Friday, August 29. 2014
Yesterday in the Coffee with the Cantor class we discussed the influence that Judaism has had on religion in general. Did Judaism simply reflect what was going on in the cultures and religions of the time and place, or was it truly new, revolutionary? It reminded me of the discussion of the role of a composer in music. A composer never really creates anything new - he puts together the bits and pieces of melody and harmony that are floating around in our collective unconscious: the music is already there. Judaism may be like that. The ideas were already present, but they were never put together in quite this way.
That does not diminish the religion; that does not diminish the act of creation. We do not create from nothing. This year, as we begin again, recreating our lives, we should remember that the building blocks are already there. It is within us to create something new, not from nothing, but from the rich ingredients that are present in our world.
The song for today: May our supplications rise in the evening , our voices sing redemption in the morning - Yaale
Thursday, August 28. 2014
I am most alive when I sing. It is not about being happy or sad; it is the expression of my emotion. There are periods of time when I sing all the time (which can drive the people around me crazy), and there are times when I fall silent. All is not well when I am silent.
Last night my choir met once again after a few months off. Not a lot of people showed up, but it was great to renew the immersion in song. To spend an hour learning new melodies and concentrate on how to bring them to light. To sing together.
Here is a melody by Wohlberg that I use in the High Holy Day services that expresses the unity of our people: V'yeasu kulam
Wednesday, August 27. 2014
Today is the first of Elul, the month preceding Rosh HaShanah. Traditionally a time of introspection and preparation for the High Holy Days. A time of Cheshbon haNefesh - of accounting of the soul.
It is also the time of beginnings in secular society. I always associated the end of August with the beginning of the school year since so much of my life was linked to school, either my attendance or my kids. Even in the synagogue, classes begin again. We prepare to learn, we resolve to do better this year, to accomplish our goals. But now, in Elul, it is time set those goals and ask ourselves what do we really want from this year?
Each day in Elul I'll be posting a High Holy Day tune to get us ready for the days when the shofar shall sound. Oh wait - it sounds every day in Elul! Avinu Malkeinu
Monday, August 25. 2014
Friday, August 22. 2014
A song before Shabbat: L'dor VaDor
"When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. — 30 Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah — near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh."
A blessing will be pronounced on one mountain, a curse on the other. We spend most of our lives between the mountains, neither being blessed nor cursed. Neither pronouncing the blessing nor the curse. What does it mean to walk between those two mountains?
In order to make a statement, one must walk up a mountain. It is difficult to take a stand and before you do that you must put in some work. You must sweat. And as we go up that mountain, we separate ourselves from the rest of the community. How many can fit on the head of a mountain?
Which mountain do we choose? Do we pronounce the blessing, or the curse? Who are we? This is not just choosing to follow God or not, but to state what we stand for. So, what does each signify? To take a stand for the curse and pronounce it on that mountain, we must actually want to punish and seek out the evil in the world. To take a stand for the blessing and pronounce it on its mountain is to choose to seek out the good, the ethical and to praise it. Standing on the mountain is not just choosing the blessing or the curse; it is proclaiming it.
We cannot be on both mountains at the same time.
Most of us spend our lives between these two mountains. Not only do we avoid choosing between following God and not, but we also avoid making that statement: the blessing, the curse. How many never climb those mountains? Being between the mountains means that we live ambiguous lives, sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, but rarely saying what it is we're trying for. Often, we don't know what the difference is and following God's mitzvoth doesn't feel like a blessing. The sound of the blessing emanating from that mountain mixes with the sound of the curse and creates a cacophony, not a harmony.
This week has seemed like an eternity between those mountains. The war in Israel, antisemitism around the world, ISIS in Iraq, a shooting in Ferguson - these are events that keep us in that low place. But there is something else that keeps me in the well: Mount Ebal is getting crowded. So many are making their way up that mountain to pronounce the curse. To proclaim that people are not following God. Perhaps they are right, perhaps it is time to curse the evil. But not only can we stand only on one mountain at a time, but when we are on one mountain, we can barely see the other. While we are busy shouting our curses, we lose sight of the blessings. We lose sight of what it means to be good. This saddens me more than any of the calamities facing us today.
Ironically, both sides in the war in Israel, both sides in the Ferguson, are on the same mountain! Both sides are on the mountain shouting the curse. There is no blessing to be found.
from James Ball at the Guardian:
It’s that self-examination, or self-censorship, that best serves ourselves. As individuals, we’re making very different decisions to publishers and news outlets, but we should trust our own judgment rather than rush to ask social media companies to become the arbiters of our free expression on a knee-jerk basis.
There is a coda to this tale, another aspect of James Foley’s life that is also being shared far and wide across the world. It is the short statement by his mother, released on his Facebook page.
“We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” her statement began.
It has already been shared more than 2,500 times. This is how we win: not by suppressing the worst of us, but by sharing and saluting the best – people such as Foley and his family.
We win by standing on Mount Gerizim and shouting the blessing and remembering what is good and right rather than cursing what is evil.
Wednesday, August 20. 2014
As I get ready for the next year of classes, choir, services, I am thinking about the process of restarting. It's not exactly beginning again, because I don't start from nothing, but it is an opportunity to correct some mistakes, prepare better materials, and generally do things better. Knowing that we have multiple chances to get things right is tremendously comforting.
Next week, my class "Coffee with the Cantor" begins again. I love this discussion group, because we have created a safe place to exchange ideas. We always start with some text, some factual, grounding, but then we bring our own experiences to the conversation. Sometimes we argue, sometimes it's uncomfortable, but it's always a way to build connection rather than tear it down. This year, we'll be looking at how Judaism has influenced the secular world. Judaism - not Jews. Yes, there have been individuals who have done great things in every field of endeavor, but sometimes that had nothing to do with the religion. But what did the religion itself bring to the world as a whole? That's what we'll investigate.
I'll be posting the packet on this site in advance every week, in pdf form. For next week, the first class, the packet is here: Judaism and Religion
And a song for today, the old favorites: L'chu N'ran'na etc.
Sunday, August 17. 2014
We have before us a blessing and a curse. The consequences of our actions. We always have a choice, but there are consequences. We have the ability to make our lives a blessing and to be a source of harmony in the world.
Whenever parashat re'eh comes around, I think of the really difficult choices, the choices to live or die, and I inevitably go to the poem by Anne Sexton, "Live." Wrtten in February, 1966; she committed suicide in October, 1974.
The song: Esa Einai
"Live or die, but don't poison everything…
Well, death's been here
for a long time -
it has a hell of a lot
to do with hell
and suspicion of the eye
and the religious objects
and how I mourned them
when they were made obscene
by my dwarf-heart's doodle.
The chief ingredient
And mud, day after day,
mud like a ritual,
and the baby on the platter,
cooked but still human,
cooked also with little maggots,
sewn onto it maybe by somebody's mother,
the damn bitch!
I kept right on going on,
a sort of human statement,
lugging myself as if
I were a sawed-off body
in the trunk, the steamer trunk.
This became perjury of the soul.
It became an outright lie
and even though I dressed the body
it was still naked, still killed.
It was caught
in the first place at birth,
like a fish.
But I play it, dressed it up,
dressed it up like somebody's doll.
Is life something you play?
And all the time wanting to get rid of it?
And further, everyone yelling at you
to shut up. And no wonder!
People don't like to be told
that you're sick
and then be forced
down with the hammer.
Today life opened inside me like an egg
and there inside
after considerable digging
I found the answer.
What a bargain!
There was the sun,
her yolk moving feverishly,
tumbling her prize -
and you realize she does this daily!
I'd known she was a purifier
but I hadn't thought
she was solid,
hadn't known she was an answer.
God! It's a dream,
lovers sprouting in the yard
like celery stalks
a husband straight as a redwood,
two daughters, two sea urchings,
picking roses off my hackles.
If I'm on fire they dance around it
and cook marshmallows.
And if I'm ice
they simply skate on me
in little ballet costumes.
thinking I was a killer,
anointing myself daily
with my little poisons.
I'm an empress.
I wear an apron.
My typewriter writes.
It didn't break the way it warned.
Even crazy, I'm as nice
as a chocolate bar.
Even with the witches' gymnastics
they trust my incalculable city,
my corruptible bed.
O dearest three,
I make a soft reply.
The witch comes on
and you paint her pink.
I come with kisses in my hood
and the sun, the smart one,
rolling in my arms.
So I say Live
and turn my shadow three times round
to feed our puppies as they come,
the eight Dalmatians we didn't drown,
despite the warnings: The abort! The destroy!
Despite the pails of water that waited,
to drown them, to pull them down like stones,
they came, each one headfirst, blowing bubbles the color of cataract-blue
and fumbling for the tiny tits.
Just last week, eight Dalmatians,
3/4 of a lb., lined up like cord wood
I promise to love more if they come,
because in spite of cruelty
and the stuffed railroad cars for the ovens,
I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann.
The poison just didn't take.
So I won't hang around in my hospital shift,
repeating The Black Mass and all of it.
I say Live, Live because of the sun,
the dream, the excitable gift."
Friday, August 15. 2014
When there is strife in the world, when there is suffering in one's own life, it is easy to feel as if God is far away. There is the idea that when the Temple was destroyed, God moved away from us, that He was - and continues to be - hidden. If you view God to be like a human, this would be a natural conclusion.
But God isn't human. I don't believe that God responds to our actions in that way. God is and has always been, present. It is us who move away, who sometimes let the tefillin slip over our eyes, who cannot see or hear God's presence. The sense of knowing, of enlightenment can come through our presence in the world and our awareness. We must open our eyes and hear, not the voice of God, but the sound God makes - in nature, in other people, and yes, even in the bombs of war. And then we will stop and understand the path to peace. Shabbat Shalom.
The song for today is the psalm proclaiming God's power in nature; not God's voice, but His sound: Psalm 29
Thursday, August 14. 2014
My sorrow continues. The war in Israel rolls on with broken ceasefire after broken ceasefire. Compound that with the death of two entertainment icons, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, and one has a dark week. But the real sorrow is the "collateral evil" that the war has produced: the rise of antisemitism around the world, the lack of tangible support by governments, the hypocrisy of the U.N.,and, perhaps the worst, the evolution of the righteous into vigilantes.
I am not surprised by militant Muslims who rail against Israel and Jews. I am not even surprised by politicians who hesitate to support a democracy under fire. I am surprised by two groups: liberal, educated people who choose not to see the immorality of Hamas, and supporters of Israel who, like trained McCarthy-ites, jump on each pseudo-news blog to condemn those who are against Israel.
There is a great deal of stuff flying around the Internet these days. I call it "stuff" because it's not all information. Some of the data describes the reality on the ground in Israel and Gaza, while some of the data rehashes 2nd and 3rd hand what someone else said about someone else. As a result of this data, it is easy to accuse, to condemn, and decide who is with us and who is against us. Not only is the information suspect, but the issues are not that simple. Our words have power, and the statements we make today may come back to haunt us. Let's try to check our sources, and act like people who give thoughtful responses in these trying times, rather than vigilantes who resemble the people who have persecuted us for thousands of years.
In this time of sorrow, I try to remember Psalm 126 - those who sow in tears shall reap in joy: Sow in Tears
Wednesday, August 13. 2014
Will Judaism make your life easier?
Neither knowing the meaning of life, nor trusting a religion, will necessarily make life easier. Perhaps the meaning of life is to suffer.
I don't believe that, but nor do I believe that life is "meant" to be easy. Living takes work, energy. We react with joy, sorrow, anger - that's what we make of it. I believe that one purpose of religion is to enable one to draw closer to God, and thereby gain some understanding of how the world works and what our place is in it. Knowing this might make putting in the energy easier. Might, but again, it's what you make of it.
If by "easy" one means "less work", then the answer is clearly, no. If by "easy" one means "more enjoyable", then there are religions that purport to make life easier and would have you believe that life should be good, joyful, happy. There are also drugs that will help you feel the same way. But there is a superficiality to that which denies reality. Religions which recognize reality and enable one to place our experiences in the context of a bigger picture makes coping "easier." In that case, "easier" means "more likely to keep living and making a difference." Happier? Perhaps. More valuable? Definitely.
Judaism recognizes reality. Judaism is not "easy." I started learning about it and tried on the pre-packaged form. As I became more familiar, I made it my own. Like a home. You move in, accept the placement of the walls, even live with the carpets at first. But then you start making changes. Paint, floors, mostly cosmetic. Then, you realize you want to knock down a wall or two, or build an addition. Chances are, you'll never change the foundation, but the house will become yours. Judaism is like that, and there are many possible religions that might work to make living with reality better. Not easier. Better. Choose one. Live in it, make it yours. Perhaps it will be your home. But making a house a home is not easy.
Song for today, written by the great Phil Ochs, another who took his own life: Changes
Monday, August 11. 2014
August is a time of transition. In the deepest part of Summer, I start thinking about the Winter. Preparations are being made for school, for the High Holy Days, for the new year. This brings to mind one of my favorite songs, The Fallow Way. I first heard it sung by Judy Collins, but it was written, and recorded by Jimmy Webb. Like most of the songs that touch me, it is simple, repetitive and, like the changing of seasons, introspective.
Today's song:The Fallow Way
Sunday, August 10. 2014
Weddings have always represented the greatest joy in Judaism. Weddings are both personal and communal and they represent fulfillment on every level. In this time of war, it's nice to be part of a joyous occasion, a sign that life not only goes on, but thrives.
It is still heard in the land of Judea
And in the squares of Jerusalem
The sound of celebration and joy
The sound of a bride and groom
Song for today: Dodi Li
Thursday, August 7. 2014
Having passed Tisha B'Av, we are now seven weeks away from Rosh HaShanah. We begin with this week's parasha, Va'etchanan. In it we experience once again the giving of the law from Sinai. This is the perfect reminder to prepare for the High Holy Days and, in particular, to look at the Shofarot section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf. It is in that section where God appears to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.
What does it mean for God to appear? Not what does God look like, but what does it mean? It means that, for some reason, we are collectively drawing close to God. Individually, that's nice, but collectively, globally, we need to come closer to an understanding of why we are here and how we can fix this broken world.
In remembrance and preparation, a little light hazzanut (Katchko): Atah Nigleita
Wednesday, August 6. 2014
After Tisha B'Av, I long for consolation and the promise of a brighter day. The Jewish calendar and liturgical cycle recognizes this. After 3 weeks of rebuke culminating in the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples and expulsion from Israel, we have 7 weeks of consolation. But when we juxtapose the liturgy on the events of today, we create a profound dissonance. I can't help but feel sadness and cynicism at the prospect of a lasting peace in Israel.
A subdued song of consolation: Somewhere over the Rainbow
Monday, August 4. 2014
On this night my children cry and wail
on this night my Temple and palaces were burnt;
let all the houses of Israel join in my moaning,
and cry over the blaze which God sparked.
On this night let her wail, the uniquely afflicted one.
the one barred from her Father's house.
When she left His house, the door was shut,
and she went into captivity devoured by every mouth.
On this day she was sent forth in consuming fire set by an ember of God.
On this night five disasters occurred,
it was decreed on the day our ancestors threw off all restraint,
and therefore, so many constricting and crushing disasters stuck to this day.
It is a day destined for adversity.
The enemy raised shouts of terror:"Arise, this is the day fixed by God!"
Sunday, August 3. 2014
Friday, August 1. 2014
We begin a new book, Devarim, this week. Moses, talking to the new generation which will enter Israel, recounts both the history and the guidelines which will insure long life, prosperity, and peace. It hasn't worked out quite that way.
The war between Israel and Gaza continues and antisemitism has flared up in Europe. We might be able to trace the reasons, but to any thinking person the hatred of Jews is irrational. We're such a small part of the world and yet so much is focused on us.
We must move on, and for today, move on to Shabbat. Another Hashkiveinu: hashkiveinu - dropkin
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