Tag Archives: shabbat

What Does “Dayenu” Mean Today?

One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder is the singing that takes place after we finish eating. There are so many great, fun songs, from “Ehad Mi Yodeah” to “Chad Gadya.” Perhaps my favorite song is “Dayenu.” The words are fairly easy to sing in Hebrew, and the chorus is so catchy that even those who don’t know Hebrew can easily join in. But beyond its functionality, the content of Dayenu (literally “it would have been enough”) also carries a deep amount of wisdom.Dayenu image

Dayenu consists of 15 stanzas referencing different historical contexts the Israelites experienced, from slavery in Egypt to the building of the Temple in Israel. After each stanza, we sing the chorus, signifying that if this was the total of God’s miraculous intervention into the lives of the Israelites, it would have been sufficient.

One of the primary purposes of the Passover seder is to make us feel as if we personally experienced the exodus from Egypt and the redemption from slavery to freedom. This is no less true for the way we understand the Dayenu song. Dayenu provides a powerful contemporary hashkafah (outlook on life), a call to mindfulness about the way we currently lead our lives. We live in an era when capitalism is our state (and increasingly global) religion. Consumption is unfettered by any internal sense of restraint, from the amount of soda we can drink to how much money Wall Street executives can make. We live in a world where it is okay that the richest 85 people in the world have total wealth equal to that of the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet!

Dayenu reminds us that there is another way. Judaism offers an outlook on wealth, consumption, and sufficiency (sova) that is very counter-cultural. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is rich? The one who is content with what one has.” Even more austere, the Talmud instructs: “An individual who can eat barley bread but eats wheat bread is guilty of transgressing the law of bal tashchit (unlawful waste). Rabbi Papa states: one who can drink beer but drinks wine instead is guilty of transgressing the law of bal tashchit.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 140b). Judaism is not, to be sure, an ascetic religion. We are encouraged to carve out occasions for excess, for enjoying the finer parts of living—on Shabbat, holidays, and other joyous occasions. But the wisdom of Judaism is that, if we want to experience delight on these special occasions, we also need moments of restraint. It is the juxtaposition of restraint and largess that creates a life of meaning.

Beyond the individual experience, we also are becoming increasingly aware of the global consequences of championing unbridled materialism over a sense of sufficiency. From income inequality to climate change, our refusal to entertain limits on what we do and how much we consume are wreaking destructive consequences. By returning to a sense of Dayenu, of thinking deeply about what is enough, we have the potential to change ourselves and our world. May we be blessed, on this Pesah and beyond, to replace the idolatry of consumption with an embrace of all that we have.

And if you have thoughts about the meaning of “dayenu” in your life today, of what it means to say we have “enough,” please add your voice to a Facebook and Twitter campaign we are running from now until Pesach. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Hag Sameach!

Posted on April 1, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why Time Isn’t Money

time-money-see-sawWe often tend to use the same language for time as we use for money. We “spend” it. We “save” it. We “buy” it. We use those same words because both time and money are very precious resources to us.

But while money is always money (the same 20 dollars can used to buy food, movies, or in my case, a new book), time is a little more nuanced.

In fact, the Greeks had two different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was the quantitative sense of time. It could be measured and dissected, and most importantly, was undifferentiated.

Kairos, in contrast, was the qualitative sense of time. It was psychological, how we felt time, and it reminded us that not every moment was exactly the same — some moments were more powerful, more important and more holy than others.

To phrase it another way, if chronos is the date of your wedding, kairos is your wedding day.

So time is paradoxical. Sometimes we look at it through our daily or weekly schedules, placing all our obligations and opportunities into our calendar. When we look at time in this way, it is something we use, and has value only to the extent that it can help us achieve other goals. But sometimes we look at time through the lens of what is most special and important in our lives. When we look at it in this way, it is something we experience, and has value in and of itself.

Our view of money, however, doesn’t have this challenge. Money doesn’t have value in and of itself — its power comes in what it allows us to do. The question then is, are we using our money to help us do what we truly want to be doing?

Happy MoneyIn the new book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton outline the different ways we can use money to increase our well-being. While money doesn’t buy happiness (at least not directly), if we use our money correctly, we can find opportunities for more joy and satisfaction in life. And one of the primary ways we can do that is to use money to buy time — but it has to be a specific type of time.

We all are busy with our lives, and we often think that buying a new time-saving gadget will make our lives better because it will “save us time.” Instead, these new gadgets often force us to do more work in the same amount of time. But that’s because when we are looking to “be more efficient,” we are looking for more chronos time.

What Dunn and Norton argue is that we should use our money to find ways to experience kairos time. So, for example, how can we make sure that we have a date night with our spouse? How can we strive to volunteer with organizations that give our lives meaning? As Dunn and Norton explain:

Transforming decisions about money into decisions about time has a surprising benefit. Thinking about time — rather than money — spurs people to engage in activities that promote well-being, like socializing and volunteering. In a 2010 study, more than three hundred adults completed a simple task designed to activate the concept of either time or money. One group unscrambled sentences related to time, such as “sheets the change clock” (possible answers: “change the sheets” or “change the clock”). Another group unscrambled sentences related to money (“sheets the change price”). Afterwards, everyone decided how to spend the next twenty-four hours. Individuals who unscrambled sentences related to time were more inclined to socialize and engage in “intimate relations” and were less inclined to work. Those who unscrambled sentences related to money showed just the opposite pattern, reporting enhanced intentions to work and diminished intentions to socialize or have intimate relations.

Why? Time and money promote different mind-sets. We view our choices about how to spend time as being deeply connected to our sense of self. In contrast, choices about money often lead us to think in a relatively cold, rational manner. Focusing on time frees people to prioritize happiness and social relationships. Even a simple sentence-unscrambling task is enough to induce these different frames of mind. (Dunn and Norton, 74-75)

In Judaism, the paradigmatic kairos time is Shabbat. During the six days of the work week, we are supposed to be productive, to be working hard in order to support ourselves and our family. But on Shabbat, we are told to take a break. To rest. To be with friends. To be with family. To go for a nice, long walk. To read and to learn. To pray. To be reminded that time can be special.

Indeed, while every dollar we earn is the same, not every moment in life is the same. And while we can always potentially gain more money, we never gain more time. While you can always potentially get a refund on your money, once your time is spent, it’s gone.

So let’s make sure we’re spending it wisely.

Posted on June 13, 2013

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The Pedagogy of Nemo: What a Winter Storm Can Teach Us About Shabbat

Too-much-snow-outside1

Well, that was an unexpected weekend! For those of you who do not live in the Northeast, we just got walloped by a monster snowstorm. At my own home in Connecticut, we have 38 inches of snow and we are only beginning to dig our way out.

But I think there was something special about Nemo (the name given for this storm), aside from the stupendous amount of snow it delivered: Nemo became a dramatic metaphor for Shabbat. According to tradition, there are two primary components of the Sabbath: shamor and zakhor. This dual structure emerges from the rabbinic attempt to reconcile the fact that the verb shamor (keep, observe) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:11 whereas zakhor (remember, internalize) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:8. Shamor is the more active of the two, corresponding to the rituals and practices we do (or, often more importantly, cessation from doing) on Shabbat itself that mark Shabbat as different from the rest of the week. Nemo gave all of us in the Northeast a sense of what being Shomer Shabbat entails. For more than 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until Saturday night, we were deluged with snow so thick and relentless that everyone had to stay at home. No one could leave to go to work, shop, or do anything else. The fascinating paradox of shamor is that restriction can actually lead to liberation. Being prohibited from engaging in our daily affairs during Nemo’s fury freed us up to spend new-found time with family and friends, to take time to communicate and interact with one another in ways that our frenetic lives often make difficult.

snow!The shamor aspect of Shabbat usually gets the majority of attention. But the zakhor component is equally important within Judaism. Zakhor corresponds to the obligation to internalize Shabbat’s meaning, to locate Shabbat as the center of our temporal consciousness. From preparing for Shabbat ahead of time to reciting the kiddush during our meals, we take time to be mindful of Shabbat’s inherent sanctity. A major rabbinic contribution to this feature was insisting that “oneg,” or delight, be a part of our Shabbat experience. Rejecting the option of an ascetic Shabbat (which the anti-rabbinic Karaites would later endorse), rabbinic Judaism embraced a Shabbat of majesty and exuberance through food, attire, song, and all the other ways in which we celebrate Shabbat. Standing outside, watching my children flop around in the thick snow while attempting to throw snowballs at my wife, I found myself re-capturing that sense of pure, unfiltered joy. The smiles and squeals of delight, like a Hasidic Friday night meal, lasted for hours. We were left with the sense of exuberant exhaustion you might feel after laughing for a really, really long time.

I won’t be sad when the temperature rises above freezing, my children finally get back to school, and life once more returns to normal. But I hope that the lesson I took from Nemo—that Shabbat should be about the liberation of obligation and a sense of infinite joy—will continue to reverberate within my Shabbat experience long after the snow melts away.

Posted on February 12, 2013

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The Friday the Rabbi Made Challah

A couple of years ago, I attended a young adult challah-baking event here in Austin.  Some of the young women who were there that evening turned to me, a female rabbi, and wanted to know my challah-baking secrets. challah

“The truth is” I confessed, “I never bake challah.”

“REALLY?” They said with great surprise.

It occurred to me that we would never presume that male rabbis were baking challah, but somehow as a female rabbi, people had the expectation that I at least had some experience with this craft.  But when would I find time for such things? Thursday and Friday are consumed with meetings and preparation for Shabbat at the synagogue. Where could I find time – and energy — for challah baking?

I often joke with my husband, who is also a rabbi, that the old adage – “the shoemaker’s children have no shoes”– rings true in our household.  We have two children, and although both of them claim to love to bake challah (they’ve had such experiences with their grandmothers and at school) they have never baked challah with their mom.  One thoughtful stay-at-home mom in my congregation recently offered to have my kids over for a challah baking party with her family, since clearly I didn’t have the time to create such opportunities for my own children.

This past Friday, somehow this all changed.  Don’t get me wrong – my day was plenty busy.  In fact, I was in meetings from 9:00AM – 5:30PM, straight.  Yet, this past Friday I had the incredible urge to bake challah.  Maybe it was all of this recent talk in the media about work-life balance that put me over the edge. Or maybe it was just the reality that, although Austin is known for many amazing and wonderful things, excellent store-bought Kosher challah is not one of them.  Whatever it was, I arrived home at 5:40PM and said “We’re making challah!”

My husband’s first response – “Have you seen Rabbah Sara Hurwitz’s article in the Jewish Journal?  She just made challah for the first time as well.” I had not seen the article, and didn’t have time to read it until after Shabbat. (I had to make my challah, after all.) But something must be in the air. Challah-less female rabbis from across the movements are suddenly baking challah.

I had very little time before candle lighting at 8:17PM. After finding a fairly simple recipe on the internet, buying and mixing the ingredients and then kneading the dough with the kids, we realized that we really only had about five minutes of rise-time. Miraculously, what we created was far from matzah – I would never have known from the finished product that we hadn’t had time to let our dough rise.

So how was it?  It was pretty good.  Not the best challah I’ve ever tasted, but a good first try. And the kids had a blast, taking great pride in their creations. I think we may have begun a weekly challah baking ritual.

And maybe the next time this female rabbi shows up at a challah-baking event, she will have a thing or two to share.

Posted on July 15, 2012

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Rock and Roll

This is a guest post by Rabbi Darby Leigh.

It was 1984 when Dee Snider first asked me what I wanted to do with my life. The answer was then, and still is, “I want to ROCK!” Given a rather conventional and full life as a congregational rabbi with two amazing children and a partner who is an OB/GYN resident, the truth is I don’t really get to rock on a daily basis- even though I need it man, oh how I need it!

Sure, I infuse my daily routine with rock when I can. Lately I listen to Anthrax’s Worship Music on my commute to work and I write sermons while listening to Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction. Rock lyrics find their way into my teaching and preaching, but nonetheless, my relationship to rock is not what it once was. It’s not the same as being in the mosh pit. It’s not the same as being pressed up against the barricade in front of the stage. It’s not the same as watching the house lights grow dim, waiting for the band to emerge and feeling the collective roar as the stage lights go up and the first notes wail. In the crowd you become part of an enormous community, when your voice merges with thousands of others, your individualism and ego are dimmed. For a brief moment, you can lose yourself to a collective consciousness and experience being part of something much greater.

Over the years I have been paying close attention to the experiences people have and cultivate that they consider to be “spiritual.” Spirituality today is so often characterized as meditation, yoga, chanting, or sitting in a circle contemplating unity, oneness, and the truth of our interconnectedness. In other words, for many of us, cultivating spiritual experiences is about trying to turn down the volume and pace of our daily lives. In the Jewish tradition, the spirituality of Shabbat often receives the same monochromatic treatment.

It is not a new or radical statement to suggest that the concept of Shabbat, and the experience of Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts the Jewish tradition offers its followers. The observance of Shabbat is said by many to be the “first labor law” in the history of humanity. We are commanded to “take a break” every week, to not permit our lives to be solely about work and the mundane. Shabbat, we are taught, should be an oneg, a joy and a delight. Indeed we engage in the unique joy and pleasure of being in the company of family and friends sharing meals and thoughts about deeper matters, and about Truth. This core Jewish tradition and observance is a profound teaching in and of itself.

There are different spiritual personalities in our world and for some spiritual types, increasing volume and speed is an equally powerful and authentic way to access an authentic Shabbat experience. In fact, while turning the volume down and becoming more still can support our experience of the spirituality of Shabbat, so too, turning the volume up on the Marshall Amp stacks can do the same thing. Rock & Roll can generate for me, joy, delight, rest, and a break from work and the mundane. Since I can’t rock out every day, when would I rock, if not on Shabbat?

Not only is my spiritual personality occasionally better served on Shabbat with a dose of Rock & Roll, but it is an authentic Jewish experience to do so. Every Shabbat we symbolically reenact the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai. The Biblical account of revelation at Sinai seems to me to be more like a Rock concert than a silent meditation. “There was thunder and lightning, a dense fog covered the mountain, there was a loud horn and everyone shook. Mount Sinai was smoking, and trembling violently, the horn grew louder…all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and of the mountain smoking.” (Ex. 20) One might argue that attending a rock concert, with a laser light show, fog and smoke machines, booms of horns and thunder, pyrotechnics perhaps, and a crowd of thousands all listening for Truth, would be the most authentic way to symbolically recreate revelation.

There is also an implicit sensuality that runs through Rock and Roll, ever since Elvis’ hips first gyrated. While some might argue that rock and roll with its sensuality, passion, and intensity is counter to the religious spirit of Shabbat, I would argue that on the contrary, Shabbat is an extremely physical, as well as a spiritual time, when we are meant to take delight in sensual experiences of touch, taste, and smells. There is a long standing Rabbinic tradition, both in mystical Judaism and in the Talmud, that erev Shabbat, the evening of Shabbat, is a particularly auspicious time for sexual relations. Sexual relations on erev Shabbat are viewed in these texts as acts of joy with spiritual and potentially profound mystical ramifications. Sexual activity is viewed in this context as a sacred spiritual act with purpose that goes far beyond a simplistic notion of sex as an act of procreation.

So in honoring the part of myself, and of many members the community that crave the spiritual experience of “rocking out,” I have been working with members of our community to create Bnai Keshet’s first ever, “Rock On Shabbat!” At this service, we will move our way through the matbeah, the traditional structure of a Friday night service by setting some liturgical pieces to rock and roll or more upbeat tunes. We will also insert rock songs into certain ‘thematic’ prayers at key moments in the service. The service will be followed by a concert and party.

We can’t wait to Rock on Shabbat & celebrate!

A life-long “truth seeker,” Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh is a native New Yorker who loves mountains. Rabbi Leigh is a fire-juggling Generation Xer who toured as a leading actor with the Tony award-winning National Theater of the Deaf. He received a B.A. in religion, summa cum laude, from the University of Rochester and an M.A. in religion from Columbia University. He also spent a year at Gallaudet University, where he received the President’s Scholar Award. Rabbi Leigh provided consulting services for the Oscar-nominated documentary Sound and Fury and for Hands ON, an organization that provides sign-language interpreting for Broadway and off Broadway productions He has also taught on issues related to deafness for organizations including the NYC Fire Department, and the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Rabbi Darby J. Leigh is the Assoicate Rabbi at Bnei Kesht in  Montclair, NJ.

Posted on June 19, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Me, You and We

I have been an active participant in a group of Muslims, Christians and Jews that meets two to three times a year for presentations and dialogue. All of us would define ourselves as active religious practitioners.  Our conversations have moved into areas of genuine dialogue and have space for disagreements and different views from both within our religious traditions as well as between religions.  In other words, we have begun to trust each other.

Our meeting last week looked at the question of interfaith marriage. I was asked to be the Jewish presenter and a Catholic priest and Muslim chaplain at a local university presented their traditions.

What I found fascinating was that the priest, although an expert in canon law, approached the question from a pastoral care perspective. He clearly saw the couple and the success of their marriage as his desired outcome. The Muslim presenter gave a legal discourse and argued that while Muslim law allowed men to marry Christian and Jewish women, the reverse was not accepted. She argued that this should not be the case and that Muslim women should be allowed to marry Christian or Jewish men, citing a number of contemporary Muslim authorities. Parenthetically, at my table during conversation one of the Muslim participants commented that most Muslims would not find the contemporary authorities cited as being authoritative. This certainly has its parallels in contemporary Jewish legal debates and sounded very familiar to me as an Orthodox rabbi.  My primary focus was a theological argument why Jews should marry other Jews.  It was not intended to be an argument against interfaith marriage which would be silly and futile for reasons that my readers surely understand. Rather the primary focus was on understanding Jewish Peoplehood in theological/legal terms and how one’s decision whom to marry might be shaped by this understanding.

This is what I said:

“Jews stand in relationship to God as members of the covenant. In the Bible, this covenant while it begins in the Bible with Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people as a nation enter into this covenant at Mount Sinai when they receive and accept the Torah and it is reaffirmed forty years later in the Book of Deuteronomy before the death of Moses.

“You are standing, this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your officers, every Jewish individual; your children, your wives, the strangers in the midst of your camp, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water; to bring you into the covenant of Lord your God and His oath, which God is making with you today.

In order to establish you today as a nation unto Him, and He shall be your God, as He told you; and as He promised your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And not only with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath; but rather, with those that are here with us standing today before the Lord, our God, and with those THAT ARE NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Deut. 29, 9-11).

This Deuteronomy passage reaffirms the covenant that began in Genesis with a family, continued in the Book of Exodus as a nation at Sinai-thus the reference to be your God, and then adds with those who are not here today. This is understood to include all those not yet born. Covenant is rooted in family and peoplehood. It is not a relationship made with a single individual qua individual, but with a family and then a nation.

The next passage from the Mekhilta, a third century rabbinic text, builds on this and elaborates on the implications of this covenant relationship.

“Rabbi says: This proclaims the excellence of Israel. For when they all stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah they all made up their mind alike’ to accept the reign of God joyfully. Further­more, they pledged themselves for one another. And it was not only concerning overt acts that God, revealing Himself to them, wished to make His covenant with them but also concerning secret acts, as it is said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God’ and the things that are revealed,” etc. (Deut. 29.28). But they said to Him: Concerning overt acts we are ready to make a covenant with You, but we will not make a covenant with You in regard to secret acts lest one of us commit a sin secretly and the entire community be held responsible for it.”

Now this passage is seen as a dialogue between God and the people. God makes a covenant, but the implications of the covenant are that that the people are responsible one for another and therefore accountable when people sin and transgress. Here the people agree to that but with one limitation, it only applies to public transgressions. How can I be responsible for something someone has done in private? God agrees and therefore a text from Deuteronomy 29 is quoted that secret acts belong to God, but revealed public acts are the responsibility of the people.

Now this understanding creates the principle of “All Jews are responsible one for another, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”. Now this was not understood as only responsibility and accountability on a social level, but as a metaphysical construct of creating a religious sense of peoplehood.  Let me describe how this plays out. For example, before I eat I am required to make a blessing over the food. It is quick and usually all of 7-9 words. However, Friday night for example in my home before we eat the bread at the Sabbath dinner only my wife makes the blessing and everyone answers Amen. Now if it is my responsibility to say the blessing, how can my wife recite it for me or the others at the table? The answer is we share this covenantal peoplehood bond, and her reciting of it is as if I have done it as well. We are linked together in the performance of commandments. 

You can see this also in the Jewish wedding ceremony. This is the last blessing recited at the wedding ceremony.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King/Ruler of the universe, who created joy and happiness, groom and bride, gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, love, friendship, harmony and fellowship. Lord our God, let there speedily be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride, the sound of exultation of grooms from under their huppah, and youths from their joyous banquets. Blessed are You Lord, who gladdens the groom with the bride.”

The wedding ceremony is not only about my joining in marriage with another person, but it also means we share the same vision. The vision of redemption in this blessing is the vision of a redeemed people, and a wedding is the manifestation of that redemption. The prophet Jeremiah whose words are paraphrased here sees weddings as sign of the redemption and in getting married my wedding is a foretaste, a hint, a statement of faith, of the redemption of my people And this redemption is not a spiritual redemption of the soul, but a physical, in history redemption of a people into an ideal political, spiritual life. Weddings here are not a metaphor of redemption, but an expression of it.  Under the huppah, the wedding canopy, is this affirmation of peoplehood, again not a social construct, but a religious entity.

Finally, the vehicle, the institution for teaching the faith, but more importantly for living Judaism is not the synagogue, although it is needed and important, but it really is the family. Shabbat is observed at my table, I transmit and teach my children at the Passover Seder centered around my table. My table is an altar and the Temple, long destroyed, is recreated in my home. It is around this table that I teach my children. In particular we see this at Passover and  Deuteronomy 6 is an important text of the Seder.If your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?”.  You shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

My child asks what does this mean to you and I answer we. It is not about me and you, but about us. Our religious identity is centered in our we, being part of the people who stood at Sinai and we are in covenant with God. And it is that sense of we that I transmit to my family in the holy moments we gather in family.

This is why I married a Jew, this is why I want my children to marry Jews, and I cannot simply imagine sharing this covenantal responsibility and bond with someone who is not part of the people who share this consciousness. I cannot imagine having the deepest most intimate relationship with someone with whom it is only me and you and not we, sharing a sense of covenantal peoplehood. Can I fall in love with someone outside my faith who is a wonderful person in all the right ways, yes. Can I have a successful marriage, very possibly yes. But can I share a common religious bond, common religious language, stand as covenantal partners reaffirming Sinai and transmitting this consciousness? Here I would answer in the negative.”

What do you think?

Posted on March 29, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

I Don’t Go To Brooklyn

Cruising on Fifth Avenue one day, a taxi is hailed by a man standing on the corner. Entering the cab, the man says, “Take me to the Palmer House.”

“The Palmer House?” says the cabbie. “That’s in Chicago.”

“I know,” says his fare. “That’s where I want to go.” “I’ll drive you to Kennedy,” says the cabbie. “You can fly.”

“I’m afraid of flying.”

“Then I’ll drive you over to Grand Central and you can take the train.”

“No, the train takes too long and besides, then I’d have to get from Union Station to the Palmer House.”

“If I drove you all the way to Chicago it would cost a fortune. Twice a fortune, because you’d have to pay for me to deadhead back to New York.”

“That’s OK, I can afford it. Here’s a few hundred dollars now. I’ll pay the rest when we get there.”

With no further argument to make, the cabbie drives out of Manhattan into New Jersey and then con­nects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, thence to the Ohio Turnpike, the Indiana Turnpike, and finally the Skyway into Chicago. He takes Stony Island to 57th Street, where he turns onto Lake Shore Drive. He drives north as far as Congress, cuts over to Michigan Avenue, goes north again until he can pull over to Wabash, drives back one block south, and screeches to a stop in front of the Wabash entrance to the Palmer House-after two days and one night of non­stop driving.

The passenger peers at the meter, gives the cabbie several hundred dollars to cover the fare and a decent tip, and then opens the door to step onto the sidewalk.

Before anyone can close the door, two women who have been standing at the curb slide into the back seat. Before the startled cabbie can speak, one of the women says, “We want to go to an address on Flat­bush Avenue.”

“Uh-uh, lady,” says the cabbie. “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”

While you may have to be a New Yorker to fully appreciate the joke, the truth is there are many places we are willing to go and also some to which we refuse to venture.  Some places we refuse to go based on principle, while other places we may be scared to approach. Sometimes there are borders or boundaries that may actually prevent us from going forth and other times we may not realize that all we have to do is gather up some courage and move forward.

This past week I had the opportunity to speak with students at a local university. There were two rabbis and each of us was asked to describe our formative moments in our Jewish development. What stood out for me was my first rabbinic position as the associate director of Hillel at major Midwest university. I was fresh out of eight years at Yeshiva. My boss was a Reform rabbi. Working with him and the hundreds of students I met forced me to move from having some deep commitments to issues to also having deep responsibilities to people.  When issues became people, things became much more complex. Boundaries may have expanded or in some cases contracted, but they became rooted in genuine human experiences. My responsibility was no longer only to the issue or ideology, but to the person as well.

In traditional congregations, an additional Torah portion will be read this Shabbat known as Parashat Parah-or Red Heifer Shabbat. To enter the Sanctuary or later the Temple, one had to be in a state of religious purity. If one had encountered a dead body, even in a circumstance of burial and fulfilling a commandment to look after the dead, one would become ritually impure. You would require a sprinkling of the ashes from the Red Heifer as part of the ritual purification process. To cross the sacred boundary in an impure state would result in karet, spiritual excision. 

What are the boundaries worth crossing? What borders should remain closed? When might our desires to be embracing of others open up doors for us. When do we say we cannot go there? What are the limits of the sacred we should not cross?

Posted on March 15, 2012

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A Texas-sized Purimspiel

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Last week’s Texas-sized dust-up over the Beren Academy basketball team’s participation in the state championship of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools was a real-life Purimspiel. How so? Let us count the ways…

We begin with our modern-day Mordecai: the Beren Stars. How much more expedient it would have been to simply “bow down” before the wider culture. But they would not, for they were Jews (Esther 3:4). In standing by their principles and beliefs, even when it meant forfeiting a state semi-final game, these young men performed an act of kiddush hashem barabim (“sanctifying God’s name in the public square”) for the ages. Hank Greenberg. Sandy Koufax. The Beren Stars. No kidding.

Next, there was the classic element of topsy-turvy, or nahafoch hu. One day the kids are out, the next they are in. There was a surreal quality about the whole affair, entirely befitting the Purim season (the original “March Madness”). Thursday morning’s acceptance that the season would end with a forfeit rather was suddenly transformed into joy when TAPPS reversed itself (9:22) and moved the game time. Beren Star Zach Yoshor says it best: “It’s very, very strange. This has been the most emotional week of my life. The whole thing has just been crazy. To go from being in a state of disappointment to this state of elation, it’s amazing.”

King Ahashuerus made an appearance, of course, in the forced and slavish fealty to “the bylaws.” Throughout the week, that was the justification for sticking to the schedule. Once a rule is made, it cannot be changed! “An edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (8:8). This stubbornness prompted former Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy to offer perhaps the best line of the week: “I feel like they made a mistake and they don’t have a vice president of common sense who will tell them that this is silly and it’s O.K. to change your mind.”

When salvation finally came, it was “from another place” (4:14): the law offices of Nathan and Aliza Lewin. The Beren Academy chose not to pursue legal action, having accepted the right of the private association to make its own rules. Some parents and students explored a different path, and it led to TAPPS’s abrupt about-face. Good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews, this high-powered legal threat? An interesting question, for another time.

Did Haman make an appearance in this Spiel? A bit part, perhaps. A few comments by one of the professionals at TAPPS seemed angry rather than just silly (“unlike many people, TAPPS does follow the law,” and “I don’t recall ‘inclusive’ being in our constitution” were among his zingers), but by game time, even he was singing a different tune, focused on the “very good game.” Indeed, what’s most interesting about “Haman” is just how absent he was from the story. There was so much good will toward the Beren Stars. From Jeff Van Gundy to Senator John Cornyn, from Houston Mayor Annise Parker to the other teams in the finals (including the team that would have gone to the tourney in place of Beren), support for a time-change was strong and vocal.

Alas, the storybook ending was not to be. After a convincing win in the semi-final game, the Beren community observed Shabbat in a nearby hotel. Post-Shabbat, they stepped onto the court against a very good team from Abilene Christian. Beren came out a bit flat in the first quarter of the finals and were never able to completely close the deficit. They kept it close, and made it very exciting in the last few minutes, but wound up as runners-up.

Thus the ultimate nahafoch hu eluded them. But the players have every reason to be proud. Watching the post-game ceremony and the bestowing of the medals on the kids from both teams, I was immensely proud too. I will take that feeling with me into tomorrow night’s Purim festivities, and raise a l’chaim to the Beren Stars!

Chag Purim Sameach :-)

Posted on March 6, 2012

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Give Your Brain a Rest

Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.

But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.

So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?

It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.

In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.

While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:

[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”

So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.

Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating. According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.

So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.

And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace. Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.

So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.

So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)

Posted on January 26, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Remembering Debbie… one year on

On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away.  While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance.  Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.

On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi.  When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited.  Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded).  When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain.  Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me.  One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.

Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way.  For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music.  In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others.  She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question.  She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.

During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us.  Now we sing it for her.

At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema.  I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives.  I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.

Posted on January 11, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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