Joy and Fear during the holidays

I recently published this piece in a couple of local newspapers.  I did already share this on Facebook but I thought pre-Yom Kippur, it would be good to reflect once again on this idea.

Joy and Fear during the holidays:

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy describes the Jewish New Year as a day consisting of two diametrically opposed images:  “Today is the birth of the world.  Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment – whether as children [of God] or as servants.  If as children, be merciful with us as the mercy of a father for children.  If as servants, our eyes [look toward and] depend upon You, until You be gracious to us and release our verdict as light, O Awesome and Holy One.”  How can a person simultaneously grasp these two images of a day of birth, a day filled with joy and expectations, and a Day of Judgment, a day filled with fear and trembling?   

As part of the preparation for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, there is a tradition to recite Psalm 27 at the conclusion of the daily morning services  as well as either the daily afternoon or evening services.  The recitation of Psalm 27 commences at the start of the Jewish month of Elul, the month preceding the holidays, and continues through the end of Sukkot.  The words of Psalm 27 were King David’s prayer to G-d that he should merit dwelling in G-d’s midst, even when feeling abandoned and orphaned in the world.

In times of joy, it is fairly easy to find comfort and peace in life.  Most people feel a sense of elation and independence.  When in crisis, however, people often turn to those who have always provided strength and security for them in life.  For most, parents represent that security.  Yet, many of the crises faced occur when parents are no longer able to help.  I have heard many caregivers of a dying loved one express the wish that one or the other parent were still alive to be a rock during troubled times.  In the pre-holiday tradition of reciting Psalm 27, one of the verses recited reflects on the need for security during crisis.  King David said, “While my father and mother have forsaken me, G-d will gather me in (27:9).” 

The liturgy highlighted above focuses on the crisis moment of the holidays.  The image of standing in judgment is an acute reminder that every year, as time moves forward, we face the inevitable truth that for some, the past year was not meant to be completed.  As such, survivors are struck by a sense of loss during the liturgical points reminding them of the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, namely the renewal for another year for some people while the conclusion for others.  And yet, hope remains, that when we feel forsaken, there is still something to protect us.     

Loss changes the fabric of one’s life.  It removes the sense of invincibility and security.  Yet, while reflecting on Judgment Day, one is also reminded that there will always be a security blanket.  The security blanket, G-d, can be cherished or can be discarded.  Either way, the blanket remains, accepting however one feels and reacts to happiness and sadness, joy and fear. 

Pre Rosh Hashanah thoughts

After a most revealing conversation last Thursday, I have been sitting with fear as I worry about being entirely unprepared emotionally and internally for Rosh Hashanah.  As my friend pointed out, not being Yeshiva makes the month of Elul feel lacking somehow.  While listening to his words, I realized, he is right and wrong.  He is right in that the feeling is different.  However, pre-Rosh Hashanah prep is only as good as the person working towards a goal.  We who have spent time in a religious institution cannot use the excuse that our no longer living in that pristine environment is reason to not find Elul a meaningful month. 

What are my goals for this year?  Do I feel that I have the resolve to fulfill those goals?  Do I even care because usually any resolutions for the year die before the month of Tishrei is over?  What am I missing in all this?

Sure, I’ve done some reading.  However, I don’t think I can say much of it inspired me.  Perhaps that is the point.  The real inspiration will come when I blow Shofar or as I speak, for then the awe will be upon me.  My heart will be open to hear the cry.  And yet, something is always missing, as if the Shofar, the “alarm clock” has a perpetual snooze button. 

I realize this post is less substantive and more personal, but when facing such an awe-inspiring time, substance is secondary to the raw emotion.  May we all be inscribed for a good, sweet and peaceful year.

Musings for Elul

I came across R. David Goldwasser’s book Elul  at shul and decided to read it during Shabbat.  I came across two stories in his work which I want to share.  These are good thoughts for pondering as we get ready for Rosh Hashanah.

1.  “In our bais medrash, I noticed that there was one young married man who never missed a minyan, no matter how difficult it was for him.  He would always be among the עשרה ראשונים – the first ten.  One day there was a tremendous snowstorm.  Only three people had made it to the early minyan on time.  He was one of the three. 

Finally, I asked him, ‘How is it that you never miss one day and are so medakdek – careful – in coming to minyan, especially on a day like this?’

He answered me that as a teenager he was a little bit weak in shemiras hamitzvos.  His father was a very pious man.  The father used to come in every morning to wake him up to go to minyan, knowing full well that it was a tremendous nisoyon – challenge – for his son to get up and daven with the tzibbur.  Instead of rebuking the son, the father in gently waking him would always say: My son, it is time to get up for minyan.  But if you are going to remain in bed, sleep well.  And then he would proceed to make sure that I was covered properly with the blanket. 

The young man continued to tell me that on the day his father was niftar, he promised the Ribbono Shel Olam that he would always be medakdek in tefillah b’tzibbur.

דברים בנחת תהא נשמעים (p. 67 – 68)”  

 2.  “The Simchas Higayon explains that the way of the world is that when a person rents a house to his friend, he writes a lease in which he stipulates that one month before the lease expires the renter must inform him whether he wishes to renew the lease for another year.  In some places it is customary to pay up any outstanding rent of the previous year, as well as advance payment for the first month of the new lease.

However, there are people who, since they are so busy, forget this stipulation in the lease and they don’t notify the landlord until the last week of the year.  That last Shabbos, when the person is sitting at his Shabbos table relaxing in comfort, he remembers that it is almost the end of this year’s lease, and he still hasn’t told the landlord that he wants to stay.  He is afraid that maybe the landlord may have already rented his place to someone else.  He is troubled and distressed. ‘Where will I go?’

Therefore, on Motzoei Yom Menucha he runs with all of his strength to the landlord.  Maybe – just maybe – he can still obtain a lease for the coming year. 

We can well apply this story to ourselves.  Every year the Ribbono Shel Olam gives us a lease.  But one month before the year is up, Chodesh Elul, we need to come and ask that Hashem should ‘renew our lease.’  In fact, there are those that begin Selichos from the start of Elul.   However, because we are busy, we forget the stipulation.  We have forgotten to appear before the landlord to state our request.  On the holy Shabbos, when we relax in comfort we remember: we still didn’t tell the ba’al habayis (landlord) our request for another year of brocho – blessing.  What do we do?  On Motzoei Shabbos (Saturday night) we run to plead with and supplicate the Master of the World to ‘renew our lease’ for the coming year.”

Souls Shining Through

Souls Shining Through.

I have to share this piece I received via email yesterday.  I think it gets to the heart of what humanity really is.  No matter how much or how little we are able to function cognitively, there is always something that remains.  I think this is good pre-Rosh Hashanah reading to get our minds focused on the day and on life.  There can be no illusion when standing in G-d’s presence on Rosh Hashanah. 

As an activity director at a day care center for the memory-impaired, I often ask myself what I have learned from being with people who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

One thing I realized is that the mind and the soul are separate. I have seen the soul of a person express itself despite a very clouded mind. In fact I have witnessed this so many times I have come to expect it.

The first time I saw the spiritual side of a memory-impaired person take over was during a personal crisis. My father had recently returned home from the hospital after heart surgery and he was very disoriented. It was Shabbat eve and several of us kids were sitting around the table, grateful and nervous at having him returned to us in such a fragile state. My father was not doing well cognitively. He couldn’t remember who was who and kept mixing us up. He demanded to know where the other children were and why they hadn’t come yet. My sister and I began weeping because everyone he was asking for was already there, right in front of his eyes.

My mother tried to calm him by explaining what was going on but that did nothing to ease my father’s agitation. Finally, in frustration, he struggled to his feet. As he held the Kiddush cup in his shaking hand, the wine began to spill. We stood silently in terrible pain as we witnessed his weakness and his strength. For in a voice strong with emotion he recited the prayer in a melodious voice without missing a beat. This man, who for the life of him could not make out his own kids, was able to praise God and sanctify the Sabbath.

I have seen this time and time again in my work. The other day I posed a moral dilemma to my clients: There is a man driving his car on a cold stormy night. He sees three people stranded at the side of the road. One is the woman of his dreams. The second is the doctor who once saved his life. The third is an old woman. He has room for two people. Who does he leave behind?

A man named Max, who is so far into his Alzheimer’s that he can’t find his way home although it’s next door to the center, ruined my game. Without even contemplating the choices, he said very simply, “I would get out of my car and give it to them.”

Another one of our members is a Holocaust survivor named Abby, who survived the war by living in a Christian orphanage. One morning the lady who sits next to her kept repeating, “Help me, help me. Somebody help me.”

Abby, who no longer recognizes her only son, leaned in close to the other lady. “What is it dear?” she asked. “Are you scared? Do you want to go home? We are all in this together. You just have to make the best of it and stay out of trouble.”

Then Abby picked up the other lady’s spoon and began to feed her some applesauce. I watched from the corner of the room, like I often do, observing the behavior of these old folks who live in a twilight zone. And I thought how well Abby had just described this world. Here we are together in this world of nonsense and materialism and our souls are not happy. They want to go home yet must live in a place full of difficult tests. The best we can do is help other people in need.

If I have learned one lesson from working with people suffering from dementia, it is this: Work on yourself and strive to perfect your character. Because when most of your intellectual powers are gone, the kernel that remains will be who you really are.

On Rosh Hashanah we will stand before the Almighty who has been in the corner observing us. All of our masks and personas, illusions and excuses will disappear. God sees through all that. All that will be left is who we really are – our soul. Our true inner self shines through, no matter how much fog descends upon it.

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim – R. Marc Angel

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim, September 24, 2011 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Marc Angel presents a real thought provoking piece for this week’s Torah portion about the ability of our communities to accept people who are not “one of us.”  In the story he shares, a man who converted to Judaism expresses his frustration over the lack of feeling accepted by asking if he could have his conversion annulled.  To me, this is just sad.  Have our communities become so fearful of insincerity that we are afraid to make people welcome?  Do we not realize we are all on equal ground?  R. Angel relates this to the beginning of the Torah portion, in which the entire nation is gathered together to confirm the covenant one last time before entering Israel.  His piece is a must read before Rosh Hashanah, as perhaps our goal this year should be focused on being better to each other, especially in this crazy world we live in today.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives and the stranger/convert that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water” (Devarim 29:9-10).

Over the years, I have received many hundreds of inquiries from people interested in converting to Judaism. Some have been spiritual seekers who have found meaning in the great teachings of Torah. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and now want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Some have fallen in love with a Jew, and have wanted to become part of the Jewish people and raise a Jewish family. Whatever the motivation for their contacting me, I have derived much satisfaction and joy in dealing with this large and diverse group of people.

Recently, though, I received an email inquiry which was entirely new to my previous experience. The note came from a person who had converted to Judaism with an Orthodox Beth Din—and now wanted to know if it would be possible to annul his conversion!

I informed him that once a person becomes halakhically Jewish, there are no annulments. But then I asked him why he wanted to annul his conversion? I wondered if he had lost faith in God and Torah, or if he had experienced anti-Semitism, or if there were other factors which motivated this unusual request.

His answer relieved me…and pained me deeply.

It relieved me because he assured me that he loved God and Torah, that he studied Torah regularly, that he found great satisfaction in observing mitzvoth. His problem wasn’t with Judaism and the Jewish way of life.

It pained me deeply because he informed me that the problem was the Jewish community in which he lived! He felt that members of the community treated him like an outsider. Being a single man, he was having great difficulty establishing a positive social life. Whether this was his own impression or whether it was objectively true, he felt that he was discriminated against because he was a convert, because he was of a different background from the mainstream of the community. So he decided he wanted to annul his conversion because Jews had rejected him.

I told him that he should stay true to God, Torah and mitzvoth—but that he might be happier moving to another community! He seemed reassured by this answer, and wrote to me that he indeed would continue to study and observe Torah…but that he would try to find a more congenial Jewish community in which to live.

In describing the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the Torah informs us that ALL Israelites were to stand before God—from the elite leaders, to the humble masses, men and women, old and young, born Israelites and converts. The essential quality of the covenant is that it included every Israelite—all as equals before God.  If Israelites did not recognize the ultimate equality of each member of the group, this would constitute a breach in the covenant itself.

Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 6:3) provides the parameters for what it means to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” His words are of profound importance: “A person must speak in praise of his neighbor and be careful of his neighbor’s property as he is careful with his own property and solicitous about his own honor. Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating another person will have no portion in the world to come.” In the very next law, Maimonides notes that it is incumbent to love the proselyte, first because he/she is a fellow Jew, and second because there is a special Torah obligation to love the proselyte. All Jews are equal before God; all are equal partners in the covenant with God; all must be treated with the same respect and consideration that we want others to show to ourselves.

As we prepare to observe Rosh Hashana, it is important that we re-focus on the framework of the covenant between God and Israel, that we recognize how important it is for each Jew to be treated as a fellow partner in our adventure with the Almighty. Our communities need to reflect a sincere inclusiveness, a feeling of mutual respect among ourselves. One of the great strengths of the Jewish people is our diversity, our richness of traditions and backgrounds; we stand as one people before God, each of us equal in the eyes of God.

If even one Jew feels rejected or alienated because he/she is of a “different” background, race, or ethnic group—then the structure of the Jewish covenant with God is shaken. If even one Jew wants to “annul” his/her Jewishness because of feelings of rejection by other Jews, then the Jewish religious enterprise is challenged. Self-righteousness and smugness are antithetical to the ideals of Jewish peoplehood.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God…”

Let us each stand before the Lord imbued with love of God, love of our fellow Jews, love of our fellow human beings. Let our communities reflect love, compassion, spiritual vitality. Let us renew the covenant between God and Israel.

9/15 – Yom Kippur reads

The Meaning of the Koran

Another attempt at showing how the holy books of the world can be biased to whatever side you believe to be correct.  I am not sure what this adds to the discussion other than the opening couple of paragraphs.  Basically, don’t burn the Quran because it does contain verses that speak well of Jews and Christians. 

Kosher by Design

He brings to the community a general review of the one of the more unappreciated Jewish thinkers of the late 20th century, Michael Wyschogrod.  One of the more fascinating elements of Wyschogrod’s thinking which was highlighted was his belief that we should engage in interfaith theological dialogue.  This is as opposed to his teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who explained in his work Confrontation that the only interfaith dialogue that could work relates to societal commonalities. 

Lost in Translation

This piece is very fascinating.  It is about an Arab who is interested in Judaic studies as a means of better enlightening his people to understand what Judaism is all about.  Obviously, he is having trouble getting Arabic translations of Jewish works published.  Yet, I empathize with his goals and wishes.  I think if peace is to ever be found in the Middle East, education will be the most important element.  And what better way to educate the next generations than to provide material so they can see what Judaism is really all about. 

How Do You Say Shofar in Ukrainian?

This is nice little piece describing Rosh Hashanah in Uman.  Uman of course is the burial town of Rebbe Nachman, the Breslover Rebbe (the one and only).  Makes me think about going some year down the road, though while I would love to see it, I’m not sure I would enjoy being with 35,000 people for Rosh Hashanah.  Might be a bit overwhelming for me.