The Secret is Showing Up

Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.

One of my favorite lines, too, Rabbi Adar! What an eloquent argument this post is for the discipline of regular worship. I compare it to a good bye kiss in the morning. Sometimes it is just perfunctory, but sometimes insets of a WOW spark. But if we didn’t do it every morning, we would not be positioned for the WOW! Thank you! – A comment on Turn it Again, Ben! by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Fuchs’ comment ties together my two previous posts: the one cited above and the previous one, Jewish Spirituality.

The performance of mitzvot [commandments] is of its nature routine. I say a blessing, I get out of bed, I say a blessing, I wash my hands, I say a blessing, I eat a muffin, I say a blessing, I take my meds. Most of it happens “on automatic” and is about as exciting as brushing my teeth (for which I do not yet know a blessing.) This week I’m going to host students for Shabbat dinner, so I’ve also got all of those preparations (clear the dining room/study table, check my lists, cook) and they, too, have a routine feel to them.

This routine of mitzvot sets up opportunities for what Rabbi Fuchs calls “the WOW!” Most days saying my prayers is a routine. Last Shabbat, one of those routine prayers reduced me to tears of amazement. I didn’t know when I left home for services that I was going to have that experience. Actually, I wasn’t feeling all that great and might have stayed home, except that I had committed to chant the first aliyah of the Torah portion.

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Jewish spiritual activity definitely works that way, whether we’re talking about prayer or some other mitzvot. On any given day, I’m probably not going to get any kind of spiritual insight or “high” from giving tzedakah or saying blessings. There are many mitzvot I may do for my entire life and never have an experience that anyone would call spiritual.

However, if I want to have a sense of meaning in my life, every mitzvah that I observe is a step in that direction. This past week my prayer practice gifted me with an insight: every breath is precious. That was worth all the mere “showing up” that got me to that place. Even without that insight, every mitzvah I observe is like a single strand in a spider’s web that forms a small essential part of the greater whole. Those mitzvot performed with the right intention will shape me into a better person living a better life than I would otherwise live.

This Shabbat I expect to be very, very tired but to be filled with a warm feeling from feeding my students and performing the mitzvah of hospitality. Or maybe I’ll just be very tired. That’s OK. I’ll show up, and they’ll show up, and that will be enough.

Jewish Spirituality

I sometimes meet Jews who tell me, “Judaism just isn’t spiritual!” Others think that there’s only one authentic way to live a Jewish life, a way that demands that a devout Jew will live completely separate from the secular world.

Both of those attitudes are based on profound misunderstandings of Torah.

It’s true that Judaism is different from other religions, especially those familiar to most Americans. A few ways we are different:

We do not have a creed: we don’t have a list of things we are required to believe. Because other Western religions have creeds, we periodically try to come up with such lists, but in every case, as soon as the list is written, we begin arguing about the details. The 13 Principles of Maimonides is the most famous but it isn’t universally accepted among Jews. The Reform Movement has compiled “Platforms” at intervals in its history, but they function more as texts for study, and as jumping-off places for discussion. They are not creeds.

We are a questioning people, rather than a believing people. This has been true from the very beginning. In Genesis 18, God consults with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham then raises questions about the fate of the righteous of Sodom, if any can be found. In fact, our sages taught that God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel, rather than Noah, because Noah didn’t argue when God announced the Flood!

The commandments direct us to do, rather than to believe. The Torah is full of commandments (the traditional count is 613.) Those commandments say things like “Keep the Sabbath holy.” (Exodus 20:8) or “Put a railing around your roof, so no one will fall off” (Deuteronomy 22:8) or “Don’t consume blood” (Lev. 17:10-14.) These are things to do (or not do) rather than things to believe.  Even when it comes to God, we are told to love God, but nowhere does it explicitly say to believe in God.

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For Jews, spirituality comes in the round of observing the commandments day after day, week after week. We are back to disagreement and discussion: some observe the commandments in ways more or less like the ways Jews very long ago observed them. Others find those interpretations of the commandments outmoded and in need of reinterpretation. One Jew will refrain from ever using the phone or any electronic device on Shabbat. Another will make sure to phone family and loved ones every Shabbat. Both are trying to keep Shabbat holy, each in their own way.

For some Jews, the synagogue service is key to spirituality. For others, the act of communal study (another commandment) is where they find spirituality. Others find it in appreciation and preservation of the wonders of nature, or in the work of healing or social justice. For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing growth in the mitzvah of hospitality, opening my home, nurturing relationships among people, feeding other people, and teaching Jewish home observance. Jewish tradition is vast, and it can accommodate many different tastes and personalities. What all these things have in common is the observance of mitzvot.

Which mitzvot are the keys to your Jewish spirituality? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that, experiment. Go to services regularly for a few months, and see what that does for you. Join a social action group or organization (do more than give money or share social media) and see how that feels. Find a Torah study group, or a Talmud study group. See where your Jewish soul blooms.

Judaism and Social Media

Have you ever been reading your social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and run across something so AWFUL, so unspeakably DREADFUL, that you felt THIS INFORMATION MUST BE OUT THERE NOW! so you hit “Share” or “RT” or “Forward” to make sure all your followers can read it?

or

Have you ever been reading your social media and run across something so FUNNY, so completely HYSTERICAL, that you agreed MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO LOVE THIS! and you hit “Share” or “RT” or “Forward” so that all your friends could enjoy it?

I think most of us have done one of these. It’s only human to want to do something about bad behavior or a danger. It’s also human to want to amuse our friends. However, we need to be careful that in doing so we do not make lashon harah, evil speech, which our tradition sees as one of the great evils in the world.

Lashon harah prohibits the use of speech to say anything negative or derogatory about another person, even if it is the truth. To fully observe this commandment, according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, we should avoid speaking unnecessarily about another person, even in a positive way, because we don’t know what repercussions our speech may have.

There is an exception to this rule: we can say negative things about another if those things are true, but only if our silence would result in injury or severe loss to another person.

All of this makes social media very worrisome. How can I use this wonderful tool without engaging in lashon hara?  I like to use a very simple little tool, three questions:

  1. Is it TRUE? – Could I prove it if I needed to do so? What is my evidence?
  2. Is it NECESSARY that I repeat it? – What are the consequences of not repeating it? Will there be injury, significant loss, or death?
  3. Is it KIND? – Could someone be hurt by my speech, including but not limited to innocent bystanders? Does the necessity of repeating the words outweigh any possible hurt to the persons potentially injured?

If something passes these three questions with a yes, then I can say it (or forward it, or RT it.) If not, I must refrain.

A terrible example recently has been circulating around the world. People have been worrying on social media that terrorists are infiltrating Europe among the refugees. A recent article in the L.A. Times addressed the issue, and thoroughly debunks the theory, pointing out that ISIS and other groups have many easier ways to get to Europe than to suffer with the refugees. So those who have repeated this meme, “Are terrorists infiltrating among the refugees?” have repeated a lie, which will do infinite damage to those poor refugees who have already suffered much. And yes, lashon hara can take the form of a question, if it raises doubts about the good reputation of another. “I was just speculating!” is no excuse at all.

Remember: Lashon harah is a Jewish concept, not US civil law.  In US civil law, truth makes any speech ok, and the standards are lower for speech about public figures. Jewish tradition demands a higher standard. “Is it true” is only the first question we ask.

What about exposing wrongdoing, or public protest? Both of those can be done without making lashon hara. If speech is both true and necessary, and the good will outweigh the suffering it will cause, then speak! We may not stand silent while our neighbor bleeds.

Social media is particularly potent speech because it travels so far, so fast. Careless use of it has ruined reputations, destroyed careers, enflamed violence. We need to be careful in using such a powerful tool.

What is your experience with the power of social media? Do you have personal rules for its use?

Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!

Aid to Refugees: How We Can Help

Looking for meaningful ways to alleviate the suffering you see on the news? It is a longtime Jewish custom to give tzedakah [money for the relief of sufferers and to promote justice] before every holiday. As you make your other High Holy Day plans, don’t forget to give tzedakah!

This summer we have been inundated with terrible photographs and stories about the massive movement of refugees out of Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, fleeing the violence of war. Here are three organizations that bring considerable expertise to their work with refugees:

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in the United States in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Today they aid refugees of all backgrounds all over the world with legal assistance, psychosocial care, and job assistance, with special sensitivity to the vulnerability of women, children, and LGBT persons. If you are looking for a way to help those fleeing the violence in Syria, this is one organization that has been doing this work for quite a while now. They are experienced, in place, and have an excellent track record of using donated funds wisely.

In the UK, World Jewish Relief has been working on relief for Syrian refugees since 2013. World Jewish Relief has made an appeal for funding for their operation providing food, shelter, medicine and hygiene kits to refugees in Turkey, Bulgaria or Greece. This aid is not limited to Jews, but is available to all refugees.

ISRAid is an NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Israel that responds to emergencies around the globe. They have two current projects that touch on the situation of refugees: first is a relief team assisting the refugees pouring into Europe, the second is a project assisting displaced people fleeing ISIL/ISIS in Iraq. According to the Jerusalem Post:

IsraAID has been actively responding to the needs of Syrian refugees and their host countries for over two years now, focusing on Jordan, Iraq, and Bulgaria. Ranging from emergency aid distributions to pinpointed trauma support and prevention training for host country government and non-government professionals, the organization is drawing on its expertise and experience in the management of crises triggered by refugees, to help others.

(Update): I have just learned of another Israeli initiative. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic center for Jewish learning in Jerusalem, is launching the following center to aid children of African refugees in Israel (quotation from their materials):

The Hartman Institute has decided to establish a Day Care and Learning Center in Tel Aviv for children of African refugees aged 3-6. The Center will be launched in collaboration with the Elifelet organization, our hosts last summer, which cares for more than 600 children and infants. Three- to six-year-olds are the age group that Elifelet professionals have identified as being at the greatest risk. These children are released from their day care environments at 1:30 every afternoon and have nowhere to go and no one to watch over or care for them, until their parents return home from work in the evening.

Elifelet personnel will oversee the professional staff and educational programming at the Hartman-sponsored Center. The Hartman Institute community will provide the financial resources and the backbone of the Center’s volunteer infrastructure, which will include our high school and gap-year students, administrative staff, teaching and research faculty, and the parents of our students. The center will function from 1:30–6:30 pm daily, and will provide children with a safe, caring, and nurturing environment that will offer nutritious meals, counseling, basic learning skills classes, and a game center.

Finally, if you are thinking, “the little bit I could give will not make a difference,” please reconsider. For one thing, your small donation combines with other donations to make a big difference. Maimonides taught that we all have a responsibility to give tzedakah, even if we can only give a minuscule amount. If we each give according to our means, we can relieve a great deal of suffering.

Finally, you can also help by passing this information to others on your social networks. The internet is rife with hand-wringing and pontification; this is an opportunity to actually help. Whether you pass along a link to this article, or publicize the work of a particular organization, you will contribute to the quality of online discussion by offering people a way to do something.

The image with this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner is Haeferl.

Guilt and Responsibility

It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

Holiness in the Nail Parlor

I met a remarkable woman last month, and I spent time with her today. Delane Sims has a little business in my home town of San Leandro, Delane’s Natural Nail Care. If all she did was nails, hers would still be a remarkable shop because she is committed to healthy methods and to good labor practices.

I originally found Delane’s because I was tired of going to get my nails done and then fearing that the women working on my hands were slave labor and/or that I was going to acquire an infection or fungus. I did a search online and found this wonderful place just a mile from my home.

But when I met Delane herself, I was in for a real treat. She runs her business with a vision of health and wholeness, and treats her staff like human beings. But that isn’t all: she is the primary mover of not one but two programs that are changing this corner of the world for the better.

The first is Steps to Success, a program that seeks out low income single mothers and empowers them through education, mentoring, and sustainable job placement in the nail care industry. Graduates have gone into business for themselves, or used the employment in nail care as a springboard to other choices including college educations. All of that is accomplished with an emphasis and active mentoring on work/family balance!

Her other program is Senior Moments, which identifies and reaches out to isolated seniors in the community, matching them up with appropriate professional referrals and volunteers. Senior Moments partners with a number of community organizations to bring help to the elderly. Elders are prey to scammers, they are vulnerable to sudden changes in health and life situation, and they often have thin resources for coping when these things happen. Senior Moments sees to it that whatever their income, they are rich in available resources for help and connection.

Going to get my nails done at Delane’s is both relaxation and inspiration. The last time I went, I was inspired to volunteer to work in her programs. Today I stopped by for a pedicure and we wound up talking Torah and she reminded me of all the many opportunities we each have for doing good in the world, if we are but willing to see the image of the Holy One in the face of every person we encounter. Delane seems to have mastered the art of staying in that holy mindset full time.

If you happen to live in the San Francisco East Bay Area, consider making an appointment with Delane. I know you will leave with healthy fingers and toes. I suspect your heart will have had a makeover as well: I know that mine gets one every time I see her.