Have I Blown it Already? Not the Shofar, but the High Holy Days?

September 3, 2013

We arrive at the end of Elul, the Days of Awe are upon us, and we aren’t done. There are apologies that were too hard to make, words that were too hard to say, things too hard to figure out in one short month. Or maybe we procrastinated.

Teshuvah is usually translated “repentance” but it would be just as accurate to translate it as “return” or even “turn.” We strive to return to the path, but as with a disoriented hiker lost in the woods, sometimes the path is hard to locate, hard to walk, just beyond us for now.

But the Days of Awe are upon us, and with them the magnificent liturgy of the High Holy Day services. We will do our best to open our hearts, and see where the services take us. Don’t worry about keeping up; let your mind and spirit be guided by the words on the page, by the music, by the sermon. Float.

In 1978, Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. She kept trying. She was finally successful this past week. Over thirty years of training and repeated attempts finally ended in success at age 64. She kept returning to the task, and the number of turns it took ultimately added to her accomplishment.

We balance between taking the time for multiple tries, and the knowledge that our lives are limited. Do not despair if the task is hard. Do not fail to return to it.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. - Pirkei Avot 2:20

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“You Intended to harm me.”

September 2, 2013
All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...

Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.


Hope is a Jewish Value

September 1, 2013

A hovering Rufous Hummingbird on Saltspring Island

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
 
 
Two things come to my mind when I hear the word “Hope.” The first is this poem by Emily Dickinson, of which I give the first stanza above. The second is HaTikva, “The Hope,” the national anthem of Israel:
 
 
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the 2,000 year old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
 
 
Miss Emily did a marvelous job of portraying the ridiculousness of hope: “a thing with feathers.” For over a thousand years, Jews finished each Passover seder with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” and it might as well have been “Next year on the Moon!” And yet our ancestors refused to give up on the idea, the hope, that someday we’d return to the land of Abraham, of King David, and of Rabbi Akiva. At the very end of the 19th century, Zionism became a worldwide movement, and in 1948, the modern State of Israel was born.
 
 
As individuals, we also have hopes, visions of the selves we might be, stronger, better, more whole than we are today. If at this moment, your life feels flimsy, messed-up, and incomplete, don’t despair. Remember Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers.”  Feed that little bird your best efforts, your good resolutions, and a willingness to ask for help and accept it. Change is possible, if we are willing to maintain our hope.
 
 
 
 
 

#BlogElul – Beginnings are Awkward

August 31, 2013
hebrew letter bet

Hebrew Letter Bet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house.  All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.

Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.

There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.

Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

 


The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!

August 28, 2013
Welcome

Photo credit: alborzshawn

There’s a lot of kerfluffle in the Jewish press lately over the perceived shortcomings of the synagogue. “Services are boring!” wails one writer. “Millennials can’t relate!” writes another. “How do we attract the young people?” “We’re putting too much emphasis on youth!” “Remake the bar mitzvah!” “Get rid of the bar mitzvah!” and of course, “Did you see that video on YouTube?”

Feh!

I am not a congregational rabbi. I am a member of a congregation, and I believe that congregational membership is one of the greatest deals on the planet. I learned that not from a rabbi, but from other congregants. I love the feeling of extended family. I love knowing that if my life suddenly goes up in smoke, the Caring Community will be on the job. I love going to shul and seeing my friends. But what got me there was not an official program. What got me there was other people performing a mitzvah: hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

The Snyder-Kepler family invited me to dinner. Then they invited me to holidays at their home. I met other people there, who invited me to their homes. We ate together. We did dishes together. We hung out together. Friendships were born. Kids grew up.

I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  First, it needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. Secondly, it needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham: we are going to welcome friends and strangers (soon to be new friends) for Shabbat dinners, for lazy Shabbat afternoons, for holidays, and for study. And the house is going to be set up so that people’s children will be welcome, too.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach them: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Because committing to serious hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.

Because I know that it works. It worked on me.

Now: to any other Jews that are reading this: I dare YOU. When was the last time you invited another Jew over? I’m not talking to the congregational rabbis, I’m talking to the folks like me, Jews-in-the-pew.  You don’t have to commit to it as a way of life – not now – just commit to doing it once. Then again. Invite someone over for dinner and Scrabble. Or lunch and the ballgame on TV. Or gardening. Or making brownies. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them over. What matters is that you practice the mitzvah of hospitality. If you have a home, however humble, it’s fine.

I believe that this can transform our congregations, if enough of us do it. Because we will then not be a group of people consuming services, we will be a real community, people who have eaten together and washed dishes together, who have maybe even seen each other at not-at-our-best times. We will have compassion for one another. We will have bright ideas. We will show up.

I dare you.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.


The Mark of Remembrance

August 20, 2013

 

 

English: Philtrum highlighted by light

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmud records a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.

Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know.  As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember. 

I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.

 

 


Mitzvot Beyond Measure

August 17, 2013
English: Martin Buber in Palestine/Israel עברי...

Martin Buber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mishnah Peah 1:1 – These are the things for which there is no measure: the corner of the field [which is left for the poor], the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning.

One might get the feeling, learning Torah, that Jews are always accounting for things: taking a census (three times in the book of Numbers alone, in Chapters 1, 2, and 26), counting days after Passover (the Omer), and counting years in the desert, tribes, wives, children, generations – you name it. If you press further and read into the Mishnah and Gemara, the rabbis worry a lot about measures, distances, and other numbers.

And yet we begin each day’s prayer with a passage from Mishnah Peah which lists the things we do not count or measure: the portion of the field left for the poor, the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning. According to the Tosefta (additional Mishna-era writings) that means that a Jew is obligated to do these things, but the amounts are up to the individual.  If a person left a tiny area of each corner unharvested, gave a pittance of his first fruits, merely showed up for the pilgrimage feasts, that was enough. It might not be meritorious, but he would be within the letter of the law. Nowhere does the Torah command  acts of lovingkindness: they are implied in other commandments, such as helping the orphan and widow, not standing by when a neighbor is bleeding, loving the stranger, but it is a vague implication, not a clear commandment. Torah learning is commanded (“Keep these words” and “teach them to your children”) but the extent of Torah learning is, again, up to the individual.

What might we learn from this? Perhaps one thing we can learn is that an acknowledgement of human individuality is built into Torah. While much of Torah lis concerned with the good of the community, our ancestors recognized that we are not all alike. Some people are naturally inclined to study; for others even a little study goes a long way. Some individuals can be generous: either they are wealthy and they can afford to give, or they are generous by nature, and inclined to give. Others may face restraints that make it impossible to give much, or to participate much in other mitzvot.

However, these things “without measure” also give us something precious: room to grow. At one stage of life, a person’s ability to give or to participate may be limited by any of a number of factors: their knowledge of the mitzvah, their inclinations, the facts of their life, their income, and so on. Later on, we may grow into mitzvot that we neglected or observed only minimally when we were younger.

It also suggests that while it is tempting to be compare to our neighbors (“How much are the Levys giving to the fund?” or “Most people don’t go to services every Shabbat.“) – this passage is a reminder that other people’s mitzvot do not matter when we are deciding about our own. “How much did the Levys give?” is not the way to determine what we will contribute to the communal good or a good cause. Nor should we be ashamed, if we are doing the best we can with one of these mitzvot.

The month of Elul is about taking stock of our own lives, not about comparisons with others.  Martin Buber wrote about a famous rabbinical tale in which Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”

Let this month of reflection be a month for becoming our best selves, living lives of mitzvot beyond all accounting!

 


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