Be Happy….Or Else!

Z’man Simchateynu is upon us. Yes, it’s almost Sukkot, The Time of our Joy, and we are commanded, V’Semachta b’Chagecha V’Hayita Af Sameach! Rejoice in your festival and be especially happy.

I don’t know about you, but when “commanded” to be just about anything, my first impulse is to resist and do the opposite. How can we be expected to turn happiness on and off at command? The Torah itself has something to say about this through the rabbinic tradition to read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the intermediate Shabbat of this festival, perhaps warning us, “Just not too happy”!

Traditionally, we’re supposed to be so relieved that we lived through Yom Kippur, where every living being is judged either to have yet another year to live or, chas v’shalom, to die. I’ll grant that there are some within our community of Jews who really are so holy as to deeply and intimately feel their life is on the line this time ever year, but it’s always been a stretch for me. And how does this focus on failure and destruction, just a few days ago, bring us to happiness? One would have to enter Yom Kippur, with an overwhelming sense of guilt and self-hate in order to truly feel that, sitting in the Sukkah (and this is speaking ideally in term of weather–I recently spent almost thirty years in Seattle where, ever year putting up the Sukkah was an exercise in futility because you just knew that it would start pouring rain, a storm pre-programmed to last most of the following eight days. So, in more observant circles, the men (women, while not prohibited or excluded from the Mitzvah, nevertheless aren’t commanded to eat all their meals (and possibly to sleep) in the Sukkah) would bundle up in rain gear, run through the mud in the back yard, to say a very very quick Kiddush (the inaugural blessing of the  chag), down a mouthful of wine, and run back into the warm dry house for the real festival meal. Unless you have a serious appreciation for the absurd, this ritual is unlikely to inspire you to collapse in laughter or any other expression of happiness.

I remember from many years ago Rabbi B.C.Shloime Twerski, zt”l, teaching that Simchat Yom Tov, the commandment to be happy on these festival days, to be “the hardest one in the book”. When he explained it that time, he was focusing on the requirement to not allow oneself to become even the slightest bit angry, annoyed or have any other negative emotion, for a full 24 (or 48 in the diaspora) hours. When you even briefly contemplate this, you realize what a daunting task it is!

Another theme that the Rabbi emphasized is one we recite every Shabbat  and Chag morning, “Sur meRah v’Oseh Tov” (from Psalm 34, part of the extended Psalms reading we add on those special days). It means “Turn Away From Evil And Do Good”, in other words, avoid the negative is important, but the real lesson Torah is teaching us through its many mitzvot is that the real goal is to create a positive and tangible Good in this world. So, merely avoiding anger and frustration (maybe a deep reason behind the prohibition from driving a car and Shabbat and Chag), while an essential first step, is far from the real goal.

Honestly, I wish I could wrap up this lesson with a brilliant insight on how to achieve happiness. I’d become famous and maybe even rich (would either of those suffice to make me, or anyone else, happy?). Perhaps good first step, one I’m working with on myself, is to contemplate one of the deepest concepts in Judaism, “Everything that God Creates, he Creates for His Glory/Honor”. And what could God’s “Honor” or “Glory” possibly be other than the fulfillment of His purpose in Creation, that there be a perfect world, perfected not by His arbitrary decree, but by our willing, loving participation in fixing the world through the Torah  and Mitzvot, even, or especially, the incomprehensible ones such as seeming impossible task of being truly happy.

The best I can recommend is to spend the time among people you love.

Moadim l’Simcha!

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A Short Note To Subcribers

First, thank you for reading my thoughts for yet another year. I hope you’ll continue and that your responses will continue to inspire me.

I often find myself at the very edge of Shabbat and Holiday deadlines, and my proof-reading suffers. I don’t at all mind having my attention being brought to these mistakes and I will try to correct them as soon as I can.

Please share these essays and thoughts with your friends and colleagues. If you’re getting this, you’re already a subscriber. Please encourage others to subscribe as well. And remember, you’re honestly invited to join the conversation through the Comment section.

G’mar Chatima Tova.


Special thanks to Rabbi DA

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Getting Ready For Yom Kippur

In many ways, Yom Kippur is the easiest of all the Jewish. No special meal to prepare, nothing to build, no difficult Megilah  to chant. Of course, in past years I would spend more than a month relearning and, hopefully, improving my chant of the entire four services, the Torah readings, the Haftorah, Yonah…. Well, that was a lot of work, especially for a non-singer like me, but if it were a “test”, it was, at least, an open-book one. The point being that even when I had to mount a “one-man show”, often leading a congregation with almost no background, when I had to provide intuitive evocations along with current content, my “job” had been done many times before and I was merely a participant in a long traditional role and I just had to plug into a pre-existing role.

The themes are ancient and have been described and discussed through the centuries. The solo performance of the Cohain Gadol, the High Priest, with his special sacrifices and once-a-year approach to and entrance into the Kodesh K’doshim, the Holy of Holies, a space/time- warp eternal center of the Universe housing the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, which contained, among other things, both the broken original and the intact copy of the Shnei Lukhot HaBrit, the two Tablets of Covenant, A physical remnant of the  Infinite Energy of God transformed into the physical/rational of simple human words carved into the very physical matter of stone, the two-way dialogue between us, as human beings and the Infinite Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, detailing our responsibilities which we pledge in exchange for the opportunity to experience life on earth.

As abstract, cosmic and all engaging as those thoughts are, in  past years l had a script to follow, one which at least included allusions to these themes. And the themes themselves, described and discussed both within the chag and in preparing my roles as leader, had become familiar, unfortunately, too often overly-familiar. Therefore as I worked to refine my understanding which was limited by this very repetition and exploration, I began to see a horizon where I would need to make several profound decisions.

Thus I find myself this year, as in the last several years, closely approaching that moment when weekday becomes, itself, Yom Kippur, a day when “all bets are off”, when we really have no idea how we will be evaluated in last years’ efforts and can only hope we’ll come out all right for the next year.

Approached this way, much of the past liturgy no longer directly addresses these issues. Albeit the comfort in these age-old melodies, the words and poetry too often no longer discuss nor lead me to where I hope to arrive, to a close and direct, intimate yet mysterious dialogue with The Creator about how I might best grow, conduct myself in this just-opening year, to add to the life energy and love of those around me, hopefully to be enhanced by theirs.

Before this day arrives, often well into it, I no longer even have the questions I need to ask. I can’t “create” the openness I’ll need to develop, can’t even imagine how any of it will feel. And as the time arrives, all I can do is enter with the  kavana, aim or intention, that somehow I’ll ask the right questions, start down the right paths to give myself, and through myself others, the first steps this next year requires.

G’Mar Chatima Tova, may our provisional beginnings lead us to that divine intimacy where all that we are called up begins to be revealed.

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What Tshuva Can Look Like In 5779

As the calendar begins to approach a new decade–in just one year it will be 5780, as the reality of a soon-to-be majority of the world’s Jews living in Eretz Yisrael under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in almost two full millennia, as the spiritual awareness of people around the world grows more universal and compassionate (no, of course we’re not there yet, but before one arrives, one must necessarily approach), perhaps we can take a new look at Tshuva, usually (inadequately) translated as “repentance”, but perhaps better thought of as a return and a reset to our full potential as humans and as Jews.

For almost my entire life, Tshuva was presented as doing more (or, in the case of Aveyrot, misdeeds and sins, doing less).  If I learn Torah and hour a day, let’s increase it to two. If we give five dollars daily to Tzedaka (Charity), up it to six! If we’ve inspired five Talmidim, students to learn an extra hour a week, convince them to learn two extra!

And perhaps, if we haven’t this past week eaten two pounds of cheeseburger, let’s not eat three! (Of course, there is no quantification of prohibitions, and not eating treif means not eating ANY treif, but the point in this exaggeration was made many years ago by Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman, zt”l, one of my teachers in Jerusalem and considered by many to have been the Talmid Chacham most brilliant Torah scholar of his recently past generation).

I see a different direction for myself this year and in the future. As a teacher, as a rabbi, I want to encourage and enable Jews, especially those with little or no previous background, those who have been turned off by past expressions of coercion, fanaticism and intolerance, to explore and engage even just a little more this year in any side or expression of Judaism they feel comfortable and potentially at home with.

There is no One Way of engaging with and observing Torah, just as there is no One Size Fits All approach to reach out lovingly to fellow Jews (not to mention reaching out lovingly to fellow humans, but that, perhaps, is the second step). Each of us, Judaism compels us to realize, and everything God Created to make this universe, is intentional, and, as such, deeply and decisively needed to complete the final steps of our co-project with The Creator of completing and perfecting all Creation. Nothing and no one can be rejected, even if we, personally, might not see the value in them.

So, if our Tshuva can be expediting their Tshuva, even just a tiny bit, that might be the final piece that clicks into place.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova, 5779

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The Irony Of Great Wealth

What to do? What to do? This year in Jerusalem, as Tisha B’Av, our millennia-old national day of mourning and fasting, we are drowning in a plethora of choices of how to participate.

Counter-intuitive, perhaps, certainly counter-tradition, there are any number of musical circles and workshops where we can sing together, play together, drum together, hoping to generate the sense of love and fellowship to counter the sinat chinam, unjustified hate and strife, which let to the destruction of our best interface with the Infinite Almighty and our millennia of isolation and alienation, even though we seem to contemn and ignore what had been our universal practice for these days. Maybe a new approach is necessary and, if so, there are plenty available.

We can choose, traditional chassidic, yeshivishe, zionist, peace-oriented, sufi-influenced services. We can listen to Eicha, Lamentations, chanted, or at least discussed and interpreted, in modern Ivrit, in English, French, Russian, Amharic, Arabic or Yiddish.

Mourning the “City which sits alone, after once hosting literally thousands of people”. Once the greenest, most prosperous center of culture and spirit and technology and wealth, Jerusalem is now reduced to ruins and rubble and all that remains is unending, universal sadness and  mourning….

Or is that really so? Today, in the year 5578, Jerusalem is filled with more people, including, specifically, more Jews than any time in history. We are more prosperous, living in greater comfort and luxury than ever. More Jews (as well as non-Jews), men and women, seniors and children, beginners and life-long learners, engaging and studying Torah in Yeshivot and Kollels, Synagogues and living rooms than ever before. And the unimaginable volume wisdom and insights, wise sayings and words of comfort have been digitally entered in various forms where we are able to see infinitely more connections and inter-connections that were ever available to any individual Jew. We have institutions studying the adaptation of older versions of halacha to address modern physical and social realities. We can specialize in the brilliance of the Rambam, the Holy Ari, the structure of the Shulchan Aruch and its many later researchers. There are Yeshivot devoted to Talmud, Halacha, Chassidut, Mussar, Modern Ethics, Business, Labor Relations, Relationships, Sexuality…… Everything imaginable can and is now being examined in light of our vast Torah tradition.

Or, if we want, we can sit alone, chant the ageless words of Yirmiyahu’s Eicha (Jeremiah’s Lamentations) and try to re-experience the horror and tragedy, the utter isolation, bereft of man and God, of that night when the walls were breached, the Holy Temple set ablaze, our brothers and sisters, parents and children, indiscriminately slaughtered.

Yes, we have an almost limitless menu set for us, inviting each of us in our own way to participate not merely in commemorating the tragedy, but participating in the (hopefully) swiftly-approaching  complete redemption.

It seems to me that the important thing is that no matter which style of observance we adopt this year, and hopefully this is our final year of effort, we do it in a spirit of Ahavat Chinam, unprovoked love for each other, for our Creator, for fellow Jews and for all mankind, in such a way that next year it will, indeed, appear that this year, with all it’s progress and achievements, was still desolate compared to our ultimate potential.

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A Challenge To The Rabbanut, The 3-Weeks, 5778

There’s a concept in civil law called Relief. The idea is that when someone suffers damages they should be compensated, as best as can, at least partly, for their losses. Ideally, the one who caused or profited by the damages should be the one makes it good. However, that’s not always possible and often, as we move in time away from the original injury, it’s harder and harder to determine guilt. Also, as time goes on, one who caused the damages might no longer be in a position to recompense the original victim or to return the situation to what it was earlier. In actual law suits, one might need decide who, in the present, can offer the best solution even if he had nothing to do with the original damage. One often finds a situation where the original villain, even when he willingly admits his guilt and even his desire to “make things right” is in no position to and must then walk away free. In other words, it’s very rare that one can actually put the toothpaste back into the tube and completely undo the damage that has been done.

Our early sages, responding the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, leading to our 2,000-year-and-continuing (hopefully coming to an end as we live in the era of Kibbutz Galyot, the (in)gathering of the Exiles), associated these tragedies with several other national disasters that occurred generally during these months and instituted a number of rituals not so much to “commemorate”, these Divine Punishments, but to actively get each of us started on our personal and communal Tshuva, Roads to Return.

Spread throughout the world, for the most part as, largely, powerless minorities, our sages innovated communal fasting and quasi-mourning, activities unlikely to call too much attention to ourselves. We needed, it was assumed, to keep our heads down. Based on the idea that The Creator would have punished us all only if He were mightily provoked by our behavior, combined with our holy awareness that we eat and are otherwise rewarded by The Creator only when we’re not making things worse, communal fasting was, at those time and in those situations, seemed an appropriate and, perhaps an effective tikkun (a repair of in the spiritual realm, where the root of most problems can be found and addressed). Also, we could quietly, wherever our communities were found, try to express our remorse and hopes to change without antagonizing our often hostile neighbors. Needing to keep our heads down, what better format than early morning and late night prayers and study?

Nonetheless, I can’t help notice that the reasons for our long galut, exile, never included overeating or even ignoring the laws of kashrut. Fasting and refraining from joy may well help us focus our attention on those things we did do wrong, but beyond that it’s hard for me to see what one thing has to do with the other. (Of course, I accept the rabbinic teaching that when Chazal offers us a reason for deep reality, they pass over in silence ten other (presumably more profound and subtle) equally or more valid reasons.)

Nonetheless, it seems that the avenue of relief afforded us has little to with returning us to “God’s Favor”, restoring our position in Eretz Yisrael and performing deeds and actions, where acting as Or L’Goyim, a Light to the Nations, we help lead not just the Jewish People, but all Creation. In other words, “what does “A” have to do with “B”? More important, is there an “A'” which might be more directly, or at least obviously lined, to “B”?

No longer needing Halacha to be so “defensive”, to protect us from our pain of always being The Other and our subsequent desires to remove all boundaries, perhaps at this point in our history we no longer need to worry so much about keeping our heads down, our profile low. At least those of us living in Eretz Yisrael can direct our desires to conform to conform to the dominant culture of Eretz Yisrael!

For example, I’d like to propose that, organized and presented by the Haredi communities, a series of sing-along concerts throughout the country. With the various “ultra-orthodox” opening their doors and inviting their less observant brothers and sisters into their world to share a joyous occasion, both reminds us of the fault (forgetting that we are actually brothers and sisters) which led to the Exile itself and directly undo the damage we wrought with our narrow intolerance towards large percentages of our very own people, that very Sinat Chinam that underlies all these tragedies we’ve endured and are enduring.
Not to let the “progressive” wing of our people off scot-free, there has long been an equal blast of sinat chinam towards the charedim and others condemned for being outmoded, It might be nice to see their rabbis and organizations reaching out to orthodox and charedi rabbis and communities to share some of their insights, inspiring rituals. It would benefit many the progressive Jew to discover and experience the architectural magnificence developed in centuries of ongoing talmudic study, of the ultimate development of inferential reasoning, all aimed not at some abstract concept of “truth”, but at justice and compassion, even when these goals require repudiating the philosophical in favor of the humanistic. It would amaze many in both camps to see the tremendous amount of shared values, principles and, at least in their origins, ritual. We are, after all one family, albeit outspread and complex.

Perhaps we can reach a point where it’s less important where the teaching or prayer came from, but how effective it is now in bringing us to a closer relationship, a deeper understanding, a more transformational experience of God. Where if fasting has any value at all, it’s to remind ourselves and our Creator that we acknowledge past error and dedicate ourselves, communally as well as individually, to be more welcoming of the other, the insights and experiences we’ll never personally have, but which are necessary to create a full view of what sort of society we ca create and sustain. If that’s not a good working definition of Ahavat Chinam, perhaps it’s the very next step once we’ve, hopefully, achieved it.

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Reclaiming Tikkun Olam

Whenever non-orthodox/non-traditional streams of Judaism, or at least representative organizations within them, act exceptionally aggressive towards the orthodox, certain elements within the orthodox “side” reacts by discrediting the progressive movements for being “not real Judaism”. Frequently, since many of their leaders and spokesmen (the non-orthodox), who aren’t themselves very committed to or convinced of the value of Torah and Mitzvot, substitute Tikkun Olam, literally the repair of the universe, for our other, often Biblical, responsibilities. The “orthodox” spokesmen then condemn tikkun olam as not only non-Jewish but often absolutely anti-Jewish.

After a recent tasteless speech at the Hebrew Union College graduation by the novelist Michael Chabon, who insulted everything from observing mitzvot  to marrying-in (i.e., preserving Jewish heritage for at least one more generation), the usual bloggers and speakers began their anti tikkun olam rants. Tikkun Olam isn’t Jewish. Social Justice, especially when the victims and perceived victims are not Jewish and the solutions have nothing to do with Mitzvot or Torah, or even Tefilla (prayer), supports values which attack Judaism. The movement is often anti-Israel, promotes anti-Jewish-family values (i.e. seems to value the “rights” of the ever-growing ladder of sexual identifications much more than those of “traditional” individuals and families, etc.)

Wait a minute!

Of course Tikkun Olam, at least in it’s basic concept, it not only Jewish, but it gives great insights into many Torah values. It can rally us to to the right thing when, otherwise, we might just remain indifferent. It describes the answer to that basic, almost unanswerable question that so often faces us of  “why”.

What those Jews who never had the privilege of learning Torah L’Shma, Torah for it’s own sake, is the way we’ve defined the words Tikkun and Olam, in a Jewish way, not based on Greek or Latin translations of the Bible (what we refer to as Torah).

Yes, tikkun, l’takeyn, means repair, to fix. Olam, while, of course, it does contain the meaning “world” also means eternal (and thus time and through this consequences of our actions). A traditional Jew knows that our approach to Tikkun has nothing to do with what “problem”we might see, and adjusting what we perceive to be “off”, but rather, and exclusively, within the realm of Torah and Mitzvot. What’s missing in the world, perhaps displaying the symptoms that enrage and energize us, is a set of unperformed mitzvot, spiritual acts designed to maximize the underlying structure of reality which, in turn, hosts what we in our limited capacity, call reality.

Of course, to use a contemporary example, children separated from the parents is a terrible wrong in the world. But, perhaps rather than demonstrating or posting of facebook or giving political speeches, a tiny group of Jews somewhere, sitting together and chanting Tehillim, Psalms, or studying an obscure tractate of Talmud really fixes the problem. Much like the western symptoms-based approach to medicine, this limited definition of Tikkun Olam actually prolongs the problem.

A timely story is told in this week’s Torah reading, Balak. Bill’am, the evil prophet and curse-for-hire hitman can’t understand his donkey which first walks him into a fence, then into a stone wall, each time further injuring his foot, and finally laying down in the middle of the road. Bill’am’s reaction and “solution” is to beat the donkey, to beat it again and to beat it into an inch of its life.

Like many contemporary, rational humanists who already know all that they need to know, all Bill’am knows is that his donkey is stubborn, willful, and driving him to murder. Bill’am, the “expert” with no need for God or Torah doesn’t see, and thus as no idea that what continues to block him from carrying out “his” plan is God Himself, working as an “angel”, but rather just a rebellious, blind, evil donkey.

Likewise, when we begin to understand that the real causes behind all the imperfection in our world are the duties, jobs and responsibilities assigned to us but yet undone, imperfection awaiting tikkun, we’ll have a chance to both solve the immediate problems that so enrage us now as well as to bring the world to a place where, eventually, all if complete and perfect, perhaps not exactly by our criteria, but by The Creator’s.

Shabbat Shalom

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