This morning I had the honor of giving a Shabbat drash [see note] for Metivta: A Center for Contemplative Judaism. Metivta has wonderful Shabbat services with chanting and meditation every month or so, led by a group of skilled and learned lay leaders and held in members' homes in Los Angeles. I was especially glad to be asked to speak today because the Torah portion for the week, the last chapter in Genesis, was also the last chapter of the Joseph story—a story of suffering and forgiveness. This narrative is close to my heart for many reasons, not least of which is that it tells of estrangement and reconciliation, which is part of my own story.
As I tell in the preface to my book, Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda's Book of Prayers for Jewish Women, my son, Adam, was estranged from me for more than 11 years as the result of a very bitter divorce. I was working as a freelance editor at the time and one of my clients, Judith Orloff, M.D., was an intuitive healer. So I decided to ask her about my son. She said that she saw him with my family in the future and told me I could pray, that it works. But I was not in the habit of praying and I simply couldn't find the right words.
Around that time, I was browsing in a used bookstore around the corner from my house. I wandered into the Judaica section and happened to see a slim volume on the shelf with no writing on the spine. I plucked it off the shelf, and read the title, "Hours of Devotion: A Book of Prayers and Meditations for the Use of the Daughters of Israel for Public Service and at Home, for All Conditions of a Woman's Life," translated from the German in 1866. As I scanned the table of contents, I saw prayers for morning, evening, every day of the week, and then a section just for women. Among prayers for brides and mothers was a prayer "For a Mother Whose Child Is Abroad." I took the book home, started saying that prayer, among others, and within a period of about six weeks, my son was back in my life. The first thing I said to him was, "Adam, I have to tell you, this is an answer to a prayer."
Since that time, Adam and his wife, Rachelle, have given me two beautiful granddaughters. So this morning, when I read the words that Jacob said at the end of his life to his son Joseph, I could relate to them completely:
“I dared not accept the thought that I would see your face again, and here God has shown me even your offspring.” (Genesis 48:11)
The Joseph story is significant to me for another reason as well: It's where I "came in," so to speak on Ronnie Serr's teaching, the night I became his student. It was a cold November night in 2001, and I was suffering another loss: the loss of my marriage of 12 years. I had just started to attend Thursday night meditations at Metivta just so I wouldn't spend the whole night crying. Ronnie had come in as a substitute for the rabbi that particular night and was telling the story of Joseph, the parsha for the week then as well. What he taught that night has never left me. It's a teaching from the Bal Shem Tov: the 5 steps from suffering to gratitude:
1) Suffering—something that comes to us all
2) Acceptance of suffering—recognizing that everything comes from God
3) Prayer—asking God for salvation
4) Receiving the answer to your prayer
At the end of the class, I went up to Ronnie to tell him how much his teaching had meant to me because I was going through so much suffering. He just looked me straight in the eye and said, "The world is for you." I didn't have the least idea what he meant at the time, but I knew I had found my teacher.
That night, through my tears, I prayed, really prayed, for the first time. And I began to heal.
And this morning, I talked about Joseph and recited those five steps to others—coming full circle.
Happy winter solstice! May the longest night of the year and the darkest darkness bring you the brightest light.
NOTE: According to the Velveteen Rabbi's excellent definition, "To drash something means to explicate it, usually through story; it
relates to the word 'midrash,' which is an exegetical story, a tale that explains a piece of Torah in some new or interesting way." To learn more about the tradition of Midrash, just click the word!