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!!!!

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

Are We Home Yet?

Close your eyes…

Oh, wait.  If you close your eyes you won’t be able to read this. Okay, read this, try to remember it, and then close your eyes.

Imagine you are standing before God.

Pause!  I heard that.  Those voices in your head that say no to the idea of God just spoke up.  Those knee-jerk reactions that tug at our hearts and minds and wrinkle our brows with dismissive contempt just woke up.  That intellectual side (you know, that side loves Bill Maher), just hollered that it’s silly to even entertain a notion such as God.  And that internal conflict recalling every zealot and extremist who has ever used the word “God” to his/her advantage just flared up.  Yes, they are all there.  Let’s acknowledge all of those voices and try to let them go.  Let’s put down that baggage and live lighter for a second.  I’m not going to tell you in this posting that God is “real” anyway, so relax and go back to the exercise…

Imagine you are standing before God.  Allow yourself to fully accept this Presence before you.  Don’t change the word God.  Stay with it for a moment.  Exist within belief.  Keep your eyes closed and don’t worry what God looks like.  Just sense this Energy as light and heat, warming your skin, illuminating your thoughts, activating every cell of your body.  This presence isn’t frightening or threatening, but comforting.  Free-fall into this promise of peace.

Now…

Are we “home”?

When we were in the womb, we were completely warm and supported without worry or care.  From the moments of our births, everything changed.  Now we are searching, fighting, wanting, needing, worried, stressed, busy, fearful, hungry (just to name a few!).  And as we grow up and become educated (or not), choose mates (or not), have children (or not), and live in one place (or another), we keep making choices following the human desire to make life better for ourselves. There is a constant seeking for more… maybe more money, maybe more love, maybe more peace, maybe more fight, but our commonality lives within “the more.”  But what are we really looking for?  Isn’t it, in some ways, to find home, wherever and whatever that it?  Aren’t we desperately hunting for a way to again be completely warm and supported without worry or care?  To return from where we came while still being alive?  To find an inner-understanding that feels like home.

In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, he says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams…  And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases. And that famous shortstop Odysseus also played this game, propelled around the world by the same dream, of returning home in the end, transformed by the journey and healed by it as well. And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different, and so are we… We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance— pushing forward to get back home.”

When I studied music, we talked about song and sonata form in the same way.  We hear a section of music and are pulled away from it to something other, and then we are returned to the familiar but we don’t experience it the same way the second time.  I recall my music professor saying, “It’s like going to college.  You leave for school, then come home for the summer.  You are standing in the exact same same room you stood in for 18 years of your life, but now it is totally different because of your experiences.”  In this scenario, home is oddly unsatisfying.

Maybe all of the running around we do in our lives is simply to find “home.”  We all know it doesn’t matter how much money we have or whether or not we have a wonderful marriage or even amazing children or an interesting, lucrative career.  We can have all of that and still be searching, searching, searching.  There is no perfect place to be home or perfect situation to call home.  Home is internal.  Home is a practice.

And this is where God come in.

Those of you who know me know I do not care whether or not God exists.  But I do believe that life is more three-dimensional when I can imagine that God is real.  When I can pretend to be standing before that Presence.  When I can feel that inner-knowing, and in that frame of mind, ask myself, “What’s next?” 

If, for a little while, we could truly believe in God, and truly connect with that energy, what would we think about ourselves?  Would we still judge ourselves so harshly?  How much compassion would we have for our spouses, our children, our parents, our enemies? What apologies would we realize we owe?  What would we regret saying or posting or suggesting? 

Discuss this with God.  Debate and argue with God if you must, but at least give yourself permission to “believe” for a minute or two.  Give yourself permission to define yourself and your surroundings as you believe a loving God would.  Give yourself permission to “go home.”

It doesn’t matter if God is real.

I’ll be searching for my way “home” this Friday at our Cool Shul Shabbat (click here for info) and again this Saturday morning online through Sim Shalom (click here to join in).  Come on by on Friday or visit the stream on Saturday.  I’d be honored to be a part of your journey toward home.

home

image from: http://www.happynews.com/living/home-energy/home-energy-efficiency.htm

Holocaust Remembrance… and Strawberries

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Literally, “Day of the Holocaust.”

In Israel, an alarm sounds on Yom Ha-Shoah, and the roads and streets come to a complete standstill.  When the siren sounds, every driver stops driving.  Every walker stops walking.  Every worker stops working.  The entire country commits totally and completely to that moment, present in the sound of the siren and accepting of the lack of progress in their day. If you’ve never seen this, watch this video.  Every time I watch it, I find myself choking back tears.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeozUSWdoQA&sns=em

I am extremely fortunate that no one in my family was ever harmed during the holocaust, but the tears come anyway as I watch the people stop in their tracks.  Maybe the tears are caused by the knowledge of the horrors… twins being experimented upon with gruesome cruelty, mothers desperately holding onto tiny children only to be torn away and never seen again, scores of Jews being locked into a building with not a spare inch to breathe or move, only to die as the house is set on fire and the people left to burn.  Maybe I cry because I connect to something deep inside my ancient Jewish spirit (as modern and progressive and American as it is) that shares in the agony of the collective memory of this peoplehood.  But I also think I feel emotional because I see a land that is torn apart in conflict day after day, year after year, decade after decade, being totally and completely unified for this one moment.   The politics, the strife, the worries are forgotten.  At the sound of the alarm, they are all One.

This morning I asked myself, “If those that died in the Holocaust could give me a message to share, what would it be?”

You know what came into my mind?

Enjoy every minute, you putz.  Stop rushing through your life.  If I could come back, I’d eat that strawberry so slowly it would take all morning.  I’d hold my children’s faces in my hands and kiss them a thousand times before they jumped from the car and ran into school.  I’d tell my husband that I love him, not just in passing, but while looking deeply into his eyes.”

“Ah, yes,” I answered this imaginary soul.  “Living in the moment.  Mindful awareness.  That’s what I’ll share.”

In Israel, there is a moment of ultimate presence and mindfulness as they hear the siren pulse though the air.  But, in the United States, we barely remember that today is Yom Ha-Shoah as we go about our normal business.  We have no sound, no collective practice, no unity (and boy, could we use some unity these days!).  So, here is my challenge for all of you (and for myself too!).  Today, of all days, let’s slow down.  Let’s marvel in the shade of purple blossoming on the jacaranda tree.  Let’s savor that bite of sandwich.  Let’s appreciate the laugh we have with our friends at the office.  Let’s tell our husbands and wives that we love them in spite of all of our little conflicts and issues.  Let’s recognize the humanity in everyone, even our “enemies.”

Yes, let’s mourn.  Yes, let’s remember.  Yes, let’s say over and over, “Never again.”  Let’s do all of these things.  But let’s also honor those who are lost by not being “putzes.”  Let’s not wait for a tragedy for us to experience the joy in the simplicities of life.  And let’s do the hard work that needs to be done to make sure no people suffer as those in the Holocaust suffered… not anywhere in the world.

Please join Cool Shul for our next Shabbat, May 13 at 6:30PM at Big Red Sun in Venice, CA.  Andy and I have an gorgeous new Oseh Shalom to share with you (I can say that because he mostly wrote it!).  If you aren’t already on our mailing list to receive the evite to Shabbat, please fill out this form.

Off to tell my husband I love him…

Rabbi/Cantor/Rantor/Cantrabbi Diane

yom hashoah

Who Needs Ritual? Uh, me!

There is a blue and white NASA sip-top cup in my cupboard.  Every time I see this cup it reminds me of when my son was very little.  Every night after dinner, my husband or I would fill that cup with milk (okay, it was rice milk… but I didn’t want to be that LA mom who was watching his dairy… milk sounds much more “normal”) and take my son upstairs to start his bedtime ritual:  Bath, pajamas, sipping the milk while we read three stories, brushing teeth, one more story, then music on and lights off.

Parents of young children are always very concerned with night-time rituals because we want to get the kids off to sleep and have a minute to ourselves.  We are hoping the ritual aspect, the things we do outside of ourselves, will provide the impetus needed for an internal change… in this case, sleepiness.  However, we adults, often overlook the fact that we need rituals too. How many of us follow the recommendations ourselves for a good night’s sleep?  Things like… decluttering our bedrooms or turning off electronics a couple of hours before bedtime?  We need rituals too to cue our inner changes and be as healthy as we can be.

Religion is very much based in ritual.  Sometimes we realize that those rituals are there to inspire an inner change.  Sometimes we just do them because we are “supposed” to or because it “feels weird not to.”  But truly, our spiritual rituals are there to do exactly what the night-time ritual did for my son.  They are external actions intended to start an internal change… an inner journey, an inner acceptance, an inner realization.

Take the Passover seder, for example, which many of us will be taking part in during the coming week.  This tradition is chock full of ritual.  We eat and read and sing in a specific order to affect personal change. We eat matzah to remind us of the hardships that many used to feel, still feel, and will feel in the future, and to remind us that sometimes we have to act right away even when we don’t feel quite ready.  We eat fresh vegetables and eggs in honor of spring and rebirth and the fragility of all life.  We eat horseradish to snap ourselves out of our normal states and awaken ourselves to the pain of a life enslaved.  We pour wine onto our plates to remind us that we should never fully celebrate our good fortune when someone else was harmed for us to have it.  All of that is part of the seder to lead us to gratitude and acceptance of the here and now and inspire us to be the change the world needs.  And that’s just the beginning.  There is so much more.

Now… we can all sit through a seder and eat and read and listen and only allow the experience to live on the surface, but doing the ritual isn’t the point of the ritual.  Each action and story is there to point us in the direction of truly being the people we would like to think we are.  I mean, how often do we really stop and ask what life would be like if we weren’t free to make our own choices and then remember to immerse ourselves in thanks?  How often do we admit that sometimes we feel like we aren’t free to make our own choices?  Do we try to either have more autonomy or accept that those choices really were ours (see my last blog on that!)?  How many of us know what it feels like to be enslaved by something other than true slavery, such as our work or our worries or our egos, but are afraid to admit it or do anything about it?  How often do we complain and kvetch about the little things, but deep down we know that one tiny tragedy would turn all of that upside down and inside out?  Do we remember to be in gratitude for a tragedy-free day?  The seder is here to help us connect and re-connect to all of that.  But we have to invite the experience in.  We have to be active participants in taking in the words and songs and tastes and smells, and moving them beyond the surface into our souls.

Whether you are Jewish or not, plan to be at a seder this year or not, consider the importance of ritual in your life.  We don’t need them.  But sometimes the candles burning on a Shabbat table, the wafer on the tongue in a church,  the sound of the call to worship in a mosque is exactly what we need to remember to be the change.

Join us for our ritual Saturday, April 23.  Today is the last day to sign up for our Cool Shul seder.  Click here:

http://coolshul.brownpapertickets.com

seder plate image

“Suffering” in Rubber Gloves

I have pink rubber gloves on as I scrub a pan. The chugging of the dishwasher and the rumbling of the washing machine are a duet in the background. My son, sick with the flu for the 6th day, sleeps in the next room.

It is Monday after spring break, and we just returned home from a family trip to the east coast. My son got sick there, but we had to fly with him anyway in spite of our efforts to switch flights. Now he’s missing his first day back at school, and I’m home with him. I have a giant pile of career-related things that have to get done but aren’t getting done (including writing an over-due blog… what should I write about?), and because of a miscommunication, my housekeeper is not coming. So, in spite of sick child (luckily he is sleeping), in spite of work, I am scrubbing surfaces and sanitizing door handles and running laundry and changing sheets.

In my head there are sounds that remind me of what Yosemite Sam sounds like when he’s really, really frustrated with Bugs Bunny.

But wait! I think this may be a spiritual moment… a spiritual opportunity. I just know it is.  Let’s check in with two of my favorite Rabbinic authors and see what they have to say.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (I know, I quote him a lot) talks about tension in his book Jewish with Feeling. He wrote, “If there is a tension between what we know in our minds and what we feel in our hearts, then let’s stay with that tension.” He also wrote, “… allow the tension of contradiction without seeking to reduce it.”  Rabbi Alan Lew (who was a deep student of Zen Buddhism and later became a Conservative Rabbi) in his book Be Still and Get Going said, “The amelioration of suffering in not the central imperative of Judaism. The central imperative of Judaism, I believe, is to recognize and manifest the sacred in everything we do and encounter in the world. …I think we can safely assume that if we realized the sacred in the moment, we would be rather less inclined to wish that we were in some other moment.”

Well now!  Some may think living with one’s tension or frustration or suffering is only a very Buddhist thing to do, but apparently it is actually a very Jewish thing to do too.

So, while I’m certainly not experiencing “suffering” today, I am having a woe-is-me moment after so many days of being the nurse, wanting to get back to work, and just wishing someone else was here to do the stupid laundry and disinfect the place (as my friend would say, “first world problems”). But maybe this is a moment for me not to think about where I wish I was or what I wish I was doing, but simply own this task at this time in this place as the right thing for right now.   In fact, this is what I am choosing to do.

How often do we choose something but grumble about it along the way? I had a teacher who used to say to me, “Diane, are you willing or unwilling? If you’re willing, do it, and do it well. If you’re not, don’t do it and stop talking about it.”  I use that line of thinking with my students all the time. 🙂  In this situation, I am actually very willing in spite of the pull to be somewhere else. So why am I grumbling? I need to stop that Yosemite Sam voice in my head and instead find peace in the pan I am scrubbing, peace in the sheets I am changing, peace in the sparkle of the wiped down faucet.

So, let’s try this again. I am going to listen to Rabbi Lew and bring the sacred into everything I encounter. There is something glorious about watching your child sleep, knowing you are there for him. There is something holy about taking it upon yourself to make sure your home is clean. There is comfort in hugging those toasty towels from the dryer. And I know everyone will feel gratitude tonight when settling down into fresh sheets at bedtime.

I sound like a Buddhist monk going about my daily chores, but truly, this is the being-in-the-moment of parenthood. And doing this, I am expressing my Jewishness as described by Rabbi Lew. Tomorrow I can express my Jewishness by being a Rabbi and Cantor. Today, being a mindful Jewish mother will do.

Want a seder but don’t want to cook?? Cool Shul will be having a catered Community Seder for the second night of Passover. Please join us and invite your family and friends.  All ages welcome.  Click here for information: http://coolshul.brownpapertickets.com