Category Archives: Religion

I wonder who atheists thank?

The saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” presumes that once under the threat of death, the most avowed atheist will plead to God for help in order to live. But how about in when waking up to a freshly wrapped day? Who does the atheist thank? Perhaps nature. How about when there’s good luck? Who gets thanked then? Exactly who is the recipient of gratitude when things work out?

What about our daily experiences? Are we like the “everyday atheist” who has no need for regular interactions with the Divine?

How about when we find ourselves avoiding an accident and call out “Thank God, I almost hit that car” or when we mindlessly say “Thank Heaven, I remembered to do…” .

Are we able to pause in that moment and actually focus on our gratitude to the Creator? Or do we just move on….?

We also tend to write off happy coincidences as just ‘good luck’ or we might even thank “Lady Luck” for our good fortune. Worse, as Jews, we might mindlessly request that others “cross your fingers” (of Christian origin, referring to the cross) or “knock on wood” (ditto plus pagan origins) when we hope things will work out in our favor.

Yet, when we experience pain or are filled with darkness, we might reach out, calling out to the One Above for solace from suffering. Or when we need answers for the unanswerable. The times of intense struggle are often when we tend to reach out to a higher power, to the One who might listen and receive our pleas. Is it possible that our everyday language might be a stumbling block for us?

Our uncomfortable feelings with invoking God’s name might be due to several reasons, but one could be the difficulty in acknowledging God in language that doesn’t fit the Jewish concept of God. 

 
 
“Judaism would be better off without the phrase “belief in God.”  First, it is a Christian phrase, not a Jewish one, and it suggests that the essence of religion is faith – a Christian value.  Second, the phrase implies a certain kind of God – a God in which one either does or does not believe, probably an anthropomorphic God, a cosmic puppetmaster who sorts the bad people from the good, and makes the rain fall.”

Michaelson states that the phrase “Belief in God” should be trashed in the ‘lexicographic graveyard’.

The trap that we might fall into is thinking about God as apart from us, instead of a part of us. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about being in ‘radical amazement’ for existence itself, which is God. When we recite the Shema, we’re not just saying that God is One and not Two…we’re saying that God is All.  Everything in our lives is part of the grand wonderment that is creation. 

When we can experience life in that way, by regarding the world around us as special and sacred…and keep that within our minds even during the darkest days, we will be connecting with the spiritual deep within us. 

It means turning off our own naysaying ego that interrupts with “but that’s not realistic”, “that’s too difficult to do on a daily basis”, “who has time to focus on that all the time?”,  “I couldn’t possibly ignore all the bad things around me”, “that sounds too loosey-goosey for me”, and all the other blocks that will work their way into our path. 

Ignore those voices. Pay attention to the smaller voice inside you, the voice that is part of something bigger and greater, the part that is aligned with Love and not Fear. 

Try it. 


To receive regular updates of my blog, please subscribe here. To see new program offerings, click here.

Please forward to others who might be interested, thanks! 

 
 

 


Why should I change?

 
 

How different am I this week than I was the week before?

The chameleon has it relatively easy. Spending not too much energy, he gets a whole new look and adapts well to his environment. The visible outer change is prompted by a detailed inner process. We can learn from that.

Every week, I meditate a bit with a kavannah (stated intention) before ushering in Shabbat’s glowing candlelight. It is a brief glimmer of time to check in with myself. Did I progress this week? Was I kinder? More giving? More attentive to loved ones? Did I procrastinate less? Did I do what I set out to do? Did I change?

Sometimes the answer gives me a sickened regret for time not well spent. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov minces no words when he says:

If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for tomorrow?

Thankfully, I will get another chance. As I usher in Shabbat, I focus on the beautiful teaching that all that was unfinished from the week is considered complete, the culmination. So, I get a reprieve. I get to pretend for a full 25 hours that all is as it should be. I love that teaching.

In a few days, we will welcome the secular New Year 2021 with arms wide open, ready to put 2020 to bed. On countless fronts, the year has been incredibly challenging. The only think left for us to think about is how, in 20/20 our eyesight/awareness might have changed for the better. And we can be grateful for that.

So, the same contrivance that works so well on a weekly basis–thinking that all is well and complete just doesn’t hold true for almost an entire year. 
 
This sounds crazy, but for this reason I find myself oddly hanging on to 2020 a bit, like a person who is not quite ready to let go of the lifeboat in order to climb aboard the rescue ship. What? Have I totally lost it? I am being saved, why am I languishing around?

It comes down to not being quite sure that I actually did enough of what is truly important in 2020.

Despite all the zooming, tik-tok’ing, cooking, baking and cleaning—I am not sure that I journaled enough, prayed enough, talked to God enough.

I am not sure that I cleaned enough of my own soul’s ‘shmutz’ (Yiddish for dirt, rhymes with “puts”) that tends to block my inner being.

For me, being on a path of growth means just that…being committed to going from one place to another. And I have to leave the old place in order to start anew.

It is in our tradition, we are a people that leave places to start again in new ones. We have thousands of years of journeying in our Jewish DNA, beginning with Abraham and continuing on in almost every story in Genesis…we leave and finally arrive.

It’s been our history, chased out by pogroms, massacres, Inquisitions, death marches. We begin again.

So, I will begin again. I will get into the rescue ship, glad to leave 2020 behind, committed to undergoing chameleon-like change in the year ahead.

Starting with my inner soul, hoping that my outer behavior will be a reflection of my new colors.

 

To receive regular updates of my blog, please subscribe here.

 
 

 


Sacred Relationships

 

When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.

Martin Buber

The middle-aged grocery store clerk was puzzled for the third time by the vegetable that moved down the conveyor belt. I felt a little bad that she had to interrupt her scanning rhythm to look up the price yet again for an unknown vegetable.

After I told her what they were (leeks), I ventured “You must have to remember a lot of different vegetables”

Yup, especially since I don’t use any of the produce here. I don’t cook…

Really, how do you manage that?

In great detail she told me that her father lived with her, his health situation, her obligation to care for him, and her choice to buy only frozen food, since she only wants to prepare what she can ‘stick in the microwave’.

I tried to convey concern through understanding looks and responses, made more difficult by wearing a mask. Still, as we spoke, her face got more animated and her eyes brightened.

She revealed so much about her life to me in such a short time and in the process, made me more sensitive to her life situation. All in a few sentences, with a pitiful amount of effort.

It is so unbelievably easy to bring a little humanity into our interactions.

Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) writes about two kinds of relationships in his book I and Thou. First is the type he identifies as a transactional relationship, which tends to be utilitarian. You’re just a waiter/teller/cashier/delivery person) so I don’t really need to interact with you. What can you do for me? I don’t have time, but just give me the bill/receipt/total/message.

Buber calls this type the “I – It” relationship and describes it as ‘monological’, meaning each person is talking at someone, not really with someone. It’s like a conversation we might have with a bot in a chat box. Each party says what they want to say, and nothing about the interaction contains any personal recognition.

This one-way ‘broadcast’ honors neither the speaker or the listener.

However, the “I-Thou” relationship is one that Buber calls “dialogical”; when two people relate to each other beyond the one-dimensional. They honor each other as people made in the Image of God —B’tzelem Elokim. The highest form of this relationship is when we converse with God.

The people in the relationship recognize the holy in each other, and that special quality is a palpable sacred presence when two people get together. God is the electricity that surges between them when two people relate to each other authentically and humanly.

It is the meeting not just of two entities, but of two souls.


Questions you might want to ask

Think about the relationships in your life. How would you describe them using this paradigm?

What about the quality of your relationships would you consider to be sacred?

What might hold you back from relating in this way?

For the full text of Buber’s I and Thou, click here. https://archive.org/details/IAndThou_572/mode/2up


To receive regular updates of my blog, please subscribe here.

 
 

 


spirited prayer from an unlikely source

Several years ago, on a lazy Sunday morning toward the end of a weekend getaway, my husband and I were strolling down the main street in Annapolis. The quiet was a presence in itself since shops were still closed, and the street was bereft of its usual bumper to bumper traffic. We took in how different the sleepy street seemed compared to the hustle and bustle of the night before.

As we approached a nondescript brick-faced building this amazing jazzy music from a live band filled the sidewalk space with inviting and energetic sounds. Saxophone and trumpet, along with piano and drums rhythmically provided a counterpoint to the quiet.

I wondered aloud what bar would possibly be open on a Sunday morning. I looked above the glass doors for some signage, but there was none. Not a single hint of what was inside. This was so strange.

But the music didn’t let me go.

So we lingered awhile, taking in the phenomenal music. I guess we might have been there a bit too long, because a bouncer-type person approached us through the closed glass doors, his arms muscular and huge, wearing a crisp white shirt and necktie with pressed pants.

Opening the door, he asked if we wanted to come in.

Since I couldn’t actually tell whether he was, in a nice way, asking us to move along and leave, or offering a genuine invitation to enter, my expression most likely said ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

All kinds of things ran through my head. Was this a gambling hall? An illicit private party?

Curiosity got the better of me. Almost as we were getting ready to move along I asked “What’s inside?”, probably a little too naïvely and not hiding the doubtful look on my face.

“Ma’am, we’re a Baptist church, wanna come in?”

What, a church??? Not what I thought at all.

“Uh, we were just listening to the music, it’s fantastic…so amazing….but we’re Jewish, but thank you….”

“You sure? It’s not a problem, you can come in and visit anyway.”

“But we’d be interrupting…isn’t there a service? Besides, we can’t stay long…we would have to leave…..” Of course, I was envisioning the services I was used to, when on Shabbat it would be almost pointless to arrive after the Torah service. We didn’t want to be disrespectful.

“It’s no matter at all, stay as long as you like, leave when you want. No pressure.”

Wow, this was a different concept.

So we entered slowly as he ushered us through heavy wooden doors. We found ourselves in a wide open room, filled with long wooden pews speckled with about 100 people or so. I was relieved to see that the surrounding walls were totally bare, no visuals or images that would have made us feel instantly uncomfortable, prompting us not to stay.

We sat in an unoccupied pew, toward the back of the room, trying to be inconspicuous. Right. We looked around and instantly felt so underdressed in our athleisure wear. We were a stark contrast to everyone’s Sunday best. Both women and men wore hats, and the women’s were works of art; feathers, sequins, and netting. We were also the only white people in the room.

This was another world entirely. A spirited chorus on the stage (bimah?), dressed in white robes, joined in for the next rhythmic rendition of a prayer, and everyone started clapping, slowly rising from their seats, energetically singing along. The lyrics melted into each other but nothing of what we heard was squirm-worthy for us. In fact, I hear more objectionable music around the winter holidays than I did that morning.

The music picked up and the excitement was palpable as the oak floor pulsed with the beat and as the stomping grew louder. Arms waved to the rhythm and it was evident that each person was making the experience personal. There seemed to be no peer pressure to behave in a certain way. This was striking.

Everyone was ‘all in’ and personalizing their experience. They were communing with a higher power, and it seemed as if that’s what they cared about and what they were there for. No one was looking around to see if their behavior was out of line, or too spirited.

There was no way I wanted to leave, even though I was an observer, because before my eyes were deeply spiritual people who were so involved in their prayer experience that I was mesmerized. I had never experienced anything like it.

The service continued in that way while people began noticing us. Some turned toward us and smiled, with kind and understanding looks that seemed to say “yup, we know you’re the only white people here, but don’t you bother about that, just enjoy.”

So we did. We listened to the minister preach as his arms emphatically gestured through the ups and downs of his message, which was about love and being true to the Lord and true to yourself. His passion grew to a crescendo, and his sermon ended with more singing and praise. If I took the word “Jesus” out of it, the message had meaning for all.

For the rest of the time that we were there (we didn’t stay for too long after that) there was no part of the service that wasn’t energetically sung or swayed to. They were there to gain spiritual nourishment not approval.

We left with an indescribable fulfilled feeling, and an appreciation for what we just witnessed, people who were enthralled with their faith and not shy about showing it, even to two outsiders.

When immersed in a truly spiritual experience, you are lost to thinking about time and the judgment of others. The purity of what you’re feeling surely carries you, and I think it is what we all strive for in our prayers, an untainted experience of the Divine so powerful that others can feel it.


To receive regular updates of my blog, please subscribe here.


Blessings and the Small “i” in Gratitude

 

Gratitude is being present in order to experience awe

When we are truly present we experience something riveting. The timeless nature of the moment and the fleeting quality of time are simultaneously in our awareness, and in that, we experience a sense of awe. Our recognition of the Creator, the One who binds everything together, often moves us to mark the moment with a blessing.

When we say a blessing, we’re not blessing God. God does not ‘need’ our blessing, we need to bless. In participating in the act of recognition/blessing, we are acknowledging that God is the Source. The act of blessing, a form of gratitude, is supposed to change us. 

Blessing arouses the part within us that yearns for connection on a deeper level

Saying a blessing awakens our desire to connect with the Source. During the Amidah (silent prayer), the beautiful opportunity to express our gratitude comes before the conclusion and is known as “Modim Anachnu Lach”.  Here is a portion:

We are grateful to you as we recount your praises, for our lives are entrusted in your hand, and our souls are in your safekeeping–for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good works that are with us at all times: evening, morning, and midday.

The term for Gratitude in Hebrew involves more than just a definition, it is part of who we are as a people (we are Yehudim, Jews, from the root word to thank).

There is a gift in knowing that we don’t take life for granted and as we pull our egos aside we allow ourselves to recognize the greatness of the moment. That very pulling away is alluded to in the parsha of Vayetzei, when Jacob dreams of Messengers/Angels going up and down a ladder to the heavens. God grants him an enormous and generous blessing. Jacob, upon awakening says:

” אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃”

“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I, I did not know!”

It is a sudden awareness of God’s presence in the universe and as if to wake us up to that moment, there is an extra “I” [וְאָנֹכִ֖י]  in the text that is not necessary, since yadati [יָדָֽעְתִּי ] already means “I did not know”. What is the purpose of the additional “I”? What about our own selves prevents us from recognizing the obvious, that God is in all places?

When we are filled with ego, there is no room for awe

There have been many interpretations* of this verse, but the one I relate to the most is from the school of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) that says the first “I” represents our being filled with ourselves, our own ego.

As the recipient of his father Isaac’s chosen blessing, favored over Esau, Jacob’s importance inflated. In that state, he was unable to envision the nature of God in the world. That is the “I” that didn’t know God.

HaMakom – The Place and Everyplace

At the end of the dream, Jacob is aware of God’s presence everywhere. Jacob refers to “Bamakom” [ בַּמָּק֖וֹם ] meaning “in this place” and the word for place is used several verses earlier. Some commentators mention that it refers to Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, where Abraham took Isaac to be bound.

Rabban Gamliel, in times after the destruction of the Second Temple 70 C.E., noted that even God can be found in a bush, as in Moses’ vision. That idea, that God is All-Encompassing and Ever-Present is embedded in the term we use for one of the names of God, “HaMakom“. God was as close to Jacob, appearing in his heart and mind, and occupying all possible space.

May we all merit the opportunity to experience a sense of awe, expressing our gratitude to our Source with a blessing for being alive at this time. 


Much appreciation to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of God was in this place and I, i did not know where I first encountered ideas about the small “i” with its many interpretations and meanings.


Funny, I only hear from you when you need something

A little while ago, before you moved away, you had a very close friend. You spoke almost every day, and sometimes you finished each other’s thoughts. Often, there wasn’t even a need to say anything. You related to each other on a feeling level. If anything bothered you, you reached out. But time has passed, and your conversations are far fewer. You don’t share as much and so the details of daily life don’t seem as relevant. You pause before calling. You second guess yourself. When you do speak, the conversations are polite, but not as rich as when you spoke every day. How is that so? Wouldn’t you have even more to talk about now? But it doesn’t work like that. The more distance you have between times of connection, the more distant you feel.

The same is true of your relationship with God. It is difficult to muster up the emotional content you need to develop a relationship when you connect only a few times a year.

Prayer is about relationship. [Continue reading here…]


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.



 


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.

 

 

 


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.


Shema: Searching for the “One”

The Experience of the Holy

This post is not about matchmaking, or even the journey to find your ‘soul mate’.

Here, searching for the “One” refers to our deep desire to achieve integration, to be at ‘one’ with who we are on the inside with how we behave on the outside. To feel whole.

The challenge is that often, although we know who we want to be in the ideal, we often behave in ways that don’t hit that target. Syncing doesn’t always occur, mainly because life gets in the way and we don’t pay close enough attention. It takes an awful lot of work and there’s only so much bandwidth.

So we need a tool, and reciting even the first line of the Shema prayer (Deuternonomy 6:4) might get us to focus on who and what “the One” refers to. The Shema affirms the Unity of God.… but this goes beyond mere numbers. We don’t say that God is “one” as opposed to “two”….we say that God is all encompassing. Oneness as in totality. Everything.

The verse also demands that we pay attention. 

Shema Ysrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. 

Listen up Israel, the Lord is Our God. The Lord Alone is One.

The word Shema is often translated as “Hear” but one can hear without listening. We do that most of the time when we don’t work  hard enough to be fully present in our conversations. The command (and it is a command), is for us to listen, as a person and as a people, to what it means that God alone is “One”.

Actually, the Shema is a very compassionate statement. God’s singularity is unique: God alone is One. We’ll never approach the integration we’re seeking because, well, we’re human. The very name Israel means struggling with God, yet being on a straight path toward God. Layers of understanding are provided for us in these words.

Since we are created in God’s Image (B’tzelem Elohim), we are tasked with emulating God. It is a goal that we strive for but will never be able to reach in our lifetimes. Our fallibility as human beings is our constant search for our innermost essence, our spiritual side, the truest part of ourselves, yet we always have to deal with the physical reality of our bodies.

It is our challenge to navigate between the physical and the spiritual.  We are physical creatures who yearn for glimpses of a spiritual existence. We want what we can’t have, but still, we can experience tiny morsels of an elevated existence.

We can teeter above our baseness by trying some of the tools we have available: meditation, study, prayer, fasting, blessings, chanting and more. Venturing too far off by exclusively immersing ourselves in these practices is not the Jewish way. We don’t remove ourselves from our reality. We don’t take on extreme behavior. We want to experience and enjoy all the gifts of this world.

Our task is to connect with God and others, and build loving relationships.

So we live within the struggle. Body and Soul. Head and Heart.

May you experience, even for brief moments, the glory that is within you.

May you be in alignment with your truest essence and live with the joy of knowing that you were created in the Image of God. 

 

 


Yom Kippur Juxtapositions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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