Mop Bucket Enlightenment? – Yes, Really!

March 24, 2014

Mopping

We’re deep into a season for spiritual growth. Jewish households worldwide are in a frenzy of cleaning. Other Jewish households are guiltily thinking they should be in a frenzy of cleaning. This raises the question, “Where is the spiritual benefit in all this mundane activity?

Passover is an experiential holiday: if you are not a “text person,” this is the holiday for you! Every step of the way, we are offered multi-sensory experiences for learning truths about life and Judaism: tastes, smells, textures, sights, and sounds.

During the seder, we hold up the maror, the bitter herb, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. We say, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” The bitter taste of horseradish is one way to taste that experience.

Cleaning for Passover is another. We feel the mop handle in our hands, and hear the vacuum cleaner. It isn’t fun to do the whole house at once, to search out every possible crumb. If every member of a household pitches in on Passover prep, cleaning and cleaning in our “free” time, shlepping goods to the food drive, digging out the boxes of Passover dishes, boxing up things that shouldn’t be used during Passover, vacuuming everywhere, we get a little taste of manual labor, no matter how sedentary our day jobs. It’s hard work that we are commanded to do: a taste (just a taste) of servanthood. Our sore muscles will read us the Haggadah, if we do it right.

We are seeking out every crumb of stale, puffed-up junk in our lives: not just the cookie crumbs in the toddler’s pockets, but the old grudges in our hearts and the stale notions in our heads. (Trust me, these things smell.)  The mindless work of cleaning offers us undistracted time to reflect on what stinks, if we are brave enough to take it.

This kind of cleaning is humbling. We see our slavery to bad habits, whether they are eating habits or housekeeping habits. We must notice our clutter. We must notice everything, because we have to look for chametz in it!

Now perhaps you are not a person who cleans for Passover. But I encourage you to do at least a little, because it is a uniquely Jewish spiritual task. If you are thinking, “but I just can’t!” try reading Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It’s a beginner’s approach to the spiritual journey of Passover.

If we do this, when we reach the 14th of Nisan, we’ll be ready for a fresh beginning, ready to walk out into a life renewed, unburdened by chametz. Then, indeed, we can celebrate!

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Do You Know a Way Out of Egypt?

March 20, 2014

 

  • In 2012, 49.0 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.
  • In 2012, households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20.0 percent compared to 11.9 percent.
  • In 2011, 4.8 million seniors (over age 60), or 8.4% of all seniors were food insecure.
  • 1 in 6 Americans face hunger on a daily basis.       – “Hunger Facts”

“Food insecurity” is a social-science way of saying “hunger.” It refers to a specific kind of hunger, not the I’m-on-a-diet kind of hunger, or the I-missed-a-meal kind of hunger. Food insecurity is the kind of hunger that accepts any kind of junk as “food” because something is better than nothing, that has no idea when the next meal is coming, that has to choose between feeding the teenager and feeding the toddler. Last year, 49 million Americans were that kind of hungry.

Someone in my neighborhood is that kind of hungry. I have no way of judging accurately whether the elderly panhandler outside the supermarket is looking for whiskey or for food. I have no way of judging accurately whether the teen who is eyeing my purse a little too closely is doing it because he is hungry.

Funds for food stamps have been cut. Unemployment funds have been cut. I cannot know for sure which of the people I know are bleeding from those cuts. Maybe you, reading this, are bleeding from those cuts. If so, I am very, very sorry.

But if you have a home, and you have a refrigerator, and it isn’t empty, please consider that this time before Passover is also a time for tzedakah, for that peculiarly Jewish form of “charity” which means “justice.”

Egypt, in Hebrew, is Mitzrayim, the narrow place.  Originally that probably referred to the shape of the land, laid out on the banks of the river Nile.  But there are Egypts for every generation, and food insecurity is one of the Egypts of ours. Today, getting ready for Passover, lead someone out of Egypt. There are several routes:

Or search your house for chametz, the food that we do not eat or even own during Passover. Take unopened packages and cans to a local food drive. If you need help finding one, call your local food bank. Don’t worry that a sack of flour is not a can of soup. If it is unopened and unexpired, someone can use it.

Today, lead someone out of Egypt. You know the way.

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What is Amalek?

March 14, 2014
Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

This coming Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. We read a passage from Deuteronomy 25  about Amalek, a tribe who attack the Israelites as they go through the desert:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt, how he met you on the road, and struck the hindmost, all that were enfeebled at the back, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess,  you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Amalek is a frequent topic in scripture (the topic comes up again and again: in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1st Samuel, Psalms, and 1st Chronicle) and in rabbinic and later writing, right down to the present day. We have identified various characters as “Amalek” throughout our history, from Haman to Adolf Hitler.

But as modern people, as people who have been the object of genocide ourselves, how can we talk about obliterating an entire nation of people from the face of the earth? What are we to make of this?

It is tempting to identify any anti-Semite or even a group who hate Jews as Amalek. However, when we look through the Bible, we see many tribes who warred with the Israelites and later with the Jews, and only Amalek merits this “wipe them out” command. There is no tribe of people who identify themselves as Amalek today; there are no Moabites, no Canaanites, no Philistines, no Assyrians, no Babylonians. There are people who live in those lands, but the Biblical civilizations are dust.

In our time, Amalek is a lifestyle, an attitude: Amalek is the idea that it is OK to prey on the weak. Maimonides taught us, in Guide of the Perplexed, that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is not a commandment to hatred; rather it is a commandment to drive Amalek-like behavior from the world. We can see Amalek in business practices that trade on the desperation of others. We can see Amalek in schemes that prey on the sick and the ignorant. If we read Chapter 3 of Esther, we can see Amalek in those who scapegoat minorities to enhance their own power.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg has written, “Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence.” There have been many times in history when Jews have been weak and preyed-upon by the strong. Now in a different time in history, in many ways, we are strong. We are commanded to remember and to act: not for revenge, not for our own satisfaction, but to fulfill the commandment that Amalek shall be blotted out from under heaven.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. – Jorge Santayana

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Here and Now

March 6, 2014

5500963965_2776bf6a98_z

Sometimes life shakes us up a bit.

Today I pulled into a parking place in a shopping center near my home. I was going to buy some vegetables for dinner, and pick up a prescription. I paused for a moment to text Linda to make sure that dinner together was on her calendar, too. Then suddenly a beat-up green Toyota careened into the parking lot followed by a crowd of police cars, their lights blinking and sirens roaring. 

I froze in the front seat of my car, unsure what to do, as police leaped out of the cars and pointed their guns at the green car. I felt like I’d dropped out of reality into a TV show. The police yelled so loudly I could hear their voices even with my windows rolled up. I hit the button for the door locks and slid low in my seat, aware that I was awfully close, should anyone begin shooting. Stay in the car, I told myself, don’t attract attention. I hoped that whoever it was in the green car did not have a gun, or would have the sense not to shoot.

The situation resolved very quickly, without gunshots. The man in the car surrendered and was arrested, and the crowd of cops relaxed, putting away their weapons, gathering up things and examining the car. After a few minutes, I realized it was over: I could go run my errands.

I still have no idea what it was all about.

Events blow into our lives sometimes as quickly as that fleet of cars roared into the parking lot. One minute we’re planning dinner, and the next we’re wondering if we’re going to be around for dessert.  Once a year in synagogue we recite a prayer about that (Who will live and who will die?) but in fact we live with that reality every day – we simply don’t look at it. If we looked at it too long or thought about it too much, we’d lose heart. But if we don’t look at it often enough, if we don’t stop and remember that we are mortal creatures, we may waste this precious life we are given.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about a car accident that got my attention. Today I got another reminder: Wake up! Pay attention! Next week I will turn fifty-nine, and again, a little voice will remind me that I do not know how much time I am given on this earth. This is why we are advised by the sages to run to do mitzvot: we have no guarantees of months and years ahead. All we have is what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” All we have is now.

So the question is, what am I going to do with this precious time, this now? What will you do with yours?

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What’s the Point of Ritual?

February 25, 2014

TorahRitualmod

I teach Introduction to Judaism classes for adults who want a basic education in Judaism.

One of the temptations in planning such a class is to focus primarily on the “how to” aspects: how to keep Shabbat and holidays, how to hang a mezuzah, how to have a proper Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, how to keep up in the service. Certainly it is important for people to feel comfortable and competent in doing those things, but if that’s all I teach, I’ve not done enough.

Before we perform a mitzvah, usually there’s a blessing, one that starts out:

Blessed are You, [The name of God] our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…

And then we specify the mitzvah we are about to do. Often the words of the formula fly by as we focus on the mitzvah we are about to do, but there’s something important in there: the point, in fact. The point of mitzvot, the point of reading the scroll of Esther or sitting at the seder table or studying Torah is to sanctify us and to remind us of our role in this world. 

Some mitzvot are incomprehensible (Why avoid mixing linen and wool? Why wave the lulav?) but even the most mysterious of commandments encourage me to be aware of the world, to pay attention. They push me to stop and see, to wake up and notice. Combine them with Jewish study (another mitzvah!) and they direct that wakened awareness to the pursuit of Jewish virtues: towards lovingkindness, hospitality, humility, compassion, and justice.

If all I do is a bunch of quaint rituals, I’ve missed the point. The prophet Isaiah tells us that sacrifices and ritual are not enough by themselves to sanctify us in the first chapter of Isaiah:

“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks God. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! (Isaiah 1:11-14)

Isaiah then reminds us that true holiness lies not in picturesque ritual, but in hands and heads that alleviate suffering, act justly and spread goodness in the world:

Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

We are entering the spring season of ceremony: Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot. We are approaching an annual opportunity for transformation. If we enter this time with an open heart and mind, then we can indeed be “sanctified by mitzvot” and become the hands of goodness in this world, seeking justice, defending the defenseless, finding hope for the destitute.

Whether we are beginners, in our first “Intro” class, or old hands at the Jewish holidays, let’s open our hearts and our minds to the meaning of these festivals, and transform: first ourselves, and then the world.

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Living on the Mitzvah Plan

February 21, 2014
To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

Depression is an old companion of mine. It doesn’t run my life, but it shows up periodically and moves into the guest room of my mind, helping itself to my energy and attention.  In almost 59 years of living, I’ve acquired a lot of strategies for dealing with it (therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, etc) but one of the most powerful is something I call the Mitzvah Plan.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

I came up with this back in rabbinical school, during a particularly bad stretch of depression, when the words we say at morning prayer jumped out at me:

These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the world to come, and these are they: . . .early attendance at the house of study morning and evening . . .Shabbat 127a

My Hebrew was still pretty bad at that point, and I translated the bolded phrase above as “sit in the house of study morning and evening.” It was a mistranslation, but a blessing nonetheless. I decided that even in the depths of depression, I could manage to sit my tuchus in the chair at school. So I chose to focus on the fact that I was doing that mitzvah, and give myself credit. One mitzvah leads to another, the sages tell us, and I found that if I kept my mind focused on looking for the next mitzvah, my mind had a harder time getting stuck in dark places. By the time I realized my mistake with the original Hebrew phrase, the Mitzvah Plan was in place and working for me.

[Mind you, I was also seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants, too. The Mitzvah Plan is not a "cure." It's a spiritual discipline I've found helpful in fighting depression. If depression is an issue for you I encourage you to ask for competent help.]

The Mitzvah Plan isn’t just for depression. Bored? Do a mitzvah. Frustrated? Do a mitzvah. Insomnia? Do a mitzvah. What, you did it and you are still bored, frustrated or awake? Do another mitzvah. And another. Keep doing mitzvot until you feel better or the world changes. Then do another mitzvah.

Sometimes it helps by taking me outside of myself to notice someone else’s troubles. Sometimes it helps by making me feel a bit better about myself. Sometimes it helps by just keeping me busy. But at least I’m not wasting my life thinking black thoughts or doing something I’ll regret later.

Where to find mitzvot? They are all around:

  • Are there thank you notes that need writing?
  • Give tzedakah. Very small amounts are still tzedakah.
  • What time of day is it? So say the prayers for that time of day.
  • Recycle something.
  • Write or call a mourner and tell them you’re thinking of them.
  • Do something kind for someone else.
  • Take care of your body: wash or exercise or brush your teeth.
  • Pay bills. (Did you know that paying workers on time is a mitzvah?)
  • Study some Torah.

I know, some of these do not sound  very “spiritual.” But in the Jewish tradition, they are mitzvot; they are acts that will make us holy if we do them with intent.

And I can say, from experience, that one mitzvah leads to another, that they can form a ladder on which to climb out of some pretty bad places. That’s life on the Mitzvah Plan.

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Running for the Mitzvah

February 17, 2014

Kalicard

I have a new decoration on my desk: it’s a home made thank you card done in colored pencils.

I was totally, utterly delighted by the card. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is a charming little card: it’s a pop up card made with both artistry and humor. But the real delight in it is the gratitude. Every time I see the card, I feel happy and appreciated.

I generally like to translate the word mitzvah as “sacred duty.” I find that is a more palatable word for many people than “commandment.” But both of those words are heavy on the obligation: they say, “I do this because I am supposed to do it.” And yes, there are some mitzvot I do solely out of a sense of duty. I pay my taxes. I pick up after the dog. That sort of thing.

This little card reminds me, though, that many “duties” can be framed differently. Some people think of thank you notes as a chore. This person obviously didn’t – she was shining back her joy to me, and now I have the pleasure of feeling her gratitude. I am challenged: what if I approached the writing of thank you notes with such enthusiasm?

The sages tell us to run to do even minor mitzvot, for each good deed will lead to another. “Run” could simply be read “do it quickly” but perhaps there is another reading: do it with enthusiasm. This enthusiastic little card did more than say “thank you.” It reminded me that on my to-do list are many opportunities for mitzvot, many opportunities to “increase the joy.” Happy Adar!

Ben Azzai used to say: Run to perform a minor mitzvah and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin. – Pirkei Avot 4:2


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