The Earth Is Alive

Image: A photo of “creep” on the Hayward Fault. Nothing hit that curb – the earth moved at different rates, and the curb burst. (Leonard G/Wikimedia)

I went to a meeting about earthquake preparedness last night. I live in a little city south of Oakland, CA, atop something called the Hayward Fault. Sometime in the next thirty years, we are likely to see a big quake here, and I like to stay current in my knowledge about the fault, and get a sense of what I need to do to be ready for trouble.

Big earthquakes are no-kidding scary.  Little ones are disorienting, because we don’t expect the ground to move. When I felt my first California earthquake, I wasn’t sure I had felt anything, until someone said, “That was an earthquake” and turned on the radio to find out about it. The biggest quake I felt before 1989 was a 5.3, and I thought a truck had run into the house. In the Loma Prieta Quake of 1989, I saw my china cabinet walk across the dining room floor as I ran to grab my youngest.

Earthquakes here are communal moments. We turn on the local news station to find out about it, or we go to Twitter. “Did you feel it?” “My dog alerted me just before it hit!” “My dishes rattled.” “Where was the epicenter?” “What was the magnitude?” Most locals agree that anything below a 5 is a minor thing. Anything much above a 5, though, is something else altogether.

Earthquakes happen because the earth’s crust is in motion, giant “plates” sliding over the surface of the planet. Earthquake zones are those places where two or more of those plates meet. Sometimes the plates creep quietly along. Sometimes they stick and then jerk into motion. Those are the quakes.

Tonight I learned something new that was even more astonishing. Some scientists think that “our” faults (the Hayward, the San Andreas, etc) “communicate” with other faults far away. I don’t begin to understand that, but I heard a respectable geologist say it tonight.

When I feel a tremblor I recite the blessing for earthquakes:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shekokho oogevurato malei olam.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, whose strength and might fill the world. – Tractate Berakhot 54a

 

 

Yes, earthquakes are scary. They also create amazing landscapes – they are the reason that the California coast is so utterly beautiful. We can’t control them. And that is true for much of nature: even when we think we understand it, Mother Earth is older, wiser and stronger than any of us can imagine. What earthquakes have taught me is that the earth is very much alive.

It behooves us to maintain an awe for nature. We are accustomed to harnessing it for our own uses, but it never pays to underestimate the power of forces far beyond our control.

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A Passover Wish

Image: Two lambs. (FraukeFeind/pixabay)

When I searched through some of the free image sites online, most of the pictures I found when I searched for “Passover” looked like the one above.

Most of the world doesn’t know much about Jews. They know what they read (in the Bible, in the media, in books) and they know what they’ve heard. The Christian world knows us through the filter of Christianity. For Christians, Passover is a festival mentioned in the Gospels, and it’s about sacrificial lambs, both real and metaphoric.

Never mind that we haven’t been in the lamb-sacrificing business since spring of the year 70. That was the year the Romans knocked down the Temple – and since then, we have honored the commandments to make sacrifices with prayers, not with lambs.

There are Jews who want to rebuild the Temple. I’m not one of them. For one thing, someone else’s place of worship now stands on that spot, and it’s holy to them. For another, as Maimonides taught, God was ready for us to be done with the sacrifices. They were an early version of worship, given to us when we could not have understood anything else.

For me, today, Passover is a festival of freedom. It calls me to free others from bondage. It calls me to free myself from old, bad ideas and habits. It calls me back to that homely altar, the dining room table, to eat matzah and ask questions and never, ever to settle for an easy answer. It calls me to gather with Jews, to laugh and cry and do mitzvot, to not lose heart when the bad guys seem to be in charge, or when my own internalized Pharaohs give me grief.

I wish every reader of this blog a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover. May your find your courage to do your work in this world. And may there be no more sacrificial lambs.

What, Me Worry? (I worry.)

Image: Gabi, who just finished digging up the garden in search of “snakes.” Photo by me, all rights reserved.

 

It’s been a very odd year for some of us. The weather has been weird and the news has been exhausting. It seems like every day something new comes crawling out of my radio, and I find myself regarding the news like a mysterious bug in my kitchen. Do I need to worry about this thing? Where did it come from? What should I do about it? What will happen if I don’t do anything about it?

My dog knows what to do with mysterious bugs: Gabi eats them. She lived on the street for a while, and I imagine bugs were cheap unthreatening protein for her. When she first came to live with us, she was a scourge on spiders. Now she is downright nonchalant: she only eats them if she’s missed a meal.

Her hunter reflexes are never far from the surface, even though she’s a cute little toy poodle. When we used to go walking by Lake Chabot, she would size up the ducks and then dance by my side as if to say, “You want one? I’ll get you one! Just say the word!” I never said, “Go git ’em!” because I was pretty sure we’d get in trouble if she began retrieving ducks from the park. She had no doubts, though: those ducks were TOAST.

The photo above is from the day she dug up the drip watering system in the garden. I suspect that she thought the periodic hissing from the water flow was snakes, and she was going to get her some snakes, yes ma’am! She was puzzled when I wasn’t happy about the giant holes she dug trying to get at them. You can see her puzzlement in the picture, along with her muddy paws and snout.

Gabi is not given to worry. If it’s a bug, she eats it. If it’s a duck, she offers to go get it. If it’s a snake in the back yard, she stares at me reproachfully, knowing that she isn’t allowed to dig it up.

I am more of a worrier. I want to do the right thing, and in uncertain times and situations, I spend a lot of energy just figuring out what to do. I keep my earthquake kit stocked, and I wrote letters to my elected officials. Still, most of it feels like doing not much.

That is why prayer and study are essential in my life. Sometimes I have to remind myself to sit down and say the holy words and let them speak to me. Sometimes I have to remind myself to just quiet down and listen for God. Sometimes I study to find the answer to a question, and sometimes I study because it IS a Jewish form of prayer, and when I study, my mind quiets and I can hear the voice of the Holy One speaking to me through the texts.

Some might say, “Ha! Religion is the opiate of the people! I knew it!” but that’s not how I see it. Prayer and study help me see exactly who I am and who I strive to be. When I pray and study regularly, I sober up and quit worrying so much. I let go of the things I cannot control and do something about the things I can. I let go of fantasy concerns and simply move from mitzvah to mitzvah.

I cannot make peace in the Middle East. I cannot make Washington do what I think is best. In truth, I have no idea what would settle everything in either place. But it is in moving from mitzvah to mitzvah, climbing steadily through life, that I may reach the calm that sometimes eludes me, even in a difficult season.

 

100 Blessings a Day

Image: Butterfly and Cricket. Photo by Rachel Mankowitz, all rights reserved to her.

I’ve recommended her blog before. Rachel Mankowitz has a wonderful gift for words and two adorable dogs. This week she offers her thoughts on the tradition of “100 blessings a day” – how could I resist reblogging it?

rachelmankowitz

Recently, apropos of something else, my Rabbi mentioned that there is a custom in Jewish life to try and say one hundred blessings a day. Of course, I had to look this up right away. Despite a childhood in Jewish day schools, I had never heard of this one – which means nothing, really, because there’s too much for any one person to learn in a lifetime, let alone in elementary or high school.

There are text-based reasons for the choice of one hundred as the magical number of blessings, but that’s not what interested me. I tend to think you can find text based excuses for anything if you try hard enough. But the idea of one hundred blessings sounds whole and beautiful and challenging enough to encourage the kind of gratitude Oprah used to talk about with her gratitude journals. Saying a blessing is more than just gratitude…

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A Refuah for the Rabbi

Image: Rabbis Jacqueline Mates-Muchin and Ruth Adar carry Torahs for Hakafah. Photo by Linda Burnett. All rights reserved. A “Refuah” is a healing.

This past Friday night I had the pleasure of co-leading the Shabbat service at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. The occasion was our Access Shabbat celebrating Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month. The Access Committee encouraged me to lead the service from my mobility scooter, feeling that it would be a powerful statement for inclusion.

It was, indeed, and a powerful personal experience for me. I am primarily a teaching rabbi; I haven’t regularly led services since 2013. A big part of the reason for that is that standing has caused me excruciating pain for years. As a rabbinical student and then as a “baby” rabbi in my first pulpit, I chose to hide the pain and simply endure it during services which sometimes lasted hours. I’d finish a service drenched in sweat, trembling and barely able to think. As a result, I dreaded leading services and stopped doing it when my body could no longer pretend.

I did not know that Rabbi Mates-Muchin had planned a Hakafah (procession with the Torah) in celebration of a year with our new Torah scroll.  I could hardly believe it when she handed me the sefer Torah; I wept as I carried it around the congregation. I had not held a Torah scroll in years, since I couldn’t climb the stairs to the aron [cabinet] where it is kept and could not lift it down, much less walk with it.

So in addition to a public statement, leading this service was a private healing for me. I hugged the Torah and shared it with the congregation – a physical metaphor for my life’s work. The scooter did not detract from it in any way; instead, it made the moment possible.

There is no rule against leading a service on wheels. In a Reform congregation, the electricity for the scooter is not an issue. I had been my own oppressor, trying to hide my disability because I feared discrimination.

That night, with the Torah in my arms, singing with the congregation, I felt healed and whole.

Prayer at the Beginning of Baseball Season

Image: A baseball player hits with the catcher ready behind him. (keijj44/Pixabay)

Baseball fans rejoice: pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training, 2017!

As is my habit every year at this time, I offer a Prayer for the Beginning of Baseball Season. There is disagreement as to whether this prayer should be said at the opening of Spring Training or on Opening Day. Consult a rabbi or your home team office for the minhag hamakom (local custom) upon this matter.


Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that will satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

May our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

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 opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Masekhet Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir(The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

 

Meet Rabbi Chaim Stern

Image: Rabbi Stern. I was not able to find the owner of this photo of Rabbi Stern; if it is your work, please let me know so that I can give credit.

Rabbi Chaim Stern (1930-2001) was one of the most influential Reform Jewish scholars of the 20th century. He was first and foremost a liturgist, editing and translating prayer books for Jews in North America and in the United Kingdom. He was the editor of Gates of Prayer, the Reform siddur [prayer book] from the 1970’s through 2007 and his work is still very much present in Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform siddur. He also wrote a haggadah, Gates of Freedomand a collection of prayers for the home, On the Doorposts of Your House.

He was a congregational rabbi as well, serving Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, in Chappaqua, N.Y. for 33 years.

There are many of Rabbi Stern’s writings that I love, but this one, from page 49 of Mishkan T’filah, is a special favorite. It reminds me that “fixed prayer” – reading and reciting prayers that others have said before me – is an important part of self-maintenance if I wish to be fully equipped to meet the challenges of a Jewish life:

Why fixed prayers? To learn what we should value, what we should pray for. To be at one with our people, the household of Israel. To ensure that the ideals painfully learned and purified, and for which many have lived and died, shall not perish from the community, and shall have a saving influence upon the individual.