Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

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].


Elul: The vanity of individualism

 

“..the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own ‘realities’, limiting the possibilities of our awareness.” Daniel Brown, Harvard clinical psychologist

Our culture is so far deep into self aggrandizement that sometimes we lose awareness of how susceptible to the craziness we’ve become. It takes a lot of mental energy to steer clear of the ego-filled information we hear on a daily basis.

Even if we are not participating, it seeps into us on a deeper level than we might think.

A natural break from the noise

The rhythm of the Jewish calendar offers us a reprieve. As we come into the month of Elul we have breathing space to consider our true selves and who we want to be.

Only when we establish our connection to the Divine and admit our place in the world can we begin to undergo a spiritual reckoning.

In acknowledging The One, we are forced to limit our own deception at being in charge all the time.

Why is this important now?

As we enter the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to straddle time. It is an amazing gift that we have…to simultaneously look back on the past 11 months of the year while preparing ourselves to greet the New Year on Rosh Hashanah.

It is an incredible time for the hard work of honest self-reflection. How can we truly engage in the liturgy of the High Holidays without first asking ourselves the deep questions we need to ask?

What promises did I make last year that were not kept? In what ways did I deepen my connection to loved ones and my community? Did I fulfill my goals for myself? Was I a better person this year than I was last year? Did I deepen my relationship with God? 

Our connection to God

Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. The mystical meaning of Elul’s acronym Aleph-Lamed-Vov-Lamed is for “Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li”, the words meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

It is a hesed, kindness from God that there is this closeness because we need the unconditional love of our Creator when we take a hard look at ourselves, without our defenses, without excuses, and with a pure heart to confront our dark side.

Our selfish tendencies

The dark side doesn’t always mean that we sublimate our urge to commit an evil act. After all, how common is it that that we set out to steal or commit a crime?

So we shouldn’t give ourselves credit for not engaging in those behaviors.

The Yetzer HaRa [the Hebrew term for this inclination] can mean our tendency to act in our own self-interest. That is more pernicious and confronts us almost every day. This dark side, our Yetzer HaRa is our ego, is our selfishness that hides right under the surface.

Sleeping late. Making sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Putting off acts of kindness. Constantly checking our “likes” on social media. Honking the horn excessively to rid ourselves of anger. Refusing to apologize properly. Neglecting to show appreciation.

These are all products of our ego.

Taking a habitual approach

It is overwhelming to work on everything about ourselves that we might want to change. Studies about personal change agree that taking on too many changes at once does not increase the chances for success. Nor will it contribute to positive self-esteem (not to be confused with ego).

Thousands of years ago, Rambam wrote about a method for increasing generosity. Briefly, instead of giving one check for $100, he advised to donate $1 a day since in this way, you would be incorporating a new behavior and making it a habit.

Select just one trait of yours to work on. Is it patience? Honesty? Anger?

Then select just one very small behavior change that you will do regularly in order to create a new habit in this month of Elul.

So for example, if you want to work on patience, think of a strategy to employ when you are most likely to lose it. It could be switching your thoughts to gratitude (waiting in line? Be grateful that you are able to purchase the items in your cart).

Are you about to lose your temper with someone you love? Think of your history together and let kindness fill you up instead. Or take a breath. Whatever will work for you.

Allow some time for this

It might take some practice to come up with which trait to focus on and the strategies to use. Be patient with yourself.

If you need help with focusing on what trait to work on, ask loved ones. They’ll usually have no problem offering you some options! It takes guts to do this work. It is not easy.

You also may need ways to remind yourself of the new practices you are undertaking. Try setting up reminders with Siri, Alexa, or some other platform. You can also try post-it notes.

But it will work. Do it regularly and enjoy this wonderful opportunity that Elul affords us to work towards a clean slate with loving acceptance by Hashem.


Postscript: What I described above is the work of Mussar, ancient Jewish practices that work on changing traits, increasing connections with God, and becoming a better person, which I will describe in future posts and perhaps offer in online sessions. 


Being in the Wilderness: A Shavuot Experience

 

The quiet allows the voice of our soul to emerge

On the week before Shavuot, we begin the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, known in English as Numbers. In Hebrew, the book is called BaMidbar (wilderness, desert).

Already we’re experiencing some confusion, why the two different names? Each name refers to a different verse. The name of the book in Hebrew is related to the first verse, which sets the stage for where God speaks to Moses…in the wilderness.

However, the English/Latin name is related to the second verse when God requests Moses to take a census of the Israelite community.

There is a beautiful reason given for the spiritual connection between the two verses but this post will instead focus on the deeper meaning contained within the first verse.

Let’s begin:

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting……

What is interesting here is the meaning of the Hebrew word for wilderness.

The beauty of the Hebrew language is often, contained within each word, is its opposite meaning. These paradoxes speak to the very essence of creation, in that there is potential for opposing aspects: darkness and light, Inclinations toward the good or evil, our spiritual inclinations versus our bodily passions.

In this case, the Hebrew root word for BaMidbar  also means two things at once. There is both a sense of being limited and yet expansive.

How can that be so?

The three letter Hebrew root of BaMidbar is Dalet (D), Bet (B) and Reysh (R), means all of these: desert, wilderness, words, to speak and thing.

So in a sense, it means that which is limitless yet that which is tangible and identifiable.

It is a word that has so much potential steeped within it. For example if we take just one meaning, speech, it can be something that can be used to transmit ideas that are grand and awesome. yet, when used incorrectly, speech can be reduced to the petty and heartless.

Similarly containing opposites, the wilderness can be a place of peace or a place of threat.

There is a beautiful teaching from the Ohr Torah Institution and Rabbi S. Riskin about this:

It was by means of these Divine words [dibrot] that even the desert [midbar] —a metaphor for an inhospitable and alien exile environment: boiling hot by day, freezing cold by night, and deficient in water, the elixir of life—can be transformed into sacred space, the place of the Divine word (dibur].

The world is a desert [midbar] waiting to become a sanctuary [d’vir] by means of God’s word [dibur], communicated by inspiring leaders [dabarim]. 

Being in the wilderness allowed us to ‘lose ourselves’ enough to be able to receive the Torah. In the wilderness, our destiny was secured by God and so our very ability to live was granted by God every day. In this there was a sense of comfort, even in the middle of ‘nowhere’.

Our sages put it this way:

 Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah.                                                                          Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7.

This is noted again in the Talmud,

One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah. Nedarim 55a

It is through this process that we can begin the journey that is the source of our lifeline, the Torah. We need to lessen our ego-driven lives to be open enough to receive Torah.

The still small voice in you….how can you honor that voice? How can you become “ownerless” in order to be open to the Divine experience?

I am offering this Shavuot Visualization to you should you want to enter the world of the D-B-R….A Shavuot Visualization

 

 

© Ruth Schapira, 2020. All rights reserved.


Yom Kippur Juxtapositions

How can I reach the heavens when all I can think of is that I need some caffeine?

Yom Kippur heightens the juxtaposition between the holy and the mundane. It is a day when we suspend our daily functions (e.g. eating, bathing) in order to help us reach a higher, less base level of existence. Those unfamiliar with the rites of the holiday often focus on the strange edict of fasting as some type of divine punishment, some way of beating us into submission. Others see it as it is intended, as an opportunity for us, for just one 25 hour period, to transcend our animal instincts.

The challenge of Yom Kippur for me is putting all my effort into staying in the world of the holy, paying attention to my soul’s yearning for Divine inspiration and not getting pulled into the forces of my ego-self. The self who is absorbed with what I need to do, what I think about things, what I will do next. Almost every few minutes, countless temptations attract my baser self. Remaining in a higher realm all day is really, really hard work, and more difficult than one might imagine.

Forcing myself to focus in on the liturgy and not have my mind stray is a persistent challenge (uh oh, I forgot to make an appointment for the oil change……..did I send out that email?…..how long will we be standing? I should have brought a sweater…..).

Another challenge is not veering off into the land of judgement. How can I do that on this auspicious day? Yet, I need to continually refrain from seemingly harmless thoughts that are, in fact, evaluative (why are people talking during the service? I can’t believe I just heard someone’s cell phone go off…..Why doesn’t the cantor sing melodies I’m familiar with?…).   

The hardest part is realizing that even in this battle I wage to stay in the purest of realms, God is aware of it all—and that thought fills me with dread. I am not reaching my highest potential, I am not measuring up. I am falling short.

Yet, it is God who created my conscience (Psalm 139:13) and often is my higher self that realizes exactly when I am being petty, when I’m being judgmental, and when I am not acting in a God-like manner.

My effort to polish my soul, to continually strive to be my best self is that place in me where God resides. Despite my failings, God has put faith in me that I will be able to change, to be a better person.

“God, you have examined me and You know me” (Psalm 139:1).

God is the still, small voice in me that urges me on, the One who is my cheerleader, who believes that I will live up to being B’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image. I will steadfastly work on changing the behaviors I know I need to, hoping that God will continue to have patience with me.

May God grant us the opportunity to live lives of honor, in recognition of the Divine gift of life, and not stray from our obligation to honor others.


How to Approach Passover Like a Teacher

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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


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!

 


One New Way To Join A Jewish Community

Judaism = Community

Judaism = Community

This season, when so many emotions surge through us, it is comforting to be within a community. That’s part of the grand design, for Jews to be together to usher in the New Year. We collectively hear the shofar’s urgency of now and decide that this year, things will be different….we’ll be different. But one thing is stubbornly the same and I need to write about it.

For those who were not part of a synagogue community last year, has their situation changed? I’ve spoken with many people who don’t connect to the formalized Jewish community and miss the experience of belonging. They were once members, somewhere.

Yet they haven’t received any personal communication to return to the synagogue. Not a letter, not a phone call. I wonder what their experience is of Klal Yisrael and what our obligation is to them? (For the most part, these issues don’t arise for those who identify as Orthodox, as their entire experience of community is different).

Their feelings of being separate must hurt and are in total opposition to the goal of feeling close to G-d and community. The pain they share with me is palpable, but often buried.

Most synagogues don’t have the volunteer power to do outreach. Yet for years, as a communal educator, I have listened to stories of exclusion peppered with harsh memories and I feel helpless. The problem is so overwhelming.

Programs like ‘public space’ Judaism, online workshops, concierge services or outreach spiritual leaders are part of innovative responses to this growing problem of disconnected Jews.  But for those who are searching specifically for a re-connection to their synagogue, personal outreach is required. We need to initiate teshuvah  by encouraging them to return.

Sometimes the reasons for leaving a community have to do with finances so we need to change the dues structure paradigm by thinking beyond the synagogue. Ultimately, it might cost more to exclude those we are not reaching. If we want individuals to belong to a community, then we need to offer wider access to that community. Right now, our definition of belonging is defined exclusively by which congregation someone belongs to.

For example, my experience is that even if a synagogue event is open to the public, people from neighboring synagogues don’t attend. I’ve witnessed this phenomena multiple times, though I don’t understand the behavior at all. So, how can we make others feel welcome in any synagogue in a given community….without feeling that they don’t belong? Because every Jew in a Jewish community belongs.

A community could establish a communal membership fee, whatever amount works for them, on whatever scale, which would be a way to say ‘you belong’. A person would then be a member of all synagogues in the area. This manageable fee could be an option for people who are new to an area and want to ‘synagogue shop’ for a year or two. Or it could be for those who would like access to a wider range of social programming.since prayer may not be the way they connect to the Jewish community. The fee would also work for those who are already a member of one synagogue but elect to additionally support the Jewish community in this way. There also might be levels of giving to reflect these different needs.

Just imagine, everyone could feel part of the community, with no artificial borders and boundaries.

If some of these discussions occur, then next year, when it comes time for us to think about Teshuvah, we might just agree that the return to an old paradigm is worth a change.

Related posts: 

When You Say Jewish Community, Who Are You Talking About? 

Patchwork Fixes Don’t Work for The Jewish Community


Jewish Interfaith Outreach: Making Challah and “Doing Jewish”

The final product of a great evening!

Making Challah, Making Connections

Scoop, beat, pour, and mix—then knead, fold, knead, fold. It’s the methodical way that you’d make a dough for challah, and the process itself seems quite mechanical, if you were doing it alone in your own kitchen.

But making challah with 20 people in someone’s home is quite a different experience, and creating challah with people who are doing it for the first time is exhilarating. I participated in the event as a member of the Advisory Council of InterfaithFamily (IFF-Philadelphia) and it attracted a demographic that would be the envy of any Jewish outreach movement.

Four young millennial-aged couples attended, with a smattering of some young singles, older folks, and a mom with her two kids – their common interest was in ‘doing Jewish’. That was the foundation upon which people built connections and shared Shabbat stories along with flour and measuring cups that were set aside at stations, like in some amazing challah bake-off on a Jewish Food Network show.

The event was called “Challah and Conversation” and by the end of the night, there was plenty of both. The environment was open, accepting and casual which allowed participants to feel comfortable asking about the many beautiful and significant rituals surrounding Shabbat. There was curiosity about egg-checking (for kosher reasons), traditions for candle-lighting, the custom some choose to follow for ‘taking challah‘, and questions like: Why do some people tear the challah and not slice it with a knife? Why is salt sprinkled on it? Why is the challah covered? What is the ‘Parent’s Prayer’?

The most outstanding experience from the evening was not the beautifully braided specimens in personal aluminum baking dishes that everyone was taking home, ready to be baked. Nor was it that everyone would get to savor the experience all over again when that unmistakable luscious challah smell would fill their homes before the Sabbath began. What was undeniably special was that people came together, in the true spirit of learning and community, and shared an experience that brought them that much closer to Judaism, and that much closer to each other.

So, as educators, what can we take away from this experience? Besides taking away a great recipe for challah (click here) the event had all the ingredients for successful outreach:

  • Experiences that are hands-on work
  • Interactive learning components so people walk away with something new
  • Welcoming atmosphere (IFF staff can help with this)
  • Hosting the event in a person’s home
  • The ‘doing Jewish’ part is as non-threatening as possible
  • Casual but intentional follow-up