“Harvester” (one of Diane’s sermons)

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…

img_3483

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.

Growth Mindset/Fixed Mindset

I’m struggling.

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

mindset-and-struggle-image

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.

You can get Holy Day information right here.

Hey!  I think I can see your mind expanding already!!!!

Love ya,

“Rantor” Diane

What the (bleep) is Tisha B’Av???

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

Taking it out on the Little Guy

Snape

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.

It is Only a Door

At Cool Shul’s Evening service for Rosh Hashanah, we imagined ourselves standing in front of a closed door.  We imagined that on the other side of that door was something or someone that would change our lives forever.  For the children, maybe they imagined a newly painted bedroom, or a new friend.  Maybe they saw a new baby brother or saw themselves getting ready to walk into their first day of school.  For the adults, perhaps they pictured the door to a new career or a new home or a long lost friend.

During these Holy Days, we have a door right in front of us, and we have to choose whether or not to walk through.  If we enter, we are going to have to take a good, hard look at ourselves.  We are going to ask ourselves to move forward with at least one little baby step toward our best selves.  We are going to search for the parts of our lives we may have lost along our ways.

But we have to walk through the door for anything to change, and it’s a little frightening to do so.  It is way easier to turn and run and leave it closed just as it is.

The poet, Adrienne Rich said, “Either you will go through this door or you will not go through.  If you go through, there is always the risk of remembering your name… The door itself makes no promises.  It is only a door.”

During Rosh Hashanah, my new community and I cracked that door open, peeked inside, and began brainstorming what first actions we could all take.  We shared the many ways we know we can improve ourselves, our relationships, and the world.  We made a commitment to at least start that process by Yom Kippur, and when we gather again next week we are going to share what we have accomplished so far.

If you weren’t with us for Rosh Hashanah (even if you aren’t Jewish!), I invite you also to close your eyes for a moment and imagine a door before you.  The door is closed tight, and you have to make the decision to reach out and turn that knob for it to open.  You can turn away and choose to keep the door closed, or you can face this fearful moment, hear the click of the latch, and face your true self.  And if you so choose, share with me what you discover.

I hope those of you without spiritual homes will join us for Yom Kippur as we continue along this spiritually renewing path.  Holding a mirror up to oneself is terrifying alone, but it’s easier together. Our services are short and sweet, in beautiful Temescal Canyon, family friendly, and we even have childcare.  Tickets are purchased by donation, and there is a place on the site to purchase tickets at our suggested donation price and also a place to name your own price at the bottom.

Sign up here: https://coolshulhihotx.eventbrite.com

Have a sweet and happy new year,
Cantor Diane

RH image