Our most recent Frequently Asked Jewish Question…
Our most recent Frequently Asked Jewish Question…
My blog is turning into a video series of frequently asked Jewish questions. Here is the first… just in time for the Chanukah/Christmas season.
Can I be Jewish or have a Jewish home AND have a Christmas tree?
Watch this and hear my answer. Enjoy! And I welcome your comments.
I’ve been waiting for the Torah to come around again to share this sermon from the Holy Days. It examines Sarah’s journey through her life with Abraham, ending with the binding and near sacrifice of her son (which is our Torah portion this Shabbat). It seems particularly relevant with the wave of women coming forward to share their stories of surviving in this patriarchal world. It makes me ask if Sarah would have been a voice of #metoo. But a warning… this questions everything we’ve been taught about our Torah and Abraham. So be ready. 🙂
We read the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, every Rosh Hashanah morning. Our reader today, with amazing skill, read about God calling to Abraham, Abraham answering, and God asking him to take his beloved son (whom God calls Abraham’s only [or unique] son even though Ishmael is also Abraham’s son… ponder that for a moment and we will get back to it…) to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice to God.
So, Abraham, certainly not winning any awards as “father of the year,” does just that. He brings his son to Moriah to be sacrificed, as asked. Now, how old Isaac was at this time is unsure. There are theories — as young as two and as old as 36. The Torah does not suggest that father and son said much to each other during their journey except for Isaac asking, “Hey, dad! Where is the lamb for the offering?” So, it’s hard to know how mature Isaac was. For the moment, instead of imagining an Isaac that is an emerging adult, let’s imagine him as a boy old enough to ask questions, but not old enough to resist his father’s bidding.
For those of you who were here last night, you heard my sermon about children feeling like their parents are as powerful as any king or queen. Think of Isaac’s vision of Abraham here. Most likely, to Isaac, Abraham was the sun or the moon, as important as any king. But Abraham’s father figure is God himself, and almost like a small child, Abraham is blinded by the celestial light.
So you heard the rest of the story: Abraham builds an alter, binds Isaac, and lifts his hand with a knife to sacrifice him. Again, the Torah says nothing about Isaac. Did he resist? Was he afraid? Was he simply too young to question his father? But an extension of God calls out to Abraham to stop. The parental figure, this “Avinu Malkeinu,” must restrain his child Abraham, because, maybe, his child didn’t fully understand the directions given or perhaps the Father regretted his words, not realizing the extent of power he held over his spiritual son.
We can explain these events and preserve a fully positive vision of Abraham with the many commentaries that provide such support. But I’m wondering if our patriarchal authors, in recording this story, didn’t want us to examine closer WHY Abraham was willing to do such a thing, and whether or not Sarah… a woman with her own flaws for sure, should actually be the one considered the true parent of the Jewish people.
For those of you who read the Red Tent with me (which is the feminist point of view of Jacob’s family, told through the eyes of Dinah), I’m playing with the same theme. What would the Abraham story be, if told from the perspective of Sarah?
Now, to understand the mental state of Sarah and perhaps excuse some of her quirks, we have to reach back to when she first has a real role in the Torah. We first get to know of her when she (who was named Sarai back then) and Abraham (who was Avram) are suffering from a great famine and enter Egypt — the Torah’s favorite place for tragedies. Avram, commenting on how beautiful his wife is, decides he should tell the Pharoah that Sarai is only his sister so that the Pharoah doesn’t kill him in order to have Sarai for himself. In fact, the Pharoah does want Sarai, and in return not only did Avram get to keep breathing, but he also got sheep and oxen and he-asses and she-asses and men-servants and maid-servants and camels, including Hagar who will soon have a starring role in our story. Nice trade. But according to the text, God steps in. God plagues the Pharoah and his house, and once the truth is known, Avram and Sarai head off, now wealthy in cattle, silver and gold.
Okay, ladies. Tell me… If during hard times, your husband decided to let another man have you so that he (and okay, both of you) got to live and become rich, what would you say? Even if it was royalty? There is no comment about how Sarai felt about all of this just as later in the Torah Isaac seems oddly quiet. But we know that according to the Torah, God didn’t approve of Avram’s actions and stood by the side of Sarai. And Sarai is barely mentioned as we continue with Avram’s story. Was she well? Did she change? Did she suffer from a little PTSD from her husband pimping her out to the Pharoah? We don’t know. The Torah is silent.
What we do know is that Sarai is barren and asks Avram to have a child with her handmaiden, Hagar. What follows does not make Sarai look good as she becomes full of rage and jealousy for the handmaiden and the boy. But when a woman had a child through a handmaiden at that time, that child belonged to her. This is a notion that may seem insane to us now, but Sarai felt robbed. Ishamael remained Hagar’s son. Sarai didn’t name him, she didn’t raise him, she didn’t care for him. She allowed her husband this blessing but the return never came. How could Sarai not feel burned, watching Avram’s excitement for his new child? How could she not still remember the heart ache of being given so easily away and feel the pain of the reality of her lack of child? What reason did Sarai have to trust Avram that she, the barren older wife, would remain in any position with him when she knew he could give her away, because he had done it before?
And guess what? As they traveled south to Gerar, Abraham (not Avram anymore, now fully blessed by God as Sarah was) offers Sarah to King Avimelech. He does it again! Claiming she was only his sister… again! And once again God intervened. According to the Torah, the King never touched her, but interestingly, it is after she is given to the King that she conceives Isaac and not before. We wouldn’t be thinking critically if we didn’t ask, is Isaac even Abraham’s son??
Regardless of who the baby-daddy was, we have to ask why is it that Sarah couldn’t be compassionate with Hagar and Ishmael still, even now with her own baby. But I ask, how damaged was Sarah? Twice given away? The website Healthy Place states that when emotionally abused, one could show signs such as confusion, anxiety, aggression, low self esteem, emotional instability, and lack of trust. Well, that would explain a lot.
But I also wonder if Sarah was unsure if Isaac was actually Abraham’s son. Perhaps she felt she needed to send Ishamel away knowing that HE was truly Abraham’s only child? And did Abraham suspect it as well? Is that why he was willing to sacrifice Isaac? And did God call Isaac Abraham’s ONLY son because God was trying to convince him otherwise, whether it was true or not?
And what happened after the attempt to sacrifice Isaac? Can you imagine the tale Isaac must have told his mother when he returned home? Well, Sarah and Abraham lived in separate places… Abraham in Beer-Sheva and Sarah in Hebron 26 miles away. Why? Did Sarah hate Abraham for what he did and demand that they separate? Did she stand up for her son in a way she couldn’t for herself? And where did Isaac live when his parents split? We don’t hear of him again until after Sarah’s death when he is with his father in search of a bride. But I’ll put my money on Isaac choosing to live with mom.
So, Reflecting on all of this, I believe that Sarah should be considered equally, if not more than Abraham, the parent of our generations. Now, make no mistake, the Torah tells no other version than the one in which Abraham is a prophet of God, and my midrash here is nothing but one that would be rejected by most. But as critical readers and thinkers, we must question everything. Yes, we can still love Abraham, because all of our Biblical ancestors were flawed and made many mistakes. This is why we can love them… because they truly are our parents and aunts and uncles and cousins — human — in some ways strong and in some ways quite weak. The same can be said for Sarah. But I would love to be able to hear this tale told again through her eyes and see how our understanding of Biblical history might change. Sarah is the loving parent of Isaac who protected him even when she couldn’t stand up for herself and separated them both from Abraham’s misguided ways. She intervened, as God did, to protect her son from an unhealthy father/son relationship as long as she could. She is our mother, and she is worthy to have her name placed at least beside if not before her husband’s.
And so, I offer you a feminist version of the first paragraph of our Amidah… Baruchah At Shechina, Eloheinu veilohei imoteinu… Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei rachel, V’elohei Leah. Blessed is Shechinah, God of our Mothers… God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, God of Leah. And by the way, let’s add Zilpah and Bilhah who may have been handmaidens, but were also the mothers of the tribes of Israel.
May Sarah and all the women who identify with her, women who find themselves feeling like they could be given away, like they cannot find stability within themselves or around themselves, find peace and place themselves and their names beside if not before their husbands’. And may they find storytellers to tell their stories through their eyes, even if other versions of their histories keep them oddly silent.
Join Cool Shul for upcoming events:
Havdalula (Havdalah and dinner at Lula’s!_
Social Action Committee (meets November 15)
Possible Adult B’nei-Mitzvah class (email me, email@example.com, for info)
Sharing my Yom Kippur morning sermon, in honor of my kids’ school New Roads School, and in honor of those who keep being harmed just for being themselves.
When my kids were small, my 15 year old still in elementary school, we were having a day at the beach when a little boy came over and asked if he could play with them and their sand toys. I don’t remember what they were doing… some imaginary process that involved multiple steps of pouring and measuring sand and sea water. I’m pretty sure they were content alone, but they said yes, and the boy joined in.
What was interesting was that the little boy had some challenges with speech, communication, and what might be considered normative age appropriate behavior, and that was clear from the moment he came over. But the children happily played together, led by my daughter as the oldest, and I remember my husband and I being proud of both of our kids as they adapted and re-adapted to the situation and created space so they could all enjoy that experience together.
When the little boy’s mother came over and told him they had to go, my husband and I praised our kids for opening their minds and their hearts to the child when they could have easily frozen under the pressure to entertain themselves and him since the interactions weren’t always easy. My daughter responded with, “We learn how to get along with everyone at New Roads!” We smiled knowing that the reason we had chosen the school we did was evident in her.
My kids go to New Roads School, and a big part of why is because of the promise of that exact moment. It’s a school that was created to reflect the diversity of Los Angeles. On an obvious level, that means children of all colors. But on a deeper level unapparent to the eye, that means socio-economic diversity, sexual orientation diversity, gender identification diversity, and of course, a diverse community of learners with a variety of strengths, struggles, and quirks. At New Roads, we have it all, but because we have the flexibility that comes with being a small school, the teachers are able to guide the students to not just navigate AROUND each other but to to navigate WITH each other. This is part of the culture and the curriculum. And this isn’t just lip service. It is truly what happens every single day.
Now, this all sounds lovely, but being a private school that does not send a child away as soon as he/she demonstrates an inconvenient truth about him/herself is messy business. I’m sure most of us believe diversity is important and don’t imagine ourselves as people who would run away from the opportunity to navigate WITH and not AROUND, but I also think we need to reach deep down inside and admit our own inconsistencies. Are we nervous for our children to be around other kids who learn differently from how they learn? Or for us to be around people who aren’t the same religion? Are we nervous about having friends not in the same socio-economic strata? Or chatting with those who don’t share similar political beliefs? Placing ourselves in unfamiliar social territory is messy business for us too. So maybe we desire it, but in the end, pull ourselves and our children away from the opportunity to live and breathe diversity.
But you know what? Diversity is good for us, like kale and exercise.
In an article presented by the Century Foundation entitled, “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students” it is examined how diversity in K-12 schools benefits students intellectually, culturally, and in attaining important life-skills. It says:
As Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo of Teachers College Columbia vividly demonstrate in this important new report, “the benefits of school diversity run in all directions.” There is increasing evidence that “diversity makes us smarter,” a finding that selective colleges long ago embraced, and increasing numbers of young parents are coming to appreciate at the K–12 level. The authors write: “researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving.”
…Apart from the cognitive benefits, there are additional reasons increasing numbers of middle-class families now want to send their children to diverse schools. Middle-class and white Millennials realize that their children are growing up in a very different country, demographically, than previous generations. For the first time since the founding of the republic, a majority of public school K–12 pupils in the United States are students of color. Students can learn better how to navigate adulthood in an increasingly diverse society—a skill that employers value—if they attend diverse schools. Ninety-six percent of major employers, Wells, Fox, and Cordova-Cobo note, say it is “important” that employees be “comfortable working with colleagues, customers, and/or clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.”
And so, understanding that getting out of our comfort zones and inviting in the “other” is good for us and our children, how do we, day to day, invite these opportunities into our lives? Schools and jobs are part of the answer, but can we go beyond? After recent events in Charlottesville, not to mention around the world, sitting around a table with diverse ideas and beliefs seems less and less feasible, doesn’t it? How do we educate those who want to shut out diverse people and thoughts and lifestyles about the benefits? How do we encourage a diverse population toward choosing peace? How do we encourage each other to vote for diversity? How do we invite into our spheres even those would dare to march down the street with torches in their hands chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”? For if we are to have true diversity, beyond color or religion or gender or identity, we have to walk toward those who appall us. We can’t only run in the other direction.
An article from the Jewish publication “The Forward” gave me a piece of the answer. In it the author suggests that the way to combat intolerance is not through our own hate and rejection, but to go directly to the communities that breed this kind of belief and… lift them up. According to the author, Neo-Nazis are primarily products of broken homes, and the author refers to a Washington Post article that cites “an economy capsized, a job market contracted, a student-loan crisis erupted” as economic factors. Young men who need a place to belong, need a family, and need to blame someone for their situations, find homes within the Neo-Nazi movement. The article reads:
What would it mean for American Jews to combat not merely Neo-Nazism, but also the conditions that contribute to it? For American Jewish organizations, it would require opposing economic policies… that widen the chasm between America’s rich and poor. It would require pushing for more funding for the treatment of opioid addiction, and the kinds of issues that American Jewish groups don’t typically consider part of their agenda.
If we, as Jews, help those who are in these small towns where the poverty level is impossibly high with the mills closed, the jobs gone, and hope vanished and be part of their solution, we can change opinions. With the refugee crisis, Jewish organizations took the lead in guiding families not only to help them thrive but also to show them that American Jews are not a community to fear but one to embrace. It may be time for us to embrace more communities where hatred is born and bred.
So, after our morning service today, part of our afternoon activities is going to be having a round table conversation about possible Tikkun Olam projects with the goal of doing something we don’t normally do as Jews… invest in depressed town where the community is nearly or in fact is one hundred percent non-Jewish, and invest not only in their futures, but in encouraging them to find faith-based organizations to call home. In other words, help them find a church.
Now, I’m going to be honest with you. I wanted to come up with some amazing task already set for us today. But, as you may have guessed, it is difficult finding churches in small towns who answer the call for a synagogue to help them with church membership. 🙂 And when one of them referred me to a Rabbi that does a lot of interfaith work in North Carolina, her response was that we should “focus on the hurricane victims”. I told her I didn’t understand why we had to choose. So, instead we are going to have an open dialogue, brainstorm and collaborate how we could start a Jewish effort to lessen anti-semitism. How do we go to the breeding grounds of hate and make a difference?
The end of the article in The Forward says:
In ways that would have been unimaginable to the Jews of medieval France, or 20th-century Eastern Europe, we answer hate by repairing the country in which we live. This is not a moment to turn inward. It’s a moment to reach out to the places we usually ignore or dismiss. By instilling hope in others, we can provide safety for ourselves.
In honor of my kid’s school, New Roads, and the many murdered or injured in the name of hate, let’s talk today and find a way to bring a little joy to a place that needs some hope. And let’s pray that our efforts will encourage just one young man or woman to say no to anti-semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, and say YES to diversity.
**Since most of this blog’s readers were not with us when we held our discussion, please feel free to comment here with your ideas.**
I want to share my sermon from Erev Rosh Hashanah with you. I hope you will join me at Yom Kippur to sing Avinu Malkeinu together again.
Avinu Malkeynu… Our father, our King.
Imanu Malkateynu… Our mother, our Queen.
For many of us, it is when we hear these words, Avinu Malkeinu, and hear the haunted melodies that elevate them, that we finally feel transported into the powerful possibilities of the Holy Days. And as our spiritual leaders guide us in a call/response — them calling out the Hebrew “Avinu Malkeinu Shema Koleinu!”, us responding with “Avinu Malkeinu, hear our prayer!”— what sometimes seems like an extremely distant relationship with this traditionally defined Divine parent can fold just an inch or two into the divide. We plead with the idea of God, with this parental figure – to hear us, to remember us, to forgive us, to give us a good year. We become intoxicated with the grandeur of the moment. At least I always do.
But I’m going to ask you to help me take away all of this grandeur for just a second. Instead, let’s attempt to make the experience a bit more personal. Perhaps in this intimacy, we will find an even more potent majesty.
Our Father our King, or our Mother our Queen… Imagine for a moment that you are literally the child of a king and queen. To the world they are as all-powerful and all-important as they are to you. But the outside world could never understand what it’s like to have your king also be “daddy” and your queen also be “mommy.” For the children of royalty, the relationship is closer than anyone else can imagine, for you experience them intimately on a day-to-day basis. I guess in L.A., it’s kind of like being the child of movie stars. We just can’t picture George Clooney in his underwear (as much as we might want to) or in bed with the flu, unless we are part of his normal life.
But, in some ways, I believe we are all the children of kings and queens and movie stars. Can’t nearly all of us recall a time when we were very young that we believed our parents were the sun and the moon and All Powerful in our eyes? Can’t we recall how their words, their sideways glances, their approval, and their admonishment seemed to make the whole world change? Weren’t they as important to us as any king or queen?
Some of us, now adults, still experience this dynamic with our parents, even when we know it’s time to carve out our own space. We still are moved and shaken by a parental word or look or silence, or now… a text. 🙂 We feel ourselves still shrinking in their power, even if their energy has not shared this earth with us for a long, long time. And those of us who are parents, while still looking above ourselves, may forget that we have children (or grandchildren) who are in some stage of processing who we are. Are we sun and the moon to them? Or have our lights begun to fade in the minds of teenaged children? Or is our status slowly returning as those children emerge as their own adults, soon to have their own princes and princesses? We may forget, while we still feel like we are standing in the shadows of our royal parents that our own children are blocking out the sun by hovering in our shadows. They have visions of us we will never completely understand as our parents could never completely understand us. And so it is with every parent. We are all part of this cycle.
And so, as we address this Divine parent – be that parent literal or figurative in your mind, are we really any different than any other children who are in awe of their parents? Are we not just children asking for attention? Asking to be safe? Asking for guidance? Asking the questions we know cannot really be answered, but we ask them anyway because we want to be comforted, and held, and told that everything will be okay?
Avinu Malkeinu… Shema Koleynu… (Our father , our King, Hear our voices). Dad, please listen to me.
Avinu Malkeinu… chatanu l’fanecha… (Our father, our King, We have done wrong before you.) Dad, I’ve done something you won’t like, and I’m nervous about how you are going to react.
Imanu Malkateinu… chamol aleinu v’al olaleinu v’tapeinu… (Our mother our Queen, Be compassionate with us and our children.) Mom, please remember that I am still learning and try to be kind as you deal with me and when you judge how I am raising your grandchildren.
Imanu Malkateinu… kaley dever v’cherev v’ra’av mei-aleinu… (Our mother our Queen, Keep from us sickness, war, hunger, and destruction.) Mom, can you help me? I don’t feel well. Can you help me? I’m hungry. Can you help me? I’m afraid.
Avinu Malkeinu… kaley chol tzar umastin mey-aleinu… (Our father, our King, keep us from being persectued.) Dad, can you keep me safe, even from those who would harm me simply for being me?
Imanu Malkateinu… kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim… (Our mother our Queen, inscribe us in the book of a good life.) Mom, can you teach me how to be happy, how to be satisfied with my life?
Avinu Malkeinu… chadeish aleinu shana tovah… (Our father, our King, renew us for a good year). Dad, can you provide for me, at least for this year?
Now try to go back to a moment when you stood before your parents. Maybe close your eyes. Do they feel like the sun or the moon? Maybe you asked them one of these questions I just asked. Maybe you asked something else? Maybe these kinds of questions were racing through your mind but you didn’t know how to form them or were afraid to utter them? Maybe you stood silently wishing you could ask the un-askable. Maybe it was all a feeling, and you didn’t even know what to ask to lessen the heartache. Maybe you still have questions for them that have gone unanswered. What would you ask now if you could?
We will now read and sing and try to be heard, if not by a Divine parent, at least by ourselves and by each other. For whether or not our messages are received, we need to receive them for the next generation. Yes, let’s ask if we can be heard but we also need to ask, do we listen? Yes, ask, can we be safe but also ask, do we protect? Plead to be provided for, but also wonder, do we provide? We may want to be forgiven for not always being the people others want us to be, but do we have understanding for others who fall short of our visions? We may not always be the people we want us to be, but can we forgive ourselves? Love me, care for me, hold me, we direct others, but are we instruments for love, care, and embrace? We hope it’s never too late for the answers to be YES, but we also need to never create time lines for ourselves or others.
It’s never too late to become YES.
I’m not ready.
Taking a walk today, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness for the Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah is just a few days away, and yes all of my music is in order, yes I have prepared everything I’m going to say, yes the choir and musicians have been rehearsed, and yes our Torah chanter is amazing (she really is!). The “me” that is the hardworking, organizing, “CEO” of Cool Shul is definitely ready, but what about the me that is a wife, mother, daughter, friend, and spiritual leader? Is she ready? Am I as prepared inside as I am on the outside? The answer is no.
Who am I to think I could or should lead others? Who am I, so full of flaws and stress and worries, to think I have any business telling others how to process their own? Here I am, full of doubts and fears as it relates to personal and career matters, the earth’s wellness, and (of course!) national and international affairs. I don’t have any answers, much less all of them! I’m as confused as the next guy (ok, gal). So, what profound thing am I supposed to say at the Holy Days that hasn’t already been said about Charlottesville or the hurricanes or the government or the world, when here I stand without any prescriptions for remedies? Who the (bleep!) do I think I am to lead anyone?
Maybe I’m weak.
Or… maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
We know what it’s like when leaders forget that their roles are to serve the people and not vice-versa. We have all experienced occasions on which people in powerful positions, be they teachers, clergy, bosses, or (gulp!) politicians, are no longer humbled by their opportunities to lead and make decisions to benefit themselves more than others (even if they can’t see it). I suppose it’s healthier to be nervous about my ability to lead than overconfident. So, maybe I’m perfectly hesitant, right where I should be.
At the Holy Days, the Cantor chants Hineni, a text in which we spiritual leaders admit that we are not strong enough to take on the responsibilities of the community. We admit that we are afraid in the face of our leadership. We cry out loud that we are here, but that we are humbled before the task at hand. I suppose that is just where I am. And that’s okay. I have always thought that Rabbis (or any other spiritual leaders for that matter) aren’t supposed to be expected to (or act as if) they have all the answers. We are simply humans with positive and less positive traits. We search our tradition for our own answers, but we truly can only share with our communities where we are in our own learning. We don’t have all the answers (and if we say we do, run!). So, Hineni, here I am, humbled before the task to lead my community through these days, but ready to share what I have discovered. Nothing more. But also nothing less.
These Holy Days, I will be honored by each and every presence before me who invites me into their spiritual realms. But I will also ask you to lead too. Every educator knows that students often teach as much as they learn. I promise to try to lift my community up and share a thing or two, but I hope you will also do the same for me and the person sitting next to you. Let’s all teach and share. Great leaders don’t lead alone, and I can’t wait to hear about your journeys.
Join me, either in person or online these Holy Days. We will be in Temescal Canyon, inspired by the trees peeking through the windows of Cheadle/Woodland Hall.
A special thank you to my friend who delivers meals for Meals on Wheels with me every week and who inspired this blog. Today she led me. 🙂
My blog this week is coming to you from the UJUC website. It’s the last of my vacation-inspired writings… at least until the Holy Days. 🙂
See if I can convince you that Jewish and Hawaiian spirituality intersected at some point. 🙂
Rabbi Diane Rose
Those of us who are part of progressive spiritual groups and participate in interfaith activities often speak of the belief that all religions are here to serve the same purpose in different ways. Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu… aren’t we all searching for answers, working toward peace, and living our lives according to a structure that reminds us to connect to our communities and to our inner-worlds? I believe the answer is yes.
We cannot deny, however, that our Books and Teachers don’t always preach this. Yes, we can stay safe and quote Leviticus:
“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be as the home-born to you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
“What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man.”
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
or the Quron:
“We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48).
But we can just as easily point out the opposite from each religion. The Israelites were not to adopt any rituals from their neighbors and in fact were to destroy their altars, pillars, and sacred trees. The Gospel of John has some not-very-nice things to say about Jews, and the Quron outlines some serious doom and gloom for non-believers.
But I still hold on to my belief that all of our religions have been dancing with each other since humanity first asked the question, “Where did we come from?” I hold on to the idea that our goals are (or at least used to be) the same, and that we have learned and borrowed from each other since we first searched for a God. So it is really refreshing when we find those undeniable interconnections between religions or cultures. Think of the incredible similarities between the stories of Gilgamesh and Noah, or the many religions with creation stories that begin with the world being a dark, watery emptiness.
Well, I may have a new one, and I learned all about it at… a Luau.
“Ha” in Hawaiian means “the sacred breath of life.” When we think about common Hawaiian words, many include “ha.” Alo-ha, Ha-waii, O-ha-na, Ma-ha-lo. These words aren’t just about a greeting, a place, a family, and a thank you. They are infused with the idea that when we speak to one another, our sacred breath is acknowledging the sacred breath of the other.
I find it interesting that in Judaism we have S-ha-lom which not only includes a “ha” but also closely matches the meaning of Aloha. Aloha is known as hello and goodbye, but it also means love, compassion, warmth, and friendliness (think of when people say “the spirit of Aloha”). Shalom similarly means hello and goodbye as well as peace (as any kid who had a Jewish education can tell you), but the root of Shalom, Shin-Lamed-Mem, means complete. Shalom is the completion of the soul… the way to peace. Doesn’t Shabbat Shalom mean a lot more than just a peaceful Shabbat? Two complex words at the center of Jewish and Hawaiian spirituality.
Of course, we cannot discuss “ha” without talking about Avram. In the Torah, God gave Avram a “ha” and Sarai an “h” (hey) as well when God blessed them as God’s own and promised them they would be the parents of a peoplehood. Their names were affected by God, the sacred breath of life now infused in them.
Maybe this is a stretch, but even just the word “ha” in Hebrew (which means “the” ) could have a spiritual connection. Everything definite has the letter hey in front of it. Each item, person, place, even adjective, with the “h” sound is as sure and true and real as our breath. Maybe not connected to Hawaiian language, but I like it anyway.
I wish the Hebrew word for breath/spirit was Ru-cha instead of Ru-ach. If it was, I’d be doin’ a mic drop. Maybe it’s close enough that we have to flip the letter chet and the “ah” vowel so it at least looks like Ru-cha?
Now, I don’t know if Hawaiian culture and Jewish culture ever danced around one another early enough to affect each other in these ways. It would be fascinating (for someone smarter than I am!) to find out if the trading and emigrating communities ever ended up in the same place at the same time. But even if they didn’t, I am going to add a little extra “ha” to my Hebrew and infuse the sound with my belief that we all share the same sacred breath of life.
And with that I say, S-HA-lom and Alo-HA to you. 🙂
This is literally the knotted ball of yarn that is in my hand. Please don’t ask me to share how it got this bad. It had something to do with me (as my kitting-expert daughter said) “not respecting the yarn.” And it might have also had something to do with me yanking on one end out of frustration (I searched google for the best way to untangle knotted yarn, and the article I found said: Whatever you do, don’t pull. Oops). The result is the worst tangled web of gorgeous handmade yarn perhaps in the history of string.
Now, this yarn was expensive… for yarn. But not expensive for my life. So, why oh why have I spent countless hours slowly following the loose end through each twisted lock only to be (again according to the knitting expert) half-way through? Well, I’m not sure if my obsession about this little project of mine is 100% healthy, but I am not giving up. I’m not sure what it is, but I must be getting something out of working through this labyrinth.
I think part of the attraction has been the hope that the next achievement would lead to a big reward of loosened material. But, of course, one knot seems to lead straight to another with minimal freedom. Just like life, right? Bam! We hit a road block and we have to choose whether to go around it or try to push ourselves through. Whichever we choose, bam! Another road block waiting for us on the other side. Now which way do we go??
My yarn didn’t have to be such a nightmare. I’m the one who made it worse by trying to shake it and pull it and find a simple way out instead of doing the painstaking work of following the path before me. Don’t we do the same when we hit those road blocks? We try to ram our way through a problem or toward wealth or fame rather than take one step at a time with grace and finesse? I know I have!
So maybe my attraction to solving my yarn puzzle is part of a wish I could go back and undo some of the choices I have made when I stumbled along the way. Maybe it’s to undo some of my wrongs. Maybe it’s to prove to myself that when I hit my next life-snag there will be a path to peace. Maybe it’s to show myself that there is always a solution when the world seems like it’s out of solutions. Maybe it’s to prove that life is a labyrinth.
Rabbi Marshal Klavin asked a group whether or not they see their lives as mazes or labyrinths. Interesting, the younger set saw their lives as mazes, as a set of twist and turns where they could get stuck and never make it to their goals. The older set saw their lives as labyrinths, as paths so wrapped around themselves one could feel lost but also know that, in the end, we all get where we need to go.
May we all think of our lives as labyrinths, all of us on the way to where we need to go even if it seems frightening and far away, and let’s try to remember not take one end of the labyrinth and pull like I did. That’s the only way to get stuck.
And may I finally finish this stupid yard!!!!! 🙂
First an apology for being gone for so long… end of year madness turned into a much needed vacation which turned into blogs written but not posted. So, here is my first of three vacation inspired blogs. 🙂
Miserable in Paradise
Ok, I wasn’t really miserable, but “Kind of Down in Paradise” wasn’t a catchy title. I was in Paradise though… spending my days watching ocean waves crash on rocks from under a shady tree. And I was working some stuff out that left me feeling a little low for a few days despite my surroundings.
Most of us usually go on vacation to get away from it all, and this was no exception. The family had been through a bit of stress this spring, and we agreed that our summer trip would be a do-nothing-but-sit-by-the-pool/beach kind of experience. We arrived at our beachy spot with the expectation of leaving all of our worries behind and enjoying some uninterrupted family time. But as we all know, worries don’t get left behind like an extra pair of flip-flops, and my issues definitely came along for the ride.
My walks on the sandy shore included serious conversations with my husband about subjects we knew we had to deal with but hadn’t had the emotional or chronological space at home. Our time splashing in the pool included a few arguments with the kids that probably needed to occur to help us and them be heard as well as help them grow up. But most affecting my mood were my quiet moments alone which forced me to face the loss of my father… a loss I had processed intellectually but discovered my heart hadn’t quite caught up. The result was feeling a (little) miserable in paradise.
At first I was angry at myself for not being in pure bliss on my vacation, but then it hit me. Yes, vacations are there, in part, to escape the norm, but maybe (and more importantly), they are also there to unpack what has been going on in our lives with a little distance and a new perspective. It’s a time to deal with all of the things that get swept under the rug during our day-to-day cluttered lives. We need the quiet to even hear ourselves and each other, and that can lead to resolving conflicts and stored away emotions… not always the most pleasant way to spend a vacay.
Perhaps this is all that religious practice is supposed to do for us as well. In Judaism, Shabbat is to be a mini-vacation every week, filled with family and friends and prayer and peace. However, maybe it is in that silence that we find the internal dusty corners that need to be cleaned out and end up arguing with ourselves or each other over Shabbat lunch. Maybe in the act of prayer, the search for God can lead to a revelation of our unresolved issues rather than the revelation of something Divine.
Much like vacation, we have expectations that religious observance should make us feel only positive. We are waiting to feel peace, feel connection, feel Holy. When we don’t, we are disappointed and sometimes become disillusioned with doing anything spiritual at all. And yet, maybe things like prayer and a Sabbath (and a vacation) were never meant to lead us toward being “one” with the Universe but simply toward being “one” within ourselves. To do that means clearing out a lot of internal muck. And maybe instead of running away from those thoughts and feelings, we need to run to them, work on them, process them, resolve them, and only then possibly get a glimmer of peace.
After a few days of quiet and facing what needed to be faced, I did start to truly enjoy my time in paradise. It just took a little effort and work. The next time you are entering a moment of religious action (or inaction) or prayer, remember that it is probably going to take some effort and work for you to find peace then too. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t run away from the opportunity, but accept the dissonance with open arms rather than a defiant fist. Allow the work to happen without a goal in mind, and then just be grateful when that second or two of peace washes over you. Something Divine may emerge from peace, but Holiness may also appear out of resolution, and for that, the conflict must exist first.
Stay tuned for my next vacation-inspired blog which is about… yarn (I bet that’s not what you expected).
Talk soon and feel free to comment and send me your thoughts.
Last Sunday, I participated with Ikar, HIAS (the Jewish organization committed to relocating and advocating for ALL refugees), and several other communities in a Vigil at the LA Museum of the Holocaust remembering the SS. St. Louis. In 1939 this luxury boat was loaded with German Jewish refugees who were fleeing Nazi persecution and travelled to Cuba to await their quota number in order to be able to enter the United States. This was the last hope for many of these refugees as visas had tightened after so many had fled in 1938 immediately after Kristallnacht. The tickets for this voyage were expensive, and families had to sacrifice enormously to find or earn the money for the passage.
A nazi flag flew over the boat, but the captain ordered the crew to treat the passengers as they would any other. The passengers actually enjoyed themselves with fine food and lots of on-board activities. However, just a few days after they departed, the captain got word that his passengers might not be allowed to disembark after all because of changing political tides. But the boat carried on and those on board kept hoping.
When the SS St. Louis reached Cuba, they were denied entry except for 29 of the 937 passengers. The US tried to convince Cuba to take them, but the boat ended up heading for the US instead with 907 refugees still aboard. But when they reached the US, they were denied entry again. Pressure was put on Canada to accept the people, but they were denied a third time.
Refusing to take these people back to Germany, the captain returned to Europe and took them to Belgium. They were accepted by the UK, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But with the Nazi invasion of Europe, 254 of them, a little over 1/4 died… 254 people that could have been safe in Cuba or the US or Canada, but were sent away.
With this story in mind, and considering today’s new ruling against the President’s travel ban, I bring your attention to the poem below by Brian Bilston. Read it twice… once forward and once backward, and see how identical words can be turned around, much the way the SS St. Louis was turned around again and again.
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
(now read from bottom to top)
To learn about the poet, go here: https://brianbilston.com/2016/03/23/refugees/.
To help refugees, become a supporter of HIAS at https://www.hias.org/.
To support the LA Museum of the Holocaust, go to http://www.lamoth.org/.
To support Cool Shul so we can keep making the world a better place filled with non-judgmental, flexible, open-minded Judaism, go to www.coolshul.org.
I once had a student who asked me a little angrily, “Why do you always answer every question with another question??!!” Of course, I had to answer, “Why do you think I do that?” 🙂 My student left exasperated that day, but a week later he returned and told me he had been thinking about why it is that I always answered his questions with another question and had an answer. He said:
“I guess it’s because eventually everyone loses his mentor and has to mentor himself.”
I have been thinking a lot lately about mentoring myself, about being my own Rabbi. Recently, as I have been dealing with issues of illness, life, birth and death, I have found that all of my training goes right out the window when I’m dealing with my own life and my own family. Sure, philosophical thoughts sound wonderful when advising someone outside of that inner-sanctum, but when everything hits close to home, all of those lofty ideas can sounds straight up silly to me. However, as I have been traveling through the realities of my reality, I have tried to ask myself, “Well, what would I tell me right now if I was my own congregant?” Asking this question actually helped. If we can quiet down our minds long enough to step back from our own situations and imagine what we would tell another, the answers come more easily.
I don’t think this conundrum exists only for clergy. I think it actually pertains to most of us. How many of us are teachers who get frustrated when there is some new technique or topic we struggle to master, and meanwhile we just spent all day helping students move past their hurdles and hang-ups? How many of us are therapists who find ourselves faced with conflict and momentarily forget how we advise others when dealing with our own dispute? How many of us are employers who make sure our employees have ample vacation and sick time but we, ourselves, are running ragged? How many of us are parents who exhibit as much patience with our children as we can muster but have no patience for ourselves? Maybe we know a librarian who doesn’t have enough time to read, a politician who forgets to ask himself what he really thinks (no, never!), or a cardiologist who keeps eating fatty doughnuts for a quick snack between patient visits.
It is definitely challenging to be our own best rabbi or pastor or teacher or librarian or doctor or parent or therapist or employer. But we have to be.
Tonight, the Jewish people begin celebrating Shavuot, which honors the receiving of the Torah. The Torah (especially if we don’t just mean the 5 Books of Moses but include the Prophets, the Writings, and the generations of commentaries that followed) is kind of like a Jewish guide book for better living. As we celebrate the fact that the Torah exists and that it is all of ours (not just for Jews of course!) to study in order to make life a little more complete, I think it’s important to remember that we have inner guide books as well. Those tools we use in our professional and parental systems… those nuggets of good advice we hand off so easily and nobly to others but often forget to apply to ourselves… these are our internal guide books and are as important as any external religious text. We must pull from the wisdom that exists inside of ourselves as well as outside in order to create our paths and find Shalom (completeness).
So, on this eve of Shavuot, maybe do a little study as is the tradition (some stay up all night learning in honor of this holiday). I don’t expect you to do that, but you could take a little time tonight or tomorrow to learn a bit of Torah or gleam a morsel of wisdom from some other external text. Or… maybe even more importantly, you could take a little time to ask yourself what your inner guide book says. Ask yourself if the guidance you have been giving others can be a gift to give yourself as well. Tonight and tomorrow, take a few moments to close your eyes, read your own guide book, and start taking your own advice.
Hi Cool Shul readers!
So sorry I disappeared for awhile. You’ll see why when you read this sermon which I shared at our Shabbat celebration Friday night…
I’m not going to give a Torah talk tonight, especially since many of you will be hearing a gorgeous sermon from our Bat-Mitzvah tomorrow. I’m going to leave the Torah to her. But there is something that has been on my mind lately, and I thought I would share it with you in case it helped any of you as well. After all, I always say being a spiritual leader isn’t about having all of the answers. It’s about searching for answers and sharing any discoveries with your community.
I have long said that my favorite part of the prayer book is the Ma’ariv Aravim. Why? Because it ushers in not light, but dark. It is gratitude for the night and the cycles of night and day, darkness and light. Of course, this can be taken literally but it can also be considered emotionally and spiritually. I often tell the story of a Bat-Mitzvah student who once studied with me, whose friend’s father had passed away. My student had a very strained relationship with her own father, and while she watched her friend grieve, she began to appreciate her father for what they DID have, and she committed to repairing their relationship as much as she could. But she felt immense guilt that someone else’s loss led to her increased happiness. I told her not to worry… it is all there in Ma’ariv Aravim. Darkness leads to light and light leads to darkness and so on and so on and so on. It’s our job to accept that cycle, learn from it, and do our part to make sure some light always comes out of the dark.
I think it was Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi who suggested that it might, in fact, be the purpose of humanity to get comfortable with the uncomfortable: to accept that all that is negative has a shred of positive and vice-versa… to accept that the world is not black and white, right and wrong, up and down, but a muddled mess of all of the above.
Most of us, myself included, spend a lot of time trying to force our realities into defined spaces where they don’t belong. We want to feel all good about something or all lousy, all joy or all pain. But according to Reb Zalman, part of the purpose of our lives is to find peace in the grey, to stop judging ourselves for being so darned complicated, and to accept living in a perpetual state of bittersweetness.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because I recently lost my father, and I’m finding myself lost in a sea of conflicting emotions. He was a wonderful dad, and I miss him. That’s emotion number one. But in his last days, he was very much no longer himself and no longer had a life worth living. So, I found myself relieved when he was gone. That’s emotion number two. Of course, I also felt guilty for feeling relieved. There is three. I felt angry there was nothing the doctors could do (that’s four) but also grateful for their gentle care (five!). And when we decided it was time for hospice, the pain of making that decision was acute. That’s six. Now, it is time to try to re-enter what was previously a pretty joyous life and find that joy again, which I am. So that’s seven. Finally, the illness brought my family and I much closer together, and I’m feeling a much deeper sense of love for them and from them as a result of all we shared. That’s eight.
So, I find myself wrapped in loss, guilt, anger, and pain but also relief, gratitude, love and joy. It’s like ping-pong balls of emotion bouncing around in my head, leaving me exhausted and confused. I think we’ve all been there one time or another and most of us probably torture ourselves about it. But what if we stop judging and instead start believing that this mixed up sensation is part of the purpose of our lives… To find peace in confusion and comfort in the dichotomy. To allow ourselves to swim in the unresolved.
Think of a time when your emotions were betraying one another and pointing at each other in disbelief that the other simultaneously existed. Got it? Now let it go for once and for all. Realize that the struggles of that moment, and the many moments yet to come in our futures that will be tangled webs of sensation, are part of the purpose of our lives. Only when we learn to accept this state and navigate those waters will we ever be able to truly care for one another.
Let’s forgive ourselves for being complicated, and find peace and magic in the mess.
Life is like bread.
Sometimes our lives feel like a crusty loaf of French baguette right out of the oven from a tiny bakery on the Ile Saint Louis… inviting, warm, delicious, and just slightly exotic. Maybe those baguette days take place at weddings or during vacations or even when we decide to spend the whole day in our pajamas watching movies and eating pizza. Those are good days.
Sometimes our lives feel more like a piece of matzah just pulled out of yet another box of factory made unleavened bread… flat, flavorless, cold, and if we eat too much of it, it forces our bodies to stop flowing as it should. 😉
Of course we all wish for a majority of our days to resemble baguettes, but how do we reach those glorious days? Most of us don’t get to the vacation without first having to work hard to plan it and afford it. We don’t meet the person we want to marry without first going on a bunch of dead-end dates. And we don’t usually get the career promotion without first making the extra time-consuming effort. It takes a heck of a lot of labor to get to a “Promised Land.”
In our Passover story, the unleavened bread was our traveling companion. It wasn’t exciting or delicious, but it accompanied us on our journey from A to B. Similarly, we have to get ourselves from A to B, from less ideal situations to more ideal ones. What accompanies us on those journeys? It may not be matzah, but it may be feelings that are just as cold, flat, and tasteless. We might feel that our lives aren’t moving forward, or in the right direction, or quickly enough. We might believe we will never find true love. We might be frustrated with all of the mundane or even unpleasant activities we must bear while doing our best to keep our eyes on the prize.
So, most of life is a bit like matzah. But that’s okay, because matzah (and our journeys) don’t have to be so intolerable. Last weekend, I took part in a Passover cooking demonstration with my community, Cool Shul, and Chef Danny Corsun from Culinary Kids. There my feelings about matzah were changed forever. We made our own… flour, water, olive oil, and no more than 18 minutes in the oven to make sure it was still technically matzah. And you know what? It was warm and flavorful and delicious! We dipped it into a freshly made pesto and charoset with pomegranate seeds, and rather than being a lifeless culinary experience, matzah became something kind of divine.
So, maybe we can re-think those laborious days of our lives the way I got to re-think matzah. Maybe there is a way to make our daily journeys more flavorful.
Let’s remember that while we were slaves, we were also well-fed. I’m not so sure we remembered to have gratitude for that little blessing. Then, when we were free, we were hungry and afraid and really struggled with holding on to our beliefs and to thankfulness for our new position. This means the “negative” places we are may have some positives if we look hard enough, and that the hard-won freedoms we are looking forward to may come with a cost. So, perhaps we can do our best to treasure the small triumphs and notice the positive things hidden in our day to day journeys. Maybe we can be mindful enough to be present with with the mundane or even the painful rather than focusing on the fact that we aren’t already in better days.
Let’s pack some freshly baked matzah in our sacks (no more boxes of Streitz’s!) and walk boldly toward the possibilities of tomorrow without losing sight of the challenges that will come with “arriving.” Let’s enjoy our baguette days, but also never forget that every life will include more matzah days ahead as well. It’s partly up to us whether or not we find the blessings in those flatter moments.
Hope you will join me and Cool Shul at our Community Seder on April 15 in Temescal Canyon. Click here for more info.
A great Torah scholar was sitting in his home study, deeply engrossed in the portion of the week. He was concentrating so completely, he didn’t hear the knock on his study door and didn’t notice that his father, another great Torah scholar, had entered the room. “Don’t you hear that the baby is crying?” asked the elder man. His son, startled because he hadn’t heard him enter said, “I’m sorry, father. When I’m studying, I don’t hear or notice anything outside of my work.” The wise scholar replied, “There is something wrong with any learning that prevents one from hearing the cries of a child.”
I wish it had been studies that distracted me this week, but in many ways I felt like I was that engrossed scholar. A variety of events collided that led to my being distracted to the nth degree, spending most of my time stressing, emailing, and talking on the phone, rather than focusing on my work or my family. Even when I was with my children, I found it infinitely difficult to be in the moment with them.
I am fortunate that my children were understanding and waited patiently for my attention. But as my internal stress level and their searching eyes reached what felt like an unhealthy peak, I knew I had to break the cycle we were in. And I realized my children weren’t the only ones hoping for some attention. My soul was begging for it too as my energy ceased to be helpful or healthy.
That’s when I remembered another story:
There was a busy mother who was clearing away dishes and straightening up after a long day at work while her child tried to tell her something. The child kept asking his mother if she was listening, and she kept replying that she was, while still busily moving about the kitchen. But the child didn’t feel heard so he stopped his mother and held her face between his chubby hands. He said, “Can you listen to me with your eyes?”
With this story in mind, I turned off my phone and whisked my kids away (and I wish my husband had been able to come because he needed it too!) for a night, just down the road from our home. We ordered room service, watched cooking shows, ate cookies in bed, and went for a morning swim. We laughed. We cuddled. We listened with our eyes.
I’m lucky that my circumstance allowed me to indulge with my children in such a way, but all of us need to find ways, big and small, to recharge when the going gets tough. It could be as simple as watching a silly movie, spending the afternoon on the beach, baking cookies together, or spending the night in a tent in the back yard. The escape doesn’t need to be long or expensive. But when we end up in a stress cycle like I did this week… when our families or our souls are asking to be seen, let’s not talk ourselves out of indulging a little, as we are able. After all, it’s what we do every Shabbat! We save up, no matter how little or much we have, and allow one day per week to be as special as possible in what we eat, what we do, and in the amount of presence we allow ourselves. This is no different.
No one can avoid times that lead us to being temporarily unable to hear the cries of a child. But when we find ourselves there, let’s remember the stories told here, and do something to break the pattern, even if it seems a little frivolous. We and our families deserve it.
I’m not kidding. Stop reading, go outside or peek through the window, take a deep breath and…
Look at the sky. Is it gray or blue? Is there a bird flying by? Leaves wiggling in the wind? Notice the slight changes in light as a cloud passes over. Allow yourself to be filled with the wondrous possibilities that exist in the “up,” be they spiritual possibilities of a guiding light or scientific possibilities of 7 new planets. Be open to inspiration…
Recently I was taking my son to school, and while at a red light, I noticed something kind of sad about human focus. Most of us spend all of our time only considering the “down.” As people drove past me in the opposite lane, I took note that the first driver was still looking at his phone as he drove. “I wonder how many in a row will be looking down?” I asked myself. So, I counted. 1… 2… 3… 4… 5! I seriously got to the 6th consecutive car before I saw someone who had his/her attention completely on the road, who was looking “up.”
Now, this is not going to be lecture about texting while driving (though we shouldn’t) or about the dangers of technology. I love my iPhone, and I’m as guilty as the next guy or gal of squeezing in a text at a red light. My concern is about focus.
Our vision is narrowing. Our news, communication, work, interests, and social lives increasingly exist within the borders of a teeny, tiny screen (yes an iPhone 6s is still too small). Too often our joy and anger are released into that rectangle. Our opinions are formed there, our disappointments are aired there, and all of this digital interaction keeps our heads pointing down.
Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for those energies moving toward the “down,” but there is also a big, wide world out there that we cannot forget exists. Information being packed in a minute package does not have to mean that how we perceive humanity, how we connect to nature, and how we view the world also has to be contained in such a tight space. Our perspectives need to be way out there too, with the stars and the distant mountain, or we will lose our ability to think big and to think outside the box. And if we don’t think big and outside the box, how are we ever going to get ourselves out of the messes we are in? We need to think simultaneous large and small.
It is not only healthy, but absolutely necessary to take a break from the constant information feed and find time to recharge and look up. In fact, in the workshop we had a Cool Shul last week about processing anxiety in trying times, Dr. Feldmann emphasized that it is absolutely NECESSARY for our long term health and well-being to take a break… to do something purely fun and frivolous… to forget about our worries and fears for a moment. That is how we survive stressful periods in our lives without burning out. In other words, we need to put away those phones and tablets and allow ourselves, just for a few hours, not to know what was just tweeted or posted. We need to give ourselves permission not to engage and instead to
get our nails done,
or go for a cell-free walk on the beach,
or watch a silly movie (on a big screen please!),
PLAY BOARD GAMES!
This Saturday, in association with the organization Reboot, Cool Shul will be hosting an unplugged Shabbat afternoon. From 12-5pm, we will have board games everywhere, and phones will be left at the door. We will have pizza for all. Unplug with us for a few hours, and please invite your friends. This is not a religious event, so invite anyone who might be interested! I promise we won’t try to turn them into Jews. 😉
Click here to register. We ask for a $20 donation per person to cover food and table rentals. But if you can’t swing that, just leave a smaller donation when you come. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know you are planning to join us. The flyer is below.
We all need this. We all need a little time to Reboot.
Hooray!! My blog has successfully been transferred to http://www.rabbidiane.com. If you are still interested in hearing about events at Cool Shul but are not yet on our mailing list, you can go to our new website at http://www.coolshul.org and contact us there. But now, this blog isn’t speaking for Cool Shul, just little ole me. 🙂
And now for the blog and an invitation…
You are not in battle. You are merely poised for the battle.
These words resonate within me nearly every day. I heard them on a yoga CD from a teacher I enjoy (shout out to Santa Monica Yoga), perfect for doing when I can only squeeze in a little solo yoga at home (usually at 6am!). During the practice, we are guided into Warrior 2: legs spread and slightly bent, ready to spring at a moment’s notice, arms stretched out from the shoulders with fingers elongated, eyes peering over the fingertips which guide our attention toward some distant point. I am standing in that position when I hear those words:
You are not in battle. You are merely poised for the battle.
Certainly yoga isn’t a physical art form that has any sort of combat. If anything we are to find peace within ourselves and our surroundings, not be in battle. Yet we are practicing yoga to become more centered, stronger, and grounded while simultaneously being elevated… all excellent traits for one who has to be ready for a war. Warrior 2 prepares us mentally and physically for a fight we hope will never come.
I know, my friends, that we are all glued to the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox these days. With all of the information coming in, regardless of where our loyalties lie, it is nearly impossible not to feel a little off balance, confused, and in conflict. How do we go on about our daily lives when there is so much anger and worry surrounding us? How do we care about what to make the kids for lunch or whether or not to put new curtains up in the bedroom when our phones are pinging every 5 seconds with another dramatic update?
I don’t have an answer for you. Except that I am trying to live my life in Warrior 2.
There are so many battles worth fighting for. I, like you, care deeply about so many issues that it’s hard to decide where to put my money, my time, and my emotional capital. I want to come out swinging to protect my children, my community, my country. But I’m not a boxer. I’m a Rabbi, and my job and responsibility (at least for the Rabbi I try to be) is to never create panic in those in my circles, but to offer them a path toward inner peace, a complete Shalom, even when our inner-fighters emerge. Yes, let’s take on an issue. Yes let’s do what our hearts tells you is the appropriate effort for us, but let’s never lose that center that keeps our feet on the ground, our minds elevated, and our eyes looking to the future. Let’s never lose that inner-knowing that keeps us poised before and during the battle.
So, I try to live in warrior 2. I am not in a literal battle, but I am poised for the battles when they come. And even when I do choose to strike, I will do so remembering the Jewish text that tells us that the world stands upon three things: Study, Effort and Kindness. Even when in conflict, I hope never to forget who I am and to remain a peaceful warrior in word and deed.
If you are feeling stressed out by your outer world or your inner world, please join me with Dr. Cheryl Feldmann for a group discussion about how to live our lives unclenched, even in stressful times. Email me at email@example.com to let me know you’re coming. The event is free, but a donation is appreciated.
Tuesday, February 21, 7pm at Cool Shul.
13323 West Washington Blvd. #101 LA CA 90066
I was taking a walk near my home this morning and found myself on a cul-de-sac which I know is populated primarily with Jewish Orthodox families. As I walked though, I tried to imagine what life would be like if I lived there as one of them… same neighborhood as mine, same weather, same parks for our children to play in, and yet a totally and completely different life.
What would it feel like to have the kind of existence in which every decision I made was informed by my faith? Would I feel “more holy” than that guy eating a slice of bacon? Would I feel as if I were more important than that mom getting into her car on Shabbat to take her kids to soccer practice? Would I think myself more deserving because my husband wears a kippa on his head? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that those choices would enhance my life while maintaining the utmost respect for those who choose differently. But honestly, I’m not sure.
I worry that in some ways, separation is what makes us feel special, or even holy. I am reminded of a time I was in a Jewish concert and the Cantor of a local synagogue who was on stage made some kind of “wink-wink” joke about being kosher into the mic… you know, the kind of joke that (of course!) all of us could relate to because we were probably all kosher. Well, as a Jewish clergy person who was in the room and who is NOT kosher, the joke didn’t make me giggle. If anything, I felt like maybe I wasn’t “holy enough” for the company I was in, or at least not holy enough for that Cantor. I was separate.
Our news is saturated with stories of “us versus them” these days. We have cultural divides, religious divides, political divides, and so much separateness. In these times when there are such clear sides about so many issues, I am concerned about us all enjoying our separation a little, for it is possible that feeling “other” (while we all claim to unconditionally love the “other”) also encourages us to feel superior… dare I say, “holier than thou.”
Am I holier than you if there is a cross around my neck? Am I holier than you if I don’t eat shrimp? Am I holier than you if I pray down on my knees? Am I holier than you if I hold a protest sign, if I agree or don’t agree with a policy, if I call my senator or if I don’t? Maybe the actions that make us feel good about ourselves, and perhaps even closer to God, are the very things that also allow us to feel superior. Is it possible to be confident in ourselves, be separate in some ways, but also view one another as complete equals? Or has “separate but equal” proven time and time again to be a concept that just doesn’t work?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I admire those who allow their choices to be informed by their souls. I’d like to think that in some ways I am one of them. And I admire those who carry signs at protests as I’ve carried a sign or two myself. But in this present time of stress, anxiety, and fear, we need to invest in discovering the holiness in “everyone else” as much if not more than in ourselves, even if they are counter to us in nearly every way. If we don’t, the whole world will lose.
Yes, we should all fight for what we believe in, but we also don’t want to become what we detest.. someone arrogant in our opinions, unable to hear a differing thought, and unable to admit the weaknesses that may be present in our “own side” or the sliver of merit in the “other side.” Let’s never assume that our worth is any greater than anyone else’s.
All we have are our choices, and may we make the clearest ones we can. But when debating those who make different choices, let’s try to remember to still have kindness in our hearts for the opposing debater. As my friend said the other day, “love the person, hate the idea.”
Join us for our next Cool Shul Shabbat this Friday, February 10 at 7pm at Cool Shul, 13323 W. Washington Blvd. LA 90066. And join our mailing list to know everything going on at Cool Shul by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As clergy, I really try not to show partisanship when acting on behalf of my community. And yet, I’m finding it more and more difficult these days because of basic ideals that I never dreamed would be considered political… Like the value of truth.
In Judaism, we often pray to the God of Truth, and speak of the Torah of Truth. And in Talmud, Rashi explains that God is present when there is Truth and absent when there is not. I never imagined that “real” facts versus “alternative facts” would become a debate to be had, but apparently truth doesn’t mean what it used to. How is it possible that truth and facts are now a partisan issue? How is it that the freedom of the press is now an endangered species? How does it serve mankind to silence the educated? I mean, argue about whatever you like. Let’s disagree. But no amount of pushing will ever make 2+2 not equal 4, and no amount of finger pointing will ever make it palatable to suppress the fact-finding of our news sources and scientists. Some things are opinions. Some things are just plain facts. So, let’s have an honest debate based on truth. But we will all lose if we debate with fiction.
With these thoughts pulsing around in my mind, I watched the video below which features the Statue of Liberty. After viewing it, I started singing these words, which are mounted to her pedestal, and ended up humming them to myself all day:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
These words by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus were written to welcome incoming immigrants. And I’m so sad these days, as I know many of you are, that those words are fighting to remain in the hearts and minds of the American people while truth is is being silenced, freedom is being suppressed, immigrants desperate for a new home are being turned away, and a wall is being built.
The rain falling in this video is certainly representing our tears and the storm so many feel internally and fear externally. And yet, there is hope as the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Ronald Regan appear against the darkness. I hope after you watch, Emma Lazarus’s poem will be ringing in your ears as well.
Let’s never give up on the pursuit of facts or on the American dream. We owe it to Lazarus, to King, and even to Reagan (what do you think he would be saying right now?) to keep fighting, even when we are tired from the battle. It may be raining today, but it is up to us to create that first break in the storm. We are our own messiah.
Thank you to my dear friend Beth Gallagher for creating this gorgeous and moving video.
Wishing Shalom (peace, contentment, completeness) for all mankind.
Rabbi/Cantor (“Rantor”) Diane
I opened my computer this morning to write a blog about President Obama’s farewell speech, and to invite my readers to Cool Shul’s MLK Shabbat and Farewell to Obama this Friday. I wanted to talk about Obama as a community organizer, and I wanted to encourage others to become community organizers themselves (for I can tell you, as someone who runs a community, organizing one is no easy task!). I hoped I would write an entry that would be elegant and eloquent enough to inspire all of you to (quoting POTUS) “…lace up your shoes and do some organizing… grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
And yet, as I sat down to start writing, I spotted this blog that said everything I wanted to say with more elegance and eloquence than I ever could.
Please read this amazing article by Erika Davis which starts with a quote by Frederick Douglass that is often attributed to Heschel:
I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.
Read the blog, and after you read it, come to Shabbat this Friday at Cool Shul at 7pm. Let’s celebrate the inspiring words of Martin Luther King and our outgoing President and choose how we want to change this world together.
Read Erika Davis’s blog here: http://werepair.org/praying-legs-2017/
Evite to Cool Shul Shabbat is here: http://evite.me/8U3ahV7yTP
Lit-up trees and Chanukah candles both welome. After all, we could all use a little extra light these days. 🙂
Happy Holidays dear readers.
On November 7, I emailed my community the following blessing that is said when voting:
Blessed is being called upon to exalt our nation with righteousness, and for being taught: “Seek the welfare of your community and pray on its behalf, so that all may share in its well-being” (Jeremiah).
I rarely step into politics in my blog, but today I couldn’t resist because what I will say will not only align with Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and Paul Ryan, but also John Podesta, President Obama, Hilary Clinton, and (oh yes!) the CIA.
It is our Jewish (heck, human!) responsibility to use our power to exalt our nation with righteousness, to seek the welfare of our community, and to make sure all share in our country’s well-being.
At the Holy Days, one of my sermons spoke not of politics, but of the opportunity to base our political decisions on the Jewish ethics we embody. Every time we make a political, or any other kind of decision, we are invited to remember the lessons learned through our holidays, our holy days, our texts, and our traditions, and allow them to inform and affect us. What actions we all take, with our votes or otherwise, while understanding these Jewish pillars, are up to us.
And here we are, Democrats and Republicans, nervous that a foreign leader has affected the outcome of our most important democratic process. The Republicans wants answers. The Democrats wants answers. 10 Electoral College members want answers.
This isn’t a political post. This is a spiritual post echoing the words of Jeremiah. What does everything we have learned teach us about this moment in history? What does being a couple weeks away from Chanukah, the holiday that celebrates fighting for one’s identity and right to exist even in the face of a more powerful force, tell us about how we should feel? What is more worth fighting for than our democracy’s right to exist?
Readers of this blog and partners of my community, I don’t know where this is all leading… maybe nowhere. But I want to promise you this. I am here with you and for you, not to fight for Democrats or Republicans, but to fight for the welfare of our community, and that means fighting for Emet, for Truth!
Al sheloshah d’varim Upon three things
ha-olam omeid. The world stands.
Al ha-torah, Upon torah,
V’al ha-avodah, And upon prayer,
V’al g’milut chasidim And upon acts of loving kindness.
These are stressful times. Whether you are fearful about the future or regretting the past, whether your stress stems from politics or health issues, whether your worries are about your parents, your children, yourselves, or the planet (or all of the above), it seems few of us are relaxed these days. We don’t know which way to go, which way to turn, what to fund, what to sign, whom to support, and whom to condemn. We are lost in a sea of news and social media, all while needing to keep up with the strains of every day life. No matter what we read on Facebook, Twitter or the New York Times, there are still sick children and parents. There are still groceries that need to be purchased, homework that needs to get done, bills that need to be paid, and career woes that need to get solved. Lately, it seems many of us wake up in the middle of the night finding we’ve been grinding our teeth and sweating through uncomfortable dreams as our subconscious works through its agitations. We find ourselves a little more testy, a little less patient, and a little less thoughtful. We feel afraid and alone.
But Judaism offers a simple statement that can carry us through, if we listen, one day at a time…
Upon three things the world stands. Upon torah, upon prayer, and upon acts of loving kindness.
In some ways, this quote from Pirkei Avot is all we need to guide us. It won’t solve our problems, but it is a three-step road map to action and to inner-peace if we follow it, and for now, that will have to do.
My old Rabbi and mentor used to talk about big T Torah and little t torah. Big T is for the text of the Torah scroll itself. Little t moves beyond those Five books of Moses to all forms of learning, teaching and study of wisdom, Jewish and otherwise. So, the world first stands upon knowledge: spiritual, scientific, social, political and personal wisdom. The world stands upon learning our personal truths and the truths of the universe.
How does this relate to feeling stressed and out of control? Let’s all choose one element (I suggest just one to start when we are feeling like there are so many issues to face) of what is worrying us, and learn, study, and understand that issue. Let’s get the facts (oy, please let’s not be part of this “post-fact” world we keep hearing about!), rather than rely on hearsay or headlines or word of mouth. Let’s gather truth, and whether these truths are about the world’s problems or about what a doctor or teacher may have reported about a loved one, let’s make sure we are as armed with wise, factual information as we can. That’s step one.
Ready for step two?
According to Pirkei Avot, the next thing the world stands upon is prayer… well, only sort of. The Hebrew word for prayer actually means “work” or “labor.” So, this means that the world doesn’t only stand upon prayer but stands upon our efforts. It means the actions we do can be prayerful. So, let’s act! Let’s put some effort towards improving the situations about which we just educated ourselves. This may mean going to meetings or therapy, donating to a cause, or marching, demonstrating, or volunteering. You decide what the right action is, but they key is that there is action. The key is doing. Let’s not sink into a sense of defeatism over what crushes us, but get up on our feet, “pray with our legs,” and get out there, even if the action itself seems small… even if our efforts will only make a difference to ourselves, knowing we gave it our best shot. 🙂
Finally, we are told the world stands upon acts of loving kindness. G’milut is actually a giving, it’s charity. And chasidim? Boundless kindness and love. G’milut chasidim is giving away boundless kindness.
So here we are at step three. While we are improving our knowledge, and going into action, let’s try to remember to be full of endless kindness as we do. After all, a big part of the knowledge we seek is to understand what and whom we don’t already understand. So, let’s look into opposing eyes with openness. Let’s face dissenting voices with strength wrapped in grace. Let’s stare into the depths of illness and issues and fear, holding ourselves tall. Let’s allow our power to filter through kindness with every encounter, no matter how difficult it is. Remember what our first lady said, “When they go low, we go high.”
Knowledge… Effort… Boundless kindness… Three simple Jewish ingredients for spiritually surviving trying times. This road map won’t solve everything, but we will be bathed in truth while marching toward resolution with grace in our hearts. Maybe that is enough for us to gain control over what appears to be out of control.
So, the next time we feel ourselves spinning, let’s remember this post. Let’s learn, act, and do our best to offer boundless kindness as we take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
B’shalom (with inner-peace),
An aged Abraham, recovering from his circumcision, is sitting at the entrance of his tent with the hot sun gleaming above him. When he looks up, he notices three men standing near. As soon as he sees them, he runs to greet them. He bows to the ground and offers them food, water, shade, and to bathe their feet.
Think of this man, nearly 100 years old, with searing pain between his legs, running toward strangers. Why run? Why not walk gently and calmly? Could he sense that they were messengers of God? Or did he simply not want to lose the opportunity to do the right thing… to offer some travelers food, water and shade on a hot day, even when he, himself, was suffering?
We all, but particularly those of us (Jews, Christians and Muslims) who are the descendants of Abraham, have an opportunity with this week’s Torah portion to be inspired by him, and to run, not walk, toward what we think is right, even when it’s painful. And if we are paying attention, we will not miss that Abraham is running toward strangers… not after they asked for help, but simply to do something that might make their lives a little brighter.
There are many ways we can interpret who our “strangers” are. But for now, let’s consider those we think of as strangers because they hold on to different ideals than we do. It is essential that we take the opportunity to try to understand those with whom we do not agree, even on the most fundamental issues. This does not mean we have to alter our own opinions. But it does mean that our compassion and willingness to listen must reach beyond our comfort zones. It means we try to stand in another person’s shoes. It means we never forget that they have journeys full of love and pain and disappointment that brought them to their place, and that we, too, travelled through love and pain and disappointment to get to where we stand. But we share some common experiences, and so we don’t walk toward this conversation, we run toward it.
That being said, we also have to run toward conflict when we believe human decency is at stake.
Now, as a spiritual leader, I try to stay out of public politics, and I never, ever told my community for whom to vote. In fact, my community is centered around acceptance no matter who you are, who you love, or what you believe. But we are also committed to protecting those individuals. So what I’m about to say isn’t about party lines or politics. My disgust has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats or Independents. We need to talk about the basic human rights we treasure in this country and that we can’t have an America where we believe anyone who isn’t exactly like us is a stranger to avoid or harm rather than run toward with good will.
I’m lookin’ at you Steve Bannon.
You seem to think the opposite sex are the “strangers”: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy (title from Breitbart News article).
Anyone with color to their skin is a “stranger”: There’s little question that Breitbart has regularly published materials designed to stoke fears about African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and other groups, and to explicitly normalize white-nationalist and white-supremacist beliefs (New York Magazine).
Those of other religions are “strangers”: Mary Louise Piccard said in a 2007 court declaration that Bannon didn’t want their twin daughters attending the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles because many Jewish students were enrolled at the elite institution. “The biggest problem he had with Archer is the number of Jews that attend,” Piccard said in her statement signed on June 27, 2007. “He said that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews,” Piccard wrote (NY Daily News).
A loving relationship you don’t experience yourself is “strange”: That’s why there are some unintended consequences of the women’s liberation movement. That, in fact, the women that would lead this country would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. They wouldn’t be a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England (Bannon quote as reported in Cosmopolitan Magazine).
And in case that isn’t enough for you, my dear readers, check out this guide to Bannon and Breitbart News’ “alt-right” language in the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-alt-right-terminology-20161115-story.html.
This is not my America, or Obama’s, or Bush senior’s, or Bush junior’s, or Regan’s, or even Paul Ryan’s. Don’t tell me this is politics.
But, you know what? Even with all that, I stick to what I wrote. It is my responsibility as a Jew, as a child of Abraham, to welcome someone I don’t yet know or understand. And so, Mr. Bannon, I invite you to come to California and speak to our Jewish communities. Explain to all of us how these quotes and reports don’t define you. Explain to us whether or not we should accept sexist, racist, homophobic, anti- diversity attitudes in the United States of America. Help us explain to our non-Christian, non-white, non-straight family and friends why they should not be afraid. Help us understand what you feel when you look at the statue of liberty and read these words written by a female, Jewish author, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We will welcome you if you come, Mr. Bannon, in fact run toward you as our “stranger” with open arms, and offer your food, water, shade, and an opportunity to be understood.
But we will also run, not walk, toward human rights, human dignity, and caring for one another if you can’t.
Whether you wore a hat with an H or one that ordered you to make America great again,
Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life,
Whether you live in rural Texas or urban Los Angeles,
There is one thing we can all agree on…
This country is divided.
People wept at the thought of their candidate losing, or maybe more to the point, at the thought of the opposition winning, unable to imagine how the people of their country could possibly elect the other. In the backs of some minds, we wondered if the sun would even still rise if our candidate didn’t win.
I can relate. I was one of them.
But the sun did rise, and it rose for ALL of us. Children got ready to learn and teachers got ready to teach. Hurrying parents ran out the door with coffee cups and toast in their hands. Restaurant deliveries were made and babies were born, in red states and blue.
Whether your candidate won or lost, your world kept going.
When we feel disoriented in a divided country, a divided community, or a divided home, it’s essential to find places to come together and find peace, even if it’s just for a moment. You might find it in a yoga class, a book club, a card game, or a spiritual community, but I hope you find it somewhere.
I find this comfort in my spiritual community. Now, spiritual institutions aren’t always without their own personal struggles. Goodness knows we have all experienced communities that are suffering with some sort of divide of their own. But my community was created to get away from all that. It was our hope to be small, intimate, caring, and supportive even when the going gets tough. It’s a place to come and leave your worries at the door. A place to be lifted when you are down, and a place to lift others when you are up. We even wrote conflict resolution into our bylaws for any time drama may arise (but so far, so good, no drama 🙂 )!
So, whether your candidate won or lost last night, find a safe place to navigate this divided country of ours. Let’s create safe environments for ALL of us to share and rejoice and weep. If nowhere else on this planet of ours, let’s be together in our churches, synagogues and mosques, with an eye toward the future, an eye toward peace, and a helping hand for those who need us.
For those of you in Los Angeles, I’ll see you Friday night at Cool Shul for our spiritual getaway. Let’s focus together on all for which we are grateful (red or blue). New adventures are coming, our students are becoming men and women, and we are fortunate enough to be able to supply the items needed for the boxes YOU will put together for Operation Refugee Child.
I think we can all agree that all of that is worth celebrating.
Be with us.
In case you didn’t read my blog last week, I challenged you all to have Device Free Dinners as part of a movement by the organization Common Sense Media to put our phones and other devices away from the table while we eat.
This week, I offer you a new challenge offered by the organization Reboot.
Go to http://www.thefridayapp.com/ and download their FRIDAY app.
Yes, we are going to use technology to inspire us to stop using technology. 🙂
Now, what does the app do and why should you put it on your phone?
Just before sunset every Friday, no matter where you are in the world, the FRIDAY app reminds you that it’s time to slow down, and the phone goes into a “sunset” mode (don’t panic, you can reawaken it any time). Why Friday? Well, because that’s the start of Shabbat, of course. But this FRIDAY app is by no means only for Jews. Reboot is using Jewish tradition to make life better for ALL people. Something this Universalist Rabbi really likes. Under the heading WHY FRIDAY? on the app, it doesn’t even mention Judaism! It says:
As long as there have been workweeks, there have been sighs of relief on Friday evening. Think of Friday night as a time to press pause, and this app as a very shiny pause button… Maybe this app will help you quiet the noise for 15 minutes. Or maybe you’ll make it all night long without sending a single text. It kind of doesn’t matter. Either way, it’ll be time well spent.
I love these guys.
So, hopefully you still have your Devices-Go-Here sign from last week pointing to a place where all devices go during dinner to make sure your family connects, or you connect with yourself (yes! even do it when you’re alone!). But let’s add this to the mix. Let the device that grabs our attention most remind us to unplug tonight and every Friday night.
Shabbat Shalom everyone!
And if you are in the Los Angeles area and won’t be elsewhere for Shabbat next week, join us at November 11, 6:30pm, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica where we will have a pre-Thanksgiving Gratitude Shabbat, celebrate with a new Bar-Mitzvah, and make hope boxes for refugee children for Operation Refugee Child. We’ll be so busy you won’t have time to even think about looking at your phone. 🙂
See you there! See the evite to Shabbat Nov. 11 here.
Hi all! I’m sharing my sermon from Kol Nidre. Hope you enjoy! And join us for Simchat Torah Shabbat October 21 at 6:30 pm in Ashland Park – 1650 Ashland Avenue. Santa Monica Ca 90405. We will have a Torah activity, mini Shabbat, and (of course!) unroll and surround ourselves in the entire Torah.
So, I’m fasting for Yom Kippur. So far so good considering it’s only been a few hours. I fast every year, and I must admit, I really look forward to it. Fasting allows me, with every inch of my being, to sense that Yom Kippur is truly a day different from all others. It allows me to concentrate on the spiritual journey I present to you and go on myself without distraction. And let’s face it… by the end of the day I’m feeling pretty punchy, and it’s wayyyyyyyy easier to embody some of the themes of these holy days and give myself over to the Divine. Remember the sermon about connecting to blessings (for you blog readers, this was my last blog!) from Rosh Hashanah? Doing so is much easier on an empty stomach. 🙂
You probably know there are many cultures and religions that include fasting in their observances. I mean, come on, even just being a Los Angelino encourages SOME kind of fasting… Anyone out there ever done a juice cleanse? That’s a fast for sure, and honestly, I think that is way harder than not eating at all.
In researching how various religions connect to fasting, I found a list of fasting religions as well as why they do it, and when. On the list were the Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Pagan, and Evangelical and Mainline Protestant faiths.
And the reasons for the fasting? Take each one in…
To focus on love of God.
To purify oneself.
To teach control of fleshly desires.
To feel solidarity with the poor.
To open oneself to God’s grace.
To enhance concentration during meditation or worship.
To atone for sins.
To make special requests of God.
To find closeness to God.
To petition for a special cause such as healing a sick person.
To raise vibrational levels.
To counterbalance the modern consumer culture.
Was there one that spoke particularly to you?
Now, I am a Universalist Rabbi, which means I don’t expect myself or you to follow the traditional letter of Jewish law, and even when we do choose to follow law, I expect many of us often find reasons to do so that vary from the traditional ones. All of those reasons for fasting I just mentioned are pretty noble, and I kind of accept them all for myself as for the reason behind why I fast on Yom Kippur. I hope that at least one moved you as well.
So, here is a conversation starter for you…
Maybe you are fasting too, but maybe giving up food just isn’t the way you choose to achieve the spiritual quest we are on for the next 24 hours. Maybe you can’t fast because of age or health or pregnancy or nursing or any other reason. Maybe you just find you don’t connect to transformation through a fast. But you heard all of those worthwhile reasons to shake up the norm by giving up something desirable. Let’s not make it so that we can either fast from food or not fast at all. Let’s open up our minds to some new possibilities.
I ask all of you to take a moment now to think, brainstorm, talk to your neighbor about ideas. What could you give up, other than food, for the next 24 hours that would open a door for a spiritual transformation for you? Now, it has to be something you would truly miss… Kids can’t say “brushing my teeth.” Adults, don’t say “Oh! I won’t pay any bills for 24 hours.”
What about giving up looking at your phone? At all! Fasting is probably easier. 🙂 What about sleeping without a pillow or sleeping on the floor and giving up your bed? Maybe you can give up wearing make up, or putting lotion on dry hands, or taking a hot shower. Take a moment and chat and think… Even if you are fasting from food right now, consider something else for the day when there is a reason why you can’t fast.
And here is a challenge…
I challenge you to give up something for the next 24 hours. I challenge you to allow a little discomfort to remind you that today is the Shabbat of all Shabbats… The ultimate Jewish experience of release, renewal, and return. It’s hard to feel all this in your core when (other than sharing this service with me) we live life as it always was. Remember the fasting purpose that spoke to you most. Grip it tightly in your mind and… Give up something. Shake things up. Mess with your body’s and your mind’s expectations.
Sacrifice. Not for me, but for yourself.
P.S. For all of you reading this long after Yom Kippur, just choose a day to do this. It doesn’t have to be a Holy Day to try to mix things up and focus on our souls.
Blessings and Prayers…
Oh boy! There is nothing more exciting to a group of Jews than a sermon about blessings and prayers. 🙂
But I really do want us during our Holy Days together to think about opening ourselves up to the structures of Blessings and Prayers. It’s difficult, I know. I find it difficult too. We say a bunch of words and kind of wait for something emotional to happen, and it just doesn’t. But, honestly, isn’t it naive to think that we live in a kind of Harry Potter world where we can simply say a few words and expect some kind of spiritual magic to happen to us? Like anything else, spiritual connection takes practice and a willingness to be a full participant in the activity… just like painting, writing, or math, even becoming the first string Quarterback for the LA Rams (lookin’ at you Goff).
Of course, over the Holy Days we get lots and lots of practice saying blessings and prayers. But the openness to the experience is what I suspect we may continue to need to work on. And, believe me, I speak to myself as much (if not more) than I speak to you. Finding a connection to Blessings and Prayers can truly be a frustrating task.
So, why do we think prayer is so difficult? It is because we feel pressure to believe in something or not believe in something? Maybe, so I’m going to invite you to live in the unknown, to embrace the ambiguous. Connecting to a blessing or a prayer does not actually require belief in anything as we will see. So, if you feel like you aren’t ready to commit to a belief structure of any sort, don’t! But also don’t assume that blessings and prayers are beyond your reach, because they aren’t.
Perhaps part of our hang-ups is the ancient language, the prayer formula, we use in Judaism: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe… The Masculine forms of the words Blessed, You, and of course, King make God male. That can give some of us pause. So, maybe we switch it to the feminine? Baruchah At Shechina, Eloheinu Malkat ha-olam? Sure, that’s kind of nice. And now God is in the feminine. But then we have excluded half of the population again, and we have lost the connection we feel by uttering the same formula that has been used since Talmudic times. Perhaps it isn’t even the gender of God but this image of God as royalty ruling over us. Many of us don’t relate to that image. But, literal understanding of these words is not necessary or even encouraged to connect to prayer. Our ancient authors likened God to the most important human form they could come up with, not because it was to be taken literally. So, let’s move beyond the formula and know they did the best they could.
Maybe we just reject the words Blessing and Prayer on their own. Maybe they call up too many uncomfortable memories from negative experiences in a synagogue or a church or with some insensitive clergy. Maybe those words make us feel old or from another time. Plus we are back to the start of this conversation about belief. After all, if we’re not sure what we believe in, who the heck are we praying to??
We all struggle to varying degrees at different phases of our lives to get beyond all of these words and find a way to own them in authentic ways. And there is no way I can solve this issue for all of us during these Holy Days. But I do want to at least attempt to open up our minds a little bit, beyond word formulas and hang-ups, and I’ll start by showing you a photograph…
This is a photograph taken by the photographer Erik Castro, of a worker right after he finished his day in Sonoma County picking grapes at a winery, now set to return to his home in Mexico. This is one of many photos of Sonoma County grape-pickers taken by Castro and shown in his exhibition called “Harvester.”
I came upon this series of photos in the LA Times when it was reported that Governor Jerry Brown passed legislation that would gradually, by the year 2022, require farmworkers to receive overtime after an 8 hour day rather than after a 10 hour one, or after 40 total hours per week.
But what does this all have to do with prayer and blessings? Well, I figured, in an attempt to practice opening ourselves to prayer, we could start with one of the most well known and widely used blessings, the blessing over wine. Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p-ree hagafen. Blessed are You, Adonai, Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, creator of fruit of the vine. Easy enough to say. Harder to find a true spiritual connection to it. But when we say that blessing, we are blessing ALL that went into the cups in our hands. We are blessing the earth, the sky, the sun, the wind and the rain. We are blessing the soil, the seeds, and the many generations of seeds that came before. We are blessing the owners of the land and all that went into their being alive and able to own and cultivate that land. We bless the machinery, the drip lines, the tractor, the baskets, the stakes in the ground, and all that went into creating those supplies.
And, of course, we are blessing the hands that picked those grapes as well as the eyes and hearts and souls that belong to those hands. We bless their parents and grandparents who sacrificed for them, and we bless the spouses and children who miss them while they are away from home.
THIS is what a blessing is all about. THIS is what prayer is all about. It’s stopping time for just long enough to connect to an understanding that we will never, ever be able to appreciate enough every one, every thing, every accident, every happenstance that led to that single moment…. be it a moment of nourishment or drink or lighting candles or wearing a tallit or praying to the Unknowable. We are losing ourselves in gratitude and finding humility in this Great Dance. We are Blessing God as the source of all that got us to this time… so your God can be a king or a queen… or an energy, or light, or nature, or love, or space, or luck, or a dance… God is however you define the Source of that experience.
So, I’m going to invite you to view many images of those workers who head north from Mexico to Sonoma County to pick grapes so that the bottles of wine we bless may exist. While you look at each image, hear the blessing over the wine ringing in your ears.
May these faces find better working conditions with this new legislation, and may we think of them the next time the words Baruch Atah Adonai emerge from our lips. Let’s practice feeling how deeply a blessing can go.
View Erik Castro’s collection “Harvester” here.
Join Cool Shul for Yom Kippur by going to our High Holy Day page.
Another musical gift for all of you… Shema as we sing it at Cool Shul.
Think it might be nice to hear it live? Click here to join us for
Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur day.
Struggling to know all the answers. Struggling to achieve all I want to achieve. Struggling to be the parent I wish to be. Struggling to be the wife I aspire to be. Struggling to find enough time to do it all.
I’m struggling, and that’s actually a good thing. 🙂
My dear friend (and educator) was chatting with me recently about the idea of the Growth Mindset versus the Fixed Mindset. Check this out
Bottom line? Struggle is good for you.
You heard me… struggling is good for you, like broccoli and jogging. 😉
When we struggle, so often we put ourselves down.
I’m no good at this… I can’t do this… I’m not strong enough… I’m not smart enough… Or even… I’ve always been told I’m smart and learning is easy for me, so if I’m struggling I must be failing.
This kind of thinking puts us in that Fixed Mindset that shuts down our brains to the opportunity to grow from our struggles. But our minds need that struggle. The brain actually engages more from mistakes and searching than from getting things right the first time. So, like brain games, struggle helps your mind expand. Yet we have to invite in that struggle for the brain activity to increase. If we just say no to the tension, we have lost before we have begun.
In my conversation with my friend, we turned this idea of healthy struggle toward topics away from academia.
What if I’m struggling in my relationships?
We can’t promise you those are going to work out, but maybe, if we are in a Growth Mindset, we may be able to welcome the opportunity for those personal struggles to lead to mental (and emotional!) growth. Perhaps the struggle can allow our relationships to end up new and improved as we work through the tension. Yet, if we are shut down in Fixed Mindset mode, then we are, well… shut down to making things better.
What about religion and spirituality? What if I can’t decide if I want to belong or not belong, believe or not believe, participate or not participate? What if I am struggling with the fact that I want to feel like there is more to the world, more than meets the eye, but my intellect just won’t allow that kind of belief?
Well, welcome to another struggle. Invite it in. Rather than fighting the dichotomy, let’s experiment with living comfortably and knowingly within this questioning. Trying to find spiritual answers to our biggest questions and wrestling with what we find may be healthier than simple belief. So, let’s go for it! Let’s struggle.
As we step ever closer to the Jewish High Holy Days, I’m thinking a lot about struggle. As a spiritual leader, I struggle just to get everything done that needs to get done before our services. That also means I am struggling to be as emotionally and spiritually prepared as I would like to be for these upcoming Holy Days. And once we get to the services, I have to struggle with the process of looking at myself in my virtual mirror, taking those arduous steps toward returning to myself, returning to the person I believe I was meant to be, and attempting to lead all of you through that process as well. All of this responsibility can make my head spin out of control, and I find myself battling with my own struggle. I find myself stuck in a Fixed Mindset.
But I guess, according to this Mindset theory, if my life was just a piece of cake, there would be no growth. Just because I’m (gulp!) 43 years old doesn’t mean my mind should stop firing in new ways, does it? If I accept my struggle and keep an open mind to it, I may just be able to step into a Growth Mindset that can invite my brain into new and interesting territories… even if I’ve been stuck in Fixed Mindset for most of my life.
I invite you to play with this idea of Growth Mindset, and consider expanding with us during the Holy Days. Together we can encourage each other to embrace the struggles that are today, that we will encounter during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that are inevitably waiting for us around the corner. Let’s stand shoulder to shoulder while we struggle, open our minds, and grow.
Hey! I think I can see your mind expanding already!!!!
Don’t think, just move.
These are words of advice from a dear friend (and part of the Cool Shul family) on how to get up in the morning at the crack of dawn to exercise. I’ve set my alarm for the wee hours of the morning many times to do just this, but inevitably, I start talking to myself and shut it off. In my mind, my inner-voice says, “Well…. you could always exercise tonight. You didn’t really get a good night’s sleep, you need more rest.” So, my friend said:
As soon as you say “well….” to yourself, it’s over. Just keep saying to yourself, “don’t think, just move.”
Excellent wisdom for this situation. But imagine us all telling our elementary school children, “In life, don’t think… just move.” Don’t we usually spend most of our time saying, “Think before you act”? Clearly this doesn’t work for all situations. 😉
With the Holy Days around the corner, I started thinking about which way this thinking-versus-doing thing works for those of us deciding whether or not to attend Holy Days services somewhere. So, for that process, I offer you this piece of advice, inspired by my friend:
Don’t think, just move…. and then think.
For those of us who don’t really feel connected to a Jewish community or to Jewish practice, there can be much internal chatter that inevitably prevents us from finding a place to at least explore the Holy Days even when something inside us is drawing us there.
Here’s the chatter:
“I don’t really believe in a Book of Life”
“I think it’s silly to think we can erase our bad deeds with one day of fasting.”
“I don’t believe in God.”
And then the next thing you know, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, we’re at work, eating a hot dog at our desks.
Halt! Don’t think. Move.
Quiet that chatter for a second and find a place to experience the Holy Days. Do a little research. If you want a more traditional setting, with grand ceilings, pews, maybe an organ… go find it. If you want a place that is musical and experimental… go find it. If you want small and intimate… go find it. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t tell yourself why you shouldn’t go. Just go. Get in the room. Be shoulder to shoulder with other people… some who know exactly why they are there, and some who, like you, aren’t sure at all.
Then, as the prayer book is opened and the ark is opened… you open up to. Open your mind to sounds and words that didn’t call to you in the past. Concentrate on a word or a phrase in the prayer book that speaks to you, and don’t even move on with the crowd if you don’t want to. Allow the wake up call of the shofar to shake things up for you, even if you didn’t think you needed a shake.
In this moment of openness, now start thinking…
Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where did I succeed this year? Where do I fall short? Can I be proud of how much I’ve grown? Is there still room for improvement? Can’t I allow this structure to help me explore myself without having to believe in God or books of life?
Yes. That’s it. Don’t stop. Keep thinking. I’m proud of you. 😉
Of course, I hope you will consider spending your Holy Days with Cool Shul. We will be in Temescal Canyon, surrounded by the glorious trees, with amazing musicians, a choir, and a non-judgmental, open-minded, come-as-you-are atmosphere (with child care!). Services are short and sweet… just enough to get you your where you need to go spiritually without weighing you down.
I’ll see you there…
Join us for a pre-Holy Days Shabbat this Friday at 7pm. Evite here.
Join us for the Holy Days. Info here.
P.S. I actually did get up today for the first time at the crack of dawn to do some yoga. Let’s see if it lasts!!! 🙂
Who’s house???!…. Rams house!!!!
Who’s house???!……Rams house!!!!
The arena was so loud you would have thought it was the playoffs and not a pre-season football game, but we Los Angelinos are just so excited about having a football team again, we can’t contain ourselves. 🙂
My family and I were right there in the middle of the football madness screaming with the rest. I’ve never really been much of a football fan, but even I can’t help but get caught up in the atmosphere. It’s more than football. It pride in our city and her history. It’s knowing that while Los Angeles is much about Hollywood and fame, it can also be about a stadium built in 1923 and an L.A. team of the toughest sport around that reaches back to 1946. Sitting in the Memorial Coliseum hollering for the Rams allows us to live for a moment in the nostalgia of a Los Angeles time gone by. It’s also an opportunity to be there from the start, supporting something that just might be big and dreaming as a community.
My life is wrapped up in dreaming with a community these days. I don’t think my dream will ever touch even a fraction of the numbers I sat with at the Coliseum, but I’m dreaming none the less.
You see, Cool Shul (as a blog) began because a friend (whom I lovingly call my Temple Mom) encouraged me to write more. So I wrote and shared what I have come to learn in my off-the-beaten-path Jewish life… that Judaism doesn’t have to be about laws or dogma or guilt or pressure, but be a glorious guide that helps us live more joyous, peaceful, productive lives. Originally, my blog had the subheading “For the Liturgic Allergic” (a term invented by that Temple Mom) because it focused on the nougat centers of Jewish practice and traditions and texts that allow the universal themes buried in Judaism to shine through, with or without the rules, with or without a belief in God. In other words, no need to love the structure of religion to love these Jewish lesson.
When I left my last position to go to Rabbinical school with JSLI and join the Jewish Universalist movement, Cool Shul began to evolve. It wasn’t just a blog anymore, but a new community that held to the same principles as the original writings. At first we tip-toed into being… We held Holy Days services, Shabbat once per month, and taught a few kids. But within the year there was a full educational program, a gorgeous Seder, a book club, and bar-mitzvahs. And so we began to dream…
What if we broke the mold of synagogue? What if we were more like a community center? After all, Not everyone demonstrates their Judaism through prayer… Some prefer Jewish dance or cooking or art or music or Hebrew language or yoga or meditation. What if we could offer all of that? What if we provide ways to connect to Judaism in one’s own way on one’s own terms in one’s own time without asking anyone to fit into a mold of who or what someone should be to be Jewish?
And that’s where the dream comes in.
That’s where you come in.
Our organization runs on a small budget compared to most, but we still have rent and the website and salaries and supplies and… dreams.
We cannot and will not survive or thrive without the support of those who value our words, our work, our celebrations, our music, and our educational activities. In other words, we can’t do it without you.
Please consider becoming a partner in our dreams and share in the excitement of all that Cool Shul is and all it could be by offering a monthly, tax-deductible donation. Below is the letter from our president inviting you to partner with us as well as links to our partnership form and our donation page.
Thank you for your eyes, ears, and hearts, and I hope to see some of you locals at our next Shabbat on September 9.
Rabbi/Cantor/”Rantor” Diane 🙂
Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish, and even more difficult being a teacher of Judaism.
What do I tell my Bar and Bat-Mitzvah students when we read in their Torah portions that the God we pray to washed away all of human and animal kind except for one family? Or opened up the earth and swallowed not just rebels but their households? Or didn’t just save the Israelites but made the Egyptian army get stuck in the mud so they would drown? These portions can send our students running, and I must say it’s hard for me not to run too.
So, what do we do? Well, we follow the advice of the author and Torah scholar George Robinson who said, “To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust.” So, I ask my students questions such as: Who do you think wrote the Torah? Why do you think the people were meant to be afraid of God? What is the essence of the lesson we can take with us in a modern context, now hopefully evolved enough not to have to be frightened into action?
You’d be surprised by the wisdom hiding in a 12 or 13 year-old’s mind. 🙂
Well, last Shabbat, we had a portion that is full of text that is easily loved. After all, the ten commandments are there, the Shema the first paragraph of the V’ahavta are spoken, all pointing us in the direction of living spiritual, noble lives through a filter of love.
And yet… at the end, we have something that trips me up, especially as a Universalist Rabbi.
Moses is speaking to the people of the many nations they are to defeat once they enter their promised land. He says, “… and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them: you shall make no covenant with them, nor favor them; neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son. For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their sacred trees, and burn their engraved images with fire.”
Now, I became a Rabbi through JSLI, and I chose to be a part of the Jewish Universalist movement because I believe deeply in the Universalist ideals. On the UJUC website (www.ujuc.org) it states, “JU teaches that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth and that God equally chose all nations to be lights unto the world. We reject the concept of a G-d who would choose among G-d’s children… JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.”
Imagine if today we, as Jews, entered a new land, completely destroyed all non-Jewish religious houses, shrines, and articles and burned it all to the ground. What if we acted as the Torah suggests here, as if our religion was to be the only one and refused to spend even a tiny bit of energy finding ways to leave peacefully side by side with other religious practices? What if we denied their right to exist?
Doesn’t sound very Universalist, does it?
And what about the refusal of interfaith marriage? Now, I know that many Jews still do not approve of interfaith marriage, but again, this directly goes against the doctrine of Jewish Universalism. I was taught, and I believe with every fiber of my being, that when an interfaith couple seeks me to officiate their wedding, my role is not to judge them or tell them a set of requirements they must meet in order for me to be satisfied that the couple will be “Jewish enough.” My job is to create the most loving, embracing, comfortable, meaningful Jewish experience I can for them. My job is to create a sanctuary of sorts for the non-Jewish partner to explore his/her spirituality without fear within this Jewish experience. My job is to help both members of the couple leave my presence knowing that Judaism can be a nurturing, understanding, flexible framework, and that choosing to live their lives within that framework could and should feel like falling into a large embrace. My job is to honor and acknowledge the non-Jewish partner, not frightened him/her away with a judgmental, Rabbinic glance.
Anyone who has ever worked in a synagogue with interfaith families can tell you that very often, it is the non-Jewish parent who volunteers for the Chanukah party, runs the Purim Carnival, brings the family for Shabbat, and makes sure the child studies for her Bat-Mitzvah. By making sure Judaism’s umbrella is large enough to cover all of us, Jewish or Jewishly curious or related to Jewish, we are better ensuring the survival of this most amazing peoplehood than if we shoo them away or treat them as secondary citizens.
I understand that in a different time, when the Jewish peoplehood was in its infancy, that we may have had to behave in a certain way to stay together. But in this time in history, teaching that all religions have a place in this world is what I, and the Jewish Universalist movement, are all about. The lesson of this Torah passage isn’t to fear or destroy the unfamiliar. The lesson is to hold on to the beauty of our faith, share it with others, and learn from others with open hearts. If Judaism has wisdom to offer, it will survive not out of fear, but out of its own merits.
What is Tisha B’Av? Is it the birthday of the trees?
No, that’s Tu Bish’vat. Sounds similar, I know.
Does it have something to do with the Torah?
No, that’s Shavuot, the other holiday that lands during summer vacation so kids don’t learn about it and adults don’t remember it.
So, what is it?
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning in remembrance of both destructions (which happened on the same date) of the two Ancient Temples in Jerusalem. It has become a day of mourning for all kinds of tragedies (some of which also happened on the 9th of Av), from Jewish expulsion from England and Spain to the Holocaust to even the tragedies of 9/11. It is observed with chanting the Book of Lamentations to haunting descending musical motifs and with fasting.
Tisha B’Av is not a happy holiday for sure. But I’m feeling kind of psyched for it. Weird, right? Well, here’s why…
I recently finished reading the book THIS IS REAL AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY UNPREPARED by Rabbi Alan Lew. It’s a wonderful book about the Holy Days, and for Rabbi Lew, Tisha B’Av is the start of those days. For this is not only a day to start facing our mortality and the loss of our ancient spiritual center. This is also a day for letting go of attachment, for setting down our baggage, for embracing (rather than fighting) the impermanence of life, for facing the past and the future… the themes we encounter during the Holy Days.
When the Ancient Temples were destroyed, the Jewish people had no choice but to adapt and evolve. Without a Temple for sacrifices, new methods of connecting to God had to be created. If the Temples hadn’t been destroyed, there would be no private prayer, no synagogues, no Rabbis or Cantors, no personal relationships with God, no Jewish communities around the world. Those things were all created out of necessity because of the destruction. And for many of us, a return to the ancient sacrificial days is not what we are hoping for, so as much as we may mourn the loss of the old Temples, we also don’t necessarily yearn for their reconstruction. This is why so many of us don’t fully observe Tisha B’Av… because we don’t want to return to the sacrificial cult. Judaism has grown, changed, and evolved, and we like where it is going (thanks, by the way, to one of my teachers who posted a great article about this from Times of Israel.).
There is even a theory out there that the creation story (yes THAT creation story) of the Torah was written DURING the Babylonian exile. Imagine this: the people are without their Temple, the place they believed was the earthly resident for God, and they don’t know if it’s possible to reach that God anymore. Their future as a peoplehood is at stake with no center for their religion. So, what happens? Maybe a story was created… a story that connects the Jewish God to the creation of the universe itself. With this story, if God, in fact made everything, God must be everywhere. God must be Universal. God must be able to find us wherever we are and live inside and beside us. The people no longer believed that they needed a tabernacle or a Temple to reach God. With such a story, the people had the faith to carry on, and one of the most well-known pieces of spiritual literature may have been born because of destruction.
Once upon a time we built a house for God. Now we build houses for ourselves. What if they disappear as that one did? What if all of our expectations become knotted or broken? What if we lose our jobs or have to move to new neighborhoods or have to leave communities we love? What if we are faced with illness? What if our lives don’t turn out as planned? What do we do then?
Well, we do as our ancestors did. We keep putting one foot in front of the other. We find new ways to have as joyous as lives as possible. We try to hold the memories of lost realities and lost people, places, and things in our hearts, but not allow those memories to keep us from attempting wholeness again. We build new things. We start new trends. We bend, but we don’t break.
I have never really observed Tisha B’Av before, but I’m thinking that maybe this year is going to be the first year that I do. Not to mourn the temples or to wish for the “good old days” but to celebrate the opportunities that come from letting go, from adapting, from obstacles becoming opportunities. I may fast not as an exercise of mourning but an exercise in clearing myself out (mind, body and soul) of my expectations, of my attachment to all of the “stuff” in my house (thank you George Carlin), to what my career should look like, to the house itself. I will fast to remind myself that life keeps evolving, that I must be like water and move with the tides. And I will fast as a reminder that if I have to lose some thing or even many things, if it is only the building, the stuff, and the career, but not those I love, I will be just fine.
Tisha B’Av is the “opening ceremony” for the Holy Days, for as we start this journey of turning and returning to who we know we could and should be, we must leave our “stuff” at the door. We can only find our true selves, our inner peace, our most magnificent goodness, if we entertain the notion of the house falling down, and still finding light.
Join us for a Cool Shul Shabbat and an honoring of Tisha B’Av this Friday, August 12 at 6:30pm. Click here for the evite: http://evite.me/n1hGzQNUjg
Hope you all enjoy this commentary I offered during the Sim Shalom online Shabbat morning service. Join me next time August 6 at 8:30am PST/11:30 EST by going to www.simshalom.com.
In the portion for this Shabbat, we have a king named Balak. Balak is not too happy about the fact that the Israelites (who, by the way, are still in the wilderness heading toward the Promised Land) seem to be able to conquer whatever enemies they encounter. Knowing the Israelites are protected by their God, Balak figures he needs some strong magic to defeat them, so he calls upon Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse them.
Now, Bilaam is not an Israelite, but he’s caught on to the power of their God and not only believes in that God but seems able to have full-fledged conversations with God. So, when Balak sends messengers to ask Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam talks to God and says no. But over time, they wear him down, and God says he can go as long as he only says and does what God tells him to.
So, off Bilaam goes with the king’s soldiers, riding on his donkey, when an angel of God stands in their way. Apparently God decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all to let Bilaam hang with the king’s soldiers. Perhaps God could sense that Bilaam’s allegiance was wavering. The donkey can see this angel, and she stops in her tracks (yes, this is a girl donkey). Bilaam is quite angry at the donkey because he can’t see the angel, so he beats and beats her. And then, the donkey does the unexpected. She speaks. She says to her rider, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? Look, I am the she-ass you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”
Bilaam realizes the error of his ways, and with that, his eyes also open so he can see the angel of God too. Now all is understood about what he must do. In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them, naturally angering the king to no end.
As I was thinking about this portion, it occurred to me that it has a great deal in common with the Harry Potter story. Once I chatted with my 14 year old (who knows all things Harry Potter), I was sure.
In Harry Potter, the king Balak is played by, of course, the evil Lord Voldemort. Both of them are powerful. Both of them act out of fear of their own deaths. Both of them send others to do much of their dirty work. God is represented by Dumbledore, the ever-wise, good, and powerful wizard who is lovingly protective of his “nation”, but will kick butt if he needs to, in spite of his peaceful soul. Balak is Snape, the teacher who picks endlessly on Harry and whom no one quite knows if he is an instrument of Lord Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s until the very end. The angel is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, who comes to the rescue only to those who believe in the Good and is no help to those who don’t.
And who is the donkey? Why, Harry Potter himself! He is “ridden” constantly by his teacher Snape… cornered, accused, and threatened at every turn. And why? Because (at least while he’s young) he is easy prey for Snape’s anger, and because Harry has his mother’s eyes which are wide open to the Good while Snape’s are too confused to fully see.
It’s easy to understand why fantastical stories such as this one in the Torah or Harry Potter are popular. They have obvious sides of good and evil, and there are clear heroes for whom we can root. But most intriguing are the middle-men, Bilaam and Snape, the ones we aren’t quite sure whether they are part of the light or part of the dark.
They are us.
None of us are Voldemort and none of us are Dumbledore. None of us are Balak or God. We are all somewhere in between. We all serve something that might be considered a “dark lord”. It could be an abusive relationship, a nasty boss whom we feel we have to appease, our egos, or an addiction of some sort no matter how minor that addiction is, but we’ve all got something. However, we all serve light masters too… children who remind us who we really want to be, supportive spouses, mentors, parents, communities, faith structures, and friends. We find ourselves battling with these two sides all the time, and often the negative voices seem to be louder than the positive. And while we are arguing with those voices in our heads, we may find there is someone younger or smaller or weaker we can let out some of our frustrations on because we believe they won’t fight back. Maybe we find ourselves being less than our best to an employee, or a waiter, or a less popular kid in class, or a bagger at the market… Maybe we hurt the ones we love most, like our children or our spouses, because we know they will forgive us.
But maybe, just maybe, those “little guys” are the guys who can see the Truth, who can see the angel, who can be heard by Fawkes. We might not consider them enough, or give them enough respect to notice that they are staring straight into the eyes of an angel of God. We miss the opportunity to learn from them because it appears they have nothing to teach. But let’s remember the idea that we should treat every human as if he/she was the Messiah, because if a Messiah comes, it might not appear as a king or as a president, but as some kind of quiet request. The student. The employee. The waiter. The homeless.
We may not be sorcerers or wizards, but we all harness an enormous amount of power over each person we encounter every day. Which master do we serve as we engage with each one? Do we act from love or fear? Let’s be truthful with ourselves, and when we catch ourselves operating from fear, let’s try to open our eyes, see the angel before us with a hand open-palmed in a gesture of “Stop!”, and try again from a place of love.
I’m going to admit something I’m not proud of. I hadn’t watched the video of Philando Castile’s death until right now. Did you all see it? I bet most of you did, but I avoided it. Why? Because I knew there was a little girl in the backseat, and that if I watched the video, I would have to see her frightened face. Adults facing horror is bad enough, but a child… my computer crashes. Yet this morning, after all that has happened… so much death already in the news, and now innocent adults and children murdered on the streets of France…somehow I knew it was time to face the music, put my big girl pants on, and look into this little girl’s eyes.
I held it together for most of the video, but when I got to the end, I started to lose it. Castile’s incredibly calm girlfriend is in the backseat of a police car when she finally screams out in anguish. We see her daughter’s lovely face, a 4 year old named Dae’Anna, and what does Dae’Anna say?
“It’s all right Mommy, I’m here with you.”
I cried. Not only because of all the tragedy I witnessed in that video, but because Dae’Anna touched me so.
This tiny child just watched a horror unfold before her eyes, but when her mother can’t keep it together anymore, she doesn’t scream or cry or even whine. She let’s her mother know that she’s there for her… that everything is going to be okay.
I thought of Dae’Anna when I saw this (thanks Joan!!) on Facebook this morning with the caption, “So much darkness. Offer whatever light you can.”:
Don’t we all feel just like that cartoon these days? Standing in the dark and worried that our little efforts can’t do a bit of good? We can barely stand reading the news anymore, so fearful of what we might encounter next. We have heard about or witnessed so much hatred, so much anger, so much conflict, so much death. How can we hold on to our little candles and keep up hope?
But then there is that little girl, Dae’Anna, who in the end, may be the spark we all need if we pay attention. She is the candle in the midst of darkness, and she can inspire all of us to be candles too.
Tonight is Shabbat which means Jews all over the world are lighting candles. But I’m inviting EVERYONE to light candles tonight and place them where they can be seen from the outside. Let’s light them to offer whatever sparks we can into the darkness. Let’s offer our inner light to the shattered streets. Let’s honor the idea of a Shabbat full of “shalom” (which means more than peace but completeness and wholeness) by signaling to the world that we aren’t going to hide but going to be right here, sharing our goodness and doing our best to make society more whole. Let’s allow those candles to inspire us to be the voices that say, “It’s okay. I’m here.”
I know, I know. Lighting a candle or two doesn’t seem like it’s going to make any difference, but I believe that offering ourselves in small ways can make a big difference. Maybe our Shabbat candles can inspire us to simply offer a hug to someone who needs one, offer some help before being asked, invite someone over for dinner who is lonely, shake someone’s hand who feels disrespected, or donate a dollar where it is needed. Those actions won’t change the course of history, but make no mistake, we are changing the world. We are candles in the dark.
There is still so much joy in the world. There are still endless possibilities, beauties, and amazing stories. We won’t be lost if enough of us share our light during the worst of storms, and we may find that our tiny deeds go farther than we ever imagined.
Light a candle in your home tonight, and when you do, take a picture, and share it with this post or on Cool Shul’s Facebook page.
I hope for all of us a peaceful, safe, and candle-filled Shabbat.
P.S. Having trouble feeling that the world is still full of hope? Click here for a bit of inspiration: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=IocLkk3aYlk.
P.P.S. Our next Shabbat celebration together will by June 22 at a private home in Santa Monica. If you would like to receive the evite, please email me here: email@example.com
Yesterday I became a Rabbi.
Okay, that’s totally not true. I actually became a Rabbi nearly 6 months ago. But I haven’t felt like a Rabbi. Not for even one minute.
“Didn’t you start feeling like a Rabbi while you were teaching Bnei-Mitzvah students?” you may ask.
“What about all those times you led Shabbat?”
Not then either.
“Well, what about when people called you Rabbi?”
That made it worse.
I’m an excellent student, but I find that much of the information I learned in Rabbinical school flowed into my brain and then back out at an alarming speed. I know my Jewish knowledge isn’t as deep as I would like. I know I stumble over my Hebrew sometimes. I know there are a million facts I don’t easily recall. I’m hard on myself. My inner dialogue says, “Some Rabbi YOU are.”
I felt like a fake…until yesterday.
I became a Rabbi yesterday because yesterday was the first time that I spent most of the day in the waiting room of a hospital with a member (a very special member I should add!) of my community who didn’t want to worry alone. And in spite of having plenty of things to do, I was surprised to discover there was nowhere else I wanted to be and nothing else I wanted to do.
The call to be a clergy person, of any faith, is a call to be present for others. True, it’s a call to share in joyous births and weddings and rites of passage, but it’s also long hours in a waiting room doing little but schmoozing, saying a healing prayer (sometimes out loud, sometimes only in my head), and holding someone’s hand. It means being hopeful for the best but being prepared for the worst. It’s means saying YES. YES to the moment, YES to the situation, YES to the truth. YES to just being there.
So… YES, I spent most of yesterday waiting. And while I waited, I found myself, for the first time, saying YES to being a Rabbi, because for the first time, I truly knew what that word meant to me. No grand service was needed. No adoring congregation. No students. No one wanting advice. Just YES to being present. YES to being support. YES to being a friend. This is being a Rabbi to me.
I think we all feel like fakes sometimes. We withhold information or remain silent out of fear someone will figure out what we don’t know. We don’t feel ready for the roles we have taken on either professionally or personally. And no matter how many years of schooling we have, or how much experience we have, or how much love we have, or how many people call us by a title, we can’t truly own those roles until we internally find that knowing… until we look inside and say YES to ourselves.
The opportunity of Shabbat is the opportunity to shut out the noise of the world (just like in a waiting room), and for a brief moment admire our own perfect imperfections. As the stars emerge in the sky tonight and our Shabbat/July 4th weekend begins, we are invited to say YES to our complete selves… our gifts, our flaws, our achievements, our goals, and our short comings. We are invited to say YES to our passions and our fears and YES to the unknown. We are invited to say YES to our private challenges and YES to the many challenges of this world. We are invited to say YES to whatever tomorrow may bring. We are invited to say YES to the truth and YES to knowing who we truly are.
This Shabbat, the only title I am probably going to hear is the title of “Mom,” but that’s okay. For as the sun comes down tonight, I am going to say YES to the mom in me and the Rabbi in me, and YES to everything I was, everything I am, and everything I could be. YES to my positives and to my negatives and the amazing opportunity to grow. YES to my life.
What will you say YES to? Comment to this post with your own YES!
Hope you all enjoy this d’var I gave on the online Shabbat service with Sim Shalom. Please make sure you are part of the Cool Shul email list to know when the next online service will be (email Rabbi Di at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on our mailing list).
There is so much going on this week in Parshat Nasso, it’s hard to even know where to begin. So, I’m going to focus on 3 elements that I am going to attempt to tie together in the name of feminism. Now, This is definitely not a favorite parshah for feminists, but I am actually going to do my best to turn it into one.
In this parsha, the ordeal of the sotah (going aside) is outlined by God. It goes like this: If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful – innocent or not, he takes her to the Priest with an offering. The Priest sprinkles dust from the ground of the tabernacle into a vessel of holy water. He lets down her hair and musses it up (in a degrading way, not a Pantene commercial kind of way). Then the Priest tells the woman to swear to her innocence and he announces that if she is innocent, the curse of the waters (the dusty water he created) will have no effect on her if she drinks it. If she is guilty, the magic potion will make her thighs fall away and her body swell (believed to mean she will become infertile). The Priest writes these curses on a scroll and then dissolves the text into the waters. The woman drinks these waters of “bitterness.” If her body swells, she’s guilty. If nothing happens, she is innocent.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This section of the Torah sounds far from a feminist statement. However, I wonder if the complete opposite is true.
Most commentators agree that this process was probably never carried out, or that if it was, the cursed waters had no chance of making the woman’s body swell or her thighs fall. Whether you believe in human or divine authorship of Torah, one thing is clear to me, whoever came up with this system of determining innocence or guilt wanted the families to remain in tact and for the woman to be perceived as innocent, whether she was or not.
Even Imagine that perhaps a WOMAN author wrote this, or at least, God’s feminine voice.
See, here’s what’s really going on from a feminist point of view — Allow the men to feel they are in control. Allow them to think they have humiliated this woman. Allow them to think that the truth is about to be uncovered in a most demeaning way. Allow them to believe in the magical properties of the water… but actually, the men are duped. The woman has zero chance of being biologically affected (unless her guilt allows some psychosomatic symptoms to appear). Maybe even the priest knows she will be safe! I can hear the priest now, whispering to some poor feminine soul standing there scared out of her mind, “Don’t worry, I have to do this to appease them, but nothing is going to happen to you. Just play along.”
So, Is it possible this was a woman’s idea? A feminist idea?
The next section of this Torah portion deals with the rules for when one takes the vow of a Nazarite, giving himself or HERSELF completely to God. That’s right, I said HERSELF.
The Torah clearly states that either a man or woman can make this special vow. Yet, the following 19 verses, which outline the rules and regulations of becoming and being a nazarite, use only male pronouns. HE shall separate HIMSELF from wine. Shall no razor come on HIS head. HE shall be holy. The Torah makes a choice here, long before the days of saying “he or she” to describe these acts in the masculine only. The Torah adheres to the male pronoun even when women are specifically named and included.
So, this made me think… well, how often does the Torah remain in the masculine when the feminine is supposed to be implied? Even God is mostly referred to in masculine pronouns and possessives, but is the entire Torah like this moment? Is it ALL supposed to read “he or she”?
Before this chapter is even over, we have the Priestly Blessing. God tells Moses to tell Aaron that he should bless the children of Israel (assuming this includes the ladies too) using the following words… words used and beloved, since these ancient times, that are now essential pieces of Judeo-Christian practice…
Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishmerecha — God will bless you (masculine) and protect you (m)
Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka – God will shine HIS face upon you (m) and be gracious to you(m).
Yisa adonai eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom – God will lift HIS face toward you (m) and place in you (m), peace.
All of this is in the masculine, both as it refers to God and in the masculine form of the word “you”. But by what we learned just a few verses ago, this masculine form very well implies the feminine too.
For modern men and women, no matter how much we try not to give God a gender, or to think of Jewish practice as being for men alone, all of this masculinity weighs on us. Even if we know there is a feminine aspect of God, understand the feminine of these rules, are aware of the feminine existing beneath the surface of all of those male pronouns… we just can’t FEEL it in our bones. We women feel excluded. We can’t help but feel like visitors in this male Jewish world. But let’s try this, with all of that femininity that is implied being brought front and center…
Ladies AND gentlemen, imagine you are about to be blessed by the words of God. This is a feminine God. A God that knows these waters will cause no harm. A God who welcomes women into complete service for Her. A God who wants to protect you with Motherly love. The priest raises his (yes HIS) hands before you and says:
SHE will bless you, brothers and sisters, and She will protect you. SHE will shine her face upon all of you and be gracious to you. SHE will lift her face to yours, Her sons and Her daughters, and will implant within you an inner-completeness known as “Shalom”.
How does that feel? Any different???
Shabbat Shalom to all of you. May we all embrace our masculine sides, our feminine sides, and never forget that the Torah is for all of us.
Close your eyes…
Oh, wait. If you close your eyes you won’t be able to read this. Okay, read this, try to remember it, and then close your eyes.
Imagine you are standing before God.
Pause! I heard that. Those voices in your head that say no to the idea of God just spoke up. Those knee-jerk reactions that tug at our hearts and minds and wrinkle our brows with dismissive contempt just woke up. That intellectual side (you know, that side loves Bill Maher), just hollered that it’s silly to even entertain a notion such as God. And that internal conflict recalling every zealot and extremist who has ever used the word “God” to his/her advantage just flared up. Yes, they are all there. Let’s acknowledge all of those voices and try to let them go. Let’s put down that baggage and live lighter for a second. I’m not going to tell you in this posting that God is “real” anyway, so relax and go back to the exercise…
Imagine you are standing before God. Allow yourself to fully accept this Presence before you. Don’t change the word God. Stay with it for a moment. Exist within belief. Keep your eyes closed and don’t worry what God looks like. Just sense this Energy as light and heat, warming your skin, illuminating your thoughts, activating every cell of your body. This presence isn’t frightening or threatening, but comforting. Free-fall into this promise of peace.
Are we “home”?
When we were in the womb, we were completely warm and supported without worry or care. From the moments of our births, everything changed. Now we are searching, fighting, wanting, needing, worried, stressed, busy, fearful, hungry (just to name a few!). And as we grow up and become educated (or not), choose mates (or not), have children (or not), and live in one place (or another), we keep making choices following the human desire to make life better for ourselves. There is a constant seeking for more… maybe more money, maybe more love, maybe more peace, maybe more fight, but our commonality lives within “the more.” But what are we really looking for? Isn’t it, in some ways, to find home, wherever and whatever that it? Aren’t we desperately hunting for a way to again be completely warm and supported without worry or care? To return from where we came while still being alive? To find an inner-understanding that feels like home.
In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, he says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams… And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases. And that famous shortstop Odysseus also played this game, propelled around the world by the same dream, of returning home in the end, transformed by the journey and healed by it as well. And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different, and so are we… We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance— pushing forward to get back home.”
When I studied music, we talked about song and sonata form in the same way. We hear a section of music and are pulled away from it to something other, and then we are returned to the familiar but we don’t experience it the same way the second time. I recall my music professor saying, “It’s like going to college. You leave for school, then come home for the summer. You are standing in the exact same same room you stood in for 18 years of your life, but now it is totally different because of your experiences.” In this scenario, home is oddly unsatisfying.
Maybe all of the running around we do in our lives is simply to find “home.” We all know it doesn’t matter how much money we have or whether or not we have a wonderful marriage or even amazing children or an interesting, lucrative career. We can have all of that and still be searching, searching, searching. There is no perfect place to be home or perfect situation to call home. Home is internal. Home is a practice.
And this is where God come in.
Those of you who know me know I do not care whether or not God exists. But I do believe that life is more three-dimensional when I can imagine that God is real. When I can pretend to be standing before that Presence. When I can feel that inner-knowing, and in that frame of mind, ask myself, “What’s next?”
If, for a little while, we could truly believe in God, and truly connect with that energy, what would we think about ourselves? Would we still judge ourselves so harshly? How much compassion would we have for our spouses, our children, our parents, our enemies? What apologies would we realize we owe? What would we regret saying or posting or suggesting?
Discuss this with God. Debate and argue with God if you must, but at least give yourself permission to “believe” for a minute or two. Give yourself permission to define yourself and your surroundings as you believe a loving God would. Give yourself permission to “go home.”
It doesn’t matter if God is real.
I’ll be searching for my way “home” this Friday at our Cool Shul Shabbat (click here for info) and again this Saturday morning online through Sim Shalom (click here to join in). Come on by on Friday or visit the stream on Saturday. I’d be honored to be a part of your journey toward home.
image from: http://www.happynews.com/living/home-energy/home-energy-efficiency.htm
Last Saturday, I had the absolute pleasure of leading an online Shabbat morning service through Sim Shalom – the New York based, online Jewish Universalist Community. I know, it might sound odd… virtual community? But I actually found the experience extremely spiritually rewarding. As I led, folks could type into a chat to communicate with each other and with me. I didn’t feel alone at all. In fact, I enjoyed hearing their thoughts… we rarely do that when sitting in a sanctuary! And I hope those that participated didn’t feel alone either. It is an honor and a responsibility to be streamed into their homes and their hearts. I hope you will join me next time on June 4 at 8:30am (PT)/11:30am (ET). I’ll remind you as it gets closer. 🙂
This is the sermon I gave both Friday night at our in-person Shabbat with Cool Shul and during the Saturday online service. Enjoy!
Right now in the Torah, we are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Israelites have escaped Egypt and become a peoplehood. But now, it’s time to figure out what kind of people we are going to be. We are hearing all of these instructions of God’s on how we are to behave as members of this new community. I imagine one might need a little guidance, figuring out the rules of day to day life after living lives only as slaves. How would we even know where to begin? In this story, God is right there to get us started and help us define our community identity.
So, While standing at Mt. Sinai, we hear about rules for sacrifices, and skin diseases, and a bunch of other things that are not so easy to talk about. But right now, with Parshat Kedoshim, the narrative changes beyond what to do to be pure or impure, to what to do in order to be holy. The portion begins with directions from God: K’doshim tihyu…. You will be holy, and Holiness comes in this text with deeds such as: leaving fruits on your trees for the poor, not stealing or deceiving or swearing or defrauding or insulting or hating. Holiness comes with loving your neighbor as yourself.
Those are easy to appreciate, but of course, there are lots of rules in the Torah not all of us follow, and some that, quite frankly, many of us no longer even believe are necessarily the “right things to do.” But does that mean that we can’t be “holy” if we don’t live by strict Orthodox standards?
Of course not!
In the Etz Chayim commentary, it says: “Everything we do has the potential of being holy. Buber wrote that Judaism does not divide life into the holy and the profane, but into the holy and the not-yet-holy. Go beyond obeying the letter of the law and refraining from what is forbidden by finding ways of sanctifying every moment of your life. We can be as holy as we allow ourselves to be.”
So there we are. We can go beyond the letter of the law to the essence of the law, and find ways in our every day lives to discover our holiness. So, lets think of some examples from our normal activities.
Making lunches for kids in the morning… Holy or not yet holy?
Putting gas in the car…. Holy or not yet holy?
Homework (be it from school or our jobs)… Holy or not yet holy?
Let’s try some easier things.
Eating a piece of single origin free trade chocolate?
Watching your child or grandchild sleep?
If we claim holiness for ourselves in the non-yet-holy, if we can unleash the holiness hidden in the most mundane tasks, we have entered a whole different way of living… a mindful way of living. Now, believe me, I am speaking more from theory than from practice. I try to live with holiness… but I get cranky and forget nearly every day. So, let’s not try for perfection in ourselves. Let’s not scare ourselves into thinking that if we forget to embrace the holy of doing the laundry, we have failed. Let’s not feel like if we make a mistake, if we spend a minute or an hour or even a year forgetting to act through holiness or sensing our inner-holiness that that means we aren’t holy anymore. Goodness knows if we look at the people (and, yes, the God) of the Torah they make a lot of mistakes!! Sometimes they are selfish, mean, judgmental. But they grow from their frailties. So, let’s grow too, and allow the holiness code of this week in the Torah to be an inspiration and an invitation to bring a little more of the spiritual into every day living… to imagine, if there is, in fact, a God, that our hands are her hands doing those dishes.
Email me at email@example.com if you would like to be on our mailing list to get information and invitations to all of our Cool Shul events (and I’ll invite you to the online ones too!).
Today is Yom Ha-Shoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. Literally, “Day of the Holocaust.”
In Israel, an alarm sounds on Yom Ha-Shoah, and the roads and streets come to a complete standstill. When the siren sounds, every driver stops driving. Every walker stops walking. Every worker stops working. The entire country commits totally and completely to that moment, present in the sound of the siren and accepting of the lack of progress in their day. If you’ve never seen this, watch this video. Every time I watch it, I find myself choking back tears.
I am extremely fortunate that no one in my family was ever harmed during the holocaust, but the tears come anyway as I watch the people stop in their tracks. Maybe the tears are caused by the knowledge of the horrors… twins being experimented upon with gruesome cruelty, mothers desperately holding onto tiny children only to be torn away and never seen again, scores of Jews being locked into a building with not a spare inch to breathe or move, only to die as the house is set on fire and the people left to burn. Maybe I cry because I connect to something deep inside my ancient Jewish spirit (as modern and progressive and American as it is) that shares in the agony of the collective memory of this peoplehood. But I also think I feel emotional because I see a land that is torn apart in conflict day after day, year after year, decade after decade, being totally and completely unified for this one moment. The politics, the strife, the worries are forgotten. At the sound of the alarm, they are all One.
This morning I asked myself, “If those that died in the Holocaust could give me a message to share, what would it be?”
You know what came into my mind?
“Enjoy every minute, you putz. Stop rushing through your life. If I could come back, I’d eat that strawberry so slowly it would take all morning. I’d hold my children’s faces in my hands and kiss them a thousand times before they jumped from the car and ran into school. I’d tell my husband that I love him, not just in passing, but while looking deeply into his eyes.”
“Ah, yes,” I answered this imaginary soul. “Living in the moment. Mindful awareness. That’s what I’ll share.”
In Israel, there is a moment of ultimate presence and mindfulness as they hear the siren pulse though the air. But, in the United States, we barely remember that today is Yom Ha-Shoah as we go about our normal business. We have no sound, no collective practice, no unity (and boy, could we use some unity these days!). So, here is my challenge for all of you (and for myself too!). Today, of all days, let’s slow down. Let’s marvel in the shade of purple blossoming on the jacaranda tree. Let’s savor that bite of sandwich. Let’s appreciate the laugh we have with our friends at the office. Let’s tell our husbands and wives that we love them in spite of all of our little conflicts and issues. Let’s recognize the humanity in everyone, even our “enemies.”
Yes, let’s mourn. Yes, let’s remember. Yes, let’s say over and over, “Never again.” Let’s do all of these things. But let’s also honor those who are lost by not being “putzes.” Let’s not wait for a tragedy for us to experience the joy in the simplicities of life. And let’s do the hard work that needs to be done to make sure no people suffer as those in the Holocaust suffered… not anywhere in the world.
Please join Cool Shul for our next Shabbat, May 13 at 6:30PM at Big Red Sun in Venice, CA. Andy and I have an gorgeous new Oseh Shalom to share with you (I can say that because he mostly wrote it!). If you aren’t already on our mailing list to receive the evite to Shabbat, please fill out this form.
Off to tell my husband I love him…
There is a blue and white NASA sip-top cup in my cupboard. Every time I see this cup it reminds me of when my son was very little. Every night after dinner, my husband or I would fill that cup with milk (okay, it was rice milk… but I didn’t want to be that LA mom who was watching his dairy… milk sounds much more “normal”) and take my son upstairs to start his bedtime ritual: Bath, pajamas, sipping the milk while we read three stories, brushing teeth, one more story, then music on and lights off.
Parents of young children are always very concerned with night-time rituals because we want to get the kids off to sleep and have a minute to ourselves. We are hoping the ritual aspect, the things we do outside of ourselves, will provide the impetus needed for an internal change… in this case, sleepiness. However, we adults, often overlook the fact that we need rituals too. How many of us follow the recommendations ourselves for a good night’s sleep? Things like… decluttering our bedrooms or turning off electronics a couple of hours before bedtime? We need rituals too to cue our inner changes and be as healthy as we can be.
Religion is very much based in ritual. Sometimes we realize that those rituals are there to inspire an inner change. Sometimes we just do them because we are “supposed” to or because it “feels weird not to.” But truly, our spiritual rituals are there to do exactly what the night-time ritual did for my son. They are external actions intended to start an internal change… an inner journey, an inner acceptance, an inner realization.
Take the Passover seder, for example, which many of us will be taking part in during the coming week. This tradition is chock full of ritual. We eat and read and sing in a specific order to affect personal change. We eat matzah to remind us of the hardships that many used to feel, still feel, and will feel in the future, and to remind us that sometimes we have to act right away even when we don’t feel quite ready. We eat fresh vegetables and eggs in honor of spring and rebirth and the fragility of all life. We eat horseradish to snap ourselves out of our normal states and awaken ourselves to the pain of a life enslaved. We pour wine onto our plates to remind us that we should never fully celebrate our good fortune when someone else was harmed for us to have it. All of that is part of the seder to lead us to gratitude and acceptance of the here and now and inspire us to be the change the world needs. And that’s just the beginning. There is so much more.
Now… we can all sit through a seder and eat and read and listen and only allow the experience to live on the surface, but doing the ritual isn’t the point of the ritual. Each action and story is there to point us in the direction of truly being the people we would like to think we are. I mean, how often do we really stop and ask what life would be like if we weren’t free to make our own choices and then remember to immerse ourselves in thanks? How often do we admit that sometimes we feel like we aren’t free to make our own choices? Do we try to either have more autonomy or accept that those choices really were ours (see my last blog on that!)? How many of us know what it feels like to be enslaved by something other than true slavery, such as our work or our worries or our egos, but are afraid to admit it or do anything about it? How often do we complain and kvetch about the little things, but deep down we know that one tiny tragedy would turn all of that upside down and inside out? Do we remember to be in gratitude for a tragedy-free day? The seder is here to help us connect and re-connect to all of that. But we have to invite the experience in. We have to be active participants in taking in the words and songs and tastes and smells, and moving them beyond the surface into our souls.
Whether you are Jewish or not, plan to be at a seder this year or not, consider the importance of ritual in your life. We don’t need them. But sometimes the candles burning on a Shabbat table, the wafer on the tongue in a church, the sound of the call to worship in a mosque is exactly what we need to remember to be the change.
Join us for our ritual Saturday, April 23. Today is the last day to sign up for our Cool Shul seder. Click here:
I have pink rubber gloves on as I scrub a pan. The chugging of the dishwasher and the rumbling of the washing machine are a duet in the background. My son, sick with the flu for the 6th day, sleeps in the next room.
It is Monday after spring break, and we just returned home from a family trip to the east coast. My son got sick there, but we had to fly with him anyway in spite of our efforts to switch flights. Now he’s missing his first day back at school, and I’m home with him. I have a giant pile of career-related things that have to get done but aren’t getting done (including writing an over-due blog… what should I write about?), and because of a miscommunication, my housekeeper is not coming. So, in spite of sick child (luckily he is sleeping), in spite of work, I am scrubbing surfaces and sanitizing door handles and running laundry and changing sheets.
In my head there are sounds that remind me of what Yosemite Sam sounds like when he’s really, really frustrated with Bugs Bunny.
But wait! I think this may be a spiritual moment… a spiritual opportunity. I just know it is. Let’s check in with two of my favorite Rabbinic authors and see what they have to say.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (I know, I quote him a lot) talks about tension in his book Jewish with Feeling. He wrote, “If there is a tension between what we know in our minds and what we feel in our hearts, then let’s stay with that tension.” He also wrote, “… allow the tension of contradiction without seeking to reduce it.” Rabbi Alan Lew (who was a deep student of Zen Buddhism and later became a Conservative Rabbi) in his book Be Still and Get Going said, “The amelioration of suffering in not the central imperative of Judaism. The central imperative of Judaism, I believe, is to recognize and manifest the sacred in everything we do and encounter in the world. …I think we can safely assume that if we realized the sacred in the moment, we would be rather less inclined to wish that we were in some other moment.”
Well now! Some may think living with one’s tension or frustration or suffering is only a very Buddhist thing to do, but apparently it is actually a very Jewish thing to do too.
So, while I’m certainly not experiencing “suffering” today, I am having a woe-is-me moment after so many days of being the nurse, wanting to get back to work, and just wishing someone else was here to do the stupid laundry and disinfect the place (as my friend would say, “first world problems”). But maybe this is a moment for me not to think about where I wish I was or what I wish I was doing, but simply own this task at this time in this place as the right thing for right now. In fact, this is what I am choosing to do.
How often do we choose something but grumble about it along the way? I had a teacher who used to say to me, “Diane, are you willing or unwilling? If you’re willing, do it, and do it well. If you’re not, don’t do it and stop talking about it.” I use that line of thinking with my students all the time. 🙂 In this situation, I am actually very willing in spite of the pull to be somewhere else. So why am I grumbling? I need to stop that Yosemite Sam voice in my head and instead find peace in the pan I am scrubbing, peace in the sheets I am changing, peace in the sparkle of the wiped down faucet.
So, let’s try this again. I am going to listen to Rabbi Lew and bring the sacred into everything I encounter. There is something glorious about watching your child sleep, knowing you are there for him. There is something holy about taking it upon yourself to make sure your home is clean. There is comfort in hugging those toasty towels from the dryer. And I know everyone will feel gratitude tonight when settling down into fresh sheets at bedtime.
I sound like a Buddhist monk going about my daily chores, but truly, this is the being-in-the-moment of parenthood. And doing this, I am expressing my Jewishness as described by Rabbi Lew. Tomorrow I can express my Jewishness by being a Rabbi and Cantor. Today, being a mindful Jewish mother will do.
Want a seder but don’t want to cook?? Cool Shul will be having a catered Community Seder for the second night of Passover. Please join us and invite your family and friends. All ages welcome. Click here for information: http://coolshul.brownpapertickets.com
This blog entry is going to be short and sweet because I’m not hoping you will read as much as I am hoping you will DO.
Thursday is Purim, and there are many wonderful traditions associated with this Jewish holiday. We hear a story, we deliver packages of goodies to our communities, we donate money to the poor. All good stuff. However, I think we can bump this packages-of-goodies thing (called mishloach manot) to a new level. Yes, bake hammentashen tonight if you like (those yummy triangle shaped cookies that look like the bad-guy’s hat), wrap them up with other items in colorful wrapping and deliver them to all you know. Why not? But do something else too to fulfill the mitzvah of delivering mishloach manot and helping those in need. Here are your instructions…
Done! Easy, right?
You just made a “blessing bag.” We made tons of them at our last Cool Shul gathering so we could keep them in our cars or take them with us when walking in a neighborhood where we often see the homeless. This is our Cool Shul version of mishloach manot… no cookies… no cute baskets or wrapping paper… but a Purim gift for someone living on the street who sure could use a wash and a bite to eat.
Now the next time you are pulling off the freeway and see someone asking for help, forget that inner conversation, “Gee, should I give him money? Will he really use it for food? How much do I give?” Just hand over the bag and wish the person a better day. I can almost guarantee you will feel great for doing it, and the recipient will be lovingly grateful that you didn’t just hand him/her money (of course you can do that too!), but really considered what he/she needed to get through the day.
If you can, deliver your bag, your mishloach manot, on Thursday, in honor of Purim. And if you want to make the experience feel a little more Jewish, say this when you give the bag away… Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu la’asok b’tzorchai ha-tzibur. Blessed is (God who gave us) this opportunity to engage in the needs of the community.
When you deliver your bag, write a comment here so we can hear all about it!
Rantor (Rabbi/Cantor) Diane
Judaism has been described as a “householder religion.” What does that mean? It means that although we have synagogues as centers, a great deal of Jewish expression takes place in the home. Think about it. What gives Judaism its flavor and makes it as much a cultural expression as a religious one? It’s all of the traditions that live and breathe within the family walls. From Shabbat candles on the dinner table to Chanukah candles in the chanukiah, from the ketubah hanging on the wall to the mezuzah hanging at a gentle angle on the door frame, from the braided challah on Friday night to the crunchy matzah on the seder plate, much of what we all do Jewishly has nothing to do with Temples or services or Rabbis. They have to do with family.
In the book the Jew and the Lotus, it is suggested that this “householder” status is why Judaism has survived so many trials and tribulations. No matter what was going on “out there,” whether families were being taken from their homes, or synagogues were destroyed, or wars were being fought… there was always Judaism taking place “in here.” If there was a morsel of bread, there was a blessing.
Thinking of Judaism this way renews my desire to hold it close. Even if we are not traditionally observant, every day holds opportunities to live more beautifully, more peacefully, more sumptuously, and Judaism in the home can be, if we allow it to be, the medium through which we reach these global goals. As I told my students: It’s not that we are saying that only Jews are supposed to live this way, but for us, Judaism in how we remember to live this way. So, if we choose a blessing to remind us to be thankful, then we we just used Judaism for the universal goal of gratitude. If we choose candles to remind us to bring our personal sparks into the world, then we just used Judaism for the universal goal of contributing to the greater good. If we eat matzah to remember to fight for those who are enslaved, then we used Judaism for the universal goal of working toward freeing those who are captive. Now, I know we can be grateful, be global contributors, and be freedom fighters without Judaism, but keeping this householder religion near and dear makes it a little easier not to forget.
There is a challenge, though, that comes with this householder nature, especially for those of us who are teachers of this evolving tradition. Rabbis don’t sit upon mountain tops contemplating the universe, nor do we live in seclusion, dedicating ourselves to the pursuits of knowledge and understanding. We are men and women who are often married, often with children, paying bills, getting child care, doing the dishes, throwing in the laundry, and cursing when we realize the car won’t start. We are “householder” Rabbis… not separate from our communities, but right in the middle of the storm beside them.
Part of me wishes we could go sit on a mountain top and contemplate God instead of running to the grocery store. We’d get a step closer to spiritual mastery for sure. But wouldn’t we lose our connection to the worries of our communities? I’m glad that when one of our students got sick in class and threw up, I (as a parent) barely flinched at needing to clean it up (in fact, my co-teacher said Cool Shul’s slogan should be: Cool Shul… Where You’re Rabbi Will Clean Up Your Puke). I’m glad that when I encounter families with issues with spouses or children, I understand both the pain and euphoria of those family relationships. And you know what? I may be a Rabbi, but I, too, find that days can pass, and in the flurry of busy-ness, I forget to plug into my householder religion. So If you are struggling with finding time for spiritual expression, welcome to the club. Me too. I’m no different. I’m the same trench as you are.
So, I’m starting to think this householder-religion-spiritual-leader thing may actually be more of an opportunity than an obstacle. If Rabbis were to be above worldly struggles, dedicated completely to spiritual pursuits without the day-to-day complexities, then wouldn’t we be asking too much of all of you if we ask you to try to elevate to such a spiritual level while holding on to those day to day complexities? Like home and job and traffic and finances and family? But if Rabbis have to struggle right next to you, then maybe we can use our training and understanding to help discover with you the biggest spiritual secrets. Such as how to live, love, and act more like the holiest versions of ourselves while… getting two cranky, tired kids washed, dressed, brushed, fed and out the door for school on a Monday morning after winter break. When we have THAT answer, THEN we will have spiritual mastery!!! 🙂
I look forward to being in the trenches with you.
Please join Cool Shul for a Purim Shabbat celebration and pot-luck dinner this Friday, March 18 at One Roof in Venice, CA.
Click here for the evite: http://evite.me/y4v2D3qJb7
Click here for the sign-up for Friday for supplies needed for the homeless: http://www.signupgenius.com/go/30e0945afad2fa13-blessing
Bob Dylan is just like Judaism.
Yes, I know Bob Dylan is Jewish, but that’s not what I mean. Appreciating Bob Dylan is kind of like appreciating Judaism.
Let me explain.
Looking for something different to listen to this morning, I stumbled upon a playlist of Bob Dylan covers. Now, I’m not one who often listens to Bob Dylan, but I certainly love many of his songs. So, I clicked on the playlist figuring it would be a wonderful education in all of the music I probably know and love but have no idea were written by him. I heard Adele, Rod Stewart, Miley Cyrus, Duran Duran, Natalie Cole, Sting, Maroon 5, U2, Billy Joel, Kesha, Dionne Warwick and Wyclef Jan. Like any of of those artists? No? Well, how about Rage Against the Machine, Patti Smith, Johnny Cash or Patti LaBelle? The list of artists who have sung a Bob Dylan song goes on and on and on. We can appreciate him through the lens of hip-hop, grunge, R&B, pop, and country. The result? People with different tastes with different opinions can all have a favorite song by the one and only, Bob Dylan.
So Bob Dylan is just like Judaism. One can experience, appreciate, even adore Bob Dylan in a myriad of ways, and one can experience, appreciate, even adore Judaism in a myriad of ways too. We can enter through doors framed in Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, Post-Denominational, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, contemplative, ecstatic, traditional, even now Jewish Universalist flavors, all heading toward the same Jewish sanctuary. In a way, each movement and tradition is “covering” one artist… Judaism.
Fortunately for Bob Dylan, not too many people get into fist-fights or call each other names over who likes Bob Dylan more or who’s cover of “Forever Young” is the best. Unfortunately for the Jewish people, we can’t say the same. We do get into constant battles over who is more Jewish or who’s version of Judaism is more legitimate. Some Orthodox point at the modern, progressive movements and claim they are not even Jewish. Some progressives point at the Orthodox and claim they are backward or crazy.
Instruments on Shabbat? — Never!
Not egalitarian? — Forget it!
Altered liturgy? — Are you nuts?!
A Jewish Universalist? — No such thing!
Jews of Ethiopia or Uganda or India? — Are they really Jewish?”
This is where I think some Jews have lost their ways and why I have always struggled with the term, “Member of The Tribe.” Once there is a fence that keeps members “in” or “out” we have a problem. Who is the Head Rabbi of this Tribe? Who is it that decides if what I am and what I do is Jewish enough? Who decides with whom I can pray and with whom I cannot? Who decides if a conversion is legitimate or not? Who gets to say that a child raised Jewish without a Jewish mother isn’t Jewish? And what if I come from a community that doesn’t quite fit into the traditional Judaism of any of those movements? Is my community “in the tribe” or “out”?
The website and non-profit Bechol Lashon (In Every Tongue) is an amazing resource for understanding diversity within Judaism. According to their site, a 2002 study showed that there were approximately 435,000 Jews living in the U.S. who identified as non-white. That was 7.3% of the Jewish population. And yes, some of those people are Jewish because of conversion or adoption or an interfaith/interracial marriage, but there are also many whose families have been Jewish for as long as anyone can remember. Their communities may or may not look and feel like typical American congregations, but they live as Jewishly as anyone else, and boy do they have amazing stories to tell about what it is like to not only be a person of color, but a Jewish person of color in American society.
Please celebrate diversity in Judaism as well as Black History Month by joining Cool Shul for Shabbat this Friday, February 19, for an amazing evening with Rabbi and Professor Walter Isaac. He will be joining us via Skype to enlighten us about the history of African American Jews and the Black Israelite community. I guarantee we are going to learn a few things, consider some things we’ve never considered before, and hear some wonderful stories!
Click here for the evite. http://evite.me/f6FMDjg2Xq
This blog for all of you who weren’t at Shabbat with us last Friday to hear my “sermon”…
I awoke in my hotel room in Florida to a dark and drizzly day. I had arrived a day early for my Ordination weekend, and there I was, in a beach front hotel, beckoned by the sound of those east coast sand-breaking waves. I had a few hours to spare, and my plan had been to spend them on the beach or swimming in the hotel’s pool. But, alas, the storm clouds didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
I decided it wasn’t raining that hard, so I zipped on my rain jacket and set off to take a walk on the beach anyway. After all, I was there.
I walked along the sand, nodding happily at others who braved the rain for their morning exercise. The rain got a little stronger, so I put on my hood. Next thing I knew, it was pouring… wind blowing my hair into my eyes, the waves taking on a bit of an ominous crash as they slammed onto the narrow beach.
“I wonder if this is how Moses felt in the story of the crossing of the Red Sea?” I thought to myself as I continued on. Of course, he had waves on both sides, but I started imagining what the weather would have been like in order for two giant waves to be created, so tall that there would be shallow enough water between them to just walk on through. I imagined water splashing in the peoples’ faces and great gusts of wind blowing and the sounds of crashing and thrashing waters. The Israelites of the story must have been frightened, exhilarated, panicked, full of awe and full of dread, walking through a storm in order to start the first day of the rest of their lives.
It was interesting that on that rainy walk, I, too, was feeling frightened, exhilarated, a little panicky, and full of both awe and dread, for I knew that the next day, I was to be ordained a Rabbi. And not just any Rabbi… a rule-breaking, alternative, fight the system, Universalist Rabbi. Yes, I was headed toward the first day of the rest of my life but with that came doubt and a nasty voice in my head that said I didn’t deserve it.
I think that for many of us, whenever we are faced with a great newness in our lives, but especially those of our choosing and those not of the “usual path”, we feel as if we are walking through a rain storm by the sea. We have internal waves crashing within us, symbolic wind blowing our hair over our eyes so we can’t see clearly, and sometimes it feels as if there is a very narrow path for us to navigate, where one slight loss of focus might land us in the surf.
When we find ourselves in such situations, it is natural to look behind us and consider returning “home” and forgetting the whole endeavor. The Jewish people certainly had their doubts on the way to and long after their journey across the sea. And yet, at some point, it is a heck of a lot easier to keep going than to turn back. In fact, when I was walking in the rain, and the pouring came down, the wind was behind me and therefore the rain was hitting the back of my head. I knew if I turned around, the rain was going to smack me right in the face, so I actually decided to keep moving further from my hotel rather than turn around. It was easier to do so, and the wind was literally at my back.
After a few minutes, the rain did let up. I took off my hood, turned around, and even caught a little sun on my face. So I walked “home”. But I did so after the storm, not to avoid it. Similarly when my internal waves were crashing, I had to just push through, fueled by love and possibility, refusing to turn around because of the voices that told me that my dream was a crazy exercise.
How many of us have dreams that may seem to others, or even to ourselves, like crazy dreams?
My friends, my community, my family… you have been the wind at my back when I needed a little nudge into the future. You were, in some ways, my Moses, leading me through the waves of uncertainty. I thank you. And in return, I want to make you all this promise:
This community… This Kehillah Sababah… This Cool Shul is here to be the wind at your back too. Share with us your dreams, your moments when you are navigating through a storm toward a 2.0 version of yourself, and we will be there with umbrellas and galoshes to cheer you on to the finish line. And personally, as your Cantor, and now, as your Rabbi, I would be honored to hold one of those umbrellas over you and walk with you toward your dreams.
I wish for all of us, the strength to weather all kinds of storms, and the power of believing in ourselves and in each other.
Would you like to make sure you are on Cool Shul’s direct mailing list (not just the blog)? If so, click here and let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hineni. Here I am.
When God called to Abraham, Abraham answered, Hineni… Here I am.
When God called to Jacob, Jacob answered, Hineni… Here I am.
And when God called to Moses, Moses answered, Hineni… Here I am.
Well, at least that’s how the story goes…
They say that one doesn’t just decide to be clergy, but one is called to be clergy. Well, gosh, in just a few weeks, I will be traveling to Florida for my own Rabbinic ordination. I’m already a Cantor, so I guess I’m already clergy (don’t tell my husband; he always says, “Who wants to go to bed at night next to clergy??!!”), but this Rabbi thing is a whole other level. To be a true spiritual leader means watching my own ego and never getting too impressed with myself. It means listening to the needs of the people who invite me into their lives rather than placing my needs upon them. It means being there for beautiful events such as weddings and b’nei-mitzvah and baby namings, but it also means being there when there is fear, tragedy, sadness, illness, and death. It means being available for guidance when asked, and it also means being wise enough to step away when space is needed. This clergy thing is no easy task. But I don’t really feel like I was “called”. I never heard the voice of God like those guys mentioned above. I never saw a holy light or a burning bush or heard rolling thunder speak my name, or even felt a tap on the shoulder. I just kind of kept putting one foot in front of the other and somehow found myself here.
I guess there were moments in my journey that I could interpret as the Universe guiding me along a particular path, but I’m also open to the idea that I saw meaning in those instances because this was the path I desired deep down. I’ll never know which it was, and I don’t think it really matters. I think all any of us can to do is keep our eyes and ears open for those moments that are either themselves imbued with meaning or that we infuse with meaning, reflecting our own hearts’ desires to ourselves. It is possible that Abraham, Jacob and Moses, didn’t hear a literal voice but heard an internal “knowing”. It’s possible they were calling themselves. Maybe that is all we must ask of ourselves too.
It’s interesting that the Torah portion Shemot (the one in which God calls to Moses and Moses answers with Hineni) will be read during the Shabbat after New Year’s day this year. While Moses is being “called”, here we all are, making our usual New Year’s resolutions… to get back into shape, to spend more time with family, to make more money, to eat healthier, to finally lose that 15 pounds. But maybe the lesson we can grab from this New Year’s Torah portion is that we can forget all that stuff. Maybe we don’t have to “observe” the New Year with promises that we probably won’t keep and will feel guilty when we don’t. Maybe we can just say to the world, “Hineni! Here I am! Whatever this life calls upon me to do this year, I won’t hide! I’m right here, and I’ll give it my best shot!” With this, we prepare ourselves to be flexible, to face challenges, to move like water as we encounter the unknown twists and turns that lie ahead in 2016. If we are able to achieve this, we may find ourselves doing something very, very difficult… living in the moment.
When I return from Florida, my Kehillah Sababah, my “Cool Community” will celebrate with me and for the first time, call me “Rabbi.” To my Cool Shul readers and community… Hineni. Here I am. Thank you for spending a little time with me. I don’t know where the “call” to learn and grow and share with you came from, but I am grateful for the call, and I am going to do my best to be beside you as you navigate your lives. Thank you for being with me as I navigate mine.
May 2016 be a year in which we all listen to the internal and external voices that guide us and remind us of our “callings”. And may we be like water, ready to move with the tides.
Cantor (Soon to be Rantor) Diane.
And now, a bit more…
Happy New Year!!!!
This Torah commentary is dedicated to those in San Bernardino who need to be strong in the face of yet another senseless storm.
There is a species of tree that exists in which each tree is actually either a male or female. The male trees produce pollen and the female trees produce flowers which will become fruit IF (and it’s a big IF) they are pollenated. You see, bees and other insects are attracted to the pollen from these male trees, but they are not so attracted to the flowers of the female tree. This variety relies on wind to carry the pollen from the male to the female, and if the trees aren’t close enough together, it just won’t happen. “Tree procreation” for these guys is not so easy.
I can see one of these trees out my bedroom window: tall, slender, covered in 5 inch thorns for protection, blowing in the breeze, not only surviving in the wind but begging for the gusts that might harm most other plants… for this is her only way to have her children. No romance. No birds. Not even bees. Just wind.
This is the date palm. In Hebrew, “Tamar.”
A date palm can grow in unusually salty soil that would destroy most other plants. It thrives in intensely hot, dry, and sunny environments. As I just mentioned, it’s pollination relies on chance. In other words, The date palm, “Tamar,” is a survivor!
So it is with our Tamar of the Torah this week. She was married to a son of Judah, one of Jacob’s grandsons, but he was a man so despised by God, God chose to wipe him away rather than allow him and Tamar to have a child. After her husband’s death, Tamar was given to her brother-in-law (as was the custom of the time for a younger brother to have children in his older brother’s name), but this was a man so selfish he rather spill his seed to the ground than allow his inheritance to be diminished by having the children who would be his older brother’s heirs. After he died, Tamar was cast aside by her father-in-law, Judah, and sent to live with her own father. Judah promised that when his third son came of age, they would marry, but never acted out of fear that that son would also die by her side. So she lived with her father… waiting… promised to the third son, but never delivered.
What was this woman to do with her life?
As she sat in her own father’s household, now widowed twice and childless, bound to a husband that was never going to come, she realized what she had to do.
Tamar had learned that her father-in-law, Judah, was coming near. He had just completed his own grieving period for his wife and was surely lonely. So this “date palm,” Tamar, removed her widow’s garb, planted her feet onto the salty earth, wrapped herself in a veil of thorns, and sat, waiting for a wind storm to blow so she could have a child. And blow it did as Judah approached her, and entered into her arms, believing she was a veiled prostitute.
Of course, when it was discovered that Tamar — a widow still bound to Judah’s household — was pregnant, Judah called for her death. But when Tamar could prove Judah was the father of her unborn child, he admitted that he was as wrong as she because he never gave her the promised third son. Tamar lived, and gave birth to twin boys.
It is certainly no accident that our heroine this week is named after this tough tree that survives in harsh environmental conditions and faces such challenging pollination. Date farmers actually have to hand pollinate their date trees in order to ensure a healthy harvest. They do so at great risk, having to cut away the thorns of the tree, climb to dizzying heights, and participate in an intricate process of fertilization and harvesting. So, Tamar too, had to withstand great planning and danger in order to have the offspring she so desperately needed.
What made Tamar so strong? So able to withstand the circumstance she was handed? So clear on her mission even when she knew it was morally questionable at best and punishable by death at worst?
Nowhere in this text does it say that Tamar heard the voice of God, but I believe she was a prophetess, worthy of praise on the level of Abraham who heard “Go to yourself,” Rebecca who heard, “And the older shall serve the younger,” or Jacob who heard, “Remember, I am with you.” I believe Tamar heard the voice of God, perhaps a feminine Godly voice, that said, “You were named Tamar by me, for I knew in your life you would have to withstand terrible conditions in order to have a child. But you will be the mother who will birth the ancestors of great leaders and saviors. Go to your father-in-law, Judah, and by his seed blowing in My wind, you will be impregnated with twins who will replace the wretched two he lost. They will take their rightful places at Jacob’s table. You will be the mother of a future generation of Kings.” And it is said that Tamar was the matriarch of King David’s line.
There have been times or will be times of tragedy in all of our lives when we feel we must be date palms — feet rooted in the salty earth, bodies holding strong against a windy storm, somehow able to survive the elements against all odds and walk boldly into the future. It is in those times when many of us, no matter how religious we are, turn to prayer. When we do… when we speak to God, sheepish and unsure if anyone is listening, do we ever hear an answer? Do we hear a voice, whether we believe that voice to be from a God on high or just our inner-selves shining a light on what we know we must do? And if we do hear a voice, will that response ever be recorded in a scroll, or a book? Probably not. Our conversations with our Godselves will remain private like Tamar’s. But in Tamar’s time of tragedy, she heard a voice, and that voice showed her that motherhood was her destiny. In our quiet moments of pain, don’t we, too, sometimes see or hear Truth more clearly? Don’t we realize what is important? What is right or wrong for us? Who and what we could or should be? And don’t those realizations sometimes go against the social norms of our family or community or society, just like Tamar? Are we as strong as she to act anyway? Do we follow the voices from within or without?
I invite all of us, you and me, to think of Tamar when we find ourselves needing to be grounded deeply in the earth while our limbs are waving in a storm. In those moments when we ask the Universe, “Why? How? When? Me?,” let’s promise to try to listen. The answers may not be easy to accept, but if we act upon them, perhaps we will not just survive but thrive.
Perhaps we are to be the mothers or fathers of greatness.
Please join Cool Shul for a pre-Chanukah Shabbat celebration, menorah candle lighting, and Chanukah jam session. For info, click here.
My parents had been in town for a few days, and for their last night I decided to make my speciality for dinner… Falafel. I have THE BEST falafel recipe (thanks to Chef Danny of Culinary Kidz). It truly ruined my entire family for any other falafel anywhere. Light, crispy, perfectly seasoned. Wrapped in a pita with Israeli salad, humus, and hot sauce, it’s a slice of heaven!
So there I was, falafel mix ready to go, standing over a pan full of oil, making little balls to drop in. One went in and the familiar sizzle hummed in the air. The next one… oil bubbled happily. The third one… uh-oh. For some reason the falafel were dissolving in the oil! I tried making the balls larger. No go. I tried smaller. Failure. My family members started giving me advice — add water? Check the ingredients? Wrong amounts?
“No!” I told them (I hate to admit, rather rudely). “I’ve made this 1000 times before. There is NO reason why this should be happening.” So I kept on going. And the falafel kept dissolving. I glanced at the recipe. I had done it all correctly, so I just kept going as if somehow the next batch would work. Nothing did. We ate “falafel flakes” for dinner that night.
I’m not proud to say that I kind of panicked standing over my stove. I didn’t want to hear advice. I didn’t want anyone else to take over. I didn’t want to abandon the dish. There I was, wanting to do something special for my family, but my plan was falling apart (literally). The lack of control over the melting meal made me crazy. It was if something tried and true was slipping through my fingers, and it was making my head spin and my whole mental computer go haywire.
It was just falafel, for goodness sakes, but somehow it felt like more.
I think many of us feel overwhelmed when things don’t work out as planned. It can be as simple as a dinner that is ruined, as disappointing as a vacation that gets re-routed or cancelled, as life- altering as a divorce, or as tragic as a shooter in a Parisian theater. But in every situation, we find ourselves saying over and over again, “This isn’t how it is supposed to be!” We fight the reality of the present, and in that state, it is nearly impossible to imagine a solution.
No time does this happen more, I think, than during the winter holidays. The turkey gets burned. We miss the meal because we came down with the flu. The cousins won’t stop arguing. The weather goes bad. And our children drop cranberry sauce on Grandma’s new, white carpet. Dinner is terrible, the family is screaming, the kids are crying, and we want to holler, “This isn’t how it is supposed to be, damnit!”
Yup, we get so married to our expectations, it’s really tough to encounter the opposite. We all know that the pictures in magazines of happy families around Thanksgiving tables, Chanukah menorahs or Christmas trees are just that… pictures. Sometimes family time is that peaceful, but often, it ain’t. Yet we are continually so disappointed by our ideals being lessened that we can’t think clearly or see the forest from the trees. We can’t see the positive. We can’t see the humor. We can’t see a solution to our disappointment that may be right under our noses.
Can I tell you something embarrassing?
After my “falafel flakes” were all done, and we sat down to eat whatever was salvaged from the pan, I took one more look at the recipe. I had glanced at it several times during my culinary nightmare, but I decided to give it one more peek.
I had forgotten the *#% @&#* *}~¥!?@ eggs! How had I missed that?
If I hadn’t been so darned stubborn… If I hadn’t allowed myself to get so twisted up about some little falafel…
If I had listened to my family’s advice, I would have turned off the oil, slowly read the recipe again, added the stupid eggs, and dinner would have been fabulous. But I didn’t. I was too busy denying the reality before me and willing it to be something it wasn’t.
I’m glad I learned this lesson over a dinner and not something more important, but there is no doubt that life is going to send me many more of these little tests, and next time, if I remember to keep my head on straight, I may be able to help myself and others think through a much more serious situation.
So as we enter this holiday week, soon to be followed by many more, let’s welcome when life-lessons come with minimal distress. Let’s practice with the small stuff. When your plans get ruined, your expectations are not met, your flight is cancelled, take a deep breath, and remember my falafel. Walk away from the moment, maybe step outside for a little air, and make sure that what you need to restore your inner peace isn’t actually right there in front of you.
Maybe you just need a couple eggs.
Shabbat Shalom, my friends. Have a safe and (relatively) happy Thanksgiving.
Cantor (8 weeks from being a “Rantor”) Diane.
Save the date for our next Cool Shul Shabbat, December 4.
As breakfast warmed in the oven Sunday morning, I went outside to check on the milkweed growing in our yard.
I walked around the plant for another angle.
5… 6… 7… 8…
By the time I made my way around, I had counted 10 monarch caterpillars clinging to stems and the undersides of leaves, each munching its way toward a most amazing transformation.
This milkweed plant has provided amazing scientific and spiritual lessons for my family. We watched aphids nearly destroy it and ladybugs move in to dine on them to save the plant. We witnessed circling butterflies land upon re-emerging leaves and deposit their minuscule eggs upon them. We marveled at growing caterpillars, despaired when we thought we lost the plant to milkweed bugs, then felt new hope as the plant rebounded and the caterpillars became more plentiful. We gasped at the sight of a newly formed chrysalis and eventually at the new butterfly emerging from its slumber.
It’s our very own tree of life.
I think what we enjoy most about this milkweed, however, is that we never planted it. We did have a small milkweed plant in a pot across the yard once upon a time. We had purchased it to attract butterflies, but alas, it was destroyed by aphids and the butterflies never came. It was some time later, long after that plant was dead, that we noticed something growing and overtaking our planter and realized what it was… a descendant of our potted milkweed. These plants are well known for spreading easily and none of you out there with green thumbs are probably surprised, but we found it utterly miraculous. Out of a death, new life emerged, and every time we thought it was the end, the plant fought for survival. And that survival instinct didn’t just save itself. It became the nesting place for generations of monarchs.
The cycles of this milkweed, seemingly without a future and then reclaiming its longevity, remind me of the cycles of the moon. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, with the months beginning with the first slivers of silver moon after the darkest nights. I love that Rosh Chodesh, the new month, starts when the lunar light is dimmest. We don’t celebrate when the moon appears full and round and bursting. We celebrate when it is emerging from its darkness, when it can hardly be seen.
Perhaps that is how we are to celebrate ourselves too. We don’t have to wait to be 100% joyful, 100% healthy, 100% issue-free in order to honor ourselves. The time to rejoice is when we just start seeing that sliver of light in ourselves. That is our personal Rosh Chodesh… not a day of wellness, but our first day toward wellness.
When we feel farthest from our gladness, like a moon blocked from the sun, may we try to remember that we are not lost just as the moon is not lost. As the return of the light of the moon is definite, so are our personal returns.
Please join us for some food, friendship and community this Friday, November 6, at Cool Shul’s Shabbat at Big Red Sun. We will share dinner at 6:30pm, a family friendly, short Shabbat gathering and Torah reading at 7pm, and will follow with dessert. For details and info about what you can bring to share, click here.