Jewish Guide for Stressful Times

Al sheloshah d’varim        Upon three things

ha-olam omeid.                  The world stands.

Al ha-torah,                          Upon torah,

V’al ha-avodah,                  And upon prayer,

V’al g’milut chasidim       And upon acts of loving kindness.

—Pirkei Avot

These are stressful times. Whether you are fearful about the future or regretting the past, whether your stress stems from politics or health issues, whether your worries are about your parents, your children, yourselves, or the planet (or all of the above), it seems few of us are relaxed these days. We don’t know which way to go, which way to turn, what to fund, what to sign, whom to support, and whom to condemn. We are lost in a sea of news and social media, all while needing to keep up with the strains of every day life. No matter what we read on Facebook, Twitter or the New York Times, there are still sick children and parents.  There are still groceries that need to be purchased, homework that needs to get done, bills that need to be paid, and career woes that need to get solved. Lately, it seems many of us wake up in the middle of the night finding we’ve been grinding our teeth and sweating through uncomfortable dreams as our subconscious works through its agitations. We find ourselves a little more testy, a little less patient, and a little less thoughtful.  We feel afraid and alone.

But Judaism offers a simple statement that can carry us through, if we listen, one day at a time…

Upon three things the world stands. Upon torah, upon prayer, and upon acts of loving kindness.

In some ways, this quote from Pirkei Avot is all we need to guide us. It won’t solve our problems, but it is a three-step road map to action and to inner-peace if we follow it, and for now, that will have to do.

My old Rabbi and mentor used to talk about big T Torah and little t torah. Big T is for the text of the Torah scroll itself. Little t moves beyond those Five books of Moses to all forms of learning, teaching and study of wisdom, Jewish and otherwise. So, the world first stands upon knowledge: spiritual, scientific, social, political and personal wisdom. The world stands upon learning our personal truths and the truths of the universe.

How does this relate to feeling stressed and out of control? Let’s all choose one element (I suggest just one to start when we are feeling like there are so many issues to face) of what is worrying us, and learn, study, and understand that issue. Let’s get the facts (oy, please let’s not be part of this “post-fact” world we keep hearing about!), rather than rely on hearsay or headlines or word of mouth. Let’s gather truth, and whether these truths are about the world’s problems or about what a doctor or teacher may have reported about a loved one, let’s make sure we are as armed with wise, factual information as we can. That’s step one.

Ready for step two?

According to Pirkei Avot, the next thing the world stands upon is prayer… well, only sort of. The Hebrew word for prayer actually means “work” or “labor.”  So, this means that the world doesn’t only stand upon prayer but stands upon our efforts. It means the actions we do can be prayerful.  So, let’s act! Let’s put some effort towards improving the situations about which we just educated ourselves. This may mean going to meetings or therapy, donating to a cause, or marching, demonstrating, or volunteering. You decide what the right action is, but they key is that there is action. The key is doing. Let’s not sink into a sense of defeatism over what crushes us, but get up on our feet, “pray with our legs,” and get out there, even if the action itself seems small… even if our efforts will only make a difference to ourselves, knowing we gave it our best shot. 🙂

Finally, we are told the world stands upon acts of loving kindness. G’milut is actually a giving, it’s charity. And chasidim? Boundless kindness and love. G’milut chasidim is giving away boundless kindness.

So here we are at step three. While we are improving our knowledge, and going into action, let’s try to remember to be full of endless kindness as we do. After all, a big part of the knowledge we seek is to understand what and whom we don’t already understand. So, let’s look into opposing eyes with openness. Let’s face dissenting voices with strength wrapped in grace. Let’s stare into the depths of illness and issues and fear, holding ourselves tall. Let’s allow our power to filter through kindness with every encounter, no matter how difficult it is. Remember what our first lady said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Knowledge… Effort… Boundless kindness… Three simple Jewish ingredients for spiritually surviving trying times. This road map won’t solve everything, but we will be bathed in truth while marching toward resolution with grace in our hearts. Maybe that is enough for us to gain control over what appears to be out of control.

So, the next time we feel ourselves spinning, let’s remember this post. Let’s learn, act, and do our best to offer boundless kindness as we take it one step at a time, one day at a time.

B’shalom (with inner-peace),
Rantor Diane

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Time to Reboot

In case you didn’t read my blog last week, I challenged you all to have Device Free Dinners as part of a movement by the organization Common Sense Media to put our phones and other devices away from the table while we eat.

This week, I offer you a new challenge offered by the organization Reboot.

Ready?

Go to http://www.thefridayapp.com/ and download their FRIDAY app.

Yes, we are going to use technology to inspire us to stop using technology.  🙂

Now, what does the app do and why should you put it on your phone?

Just before sunset every Friday, no matter where you are in the world, the FRIDAY app reminds you that it’s time to slow down, and the phone goes into a “sunset” mode (don’t panic, you can reawaken it any time).  Why Friday?  Well, because that’s the start of Shabbat, of course.  But this FRIDAY app is by no means only for Jews.  Reboot is using Jewish tradition to make life better for ALL people.  Something this Universalist Rabbi really likes.   Under the heading WHY FRIDAY? on the app, it doesn’t even mention Judaism!  It says:

As long as there have been workweeks, there have been sighs of relief on Friday evening.  Think of Friday night as a time to press pause, and this app as a very shiny pause button… Maybe this app will help you quiet the noise for 15 minutes.  Or maybe you’ll make it all night long without sending a single text.  It kind of doesn’t matter.  Either way, it’ll be time well spent.

I love these guys.

So, hopefully you still have your Devices-Go-Here sign from last week pointing to a place where all devices go during dinner to make sure your family connects, or you connect with yourself (yes!  even do it when you’re alone!).  But let’s add this to the mix.  Let the device that grabs our attention most remind us to unplug tonight and every Friday night.

Shabbat Shalom everyone!

And if you are in the Los Angeles area and won’t be elsewhere for Shabbat next week, join us at November 11, 6:30pm, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica where we will have a pre-Thanksgiving Gratitude Shabbat, celebrate with a new Bar-Mitzvah, and make hope boxes for refugee children for Operation Refugee Child.  We’ll be so busy you won’t have time to even think about looking at your phone.  🙂

See you there!  See the evite to Shabbat Nov. 11 here.

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“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…

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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

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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

Argue with the Torah!

Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish, and even more difficult being a teacher of Judaism.

What do I tell my Bar and Bat-Mitzvah students when we read in their Torah portions that the God we pray to washed away all of human and animal kind except for one family?  Or opened up the earth and swallowed not just rebels but their households?   Or didn’t just save the Israelites but made the Egyptian army get stuck in the mud so they would drown?  These portions can send our students running, and I must say it’s hard for me not to run too.

So, what do we do?  Well, we follow the advice of the author and Torah scholar George Robinson who said, “To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust.”  So, I ask my students questions such as: Who do you think wrote the Torah?  Why do you think the people were meant to be afraid of God?  What is the essence of the lesson we can take with us in a modern context, now hopefully evolved enough not to have to be frightened into action?  

You’d be surprised by the wisdom hiding in a 12 or 13 year-old’s mind. 🙂

Well, last Shabbat, we had a portion that is full of text that is easily loved.  After all, the ten commandments are there, the Shema the first paragraph of the V’ahavta are spoken, all pointing us in the direction of living spiritual, noble lives through a filter of love. 

And yet… at the end, we have something that trips me up, especially as a Universalist Rabbi.

Moses is speaking to the people of the many nations they are to defeat once they enter their promised land.  He says, “… and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them: you shall make no covenant with them, nor favor them; neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son.  For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their sacred trees, and burn their engraved images with fire.”

Now, I became a Rabbi through JSLI, and I chose to be a part of the Jewish Universalist movement because I believe deeply in the Universalist ideals.  On the UJUC website (www.ujuc.org) it states, “JU teaches that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth and that God equally chose all nations to be lights unto the world.  We reject the concept of a G-d who would choose among G-d’s children… JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.”

Imagine if today we, as Jews, entered a new land, completely destroyed all non-Jewish religious houses, shrines, and articles and burned it all to the ground.  What if we acted as the Torah suggests here, as if our religion was to be the only one and refused to spend even a tiny bit of energy finding ways to leave peacefully side by side with other religious practices?  What if we denied their right to exist? 

Doesn’t sound very Universalist, does it?

And what about the refusal of interfaith marriage?  Now, I know that many Jews still do not approve of interfaith marriage, but again, this directly goes against the doctrine of Jewish Universalism.  I was taught, and I believe with every fiber of my being, that when an interfaith couple seeks me to officiate their wedding, my role is not to judge them or tell them a set of requirements they must meet in order for me to be satisfied that the couple will be “Jewish enough.”  My job is to create the most loving, embracing, comfortable, meaningful Jewish experience I can for them.  My job is to create a sanctuary of sorts for the non-Jewish partner to explore his/her spirituality without fear within this Jewish experience. My job is to help both members of the couple leave my presence knowing that Judaism can be a nurturing, understanding, flexible framework, and that choosing to live their lives within that framework  could and should feel like falling into a large embrace.  My job is to honor and acknowledge the non-Jewish partner, not frightened him/her away with a judgmental, Rabbinic glance.

Anyone who has ever worked in a synagogue with interfaith families can tell you that very often, it is the non-Jewish parent who volunteers for the Chanukah party, runs the Purim Carnival, brings the family for Shabbat, and makes sure the child studies for her Bat-Mitzvah.  By making sure Judaism’s umbrella is large enough to cover all of us, Jewish or Jewishly curious or related to Jewish, we are better ensuring the survival of this most amazing peoplehood than if we shoo them away or treat them as secondary citizens.

I understand that in a different time, when the Jewish peoplehood was in its infancy, that we may have had to behave in a certain way to stay together.  But in this time in history, teaching that all religions have a place in this world is what I, and the Jewish Universalist movement, are all about.  The lesson of this Torah passage isn’t to fear or destroy the unfamiliar.  The lesson is to hold on to the beauty of our faith, share it with others, and learn from others with open hearts.  If Judaism has wisdom to offer, it will survive not out of fear, but out of its own merits.

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