The Art of Staying Present

Image: The flowers in my front yard. Despite the inconveniences of plans made and thwarted, there is still beauty in the world if we choose to notice. Photo: Ruth Adar.

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט.

Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.

Man plans and God laughs.

This Yiddish saying speaks to all the times we make plans, only to have them collapse in the face of events. I’m meditating on it now as I deal with a new round of body aggravation.

Things had been going so well. After a rough year of pain problems, a new therapy seemed really promising. I got a bit more ambitious about projects. I began getting more exercise.

This past Monday night I noticed I was particularly exhausted in the evening, with a lot of unsteadiness. I didn’t sleep well, and by morning it was clear that a bunch of familiar bio-mechanical problems and pain problems were back with a vengeance. What a drag.

It is so tempting to get caught up in fake moral thinking about these things: What did I “do wrong?” Friends, expressing their concern, say things like, “What did you do?”

What I have learned is that sometimes there is no “what” that I “did.” I can frustrate myself by looking for causality or I can turn my attention to living in the present, paying attention to things as they are. Exercising mindfully and eating mindfully are more challenging when the experience of being in this body is painful or unpleasant. It is an important challenge both for healing and for spiritual well-being.

Judaism pushes us to pay attention to the present moment. Blessings make us stop before we eat to appreciate the food in our hands. Other blessings demand we pay attention to our bodies, to the sun in the sky, to the fragrance of a flower. The day begins not at an abstract time but when the sun rises, and it ends when the sun sets.

Does God really laugh? The Yiddish proverb used to sound cruel to me: “I make plans, and God says, ‘Gotcha!'”

Now I read it a bit differently. I get a little too involved with the future (plans) and God reminds me to stay in the present. It isn’t a cruel laugh; it’s more of a gentle chuckle. I am still learning, still growing, not dead yet!

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I Voted! – Did You, Fellow Californians?

Image: My vote-by-mail ballot, which I will hand in tomorrow. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

I just filled out my vote-by-mail ballot for the June 5 Primary Election in California. Tomorrow I’ll take it by one of the collection points and drop it off.

I like voting by mail. I can think things through and give each choice the attention it deserves. I like reading the instructions, considering the choices, and making the marks that are my participation in the democratic process.

My grandmother felt strongly about voting. She was in that first cohort of American women who were eligible to vote after ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug 18, 1920. She used words like “sacred” to describe the right and the duty of each person to vote. She told me that she’d come back and haunt me if I didn’t vote in every election I could: “If you can, you must!” she said, poking my arm for emphasis.

So here you go, Meme: I voted again. Thank you for teaching me that it is important.

I regard voting as a sacred duty. There is no commandment that says specifically “Thou Shalt Vote” but almost every item on the ballot has sacred implications. When I vote for a legislator, I am choosing someone to be my voice in Washington or Sacramento, or on a more local body. They will make many decisions with ethical implications – I need to choose someone who will make ethical choices. When I vote for a judge or an executive, I am voting for someone who will have tremendous power to do good or to do evil. To make it even more complicated, I have to think, too, about the chances each candidate has: under what conditions should I vote for the good-enough person who can get elected, instead of the perfect candidate who can’t?

I understand why some people are so sunken in despair that they think their vote doesn’t matter. I have less sympathy for those who choose not to vote because they are cynical: I want to say, “You think you are so smart, why are you throwing away your power?”

I’m not going to tell you for whom I voted. (That was my grandmother’s advice, too.) But I will ask you: Did you vote? Will you vote when you next have a chance?

 

In Gratitude: An anniversary

Image: Textile art with Genesis 21:1 and a vision of Jerusalem with lions of David, the skyline of the Old City, and stone tablets flanked by doves. Art by Barbara Binder Kadden, photo by Ruth Adar. All rights reserved.

I was ordained a rabbi ten years ago today in the City of Angels.

The photo is of a beautiful hanging that Barbara Binder Kadden made for me when I set off for school in 2002. Barbara asked me for a verse from Torah that was particularly meaningful to me. I cited Genesis 12:1: “Go to yourself, from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you.” Those were God’s words to Abram, after which Abram set off to become the patriarch Abraham.

Thirty two years ago I set out from Tennessee without a clue, much as Abram set out from Haran in Genesis 12. Like Abram, I became a Jew, I acquired a name, and I had many adventures that for good and ill made me into the work-in-progress I am today.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my teachers and colleagues. Rabbi Rachel Adler mentored and mothered me through my years in Los Angeles. R. Tamara Eskenazi opened the doors of Torah for me. R. Dvora Weisberg and R. Joel Gereboff unlocked the gates of Talmud. R. Lew Barth taught me how to dig treasure from the fertile ground of midrash. Jehon Grist shared with me his infectious joy in the Hebrew language, without which I would never have had the joy of studying at HUC.  Yossi Lechem enchanted me with the algebra of Hebrew grammar (you had to be there.) Steven Windmueller and Bruce Phillips equipped me to deal with the changing Jewish American scene, and R. Michael Berk taught me about Northern California Jews.

Barbara Kadden taught me the best of what I know about educating adults. Linda Feldman taught me how to walk softly and avoid tender toes. Rene Molho z”l taught me about the Shoah, and gave me perspective on Jewish community that I try to pass along.  R. Sandy Akselrad hired me, God bless him, and taught me how not to fall on my face in the real world. Yuval Selah tutored me in Hebrew for four years with infinite patience and love.

I am grateful for my study partners, R. David Novak, R. Deborah Goldmann, and R. Robin Podolsky. I’d have learned nothing without them. I am grateful to R. Sabine Meyer, with whom I continue to explore the wonders of teaching “Intro” and the Torah of canine companions. And where would I be without Fred Isaac, my first Jewish study partner, and Maryann Simpson, my partner in studying class dynamics?

I am grateful for the students who inspire me to learn more and and be a better servant of the Jewish people, including you, dear readers.

Finally there are the people without whom I have trouble imagining the world. Rabbi Steven Chester has been my rabbi, my mentor and my friend since I first knocked on his office door in the early 1990’s. My sons, Aaron and Jim Scott, inspire me to choose life over and over again; I am so much more alive because of them.

And then there’s the love of my life, Linda Burnett. (Thank you for baseball and everything else, my dear. You are right, these are the good old days.)

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Rabbi Steve Chester, giving me his charge on May 18, 2008 in Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

 

 

Prayer for Baseball Trades

Image: PacBell Park, San Francisco, summertime. (350543/Pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-That-Is! In Your wisdom You commanded the orderly progression of night into day, and set the planets in motion with a word. Grant seychel to the baseball team managers as they set our players in motion from team to team, from franchise to franchise. May they achieve the perfect harmony they seek. Amen.

Give comfort to the players in motion and their families. May their new home be a good home, and may they be greeted with enthusiasm wherever they go. Amen.

Console the fans, O God of Compassion, as they mourn the departure of favorite players. Give them open hearts to receive the new faces, the bats and gloves of new players. Give them patience for a period of adjustment. Amen.

May the bats be mighty and the pitchers wily. May the green diamonds overflow with the joy of the game, and may all players and fans alike end each game with gratitude for what went well, and energetic discussion of what lacked.

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.

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

* A rabbinical note: The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although certain skeptical Wissenschaft types insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

Pearl Harbor Day

Image: The USS Arizona burning and sinking in Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. Public Domain.

Pearl Harbor Day was the 9/11 of my parents’ generation. My parents were children that day, so for the first part of my life, that was my view of it: something terrible that happened to grownups far away.

Then I married into a Navy family, and the meaning of Pearl Harbor Day changed. Linda knew people who had been there. One of her uncles died at Midway, later in the year. Her father spent that war on a battleship, a career sailor. All the memories and associations came tumbling out when we visited the USS Alabama Memorial in Honolulu. Pearl Harbor Day became much more immediate to me through her. We never visit Oahu without making the pilgrimage to the Arizona to pay our respects.

I learned, at the memorial, how the skipper of the USS Nevada deliberately ran his burning battleship aground so that it would not sink in the entrance to the harbor as the Japanese had planned. Even though there were failures at the top that left us open to attack, the men and women on the ground met the challenge with heroism as the bombs fell and history took a sharp turn.

We are at a different moment in history now, and sometimes I feel like I’m on a sinking ship. You know the list of things I’m talking about: all the uncertainties we face.

But on Pearl Harbor Day, I am hopeful. There have been other times in our past when U.S. leadership was lacking. What happened then, and what I trust will happen now, is that the basic courage of the average American will rise to the occasion. It may be messy, it may take a while, but good can prevail.

We Americans do terrible things when we are afraid. After Pearl Harbor, we interned innocent Americans who had Asian faces. After 9/11, we have been horrible to anyone who speaks Arabic or looks like they might be Muslim. There’s no denying that we have sometimes let our fears carry us into evil, worrying more about what-might-happen than about the truth of a situation.

However, I see signs of hope. This week a policeman who murdered Walter Scott in South Carolina got a sentence of 20 years. That is not just a victory for Black Lives Matter, it is a victory for all of us. Bad cops are bad for everyone. I see acts of kindness and goodwill all around me: donations to food banks and to blood banks, people reaching out to those suffering from natural disasters. I read about people caring for lost animals, and trying to solve the riddles of homelessness.

This Pearl Harbor Day, my focus is on the good in the United States of America. We are capable of great things. We are capable of change. We have seen dark days before, and we have risen above them.

This gives me hope.

 

 

A Jewish Halloween?

Image: Two jack o’lanterns grinning in the dark. (fotomek/pixabay)

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. However, the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

But come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

RavAdar
Who IS this guy?

Survival in A Tough Time

Image: Sonoma, CA, in better times. (jessebridgewater/pixabay)

Hurricanes. Wildfires.

A little over a week ago we said the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who by water and who by fire,” expressing the fact that we simply do not know what the future will bring each person. And since then, we have seen so many bad things: the aftermath of hurricane and floods in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and the fires in the West, especially in Northern California this week.

The news from Washington is deeply upsetting to many of us. Who would have thought we’d see a President of the United States have a name-calling match on Twitter with one of the leaders of his own party? Who would have thought we’d see a name-calling game of nuclear chicken play out on Twitter between heads of state?

I have not posted for a week. Some of that was a bad back, but most of it was depression. As I’ve said before, I’m prone to it. It simply had to be lived through.

I did all I know to do, which was to pay attention, do mitzvot whenever I could, and try not to beat myself up. The fog has lifted a bit, and I know something: I must balance my attention. I must pay enough attention to what’s bad in the world to actively do battle with it. I must pay enough attention to the goodness in the world, especially to the goodness in other people, to maintain my soul.

One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot, 4.2.

I watched on social media as neighbors leaped to each other’s aid here in California. A woman I know who is unemployed put the call out on Facebook that she was looking for a way to help. People in the Jewish community opened their guest rooms and couches. Friends opened Go-Fund-Me pages for households who lost everything. A friend of mine found transport out of harm’s way for a bunch of horses.

Firefighters and first responders risked their lives to get people to safety. Reporters, too, risked life and limb to keep us informed, those of us who were desperate for news. I am a long way from the wine country, but I will never forget the Oakland Hills Firestorm; I woke up dreaming about it before I knew about the new fires up north.

It has comforted me to see people responding to other people. It strengthened me when I contacted one woman about fire aid. I mentioned that I couldn’t drive due to my back, but I’d buy gas for someone else, whereupon she immediately asked if I needed help or shopping. Her offer warmed me like chicken soup.

Never forget, in these awful times, that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is human kindness. In Hebrew, it’s the virtue of Chesed (KHEH – sed.) Our small acts of kindness – not “thoughts and prayers” but actual kindness, listening quietly, respecting difference, offering food, offering shelter, offering what we can – those things serve to strengthen the person on the receiving end and the giver as well. If someone gives me some – wonderful! If not, I can still give it to others and receive the benefit: a miracle!

We have many of us grown cranky since last November: it is HARD making phone call after phone call, writing little postcards, while worrying that North Korea might actually know how to get a bomb to our neighborhood. It is exhausting watching a bully in the Oval Office, watching him abuse his staff, insult veterans, and encourage white supremacists. So we get irritable. We feel tired. Some of us get depressed.

This week I re-learned the advice of Mr. Rogers’ mother:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. – Fred Rogers

So, look for the caring people. BE one of the caring people – not caring about Humanity at Large but caring about the human being right in front of you, the one who is tired or thirsty or who needs a friend.  As the liturgy and Masechet Peah of the Jerusalem Talmud tell us:

These are things that a person eats from their fruits in this world, and the foundation exists for the next world, honoring one’s father and mother and doing good deeds and bringing peace between one person and his friends. And Torah study is greater than all of them. – Peah, 1a, Jerushalmi