Presentations

Noach and Texas: Lessons from the Floods

 

This post is a D’var Torah (sermon) that I was invited to give on Shabbat Noach at Congregation Beth Shalom in Bermuda Dunes, CA on October 21st:

Last Shabbat, our Spiritual Leader, Ken Hailpern, gave an inspired d’var Torah about how so many of our Jewish values of caring for others and taking responsibility come from the earliest chapters of Beresheit (Genesis).

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We heard how God brought words of comfort to Cayin (Cain) whose face fell after seeing how his brother Hevel’s (Abel’s) sacrifice was accepted, but not his own. And we heard how Cayin replied to God, “am I my brother’s keeper?” when God asked Cayin where his brother Hevel was. I will return to these sacred moments later.

Today’s parasha (weekly Torah reading), about Noach (Noah) and the Flood, apparently was an inspiration for Ken. He asked me to explore the Biblical Flood story in the contexts of recent worldwide natural flood and hurricane events, and with my participation as a volunteer American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Chaplain, assisting with evacuees in southeast Texas.

But I have to go further back, to my first encounter with the Flood story, when I was about 3 or 4 years old,

plunked down for my first time in a Jewish Sunday school classroom, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley,

just as they were about to sing the “Arky-Arky” song. Anyone know it? (🎶 Noah, he built him, he built him an Arky-Arky [repeat]🎶).

I wasn’t sure who this Noah fella was, but the song was great!

This fabulous song was followed by a discussion about who or what God was–did he sit on a throne in the sky? was he old? did he have a long white beard? or was God invisible and wise?

I was hooked on Judaism from that day onward.

Okay,

now let’s go forward many decades to my current version of Jewish engagement:

In 2010, after decades of volunteer and lay leadership in the Jewish communities of Vancouver, BC, I decided to begin the arduous path of training to become a spiritual care chaplain. It took about 5 years of full time study and I am now an NAJC Professional Jewish Chaplain.

 

I moved to the Southern California desert this past May, not to take a job; but to enjoy better health in a serene and protected desert locale.
And then, just as I was unpacking and wondering what I might want to do in my new community, hurricane season came to the United States.

In response, my professional chaplaincy associations sent out emails for those who wished to fast track to join the American Red Cross for deployment.

 

 

I did not have to think much about going, except–that this deployment would not be restful, and it could cause me some health problems from exposure to contaminated water and lack of good sanitation.

I responded to the email anyway, went to my regional American Red Cross (ARC) Head Quarters, and after an introductory ‘boot camp’, I was sold.

I had responded online on Friday, and was in Houston four days later, on Tuesday September 5th.

I had the privilege of meeting the National director of Disaster Spiritual Care (DSC) at Houston HQ, and with his approval, was assigned the George R. Brown Convention Center mega shelter, which now housed 1,200 evacuees, down from 5,000 at one point.

The second day there, just as I was settling into getting to recognize residents’ faces and enjoy the company of newfound colleagues from other faith groups, I was told to join two others and drive to Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas. There were as yet no DSC chaplains at all, and the 3 of us would attend to shelter work for that entire region.

We each had our own rental vehicle because unlike anyone else, the three of us were to cover the entire southeast Texas area. We were housed in a staff shelter with 200 other volunteers, on cots, with freezing A/C blasting to keep germs at bay, and no potable water to bathe in or drink.

Staff shelter, Beaumont

Over the usual breakfast of sugary granola bars and fruit cups and potato chips, we decided to split up and drive to different areas of the region to see where the greatest need was.

I settled on ministering in just one shelter—the Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, TX—“TJ”. Port Arthur is one of the poorest areas of southeast Texas, and the US in general. These people were now in their 3rd or 4th shelter, with all of their belongings stuffed into old bags or plastic storage bins beneath their cots.

I use the word ‘minister’; it is not a Christian word, it is noun and also a verb that is used in many contexts. For example, I lived in Canada for almost 40 years and there we have Ministers in our Provincial and Federal houses of government. Ministers administer services to people, both secular and faith-based. The work is ministry.

I had little trouble easing into ministry in Port Arthur. The residents, evacuees, were predominantly black, very low income, and often with health problems. Anyone affluent had already found alternative housing somewhere else, with a relative, friends, etc.

These remaining 250 or so people at TJ were looking for places to live, and were waiting for organizations such as FEMA to assess their homes for damage and give them funds to repair or rebuild.

Perhaps because of my life experiences as a cultural ‘outsider’, a single, middle-aged Jewish woman, living in predominately white Christian communities, and receiving chaplaincy training mainly with Christian peers–I was able communicate my otherness, go alongside others whose lives are not mainstream, earn trust, and be with them in their search for spiritual comfort.

I mainly roamed the vast rows of cots filling the two gyms at TJ, checking in with my eyes and ears and ‘Spidey Sense’ with residents. I was their advocate when needed services were not being given, a guide and motivator when the chips were down, prayed with and for them, held their hand if waiting for the ambulance, comforted and debriefed when traumatic incidents happened, ran interference when tempers flared, got crabby volunteers to loosen up, and made referrals to my colleagues in Disaster Mental Health and Disaster Medical Assistance Teams.

I also made sure kenneled pets were watered and fed, cleaned up childrens’ toys, and played maid and waiter to pamper burned-out parents.

When I arrived at TJ, the residents had already been there 10 days, and found their spiritual leaders—amongst themselves–an assistant minister and his wife; the maintenance man for the school itself was a church pastor.

I thought about other Bible characters, such as Amos and Elijah.

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The example of the spiritual leader who is a regular person, someone who tends orchards, plows their own fields, and cleans schools for a living. We don’t know what Noach did for a living, but we do know that he was by nature righteous, and someone who walked with God; perhaps strolling together in conversation, as one would do with an earthly companion.

No one at TJ ever asked me, “Why did God do this to us?” or “God has sent a Flood like in the Bible, to punish us and the earth”

Instead, almost everyone I sat with talked about Faith. They had Faith that there would be relief. They had faith that despite the disaster, God was walking with them, and watching and taking care during this disaster. They often had anecdotes of previous hurricanes or floods they’d evacuated from, and how by trusting God and accepting the help that God had sent, that they had been taken care of then, and were certainly being helped now.

I think we Jews don’t talk enough about Faith like this. Much like the term ‘Minister’, Faith is seen as a Christian concept. In Judaism, we talk more about ‘Mitzvoth’ and Actions.

But I want to tell you that Faith and Mitzvoth are the same thing.

As an example, it is a mitzvah to keep kosher. Many of the rules of kashrut do not make logical sense. But observant people do them anyway. Why? because it is an act of faith.

Faith works in that we do not have to understand why, that by being consistent and having these structures of precise foods or ways of blessing them, we will grow inner, rather than outer, strength, grow stronger as individuals and as a people, and thus know God better.

In this same vein, the people of Port Arthur knew how to recognize God’s faith in them. They could graciously accept help because they knew they could not get by on their own–and that God was at work when neighbors helped neighbors, rescue operations came, shelters went up, and agencies came to assist.

They knew how to reach out to one another because their Christian teachings told them that that is the right thing to do; people from all over the world reached out to help.

It was a privilege that after only 3 days with them, the two TJ preachers asked me to co-lead a Sunday morning service. Having had the privilege of attending black gospel churches in Harlem and Brooklyn during my chaplaincy education, I was so very pleased to join them.

Sunday service

On Sunday, alongside a mighty preacher with his golden baritone voice, this man motivated by personal loss, by the flooded homes, and the pain and longing in that shelter; and alongside the assistant minister lovingly reading Psalm 27; I gave prayers of thanks to God for spreading his sheltering wings; and encouraging all to reach out to give help; and to reach out to accept help; and all of us came together in song to close.

These men and women of faith have become life-long friends. We led another service together the following Sunday in yet another shelter, which these 250 residents had been transferred into.

Now: Let’s go back to the stories of Beresheit, of Cayin and Hevel, and of Noach. From the story of Cayin we learn that even if we are God and try to reach out to comfort someone when their face has fallen, it is up to that person to accept what is. We cannot arrogantly expect to change or fix others, even when wearing an ARC cap and vest:

As a chaplain, I have learned to accept my clients’ choices. I stay out of their way because I have faith in them. Sometimes, by seeing my non-judgmental faith in them, they find restored faith in themselves or with God.

In parashat Noach, although the story of a destructive Flood outwardly seems so apropos to my situation, it was really the character of Noach and the instructions that God gave for building the Ark that characterized what I experienced amongst the evacuees.

In Gen 6:9, “Noach was a man of simple righteousness amongst his generation. A man who walked with God.”  נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדרתיו את־האלהים התהלך־נח׃

Religion is not mentioned in the Noach story. God tells his walking partner, Noach, a man that stood out amongst others, that humans and all life have made a mess of things, and that he will destroy all of it but save a few good seeds, and start fresh.

And in Gen 6:14 what does God tell Noach to line this protective ark with, to keep it watertight and safe, inside and out? כפר pitch. The same root letters as kippur, as in atonement.

When we are ‘at-one-ment’, when we trust inside and out, when we follow illogical algorithms of faith, our lives become straighter and less complex.

We are then walking with God.

Far from being a punishment, many of the shelter residents expressed their belief that the hurricane was a blessing because it caused so many lives to be repaired.

Indeed, family members who had been estranged were now reaching out to each other to provide homes and assistance; people who had been isolated before were now flourishing by finding meaningful helping roles; people were returning to church; having lost excess baggage, many were now finding blessings and gratitude for small things.

In this hurricane flood Ark/shelter, they were finding at-one-ment.

Ken, you picked a great Shabbat for this d’rasha; I feel that my life has come full circle: my childhood affinity for Judaism and Jewish ways that began with the “Arky-Arky” song became manifest in the most unlikely of environments, and I thank you for allowing me this opportunity to both share the stories of the people of Beaumont Port Arthur, and to create a deeper understanding of the stories of Beresheit.

It was a privilege for me to know these people. I was fortunate to have a role where I could freely do my job. No one told me how to offer DSC to these people; we were deployed because we were seen to have the expertise to be self-directed and create an ark of at-one-ment for the people of Port Arthur.

I saw faith enacted, and it gives me comfort to see how powerful faith; in God, in one another, and in oneself, can be.

Shabbat Shalom

©Susan J Katz 2017

The Ki Tissa of Recovery

When we allow release to come, we find ourselves on the same sojourn through the wilderness our ancestors took; and if we allow ourselves to open to our potential, we may find the strength and maturity we so hope to develop along the way.fuccha.in

Ki Tissa is the section of the Israelites’ journey from Mitzrayim that takes us further along our way through the wilderness of discovery and formation. We leave Mitzrayim, Egypt, much like adolescents or runaways, with belongings slung hastily over a shoulder, barely wanting to look back.

Predictably, as soon as the thrill or high or novelty wears off, we are homesick for the familiar place, where our short memories recall fish and leeks to eat, and security.

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As a loving parent who sees their maturing offspring lose focus, God finds that it is time to take a census, a time for our people to be counted and accountable for themselves to their Higher Power. It is time to say, Count me in, I’m my way to independence and responsibility, no longer to be kept and managed by our Egyptian overseers.

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Part of becoming independent is surrendering to a Higher Power, of recognizing where our boundaries and limits of what we can realistically control lie. Here, in Ki Tissa, God instructs us to surrender what we can, to build the Mishkan. But, God does not instruct us all to do this in the same exact way: God, or our personal Higher Power, knows that we are not all the same, not all of the same talents, gifts, and abilities.

 

What we learn in Ki Tissa, is that those for whom surrendering material items is their best offering, are to do so, and they bring gold, silver, copper, fibers and pelts; safeguardingtheeternal.wordpress.com

and those for whom surrendering their creative talents is their best offering, are to do so. They are instructed by God on how to smith, weave, sculpt and build the Mishkan from these materials.

emastorah.blogspot,comHow do we understand this message?

One way is to take an account of who we are, and what our realms of abilities and being are, and what are not.

Another way is to let go of trying to be like someone we are not, or try to control how someone else is; maybe a family member or co-worker comes to mind. In recovery, we let go, and surrender to what our Higher Power asks or instructs of us.

We can let go, to leave others in God’s hands, too.gladlylistening.wordpress.com

When you are on your way in the Wilderness of Uncertainty,

Who will you answer as when others or your Higher Power call to you? How will you take inventory of who and how you have been, and where you see yourself now?

This is the message of Ki Tissa.

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Bo: What a Plot!

The reading for last Shabbat was parasha Bo, which is the 10th chapter of the 2nd book of the Torah, which is called Shemot in Hebrew, or Exodus in English.

Imagine it is Kabbalat Shabbat, here is my d’rasha for you,lmdb.com about Bo:

Has anyone seen the film, ‘The Ten Commandments’?

Anyone seen it…lately?

Ok. Well, I ask because yesterday was my grandmother’s birthday, z”l,

and her favourite movie was…The Ten Commandments!

as I was studying the parasha for tonight’s drasha

I could almost hear her voice kvelling,

She would say, “What a movie!! Such wonderful costumes, and acting…

AND–WHAT A PLOT!!!   Grandma Dot

 

Yes, Grandma, what a plot, indeed. And, then I started to wonder what it was, besides the fact that it’s THE TORAH, that makes this story have such a “great plot”?

 I began to read the first line, and some answers started to come to me:

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“God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants for the purpose of putting my signs in their midst. And so that you will tell into the ears of your children and the children of your children how I raised you up from Egypt and of my signs which I put in their midst, and they will know that I am YHVH.'”

 

What dramatic opening lines. Wow. COME to Pharaoh. Not GO to Pharaoh, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of his servants. Not his servants’ hearts. But the heart of his servants.

So, God is beckoning Moses toward Egypt, with the suggestion that God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart,

as a way for God to show God’s Might and Power,

and to escalate the tension between the Pharaoh and his people:

as his heart hardens, so does their desire close for more punishment from the plagues.

 

What is meant by heart? justmytype.ca

My Biblical Hebrew teachers taught us that in Tanakh times, the HEART was the where one’s will resided. They didn’t know what the BRAIN did, except maybe make the limbs and bodily functions work.

So the WILL of the Egyptians was also becoming hardened and closed off.

The grand purpose of all this was to create a platform for raising the stakes between Pharaoh and Moses

so that God would need to manifest greater and greater powers,

through the signs, or plagues,

and thus once and for all, be shown as God Most High and Powerful to all of Egypt. And

cccindy.comThis was to be told right into the ears of Moses’ children, and their children,

for all the generations of Israelites to come.

So that they will know that God alone is YHVH.

 

I think some of the appeal of this story line, that makes it such a good plot, as my grandmother would say,

Is that this dynamic happens not only in this one Biblical story,

But in our own lives, communities, and even world events. Sometimes, an idea or action that helped protect us from harm can go awry and go too far:

On the personal level, can you recollect times when you just kept resisting hearing someone’s needs or advice, and kept finding ways of ignoring obvious signs of seriousness until it was too late?

Or a community that ignores the needs of its poorest residents to the extent that the needs builds up and create an overwhelming housing and mental health services problem to contend with;

Or the hardening of hearts that at various times in history has led the world to a scary international escalation of terrorism, wars and arms threats.abstractdesktopnexus.com

 One thing God is telling us in this passage

is that we can get ourselves into trouble by running around

creating great plots and

ways to avoid letting in what our opened hearts

we know is the truth.

 

With this story, we can remember,

through telling it year after year,

That God comes along with you

And is greater than any Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

 

My grandmother always encouraged me to be my best, and part of that is having the privilege to study Torah and remember that God is greater than Pharaoh.

Grandma Dot

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Judaism, Women and Peace

I was a guest speaker, along with several other women, representing the Sikh, Christian, Muslim, and Aboriginal Peoples, at the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community’s Women’s World Peace Conference today in Surrey, British Columbia.

courtesy cmcnewell.wordpress.com

courtesy cmcnewell.wordpress.com

The Conference was a huge island of hope for World Peace, with 400 women gathered together, childcare provided so they could attend, and a huge amount of speaking and listening from the heart. I was asked to present Judaism’s teachings about Peace. The following is my presentation:  

Judaism’s Teachings about Peace

 Greetings, Shalom,

My name is Susan Katz, and I am here to present to you some of Judaism’s teachings about Peace.

Peace is a big topic! In preparing for this Conference, I needed to ask myself, “What can I choose to speak about that will create a memorable learning for the women who attend the Conference?”

Here’s what I decided:

The word *Shalom* More