Notes from mid-Elul

Image: The rabbi, hugging three poodles. (Linda Burnett)

This has been a week of odds and ends, but not a week for writing. Time to shake summer off and get into a more productive rhythm.

Elul is flying, Selichot is Saturday night. This year I seem to be doing my soul searching on a more visceral level: physical clues and dreams, things bubbling up through my body and brain. The exterior world is a mess and my innards seem to be housecleaning.

What to do? Keep working the process. Don’t let myself be too distracted by the things I cannot control. Elul and the High Holy Days are focused on that short list of things I do control, namely, my behavior.

How is Elul going for you?

#BlogElul — Prepare!

Image: My colleague @imabima has posted a list of topics for Elul on her blog every year since 2012. The image above is this year’s list, days 1-29.

The lovely thing about @imabima’s list of topics is that for the whole month of Elul I don’t have to think of topics. They sit right there in front of me in a tidy list, already set. Today is Day 3 (yes, I missed 1 and 2. I may come back to them later.)

The word PREPARE always brings one verse of the Bible to my mind:

  קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ

A voice calls – in the wilderness, clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God. – Isaiah 40: 3, translation mine.

This verse is echoed in the Christian New Testament:

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ· Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,

He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! – Mark 1:3 (ISV translation) 

In both cases, a prophet is speaking to the people: Isaiah in his eponymous book, and in the opening of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist speaks to his followers, quoting Isaiah.

For the devout, the context is already there. Isaiah 40 is known to devout Jews by its first line “Comfort, comfort my people” – it is the haftarah for the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. He was speaking to Israel after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem, comforting them and saying, “Get on with it! Get moving! Buck up! Good things are ahead!”

Devout Christians today understand John to be saying, “Get ready! Jesus is coming!” What many Jews of his time likely heard was, “Remember what Isaiah said! Look forward, good things are ahead!”

Lately I’ve learned about “preppers” – people who focus on preparedness, usually with a bad scenario in mind.  They are preparing for massive accidents, terrorist events and natural disasters. They lay in supplies of nonperishable food and other necessities. Some of them get involved in amateur radio (for when the phone system crashes) or stockpile weaponry (for when the revolution comes.)

Preppers are  getting ready for bad things to happen. I confess have always been a bit of a worrier myself, and I try to be prepared for the things that worry me. I have a supply of water laid in, and a case of peanut butter, and dog food, because I worry about the earthquake fault in my backyard.

The thing is, neither Isaiah nor John were advocating “prepping.” They weren’t saying, “Look ahead, and be afraid!” They were saying, “Something good is coming, you better be ready!”

Today there are upsetting things all over the news. And yes, that Hayward Fault is percolating away beneath my feet. All that is true.

And yet the prophet calls to me,

“Clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God!”

Perhaps, instead of preparing for the worst, my energy is best spent striving towards something better.

 

 

Have I Blown it Already? Not the Shofar, but the High Holy Days?

Image: A Jew with dark hands, wearing a tallit, blows the shofar (ram’s horn.) (Photo: David Cohen/Shutterstock)

We arrive at the end of Elul, the Days of Awe are upon us, and we aren’t done. There are apologies that were too hard to make, words that were too hard to say, things too hard to figure out in one short month. Or maybe we procrastinated.

Teshuvah is usually translated “repentance” but it would be just as accurate to translate it as “return” or even “turn.” We strive to return to the path, but as with a disoriented hiker lost in the woods, sometimes the path is hard to locate, hard to walk, just beyond us for now.

But the Days of Awe are upon us, and with them the magnificent liturgy of the High Holy Day services. We will do our best to open our hearts, and see where the services take us. Don’t worry about keeping up; let your mind and spirit be guided by the words on the page, by the music, by the sermon. Float.

In 1978, Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. She kept trying. She was finally successful this past week. Over thirty years of training and repeated attempts finally ended in success at age 64. She kept returning to the task, and the number of turns it took ultimately added to her accomplishment.

We balance between taking the time for multiple tries, and the knowledge that our lives are limited. Do not despair if the task is hard. Do not fail to return to it.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. – Pirkei Avot 2:20

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“You Intended to harm me.”

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...
Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.

#BlogElul – Beginnings are Awkward

hebrew letter bet
Hebrew Letter Bet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house.  All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.

Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.

There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.

Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

 

The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!

Welcome
Photo credit: alborzshawn

There’s a lot of kerfluffle in the Jewish press lately over the perceived shortcomings of the synagogue. “Services are boring!” wails one writer. “Millennials can’t relate!” writes another. “How do we attract the young people?” “We’re putting too much emphasis on youth!” “Remake the bar mitzvah!” “Get rid of the bar mitzvah!” and of course, “Did you see that video on YouTube?”

Feh!

I am not a congregational rabbi. I am a member of a congregation, and I believe that congregational membership is one of the greatest deals on the planet. I learned that not from a rabbi, but from other congregants. I love the feeling of extended family. I love knowing that if my life suddenly goes up in smoke, the Caring Community will be on the job. I love going to shul and seeing my friends. But what got me there was not an official program. What got me there was other people performing a mitzvah: hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

The Snyder-Kepler family invited me to dinner. Then they invited me to holidays at their home. I met other people there, who invited me to their homes. We ate together. We did dishes together. We hung out together. Friendships were born. Kids grew up.

I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  First, it needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. Secondly, it needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham: we are going to welcome friends and strangers (soon to be new friends) for Shabbat dinners, for lazy Shabbat afternoons, for holidays, and for study. And the house is going to be set up so that people’s children will be welcome, too.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach them: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Because committing to serious hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.

Because I know that it works. It worked on me.

Now: to any other Jews that are reading this: I dare YOU. When was the last time you invited another Jew over? I’m not talking to the congregational rabbis, I’m talking to the folks like me, Jews-in-the-pew.  You don’t have to commit to it as a way of life – not now – just commit to doing it once. Then again. Invite someone over for dinner and Scrabble. Or lunch and the ballgame on TV. Or gardening. Or making brownies. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them over. What matters is that you practice the mitzvah of hospitality. If you have a home, however humble, it’s fine.

I believe that this can transform our congregations, if enough of us do it. Because we will then not be a group of people consuming services, we will be a real community, people who have eaten together and washed dishes together, who have maybe even seen each other at not-at-our-best times. We will have compassion for one another. We will have bright ideas. We will show up.

I dare you.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

The Mark of Remembrance

 

 

English: Philtrum highlighted by light
Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmud records a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.

Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know.  As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember. 

I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.