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.

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.

A New Year, New Challenges

I’m getting ready for the new year, and with it, a new experience. Tomorrow I head off to Spokane to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church. And by speak, I mean give a sermon (two actually, or rather, one sermon, given twice–at the 9:30 service and then again at 11). So, there are two elements here:

  1. Giving a sermon.
  2. Speaking at a church.

Individually, these are two things I do with some regularity. I speak at churches from time to time on a variety of subjects, from marriage equality to various aspects of Judaism. And I give sermons in a variety of Jewish contexts. But somehow, giving a sermon at a church service feels different.

Part of the difference comes from a statistic I encountered at some point during rabbinical school: ministers spend an average of 8 hours a week preparing sermons. Now, I’ll be honest: when you tell rabbis this statistic, they look at you like you’re crazy. Maybe you’ve misplaced a decimal? Most of us spend a couple of hours a week preparing our sermons, but Jewish congregations just don’t put enough emphasis on the sermon to justify that kind of time expenditure.

In any case, this feels like something new to me. And with a new year coming round tonight, it feels like a propitious way to begin 2011.

Oh, and, of course, may the new year be a wonderful year for all of us.

Willing the Light to Brighten

Chanukkah, which begins this evening, is the festival of lights. We celebrate by lighting a candlabra each of the eight nights of the holiday, adding a candle each night.

Tonight as we light the first candle, the moon is waning, almost vanished. When the holiday ends, the moon will be waxing, becoming ever brighter. We, however, lighting the increasing number of candles assert the that the victory of hope over fears.

This year, more than most, we balance between hope and fear. Will the coming year bring prosperity and light, or despair and darkness? Lighting the candles, even as the moon disappears, even as the sun shines a little less each day, we assert that the light will return.

Chanukkah is, primarily, a holiday of the triumph of hope. The triumph over long odds. The victory of hope despite our fears.

May this holiday of light restore hope to all those in darkness, light to all in fear.

The Text Defeats Me

Recently, I’ve been doing more “spiritual” stuff. You know, classically spiritual, like meditation and text study. Which is all well and good. But one of the “texts” I’ve been studying is Sefer Yetzirah. Now, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation) is considered esoteric, complex, even difficult. But I’m a rabbi. I have six years of graduate education in this stuff. If I slow down enough, I should be able to work with it.

And I can. Sort of. I’m even working with a translation and commentary. And therein lies the heart of my problem. I’m beginning to think that the translator/commentator (Aryeh Kaplan), while clearly brilliant, may be, umm, shall we say, “less than correct” in rendering the author’s original intention. It’s not that I think he’s all wrong. It’s just that I think he’s gotten so hung up on the tradition which came before him, and so hung up on his own knowledge of physics, that it’s getting in the way of his (or at the very least, my) mysticism.

The clearest example of this I’ve run across today is from his “clarifying” note explaining how the  ends of  various lines will always meet at the same point at  infinity (note 149 to chapter 1):

To prove that they all meet at a single point, we can imagine the three-dimensional continuum as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. When the hypersphere becomes infinitely large, the continuum becomes flat. Still, all outgoing line, making “great circles” on the hypersphere, meet on its opposite side. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the curved space of general relativity, since the entire discussion here assumes an idealized flat space.

Now, I hear you saying, why don’t you just skip over that detail and continue on with his main argument. The issue is that, if I’m understanding him correctly, the point where all of these points meet is God. Which point, by the way, is both infinitesimally large and small simultaneously. And regardless of the dating of the text, I’m pretty sure the original author was not working from a vantage point that included non-euclidean geometry.

And then Aryeh Kaplan continues to build on this theory. And some of what he says makes sense, and some of it seems like it only works if you were following the argument about the ends of lines. These lines, by the way, are continua labeled Up and Down; East and West; North and South; Before and After; and the problematic one: Good and Bad. So the argument runs, that at the ultimate edge of “Good”, where it meets the ultimate edge of “Bad”, at that point we find God.

All of which goes to say, I’m feeling a bit like the text may have won this round. But then, if there is no struggle with the text, you’re not doing it right.

Yom Kippur Draws Near

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement begins at sundown this evening. It is a somewhat stressful time for most of us, as it is a day of fasting–no food, no water–with a focus on what we’ve done wrong. It brings with it intimations and reminders of our own death. It involves a lot of hours in synagogue, praying (or listening to Torah readings, or trying to ignore that fact that you haven’t had any water in 20 hours and your mouth is really dry). It is a time of deep introspection. I kind of love Yom Kippur, actually. It’s Judaism at its darkest: focusing on the places we fear to go, forcing us out of our comfort zones, asking us to confront the uncomfortable.

Over the course of years, I, as so many of us do, have drifted into patterns in my life that I disapprove of. Maybe I gain a pound or two a year. As was pointed out to me recently, over the course or twenty years or so, that begins to add up. Maybe I give myself I pass on reaching out to people from time to time. Over time, that leads to a more insular life.

During Yom Kippur we have the opportunity to face ourselves (and God?) naked of the filters we normally bring. We have the opportunity to put aside our pride, our false bravado, our false humility, and find true humility. It is an opportunity to try to see ourselves as we are in the universe.

May this Yom Kippur be a meaningful one for all who celebrate it, and may we all be sealed for a good year. Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

It’s Been a Tough Year: Welcoming 5771

All in all, the past year, ending tonight with the start of Rosh Hashanah, has been a tough year. I’ve been mainly unemployed with little bits of work here and there. My grandmother died. It just hasn’t been a fun year.

So, hitting the end of the year provides the opportunity to look forward to change. It’s arbitrary, but saying, “last year may have been bad, but maybe the new year will be good” feels more valid than saying, “well I’ve had a bad stretch, but I think this next bit of time might be better.” No inherent reason to it, but we all invest the new year with hopes and dreams.

And so, as we sit on the precipice of a new year, I put out my hope and prayer: May the new year be a good year, for all of us.

Shanah Tovah Umtukah (A good and sweet year).

May 5771 be a wonderful year. A year of prosperity and blessing. A year of satisfaction and joy. A year of love and happiness.

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