Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Count is Accounted for

היום תשעה וארבעים יום, שהם שבעה שבועות ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-nine days, which is seven weeks, of the omer
מלכות שבמלכות
A day of leadership in a week of leadership

With this post, the account of the count of this year's omer is complete.

We take note of the contemplations, of the seeing from different perspectives, of gaining new awarenesses. And when the next reflective time in our sacred calendar comes around--the month of Elul, those days leading up to the spiritual intensiveness of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur -- we can make them our teshuvah, our returning, as we look for the next guides for our life and our path.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Remembrance - My Uncle Eddie

היום שמונה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות וששה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-eight days, which is six weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שבמלכות
A day of foundation in a week of leadership

This morning at minyan I commemorated the yarhzeit of my uncle Eddie. Eddie was a bombardier during World War two--one of those who did not make it home. Although I never met him, I feel a close tie to him and need to honor his memory--not just for me, not just for my dad, not just for my family. Because of records that have now been made public and available on the internet, we now know the date and circumstances of his death. But at the insistence and support of my minyan community,  I share this commemoration and these words so we remember the reason we mark this Memorial Day.

"Pa - so you thought I forgot your anniversary. Well, at least Ma stood by me. I'm glad you liked the card. . . I received a letter from Seymour on Tuesday and he tells me that he made P.F.C - You can't imagine what a kick I got out of hearing this. I went around and passed cigarettes to the boys just like a father passes out cigars when he gets a baby"

"You ask what's new with me. There is still nothing definite to tell you. We may as well not kid each other - when I finish my training here I will be due to go over. . . Please don't start worrying about me - there is still plenty of time for that. . . I'm not worried about anything except that you are worrying about me. This is a great experience for me and I'm sure I will benefit by it. Why, there must be a million fellows who would do anything to trade places with me and get on a B-29 crew"

Those words were written by my uncle, Lieutenant Edward Heiss, US Army Air Force, in letters to his parents, my grandparents, in January and February, 1944. He signed off, as he did all his letters, with "I am feeling fine. So long. Lots of love, Eddie." One year later, on January 11, 1945, his B-29 fell to the ground in pieces somewhere over Malaysia. Of the eleven crew members, only three made it out alive---he was not one of those three.

When I was growing up, a colored version of this photo was on my grandmother's dresser. I was curious who it was, but somehow, never asked. I don't remember when or how I found out who he was. Once I did, I wondered how my family's life would have been different if he had come home.

I wonder about this man--the one so often photographed with a smile. The one who, as my father tells it, convinced my dad to go with him to Yankee Stadium one Rosh Hashanah.

The commanding officer of his squadron wrote my grandparents, "No matter how fatigued he may have been, or how he felt personally, Edward always had a laugh and a word of encouragement, to cheer the other members of his crew and squadron. . . He undoubtedly was one of the best liked officers in this organization."

My Uncle Eddie received a Purple Heart, posthumously.
I would have rather had him in my life.

On Memorial Day we need to remember that war, justified or not, will always take its toll.

Zichrono L'vracha
His remembrance is a blessing to my dad, to me, and to all with whom I share his story.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Moment a Day

היום שבעה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות וחמשה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שבמלכות
A day of humility in a week of leadership

When we read and study about the 40 years the Israelites traveled bamidbar--in the wilderness, we usually look at the generation that had to die off before they entered the land. We rarely focus on those who grew up during that time, coming into their own as they enter the land. They needed that time to hear the stories of their people; learn the laws and rituals of their community; receive the teachings of their sages. They also needed that time to process those stories, laws, rituals, and teachings to both make them their own and bring them forward.

We have a chance to go through that process each year as we travel through our "wilderness," counting the daily sheaves of the omer. From yesterday's recognition of the perseverance needed to continue the journey comes humility in the realization that making the commitment, of taking that time to reflect--even if it's just for a moment a day--is what the process is about.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The spiral of our life

היום ששה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות וארבעה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-six days, which is six weeks and four days, of the omer
נצח שבמלכות
A day of perseverance in a week of leadership

The day of perseverance falls on Shabbat this year, which gives us the space this week to stop and reflect on what it meant to keep up this count, as that first rush of intention and that second rush of determination wears off.

It's a long journey from liberation to revelation, with twists and turns and sometimes a drop off along the way. But ritual is about perseverance, and wherever we get this year, we can build to the next. The spiritual cycle becomes an integral part of the spiral of our life.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Shavuot Explained

היום חמשה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות ושלשה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-five days, which is six weeks and three days, of the omer
תפארת שבמלכות
A day of compassion in a week of leadership

We are getting very close to the milestone of our journey, Shavuot. It is an important biblical holiday; one of the Shelosh Regalim, the three times of the year Jews were to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But with no compelling rituals there is no mass appeal. It is the most major holiday no one knows about.

Thanks to the team at BimBam, here's your guide to Shavuot, in all it's Torah glory.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Strength of Sound

היום ארבעה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות ושני ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-four days, which is six weeks and two days, of the omer
גבורה שבמלכות
A day of strength in a week of leadership

I spent this day of strength & leadership in song at a workshop led by Joey Weisenberg organized by The Jewish Studio Project. While some of the songs had words, much of the music made with our voices were niggunim--wordless melodies.

Letting go and just creating sounds, blending them with others in harmony and counterpoint, can be a powerful entrance into prayer. It brings deep connections, reaching out in all directions and cycling back within us.

Voice connects us to creation which, in the Torah, starts with, "וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹ - God said let there be light, and there was light"  And in the text we studied today, led by Rabbi Dorothy Richman, the receiving of  עשרת הדיברות, the 10 Utterances, the 10 Commandments, in the familiar parlance, was preceded by an intensity of light and sound that would rival any over the top rock concert special effects.

Sound has the power to wake us up and lull us to sleep; scare us and soothe us.
Sound can motivate us and block us; hurt our ears, and heal our souls.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wisdom of Age

היום שלשה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות ויום אחד, בעמר
Today is forty-three days, which is six weeks and one day, of the omer
חסד שבמלכות
A day of loving-kindness in a week of leadership

As I grow older, I'm discovering that my perspective contains the perspectives from younger eras of my life -- and the sum is, as it's said, greater than the whole. Calling up those earlier perspectives, I see the similarities with those who are the age I was at that time and hopefully, acknowledge and be aware of our differences. Taken together, the similarities and differences bring connection as we relate to each other while learning from each other.

The wisdom of age is the ability to bring together these different perspectives of time and culture, helping, with loving-kindness, to lead the next generation into their age of wisdom.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roman Holiday

היום שנים וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות, בעמר
Today is forty-two days, which is six weeks, of the omer
מלכות שביסוד
A day of leadership in a week of foundation

Once again, the leadership days are just a reminder that we have no leadership in this country.

I will just breath through the day and enjoy seeing Roman Holiday tonight, enjoying the Cole Porter tunes.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Minyan is for your sake

היום אחד וארבעים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וששה ימים, בעמר
Today is forty-one days, which is five weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שביסוד
A day of foundation in a week of foundation

Practice has become my theme of this week of foundation. So on this double day of foundation, I honor the most foundational of the foundations of my Jewish practice---minyan. To do that, I once again share the words of my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, who gifted me with this practice.

There have been many times in these past 15+ years, for many different reasons, that I've wanted to just stop going to morning minyan. But each time, I could hear Rabbi Lew in my head, "Marilyn, you can't just give it up because you don't like it now."

Keeping up the practice is the practice. It both renews and strengthens the foundation.

Minyan is for your sake - Rabbi Alan Lew, Nov 1996
Our daily minyan is one of the great treasures of our congregation. It provides our members and people all over Northern California with a place to mourn, to observe yarzheits, or to simply turn to God in the traditional Jewish way at times in their lives when they feel an urgent need to do so. 
But the greatest beneficiaries of the minyan are the people who attend every day. Why is this so? According to the Midrash Ein Yakov, Yehudah HaNasi once asked three of his students, "Mah Hapasuk Hakolel Biyoter Batorah-- what is the most inclusive verse in all the Torah?" Ben Zoma chose the Shema -- "Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, The Lord Alone!" Ben Azai made another obvious choice -- "Vi-a-havta li-reacha kamocha -- You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Then Ben Pazi, a much more obscure rabbi then either Ben Zoma or Ben Azai, chose a verse which was also much more obscure -- one of the laws of the Temple Sacrifice from the Book of Numbers: "You shall offer up one lamb every morning and one lamb every night."
"I agree with Ben Pazi," Yehudah HaNasi said. His students were dumbfounded. How could he prefer this apparently trivial verse to a fundamental statement of principle like the Shema, or a great ethical concept like the commandment to love one's neighbor. The reason, I think, is precisely because they were principles and concepts. The implicit message of this Midrash is that it isn't principles or concepts which really count-- rather it is what we do every day. "You shall offer up one lamb every morning and one lamb every night." If we express our faith in specific, concrete deeds, and if we do so rain or shine on a regular basis, then we are engaged religiously in a way that mere thoughts and good intentions can never engage us. 
Daily minyan is the modern version of the single lamb our ancestors offered up every morning and every evening. Praying every day we come to know the full range of human spiritual potential; from transcendant exaltation to stultifying boredom; from the frustration of not quite knowing what we're saying to the joy of being swept up in a spiritual energy larger than our own. Praying every day with others we get a very real sense of how difficult it is to join in real communion with others, and how wonderful it feels when we finally manage to do so; praying every day with others we come to explore that tenuous boundary between self and other which is always the real locus of the spiritual experience. 
The holidays are great; they lend a sense of spiritual structure to the cycle of the year. Shabbat is wonderful. Our practice of Judaism deepens precipitously when we begin to take Shabbat seriously. But daily minyan represents another quantum leap altogether. As both Ben Pazi and Yehudah HaNasi affirmed, it's what we do every day that builds a sense of Jewish spirituality into the warp and woof of our lives. And in the Jewish tradition, daily minyan is the principal medium of daily spirituality. 
This is why we have mounted a campaign to get more of you to minyan this year. Not for the minyan's sake; the minyan is doing fine, and will continue to do fine for the foreseeable future. We are mounting this campaign for your sake. We want you to get a taste of what a daily spiritual practice can do for your soul. Judaism, after all, is a religion of life, and life is what happens every day.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

God -- On One Foot

היום ארבעים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וחמשה ימים, בעמר
Today is forty days, which is five weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שביסוד
A day of humility in a week of foundation

A couple of months ago, half-way into a tutoring session, my student asked me, "Marilyn, do you believe in God?" And there went the rest of the session :)

As a professional Jew with a firm Jewish personal practice, that question, in several variations, is one that I'm often asked. I don't have a definitive answer. Often I just say, "define God." Do I believe in the picture of God as often presented in the books of my youth--the old guy with the white beard in the sky? Certainly not. Do I think of a puppet master who controls the strings of our lives? Nope, not that. God is not a person, or any kind of being. While God is a character in the Tanakh, in the stories of our people, one understanding I have is that God is a representation of the power of the universe.

אל רגל אחת – al regel akhat – on one foot – my concept of God lies in the unknown. When I talk about God with a class of students, I often start with having them make a mobius strip, a twisted cylinder that only has one side. If you take a strip of paper, put one twist in it, tape the ends together, and start to draw a continuous line, you will end the line where it started. Untape the ends, and the line is on both sides of the paper.  I have no idea how this works, and yet it does. Somewhere in there, for me, is God.

There is a lot of unknowns in the world, lots of places for me to find that transcendent spirit.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Continuum of Practice

היום תשעה ושלשים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וארבעה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-nine days, which is five weeks and four days, of the omer
נצח שביסוד
A day of perseverance in a week of foundation

While my Jewish practice is always evolving, koshrut continues to be the one that is most challenging. I guess it would be easier to just accept the traditional constraints, but that works for neither my practical nor spiritual life. When asked about my practice, I say, "I eat kosher." Sometimes that is just accepted; sometimes I'm asked what that means. I explain that it means I have my own way to follow the constraints of the practice as set out by the Torah and the rabbis who interpreted the laws as given there.

Once, when talking to someone about my kosher boundaries, I was asked, "So, do you get to pick and choose which 'rules' you follow?" I'd never thought about it that way, so it took me a moment to reply, "Well................yes."

The whole idea of a practice is that it is constantly moving as your perspective changes with knowledge and time and place and circumstance. It is the continual mindfulness and awareness and critical thinking is makes the practice. I learned that from my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew.

There is no goal in my practice, there is just a continuum of thinking and action. It is a form of perseverance that serves as a foundation for my life.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Torah, then to now

היום שמונה ושלשים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות ושלשה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-eight days, which is five weeks and three days, of the omer
תגארת שביסוד
A day of compassion in a week of foundation

I think studying Torah is more important than ever during these days of turmoil in our country.

On Monday I had a discussion with a student about the discontent that came from the Israelites the moment they crossed the Red Sea, finally free from hundreds of years of oppressive servitude in Egypt. They so easily lose faith in the power that brought them freedom, with no faith in themselves. They immediately complain, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death." - Ex 16:3.

While the Israelites could be vilified for not looking at the events that just past; not realizing how far they had come; not appreciating the hope that lies ahead; rewriting their history to make the oppression under the Egyptians as an ideal--let's have some compassion for the perspective that they have, created by those hundreds of years of servitude. Looking at the situation through their eyes can bring some understanding of their reality, a place from which to find understanding of their actions.

Then it was time to bring this story to our world today. My teaching to my student was that we can't just dismiss people's perspectives, even as we don't agree. We need to listen and, more importantly, really hear through their ears, so we can find a way to civil dialogue and a find a way to move from conflict to understanding. Something very hard these days, but very necessary.

I need to find the hope that compassion can strengthen the foundation of our country and our lives.