Please Rain on our Parade

I’m not a fan of the angry Old Testament God.

Obey my commands or suffer the consequences. Light a fire on the Sabbath Day and be put to death. Commit utter genocide on the enemy tribe of Amalek—kill all men, women, and children.

There’s a reason why the religion we follow is generally regarded as “Rabbinic Judaism” rather than “Biblical Judaism.” The events of the Bible and the laws that are given needed to be put into a more user-friendly context. One classic example is from a passage we read from the Torah not too long ago—what to do with a rebellious and disrespectful child. The Torah tells us that the parents should publicly declare that they’ve had it up to here with this kid, and he won’t listen to anything they tell him. They bring him out to the public square where he’s promptly stoned to death. (Yeah, ok, sure, we’ve all thought about it, but….)

The rabbis who came later put a reasonable spin on that—they basically put so many additional requirements on the scenario that it could never realistically be carried out. They understood that it was the underlying message—that of honoring your parents—which was important and not the conditions by which we could eliminate our children.

This is the challenge of the modern Jew—how do you take a seemingly archaic or anachronistic text or law, and make it relevant and meaningful for modern life?

One example for me is the middle paragraph of the Shema, a familiar litany of reward and punishment. Obey each thing I tell you, God says, and you’ll have everything you need. Rain in its season. I’ll let you live. But if you disobey me…the heavens will dry up, no more rain, your crops will die and your animals will perish. You’ll soon disappear from the land forever. Nice. Lovely.

But underneath the ancient and disturbing theology lies a modern, twenty-first century message on global warming and how we treat the environment. We do depend on rain in its season—the proper amount at the right time. For that to happen, we have to be responsible about our actions and what effect they will have on us, whether it’s immediate or down the road a hundred or so years.

That message is all the more powerful this week as we prepare to celebrate the festival of Shemini Atzeret—yes, that’s a real holiday and no, I didn’t just make it up so I could cancel your kid’s bar mitzvah lesson. During services on this day, we recite Tefilat Geshem, the Prayer for Rain—linking the festival to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. But we up the ante by invoking the recently passed High Holidays. Traditionally, the cantor pulls out his or her just-put-away white robe, and the entire service looks and feels like Yom Kippur all over again. The implication is that rain—having enough water to drink and to grow crops and feed animals—is literally a life-or-death matter.

Whether you believe that God sits in Old Testament judgment over us and doles out the moisture accordingly, or if we ourselves have the power to evaluate our actions and how they impact the environment, we acknowledge the fragility of our world and the effect that our climate holds over our lives. The Prayer for Rain is one reminder that our decisions today will certainly affect future generations.

 

 

Think Fast!

I’m still trying to figure out how a holiday like Yom Kippur made it past quality control.

It started out simply enough—let’s have one day on the Jewish calendar dedicated to atonement for all of the previous year’s misdeeds and transgressions. Since it needed to convey a sense of gravitas, the Torah decreed that on this day, Jews would need to “afflict their souls.”

That could have taken many forms—I feel afflicted if I turn on Fox News—but things soon took an unexpected turn. Apparently, some sadistic rabbis got together and decided that afflicting our souls meant no eating or drinking for the duration of the holiday. You gotta hand it to those guys—they knew how to hit the Jews where it counted.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and I wonder if we’ve lost the point of fasting on Yom Kippur.

Rather than an important facet of Yom Kippur, the fast itself has become the objective of the day. It’s interesting that among North American Jews, there are three rituals throughout the year that are widely observed, irrespective of level of observance or synagogue affiliation: having or attending a Passover Seder, lighting Chanukah candles, and yes, fasting on Yom Kippur. There is a perception that if you simply make it through the 25 or so hours without eating or drinking, you’ve accomplished the goal of Yom Kippur.

Fasting takes up most of what we discuss on Yom Kippur—who can bravely make it through and who will fail miserably by having to eat something. And kids—who should not be fasting at all—often try to see how long they can go without food. More seriously, there are elderly people who insist on fasting and skipping necessary nutrition and medication.

Leading up to this day, we commonly wish each other “an easy fast.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to hope for a grueling and gut-wrenching fast? After all, this is the way that we’re supposed to afflict our souls. Put another way—if there was a pill that you could take just before Yom Kippur that would prevent you from ever becoming hungry or thirsty over the course of the following day, would you take it? Why bother fasting at all if you’re hoping to have an easy time of it?

Because of this apparent disconnect between the act of fasting and the actual theme of Yom Kippur, some people have instead begun to wish each other “a meaningful fast.” But I think an even better goal is to have “a useful fast.”

Seen in this light, fasting is merely one of the tools that we have in order to fulfill the act of atonement and change. When we fast, a few things happen:

First, we decide for one day that we’re not going to concern ourselves with mundane subjects like what’s in the fridge and figuring out what we’re having for lunch. We don’t need to look at the clock and worry that we won’t get home from temple in time to eat. For one day, there’s something even more important that we have to take care of.

Next, we express the seriousness of our intent to engage in self-reflection and atonement. We literally put our words of prayer where our mouths are, causing ourselves some mild physical discomfort (and if it’s any more than that, then you should not be fasting).

But maybe most importantly, fasting is an act of empathy. It’s humbling. In a time and place where none of us ever go without food, there’s one day a year when we go to bed hungry, forcing ourselves to realize that this is the constant reality for so many adults and children. We know that if we just stick it out, we’ll soon be able to break the fast (usually by eating an entire day’s worth of food in one hour), a luxury not shared by so many unfortunate people.

So for this Yom Kippur, I wish all those who choose to go without food, whether it’s for one meal or the entire duration of the holiday, a useful fast. Let it move you out of your comfort zone, a wish expressed more than 2500 years ago by the prophet Isaiah, who had no problem calling out the hypocrisy of fasting if it didn’t lead to further action:

Is this the kind of fast I desire?
A day of merely depriving one’s body?

Is not the fast that I desire
the unlocking of the chains of wickedness,
the loosening of exploitation,
the freeing of all those oppressed, 
the breaking of the yoke of servitude?
Is it not the sharing of your bread with the hungry,
the bringing of the wretched poor into your home,
or clothing someone you see who is naked,
and not hiding from your kin in their need?

Whether literally doing without food and drink, or as a metaphor for positive change as Isaiah suggests, may you have a useful fast.

 

 

Not Who Shall Live, but How Will You Live?

Ever wonder what we’re thinking about up there on the bimah during High Holiday services?

Hint: At any given moment, it’s probably not repentance, the majestic music, glorious liturgy, and themes of God’s sovereignty.

During services, we’re likely to be distracted with a multitude of various items, like who has the honor to open the ark (and if they’ll make it up to the bimah in time), if the huge crowd is starting to get a little noisy (including fussy babies and a few cell phones), if the custodial staff remembered to set the thermostat sufficiently low to accommodate the thousand or so bodies in the room, remembering which pages that I like to sing versus the points in the service when the Rabbi would like to pause to provide further explanation, and so many more details that are involved in the annual immense undertaking of High Holiday services.

So unlike at most other services during the year, I feel fortunate if I can manage to get myself into the “zone” and really connect with the words of the liturgy. But even with everything else going on, there’s one well-known text which never fails to speak to me. As I chant the words of Unetaneh Tokef, everything around me fades and I focus exclusively on the powerful, and yes, disturbing message of this prayer.

This text contains the familiar passage “Who shall live and who shall die,” and on the surface, gives us the iconic image of God (hopefully) inscribing our names in the Book of Life for the coming year.

But is that really what we believe? Is this the theology to which the Jewish people subscribe?

A literal reading of Unetaneh Tokef tells us that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who among us will live or die over the next year. It’s a done deal. Decided. Set. Pre-ordained. But that seems to directly contradict the very purpose of our sitting in shul over the High Holidays—if our survival over the next year is a fait accompli, what possible reason is there to pursue teshuvah, evaluate our behavior, and seek to make better choices? Even the ending line of the prayer tells us, “But teshuvah, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.” How exactly can that happen if our fate for the next year is not just written, but is in fact already sealed?

Clearly, we need to understand this provocative text differently. I view it as a statement of our own mortality. While I lead this prayer, I am able to stand at my podium on the bimah and look out upon the entire congregation. There are often many congregants that unfortunately passed away over the year, and are no longer present. And even more heartbreaking is to realize that there are friends and neighbors I see at that moment who will not be there next year. Our lives are fragile—it goes more deeply than “Who shall live and who shall die.” In fact, these words repeatedly drive home how vulnerable we really are. For instance, during the litany of unfortunate outcomes, when we read “who by fire and who by water,” how can we not immediately think of the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes and those who perished in flood waters?

We can’t do any better on the High Holidays than to recognize the precariousness of our lives, and pledge to treat others with thoughtfulness and caring. May the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to each other, and to fulfill the mandate of Tikkun Olam¸ fixing the world around us.

Repent Now!

Shortly before the High Holidays a number of years ago, I was teaching my 6th grade Hebrew school class about teshuvah—repentance. Everything was going really well as I explained why repentance is important and how repentance is an integral part of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur preparation.

Towards the end of the class, a slow and disturbing realization started to wash over me. I stopped and asked,

“By the way, does anyone happen to know what the word ‘repentance’ means?”

My question was met with a classroom full of glassy-eyed stares.

Teacher of the year I’m not.

But I think that story could apply to many of us. While I’m sure that most of us can in fact define the word, relatively few of us truly understand what repentance is, even though we use the term repeatedly over the course of the High Holidays.

Most people would describe repentance as the act of apologizing. While that’s certainly part of it, saying that you’re sorry is only the beginning.

You might go further and point out that in addition to seeking forgiveness, there must be an element of making amends.

But how do you do all that? To whom do you apologize? Do you attend services, recite some prayers, and you’re covered? In fact, Judaism recognizes that there are two different paths that our sins can follow: ways in which we have sinned against God, and ways that we have wronged other people. Performing teshuvah is not a one-size-fits-all process.

It might be common this time of year to have people say to you, “If I’ve done anything to offend or hurt you over the past year, please forgive me.” That’s a well-meaning gesture, but ultimately does very little to put you on the road to repentance. You’ve taken no risk, you’ve undertaken little reflection, and you’ve effected no change. It often reminds me of when politicians make some inappropriate comment, succumb to public pressure, and say, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I said.”

The true act of repentance means identifying where you’ve gone wrong and apologizing and making amends for specific acts. But wait, you’re not done yet. Ultimately, the true test of repentance is whether or not you’ve permanently changed your behavior and choices so you don’t repeat the actions.

I’m always fascinated by people’s stories of teshuvah and reconciliation. Do you have a story to share?

Worst. Metaphor. Ever.

As a runner, I’m obsessed with numbers. Measuring my distance to a tenth of a mile (and getting stressed when my GPS watch doesn’t agree with mapmyrun on the computer). Maintaining my pace—minutes and seconds per mile—and not running a second slower than before. Becoming upset because I finished a race 43 seconds slower than last year. This is all familiar territory to regular runners. We live and die by numbers—by quantifying things.

Practicing Judaism shouldn’t be thought of in the same way. Yet, too often we get stuck in exactly the same numbers-obsessed world. We evaluate our success by quantifying things. How many people can we get to come to Friday night services? Oh wow, you get 50 at your shul? We can only get about 40. Sure, but you should see our sanctuary on Saturday morning—we get around 100 people. How many families do you have? We were at 375 before but, you know, the economy isn’t great, so this year we’re down to 368. On and on it goes.

In many cases, we’ve done this to ourselves. One of the most popular and enduring metaphors in Jewish tradition is that of a simple ladder. We are taught that Jewish observance can be compared to the rungs of a ladder. All of us, according to this metaphor, are somewhere on that ladder—and it’s not important where. What matters, though, is that we’re moving up on the rungs—adding to our observance to the Jewish laws and rituals. The starting point isn’t as important as the fact that we’re going higher, adding holiness, and moving our lives in a positive direction.

I’m not a fan.

What’s the implicit message, then, if you’re not climbing (or if God forbid, you’re descending) this imaginary ladder? That’s right—and you all know what’s coming—you’re a Bad Jew. People love to toss that phrase around, often in a self-deprecating manner, and really, truly believe it.

“I drive on Saturday. I’m a bad Jew.”

“He never goes to services because he’s a bad Jew.”

“I grew up religious but since then I’ve become a bad Jew.”

Could we stop using this destructive and utterly inaccurate phrase—forever?

Instead of the dubious image of the ladder, picture a giant banquet table instead. Replace vertical with horizontal. The whole of Jewish ritual and tradition is laid out in front of you and you can have anything you want. You may help yourself to whatever you like, and politely refuse other items. You can sample something, decide you don’t like it, and put it back. And then try it again later. There are no judgments, implicit or otherwise, as you make your way across the banquet table.

The High Holidays are soon upon us, and we understand that this time of year is a period of judgment. But that judgment is to come from within—how we view ourselves, how we treat people, the decisions that we make in our lives. In other words, our mandate is to judge, not be judgmental.

Let’s put the ladder away and never think of others or ourselves as bad Jews. There’s simply no such thing.

Jewish Slacktivism Part II

Have you ever paid someone to recite Mourners Kaddish? Would you?

The Kaddish could well be the most well-known and ubiquitous texts that exist in our liturgy—it evokes a variety of emotions and seems to unite Jews of disparate levels of observance. Even those who identify as non-observant often make the effort to recite Mourners Kaddish after the death of a family member. But at the same time, it’s also probably the most misunderstood prayer in the entire Siddur.

Here’s what’s not mentioned in the Kaddish: death, dying, mourning, souls, or remembering.

In fact, the Kaddish praises God and declares God’s sovereignty over the world. That’s basically it—a closer look might suggest that the author had his thesaurus open to the word “praise”—there are a lot of synonyms that are used. The Kaddish was originally recited by students in honor of their teachers—thanking God for the gift of their scholarship (kind of like an early version of ratemyscholar.com). The prayer soon went viral and made its way into the fixed liturgy, enshrined in its original Aramaic—the ancient vernacular much like today’s English. The Kaddish was inserted between various sections of the service—with the Chatzi (Half) Kaddish following minor divisions and the Kaddish Shalem (Full) concluding major sections. And yes, eventually, the tradition arose whereby mourners would recite the Kaddish at the end of the service.

The Mourners Kaddish has become a brilliant addition to the service. Its words are nothing more than a public affirmation of God’s greatness—and think of the raw emotion and impact of those words spoken by a person who is in mourning. At the time of their life when they likely feel most lost, angry, and distant from any religious feeling, our tradition has them come to services, stand up in the midst of their fellow congregants, and declare that God is to be praised.

And because the Kaddish is a public declaration, it is only recited when a minyan is present (10 or more people). You don’t recite Kaddish alone at home. This forces mourners to leave their homes and rejoin the community precisely at the time when many would be tempted to isolate themselves. This in turn encourages others to attend services so that the minimum number of people will be there. There are numerous stories of once disenfranchised Jews who started saying Kaddish and never stopped coming to services.

Strangely, a person in mourning might be offered the chance to hire or pay someone—such as a Yeshiva student—to recite the Kaddish each day. This way the mourner knows that the words will be said even when they can’t make it to temple. There’s also the accompanying message that the person who has died—the soul of the departed—somehow benefits each time the Kaddish is recited on his behalf.

This reminds me of something I read recently—some pretty clever entrepreneur started a company that would let you pay someone to stand in line for you. While some chores can be outsourced, praying isn’t one of them. If you can pay someone to recite Kaddish, then why not simply hire a surrogate to attend services all year? (The cynical ones among you might point out that you already did—meet the Cantor and Rabbi.)

If you’d like to donate money to a Yeshiva, by all means go ahead, and do so generously. But don’t relinquish the unique opportunity to be transformed and moved by the recitation of Mourners Kaddish, and to see how those familiar words can affect you personally.

What are some of your own experiences—positive or negative—with Mourners Kaddish? Have you ever been asked if you wanted someone to recite the Kaddish on your behalf? Leave me a comment below…

 

 

God and Country

On my Facebook page last week, I posed a question—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—asking whether there was a blessing for Donald Trump. Even so, there was a real answer that I had in mind.

There are many different blessings that one is supposed to recite on various occasions, such as witnessing a wonder of nature, meeting a person of extraordinary learning and scholarship, hearing good or bad news, and yes, seeing a monarch or head of state in person. So according to Jewish tradition, when you see Donald Trump, you may recite:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךהָעולָם שֶנָּתַן מִכְּבודו לְבָשָׂר וָדָם

Blessed are you Adonai, ruler of the universe, who gives of His glory to flesh and blood.

The implicit message in this prayer is that the power of our leaders really emanates from God and that the system of orderly government and justice and our choice of leaders is a gift from Adonai. (And unfortunately returns are not allowed.)

Building on this idea, many synagogues include a Prayer for the Country in their Shabbat services. You might think this is a more modern addition to the liturgy, but in fact, it can be traced back to the Babylonian exile: in Jeremiah Chapter 29, we read, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”

Jeremiah’s message was well ahead of its time—when the government is stable and the people are happy and provided for, the Jewish people will flourish and prosper. And conversely, we know what can happen when the people are not happy and society is unstable—something that I think is on our minds a lot lately.

This idea is clearly articulated in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3. It says: Pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive.

That’s really an amazing statement—it seems to confirm that the only thing standing between us and anarchy, or some kind of pogrom or other persecution, is the order that a stable government provides.

The first formal prayer for a country was entitled “Hanoten Teshua”—He Who Grants Victory to Kings, and appeared in various forms beginning in the 15th century. There are different versions, depending on the specific country, in which the names of ruling monarchs, Kaisers, or emperors were inserted.

Today I wonder whether many Jews still have an inherent fear of instability and the existential danger that can result. Do we pray for the success and welfare of our country out of fear?

What do you think? Leave a comment below…

 

Kiss This, Not That

Are you a kipah-kisser?

We’ve all seen it countless times. You’re wearing a kipah in temple—it falls off your head and onto the floor. You bend over, pick it up, give it a little kiss, and replace it on your head.

Please, in the name of everything that is holy in this world, stop kissing your kipah.

In fact, that’s precisely why you should stop—because we save that specific action only for items that we consider holy. And within the Jewish tradition, that’s usually limited to anything that contains the printed name of God, like a Siddur or Prayer Book.

Where did this strange custom of kissing a head covering come from?

I would assume it gets passed around by well-meaning Hebrew school teachers who are making the effort to instill a sense of respect in their students. I suppose the reasoning is that when kids come into the synagogue building, they put on a kipah—which then takes on the aspect of a ritual or holy item.

But it’s not even close.

A kipah (sometimes called a yarmulke—there, that really cleared it up) is nothing more than something used to cover your head. Period. Jews are instructed to keep their heads covered as a sign of respect—to symbolize that as important as we think we are, there is always something even more powerful and in control over us. So whereas the general public is trained to remove their hats as a sign of respect, we Jews do the exact opposite.

Kipot come in many forms—whether it’s the colorful satin ones that you can use as bar mitzvah trading cards (“Look, I got Sidney Goldblatt, November 1972!”), or the old standby black ones. But those are just provided for people’s convenience. Any hat would do—whether it’s a fedora, baseball cap, or sombrero (go ahead, I dare you). Could you imagine how silly it would be for a kid to drop his baseball cap in temple, and then kiss it before putting it back on his head?

But the bigger issue is that when we treat everything as holy, then really nothing is. It’s as if we’re putting a ratty shmata on the same spiritual plane as the Torah. Reserving our reverence exclusively for ritual items that contain the name of God helps us put our actions and thoughts into a larger context.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below…

 

 

Jewish Slacktivism, Part I

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I love the English language. New words get invented on a regular basis to keep up with the ever-changing trends and events that we see in our modern lives. One excellent example of such a word is “slacktivism.” This word was a result of the many campaigns and causes on social media. For instance, you might be instructed to change your profile picture to identify with a certain cause, or to “like and share” a post—ostensibly to support finding a cure for a specific disease or to express solidarity behind a specific group. The slightly mocking and sarcastic term “slacktivism” refers to the fact that you felt much better about really doing something and being involved when in fact, you didn’t do anything more than press a button.

It occurred to me that we have slacktivism in the Jewish world as well.

One of the most meaningful and transcendent prayers that exist in our liturgy is the Prayer for Healing, often referred to as The Misheberach. What sets this particular prayer apart is its very nature as a personal entreaty on behalf of someone who is close to us. So much of what we find in the Siddur is written in the first person, plural form. “Help us, God,” “Give us your blessings.”

Here we have the chance to single out one individual who is in need of help and support. Not only healing, refuah, but actually making that person whole again, refuah sh’leimah.

There are many ways in which this prayer is traditionally recited in the service, but the most common way is to include it as part of the Torah service. There’s an added sense of gravitus when the Torah is present, almost as if God’s presence is more tangible. Someone who wishes to recite this prayer for healing might be invited to come up at the proper time and provide the person’s Hebrew or English name, so that this very personal detail may be weaved into the otherwise fixed text.

Something wonderful and powerful happens at that moment.

The member of the congregation feels the support of the community—as if that person is saying to everyone, “Someone who is close to me is ill. I need to have as much support around me as possible to help us get through this.” Often, upon hearing the name of the person who is in need of healing, other people might approach this worshipper and express concern, support, and love. It’s a moment of vulnerability and an expression of need.

Unfortunately, the Misheberach prayer has become formulaic and has lost its impact, in some part due to the actions of well-meaning synagogues and other organizations that maintain a “Misheberach list” of some type. People might be invited to contact the temple office and ask for a name to be recited during the next service. To me, this completely misses the point of this powerful prayer.

Prayer is not something we can outsource. The Hebrew word for “pray,” l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb, implying that we pray to change ourselves more than to effect some external outcome. When we recite the Prayer for Healing, it’s more about seeking the support of our Jewish community rather than truly expecting some supernatural miracle from above.

If you call the synagogue office and simply leave a name on the voice mail, you’ve become a Jewish slacktivist—you think you’ve accomplished something without making any real effort. Instead, you could have come to services and recited the Prayer for Healing along with the congregation. Even if attending services is impossible for whatever reason, you might have asked for a copy of the prayer—whether in Hebrew or English—so that you could personally recite it.

You can’t experience the power of congregational support by adding a name to a list.

Stay tuned for Part II of Jewish Slacktivism.

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