Meditations on a Cup of Coffee

There’s something special about the first cup of coffee in the morning. Both symbol of the start of a new day, and the fuel to make it happen. The first sips are bracing: both hot and somewhat bitter (I drink it with milk, no sugar). It’s the taste of incipient productivity.

The drinking of coffee falls somewhere between an act of self-medication and religious/magical ritual. We (and by “we”, I mean “I”) count on the caffeine to infuse our system, and add the motivation we need to do the things which need to be done. Yet the power lies not just in the caffeine, but in the very act of drinking. In the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a tradition of reciting a meditation before performing a mitzvah: “Here I am, prepared and ready to accept upon myself this mitzvah in order to bring about the unification of the Divine.” Drinking coffee is a similar act, saying, “here I am, prepared and ready to accept upon myself this day, to make of it something productive.” When I drink coffee, I am acknowledging that the day has begun, and that I am trying to make something of this day.

Yet at other times a cup of coffee connotes a very different sentiment. Drinking a bottomless cup of coffee over weekend brunch with friends bespeaks relaxation and a willingness to spend time carelessly together, not counting the moments, but allowing time to flow by at its constant, relaxed, pace. Most different is the cup of coffee drunk after dinner, which I covet as a child might a lollipop, and resist because I know it will cost me sleep: a forbidden fruit which somehow the elder generation drinks with impunity.

Yet for me, it always comes back to that first cup of coffee in the morning: steam rising from the cup as I begin the day, like the smoke of a burnt offering in the ancient Temple rising to heaven each morning without fail. Drinking it slowly, knowing that I can’t be expected to be productive until I’ve finished the cup. Savoring the taste, the smell, and waiting for the caffeine to kick in, and truly wake me up.

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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.

Remember Us For Life: Zochreinu L’chayim

The evening of Rosh Hashanah, the services begin like many other evening services. The words are the same, but the melody is different. But we come to the Amidah, and we have a special insert for Rosh Hashanah:

Zochreinu l’chayim, melech hafetz bachayim, v’chotveinu besefer hachayim, l’mancha elohim chayim. “Remember us for life, O King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake, God of life.”

This phrase will come around over and over again over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Remember us for life…” What do we mean by this. Is it a plea that we be allowed to live through another year? That’s not the God I believe in, one who controls to quite that extent.

More troubling, perhaps, is what we mean by asking God to remember us. It rather implies a God who might forget us. Again, an idea I have trouble with.

For me, the key is in the second phrase: O King who delights in life. We are asking to be remembered and inscribed for the kind of life that God delights in. Let us make our life this year one worthy of remembrance. Let our lives be such that they are lived for the sake of the God of life.

This plea, to me, speaks to the question of what we make our lives. Will they be lived as something to be survived, or as something to be treasured? Will we make something of our days, or will they be wasted? For the sake or what, or whom, shall we live the next year?

Zochreinu l’chayim. Remember us for life, O God of life.

Elul: A Time for Spiritual Introspection

Tuesday began the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the month in the calendar that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is seen traditionally as a time of spiritual introspection and evaluation. It is a time of preparation for the High Holidays, or the Yamim Nora’im, the “Days of Awe.” It is a time for looking at the year which is ending, and looking at where we are in our lives, and where we wish to be. It is a time for adjustments in how we are living, and a time for plotting where we wish to be at this time next year.

One of the spiritual practices I suggest that Jews take on during Elul is reading over the machzur, the prayerbook for the High Holidays. The prayers are somewhat different from the daily or Sabbath prayers, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. If we are encountering them for the first time in a year when we try to pray them at Rosh Hashanah, we are all too likely to find ourselves trying to figure out what those prayers mean, rather than focusing on what we want them to mean in our lives. So, I suggest reviewing the prayers during this month of Elul.

I, myself, also try to review the prayers. It’s not that I don’t remember them: I can recite many of them from memory. Rather, I review them to see what they say to me this year. The words of the prayers may not change year to year, but I do. The words of prayers only have meaning when someone prays them, and that meaning can shift depending on who we are and what we need at that time of prayer. So I review, to see what the prayers have to say to me this year.

All of this is by way of introducing what I hope will be a series of blog posts over the next month, in which I explore various of the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope these will be of interest whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you believe in God. At the very least, it should be a view of how one rabbi engages with prayer and finds new meaning in ancient words. But if this isn’t your cup of tea, rest assured I’ll be back to my normal random musings come mid-September.

Surrender

In pretty much all spiritual traditions I’m aware of, there exists the discipline of surrender: the acknowledgement that we are not in control of our destinies, regardless of our delusions to the contrary. Certainly this is a central feature of most 12-step programs, but it has its roots in traditional spiritual paths as well. It is a based on a sense of humility: the idea that no matter how we may see ourselves, we do not really have control.

This realization is not meant to free us from the obligation to live our lives in the best way we can. Rather, it is to acknowledge that no matter how carefully we may plan, we cannot force our lives into a certain path. When push comes to shove, there are elements of life that are beyond our control.

Tonight, I come face to face with that need to surrender. No matter how hard I may try to fall asleep, I seem to remain awake. And so, I surrender, and admit that I cannot force sleep to come. And write one of the five or so blog posts running through my head.

Jerusalem

What can one say about Jerusalem. It is a city that seamlessly merges ancient and modern, building today from the same stone that the ancient Israelites used 3000 years ago. It is a city revered as holy by three faiths. It is a city which has inspired its own psychological disorder: Jerusalem Syndrome. And, it is a city of people trying to live their everyday lives.

Among the images of Jerusalem, these are the ones that predominate our imaginations: Yet, these images are only the smallest part of Jerusalem, or the Jerusalem experience.

The Done of the Rock, gleaming golden in the sun, the third holiest site in Islam, sits just above the Western Wall of the Ancient Temple. It is said that the rock at the base of the dome is the same rock upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. That rock is referred to as the Oompholos Mundi, the bellybutton of the world.

The Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, The Kotel, is all that remains (more or less) of the Second Temple. Jews have visited for centuries in an attempt to get closer to God, sticking notes into the cracks in the wall. Moving into the electronic age, you can now email your note and have it inserted. Yet pilgrims still come, and many Americans (and others) travel to Jerusalem each year to celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the wall (this was, in fact, the occasion for this trip to Israel: my cousin’s bat mitzvah).

The old city, however, is far more than just these holy sites. It also includes millenia of buildings, like the Domition Abbey.

No visit to the Old city of Jerusalem is complete without a trip through the markets. Crowded and bustling, the sellers are by turns friendly, cajoling, and insistent bargainers.

All of this is within the Old City. Without, there is another market, Machane Yehuda, where there are fruits, vegetable, and even kippot (yalmukes).

Yet none of this is my experience of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, for me, is a city a walk through. A modern-ish city of cafes and restaurants. A place which changes so fast that every time I visit (usually about 10 years apart), the routes I relied upon during my previous visit no longer exists, or no longer leads where it used to. It is a city in which I visit the Supersol each time, since I was 10 years old (it’s just a supermarket, but it one of my personal landmarks).

I’ve walk through the streets of Jerusalem in times of peace and times of trouble. There have been times when it was safe to take the bus, and times when no one took the bus for fear of bombs. I’ve walked these streets with family, with friends, with colleagues.

Jerusalem, despite all the change, is an eternal city. The more it changes, the more the heart of the city remains. It is a city which cannot be truly known, so much as encountered anew each day. It is a place which can spark the spirituality of our soul, or it can extinguish every spiritual impulse.

Jerusalem is a city which changes and endures. It challenges and soothes, but it is never boring.

First Reflections on Israel Trip

Eva and I arrived home yesterday–or at least our bodies did. I’m hoping our brains catch up sometime in the next day or so. The combination of jetlag, 24 hours of travel from Tel Aviv to Portland and an amped up caffeine addiction from all the great Israeli coffee have left me a bit out of it, but I trust a little more time will restore me to full functionality.

The trip was great. We spent lots of time with family and I got to know some of my younger cousins much better. Touring around Israel was beautiful (and there will be photos coming…I took over 1000, but haven’t done any editing yet). For the first time in 30 years, I was in Israel in a relatively peaceful period, which meant we were able to travel with far less concern for safety, and spent more time in places I haven’t been–like the old city of Jerusalem. All in all, an amazing trip.

A few highlights:

  • My cousin’s bat mitzvah under Robinson’s Arch (a section of the Western Wall of the Second Temple which is set up for men and women to pray together).
  • Many wonderful meals, especially breakfasts of fresh veggies, fruits, cheeses and breads.
  • Touring Beit She’an, an archaeological site excavated to the Roman period which gives an amazing sense of what a Roman city felt like.
  • Beautiful flowering plants everywhere (photos to follow).
  • Spending quality, if not quantity, time with one of my closest friends, and meeting her wife and dog (two separate people, the wife and dog–just to be clear).
  • Discovering that my spoken Hebrew is better than I thought, and that, for the most part, I can communicate in it.

As always, Israel is a complex place. No matter what your political persuasion, there are elements to Israeli society and politics that are challenging. As one tour guide put it, “the problem is that everyone is right.” With many competing ideologies and claims, it is not a restful place to be,  but it is thought-provoking. The situations there confound easy answers, and perhaps that very complexity and challenge is part of the spiritual richness of the land.

More posts and pictures will be forthcoming as my brain and body reunite, but I wanted to provide a first set of general reflections before memory faded any more.