Friday, August 31, 2012

#BlogElul Excuses

NPR's "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me" recently had an episode in which they listed a string of excuses that various politicians over the years had used to cover up their transgressions.  Since the show is meant as humorous entertainment, you'd be forgiven if you presumed that these were the invention of clever writers.  But they were, in fact, direct quotes from the figures involved.  For instance, Larry Craig, upon being arrested for allegedly soliciting an undercover officer in an airport restroom, blamed his "wide stance;"  David Dinkins, accused of tax evasion, insisted he had not broken the law, but rather that he had "failed to comply with the law."

It's easy to make excuses.  It's more comfortable to believe that the blame for some failure can be placed on an outside object, circumstance, or individual.  But as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in us."  We cannot blame the fates or the cosmos when things go wrong, but must accept responsibility for our own actions.

It's a difficult task, to be sure, but when we set aside our excuses and admit our culpability and fallibility, we begin the healing that comes with teshuvah.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

#BlogElul Image

The little boy drew a picture of himself, painstakingly choosing the right crayons to accurately depict how he thought he looked.  When he finished, he stood back and admired his handiwork.  He was so proud of his effort that he begged his mother to let him come to her office the next day so that he might make copies of the picture to send to his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, and everyone else he knew.  His mother humored him and agreed.

The boy stood before the copy machine, lovingly placed the picture on the glass, and pushed the button to make a copy.  He removed the original, placed the copy on the glass, and pushed the button again.  He then removed that copy from the tray and repeated the cycle.

After 10 copies had been made in this fashion, the boy eyed the final copy with a sad look.  He held it up to the original and remarked to his mother, "This is a bad picture.  I can't even tell who I am anymore."

Often at this season we echo the boy's lament.  While the downgrading of our self-image is not due to the limitations of xerographic technologies, the result is the same.  We engage in self-examination and realize that we no longer recognize ourselves.  We can't tell who we are anymore.

But the cheshbon nefesh-- the soul searching-- that we engage in during this month of Elul in preparation for the holiday season, allows us to engage in mindful introspection.  It allows us to adjust those aspects of ourselves that are perhaps not quite as we might like them to be, and to put our best foot forward for the year ahead.  In this way we have an opportunity to make the outward image we project match the way we perceive ourselves in our hearts.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#BlogElul Change

When Edith Bunker experiences menopause and the mood swings that go along with it in the All in the Family episode "Edith's Problem," Archie tries to be a supportive husband.  But soon he reaches his threshold, and shouts at Edith, "If you're going to have a change of life, do it now!  I'm giving you thirty seconds..." (The full episode, with an Emmy-winning script, is available at YouTube.  Search for "Edith's Problem.")

Change is rarely quick, or easy.  Some of us find ourselves committing to change each year, only to backslide eventually into the same familiar behavior.  The Mishnah does warn us not to do so deliberately, teaching "For the one who says I will sin and repent, and then sin again, Yom Kippur does not atone. (Yoma 8:9)"  But for those of us who make our best effort toward change, and still find that we are unable to make the change "stick," Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to reexamine our past efforts, deepen our resolve, and challenge ourselves to be better in the future.

It won't come easy, but it's the hard things that are worth the effort.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

#BlogElul Memory

[At least] two influential Americans passed away in this past week.  Only one of the men I'm thinking of was likely a household name, but I would venture to guess that both played significant roles in the lives of Americans in my generation.

Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, was, in the words of his family, "a reluctant American hero."  Nonetheless, he encouraged countless others to explore new frontiers, and to imagine possibilities that others might have dismissed as too difficult or utterly unattainable.  His memory is a blessing because he will continue to inspire a quest for scientific knowledge far into the future.

Jerry Nelson is probably less well known.  He was a seminal member of Jim Henson's Muppet troupe, and was the originator of such characters as Kermit's nephew Robin, Count von Count, Floyd (lead singer of the Electric Mayhem) and countless others.  With Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the rest of the Muppets' crew, Jerry Nelson encouraged us all to stretch our imaginations and have fun.

The loss of any individual is a sad occasion, painful and lamentable to that person's circle of family and friends.  When someone who has spent time in the public eye passes, greater numbers may mourn the loss.  Memory allows us to assuage, however slightly, the pain of loss by allowing the deceased to endure.  As they live within our hearts and minds, they achieve eternal life.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

#BlogElul Prayer

Do I pray when I'm "Off the Clock?"  Of course.

I pray for health for myself, my family, and my loved ones.

I pray for enough time to accomplish all of the things that need to get done, and even some of the [not-as-essential] stuff I want to get done.

I pray that I'll finish all of the preparations for the High Holidays.

I pray for patience, and for control over my baser instincts and behaviors.

I pray that my children will inherit a world in which war, intolerance, and other scourges are unknown.

And I pray that someday, all the world will share in that last prayer, so that it may become obsolete.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

#BlogElul Shofar

Last year, we sent the above photos as part of our family greeting for the High Holidays.  In case you can't tell from the picture, the two shofarot on the left are toys.  We started with taking those pictures, then thought it would be funny to get shots of the kids with the huge shofar that you see the kids wielding on the right side of the collage.

Orli still doesn't quite have the hang of it, and puts the entire mouthpiece in her mouth, expecting the instrument to work like a whistle or party blower.  But Gabe, after posing diligently, asked if he could try to sound the shofar.  He put it to his lips and sounded a sustained tekiah gedolah that resonated through the entire neighborhood.

This year, sounding the shofar is one of his favorite parts about the High Holidays.  When we thought one of our veteran shofar-blowers at the congregation would not be available this year, Gabe eagerly asked if he could slot in (turns out the gentleman is keeping his place, but we'll find another opportunity for Gabe).

The point of the shofar is to awaken us; to make us aware of our surroundings and to heighten our senses so that we are prepared for the New Year.  Gabe's shofar blowing reminds me that the little boy is growing up, acquiring new skills and new instruments.  And I'd better stay alert if I don't want to miss enjoying it all.

Friday, August 24, 2012

#BlogElul Faith

Perhaps my favorite expression of what it means to struggle with faith is expressed by the Yiddish poet Aharon Zeitlin.  He writes:

"Praise Me," says God, "And I will know that you love Me."
"Curse Me," says God, "And I will know that you love Me."
"Praise Me or curse Me, and I will know that you love Me."

"Sing out My praises," says God.
"Raise your fist against me and revile," says God.
"Sing out praises or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise," says God.

"But if you sit fenced off in your apathy," says God,
"If you sit entrenched in, 'I don't give a hang,'" says God,
"If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and you don't revile,
Then I created you in vain," says God.

Faith is being able to embrace God in the good times, but also knowing that if you curse God when times are bad, there will still be that Great and Powerful One waiting with open arms to welcome you back when you are ready to enter into relationship once again.

Shug says in The Color Purple, "I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it."  God wants people of faith to have encounters with the Divine-- good or bad, but not indifferent.

P.S. In my last post, I shared a picture of Count Von Count from Sesame Street.  Jerry Nelson, the muppeteer who originated that character and so many others, passed away yesterday.  May his memory be a blessing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#BlogElul Counting

We often count down to things we are eagerly anticipating: a vacation, a simcha, payday.  But most Jewish clergy I know approach the coming of Elul with a bit of fear and trepidation.  They are not eager to begin the countdown because they know that with each passing day of this month, they are one step closer to the High Holidays.
I bet you guessed I'd use this's here for illustrative purposes only and in no way is intended to impinge on the copyrights of Sesame Street, the Muppets, PBS, or related entities.

It is not that I, or any of my colleagues, dislikes the joy and opportunity heralded by the coming of the new year.  Rather, the panic that may grip us has to do with our sense of preparedness: are we truly ready to confront the awe and splendor of these sacred days?  Have we got our heads and our hearts in the proper place to address our needs for the coming year, let alone to help shepherd our congregation (who will likely turn out in the largest numbers we'll see all year) through the careful balance of celebration and contrition that befits this season?

I know that I still have sermon writing and the preparation of liturgical cues ahead of me, in addition to personal reflection and introspection.

I'm looking forward to being with the congregation.  I'm looking forward to apples and honey, and spiritual uplift.

So yes, I'm counting down.

But could we count a little slower, please?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#BlogElul Intentions

I had the best of intentions when I started this blog earlier in the year.  Really.

I was going to write consistently, using this forum as an outlet for voicing my thoughts about the world: what gives me hope and raises my spirits, as well as what frightens or concerns me.  I would examine how faith plays a role in my life, and how I use it to make sense of our often non-sensical society.

I haven't written as frequently as I might have liked; I won't make excuses as to why.

But the thing about intentions, as Elul reminds us, is that when we go astray, when we fail to make good on our best intentions, we needn't throw in the towel.  We have opportunities to make teshuvah, to reexamine our intentions and look for new avenues that will allow us to bring them to fruition.

I can't promise that I'll be any better at this blogging stuff in the year ahead.

But at least I get to try.

Monday, August 20, 2012

#BlogElul Inventory

Taking a personal inventory, as we're called to do during the month of Elul, is difficult.  It takes courage to undergo the true self-examination that the season calls for, to honestly examine our faults and our strengths, and determine what are our potential areas for growth in the year ahead.

When I consider inventory, however, I think back to my college years.  For all four years of college, I worked at the campus bookstore in a variety of roles, including as a cashier and as a member of the "trade" book department (where you would find any non-textbooks that we stocked; since we were owned by Barnes and Noble, this section was pretty extensive).  Once a year, we would conduct a store-wide inventory.  While much of the counting was done by an outside firm, the store employees would be present to answer any questions, and to count the books themselves.

As a college student, I of course appreciated the chance to be paid time-and-a-half (and have lunch and dinner provided by my employer) without having to face any customers all day.  But I also enjoyed having the time to spend with my co-workers.  They were a diverse group, very different from the people with whom I otherwise socialized.

My direct supervisor was a Vietnam veteran who spoke openly of his struggles with PTSD.  Another colleague, an older woman, was a recent refugee from Yugoslavia who taught us of the conflict in her country well before most Americans had heard of it.  An African-American young man who lived in the projects in the heart of Chicago told us of his difficult home life.  A fellow cashier talked passionately about her involvement in her evangelical church, and I explained key tenets of Judaism to those who were interested.  These conversations opened my eyes and broadened my horizons.

Maybe that's what these inventory experiences have in common: if we enter such endeavors with our eyes, ears, and hearts open, we gain new understandings of ourselves and others.  This is how we grow.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

#BlogElul Return

I am fortunate enough to live in an area with minimal "light pollution;" because of the way that our house is situated in relation to our neighbors and in relation to the commercial district of our city, on most nights we can make out the major constellations.

But if I want to appreciate a true clear sky, I know of no locale in my general vicinity that rivals URJ Camp Kalsman.  Looking up into the endless darkness on a camp evening long after my children and the campers have drifted off to sleep, you can see a myriad of stars stretching on for what seems to be an eternity.  I was blessed to be there during this summer's Perseid meteor shower late in the evening of August 11, and it was quite a majestic sight to behold.

There is a prayer in the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefillah that I read on a fairly regular basis at Shabbat morning services or B'nai Miitzvah.  It is an interpretation of the Hoda'ah (Thanksgiving) prayer, and has the refrain Modim anachnu lach (we give thanks to You).

Certainly I acknowledge, and am grateful for, God's handiwork in creation and what I sense as God's continued presence in our world.  Yet occasionally I find it difficult to dig within my heart and soul and adequately express the awe and wonderment that is meant to be evoked by the Hoda'ah prayer.

There is a paragraph in the poetic interpretation that states, "For the expanding grandeur of creation, worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations."

As I looked up at that endless sky, as I woke my son from his sleep to watch the meteor shower with me, I mouthed a silent "Modim anachnu lach."  And my heart soared.

For I once again understood the prayer.

I had returned to my wonderment at the awesomeness of God's creation.

My friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who inspired me to begin this blog with her #BlogExodus project is at it again with #BlogElul, which encourages bloggers to write on different themes during the Hebrew month of Elul to help prepare for the High Holidays.  I'll be trying to blog as frequently as I can this month; follow the hashtag for other writers' thoughts during the month.