As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor – I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
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.
Recently my email inbox has been filled with updates from three friends who are sick and using Caringbridge.com to update everyone on their status. For those who have never used the site, it is an amazingly helpful way to keep friends and family informed about your own or a loved one’s illness, organize visitors, meals, and help of all kinds. It is one of the wonders of the internet, that though I am geographically far from two of these friends, I can get daily updates about their progress, and leave them short notes and prayers in return.
It is not always easy to know how to interact with a friend or family member who is seriously sick. When so you ask questions about their illness? When do you bring a meal? When do you leave them alone? the New York Times op Ed columnist David Brooks addressed someone these questions last week in his column The Art of Presence. His basic message is: Just be present for those who need you.
This advice is ancient. The Talmud teaches that when you visit someone who is ill you take away 1/60th of their illness, just by visiting and being present. It is not about curing them, but about helping them heal in some small way.
Being present is not as easy as it sounds. If it were, we would not need to be reminded to do it by sources ancient and modern. Seeing a loved one suffer is painful. It is natural to want to run as far away as possible. Self-doubt easily creeps in, I wonder if I am saying the right thing, am I here are the right time, should I have brought food, something to read, should I tell a joke or be serious?
The answers to these questions, of course, depend on the person you are seeing the situation they are in. One friend has made it clear she wants prayers from friends and family. While another wants to keep things lighthearted and humorous. I have to take my cues from them about what to write and what to say. I also have to learn to put aside my anxieties. Better for me to say the wrong thing at a particular moment and apologize when I realize my mistake, then not to have been there at all.
So if you are struggling like I am with what to do or say, here are some tips on how to be present:
• Take time to really listen to the other person.
• Drop your expectations of what you are going to do or say.
• Be here now. Allow yourself not to be distracted.
• Be natural.
• Be patient.
• Try to listen with an open heart. Do not judge the other person.
• Try to sit in that other person’s place. Where is he? What is she feeling?
• Use your empathy and your compassion.
Now, just do it! Make some soup, send a card, pick up the phone. You can alleviate a bit of someone’s suffering just be letting them know you care. Be present for them.
It was one of those nights. I could not sleep at all. Sadness and worries crowded in. I went to bed after reading that Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy, had died of cancer. I first found out about his diagnosis in 2012 from his mother, Phyllis’s, Facebook status. We are Facebook friends. As a fellow rabbi and mother, Phyllis was someone I followed regularly. She had also just been admitted to a Fellowship program I run for rabbis called Rabbis Without Borders. Due to Sam’s diagnosis, she decided to defer her acceptance to the program. We have never met in person.
Yet, because she and her husband chronicled Sam’s cancer journey on their blog Superman Sam, I feel very close to them. Each time I read the blog tears would come to my eyes, tears of joy when Sam was doing well and tears of sadness when he was not. Phyllis and Michael’s posts on the blog were so open, honest, and full of love for their child it was impossible not to be drawn into their story.
Some people decry the public way many of us live our lives today, sharing intimate stories on our blogs and though our Facebook updates. Just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinic colleague who was uncomfortable with NPR host Scott Simon tweeting his mother’s death. He felt that somehow this public sharing of death took away its sacred nature. I could not disagree more.
Our modern American society has tried to whitewashed death. We want to push death away, pretend it is not difficult and painful, pretend that it does not have to happen, that our medical community will find cure after cure. We are afraid to speak to our children about death, or have them visit grandma or grandpa in the hospital lest it upset them. Yet death is a part of life. We cannot ignore it.
Over the past year and a half I read Phyllis and Michael’s blog with reverence. I know they did not share every detail of Sam’s journey with us. Some things are meant to be kept private. But in sharing what they did share, we, the reading public, were taken on a journey of childhood cancer. Going on this journey with the Sommers made me a better person. That may sounds grandiose, but it is true.
Most days I am absorbed in the drama of my own life, the daily arguing with my daughter to do her homework, balancing career and family, answering millions of emails, and generally living life. Checking in with Sam a few times a week reminded me to feel grateful for what I did have. Reading the blog reminded me to pray each day, a deep prayer of thanks for my life and the people in it, and caused me to send prayers of healing for Sam and others I knew who were suffering. I was more gentle and compassionate to my own family because I had this regular reminder that life could change on a dime.
Going public with your own or a loved one’s journey towards death is not for everyone. I completely respect that many people want and need to keep their journeys private. But for those for whom it is cathartic to write, blog, Facebook, and Tweet, I am thankful that we now have these tools available to us. Reading others’ stories and how they find incredible reserves of courage, strength, and love in the face of death makes us all stronger. We can learn that moments of great happiness can occur while the body is dying, that when we face things honestly and openly we can lessen the fear of the unknown.
I don’t think we can ever fully take away the fear and pain of death. It is a part of life. However, if we discussed it more openly and shared our stories, I would like to think that we could learn both how to die more peacefully and mourn more freely. What is more sacred than getting in touch with our emotions, and helping others navigate theirs? In my mind this is God’s work, helping us be more human in all of its messy glory.
Thousands of people are now mourning with the Sommers. I can only hope that the outpouring of love that has occurred on social media since word of Sam’s death arrived is buoying the Sommers though these incredibly painful days.
May God be with them on this new journey without Sam.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
A favorite rabbinic comment of mine reads Genesis 1:25 as a questions rather than the more commonly translated statement, “Let us make man in our image.”
“No,” say one group of angels. “They will steal, hurt, kill, and take advantage of each other.”
“Yes,” another group of angels argue. “They will be capable of love, compassion, and selflessness.”
And while they argued, God, with the tie breaking vote, and the only vote that matters, created mankind.
There is more to the tale, but at the heart of the above imaginings, is the question of the purpose of humanity. It seems that God believes that someday, enough of humanity will side love, compassion, and selflessness to make the existence of our species worthwhile. Put more poetically by Rabbi A.J. Heschel, “God is in search of man.”
We are a species that can reason itself in or out anything. In light of the devastation of aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, we must ask ourselves again, “what is man for” if not to love and care for one another [and the rest of the planet and beyond... When my family blesses our Shabbat candles, we close our eyes and wave our hands three times. We say, "One for our friends, one for our family, and one for all the people in the world." Several years back one of my kids added, "and aliens if they exist." We’ve kept his amendment. Why not? If aliens exist, then let us bless them too.]
So, have you given to relief efforts in the Philippines yet? I ask this not in the usual “bleeding-heart” sort of way; I ask with a theological concern. I’m asking, because I’m not sure what it means to be human and not have your heart broken at the knowledge of mass suffering. And more; I wonder what it means to have your heart rent at cries heard and seen around the world, and not respond. I think that to feel the kind of pain that the news is sharing with us and not respond does some inner damage to the psyche, if not the soul. An important ingredient in human self-care is caring for others. So give, even though there are reasons not to:
What I can give is infinitesimal to what is needed? Can I make a difference?
I’m barely making it myself.
It is sad, but I give elsewhere.
The systems of giving and distribution are inefficient and corrupt. Such a small percentage reaches those in need.
Why give in the Philippines and not say, the Congo, Sudan, or Syria, Somalia, or the slums of Brazil?
I suggest that part of being human is the sensibility of caring, of heartbreak, of empathy, as well as a desire for security and justice – not just for self, family, and tribe, but for the entire brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity (if not beyond that). We can rationalize all of our actions and inactions. If you know how to fix the system of giving to be be better and more efficient than what we have today, I implore you to fix it. If, like the vast majority of the developed world, your heart is breaking, but you don’t fit the above description, than give. Give to relief efforts for the sake of the victims, and for the sake of your own heart and soul. Giving, despite the above list and countless other reasons, is an act of heart. Giving in response to this disaster is an act of hope that says that you agree with God’s vote at the top of this blog, that we indeed should exist, that we can build towards a generation that “lives by justice and compassion.”
What if God took note of every mistake you made and considered it a glorious seed for a profoundly better future? God, it seems, is often counter-cultural. Whereas our society, often despite knowing better, constantly rewards achievement and success, God has an interesting track record of recognizing positive effort even when we are surrounded by failures of our own doing.
Take for example the Biblical character of Lot. Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham, father of our people, looked after Lot when his father died. When Lot grew, in age and in wealth, Abraham gave his the choice of land – and where did Lot choose? He chose to live first near the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and then he moved into Sodom, a city which would soon-after be known for its perversion of humanity and its disdain for God’s expectations for mankind (Gen. 13:12). Why would Lot choose to live among such people? Why, after being taken captive and rescued by his uncle, Abraham, did Lot choose to stay with them (Gen. 19:1)? Certainly, Lot is a flawed character – trying to appease a crowd that has gathered at your door to molest your guest by offering your two daughters is, even by Biblical standards, flawed (Gen. 19:8).
Juxtaposed with his uncle Abraham, Lot certainly seems to come up short, but is that not true for the rest of us? While Abraham might be the ideal, the rightful patriarch of ethical monotheism, Lot, who chooses to live with and among the flawed, the non-believers, and the sinners represents the rest of us. Lot, it seems, loves the townspeople of Sodom. He marries two of his daughters to them, and perhaps he even marries a woman from one of these sin ridden towns. Why else did she turn back to see their destruction (resulting in being turned to salt), and why else would he choose to live close by, still in view of those towns, even after God rescues him and two of his daughters (Gen 19:15-22)? It turn out, a lot of us are like Lot. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we cast out lot with the flawed and those whom we know are acting badly.
And here’s the real kicker with Lot: As misguided as Lot is, God sees fit to rescue him. God rescues Lot even after he repeatedly made the choice to live among the wicked and depraved people of Sodom and Gemorah. Clearly, his two daughters that were rescued with him had been raised in a culture where morality was “less evolved”. Believing they had no other choice, they got Lot drunk and raped him in an attempt to repopulate the tribe (Gen. 19:30-38). How perverse! How shocking! And yet… And yet, despite all the depravity, it will be Lot’s offspring that produces the redeeming figure of Ruth, whose linage would lead to the heroic figure of King David, and by extension the messiah!
It’s nice to have heroes like Abraham. But what if we could never be as singularly brave, kind, or devout as Abraham? What about us who, when we are tested continually fail? What about those of us who are drawn to “the wrong kind” or are ourselves “the wrong kind”? God seems to love us also. After all, the future of Abraham’s descendants is inextricably tied to the future of the descendants of his bumbling nephew Lot. Maybe, being “too good” is not God’s liking anyway. Our sages say we should love God with our positive side and our negative side. Does that not presuppose an acceptance of our darker inclinations? Perhaps too much order, too many rules, too much reason and goodness was not God’s intention for us? The story of Lot suggests that Nietzsche was correct in saying, “You must must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
God extends love not only to the near perfect in the world, such as Abraham. God loves the rest of us, just as He loves Lot even though he ties himself to the Bible’s most despicable townspeople. God’s love is a challenge to us. Can we love those who represent what we find to be most distasteful? Can we love ourselves when we know that we’re really screwed up? God can. God does.
A lot has been made of the new Pew Study on the Jewish population. I am enjoying reading the various blogs and articles about it. It seems every Jewish professional feels the need to weigh in, even before they have read the full report. In many ways I think this is much ado about nothing. As Rachel Gurevitz , in her post here last week so eloquently stated “correlation does not always mean causation.” The numbers are a snap shot of time today, and they reflect the biases of the authors of the questions themselves. They are not portents of the future.
We cannot answer the age old question, “Is Judaism dying out?” based on the numbers in this study. Yet, the hand wringing and moaning continue, particularly from people in the Conservative Movement whose numbers show a deep decline. Dr. Jack Wertheimer, himself a professor at the Conservative Movements flagship institution, The Jewish Theological Seminary is one of the loudest naysayers. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of its Jewish identification.”
Perhaps it is this very negativity that is part of the problem. Stop finding doom and gloom and instead have a little faith..
Yes faith – 75% of people in this study say they believe in God. I wish the social scientists and the handwringers commenting had as much faith as these respondents. I personally have a lot of faith in both God and the Jewish people. If God wants there to be Jews in the world, then there will be Jews in the world. The numbers may go up and down, but we will still exist. It actually is not up to us.
But even if it were up to us, I also have faith in the Jewish people. After all we have survived a long time already. If nothing else, we are an inventive and creative group. The practices of Judaism have changed and will continue to change over the years, but the essence remains, a belief in one God, a focus on family and community, a constant struggle to find ways to make life more meaningful, and the unique ability to simultaneously survive great tragedies like the Holocaust and be known for our humor. We are going to be alright.
Have a little faith.
Occasionally, a book about Jewish prayer will tell you that Judaism discourages spontaneous prayer. That magic of Jewish prayer, the book will say, lies in mastering the discipline of repeating a fixed liturgy. Only through repetition can we gradually open ourselves to the spiritual mentoring of our ancestral authors.
This, gentle readers, is complete nonsense.
Judaism encourages spontaneous prayer and liturgical prayer.
The dual focus is amply described in the Talmud and in Hasidic literature. Our siddur, the anthology of 3,000 years of spiritual poetry that serves as our liturgical text, was never meant to abolish spontaneous prayer.
For a Shabbat prayer leader, it’s not easy to deliver spontaneous prayer week after week. Rabbinic schools do not offer a core course in the skill. Here’s my confession, though: offering spontaneous prayer is my favorite part of the entire service.
Over the last three years, as I have gained confidence, I have spoken aloud, mostly in English, some 150 different prayers for peace and 150 different prayers for healing.
These prayers are not prepared in advance. They emerge from the raw materials of congregational life and the content of that week’s service or Torah reading. They are not preserved afterwards. As I return to ordinary consciousness, the details fade.
If I could, I would collect the healing prayers into a book called “Fifty-Four Meditations: Healing Prayers for Each Torah Portion.” But I can’t. The prayers do not form themselves when I sit in the presence of a text – only when I stand in the presence of people.
Maybe there’s a bit of mystery to this practice.
More likely, it depends on a unique intersection of skills.
Some of the skills are taught in rabbinic school: Formulating ideas into words, quickly. Reading Biblical Hebrew with understanding. Giving multiple translations of Hebrew word roots, so that the words become metaphors and stimulate new interpretations.
And some of the skills are not taught in rabbinic school: Quieting one’s own mind to receive feelings from those around you. Opening to the presence of God within a group. Learning to put spiritual perception into words. Most of this I learned studying Spiritual Direction in a Christian seminary. (A handful of Jewish spiritual direction programs, such as ALEPH Hashpa’ah, and Lev Shomea, also teach it).
Why are these skills not often taught? Perhaps it’s connected to Rebecca Sirbu’s observation that Jewish communities often do not talk about God. We lack vocabulary for discussing the experience.
More precisely, our God-vocabulary is very strong in some areas and weak in others.
Kabbalistic teachers speak of four worlds of reality and consciousness: assiyah, the world of action; yetzirah, the world of emotion; beriyah, the world of intellect; and atzilut, the world of spirit.
Contemporary Judaism is rich in discourse about God in the world of action. We speak of ethical mitzvot, ritual mitzvot, and tikkun olam, repair of the world. We easily understand ourselves to be fulfilling a divine ethical imperative through our deeds. We also navigate well in the world of intellect. Many of us can explain with skill why we are theists, atheists, or agnostics.
But we do less well in the areas of emotion or spirit. It’s easier, for example, for us to argue that God doesn’t exist than to explore a feeling of being abandoned by Divine love or protection. And many of us theists have no vocabulary at all for the experience of dwelling in God’s Presence.
Most of us can pray spontaneously, but few of us know how to talk about it, teach about it, or do it authentically while serving as a prayer leader. We may enjoy stories about the great Hasidic masters who do it well, but rarely think about the skill set that would make it accessible to us.
Is spontaneous, heartfelt, accessible prayer something you would like to explore? How can you start the discussion in your circles?
Image: onmounthoreb.com. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
For more on prayer and spontaneity, click here.
First thing in the morning, I like to take a 3-block walk to the Grind Café and Gallery on Main Street at King Edward Avenue. Once I’m there, I like to sit near the window and watch Main Street before it’s fully woken up. There’s a little patch of sky I can see, right over Locus restaurant, and its color forecasts the day: blue or grey.
If I’m lucky, I get 15 quiet minutes to read and write and reflect and, sometimes, to cry. The Grind is a kind of chapel for me. It’s like a schule, a synagogue, because it’s a neighborhood, and it’s a microcosm, which means, literally, a little universe. And a lot of prayer happens there.
There’s the quiet man who comes every day with two parrots, one on each shoulder; the toddler who shrieks with delight at each passing truck; the Friday Or Shalom Men’s Torah study in the back; and the owners, Michelle and Jay, who make every customer feel welcomed and honored.
There is the older gentleman who used to sit outside with his very shy dog. When I didn’t see either of them for many months, I thought maybe the bad weather kept them home. Finally, one day the man came alone and I asked him, “How is your dog?” Tears exploded from his face, and all he could choke out was, “It was horrible.” And all I could say was, “You must really miss her.” Continue reading