We’re About to Stop Praying for Rain

March 22, 2014
Food grows where water flows in the Central Valley of California.

The Central Valley of California:
food grows only where there is water.

This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth.  By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water. 

So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.

I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?

Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year.  That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.

Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.

And that is a good thing, because we  – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.

So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.

This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Adam Reeder


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.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by VWJ


The Rabbi Has a Code

December 29, 2013

Dear God,

 

I know what I’m supposed to be doing today: I’m supposed to be getting lesson plans ready for the winter, writing thoughtful blog entires for days ahead, studying a little Torah lishma (Torah just for its own sake), visiting an elderly lady, and unpacking my library.  That was the plan.

 

What is it that they say, “Man plans, and God laughs?”

 

I have a cold. I have one of those stupid sorts of cold that gums up my brain so I can’t think and renders me into very little more than a factory for germs. I can’t go visit any shut-ins: this bug might kill them. I can’t follow my own notes for a lesson plan. And the only thing I can think to do with my blog is whine about my cold, which is very, very lame.

 

Here’s what I want to know: why did You make the Common Cold virus? Is is just to keep us humble? It’s a trivial illness for most of us, miserable but inconsequential. It will pass in 7 days to 3 weeks, leaving no trace. And yet:

 

I remember when a cold virus got loose at the nursing home where I was a student chaplain. It was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallway; it took half the souls on the first floor alone. For the frail or the already-sick, this thing is no joke. So I must be careful with it, stay home for the worst of it, carry tissues and wash my hands like a crazed raccoon when I do go out, because every sneeze is the launch of a zillion warheads.

 

So here I am, whining to the internet:  Poor me. Home with a cold. In my nice warm house, with nice warm soup on the stove. With my own bed. With loving friends sending me the occasional text: are you OK? Do you need anything?

 

Maybe the lesson of the cold is this: for at least some of us, there are always blessings to count, even when the count sounds like “One, Du, Tree.” And the universe is not all about me: it’s going right along, cold bug and all, while I hunker down with my blessings to get over it.

 

When I feel a bit more coherent, I should do something about the people with fewer blessings: those who lose their federal benefits this week, those who don’t have warm soup or a warm place to be. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to learn a little compassion for those whose illnesses are not so trivial, who feel just as miserable and know that they will never feel better.

 

But… first I have to get past the worst of this cold. Please, God, heal me, and help me learn whatever it is I can learn from this thing.

 

Amen.

 

Love,

 

Ruth

 

 

 


How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

December 2, 2013
A Prayer for healing. . .

A Prayer for healing. . . (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”

The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

 

In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.

Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)


How Will I Ever Feel At Home in Services?

November 12, 2013
Grand Lake Theater of Dreams

When I drive past the Grand Lake Theater, I am flooded with memories.(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.

It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us.  And so on.

Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.

But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.

There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.

So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable.  That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.


#BlogElul 18 – Rabbi Heschel’s Prayer

August 24, 2013
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(Photo credit: Egan Snow)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”

In English, we have a tendency to use the words “religion” and “faith” as interchangeable, and it is possible that it works for some religions, but for Judaism, it most emphatically does not work. Jews believe many different things: at the extremes, I know good Jews who are thoroughgoing atheists, and equally good Jews who have regular conversations with a God for whom the pronouns are male. The only real deal breaker for normative Judaism is monotheism: if a person believes in multiple gods or subdivisions of God or persons-within-God they are over the line.

Deeds, including speech, are another matter. I am still a Jew, but I cannot claim to be a “good Jew” if I stand by while my neighbor bleeds, if I do nothing while the vulnerable go hungry, if I do not pursue justice. That, with monotheism, was the great message of the Jewish prophets:  see chapter five of the prophecy of Amos if you doubt me.

So it is appropriate today, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, to remember that we  pray with our feet, our hands, our keyboards, our wheels, our habits of consumption, and our speech to and about others.

Let us pray.

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.


Prayer of the Broken Heart

June 23, 2013

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?


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