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.

Gratitude and Mindful Judaism

This is a re-post of a Thanksgiving blog I wrote 4 years ago (with a few gratitude updates).   Enjoy!

Judaism is a tradition of gratitude.

It is said, in Jewish practice, that we should say 100 blessings each day.  Jewish structure helps us reach that goal by providing blessings for when we wake, when we eat, when we pray, when we see beauty, light candles, wash our hands, drink wine… just about everything. Any child who gets a little Jewish education learns at least a few of these blessings, but rarely is it suggested that when one is uttered, what we are actually reaching for is our own gratitude.  Each blessing is intended to make us to stop for a moment, “press the enter key” (as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi would say), and remind ourselves to take intentional notice of all that is before us, around us, and within us, 100 times a day.

This is mindful living.

One often looks to other philosophies and traditions in a search for mindful living practice, but Judaism is actually wrapped around a nougat center of mindfulness with those 100 blessings at its core.  When we live mindfully, we don’t pass through our lives with blurred vision like a movie stuck in fast forward.  Living mindfully means we remain in the present in order to fully experience every bite of food we chew, every scent we inhale, every push on the gas pedal while we drive, every errand we run, every task we complete.  We take our steps with purpose, we dry the dishes with contentment, we pay the bills with joy.

Mindful living sounds great, doesn’t it? …Wish I did it.

There are always occasions when gratitude hits me.  When my children are making me laugh, or we can see a particularly fiery sunset from our balcony, or I’m taking a drive through the mountains, it’s easier to feel the miracles of life flowing through me.  But in my busy days, between getting kids to school, getting on the treadmill, heading to work, meetings, students, making sure everyone gets picked up, dropped off, teeth brushed, homework done, I often forget to be mindful or grateful.  How do we mindfully clean up the spaghetti we just dropped on the floor?  Or feel gratitude for being stuck in traffic?  I guess it’s all in how we look at it.  Yes, we dropped the spaghetti, but the blessing can be for the fact that there is more in the cupboard.  Yes, we are stuck in traffic, but the blessing can be for the fact that we are in a car, safe and comfortable, and not walking in the rain.  Perhaps, we all focus too much on our glasses being half empty.  I know I do.  Yet, Judaism points us toward appreciating our fullness by asking us, 100 times a day, to stop, live, be, notice, breathe, taste, feel, and express all that action and inaction through blessings.

Okay, readers, it is Thanksgiving.  It’s the season for gratitude.  Can we experiment with acknowledging as many mindful/blessing/gratitude moments as possible this holiday?  Can we take an instance of frustration and transform it into one of contentment?  Can we remember to notice the positives and negatives and remind ourselves that there are often blessings hidden in those negatives?  And if we can do all this, how do we register it?

We don’t need to say a blessing each time we have one of these “noticing” moments.  We could just make a mental note of each one.  I must say, however, there is a power in vocalizing gratitude.  If we feel the desire to say something out loud to acknowledge an experience, we could say: Baruch Atah Adonai /Blessed are you, Adonai (a more masculine, fatherly side of God), or B’ruchah At Shechina /Blessed are you, Shechina  (a more feminine, motherly side of God).  But we can also say just plain old, “Ooh” or “Ahh” or “Sigh” or “Thank you, world.”  It’s all the same.  No belief in God required for practicing Jewish gratitude or mindfulness.

Now, I don’t know if we can reach 100 blessings or “notice-ings” in a day, but maybe we can.  Let’s choose a day, and even write down our focuses of gratitude.  Let’s see if we can get to 100.  And if you like, share your list in the comment section.

Here is a starter list to get the ball rolling.

Thank you world for:

1. My husband
2. My children
3. My parents
4. My niece and nephew
5. My brother
6. My in-laws
7. My friend who made me laugh
8. My friend who made me cry
9. The memories of those I have lost
10. Morning toast and coffee
11. My new dog
12. The refrigerator
13. Clothing
14. My breath
15. Health
16. Sight
17. Touch
18. My heart and all my organs
19. Shoes
20. My work and the Cool Shul Community
21. Money
22. Yoga
23. The breeze
24. The shade
25. My children’s school and their teachers
26. My mentors
27. My education
28. Who I am
29. Who I want to be
30. A perfect salad
31. A piece of dark chocolate
32. A pet (don’t have one, but if I did, I’d be grateful for it!)
33. A comfortable bed
34. Running water
35. My car
36. Heat in the house
37. A drink of water
38. A glass of wine
39. My students who teach me so much
40. A good book
41. Music
42. Having the time to paint my nails.
43. The piano in my living room
44. My voice
45. Smoothies
46. My blog readers
47. A Parisian Baguette
48. A vacation
49. Airplanes
50. Creativity
51. A Simple dinner
52. Art
53. Time to play
54. Photographs
55. A day without pain
56. My soul
57. Laughter
58. The sun
59. The stars and moon
60. The sunset
61. Colors
62. Trees
63. Flowers
64. Mountains
65. Grass
66. Rain and rainbows
67. Renewable energy
68. That for today, I live in a land without war
69. Freedom
70. Community
71. My children’s friends
72. Sleep
73. Medicines
74. Windows With a view
75. A clean home
76. A trusted babysitter
77. Exercise
78. A song with great lyrics
79. Love
80. That my body can heal
81. A comfy blanket
82. The New York Times
83. My doctor
84. Swimming
85. Walking
86. Tasting
87. Smelling
88. Electricity
89. Curly hair
90. Tissues when I have a cold
91. Appliances that make life easier – even when they break
92. People we never knew who are part of our history
93. The earth and the Universe
94. Charities
95. Candlelight
96. The beach
97. KCRW
98. Kindness
99. Learning from challenges
100. Having 100 things to be grateful for.

I’m grateful you read all the way to here. 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!

Say YES to Diversity

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.**

diversity

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