Category Archives: Jewish Culture

I needed to make the first move

It was not hard to take a back seat to my own spiritual growth.

As a youngster, I dutifully attended High Holiday services but felt that it was a pretty boring endeavor. The overwhelming feeling of formality blocked any emotional response on my part. The hazzan (cantor) chanted in an operatic voice, sometimes so dramatically, that it was actually jarring.

Synagogue was an ‘event’ that I was attending. There were all the trappings of a Broadway show: everyone was dressed up, there were ‘ticket takers’, ushers, and even assigned seats. Eyes faced front, and of course there was no talking or stirring.

Reading the list of sins that everyone was asking forgiveness for, did not apply to me. I knew that I didn’t steal or commit any major crimes, so I was even disconnected from my purpose in being there.

As I got older, things did not change too much and I can’t say that I matured spiritually. Again, I was hoping to “feel something” from just sitting in synagogue.  After all, I was where I was supposed to be, doing what God seemed to expect of me by fulfilling my part of the equation. I am not sure if I felt a sense of awe though what I did feel was a measure of comfort in listening to familiar melodies.

No one taught me enough about the prayers or their purpose for me to gain any meaning out of the experience. Sure, I knew how to repeat some of the words but never learned what they meant or their relevance to my life. No one talked about a relationship with God. “He” was there, I was here. That was that.

I don’t blame my Hebrew school or teachers, because really, was it possible to learn all that much in a six-hour a week enterprise?

I intended this to be a short post so I will cut to the part that had the most impact on me. It was learning that I was in charge of my own experience. I know that seems obvious, but it took me awhile to understand that I had to make the first move. God was interested in an ongoing relationship, not in my trying to connect in a one time event.

No service was going to ‘make me more spiritual’ or help me feel connected to the Jewish community. There is a deep and rich experience that is at the core of communal prayer. But I didn’t experience that, not then. I needed to make the effort to reach out and go beyond my self, my ego. How engaged I would be was my responsibility.

So I started to study and to learn. I’m still learning. I also needed to be comfortable with bringing God into my life.

As it turns out, that’s what is supposed to happen:

קָרוב ה’ לְכָל קרְאָיו. לְכל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת:

Karov Ado’shem L’chol Kar’av. L’chol Asher Yikr’u B’emet.

God is close to all who call out [to God] —to all who call with sincerity. [P’sukei D’zimra, Ashrei]

For sure, there are tools we can use to help us focus our thoughts and be present, and I will share some of those in future posts.

Learning about prayer is a helpful prerequisite. Knowing Hebrew is an asset, but for now, pre-Rosh Hashanah, call out to the One who needs to know you’re there.

 

 


If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas above or other engagement strategies, please connect with me [ruthschapira.com].


How to create a meaningful Jewish community online

Zooming alone

We are thankfully in the midst of some re-openings, however, our situation will not revert to more innocent times or change radically soon. So, we will need to adjust our thinking and reconfigure options for the most probable scenarios of the ways in which we come together since online gatherings are here to stay.

How will it be possible to develop real and meaningful connections when limited to on-screen interactions?

When content alone is not enough

Many organizations have been preoccupied with developing creative content to interest existing and potential members online, with options ranging from virtual lectures, tours, study sessions, and concerts to cook-offs. I get it. Offering programs online has been pretty much an essential activity since we’re not meeting in person.

Virtual offerings (for the most part) tease us with the prospect of an enriching experience but, like participating in a massive trivia contest, the time passes but not much is gained. How would your members answer the following questions:

Was this program of lasting value? Has this experience helped me become a better person? Has this allowed me an opportunity to interact with others?

No matter how flashy and attention-grabbing, or intellectually appealing they seem, online programs are not helping to form a sense of community among those attending.

Zooming alone

Ironically, after attending an online program whose goal is to uplift, people may feel instead an acute sense of loneliness, exacerbated by the lack of interpersonal connection. There is little to make the experience feel personal and the empty, unfulfilled feeling might affect future connections.

Success is not defined by how many people attend and the diverse places they represent. Nor is the amount of texting-length exchanges in the chat box an indication of interaction.

Consumerist attitudes

Online programs are set to deliver a product for a consumer mindset where we expect to get something when we give something. What is being offered is simply part of this value proposition.

The “Register Here” button on every program feeds into the consumer mentality even more when it is free. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions and google calendar scheduling, people might miss the event and have no compelling reason to watch the recorded segment (a sometimes banal endeavor) since it most often is a one-way conversation.

Despite the potential for deeper experiences with meditation and spiritual teachings, they too tend to be one-way broadcasts and do not work in forming community.

Can we yearn for something different?

People need to feel a sense of community more now than ever before.

Rather than spending precious resources in developing content we need to work instead on ways to deeply engage people with us and with each other. Otherwise, we face irrelevance.

Using these times as an opportunity will change the game. Rather than people considering themselves consumers they might act as co-creators of a rich, shared experience.

Offer education instead of information.

Education versus Information: Tip the scale

Begin to rethink how much learning you’re really providing. Are you just providing information, which gets lost without a context and an opportunity for discussion? Wouldn’t you rather provide an educational opportunity for people to be personally engaged and moved by your content?

When weighing the scales between content versus participation, tip it toward interactivity.  Try some of the ideas below:

  1. Offer online content with a strong facilitation component. It is well known in education circles that learning does not have staying power unless there is an effort made by the individual to integrate the learning. You can offer the content as a trigger and afterwards engage participants in responding. How was this for them? Was there a learning? An informational nugget to take away? In what way will this information be helpful? Begin a conversation among participants. If there are many participants, you can devise break-out rooms in many existing platforms like Zoom.
  2. If the your leaders are not comfortable or effective in this role, consider reaching out to those whose skills match the moment. Or re-train those you already have on board. In these times, it is an essential skill to be able to facilitate effectively in an online environment. 
  3. How well do you know your members? Conduct a brief survey of members, either via an online survey or decide to conduct a town-hall type meeting virtually to gauge members’ thinking about changes they would like to see.
  4. Decide to launch a ‘chevruta-initiative’ to study text. The synagogue or organization provides the matching service and those who are interested in learning on a weekly or monthly basis would be paired up with another member to learn a text of their own choosing or as part of an organizational-wide initiative. All the details (phone or zoom, this text or that) would be worked out individually. Host a monthly online check-in as a way to share learning and build momentum.
  5. Personally interview members with a sample script as well as optional questions like: what about being a member of our community particularly works for you? What might not work so well? Share results online in a community forum.

If you are interested in pursuing any of the ideas above or other engagement strategies, please connect with me [ruthschapira.com].


The True Jewish Meaning of Love

This is a new experience for me, responding to a reader request!  After reading a post on Gratitude, I was asked to write about Love.

Even though writing through a Hebrew/Jewish lens is naturally limiting, “Love” as a subject is so encompassing and elusive that we will need to narrow in even more.

Our focus here will be on love in a committed relationship.

Love in Parallel Terms

When speaking about concepts in Judaism, scholars recommend beginning at the source where it first appears in the Torah.

We won’t get much past that, but it will be a start.

At the outset, we will need to unpack Judaism’s view of what is foundational within the relationship between a husband and wife. We will actually be taking the idea of love out for now. [gendered language is used here as it is in the sources].

Here is how the Bible describes the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis/B’reisheet (2:18) 

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

The usual translation is “The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a help mate“.

Note that two words are used to describe the relationship, often translated as one word, ‘helper’.

We will focus on the Hebrew root word for ‘mate’, נגד [Nun, Gimmel, Daled], which technically means “opposite” or “parallel” or “in front of”.

Translating the word exactly, the English meaning would be:  “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a helper opposite him“.

How can this be? Isn’t that a paradox? Wouldn’t someone trying to help you be on your side? How can a helper be in opposition to you?

Yet, this translation offers such a rich insight into the nature of what love really represents, especially in a committed relationship.

What Love Really Means

Here, the deeper meaning is that when you’re in a committed relationship that person really gets to know you, understands your ways, and often needs to be that force that, while seeming to oppose you, really brings you to your more complete self.

Because that person loves you, and knows what you are truly capable of, they can often stand up to you, demanding that you be your best. That is true love. Risking momentary displeasure from you to achieve a higher goal.

Our sages expand on this further in the Talmud (Yevamot 63a):

” A help meet (sic) for him — (כנגדו literally, opposite, opposed to him) If he is worthy she shall be a help to him; if he is unworthy she shall be opposed to him, to fight him”.

The sources add: “whenever one confronts someone of equal power, moral and ethical weight, such a confrontation is termed נגד. It is a head-on collision of will.”

Two Become One

Despite the obstacles of will, the relationship is so intimate that two people should become extremely close—so that your needs become the other person’s needs, your wants, their wants. Your desire, theirs:

“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife so that they shall become as one flesh.[Genesis/B’reisheet 2:24]. Two halves work at becoming whole.

עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃

The word used for ‘cling’ here is the same root word that is often used in describing our relationship with God (d’veykut).

That is how Judaism sees love. Not as an infatuation, or romance, but as a deep commitment to each other.

That leads us to the first place in the Torah where we read of a sexual relationship between Adam and Eve.

Biblical Intimacy

In biblical Hebrew, when a man and a women connect on an intimate level, it is not called love. The word used is Da’at, meaning knowledge  דעת [Daled, Ayin, Tav], so perhaps the term “carnal knowledge” would be a more accurate translation.

“Adam knew Eve, his wife”:  וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ  Genesis/B’reisheet (4:1)

Knowledge implies a complete and deep understanding of your mate. Deep feelings of appreciation as well as one’s intellect are taken into account. True love involves a deep connection that is not a passing infatuation. It also brings up a quality of the infinite, inner knowledge of a soul knowing another soul.

Is Your Ego at Work?

Notions like “falling in love”, “love at first sight” and “love is blind” do not hold true in the Jewish concept of love.  There is no word in the Bible for romance. In modern Hebrew, the word is “romantika”, certainly not based on Hebrew root words or letters, and interestingly, the word for infatuation is “Ahava Iveret”  אַהֲבָה עִוֶרֶת  — and wouldn’t you know it, Ahava means love, while “Iveret” means skin, what one might call “surface lust”.

Infatuation, lust, passion is more about your ego than the other person. The focus is on what you can get out of the relationship, not what you can give.

The root word for Ahava, [Hey,Vet] הב , the Aramaic meaning of “to give”.

What Quality of Love Do You Seek?

The Jewish notion of love is counter cultural. Counter to all the novels spilling romance, movies that portray “love at first sight” and songs that might even demean a relationship down to its animalistic passions.
Your inclination might tell you something different. Follow your heart in this matter. Listen to your Jewish soul.

 

 

 

 


The Secret Hebrew Meaning of Gratitude

The Joy of Gratitude

Hebrew is a language with deep meanings that go way beyond an outer definition, and to understand foundational concepts, some words are best understood in Hebrew.

Gratitude is one of them.

There are several terms for the experience of being grateful.

Being Aware of the Good

The most common modern Hebrew expression is HaKarat HaTov which exactly means ‘Recognizing the Good’.

So, before you even decide to be grateful, you have to begin to be aware of the good as a necessary first step.

What are you grateful for? You can begin at the source, your very breath, and travel outwards from there—a sense of appreciation for your bodily functions (there are blessings for that) and your health, for your family and friends, for your shelter, for your job/interests/passions—it is an endless list.

Being aware can mean that before you taste that delicious cup of coffee, you spend just a few seconds experiencing a sense of gratitude for all the effort that went into allowing you to take that first sip.

It is an appreciation of the experience beyond the experience.

Many spiritual practices in Judaism begin with the quality of gratitude. Why?

Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice

The expression Hakarat HaTov does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. There, the term for thanksgiving/gratitude is Hodah/Todah/Hoda’ah/Modeh all from the root letters of the word Vov, Daled, Hei. 

The beautiful thing is that this root word means thanksgiving and also to acknowledge, to admit. 

In this way, in order to properly show thanks to someone, you have to first admit that they did something for you. You need to acknowledge that it was not you who caused the thing that you are thankful for, it is them.

Similarly, in thanking God, we admit that we are not the ‘be all and end all’ of our existence. It is God to whom we show appreciation.

This takes a measure of humility. It takes having a certain amount of humility to recognize the many gifts that you enjoy in even a single day, an hour, a moment.

If you try this practice, you might begin to sense that you are occupying a bigger place than the one you’re in. You might become aware that there is a greater Unifier at work here.

You might sneak a peak at a spiritual sense of the universe.

Are you stealing?

Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, in the Talmud (Berachot 35b) offers strong words for those who go through life without recognizing the good in their lives:

Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel. 

What does a lack of gratitude mean and how are you stealing?

Is it more difficult for thieves to steal from those they know or those they don’t know? Once there is a relationship, how can you deprive that person of something?

Is it not often the case that when a person steals, there is an abject denial of who or what they are stealing from? It is this denial that allows them to engage in stealing over and over again.

When you acknowledge the source of your blessings, you can’t be stealing.

And once you are aware of God in the world, how can you ignore the gifts you’ve been given?

Having a sense of this appreciation and gratitude is so important that it is considered foundational to our sages.

This is one quality that will remain

“…In the time to come………..all prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled. Vayikra Rabbah 9:7


Are you afraid that Klal Yisrael will disappear?

Will our connections with each other slowly melt away?

Clearly, we are not paying attention

Or taking advantage of obvious opportunities.

One would think that the pandemic would have caused us to do some deep thinking about our communal future as Jews.

No matter what theological differences there are among us (and no doubt there are many), what we can all agree on is that Judaism will be forever changed. Our isolation from each other, more acute now, exacerbates the reality that there is not even a faint desire to come together to discuss this from the vantage point of Klal Yisrael, the entire Jewish people.

Yet, for the first time in history, the worldwide Jewish community is facing similar struggles:

When and how will we gather? What will the ‘new normal’ look like? What will take the place of large communal gatherings? What will become of the large-scale conferences that brought many different constituencies together? How will the leadership of Jewish organizations change?  

Has there been any communication between the major movements to work towards a sense of unity and purpose?

How can we even engage in this process when we communicate by megaphone?

Megaphones blast one-way messages. No dialogue, no discussion, and certainly no enlightenment.

As a Jewish people, we are missing the message that we were clearly given thousands of years ago.

Tisha B’Av was just last week. What we learn from this designated day of communal mourning is that the Second Temple fell due to ‘baseless hatred’ (sinat chinam) between Jews. 

Although we do not actually say “I hate you” to their faces, we act that way against groups of Jews who hold different opinions and behave differently than we do.

At first we shake our heads in disbelief, making snide jokes.

We judge. We criticize. We hate in our hearts.

This creates even more distance from each other than before.

The irony is that most who actually observe Tisha B’Av seem numb to its message. Often there is more hatred and non-acceptance from that side toward fellow Jews who don’t observe in their accepted manner.

But we are all guilty of accepting the status quo with each other. With no immediate threat we have resorted to functioning this way.

I question how much we feel connected with each other as fellow Jews, as part of the same people. Is there such a thing that we recognize today as Am Yisrael —the people of Israel, i.e. peoplehood? Is there meaning when we utter B’nai Yisrael (Children of Israel) in prayers and blessings?

For sure, there are many pressing and urgent needs that have to be tended to in each separate Jewish community that take time and energy to resolve. We cannot solely exist in our enclave-like comfort zones, resigned to seeing ourselves as separate.

And even though we might be connecting with fellow Jews from areas far and wide on our little screens, the conversations and issues are not centered around our overall unity.

So much of our regular lives have been on pause which gives us the unique opportunity to think deeply about some larger questions.

Is there a way to get back the feeling that we all belong to the larger Jewish community—Klal Yisrael? How do we begin to reconstruct the feelings if oneness that have been absent for a long time? Is there any way that Jews of different religious leanings can come together? Can we even agree that this is a core value?

We are living links in a chain. That’s how we are described in our Torah and by others who are not Jewish at all.

We will need to give up our megaphones in favor of dialogue. We need to be vulnerable and expose our deep need for each other, as a step toward fulfilling a dream that is part of our history, culture, and liturgy.

If our participation in Jewish communal life is limited to only seeing to short-term problems, we are abandoning the hope of unity that is core to our existence as a people.

Just as we need to reconfigure Judaism in new ways, may we all be able to be open to each other and create new paths of peace.

P’tach Libi b’toratechcha. Open my heart to Your teachings.

 


What is a mitzvah, really?

 

Mitzvah.

Good deed? Commandment?

You might be most familiar with the word mitzvah as it appears in Bar or Bat Mitzvah which is usually translated as a son or daughter of the commandment.

Or, you might translate the word mitzvah as “good deed”, as in “I did a mitzvah today”.

There is not a thing wrong with those meanings, but let us delve a little deeper into the matter.

First, there is not one place in the Torah (in Hebrew) that the phrase Ten Commandments appears. Not one. You will not find Aseret haMitzvot anywhere.

For purposes of expedient comprehension, we have mistranslated the Torah’s phrase for the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew the phrase that occurs in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 is Aseret haDevarim  meaning the Ten Utterances/Articulations/Words.

This fact alone opens up all kinds of possibilities for the content. The deeper concept is that the Aseret haDibrot serve as categories for the 613 mitzvot. So we are not solely obligated to fulfill the Ten Commandments…as in “I’m not doing so badly, at least I’m following [most of] the Ten Commandments”.

Our involvement in fulfilling our purpose here goes beyond the ten. There are mitzvot that cover many areas of life.

This post is not about that.

Nor is it about the details as to why these statements are more commonly referred to as Aseret haDibrot and not Aseret haDevarim (there is more about the word devarim here, or you can click here to read a discussion about the usage of dibrot versus devarim).

This post is about the word mitzvah מצוה with shades of meaning that offer us a better understanding of why we do mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in the first place.

It is very challenging to understand the deeper messages embedded in the Torah without a grasp of Hebrew. So in exploring the Hebrew, we will gain insight into the meaning of mitzvah.

Every word in Hebrew can be distilled to a two or three letter root word.

The two letter root word for mitzvah is tzav  צו (tzadee, vav) meaning a decree, a directive, an order, a command. So far that confirms what we know. However, the verb form mitzah (mem, tzadee, hey), has spiritual significance for us and goes beyond that meaning. Mitzah means to use to the fullest extent, to squeeze and extract from, to drain.

In the Shema, when we say that we will love God to the fullest extent of our hearts and minds, body and soul, and our strength and drive….we can see the connection. Within our capacity, we need to be all in. To the fullest extent possible, we need to squeeze ourselves to the limit. We need to ask ourselves….am I doing what I need to do at my limit? Can I do more?

We need to fulfill mitzvot to have that ideal come to realization. The mitzvot are our connection to God in a complete way.

In mystical traditions, the idea is that you are placed here with the talent and ability to do a mitzvah beautifully. In addition to fulfilling other mitzvot, you were given the tools to sing your own song, to do what only you can do.

What is that mitzvah for you? What do you engage in that makes your heart sing? What are you doing that makes you lose all track of time? What feeds your soul?

How and in what ways can you turn that into a mitzvah?

Because that is what you are meant to do. You are especially gifted with certain talents to fulfill your purpose here.

 



Please comment below if you are interested in participating in an online group to help determine your own personal mitzvot.

 


If Covid-19 is a test, are we passing?

 

 

What if God is waiting for us to cry out? What if all we need to do is to cry out in despair, as Abraham did thousands of years ago?

חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Genesis 18:25

There is something so biblical about what is occurring now. In addition to all our challenges with dealing with Covid-19, yesterday I heard that there is a swarm of ‘murder hornets’ headed this way.

Is this not plague-like?

Where are the masses of us turning towards God, pleading for a respite from this horror?

But, instead of unifying ourselves during this pandemic challenge, it has created divisions among us.

For me, it has been an impossible challenge to be tolerant of my own people who defy orders of social distancing and as a result, put others at risk at a funeral. And again….for a second time! ?

So, I need to do soul searching, to find that place that allows the anger to wash over me, and try, hard as it is, to put myself in someone else’s place.

I need to do that with many things these days.

If I remain angry, then what have I learned from our history if not to work at being tolerant?

For us as Jews, this is a unique obstacle that has had devastating consequences.

Baseless hatred, known in Hebrew as Sinat Hinam, was what the sages blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This was considered even worse than the three most egregious sins: forbidden sexual relations, idol worship and bloodshed.

It sounds so ancient….the destruction of the Second Temple…but what I often forget is that this was the total eradication of everything we had known as a people up to that point. Our way of connecting with God. The rhythm of life that brought us together as a people at least three times a year. Even our societal systems. It all needed to be different.

Yet, there was recovery.

So many times after destruction there was hope.

We already have learned so much about ourselves: both our generosity and our selfishness.

It is so hard, but we need to find a way to strengthen our ties and not dissipate them.

Perhaps in these times each stream of Judaism needs to do the impossible—-to overcome the historic challenges that have separated us and rely on what is at our core as a people, our connection to the One.

If we are undergoing a test of our resilience, it means that we have to cultivate our ability to act humanely in the face of adversity, care for each other in new ways, and strengthen our own communities and the world in new and uncharted ways.

 

 


The Old Testament is not my Bible

 

 

 

Torah is a living entity in my life and is an endless and forever Giving-Tree.

It is this imagery that captures me when we lift the Torah and say “Etz Chayim Hee LaMahazikim Ba” (It is a Tree of Life When You Hold It Close (my own translation).

On so many levels, the Torah informs me about how to live a life with more humility, with more honor towards others, with an appreciation for the Creator.

So, I have a visceral response when I hear the words describing the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament.

And really, until now, I did not really own up to how much this description bothers me.

Though I am offended, I realize most people do not take this as seriously as I do, or are even aware that when they use that term, a judgment has been made.

It is especially when fellow Jews use the term to describe our Bible that I can’t help but feel a little bit of my insides wince. Ouch.

I am not sure why Jews are comfortable saying this term.

For zillions, it seems perfectly fine to refer to the Hebrew Bible as “Old”.

According to Google’s first search results, “Old” means a. having lived for a long time; no longer young, or b. belonging only or chiefly to the past; former or previous. Some of the synonyms offered for this are: bygone, past, former, olden, of old, previous. 

Quite the opposite image of a living Torah. A Tree of Life does not wither, become bygone, or old.

When talking to Christian folks about religious matters, I tend to be forgiving, knowing that their entire faith rests on the “New” Testament, which for them, supplanted the old.

I choose not to correct their usage of the word, but in my references to Torah I use the term “Hebrew Bible”.

Even Dictionary.com offers this more honest explanation of the word “Old Testament”

1. the first of the two main divisions of the Christian Bible, comprising the Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa. In the Vulgate translation all but two books of the Apocrypha are included in the Old Testament.
2. this testament considered as the complete Bible of the Jews.

But in truth, is it not obvious to any one of the Christian faith that saying “Old Testament” negates an entire belief system, while I am respectful of theirs? Does this come with the territory of being a minority? Do we need to always be on the defensive?

After all, what’s the big deal, you ask? Well, there are so many reasons why I find this term offensive.

  1. The term “old” is comparative and relative, that is, “old” compared to what?
  2. Who exactly is the arbiter here of what is “old” and what is “new”? Why do I need to accept someone else’s label?
  3. The word old, in Western cultures, holds negative associations (why use or buy something “old”, when “new” is young, improved and trendy?
  4. The term used by a people for their holy texts should be the one that others use as well. How is it acceptable that one faith decides to create their own term for my holy text, which by its very meaning, puts it aside, rejecting it as “old”.
  5. Can you think of any other example in Western culture where one faith’s holy text is renamed in this way? Is there a pejorative name that is used when referring to the Qur’an for example?
The world of Biblical scholarship, from what I understand, is moving away from employing this term. I’ve yet to see a huge difference.
I hope as Jews, we can be way ahead of that curve. I hope we can begin to assert ourselves and our heritage by using our name for our treasured teachings.

 

 

 


Do we own our Jewish history?

 

 

I read something from an unlikely source that struck my deepest core as a Jew, and came to a full stop at a passage from the first chapter of “How to be an Anti-Racist”, a new book by Ibram X. Kendi. I’m sure Dr. Kendi did not intend this outcome, in fact, I feel guilt at even sharing this, because I personalized a phrase he used to illustrate a core issue of his, one that influenced his childhood and his present thoughts about racism.

Perhaps in writing this, I am part of the problem he was writing about: maintaining my narrow vision; not seeing the entire picture he was portraying and co-opting a phrase instead, one that relates to my world. But I am compelled to write this and soon, will return to the book when I can focus my proper attention on the larger issue of racism.

For now, as a Jew, I am not able to move past the part where he writes about how his parents came to their revelatory understandings about Christianity.

Dr. Kendi’s description of his parents’ journey to Christianity was stated so simply and powerfully, and I was struck by its truth and how for me, it applies to Judaism, to our own history. And I wondered why we don’t own our own reality.

Kendi writes about his parents’ college years as Black Americans, when his parents began to crystallize their thinking—defining Christianity on their own terms:

“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way. Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” …… Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation.                           

                        

Christianity was about struggle and liberation.

Oddly enough, in the instant when I read that description, it resonated with me. I feel that we share that story, even if not in the same way. It seems to be our story too.

Let me say first, that I don’t want to play the comparison game about who struggled more, blacks or Jews. It’s like asking who suffered more, someone who survived the death camps or someone who escaped from slavery?

Some things defy comparison. Our compassion needs to be for ourselves and others. It’s in our Jewish DNA.

So we can pay attention to our own history, and begin to actually own it.

The Jewish story, our history, could be distilled in that one sentence….Judaism is about struggle and liberation.

From slavery in Egypt/mitzrayim to freedom in the desert/bamidbar—our freedom came with even more challenges.

Throughout our history we struggled to be free.

From the destruction of the First Temple to the riches of Babylonia. From the Crusades to the Golden Age of Spain. From the destruction of the Second Temple to a reformulation of what it meant to be Jewish. From the death camps to Israel.

The times when we were truly ‘liberated’ during our thousands of years of history are minuscule (click here to read our history in more detail).

 

Our very name, Yisrael/Israel is derived from the Hebrew root Yud-Shin-Raysh which means to struggle with, contend with, be upright with—and the ‘with’ is none other than God.

We are truly Children of Israel/B’nai Yisrael when we sit with the struggle. When we challenge and when we obey.

Struggle and Liberation….

And it is often a struggle to come to terms with liberation.

Thousands of years of disgrace, discrimination, and hatred seemed to disappear ….until now. Now, we are dealing with hate speech.  Antisemitism. Death threats. BDS. Academic Freedom. Muggings. Killings.

In North America, it is a struggle to maintain a strong Jewish identity in a free society. It is a struggle to be different. It is a struggle to have faith.

Israel’s challenges are borne in part, from her liberation as a free state, which seems to foment hatred by others.

Freedom has a price. It demands our attention and not taking anything for granted.

May we be strong enough to struggle, may we be able to appreciate our freedom while being strong and bold enough to stand up for ourselves as Jews. May we stay the course, not to survive, but to thrive.


Woodstock: is there a Jewish part of the story?

 I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

Woodstock

There are plenty of stories about the “half a million strong” that were part of Woodstock, and even more about the festival itself, but I was prompted to learn more about Max, the farmer who hosted Woodstock. It was during an anniversary show about the festival that these facts were revealed. The town of Walkill, NY rescinded its offer to host the music festival, deciding that opening their town to thousands of “hippies” who “do drugs” and were “war protesters” was not in their best interest. Unfortunately, this occurred after preparations were underway and the stage was already being built on a property. Time was growing short, and there was only about a month left before the concert was to take place. Three weeks before the concert, promoters were still desperately looking for a venue.  A real estate connection introduced the promoters to Max Yasgur. Joel Rosenman, one of them (in PBS’ American Experience, “Woodstock: Three days that defined a generation”) said that he thought Max had a soft spot for him. I wondered if there was any Jewish connection and searched a little further. Max and Miriam Yasgur were dairy farmers in Bethel, NY (Hebrew translation: House of God) who sold most of their dairy products throughout upstate New York. Max’s parents were Russian immigrants, and although he was raised in New York City, one can’t help thinking that his upbringing contributed to his decision to lease his land for the festival. It was not without consequence. There were threats of arson, boycotts, and a law suit.  His wife, in an interview, said that town residents erected signs not to buy “Yasgur’s milk” since he loves the “hippies”. The many forms of protest only strengthened Max’s resolve to go through with his commitment. After the festival, he was shunned by townspeople and no longer welcome, even in the general store. He was also sued by his neighbors for damage to their properties. What makes this all so unusual, is that although Max was a conservative Republican, in favor of the Vietnam War, his desire for freedom of speech (and maybe his personal history) was the overriding value. Max and Miriam moved to Florida and he died four years later, at the age of 53. Max did get to see and tour Israel , about two years before his death.Although I could not find any exact quotes relating Max’s Jewish heritage to his decision, I can’t help but think it played a part. 


Shavuot: reminding me of who I need to be

It is hard for me to personalize Shavuot, though I know there is great spiritual meaning to be found within it.

Shavuot is one of the three major holidays named in the Bible.  As such, there is special designation as one of the Shalosh Regalim (literally three legs–meaning pilgrimage festivals). Then, it was a time of a huge in-gathering of the Jewish people who trekked to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest. In later rabbinic times, Shavuot was designated as the time of the giving of the Torah.

Important, right?

But, embedded within the two other holidays, Passover and Sukkot, there are tools that help me imagine as if I was truly there. In the Haggadah, phrasing like “Avadim Hayinu” (we were slaves) helps me get back to that time of bitter slavery. The salt water, the charoset, the naming of the plagues…all those are brilliant memory instigators that tend to stick. The sukkah that my husband builds and we eat in during Sukkot is a substantial trigger of transport, to what it was like being in the desert and living out in the fields. The lulav and etrog are physical reminisces of the harvest.

Those are palpable reminders that help me take a journey back into my imagination, to a different time, and allows me to think of myself as part of a larger picture. Shavuot has no such tools for me.

“What about the Omer you say? Isn’t that tangible?” Right, yes, the counting of the Omer, sefirat haOmer, is a concrete way for me to bridge Pesach and Shavuot (the counting begins on the second night of the Seder until day 50, Shavuot), and offers me a spiritual time of introspection and momentum-building.

But yet, I am searching for a ritual that has some heft to it, and not the kind you get from eating cheesecake and dairy foods.

Shavuot is a much harder holiday to grab onto, and there are no built in ‘bells and whistles’ to easily awaken us to the grandeur of the experience. Shavuot demands something much more difficult and in some ways, more subtle.

We commonly refer to the chag as commemorating an event, the giving of the Torah, but we are discouraged from thinking of it as a one-time event. Instead, it is what we try to commemorate everyday as a constant unfolding of the Torah’s principles and teachings within our lives, as we commit to live by it everyday. Truly, it is an overwhelmingly awesome holiday.

In opposite ways, the desert and the fields during harvest were times of intensity, and brought us together as a people in distinctive ways that we get to revisit every Passover and Sukkot. But I need a way to bring me back to the time when I was part of that nation standing before Sinai….a nation, a people. A people united in spirit. With a message to offer that emanated from the charge to live life in an elevated way. To be holy. To strive to be something better. I need to experience that.

As a people, we face the experience of the Torah alone, but together. Each person is a witness of themselves, and what they know to be a higher standard of behavior.  But we are also responsible for one another. In these times, simply regarding our own journeys does not serve us as a people, and today, that might seem more challenging than ever.

We can not only ask “How do I measure up?” but “how do we measure up as a people?”

I need to regard myself as part of a people on a regular basis. I need to speak up when we are not living our highest ideals, even when it is difficult to do so; to put myself and my opinions ‘out there’. I need to be a participant and not a spectator.

Perhaps this Shavuot we will inch a little closer to the realization that Am Yisrael Echad, the people of Israel are one.

May you experience the blessings that Shavuot offers us.

 

 


Will you value your baggage more than a life?

What would you do in an emergency?

I heard something disturbing that I couldn’t shake off. This is not what I usually write about, but I feel compelled to not let this incident go by without a comment.

A Russian jet crashed, on the runway, the rear of the plane totally swallowed up by flames as it made its emergency landing. The circumstances and causes are still under investigation. Seventy-eight passengers were on the plane, 41 of whom died.

The whole event was upsetting, but what struck me was how the reporter ended her report:  “…..some were fortunately able to leave the front of the plane with their luggage”. This did not strike the reporter as odd, and there was not further comment as the station moved on to the next story.

It was the phrase “with their luggage” that got me sick. I couldn’t help visualizing the entire frantic situation (this is why I can’t watch violent movies)…people hysterically trying to get off the plane, escaping immanent death, while people were going into the overhead bins to get their luggage. 

How could people think about taking their belongings at a time when seconds count? The aisles are narrow, people need to wait for others in front of them, any delay could be tragic. Would people value their own possessions over the lives of others? What does this say about how we honor ourselves as God’s creations? Everything in our Jewish tradition is about the preservation of life, not the preservation of things. On the holiest of days, even if it means breaking the rules of observances, we are taught that the value of life is above all else, a value that is known as “Pikuach Nefesh”.

I wanted to find out more information about evacuation procedures. Can people opt to hold up the evacuation process because they want to take their belongings? Doesn’t the Federal government have regulations about that? Google complied and with speed. Some things were upsetting but unfortunately not surprising.

This 168 page report, from the National Transportation Safety Board describes results of multiple evacuation procedural trials and sadly concludes “that most passengers seated in exit rows do not read the safety information provided to assist them in understanding the tasks they may need to perform in the event of an emergency evacuation, and they do not receive personal briefings from flight attendants even though personal briefings can aid passengers in their understanding of the tasks that they may be called upon to perform

The pertinent section for this discussion, Retrieval of Carry-On Baggage, states in passenger pre-flight briefing materials along with pictures, that “carry-on luggage should not be taken during an evacuation” (p. 78) making the message clear. In addition, flight attendants commanded passengers to “leave everything” during the evacuation. Despite these methods, passengers often took their belongings. In one episode, “nearly 50 percent reported attempting to remove a bag during their evacuation” (p.67). 

The report noted that flight attendants receive training on ways to efficiently maintain a constant flow of passengers out of the emergency exits, however, “flight attendants reported that their attempts were often thwarted by passengers’ insistence on retrieving their carry-on luggage before evacuating” (p.67).

This has me shaking my head: “Passengers exiting with carry-on baggage were the most frequently cited obstruction to evacuation.” (Ibid). “By retrieving luggage during an evacuation, passengers increase the potential for serious injuries or loss of life.”

It seems that other posts have been written about this issue: “Don’t Be Selfish And Do This is an Emergency Evacuation” is an example and offers video clips of passengers evacuating an emergency exit with their bags.

I hope and pray that I will never be in the situation that people found themselves in today. I can’t imagine how frightful it must have been to be in that plane. I am trying very hard not to judge those who left the plane with their bags. Maybe getting their bags was their security. Maybe they resorted to robotic behavior. Maybe in times of crisis, they weren’t able to think clearly.

I learned a lot about human behavior today, and was mostly saddened by what I read. I know that as human beings, we so often rise to the occasion to help others, and I will focus my attention on that.

 

 


How to Approach Passover Like a Teacher

crocus-flower-spring-buhen-55828

For those of us hosting a Passover seder, there are often so many preparations we need to do in advance: buying, organizing, cleaning and cooking are just a few things we’re involved with. Yet sometimes, planning for the seder itself gets lost in the mix. How do we encourage ourselves and our guests to feel what we need to at the seder? How can we enhance the retelling of the Exodus story as if we too, are in the midst of leaving a narrow place and entering an expansive place of freedom?

Why not spend some time now, before the activity rush hits, of planning what will occur at your seder? This might seem like a ridiculous notion, since the word “seder” already implies that there is an order to what will occur during the experience. The Haggadah pretty much spells that all out for us. Yet, often we settle for the time-honored (and boring) tradition of taking turns around the table, reading from the Haggadah.  Think about this for a minute——did you ever enjoy this practice or find it meaningful? For some, reading the entire Haggadah is the only way to fulfill the obligation to retell the story, which alone takes a lot of time, so this post will not be relevant for you. 

Passover is the consummate educational event in many households, and there are so many opportunities to infuse the meal with intentionality. If we approach the seder with the attitude of a Jewish educator, we might think of it the way we would plan a lesson, and the best lessons offer these components:

  • A set induction, or commonly called a trigger to set the stage for the lesson. It can be thought of as a commercial for what’s to come. An example: Which of the symbolic items on the Seder plate do you most relate to and why? A deeper question:  Like Pharoah, has your heart ever been ‘hardened’? . Another option: make a ‘Haggadah gallery‘ by displaying  all the different Haggadot you own on a table, vote for favorites and explain why. Alternatively, you can ask guests to bring their favorites from home.
  • Essential questions to  frame the lesson (also called Questions of Meaning). Examples might be: What is your Egypt (what ‘narrow’ place do you need to leave behind that is ‘enslaving’ you)? “Let My People Go” is a powerful statement in the Torah, yet it is not recounted in the Haggadah.  Why do you think this is so?  OR “Let My People Go” is only a partial part of what Pharoah is asked to do. What is the second part of that phrase? Why is that often left out?  (you can find this phrase  here and here. You can also discuss the differences in the text. 
  • Learning Outcomes: what will people be walking away with? What deep learning will occur? An example is: How did the notion of obtaining a people’s freedom spur on different revolutions for self-determination, which have ripple effects even today? For some background on this idea see “What’s Your Exodus Story?  Powerful statements have often rallied people behind a cause. Think also of: “If you will it, it is no dream”, ‘I Have a Dream”, or “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” . Is there a call-to-action today that resonates with you? Why or why not? What other sayings can you think of that would inspire others? What theme resonates with you: Being a small minority among the majority? Holding on to your traditions despite any danger this might hold? Enjoying the predictability of life versus the freedom of self-determination? The idea of freedom with or without responsibility? 
  • Learning Activities: what will your guests be doing to get them to the end point? Examples might be new sensations of taste, or a twist on traditional customs (after the dipping of the Karpas —parsley or potato—why not offer other dips?). What simulations can spur on discussion? Who can act out the best scenarios of the each of the plagues? What debate can you engage in?

Our opportunity at the seder is to tell stories and pass them on through the generations. It is part of the reason why the tradition is so compelling, year after year….and why Passover is the most celebrated holiday by American Jews (according to this source, 70%). This is what brings us together as a people. 

May your seder experiences be fulfilling.

Chag Kasher v’sameach!

haggadah1   haggadahhaggadah2 haggadah3


Make Your Mornings Special

How do you wake up every morning?

Do you have a particular ritual? In Judaism, we have a tradition of waking up with a declaration of gratitude. It’s not really a prayer, it’s more a statement of deep appreciation. We say the Modeh Ani in the morning to express our appreciation for waking to consciousness.

What we say is: “Modeh Anee Lefanecha Melech Chai v’kayam, She-he-chezarta-bee Nishmatee B’chemla Raba Emunatecha”.

I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great(For the Hebrew, please click this link to see the source; some computer programs do not show the Hebrew properly.)

The word Emunahtecha can be translated in several ways but most commonly, Emunah means faith, persistence, and a sense of steadfastness. Emunatecha means your faith, your steadfastness—in me! 

Let’s dwell on this concept a bit. Each and every morning, upon waking from sleep, we take a moment to appreciate the miracle of life, of wakefulness and that The Holy One has faith in us.  Faith that we will make the best of every day. We express thanks and appreciation for our soul (nishmatee), for that which makes us human. We’ve been given yet another chance to prove we are worthy of this life. Every day, a new start.

We begin again in our quest to be a better person, and The One Above is giving us another shot at life.

This video might inspire you to begin this practice everyday. There are many melodies for Modeh Ani, see which one resonates with you. Try this one by David Paskin or this Hasidic melody by Avraham Fried, or this, with English translation by Elana Jagoda.

Wishing you special mornings of appreciation,

Ruth

 


5 Ways to Create a Memorable Passover Seder Experience

Nice Seder, but not intensified

Same Seder, intensified!

What will you do to construct meaningful memories at Passover this year? The Seder sweetly builds fresh memories upon old remembrances. We can think of the layers and layers of promises to our people coming forth, cemented by memories of miracles and plagues. Death and rebirth. These are incredibly powerful images that we need to mediate for our Seder guests so that they walk away with their own special Seder-connection.

Every year we get the chance to reinvent this consummate educational event and solidify our own connection to our past, present and future –gifting our guests with that opportunity at the same time. It is an opportunity that we shouldn’t pass over. 

We can go beyond our usual limits, and immerse ourselves totally in the story of redemption, enacting all our senses in the process of calling up the bonds of slavery in order to release ourselves and become free, and in doing so reaffirm our faith in The One.

We can make sure that we take each opportunity in the Seder to ramp up our spiritual connection with what’s occurring. You need to become comfortable going ‘off script” and taking a dive into the unknown, to discover new treasures in what was already there.

 

Think experiential. For every sensory experience, think about how you could maximize the intensity of the taste, the smell, the feel.

What if everyone at the table had their own dish of salt, and salted their own water to the maximum that they could tolerate?

What if, along with the dipping of the Karpas, there was more dipping to be done. Think raw vegetables and dips of guacamole, ajvar (red pepper spread), baba ghanoush, and pesto (pareve).

Would closing the eyes help intensify the taste of the Maror? What if everyone peeled their own piece of horseradish?

What if, after the recitation of the Four Questions, everyone thought of a new one to ask? What types of questions might stimulate conversation and discussion? What was the spiritual purpose of marking Jewish houses? What is so compelling today about marking our houses with Mezuzot? You were there….what questions would you be asking before you went on the journey? 

Help your guests identify with the larger themes of Passover by asking a few provocative questions.

What does the safety of slavery conjure up versus the risk of freedom?

Think of  the way that Pharaoh described the Jews and how we describe ‘the other’ today–what are the similarities?

What does it means to be a powerless minority amidst a totalitarian power?

What does it mean when we opt for predictability instead of self-determination?

Why does Judaism not present freedom as the only goal, but pairs it with responsibility?

Just think about the rich conversations that could be going around your table!

I hope you decide to try at least one or two of these ideas and then please, please, share your feedback with me. I’d love to hear from you and will share some stories I receive with you, here.

May you and your loved ones enjoy a Chag Kasher v’Sameach!