The Secret of Showing Up

One of my favorite lines, too, Rabbi Adar! What an eloquent argument this post is for the discipline of regular worship. I compare it to a good bye kiss in the morning. Sometimes it is just perfunctory, but sometimes insets of a WOW spark. But if we didn’t do it every morning, we would not be positioned for the WOW! Thank you! – A comment on Turn it Again, Ben! by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Fuchs’ comment ties together my two previous posts: the one cited above and the previous one, Jewish Spirituality.

The performance of mitzvot [commandments] is of its nature routine. I say a blessing, I get out of bed, I say a blessing, I wash my hands, I say a blessing, I eat a muffin, I say a blessing, I take my meds. Most of it happens “on automatic” and is about as exciting as brushing my teeth (for which I do not yet know a blessing.) This week I’m going to host students for Shabbat dinner, so I’ve also got all of those preparations (clear the dining room/study table, check my lists, cook) and they, too, have a routine feel to them.

This routine of mitzvot sets up opportunities for what Rabbi Fuchs calls “the WOW!” Most days saying my prayers is a routine. Last Shabbat, one of those routine prayers reduced me to tears of amazement. I didn’t know when I left home for services that I was going to have that experience. Actually, I wasn’t feeling all that great and might have stayed home, except that I had committed to chant the first aliyah of the Torah portion.

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Jewish spiritual activity definitely works that way, whether we’re talking about prayer or some other mitzvot. On any given day, I’m probably not going to get any kind of spiritual insight or “high” from giving tzedakah or saying blessings. There are many mitzvot I may do for my entire life and never have an experience that anyone would call spiritual.

However, if I want to have a sense of meaning in my life, every mitzvah that I observe is a step in that direction. This past week my prayer practice gifted me with an insight: every breath is precious. That was worth all the mere “showing up” that got me to that place. Even without that insight, every mitzvah I observe is like a single strand in a spider’s web that forms a small essential part of the greater whole. Those mitzvot performed with the right intention will shape me into a better person living a better life than I would otherwise live.

This Shabbat I expect to be very, very tired but to be filled with a warm feeling from feeding my students and performing the mitzvah of hospitality. Or maybe I’ll just be very tired. That’s OK. I’ll show up, and they’ll show up, and that will be enough.

Turn It Again, Ben!

Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” – Avot 5:22

He may have one of the strangest names in Jewish history*, but Ben Bag Bag’s famous line is a favorite of mine. The “it” he refers to is the Torah. Read it over and over, he suggests, because there is always something new to find there.

I was reminded anew of the wisdom of this line this past Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, I went to the emergency room with severe difficulty breathing, gasping and gasping like a fish out of water. Tests revealed that my breathing was impeded by a number of blood clots in my lungs. Thanks to the skill of the doctors and nurses, I am breathing better now and feeling better every day.

Sitting in the service this week, I noticed a new way to understand a favorite prayer. In the context of prayers, the word neshamah (neh-sha-MAH) is usually translated “soul.” However, it may equally correctly be translated as “breath.” Suddenly the familiar prayer was transformed before my eyes:

My God, the breath You have given me is pure.
You created it, You shaped it, You breathed it into me,
You protect it within me.
For as long as this breath is within me,
I offer thanks to You,
Adonai, My God, God of my ancestors,
Source of all creation, Sovereign of all souls.
Praised are You, Adonai,
In whose hand is every living breath and the breath of humankind.

I have no guess as to how many thousands of times I have murmured that prayer, but it never before occurred to me that I was giving thanks for breath.

No matter how many times I say a prayer or read a line of Torah, I do not know when a new experience in my life will cause the words to light up with new meaning. Until last month, I did not fully appreciate the value of breath. I thought that “soul” was a more meaningful translation of neshamah.

Silly me.


*Ben Bag Bag’s full name was likely Yochanan ben Bag Bag, and one tradition teaches that his name is an acronym for “ben ger” and “bat ger” suggesting that his parents were converts to Judaism. Another tradition teaches that he was himself a proselyte, the cheeky fellow who asked Hillel to teach him all of Torah while standing on one foot!

Jewish Spirituality

I sometimes meet Jews who tell me, “Judaism just isn’t spiritual!” Others think that there’s only one authentic way to live a Jewish life, a way that demands that a devout Jew will live completely separate from the secular world.

Both of those attitudes are based on profound misunderstandings of Torah.

It’s true that Judaism is different from other religions, especially those familiar to most Americans. A few ways we are different:

We do not have a creed: we don’t have a list of things we are required to believe. Because other Western religions have creeds, we periodically try to come up with such lists, but in every case, as soon as the list is written, we begin arguing about the details. The 13 Principles of Maimonides is the most famous but it isn’t universally accepted among Jews. The Reform Movement has compiled “Platforms” at intervals in its history, but they function more as texts for study, and as jumping-off places for discussion. They are not creeds.

We are a questioning people, rather than a believing people. This has been true from the very beginning. In Genesis 18, God consults with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham then raises questions about the fate of the righteous of Sodom, if any can be found. In fact, our sages taught that God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel, rather than Noah, because Noah didn’t argue when God announced the Flood!

The commandments direct us to do, rather than to believe. The Torah is full of commandments (the traditional count is 613.) Those commandments say things like “Keep the Sabbath holy.” (Exodus 20:8) or “Put a railing around your roof, so no one will fall off” (Deuteronomy 22:8) or “Don’t consume blood” (Lev. 17:10-14.) These are things to do (or not do) rather than things to believe.  Even when it comes to God, we are told to love God, but nowhere does it explicitly say to believe in God.


For Jews, spirituality comes in the round of observing the commandments day after day, week after week. We are back to disagreement and discussion: some observe the commandments in ways more or less like the ways Jews very long ago observed them. Others find those interpretations of the commandments outmoded and in need of reinterpretation. One Jew will refrain from ever using the phone or any electronic device on Shabbat. Another will make sure to phone family and loved ones every Shabbat. Both are trying to keep Shabbat holy, each in their own way.

For some Jews, the synagogue service is key to spirituality. For others, the act of communal study (another commandment) is where they find spirituality. Others find it in appreciation and preservation of the wonders of nature, or in the work of healing or social justice. For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing growth in the mitzvah of hospitality, opening my home, nurturing relationships among people, feeding other people, and teaching Jewish home observance. Jewish tradition is vast, and it can accommodate many different tastes and personalities. What all these things have in common is the observance of mitzvot.

Which mitzvot are the keys to your Jewish spirituality? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that, experiment. Go to services regularly for a few months, and see what that does for you. Join a social action group or organization (do more than give money or share social media) and see how that feels. Find a Torah study group, or a Talmud study group. See where your Jewish soul blooms.

Low-Stress Shabbat Dinner

I like to invite my students to Shabbat dinner at my home. It’s a low-stress way for them to experience the rituals of Shabbat, and a chance to just hang out and chat. It’s also a chance for me to meet their families, if they choose to include them.

However, there are challenges. Many of my students are vegetarians or vegans, so the menu needed to account for that. I needed a main dish that everyone could enjoy and that wasn’t too expensive. I finally settled on something that was a treat for me, and a novelty for many Californians: Hoppin’ John, a dish of black eyed peas and rice, seasoned with onions and spices, and with an assortment of hot sauces on the table for those who enjoy a little heat.

I needed to keep the work to a reasonable level. Cooking a big meal for as many as twenty people was just too much for me, so I make the rest of the meal potluck. For side dishes and desserts, I ask the students to bring a dish if they can.

I buy the challah from a local bakery. I could make it, but I’m hoarding my energy to play host later in the evening, remember?

The table is deliberately simple: white cloth, plates, silverware, candlesticks, challah plate and cover. Cups for wine or grape juice. Matches where I can find them.

Once people begin to arrive, the evening pretty much runs itself. They are excited to see one another, and curious to see what everyone brought. Some enjoy rummaging through the hot sauce tray, looking for interesting things. We light candles, I make kiddush, we make motzi, and we have a lovely meal. At the end, we bless and clean up. I send leftovers home with anyone who wants (thank goodness for Ziplock bags) and by then I am ready to fall into bed!

It’s not hard. It need not be a production. Why not call some friends and give it a try?

Media and the Middle East

Where do you get your news about the Middle East?

It’s an important question. Most of the media reporting on Israel and the Middle East have a definite anti-Israel slant. Even very respectable news organizations have been sloppy or downright biased in their reporting.

For instance, a week ago the New York Times printed an article that cast considerable doubt that the Temple had ever stood on the Temple Mount. It noted that this is a “politically loaded question.” Then it proceeded to present the information in a politically slanted way. For a look at the problems with the original article, I recommend The New York Times Goes Truther on the Temple Mount in Tablet Magazine.

Last year the Atlantic printed an article by AP reporter Matti Friedman, What the Media Gets Wrong about Israel. In it he talks about the reasons for the reporting, and why “the pipeline of information from Israel is not just rusty and leaking, but intentionally plugged.” In another example, he notes that “the construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news; the smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all.”

So where do I get my news about Israel? Here are some (free) outlets that I follow:

The Times of Israel – A Jerusalem-based English language online newspaper. The founding editor is UK-born Israeli journalist David Horowitz.

The Mideast Reporter – Here’s how they describe themselves: “an independent nonprofit news organization with an ambitious purpose: to improve the standards of journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian and other Middle East conflicts, and a variety of related topics. Among them are Iran; the financing of global terrorism; Islamic extremism; and the boycott-Israel movement. We will accomplish our mission by producing groundbreaking investigative journalism on significant subjects that do not receive adequate attention, and by critiquing articles and broadcast segments that fail to meet professional standards.

The Jerusalem Post – The venerable JPost is a bit more political than the Times of Israel or the Mideast Reporter.  It has a distinct right-wing bent. However, for quick information about what’s happening, particularly in a crisis, it offers solid and local information.

Al Jazeera America – Just from the name and the logo, it’s clear that this is not an Israeli organization. My reason for choosing them as my non-Israeli source for news is that I know and trust John Michael Seigenthaler, their American news anchor. Al Jazeera America (as distinct from Al Jazeera) does its reporting with journalistic ethics.  I care about hearing both sides of every story – I just insist that the telling come from a place of journalism, not jingoism.

I also subscribe to, but it is behind a paywall. If you are serious about following Israeli news, you should consider a subscription.

Where do you get your news about the Middle East? How do you decide whom to trust?

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark

Midrash Tanhuma fills out details of the Noach (Noah) narrative that would never appear in a children’s book.

The word usually translated “ark” in the Biblical text is tevah, an Egyptian loan-word meaning “box.” This particular box kept the killer Flood out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. 

Some of the animals were dangerous: a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Psalm 142:8, Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks, the rabbis tell us this refers to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but agony.

The rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him very harshly: he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. Abraham, by comparison, had advocated for his fellow human beings in Genesis 18:22-33, when he asked God to spare the evil city of Sodom if even ten righteous people lived there. 

The rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own family, to Abraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach had the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare?
What boxes do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

A version of this drash first appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

Chodesh Tov: It’s Cheshvan

Chodesh Tov!  [Happy (new) month!]

That’s the traditional greeting for every new month. The moon is key to the Jewish calendar, and every new moon is a new month, a Rosh Chodesh.

At sundown on October 12, we entered a new month, Cheshvan of 5776.

The month of Cheshvan is the quietest month of the Jewish year – no holidays, no fasts, just quiet. And really, after the last six weeks, it’s time for a little quiet. The only exception is the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated in Israel on the 29th of CheshvanSigd falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur (just as Shavuot is 50 days after the first night of Passover) and in Ethiopian Jewish tradition, it is the day to celebrate God revealing Godself to Moses. For more about Sigd, there is an excellent article in the Times of Israel.

The name Cheshvan is short for Marcheshvan, the older name for the month, which comes from waraḫsamnu, the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) name meaning “eighth month.” (In Mesopotamia, the month we call Nisan is the first of the month, which is how the months were counted in Biblical times, too.)

At some point in the past someone noticed that Mar is Hebrew for “bitter,” and the tradition arose that Marcheshvan was “Bitter Cheshvan.” Indeed, there are bitter dates in the month:

12 Cheshvan – Assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

16 Cheshvan – Kristallnacht (1938)

Bitter though those dates may be, I wish you a gentle month of Cheshvan in 5776.