The Jewish Cure for Guilt

April 11, 2013
Open Gate

(Photo credit: Open Gate Farm)

Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” - Devarim Rabbah, II.

I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.

When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again.  Ever.  Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.

Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:

LEAVE THE SIN  I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.

REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing.  This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop!  Move quickly to the next step:

SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.

CONFESSION BEFORE GOD Then, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:

RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SIN This requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.

The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.

Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized.  Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.

I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not  the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up.  If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.


Beginner’s Guide to Brit Milah (“Bris”)

April 5, 2013

English: A new born baby in his Godfather's ha...

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, ask!

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.

 


Pay attention! It’s Omer-time.

March 28, 2013

attention icon.

It’s Day 2 of the Omer and I look forward to counting when Day 3 arrives at sundown. Tonight it will be easy to remember, since I’m leading the Women’s Seder at Temple Sinai. Counting will be part of the haggadah, part of the script, and all I have to do is turn a page and my reminder will be there.

 

The rules for Omer Counting are fairly simple.  At sundown, or after dinner, or at 8pm (depending on local practice) one says the blessing and then counts.  For instructions on how to count the omer, and the wording of the blessing,  click this link.

 

 

If one says the blessing and counts at 8pm, fine.  If one forgets, but remembers in the morning, that person can count but cannot recite the blessing, and can go on counting with a blessing the next night.  If, however, one skips a day, then one is still obligated to count, but not with the blessing.

 

The Omer is a character building mitzvah. It is a long-run exercise in mindfulness, maintaining an awareness of what day it is and what time it is. And yet the only reward or punishment is the blessing and the knowledge that a mitzvah was performed.

 

How many aspects of our lives are like this? We pay attention and remember a birthday. We trundle along on autopilot, and fail to notice a depressed child, or the motorcycle in the lane next to us. The rewards for remembering are usually subtle, but when we forget to pay attention, the stakes can be high.

 

I wish you a mindful Omer season!

 

 

 


Hungry for Passover?

March 23, 2013
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.

 

Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.

 

But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year. 

 

That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.

 

I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.

 

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).  People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 


Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

March 4, 2013
A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WordPress, the outfit that makes it possible for me to post this blog, also provides me with data about the Google searches that lead people here. Today one caught my eye and urges me to write: “how to have a seder alone.”

Jews generally celebrate everything in community. There are even some things we can’t do properly without a certain number of persons present:  say the Kaddish prayer, chant from the Torah, or get married, to name just a few. While there is no rule against reading through the Haggadah alone, “Seder” suggests a group of people around a table, telling the Exodus story together. It was designed by the ancient rabbis as an opportunity to learn and share with other Jews. Yet sometimes circumstances are such that it just isn’t possible to gather with friends for a seder. Here are some thoughts for dealing with Passover solo.

1. IT’S OK TO ASK.  In Western culture, it is generally considered impolite to “invite myself over” to someone’s house, especially for a meal. Passover meals are one of the exceptions to this rule. If you are going to be in a city but don’t know any of the Jews there, call a local Jewish institution (synagogue, the Federation) and tell them that you are alone for Passover and need somewhere to go for seder. Often they can provide a lead to a household where they look forward to keeping the mitzvah of a new person at the table. It’s a mitzvah for them, and a community for you, and you’ll almost certainly make some Jewish friends.  Good all around!  It is also ok, if you are a single in a Jewish community, to let others know that you don’t have a seder invitation. If you are a guest at someone’s seder table, be sure to read Seven Ways to be a Great Seder Guest.

2. COMMUNITY SEDERS. Many Jewish communities offer a second night seder at synagogues or a hotel for which guests sign up and pay a fee. My own community, Temple Sinai of Oakland, is offering such a seder this year (if you are going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up via this link.) Again, call local Jewish institutions and ask! This can be a more comfortable option if you feel shy about going to a seder at someone’s home.

3. TECHNOLOGY. If there is a group in another place with whom you have had the seder in the past, but you’ve relocated, what about Skype? Talk to your friends about setting up a computer near the table, so you can schmooze with the Jews, too.  If Skype is too much tech for you, consider a phone connection via a speakerphone on the distant table. No, it is not traditional or even halakhic, but it will provide an important connection on the holiday. Last year a number of Jews, including rabbis, found ways to use technology to enhance the seder, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

4. INVITE NON-JEWISH FRIENDS. OK, so you are in the middle of nowhere, no Jews around, and Skyping with old friends is not an option. What about getting some matzah, getting out the Haggadah, and inviting some Gentile friends over to share the story of the Exodus?

5. SEDER SOLO. If none of the above will work for you, the real necessities for your seder are some matzah, some wine or grape juice, and a copy of the Haggadah. If you have no Haggadah, a Bible will do.  Read the story. Eat unleavened bread. And then begin to make plans for next year, either in Jerusalem, or with some friends.


Chanting my way into Torah

February 21, 2013
Torah

Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat.  It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.

Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense.  The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.

So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.)  I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together.  Still boring: details, details.  Details, details, details.  Yawn.

Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase.  Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition.  Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.

Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque.  All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.

 


Why Bless?

January 30, 2013
English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a regular blogger, I’m interested in seeing the statistics that wordpress supplies about my blog, especially how many people read the blog, and what brings them here. Today I noticed that one person reached the blog by googling: “blessings for people who make coffee.”

Sadly, I doubt they found what they were looking for here (but maybe they found something else useful – I hope so.)  But it set me to thinking: yes, a person who makes coffee for others is a blessing! And perhaps we should bless them.

Blessings in Judaism are curious.  We call them blessings because they begin with the word, “Baruch” (bless).  But the Object of our blessing is always God:  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who…[fill in the blank here.]  So a blessing for the person who makes coffee might run like this:

“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who gives strength and kindness to the person who makes coffee.”

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, sheh noteyn ko-ach v’hesed l’mi shehmechin cafeh.

“But!” you are thinking, “Why bless God, when Sally made the coffee?”

One answer to this is that Sally’s making coffee, but God made both Sally and the coffee. We bless God to sanctify the details of our lives – not because they weren’t holy before, but because by blessing, we are noticing the holiness already in them.

Another answer is that we bless God in those circumstances because we see a little bit of the Holy One in Sally, with her strength and kindness to make coffee for others in the morning.

Blessings don’t mean that we think there is an Old Man in the Sky who needs blessing.  Blessings mean that we notice holiness before us in the world, and know that holiness is a treasure worth celebrating.


How to Mourn as a Jew

January 24, 2013
English: A lit Yahrtzeit candle, a candle that...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mourning is a time like no other.  Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE.   On top of that, there is much to do:  arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.

For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions.  American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture suggests that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”

Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased:  children, siblings, parent or spouse.  This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.

1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed.  This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments.  They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shiva, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.

2. SHIVA begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shiva when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shiva remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life.  Friends visit to offer comfort.  (For more about the mitzvah of a shiva visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shiva.)

If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence.  When you are sitting shiva, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.

Often American skimp on shiva, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble.  If you possibly can, let shiva do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss.  It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.

3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shiva. At the close of shiva, mourners leave the house again.  Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.

4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.

5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.

6. YARTZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death.  (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.)  Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community.

7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.

It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased.  Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.

May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


Do New US Tax Laws Affect Tzedakah?

January 3, 2013

 

coins

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tzedakah means “money given for charity.”  It is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give to reduce the suffering of others.

Some individuals, Ari Fleischer for instance, have come out in the press saying that the changes in the U.S. tax law (that fiscal cliff business) will cause them to reduce their charitable giving. Nonprofits are very worried about exactly this thing. If the tax advantages for giving are reduced, will people give?

Before this change in the rules, some people gave to charity as a “smart” thing to do, taxwise.  Give a little money to nonprofits, and while it is still out of your pocket, at least you decide where exactly it went.  Certainly that was true, and under a maximum, will still be true.

However, Jews are not commanded to give to the needy because it is “smart.”  We are commanded to give to the needy because it is just – hence the name, tzedakah, which comes from tzedek, justice.

There are still hungry people, still homeless people, still people who cannot afford education or healthcare or the other necessities of life. There is still suffering that can be remedied with cash.  That does not change.

So how should all of this affect my giving? I can think of two possibile answers:

– Not at all.  I am still commanded to give.  I personally will still aim for the standard the Rambam suggests,  10%.

– Another possibility:  if the need increases because fewer people donate, perhaps I should consider giving more than before.  The Rambam is firm that no one should give so much that he endangers his ability to support himself: there IS an upper limit.  But perhaps I should keep my mind open about unexpected needs, since the situation may change.

Bottom line: if you gave in the past because it is a mitzvah, then nothing has changed.  It’s still a mitzvah, and if predictions come true, there may be greater need than ever.

 


What is Hateful

November 30, 2012
Intro1009-10

An Intro class photo. I’m wearing the red jacket, in the middle.

What is hateful to you do not do to any person.  All the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Hillel (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)

Let me ask you, my intelligent reader, one simple question: do you like it when random people tell you what they perceive to be the error of your ways? Do you in fact hate it when people do that? How about when people make fun of you, or people like you? How do you feel about that?

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

I am a fat woman.  I’ve spent an amazing amount of my life and money trying to be a thin woman, and folks, it is not going to happen. And no, I’m not open to arguments: if a diet was going to change my body permanently, if exercise were going to change it permanently, I would be thin.  And I’m not. (Nor am I alone. Did you know that the most extensive study of weight loss diets ever done revealed that 5 years out, 95% of dieters regain whatever they lost? That over 41% wound up heavier than they began?)

In my personal life, I am blessed with friends and family who love me as I am. I think they are mostly relieved that I finally let the dieting go and have settled into a routine of regular exercise and healthy meals.

But let me turn on a TV, or the computer, or for that matter, go out in public, and I and other fat people face a world that never heard the words of Hillel and certainly never heard of kindness. They think it is perfectly fine to moo at a woman exercising outdoors. They write hateful things to us and about us. They think it is perfectly fine to make TV shows about the humiliation of fat people.  You know. You’ve seen it, too.

So here’s all I have to say: What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. If you see a fat person, you don’t need to be extra nice. You just need to be as polite as you’d be to anyone else. Making jokes or giving advice, under the guise of “humor” or “for their own good” is just cruelty in a clown suit or a fake white coat.

If you are tempted, just remember the last time someone said something useless, ignorant or cruel to you.  Re-live the feeling. Then find something else to talk about. Your words will not help any more than the latest fad diet will – in fact, they might do a great deal more harm.

Just for today, try saying nothing hateful about your own body or anyone else’s.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study. 


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