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.


7 Facts about Bar/Bat Mitzvah

November 24, 2013

English: Jerusalem, Bar Mitzvah at the Western...

Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seven facts about bar and bat mitzvah:

  • A Jewish man is bar mitzvah when he passes his 13th birthday, whether he has a ceremony or not.
  • A Jewish woman is bat mitzvah at 12 years, 6 months, or at 13, depending on the custom of her community.
  • The plural of bar mitzvah is bney mitzvah
  • Jews of this age are responsible to know right from wrong, and to be responsible for their duties as a Jew.
  • The customs surrounding bnei mitzvah celebrations differ from community to community.
  • Preparation and study for a bar mitzvah begin years ahead of the actual date.
  • Some adults who did not have the opportunity to celebrate their bnei mitzvah as 13-year-olds study for a similar celebration later: these are commonly called adult bnei mitzvah.

Some resources if you have more questions about this tradition:

 

 

 


Two Creation Stories

November 7, 2013
English: Advertising postcard, picture side, f...

Advertising postcard, picture side, for the “Happy Day” washing machine, sold by the National Sewing Machine Co. of Belvidere, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Tale of Two Delivery Men

A rabbi was setting up her home, to make it more suitable for feeding people and welcoming them. She went on the internet and ordered a table and chairs for the patio. Then she called the local appliance company and talked to them about a washing machine. There had been a washing machine in this house before, and everything seemed all set up for a standard size machine. Then she waited.

The first delivery man arrived, with the table and chairs. He got them off his truck, and dumped them on the front walk. The rabbi began to open the boxes to check for damage. He made a comment about suspicious women. Then he stuck his clipboard at her and said, “Sign here.” The rabbi felt a little nervous about this guy, who seemed angry about something, so she didn’t ask if he could help her get the boxes inside.

The rabbi wondered how she was going to get the furniture into the house. She figured she would call friends. She felt annoyed, but shook it off.

The second delivery man arrived, with the washing machine. He came into the house and looked where we would put the machine, and he frowned. “I think there may be a little problem,” he said, “Machines are bigger than they used to be.” He fished out his tape measure and sure enough, the machine he had delivered was not going to fit.

“Oh no!” said the rabbi. “I am so sorry you made this trip for nothing!”

“We will measure to make sure the next one fits,” he said, very kindly, and so he did. Then he said, “I need to take photos, so that my bosses will know that I really measured.”

The rabbi felt badly that his bosses did not trust his word, but she was very happy. The delivery man could have left her feeling stupid or angry, but instead he taught her the secret of allowing 4 inches for the hose, which she had not known. She called the appliance company to order a smaller machine, and to tell them that Mr. Diego was a great delivery man.

I have no idea what was going on with the gentlemen who delivered things to my house this week. I just know that one of them left me feeling nervous and annoyed, and the other left me feeling good, even though he was the one who delivered a disappointment.

They reminded me of the power we all have in even the most trivial encounters. We create worlds with our words, just as in the Creation story of Genesis 1. The first delivery man created a world that seemed dangerous and unfriendly. I have no idea what was going on with him, but I knew I didn’t want to ask for any favors, and I definitely didn’t want to invite him into my home. The second guy had totally the opposite effect: he came to bring a washer, but ultimately had to deliver bad news, but he did it with such kind words that I was glad our paths had crossed. The “world” he created with his words was a world in which he had the power to treat me well, and so I responded by calling his company to tell them he’s a great guy. This was a world in which people have the power to do the right thing.

What worlds have you created today?

 

 


Opening the Tent of Hospitality

October 27, 2013
Shabbat on a card table.

Shabbat on a card table.

Yossi ben Yochanon from Jerusalem said: “Let your home be open wide to the multitudes. — Pirkei Avot 1:5

I posted last night just before Shabbat that we were going to have our first Shabbat dinner in our new home. It was wonderful! Our friend Dawn came, and we blessed and talked and had a wonderful time. The food was simple but it was eaten in the glow of Shabbat candles.

Now I grant you, having one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone I call “sister” to Shabbat dinner is hardly a wild act of hospitality. Still, it set a tone: we are not going to be hermits in that house, Linda and I. We are going to have guests at the table as often as we can. Food won’t be fancy (not with my cooking!) but it will be eaten with others.

I went looking for the source of the midrash that Abraham’s tent was open on four sides, and I found this article by Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg. It seems that in the commentary on the mishnah above, Pirkei Avot 1:5, the talmudic commentary gives the example of Job, whose home was open on four sides to all guests. He is then compared unfavorably to Abraham, who actually ran out on the road to welcome his guests in Genesis 18. If Abraham was even more hospitable than Job, then his tent was also open on four sides, or so the reasoning goes. The point is that hospitality is a mitzvah, an key part of being a Jew.

So we’ve begun. I’m sure it will be better when we have chairs for everyone and the oven actually works!


Jewish Hospitality

September 18, 2013
Sukkah

Welcome to the Sukkah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At sundown tonight we begin the celebration of Sukkot, and the heart of Sukkot is the mitzvah [commandment] of hospitality.

BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision. 

LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just being friendly, or inviting people over. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.

WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away.  We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others.  There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.

THE SUKKOT CONNECTION – I believe that Sukkot can play a special role in bringing hospitality back to the forefront in Jewish communities. During Sukkot, we don’t entertain in our houses, we entertain in the sukkah. It might be the sukkah at synagogue, or it might be a makeshift sukkah in our yard (for more about making do without a real sukkah, see my article Sick of Synagogue). True, some people have fancy sukkahs, but even the fanciest ones look pretty ridiculous. Sukkot takes us out of our homes and into the sukkah, where we can warm up to the idea of traditional hospitality. The simplicity of the sukkah reminds us that human interaction is more important than the furniture.

THE HOST - A Jewish host is responsible for making her guests welcome, and to see to it that they are not embarrassed in any way.  It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests.

THE GUEST - A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.

THE MAIN THING - Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring. To conquer these fears, start small: invite someone to a Sukkot picnic, or invite someone you are sure will be kind. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them for coffee! But I challenge you (and myself!)  to use this Sukkot as a time to reach out to other Jews. And if you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!

Sukkot sameach: Happy Sukkot!


Yom Kippur and Depression

September 11, 2013

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

It happens that this year the Days of Awe align with Suicide Prevention Week.

Sometimes people think I’m exaggerating when I say that before I learned Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The (non-Jewish) language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, made me truly crazy.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. Obviously I am still here, but it has sometimes been a spiritual battle.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It trumps nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means call someone, call someone. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting, whatever, DO IT.

MEDICATION – After a long lifetime of hanging on by my very short fingernails, I finally allowed a kind doctor to write me a prescription for antidepressants.  They do not solve everything, but they have been a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and say a blessing when I do it.

THERAPY – If you can get access to therapy, it can be an enormous blessing. Find a therapist by asking people you trust for a referral. Your rabbi should be able to give you a name of someone who has helped others.  Again, there are no easy fixes, but a good therapist can help you find your way.

PRAYER - This is one of the places where traditional prayers can be powerful. My go-to prayer for navy blue days is the blessing for the soul we say in the morning prayers: Elohai neshama sheh natata bee, tehora hee - “My God, the soul you have put within me is pure.” It reminds me that the core of my soul, the core of every soul, is the Divine spark, pure and good. It reminds me that however I happen to feel, the essence of me is pure Goodness.

Why would a rabbi go online and post that she’s on medication for depression, and expects to be on it for the rest of her life? Because (1) illness, including mental illness, is nothing to be ashamed of and (2) because it is the most powerful way I can think of to say it’s OK to take care of yourself and it is OK to ask for help.

In the traditional service, there is a prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings the dead to life.” While I think a future resurrection of the dead is a quaint medieval notion, I do take that prayer literally. Those who feel dead, who are in many ways as good as dead, can come back to life, and whenever that happens, it is a holy miracle.  That’s the blessing I say when I take my meds every morning, and whenever something happens that adds to the spark of the Divine within me.

This Yom Kippur, remember that what we call in English “The Gates of Repentance” are actually the Sha’arei Teshuvah. Teshuvah is much more than “repentance.” Teshuvah means  turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.


If I Can’t Fast, How Can I Observe Yom Kippur?

September 10, 2013
Hebrew

(Photo credit: Kashif John)

So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.

Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.

So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:

FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.

ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.

EAT PRECISELY What I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.

USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.

USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.

One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.


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