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
Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.
The moment could not have been more perfect.
Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.
Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.
In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.
Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.
I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.
Prayer is a very personal and private thing. In fact, to be honest to a fault, let me say that public prayer, with other people raising voices and turning the pages in unison, has become very difficult for me the past few years. I prefer the more quite, contemplative pace I can do in my own backyard alone. Appreciate the professional hazard this truth creates for a rabbi who believes both in the power of prayer and in the power of community. However you pray, or if you pray at all, and the above admission not withstanding, by the end of this blog, I’ll be asking you for a PRAYvor.
What’s a PRAYvor? It’s a word I made up for when someone asks me to pray for them. I want to ask you to pray, for me – sure, but more so for some very special people in my life. Scattered across the globe, from the West Coast, where I live, across the continent, and all the way to Israel are some very special people in my life, all facing surgery within the next seven weeks.
נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם.
Be comforted, indeed be comforted, says your God. -Isaiah 40
These are the opening words of this week’s haftorah (the week’s reading from the Prophets). This is first of seven weeks which count from the the fast day of the 9th of Av. (commemorating the destruction of the Temple (to read more about that, click here) to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It is during this time period that we start to prepare ourselves for the spiritual work of the High Holidays ( for more on how we prepare, see Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s blogpost from yesterday). One way to prepare is prayer, including prayers for health.
I believe that prayer works in healing the mind and the body.
- On a rational level, I pray like Maimonides, for the wisdom of the doctors and nurses who heal (click here for a download of the English Translation of his Prayer for the Physician).
- On a meditative level, prayer works to calm the mind and the body, so that we can go on to do the healing we need to move toward.
- On the metaphysical level, I believe that prayer can do wonders for the person who prays for another (as empathy grows, spiritual awareness deepens), and, prayer can help in the healing process itself (click here for the now classic double-blind National Institute of Health Study of 1998, or here for a much more recent blogpost on the Huffington Post by Candy Gunther Brown, author of Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, Harvard University Press ).
Some people are natural prayers, or have learned how to move themselves to that deeper place through practice. If that’s you, you know what I’m asking you for, but I know many people who find prayer very difficult. It’s okay, I get it; I’ve been there myself.
I said “pray for me”, and I wouldn’t mind that at all. There is no getting around it, while I have every reason to believe that the special people in my life that are getting ready for surgery will emerge ultimately healthier than before, I’m still anxious. Here’s what I pray when I’m focused on anxiety:
הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם׃
“God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” -Psalm 147:3.
Much more importantly than for myself, I’d like to ask you for a PRAYvor for the special people in my family and beyond, and for the people that you love and care for who could use our prayers of healing. Over the next several weeks, until Rosh Hashanah (this year it begins on the evening of Sunday, September 16), take a moment each day to pray for those in need of healing, whomever, and wherever they are.
Prayer doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Need words to start off with? You could do worse than the meditative opening words of the verse quoted at the top of this post:
“Nachmu, Nachamu – be comforted, indeed be comforted.”
Need a melody? There are many. I love the melody from my buddy at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, CA, Cantor Mike Stein. He wrote an evocative modern/classic “Refaenu, Heal Us” (click here to listen), or the late, great, Debbie Friedman classic, Mi Shebeirach (click here to listen and watch her on youtube).
However you do it, please do it. If you’ve never been much of a pray-er before, I know it can seem awkward, but despite that, I’m still asking you for this one small PRAYvor.