Who’s Lucky?

When I was a child (somewhere between five and ten years of age), I remember thinking how amazingly lucky I was to have been born in the United States. After all, it wasn’t like everyone got to live in what I now think of as “the first world.” I could have been born in Africa, or the Soviet Union, or China, or any of those other places I saw on the news where it looked like people had very tough lives. Instead, I was born in the United States of America, where life was easy and  food was plentiful.

As I matured, that sense of gratitude has only deepened. At some point in my studies of history (and I’ve studied a lot of history between an undergraduate degree in classics and my rabbinic training) I realized that what we think of as barely acceptable housing conditions in this country represent far greater comfort than was available even to royalty in past ages. In the winter, we are adequately warm most of the time (even those of us who keep the thermostat at 65 degrees). But if you look at the stone castles found in various places across Europe (which we often visit in the summertime) and imagine what they must have been like in the winter, the misery of life in those conditions becomes evident relatively quickly.

To be alive, here and now, is one of the greatest strokes of luck anyone could ask for. And yet, there are moments when I feel like I can’t catch a break. When, after 1.75 years of chronic un-/underemployment, I feel like it has to be my turn at some point. When it feels like the world is conspiring against me, and, to quote the song, “if I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

When I’m feeling like that, I remind myself of how fortunate I truly am. And then, I admit that regardless of how fortunate I may be in the larger picture, it still feels hard to live life in some moments.

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.

Shofarot: Hearing God, Being Heard by God

The third special section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah is Shofarot (see the previous two entries for the two earlier sections, Machuyot and Zichronot). Shofarot, means, literally, Shofars, or rams horn trumpets. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar as part of the service, the blasts sounding through the synagogue, wailing to the soul.

This section of the Amidah quotes two types of texts:

  • Accounts of shofar-like sounds accompanying divine revelation
  • Accounts of humanity using a shofar to call out to God.

What I love about this is that it is setting up the call of the shofar as the baby-talk between God and humanity. When we speak to babies, we coo at them with the same nonsense syllables they use to coo at us. It becomes a back and forth conversation, filled with nonsense syllables, which have no semantic significance, but have great meaning to both parties involved. Both the adult and the baby feel they are carrying on a conversation, though no intelligible words are spoken. The call of the shofar is the same.

The shofar calls back and forth, between humanity and God, speaking sounds but not words to one another, communicating without the constraints of language, transcending the limitations of different modes of being. We hear God’s shofar in thunder. God hears ours in the blasts of Rosh Hashanah. We coo to God, and God coos to us.

Zichronot: Remembering Good and Bad

After Malchuyot, the Rosh Hashanah Amidah continues with Zichronot (remembrance). It describes a God who remembers all that we have done, and judges.

Despite this, it is not the harsh “fire and brimstone” section you might expect, but rather, a balanced section. It notes that God remembers all of our misdeeds, but that God also remembers all of the good deeds, both our own and those of our ancestors. We are judged not just for our faults, but also for what we have done well. Perhaps even what our ancestors have done well.

While I am uncomfortable with any idea of God weighing our missteps and our good deeds, I am comfortable with the idea that we do this often. There are the sins in all of our pasts which we wonder whether we can make up for. And while I do not count on the deeds of my ancestors to make up for my mistakes, the idea of a God who remembers what we have forgotten, who remembers the good I have done which I have long ago forgotten, if I ever noticed to begin with, is comforting. It reminds me that I am too quick to discount the good I have done, while I am slow to forgive myself the wrongs I have committed.

I cannot judge myself fairly, nor would such a judgment matter. What matters is that I try to do good, and hope that good is propagated into the universe, so that it’s echoes continue, and are remembered by a God who remembers all.

Malchuyot: Celebrating Divine Sovereignty

During Rosh Hashanah, there are three major themes that make up the extra amidah, or the Mussaf amidah. These are:

  • Machuyot (Sovereignty)
  • Zichronot (Remembrance)
  • Shofarot (Trumpeting)

Each year, as I approach these, I find myself trying to figure out how to relate to them. They are the high point of the prayer service, in which we sound the shofar, but the prayers themselves don’t necessarily speak to me. Instead, I tend to focus more on the general themes. In this blog post, I’ll focus on Malchuyot (a bit more seriously than I did a few years back).

God as king is a troubling metaphor for us in the contemporary world. To begin with, it is no longer a particularly useful metaphor, in that we no longer have kings, in the sense of an absolute ruler with absolute authority over us and our lives, and who is also responsible for our welfare. Metaphors work because they relate something unfamiliar to something familiar. In this case, both halves of the metaphor are unfamiliar. So we need to work a little harder at understanding the concepts behind it.

The king is remote, not approachable, but makes decisions which impact our lives. Just as the universe, or luck, or fate, works in ways we don’t understand, can’t anticipate, and find ourselves reacting to, so too do we envision God (not necessarily as separate from the Universe, Luck or Fate). When we pray regarding the King, we are often praying for individual attention or notice, although it seems unlikely to us that we may receive it.

But the King is more than just ancient ruler. The King also stands for the ordering principles of the universe. The King is God of nature, gravity, and all the physical laws that make the universe and life possible. The King is the force that makes for a natural world.

The King is also the force we cry out to for mercy. The one who can grant pardon, no matter what we may have done. The King is the one who can forgive that which we, ourselves cannot forgive.

I pray to the King when I am at the end of my rope, and need strength and hope. I pray to the King when I wonder at the sunset, or the fact that gravity works, despite it’s seeming impossibility. I pray to the King when I need a structure beyond science for the universe and my life.

The King is both remote and immediate. The King is, perhaps, the most traditional understanding of God. And the King listens always, but doesn’t always respond.

Who Am I to Pray?

In the beginning of the communal amidah, there is a line inserted for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

On the basis of the wise ones and those with understanding, and on the teachings of those who understand their opinions, I open my mouth in prayer and supplication. . .Misod chachmim u’nevonim umilemed da’at mevini’im, eftechah fi b’tfillah uv’tachanunim. . .

In religious traditions, there is often a tension between the humility of the individual who prays and their presumption in asking for something from God. Thus we often have formulations that read something like, “God, I am nothing before you, but could you do me a favor and . . .” One of the elements I find particularly endearing about some prayers in Judaism is that they take this tension on explicitly, and define who we are, and by what merit we ask God to hear our prayers.

In this case, we are saying that it is not on our own merit that we believe we have anything to say, but because we have learned these words from those who came before, those who had true wisdom. But I think this goes even further: we pray these words not because we claim to understand them, but because those who have understood them tell us they have meaning. I may not yet understand them, but perhaps, in time, I will come to understand them, through repeated repetition, study, and prayer.

This is not to say that my own prayers, my own words, are inappropriate. This is to say that the old words have value within them, and over time, I must find that value, and find that meaning. Until then, I repeat the words in the hope that the meaning will reveal itself to me, and that God will understand what I might someday intend.