The rabbis of the Talmud have taught that the shofar must be blown with a particular intention: to sound like the wailing cry of the mother whose son we have killed in battle. In other words, the shofar is not the sound of our own pain, but the anguished sound of the grief we have caused another, even a distant, anonymous “other.” And if we engage in the mechanism our tradition offers for moving toward repentance as the New Year approaches, we submit to hearing the blast of the shofar every day of this month, confronted every morning by a single shriek, as if the universe is leaking visceral expression of the pain we have caused.
I wonder whether there isn’t a degree of gratification in being reminded that we cause pain, the pain we cause evidence of our agency in what might seem like a fate-driven life. We want to know that we have an impact on the world, that our misdeeds have consequences. The great late 18th century Chassidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught: If you believe that you have the power to destroy, you must also believe you have the power to restore.
If our misdeeds can tear the world open and expose that raw cry, maybe our repentance also matters. I think that’s why we Jews flock to the synagogue during the Days of Awe and beat our breasts, bringing that reminder of our power to both harm and heal closer to our hearts.
In beating our breasts we externalize our very heartbeats, the pulse within us that my dearly departed teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi quoted the Song of Songs in calling kol dodi dofek, the sound of our [Divine] Beloved knocking [from within]. If we put our finger on the pulse of another we feel that same knocking, the same Divine Beloved pulsing within all of us simultaneously, and we do appreciate that we are all connected as a single god-breath.
We understand that the reason we must love our neighbors as ourselves is because, bottom line, there is no such thing as a neighbor, near or far, to whom we are not connected as limbs of the same organismic whole. And this brings me ‘round to the blast of the shofar expressing, after all, not just the pain we’ve caused to others but also the pain we cause ourselves in harming others.
Surely world events bear out this truth. Wherever we stand on Israeli politics, don’t we feel the pain of the mother whose son we have killed in battle? Isn’t the retaliation against our own sons a reverberation of her pain? And don’t we feel her pain simply because we are human with human hearts? Don’t we experience the blast of the shofar as our own anguished cry?
Jolted to awareness of something greater than ourselves, raised up in awe as we confront our mortality and the underlying miracle of our lives, we might catch a glimpse of the interconnected web of humanity. In the elevated state of consciousness the rituals of the High Holidays invite, we just might momentarily achieve a birds’ eye view of all that is contained in Echad, in God’s Name as “One.” That’s the moment in which the sob of the mother of our enemy becomes our own cry. It’s a moment to pursue and savor.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on shofar, Paul Horn on flute, voices of participants at a Transpersonal Psychology conference in Mumbai, 1980’s.
Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.
The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.
Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.
As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.
Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.
Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.
A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.
To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”
Images of horror, most pointedly the public beheadings of two American journalists in a matter of weeks, have ensured that the days leading up to the Season of Awe will continue to be stained with cruelty and violence. What hope can there be for a month already so tragic trailing a summer marred by war, rising Anti-Semitism globally and fatal injustice in the streets of St. Louis. And yet, this month on the Jewish calendar is Elul, not only the last month of the waning year but a special occasion in its own regard. Elul is the month in which G*d is everywhere. G*d is everywhere? What can that mean? On one hand its obvious, a kind of theological tautology because being everywhere is kind of in G*d’s job description. On the other its preposterous—if G*d was everywhere would the world be so messed up? Could G*d really be there when a young man gets shot down, when a war of necessity demands such a great human cost, when hatred broils in the streets. Could G*d really be there when the knife is wielded by the murderers of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?
But the idea that G*d is everywhere during Elul is understood in our tradition as neither self-evident nor grotesque. Instead we regard Elul as a time of special focus on G*d’s nearness, a period even more suited to connect meaningfully with G*d then the High Holy Days themselves. According to beautiful teaching, while G*d can be thought of like a King who sits upon an exalted throne on Rosh Hashana, during Elul the Sovereign can be found walking through the fields. And we, following the call of the Prophet Isaiah, are to make the most of this opportunity to “Seek G*d as G*d is found, call when G*d is near” Isaiah’s words may seem strange. Shouldn’t the time to send out a search party for G*d be when G*d is far away or hidden?
But Isaiah’s words are the secret to Elul: G*d’s presence is not the answer to a prayer, but the impetus to search. Our heightened awareness of the closeness of G*d is not an invitation to leave the practical and material world behind, but an inspiration to do better, to dig deeper, to take seriously the challenge of making the world a place marked by compassion, justice, and peace. Not to forget or ignore the places far away, but also to bring our attention to our relationships with those close by and the reality of our own lives. Where G*d is also found, right at this moment. Because G*d is everywhere. Really.
Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”
I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.
What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.
But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.
The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)
And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.
I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.
There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.
These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.
The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?
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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.
The hebrew letters that spell out the name of the Jewish month that we have just entered – Elul – are described in the Talmud as an acronym for the phrase from Song of Songs: ‘Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li‘ – I am my beloved and my beloved in mine. Traditionally this has often been a time that rabbis have expounded on the invitation for us to use this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to rediscover or recommit to a relationship with God. Like two lovers who may have become distanced, we yearn to be in stronger relationship with each other. Thinking about our relationship with God is no easy matter. In previous years as we’ve entered this month, I’ve contemplated the challenges that many of us have with accessing a sense of relationship with God, and suggested ways to begin a conversation.
But this year, my focus for myself, and for my congregation, are the relationships and connections that we make with other people. These may be more concrete that contemplating a relationship with God, but they are certainly no less challenging. And yet, as the scholar Brene Brown articulates so beautifully, “Connection is why we’re here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Think about the kinds of experiences that make you feel good. A good meal out with friends consists of both the food and the company, but the food alone would be unlikely to satisfy us to the extent that the time spent in good company (without the food) could. When you invite people to your home, and the time flies by in conversation and you suddenly realize it is midnight… and you find yourself wondering why it took so long to get together. Relationship-making and connecting with others is at the heart of so much of what sustains us, both for pleasure and in the context of our professional lives.
It can also be a source of pain to us. And part of this is because it requires us to be vulnerable to truly open ourselves up to the possibilities of connecting more deeply with others. Once we’ve created a few ‘safe’ connections, we form cliques and groups, and might insulate ourselves from the vulnerability inherent in continuing to expand our connections.
I believe that the work of a spiritual community is to challenge ourselves to do more. Why? Because the benefits we will reap individually and communally can be enormous. When you can think of 20 people who will be there for you rather than 2, that is a wonderful experience. When you respond to the need of another ‘just because’ they are a part of your community, that comes with its own feel-good. We can feel less selfish, more expansive, more aware, more supported, more energized, and more inspired. We can feel more alive.
And, perhaps, it is in fact in the spiritual practice of connection and relationship-building with each other that we actually experience a spiritual connection too. We discover, in fact, that God was there all along.
This month I will be posting thought-pieces on connecting on my personal blog and our congregation’s Facebook page. We are preparing to make this the focus of our community work over the High Holidays and beyond. We will also be creating opportunities for meaningful connecting within the context of our worship services during the holiday period. My focus is on my congregation, because I believe that we have the opportunity to create a ‘community of practice‘ within the context of a congregation. But opportunities for connection exist in every place and every moment. Think of the connections you’ve made, however fleeting, talking with the woman on the bus, or the family playing on the beach next to you, or while waiting at the photocopier. Not every connection leads to more, but its a great way to start.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a number of bloggers are contributing to #BlogElul – a communal online project initiated by fellow ‘Rabbi Without Borders’, Phyllis Sommer. Each day of the month has been allocated a theme. Today’s theme is Love. You can read the daily contributions by following #BlogElul on Twitter. If you don’t use Twitter, a google search for #BlogElul will enable you to read many of the contributions.
Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called ‘Seven Sparks.’ Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, ‘Positive Jewish Living.’ The origins of both the book and the larger ‘Positive Jewish Living’ project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.
The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: ‘I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.’ From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: ‘I am free to love and be loved.’ She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction. Why does God need to introduce God-self? Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced. God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant). Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam). Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love. We also learn how to receive love. ‘It’s hard to feel that you are loved, if you’ve spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy. It’s hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism. When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it.” (Schafer, 2011).
At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called ‘Ignite!’ How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives? These are her suggestions. How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:
- I love myself.
- I have immense potential to grow.
- I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
- I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.
For your family:
- I express love generously and often.
- I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
- I give without expecting anything in return.
- I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
- I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
- I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.
At your Congregation:
- We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
- We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
- We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.
This is the last Hebrew month before Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Traditionally, it is a time when we begin to reflect on the year that has passed, the work we have done, and the mistakes we have made. As part of a daily prayer practice many people recite Psalm 27.
Psalm 27 is one of my favorite psalms. I feel the author’s desire to be close to God. The yearning that God will protect us, keep us safe. Every day I reach out to God and wait…wait for an answer, wait for God’s comforting presence. Some days I feel it and others I do not. But for some inexplicable reason just reciting this psalm renews my faith. I give it to you here in the hope that you can make your own connections to it.
New International Version (NIV)
1 The LORD is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour[a] me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, LORD; lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.