Feeling stressed? Re-commit to Self-Care!

Image: A teddy bear with a stethoscope pressed to it’s chest. (Pexels.com)

Feeling stressed?

I’m re-committing to self-care today. In a very wigged-out world we have to do what we can to maintain ourselves. I thought I’d share my list with you, in case you’ve been feeling ragged and need some care.

A note: We all have our limits and our challenges. Your self care will have to be personalized for your situation. Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else!

By the way, all of these things are mitzvot. They fall under the headings of “caring for the body,” “preserving life,” prayer, and moderation in appetites of all kinds. The list is in no particular order, because everything on it is important.

  1. Take all medications as prescribed. I am usually good about this, but it bears repeating.
  2. Drink more water. A lot of things I like to drink (coffee, tea, etc) are diuretics, so they don’t help with dehydration as much as I like to think. Water, water, water!
  3. Pray/Meditate every day. Meditation is part of my prayer practice: there is prayer in which I say words, and meditation in which I listen for the “still, small voice.”
  4. Move the body. Sitting at the computer, sitting at the TV, sitting sitting sitting is bad for both body and soul. I need to move my body every day, joyfully if at all possible.
  5. Guard against sunburn. Wear a hat, wear sunscreen, carry an umbrella if need be.
  6. Listen to the body. Cultivating awareness of hunger and thirst, of moods, of the truth of what I’m feeling is very important for my health.
  7. Eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’ve had enough. Intuitive eating has already saved my life and my sanity more than once. I recommit to it.
  8. Get enough sleep! Sleep deprived people have more accidents and have lowered resistance to illness.
  9. Limit social media and the news. Both are a world of stress these days, and beyond the headlines there is little I truly need. It is always worth asking if an activity is contributing to my ability to improve the world, or limiting it.
  10. Talk things out in a safe place. Sometimes talking things out can relieve a lot of stress, provided I’m careful to choose a listener who is responsible and discreet: a therapist, my rabbi, or a trusted friend.
  11. Say “no” to gossip. Rechilut (gossip) covers everything from celebrity “news” to involving myself in drama that is not my business. All of it is bad for me and for the world.
  12. Hug my beloveds. Beloveds include my wife, our children and their spouses, our dogs, and my dear friends. “Hug” can mean an actual hug, a statement of love, or a decision to assume the best when I am tempted to be cross with someone.
  13. Give tzedakah. The giving of tzedakah (giving money to relieve the suffering of another) reminds me of the power I have to help others. When I am feeling stressed and powerless, it helps to recognize that I still have the ability to help another person.
  14. Perform acts of kindness to others. Just as tzedakah reminds me that I am not destitute, an act of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim) forces me to recognize the ways in which I am able. I cannot walk up stairs, but I can still drive the car and give someone a ride to shul.
  15. Be gentle with myself. I will say nasty things to or about myself that I would never, ever say to a stranger, much less a family member. “Gentle” means gentle – it doesn’t mean making excuses! Sometimes I need a talking-to (“Ruth, get off the computer and go outside to play!”) but I commit to leaving out the cruel adjectives and names with which I am prone to hurt myself. Just like every other human being, I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One, so I have to treat myself with respect and mercy!

Do you have any other suggestions for ways to maintain our health and sanity in stressful times?

Advertisements

We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!

Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment

Image: Stacks of coins that appear to be sprouting seedlings. (Pixabay)

On June 21 I had the pleasure of returning to Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, the first congregation I served as a new rabbi, right out of school. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad was kind enough to invite me to preach.

I talked about a topic dear to me: the mitzvah of tzedakah. The title of the sermon was “Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment.” Since I generally preach from an outline rather than a full text, to keep my words and delivery fresh, I can’t reproduce the sermon here. However, I can give you the gist of it.

We usually talk about mitzvot as commandments or sacred duties: something we do. However, there is another angle from which too see mitzvot. Mitzvot are actions we take that also cause change within us.

Notice the blessings we say before performing a mitzvah:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and has commanded us to immerse ourselves in the words of Torah.

— Blessing before the Study of Torah

Before a mitzvah, when we say this blessing, we say that God makes us holy through our performance of the mitzvah. That is quite a claim.

So how does this work?

Take tzedakah, for instance: we normally think of it as our sacred duty to give money for justice or for the relief of suffering. We might think that tzedakah is all about the other person.

But it is also a powerful tool for human spiritual development. Let me explain with a story.

I have a little dog, Gabi. She does not particularly like potato chips, but if we have them, she manages to get one. She grabs a chip and runs a little distance off, hovering over the chip. If any other dog approaches, she growls. If I tell her to drop it, she will very grudgingly give it to me. As long as she has the chip she will not eat it, instead guarding it no matter what other fun thing might be going on.

In short, she makes herself miserable guarding that chip.

Look at the word “miserable.” What do the first five letters spell?

Tzedakah is the sacred duty to give money to a suffering human being, or to an agent who will help suffering beings. It is also a powerful antidote to miserliness, the misery that comes from hanging on too tightly to money.

When we give tzedakah, we remind ourselves that we actually have ENOUGH, enough that we can give away a bit. How much we give depends on our means. Jewish tradition teaches us not to give so much that we endanger ourselves. No, we are only commanded to give a little.

Giving that little bit will remind us that we have more power than we realize. One little tzedakah payment may be small, but when it combines with others, it transforms lives. It can save a person from starving to death. It can pay legal fees to free a prisoner. It can pay tuition so a person can learn and eventually support themselves.

That is POWER.

When we give tzedakah in its higher forms, when we give anonymously, we can fight back against our need for attention and approval. Maimonides teaches us that the mitzvah is fulfilled even if we give a tiny amount, grudgingly, and demand big thanks and a brass nameplate. But it is much more meritorious, he tells us, to give anonymously and to do so without public recognition. That kind of giving trains us away from narcissism. When we give quietly, we cultivate a true humility and become a better person.

So there it is: tzedakah may be the mitzvah of giving, but we still can receive much in return. As the blessing says, God gave us mitzvot to make us holy, to make us better people. In the case of tzedakah, it can take something that can be the source of tremendous stress and anxiety, and transform it into goodness in the world and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!

Play Ball! A Meditation

Image: A game at the Las Vegas Ballpark, 1/20/2019.

I’m writing tonight from the Las Vegas Ballpark, where the Sacramento River Cats are playing the Las Vegas Aviators.

Never heard of them? This is minor league baseball, AAA to be precise, the world of Bull Durham, if you’re a baseball movie aficionado. The Aviators are a farm team for the Oakland Athletics. The River Cats are affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. Subtext is strong here.

What does this have to do with Torah? Baseball, like Torah, contains worlds. It is a metaphor for everything. In baseball, the home team plays the outsiders – it’s deeply tribal – but everyone’s worst instincts are constrained by the Rulebook (mitzvot.) Bats are for hitting balls, not heads.

Baseball, well played, is a form of meditation. The more perfectly everyone does their job, the less happens. A completely perfect game would go on forever.

Fortunately it is also a deeply human game, and imperfections abound. They keep the crowd from falling asleep, but it is in the workings-out of imperfection that joy abounds.

I love baseball, especially minor league baseball. The ballparks are human size, and admission is cheap enough that whole families attend together. The lady sitting next to me might be 80, and if she had her way the Aviators would win. Alas, they seem to excel only in interesting imperfections tonight.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has implanted in human hearts the love of games!

Climate Change and Torah

Image: A California poppy, in my yard.

Climate change is doing a number on my neighborhood. Today the temperature was over 100°F for sure. If WeatherUnderground.com can be believed, the high was 107°F. I decided not to believe it.

It is June in the SF Bay Area. June is legendarily chilly here. Mark Twain joked that the coldest winter he ever experienced was in June in San Francisco. No more, apparently.

What does this have to do with Judaism? several things:

1. We learn from a midrash that when the Creator entrusted the Earth to Adam and Eve, God said to them, “Take care of it. It’s the only one I’m going to give you.”

2. We are commanded, bal tashkeit, “do not waste.” The verse in question has to do with trees, but our sages expanded it to a commandment to be careful in our use of natural resources.

3. We are commanded to preserve life. The strictest form of that commandment has to do with responding to someone in immediate danger of death. In a heat wave, we are responsible as a community to make sure everyone has water and a cool place to go. Alameda County is doing its best but I am concerned about the huge number of homeless people, and elders.

I hear a lot on the media about why we can’t do anything about climate change. The Green New Deal was pooh-poohed by conservatives, and they talk about what other countries are or are not doing, or they say the whole thing is “fake news.” Environmental advocates have been less than diplomatic in their rhetoric, which I understand but “I told you so” never contributed to progress.

If you have personally never been affected by climate change, there are lots of places where you can see it in action: my house, most port cities, and the farms in the Midwest. Or you can take a cruise to the island nation of Kiribati, which is quickly submerging into the Pacific.

We have made a mess, folks. I’m as responsible as any individual. We need to change. We need to think in terms of what we CAN do. We need to quit using others’ behavior as an excuse. Because as the midrash teaches, this is the only world we’ve got.

The Torah of Dog Food

Image: Linda holding Princess, the poodle. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

My wife and I have three aging toy poodles. They all came from Poodle Rescue, and we have had almost ten happy years with them. Now we’re all getting older together: Linda and I are 70 and 64, and the poodles are 14, 15, and somewhere past 20. Their names are Jojo, Princess, and Gabi; we call them our Jewdles.

Princess is having the hardest time with aging. She’s Exhibit A for “Why Puppy Mills are Bad” – she has every kind of deformity or ailment associated with toy poodle inbreeding. She’s an affectionate little bundle of fluff, and when she stopped eating last year, we were distraught. She didn’t have extra weight to lose, and soon she was nothing but fluff and bones.

The vet looked at her sadly, and suggested that maybe if we offered her a bit of chicken and rice, it would tempt her. Sure enough, when I gave it to her, she showed the first interest in weeks. Apparently “people food” was the ticket. I got instructions from our vet, plus a cookbook by a vet in Hawaii, and went to work. Since the food I prepared started out with chicken as the protein, we called it “chickie.”

It was wonderful seeing Princess return to life. She gobbles chickie as fast as she can (not very fast, since she’s missing a lot of teeth.) But we were amazed at the changes in the other dogs, as well. Gabi (age 20+) had never seemed to care about food – until chickie. Now she is a chow hound, and her coat has returned to its original silky beauty. Jojo has always been a chow hound, but she’s looking good, too.

It has made me wonder what was really in the expensive commercial dog food we used to give them.

I’m committed to chickie-making now; there’s fresh in the fridge and frozen in the freezer. I make a couple of batches a week. As I said, it’s my new hobby. I thought that I’d write it up and add it to the blog, in case someone out there in Internet-land has an old dog that has quit eating.

The master recipe is simple:

  • 1/3 protein, usually meat or leftover meat.
  • If the meat is extremely lean, I add a bit of olive oil.
  • 1/3 pureed vegetables and fruit
  • 1/3 whole grain (brown rice, oats, or quinoa)
  • Plus enough water to cook that amount of grain.
  • A bit of sea salt, for the minerals. (The vet’s recommendation.)

I make chickie in an Instant Pot or a dutch oven in my oven. Cook the meat, add salt and olive oil, add the veggies, grain, water, and cook. In a pressure cooker, I cook it for 1 hour. Otherwise, I cooked it on low overnight in a Dutch oven in the oven.

For protein I’ve used turkey, chicken, beef, or eggs. Occasionally I’ll make “cold chickie” which includes some leftover yogurt, cottage cheese, and hardboiled eggs that have been sitting around in the fridge.

Leftovers are also great for the vegetables. I include produce that is past its prime. I puree all of it so that it mixes into the protein and the dogs don’t just pick out their favorites. I’ve thrown in everything from old lettuce to seaweed. If you decide to make chickie, please do check out this list of foods that are bad for dogs – don’t use those!

Grains were easy. I started with the rice, but then got close to the bottom of a box of quinoa, and thought, why not? They loved it. Same with oats. I buy the grains in bulk now, which cuts down on packaging.

The water is usually just water, but when I have cooked a whole chicken or something else that has bones, I boil the carcass to make a broth that I can put in the freezer to use for chickie. Bone broth has good stuff in it for arthritic joints – and everyone in our house has arthritic joints!

This has also cut down on waste at our house. I keep an eye on the produce in the fridge, and chickify anything that’s still healthy but past the point of us picky humans eating it. Proteins are often leftovers, too, although to keep up with the demand I’ve used ground meat from the store, too.

There’s one more thing: because our dogs are very old, and Princess is in the early stages of kidney failure, the vet suggested some powdered supplements that we sprinkle on top of their food. If you decide to go the Chickie route with your dog, check with your vet for breed-specific or dog-specific needs.

You might ask: why is it worth my time to cook food for three old dogs? And why is it worth space in this blog?

Torah is not limited to “holy things.” A life of Torah is one in which everything is made holy – even pet food. Here are some of the Jewish values I experience and act out in making chickie for the Jewdles:

Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is the Hebrew name for kindness to animals, an important Jewish value. For example,Rebekah extends hospitality to the camels as well as a human visitor in Genesis 24:19.

Hakarat tovah is gratitude. These little dogs have been our faithful companions and comforters for ten years. I express my gratitude by taking care of them now that they are old.

Bal tashkeet is the Torah commandment not to be wasteful. A lot of things I used to throw away now go into the chickie: faded produce, leftovers, and little bits of whole grain from the bottom of the package. I don’t buy packaged grain at all any more: rather than buy a plastic bag or box of grain, I buy in bulk, using reusable bags, and store the grain in permanent jars in the kitchen.

So there you are: the story of my peculiar new hobby. It gives me a lot of pleasure to see Princess gumming her little dish of chickie, while Jojo and Gabi gobble theirs up.

Gabi, Princess, and Jojo

Why is the Mezuzah Slanted?

Image: Mezuzah on the Zion Gate in Jerusalem (by Paul Arps, some rights reserved)

Recently I posted Why a Mezuzah? that looked at the various reasons Jews affix a mezuzah to our doorways. That gave rise to a good questions from a student in my online Intro class: Why is the mezuzah usually slanted?

It all goes back to a family debate and technical discussion. Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam disagreed about the proper way to hang a mezuzah. Rashi believed that the mezuzah should be upright, just as the Torah scroll is upright when it is properly stored in the Ark at the synagogue. Rabbenu Tam said, no! – the mezuzah should be horizontal, just as it is when it is laid on the table to read it.

We get this story from Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the great Jewish legal writer. He writes in the Tur, his code of Jewish Law, that “careful people” will do their best to fulfill BOTH directions by placing the mezuzah on a slant. However, while that is the custom in the Ashkenazi world, Sephardim prefer to follow the ruling of Rashi and hang their mezuzot vertically.