9 Steps Across the Narrow Bridge

Image: Narrow suspended footbridge. Photo by skeeze/pixabay.

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.
Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Rabbi Nachman’s advice, “the main thing is to have no fear at all” seems like a bit of black humor. If a bridge is high and narrow, how can we NOT be afraid?

And in times of political uncertainty, how are we not to panic? But at the same time, the stakes are far too high for panic – the real question is, how are we to endure?

Here are nine Jewish strategies that will keep us grounded as we cross the “narrow bridge” of the coming years:

  1. Choose One Issue or Institution and Make it Yours. A young man I know who lives with a mental illness has been wonderfully calm through the past several weeks. I asked him how he did it, and he said, “If I try to pay attention to everything that is happening that is bad, I’ll just panic and get sick. Instead, I called Planned Parenthood and volunteered. I decided that my issue is reproductive rights. Someone else will have to take care of other things.” For those prone to anxiety, this seems to me to be a genius move. Pick one thing, and pour yourself into it.
  2. Make a Routine of Activism. Just as water is both gentle and powerful, trickling through stone to make the Grand Canyon, you can make a powerful routine of activism. Make a certain number of phone calls every day or week. Write a real letter to your congressperson and/or senators every week. Staffers tell us that phone calls and “snail mail” are the most powerful way to persuade elected officials, especially if they arrive regularly. Consider making a regular “writing date” with some friends over coffee or tea.
  3. Plan a Budget for Donations. Tzedakah, giving to relieve suffering, can be a very empowering mitzvah. Even a small donation, combined with others, can be helpful to a struggling organization. However, it is important to give the right amount for our resources: not too much, not too little. Review your monthly budget, and then come up with a figure for monthly giving. Then you will know that you are doing what you can to support good organizations or people but you are not giving beyond your means. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is forbidden to give beyond our means, because if we do it too much, we’ll wind up in need of tzedakah ourselves.
  4. Choose News Sources Wisely. Don’t get your news from Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to a respectable newspaper or two, learn to recognize the names of good journalists. If subscriptions are too expensive, your public library has free access to all the main papers, either electronically or in print form.
  5. Use Social Media Wisely. Be a canny consumer of social media. As tempting as it is to click on “clickbait” headlines, ignore them. They are garbage.  I follow some of those journalists I like on Twitter, and they often point me to articles in respectable media that I might have missed. I use Facebook to connect to friends, and I minimize contact with people who seem excitable and who pass along that nasty “clickbait.”
  6. Join a Synagogue. Synagogues keep us connected with other Jews. We combine for social action. We learn together about anti-Semitism and ways to fight it. We pray and study Torah together. We equip our children to live as Jews in the world. Joining a synagogue is both a gift to yourself and an investment in the Jewish future.
  7. Pray. Find a Jewish prayer that works for you. A regular siddur (prayer book) will have prayers for the government. It has prayers for sleep. It has prayers for all sorts of things. I have some articles on this blog that look deeply at certain prayers, and I’ll post more. Find prayers that speak to you, and say them again and again. Prayers can help us shape ourselves into the people we want to become. Attend services both to pray and to learn more prayers.
  8. Study Torah. Torah study can ground our activism, and remind us of things we might otherwise forget. I have been posting weekly lists of sermons on the Torah portion every Friday. It’s as much for my own benefit as it is for readers. What are you doing to deepen your engagement in Torah?
  9. Attend to Ordinary Mitzvot. Political activism is important, but the needs of our neighbors are important too. Visit a sick friend. Take food to someone who needs it. Help make a minyan at a shiva house. Rejoice at a wedding. Keep Shabbat. Do deeds of kindness to friends and to strangers. Study Torah. Invite friends over for a meal or coffee. Smile and be patient with the immigrant at the cash register. All these things make a real difference in the world, and each of them grounds us in mitzvot that will strengthen us.

All of these are things that will perform two jobs at once: they will make the world better, and they will keep us calmer, as well. All the world may be a narrow bridge, but if we put one foot in front of the other, we’ll get across.


Shabbat Shalom! – Chayei Sarah

Image: Hebron. The Tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are in caves beneath the large building at the lower left. Photo by See The Holy Land via Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah.” While the portion is named in the usual way (with the first distinctive words in the portion,) in this case it is ironic, for the first thing that happens in the portion is the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and our first matriarch.

In this portion, Abraham negotiates to buy a burial place for Sarah, and then sends his servant to negotiate a wife for Isaac. One of the striking things in the portion is that Isaac’s role in his own marriage is passive (Abraham sends a servant to find Isaac a wife,) Rebekah is a much more active participant, deciding the timing of her departure from her father’s tent.

The portion concludes with a brief look into the life of Ishmael, the other son of Abraham. He has 12 sons who will become chieftains of 12 tribes, stretching from Havilah, near Egypt, to Asshur (Mesopotamia.) We know them today as the Arabs.

Our divrei Torah this week:

The Crown of Aging – Rabbi Marc Katz

On Death and Land – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

The Blessed Burden – Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Getting On With Life – Rabbi Don Levy

Plan Ahead! – Rabbi Jordan Parr

Sarah – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions – Rabbi Ruth Adar



Peering Through the Screen

Image: World Map, by Grand_Scient / Pixabay.

I have known for a while that I have readers in some pretty far-flung places. Recently I saw a report from tweepsmap, a company that tracks twitter activity, about the location of my Twitter followers. It matches up very consistently with the information I get from wordpress.com about the readers of this blog. No surprise there, since I advertise articles using my Twitter account, @CoffeeShopRabbi.

Much of the info was unsurprising. I have many readers in the larger Jewish centers of population like Southern California, New York City, and Israel. But I also have readers in some places that surprise (and rather delight) me.

I must say, I’m curious and I’d love to hear from more of you.

Apparently there’s a regular reader in Cuzco, Peru. Are you Jewish? What brought you to the blog? I visited Cuzco once and found the people there to be extraordinarily kind.

There are quite a few of you in Dallas and Houston, TX – that makes sense, there are significant Jewish communities there. But what about you in Victoria, TX? How did you find me? Is the blog useful to you? How could I be more useful?

Mexico City was a nice surprise – more than one reader there – but in Guadalajara, too? Cool! How can I be more helpful to you?

I was astonished to find out there’s a reader in Dhaka, Bangladesh.If you are willing to tell me more, I’d love to hear from you.

I was excited to see that there is a reader in Shanghai, China. A number of European Jews took shelter in Shanghai during the Holocaust, and I understand the Chinese were very kind to them.

There are a surprising number of readers living in the Arab world, and in other places where there are very few if any Jews. Again, I wonder what you get out of this blog?  If I can answer questions that you wonder about, I hope you will ask.

Some of you I know. I know the reader in Karlsruhe, Germany. I have corresponded with the reader in Lyon, France. One of the readers in Norwich, UK, is an old friend from 43things.com.

I’m writing this litany because I want to encourage all readers to leave a comment or two. I truly would love to hear from you. I’m curious about your questions and about what interests you. If you are Jewish and isolated, I hope that I cut through some of that isolation. If you aren’t Jewish, how is this blog useful or interesting? Do you have questions I could answer?

Thanks to all of you for reading. I am grateful to you for doing so, and especially grateful when you comment. Torah is not a solitary activity.

Shalom, chaverim! Greetings, friends!



10 Ideas for Navigating a Contentious Thanksgiving Table

Image: Two people arm-wrestling. Photo by RyanMcGuire/Pixabay.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States. My radio and online reading tell me that people are very worried about discussions at the table, especially about politics.

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions:

  1. Keep in mind that these are the people who let you in the door when you are on the doorstep. You actually do want some connection to them, especially if you are feeling threatened by the world.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling threatened by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table is feeling an existential threat (“We could die!” “We could starve!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are a silly goose because you think such-and-such” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day.
  7.  Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant.
  9. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  10. It’s only one day.


Where is the line?

Image: A country road with dotted lines travels into the mist. Photo by Unsplash / Pixabay.

A thoughtful post from a senior rabbi whose sechel (wisdom) I respect. Rabbi Stephen L. Fuchs is the author of Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. I’ve linked to posts on his blog before. I hope you find this as thought-provoking as did I.

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Where is the Line? When will we know that we must leave?

These are serious questions asked by serious questioners.

The election of Donald Trump has turned the world upside down.

At a lesson for adults at the Reform synagogue in Kiel, Germany last week, a highly respected and caring OB-GYN raised this question because of her concern about what might happen in next year’s German elections. She is proud of being Jewish and makes sure that the many Syrian refugee women she treats in her home city of Flensburg know of her heritage.

Shortly after we arrived home, my older son Leo asked the same question, “Where is the line?” Leo helped found a college preparatory elementary school—which he continues to serve as Principal— to give disadvantaged students a better chance at life in the inner city of Oakland, California.

Both of these individuals work tirelessly to make the…

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Thanksgiving Interlude

Image: Gabi and Jojo are hungry. Photo is mine.

Sorry, folks, my back has been out again. Sitting at the computer aggravates it, so I am limited to my smartphone for posts.

Right now there are two poodles bouncing around on the bed, trying to convince me that it is dinner time. They haven’t adjusted to the change from daylight savings time. Weeks have passed but they are still quite sure all their meals are one hour late.

So life goes on. My back is messed up again (I fell off too many horses as a kid) and the dogs are hungry. Some things go right on no matter what’s in the news or how I feel about it.

Torah doesn’t change, either. It’s still my job and yours to be a mensch. That means looking for opportunities to do mitzvot. We should not stand by while someone else bleeds. We should give tzedakah according to our means. We should not attempt to use tzedakah to control the recipients or to benefit ourselves. We should be honest in business, and pay the people who work for us in full and on time.

Those are just a few mitzvot. Go and study – that’s a mitzvah, too.

I wish you a Thanksgiving holiday of peace and gratitude. May we all continue to recognize our blessings despite aches and pains and whatever gets in the way.