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.

Death and Adolescence Don’t Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

Sparks of Love, Sparks of Holiness

I performed a wedding yesterday. Nothing especially odd about that–I perform 7 – 12 weddings a year. What made this one notable (for me…they are all notable for the couples involved) was the intensity of the interaction between the couple underneath the huppah (Jewish wedding canopy).

The bride and the groom were completely focused on each other throughout the ceremony. This may seem commonplace, but in my experience, it’s far more common for the the couple’s attention to be fairly diffuse during a wedding ceremony. A little bit on me, a little bit on the guests, a little bit on each other. In fact, I routinely have to remind the bride and groom to look at each other rather than to look at me, while they are repeating their vows to each other. Not this time. The groom and bride were intensely focused on one another. It was as though sparks of love were flying between them throughout the ceremony. It was as though their love was powerful enough that it was a presence in and of itself. And in my line of work, we often call that presence “God.”

I’ve experienced this under the huppah before. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. Yet this time it took me completely by surprise. In all the other cases, I’ve known the couple had this connection going into the ceremony, and expected that focus. This time, it came at me from out of the blue. Most often, couples who experience this love focus on one another under the huppah have a deeply spiritual component to their relationship…and that tends to come out in our conversations. It doesn’t mean they love each other more than other couples I marry, but it tends to mean that they conceptualize the relationship in spiritual terms, often regarding the relationship as possesing salvific power. During our conversations, yesterday’s couple never talked about their relationship in that way, and I’m not sure that they consciously regard their relationship that way. Yet under the huppah yesterday, the intensity of their connection was electric.

I love doing weddings. To paraphrase, even when it’s bad, it’s good. Weddings are feel good events. Sometimes I feel like it didn’t go quite as well as I might have liked (rarely), but I almost always feel like I’ve been a part of a powerful experience for the couple and their family and friends.  It’s a part of why I became a rabbi: to help create meaningful ceremonies for people at critical moments in their lives. I strive to make every wedding a mean ingful and spiritual experience for the couple. Rarely, however, is it a spiritual experience for me (which is as it should be). Yesterday was a deeply spiritual experience for me, as I bore witness to their love.  Sometimes, when we expect it least, the Divine shows up and reminds us what really matters.

Rabbinic Nightmares

Like everyone else, rabbis have nightmaes.  We do, however, have our own special twist on some of them.

You know that dream where you’re sitting down to take a final exam in a class you forgot you signed up for, and didn’t attend all semester? Rabbis have their own special version of that dream. We dream that the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) have snuck up on us without us noticing somehow, and we’re standing in front of the congregation with no sermon. (I’m pretty sure other rabbis have this dream also). Last night, I got a new twist on it.

Over time, I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good speaking extemporaneously. I may spend hours, or days, planning what I’ll say, but I can actually do most of the talking without notes. And I can, if desperate, usually come up with a fairly coherent sermon on the spot. Therefore, the idea of standing before a congregation unprepared does not fill me with appropriate terror anymore. At least, so says my subsconscious.

Side note: One of my professors in rabbinical school used to quote his wife, who wrote children’s books, as getting to a point in the plot and then saying, “let’s make it worse,” meaning, let’s get the protagonists into deeper trouble. My subconscious was apparently taking notes.

So if standing unprepared in front of a congregation  is not adequately terrifying, how is the situation made worse? Yom Kippur falls on the same day as Christmas (by the way, this can’t happen), which means I’m holding services in some hotel in a beach community. I had to fly to get there, and for some reason was bringing my cat, Artemis with me. Except I left her on the plane when I changed planes in Cincinatti. Which completely freaked me out. But I didn’t realize this until I reached the hotel. I spend hours on the phone trying to figure out where she is, and chasing around the airport, at which point I realize I’m hours late for the services I’m supposed to lead. Not only that, but I’ve forgotten it’s Yom Kippur and had 3 cups of coffee (Yom Kippur is a fast, no food, no drinks). So I finally get to the chapel at the hotel, to a bunch of somewhat displeased congregants, who were wondering if I’d ever show up.

The little chapel in the hotel has prayerbooks, but they are all a mishmash of various differnt ones, so page numbers and wording will all be different. But the congregation all seems okay with that. They tell me that’s how they do it every year: I sh0uld just pick my favorite prayerbook and they will follow along in theirs. And wonders of wonders, they have the prayerbook I’m most familiar with. I’m feeling better again, because I can fake my way through the service. So I open up the prayerbook, and begin the first Yom Kippur prayer before I find my place, because I know the beginnning. Except, as I flip through, I realize I’m having a little trouble reading the Hebrew…and it doesn’t seem to be laid out the way I expect. In fact, I realize this must have been a very early hand written copy of this prayerbook, when it was in draft state (this is a prayerbook, by the way, which was composed in the last 15 years, and was never handwritten, but a word-processed manuscript would not have served the needs of my subconscious). So I had a lot of trouble navigating, and only then discovered that in this draft of the prayerbook, the prayer I was singing had been left out for theological reasons, and I’d reached the limits of my memory. Not only that, but certain congregants were correcting me in ever more disapproving tones.

To make matters worse, the congregation was getting bored and wanted to go to the beach, so I was trying to lead services while on the bus to the beach, which was distracting because the bus driver wasn’t stopping at all the stops, and people were getting annoyed with him, and just started jumping out the rear door at whatever point they wanted to get  off, even though the bus was moving at 30 miles an hour.

Fortunately, at about this point, my alarm went off.

I’m hoping you find this as humorous as I do, in retrospect. Otherwise, this is deeply self-indulgent navel-gazing in public, which could be fodder for another nightmare.

Life’s Busy, but Good

I’m running  hard at th moment, and therefore haven’t had a chance to post much recently, but figured I’d take a few minutes to do so now.

Last night was Ignite Portland 4, which was amazing. My presentation went fine, I think, but some of the others were truly amazing. Carolynn Duncan did an amazing run down on the Portland scene from an outsider’s viewpoint. Cami Kaos‘ take on bluffing your way through life was a tour de force of stage presence at its best, and needless to say, very entertaining. Betsy Richter presented on how to do project or child management, and why it’s the same thing, which was perhaps the most useful presentation of the evening. And Melissa Lion‘s talk about the use of narrative in online communication was truly brilliant, and I’d have been delighted to have listed to an hour on the subject rather than the 5 minutes (which hinted at a truly remarkable set of ideas, without having the time to flesh them out). Oh, and here’s my presentation on spirituality in non-religious community. There were many other great speakers, but these were some of my favorites (admittedly, also, some of my favorite people).

Right now, I’m theoretically already in the car heading towards Bend for a weekend with a congregation. I’m very excited about this, but do wish that this week had been a little less hectic. I’ll be doing some last minute preparation (read: thinking) as I drive east. But first, since I need to go over the mountains to get there, I need to go buy chains for the car (a legal requirement, and probably a good idea as well). It will be a packed weekend with a service tonight, adult ed and a class for children tomorrow morning, a social get together tomorrow night, followed by some discussion about how one creates a congregation on Sunday morning. It seems like a great group, and I’m really looking forward to my visit.

In the middle of all this, I’ve also been trying to help a friend who found herself in a scary legal situation and scarily short of resources.

It’s all going well, and it’s all good stuff (except for the friend needing help), but I’m running hard doing life and not finding much time for blogging it. Hopefully I’ll have more next week.

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.

A Guest Post From Eva, about ME!!!

I wanted an outside view of the service on Friday night, and asked Eva to write a guest post about it. She, instead, focused on me. So, without further ado, here it is:

Normally I leave my thoughts in the comments section where they really belong, but this time I took advantage of David’s exhaustion to hijack his actual blog. The occasion is two-fold. The first is that David and I celebrated 10 years together. The second is that David just finished his first post-rabbinical school stint at a congregation. The combination has led me to reflect on the evolution of David into the person he is today.

I first met David in 1989 when he was a young, immature, and very argumentative freshman. We reconnected in 1998 when he had matured considerably (although he remains argumentative—which is alternatively both one of his strengths as well as a weakness). At that point in time he was heading off to rabbinical school and while I knew he had the intellectual chops to thrive, I did wonder a bit about how well he would connect with congregants.

At the end of David’s first year of rabbinical school I attended the school’s graduation ceremony and was incredibly impressed with the rabbis who were graduating. I assumed it was an exemplary class and left it at that. But I was wrong. Over the course of 5 graduations, I learned that rabbinical school was a transformational experience and that rabbinical school somehow turned people into rabbis.

By the time David reached his final year of rabbinical school, he too had gone through an impressive transformation. Part of it was through trial-by-fire with his student congregations, part of it was the self-reflection and personal development he gained through his education. By the time of his ordination, David was a rabbi for all intents and purposes. Well, except to himself.

When David graduated from rabbinical school, the congregational opportunities were pretty slim and we were really homesick for Portland. So we made the choice to return home with David picking up weddings, funerals and other life-cycle events as opportunities arose. David went through the identity crisis that every recent rabbinical graduate seems to go through, but he had the added challenge of being a freelance rabbi and therefore lacked the inherent validation that comes from being a congregation rabbi.

Fast forward 2 years. David was offered an opportunity to serve as interim rabbi for a congregation in Salem. He had already done some sub work for them previously and had liked them as a congregation, so he eagerly accepted the position. The position was fraught with challenges. David was facing a 55 mile commute to Salem (each way) 2-5 days a week, we had just started a business together and our schedules were now completely opposite each other.

Not too long after he started his new position, it became very clear that he had made the right decision. He would often come home and tell me about great conversations he had had or the progress of one of his students or even how a challenging meeting had reached a reasonable conclusion. When I made the (all too infrequent) trip to Salem with David, everyone was eager to tell me how much they loved having David as their rabbi and I enjoyed getting to respond that the feeling was mutual.

Unlike rabbinical school where I was able to attend David’s services regularly, I rarely made it to Salem because I was either completely exhausted and/or working. That made David’s farewell service all the more remarkable because this time I had missed the transformational process. What I saw on Friday night was that David had truly become a rabbi. At his ordination he had become a rabbi because the dean of the college said so. Over the past year David has become a rabbi because he can now recognize that is who he is. And there is a world of difference between the two.

I have watched David grow through three very challenging transitional periods in his life. He has used each one as an opportunity to grow and build on his strengths and try to address some of his weaknesses. You might say that given my love for David I am giving you a biased perspective.Given the tears on Friday night (both from David as well as many of his congregants), David’s transformational experience has been meaningful for everyone involved.