Moving the Furniture

Image: My computer, unplugged and out of the way.

We have to rearrange the house to get some repairs done. Sukkot is coming, which means at least one gathering, and some other events as well. We are cleaning and repairing things in expectation of guests, holidays, and (soon) a new grandchild.

Funny, if you move the furniture around, you find stuff. We discovered when we moved the couch that there was a line of shmutz (Yiddish for dirt) just under it. I’ll have to clean that up before we replace the couch.

Yom Kippur is a lot like that. Our tradition gives us a season to drag around the furniture of our lives, checking for shmutz, fixing what’s broken. That season culminates in a serious 24 hour period for reflection, stripped of our usual distractions of food, or drink, or sex. If we use it well, we will be renewed. If we waste it by clinging to distractions, we are the losers.

Many of us are worried about the state of the world and the country right now. That, too, can be a distraction from dealing with the things that are truly ours to control: our behavior, our attitudes, and our choices.

I wish you a thoughtful, prayerful time as you traverse the Days of Awe 5780.

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?

Teshuvah, With a Little Help

Image: Woman holds her head as she talks with another. (Serena Wong / Pixabay)

We talk a lot about making teshuvah in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. An observant Jew will take stock of their life (cheshbon nefesh) and see what needs to change. They will look at their relationships, and see what needs mending and to whom they owe an apology. They may also hear apologies from others, and have to respond to those.

Maimonides teaches a standard for making teshuvah, that it is only complete when we are in the same situation and act rightly. The gossip, for instance, needs to walk away the next time people begin telling juicy stories (and the successive times after that, as well.)

In order to act rightly in a tempting situation, we need a plan. Without a plan, we are apt to fall into old ways of behavior, because that is easiest. The plan needs to be specific: “when X happens, I will do Y.”

This is a point at which a counselor, rabbi, or even a good friend can be helpful. We don’t always see our options (which is often how we got in trouble in the first place.) We may see one or two things we can do, but without suggestions from outside, we may not see the option that will allow us to make genuine change.

It can be embarrassing to say to someone, “I yell at my children too much,” or “I need help thinking of ways to stop gossiping” or “I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years because I am afraid.” But if our inner response to something is “I just can’t help it” then it is high time to get help from outside.

If you are preparing for the New Year by searching your heart for the things that need to change, know that you don’t need to do this task alone – in fact, you may do a better job of it with a little help from a friend.

A classic on the subject!


A Different Kind of Housecleaning

Image: Feather duster and cleaners by stevepb./pixabay.

Roughly six months ago, we had just passed Purim and were spending a month getting ready for Passover. For many Jews, that means housecleaning: getting rid of all the chametz in the house. (For more about that process, see Passover Prep: We Begin in Egypt.)

During the month of Elul, we do a different kind of housecleaning, spiritual housecleaning. We want to be ready for Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, ready for a new year and a new beginning. This is the time to clean up the old crumby chametz-like things in our lives, be they bad habits or relationships that have gone sour.

There is also a tradition that on Rosh Hashanah, each of us is personally judged by our Creator. We get that from this text:

On Rosh Hashanah all the people of the world pass before [God] like a division of soldiers, as it says, “He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings” (Psalms 33:15).

M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2

That mishnah (early rabbinic discussion) is the earliest mention of a judgment on Rosh Hashanah. In the Bible, it is the day of blowing the shofar and the beginning of the month of Tishrei. But for rabbinic Jews, Rosh Hashanah is also a day for reviewing the state of the human race. As members of humanity, we clean up and put ourselves in order for that day.

The question then is, what needs to be cleaned up in the coming month? What habits need to change, if we are to be the best versions of ourselves? What apologies need be made for misdeeds and neglect over the past year? What in our life is old, stale, moldy, or maybe even poisonous? This is the time to clean up!

#BlogElul — Decide!

Image: Imabima’s #BlogElul calendar. Follow this link to learn more about it.

This year I will use Imabima’s #BlogElul prompts to do my own private self examination as well as to inform some of my blog posts. I invite you to join me!

“Decide” — that’s the first step. Elul is a month for self-examination, but it won’t examine itself unless I decide to do it. Do I want to be a better person? A better rabbi? A better Jew? A better spouse? A better mother? A better friend? Am I willing to put in the work and take the risks to improve?

Not to decide is to decide. Someone said that, back in the 60s, and it was all over posters in college dorms in the 70s. I can stand around and twiddle my thumbs, but that is a decision, too.

I’ve decided on my Elul study project (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, Kehati commentary) and my spiritual reading (Alan Lew’s book) but the big study project is my relationships. I need to make appointments, meet with people, check in.

Have you decided about your plans for this month of introspection? If there’s anything you want to share, or commit to publicly, the Comments are open.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Image: Me, on my scooter with my traveling gear, at the airport in 2014.  (Photo by Linda Burnett)

I’m traveling at the moment, and I’m struck again by the power of small kindnesses.

This has been a particularly pleasant trip, made so by the friendly kindness of several strangers. Little things add up over a long journey; we never know what difference it will make to someone that we hold a door, or smile, or simply pay attention.

I’ve been the recipient of many small kindnesses in the past few days. I’ve done my best to acknowledge all of them and let them know I’m grateful.

I’m staying at a hotel where they seem to take the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) very seriously. In my room, there’s the name of a person on staff I can call if something isn’t properly accessible to me. I called him to ask for a different kind of chair, and got it immediately. The room is nearly perfect, and his attention to getting it right made it MORE than perfect.   I have already written to corporate headquarters about him, because I frequently stay at hotels in this chain, and this is quite extraordinary. I’d like to see it become the norm.

As we prepare our cheshbon hanefesh this month, our accounting of the soul, let’s not forget the small items. How did I make other people feel today?  How did I treat them? How could I do better?

 

 

#BlogElul – Forgive

Image: Two people embracing. (Antonio Guillem /Shutterstock)

After the Israelites reject the Land in the episode of the Spies, God is angry, talking about wiping them all out and starting over with Moses. Moses replies with soothing words, reminding God of the relationship at stake.  God immediately calms and replies:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ

And the Eternal said, “I have forgiven, as you asked.” – Numbers 14:20

Moses recognized that the anger God expressed came from hurt. The Israelites were afraid, and rejected the gift of the Land. Moses spoke to God’s hurt, and God forgave.

There are many points to get from this famous story, but this one simple verse is a pithy example of what Jews do during Elul: We ask for forgiveness, and we grant it to others. 

It does not change the fact that one person hurt the other. All it does is create an opportunity to reset the relationship.

I go through the month asking, “Who is angry with me, and why? Do I own any tiny (or not so tiny) part of that anger – did I do anything?” If I can apologize for that tiny part, and ask forgiveness, perhaps it will open up a dialogue in which both sides can be healed. Certainly without this action, nothing will improve.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it is always worth a try.

#BlogElul – See

Image: A blue eye looks through a rectangular hole in paper. (pixabay)

“I see you.”

I recently saw someone type that on Facebook, in response to a post with a list of troubles. “I see you.”

It was a way of expressing attention without passing judgment, without offering advice, without asking questions. “I see you.”

“I see you” doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t even try to fix anything. It just says, “You are not invisible. I am noticing.”

Sometimes we need action in response to our cries. But before there is action, there has to be awareness. There has to be seeing.

Seeing takes time. Seeing takes attention.

When I assume that I know what I’m seeing, I am assuming, not seeing.

When I move to fix something without truly seeing, I may fix the wrong thing.

When I move to judge something without truly seeing, I may misjudge.

When I refuse to see, I refuse the humanity in the other.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gives us eyes that we may see. 

Shoftim: Who Is My Idol?

Image: A collection of idols: Egyptian gods, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Israeli fighter jet, smartphone, Greek demi-god, Kardashians, U.S. Twenty dollar bill, Andrew Jackson, Child sacrifice, Moloch. Collage from public domain photos by R. Ruth Adar.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make— or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests. – Deuteronomy 16:20-22
The first verse above is one of the most famous in all the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” it commands with mighty emphasis. It sits right at the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, or “Judges.”
The follow-up to“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” seems like a non sequitur. It is a commandment against idolatry via the Asherah pole or a stone pillar, either of which is an idol. So we might ask: what’s the connection?
God detests idolatry. It’s one of the major themes of Deuteronomy: don’t make idols, don’t hang out with idolaters, don’t even think about idols. In the historical period when this book was written, that meant, don’t worship any god other than the one named Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey who brought you, Israelites, out of Egypt.
Archaeologists tell us that in fact there was a lot of other-god-worshiping happening in the Land of Israel at the time. The goddess Asherah, wife of El, was particularly popular – hence all the commandments against setting up Asherah-poles, as in the verse above.
So we have first, a famous verse commanding the pursuit of justice. Following it, there is a commandment against idolatry.
We now live in a different time.  Our idols are usually not made of stone, and we don’t usually call them “gods.”
Only a year ago, a group of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA, because they loved the statue of a dead man and they wanted to preserve it. It was so important to them that they put on a show of weapons and violence. They marched with torches, with weapons, and chanting angry slogans.
They were there for a more complex set of reasons than a statue of Robert E. Lee. They felt that a respectful memory of the Confederacy is important. They feel their way of life changing, and they don’t like it.
Other people – many of the local citizens of Charlottesville – felt that it was time for that way of life to change, because that way of life, to them, is called racism. That’s why their city government had taken steps to get rid of the statue.
Now I ask you: is it not idolatry to take a statue so seriously that it is worth a show of violence? Is it not idolatry that a woman was killed by someone who felt he was defending the statue?

Racism is in fact a modern brand of idolatry. It insists that some human lives are rightly privileged above others. It contradicts the Jewish concept of B’Tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are made in the image of God.

Now, lest my readers think this is just an exercise in pointing out where other people are messing up, let’s turn this insight upon ourselves.
When we decide to pursue justice, we need to ask ourselves about idolatry. Not “Whom do I worship?” but “What or whom do I prioritize above all else?” Specifically, when I think I’m doing justice work, I need to examine and reexamine my priorities: for whom am I doing this work? Who benefits? What’s my payoff for doing the work?
  • If I fight for justice when “justice” will also keep people I don’t like out of my face or my neighborhood – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if it won’t cost me a dime – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if I always get credit for what I do – what am I really worshiping?
We can be idolaters in the 21st century. If I want to know what I worship, all I really need to do is to take a hard look at what’s most important to me. What am I willing to defend with my reputation, with my money, with my life? 
Whether we call them “gods” or we call them “priorities,” every person alive has them. Even those who say “I don’t believe in God” have something that concerns them above all else. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote at great length about a concept of God he called “Ultimate Concern.”
We all have something that is more important than anything else to us. Whatever that may be, it is the thing we worship.
Whom or what do you prioritize above all else? Don’t tell me in the comments – tell yourself. Then decide if that’s really the worshiper you want to be.
(This is a variation and expansion on a post from 2017.)

We Can Change – Here’s Proof!

Image:  Welcome sign (rebeck96/pixabay)

Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post about my desire to become more hospitable:

Excerpts from The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!:

…I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  (1) 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. (2) It needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham, to welcome friends and strangers who will become new friends.

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 by example: 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.”

Committing to ongoing 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.


Now, five years later, I can tell you that I’ve changed. Linda and I regularly “have folks over” here at Beit Adar/Burnett, even though we are still introverts and my disabilities have continued to progress. We have regular “Pot Luck Dessert Havdalahs” and guests are a constant. I carefully do not think of it as “entertaining” – it’s the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests.

I have grown beyond (some of) my self-centered habits and worries. My disabilities have grown, but so has my world.

I brush aside whatever project is sprawled across the dining room table, and they enter. I apologize for whatever mess there is – once– and then I ignore it, because this is not about Better Homes & Gardens:  this is a holy place, our Jewish home.