The Holiness in Doing

Rabbi Heschel
Rabbi Heschel

Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. – Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l

Heschel wrote those words long before the advent of the Internet. His words are truer today than ever before: we are drowning in information.

When I first began to study Judaism, I read everything I could find. The Internet was in its infancy, and there was not yet much there, but I scoured the public library, the congregation’s library, used book stores, and anywhere else I might be able to buy, beg, or borrow Jewish information. I was fortunate in finding a Jewish independent book store owner who was both kind and ethical: he’d sell me one book at a time, and ask me to come back and tell him what I thought of it before I got another.

Now, with so many sources online, and with much of our book-buying online, it’s a whole new world. I worry for my students: if you Google the word “Jew” or anything like it, you get a wild mix of Jewish information, messianic information, and anti-Semitic filth, and they are not always easy to distinguish from one another. The quality of the Jewish information is uneven.

Facts alone do not make a good Jew, or even a good person. I can study about tzedakah all day long, but until I give tzedakah, I will be ignorant about it. I can learn all the prayers in Hebrew, but if I do not actually pray, it is a pointless exercise. Judaism is a religion of doing. One of the things we do is study, but if we stop there, we are failing to fulfill our mission as Jews.

What does this have to do with Heschel’s appreciation? We appreciate the world and its wonders by engaging with the world via mitzvot. The pause for a blessing gives me a moment to appreciate the food I am about to eat. Giving tzedakah reminds me to appreciate my economic power, even if that power is small.  Saying my morning prayers properly helps me appreciate the fact of life itself and the body within which I live it.

The blessings for mitzvot include the phrase “Who sanctifies us with mitzvot.” This reminds us that the mitzvot are there to make us holy by sanctifying our experiences. With every pause for appreciation, every mitzvah, we invite the Holy to break in upon our mundane existence. Amazement crashes in upon the world, bringing life itself to life.

What’s in a Hebrew Name?

IMAG0828_1

Your Hebrew name is your Jewish ID. You will need it every time you are called to the Torah, when you sign your ketubah, and when you are sick. Those who mourn you will need it for your funeral.

A Hebrew name consists of a name, a relationship, and the names of those through whose merit a person claims membership in the Jewish people.

For example: My name is רות, Ruth, and בת, (daughter) followed by the names of those through whose merit I am a member of the Jewish people: in my case, אברהם ושרה, (of Abraham and Sarah) since I became Jewish as an adult.  A male who was born Jewish might be named דוד (David) בן (son) יעקוב ורבקה (of Jacob and Rebecca, his Jewish parents.)

What if you don’t know your Hebrew name? First, if your parents are living and are Jewish, ask them (ask for their names, too, while you are at it.) If it has been forgotten, look for any documents that might have it: a bris certificate, a naming certificate, or a bar/bat mitzvah certificate.

If you never received a Hebrew name, it isn’t too late! Talk to your rabbi. Tell them you didn’t get a Hebrew name and you want one. It is, after all, your Jewish ID! The rabbi can help you choose a name (perhaps a Hebrew form of your legal name, perhaps another name meaningful to you.) It is never too late for a naming.

What is your Hebrew name? Do you know why it was chosen for you? Or if you chose it, why that particular name?

 

 

What if I Can’t Get to Synagogue?

Isolated House by Hugh Venables
“Isolated House” by Hugh Venables

Location and/or illness make it difficult for some Jews to get to synagogue. How in that situation are we to access Jewish community?

First, the offline solution: If you live in a city that has synagogues, but you just can’t access them, call the synagogue. Express your interest in being a part of their community. Ask to talk to the rabbi, and explain your situation. I can’t promise you that every synagogue will have outreach to shut-ins, but I can promise you that rabbis care about the Jews in their neighborhood. Understand that options may be limited for non-members. However, it is always worth contacting them.

Years ago, before I became a rabbi, my rabbi called me and asked if I would be willing to visit a widow in the congregation who had agoraphobia. Her husband had been her major tie to the world, and now that he was gone, my rabbi was worried about her. I began visiting Anne (not her real name) once a week and doing her grocery shopping. We developed a friendship. Later, when my schedule changed and I could not be as reliable for shopping, I went back to the rabbi and told him. He found someone else to visit, but Anne and I stayed in touch. (Note that this required a large enough community and a willing pool of volunteers; not every synagogue will be able to deliver on something like this.)

Second, the Internet raises many more opportunities for Jewish connections. Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue, or if you are confined to home by illness or disability:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope that whatever your situation, and whether it is a short-term challenge or a long-term situation, you can find a way to connect Jewishly. Certainly I appreciate your readership and look forward to conversation in the comments on this blog!

A New New Year’s Resolution

resolutionConsidering New Year’s resolutions for the upcoming secular holiday?

You can make the same old resolution (lose weight, exercise, save money, etc) or you could try something new.

For those readers who are considering a new New Year’s resolution, let me offer you some possibilities:

Try a new mitzvah on this year. What mitzvah have you thought about but never actually taken on? Commit to trying out a new mitzvah, and give it a year. Here are some examples:

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a heavy subject! Learn to bake challah. Learn about the Jewish history of chocolate. Learn about Passover customs. See what your area synagogues and adult education programs are offering!

Read a book (or set a number of books.) It might be an ambitious commentary on Torah, but it might also be something a lot lighter. Some of my favorites:

Watch more Jewish films and discuss with friends

Are there other New Year’s resolutions you are considering to deepen or enhance your Jewish life? I invite you to share them with us in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Grandmothers

My Two Grandmothers
My Two Grandmothers

A student asked me today, “What can I do, when both sets of grandparents go crazy with gift-giving in December? It’s as if it is a competition!”

The question set me to thinking about my grandmothers. Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I loved both my grandmothers and I know that they both loved me.

Due to circumstances, I didn’t get to see much of one grandmother. She traveled a lot, and sent me beautiful dolls from every place she visited. Those dolls enriched my life: I learned about other cultures, about climate and geography. I kept the dolls in a cabinet, and enjoyed looking at them and dreaming about all the places they represented.

I have only a few vivid memories of that grandmother. She hated waste (we’re alike that way) and she thought I should take French in high school (I took Spanish.) The conversations I remember best are from a train ride we took from Chicago to San Francisco. I remember that she taught me how to play canasta. She always kept ginger ale for children. Other than that, I don’t remember a great deal about her, which is really quite sad.

My other grandmother took me along on errands. I learned a lot of my values from her, just watching the way she treated people. I saw her give money to poor people when they asked for help. When there was an obituary in the paper about someone she vaguely knew, she’d say, “Get dressed up, we’re going to the funeral home!” She taught me the power of simply showing up.

She loved to drive a little (maybe a lot) too fast, but she taught me to drive after my father had given up in despair.  I still hear her voice when I have to wait a long time for a left turn: “Just wait, Punkin, the right opening will come. There’s no rush. You’re doing fine.”

She always told me what I was doing right; her silences told me what I was doing wrong. When I became an adolescent, she had a lot to be silent about, but she persisted in telling me when she was proud of me. The only painful memory I have of her was my own failure: when she was dying she tried to talk to me about death, but to my eternal regret, I changed the subject.

So this is what I told my student: If the grandparents want to compete, you can’t stop them. But remind them that the way to “win” the competition is with relationship: get to know your grandchildren. Let them get to know you. Share your values by example: don’t tell, show. Expensive gifts are not memories. Tell stories. Take them along.

My grandmothers died two months apart, in the spring and summer of 1974. One I remember faintly with fondness and gratitude; the other is key to the person I grew up to be, and I mourn her still.

The photos above are the only ones I have of either grandmother. Neither conveys their true beauty. 

 

From Generation to Generation

Women_of_the_Wall_Holding_Torah

I’m going to attend a bat mitzvah next weekend. A young woman from my first student pulpit is being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, a “daughter of the commandment.” While I’ve been growing up as a rabbi, the little girl who used to call me “Wabbi Woot” has been growing up into a young woman of great intelligence and dignity. She will lead us in prayer and read to us from the Torah scroll.

I’m excited, because this is one of those moments in the rabbinate when I can see something that is often invisible: the chain of tradition. Rebekah has learned some of her Torah from me: not her portion, but the lived Torah that is the fabric of Jewish life. I’m going to watch her ritualize her movement into adulthood in the Jewish community, knowing that some of my Torah goes with her.  Not mine alone, by any means: she has internalized Torah from her parents, her grandparents, and her many teachers. But for me, as a relatively new rabbi (ordained in 2008) it will be a very solemn moment, watching a bit of my Torah pass to the next adult generation of Jews.

Where did I get my Torah? I got it from the rabbi with whom I converted, Rabbi Steven Chester.  I got it from my mentor and friend, Dawn Kepler. I got it from the cantor who taught me Torah trope, Cantor Ilene Keys. I got it from my first study partner, Fred Isaac. I got it from the rabbi I worked for at the URJ, Rabbi Michael Berk. I got it from all my teachers at Hebrew Union College. I got it from the elders at the Home for Jewish Parents in Reseda, CA. Today, I get it from colleagues and yes, from my students.

100 years from now, I don’t expect anyone to remember Rabbi Ruth Adar. But I know that just as the chain of tradition goes back behind me into the mists of history, to the teachers of my teachers all the way back to the Chazal, the great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too the Torah I transmit will be alive and well in 5875 and however far into the future Jews continue to exist. Rebekah and my other students will teach their children, and their students, and a little of my Torah will travel with them far into the future.

Every moment, every encounter, each of us has an opportunity to teach Torah. We teach it most strongly with our behavior, with the tone we take in dealing with other human beings. We teach those with whom we interact and anyone who happens to be watching. The majority of the transmission of Torah does not happen in the yeshivah: it happens in the marketplace, in the parking lot, in the casual conversations of everyday. This is true for every Jew, not just the professionals.

Hold that Torah gently. Do not try to hold it alone.

Depression and Judaism

Black Dog #1: Jojo
Black Dog #1: Jojo

I have two black dogs. One makes me laugh, and one makes me cry.

This is Jojo. Sometimes we refer to her as Jojo the Clown, because she makes my entire family laugh. She has a dance that she does when she sees new people or favorite people, aka “the Jojo dance,” which consists of her front paws doing a waltz and her back paws doing the Charleston. Someday I need to stop laughing long enough to make a video.

Jojo is a rescue dog. She languished at her foster home, waiting for new people. The old people had gotten sick and had to give her up. After months of being passed over (something that often happens to black dogs) she became depressed. For comfort, she stole food from the other dogs, and her normally 9 pound body ballooned to 15. When Linda and I met her, she was a sad little depressed dog. She lay there, looking sad until I picked her up. Then she peed all over me.

I immediately identified with Jojo; we both had “black dogs.” That was what Winston Churchill called depression: his black dog. I have that kind of black dog, too, and from time to time it sticks to my heels like glue. Lately, I have been visited by Black Dog #2. (Jojo is Black Dog #1 – of course she is #1 – she makes me laugh.)

When Jojo got a home, and the right meds, she returned to the self she was meant to be. And I find her encouraging during my spells with Black Dog #2. If Jojo could learn to dance again, so can I.

Part of recovery is following doctor’s orders and taking my meds. And part of it is immersing myself in the home of my heart: Judaism. Judaism teaches me in my morning prayers, “The soul … within me is pure.” I’m not bad, even if I feel bad. Moreover, I can do good: I can do mitzvot. I can study texts, I can pray, I can give tzedakah, I can teach my students, and I can relieve suffering (in small ways). Like Jojo, I can rejoice in having a home, even if “rejoicing” consists of eating good things and staying in touch with loved ones until I feel like more strenuous rejoicing.

Judaism teaches me that when God finished Creation, God saw that it was “tov me’od,” – it is very good. All of it. Including a certain depressed rabbi.

I am writing about this because I know that some of my readers, some whom I don’t even know, also suffer from depression. You aren’t alone, just as I am not alone. There are lots of us. And with the right help, and doing mitzvot (eating right, following doctor’s orders, getting outside ourselves to do mitzvot for others) it will be OK.

It is the tough weeks when I am most grateful for being a Jew. I have a storehouse of wisdom saved up for me by the Jews of the past: the Torah, the Tanakh (Bible), the Mishnah and the Gemara, and wise words written by centuries of wise Jews. Even when I can’t get it together to study them, I can see them there on my shelves: centuries of faith, seeking to do good.

We’re all going to be OK.