Archive for March, 2010

Wisdom of my students

Almost immediately after I posted the “perpetual fire” post, I was handed this wonderful mitzvah sheet from my student, Brooklyn.  With her permission, I share it with you:

Mitzvah Category: Iyun Tefillah

Activity: I communicated with G-d 5 minutes every night for 2 weeks

Describe why you performed this mitzvah:  I performed this mitzvah so I could feel closer to G-d.  Also when I was sad or confused, it would help me.

Describe your reactions to doing this mitzvah:  My reactions to doing this mitzvah were surprising.  I felt better after praying, especially if I was sad or frustrated.

Describe this mitzvah’s effect on others:  Even though no one really was effected in an obvious way, I hope the people I wished help for will receive help.  Also it might push me to help them more.

I especially liked that last line.  Regardless of whether we believe in G-d or not, the best prayer is the one that pushes us to be the best people we can be.  We make our prayers come true by allowing them to focus us into action.

A Perpetual Fire

“A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”  These words appear at the beginning of Parashat Tzav (Lev 6:6), this week’s Torah portion.  How do you keep a perpetual fire burning?  You have to feed it constantly.  If you neglect it, it will fade.  Without oxygen, it will choke.  Without constant attention and care, it will sputter.

The same is certainly true of our faith.  Faith does not remain strong unaided.  Faith is uplifted through community, music, the passion of hobbies, the witnessing of the beauty of nature, the connections of family and friends.  As we approach this season of Passover, let us not forget to feed our faith.  Let us soak up the warmth of family and the joy of community and let that nourish our own ner tamid (eternal light) as we go on.  A Zissen Pesach!

By gearing the seder towards the kids, are we cheating them out of the best experience?

Reprint from my article in Temple Beth Torah’s bulletin:

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article (I wish I could remember where) in which a woman talked about how she used to treasure the long family seders of her youth.  She had fond memories of being allowed to stay up late, and of listening to the adults singing the old Hebrew songs.  Now that she is a mom, she said, she looks to create short, child-friendly seders for her own family.  My heart sank.  Didn’t she read the words that she had just written?  I see the same exact trend happening in my own family.  We create pediatric seders with puppets and songs in English, and the kids can’t wait for it to be over.  Worse yet, they don’t even recognize the traditional tunes to those end-of-seder songs.  How could they recognize songs that we don’t sing?  We are changing the seder culture for our children in order to make it more fun, and it isn’t working at all.

The problem is not that simple, of course.  If your grandfather always used to lead those long Hebrew songs, what can you do when he has passed away?  It is not simple to get all of those verses of Hebrew words out.  The new generation of parents and grandparents may know the melody, but they don’t know the words.  The new generation of children, therefore, doesn’t even know the melody.  Something is being lost: a sense of warmth, of history, of patient story-telling and the asking of important questions.

I propose two solutions to these problems.  The first is to realize that the seder does not exist only for our children.  There are profound questions to be asked and lessons to be learned by even the most learned at our seder tables.  Make a seder for your family that you will find interesting.  If you don’t care, why should your children?  The second is to try to learn some traditional seder songs to bring back to your family meal.  If you can’t learn to sing the songs yourself, bring a recording to the table.  If you have a tape of an actual family member at a seder from years ago, you might want to consider bringing those voices back to share.  Grandparents and great-grandparents can live on in the memories of children they never knew if their voices still play at seder meals.

Knitting as a Spiritual Practice

I have enjoyed yarn crafts for almost my entire life.  For the past several years, I have become a passionate and dedicated knitter.  Knitting keeps me calm in stressful meetings; it helps me stay focused on what is happening; it relaxes me after a difficult day.  Knitting inspires my creativity as I think about color, design, and texture in the hopes of creating new and beautiful things.  But knitting is, for me, also a deeply spiritual practice.

When we knit we take something that is almost useless and turn it into something appealing and functional.  The practice of knitting teaches patience.  The finished object that I see in my mind’s eye is months from completion, yet stitch by stitch it gets closer.  When facing a task in life that seems daunting, I remember the baby blanket that I crocheted for by niece.  It was months of the same stitch in the same yarn.  At first it looked so incredibly bland and boring.  But when it was complete, oh when it was complete it was a work of art and, more importantly, it kept her warm in her first fragile months of life in the NICU and when she finally got to go home.

Knitting also helps us learn the skill of when to give up and let go, and when it is worthwhile to go back and fix.  I always loved the idea that Native Americans believe that a work of craft (usually beading, I believe) should have one error in it, a place for the spirit to move in and out of the art.  I use this idea to allow me to let small mistakes go and become a part of the design, a piece of what makes the knitted object unique and handmade, as opposed to sterile and stamped out.  This is an important lesson in the art of life, as well.  It makes me wonder if the reason that humans are so imperfect, even though we are made in the image of G-d, is that it is our imperfection that made us G-d’s special hand-crafted art-work.

A big error in our art should not be let go, however.  Sometimes it is worth the effort to rip back a lot of rows of knitting to fix a large and glaring mistake.  (Knitters call this “frogging” because you “riiiiiip it, riiiiiip it!”)  Frogging can be a heart-wrenching activity.  You watch the hours of loving work unravel in a kinked mess of yarn.  What may have taken weeks to create comes out in minutes.  Yet, without being willing to let it go, the finished object may not have fit, may not have been functional, may not have been beautiful.  A glaring mistake in life can be even more difficult to undo.  Addictions, for example, can take years to recover from, but the recovery is still a painful necessity in order to be able to move on and make something beautiful out of life.

Knitting helps us envision a future more idyllic and more complete than the present.  It is like the prayers at the end of the worship service.  “May the time not be distant, O G-d when…”  As long as we can see that perfect future when nations live at peace, we can work towards making it a reality.  I’m casting on for that future right now.

Vayakheil / P’kudei – Death for not resting?!?

This week’s Torah portion contains a rather disturbing verse. In Exodus chapter 35:2 we read: “On six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal One; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.”

Death? For not resting? Seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? As a Reform Jew, I look to the Torah for spiritual lessons. What can we take from this terrible punishment for non-Sabbath observance?

Science teaches us all about the importance of rest. Chronic stress lowers immune response. In the short term, this can mean increased headaches and instances of the common cold. In the long term, it can result in: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, some studies even say cancer. So yes, chronic, unrelieved stress can indeed cause death.

But take it back another step. Lets say that your work doesn’t really cause chronic stress. Maybe you enjoy your work. What then? Why is this rest necessary?

Taking a break from work gives you a chance to renew and revive, to reconnect with family and friends. This break can not only ultimately enhance your work, but have a positive influence on the way that you enjoy your life and relate to others. Neglecting to take this renewal time can also cause a sort of death – a death of the spirit.

So let’s say that you decide to take that Sabbath rest. Does this mean that you need to stop turning on and off lights? What is the Sabbath rest? As Reform Jews, we believe in educated choices. I strongly believe that people should try a lot of different ways to observe the Sabbath in order to find the one that is most fulfilling to them. Turning off the electrical appliances for 24 hours can be a fascinating, and very restful experience.

There was an interesting discussion on ravelry.com a few weeks back about the question of knitting on the Sabbath (forbidden by Orthodox halachah). I will come back to that discussion in another post…

Shabbat Shalom!!   Have a restful and renewing Sabbath!

“Teach them diligently…”

As a teacher who loves to teach, “diligently” doesn’t come to mind as the best word to describe how we should teach our children. Lovingly, gently, and passionately are all adverbs that to me describe good teaching. The English teacher that I loved taught me to enjoy reading by sharing aloud the words from the book, “Tuck Everlasting,” as if each word was precious. The Rabbi that taught me that Judaism could be spiritual shared his lessons with his eyes closed, savoring the sweetness and genius of our tradition.

But today, I am growing to understand more and more where diligence comes in. I spend a lot of time teaching the mechanics of Hebrew reading to students who would rather be anywhere than studying Hebrew. To me, Hebrew is a fun puzzle, letters that unlock the secrets of the ages. Letters that, even had they no meaning, would be kind of fun to decode. But, if you have been regularly struggling with these letters for three years and making little progress, for whatever reason, they certainly don’t seem fun. This is where diligence comes in. The diligent teacher or parent will get past that dislike with the student and… if enough time goes by, they might get lucky enough to share the love and passion that Torah can inspire.

Here’s hoping, anyway…

Welcome

Welcome to the Cantor’s Canvas! I love and am endlessly fascinated by Judaism, music, and knitting. All three provide real soulful sustenance for me. The Cantor’s Canvas will be a space for me to share my musings on any of the above topics and more. I invite you to engage with me on these topics, to share your ideas, and to participate in the discussion.

I will begin with a rant… that will become a rave. I hate model seders. I never could understand why we need them and why so many communities have created them. The seder is a lesson in itself. Properly observed, a seder will be fun, informative, and engaging. It should be unique. It should stand alone. It was for this reason that I was so unhappy when, several years ago, the Women’s Club of Temple Beth Torah asked me to help them with their women’s seder to be held in the weeks leading up to Passover.

I explained my objections to the women, but didn’t want to outright refuse. Instead, I told them what I would require if they really wanted my help. The women’s seder, I suggested, should be a ritual of preparation for Passover. There should be no blessings containing the words, “…asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav…” because nothing that we would be observing would be a mitzvah. Matzah, if served, should be served alongside crackers, so that people would be able to reserve their first taste of matzah for the actual seder, and the reasoning behind this should be clearly explained. All lines in the seder that explained ritual action should talk in the future tense (“the maror that we will eat…”)

To my great surprise, the women agreed to my terms and we worked together to create a seder of preparation for Passover. Thanks to the beautifully spiritual writings of Shelle Goldstein, and her willingness to humor me, I am pleased to say that this is a seder that I can participate in with pleasure! Unlike other model seders, I don’t leave this one feeling like I have already “done” Passover, but rather that I am now spiritually ready to embark on my Passover preparations.

This is what a model seder should be.

Shavua Tov!