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Archive for May, 2013

Be Strong.

A tale is told of two very cranky men, Schlemeil and Schlemazel who left Egypt during the great Exodus. They became very weary what with all that marching, and at one point noticed that their shoes were being muddied, as they slogged along. “Ugh”, complained Schlemeil, “my sandals will be ruined with much more of this, can’t we rest already!” and “are we there YET?” They never noticed the sea was parting beyond their heads. They continued to look downward as the trumpets blared and the mountain smoked. “How rocky this road is, and all that noise blaring!” whined Schlemazl. “Are we THERE yet?” The never noticed the revelation at Sinai! “Oh, my aching feet!” they both declared. Time passed and there was lots more marching. Eventually, exasperated they both shouted “ARE WE THERE YET!?” and never noticed the sight of the promised land.  Where we look determines our experience, not where we go. Miracles could be happening around us, but if we don’t look up every once in awhile, they don’t happen for us!
I’ve just been watching this eye opening series called “Brain Games” on National Geographic.
The limitations of our brain makes us blind to MOST of the things going on around us. We focus, quite efficiently on what we think’s important for our survival, They call it “inattentional blindess”. So what do we focus on? Problems! As Rachel Barenblat wrote this week: when’s the last time you were sleepless thinking about something awesome? What if our worst blindness was ourself: that we couldn’t see the goodness, the powerful potential within to do great things? It’s an easy trap to fall into: when I was a student, the really good grades made no emotional impact, but I’ll always remember that first grade math test I failed (arithmetic eluded me, I was too scared of my first grade teacher).

This week’s Torah portion is a favorite of mine, Shelach L’chah was my son’s Bar Mitzvah portion and it contains the stories of the twelve scouts. Each scout representing a tribe of Israelites, leaders all, took the same trip and were in the same places, but saw different realities. For ten of them the land of milk and honey was scary, full of man-eating danger. The natives of the land were so enormous that we were, in our own eyes, as tiny grasshoppers, and so we must seem in their eyes. These tiny grasshoppers, chagavim, are edible, by the way. To see yourself as a grasshopper is to lack the self love and respect of a creature who is forged in the divine image. Newly liberated slaves failed to hold on to faith in themselves and in God in a scary, new world of independence.  In the classroom, one of the best predictors of a child’s failure is a self fulfilling prophecy of I don’t have what it takes, I’m not college material. So powerful, it may be an insurmountable barrier blocking success. All tries to help become diffracted through this lens. Our brain is hard wired to focus on those pieces of our life that threaten our survival – they become the all we see. Perhaps it’s why elections are won by fear mongering. But there’s a better way to live: “We pray to live, not by our fears, but by our hopes” expressed in this line of the Modim (prayer for thanks) in the reform prayer book.

But where do we find the strength to live by our hopes, and, recognizing our fears, put them in a place that does not paralyze? Family? Possibly, but having a family to care for can make us even more fearful, for good reason. The Israelites response to the spies reports is to cry out: Why is God bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt!’  Maybe for strength we can lean on some sweet spot of inspiration,  for perspective, and to help us raise our eyes out of the mud of fear.   For much of the history of the Jewish people this strength that lifts our eyes has been Torah. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek, is traditionally chanted upon completing a book of Torah. But I like it here for these verses too, and so I sang Dan Nichols’ interpretation  to my son after blessing him for his Bar Mitzvah. It means: “Be Strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another” Here are some of the lyrics:

We have come from near and far, to raise our voice in song;

The more we join in the refrain, the more we feel strong: chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.

There is a power in this place and time, to shape the rest of our lives

As we return each year we fine a truth we can’t deny.

Be strong, let us strengthen one another! Be strong let us celebrate our lives!… chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!

As we sing we link ourselves, to those who came before,

and we’re one with those who’ve yet to come, our strength it will endure. Be strong!….


Trumpets and clouds

Red light, green light, one, two, three! -a  kids’ game with clear signals, and a clear aim – to reach another person, the caller. We long for clear signs on our journey – of stopping and starting places. Well, this past week ended the school year for my sixth and fourth graders, our journey ends, and we say goodbye, I’ll miss you! I know they will grow and change – they won’t quite be the same in September. Last week were commencement exercises at the community college where I teach. I guess it’s a green light, but it ends a journey, and many relationships that were forged. In this week’s Torah portion are interesting traffic signals for our journey in the wilderness. A cloud over the Tent – that portable sanctuary, meeting place, during the day – to comfort, cool and surround. Pillar of fire at night to enlighten and warm. These are the times to linger in the wilderness, to experience what it has to teach you, not to move on in your journey. When the cloud lifts from the tent, we know it’s time to move – but what will we do on the move? Well, Moses then instructs the Israelites to fashion silver trumpets, instruments for us to listen to, whether it is to fight our battles, or to celebrate our joys. Either way, the blast of melody can help us to respond with a full heart. But perhaps the real aim, of commencing summer vacation, or a job search, or other battles and joys, is to stride with our hearts trumpet-inspired and reach another soul. Red light, green light, one, two, three. Miriam, sister of Moses, must battle illness – snow white scales. Her journey stops, and she waits, on the outskirts, for the week. Her brother reaches out to her, and to God, with a heartfelt prayer for healing “El na r’fah na la” God, please heal her, please! And then the journey can continue. Perhaps that’s the real meaning of the cloud of vapor and pillar of fire while we must wait: Cooling vapors surround us in the heat, fires warm away the chill so we can refresh and heal. The enclosures of childhood: family, teachers, friends are these clouds and flames,  lifting to release us, so we can move forward. Melodies inspire and guide which way we’ll go . I offer this song for healing by Beth Schafer, because she urges that the power to move forward, out of the darkness is deep within us all along

El Na Ra fa na la (playing as a rhythmic chant throughout)
It’s in you, it’s in me
The power to emerge into the light from the dark, it’s in you…
Talk to every fiber of your being with your heart, It’s in you
Oh God, give me the strength
I am tired but I’m listening
Is it in me? The answer’s in me
Oh God give me the courage
To risk battling my brokenness
Is it in me? The way is in me
El Na Ra fa na la
It’s in you, it’s in me,…


Forever Young?

I have a favorite afghan, knit by my grandmother during tax season (Grandpa was an accountant) in a zigzag rainbow of red and gold, black and turquoise, I have clear memories of wrapping in it as a child, and it wraps me in love and warmth still. And I have a favorite talit: I made it in a workshop run by my friend Barbara. I wrapped the fringes, chose rainbow stripes (coincidence?) and for the collar/atarah, the words I chose are the final line from the Priestly Benediction in this week’s portion. Here’s the entire 3 line blessing: “May God bless you and guard you, May God’s face enlighten you and grace you, May God’s face lift to you and give you peace/wholeness”  I didn’t think a lot about choosing this, I just really liked it, but now I think it’s like my Grandmother’s blanket, I feel wrapped in love and light when I put it on.  What blows me away about this Biblical blessing is that ordinary people are empowered to call God’s blessings upon you just because you’re “family”. Like Grandma loves you just because you are hers. Now speaking these words to my children on erev Shabbat, I wish with all my heart that they are guarded even when I’m not there, and they be granted peace.  Mother’s day was this past week, and it reminds me that the beating heart of parenthood is this fierce protective desire, and a fear too.  (More on this in August Archives:An Elephant’s faithful 100%) 
One interesting version of this blessing is a song called “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan, sung here by Joan Baez, neither of whom is young any more!

“May God bless and Keep you always, may your wishes all come true;  May you always do for others and let others do for you; May you build a ladder to the stars, and climb on ev’ry rung; and may you stay forever young”

Youth – grace of body, openness of mind and heart, perhaps. We were of a generation coming of age in the 1960s and 70s that mistrusted the older generations, and hoped not to become them, like Peter Pan. In truth there is something precious in remembering the child within us. One illusion of youth, though, is invincibility and immortality. Perhaps it’s what Adam and Eve lost in the garden, this illusion. But there is a grace and beauty in aging and perhaps even in facing our mortality. In the move Troy, Achilles says the gods envy this about us:

All I know is that when threatened by age’s infirmities, and loss of time, a sense of urgency can prod us to make it count, to find meaning in small and large gifts and acts. So maybe grownups need that blessing as much as kids.

Debbie Friedman in “Youth Shall See Visions” (1981, quoting from the prophet Joel) Sings “childhood was for fantasies, for nursery rhymes and toys… when I grew up I came to know that life was not a game; that heroes are just people that we call another name;…I cannot have a future ’till I embrace my past; I promise to pursue the challenge, time is going fast; And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions; and our hopes will rise up to the skies; We must live for today, we must build for tomorrow, give us time, give us strength, give us life.”

So the blessings of the Torah are for all of us, young and old, and I’m not sure if I agree with Bob Dylan, that we should add “forever young” to those blessings. What do you think?

Final link is Peri Smilow’s beautiful melodic version of the blessings:

Numbers and wilderness

300px-kanizsa-triangle.svg-tmNumbers and Wilderness – do they have anything to do with one another? My son recently told me he was “very, very, very, very, very, very, very hungry” That’s seven veries, I counted, because Numbers matter.  Math and science speak to us in the language of Numbers, and Numbers is the name of this past week’s Torah portion. But it’s also named “In the Wilderness”, With quantities and equations we can understand both ordinary and extraordinary phenomena of our universe. Equations like E = mc squared, give us insight to this wild universe.  But technology has used numbers to mechanize our piece of the universe, and, perhaps, to dehumanize each other. Numbers names this portion, because the Israelites take a count of themselves, well, not all, just men of fighting age. This evokes some troubling images: the names on the Vietnam memorial wall, the numbers of the draft, the numbers on the evening news of the wounded and dead and captured of today’s warriors. It also separates those who are counted from those not counted. And we are told Abraham’s descendents would be as the stars: too numerous to count But we do count: check out the population clock
7.1 billion and counting on this precious planet. What are the implications of an ever more crowded world? Do we devalue people in the crowd as being in our way? Will there be enough resources for us all? Can we value the tiny lives born into poverty around the world as much as they deserve? And many move out of rural areas into megalopolises, where there is little of the wilderness, and less humanity. And we live mechanized lives in polluted areas. Out of touch with nature our souls are impoverished. Albert Einstein, composer of the equation above was devastated to think that the numbers and the science he loved were being misused to threaten the natural world and people he loved. This clip from a wonderful PBS video on the scientist’s views – check it out here at about 3 minutes in:

Wilderness served as a crucible for the Israelites, a place they find Heaven meeting earth and themselves.
So perhaps numbers threatens wildness, and the best things are beyond counting? what do you think?
I think this song “Seasons of Love,” has the best advice for what counting’s best.
I had this running joke going with my Grandma, all we had to say was “how many legs does a chair have?” and we’d laugh. You see once, when helping her to buy those little pads for the feet of a chair, she insisted we must buy multiples of three, because in her imagination, for that moment chairs had three legs. She didn’t realize her error until asked “and how many legs does a chair have?” And the whole world rests on three things, says tradition -truth, justice and peace. Or maybe just one thing? – the whole world is sustained by the breath of children!  (Talmud)  Numbers matter, each child counts!

Land, Time and Festivals

“Remove your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is Holy ground” God said to Moses. We must take our shoes off, if only to feel more intensely that we are earth-connected.
Jacob similarly was shaken by his vision of the ladder: “This is the very gateway to heaven… God was in this place and I, i did not know it.” Consider: every bit of ground on this planet gifted to us is Holy ground, a place where heaven and earth can meet, or be severed depending upon our actions.
In the Torah portion Behar, meaning “at the mountain”, God speaks to Moses, not from the tent, but from Sinai itself, because crucial insights are coming: the land is alive! It must be, because it requires a Shabbat after six years in the same way the human spirit does after 6 days. The land further requires a Yovel, or Jubilee after fifty years, just as humans do, for the Yovel demands release of humans in bondage, and debts which bind us are released. Keratem d’ror – proclaim release throughout the land, and blow the Shofar and celebrate! And we really can celebrate, because we are free from the burden of Adam’s curse, to work the land for sustenance. We are in synchrony with the land, and we can never really own landa, as we can never own a human soul, a slave. Both belong to God. This release, the Jubilee, is proclaimed on Yom Kippur, when we remind ourselves that our lives and souls are in God’s keeping, releasing our egos to this reality. Furthermore, the land must never be sold beyond reclaim. Our fate, our lives are tied up with the land.

The land: is it really alive? Our earthly atoms are made literally of stardust. But alive? The ancient Greeks enlivened the planet in a persona named Gaia. This is not legend, but actual Biology. The planet’s living and nonliving parts interact to keep this planet habitable. We are part of an incredible, living system, truly intertwined with the earth for our survival. check out the Gaia hypothesis. In addition our spirits are in synchrony with the wild, and we suffer malaise too much removed from the forest, and the shore. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” prophesied Thoreau, our own wild creativity, and that of the earth itself.
But the universe also pulses with time, and here too Torah links our lives and the land’s. With the pattern of counting seven we breath a sigh of relief, and so must the land. And after seven sevens, the Jubilee. The amazing thing is we are paralell-living this pattern of seven sevens right now as we count the Omer, building up to Shavuot – the fiftieth day – a Holy Day. It is a day of harvest, one in which we celebrate Ruth, whose very survival happened because we didn’t harvest everything, leaving the corners and the fallen grain for the wanderers, the impoverished, for Ruth, for us. We are making our way to Har Sinai – to receive ethical/ spiritually linked commandments. The same mountain from in this week’s verses. And Time itself is what we revel in when our spirits are released from the clock’s relentless ticking of our responsibilities when we celebrate Shabbat and Festivals.
The earth right now all around me feels like it’s being released from winter’s prison in a riot of new life and gentle breezes. How would this planet be different if sometimes we’d realize that every step was taken on holy ground, that the earth’s life is tied up in ours, spiritually and physically, and each creature and soul upon it? Wow, the possibilities! Our failings to one another and to this planet are profoundly spiritual failings. Perhaps that’s why the Jubilee was announced on Yom Kippur.
The song: Holy Ground, by Craig Taubman is here beautifully performed in Jerusalem by Abbe Silber

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