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.

Shavuot: Celebrating Revelation

This evening  (Tuesday, May 18, 2010) the Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins. It is understood to be a celebration of the giving of Torah, and more specifically, the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai. For those of us who do not believe in a literal interpretation of sacred text, we speak more generally of “revelation” at Sinai, hoping to be able to skirt the issue of human/Divine interface. Yet this holiday, more than any other, calls me to question and think about what I mean when I speak about Divine Revelation.

What I don’t mean is pretty simple. I do not believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While we are taught that God speaks in the language of humanity, I believe this means that we hear God through the words of those we interact with on a daily basis, not that God literally speaks in human language.

In truth, I’m not sure that there was a historical Sinai event, with the entirety of the Israelite people gathered at the foot of the mountain. If push comes to shove, I’ll even admit the historical evidence for such an event is weak. Nonetheless, I think the holiday of Shavuot does celebrate something important.

Revelation is not a one time thing. We are taught that all Jewish souls, whether alive at that time, or later to be born, were present at Sinai for revelation. I understand this to mean that we all have our own moments of revelation in our lives. Revelation was not a one-time event, but rather an ongoing process. Each of us in our lives has the possibility of experiencing revelation, whether in the sudden inspiration which solves a problem we’ve been working on, the transcendent appreciation of nature’s beauty, or in studying an ancient text which seems to speak to us as meaningfully today as when it was first set to paper.

Revelation is not necessarily supernatural. It is not necessarily accompanied by thunder and lightening. Rather, revelation is that moment when the curtain is drawn back, and we see things in a new and different way. Tonight, we celebrate our ability to see the world anew.

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.

A NaNoWriMo Excerpt

For the first time ever, I present an excerpt from my #NaNoWriMo project. I figured I’d been talking about the writing enough that I really should share a little.  The background you should know is that the protagonist is Rabbi David Zimmerman. I’m not sure anything else is necessary.

I walked into the building at about 10:30, said hello to Trudy, the temple secretary, checked my mailbox, and headed back to my office. As I dumped my briefcase on my desk, pulled out my laptop and fired it up, I pressed the voicemail button on the phone.
“Next new message, left today, at 3:46, AM. ‘Good morning, Rabbi, you don’t know me, but my name is Robert Jones. I’m not Jewish, but I read the Old Testament a lot, and I’ve got some questions. Could you give me a call at 555-0873? Thanks a lot, and Shalom.'” Robert could be a sweet guy, but a lot of these calls came from folks who were Christian evangelicals who decided to get closer to Christ by practicing his religion. Most often, they were also a little mentally unbalanced. I’d have to return the call, so that the Jews in town wouldn’t get a reputation for being stuck up or rude, but it was times like this when I wished there was more than one congregation in town, or that I wasn’t the only rabbi for fifty miles in any direction. It would be okay if there were at least someone to split the nuts with, rather than having to deal with them all myself.

Fortunately, August is a somewhat slower time at synagogues, so I had the time to return the call to Robert immediately. “Hello, may I speak with Robert Jones please?”

“This is he.”

“This is Rabbi David Zimmerman, returning your call.”

“Rabbi,” his voice lit up, and I could hear the smile through the phone cord, “thanks for calling me back. As I said in my message, I’m not Jewish, but I believe in the bible, and believe we worship the same God. And I was reading in the Pentateuch about all the sacrifices, and it got me thinking. I did some things when I was younger, when I was in Vietnam. Some things I’m not so proud of. I was young, and wasn’t a God-fearing man then, but that’s no excuse. So I was reading the bible, like I said, and I came to the sacrifices. And I realized, that I owe a guilt sacrifice. So I was wondering, would it be okay if I brought you the goat for you to make the sacrifice for me on your altar? I’d do it at my church, but we don’t have an altar for animal sacrifice.”

Now, every month or so I have a conversation with someone who is under the misconception that Judaism still looks like biblical Israelite religion. They sort of missed the last 2,000 years of change in the tradition. But this was the first time I’d had anyone actually want to offer a sacrifice (though every now and then someone had wanted to come watch us do the sacrifices).

“Robert, we don’t do animal sacrifice in Judaism. Haven’t for the last 2,000 years, almost, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

“So who does your sacrifices for you? ‘Cause the bible is real clear on this, when you have to do it, what you have to bring, how many of each animal.” He sounded puzzled.

“We believe that prayer replaced sacrifice when the Temple was destroyed.”

There was a silence on the other end of the phone, and then Robert began again, slowly, clearly trying to wrap his head around this as he was talking. “Ah, okay, then, so ah, then could you help me with the prayer thing?”

I sighed to myself, hoping the phone wasn’t picking it up. “Yes, we pray every Friday night at 8PM for the Sabbath. You can join us for that service.”

“Okay, rabbi. And do I just bring the goat to the service and you’ll pray over it then?”

Apparently I hadn’t been quite as clear as I thought. “No, Robert. No goats. We don’t pray over goats, we don’t sacrifice goats. We pray the same way Christians do, using words to talk to God.”

“Well, umm..okay. But rabbi, I know you’re the only synagogue in town, and I know your Temple isn’t, ah…the most religious kind of Judaism. Do you know where the nearest temple that could do the sacrifice is?”

For a moment, just a moment, I was tempted to give him the phone number of my Orthodox colleague 75 miles to the south. For a longer moment, I was tempted to give him phone number of HABaD in Portland, and let the ultra-orthodox black hats deal with him. But much as I may have my issues with the ultra-orthodox, I behaved myself and explained to him that, really, no Jews, anywhere practice animal sacrifice today. As he hung up, he thanked me for my time, but I’m not sure he believed me about no one doing sacrifices.

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.

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.

Humility: You’re doing it wrong

After yesterday’s post on humility, I felt there might be a need for another look at the subject. Lest anyone think that humility implies a lack of humor, I thought I might talk about how not to be humble:

  1. While it may be okay to be proud of being humble, boasting about it to everyone you know seems like it misses the point.
  2. Telling your coworkers, “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m working on my humility”? Not so much.
  3. Deliberately screwing up so that you have things to be humble about (admittedly, there is a school of thought in Mussar that calls for making oneself appear foolish–for instance, walking into a bakery and asking to buy a hammer–in order to inculcate humility, but that’s different).
  4. Refusing to take a drivers test because you might pass, and after all, you know you’re not worthy of passing.
  5. Offering to teach a class in humility.
  6. Avoiding certain people because they “harsh my humility, man.”
  7. After beating someone else’s highscore, explaining to them that they shouldn’t feel bad, because really, you’re not very good.
  8. Printing up and wearing a t-shirt which says: “I got your humility right here, babe.”
  9. Going around all day and pointing out to everyone how they would act differently if they were as humble as you. (This is just a bad idea in general…it really will get you smacked a lot…which now that I think of it might lead to learning some humility…well, your choice on this one).
  10. Aspiring to be a Master of Humility.

If you’ve got more ideas, leave them in the comments: