Don’t Wish Me a “Happy New Year”

Since Cool Shul hosts a Shabbat service only once per month, last Friday was our “New Year’s” Shabbat.  Hope you enjoy my talk for that Shabbat. 🙂

Love, Rabbi Di

Our Torah portion this week is Parshat “Bo”, which means come. During Parshat Bo, where we experience the final three plagues, God tells Moses to go (bo) to Pharaoh.  You may have noticed that I translated bo as go, even though I just said it means come.  Rarely does a translation say “come to Pharoah,” but that is what it actually says, and many have wrestled with the fact that the word is confusing in its use.  Why would God say, “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go”? It’s a fun puzzle to try to solve.

In my research, I found that most commentators agree that in God’s telling Moses to come, and not go, God is present with Moses during his interactions with Pharaoh, so God is really saying “come with me” to Pharoah.  Another idea is that God is hovering near Pharaoh all the time, so God is asking Moses to come to where God is already present.

Of course, I have another interpretation to add, and it fits perfectly into the New Year’s theme.  

Be it the secular New Year or the spiritual New Year of Rosh Hashanah, we often say to each other (when using English), “Happy new year.”  During Rosh Hashanah, however, when we greet one another in Hebrew with Shanah Tovah Umetukah, we wish each other a good and sweet year.  My question for you is the following: is good or sweet the same as happy?

To me, what may be good or sweet doesn’t have to come with the pressure of making us happy.  Depending on what has gone on in one’s life during the prior year, a good year or a sweet year may not necessarily lead to happiness, and it certainly won’t lead to happiness all the time.  Good or sweet might just be improvement or going in the right direction.  And what does being “happy” even mean? It’s not the same as present or content.  Being happy or not seems too black and white for me, too two-dimensional. Personally I think we all are often kind of happy and kind of not.

One of my students studying the creation story talks about the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden as taking away our happiness because we became aware of all of the problems and possibilities of our world when we ate it.  But, he asks, “Is it better to just frolic around the garden like a bunny… unaware and simple but happy?” To face our powers and weaknesses is, in many ways, to be unhappy. So he also asks, “Would we want it any other way?” And so there we are — happy and unhappy, but maybe content that way, and perhaps that state is even the key to the meaning of life.  So wishing each other a happy new year is asking us to move away from what might be a healthy state of being and setting each other up for failure.

Maybe the purpose of the inspiration for renewal at a new year, is not to become more happy, but to get a step closer to home… to being the people our natural states are asking us to be.  Perhaps we can make New Year’s resolutions not to go toward something we aren’t, but to come… or “bo” back to ourselves.

Returning to Moses, we have to remember that he grew up in the Pharaoh’s court.  While it’s believed that the Pharaoh of the exodus story could not possibly be the Pharaoh of Moses’ youth (and no one has figured out if there is a true Moses/Pharaoh relationship anyway), Moses’ return, at least in the story, is a march to his old home and to everything he left behind.  I think that the word “come” is used because Moses isn’t just moving away from his life, but he is actually coming home to a familiar place. As frightening as it would be to be put in the position of being the reluctant hero as Moses was, imagine how frightening it would be if we were also returning to our old homes, to a place we had to run from.  Moses is coming back to face a part of himself, his history, and his experiences within Egypt. He has to come to himself.

And so, with New Year’s, we can focus on those usual surface goals – like the ever present losing weight and going to the gym —  but so often those kinds of resolutions fall away and dissolve partly because the hope is to become something we aren’t rather than coming home to what we already are.  Perhaps we need to focus not on a product, but on a process, on “bo”, on coming toward ourselves and what can free us, just as Moses had to “bo” in order to be completely free from his past and be strong enough to free others.

If you’ve already made some New Year’s resolutions, it isn’t too late to retool them.  Let’s see if we can focus on our potential. Let’s see if we can focus on activities and expressions that create wholeness within us and for those around us.  Let’s see if the promises we make can be about coming and not going.

Leaders Don’t Lead Alone

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.

Reserve a place at our Holy Days Here. http://www.coolshul.org/event/highholydays

Become my “friend” on Facebook so you can see our live stream here. https://www.facebook.com/diane.o.rose.9

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. 🙂GREAT_LEADERS

Dance Partners

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. 🙂

http://ujuc.org/dance-partners/

Dance Partners

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.”

Or Hillel:

“What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man.”

Or Jesus:

“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. 🙂

The Poem “Refugees”

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.

REFUGEES

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
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
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.

refugee_sign

Life is Like a Box of Matzah

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