“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.