The Rabbi’s Struggle With Faith

           This is probably an odd confession for a rabbi- I struggle with a sense of faith. As someone who is too often in the human tragedy business, I just can’t reconcile so much suffering as “God’s will.” I am not comforted by a thought that “Everything happens for a reason,” and I cringe when I hear, “God doesn’t give you more to bear than you can handle.”

         The protagonists in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, similarly struggle with their sense of faith. You know the story: Balak, the King of Moab, hires a very reluctant non-Jewish prophet named Bilaam to curse the Israelite people. God tries to discourage Bilaam, but Balak is persistent and promises great financial compensation. In one of the great ironic moments of the Torah, a magical talking donkey even appears to block Bilaam’s path. Bilaam initially beats the poor animal, and then, according to the text, God opens his eyes and the donkey is revealed to be a divine messenger, an angel.

          Our own Debra Gettleman suggested that we too often react like Bilaam when we experience obstacles in our own lives- metaphorically beating them and cursing and not imagining that we might need to open our eyes and understand setbacks as, perhaps, divine messages. She writes, “The parsha is rife with characters that struggle against the will of G-d. Over and over we see the uselessness of such a struggle. So often in life we believe that we know the proper directions our life is to take. Yet time and again we are frustrated by unanticipated obstacles that block our way.” She suggests that “. . . we (can) trust that G-d is leading the way and the obstacles we encounter might be G-d’s angels sent down to continue to guide us on our paths.” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it like this, “Just as a small fire is extinguished by a storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it- likewise a weak faith is weakened by a predicament and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.”

         I guess I have a weak faith. I can only imagine the comfort of believing that everything that happens is God’s will. Actually, I can’t even imagine it. The freedom from worry and anxiety, the “tranquility of soul,” as Bachya ibn Pakuda puts it. Sometimes, in despair, I wonder if I should just resign from my position as a rabbi? A rabbi who struggles with faith? Who rebels against God’s will? According to the Chofetz Chayim, “For the believer, there are no questions. For the unbeliever, there are no answers.” That seems to me to be a pretty absolute, maybe harsh standard. Aren’t we, as a faith community, very much about asking questions? Wasn’t Abraham’s very first reaction after connecting with God to then question God’s justice and wisdom? Aren’t we the people of Israel, Yisrael, the one’s who struggle with God?

          The thing that saves me is the Mussar definition of faith. Mussar literature reminds us that faith is a process, a path, a journey. It is a goal, not a certainty. “The main feature of faith,” writes Alan Morinis, “is seeking it.” It is greatly comforting and encouraging to me to understand faith not as a “blind faith,” but as an ongoing discovery. Mussar suggests that the important thing is not what we believe about God, but where we look for God. If we can, indeed, like Bilaam- “open our eyes” to God’s presence, we can find strength and comfort in the myriad of blessings that surround us, and, perhaps, a faith that can sustain us in times of struggle and doubt, challenge and difficulty. I’ll conclude with this poem from Yehuda haLevi-

Where, Lord, will I find You: Your place is high and obscured. And where Won’t I find You: Your glory fills the world…. I sought Your nearness: with all my heart I called You. And in my going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me.

B’Har and Social Responsibility

         Parshat B’har speaks of fundamental issues of justice and equality.  “And you shall proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land, to all who dwell upon her,” the verse which adorns the Liberty Bell, has its source in this chapter.  The text is concerned with distribution of resources, stressing the fundamental equality of each individual. The Torah expresses this value through the institution of the sabbatical and jubilee years, as means to guard against the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and to protect the poor from lives of indentured servitude.   This text establishes a connection between the way we treat the land and the way we treat each other. 

On a physical level, we learn that the land ultimately belongs to no single individual, rather, the earth belongs to God.     We may use it for a time, but it is ours only temporarily.  The Torah teaches us this lesson through the establishment of a Shabbat, a year of rest for the land, paralleling the weekly Shabbat in our own lives.  This is known as the year of Shemitta.  During this year we are not to work in the fields or the vineyards, but are given as food only that which grows wild.   If the land truly belongs to no one person, then we are all its custodians.

From a spiritual perspective, Rabbi Elias Lieberman notes that, “In God’s scheme for this material universe we inhabit, amassing has its limitations.  We are not what we own, for, in fact, we do not “own” anything.  We better define ourselves by what we accomplish, with what we “own,” by how effectively we use the resources that we acquire and with which we are blessed to do God’s work in the world.” 

The fiftieth year is the Jubilee year- all land resorts to its original ownership. Provision is made for the redemption of land belonging to a person who does not have the purchase price. Every fifty years the land is re-distributed, ensuring that at least once per generation, each person has the opportunity to begin anew.

Arthur Waskow describes the Jubilee year as speaking “about a cycle of change.  It does not imagine that the land can be shared and justice achieved once and for all, and it does not imagine that a little change, year after year, can make for real justice.  The Jubilee says that in every year the poor must be allowed to glean in the corners of the field; that in every seventh year loans must be forgiven and the poor lifted from the desperation of debt, but that once every generation there must be a great transformation- and that each generation must know it will have to be done again, in the next generation.”

Today, the treatment of our fragile ecology as well continues to be of concern.  We learn from this parsha that we cannot separate our ethical responsibilities in any one sphere of life.  Men, women, and the earth herself are all part of one, fragile creation.  Each part of this creation must be treated with respect and caring, or the integrity of the whole is threatened.

Although there is no evidence that shemita was ever widely observed, the problem it addresses is a perennial one.  As we read this parsha, we must face the issues of poverty, injustice and disenfranchisement which continue to plague us in the contemporary world.  B’har offers us a vision of the world as it should be, and emphasizes our role in translating that vision into reality, by working towards a true equality between women and men, by alleviating poverty and caring for our fragile environment, and by consciously treating each other with dignity and respect.  The work of tikkun olam, repair of the world, is part of our covenant with God.  In parshat B’har we discover a vision of ultimate equality.  It is our task to translate that vision into action.

KonMari Your Passover

         Spring cleaning has always been a Jewish thing.  Except we call it Passover cleaning.  It’s a good thing, at least occasionally, to take the cushions off the couch and vacuum up the crumbs, wipe off the shelves in the pantry, and empty out our pockets.  As is the case with so much of Jewish observance, a good idea can become an obsession.  I will never forget one year when the mikveh lady told me in January that she was busy with her Passover cleaning!  I don’t care if the holidays are early or late, Passover is NEVER even close to January!

         With Passover just 3 weeks away, it is definitely NOT too soon to be thinking about how we want to think about the holiday.  As we plan seders and buy matzah, we might reflect on a deeper message of all of this shopping and cooking and cleaning.  Is all of this preparation really necessary, or could we do something much more radically simple?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man.  Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics.  As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the fall equinox, and the holiday of Passover, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up!  “Oh,” he said, “in the fall you teach your children the shelter survival and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”

        What a fascinating perspective!  Passover as the time when we simplify our diets down to the most basic foods- unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  What is it that we need in order to survive?  So I ask myself- why kosher for Passover potato chips?  I think Brother Rufus was on to something- Passover essentially is supposed to teach us how to live with less, how to identify our most basic needs.  It’s not supposed to be about obsessing about food and dishes and how we can replicate our lifestyle of the other 51 weeks a year during the one week of the holiday.  We’ve made it SO much more complicated than it needs to be!  To quote Rabbi Mari Chernow- “We can all learn something from the simple child.”

         This year, especially, I’m thinking about the cultural phenomenon of Marie Kondo.  Marie Kondo’s writing, and now a tv show, on the theme of “Tidying Up,” has had a massive influence.  People are decluttering their homes to such an extent that Goodwill stores in many places have had to halt donations- they are overwhelmed!  The cult of Kondo has turned “kondo” into a verb, as in, “This weekend I am kondo-ing my sock drawer.”

         Obsession with simplifying is not healthy.  Yet, Kondo has clearly struck a nerve.  Too much of a good thing is too much, and we are so blessed with abundance that we no longer own our possessions, they own us.  We spend our early years accumulating stuff, and our later years trying to figure out how to foist that stuff on others.  For my generation, it has been a rude awakening that nobody wants our treasures.  There is a lot of wisdom among millennials who are choosing simpler lifestyles and spending their time and money on experiences, not things. 

         Passover comes with a message of “Dayenu”- what is enough?  How can we shift our focus from excessive consumption to greater simplicity?  In Everyday Holiness Alan Morinis quotes the Vilna Gaon, who identified 3 levels of simplicity.  The first is simply acquiring less.  Next is to be happy with what we have. The highest level is to truly feel that we have everything we need.[1] Perhaps not everything that we might want, but everything that we truly need.  Perhaps we can use this holiday of Passover as a time to consider how we might simplify our lives and prioritize what is most important to us, shifting our focus from the acquisition of more and more stuff.

John Lennon said, “All you need is love.”  I’m not sure that’s true, but, as we approach the holiday of Passover, I invite you to consider that perhaps, “All you need is less.”


[1] Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA:  Trumpeter Books, 2007, pp. 119-122

Purim and Anti-Semitism

This year at Purim, one verse of the Megillah especially resonated with me. In Chapter Three, Verse 8, Haman seeks permission from Achashverosh to destroy the Jewish people, denouncing us with these words, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all of the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of all other peoples and they do not follow the king’s laws, and it is not in your interest to tolerate them.” Jewish difference, according to Haman, cannot be tolerated.

In the post-Holocaust era, it was all too easy to assume that antisemitism was a thing of the past. Jane Eisner, writing in The Forward (March 12, 2019), suggests that it is precisely because of our focus on the Holocaust that we have “overlooked centuries of anti-Semitism on our own shores.” It was easy to believe, she writes, that it “would only continue to diminish.” Sadly, as we now approach Pesach, the words of the Haggadah still ring true- “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.” Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the world, and the massacre at Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation was a terrifying reminder that there is no place on earth that is 100% safe. We take some comfort in the outpouring of support which ensued. “But I am beginning to think,” Eisner concludes, “that my experiences and those of my children may have been an aberration, an unusually quiet moment in a thrumming history in which genuine hatred is concealed just beneath the surface. Maybe America isn’t all we thought it was. African-Americans surely know this. Maybe I am just coming late and reluctantly to that realization.” It scandalizes me to even read these words out loud.

Conversations about anti-Semitism dominate the news. Just last week, (March 13, 2019), Robert Robb wrote in the Arizona Republic, “Anti-Semitism is real. It has been, and remains, a powerfully malevolent force in the world. It should be called out.” So here I am, calling it out, though, frankly, a rabbi denouncing anti-Semitism is hardly news. So we ask ourselves the perennial question- why the Jews? In yet another article published on the same date in the Wall Street Journal, the author quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks- “Jew-hatred is usually justified by appeals to a culture’s highest authority. During the Middle Ages, that was religion- so the Jews were charged with killing Jesus. During the Enlightenment it was science, so Jews were deemed an inferior race. Today’s highest source of authority is human rights- so Israel is portrayed as the worst violator.”

It is important to note that it is entirely possible to disagree with policies of the government of Israel and NOT be anti-Semitic. Yet, way too often, anti-Semitism masquerades as anti-Zionism. I believe that this is the reason that the conversation about anti-Semitism has become so prevalent in recent weeks.

Why The Jews happens to also be the title of a recent film that Ron and I saw at the Jewish Film Festival. Filmmaker John Curtin sets out to answer a different question. Not, why have the Jews been so reviled throughout history, but, rather, why have Jews been so successful? At less than 0.2% of the population, Jews have, for example, been 22% of Nobel prizewinners, 33% of Oscar-winning directors and 40% of chess champions. He notes that Jews are over-represented in the upper echelons of virtually every profession. In the film, he proposes a number of reasons- a high value on learning and especially learning through questioning. Education and risk-taking are credited as factors in Jewish achievement, as is the influence of Jewish mothers. Psychologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer is quoted in the film, saying: “Out of necessity we have had to think differently to survive. My family died in the concentration camps and I grew up feeling I had an obligation to make something out of myself.”

Despite all of his research, Curtin concludes that Alan Dershowitz is correct- “Don’t expect to find the entire answer, it’s just elusive. Dershowitz helps us connect the dots- “Jewish accomplishment is the other side of the coin, of why so many people have historically hated the Jews”. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own day is incredibly disturbing. We can take some comfort in the many righteous and supportive individuals of all faiths who stand with us. And we can be proud of the way we have enriched every country that has given us opportunity. As we celebrate Purim and as we look forward to Passover, the best we can do is be the best we can be, and continue to work for the diminution of fear and hatred in our culture and in the world.

Tetzaveh and Interrupting


         Is it kosher to interrupt someone?  According to an article by Kira Bindrim, “There are times when it’s okay to interrupt someone.  If they have food on their face?  If their dress is tucked into their tights.  If a tsunami is coming up behind them.  And there are times when it really isn’t okay, like during a business meeting, or when conversing with a colleague.  I know,” she concludes, “because I’ve learned about those ‘not okay’ cases the hard way.”[1]

         I can relate.  Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, interrupting was the only way to get a word in edgewise.  I thought that this was natural and normal.  Boy was I in for a rude surprise when I moved to Arizona.  People thought that I was rude!  Imagine that!  Somehow they didn’t understand my ebullient and enthusiastic conversational style as my way of demonstrating engagement in the conversation.  They just thought I wasn’t listening and wasn’t respectful, and they certainly didn’t appreciate the interruption.  People thought I was rude!

         So which is it?  Is interrupting a sign of a conversational boor, or and excited participant?  Turns out that the answer is not so simple.  Recent headlines suggest that what linguist Deborah Tannen calls, “high involvement cooperative overlapping” is actually a characteristic of Jewish conversational style.  It actually is, she says, “a way of showing interest and appreciation.”[2] This pattern of conversation is found, “among many Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, (and it) differs in significant ways from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest and West.”[3] 

Other patterns Tannen detects are, “a fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn taking among speakers, [4] “pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality, and accent,”[5] as well as a preference for personal topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.[6]

         To those who are not accustomed to, dare I say “our” way of speaking, we come across as rude and disinterested and dominating the conversation.  Among ourselves, we find simultaneous talking unremarkable and a sign of rapport and interest.  The question, Tannen concludes, is, are we “simply speaking at the same time or actually failing to listen. . . (and) stealing the conversation back.”[7]

         In this week’s Torah portion, we read vivid descriptions of the beautiful garments worn by the high priest.  There is a breastpiece adorned with 12 gems, one of each tribe, reminding the priest to keep the people close to his heart.  The priest is anointed on the thumb, the ear, and the big toe- he is to do for the Israelites, he is to be with them, and, most relevant to our discussion, he is to listen to them. 

         The Talmud raises the question- what if the priest’s body was inside the Tabernacle but his head was outside?  May he perform his priestly duties?  The rabbis answer that he may not.  His head needs to be in the game.[8]  If your head is elsewhere, you are not considered to be a full participant.  I believe that what is true for the presiding priest is true for us in conversation.  It is important to be fully present, and we express that attention by listening without interruption.

         A hostage negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces commented that in his line of work “listening can mean life or death.”[9]  The Wall Street journal quotes Glenn Cohen, “In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts.  You must listen. . . “[10]  Fortunately for most of us our conversations are not matters of life and death!

         An article in “Unorthodox” last year concludes that “. . . it’s not quite right to value interrupting as inherently bad.  Context is everything.”[11]  So-called “high intensity” speakers will understand our interrupting as evidence of conversational engagement.

Yet, I personally felt chastened by Elizabeth Gilbert’s comment[12]

“Yes, I like talking, but perhaps I don’t have to curse so much, and perhaps I don’t always have to go for the cheap laugh, and maybe I don’t need to talk about myself quite so constantly.  Or here’s a radical concept- maybe I can stop interrupting others when they are speaking.  Because no matter how creatively I try to look at my habit of interrupting, I can’t find another way to see it than this:  “I believe that what I am saying is more important than what you are saying.”  And I can’t find another way to see that than:  “I believe that I am more important than you.”  And that must end.”

         So, I’m coming down on the anti-interrupting side.  You can take the girl out of NY, but you can’t take the NY out of the girl.  Yet, perhaps, you can convince her to try to interrupt less and listen more.


[1] https://qz.com/951424/how-to-stop-interrupting-people-or learn- to love-it instead/ 

[2] https://www.jweekly.com/2000/05/12/interrupters-linguist-says-it-s-jewish-way

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Qz.com/op. cit

[6] J.weekly, op.cit.

[7] Qz.com, op. cit.

[8] BT Zev. 26a

[9] Cohen, Glenn, quoted in Siegel, Masada, “A Hostage Negotiator’s Lesson in Listening,”  Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2, 2019

[10] ibid.

[11] https://www.tabletmagazine.com/scroll/262943/ask-unorthodox-why-do-jews-interrupt-each-other/

[12] In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, p. 193

Vayechi and the Meaning of Life

We come to the final parsha in the book of Genesis- Vayechi- And he lived, referring to the patriarch Jacob. It is ironic that there are two Torah portions that have the word “chai”- meaning life- in their names.  The other one is Chayai Sarah, The life of Sarah.  Chayai Sarah tells us about Sarah’s death, and the week we read about Jacob’s final days and his death and burial.  So what do we learn from this?

I don’t think that the Torah is suggesting that we be over-occupied with death.   I do think that we need to focus on what is most important in life, what are we living for and how do we hope to be remembered?  What will be our legacy at the end of OUR lives?  Will it be said of us as it was of Jacob, that we truly lived?   That we made each day count?  I sometimes joke that I like to get a day and a half out of each day, and my family knows that I want my headstone to read, “You can’t do it all but you can die trying.”

Not that I am recommending living life in a frenzy of non-stop activity.  I treasure Shabbat as the weekly antidote to a very full schedule.  Shabbat is a vital part of my spiritual practice, a day to restore a sense of balance and focus.  A day to reflect on how we make our lives meaningful.  I believe that the goal of life is to continually elevate our souls and to cultivate the qualities of kindness, generosity, compassion that touch every one of our interactions.  If we can truly see each person we encounter as an image of God, the world will be a better place for our having lived in it.  Rambam suggests that we imagine the world as suspended between good and evil, and we have the ability to shift that balance through the actions we choose.  Some of us may have an impact in our own family and community circles, others may impact major social changes.  It is up to each of us to make meaning wherever we find ourselves, to bloom where we are planted.

Is it curious that in Jewish tradition we remember our deceased loved ones not on their birthdays, but on their yahrtzeits?  The rabbis offer the analogy of a ship leaving on a perilous journey.  Well-wishers stand on the shore to bid farewell.  Yet, the rabbis suggest, it is only when the ship returns safely to the harbor that we should truly rejoice.  Thus it is, they conclude, with our lives.  It is only at the end of our days that we truly know what a person’s life was about, who they were in the essence of their being and how they made a difference. Then we can say, as was said of Jacob, “Vayechi,” “he truly lived.”

 

What is the meaning of life?  The meaning of life is that it ends.   How are we spending the most precious gift of all, the gift of time?  As the book of Genesis draws to a close, as the year 2018 draws to a close, it is worth asking ourselves if we are truly living a life that expresses the values we hold most dear, and, if not, what can we do to make the changes that are in our hearts?

Praying for Rain

Rain is a blessing.  Our tradition suggests that when we give thanks for rain, we appreciate each and every drop as a blessing.  What a beautiful reminder of the importance of appreciating even the littlest things- every blessing, large and small.  What is an underappreciated blessing in your life right now?  Our ancestors lived in the desert, as do we. We deeply understand rejoicing over the rain.  I don’t know about your house, but in my house rain is an event.  If at all possible, everything else comes to a halt so that we can enjoy the rare spectacle of rainfall.  Rain in Arizona is so rare, that my granddaughter Helena was around 2 years old when she became conscious of rain for the first time.  She had no idea what was happening.  I remember her pointing to the sky, inquisitively, “Sprinklers?”

The Talmud teaches us that (Taanit 8b), “The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created.” Today is the day when we began to add prayers for rain to our Amidah.  Rain is welcome in Phoenix any time, yet, it also makes sense to not actively pray for it until after Sukkot, thereby enhancing the potential enjoyment of our Sukkah.  But now, the holidays are ending and we invite the rain- mashiv ha-ruach- God makes the wind blow, u’moreed ha-gashem, and brings down the rain.  May it be so.

Sarah Chandler, who is the Director of Earth Based Spiritual Practice at Hazon’s Adamah Farm, finds it curious that we have prayers for rain and not for sunshine. And, that there are no prayers for NO rain.  In fact, she notes, that, “our tradition has a prayer that pre-emptively annuls any prayers against rain. In the Yom Kippur Avodah service, (which most communities no longer include), the following prayer of the high priest is recited: ‘When the world is in need of rain, do not permit the prayers of the travelers with regard to rain to gain entrance before You’.”[1]  My mom is coming to visit tomorrow.  You know that SHE is certainly praying for no rain in Phoenix.

Chandler suggest that, knowing in advance that our prayers for no rain will be ignored, we can let go and find ways to enjoy the rain as a blessing and not a curse. And, of course, the rain is a metaphor for our own lives.  Rabbi Steven Leder puts it this way, “Serving God and humanity guarantees meaning and purpose, not the lack of sorrow.  No matter how good we are, sooner or later rain comes to our sukkah.”[2]

As we join in prayers for rain at this holy season, we pray that the rain that comes to us both physically and spiritually will be, “For blessing and not for curse. Let’s read together Alden Solovy’s beautiful prayer “For Rain.”

 

 

For Rain by Alden Solovy

Source of life and blessings,

The rains come in their season

To feed the land, the crops, the gardens.

The earth abundant, food plentiful, gardens lush.

Sweet, clean water, feeding rivers, filling the sea.

Sometimes too much,

Sometimes too little,

Sometimes not at all.

Fountain of blessing,

Remember us with life,

With beauty,

With prosperity and bounty.

Remember us with the gift of rain,

The gifts of earth and sky,

Blessings upon the land,

Each in its time,

Each in its season,

Each in its proper measure.

[1] Chandler, Sarah, “Shemini Atzeret: Geshem Be’ito,” Good Noticing, Zena Schulman, editor, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, 2014, p. 141

[2] Leder, Rabbi Steven, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, NY:  Behrman House, 1999, p. 52

Ten Things I Love About Being Jewish

10 Things I Love About Being Jewish

I decided that I wanted to be a rabbi at the age of 11. How do I know such a specific detail?  Because my dad, alav ha-shalom, thought to himself at that moment- “This is going to be important to remember,” so he made a mental note of the date.  What inspires an 11 year old to think about the rabbinate?  Well, I loved Hebrew School and Jewish study. Camp Ramah was a big influence. I led Junior Congregation and designed creative High Holiday services.  I admired my rabbi’s engagement in social justice issues.  What could be better than a vocation where I could spend my days learning and teaching something about which  I was so passionate.  I charted a course toward rabbinical school and never looked back.

My parents, initially, were not so supportive. With their more adult perspective, they understood the long hours and the synagogue politics that might make the rabbinate a challenging career.  They suggested that perhaps I would make a great librarian or gym teacher? Yet, I persisted, and, they were- and are- ultimately very proud of my career.

As we enter into this High Holiday season, I wanted to share with you the top ten things that I love most about being Jewish. If you look around this room, you’ll see #1- the sense of community.  I have a close friend who has served on many Boards of Directors, of various non-Jewish organizations as well as synagogues.  She marveled at the reserve, the politeness, the professionalism of the non-Jewish boards, compared with the raucous nature of what she experienced in synagogue board rooms.  Her observation was that, when you only see each other once a month, and for a limited term, you treat each other with kid gloves.  When you are as enmeshed as we are, seeing your board colleagues not only at monthly meetings, but at religious school drop off and Shabbat services, at Bnai Mitzvah and shiva minyanim, year after year, you treat each other like family, not like professional colleagues.

The Jewish community is a family- for better or worse.  We may make each other crazy, as family members often do, yet, we are inextricably bound together.  This is not something to take for granted, especially not in the modern world of disconnection.  Jane Howard wrote, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.  Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

I’ll let you in on a secret. When I stand at the ark with our Bnai Mitzvah students and have the opportunity to share just a few moments of private time with our impressionable young people, one of the things that I try to impress on them is this- wherever your journey in life takes you, you will always be able to find a Jewish community with whom you will have things in common and on whom you can rely if you need help.  What an incredible blessing we are to each other.

Secondly, I love the wisdom of our tradition and the values that we emphasize. We really do want to be better people and to make our world a better place, and Judaism offers us practical guidance in how to achieve these goals.  There are volumes of teaching on how to develop our character, how to be kinder and more humble, how to care for the stranger and how to listen more and gossip less.  We remember that every single human being is made in the image of God and must be honored.  Compassion is so fundamental to the Jewish way of life that we are taught to suspect that if someone is not compassionate they are not really Jewish.[1]  I am in awe at the dedication of our Mussar students, who devote themselves to developing their own character, their soul traits.  What an amazing tradition that inspires devotion to critical self-reflection.

Tzedakah, righteous giving, is a mitzvah, an obligation, not something we do if and when it makes us feel good. And, before everything else, Judaism understands the profound importance of justice- THE foundation on which society rises or falls.  I admire, I love, Jewish wisdom and values.

And then there’s number 3, Shabbat, of which Ahad HaAm observed, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” I adore being a rabbi, yet, I don’t think I could sustain my work without a weekly opportunity to step out of the everyday busi-ness and cultivate a sense of holiness.

My personal Shabbat practice has evolved as I have embraced Reform Judaism. There was a time when I only drove to and from shul, yet now I am okay with driving to go biking or visit with friends and family.  I still avoid commercial situations- you’ll never see me at the supermarket or the mall on Shabbat, though I might occasionally be at the airport, if necessary.  I have been to the mall on Shabbat twice in the past two decades, and the frenzied environment was antithetical to my understanding of Shabbat Shalom.

My favorite thing is to have nothing on the calendar, to pray together with all of you at Temple Chai and to share Shabbat dinner with loved ones.   Shabbat is a reminder of creation- God worked 6 days a week and rested on the 7th.  If even God needed to rest, then how much more so do we!  Creation itself was not complete until not creating was also created.  Take a breath.  Disconnect.  Find a way to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy- it will change your life.

Community, Jewish values and wisdom, Shabbat, and, fourth, our many beautiful traditions. To quote Tevye the Milkman, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word – tradition!”

Tevye was an Orthodox Jew, so the tradition told him how to live at every moment. As Reform Jews, we may feel closer to the words of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who taught that, “The tradition has a vote, but not a veto.”  We take Jewish tradition seriously, and, we adapt it so that it continues to be meaningful to us in 2018.  In many ways, this is more challenging than accepting every tradition as sacrosanct.

One tradition that we especially honor at Temple Chai is lashon ha-kodesh, the holiness of the Hebrew language. Through our emphasis on the holy tongue, we stay connected with Jews past and present.  Even if you don’t know what the words mean, we hope that the letters and words bring comfort and joy.  Somehow just looking at Hebrew moves me in a way that English just does not.

Number 5- Jewish lifecycle observances. Brises and baby namings, Bnai Mitzvah, weddings and, yes, even divorces, and the myriad of practices surrounding death and mourning- we Jews are experts at honoring milestones in our lives.  When a child is born, we welcome them into the community and celebrate their Hebrew name.  As that child grows and approaches adolescence, we help both the student and the family to understand that this person is becoming more independent and needs both to take on more responsibilities and enjoy more privileges.

Is there anything more joyous than a Jewish wedding? I can’t tell you how many times the event planner approaches me after a wedding to confess that, even though they may not be Jewish, they wish they could have a Jewish wedding.  From the chuppah, symbolizing the open-ness of the new home, to the 7 blessings, praying for blessing each and every day for the couple, to the breaking of the glass, recognizing that love and harmony are fragile, not to mention the ketubah, expressing the commitment that the couple makes and the yichud, an opportunity for the couple to celebrate their first few moments of marriage alone with each other, the Jewish wedding is brilliant!

And when there is a loss. . . . We strive for burial as soon as possible, to help family and loved ones accept the sad reality. Then, the mourners are not left alone to fend for themselves.  They are embraced by the community through the days of shiva, supported by love and prayer and food.  Through the first thirty days of sheloshim and following the year of mourning, we are encouraged to gently let go and move forward,  to choose life, secure in the knowledge that yizkor and yahrtzeits will provide the structure to always remember those who are gone.  Jewish life cycle observances are the 5th thing that I love about being Jewish.

Sixth- Jewish spirituality and our connection to God through the path of blessings. Jewish life is grounded in a sense of gratitude and appreciation.  We are so blessed, and yet our tendency is to focus on what we don’t have and forget to appreciate all the good.  Judaism encourages us to say 100 blessings a day.  Through the spiritual technology of the brachah, we articulate our thanks for waking up in the morning, for the ability to walk, such as we have, for the food we eat, for the clothing we wear, for the beautiful world in which we live, and even for the healthy functioning of our bodies when we go to the bathroom.

The word “Yehudi”, “Jew,” comes from the Hebrew root meaning- thankful. To be a Jew is to be thankful.  Gratitude is the foundation of happiness and our tradition guides us always in the direction of gratitude.

Number 7- endless opportunities for study and a culture of learning. A friend recently told me of a person who completed a PhD in Jewish studies and reported that they now know everything.  I was dumbstruck!  How could any person who knows anything about Judaism claim that their learning was complete?  “Until when,” asks Maimonides,  “is a person obligated to study Torah?”  “Until the day he dies.”[2]  I love that lifelong learning is a priority Jewish value, and I love that, whatever your area of interest- philosophy or poetry, history or Torah, ethics or architecture, there is enough richness and depth in Jewish learning to occupy a lifetime and then some.

Teaching is one of my favorite parts of being at Temple Chai- Adult Bnai Mitzvah, Torah Study, Mussar, Wise Aging. I once brought a visitor to Temple Chai and upon exiting services her immediate comment to me was, “These people LOVE to learn.”  It’s a Jewish cultural value and a foundation of our Temple Chai community.

Number 7- Ritual. Judaism recognizes that we need ritual in our lives.  We don’t just read, “Write them on the doorposts of your house,” and understand that as a metaphor, we literally write words of Torah on parchment paper and put a mezuzah on the doors of our homes, where they stand as a constant reminder of Jewish values and traditions.  We light Shabbat candles, we shake the lulav and etrog, we taste the matzah and the bitter herbs.  Yes, learning is a vital part of Judaism.  And, through taste and smell, sight and touch and taste, we renew our commitment to the values that are essential to our Jewish lives.  We are not only human beings, we are human doings.  The eighth thing that I love-  Judaism’s recognition that we need concrete reminders of the holy.

Number 9- A tradition of asking questions. The Jewish story begins with Abraham questioning God.  Jacob’s name is changed from Yaakov to Yisrael, one who wrestles with God.  I don’t think that I could be Jewish if I didn’t feel that I had permission, maybe even encouragement, to continually question God’s ways.  The Jewish way is not, (FOLD HANDS IN PRAYER POSITION)- “Thy will be done.”  The Jewish way is (RAISE FIST TOWARDS HEAVEN) to challenge God’s justice and love.  Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?  Why not?  It is always a joy when you approach me with, “Rabbi, I have a question.”  It’s one of my favorite things about being a rabbi.  Asking questions is the quintessential Jewish way, and the 9th thing I love about being Jewish.

Finally- I love that Judaism is a way of life, encompassing not only what happens in this sanctuary, not only what happens in our classrooms, but how we behave in the world. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) imagines 4 questions that God will ask us when we are called upon to give an accounting of what we did with our precious lives.  All 4 questions have one thing in common:  they relate to our behavior in the world- were we honest in our business?  Did we support the needs of children in our community?  Did we make time for learning and did we work towards tikkun olam, towards leaving the world a better place than we found it.  That is what God is depicted as caring about most, not whether or not we were Jewish scholars or spent our day in prayer.  Judaism is first and foremost about how we live our lives.

To review and in conclusion, the things that I love about being Jewish are:

  1. Sense of Community
  2. Wisdom and Values
  3. Shabbat
  4. Connection to Tradition/Hebrew
  5. Brilliant Life-Cycle Practices
  6. Closeness to God through Gratitude and Prayer
  7. Life Long Learning
  8. Appreciation of Ritual
  9. Questioning as a Cultural Value
  10. Judaism as a Way of Life
  11. What’s on your list? Shanah Tovah!

 

[1]  “Jews are compassionate, the children of the compassionate.  If a person is not compassionate, they are not of the descendants of our father Abraham.”- Beitzah 32b

[2] Moses Maimonides, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 1:10

Three Little Words- Kol Nidre 5779

 

Those 3 little words might be “I love you.”  That’s what I always thought of when I heard the phrase, 3 little words.  Three little words that are magic, that make our hearts sing.  And then,  Sue Coore gave me an article by Chris Brogan, “My 3 Words for 2016,” and my head began to spin.  Brogan’s thesis, which works for Rosh HaShanah as much as it does for New Year’s Eve, is that challenging ourselves with just 3 words to guide us in the coming year, is more powerful and effective than making resolutions.  He describes his own process as follows, “Make the words such that they influence your choice of actions, encourage you to decide in favor of your goals, and guide you towards lasting results that you want to experience throughout the year.”  He suggests that we, “Write these words down. Post them everywhere. Schedule them to pop up in your calendar. And use these words as part of your decision-making process every day.”[1]  Three little words to frame our new year.

Pirke Avot (1:2) says that the entire world stands on only 3 things- on Torah, or, we might say, lifelong learning; on worship, which we might understand as having a sense of awe or holiness; and gemilut chasadim, loving acts of kindness.  If we were to adopt the perspective of Pirke Avot, our 3 little words as we enter 5779 might be- learning, holiness, and kindness.  Three very worthy thoughts.  Continuing to learn is a fundamental Jewish value.  Developing and maintaining a sense of awe leads to gratitude and happiness.  And community is impossible without devotion to caring for each other.  If we could commit ourselves to learning, holiness, and kindness- dayenu!

When my daughter Sarah graduated from medical school, Dr. Mitchell Shub addressed the class.  He emphasized 3 things to the newly minted doctors- perseverance, kindness, and honesty.  Perseverance is necessary in life.  We get knocked down, we get sidetracked, and we need to find the resources within to keep going.  Kindness.  Henry James said it best, Three things are important in life:  the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”  Honesty- aha!  What a beautiful world it would be if only people were honest.  Can you imagine throwing out all of your keys and deleting all of your passwords because you could rely on the honesty of others?  It would be paradise!  Perseverance, kindness, and honesty- three little words.

Throughout this past year Temple Chai hosted several discussion groups on the theme of “Wise Aging.”  We explored life review and the balance between the physical and the spiritual as we get older.  We talked about how relationships evolve and how we deal with loss.  In one conversation, Joel Sherman shared that his guiding principles are happiness, hope, and gratitude.  Happiness can be a conscious decision that we make each day, to embrace happiness as our baseline unless there is a very good reason to be UNhappy.  Too often we confuse happiness with fun, and we wait for fun activities to bring happiness to our lives, when we can just be happy to be alive.  Gratitude is the foundation of happiness.  When we truly appreciate all of the blessings in our lives, a deep and profound joy emerges.  And hope- the national anthem of the Jewish people, HaTikvah- the hope.  When times are tough, it is hope that sustains us both individually and as a community.  Happiness, gratitude, hope- 3 little words.

The Torah says, “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha;” it’s 3 words in Hebrew, a bit more in English- love your neighbor as yourself. Rabbi Akiva identified this as the most important principle in the Torah.  Brogan advises against choosing a phrase, though.  He writes that (that) “kind of eats the power potential of what you can do with the words.  (For example), ‘Do the work’ pretty much eats up a lot of room compared to ‘work,’ which gets the same accomplished.”  If you were going to pick a phrase, though, to guide your year, you won’t go wrong with “V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha- love your neighbor as yourself.”  Three little words that could also change the world if we all took them on as our call to action.

Brogan began this process in 2006, with Ask, Do, Share. “In 2006, my three words were “Ask. Do. Share.” “Everything I did,” he writes,  “I tried to filter through the mindset of asking people for help, or asking if I could help them. Doing seems self-explanatory. Sharing was making sure that I shared opportunities with others, that I shared my learning with you, and that I kept myself open to sharing the possibilities.”  He reports that “They prompted me to:

  • Ask more questions where I didn’t know.
  • Ask if I could help.
  • Ask FOR help.
  • Do more instead of plan more.
  • Share what I learned.
  • Share great people’s work.”[2]

Brogan shared his partner, Rob Hatch’s, great work, Rob’s 3 words for 2013- Systems, Service, and Now. “Systems – If 2012 revealed anything to me, it was the power of building a System for even the most simple aspects of my life. Systems are simply habits that I have borrowed, hacked, or designed to enable me to accomplish a goal, complete a project, or simply structure my life or work. Systems give me time, free me from worry, allow me to focus and present. They also serve as platforms for risk taking. Service – Service is a reminder to both be of service to others and that my actions should serve my goals. Now – Whatever my hopes, dreams or goals may be, what matters is what I do now. Whether that is doing the work in front of me or being present for the people I’m with. Now matters.”[3]  Systems, Service, Now.  Brogan and his partner engage the three words strategy mostly in a business context.  I might translate that into more comfortable and familiar religious language.

What he calls systems I might call rituals. Rituals are, indeed, a way to provide structure and meaning to our lives, not to mention ways to keep our lives in order.  Service, tikkun olam, is clearly a fundamental Jewish value.  We have a mandate to perform loving acts of kindness and to leave the world a better place than we found it.  Combined with now, I think of Hillel’s 3-part teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And, if not now, when?”[4]

Brogan picked up on the theme of ritual this year, 2018.  His 3 words- Ritual, Execute, Value.   “Ritual – I’ve fallen away from developing habits and operational tempo in my days. I need to build back rituals and make them the guts of how I structure my life and living. This also reminds me to place great strength and power into the simple matters of life, like choosing what I eat and drink, and ensuring that I treat my life as if I’m making moments instead of just clicking off hours.  Execute – Push the button. Make something happen. Take action. I’ve felt a bit sluggish in 2017. Time to power back up.  Execute is a reminder to move and take action and do something instead of just think about it. Have the difficult conversations.   Value – Create value. Make sure my time is dedicated to creating value. Build more and more value for myself and others. Help companies see the value in the projects I intend to help them execute in 2018. That’s the big plan. Be clear that I value myself more.”[5]  Ritual, execute, value- 3 pretty creative little words!

So, by now I hope that you’re thinking about your 3 words for 5779. What 3 words might you embrace to guide this new year of life?  Take a few minutes and brainstorm with the folks around you, and then I’ll share my 3 words.

Let me conclude with my 3 words for 5779- Flourish, Savor, Care. Flourish was inspired, of all things, by a sign in the British Airways jetway, a sign that read, “Flourish- whatever the conditions.”  There are certainly situations in life in which it is next to impossible to flourish, yet, they are, thankfully, few and far between.  I am hoping that “flourish” will inspire me to look at every single day as an opportunity to grow and to blossom, to avoid the sense of stagnation that can sometimes plague us.  Dictionary definitions of flourish include thriving in a healthy environment, to be vigorous and to grow luxuriantly.  In the year ahead, I aspire to flourish!

I see flourish as the broad stroke, and savor as one way to appreciate that flourishing. To savor means enjoying the big things in life, and the little things, with deep pleasure and gratitude.  I savor the moments at the end of the day, drinking a glass of wine and enjoying the companionship of my beloved as we watch the glorious Arizona sunset.  I savor the time with my children and grandchildren, in awe at every new word and every new skill.    “When you savor something,” according to Dictionary.com,  “you enjoy it so much that you want to make it last forever. With that in mind, savor carries a connotation of doing something slowly.”  Rabbi Chizkiah taught that, “A person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume” [6]  I intend to consume and savor as much as possible in 5779.

Care is my third watchword. Flourish and Savor are personal.  I don’t want this year to be a year of selfishness, so retaining and acting on a genuine sense of caring is vital.  As a rabbi, I am exposed to so much pain and hardship and suffering.  Part of honoring others is to help to carry their burdens, to be supportive and empathetic, to listen with an open heart and a caring presence.  I pray that I will never forget that the goal of caring for others is the essence of this holy work, and I might add, this holy life.  “To make a difference in someone’s life,” wrote Mandy Hale, “you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. you just have to care.”  “People don’t care how much you know,” it has wisely been noted, “until they know how much you care.”

I put these words on my calendar so that they will pop up regularly throughout the year as reminders to help me re-center and re-focus.

Flourish, Savor, Care- my 3 little words for 5779. What will yours be?

 

 

 

[1] https://chrisbrogan.com/3words2018/

[2] https://chrisbrogan.com/3-words-2016/

[3] https://chrisbrogan.com/my-3-words-for-2013/

[4] Pirke Avot 1:14

[5] https://chrisbrogan.com/3words2018/

[6] Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12

John McCain: Exemplar of Jewish Values

 

Senator John McCain

 

“How mighty ones have fallen.”  (II Samuel 1:25)  John McCain served the people of Arizona as our elected representative in Washington, DC, for over 40 years.  The memory of the righteous is for blessing.  He will be remembered for his dedication to duty, continuing his family’s legacy of military service that dated to the Revolutionary War.  As a young officer, McCain demonstrated an inspiring sense of duty and courage.  The spirit that forged him in his early years, came to be his hallmark throughout his life.  His courage is a humbling example for every American citizen.

In Pirke Avot 5:22, the Sages describe the characteristic of each decade of life.  “Eighty – power, or strength (gevurah).”  John McCain died at the age of 81, truly a man for whom strength was a defining characteristic.  His strength of conviction, his perseverance in the face of adversity, his raw tenacity.  As a national leader, power is certainly a quality we associate with Senator McCain.   In his later years, John McCain found his prophetic voice, fiercely speaking truth to power.  As Jews, we can only admire this example of questioning authority and accepting any consequences.  We are a people for whom asking questions is a cultural phenomenon.  John McCain was never afraid to ask hard questions.

As a survivor of torture while imprisoned for 5 ½ years during the Vietnam War, McCain was a force to be reckoned with in prohibiting the use of torture by US government forces.  This highly decorated veteran leveraged his credentials and credibility to create more humane policies.  His moral voice will continue to resound for many, many generations.

In 2002, Senator McCain published a book entitled, Worth the Fighting For.  We toast “L’Chayim- to Life,” the ultimate value worth fighting for.  With his family steadfastly by his side, he has fought the battle of a lifetime against glioblastoma.  John McCain exemplified the principle of love of life.  He spent his final days in Sedona, where we can only imagine that the unique and breathtaking environment were a source of awe and comfort.  Much as he fought for life, he also leaves a role model for letting go and accepting when we have reached the end of our days.  “Americans,” he said, “never quit.”  John McCain did not quit.  He taught us one final lesson about appreciating life and yet achieving a dignified end on our own terms.

In his book, Character is Destiny, McCain wrote, “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy.”  By his own standard, then, John McCain was blessed with a happy life.  May it be so for all of us and may he rest in peace- Amen.

 

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

 

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