Traditional Jewish thought sees the whole world as a laboratory for learning. On the one hand, everything has value in and of itself. On the other hand, everything points beyond itself to teach about something else.
Thursday August 8 was World Cat Day. Sources say that the International Fund for Animal Welfare inaugurated the holiday in 2002, but I can’t find anything about it on the IFAW website. However the holiday came about, it’s badly needed to raise world awareness of cats.
World Cat Day is especially needed to raise Jewish awareness of cats. If I asked you to tell me, off the top of your head, where cats appear in Jewish tradition, you would probably giggle and say, “Nowhere!” But if you were to search MyJewishLearning.com for information about cats, you might revise your answer.
Ordinary house and barn cats are revered as hunters, seers and teachers. Big wild cats evoke the King of King of Kings.
Every year, during the Passover Seder, we celebrate the cat whose bold hunt set history in motion. Yes, the cat that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, chad gadya. The cat who teaches about the persecution of Jews, the folly of revenge, or the omnipotence of God – depending on how you interpret the Chad Gadya poem.
The Talmud honors cats as teachers of virtue. “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat” (Eruvin 100b). Rashi says R. Yochanan praises the cat for its delicate habits of eliminating waste, but I myself learn modesty from the cat’s thoughtfulness. From its hiding place, a cat can observe a situation in careful detail, before finally leaping out to make a bold, intelligent and successful move.
In Perek Shira, the “Song of Nature,” cats teach the world humility by embodying a prophetic verse. “The cat says, ‘If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down,’” (Obadiah 1:14). No one, no matter how high or powerful, can escape the claws of a determined cat. Often, the vulture is a metaphor for imperial power. Through the cat, God teaches that even the most militarized empire is vulnerable to rebellion and decay.
In Hebrew Bible, big wild cats express divine power. Lions appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David. Members of the royal courts describe their kings as lions. Honoring a lion honors a king; honoring a king honors God.
Lions have been in the news recently. This month’s National Geographic Magazine includes a story about the life of African Serengeti lions. The writing is realistic and balanced; lions are fierce predators, competing with one another for territory and family leadership. (No wonder they symbolize royalty!) When people fence off lands for farming or livestock grazing, they come into conflict with local lions, who attack livestock and their human ranchers. Sharing land responsibly requires balancing many factors. In Africa, many government agencies and private conservations groups are pursuing that balance.
Some factors, however, are out of balance themselves. For example, Friday’s New York Times showcased an article about lion poachers in Africa. Not surprisingly, illegal terrorist organizations raise money through illegal activities. Activities include illegally hunting lions and selling their body parts.
Happy World Cat Day – not.
Of course you can argue that “terrorist” is a pejorative term for organizations that might be fighting a just cause. But still, something is wrong here. Human beings are taking animals and dragging them into our quarrels. We use them as as tools when we should revere them as teachers.
Cats can teach us never to attack without fully assessing the potential damage and to temper our political goals with humility. They can remind us that every creature has value in and for itself; that using any animal as a tool is intrinsically wrong; and that honoring animals honors God.
This year, World Cat Day coincided with day two of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is the month of self-reflection. How perfect.
Have we used others without their consent? Have we spoken badly of someone in order to gain advantage? Fired someone without due process? Profited financially by offering lies or partial truths?
Where could we have benefited from modesty and humility, or from ethically assessing a situation before acting?
Learn from our teachers.
Happy World Cat Day.
Image: facebook: black cats
Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
Don’t answer until you’ve done some rigorous research.
That’s right, research: with a method, literature review, experimental design, data collection, analysis, conclusions, and proposals for future research.
Last week, I conducted a mini-study, and here is my research report.
Method: For a study of opinion, a phenomenological (experiential) method is best. Thus, I explore my subjective response to two different God concepts.
Literature review: This study explores two concepts found in Jewish sources: God as king and God as energy. Each concept offers a way of understanding Genesis Chapter One. Here God says, “Let there be light!” and light comes to be.
Readers in the Talmudic era (200-500 C.E.) pictured a King with a staff of thousands, quietly leaping to fulfill his every command, beginning with the creation of light.
Kabbalistic philosophers (c. 10th century) pictured an energy underlying all creation, in the way that breath underlies speech. Passed through a body’s cavities, breath becomes sound. Passed through God’s designs, divine energy becomes familiar ideas and objects.
Experimental design: The familiar Jewish practice of blessing is the technology used to explore the two concepts.
Talmud teaches that the world belongs to God the King. We inhabit it at the pleasure of our Divine landlord. We should pay rent at the rate of 100 expressions of gratitude per day. Each time we notice something extraordinary, we should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam…Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe who ___________________.”
Hasidic teachers (c. 1700-1800) use Hebrew etymology to recast the blessing as an appreciation of Divine energy. Baruch, traditionally translated as “blessing,” is from a root that also means “fountain.” Adonai stands in for YHWH, the Ineffable One. Elohim often refers to “God as revealed in creation.” Melekh shares a root with malchut, a kabbalistic synonym for Shechinah, God’s intimate maternal presence. The root of the word olam also means “elusive.” Thus, each time we see something extraordinary, we should say the Talmudic words, and mean, “You are flow, beyond concepts, yet revealed in creation, intimately close, yet elusive and infinite, present in this ______________________.”
Data Collection: On two summer days, I walked outdoors, taking ten minutes each day to notice extraordinary things. On the first day, I marked each thing noticed by saying in English the Kabbalistic interpretation of the blessing. On the second day, I did the same with the Talmudic interpretation. Each day I recorded my observations, thoughts and feelings.
“You…are present in this abandoned spider web.” Weather has frayed it into two kinds of tissue. The small, decaying thread opens onto potentially infinite information about the life form that produced it.
“You…are present in this dried-out maple seedpod.” The veins in its leaf are secret pathways, feeding it, just as the membranes hidden in the human body feed us. Many life forms have many common structures. Does a single molecular code structure us all?
“You…are present as my phone rings with a missed call, but no message is left.” My anxiety over lost information is insubstantial and yet overwhelming. What does its presence tell me about myself? Negative emotions are an opportunity to learn.
“Blessed are you…who created this flower.” As I get close to a glowing, yellow buttercup with an intricate center, I feel as though I am in a royal garden. The world seems incredibly lush.
“Blessed are you…who caused this seed carrying hair to float and land.” What a wondrous mechanism. My respect for the designer increases, but I do not speculate on how the designer operated.
“Blessed are you…who caused this crow to cross my path.” Why, the crow must be one of the King’s servants!
Analysis: “God as energy” brings my mind to familiar scientific and psychological questions. “God as King” helps me understand famous Jewish teaching stories about courtyards and angels of the king.
Conclusion: I believe in God as energy. This belief is consistent with my philosophical education. I do not believe in God as King. However, I find it a powerful metaphor.
Question for further research: Perhaps if I had more exposure to monarchy, I would take that metaphor literally as well.
You might be drawn to replicate this research project in your own life. Or you may think it would not be an authentic approach for you. By sharing the project, I invite you to research the God question on your own, drawing on tools of Jewish tradition. Practice responsible theology: research before believing. Over and over again.
Image: discussions4learning.com. Sources and Inspirations: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams on Tractate Berachot, Jerusalem & Babylonian Talmuds; Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing; Catherine Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
George Zimmerman has been found “not guilty” in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The trial was high-profile and symbolic, and thus the verdict was quite upsetting to anti-racist activists. Jewish activists, moved by this upset, are in a good position to reach out to African-American communities, if we are willing to take the time.
Do I wish Martin had not been murdered? Yes. Torah says, “Do not murder.” (Ex. 20:13). Torah teaches that a human being is created in the Divine image (Gen. 1:27). Murder is not just a crime against a person; it’s a crime against creator, against a bottom line for any society (Gen 9:6). Talmud teaches that taking a life is like taking away an entire world: a person’s future, his descendents, and all their futures (Sanhedrin 37a). Trayvon Martin, by many accounts, was a typical teen, poised to mature into a young man. One can observe the terrible bereavement of his family; one can never know for sure the potential good lost to the world.
Do I wish Zimmerman and other Americans were less poisoned by racism? Yes. Torah says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17). “If a foreigner lives among you, do not oppress him. An immigrant shall be to you like a citizen; love him as you love yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33). George Zimmerman, by many accounts, was not a sophisticated thinker, took his job as a security volunteer beyond its limits, and spoke of African Americans in offensive ways. Negative emotions overtook him; he could not sit still, and thus he pursued when told not to, with tragic results.
Do I wish Zimmerman had been found guilty? No. Torah says, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality” (Deut. 16:19). The jurors took the judge’s instructions seriously. They were asked to determine whether the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They were not asked to determine whether Martin deserved to live or whether Zimmerman was a racist.
Do I hope the family will bring a wrongful death suit in civil court? Yes – if they are not too exhausted to do so. Torah says, “an eye for an eye…one who strikes an animal will pay damages; one who strikes a person will be executed” (Lev 24:2-21). After respectful debate about the Biblical context of this teaching, Talmudic scholars decided that, in their world, financial compensation for injury would replace revenge. True, they did not have murder in mind, but contemporary opponents of the death penalty take seriously some of their arguments regarding injury. A second ruined life does not console or compensate for a lost life. But financial compensation for suffering, health care, lost wages, and legal fees can make a concrete difference.
Do I wish that Jews would be more proactive about realizing these teachings: all human beings are created in the image of God, do not hate your brother in your heart, and do not pervert justice? Of course. As individuals living in a multicultural society, I think most of us do realize them. Many white Jews who live in racially diverse areas work, dine, volunteer and socialize with African-Americans. If we are at all reflective, we reflect on the dynamics of these relationships as we do with any other.
Do we use our professional and personal contacts to re-open dialogue between two communities who, a few decades ago, worked as allies in the civil rights movement? Not often enough. My mind is drawn back to the 1995 book by Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America. Lerner and West ask each other difficult questions. For example: When Congress seems more sympathetic to Jewish concerns about Israel than to Black concerns about economic inequality, and Jews fail to criticize this, do Jews understand the ill-will it causes? When Black Christians affirm the Exodus narrative but don’t reflect critically on anti-semitic elements of the Christian narrative, do they understand the racist perspectives they internalize? These are difficult questions to discuss without simply becoming defensive.
Both the American Jewish and Black communities are self-protective, and with good reasons. But there is strength in numbers, in coalitions, and in asking serious questions. Even if justice, in its strict procedural definition, was served in court this weekend, we know that social justice was not. Perhaps we, as leaders or members of small segments of the Jewish community, can use our personal contacts to initiate deeper dialogue between groups. Torah says, “Justice, Justice pursue!” (Deut 16:20)
A great conversation starter, isn’t it?
These days, in public debate, it seems to be a great conversation stopper.
Perhaps you are now thinking, “Yes, there is a creator, lawgiver, compassionate friend, and universal energy holding us!” Perhaps you know exactly who God is and how God operates. You’ve read the texts and you’ve experienced the faith. The fundamentals are real for you.
Or perhaps you are thinking, “Ridiculous! There is no invisible supreme being.” You know that this entity does not exist independent of anyone’s hopeful imagination.
In today’s North American public debate about religion, no middle ground between these views seems to exist.
Usually a theist will describe God as creator, moral legislator, wish-granter, and redeemer.
Then an atheist will explain why one of those descriptors is false. For example: Species change through evolution, so God is not a creator. Human beings can figure out morality through social learning, so we don’t need divine command. My prayers to end war and cure cancer were not answered, so no God is listening. Despite promises of redemption the world is as messed up as ever. So the whole concept is silly, naïve and self-serving.
Liberal religious people who are not fundamentalists must find this stalled debate rather frustrating. I do; I often find myself wanting leap up and offer an educated Jewish perspective. Judaism – even the religious part – doesn’t require people to hold a specific view of God.
This week I get to do leap up! Today I’m on my way to teach a course called “Who is God?” at the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal Kallah.
The course description says: We speak of finding the Divine within. But who or what are we looking for — energy, witness, conscience, inner parent, or higher mind? Jewish tradition does not require us to choose only one. Torah, Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah all make multiple faces of God available to us. Our task is to find the faces that call to us.
We’ll begin the first class by asking ourselves a simple question: “What do we expect from God?” Perhaps we expect God to measure up to the fundamentalist description; perhaps we will be deeply disappointed if God does not. We would not be the first Jews to have high expectations; our Biblical ancestor Jacob set the tone. Even after a mind-blowing numinous dream of a ladder stretching up to heaven, and a personal introduction from a God-figure, Jacob says, “If you feed me, clothe me, and bring me home safely, I’ll believe that you are God.”
At the second class, we’ll learn that Jacob’s view of God the provider isn’t the only classical view. The five books of Torah offer five different portraits of God. In Genesis, God has simple, easy relationships with people. In Exodus, God self-reveals with great ambivalence. In Leviticus, God is an impersonal force that must be tended. In Numbers, God is a highly emotional being. In Deuteronomy, God is a universal force, personally accessible to all human beings.
At the third class, with great philosophers as our teachers, we will talk about experiences through which people claim to perceive God. Maimonides reaches for God by pushing his intellect to the limits of what he can conceive. Emmanual Levinas finds traces of God in the faces of people. Franz Rosenzweig finds God in love.
At the fourth and final class, we will look at spiritual practice. If you know the experience that makes God seem real for you, how do you reach for it in spiritual practice? Would you use music, social action, prayer, meditation, or intellectual reflection? We’ll explore our personal answers by responding to a few short Hassidic texts. Finally we’ll ask each other, “How have these explorations helped you find a definition of God you can work with?”
When I peeked at my class list, I recognized a few names; I saw diehard atheists, spiritual seekers, and committed theists, all ready to start a badly needed conversation.
When I was about twelve years old, I opened my younger brother’s textbook, just out of curiosity. This textbook from Orthodox Jewish Day School was a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, summary of a code of Jewish law. The edition was prepared specifically for children.
Rule One was, “Honor your father and mother because they are God’s representatives on earth.”
In what way, I wondered, are parents God’s representatives? Are parents sent on a mission to earth, because God can’t get down from Planet Heaven? Are they really authorized to be such unjust lawgivers?
Forty-two years later, I am still wondering.
But now I know the textbook was not simply summarizing a rule.
The textbook was presenting a profound statement about psychology and theology.
Father’s Day is a good day to explore this statement. And Father’s Day, for me, is a good day to remember how precious my late father, mother and aunt are to me.
Sure, they were people fueled by their own aspirations, stresses, successes and failures. And they did not hesitate to bring their full selves into parenting. But there is no other way to be a person in this world and, all things considered, they were a good trio.
And they continue to surprise me by how large they loom in my consciousness. Much of my wisdom came from them; so did my blind spots. Their daily routines still find expression in the way I wash dishes, seek a parking space, talk to my own children. Their presence is subtle, indefinable, and yet it’s everywhere.
Just like one well-known experience of the ineffable God.
With my kind, supportive parents whispering constantly in my consciousness, I feel the universe holds me with unconditional love.
Had my parents been stern and critical, I might hear a different daily message. Perhaps I would be keenly aware that I am judged by a power greater than myself. A power with standards I can never fully meet, who calls me to continuous self-improvement.
Had my parents been harsh and unpredictable, I might feel the universe as a chaotic or frightening place. And much of my spiritual seeking might be for a grounding in inner peace.
Parents are one of our interfaces with God. Parents reveal God; parents conceal God; God-images are partly drawn from our relationships with our parents. We collect images from different phases of these relationships. The mature images don’t fully supersede earlier, equally powerful ones. All help us grasp what people have meant by “God.”
Personally, I have not fully let go of my pre-teen image of God as an unjust lawgiver, nor of my suspicion of the lawgiver’s representatives. I still wonder: how can teachers claim to know the correct modern interpretations of God’s laws? From whence comes their authority? Who says we should all do things “by the book” in an Orthodox way? What about the Reform principle of autonomy? Or the Reconstructionist principle of local peer group decision? Or the Renewal principle of identifying and fulfilling the existential-spiritual need driving the law?
These different approaches to Jewish practice also represent different developmental moments. We move from following parental authority to peer group authority to personal authority to growing self-understanding — and back again as needed. Each of these approaches represents a different relationship with our parents. And perhaps, by analogy, they represent different interfaces with the Divine.
Each interface is needed, and used, at different times, by all the modern Jewish movements. Perhaps their philosophies are not as irreconcilable as they claim to be. Perhaps, on this Father’s Day, we can think of ourselves as a single family, with an ever-shifting set of relationships between us and our metaphorical Parent.
Sources of inspiration: William James, Varieties of Religious Experience; Anna-Maria Rizzuto, Birth of the Living God; Adin Steinsaltz, Thirteen Petalled Rose; Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. Image: My 8-year old birthday party. Mom and Aunt Sylvia laugh as I cry because Daniel L (also laughing) blew out my birthday candles. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.
Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.
Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.
Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.
In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses is on his way to Egypt with his wife Zipporah. Along the way, he nearly dies. Zipporah quickly circumcises their infant son. She touches her husband’s feet with the foreskin and says “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…because of the circumcision.”
Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the enviable power of a mother’s role: to give birth, nurture, and raise children. Historian of Judaism Lawrence Hoffman says that even to men in the Talmudic era, women’s power seemed wild and natural. Through menstrual cycles and the sometimes bloody secrets of giving birth, women take an active part in creating life. Through procreation, women have a natural covenant of blood with God. Male circumcision creates an analogous covenant through the procreative organ. It is, however, a tamer covenant, in which only one drop of blood is shed, and on only one occasion.
In this story, Zipporah the birthgiver is already initiated into parenthood. Moses, however, needs to let his old self-image go, and fully take on this new role. When Zipporah touches his feet with his son’s foreskin, she declares, “You and I are partners in this sacred covenant of creating a new family.” She initiates Moses, communicating that the responsibility of procreation belongs to both parents.
In Deuteronomy 10:16, elderly Moses encourages the Israelites to open themselves to personal, unmediated relationships with God. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. Perhaps this is shorthand for, “You did the physical ritual; now take its meaning seriously.”
Jungian scholar Anne Maguire describes an ancient Near Eastern myth about a powerful patriarchal God, who appears as a hooded figure. His true nature and spiritual power are hidden by his cloak. He represents male procreative power and human creativity in general. These powers are normally hidden; to receive their infusion, we must be receptive at the right times. In this spirit, Moses teaches, “Allow your heart to be open when God’s presence opens to you.” Circumcision expresses a commitment to be open to spirituality, creativity, and procreation. And, in the case of procreation, to new responsibilities that call.
This digression into psychoanalytic Torah helps deeply reflective expectant parents find a wider lens for making a decision. It shifts the question from “How can we do something so irresponsible?” to “How can we recognize the sacred responsibility landing in our lives?” And from “Which side of the argument makes better points?” to “What deep fears, worries and yearnings are at play here?”
Sometimes this shift itself begins the spiritual initiation.
Image: wikipedia. Cross-posted with www.onsophiastreet.com
Last week, in my role as a teacher of Judaism, I had four magnificent teaching experiences. The kind that leave you inspired by the beauty of the human race, and send you home proclaiming that people are deep, amazing, varied, and wise.
With a group of toddlers (age 2-3) at the synagogue, I sang and danced “shalom.” And read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks and danced Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.
The bnei mitzvah class (age 13) and I celebrated how much they had learned this year, with a synagogue scavenger hunt quiz. Then we went to Starbucks, where we discussed the evils of manipulative advertising and the death penalty.
With middle-aged adults (age 40-70) at a church, I studied the Song of Songs. We read excerpts from the Biblical text, laughed at its bawdiness, and explored its implications for human and divine love.
With elders (age 80-100) at a nursing home, I explored the Biblical story of Ruth. People shared personal stories about the “Ruth” and “Naomi” archetypes within their minds and their families.
For me, it was a week filled with magic.
How does this magic happen?
Great content helps.
Good teaching strategies help, too. Toddlers learn through music, movement, rhymes and pictures. Young teens bond by doing active tasks together. Middle-aged adults have keen intellects and life experience that should be woven into a teacher’s presentation. Elders respond to sophisticated ideas presented simply and briefly.
But neither content nor strategy brings the special magic of being inspired by your students. That happens when you:
Focus on the people, not the content. When you:
Talk with them, listen with them, laugh with them, learn with them.
Retaining this focus is very important in teaching about Judaism.
Too often we, that is, teachers of Judaism, focus on the content alone. We may be determined to show the beauty of Judaism in a particular light – a particularly progressive light, or a particularly traditional one. We may be desperate for people to see this beauty. We may feel we need them to come to synagogue. Perhaps we have invested money and time in our synagogue and we need it to be sustainable. Perhaps we need the Jewish people to continue, and we want to play our part.
Guess what, fellow teachers! These are our needs. They may not be the students’ needs.
Do the toddlers need to know the word “shalom”? Do bnei mitzvah need to recognize a Ner Tamid? Do adults need to know sexy poetry from Song of Songs? Do elders need to know the plot of the Book of Ruth? No. No. No. And no. But it would be wonderful for them to know that they are welcome in a fun, friendly, intellectually open and personally affirming community.
And in that sort of community, Judaism happens.
Because Judaism is something people do. It is not a chunk of content that can be separated from practice. It is a set of evolving traditions that people share in community.
We don’t memorize lists of fundamental Jewish beliefs. We do study together a Bible made up of 24 books offering diverse viewpoints.
We don’t have essential doctrines. We do have rituals we like to do together.
We have no Pope who sets the standards of belief and practice. We do have a rather amorphous world community that votes with its feet.
The practices we do and the books we study are the ones people voted for. Traditions that remain over the years are the ones many people love. Like any kind of love, of course, it’s fraught with conflicts, dead-ends, winding paths, and spectacular compromises.
Jewish teachers should model this kind of love.
Sometimes teachers are afraid to put people over content, because they worry the result will compromise Judaism.
It won’t. It will create love for Jewish community.
And people will come back to what they love, seeking deeper and deeper understanding.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat found meaning in the Boston bombing when she wrote a blog post celebrating the helpers – people who rush in to support the injured and confused.
Here in Vancouver, Canada, I am more concerned with local events. Particularly those on Sophia Street.
Despite all our security systems and protective protocols, Koi the cat attacked Buddy the bird.
Technically, Koi tried to play with Buddy. Perhaps you can’t blame him. Each species has its own inherited rituals and routines. Buddy plays by taking short flights, daring you to follow him, and laughing as you chase him. Koi plays by leaping and batting with his unsheathed claws at things that fly.
From Buddy’s perspective, Koi’s game sure looked like an attack. So that’s how I responded.
Leaping forward, I slipped on a rug, fell up two stairs, and landed splayed out in an awkward position.
Buddy and Koi, startled, looked at me and separated. Buddy retreated to his cage, and sat inside sulking. An embarrassed Koi ran for the back door. Within twenty minutes, Koi was back home. Within two hours, Buddy was eating and chirping merrily.
Meanwhile, I gained three bruises, a bloody scrape, and a pulled muscle. Left more off-balance than I realized, the next day I fell doing yoga and got an additional scrape. And fell again reaching for a book and got an additional bruise.
Celebrate the helpers. Sigh.
Perhaps all the security systems and protocols in the world cannot fully protect us. Perhaps we will always be vulnerable to a freak attack. Let’s keep in mind the fragility of life and hold it precious.
Perhaps what can seem like a daring game to one person is actually a deadly strike at others. We should heed this principle even in our own less violent spheres of action. Sometimes a sarcastic verbal strike or a poorly thought out prank can be deeply hurtful.
Perhaps helpers take more of a battering than we realize. We take them for granted, when we should attend to their healing as well.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. From this real-life animal parable, I can draw metaphorical threads to many spiritual lessons.
And that in itself is a fascinating spiritual lesson.
Because if I’m a spiritual seeker, the entire universe becomes my spiritual teacher. My cat, my bird, my fall, my bruise: each one “points beyond itself,” as philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel says, towards a deeper reality. Each one catches my attention. Each invites me to ask who I am and what I am doing with my “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver says.
Sometimes religious people compartmentalize the world into two separate spheres: holy and ordinary, or sacred and profane. For them, the narrow holy sphere can only be entered by following specific steps in thought or behaviour. Yet even they admit that the holy can burst through in ordinary life. In times of crisis, they pray, hold vigils, and offer spiritual comfort. Sometimes they say that God has appeared in a terrifying, unfathomable way, beyond anything their theology can explain.
It certainly seems so to me at times! And if I can admit that God sometimes shows up outside the bounds of official religious practice, surely I can admit that God often shows up out of bounds. In my cat. In my bird. In my bruises and scrapes. And in my unending search for meaning.
Sometimes spiritual seekers reject formal religion. To them, religion may seem dry, remote, outdated or even silly.
True confession: it certainly seems so to me at times! But because I know I can find meaning in a bird and a cat, I try harder in the formal religious sphere. I let rituals, prayers and dogmas point beyond themselves. And I find the most meaningful spiritual lessons when I step just a bit out of bounds.
Image: Koi and Buddy in a calmer moment. Photo by LDK. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
Many Jews say that Passover is our favourite holiday. And why not? On Seder nights, we gather for food, friendship, discussion, and intergenerational activities. Food – both ritual food and just plain tasty food – sits at the centre of the table.
Passover can also be an exciting project, involving creativity and problem-solving. Some people couple it with spring cleaning. Some host a Seder and creatively adapt tradition in new ways each year. Some try out unusual gluten-free recipes.
Passover falls just six months before everyone’s other favourite holiday: Yom Kippur.
Yes, Yom Kippur, the holiday on which more North American Jews attend synagogue and stay home from work than any other. On which people gather in order not to eat. And to engage in 25 hours of self-reflection, stimulated by the poetry of the prayerbook, set to haunting music.
Who would have thought self-reflection could be so popular?
Nowadays it seems people will do almost anything to avoid being alone with their thoughts and feelings.
Years ago, my fellow commuters and I would sit on the bus, watching the passing scenery and musing about human nature. Now we sit staring down at our smartphone screens, playing, reading or texting.
Years ago, a person would take a walk “to clear my head.” Now, when we walk, we stick earbuds in our ears, and listen to tunes or a podcast as we stroll.
These are popular habits. But they don’t represent a shift in the needs of the human psyche. In fact, our love of self-reflection is alive and well.
Recently, the idea of “Happiness” has been dominating the “self-help” psychology book market. Most books echo a single general theme: Happiness begins with self-reflection.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the best-selling, down-to-earth book The Happiness Project. Rubin’s website tells you how to begin your happiness project: Ask yourself some questions. “What makes you feel good?” “What gives you joy, energy and fun?” In other words, reflect and begin to know yourself.
Robert Holden is an inspirational speaker and veteran of the Oprah show. His latest book on happiness, Shift Happens, hits you with its message right in the first chapter. To find your “Unconditioned Self,” observe yourself, identify the layers of hurt and grievance that obscure this self, and learn to lift them. In other words, reflect, get to know yourself, and understand how you can grow.
Martin Seligman, a research psychologist, directs the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. His website invites you to participate in his research on happiness. You can fill out a questionnaire assessing your emotional makeup, character strength, or work-life balance. The questions start you thinking, “How do I approach life, and how does that contribute to my happiness?” You reflect, you get to know yourself, you understand, you begin to make a plan.
Aristotle’s ideas are back on the best-seller list. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote, “Happiness is contemplation.”
The ideas of Kohelet, author of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes, are making a comeback. Kohelet found that, among life’s ups and downs, “wisdom is a stronghold.”
Often we talk about “finding” meaning, as if we can look outside of ourselves and stumble upon it. Perhaps we should talk more about “making” meaning. Because happiness seems to come through the activity of knowing and growing ourselves.
Ancient and modern teachers agree: Happiness is not a product, it’s a process. A process of reflection, forgiveness, self-assessment, and growth. One that we do over and over again.
In spite of all our habits of avoidance, we can’t help but reach for happiness.
Image: robservations.ca; cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet
All the Seder-goers I know love reading about the “four children” in the Passover Haggadah. But they all dislike the section about the “wicked child.” The traditional text of the Haggadah, they say, treats this child with harsh prejudice. And they are right!
Four times the Torah instructs the Israelites to teach their children about the Exodus from Egypt. But our Talmudic sages believed Torah was immaculately edited, and nothing was repeated without a good reason. Each repetition, they said, gives instructions for teaching a different type of child: wise, wicked, simple, and not ready to ask.
About the wicked child, the Haggadah says:
The wicked child asks, “What does this service mean to you?”
To me, this seems a straightforward enough question. Maybe everyone else seems to know what is going on. Maybe everyone else knows the symbolic meanings of things. Maybe everyone else has a deep emotional connection. Maybe the child is a social-science researcher.
But the narrator of the Haggadah is terribly triggered by the wording of the question.
To you?!? And not to the questioner? Just as he has taken himself out of the community, and committed essential heresy, so you should set his teeth on edge, and say to him, “Because of this service God acted for ME when I left Egypt.” For ME and not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.
Contemporary commentaries flare up in the child’s defence. “The wicked child is insulted.” “This is why so many people remember ritual as unpleasant.” “This illustrates the pitfalls of labelling people.” “Can you imagine God being so judgmental as to leave someone behind?”
This year, I am the wicked child. I am not in the mood for Passover, and don’t particularly feel like part of the community.
It’s not that I failed to try. I started cleaning, reviewed the Haggadah, planned a fun second Seder at the synagogue, studied new ideas and even gave a sermon about one of them. But I can’t conjure any connection between these activities and a holiday spirit.
It’s my first Passover without my wise Mom and my sensible Aunt Sylvia. During their last four years, I managed to travel 6,000 miles each Pesach just to spend part of the holiday with them. But this year, they are gone. My brother will spend the Seders with others who miss them, but I won’t be connected. No one can take their place. Perhaps friends have sensed this. For first Seder, I invited no one and no one invited me.
In Jewish symbolism, the Exodus is everything. We were slaves in mitzrayim, the narrow place, and God took us out. “Leaving the narrow place” is an archetypal pattern. Passover is zecher l’yitziat mitzrayim, commemoration of the Exodus. So, says Torah, is Shabbat. Sukkot. Financial responsibility. Kind speech. Jews also invoke the Exodus as a spiritual metaphor for just about any inner journey. National rejuvenation after acts of antisemitism. Community healing from illness and sorrow. Individual clarity after a time of confusion.
The metaphor even finds me in my lonely corner. Here I am, in the narrow place, not ready for Passover. This year, I look at others and wonder, “What does all this mean to you?” Because I don’t know what it means to me. Like the fictional wicked child, I will be at the Seder; I will even lead it. But in a personal way, I may not be redeemed.
The Haggadah’s negative reaction to the wicked child, however, has been redeemed for me. My own situation suggests a psycho-spiritual interpretation. Perhaps this child is in need of liberation. Perhaps the tools are set before her. But perhaps she is not ready yet to recognize them as her own. As long as she imagines they are only available to others, she will not be redeemed. But that is not the final word. When her attitude shifts, she too will leave the narrow place and enter a community of joy.
Commentaries: Israel Eldad, Ira Steingroot, Yaariv ben Aharon, Arthur Green. Image: morethanfour.org. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.