A Meditation on Poop

Image: Woman meditates alone on a mountaintop. (Bhikku Amitha / Pixabay)

The image at the top of this article is from the free stock photo site Pixabay. I typed “spirituality” into the search box, and I got a bunch of beautiful images like this. Pixabay is not alone in classifying this photo as spiritual; I imagine it is the sort of image people think of when they hear the word.

My life is consumed with activity at the moment. I get up shortly after 6, and I’m busy until I fall into bed at eleven or later. I spend much of that time engaged with poop.

Yes, you read that right: I spend most of my time busy with poop. My life revolves around several activities: I teach two classes, work privately with some students, I team-babysit our grandson with my wife for about 40 hours a week, and I have a sick dog recovering from surgery on her behind. The latter two activities mean that I spend a lot of time cleaning up poop, examining poop, reporting on poop to my daughter-in-law or the veterinarian, and cleaning the poop off of me so that I will not get poop on anyone else.

It’s easy to explain how learning and teaching Torah are holy activities. They fit the stereotypes, like the picture above. I sit at my table, preparing classes, translating ancient texts, and then I transmit what I’ve learned to others. I am surrounded by piles of holy books, the voices of the ancestors transmitting their understanding of the Holy. This learning has a frantic quality, though, because in a few hours or days I need to transmit what I have learned, and I have no time to waste. I have to get back to dealing with poop.

Caring for a helpless infant or dog is a different, and I would argue higher form of holy activity. When I’m learning or teaching, I’m largely in control of the situation. To deal with my grandson or the dog, I have to surrender to their rhythms and needs: naps, meals, play and diapers for Oliver and naps, meals, meds, compresses and messes for Gabi. As the philosopher Emanuel Levinas would say, I am commanded by the urgent need of The Other.

Of course, I love my grandson (what an understatement!) and I love my little dog. I am happy to expend effort on either of them, and I do not begrudge it. But no matter how much you love someone, poop is poop. It’s stinky, and requires effort to clean it up. Very few people, when they hear the word spirituality, think “poop” except perhaps for the smug sort of atheist, and then they are not thinking of poop as a road to enlightenment; they are thinking of spirituality itself as poop.

I have nothing against meditation or mountaintops. Right now I do most of my meditating lying down while my grandson naps (with my disabilities, the rule “rest when they nap” has an urgency it didn’t have when I was in my 20’s.) Usually I just fall asleep for a few minutes, after breathing a prayer of thanks for naptime. A mountaintop sounds picturesque, but I think I’d rather have a longer nap and save the travel time.

This is, no kidding, the most intensely spiritual time in my life. I spend most of my waking time being as fully present as I can be to someone or something: students, study, the baby, his parents, the dog, my wife.

My wife! The other very spiritual thing going on is while there is no time “to spend on our relationship” we are connected at the hip, a team. She is caring for a different sick dog, plus the baby, plus the things I can’t do very well (laundry and the trash are two of the biggies.) I am acutely aware, in my peripheral vision, of the miracles she works, and several times a day I shout out “I love you!” because I do, I do.

There are also the friends upon whom I rely, all long-distance: some via Twitter, some via other electronic venues, and all in short bursts. They cheer for me; I cheer for them. We muddle through our days with too much poop, both literal and figurative, and I treasure those voices echoing through the expanse.

God is very much present in my world right now. I perceive God in the steadfast love of Linda and my friends, in their voices and in the million practical things Linda does. I see God in the baby’s smile, and hear God in his fussing. I feel God in the softness of Gabi’s fur, and in her patience as I wash her behind in the sink yet again.

I hear God’s cry out to me when Oliver wails in discomfort. I see God in the way that baby and his mama look at each other. I am aware of God, as I watch Gabi’s incision slowly heal.

And through it all, there is poop, lots and lots of poop.

The lesson I study these days has to do with the grubbier aspects of this adventure. I want to find God in the poop, and in the aching of my joints, in the knee that won’t heal, in the shoulder that’s gone wacky, and in the fatigue that I just can’t shake. It is the limitations of my own body and its need to say “No” sometimes that are hardest for me to accept, but I’m working on them.

Where is the spiritual growth happening in your life right now? I invite you to tell us about it in the Comments.

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior. Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of […]

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Tisha B’Av 5780 / 2020

This week we observe the 9th of Av, aka Tisha B’Av. It is the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE and the 2nd Temple in 70 CE.

Without the Temple, Biblical Judaism was impossible. The sacrificial cult was an essential element of Biblical Judaism, and without the Temple standing on that particular bit of real estate, the sacrifices are not valid.

Each destruction remade the Jewish world. After the return from Babylon, Judaism changed: we had a big scroll we called the Torah for public readings, which we had not had before. We had a large body of prophetic writings. Most importantly we knew that though we had a covenant with the God of Israel, it was not a guarantee of safety. We had been beaten, badly. To survive as a people, we developed additional institutions (Torah, synagogue) to maintain our identity even when we did not have access to the Temple.

We needed those institutions, because in 70 CE it happened again: the Romans punished us for insurrection and tore the Temple stone from stone, forbidding us to rebuild. A few years later, after another revolt, they scattered us to the four winds. We remained in exile, in Galut, for almost 2000 years.

In the face of the destruction of our old way of life we used imagination and ingenuity to remake Biblical Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism. The new Judaism was still linked to the Land of Israel, but it could survive anywhere, and survive we did.

We are living today in a time of destruction. The institutions of democracy, which have been mostly very good for the Jewish people are now under attack, not only in the US but in much of the world. A pandemic of Covid-19, a deadly and poorly-understood disease is sweeping the world, killing hundreds of thousands. Some old institutions are dying as well, and the world economies are straining. Climate change is reshaping the planet under our feet.

People are frightened, for good reason. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways, and the “normal” we remember from December is not likely to return. Frightened people are irrational people, and we see evidence of that in public tantrums, irrational decisions by leaders, and in the general level of anxiety in our culture. We are living in a time of cataclysmic change.

This Tisha B’Av I will listen to Lamentations, and I will think about the fact that the Jews of 586 BCE and 70 CE were able to mourn their losses and find enough strength in their hearts to let go of the past (eventually) and move on into the future. They were willing to do what they had to do to keep Judaism alive. I will pray for their strength, for their stubbornness, and for their creative will. I will pray for young leaders with good ideas, and for the humility to accept their leadership.

We are only beginning to deal with the changes ahead of us. I have no idea where we will wind up. I only know that the Jewish people have endured and I am committed to my own small part in our survival.

What to do? I shall keep on living a life of Torah. I will keep what mitzvot I can, and I will teach mitzvot to others. I will keep learning and studying and teaching. That’s what our ancestors before us did, the reason there are still Jews today.

May the day of sad memories stiffen our spines while our hearts stay supple. May the map of Torah bring us safely home.

Prayer for Opening Day: Baseball in 2020

Image: Batting practice before a spring training game at Las Vegas Ballpark, March 2020. Home of the Las Vegas Aviators. Photo by Ruth Adar.

As is my habit every year, I offer a Prayer for the Beginning of Baseball Season. Major League Baseball has chosen to go ahead with a short season this year, with changes to make play somewhat safer – beginning with the fact that there will be no fans in the stands. Still, some of us worry. Here is a version of my usual prayer for opening day, with an addendum for Covid-19.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that will satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

May our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

And in this very challenging year of 5780, keep players, umps, and coaches mindful of safety measures and safe from the ravages of Covid-19. May the consistent use of precautions prevent the infection of their families and friends. Let this game be the restoring balm that it has always been for so many. Bless our play, and give us respite from the wrack of pandemic. May this year’s difficulties raise us all to greater standards of honest play, and to a greater appreciation for the blessings this game brings to us. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

A rabbinical note: The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Masekhet Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir(The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

The addition “In this very challenging year” is the work of your humble servant, and any error or overreach in it is hers and hers alone.

Speak Up for Althea Bernstein

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This tweet from Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sums up the story pretty well: a young Black Jewish woman was attacked and set afire by a group of men in a car in Madison, WI, on June 24, 2020.

From the Madison Police Department’s incident report:

The MPD is investigating an assault on an 18-year-old bi-racial woman as a hate crime after she was burned with lighter fluid early Wednesday morning.

     The victim believes she was driving on W. Gorham St. when she stopped for a red light at State St. Her driver’s side window was down and she heard someone yell out a racial epithet. She looked and saw four men, all white. She says one used a spray bottle to deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite.

     She drove forward, patted out the flames, and eventually drove home. Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital.

     Hospital staff believed the liquid was lighter fluid. She was treated for burns, and will need to make follow-up visits to access additional medical care.

      Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if any of the assault was captured on camera.

https://www.cityofmadison.com/police/newsroom/incidentreports/incident.cfm?id=26640 accessed 6/29/2020.

While several “go fund me” funds have been set up, I have not been able to ascertain whether any of them will actually go to her (always, always check!). If any readers learn of a proper fund for her, please let us know in the Comments.

Change.org has a petition seeking justice for Ms. Bernstein, and you can sign it at this address.

Rachel Mankowitz on Jews of Color

I’ve got three or four half-finished attempts at an article about the situation of Jews of Color in the present time. Rachel Mankowitz says in this article what I wanted to say, and says it so much better!

Rachel Mankowitz is a writer and blogger and social worker in New York state. If you aren’t acquainted with her blog and her novel, “Yeshiva Girl” I recommend them both.

rachelmankowitz

            The world is exploding and I am angry and afraid, and maybe hopeful too. I know I can’t handle being part of the protests in person (because my health won’t allow it, because I’m still afraid of the coronavirus, and because the potential for violence scares the crap out of me, no matter who’s causing it), but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something. But…there is so much information available on racism in general, and police violence towards people of color in particular, and mass incarceration, and how racism impacts educational opportunities and the ability to accumulate wealth, and, and, and…I don’t have the bandwidth to take in all of the books and articles and podcasts and Facebook posts that are out there. So when the cantor at my synagogue took the time to offer a zoom-cast on Jews of color, and what they might…

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Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart – New Class Starts 7/9/2020

Image: King David with his harp, mosaic from the Gaza Synagogue, 6th c. CE. (Alexander Siviridov, Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The Book of Psalms is a treasury of poetry that expresses the full range of human emotion, from despair to ecstasy. Many traditional translations obscure the richness in the Psalms with flowery or euphemistic language, but the original psalms themselves are muscular, even raw, as they express the deepest truths of the heart.

I would like to study this 2500-year-old collection of human expression with you. Each week we will explore another Psalm in English; I will offer some insights from the Hebrew, and from various commentaries. Students bring their own insights to the mix. No Hebrew is required, although students who read Hebrew are welcome. 

Registrants will receive a Zoom link from me the day before the start of the course.

Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart will meet Thursday, July 9, 2020 thru Thursday, August 20, 2020, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM Pacific Time. For more information, and to register, please visit the course’s page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog. Sliding scale for tuition, and financial aid is available.

News! Intro to the Jewish Experience starts 7/19/2020

Image: Quilt by Barbara Kadden RJE, z”l, Genesis 12:1: YHVH said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.Photo by Ruth Adar.

Do you identify as Jewish, but feel like an outsider to Jewish community? Have you been assigned to take an “Intro” class? Would you like to explore Judaism as an adult, with adult topics and choices? 

This summer I am teaching Part A of “Introduction to the Jewish Experience,” a class designed to equip students for full participation in Jewish community. No Hebrew is required, although students will acquire some basic Hebrew or Yiddish vocabulary they are likely to encounter in Jewish settings.

The full course consists of three terms of eight sessions each. The terms may be taken in any order. This summer we will be offering Jewish Holidays and Life CycleThis term consists of a basic introduction to Jewish theology, the cycle of the Jewish year, and to the Jewish life cycle from cradle to grave.

I shall offer “Part B: Israel and Texts”  in Fall 2020 and “Part C: Jewish Diversity: A Big Jewish World,” in Winter 2020.

The course includes:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. God, Covenant, Mitzvah
  3. Fall Holiday Cycle: High Holy Days, Sukkot, Simchat Torah
  4. Spring Holiday Cycle: Purim, Passover, Shavuot
  5. National Holidays: Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, The Yoms, Tisha B’Av
  6. Death and Mourning in Jewish Communities
  7. Birth and Conversion – Welcoming New Jews
  8. Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Jewish Weddings

Classes will meet via Zoom on Sunday afternoons, Sunday, July 19, 2020 thru Sunday, September 6, 2020, 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM Pacific Time. For information about tuition (which is on a sliding scale) and registration, please visit the course page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog.

Shelach L’cha – Joshua’s Name

Summary of the portion:

  • Moses sends 12 spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Joshua and Caleb give a good report, but the rest of the spies say the land is too dangerous and the people are frightened.
  • God is furious, and threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel. Moses intercedes on the behalf of the people. God announces that only Joshua and Caleb will enter the land – all others who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel.
  • Moses teaches the Israelites about taking challah, the observance of Shabbat, how to treat strangers, and the laws of fringes.

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change.

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hosea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yud, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save “Hoshia” you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

I gave this d’var Torah for the Tuesday Morning Minyan at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, in celebration of the beginning of my 26th year as a Jew. A quarter century ago I entered the mikveh and became a Jew; a wandering soul found her way home at last.

Prayer for a Change of Heart

Ribbono shel Olam, Ruler of all, my heart is broken.

A disease is ravaging my country,

A virus that seems utterly vicious in its attacks on the body.

Some who get it don’t even know they have it,

And others succumb after weeks of suffering.

This plague does not make all suffer equally.

It has turned a spotlight

On the cruelties in America:

The poor suffer more,

The homeless suffer more,

And people of color are especially hard hit,

Because the other disease, the one we have had for 400 years,

Has turned too many hearts to stone,

And has ruined too many lives to count.

We therefore repent of our sins:

The sin of systemic racism,

The sin of extreme income inequality,

And the sins of selfishness and unbounded ego.

You have told us, through your prophet Isaiah:

“Your hands are stained with crime—

“Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil;

“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)

O Holy One, we are listening.

We will cease to do evil and learn to do good, so that

Our hearts of stone will turn back into flesh and blood.

For Your sake — for our own sakes — for the sake of the world —

We can do better, with Your help.

We will devote ourselves to justice.

We will not stand for murder.

We will uphold the rights of poor children and their families,

We will give aid to the wronged.

We make this effort in the knowledge

That we are Your hands in this world and

We can be the instruments of Your love.

Bless this effort, O God: give us the wisdom and strength

To own what is wrong and change it to right.

Then those who sowed with tears shall reap in joy.

Blessed is the one who lifts up the fallen,

who heals the sick,

the Love at the heart of the world.

Amen.