Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#BlogElul Day 2: Blessings are expressions of gratitude

One of my favorite parts of any Jewish worship service is the section sometimes labeled 'Nisim she'b'chol Yom' - everyday miracles. We are presented with a series of 1-line sentences that all begin by blessing God as we take a moment to contemplate every little moment that has already passed since the moment we became aware that we were awake that morning, right up to the present. Blessings for the ability to stretch, to open our eyes, to place our feet on the ground, for the clothes we are wearing, and so on.  I often introduce this section of the liturgy at a Bar or Bat mitzvah service because I think its something that everyone in the room can relate to and appreciate. Sometimes I see nods of recognition and see a spark as some in the room realize the power in our fixed liturgy to make us more mindful and appreciative of the ordinary - the things that we take for granted until we no longer have them.  Sometimes I feel some sadness as I watch rows of young teens who are unfamiliar with communal prayer, looking uncomfortable and self-conscious, unable to accept the invitation to verbalize out loud an appreciation for something as simple as waking up.  They will often smile in recognition when I admit that there are many mornings when my first thought, rather than being an expression of blessing, is more like 'Urgghh... do I have to get up?!' But that's when I realize that the power of a repetitive ritual that calls on me to recognize ordinary blessings out loud is the power to shift my whole orientation to the day ahead.  Now that is miraculous!

In our new High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, we are offered the traditional blessings - a list that we can find in the Babylonian Talmud, indicating that they are over 1500 years old. We are also offered other, relatively more recent texts, that express the same sentiment. On Rosh Hashanah morning, one of these options is 'Miracles' by Walt Whitman. In this poem, Whitman invites us to experience the everyday through the lens of wonder and amazement:

Why! Who makes mach of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love -
or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of an August forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds - or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down - or of stars shining so quiet and bring,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new-moon in May...
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles...
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle...
Every spear of grass - the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women,
and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

These blessings are not prayers that ask anything of God. They are simply expressions of Gratitude. A way of growing this character trait of beauty within each one of us. If we want to approach the New Year with an intention to change and repair, this simple practice of morning affirmations can be quite transformative if we choose to make them into a regular habit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

#BlogElul 1: What are we doing here?

You are probably aware, if you've sat through High Holy Day services in years past, that these worship services run longer than most other days of the year. If you have not really studied or examined the words on the pages closely before, you may not be aware of all the 'extras' that are part of the High Holy Day liturgy. Of course, the Shofar service is one of the most immediately recognizable additions. And the singing of Avinu Malkeinu. And you may have spent many a year struggling with the medieval piyyut (poem) U'netaneh Tokef (that's the one that contains those uncomfortable lines, 'who will live and who will die'). We'll get to that one in a future posting.

But perhaps you don't remember a series of paragraphs that are inserted into the Amidah that extend the section known in Hebrew as k'dushat Hashem - the Sanctification of the Name. That is the section where we repeat 3 times, kadosh kadosh kadosh... holy holy holy is the Eternal God of Hosts.

The reason why this section of prayer is extended with some additional paragraphs is because the 'sanctification of God's name' was, historically, a big theme of the Jewish New Year. In ancient times there would be an official day of the year to celebrate and honor each year of a king's reign. Think of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. There was a lot of fuss and fanfare as her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated back in 2012.  Something of this ancient ritual was borrowed in Jewish ritual - one day a year we recognize and honor the coronation of the King of Kings.  In our Rosh Hashanah liturgy we do this when we 'sanctify God's name.' But what does that mean exactly?

The three additional passages that become part of the sanctification prayer over the High Holy Days each begin with the word u'v'chen, meaning 'therefore.' What follows in the 3 passages are an ancient liturgists idea of what the world would look like if we all acted in ways that demonstrated our attempt to bring a sense of God's holiness into our world. First, all of creation would feel a sense of awe and reverence for God. Second, the Jewish people would no longer struggle because they would receive honor and respect and, third, we'd all be acting righteously and we would no longer be witness to evil.

Now, putting the history lesson and the ancient language of kings aside for a moment, what we have here, right in the center of one of the central prayers of our liturgy, are words that remind us that we've really failed to do much of meaning if we dutifully sit in synagogue and mindlessly recite words, unless the time we spend in reflection and connection remind and inspire us that, when we get up, we make meaning by doing.

That's why I love some of the alternative, contemporary readings that our upcoming new machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, has placed across from the three traditional u'v'chen passages emphasize the centrality of our actions if we really want to do honor to God's name and bring holiness into our world.  My favorite of the passages is one that I intend to make the focus of this section of our worship this year - it is an adaptation of a prayer first written by Rabbi Jack Reimer and published in New Prayers for the High Holy Days in 1971. It begins:
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world with paths to peace
if only we would take them.

We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them...

And, following additional passages in a similar mode, it concludes:
Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.

I know how easy it is to feel frustrated in the ritual of sitting and praying over the High Holy Days. I know how easy it is to look around a room and wonder how many of the people we see will leave the sanctuary after a couple of hours of reciting righteous words and exert themselves to live according to those words. I know how it feels because I have had those thoughts and feelings, sitting as a congregant in years past. But I have come to appreciate that with all things in life, I most often act and do with greater care and greater impact when I have first taken sufficient time to contemplate and consider all aspects of the task that lies before me - not only what needs to be done, but who needs to be included, what challenges face us, and how we can achieve something collaboratively.

So it is with the High Holy Days. There are a great many words on the pages that lie before us. But they are there not to numb us into mindless recitation, but to prod and cajole us into action. Action that, when we rededicate ourselves to our purpose each New Year, might be that much more energized, thoughtful, and effective, because we took the reflective time that the High Holy Days gift to us to do better.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Returning - Renewing my blog for #BlogElul

I've been away from my personal blog for some time. For those who were following my posts, I've been blogging as part of a team for the folk at My Jewish Learning on the 'Rabbis Without Borders Blog.' We've recently expanded the team, so my posts there will now be monthly instead of twice a month. I share the page with a wonderful set of colleagues who offer a diverse range of voices. I'm hoping that the space created will help me keep my own, personal blog a little more current. Beginning this week, I'll be starting the seasonal postings that I offer more intensively each year in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah.

The Hebrew month of Elul arrives tomorrow evening. The month that will bring us to the Jewish New Year of 5775. As in past years, it is my intention to participate in #BlogElul and share reflections, if not daily, then at least several times a week. I hope that these reflections will offer some spiritual nourishment and food for thought as we prepare for this deeply introspective time of the year.

As in past years, I will try to align my postings with the daily themes offered by my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who has enabled a broad collection of bloggers to share many unique perspectives on these shared themes, simply by creating the list and enabling us to find others’ postings on twitter and other social media by searching under the tag #BlogElul.

In addition to following these themes, I have another theme internal to my own blog that I wish to explore this year. If you’ve ever struggled with some of the words that are recited in prayer during the High Holy Days, or felt distanced by the images and concepts that they seem to convey, I hope these posts will speak to you. Inspired by new translations and alternative texts and readings that are being compiled in the upcoming (2015) new machzor for the Reform movement, Mishkan haNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul), I’ll be exploring different ways into this dense and sometimes off-putting High Holy Day liturgy.  My congregation, B’nai Shalom, in Westborough MA, participated in several months of piloting services with these new materials earlier in the year and voted to adopt the new prayer books that we hope to have in our hands in time for next year. We’ll be using a supplement of material from the new book during our High Holy Day services and, in fact, during our Friday night Shabbat services throughout the month of Elul and Tishrei.

I look forward to traveling with you, and encourage you to leave your own reflections, interpretations, and responses in the comments of these postings.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Remembering Debbie Friedman: For All That is Good

Photo by Angela Gold
I was honored to be able to share some words about my teacher and friend, Debbie Friedman, at the 3rd Yarzheit Kumsitz program in her memory, held at HUC-JIR, New York this past Thursday evening.

There are many stories told in our tradition of students learning from their teachers. When Debbie started teaching at HUC I was already ordained and working in congregational life - my friendship and connection with Debbie begins in 1998, 5 years before I moved to the USA from London. 

But Debbie was also my teacher in the most profound sense highlighted by those stories of old; the teacher who communicates through their actions.

Debbie, as anyone who ever tried to plan a service or a class with her can tell you, did not teach with lesson plans and outlines. Her teaching came straight from her soul.

And I, like so many, learned most from Debbie by observing how she did her work in the world.

Traveling often with Debbie to Healing Services in Weschester in addition to regularly attending at the JCC in Manhattan, this is what I learned from Debbie about healing:

· Many different kinds of people came to a healing service. Some of them recovered from illnesses and surgeries, and some of them did not. Some of them carried years of emotional pain and loss. We call carry some piece within that is in need of healing.

· While not every one could be cured, Debbie brought some healing to them all. She did this by creating a holy vessel in space and time in which, for at least a while, they were lifted up, embraced, and reminded that they mattered; that their presence made a difference in the lives of others. She brought them laughter, and smiles, as well as cathartic tears.

· When the service was over, Debbie was eager to leave promptly. She said emphatically, ‘this is not about me. This is about each of them. I want them to connect with each other, not with me.’ And they did. We laughed together, cried together, celebrated together and mourned together. I made some of my first friends in this country at those services and am forever grateful to them.

Debbie’s rendering of the Mi Shebeirach is, of course, one of the singularly most transformative contemporary prayers that she gifted to us.

But that soul wisdom that she shared in all that she taught us about healing infuses another blessing that she transformed. While not yet so well known, Debbie’s rendition of the Birkat haGomel is equally transformative.

Traditionally, this is a blessing that is said upon recovering from a life-threatening illness or situation. After childbirth, after a car accident, once the cancer is in remission…

The traditional formulation consists of a statement made by the survivor who thanks God for bestowing goodness upon them, and a response by the congregation who prays that God continues to bestow such goodness.

Debbie transformed the experience and the meaning of this blessing. She did this by changing the emphasis of the blessing. While she offers us names for God that describe the things we hope and wish for – Creator of Miracles, Mercy and Life; Protector, Healer – Debbie’s prayer asks us to focus on three words, over and over again: Kol tov Selah. Kol tov – all that is good. Selah – pause and consider.

But not, in fact, to pause and consider how we were saved. That is not Debbie’s prayer. ‘Give thanks for all that is good.’

For what we have is this moment, this hour, this day.

We’ve just lived through an experience that reminded us that we might not have been present in this moment. So we have a blessing to help us to pause and to remind us, literally, to stop and smell the roses. To recognize the blessings.

When we are able to do this it helps us to banish the feelings of fear that can arise and incapacitate us. We are less likely to feel alienated and alone, and more likely to feel connected with the people around us. When we can pause and appreciate the good, even in the midst of illness or loss, we are uplifted if only for a brief moment and, in that moment, we also experience a little bit of healing.

Debbie didn’t call this blessing, Birkat haGomel.

The title that you will find in the new anthology is the one she gave it – ‘For all that is good.’

Thank you, Debbie, for teaching us. Through the Torah that poured out of your very soul you taught us how to connect, how to renew the spirit, how to recognize and appreciate the good that is before us, moment by moment, and how we can bring healing to each other.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Countdown to #Thanksgivakkah: This year's Dreidle song comes with a twist

Ok, now its your turn to get creative. With thanks to many contributors on the Hava Nashira listserv (Hava Nashira is the awesome annual event for Jewish song leaders), the Dreidle song has a Thanksgivakkah twist this year. Here are some of my favorites from the verses that were submitted (along with attributions). Please add yours via the comments section. Best contribution will receive a prize! (you are also competing with those participating on the B'nai Shalom Facebook Page

Happy Thanksgivakkah everyone!

I have a little dreidel
I made it out of clay
And when it's dry and ready
It will be Thanksgiving Day. ( Morah Arlene Isserles)

Oh Dreidle, Turkey, Dreidle,
I’m *ready* for today,
Oh Dreidle, Turkey, Dreidle,
Let’s eat and then we’ll play! (Morah Wendy Zohar)

I had a little turkey 
And then I had some more 
And later someone found me 
A-sleepin' on the floor (Fred Ross-Perry)

I have a little dreidel 
I made it out of turkey 
But I left it in the sun too long 
And now it’s turkey jerky! (Judy Caplan Ginsburg)

Oh dreidle dreidle dreidle, 
Nun, gobble, shin, and heh, 
Oh dreidle dreidle dreidle, it’s the 
Best Thanksgiving Day! (Morah Wendy Zohar)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Countdown to #Thanksgivakkah: From Israel - its all about the Chemistry

Tonight's Thanksgivakkah offering comes to you from the Technion in Haifa, Israel. They know how to mix it up just right in their Chemistry lab. Enjoy! (and click the button on the top right of the video screen at the end to see their incredible video of a Robot lighting a menorah, produced a couple of years back.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Countdown to #Thanksgivakkah: Stay connected

Not everyone fits around the Thanksgivakkah table, and not everyone is physically close enough to be together this holiday season. Then there are those who are not well enough, and others who may find themselves working to serve the needs of others on this day. But we can still stay connected. You may have left it too late to mail a card, but the Union for Reform Judaism has put together a Thanksgivakkah e-card site (and some just Hanukkah options too) so you easily send a message to someone to tell them that you are thinking of them. Check it out here!