Passover-The Holiday that Questions itself

 

 Traditionally, the youngest at the table says the four questions at the seder. This is one of the highlights of the entire evening, at least for the adults. The person reciting them tends to be relieved when they are over.

Notice I have used the words “says” and “recites,” not “asks” the four questions. One of the ironies of Passover is that we train the children to ask specific questions in advance, and then give them our prepared answers. That is not the original intention.

The purpose of the four questions is to provide a model of what kind of questions might be asked. The beginning is usually translated as “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The actual translation, though, is “What has been transformed?” Most of what we do at the seder was pretty typical of a lavish Roman era meal, with a couple of slight changes. The idea behind many of the rituals of the seder is to do things a little differently from the norm, in order that children on their own will notice the changes and ask about them. We then answer them based on their questions, and not just with our previously prepared responses.

The seder is meant to stimulate critical thinking. It is meant to teach people to ask difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions, until we reach the truth, or at least strive for it honestly.

We Jews as a people are in an interesting place. In some ways it is the best time ever to be Jewish. There are more opportunities to learn about Judaism than any time in our history. There is an independent Jewish state for the first time in thousands of years. There are great challenges, too. There is conflict between the denominations, and differences in opinions on how to handle the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The best thing you can do is ask the difficult questions, and not settle for easy answers. It is better that people challenge the system instead of walking away. Our survival as a people, our greatness, is that we are not just obligated to teach each generation about Judaism, but how to make it their own.

I hope that Passover this years brings you further on the road to spiritual and intellectual freedom, and that you find joy in your discoveries.

A prayer for those who are not morning people…Part Two

Last week I started discussing the prayer Modeh/Modah Ani, “I am thankful.” It is the prayer that we are supposed to say as soon as the alarm rings, even before we get out of bed. It is about making sure that we begin the day with a sense of optimism. By the way, there is a prayer for nighttime for when things did not work out exactly as planned. I will talk about that in a later entry.

Today, I want to focus on the second Hebrew word of the prayer, “Ani”, or I in English. There is a great story of a rabbi who showed up two hours late for morning services. The people asked him why he was so late. He said, I got to the Ani, the I, of Modeh Ani, and I did not know who the I was. I spent the morning trying figure out who I am.

A lot of us wake up in the morning feeling a little disoriented, and not just because we may not have gotten enough sleep. We have so many roles to play, whether parent, child, partner, employee, employer, friend, or community member. Sometimes these roles are in conflict. Sometimes we do not even know what the individual role even is. We do not feel like a person, but a series of tasks, that if we complete all of them, still make us feel mediocre. There rarely seems time just to be a person.

We may also be wondering where the time went. When I look in the mirror, I see a middle-aged man, someone who looks a lot like my father. I love and admire my father dearly, but it is still sometimes a jolt. Whose life am I living?

The prayer of Modeh/Modah Ani is about taking a moment and thinking about what kind of person you want to be today, what kind of life do you want to live. It does not mean you can do anything you want, because taking care of our responsibilities is important and a privilege. It means, though, that you do not have to live just for others. You are entitled to your own joy and your own definition of a meaningful life.

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.

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