I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
I am a self-confessed football fanatic. From September through January, my Sundays are centered around the performance of the San Diego Chargers (my star-crossed hometown team). The feeling of elation after a victory casts a positive glow throughout much of the following week, while a loss leaves me virtually inconsolable for the rest of the evening. My considerate spouse tends to discourage other non-fanatics from coming over to the house to watch games with me: I have been known to yell somewhat loudly, and I take literally the word “throw” in “throw pillows.”
To others who share this unhealthy obsession with football, the period between the Superbowl in February and the beginning of the season in late summer can feel like an eternity. But there is a spring oasis, a football three-day holiday, that emerges each spring called the NFL Draft. For seven rounds, football teams select college football players to add to their professional ranks for the coming year. Ostensibly, the purpose of the draft is to restock depleted rosters with relatively affordable players. But for football fans, the draft takes on a far more important role: it gives us hope: hope that these 20-22 year-old amateurs will take their physical gifts and become franchise players; hope that your team’s first-round pick this year will become an all-star rather than an expensive bust; hope, in short, of the power of potential to become reality.
Judaism, too, offers a spring-time multi-day exploration of the power of potential. From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, we count off a 49-day period called Sefirat ha-Omer (“Counting of the Omer”). According to Leviticus 23:15-16, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer (“sheaf”) of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” Despite its agricultural-sacrificial original context, the Counting of the Omer has become a period for spiritual rejuvenation. At a national level, the Omer bridges the gap between Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and Shavuot’s formation of Jewish communal identity with the receipt of the Torah. At a personal level, based in part on Kabbalistic (mystical) teachings, the Omer becomes an opportunity for individual spiritual purification from a slavish mentality (to money and materialism, work, preconceived notions, etc.) to one that is open and receptive to the instruction of the Almighty.
The Counting of the Omer has become more popular within Jewish circles, I believe, precisely because it taps into the Western cultural desire we all have—NFL fans and those indifferent to the gridiron—to celebrate potential. Despite the toxic nature of our political discourse, the relentless economic malaise we have experienced since 2008, and the tragic violence that continues to penetrate into our daily lives, we still yearn for hope. We still want to be inspired. So when our political and economic leaders fail us, we find other avenues for satisfying our innate need to find and experience potential. We are riveted by the latest hi-tech gadgets, from iPhones to Google Glass (often waiting in line for hours and paying ridiculous amounts of money) because of what they might enable us to do. We watch The Voice or The Bachelor because we want to be part of the process of “discovering” potential greatness. We live in a culture that venerates youth not only because we are shallow and vain but also because youth epitomizes limitless opportunity. For better or for worse, we are a “stem cell” culture: just as embryonic stem cells have the potential to transform into any other cells in the body as they mature, so too do we seek to recapture that fleeting time and sensation when we had not yet become what we are.
The Omer represents an authentically Jewish way to tap into this innate human need to celebrate potential without the cultural detritus of superficiality. Mindfully using the Sefirat ha-Omer enables us to take part in the excitement, the freshness, and the opportunity to re-claim the potential we still have to reinvent ourselves spiritually, both individually and communally. So I encourage you to take advantage of the time remaining in the Omer this year (we are at 34 days and counting). Visit The Huffington Post’s Omer Liveblog for some incredible visual and poet insights; begin reading or studying some text you have always wanted to but never found the time for; attend a yoga or meditation class for the first time; or just carve out a few minutes each evening to think about how you would like to improve your religious life for the upcoming year. Few of us are blessed with the physical tools to become professional football players, but each of us are blessed with the capacity for spiritual, intellectual, and moral growth. May the Omer remind us that we don’t need to wait to be drafted by others to take hold of our own potential for greatness.
I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in 1968 at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:
Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the Yeshivot and Rashei Yeshivah; mahshavah [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology; and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives… What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged… No committed and ambitious young man should ever aspire to become a functionary in an arid community; certainly not to become a parish butterfly.
The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion and committee, sub-committee and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fundraising woes and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.
A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission driven synagogues nor mission driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.
What a mission driven synagogue is I will leave to another blog post in the future but for now I would like to focus in on a mission driven rabbi. A rabbi who lives and breathes his mission is a rabbi who does not see his or her job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting but sees his or her work as bringing forth a vision of Judaism in the place in which he/she works and in the lives of the people he/she leads. A mission driven rabbi can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times and sometimes frustrating to the people he/she leads because that rabbi will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.
Mission driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda.” The word itself means nothing more than having a list of things to get done but has taken on a negative connotation. It has come to mean the rabbi wishes to hoist a particular platform unto their community. This is absolutely not what being mission driven is all about. To be mission driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.
A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution and to want to simply be in the room.
Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring that: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves–before it is too late.” May this truly be so.
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