Thursday, September 18, 2014

#BlogElul 23: You turn my mourning into dancing

Today's blog is dedicated to the memory of Mordecai Levow
my father-in-law

Yizkor on Yom Kippur is ... not about human frailty or the futility of human endeavors. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is about the power of others to affect us, about our power to affect others, about the power of the dead and the living to continue to affect each other. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is ... not simply about remembering the dead, by about attempting to effect change in our relationships with the dead and thus to effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.
(Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in the CCAR Draft machzor, forthcoming 2015, Mishkan haNefesh, Yizkor service)

I've missed a number of days of Elul to blog because my father-in-law died last Wednesday. After his funeral in Florida on Friday morning, my wife and her sister returned to sit shiva at our home in Massachusetts. What happened over those days was a reflection of how love, healing, and change are truly what the rituals of remembrance are about, and enable us to do.  For those who joined us for multiple nights of shiva, the change that occurred over those days as memories and reflections were shared was quite evident, and powerful for many.

Without sharing the specifics here, the journey we took was one that first confronted the past, and acknowledged the challenge of engaging with memory in the face of difficult relationships. Yet, with the honesty of needing to acknowledge the challenges, the blessings that emerged from those life experiences were also evident.  On the following night, more family members gathered and a broader range of perspectives and memories were shared. There were many moments of laughter. There was a release - the laughter not only lifted the weight of some of the challenging memories, but also opened up the banks of memories that were positive and powerful. And so, by the third night, new stories had been laid bare and had risen to the surface. There were words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  By the fourth night, in a beautiful, spontaneous sharing and connecting of memories and reflections connected to the words of specific prayers as we davenned (prayed) the ma'ariv (evening) service, there was a sense of completeness. We were speaking of a life lived, and memories that we carry with us, but embedded into the heart of the tefilot that were so much a part of Mordecai's being that, when advanced dementia had taken almost all else from him, davenning was the only activity that he could still do, in short bouts.

In the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, we find a version of precisely how we did our remembrances on the last night of shiva.  We are offered 7 paths, where readings, psalms and reflective texts are woven around the 7 thematic blessings of the Tefilah, or Amidah prayer, the central prayer of our Shabbat and Festival liturgy.  There is an abundance of material - many, many years worth of exploration and contemplation. There is a clear recognition that everyone remembers differently. There are ways to remember children who died too young. There is a prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. There are words to remember one who died violently. There are words to remember dearly beloved ones. And so many more.

As we return to Yizkor, year after year, we do not necessarily have to engage in the memories in the same way. With the passage of time, and the ways we remember may we, as invited by Rabbi Wenig in the reflection above, find the possibility to change our relationships with the dead, and thus effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

Monday, September 8, 2014

#BlogElul 13: Buying forgiveness on credit

Avinu Malkeinu - one of the central prayers associated with the High Holy Days. I remember a congregant in my last community commenting on how uncomfortable she felt reciting the long list of 'asks' that this prayer contains:
Avinu Malkeinu - listen to our voice!
Avinu Malkeinu - let our hands overflow with Your blessings.
Avinu Malkeinu - do not turn us away from You with nothing.
Avinu Malkeinu- listen to our voice; treat us with tender compassion.

On and on it goes - these are just a sampling of the lines. My congregant asked, 'Isn't this the ultimate act of chutzpah? What right do we have to make these demands of God?'

She had a good point. And it reminded me of a story that I once heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z'l tell. He describes a time when you would go to the General Store and you'd ask the shopkeeper behind the counter, 'Can I have a ball of string?' and the shopkeeper would go to the shelves behind the counter and bring down a ball of string. 'Can I have a yard of cloth?' 'Can I have a dozen cans of this' and 'half a dozen boxes of that'.  So it would continue, and the shopkeeper would pull down all the items on your order list and pile them on the counter. At the end he would calculate the total bill. And, embarrassed but hopeful the man would respond, 'I don't have any money to pay you, but may I take these items that I need nevertheless?!'

You can imagine how that would go in real life. But at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, we acknowledge as much in the closing line:
Avinu Malkeinu, chonainu vaaneinu, ki ein banu maasim - aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed, v'hoshieinu.
Avinu Malkeinu, Almighty and Merciful - answer us with grace, for our deeds our wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love. 
(translation from the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan haNefesh)

We ask for the response to our pleas to come as an act of grace. That's not language that we are used to associating with Judaism, but it is, in fact, very present in our liturgy and many of our teachings. Ki ein banu maasim - because there isn't anything in our deeds.  We showed up the store without any money to pay for our requests.

Here is how I translate these words into more contemporary concepts that speak to our inner lives. When I really engage in the work of the High Holy Days and look deeply at myself, there is plenty to cause me disappointment. We are often pretty harsh judges of ourselves. And here we are, in an act of chutzpah, hoping that life will be good anyway. That we will be forgiven for our failings. Can we give to others what we ask for ourselves? Can we respond to others from a place of grace? We go to the store without credit, but one of the ways we can acquire credit is by paying it forward.

Living more of life with that awareness we understand that only through acts of tzedakah and chesed can we change the meaning of our lives. Its not about what we have or haven't got. A lot of life 'just happens'; we like to think we are in control, but that's seldom the reality. So we're never going to be able to 'pay' for our fate through our deeds. Because it doesn't really work that way. Acting morally doesn't buy us more life, but it does enable us to practice and to receive forgiveness. Because it gives us the tools we need to be authentically remorseful and try to make amends when we mess up. And that is the answer, from a place of grace, that we seek.  Remind us, as we pray, that we can change the quality of our existence, and the existence of others, through our acts. This is how salvation comes to this life and this world. 
Avinu Malkeinu - our deeds are wanting; help us to do a little bit more in the year to come.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

#BlogElul 7: To be - I am alive again

When the new edition of a Reform Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals, Mishkan Tefilah, was published a few years ago, some of the changes and some of the choices embedded in the liturgy necessitated conversations in congregations about how we would pray some of the prayers.

One example was the second paragraph of the Amidah, often referred to as the ‘Gevurot’ (strength/power), for it begins with the phrase, ata gibor l’olam Adonai – Your power is eternal, Adonai. In earlier generations of Reform prayer books a change had been made to the language of this prayer as you would find it in a Conservative or Orthodox prayer book. In three instances the traditional prayer referred to God as m’chayey hameitim, literally ‘who brings the dead back to life’. For decades in Reform congregations we recited this prayer with a change in the wording, declaring m’chayey hakol – who gives life to all things. Conceptually, this didn’t rule out the idea, discussed in early rabbinic sources, that one day the dead would come back to life. But neither did it assert this doctrinal belief in the way that the traditional phrase seemed to do so definitively.

So why, when a new edition of a Siddur was created, do we now find the words ‘hameitim’ offered in brackets as an alternative choice to ‘hakol’? There were those who argued that there were allegorical ways of understanding ‘who brings the dead back to life’ and that we could use the more ancient liturgical language without having to accept a messianic doctrine of the revival of the dead. We all have times when we feel like we’ve hit a dead end. Maybe we are stuck trying to solve a problem at work, deal with a difficult family member, or so lost in grief that we cannot imagine ever experiencing the joy and blessing of life again. And yet… somehow we do. We go home and we start the next day anew, and maybe we see a solution to our problem that was beyond our grasp the day before. Perhaps we try to reach out to that family member in a different way, or perhaps something changes in their life and we unexpectedly get a message from them to indicate a desire for reconciliation. And while we have good days and bad days, perhaps a grandchild comes to visit and brings us joy in the midst of our grief, or a walk in the fields on a particularly beautiful day brings us some awareness of beauty. Each of these are experiences of m’chayey hameitim – we have had a powerful experience of a revival of life. Our ‘being’ is not only in the past tense; now we feel some hope in the potential of our future ‘being’ too.

In Mishkan haNefesh, the draft Rosh Hashanah morning liturgy presents us with a poem by the Israeli poet, Zelda, as a contemporary text facing the Gevurot passage. In this poem Zelda, in the midst of grief, reflects on how the smallest things around her can suddenly bring her back to life:

In the morning I said to myself:
Life’s magic will never come back.
It won’t come back.

All at once the sunshine in my house
is alive for me
and the table with its bread
is gold
and the cups on the table and the flower –
all gold.
And what of the sorrow?
Even in the sorrow, radiance.

The closing phrase of the blessing (chatimah, or ‘seal’) is translated: You are the Source of all blessing, the life force surging within all things.

Bringing our awareness to all that surges with that life force can open up the possibility of feeling the presence of blessing in our lives once more. It is an invitation to return to life.