Wait for it … Wait for it … Day #32

A brief reflection for Day #32 … the Psalm of these days of Elul is 27.  It ends by not once, but twice telling the listener to Kaveh, or Wait.  Wait (the Psalm says)  for You-Know-Who (not Voldemort, God!).  How subversive can our tradition get?  Could this ancient, archaic text challenge us with a more contemporary, counter-culture message than, WAIT!

Think about it … we do not wait for much.  We are not very good at it in the least … collectively or individually.  We do not know how to sit, stand or be in the in between.  It brings to mind a whole wilderness-related rant to follow, but I do not want to make you wait too long for the end of today’s short post!  When we do need to wait our anxiety runs rampant.  We feel disrespected.  We worry that we are losing or wasting time.

Sometime today, just wait.  Pick a moment, especially one that demands you do not wait … and Kaveh! Wait!  Pay attention: to what happens to you; to those around you; to what you have lost by waiting; to what you may have gained by be able to wait.

Wait for it … wait for it …

Snared By The Peace Trap – Day #33

I got snared by the Peace Trap this afternoon.

 This afternoon my Park Hill colleagues and I gathered to make final preparations for our joint remembrance on September 11th this coming Sunday morning. We have been working together since early in the summer to jointly create this opportunity for people to commemorate and reflect upon that day and the decade that followed. The group consists of clergy who represent Lutherans, Presbytarians, Church of Christ, Jews, Muslims and Episcopalians. Despite our different religious traditions (and yes, Lutherans and Epsicopalians and Presbytarians are different traditions, in spite of my Jewish tendency to lump all Christians together as one in our minds), we are still somewhat like minded. This like mindedness extends from the way we desired to commemorate September 11 to how we understand similar contentious social issues. And yet, after months of planning an experience such as this one – we were still discussing the use of or absence of certain words, ideas and symbols for Sunday’s commemoration. For a moment I felt the tickle of irony forming in my mind as I internally snickered about the possibility of peace.  If this group could not get it together …

And then I caught myself as I fell into the Peace Trap. You know the Peace Trap – the ‘Hallmarkian’, ‘Disney-fied’ idea about the nature of peace.  The ‘end-of-days’ and messianic vision of what the world will be like when we (finally) all get it together.  The Peace Trap is the understanding of peace that means the ‘Us’ in the world will finally defeat the ‘Them’ in the world (and the ‘Them’ in the world will finally understand that the ‘Us’ was right all along.  In the vision of the Peace Trap we create/find/discover a world without conflict and no one ever feels as if his or her ideals or values are challenged or threatened. That kind of thinking is the Peace Trap.

The only way to unsnare oneself from the Peace Trap is to take a good, long hard look at the true nature of peace.  Peace is messy. Peace is about acknowleding feeling unsettled and compromised … and then choosing to live with those feelings because there is something greater than the discomfort of feeling those things. Peace is about accepting the differences and dissonance that follows, because growth and evolution occur only when there is friction and conflict.  After all, we can only make peace with those forces that oppose or threaten us- whether these forces are painful memories, unsettled issues, difficult people or others whom seek our pain or destruction.

The word we translate as ‘peace’ from the Hebrew is the word ‘shalom.’  It derives from a Hebrew root that speaks to ideas of completed-ness and whole-ness. Being ‘complete’ is larger than simply an absence of conflict or threat.  Being ‘whole’ is greater than simply feeling like everyone agrees with us or knows we are right.  For our world to be complete or whole each and every disparate part within the world would need to accept the rest as part of that complete whole.  At the same time each disparate part would need to maintain its own separateness.  The same goes in imaging our communities, our families, ourselves as whole and complete.

Those moments this afternoon of still trying to determine what words and symbols belonged in our celebration … were essentially peaceful moments.  Many different clergy, many different religions, many different people maintaining a larger vision for wholeness, while living out the realities of our different-ness.   It was hard.  It was fun.  It was meaningful.  It is life.

Seek peace and pursue it these days of Elul … and beware of the Peace Trap.

Nashvillian Time Warp – Day #34

Sunday night was a night like many others in my summers, I officiated at a wedding. This wedding was a llittle bit different for me. I stood underneath the Chuppah with a bride who some decade and a half ago was a confirmation student of mine. And as life/fate would have it, our paths brought us from Nashville, Tenneessee to Colorado. While I have had the chance to reconnect with last night’s bride before the wedding, it was not until last night that I had the chance to do so with other Nashvillians whom  I have not seen since my departure 14 years ago. I had the chance to visit with her family – who were active at the synagogue and were individuals whom I fondly remember from my time there. I also had the chance to see some of her contemporaries from Nashville. While some of these people were the bride’s fellow confirmands, to me they were my students, my ‘kids’ (even though I now must embarassingly admin to how close to being a kid I was at that time!)

Now, the experience and this concurrent rambling of mine is not exactly the usual ‘time goes so quickly’ type or reflection.   I did have those kinds of reactions and thoughts as I had the chance to visit with them … awed by listening people who I knew so well as teens and who I thought as in some way as my ‘kids’ talking to me about their actual (without quotes) kids … amazed by the realization that that when last I spoke with the parents of the bride, they were not much older than I am right now … humbled to not be able to see relatives whose deteriorating health prevented them from being present or even aware that a wedding was happening.

It was not that I felt ‘old’ in reflecting upon these encounters, but rather that I glimpsed a moment of raw clarity as to the nature of time.  In a moment I felt its driving and relentless nature.  I felt the power of its incessant move forward – intertwined with our fates and destinies.  I was just a person at the beach – wading out for a feel of the water- who suddenly gets caught in the undertow.  I was helpless in its grasp and it filled me with wonder for its power and with fear from my own powerlessness.   It was reminding me that even if its power left my consciousness, it was still there moving, pushing and changing me and the world around me.  I wondered: What have I been doing the past 15 years?  Have I done as much or been as much as was possible?  What is next for me?  How will I do the most or make the most of whatever is next?

That glimpse of time, that sense of my true place in it all and the focus and urgency that followed was a hint of the days ahead.  I think if this time of year is working correctly, it serves to open up our eyes to see the true nature of time and our place in it.  Perhaps the Days of Awe is a period of AWE, because these days urge us to wade into the sea to encounter that power of the temporal undertow – to be sufficiently touched, moved, afraid, awed by the true nature of our lives.  In turn with just a glimpse of its nature we may discover humility, perspective and even inspiration.

Get your bathing suit ready, it’s time to take a swim …

My Round Shaped God-Idea and Its Square Shaped Hole – Day #36

There are some days that I lam able to lead a communal prayer service with a sincere focus and intent and there are others that I cannot get past the inaccuracy of the prayers. What I mean by inaccuracy is the ways that the words of the prayers so dramatically fail to talk about ‘God’ and the way that I understand and relate to ‘God’. The whole ‘king’ idea is certainly out for me, as is the concept of ‘God’ needing me or anyone else to praise, glorify yada, yada, yada. (For this reason you will never hear me refer to our communal prayer experience as ‘worship.’) There are times when I feel as if the traditional structure of the Jewish communal prayer service is the square shaped hole in which I am trying to shove my round shaped God-idea.

Unfortunately, I am not immune to such intellectual wanderings even during the High Holydays. In fact, I might be more prone to such wanderings and wonderings in the coming weeks as the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem to ratchet up this kind of spiritual dissonance. The dissonance increases when I place the liturgy of these days into the context of some of the broader themes of this time of year.  There is Teshuvah – the process in which we seek to return to God – with its underlying assumption that we have spent the last year straying.  Then there is the expectation of forgiveness.  We ask God (the same one whom we have been busy praising, glorifying and ‘worshipping’) to grant us forgiveness for what we have done to our family, friends, foes, etc.so that we may be written in the Book of Life (a.k.a. The ‘You Can Live Another Year’ Warrant).  In my role as rabbi – responsible for leading the services during the High Holydays – I find this spiritual dissonance of mine problematic, at best.

And yet, I keep coming back … and the beauty of My Elul Exercise is that I have 35 more days to ruminate all about it.

Timbrels At The Ready – Day #37

I often tell each Bar or Bat Mitzvah something that I heard from someone much wiser than me: One does not select the story of Torah that you will read as you become a Bar Mitzvah, but the portion chooses you. Being a believer in some sense of this kind of mystery and magic, I was trying to pay attention at this morning’s Bat Mitzvah rehearsal …

As we began our review of the service the Bat Mitzvah brought out the hand crafted and colorful new tallit that she would bless and wear while she leads tomorrow morning’s service. Much to our surprise we noticed that in the location on the tallit where we expected to find the blessing one recites upon donning the tallit there was another Hebrew phrase. We examined it together and (also helped by the clue of the image of a woman dancing on the tallit) discovered it was this verse from Exodus: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand …” (Exodus 15:20).

With my own aphorism in mind, I wondered: What might I glean from the appearance of this phrase on this morning?

A bit of context first … Just a few beats earlier in Exodus , the Israelites had taken their last steps through the two walls of water created by parted Sea of Reeds. On the previous beat the walls of water crushed the Egyptian army as those same walls crashed and crumbled around them. Miriam grabs her timbrel (or some kind of musical instrument – scholars debate its true identity) and begins to celebrate. Following her lead many other women grab their instruments and join the celebration. When I consider this phrase on this morning one question comes to mind: Where did they get those instruments?

We have all played the game in which we hypothetically ask what items (beyond people and pets) we would take if our house was on fire or for any reason we had to leave our homes at a moment’s notice. Granted some musically inclined people would grab one of their instruments, but I am not musically inclined in that manner. I would imagine there would be many more things on my list (and other’s lists as well), especially if I was escaping slavery and wondering what I might need to survive in the desert.

Rashi, the prolific 11th century French rabbi, asked this same question about this element of the story centuries before it percolated in my mind. Rashi’s take: these women’s perspective was such and their faith so strong that they believed there would be things to celebrate out there in the wilderness. They knew they would NEED an instrument with which to lead a celebration.

They didn’t just grabbed their timbrels, the seized hold on an ATTITUDE. They expected to celebrate. Despite the urgency and chaos of the moment of leaving Egypt; despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead of them in the wilderness (including the possibility of hunger, thirst and even death) they grabbed their timbrels because they expected joy.

Its not a bad attitude to grab and hold on to … no one has to go too deeply into the news to encounter a sense of hopelessness or futility. If the news of the day was not enough, we are called to get very serious during these days of Elul. We reflect and review our limits, our failings, our pains, our sins … oy.

So, it is not at all a bad message for this morning of this day, or any morning of any day: Grab your timbrel. Expect joy. Be ready to celebrate.

That $#%*! Ram’s Horn! – Day #38

For me the experience of blowing the Shofar is all about a lack of control.

Before I get to my issues, let’s begin with an Elul custom: hearing a daily call and hearing of the Shofar blast. These brief daily Shofar blasts offer us a taste and a hint of the great, resounding calls that await us on Rosh Hashanah. There are many aspects of the Shofar upon which to wax philosophical: its unique sound; the nature of the notes that are ‘played’, the origin, history and symbolism of the Shofar – all which I imagine might become fodder for another post down the road. But, before I can get to conjuring all of that interpretation and spin, I must address my own Shofar-related incompetence.

I often joke that I missed the day in rabbinic school during which proper Shofar blowing technique was addressed. (For that matter, there seem to be a few important days of rabbinic school that I seem to have missed!) Now, it is not as if I can’t make any sound with the Shofar. I simply cannot get it to make the sound that I want it to make. I can do what I am instructed. I hold the Shofar at the right angle and with the right amount of pressure to my lips. I can use the proper lip formation and apply acceptable amounts of breath. I can even hear in my mind the way the different calls (tekia, shvarim, teruah) are supposed to sound. In the end, despite doing all of these proper things … I cannot control what comes out the other end of that $#%*! ram’s horn!

And beneath the sounds of those pathetic squeaks and squawks emitting from my Shofar, I hear the soft mocking of an old Yiddush proverb: Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht. Man plans, God laughs. No matter what sounds I think should be emanating from this ram’s horn or what I think I deserve to have ascend from it, the nature of the actual sounds seem beyond my control. Here is something that I clearly cannot control. Each year the re-emergence of the Shofar taunts me: reminding me about things I can control and what I cannot control and – not so gently – nudges me to consider my limitations.

Many people may have never seen, yet less picked up a Shofar and tried to manufacture the sharp, rich sounds that can be heard from it. Nonetheless, each person experiences moments (possibly just earlier today) when she or he felt that all of the correct things were said or done – to only find that outcome to be dramatically different (and possibly painful, annoying or maddening) than intended. Perhaps the call of the Shofar – the one we listen to with more than our ears – intends to call our attention to limitations and possibilities. It bids us to partake once again in Teshuvah, the act of returning to our Truths.  During this process of Teshuvah we remember: who we are, what we can do, what we cannot do and what will will do about all of the above.

Open up your ears and hearts and minds, because Elul and its Shofar has arrived.  It’s taking names and kickin’ butt – challenging each of us to listen up and pay attention to what the Shofar has to say.

Me and the Virgin Mary – Day #39

One of the traditional implements in the Elul toolbox is the regular reading of Psalm 27. And so I tuned to the Psalms (that spiritual iPod of Jewish tradition) and checked out what Psalm 27 had to say to me today. Verse 9 grabbed my attention as David (King David to you and I) says to God: ‘Don’t hide Your face from me.’

Now, I am not ready to at this point into my Elul Exercise to get too deep into the God thing, but underneath that idea in this verse there is something for me to get my teeth into. This line implies that there are indeed essential things hidden beneath the surface of the lives we live. While we may not see them, we do want to see these things. We need to do something to be able to see, even just a bit of that mystery beyond our current vision. We need to clean up the mess and the disorder and create some cleanliness and order in the space around us to better see what lay beyond.

Which brings me to my encounter this morning with the Virgin Mary. (Just bear with me.) The move of Temple Micah’s Religious School to the Blessed Sacrament Catholic School this year requires the moving of cabinets, books and supplies to that space. During each visit I have made to the school in the past months I observed new things about our new locale. I remember during one of my early visits noting how the actual amount of ritual symbols I expected to see in a Catholic school were less than my expectations. During this morning’s visit – dressed to shlep and shvitz while I lugged the boxes and cabinets to their new home – I stopped to consider one of the symbols that does preside in the school: a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Now, my caveat of ignorance is that I think it was the Virgin Mary, but I fully admit that I could be incorrect. However, no matter who this rather warm and inviting symbol was supposed to be, it made me think of Mary – who in the canon of the Christian sacred story – is Jesus’ mother. One of the important elements of that story is that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. As a Jew I have never been asked to accept or even understand this concept, this article of faith. My approach to it has been simply to honor and respect it as significant to someone else’s faith and religious understanding. Of course, that doesn’t mean I have not tried to understand it …

I considered her and her story and let go of what I could not logically grasp. From there concepts and conditions like innocence, purity, simplicity and even mystery came to mind. Perhaps, from a Christian perspective the arrival of Jesus on the scene needed those elements. Jesus’s arrival needed a clean slate, a lack of pretense and politic or a sense of wonder and possibility. Whether I believed this story or not, I could certainly understand the way that such conditions create space in our lives for the Sacred to enter. Perhaps David’s was not an admonition, but more or a invitation: ‘Come on in … don’t hide your face from me.’ … How do we create such conditions? … What do we need to do to enable ourselves to see what may be hidden from us?

Coincidentally (if you believe is such things as coincidence) I came back to the synagogue and began to do some of my own housecleaning. I was already dressed for it and the afternoon had opened up appointment wise – so I began to attack the hallway of lost supplies and my office itself. Each year at this time I have the need (I can physically feel it) to clean up the physical mess and disorder in the spaces in which I spend so much time. I examine what I have laying around, on my bookshelves and in my desk and cabinets. I decide what to discard (probably some untouched and forgotten items that last year I determined I should keep because I might need them). I place things in new places or decide to keep them in the old ones to help increase my efficiency and my enjoyment of that space. In the order that follows I can actually see the top of my desk and easily find things in my drawers … there is room in my space to see what I did not see before. And then, I am ready then to take on the work involved in the New Year.

One of the forms of Jewish meditative practice guides the practitioner to focus on emptiness or nothingness. This emptiness or nothingness is called ‘Ayin’ — loosely translated as ‘that which is without any-thing’. Perhaps it is a part of the nature of the human being that there exists a kind of divine Mystery that lurks just a bit out of our awareness and reach. To see it, feel it, experience it or simply know it we must takes those first steps toward re-ordering our space and making room for some simplicity or emptiness. We need to clear our heads and our hearts and create a bit of pure, unadulterated nothingness … and then pay attention for how the Sacred begins to fill that space.

No matter if that space is the desk in front of us or the space within, it is time to get to work.

My Elul Exercise – Day #40

Elul.  Sounds like a beginner tongue twister, doesn’t?  It’s not.   It’s the name of one of those months in the Hebrew calendar, one of the few during which a holiday doesn’t fall.   Elul is month number 6 in that calendar.  And yet, due to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the Hebrew calendar it gets plenty of attention.  Elul is the last month the year (5771 in our current case).  It’s 29 days are a prelude, a walk-up, a pregame, a prologue (well, you get the idea) to the New Year.  Throw in the succeeding ten days of teshuvah and Elul frames the 40 day period before the most holy day of the year – Yom Kippur.  

Elul (which begins this year on the 31st of August) is not some holiday deprived month of the Hebrew calendar, but oh, so much more …

  • The Marahal of Prague (the same sage if Golem fame) taught that  “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into his soul and search his deeds, that he may make confession.”
  • We are taught that the 4 letters of the name Elul are an acronym for an oft repeated (especially at weddings) phrase in the Song of Songs (6:3): “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.”   In this Elulian scenario – one ‘beloved’ is you or I and the other ‘beloved’ is The Sacred.  
  • Our tradition suggests that after Moses trudged back up the mountain to remake the scrolls he so carelessly ‘dropped’ on the golden calf that he remained on he mountain for 40 days – from the 1st of Elul until the 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur).  What was he doing up there other than tablet carving?  Seeking whole-hearted forgiveness and reconciliation with The Holy on behalf of the the people of Israel. Ever since then the month of Elul serves as a pretty good time to seek and cultivate mercy and forgiveness.
  • And then there is that number 40 cropping up and again and again … 40 is a number of cleansing and purification. Noah’s Flood rains lasted 40 days, and the mikveh ― the ritual purification bath ― contains 40 measures of water.  Tradition teaches us that the Holy One is more accessible during the 40-day period beginning with the start of Elul and culminating in the first ten days of the month of Tishrei, ending with Yom Kippur.   If you can get past the ‘King’ metaphor, consider this mystical understanding of these days as when “The King is in the Field.”   King in the palace, not too accessible.  (guards, knights, advisors, jesters, etc.)  King in public out to inspect how things are going in the kingdom, an entirely different story.  (‘Your majesty, did you see that joust last night?!)  Elul is the time – in this mystic construct – that the Sacred is a little more accessible to you and I and we need to take advantage of it.  The mystics prefer Isaiah’s way of expressing it: “Seek God when He is at hand; Call upon Him when He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).

Here is what I am going to do (or at least try to do) to help me look into my soul a bit more deeply, to seek out the Cosmic Beloved of mine out there, to seek and cultivate forgiveness and to be in the field with the ‘King’.    Each and every day of these forty it is my intention to write something about this sacred process of reflection and renewal that our traditions bids us to undertake each year.  With great humility, I offer these writings to you in forms of daily blog posts.  Not only do I want you to help me in staying true to my daily exercise, but perhaps my own ramblings about such Elulian themes, may be of use to you as you endeavor to take your own path of reflection, and renewal this New Year.  

So, read the daily blog posts, follow the blog, comment and share what you think … hopefully in some way my Elul Exercise will be a help to your own.  

And, whatever that exercise may be, may you have a great workout this New Year.