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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Psalm 23: A Roadmap for Yom Kippur

As we prepare to enter Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, I would like to look at one of themost common texts of comfort in our tradition, Psalm 23, as a way to face the world in which we live moment to moment, and to help us in our task of Teshuvah (return or repentance). Though usually associated with funerals or the Yizkor (Memorial) service, Psalm 23 is a piece of biblical poetry that can speak to us in many different circumstances.

In his book The Lord is My Shepherd Rabbi Harold Kushner analyzes the psalm line by line. I would like instead to break it into passages and analyze each of them with an eye towards understanding what the author might have meant when writing these words, what the words mean to me, and how I believe they can help us in our work of Teshuvah. I begin with the familiar opening passage:

The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me to lie down in green pastures, God leads me beside the still waters, and God restores my soul. God guides me in straight paths for God’s name’s sake.

The pastoral image of the shepherd which sets the scene for the psalm was surely one of comfort for our ancestors. They were nomadic, pastoral people and they knew well that shepherds were dedicated to caring for their flock. Each sheep mattered. In fact, we read in a midrash that God chose Moses lead the people because he went after a single lamb in his flock that had gone astray. When God saw this, God knew that Moses was the right man to care for the people. After all, he cared for each individual sheep, just as God cared for each individual human being.

We are comforted by knowing that God cares for each of us. Yet, how can this manifest itself in our daily life? The next line provides an answer: I shall not want. But we all want, don’t we? We all desire. We all crave. We all yearn. Yet that is not what the psalm is saying. For the actual Hebrew can more accurately be translated as “I shall lack nothing,” or as Kushner simply states it … “what more could I need?” Even if we may not have everything that we may want or need, in a more material sense, God’s presence in one’s life makes one feel blessed. Who could ask for anything more?

The pastoral imagery of the psalm continues as the reader is greeted by a scene of serenity and tranquility wherein we are led beside still, soothing, calming waters and where we can simply lie down on the soft grass and enjoy God’s world. Of course, water is the source of life in so many ways. Water gives us life and sustains us even more than food. Yet, we know that water can also be destructive. Therefore, it is significant that the waters in the psalm are still waters. We all know how calming and serene it can be sitting by a lake and just watching the water. This is also what we can feel when we realize that we are in God’s presence.

It is because of God’s presence in my life that our soul is restored. Just as the Torah tells us (and we sing on Shabbat in V’shamru) ‘shavat va’yinafash – God rested and God’s soul was renewed, so too our soul is revived and renewed with the realization of God’s presence. The soul is what makes us different from the animal world. It is what provides us with the knowledge of good and evil; it enables us to make more and ethical decision. And if God is the source of the soul, then recognizing God’s presence and allowing ourselves to be at one with God has the effect of restoring our soul, our connection to God, all of humanity and the universe.

If God has restored our soul, then of course we can only be led on straight paths. Right? Well, not exactly. For the Hebrew phrase maaglei tzedek does not really mean straight paths. A better translation would perhaps be ‘round about paths that are straight, or righteous.’ In other words, don’t be tricked by your ego into thinking “God is with me, I can make no misstep or do no wrong. I can only walk the straight and narrow” For the ego is the adversary of the soul – and God. The ego wants you to think that it’s all about you. However, the reality is that our path in life is never straight or perfect. We veer off in different directions, sometimes even wreaking havoc when we do. Yet, we learn more about oneself and one’s relationship to God through these circuitous routes. After all, the Israelites wandered in circles in the desert for 40 years not because they didn’t have a map, but because they needed the time to learn, grow, mature and experience life before they could enter the Promised Land. So too, we each need to take our circuitous routes in order to grow and learn so that we can each enter our Promised Land … the place where we feel at home and in relationship with God. Of course, even once in the Promised Land, the people still rebelled, complained, and worshipped other gods. Yet, God was always with them. It is not so much that God intentionally leads us on these roundabout routes. Rather, they are simply a natural part of life’s course, and God shepherds us along them, trying to help us find within ourselves the ability to return to the path of righteousness. We may only be on that path for a moment, and then veer off again, but God is always there guiding us and helping us to return.

Why does God do this? We are told l’maan shmo, for the sake of God’s name!” Does this mean the author believed that God does it because God wants to take credit! Is this all about showing others how powerful God is in the same way that the Ten Plagues were partly meant to show the Egyptians that God was in charge? No. Says Kushner. For that would be about God’s pride, ego or hubris. Rather, the goal is to help human beings realize that ultimately the strength within us comes from God and not from somewhere else. As much as we may have theological issues with the Torah text, we are told that the ten plagues were meant to show not only the Egyptians, but the Israelites as well, that God is the ultimate power in the universe. It was important that the people knew that it was God, not Pharaoh, or even Moses, who freed the slaves. Kushner compares the struggle to free the African American slaves in the 19th century. Some opposed slavery because they believed it did not make economic sense to have slaves with the advent of new machinery and an improved economy. Yet, ultimately, the voices that were heard above all others called on the abolition of slavery using Biblical verses to prove that slavery of human beings was an affront to God. We can therefore view the emancipation of slaves, not as a human endeavor, but as the manifestation of the Divine will.

Yet, realizing that the strength enabling us to withstand adversity and change the world comes from God and not from us reminds us that we are powerless without God. However, as I have said before, powerlessness is not a negative attribute, it is simply a reality. We only have power to good if we connect with the ultimate Divine power source that is within each of us. If we do not tap into that source, then we ultimately lose our way and our ego takes us on a trip that is filled with chaos. This is the essence of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and all of the other 12-step recovery programs. We also read of this all over our scriptures and commentaries. God is the power that makes salvation, freedom, joy and happiness possible. God is our rock, our strength and shelter. Without God, we are nothing.

Just as we are getting accustomed this beautiful, serene scene, although it’s not without its bumps, twists and turns, the psalm seems to take a 180-degree turn: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and they staff they comfort me.” Where did this dark valley and evil come from?

Do we really need to ask this question? We all know that in any moment we can suddenly find ourselves in a valley of deepest darkness, which is probably a more accurate translation of the phrase gai tzalmavet. Yet, the translators of the King James Bible hit on a powerful image with the phrase “shadow of death.” For often what causes us to feel darkness and despair is the presence of death in our lives. Whether it is because a loved one has recently died, or because there has been a tragedy such as a horrific accident, a terrorist attack or a hurricane, we know that death is always there. However, the shadow of death hovering above us can also be the death of our sense of hope, the death of a cherished idea or dream that we thought might come to fruition, or the death of a relationship with another. The death can even be the death of the image of ourselves that we may have clung to for dear life, but which we now realize was an illusion, a trick of the ego once again. Therefore, we must let go and see what is real instead.

We all have known, and will continue to know, different types of loss and death. The shadow of darkness is real. Yet, when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, we must also remember that a shadow must be caused by the presence of light somewhere beyond. The realization of that light, which is the presence of God, gives us the ability to walk through the valley and emerge at the other end. If we do not recognize God’s presence beyond the shadows, then we risk remaining in the valley of darkness, never again returning to life. We are able to emerge from the valley because we fear no evil, for God is with us. The psalmist does not say that there is no evil, for we know that evil exists. There are forces and people in the world who are bent on doing harm. There are forces within us, what our tradition calls the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards evil, that, spurred on by the ego, desire to sabotage our lives, doing evil to us and to those around us. Yet, we can ultimately face the evil forces within and around us for one simple reason – God is with us. It is God’s accompanying presence that allows us to face the demons, walk through the valley of shadows and ultimately emerge into the light. There may be moments during the journey when we become afraid, dejected or depressed. However, ultimately God ultimately enables us to transform that fear into fearlessness, strength and determination.

The staff is what the shepherd uses to guide his sheep and to help them get out of difficult places. The rod is what he uses to discipline the sheep when they are being stubborn or disobedient. The guidance and comfort of the staff is an image to which we can more readily relate. Yet, discipline is needed in life. The rod is a metaphor for the need to set boundaries and use discipline in our lives, lest we go off on circuitous paths that spiral downward into the valley never to come out again. God is not only the source of comfort and support, but just like a parent, God is the source of the boundaries, direction and discipline that we need in order to walk the path of life.

With love, compassion and mercy, as well as boundaries, limits and discipline, we can walk out of the valley of the shadow of death and back into life. When we emerge, we feel the light of God that was always there beyond the shadows and we can celebrate in that moment …

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runneth over.”

Therefore, as we emerge from the valley a table is set for us. God has prepared a celebratory banquet! But who are the guests at the table? Our enemies, so says the psalmist. This is a strange way to celebrate! At this point, I need to say that Max told me that this is the key verse for him in the psalm. If you want to know why, you’ll need to ask him. And I suggest that you do.

Kushner gives many possible interpretations of this verse. He cites Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who imagines sitting at a banquet table with all those whom he feels had done him wrong through the years. However, rather than rebuking them, he thanks them each for what they have taught him about himself. In coming to terms with what caused him to resent or feel anger towards each person he has been able to come to terms with an aspect of himself that he can now try to change. What a beautiful image of teshuvah, even if it might seem a difficult one to actualize.

However, Kushner sees this image more as a metaphor for acknowledging that some people who we thought would help us on our journey have actually let us down. He derives this interpretation by translating the phrase as “You prepare a table for me, facing my enemies.” In Kushner’s vision, we are seated around the banquet table looking squarely in the faces of those people to whom we turned for comfort, but who were not there for us. Perhaps they could not be there, perhaps they did not know what to do, perhaps they underestimated our pain, or perhaps they were just not capable of helping. Realizing this, we can view them no longer as enemies, but have compassion for them as the imperfect, fallible human beings they, and we, all are. For even though our disappointment in them is real, we know that God was and is always there. That is what matters.

I think we can also view the enemies with whom we sit at this table as the enemies within each of us: self-doubt, insecurity, self-loathing, jealousy, hatred, and all the various tools the ego uses to separate us from God and other human beings and focus only on the imagined ‘self.’ By sitting down and looking straight at them, we realize that they have no power, for God is with us. God is not the source of these feelings. The ego is. God is the source of love, strength, compassion, mercy and unity. And God can ultimately defeat the ego every time.

Realizing this, our enemies dissolve before our eyes and we are left – not alone – but sitting at the table with God, realizing that we have been anointed. In ancient times, when a king or queen ascended the throne he or she was anointed with oil on the forehead. The word mashiach, or messiah, means “the anointed one.” Sitting at the table with God, realizing that each of us is anointed, we acknowledge our unique, special nature. Each of us is chosen by God to sit at God’s table. Each of us has the ability to be a messiah. In other words, we each have the ability to play a role in bringing peace, harmony, tranquility and unity to our world. We can each make a difference in the world. If not, our existence would be superfluous. Because of this “our cups runneth over.” We are filled with so much joy and love that we are bursting at the seams. We cannot believe how blessed we are. Not because we are better than anyone is, but because we have come to realize that each individual is a child a God, a part of God. We each have the potential to experience this feeling. Our joy is so great that it overflows and reaches out towards all of creation. For this, we are exceedingly grateful for all that God has given us. Kushner reminds the reader that gratitude and thanks are part of reciprocal relationship. For in order to be grateful for receiving someone, in this case God, must also be giving. In our relationships with other human beings, we must also emulate this reciprocal relationship. We must view life as a gift, even in the difficult moment. Yet, it is so easy to live life with a sense of entitlement. Often our society encourages us to do so. We think we deserve to get all the good things in life, and so we feel no gratitude for what we have. This is another trick of the ego, which is again trying to put “me” at the center, instead of God. If we feel entitled, we ignore the blessings of life and complain bitterly whenever things don’t happen as we think they should. Alternatively, the ego tricks us into believing that we are self-sufficient, so that everything we have comes from us and nothing else matters. If we live life this way we cannot receive the gift of life, nor can we pass on that gift to others in our lives. We instead live our lives jealous, frustrated, bitter and ultimately cut off from others and from God.

Instead, in each moment, we must do our best to be grateful for the gift of life. As psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “Gratitude [in a mature human being] is the ability to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively the basic good of life with awe, pleasure and wonder and even ecstasy.” It is recognizing that our cup does run over, and acknowledging God for being the source of life’ abundance, even when things are not as “perfect” as we think they “should” be.

The psalm ends with the verses, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Coming to the realization that God is my light, my source of strength, and the one of all being that connects everything in the universe, I know that I can continue on my path. While on the path, I must remember that it is not a path on which I run to chase after happiness, riches, wealth or any of the other “goodies” in the world. For goodness, or the yetzer ha’tov, is always following, or more accurately translated, pursuing us. No matter where we go, we only need to look over our shoulders and all the good things are right there waiting for us, as a gift from God. However, if we are always chasing after things, it’s impossible to notice, and so many people spend their entire lives missing the opportunity, missing the point, missing life. For to chase after the “good things” is again the work of the ego and the yetzer ha’ra, the evil inclination. However, it is not only goodness, that is pursuing us, but it is hesed, as well. Translated as mercy, the word hesed really means unending loving kindness, or as Kushner translates it, “unearned love.” We don’t have to do anything to receive hesed. We just need to pay attention and realize it’s there and it will come right to us. That is one of God’s greatest gifts, and what ultimately has the potential to provide each of us with strength. With goodness and hesed pursuing us wherever we go we have the ability to truly rejoice in each moment. When we do this, then we also realize that we “live in the house of the Lord.” What a gift! We are living in God’s house! Of course, this can be comforting or it can make one paranoid. After all, if you’re living in God’s house then God can see everything you do! However, it is the tension between comfort and a little bit of fear and trepidation that provides the balance we need in order to live in God’s house. Not fear of punishment or “being caught,” but fear of what it means to believe that there is a power greater that is always with us. However, it is this belief that can also provide comfort, for you don’t have to worry about confessing your sins to God, because God already knows them. That is because God is always with us and within us, for God is a part of us. That is what dwelling in God’s house means to me. It does not mean that God literally watches us each moment, but rather, that the God within is aware of everything we do; so when we do something to help others and our world, we can feel the pride within that comes not from the ego, but from God. When I do something that is harmful to others or myself if I am truly aware in that moment, I can feel the pain and disappointment within. However, it is not a judgmental feeling, for judgment is another trick of the ego. Rather, it is the godly part of us having compassion and love – rachamim and hesed – for us and helping us to see what we could have done differently. Ultimately, this is constructive and comforting and not berating or self-loathing. For dwelling in the house of the Lord means dwelling in a place of love, mercy, compassion and support. It is not about “big brother” watching over us every minute. Rather, it is about our eternal parent being with us for support at every moment, even as we exercise the free will that God has given us, which is perhaps the greatest Divine gift that we receive.

Thus ends the psalm, reminding us that the goal in life is to dwell in God’s house forever. The psalmist states the same goal in Psalm 27, the Psalm for the Season of Repentance: One thing do I ask from God; that I may dwell in the House of the Eternal all the days of my life.” That’s it. In addition, Psalm 23 provides a path for us to reach this goal. It is a path of gratitude, of being present, of acknowledging God’s presence and God’s power in our life, and ultimately, acknowledging human powerlessness. As I’ve stated numerous times before, powerlessness is where we seem to be stuck. The American ethos teaches that each of us is a unique and powerful individual who can accomplish anything if we just put our minds to it, put our noses to the grindstone, and so on. The psalmist is not disagreeing with this. It is just saying that this power does not cone from us, but from God working through us. And this message the psalmist is giving us applies to Teshuvah as well as to the entire way we live our lives. For Teshuvah involves returning to God and acknowledging God’s presence and power, and then turning back to our friends, our family, our community and ourselves in order to seek forgiveness, knowing that God is with us during each step of this difficult process. That is what makes it all possible.

In addition, if we choose to act in ways that prevents us from “dwelling in God’s house” then become disconnected from God and the world. By doing teshuvah, we can turn around and walk through the door of God’s house and be welcomed with open arms. To do so is to reach the place of atonement, which comes from the Latin meaning to be at one, or in unity. To achieve atonement, or “at-one-ment,” means to be at one with God, and that means at one with self, humanity and the universe. Being at one is the ultimate goal of the journey described in the psalm, as well as the ultimate goal of the journey we travel on Yom Kippur. May we each do our best as we travel on the path, step-by-step, moment by moment, individually and as a community so that we may all appreciate the gift of our life and our world, and dwell together in God’s house for many years to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Four Noble Truths of Rosh Hashanah

This is a reworking of a Rosh Hashanah sermon I wrote a few years ago. I hope you find it meaningful.

May you have a Shanah Tovah u'metukah-a good and sweet year!

Shalom/Salaam,

Rabbi Steve Nathan

As this first day of the New Year begins and you sit in synagogue you may well ask yourself, "why on earth are we here?" You may think I’m joking, or perhaps just trying to wake you up from your slumber. Well, in part perhaps I am. But seriously I am asking you the question: “Why on earth are we here?” Are we here because it’s what we’ve always done? Are we here because it’s expected of us? Are we here because our parents, our spouse or children forced us to be? Are we here so we can be seen? Are we here so we can see? Or are we here because we feel like our life and soul are on the line and we need to pray with everything we’ve got?

I would guess that most of us are here for a number of these reasons – if not all of them. But my hunch is that most of us – myself included – would not say that we are here each year because of the existential crisis we are facing in our lives and because we feel like we need to make peace with God and do Teshuvah because our souls are on the line.


And yet, on some deep level I believe that we all think exactly this. We may not realize it. We may never realize it, but there is a reason beyond the social and communal aspects of today that draws us here each year. There is something that calls us to community and to prayer. The call of the shofar echoes within our collective unconscious nevertheless. But what are we called to do?

Simple. We have ten whole days to acknowledge all the wrongs that we have done during this past year. Ten days to seek forgiveness from others. Ten days to pray to God for atonement. Ten days to hopefully find it within us to forgive ourselves – which is usually the hardest part. Ten days. A piece of cake!


It took us each an entire year to build up and write out the rap sheet of our crimes and misdemeanors. Now in ten days we are meant to get rid of that rap sheet – no matter how long it might be – and start with a clean slate? Of course, we could always throw it in the shredder and act like it doesn’t exist. But we all know that if we do that we will be like Mickey Mouse chopping up the bewitched broom into a hundred pieces in Fantasia, each piece coming to life and creating a new broom. A new entity all its own. An entity with its own power and direction – yet also following in the same direction as its parent and siblings. And so we heap regret upon regret, sorrow up sorrow, guilt upon guilt, until we are so overwhelmed that we either drown or simply ignore what’s going on within and around us completely.

No, we can’t throw our list of transgressions into the shredder. We must erase them all – or at least try to. Yet it seems as if they are written with indelible ink. But nothing is truly indelible. There is always something you can find to erase the mark, remove the stain and make it appear almost as if it had never been there. This we are expected to do in a mere ten days. No easy feat! And perhaps it is the daunting nature of this task that keeps us from truly engaging in it the way the tradition asks us to. It’s not that we have missed the mark so many times this past year (although each of us probably has), but it’s the fact that we’re supposed to deal with all of this in a mere ten days in spite of the fact that most weeks we don’t get half the things done that we had planned because of a perceived lack of time.

Though we hear the shofar’s call to Teshuvah. Though we know deep within our soul that it’s not merely what we’re supposed to do – but what we need to do – we give it perfunctory lip service and instead focus on reconnecting with family, friends and community to celebrate a new year. Though this is important work in it’s own right, it is not a reason to spend a total of 2 or 3 days praying in shul! So this begs the question: “how do we make the process of Teshuvah more meaningful for us in such a short amount of time?” I believe that the answer to this question first requires us to acknowledge that this task is impossible. We can’t do it all in 10 days. Teshuvah needs to be a yearlong process. We need to look at ourselves every day if possible and see what we need to change or ask forgiveness for. But beyond that it would also help if we were to view the 10 Days of Teshuvah – the most intense time for this process – within the larger scheme.

In his moving book “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared” Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, does just that. In short he tells the reader we must each begin to look at this process not today, but exactly seven weeks ago on Tisha B’Av. Now, if you didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, or have a more in-depth exposure to Jewish tradition you may very well not even know what Tisha B’Av is. Tisha B’av is the 9th day of the month of Av. It the day on which, tradition teaches, the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the 2nd Temple was destroyed by the Romans. This second destruction in the year 70 CE left the Jewish people without a homeland until the founding of Israel in 1948. But why start on Tisha B’Av, the only complete fast day on the calendar other than Yom Kippur – and one of the most neglected holy days on our calendar?


In order to answer this question we have to look at what Tisha B’Av represents. It was not just about the destruction of a building or a city, but it was about the utter decimation of our homeland and our home. One of the traditional names for the Temple in Jerusalem was simply “bayit” or “bayit ha’gadol” – “house” or the “great house.” The Temple was our people’s spiritual home. It was the center of our ancestor’s existence. When the walls of the Temple crumbled around them it was truly as if their home had been destroyed before their very eyes. The people were left alone, without a sense of belonging or grounding, without a sense of safety. The world was suddenly a frightening and dangerous place in which to live. This, says Alan Lew, is where the spiritual journey of Teshuvah begins. We must begin by allowing the walls of our own spiritual houses to be torn down – and we must be a witness to it – if not a collaborator!


The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the 2nd Temple was destroyed by the Romans because there was so much infighting among the Jewish people that they could not work together in order to defend themselves. This may have been true, says Lew, but the reality is also that the Roman army was so powerful that no one would have been able to stop them. The Jewish sin of sinat hinam – senseless hatred may have hastened the destruction, but the destruction was still inevitable.


And so for us the warring factions within our psyche and our spirit may hasten the destruction of our spiritual home (or in some cases delay it) but it is inevitable if we are to begin the work of Teshuvah. We must feel the sense of loss, the sense of being ungrounded, the sense that we are utterly alone and indefensible in order to then begin rebuilding our lives. And so we have seven weeks of feeling homeless and ungrounded to begin the work of Teshuvah.


Of course, the reality is that we can also find ourselves frozen with fear once we realize that there is nothing protecting us any more. We can simply focus on the loss and never move ahead into the future. That is the danger of remembering. Zachor – remember - is a central commandment of Judaism. However, if we remember only for remembering’s sake and never allow ourselves to beyond the world of memory then we are doomed either to a life of stagnation or of unending repetitions.


And so we move ahead over a period of seven weeks. Seven – the number of creation. In seven weeks we must traverse the world of our psyche and our spirit, as well as the world of flesh and blood – friends, families, co-workers, acquaintances – and begin to recreate our world and recreate ourselves. We must remember what we did that contributed to the destruction of our house and begin by forgiving ourselves. We must remember that at any given moment the choices that we make are in fact just that, the choices that we made at that moment. It may be difficult to accept that – most of us are so good at second-guessing and criticizing our “bad” decisions after the fact. But the reality is that given what was happening in our minds and our hearts – as well as around us – at that given moment we made the only choice that we could at that particular moment. We must accept this while also accepting the consequences of our choices and then forgive ourselves for being human. Only once we have allowed ourselves to do this can we then do the important work of seeking forgiveness from others. And once we have forgiven ourselves and sought forgiveness from those whom we have harmed then we can say that God, the power that makes forgiveness possible, has forgiven us.


This is true even if the other person does not forgiven us. For our obligation and our duty is to seek forgiveness sincerely. If the other person chooses not to forgive us then the mark that was on our slate of transgressions is wiped clean and, according to tradition, it now moves over to his/her slate as something that s/he needs to focus on when doing Teshuvah.

Now this may all seem a bit overwhelming, but I do believe that there is wisdom that exists that can help us in this process and I would like to share it with you. Since I first started thinking about this sermon the closing line of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer kept playing in my mind. I knew that it needed to be in some ways the lynchpin of the sermon, but I was not sure how. This prayer, with its haunting melodic refrain, is one of the hallmarks of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. And yet we do not chant it today because we are taught that prayers that are direct petitions to God for help are not to be recited on Shabbat, a day that is to be dedicated to simply appreciating God and God’s world. But even though we will not be singing it today, its sentiment is an essential part of the process of Teshuvah.

After chanting a litany of requests for God’s assistance and forgiveness we end with the verse “Avinu Malkeinu, honeinu v’aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah v’hesed v’hoshiyanu.” This is translated in our Mahzor as “Our Creator, Our Sovereign (traditionally rendered as “our father, our king”) be gracious with us and respond to us, for we have no deeds to justify us; deal with us in righteousness and love, and save us now.” Of course, all translation is commentary, but this modern, egalitarian, politically correct translation is similar to most of the traditional translations. The Silverman Mahzor with which many of us from Conservative backgrounds grew up translates this as “Our Father, Our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us; for lo! We are unworthy; deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.”


It is this particluar translation that has troubled me almost from the moment when I first really read it and understood what I believed it was saying. My interpretation of it was, in short, “God, please be good to us and answer our prayers even though we are worthless and undeserving. But please treat us with charity and kindness regardless of that fact.” This was not a sentiment that I wanted to associate with my Judaism. I didn’t want to believe the fact that Judaism views human beings as basically worthless. First of all, that contradicts the teaching that we are each created in God’s image. Secondly, if we are basically worthless then why bother doing Teshuvah since inevitably we’re just going to mess up again?

While struggling to find a new translation that could help me understand and accept the underlying meaning of this prayer I came across Alan Lew’s discussion of this verse in his book. Basically, what Lew (who was a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism as well as being a rabbi) said is that the verse simply means that no matter what deeds we have done, no matter how much preparation we have done for Teshuvah, when the moment arrives to face God, ourselves and those whom we have harmed we are utterly unprepared. It is as if we are totally empty. We have nothing in us. As the title of his book says “this is real, and you are completely unprepared.”


The act of Teshuvah is about as real as it gets, and no pre-planning can help in the end. It all goes out the window. The only thing that matters at that moment is – that moment, itself and what we do with it. Our house has been destroyed. The constructs and facades on which we all build and rebuild our lives each and every day are gone. The ground beneath us has either disappeared or is constantly shifting. We only have ourselves and this moment and now we must do what we must do. Again, this can be terrifying as it creates a sense of emptiness and aloneness within us. But remember, the prayer is stated in the plural and must be chanted in community. So even though it is frightening and even though Teshuvah is ultimately an individual act, the fact that we are doing it in a communal context can give us strength to face ourselves and the moment.

So now that we’ve acknowledge our sense of emptiness and groundlessness how do we go about doing the difficult work of Teshuvah? I would like to offer four pieces of advice that I hope will be helpful. I will call these the four essential truths of Teshuvah:

§ 1 – Life is difficult. Stop trying to deny this. Life can never be totally satisfying because everything is temporary and impermanent. Even our great ancestral home, the Temple, could not last forever. Nothing in life is eternal (a mixed blessing). If we try to act like things are permanent then we are only going to make it more difficult for us to do Teshuvah – and to live. The guilt and pain we feel will pass, as all thing do – whether good or bad. Being mindful of this and acting from this place of understanding will enable us to seek forgiveness from ourselves, others and God

§ 2 – Pain is an inevitable part of life because of the reality of life's impermanence. Don’t be afraid that confronting our mistakes will cause others or ourselves pain. Pain is not something that we can ever avoid as human being. However, we can add to the pain and create suffering because of our inability to let go of habits, beliefs, patterns, thoughts, and feelings that keep us stuck in the past. Suffering is what keeps us frozen in the past or obsessed with the future and prevents us from truly being in the present and doing Teshuvah. If we never let go of the feelings that we felt as we watched our walls tumbling down around us we will never be able to move on our to even think of rebuilding a new home for ourselves.

§ 3 - Inner peace and contentment is an achievable goal – regardless of what our internal voices and stories might tell us. But inner peace is not ultimately dependent upon external forces or circumstances. Just as we cause our own suffering through our habits and actions we are also the source of our own “cure”. By using the power that is within each of our souls – that which we call God - to bring about our personal sense of forgiveness and redemption we can achieve peace – at least in this moment. Everlasting peace may be a fairy tale, but peace and contentment right now is within our selves.

§ 4 - Finally, we must set down a path of action that will bring us back home to God, our souls and ourselves. This path is multi-faceted, but is the essence of Teshuvah. Returning to the One. Returning to the community. Returning to ourselves. The ability to do this is within us. Each of us may find a different way to walk the path, but walk it we must. We must walk it alone, but knowing that others are walking beside us, in front of us and behind us, with the Divine Presence embracing and comforting us as well.


Now some of you may be saying to yourselves “hmm, these seem similar to the four noble truths of the Buddha.” And you are right. For this is my Jewish understanding of the wisdom that Buddhism has to offer regarding how we live our lives. For I believe these truths not to always be so self-evident, but I do believe that they are universally applicable (with slight variations from traditions to tradition). You will find many similar concepts within Judaism – especially within Kabbalah and Hasidism. But assuming we accept these four truths, or some variation of them, how do find this strength to walk the path. How do we connect with the Divine within us and use it to help us find forgiveness and peace? The key is to be found in the second part of the final verse of Avinu Malkeinu. Aseh imanu tzedakah v’hesed v’hoshiyeinu. I translate this verse (and I believe that the Hebrew supports this) as “Create with us tzedakah v’hesed – righteousness and abundant kindness – and bring us salvation.” What we are imploring, actually commanding, God to do in this verse is to work with us to create righteousness and justice, balanced by kindness and compassion, so that we can have the strength to walk the path towards salvation.


Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed that salvation referred to those things for which people ultimately search: holiness, meaning, peace and the betterment of our world. In order to achieve individual, communal and worldly salvation we being with the Divine-human relationship. We begin by creating together with God tzedakah and hesed, righteousness and justice, with which to rule ourselves and the world. We work to create kindness and compassion with which to comfort ourselves and our world. If we can create these and constantly strive to keep them in balance then we can follow the multi-faceted path of Teshuvah. We can then begin the work of rebuilding our personal and communal houses, while accepting the fact that – just as with the Sukkah that we will build in a little over a week – the houses are not permanent. They will eventually come down one way or another, and so we will begin the task again, head down the path again, and seek our Source again – day after day, week after week, month after month, new year after new year.


And so, let me conclude with my final reconstruction of the last verse of Avinu Malkeinu as a blessing for all of us as we walk this path alone together:

Our Beloved Parent – comforting us, guiding us, teaching us

Our Revered Sovereign – instructing us, directing us, supporting us

Be gentle and gracious to us, help us to find the answer within us, even though we realize that at this very moment we are empty. There is nothing in us. We are each a blank slate ready to be written up by our own hand – guided by you.

Create for us and instill within us the divine qualities of tzedakah and hesed

Righteousness and overflowing love.

May we act rightly towards ourselves; may we be loving and compassionate towards ourselves so that we may find forgiveness within us for ourselves. May we use those divine qualities of tzedakah and hesed to turn outward and seek forgiveness from others and to grant forgiveness to others so that we can work together to create a world filled with peace, joy, overflowing love and compassion.

This is our prayer. Amen

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Nitzavim-Va'yelekh

This week's Torah portion is Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Devarim/Deuteronomy
29:9 - 31:30). It is one of seven parashiot/portions that is read as a
double portion in a non-leap year order to assure that the entire
Torah is read in the course of a single year. The parashah/portion is
near the end of Moses' speeches to the people before he is to die.
Nitzavim begins with Moses telling the people that he is addressing
his remarks to all those who "stand this day, before the Eternal your
God. To enter into the covenant God swore to your ancestors. I make
this covenant, both with those who are standing here with us this day
and with those who are not with us here this day."

In the beginning of Vayelekh, Moses warns them that God has revealed
to him that, after his death, "the people will go astray and worship
alien gods. They will break the covenant that God had made with them.
Many evils will then befall them, at which point they will say to
themselves, "`surely it is because God is not in our midst that this
evil has befallen us."

The juxtaposition of these two opening phrases seems at first to be a
contradiction, and yet I believe instead that they present us with a
necessary tension that is an essential part of life. My teacher and friend,
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaches that life
is a series of events that can be encapsulated in the phrase "fall
down get up." I have intentionally not place any punctuation in this
phrase in order to emphasize R. Weinberg's point that this is a
continual process and not two distinct activities. For, in the reality
of the moment, when we fall, we instinctively begin the process of
returning to where we were before we fell. Yes, it is true
that certain physical falls may make it impossible for us to rise, but
our instinct is to do so as quickly as possible.

However, in our spiritual lives we often fall and then get stuck in
the prone position unable to lift ourselves up again. We begin to wallow in
the muck that we believe to be our lives. We fill ourselves with
negative messages that we are incompetent, ineffective, incapable of
doing things differently, or simply bad people. In short, we see ourselves as powerless and unable to change.

In the beginning of Nitzavim, Moses is speaking to both "with those
who are standing here with us this day and with those who are not with
us here this day." Moses is speaking to all of us and we are
standing upright. As a spiritual metaphor, when we are
"standing" upright before God we are fully present and aware of
our connection to the Divine. We know that God is a part of us and that we
are a part of God. We sense our connection to humanity and the world,
which are also a part of God. This sense of connection then calls to
us to take the next "step" on our journey. This is a journey of
holiness, the goal of which is the betterment of God's world and
strengthening the connection of all to God, self, and others.

With God as our source of strength, we embark on this journey. At
this time of year, we also embark on this journey with a sense that we
are returning to our "true" spiritual selves through the work of
teshuvah, the act of turning and repentance. However, somewhere along
the way we are each destined to experience moments that are reflected
in the opening lines of Vayalekh: "[in the future] the people will go
astray and worship alien gods. They will break the covenant that God
had made with them. Many evils will then befall them, at which point
they will say to themselves, 'surely it is because God is not in our
midst that this evil has befallen us.' "

What this text is telling us is that somewhere along the journey we will fall down.
At some point we willstray from the path upon which we have been walking, as we are
distracted by "alien gods," or those things that appeal to our passions
and desires, but which ultimately are destructive forces in our world
and our lives. These forces separate us from the godliness within
and around us. This sense of separation and alone-ness are
antithetical to the sense of connection and at-one-ness that are at
the heart of a spiritual life. They leave us vulnerable, depressed,
dejected and certain that the future holds nothing but despair. It is
at these moments that we say to ourselves "surely …God is not our
midst."

Yet, we forget that God is always in our midst. God is
always within each of our souls. Rather, it is we who are no longer
in God's midst, as if that were possible. By focusing on the forces that
draw us away from God, it feels as if we are no longer standing in God's
presence, even though God is always there within us. We have experienced the
"fall down," but we are unable to continue with "get up." We are
alone. We are forlorn. We are powerless.

We are … and we are not. For, in truth, we are never alone. However,
it is true we are powerless.

Yet, the feeling of powerlessness is actually not a negative
experience, though our ingrained habits and beliefs lead us to label
it as such. For in reality, it the experience and acceptance of our
powerlessness that then allows us to realize that there is a power
within us that can lift us up after all. However, that power does not
come from us, but rather it flows through us and has its source in the
Divine. As we read in the first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous, we must "admit that we are powerless" and then turn to God as
our true source of power before we can move on.

When we are spiritually in balance and we fall down, we can
get up with relative ease. One might call this our `autonomic spiritual
system' at work. For just as our autonomic nervous system tells our
body to breathe without any thought on our part, so "fall down"
causes us to instinctively "get up" spiritually when we are in balance. However,
when we are in the spiritual state described above, when we fall down
we then find it difficult, if not impossible, to get up.

At these moments we must not struggle to lift ourselves or "pull
ourselves up by our bootstraps," as the classic American ethos might
tell us to do. Rather, we must simply lie where we are. We must pay
attention to what is happening within and around us. We should not
judge our situation or ourselves in a negative light (or any light, for that matter).
Rather, we must simply experience the moment as it is, without judgment or commentary.

Spiritually lying there we can see ourselves as we are at that moment and we can experience
our powerlessness, as frightening as that might feel. Then, slowly,
moment by moment, we can begin to notice that there is something else
present within us and around us. That something is the Divine flow of
energy that we first simply pay attention to, then eventually turn to,
in order to give us strength to face the challenge of the moment and
eventually get up.

As we prepare to enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah/Return next week, let us
remember that life is a series of these various types of moments. Some
are "fall down get up" moments and others are "fall down, stay down,
be present, and let God lift us up" moments. Both are part of life.
Neither is better or worse. Both simply are what they are.
In reviewing the series of moments that make up the year that is about
to end, let us not judge ourselves for what has occurred. We each
make choices that we might label as "mistakes" and choices that we
might label as "good." But let us now simply see what has been, make
amends for choices we have made and things we have done that have
harmed self or others, and remember that in the end that we are all
human, but that our ultimate strength comes from the Divine within.

If we do this, then we are prepared to take the first step of the new
year and continue on our path of falling down, getting up, and
everything else that we call the blessing of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

Steven

Friday, September 4, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Ki Tavo

This week's parashah/portion is Ki Tavo (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1 -
29:8). The opening words, from which the parashah takes it's name
(as always) mean "when you enter," and refers to the ritual that the
people are meant to enact when they enter the Promised Land in the
future and bring their first fruits to the priest.

When the people bring the basket of first fruits to the priest we
read (translation by Richard Elliot Friedman):
"And the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set
it down in front of the altar of YHWH, your God. And you shall
answer and say in front of YHWH, your God:
My father was a perishing Aramean, so he went down to Egypt
and resided there with few persons and became a big, powerful and
numerous nation there. And the Egyptians were bad to us and degraded
us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to YHWH ... And
YHWH brought us out from Egypt ... to this place and gave us this
land ... and now, here, I've brought the first of the fruit of the
land that you've given me, YHWH." (26:4 - 10)

Though I was familiar with this passage not only from the Torah, but
also from its traditional inclusion in the Passover Haggadah,
something struck me in the Hebrew and in Friedman's translation. For
right before the person begins reciting the formulaic "my father
was ..." the text states "and you shall answer and say in front of
YHWH, your God .." Often this is translated simply as "and you shall
say ...", but the Hebrew clearly uses the verb a-n-h, which means to
answer. However, it is unclear what question the person bringing
the offering is actually responding to. It is also unclear if the
person is responding to the priest, to whom s/he has given the
basket, or to God, before whom s/he stands

As is often the case, the text leaves the reader with more questions
than answers. Yet, I believe at the heart of this text are the
concepts of duality, tension and contradiction that I discussed in
last week's commentary. Just as last week I imagined that the
speaker was simultaneously the parent of a "stubborn and rebellious
child" and that child him/herself, so there are dualities and
multiple truths in tension within this narrative.

The primary duality or tension that I see is between past, present
and future. Though this seems to be more than a duality, since there
are three ideas in tension with each other, I believe that at its
heart is really is a duality. For the tension here is between the
present and that which is not-the-present. Both past and future are
unrealities. Neither of them truly exists, for the only reality is
what is before us in the present. Yet, we cannot deny the role that
the past and the future play in our lives.

The ritual about which we read in this parashah takes place in the
future - when the people are free and in the Promised Land - but
recalls our collective past - when we were slaves and when we were
freed from slavery. So what does it offer us in the present?
Perhaps the answer to this question can be found a few verses later
in the parashah where we read: "This day YHWH, your God commands you
to do these laws and judgments. And you shall be watchful and do
them with all your heart and soul. You have proclaimed YHWH today to
be God to you, and to go in God's ways and to observe God's laws and
God's commandments and God's judgments and to listen to God's voice.
And YHWH proclaimed you today to be a treasured people to God ..."
(26:16 - 18).

As you can see, the words "this day" or "today" are found three times
in these two verses. In reading these words I became aware that
these two verses describe what it means to live in the present with
the knowledge that God is within each of us and infusing our world
with Divine energy.

These verses tell us that it is "this day" - in this very moment -
which is a microcosm of this day, which in turn is a microcosm of
eternity - that we experience the will of God (however each of us
chooses to define that term). We discover teachings of God through
our interactions with God's creation and God's world by being truly
present, watchful and mindful of what is before us. This means not
just using what we traditionally think of as our mind or our
intellect, but using our hearts and our souls - which contain within
them not only the emotions and the spiritual self, but the intellect
as well. If we do this then we cannot help but proclaim in this
moment that God is ours and that we are God's. We cannot help but
walk down the path of God - the path of righteousness and holiness.
We cannot help but listen to the voice of God in the sound of our own
voices, in the voices of all those around us and in the sounds of the
world in which we live. For all of these are manifestations of God's
voice.

By acknowledging God's presence in this moment we proclaim to
ourselves and to the world that each of us is God's treasure. If we
do not do these things it does not mean that we are doomed to spend
our lives NOT as God's treasure. Rather, it simply means that in
this moment we have missed the opportunity to see ourselves in this
light. But in the next moment and in the moment after that the
opportunity will arise for us yet again to see ourselves in this
light and to feel in our heart, our soul and our mind what this means.

In this way the ritual as described in the parashah and the verses
that follow it embody the idea that we must live in the present to
truly experience God, even though we cannot help but bring our past
with us and be mindful of the opportunities that lie in the future -
which will someday be the present.

But this still does not tell us to what or to whom the person
bringing the first fruits was responding when s/he recited these
formulaic verses. What was the question they answered and who was
the questioner?

I believe that the questioner is clearly God, for that is before whom
we all stand. In this scenario the priest is seen merely as the
intermediary. So even if the priest asked the question it must still
be viewed as a question from God. But here we are playing a game of
spiritual "Jeopardy," for we have discovered the answer and now we
must discover the question.

What is the question that God asked that person bringing his/her
first fruits from Promised Land - the fruits of the future-that-has-
now-become-the-present - which is then answered by recalling the
oppression of our past, the miracles that made us free and then
concludes with a reminder of what we must do in the present in order
to live in a godly way?

The clock is ticking. The theme song plays in our mind. We try and
try to find the answer. The key changes. Our minds are stuck. Will
we win or lose? Will we discover the answer? Then suddenly, just
before the buzzer sounds, the answer comes to us as if it were always
there. And the question is simply ... "Why?"

Why are you here at this very moment bringing me the fruits of
Promise? Why are you standing here before Me at this moment? Why
did I hear your cry, rescue you from slavery and bring you to Me in
My land? Why ....?

Why? This is the question that God asked our ancestors with the
basket of first fruits in their hands. This is the question that God
asks us each and every moment - and which we must ask one another and
ourselves. Why are we here? Why is this moment unfolding the way it
is? Why?

To find the answer we need only to look into the eyes of God, in
whose presence we always stand. We do this by looking into the eyes
of the person beside us, whether loved one, adversary or stranger.
We do this by looking into the mirror. We do this by looking at the
trees, the grass, the ocean, the mountains and the world around us.
We look at all of these things and we find the answer to the simple,
yet eternal, question.

Why? Because God wants us to be here and to be present in this
moment to celebrate, to make the world a better place, to sense God's
presence and to share it with others.

I quote once again one of my favorite biblical verses from the Psalm
118, "This is the day [my interpretation: the moment] that God has
made, let us rejoice and celebrate it!"
If we keep this verse and God's presence before us in each moment
then we can find within us the answer to the eternal question that
God has been asking of us and will continue to ask us and those who
come after ... "why?".

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