Tag Archives: Judaism

Peeling Away the Layers

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

If not now, when? Hillel, Foundational Ethics, 1:14

One should set aside a definitive time of the day and a specific amount of time for this assessment [of your ways] so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one that is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields great returns. [Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, ch. 3]

~ Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto, known as the RaMChaL [1707 – 1746], author of Mesilat Yesharim, a foundational Mussar text. 

In the Introduction to Rabbi Luzzatto’s seminal work, he says that he is not going to tell you anything that you don’t know already. Imagine. The author of one of the most famous Mussar texts of all time saying that basically, there’s nothing new that I’m going to tell you.

He doesn’t insult us with what we know in our insides already. What gets in the way of a deeper ‘knowing’ is our intellectual ego. We get in the way of ourselves. Sometimes, we know there is a lack in our lives, but we avoid doing anything about it. Science calls it inertia. We can call it many things: scrolling, watching, shopping…..anything that we do mindlessly that takes us away from what might really change things us for us.

Peeling away those layers that have obscured our inner purity and desire for connection with the greater Whole takes work. And sometimes, I get it, we’re just not up for it.

But now is the time, as Hillel said. “If not now, when?” Although for us, the secular New Year doesn’t even play a close second to the work we’re asked to do in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, while everyone else is busy making resolutions, you might just decide that now is the time to engage in Jewish study, the type that will elevate you just a little bit, and get you closer to peeling away another layer. 

I have been lazy a bit myself, not developing the courses I’d like to because it is frankly, a lot of work. But I will push myself in the New Year, and I hope you will push yourselves towards your goals as well. Now is the time. Happy New Year! 

This post was originally published in Inner Focus, a spiritual newsletter of Inner Judaism. If you want to sign up, click here.


Dead and Live Jews

Photo by kira schwarz on Pexels.com

The title of Dara Horn’s new book People Love Dead Jews actually repulsed me, so I dismissed it as a book I that I probably wouldn’t read.

You see, I grew up with dead Jews. My parents, born in Poland, came to this country leaving behind remnants of what could have been robust family trees. My profound sense of loss at having no grandparents hit me at a young age and among those missing from my life were aunts, uncles, and many cousins who could have enriched my life greatly. Through the years, I resisted focusing on the loss — on so many who were not a part of my life. Doing that would have put me in such a dark place that I don’t think I could have escaped from easily.

So, I didn’t feel like immersing myself in that world, in reliving my losses. This book seemed to be a sardonic take on the death of tragic victims. Besides, we are not dead. People tried to kill us, over and over again. After all, it’s even a joke, ever since the comedian Alan King said: “a summary of every Jewish holiday is – they tried to kill us, we won—let’s eat”. But the inescapable fact is that we’re still here, and that is incredibly miraculous. We’re an ancient people who constantly resurrect themselves from the dead.

Still, as a Jewish educator, immersed in all things Jewish, I felt this gnawing obligation to search the book out. At least it would be for the purpose of learning what another writer besides Bari Weiss, had to say about antisemitism, in this post-Pittsburgh-Tree of Life-massacre era.

Searching for the book on Amazon, even the algorithm’s bot questioned my choice of words: “Did you mean people live dead Jews?” . After the book popped up and accepting the invitation to “look inside”, I was riveted after reading the first essay. It’s difficult to formally review this book because it entails navigating through potential spoilers and tiptoeing through stories of the familiar (e.g., Anne Frank, Ellis Island, Shakespeare) that will absolutely widen your eyes. You will also read stories that were intentionally buried under mounds of willful deception. Often, it will be painful to continue.

So many times, the emotions of disgust, helplessness, anger, and hopelessness took over, forcing me to put the book down, and it was often hard to pick up the book again. But due to my own stubbornness and an allegiance to peoplehood, I felt I owed it to yes, my dead ancestors, to read about how Jews, in so many different situations through the ages were robbed materially, physically, and spiritually, of living a normal and decent life.

Dara Horn is a painstaking researcher who removes any doubt you might have about the veracity of her stories. Her descriptions are so factually detailed, there leaves no room for any doubt about her accounts, which actually makes things harder to take. Whatever we thought before about the outrageous antisemitic acts that are part of our collective history….it’s actually worse than that.

Missing from Horn’s book are prescriptions for how to counter the whirlwind of hate detailed in essays like Dead Jews of the Desert and Blockbuster Dead Jews. For that, I would recommend grabbing a copy of Weiss’ book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The book that Dara Horn wrote is for peeling away the blanketing layer of comfort we’ve been living under.

Now you are forewarned, but please, you must read this book. Some essays will turn your stomach, some might set you on a course of activism (I hope so). But you have to gain the knowledge that Horn is providing you. You probably won’t find these stories anywhere else, and you owe it to yourself and yes, your dead ancestors, to be informed.

Through the ages, we’ve been ‘going along to get along’, rowing merrily, thinking that by blending in, and even losing a sense of ourselves in the process, we’ll be armored from hate.

Both history and Dara Horn show us that it will not work and never has.


Changing Day by Day

The rhythm of the Jewish calendar allows us to sense a deeper level of experience beyond the seasons. Soon we will be leaving the month of Av, which required us to face our national tragedies and mourn for what we lost. Entering Elul, we turn a period of the Jewish people mourning as a nation into a personal accounting for change. We are given the tools to remake ourselves.

Elul is a time expressly for soulful thinking about our true selves and who we want to be. Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. After the void of despair from the prior month and wondering where God was in all of our horrible losses, we find that we are in a different space entirely. God is with us, and we are hopeful. We can be renewed…. Read more about the secrets embedded in the Jewish calendar here….


If you’re reading this…..

Please offer your opinion, it will take < 5 minutes and you’ll receive my “Guidebook to Journaling” when you complete it. Be sure to include your email at the end of the survey.  

I have so many questions for you, but I also want to respect your time. What are you curious about learning? What are your interests in Judaic knowledge? Would you be willing to take a few minutes to complete this survey to tell me a little bit about you and your interests? In advance, thank you very much.


Torah in the Wilderness

Journeying the Omer distance, from Passover to Shavuot, allowed us to experience our ancient roots as part of Am Yisrael / The Nation of Israel, as we rejoice in the everlasting gift of Torah.

In the upcoming weeks, we will be in the book of Torah called BaMidbar / The Wilderness. The Torah was given in the wilderness, a place of no distractions, of expansiveness and silence, evoking a sense of awe for the Divine —the way it feels when you look at the rolling ocean or gaze way up at canyon walls; nature that is untouched and pure. In those moments, we become very small and lose a sense of our physical selves. It is then that we are able to reach inward, connecting to our pure spiritual souls. Losing the sense of our own importance enables us to be open to receive. It’s a great lesson for life. More on this can be found on my post “Being in the Wilderness” and on my sourcesheet on Sefaria.org.

 Two opportunities to learn together are coming up soon! Enrollment is limited in order to foster an intimate learning environment. Check below for course information and updates.

Journaling Immersive 

Have you tried journaling as a regular practice? Different from a diary…it is an incredibly powerful tool for self-discovery. If you haven’t established this spiritual practice yet, and want to experience how to jump-start your process, please join me!   Info here

The Mussar Path  

This successful mini-course begins this week! If you are not familiar with Mussar, this will offer you a healthy introduction.   Read more here


Your Light of Wisdom

Our days are rather filled “up” with day-to-day undertakings, and sometimes we barely get in all the activities we schedule in.

So where and how do we make room for study?

How can we be different today if we haven’t focused on what that even means?

After all, even one of the highest compliments one can pay to a Torah scholar is to call that person a “Talmid Chacham”…literally a student of wisdom. So, even at the highest level of scholarship, one is still a student.

Read more here…. [and subscribe to Inner Judaism to be notified of new posts!].


Omer Counting

Photo by Robin Schreiner on Pexels.com

This year, I am involving myself more personally and seriously than ever before in the counting of the Omer, the period of time between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks).

The counting of 49 Days (beginning on the second night of Passover) is like a metaphoric step ladder. We ascend the ladder in daily steps, in order to experience a spiritual transformation and to have a proper mindset before we ‘re-enact’ the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot.

In the past, I was pretty sloppy about this practice; sometimes remembering, most often forgetting, to count the passing of days. Read more here…. [and subscribe to Inner Judaism to be notified of new posts!].


Passover: The Inner Message of Freedom

Hebrew is full of secrets, embedded with layers and layers of meaning, woven from the thread of reality as Judaism sees it.

I happened on verses from Shemot / Exodus and there, two verses in particular speak to the Holiness of the Torah. Read more about what these messages say here….


The Promise of Nissan

The month of Nissan is a time of new beginnings! In the Bible, this month is also known as Aviv. Read more about Aviv’s hidden messages here, on Inner Focus, from Inner Judaism.


The Inner Meaning of Happiness

How does Judaism define Happiness? How do we differentiate between a feeling that is fleeting, and one that truly lingers and impacts our lives? Read more here, and subscribe on Inner Judaism to receive updates in your inbox. 


You can listen by writing

 
Journaling is an incredible tool that I don’t use often enough.
 

I’m not sure why we resist the practice of journaling so much.

For me, it is still not so easy to face a blank page, even after journaling for many years.

Why is this so? Well, for one, the stark white surface stares at me with the boldest indignation muttering “Go ahead, I dare you…write what you really feel, and oh yes, try to keep it short please….”

The other thing that holds me back is the deeper, darker reason—confronting myself with the parts of me that I’d rather ignore. This seems like a compelling reason to postpone. Hey, if I don’t bring up any negative feelings they don’t exist, right?

Perhaps I also find it challenging because my practice is not very regular. I don’t do “morning pages” [the creative foundational tool promoted by Julia Cameron years ago] because I am always in a rush to get the day started and more often than not, writing ends up last on my list of ‘to-do’s’ in a day.

Another reason is that sometimes it feels so self-indulgent to take even more time to write after all the other practices I do on a daily basis. (really, how can people fit it all in??)

Yet when I do write, I feel accomplished in a precious indescribable way. It’s as if I’ve given voice to the unspeakable, to the deepest part of my soul. I am emboldened to have slayed the white page monster. I am a little more at peace. And I feel brave for looking at myself the way I know I need to.

There are very real benefits to this practice, and if learning about them will encourage you to write more, then read away here, and here, and even here.

You can start writing your thoughts spontaneously at any point in the day. Try just writing even one sentence at a time. Once you unlock that gate to your inner self, it will get used to the air and come forward more often.

Try any of these 7 Journaling tips to help you get started:

  1. What you write is for you alone.

  2. You don’t need a fancy journal book. A spiral bound notebook, or composition book (remember them?), or just some stapled pages will serve the purpose. On the other hand, you might choose to go in the opposite direction. Pick the most attractive book and writing implement if it will serve as an incentive for you.

  3. This is not the place to worry about grammar or syntax (see #1).

  4. You don’t even have to begin with words. You might try doodling at first, just to loosen up your creative brain. Or use pictures to represent a feeling or mood.

  5. The next time you’re facing an issue, or a cross-roads, try ‘talking it through’ by writing.

  6. Silence the “judgey” voice that tries to critique you at the outset. There is absolutely no wrong or right in this practice.

  7. Even if nothing comes to you at first, you can begin writing “nothing is coming to me…” (guaranteed to work, let me know if it doesn’t).

Do you have a journaling practice? If so, can you share what it is? Your ideas can help others who are struggling, and we can struggle together. How about it? Offer your comments on InnerJudaism’s Facebook page.


To receive regular updates of my blog, please subscribe here, on my new website “Inner Judaism”. Mention this post and I’ll send you my “Guidebook to Journaling”. 

 


What Tikkun Olam really means

 

Tikkun Olam, תיקון עולם, literally “Repair the World” is a Jewish concept that barely needs definition. Showing up in many places, a form of these words is also recited at the end of the prayer “Aleinu”, the closing of many formal prayer services.

There, we speak of a future vision of wholeness and our ability, in the days to come, to repair the broken parts of our world within the majesty of the Source [le-taken olam b’malchut shaddai].

The message is that correcting the brokenness will not occur in isolation, but will be realized when we acknowledge our true spiritual connection with God. It is our job to bring out the sparks of holiness in our physical world.

How do we bring that idea down to the personal? In response, many people participate in “mitzvah days”, “days of service” and “Tikkun Olam” programs. We all look forward to the time when we can gather again to do this important work. But we can’t be on hold either. And when we really think about our responsibility to change the world, it can be overwhelming.

Judaism has your back. The word Tikkun appears as הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ in our sources and can be defined as “Repair Yourself” (also, prepare yourself). The change begins within, and that we can do now and all the time.

In Pirkei Avot [Foundational Ethics, 4:16], Rabbi Jacob says that our experience in this world is similar to our being in a corridor, a place to prepare ourselves for the next world, Olam HaBa.

A better world comes about by changing ourselves, by acting in the present moment. The actions we take might be minor, very small, but those actions ripple outwards.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement (a movement focused on ethical behavior) in the 19th century came to this conclusion:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. I discovered that I couldn’t change the town. So, as I grew older, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself….
Then I can make an impact on my family…and from that, our family could impact our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world!” [edited]
 

The Gaon of Vilna, a century earlier, said “The ultimate purpose of learning Torah is to change your character”.

Changing ourselves can only happen when we become intimately aware of our actions. We often drift within the passing of our days, only realizing our stumbles when we’ve already fallen off the cliff of our relationships.

There are many practices, built into Judaism, that gift us with capturing moments of awareness. Becoming aware of moments before they flit away is possible through blessings, meditation, prayer, and engaging in mitzvot (commandments—there are many that don’t involve large groups)—you can choose what works for you. At their core, all involve a ‘living-in-the-present’ focus.

Ironically, when we hold onto the present in these ways, the future is within our reach. This Tikkun of Ourselves, הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ, can be the ripple that turns into a wave for Tikkun Olam תיקון עולם.

 

 

To receive regular updates of my blog, please subscribe here, on my new website “Inner Judaism”

Check out the new “Meditative Drawing” event here.

To experience a deeper Torah portion class, based on your character traits, learn more here. 


Your soul is speaking, are you listening?

 

Aren’t I the only one here? What’s this business about me, a soul and all this spirituality stuff?

There’s a lot of talk about soul (not the music kind). This buzz is being captured by Disney’s just-released blockbuster movie by the same name. 

So, do you feel a little out of this whole loop? Defining the indefinable is a familiar challenge (it’s hard enough to think about God, right?).

Judaism has so many beautiful teachings about the soul, so let’s examine one small way of understanding our soul.

Is the you that is reading this the inner you? How do you become aware of your own actions? Do you rethink things, mull them over in you mind? Do you replay events over and over? Who is the “you” that is doing this? Well, it actually depends. We know there are several voices in our head….and it takes time to gain a refined ability to figure out who’s talking. There’s the ego, the body, the mind—all competing for a ticket to be in the front seat of your show.

Not to mention the poor little soul struggling to get its’ own voice heard. What a cacophony.

Our egos are talking to us all the time, wanting to pretend that they are our voice. Know how you can tell? The ego’s voice is not actually very nice, it’s the one saying things like: “You’re an imposter”, “You got to be kidding me, you think that you can do that?” “I want this thing…NOW”, “I need to stay in bed…” and a lot of other unsavory tidbits.

That voice is the cruel judge, the procrastinator, the incessant advice-giver, the one who lives in fear, the snide critic, the self-centered egotist, and any other image that you can conjure up that works for you. Identifying the voice as one that speaks out of Fear not Love will help.

In time, you’ll get to recognize these uninvited intrusive guests, which is the first step in muzzling them (notice I didn’t use the word silence…it’s likely that won’t happen).

Ultimately, you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. Your soul knows what is authentically true about you, but over time, as you can imagine, that voice gets hidden under a lot of other, well, garbage. Some spiritual teachers are more delicate…saying that ‘spiritual veils’ cover the purest part of ourselves, which is our soul.

One tool to be able to discern your authentic voice is to try out Rabbi Manis Friedman’s recommendation which makes things far more simpler. Just think of your soul as having two aspects which can serve as a more trusted guide.

Is your voice telling you to be Selfless or Selfish?

When you spend a little bit of time quieting down the noise, and start listening to the voice that needs your help, the selfless one, you should gain better footing.


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

To register for “Secrets of the Hebrew Alphabet” click here.

Check out the new “Meditative Drawing” event here.

 


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.