Counting the Bites

The Grudge?
The Grudge? (Photo credit: riacale)

When I was a child growing up in Tennessee, I used to count the mosquito bites on my body. I could tell you exactly how many I had at any given time, where they were, and which ones itched the most. I could not escape the bugs, but I could keep a perfect accounting of what they were doing to me.

I was on the watch for every slightest itch. I knew when one bit me, and I knew when the bite began to tingle. I paid careful attention to each of them. Because I was always thinking about them, I could not resist scratching at them. As a result, I was miserable most of the summer.

It was years before it dawned on me that some of the misery was the fault of the mosquitoes, and some of it was my own. By focussing all my waking attention on those bug bites, I drove myself crazy. As an adult, I learned that the less attention I paid to them, the less they bothered me. Now I will sometimes get a bothersome bite, but mostly, I notice them, chalk them up to the fact that this world is not created just for my comfort, and go about my business.

The same can be true of hurts from other people. We can choose to keep careful track of them and to catalog every twinge. Some of us monitor every slight like I did those bug bites, focussing attention on them, picking at them, scratching at them, and complaining to the world about our catalog of grudges and woe.

The good news is that unlike the mosquitoes, there’s a cure. The cure is the month of Elul, the month for apologies and mending broken relationships. When someone comes to me and says, “I’m sorry I never thanked you for that favor” I have the choice to accept the apology. If there is something I need to make things right, I can ask for it. I don’t have to trust that person again, if they are not trustworthy, but I can still be healed of that bothersome little wound.

I can also choose to cherish the anger. I can refuse an apology, and say that nothing will ever make it right. And that may even be true: some hurts go very deep. But do I want to carry it forever? Do I really want to keep scratching at it? Or do I want to make room for some healing, not for the person who offended, but for myself?

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Recipe for a Good Apology

Sorry on Australia Day-sky writing
Sorry on Australia Day-sky writing (Photo credit: butupa)

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

if we are normal people leading normal lives, there are sometimes people to whom we to apologize. The offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken.”  All of those are useful replies.

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “What do you want? For me to fall down?” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended — not at this point — what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings/ ran over your dog / etc.”  And no subjunctive mood nonsense, either: none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff; that makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just makes people angrier.

Then, after the other person’s reality is acknowledged — then it’s time for the explanation, if you want. “I wanted to tell you how nice the party was, not imply criticism about it!”

And if there was damage done (real or perceived), there’s the question of making it right: “What can I do to make this up to you?” It’s a powerful statement, because it disarms the aggrieved party. What will make this right?  If the deed was bad enough (you ran over their dog with your car) it may be that nothing will fix it, and that’s sad. You made the effort to apologize, and that will have to do. But if they say, “Buy me a new dog,” then it’s time for restitution.

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with the people we love.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____  your _____.”  Say it with eye contact, in a sincere tone of voice.

1a. (optional) “I intended _____, but instead it came across as _____, and I am sorry about that.

2. “What can I do to make this right?” or “Here’s what I have done to make sure this never happens again.”

3. Do it, if you can. If you can’t, make an offer: “I can’t afford _____ but here is what I can and will do _____.”

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

And don’t let those Intentions get in the way.

Three Ways to Take an Inventory of the Soul

Checkbook-ageddon
Checkbook-ageddon (Photo credit: adamthelibrarian)

The month of Elul is for taking inventory of the soul. The Hebrew term is cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.”  This is not an easy task, because many of us have trouble seeing ourselves clearly. Here are three nontraditional but effective ways to get a reality-based take on what’s really going on in our lives:

1. ROLODEX.  I know, you have something more high-tech, a contact list on your phone, an address book, something. Whatever lists all the people in your life, look through it, slowly. Be aware of your body: are there any names that make you a bit uncomfortable?  Make a list of those names, the uncomfortable names. That’s your Elul to-do list: call those folks and deal with that discomfort. Take responsibility for your end of whatever happened. Do not try to get “satisfaction” from anyone – just take responsibility for yourself.

2. CHECKBOOK. “Checkbook” means whatever document gives me a fact based sense of where I spend my money. It may be last year’s tax return, or a budget, or a computer application. Ask: how do I spend my money? How much did I spend on food, housing, clothing? How much did I spend on entertainment? What were those entertainments? Where did I spend my money: what criteria did I use to decide with whom I would do business and with whom I would not? What did I spend on justice, on tzedakah, on relieving human suffering? Are there any red flags in this record: too much spending on alcohol, gambling, compulsive shopping? Would I be ashamed if my budget appeared in the newspaper?  How would it be different, to be a budget of which I could feel proud? What about the sources of my income: was all of it honestly earned?

3. APPOINTMENT BOOK. How do I spend my time? How is the balance between work and family? Does the record show appointments to take care of myself, my body, my soul, my legal obligations? What do I do on Shabbat, really? Do I show appointments for any volunteering or work that benefits others? Look through the appointments in the book: does anything here make me feel uncomfortable? Do I have appointments of which I am ashamed? Is there anything here I would not want my spouse or children to know? Is there anyone who does not appear in my appointment book because we have an unresolved conflict? What about the blanks in the appointment book: what filled those? Were they pursuits that really rested me, or were they pastimes in which I hid from something – and if so, what?

How do you take stock of yourself during Elul?

#BlogElul: Return (In which the rabbi pitches a fit)

If you are wondering what “#BlogElul” means in the title, I’m one of a number of rabbis and others blogging together as we approach the High Holy Days this year. We’re organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka @imabima. If you’d like to hear a chorus of Jewish voices blogging this month, search for us on Twitter using the hashtag #BlogElul.

OK, so it’s the third of Elul and I’m only on the first topic: well, I’m a little rattled.  Actually, I’m a lot rattled, because I’m angry, and the topic of “Return” sums up what’s bugging me:

1. I’m angry at the RETURN of old lies.  US Rep Todd Akin of Missouri went on the record saying that pregnancy rarely results from rape. (Therefore, he suggests, raped women don’t need access to Plan B or abortions.) In case you were wondering, over 32,000 rapes in the U.S. result in pregnancy each years, according to a 1996 study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Whatever your feelings about Roe v. Wade, vicious lies and misinformation do not help matters.

2. I’m angry at the RETURN of terms like “Legitimate Rape.” This brings to mind old canards like “she asked for it” and such. What happened, did I go to sleep sometime this summer and wake up in 1970?

3. I’m angry at the RETURN of outdated attitudes towards women in Israel, and the use of the police to enforce them.  For example, check out what happened this Rosh Chodesh (first of the new month) at the Western Wall, the so-called holiest site in Judaism, which is sounding pretty UNholy to me these days.  Four women were detained for hours by police for wearing white or black and white prayer shawls.  No, I’m not kidding. Read this blog entry by an eyewitness for the details. I’m too disgusted to repeat them in detail. For a sense of the bigger picture, check out Merav Michaeli’s excellent op-ed in Haaretz: “Be a Woman and Shut Up.”

4. I’m angry at the RETURN of lynching as a substitute for justice.  This headline that appeared today in Haaretz, the newspaper of record in Israel: “Israel Police: Hundreds watched attempt to lynch Palestinians in Jerusalem, did not interfere.” The article that follows describes something that sounds like it came out of the Jim Crow South. I am a lover of Israel, a proud Zionist, but I am covered in shame. This, from Jews? From the people whose holy Torah says, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue?”

5. I’m angry at the RETURN of yet more mass murders, in Colorado and elsewhere. Why can’t we figure out how to keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerously deranged persons? Again, whatever your stand on the Second Amendment, the founders did NOT intend for us to have mass murder after mass murder.

I could keep on going; that’s the awful part.

I know that Elul is not about looking outside myself and seeing what makes me mad. It’s for looking inside myself and seeing what needs fixing.

So maybe the question is, if I’m so mad about the RETURN of these things, what could I be doing about them?  I can only change myself, but how can the world change if I haven’t bothered to do anything about it?

Thus begins Elul 5772.

Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: "...
Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: “To a good year” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 16, 2012. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:

1. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and are required to do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]

2. DAYS OF AWE. Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

3. SIN AND REPENTANCE. The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

4. YOM KIPPUR. The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent future problems.)

5. ATTENDING SYNAGOGUE. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time: the services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

6. TICKETS FOR PRAYER? Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that while High Holy Day tickets are rarely discounted, synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

7. GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT. To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5773!

A Reform Tisha B’Av

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av (ti-SHA beh-AHV) is a commemoration of disasters that the Jewish people have experienced over the centuries, starting with the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE) and the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE). But if we recall these two destructions purely as “look what terrible things have happened to us” we have missed the point.

The point, as underlined by the readings from the Prophets over the past three weeks, is that the Temples were not destroyed by random chance or the whim of a jealous God. They fell because the Jews of their time lost track of Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. They believed the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinom, baseless hatred among Jews.

Now you may say, “Oh, I don’t think that God causes wars or punishes people by destroying cities,” and I would agree with you.  People make wars, and people destroy cities. And it is in the way that we Jews conducted ourselves before the fall of each Temple that the seeds of destruction were sown.

The first destruction was in 586 BCE (before the common era, similar to the Christian B.C.), and the only records we have of it are the records in the books of the Bible. What we know is that for a long time before the destruction, the prophets were warning the people of Judea that the way they were living would end in disaster. They were worshiping foreign gods, distracting themselves with sexual immorality and engaging in bloodshed. The leaders put their faith in foreign alliances, and their economic policies favored the already wealthy over the poor, especially anyone poor who was not likely to ever be rich (widows and orphans.) If you don’t believe me, read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah. History has shown again and again that bad alliances, fraud, economic injustice, and lawlessness are a recipe for disaster.

We know more about the second round of destruction, in 70 CE (corresponds to the Christian A.D.).  In that time, Jews divided into political and religious parties that hated and scorned one another. They could not work together on anything; they could barely occupy the same country. While they squabbled and called each other names, they started a war with Rome, and Rome destroyed the Temple. If you read the history of the time in the record by Josephus, it’s pretty clear that we  brought the rage of the Romans upon ourselves, and we did it mostly by mistreating one another.

The rabbis who survived described the attitude of the time as sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and they established a season of mourning to remind their descendants that all these activities (idolatry, immorality, murder, economic injustice, and baseless hatred) had been the road to ruin. So for three weeks every year, we read warnings from the prophets, and we finish by observing Tisha B’Av.

Now, I’m a Reform rabbi. I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt. I do not want to see sacrifices on the Temple Mount, ever again. But I do observe Tisha B’Av. I observe it by taking the day to ask myself some questions — and to take action on the answers:

1. Do I engage in acts of sinat chinom? That is, do I take part in conversations that speak hatefully about other people? I can (and often do) disagree with other people, but am I willing to listen to them and to have a civil conversation with them?  Or do I let myself off the hook by saying that they won’t be civil to me, so I can be as nasty as my yetzer harah (my evil inclination) wants to be?

2. Do I profit from bloodshed? From economic injustice? Do I profit in some way from hatred? (These are big questions, far bigger than a blog post. Explore at will.)

Isaiah warns that no prayers, no observances, no fasts, no pious activities will suffice. The only way to make things right is to  “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”

Today, I will engage in a fast of the heart: What needs to change? How fast can I change it?

Nothing else matters.

——

An earlier version of this blog listed the date of the destruction as “386 BCE.” My thanks to the alert reader who caught  my typing error! I try to catch all of those before I publish, but things sometimes slip through. Thank you for telling me!

Asher Yatzar: The Prayer for the Body

This is me. Standing is not my best thing.
This is me. Standing is not my best thing.

So far, this has been a month for studying the Torah of the body. I have twice had accidents that hurt my back, and I am just now progressing to crackers and water after a bout of a mysterious virus.

I have been sustained over this time by a prayer that I have come to love. It’s the blessing Asher Yatzar that observant Jews say every morning, either as part of private morning prayers or as part of the morning service:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

After a fortnight when standing is sometimes excruciatingly painful, and my “openings and organs” have been in an uproar, this prayer reminds me that I am not alone. I am one among a whole tribe of human beings made of flesh and blood, and sometimes our fragile, complex bodies are overcome by misfortune or tiny viruses.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this prayer. When we said it every morning in rabbinical school, I would sometimes get angry, because my body is often rather frustrating. I’ve had a very full life, and part of that fullness has included some adventures that left me with old injuries that never healed quite right. I was not always able to “stand before” God, in the words of the prayer. I was so frustrated that I wrote a new version that I felt I could say with a whole heart:

Thank God it all works!

No.

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery:
Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully
That we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Age, illness, and injuries take their toll: bodies are fragile and complicated, and things don’t work sometimes. This takes a toll on the spirit, whether the illness is minor and miserable or major and life-changing. This is part of the human condition. Paradoxically, that is also where the spiritual element enters: it is the human condition. We are finite and fragile. This is what we are.

Nowadays I say the prayer sometimes in the traditional language, and sometimes in my rewritten form. It reminds me that my problems are not unique.  It reminds me that even a creaky, cranky fifty-something body is quite a miracle.

In the meantime, around us, the world continues to be full of wonders: the wonder of a friend calling on us, a spouse fixing the pillow, the beauty of sunshine. The world goes on: I hope to rejoin it soon.

Is there a prayer that doesn’t work for you? Have you ever rewritten a prayer to fit your need?