Friday, April 30, 2010

The Perfection Within Us All

היום אחד ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the thirty-first day, making four weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבהוד

A day of compassion in a week of humility

In this week Torah parsha, Emor - Lev 21:1 - 24:23 - we read that in order for one of the priestly tribe to be able to offer a sacrifice, they must be "perfect"

Adonai spoke further to Moses: speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has defect hall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no an who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy , or crushed tested. no man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall e qualified to offer Adonai's gift; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. he shall not [profane these paces sacred to Me, for I, Adonai, have sanctified them."
--Lev 21:16 - 23

Many who read this now have real problems with this passage. Why do those who offer the sacrifices have to be perfect? Are not we all perfect before God, before the Transcendent, perfect within ourselves--as long as work to be the best of ourselves. Does this not propagate the images blasted all around us of outward, societally excepted beauty as perfect? Are we not good enough to make these offerings?

I always teach that we need to look at the words of the Torah in the context of the culture they were written in to find the meaning that is meant to speak to us today. And about eight years ago I found a way to unlock the teachings of those words.

For in that time, in that society, the Israelites weren't constantly faced with a false sense of beauty everywhere the looked. They saw themselves and they saw those around them. I that time, having the "perfect" priest perform the sacrifices didn't mean they weren't good enough. I believe they could look at the "perfect" priest as the one who represents them to God. That priest symbolized, embodied who each of them were. So, instead of feeling inferior to that person, not "perfect" enough to offer the sacrifice--especially those who were even of the priestly class--they saw that "perfect " priest as themselves--they were that perfect person before God. Each one, whatever their exterior being, was, at that moment of offering--perfect.

It was true for the Israelites then, and with this interpretation, we see that it can be true for us now.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Morning Queries

היום שלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is the thirtieth day, making four weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבהוד

A day of strength in a week of humility

My favorite section of prayer in the Shacharit - morning - service is at the beginning. Starting with the morning blessings, I then check in with my relationship with myself, with others, with God. There's a Shema, the opportunity to study a little Talmud, and a chance to pay homage to the teachers in my life. Then there's a psalm of thanks, and the section ends with mourner's kaddish, taking me from my personal prayers into support for those around me. I've been saying these prayers for ten years, yet I still feel the power of their words, as strong as the first time of realization.

In my first one-on-one meeting with Rabbi Lew at the start of my first Makor Or practice period in 2001, he asked me if I had any questions. I had none. He then asked if I had any answers. No to that as well. He told me that my questions were out there, that they would find me. I felt a bit lost, not knowing how that would happen. But like the thoughts that come up in meditation, I let it go while still keeping it in my memory. And my meditation into minyan practice continued.

By that time, I had been going to minyan for about three months and was used to going with the flow of the service, even if it was too fast for me to concentrate on the meaning of the prayers. But there were those moments when certain words and phrases would catch my mind, bringing my davening momentum to a stop as I contemplate their meaning. Soon after that meeting with Rabbi Lew, I had one of those moments. Saying the prayers right after the litany of morning blessings, these words leapt out to me, seemingly for the first time:
What are we? What are our lives? What is our loving-kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might? What shall we say before You . . . ?
I had found my questions--or, I should say, they found me. And they find me each morning, helping me start each day with mindfulness.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Avivah Zornberg on Travail-ing and Laughing

היום תשעה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is the twenty-ninth day, making four weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבהוד

A day of loving kindness in a week of humility

On Monday evening I went to the JCCSF to hear a teaching from Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, one of this generation's premier commentators on Jewish sacred texts. Her subject that night was the parsha Lech Lecha, centering on the traveling - travail-ing of Abraham and the laughter of Sarah. I'm not going to go into the specifics of her presentation--that would a) take too long and b) there's no way I could give it justice. But in looking at my notes from the evening, I've find I preserved some phrases, some short points, that I find myself drawn to both in terms of studying Lech Lecha and in terms of looking at one's life. Below I share some with you.
Abraham was constantly traveling - "travail-ing" - always on the move, his story is a traveler's history.

The role of Abraham was to teach and reveal the glory of God in the world. "Lech Lecha" is to go to yourself--Abraham responds to the challenge.

If you know where you're going, you're already there. So, you have to experience a letting go, a travail, a laughter on the journey, before you can arrive.

Abraham's influence diffuses into the world like perfume.

Abraham's journey is a journey of madness. He doesn't know where he's going--he's destabilized.

Laughter has an element of play - of seeing something wondrous.

Laughter reveals the limit of experience.

Laughter is at the heart of faith, when strange flows can begin.

Laughter of Sarah makes closed things open.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sacred Space - Meditation

היום השמנה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is the twenty-eighth day, making four weeks of the omer
מלחות שבנצח

A day of majesty in a week of perseverance

Right after I publish this post, I will leave to teach at PTBE. In my class on sacred space with the 6th graders, I am going to teach meditation. I'm sure some of the kids will find this odd, some may act up. But there are always a couple who hear the message, who get how it works and how it can help them in their lives. They will learn that they can stop and take a moment, breath, and focus. The best lesson I can teach.......

Before I go, I'll share the poem I will recite at the end of their meditation. It's one of my favorites from Ruth Brin entitled "Invisible, Intangible"

All the invisible things fill our days,
Music and love and laughter;
All the intangible things affects us,
Words and anger and prejudice.

You are invisible and intangible,
A God of moods and relationships,
Within us, you are the spirit of unity.
Beyond us, You are the guide to greatness.

We pray to You with an invisible, intangible prayer.
You answer with a flaming sunset
And the touch of a baby's cheek.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Beware the Hidden Propaganda

היום השבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-seventh day, making three weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבנצח
A day of foundation in a week of perseverance

While doing some internet research on Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th/16th century Jewish statesman and commentator for a talk I'm giving at Netivot Shalom on May 15, I came across a page titled "Edict Response by Isaac Abravanel." Having just read about Don Abravanel's efforts to reverse this edict by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 that led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, I bookmarked this for later reading and eventually decided to print it out, thinking I might want to quote parts of it for my teaching.

Then I began to study the document. It just felt off, at odds what I had been reading about how Abravanel approached the King and Queen about the Edict. There were some sections highlighted with red text, and I couldn't understand why. And then I saw a note added by the editor of the website, which started with "Proving that everything that Ferdinand and Isabel did was quite correct! (Well, almost: they should have gone much further by considering all racial Jews as Jews in a legal sense. . .)"

As I went to see the home page of the root website, I was shocked to see a photo of Adolf Hitler. It is a white supremacist site, listing links to publications that spout their propaganda. I will not link the site, nor even name it. But seeing how easily I could have been pulled into their lies sent chills down my spine.

In May, 2004, I wrote a paper for my English 101 class at City College titled "Heeding the Visions of Huxley and McLuhan: Counteracting Racist Propaganda on the World Wide Web" Here is my opening thesis statement (note to any academics, sources available upon request :)
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 after witnessing the power of using modern technology to spread propaganda. He quotes Albert Speer: “Hitler’s dictatorship . . . was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country”. Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Massage in 1967 when the boom of the technology age was on the horizon. He saw how the images and the processes of the media could influence society in a subconscious manner—“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change”. Although both these men died before the World Wide Web came into existence, they have much to teach us about the dangers this new technology can bring.

There are many examples of the positive influence of World Wide Web as a resource for information and communication. Access to medical databases and the most up-to-date information available gives health care providers the ability to better serve their patients . Non-profit organizations can use websites to recruit volunteers without having to spend much money. Families of soldiers stationed in Iraq can connect with their loved ones through video conferencing . But we cannot ignore the dark side of the use of this technology. The same aspects of the World Wide Web that serve to unite civilization are being used by hate groups to divide society. We need to give students an education in media literacy to counteract the ability for a dangerous few to greatly influence a generation with their hate propaganda.
I go on to discuss how both Huxley and McLuhan forewarn how easily propaganda can be spread with the development of communication technology with global reach. I cite some of the white supremicist websites that are cleverly disguised as educational sites--even one that seems to be honoring Reverend Martin Luther King, althought the agenda is quite the opposite. I also cite resources for media literacy that are available for teachers and students. I conclude with this:
It is essential to teach students how to think and train them to evaluate the knowledge they gain. There is also the need to show students how to separate the content from the packaging. The pervasiveness of computer technology into the fabric of modern life has influenced how information is received. Perceptions of what is true have become more important than the truth itself. Giving students media literacy skills will allow them to analyze the information they receive and teach them to maintain control of their thoughts rather than relinquishing that power to someone else. . .

Aldous Huxley realized the need for education to combat the spread of propaganda—“The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries”. Marshall McLuhan saw the importance of teaching students to recognize the form of the new media as well as its informational content—“The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive ‘outside’ world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discover—to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms”. Education in media literacy is critical to counteract the use of the World Wide Web to spread racist propaganda. We need to heed the voices from the past and use the resources of the present in order to ensure that the future will not be controlled by those who preach hatred.
If I were ever to rewrite this paper, I'd have to take out the emphasis on students needing that education in media literacy and make the point that we all need to be aware of the lies that are out there disguised as educational material. Let us all heed this lesson.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Standing in the Stream of Life

היום הששה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-sixth day, making three weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שבנצח

A day of humility in a week of perseverance

At Beth Sholom, we ask anyone who comes to minyan to commemorate a yarhzeit--an anniversary of the passing of a loved one--if they would like to say a few words about the person they are remembering. It adds an extra level to the experience when the El Malai prayer is chanted--for the survivor sharing the memory and for those of us standing in support. At that moment, we all hold that person in our heart.

This morning, my friend Katherine shared the connection she felt between working with her son on the chicken coops they're building and the time her dad spent working with her on the Future Farmer of America projects of her youth. It was one way she could pass the love her father had for her on to her children. לדור ודור – L'dor v'dor - from generation to generation.

Another woman, Penny, was there to commemorate the yarhzeit of her husband. She told us they met in USY--the national youth organization of the Conservative Movement. They had 17 years together, were married for 11 years, and this was the 25th anniversary of his death. She shared this knowing we would understand the connections to her youth, to her Judaism. We could share the pain of her loss, no matter how long ago.

In these moments, as I place my hand on each shoulder and chant those ancient words, I feel humbled in the presence of enduring love and am honored to share in the stream of their lives.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Midpoint of the journey

היום חמשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-fifth day, making three weeks and four days of the omer
נצכ שבנצח
A day of perseverance in a week of perseverance

Today is the first step over the halfway point in the omer journey.

I wonder about the significance of this being a day of double נצח - Netzach---perseverance, endurance, determination. I think one of the lessons of counting the omer is to take on a commitment--you agree to count each day. It seems simple, but you still have to make the time, remember this small act in the midst of all the other things that fill your life. Mindfulness is not something that just happens--it takes work. But you can always look for help, and that's where the sephirot come into the process.

Here, as we move further away from Egypt, Mitzrayim, the narrow place and closer to Sinai and revelation, it's nice to have a Kabbalistic slap on the back, a hearty "Yasher Koach." We've persisted with determination and endured. We've laid the groundwork with loving kindness, strength, and compassion. Ahead we will experience humility, finish the foundation, and move into majesty as we prepare to fill ourselves with Torah.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Leyn Time

היום ארבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-fourth day, making three weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבנצח
A day of compassion in a week of perseverance

I've spent some time today practicing my Torah reading for tomorrow. I was asked to chant an aliyah by the Mirvish family, who will be celebrating the marriage of their son, Ezra. Not only is it an honor to be asked, but I know there will be many in the sanctuary who appreciate a good leyn.

There are many reasons why I love to leyn, why this ancient ritual calls to me. It connects me to the time when oral transmission was the only way our people could access this sacred text. The cantillation not only serves to draw people into the text but can add meaning and nuance to what is heard. I am part of the thread that goes from the Torah through me and weaves outward into the sanctuary, weaving us all together.

There are parts of the Torah I have chanted so many times, I know them by heart. There are times I feel like one of the characters at the end of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, those who memorize the books so that they will survive even though all the paper versions have been destroyed. I imagine there are enough of us in the world who could get together and recite the entire Torah.

Leyning is also a form of meditation. I need to be present, to be only in the present moment, looking at the parchment, seeing the black or brown letters--the white or cream space in between. If my mind wanders, I lose the thread, the cadence. When my mind drifts to other thoughts in meditation, I can always bring myself back to the breath; when I lose my concentration while leyning, I can always bring myself back to the chant.

I could go on....and on and on. But I'd rather share some beautiful thoughts on leyning by a kindred spirit - "Why I Leyn: A Manifesto" A good read with which to enter Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hearing the Prophesy

היום שלשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושני יומים בעמר
Today is the twenty-third day, making three weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבנצח

A day of strength in a week of perseverance

If you've read the previous post, you know I'm at a low ebb right now. So instead of creating a long or even a not-so-long tome, I'll commemorate Earth Day by sharing a song from one of the best musical satirists of our time, Tom Lehrer. I believe it's from a 1967 concert in Oslo.

I see artists like Tom Lehrer as prophets. Now, there's lots of talk of global warming and the consequences of the damage done to the planet in the name of technology and modernity. But fifty years ago, there were just a few voices.

Let's hope we can hear the message now better than we did then.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One sip too many . . .

היום שנים ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Yesterday was the twenty-second day, making three weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבנצח
A day of loving kindness in a week of perseverance

The count goes on, but the posting got interrupted for a birthday celebration, which included one too many sips of a margarita :) But I was surrounded by good friends, I came home to a husband who just got me what I needed to deal with it all, and these things happen every once in a while, so no harm done.

Time now to go to minyan and read some Torah---and feel some compassion for Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons. It is said they drank too much, which is what got them into trouble, playing with that "strange fire" in a most sacred space. At least I had my lapse in a more appropriate time and place......

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Israel emotions

היום אחד ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות בעמר
Today is the twenty-first day, making three weeks of the omer
מלכת שבתפארת
A day of majesty in a week of compassion

This day, when we commemorate the founding of the State of Israel, is no longer a day of happiness and pride for me. The existence of Israel as a Jewish state, as a homeland for a people who had no homeland for centuries, is of paramount importance to me. My Bat Mitzvah took place the week after the 6-day war, and I can still remember feeling the joy of that triumph. As a young teenager, I looked to Israel as a place I would need to live if George Wallace ever became president of the United States--I was not going to wait for him to declare me "the other." I could feel my ties to Israel when I spent 7 weeks there on my United Synagogue Youth Pilgrimage tour during the summer of 1971. I yearned to be in Israel during the Yom Kippur War, wanting to protect that place that was part of my heritage.

My feelings are much more complicated now. Yes, I want and need the State of Israel to exist, but I cannot agree with the path the present government of Israel is taking to secure that existence. I feel resentful that I was not taught the full story of the people who were living in Israel at the time of its birth as a modern nation. I can't understand why those in power in Israel don't see that their hard line stance will do nothing to clear the way towards peace and coexistence with the Palestinians. Right now there is one more generation growing up in an atmosphere of hatred--and that's an atmosphere that is a huge threat to Israel's survival.

It's so hard to find a place for to talk of these feelings. If I express them in some of my Jewish circles, I will be called a heretic--how dare I speak a word against anything Israeli. In other circles, I'm derided for supporting a country that practices apartheid. Neither description fits where I stand--which is decidedly on shaky ground.

This is an emotional issue for me, and I'm not sure I'm expressing myself well. And so I direct you to this article by Jay Michaelson from the September 24, 2009 issue of The Jewish Daily Forward, entitled "How I'm Losing My Love for Israel". He speaks for the angst that rages within me.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Breaking the Language Barrier

היום עשרים יום שהם שני שבועות וששה יומים בעמר
Today is the twentieth day, making two weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבתפארת

A day of foundation in a week of compassion

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I have started taking Hebrew Classes with Anat Wolins at her Yad Moshe Adult School for Hebrew. While I have been studying, chanting, and davening in Hebrew for over ten years, the ability to speak in Modern conversational Hebrew has eluded me. I have taken classes, tried Ulpan immersion, and bought books and some software. I just can't get it to stick.

There is a mantra in my immediate family--we're just not good with languages. No one in my family speaks a second language. My father has some Yiddish; I can pull up some elementary French I learned in High School--that's about it.

I love the Hebrew language--it speaks to me, touches a place of ancient memory. It is through that connection that I am able to chant Torah in a way that reaches out to allow those following along, enabling them to hear the poetry of the words. One reason I want to learn to speak modern Hebrew is to be able to tap into the modern Jewish connections found in the poetry of Israel's Yehudi Amichai and Zelda. I also want to tap into the scholarship and literature that is part of my Jewish heritage. I want to be a better teacher of Jewish studies--and to do that, I need to know Hebrew.

And so, I step once more into the frey :) I know I have the intelligence to learn. I have the desire to learn. I hope I have the aptitude to learn. I can already write with the Hebrew alphabet--actually, my handwriting is better in Hebrew than in English, although not by much. I can easily read with the vowels, and my years chanting Torah help my ability to read without them.* I'm even sure I can input the vocabulary into my brain. It's the grammatical system that gives me a headache. There are so many gender, number, and tense combinations that apply to so many parts of the sentence. It's hard to imagine it coming to me naturally, to be able to speak effortlessly. But I have to believe it will happen.

When I started playing the guitar this summer, I felt I would never be able to approach playing an F chord, a chord that needs a finger on each of the six strings--you do the math:) Of course, the F chord is integral to so many of the songs I want to play, and, at the time, it felt so far away. But through the months of practice I've been able to find a way to make it work, albeit imperfectly. As long as I keep practicing, I can see that I will get better. That experience, combined with Anat's teaching style and experience, gives me hope that with perseverance, I will become a Hebrew speaker.

Imagine my joy when I combine the two, playing the guitar, singing Hebrew songs with complete comprehension.

כן יהי רצון
May it be so

*Hebrew words are written without vowels--both biblical and modern Hebrew. In this way, it's similar to Sanskrit - see this post.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Invitations to Learning

היום תשעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וחמשה יומים בעמרToday is the nineteenth day, making two weeks and five days of the omerהוד שבתפארת
A day of humility in a week of compassion

I covered the Bay Area--north, south, east west--traveling to many different events today. I drove northwest to Beth Sholom for minyan, then south to San Mateo for a teachers' meeting at PTBE, back up north to Beth Sholom again for a memorial service, then northeast to my Hebrew class in El Sobrante, and back southwest, coming home to San Francisco. Yes, a very full day encompassing lots of different emotions as well as distances.

At the teachers' meeting we discussed different ways to include the families of our students into the Jewish education sphere. Family support is key to having our students understand the role Judaism plays in their lives. Lisa Langer, a family education specialist with the Union for Reform Judaism was there to facilitate the meeting. In one exercise, we broke into groups to prioritize what types of Jewish family events would have the biggest impact on both students and their parents. Each group was given an envelope containing slips of paper that had the events written on them. While there was some differences between the groups in the middle-impact category, the top and bottom event was the same for all three groups. At the top--a synagogue run, family trip to Israel. On the bottom, parents dropping off their kids at religious school.

Lisa then asked us if we wondered why the latter event was even included. After all, that's kind of the crux of the issue--non-involvement of the parents, a "I drop them off and you take care of that for me" attitude that we are seemingly trying to combat. But Lisa made the point that what we look at as "just" dropping the kids off is more effort that many families make. We need to give credit to these parents for giving their children the opportunity to learn about their religion and heritage, even as we would wish they would be more involved in the process.

I appreciate gaining that perspective. Instead of viewing those parents with derision, we need to realize they are coming closer than those who avoid giving their children any Jewish education. At least they come up to the door---we need to open the door wide and find ways to invite them to come in.

A good lesson to get in this week of compassion.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blessing the day . . .

היום שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה יומים בעמר
Today is the eighteenth day, making two weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבתפארת

A day of perseverance in a week of compassion

The words needed to express my thoughts are not coming easily these days. But this practice is about writing and noting each day, irregardless of the origins of the words. Like using the siddur when in prayer, I can feel my thoughts reflected in the beautiful reflections of others.

On this Shabbat, I share with you a poem from Marge Piercy, "The art of blessing the day," the title poem of a collection containing "Poems with a Jewish Theme." As I have been spending time looking at my Jewish practice, this poem reminds me what the practice brings to my life.

This is the blessing for rain after drought:
Come down, wash the air so it shimmers,
a perfumed shawl of lavender chiffon.
Let the parched leaves suckle and swell.
Enter my skin, wash me for the little
chrysalis of sleep rocked in your plashing.
In the morning the word is peeled to shining.

This is the blessing for sun after long rain:
Now everything shakes itself free and rises.
The trees are bright as pushcart ices.
Every last lily opens its satin thighs.
The bees dance and roll in pollen
and the cardinal at the top of the pine
sings at full throttle, fountaining.

This is the blessing for a ripe peach:
This is luck made round. Frost can nip
the blossom, kill the bee. It can drop,
a hard green useless nut. Brown fungus,
the burrowing worm that coils in rot can
blemish it and wind crush it on the ground.
Yet this peach fills my mouth with juicy sun.

this is the blessing for the first garden tomato:
Those green boxes of tasteless acid the store
sells in January; those red things with the savor
of wet chalk, they mock your fragrant name.
How far and sweet you are weighing down my palm,
warm as the flank of a cow in the sun.
Your are the savor of summer in a thin red skin.

This is the blessing for a political victory:
Although I shall not forget that t hings
work in increments and epicycles and sometime
leaps that half the time fall back down,
let's not relinquish dancing while the music
fits into our hips and bounces our heels.
We must never forget, pleasure is real as pain.

The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends'
return, for money received and unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling hte Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling that one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma, and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
Can't bless it, get ready to make it new.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beauty is . . .

היום שבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושלשה יומים בעמר
Today is the seventeenth day, making two weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבתפארת
A day of compassion in a week of compassion

For my translation of תפארת - Tiferet, the sephirot of the heart - I use the word compassion. The translation you will see most often is beauty. Because that word too often comes with the baggage of judgement, I choose not to use it. But for today, this day of beauty in a week of beauty, I bring you thoughts on beauty from Vanda Scaravelli, a transformative teacher of yoga who truly understood the integration of the practice into one's life. This excerpt is from her book, "Awakening The Spine," which contains her yoga teachings, paying homage to the unity of body, mind, and spirit that is yoga.
Beauty is not only in the spectacular glow of a sunset, in the delightful face of a child, in the incredible structure of a flower, in the joy of bright colors, in the shape of a sculpture, in the words of a poem, in the voice of a song, in the notes of a symphony. There is beauty also in the acknowledgement and expression of a feeling, in the logical process of thinking, in the discovery of a truth, in the realization of harmony, in the astonishment arising from observing the perfection with which a tree or a plant is put together. . .

Beauty brings us back that state of vulnerability, innocence and abandon in which, like a child, we are taken by the hand to disclose the kingdom of wonders and marvels thus putting us in touch with Nature where the miracle of existence is renewed each day.

We need beauty around us, Beauty is like a perfume impalpable but yet so very strong. Beauty is the essence of life. Its feeling pushes the artist to create, opens the heart to love, leads the brain to clarify, invites the mind to comprehend and brings the body to participate.

You find yourself in Beauty, unexpectedly absorbed by Beauty.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Food and Life

היום ששה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושני יומים בעמר
Today is the sixteenth day, making two weeks and two days of the omer
גבורא שבתפארת
A day of strength in a week of compassion

I am a fan of Ed Brown's cookbooks--especially the early recipes inspired by his service at Tassajara, the Zen Monastery. I learned to bake bread from The Tassajara Bread Book. Tassajara Cooking is one of my go-to books for the basics of cooking vegetables. The dishes in The Tassajara Recipe Book are wonderfully flavorful, and bring me back to the times I have stayed there.

I am also drawn to his writings, as he reflects on food and food preparation through the lens of his Zen practice. In his words you hear the philosophies that infuse his life. Today I share this introduction to the section "Planning Meals" from Tassajara Cooking. The wisdom contained therein can be applied to more that simply cooking.

Nothing left in the kitchen but few odds and ends you have to dig out of the refrigerator? Faced with unlimited choice in a market? Either way, you have to take what's there. At first you dread it. Later you come to enjoy it.
Respond to each thing, each vegetable, each situation. More and more, start with what is actually there instead of with some preconceived notion. This is how a cook's real creativity and confidence are developed. Learning to tolerate more, to appreciate more, we learn to cook the way we want to, and to cook for others also.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Deja vu all over again

היום חמשה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is the fifteenth day, making two weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבתפארת
A day of loving kindness in a week of compassion

I'm feeling a sense of deja vu pertaining to my service to my Jewish community. I'm connecting the time now to the era in my life when I was at the threshold of my career as an editor, working at NBC in New York.

I see repeating patterns in the way I'm being treated and how I am reacting to that treatment. I understand how I need to work with what power I have--in the first case, as a union worker who can't be fired without VERY good cause; in the second, as a congregant who is a free agent and can choose to walk away. With the first experience, I learnt how to navigate a bureaucracy, and how to use memos to document my side of the issues. Those skills come in handy now, albeit on a smaller scale, with emails replacing memos.

I'm not going to go into details here--this is not the correct forum. I can report that one advantage of age is gaining perspective on the history of one's life and hopefully, taking in the lessons contained therein. But all of my years don't prevent my emotional reactions when buttons are pushed.

I will take the lesson of this day of loving kindness and compassion to realize that it is because I care about doing everything to the highest level, whether it's editing a news show or coordinating a religious service, that brings out this passion. And while I need to maintain a mindfulness of not hurting anyone with the barbs that strong emotion can bring, I can also use that passion to bolster my inner strength against those who wish to keep me from moving forward. That did not succeed thirty years ago, and it's not going to happen now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Four Students

היום ארבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות בעמר
Today is the fourteenth day, making two weeks of the omer
מלחות שבגבורה

A day of majesty in a week of strength

As I prepare to go teach Torah to the 6th and 7th graders at Peninsula Temple Beth El, I want to share a new insight I had this year during the seders concerning the story of the Four Sons -- traditionally known as the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who cannot ask. (For those of you who are not familiar with this story told on Passover, click here.)

There are so many ways you can look at this story--different kinds of people in the world, different aspects on one's personality, what are the positive and negative connotations in how each relates to this story of their heritage. People have favorite sons--also written, of course, as children to update to an egalitarian environment. Those of you who have been to seders all your lives have heard it all, I'm sure, and more.

That's why it's nice to get a new hit, as I did this year. The main point of the story is to tell each child the story of Passover, however they ask, or don't ask, the question. The change for me is this year I saw each child as a student who learns things in their own way.

There's the know-it-all, arm always raised kid. I need to teach that child with patience, and steer her/him to helping others learn.

There's the kid who is always going to act up. I need to be strong but straightforward with that child, and engage him/her in the goings on in class.

There's the kid who needs to get the information in different ways. I adjust my lesson plans so I include options for each kid to have a learning opportunity.

There's the kid who will just sit quietly and check out. I need to reach out to that kid gently, but always include her/him, not letting him/her disappear.

That's the new perspective---now to put the newly-found teaching into action.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holding on to our Memories

היום שלשה עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד
וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the thirteenth day, making one week
and six days of the omer
יסוד שבגבורה

A day of foundation in a week of strength

I emailed the "Rabbi Alan Lew on Baseball" post to my friend Roger, who has a Zen Buddhist practice and is an avid baseball fan--so I figured he would get many of the nuances of Rabbi Lew's writing. But it turned out he got a nuance that I had been unaware of, even with all the times I've read those words.

Roger liked the sermon, but remarked, "wow--he was really angry about the strike." I had never noticed any anger--to me, he was just describing the feelings of fans at that time, and was vintage Rabbi Lew. But Roger, someone who knew of Rabbi Lew but never met or studied with him, felt the heat of emotion. "Maybe it's a Jewish thing," he concluded. And you know, maybe it is.

As Jews, we have a long history and very full memories which imbue our ritual practice. We relive our past moments as a people--in Passover seders, in Purim schpiels, in reading and studying Torah each week. We relive our past moments in our lives--in taking stock each year on Yom Kippur, in remembering our loved ones on the anniversary of their passing. This rituals hold our memories--they bond us and sustain us through the years, through the centuries.

So in his sermon, Rabbi Lew was invoking that long tradition. Just as we re-enact the liberation from slavery each year, feeling the joy of freedom and the angst of the uncertainty that lies ahead, Rabbi Lew would always remember the hurt caused by the loss of trust in a game he held so dear. But it makes the healing brought by Cal Ripken's record that much more powerful. As he said:
"Cal Ripken had never failed to show up, and this achievement seemed to me to penetrate right to the marrow of the mysterious spirituality of Baseball and its power to transform us."
So thank you Roger, for showing me a nuance I'd never seen. And, of course, thanks always to Rabbi Lew, who would surely appreciate Roger's insight--one fan to another.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Our Struggle to Never Forget

היום שנים עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד
וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is the twelfth day, making one week
and five days of the omer
חוד שבגבורה
A day of humility in a week of strength

On Friday, my friend Randi Taylor and I went to to see "Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kamf" at The Contemporary Jewish Museum. It was a second visit to this exhibit for me, and will not be my last visit. The images contained in the space are compelling on so many levels--beauty and horror; hellish and divine; hope and despair.

The daughter of French painter and photographer Linda Ellia came home with a copy of Mein Kamf, found at a friend's house. Holding the book in her hands, Ms. Ellia, a Jew, found that "my fingers burnt. I couldn’t keep it to myself. I had a duty to share it with others. I wondered how I could set about preventing such a massacre reoccurring and generating so much evil." She took some pages and used them as a basis for artwork that could express her deep emotions. She then took another step:
"One evening I had the idea of inviting people from all conditions and walks of life to participate in producing a collective work. I would cut out and distribute each of the 600 hundred pages of the book randomly, or to people of my choice. These 600 contributors would represent the deaths of over 6 million deportees.

The objective is to express on each page the emotion it evokes.
Together we will recreate the book. It will become « Our Combat »"

As you walk through the space, looking at these haunting images, you can feel the emotions involved in the creation of the pages. There is intense interaction with the text. Many choose to completely obliterate the words, but in very different manners. Some highlight the words, either for emphasis of meaning, or to change the intention. I encourage all who can to go and see the exhibit for yourselves, feel your own interaction with these artworks that transform those words filled with hate. Those who cannot get to the CJM, you can see some of the pages on Linda Ellia's Notre Combat website.

Today, on Yom HaShoah, on this day of Holocaust Remembrance, take a few moments to remember that we must always be aware of the ongoing battle against those who promote hatred and become part of the fight, not a bystander.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What's the line between honor and dishonor?

היום אחת עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד
וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is the eleventh day, making one week
and four days of the omer
נצח שבגבורה
A day of perseverance in a week of strength

The haftarah we chanted today is one of those juicy readings that combines great stories with strong teachings that bring up complex issues. I'd love to study this in a group sometime.

The reading, 2 Samuel 6:1 - 7:17, starts with the incident of a man, Uzzah, who kept the Ark from falling off its cart during transport back to Jerusalem. What happens to him? "Adonai was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God"

Okay---this so does not work for me. The person who prevents this holy Ark from falling from the cart on to the dusty ground and saves it from potentially great damage, gets zapped? Shouldn't he be honored? I don't get it. Anyone want to explain?

Back to our story.....

After a three-month layover because everyone was just so freaked out by the incident, the Ark transport continued on to Jerusalem. When it arrived, King David "whirled with all his might before Adonai." Michal, daughter of Saul, the former king, saw David "leaping and whirling before Adonai and despised him for it." She said, "Didn't the king of Israel do himself honor today--exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!" David's reply, "It was before Adonai who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler of Adonai's people Israel! I will dance before Adonai and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored."

When I first read this today, my take was that Michal was calling David out on inappropriate behavior, exposing himself as he danced, thus dishonoring rather than honoring. It was pointed out to me that David was likely dancing like the Whirling Dervishes of the period, and so it was an accepted sacred dance. Then it would be Michal who was being inappropriate in calling David out. Okay, that's one for discussion. Especially in light of what comes next.

King David notes that the Ark is a tent, not a house--the implication being he would like to build that house, the Temple, for the Ark. Nathan tells him to do what he wants, God is with him. But that night Nathan gets the word that while God is with the people Israel as they set roots in the land, Nathan is to tell David "When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his royal throne forever."

Was David's manner of dancing, whirling, connected to the reason he isn't to be the one to build the temple? Maybe his passion, even when it was directed at God, was so great that there was a need to have someone more grounded to direct this monumental endeavor. The builder was to be a direct line from David, unlike the way David took over from King Saul, so he still gets the kavod, the honor.

I'd love some input if anyone would care to offer any. Or maybe you have some questions of your own. Discussion anyone??

Friday, April 09, 2010

We are just one part of creation.....

היום עשרה ימים שהם שבוע אחד
ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the tenth day, making one week
and three days of the omer
תפארת שבגבורה

A day of compassion in a week of strength

Yesterday I wrote of the new Koren siddur I'm using, for which Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, wrote the introduction, translation, and commentary for this siddur. I've been receiving his weekly Torah commentaries for a couple of years. Through his writings, I often find new ways to look at the parshiot, which is the best you can hope to get from teachings.

This week's parsha, Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47, lays out the laws of Kashrut--what can be eaten, what shouldn't be eaten. I highly recommend reading Rabbi Sacks' commentary--you can find it here. He shows how the practice of kashrut serves as a reminder that humans are just one element of creation, not the center. He uses the description of creation contained in Job as opposed to the Genesis creation story to make his point:

Job is the paradigm of the righteous individual who suffers. He loses all he has, for no apparent reason. His companions tell him that he must have sinned. Only this can reconcile his fate with justice. Job maintains his innocence and demands a hearing in the heavenly tribunal. For some 37 chapters the argument rages, then in chapter 38 G-d addresses Job "out of the whirlwind". G-d offers no answers. Instead, for four chapters, He asks questions of His own, rhetorical questions that have no answer: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? . . . Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? . . . Does the rain have a father? . . . From whose womb comes the ice?"

G-d shows Job the whole panoply of creation, but it is a very different view of the universe than that set out in Genesis 1-2. There the centre of the narrative is the human person. He/she is created last; made in G-d's image; given dominion over all that lives. In Job 38-41 we see not an anthropocentric, but a theocentric, universe. Job is the only person in Tanakh who sees the world, as it were, from G-d's point of view.

Particularly striking is the way these chapters deal with the animal kingdom. What Job sees are not domestic animals, but wild, untameable creatures, magnificent in their strength and beauty, living far from and utterly indifferent to humankind:

Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? . . .
Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings toward the south?
Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high? . . .
Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? . . .
Nothing on earth is his equal- a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty;
he is king over all that are proud.

This is the most radically non-anthropocentric passage in the Hebrew Bible. It tells us that man is not the centre of the universe, nor are we the measure of all things. Some of the most glorious aspects of nature have nothing to do with human needs, and everything to do with the Divine creation of diversity. . .

. . . We now understand what is at stake in the prohibition of certain species of animals, birds and fish, many of them predators like the creatures described in Job 38-41. They exist for their own sake, not for the sake of humankind. The vast universe, and earth itself with the myriad species it contains, has an integrity of its own.

I hear the vegetarians saying, "Okay, so shouldn't we just not eat other creatures-wouldn't that practice better serve the point?" Yes, but the reality of the situation, from thousands of years ago when this was written up through today, is that mankind will eat meat. So I can appreciate setting up a practice when one must be mindful of what is eaten. What this teaching adds for me is the realization that we need to remember to view the other creatures of the world on their own terms, not as subservient species.

Because the chanting of Shemini falls within the omer period each year, I have looked at the issue of kashrut and what that means on both a personal and group level each year. And each year I see these teachings from a different perspective. You can see those posts here and here. It's a good bet there will be another one next year -- it's just all a part of the joy of studying Torah.

UPDATE: I am happy to have such a knowledgeable group of readers. I received an email last evening gently correcting my statement that Shemini is read during the omer period each year. On leap years, in which an entire month is added to the Jewish calendar, the chanting of Shemini will happen before Pesach begins. Thanks to all of you for helping maintain the integrity of this blog.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Prayer Experience

היום תשעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד
ושני ימים בעמר
Today is the ninth day, making one week
and two days of the omer
גבורה שבגבורה

A day of strength in a week of strength

I'm in my eleventh year of a consistent prayer practice. I showed up in the sanctuary of Beth Sholom for Shabbat services on January 1, 2000--it was the place I needed to be that day. I've been going to Shabbat morning services almost every week since then. I attended my first morning minyan at Beth Sholom in November, 2000. I was starting my meditation practice at Makor Or with the 6a sittings and then went to minyan at 7a. My meditation practice has a different schedule these days, but I remain a "minyanairre", going 3-5 days a week.

Someone once asked me, "what do you pray for? I mean, you certainly pray enough, what are you asking?" Prayer is not about asking for something. In the years that I've been following this practice, I've only seriously "asked for something" once. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer with thoughts of dying overtaking my psyche, I stood there and asked for "5 more years, 10 would be even better." (I'm 8 1/2 years removed from that moment--make your own connections :)

I look at prayer as a form of meditation, with my focus on words and chants instead of breath. It's about being in the present moment, giving up control, taking note of how I am, what I am, where I am, what surrounds me. There are days when the words just come from my heart and I need no siddur - prayerbook. But I do appreciate the structure that has been created through the centuries by our sages, and the poetry of the words they have chosen. And as I recite those words all these mornings, they seep into my being and can be a great comfort when I have no words of my own.

Through the good graces of Congregation Netivot Shalom and my good friend Edna Stewart, I have been able to attend a series of teachings with Rabbi Stuart Kelman on liturgy. I can't think of a better person to teach these classes. Rabbi Kelman has a passion for prayer--in terms of his practice and sharing his knowledge and experience with others. Along with the particular studies of specific prayers, he has given me two teachings that have been transforming for me.

The first deals with how to approach prayer. Rabbi Kelman says you ask three questions: What does the prayer say? What does the prayer mean? What does the prayer mean to me? Reflecting on those questions alone can be a form of prayer. It gives the act of prayer fluidity, for the answers change through the years and the centuries on both personal and tribal levels.

The second is to remember to cycle through different siddurim through your practice. There can come a fatigue, a boredom when using the same book for many years. Visual changes in format refreshes your view of the words, often bringing new meanings to mind. Different commentaries can uncover previously hidden nuances.

That second teaching came just as I was experiencing the boost from changing my siddur. I have recently opted to use the new Koren Siddur for prayer. I first heard of this because I receive the weekly Torah commentaries from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, presently the Chief Rabbi Of Britain. He wrote the introduction, translation, and commentary for this siddur.

This siddur does have a radical format change. The Hebrew is on the left side, the English translation on the right. From the FAQ on the Koran Siddur website (To view the pages of the siddur on their website, click here.)

Why is the Hebrew on the left side of the Siddur and the English on the right?
This placement allows the Hebrew and English texts to align at the center of the Siddur. It enables you to move between the two languages comfortably, to find meaningful line breaks easily, and to follow page turns intuitively. This placement also creates visually pleasing pages that “breathe,” as white space flows to the margins.

I've only been using this siddur for a couple of weeks, but I imagine I will be engaged with it for a good while. No, it's not egalitarian, coming as it does from the Modern Orthodox tradition. I add and change as I see fit--something I have to do with any siddur I use. But it's given me a lift I need as I shift back into concentrating on my place in prayer rather than always making sure there is a place for everyone else. As I work to find more balance in my life, it's nice to have teachers like Rabbi Kelman and Rabbi Sacks to help me along the way.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

My Yoga/Jewish Convergence

היום שמנא ימים שהם שבוע אחד
ויום אחד בעמר
Today is the eighth day, making one week
and one day of the omer
חסד שבגבורה
A day of loving kindness in a week of strength

What a great class today at Yoga Sita. Because of the small class size today, my teacher, Susannah Bruder, was able to spend more time than usual with each student, fine tuning each pose to the needs of each our unique bodies. She is a great teacher, and I am grateful to have studied with her for all these years, as well as count her among my friends.

I have been practicing yoga for 13 years. My practice includes not only the physical asanas(poses) but the study of the philosophy. In fact, my study of yoga philosophy was the start of my path back to Jewish practice. Yoga philosophy centers around how we live in this world and how we live within ourselves. It can have universal appeal because it isn't deity based. That is what allowed me to delve into it as I started to look for a life integrated with spiritual practice.

I never ignored the fact that yoga is infused with the stories from Hindu scriptures. That is the culture that yoga sprung from. Sanskrit--the language of the seminal yoga texts--is the liturgical, sacred language of Hinduism. The names of the poses are also in Sanskrit, and many refer to legendary Hindi figures. But the practice of yoga is not Hinduism, although it can be one aspect of it. Being in a pose that is named after a Hindu god or goddess doesn't mean I'm worshiping that god or goddess.

I do, however, experience a Yoga/Jewish convergence. Because Hinduism and Judaism are both ancient ethnic religions, their sacred texts are also considered to be stories telling the history of their people. The texts are written in a sacred language--Sanskrit and Hebrew, two languages that are written with no vowels. The texts were originally transmitted in specific oral tones, as demonstrated today as the chanting of the Sutras and the Torah.

Yoga seems contain the moral fiber of the Hindu religion, with teachings that parallel teachings of the Torah. Many yogis spent their life studying and commenting on the sutras and other texts, just as the Jewish sages throughout the ages have written commentary--and commentary on both practices is still being written today.

I owe the meditative part of my Jewish practice to Rabbi Lew, who brought me the teachings and showed me the importance of melding meditation and prayer. But while his discovery and tie to this practice came from his Zen Buddhist experience, my ties to the practice come from yoga. Just as Rabbi Lew could feel at home in the zendo of Tassajara, not bothered by the statues and shrines found there, I feel at home in a yoga studio, not bothered by any altars dedicated to Hindu sages.

I'm still working on my concept of God. For now, I would describe God as Transcendent Energy. There is only One, but that One has many aspects and many names. The Sephirot I'm using to count the omer are 7 emanations of that One Transcendent Energy. What some would see as separate gods and goddesses, I see them as part of the One.

And so, on this day I am reminded of the loving kindness with which my yoga practice feeds and energizes my Jewish spiritual practice. I am strengthened in body, mind, and soul.

כן יהי רצון
May it always be so

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

One day too long.....

היום שבעה ימים בעמר
שהם שבוע אחד בעמרToday is the seventh day,
making one week of the omerמלכות שבחסד

A day of majesty in a week of loving kindness

It's time for bread -- whoo hoo!

Some will wait until tonight, but my week of Passover ended after services this morning. Personally, I think it's time to drop the extra day added to the three Jewish Festivals--Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot--for Jews who live outside of Israel. (For those of you who don't get any of this, click here for an explanation.) We live in an age where we no longer rely on observation to determine the start of our lunar days. With no doubt as to when the Festivals start, there's no reason to add an extra day for safety. This is an ancient custom--not law--that has long outlived it's reason for being.

It's days like this that I feel myself moving further and further away from my roots in the Conservative Movement. One foundation of the movement was the understanding that how we live in the world changes through the centuries. We need to look at the customs and laws that our ancient sages set so that the religion could work in their new world environment and make adjustments for ours. Those are the teachings I want from each new generation of leaders.

Three and half years ago I ended this post with my declaration that I no longer would identify as a Conservative Jew. Nothing has changed since then. There's been lots and lots and lots of talk--but no action. The leadership talks about how aware they are of the falling membership in synagogues and the increasing disengagement of the members that remain. But all their solutions seem to be centered around wooing that elusive "young adult" demographic. I wish they would listen to my friend, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who wrote in this article for the Jewish Daily Forward:
"In fact, the most successful programs that I can think of — in terms of lifespan, vitality and overall contribution to the Jewish community — are those that are not defined by age or generational identification. They’re opportunities for people with common interests to come together to work from a Jewish perspective on a cause or issue about which they feel passionate, to pray with a particular sensibility, to make or enjoy Jewish cultural offerings or to take part in study that touches the heart. These are programs that have depth, substance and vision, and have been created by the same types of people who ultimately participate in them."
The type of programs that Danya describes are the ones I'm looking to attend and to create. When asked, I refer to myself as "post-denominational" to avoid any labels. I'm enjoying "free agent" status, open to all opportunities that come my way.

I will have alot more to say about this subject as I write through this omer period. With all my talk of cutting loose, I'm someone who likes to have a place--and that place is proving hard to find. Maybe my task will be to keep that place within me, so any space can become my place.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Spring ahead, Fall back

היום ששה ימים בעמר
Today is the sixth day of the omer
יסוד שבחסד
A day of foundation in a week of loving kindness

I was glad to be able to share Rabbi Lew's thoughts on baseball in yesterday's post. It's not just our mutual love of baseball that brings him to mind right now. One of the foundations of the practice at Makor Or was to create a spiritual path with the cycle of the Jewish ritual--daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Rabbi Lew taught us how to take those cycles and use the stopping points along the way to check inward as we move outward in the world.

It was Rabbi Lew who taught me the connection between Pesach and Yom Kippur, positioned halfway through the year from each other. They are both times when we take stock of our lives. Pesach is liberation, looking forward to the rebirth that comes each spring. Yom Kippur is introspective, looking back as we reflect on our lives at the present moment as we face the harvest of autumn.

This year, as I begin this journey of the omer, I see the connection it has with the meditative practice of Elul. They both are a specific period of time when we take a bit of each day in reflection. With the omer, the time starts after the first bursts of celebration--we experience the liberation, then we take the steps to receive the revelations. In Elul, we start by analyzing the realizations of our present, making our teshuvah, our return to our true selves that we offer on Yom Kippur.

I will revisit this idea this coming Elul to see if I still feel this relationship with the omer. I wish I could share this with Rabbi Lew. But I am so grateful to have the benefit of his teachings that continue to guide me on my path. Zichrono L'vrachoh--his memory continues to be a blessing to me.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rabbi Alan Lew on Baseball

היום המשה ימים בעמר
Today is the fifth day of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

It's damp and a bit gloomy in San Francisco today, but I can feel the sunshine that comes with the start of baseball season. There's something magical about this day because no matter what team you root for, whether at the top of the heap or a struggling franchise, everyone can dream of their team going to the World Series.
One of the bonds I had with my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, was that we were both fervent sports fans, although the Warriors were the only team we had in common. As far as baseball was concerned, he was a National League snob and loved to make reference to "that other, bush league team across the bay" that I rooted for. But then again, I could never understand how he could ever root for the Yankees, even during the World Series of 2001.
So on this day when hope springs eternal, I give you an excerpt from one of my favorite Rabbi Lew sermons, given during Rosh Hashanah 5760 in September, 1999. I know he would appreciate me sharing it with all of you today. And I think many of you who knew Rabbi Lew will be able to hear his voice as you read.


I have been a baseball fan all my life. The most vivid memory I have is my first visit to Ebbets Field in 1948. My Uncle Benny, my favorite uncle who died a few years later, took me. It was the day the Dodgers clinched the pennant that year, and after the game the crowds poured out onto the street outside the Dodger dressing room and waited for their heroes to come out. In those days, athletes used to wear sport coats with white shirts -- no ties, collars spread wide open -- and as long as I live, I will never forget the sight of Gil Hodges immense Adam's apple protruding out of the open neck of his white shirt. He was a god.

Another sight I'll never forget; a short while later my father took me to my first night game, also at Ebbets Field. Coming into the park, I caught my first glimpse of that glistening green grass diamond bathed in the arclight. My heart still stops a little whenever I walk into a stadium and see that.

And, of course, in 1948, Jackie Robinson began the civil rights revolution by penetrating baseball, because both he and Branch Rickey seemed to understand that baseball was at the heart of the American psyche, and if America was going to change, it had to change here first. You know, Louis Finkelstein, the great chancellor, perhaps the greatest chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had the same insight. He used to say, you can't be an American Rabbi unless you know baseball.

And in fact, I learned about social justice and civil rights and racial prejudice, not in school, not in synagogue, but through baseball.

Pee Wee Reese, the little colonel, died the other day. When Pee Wee Reese became the only player on the Dodgers to befriend Jackie Robinson, he also became my favorite player and he remained so until he retired.

Most of the ballplayers then were from the south. Pee Wee Reese was from the south too. Louisville, Kentucky, to be precise. But when the other players got up a petition saying they wouldn't play with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese refused to sign. And then one afternoon in Cincinnati, when the fans were taunting Robinson mercilessly, and even some of the players were joining in, Pee Wee Reese walked over and put his arm around Jackie Robinson and stood beside him. Later, Jackie Robinson said, I never felt alone on a baseball field after that.

So When Jackie Robinson couldn't find a house to buy, I sent him a letter inviting him to come live in my neighborhood. He wrote me back. He said he was sorry that he couldn't live in my neighborhood, because he and his family had just purchased a house in Stamford, Connecticut.

Baseball mirrors life in a subtle and deeply spiritual way. It has a deep aesthetic and we pour our souls into this mythic diamond and allow our deepest aspirations and conflicts to play out there.

The pitcher gives up two singles in a row and then there is an error and the bases are loaded and gazing down on this pitcher from high up in the stands -- up in the upper deck where God sits so he can see the big picture -- gazing down on this pitcher we recognize his agony, we identify with his sense of impending doom, of endless trouble overwhelming him on all sides. Then it's over in a flash. Someone hits into a double play. הפכת מספדי למחול לי פתכת שקי ותאזרני שמחה – his mourning has turned to singing, his sackcloth and ashes to joy (Psalm 30,verse 12). And sure it had cost him a run, but it could have been worse -- much worse.

Then the next inning, your team leads off with a triple -- man on third, no outs -- infinite possibilities for success. But then they walk the bases full and as the possibilities for success increase, so does the possibility of trouble. Now you could hit into a double play. Now you could squander all this good fortune. Now your success could turn to failure.

Suddenly, the ball squirts away from the catcher. There's a thrill of fear.

And you feel all this inside your kishkes. This is happening to you. This is happening in your soul. Your soul is living out this drama.

When [Major League] Baseball went on strike some years ago, the year before the Ripken record, in fact, the cynical sports writers all said, 'This is a travesty, but the fans deserve it, because as soon as the strike is over they'll all come crawling back and fill the parks again.'

But to everyone's surprise, the fans did not come crawling back. Either they took vows to avenge the injury by not attending any games that year, or they simply lost interest -- they feigned indifference -- the surest sign of a broken heart there is.

Why were we so hurt? Because we felt we had been violated spiritually. We were invited to pour our souls and our hearts into this spiritual world, and our basic assumption in doing so is that this world would go on and on and on, like any good religious cosmos; that it would persist. And then Baseball goes and violates the cardinal rule of any religion. It stops showing up. It doesn't keep going no matter what. They didn't play the World Series the year of the strike for crying out loud. And in doing so, baseball gave us a very clear and a very ugly message; their money was more important than our souls.

We gave them our souls -- they held them in sacred trust -- and then they broke the faith. They didn't show up. They invited us to open our souls and then they failed to support them with their continuing presence. They didn't persist. They weren't there. They weren't present. They left our soul to flounder, like a fish flopping around on the counter at the fish market.

So when people say, Mark Mcguire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball last year with their successful assault on Babe Ruth's cherished record -- with their incredible shower of big, booming home runs -- I respectfully disagree. I think baseball began to be saved the year before, when Cal Ripken broke Lou Geherig's record. This record -- his performance -- was precisely the antidote for the abomination baseball had committed. Baseball had failed to keep the faith, baseball had failed to show up, baseball had stopped. But Cal Ripken had showed up every day for 2,131 days. Cal Ripken had never failed to show up, and this achievement seemed to me to penetrate right to the marrow of the mysterious spirituality of Baseball and its power to transform us.

Simple human presence -- simply being present, simply persisting in being here -- has a tremendous spiritual power. It has the power to heal. It has the power to nurture.

Dry Bones No More

היום ארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is the fourth day of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverance in a week of loving kindness

Today I chanted the haftarah for the Shabbat during Pesach - Ezekiel 36:37 - 37:14. I wrote about this haftarah three years ago when I first realized the vivid imagery these words portrayed of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel--even though this was written around 600 B.C.E. You can read that post here.

While studying it this year, I saw an additional teaching. Three times in his vision, God tells Ezekiel to proclaim his prophesy. First, in 37:4, God says, ""Prophesy over these bones." When Ezekiel complies, the bones come together, get their sinew and their skin. Then, in verse 9 God says, "Prophesy to the breath." When Ezekiel does this, the bones come to life and rise. And in verse 12, God says, "Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said Adonai, your God. I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel."

This reminds me that while faith in the teachings of our people will keep us alive through the generations, we need to do the work. It is the prophesy we need to hear, whether we believe in God or not. We need to find those true leaders and teachers who will guide us through the rough times. I'm not sure who or what God is--that's something I'm continually working on. But I do know that the teachings of the Torah, the teachings of the Tanach have sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. They have kept us alive and breathed life into us. As long as we can still hear them, we will survive.

And on this day of perseverance, I remember with loving kindness two of those survivors to whom I dedicated this haftarah today. Mitzi Wilner, z"l and Goldie Rassen, z"l--two incredibly strong women who lived through the hell of the valley of dry bones and survived with their faith intact. They shared their love of life and Judaism with me and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Friday, April 02, 2010

What does it mean to be free?

היום שלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the third day of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

The first night of Pesach I attended a lovely seder hosted by Aryae Coopersmith and Wendy Berk, founders of the Coastside Torah Circle. Along with food and wine/grape juice, we were asked to bring a two minute story to share, entitled “A Time in My Life When I Felt Most Free.”

The first thing that came to mind for me when I saw that in the email was, "I don't know that I've ever felt free." It was very disconcerting. But it has given me something to, as my friend Robert Russo would say, cogitate on.

What does it mean to be free? Are we ever truly free? Is being free something to strive for? Wouldn't pure freedom cut us off from our relations with those around us--both in our personal lives and in the larger circle of the world? It's one thing to be free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, but what about the consequences to others? So is freedom just a concept, not an action? I don't expect definitive answers, but welcome anyone who wishes to share their thoughts on the matter.

Back to Monday night's seder--how did I handle the issue? I told of two times I felt liberation--something related to freedom but no the same. One was when I moved from NY to SF, sharing my thoughts given in yesterday's post. The other is right now, as I liberate myself from feeling hemmed in by a spiritual center that no longer serves me and move towards a spiritual practice that feeds my soul.

כן יהי רצון May it be so

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The best move I ever made

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is the second day of the Omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

On April 1, 1986, I walked out of my NYC apartment for the last time and flew to San Francisco, starting not just a new chapter in my life, but a whole new book. I was not entering unknown territory. For the year and a half prior to that moment, I had been going back and forth between NY and SF to be with Ken. On my visit that February I secured a job (which didn't turn out to be so secure, but that's a story for another day). I was as prepared as I could be to make the move and I knew that it was a move I had to make.

That decision was based on the need to move towards something, as opposed to being propelled by the need to run away. I didn't come to San Francisco to reinvent myself, but I have been able to become more of who I am with no expectations to weigh me down. I am lucky to feel that I have ended up in the place I was destined to live. My "New York-ness" will never be completely stifled--I still talk fast with hands waving, and can still become very impatient waiting in line. But San Francisco has my heart--it is my home.

As I look back I realize it took strength to make that leap of faith. And the loving kindness that I have found here all these years proves it was the right leap to make.