Friday, August 24, 2007

Words to Live By

Feeling tired and a bit cranky, I decided not to go to minyan this morning. I stayed in bed longer than usual listening to Morning Edition on KALW. And while I missed the sounding of the shofar, I got to hear this week's edition of StoryCorps.

Antoinette Franklin and her niece, Iriel, former New Orleans residents and survivors of Katrina, speak from the heart of the effect of that tragedy on their lives. But through the pain, Antoinette speaks of what she gained:
"I've learned that love and family and faith are more important than anything else in the whole world. I used to say it, but now I've experienced it."
In this month of Elul as we look for Teshuvah, a turning in our lives, I encourage you to read this story and the others you will find on the StoryCorps page at NPR. There you will find the Teshuvah others found in their lives that can inspire you to look towards your own.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Turning and Returning

We are now in the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar, a month of introspection and contemplation culminating in Rosh Hashonah and the Days of Awe.

This is the time in Jewish yearly cycle that Jews are asked to focus on Teshuvah--a word often translated as repentance, but one that actually means return. It is a time to look back over the past years, reflect on the actions of your life and see what can be turned towards building and, often, rebuilding a better future. The break down to the depth of the soul began at Tisha b'Av. Now is the time to set the cornerstone for the coming year.

Teshuvah is a very personal, individual endeavor. Each person must decide each year what work needs to be done. For me, this year is a time to finish the transition forced upon me with my cancer diagnosis, and fully accept and embrace the opportunities this phase of my life has to offer. I am trying to rid myself of the clutter I have accumulated these past 5 years, of clutter both material and emotional. I am trying to clear my house of unnecessary possessions that just take up space and clear my mind of fearful thoughts that hold me back.

Each morning of Elul the shofar is sounded, not a call to arms but a call to peace--a peace within our hearts and soul. May we all find a way to turn to that peace and carry it with us into the new year.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Sports Miracles - large and small

Like many professional endeavors, sports of all kinds have become huge, global businesses. Fans all over the world are complaining about the high costs of tickets and the astronomically high salaries paid to the players. Many people yearn for the "more innocent" sporting experiences of their youth. If you have any doubt of this, just read the comments sent in to the BBC program (or, in British English, programme) Have Your Say aired this past Sunday.

Then there's the pressure on the players themselves that manifests in many ways. And it's not just about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Other problems these players may face become amplified when they are surrounded with people who just care about money and fame, not the person who needs help. I gave some example of this in postings two years ago, The Hard Reality of Sports and It's not just steroids . . .

There is a tendency to look at times past nostalgically, with rose-colored glasses. There has always been a dark side to professional sports. It was just on a smaller scale with much less public access. And our present times can also bring us an upside to sports, on both local and global levels.

A week or so ago, Iraq won the Asian Cup in soccer, beating Saudi Arabia 1 - 0. A country being destroyed by sectarian violence had a brief moment of unity in support of their national team--a team that includes Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. Sadly, the celebration came to an end with the news of the death of 50 people with bombs detonated in Baghdad by insurgents. But at least, like the 1914 Christmas Truce between the Germans and the European Allies that resulted in the famous soccer match between the trenches, there was a moment of joy that could be shared by all sides.

In my own corner of the world, there is the story of the Oakland Royals, a baseball team started by an Oakland couple to keep their kids and others away from the crossfire of a neighborhood notoriously known for drug dealing and drive-by shootings. Roscoe Bryant and his wife Lehi had no budget or coaching experience but they managed to field two teams. Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle picked up on the story and due to an article he wrote on June 22 of this year, more than 600 people, organizations and clubs came through with all sorts of support.

Ostler wrote a follow-up column published in today's sports section chronicling the accomplishments of this organization due to that show of support from the community. The help that has come in the form of donations, contacts with local companies and links to various grants and loans has encouraged the Bryants to enlarge their dream. They now hope to be able to open a youth center.

There was one more outcome of the establishment of these teams--something no one could have envisioned. "The local drug dealers watched what we've been doing," Roscoe says, "and they formed their own softball team. So they're off the block for a couple hours every night."

Some moments of violence stopped in streets of
Baghdad and in the streets of Oakland. May we find ways to string more of those moments together to create a world of peace.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Some Devarim on Devarim

I'd like to blame the lag in writing this week on the amount of Torah I've been chanting these weeks. The time I would usually spend on the blog has been devoted to practice. But I'm taking a few moments here for some words--devarim--on Devarim/Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah that's now at the forefront.

Basically, Devarim is one long sermon--Moshe pouring his heart and soul out to these people he's lead for forty years. It's his last chance to speak with them--they're going on to "the Land," he is not. So while some people find it repetitious and preachy, I'm drawn to the emotion behind the words and the directness of the language.

Chanting the Hebrew, I'm very aware of Moshe speaking to you--you, the people and you, each individual. There's not much of the standard "God spoke to Moses and said...." that you get in Bamidbar/Numbers. It's more like "God told you, God showed you, God will guide you." Moshe wants us all to hear, to listen, to understand. It's no coincidence that the Shema--the prayer closest to our hearts and souls, is first spoken in Devarim.

Yes, there is a lot of fire and brimstone--and a lot of "If you don't obey...."; the consequences are grave and long-lasting. But the covenant assures that we are not forsaken. There's always a path back with guidance along the way, using Torah as our map.

Devarim is the book that draws me in. I can remove myself from the stories--it's about them in that time, not me, now. But in Devarim, Moshe speaks to me--I am part of the "you." Reading it at this time of the year helps prepare me for the reflection of Elul and the reckoning of the High Holidays. And as I continue to study, it brings me new personal spiritual insights that I then bring to the next yearly cycle.