Saturday, January 18, 2014

Parashat Yitro: We Will Do and We Will Hear

A few months ago I had the opportunity to have coffee with one of our religious school parents. I’d sent out a general invitation after the high holidays and this mom accepted. So we’re talking, getting to know one another better—she had been more active at one point when the kids were younger, a Shabbat regular, but had drifted away. In the course of our talking, she mentioned that when she goes on hikes, or runs, jogging with friends through the great outdoors, taking in God’s world, that is when she felt closer to God and to her Judaism. “It’s too bad” she said, “that we couldn’t make Shabbat like that.” 

“Well,” I replied, “why not?”

Her face lit up when I said that. Why couldn’t we make a Shabbat morning experience that was outdoors, that was a hike, that was communal and individual at the same time? 

She began to pepper me with questions about regulars, about mobility, publicity, all kinds of details. How would we make this work? 

At the time, I hadn’t the slightest idea. But I know a good idea when I hear one: if this mom felt this way, odds are others do too. And while there’s a lot of detail to work out, none of it is so onerous as to say ‘no’. In that moment, the right answer was yes. 

Now I don’t share this to toot my only horn. Well, maybe just a little. I share this because I think we often moments of inspiration the way this mom did. As one preacher put it, you share your vision with others and “They just looked at you skeptically and said something along the lines of , “Now that’s an interesting idea.” Which you rightly interpreted to mean, “That’ll never happen.”” That’s the response we expect.
 Frequently, we short-circuit our good ideas before we allow them to come to fruition, because of the details. We sweat the small stuff. We get inspired by some possibility—a new friendship, an idea at work—and the minute Shel Silverstein’s ‘whatifs’ enter our head, or we share that inspiration with others who then get to play the role of ‘whatif’, and we get discouraged. 

Sometimes, we need to push the details aside. Yes, there will be a time to work all of the nitty-gritty out, and yes, we may find the original idea evolving—the Shabbat hike will probably have stationary elements at the beginning and end so less mobile people can join us, for example—but sometimes the answer needs to be yes! Sometimes yes with trepidation (“I don’t know how to do that!”) and sometimes yes with enthusiasm (“this sounds amazing”) but yes nonetheless. 

This week Israel stands at the foot of Sinai, prepared to receive Torah—or rather, prepared for something. They only know they will finally get to meet their God. And when they’re told that they will be God’s people, they swear, “All that God has said we will do!” Later, Israel says something different. They say, “na’aseh v’nishmah”—we will do and we will hear. 

Note the order: We will do, THEN we will hear. Before comprehension, there is doing. Israel doesn’t ask about the nitty-gritty of each mitzvah. They don’t ask the how, or the why, or in what fashion. They say YES. So it is with us. Sometimes, we need to set aside the whatifs and simply say yes—affirm the sacredness and the integrity of the vision knowing somehow we’ll make the details work. As one preacher wrote, “How is never a problem for God.” Or to quote one management book: the answer to How is Yes.
So ask yourselves how you can find ways to say yes more, and worry about the details later. Who are you saying no to when you should be saying yes? Friends, family, colleagues, yourself?  As yourself how you can say, “na’aseh v’nishmah” I will do, then I will understand. Because, as I shared with the Federation’s leadership development group on Sunday, Sinai isn’t a one-time event; Sinai is all the time. Every moment of every day has the potential to be Sinai, to be the moment to say “Na’aseh v’nishmah”: I am inspired and I will commit. I will answer the call. I say yes. Entrances to holiness are everywhere, our siddur reminds us, and the possibility of ascent is all the time-- If only we say yes.  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why am I Shaving My Head Part II: Explaining It To A Kid

"Hey, I'm only a few hundred dollars away from my goal!"

I said this to E (my 6 year old) a week and a half ago while driving him to the bus stop (yeah, I know. Shaddup). He was impressed by the numbers and the amounts being raised, and it seemed like a teachable moment.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

"Why do you have to shave your head?" My son asked in his saddest, most grumpy and petulant face (my son is the king of petulant).

"Well, I'm doing it to raise money. People are more likely to give for a stunt. And I can show kids with cancer, who lose their hair, that I care about them by looking like them."

"But why?"

Everyone who spends time with kids know that why doesn't mean why (though it leads to hilarious Louis CK routines).

"Are you upset because I'm shaving my head."

"Yeah. Why do you have to do it."

I thought of all the reasons I could give, each one good and logical and thoughtful and even rabbinic. And I looked at him in the rearview mirror, my only child, my precious one whom I love.

And I thought to myself: because I have you. I am blessed with a healthy child, one free of disease (im yirtzah HaShem--God Willing). I am blessed with a child who's greatest concern is keeping track of his Legos. I am blessed with a child who's alive. I don't know the pain of the weeping mother or the angry father.

And I said to him: because it's the least I could do. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Parashat Bo: Hardness of Heart

There’s a story in Aaron Lansky’s book Outwitting History where Lansky, in his pursuit of Yiddish books, speaks with an old man in his apartment. The man speaks of how his generation is gone, there is no one to speak of literature or music with, and how lonely he is. He kvetches that there isn’t a person to talk to. Lansky knows there’s a woman of the same generation down the hall, who also knows Yiddish, and when he brings her up, the old man waves a finger in Lansky’s face and says “Her? Feh. Her, I don’t talk to!”
Does that sound familiar? Here is a man, desperate in loneliness, but because of something that happened in their past (we never learn what), these two souls will remain cut off from one another. Is it stubbornness? Is it trauma? Or are their hearts hardened to one another? And is it the same with us? When we refuse to converse with someone, to change our own perspective or listen to another, when we are so focused on our own needs and wants and cannot see the other, is it because of what experience has taught us? Or are our hearts hardened?
Twenty times in the book of Exodus we read that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, sometimes by God, and sometimes by Pharaoh himself, and we focus on the question of whether or not there is any free will in the story. And for many, that is the beginning and the end of the book of Exodus: do we have free will or not? But I think we ask the wrong question. The question should really be: do we exercise our free will or not? And too often, we don’t. We become paralyzed by previous choices, good and bad, by relationships and conversations gone sour, by our own biases and experiences. The Torah uses the term “kabed lev” to describe stubbornness, which literally means “a heavy heart”. How many people in our lives—how many of us—have heavy hearts, weighed down with by patterns of behavior that perhaps we don’t even like, and yet can’t shake? After all, Wednesday wasn’t just Wednesday, was it? How many of us made resolutions? How many of us will keep them; that is, change our behaviors, or at least learn to accept, really accept, our choices, lifting the weight off of our hearts?
Shlomo Carlebach, the great Jewish neo-hasidic musician, and himself a holocaust survivor, used to give concerts in Germany and Austria, even early in his career. When asked how he could perform in such hated countries that did such terrible things to Jews, he replied: “if I had two souls, perhaps I would devote one of them to hating the people who did so many terrible things. But I have only one soul.” So it is with us, we have one heart, one soul. Will we let it get hard, calcify, remain unchanging for all time? Or will we remain open and free, our hearts open, ourselves open to growth and renewal?
“Days are scrolls; write on them only what you want remembered,” wrote Bahya ibn Pakuda. What do we want to write in this New Year? That choice is ours, if only we open our hearts to it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Parashat Bo: Cool

Exodus 12:1: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”

“You know what’s cool, dad?” My son asks me every day, every hour.
Usually it’s some toy he’s seen (and of course wants), or something he’s read or watched.
Sometimes he tells me breathlessly, a mantra of cool
Rattled off at breakneck speed, overwhelming all of my senses
taking my breath away.
And then I realize that for him, everything in every moment is new.
There is no jadedness, no cynicism; the world is new every day, every moment.
Everything is cool: the dog
and the trees
and the stars
and the stick on the ground which looks like a slingshot
and the magic trick his best friend showed him
and the Legos he got for Chanukah
and Science
and the joke his grandfather taught him
and how he can make his hair into a Mohawk at bath time
and the new block from karate
and how he heard God’s Still Small Voice in services once when he listened really hard.
and it’s all so cool he needs to share it with every breath he has
And he shares it with me.
Chadesh Yameinu mikedem: Renew my days, O God, as they were
When I saw through boyish eyes, and everything was cool.