Sunday, September 14, 2014

#BlogElul Day 18: Pray

On The Day of Atonement
Yehuda Amichai
On the Day of Atonement in 1967
I put on my dark holiday clothes and went to the Old City in Jerusalem
I stood for some time, before the alcove of an Arab’s shop,
Not far from Damascus Gate,
A shop of buttons and zippers and spools of thread in all colors
And snaps and buckles
A precious light and a great many colors like a Holy Ark with its doors ajar
I told him in my heart that my father, too,
Had such a shop of threads and buttons.
I explained to him in my heard all about the tens of years
And the reasons and the circumstances because of which I am now here
And my father’s shop is in ashes there, and he is buried here
By the time I had finished, it was time for Ne’ilah
(Closing of the gates prayer at the end of Yom Kippur)
He too pulled down the shutter and locked the gate,
And I went back home the all the worshipers.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Themes of the High Holidays Part 1: The Sound of the Shofar

In the Weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Cantor and I share some reflections on the High Holidays, preparing for the New Year. This is my first for this year. 

My dog doesn't like bagpipes. We've taken her to the Memorial Day parade in Centerville a couple of times, back home on Cape Cod, and as you would expect for a New England parade, there’s pipe-and-drum. Oh, boy, she does not like that sound. I love it. I grew up with it. I would love to study bagpipes (I have this vision of playing them at 8:30 in the morning on Shabbat at Camp Harlam on the hill to get everyone to breakfast. Anyway). That sound causes her to jump, to the point where if she hears bagpipes in the background of a song I’m listening to or on Television she starts to whimper. Hrmn. Maybe no bagpipes after all.

In a few weeks, when we gather in this place, when we see faces familiar and new, we will hear another powerful, yet strange sound; the blast of the shofar, a sound awesome, alien and powerful. It is a fitting sound for the day we celebrate God’s majesty, a day where ‘even the hosts of heaven are judged’. The sound of the shofar is like no other, entirely foreign to our daily lives. No man-made instrument, be it trumpet or car horn or computer, can replicate it. I’ve heard computerized versions, and recordings of the shofar, and our organ even has a shofar key, and it does not sound the same; there is no comparable experience to hearing the ram’s horn in person, on the day of Rosh Hashanah. You cannot fake the shofar blast.

For such an instrument as this, one that awakens the Jewish soul, that proclaims God’s sovereignty, we would expect an instrument that dazzles. I have always had a childlike fascination with musical instruments: the curve of the neck of a guitar, the way light reflects off a brass horn, how a clarinetist holds their hands just so, the shine and color of the violin. All these instruments great and small are works of art; even the computers, turntables and keyboards used by the dj or producer are like some powerful, glowing machine, alluring and frightening at the same time. Yet, the shofar is none of these things. It is a simple instrument; no buttons, no strings, no valves. It has neither reed nor mouthpiece. It takes no ornamentation; no metal, no elaborate designs. Indeed, the moment you carve or cover a shofar in metal or add any kind of decoration it is rendered unusable, unfit to fulfill the commandment. There is only one quality of the Shofar with which the rabbis were concerned; it’s sound. It had to produce the right sound, the sequence of blasts—the notes—that signaled the opening of the gates at the Days of Awe. Truly, with the shofar, it is what’s inside that counts.

And yet the mitzvah is not to sound the shofar, but to hear it. Again, the sound, not the sound-er, is what is important. Why must we hear the shofar? What compels us to hear its sound? After all, it’s weird. It makes us uncomfortable. We giggle when we hear it, when the ba’al tekiah the shofar sounder, turns blue, then purple, then goes to plaid as their Tekiah Gedolah goes on “too long”. Why this sound? Why a sound at all?

So we learn, in Sefer HaChinuch, that “at the root of the precept lies the reason that since man is a creature of physical matter, he is not aroused to things except by something stirring.” In other words, sounds stir something up in us. Maybe it’s the song you first slow-danced to, or that one aria in an opera, or the primal sounds of heavy metal or hip-hop all hit you right where it counts. Yes, the auditory cortex, but also the neshama, the soul.
And the shofar is supposed to make us feel weird, uncomfortable. As Sefer HaChinuch continues, the shofar is the sound of judgment. We hear it and we are supposed to ‘entreat mercy for [our] sins from the Master of Mercies…” and “break the impules of [our] heart that is evil with the cravings and sinful matters of the world.” We hear the shofar three times, and the sound is supposed to remind us of our own disappointments, our own stumbles, and seek to do better. We feel awkward because deep down inside, the sound causes us to struggle, our hearts turning toward the mistakes we’ve made in the past year, laid bare without pretense. We don’t like that. That makes us uncomfortable. We want the sound to go away, but it will not. Instead, we need to hear the sound, to listen carefully, listen to our hearts carefully, and turn ourselves toward the right path.

Three and a half more weeks and we hear the sound of the shofar. Will we be ready to hear the sound? Will we be ready to turn ourselves from within? For just as it is with the shofar, so too is it with us, and our souls: it’s what’s inside that counts.

#BlogElul Day 17: Awaken

 Jane Kenyon 
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.  
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise. 
 What does it mean to be truly awake? To recognize that our lives are filled with gifts, from the moment we arise to the moment we lay our heads back down. We are lucky, we are blessed, and not from any merit of our own. "Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles." (Chaim Stern). Open our eyes. Awake my soul. Let me make each miracle count. For tomorrow, it may be otherwise.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

#BlogElul Day 16: Understand

"That we were commanded to confess before The Eternal to all the sins we committed, at the time we are remorseful over them. This is the substance of the confession that a man should say at the time of repentance: "I pray Thee, O Eternal One: I sinned rebelliously and committed iniquity deliberately, thus and so"; in other words, he should mention the sin he did explicitly, in words (lit. with his mouth, so R. Judah b. Bava in TB Yoma 86b), and beseech forgiveness for it; and let him continue at length about the matter, according to the eloquence of his tongue."
(Sefer Hachinuch "For the Month of Tishre" p. 37, italics mine)

 It is not enough to confess, to admit, to speak words asking forgiveness. We have to be remorseful, which means understanding. Remorse is more than just feeling badly; it's appreciating where the sin came from, what part of our woundedness burst forth. Remorse means we fully understand the extent of our actions, where they came from, and what damage they wrought. Only then can we fully put to words, with our mouths, explicitly, our own request for forgiveness.

Is that hard? Yep. It is the hardest, for it isn't just about looking at the action, but deep inside, without making excuses or dodges--either for yourself or the Other.

What do you finally understand, and are remorseful for? What do you finally understand and forgive in others?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

#BlogElul Day 15: Learn

One of the first stories I learned in rabbinic school was told to me by my teacher, Michael Marmur. He said that in every conversation, there are two angels--an angel of winning and an angel of learning. But here's the thing; only one angel can stay in the conversation at any given time. It's up to the participants to decide--for each of us to decide--do we want to win or learn?

I don't know that I've fully absorbed the lesson of this story for my own self. I know that I've struggled with it since I first heard it more than 15 years ago. It's hard to put aside winning however we understand it--not looking foolish, success (or at least looking successful), nourishing our own egos at the cost of everything and everyone else, focusing too much on the short term goal at the expense of the long term relationship, etc. More than that, it's hard to embrace learning--not just the mastery of skills or showing a certain facility with bits of data--how many Seinfeld episodes can you quote? Can you play the ukulele?--but the deep, transformative work of learning. Real learning is as much about your own self: admitting that you were wrong and letting that wrongness change your own outlook and perspective to see what is right (as opposed to 'admitting that you got it wrong' but not really changing the self or behavior). It's about exposing yourself to other ideas and listening deeply to yourself as  you process them. Real learning means understanding the self--our wants, needs, anxieties, loves, histories--in order to understand the Other.

A new year, a new set of conversations. Which angel would you like in the conversation?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

#BlogElul Day 14: Remember

From my sermon this past Friday:

Tell me if this has happened to you: someone stops you for directions and you find yourself using landmarks that are no longer relevant, maybe even no longer extant. 
When I’m on Cape Cod I do this all the time: “Oh, you want to go past where Dunfy’s used to be.” Or “it’s right near Bornstein’s Nissan dealership.”  Dunfy’s is the location of the current Cape Cod Convention Center, and it hasn’t been called that in 30 years, and Bornstein sold the dealership 15 years ago, and now it’s an empty building. 
Memory is funny like that.  Things that happened years ago can sometimes feel more real than anything going on right now. All the more true when a memory is especially strong—a moment of pride, of joy, of shame, or sadness. I can remember when I learned to ride a bike, or when I first met my best friend, or when I met Marisa—well, the second time (she insists we met before but I’m not going there). And I can remember when I hurt my classmate’s feelings in rabbinic school, when I got in a fight with Doug Witt on the playground of Centerville Elementary, and when I screwed up at my Viola recital in 4th grade. But don’t ask me about any of my assignments my sophomore year of high school, or the name of the kid I hung out with one night on my summer Israel trip, or the number for my carrel at the Klau Library in Cincinnati where I wrote my thesis. There wasn’t enough feeling, enough emotion, enough energy. 
Memory is funny that way. We know that intuitively, but science is now validating that understanding. As Diane Ackerman wrote: “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.” And “All relationships change the brain - but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.” 
So our memories are not just shaped by intensity, but the nature of the relationship itself. Really, this validates Buber that it all goes back to the relationship. And this is reflected in the most true sense in this week’s portion, Ki Tetzei. In it, God (through Moses) reminds Israel of what Amalek did: 
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! 
A trauma, as the rabbis remind us, that hit us when we were a new people, at our most optimistic, perhaps most na├»ve. To be attacked as we went out of Egypt, the Sea closed over our Pursuers, marching toward Sinai, a moment that should have been triumphant reduced to violence and vulnerability. To make matters worse, there are those who argue that Amalek is a kind of mirror-image, bizzarro Jewish people, our parallel in many ways (Samson Raphael Hirsch especially explored this idea). If we accept that idea, then it is as if we were beset by what we most fear and despise about ourselves. 
While most of us would argue that Egyptian Bondage and Babylonian Captivity and Roman Exile have defined us as a People most of all, I might argue that Amalek—attacking us in a moment of optimism, revealing our vulnerabilities—gave us definition as well. And we struggle with that memory of Amalek even today. As the rabbis say, every generation has its own Amalek. Amalek’s story becomes a speculum reflecting many Jewish historical narratives: medieval oppression, modern anti-semitism, European Holocaust, Exile. The idea of Jew as victim, Jew as vulnerable, and safety being contingent on remembering those moments of victimhood and vulnerability are still very much alive and present in our lives. They are part of our Interfaith Dialogue with other religious communities, part of our conversation about Israel’s identity and how it uses force and is seen by the world, and part of our own struggle in the modern era to cast off the idea of Victimhood or passive recipient and embrace the idea of the Jew as covenanted, active partner in creation. To put it another way, which influence us more, our memories of trauma or our memories of success, and which do we want to have influence over us? I would argue that Judaism too frequently has allowed trauma—all the way back to our birth as a people—to define us. Certainly the memory of trauma has allowed too many non-Jews to define us as victims. As I was saying to a colleague earlier this week, too often the starting point for interfaith dialogue with non-Jews is the Holocaust, rather than, say, opportunities for prayerful study, or responding to the needs of the community. 
Which brings us back to the other part of the mitzvah presented: while we’re commanded to remember and not forget, we’re also reminded to blot out the name of Amalek. How can we blot out a name we’re supposed to remember? Because memory—even traumatic memory, even a memory so overwhelming that it has helped shaped a people over thousands of years—should not hold us back from our mission, but inspire it. We remember Amalek not to focus on our victimhood, but to fuel our sympathy for those in need. Yes, it reminds us of how we were—and are still—vulnerable. And vulnerability is a powerful feeling, one that inspires fear and distrust of others. But it can also be a catalyst for action—having been vulnerable, we want protect others, not just ourselves. It can mean fear of exposure and uncertainty, but can also mean courage in the face of hardship, and the willingness to seek out friends and allies. NOT EVERYONE IS AMALEK, not everyone is out to get us. More than that, our memories as a people and as individuals give us the ability to form relationships and do powerful transformational work in our community. Our memories allow us to blot out Amalek.
The memory of Amalek is powerful, as powerful as any memory we may carry individually. It can inspire fear and paranoia, convince us that the world is a dangerous place, or it can inspire courage to face the world and transform it. It can hold us back or press us forward. It can cause us to see only enemies, or help us find friends and partners. As we move toward Rosh Hashanah, ask yourself how your memories shape your own experience and actions. Hold on to your memories, for they are our identity, but let those memories inspire.

Monday, September 8, 2014

#BlogElul Day 13: Forgive

In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I'll be with you when the deal goes down
We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down
The moon gives light and shines by night
I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O'er the road we're bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down
I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard a deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down
Bob Dylan, "When The Deal Goes Down" 2006

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