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Archive for August, 2015

New Moon, Shabbat, & Meteor Showers collide one night

It’s a New Moon tonight, and with theextra dark sky Perseid meteor showers should be brilliant!  For fun, I did a search of “New Moon stories” on Google. It seems there is a Twilight (teen Vampire) movie called New Moon: From the synopsis “A thick, yellow moon slowly transforms into the title “New Moon.” We hear a quote…. from “Romeo and Juliet”: “These violent delights have violent ends..” and, although we don’t know it yet, Bella is having a nightmare.”  The cycles of the moon, though regular and reliable spark the imagination of the mysterious – vampires, werewolves, nightmares! It will be really dark tonight, but tomorrow we’ll see the crescent, and next week the first quarter.  Our word for “moon” forms “month”, but in Hebrew it is chodesh, from the word chadash, new: because the moon’s always renewing! We, as the moon, are always renewing too, as we head into the Days of Awe.

This weekend we celebrate not just any month, but the month of Elul. Spelled alef, lamed, vav, lamed, Elul is an acronym for “ani l’dodi v’dodi li” from Song of Songs, the Bible’s (erotic) love poetry, and perhaps, most important Book. Song of Songs ideally expresses love between Israel (& other God-wrestlers) and God.  During this month we dedicate ourself to turning toward and opening to Love & or God .

I’m learning a great new song in which love (Elul) and Erev Shabbat collide: it is Spike Kraus’ Ki Eshmera Shabbat  -and it completely captures me because of its unabashed, beautiful “love-tangle”. An excerpt here:

Another week, another story to be told, another night, one more dream bound to unfold;  I’ve been working overtime, to find where You’ve been hiding.

Another chance, another dazzling day of rest(!),  just one glance, to know I’ve never felt so blessed. Now that You are by my side, my spirit’s set to flying!  Ki eshmera Shabbat, El yishmereni, ot hi l’olme ad, beyno uveini (Because I will keep Shabbat, God guards me, Shabbat: a sign forever between God and me)

So I’ll keep this day, and every time I’ll think of You and be swept away, with every song I sing for You. And I’ll never be far behind, every time I hear You calling, Ki eshmera Shabbat….

We’ll go on in this circle, until whenever, how ’bout forever. It’s a symbol eternal, that I can always find You!

In addition to the love theme, what makes this Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Elul, particularly special, is that it begin the month of preparation leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days, or Daze of Ahh as explained by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Elul begins the forty day journey culminating in Yom Kippur. But if we wish to feel them in wonderment and “ahh!” we must take this opportunity to begin the path. She explains:

Most of us never achieve this stage. We are like people who have been told that the last scene of Hamlet is the most riveting and only show up for that scene. We fail to understand what the fuss is about. We parachute into Yamim Noraim (days of Awe). This period is the April 15th of the Jewish year, yet I spend more time preparing my taxes than preparing my soul! 

Forty days journey sounds so familiar! Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that this period is linked to Moses forty day visit on Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the commandments. He finds connection in Moses neither eating nor drinking, in our observance on Yom Kippur, but more importantly, Moses broke those tablets in anger, and they could not be fixed.
A priceless gift destroyed in rage. We do that sometimes! But there are second chances, to begin again and build anew. Unlike the rookie attempt, Moses’ second set of tablets were hewn only with his own personal effort at carving. The renewed tablets, or Covenant, came with a bonus of a Moses absolutely radiating light: it’s not just the thing we’re after, but we who are that is changed with t’shuvah (return) and second chances. Moses showed us the path during those forty days can lead to amazing renewal, if we do the prep work. Some Reb. Nachman’s advice is used by an organization. called Beit T’shuvah. Part of their pathway of return from addiction is his practice of reflection:

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches going inside one’s self as a way to recognize the power of God, and one’s own connection.  Beit T’shuvah Best Practice includes reflective writing assignments, and guided attentional practices e.g. to observe and meditate on sunrise, sunset, the breath.

Reb Nachman, nick-named the Baal Shem tov, “first great master” of 18th century chasidism, and he famously suffered from depression. Without modern drugs to treat it, he struggled mightily. Somehow he found his way, at times, to joy.  “The purpose of our very existence is to serve God in joy”, Reb Nachman taught.  And so Hasidism arose as a rebellion against the intellectual, for a pathway toward joy.  Art Green, a renown author, teacher, preeminent  thinker of our day (head of Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, Boston) has published a beautiful little distillation called “Judaism’s 10 best Ideas“.  The very first of these ideas which defined Judaism for him is Joy. In this week’s parashah, Re-eh or “envision!” (watch (!) for this theme further down) God sets blessing and curse for us to see and choose, and the challenge is to choose life and blessing and joy. In the next chapter, we are actually commanded, a to rejoice, D’varim 12:7

and there you will eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all that you put your hand to, you and your households, where YHVH your God has blessed you.

Now when we’re in Jerusalem, we’re told,  spend all our money, because  that spending supports the Levites, who have no possessions.  We must see (re-eh) them and help them, or it’s no celebration.  This command to celebrate actually repeats a few verses later in 12:12.    Joyful sharing of food is among our tradition’s most powerful attributes.  Art Green writes that any mitzvah done with joy carries, elevates the one who does it.

The world is like a wedding feast the Talmud teaches. Like good guests at the wedding, we are there to rejoice over everything at once. We love the music, the dancing… (what else? )

And the wedding between God, and us needs songs of love. Each day in the month of Elul, to this end, we sing psalm 27, by David. We sang this part, Achat Sha-alti

One thing I ask of You, Adonai,

only this do I seek

That I may dwell, dwell in Your house

All the days of my life

And gaze on the beauty,  of You, Adonai

and visit Your holy abode

What is weird about these lyrics?  The psalmist asks only one thing: but it’s huge – to dwell with God every day! But how and where do you do this and still remain alive?  Another weird thing, in the first lyric, the psalmist wishes to dwell, but in the next to visit? What is going on here? Rabbi Simcha Raz offers that there’s no contradiction between dwelling a visiting. The psalmist knows that to live every day would give even God’s house the invisibility of habit!     Re-eh – see, be aware! says our Torah portion!  So he wishes for the fresh eye of the visitor even while dwelling.

But why aren’t we asking for forgiveness, or mercy in the psalm we read this month? Rachel Kahn Troster offers that rather than asking God’s protection from the terrors of his life, the psalmist knows that being in God’s presence is all the protection he needs. The psalmist has been abandoned by those closest to him and he does not want God to leave him.  We have the right to “demand”  that God be present in our lives, Troster says, “it’s our right as G-d’s creation”. In other words, we want God’s attention “re-eh” we demand – notice me!  But maybe there’s more.  What does it mean to want to dwell in the house of God? Perhaps for our souls to fill up on hope that this indwelling is possible! But how? The only way must be  to make this earth God’s abode: beautiful and kind and just, that’s the way we can dwell in God’s house!

A poem mashup I did this week:
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And it sings the tune without words, and it never stops at all… ~Emily Dickenson           A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. ~Maya Angelou

A storyAdapted from R’ Dov Peretz Elkins Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth:

Life in Spain in 1492 was made impossible for Jews. The Inquisition under the hated Torquemada raged as a Jews were rounded up to burn. Many remained Jews in secret, lighting Shabbat candles in damp, dark cellars. There were spies everywhere. Elul was upon them, and secret Jews yearned to hear to traditional call of the shofar to fulfill the Mitzvah and celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  They were so sad, they knew this was impossible.  But then, a rumor began to circulate on the streets of Barcelona “Come to the Concert Hall on Rosh Hashana, and Shh, keep it quiet”   There would be a special concert to honor Church and govt. officials. The Concert Hall, on Rosh Hashanah? When we yearned for the synagogue? Oh well, at least it’ll show Torquemada we have no ties left to Judaism.  In a soft whisper came the reply “just go, you won’t be disappointed”.  The day arrived, and the hall was filled to capacity. Spanish royalty there were pleased. The full house, they thought, was due to the famous composer Don Fernando Aguilar. What the royalty did not know was that Aguilar himself was a Morano, a secret Jew!.\ He’d announced that on this special night a concert presentation would feature instrumental music of various world cultures, highlighing unusual instruments.  At the very crescendo of one very moving piece came the shofar sounds, in full keeping with tradition: sh’varim, truah! tekiya g’dolah!  None of the royalty guessed at the significance of the sounds, or how deeply meaningful those sounds were to their secret Jewish companions. All the Terrible Inquisitors were present, all heard but none understood. Why did the Jews risk their very lives to listen to the call of the shofar?

Perhaps the shofar calls across time. Perhaps it is the call of hope that lives in us always. Perhaps it helps us to “live in the house of the Eternal”  We don’t have answers, but we have our song, and always hope, even in darkest times.

The very next Rosh Chodesh will be Rosh Hashanah. But tonight is the new moon in the month of love collides with Shabbat & shooting stars: Wow!


God philosophy

G-d does not want to be believed in,to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us. ~Martin Buber

How’s your summer been? I’ve had an amazing summer filled with lots of learning and new songs, not to mention the fabulous weather here in New Jersey. I attended Ruach Ha-aretz and studied philosophy with Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. Reb Laura is among the most skilled teachers I’ve met, and studying with her was absolute joy. We studied God concepts of medieval philosophies of various faiths, notably Ibn Gabirol, Aristotle & Plato, Saint Anthony, Maimonides among others. It turns out that every of these philosophers despised anthropomorphic representations of G-d! God is just something really different from this. Following the Middle Ages, Reb Laura taught, some faiths got busy honing down a creed of what their folks should believe about God. This didn’t happen in Judaism, possibly due to lack of center after Jerusalem destroyed. So is it better to leave the question of G!d’s nature unspoken and unexplored? I find this to often be the case in synagogues. This is not a good thing. The assumption is that when I say G!d, I mean the big guy with the white beard (and white skin) in the sky. The pediatric, incredibly anthropomorphic, white, male-centered myth that some folks believe in, (or so I’m told). Reb Zalman z”l in Jewish with Feeling said “that G-d that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either!” It’s so important to try, to struggle with the concept of God to to even begin any sort of spiritual conversation. At the end of the week in philosophy class, each student wrote down a personal concept of God, three of which were chosen (by one of us) to act out a God panel. We grilled one “God” who was “beyond understanding” and that actor replied in ways we could not understand! It was so much fun, so cathartic. I asked Reb. Laura “can we do this in real life?” and she replied, “don’t we?”
So I am taking the time to express my understanding of the inexpressible, undefinable, which is God. Now, I realize my concept may differ from yours, which is OK. But to shy from the attempt and the struggle is not OK, and to strive is perhaps quite ennobling: after all, it was the obsession of all those philosophers.
God is the Relational, Creative Power of the Universe.
I know this because:
in science, it is simple fact that when components of any system (creature, atom, etc) come into proper relationship, new levels of existence appear. One Biology text I use terms this “emergent properties”, which makes it appear not to be the total and complete magic that it is. There simply is a “thing” in the universe, which is creative, but only operates when things are interacting with one another properly.
So that hamster which died a moment ago has all the same organs, tissues, cells, DNA, proteins, etc as it did before, but they are no longer interacting as they were. And so the feature “life” is no longer present. Wow. Life is what happens in the space between. And all existence. Yes, the entropy inexorably  pulls on it, until the hamster dies, but its life was an incredibly unlikely, outrageous event in the first place. As is consciousness, and family and community and love.
And what is Torah if not an expounding of what is proper relationship? Sometimes it’s a lesson in what not to do, a cautionary tale.  But “all its paths are peace”, as my teacher, Eleanor Epstein reminded me: you’re just interpreting incorrectly if the path leads elsewhere. So what is this relationship that Torah instructs us in?  Always it is love. Between humans, between humans and creation, between humans and this creative thread that runs through the universe we call God.
You cannot see love, or relationship, or interaction between parts. But you can experience these things, and know that existence depends upon it, and, as the second half of Adon Olam tells us, resonate with God and be strengthened by the connection. The whole universe is within us: in our materials, in our energy, and in the potential to be loving and creative as God is.  Without this the universe is unrelieved entropy, which is the thing that makes time move only forward, and forests burn, and the glass shatter into a thousand pieces, and hearts as well.
So, for me, God has been the Relational, Creative Power of the Universe.
I could abbreviate it RCPU. But I’ll just call it God. (or Love?)

What’s your concept or code word for God?

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