Monday, August 30, 2010

Elul Day 20 - Exorcisms, Dybbuks, and The High Holy Days

The Last Exorcism was the big winner at the box office this past weekend. Though it is not a movie I am planning on seeing any time soon or ever, I do recall when I saw the Exorcist for the first time when I was about seven years old. I was home sick and had access to HBO. Let’s just say I chose not have any split pea soup to aid in my recovery that week.

The practice of exorcism is primarily found within Catholic tradition, though there are some rituals for removing a dybbuk that can be found in Jewish tradition as well. We just don’t advertise it very much, nor make too many movies about it. But there are certainly streams of Jewish magic that abound dating back to the Torah.
I started thinking about the idea of exorcism and what it is really about. Some speculate it was a way of dealing with mentally ill people well before mental illness began to be understood in any clinical sort of sense. Almost all the rituals involve the attempt to remove some sort of outside force compelling the afflicted individual into sinful acts.

In some strange way, this is a comforting idea. Commit a sin, perform a ritual, and magically, the demon is gone. But in reality, life doesn’t work that way. To understand our choices for requires lots for reflection. To no longer make those same choices requires daily efforts to change. Neither of which are easy to do, and neither of which can be done over a short period of time.

Change may be a constant, one of the only constants in the universe, but it certainly not easy to engage in personal change. It demands of us desire and commitment, something which we recommit to every High Holy Day Season.

Is there something in yourself you are hoping to change for this year?

Dybbuck - Spiritual Possession

Friday, August 27, 2010

Apropos of nothing

So here I am in the midst of sermon writing, conducting my first bat mitzvah rehearsal at Har Sinai, trying to prep for the High Holy Days, and where is my mind? Its focused on the recent implosion of the so-called rom-coms (romantic comedies).

With the most recent failures of Leap Year, When in Rome, He’s Just Not that in to You, and the Ugly Truth, (the Proposal notwithstanding), rom-coms have been declared movie non-grata amongst movie goers and critics alike. Some have even suggested they are a dying breed.

However anyone who counts out any genre fails to appreciate the ebb and flow of movies. Westerns were on the outs until the arrival of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Horror movies were going nowhere until the Scream series made something old into something new. And the Smurfs are now back in James Cameron’s Avatar, oh wait, I meant in the live action/computer animated movie coming out next year.

Though maybe some movies should have remained on television. See: A-Team, Bewitched, Dukes of Hazard, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and just about almost every television show made into a movie. I just pray they never make a Three’s Company movie, but you never know.

But with Rom-Coms, this wasn’t always the case. Part of the problem is rom-coms have gotten away from their roots of actual people living life. The most successful and arguably one of the best rom-coms was When Harry Met Sally. It was and is an endearing movie about two people who fall in love but only after a long fascinating on and off friendship. It was a movie both men and women enjoyed as it spoke to the complexities of modern relationships. Plus it was really funny.

Instead the bromance has taken over the place of rom-coms. With the success of Knocked-Up, the Hangover, the Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I love you Man, and the like, these movies seem to have found a formula missing from the current crop of rom-coms.

With that in mind here are some suggestions for future filmmakers and writers out there: please stay away from marriages in foreign lands, hired dates, simple misunderstandings, and gorgeous women who for some inexplicable reason are unable to find dates. Instead play to the quirky nature of dating and romance, and try not to force people into situations that don’t exist in real life (unless they are straight out of a Disney cartoon come to life), otherwise you will continue to lose the battle to bromance movies.

See I told you this was apropos of nothing. Shabbat Shalom

24 Cliches We'd like to Retire

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Farwell Rabbi Jake

Instead of blogging today with regards to the month of Elul, I want to take a couple of moments to remember and reflect. This is because today in Dallas, many individuals and luminaries will be gathering to say farewell to one of my heroes. They will be saying farewell to one of the giants in the Reform Movement and one of the gentlest and kindest men to ever serve the URJ. Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, known as Rabbi Jake to most of us, was instrumental in the success of the Union’s Southwest region which included Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. But more than that, he was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX as well as the continued support of Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Mississippi.

Greene was instrumental in the forming of my own Jewish identity. And in particular I would look forward to Rabbi Jake’s annual summer visits to the camp. He was an energetic, gregarious, compassionate person who cared deeply about the Jewish youth of the Southwest Region. His booming voice could captivate and silence even a raucous dining hall filled with noisy campers. Rabbi Jake also assisted a number of congregations in the region, especially the smaller ones whenever they needed a rabbi to help in just about any capacity.

But on a personal level, to this day, I believe it was Rabbi Jake’s letter of recommendation to HUC that ensured my admission to the Rabbinic School program. So I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to him I will endeavor to pay forward because with Jake, thanks were never necessary.

I did not learn of the rodef pursuing him these last several months until his untimely passing just a couple of days ago. Upon learning the news, I was and am heartbroken. I know there are so many more whose lives he has touched in more profound and personal ways, but Rabbi Jake will always leave a lasting impression upon my heart.

Thank you Rabbi Jake. May you be bound up in the wings of the Shechina. May God grant comfort to your sorrowing family. And may your memory always truly be for a blessing.

Rabbi Lawrence "Jake" Jackofsky

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 14 Dirty Laundry

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach recently came out with an article Extravagant Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs Humiliate the Jewish Community on the Huffington Post condemning not just Jews but rabbis for officiating at lavish weddings and bnai mitzvah. In the article he is essentially condemning Jews for their displays of materialism as a way of impressing their friends as well as condemning the Jewish community for failing to reign in such disappointing behavior.

This article struck a chord with me. First I reacted as if this was a personal indictment, but as I thought about it, I realized that was not a correct assessment. Most of the life cycle events I have had the pleasure of officiating at have been modest, tasteful, and appropriate. And I do on occasion speak out about what is important in our lives and not letting our stuff or pursuit of status define who we are.

So what about this article is bothering me? Upon further reflection, I really think it has to do with Rabbi Boteach’s condemnation of a group based on the actions of a few individuals. There are stories of lavish receptions especially in L.A. as well as in New York and Chicago. But there are a lot more stories about much more modest celebrations as well focusing on the marriage or the acknowledgment of entering into Jewish adulthood. Or to put it another way, he was making the assumption that these over-the-top parties are a reflection of the values of American Jewry as a whole, and not a minority of us.

How often have we been angry at a select few and allowed those emotions to then be focused on an entire group? Today’s conversations about immigrants and about Muslims are certainly reflective of this problem.

This is not to say we don’t have a right to be angry. But are we angry because of something someone did or said, or are we angry because they are a part of a group we have decided not to like.

Elul is a great time to think about not just how we are feeling, but also why. If we understand the why, maybe we’ll encourage ourselves to think more positively, and not just rush out to air a perceived community’s dirty laundry for all to see.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 13 When My people ... humble themselves...

Actually the full quote from the title is: "when My people, who bear My name, humble themselves, pray, and seek My favor and turn from their evil ways, I will hear in My heavenly abode and forgive their sins and heal their land." It is from one of the books of the Hebrew Bible we almost never read, II Chronicles 7:14. The other books we pretty much never refer to or study outside of academic settings are Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and I Chronicles.

The essence of this passage is in order to really encounter God and be able to seek forgiveness; we have to be humble and contrite. Something that is difficult for anyone with any sense of ego to do. For example, I am sure there is one or two of you out there who will stay in an argument well after it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are wrong simply because you are too proud to admit fault; how much the more so it can be with God.

So what can we do to diminish our sense of ego to truly engage in teshuvah? Well this weekend I had the opportunity to do a physical task that encouraged me to be humble. I spent the morning working with approximately twenty members of our social action committee cleaning up the side of a road as part of the Maryland Adopt-a-Road program.

Aside from making the occasional cracks about if we have to support the road through college, it was a good reminder to be humble in the work that we do. We all spent time cleaning up cigarette butts, McDonalds cups and wrappers, a myriad of beer bottles that the optimist in me hopes is from people drinking while walking and not drinking while driving.

It was a truly humbling experience because I spent the morning picking up trash, a task we usually pay others to do. And not only that, it was morning spent picking up trash others carelessly toss away with no thought to its impact on the surrounding environment. They just throw it out of a moving car and just keep on going.

There is a tradition of keeping two notes in your pockets. The first says, “For me the world was created.” The second note is, “I am but dust and ashes.” We keep these notes to remind us how important we are to God’s creation, but also to remind ourselves that everyone else is just as important, and that we are not as significant as we sometimes think we are.

Not a bad lesson for a morning spent cleaning up a road.

What will you do to help prepare yourself for the season of teshuvah mixed with humility?

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 10 Say it ain't so...

The other day I posted on facebook a lamentation in response to the indictment of Roger Clemens. It was a lament not about how far Clemens has fallen, but instead how far the value of his rookie baseball card has fallen. A card I have held in my portfolio for years. It was a tongue-in-cheek sort of response, but mostly an admission of not sorrow, but apathy.

More and more athletes’ names are coming forward in connection to the steroid era in baseball. And more and more of Americans are responding by saying, “meh.” We are no longer surprised. In fact we not only expect it, but also assume that just many elite players from that era used to one degree or another. Clemens, Maguire, Pettite, A-Rod, Bonds, are just a few of the big fish to get caught or implicated in the snare of HGH and steroid use.

But I do wonder why we are not angrier about it? Part of the reason is because we enjoyed the game with the towering home runs and 100 mph fastballs. We laud performance on the field more than we do excellence in one’s personal life. Character matters, to a point. Yet for awhile, we were really angry and hurt because we assumed it was one or two individuals, not a generation.

But is it really fair to demand this of athletes, when given the chance, many of us may very well have made the same choices under the same circumstances. Clemens' name may be mud now, but he guided two organizations to World Series appearances, and has assured the financial future of his children, grand-children, and great grandchildren. This sort of temptation would be hard for anyone to give up.

Now I am certainly not excusing any unethical choices by any athletes. I am just wondering if, before we begin to hold others to higher standards, if we shouldn’t first look in the mirror and try to ascertain what standards we are holding ourselves to.

Elul reminds us not to spend time judging others. We cannot control their fate. The only thing we can occasionally control are ourselves.
So what standard will you hold yourself to this coming year?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Elul Challenge Day 9 - Rainbow Connection

The other day I was driving to a dinner meeting. It was drizzling and the road was slick. I Took my time going around the twists and turns in the road, when I hit a straight patch of roadway. Up ahead I was greeted with the glorious sight of a multi-colored bow in the sky. It was so close in fact; I could just make out the end of the rainbow. I thought for a moment I should pull off to the side of the road and search for my pot gold.

Rainbows have been part of our collective imagination since time immemorial. Not only are we familiar with rainbows of leprechaun lore but they also can be found in our music as well. Most famous is Somewhere over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg performed by Judy Garland and countless others, though I have a partial preference for the Rainbow Connection written by Paul Williams and sung by my second favorite green muppet, Kermit the Frog.

Jewishly speaking, the most famous rainbow is the one established to seal the covenant between Noah and God at the end of the flood story. Noah and humanity promised to follow seven central laws, and God promised not to destroy the world again by flood.

These laws include:
1. Not worshipping idols
2. Not committing murder (different from not killing by the way)
3. Not stealing
4. Not committing any of a series of sexual prohibitions, which include adultery, incest, rape, and bestiality.
5. Not blaspheming God's name (to blaspheme basically means to refute God and God’s ability to make and uphold this and other covenants)
6. Not eating the flesh of a living animal (i.e. shark fin soup). Genesis 9:4, as interpreted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a)
7. The requirement to set up courts of law

Six of these laws relate to how we treat each other as individuals, whereas the seventh law has to do with how we are to set up a just and righteous society. Because of this, the rainbow became a physical, visual reminder of how we as Jews are to behave in an ethical and moral way, and not just search for our pot of gold.
In this period of Elul, when there are regular ethical reminders surrounding us (i.e. the sounding of the shofar), what sort of actions will you be reminded to do? And what reminders are helpful to you?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Elul Challenge Day 7 - A Laugh a Day...

As many of you probably already know, the month of Elul is particular stressful for those of us in the Jewish professional world. Not only are we wrapping up visits to summer camps, vacations, and the like as well as getting the kids ready for school, but it is also the time where we prepare for what is essentially the 'Superbowl Season' of the Jewish year.
Expectations abound, and though we truly work hard through the year, this part of the year tends to be one of the most intense.
So as I was watching the Today Show recently the question was posed: how do you go about coping with stress. Note the emphasis was not on reducing stress, but instead on coping with it. Recommendations included yoga, exercising outdoors, spending quality time with pets, and taking five minutes to meditate every couple of hours.
But one piece I realized that was missing from the show, and from my own life during this time, is taking time to laugh. When I get really stressed I forget to laugh not just at funny moments, but also at myself. Life is far too much fun to take too seriously.
So today, as an attempt at stress relief, I will endeavor to remind myself to laugh a little. What do you do to help yourself cope during this season?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Elul Challenge Day 6 - The Company We Keep

I have found over time two ways to really get to know a person. The first way is by looking at the choices they make which leads to the actions they choose. In Judaism we very much are a 'show me' religion; meaning - don't tell me what you believe, show me. If we don’t like the choices we’ve made over the past year, it is up to ourselves to change course. Because very little demonstrates more about ourselves than our decisions and actions.
However the other way to get to know someone is by examining the company they keep. If you are looking for someone smart, successful, and compassionate; look to see if they are surrounded by same type of people. For the friends we choose are often times just as reflective of our own character as are our actions.
Good friends, I believe, don’t only accept us for who we are, but also push us to accomplish greater things. Thus if we want to improve over this next year, it is not a bad idea to surround ourselves with friends who challenge us, inspire us to make better choices and are looking for us to succeed in the coming year.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 5 Mac or PC

I don’t know where the Mac vs. PC commercials went, but I do miss them. They were quite cute and clever, though with Windows 7 out, they do seem to have disappeared. But it did get me thinking about how much we like to focus on dualities: Mac vs. PC, Red Sox or Yankees, Leno or O’Brien, Republicans or Democrats, Team Jacob or Team Edward, goodness or sin. We focus on these dualities as if life has only one of two possibilities.
But within Jewish tradition when speaking about the Yetzeir tov (the good impulse) and the Yetzeir ra (the bad impulse), what we actually find is life is much more complex. For example the yetzier ra is really the impulse to satisfy personal needs, which if not controlled ends up being a runaway Id. But we do need it at times in order to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
In Judaism then, its not necessary so much about conflicts as much as it is about finding equilibrium and harmony.
So really, in many ways, the month of Elul provides us with opportunities and time where we once again try to find balance in our lives. Lives that need the yetzeir ra, but not too much. I’m still on the fence about, when it is time, whether I will get a Mac or PC, but I can tell you for sure I am definitely on Team O’Brien.
What are you doing to try to get back into balance during this penitential season?

Hopefully not spending too much time on youtube

Friday, August 13, 2010

Elul Challenge Day 4 - Careful what you say

I think this article pretty much sums up why sometimes its best just not to speak at all.

"Why Dr. Laura? Why?

It is not unusual to let our mouths get ahead of our minds. That seems to be part of the human condition; especially in the case of those paid to talk for three or more hours at a time. Yet, believe or not, we don't have to have an opinion on everything. And even if we do, doesn't mean we always have to share it.
Lashon Harah, malicious speech, is one of the great prohibitions in Jewish tradition. Usually it is with regards to gossip. But equally as important is the idea of not saying hateful or hurtful things simply because you can. Because often what one says is not so much reflective of the object of the speech as it is the speaker.
Or as Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, "It is better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
So maybe during this month of Elul, we can learn from this sad lesson to moderate what we say, so we don't have to then spend to much time apologizing for it. A lesson Dr. Laura might want to spend some time reflecting on.

Dr. Laura's Apology

The Elul Challenge - Day 3 Anger Management

Steven Slater (the Jet Blue Flight attendant) got me thinking about how we express frustration these days. To start off with, I believe Mr. Slater clearly lost it, and made some extremely poor choices. For those in positions of authority, be it real or perceived, as Moses can attest to, to lose one’s temper in such a fashion is probably not such a good thing. Just ask the feds.
But it did get me thinking about all those little frustrations and annoyances that build up in our lives be they at work, at home, or at play. Whether it is a cashier who takes a little too long, or the person who puts sixteen items in the fifteen items or less lane. Be it the driver ahead of you who isn’t paying attention and causes you to miss your left turn, meaning you have to sit and wait another cycle, or something your spouse or partner does that just drives you crazy. All these little moments can build up slowly and insidiously if we are not careful.
I think part of the design of Elul is to remind us that these lingering pieces of anger we hold on to in many ways only bring us down. There is no ripple effect and instead can come out in one great big explosion like in the case of Mr. Slater. Even in today’s web crazy world, I am sure there are better ways to release anger and frustration, though a beer does sound good at times.
I know one area I am working on is letting go. So what if I miss the light or have to wait for one more item to be wrung up at the grocery store. There have been times I probably missed the light or took too many items for check out. Is it worth letting these insignificant moments bring down one’s whole day?
So as we prepare for the High Holy Days, I encourage you to work on finding ways to let go of or at least find a way to release these pent up frustrations, hurts, annoyances, and feelings of anger. For, as far as I know, on Yom Kippur, there is no inflatable slide to help us escape.

Here is a commentary on Steven Slater by a fellow flight attendant
Flight Attendant on CNN

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Elul Challenge - Day 2

Inspired by my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer Thoughts from Rabbi Phyllis, I am going to attempt to blog each day of Elul challenging myself and hopefully you as well to fully engage in this profound time of year. Of course the irony is, I am writing this on the second day of Elul, oh well.
Elul for those of you who are not familiar, is the month immediately preceding Tishrei which contains the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Elul is a time of ritual return to God including the practice of sounding the shofar daily along with the recitation of certain psalms and seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged either accidentally or intentionally.
This month I encourage you to watch the excellent and thought provoking documentary: Forgiving Dr. Mengele. It is a movie about Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Mengele’s horrific twin studies, who decides of her own volition, to forgive those perpetrators (may their names be wiped out), as a way of enabling herself to heal. In this sense the documentary gets to the heart of what does it really mean to forgive by asking if we have to forgive at all, and are there some crimes so horrendous they need never be forgiven.
There is also a whole section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we’ll save that for a blog for another day.
You may not agree with Eva’s choices, but it may inspire you to reflect on whether or not there are some old hurts in your life you are still nursing simply because they keep you warm at night, but no longer remember even their origins.
As this movie teaches, forgiveness is less about those who have committed wrongs than about those who have been wronged. Holding on to the pain and anger did not better Eva’s life. She certainly did not excuse what happened, but she has found as sense of peace through this process.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Here are three articles circulating their way around the web discussing the challenges, perils and opportunities of the modern rabbinate and clergy as a whole.

Taking a Break from the Lord's Work

Congregations Gone Wild

What the Success of Women Rabbis Means for Judaism

And here's one about a new Israeli Documentary about Israel and Gaza:

Steal this Movie

Feel free to look through the articles and let me know what you think