Monday, November 28, 2016

The Trouble Begins with Words or Lack Thereof

There is a story with which we are all likely familiar. A group of people are on a boat, and one of the passengers begins drilling a hole under his seat. The rest of his “boat community” get very upset and try to get him to stop. “What are you doing,” they want to know. “I am drilling a hole under my seat.” They yell at him that this will endanger the whole boat. “What are you worried about,” he asks,” its only my seat.”

Yesterday, we picked up the Sunday newspaper and it was remarked that there should have been news about the fires in Israel. My first thought was how many people felt slighted because there was no information about the fires that are burning across the country so many of us feel so connected to. My second thought was how many tragedies happen daily in our world of which we are not informed and to what extent do we feel connected to them? Then I think of last week and what I read from Jewish press sources about how the Jewish community should not get so upset because of the recent appointments to the proposed Cabinet of this country’s President-Elect because they are not anti-Semitic. Don’t get me wrong – I am sure I do not have to convince anyone how committed I am to Israel and to my Jewish faith community. That being said, I was offended by the report that we should not be worried because the upcoming cabinet members are not anti-Semitic. I would feel better if I knew they were also not anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, anti- Muslim, anti-sexuality and gender spectrum, anti-Immigrants, anti-Public Education and anti-a lot of other groups and sentiments that make up the fabric we call the United States. Of this, unfortunately, I am not so sure, so you will excuse me if I say yes, I am very worried.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 700 cases of hate crimes in the United States during the week after this country’s election. There wasn’t anything about this in the paper either. So does this fall into the same category as the earlier missing topic?

We are all also probably familiar with the statement that so many tragedies in our human history do not begin with guns but with words. People are now emboldened to share their various points of view that may indeed be anti-whatever group they do not like. I think it would do us all well to remember what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whom I often quote in these musings, says about how the welfare of good people everywhere must be our concern. Yes, we may feel more for the groups with which we are aligned – that is natural and how it should be. However, one important lesson we can all take from Secular Humanism is that the threat to any one group will ultimately harm us all, so it is indeed in our own selfish interest if nothing else (though I would hope it is much more than that) to be concerned about anti-anyone speech or action. So yes, I worry about how too many around us have been lulled into accepting diatribes against so many groups as “just words” and lets see what happens. Think carefully – this approach has NOT worked in the past! I do NOT have much faith in it when thinking about the campaign just run by the President-Elect of these United States and those who support his diatribes and “just words.”

Brush fires are burning across Israel and my friends and family and all good and honorable people with whom I feel affinity there across lines of religion and national identity there are worried and scared. Hundreds of hate crimes are burning across the United States and all good and honorable people with whom I feel affinity here across lines of religions and national identity are worried and scared. It would do us all good to feel this vulnerability and THINK EVER SO CAREFULLY not only about the actions we set in motion but the words we send out into the air.

We CANNOT drill holes under our seats in the boat and we must not drill holes that harm with our words either. As we end the daily Amidah prayer in the Jewish faith community, “G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood. … May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you G-d, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thinking About Being Thankful and What This Means

It is Erev Thanksgiving and as an American Jew, I am truly aware of what I am thankful for in living in the United States of America. I, along with so many others, am now worried about our future on many levels and I think in the midst of this worry, we should reevaluate what exactly we are thankful for.

In my daily Gemara learning, I have read 66b among the pages I learned today from Masechet Ketuboth. I want to share this statement that really made an impression. I am reading about the daughter of Nakdimon Ben Guryon, said to be a rather well known and wealthy patrician of his time. Unfortunately as time goes on, misfortune befalls his family and his daughter is unrecognizable in her pauper clothes working in a disgraceful setting. Within their conversation about what happened to their reputed wealth, we read the following statement: “Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai wept and said, ‘Fortunate are you, Israel, when [you] do the will of G-dno nation or tongue will rule over [you] but when you do not do G-d’s will, G-d will deliver you into the hands … of the animals of a lowly nation.” Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai actually finds this daughter of wealth gathering kernels of barley among the excrement of animals and is shocked at how low she had fallen. As this is further explained, the question is posed regarding what exactly Nakdimon Ben Guryon did with his wealth – did he only use it for himself or did he share with others and provide for those less fortunate? What did his daughter learn in his household?

For those of us who live comfortable and well-padded lives, it is so important that we think of and remember others. This is required of us whether we are speaking of material belongings and basic needs, or about the safety that others can expect in the environs we call home. In the past few weeks there has been so much talk about our need to look beyond ourselves and consider the needs of others – those who do not have what they need and now, clearly those who may have their needs threatened. In the Gemara it is suggested that Nakdimon Ben Guryon would have expensive garments that would be spread on the ground upon which he walked and afterwards the poor would gather them up. What did he do for those less fortunate than he? It is further suggested that perhaps he did do for others but not enough.

What does it mean to do enough for others? I have always taught my students and children that when we give something, it needs to be what the other person needs not what we want to give them. At this point, we are acutely aware of the needs of food and shelter and clothing for so many. Hopefully we are all doing our part. That being said, there is another more imminent need that we must also attend to, namely are we safeguarding the well being of all those who are part of the American fabric of life who would hopefully be able to have much to be thankful for in this country?

I know that we as Jews have often brought these issues to our holiday tables, specifically through extra prayers for Soviet Jews, refugees in lands of distress, etc. as readings at our Pesach/Passover Seders. I am asking that all of us now bring prayers for the well-being of ALL WHO ARE PART OF OUR FAMILY AS AMERICANS – Hispanics, Muslims, people of color, refugees seeking asylum, those with various physical and other challenges, and every group who has been maligned in the past months by statements made publicly and who are presently living with fear – to our Thanksgiving tables and further that we continue to build important bridges and work together for the rights of freedom and liberty for all in this country we so love. For, we must remember that we are to share our goods with those who need them so that our daughters and sons will not meet the fate I learned about today in Talmud and further and more important, that all of us will remember that when any one group of us is threatened, it is a threat to all of us.

Happy Thanksgiving to All.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Can I Still Be Proud to be an American? November 9, 2016

I am proud to be an American because of our democracy; Hoping it will continue to work as it should with respect for the constitution, law and each other

I am proud to be an American because of our diversity; Hoping I can still be sure all will be protected under that established law and in the spirit of who we are

I am proud to be an American because of our freedom of speech; Wondering if our words are valued any more and have not become cheap and too easily thrown around

I am proud to be an American because of the possibility of individual aspirations; Wondering if people will keep their individual goals in mind while being aware of the impact of those goals on others

I am proud to be an American because of the integrity of our stated values; Worrying that people are forgetting what they are and how critically we need them

I am proud to be an American because of the calm the morning after a difficult election with shocking results; Praying that the calm will lead us to action and desire to be and do better

As An American I am duly worried and concerned; Fervently praying that reason will reign and a shared and ethical democracy will prevail

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A New Thought About the First Chapters of Bereshit/Genesis and Noah

I love teaching because it is always as much about learning for me as for the students I am privileged to LEARN with at all junctures. “Teaching” is truly about facilitating the process of learning for all in the room, myself included, in my mind. I am presently working with students on the early side of the age continuum as well as much more seasoned and experienced learners. I want to dedicate this blog post to my First Graders at Perelman Jewish Day School and my Senior Life Long Learners in the Samuel A. Green House Community, for it is as a result of what I have been learning as a result of dialoguing and thinking with them.

With both groups, the Parsha – that is the weekly Torah reading – is part of our steady diet. So we are following the cycle of these weekly readings that began with the first chapters of Bereshit/Genesis two weeks ago. Within a very condensed period of time and relatively few words, we are reading about the Creation of all that is and then a quick process of falling off of the trajectory of progress and moving forward. A snake tempts Eve not to listen to explicit instructions, one brother kills his sibling (where are the parents?), corruption reigns, a flood comes and destroys all that is, generations proliferate, more conflict occurs, and so on.

For me, the most jarring part of the narrative is when G-d regrets and is so distraught by the most amazing part of Creation, that of humanity – that part of G-d’s Creation that was singled out as “very good.” We read in Chapter 6: 5 - 9 of Genesis/Bereshit:

5 And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD (or G-d regretted) that G-d had made man on the earth, and it grieved G-d (he regretted doing so) in G-d’s heart. 7 And the LORD said: 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it grieves Me that I have made them.' 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a completely righteous man for his time and Noach walked with G-d.

These words that express this regret appear as one weekly reading ends and the solution is suggested by the very next words of the Torah, in proclaiming that Noach was an “ish tzaddik tamim b’dorotav” – that is a completely righteous man for his time. It might appear that G-d has answered G-d’s own dilemma regarding the misinformed path of humanity with yet another human being. A newly created being and new hopes that reflect the previous and initial ones when G-d declared that this creation of humanity was indeed very good and not just good as was all else that resulted from the Creation process as articulated in the first chapter of Torah.

We then proceed to read about Noah and how G-d instructs him to build an ark (“tevah”) for his family and animals because all of the earth will be destroyed due to the corruption of the wicked deeds of all of humanity; so horrible even the ground became tainted. After the flood, we see G-d’s regret seems to have turned into a type of resolution and reality check. We read in Chapter 8: 4 of Genesis:

G-d said within G-d’s self: Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity since there is too much evil in the thinking of humanity from his youth as is his nature: I will never again destroy every living thing.

Here we see the process of pain that gives way to reality and realization of what compromises must be made which in turn may actually lead G-d to a new sense of compassion towards humanity. Further, I would suggest that we have to be careful NOT to take any statement as declarative in and of itself but rather within the context of the greater whole. Whether we are talking about G-d’s feelings, Noah’s characterization, or the corruption of generations, I don’t think that it is the statements that we should expect to be eternal when we learn Torah; rather, I think it is the questions that remain and spur us on to try to be and do better with the resources and opportunity we are all given here as members of this earth community generally and as part of the Children of Avraham more specifically and as the Jewish Nation even more narrowly. It is of most worthy note, therefore to remember that this covenant never to destroy all again, is given for all of humanity.

G-d regrets having created the human being; and yet how can this be? The Lubavitcher Rebbe poses the question of how can G-d actually regret – after all, how can we consider that G-d makes mistakes!

Lets look at the word itself that is used (and often translated as ‘regret’) at the end of Parshat Bereshit for a hint at the answer: וינחם (VAYENACHEM)-- Usually, this word carries the meaning of “being comforted.” As indicated in the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, we achieve a better understanding of this word if we understand it as expressing “was comforted or consoled,” which is its rooted meaning. How can this be reconciled with the regret and the angst expressed in the verses we read? Join me as we think of this in our terms. We are parents, we are members of nuclear families, we are colleagues, we are members of community. To be sure there are extremely frustrating situations in which people we deeply love and greatly respect disappoint us. Is this on them or on us? When we read that Noah was a perfect righteous man in his generation, this is often taken as the solution to G-d’s problem, be it regret or need for consolation, but is it? Perhaps for that moment but what about in the long run? When we look back in perspective, Chazal point out that Noah only acted on his own behalf and not with concern for those around him. The Midrash suggests that Noah was told to build the Tevah so that everyone could see what he was doing and repent; they did not do so nor did he try to get them to do so. Rabbi Yitzchak and so many others actually conclude that Noah was therefore not praiseworthy when he did not pray for his generation to improve, as others had done throughout the narrative of the Tanach. In Islam, Noah is truly the hero and paradigm of complete compliance and submission to G-d. Yet, in Jewish thinking and understanding, it is Avraham Aveinu, the exemplar of social justice… that is thinking of and acting on behalf of others… that is our role model of so much of what it means to be human generally and Jewish specifically. And then we find that there are moments in which we do not understand his actions either, such as when he advocates for other populations but puts his wife’s life in peril or is prepared to sacrifice his son.

Our commentators go on to present Avraham as the model to be followed for a Jewish sense of proper humanity, however this too is not a declarative statement but rather a question as we reflect on what it means to be human, and the context of the time in which one is part of humanity. Perhaps we are looking at the wrong comparison for Noah. Instead of comparing him to Avraham who leaves his homestead with all that he had as a somewhat wealthy man who takes his property, animals and all in his household with him, Noah is still in survival mode, trying just to get by from moment to moment. As my Senior Lifelong Learners and I discussed this at length, we compared this to the generations of immigrants who came to this country, the United States, escaping various lands of persecution, often with only the clothes on their back and perhaps a few treasures from their past lives. When people are so focused on survival mode, other ideal behaviors, such as concern for and acting for the benefit of others in one's community, may suffer a bit.

So now we return to the order of this early narrative and what I would like to posit as a paradigm shift in consideration of Noah. As we begin Bereshit/Genesis, we have a new world, literally with new beings who are not even sure what it means to be human. At this point, we are dealing with Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel and later others, with no indication of meaningful and constructive interaction. Where were Adam and Eve during that incident with the brothers in the field anyway? Its just a matter of each individual trying to figure out what it means to be “me,” not dissimilar to very young children first getting a sense of their world. At this point, there are attempted relationships but not a feeling of empathy or understanding. Adam blames Eve and denies anything done wrong on his part in the Garden of Eden, Cain feigns lack of knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts, and so forth. At this point, the closest we have to interaction are incidents more about missteps and miscommunication at best.

Next after the regret voiced by G-d, we meet Noah, who shows a sense of family and stays away from the troubled people of his generation, which while perhaps not the ideal, could be argued to be a few steps more evolved than actions witnessed in the earlier narrative. At this point we note that listening to G-d and familial loyalty are parts of the narrative given voice here. Not only that but when Noah goes astray, his sons know to act in the best way possible in a bad situation so as not to further embarrass or dishonor their father. So no, this is not as evolved as Abraham arguing on behalf of whole cities of people and welcoming guests and other interactive behaviors that he displays. However, if we look at this as a growing process, it makes more sense. Noah is still very much in survival mode and entrusted with the very beginning of the “reboot of humanity” as proposed by G-d.

Further, clearly Abraham does not act as we would like at all points. But again that IS THE POINT. Human beings are flawed; they are subject to the conditions and context of the time in which they live. Adam and Eve had to figure out how to be human (following this narrative, without addressing any scientifically informed issues), Cain and Abel did not know how to work together or cooperate, the generations that follow get progressively worse, Noah follows G-d’s instructions but does not know how to be empathic towards the larger human family while he does protect his own; and by the time we get to Abraham, we are looking at the larger picture and thinking about others.

This provides us with a paradigm for thinking of our own generations and their varied experiences. As time moves along, there will be ups and downs and resets continually. It is important to remember that we each may want to do and be the best we can be but that will be defined in no small way by the times in which we live. Perhaps we can look at Noah this way… not that he was okay given the corrupt generation in which he supposedly lived; but rather he did the best he could in the situation in which he was found.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

SUKKOT: Four Elements of The Thanksgiving and Identity Holiday

Here we are in the fall cycle of Jewish holidays and in the midst of Sukkot (with its many names), called the Festival of Booths, Festival of Ingathering (the Jewish version of Thanksgiving), Time of our Happiness and simply Chag or Holiday. It is a time of so much joy and interaction – with each other, with G-d, with the environment and its amazing resources and within ourselves. It is a time of great food, beautiful prayer services, my version of “Jewish camping” in our temporary huts that exist right outside of our permanent homes, and spending wonderful time with so many friends and family members.

This Sukkot, as always, I am in teaching mode at various junctures. That allows and gives me the opportunity to be particularly thoughtful and intentional about the meaning of the season, as I communicate that meaning to others through classes I teach and Shiyurim or Divrei Torah I give. The number FOUR is often prevalent in so much of Jewish life so I will use this little bit of teaching to focus on FOUR messages of Sukkot that I have been thinking about this year specifically, to parallel the FOUR species, if you like.

UNITY - As we hold the Four Species together and bless them in our Sukkah, we are reminded about unity – the unity of the Jewish people and their various levels of knowledge and engagement with the community and our many Mitzvot; and hopefully on some level all people with whom we interact. Further, we consider the unity we try to find within our deepest selves as we take on our various involvements through the days, weeks and years of our lives with our eyes (symbolized by the hadas), our mouths (aravot), our hearts (etrog) and our spines/backbones (lulav).

BALANCE - We are enacting the presence of balance in our lives on so many levels as we think about the fragile nature of life with the Torah readings of the season and the recitation of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Shabbat that occurs during this Chag while we admire the strength and perseverance that is part of us as well, perhaps best exemplified by the Lulav itself, the Date Palm. According to Avinoam Danin, z’l, the very well known Israeli botanist, the Date Palm is the oldest fruit bearing tree known in human history and it’s various components were used completely as food (dates), shelter (the strong branches), protection, and for medicinal purposes as well. Further, as Danin teaches, find a date palm in the desert and you can trace its roots to water sources. It was basically a self-contained survival kit, facilitating sustenance and meaningful existence. As I held my Lulav and Etrog this year, I have a newfound appreciation for the balance of its strength as well as the heart that forms the center of our strength as compassionate beings, exemplified by the Etrog.

THANKFULNES FOR OUR ENVIRONMENT - This is a most wonderful time for us to celebrate and acknowledge the very environment that supports and nurtures us. As the fall holiday season will end next week and we return to the beginning of the cycle of Torah readings in our Jewish community, it is so fitting to note that we begin WITH our environment in the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) as we read about the first total eco-system that functioned and was dependent (and remains so) on our thoughtful interaction with the various elements in our lives that we take for granted way too often. Sukkot as Chag HaAsif, or the Ingathering Holiday is truly a time to give thanks and to think about how we intentionally live our lives.

WATCHING OUR WORDS - Hoshana Rabbah is the seventh day of Sukkot. We are taught that it is on this day that the final gate is closed and judgment is sealed from the Ten Days of Repentence that spanned from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. It is on this day that we beat the willows, that of the Four Species that symbolizes the mouth, or if you wish, the words we speak with our mouths. How interesting it is that once again we are confronted by the deed of our speech as we look inside and consider our lives and the impact we make. It is also poignant that the very next day on Shmini Atzeret, we say the Prayer for Rain, which we know is the water we need for our very sustenance and for that of all that supports us in our daily lives.

I know there is a type of exhaustion that many of us feel during the time span that begins with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. There is a type of release that comes with the final sound of the Shofar after the Neilah service. However, it is not the release that allows us to just sit and relax. Rather, it is the release that allows us a new perspective, a fresh start and an opportunity to begin anew. It is immediately at that point that we begin to prepare for Sukkot which then occupies our lives for the next twelve days or so with its pageantry and many elements. As we cook, sit with friends, shake the Lulav and Etrog, welcome in the Ushpizin (guests from our past and present), and sit surrounded by nature and eat the foods that nature has provided us, we must hold onto that thoughtfulness of the earlier season of Repentence and RETURN to ourselves and our environment in a meaningful and intentional manner. Think about what your FOUR ELEMENTS of appreciation are at this season…. And Chag Sameach to all.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Using Our Words: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say

Many times I have explained why TZEDAKAH (Hebrew word) is not the same as charity as these words come from two separate religious/cultural contexts. In the same way, defining GIBOR as hero can be misleading in a Jewish context and the full sense of KADOSH is not accurately captured by the word holy. So what? Who cares? I do, because I would not want to use words that are important and meaningful to collapse other traditions and belief systems that are meaningful to my friends and colleagues.

I love the breath and breadth of my life and the people in it. I am involved in a great deal of multi-faith initiatives and find it so wonderfully fulfilling. As I often say, there is so much that unites us, ultimately reminding us we share infinitely more than what may divide us. Many in the religiously observant world in which I live my life as a Jew disagree with me and think that I am engaging in building bridges that are not to be built. Such bridges of understanding and sharing are critical in our world today when those who take extremely narrow points of view are raising their voices louder and louder to try to drown out the rest of us who would prefer to maintain the integrity of our individual identities while forging meaningful connections with others who have identities of their own of which they are rightfully proud and to which they are appropriately dedicated. As I often say, there is so much on which we agree, and simply put, we can agree to disagree at appropriate points. But this is generative of meaningful discourse, NOT leading to the intense lack of empathy and understanding we see in our world today too often.

During part of this past summer, I read Krista Tippett’s amazing book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Among the important tools she identifies for good and constructive living are WORDS. You know, the most important tool of our shared trade of communication. How do we use words and do we use them to build and share or to destroy and build impenetrable walls? As I was reading through this wonderful set of conversations she shares that she was privileged to have with so many different people – of faith, political leanings, cultural backgrounds, and as many types of groups as you can enumerate, it was so apparent to me exactly how we must all think about our WORDS.

And then, the reality of the world in which I live strikes! How can I avoid the 24/7 exposure in these United States to the ongoing barrage of words that are meant to tear down, destroy and render so many as “the other” when I really had hoped we were so past that. Apparently, too many of us were so wrong on this account. The verbal bullying that is masquerading as a presidential election while we are trying ever so hard to sift through the diatribes and histrionics we are hearing in order to get to the real issues and support those candidates for various offices who are trying to do the same is horrifying and reminds me of WORDS so poorly used. It is easy enough to note that WORDS and SWORD are made up of the same letters; how sad that the former have turned into the latter. How do we keep trying to reverse this trend and heal what is breaking even further?

Throughout the Jewish days of observance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that are approaching, we are told to think about our actions, our intentions, and most certainly our WORDS. In fact in the confessional prayer of Yom Kippur, the misdeeds of words far outnumber any other type. We know from Proverbs/Mishlei “Death and life are in the hand (power) of our tongue (the words we use and say).” I see this playing out daily, inside of our communities of faith, amongst our various communities of faith, political beliefs and cultural identities, within families and so on.

Here is a thought. People often ask why we have to repeat the same prayers and the same script so much? Maybe it is because we say the words but WE DO NOT MEAN THEM or totally understand them and the ramifications of those words on our actions! Maybe, regardless of how many syllables the words we use have and how articulate we may be, we are not as sophisticated or evolved as we think our word usage indicates. In Krista Tippett’s conversation with Vincent Harding, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. develop the theory and practice of nonviolent communication, he says as follows when asked about the meanings of “civil” and “civility” and the degree to which they are present in our world:

“… [how can we learn] to have a democratic conversation. That is what we need. We are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences. And to know after all the pain that we have caused each other, how to carry on democratic conversation that in a sense invites us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions so that we can then figure out how do we put these things together to create a more perfect union…. For me, Krista, it also opens up the question of what it means to be truly human…” (p.51)

In the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, we are not supposed to just SAY the words of the prayers that are scripted, but insure that they are fully intentional, that they come from our heart and our innermost being – that which we share with all individuals who were created in the image of G-d. We say “I am sorry” and “Please forgive me” to each other and we promise G-d and ourselves “I will repent, I will return, I will do better.” Do we mean it – are there actions to reinforce our words? Without the actualization of these words into the deeds of our daily lives, what good are they?

I find that all people of faith have the capacity and the tools for such reflection. Each of us will aspire to those goals that are articulated as the ideal within our chosen faiths. While there are differences in terms of whether we do things because we are commanded to do them, such as a Mitzvah – NOT a good deed per se in Jewish thinking, but a commanded action because G-d says so; or whether we call G-d as the One and Only or recognize Jesus as G-d’s son or Allah; or tithe our earnings for whatever reason in our respective communities; I would hope that ALL OF US CAN REFLECT UPON OUR WORDS and use them to build ourselves and each other up and not tear down what G-d and so many generations before us have worked to build and give us as a legacy.

I wish all of us meaningful reflection on our words and their use in the appropriate seasons. For those of us in the Jewish faith, that would be now. Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is there really such a person as a Secular Jew? A Question for the Upcoming Season of Jewish Holidays

Elul has begun, the Hebrew month that precedes the month of so many celebrations – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. As an observant Jew in every respect I am fully aware of how all plans and aspects of life are defined at this point as “things I MUST do before the holidays” and “those things that will have to wait until after the holidays.” Further, as the interfacing of the general calendar we all follow in our day to day lives and the Jewish calendar that marks our religious/spiritual/cultural life result in “a later season of Hagim” this year, nonetheless, so many in Jewish circles are rewarded by these later celebrations by being able to obsess for an additional month! Lucky us!

I am privileged to be able to work with and learn from and share thoughts with people from across the ideological divide within the Jewish community as well as with colleagues and friends of other religious traditions. It is so fascinating to watch an entire society go into an altered state of apoplexy during different seasons of the year as they prepare for the big Thanksgiving Feast, for the High Holiday Observance that is part of the Moslem Community, etc. and clearly this is the case with virtually everyone I know who identifies as Jewish on any level, including “secular Jewish” Israeli and/or culturally or religiously Jewish in our widest circles of community.

I wonder if this unified feeling of “I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO TO GET READY” is something to use as a rallying and unifying cry for All Jews, regardless of how they identify as persons of faith and/or practice. Clearly, it is easy enough to apply this to Moslem, Christian and other communities of shared practices and foundational beliefs on any level. In the month of Elul, we are aware of our relationship to G-d, with the letters of the month itself forming an acronym that references a verse in Hebrew, “Ani LeDodi v’Dodi Li,” meaning “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” As we ready for our annual LOVEFEST of the Hagim/holidays of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, it reminds me of the mild to more intense hysteria that might be associated with planning a huge event or celebration, say a wedding! And we all want to be and are part of it!

I have been listening to and learning so much from wonderful discussions that are conducted by Dov Elbaum relating to the weekly Torah portions in Israel. Here is the link for those who want to access it, but note that these conversations are completely in Hebrew -- I love listening to how Dov, who identifies as a Secular Jew, interviews so many other Secular Jews, and pushes them to acknowledge that religion does factor into their identify on many levels. Clearly this is the case with him as well. One of his guests, as Israeli poet by the name of Haim Guri, tells the story of how in an Israeli Moshav (communal living entity – think condominium) there were people who were guarding the community during a time of concern. They heard a disturbance around the perimeter and readied themselves to defend their neighbors and friends. The outsiders shouted “WE ARE TZAHAL” – that is members of the Israeli army. The ones on guard were not certain and finally said, “Okay, prove it, what is the weekly Torah Portion?” This is funny to those of us who live by this marker as religiously observant Jews. The point is that secular Jews in Israel live by the same marker so often. Yossi Beilin, a well known political figure in Israel, who also identifies as “Hiloni” or a secular Jew, talks about how he LOVES the culture of being Jewish, including for him, study of Torah, Talmud, being in synagogue and so on – actions and involvements that many define almost exclusively as religious, but in fact they are so much more.

I love that the Lubavitch teach that every Jew does many Mitzvot (commanded Jewish actions) every day and that we are all religious in so many different ways. So many students of all ages have said to me through the years “Oh, I am not religious.” I often try to challenge them to think of themselves as religious but perhaps they might not be “ritualistically observant” which is one way to be religious. I share with them that in fact there are so many more options for one to identify as religious or a person of faith. This is what my Lubavitch friends are teaching and this is what Yossi Beilin, Dov Elbaum, and I along with so many others are trying to convey through our work and our lives.

Our identity as people of faith is part of our reality as human being. We are all people of belief systems, religion, if you will; even if, and perhaps especially when we do not feel connected to G-d for whatever reasons. We may and do certainly connect differently but we should all remember that we are all included in the larger entity. It is in this mode that Jews of many different types of religious identity, ritual observance and level of connection will approach the coming season of holidays. As for me, I would like to think the fact that we all connect in some way to each other, to community, to time-honored practices and traditions and to a Being Higher than We is what brings us together and unites us, not just the hysteria of preparing for the season in which we reflect upon all of this. A good year of health, happiness and fulfillment to all! Shanah Tovah!