Taking it out on the Little Guy


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.

Returning to Healthy Relationships

Right now, I have an old friend who is really hurting… and there is nothing I can do about it.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  I could do something about it, but swooping in to “save the day” would mean re-entering into a relationship that isn’t healthy for me. Ever have one of those?  Sometimes we can care deeply about someone but also know that we have a dynamic that brings one or both of us to a sunken place. Such is the case here, and as much as I want to put on my superhero cape, I know that for my well-being, I need to keep my distance.

Why is it so tempting to jump back into unbalanced relationships?  What is it that keeps us crawling back for more?  We know we would be better off without certain people, yet we just can’t stop ourselves from being drawn back in.

I have often heard it explained that this attraction comes from missing our own dramas. The stresses we feel and the struggles we endure feed our visions of our basic identities.  We don’t know who we are without the pain, and as relieved as we are when we find ourselves pain free, we also don’t know how to live without it.   After all, if I’m not the person in that hostile relationship or living in that abusive environment, who am I?  The distress helps us feel alive.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my old friend as I prepare for the High Holy Days because a major theme of the these days is “returning”.  Teshuva is often described as “repentance,” but it actually means “to return,” specifically (in a traditional sense) returning home to God.   In exploring these themes of regret and “coming home,” I find myself attracted again to that uncomfortable friendship. There is much to be sorry for in my behavior, and I hope my friend feels the same. That’s the repentance piece. And, in a way, being in the embrace of this relationship fills an identity gap and makes me feel like I’m “home,” maybe just not an ideal one. So is Teshuva asking me to return to this friend in order to try and fix both of our damaged souls?  Is that what I need to do in order to get closer to Truth?

I don’t think so.

I believe the idea of Teshuva means quite the opposite.  “Coming home to God” is arriving in a place, maybe for the first time, that encourages inner peace. How do we find our way home?  I think when we can hush the chatter in our minds and the rapid beating of our hearts for a moment, most of us can hear at least a whisper toward the road less travelled that leads us away from dysfunction. As much as we would like to change those people (or even help them), we usually can’t and can only truly change ourselves. Teshuva is not about flying back into the eye of a storm, no matter how tempting, but about learning from our past patterns and not falling into the same traps we slipped into so many times before.  It’s about saying, “Stop!” to ourselves, and not to anyone else.  It’s about “coming home” to an emotionally healthy place even if we’ve never been “home” before.  It’s about learning to feel alive without the pain.

I know, that in the long run, my friend will truly not be better off if I swoop in like a superhero and try to make the problems go away.  My friend has to make it through a difficult time, and as much as I care, those burdens are not mine to bare.  I have to be careful and restrain my instinct to “return,” because if I do, when I realize I’m participating in a draining drama again, I will have no one to blame but myself.

For these Holy Days, my personal exploration is going to be about my inclination to jump into situations that overwhelm me.  My whole life, I have somehow stumbled into being in over my head, and I continually lose sight of the real prize… a healthy me.  It may sound selfish, but if I’m not healthy in body, mind, and spirit, what use am I to my family, my friends, or the people I serve?  This is teshuva.


If you are searching like I am, and don’t have a spiritual home for the Holy Days, I welcome you to join us as we walk through a “returning” together.  For information about and tickets for Cool Shul’s High Holy Day services, click here:



This image came from the blog: https://karmawaves.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/blessings-roll-call-check-in-on-the-baal-teshuva-contemplation/


Useful Judaism

I was once interviewed by an author who was writing a book about Jewish practice. She had heard me use the term “useful Judaism,” and wanted to hear more about what that meant to me. Her first question during the interview was, “Why should we bother being Jewish at all?” My response was that “useful Judaism” is the key. It’s just what it sounds like… a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of doing that is “useful” in helping us lead more productive, healthy lives. Judaism is a guide toward peace, contentment, and fulfillment for ourselves as well as being a manual for guiding others toward the same… if we pay attention.

I thought that was a pretty good answer, but then the interviewer asked me a really challenging question. She asked, “If I can learn to live a more peaceful, content, fulfilling life by reading a Dr. Suess book, then why should I be Jewish?”

Hmm. Harder question. But the answer begins with the Jewish calendar.

Let’s take a look at what we receive by following our calendar. Every week with Shabbat we are given the offering of a full day to rest and recharge from the labors of the week and to create a Holy space for our minds and bodies. With Pesach we clean out even the darkest corners of our homes as we remember our people’s and and other peoples’ fights for freedom, and we clean out the darkest corners of ourselves too as we guide ourselves toward betterment. By counting the Omer we spiritually renew and mature as we prepare to receive the Torah again and again on Shavuot. With Rosh Hashanah, we think of new beginnings and with Yom Kippur we think of forgiveness. Sukkot arrives, and we are reminded to be grateful for our homes and our food sources, and to re-commit to helping those with not enough. During Simchat Torah we remember that learning should never end, each Chanukkah we consider the light we bring into the world and ponder whether miracles are really possible, and Tu Bishvat re-energizes our commitment to the earth.

If we are paying attention, it is difficult to avoid the themes that can lead to more peace, lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and less stress… renewal, forgiveness, gratitude for what we have, the importance of being lifelong learners, and reminders to be sources of light in the world.

So, what does all this have to to with “useful Judaism” or Dr. Seuss?

It’s all about cycles. We have the cyclical reading of Torah, we have the repetition of the prayer service, and… we have the cycle of the calendar. When paying attention to the gift of the Jewish cycles, one can never “forget” the themes of renewal, gratitude, and forgiveness, but we can easily stop reading Dr. Seuss. A book with a lesson can provide a moment or even many days of clarity, but we all know how those lessons learned seem to fade in the busy-ness of life. So, Judaism has a calendar so packed with holidays and Holy Days that we are always either recovering from or preparing for another one. In Judaism, we are on a lifelong, cyclical, spiritual ride that inches us ever so slightly with each turn toward a more complete existence, not just in the world to come but in the here and now. The cycles of Judaism ensure that we reacquaint ourselves with those themes day after day, week after week, and year after year. We are never far away from another opportunity to improve ourselves, our outlooks, our relationships, and our world.

So let’s keep a close eye on our Jewish calendar. Let’s take those Shabbat naps, crunch our matzoh, count the omer, build the sukkah, renew our souls, and forgive other souls. And let’s remember that observing all of those acts isn’t about believing or not believing in God, nor are they exercises in and of themselves for us to be “good Jews.” The calendar is a handbook for “useful Judaism,” pointing us in the direction of our best selves. God doesn’t have to have anything to do with it to make it all worth while.

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Does there have to be a December Dilemma?

Fear or Love?

I’m going to try to navigate through this holiday season with love.

For those of us who don’t celebrate Christmas, navigating our ways though this season without fear can be a daunting task.  There are Christmas parties, Santas at the mall, trees with presents, and our Jewish children are peering at it all with wide eyes, wondering why they can’t have it.  We worry, we wonder, we try to protect their Jewish identities, and we end up wrapped up in the “December Dilemma.”

Well, you know what?  I love Christmas lights.  I love singing corny carols.  I love going to other people’s Christmas parties.  I’m going to go straight into them with that love, and bring my kids along with me without fear.  Why?  Because I have faith in them.

I always say that every adult Jew is a “Jew by Choice.”  Being born Jewish doesn’t mean you live Jewish.  If you choose to live Jewish, you have made a decision.  You are a Jew by choice.  For me, I have chosen Jewish because I have found that the cycles, the words, the melodies, the tastes and smells and traditions of Judaism help center me, remind me of who I want to be, bring peace to my life, and inspire me to leave this world better than I found it.  I’m not a Jew because I was raised Jewish. In fact, I explored far away from Judaism, and only after that exploration did I choose Jewish.  No matter how many Christmas trees I help decorate, or parties I go to, or Santas I see, that Jewish commitment will not be drawn out from me… or from my children.

Here is my Christmas story to illustrate.

We were on vacation in a tiny resort in Fiji.  There were, maybe, a dozen children there, and they all became friendly and played and did various activities together.  It was Christmas Day, and an employee of the resort ran out to the pool, where nearly all of the children were, and yelled, “Santa is here!”  Every child jumped out of the pool and followed… except for mine, who froze and stared at me with wanting eyes.

Now, my children never sat on Santa’s lap or had a Christmas tree, but clearly they were the only Jewish children there.  What to do?  For me, it all came down to this question:  If I tell them they have to be the only children who don’t go, have I helped or hurt their connection to Judaism?  Here entered my fear.  But my fear wasn’t that actively participating in a Christmas celebration would make them less Jewish.  My fear was that exclusion from a Christmas celebration would make them less Jewish.  If they were left on the outside because of me and my decision of how their Jewishness should rule this moment, my fear was that they would resent me and Judaism.

So, we told the kids they could go see Santa, and when we got there, an employee of the resort was dressed up.  The children all sat in a semi-circle, and “Santa” basically did all kinds of goofy things, made the children laugh, and then called each child up by name and handed each of them a small present.  Did my husband and I feel a little awkward?  Yes.  Did the kids love it?  Yes.  Would it have been more awkward if they had been the only two children who didn’t go, and there were two little presents left sitting out with their names on them?  Yes.  Have they been asking to do Christmas ever since?  No.

Did we do the right thing?  I don’t know.  But we did our best.  And the experience created an amazing opportunity to dialogue with our kids about being Jewish, about Christmas, about how we can be a part of those celebrations sometimes but that those traditions aren’t ours.  I invite you to consider chatting with your children about this season.  You may be surprised by how much they can internalize, and if you decide, as a family, what elements of non-Jewish tradition you are going to embrace in and outside of your homes, you can relax and enjoy knowing the family has agreed.  Remember, the only people who have to feel okay with that decision, is you.  Then maybe we can take the dilemma out of December.

So, this winter season, let’s watch out for fear.  I know we often fear that our children won’t embrace the religion we raise them.  But my truest fear is that my children won’t be happy, healthy and spiritually well.  I choose Jewish because I believe Judaism will help make that reality for them and me.  But, honestly, if something else calls to them to be happy and healthy (and it won’t be because they hung out with Santa), if they need to go exploring the way I did, I will always support their journey toward wellness, even if it leaves the Jewish path for awhile or forever.  I will demonstrate my deepest love for them by giving them that space.  And I have faith they will, as I did, find their ways home.

Share your December Dilemma stories here!

P.S.  There is a great article on this subject (and where I borrowed the pic) at http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2012/12/06/redefining-so-called-december-dilemma

Muslims, Jews, and Friendship

I grew up in a town that was about 50% Jewish.

My best friend… was Muslim.

Granted, we were definitely not the most observant Jews and they were definitely not the most observant Muslims, but we were who we were.  I knew some of their relatives in Iran didn’t approve of our friendship, but that always seemed to me like an Iranian problem and not an American one.  It never even occurred to me that there was a Muslim/Jewish “conflict” in the minds of Americans until I was embarrassingly old.

I have extremely fond memories of my friend.  She was my closest pal from when I was 2, and we remained friends into our college years.  I can still breathe in and remember what her house smelled like when her mother was cooking.  I can still feel the pinch of her father’s fingers on my cheeks.  I can still remember the layout of their house, and knocking on her back door when we would pick her up to go somewhere.  I can still recognize an Iranian accent as soon as I hear it. I grew up eating in their home, and I still find myself salivating at the sight of Tahdig whenever I am lucky enough to find myself in the same room as that unbelievably delicious and crunchy rice dish.  The sights, sounds and aromas of their home were comforting to me when I was a little girl.  It was a second home.  No Muslim/Jewish conflict there, and for that reason, there is no conflict in me.

This weekend is the Muslim/Jewish Twinning.  Many synagogues and mosques, Rabbis, Cantors and Imams are going to gather together, around the world, in friendship and unity.  Some will chat together.  Some will do volunteer work together.  Some will pray together.  Some will make music together.  My Temple is always involved with this Twinning weekend, and I must say, I have had a few amazing experiences because of it.  What’s strange is that in spite of those experiences, the Muslim/Jewish Twinning weekend usually leaves me feeling a little empty at the end.  Yes, we will gather together and sing and pray and talk, and that is terrific.  But if we don’t see each other until the next annual Twinning weekend, I’m not sure what we have accomplished.  I always feel that we, in a way, are preaching to the choir.  Everyone present wants to be there.  Everyone there already has peace in mind.  It’s the folks who choose NOT to attend that we need to talk to, and it is possible that this kind of forum will never be inviting to them.

Maybe, rather than only getting together on the premise of “dealing” with the “issues” and finding that mostly like-minded Jews and Muslims congregate, we also need to simply sit together, eat some Tahdig and rugelah, go to the movies, talk about our kids, which dentist we go to, which farmer’s market has the best stuff, watch our children play together, and begin the long journey toward intertwining our lives.  We don’t have to talk about politics or religion.  We could just become friends.  Once there is friendship, how could we ever ignore one another again, much less support hurting one another?   If our children grow up together, maybe the possibility of conflict will seem as alien to them as it was to me.

Take a look around your offices, your schools, your neighborhoods.  Maybe there is someone out there (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever!) that you could invite over for coffee and a chat, and do your small part to heal cultural conflicts simply by making a new friend who looks, sounds, cooks, and prays a little differently than you do.  I’m going to try.  Will you?

By the way, my friend’s parents and my parents are still close.  It’s been 40 years.