It is Good To Learn Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day, which in American culture usually means time reserved for family and friends, football and shopping.  But at its core, Thanksgiving is about gratitude.  While we should express gratitude every day of the year, we set aside this day to focus on the need to give thanks for what we have and for the kindness that others bestow on us and those dear to us.

Gratitude isn’t intuitive.  Babies don’t start life by sharing what they have; they must be taught by their parents to share.  Even when we become adults, we are challenged to overcome the impulse to protect what we have and block others from taking what we think we might need for ourselves.  Whether its due to our instinct for self-preservation or simply our nature to act in our own interests, it’s true that gratitude is something that must be learned.  It’s an acquired skill.

The Torah underscores this idea when the People of Israel are explicitly told to express gratitude for the bounty of the land and the material blessings they receive when they enter the land that God promised to the descendants of Abraham and begin to reap its many tangible blessings.  In fact, they are given a script for what to say when they bring a portion of what they harvest as an offering to God.

How do we cultivate an “attitude of gratitude?”  In his book A Code of Jewish Ethics (volume 1), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers numerous specific instructions on how to become a grateful person.  He writes that gratitude is rooted in remembrance, and that therefore we must make a conscious effort to remember the good things that others have done for us and for our loved ones.  As a personal practice, he recommends that we keep a journal of the good things that have been done for us, being careful not to overlook even the smallest gesture.  We can begin to cultivate an attitude of gratitude by being mindful of the times that we have benefited from someone treating us with kindness and consideration.

To Rabbi Telushkin’s comprehensive list, I would add two ideas.  First, when we do something kind or generous for another person, we should never expect anything in return.  This is a virtue expressed in Pirkei Avot, where we are taught not to fulfill a mitzvah in order to receive a reward.  Whether a reward might be forthcoming from God or from a human companion, we should never do something in order to store up good deeds owed to us.

Second, when cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we should look for role models of generosity.  All around us there are people who give of themselves constantly and selflessly out of a genuine desire to help others.  We have all met such people.  Perhaps we have been moved and inspired by their work, and perhaps we have causally overlooked them.  Sometimes they are given notoriety and sometimes they perform their work in anonymity.  We should seek out these people and hold them out as role models of generosity.  Such people will inspire us to give of ourselves.

On this Thanksgiving, I wish you a restful and memorable day.  May it be an occasion to begin (or continue) the practice of being mindful of the acts of generosity that come our way.  May we each do an inventory of the ways we are (and could be) helpful and generous with others.  And may we cultivate an attitude of gratitude that will be with us for a lifetime.

I offer this Thanksgiving kavanah (meditation) by Rabbi Debra.  Perhaps you might read its words at the dinner table, or contemplate them privately.

Tov l’hodot la-Adonai…it is good to give thanks.

To lift our eyes upward.

To hillsides still draped in deep browns and maroons of late autumn,

A rich, fleeting beauty before winter’s snows.


Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To inhale the crisp air Laced with woodsmoke and peat,

To feel welcome warmth as we venture inside,

To sniff the aromas of savory gravies,

of nutmeg and cinnamon, berries and wine.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To be seated at tables with friends and with family,

To join hands and embrace,

To share smiles and stories,

To count all our blessings,

To recall cherished loved ones who no longer sit here,

Grateful for memories and the gift of their lives.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For the land that we live in with its promise of freedom and justice for all.

For the visions we share and the strength that You give us

To work as Your partners To fix what is broken,

To bring healing and hope To those in despair.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For this joyous gathering,

For coming together to praise the Creator,

Extending our hands and raising our voices in chorus as one.


Learning Through Listening

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  There is virtually no end to the impact on our lives of genuine listening.  We tend to see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or sometimes based on small bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part, and that is not conducive to building and sustaining productive relationships.

We all need to engage in reflective listening, a practice that increases our connection to another person with whom we are in conversation by allowing them to finish speaking before replying, by always making eye contact, by putting aside a smartphone or pen, or by replying to what someone is saying rather than starting a new thread by making a new comment.

As I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I realize that none of us living here in America can break the logjam in the Middle East and bring peace to Israeli and Palestinians.  This anguished conflict, nearly a century-long, is deep-seated, and a solution is made elusive by history, by ideologically fragmented societies (both Israeli and Palestinian), and by an absence of courageous and visionary leadership on both sides.  Any solution will require enormous risks for both parties.  Still, we can’t look on helplessly and hopelessly.  What can we do?

As a first step, people can engage in reflective listening.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts because we want to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But the Palestinians need to listen to our narrative, our story of connection to the Land of Israel, and we need to listen to theirs.  Listening does not obligate either side to accept every element of the other’s story.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.

Lest you think that this idea is naïve, there is an organization called Encounter, that brings people together to listen.  As they describe their mission, Encounter is a nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They say, “We enable deeply committed Jewish influencers to encounter firsthand the people, perspectives and challenges at the heart of the conflict. Our programs inspire new perspectives, new conversations and new approaches to the conflict.”

I was on a one-day Encounter in Bethlehem several years ago and felt it was a very thoughtfully constructed and productive experience.  Jews spent time listening to Palestinians share their perspectives on the condition of their lives and the conflict.  I did not agree with everything I heard.  At times I thought that the person speaking was mired in their own version of reality.  I expressed my views in a polite and respectful manner when it was my turn to speak.  The idea of an open and honest dialogue was refreshing and welcome.

My wife Amy was on a 4-day Encounter last year with a group of Jewish leaders, including Melanie Gorelick.  Melanie is the Senior Vice President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and for a decade was the Director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.  The 4-day Encounter is, of course, a much more extensive and thorough experience, providing for many reflections and impressions.

I invite you to Oheb Shalom this Friday evening when Amy and Melanie will talk about their visit to the West Bank. I want to stress that their talk is not about finding a political solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, nor is it about urging us to take sides. It’s about the crucial importance of learning through listening.

Our service begins at 8:00 PM and the discussion and Q & A led by Amy and Melanie will begin at 8:30 PM. All are welcome, and I hope you will join us.

What’s Next After Pittsburgh?

It’s been nearly a week since a hate-filled anti-Semite entered Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a peaceful Shabbat morning and murdered 11 innocent souls who had gathered there to pray.  So many of us are still reeling from the shock and horror of the killings, from the unabashed, flagrant and virulent anti-Semitism, from the violation of sacred space.  We’ve reflected on the lives of the victims and shared stories of their goodness and their humanity.  We’ve sought comfort in each other’s presence and stood together to reject hatred.

What’s next?  How do we ensure that this massacre doesn’t fade into the recesses of memory, blurring together with other senseless, tragic and hate-filled mass killings?

There are certain moments in life that appear as a watershed, becoming the singular point when we decide to change our attitude and behavior.  Such moments are either times of triumph or times of tragedy, and they inspire us to enlarge our thinking on how we live our lives and take on new commitments that hold out hope for making a difference in the world.

This is such a moment.  The unfathomable tragedy of the murder of 11 Jews praying in a synagogue on Shabbat morning must motivate us to combat hate, to stem the growing and dangerous tide of gun violence in this country, and to reject the ways that human beings are demeaned and subjugated: anti-Semitism…racism…homophobia…Islamophobia.  Now, and not some other time in the hazy future.  Find an organization that seeks to obliterate those scourges in our society and help them with their work.

The murder of the Pittsburgh 11 must also prompt us to embrace goodness and decency.  When something is wrong in this world, when someone flings hatred at others, when someone takes a life or demeans another human being, our response must be to restore the goodness of the world.  That is the essence of the Jewish value of Tikun Olam- repairing of the world.  When the world’s goodness is tainted and compromised, we perform healing acts that renew that goodness and replenish our hope and confidence in humanity.

What should we do in the aftermath of last week’s killings in Pittsburgh?  Go out and do something good for a person in need, lend your time to a community that is wanting, help to feed the hungry or provide warm clothing for those who don’t know how they will protect themselves from the cold of winter.  Let this ugly, disheartening moment be the one that prompts us to redouble our efforts to bring an extra measure of goodness into the world.

One more thing:  What should Jews do in response to a graphic act of anti-Semitism, an assault on our people?  Two responses are called for.  First, we must continue to combat anti-Semitism with all our strength.  We must call out anti-Semitic acts when and where see them, report them to the authorities, and be unafraid to confront this terrible form of hatred.  Anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in this country, as they are in Europe.  In one sense, there is nothing new about that statistic.  Jews have always been the target of haters, the intended victims of those who wish to find a scapegoat for whatever ails them.  We cannot become complacent or apathetic.  Anti-Semites should face the consequences of their hateful actions.

Beyond that, hatred of Jews must prompt us to re-energize our commitment to Judaism.  How do you respond to an act of anti-Semitism?  By reaffirming the importance, the beauty and the worth of living a Jewish life, and by ensuring that the Jewish future is vibrant and filled with hope.  That won’t happen with proclamations or vigils.  It will happen if more of us find our place along the spectrum of organized Jewish life and play a role in growing and strengthening the Jewish people around the world.

On that note, I urge you to Show Up For Shabbat, in particular this week.  Let synagogues everywhere be filled to capacity with people coming together to pray, to bless, to express joy and to give thanks for our heritage.

Here at Oheb Shalom, our Friday night service begins at 6:30 PM, during which we will share a memorial tribute to the 11 people who were killed last Shabbat morning.  Our Shabbat morning service begins at 9:45 AM, during which we will pray about tragedy and finding the strength to recover from it.  I hope to see you!

What do you pray for? 

What do you pray for?

Maybe you pray for good health for yourself and those you care about. Perhaps you pray for success or material blessings. Perhaps you pray for peace, the end of strife and struggle in our world. Or maybe you don’t pray for anything at all.

If asked what I pray for, I would reject the premise of the question. To my mind, the question shouldn’t be “What do you pray for?” because I don’t see Jewish prayer as a pathway to fulfilling needs and wishes. Of course, there are people, Jewish and not Jewish, who do hope for and even expect specific results from their prayers. I’m just not one of them.

Instead, I think the most relevant question is “Who do you pray with?”

crowdJewish prayer is about connecting. Through prayer, we connect with powerful and compelling ideas, most often expressed in poetry and metaphor, about the meaning of our lives and our purpose in this world. Through prayer, we connect with our people’s past and link ourselves, by means of a shared language and common values, to generations of Jews who have sought to continue the holy task of healing the world.

Jewish prayer invites us to connect with one another as human beings. I can pray by myself but, at least for me, praying alone is never very uplifting. But the experience of praying with a congregation has the potential to be exhilarating. Singing together and praying in each other’s presence create and sustain community, which is the great engine that propels us forward and makes it possible to keep the Jewish way of life vital and compelling.

At Oheb Shalom, we continue to seek deeply meaningful ways of praying together as a community. Introducing Shabbat Shelanu, meaning “Our Shabbat.” Don’t think of this as your typical Shabbat morning service. This is a prayer experience to inspire you with instrumental and vocal music, with Torah study and discussion. English meditations and readings alongside traditional Hebrew passages (and transliterations) will ensure the morning is accessible for all.

matt-turk-2Co-leading with me will be Matt Turk, a talented musician who plays guitar and mandolin. Matt is steeped in Jewish music and was trained by Pete Seeger. He brings to Oheb a soulful combination of teacher, worship leader, and mensch.

Will Shabbat Shelanu be different from the traditional Shabbat morning service that we share each week at Oheb Shalom? Yes, it will. It’s being offered out of a desire to innovate and experiment, to reach deeper within our connection to one another on Shabbat morning.

Shabbat Shelanu will happen four times this year, with the first on October 27th from 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM. (If you miss it, the other dates are December 1, January 12 and February 9.)

Remember, it’s not what you pray for, it’s who you pray with. Shabbat Shelanu invites us to connect to each other, to our community and to our tradition through music and energized singing. I hope you will be with us for this first initiative on October 27.

Hadata: How Does One Become More Religious?

Please join me this Friday night at 8:00 PM for a presentation by Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation.  Gideon’s topic will be “Religious Tolerance in Israel: Reality or Illusion?”

In his book Directed by God: Jewishness in Contemporary Israeli Film and Televison, Yaron Peleg argues that despite efforts to limit Jewish religiosity in the State of Israel and keep the nation secular, Israelis are nonetheless becoming more religious, fueled in part by the growth of the ultra-Orthodox community and the settler movement.   Peleg writes that the transformation toward a more religious stance is especially reflected in Israeli film and television, which he says is having an impact on the relationship between Zionism and Judaism.  He argues that films such as Kadosh, Waltz with Bashir and Eyes Wides Open, and television series such as Shababnikim and Merchak Negiah explore how secular Israeli culture deals with Jewish religious heritage.  Peleg identifies a Hebrew word- Hadata- that means “the process of making someone more religious” or “religiousification,” in this case of Israeli society.  His theory is that secular Israelis are inclined to embrace a hybrid identity, one split between secular and religious, and that many if not most Israelis are more religious than one might think.

Peleg’s writing is a compelling justification for the support of the Masorti Movement in Israel.  Rather than demand or coerce religious behavior and compliance from people, Masorti Judaism, like Conservative Judaism here in North America, is committed to an inclusive approach to Jewish life.  Indeed, Masorti’s core values are being welcoming and inclusive, honoring the traditional practice of Judaism, and working for religious freedom in Israel.  Masorti Judaism welcomes all types of people into their fold, including those who know they want to practice Judaism in a way that is inclusive and egalitarian as well as those who are searching for where they belong.  Masorti reaches out to those who are often disenfranchised and put off by the often coercive and demanding ways of Orthodoxy.

One might think that Israel is a country where religious freedom is ingrained and practiced, but that is not always the case.  The Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold on religious authority, coupled with government support and funding, make it a formidable presence that controls Israeli society’s rules for marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and kosher certification.  Israel is not a theocracy that demands or legislates religious behavior from its citizens, as are some countries.  But the idea of religious pluralism and tolerance, of making space for individuals to explore Judaism on their own terms and in their own way, and of tolerating different views of what constitutes appropriate Jewish practice, is frowned upon by the Chief Rabbinate.  That is precisely why the Masorti Movement is vital for Israelis who want to explore their Jewish identity in ways that are not coercive or intimidating, but inclusive and tolerant.

I encourage you to join me this Friday night to welome Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation, who will speak to the congregation on “Religious Tolerance: Reality or Illusion?”  Gideon will share success stories from the work of the Masorti Movement and will give us all a clear reason for why Masorti Judaism is so deserving of our support.  The service begins at 8:00 PM, and Gideon will speak at approximately 8:30 PM.  I hope to see you there!

Special thanks to Will Brown, Oheb Shalom member, who suggested Peleg’s book and podcast to me.

Elusive Truth

At this year’s Scotch in the Sukkah event sponsored by the Men’s Club, we discussed the idea that truth is elusive.  Judaism places high value on speaking truth and acting with integrity, especially in business, but that does not guarantee that people will always be truthful.  Sometimes it is in our interest to lie, or at least hide the truth, sometimes to avoid incrimination or embarrassment or sometimes to get out of an awkward situation.  Understandably, the discussion focused on the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which were in full swing at the time of our gathering in the Sukkah (our theme was not primarily the scourge of sexual assault against women, which is appalling and horrific, but rather the pursuit of truth).  The consensus seemed to be that, since both parties being interviewed stated that they knew with 100% certainty what had happened some 36 years ago, someone was telling the truth, and someone was lying.  The hearing thus seemed to be more about establishing credibility and less about finding and claiming the truth.  In the absence of eye witness testimony and given that the incident is alleged to have occurred at a time prior to the flourishing of the digital age (thus no emails or video recordings to corroborate events), we sadly may never know the truth of what happened.  To aid the discussion, I suggested that while Judaism compels us to seek truth and honesty in our lives, there is an implicit acknowledgement in our tradition that it isn’t always possible to discover the truth.  Since we cannot read minds, human courts and mechanisms for establishing justice are at best imperfect.  All we can ever do is strive to be as truthful and honest as we have the courage to be.  That means that while human weakness and failing is unfortunate and unwanted, it is also inevitable.

The idea that human beings are not perfect is made abundantly clear in the opening parasha of the Torah, Bereshit, which we read this Shabbat.  Near the end of the parasha, we read this verse:

And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.  (Genesis 6:6)

The Talmudic sages are puzzled by the assertion in the verse that God, whom they believed to be omniscient, could regret having created flawed human beings if their nature was known in advance.  One Midrashic passage envisions a conversation between a sage and a heretic in which the heretic asserts that God could not be all-knowing and simultaneously not know that His creation would be imperfect.  The sage replies that God knew that human beings would be imperfect but accepted their nature.

Rashi (1040-1105, France) opines that God created human beings knowing they would be imperfect but confident that some remarkably great individuals would ultimately descend from some imperfect ones.

More broadly, the sages encourage us to try to accept the imperfect nature of being human.  In a midrash, we read:

When God came to create Adam, the ministering angels divided themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” …Love said, “Let him be created because he will carry out acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will do good deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One created man. He said to the angels, “What can you do? Man already has been made.” (Bereisheit Rabbah 8:5)

 The Talmudic sages aren’t really asking whether human beings should have been created.  They were pragmatists who tried to understand the human condition in the light of their faith.  Their midrashic musings are instead meant to compel us to confront, to acknowledge and to accept the fact that people are imperfect.

That we are imperfect shouldn’t be used as an excuse or justification for dishonest, untruthful behavior, and certainly not for abusing and taking advantage of people.  It’s simply a reminder to us of our nature, a reminder that sometimes we will soar like angels and at other times we will ignore the Divine image within us and plummet.  The trick is always to strive to be honest, even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable, and always to seek the truth, hoping that more often than not we will find it and embrace it.

Dissolving Boundaries

Kol Nidrei 5779

My Friends,

I had a remarkable and uncommon experience this summer in Jerusalem and tonight I want to tell you about it, and what I took away from it.  The focus of this experience was on the boundaries that can exist between people, and how listening, truly listening to each other can help break them down.

Some boundaries, both physical and intangible, are necessary and important.  Countries need to maintain borders and checkpoints to preserve the world as a safe and civilized place in which to live.  Physical boundaries between countries can provide safety and protection for their inhabitants.  Boundaries between countries and states can also provide a sense of identity, allowing people to preserve cultural traditions that are unique and special to them.  Social boundaries are important for preserving human relationships.  We can’t and shouldn’t have the same level of closeness and intimacy with every person we encounter and must filter the information we share about ourselves according to the boundaries that we maintain in our relationships.

Some boundaries rightly separate people from one another.  But other boundaries, like attitudes and pre-conceived ideas about people that persuade us about who they are and what they value in life, create unwelcome distance between people that makes the world a less friendly, less civilized place.  The experience I had this summer in Jerusalem was about dissolving boundaries and, as a result, people coming closer to each other.  Amy, Aaron and I heard this message, loud and clear, on a 5-hour walking tour through the city that took us by foot, by  bus and by light rail from the Damascus Gate and parts of East Jerusalem, to an ultra-Orthodox Chareidi neighborhood, to the market at Machaneh Yehudah.  Along the way we met community leaders whose work is devoted to breaking down barriers in this unique city that defies logic.  This remarkable trek was run by an organization called Mekudeshet as part of their annual summer festival in Jerusalem.  Mekudeshet’s leaders say that Jerusalem both conquers us and liberates us, thus enabling us to unite around a common love for the city and for one another.  Their mission is to dissolve boundaries.  By doing that, by trying to see past what separates us as human beings, we can open hearts and minds to one another.

Our trek took us first to the Paulus-Haus on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem, a pilgrim hospice under the care of the German Association of the Holy Land.  There we met Benjy Balint, a writer and translator who teaches literature at Bard College and Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.  He told our group two intriguing stories about dissolving boundaries.  The first was about a time he brought a Palestinian woman from Al-Quds to the Kotel, the Western Wall in the Old City, to see what it was like there.  The woman looked around and was particularly intrigued by the men wearing tefillin.  She asked, “What are those black boxes the men have on their heads?”  Benjy told her a bit about tefillin.  She listened and then said, “It’s interesting that they wear black cubes on their heads.  They remind me of the Kaaba, the huge black stone structure that sits at the heart of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s most sacred place of worship.”  For Dr. Balint, that association triggered the larger idea of dissolving boundaries, a focus on what we have in common, not what separates us.

The second story he told was of a Yeshiva in the Old City at the time of the 1948 War of Independence.  As the Arab armies were closing in on the city, the Yeshiva and its precious library were imperiled.  The caretaker of the Yeshiva was an Arab man who, understanding the value of books and setting aside any partisan feelings about who the volumes of Talmud and Midrash belonged to, and unbeknownst to the Jews who lived in the Yeshiva, built a temporary, dummy wall to conceal the bookcases just before the building fell to the Arabs.  19 years passed and in 1967 the Israelis recaptured the Old City in the Six Day War.  The Yeshiva’s rabbis returned to their former home and found that the caretaker had since died but that his son was living and had taken over his father’s job as custodian.  They asked him about the condition of the Yeshiva, and especially about the library.  “Oh,” said the son, “come with me.”  He took them into what had been the Yeshiva’s Beit Midrash and proceeded to take down the dummy wall and reveal the entire library, intact and spared from destruction.  The rabbis sat with the family in their home, viewed photographs of the now-deceased caretaker, talked with his family, and paid tribute to his selfless act of heroism, another act of dissolving the boundaries that otherwise separate us from one another.

From the Paulus-Haus we went to Shuafat in East Jerusalem, home to a unique school for Palestinian children founded and run by Amal Ayoub.  At the Promise School, students learn in English, Arabic and Hebrew and study the Israeli, not the Palestinian, curriculum, including periodic joint studies with Israelis that include the Abrahamic narrative.  Amal believes that her students, some of whom enter Hebrew University, can help dissolve boundaries between Israelis and Palestinians by sharing their stories with each other.

On our trek, we learned about Sarah Weil, a LGBTQ activist in Jerusalem.  Sarah spent some time in the ultra-Orthodox world, who rejected her because of her sexual orientation.  Since then she has worked on bridging her LGBTQ identity and her observant Jewish identity.  Sarah founded the Meeting Place, which helps to build community for Jerusalem’s LGBTQ women that is rooted in Jewish values.  A catalyst for her work was the fatal stabbing of Shira Banki by an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride parade.  As Sarah said, “All of Israeli society was in shock that something so horrific could be committed in the streets of Jerusalem by a seemingly religious Jewish person.”  Again, work being done in Jerusalem to dissolve boundaries and diminish the space between people.

The final stop on our trek was in the Hareidi neighborhood of Mekor Baruch where we met Fainy Sukenik, founder of “Ba’asher Teilchi,” an organization that provides support to ultra-Orthodox Chareidi who have been divorced by their husbands.  This is usually an enormously painful and isolating situation for Chareidi women who come from a community that places its greatest priority on family and raising children.  Fainy found that, once her husband divorced her, rendering her a single mother, she was virtually shunned by her community, including the women who had been her closest friends.  She was made to feel that she was somehow at fault for her circumstances.  When she looked for help, she found nothing but obstacles and dead ends.  So, she founded Ba’asher Teilchi, an organization whose mission is to provide emotional support, job training and financial aid to women in the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society.  Today, Ba’asher Teilchi gives support to thousands of women across Israel.   Fainy’s work at dissolving boundaries, in this case between the Chareidi world and other segments of Israeli society, has been so successful that she was recently honored by lighting a torch at Israel’s annual Yom Ha’atsmaut celebration, one of the nation’s highest honors.

What I learned, what I think we can all learn, from my summer journey devoted to dissolving boundaries is that we cannot allow ourselves, or our community, to be undermined by stereotypical, pre-conceived notions about the people around us, what they value and what they represent.  The work of dissolving boundaries doesn’t necessarily require us to always be in sync with the other.  As I suggested earlier, boundaries and differences between people are sometimes natural and even necessary.  But we cannot let those differences keep us from talking to and listening to one another.

Listening is the essential tool to dissolving, or at least diminishing boundaries.  Our tradition places great value on listening.  In the Torah portion to be read this Shabbat morning we read a poem offered by Moses to the Israelites.  He begins by saying, “Hear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”  In the English translation of the text, the verbs are the same.  But the Hebrew uses two different verbs- “ha’azinu” and “shema.”  We can understand the Hebrew text to present a subtle but important distinction between hearing and listening.  It’s one thing to hear people when they speak, but quite another to genuinely listen to what they have to say.  How often do we hear without listening?  How often do we pay partial attention, hear only what we wanted to hear, or begin to formulate our response even before the other person has finished speaking? Maybe Moses calls forward heaven and earth both to hear and to listen in his final message to his people to remind us of the distinction.

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  The great philosopher Martin Buber taught that listening is what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it relationship.  He described listening as “Something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey.” In so doing we can remove the barrier between us.

There is virtually no end to the impact of genuine listening on our lives, both as individuals and as a society.  We so often see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or on the little bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part.  One of the great sins we regularly commit is that of stereotyping the people we encounter and failing to listen to what they have to say and learning who they are.

Our politics are so terribly fractured and polarized today.  It seems that the very term “bi-partisan” is frowned upon and that those who try to step across the aisle in an attempt to listen to the priorities and needs of someone from the other party risks his or her political career.  Would that it be that a required qualification for elected office is the skill and desire to genuinely listen to the other.

We all need to practice what could be called reflective listening.  That is a term, really an aspiration, with which I became familiar from my wife Amy, who last year took part in a 4-day encounter with Palestinians in the West Bank sponsored by a group called Encounter.  Every participant on the visit was invited to attend a workshop on reflective listening that asked people to focus intensely on, and thoughtfully consider, what was being said by the person with whom they were engaged in conversation.  The group practiced skills such as allowing people to finish speaking before replying, always making eye contact, putting aside a smart phone or pen during conversation, and answering with a direct reply to what the person is saying instead of introducing a new comment.   These are skills we all should practice when we engage in conversation.

There is no doubt that the long, anguished and perpetually stalled pathway toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be aided by people on both sides engaging in reflective listening to the other’s narrative.  They need to listen to our narrative, and we need to listen to their narrative.  Listening does not obligate either party to accepting every element of the other’s story.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen, genuinely listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.  Dissolving boundaries requires us to engage in reflective listening.

Let us make this an urgent priority in our lives in the year that has just begun.  Let us strive to listen to each other, to learn more about each other, to set aside any pre-conceived ideas we harbor about others.  Let us remember that hearing isn’t the same thing as listening.  By listening to others, we can begin to dissolve the boundaries that keep us apart from each other.  By listening, we can grow closer to one another in mutual understanding and respect.  Keyn Yehi Ratson…may God aid us in this noble quest.

How To Say Yizkor

Dear Friends,

As Yom Kippur draws near, many of us will recite Yizkor prayers.  I want to share these thoughts that I posted two years ago on how to say Yizkor.  I wish you a meaningful and thoughtful Yom Kippur observance.

On Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere will gather to pray.  Among the most familiar and popular prayers is the Yizkor service, memorial prayers for the dead recited by those who have lost loved ones.  In the midst of praying about our own vulnerability and matters of life and death, we pause to remember family members and friends who have died.

While Yizkor is also recited on the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the first to be instituted as a part of Jewish liturgy.  The Rabbinic sages reasoned that praying about those who have died would cause people to focus intensely on their own mortality, which is one of the themes of Yom Kippur.  Originally the Yizkor prayers were focused on martyrs who had been killed—their names were read aloud in the synagogue.  As the service evolved, people began to pray about their own loved ones.  That is the focus of Yizkor today—memorial prayers for family members and friends.

A common custom is for people who have never been mourners to leave the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor.  Many reasons have been offered for this practice.  Some say it developed to avoid causing mourners to feel envious that others around them had not suffered the pain of loss and still had their loved ones around them.  Others say the practice of leaving was intended to prevent people who were not mourners from saying Yizkor by mistake, thus tempting fate.  I know that my own parents never wanted me to stay in the sanctuary when Yizkor prayers were recited, a practice that continues in my own family.

The Sephardic custom is for everyone to stay in the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayers.  That custom seems to me to be the most meaningful.  People who don’t have a personal reason to recite Yizkor should nonetheless stay in the room in order to be supportive to those who are saying memorial prayers.  It’s good and healthy to help a fellow congregant to face their pain and to help soften their sorrow.  And it’s good for everyone, those who have been mourners and those who have been spared the pain of loss, to think about mortality.  Our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about death and dying.  But Jewish tradition encourages us to face the reality of death with our eyes open.  Doing so should not diminish our zest for life or our life span.

How are the Yizkor prayers recited?  Here are some suggestions for a meaningful Yizkor experience.

  • Connect to others. Yizkor is a blend of an intensely private experience and a public one.  Before delving into the private prayers, look around the room.  See who else is saying Yizkor.  Imagine yourself as part of a community of people that strengthen one another.
  • Listen to the music. The Yizkor service is more than a formulaic recitation of prayers.  The service begins and ends with music.  Close your eyes and listen to the music, participating when you can and want to.
  • Bring a photo of your loved ones. Having an image of your loved ones to gaze at during the Yizkor prayers will deepen and enhance your memory of them as you speak their names.
  • Take your time. During the portion of the Yizkor service, take your time reciting the passage for each of the people you are remembering.  Speak their names quietly.  Conjure up a fulfilling and uplifting memory.

The Yizkor service can be a very meaningful time.  By being mindful and attentive to its purpose, we can be reminded of the beauty and blessing of the lives of our loved ones and feel that we have been strengthened by the experience of sharing life with them.

Let me take this opportunity to wish you a Gemar Chatima Tova.  May you be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year that lies ahead and beyond.

This Rosh Hashana, Don’t Beat Yourself Up

As we leaf through the pages of the High Holiday Mahzor, what feelings does it leave us with?  Some prayers help us to soar and fill us with hope.  Others remind us of the finiteness of life.  Still other prayers remind us of our moral and behavioral failings.  Many of the prayers the Talmudic sages composed and passed down to us emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check.  Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others.  The Spanish mystic and philosopher Nachmamides, gave this advice to his children in his Ethical Will: “Let your voice be low and your head bowed; let your eyes turn earthwards—every man should seem in your own eyes as one greater than yourselves.”

Candidly, that’s not a very uplifting or cheery idea to ponder.  Do any of us really want to spend these days being told that we are nothing, that we should walk around with our heads bowed low, deferential to everyone we meet, positioning ourselves as a doormat for others to walk across?  Don’t we want to go home from these days of prayer and celebration feeling strong and content?

Reading between the lines, we can see the message that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up as we sit in the pews and pray with the congregation.  In a famous Talmudic passage, we read of the legendary “Three Books” that are opened on Rosh Hashana:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana:  one is of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one for those inbetween.  The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life, the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death, and the “beinonim” (inbetween) hang in the balance from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur.  If they merit it, they are written for life.  If they do not merit it, they are written for death.”   (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b)

When I read that passage, what comes to mind is that the first two books are useless.  I don’t know anyone who is either completely righteous or completely wicked.  Our tradition teaches that human beings are imperfect.  In fact, we are taught that it is sacrilegious even to strive for perfection.  Instead, we are expected to live with the fact that we are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil.  Most of us are average or above-average people who do a lot of good things for others and for our community.  But none of us are entirely good or entirely evil.  (For what it’s worth, I presume that Rabbi Kruspedai knew this and wrote his derash about the three books to encourage people to consider their behavior and make a special, concentrated effort to repent during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.)

My take-away from the legend of the Three Books is this:  give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up as you make your way through the High Holidays.  You’re not perfectly good, but you’re not perfectly evil either.  If you’re like most people, you’re a basically good person who possesses some flaws that need to be corrected.  Accept the fact that you won’t be able to correct all the flaws you possess.  If you’re trying to reinvent yourself as a perfect human being, whether during these sacred New Year days or afterward, you should know in advance that such a state of being will never, ever be achieved by any of us.

Rather, use these days for some reasonable introspection and honest self-examination.  Pick two or three negative qualities you see in yourself and meditate on them, thinking about ways to change or eliminate those behaviors.  The result will be a better, if not perfect, you.

I imagine that the first two of Rabbi Kruspedai’s Three Books are thin and contain few if any entries.  It’s the third book, the one of average people who are trying to be better people, that is filled with names of God’s creatures, His good but flawed human partners on whom He relies to make this a better world.  Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect, let’s spend these days trying to be just a little better than we were last year.  The world will be a better place for our efforts.

I wish you a Shana Tova- a year of fulfillment, blessing and good fortune.  I look forward to sharing these sacred days with you and your loved ones as we gather to usher in the New Year.


Why We Sound the Shofar During the Month of Elul

One of the most familiar and exciting elements of the Rosh Hashana service is the sounding of the shofar.  The eerie, wailing sounds of the shofar are meant to be a spiritual wake-up call to the opportunities awaiting us in the new year, as well as a summons to self-reflection.

During Elul, there are several practices that encourage us to prepare spiritually and emotionally for the coming New Year.  Psalm 27 is recited twice daily, likely because of its theme of seeking deeper faith.  Selichot (penitential) prayers are recited early each morning by Ashkenazic Jews during the last week of Elul and by Sephardic Jews during the entire month.  And, perhaps most familiar, is the practice of sounding the shofar each day every day of Elul except for Shabbat.

As with many Jewish customs, there is no definitive reason why the shofar is sounded during Elul.  An old superstition suggests that the practice was meant to confuse Satan, an angelic being portrayed in rabbinic literature as a sort of prosecuting attorney against human beings who are being judged before God. By sounding the shofar during Elul, the idea was to avoid an evil decree by causing Satan to show up in the Divine court on the wrong day!

A more cogent reason for sounding the shofar during Elul is based on a story found in the Torah (Exodus 32-34) concerning the worship of the Golden Calf, which is essentially a tale of sin and repentance.  According to the story, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to commune with God and receive the Torah.  The Israelites, fearing that he has left them for good, compel Aaron to build an idol for them and then proceed to worship it.  This act of apostasy is regarded in the Torah, and in subsequent rabbinic literature, as a catastrophic sin committed by the people.  God becomes furious and announces to Moses that he plans to destroy the entire people and make him the leader of a new people that will soon be created.

Moses, known in the Torah for his bold leadership, confronts God and demands that the Divine plan be withdrawn.  He says, “If that’s what you plan to do, then count me out…wipe me from your Divine book as well!”  God relents and, with the encouragement of Moses, ultimately reconciles with the people.

The story is deeply connected to the idea of sin and repentance.  In Exodus 32:34, God says to Moses, “When I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins.”  Setting aside the stark tone of the passage, it hints at the idea that the pathway to forgiveness and renewal is accountability.  It is not possible to make a fresh start or to receive forgiveness without being held accountable for what we have done wrong.  Sometimes that accountability is a private, inner process and sometimes it needs to be shared with those we’ve wronged.

Chapter 34 opens with Moses carving two new tablets to replace the ones he smashed in anger.  Here we have another hint at an important element of forgiveness and renewal- the chance to make a new beginning.  The promise to renew the Divine-Human relationship is not left to a matter of faith or hope.  Rather, it is represented in tangible reality by the new tablets that replace the old ones.  We need to be assured, sometimes in tangible ways, that we can start over with a second chance at living our lives the we know we should.

Later in chapter 34, Moses asks God to reveal the Divine essence, so he can know Him “face-to-face.”  God rejects His request, telling Moses that he could not survive an encounter with the Divine, and then proceeds to enumerate His attributes.  Known as the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” the passage has made its way into the High Holiday liturgy and is recited throughout Yom Kippur services.  God describes Himself as, among other things, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, and forgiving sin.  The Thirteen Attributes can be understood not only as a description of God’s qualities, but, more importantly, they should be understood as aspirational for human beings.  When I hear them articulated, I ask myself if I can integrate those qualities more deeply into my life.

The narrative about the worship of the Golden Calf speaks to us about core ideas connected to the High Holidays:  personal accountability for our wrongdoing, a second chance to do what is good and right, and a vision for improving our lives.

So why do we sound Shofar during the month of Elul?  In the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 46:2, 8th century), we read: “On the new month of Elul, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and let me sound the shofar throughout the camp’.”  In other words, the rabbinic tradition holds that on the first of Elul, Moses ascended Mt Sinai a second time to seek forgiveness and arrange for reconciliation and as he did, a shofar sounded.

We, too, sound the shofar as we head into a New Year, as a reminder of an ancient tale of renewal and reconciliation, and a message of assurance that we will be able to do what we must to make our lives what they can and should be.