Closing Time – Day #1

Yom Kippur has arrived and so does this artificially created window of opportunity to reflect and return.  It is artificial only because thousands of years ago, human beings determined that this time of year was the right time of the year to try and make at-one-ment.  Truth is, we can (and do) engage in this kind of reflection all of the time– it is not something that we simply and completely turn off for 11 months or so and then turn back on.

Let’s face it, though … it is difficult, draining and unrealistic to be so thoughtful and reflective all of the time.  Our world would not allow it, there are things we really need to do … we have not chosen a monastic, solitudinal life.  We have chosen to live, thrive and enjoy this world – nothing wrong with that, as long as we do not ONLY pursue that end.

There is something that is anything-but-artificial about this time and the feeling of some kind of window of opportunity or focus that is closing soon and will not reopen for a while.  Perhaps it is the repeated use of this time for centuries, even millennium, by our spiritual ancestors – the same way a slow, constant current of water can soften, smooth and even carve out the roughest of rocks or the way that an unpaved path in the forest will become a path with the constant tracking of millions of pairs up feet.  The space is smooth and well carved out, that path is clear and defined … here for us to use, to go to that deeper place that is often out of our reach.

Pay attention, though.  The gates at entrance to that space and that path are beginning close.   Take advantage of the space to which they have afforded you precious access … use that time and space to its fullest and prepare your self for the opportunities and challenges that will become part of the year ahead.

Thus ends my Elul Exercise for 5772 …and yours, as well.

Size Doesn’t Matter – Day #2

Steve Jobs’ life impacted a startling proportion this world in which you and I live.   Even if you do not own an Apple product, that product that you do not own impacted the way we human beings in the world communicate, create and cogitate.  Not many people can say they can leave this kind of legacy behind them -having made such a distinctive mark on the culture of the world; having whole industries react to your newest ideas; having impacted the lives of billions of human beings.  It is humbling … and a bit intimidating.

Mr. Jobs died during these ten days when Jews around the world are considering our own impact and legacy in the world.  None of us (okay maybe one or two of us) will ever come close to approach the size and scope of Steve Jobs’ impact and legacy.  As incredible as the sheer breadth of his impact may be, we cannot fall into the mode of measuring our own impact and legacy the same way.   Impacts and legacies can reach millions and even billions, but that is not the true manner to measure such things.

The wisdom from Talmud comes to mind: Destroy a soul and you destroy an entire world, save a soul and you save an entire world. (Sanhedrin 37a) Size does not matter when it comes to legacy and impact … Jewish tradition calls us to do our best and seek to be great in our corner of the world.  The depth and breadth of legacy and impact comes from how we live within each moment, each choice and each relationship.

The Gap Between Theory and Practice – Day #6

I do not remember much about Western Civilization II in High School (my school’s fancy title for ‘History’ class).  I do remember more than I do about Tooth Fairy visits.  (See Day #14)  I do not remember much about Western Civilization, but I do remember my charismatic and idiosyncratic teacher and former Major League pitcher, Mr. Seelbach.  I do not remember much of the facts and dates that may have been part of that curriculum, but I do remember a concept he taught us – one that I have found transcends any one historical moment or era.  Mr. Seelbach felt it important to teach about about the ‘gap between theory and practice.’  He explained it in the context of political science theories or social constructs – instructing us on the value of such theories and of the complexities of practice.   I have found the ‘gap between theory and practice’ practically in every corner of life.

I experienced this gap between theory and practice just this past Wednesday as I prepared for Erev Rosh Hashanah services.  There I was, on the precipice of one of the biggest days of my personal and professional career.  I was getting ready lead and hopefully inspire my community during a time in which all would hopefully reflect on the ways that we might act to make our world a better place.  I was taking the very private time that I need before I play an important role in a very public time.  And so goes the ‘theory’ that was in place for this Erev Rosh Hashanah day.  The practice was the gentleman who wandered in off of the street.  The front door was open – as is the Church’s practice to do when their office is open – and he wandered into the church looking for money and/or food. Except, no one was in the church office, and so when we wandered down the hall … he wandered into my nicely kept ritual.  He told me his story and he looked the part of the story he told me … he just wanted money to get some food.

And then I stumbled in the widening gap between theory and practice. I wanted to help.  I was also perturbed that he would ‘bother’ me on this day of all days during ‘my’ time.  I looked for some grocery coupons, which I could not find.  I know from experience that we cannot give out money to people who just show up.  We (the synagogue, and the church for that matter) are all about helping people, but giving people money off the street creates a culture in which people continue to come back looking for this kind of support, which we are not set up to give in any long-term fashion.  I considered, again, the irony of him showing up on this day in this place with our banner that reads ‘Do Justly, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly’ and my reaction being fuzzy on all three of Micah’s guidelines.  That thought led my mind went down the suspicious direction – wondering if his story was a true one, if it was actually food that he sought to obtain with any money I might give him.  I looked him in the eye, told him that I could not help him today … and he went on his way.  I felt the gap between theory and practice, slowly but surely, sucking me down into its deep, dark innards.

The exchange was unsatisfying at best, depressing at worst.  The man left with nothing, because I had nothing that I would give him.  I am pretty sure my ‘theory’ would have me give him something, but the actual ‘practice’ left him empty-handed.  I put the encounter out of mind enough for me to do what I needed to do, but here I am still a bit haunted, embarrassed and even puzzled by how I could have narrowed the gap, even slightly.

Was it a sin? It does not feel like a sin to me, in the sense of dramatic, ten-commandment, soap-opera-worthy kind of sin.  However, if I think of the translation of the Hebrew word for sin – chayt – which means ‘missing the mark’ – I sure feel like I missed the mark in that moment.   For me, I have many more moments like this one that cause me consternation.  Moments like this one are the ones from which I keenly I wish to learn and grow.  I find myself in moments in which I have an ideal that names the spirit of how I want to act, but in the moment as I try to translate that spirit to real action or words – I, well, just miss the mark.   Sure, there are many factors that contribute to the gap between my theory and practice – as Mr. Seelbach taught me, there is great complexity in actual practice.  Yet, I feel that in the midst of those complexities that I could be better about executing the part over which I have control.

In a few days when I formally and informally spend time in vidui-confession, it will be these kinds of moments, these kinds of ‘missing the mark’ that will occupy my thoughts and feelings.  And in the year ahead,  I will be trying to – even if ever so slightly – reduce that gap between theory and practice.

Look at the Pretty Tree – Day #8

Last year’s B’nai Mitzvah class gave a High Holyday Torah cover as a gift to the synagogue.  So, we used it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.  Technically, I used it for the first time earlier in the week when I was getting things ready for the New Year.  I have had occasion to see it/use it a few different times so far at different times of the day … and it was, in a fashion, different each time.

The mantle is an off white, almost cream color with a large tree as its main image.  The roots and trunk of the tree are embroidered with a solid, simple dark golden, brownish hue.  The ‘leaves’ that surround the branches are of a translucent  thread that seems to be on many colors – gold, brown, greens, oranges — and depending on the time of day and kind of light in the room it looks different.

I love the balance of elements on the mantle that some stay the same and some change, too.  There are so many metaphorical, interpretive paths I could take with such a piece of art … the one that jumps out at me is the existence of that dynamic tension between what is fixed or set and what is fluid or changing.  Our tradition names this dynamic tension as an important element of the prayer service.  It calls the fixed or set end of the spectrum: kevah.  It names the fluid or changing end of the spectrum: kavanah.  Think of it in this way:  the keva may be the fact that Shema is always said at a certain time with the same words during a prayer service; the kavanah may be the way that the Shema is sung or interpreted during that same service.

It seems that this spectrum of keva and kavanah and their dynamic tension are not limited to the prayer service. Our entire world works and evolves along the grades of this spectrum.  Ask any artist of any kind about the importance of studying and understanding the traditional forms of their ‘art’.  Then, ask that same artist about the creative process and how it is all about changing something either around those forms or in response to those forms.  The same plays out in any field – medicine, law, science … there are set forms that help define the structure of a paradigm; but then transformation comes when doctors, lawyers, scientists figure out a way to be creative and play with or beyond those established forms.

And of course, we live on the grades of this spectrum as well.  We need and thrive on a certain set-ness or fixed-ness about certain elements of our lives.  We also need (and possibly crave) that energy that derives from change, fluidity and creativity.  Understanding our own place on the keva and kavanah spectrum – where we are most comfortable and where we experience growth and transformation – is an essential element to living as mature, grounded individuals whose lives feel meaningful, joyous and rich.

Take advantage of these last few days before Yom Kippur and take a look at the ‘mantle’ that covers your own sacred story and pay attention to what parts are made of keva and what parts are made of kavanah.

Happy Birthday To Me? – Day #9

It certainly is a weird thing to celebrate (and I use the term loosely) one’s birthday on Rosh Hashanah – especially when that ‘one’ is a rabbi.  (Yes, if you did not know it was my birthday yesterday – #44!).  I can say that it is not a new phenomenon for me – being both a rabbi and a he of the late September birthday – to have Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur fall on the same day as my big day.  My approach to such confluences is to not make a big deal about it.  I know people genuinely want to express good wishes (and this year MANY people did, thanks to the transparency afforded by Facebook!), but, it never has felt right to make it part of what the community does on those day.  Besides, the truth is that I am so focused on what I am doing those days, it simply does not FEEL like my birthday.

In general, I still get a flutter in my belly and more than a tinge of excitement about my birthday.  Even birthdays that fall on a non-Rosh Hashana or non-Yom Kippur work day, have still felt like a special day.  Days in which I enjoyed the external attention and treatment I received and the internal recognition of marking another circuit around the sun on my special day.

We spend a lot of time in our heads these days of Teshuvah-making … do we or can we really make a difference about how we think and the choices these same heads will make in the coming year?  My birthday/non-birthday yesterday makes me answers in the affirmative.  For everyone in the whole yesterday it was September 29th.  No one holds the power to change that fact.  If you sent an email, signed a legal document, etc…. yesterday it was and always will have been September 29th.  And as much as I look forward and enjoy that anniversary for me every year, this year my mind changed both of those realities.  As I experienced the day, in a very real sense it was not September 29th – I chose a different reality.  It did not FEEL like a birthday to me … and I made that reality so.

It leads me to a few moments to revel in the power of our minds, our focus and our intentions.  While there is much to the world that is beyond our control and influence, there are still some small, significant parts that are only under our control.  I think, it is a very important concept to keep in focus, as we spend these next ten days trying to control, influence and affect the realities in which we each live.  We control how we approach each day and each moment of our lives – good ones, bad ones; birthdays or not.

My New World Record – Day #13

Yesterday a twenty-six year old man took off on a little run through the streets of Berlin.  Twenty-six and two-tenths miles later (forty-two and one hundred and ninety-five thousands kilometers for those of you keeping score in metric-land) he had smashed the world marathon record by twenty-one seconds.  Patrick Makau’s final time was two hours, three minutes and thirty-eight seconds – and average of four minutes and forty-three seconds per mile.  As a marathoner myself  (I am even embarrassed to say this after mentioning that accomplishment, but it’s too late now …) I am awed and intimidated by such a feat.  At my best, which was my last race in May (pumping my chest out slightly, I tell you that) I clocked in at three hours and forty-two minutes … somewhat off of the newly established world record.

I will never come to close to that feat.  I will never be the best at this marathoning thing that I do.  There is a pretty good chance that I will never even be the best in my age bracket for a given race at this marathoning thing that I do.  (Although, the longer I do it I imagine the smaller the numbers of competitors might become.)  I realize that there are some factors that are going against me … my age and the natural evolution of my particular body; the ways my body may not be the perfectly wired machine that these elite runners may be and then there is the amount of time and energy it would take to even push myself to the elite level of my age bracket.

As I write that last ‘reason’, the line between ‘factors out of my control’ and ‘factors that I am just too lazy or undisciplined to do something about’ gets a little fuzzy.  I could run an extra day a week. (Oh, but I so hate the morning).  I could eat differently and enhance my body to do the work I am asking of it. (Oh, but eating is just one of my favorite things to do.)  I could go on, but I won’t … suffice it to say not only will I never even run twenty-six successive miles at a four minute and forty-three second clip, but I will never even run one mile at that pace of insanity.

I could go down the list of unreachable, yet highly desirable goals/dreams of mine that Vegas would put great odds against ever happening: playing centerfield for the Cleveland Indians, being the beat writer for the Cleveland Indians, writing the Great American novel, etc., etc.  It would be easy to examine these goals and see how I have fallen short of them … and feel like I had failed.  Technically, it is ‘failure’, but I am really a failure because I will never run a world record in the marathon?

I worry that at times the entire experience of the High Holyday season feels like that kind of exercise in failure.  We are continually thinking about how we missed the mark, how we messed up (and in many cases we seem to mess up on the same things each year), what we lack, recognizing our limitations, remembering the precarious nature of our very existence … it can be easy to worn out by this self-flagellation and feel like we continue to fail and fail again.

If we go down this path during these days  … or the rest of the year … we are out of balance. Perhaps the goals and expectations are too black and white and not enough gray. Perhaps we get caught up in expecting to be world record holders in the human race and that is not really the nature of this kind of race.  In those moments after I have crossed the marathon finish line, failure is the farthest thing from my mind.  I feel joy, satisfaction and even triumph.  I am not thinking about how far I am from a world record or even the other early forty year olds in my age category.  I am reveling in that moment and (believe it or not) beginning to plot my next race – asking myself what can I learn from this one?

The Sage Reb Zusya had an idea as to the true essence of this human race we each run. The legend goes that as he was dying, his students came to tend to him. “There is nothing you can do,” answered Zusya. “I’m dying and I am very frightened.”

“Why are you afraid?” the youngest student asked. “Didn’t you teach us that all living things die?”

“Of course, every living thing must die some day,” said the Rabbi. The young student tried to comfort Rabbi Zusya saying, “Then why are you afraid? You have led such a good life. You have believed in God with a faith as strong as Abraham’s. and you have followed the commandments as carefully as Moses.”

“Thank you. But this is not why I am afraid,” explained the rabbi. “For if God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”

Run your race.  Be your true self – celebrate your triumphs AND learn from your failures.

Forgetting the Tooth Fairy – Day #14

Tonight, as I was putting Dakota to bed the discussion subject of choice was teeth.  He was lamenting that he had only lost a couple to this point and wondering if he would need braces once his teeth all came in.  When I shared some of my experience with braces with him, he asked me if had lost all of my teeth.  I hesitated for a moment.  Of course I had lost all of my teeth, but I did not remember losing most of them!  I have to imagine that losing teeth was as big of a deal for me as it is for Dakota and Addison – our Tooth Fairy is quite dedicated.  How could I forget my own visits from the Tooth Fairy?  How could I not remember such significant events in my life?

I became concerned as my train of thought continued to what other significant events and moments I  could not remember.  I was worried as I thought about the important things that someone must have said to me that I don’t even know were said because those things are either not in my head any more or just did not hang around as long as would have hoped.  I was embarrassed as I realized there are probably – no certainly – things that I have done to offend, upset or hurt people that I simply do not remember.  I also realized that, conversely, there are offenses, upsets and hurts done to me that I cannot recollect.

And, well … I have no meaty, pithy response to give this some perspective.  I do not have the Jewish story or take that may lend some background to this dilemma. I only have this momentary realization (one that I might forget) that humbles me.  I am humbled – not in the sense that I feel small or insignificant –  but that I grasp for a moment both my possibilities- to love, to create and to heal and my limits – in loving, in creating and in healing.  Grasping both are essential to me in remembering before whom I stand.

The Origins of Apple-ness – Day #15

I tasted my first honey-crisp apple of the fall today.  If you have not enjoyed the honey-crisp variety of apple you are missing out — they are sweet, crisp and well, have a hint of honey.  Apples are one of those foods that the heavily depend on the state of the apple.  An eating apple that is mealy or not at the right time of ripeness becomes inedible.  (Unlike some foods, like pizza – for many of us out there such a thing as ‘bad’ pizza does not exist.)  However, when that apple – no matter your style preference (Pink Ladies are actually my favorite) – is just right, the experience of eating it is as satisfying as eating any other piece of fruit.

So, I am wondering about this apple-nee sensibility of mine — from where does it originate?  Do I have a built in aesthetic sense of apple-ness and I know it when I see it? Is my apple aesthetic subjective and based on my tastes and peculiarities?  Is there a universal apple aesthetic that all of us share?  Are my apple preferences based on thousands  of different experiences of eating apples –  particularly those encounters with mealy, nasty tasting ones?  (i.e. I only know what I like from my extensive, life-time sampling apples of varying varieties and states of ripeness, crispness and sweetness.)

I think the answer to all of my questions is ‘yes’.  Yes, there exists somewhere a unversal apple aestheic.  Yes, I have the tools within to realize that aesthetic.  Yes, some aspects of apple-ness that I treasure (like the Pink Lady) are not shared by everyone else (like those who live in the same house as I do).  And yes, part of the process uncovering both the universal aesthetic and my own preferences come from my bad experiences and mistakes of eating some nasty apples.

No, you have not stumbled onto a Food Channel blog by accident … I’ve got more than apples on my mind, I’ve got LIFE and DEATH choices on my mind.  This morning we read the Torah portion from Deuteronomy that will make its reappearance in two weeks on Yom Kippur morning (N’tzavim).  In it the Israelites are challenged:  God had placed before you good and evil, life and death … Choose LIFE!  Well, duh?  Who wouldn’t choose life 99.9% of the time when given the choice of life or death?  So, why is such an overstatement of the obvious in the Torah this week AND on Yom Kippur?  It must not be such an easy choice … kinda like developing or discovering an apple aesthetic and choosing the right apple each and every time.

Choosing Life – as we were challenged to do this morning and will again be challenged to do on Yom Kippur — is nuanced, complex and just plain hard to consistently do.  So, tradition offers of this gift of time in the year to address ‘Choose Life’ challenge.  We take time to consider our choices – both in the past and ahead of us – so that we can fine tune our understanding of Life.  We work to remember what that universal understanding of Life looks like, sounds like and feels like.  We tune and hone the internal tools we use to keep that understanding at the forefront of our hearts and minds.  We try and balance how the way others understanding of Life affects us and our world.  We review the choices of our past – particularly the bad ones – and try to use what we learned from those choices in the coming year to ‘Choose Life.’

May your choices be crisp, sweet or tart (whichever you prefer) and fulfilling.

False Advertising? – Day #17

This Saturday night is Selichot. Technically, Selchot are prayers of penitence that are said through the entire month of Elul. However, it is the last Saturday night before the New Year that is a special night of Selichot. It has always been one of my favorite services of this season and even the entire year. I like it because it is a smaller and more intimate service during these very hectic days. As I announce it and promote it I find myself using words like mysterious, magical and mystical.

However, when I think long and hard about it – Selichot really isn’t any of these words!  I am engaging in (more than )a bit of false advertising.   Mystery? There is no hidden agenda to it — we focus on the High Holyday themes and do so fairly directly. Magical? I do not do any magic – no rabbits out of hats, card tricks or slight of hand. And as far as Mystical? As much as that tradition intrigues me, I am hardly a mystic. 

When I intellectually corner myself and ask myself why I use these words … it’s really about wanting these things.

All of this hype about focusing on Returning – to our Truths, our Ultimate Issues and the urgency attached to doing so … places a premium for me on mystery, magic and mysticism.  I want a bit of the curtain pulled back, just a smidgen so I can get a cosmic hint as to what’s behind it all.  I yearn for a sense that there is some wand that can be waved, just once in a while that graces the flow of life with some kind of extra spark.  I can sense the bigger layer of truth that lives along and behind and among the reality we know, but it is beyond me.

So, why is Selichot the place for me to so palpably feel my craving for the mysterious, the magical and the mystical?  I am guessing it has to do with the combination of the setting: There is the music – with its unique right balance of High Holyday tones and contemplative rhythm.  It offers the just right kid of psychic massage … and carefully stretches those muscles of mine that may not always get stretched in other ritual settings.  There is the light (of the candles) and darkness (of the hour) that create the simultaneous sense of isolation and connection.  Such a paradoxical affect efficiently cuts away the truly irrelevant and enlightens the essential, it humbles and uplifts.
I believe the human being requires, craves and lives for such moments – no matter how we name them (religious, spiritual, ritual, natural, etc., etc.) – for they help us begin the acknowledge our nature, our limits and our possibilities.
Some very non-Selichot, irreligious words come to mind as I leave you to consider the mysterious, the magical, the mystical:

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
(Macbeth: Act 5, Scene 5 )

The Coxswain, the Kitty Cat and the Annoying Sibling – Day #18

What does your Shofar call say about you?  There are three of  them, you may know, three Shofar calls that are made on Rosh Hashanah: Tekiah, Teruah and Shevarim.  (Okay, there are four if you count the Tekiah G’dola – the big Tekiah – but in my book it is really just a long winded Tekiah.)

The Tekiah call is the stable, long and simple call.  Tradition teaches us it was the call used to gather the people for just about any reason a group of people could gather: festivals, defense, celebration, attack.  any kind of gathering that necessitated or were enhanced by the power of community.  In my imagination, I see Tekiah as the coxswain at the head of the boat – calling, urging the rowers toward their goal.  The coxswain/Tekiah call is constantly reminding them of the power in their unity and community and the attention needed to maintain it.

The Shevarim call is the series of three short, almost mournful calls. The word translates as ‘broken things’ and the call somewhat embodies that sense.  It is a call to get us to pay attention to the broken things … and I suppose we can take it in many ways given our attention to our broken world, selves, etc.  Perhaps since there is so much of that focus on the brokenness of the world during this time of year, that aspect of Shevarim does not speak to me.  Instead, of broken I rather think of the weak, vulnerable things … which sometimes can be some of the most precious elements of life.  What comes to my mind is the proverbial cute and adorable kid/puppy/kitten (you know, those images that advertisers know will sell anything) whose big eyes or impish nature simply melts anyone who encounters such a sight.  The Shevarim/Kitty Cat call demands us to pay attention to the weak, vulnerable yet valuable parts of us and the world.

The Teruah call is the repetitive, nine staccato burps from the Shofar.  The repetition, the brevity does not allow for us to savor the calls (as does Tekiah) or even wallow for a moment (as does Shevarim).  Teruah is morning revile, the annoying default alarm on any clock radio, the piercing beeping of the smoke alarm … well, you get the picture.  What forms in my imagination is the pesky sibling who chooses to annoy by gently, but firmly poking her or his adversary with an index finger over and over and over … well, you get the picture.  The Teruah/Annoying Sibling pokes at us as if to say … enough rallying around the majestic call of Tekiah, enough indulging in the brokenness and vulnerability of Shevarim … get up, stand up and do something about it.

Which one do you like the best?  Which call would you rather not hear?  How do your preferences change from year to year?  Which one will call to you this year?  … The Coxswain, the Kitty Cat or the Annoying Sibling?