Feeling Scared? Try This.

Image: “Be kind” written on a sidewalk in chalk. (reneebigelow / Pixabay)

Have you noticed how angry many people seem to be right now? Linda and I noticed it driving home from Oakland on a pleasant Sunday morning. People drove their cars as if the cars were weapons and it was war.

Whatever their politics, a lot of people feel the strain of uncertainty, and often they express their fear with anger. Politics is one big angry fight. Here in California we’re feeling climate change very strongly, and people are worried, some are downright frightened. Things we used to depend on seem undependable.

In such times, I keep myself calm with the first line of the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

Much as I’d like to, by myself I can’t fix the climate. I can’t fix Pacific Gas & Electric. I can’t fix Washington. It may be that by voting, in cooperation with others, I may be able to help with those things, but it isn’t Election Day yet. So I have to put those things, for now, on the “accept” list. I don’t like them, but that’s reality.

What do I have the power to change? I can choose to be one tranquil person, one kind person, out there on the road and in the world generally. I can choose that each person with whom I interact leaves our conversation at least no more upset than they were when we began.

  • I can say “no” kindly, when I have to say no.
  • I can say “yes” with grace, when I can say yes.
  • I can maintain a calm and kind presence.
  • I can be a careful driver, neither in a hurry nor too slow.
  • I can focus on the Jewish value of kindness, chesed, and try to bring it to every interaction.

More thoughts about kindness:

The world rests upon three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in From Optimism to Hope

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally.

– Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “Loving Kindness in the Torah

My own behavior is one thing I can control. Kindness is what each of us can bring to the world in times of trouble.

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Prayer for the Environment

Image: A field after haying, with cloudy skies above. (Pexels/Pixabay)

And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Genesis 1: 31

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who created our world and saw that it was tov me’od, very good.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who said, “Let there be light.” You separated the day from night.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who separated the heavens from the waters upon the earth: both of them blue and beautiful, clean and bright.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who separated the waters of the earth from the dry land, so that grasses, herbs, and fruit trees could grow on the land, and be watered by the rain.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who organized the heavens, who set the sun and moon in their appointed places, and set all in harmonious motion. You set in motion the cycle of years and months and days, the orderly seasons which allow all living things to thrive.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who filled the water with swarms of living creatures, and set flocks of birds flying in the air. You told them to be fruitful and multiply, and they have done so.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind.” The earth was filled with living things of all descriptions, which live according to the laws of nature. And again You declared that it was good.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who has put human beings in the midst of these wonders: the heavens and the earth, the sea and her treasures, the earth and its bounty. Give us wisdom to use your gifts with care, so that all may thrive. Give us intelligence to look for solutions when things fall out of balance. Guide us when we have been unwise; help us when we seek new answers. Give us the courage to admit when something has gone wrong, and to seek a remedy, rather than seek someone to blame.

For all the world is Yours, O God, all the world is of Your making. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who saw the world and said, “Behold, it is very good.”

Amen.

Yom Kippur and #MeToo Issues

Image: A tree-lined walkway in autumn, with light at the end. (Johannes Plenio /Pixabay)

I’ve written before about some of these issues, in Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors, but Yom Kippur is approaching and I gather from Twitter that I’m not the only survivor feeling twitchy as the Day of Atonement approaches.

Issue: Loss of Control: Over the years, I’ve realized that one aspect of Yom Kippur is that we give up a lot of our autonomy for a day. For many Jews, that’s a useful thing. We have a list of things to do which fill the 24 hours of the day, and we do them, and there isn’t room for anything else. If we are born Jewish, or have been Jewish for a number of years, there is also the communal expectation that we will do these things weighing upon us. It doesn’t feel like a choice – it’s just what we must do. For a person who has had trauma involving control over their body, some of usual Yom Kippur observances can be triggering.

Reply: If the loss of control is a spiritual barrier, then perhaps some alternative observance would be more effective. If sitting in shul becomes too much, it’s OK to quietly exit and take a walk, even just a walk down the hall. If fasting is likely to trigger problems, make alternative plans. Tell yourself ahead of time that you are free to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. You are free.

Issue: Guilt & Shame: For many of us, shame was a big part of the abuse experience, used like a weapon by an abuser. Remind yourself that shame is different than guilt: a guilty party has something for which to atone. The person who feels ashamed is turned inward on themselves in disgust or anger. The Day of Atonement is very much about guilt, and about the cure for guilt, which is teshuvah. Shame, however, doesn’t need teshuvah; the one who suffers from shame is a wounded soul in need of healing.

Reply: Healing from shame is not a one-day project, but it can be done. For Yom Kippur this year, try resolving to be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a five year old who felt horrible. Think about a trusted person to whom you could reach out, even a little bit, with the shame that has bound you. That person might be a therapist, a rabbi, or a good friend. Then in the days after this Yom Kippur, reach out and say, “There is this thing bothering me and I need help.”

Issue: Anger: One year I felt angry during Yom Kippur. We kept reading the Vidui prayers, listing sins, and it suddenly put me in touch with my anger at things that had been done to me. I was furious! I wanted an apology this minute! I could barely sit still. I fumed all the way through the prayers, and at the same time, I knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt angry and ashamed about that.

Reply: For some of us, there’s a point at which anger is progress. If you have had trouble feeling angry, then this response to Yom Kippur is really a gift. Follow up on that gift with a call to a therapist, if you have one, or get a therapist, if you don’t. This is an opportunity to get work done. On the other hand, if anger is where you are stuck lately, maybe lists of sins aren’t the healthiest reading right now. Take a walk, get out into nature, exercise, do something else to blow off the energy.

Are there emotions or experiences with Yom Kippur that I haven’t addressed here? Do you have ways you deal with these issues? I encourage you to share what you feel comfortable sharing in the Comments section.

Here is a psalm I keep in my machzor (HHD prayer book):

The Holy One is a haven for the oppressed, a haven in times of trouble.

Those who know Your name trust You, for You do not abandon those who turn to You, O God.

Sing a hymn to the Holy One, who reigns in Zion; declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

For God does not ignore the cry of the afflicted; God who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.

Have mercy on me, O Holy One; see my affliction at the hands of my foes, You who lift me from the gates of death,

so that in the gates of Fair Zion I might tell all Your praise, I might exult in Your deliverance.

Psalms 9: 10-15

What is a Vidui?

Image: A walkway across a dune, to the ocean. (Ulrike Mai / Pixabay)

One of the prayers we will say during the Yom Kippur ritual is called a vidui (vee-DOO-ee). Vidui means “confession,” and that is exactly what it is. It includes an acrostic list of sins.

However, the use of the vidui prayer is not limited to the Yom Kippur service. Such prayers can be very helpful in cheshbon nefesh, taking stock of our lives, as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The other principal time we say the vidui prayer is near the end of life. The sick person has the opportunity to consider their life in light of Torah values, taking responsibility for their life, for things done and undone, words spoken and unspoken. They may say the prayer alone, or with a rabbi or other support person.

The traditional vidui is a Hebrew prayer, and the English translations of it vary, depending on whether the translator is invested in maintaining the acrostic form. It is always a list of sins, which allows those saying the prayer to reflect on the ways and times they have slipped into those behaviors.

There are also a number of nontraditional vidui variations, such as:

What are Hagbah & Glilah?

Image: Hagbah at Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal. (Geneviev2/Wikipedia.)

Some things just go together: coffee and doughnuts, movies and popcorn, beer and pretzels. Hagbah and glilah are like that: you rarely see one without the other, since they are part of the ceremony of reading from the Torah scroll.

Hagbah [“lifting”] is the dramatic lifting of the Torah scroll after a Torah reading. It is done by the magbiah, who lifts the scroll in such a way that the part of it that was read is visible to the congregation. Hagbah takes both muscle and technique, since even a light Sefer Torah may weigh 20 pounds and is an extremely fragile object, sewn together with sinew from a kosher animal. (See How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle? for photos of Torah assembly.) A heavier Torah may weigh 50 pounds or more, and be just as fragile.

We lift the Torah so that everyone in the community can see that the reader was actually reading from the scroll, not from a book. It is also a reminder that at the first Torah reading mentioned in the Bible, everyone could see the scroll:

Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people.

– Nehemiah 8:5

The stakes are high: traditionally anyone who drops a Torah scroll and anyone who sees it drop must fast for 40 days. Also, a dropped scroll will have to be checked by a sofer [scribe] and repaired if damaged. If dropped during hagbah, while it is open, the parchment may tear, which requires a complete replacement of one or more panels of the scroll, a very expensive operation.

Who does hagbah? That will depend somewhat on the custom in the congregation. In most Reform and Conservative congregations, the magbiah must be an adult Jew who has been trained to do it safely. Training in hagbah, as with many things in congregational life, gets passed down the chain of tradition, person to person. If you are an adult Jew, and you are interested in learning, ask your rabbi or cantor to teach you or to point you to the person who can teach you.

Glilah [“rolling”] (pronounced GLEE-lah) seems somewhat less glamorous, since it is not a feat of strength, but it is no less important for the care of the Sefer Torah. After hagbah, the magbiah lowers the scroll carefully within reach of the goleil [person who does glilah] and helpers. They are usually sitting, and seize the top handles of the scroll as it is lowered towards their lap. Resting the bottom handles on their thighs, they roll the scroll snugly together, being careful not to pinch it or strain it. They tie the belt or wimple on the scroll, to hold it together, and then lower the Torah cover over it like a dress.

This is the procedure for Ashkenazi style Torahs, which have dress-like covers. A Sephardic style Torah is encased in a special box and remains in that box to be read. In most Sephardic services, hagbah comes before the Torah reading, not after. In its case, the Torah is heavy to lift, but easy to roll. (For an explanation of those terms, see What do Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi mean?)

Glilah may also be done by any adult Jew, according to the custom of the congregation. If you are invited to be a goleil (m) or golelet (f) and you have not done it before, just let the clergy or whoever is leading the service know that you will need a little help. While it is not as dramatic as hagbah, the potential for dropping or damaging the scroll is still quite real. I personally always ask for a hand when I’m the golelet – better safe than sorry!

Hagbah with a Sephardic style Torah.
Hagbah with a Sephardic-style Torah in its case, at Moshav Porat in Israel. (Public Domain)

A Prayer for the Body: Take Two

Image: A footprint in the sand on the beach. (pixabay)

I just took an unpleasant little trip down memory lane, but with good news at the end of it. I’ve been dealing all summer with a minor foot problem, and avoiding the podiatrist. I knew I was avoiding him, rather as one might avoid the dentist. Today I finally got to the office, and as soon as I saw the big chair featured in podiatrists’ offices, all the memories came flooding back.

In March and June of 1985 I had surgery for bunions. The podiatrist-surgeon had an excellent reputation and the bunions had become a real barrier to a goal of mine: I wanted to run a marathon, but I couldn’t push off with the front part of either foot. So I went to this nice doc who said he could fix it, and I fell down a rabbit hole that would completely change my life.

I’ll spare you the details; the gist is that my mangled left foot is one of the reasons the rest of my body has troubles. I have stayed away from podiatrists’ chairs ever since my recovery from the final salvage surgery in 1988. I sat in that chair today, and I held Linda’s hand to keep memory at bay.

But here’s the lovely thing: today’s meeting with the doc was no big deal. My left foot, the mangled foot, had coped nicely with the splinter that had driven deep into it. My immune system swatted away any infection. The life force within me packaged up a long splinter that had gotten in there and had done such a good job sliding it back out that all the doc had to do was take a forceps and pull. My body works.

Back in rabbinical school, there was a prayer that used to make me angry and/or sad to say it as part of the daily prayers. It went:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

“Asher Yatzar,” Shacharit

It was the “stand before You” that annoyed me – my body was steadily losing its ability to stand without pain in those years, until I finally rewrote the prayer:

Thank God it all works! — No. —

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery: Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully that we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Asher Yatzar, Ruth Adar, 2004

And I say that revised prayer today in gratitude, because the foot still has its problems, but the beautiful systems within me continued to function on other levels. And that was enough, praise God.

I know – so much fuss over a splinter! Ridiculous. But such is the power of bad memories. If there is some health matter you’ve been putting off out of dread I hope you will attend to it as soon as you can.

Heal Us and We Shall Be Healed

Image: Healing hands. (Image by chiisaihana20200 /Pixabay)

I’ve introduced several prayers from the Amidah, from one of the core prayers in the daily service. Here is one that I find particularly helpful for stressful times, and for maintaining my balance in unbalanced times:

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,

(Prayer to add for a sick individual: May it be Your will in front of You, O Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You quickly send a complete recovery from the Heavens – a recovery of the soul and a recovery of the body – to the the sick person, insert name, the son/daughter of insert mother’s name, among the other sick ones of Israel) for You are God and King, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who heals the sick of his people Israel.

Siddur Ashkenaz

Am I asking God to magically fix things? No, I’m asking for the strength to do what I need to do, and for God’s mercy on all those who are suffering (who may include myself.) It’s another great prayer from our siddur.

Then it’s up to me to do what I can for myself, for my community, for my sick friend. We are the hands of God in the world.