Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

Be A Giant

I have just returned from a wonderful four day cantorial conference in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the conference was social action. So many times over the course of the week people spoke about how helpless they felt in the face of so much horror happening in our country and in the world.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Moses sends spies to scout out the land before they would enter and conquer it. The spies are very impressed by the land and all that they see there. They return to the people and report that the people there were giants and that next to such giants, they would be perceived as nothing but grasshoppers, and thus they started to see themselves as such.

When facing an enormous challenge, it is easy to see ourselves small in the face of the enormity that lies ahead. And if we see only this, how can we move in any direction, let alone, one that would require the strength and power to overcome those perceived giants. So what was the fault of the spies? The spies imagined how they would be perceived and then put that vision onto themselves, giving it power. But this was all in their minds. Their smallness was in their own perception, but their fear made it real.

Once it was clear that they saw themselves thus, G-d could not allow them to proceed. A whole generation needed to pass before the children of Israel would be permitted to attempt to conquer the land. The children of Israel needed to move beyond their slave mentality, to see themselves as free and worthy, before they could accomplish what they needed to.

Today, we do not have time for this. We must overcome any feeling of being helpless right now, because that too is only in our minds. Our Torah teaches us to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Over and over again, the Torah stresses these essential values. Even in this very week’s Torah portion, we read, “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Eternal.” (Num 15:15) This isn’t about politics. This crosses the boundaries of democrat and republican. This is about human rights, and is something that we can all get behind regardless of our feelings about immigration politics. These are the values that our Torah teaches, and this is the time that we must be giants.

I will leave you with the prayer that I wrote as part of the service that I led for the cantors this past Tuesday morning:

From cowardice, I will burst forth with courage

“Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal”

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,

And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

My voice will sing out my strength and my joy

And through melody – the inspiration for deliverance.

From laziness, I will sing now with energy.

“Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena.”

“It is not up to you to complete the work,

But neither are you free to desist from it.”

No. I will sing.

Sing loud and strong,

And the energy of my song, of praise will move me,

Can move you

Can move us all to move mountains together.

There will be no arrogance in this song

“V’anochi afar va’efer.”

“For I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

And yet through breath and song, the dust stirs the air,

changes its essence

Brings forth ruach from nothingness.

G-d of truth, let the truth of this song ring out.

Breathe Your ruach into our souls,

Inspiring us to partner with you in tikkun olam

So that we may declare: “Kol Han’shamah T’haleil Yah!”

“Let every soul sing praise to You!”

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The Spirituality of Dyeing Yarn

I have recently taken up yarn dyeing. I dye with color-safe food dyes because I feel that while I live in a small space, avoiding toxic powders helps keep me and my family safe. As I have learned and explored this new hobby, I have found it to be deeply satisfying, not only artistically, but surprisingly, spiritually. I find a mystical joy in the discovery of the colors as they develop that reminds me of how I feel when I sing. It is as though I am, through this art, connecting to a deeper spiritual plane that few other things reach.

As I was preparing to teach a workshop at the synagogue on yarn dyeing, I wanted to make it Jewish, and wondered how I could help others find this spiritual connection as I had. I reviewed the symbolic meanings of the colors. I pondered the fact that yarn dyeing, like knitting is an act of creation, perhaps helping us to connect to the Divine Creator. But I think my connection goes beyond these things.

G-d created the world with two simple words, “Y’hi Or” – let there be light. What is light? Light is a collection of colors. Pure white light is a combination of every color. When you dye yarn, particularly with food coloring, which is a mixture of colors which bind to the yarn at different rates, the resulting colors are somewhat unpredictable. The resulting skeins are a surprise of color and that surprise connects us to our art, to the wonder of creation, and to the beauty inherent in both the purposeful act and the surprising result. It is an act of revelation – an unexpected beauty.


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This is a picture of the first yarn I ever dyed.  The color is created by “breaking violet.”  It uses only one color of food coloring.  I learned this technique from Rebecca Brown of chemknits.  You can find her videos here: https://www.youtube.com/user/ChemKnitsBlog

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These are the yarns that are synagogue yarn dyeing class created together.

Four Jewish New Years

Time has always been a sacred Jewish concept. In the first moments of creation, G-d began to distinguish times – “there was evening and there was morning, day one.” There was no sun, moon, or stars, but already there was a separation in time – evening to morning, one day from the next. By the end of the week, time had been divided, not only into days, but into sacred and profane – Shabbat, and every other time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is holy partially because it is an island in time. Whereas sacred space can be destroyed, sacred time exists always, whether we observe it or not. “Judaism,” he wrote, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Further, he said:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

So the Sabbath creates a weekly holy island in time, but Judaism also sanctifies its years. We think of the Jewish New Year as Rosh Hashanah, but actually according to the Mishnah, there are four Jewish New Years. This was to ensure that certain commandments were completed at their appointed times. For example, the Israelites were required to contribute a tenth of the current year’s produce, so therefore they needed to know exactly when the current agricultural year began and ended.

The first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah. This is the holiday that we think of when we think of the Jewish New Year. It aligns approximately with one of the secular New Years too – the beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashanah is the new year for seasons. The Talmud associates it with the anniversary of the creation. It is also considered the beginning of the civil calendar, and thus the new year’s for measuring the reigns of foreign kings, for setting the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and figuring the yearly tithe.

Rosh Hashanah is also a spiritual New Year. This is when we consider our lives and how we wish to change and become better people. For most Jews, the only two “New Years” we observe are Rosh Hashanah and January 1st.

But for those who remember their days in Hebrew school, they might also remember that Tu B’shvat is the New Year for trees. This is when the sap has begun to rise and fruit has started to ripen (in Israel.) It is customary on this date to eat the fruit of the new season. Ashkenazi Jews eat 15 different kinds of fruit. In the 16th century, the Sephardic mystics of Sfat expanded the Tu Bishvat observance with a seder that uses the symbolism of fruits with and without shells to enact the process of opening up to G-d’s holiness. In modern times, we also associate this holiday with environmentalism and the planting of trees in Israel.

Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’shvat are the two most well known Jewish new year’s. But there are two more. 1 Nissan corresponds to the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. It says in the Torah, “this month [Nisan] is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you.” We observe Passover on the 15th of the month of Nisan. The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the reigns of Jewish kings (as opposed to secular ones), the renting of houses, and the counting of festivals between making and fulfilling a vow.

The last of the four new years is 1 Elul – the new year for tithing cattle. This one seems irrelevant today. The Temple no longer stands and how many of us keep cows? Still, many environmentalists are arguing for bringing this one back into prominence. The holiday can be about seeing the sacredness of all living beings and considering our place in our food system. It is a day on which to, as Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it, “abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.” Of course Elul is also the month of selichot recitations in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Can there be a connection between our consideration of the treatment of animals and our own cheshbon hanefesh – the examining of our souls? The psalmist looks at a deer’s yearning for water and sees reflected an image of our own yearning for G-d. On Rosh Hashanah we will face our animal instincts – as we begin that inner accounting, an examination of our treatment of animals can connect.

These four ancient observances give us a gift of renewing ourselves and our communities in different ways over the course of the year. It’s really quite brilliant. Rabbi Ismar Schorch wrote of Rosh Hashanah and 1 Nissan (with its approach of Pesach):

…both sacred seasons express the fullness of human need. In the spring, we join with family and friends to celebrate the rebirth of our people. Nature and history converge in a burst of new vigor, hope and creativity. We have a need to belong, to attach our lives to something greater and more lasting than ourselves, to find meaning beyond the self.

But the self is not to be denied. It must find some sacred solitude within the totality of community and peoplehood. And so we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.

Rosh Hashanah is a deeply personal, inner examination of our lives. Tu B’shvat connects us to nature and food, celebrates the rebirth of spring after a dark and cold winter, 1 Nissan connects us to our people – to our extended families and our shared Jewish story, 1 Elul begins the process of personal repentance and connects us to all life and its sacredness. Through the marking and celebrations of all four new years, we have the chance to explore our lives from many different facets and with greater depth. And the secular new year gives us a moment of sparkle and joy that makes us glad to exist in a world where sacred and secular can shine together.

#blogExodus–Hide

 

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My son is 2 years and 4 months old.  Last week, we played hide and seek at my mother’s house.  “You hide, and I’ll count to 10,” I said.  I counted and he went and hid.  It was very clear where he was hiding.  I could see him from where I was standing, but I went to “look” for him anyway. 

“Hmmmm…” I said.  “You’re not behind the chair…”

“I’m hiding over here, mommy!” He gleefully shouted.

It occurs to me that we play the same game of hide and seek with G-d.  We are always searching, but G-d is always right “over here.” G-d is in the kindness of friends and family and in the warmth of community.  G-d is in the beautiful sunsets and the sparkling snow.  G-d is in the moment when depression lifts and the world once again appears in color.  G-d is hiding with us, even in our darkest moments.  It’s just that the dark moments are the hands covering our eyes, making it hard to see.  We just have to remember that just because we can’t see something in the moment, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when not feeling it.

I believe in G-d even when G-d is silent.

-Inscription found on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where Jews hid from the Nazis

(as quoted in Siddur Likrat Shabbat)

#blogExodus – Grow

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Growth is being able to look at a position you once took and be willing to revisit, rethink, and revise.

Here is some of my seder thinking – personal growth in progress, because as you can see, I’m still vacillating:

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post where I spoke about what can be lost when we gear our seders only towards the children in the room. You can read it here: (https://cantorneff.com/2010/03/21/by-gearing-the-seder-towards-the-kids-are-we-cheating-them-out-of-the-best-experience/) Basically, I suggested that our kids are losing out because they don’t have the experience of learning the old melodies and traditions. I felt that in changing the seder culture to make it all about fun, that we aren’t actually succeeding in making it fun (for most people), that our children aren’t learning, aren’t finding it worthwhile, and that we are losing (for both kids and adults) the family and community memory of the melodies and traditions of seders past.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve had to struggle with my words. My own family members whine bitterly about being at our seder. This is a seder that is done almost entirely in English and with finger puppets and masks, but which otherwise sticks to liturgy and music that are traditional for our family. I am not sure that my insistence on sticking to that liturgy has helped the younger generation of my family to learn the tunes and the traditions. I fear that it might actually be the opposite – that I am the old fuddy duddy in the corner, singing the Chad Gadya from the beginning to the end, pretty much by myself.

I had a conversation with my sixth grade class about the issue and listened while they argued both sides, each contradicting themselves in their subsequent comments. In the end, they said it has to be both, but they don’t want a six-hour seder

Every year we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt. If I had been there, I would want my children to know the story, remember the ancient songs and melodies, but I would also want them to want to pass the stories on to their children. For groups where no children are present, the goals are different. But in families with children, “v’shinantam l’vanecha” – you shall teach it to your children is the most important thing. We can’t teach it to them, if we lost them in the first five minutes. On the other hand, what are we teaching them when we allow the old melodies and traditions to be lost? In this, my growth must be ongoing. I am willing to revise and revisit, but I am not willing to lose the essence and meaning of the seder in the process…

A postscript.

I read this really interesting article last night: http://www.challahcrumbs.com/what-disney-world-taught-me-about-seder/. In gearing our seders towards the kids present, we should remember that our kids are still the same kids they were yesterday, even when they are sitting at the table.  So the only way to make the seder engaging for them is to keep them in mind as we create it. We should take a lesson from the four children of the haggadah: the wise, the naughty, the one who does not yet know, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. Our seder should contain elements that stimulate the wise child, invite good questions and give them an opportunity to show off what they know. The seder should also meet the needs of the “naughty” child – the one who perhaps has trouble sitting still and paying attention – this child is usually not naughty on purpose. The seder should teach the traditions, the melodies, and the history of Passover to the child who doesn’t learn these things in Hebrew school or at home (even if it means playing them off a CD, as I suggested in my original article). And it should be engaging to the special needs child – stimulating, but not overstimulating in whatever way that child needs. We have to look at who is going to be at OUR seder and then make it work.

3 Nisan – Cleanse

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To do list – Cleanse:

  • Clean.
  • Make a menu plan for the entire week.
  • Shop.
  • Cook.
  • Throw open the windows and let in the fresh spring air (fresh spring air – what’s that?).
  • Through the physical labor of preparing, begin the spiritual work.
  • Play guitar at a beautiful and meaningful women’s Seder of preparation – check!

Well, at least I got one thing done! 🙂

2 Nisan – Bless

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As a child, I found the formulation of blessing to be a little confusing. Blessed are You, Eternal G-d, who… creates the fruit of the vine, brings forth bread from the earth, etc… Who are We to bless G-d, I thought? Isn’t it G-d who blesses us with these things for which we are giving thanks?

An un-noticed gift is no barely any gift at all. Yes, the food we eat while driving and talking on the phone sustains us, but it doesn’t offer the same degree of blessing as that taken sitting at the dinner table with family or friends. Shabbat comes every week whether or not we choose to sanctify it. When we do not, Shabbat is incapable of serving our needs for rest and renewal – the gift is lost and so is the blessing. When we take the time to bless G-d with our presence, with our awareness, the blessing is returned many-fold.

So this second day of Nisan the theme is bless – and by that, I hope to raise my awareness of the process, the gift that Passover CAN be when we allow it to be not only about the busy-work of preparation, but about its results – the full and set table, family and friends, children. I will try to bless G-d by being present, as I open myself up to receive.