Thursday, March 28, 2019

How Can We Learn Emuna from a Chicken?

Parashat Shemini
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Being a Small Poultry Farmer
It seems that we have been chicken owners as long as we’ve lived in Bat Ayin – for about 27 years. None of us had any prior experience raising birds, but chickens are easy to take care of. I do remember as a child visiting the farm of our au-pair girl. I saw how they would pluck the feathers of a newly slaughtered chicken and remove the gizzard, peeling off its outer peel, within which there were remains from her last meal, including undigested grass and grain. I’ve just learned that a gizzard (Kurkevan) with an inner membrane that can be peeled off is one of the four signs of a kosher bird listed in the Talmud. The main criteria distinguishing a kosher bird is that it must not be a predator. It must have a muscular pouch, or crop, near the throat to store food and an extra toe. Additionally, when they stand on a wire, they have three toes in front and one in back. These distinctive features of kosher birds are not mentioned in the Torah but only in the Talmud (Chulin 59-63). The Shulchan Aruch furthermore specifies that the eggs of kosher birds must be pointed at one end and round at the other (Yore De’ah 86:1). Parashat Shemini lists the kosher requirements for various animal: Fish require fins and scales. Mammals require split hooves and they must chew their cud. However, the written Torah doesn’t provide any definitive signs for birds or fowl. Instead, the Torah lists twenty species of non-kosher fowl (Vayikra 11:13-19), plus sub-species (for a total of 24 – see Talmud Chulin 63a). Non-kosher birds include owls, pelicans, eagles, ostriches, vultures and more. I connect with the notion that we may not eat scavengers, carnivores or birds of prey. These are not characteristics that we want to absorb at all. Only pure animals are fit for a Jew to eat. We can easier elevate their more refined character through mindful eating especially on Shabbat and holidays.

Birds and Purity
Perhaps the reason why there are no identifying markers for kosher birds in the written Torah is because birds, in general, are purer than other animals. Therefore, the Torah only lists the exceptions – the limited amount of impure birds. All other birds, not singled out by the Torah as impure are kosher by default.

ספר ויקרא פרק יא פסוק יג וְאֶת אֵלֶּה תְּשַׁקְּצוּ מִן הָעוֹף לֹא יֵאָכְלוּ שֶׁקֶץ הֵם...
 “Among birds, you shall consider these an abomination; they shall not be eaten; they are abominable…” (Vayikra 11:13).

However, due to the many uncertainties as to the precise identities of the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah, we cannot be sure which birds are identified by the Torah. Therefore, in practice, Torah law rules that only birds with a tradition of being kosher may be eaten. These include chicken, duck and geese. Maharal explains why kosher birds are used in the purification ritual from tza’ra’at (a spiritual illness that is considered as death). This is because these birds are associated with life due to the swiftness of their movements. This is contrary to death which is stagnant and devoid of movement. Moreover, the refined substance of the bird allows it to soar high in the sky. This explains why, according to my neighbor, looking at chickens engenders purity. She told me that she heard that somewhere, (I haven’t found her source). Therefore, she visits with me in our chicken coop to soak up some purity vibrations.

The Dedicated Motherhood of Our Feathered Friends
Most birds are very good mothers, and it is a joy to watch the way a mother bird untiredly teaches her chicks how to eat and fly up onto the perch. They also cover their chicks with their wings at night, providing a snug, warming shelter. From the birds, Ruth learned her expression to Boaz at the pivotal moment, “Spread your wings over your handmaid for you are a redeemer” (Ruth 3:9). Among all the special features of birds, I find the way they hatch their chicks by patiently sitting on eggs most inspiring. For a chicken, it takes exactly 21 days of sitting on the eggs before the cute, little egg-sized chicks hatch. During this period, she hardly moves- not even to eat, or drink, let alone to ruffle her feathers. Below is a poem I wrote many years ago when my chicken strengthened my emunah, while I was struggling with secondary infertility.  

Emuna from a Bird

My little brown hen
was sitting on eggs.
I do not know
exactly since when.
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

Her entire being she would invest
to shelter and never leave her nest.
I would impatiently try to keep track,
when would those eggs ever crack?
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

Too much time seemed to have gone by,
I tried anxiously to figure out why,
why did I interfere
with her natural way to rear?
No one else had so much care.

She would hardly get up to eat
or peck around in the sun.
In order not to leave her seat,
she would give up all the fun.
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

She sacrificed her entire being,
 even her own health,
to give life to those inanimate
pitiful rounded shells.
From where did she get her faith
that her labor would bear fruit?
perhaps she just stuck to her task
even if nature would not follow suit?
She was sitting and sitting and sitting,
just sitting and doing her bidding.

I feel like a bird as well
yearning to reach the sky,
waiting for the future tell
that my time has come to fly.
Must I really be sitting and sitting
just sitting and doing my bidding?
My wings ache to be used,
my heart to be directed well.
I feel ready and all enthused
but how can I penetrate the shell?
How long must I be sitting?
just sitting and doing my bidding?

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Why Would I Ever Want to Feel Guilty?

Parashat Tzav
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Is Excessive Guilt a Jewish Phenomenon?
I remember my parents’ candy cabinet. It was the top section of the antique, polished, solid, oak-wooden cupboard. This section even had a key, but I don’t know why it was never locked. Its shelves were bursting with sweets from an assortment of licorice to Anton Berg’s marzipan and various bags of candy. As far as I can remember back, I had a penchant for sweets, perhaps, I was even born with a sweet tooth. By the age of seven, I had developed a method for extracting candies from closed candy bags without my mother noticing that the bag had been opened. I would simply slide the candies out from a narrow slit on the edge of the bag. When my mother looked away, I would stand on a stool while using this method to steal just one candy, leaving the bag looking new and unopened. The problem was that I often repeated this procedure until – to my great dismay – I discovered that the bag was nearly empty. When my mother later inquired who had stolen the candies, my confession was written on the guilty expression of my face. I’m not the only one to have struggled with a guilty conscience. The claim that especially Jews harbor feelings of shame and guilt is well known in both literature and humor. “What’s Jewish Alzheimer’s disease? It’s when you forget everything but the guilt” is an example of one such joke emphasizing Jewish guilt. According to Simon Dein, in Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, guilt and Judaism are closely interlinked with a long historical legacy. Through psychoanalytic, theological, and cultural examination, he concludes that ‘guilt’ is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture. More than guilt being a problem, it is second nature to the Jews, particularly through the guilt-inflicting Jewish mother. The Origins of Jewish Guilt: Psychological, Theological, and Cultural Perspectives. According to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman such stereotypes about Jewish guilt, have no basis in reality. As early as 1964, a study in the American Midwest reported higher levels of guilt among Protestants and Catholics than among their Jewish cohorts. Rabbi Tzvi also personally asked several therapists with many Jewish patients. They all concur that excessive, crippling guilt does not appear to be a particularly Jewish phenomenon.

The Purpose of Feeling Guilty
Shame and guilt are related. The Hebrew word for guilt אַשְׁמָה/ashma is similar to the English word ‘shame.’ Both involve feeling bad about ourselves. Whereas shame is a general feeling of not living up to our potential, guilt is usually associated with a particular action. From the very first people in the world – Adam and Eve – the feeling of guilt became ingrained within humanity. After having disobeyed G-d’s command, they were overcome by the feeling of guilt, so they tried to hide from Hashem (Bereishit 3:8). Evading taking responsibility for their sin caused them to turn their guilt into blame (Ibid. 12-13). Since then, we all struggle with this inborn tendency to blame, rather than taking responsibility for our actions. In our quest to avoid pain, we may also try to hide and cover up, not even admitting our wrongdoing to ourselves. In the following Bible-chapter, Hashem provides guidance for how to deal with our negative impulse and possible consequent sin. When Kain felt guilty about being jealous, because Hashem only accepted his brother’s sacrifice, Hashem empowers him to mend his ways: “If you improve your deeds, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve, sin will be crouching in wait for you to the grave. It yearns to make you stumble, but you can rule over it” (Bereishit 4:7). It is natural and unavoidable at times to feel angry, irritated, jealous and moody, yet it is our responsibility to work on not letting these feelings get the better of us. Feeling guilty for negative emotions is beneficial and is meant to prompt us to avoid acting upon them. Just as Hashem told Kain, “You can rule over it,” we too can contain our negative feelings without acting upon them. When we succeed, we can release the feeling of guilt, knowing that we have gained complete forgiveness as Kain was promised. Although Kain fell deeply into cardinal sin, at least he took responsibility for his action by confessing: “Is my iniquity too great to bear?” (Bereishit 4:13). Consequently, Hashem placed His mark of protection upon him (Ibid 15). If Hashem mitigates the punishment of even a murderer because he took responsibility and admitted his sin, how-much-more-so will He forgive us for whatever wrongdoing we may have committed (Based on Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, Jewish Guilt A Guide For Healthy Maintenance ).

Transient Guilt as a Tool for Repentance
Guilt can serve a powerful social function in terms of controlling our behavior, as long as we are aware of our inherent ability to do good. A temporary guilt feeling is a result of realizing that we were wrong. Yet, believing that our nature is evil will not help us to resist the temptation to do evil. Judaism empowers us to know our innate goodness and helps us to use the initial guilt for self-improvement. Lingering guilt is not a Jewish emotion. Rather, it is the first step of the teshuva process. When we channel this initial guilt feeling into ‘regret’ we are on the way to total repentance. Teshuva is comprised of three steps: 1) remorse, 2) confession, and 3) resolution for the future. Remorse stems from a yearning to come close to G-d, and the agony of realizing that we have become distant from the source of life. This regret causes an even greater love for G-d than before, like a husband and wife who make up after a dispute. Experiencing deep feelings of regret purifies the spiritual stain on our soul caused by the forbidden pleasure. It also transforms our wrongdoing into merits, since they are what cause us to become even closer to Hashem. This explains why Parashat Tzav teaches us that the guilt offering is called “holy of holies.”

ספר ויקרא פרק ז (א) וְזֹאת תּוֹרַת הָאָשָׁם קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא: (ה) וְהִקְטִיר אֹתָם הַכֹּהֵן הַמִּזְבֵּחָה אִשֶּׁה לַידֹוָד אָשָׁם הוּא: (ו) קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא:
“This is the law of the guilt offering. It is a holy of holies… And the kohen shall cause them to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a fire offering to Hashem. It is a guilt offering It is a holy of holies (Vayikra 7:1-6).

Just as the initial feeling of guilt evaporates when the guilt offering goes up in flames, likewise, today there is no need to hold on to guilt feelings as long as we take responsibility for our actions. Here are five ways to help us release excessive guilt and make positive changes in our lives.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Small Sacrifices of Life

Parashat Vayikra
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Transforming our Lost Objects to Become Sacrifices
After all these years, I’m still working on letting go of attachments to the material! Even now, I clearly remember and can almost still feel pain about losing a gift from my dear grandmother – a special, solid gold-brooch – 13 years ago, at my son’s wedding. It was holding my shawl together, until I took it off and put it on the nearby chair, as I whirled in my wildest dances. When I collected my shawl a few hours later, the brooch was gone. Within my great simcha (happiness) of exhilarated dancing, celebrating my oldest son’s wedding, there was a scratch in my joy. This was to be my sacrifice – my thanksgiving offering to Hashem for bringing our son to the marriage canopy. Since then, a great collection of smaller sacrifices has been piling up in my hectic, sometimes – I’m embarrassed to say – absentminded life. These include shawls, necklaces and earrings, especially my favorite blue sapphire earring that I looked for everywhere and didn’t even find in the chicken coop, near the hammock or behind the bed. Its single widow is still dangling on my earring stand, reminding me of my loss. However, in order to transform these kinds of minor losses to become sacrifices, it is necessary to let go of the initial pain of the loss. We must truly accept, for a sacrifice must be given with a full heart. This is the first step. The next step is to contemplate how the loss is actually a kindness from Hashem to grant us atonement for our failings. Then we are ready to reach the highest level of transforming lost objects to become sacrifices: By truly rejoicing over the loss!  Rebbe Nachman teaches that lost objects brings us completion, as it states, “He repays… to cause them to loose… yet He will repay…” (Devarim 7:10); (Likutei Moharan, I:8). He also teaches that lost objects are a result of תַּאֲווֹת/ta’avot – ‘desires and lusts’ (Ibid. II:88). Searching for lost objects – like searching for Chametz – implies searching in our innermost being to break our lusts for earthly desires. This results in finding all our lost objects. Oh well, way to go…

The Gift of Atonement
In Temple times, people would take an animal, such as a cow or a goat that they may have raised from infancy, cared for and fed daily, perhaps even talked to and received an acknowledging bleat in reply. Then, with a full heart they would willingly see their animal go up in flames, as they confessed their sins. The feeling of atonement, rebirth and spiritual closeness, with which they would walk away, more than made up for the loss of their animal.

ספר ויקרא פרק א פסוק ד וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה וְנִרְצָה לוֹ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו:
“And he shall place his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to atone for him” (Ibid. 4).          

כַּפָּרָה/kaparah is an amazing gift that Hashem grants us to enable us to come close to Him. Atonement clears away all the blockages – due to negative actions, feelings or thoughts – which separate and prevent us from becoming one with Him. The word ‘atonement’ in English can be broken up into ‘at-one-ment’ – for atonement is a rebirth that facilitates us to reconnect with the light of our soul and with our inherent oneness with Hashem. If we allow ourselves to take the time to contemplate deeply on the gift of ‘at-one-ment,’ we can remain happy, even though our most precious crystal chandelier shatters. By accustoming ourselves in such spiritual aerobics, no distress will remove our sense of closeness to G-d. As Miriam Adahan writes, ‘It’s all a Gift.’

To Sacrifice the Animal in Ourselves
The word קָרְבָּן/korban – ‘sacrifice’ derives from the root ק-ר-ב/k-r-v, which means to come close. The purpose of all the sacrifices is to bring us close to our Creator.

ספר ויקרא פרק א פסוק ב דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַהָשֵׁם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה מִן הַבָּקָר וּמִן הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת קָרְבַּנְכֶם:
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to Hashem; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice (Vayikra 1:2).

The Torah states, יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם /yakriv m’kem – ‘sacrifice your sacrifice’ or “bring an offering of you” – meaning the offering must come from you. The physical animal sacrifice is not enough. Hashem wants our heart. We must bring an offering from ourselves, as Sforno explains: The sacrifice must be accompanied by “a verbal confession and submission, in the sense of, ‘So we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves’ (Hoshea 14:3); and as it states, ‘The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit’ (Tehilim 51:19). For G-d has no desire for fools who offer sacrifices without previous submission” (Sforno, Vayikra 1:2). Thus, a person’s offering is not just his animal but himself as well. Therefore, it states, אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב/adam ki yakriv – ‘a person who sacrifices’ – for the main sacrifice is to sacrifice oneself (Zohar 3:26b).

Four Ways of Engaging in Sacrifices Today
How do we sacrifice ourselves?  Even in Temple times, sacrifices were only a means for repentance, to be able to cleave to the light of Hashem with awe and love. According to Rabbi Avraham Dov Avritch, today, when we can’t make a physical Temple sacrifice, repentance and cleaving to Hashem can be achieved in two ways: 1. Lower teshuva- by means of fasting. 2. Higher teshuva- by means of cleaving to the light of Torah (Sefer Bat Ayin, Parashat Shemini).

1. Fasting can be understood also in a broader sense. It can include a yearly cleanse such as a juice fast and mindful eating throughout the year– eating slowly and chewing every bite carefully without our eyes and mind on the next bite. We can also practice leaving a small piece of our favorite treat on the plate, even if we still desire to eat it. This is an excellent, practical way of sacrificing that we can do today.

2. Cleaving to the light of Torah implies adding more Torah learning to our daily routine, whether reading Torah books, going to classes or learning with study partners. In order to free up time for this, we may need to sacrifice some of our secular pursuits: reading fashion magazines, buyer’s guides, surfing the net or engaging in social media. For a woman, sacrificing her time or standard of living, in order to enable her husband to increase his Torah learning, is one of the most meritorious offerings possible (See Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a).

3. Engaging in acts of kindness and donating to a worthy cause is likewise a way of giving our sacrifice in our times. In the Talmud, money is called דָּמִים/damim – ‘blood’ (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 86b). Sharing our financial resources with others, can therefore be considered as if we sacrificed our own blood on the Temple altar. There is no better atonement for any wrongdoing than giving tzedakah.

4. We mustn’t forget about תְּפִלָּה/tefilah prayer – the traditional sacrifice replacement. Prayer includes meditation and reciting the blessings slowly with intention. By meditating upon the greatness of G-d, we can sacrifice and transform the animal within. This ultimately alters the very composition of our materialistic traits, so that they too may gain an appreciation of the spiritual, and develop a love for G-d.

There are many additional ways of offering sacrifices in our time, whether voluntary or those that unwittingly grace our path. Let us work on regarding such sacrifices, big or small, as opportunities and portals for rebirth, growth and closeness with our Creator.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Coming Full Circle Completing My Mourning

Parashat Pekudei
Printable Version

Time of Return to Celebrations
Parashat Pekudei, which completes the book of Shemot, is all about completions. As the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is brought to its final completion, I complete my 12 months of mourning for when my dear father Shlomo ben Yisrael Leib הכ”מ was brought to his final resting place. How can the completion of the Mishkan be likened to the completion of a mourning period and to the completion of a life in this world? The Mishkan is the home for The Holy One – the Collective Soul of the world. “When the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan” (Shemot 40:34), the Divine Presence found Her home in this lower world. Life is the integration of soul and body – when the soul enters the body that is going to be its home in the lower world. Death is the dissolution of body and soul into two separate entities – a separation of the spiritual self from its physical vehicle – the home of the soul in this world. When talking about a person leaving his body, we prefer to use the term, ‘passing’ rather than ‘dying,’ because the eternal soul never dies. It only leaves its temporary physical abode in this world, in order to reunite with its ultimate spiritual home in the World-to-Come. The Torah designates no less and no more than 12 months of mourning for a parent, even during a leap year (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 391:2). Throughout my mourning period, I felt as if part of my soul was with my father in his eternal home. This made me more prayerful and internal, less preoccupied with the physical world. During this time, I have been concerned with the bridge between life and death and with my own mortality. Now, after 12 months – at the onset of the happy month of Adar II – my husband tells me, “It’s time to let go of the mourning in order to return fully to life in this physical world.” As we complete the Book of Shemot, with Hashem’s presence filling this world, it is time for me to release the sadness of mourning and to allow Hashem’s presence to reside more fully in our home. “The Shechina rests specifically on those who are happy and in a joyous mood. Prophecy cannot rest upon a person when sad or languid, but only through happiness” (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:4).

Spiritual Detox for Returning the Light of the Shechina
The Book of Bereishit opens with “Let there be light” (Bereishit 1:3). At the conclusion of the Book of Shemot, we come full circle with Hashem’s final deed which is in a sense the very same action that began the original creation. On the day when the Mishkan was set up on earth… a thread of the primordial light, issued forth joyously, with the Shechina and descended into the Tabernacle below… (Zohar, Shemot 149a). Thus, the Book of Shemot is a new beginning – a new creation. Our purpose in this world is to return this Divine light into the world by building a home for the Shechina. Detoxing, which has become a popular trend that can mean just about anything, may be one way of making our body a home for the Shechina. The more we detox and purify our body from excess cravings and attachments to comforts, the more room we make for the Shechina. The last period of a person’s life, when he is no longer preoccupied with making money and with embellishing his ego, is a refinement period for spiritual pursuits. Yet, we don’t have to wait until then to bring the Shechina into our lives. King Solomon could not have been much older than 12, when he built the Temple which became the abode for Hashem’s glory.   “…For the glory of Hashem filled the house of Hashem. Then said Solomon, ‘Hashem said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a settled place for You to abide in forever’” (I Melachim 8:11-13).

My Father’s Wisdom
Although my fatherהכ"מ  was known as Sally, in his later years he chose to be called by his real name ‘Solomon’ or ‘Shlomo.’ Father built many homes. In addition to building our two childhood homes in Lyngby, I will never forget the dollhouse he built for us with three floors and different kinds of electric lamps, that would turn on when you pressed various buttons. With great flair for details, he fashioned windows with curtains, a dining room with tables and chairs, a living room with a sitting area, the kitchen with all the paraphernalia, and several bedrooms, with bed stands. Miniature people populated the dollhouse, and we would play with it for hours. As his namesake ‘Solomon,’ father was not only a highly intelligent man but also filled with wisdom. I recall that rom a young age, I asked him to explain to me the wonders of nature, such as why the sky was blue and why the snow was white? How plants grew and how big the stars were etc? For every one of my curious questions, father always had an answer. He demonstrated with a football, how the earth would encircle the sun while also spinning around its own axis, thereby causing the seasons, day and night. Like Solomon, father was very intuitive, and always sensed when any of us three sisters were sad. He would then wrap his loving arm around us with a few words of comfort. The words were not important. What mattered was the feeling of being understood and that our father was there for us through thick and thin. I believe it was this ability to understand others compassionately that made my father such a popular doctor, especially with his female patients. He understood the importance of the psychological impact on healing, long before it became popular. I remember when we fell and got hurt, he used to say, “Just say seventeen, and it will go away!” and so it usually did.  On the first of Nissan, Moshe erected the abode for Hashem on earth (Shemot 40:2). Two days later, this past year, my father’s soul rose on high to enter Hashem’s heavenly abode. May the soul of my father, Shlomo ben Yisrael Leib, be bound in the bundle of life‏‏‏‏! תנבצ"ה

Letting Go of Grief
Here is a poem I wrote to describe my ambivalent feelings upon completing the 12 mourning months. As the pain in my heart diminishes, it feels as if part of my father is accordingly fading away. I nurse a fear of letting go of the deep pain of grief, to allow life to move on, without mourning for my father. In a sense, it feels as if letting go of grief is letting go of my love. Although I experience these feelings, I also know that as my 12 months of mourning pass, I will be able to return into regular life celebration, while keeping a place in my heart for my dear father. I truly experience how the Jewish way in mourning supports the mourner to gradually let go of grief.

At the Shivah they said the year would go fast.
How could I know that I would want it to last?
The closeness of your spirit I invite,
with every candle light that I ignite.
I kiss your photo with affection,
seeing you in my own reflection.

Although you are no longer in your skin,
I feel your presence in my heart within.
Somehow so very real you seem,
when you come to me in a dream.
You speak to me when no one hears.
For you I relish shedding many tears.

Being in mourning helps me console,
through connecting with your soul.
It is comforting to keep your memory aflame,
by adding mitzvot to elevate your name.
I happily a wedding leave
in order to for you to grieve.

How can I begin to dance again?
Without looking back to when
I threw handfuls of soil on your grave,
and cried until I knew you forgave.
I covered your serene face with a sheet,
placing white cotton socks on your feet.

As your body lies in the ground
is your naked soul unbound?
I would never ever be able to know,
how hard it is to let your spirit go.
I wish I could do more
to help your soul restore.

I sense how you feel all my love,
being happy with me from above.
I will keep teaching Torah as my role,
to continue helping elevate your soul.
Although we are temporarily apart,
I will continue to keep you in my heart.