Friday, August 16, 2013

Blog Elul - "See"

As the father of little children, I find myself spending a lot of time trying to capture them on 'film' and on video.  My wife and I then spend a lot of time culling through the pictures, and I spend a lot of time editing the video so that it can actually be presentable.  We share it mostly with family though, on occasion, we like to subject our friends to our adorable children as well.  But hopefully not too much.

All that being said, one issue I have really wrestled with over the years is that when I am so busy trying to capture the 'perfect' moment, I end up not actually being in the moment.  I am trying so hard to capture the adorableness for posterity that I am not enjoying the adorableness as it is taking place.

You can see this if you go to just about any type of performance, graduation, and the like.  The paparazzi (i.e. the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, well-wishers) immediately whip out more electronics than were ever used to land man on the moon in order to record that moment, which they may never refer back to again.

This is not to say that I do not think we shouldn't be capturing major milestones and the like, but is there a point where we are so busy that we forget to genuinely see what is going on around us? 

We are all familiar with the mitzvah to hear: Shema!  As in Hear O Israel.  Yet, even more emphatic in some ways is the commandment to genuinely "see." 

The Hebrew words re'eh, ra'ah, and ro'eh (all related 'see') appear in the Torah many many times.  As Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote, "The first time the word is found in the Torah, the Torah states that after creating light or energy, "vayar Elohim ki tov, God saw it was good." (Genesis 1:4) Obviously an anthropomorphism. Still as God saw, so do we have the power to see."

To really see what is going on requires our attention.  It requires our presence.  And sometimes it even demands of us to put down our electronic devices and really take in all that is going on around us. 

Or in my case, to just take in the adorable children and not always focus so much on recording it for posterity. 


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Blog Elul - Hear

The quintessential experience of the High Holy Days is the sounding of the Shofar.  Though to be specific, the actual mitzvah demands of us that we be present to hear the shofar being sounded.  Hence the end of the bracha (blessing), “who causes us to hear the sound of the shofar.”

It is the very nature of the High Holidays that calls out to all Jews to enter sacred into spaces of worship.  It is the sounding of the shofar that beckons us.  It is the opening of the gates of teshuvah that invite us in.  It is beautiful and melodic sounds of our choirs that lift up our souls.  And it is the warmth of a people gathered together in prayer that encourages us to connect with one another.

The shofar is traditionally sounded each day during the month of Elul.  It is then blown either 100 or 101 times during the Rosh Hashanah Morning Service, and then it is not sounded again until Yom Kippur, where it is blown one last time at the end of the Ne’ilah service.

A shofar can be made from the horn of just about any kosher animal with horns, save for one: the cow.  This is attributed to the incident of the golden calf.  My personal favorite happens to be the Yeminite shofar made from a Kudu (a species of antelope).  I find I like its deeper richer tones over the traditional ram’s horn done in most Ashkenazic settings.

No matter, your preference, the shofar IS the sound to be heard during this season.  True it is not as melodic as so many other sounds to be heard from the coo of a baby, to the cheers of fans excited for the return of Football season.  But it is our sound.  It is a sound that has echoed across the generations.  It is a sound that should resonate within our very beings.  All you have to do is listen and hear the shofar, and maybe, just maybe, your soul will be stirred as well.
(and yes I am aware of the irony of a picture Bevo - a bull - blowing the shofar)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blogging Elul - At Least You Have Your Health

For those of you following this blog, you might have noticed that I have not posted in the past couple of days.  The simple reason is because we had an unfortunate virus run rampant through my family.  I will leave out the gory details, but we all seem to be on the mend. But it did remind me of importance of physical well being.

As the old Yiddish phrase teaches, "abi gazunt," which means, "at least you have your health."

Or to quote from one of my favorite movies the Princess Bride, "Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped."
Count Rugen (in response), "Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything."

During this time of Elul, and during our lives in general, it is often easy to get lost and forget the most important part of our lives, namely ourselves.  If we fail to take care of ourselves physically, morally, and spiritually, we are often unable to take care of anyone or anything else.  

As we seek forgiveness from others, we should also take time to seek forgiveness from ourselves for the ways we did not fully take care of ourselves.

And once we do, we can return to pathways of holy living.  We can do this by trying to eat a little better, exercise a little more, learn something new, love ourselves as we are not as we compare ourselves to a commercialized ideal, sleep a little more, wash our hands a little more often, nap on occasion, broaden our horizons, and live life a little more fully.

To quote again from the six-fingered man, "if you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything."
Abi Gazunt!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Elul Day 3: Cleaning House

The other day I began cleaning up my office at work.  I was simply amazed at the piles and piles of stuff I let build up over the year and years.  It was mostly things that I meant to get to, but somehow I never seemed to get to.  And yet it also built up like a metaphysical impediment.  As the piles grew, so did my sense of anxiousness and dread.  I was becoming increasingly overwhelmed by all the stuff I thought I needed to get to.  I have the same feeling when it comes to DVRs by the way. 

I began, slowly at first, to go through the piles.  Then more and more rapidly.  Until finally, I felt a sense of liberation and freedom.  The piles are gone!  I can start over!  I can start fresh! 
Kind of like the Yamiim Noraiim, the High Holy Days.  Every year we get the chance to clean out all the piles building up in our personal, spiritual, and even physical lives.  They are kind of like a spring cleaning for the soul. 

A clean office for me, kind of like an unburdened soul, is so refreshing.  This year I promise not to let stuff build up, just I promised last year and the year before.   Oh well.  Thankfully it’s only a little pile … for the moment.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Elul Day 2: Act (Lessons we can learn from a zealot)

I have been reading the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan.  Dr. Aslan has recently acquired some internet fame over an interview that took place on Fox News. 

I actually learned about the book from an interview Dr. Aslan did on the Daily Show.  And as someone who is deeply fascinated by The Second Temple Period, I decided to order and read the book.  As an aside, if you want to see a cinematic depiction of just how insane that time period was, I highly recommend Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.  It is in no way historically accurate, but it certainly captures the zeitgeist of the period.
In reading Zealot, I must admit, I did not find much that was surprising.  Many of the arguments he presents have been offered up by other scholars.  But I did find the book to be very readable as it is clearly aimed at non-academics.  As the author explained, he is interested in pursuing what little is known about the historical Jesus as opposed to the theological figure who is known around the world as Christ (the Greek term for mashiach or messiah).

Needless to say there are some who are very upset by this book because Dr. Aslan is a Muslim.  The argument being that Muslims cannot write about Christianity without having some sort of agenda.  Now truth be told, every scholar has an agenda.  They have an argument or arguments they wish to present.  This is why there are so many books about Abraham Lincoln, for example.  However the danger is when one dismisses an argument based on the person rather than the merits of the argument.
Aslan is arguing that Jesus was a complicated man who lived in complicated times.  His life was filled with contradictions.  And as the author writes in his introduction he was a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement who with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition.  It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus’ failure to establish God’s reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus’s mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah” (pg. xxx). 

It is this reinterpretation of his mission and the events surrounding his life, that have led to much of the suffering sustained by Jews over the past two thousand years.  Blame was shifted from Rome to the Jews as early Christians were trying to convince Romans to worship Jesus and believe in this newly forming religion.  Much of which can be traced in another excellent work: Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll. 

I mention all of this because in order to know our own history, we have to own it.  We have to study it, and we have to be engaged with it.  This means sometimes we hear and learn things that make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions and preconceptions about who and what we are.  But isn’t that the whole point of Elul?  To challenge ourselves not just in spiritual ways, but also in academic ways too! 
As Jews, we need to understand the times and events of the Second Temple Period just as much as our Christian friends and neighbors.  Because Christianity was not the only movement to emerge.  There was another movement as well: Rabbinic Judaism. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the video:

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Question of Relevancy - Preparing for Elul

As a people perpetually worried about our people, we like to conduct any number of surveys to find out why our people choose to either join or not join congregations.  When those surveyed list reasons as to why the do not join the two most common denominators are issues of spirituality and relevancy. 

Though I have struggled and continue to struggle with what the term 'spirituality' means, I find myself now wrestling more and more with the concept of relevancy.  According to Webster, the term relevance means, "1. a. relation to the matter at hand, b. practical and especially social applicability 2: the ability (as of an information retrieval system) to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user." (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).

With this concept in mind, I assume those who say congregations are not relevant or not relevant enough are implying that the experience is not practical and/or socially applicable.  Again, I am making an assumption, but if this is correct, then the argument is that the experience at a congregation has little or no applicability to one's life, therefore it is not relevant.

Then there are those of us who work in the religious world who argue that congregations are more relevant and more necessary now than ever.  In today's overwhelming world where we feel less and less human connection and a greater sense of self versus the needs of the community, a strong religious tradition is very much relevant.

So where is the breakdown?  I think fundamentalism has played a very strong role.  Absolutism in a more tolerant society has had a significant impact.  The ability of some to use religion to become closed-minded to all the possibilities of God's creation certainly is a possible reason as well.

But I think most importantly, to paraphrase one of our country's presidents, we no longer ask what we can do for our religion, we ask, what can our religion do for us? 

So I would encourage those of you out there who say that you religion, your congregation (or your former religion or congregation), are not relevant?  Try to figure out what you mean by relevant.  Let us know.  And you might just find in our answers that we are a lot more relevant than you have given us credit for in the past. 

Yes religion does have the capability to divide us, but it also has the amazing ability to bring us together.  It is all about how you engage that makes us relevant.  Not, I would argue, the other way around.