteer of the year.”

At 77, learning how to use Zoom.

At 84, calling the person I met freshman year of high school to celebrate our 70 years of friendship.

At 92, celebrating our 60th anniversary surrounded by our 2 children and 5 grandchildren plus nieces, nephews and friends.

This life span speaks of relationships and the hard work of leaving addiction behind,

struggling with illness, and finding meaningful work both paid and volunteer. The entirety of this lifespan is growing and stretching, looking forward while marking milestones. Every year adds and imagines and reaches out and discovers life.

Next week, we will bring together Yizkor: memory with Simcha: joy. What is our lifespan?  What is the length of our days? What we make it.


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Words Count

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Mask. Pandemic. Synchronous. Asynchronous. Insurrection. Fake news. Suppression. Zoom. Tweet. Uprising. This is just a portion of the new vocabulary that swirls around us in print, on our devices, through the news and in conversation 24/7. These are words that either held another meaning or words that we rarely used or heard until the past few years or in some cases, weeks.

This list makes me think of Elie Wiesel’s introduction to Night  “…I knew I must bear witness. I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle.  It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language.  But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy?  Hunger-thirst-fear-transport-selection-fire-chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning but in those times, they meant something else.”  (p. ix)

This is not a comparison to the Holocaust.  The enemy we face appears when good people stay silent and the air is choked with words of hate and exclusion and isolation and sound bites. We need to do more to understand the words and what is behind them.  We too must bear witness.  Words count.  Words stand for something.  So let us make our voices heard. Let us choose our words carefully. Let us flood the sound waves with other words; uplifting, building, inclusionary, kind words.

Let us use words like: Kindness. Respect. Virtue. Hope. Integrity. Trust. Neighbor. Investment in the future. Goodness. Diversity. Words reflect our reality. Let us use words to shape a new reality.

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The Passage of Time

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

As we celebrate the new year and get accustomed to writing “2021” on letters and checks, we realize that while the clocks and calendars move forward, time as we know it has changed. For many of us, we cannot remember the date or even the day of the week. Our schedules have shifted, our perception of time has changed. The pages of the calendar turn so rapidly while simultaneously each hour moves sluggishly… or precisely the opposite: the days seem to drag on and then we look back, surprised at where they went.

That is precisely why it is time to read a most engaging though brief novel about time called Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. Per the back cover, it “is a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905 while he worked in a patent office in Switzerland. As the defiant but sensitive young genius is creating his theory of relativity, a new conception of time, he imagines many possible worlds.” We are invited into Einstein’s brief but vivid dreams which means we are invited to experience beautifully crafted human interactions illustrating how time moves at different paces in different areas, when it stands still, when mechanical time and body time conflict, when it repeats over and over again and more.

As we enter into 2021, regardless of how upside-down the world feels, we have the opportunity to let time pass or to be fully present in time. I invite you to use your time well by reading this novel and deepening your thoughts about how you interact with time. Happy 2021!

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The Stamp of Invisibility

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I love going to the post office and go often. In fact, over the past few months, mailing packages to our kids and mothers has brought me out of the house more than any other activity.

I was at the post office days before Chanukah and, as usual, approached the self-service portal. I took  care of my business to the background mantra of the friendly workers wishing each customer “Merry Christmas.” Some were the regulars, it seemed, and others were not. I imagine that not everyone celebrated Christmas.

As I finished my business, I decided to purchase some stamps which can also be done at the portal as I knew from doing it so often. I entered the number of sheets of stamps and was shown the image of the stamp. Much to my surprise, it was not the forever stamp with the American flag on it as it was every other time I had purchased them. It was a Christmas stamp. I finished my transaction feeling a little more invisible and left without purchasing the stamps.

I am not against Christmas stamps as I have been using my Chanukah stamps to mail Chanukah cards, bill payments and more. However, at a public kiosk with only one choice of stamp, I felt that non-Christian Americans like me were “othered.”

It was a small taste of what others experience daily in varying contexts and I can only hope that my few minutes of invisibility will encourage me to keep my ears and eyes open and refuel my empathy and response. In the meantime, I contacted the United States Postal Service to share my concerns.  We’ll see what next year brings.

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Chanukah Gifts

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Antiochus Epiphanes was different from the others. The 2nd century BCE Syrian Greek ruler did not want to exterminate the Jews, he wanted to exterminate Judaism. His method of choice was to ban Torah study, Brit Milah (circumcision), Shabbat and holiday observance, and the witnessing of the new moon–all on penalty of death. He was well-studied enough to know the fundamental practices of Judaism. Ultimately, his plan did not succeed, and we actually added a holiday to celebrate his plan’s defeat.

And so we get out our latke recipes, allow ourselves the pleasure of extra donuts, play dreidel, put the chanukkiah in the window as we sing the blessings, Zoom or Skype with loved ones as we celebrate. And yes, we give gifts.

What do you want for Chanukah this year? I want to gather with my family as we light the chanukkiah together. I want to be in a big group singing Chanukah songs. I want to eat Temple David Sisterhood’s latkes at our Chanukah dinner. I want to show preschoolers and others my dreidel collection. I want to be in Israel again this year as I was last year and walk around the neighborhoods seeing the chanukkiot in the windows. I want. I want. I want.

This year, what we want goes far deeper than even the best-wrapped Chanukah gift. This year, our wants, our longings are to celebrate as we had in the years past. Yet this year, let us follow the holiday’s lead. This year, let us deepen our commitment to one another and to Judaism. Let us proudly place the chanukkiah in the window and celebrate our heritage. Let us give gifts that enhance study and practice. Let be generous in every way so that everyone will feel that their dreidel has landed on “gimel.”

Happy Chanukah to all!

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Building My Cabinet

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

As President-Elect Biden forms his cabinet, it got me thinking. Who would be in my cabinet? What would their positions be–would I create a new cabinet position?–and who would fill them? Would those people be insiders with experience and already-formed relationships or outsiders who have a certain level of clarity? How much focus would be on how they work together? Should I be concerned about getting Senate approval more than choosing the women and men who I believe in my heart of hearts would do the best work for our remarkable country? Do our personalities have to complement one another in order for us to be effective?

While I’m not sure of the answers, I like the mental challenge especially since we all have “cabinets” as it were. We may not be in elected positions, but we have chosen the people who are “in our corner.” Who is in your corner?

Per Jewish values, I believe that the people in my corner must always be asking “If I am not for myself, what am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot) For it is keeping in balance of self and others with the ongoing imperative of now that I wish to live and I want others to help me live that way. My cabinet members should answer positively “Who is wise? One who learns from others” (Pirke Avot) For growth and depth comes from bouncing ideas off of others and respecting different perspectives and as they grow so will I. My inner circle must practice toch’cha–loving rebuke–which is exactly as it sounds: being able to offer me critique in a loving way that will help me grow. And my corner must have simcha (joy) because that is both energizing and life-affirming.

I will let you in on a secret. I don’t call it a cabinet but for years, I have had a pie chart and my family knows–and sometimes makes suggestions for new “slices”!–who is on it. It includes people I know personally and some I don’t but who I respect in some way. Some have bigger slices of the pie than others. So far, no one has left my pie and it is never at 100% because there is always room to add.

I invite you to look around even in our socially-distanced way at your “inner circle,” those “in your corner,” “cabinet” or “pie.” And if there is a position in need of filling, look around and bring someone forward so that you are getting the support and loving critique to be the best you. As you change, perhaps your cabinet will change. Simultaneously, give the gift of you and join someone else’s cabinet.

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“I” Statements

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Our post-election Town Hall on Sunday, November 8 included a conversation about shared values: Who wouldn’t want good schools? Who wouldn’t want good health care or clean air and water? Who wouldn’t want safe neighborhoods and good jobs? Given the cut-off of many friendships and even within families, the question is: how can we learn to speak to one another, especially if we have differing views of the many issues that lie before us. We spoke about the Jewish values that can guide us, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” and others. To say this work is difficult is an understatement. No wonder our values are not optional but commanded.

Following the Town Hall, I began to think about the conversation and realized that we all have a way within reach to bridge the gap.

I was trained in marital counseling using a program called Prepare and Enrich. A large focus of it is on communication and key to that work, in my mind, is an exercise in which one of the partners shares a wish about the other partner using assertive language and the second partner is to be an active listener. Being an active listener can be difficult. It entails using one’s own words to repeat accurately what the speaker said; to really demonstrate that you heard. Speaking assertively – clearly, succinctly, using “I” statements but not being aggressive – can also be difficult.

I invite you to think of a difficult conversation you have recently had; a conversation in which you and the other party cannot hear each other, whether political or not. Now picture this: imagine starting with an “I” statement and following with an emotive word to express what you are trying to say. In other words, “I feel scared when…” “I’m sad that…” “I respect you when…” It is non-accusatory language. It is honest. It is a bit vulnerable. It just may open the door to a true dialogue.

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Thanksgiving Redux

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I recently learned a lot about the origins of Columbus Day from www.smithsonianmag.com

Including that the first documented observance of Columbus Day took place in New York City in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere but it wasn’t until 1934 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12 the first national observance, later to be moved to the second Monday of October. I also learned this: Columbus Day originated as an annual celebration of Italian–American heritage in San Francisco in 1869.

And I relearned that “Generations of Native people, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere have protested Columbus Day. In the forefront of their minds is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.”

The article continues: “In 1977 participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America.  And it urges Americans to rethink history.” As of this year, 18 states and the District of Columbia now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

If we move closer to home, specifically to the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park we learn that Mayor Peduto recommended it be removed after the Art Commission voted 3-0 in favor of removing it. The move follows heated debates between Native American groups that say the statue represents genocide and slavery and Italian Americans who say it represents their contributions to the city. (Oct 12, 2020 KDKA)

Now there are protests. What both sides have in common, of course, is that neither holds the whole truth.

Think of how we rebel when groups say that Jews either were never connected to the land of Israel, or left and came back 2000 years later.  Neither is true. And hopefully we are as upset when Israeli history teaches that no one inhabited the land in the late 1800’s when the first modern waves of Jewish immigrants came to live. Neither narrative serves us well because neither narrative is the truth.

Is there a right answer? Yes. There is. Though Judaism and statues don’t mix, this is about far more than statues. It is about how we record and remember history.

Should the Columbus statue come down? Personally, I do not have much energy around that question but I do around this: Whether it comes down or not, what will tell the fuller story? Imagine Italian Americans and Native Americans sitting down to discuss it at a new kind of feast. That in itself would be worth celebrating…and just think of what food would be served!


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Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I called the police twice in one day last week. The first time I called, it was because I witnessed an extremely dangerous driver and hoped to keep others safe. Later that day while walking our dog, I noticed that the lights were on in an odd way at a neighbor’s home, as they had been the night before. I called the police who came and learned that the owner had moved into a nursing home. I pray that he is well.

The first call was about a stranger whose behavior threatened others. The second was about a neighbor whose name I know, who I would wave to as I walked the dog, about whom I was concerned. Both are examples of “love your neighbor as yourself” – protect others, care about others.

As a commandment, as the golden rule, these words need to not be a mantra that flows off of our lips; but come with an action plan. How will you love your neighbors – the ones you know by name, the ones you know by face and the ones you don’t know?

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Between the Pages

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Have you ever read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks? It is one of my favorite books. Through clues, it traces the Sarajevo Haggadah through its history and owners. I highly recommend it.

I thought of it tonight, as I closed my Gates of Repentance for the last time as Yom Kippur drew to a close. I had thought I had done that last year since we had been gifted the Reform Movement’s newer machzor Mishkan HaNefesh to be used this year…until Covid-19 kept us in our homes. We had decided to stay with the familiar, the maroon book that was already on many of our shelves at home. But this was the last time.

Like Ms. Brooks’s book, there will forever be hints of our history within my volume: the many post-its that will remain with the names of congregants who led prayers and read Torah and Haftarah. In it are the cues for our choir–first led by Sharon Leibowitz, z”l, and now Norm Chapman. Tucked away within the pages were photocopies of readings I would share.

I have never been an e-book kind of person. I like to hold the text, turn the pages and close the book at the end, whether a novel or a prayer book and now I think of the history that is encased in my machzor, my own Book of Life.

L’shana Tova.

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