Another musical gift for all of you… Shema as we sing it at Cool Shul.
Think it might be nice to hear it live? Click here to join us for
Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur day.
Another musical gift for all of you… Shema as we sing it at Cool Shul.
Think it might be nice to hear it live? Click here to join us for
Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur day.
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.
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
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.
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.
image from: http://www.happynews.com/living/home-energy/home-energy-efficiency.htm
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:
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