Tag Archives: spirituality

The Most Profound Prayer

shutterstock_101064118It is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that Judaism has a blessing for everything. But only somewhat. After all, there actually exists a blessing for going to the bathroom.

There is something both absurd and profound about the existence of a Jewish bathroom prayer. Bathrooms have the distinction of being one place where prayer and Torah are to be avoided. The underlying assumption being that what takes place in a bathroom is fundamentally at odds with the holy name. And yet Jewish tradition mandates a blessing be said upon completing our business and exiting.

As a child, this blessing was the bane of my existence. The words, which seems endless and cumbersome to my 6 year old self, were a chore. Not simply irrelevant, in my no so humble opinion, they stood between me and recess, returning to class, or hanging out with friends. And in all honesty, even when I grew to understand the words, I could not fathom the need for such a prayer.

Whether or not we see ourselves as particularly religious, few among us do not feel awe when confronted with a rainbow, a beautiful seascape or mountain view. And for those moment when our own words may fail us, our tradition provides us with options. These moments are so obviously praise worthy.

By contrast, the goings on of the bathroom by contrast seem base, necessary but by no means extraordinary. That is until they don’t work exactly as we need them to.

If you have ever toilet trained a puppy or a child, eaten the wrong foods or maybe too much matza at Passover, you know that the internal plumbing of a being is a finely tuned system not to be taken for granted.

And this speaks to the profound truth of the bathroom blessing.

Grand vistas may appear, extraordinary moments will happen but we do not need to wait for these to appreciate the holiness of the miracles of everyday life. Within the realm of healthy, everyday living, we can easily take for granted the small stuff. The ability to wake, to get out of bed are usually chores. Our tradition, by encouraging us to bless these moments provides us with the opportunity to reframe our understanding of what a miracle is.

The bathroom may not be a place for uttering the holy name, but that does not mean that what happens inside is not holy and miraculous. On the contrary, the very contradiction of Asher Yatzar points to a vision of everyday holiness that if taken seriously, as our tradition encourages us to do, has the power to imbue every moment in life with significant and profound meaning.

“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashion the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Lord, healer or all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).

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Posted on February 12, 2015

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The Pilgrim’s Guide to Success

The Myth of Arrival

The Myth of Arrival

I’ve been looking for meaningful full-time work since crash-landing in Philadelphia in August. After living in Boston for eight years and being known and seen as a resource in the community, I suddenly found myself a stranger again, trying to make it as a rabbi in a new city – one full of other talented rabbis, no less.

I am impatient to move from Point A to Point B: from part time work to full time work, from assistant rabbi to rabbi, from teacher to director of education.

We easily fall victim to the idea that we’ll only be happy when we find ourselves in the perfect situation: the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect house. This is what a friend of mine refers to as “the myth of arrival.”

If we stop and pay attention, we notice both the world around us and our sense of what we need and want are in constant flux. No situation will ever be perfect, and if it is, it won’t be. Opposed to our obsession with “making it,” this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, proposes we focus on the journey.

When the Jerusalem Temple existed, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were each harvest festivals which culminated with people bringing offerings to the Jerusalem Temple. We no longer make a pilgrimage to a place like the Temple, but we do make a sacred journey through time: from the barrenness and desolation of winter to the mucky renewal of spring, and the color and heat of summer. During each of the three agricultural festivals, God instructs, “none shall appear before Me empty handed” (Exodus 23:15).

According to this week’s reading, the pilgrim travels to the Temple on Passover: “for in it you went forth from Egypt”: each year, we start by recognizing that we are journeying from slavery to freedom and to clarity.

What are we to carry with us?

On Sukkot, the pilgrim brings “the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”; and on Shavuot the pilgrim brings “the results of your work in the field.” As we make the first tentative steps on our journey, we gather the first fruits of our labor, relishing in our small successes: the dissertation proposal, the first performance, the fact we even got up early to write. We then bring the results of our work in from the field.

We pause three times each year to savor our accomplishments.

The Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given.

The Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given.

The Torah also instructs, “They shall not appear before God empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). During this dark, cold time of year, the Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given. To recognize if we have been using our gifts we will have something to offer. Our role in this journey is to serve That which is Greater than Us by using our unique gifts – as gardeners, artists, caretakers, healers.

A midrash that connects our verse to the Book of Ruth (a text about Shavuot) says that “every place the people of Israel entered, they did not leave empty-handed.” This commentary suggests that God does not ask us to bring anything in particular, but is simply promising us that if we fully enter our lives, “none [of us] shall appear before Me empty handed.”

For now, as much as I look forward to finding meaningful full time work next year, I am also beginning to remember to cherish my small successes: the moments I sense warm connections forming with my patients and their families in my hospice work; the time I am making to write in the morning; the joy I feel when my teaching lights up my students’ faces with insight.

Perhaps what is most important is to “arrive” by being present to what is in-between Point A and Point B – to the journey of life, itself.

Posted on February 9, 2015

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Dying to Talk

The spectacle of death

The spectacle of death

On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.

The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”

We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.

shutterstock_165815267

Conversing about our wishes for end of life care does not have to be difficult

Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.

Posted on January 12, 2015

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This Little Flame of Mine

Nail polish in Hebrew is "lahk"

Nail polish in Hebrew is “lahk”

The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.

As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.

As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.

After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”

Menorah lit in a window

Menorah lit in a window

These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.

When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.

Posted on December 15, 2014

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Digging Wells for Generations

Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.

Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.

This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.

Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee.  Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.

My great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Lavitt’s book. Photo credit: Jason Lavitt.

According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?

As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.

Posted on November 17, 2014

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Do You Believe in Ghosts?

Recently a woman asked me if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said,”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God. Rabbi,” she asked, “Is there something wrong with my prayers?”

imgres-1This brings us directly to the question of Halloween, and what it is that we believe, or not, about ghosts. Years ago, I had a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him. I once counseled a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time. She was certain that it was her father calling. He had passed away several months before. Do we believe in ghosts? Why not? Religiously speaking, believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with, is even more complicated. So why not ghosts?

The Zohar, Judaism’s primer on mysticism, teaches that when a soul departs, the soul of the departed experiences three things simultaneously: a) The soul enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One. To my mind, it’s something like what happened to Yoda and Obi Wan Kanobi; they became one with the Force. b) The soul remains to comfort those who mourn. c) The soul enters into Gan Eden and experiences the delights that he or she enjoyed while on earth.

What I told the woman who asked me about praying to her mother is the following.
“I believe that your relationship with your mother is foundational in your understanding of the transcendent. I do not believe that you confused your mother with God, but that she is the closest access point you have to loving energy beyond our own realm.”

Fruma Sarah - Fiddler on the Roof

Fruma Sarah – Fiddler on the Roof

Do we believe in ghosts?
I’m not sure, nor am I that curious. It doesn’t make someone a “bad Jew” to answer this question with a “yes.” Tevye’s wife certainly believed in ghosts. I’ve performed several weddings where the spirit of late relatives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, were invited, and welcomed by name.

In the end, I am glad that my friend is still comforted by her mother in this different capacity, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his deceased grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, my former congregant still has her father.

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Posted on October 28, 2014

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Freundel: Not Just an Orthodox Problem

mikvah2Much has been written about the impact of Rabbi Barry Freundel on the Orthodox world. In a community that sees the mikveh as essential to their practice of Judaism, this is a fundamental tear in the fabric that weaves together ideals of halakhic observance with the messy realities of daily life. But much less commented upon are the ways in which this tragedy has implications beyond the Orthodox world.

Jewish feminists of all stripes, and mikveh activists like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston have been working to help reimagine mikveh. In my own life and rabbinate, I’ve been to the mikveh with women after abortions and miscarriages. I’ve seen its healing powers provide a balm to those struggling with illness or dramatic life changes. I’ve had the privilege of celebrating brides, b’not mitzvah and mothers of b’nai mitzvah with a spiritual dip. For many, the power of this ritual exceeds rational expectations and is profoundly meaningful.

Unfortunately, this scandal has reinforced preexisting negative assumptions about mikveh which abound in the liberal Jewish communities I inhabit. Part of this emerges from a feminist critique of the laws which link women’s menstruation with the need for purification. There are concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and irrational outmoded rituals. The extent to which Freundel’s alleged corruption focused around mikveh has put the healing and spiritual potential of this ritual even further from the reach of liberal Jews. Since news broke, I have been part of many conversations, on line and in person, where people are seeing Freundel’s actions as vindication for having avoided the ritual in their lives to date. Others, looking for life cycle rituals, have voiced trepidation about going to the mikveh in the future. The loss of trust and the positive potential of this ritual has been compromised beyond the narrow confines of the Washington, Orthodox community.

Additionally, while the majority of non-Orthodox commentators have been thoughtful in their reactions, I have been troubled by the tendency of some to wonder why any Jewish women stay in the male-dominated Orthodox world. Some cite the exclusively male rabbinate as reason enough for women to leave. Others suggest that given the more egalitarian options in the Jewish religious landscape, women should be moving out of Orthodoxy.

This line of thinking is highly problematic. Whatever denomination or affiliation a particular Jew holds, it is important to recognize that other streams of Jewish life have their own value. If we are intellectually honest, most of us can recognize that there is no perfect religious community. But more troubling than the dismissal of Orthodoxy as a valid approach to Jewish living is the victim-blaming implied by such critiques. Let us be clear: None of the victims of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds bears any fault or blame for what has happened. We should not underestimate the intelligence, passion or thoughtfulness of the women in Rabbi Freundel’s community. That these women might have chosen less male-dominated forms of Jewish living does not by any means lessen Rabbi Freundel’s responsibility or the obligation of the RCA to live up to its own standards and those of secular law. They bear the entire responsibility. No one should expect or put up with abuse of power or sexual abuse.

Finally, the focus on Rabbi Freundel and the RCA should not obscure that the abuse of women or rabbinic power is not unique to the Orthodox. Seeing abuse as primarily an Orthodox problem minimizes the pain and suffering of those who have been sexually harassed or abused by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in non-Orthodox settings. The limited circles of Jewish power and community often have a chilling effect on women’s ability to stand up to abuse, no matter the denomination. Furthermore, I have worked with converts from all denominations who have had rabbis charge exorbitant fees for conversions or required favors be performed, exploiting their spiritual vulnerability. Across the board, Jews have to condemn sexual and religious exploitation within our communities.

As it should, Rabbi Freundel’s arrest has rocked the Kesher Israel community and the Orthodox circles that held this man in great esteem. Yet the implications are much broader. We should take the opportunity to open conversations about what are often taboo subjects. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions have shined a light on mikveh, abuse of power in the Jewish community, and the challenges of conversion. None of these issues is unique to the Orthodox world.

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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Remembering Jenna

willow-branches_hpI don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.

Tomorrow.

We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.

I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.

Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”

I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.

While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.

Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.

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Posted on October 14, 2014

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Facing Loss at Rosh Hashanah

StengelThe images of the secular New YearTimes Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakersare all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanaha shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honeyare more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.

And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.

Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.

But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.

The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.

My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.

At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Look Both Ways Before Crossing!

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 childthis time in Fergusonthe 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?

No?

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 flourishinglifting 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.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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