Pause

Open the Eyes, Tel Aviv, 2017

 

Between breathing in

and breathing out.

Between this sentence

and the next.

Between thought

and expression.

Between hearing

and listening.

Between doing

and doing.

Between being

and being.

Between now

and now.

Between is

and was.

Between is

and is now.

A pause.

Between experience

and meaning.

Between meaning

and memory.

Between memory

and history.

Between history

and eternity.

Between eternity

and now.

A pause.

The space between what will never be

and what is

and what will always be

and what is

and what could be

and what is.

A pause.

Walk in Delight

Jerusalem, 2016

 

Beyond measure, I am blessed.

In ways disguised and manifest.

In ways I can appreciate and ways I cannot.

In ways deserved but in more ways graced.

In ways that touch my daily existence and ways that don’t.

Beyond measure, I am blessed.

In ways that delight and ways that overwhelm.

Among these many blessings is the blessing of working at a school that has two campuses.

Among the many blessings of these two campuses is that they are a short distance apart.

And this distance is easily covered on foot via a beautiful sidewalk that blessed me with its existence only a few years ago.

And the blessing of traffic.

Of a pesky left turn signal in particular.

Which means that it’s often quicker, or at least more predictable, and certainly more pleasant

to walk from campus to campus.

Than it is to drive.

And so I walk in blessing.

And delight.

At least once a day.

Sometimes I see cars full of my students waiting for morning drop off.

Sometimes I see the lady who wears gigantic headphones who always smiles when we pass.

Sometimes I walk with a colleague.

Sometimes I walk alone.

Once, I got soaked in a thunderstorm.

But I survived.

In the spring I walk beneath cherry blossoms.

And survive them too.

Sometimes I think.

Sometimes I plan.

Sometimes I read email.

Sometimes I wonder about the litter on the side of the road.

Sometimes I wonder at the denseness of the trees between the sidewalk and the houses on the other side.

Sometimes I see (and hear) a fire engine pulling out of the fire station on the corner.

Sometimes the fire engine inspires me.

Sometimes it terrifies me.

Sometimes I close my eyes for a few seconds to see how far I can go without opening them.

Sometimes I have to step into the street and dodge cars to avoid the sprinkler at the corner.

Sometimes I carry inter office mail.

Sometimes I spill my coffee.

Sometimes I dream up new ways of doing things.

Sometimes I try to feel the ground underneath my feet.

Sometimes I remember.

And sometimes I forget.

Sometimes, when I’m really doing it right.

I just walk.

In blessing and delight.

Be a Blessing

“Be a blessing.” That’s God’s instruction to Abram in Genesis 12. Whenever I read these words or think of this teaching, I think of Rabbi Alvin Sugarman. Many years ago he and I were part of a rabbinic panel at The Temple. Rabbi David Baylinson joined us as well. Each of us was asked to pick a favorite biblical passage to share. Rabbi Sugarman chose, “Be a blessing.” Over the years, I’ve heard him reference this passage on different occasions. When I read these words, I hear his voice and think of the example he has set for so many.

“Be a blessing” has come to be one of the most meaningful and omnipresent mantras of my life. There’s a simplicity and a directness to these words. At the end of any given day, it’s relatively simple to look back and ask: Was I a blessing today? When I think about it, the phrase, “be a blessing,” is the heart of every meaningful faith tradition and ethical humanist practice that I know of. It is simple, direct, unambiguous, and eternally relevant.

I recently listened to a lecture where the teacher suggested that the world hangs on a balance. On either side of the balance there are various weights and measures. Human beings are one of these weights. It’s up to us to tip the scale toward the good. It’s up to us to be a blessing.

A few years ago I had the fortune of recording an album of original Jewish music. I chose to call it, perhaps unsurprisingly, Be a Blessing. Here’s the title track, Vheyeh Bracha, that’s the Hebrew for, “Be a Blessing.”

 

 

A Picture, a prayer, and a song

Israel, 2017

 

May we turn towards one another, and not away

May our offerings be offerings of peace

May we give them freely and from great abundance

May the places where we meet be transformed into havens of shalom

If only by virtue of our meeting there


This song of mine is based on one of the psalms of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. Shabbat Shalom if you’re reading this as Shabbat approaches.

 

Holiday-Free Judaism

Tel Aviv, 2017

For the next month and change there won’t be any major Jewish holidays. That leaves some Jews wondering how to engage “Jewishly” since the holidays provide both an occasion and a script for Jewish experiences. The truth is actually quite simple: Judaism without holidays is, in many ways, much more engaging and fulfilling than Judaism with all the holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shimini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. But there’s something simple and sublime when Jewish energy isn’t focused on a particular calendar date and holiday observance.

This annual, holiday-free period in Judaism reminds me that Judaism is most meaningful when it informs my daily life. It’s most powerful when it permeates the seemingly mundane activities that fill my days and weeks. Taking care of my family, throwing myself into my work, trying to keep up with current events and old friends. Sitting in traffic. Grocery shopping. Scrolling through my phone.

Holiday-free Judaism gives me the space to focus on some of the non-calendrical aspects of Judaism: the weekly Torah portion, the meaning of the prayers I recite, mindful eating. Things like that. It’s a chance for me to challenge myself to keep my Jewish commitments dynamic and authentic.

Coming off the holidays of Tishrei there’s no doubt that I’m energized. And I’m bringing that energy into my daily Jewish practice. But the reverse is true as well, my daily Jewish practice is what makes the holidays meaningful and energizing to begin with.

 

Science and Religion

As a day school rabbi I work with kids pretty much every day. Having been at it for the last decade, I’m now able to say, somewhat conclusively, that there are certain perennial topics that kids are curious about. One of them is the relationship between science and religion. Because kids seem to linger in the “either/or” stage of things until at least about grade 6, they mostly want to know how science and religion can both be “true” when they say such different things. The most common example they raise is that of the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and evolution. None of this should be surprising!

The best part about kids’ big questions is that they’re really conversation starters. For that reason, there are lots of ways to engage kids in discussions that stem from their natural interests. One potential thread of conversation involves helping kids see how science and religion both seek to understand the way the world works. Another potential thread is to point them towards religious ideas that seem to be expressing ideas more commonly associated with science.

Genesis 1:6-7 is an interesting passage in this respect. These verses describe how God “divided the waters” during the early stages of creation. Some of the water was placed below and some placed above, with a firmament in between. This passage seems to suggest that the Torah has some understanding of the water cycle. It’s not immediately obvious that the sea and the sky are so intimately connected, and yet the Torah clearly understands this.

Giving kids a chance to reflect on whether Genesis 1:6-7 reflects an understanding of the water cycle is a cool idea. As part of such a lesson we could also point out that the Hebrew word for water, mayim, is closely related to the Hebrew word for sky/heavens: shamayim. After exploring that for a bit we also explore the fact that the difference between the two words: mayim and shamayim is the presence of the letter shin. The letter shin is significant because it’s a letter that is closely associated with God. For example, it appears on the outside of most mezuzot representing the name Shaddai. All of a sudden we’re engaged in a conversation that organically explores both science and religion, natural law and theology. And all at a level that a Judaically literate 5th grader can not only understand but really contribute to.

As we read the opening chapters of Genesis this Shabbat, let’s not miss opportunities to really engage with these fascinating words and the world that they envision and in which we live. 

Shemini Atzeret

Jerusalem, 2016

 

What is Shemini Atzeret? I can’t imagine how many Jews have asked that question and are still left wondering! Here’s a bit of an explanation/interpretation.

Shemini Atzeret is a festival that follows immediately on the heels of Sukkot, one of the 3 major festivals of Jewish tradition. Because Shemini Atzeret starts just as Sukkot is ending, many people conflate the two holidays, not understanding that they are, in fact, distinct.

When The Temple stood in Jerusalem, Shemini Atzeret included a sacrificial offering and special meal. It was understood that this sacrifice and meal were meant to be a symbol of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. Building from that idea, Shemini Atzeret came to be a day dedicated to reflecting on the relationship between God and Israel. Medieval commentators, like Rashi, explained that, Shemini Atzeret was God’s way of asking the Jewish people to linger a little longer in the connectedness that comes with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Israeli Supreme Court

While many Jewish holidays were transformed or expanded after the destruction of The Temple, Shemini Atzeret (with the exception of the addition of Simchat Torah) hasn’t taken on any additional ritual observances. In fact, the only ritual observance on Shemini Atzeret today is to recite a prayer for rain. What we’re left with then, is a day set aside to simply dwell in our relationship with God.

The way I understand it, Shemini Atzeret is a day meant for focusing on being rather than doing. It’s a day for reflecting on self, other, community, nature, and God. For that reason, I’m coming to view it as the perfect holiday for our world today. I think our collective human consciousness would be completely transformed if all of us took a collective Atzeret, a collective day to focus on being and to focus on self, other, community, nature, and God. Think we can make it happen?

“Life is a journey, where are you?”

What’s it like to be a rabbi?

I have a cherished colleague. Her name is Dr. M. Cathy Harmon-Christian. She teaches in the theology department at Marist. Among other things, she and I have a chavruta, a study-based friendship. It’s a lot of fun. An offshoot of that chavruta is that every so often she’ll send along a question asked by her students. “What’s it like to be a rabbi?” is one such question. Knowing that there may be lots of folks who are curious about this and other topics, I figure I’ll type my response here, rather than in an email.

What’s it like to be a rabbi?

On good days? It’s awesome. On bad days? It’s awesome. The main thing about being a rabbi is that I never get to rest on yesterday’s accomplishments, interactions, or ministering. I honestly believe that every day I have to earn the title “rabbi.” I think that while I am a rabbi, I have to stay a rabbi. I also think that being a rabbi is really a process of becoming. I’m trying to become the type of human being, Jew, and rabbi that I think I’m meant to be.

Being a rabbi has its opportunities and challenges. Opportunities– to do all sorts of amazing things, to live a life of study and spiritual reflection, to engage people in meaningful growth and exploration, to celebrate holidays deeply and fully. To be a rabbi is to be in relationship. With congregants, students, fellow rabbis, and people of all faiths and no faiths. It’s also to be in relationship to nature, all creation, and God, the Source of Creation. It’s to question, to study, to be present, to celebrate, to witness, to sanctify, and to bless. It’s exciting work.

Challenges– a lot of people think your first name is rabbi. Sometimes people forget that there’s a person behind the title. And sometimes the work that we do is the work of healing, of standing in the breach, of confronting the injustices of the world. But those challenges are also opportunities.

When I was in college my parents asked me a very reasonable question: What do you want to do with your life? My response, which came to me fairly quickly, was totally unexpected. I want to be a rabbi. At the time I knew that I wanted to live a life of service, of study, of relationship, of spiritual exploration. I knew that rabbis got to do all these things and more. I’m very happy with my decision and continue to explore my answer to that very reasonable question through the work that I do and the life that I live.

An Incomplete Meditation on Connectedness

An Incomplete Meditation on Connectedness
 
I am connected
 
to this computer
 
to this couch
 
to the sounds of the white noise machines in my kids’ rooms being carried through the speaker of our video monitor
 
to the buzzer on the drying machine and the great folding that awaits 
 
to having brushed my teeth to avoid mindless snacking
 
to the pile of paperwork immediately to my right and all the past, present, and future that it represents
—-
 
to my mom, who emailed me today with teacher resources about the Las Vegas massacre and told me about someone she knows who lost someone they know
 
to my brother who worked in a hotel on the Vegas Strip many years ago and my other brother who didn’t
 
to my brother-in-law who just spent the weekend with us and the brisket we smoked while he was here, the leftovers of which I ate for dinner tonight
 
to my wife, who is out teaching tonight
 
to my entire family, to all my friends, even the ones I have to read about on Facebook instead of hug
—-
 
to the words of Torah that were chanted this morning
 
to the timeless values that they represent
 
to the teachers I met with today in various permutations and on various subjects
 
to the students that sang with me in our nature sanctuary this morning
 
and those that didn’t
 
to the people I missed today and the people I connected with
to Tom Petty, dancing between life and death, among the wildflowers
 
to Jerry Garcia, who died before Twitter and Facebook, but who sings over my speakers almost every day
 
to music
 
to sound 
 
to breathing
 
to silence
 
there goes the drying machine
 
These connections break and mend my heart moment by moment
 
They obligate and liberate me
 
They teach me, outrage me, humble me, and remind me
 
To the extent that there is a me, they are me, and I them
 
Any meditation on connectedness that has a start and finish is necessarily incomplete 
 
Both start and finish are made up points on a made up line 
 
All that’s true is the unspeakably awesome truth toward which they direct my attention