A prayer for those who are not morning people, but if you are, you are welcome to read anyway. Part One

 

I am not what you would call a morning person, unless your definition of morning is pretty broad. Ideally I would sleep from around 1 or two in the morning, until I got up, say tennish. This does not happen too often. I think the last time was 1989.

As a result I am not much of a night-time person either, but that is for a different discussion. Let me focus on mornings. I do not think I am the only one in this situation. There is a reason that coffee sales are so high, and why people are willing to drink those less than tasty energy drinks.

Judaism recognizes some of us need a little help easing into our days. It even works for people who bounce out of bed. There is a prayer that we are supposed to say every morning called Modeh Ani for men, and Modah Ani for women. It means, “I am thankful.” These are the very first words we are supposed to say out loud. I know that these are not the words I may have initially said upon waking.

Our tradition understands that the thoughts you wake up with are likely to influence your mood for the rest of the day, and quite likely the mood of those to whom you expressed yourself upon waking.

We should start our day with the recognition that no matter how difficult the day might be that we are facing, we at least woke up to have it, and that we have the potential to do something worthwhile with our day.

I will talk about more of the prayer next week, but a good exercise to do before bed is to concentrate on waking up with the thought “Modeh/Modah Ani, I am grateful and thankful.” It took me about three months, but this is how I wake up (most days).

Listening as Prayer

 

There is a story from our tradition that I used to find kind of puzzling. King David, who was known as a great musician and poet, asked God, “What do you think of my music?” God said, “They are good, but not as good as the croaking of a bullfrog.” I thought God was being harsh to David, trying to keep his ego in check.

My understanding of this changed when I was at a retreat in the Catskill Mountains. It was late at night, and I was sitting by myself at the edge of a lake. I soon realized I was listening to some of the most beautiful “music” I had ever heard. It was the croaking of bullfrogs and the rustling of the water and the swaying of the trees, all in perfect rhythm and harmony. This was the music God was talking about. It was a true psalm, a true prayer to God.

Rabbi Nachman tells us that the entire world and the universe itself makes wonderful music, if we would only listen to it. I think this is the key to understanding what the prayer “Shema” really means. It is usually translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” What is the significance of “hear”? This is clearly a significant declaration of faith, but even The Ten Commandments do not start that way.

I prefer to translate it as, “If you listen, then you will know that God is God.” If we pause for a moment, and sit in absolute quiet, then we will hear the world that God made, and the prayer that the world offers.

I think it is easiest to do this in nature, even in a park, but it can be in a city, as well. There are beautiful and strange sounds in the world, sounds that harmonize with and reflect each other. The next time you go for a walk, even in a mall, listen to everything around you. You will be amazed by the wonderful rhythms. It will no longer feel like noise, but a prayer.

Favorite Teachings: Rabbi Nachman Part Two

 

Judaism for me is a home, a religion and an identity. At the most crucial times of my life, those moments that it seemed darkness would reign over me, Judaism has been my refuge and salvation. This is not the easiest thing to share, but I feel that it is important that people know that even rabbis face crises of faith and purpose. Judaism means so much to me, precisely in these moments.

I want to share a teaching that has meant a great deal to me, and has been a comfort in some difficult moments. It is one of the most famous of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who is one of my primary spiritual guides.

The teaching is taken from the second half of a verse from Psalm 146. In Hebrew, it is “Azamra Leilohei B’odi.” This is normally translated as “I will sing to God with all of my strength,” implying that we should serve God with all of our might and ability. This is a good thought when you are feeling strong and confident. It is not as helpful when you are feeling weak, or depressed, when you feel as though you have nothing left.

Rabbi Nachman was concerned that we never give into despair, something he struggled with himself his entire life. He translates the verse from Psalms differently. He said, “We should sing to God with what we have left.” That is to say that even when we are feeling at our worst, and that we do not have anything to offer God or anyone else, God will count what little we have and what little we can do as a complete prayer and offering. God will view us as 100% worthwhile even when we feel worthless.

This is particularly important to remember when so many people are going through difficult times, not just financially, but emotionally. So many of our identities are wrapped up in our professions or our ability to provide for our loved ones and the community. We feel bad about ourselves, because we many not be able to do what we used to.

Rabbi Nachman said that we should never give up on ourselves, because God never does. We can always find what is eternally valuable within ourselves. Even one kind deed to another person can change their world, and maybe the whole world for the better.

This teaching has helped me find myself when I felt lost. I hope you never need it, but if you do, that it gives you comfort and hope.

Favorite Teachings: Rabbi Nachman Part One

This is the first of a series on the thought of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of my favorite rabbis, and one who has had a tremendous impact on my thinking and spiritual life. He taught me that one of the most powerful forces we have in creating a better world is by having empathy for others, even for those we may not like or admire. We also have to have empathy for ourselves. Understanding the joy and pain of others, and accepting them for who they are, is a great way to help bring real change to the world. We reduce the suffering of others through our empathy, allowing them to develop the strength, courage and insight to become the kind of loving and integrated people they want to be. By showing ourselves this same kindness and understanding we reduce the suffering in our own lives and increase the potential for joy and wholeness.

This does not mean that we think everything a person does is good or acceptable. There are some very destructive behaviors that we need to struggle against. It is important, though, that we do not demonize the person, but look carefully at what they are doing.

This teaching of Rabbi Nachman is from his collection Likutei Maharan:

“You should judge each person favorably. Even if someone seems to be a thoroughly bad person you need to search for and find something in them, no matter how small, that is good. When you do so, you can start to eliminate what is bad in them, and start to transform that into good. This applies to ourselves, as well.”

A question that often arises from this is “What do we do with someone like Hitler?” I really don’t know. I hope God has a special place just for him and others like him. I believe, though, that Rabbi Nachman is talking about everyday people, some who make worse choices than others, or those who aggravate us, or even those people who seem to have no apparent redeeming value. Looking for good in others might give them a spark to do better, because someone, maybe for the first time, believes there is something worthwhile in them. If nothing else, developing this empathy can help us reduce our own anger and find greater inner peace. Maybe we can find what is truly good within ourselves.

I will share more about Rabbi Nachman in the coming weeks, both his teachings and his life.

In the mean time, here is any easy exercise. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, try to think of a good reason they might be in a hurry. At the least, you will be less angry yourself, and less likely to take your anger out on the next driver. You can then feel good about dealing with a stressful moment in a better way than you normally might.

Art and Spirituality

 Judaism seems in many ways to be a religion dominated by words. There are the words of the prayerbook, the Torah, the Talmud and the sermon. Even our meals are framed by the words of blessing.

 All of these words give us opportunities for great expression and spiritual connection. Sometimes, though, the words of tradition can be overwhelming. There are so many that they may inhibit our own words. They may also give the impression that words are the only way to connect to our spirituality.

 In my years of teaching I have noticed that there are many people who do not respond to text, but respond in a very powerful way to images and to sound, whether creating them, or meditating on them. A lot of them have been turned off by Judaism, because they do not feel there is room for them.

 This is one of the reasons I have put my own art and music on line. To be honest, I was a little hesitant about doing so, but I thought it was important to show that there are lots of different ways of connecting (dance and athletics, of course, are other ways, but I am probably not the right guy to look to for advice).

 Spirituality is about the expression of our souls, not just the words of our lips or pen. If you or your loved ones are feeling cut off from Judaism because the texts are a barrier, or if your spirit souls through other means, I encourage you to look at those times that you are moved by art and music as potentially true religious and spiritual moments, as moments of Torah.

 The Torah tells us that God gave each of us our own way to understand the world. Find yours!

Paintings page update

I have added some paintings that I did that are in my house. A couple are recent, but most are over the last fifteen years or so. Some are of family that I never met because of the Holocaust. They all largely reflect my attempt to bring life and color to a period of Jewish history that we tend to think of as having been in black and white.

Rabbi Efry Spectre, Z”l

All of us in the Adat Shalom family and Detroit Jewish community were stunned and saddened to hear about the passing of Rabbi Efry Spectre.  Rabbi Spectre was our shul’s rabbi for twenty-two years and served with great heart and devotion.

I never had the privilege of working with him directly, but I would like to share a couple of memories that touched me personally.

When I was in college, Rabbi Spectre offered a class on Jewish philosophers at the Hillel House. He taught a session on one of his favorite teachers. This is the first time I had ever heard of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Spectre’s class inspired me to read everything I could of Heschel. Heschel is one of the reasons I became a rabbi, and specifically why I chose JTS. Rabbi Spectre, then, was at least partially responsible for my being a rabbi, and ultimately being a rabbi at Adat Shalom.

My other memory is how much the unity of the different Jewish denominations mattered to him. As the president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, which is mostly composed of non-Orthodox rabbis, he arranged for us to have a meeting with the Vaad HaRabbanim, the Council of Orthodox Rabbis. Just getting together , and help open some warm lines of communication between the two groups. I greatly respected and admired Rabbi Spectre’s determination to put together this rewarding but highly complex project.

I will just add one more example of Rabbi Spectre’s great wit, which he was able to combine with his Torah knowledge. He was bringing greetings to a meeting, and said, “The Torah tells us that we should rise in the face of the gray-haired. However, everyone here has dyed away all the gray. I am not sure what to do.”

I am sorry that I never got to really know Rabbi Efry Spectre, but I am proud to follow in his footsteps.

Haiti

There is not much I can say about this extraordinary tragedy. Here is a great place to donate for relief: https://www.jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx

We should also be directing our prayers to the people of Haiti, whether at home or in shul.

Finally, just for those religious leaders who said the Haitians deserve what they got, I have a book for you to read. It is called the Bible. It talks about compassion for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

Relevance is the future

Our tradition tells us that the Jews accepted the covenant at two different occasions in our history. The first was at Mount Sinai. This seems obvious, but even here there are some complicating factors. God had just taken the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt in an impressive manner. There were horrible plagues put upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s arrogance. The Torah says God brought the people out with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Tacit in this is the realization by the Hebrews that anyone who defied God was at great risk. Accepting the Torah, then, was hardly voluntary. God in fact says, accept the Torah, or this land where you stand will be your grave. The Hebrews of course accepted.

The second acceptance of the covenant, somewhat surprisingly, was during the Purim story in the Book of Esther. I say surprisingly, because in many respects Esther is the least religious book in the Bible. It does not mention God. It takes place outside of the Land of Israel. Most of the Jews remain happily adjusted to Persian life. Nonetheless, our rabbis believed that this became a great time of spiritual growth. Jews in fact lived happily in Persia, now Iran, until our present-day.

For most of our history, our acceptance of the Torah imitated that of Mount Sinai. Judaism was rarely voluntary in most of the places in which we lived. We were limited in where we could live, and what we could do. Judaism was the only way in which Jews could function. The Jewish community was the only community in which Jews could live. Jewish identity was mandatory, not voluntary.

Most of us do not live in this kind of environment. We are more like the Jews of Persia. Judaism is voluntary. Jobs are open to us. Where we live is not limited. Belonging to the Jewish community, or even identifying with it is completely a matter of choice. Why then, should people choose to identify?

I pray that we do not have a crisis like the Purim story that reminded us of our identity. If Judaism is going to be healthy, and a healthy choice for our people, it is going to have to be relevant. That is, we need to communicate what is genuinely beautiful in our tradition, and reevaluate those aspects that are not resonant, or may even be negative.

I believe that every generation that has faced a crisis has gone through this process. It is the positive response to our world that has made us The Eternal People.

Here is an excercise that might be interesting for you to do with your family or friends.Pretend that someone has come from very far away, maybe another planet, and has never heard of religion or culture or ethnicity at all as concepts. Explain to them what Judaism is, and who Jews are.  I would love to hear some responses.