Friday, April 29, 2011

Invisible, Intangible

היום אחד עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וארבעה יומים לעמר
Today is the eleven days, which is one week and four days, of the omer
נצח שבגבורה
A day of perseverance in a week of strength

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I teach Torah to 7th graders. We start each class with a short period of meditation. While I teach them the breath centered practice I learnt from Rabbi Lew and Norman Fisher, I will often give them something to think about while they sit quietly. Staying silent is not easy for 12-year-olds, they need help with focus, and "watching" their breathe is too hard a concept for many of them to grasp at this point in their development.

I start with the basic instructions--sit up, towards the front of the chair; plant your feet on the ground; place your open hands palm down on your thighs or on the table; again, sit up with your shoulders back. I tell them that meditation is simply about being in the present moment--not thinking about what happened in school earlier today or about that soccer game tomorrow--just be And then we breathe. Of course there's some giggling--as I said, the silence is hard for them. But each week they have a little more comfort with the practice, and a couple have come into the classroom, eagerly asking, "Are we going to meditate today?"

I end the quiet time--which is usually only a minute or so--with a poem, and then we recite the blessing for studying Torah. I try to read something that has a relationship to what we will study that evening. This week, as a prelude to our discussion about God, I read this poem by Ruth Brin, z"l, that is a favorite of mine. They seemed to feel the beauty of it--I hope you do too.

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.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On the Hebrew trail . . .

היום עשרה יומים שהם שבוע אחד ושלשה יומים לעמר
Today is ten days, which is one week and three days, of the omer
תפארת שבגבורה
A day of compassion in a week of strength

It's now been a little over a year since I once again began my quest to read and speak Hebrew with understanding and fluency. I've never been good with languages, and as languages go, Hebrew is one of the more difficult ones to learn. Sure, I know the alphabet, but for many years read the words with little comprehension of their meaning. In the ten plus years I've spent davening, studying scripture, and chanting Torah I've gained a lot of meaning from the prayers and texts. But I would like to read both the ancient writings and the more modern literature through a clear lens, without the filter of someone else's translation.

I am lucky to have now found a great teacher whose methodology of teaching really works for me. Anat Wolins has started her own school, Yad Moshe, to teach Hebrew to adult students. She knows how to build knowledge, not just rote memory. The vocabulary lessons cycle through different subjects, each round bringing more sophistication to our repertoire. In grammer class, she decodes the patterns, so we can start to think in the Hebrew structure and not get stuck trying to force our English forms on the Hebrew.

She is also a teacher who is able to meet students wherever they are and bring them along. She supports us while she's challenging us; encouraging us to take chances and giving us the opportunity to learn through our mistakes. She is sympathetic to the frustrations that bubble up when the learning is just not sinking in, calming the fear.

Last year, at the start of my studies, I wrote a post called "Breathing Numbers," about not being able to count in Hebrew when timing my yoga poses. While I may or may not be able to do that now, I am able to say the blessings and count for the omer without looking them up in the siddur. I even know to use the male form of the numbers because I'm counting days and weeks, which are masculine nouns.

While this may seem like a small thing, it's big to me. It means I am learning, I am understanding--I'm not just memorizing, cramming words into my brain. I've had my meltdowns in class--I'm an A-type personality, and see myself as the "smart girl." I'm very hard on myself when I feel like I'm failing at the task at hand. But if I can see this progress, however small, maybe I can back off and realize how much I've retained. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is coming closer.

Today represents compassion that lives in a container of strength. I have the strength--and the smarts--to learn Hebrew. I need to add in compassion, give myself the time and space to let the knowledge settle in. Maybe one year I'll be able to blog the omer in Hebrew :)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

God in a Mobius Strip?

היום תשעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ושני ימים לעמר
Today is nine days, which is one week and two days of the omer
כבורה שבגבורה
A day of strength in a week of strength

On Wednesday evenings I teach Torah to 7th graders--12 and 13 years old--in San Mateo, a suburban community south of San Francisco. I use the Torah as a way to teach values and ethics and spirituality in the context of Judaism. At that age critical thinking is just coming into play -- at least for most of them -- and I also want to give them a safe place to discuss those new, sometimes uncomfortable thoughts that aren't based on concrete objects.

Tonight we had the God discussion that I have with each of my classes. I talk them through making a Mobius Strip. It's one way I can show something that's unexplainable--I certainly can't explain how or why it works. It gives me a chance to teach that God lives in the unexplainable, to say that God is the unexplainable. But we continue to try....

I give them a choice of descriptives for God:

Master of the Universe – God pulls the strings and works miracles

Watchmaker – God put the world together, wound it up, then left it running

List Maker – God takes notes on what we do and rewards or punishes us for our acts

Still Small Voice – our conscience, the voice of right and wrong

God is order, gives order – God is nature and scientific rules

Personal God – God is a presence which comforts us and has a personal relationship with us

The most popular description changes from class to class. This class gravitated towards the List Maker, with Master of the Universe a close second--definitely fans of the powerful, omnipotent God. No one went for the science God or the personal God.

I also gave them some words to catagorize their beliefs:

Theism – belief in the existence of God, either Monotheism & Polytheism

Atheism – a view which denies the existence of God

Agnosticism – the view the we cannot know whether or not God exists

Pantheism – God is equated with the forces of nature; God is in everything

The majority of my students relate to agnosticism. I think that's because they are just beginning to think about this and don't feel comfortable making a choice. One term, a girl said, "I'm an atheist and a monotheist." While these are opposites, I understood what she was saying--she's not sold on a belief in God, but if she did believe in God, it would be One God.

This is one of my favorite lessons because there's no right or wrong, yes or no. I just create the space for questions and discussion. Towards the end of the session, I let them all know that whatever they believe now is likely to change within some years, and will continue to change and evolve all their lives. Belief or not in God, in a transcendent spirit, or whatever other language you prefer, the unexplainable will always exist and how we deal with it is always subject to change.

The First Breath

היום סמנא ימים סהם שבוע אחד ווים אחד לעמר
Today is eight days, which is one week and one day of the omer
חסד שבגבורה
A day of loving kindness in a week of strength

The start of the second week of the omer, and on a certain level, the work of this period really begins. For the first week we're involved in Pesach, when we're reminded of our journey each day as we find different ways to make matzah more palatable. Now that the holiday is over we need to rely on our own commitment to the practice with little ritual to guide us.

Once again, in this time, I often think of Rabbi Lew, z''l. As dedicated as he was to Jewish practice, he found counting the omer a daunting task. By his own admission, he often lost the count in the early going. But each year, he would start again, hopeful that this would be the year he would make it through. Inevitably, he would not, but he didn't look at it as a failure. Failure would be not to try at all. To him, the practice was to start each year and go as far as possible. Think of the feeling in the year that would get finished. It's similar to being a loyal sports fan--an analogy Rabbi Lew would certainly appreciate. Ask die hard Boston Red Sox fans or San Francisco Giants fans how they felt when their team won the World Series after so many years of drought. Their joy, I'm sure, was much sweeter than any who joined the bandwagon just in that year. I know how I felt when, in 1987, my New York (football) Giants won their first Super Bowl.

I teach meditation with the same principle in mind. You have the best intentions. You sit on the cushion, set yourself--legs grounded, chest lifted, mind focused on the breath. You breathe in, you breathe out, and before you know it---your mind has wondered off. That's fine. Just restart. That first breathe is the best one--and the one you will have when things are in a tizzy around you and you need that grounded time the most.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Finding the Balance

היום שבעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד לעמר
Today is seven days, which is one week, of the omer
מלכות שבחסד
A day of majesty in a week of loving kindness

The attribute of malchut, which I have chosen to translate as majesty, is the hardest of the ten for me to get a handle on. I'm not sure I know what majesty feels like. It's definitely grand, large--something "fit for a king." But where does kingship fit in with these spiritual, emotional aspects of ourselves?

I wonder whether malchut is the place where all the other attributes meld with each other--like the way all the colors together make white. I can feel it as the union of the other aspects, a reminder of the balance needed to hold them all.

Rabbi Simon Jacobson describes malchut with the words "Nobility; sovereignty; leadership." This year it is the last of the three that jumped out at me. Instead of making the leap to kingship, take it to leadership. Leadership can be big or small, but the attributes needed are the same at any level. And the balancing act mentioned above is where the work comes into play.

I've never studied the sephirot through the lens of leadership--something new to be mindful of this year.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Yes, there is a plan....

היום ששה יומים לעמר
Today is six days of the omer
יסוד שבחסד
A day of foundation in a week of loving kindness

To the right you see my bulletin board. All those post-its tacked up there are thought fragments saved through the year for this very time--this daily writing practice during the 49 days of the omer count. The theory is I can always find a topic to write about, with a phrase or two to get me started. The hope is they will help during those when I'm blocked.

But writer's block takes different forms, I'm finding. Such as now, when I don't lack for material, but can't find enough brain power to push it out. I'm tired, and I need to rest.

So, in keeping with the day, I will simply share this photo which contains some of the foundation of the writings to come -- along with other images some might find interesting :) -- and then have enough loving kindness towards myself to get to bed........

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Spirit is the Struggle

היום המשה ימים לעמר
Today is the five days of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

My memory is very vague when it comes to what I learned in my religious school at my synagogue. I can remember some teachings from my time spent in my later teens at an after school Hebrew High School, but those early formative years remain, for the most part, a blank. But there were two messages that came through loud and clear. In Judaism, there are no angels and there is no concept of life after death---period. I suspect I might have some new readers who grew up in the same environment in the same time as I did, and I would appreciate hearing if your experience mirrors mine.

When I told this to my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, he was incredulous. "Marilyn, angels are all over the liturgy----'Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh'" he said, quoting from the Kedushah prayer of the Amidah, a section of prayers that is a part of each of the three daily services in Jewish practice. I agree, it's hard to imagine I missed this recounting of the angels praising God, but again, I have no memory of learning anything about the prayers--or even about the Torah, where there is a description of the golden lid of the Ark--with two sculpted "cherubim."

The resurrection issue is the same. Again, it's all over the liturgy, as one of the descriptives of God is that of the one who "brings life to the dead." And in today's haftarah--Ezekiel's vision of "Dry Bones"--those bones are given flesh and receive the breath of life. But in my early years of Jewish learning, belief in life after death was considered to be in the domain of others, non-existent in Judaism.

Part of the problem here is the nature of the times. Friends who grew up within other traditions tell the same story. Any hint of spirituality was stripped from mainstream religious teachings--it seems there was a fear of anything outside the perceived norm. It seemed to many of us that appearance was more important than substance. Questioning, a core of Jewish text study, was not encouraged as much as acceptance.

I am trying to give my students as wide a range of Jewish teachings as I can, while encouraging them to see the lessons in our ancient texts that still speak to us today. I want them to find the questions that are more meaningful than the answers. I want them to know to "see" the angels in our text, to read of the One who brings life to the dead, let them grapple with the unknown. That where the spirituality resides.

It always seem to come down to the struggle. There's a reason we are called the people of Israel--the ones who wrestle with God.........

Friday, April 22, 2011

Personal Practice

היום ארבעה ימים לעמר
Today is four days of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverance in a week of loving kindness

Today is the first Shabbat of the omer period. Each year I need to decide how I am going to handle the blogging on the Shabbatot of the omer. It is clear that using my computer, or even just writing the post for the day is not halachically correct. But my practice does not encompass strict observance of the Jewish halachic laws. In fact, one advantage of not being a rabbi is the ability to more easily make my Jewish practice my own, taking on the commitment of following various rituals as I am ready. I can also give myself the latitude to reject those strictures I feel don't make sense for me.

I have no problem writing--on the computer or on paper--on Shabbat. I would not write on Shabbat within the confines of my synagogue, that would be disrespectful. It needs to stand as a place of comfort for all members wherever they stand in the range of observance. My own level is somewhat of a moving target--different rituals have different meaning in different years. I set the rigors of my practice as needed. So this year I will write and post on Shabbat--other years may be different.

Because study is integral to my spiritual practice, I find myself in an evolving process. It's that constant evolution that keeps me on this path. The movement may be slow--sometimes frustratingly so--but as long as I can keep studying and learning, progress is made.

Today we honor perseverance and loving-kindness--two important elements in bringing spiritual practice into your life. Through the lens of loving-kindness you can see what ritual will work for you. Whatever you chose, you need to make a commitment to it--even if it's just for a period of time. Perseverance to the practice is what makes it work.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

More than words

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

In my 7th grade Torah Study class last week we listed the Biblical holidays and looked at what the Torah has to say about Pesach. While all the kids knew the story of Pesach, I doubt any of they had ever read the text that is the source for the story and for the rituals.

In the course of the discussion, one of the boys volunteered the information that he had every intention of eating whatever he wanted during the week of Pesach. I asked him why. He just shrugged and said something to the effect of "'s too hard...there's not much to you can eat...just because...." At this point, some of the others joined in, although most were not as strident about it. They try to not eat bread for the week, they told me, but it's just too hard.

I agreed with is hard. I actually think Pesach is the most physically demanding of all the holidays. The preparation is hard---all the cleaning and the clearing. Seders go into the night and services are early in the morning--sleep can be at a premium. Just cooking and eating during the week takes extra effort--especially in a town where Kosher for Passover is hard to find.

I think there is a method to this madness that the rabbis gave us as this holiday's rituals. In yesterday's post I made the point that the telling of the story to our children is a core rite of Pesach, since the remembrance is a key to our survival as a people. But for the memory to take hold through the ages, we need to feel it, we need more than words. By setting up this yearly re-enactment of this seminal event in our history--this release from slavery to freedom--we not only remember our own time of liberation, but reflect on the importance of freedom for all people. And we can take positive actions--action that is built into the rituals. We donate the food that must leave our pantries. We find a seder table for any visitors in our midst. Small acts that add up to a greater sum.

I told the kids in my class that I wouldn't and couldn't tell them what to do or not do. They were all going to seders, and that was fine. But the seders represent the communal, social practice. I asked them to try and see if they could not eat bread during the week as a personal practice, something they do for themselves. And use the act of not eating bread as a way to remind themselves to care for those who have none to eat. That way they can see that Pesach is not just a holiday commemorating the past but a way to renew ourselves in the present to help create a better future.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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

At this time in the Jewish calendar we enter a period of remembrance.

Passover is all about remembrance. In Torah, the first two rituals of the yearly rite of Passover are don't eat anything leavened for seven days and tell your children about the exodus from Egypt. And so we have the Haggadah--the Telling, which not only tells the story, but teaches us how to tell our children with the questions of the Four Children--traditionally, the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask. We are taught to tell them the story so that they will then be able the story to their children. Remembrance.

Next week brings Yizkor, a prayer service held four times a year. It is a time we bring close those we have lost. Remembrance.

Sunday, May 1st, is Yom HaShoah. We will honor and bring close the millions lost in that firestorm. Remembrance.

A week after that is Yom HaZikoron, the Israeli Memorial Day. We will honor those lives lost in the struggle for Israel's existence. It is only after this commemoration that we can celebrate Yom HaAtzma-ut - Israel Independence Day. Remembrance.

And this period on the Jewish sacred calendar will conclude with Shavuot, the harvest festival that was transformed into a celebration of the teachings Moses brought to all of us standing at Sinai--teachings that were created to be studied through the ages. Remembrance.

We are a people with a long, deep memory. This may be the reason for the pain we seem to carry with us through the centuries, increasing with each expulsion from lands we thought were safe. But from that pain also comes the fortitude to survive in a world that has often times tried to destroy us. When you look at Judaism in the context of world history, we should have gone the way of other ancient religions, becoming pages in history books with no real presence of note. But our voices are still strong.

On this day of strength, I honor that fortitude of memory that has kept our ancient traditions alive by revealing their relevance for each generation. In this week of loving-kindness, I hope we can go beyond the pain that has fractured us as a people and truly find a way to once again stand together.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Count begins anew....

היום יום אחד לעמר
Today is the first day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving-kindness in a week of loving-kindness

As we start this double day of loving-kindness, I need to turn that loving-kindness towards myself and get some sleep. There is a perception that Yom Kippur is the most arduous of the Jewish holidays, but I think Pesach is much more of a marathon. After two long seders, with the addition this year of some kosher for Passover cognac on the first night, I'm too tired to even think about how this year's counting will unfold. But I've got a bulletin board full of ideas, so I shouldn't be at a loss for topics to ponder.

If you're wondering what this all about, I refer you to the start of last year's cycle, which can be found here. Welcome to all, it's always nice to have company on the way.

Chag Sameach!