We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.
The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.
Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.
As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.
Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.
Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.
A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.
To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”
Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”
I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.
What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.
But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.
The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)
And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.
I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.
There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.
These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.
The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?
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The one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still reach for those ideals that will make the world a better place. Let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.
Insert cynicism here ______________.
Last Thursday and Friday, I led Rosh Hashanah services. When all was said and done, I offered at least fourteen formal prayers for peace. Peace prayers are consistent with the High Holiday theme of teshuvah, repentance and return. We as individuals can reflect, repent and change; so can a city, a country, a species, a world.
On Saturday, my youngest son said something about our cat and I realized: I hadn’t actually meant a word of these fourteen prayers for peace.
Last night, this 18-year-old young man left for Israel. For nine months, he will participate in a work-study program, Habonim-Dror Workshop. After nine summers at a Canadian Labor Zionist youth camp, he knows his movement politics. He supports Israeli left-wing causes, including economic justice, LGBTQ acceptance, and environmental preservation. He embraces Rabin’s vision of equal rights for Israeli Arabs and good-faith negotiation with Palestinians. He is prepared with ideology.
He will spend half the year at Kibbutz Ein Dor in Northern Israel. Eight hours before he left, my husband remarked, “Ein Dor is only 120 kilometres (74 miles) from Damascus.”
Our son looked up from playing with his kitten and said, “You know what is starting to stress me out? The kitten is so big now that when she climbs the upright mattress, it wobbles like it might fall. Will you take care of her while I’m gone?”
He had no idea he had just put into words our thoughts about him.
He does not believe the U.S. will attack Syria. He is prepared with love, idealism, and optimism. We, his parents, are prepared with skepticism, fatalism and fear.
Often I speak of the tragedy of human learning. As soon as elders gain wisdom from their many mistakes, they retire. They turn the world over to a younger generation, poised to make the same mistakes. And so it goes, generation after generation; war after war; injustice after injustice. Nothing can really change.
Beginning today, I shall see the tragedy differently, as a tragedy of lost innocence. Elders learn that mistakes and their costs are the way of the world. They take Murphy’s Law and Peter’s Principle seriously. If anything can go wrong it will. Everything takes twice as long as you think. Leaders are just ordinary people, promoted to their highest level of incompetence. All of recorded human history documents only 30 years of international peace.
My son does not need to carry that skepticism. Let him and his fellow travelers carry sparks of love. Maybe love alone won’t change the world. But lack of love certainly will, and not for the better.
I’ll choose to believe that teshuvah is possible. We as individuals can reflect, repent and change; so can a city, a country, a species, a world.
On Yom Kippur, I’ll offer another fourteen formal prayers for peace. But in my heart, I’ll hold the words of the fictional Captain John Sheridan of the space station Babylon 5, penned by J.M. Straczynski:
In the last few years, we’ve stumbled.
We’ve stumbled at peace and we’ve stumbled at justice.
And when you stumble a lot, you start looking at your feet.
And we have to make people lift their eyes back to the horizon of the line of ancestors behind us saying, “Make my life have meaning!”
And see our inheritors before us saying, “Create the world we will live in!”
Safe travels, son. Safe travels for you and your generation of fellow travelers.
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us. Continue reading