Shavuot 5776 – A Mountain Exercise

On June 11-12 Jews around the world will commemorate the most significant mountain experience in the history of the Jewish people – Sinai. On the festival of Shavuot we relive this mountain moment that is such an essential part of the Jewish story. At Sinai our spiritual ancestors stood together and directly engaged with the divine – and their lives were changed. In honor of that part of the Jewish story and in the spirit of opening up to such moments in our lives, I invite you to take a few moments to commemorate Shavuot in the next couple of days.

Bringing the Mountain To You – A Shavuot Reflection

  1. Carve out some time where you can sit, relax and reflect.
  2. If you can make it a space where you can experience of bit of the majesty that is part of our Colorado mountains, better yet! 
  3. Bring along something to write with (if that is something you prefer) or something to sip on (if that is something you prefer). 
  4. Make yourself comfortable … first physically, make sure you are good to sit for some time. 
  5. Then mentally, take a few moments, focus on your breathing, empty your mind of what you have to do or what you did not do … just clear out your mind of the clutter of the everyday. 
  6. Read this teaching from our tradition a couple of times about the Sinai mountain moment: “When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they miraculously were made whole, so that their physical perfection reflected the integrity of their souls. This the Torah describes all the Israelites as ‘standing’ at the foot of the mountain, implying none was crippled; ‘hearing’ the words of God, implying that none was deaf; ‘seeing’ the thunder and lightning, suggesting that none was blind. As they distanced themselves from Sinai and began to grumble about the hardships of the journey, the effect of the miracle began to wear off. Their blemished souls began to be reflected in their blemished bodies.” (Numbers Rabbah 7:1) 
  7. Consider the nature of this moment that the commentary suggests. You may think, write or even draw in response to the following prompts: 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘stand’ without any weakness or injury. 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘see’ with great clarity and vision. 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘hear’ with lucidity and comprehension. 
  • Compare and contrast those times – what is similar and different about them? 
  • The commentator names these moments of standing, seeing and hearing at Sinai as ‘miracles’. How comfortable are you applying that term to your moments of standing, seeing and hearing? 
  • How easy or difficult are your moments of standing, seeing and hearing to recreate? 
  • What can you do enable more moments like these in your life?

Take a few more moments to be in the moment, reflect on what you thought about, wrote or drew.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.

The Orange in the White House – Pesach 5776

Through the inundation of the presidential campaign, the established stalwarts of our calendar remind us of the bigger and larger cycles of our lives. In Jewish households, Passover is one of the most significant of these points in the mandala of time. Looking through the lens of our impending Seder(s) anticipating an historic outcome in this presidential election season … I see orange.

It was my first Passover Seder at Temple Micah. The tables were set with all the ancient symbols of our tradition that help us to celebrate freedom and its promise: among them matzah, a hard boiled egg, a shank bone, bitter herbs. Sitting rather conspicuously among these familiar elements was a large, round orange! There certainly were not citrus fruits in the bundles carried by our ancient ancestors as they left Egypt … and I had never seen an orange on the Seder plate in my grandparents’ home (my template for the Passover ritual). So, I asked the question of my new community members: What was an orange doing on the Seder plate?

The orange, I learned that evening, sat on the Seder plate to remind us of the historical exclusion (and more recent inclusion) of women into Jewish leadership and practice. It was not the most elegant or logical symbol. Apparently, the choice of an orange derived from an urban legend of some traditional rabbi uttering something to the effect of: A woman has as much business being a rabbi, as an orange belongs on the Seder plate!

While I did not fall in love with the symbol itself, the idea of it and the fact that someone chose to put it there reflects a couple of essential aspects of Judaism. The first of these elements is that Judaism is a living, breathing entity. It is changing and evolving and not static. While the rituals we do today have roots in tradition and can be traced back through time, they simultaneously integrate meaningful and relevant insights from our contemporary world. This openness to change suggests a willingness to continually examine what is just and fair. At our best we in engage in this process of examination through the lens of our core values and truths. It is one of these truths that lies at the heart of the orange’s journey to the Seder plate.

From the very beginning of our Jewish story we are challenged to remember and respect those individuals who have the potential to get caught on the fringes of society. The Torah accounts numerous times that the Israelites need to care for ‘the orphan, the widow and the stranger’, all individuals who tended to get lost in Biblical society. While these specific designations certainly fit the Biblical world, they also speak literally and figuratively to us and our world. The Biblical author did not possess the world view needed to acknowledge, for example, the exclusion of women. However, the Biblical author did understand the essence of compassion, mercy and justice and challenged the audience keep those values as at the forefronts of their hearts and minds. Through the eyes of his time and the lens of these values, he named ‘the widow, the orphan and the stranger’ as those needing our attention. Today, we Jews take the same lens and have the same obligation to name those in need of our attention. Whether those in need be widows, orphans and strangers … or women, immigrants or Palestinians.

While, I still do not love the orange, itself, on the plate … I am thankful for the opportunities that we have to see our world through the lens of these values that I still believe hold true today. I relish those ways in which Jews thoughtfully update our tradition to address the needs and realities of our contemporary lives. I look forward to the ways that we creatively integrate these new perspectives into our rituals and traditions … even if they are oranges on Seder plates.

Purim 5776 – More Esthers Needed

It’s easy to spot the Hamans out there, it’s hard to embody Esther when we encounter him.

In this current political season, it is not hard to imagine Donald J. Trump sporting the three-sided, Hamentashen-looking hat donned by our least favorite Purim villain. It is not a stretch to see the same bigotry, prejudice and fear-mongering woven into the narrative of the Book of Esther echoing today when we watch and listen to the message emanating from the camp of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

In listening to Mr. Trump’s recent speech at the AIPAC convention, I am reminded how difficult it is to confront Haman. I do not think I have spoken with any Jews who are not at the least uncomfortable with this candidacy and at the most outraged by it. When the scheduled speech was announced, my inbox was flooded with reactions and plans by those in attendance at the AIPAC conference to protest in some form or fashion. And yet, as I watched and listened to his speech on YouTube … I was surprised to hear ovations and cheers as the candidate offered the platitudes about Israel, the U.S. and Iran that for which the 19,000 Jews in attendance were waiting.

All 19,000 of the attendees were not cheering and there were some people who actually did protest and walk out. And yet, it is probably safe to say that there were still thousands of Jews applauding and cheering on the candidate with the Hamentaschen on his head. After all, his inflammatory remarks have not been about Jews … and he did march as marshal in the Friends of Israel parade in New York City … his daughter is a Jew, about to give birth to a Jewish child … and it seems by the things he is saying about Israel as if we Jews might be ‘safe’ in the crazy world in which Donald J. Trump is elected to the one of the most powerful positions in the world.

It’s easy to spot the Hamans out there, it’s hard to embody Esther when we encounter him.

Esther’s challenge was in overcoming her relative comfort and safety. Chances were, or at least it appeared, that her status within the kingdom would preserve her life in the face of Haman’s decree to kill the Jews. He did not appear to be a direct threat to her. By standing up to Haman and the King, she threatened her relative comfort and safety. Her genius, her courage lay in her risking this lack of immediate threat … and remembering her highest values and paying attention to the larger realities … she named and confronted Haman. The consequences of her safety and security be damned.

It is easy to confront Haman when he threatens us directly, it is more uncomfortable and unsettling to do so when the threats are toward the other. The other who seems not like us, but in truth in not very far from us. In this case it is the ‘illegal’ immigrant, the muslim … but there are plenty more ‘others’ out there whom Haman threatens.

The challenge of Embodying Esther is about using our Jewish lens on the world … the lens shaped by our values of justice, mercy and peace … to recognizing the injustice and intolerance that impacts others. Embodying Esther is not simply about recognizing such things, but putting aside our relative comfort and security and confronting them. Whether the other who faces injustice is a Muslim, an immigrant, a woman, a Palestinian, an African American … anyone whose security, liberty and dignity is threatened by someone donning the three-sided, Hamantaschen-looking headwear.

We’ve got plenty of Hamans. We need more Esthers.

The Divinity Principle – Yitro 5776

The Mediocrity Principle. I came across this scientific notion while listening to this week’s This American Life radio show podcast. Its premise is that no place in the universe is more ‘special’ than another place. All places are scientifically the same, mediocrity abounds. This philosophical construct is used to argue the position that there may be life on other planets – i.e. that earth is not unique or special and that there exist millions of other planets like earth that could produce life.

I do not think anyone (or any planet) wants to think of ourselves as mediocre. Once I finished feeling the rejection of being told that I lived on a mediocre planet … I began to acclimate to the idea, with a twist. The concept that many places could be similar in their potential for life … makes sense. It is a hopeful idea. I extrapolated the concept to the varied and diverse places here in our planet, in our country … to the varied and diverse people in our world … to the varied and diverse moments in our days. And, I liked the idea … that each was held equally the possibility for ‘life’. Every place, person and moment holds the same potential.

But, I was still stuck on ‘mediocrity.’ Potential for ‘life’ is not mediocre at all, it is anything but ‘mediocrity’. Mediocre is ‘Meh’. The potential for life is ‘Wow.’

Torah this week tells us the story of the Sinai moment and the revelation of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. (Get that Mel Brooks version of this moment out of your mind!) In the course of our story (whether one reads it literally or as myth), Sinai is a singularly special moment of encounter with the Divine. Seen through the lens of the Mediocrity Principle, it is not at all singular and limited, but varied and diverse.

The great 20th century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it this way, “Sinai is an event that both happened once and for all and an event that happens all of the time. What God does happens both in time and in eternity.” Even though it may seem to us that this moment was at only one point on the storyline, such is not the true nature of Sinai or of our moments. Every moment is a potential moment for revelation, for connection to the holy … for life.

So, I humbly offer this spiritual spin on the Mediocrity Principle. For now, let’s call it the Divinity Principle. There is no place, no person and no moment that has any more divinity than the place you are in right now; the person with you whom you are interacting right now; or the moment you living right now …

So … forget the “Meh” and watch out for the ‘Wow.’