Blog is Moving

I’m moving my blog to my own domain: http://rabbidavidkominsky.com/blog/ Come visit me there, and move your feed.

You can read my newest post here: http://rabbidavidkominsky.com/2011/09/28/rosh-hashanah-arrives-i-review-my-year/

 

 

Fear and Trembling

In the Jewish tradition we are taught to face the High Holidays, the Yamim Nora’im, with fear and trembling as we evaluate our actions and failings. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays.

For rabbis, Elul is also a time of preparation, both spiritual and logistical. It is our busy season, during which we are preparing what expected to be our four (or five) best sermons of the year, at least five distinct services, not to mention the logistics associated with that (facility setup, making sure the various committees are ready to do their thing, etc.).

For me, this year, I’m also organizing a new congregation, which means figuring out things like opening up a bank account, initial meetings with potential members, finding insurance, creating marketing materials, borrowing machzors, and desperately wondering what else I’ve forgotten. All in all, it’s a somewhat daunting prospect.

Which brings me back to fear and trembling. This year, I’m awfully close to outright panic.

A Landmark Day in My Life

Today has been a day of great significance in my life. Two things happened, each of which may be seen as a turning point in the story of my life.

Today, in forming Mikdasheinu, I filled all of the obligatory roles for the Board. This doesn’t mean I can’t add more board-members, merely that I now have enough to move forward. It means Mikdasheinu is actually going to happen.

Secondly, today I bought my first pair of reading glasses. I don’t need them all the time; only when the print is small, my eyes are tired or it’s dark. And they’re not particularly strong. But the fact is, when I’m wearing contacts, I need reading glasses for some close up work.

Facing Death

I’m a rabbi. As such, I deal with death frequently. I officiate at maybe five funerals a year. I spend a lot of time at graveyards (compared to your average American). Death is something I think about and talk about professionally. But I don’t have to deal with it in my own life very often.

Until now. Somehow, over the past three months or so, I’ve found myself dealing the loss of a number of people in my life. My friend Paul died in April, while I was in Boston spending time with my grandfather who was in hospice. My grandfather died at the end of May. And my college classmate Elinor passed away last night, following a lengthy battle with cancer. All in all, that’s a lot of death (putting aside the three funerals I’ve already done this year).

It makes me reflective. I find myself thinking about how long I’ll live. Certainly no one knows when they’ll die (unless, like Elinor, they are able to plan the moment), but somehow I always think about my own death as somewhere in the nebulous–but distant–future. After all, people my age don’t die of natural causes. . .

Except that as I get older, and age into my forties, more and more of my contemporaries do die of natural causes. Part of that is just the nature of statistics. The longer you live, the greater the chance of dying of natural causes. And as I get older, the people I bury get closer and closer to my own age. Usually that doesn’t strike close to home. This spring, however, it’s beginning to feel personal.

Elinor, Paul and my grandfather represent exactly three generations. My grandfather died at age 91. Paul in his early 60s. Elinor in her early 40s. Death is an equal opportunity employer.

All of which has me feeling just a touch reflective, a touch melancholy. Buy while I am yet above the ground, I will celebrate the day. I will lift a glass of wine to the memories of loved ones who have passed, and savor the flavor of life.

Meditations on a Cup of Coffee

There’s something special about the first cup of coffee in the morning. Both symbol of the start of a new day, and the fuel to make it happen. The first sips are bracing: both hot and somewhat bitter (I drink it with milk, no sugar). It’s the taste of incipient productivity.

The drinking of coffee falls somewhere between an act of self-medication and religious/magical ritual. We (and by “we”, I mean “I”) count on the caffeine to infuse our system, and add the motivation we need to do the things which need to be done. Yet the power lies not just in the caffeine, but in the very act of drinking. In the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a tradition of reciting a meditation before performing a mitzvah: “Here I am, prepared and ready to accept upon myself this mitzvah in order to bring about the unification of the Divine.” Drinking coffee is a similar act, saying, “here I am, prepared and ready to accept upon myself this day, to make of it something productive.” When I drink coffee, I am acknowledging that the day has begun, and that I am trying to make something of this day.

Yet at other times a cup of coffee connotes a very different sentiment. Drinking a bottomless cup of coffee over weekend brunch with friends bespeaks relaxation and a willingness to spend time carelessly together, not counting the moments, but allowing time to flow by at its constant, relaxed, pace. Most different is the cup of coffee drunk after dinner, which I covet as a child might a lollipop, and resist because I know it will cost me sleep: a forbidden fruit which somehow the elder generation drinks with impunity.

Yet for me, it always comes back to that first cup of coffee in the morning: steam rising from the cup as I begin the day, like the smoke of a burnt offering in the ancient Temple rising to heaven each morning without fail. Drinking it slowly, knowing that I can’t be expected to be productive until I’ve finished the cup. Savoring the taste, the smell, and waiting for the caffeine to kick in, and truly wake me up.

Building a New Community

It’s time for me to make something happen. To move a dream onto the path of reality. Specifically: it’s time to begin building an inner-East Side Jewish community.

There’s a lot of details left to work out. Some of them I’m deliberately leaving up in the air until I have a group of collaborators to create the community with me. Other details I just haven’t worked out yet. But there are some things I do know:

  • It will be a community which, while Jewish, will be welcoming to non-Jews as well, whether in interfaith relationships or not.
  • It will be a community which is welcoming to people of all genders, sexual orientations and identities.
  • It will be a mult-generational community.
  • We will join together to find fulfillment in spiritual experience, whether through traditional Jewish modes or less traditional modes.
  • And there will be services, at least on occasion, because I like praying, damn it.
As for the rest, it’s waiting to be worked out. And I’d love for you to be a part of working it out. Because I don’t want this community to be a reflection of me: I want it to be a reflection of those of us who consider ourselves “inner-East-Siders” and “Jews.” So drop me a line, let me know that you’re interested. Because I have a good feeling about this.

The Road Ahead

It was recently brought to my attention that while I know what’s happening in my professional life, you all may not, and might wish to know.

For the last year or so, I’ve been actively engaged in rabbinic job search. I am looking for work, maybe in a congregation, maybe on a campus, maybe in some other setting, which is rabbinic in nature.

For some of you, this is not news. Some of you may be surprised that I might be looking for anything else. But my path has been varied enough, and covered enough different types of employment, that clarity is a good thing.

While at CubeSpace, as an entrepreneur, I saw my role at CubeSpace as part of a rabbinic path. I was leading a community, albeit not a Jewish community. Many of the functions were similar, in terms of community building, providing a spiritual center for the community (even if most members of the community did not think of it that way), and serving as the one who made sure community events happened.

Since CubeSpace closed, I have been looking around, exploring various possible paths, and realized, about a year ago, that where I really belong is in a Jewish setting, in a rabbinic role. These are the settings that make me feel alive and fulfilled. These are the roles that sustain my spirit. And, perhaps as important, this is a career I don’t have to invent from scratch.

So, if you know a congregation looking for a rabbi. . . send them my way.

It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

Living in Death

Right at the moment, I’m feeling a little surrounded by death. I’m in Boston for an indeterminate period of time accompanying my grandfather on his journey towards death. As I wrote yesterday, Paul Bingman, a friend and amazing person died on Sunday, and I’m having conversations with various folks about planning a memorial service for him (something I know more about than most folks, being involved in several funerals a year in a professional way).

I’m coming to a conclusion. Dying is hard work. I don’t know how hard it is for the one actually doing the dying (though it looks pretty rough, and on the basis of my observations I really wouldn’t recommend it). But for those of us involved in ancillary ways, it takes a toll, both physical and emotional. I know this sounds awfully flip for a post ab out death and dying, but sometimes, humor is all one has to hold things together.

For the past couple of days I’ve been beginning to think about a prayer (or meditation, if you prefer) to be said before entering a space where someone is dying (or in hospice). So far, I’ve gotten this far:

Here I am, prepared to accompany ___________ on their final journey. As I spend time with him/her let me be there for him/her, not for myself. May I answer them in the ways that are best for him/her, not those that are easiest or most comfortable for me. May my presence bring us both peace.

As the task becomes harder, may I remain equal to the task. And when I am not, may I forgive myself, knowing that what I do is hard work, and impossible to do perfectly.

May the time I spend with __________ be as meaningful and enjoyable as it can be for both of us.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly what needs to be said. But it’s a start.

May the source of comfort grant peace to all those who seek it.

Paul Bingman’s Death: The Passing of a Giant

Paul Bingman was a fixture in the Portland Tech Community. If by fixture one means the largest person in the room who was constantly moving around talking to everyone. Yet, I’m clear that the tech community was only one of the many communities he belonged to.

Paul Bingman

He passed away Sunday, April 3. Our community will never be the same.

Paul was the extrovert in a community of introverts. On the facebook page, Friends of Paul Bingman many people are commenting about how he was the first person they met when they moved to Portland, or entered the Portland tech community, and the like. It’s not a coincidence. Paul was someone who would come up to you and introduce himself. He would say something funny and engaging. Usually something smarter than you could respond to immediately.

Paul was part of so many different communities. Whether it was the tech community, the Jungians, the film community or some amorphous spiritual community (at least amorphous to me), he was central and involved. His beloved VW vanagan was constantly in use transporting equipment to one event or another–because he was always helping (unless the vanagan was awaiting a part–which might take months to find). I heard hints of other communities involving music, railroads etc. He was truly a renaissance man.

Paul was a tech geek who took spirituality seriously. He loved to ask questions about Judaism. In asking, he was seeking knowledge, listening with neither acceptance of truth, nor rejection of spiritual truth, but hearing it was true to me (or someone). He would challenge the ideas presented, not implying they were silly, but trying to understand how they worked. As I think about it, he would have made a fabulous rabbinic scholar, chasing down ideas and debates, some of which were simply about the intellectual pleasure of the debate, some of which had great practical implications, and usually with a few incisive puns thrown in.

I’ve had a little trouble figuring out how to write about Paul. A serious tech geek, he was never quite satisfied with the forms of communications we had available. Sure, there was twitter, email, texting and the like. But I can just hear his response to the suggestion that one communicate by those tools: “Though, you know…” proceeding to tell us how smoke signals were actually a much more elegant solution, and could be practical if the world was just slightly different (and better).

But I lack Paul’s engineering creativity. So I write a blog post, and announce it via facebook and twitter, and hope that Paul will forgive me that it isn’t funnier or cleverer. And know that he is in a place of peace, disturbed only by crazy engineering a fabulous puns.

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