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.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

#BlogElul Day 7: Be

Who do you truly want to be? Who is the essential you?

(image from Ms. Marvel #1). 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Parashat Shoftim: Who's It For?

Back in the old country, a notorious miser was castigated by members of his community, for his lack of involvement in charitable endeavors. He was urged to begin inviting the poor to his home. He was even advised of how good the mitzvah would make him feel.
Reluctantly, the next Friday afternoon he gave his son a few coins and told him to buy the cheapest piece of fish. He warned him not to spend more than an amount that would buy the lowest quality fish. He also cautioned him to buy it just before the shop was to close for the Sabbath when the price was sure to be at it's lowest. He was not to worry about freshness or appearance, just size and price. The son did exactly as he was told and brought back an excellent bargain: a large fish, thoroughly rancid.
Pleased with his purchase, the miser went to synagogue that evening and was proud to invite a pauper to his home. For the first time in memory he had a stranger actually eat with him. True to what he had been told, he really did feel wonderful. The beggar didn't. His weak stomach could not take the putrid fish and he became seriously ill.
That Monday, the miser went with his son to visit the ailing beggar in the community ward of the local hospital. When the poor soul died of food poisoning, he proudly attended the funeral. He even paid his respects to the relatives who sat shiva at their hovel.
Upon leaving the home of the mourners, the miser remarked proudly to his son, "Isn't it wonderful that we got involved with this beggar? Look how many mitzvahs we have already performed. And it didn't even cost us more than a few pennies!"
What does it mean for us to do the right thing? Truly, authentically do what is right in the community? I ask this because, so frequently, what is meant to be an act of tzedek becomes an act of ego, or even worse, an act that is truly thoughtless, where the giver didn’t really think about the needs of the recipient. I think, for example, of how often the wrong materials get donated in a crisis, like when communities sent peanut butter to Indonesia after the tsunami, which they fed their cattle. Or how often all of us do what is convenient when it comes to helping others, not necessarily what is right, or right for them. What’s worst is when we’re called upon to confront someone in person about their inappropriate behavior: perhaps they made an off-color joke or chided someone publically in a way that was humiliating. Then we’re on the spot: do we confront them, or let the issue go? And if we do confront them, how?
This week we read parashat Shoftim—the word means ‘judges’—and we focus right in on the most famous words: tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice you shall pursue. In Reform Judaism they are probably as important as the shema as biblical texts go. A simple phrase, one we know so well it feels self-evident, but there is so much packed into it. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that ‘pursue’ means that this requires active engagement, not merely respect for justice but the active, eager pursuit of it. It is not enough to let someone else do it; we have to do it ourselves. Likewise, Simcha Bunem taught that we must pursue justice through just means; two wrongs do not make a right, the ends do not justify the means and, in the case of our miser and pauper, the intention behind our actions is as important as the actions themselves. They can’t be mere mechanical fulfilment of abstract ideas.
All this means, in the work we do, our kavannah, our spiritual directiveness, must meet with our keva, our actions. It means that, when we see a wrong in our midst we actively try to change it; we don’t wait for someone else to rebuke the inappropriate person, we do it ourselves. It means the actions—and ourselves—must be whole.
This is the first Shabbat of the month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. And while most clergy do not like this month, we are taught that this is a time of favor before God. A time to reflect on how and why we do what we do. Each of us strives to do good; sometimes for the right reasons and in the right way, and sometimes not. But strive we must, that we can be, as Harold Kushner writes:  “Know what is good and what is evil, and when you do wrong, realize that that was not the essential you. It was because the challenge of being human is so great that no one gets it right every time. God asks no more of us than that (Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? p. 180).”
God asks no more of us than that; so let’s pursue justice justly, ego-lessly, inconveniently, eagerly, so that we can reach our essential, and sacred, selves.

#BlogElul Day 6: Understand

I know I've linked to Educator and Humorist Pamela Schuller's presentation "I am Here; Hear Me Bark" on her Tourrettes and inclusion in Jewish life. I think it's worth posting it here again because it says something very important about the work we do and what it means to live a meaningful Jewish life.

So go ahead and  watch. I'll wait.

Schuller's experiences remind us of how hard we try to understand someone else. But all too often, our quest for understanding becomes more about judgment, about diagnosis, about telling others about what we think they should do. We become armchair quarterbacks (or doctors, or parents...those are my favorite) who use our newfound understanding to make ourselves experts.

The truth is, often, we don't need to understand. We need to be present. To accept. To include (making a song out of a nervous tic; yelling out ' a bad word!' whenever an "F-Bomb" is dropped). To remember that our job is not to fix the symptom but to be supportive of the whole human being.

It's not all about understanding. It's about being and doing.

(Hat tip to Rachel Ackerman and Lisa Friedman for introducing the video to me).

Thursday, August 20, 2015

#BlogElul Day 5: Accept

Yesterday I had the opportunity to host a meeting for several colleagues to meet with Adm. Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel's navy, Shin Bet Director and Labor MK. It was a briefing, facilitated by J-Street, not to convince us that the Iran Deal is a good deal, but that it is a done deal, and it is better than the alternative, which is violence and chaos.

This morning I attended a briefing by Senator Chris Coons, a staunch ally and friend of Israel, and a very smart and articulate man. He preached at Shabbat Shuvah from my bimah last year and spoke meaningfully, and as I speak, is responding to questions (and ad hoc sermons) ably.

I have read our movement's position, which is one of intense and passionate desire for Shalom bayit rather than tearing the Jewish community asunder and making Israel a wedge issue in our country.  And I have also read a powerful article by colleague and friend Norman Lipson, who writes articulately about the dangers of rabbis advocating one way or the other when we are not experts.

Much of the conversation about this deal has been a conversation about perfection. It is not a perfect deal; it is, without a doubt, deeply flawed. But whenever we talk about perfection we allow ourselves to live in a fantasy, that we could do or get better. I'm not so sure. It feels too much to me like tilting at windmills.

Much of the conversation has also been reflective of a profound divide between the leadership and community on this issue. As so many Jewish organizations take a stand in opposition, most of the Jewish population of the United States favors the deal.

We want certainty. We want to know exactly how things should be. More than that, we want to be right. The truth is, we don't know. We can't know. We are not prophets. We can make assumptions, we can hope. We can argue history, but we need to learn to accept reality and plan accordingly (not a dissimilar position from Rabbi Eric Yoffie).

Acceptance isn't surrender; it is acknowledging how things are so we can, clear eyed, do what must be done to move toward where we must go.

Acceptance isn't failure; it's the opportunity to reassess and reimagine.

Acceptance--be it on Israel, or our own lives--clears away our biases so we can do the hard work fully and whole-heartedly.

Acceptance is humility.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

#BlogElul Day 4: Know

"The wise man conceals his intelligence; the fool displays his foolishness."- Yiddish Proverb

What does it really mean to know something? We are always looking for more data, more information. And how often it seems like we cling to our assumptions as if they are Torah from Sinai, when really we're exercising our own egos (this happens a lot on the internet).

Rabbi Ed Friedman wrote that, "The great lesson... for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience." Ambiguity, uncertainty, and humility should guide and inform our behavior, rather than false knowing. In this way may we he wise rather than foolish.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

#Blogelul day 3: Search

I hate not being able to find things.

When I'm looking for something, no matter how unessential or mundane--a pen, a particular flyer--I go a little nuts. I tear the house apart. I feel like my world is turned upside down even as I upend pillows and turn out pockets looking for whatever thing is missing. Failing to find something feels like a betrayal (by whom, don't ask), and when I eventually do find whatever went missing, I feel both relieved and sheepish, embarrassed, even, that I spent so much energy trying to find some momentarily essential object.

Is it the same with us? Do we upend our world looking for spiritual wholeness, absolution, or real connection? Do we spend our lives feeling turned inside out as we search for deeper meaning, only to be embarrassed as what we find turns out to be lacking? What would it look like to search deeply, truly: would we find what is missing, or decide we didn't need it, not really, in the first place?

Monday, August 17, 2015

#BloggingElul Day Two: Act

When I was in Rabbinic School I had the opportunity to meet poet and activist Danny Siegel. Danny (at the time) spoke a great deal about what he called "mitzvah heroes", people who devoted themselves to a cause selflessly, because it spoke to them and they felt it was necessary.

Sadly, we lost a mitzvah hero this week. Lenny Robinson, aka the Baltimore (or Rt. 29) Batman, died when he was struck on the side of the road.  A millionaire, he spent a good part of his fortune dressing as Batman and visiting sick children in costume, sometimes for hours. Not an actor (though he rarely broke character) he would bring toys and paraphernalia and spend a significant amount of time making these kids feel special and loved, going so far as to driving to the hospital in his own Batmobile. No one asked him to do this; he did it because he had enough, and wanted to care for others. He didn't ask for permission or wait for someone to create a program; he just did it.

Yes, he could afford to drop the cost of a family car every year on Batman stuff (and really, if you could, you would) and take the time to do this. But that isn't what made him a mitzvah hero. What made him a mitzvah hero was his willingness to act, without hesitation.

Most of the time, we don't act; we think, we wrestle, we weigh our options. And truth be told, Action alone is not always the best choice. But I can't help, when thinking about Lenny, that I'm thinking about Danny Siegel as well, and how much better the world would be if we all stepped forward and acted--without waiting, weighing the options or getting approval-- even just a little more often, the world would be a better place.

Zichrono Livracha.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

#BlogElul Day One: Prepare

Yesterday morning I was in a very different place.

Yesterday morning I was standing in a woods, leaning on a tree, as a new Jew came up to chant Torah for the first time before the most accepting community on earth.

Chris Luber, a young college student, began this summer by immersing himself in the mikveh, then driving up to URJ's Camp Harlam in the Poconos, where I serve on faculty and where several of our kids go. Chris writes about his experience in an award-nominated blog post; it speaks to the power of camp as not only an engine of Jewish engagement but the kind of place where people who want to do Jewish meaningfully and powerfully want to gather.

So, on the last Shabbat morning of camp, Chris stood in front of hundreds of people, most of them no older than their mid-twenties, to chant Torah for the first time. He had been Jewish for less than two months. He kept looking at me and my fellow faculty-member, Rabbi Michael Holzman, and saying "I'm really nervous". And he came up to the Torah with a sense of yirah, of trembling before God and Torah, of the awesomeness of the task of chanting sacred words before a sacred community, and perhaps a bit of fear as well.

He was amazing. And as he recited the last word of the portion hundreds of tootsie rolls flew threw the air toward him, an outpouring of joy and amazement. To write this even now brings tears of joy to my eyes.

Chris taught us something amazing about what it means to prepare whole-heartedly. Here is a person who took his preparation--for his job, for the sacred honor of reading Torah, for being Jewish--with a sense of holiness. Not a striving for perfection, nor a sense of it being a chore, but a sacred and beautiful act. And how many of us come to the Holidays--or Judaism in general--as something tedious, or something intimidating, or something to be avoided? How many of us put aside self-preparation for prayer, perhaps afraid of what we might find?

Today we begin the process of preparing for prayer, introspection, to start anew. What would it look like if we began our preparation like Chris? What if we set aside both the idea of tedium and perfection and saw the holiness awaiting us?

This week at Shabbat we've been singing Dan Nichol's version of the prayer for our bodies ('Asher Yatzar'), said as preparation for the main service:

Thank You for for my life, body and soul 
Help me realize I am beautiful and whole 
I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too 
I will live each day as a gift I give to you

As we count the next days toward Rosh Hashanah, try to find a moment to repeat these words each day, to refocus and re-purpose the days ahead, that we may prepare and feel, on Rosh Hashanah, some of the same yirah that was present as Chris took the Torah as his own yesterday.