Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775: A Congregation Of Learners

Once there was a student who struggled with his learning. (I know, right?) His father watched and grew more and more exasperated. He cajoled, he threatened, he took away every privilege he could think of but nothing seemed to motivate the child, who slipped further and further in his studies. Finally the father brought his son to the teacher. He complained mightily how nothing worked, nothing motivated him, and he expected the teacher to show his son what for. The teacher looked at the student, and said, ‘leave, I’ll take care of this.’ The father, satisfied that his son would learn real discipline left the room. The teacher went over, wrapped his arms around the student, and held him close for a very long time.

For more years than anyone dares count, Myrna Lawrence has been that embracing, calming, loving presence. Every year the students return knowing that Myrna will be there to encourage them, motivate them, and sometimes rebuke them, but always in a loving and supportive way. She has a way of bringing out the best in her students, be it in the classroom or the bar mitzvah lesson. She has calmed the nerves of many an anxious parent wholly focused over their child’s performance, while Myrna redirected that focus quietly and subtly to the child’s growth as a human being and a Jew. She has had the blessing of seeing students who knew her as Mrs. Pollack come back as teachers and as parents of new students themselves. And now, after more than thirty years in education and more than a decade as our Religious School director, Myrna is retiring. It is a rest well earned, and her legacy here is secure, having touched the lives of so many people—parents and children—in our congregation. It is bittersweet, as it places us at a crossroads, a crossroads between who we are and who we want to be.

Change, as Myrna has often joked, is a four-letter word, at least in this congregation. We get nervous about new directions. We are very proud of our history, and, as befits a more than century-old community, often focus on preserving who we are rather than thinking about who we might become. And with those challenges in mind, I feel like this moment provides us an opportunity, and as we begin our search process, we must embrace that opportunity to think about learning in our congregation.

Notice I didn’t say ‘the religious school’ or ‘education’; I said learning; congregational learning, lifelong learning. One of the reasons I came to this congregation is because of its varied and joyful learning experiences: the school and bar mitzvah programs to be sure, but also confirmation, youth group, the adult education programs, brotherhood and sisterhood, our speakers, the choir, and all the independent learning groups scattered throughout the community. Each one is wonderful and engaging, and each one has been cut off from the other, removed into its own peculiar silo separate from the rest of the congregational experience. I know this, and you know it too. I know this by the way many of you began to tune out the minute I mentioned the religious school. ‘What does that have to do with me? My kids are grown, out of the house; I did my part, after all.’ I know this by the way parents and younger empty nesters hear the words ‘adult ed’ or lifelong learning and assume we’re talking about someone else, someone other than them, someone retired, older, with different interests and needs. And I feel this most palpably in those brief moments when those siloes come down; when a confirmation class kid comes to Torah Study, when the 7th grade comes to hear a Brotherhood speaker, when an older person comes to volunteer in a classroom or offers to teach, or just comes to participate in a program supposedly geared toward the parents. In those moments I see a brief image of who we might be: a congregation of learners.

What is a congregation of learners? It’s a congregation that starts from a place of learning. Okay, rabbi, you put the words in a different order, what does that mean? It means that we become a place of curiosity, that doesn’t assume answers but asks questions, indeed a place that omeid b’she’elah, that stands as a question mark, that seeks out opportunities to engage from a place of inquisitiveness.
The obvious way to see what that means is as a place of solid, engaged, and interactive learning experiences. We should ask ourselves, why don’t religious school, adult education, sisterhood, brotherhood and youth group do more joint experiences? I’m not talking about surrendering ownership—each group does different programming that is incredibly successful and meaningful—the brotherhood speakers, the adult education classes, Torah study, books & bagels, etc. And each is good at saying the other, non-obvious participant is welcome. But that’s not the same as cross-pollenization. Why aren’t there more opportunities for the kids and adults to learn together? Why aren’t there more moments of shared learning? Why isn’t there more interactive learning? Not all of us learn with our tuchus in a seat—why isn’t there more art, more movement, more DOING? Why aren’t there more opportunities to learn with the other congregations, or the JCC, in a collaborative fashion? Because kids and adults can’t learn together? Because it’s too hard to find people interested to teach or engage more through movement or tactile learning than discussion? Because we’re just too different from the other congregations? Let me share three experiences that suggest otherwise.
When Beth Ranauto, one of our parents, sat down with me for coffee last fall (a conversation that emerged from my invitation to all religious school families to sit down one on one), she mentioned that she feels her most spiritual when she’s moving—yoga, but also hiking and running out doors, and she said wistfully “I wish Shabbat could be more like that. Why can’t Shabbat be outdoors moving?” To which I responded, why couldn’t it? So we planned a Shabbat hike for a Saturday morning. No Torah study, no service, but a hike with moments of meditation and study, and a Torah reading and Kaddish all built in. We’ve done three now, and each one has seen around 30 people—twice as many as we get on a typical Shabbat morning—and different people than might have come to a conventional Shabbat experience. There was Torah learned, there was Shabbat experienced, but out in the world, allowing us, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to pray with our feet.

At Shavuot this past year, we were exploring how we could make it more meaningful, when the Cantor suggested that, since the holiday is commemorated with a ‘flower offering’ we plant something, maybe at a local nursing home or the like. Sonia Sloan suggested that we reach out to local community gardens that might need volunteers. That led us to a meeting with local leadership (herded by Sonia’s boundless energy), and dozens of people descending on Harlan Elementary school with supplies, tools, food (always food), and energy, to sing some songs and share with each other and with our local community. We got dirty with the students, none of whom were Jewish, and we explored what it meant to connect to a holiday and to Torah in a very different way—living Torah rather than just talking about it. And again, it brought out folks who would never have come to a Shavuot service, or a conventional study session.

Finally, this summer, Beth Emeth, along with Adas Kodesh and Beth Shalom, took a trip to Israel together. 33 participants from three congregations, including 7 children aged 6-14. Total age range was 6-80-something. So many things could have gone wrong, and everything went right. Conservative and Orthodox and Reform got along beautifully. Older participants adopted the kids like they were their own nieces and nephews.  From time to time we split apart—while the adults went to Yad Vashem, the kids went to the biblical zoo, and the like—but there was a sense that we were learning, each at his or her own level, together.

We could say those were unique, one-off experiences, and that’s true. But it also tells me that we can capture that energy and experience it in all our congregational programs. There’s no reason the 80 year old can’t learn with the 8 year old, no reason we can’t turn the learning experience on its head, no reason we can’t engage with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community and wider community. No reason that we can’t build relationships with each other even as we learn and explore Torah together.

Those examples are a good start. I’m getting excited just talking about those programs and their potential and I hope you are too. But there is more to being a congregation of learners. As I said before, it’s not just about the programs, it’s about the attitude. We must stand not as if we know all the answers but bring forward good questions. That’s true about Torah and Jewish practice, but it should also be true about our interactions with each other. We should be curious about one another, engaged with each other in fellowship. The best study groups are the ones where, like Cheers, everybody knows your name, and people are genuinely concerned for each other’s welfare. While it’s certainly true that nosy is Delaware for “I care about you”, and the more private among us might chafe, part of being a congregation of learners is learning not just about the subject material but each other. I’m not speaking about more programs or organized projects. I’m talking about noticing when a participant isn’t there and calling her up to make sure she’s okay. I’m talking about offering rides to one another. I’m talking about sharing photos of grandkids and stories about trips and asking for help with work or the number of a favorite babysitter. I’m talking about being genuinely interested in one another’s welfare.

What does that have to do with learning trope or Talmud or listening to a speaker? When we engage with one another, when we’re curious about each others’ lives, that’s where trust happens. And when we trust one another, that’s when we can go deeper in to learning—we can encourage each other to challenge and push and get beyond our limits. That’s when we become a real community in the fullest sense of the word.

So what would that look like? I’m not entirely sure, but let me paint a picture for you. Imagine for a moment a congregation filled with opportunities to learn: weekly Torah studies, ongoing learning experiences, and short or even episodic encounters, classes for children and parents and adults, Jews and non-Jews, led by clergy, by laypeople, by teens. Imagine some of those offerings being collaborative, where instead of one person at the front of the room telling people what and how to learn, the participants shared their best selves and supported one another. Imagine if there were online materials—not just schedules but articles, videos, interactive materials—that were posted that supported those experiences. Imagine if all those learning experiences were held together with a theme that stretched from religious school to adult ed to youth group, sisterhood and brotherhood. Imagine if they were open to the community, and we cross-listed our programs as well as learning experiences throughout the community with our own. Imagine if there were opportunities for adults to learn with the kids and kids—especially those post bar mitzvah or confirmation—to come learn with the adults. Imagine if, through these experiences, we grew close to one another, building relationships, friendships between and among generations. Imagine if these experiences led us to build deeper understanding within ourselves, that what we learn cultivates in us different ways of interacting with the world and how we see our Judaism. Now imagine this vision was being shaped and guided by a person, a director of lifelong learning, who was knowledgeable, loved this congregation fiercely, and loved the learners who are a part of it. And by learners, it is understood that everyone in the congregation, from the newborn babe to the 100-year old great grandfather, is a learner. And loved and embraced each learner the way Myrna does, speaking to them in the way they needed, embracing them for who they are and gently nudging them to go further, deeper, to challenge themselves.

It’s a lofty vision, in some ways not so different from what we are already doing this year and previous years, and in some ways very, very different indeed. And we as a congregation are going to be looking for someone who can create this vision, enhance it, make it their own, and put it into practice with love of Torah and love of Israel and love of each of us, every single one of us. I know we can find that someone. We have a search committee, led by Susan Detwiler, and a leadership team filled with competent people, loving people, knowledgeable people, each committed to what’s best for us as a congregation. They’ll be looking for someone who is organized, thoughtful, visionary, knowledgeable, a mensch. They’ll be looking for someone who is most likely clergy, a rabbi, who can engage the tradition and be a presence on the bimah even as he or she is a presence in the classroom and engage the individual, the family, the community. They’ll be looking for someone who can lead us to be a congregation of learners, looking to engage with each other and create loving community with one another.

I can say without hyperbole that this search will be one of the most important things we do as a congregation. It points us in a new direction, and has the potential to be transformative. This is more than just a new school director, or keeping our kids engaged; this is about nourishing each and every one of our neshamot, our souls. This is about each of us being Myrna, the teacher that embraces all. This is how we will continue to serve the Delaware Jewish community for generations to come.

Rabbi Eliezer said: In the light that God created on the first day, a person could see from one end of the world to the other. When God foresaw the misdeeds of future generations, God hid this light from them, reserving it for the righteous of the future.

Asked the disciples: "where was it hidden?"
He replied, "In the Torah."
They asked, "If so, will the righteous find something of this hidden light when they study Torah?"
He replied, "They will find and continue to find."
They asked, "If so, what should the righteous do when they find some of this hidden light in the Torah?"
He replied, "They should reveal it in the way they live." (From Martin Buber's Or HaGanuz)

The light is there, waiting for us to reveal it—through our learning, and through our actions, through our sharing. We will reveal that light as we pursue lifelong learning, a director of lifelong learning, and may we find and continue to find in that light not only Torah, but each other. Amen. 

Erev Rosh Hashanah: We Still Have Hope

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and on the opposite mountain I am searching for my little boy. An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father both in their temporary failure. Our voices meet above the Sultan's Pool in the valley between us. Neither of us wants the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels of the terrible Had Gadya* machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

I don’t like flying. I am, honestly, afraid of flight. The idea of getting into an aluminum tube held aloft by physics alone sends my heart racing. It’s been like this for a long time. The only thing that calms me down is reciting t’fillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer, and reciting psalms that begin ‘shir Hama’alot’—a song of ascents. And when I am absolutely convinced I am going to become a statistic, I plead that I have too much more work to do.

This is an irrational fear, one rooted in nothing more than my own anxiousness. Today, I have other fears that, once upon a time, I would have thought irrational, even inconceivable.

Today I fear for Jews around the world and at home being attacked exclusively because they are Jews. I fear individuals and groups attacking Jews or those believed to be Jews, with the express purpose of doing them harm because they are Jews. I am afraid that our People is under assault in a way we haven’t been in 70 years.

Today I fear for the survival of the Jewish state, a fear my generation has never known. I fear for its survival against an insidious evil that is sweeping across the Middle East. I fear inaction or worse, wrong action from a West that has lost the ability to differentiate right from wrong, up from down.
Today I fear that well-meaning people of faith and without faith, who see suffering and want to accept easy morality tales, who subconsciously continue to use Jews and the Jewish State as the blank canvas to cast all they find repugnant in their own countries, are giving succor to anti-Semitism. In doing so, organizations like the Presbyterian Church USA that have so often been our natural partners in social justice are needlessly unspooling decades of good will and good work that may never be repaired, certainly not in this generation.

I fear that Israel, in its grief and anxiety for the future, may be losing its moral core. I fear that in mourning children, Israel and Israelis are lashing out with rage. That in defending itself righteously, voices of intolerance and hate in Israel are gaining strength, and in supporting settlement building by fringe elements, Israel is losing the ability to speak truth to power.

Today I fear that children in this country are not safe. Jewish children, black children, white children, are not safe. We have allowed our fears to isolate us and violence to tear communities apart. A person is shot blocks from the synagogue and no one says anything; even the residents of the apartment complex are too concerned to get to work to worry about the blood stains on the street. We look at each other with suspicion, and assume the worst; of our teachers, police officers, of people different from us, of people we’ve known for years.

I fear the voices that say it’s too late to save our world: we are too violent, our political system too broken, our climate too polluted, our world too competitive.

I am even afraid for me and my colleagues, rabbis who want to speak out about Israel from a nuanced and thoughtful perspective, but are convinced they will be shouted down, or ignored, or even have their job threatened because they are perceived as having the wrong stance on the Jewish State.
And it’s not only my fears. I speak with teens who are afraid about what has been happening in Israel, who don’t understand why their friends don’t see what Hamas is doing. Teens who are combating anti-Semitism in places like Ridgefield, New Jersey and Pine Bush, New York, places with large Jewish populations where nevertheless, kids are assaulted and verbally abused and swastikas are painted on walls and school administrators respond too often with a shrug.

Friends, there is a generation growing up with fear, who are increasingly convinced of the bleakness of the future in a way we haven’t seen in some time. They are afraid, and that fear is partly our doing. We have become paralyzed ourselves. We don’t know how to act, we aren’t sure of the right steps to take. We don’t want to do the wrong thing for fear we will fail. And we are told again and again that there is no hope—there are no partners for peace, that Europe, to quote Sylvan Schwartzman, is “a bloody trap.” That people are the way they are, that injustice is a natural part of the world, that the only thing people respond to is strength, and by strength we mean force. We sacrifice our hope and moral compass to defeat that which is hopeless and morally bankrupt. We fight fire with fire.

Tomorrow morning, you and I will read a story about a goat and a child; we will read a story about sacrifice in the hills of Jerusalem. We will read a story we call the Akedah—the binding, but perhaps should be called the Nisa—the Test, when Abraham takes his son Isaac (though some say Ishmael), his only, his beloved, his first born, to offer on the mountains of Moriah, the mountain later called Zion. It is a test I fear we are still taking in Jerusalem, one still involving children, sacrifice, and our temporary failures.

It would be so easy for us to give up. To give up on the well-meaning critics of Israel: the Presbyterians and the college students and the Europeans. It would be easy to give up on the Palestinians themselves, their hearts clearly filled with hate and rage and fear. It would be easy to give up on Israel, even; to divorce our love for the Jewish people from the Jewish homeland. Perhaps it’s even better to tune out the entire Middle East, to change the channel whenever news about Syria or Iraq comes on.

It would be easy for us to give up hope that things may ever change, to harden our hearts, to assume the worst, to let our anger and fear and angst rule us when we talk about Israel. That may be the hardest part of the test we face.

Friends, just as Isaac was bound, so are we bound. Just as Abraham was tested, so are we now tested, and while the answers elude us, we must keep at it with our hearts open, or we will surely fail.
Now is not the time to give up hope in a Jewish state. Now is not the time to give up hope in the Israeli citizen craving peace—perhaps not Shalom, wholeness, but at least sheket—quiet. Now is not the time to give up hope on the Palestinian who nurses his hurts and wounds but is still has a place in those hills. Now is not the time to give up hope on our neighbors and the non-Jews in our lives and assume each would wear a red armband were this the 1940s.

When I speak of hope, I don’t speak of blind faith, or naiveté. I don’t pretend that Gaza will suddenly turn into Norway, that Hamas will magically become Canadians. Israel is in a tough neighborhood. Nor will I pretend and wish away the issues internal in Israel; while the majority of Israelis want the Jewish state to be also a democratic state, we have members of the government who are uninterested in nuance. While most Israelis were horrified by the murder of Muhammad Abu Kheder, too many members of the government or political parties within government acted sanguine. And this is not to say anything of the hostility from the settlers in Hebron toward native Arabs. While most Israelis want a two-state solution, many of them are wrestling with the thought that it may be a one-state solution, with another failed state or no-state on their border. All of this in a larger picture of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, Iran, and an intensity of anti-Semitism not seen in the postwar period. When I say hope, I recognize that it’s awfully hard to be hopeful.

Nevertheless, we must have hope. The same hope that Abraham carried in his heart as he brought Isaac, his son, to be sacrificed on a mountain in the desert. We read tomorrow as Abraham says to Isaac, “God will see to the sheep for the sacrifice.”

We must have hope, and we must act on that hope. Hope, not force is the remedy to fear. Hope, not rage, will give us the strength to respond. Not grief, not anger, not even certainty, but hope.
Hope gives us the strength to respond to our non-Jewish friends to show them that Israel is neither an apartheid state nor should be the source of their angst. Hope gives us the will to stand up to the anti-Semite with calm and grace. Hope gives us the power to reach out to the stranger and build community, to plant roots together and secure a future together. Hope makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

We must have hope and act on that hope—in the streets, in our lives, all the time—if we are to see justice done in this world, to see bigotry finally banished not only from public discourse but private thought, to see the world we imagined for our children. We must have hope to see a new religion born on the hill, of freedom and righteousness and equality for all. For if we don’t, if we give in to fear, then the sacrifice will be our children after all, and we will set their future ablaze.
We must remember that Israel’s anthem is “Hatikvah”, the Hope, a hope that has sustained us for millennia. And in singing about that hope, we focus on the wrong words. We emphasize lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion yeriushalayim: to be a free people in our land, the land of Tzion, Jerusalem. That is what we sing the loudest, what we sing twice.  But the most important line is before that, the one responding to the Prophet Ezekiel: Od lo avda tikvateinu: we haven’t given up our hope. We mustn’t give up our hope. We may not give up our hope, for to give it up means to give up on Israel, on our Jewishness, on the world, on each other.

I have read that Israeli soldiers, on their way into Gaza, sang the Hasidic song Kol Ha’Olam Kulo: all the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. We must not be afraid. More than that, we must have hope, hope to see us through the fear, hope to see us through our temporary failure, hope so that our voices return to us, laughing and crying. Od lo avda tikvateinu, we haven’t lost our hope. May it always give us strength, strength to overcome fear. Amen. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#BlogElul Day 29: Return

Shana Tovah All!

#BlogElul Day 28: Give

A basic principle of the laws of property is that “matters [that are only] within the heart are of no significance” (literally: “are not matters”) (See T.B. Kiddushin 49b). If your intention is serious, if you really plan something, say it (italics mine). As long as man has not confessed, his ‘repentance’ is not considered complete. He may think in his heart: “From now on I shall observe the Sabbath, I’ll close my store at the start of the Sabbath, I shall be straight and honest in all my dealings and cheat no one, I’ll study Torah at regular and set times.” All these are commendable thoughts, but as long as they are not expressed verbally, they do not comprise an act of repentance. Confession is the climax of the process of repentance; only after confession has been made can repentance be effective… 
Thus, according to Maimonides, confession is the concretization of repentance. Speech, the verbalizing of confession, endows the thought of repentance with reality. It is the climax and final chord of the long and tortuous internal process of repentance. 
-From On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik By Pinchas Peli

We think of the act of repentance as work, and in many ways, it is; if we're doing it right, if we're really turning within ourselves, turning to those around us, and turning to God, we are exhausting ourselves Spiritually, emotionally and physically. We come away from the experience transformed and, like birth, the effort leaves us drained.

But also like birth, repentance is an act of tremendous generosity. When we verbalize our intent, we are giving ourselves the chance to take our life back rather than let it stew in the sin we have committed. We are taking ourselves seriously, as capable of transformation and renewal, and not forever defined by the hurtful action or word. When we ask for forgiveness, we are giving ourselves over in humility to the person we have offended. And when we forgive, truly forgive, letting go of the offense, we release the person from the sin they have committed.

In these last moments of preparation, think and reflect of who you need to be generous with, and how you can ask for generosity for yourself. What do you need to do to make that happen?

Monday, September 22, 2014

#BlogElul Day 27: Intent

At night, alone, I just sat and waited. Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.
--Patti Smith, Just Kids

 Saturday morning in Torah study , as we were discussing Nitzavim and the idea of having one time a year to stand and account for ourselves, one of the participants said, “but shouldn't we do that all the time?”

Of course the answer is yes; we shouldn't wait until Rosh Hashanah for cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul. Of course we shouldn't wait until Yom Kippur for tshuvah, the turning that returns us to God, ourselves and each other. At the time, I said that, despite that fact, most of us wait until the last minute. We’re spiritual procrastinators, afraid to look ourselves in the mirror, afraid to make a full accounting. As with much else in life, we need a deadline, and the first ten days of a New Year are as good a time as any.

The Days Of Awe raise the question of our intentions. It’s one thing to go through life with our only inner monologue justifying our actions, our choices. It’s one thing to avoid or escape self-reflection. It’s another thing entirely to carve time out to really listen carefully to the still, small voice within.

Rosh Hashanah comes and our intentions are questioned as much as our actions. Did we mean to do the right thing, or to do the convenient thing? Do we mean to do something of worth, or something of self-satisfaction? Surely our actions require reflection as well, but without proper intention—focused intention—our actions, no matter how praiseworthy, will fail to nourish our spirit. 

#BlogElul Day 26: Hope

How can we educate and empower a generation of Jews to take hold of their tradition? Can we shift from a mentality of survival to one of meaning? How will we recognize and meet the overwhelming demand for an engaged Jewish life? Can we imagine a new Jewish world?
 Ellie Kaufner, Empowered Judaism
Where do you find meaning? Where is it located? Within or without? And how does it relate to your Jewishness?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

#BlogElul Day 25: Begin

At the edge
Of a world
Beyond my eyes
I know Exile
Is always
Green with hope-
The river
We cannot cross
Flows forever
-"Promised Land" by Samuel Menashe

Where do we begin? How? The New World always seems so distant, so far from where we are, so hard to reach given what we think we're capable of. But it's beautiful, isn't it? The idea we have of who we might yet be. Perhaps we never get there. Perhaps we can never truly be that person, but we look out across the river at him, at her, and we yearn.

And we begin to become that person, ever so slowly.

#BlogElul Day 24: End

 THERE ARE TWO WORDS I should like to strike from our vocabulary: “surveys” and “survival.” Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams. When surveys become an obsession, a sacred cow that eats up vast energies, they may yield confirmation of little more than what we know in advance. It is in such a spirit that undertaking surveys is an evasion of creative action, a splendid illusion.

--Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur And Spiritual Audacity

We spend an awful lot of time worrying about the End: the end of ourselves, of the World. Of this or that institution or program. Of Judaism. An end to the Jews. This concern isn't new; we see it manifest itself even in parashat Nitzavim, which we read this morning. Even now, the text says, there are those with wormwood in their heart, who are turning away from God this very moment. This isn't about the number of Israelites, however, any more than it's about the number of Jews today. It's about our commitment to our values, to our Torah as a living, breathing document, to God with whom we share a sacred partnership. That partnership and those values are expressed differently in each generation, in each community, but it's never about the program, never about the specific form of worship. 
If we want Judaism to survive we need to move beyond the idea that Judaism is expressed superficially or episodically. Judaism means relationship--with other Jews, with God, with Torah. The specifics may change, but the core is eternal. We are God's people. We have sacred obligations to act as God's partner in Creation. These obligations make a demand of our resources--our time, our treasure, our mental and spiritual energy--to reshape the world and ourselves into a place of Justice. These obligations are Holy. We become holy when we do them, and especially when we do them TOGETHER. 

Our community is still in spiritual distress. We still need to share a new vocabulary of the Neshamah with one another, to find our voices in the Voice of Torah. It feels hard, complicated. Nitzavim reminds us that it's not; it's in us, in our mouths and hearts. We don't trust it, but it's there. Will this year be the year we open ourselves to that voice? Or, as Jake Marmer quotes Samuel Menashe

Taut with longing
You must become
The god you sought—
the only one

Friday, September 19, 2014

#BlogElul Day 23: Love

This is how the Jewish messiah redeems his followers: not by whisking them off to a better world, but by teaching them how to see this one differently. Some assembly is required—those who want to be saved have to go ahead and, like the novel’s narrator, learn how to save themselves—but once the art is mastered, change is imminent. 
From A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz

 A few weeks ago my son noticed the Shwings I had on my Chucks. I had gotten them as part of a Lootcrate (a gift subscription of nerdy things from my lovely wife) and he showed an interest. We like encouraging our son to be himself--not that he usually needs the encouragement--so we looked around online, found some black lightning bolts, and ordered them, telling him that we'd put them on the next pair of shoes once he grew out of these.

So they arrived. And he grew out of the shoes, and we got him a pair of black and neon-green sneakers (as much a quiet, subversive protest against his school's uniform policy) and put the shwings on.

He took one look at them and said he didn't want to wear them, "because J- will pick on me."

This has been a rough transition to the start of school. He has fewer of his friends in his class. His teacher is patient and nice but has more expectations in terms of sitting still than last year. He's had some run-ins with rougher kids on the school bus. None of this is surprising; our son marches to the beat of his own drum, which has its consequences, and he certainly wouldn't be the first seven-year old to wrestle with these issues. And it doesn't help that, at the fall, just when he's transitioning from camp and summer to school and religious school and piano lessons, Dad is extra busy.

But to hear him struggle, especially with classmates' judgment (and perhaps, bullying), makes me sad. Part of me wants to help him achieve escape velocity, to find him a better place where he won't have to worry about this stuff. But the reality is, kids are kids, and this is life. There will always be people who, for whatever reason (anxiety, issues at home, lack of self-awareness, medical issues, etc.) will lash out and minimize those around them. He has to learn that, and how to navigate those mixed sets of expectations and challenges (good and bad) that he'll face for a long time to come, and hopefully still express his own Self meaningfully.

They're just sneakers. It's just one kid. My son is healthy and supported and getting a great education. It is a first-world problem of identity if there ever was one,  and as much as my heart aches for my son as a parent, I know that this too shall pass. Nevertheless, I pray that he learns from these experiences, small though they may be, to find strength, to see the love that surrounds him, and learn not to ape such behaviors himself, but rather to see the world from a different vantage as a result, and work on saving his own Self, and others.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

#BlogElul Day 22: Dare

I just read the point-counterpoint articles on whether you should take your kids to High Holiday Services. You should go and read them. Very interesting perspectives.

I get both perspectives, and both have their ups and downs. Frankly, it's interesting to see it portrayed this way, as opposed to previous generations of articles arguing for letting parents bring their kids to services (yes Virginia, once that argument had to be made).

(Side-note: my first year at Beth Emeth I flipped a High Holiday ticket over for no good reason and was horrified to find a note to parents on the other side reminding them that services were decorous occasions and if their kids made noise they should take them out. I was pretty horrified. Needless to say, that's not what's on the back of the ticket anymore).

I was having a totally different conversation earlier today (about Buber's "I and Thou", and comedy improv, actually. Seriously. I love my study group) and I think the question fundamentally comes down to one's own relationship with the high holidays (and maybe Judaism by extension).

If our relationship with the holidays is one of generosity--if our desire to celebrate grows out of a sense of loving engagement, be it with Torah, God, community, or all of the above--then it's an I-thou relationship, one of deep spirituality and connection.

If, however, it's a sense of obligation without love, or ego, or a manifestation of fear or anxiety (variations of 'I have to') then it's I-It, and while it may still be good, it's not going to have the depth of connection we want.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: what's holding us back from entering the room? What's keeping us from being generous with the holiday (or ourselves)? Or, what sends us into the room? Are we feeling pushed, or drawn in?

Maybe we're intimidated by the holidays. Maybe we had a bad experience at some point, a moment of judgement. Maybe they shine a light on other aspects of our lives that we don't want to look at or examine too closely (frankly, that's what the holidays are supposed to do, no?). Or maybe no one ever showed us the door in and, even when we're in the room, we feel like interlopers. Whatever it is, it's about US, not about our kids. And we as parents need to work that out within ourselves before we impose either choice or lack thereof on our kids' relationship with the holidays (or Judaism in general).

So, before daring to enter the sanctuary for Rosh Hashanah, will you dare to look at your relationship with Rosh Hashanah first?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

#BlogElul Day 21: Change

Rather than lament—as is the perennial disposition of the young—the gone glories of an earlier age, and rather than compare—as was the habit of so many Canadian writers before him—his own landscape unfavorably with some other, foreign, and more luminescent one, [Leonard] Cohen wrote poems that argued that his own place and time were brimming with detritus but also with holiness. He realized that a simple encounter between a man and a woman was worthy of the language and the passion of the biblical prophets. Rather than try to inflate the world to epic proportions, as Layton did,  Cohen made his universe seem ever grander by admitting just how awash it was with bigotry and violence and dumb lust.

-Liel Liebowitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock & Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen
We think the point of the holidays is to reflect on how we need to change ourselves and the world around us, but what if the purpose is to see the world more clearly, to change our perspective and point of view? To recognize not only the brokenness within and without, but the inherent holiness as well? 

To be sure our world is filled with abundant examples of evil and rot and selfishness, and we want to see it transformed, if not to some Platonic idyll, at least to something more fair, more loving, more secure, more whole and more holy. But we cannot redeem the world--or seek redemption ourselves--unless we are prepared to say the world is worthy of redemption, that in addition to the shards of broken vessels scattered throughout, there is also The Light. So too it is with us. We can change only when we think we're worthy of transformation; when we can accept fully our own value as ourselves and not as others--or we think others--wish us to be. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

#BlogElul Day 20: Judge

Rabbi Wolf's wife had a quarrel with her servant. She accused the girl of having broken a dish and wanted her to pay for the damage. The girl, on the other hand, denied having done what she was accused of, and refused to replace the article. The quarrel become more and more heated. Finally the wife of Rabbi Wolf decided to refer the matter to the court of arbitration of the Torah, and quickly dressed for a visit to the rav of the town. When Rabbi Wolf saw this, he too put on his sabbath clothes. When his wife asked him why, he told her that he was intended on accompanying her. She objected to this on the grounds that this was not fitting for him, and that besides, she knew very well what to say to the court. "You know it very well," the zaddik replied. "But the poor orphan, your servant, in whose behalf I am coming, does not know it, and who except me is there to defend her cause?"
-From Martin Buber's Tales of The Hasidim

Who is your advocate? 
Who do you advocate for? 

#BlogElul Day 19: Ask

Why do we have to leave our home to find a home, and then leave again? I think this is a profoundly Jewish question, not just because we are wanderers, a people destined to live without a true home for close to two thousand years while somehow managing to hold on to our identity, but also because the Jewish sacred calendar—the sacred year—embodies the essential paradox of this homeward journey. Nowhere is this more evident than during the months surrounding the High Holidays, that quarter of the year that begins in midsummer with the observance of Tisha B’Av—the day when we mourn the destruction of the Temple—then moves through the High Holidays themselves, a period of intense self-revelation and purification, and ends with Sukkot, the time of our great rejoicing, when we erect a house that is not really a house, a home that is not really a home, a time when we seem to have come to the end of a journey only to begin it again.
 --Alan Lew, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared

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 naïve. 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

Read more:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

#BlogElul Day 12: Trust

You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know too that God needs you--in the fullness of His eternity needs you? How would man be, how would you be, if God did not need him, did not need you? You need God, in order to be--and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life. In instruction and in poems men are at pains to say more, and they say too much--what turgid and presumptuous talk that is about the "God who becomes"; but we know unshakably in our hearts that there is a becoming of the God that is. The world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny. There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of man, of human persons, of you and me.  
Creation happened to us, burns itself into us, recasts us in burning--we tremble and are faint, we submit. We take part in creation, meet the Creator, reach out to Him, helpers and companions.
 (Martin Buber, I and Thou)
 God reaches out to us. Do we trust God's judgment, that we may serve wholly and completely God's will? Do we trust ourselves to be God's partners, to take part in creation, as creators and not destroyers?

Do you trust yourself as God trusts you?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

#BlogElul Day 11: Count

There are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah, and in the Torah we find that there were six hundred thousand Israelites. Thus each person  is a letter of the Torah; without him, the Torah will never be complete. Each person has his own indispensable role to play. If he sins, he has lost that precious moment and has rendered himself unable to be the letter which he is. All Israel suffers as a result, for the Torah is incomplete.  
And thus when one man repents, all Israel, and God, are joyous, because in turning from sin to good, he has written his letter again in the Torah and in the now, the moment which has its own sacredness and significance, the Torah is complete, and God and Israel are at peace.
(Arthur Hertzberg)

A single missing letter renders Torah illegible. A single missing person renders this world--and God--incomplete. How are you completing the word? What is your letter?

Friday, September 5, 2014

#BlogElul Day 10: See

“Throughout this period of exploration, trips are beset by the unforeseen. Frobisher’s ship is frozen in Hudson Bay. Columbus is told by natives in what is now Panama that there is another large body of water on the other side of the Isthmus, but he must meet another ship and has to leave it to Balboa to discover the Pacific. Verrazano ventures out of the range of the long bows on his ship and is captured and killed by cannibals in the West Indies…Drake, after navigating the Magellan Straits, is driven south, off course, and discovers the tip of South America, but his fate does not always come up “heads.” When he passes the Golden Gate, the fog keeps him from discovering San Francisco Bay. The most serendipitous event of all, of course, is the discovery of America itself. After all, Columbus was really trying to reach Japan, and he died thinking he had.” 
(from Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve)

These explorers were met by disaster. But, they took the risks. Those same explorers were willing to make choices that challenged them, were willing to be wrong, because the risks were greater than the rewards. They couldn't see or anticipate all that would befall them; they had to be willing not just to focus on what they could see, but have vision. So it is with us. We could wait passively, or we could make the choice ourselves, we could take the risk, choose a path, accept that we may stumble, that we may fail, but also live a life of vision and meaning. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

#BlogElul Day 9: Hear

A Parable: 
A father and his son, travelling together in a wagon, came to the edge of a forest.
Some bushes, thick with berries caught the child’s eye. 
“Father,” he asked, “may we stop awhile so that I can pick some berries?” 
The father was anxious to complete his journey, but he did not have it in his heart to refuse the boy’s request. The wagon came to a halt, and the son alighted to pick the berries. 
After a while, the father wanted to continue on his way. But his son had become so engrossed in berry-picking that he could not bring himself to leave the forest. 
“Son!” cried the father, “we cannot stay here all day! We must continue on our journey!”Even his father’s pleas were not enough to lure the boy away. 
What could the father do? Surely he loved his son no less for acting so childishly. He would not think of leaving him behind—but he really did have to get going on his journey. 
Finally, he called out, “you may pick your berries for a while longer, but be sure that you are still able to find me, for I shall start moving slowly along the road. As you work, call out “Father! Father!’ every few minutes, and I shall answer you. As long as you can hear my voice, know that I am still nearby. But as soon as you can no longer hear my answer, know that you are lost, and run with all your strength to find me!”

from Art Green’s “Your Word is Fire”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

#BlogElul Day 8: Believe

Rabbi Eliezer said: In the light that God created on the first day, a person could see from one end of the world to the other. When God foresaw the misdeeds of future generations, God hid this light from them, reserving it for the righteous of the future.
Asked the disciples: "where was it hidden?"
He replied, "In the Torah."
They asked, "If so, will the righteous find something of this hidden light when they study Torah?"
He replied, "They will find and continue to find."
They asked, "If so, what should the righteous do when they find some of this hidden light in the Torah?"
He replied, "They should reveal it in the way they live."
(Martin Buber, Or Haganuz [as translated by Dennis Ross])
I believe that light still shines.
I believe that it is within our potential, nay, our obligation, to seek out that light.
I believe that Torah, real Torah, is revealed through our words and actions.
I believe what Martin Buber wrote is true, that "The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being." (I and Thou, p. 11). That is, we can only engage Torah with our fullest, whole-est selves.
Which means we can only engage God with our fullest, whole-est selves.
Which means we can only reveal God's light, the light of Torah, when we live our lives fully and whole-ly and holy.

I believe we can.
I believe we should.
I believe we must.

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.