Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#BlogElul 25: Why Forgiveness is the key

Last Saturday night, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at  Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation.  We watched 'Forgiveness' first.

I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person's acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions - to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone 'live rent free in my head' - it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice.  At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone's words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me.  I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks.  But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.

Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts.  While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head.  Sometimes that is as good as it gets.  I don't believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing.  It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it.  And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.

Why is it so important to forgive?  I've been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life - our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in.  There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity.  Painful memories from the past are some of the ways.  And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I'm more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I'm more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.

But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world?  How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?

Forgiveness is the key.  When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message.  Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva.  When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn't that what we want?  We want to know that person got their comeuppance.  We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave.  We want to see them fail at something.  But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else's misery?  Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done.  But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.

Forgiveness is the key.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, September 6, 2012

#BlogElul: Who is watching your back? A Healing story

Today's Elul blog entry reflects on a healing theme and is written by guest blogger Karen F Rothman, M.D., a member of Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough.

A few years ago, I saw a young woman, Susan (a pseudonym), in my office for a follow up exam. I had diagnosed an early melanoma on her skin about five years before, when she was 27. At the time, she was just about to be married. Soon after her marriage, I also diagnosed her husband with a very rare and aggressive cancer that had spread to his skin. After a short but intense battle, he succumbed to the disease. Susan came regularly for follow up exams and was physically healthy, but was understandably finding it hard to resume any semblance of a normal life.

As I examined Susan I was startled to see the Hebrew word “R’faeinu” tattooed in bold black letters onto her lower back. Susan is not Jewish, her former husband was not Jewish, and the tattoo was a new
acquisition. I thought carefully how to frame a question about the tattoo. I asked her if she knew what it meant and how she came to get that particular tattoo. She told me that she had gone to a tattoo artist. Susan told the tattoo artist that she had gone through some tough times and needed to make a dramatic change in her life in order to move forward. Susan felt that getting a tattoo would be a tangible
reminder to herself that she couldn’t remain stuck in the past. I asked her if she wanted me to tell her what the Hebrew word meant; I told her that it was only used once in the Torah. It was the word uttered by Moses when he plead with God that Miriam be healed (from leprosy). I explained that Miriam was not only Moses’ sister, but the one who found water for the wandering Hebrews, and that without her, the newly freed slaves would probably perish. Miriam was healed and the Jewish people survived. I told Susan that I couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate sentiment than artist had tattooed on her.

Susan decided to move back to her home state to be closer to her parents and the rest of her family, and I have lost contact with her. Every week that we recite a healing prayer with the word “r’faeinu”
and every year when we read Kedoshim I think of Susan. I wonder at the combination of luck, intuition, and presence of God that led the tattoo artist to come up with that particular word on that particular person, and whether the artist had any idea of how perfect the choice was. I hope that Susan is further on her road to wellness, and wish her a r’fuah shleimah, a full healing of the body and soul.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

#BlogElul 18: Igniting the Spark of Love

Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called 'Seven Sparks.'  Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, 'Positive Jewish Living.' The origins of both the book and the larger 'Positive Jewish Living' project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.
The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: 'I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.'  From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: 'I am free to love and be loved.'  She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction.  Why does God need to introduce God-self?  Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced.  God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant).  Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam).  Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love.  We also learn how to receive love.  'It's hard to feel that you are loved, if you've spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy.  It's hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism.  When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it." (Schafer, 2011).
At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called 'Ignite!'  How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives?  These are her suggestions.  How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:
For yourself:
  • I love myself.
  • I have immense potential to grow.
  • I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
  • I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.
For your family:
  • I express love generously and often.
  • I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
  • I give without expecting anything in return.
At work:
  • I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
  • I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
  • I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.
At your Congregation:
  • We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
  • We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
  • We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.