The Year that Was

Every year at Rosh Hashanah, I try to look back over the year which passed, the events which have transpired and how I’ve changed. This year, I thought I might do some of that by looking back over the blog posts I’ve written since last Rosh Hashanah. 

I’ve written 95 blog posts (this will be the 96th) since last Rosh Hashanah, going back to last October and this post, wherein I was noting how strange it was to move from the workaday world to sitting with a family as a loved one died. It was light postings through December, as I was really getting my feet under me as a congregationally rabbi in Salem. I was learning to balance the roles, while still talking about knitting upon occasion. 

There are the posts that describe specific events from the year. There’s the post talking about how I invoked the Oregon State Senate, which was amazingly cool. Also when I passed the 100,000 mile mark on the car, and thinking about where the car had taken me. There was the time I saw a pair of raccoons in the yard. There’s the post I wrote as I was leaving Salem

Then there are the feline related posts. We adopted Chloe and were excited. A week later she was dead, and I wrote my prayer for a dead pet. Ten days later, we faced a much harder loss. Diana, who had been with me for 14 years, died. 

There are posts about the connections between knitting and spirituality. And posts about my experiences teaching Sunday school and bar and bat mitzvah students. And posts simply about Jewish Spirituality and theology

There were a whole slew of posts about Shabbat. Some commenting on how ready for it I was, some on how I planned to spend Shabbat. 

There are a huge number of posts about knitting, and I can track my progress through various projects over the course of the year. I note a few times that I seem to have a lot of projects going at once. My celebration of finishing a shawl that took about 6 months. 

I note a number of posts talking about how much I’m enjoying what I’m doing, but I’m exhausted because I’m doing too much

 And also a post about how cool it is that I get to perform weddings. And several posts about doing funerals, how satisfying it is, and how hard it can be.

There are blog posts about me. About me feeling like I’m getting older and that my brain is less efficient

There were some humorous posts (or at least attempts). One about Hannukah. One about Purim and Talmud and Knitting. A post about why I haven’t been posting. A very mildly humorous post about fictional items for auctions. A post about Rosh Hashanah sort of rounded out the year. 

There were post about flowers and the coming of spring. A post about cleaning up the front yard. And a post when I realized I’m not going to have the garden I’d hoped to have this year. Then I took some pictures of flowers on the way to work

Also some posts that are among the most frequently searched by keywords. One about the fact that life isn’t fair, usually in our favor. Another on the subject of being strangers in the land of Egypt

It’s been a long, full year. I’ve been at CubeSpace and at the congregation in Salem. I’ve performed 8 weddings, and 6 funerals. I done 9 bar or bat mitzvahs. It’s been a long year, and a good year. I’ve grown and become more the person I want to be. I’ve shared much of that with you all who read my blog, and it’s been a privilege and a pleasure. You’ve made insightful comments and sympathetic comments. 

May the new year be a good year for all of us. Shana Tovah umetuka. A good and sweet year to us all.

Hineini: My High Holiday Theme

Many rabbis come up with a theme for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), some idea which ties together all of the sermons to be delivered. Usually, I make do without such a theme and deliver sermons which are relatively unrelated. This  year, I’m not delivering any sermons, but have a theme for myself, nonetheless.

It all began when someone put a post on ravelry asking what would be an appropriate word or phrase to crochet into a kippah (yamuke) for the high holidays. Which I thought was a great question. What would I want on the kippah I wore throughout the High Holidays?

I finally came up with one word: Hineini (here I am). It is the response which many biblical figures give to God when addressed by the Divine. It is a statement of readiness to perform the Divine work. It is an affirmation that one is fully present to the world which surrounds us.

This year, during the High Holidays and beyond, I’m planning to work on being more fully present in my life and my work. To think more about what I can be doing to make the Divine manifest in the world through my actions. My goal is to lead life more intentionally, and less by accepting the default options set before me.

It is easy to do things which come naturally to us. It is the tasks which are difficult, challenging or scary which require us to respond, “Hineini.” Too often I pass up those tasks which are difficult or challenging, staying in the nice safe realm of things I am good at and enjoy. But to do good work in the world, it is necessary to step outside of our comfort zone. To be present to opportunities and challenges, rather than simply coasting through and doing the things which we always do, the things which we do easily.

This year, and this High Holiday season, I will try to answer, “Hineini.” I will try to be present during congregational prayer, of course. But I will also try to be present in all of my interactions with people at CubeSpace. I will try to bring my full attention to everything I do. And in so doing, perhaps I will help make the world a somewhat better place for those with whom I interact.

My Socks–and Mourning (?)–are Done

So I’ve finished my socks that I started in the wake of Diana’s death. I am quite pleased with them. They are colorful and fun. THey are comfortable, and wonderful. And to some degree, they will always remind me of Diana. 

Being done with them, I am filled with conflicting emotions. There is always the excitement of completion, and the sense that I am very  much going to enjoy these socks. In this case, there is an added level. I had said that finishing these socks would, in some sense, mark the end of my mourning period for Diana. Now the question becomes, how ready am I to be done mourning?

In most senses, I think I’m pretty ready. I’m not aware of her absence all the time, anymore, but there are moments when it sneaks up on me, unaware. Times when I think I catch a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye, and catch myself thinking I’ve seen her. Moments when I’m making sure there are no plastic bags lying around, and realize it doesn’t matter so much, because she isn’t here to chew on them. But for the most part, it’s getting easier. 

I’m very excited by these socks. They are warm and colorful and represent the kind of clothing I wish I could wear all the time. And therfore, I’m looking forward to wearing them often, enjoying the yarn and the colors, and thinking of Diana.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

One of the toughest parts of being a rabbi is that people sometimes turn to me looking for an answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I know the answer to this question, by the way. The answer is that bad things happen to all people–it’s part of being human. That, however, is not really the question being asked. 

The question being asked is why does it seem that more than my fair share of bad stuff is happening to me? For that, I truly don’t have a satisfying answer, except to listen to the questioner’s troubles. And that is what they need, nine times out of ten. 

Learning that the best thing I can do for someone who is having a hard time is to listen–really hear what they are saying–to them, without trying to “fix” the problem, without trying to make them feel better, just to listen, was tremendously hard. We are taught that value comes from doing, from fixing. Yet the person with the problems knows we cannot fix them. They aren’t asking me to fix them. They want to unburden. Simply telling me about their problems, sharing them with me, lightens the load on them.

The corrolary of this, of course, is that I do take some of the load. Not as much as they give up, but I need some time to recover from their sadness or anguish. But it is important, and work I love–even if not work I enjoy. 

The question “why do bad things happen to good people” is not so much about theology, as it is a request for listening and help. It is a request that we validate the questioner’s experience of life as hard. It is a request that we be there for the person asking the question. 

When bad things happen to good people, good people are given the opportunity to be better people to those experiencing bad things. But in the end, bad things happen because we are human, and that’s what life is about. It’s also why good things happen to good people. It’s how we share these things with each other that really matters.

Rosh Hashanah: Preparing the Soul

After my last post, I figured I ought to produce something a bit more serious about Rosh Hashanah for some balance. So, in a slightly more spiritual vein, here are some thoughts about preparing for Rosh Hashanah.

One of the prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur speaks of the various fates that may befall us in the year to come. It asks, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be serene, and who shall be troubled?” It does not answer this question, but it does provide us with an important insight: “Teshuvah [repentence] and Teffilah [prayer] and Tzeddakah [righteous acts or charity] avert the harshness of the decree.” We are not taught that our behaviour will change what is fated to happen to us, but rather, that our behavior will change how we are impacted by what happens to us. It is not the decree which can be changed, but who we are.

So what are these three items which can so transform us, which can make unbearable harshness in life seem bearable?

Teshuvah: Literally, turning. Moving away from wrong action to right action. Re-evaluating who we are and making changes. Changing who we are to match up more closely to our ideal vision of ourselves. This is all to say that by acting in a way that we consider more holy, we are better able to withstand the troubles of our lives. When we are comfortable with who we are and how we are acting, we are more secure. We questions ourselves less, and the minor annoyances are easier to bear. We do not become self-righteous (self-righteousness is, if anything, a sign of someone who is so uncomfortable with themselves that they need to project their sense of right behavior onto others). Rather, we become more truly who we should be, and more able to accept life on its own terms.

Tefillah: Prayer, communing with the Divine. Communing with that part of the self which is most in touch with the Divine. Prayer is not necessarily about speaking specific words (though it can be). It doesn’t have to be a process of asking God for favors, or praising God’s greatness. Prayer is any act which brings you closer to Divinity or holiness in a meaningful way. Sometimes we do that by speaking the words of ancient prayers, finding new meanings in them, new understandings of Divinity as we pray the words. Sometimes the words serve only as a mantra to free our mind to reach out to the Eternal in primal, yet unvocalized, need. Sometimes prayer is about connection to community, all of us standing together and praying the same words. Sometimes it’s about connection to our tradition, praying the same words our ancestors have prayed for thousands of years. Sometimes we pray whatever is on our mind at that moment, using it as a bit of a quiet time between you and God. Any and all of these forms of prayer can quiet the soul. They leave us feeling better, and more ready to accept the world. We see the interconnection of all life when we pray, and are more open to the world around us.

Tzeddakah: Righteous action, often used to mean giving to charity. The distinction between Tzeddakah and charity comes down to the roots of the two words. “Charity” comes from a root meaning love. “Tzeddakah” comes from a root meaning righteousness. Thus while charity may be done from a place of compassion or love for the one to whom you are giving, tzeddakah is given because it is our responsibility to do so, and doing so is the only way to live life appropriately. While tzeddakah is praisworthy, it is also required. And while it is required, it also benefits the giver. By giving, we are reminded that there always those who are worse off than we are. No matter how badly we are feeling about the way life is treating us, there is someone worse off. And how bad can we feel about our lot in life when there are those who would trade places in an instant?

“Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzeddakah remove the harshness of the decree.” They contextualize our lives, and help us to understand who we are. They strengthen us and help us to see who we can become. They help us to accept life on its terms, and to make the most of the times of celebration, and weather the storms with Grace.

Shanah Tova Umetuka: May the New Year be a good and sweet year.

Rosh Hashanah: Celebrating the King.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is coming remarkably soon. With it comes God-imagery that many of us find difficult to relate to, the image of God as King. So I thought I might take a little time to help explicate this, and maybe introduce a new piece of liturgy for the central part of the Rosh Hashanah service: Malchuyot, or Sovereignty. 

First off, it is important to understand that we are not speaking of a democratically elected president. No, The King is something entirely different, with great power, and praise, aclaimed by all. The relationship to the King is complex, a mixture of love, fear, trembling. Therefore, I offer this new arrangement of Malchuyot verses for use in services this year. 

We approach the King with Awe and Trembling, as much as with Love. As it is written: 

My hands are shaky and my knees are weak
I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet
Who do you thank when you have such luck?
I’m in love I’m all shook up
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

This is one image of our relationship with the King. Yet there are others. There is the demand that we, in turn, love the King: 

Love me tender,
Love me true,
All my dreams fulfilled.
For my darlin I love you,
And I always will.

Yet the king is not all love. There is also the anger and disappointment:

You aint nothin but a hound dog
Cryin all the time.
You aint nothin but a hound dog
Cryin all the time.
Well, you aint never caught a rabbit
And you aint no friend of mine.

When they said you was high classed,
Well, that was just a lie.
When they said you was high classed,
Well, that was just a lie.
You aint never caught a rabbit
And you aint no friend of mine.

Yet through this all, through the turmoil of life, the travails, we are reminded that must celebrate. Even when we feel that we are in the “jailhouse”, it is incumbant upon us to celebrate, and cling to our Rock. 

The warden threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing.
You should’ve heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.
Let’s rock, everybody, let’s rock.
Everybody in the whole cell block
was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock.

But in the end, it comes down to our assertion, that there is only one King: 

Only you
Can do make all this world seem right,
Only you
Can do make the darkness bright,
Only you, and you alone
Can feel me like you do
And do fill my heart with love for only you.

And let us say, Amen. 

 

Now, there are those who say that we ought to more gender-neutral, and praise the Queen as well as the King. However, the problem with that is this: The Queen is known to be bitchy, and therefore fearful beyond our ability to pray. Thus do we pray to the King, and hope that the Queen will be absent when it comes time for the Judging. 

Flowers on the Way to Work

I’ve begun walking to work a lot the past few weeks, which is great. It’s about a half hour walk, which is about perfect. Sometimes, though, I take it a bit more slowly, bring out the camera, and stop and smell–or more often, photograph–the flowers. This morning wsa a morning full of flowers. 

One of the things I love about Portland is the profusion of flowers we have through the spring and summer. The variety, the brightness of colors.

Some of what I love about the flowers is the diversity of color and texture. It reminds of me of knitting, in that there are bright colors, though I find that there are colors I love in nature which I would never use in something I knit. The yellow of these sunflowers is one such example. I would never knit with a yellow such as this, but in this context, the flowers are amazing and beautiful. 

Other flowers are much more my normal color-style.

 The purples and pinks of the fuscia make me really happy. The profusion of flowers on the plants don’t hurt either. 

Roses have always been a favorite of mine, in large part for their scent. I also adore the way the flower changes over time from the tight rosebud to the open, ruffled flower. Very often the color of the flower will also change as it opens, which is a wonderful treat. 

Looking at gardens in Portland, there are some other treats: Someone came by to investigate as I was taking photos of some cornflowers and lantern flowers. There was a clear sense of ownership here, and a sense that I was photographing the wrong thing. Apparently, this feline believed that portraiture was a far more appropriate art form than landscape photography. Who was I to argue?

Nonetheless, I did take some closeups of the lantern flowers.These flowers are amazing because they just don’t seem like they should be real. 

And speaking of things which may or may not look real, I took some substantial liberties in adjusting this last photo. The colors may not be exactly what my eye saw, but I find it beautiful. There is a question among photographers and lovers of photography as to whether the goal is to produce a beauty or to accurately represent reality (at least when the two are in conflict). Most of the time I satisfy myself with beauty which is an accurate reflection of reality. This time, I wanted to play a little. 

Walking to work is for me a way to get in touch with the natural world. It’s fairly easy this time of year. Cool enough that I don’t arrive at work soaked in sweat, warm enough that I’m comfortable. Dry enough that I’m not soaked by rain. I hope I’ll be able to continue throughout the year, but we’ll see how persistent I am when the weather becomes less pleasant. Each day comes, one at a time, and I’ll see how it goes, and how the landscape changes.