Tuesday, September 2, 2014

#BlogElul Day 7: Be

Once, Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn raised his eyes heavenward and cried, "Angel! Angel! it is no great feat to exist as an angel in the heavens! You don't have to eat, drink, bear children, and earn money to support them. Come down to earth and wear yourself out eating, drinking, raising children and earning money. We'll see if you stay an angel. If you succeed, you will be able to boast!" (From Martin Buber's Tales of the Chasidim)

We are told--or perhaps we simply believe--that we ought to be angels. That our behavior, our experiences, our work, our children, our marriages, our relationships, our Judaism, our skin, our waistlines, all should be perfect in some way. That perfection is the goal--or better than perfection (hence the mathematically impossible 'giving 110% effort').  When we err or go astray, we measure ourselves against that platonic ideal cooked up in our heads (or perhaps placed there along the way) of how it was all supposed to be.

We are no angels. Nor would we choose to be. Angels lack free will. Angels can only ever do what they are told. Yes, free will means struggle, but also growth. We, shaped in God's image, are the ones that grow and learn--from our successes, but also our failures. We get distracted, we focus on the wrong thing, we get tired, and then we go astray. And then we have a choice: to course correct and get back on track, or to strive for perfection.

I recently read a meme that said something like "may your life be as good as your Facebook feed looks". What would it mean for us to stop presenting perfection to the world, and owned our flaws? What would it mean to admit that we weren't angels, and to praise God and the holiness in each other--including the holy brokenness in each other--with all our hearts? Would we find the knot in our backs gone, the brow unfurrowed? Might we love ourselves and each other a little  more? Would we give ourselves the room to learn rather than paper over with that perfect Instagram image of our lives?

Ours is the greatest feat: to strive for holiness amid all the distractions of our day and age. And if we can do that, perhaps it is we who have reason to boast.

Monday, September 1, 2014

#BlogElul Day 6: Search

Jotted in my notebook from my trip to Israel

When you come home you discover that
Your street is narrower
Your thigh narrower
Your mind narrower
Your heart narrower
Than you remember

And you have to leave again. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

#BlogElul Day 5: Know

This afternoon, after watching Return of The Jedi with the boy (Original Theatrical Release, thank you), I had a rite of passage I've been doing since 2011. I had my Fantasy Football League Draft. 

I like Football and continue to be a Patriots Fan (while slowly allowing the Philadelphia "Iggles" to colonize parts of my brain once reserved for memorizing American Vice-Presidents), but I hardly consider myself Fantasy Football material. And my scores reflect that fact; I almost always come in 6th or 7th (out of 12) every year. I don't know who the best tight ends are, or the running back who's going to give me the most points. Nor am I likely to watch every football game ever, or devour reams of data from Sports Pages and websites, in order to come to a better conclusion. For me, I play because it gives me an excuse to keep in touch with my buddies from Cape Cod. The game itself is incidental. 

And yet, I have plenty of knowledge that is unessential. I can quote whole movies, know far too much about the making of certain sci-fi films (and toy lines, and fantasy books, and comics, and...) than is healthy, and my study of comics borders on the talmudic.
This isn't to say that I disdain learning (I'd be in the wrong gig if that were so). I love studying text, exploring different reading strategies, and gnawing on a bit of something. ""My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work..."" writes Arthur Conan Doyle in "The Sign of Four", and it's true. If I'm not engaged in learning of some form or another, whether it's Judaics, or history, or the career of John Byrne, I feel antsy. 

And there are so many more ways to cultivate knowledge, be it meaningful or esoteric. The Internet, as has been written (again, and again) is a bottomless font of information. While many have gnashed their teeth at the loss of knowledge that the internet has created, I disagree. We have not lost knowledge, we have lost the skill to differentiate good knowledge from bad, to do good research and exploration. Not just to separate out good and bad sources, but to see the difference between an article on climate change and, say, an article on the latest blockbuster movie. Once those topics were categorized differently; today, with social media increasingly our source, and Buzzfeed and Upworthy and Huffington Post (and similar sources) putting out clickbait, everything begins to flow together. 

But I recognize that not all knowledge is useful. While it might please me to know when Groot was introduced first (back in the 1970s, when he was a bad guy and could talk), just as it pleases someone else to know the whole background behind the Island on "Lost" or the stats of the entire 2014 Kansas City Royals, that knowing doesn't necessarily grow me as a person.  What does is the sharing of that knowledge with others, or the opportunity to use that knowledge to create connections or build community. I will never be a fantasy football expert, but through it I spend time with friends hundreds of miles away. Knowledge of Judaism comes with the territory, but it is useless ephemera, trivia, unless it helps others create a sense of meaning for themselves and others. 

Doyle writes in another Sherlock Holmes story ("The Five Orange Pips") "'A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library where he can get it if he wants.'" I admit, some of what I love to study belongs in the lumber-room, but hopefully I can keep my attic well stocked, especially if its contents give me the wherewithal to help create meaning. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

#BlogElul Day 4: Accept

"It's Not Fair."

This lament of childhood never really goes away. It informs so much of what we do, with a notion that "fairness" means "equivalence" and "equal treatment" in all situations. At least that's what way say. Of course, what we mean is that we get special treatment (or at least no one else does).

The issue of fairness drills down to the core of our being, especially when we ourselves are suffering. We feel as if the Universe--God--is specifically targeting us with hostility and aggression.

In the prayer unetaneh tokeph, we read that "prayer, repentance and charity ease judgment's severe decree". This is not how it is worded in the rabbinic literature; there, we are told that prayer, repentance and charity cancel the severe decree. But we know that the decree cannot be cancelled. Life isn't fair. But we have resources to help us accept, but also sustain ourselves spiritually. Community, acts of loving kindness, prayer: these may not change our situation. They don't make it more fair. But they help us through, support and sustain us.

Friday, August 29, 2014

#BlogElul Day 3: Bless

 “If God Would Go On a Sick Leave: A Poem of Peace”

Nowhere is there more prayer.
The Nuns at the Holy Sepulchre.
The faithful at Al Aqsa Mosque.
The worshippers at the Wall.
The call to prayer at dawn and dusk
Warbling from the citadels.
The church bells,
The Persian trills,
The passion spilled over texts
From every major/minor religious sect.

Nowhere is there more prayer than Jerusalem,
Thanks be to God, Hamdilala, Baruch Hashem.
And yet,
I'm starting to think that it's You and not them,
God, what's the point of prayer?

If there's nowhere where
There's more prayer,
And terror reigns
Then, Who's to blame?

If suddenly, without a whisper goodbye,
Jesus, Allah, Adonai,
The three men they admire most
All took the last train for the coast,

And the Moslems got up from their knees
And the Christians put down their rosaries
And the Jews stayed their hands from kissing
Their mezuzahs,
And everyone looked up,
And realized something's missing...

God is missing.
Stop the praying! No One's there,
They'd arrange a party to search everywhere.
They'd look for God
But there'd be no Presence
In Holy Books or stars and crescents
Or steeples and crosses.
People'd be at a loss,
Is He ever coming back?

They'd be so distraught,
Their searching for naught,
There'd be nothing on high
So they'd turn to on low,
There'd be nothing above
So they'd turn to below,
And they'd finally see there,
In the face of the other,
A semblance of sister,
The eyes of a brother,
They'd turn and they'd lean
Upon one another.

You see, every group can't believe that they're the ones chosen,
Every group can't believe that the Holy Land's owed them,
Sometimes faith in You, God,
Builds insurmountable walls,
And everyone falls.
Everyone falls.

How wise are the secularists for whom the dead aren't martyred
But, quite plainly, murdered...

This might sound like an absurd,
ungodly thing to say,
A truly heretical supplication to pray,
(I say this only out of the deepest respect)
But if for a few days, God, You'd just give it a rest,
If You'd take a sick leave and just go away
And let Israel work this out without You in the way,

God, for that kind of peace,
You're a small price to pay.

 (Rabbi ZoĆ« Klein)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

10 Books

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way and tag 10 people to do the same. Don't over think it. They don't have to be the "right" books or great works of literature, just books that have impacted you in some way. Then tag 10 friends plus me so I can see your list.

As you might imagine (English Major, Rabbi) I love reading and I love books. I love poetry and storytelling. I love thoughtful books and I love stuff that's just fun. 

I don't usually go for these kinds of memes, but I figured 'what the heck'. 

1. And To Think That It Happened On Mulberry St. by Dr. Seuss. When I was a little child this book fascinated me. The whole idea of storytelling, that telling the story made something real. Can't say I have a good grip on reality as a result, but...

2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. yep, all of 'em. Even the last couple that are out of chronological order (and I will continue to read out of chronological order rather than renumber them like some kind of savage). Fantasy with a message. The idea that our actions and choices matter. That all creation means something. Powerful ideas in the mind of a 5th grader. 

3. The Tanakh JPS: Read this from cover to cover in 6th grade (well, I skipped a bunch of Leviticus, but the joke was on me, as my bar mitzvah portion was Lev. 6). I was living in Israel and wanted to understand the land better. Combined, it had a deep influence on my sense of what it means to be Jewish. 

4. Iron Man Vol. 1 Annual #9: My first comic book that I bought with my own money, at Thayer Pharmacy. Here's a smart guy who uses his smarts to help people, has had trouble in  his life, but he's neither brooding nor angsty, but having fun with life. It, along with Iron Man: Crash (the first Graphic Novel done with computer generated art) started me on a lifelong love affair with Comic-style storytelling

5&6. I and Thou and Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber and

6&7. God In Search of Man and The Sabbath By Abraham Joshua Heschel and

8. Sages and Dreamers By Elie Weisel

These three authors probably did more to formulate my theology and my Jewish identity than any other, except maybe Bialik and Ravnitsky's Book of Legends

9. On The Road Jack Kerouac: That sense of adventure for a teenager has now morphed into that sense of living life to the fullest and seeking inspiriation for the adult. 

10.  Collected Poems by W. B. Yeats: Still the most influential poet in my orbit. More than Amichai, or Donne, or Whitman. 

What are your 10 books? 

#BlogElul Day 2: Act

"First tell me this: is there some secluded spot in the vicinity where I can go to pray?" Rebbe Nachman asked. He had just arrived in Breslov, the town whose name the Breslov movement has borne ever since. 
"I know of a place that would be most suitable," the Hasid replied, "But it's quite far from here."
"Far?" the Rebbe exclaimed. "What do you mean by 'far'? Far from the mind...or from the heart?"
Rebbe Nachman later taught: When your heart yearns, distance is no obstacle.
From The Gentle Weapon
 To Act is to make a conscious choice. When we act we are not merely being instinctual, or somehow sleepwalking as we do with so many of our behaviors. To act is to listen deeply to our hearts, to our souls, to our inner selves. To act is to brush away all the stories we tell ourselves, move aside all the self-made barriers. To act is to see the brokenness of our world not as a given, but as a choice. To act is to recognize the Divine in each person, including and especially the person who challenges us the most. To act is to reveal our real selves in the world, our most sacred selves,  the self most responsive to God's call.

To act is to hear and head God's call from the wilderness.

Are all actions correct? Are all choices equal? Does acting necessarily lead to justice? We hope, we pray, but we also know it leads to error, to misunderstanding; we know we miss the mark. We know our actions sometimes harm rather than help, despite our best intentions. It is this knowledge that keeps us from acting, keeps us from choosing, holds us back.

When your heart yearns, distance is no obstacle. 

What would our world look like if we allowed our hearts to yearn?

What would our world--our communities, our relationships--look like if we chose to act?