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


A Heartfelt Request

February 16, 2014

On April 1, 2014, I and more than 50 other rabbis are going to shave our heads:

  • in solidarity with children and their families who suffer through cancer and cancer treatments
  • in protest against the lack of options available to those children and their healthcare professionals
  • in memory of Samuel Asher Sommer z”l, who died last December after an 18 month struggle with cancer
  • and to raise funds for research so that future cancer sufferers will have more and better options than did Sam.

Did you know:

  • Worldwide, a child is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes.
  • Most childhood cancers are not related to lifestyle factors – they can’t be prevented by “living well.”
  • In 80% of children, by the time the cancer is discovered, it has already spread within the body.
  • More than 90% of survivors of childhood cancers will have lifelong conditions from their cancer treatments.
  • Only a tiny percentage of federal cancer research funding goes for treatments for childhood cancers.

We can’t save Sammy, but we are raising funds to bring about better treatments for the children who will be diagnosed in the future. Current treatments are brutal and too often ineffective.  Research dollars go to look for more effective treatments that do less damage to children.

I am asking you, my readers, to participate in this drive by donating through my page at the St.Baldrick’s Foundation. Even the smallest donation will make a difference; I checked, and the website will accept a donation of even $1.

St. Baldrick’s, by the way, is not a religious foundation. “St. Baldrick” is a combination of “bald” and “St. Patrick’s,” a reference to the fact that the first fundraising head-shaves took place on March 17, 2000. St. Baldrick’s Foundation is a good steward of the funds you donate; Charity Navigator gives it a coveted 3-star rating.

If my words have ever been useful to you, or if the story of Superman Sam has touched your heart, I beg you to give, if not through my page, then through the page of some other rabbi you know. In these months of Adar, when “joy increases” let’s do something concrete to increase the years in young lives, and the joy in the lives of young families.

To donate through my page at “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” and to donate to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, please click here.


The Ethics and Politics of Street Tzedakah – Part II

January 15, 2014

rabbiadar:

I “reblog” Rabbi Rosove’s post about Street Tzedakah because I wish I’d written it. He grounds powerful words in solid texts. Enjoy.

Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove's Blog:

When I lived in Berkeley in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, walking along Telegraph Avenue could be expensive if you gave to every panhandler who asked for spare change. Not that much has changed in all these years. The number of people asking for hand-outs is at least as great as it was, and perhaps more so. Given the nagging high national unemployment rate of 7% and the large numbers of long-term unemployed who have been unable to find work, the high number of under-employed, the historically low minimum wage, the federal cuts to food stamps for the working poor, and the threat that Congress will not extend unemployment insurance, it is no surprise that people asking for help on the street is so ever-present.

What to do? Democrats in Congress who believe that the federal government should extend a helping hand, especially in difficult times, are slogging it…

View original 650 more words


Reframing Privilege

December 24, 2013

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 


Shave for the Brave: My Pledge

December 14, 2013
Sammy Sommers z"l

Sammy Sommers z”l

When someone dies, we say, “May his (or her) memory be for a blessing.” Sometimes we mean that we hope that the family and friends will be comforted by good memories, that the person will be long remembered, and so on. But it can mean a lot more than that.

“May his memory be for a blessing” can mean “May he leave a legacy of blessing.” In Jewish terms, that might be the very best thing that you can wish for a person, that long after they are gone, the goodness of their lives will go on doing good in the world.

A little boy died this past Saturday morning. He was only 8. He had a short life, and there were many things he never got to do. The unfairness and the sadness of it is heartbreaking. Sammy Sommers‘ life was cut short by leukemia and he will never … I can’t bear to make the list, but make it for yourself. What good things have happened to you since you were eight years old?

Sammy leaves a legacy of love already – his sweetness and that of his family have touched a lot of people. But some of us who are heartbroken for him and for his parents would like to do more. We’d like to leave a legacy to bless all the other Sammies, children who will be diagnosed with one of these terrible diseases and who face a limited set of treatment options. We want to raise at least $180,000 for research to give them more and better treatment options.

I’ve already posted once about this: I’m one of 36 rabbis who will shave our heads on March 31 to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Sammy’s memory.  Our joint goal is $180,000. My personal goal is 1/36 of that, $5,000.

My total has been stuck at $878 for a few days. I’m very grateful to those who have donated thus far, but I intend to make my goal, so I’m saying here and now: I will shave my head March 31, and I will not let it grow back until I have raised $5,000.  

So now, take your mouse, CLICK ON THIS LINK and donate $5, or $10, or $50, or $100 to pediatric cancer research through St. Baldrick’s. If you don’t have a credit card, don’t worry, they’ll take a check. If you really can’t afford $5, or if you’d like to do more than donate, pass this link along to someone else. But please, do something.

Too many children die of cancer. Too many families suffer as the Sommers family is suffering. We can do something about this, in Sammy’s memory.

Please.


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