Friday, August 31, 2012

#BlogElul 13: Breaking through my excuses

When I've had a difficult interaction with someone, what are the kinds of excuses I come up with to avoid dealing with the unfinished business?

  • They need time to cool off before we can have a fruitful conversation.
  • I need time to cool off before we can have a fruitful conversation.
  • This always happens when we try and have this conversation - I should just avoid further conversation.
  • I don't know exactly how this will end, and if I can't predict how the conversation will go, maybe I shouldn't go there.
  • I've overthought where this conversation will go, and I don't want to go there.  So my imaginary outcome to this next exchange is stopping me from having the conversation.

Perhaps you have further excuses you can add to this list.  These are some of mine.  In areas of my life where I'm not always proud of my words or actions, I look to those that I can learn from, inspired by their example.  When it comes to getting beyond the excuses I have for following up on difficult conversations, my spouse is one of my greatest inspirations.

She doesn't like to leave things hanging.  Knowing that someone is upset with her, she seeks to heal the rift sooner rather than later.  She seeks to have a respectful conversation to understand differences of opinion, or how words or acts that were intended one way were received another.  And she is dedicated to honesty in the midst of the exchange.

We all have angels in our lives.  Angels are melachim - messengers - in Hebrew.  We all have people who deliver important messages that we need to hear at crucial moments in our lives.  Sometimes its someone we've never met before and may never meet again.  But one interaction can teach or inspire us.  Sometimes its someone who is a constant and important part of our lives.  And they teach us how to deal with the difficult challenges in our lives, and how to overcome some of our most-repeated limitations.

So what are your excuses?  And who inspires you or teaches you, encouraging you to move beyond them by their example?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#BlogElul 11: Why won't you change?!

We all have certain people and certain kinds of things that 'push our buttons'.  I certainly do.  I was just reminded last night about a particular pattern of behavior that I've observed over and over again from certain individuals that is hurtful to others.  I found myself infuriated.  In the heat of the moment, my buttons are pushed, and I feel the anger rising.

On the one hand, this is natural, human behavior.  When you see people that you love being hurt, you want to protect them from that hurt.  On the other hand, when individuals who are part of your world - family, co-workers, neighbors, etc. continue to exhibit annoying or thoughtless behavior even after you've taken thoughtful steps to try and bring the effects of their behavior to their attention, yet they show no sign of change... what next?

The 'easier' option may be to minimize one's interactions.  But that may not always be possible.  Another path may be to continue to inform the other of the way you are experiencing their actions or words.  In unequal power relations (e.g. an employee and a boss), that may not always feel like a viable course of action either.  Of course, if the behavior is truly abusive, it may well be necessary to remove yourself from the situation by leaving - something that takes courage but which, ultimately, can be enormously freeing and healing.

What else can you do?  We have no ability to make someone else change.  We can only truly take charge of making change within ourselves.  And so, perhaps we can change our response?  Perhaps, when we notice the anger rising we can take a step back and laugh, saying, 'look at them doing that ridiculous thing that they always do!'  Perhaps instead of anger, we can learn to nurture compassion in our response, 'I feel so sorry that they so lack the awareness to understand how their behavior makes them look in the eyes of others.  That must be so isolating for them.'

The ability to turn the experience in this way helps to get us a little closer to the next step ... forgiveness.  It is hard to forgive if we truly believe that someone is intentionally hurting us again and again.  And, if that is indeed what is going on, perhaps its not the time to explore forgiveness until we've been able to create more distance.  But if someone seems to exhibit the same behaviors over and over, and seems incapable of change, perhaps we can find our way to forgive what they do out of ignorance and limitation.

Change is hard.  Self-awareness is a necessary component of making change in our own lives.  Finding ways to let go of our frustrations when others have not changed, we can take the opportunity to look within and find the places in our own lives where change is hard for us.  If our awareness of how the lack of change in another makes us feel can inspire us to take up the challenge of making the changes necessary in our own lives, perhaps they've given us a gift after all?
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

#BlogElul week 2: Sharing Inspirational postings

This past Shabbat, reflecting upon the arrival of Elul with my congregation, I mentioned that I would use my own blog to share some of the other contributions to #BlogElul that have been inspiring me.  First, a brief excerpt from my sermon, where I offered some thoughts on what this month of preparation is all about.  After all, the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur feel intense enough to many of us... what purpose does thinking about this entire month as 'preparation' time serve?

Rabbi Alan Lew, z'l, wrote a book, ‘This is Real and You are CompletelyUnprepared’.  He’s talking about our souls.  We may think we are prepared – prepared for work, for the week ahead, for the weekend.  We may prepare ourselves for life by studying hard, learning a trade, earning a living, participating in family life or community life.  But soul preparation is a different thing.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we have something to fall back upon in a moments of crisis.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when the words that come out of our mouths in the heat of the moment are the same as the ones we would say if we had time to reflect first.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we are able to articulate what we believe and why.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we can make ‘big talk’ and not just ‘small talk’ in our interactions with other people.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we’ve made choices about how we structure our day such that we have space for something that nourishes the spirit – taking a walk, a swim, meditating, yoga, quiet reading time…
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we can find the spark of holiness in the midst of the messiness of everyday life.
  • We know that we’ve prepared our souls when we feel a sense of inner peace and wholeness.  If this day were to be our last (the big question that, with courage, is the question to explore on Yom Kippur), could we find that place of inner peace?
I don’t think that there is anyone in this room, myself included, who can answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions.  Spiritual preparedness takes practice.

I sang an excerpt from Psalm 27, traditionally recited during this month.  The Institute for Jewish Spirituality shared a beautiful, interpretative rendition to this psalm written by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg.  You can find, at along with several other wonderful sources to guide spiritual practice and introspection this month here.

There have been many wonderful contributions to the #BlogElul project this past week.  If you are not a twitter user and haven't been keeping track of multiple blogs, it can be hard to track them all down.  Here are just a few of my favorites as a sample to introduce you to the writings of some of the other contributors.

The Musings of Rabbi Eric Linder (one of my fellow graduates from HUC-NY, 2006!)

Kol Isha: Reform women rabbis speak out! - a wonderful, new blog, featuring a different woman rabbi each day - many have been posting on #BlogElul themes.

A Good Question - the blog of Rabbi Yair Robinson

#BlogElul via the movies - a novel window to look at some Elul themes, from Rabbi Mark Kaiserman

I hope you find some of these intriguing and inspiring.
Below is a review of the themes of each day of the month (we're up to day 10!).  If you don't have a blog of your own, but would like to have a go at writing a reflection on one of the day's themes, email it to me and I'll post yours here on this blog in the coming days.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Saturday, August 25, 2012

#BlogElul 7: Shofar - the cry of compassion

One of the midrashim that seeks to explain the origins of the different calls on the Shofar that we sound out each Rosh Hashanah has had the most impact on my understanding of teshuvah and the call to action signified by the Shofar blasts.  It tells us that the shofar calls were modeled on the sound of Sisera's mother, wailing while she waited at the window for his return from battle.

Who was Sisera and who was his mother?

In the story of Devorah, the Judge, Sisera is the enemy.  He is the General that Devorah and her army general, Barak, are out to defeat.  There is a poignant line toward the end of the story, when we are told that Sisera's mother waits at her window for his return.  It is poignant because we, the reader, know that he has been defeated and has fled.  But his end is gruesome.  A woman, Yael, encourages him to rest in her tent.  She feeds him and gives him drink and, when he is asleep, she cuts off his head.

'Hurrah! The enemy is defeated!' might be our response.  But then we find a rabbinic midrash that suggests that the sounds of the Shofar, that most emblematic of sounds for the High Holydays, remind us of the cries of Sisera's mother.

In the midst of our season of return, when we are seeking forgiveness, when we are asked to find it in our hearts to forgive others, we struggle with our desire for justice in our world and the world's need for compassion.  That, after all, is the moral of the story of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur.  If we are all Jonahs then cities will be destroyed and who could stand in judgment?  But if we are in the image of God, we respond with compassion, particularly when we see remorse in the words or actions of another.

The sound of the Shofar reminds us that even those that we regard as our enemies... even those who we regard as evil and have committed the worst atrocities - they have a mother.  And that mother cries out in sorrow when harm comes to them.

Framing our world in this way, I have found myself able to be less angry at wrong-doing in the world, and, instead, feel the emotions of deep sadness.  It doesn't make me any less desiring to act in ways that might help make this world a little better.  But instead of running in with sword unleashed, angrily battling the world of injustice, the sound of the Shofar asks me to see the world with greater empathy.  It calls me to unleash a little more love and compassion in the ways that I seek to make a difference.

And I can thank Sisera's mother for reminding me of these valuable lessons.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, August 23, 2012

#BlogElul 5 & 6: How great is Your trust in me

I'm taking two of the #BlogElul themes and putting them in one for this blog - Trust and Faith.  In Hebrew, there is one word that can capture aspects of both of these english words - Emunah.  There is another word in Hebrew, bitachon, that can also convey 'trust', and sometimes bitachon and emunah get used interchangeably.  But in rabbinic literature, emunah is often the word that conveys both meanings.

When we awake in the morning, the traditional blessing that is recited upon noticing that we have regained consciousness is Modeh (Modah for women) Ani lefanecha, Melech Chai v'kayam, she'he'chezarta bi nishmati b'chemla rabah emunatecha: Thankful am I before You, Living and Eternal Sovereign.  You have returned my soul to me in mercy.  How great is your trust/faith in me!

The idea of waking with this blessing goes back to Talmudic times and is derived from verses in Lamentations (3:22-23) that rabbis interpreted to mean that Creation is renewed every day.  Our souls are safeguarded in God's hands, metaphorically speaking, while we sleep and, when we awake, it is God who has restored our souls.

When I pray these words, I often focus more on the first phrase - Thankful am I before You... There is so much to contemplate in these few words.  A story is told of a Hassidic master, the Apter Rebbe, who had not started his morning prayers, yet it was now noon.  He explained that he had awoken and begun to recite modeh ani,  but began to wonder, 'Who am I?', and 'Who is the You before Whom I am I?'  Still pondering these questions, he had been unable to go forward. (in 'A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, p. 5).

Focusing on the first part of the prayer can invoke a sense of awe if, like the Apter Rebbe, one truly begins to think about the essence of the 'I' and what we understand to be the 'Thou'.

But the last part of the prayer is where we find the word, emunah, and the emphasis is quite different.  How great is Your faith.  Does God need faith? Surely not.  But on days when we might not feel like opening our eyes, on days when we might not be looking forward to the tasks that lie ahead, on days when we feel loss, pain, loneliness... uttering the words of Modeh Ani can remind us that each day is created anew.  We have been given the gift of today.  What shall we do with it?  When we are lacking faith in our own strength, our own abilities, or our own will to get ourselves up and out of bed, we remind ourselves that God has faith in us.  Its God's little daily pep talk with us.

Here faith and trust are interconnected in one Hebrew word - emunah.  God has faith in us.  Our soul has been entrusted to us for one more day so that we may do something remarkable with it.  And God believes in our capacity to do just that.  God trusts that we will use this day wisely.  Rabah emunatecha, we say - Great is your faith/trust.  Why so great?  Because perhaps we didn't use the gift we were given so wisely yesterday.  Perhaps we didn't do all that we could have with our time.  But great is God's faith that we may still live up to our full potential.  Preparing for Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to consider how we are using each gift - each day.  We are called upon to have the faith to believe that more is possible.  We are called upon to trust and believe that we can raise ourselves higher.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#BlogElul 4: Catching myself counting

Today's #BlogElul theme is counting.  Round about now, there are parents everywhere counting down to the start of the school year.  For some, they are counting down to their kids being back in a regular schedule - they can stop worrying about how to keep them occupied in the wide expanse of Summer.  For some, they are counting down to the end of the delicious, extended time they are able to have with their children in a qualitatively different way to the rest of the year.  For most, its probably a combination of the two, depending on the day and the hour, and how adorable (or not) our kids are being.

Poet and writer, Merle Feld, has a powerful poem in her book, 'A Spiritual Life' that describes a mother looking through the window at her child, worrying about her wellbeing.  She reflects on the years she spent watching and worrying, never just looking out the window to take in the pleasure of watching her child at play.

I've recently been through (admittedly, am still going through) a transition of my own.  I left my position as the Associate Rabbi of one congregation to begin as the Senior Rabbi of another.  The last month in my last post was both a counting down of the precious days I had left there, in a community that I loved, and a counting down to beginning a new and exciting phase of life in  a community that I was looking forward to getting to know.  On days when I felt myself consciously counting, I realized that this act was a way of managing my emotions and the mix of excitement and anxieties that come with making significant changes in one's life.  But, in the moments that I stopped counting and, instead, was just 'being', I experienced a much more complex and richer array of emotions.  I allowed myself to feel all that was happening for me, my spouse, and the communities that I was a part (or soon to be a part) of.  These emotions could sometimes feel overwhelming, but it was at these times that I was most present to what was happening, moment by moment.

I've noticed in other contexts too, that counting often appears to be a substitute for just being present.  Like the mother in Merle Feld's poem, worrying about things that may not be real, counting the passing of days and years, but missing out on the sheer pleasure of play by simply being present to her child in the moment.

We can count our days, or we can learn to make each day count.  And they are very different things.  What choice will you make today?

Monday, August 20, 2012

#BlogElul 3: The intentions of the 'other'

If you've been following along since last week's blog posting, you'll know that I'm blogging throughout the Jewish month of Elul on daily themes created by my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer.  If you use Twitter, you'll be able to see many posts by many bloggers on the daily theme by following #BlogElul.
Today's theme is Intentions.

Yesterday's post was about inventories.  As I reflected on taking stock of our own character trait inventories, I used judgment as an example. I'm aware that this is a character trait that I've worked on over a period of years.  While I am always going to be 'a work in progress', I know that I've been able to adjust how this particular trait plays out in my own life.  Today's theme - Intentions - has a lot to do with how I've been able to make some progress in this area.

In any given day, we experience effects caused by the words and actions of many other people. If we are able to be truly mindful about what is happening, we might be able to clearly identify the act.  We might also be able to clearly identify how we are feeling.  But, for most of us, we rarely possess such clarity.  Rather, somebody does or says something, it invokes a feeling in us, and we then construct a whole story about it.  And this is what gets us into trouble.

Let me provide an example.  Someone ignores you when you are waiting for attention in a store.  Or cuts in front of you in a line or on the highway.  Our judgmental voice - the one that rings out with a righteous sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, steps in. Our ego is bruised.  'Why do they think they are more important than me that they need to go first and ignore my needs?' 'What a selfish person to think that they don't need to wait patiently like the rest of us.'  'Doesn't that driver realize the enormous harm they could cause if I hadn't noticed them and put my foot on the brake - how reckless and irresponsible!'

But the truth is, while we may have been unfortunate enough to interact with an individual who thinks and behaves in these ways, there are many other possible stories we could tell.  'That shop attendant needs me to gently turn their attention my way; they are lost in thought because they are worried about their ailing mother in the hospital.'  'That driver just received a call that their kid got hit by the ball in lacrosse and was taken to the emergency room - they are getting there as quickly as they can.'

Notice how these completely different stories transform your emotional response to the very same set of circumstances.  In mindfulness practice, being aware of what is real and what is the story we tell ourselves about our experience of that reality is one of the gifts we can receive from meditation.  In Buddhist meditation, 'Suffering' is understood as a psycho-spiritual condition we often inflict upon ourselves by remaining attached to stories that may or may not be accurate, and serve no useful purpose as we try to live our best lives.

So learning that I cannot assume the intentions of the other can release me from a lot of the hurt that I might be feeling.  If I have a difficult interaction with someone, finding a way to enquire about their intentions can be the opening to a conversation.  Perhaps I will just listen and gain a new insight into the essence of another.  Or perhaps I will feel a need to explain to them that, while they may have intended one thing, I experienced it in another way.  It may be important that they gain some awareness of my responses to certain things.  We come to better know each other and, perhaps, to act with more consciousness and sensitivity to each other's needs.  And, as I come to realize that the intentions of the 'other' may not be what I first assumed to be so, I may gain greater awareness of the ways in which my own intentions can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others.  Learning this about ourselves and about others can help us to lessen the voice of judgment and strengthen the voice of compassion within us.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, August 19, 2012

#BlogElul 2: Soul Trait Inventories
In the last few years, the Jewish spiritual practice of Musar has made something of a resurgence among  Jews from many different walks of life.  Perhaps Alan Morinis can be most identified with making what was once primarily under the purview of observant, Jewish males into something accessible that speaks to a much wider audience.  But others, such as Ira Stone, also have written extensively on Musar and, similarly to Morinis, offer online courses and communities of practice for those who wish to engage more deeply.

The link above provides a more detailed explanation of the history and practice of Musar.  But one key element is the identification of separate (although often inter-dependent) character traits that one can examine over time, through study with others, and with self-observation and journaling as one takes a designated period of time (usually at least a month) to become aware of how this particular characteristic reveals itself in your own life.  You might be looking at the trait of judgment.  Or trust.  Or, perhaps, compassion.

In Musar, there is a recognition that there is not one right way to exercise each of these traits.  The practice is one of paying attention to how it manifests in your own life now in comparison to how you might believe it should manifest if you were able to raise your spiritual life to a higher level.  As part of the practice, one of the most important elements of one's self-awareness is to recognize the 'Bechirah' - the choosing points when examining how a particular trait exhibits itself in your life.

So, for example, there may be many kinds of interactions where I feel good about my ability to be non-judgmental.  But that is not where I need to do my deepest spiritual work.  It is the kinds of interactions where I hear the judgmental voice in me rising sharply... if I can notice what specifically flips that switch in me, I can then begin to really examine and understand where my judgment comes from.  The goal is not to arrive at a completely relativist world where I never judge anyone or anything.  But perhaps I realize that I can sometimes be harsh.  Or sometimes I rule out people or options too quickly when they deserved deeper consideration.  And so, over time, I can choose to work on rebalancing this particular soul trait in my own life.  And how that looks for me, may be different to how it looks to you.  You may be someone who seldom judges.  And this may manifest in ways that sometimes has people taking advantage of you and manipulating you.  Your soul trait work on this trait may see you rebalancing in a different direction, and becoming a little more judgmental in certain contexts.

When we talk of Elul as a month to take stock, to turn, to reflect.... its not just about counting up 'sins' and telling ourselves that we'll try and do better next year.  There are many spiritual practices and tools that we can draw upon from the well of Jewish wisdom.  They can guide us in a deeper way so that, when we return to Rosh Hashanah a year from now, we may notice that we've not just circled a year, but that we've spiraled a year, and we've ended up a little higher along the path than the year before.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

#BlogElul 1: Navigating the landscapes of life

'He took a turn for the worse'
'She turned her life around'
'They turned our lives upside down'
'I needed some quiet time to turn inward' ...

There are many ways that we use the language of turning, of changing direction, to refer to what is happening in our lives.  The language implies that there is a path on which we are headed, or a direction in which we are pointing.

Sometimes events happen that cause us to be rerouted in an unplanned for, unexpected direction.  We have to take stock of our new surroundings and figure out how we will live in the new reality.

Sometimes we've made choices that impact our lives and the lives of others, taking us on paths that do not serve us well, or are likely to lead us to ever-darker destinations if we do not take action and intentionally change course.

What does it mean, then, to speak of 'turning' or 'returning' as we enter the month of Elul, the four weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah? A kind of conscious upgrade of the maps in our internal GPS (God Positioning System), we are invited to find time and pause long enough in the midst of our hectic lives to look around and take stock of our current landscape; to pinpoint where we are and on what road we appear to be heading.

While self-awareness, mindful practice, and ethical decision-making are a part of each and every day, its hard in the midst of that everyday to see the big picture and make an honest assessment of the choices we are making that, together, point to the direction we are headed.  And so, once a year, we unfold the large-scale map and, in this larger context, can start to look at where we really are.

To turn might be to realize that we left the highway to explore an intriguing side-road, but now we realize that its just a dead end.

To turn might be to notice that we've only ever stayed on the main highways our entire life, and now its time to explore some of the back roads so that we can truly come to know ourselves.

To turn might be to look back at some previous destination, when we were at our happiest and our lives  seemed most in balance; our relationships were at their best.  We realize that we want to make a U-turn and try to return to that place.

To turn might be to simply choose a different point of perspective from which to examine our current landscape.  Perhaps we didn't choose to be here, and we've been struggling with our new location.  Perhaps we've only looked at it from the depth of the valley.  If we can begin to accept that we've been left stranded here without a vehicle for a while, we might realize that if we could walk our way up to the top of the hill, we'll get a different view, and our ability to live in our new surroundings may improve.

Now is the time for turning.  Take a look.  What do you see?  Where are you? Where are you heading? Now is the time for choosing.  Choose your path.  Be conscious of your direction.  Choose your perspective.  And return to the best life that you can be living today.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How do communities of faith respond to gun violence?

Images from Oak Creek, Wisconsin
This sermon was delivered at Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA on Friday August 10th.

What happens when the 24 hour news cycle brings our attention to two mass murders involving guns in the space of two weeks?

And what role does a synagogue community have in responding to these horrific events?

Depending on what Cable channels you are in the habit of tuning into, you may find yourself witness to a response that goes on the offensive – either for or against gun control. ‘Why is it legal for ordinary citizens to own guns that can fire off multiple rounds in a matter of seconds?’ sums up one side of the argument. ‘If someone else in the room had been carrying a gun, the crazy guy could have been taken out before he killed more people,’ sums up the other side of the argument. And there we find ourselves; choose one side or the other, and then shout down whichever perspective isn’t yours.

As to the second question, communities of faith can respond in many ways:

- We can first reaffirm our commitment to deeply care about the welfare of others. We can pray for all those who are hurting and mourning. If something happens close to home, we can show up because that’s how we express love for our neighbor. If we hear of other concrete requests that enable to reach out to communities suffering from these traumas, we can respond. To that end, during the oneg you will find a card on a table in the Oneg room tonight. I invite you to write a message on the card, or on the sheets of paper next to the card that will be included inside, which we will mail to the Oak Creek Sikh community in Wisconsin to express our condolences, prayers, and support.

- We can join together as a community for a moment of reflection and prayer – jointly expressing our emotions when we hear of these terrible acts. This we will do in a few minutes, with a prayer written by Rabbi Naomi Levy in response to the terror shooting at the Sikh Temple.

- Events like this always give us pause for thought as a minority faith community. We remember too well a time when synagogues were the targets for these hate crimes. We remain alert because we know that these times are not completely behind us. Additionally, Jewish organizations with expertise around issues of security and awareness have been offering their assistance to Muslim and Sikh communities.

- We can rededicate ourselves to building bridges with our brothers and sisters of faith. We will look for and create opportunities in this coming year and beyond to bring together our community with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others because, when we overcome ignorance, indifference, and unfamiliarity, we build understanding, respect, and strengthen all of our faith communities in the process. Our 7th and 8th graders will be invited later in the year to participate in the STOP program – an incredible opportunity that has been running for a few years now to visit many different places of worship and meet other young people of faith. If you have a child in those grades I hope you will encourage them to take this opportunity when it comes. Our Brotherhood received a small community grant to create a collaborative interfaith program, and I look forward to working with them to make it a reality. And our Social Action team are dedicated to finding interfaith opportunities to work together in the local community. If you are already involved in an activity that might fit the bill, please tell me or our Social Action chair, Jeff Govendo, about it so that we can help spread the word and find others in the congregation who may wish to join you in your efforts. For my part, I look forward to attending and meeting the clergy in the local Interfaith clergy association when they re-gather in the Fall.

- And what about the public debate? Is it possible to talk with each other in the context of a faith-based approach to the principles and values at stake in a way that doesn’t simply echo the narratives heard on MSNBC or Fox news? I’d like to think there is. One of things that I believe strongly is that, while we can always find Jewish ethical values to inform our conversation, it’s much harder to translate some of those values into specific policy in contemporary America. It is possible, but we have to recognize and admit that it is seldom black and white.

So, for example, one of the absolute highest values in Judaism is the value of ‘to save a life is to save a world.’ Any action we can take that may lead to the preservation of life trumps almost any other action. And so, for example, an observant Jew can break the laws of Shabbat to rush someone to the hospital. Organ transplants are now halachically permitted by most authorities because they save lives. But, there are exceptions. If you are held at gunpoint and told that you can save 6 people by picking up a gun and killing 1 person randomly from the group, you may not do so. You may not murder. This may defy your sense of what you might think was the better choice, but you are not permitted to make one life less valuable than any other. So even the value of ‘to save a life is to save the world’ isn’t entirely black and white.

How might this value be applied to the conversation about gun control? One could argue that if more people carried guns, they would be able to potentially save many lives by killing someone who opens fire on a crowded room. That is the argument that proponents of gun rights make. I see it a little differently. I am concerned that a whole load of people carrying guns, with varying levels of skill and training, may inadvertently cause a lot more physical harm, including deaths, in such a scenario. It would also seem to me that if we applied ‘to save a life is to save a world’ to the current debate at hand, we should be investigating some restrictions on guns that were designed to fire off a large number of rounds between reloads. It would seem to me that keeping these kinds of guns out of the hands of ordinary civilians would be in keeping with this highest of Jewish values. We can have the debate about how that conforms with American constitutional rights, but that is not the same thing as looking at the Jewish ethical perspective.

This has been how the Reform movement has historically understood this value to apply to the contemporary scene, and its one of the main reasons that the Religious Action Center has advocated strongly for stricter controls over the most dangerous kinds of guns.

There may be some in the room who draw different conclusions. It is not my job as your Rabbi to tell you what US laws are right or wrong, good or bad. But it is my job to raise up and present Jewish values that have informed our faith tradition as I understand them. And this is how I understand the rabbinic statement, ‘to save a life is to save the world.’

But let me conclude by returning to the reaching out we can and must do to those who have lost and suffered. I end with this prayer:

This prayer was written to recite for the victims and survivors of the Aug. 5 shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, wrote the prayer on behalf of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which distributed it to congregations around the world.

Let Us Stand Up Together (נעמדה יחד)
–From our Haftarah this Shabbat, the second Haftarah of comfort (Isaiah 50:8), by Rabbi Naomi Levy

We stand together in grief
For the innocent victims
Of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Who perished in their house of prayer.
May their memories be a blessing,
May their lights shine brightly on us.

We stand together in mourning
For broken hearts,
The senseless loss, the shock, the emptiness.

We stand together in outrage,
Weary of this war-torn hate-filled world.
And together we pray:

Send comfort, God, to grieving families,
Hear their cries.
Fill them with the courage
To carry on in the face of this tragic loss.
Send healing to the wounded,
Lift them up, ease their pain,
Restore them to strength, to hope, to life.
Gather the sacred souls of the slaughtered
Into Your eternal shelter,
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Work through us, God,
Show us how to help.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning,
Open our arms so we can extend our hands,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Let us stand up together
Our young and our old,
All races and faiths,
All people and nations.
Rise up above hatred
And cruelty and indifference.
Let us live up to our goodness
Let us learn from this tragedy
Let us walk together
Filled with hope
On a path of peace, Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Returning on August 19th - Elul begins

A week from today we arrive at Rosh Chodesh Elul - the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Elul. This is the month that leads up to Rosh Hashanah.  The Jewish New Year has a very different flavor to the secular New Year with its party hats, champagne and poppers.  The Jewish New Year in an invitation to reflect, turn and return, realigning ourselves with a spiritual center that is our God-given holy spark.  When we are paying attention, this is the spark that lights the path and helps us find our way through life, being the highest of what we have the potential to be.

For Rosh Hashanah to be a meaningful holiday, we need to prepare.  Elul provides a month of reflective preparation time.  In our modern age, there are many tools and guides available to us that enable us to set aside a little time each day for this reflective work of soul preparation.  One of my colleagues, Rabbi Phylis Sommer, has again suggested a theme a day for #BlogElul and #Elulgram, and I'll be participating by blogging here on her listed themes.  The '#' tells you that the various bloggers who join her can be easily found on Twitter if you search for #BlogElul - we'll all be posting links to our blogs that way.  If you follow me on Facebook, you'll also see the Elul postings there.  And, of course, you can sign up on the right side of this blog to receive an email in your inbox whenever I've posted a new blog piece.  An #Elulgram is a photo posted on Twitter, offering a visual interpretation of the day's theme.

While you may let some of us provide a guide through the month of Elul by reading some of these postings, anyone can contribute.  If you have a blog, try writing some of your own reflections.  Or, use the comments box on my blog to add your own thoughts on the day's theme, on the days that I post.  I don't usually manage to post every day of Elul, but about once a week I'll post my personal selection of the 'best of' #BlogElul with links to some of the pieces by others that I have found most thought-provoking in my own preparations for the High Holydays.