Category Archives: Judaism

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.

 

 

 

 


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. 


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.

 


when you need strength

Inspired by Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,

God will help us in our troubles,

God is near—as near as the air we breathe.

We can feel God’s presence in times of need…

Though the earth may change,

The mountains may rumble,

And the waters will evermore roar and foam,

God is within all and within us,

Forever giving us strength and a forever constant in our midst.

God is always—and though our world might be filled with life’s challenges

God is our rock and will give us strength.

                                                                                                                                                  


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.

 

 


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.

 

 

 


Passover and gratitude in the days of covid19

 

Podcasts. Virtual tours. Songs. Make-Your-Own-Haggadah. There is an endless array of information and resources about how to celebrate Passover while ‘sheltering-in-place’.

Everyday, more information floods my inbox with advice and tips about how to make adaptations so this Passover-in-isolation does not feel so isolating. I often feel that I am drowning from the overload. Every time I open another suggestion or click on another link I am reminded that this Passover, I will be away from family. So now, I am ignoring what might be wonderful suggestions.

I am not ungrateful though. So many people have put a great deal of effort into this outreach and I am really so appreciative. I understand that it is not smart to bypass the opportunity to provide options that can fit into all types of observances.

After all, Passover is one of the most celebrated holidays and this alone helps me feel like we’re all a big family just trying to get through this period of time together.

And yet, if I am honest with myself, my response to these offerings seems selfish and indulgent when I think about my mother z”l, and how she must have had to observe Passover while in hiding, with death always around the corner. Thankfully, I am not living in that nightmare.

So, despite the barrage of exciting and new ways people can celebrate while ‘sheltering-in-place’ I think I will need to work harder to arrive at a better state of mind.

One small thing I am doing to switch around my perspective is to practice gratitude. There is much to be grateful for, and the list becomes endless when I begin at the source—being grateful for the gift of breath.

Once I begin there, I experience an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gifts I have been given. Working my way through my limbs, my living situation, and then to my family and friends, the anxiety and fear seem to dissipate.

I try to stay focused in the present and not go to places in the future that I can’t control and are too dark for me to imagine.

I also remind myself that my breath, Neshimah in Hebrew, is connected to my soul, Neshamah.

It takes patience to rewire my brain but whenever I get into that place, the place of appreciation….some of the worry fades.

With all that is swirling around us, it helps me to just focus on the very gift of life that I’ve been given.

We can feel for others who have lost loved ones, feel deep appreciation for those who are on the front lines helping us get through this, and yet be appreciative for our ability to arise each morning.

Elohai Neshama she natata bi, tehora hi

My Creator, the soul that you have given me is pure.

Modeh Ani Lefanecha.

I am grateful before You.

May you have a healthy and safe Passover.

 

For previous posts on Passover, you can click on the links below.

Passover seems to awaken my creative spirit and as a result, I’ve written quite a few posts about Passover, like how to create a memorable Passover experience, how to make the seder ‘teen-friendly’ how to approach Passover like a teacher, and even how to avoid the typical stereotypes about Passover.