Looking for the No-Path Path – Day #19

Sometimes the path is clear and sometimes it seems like a dead end littered with bunches of rocks, fallen branches and nowhere to go.  I love to walk around my in-laws house outside Conifer.  There are no trails, just Colorado mountain ‘wilderness’ that flows over and around the mountain.  When I walk, however, I find that I need to change my approach and mindset that I use back in the city as I drive my car or ride my bike.  In the city there are clear roads and paths to follow, mapped out and created by others to create a safe and orderly way for all of us to get around.  In fact, if one does not stay on these roads and paths there could be trouble – whether it be cranky neighbors or uniform clad officers lining up to take me away.  Down the mountain I need to focus on staying on path and trusting those who planned and made the roads and paths that they will take me where I intend to be.

Walking around up the mountain – in the ‘wilderness’ – is a different story.  There is no path.  At first glance when walking it appears as if there is no way to walk and no intended place to walk towards.  I find that in this setting I need to look more deeply, more closely at the no-path before.  When I do, I notice that the two rocks ahead leave a nice sized space for me to walk through … I detect a bit of a winding grade – hospitably carpeted by pine needles — to get me around the next bend … I discover a tree holding its branch out to give me just the balance I need to ascend the small crest in the hill.  Before I know it, there is a path and it takes me forward to the next place on my journey.

It sounds like an overstatement of the patently obvious, but I would not find these paths among the wilderness if I was not here.  Putting myself in this place and taking the time to explore I use some ‘muscles’ that I do not normally use on the bike paths of Stapleton.  I find that having these ‘muscles’ toned and in good shape serves me well when I find myself in other ‘wilderness’ settings – both of the physical and spiritual nature.

The ultimate mythic ‘wilderness’ experience takes place in the pages of Torah.  The Israelites spent generations in Egypt – on a very distinct and rigid path.  Imagine the path finding muscles they developed during their wanderings in the wilderness … a hint of the muscle building we are about these days of Teshuvah.

If there is one thing that is certain for all of us – beyond the cliche of death and taxes – is that we all will find ourselves in new and unfamiliar emotional and spiritual places.  Taking time to leave the usual path and road we take each day, each week, each month to understand such ‘wilderness’ … offers us a precious chance exercise those muscles that will help us see paths where there appear to be none.  

Butterscotch or Vanilla? – Day #20

Do you know that there are trees out there in the Colorado wilderness that have a lovely, sweet aroma to them if you get up close and take a whiff?  Who knew?  These trees, called Ponderosa Pines, are easily found throughout our part of the country.  The funny thing is that when each person takes that unexpected, yet magical whiff of the sweetness – they smell something different.  Most accounts have smell testers of the Ponderosa Pine reporting either ‘vanilla’ or ‘butterscotch’ as the scent they detected.  (I am one of the butterscotch smellers.)   How can two people smell the exact same thing and decide they think they smell something different?

The old ‘two Jews, three opinions’ aphorism comes to mind.  Problem with this solution to the vanilla-butterscotch question is the (a) the smell testers of these trees are not all Jews and (b) it’s not like its the great debate of whether one prefers Latkes or Hamentachen this is a matter of science, not opinion.

In this time period – in which we speak of and consider the nature of sin and forgiveness – the vanilla or butterscotch dilemma seems to make a lot of sense.  I do not think there is research that lists those things that cause us to make others angry at us or that cause to get angry at others.  If such research existed, the butterscotch/vanilla quandary might be at the heart of MOST of the anger that is happening between loved ones.  Two people participate in the exact same event/conversation/exchange … and yet they each experience it differently.  One ‘smells’ vanilla and ‘one’ smells butterscotch.  Each person begins to react to that exchange depending on how they heard, felt and process that exchange … and, well, you know the rest of the story.

Knowing this tidbit about differing perceptions may make it easier moving forward entering into these quagmires of perception with loved ones (assuming we can keep our emotions in balance and remember it).  Knowing this tidbit, however, may not make it easier to go back and review the current hurts and wounds from past exchanges and do the work of teshuvah.  The ‘vanilla’ or ‘butterscotch’ smelling cat is well out of the bag – complete with all of the hurtful things said and felt.  It hits at the heart of any successful relationship, to remember that no matter what you think you ‘smell’, there is an excellent chance that the other is ‘smelling’ something else

Tunnel Time – Day #22

A funny thing happened at the end of my son’s soccer game. The teams had done their post-game, good sportsmanship high five to one another and then the team began chanting in unison. I could not make out what they were chanting, it didn’t seem to be something derisively directed at the other team or even something promoting their own efforts. It sound to me like “Tunnel!”. My wife confirmed that “tunnel” was exactly what I had heard. Before I could even ask the next and obvious question, I saw other parents lining up in two lines that faced one another, raising their hands above their heads and clasping hands with the person facing them in the other line. And there it was – the tunnel. The boys from both teams proudly and energetically raced through the tunnel – wholly satisfied with this closing ritual for a game well played.

I flashed back to a different kind of human tunnel. This one consisted of teachers. They were the faculty of my high school. It was tradition that on graduation day the faculty would form a human tunnel – sans the clasping of hands across two lines – through which the graduating class would enter into the auditorium. They, instead, used their unclasped hands to clap as each and everyone of us made our way to the graduation ceremony. I remember being surprised and quite moved by this ritual. Our teachers seemed to be a forgotten part of the graduation hoopla. We were all focused on the way our lives were going to change – the colleges we would attend; the new experiences ahead of us; the way that this upcoming chapter of our lives would affect us and our families. The faculty standing there and applauding us meant many things – one them being a reminder of as caught up as we might have been in each of our own individual moment, that there was more than just an ‘I’ that was part of reaching and celebrating that moment.

I think about the I-ness and the WE-ness of the process of Teshuvah. There is a great deal of focus on our own personal reflection and growth. It is about the work that each of us an individuals has to do; about each of our own returning to The Source and seeking forgiveness from that Source and from those we love. However, the liturgy that guides through such a confessional on Yom Kippur is not an I liturgy, it is a WE liturgy. (i.e. It is written in the first person plural not the first person singular).

Why? I do not think it is because you may be responsible for my sins or vice versa. I think it has to do with the reason that my son and his teammates wanted to run through the parent and coaches’ tunnel at the end of the game. I think it has to do with the reason that walking through the tunnel of my faculty still resonates so strongly with me twenty-six years later. We find an affirmation, an energy and an inspiration from being reminded that we all have a WE of which to be a part – whether these reminders occur in moments of celebration or in those moments when we may be reminded of our limitations and failings.

Even if you are a introvert (guilty), even if you are independent to the point of stubbornness (guilty) and even if the formality of communal prayer may not be always be the most conducive mode of inwardness (guilty) … there some affirmation, energy and inspiration to be mined by being part of a WE. Elul signifies that this particular tunnel is beginning to take shape.

Mo’s New Word? – Day #24

Sometimes what seem like new words just pop up into my vocabulary.  It may very well be that someone else said this word in my hearing or that I came across it reading something along the way, but in my innocence and forgetfulness, it feels new and right.

A new word that I have heard myself uttering – mostly in ritual moments like Shabbat service – is ‘godspace.’  It is nothing revolutionary or really new, but as I said it for the first time, it felt ‘new’ to me.  It came out one Shabbat as I was trying paint a verbal picture of how we use that time we call ‘prayer’.  I was trying to express the challenge and value of taking the time to going inward, to be inside ourselves.  That part within – whether it is physical, psychological or spiritual –  where no one else can possible be, in the intimate of intimates, the inner Holy of Holies.  Then it popped out … what I was trying to name was the ‘godspace’ within.

The more I played around with the word in my mind the more I liked it.  I think it was Rabbi Harold Kushner who spoke of ‘God-shaped holes’ within each us, maybe he was partly my original source.  Or perhaps it was how space or literally ‘place’ is actually one of the names for divinity given by our Sages – Makom.  It is this way of naming the divine that speaks most acutely to me in my understanding divinity.   I also think the word leaves room for many understandings of what ‘god’ may be … perhaps the name of an actual deity who rents space in one’s inner sanctum; perhaps the part of one’s mind that allows for the possibility of divinity; perhaps the way or method that one uses to pay attention to the workings of the cosmos how they may affect or be affected by our choices, actions and thoughts.  I believe that the idea of an untouchable, impenetrable inner sanctum relates to the types who talk to god, the types who just listen to god; the types who do not believe that god listens or talks; and even the types who do not believe in god at all.

The thing about these godspaces within is that you just don’t normally just walk in, sit down, open a cold one and let the party begin.  One must be mindful, intentional and spend time getting ready to enter.  Sure, every once in a while we get a magical glimpse of the light of the godspace as the door opens or closes – like in an intimate exchange with a loved or being awed on top of that mountain.  The nature of the godspace within, however, is that we need to spend time laying the groundwork and preparing to enter this space.  Every religious tradition offers a variety of methods to do so.  What most have in common – at least the genuine, authentic ones – is the recognition of this godspace, the importance of spending time within it, and the need to prepare to be there.

In another one of my ‘surfing the web for one thing and finding something else’ instances, I came across a wonderful way of expressing this kind of preparation on Rabbi Amy Schneirman’s website.  (It is so good I wish I had thought of it.)  If you ever have painted any space in your home, you know that the actual painting – the part that transforms and beautifies the space – takes the least amount of time.  The prep work demands an inverse amount of time and energy.  I find the painting fun.  I find the prep work tortuous.  There is the removal of wall paper, the repairing of holes and scratches in the wall, the taping of windows, trim and the like … yada, yada, yada.  You have to do the prep in the right way – or else the painting never reaches its potential. Spending time in your godspace takes the same kind of preparation … and the preparation can be boring – especially in comparison to the experience of being there.

In a fashion Elul is the time which we take to prep the ‘godspace’ for our annual paint job – with the painting to be done when we are in our godspace during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Now is a time to prep your space, choose your paint colors and get yourself ready  … and see what transformation awaits as spend some time in your godspace in the days ahead.

Just Missing The Rainbow Connection – Day #25

It was Friday night and it was six o’clock.  I was at Bluff Lake Nature Center and I was supposed to begin a Kabbalat Shabbat service.  Yes, there were some foreboding clouds in the sky … but I still could not get past the fact that in addition to Hal Aqua and I, there were only 3 other people there for the service.  It is there in that moment that I need to make a judgement call, an executive decision … hold the service or not?  Will a few more show up?  Will it feel weird to follow through with so few people?  Will it be disrespectful to those who did show up not to do something?  What should I do?

Truthfully, I was ready to abandon ship.  My internal rant had been running for a few minutes … why do this service thing at all?  … Synagogues big and small fail to draw any significant numbers for services and why – because what we do does not speak to most people, it does not fit into their lives (it does not even fit into my own family’s lives much of the time) … What is wrong with everyone? – Who in our crazy, busy world wouldn’t want a small amount of time carved out of their week to stop and reflect, to catch one’s breath? … Seriously, how can we compete with a hike in the mountains or that view atop the ski run? … Why should I judge an experience like this one on numbers and quantity, am I really that shallow – remember: save one soul and save a universe, right?

I was in no mood to help create a prayerful atmosphere for anyone else – whether it be three or thirty or three hundred.

And yet, we stayed … I decided to just put my toe in the water a bit.  We would sing a few songs/prayers and see how it went.  Hal began to play and I internally sulked and let his music fill the space that I am supposed to help fill with my spirit.  I felt none of my spirit would suffice on a night like this one.  We sung and it was fine.  No, it was nice.  The music allayed my angst just a bit … and then the rainbows showed up.

I don’t care how old you are or how jaded you are … I have not encountered many people who aren’t hit with at least a moment of ‘wow’ when they first see a rainbow.  I saw the rainbows first as I faced the rest of the group, and so after my moment of ‘wow’ I pointed the rainbows out and then our small group shared the moment.  Then a funny thing happened, the moment did not end. For the next 35 minutes parts of one or both of the rainbows glowed in the distance.  None of us had never seen a rainbow hang around for so long.  The rainbows became the liturgy.  The rainbows filled that space that just a few minutes prior I felt incapable of filling.  The rainbows filled that space that just a few moments prior I wanted to abandon.

Now, I refuse to have a ‘tie-it-up-in-a-nice-little-ribbon’ take on the appearance and our experience of the rainbows.  Contrary to the Biblical rainbow myth, I do not think that God was reminding this small group of ‘faithful’ about our eternal covenant.  (After all, one did not have to be at the Bluff Lake service to see the rainbows.)  I also am not going to go to the place that might suggest a lesson for those who did not attend that they missed out on something spectacular.(So you had better join us next time, or else!)  As much as I want to take a message in the juxtaposition of my pre-rainbow rant and the appearance of the rainbows, it was not the first time I ranted in such a way and in previous times the rainbows did not show.

I think I want to stay in the ambiguity and mystery of the moment.  The things I ranted about have merit to them.  They are true and actual issues to which religious communities have to face and find responses.  The rainbows were spectacular, awesome and magical.  All were equally real and all were part of the same moment.  Despite our need to organize and categorize it, our world and our lives are not so neatly wrapped and bowed.  They are complex, messy and filled with much more ambivalent tones of grey than neat and clean blacks and whites.  Every moment holds the possibility for defeat, isolation and frustration.  Every moment also holds the possibility for wonder, magic and awe.

Over and Over and Over Again – Day #26

I find myself saying the same things over and over again … and I am yet to determine if it is a good thing or a bad thing.  It obviously must not be too bad or else I would stop saying the same thing over and over again.  The things I am thinking about are not even negative or derogatory or destructive things (Like those euphemisms I thought I would never say to my kids and then I end up saying them anyway – ‘Because I am the parent!’ immediately comes to mind.)

I am thinking about the ‘rabbinic’ things that I say over and over again … like in significant life cycle moments: before I welcome the parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to speak to their child, under the chuppah to a couple, when we gather at a funeral to say good-bye to someone who has died.  I hear myself saying the same thing – or at least similar things over and over again.  I wonder if people who have been to other B’nai Mitzvah or weddings or funerals of which I have officiated are doing an internal eye roll as ‘Rabbi Mo’ gives the same spiel once again.  Perhaps, they find some comfort in hearing similar ideas.  Or better yet, maybe I am just being a bit neurotic because only I am paying attention to me saying the same thing over and over again.  In those moments I truly mean and believe what I am saying, even though they may be the same words and sentiments that I expressed before to different people at a different time.

One of my favorite things that I loved to do when I led the oldest unit of campers at the  Goldman Union Camp Institute was to speak to them at the Friday night campfire before they headed off to their cabins and went to bed.  Each Unit Head had the chance to speak to her or his unit.  The Unit Head for the youngest unit went first and then sent those campers off to their cabins.  The Unit Head for the next older unit followed and then I was left with my unit and the rest of the camp staff hanging out around the fire.  I usually said something that captured highlights of the week or addressed the collective state of mind for the unit at that stage of the summer.  I thought what I chose to say each week was timely, sincere and I hoped it was meaningful to my kids.

It was my third summer in that role when I felt blindsided following one of my campfire chats.  It was not one of my current campers who approached me, but one of my former campers who was at that time a staff member.  He confronted me – with a sense of betrayal in his tone – telling me that I said the exact same thing to my current campers that night as I said to his unit on that same week of camp in a previous summer.  He was quite put off that I would – in a sense – care so little to use the same canned chat for each different group each year.  Of course, that could not have been farther from the truth!  Innocently, I simply said what I was feeling and thinking at that moment with that group – what are the odds that it would be the exact same thing?

The odds would be pretty low if you asked Kohelet.  Kohelet – that subversive, edgy voice we find in the book of Ecclesiastes chides us: “There is nothing new under the sun!” If there is truly nothing new, than am I perpetually sentenced to giving canned spiels without ever realizing it?!   Am I stuck with the same ole’ song no matter how hard I try? And I ask again: “Is it a bad thing or good thing?”

In coaching us rabbis-to-be, one of my teachers in rabbinic school used to tell me something that she learned from one of her teachers.  She would say that in essence, each rabbi truly has one and only one sermon that she or he gives over and and over again.  It does not matter what you think you are doing, it really all comes back to the same sermon.  She was not being sarcastic or cynical. She was challenging us to examine our souls and their gifts with brutal and uncompromising honesty … and from there try to understand, improve and even perfect the sermon we wished to give.

To this day I am not completely confident that her declaration is true – but the exercise of considering is invaluable to me.  I ask it as rabbi, but also re-frame it in terms of being a husband, father and friend.  Is there only one way I know how to be any of those things or do I have room to change and modify?  Do I continue to do the same things because they work, because I am lazy or because I am scared?  Is ‘over and over and over again’ about being consistent and disciplined or is it about being stuck and rigid?

These are some of the questions that draw my intensifying attention during these days of Elul.

Say “Uncle” – Day #27

Have you ever felt stuck in a moment or situation of your own creation and the only way out seems blocked by your pride and stubbornness?  The age-old “Say ‘Uncle'” kind of moment comes to mind.  You know that kind of moment: you may have teased your brother or sister (or been teased by them) and all of a sudden you are in some kind of unbreakable wrestling hold and have to show your defeat and deference by uttering “Uncle” (or whatever creative phrase your conqueror suggested) to set you free.

I find that parenting offers many opportunities to feel this way.  Most commonly for me such a moment occurs following some tears flowing from one of my two children.  The tears resulting from some emotional or physical assault at the hands of my other child.  Following the time-out, the calming down, the talking about what happened comes my request/expectation/demand for the guilty party (as if there is only one guilty party, that would be easy … but that is a subject for another post) to say: “I’m sorry”.

It has always been my instinct to have my children since they could speak to apologize to whomever they hurt since.  I also must admit that I am pretty sure that for the first few years of this ‘policy’ developmentally speaking, they were not even up to the task of what I was asking them to do.  Of course, one of them would dig in their heels and refuse to grant me my request (one in particular, but I will withhold names to protect the innocent).  I would in turn dig in my own heels and further insist – with a complete list of consequences – why they needed to say: “I’m sorry.”  And there it was, the moment of my own creation in which I was stuck – well past the window for my child to actually learn anything about apologizing – but entrenched in my own need to hear those two little words pass those two little lips.  Internally, I would ask myself: “What is the real value in the saying or hearing of these words at this point?”

We are the midst of a period of time of year during which – one could suggest – the Cosmic Parent is requesting/expecting/demanding us to utter those same two little words …complete with consequences for the various kinds of inaction on our part.  If one’s God concept and the Cosmic Parent do not mesh, then those of who lean this spiritual direction begin to ask and assess the nature and value of this forgiveness process.  I expect that all of us would find value in it on a societal and interpersonal level. Many times in life the utterance of these two little words – regardless of the depth of meaning and understanding behind them – make difficult moments more manageable and allow us to move on (or away) from draining and painful confrontation.

Jewish tradition, however, raises the stakes on “I’m sorry” beyond the “Can’t we all get along?” level.  Tradition puts “I’m sorry” and its accompanying sense of accountability at the heart of the essence of our nature and our very survival.  There is life and death at stake not merely in utterance of these words, but in the understanding behind that utterance.  Jewish tradition would teach us that each and every wrong – committed knowingly or unknowingly – without proper acknowledgement isolates each individual further from her or his ultimate Source; exiles humanity further and further from the Divine.  This kind of thinking puts a little more punch behind those three succinct syllables.

Nu, which is it?  (Or better put, which is it for you?)  Purely and simply a “Say Uncle” kind of situation?  A couple of important, helpful words … without the cosmic punch.  Or something greater, grander and more weighty?

Nothing To Say – Day #28

Some days no matter the words that come mind, just don’t cut it.  Today is one of those days, so perhaps these words (and the accompanying chant) may be a better fit for today.

(Sadly) Truly Scrumptous No More – Day #29

I just finished watching Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang with my family …. it was the first time that I had seen the movie since I was my daughter’s age (approximately 8 years old). Before I sat down to watch for a moment I recalled my memories of the movie. Beyond the flying car – my memories were mainly focused on the lead female character. I could not remember her name (the actress or the character), but I did remember the feelings I had for her! She may have been my first movie experience crush (it was either her or Anne Baxter playing nefertiti in The Ten Commandments). I was curious (even eager) to relive this long ago crush.

Well, Truly Scrumptous (yes, that is actually the character’s name) didn’t age too well. Technically, she probably looked better (as did the whole movie) in this blu-ray version than on whatever screen I met her first a few decades ago. In this viewing she was still blond and pretty, but wasn’t my type at all! She ran around the whole movie in what looked like a wedding dress.  Truly was at first snobby and pretentious and then quickly made the turn to weepy and love struck. Yech!  So much for the good old days …

I was thinking about the ‘good old days’ terms of one of the prayers we sing a few times during Elul and the Days of Awe (it is also sung at the end of the Torah service each week). ‘Hashiveinu’ the line begins … ‘Return us’ and then’ renew our days as in our beginning’ The prayer and its meaning is sometimes taken in the spirit of: ‘Oh the good old days, if it could only be like that again.’ However, as I experienced in my reunion with Trudy Scrumptous, going back the the beginning or the good old days is not always a winning formula for finding meaning.

My understanding of this returning and this renewing is much more technologically formulated. The push this time of year is not for us to go back to the ‘good old days’. It is not about lamenting that when we were kids everything was simpler or when people were more/less (choose one) _______________ (fill in the blank). It is about restoring our ‘default settings’. We know this language from using any technology today. Everyday our phones, our computers our iWhatevers provide our portal to the world wide web.  In accessing that web each day they pick up viruses or unnecessary files and programs that get in the way of their efficient functioning. We restore those ‘default settings’ in an effort to clean them, even purify them – so that they can realize a more efficient and higher level of access.

Our experience is similar. In our everyday functioning our ‘hardware’ gets slowed down by our interaction with the ‘web’ around us. We need to restore our ‘default settings’ in order to realize our highest ‘efficiency’. What are human being’s ‘default settings’? In a way a very personal question, but I would assume they have to do with remembering things what is most important to us, our unique gifts and talents and what parts of this world give us joy, meaning and a sense of place.

Hearing  ‘Hashiveinu’ and its call to ‘Renew’ us as in the ‘beginning’ is the same the same thing as you holding down the reset button on your phone the extra few seconds, to achieve that reboot to your device’s default settings.  Not only we each need to press that internal reset button, but we each need to spend some effort being able to respond to the question: “What are your default settings?”

The Smell of Shofar in the Morning – Day #31

As we sound the Shofar these days of Elul and get ready for its big show on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we pay attention to its distinctive, sharp call and sound.  Frankly, I think the noise it makes is getting too much of the attention … we need to pay more attention to its smell.

Have you ever smelled a Shofar? (And I do not mean the nice and shiny outer shell of the Shofar, but sticking your schnozz down into its innards and taking a nice, deep whiff.)  It smells … AWFUL!  Not surprising, as it used to be attached to animal.   Still, I think we need to pay much more attention to its smell …

We have all heard a Shofar call … and we associate its sounds with the sensations of the New Year (mostly positive) and at the end of Yom Kippur and our fast (all positive).  We invite the children into the sanctuary and delight as they watch the adults making these weird sounds.  We secretly (or not so secretly) time the great Tekiah G’dola blast and see how long the Shofar blower can hold it this year and cheer him or her on as she turns redder and redder.  We let the sound (as sounds often do) warmly transport us to seasons past which we spent happily in a familiar place and with familiar people.  These are all warm, wonderful parts of the Shofar sounds and we should make sure we preserve these associations and experience of the annual Shofar-palooza.

But we need a bit of that awful smell among the warm fuzzies of the Shofar sounds.  In the book of Joshua the sounds of the Shofar are so violent and powerful that they knock down the protective walls of the city of Jericho.  In other places in our sacred story the Shofar is used as a warning, a call to rebel, a signal to engage the enemy in military conflict.  The Shofar is perfect for this time of year because in a spiritual sense we are called to knock down walls (the ones between who we are and who we want become); to rebel (against the status quo that keeps us from progressing and evolving); to begin to engage the enemy (those choices, tendencies and distractions that keep us from sticking to our path).

For this reason I suggest that we need a little scratch and sniff Shofar action AS WELL AS hearing the majestic calls of the Shofar.  Perhaps this new layer of sensory experience will enable us to tune in to this fundamental spirit of the Shofar and what it calls us to do.  Let’s not disregard the wonderful associations we have with its sound, but let’s also let a little of the danger, the subversion and edge into our hearing it … and in the sound and smell of it we can we can reclaim its spirit and respond to its call to wake up, pay attention and to stir things up.