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?

 

 

Advertisements

#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:  Me, standing in the doorway to our home using my walker. Welcome to Beit Adar/Burnett! (Photo by Linda Burnett)

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, exactly 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.

#BlogElul – Commit!

Image: Pages of a contract are held together with a lock and key. The artist titled it “Binding Contract.” (stevepb/pixabay

Strange word, “Commit.” According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, it means “to carry into action deliberately,” and also “to obligate, or bind.”

Hebrew separates those two meanings into two different words:

Levatze’a means “to perform, to carry out, to execute.”

L’kha’yev means “to compel, to bind, to oblige.”

L’kha’yev is the verb the rabbis use to talk about the positive commandments, the “Thou shalts.” For example, a Jew is obligated – committed! – to be honest in business.

In English, the combination of the two meanings in the one word offers us a pun:

When I commit a sin, to what or to whom am I committing myself?

#BlogElul – Choose!

Image: Seven identical doors, all of them shut. Which will I choose? (quimono/pixabay)

News Flash: every Jew on the planet makes choices about which mitzvot, which commandments they will prioritize.

We each make choices about precisely how to observe those mitzvot. There are huge disagreements about nearly every one of the 613 commandments. Yes, even among those who call themselves Orthodox.

Every day, every Jew faces those choices anew.

So the question boils down to: (1) what do I choose? and perhaps (2) why?

Elul is a month when we consider our past choices and consider future choices.


Harvey Cox, a Christian theologian who married a Jew and raised their son as a Jew, once said, “Not to decide is to decide.”


What are my choices? What will I decide to choose?

If I don’t decide, what am I choosing?