Apr 05 2017

My Grandson, The Angel

Every grandparent thinks that their grandchild is an angel. My new grandson, Michael David, who is 10 days and 30 minutes old, actually IS an angel.  Or, at least, he is named for one!  People are sometimes surprised to learn that there ARE angels in Jewish tradition.  The Torah speaks of “malachim”- messengers- and you can probably think of a number of stories where they appear.  Michael is named for Tim’s beloved father who died when Tim was only 21- may his memory be for blessing.

Tradition tells us that it was the angel Michael, who informed Abraham that his nephew Lot has been taken captive.  It was the angel Michael who protected Sarah when she was taken into the harem of Avimelech.  It was the angel Michael who stayed Abraham’s hand when he was about to sacrifice Isaac, who prevented Lavan from harming Jacob, who wrestled with the patriarch[1], and it was Michael who told Abraham of the impending birth of his longed for son, Isaac.  What an angel!

In Jewish literature, Michael is actually the commander-in-chief of the entire angelic host.  He is one of the archangels! A leader!  Michael is one of only two messengers named in the Tanach, in the Hebrew Bible.  The other is the angel Gabriel.  Both are mentioned in the Book of Daniel.  Gabriel, as his name implies, gibbor- strong- is associated with the sense of justice, and is often tasked with administering punishment on God’s behalf.  Michael translates at “Me-cha-el,”- who is like God, or, God-like.  Okay, I’ll say that my grandson is an angel, I won’t go so far as to say that he is a demi-god himself!  The angel Michael plays the role as an emissary of God’s kindness and compassion.

Michael is depicted as standing to the right of God’s holy throne.  Note that the mezuzah is placed on the right side of the doorpost, and there is a custom to hold the Kiddush cup in our right hands.  Various rituals in the Torah call for anointing the right earlobe, thumb, and toe.  Eliezer places his hand on Abraham’s right thigh when he swears and oath, and traditional Jews will put on their right shoe before their left, and light a candle on the right side prior to the left.  Standing at the right hand of God is a key position.

Rabbi David Cooper suggests that when we think about Michael, we might reflect on times when we felt unusually open-hearted, on moments of exceptional generosity, sharing, caring, and being available to others.[2] Me-cha-el- who is like God?  One who expresses these God-like qualities.

Michael is the one who collects our prayers and brings them to God.  We, as Jews, don’t believe in intermediaries in our relationship with the Holy One; Michael is simply the Divine postman!  Michael can be tough when he needs to be.  The Book of Enoch, a pseudepigraphal- that is extra-Biblical text- describes Michael as one of those who will participate in bringing punishment to the angels of corruption and destruction.[3]

Writing in the definitive work, A Gathering of Angels, Rabbi Morris Margolies teaches that rebellious angels leave God’s Presence and descend to earth to tempt us to do evil.  We can counter these negative forces by “harnessing the angelic forces for good that are always there for those who choose them.”[4]  In other words, we are surrounded by angels and opportunities for good, opportunities to engage those qualities of kindness and compassion which Michael represents.

Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, goes further, suggesting that with every good that we perform, we populate the universe with good angels- a powerful motivation and beautiful image of the potential impact of our every action.

May Michael be blessed with all of these qualities of his angelic namesake-  first of all, may he emulate all of the Godly qualities of caring, kindness, and compassion, may he grow to be a leader in our community and may he muster the strength to stand for justice when necessary.

Michael’s middle name, David, honors the memory of Sarah’s father and my beloved husband, zecher tzaddik livracha.  I know that the angel David is watching over his beautiful grandson with love and pride.

May we all be reminded of the angels we create every moment. May we be blessed with awareness of the angels who surround us on all sides. May God bless every one of us with the strength and wisdom to choose the good, and, indeed, the holy path.

[1] other sources suggest that that was Gabriel

[2] Cooper, Rabbi David, “The Archangel Michael,” https://www.rabbidavidcooper.com/cooper-print-index/2010/11/8/2193-the-archangel-michael.html

 

[3] Margolies, Morris B., A Gathering of Angels, NY:  Ballantine Books, 1994, p. 84

[4] ibid., p. 85

Feb 24 2017

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and Rabbah bar Chana

By now we are all familiar with the story of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, the Mesa mom who came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 14, and who was recently deported in an initiative to enforce the strictest standard of law. In 2008 she was convicted for using a false social security number to gain employment.  Our tradition has the deepest respect for the law, as we read in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”  There is no doubt that she did something illegal.  Yet, as we shall see, our tradition also suggests that sometimes the path of justice must detour around the law in the direction of kindness. Sadly, she had no legal path to citizenship and no way to earn a livelihood in order to support her family.

The Talmud relates the story of Rabbah bar Chana, who hired porters to move a barrel of wine. In the process, the porters broke the barrel, and Rabbah bar Chana seized their cloaks as compensation for his loss.  The porters complained to Rav, who ruled that Rabbah bar Chana had to return the cloaks.  He asked, “Is that the law?” Clearly, Rabbah was within his legal rights to NOT pay the workers and to keep their garments in order to cover the cost of the wine. Rav responded that it was the law that he return the cloaks, based on the text in Proverbs (2:20), “Walk on the path of the good.”  After their garments were returned, the porters complained that, as poor men, they were hungry and needed their wages for the day in order to buy food.  Rav ordered Rabbah to pay them.  Again, Rabbah questioned, “Is that the law?”  Yes- as the verse concludes, “Keep to the paths of the just.”[1]

This ruling is based on a principle known as, “lifnim m’shurat ha-din,” beyond the letter of the law. Paradoxically, the tradition suggests that the requirement of the law is sometimes to ignore the law and err on the side of kindness.  My heart aches for Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and I can’t help but wonder how Rav would have ruled in her case?

Nachmanides comments on Deuteronomy 6:18, where we read, “Do the right and good thing in the eyes of God.” The rabbis cannot adjudicate every possible situation in which we find ourselves.  So they direct us to a guiding principles.   “God,” writes Ramban, “desires that which is good and right.  This refers to compromise, finding more leniently than the strict letter of the law.”[2]  It is tempting to rationalize our behavior and to assess our own standards and our own desires as the good and the right.  Finding the balance between justice and kindness is a challenging paradox.  While respecting the law, we honor the principle of compassion.

The law, for example, requires that mamzerim, children born of forbidden relationships, should never be allowed to marry into the community.  The midrash boldly counters that anyone who would enforce such a law is oppressive.[3]  Aren’t we a society of laws?  Won’t there be chaos if laws are not respected and enforced?  Yes.  And no.  The Talmud teaches that Jews are, “Compassionate ones, the children of the compassionate,” going so far as to suggest that if we see a Jew who does not act with rachamim, with mercy, that we should suspect that person’s lineage![4]  This is a dramatic statement and a dramatic argument for compassion lifnim m’shurat ha-din, above and beyond the letter of the law.  I am haunted by Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos.  Would that our judicial system had been informed by the Jewish value of erring on the side of mercy.

We need both justice and mercy. The midrash suggests that God contemplated the role of each quality in creating the world, and compares this to pouring water into clay vessels.  If we pour either hot or cold water exclusively, the vessels will shatter.  With a mixture of the two, the vessel will survive.  Thus, God is depicted as saying, “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be oppressive; on the basis of judgment alone, how would the world be able to exist?. I will create it with justice and mercy together and then, maybe, it will be able to stand!”[5]  May we be blessed with deeply felt connections to both justice and kindness, and the wisdom to know when to apply each one.

 

[1] BT Baba Metzia 83a

[2] Ramban on Deuteronomy 6:18

[3] Leviticus Rabbah 32:8

[4] BT Beitzah 32b

2 Genesis Rabbah – 12:15

 

Nov 22 2016

Conversation Project Shabbat

On July 14, 2014, my husband David and I sat down with our children to disseminate and discuss our healthcare advanced directives as a family. It was David’s 69th birthday; he died about 2 months before his 70th. David had endured several years of ill health, culminating in the removal of a kidney. In June, the month prior, we received the news that the cancer had metastasized to his bones. As a couple, we wanted to make sure that all of the children understood our desires for end of life care. We were incredibly grateful that we had had the foresight to discuss a broad variety of medical treatment options dispassionately, years before there was any urgent medical necessity. Suddenly those decisions became radically more real.

 
During the next 10 months, David endured 2 different rounds of chemotherapy, neither of which had the desired effect of stopping the cancer which was destroying his bones and causing pain that would be unbearable to most normal human beings. I recall more than once remarking that I didn’t know how he could bear the agony of trying to move while his bones were crumbling. Radiation impacted his ability to swallow and to enjoy food, which became a non-option anyway once he had a feeding tube inserted at the end of the summer. We watched him fight and waste away, fight and waste away, yet always with the hope that one more treatment would be successful where others had failed.

 
We had talked about nutrition and hydration at the end of life, about ventilators and surgical intervention in the face of terminal illness, but we had not addressed the fundamental question that The Conversation Project urges us to consider- “What matters to you most at the end of life?” Dr. Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal and a leading thinker about the role of the medical profession in caring for patients whose time is limited, reminds us that people have a broad variety of concerns besides prolonging their lives.

 
Doctors are trained to view death as the enemy and to battle on until the end. Yet, at some point, the battle was lost. Much as we respected David’s oncologist, among David’s final words were, “Why didn’t he tell me it was so bad?” Why indeed. David died on Tuesday May 19th; on Monday, just the day before his death, he had been scheduled for an appointment to talk about an experimental treatment. He never made it to that appointment. Instead, we called hospice, we called the family, and he died, per his request, at home, in his own bed.

 
Gawande quotes an essay by Stephen Jay Gould who expresses reservations regarding the “trendiness” of accepting death. Gould contends, in the face of his own terminal illness, that there is nothing wrong with “raging against the dying of the light.” Gawande counters that, while there is nothing wrong with sustaining hope, it is problematic if it prevents us from preparing for the more likely outcome. He writes, “We’ve created a multimillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets- and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.”

 
The Conversation Project is an important first step in considering what we each might value most if we have the luxury of knowing that our time is limited. What would be a good enough day to want to go on, and what is the tipping point where we would be ready to let go? The answer will be different for each of us, and we must have the conversation now. Pam Ruzi, a pediatric social worker with Hospice of the Valley, and a member of Temple Chai and our think-tank for tonight’s event, put it starkly- “Everybody is afraid. The doctor and the patient.”

 
I think about what might have been different in David’s life and the life of our family had we understood how close his end was. I regret that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk about that, to look each other in the eye and open our hearts and just consider- what will make today the best day possible? I believe we might have made different decisions and not chased cures that were the medical equivalent of that winning lottery ticket.

 
I know that David felt loved until the very end, that he enjoyed the best possible support from friends, family, and community. And, I wish that we had had more time to lay down our swords, to cease the raging battle, and to have quietly enjoyed more the time with which we were blessed.

 
I am thankful that our culture is changing and growing and learning. I am thankful for the incredible think tank here at Temple Chai that, under the leadership of Dr. Ron Fischler, has brought this conversation to our community. And I am thankful to each of you who will join us following the service tonight to hold each other’s hands as we begin The Conversation.

Oct 14 2016

Death and Letting Go

Death and Letting Go

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is determined, “Who shall live and who shall die.”

In America we associate dying with sickness and disease, something which takes place in hospitals, out of sight. In ancient culture, and, in fact, up until the modern era, death was much more integrated into daily life. The Hebrew Bible is very straightforward about death. Joseph says, “Behold, I am now about to die.” When King David is on his deathbed he says, “Behold, I am now about to go in the way of all the earth.” Simple, painful, undeniable. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old neurosurgeon who died in March, 2015, wrote a powerful journal of his final months which was a bestseller this year- When Breath Becomes Air. “Death,” he writes simply, “always wins.”[1]

We need to look back only a generation or two in our own society, to a time when people were more connected to the land, where the birth and death of animals introduced children to the reality of the cycle of life, and where most people died in their own homes, surrounded by loved ones. Speaking of generations, there may be those listening to these words who are young and wonder why they should care about issues of death and dying. To you I say- perhaps you have parents or grandparents who are grappling with precisely these issues? How can you support them as they confront challenging choices in their lives? And, more starkly, today is the day when we come face to face with our own mortality. None of us know when our thinking about our own lives and deaths will move from the realm of intellectual consideration to the realm of gut wrenching reality.

We cling to life; we are hard-wired to live. Maurice Lamm tells the story of Yosef, desperately poor and trapped in a body that brought tremendous pain each time he bent down to pick up a twig or scrap of wood. Daily he cried out to God that he was ready to die, that the pain was unendurable. One day, as he placed a larger than usual piece of wood into his sack, the sack ripped and all that he had gathered was scattered on the ground. “I told you I’ve had enough of this wretched life. Take me away from this pointless life. Let me die!” The Angel of Death appeared to him- “You called for me?” “Yes,” Yosef replied, “I was wondering whether you could help me pick up all of these sticks?”[2]

The psalms speak of “three score years and ten, or, if by reason of strength, four score.”   Seventy or eighty years, to our ancestors, was a long life. Today when we wish each other, “Ad meah v’esrim, you should live to 120”, it has become a realistic expectation. Now that we are living longer, we question how are we living, how can we live better, and what happens at the end of days when our suffering outweighs our joy in life? As human beings, we crave meaning in our lives. How do we discern when there is enough meaning to go on, and when we are ready to surrender?

It is a terrible and heroic thing to “preside over the disintegration of one’s own body,” as Mary Chase Morrison wrote in her late eighties. “. . . looking on as sight and hearing, strength, speed and short-term memory deteriorate.” [3] Then there’s the loss of status as we give up the satisfaction of work that has defined us for a lifetime, the disruption of moving from our own home, the terrible diminishment of our mental capacities. And the agonizing loss as we watch our generation die away. An aging elder described it thus, “It is as if we are soldiers running across a battlefield- people are falling on either side of us. When will it be our turn? That’s our life from now on. How do we get used to it?”[4] More states are enacting legislation to allow aid in dying.

There are great spiritual opportunities as we age, time to gather in the harvest of patience and wisdom, gratitude and equanimity, forgiveness and joy. Israeli feminist Alice Shalvi wrote that, “What I have lost in longevity, I have redeemed by profundity. Compelled by failing physical strength, I sit more, recline more, rest more frequently. But in those moments of physical nonaction and bodily passivity, the spirit can soar if I unleash it from everyday concerns.”[5]

Contemplating our own death is fraught with fear. Dr. Kalanithi describes his terminal diagnosis as not “life-altering” but “life shattering.”[6] He says that before his diagnosis, he knew that he would someday die. After the diagnosis, “I knew that someday I would die. . . but now I knew it acutely.”[7]

The precious, precious value of each human life, a deeply held Jewish belief, is weighed against the quality of that life. The time has come to embrace maximal treatment for pain, even at the expense of minimally decreasing life span. There is a fine line between medicating to control pain and hastening death. Some choose to forego further nutrition and hydration, with or without sedation, as a means of letting go. There is no magic formula which will tell us the right thing to do in any given situation.

We fear suffering and we fear causing our loved ones to suffer. We fear loneliness and loss of independence; we fear a lack of meaning. It is vital that we initiate serious, open conversation with our loved ones about our own vision for the end of life while we are still healthy and dispassionate enough to do so. By a show of hands, how many of you think that it is important to talk about what we do and do not want at the end of our life’s journey? Okay, now, how many of you have had that conversation? We at Temple Chai invite you to join us for our Conversation Project Shabbat on Nov. 18th, and continuing with next year’s discussion of the book Wise Aging. You can find information about these programs in your Yom Kippur bulletin.

Our tradition allows us to refuse further treatment and place ourselves in God’s hands. God’s hands in our community are thankfully represented by hospice, an organization which has devoted itself to expertly caring for the dying and their loved ones, at home or in hospice facilities. Hospice dedicates itself to the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of dying with great gentleness, allowing the dying to focus on the spiritual work which many of us would hope for as part of our vision of “a good death.”

Sometimes death comes in an instant-there is no time to prepare and no time to say goodbye. Some of us might pray for just such a death, that we might be spared the pain of letting go. Do you remember the Kenny Roger’s song, The Gambler– “the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep?”

Yet the end of life is a time when we can achieve a sense of resolution and peace through many holy actions- asking for and receiving forgiveness, letting go of negative patterns, making charitable bequests, and even donating organs. All of these are ways that we may redeem ourselves at the end of our days. The example of how we die is as much a part of our legacy as how we live. Rabbi Cowan and Linda Thal define dignity in death as “. . . more than avoiding being hooked up to tubes and machinery. It is taking responsibility for setting our affairs in order, preparing the next generation, saying good-bye, receiving farewells, offering forgiveness, bestowing blessing, and modeling how to die without fear.”[8]

The soul at the end of life is compared to a flickering flame. Traditional Jewish practice did not allow intervention to hasten the end. The rabbis did permit removing any impediments to dying. We are under no obligation to prolong life, and must respect the wishes of our loved ones who choose not to seek further treatment when their time is at hand.

A good death is one where the dying person is not isolated, where there is a hand to hold through the darkest times. A good death is one in which the needs of the individual are paramount. Rabbi Dayle Friedman suggests the following questions, “Will a proposed treatment advance the person’s comfort or well-being? How well are we really caring for her? Does he have a pillow with a soft cover? Does she have her perfume? Is there music he likes? Is whatever food she can eat really delicious?”[9] Jewish tradition teaches us that it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to stand by a person at the moment of death. In fact, if a person is near death, it is forbidden to leave them alone. We are so grateful to the members of our Temple Chai community who have trained to be part of the Chevrah Kaddishah, the holy society lovingly preparing our bodies for burial.

We are all of us dying even in the midst of life. Almost two thousand years ago Seneca taught that, “Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn how to live and, what will amaze you even more, dear friends, throughout life one must continue to learn how to die.” Acknowledging this reality need not be depressing, it can lead us to the deepest appreciation of each moment with which we are blessed. It can lead us to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done, now- with no expectation of an unlimited future which may never come. The consciousness of our own death distinguishes us from all other creatures, but it is also what empowers us to live lives whose meaning will endure beyond the cessation of our physical being. When we remember that we are dying, we achieve a clear sense of purpose, we no longer waste time, we exert ourselves to extract the maximum potential available in each moment. Suddenly priorities become clear and flexibility seems possible.

Meaning derives from appreciating every day, every moment, with which we are blessed, as expressed so simply and beautifully in this poem by Jane Kenyon- Otherwise.

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise.

I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach.

It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 

Let’s not shed tears over our inevitable demise. Yesterday is history and tomorrow is only a promise. All we really have is the present moment and what we bring to it. Our love and our memories endure beyond the grave, it is to these that we must renew our devotion if we would give our lives meaning and purpose beyond our limited days.

“To live in this world,” wrote Mary Oliver, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.”

There is, as we read in Ecclesiastes (3:2), “A time to be born and a time to die.” May we all be blessed in our lives with the ability to love and to the ability, when the time comes, to let go.

 

[1] Kalanithi, Paul, When Breath Becomes Air, NY: Random House, 2016, p. 114

[2] Cowan, Rabbi Rachel and Thal, Linda, Wise Aging, NJ: Behrman House, 2015, p. 252

[3] quoted in ibid., p. 65

[4] ibid., p. 220

[5] quoted in Berrin, Susan, A Heart of Wisdom, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997, p. 181

[6] Kalanithi, op. cit., p. 120

[7] ibid., p. 132

[8] Cowan and Thal, op. cit., p. 262

[9] Friedman, Rabbi Dayle A., Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015, p. 88

Oct 05 2016

Happiness = Goodness/How to Be Happy

HOW TO BE HAPPY

  1. Make the decision to be happy
  2. Make the best of whatever comes your way
  3. Understand that everything has a price
  4. Speak in positive ways
  5. Expect less and appreciate more
  6. Find ways to give back to the community
  7. Care for your body through food and exercise
  8. Make time to be with the people you love
  9. Pursue intellectual and spiritual growth

10.Spend time at Temple Chai with others who share your values

 

Shanah tovah- or- should I say- happy new year? What’s the difference anyway?  When we say “happy new year”, we evoke images of revelers drinking champagne, laughing and dancing- a party atmosphere.  What comes to mind when we wish them a “shanah tovah”, a good year?  Certainly, a more sober image. An image of those things that might make this a good year.  We think more deeply- health, family life, friends, community.  It turns out that a happy life is a good life, a life filled with meaning and purpose.  What can we do to be happy?  What can we do to be good?

Do you remember the Peanuts cartoon strip, the one where Charlie Brown woefully says, “Sometimes I wonder if I even know what it would take to make me happy.”  Snoopy responds by throwing a ball- “Here, get the ball.”  He seems mystified when Charlie Brown is still despondent in the final frame- “That usually works with dogs.”  That usually works with dogs.  What about us?  What does it take to make US happy?

Is happiness an end unto itself, or a by-product of a life well-lived? Do we wait for something that will make us happy, or can we cultivate a positive and happy outlook almost regardless of what is happening around us?  Eric Weiner wrote a fascinating book on happiness in various countries around the globe- The Geography of Bliss.  His conclusion is precisely that “happiness is a choice.  Not an easy choice, not always a desirable one, but a choice nonetheless.[1]”  The first, important way to be happy is to decide to be happy, to be happy unless there is some very dramatic reason not to be.

Making the best of what comes our way is a foundation of happiness.  Pirke Avot offers profound guidance, “Ayzehu asheer- sameakh b’khelko”- “Who is rich?  The person who is happy with their portion.”  There are many circumstances which are out of our control.  Many of us are unhappy because of things that are out of our control.  Our response to circumstances is the one thing that IS under our control.  Making the best of what comes our way is the second key to happiness.

It is human nature to be dissatisfied and to strive for more and better, and in many areas of our lives this serves us well.  If we are dissatisfied with our work, perhaps we can think about it differently.  If we are dissatisfied with disease, we will search for cures.  It is critical, however, that we learn to distinguish between what can and what cannot be changed.  We only create misery for ourselves when we allow dissatisfaction over what cannot be changed to become an obstacle to our happiness.

Thirdly, we recognize that everything has a price- even happiness! “The Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman was once asked if he could summarize the essence of economics in a sentence.  ‘There are no free lunches,’ he responded.  This is as good an understanding of life as it is of economics. Everything has a price.  With regard to happiness, there are three rules related to this law of life:

Make peace with the fact that everything in life has a price.

Determine what the price is for anything you desire.

Choose whether to pay that price or to forgo what you desire.”

There are obstacles on the road to happiness. The 10th commandment prohibits coveting that which belongs to our neighbor. Feeling dissatisfied with what we have and envying that which others enjoy is a sure path to unhappiness. In his study, Weiner concludes that, “. . . money does buy happiness. Up to a point.” In the country of Bhutan, which pioneered the idea of a Gross National Happiness index, one businessman defined happiness as, “knowing your limitations; knowing how much is enough.”[3] Consider that you may already have everything that you need?

The desire for financial success can impede our happiness. Here is Mouse addressing Goat in the Pearls Before Swine cartoon strip- “I don’t get it. I keep buying things to try to make myself happy.  But none of it makes me happy.”  Goat asks, “What does that tell you?” Mouse suggests, “I’m buying the wrong things.”  Goat says, “No.”  Mouse shouts, “I need better more expensive things!!”  Better, more expensive things, is not the key to happiness.

We need an expanded definition of happiness, one which embraces raising well-adjusted children, forming lasting friendships, establishing a harmonious household, being tolerant of others, lifelong learning, volunteering for the community- finding ways to bring blessing to others and to our community. Meaningful lives are happy lives.

Studies have also shown that what we talk about impacts our happiness. The 4th way to increase our happiness is to use positive language.  Studies show that “The happiest people had twice as many substantive conversations or discussions about meaningful information (such as philosophy and current affairs) and one-third as much small talk (discussions about trivial information, such as the weather) as the unhappiest people.”[1]  Deep listening and opening our hearts to others will certainly make them happy, and meaningful social connection is a critical aspect of happiness.

The most important key to happiness lies in transforming our expectations. If we can learn to be modest in our expectations, we will find many opportunities to rejoice.  As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes in his landmark study, Gateway to Happiness, “Your expectations, though they are not explicitly formulated, are the root cause of much suffering. The more you expect, the greater chance you have of feeling upset and frustrated.  The person able to overcome expecting anything beyond his reach will live a calm and serene life.[1]”  We need to find that balance between wanting more and more and appreciating that our lives may be pretty great just as they are.

Expectations undermine our sense of gratitude, and gratitude is a fundamental aspect of happiness.  As we enter this new year, let’s take a moment to focus on all the blessings in our lives and resolve to complain less and give thanks more.  Rabbi Harold Kushner offers this perspective on the 23d Psalm- The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. One way to think of this is to be content with what you have.  Yet, in contemplating that verse, Rabbi Kushner suggests that, “My version of the psalm’s second line would read, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall often want.”  I shall yearn, I shall long, I shall aspire, I shall continue to miss the people and the abilities that are taken from my life as loved ones die and skills diminish.  I shall probe the empty spaces in my life like a tongue probing a missing tooth.  But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have.”[2]

Our tradition teaches us to say 100 brachot, 100 blessings, per day. Let’s appreciate every blessing. When we wake up in the morning we thank God that our souls have been restored to our bodies. When our bodies work sufficiently for us to eliminate our waste- another occasion for rejoicing! Aren’t you happy that you are here today? There are people who would love to be sitting together with the community tonight who, for a variety of reasons, are not able to join us. With each bracha we take a moment to focus on the blessings in our lives, thereby enhancing our happiness, reinforcing our sense of appreciation, and giving voice to our understanding that we can’t expect every aspect of our daily lives to go well.

What can we learn from supremely happy people? Kate Bratskeir answers that question in her article on “The Habits of Supremely Happy People.”[7] Among the strategies she mentions are: spending time with others who reinforce a positive attitude, cultivating resilience, being appreciative and noticing even the small triumphs in life, volunteering and giving back to the community, pursuing depth in conversation and growth in wisdom, deep listening to others, making time for in-person interactions, enjoying music and exercise and occasionally unplugging, and, apropos our presence in this sanctuary, searching for transcendence and spiritual connection.

In The Geography of Bliss, Weiner adds that, “. . .people who attend religious services are happier than those who do not,” and, “. . . busy people are happier than those with too little to do.”  I realize that is shameless self-promotion but it is also a well-documented fact!

Tonight we pray for a shanah tovah- a good year. What choices will you make that will maximize the goodness, and, ideally, the happiness in YOUR life? May our lives be filled with meaningful work, dedication to tikkun olam, repair of the world, devotion to family and spiritual growth. Living a life that matters turns out to be the foundation of happiness, and we are so blessed to have the wisdom of our Jewish tradition as a guide to creating meaning and purpose in our lives. Etz chayyim he l’machazikim ba, v’tomcheha m’ushar- It is a tree of life and those who hold onto it are happy. A happy life is the result of a good life. On this Rosh HaShanah as we enter into the Days of Awe, we renew our devotion to the deliberate study and practice of those character traits and attitudes that will make this not only a happy year but a good year as well. Shanah Tovah.

 

 

 

[1] Weiner, Eric, The Geography of Bliss, NY:  Hachette Book Group, 2008, p. 184

[2] Prager, Dennis, Happiness is a Serious Problem, NY:  Regan Books, 1998,  p. 5

[3] Weiner, op. cit., pp. 76, 77

[4] Mehl, Matthias R. and Vazire, Simine,  Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations, Psychological Science, Feb. 18, 2010

 

[5] Pliskin, Zelig, Gateway to Happiness, NY:  Aish HaTorah Publications, 1983, p. 238

[6] Kushner, Rabbi Harold, quoted in Mishkan Hanefesh, NY:  CCAR Press, 2015, p. 596

[7] The Huffington Post, Sept. 18, 2013

Oct 05 2016

Three Aspects of Forgiveness

WHY IS FORGIVENESS SO HARD?

In Sue Monk Kidd’s fabulous book, The Secret Life of Bees. The author writes that, “If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.” We cling to our woundedness and declare our hurt. It is hard to forgive because we confuse forgiveness with:

  1. Forgetting- When we forgive, it does not mean that the wrong is erased, but that we are letting go of our right to seek revenge.
  2. That we no longer feel pain- We may forgive and still need time to heal.
  3. That there are no consequences- There may be things that we need from the person who hurt us in order for us to forgive.
  4. That trust has been restored- No, we may very well want to allow time before we reconnect on a deep level.

 

For many of us, forgiveness is the greatest spiritual challenge of our lives. It is part of the deep wisdom of our tradition to set aside these Yamim Noraim for us to examine not only our relationship with God and the ways in which we need to do better, but also our relationships with each other, to take responsibility for the pain we have caused and to seek and offer forgiveness.

 

 

 

HOW TO APOLOGIZE?

More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote Hilchot Teshuva, The Laws of Repentance, in which he detailed the 5 major components of a successful apology. First is hakarat ha-khet- recognizing that we have done wrong. We cannot begin this process of return, to restoration of our relationship with others or with God, until we become aware of our errors. This is followed by a sense of regret. It is so easy and so tempting to rationalize our behavior. We excel at making up excuses. That still small voice of conscience within must be heeded, that nagging sense of guilt which is the moral equivalent of physical pain, alerts us to the fact that something is very wrong. If we are wise, we will treasure it as a divine gift.

The third step is viddui- a process which is an important part of our ritual for this holy season We acknowledge out loud the nature of our misdeeds and our regret at having performed them. This is followed by the resolve not to repeat our errors in the future. We know that our repentance is truly completed when we reach the final stage- when we have an opportunity to repeat the same action and we restrain ourselves from doing so.

Maimonides articulates 5 steps in the process of teshuvah, of repentance and return- recognition, regret, confession, acceptance of responsibility, which included resolve not to repeat the action, and, finally, actually following through when presented with another opportunity to commit the same wrong.

May we all be blessed today and every day, with the emotional maturity and strength to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our wrongdoing, to be willing to do what it takes to right that wrong, to resolve to do better in the future, and, in the end, to ask for forgiveness.

 

 

 WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FORGIVING AND LETING GO

Forgiveness is not the same as letting go. We may not be ready to forgive.  The person who hurt us may not be asking for forgiveness.  Yet, it may be healthier for us to let go of anger even without forgiveness and reconciliation.  Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that when we hold on to anger, we mobilize our own inner criminal justice system to punish the offender.  As judge and jury, we sentence the person to a long prison term without parole, and incarcerate them in a prison that we construct from the bricks and mortar of a hardened heart.  Now, as jailer and warden we must spend as much time in prison as the prisoner we are guarding.  All the energy that we put into maintaining this prison system comes out of our own “energy budget.”  From this point of view, bearing a grudge is very costly, because long-held feelings of anger and resentment drain our energy and imprison our vitality and creativity.

In most cases we don’t forgive because we feel that the offending party deserves to learn a lesson, and we arrogate unto ourselves the task of being the instrument of instruction.  In our innermost heart we say, “How can I forgive them when they haven’t shown regret, learned their lesson, and made restitution?”  But, as our experience demonstrates, the wronging party usually does not apologize.  As the anger etches its corrosive mark on our soul, we carry an emotional voucher wherever we go that reads, “Accounts receivable”.  With our vindictiveness anchored in the past, fixated on the slights, ouches, and resentments, we may wait fifty years to collect our due from ex-spouses, business partners and family members- often to no avail.  Imagine how many people and nations exist in this state, waiting to collect their unpaid bills.  That’s why the Bible proclaims that after seven years comes the Sabbatical year, in which there is a remission of debt- not just financial, but emotional as well.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to tell this story-   he came to the United States from Vienna as a teenager escaping the Holocaust.  As an adult performer, he went back to Vienna to give a series of concerts.  A lot of people wondered why.  “Don’t you hate them?”, they asked.  His answer was this, “If I had two souls, I would devote one to hating them.  But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it hating.”

My friends, each of us is blessed with only one soul and only one short lifetime.  Do we really want to waste it harboring anger and hatred?  As we enter this new year, may we all find within ourselves the resources to forgive, to reach out, and to build a foundation of love and understanding.

 

Oct 05 2016

David Rubenstein and Rabbi Milton Steinberg

My beloved husband, David Rubenstein, died on May 19, 2015. This is my second High Holidays without him.  His death did not quite meet the standard we imagine when we say the words, “a ripe old age.”  He was 69 years old, not young, but too young to be gone, before the birth of his first grandchild and without walking his youngest daughter down the aisle.

This loss is a constant reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of appreciating every single day in its potential for blessing.  When we truly understand that our days are numbered, we begin to understand that each day is a treasure.  David was in and out of the hospital numerous times during his illness.  On one particular occasion, after he was released, he told me that he had seriously questioned whether he would be leaving the hospital alive and whether he would survive on one especially hard day.

As we drove on the 101 we were both in awe of the beauty of the sky and the sunlight and Camelback Mountain.  We experienced the world with a sense of wonder.  We saw everything anew, and I had a glimpse of David’s profound gratitude at being spared to appreciate the gift of that moment.  Would that we could retain that perspective and not get so caught up in our everyday lives that we forget the miraculous and holy treasure of being alive.

I really resonated with what Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote of a parallel experience, which is recorded in Mishkan Hanefesh-

 

“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.  It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings. In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we. Source of blessings- may we open our eyes to the radiance around us; may we open our hearts with gratitude, and our souls with appreciation.- Rabbi Milton Steinberg, MH, RH, p. 65

 

 

 

Oct 05 2016

God as Parent

We call on God as Avinu, Malkenu- our Father, our King, or, perhaps, our Parent, our Ruler. In her book, Nurture the Wow, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg quotes William Thackeray, “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.”  (p. 109)  When we reach out to God as a parent, we express our hope for unconditional love, for acceptance, for support, for patience, for nurturance.  We hope for protection and that sense of security we had cuddling in our parents’ bed and falling asleep in their arms.  We imagine a God powerful enough to control the events in our lives and keep us safe from pain, from harm.

Yet, if we become parents, we learn the hard truth that this is an impossible dream.  There is too much that is out of our control.  Rabbi Jeremy Kalmonofsky writes that, “Since my first child was born. . . the theological trope of God’s parenthood speaks to me very differently.  I hear its spiritual power- not through my experience as a powerless child- but in my experience as a powerless father. . . For God, I love these small people more than I love my own life.  God, if I could only keep them from bullies and nightmares, unreturned love, leukemia, bulimia, depression, bi-polar disorder, cocaine, car accidents, flunking math, AIDS, rapists. . . “ (ibid., pp. 119-120)

Parents can’t protect their children from the world and neither can God.  That is a hard truth.  As we approach God as a parent and express our deepest fears, we pray not for magical intervention, but for strength and wisdom and courage in the face of challenges, and for patience and forgiveness and love when we miss the mark.

 

 

Oct 05 2016

Spiritual Accounting and the Book of Life from an Accountant’s Perspective

My mom spent much of her career as a math teacher and as comptroller of a real estate company. My dad, alav hashalom, was an accountant.  I have two brothers, Michael and Philip- both accountants.  I, on the other hand?  The last math class that I completed was 10th grade geometry.  Bookkeeping is not my strength.

Yet- here we are on the verge of a new year, tasked with “cheshbon ha-nefesh- spiritual accounting.”  It’s time to review the books from 5776, close them out, and open up a new ledger.  Alan Morinis describes this process, “Like an accountant reviewing a company’s books, the ‘accounting of the soul’ practice gives you the tools you need to ‘audit’ your inner life. . . You are guided to peek into the old shoeboxes and sort out the musty files of what lives in your deep interior in order to generate an accurate and transparent balance sheet of your life.”

As we focus on the Book of Life, I asked some of the accountants in our community how they understand this concept of cheshbon ha-nefesh through the lens of their own work.  Robyn Young noted how, when the books are closed, its nice to do a quick review of each transaction.  The books should only be closed when they have been tested.  “I think,” she writes, “that is (more) what Rosh HaShanah is about.  Testing the honesty of your actions in the prior year.”  Robyn also shared a handy accounting concept- “immaterial.”  Yes, each detail is vital when you close a set of books.  And, allowance is made for details that are so small that, as she puts it, they can be “swept under the accounting rug.”  I think that is great guidance for us as we enter into these Yamim Noraim- we need honest accounting of all the details, and, we need to NOT get so bogged down in those details that they impede our ability to move forward.

Diana Feldman finds it exciting to close out a year.  It is also, she reminds us, hard work and time consuming.  We need to evaluate what we learned in the year that is ending, assess the results, and create a plan to accomplish our mission and goals.  This is indeed an accurate description of the task we face on these Yamim Noraim.  Diana offers the comforting perspective that even if our personal “expenses” exceeded our personal “revenue,” “with the proper intentions (we) can still be written in the book of life.  I think that what she is calling “intentions” is what our tradition calls teshuvah, the process of fearlessly facing where we have gone wrong, making amends to those we have hurt, and committing to return to the path of the good and the right.

I’ll conclude with Diana’s words- “I think that in our life we can be better moving forward if we take the time to reflect, organize, and plan for the next day, week, month, year.”  To which we say- yes, amen, selah!

Oct 05 2016

When the Book of Life is Closed

The new year is upon us. Our book of life lies open before us.  We like to think that we have the luxury of time and many, many blank pages to fill in with fun and exciting moments as well as moments of depth and meaning.  We pause, now, to remember those whose books are completed.  For friends and loved ones who are no longer with us, the opportunity to add pages to the book of life is no more.  The midrash notes that- When a person is born, everyone rejoices; when they die, everyone cries. But that’s not the way it should be. When a person is born, we don’t know the nature of the life they will lead.  When they die, unless it is a tragic death, the loss of a young/younger person, we have a sense of satisfaction, since we know that the individual left this world in peace after living a good and proper life. To what can this be compared? To two ships that were in the ocean laden with merchandise. One ship was coming to port, the other was leaving. People were excited about the ship coming into port. Others stood by amazed and said, “Why are you rejoicing over this ship and not the other?” In reply they said to them, “We are praising the incoming ship since we know this ship has departed in peace and arrived at its destination in peace. But what the future will bring to the ship that has just begun its journey we do not know. ” So it is with a person who is born: we do not know the nature of his future deeds. But when he leaves this world we know the nature of his deeds.” (Yalkut Shimoni Ecclesiastes 7:1.)  Their book of life is closed, ours lies before us.  May the way we fill the pages of our book of life reflect the highest values that they held dear as we honor their memory now with the words of the mourner’s kaddish.

 

 

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