Time for Shabbat, already!

shocked
(Photo credit: apdk)

I do not remember the last time I was this desperate for Shabbat.

This has been a dreadful week, beginning with the bombing of the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Even though I did not know anyone present, the images that came streaming at me from the television, the computer, and even my smartphone were pixillated nightmares. Even though I was nowhere near Boston, have only been to Boston a few times in my life, it felt personal.  I got angry, and made an appointment for a blood donation. I needed to act, rather than simply stew in stress hormones.

Random bits of horror in the news kept poking at me: ricin, the Senate’s choice about the gun loophole, news about local violence. It seemed to never stop.

Then, Wednesday night, when I got in my car at 9:30 pm after a class, I turned on the radio and  learned about the factory explosion in West, Texas. A dear friend is the rabbi in Waco, just 20 miles distant, and I had no idea where she actually lives. I worried about her until she posted on facebook that she was OK.

That relief lasted only a few minutes, when the other details about the disaster began to sink in: 5 city blocks destroyed in a tiny Texas town. Volunteer firefighters were probably trapped in the exploding factory. Why was there a nursing home across the street? Why schools nearby?

I donated blood. This, I can do.

Then late last night, after another class, more violence, more weirdness, in Boston. I turned off the electronics and cleaned house.  I thought about my sermon for this evening. I kept forgetting and turning something back on – and would turn it off again, because honestly, I’d had enough.

Douglas Rushkoff‘s new book, Present Shock, describes what has been going on with  me this week. Events come pouring in faster than we can process them. Narratives fracture before they are even formed. Conspiracy theories multiply and divide.  Email, facebook, twitter, the radio, the news, the news, the news demand my attention and in a bad news week it WILL make me crazy.

I’ve been reading Rushkoff’s book this week, too, and that’s why I finally turned everything off and began scrubbing the bathroom.  My baby-boomer brain as well as my baby-boomer heart and soul were overwhelmed. I recognized myself in his pages and declared, “TIME OUT!”

Of course, I had to start all over again this morning, wake up to more strange “breaking news” un-narrative from Boston, along with assorted bits nearer to home. The people in Texas seem to have dropped off the news cycle, which sort of worries me – will anyone remember to check on them?

But today, at sundown, Shabbat will come. I don’t know if she’ll be wearing bridal white or a nice nurse’s outfit this week, but she will come and gather us in her arms. The electronics will be off. The buzz will be busted for a while. We will catch our breath. We will gather our strength.

Blessed are you, O Holy One, Ruler of Time & Space, Master of the Now, Maker of  Shabbat.

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Responding to Terror

Tikkun Olam
(Photo credit: AjDele Photography)

“He [Hillel] used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no human beings, endeavor to be a human being.” (Avot 2:6)

I am horrified at the bombing that took place in Boston today. Instead of assigning blame, spreading rumors, or ranting, I’m going to take positive action in the world: I’ve made an appointment to donate blood.

I challenge you: if you are feeling strong emotion, DO SOMETHING: give blood, give to the food bank, take some other action to relieve suffering. All the nattering on social media and all the pontificating on the TV will accomplish nothing, but the actions of a few good people could make the world a better place.

The Jewish Cure for Guilt

Image: An iron gate stands open in an ornate stone doorway. Tama66/Pixabay.

Rabbi Chananya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time?'” He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” – Devarim Rabbah, II.

I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.

When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again.  Ever.  Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.

Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:

LEAVE THE SIN  I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.

REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing.  This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop!  Move quickly to the next step:

SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.

CONFESSION BEFORE GOD Then, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:

RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SIN This requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.

The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.

Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized.  Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.

I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not  the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up.  If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.

Invited to Your First Bris?

Image: An infant at a bris. (Photo: via wikimedia.)

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, it is ok to call and ask.

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible. Most modern mohelim use a local anesthetic.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.

Pay attention! It’s Omer-time.

attention icon.

It’s Day 2 of the Omer and I look forward to counting when Day 3 arrives at sundown. Tonight it will be easy to remember, since I’m leading the Women’s Seder at Temple Sinai. Counting will be part of the haggadah, part of the script, and all I have to do is turn a page and my reminder will be there.

 

The rules for Omer Counting are fairly simple.  At sundown, or after dinner, or at 8pm (depending on local practice) one says the blessing and then counts.  For instructions on how to count the omer, and the wording of the blessing,  click this link.

 

 

If one says the blessing and counts at 8pm, fine.  If one forgets, but remembers in the morning, that person can count but cannot recite the blessing, and can go on counting with a blessing the next night.  If, however, one skips a day, then one is still obligated to count, but not with the blessing.

 

The Omer is a character building mitzvah. It is a long-run exercise in mindfulness, maintaining an awareness of what day it is and what time it is. And yet the only reward or punishment is the blessing and the knowledge that a mitzvah was performed.

 

How many aspects of our lives are like this? We pay attention and remember a birthday. We trundle along on autopilot, and fail to notice a depressed child, or the motorcycle in the lane next to us. The rewards for remembering are usually subtle, but when we forget to pay attention, the stakes can be high.

 

I wish you a mindful Omer season!

 

 

 

Hungry for Passover?

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.

 

Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.

 

But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year. 

 

That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.

 

I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.

 

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).  People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 

Making the Seder Count

US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read fr...
US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read from the Passover Hagaddah (prayer book) during the Passover Seder dinner in the wardroom aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We gather once a year around the seder table to eat matzah, to tell the Exodus story, and to fulfill the commandments. At some tables, it’s just that: a traditional trip down memory lane. But if we are going to take the words of the sages seriously, to rise from the table feeling as if we ourselves have been delivered from Egypt, if we want to make this experience count for something, we might want to think outside the limits of the bare minimum.

One thing we can do is to ask the “wicked child’s” question over and over again as we read through the Haggadah: What does this have to do with US? The sages criticize that child because of the way he asks the  question: he separates himself from the community. But what if we were to ask the same question in a different spirit, to say, “Where do we fit into this story?” Then more questions will open up:

  • When have I been a slave?
  • Am I now a slave to someone or something?
  • Have I enslaved someone?
  • Do I benefit from slave labor?
  • What is slavery? Does it still exist?
  • What is real freedom?
  • What are the plagues in my life?
  • Who is not welcome to come and eat at my table? Why?
  • Who is hungry within 5 miles of my house? 10 miles?

and the biggie:

• When I rise from the table, what am I personally going to do about my answers to any of those questions?

What questions are you going to ask around your seder table?  How will you make your seder count?