Category Archives: Jewish

Add your light to the darkness

In the times of Noah, there was total lawlessness in the world. Just 10 generations (according to tradition) after Adam, the world is in a horrid state. 

Sometimes it is difficult to read through most of the parasha (portion) without a sense of despondency…despite the redemptive ending. 

The Notion of Lawlessness in our Texts

Throughout the expanse of our texts, the word for lawlessness, (חמס) takes on different shades of meaning, and it appears in the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in an exhortation:

כִּֽי־יָק֥וּם עֵד־חָמָ֖ס בְּאִ֑ישׁ לַעֲנ֥וֹת בּ֖וֹ סָרָֽה׃

If a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him…. [19:16]. 

We might infer from this usage that this tendency toward lawlessness does not have to be defined in terms that connote outright violence, but can involve intention for evil which is a more sophisticated form of wickedness. 

God created us with the capacity to have free will, and in the case above, our inclinations toward either positive or negative actions are often more subtle. Should I listen to someone’s opinion who differs from mine or not? Can I put myself in another’s place or not? Should I bother to speak up or not?

We know that it can be a daily battle as to whether we behave in righteous ways or not. Sometimes the decisions we make that have the most complex repercussions are the very ones we did not think too much about.  

But what do we do when society as a whole seems to be on the wrong course, headed towards evil in so many aspects? How can we bring in our own light to dissipate the darkness? What possible effect can small actions have on the greater whole? 

Can Evil itself be a Source for Good? 

Amazingly, there is a Kabbalistic tradition that evil itself can be a source for good. How is that so? How can evil, of the highest magnitude, flip into a positive source?

Again, how does the light pierce the darkness? This might help us understand: 

“…only a broken and disordered state of affairs such as we have in the world today can provide the optimal environment within which humanity can exercise the greatest spiritual, moral, aesthetic and intellectual virtues that truly make us a reflection of God.

The discordant, unassimilated, and antagonistic effects of both our personal complexes and the evil in the universe call forth our highest potentialities. It’s similar to how a road test for a car involves being put under the most difficult conditions to push it to its edge and elicit the limits of its performance capabilities.

This world is a perfect realm for the “road testing” of our souls. Humanity’s highest virtues are called upon when confronted by evil.” [Paul Levy : “Light Hidden in the Darkness: Kabbalah and Jungian Psychology”]

So, in what ways can you add your light to the darkness? The surest chance for you to experience an uplift is to select just one thing you will do each day to bring more light into the world.

The choices can be dependent on what you personally bring to the world, with your talents and God-given skills. It might be a phone call, a song you sing to someone, doing someone a favor, giving tzedakah (righteous giving)….the list is endless.                      

You probably are already doing some of these wonderful things. What I’m suggesting is that you do whatever it is you decide to do with intention. Next time, catch yourself…stop before you do a mitzvah and say a b’racha (blessing), that you are able to do this very action.

Say a blessing to HaShem for giving you the gifts that enable you to bring yourself into the world in this way. Doing so will increase your connection to God, and will be your own way of bringing the light into the darkness.


You can also visit me here, on my new website “Inner Judaism”


sharing my Jewish journey with you

Photo by Ian Turnell on Pexels.com

This blog has become an intimate part of my life. I began writing it in 2011 as part of a class on Educational Technology (which is already so outdated). We had to explore different blog platforms, choose one, and just write a quick introductory “hello”. 

From that, I was hooked. And thousands of visitors and views later, I am fortunate to be able to write what I feel and think in the hope that you will connect to what I’m sharing with you.  

This blog has been my therapist, my keeper of grudges, and my platform for voicing so much of what I experienced within my little Jewish world. 

Communicating with you has also allowed me to meet new people who are committed to our Jewish tradition, and it has been a blessing. 

As much as I value writing about the potential for Jewish learning and practices to really change people from the inside out, it is quite another thing entirely to experience it.

Recently, I’ve developed and facilitated courses that speak to the quality of learning and interaction that enable a deep awareness of the soul, an intimate connection with others and the fostering of a relationship with God.

Attending so many Zoom events and learning sessions these past few months left me with a flatness afterward that was not due to a lack of information presented to me, but the absence of meaningful interaction with others.

Nothing in me changed as a result of my participation. Time is too precious not to gain from each and every experience. 

With gratitude to HaShem, I’ve been able to incorporate my interests in Jewish learning with skills in counseling and facilitation…bringing a deep sense of spirituality to study. The courses I’ve offered on spirituality, mussar, prayer, and more have reinforced the fact that deep connections can change us and make us the better for the experience.   

I am willing to go where this new venture, with God’s guidance, will take me and I’m introducing you to “Inner Judaism”. Please let me know what you think, I am always interested in hearing from you. 

 


A corona Yom Kippur

 

If you would have asked me what words come to mind when I think about Yom Kippur, the word joy would never have made the top ten list.

Words like fasting, repenting, remorse, prayer, sorrow, self-blame, and even hunger would have been there, but never joy or happiness.

Why was this year different for me?

Perhaps in my own home, the solitude created the ripe environment for a deeper experience and I soaked it all in.

In this year of corona, I almost desperately needed to focus more intensely on my relationship to HaShem without distraction. I poured my heart out without wondering what others were thinking and for me, it was a unique type of grace that was afforded me.

I could daven (pray), as fervently as I wanted, with movements, chanting and song, being at one with the rhythm of my supplications.  I didn’t have to worry if my voice was too loud or off-key.

And then there it was. A sense of elation filled me up just before and during Neilah, (the closing prayer of Yom Kippur) and this experience was new. My feeling of joy was palpable.

For the first time I grasped emotionally what some sages refer to as a state of purity after being cleansed of sins.

I had a clean slate, and all the ways in which I came up short last year were magically wiped away. My struggles in trying to be a better person, often ending in disappointment in myself, were in the past.

Those struggles are not going away, and the challenges might even be greater for me in the coming year, but I have a new beginning. I am refreshed and feel stronger to wrestle again. I can be the director of a new script, and this time the outcome can change.

Like being subjected to a heavenly sanitizing spray and really good wipes, my soul would be sparkly and new.

More importantly, I would be able to forgive myself since God has hopefully, forgiven me.

While of course, my deepest desire is that we reconvene as community, I am grateful this experience of isolation gave me a new vision of Yom Kippur.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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].


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.

 


Questioning the boon of Zoom Judaism

In my memory, there has never been so much Jewish content available online, for free. Podcasts, interviews, seminars, webinars, zoom rooms, concerts, and lectures (did I cover everything?) are just a click away. Many synagogues are successfully navigating uncharted waters by developing engaging online content. Others are still struggling with the technological challenges.

The big question is whether this new mode of participating in Jewish content will take up residence in our future, and if so, will connections with our on-screen communities supersede those IRL (in real life?).

This issue has come up often in online conversations with friends. Helene and I discussed this in an email exchange and I could sense her passion about this issue so I invited her to be a guest blogger.

Why renew your synagogue membership?

by Helene Geiger

I have a friend who has been spending his Quarantine touring virtual services around the world. He often tells me all the different ways that our Temple’s minyans and shabbat services fall short, when compared to the production values at (fill in the blank: Central Synagogue/White Plains/Park Avenue/Wilshire Blvd/etc etc).  It’s almost to the point where he’ll link into one location for Lcha Dodi, and a different one for Yigdal.

He also tells me that he is currently questioning the value of his synagogue membership. “Because of Covid, I won’t even get my High Holiday seats this year,” he complains.

True. But surely he’s missing the point. Because joining a synagogue is more than finding a place to daven – it’s about being part of a community. And in this time of Covid, the value of community has never been so evident.  In fact, in this time when so many of us feel isolated far away from friends and families, our local synagogue community has stepped up – creating new opportunities to come together virtually, to connect on a human-to-human level.

As my friend sees it, a synagogue is just one more URL competing for his business. And all he is doing is comparison shopping – looking for the very best available singing and oratory on the market. But to my mind, he’s using the wrong metric to measure “quality”. Surely there is a value to truly belonging. And surely you are kidding yourself if you think you “belong” to is a place that doesn’t know you & doesn’t particularly want to know you. If all you are doing is streaming – you can watch, but they’ve muted your audio, your video, and also your soul.

Covid has caused all of us to distance physically.  But socially, our local synagogue is more connected than ever. Zoom into our services, book clubs, learning programs, volunteer committees – and you won’t be anonymous. Participate, chat, ask questions – this is your chance to get known by other congregants whom you might never have met before. They’re zoomed-in because they want to connect, eager to catch up with old friends and build new relationships, as well.  And because you are part of their community, they are eager to get to know you, eager to play Jewish Geography with you, and eager to share their experiences/knowhow/resources with you, too.

Why am I renewing my synagogue membership this year? Because my synagogue is my community. It’s where I am valued. It’s where I connect. And it’s where I belong, in the truest sense of the word.



 


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.

 


Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Remaining in Focus

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior.

Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of our intentions and behaviors. Don’t be deceived; this sounds relatively easy but is in fact very difficult.

It is just as challenging for businesses and organizations to hold a high ethical standard.

Accountability

Years ago a new field emerged called ‘corporate responsibility’. It was the very beginning of companies making an effort to conduct business honorably.

No longer can companies quietly go about the dirty business of polluting the environment, paying unfair wages, and not treating employees equitably. At least not without negative social consequences and losses of revenue. To a large extent, social media sees to that. However, even more now than before, it seems that there is still a long way to go.

In the last weeks, we’ve seen that even organizations who promise to uphold the highest ideals of communal values of fairness fall short. As a society, it is challenging to change stubborn and hateful behavior.

What about Jewish organizations?

But should we not hold smaller organizations, those with an especially narrow focus, to the same standard? After all, relationships with employees and constituents are more regular and frequent.

In the current economic climate however, as organizations might need to downsize, it is even more important not to compromise on these values. People are more vulnerable in so many ways and the more expedient way is not the most sensitive.

The Torah provides a foundation for how employees should be treated and laws are expounded in the Talmud regarding specific challenging situations and additional pressures.

This information would ideally inform decisions and interactions so that the values of a religious organization should live up to its potential as a model of ethical behavior.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz states in Judaism and Justice: the Jewish Passion to Repair the World that there are two principles in operation regarding Jewish behavior.

Jews are driven by their twin impulses to survive as a people (Exodus) and to help the world be ordered in accordance with a higher moral standard (Sinai).”

Expanding on this concept, Jewish organizations need to survive in order to fulfill their ultimate mission of bringing the ethical teachings of Torah out into the world. But not at the cost of compromising its own behavior.

Leadership in a stressful time

The challenges facing the Jewish community now are perhaps more acute than ever and as a result, we need to be aware of ethical breaches and inconsistencies and expect more of our organizational leaders.

This pursuit of ethical excellence is discussed widely in the Talmud as well as the intimate relationship between character, leadership, and community. In Arachim (17a) our sages note:

“One said: According to the leader, so the generation. The other said: According to the generation, so the leader.”

We are ultimately accountable. Our leaders need to hold us to a higher standard, but they too are products of our culture. Our culture seems to value the development of our outsides (material gains) in favor of focusing on our insides (ethical and spiritual development). Organizations have often conducted themselves similarly, prioritizing  external goals (a new building, more members) over those that are less tangible (meaningful experiences, membership connections).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership  states that “Leaders must be relentless learners and believe in the people they lead”.

Leaders must be open to change and in so doing, model that for others.

Yes, these are extremely challenging times. Organizations need to work extremely hard with minimal resources to reconfigure themselves in the (God-willing) post-pandemic world.

We can weather this storm but in order to do so ethically, we need to uphold our values.

 


Questioning God

“It is because I believed in God that I was angry at God, and still am. But my faith is tested, wounded, but it’s here. So whatever I say, it’s always from inside faith……Within my traditions, you know, it is permitted to question God, even to take Him to task.”  Elie Wiesel, The Tragedy of the Believer.

In recent weeks, I have been overwhelmed with questions that I ask of God. It is a fruitless exercise because really, there are no possible answers.

Some of my questions are the really big ones….like the ones about humanity and our future.

I live with my unanswered questions and they stubbornly remain with me, as I go about my day in these strange times.

Now, piled on top of my doubts about health and safety are new questions about hate and fear and it is a growing heap of biblical proportions.

Has it only been weeks that things are this way? Have we not been on pause for an endless amount of time? 

Enough is Enough

There has been so much to cry out to God about—to scream with outrage that enough is enough.

Thousands of years ago, Abraham was one soul speaking for many when he cried out at the injustice of destroying cities when it would mean that law-abiding people would also perish:

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

Imagine the audacity of Abraham. Not only did he question politely, he challenged God’s decision aggressively and as we know in later verses, did not back down. He stayed the course no matter the consequences. He directed his anger at God and felt justified.

During these months of Covid, my frustration and anger had no target—-because who was there to blame?

These feelings, stubbornly were present each morning as I checked the numbers of newly dead. It was overwhelming.

And yet, there was to be more anger on top of that.

New situations of hatred and racism bore an even larger balloon of anger, except this time, there are situations that can be remedied with the capacity to provoke long term change.

Within the outcry against racism and bigotry is a budding leaf of hope.

Who is responsible?

We are being challenged to our core as a society. As Elie Wiesel says, we can take God to task. But ultimately, we are responsible for each other. We create the environment of either hatred or peace. We have the ability to change things.

How can we be loving toward each other?

Hundreds and hundreds of years after Abraham confronts the Creator, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, and challenges us to be our better selves and earn our place on this planet:

כֹּֽה־אָמַ֞ר יְהוָ֤ה צְבָאוֹת֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הֵיטִ֥יבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶ֖ם וּמַֽעַלְלֵיכֶ֑ם וַאֲשַׁכְּנָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃

“Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.” Jeremiah 7:3

In order to connect to God, we need to connect with each other, treating each other with kindness, justice, and compassion.

There can be recovery.

So many times after destruction there was hope.

We already have learned so much about ourselves in these months; our instinctive selfishness yet our expansive generosity, our innate capacity for hate yet our boundless ability to love.

I have faith in God, and I also have faith that we can arrive at the place (HaMakom in Hebrew) that we are meant to be.

 

 


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.


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.

 

 


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.


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.