A Blessing for Voting

Image: Photo of an “I Voted” sticker with an American flag. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who knows the hearts of human beings.

Let me bring my best self to the marking of this ballot. Let me think clearly and fairly to elect people of judgment and good character. If this ballot also contains other matters, let me bring deliberation and good judgment to my choices.

Let no pettiness or selfishness inform me, but rather my best hopes for the greater good. May I not be influenced by fearmongerers or the words of fools.  Keep greed, fear, and smallness of spirit far from me.

May I vote like the tzaddik, the righteous person who  pursues justice and prizes peace.

May my vote join with other votes, counted fairly and in full, to bring about a just and peaceful society in which each may dwell “under the vine and under the fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4;4)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who has given the citizens of this land the awesome power of self-government.

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Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: A ship on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas for keeping your own ship on course:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.

The Cradle of American Judaism

Image: Touro Synagogue, taken from the visitor center. (Photo: R. Ruth Adar)

I spent today visiting a holy place, Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. It is the cradle of American Jewish history.

The Newport community of Jews was not the first congregation in what would come to be the United States. That honor goes to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, established in 1654 by Sephardic Jews fleeing the arrival of the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil. In the mid 1600’s, another group of Jews, this time from Barbados, arrived in Newport, drawn by business opportunity and perhaps by the Rhode Island Royal Charter, which promised that no resident could be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.”

At first they gathered in each others’ homes for worship. They called their congregation Nephuse Israel meaning Scattered of Israel.

The Jews thrived in Newport. They were successful in business and respected by their neighbors. Their first purchase as a community was land for a cemetery, high on a hill above the town. The original Jews of Newport still rest there.

In 1758 they felt secure enough in Newport that they changed the name of the community to Jeshuat Israel, meaning Salvation of Israel, and they broke ground for a synagogue building in a prominent spot above the long wharf where their ships landed. Everything about the new building was unapologetic and elegant, Jewish and American.

Why do I call this synagogue the cradle of American Judaism? I call it that because these Jews had a unique role in making the United States different from any other place that we had lived up to that point. These Rhode Island Jews were party to the state’s insistence on holding out on the U.S. Constitution until freedom of religion was insured via the Bill of Rights. Their leader, Moses Seixas, took the occasion of a visit from President Washington to present a letter congratulating him, and reminding him subtly of the importance of religious freedom; Washington answered with his Letter to Touro Synagogue in which he expressed his agreement. Soon after, in the Bill of Rights, the separation of church and state would be established forever as the law of the land.

At a time when the Jews of Europe still lacked the most basic status of citizenship, and the Jews of Arab lands were officially second-class citizens, the Jews of the United States had a home and citizenship. They were wanderers no more.

In this imperfect but promising land, new kinds of Judaism would take root and grow.

This is why Touro Synagogue is for me a holy place.

(I will write more about the building in a future post.)

 

 

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.

I Cringe When I Read Leviticus 25

Image: An old wooden fence post, criss-crossed with barbed wire. (LeoNeoBoy/Pixabay.)

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. – Leviticus 25:44

We are reading Parashat Behar-Bechukotai this week, in which these words appear.

There are verses in the Torah that are downright painful to read, and Chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its rules for Jews keeping slaves, is one of them for me. These verses have been used to justify the practice of slavery in many different times and places in history. These verses justified the keeping of slaves by Jews, and they were cited to justify the keeping of slaves in my birth state of Tennessee.

Over time we have learned better. Jews no longer keep slaves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a summary of the history of those changes in The Slow End of Slavery, a d’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim.  So what can we get out of reading these verses again and again, year after year?

First, while the practice of slavery is in our past, it is part of our history. As recently as the American Civil War, there were Jews as well as Christians who used the Torah to justify their ownership of other human beings. The memory of that should keep us humble. We should never forget that there may well be things we do lightly today that future generations will judge harshly.

These verses remind us that there are times and places in which we still, today, profit from immoral advantages over other human beings. For instance, “redlining”  was banned 50 years ago, but the evil it did still impacts black families today.

Look at our synagogue communities: we make it difficult for Jews with brown or black skins to feel at home in our synagogues. We are quick to assume that they must be hired help or dangerous strangers. We leave them standing alone at the oneg. Even if we don’t say or do something overtly cruel, we fail to greet them with the same enthusiasm we might extend to a member who “looks Jewish” to us. If you don’t believe me, do a little reading. One good beginning is Kippahed While Black: The Troubling Resurgence of “Schvartze” and “Kushi” a short opinion piece in the Forward by Michael Twitty.

We American Jews have a favorite photo that we like to trot out whenever the subject of civil rights or race comes up:

KingHeschel-photo

In the photo, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches at Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in March 1965.* But we speak too often of this photo as if the work is done: “See! There’s a rabbi there! One of ours!” We speak of it as somehow each of us should get credit for Rabbi Heschel’s walk.

The trouble with this is that each Jew is responsible for their own self. ALL of us are commanded – individually! – to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice. We can’t slide by on the righteousness of a single rabbi who took courageous action 53 years ago. We cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed, while African Americans are executed for holding cell phones on their own family’s property.

Each of us – me included! – needs to ask “What am I doing about racial injustice today?” We need to ask it not in the past tense, and certainly not by proxy. We need to be open to improving our behavior. We need to drop the defensiveness that keeps us from learning when we’ve messed up. We need to not be so fragile when someone points out that what we’ve said or done was, yes, racist.

We can do this. I have great faith in our ability to learn and to make change. We can do it in the voting booth. We can do it by speaking up at racist “jokes.” We can do it by biting our tongues at phrases like “Not all white people…” We can do it by inviting speakers and leaders of color to our congregation to speak. We can do it by including in our tzedakah budgets organizations that serve people of color. We can do it by doing the good work and then not insisting on credit.

Every year when Leviticus 25 comes around, I cringe. I don’t like being reminded of past wrongs – no one likes it. But if I use that discomfort to open my heart, to open my ears, then it will all be worth it.  Shabbat shalom!

*For more about that iconic photo, read Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement, an article published in Moment Magazine in April, 2015.

 

The Tannaim, Models for Action

Image: The kever (grave) of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. (PikiWikiIsrael)

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing blog posts lately. Part of it is that I’ve been living on the mitzvah plan, getting through one day at a time doing mitzvot. Individually, I’ve had health challenges and work challenges. And as with many of you, the stresses that come with membership in my various communities have taken a toll.

I am worried by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes. I am worried by the loss of civility that I see all around me. I am worried by the “all or nothing” attitude I hear from most of the voices I hear, the absolute unwillingness to compromise. I worry about Israel. I worry about the United States. I worry that we are entering a period of history when democracy is drowned out by fascism and corruption.

The ancient rabbis we know as Tannaim (rabbis from 10-200 CE) lived in very troubled times. They lived in the Roman province known first as Judea and later as Palestina, through two disastrous attempts to throw off Roman rule. Many of them were hunted men, and we remember ten of them every year on Yom Kippur in the prayer known as Eleh Ezkerah, “These I remember.”

Lately I feel close to those rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and the others. They lived at a time when history swirled around them. They did work that has lasted for centuries: they midwifed Rabbinic Judaism into being. They assembled the Mishnah.  They made some terrible mistakes, too: Rabbi Akiva encouraged Shimon ben Kosevah to lead a revolt against Rome, renaming him “Shimon bar Kokhba,” Simon, son of the Star. The revolt ended in 135 CE with the Land in ruins and the Jews in exile.

Living in the middle of tumultuous times, they did not allow those times to paralyze them. Instead, they took action: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai seized an opportunity to negotiate a place for a rabbinic school as Jerusalem was burning. Rabbi Akiva gave Shimon ben Kosevah his support, because he thought Shimon could lead a successful revolt. Rabban Gamaliel traveled to Rome to plead for his people with the Emperor Domition in 95 CE. Judah haNasi recognized a moment at which precious Torah knowledge might be lost forever, and broke with tradition to write down the first part of the Oral Torah, the Mishnah.

I look at what those rabbis did, under conditions of great stress and danger, and I am challenged to step up in my own time. I write postcards to my elected officials. I joined a study group on prison reform in California. I have committed to start a book group to study racism. I have amended my own coursework to better address the divisions in the Jewish world, and prepare my students to do better in their own generation. I try to keep my mind and calendar open for opportunities to do good, whether it is a little mitzvah no one will ever see or a public action, like showing up for a demonstration.

Tough times call for action. I know that you have your own worry lists. I am aware that your lives are full of challenges. Still, I implore you not to be paralyzed by the times. Find ways to make this world better, not worse. That action will take different forms for different people; we all have different strengths and abilities. But now, more than ever, it is important that we recall that we are God’s hands in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon (another tanna) taught us:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

If you are willing to share, I would love to hear what actions you are taking right now to make your part of the world better. It does not have to be earth-shaking; better that it is something small that can inspire me and others to continue to do our best, too.

I hope you will share your stories in the comments!

Reasons for Hope, April 2018

Image: A violet blooms in the cracks of a parched landscape. (manfredrichter/pixabay)

I’m always looking for signs of hope.

  1. Today I went to get my blood drawn, a weekly routine. My phlebotomist today was a trainee instead of the usual person. My veins are not the easiest to find, and the stick took longer and was more uncomfortable than usual. On the plus side, she’s now logged a bit more practice on an arm like mine and she’ll improve. I could tell she was trying not to hurt me. She could tell that I was doing my best to be pleasant. We had sympathy for one another in the moment.1.
  2. I am encouraged that the heads of state of North and South Korea met and were civil to one another. I don’t know how significant that was but I choose to see it as progress.
  3. I talk with a broad range of people on Twitter. I know Twitter can be a sewer, but it has allowed me to exchange ideas with people I’d never have met otherwise. I am encouraged that we can talk about difficult things and still see the humanity in each other.

All three events have a common denominator. Each involves a one-on-one personal connection which bridges a challenge.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught that when we choose to see the other person in front of us, to really be present to them, and they do the same with us, it is a special kind of event. He called it the I/Thou encounter, and he wrote that the Holy One dwells in the connection between those two people.  We can’t always have such encounters, but when we do, we bring holiness into the world.

Normally, my connection with phlebotomists is more of an I/It transaction. They are there to do a job; I’m a patient. But today, the difficulties posed by her inexperience and my hard-to-find veins presented us with a couple of choices: we could be thoroughly frustrated by each other OR we could choose to see each other in our humanity. The latter course left us both happier, I have no doubt.

I have no inside knowledge about the meeting between dictator Kim Jong-Un of North Korea and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea. However, I was impressed that they met one-on-one, they shook hands, they spoke at some length privately, and they published a list of shared goals. In addition to saying they were going to work on de-nuclearization of the peninsula, they published a declaration:

In the declaration, both sides also declared a stop to all hostile activities against each other. They also agreed to link cross-border railways and roads, and pledged to turn the demilitarized zone into a “genuine peace zone”. – CBS Miami, 4/27/18

I know there is skepticism on the part of South Korea, with fears that they are being deceived by the North Koreans. I imagine there are similar fears on the other side. But the two leaders met. They looked in each other’s eyes. They were present to one another. This was the first such meeting in 65 years. Surely that is a reason for hope.

In the final example, I’m sure Martin Buber could not have imagined Twitter in his wildest dreams, nor would he have wanted to. There is no handshake there, no meeting of eyes. However, Twitter provides a venue in which I can have a discussion with a Pakistani-American grad student who is studying Hebrew because he cares about Jewish-Muslim relations. Do we agree on everything? Not by a long shot. But we can listen to one another, we can acknowledge one another, we can find points of mutual interest even when we don’t agree.  I know what steals his sleep at night. He knows that I lose sleep, too.

The same goes for a few others, mostly activists I’ve met on Twitter.  I’ve learned more about race in America by listening quietly to those voices on Twitter, and following their reading suggestions, than I ever learned in my formal education. I had to learn to squelch my defensiveness and my urge to say, “But not all white people…” I had to learn to listen without arguing, to truly listen. Trust builds that way. Conversations have room to develop. Holiness enters the world.

Sometimes, in our anxiety, we demand too much too quickly. We want the pain to be over. We try to skip over the hard work of listening, of being truly present to one another, because the needle hurts, because nuclear warfare is terrifying even to contemplate, because it is painful to engage with ancient injustices.

The problem with magic wands is that they wield one-sided power. If I could wave a magic wand and make the phlebotomist suddenly really good at her job, I would rob her of the process of learning. Worse, I would rob both of us of the opportunity to find God between us at a painful moment! Holiness would not enter the world, because instead we would have a tidy little I/It transaction.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal Korea, it would be fixed as I think it should be fixed, and not take into account what the Koreans themselves want. Any peace that fails to take their needs and dreams into consideration is doomed to fail.  Only by doing the hard work of listening and talking – in that order! – is there any hope for true healing of that terrible wound.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal race in America, it would not bring peace. That’s because what we require for true healing of this dreadful illness is mutual respect. Because of that pesky “mutual” element, that peace will only come in the holy space between people who choose to see each other in an I/Thou way, recognizing each other’s humanity, respecting even each other’s fallibility.

If I could wave a magic wand and “fix” the Middle East, it would look like what I want it to look for about 10 minutes – and then it would all blow up again. The repeated failures in the Middle East are the children of a series of “fixes” that go back to the Roman Empire, if not before. Neither the Romans, nor the Ottomans, nor the British under the Mandate, nor the United Nations have really listened to all parties in their attempts to “fix” the region. Even had they listened, their listening would not have been a substitute for the actual Palestinian and Jewish stakeholders being able to encounter one another in an I/Thou mode. At this late date, I have no solutions to offer about the Middle East, but that is as it should be. I am not one of the primary stakeholders: I don’t live there.

This is my hope for the world: that with all the means of communication available to us, we will be able to have more conversations across our divides. Is it a faint hope? You bet. There are forces that profit from discord, and they will stir the pot and make life difficult. What I can do, what we all can do, is seize the opportunity to be present and human to one another when those moments offer themselves to us. All we can do is bring holiness into the world at every opportunity.

When I see that happening, I have hope.