Peering Through the Screen

Image: World Map, by Grand_Scient / Pixabay.

I have known for a while that I have readers in some pretty far-flung places. Recently I saw a report from tweepsmap, a company that tracks twitter activity, about the location of my Twitter followers. It matches up very consistently with the information I get from wordpress.com about the readers of this blog. No surprise there, since I advertise articles using my Twitter account, @CoffeeShopRabbi.

Much of the info was unsurprising. I have many readers in the larger Jewish centers of population like Southern California, New York City, and Israel. But I also have readers in some places that surprise (and rather delight) me.

I must say, I’m curious and I’d love to hear from more of you.

Apparently there’s a regular reader in Cuzco, Peru. Are you Jewish? What brought you to the blog? I visited Cuzco once and found the people there to be extraordinarily kind.

There are quite a few of you in Dallas and Houston, TX – that makes sense, there are significant Jewish communities there. But what about you in Victoria, TX? How did you find me? Is the blog useful to you? How could I be more useful?

Mexico City was a nice surprise – more than one reader there – but in Guadalajara, too? Cool! How can I be more helpful to you?

I was astonished to find out there’s a reader in Dhaka, Bangladesh.If you are willing to tell me more, I’d love to hear from you.

I was excited to see that there is a reader in Shanghai, China. A number of European Jews took shelter in Shanghai during the Holocaust, and I understand the Chinese were very kind to them.

There are a surprising number of readers living in the Arab world, and in other places where there are very few if any Jews. Again, I wonder what you get out of this blog?  If I can answer questions that you wonder about, I hope you will ask.

Some of you I know. I know the reader in Karlsruhe, Germany. I have corresponded with the reader in Lyon, France. One of the readers in Norwich, UK, is an old friend from 43things.com.

I’m writing this litany because I want to encourage all readers to leave a comment or two. I truly would love to hear from you. I’m curious about your questions and about what interests you. If you are Jewish and isolated, I hope that I cut through some of that isolation. If you aren’t Jewish, how is this blog useful or interesting? Do you have questions I could answer?

Thanks to all of you for reading. I am grateful to you for doing so, and especially grateful when you comment. Torah is not a solitary activity.

Shalom, chaverim! Greetings, friends!

 

 

10 Ideas for Navigating a Contentious Thanksgiving Table

Image: Two people arm-wrestling. Photo by RyanMcGuire/Pixabay.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States. My radio and online reading tell me that people are very worried about discussions at the table, especially about politics.

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions:

  1. Keep in mind that these are the people who let you in the door when you are on the doorstep. You actually do want some connection to them, especially if you are feeling threatened by the world.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling threatened by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table is feeling an existential threat (“We could die!” “We could starve!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are a silly goose because you think such-and-such” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day.
  7.  Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant.
  9. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  10. It’s only one day.

 

Where is the line?

Image: A country road with dotted lines travels into the mist. Photo by Unsplash / Pixabay.

A thoughtful post from a senior rabbi whose sechel (wisdom) I respect. Rabbi Stephen L. Fuchs is the author of Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. I’ve linked to posts on his blog before. I hope you find this as thought-provoking as did I.

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Where is the Line? When will we know that we must leave?

These are serious questions asked by serious questioners.

The election of Donald Trump has turned the world upside down.

At a lesson for adults at the Reform synagogue in Kiel, Germany last week, a highly respected and caring OB-GYN raised this question because of her concern about what might happen in next year’s German elections. She is proud of being Jewish and makes sure that the many Syrian refugee women she treats in her home city of Flensburg know of her heritage.

Shortly after we arrived home, my older son Leo asked the same question, “Where is the line?” Leo helped found a college preparatory elementary school—which he continues to serve as Principal— to give disadvantaged students a better chance at life in the inner city of Oakland, California.

Both of these individuals work tirelessly to make the…

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Thanksgiving Interlude

Image: Gabi and Jojo are hungry. Photo is mine.

Sorry, folks, my back has been out again. Sitting at the computer aggravates it, so I am limited to my smartphone for posts.

Right now there are two poodles bouncing around on the bed, trying to convince me that it is dinner time. They haven’t adjusted to the change from daylight savings time. Weeks have passed but they are still quite sure all their meals are one hour late.

So life goes on. My back is messed up again (I fell off too many horses as a kid) and the dogs are hungry. Some things go right on no matter what’s in the news or how I feel about it.

Torah doesn’t change, either. It’s still my job and yours to be a mensch. That means looking for opportunities to do mitzvot. We should not stand by while someone else bleeds. We should give tzedakah according to our means. We should not attempt to use tzedakah to control the recipients or to benefit ourselves. We should be honest in business, and pay the people who work for us in full and on time.

Those are just a few mitzvot. Go and study – that’s a mitzvah, too.

I wish you a Thanksgiving holiday of peace and gratitude. May we all continue to recognize our blessings despite aches and pains and whatever gets in the way.

What Can Prayer Do?

Image: Hands folded on a prayer book. Photo by voltamax via pixabay.com.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will. – Gates of Prayer

“The Power of Prayer” is a big topic for me these days.

I tend to be very careful about words like “miracle.” I have spent enough time around hospitals to know that inexplicable healings happen, sometimes after family and friends have prayed. But I also know that injury and illness usually run the course predicted by medical science. When a doctor tells me that they expect someone to get well, I believe them. When they tell me gravely that it’s “very serious,” I know what that means.

Where is God in this? I do not presume to know the mind of God – in fact, I am pretty sure that even using the word “mind” for God puts limits on the Holy One that do not apply. God, to me, is the mysterium tremendum, to use Rudolf Otto’s words.

Still, I pray for sick people and since September, I and a lot of other people have been praying for my brother. (For his story, click the link.) I put a pretty cheerful spin on it in that previous post. The truth was that he was gravely injured, and most people with the injuries he had do not wake up; they die. Yet after 5 weeks in a coma, my brother woke up and told his wife that he loves her. A week later I sat in his hospital room, and we were able to communicate. Reports continue to be excellent – he’s recovering his speech and control of his body, and even the super-cautious like myself are calling it a miracle.

Did prayer do it? I don’t know. Did God do it? Absolutely, through the hands of wise doctors and skillful nurses and the life force inside Albert himself. Whether God was whispering to him, “You’re going to make it,” I don’t know. I just know that he is better, and I am grateful.

And yet there is another family somewhere saying, “We prayed! We prayed HARD!” but their loved one still died, or remained in the coma. Prayers are not magic.

I don’t know why some people live and some people die.  I refuse to believe in a capricious God. 

Last night I got another lesson on the power of prayer. I went to Shabbat services, which I haven’t been doing often because all the travel in the last month has left me with big pain problems. I prayed at home, which is good, but it isn’t the same as praying with a minyan. Last night I went to services, and I surrendered to the rhythm of the service: ancient prayers, ancient songs, some of them to tunes written recently by people I know, some composed hundreds of years ago. I heard wise words from my rabbis. I heard encouraging words from our temple president, Sam. I watched as new temple board members were blessed in, one of them a student of mine. (Oh, delight!) And then we prayed some more.

I have been on overdrive since Rosh Hashanah. I was wound so tight, worrying about my brother, worrying about his wife and kids, shepherding people in my care, listening to people talk out their frustrations and fears, trying to give reassurance and strength. I accompanied a family through a complicated funeral. I sat on a beit din (rabbinical court) and affirmed a new Jew.

But last night, through the power of prayer, my heart opened up and I cried. I leaked tears throughout the service, beginning at the “Mi Chamocha,” (“Who is like You?”) the song the Israelites sang after they’d crossed the Red Sea and finally gotten away from Pharaoh. Prayer in the midst of my community gave me what I needed, and challenged me to be more.

Prayer at its best brings us closer to the best person we can be. It builds our compassion for the suffering, and it reminds us who we really are. 

Some miracles are amazing, and some are quiet. I am grateful for both.

Shabbat Shalom! – Vayera

Image: A ram in a thicket. Photo by dennisflarsen via pixabay.com

Parashat Vayera is dense with rich narrative.  The portion is packed with famous stories: Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s laughter, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s Wife, the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, and the binding of Isaac. We may think we know the stories, but every year there is something to surprise us.

Let’s see what our darshanim have to say about Parashat Vayera:

The Green-Eyed Monster – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Lot: a cautionary tale of superficial success and the victimisation of the powerless – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Hurry! – Rabbi Jordan Parr

Harnessing Holiness – Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

The Story of Isaac, in memory of Leonard Cohen z”l – Rabbi Dan Fink

The Miracle of a Child – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Care of Visitors – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

 

14 Ways to Cope with Anxiety

Image: Art by PeteLinforth via pixabay.com. Public domain.

I have family, friends and students who call and text me:

  • “Rabbi, I haven’t slept a full night since the election.”
  • “I am overwhelmed with anxiety. I can’t function.”
  • “Ruth, every day I shake and then break down in tears.”
  • “I looked on Facebook and then I threw up.”
  • “I have no idea how I am going to get through the next four years.”

I hear you. I hear your fears, and I hear your paralysis in anxiety. This post is my way of giving some rabbinical-friendly-motherly advice.

If you were not a fan of Donald Trump, you’ve had a bad shock. News reports from respectable sources led us to believe that Hillary Clinton would win the election. They were wrong: she won the popular vote, but Trump won the electoral vote, and that’s the one that counts. So you were misled, and you were surprised with bad news.

Now the news from both reputable and other sources is full of really scary words. I won’t repeat the words, they’ve already piled upon your surprise and created anxiety. You read them or heard them and now they are hurting you. Oof.

Here’s the facts: we are going to have many opportunities for mitzvot in the coming years, if Mr. Trump keeps his campaign promises. There will be work to do. If you are going to be useful in helping to preserve human rights, first you have to take care of yourself.

Remember: It is a mitzvah to attend to your physical and mental health.

Some ideas for taking care of yourself:

  • As you know, your favorite news source was wrong about the election. It’s OK to not listen to the news for a while if all the news is doing is paralyzing you.
  • Take a break from social media. It is full of clickbait stories that will needlessly upset you. Even if Facebook bans the ads for them, naive friends may be reposting “news stories” that are clickbait lies. At the very least, least don’t click on anything. Just connect to friends there.
  • Get outdoors. If you aren’t watching TV or using social media, you now have free time. Take a walk or if you are on wheels like me, take a joyride outdoors if you can.
  • Exercise.
  • Notice which friends calm you, and which ones upset you. Spend more time with the calmers, less with the upsetting people. Activism is one thing, anxiety is another. If you feel trapped with your anxiety, that’s not useful activism.
  • Meditate.
  • Go easy on caffeine. If you must drink coffee in the morning, stop drinking it by noon.
  • If you or anyone else are thinking of suicide, seek help immediately. You can do this by calling 911. “Thinking of suicide” includes joking about it, planning it, imagining it, and/or thinking about it a lot. It’s a serious matter.
  • Did you know that some strains of marijuana can exacerbate anxiety? Other strains may be helpful. If you have a prescription, check with your doc and see if the sort you are using is making your anxiety worse. This article has some information on anxiety and pot.
  • Pray. I find it helps to pray with a minyan. The repetitive good words of Jewish prayer remind me of the person I want to be, and connect me to the world beyond myself.
  • If your sleep or eating patterns are disrupted for more than a week, seek medical help and/or counseling. Short term anxiety over real fears can snowball into an anxiety disorder if it goes unchecked for too long. Take care of it.
  • There is still time to sign up for health insurance. Knowing that you are covered for the time being is one less thing to worry about.
  • Here’s what I do to get through difficult times: Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  • Take action. Many felt helpless right after the election, but really, we aren’t helpless. There are things we can do. Here are some ideas for taking action against hate in America.

You are a human being, priceless beyond all imagining. Jewish tradition teaches that you are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, meaning that there is a spark of the Divine within you. Take care of yourself, and you will be able to take care of others. That is how the world will become a better place.