Tag Archives: Judaism

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. 


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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.

 

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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


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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.


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What exactly is Jewish Identity?

For years, I’ve used the term “Jewish identity”, and never gave it too much thought. As a Jewish educator, the talk among my colleagues was often about how to instill our teenagers with a strong sense of their Jewish identity. This was so that they would feel a part of the Jewish community and continue that connection throughout college and beyond. 

Recently, I started to think about this descriptor more deeply. It seems like an “add-on”—as if identity can be carved up into little pieces and assigned categories. Isn’t your identity just who you are? 

As in, “I don’t have a Jewish identity, I am Jewish”. Period. 

This might sound a bit silly or trivial, but our language speaks volumes about our situation in life and sometimes even the choices we make.

I remember hearing a question asked by one Jewish person to another: “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?” 

The person answered, “I’m Jewish. That’s it. Anything more is unnecessary”. 

If the goal is to integrate how we present ourselves on the outside with our innermost being, assigning extra adjectives to who we are seems counter-productive.

Years ago, there was much attention and concern in the formal Jewish community about whether or not our teenagers would have “Jewish identities”. This was especially in response to alarming polls (Pew studies) that announced an extremely high intermarriage rate (70% in progressive, aka non-Orthodox, communities).

So there was an awful lot of programming that was fun and engaging so that doing Jewish would be enjoyable and therefore, increase one’s desire to identify with what was causing the overall good feelings (Jewish stuff).

But I think we are paying the price for ‘fun’. 

Sarah Hurwitz, known as the Obama’s speechwriter, recently wrote a book called Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). 

Others in her generation have also said that their Hebrew school education didn’t offer them enough meaning. 

I wonder if organizations still debate whether various programming meets the goal of “increasing Jewish identity”.

I’m not saying that enjoyable activities shouldn’t occur, but not as the sole rationale for the experience. 

What exactly is a Jewish identity? Is it a sense of obligation to tradition? Is it a commitment to continue to study our texts and glean meaning from them? Is it a commitment to keep certain mitzvot or to undertake more? Is it a desire to socialize only with other Jews? 

My educational philosophy was unpopular then, as it probably is now.

I believe that by offering programming of meaning (which may or not be fun), the message we give is that Judaism has something to say about your life. You can be enriched by seeing your life through a Jewish lens and by living and practicing as a Jew. 

Is that fun? Sometimes. Does it have staying power? Absolutely.  

I think that after experiencing a Jewish program, you should expect to experience some change, to be more learned and aware than before. I don’t believe that goal is met by merely socializing with other Jews.  

Historically, Jews did not have to make these distinctions. Our ancestors “did” Jewish because they were Jewish. Being Jewish meant that you participated in Jewish activities that felt natural to you and your community [prayer, acts of loving kindness, monetary donations, visiting the sick (pre-covid), etc.]. 

Now, in some communities, we seek to “do” Jewish in order to “feel” Jewish.

How Jewish do you feel?

What are you doing that is “Jewish”? What could you be doing? What little changes could you make that would strengthen you as a Jew? 

 


Want to learn more? Please visit Inner Judaism for course information. 


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…]


The Business of Life

Life and Loss

[Please bear with me as I am in the midst of transitioning this blog to my new website. Please subscribe on that site, InnerJudaism to continue receiving my posts. Thank you!]

“Now as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to G-d. That idea has no place in the imaginative world of the first book of the Torah. To the contrary: the covenant is G-d’s challenge to us, not ours to G-d. The meaning of the events of Chayei Sarah is that Abraham realised that G-d was depending on him. Faith does not mean passivity. It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise—who must bring it about.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l

 

For most of us, these times are difficult and as many have said, this year has wreaked plenty of havoc in our lives. If we even begin to focus on the societal losses of life, personal space, and more, the list can be overwhelming. Hearing about the deaths of some of my heroes this year has added new reasons for me to be sad.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, Representative John Lewis (may his memory be for a blessing), and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg z”l were champions of justice and worked their entire lives on demonstrating the importance of standing up for what you believe in and not desisting from the huge effort that often takes.  

Dealing with loss 

This week’s parsha (portion), Chayei Sarah, puts death front and center. In the first few verses, we experience the cries of Avraham as he bemoans the loss of his life partner who accompanied him on his dogged pursuit of changing the world for the better.

Although I ‘got to know’ Sarah by reading about her in various Biblical stories, it was not until I studied the text in this parsha (portion) that I learned how much she was revered. Maybe my early impressions were formed because most often it seemed that Sarah was acted upon (“Quick, knead and make cakes, you will have a son, act as my sister”, etc.) and that her place was most often in the background. But as we get older we realize that the person behind is often the one steering the boat.

I was unaware of just how much she was respected and admired until commentators enlightened me on this (you can read my sourcesheet here). In Talmudic times, Rabbi Abba noted that of all the women in the world, the Torah only mentions Sarah’s age by numbers of days and years. It is if we are asked to truly focus on the fullness of her life. This is only evident by reading the Hebrew, where we are asked to repeat the word shanah (year) three different times. This makes us read her age slowly, not just run through how old she was, but to take stock on a life well lived. The midrash notes that the extent of her prophecy was even greater than Avraham’s (Shemot Rabbah 1:1). 

The business of life

After Avraham bemoans his great loss, he gets up from sitting with her body to go about the business of purchasing land for her burial. These negotiations were complex and riddled with opportunities for failure. We are told that this was one of the tests that Abraham endured. After all, God promised him land but not that it would come easily. He had to deal with an incredible amount of obstacles to purchase the Cave of Machpelah which was at the edge of a field, not worth much, but for which he paid 400 shekels of silver, an exorbitant amount in those days (I learned that sum equals about 6 million dollars in today’s currency). And so it goes. Through loss, we often see a person in a new light. We focus on the legacy of their lives and what they leave us with, instead of the fact that they are no longer here physically. But we also challenge ourselves in new ways that we could not have predicted. We rise to the occasion. We overcome.

Through our losses, may we heal by carrying the important values of someone’s life in our hearts and may we continue on the path that they have set for us. 


A Journey to “Inner Judaism”

Photo by Ian Turnell on Pexels.com

This blog has become an intimate part of my life. I began writing it in 2011 as part of a class on Educational Technology. The assignment was to explore different blog platforms, choose one, write a quick introductory “hello”, and post. 

From then on, I was hooked. Thousands of visitors and views later, I shared my many experiences with you: what it was like working with Jewish teens, convincing others about the importance of post b’nai mitzvah Jewish education, stressing about the lack of support from the Jewish community, and what it has felt like to go deeper into the realm of spirituality.

I have been fortunate to write what I feel and think in the hope that you will connect a little bit to what I’m sharing with you.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.       [To continue reading on Inner Judaism, click here]

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


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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.