Have I Blown it Already? Not the Shofar, but the High Holy Days?

September 3, 2013

We arrive at the end of Elul, the Days of Awe are upon us, and we aren’t done. There are apologies that were too hard to make, words that were too hard to say, things too hard to figure out in one short month. Or maybe we procrastinated.

Teshuvah is usually translated “repentance” but it would be just as accurate to translate it as “return” or even “turn.” We strive to return to the path, but as with a disoriented hiker lost in the woods, sometimes the path is hard to locate, hard to walk, just beyond us for now.

But the Days of Awe are upon us, and with them the magnificent liturgy of the High Holy Day services. We will do our best to open our hearts, and see where the services take us. Don’t worry about keeping up; let your mind and spirit be guided by the words on the page, by the music, by the sermon. Float.

In 1978, Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. She kept trying. She was finally successful this past week. Over thirty years of training and repeated attempts finally ended in success at age 64. She kept returning to the task, and the number of turns it took ultimately added to her accomplishment.

We balance between taking the time for multiple tries, and the knowledge that our lives are limited. Do not despair if the task is hard. Do not fail to return to it.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. - Pirkei Avot 2:20

Related articles


“You Intended to harm me.”

September 2, 2013
All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...

Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.


Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

August 31, 2013

Time Selector

Elul, the month of looking inward, is almost over.  Wednesday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening of the New Year.

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Pay attention, because some years, like this year,  Rosh HaShanah is “early.” Mind you, it always comes on the first day of Tishrei, but if you usually live on the Gregorian calendar, this year 1 Tishrei comes on the evening of 4 September, which is unusually early in September. Pay attention, because while in the “regular” world it is 2013, in the Jewish world, it is about to be 5774.

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”


#BlogElul – Beginnings are Awkward

August 31, 2013
hebrew letter bet

Hebrew Letter Bet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house.  All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.

Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.

There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.

Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

 


I Can See Clearly Now

August 15, 2013

A phoroptor can measure refractive error to de...

On a wet day in March of 1971, I stood in the sheriff’s office in Williamson County, Tennessee, peering across the room towards an eye chart. I say “towards” because I couldn’t see the chart; I just knew the general direction. Sheriff Huff was testing me for my driver’s license, and this was part one: he asked me to remove my glasses, and then told me to read the letters on the chart. After I allowed as how I could not exactly find the chart, he laughed with a big hooting laugh and said, “Wa’al, honey, Ah don’t have t’ worry about you drivin’ without your specs. You caint find the car without ‘em!” And boy, howdy, was that the truth.

It’s still true, decades later. So every six months I stop by the optometrist’s just for a “tune-up” to get my frames adjusted, and every two years I’m in his chair, peering through the phoropter (that’s that thing in the picture above ) so that Dr. Rivera can see if my eyesight has changed.  It’s a ritual:

Which is better? <click> A?  <click> Or B?

Whirr. <click> A?  <click> Or B?

Whirr. <click> A?  <click> Or B?… and so on.

It takes time to get it right, time and experimentation. And because he is extra careful, Dr. Rivera always checks the prescription with my eyes dilated, so the little muscles in my eyes can’t fake either of us out. That part of it is unpleasant, but it’s the only way to be sure it is the proper prescription.

Cheshbon Hanefesh – Accounting for the Soul – can be a little like my trips to the eye doctor. It takes time and effort to get past my own self-deceptions, to root out the ways in which I may be deceiving myself:

“I’m just fine”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“No one will know.”

All of those lines are like the little muscles in my eyes, struggling to hold things together after the lens isn’t working for me anymore.

During the month of Elul, I have to sit down and take time. I have to listen carefully to myself, listen not only to the voice of my conscience but to my kishkes [Yiddish for guts.] There are no magic drops to help me, but I want to see clearly. Sometimes I have to ask for help. Sometimes it just takes time and humility. But when I’m done, I will be able to do the things I need to do to make my corner of the world better.

So, nu? Is it time for a little adjustment? Don’t put it off.  Once you’ve done it, then we can all sing with Johnny Nash:

 


This I Can Believe

August 13, 2013

Right before Shacharit at home

I have always found the notion of “belief” rather troublesome.

It reminds me of the story from the Gospel of John, when Jesus told doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  That story bothered me, which is the nutshell version of why I became a Jew.

I chose to be a Jew. I chose it not because of any belief, but because of things I see, things I can believe. I see a way of life that offers me a path to goodness transcending human failure. I see a tradition that demands that I yearly examine myself and ask, sharp-tongued, am I being my best self? I see communities of people who care for and about one another, who care for and about the world, who make room for difference.

(Yes, I know there are Jews that don’t do those things. Show me any group of human beings who never foul up and then we’ll know that there is alien life among us.)

I saw a community that made room for me, a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, and who then turned to me and said, “Bring it!” I saw a prayer book full of words that I could say or choose not to say, words with which to wrestle, words that if I let them flow over my brain long enough would show me where I next needed to grow.  I saw a history full of role models to emulate, from the kind patience of Hillel to the audacity of Doña Gracia Mendez to the scholarship and devotion of Rabbi Regina Jonas.

I saw a community that had room for belief, but that also honored disbelief. I saw a tradition that valued words almost more than anything– except actions.

I saw a religion that did not claim to be the One True Path. It is one of many paths to holiness and wholeness.

In that, I can believe.

Reblogged on the Reform Judaism blog.

 


First Funeral

August 10, 2013

opengrave

The first funeral at which I officiated by myself took place at graveside on the afternoon before Kol Nidre.

I remember it vividly.  My feet were planted uneasily on the distinctive grass typical of cemeteries, a thick spongy carpet of thatch. Before me was a plain wooden casket suspended over a hole in the ground. The raw earth looked like a wound; it disappeared into darkness below. The desert sun above beat down on our heads and a hot wind ruffled the pages of my rabbi’s manual.

The dead woman’s name was Ruth. The eerie quality to saying my own name at graveside was magnified by the fact that I did not know this Ruth at all, nor did I know her family. I was simply performing a mitzvah, called to it by the fact that I was the newest rabbi in town, and it was my turn in the rotation for unaffiliated Jews. I had assembled a hesped [eulogy] from the recollections of her relatives, but they were taciturn people and I had not yet developed much skill at drawing stories out of strangers. Skills or no, the hesped had the proper effect: the meyt [dead person) was remembered with dignity and the mourners began their process of grieving with tears.

Fortunately they did not know that the rabbi was well and properly freaked out.

I hardly remember the Kol Nidre service that night. My place in it as the new part-time assistant was small, and I was free to pray as long as I remembered to sit like a lady and keep a calm face on the bimah. I was busy, though, busy processing the afternoon’s revelation, that someday some other rabbi would stand by a hole in the ground and say those words before they lowered my body into it. Someday I would die and they would bury me. It was unpleasant, but as I worked through it, I realized it was a gift. That visceral knowledge of my own mortality taught me that I have no time to waste on this earth.

The Psalmist wrote that our “days are like grass.”  Most of the time we are able to avoid that knowledge. Thinking about it too much isn’t healthy. Thinking about it too little is just as bad.

Someday I will die. What must I get done before that day comes?

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,106 other followers

%d bloggers like this: