Tuesday, August 15, 2017


I wrote this paper for an English class I took at City College of San Francisco in May, 2004. It rings far too true today, as I see white men walk through a town in the US carrying torches and Nazi flags, shouting, "The Jews will not replace us"
 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”(37). 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”(41). 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 (NorthWest Net). Non-profit organizations can use websites to recruit volunteers without having to spend much money (Ellis). Families of soldiers stationed in Iraq can connect with their loved ones through video conferencing (Clarke). 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.
   In Brave New World Revisited Aldous Huxley defines two types of propaganda: rational propaganda and non-rational propaganda. Rational propaganda encourages actions that correspond with “the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed”(31). The Declaration of Independence is an example of rational propaganda, written by Thomas Jefferson to clarify the position of the American Revolutionists (MSN Encarta). Non-rational propaganda “is dictated by, and appeals to, passion”(Huxley 31). Advertising is a prime example of the power of non-rational propaganda, appealing to desires rather than facts (Russell). According to Huxley, this type of propaganda “. . . avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals”(32)
Huxley identified the tools of propaganda and noted the advancement in technology since Hitler’s reign. Broadcast television and the ability to distribute both sound and images on magnetic tape had the ability to increase a propagandist’s sphere of influence. The cost of running the mass communication industry put its power in the hands into an elite few, dictated by politics or economics (Huxley 34). This cadre of the powerful could use the force of mass communication to distract the populous from seeing a threat to their freedom. Huxley stated: “A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it”(36).
Huxley also addressed the susceptibility of children to messages of propaganda. Instead of children reciting nursery rhymes and hymns taught in his childhood, Huxley heard commercial jingles from the mouths of babes (54). This conditioned them for the next step, where “. . . hundreds of millions of children are in the process of growing up to buy the local despot’s ideological product and, like well-trained soldiers, to respond with appropriate behavior to the trigger words planted in those young minds by the despot’s propagandists”(55).
In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan showed us that the modern propagandists’ tools go beyond just the words. The graphic format of The Medium is the Massage is designed to illustrate how the medium influences the message. In McLuhan’s words, “[The Medium is the Massage] is a collide-oscope of interfaced situations”(10).
“The medium is the message” is a phrase penned by McLuhan which he used as the title of the first chapter in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan meant that phrase to be the title of his 1967 compilation of observations, photos, and graphics, but the typesetter made a mistake. According to McLuhan’s son Eric, “When Marshall McLuhan saw the type he exclaimed, ‘Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!’ Now there are four possible readings for the last word of the title, all of the accurate: ‘Message’ and Mess Age,’ ‘Massage’ and ‘Mass Age’”(Goux).
McLuhan died in 1980 before the age of the Internet, but The Medium is the Message certainly foreshadows the format of that technology. The book is not only words, photos, and drawings artfully arranged in pages, it is also non-linear. You can open to any place for your start point, and work forward, backward, or in a random order. The message, or “massage,” will still be evident. The type is black on white then white on black; there is small print then large print then no print at all; two pages have the words in mirror image, the next two pages have the words upside down. These techniques force the reader into a relationship with medium, illustrating McLuhan’s point by becoming part the message not simply the messenger.
Like Huxley, McLuhan saw television as the new age for mass communication. He saw the way it changed the political environment: “The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marshes, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything.” (McLuhan 22). He believed that electronic circuitry would influence the transmission of information with instantaneous acquisition to all corners of the globe, shrinking the boundaries of the world around us. Over a photo of an African tribesman addressing villagers gathered around him, McLuhan writes: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”(67).
Although the technology of the World Wide Web is more digital than electronic, it is the fulfillment of Marshall McLuhan’s vision of making the world a global village. Unlike Aldous Huxley’s view of the mass communications industry controlled by few, the World Wide Web is an anarchistic medium, virtually unregulated and uncontrolled. However, its use as an agent to spread non-rational propaganda fits perfectly with Huxley’s paradigm. This is evident when looking at the spread of racist propaganda on the World Wide Web.
In 1958, Huxley saw broadcast television as a major step in the wide scale distribution of propaganda. The reach of the World Wide Web makes television distribution limited in comparison. On a page giving the communication conditions in Tibet, TravelChina.com boasts, “There are dozens of internet cafes in Lhasa”; and the grandson of Sherpa Tensing is planning to open an Internet café at Mount Everest (Burubacharya). While I don’t think anyone planning to climb Mount Everest will be spending time looking at a racist website, this shows the far reach of the medium, increasing its potential for global influence.
Websites can be produced inexpensively without any technical knowledge. With easy-to-use software available for website creation, there is no longer any need to learn HTML, the coding language of the World Wide Web; server space and domain name registration are obtainable at a low cost (Rajagopal and Bojin). The ease of producing and publishing websites enables hate groups to create different sites to target specific demographics. The World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group, has become an umbrella for many sites including World Church of the Creator Kids! which entices young users with activities such as coloring pages and puzzles (ADL). Hammerskin Nation and Aryan Nations Youth Corps are websites created to appeal to teens (Ray and Marsh). “Those directed at teenagers may offer free plug-ins to popular video adventure games, using persons of various religions, races, or sexual orientations as prey. Some offer "hatecore" and "white power" music featuring a contemporary sound and invective-laden lyrics”(Lamberg).
There are no regulations or restrictions governing information on the World Wide Web. While private Internet Service Providers (ISP) can prohibit users of their servers from creating hate websites, there are always other ISP’s that will host those sites (Rajagopal). An example of hate groups taking advantage of this lack of regulations and restrictions can be seen in a recent controversy involving the search engine Google. When you enter in “jew” as your keyword, the third website that appears on the list is JewWatch.com, an anti-semitic website. A complaint was lodged, but Google would not change the results, which are automatically determined by computer algorithms (Google). Alexander Linden, a research vice president at Gartner Research, noted: “Through the use of clever website-farming and self referencing (techniques), and also through purchased cross-referencing, one can build up a considerable page rank. . . . This problem is more about ethics, and sometimes even about compliance to certain national laws.” (qtd. in Brandon) The ease in which one of these sites can be discovered by casual web surfing and the ability to disguise their message when catering to children is a dangerous combination, increasing their potential to influence young minds.
We are now over forty years forward from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, over thirty years forward from McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Huxley’s warnings about the potential for the use of mass communication and modern technological advancements in the spread of propaganda coupled with McLuhan’s understanding of the power in the form of the media have been realized in the racist websites created on the World Wide Web. How can we combat the inevitability of the influence of these sites on the present and future generations? Huxley brings us an important starting point: “Education for freedom must begin by stating facts and enunciating values, and must go on to develop appropriate techniques for realizing the values” (101).
It is essential to teach students how to think and train them to evaluate the knowledge they gain (Friedrich 199). 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 (Reeves/Nass, 253). 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.
The same World Wide Web that hosts the racist websites contains the tools for teaching media literacy which are crucial in the fight against the spread of racist propaganda. The Center for Media Literacy offers a wide range of information and materials for teachers to use in their curriculum and parents to use when in the home environment. The Community Learning Network is a curriculum site “designed to help K-12 teachers integrate technology into the classroom”(CLN homepage). Here teachers can find lesson plans for teaching media literacy as well as links to resources for topics such as the influence of television and advertising on kids today. The Media Awareness Network houses a “comprehensive collection of media education and Internet literacy resources”(Media Awareness Network About Us).
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” (Huxley 109). 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” (McLuhan 100). 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.

Works Cited
“Bertrand Russel on Pragmatism, Power, and related issues”
Brandon, John. “Dropping the Bomb on Google.” Wired News  May 11, 2004
Burubacharya, Binaj “Internet Café Opening on Mount Everest” Red Nova.  March 7, 2003
Center for Media Literacy.  ©2002 – 2004 
Clarke, Dave. “New video conferencing center for troops, families now operational at Galva Armory.” Kewanee Star Courier Online. May 19, 2004  
“Communication.” TravelChinaGuide.com  April 14, 2004
The Community Learning Network.  Open School BC 
Ellis, Susan J. “Turning a Gift into a Powerful Tool: The Internet’s Impact on the Volunteer Field” Energize Inc. July 2003.
Friedrich, Otto.  “Five Ways to Wisdom.” The Borzoi College Reader. 7th ed. Eds. Charles Muscatine and Marlene Griffith. New York:McGraw-Hill, 1992.
195 -205
“Google: An explanation of our search results”  Google. 2004
Goux, Melanie. “McLuhan”  brushstroke.tv. October 13, 2003
“Health Care Providers Discover Advantages of Internet Access.” NorthWestNet Node News. Vol.3, No. 1 May 1994. 
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. New York:Perennial Classics,HarperCollins, 2001. ©1958 Aldous Huxley
Lamberg, Lynne. “Hate-Group Web Sites Target Children, Teens” Psychiatric News. February 2, 2001  <http://www.psych.org/pnew/01-02-02/hate.html>
McLuhan,  Marshall and Fiore, Quentin. The Medium is the Massage. Corte Madera, CA:Gingko Press, 2001. ©1967 Jerome Agel
Media Awareness Network. ©2004
“Propaganda” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004
<http://encarta.msm.com ©1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation>
Rajagopal, Indhu and Bojin, Nis. “Digital Representation: Racism on the World Wide Web” First Monday. volume 7, number 10. October 2002
Ray, Beverly and Marsh II, George E. “Recruitment by Extremist Groups on the Internet” First Monday. volume 6, number 2. Febrary 2001.
Reeves, Byron and Nass, Clifford. The Media Equation:How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1996

 “World Church of the Creator: ‘Racial Holy War’ on the Web” Anti-Defamation League <2001 span="" style="mso-spacerun: yes;">  http://www.adl.org/poisoning_web/wcotc.asp>

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Count is Accounted for

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Remembrance - My Uncle Eddie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Moment a Day

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

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

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The spiral of our life

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Shavuot Explained

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

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Strength of Sound

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wisdom of Age

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roman Holiday

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Minyan is for your sake

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

God -- On One Foot

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Continuum of Practice

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Torah, then to now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Breakfast at Glide

היום שבעה ושלשים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות ושני ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-seveb days, which is five weeks and two days, of the omer
גבורה שביסוד
A day of strength in a week of foundation

This morning, along with other Kitchen Justice League members, I helped serve breakfast to those who live in the margins and on the streets at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

Glide serves three meals a day, not only providing food, but serving each person with respect. And they do so much more--not just in services to help people break the cycle of poverty, but they do it with no judgement. If they just come for the food--fine. If they are ready to take steps for more, they are ready to help. And they are committed to cut through all things that divide us, not just using the word inclusivity, but living in.

I encourage anyone in the SF/Bay area to consider signing up to volunteer--I know I am now going to see if I can make this a regular part of my life.

These people who live on the edge need help to find the strength to rebuild their foundation.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Ray of Hope

היום ששה ושלשים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות ויום אחד, בעמר
Today is thirty-six days, which is five weeks and one day, of the omer
חסד שביסוד
A day of loving-kindness in a week of foundation

As we start this week of foundation, it feels like the foundation of this country is crumbling. Will the checks and balances built into our government system work, serve to support our democracy? Hard to say. Today's appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel for the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election and possible ties to the Trump campaign brings some hope.

As the saying goes....time will tell.....

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pray for Our Country

היום חמשה ושלשים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות, בעמר
Today is thirty-five days, which is five weeks, of the omer
מלכות שבהוד
A day of leadership in a week of humility

Leadership in humility? No, not today.

Our country is in crisis, and all I can do is pray.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hearing the Words through the Generations

היום ארבעה ושלשים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות וששה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-four days, which is four weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שבהוד
A day of foundation in a week of humility

I've heard it said that all translation is commentary. That is certainly true when it comes to Tanakh and other Jewish texts. Hebrew is the language of those texts, the language of our liturgy. As one who studies those texts and translates that liturgy, I am keenly aware how much can change with different connotations of words and phrases.

For instance, what is often translated as "obey God" is usually, in the literal translation from Hebrew, a variation of "hear the voice of God." To me, those bring up two different reactions, giving me two different ways to look at the relationship between God and the Israelites in the Torah.

It was pointed out to me by a biblical historian that in the culture of ancient times, "hearing the voice of..." was a phrase that meant "obey." To that I say, fine, but that is not what reads to me. And that is the magic of sacred scripture--that it is how it is able to speak to each generation in its time using the same language.

The Torah is a foundation of my life, and I am humbled by ancients who created it, keeping its messages and stories accessible from culture to culture––from language to language––לדור ודור l'dor v'dor from generation to generation.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

We honor the humility of moms

היום שלשה ושלשים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות וחמשה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-three days, which is four weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שבהוד
A day of humility in a week of humility

It seems appropriate that today, Mothers' Day, is a double day of humility. Although I am not a mom, I am humbled by the children in my life that I teach and mentor. I can only image how that is felt exponentially by moms. They give so much of themselves, and give up so much of themselves to their children.

For their selfless humility, as well as so much else, we honor the moms, and those who play that mom role, in our lives.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cycles of Life are the Secret of Life

היום שנים ושלשים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות וארבה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-two days, which is four weeks and four days, of the omer
נצח שבהוד
A day of perseverance in a week of humility

In my teaching at the Federation yesterday on today's Torah portion, Emor, I talked about the holiday cycle of the Jewish year, which is described in this part of the Torah in the context of ritual practice. We discussed the different layers of the holidays--dependence on solar or lunar calendar, agricultural considerations, representations of historical milestones, and influence on the spiritual life of our people.

Having an acute awareness of the Jewish calendar has given me an appreciation of the different ways we mark the cycle of the years. Seemingly small customs have their own way of differentiating the seasons. For example, I know where we are in the year by the state of my plastic bag collection.

I collect the plastic bags I use to hold my produce from the farmers' market each week to recycle their use. In the summer into the fall, the bounty of fruit and vegetables increases each week, and I get more bags than I can use. The collection grows rapidly. With the onset of winter, there is less produce available, and I begin to use more bags than I get. With the start of spring, my stash is visibly lower.

Right now, I have hit the low point in bags, and the first stone fruits have begun to appear. I'm about even in my get/use bag ratio. The scales will start to tip in the get direction, and summer will bring in more and more bags, leading to the overflowing storage bin. The cycle begins again.

As James Taylor teaches of us---the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time---try not to try to hard, it's just a lovely ride.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Mad World

היום אחד ושלשים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות ושלשה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-one days, which is four weeks and three days, of the omer
תפארת שבהוד
A day of compassion in a week of humility

Words are not coming today, in this increasingly mad world........

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Torah as Prism

היום שלשים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty days, which is four weeks and two days, of the omer
גוורה שבהוד
A day of strength in a week of humility

I am humbled when my b-mitzvah students take in my teachings and make it their own. This is the strength and the future of our people.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Chag Sameakh Deja vu

היום תשעה ועשרים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות ויום אחד, בעמר
Today is twenty-nine days, which is four weeks and one day, of the omer
חסד שבהוד
A day of loving-kindness in a week of humility

As much as I appreciate the big occasions in the Jewish sacred calendar--the festivals and holidays, with the ritual that goes along with them--it's the marking of the small moments, the ones more buried in the practice that give insight into the practicalities of the lives of the ancient Hebrews, while still creating space for a teaching from a modern perspective.

Today is Pesach Sheni, a day for those unable to celebrate Passover at its proscribed time of the 15th of Nissan.
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to Adonai, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. . . Numbers 9:9-11 
Commemorating our liberation from the slavery of Egypt is one of the most important rituals we have--so important that if something has stopped us from doing that at the proscribed time, we get a second chance. And not only do we need to stop to remember, but we are told that those who are with us are to share in the moment.
When a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to Adonai, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.                                           Numbers 9:14

This celebration is so important, so seminal to who we are and how we view the world, remembering that we were slaves, that we were freed. We need to remember the feeling of liberation and share it with others. There is no looking away from it, making sure we always have empathy for those who are enslaved, and raise our voices to help lead them to freedom.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Honoring the source, paying it forward

היום שמנה ועשרים יום, שהם ארבעה שבועות, בעמר
Today is twenty-eight days, which is four weeks, of the omer
מלכות שבנצח
A day of leadership in a week of perseverance

On this day of leadership in perseverance, I honor Enid Roth, who was in the first wave of women in broadcast television; who stood up for the right of women to have equal opportunities. She didn't win all her battles, but her voice was, however reluctantly at the time, heard. Enid was hired at NBC in 1952 as an executive secretary and rose in the ranks to become a news director. She was one of my role models at NBC, and I often think of her as I advise other women.

I also remember Enid's sharp wit, which, as I found out, has not been lost even if her memory is dim. I was so happy to see her at the Peacock North luncheon last week. I went up to her, wanting to tell her how she mattered in my life. I greeted her with, "Enid, I know you won't remember me, it's been 30 years." Still grasping my hand, she looked at me with a wry smile and said, "I wouldn't remember if I saw you yesterday." I told her that was fine, I remembered her, and thanked her for the time she took with me, how I take that time with others now. She was genuinely touched for that moment--a moment she may not remember but I will.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Grounded, not stagnent

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

Foundation is something that can keep you grounded, something to call on when things are crumbling around you. Foundation's stability does not depend on rigidity. In fact, a foundation that is too rigid will crack more easily, undermining its support.

Foundation within perseverance brings the flexibility needed to survive. Perseverance takes place over time, and time brings change. The core of our foundation remains an anchor within us, while the shape, size, and content will grow from that core with the perseverance of life.

Foundation in perseverance - we can stay grounded while moving ahead.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Bringing the Light to all the Sefirot

היום ששה ועשרים יום, שהם שלשה שבועות וחמשה ימים, בעמר
Today is twenty-six days, which is three weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שבנצח
A day of humility in a week of perseverance

With thanks to my friend Leah M-O, I share this story not only of humility and perseverance, but of all the sefirot, the intentions, with loving-kindness, strength, compassion, foundation, and leadership.

How the Light Gets In . . . 

Saturday, May 06, 2017

We stop so we can go on.....

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

Today is the midpoint of the omer journey--as many days behind as there are ahead. It is Shabbat, of rest and reflection. Let us take a moment to be grateful for our progress so far, and gather our energy needed to move forward.

On this day of perseverance squared, we honor the stopping needed to continue.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Fava Bean Meditation

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

I live in the world of the Gregorian calendar, I practice and work in the world of the Jewish calendar, and I eat in the world of the California agricultural seasons. All three have highs and lows, with predictable patterns that still manage to bring surprises.

One of the joys of eating seasonally is getting those first fruits that mark the season. That will be celebrated in the Jewish world during Shavuot in, as we know from this count, twenty-six days :) But it's happening right now in my farmers' market. Cherries have made their appearance, and for a brief time, there will be fresh fava beans.

Fresh fava beans have a crispness that isn't there when the beans are cooked from dried. They are a commitment to prepare, with a three step process--depod, blanch, peel--needed before starting to work with them. Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth it.

While peeling beans today, memories of time spent at Tassajara Zen Center Hot Springs during guest season floated into my mind. There are many reasons why that is a very special place, one being the food. It's not just the taste of the food and the sharing of the food; it's also knowing that it is prepared by people who are making preparing the food part of their practice.

And that's what I did today. Peeling the beans felt tedious until I stopped and just stayed in the present while I went bean to bean, not counting how many beans left, not thinking, "well, maybe I have enough." I just stayed with the rhythm of each bean until there were no more. It was a form of meditation, a well-needed break from the world outside. And like the students at Tassajara, it integrated my practice into my life. A lesson of compassion and perseverance.

Thursday, May 04, 2017


היום שלשה ועשרים יום, שהם שלשה שבועות ושני ימים, בעמר
Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days, of the omer
גבורה שבנצח
A day of strength in a week of perseverance

After today's vote in the House of Representatives, all I can say is I hope we have the strength and the perseverance to resist the injustices that this administration will create. We will need all our energy--physical, mental, and spiritual to survive the next 4 years.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Now, go and study

היום שנים ועשרים יום, שהם שלשה שבועות ושני ימים, בעמר
Today is twenty-two days, which is three weeks and one day, of the omer
חסד שבנצח
A day of loving kindness in a week of perseverance

The first partnership of chesed/loving kindness and netzakh/perseverance during the first week of the omer, was about the influence of chesed on netzach, bringing softness to determination. Today we have the flip side, bringing tenaciousness to softheartedness.

There is a focus to true acts of loving kindness, not just words said to appease. How do we get that focus? Sometimes, the universe gives the answer, as I share two teachings that I am about to share with a student.

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater as study leads to action.    ---   Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b

There was a famous saying of Rava: The purpose of learning is repentance and good deeds. ----  Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 17a 
There's a lot to unpack there. As Rabbi Hillel would say, "Now, go and study"

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

A Two City Gal

 היום אחד ועשרים יום, שהם שלשה שבועות, בעמר
Today is twenty-one days, which is three weeks, of the omer
מלכות שבתפארת
A day of leadership in a week of compassion

I spend the last day of this week of compassion as I spent the first day--in transit between the two places that anchor my identity, New York and San Francisco. My time lived in each city is close to equal. My soul holds the intersection between the two. Not a bad place to be.

Monday, May 01, 2017

On the Timeline of Our Lives

 היום עשרים יום, שהם שני שבועות וששה ימים, בעמר
Today is twenty days, which is two weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שבתפארת
A day of foundation in a week of compassion

I like to share The Timechart History of Jewish Civilization with my students. It's a great visual of the ebb and flow and milestones of our tradition. Major events, movements, monuments, and people are given sidebars and pictures. You zoom in to or out of the time periods to get different perspectives.

At yesterday's Peacock North luncheon, I got to reconnect with people I worked with for 10 years.......30 years ago. We have a lot of history together that is now, in itself, history. It was great to feel and receive such warmth that easily spanned the years. It was great to touch base and catch up and just have joy in seeing these people again.

Those 10 years are a definite era in the timeline of my  life. I'd have to think about what I'd highlight :)

On this day of foundation I get to honor a foundational time in my life.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The I and Thou Relationship

 היום תשעה עשר יום, שהם שני שבועות וחמשה ימים, בעמר
Today is nineteen days, which is two weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שבתפארת
A day of humility in a week of compassion

About 15 years ago, during one of the Makor Or practice periods, Norman Fischer gave a course on Martin Buber's 'I and Thou." I had tried to read the book before this, but could never break through with any understanding. Studying the book with Norman broke those barrriers. I saw the I-Thou relationship as the merging of a person's outward focus and inner being.

In my work as a video editor, when asked how I knew where and how to make the cuts, I would often answer that the material "told me" what to do. I realized that was a form of the I-Thou relationship. I integrate with the footage, go where the pictures and sound take me.

Now, as I immerse myself in Jewish liturgy, I feel that same cohesion. I take in the prayers and psalms of my tradition putting out those words on paper in different forms and in different ways, allowing others to experience the ancient prayers and psalms, integrating it with their world today.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Chai Day

 היום חמשה עשר יום, שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים, בעמר
Today is eighteen days, which is two weeks and four days, of the omer
נצח שבתפארת
A day of perseverance in a week of compassion

Today, is the 18th day, chai - חי day, "life day" of the omer.
May we have the perseverance to stay on our path of life.
May we have the compassion to keep us on our way.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Compassion in Aging

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

As a person in my sixties with parents in their nineties, the flow of aging is often on my mind. I cannot know what it is like for my parents to face their final years, I can just support them on their journey in the time they have.

I do have some control over how I navigate the inevitable aging process -- physically, mentally, spiritually. To help me forge that path, I'm reading Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's From Age-ing to Sage-ing. It is there that I found this quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel that holds a key:
"One ought to enter old age the way one enters the senior year at a university, in exciting anticipation of consummation. The years of old age may enable us to attain the high values we failed to sense, the insights we have missed, the wisdom we ignored. They are indeed formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through inbred self-deceptions, to deepen understanding and compassion, to widen the horizon of honesty, to refine the sense of fairness."
כן יהי רצון   May it be so

Thursday, April 27, 2017

From Compassion comes Understanding

 היום ששה עשר יום, שהם שני שבועות ושני ימים, בעמר
Today is sixteen days, which is two weeks and two days, of the omer
גבורה שבתפארת
A day of strength in a week of compassion

Compassion is a powerful  force.

Last week I wrote about compassion as an antidote to being judgmental. But compassion's strength goes far beyond that. Looking at life through the lens of compassion removes the ego that can cloud the view. Acting from a place of compassion brings the ability to truly make a difference as the focus is on what is needed, not what you want to make happen.

The strength of compassion is in the flow of understanding it brings.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Time Travel

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

I fly to NYC today for a week's visit. These trips always bring a sense of travel in time as well as place for me, as I get to channel the ghosts of my life there mixed with the life I live now. I get to spend time with friends who have been with me through the journey, and continue by my side.

This year, I have the added bonus of reconnecting with many people that I worked with 30 years ago, in a formative time of my life. There are many stories to be told; many memories to be sparked.

It will be an interesting week of compassion.

Monday, April 24, 2017

No Leadership

 היום ארבעה עשר יום, שהם שני שבועות, בעמר
Today is fourteen days, which is two weeks, of the omer
מלכות שבגבורה
A day of leadership in a week of strength

Leadership in strength - this combination does not compute for me right now.

I remember last week's teaching - that malkhut/majesty/leadership is the container for the other six sefirot. Loving kindness, strength, compassion, perseverance, humility, foundation--all those qualities are needed to lead. And all of those qualities are sorely missing in our present leader.

May we find the collective strength to resist unjust leadership.

כן יהי רצון - May it be so

Sunday, April 23, 2017

It was - and is - a mad world

היום שלשה עשר יום, שהם שבוע אחד וששה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirteen days, which is one week and six days, of the omer
יסוד שבגבורה
A day of foundation in a week of strength

When I taught about the Shoah, the Holocaust, to teens, I would set the scene of a perfect storm of evil, inconceivable and incomprehensible to us.

While still incomprehensible, but It is no longer inconceivable.

This Yom HaShoah, this Day of Remembrance, is a reminder of a world gone mad . . . and a caution for our world going mad.

Rav Kook on Humility

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

"Humility is a beautiful trait, but we must be careful not to become mired in a debilitating morass of apathy and negativity. On the contrary, the true goal of humility is to inspire us to strive for greater spiritual attainments. An accurate assessment of our current state prevents complacency. It should stimulate us to uncover our soul’s true potential and strive for those lofty levels that are suitable for it."

A teaching on humility from an essay on the Amidah, a section of liturgy that is a part of each Jewish prayer service, by Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. Rav Kook was a renowned Torah & Talmud scholar, philosopher, and mystic of the late 19th/early 20th century. He was the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, and sought to bring together the myriad of Jewish factions, as difficult a task then as it is now.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Moving ahead to stop

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

In this year's count, we are reminded that Shabbat is an act of perseverance.

Perseverance has a feeling of constant movement, pushing ahead, making way. Shabbat is none of those things. It is about stopping, resting, not working. And yet, since it is part of every week, no matter how busy that week may be, it takes perseverance to keep that weekly stopping, going. That perseverance is one strength of the practice.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Heart into Mind

היום עשרה ימים, שהם שבוע אחד ושלשה ימים, בעמר
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

One challenge I've had in my life is a tendency to be judgmental.

But as I learned from one of my teachers, Norman Fisher, the key to looking more deeply into something that brings challenges is to turn it over, look on the "other side" of the trait, of the emotions, of the act--and see what you find there.

What's the flip side of being judgmental? If I didn't care, I wouldn't bother to judge. So if I can come from a place of caring, compassion can temper the judgment.

The strength of compassion is in it's ability to bring heart into mind.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Life's path

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

This year, I see the double dose of gevurah not as increasing the amount of might, but about needing strength to temper strength. Strong actions, strong emotions, strong words can act as support, or they can do harm. One benefit of a mindfulness practice is that it creates container of awareness, a way to hold those strengths, see them for what they are, and a help to find the best direction for them to take. It's not an easy path, one filled with unpredictable turns---but it is the path of life.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Working in tandem

היום שמונה ימים, שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד, בעמר
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

Whether you're a seven-day Pesach person, or go the full eight, we're all back on bread as of tonight. Now the work of the count really begins, as it stands on its own as a ritual, going forward. We start a new week with the first of the mirrored pairs complete.

Last week, we had strength/gevurah in loving kindness/chesed; today, it's loving kindness/chesed in strength/gevurah. Last week, we were reminded that strength can be gained with an open hand rather than a closed fist. Today, we can realize that loving kindness is not necessarily warm and fuzzy. Sometimes, giving loving kindness means helping someone getting what they need, even if it's not what they want. Other times, receiving loving kindness means being able to hear tough advice from caring friends.

It's not about opposites; it's about working in tandem.

The Prism Reveals

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

This last of the intentions, malkhut --majesty, leadership-- is like light going through a prism. When white light hits a prism, the refraction shows the spread of colors contained in the white. Malkhut sits at the bottom of the kabbalistic map of the sefirot, receiving the aspects of each of the preceding intentions. It is with malkhut, with a synthesis of all the sefirot, all the intentions, that we move into the world of action.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Balancing Connections

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

One way I see the first six sefirot, intentions, of the omer week is an alternation between soft and hard pairs. Loving kindness/strength; compassion/perseverance; humility/foundation. The balance is dependent on the aspect of the weekly container.

The hardness of yesod/foundation represents a grounding, a firm connection maintained with the earth. Holding it in loving kindness reminds us not to let that connection tie us down so firmly that we stagnate. We need to be able to take off, willing to learn from influences outside our sphere. The beauty of having a spiritual practice is that we always have a way to reconnect to that supportive yesod space that grounds us.

The Spiritual Mirror of Baseball

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

One of the bonds I had with my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, was that we were both fervent sports fans. The Warriors were the team closest to his heart. I remember when, with the excited anticipation of a 12-year-old sports geek, he explained exactly which players where going to break out and lead the Warriors to victory. By the middle of the season, he would sheepishly admit that they were, once again, going nowhere. The next season, his excitement returned, and he explained why really, this year was going to be the year that things would be better. Of course, it wasn't.

Rabbi Lew died before the Warriors began this golden era. I think of him often when I watch the games, knowing the joy he would feel. In honor of the Warriors' start to their next championship run and the start of baseball season, I share with you an excerpt from one of Rabbi Lew sermons, given during Rosh Hashanah 5760 in September, 1999. It captures Rabbi Lew's understanding of the spiritual nature of being a true and loyal sports fan.


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 Gehrig'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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Every step taken

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

Netzakh/Perseverance has an element of hardness to it. Dogged, stubborn, tenacious--those are the synonyms. Like gevurah, there's a tight clenching to something--real or imagined, it doesn't matter--bringing the tension needed to hold the determination.

But during this week, as we look at netzakh through the filter of chesed, of loving kindness, a different image emerges. Perseverance can be the ability to maintain who you are each day, making your way with the support but not the control of others. As any meditator will tell you, staying present within yourself is hard work. Keeping that present focus when out in the world is even harder.

I'm not big on reaching for goals--what happens when you reach that end point? I'd rather keep moving towards milestones, so each fulfillment becomes the start towards the next. Taking life in, day by day, moving towards something specific, changing course, even some aimless wandering--every step taken is a form of perseverance.

Learning to be patient

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

On this day of a convergence of compassion and loving kindness, I wonder about the difference between them. They are similar intentions, so why did the kabbalists feel the need to include both?

I think, perhaps, that loving kindness is the emotion, compassion is the action. Loving kindness is a feeling that sparks movement, a cultivator, within and without. Compassion is a movement that effects all aspects of life.

I recently found that compassion can bring patience, a virtue I have problems maintaining. Using a lens of compassion when dealing with difficult people and issues, looking to difficulties those people and circumstances are dealing with, can abate anger and annoyance. It may or may not bring me to a place of loving kindness, but it's a step towards understanding.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

With an Open Palm

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

Fifteen years ago, during my second year of the omer practice, I was in the midst of chemotherapy. The treatment was synchronous with the Jewish calendar. My first infusion was on the first of Nissan, the biblical start of the year, and my last was on the 49th day of the omer. It was great to have a path to walk, to mark each day in a way that wasn't tied to my cancer. The intentions took on new meanings when seen through the filter of illness. What I discovered about gevurah - strength, has stayed close to me to this day.

The clenched fist, often raised, is a pervasive symbol of strength. There is tension in that gesture, a tension that forms a base for the power that is portrayed. But that year, I learned that power also emanates from reaching out with an open palm. It takes strength to reach out to ask for help. That strength is magnified when it is met and joined with another's strength in giving.

 ביד חזקה ובזרע נטויה
It was by a mighty hand AND an outstretched arm that we were freed from Egypt, from our narrow place. We reach out our arms and, fingers wide, to clasp the open hands stretched out before us.
The sum of our shared gevurah, our shared strength, is greater than the whole.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Needed Double Dose

היום יום אחד בעמר
Today is one day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

I love that we begin this yearly count from a double dose of loving kindness. It's a good place to start from in any year but even more crucial now, with no need to ask why this year is different from all other years.

It may seem that loving kindness is in short supply at this moment. That is what gives this double dose its imperativeness. We can't let anger take over our lives--as useful as that emotion can be when in a state of resistance. We must maintain that spark of loving kindness within that feeds the caring nature. We need to look for loving kindness without, finding others to support and to be supported.

We’ve recounted; now the count begins

With the seder, the order of these nights’ traditions, we use the map of Haggadah, of the Telling, to recount the story of our people’s release from oppression; we celebrate liberation. Tonight, the journey continues as we begin to count the 49 days of the omer. We move through time and spiritual space. We count days and we count weeks; we use seven seferot — chesed-loving kindness; gevurah-strength; tiferet-compassion; netzach-perseverance; hod-humility; yesod-foundation; malchut-leadership — as guideposts to give an intention for each day.

For those who want a grounding in the practice, a good explanation for the nuts and bolts of the biblical/rabbinic tradition can be found here, at Judaism 101. An overview of the 7 kabbalistic intentions — one a representation for each day, one for each week — is on the Aish site here.

We each take our own journey, and we walk the path with others. We contemplate our internal life, and we are mindful of what we do out in the world. Moving from liberation to revelation takes work — and it is the work of a lifetime.