Archive for the ‘Faith’ category

Miracles: A Reflection

November 9, 2019

Lately, I have been giving a lot more thought to the subject of miracles. Considering what I so recently went through, I don’t think many of you will find that surprising. Having a stroke, and surviving it, and having all my faculties returned to me in a matter of hours rather than months or years, can certainly focus one’s thoughts toward the miraculous.
How much the more so with my being a rabbi – a member of the clergy who has spent many years serving congregations – and as such, has accompanied many a congregant along the long and arduous road of return that typically follows falling victim to a stroke. Indeed, providing comfort and solace to stroke victims has been one of the more difficult tasks in my rabbinate, and I expect that is just as true for other clergy, regardless of their faith identities. After all, when people have lost in an instant so many physical abilities that we tend to take for granted, and then are faced with the grueling task of recapturing those abilities, in the smallest of incremental achievements over the longest periods of time, it doesn’t take long for them to view a faith leader’s words of encouragement, and hope as sounding shallow as their own efforts to recover seem increasingly futile. And who can blame them? As clergy, we not only observe the growing frustration and the spiritual and emotional agony of congregants who have fallen victim to strokes, but we, in our own sense of powerlessness – in our inability to do much more than offer words of encouragement which seem empty in the face of their painfully slow and miniscule progress – feel their pain and frustration as well.
Having accompanied so many others along that excruciating journey, how could I not but recognize the miraculous when I found myself one morning in the grips of a stroke, yet a day and a half later I was able to leave the hospital with all, or most, of my abilities restored? I tell you, that morning, when the stroke hit, and I was holding myself up over the bathroom sink by my arms, for my legs had failed me, and I was waiting for my wife to come home and the ambulance to arrive, I truly felt that this was the end; that I would not see the light at the end of that tunnel. At that moment, I was the embodiment of the prayer from the morning service which states: “Praise to You, Adonai our God, who formed the human body with skill, creating the bodies many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before you.” Yet here, this Shabbat, I stand before you. I have not the slightest doubt but that it was a miracle.
Now one can easily argue that it wasn’t a miracle. That it was science; medical science. The drug that was responsible for my recovery – the tPA Drip – was first introduced in 1996. If it is administered within 3 hours after the onset of a stroke, it can quickly work to dissolve the blood clot which caused the stroke, eliminating it before there is permanent damage to the brain. But when you think about, if you are not already a patient in a hospital, 3 hours is not a lot of time to work with. A lot has to happen before the drug is administered. In my own case, the diagnosis was that the stroke hit the back of my brain. But if they were to administer the drug in time, they did not have the time to do the testing necessary to determine whether or not there was any bleeding in my brain. For if there was bleeding, the drug would only make the situation worse, perhaps kill me. My wife and I decided that in spite of the risks, they should administer the drug and leave the rest to God. Considering how dire the result could have been, that I not only survived but recovered was but another miracle. Going in, no doctor could guarantee that outcome. It wasn’t just science. It was a miracle.
But if any doubt of the miraculous still lingered. That doubt was about to be washed away. After my release from the hospital, though most of my faculties had been restored, there were some lingering effects. The top of my head always felt numb. I continually had 3 separate headaches, simultaneously; one in the back of my head, around where the clot had been, another along the carotid artery in my neck, where an ultrasound had been conducted to determine any blockage, and one in the front of head, in the area of my forehead. All hurting at the same time and never going away. It was strange, since from childhood I used to have headaches regularly, but sometime in the late 80’s they just stopped and never returned. Now I had 3 of them all at one time. It was Yom Kippur afternoon – 19 days since the onset of the stroke. I was worshipping at the synagogue in Davenport. It was time for silent prayer, and I silently prayed in earnest, thanking God for my salvation, and asking God for strength. For if the way I had been feeling, with the numbness and the headaches, was to be my new normal, considering what the outcome could have been, I was more than ready to accept it. I only wanted God to give me the strength to live with it. It was while I was deep into that prayer that my prayer was suddenly interrupted by what I can only describe as a strong pop that I felt in my head. It was as if I could actually hear it as well as feel it. No sooner did it occur than the numbness and the headaches started to quickly fade. By the end of the service, they were completely gone. Now there could be other explanations for what I experienced. In fact, I shared the experience with my doctor, who had nothing to say in explanation of it. Still there could be other explanations, but I am convinced that the pop I experienced, and the relief I felt, were in answer to my prayer. Miracle number 3.
One can ask: Were any of these experiences really miracles or are there rational explanations for each and every one of them? It’s a fair question. But there is a fundamental problem with the question itself. It operates under the premise that reason and miracles must exist on two separate plains. That they cannot exist side-by-side. And that is not necessarily true. Something can be both miraculous and rational at the very same time. Being able to explain how a miracle occurred does not make it any less of a miracle. For what makes a miracle a miracle is not that it defies explanation but rather that how it occurs, when it occurs, and the circumstances in which it occurs produces a sense of awe and wonder. For this one moment, the forces of the universe came together in such a way as to produce a result which was unexpected, surprising, and in its own way, a very special gift. The fact that we can parse it and explain how it happened is besides the point. The fact that it did happen, in the way that it happened is the essence of the miracle itself.
When I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was this elderly couple who belonged to my congregation – Paula & George. One day George collapsed and was taken to the intensive care unit of the hospital. He lay there in a coma, with the monitors showing very little brain function. He lay in that bed in the fetal position. I sat with Paula as she met with the team of doctors who explained to her that he lay there in the fetal position because his brain was not getting enough oxygen to function, and that the monitor was showing that he was basically brain dead. Therefore they counseled her to allow him to pass away naturally by giving the order not to resuscitate him should he go into cardiac arrest. To my surprised, she refused. All of us in the room, with the exception of Paula, were convinced that he would linger until he died. We were wrong. Several days later, he awoke, eventually left the hospital, and lived for another two years. While his recovery can be explained medically, it was against all the odds. It was a miracle.
It was but a month or two after I arrived in Iowa that on one Summer Sunday afternoon, I received a call from one of the local hospitals, telling me that a congregant was very close to death and they thought I should come as soon as possible. So I did. I had been doing yard work but I didn’t take the time to change my clothes, lest she pass before I arrived. I walked into her room and there she was, laying still on the bed. Suddenly, to my surprise and the surprise of the nurse, she sat up, looked at me and said, “Hello Rabbi. I am so glad to see you.” She, too, recovered and left the hospital. A miracle.
In 1948, the United Nations passed its Partition Plan, dividing Palestine into 2 states; one Jewish and the other Arab. The entire Arab world rejected the plan and mustered its forces to invade the fledgling State of Israel, promising to drive all its Jews into the sea. The army of the newborn Jewish State was greatly outnumbered and outgunned by the combined armies of the Arab world. The rest of the world sat back, expecting to swoop up whatever Jews survived the Arab onslaught. But when the smoke cleared, the State of Israel not only survived but was victorious. A miracle. As did the Maccabees 2100 years earlier, they, too, evoked of us the proclamation, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham – A great miracle happened there!”
Miracles occur all the time, and they don’t need to be on as grand a scale as any of these. But we miss them. We miss them because our eyes and our ears and our minds are closed to them. There is a story about two old friends meeting on 5th Avenue in New York City, just as all the business offices were letting out. The sidewalks were filled with people and street was fill with cars, and the racket they produce was intense. Now these two friends hadn’t seen each other in many years. So they fought the crowd in order to embrace each other in the moment. Just as they were embracing, one friend said to the other, “Don’t you hear it?” “Hear what?” the other replied. “Don’t you hear that little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?” Well, the other friend looked and that window box was a good 15 to 20 yards away. “How can you hear a little bird that far away in all this noise?” he asked. “I’ll show you,” his friend replied. They walked to the window box and the one friend pushed aside the branches and low and behold, a little bird flew out. In astonishment, the other friend exclaimed, “I can’t believe you heard that bird! You must have Superman hearing.” “Not really,” the first friend replied. “Let me show you.” With that, he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a quarter. He then dropped it on the sidewalk and no sooner did it hit the ground then a whole group of people just stopped in their tracks, turned around and looked. “You see,” said the friend, “it all depends upon what you are listening for.”
It all depends upon what we are listening for and what we are looking for. As long as we close our minds to the possibility of the miraculous, we will never witness it. But once we open our minds to that possibility, our world will abound with miracles. And we will be the better for it. Our lives will be so enriched by the miracles we encounter, for with them comes hope rather than despair. For in them we will experience a God who cares and is actively involved in our lives. It is Jewish tradition, that immediately upon waking up in the morning, we say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for granting us the miracle of another day of life. We begin each day by acknowledging the many miracles that surround us. In so doing God becomes all the more real to us, and not just some three-letter theoretical word we invoke in ritual moments but ignore in the course of daily living.
We should not require a moment of dire crisis to encounter the miraculous in our lives, but rather we can actively seek it out.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

The Rabbi Sat on Santa’s Lap

December 22, 2012

Well, it is that time of year again; that time when we Jews, more than any other time of the year, can feel like outsiders in our own society – like children, faces pressed against the window glass of a toy store, gazing in at all the wonder but unable to enter ourselves.
Christmas is seen as such an “American” holiday that there are times when it can even lead us, who do not celebrate Christmas, to questioning the authenticity of our own American identity.  Are we less American because we do not take on the trappings of Christmas; the trees, the lights, and the presents?
There was a time, and it was not that long ago, when American Jews were far more insecure about their place in American society than we are now.  So much so that many felt the need to take on those Christmas trapping not only so that we could feel more comfortable at this time of year, but also so that we could feel that we were being more accepted by our non-Jewish neighbors.  I remember that time very well, for while it started almost as soon as we arrived on these shores, it included the time of my childhood; the ‘50’s & the early ‘60’s.
I grew up in New York City, which, especially in those years, was heavily Jewish in population.  In my public school, over 90% of the students and the faculty were Jews.  On Jewish holidays, hardly anyone was in school, while on Christian holidays, when the school was open, it was business as usual.  Indeed we Jewish students used to resent the fact that when we were off for our holidays, our Christian classmates basically spent their school time playing instead of studying, while, when we are in school during their holidays, we worked.  Yet in spite of the numbers being so heavily in favor of the Jews, we had our Christmas programs, in which primarily Jewish teachers taught primarily Jewish students, how to sing and play Christmas songs – including some very religious Christmas songs – in order to perform them for an audience which was primarily made up of Jewish parents.  No one challenged all this on the grounds of Separation of Church and State because the underlying assumption was that Christmas is an American holiday which all Americans are expected to celebrate.
That assumption did not end at the doors of the school building.  It found its way into many Jewish homes as well.  Mine was one of them.
Yes, your rabbi grew up with Christmas.  In our home we had a tree and some Christmas decorations.  I remember most vividly that in our living room window we placed an electrically powered moving model of Santa in his sleigh being pulled by his reindeer, as the reindeer and the sleigh rocked back and forth.  And yes, on Christmas morning, there were presents awaiting my sister and me under the tree.  As far as lights on the house were concerned, there were not many – just a string of blue Christmas lights framing our front door.  After all, you have to draw a line somewhere.  I think it is a cultural thing, for even Jews who seek to celebrate Christmas find it a bissel meshugah to climb around the outside of your house, from roof to lawn, in the winter’s cold, in order to string festive lights.  That is why, as Jews, for centuries, in our celebration of Hanukkah we only have placed the menorah in the window and left it as that.  And yes, your rabbi did visit with Santa Claus, in Gimbels department store, sat on his lap, and rattled off his Christmas wish list – and the Cantor has saved the photographic evidence to prove it!
In our family, all this came to a sudden end when my sister started attending religious school.  For some strange reason, my parents joined an Orthodox synagogue.  While my father would not set foot in the place until my sister’s pseudo-Bat Mitzvah, my mother got involved in non-worship activities.  In any event, one day my sister announced that since we are Jews we should not be celebrating Christmas, so no more trees, no more lights, no more Santa, and unfortunately, no more gifts.  Her protest must have stung my parents’ conscience, for they readily agreed.  The only dissenting voice was mine.  What do you mean “No more tree?  I like Christmas!  Why are you taking it away?”  So my father explained to me about our being Jewish and how Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and in the end we struck a compromise – reluctantly on my part.  That compromise was that from then on, on Christmas eve we would all pile in the car and drive around the neighbor, looking at the beautiful Christmas lights on the homes of our Christian neighbors.
I did not know it at the time, but that compromise would lay the foundations for my evolving Jewish attitude about Christmas.  Once I started attending religious school – by that time my family had joined a Reform congregation – and my own sense of Jewish identity was strengthening, I quickly made peace with the fact that Christmas was not my holiday any more than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur were the holidays of my Roman Catholic next door neighbor and childhood companion, Neal DeLuca.  But that did not mean that I could not enjoy Christmas.  Every year, I looked forward to the family Christmas lights tour .  In fact, as my own children were growing up, the Cantor and I continued that tradition with them.
But more than the lights, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy the spirit – the true spirit – of Christmas.  Not the commercialism, and especially not the insanity of Black Friday, but rather that spirit of “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women).”  I enjoy the fact that during this season people tend to be more sensitive to and caring of others.  I particularly love Christmas movies – not all of them, but ones that I consider to be good ones.  I consider them good because of their universal messages which somehow or other all boil down to “we can be better people.”  Along those lines, my favorite is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in all of its varied manifestations and modernizations.  I even have the book on my Kindle.  And then there is “It’s A Wonderful Life” with its message that each and every one of us can and do make a difference, so let us make a difference for the better.  I even love Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies for they teach us that it is not so much “seeing is believing” as it is “believing is seeing.”  So much of how we view the world around us is shaped by what we believe the world to be.  If we believe that people are selfish and cruel at heart, we will see our world as being filled with selfishness and cruelty.  But if we believe people are truly good at heart, then we will see a world filled with acts of loving kindness.  As Jews – as outsiders looking in – Christmas still offers us much that is meaningful, uplifting, and downright encouraging about the human condition, or at least the human potential.
We do not have to buy into the particular theology of Christmas in order to enjoy and benefit from these aspects of the holiday.  However it is important for us to recognize, and respect, the fact that so much which is positive about Christmas is born of Christian theology.  That we, as Jews, can find it so uplifting is but a testimony to the fact those particular Christian teachings which give birth to so many of Christmas’ positive elements are founded in values which Judaism and Christianity happen to share.  Joy and beauty, peace and good will, caring for others and a human potential to be better are as much Jewish virtues as they are Christian.  As we Jews watch Christians celebrate these virtues, it is only fit and proper that our observations should fill us with joy, for seeing our shared virtues celebrated in a religious framework other than our own should fill us with hope for the future; a hope that since we are not alone in the struggle to make these real, that together, hand-in-hand, Jews and Christians, all faiths who share these ideals, will eventually bring about that momentous day which we Jews call the Messianic Age.
And by the way, one more thing about Christmas that I enjoy is that on Christmas Day I run into so many of my fellow Jews in the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters.

Evangelizing Jews to Judaism

June 18, 2012

A few years back, I invested myself into reading all 12 volumes of the LEFT BEHIND series; that best selling series of novels built around the beliefs of certain evangelical Christians concerning the future period of time between the “Rapture” – when all truly believing Christians will be physically taken up to heaven – and the Second Coming of Jesus.  I read these books because I felt it important to get inside the minds of the evangelicals.  I felt that we Jews need to know what these people believe, and particularly what they believe about us, especially considering how significantly their influence on American society has increased, not to mention the number of copies of each of those books which were sold, and therefore the large number of people who resonate the the theology expressed in those books.

One of the things that is abundantly clear from these books is their burning passion to evangelize Jews to Christianity.  Indeed, while these books described their desire to bring everyone to their beliefs, when it comes to the Jews, their hunger for our conversion is nothing short of obsessive.

It is in this light that one of the great ironies of our time is that it some of our most ardent allies when it comes to Israel are evangelical Christians .  It is this irony which has ignited many debates in the Jewish world over whether we should embrace these evangelicals as our friends when it comes to Israel – under the rubric of “a friend in need…” or distance ourselves from their support of Israel, in light of their apocalyptic designs for Israel and for us.

For centuries upon centuries, we Jews have been greatly distressed by the attempts of Christians to bring us to Christianity.  Throughout that time, various Christian groups have employed many strategies to “save our souls for Jesus.”  Indeed, throughout most of that time, they turned the political power of their societies against us in pursuit of this goal, attempting to convert us through coercion , persecution, expulsion, and even execution.  Therefore, when put in a historical perspective, the attempts of contemporary American evangelicals to bring Jews to Jesus are pretty innocuous.  Yet their efforts continue to concern us.

I propose that the efforts of these evangelicals constitute little, if any, threat to the American Jewish community.  It is not that the evangelicals are not sincere in their aspirations.  They are most certainly sincere.  Nor is that they are not energetically invested in their efforts, for once again, they are most certainly energetic in their pursuit of our souls.  Rather, they pose little threat to us because of the nature of the American Jewish community itself.

For the evangelicals to be successful in their conversionary tactics, their Jewish targets must possess some basic desire for a religious expression in their lives.  American Jews need first to be concerned about the well being of their souls before they can start to worry about in what manner can their souls be saved.

Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of my co-religionists do not possess such desires or concerns.  The nature and the well being of their souls is probably one of the last things about which they are worried.  They truly consider themselves Jews, but for them, being Jewish is more of a tribal thing than a spiritual one.  They are Jews, but for all intents and purposes, they are a-religious.  Indeed, even the nature of their tribal affiliation can be vague and tenuous, as is evidenced by their lack of involvement, support, commitment, and knowledge of such tribal organizations and issues as the Jewish Federation and the State of Israel.  They are Jews, but the nature of the thread that binds them to their Jewishness is thin and frail, and when it comes to spiritual matters, it is practically non-existent.

Case in point:  For the last several years I have joined with my evangelical neighbors in their “Night to Honor Israel” programs.  I figure that if I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my Roman Catholic neighbors in attempts to address the blights of war, poverty and homelessness, in spite of our significant differences over such issues as women’s reproductive rights, then I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my evangelical neighbors in our support of the State of Israel, in spite of our differences over several sensitive social issues such as same-sex marriage.  From these “Night to Honor Israel” experiences I have garnered three interesting insights:  1) That there are evangelicals and then there are evangelicals.  There are those evangelicals whose faith compels them to save the souls of the Jews by bringing them to Jesus, and then there are those evangelicals whose faith instructs them that of all the people on the face of the earth, the only ones that do NOT need to be brought to Jesus are the Jewish people, for the Jews are the people of Jesus and most beloved in the eyes of God.  2) That the commitment of these evangelicals for the survival and well being of Israel is indeed profound; more profound than that of far too many American Jews, and 3) That when at these events, as we all talk about our commitment to Israel, while the evangelical speakers address their commitment to Israel in religious terms, often quoting the Hebrew Scriptures not just for illustrative purposes but rather as absolute proof texts, the Jewish speakers invariably frame their remarks in terms of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood and rarely, if ever, mention God and scripture.   For these Evangelicals there is an eternal and indestructible relationship between the State of Israel and God.  Ironically, for the Jewish speakers there seems to be little if any connection between Israel and God.  Spirituality does not seem to play much of a role in this matter, or in any matter, for so many of our Jews.

So the evangelical Christians can try as they may to bring Jews to Jesus but they are plowing and sowing their seeds in infertile soil.  In presenting their case to such Jews, they might as well be speaking in tongues for these folks possess little, if any, spiritual vocabulary and perhaps even less of a sense of spiritual connectedness.

But this is not necessarily all bad news.  While we need not worry about our co-religionists being evangelized to Christianity, we should be seriously considering how we, as a RELIGIOUS community, can more effectively evangelize our fellow Jews to Judaism.  After all, while the threads that bind them to Judaism are thin and frail, they still exist.  There is something within them that helps them to see their Jewish identity as something important enough not to let go of it.  Right now, it may not be important enough to play an on-going role in their lives; it may be something buried deep within the background of their consciousness, but still something is there.  It has not disappeared all together.

This is where the synagogue comes in.  For the synagogue is the Jewish RELIGIOUS institution.  Though one of the roles of a synagogue is a communal one, that of being a “Beit Keneset,” a House of Jewish Assembly, we are NOT just a Jewish community center.  We are NOT just some sort of Jewish ethnic society.  We are far more than that.  We are a “Beit Tefilah,” a House of Jewish Worship, and a “Beit Sefer,” a House of Jewish Study.  Our primary mission is a spiritual one.  It is to promote Jewish spirituality; to empower and enable our members to connect with God in very Jewish ways.  To that end, our secondary mission is an educational one.  It is to provide opportunities for Jewish learning so that our people can have access to the tools necessary to accomplish our primary mission.  As far as Jewish communal activities are concerned, they are but our tertiary mission.  The Jewish community WE build is suppose to be built around our shared spiritual values.  It is the function of Jewish Federations to build a Jewish community around our shared ethnic values.  In the synagogue, we are supposed to be coming together as a community to enhance our worship and study experiences; to find ourselves drawing closer to God in a both a personal and communal way through prayer, study, and the performance of mitzvot, both ritual and ethical.  Back when I was growing up, the organization, Religion in American Life, used to run TV ads stating, “The Family the Prays Together Stays Together.”  It is in that way that a synagogue is one big family.  We need to pray together if we are to stay together.

Therefore, the mission of every synagogue is and should be to evangelize Jews to Judaism; to build upon the tenuous connection that most Jews have to their Judaism; to strengthen and enrich those bonds in powerful spiritual ways.  It is our responsibility to enable our people to evolve Jewishly; to take them from identifying themselves as Jews by birth to a place where they will identify themselves as Jewish by choice; to help them to come to appreciate that being Jewish is meant to be more than a mere accident – something we are stuck with – but rather it can be something that positively impacts upon our lives on a daily basis.

The other day I was looking through a book entitled THE ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR SURVIVAL KIT.  It is one of a growing genre of books aimed at Jews who get little or nothing out of their Judaism.  Such books operate under the assumption that Jews think doing things Jewish is a waste.  In fact, a few years ago, the Wednesday morning book group in my synagogue studied such a book whose title says it all.  That title: “HOW TO GET MORE OUT OF BEING JEWISH EVEN IF:  A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!”  There is no question about who is the target audience for that book!

Anyway, I was looking through this book about making the High Holy Days more meaningful, especially for those Jews who are basically clueless as to what Judaism is all about, and I came upon the author’s analysis of Jewish education.  He stated that Jewish education should be answering the questions, “What,” “How,” and “Why”.  What aspect of Jewish practices are you studying?  How should you observe them?  And why should you observe them?  He then went on to say that traditionally, synagogues and religious schools have focused their efforts on addressing the “What” and the “How” but have failed to adequately address the “Why”.  For example, they teach that on Pesach you hold a Seder.  That is the “What.”  They then go on to teach that when you hold a Seder, you are expected to do A, B, & C.  That is the “How.”  Where they fall down is that they fail to adequately teach, “Why do you hold a Seder?  Why do you eat matzah, charoset, and bitter herbs?  Why do you have a cup for Elijah?”  You get the idea.  There is a failure in teaching the deeper meanings behind the actions.  That, by the way, is why I have always loved being a Reform Jew, for historically, Reform Judaism has instituted many changes in Jewish life in order to pay more attention to the Why.  For example, when I attend traditional Jewish worship services, they being all or primarily in Hebrew, even though my Hebrew skills are of such a level that I can understand the meaning of the prayers being offered, still I walk away feeling empty because I cannot help but think of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the worshipers in those sanctuaries have no more of a grasp on the meaning of those prayers than if those prayers were being offered in Klingon or Martian.  They may love the sound of the Hebrew and the feel of the Hebrew, and even the thrill of being able to “decode” the Hebrew characters of the text, but that is simply the “What” and the “How.”  The “Why” is nowhere to be found in such worship experiences.  Since prayer is speaking to God, how sad it is that they do not even know what it is they are saying!  Reform Judaism on the other hand felt it imperative to introduce praying in the vernacular as well as in Hebrew so that our worshipers can know what they are saying when they are speaking to God.  Our traditional prayers have meaning – deep meaning – and understanding what we are praying – what we are saying to God – that is the all important “Why”.

I share all of this with you because I agree and I disagree with this author.  I agree with his claim that by our better understanding of the meanings of behind religious practices those actions will start to come to life for us; that in order for our rituals to have any vibrancy in our lives, we need to understand their deeper meanings.  It is in such understanding that our rituals possess their great power.  However, where I disagree with the author is in his claim that all of our synagogues and our schools have failed to teach those meanings.  With this, I disagree strongly.  For there are many synagogues and schools in which they are being taught.  We do teach them, and we will continue to teach them.  The problem is not that we do not teach these things but rather that we can teach them till the cows come home, yet all our efforts will be to limited purposes if the vast majority of our people continue to refuse to avail themselves of such education.

This is the real challenge which we face in evangelizing Jews to Judaism.  It is the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”  Offering classes and programs is not the problem for us.  We can do that.  They can take many shapes and forms.  We are flexible if flexibility truly helps us to meet this need.  But how do we get our people to drink the water from the well of Jewish knowledge?  How do we awaken in them the desire, nevertheless the hunger, to learn more about our faith and our heritage?  They exercise and watch what they eat to safeguard the health of their bodies.  How can we awaken within them the realization that they need to safeguard their spiritual health as well?

I teach a B’nei Mitzvah Family Class.  In anticipation of their special day, every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his or her parents are required to attend this 8 session course.  While most groups going through this class are a mix of those who are  synagogue regulars and those who are not, the majority generally are not.  You do not see them at services.  You do not see them in adult education classes.  If you see them at all, it is more likely at social functions.  During these classes, we explore the meanings behind Bar & Bat Mitzvah and related topics such as “What is a mitzvah?” and “What are meanings of the rituals found in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service?”  Invariably, most of these people find themselves deeply engaged in these sessions.  For these brief moments they come to see their Judaism in ways they have not seen it before, and they find it very meaningful.  The challenge facing our synagogues is how do we build upon this?  How do we engage such people in further Jewish study when there is no gun being held to their head – “Take this class if you want your child to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service”?  How do we engage others in such meaningful study?

This is where we need to turn to our synagogue “regulars.”  We do not need to sell them on the power of Jewish worship or on the power of Jewish study.  That truly is preaching to the choir.  For they have already discovered these things.  They come to Shabbat, not because of any requirement but rather because it fulfills them in very special ways.  They attend adult education classes, not because of any requirement, but because the knowledge and the insights they receive from those classes enriches their lives.  They fully know from whence I am speaking.  They know that it is the power of Jewish worship and study which fuels their sense of engagement in this Jewish community.  Indeed, it fuels their sense of engagement in the greater human community.

That makes them our best representatives to the the Jewish people at large.  Rabbis such as myself could deliver this message to our fellow Jews who do not seem to know what these people know – We could deliver it day after day; we could deliver it standing on our heads – and most would react by thinking, “The rabbi is just blowing smoke.  What do you expect a rabbi to say?”  But if they could hear it from their fellow Jews; if these inspired Jews were the ones who went to their fellow Jews and said to them, “Come join me at Shabbat services.  Come with me to this class or that class” and these inspired Jews told them why they find Shabbat services so meaningful; what it is they find so compelling about Jewish learning, then perhaps – just perhaps – what these inspired Jews have to say about these passions of theirs will start to ignite similar passions in their apathetic fellow Jews.

The American Jewish community needs some serious evangelism of its Jews to Judaism.  While we rabbis and cantors can offer to this efforts our knowledge and our expertise, there are no greater evangelicals – no people better suited for this task – than inspired lay people; Jews who love Shabbat; Jews who are thrilled by Jewish study; Jews who revel in their life in the Jewish community.  Jews who understand that their involvement in such Jewish activities does contribute significantly to making them both better Jews and better human beings.  This is their time.  They are the key to the Jewish future.

Stages

June 10, 2012

We live our lives in stages.  I have found myself having to confront and make peace with this reality as of late, as my wife and I have started the long and arduous process of dismantling our home of 27 years, as we prepare to sell our house and downsize to a 2 bedroom rented condominium.  Considering where we are in our lives – with all our children now living away from home, and indeed my wife living primarily in Detroit – this dramatic shift makes sense.  Why maintain a 4 bedroom house, when most of the time only one person is living there, with that number only growing to 3 every other weekend.  So ends the home ownership stage of our lives and so will begin the stage of returning to smaller dwellings.  Yes, returning.  For when we first were married, 37 years ago, for three years we lived in rented apartments – in the newlywed stage of our lives – as we eagerly looked forward to, and saved for, that time when we would enter our home ownership stage, and the raising of a family.

Yes, we live our lives in stages.  If we are blessed, then most of our journeys from stage to stage are joyous adventures; starting school, no longer needing a babysitter, getting a driver’s license, going off to college, getting married, buying a home, giving birth to children, watching our own children travel through their own set of stages.  Even the stages in the later periods of our lives can be wondrous adventures, such as grandparenthood and retirement.  Yet, when all is considered, the various stages of our lives have more to do with what we make of them than what they make of us.

Still, even as we live so much of our lives in stages, there are – or should be – certain constants present as well.  Love should be one such constant.  It can grow, as we enfold more people into our circle of love, but we should work very hard never to let it diminish or disappear.  Our love for our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, their spouses, their children, our relatives and friends, should never be treated as stages in our lives.  We should never grow out of love with these people who have found a place in our hearts and in whose hearts we have found a place.  Yes, there will be days when we find that our feelings for these people will either rise or wane, but they should never disappear.

The same should hold true for our feelings toward God, faith, and the Jewish people.    Belief in God, our practice of religion, and our attachment to the Jewish people should never be considered as a stage or a phase in our lives.  We should never find ourselves saying, “Yes.  Jewish living used to be important to me.  I used to pray.  I used to study.  I used to be involved in the Jewish community, but since then I moved on.  I’ve grown out of that phase.”  God, faith, the Jewish people are not meant to be likened to the width of our ties, the length of our skirts, the style of our hair, or even the type of car we drive or the home we live in.  Connecting with God should be more of a continual desire than whether or not we feel that minivans are still functional in our lives.  Rather we should approach our relationship with God, faith, and the Jewish people more in the manner in which we approach our relationships with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our family, our friends.  Like with those relationships, our bonds to God, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people, will over time change, evolve, and hopefully grow.  There will be good times.  There will be bad times.  There will be those times when these relationships raise us up to the heights, and there may be times as well when we find them bending almost to the breaking point.  Almost to the breaking point; but we should never let them break.  For when they break, whether or not we realize it, we break as well.

Just as with our loved ones, no matter how busy our lives may be, we need to carve out time to be with God and the Jewish people.  For if we do make time for them, we will find that just as with our loved ones, there is miraculous healing and strength to be found.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder.  According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night.  So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow.  While asleep he had an amazing dream.  He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven.  On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down.  God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven.  And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.

As I was pre­paring my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth.  Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist.  For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God.  I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence.  Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot.  I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real.  I also know that I am not alone in having such experience.  People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites.  It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage.  Beit El is but one of them.

When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text.  For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down.  Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around.  As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations.  So I wish to add mine to the list.

Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens.  Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.

If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob.  Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones.  There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.

Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue.  Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.”  Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site.  Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.”  But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven.  Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.

How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished by many individual acts of will.  It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site.  We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention.  We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God.  Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us?  Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us.  Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”