Pure Souls

Most of the time, this blog doesn’t get overly rabbinic. I may talk about what I do as a rabbi, or talk about Jewish things, but rarely do I get overtly religious. This is fair warning: I’m about to talk about prayer, the soul, and how I understand them.

One of the prayers of the morning service, Elohai Neshamah, begins, “My God, the soul You have given me is pure.” For me, the soul (neshamah) represents who I am, that part of me that is uniquely “David”. I’m not particularly tied to the idea of an eternal soul that goes on beyond this life (in fact, I tend away from such belief). Rather, I see the soul as my essential being (most of the time, sometimes I get mystical and see the soul as that part of me which is most closely identified with the perfection of Divinity, and therefore the part which is least individual to me). Generally, when I say soul, I mean some essential part of who I am. So what do I mean by saying that the soul God gave me is pure?

For me, the idea is that my soul begins clean, unsullied. As we live life, and reality intrudes upon us, the imperfections of the world impact our soul, leaving scars, dirt, accretions (plaque, if you will). But by reminding myself each morning that the soul began pure, I can attempt to live as though it remains clean, making the decisions that will help to preserve the purity of the soul. It is as though I am saying, “God, you gave me a pure soul; I’ll try not to muck it up today.”

The first line of Elohai Neshamah is popular as a meditative chant, and not just for it’s meaning. While the translation of neshamah as “soul” is a good one, the word neshamah can also mean “breath.” Which is deeply appropriate to the sound of the first line: Elohai neshamah shenatata bee tehorah hee. Each word ends on a vowel (or an open syllable, to use the technical  term). This means, that each word ends with an outflow of breath. The soul/breath given us is pure, and we return it to the Divine as we breathe it out with each word.

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Shabbat and NaNoWriMo

As I’m working feverishly on my novel for National Novel Writing Month (18,000 words, thanks for asking), I’m approaching the first Saturday of the month. Which raises a question for me. Do I work on the novel on the sabbath?

On the one hand, I try not to use a computer on Shabbat, because it’s too work like. And in some ways, this writing really is work, in the sense of productive labor.

On the other hand, I’m having a lot of fun writing, and it’s a spiritual activity, especially given the spiritual themes of the novel. And, after all, I’ve got 50,000 words to get done before a deadline.

I really don’t know where I’m going to come out. There is work I’m willing to do on Shabbat (like lead services, for instance). But without boundaries, Shabbat ceases to have true meaning. Studying spiritual text is very traditional as a Shabbat activity. But writing it isn’t. I’m balancing, weighing the questions, trying to find a comfortable result.

I’m trying hard not to let the target of 50k words drive my decision. That’s not what Shabbat is about, and frankly, that drive is the most compelling reason to me NOT to write on Shabbat: the goal oriented nature of 50,000 words is very much not shabbastik (doesn’t feel like shabbat).

A more traditional Jew doesn’t wrestle with these questions. There are clear boundaries that one adheres to. For those of us who seek to live by finding our own path through the tradition, creating meaningful ways of celebrating and observing, the questions are tougher. Competing values come into play, and the decisions are up to us, not the rabbi we ask for a ruling.

For now, I remain undecided, but leaning towards writing. But tune in next week for the answer.

 

Setting Apart Time

I’m a rabbi. Yet even I struggle with celebrating Shabbat and the holidays, setting them apart the way I wish to. I don’t tend to work on Shabbat, but lately it hasn’t felt as special as I’d like it to feel. And I’m realizing that a part of this is that I don’t use all the tools at my disposal to make it special.

Jewish tradition teaches that we should begin the sabbath by lighting candles, saying a blessing sanctifying the day over a cup of wine and eating a relaxed meal. Many people also go to synagogue to begin Shabbat with a service. The end of Shabbat is marked by another ceremony, maybe 5 minutes in length, called havdalah. These rituals serve as signposts in time, separating a day of sanctity and rest from the rest of the work week. Yet recently, I’ve been neglecting all of these rituals.

Shabbat happens whether I observe the rituals or not. I even observe Shabbat by not working whether I observe the rituals or not. However the time feels different when set apart by ritual. I am able to mark beginning and end, to know when the computer must be turned off, and when I can turn it back on. These markers are important to feeling the full impact of the day, not because it changes what I do on the day, but because it changes the intentionality with which I do it. The closest comparison I can make is the difference between killing time by playing a video game and playing a video game with the intention of giving oneself a break from work. When one is consciously taking a break, one is more refreshed afterwards. The rituals of Shabbat are sort of like that.

So with all these good reasons for using the rituals of Shabbat, why haven’t I been? Habit. When at CubeSpace we got out of the habit because when we got home at the end of the week we were too tired for anything other than complete collapse. After CubeSpace’s demise, I think it just didn’t occur to us to change our pattern. But now, it is time to change patterns. It is time to engage with the rituals once again. To make shabbat rather than just letting it happen.

For the Sins I’ve Committed

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish year. It begins Sunday evening and runs until we can see three stars on Monday evening. It is a day of fasting, when we eat no food, drink no water. We spend a great deal of the day in synagogue praying. The centerpiece of these prayers is a confession of sins, in which we, as a congregation, confess to  an acrostic of sins. We confess to everything from being thoughtless in our dealings with other people, to deliberate transgressions.

The theory of the day is that if one has asked forgiveness from anyone one has sinned against the previous year, and they have forgiven you, the Day of Atonement atones. For sins against God or oneself, the Day of Atonement atones. In this way, at least in theory, we start each year with a clean slate.

For me, reading through the confession of sins is an opportunity to think about whether there are ways I’ve committed each of those sins over the last year. Some sins, I clearly have (pride, lack of attention to the effect my words may have on others). Some sins, I’m pretty sure I didn’t commit (I’m pretty sure I didn’t pervert justice this year, or commit a violent act). Many more are the categories that require me to really think about my actions over the past year (disrespecting parents and teachers, mocking others, sins in our business affairs, for instance). This is where I get the real value out of the confession: rethinking my acts of the last year, and examining them under the moral microscope.

As we head towards Yom Kippur, and I am thinking over my last year, I ask your forgiveness if I have wronged you, and I forgive all those who may have wronged me. I resolve to try to do better in the coming year, and I pray that for all my sins, I will be forgiven, pardonned, and granted atonement.

The Omer: Making It Count

Between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, Jews traditionally count out the 49 days between. This period of time is called “the Omer.” Over the course of time, people have created various different counting calendars (much like Advent calendars). People have also used the counting as a way to add some practice to their lives, be it text study, or attempting some sort of “self-improvement project.”

Some years I’ve used the time to become more committed to blogging. Other years, I’ve tried to meditate more regularly during the Omer. This year, I’m thinking of trying to study some Jewish or spiritual text each day of the Omer.

Text study is, for Jews, a form of spiritual practice. For me, it is about reading the text and trying to understand two things:

  1. What did the author intend?
  2. What does the text mean to me?

Sometimes these two meanings are similar. Sometimes I find a personal meaning in the text that the author could not have intended, but makes the text deeply influential in my life. Sometimes the process of text study is more about decyphering Hebrew, and sometimes it’s more about re-interpreting an outdated text.

What texts will I be studying? I don’t fully know yet. I know I’d like to do some more reading in Psalms. But I think I’d also like to spend some time on later texts, probably either Mussar or Maimonides Mishne Torah. I’m sure I’ll wind up doing a wide variety of other texts as well. Maybe some Kabbalah or other Jewish mystical texts (Rav Kook?).

For me, the opportunity to spend some time studying Jewish spiritual texts is an opportunity to examine myself, how I am leading my life, and what matters to me. It is also a chance for me to stimulate my brain which will likely leak into increased creativity in other areas of my life.

What impact will this have on this blog? Probably there will be more frequent posts connected to the texts I’m reading. When I’m thinking about something, it has a way of finding expression here, so it’s likely that you’ll be getting a bit more Jewish content over the next 7 weeks.

For those of you counting the omer, I invite you to think about whether there is a habit you would like to inculcate in yourself over this period of time. If so, go ahead and give it a shot.

The Passover Story: Release from Constraint

The Jewish holiday of Passover begins tomorrow night (Wednesday, April 8th) at sunset. It celebrates the Israelites’ going free from Egyptian bondage, and is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year. Yet there is another layer of meaning in the exodus from Egypt, that is apparent when one looks at the Hebrew. “Egypt”, in Hebrew, is mitzrayim, which comes from the root meaning “narrow” (presumably because Egypt was a long narrow country settled around the  Nile river). Yet from this same root, comes another word tzarot, or the more familiar Yiddish, tzurres, meaning “troubles.” The idea is that when one is that troubles constrain one in narrow places. When one comes out of troubled times, one is released from the tightness.

There is a long tradition in Judaism of looking at the going forth from Egypt (mitzrayim) as symbolic of coming out of troubles. It is a metaphor that has been often used around depression and other emotional troubles. It has also been used to symbolize economically hard times. For all of these, Passover serves as a reminder that there is the hope of release from bondage, whatever form that bondage takes for us.

This year, many of us are very aware of the economic contraints we find ourselves in. Others are dealing with sadness from family situations. All in all, there are a lot of us who are feeling beset by our problems at the moment. We struggle with worries about what the future will bring, and sadness over opportunities lost.

Passover is the opportunity for us to assert that redemption from our problems is possible. Coming in the spring, it is a holiday of rebirth, reminding us that even though we may feel trapped at the instant, new life is beginning, new opportunities constantly presenting themselves. Whether we find the message of a Divine force who liberates us from our troubles comforting or whether we see that as a fairytale we cannot believe in, the holiday itself celebrates the ability for humans to overcome obstacles. Whether we view God or Moses as the liberator, we can celebrate liberation.

For me, this year in particular, Passover serves as a reminder that troubles are surmountable. For me it is a reminder that we are able to overcome obstacles and barriers. That there are forces in the universe which help us accomplish things we believe we cannot do. I call those forces God. Others refer to those forces as “luck”, or “friends”, or “the universe.” The words we use do not so much matter as does the fact that we acknowledge that sometimes life is too challenging for us to fix by ourselves, yet solutions may appear when we most need them.

May this Passover  season be one of rebirth of hope and of freedom. May we all go from bondage to liberation, and help others to make the same journey. The Israelites did not leave Egypt as individuals, but as a mixed multitude 600,000 strong. Together, let us all go forth.

Yom Kippur: A Time for Prayer

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) comes up starting tomorrow (Wednesday) evening. It is a 24 – 25 hour period of fasting and prayer, punctuated by some sleep in between. Yet in some ways it is my favorite of the Jewish holidays.

On Yom Kippur we pray, over and over again, asking forgiveness for all of our sins of the previous year. We name these sins, most often in acrostic (alphabetical) prayers. And we continually remind ourselves (and God) that we are less than nothing, but if there happened to be a little chance to take note of us, that would be great.

We don’t eat, which you might think would interfere with prayer, but I tend to find enahnces prayer. One of the basic problems with prayer is that we get in our own way. Our beliefs, and intellectual understanding of ourselves, makes it difficult to pray to God as though God were listening and cares. Yet it is this ability to pray as though God cares which makes prayer truly effective for the person praying. On Yom Kippur, long about the 23rd hour of the fast, our  blood sugar plummeting, we cease to edit our beliefs quite so hard. We begin to be able to pray like we really mean it, because we feel it.

There are many religious traditions that use hallucinigens to stimulate spiritual experiences. Judaism uses fasting in much the same way. For me, some years, the prayers I pray in those last hours of Yom Kippur are the truest prays I utter all year. Other years, I’m just aware of how much my feet hurt and how hungry I am.

As Yom Kippur comes upon us, may it be a meaningful experience, and a useful fast.

Gmar Hatimah Tova (May you be sealed for a good year).