Sunday, August 30, 2015

#BlogElul Days 14-15: Learn and Change

When Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch was a young man, he lived in the same house as his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Rabbi DovBer and his family lived in the ground floor apartment, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived on the second floor.
One night, while Rabbi DovBer was deeply engrossed in his studies, his youngest child fell out of his cradle. Rabbi DovBer heard nothing. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was also immersed in study in his room on the second floor, heard the infant's cries. The Rebbe came downstairs, lifted the infant from the floor, soothed his tears, replaced him in the cradle, and rocked him to sleep. Rabbi DovBer remained oblivious throughout it all.
Later, Rabbi Schneur Zalman admonished his son: "No matter how lofty your involvements, you must never fail to hear the cry of a child."
What is the point of learning if not to facilitate change? Yes, learning for its own sake (lishma) has its rewards, but learning must lead to change, to transformation. We should find our perspective different, our way of engaging the world different, and most importantly, learning should lead us to improving the world, engaging the world for the better. If learning cuts us off from the needs of others, we have failed. If it makes us more sensitive and responsive, then it can be said that our learning is truly lofty. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

#BlogElul Day 13: Remember

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught:
Always look for the good
in yourself.

And remember:
Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest;
it is vital.

For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): "You will go out through joy,
and be led forth in peace."
Focus on the good in yourself;
take joy in what is good,
and you will be led forth from inner darkness.

(From Likkutei Mohoran). 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

#BlogElul Day 12: Forgive

"We are moral creatures; we are vulnerable creatures; vulnerability wins. This is the realest thing anyone will ever tell us in ritual."

Hoffman, Lawrence A., Ph.D.. Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un'taneh Tokef (Prayers of Awe) (p. 163). Kindle Edition.

Forgiveness is a moral and vulnerable action. It is moral in that it releases the Other from further obligation. To forgive someone is to tell them that they have paid in full the debt they owe us on account of the pain they caused. It recognizes and celebrates the act of accountability on the part of the Other.

(In this case the Other can also be the Self; that is, the aspect of the self  that, having done harm, is alienated from the Self, and requires forgiveness to be reunited).

It is also a vulnerable act. This we understand intuitively. To not forgive is to armor the self in righteousness and indignation. But forgiveness, that means laying the pain bare, exposing the self to further possible harm, it means releasing the hold over the Other. And, dare I say it? We open ourselves up to our own role in whatever hurt we experience.

The time to forgive is not Yom Kippur. The time is now. The liturgy of the holidays reminds us that it is the moral thing to do, even as it exposes our vulnerability. The question is whether we are strong enough to be both.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#BlogElul Day 11: Trust

He Sleeps in a StormA farmer needs a new foreman.  He advertises all over the place, but no one applies for the job.  Finally, one day, a man shows up. He has no resume, no letter of reference.  When the farmer asks him about his skills, he replies that people often say “he sleeps in a storm.” Well, this doesn’t sound very encouraging, but the farmer is desperate so he hires him.  Some time later, there is a big storm.  The wind is roaring, the rain is pelting down, there is thunder and lightning.  The farmer is frightened.  He looks for the foreman, but the foreman is sound asleep.  The farmer is furious and he runs out to the barn.  In the barn, the animals are safe with plenty of food and it is warm and secure. Not a single animal is frightened by the storm.  The farmer runs to his fields and sees that the bales of hay have all been covered with tarp and are tied down securely.  Everything he checks is safe, secure and solid.  Then he finally understood.  The foreman sleeps well in a storm because every night before he goes to bed, he makes sure that everything he has done that day is finished, wrapped up, safe and secure.  May we all strive each night to “sleep in a storm.”           
(From "Toldot --Telling Stories: A Collection Compiled by AVODAH 2010" URJ Camp Newman with the assistance of Abra Greenspan)
As we approach the holidays and begin to think about 'trust', it's often with the idea that we should be more trusting--in God, in ourselves, in each other. And that is a noble goal. But trust is different than faith. I have faith in God, faith that the people around me are interested in doing what is right and are doing the best that they can. But trust is earned. For me to trust, I need to see not only intent but action. To sleep in a storm, I need to know that everything has been taken care of, is safe and secure.

Who did you learn to trust this year? And whose trust do you need to (re-)earn?

Monday, August 24, 2015

For when the Iran conversation becomes too heated...

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place Where the ruined
House once stood.

(Thanks to Rabbi Michael Latz for reminding me of this poem).

#BlogElul Day 9: See

When I was at Shir Ami the children's High Holiday books all had a mirror in the back (really a flimsy piece of reflective paper) with the line "What do you see?" below it.

It would be interesting if, on every day of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we had to look at ourselves for a full ten minutes. Every day. Not in the same way we take selfies, which are effervescent and fluid, nor in the way we look in the mirror, which distorts the image. Nor even looking at a static picture of ourselves, but really, truly look at ourselves for a full 10 minutes every day.

It could be the opposite of our mourning practice, where we refrain from looking at our reflection. It could be a celebration of the self--not vanity, but the real self, so often contorted and masked. It could also be a "Dorian Grey" moment as we, in true introspection, finally see ourselves for who we are: our flaws and our joys.

Take a look at yourself today. I mean, really look at yourself. What do you see?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

#BlogElul Day 8: Hear

דברים כא׃יח Deuteronomy 21:18
כי־יהיה לאיש בן סורר ומורה איננו שמע בקול אביו ובקול אמו ויסרו אתו ולא ישמע אליהם׃
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not listen to them...

When we read this passage from this week's Torah portion and the passages that follow, we tend to dwell--with horror--on the punishment for the rebellious child: death. Public death. How could parents willingly submit their child, no matter how poorly behaved, to die? The rabbis of the Talmud twist themselves in knots trying to First mitigate, then nullify, this bit of Torah, and we as progressive moderns might be inclined to dismiss it.

But Elul gives us a chance to read this text metaphorically. Are we not, so often, rebellious? Rebellious against God, against our best selves, against the truth of our experience? I don't mean here being punk rock or iconoclastic, but rather those moments when we know we're doing harm, we know we're being hurtful, we know we need to change course, and we proceed along our path of destruction anyway. We chastise ourselves (perhaps friends and trusted mentors get in on the action too) and we dig in our heals and keep on keeping on.  Doesn't this feel like the "death of the soul" the Mahzor speaks of? Do we not, in failing to hear or heed the needs of others--or even our own needs--leading ourselves to a kind of all-too public demise: of our relationships, of our regard for ourselves?

As literal Halakah, we should find this text appalling; and we should remember the consequences when we fail to hear "Mother's" and "Father's" voices--the still, small Voice within, the Voice of judgment without--that otherwise guide us.