Thanks for Life and Breath

Image: Girl blowing a bubble. Photo by AdinaVoicu / Pixabay.

Mornings are tough for me. I’m a night person by nature, jittery in the morning, and now age and arthritis have added a new edge to rising in the morning. I have written in the past about my reworking of the Asher Yatzar, the blessing for bodily function, which is one of the morning prayers. Now I’d like to look at another of the morning prayers, the one that gets me moving. Specifically, this prayer gets me breathing properly and directs my attention outside myself, which prepares me for everything else.

 

  1. The soul that You have given me, O God, is pure!
  2. You created and formed it, breathed it into me,
  3. And within me You sustain it.
  4. So long as I have breath, therefore,
  5. I will give thanks to you. – Mishkan Tefilah, p 292.

This is not the whole prayer. I say it in Hebrew, but it is fine to say it in English. The key to this prayer is that the word for soul in Hebrew, neshamah, is also the word for breath. So one can say this prayer in thanks and gratitude for breath. In fact, we can combine the words of the prayer with breath:

  • Inhale during lines 1 and 2.
  • Hold the breath, and appreciate it, during line 3.
  • Exhale during lines 4 and 5.
  • Pause for a moment, then repeat.

After a few repetitions of that prayer, I’m ready to move. I am less focused on aches and pains and energized by the oxygen in my system. My attention is outward, towards God and creation, rather than inward towards my own thoughts. I’m ready.

I wish you peaceful sleep, and an energetic awakening!

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.

 

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.

An Interfaith Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Heart of the Universe,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day.
Grant us the love and patience with which to respect,
indeed, to appreciate our differences,
and to seek common ground for this festive meal.

Grant us mindfulness about this food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the brilliant cooks in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we have received.

Amen.

 

I posted a slightly different version of this blessing last year; this one is modified to be useful for interfaith families.

Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.

 

/end rant

 

 

Thanksgiving, Jewish Style

Modah ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti b’cḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal Ruler, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

A Jewish day properly begins with gratitude.

Some say Modeh Ani* even before they set a foot on the floor in the morning. Some say it in the synagogue. And even for those who do not say it, it waits in the prayer book.

What is it that we can be grateful for, before standing up, before washing, before the first cup of coffee? We are grateful simply to be alive. “Restored my soul within me” refers to the ancient Jewish belief that sleep is 1/60th of death. We begin the day reminding ourselves that life itself is a gift.

This week Jews in the United States observe the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There’s a particular joy in sharing a holiday with our non-Jewish neighbors: there’s no need to ask for a special day off and no need to explain it to children as someone else’s holiday.

And yet: Let’s remember that in our tradition, every day is thanksgiving day. The Torah teaches us that life itself  is a precious gift: fragile, transient, infinitely precious. Use it well.

 

*”Modeh” is the masculine form, “modah”the feminine.

Thanksgiving Blessing

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign over all that is,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day;
please grant us the love and patience
with which to respect our differences,
for when those who disagree can truly listen to one another
miracles can happen.

Grant us mindfulness about our food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the minds and hearts in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we receive.

Amen.