Category Archives: Jewish Practices

We’re All in This Together

ב”ה     الحمد لله

It’s a lovely time of year.  We’re in the middle of Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights commemorating religious freedom and miracles in olden times.  And of course many folks are experiencing the spirit of Christmas.  And some celebrate Kwanza, or Winter Solstice or what have you.  It feels like the time of year when we all, in our own ways, try to open our hearts to our fellows and celebrate our common humanity.  Which is a lovely thing to do.

It’s a contrast from the rest of the year.  In our everyday mentally we often walk around seeing everyone as distinct and separate.  We may try to see a G-dly light emanating from their soul, but our picture of the world is usually like this:

menorah_top

Everyone doing their their best to shine forth their light.  On a good day, we can give each other the benefit of the doubt and see that we’re all created in the image of G-d.

But for me, the miraculous beauty of this time of year is that we have an opportunity, when so many of us are opening our hearts, of seeing that we’re all in this together.  We all breathe the same air, we live on the same planet, what we do affects each other in ways large and small, seen and unseen.  And we all struggle with the daily choices we have, wherein we try to be the best person we can, we try to make the choices that we’ll look back on later and smile at a moment well lived, well done.  And sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we wish we had a “do over”.  But it’s the same for all of us, here on this earth, and our choices affect each other every day, from whether we hug our children to whether we smile at the passersby; whether we let someone into the lane ahead of us, or whether we visit the sick, aid the poor, comfort the distressed.

Because we’re all connected, we’re all in this together.

The reality of our situation, when we have the eyes of wisdom to see it, is really more like:

menorah

May we find it within our hearts to love our neighbor as our self during this holiday season.

And may G-d bless you, every one.

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The Merit of Being Unrefined

ב”ה

So I was sitting in our back yard, relaxing on Shabbos, mentioning that I had eaten only a little challah at the post-service meal at the little minyan where I was praying that morning.  Our guest asked why I didn’t eat more of the delicious rich egg-bread which is a staple of meals on the Sabbath.  Perhaps I was reducing my gluten intake?

No, not really.  Well, sort of.  I think in our culture these days we over-refine foods.  Foods are often so processed (or genetically engineered) that they lose their connection to the earth and are stripped of their basic nutritional value.  Bleached white flour, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and ingredients that only chemists can pronounce.  I’m also wary of food grown with pesticides that leach into the produce as well as into the environment.  “I’m migrating towards being a coarse ruffian,” I answered.  “I aspire to be less refined.”

As I reflected on that back-to-basics theme in regard to food, I realized it also applies in other areas as well.  Most of the movies I see advertised these days are remakes of older movies, or yet another sequel in a series of films whose pilot was of dubious quality to begin with.  It feels like Hollywood is just rehashing the same old stuff again and again, with each iteration farther removed from any grounding in the real world.  Special effects, increased violence, graphic depictions and unrestrained profanity don’t make up for a fundamental lack of human complexity in the characters and plot.  I want a story that touches my heart or challenges my mind.

And in the arena of public discourse, much of the news feels like gossip to me.  He said, she said, they reported, so-and-so commented, etc.  There’s less original reporting and analysis on the events themselves and more gushing over what other people are saying about it, and speculation about popularity and potential public reaction.  We get further and further away from actual happenings and caught up in blogosphere echoes.

I suspect we’re in danger of doing ourselves a similar injustice mentally as well.  Perhaps it’s the California vibe I am newly immersed in, but I feel there’s a danger in overthinking our internal experiences as well.  Getting caught up in classifying and clarifying and processing and sharing to the point where we’re on our phones composing texts to other people (in reality or in our minds awaiting the next online opportunity) and not spending enough time in deep attentiveness with ourselves and others, actually experiencing the here and now.  Watching a sunset, looking deeply into our lover’s eyes, walking barefoot on the grass.

Sometimes fresh broccoli is more appealing than a rich tiramisu dessert.

(Okay, so maybe I just stepped over a line there.)

This is one of the things I treasure about the Sabbath.  I unplug.  I stop trying to change things or report on things or participate in molding the world in some fashion, or even trying to understand how things work.  Instead, I focus on prayer and gratitude, on community and family, on simple things like eating basic foods, telling old stories and conversing about our inner lives.  Reading a book, playing some games together, taking a nap.  Simple, refreshing and nourishing.

Like having a friend over in the backyard in the beautiful sunshine, and thanking God Almighty for the opportunity to live and breathe in His world another day.

Gentle Reader, do you replenish and nourish yourself regularly?  If so, what does that look like?

May the coming week inspire and uplift you.

Marriage: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

ב”ה

I’m married!

Last Monday, just a week ago, my wife(!) and I were married in Piedmont California amidst family and friends.  A beautiful ceremony blending my traditional practice with my wife’s renewal approach, followed by dancing and eating and toasting and dancing.  And then flying to Minnesota to celebrate with friends there.  And now back in California.

After the ecstasy, the laundry.

There are all sorts of gift boxes to unwrap (thank you, everyone!) and thank-yous to send out.  The rooms of my wife’s house (where we’ll be living) need to be rearranged to reflect this new reality, and the cell phone accounts, and the dishes and the new joint financial structures to put in place.

But it’s all quite lovely to have to figure out, thank G-d.

During the course of figuring out what our ceremony would look like, we had many occasions where our practices were in conflict.  No compromise seemed possible; I need it this way, she needs it that way.  For example, it came as a surprise to my wife that in the traditional ceremony, the groom presents the bride with a wedding band.  It’s a one-way gift; there is no exchange.  In fact, an exchange would cancel the required gifting.  For her, a joint commitment should be reflected in an exchange of rings; we’re both committing to the relationship, we should each give the other a ring.  Hard to find a middle path there.

Our first attempt was to do both actions (in two ceremonies, one traditional and one renewal).  That would have resulted in my wife having three rings: an engagement ring, a traditional wedding band, and a ring from the exchange of rings.  We were walking down this path, meeting with an artisan/jeweler showing us her wares, when she said, “Of course, this is very important; you only have one wedding ring!”  My bride  resonated with that sentiment: she should have only one ring.

What to do?

And so we walked forward trusting there would be a way, and G-d answered our prayers with this inspiration: I gave her a plain wedding band in the traditional ceremony, and for the exchange ritual I gave her a second ring that fit over the first one to create a single ring.  The ring she gave me had a similar design (two levels already crafted into a single ring).

So, we have matching rings, and I was also able to give her two rings.  Pretty amazing the way it turned out.  And there are other stories like that, where we had conflicting needs and no apparent way to resolve them, and we stepped forward trusting G-d would show us a way.  And He did.

In mystical circles, marriage is considered a three-way partnership: bride, groom and G-d.  One plus one plus one makes one.  That has been our experience as we walked toward the wedding canopy, and I trust it will continue to be our lived reality as we walk down this life of marriage together.

So far so good, as we move forward amidst the mundane details of day-to-day life, grinning ear-to-ear at each other, making our way through our “to do” lists, the ecstasy and the laundry.

Gentle Reader, I welcome any advice that you have on what practices help nurture a strong marital relationship.

Sukkah and Chuppah

ב”ה

Sukkah 2014

One of the lovely miracles this holiday season was the way my [brand new California] Sukkah came together just in time.  Thank G-d.  The classic trips to the lumber yard, hardware store, finding out the lattice wouldn’t fit in my Prius and borrowing a pickup truck, revising the design as I went along, all at the last minute…  to build a temporary dwelling as decreed by The Master at the time and season of His choosing.  And as the sun went down Wednesday evening, there it stood.  Quite amazing.

And now the energy is peaceful and lovely, and we’ve been sharing it with guests, both expected and unexpected.  Every evening I move the table and chairs out and bring in a plump mattress, still wrapped in plastic, and pile sheets and blankets atop it so I can be warm overnight in the chilly evening air.  And then every morning out goes the bedding and back comes the table so we can eat and have guests over.  A nice rhythm.

And so, two weeks until my wedding and I’m both caught up in the stress and craziness of planning such an event (during the Jewish holidays!), and delighted and thankful that my beloved and I are joining our lives together at so many levels.

There are many parallels drawn between the Sukkah and the chuppah (wedding canopy).  They’re both open structures, both fragile (in the human sense), both under G-d’s watchful provenance, both filled with joy and gratitude, and both invite communal support and celebration.

And it occurs to me that perhaps my bride and I should make some kind of yearly practice of putting up the wedding canopy again (as we will the Sukkah every year), and reexperiencing the joy and hope and gratitude of this season.  Because a fancy anniversary dinner and a night out just can’t compare to the awe and splendor of a holy dwelling, consecrated by G-d, witnessed by friends, family and community.  The deep movement of the soul.

I think G-d knew what He was doing when He set out the holidays for the Jews to celebrate, to return to Him, to remember our relationship with Him, and to rest into it completely and joyfully.

And I hope, please G-d, that my future wife and I can celebrate our joining of souls within the rhythm of our marriage over the years in the same beautiful and inspiring way that Jews the world over have renewed our relationship with The One by observing the holy days (holidays) over the generations.

May we have great success, and may you, too, have great success if you endeavor to.

So I ask you, Gentle Reader, what brings your soul to joy and gratitude, and what do you do to mark that, to celebrate it in your life?

Unprepared

ב”ה

I’m preparing for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

Which, as I write it, strikes me as ludicrous.  How can one prepare for such a day?

How do you take stock of your life in a serious and deep way, a way that causes you to make amends, change direction, and alter your deeply-ingrained habits?

The truth is, I don’t know.  And each year I enter this day feeling wholly unprepared, no matter how thoughtful I have been in the days leading up to it.

So this year, I’m trying to make peace with that, and just accept that unpreparedness is part of the process.  (Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, wrote a lovely book: This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, which I recommend.)

Two things I’m sure of: (1) the more completely I enter into the Day of Atonement, the more I get out of it, the more my life changes for the better.  (2) It’s better to do this kind of introspection once a year and make changes, than to wait for the last days when there’s no more time.

So, Gentle Reader, may your life be changed for the better by the process of repentance and atonement, and may you make choices in the coming year that bring you joy when you look back on them from a future vantage point.

Shofar RSVP

ב”ה

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As part of the New Year celebrations, we Jews trumpet a ram’s horn, called a shofar.  The sounds range from a triumphal blast celebrating the coronating of The King (ie G-d), to the jagged cries of a child (ie us) yearning for our Father.

Just two days ago, I was spending the holiday with the Ferris family (may they live an be well) in Berkeley, when a new friend plopped down on the sofa beside me and inquired (as if I was supposed to know!), “Why is the shofar small at one end and wider at the other?”

“Do you want a physical explanation or a spiritual answer,” I asked.

“Whatever you want to give.”

As I sat there doubting whether my dim memory of high school physics was up to a scientific explanation, I was inspired to offer this: “To remind us that even the smallest act of kindness, like the breath as it travels outward and away from us, can have large and profound effects, transforming the world into a better place.”

“Interesting that you should say, ‘act of kindness’.”

Which got me thinking more kabbalistically: in the sounding of the shofar, we have the warm breath (or ruach, which also means spirit in Hebrew and can be seen as the sefirah of chesed or lovingkindness) traveling through a cold, rigid ram’s horn (which we can think of as the sefirah of gevurah, or strictness), and the resulting trumpeting can be seen as harmonizing beauty (which corresponds to the sefirah of teferes).  (I’m no kabbalist, but I know enough to be dangerous!)

The diffuse breath, by itself, has little discernible effect on the world, and an inert ram’s horn even less.  But together, they can make a penetrating sound, a beautiful call to the soul to awaken once again, a call to return to G-d and celebrate His Kingship.

And as I mulled over this idea (which had only popped into my head as my friend had asked his question) it occurred to me that I could apply this insight to my own life in a slightly different way:  The circumstances of my life can sometimes feel confining and rigid, like the ram’s horn.  I chafe at having to get a 9-5 job, or perhaps I dread a particularly challenging relationship that I need to deal with.

Rather than retreating from these challenges, or resenting the burdens, perhaps I need to embrace the circumstances, call forth more spirit from my soul, and step into these narrow spaces more fully, with my innermost being.  And then maybe, like the shofar, my life will come alive with a mighty and awesome sound, a tribute fit for the coronation of The King.

I suspect that is the invitation The Master is issuing to me, to all of us.

May we find the inspiration within ourselves to respond to the call.

The garden of my relationships

ב”ה

I prefer to eat organic food.  I’m sure that the conventional produce is grown only with the finest synthetic pesticides available for ingestion, but… no thank you.  I was amused when a comedian (Jimmy Fallon?) quipped, “‘organic food’, or, as our grandparents used to call it: ‘food'”.  We have introduced so many man-made chemicals into our food supply that we have a special name for food grown with only naturally occurring elements.

Water seems to be following a similar path.  I remember as a child drinking water from fountains and faucets everywhere we went.  But now, we have bottled water.  Bottled water!  We actually pay money for a plastic container filled with water.  Unthinkable when I was young.  But in these modern days the water that came into my sink in Saint Louis Park (Minnesota) had such a taste that I used to trudge to the co-op and shlep jugs of “reverse-osmosis” water home.  If I remember my son’s school project correctly, this is due to an old creosote processing plant in the area that closed over forty years ago.  Forty years, and the water still tastes awful.  We reap what we sow.

So today I was wondering about air.  Is that the next basic human commodity that we will poison to such an extent that we’ll bottle “fresh air” and make it available at every gas station across the country?

Okay.  “Simmer down, Shimon,” I hear you murmur.  Things aren’t that bad.  And if that were the sum total of my curmudgeon-mind musings this morning, I probably would not have posted.

But, tonight, the Jewish new year begins, and it’s time to evaluate all of our relationships and take a fearless and searching moral inventory.  What to make amends for, what to change, what to foster and encourage.

And it got me thinking: am I so consumed by my own struggles that, like a creosote plant, I’m slowly polluting the environment around me?  Am I taking my relationships with those around me for granted?  They are my lifeline, my source of comfort and strength.   Am I tending to the garden of my relationships with enough natural and organic elements of my heart, or am I giving rote and mechanical effort, too much synthetic pesticide?

I have to be here, that I know.  I have to inhabit the moments I’m given.  Because children grow up quickly, and grown-ups can leave suddenly, and before we know it, we’re looking back over our lives, wondering where the time and the people went and, often, wishing we had done things differently.

How can I avoid that regret?

I plan to practice “dying” a little.  We Jews do this intensely on Yom Kippur (coming up in ten days).  I intend to try on the death perspective all day long, reviewing my life from that vantage point.  What will I pine do be able to differently, or just one more time?

I expect to look at every relationship in my life, every role I play: child of G-d, father, brother, uncle, friend, writer, lover, citizen, consumer, Jew, homeowner, etc.  On my deathbed, what will I wish I had done?

And then, I hope to gather up that wisdom, and, like a gardener, pour it gently back into my daily life in small, loving ways.  Sustainable, renewable ways.  A little here, a little there.

I have an inkling, already, that one of the major things is just opening my heart and soul to others without trying to be something.  Without trying to be anything.  Not trying to have wise answers or know what to say or what to do.  Just sharing the moment-by-moment struggle.  We’re in this together.

I think that’s the most powerful gift we have to offer others.  And ourselves.

But we’ll see (G-d willing!).  Maybe there will be some surprises in there, too.  Things that arise in the space that Yom Kippur creates in time, giving the still small voice an opportunity to be heard most clearly.

I hope, Gentle Reader, that you have an opportunity for such a practice.  And if so, then in the days to come, may you learn much from spending more time listening, more time hearkening to that inner wisdom.

And may we remember to act in accordance with the basic truth of our life here: we’re all in this together.