I recently returned from an amazing trip to Senegal. I was there to visit my step-daughter who is serving in the Peace Corps. It was incredible to get a taste of her experience living in a village in an inner region of the country. Returning home, as many have asked us if we had a good vacation, I have found myself answering, vaguely, “It was an experience.” I’m so glad we had the opportunity to have this experience and yet it is unlike anything I’ve ever done for vacation before.
There is much that I could say about the trip and all that we experienced, from the landscape, the people and cultures, the food, to the village way of life. But I’d like to share one story that I shared with two of my classes at Religious School last night in the context of our theological, “God Talk” sessions. The topic? Transportation.
Public transportation is quite an experience in Senegal. Aside from our initial trip in from Dakar to the inland region, where we shared a private ride with another Peace Corps family, we opted to use public transport to get around. We found ourselves getting into vehicles that, in any other country, I would never dream of traveling in. There was not a single taxi ride that we took for very local journeys that did not involve a taxi with multiple cracks across the front windscreen. All of the shared 7-seater cars that we took had taken some kind of beating on the severely potholed roads that we traveled. But the most challenging ride we took was in one of the regional minibuses that ride from market town to market town. After a three-hour wait on the side of the road following a beautiful hike to a waterfall in a fairly remote eco-tourist location, this was all that came by, and we decided that it was possibly our only ride back to home base that day.
These buses are loaded with as many people as they can hold, along with any assortment of items up on the roof (in another location we saw three goats that had been purchased in the market town seated up top). After a very bumpy hour-and-a-half ride back to base, one of us seated in the aisle on a bag of rice and one of us with a set of live chickens under our seat, we arrived safely at our destination.
We had planned to take an overnight back to Dakar at the end of our trip so as to avoid traveling in the hot daytime. However, upon arrival at the market town where we expected to make that connection we learned that the reservation that had been made by phone didn’t exist as that particular bus had been rerouted for that one night to Touba for a Muslim pilgrimage. Another lengthy wait ensued and we got ourselves a ride on a 7-seater that brought us safely back to Dakar in plenty of time for our plane home the following night.
The following morning, sitting in a Dakar coffee shop, I picked up one of the French newspapers. My French isn’t what it used to be, but I could translate enough of the front page article to see that the previous night, a bus on its way to Touba had been in a head-on collision with one of the regional minibuses. Not just any bus: the bus we were supposed to take. All 26 occupants of the minibus were killed.
After taking in the tragedy of the story, my very next thought, reflecting back on the previous day’s frustrations as our plans had gone awry and we’d had a long, hot wait for alternative transportation was, “Perhaps it was meant to be.” And in almost the same moment of utterance, I felt ashamed. Meant to be that we were not on one of those buses? Meant to be that we had to change our plans? But surely not meant to be for the 26 souls who died?
As I shared the theological implications of the statement with my students, we reflected on how often we find ourselves, upon seeing the larger picture, or realizing that something good has come out of something that we initially perceived as bad, voicing such a statement. It’s familiar to many. But what do we actually mean by it? Continue reading
On Christmas morning, I’m reviewing the news online and I catch the Huffington Post’s summary of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass message. In it, he bemoans the lack of space in our fast-paced lives for God:
“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.
“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.
In the study sessions, the day-to-day conversations, the pastoral visits and other randomly occurring opportunities that I have with many people that touch on consciousness of the spiritual, I find a very different picture to the one that the Pope bemoans. Just this past week, when one of my congregants gave the d’var torah after reading from parsha Vayigash, she took a survey of the congregation that night that highlighted this very issue. At the moment in the Joseph story that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, he responds to their fear that he will seek vengeance on them. He tells them that, while they may have meant their actions to do him harm, God meant it for good. It appears that Joseph believes that every step of his path was intended by God in order to bring him to the position of influence that he now has, without which he would not be in a position to save his family from famine. My congregant rejected this understanding of the unfolding of events. But, in surveying the congregation, she found that most people believed that God does show up in the fabric of our everyday lives, but not in a manner that is engineering every step of our experience, implied by some of our biblical narratives.
And this is what I see in the conversations that I have – many questions and the search for a God that is part of the fabric of our lives, but not the God that is described in the ancient mind of the biblical authors. Unlike the Pope, I do not see a wholesale rejection of God, or lives too busy to engage in the questions. For sure, atheism is a very present strand of thought in our society. But that is just one stage in the evolution of our understanding. What I see is the rejection of outdated God-ideas, but many are looking for part two – the search for new language to replace those ideas that emerge from our actual, lived experiences.
Rabbi Irwin Kula makes precisely this argument in the video short he created, ‘Time for a New God.’ He seeks a new understanding of God and new conversations about God that can emerge from our most intensely felt life experiences. Each and every moment is a potential doorway into something that gets us beyond a mundane interaction with our world and with each other. For, he suggests, ‘the whole world is really just God in drag.’
Time after time, when I don’t start with the presentation of old God-ideas delivered by the philosophers of past centuries, but I start with the powerful experiences that we all have as part of life, and we then try to find language to express something of the ‘beyondness’ that the experience points toward but which we can’t quite encapsulate in words, I find common ground on which we can stand. From there, it is possible to explore the possibilities of reclaiming the word ‘God’ to reflect what the inner reality of those experiences might be. Or sometimes we’ll explore reclaiming the word ‘kedushah’ – holiness – as a doorway into noticing and elevating the importance of our most deeply felt experiences for directing, guiding, or informing our lives. Whether I am having these conversations with adults, who may not have visited the God-idea since their bar or bat mitzvah, or I’m having these conversations with skeptical teenagers who feel empowered when they learn that they can claim a God-idea that jives with their experience of life, the result is often the same. We don’t reach conclusions or serve up pat answers; but there is no lack of interest in exploring the questions.
And so, for many of us it is not a matter of finding room for God. Rather, through the invitation to let go of old God-ideas that no longer work, in order to explore new doorways that can speak to the world we live in today, its more of a matter of finding God in the room.
First we cry, then we act.
The murders that occurred on Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are beyond my comprehension. How could something like this happen? As a parent of a seven year old, I just cried a upon hearing the news. The sadness I felt was overwhelming.
As a rabbi, I cannot even begin to offer a pat theology of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no explanation. Instead I raise my voice and my fists at God and yell, “Why? How could this happen?” I say angry, hateful things to God. I feel safe doing this because I know God can take my anger. God is the receptacle for my emotions, my deep sadness, anger, and terror, it all goes there. Why not? It has to go somewhere.
When I was done crying, I picked my daughter up early from a play date and got ready for Shabbat. Shabbat gave me a break from listening to the news and Googleing the latest information. I had some time to sit with my emotions. It helped.
The minute Shabbat was over, I was ready to act. The Ethical Culture Society in my town organized a vigil to end gun violence Saturday night. My husband and I canceled our plans for a fun night out, and joined the vigil. Sunday morning, I spent time signing petitions being sent to the president and my representatives in Washington calling on them to enact legislation to strengthen our gun laws. I donated to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence . We must outlaw semi-automatic weapons. There is no reason they should be in our hands. We must make it harder for a person to purchase a gun. I am all for background checks, waiting periods, licensing, continuing education in order to hold on to your license, and high taxes on guns and bullets. We enact many regulations to enforce public safety. It is past time that these regulations apply to guns as well.
If it were up to me, I would outlaw all hand guns. Unfortunately I know that will not happen. And I know that no matter how many laws we put in place people who really want guns will get their hands on them. But this should not stop us from making it harder! There are more gun deaths in the US than any other developed country. This is simply unacceptable.
I believe that we live in partnership with God. We both impact events. God was not able to stop this shooting from taking place. But God is here as a support structure to help us get through the aftermath. My role, and your role, is to do what we can on this earth to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Organize locally, call Washington, let’s do our best to get guns out of our homes and off our streets. It is time.
So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?
Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?
But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.
Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.
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.
“Just call me on my cell. My house can be difficult to find.”
I hobbled through the alleyways of the thick, cobbled ancient stone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. I found an open seating area. I called.
In moments, an exuberant, petite, head-scarved woman holding a cell phone next to her ear skirted past me.
“Emunah!” I exclaimed.
“You must be Tamara with the red glasses!”
The conversation continued at a rapid pace as we were both curious about the other.
Emunah had made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel forty years ago from Brooklyn. Fourteen children and two husbands later, she now resides inside the walls of the Old City. She is a believer. Her name, Emunah, means faith. She teaches and practices her faith.
When we arrived at her home, she quickly set up chairs outside for the small gathering of four women and one man that enlarged our intimacy. We ate her homemade oatmeal chocolate bars and drank water to refresh ourselves from the middle eastern summer climate.
Emunah reflected about our personal prayer and the power of God’s prayer.
“It is not about what we want. Think about it. What if God wants to pray for us? What would God pray for? Knowing that God loves us. Knowing that God would want the best for us. What would God want for you?”
God’s prayers for me! Perhaps my prayer requests should come from God’s point of view.
“We are all in God’s shadow. We pray because the Holy One of Discernment prays for us.”
As we listened to Emunah’s lessons, the day darkened into a bold night. The illumination from Emunah’s question continues to delight and excite me: What is God praying for me now?