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#BlogElul 9 - Hear

Blogelul2013I try to really hear the voice of my child. Sometimes he has things to tell me -- about his day at preschool, about Curious George or Diego, about a favorite songs. Sometimes he has sorrows to pour forth, as when he's not allowed a snack right before dinner. Sometimes he wakes in the night with a scary dream (usually about a frog on his bed. I'm not sure why.) I try to listen to him as best I can. I want him to know that his voice matters to me; that his ideas matter to me. That he matters to me.

I try to really hear the voices of my congregants. Often they have things to tell me -- about what's happening in their lives, about their hopes and their fears, about their children or their parents. Sometimes they have sorrows to pour forth, or joys to share. Sometimes they bring budgets or board business to discuss. No matter what, I try to listen to them as best I can. I want them to know that their voices matter to me; that their ideas matter to me. That they matter to me.

I try to listen to the people I encounter every day. In person, whether at the CSA or the grocery store; online, on blogs and Twitter and Facebook. It can be easy to forget that there is a human being behind every online interaction, but of course there is; the internet is just another tool for the ordinary and extraordinary communications which mark every day of human life. Sometimes the people I meet have sorrows to pour forth. Sometimes they have joys to share. I try to listen as best I can. I want them to know that their voices matter to me; that their ideas matter to me. That they matter to me.

When I think about hearing Jewishly, I think of the shema. "Hear, O Israel; Adonai is our God; Adonai is One." (That's the first line -- the prayer continues from there, but that one sentence is the ikkar, the essence.) I've been in services where we're encouraged to replace "Israel" with our own names. Praying the words with my own name swapped in for the communal name "Israel" has been surprisingly powerful for me. Recognizing that this isn't just a generalized call for our community to hear the Oneness of all things, but a call for me, specifically, to listen to God's voice and experience unity...! Holy wow. I love that my tradition calls on me not only to listen but to hear.

During this month of Elul, what kind of hearing can I do? In listening to my child -- in listening to my congregation -- in listening to the people I meet every day -- in listening for the voice of God -- there are opportunities for teshuvah, for repentance and return. I always aspire to listen wholly...and I often fail at that aspiration. It's all too easy to be not entirely present: to my child, to my community, to the people I meet, to God. All I can do is notice when I'm not wholly listening, and take a deep breath, and strive to do better. I want to really listen when the world speaks.


Related: Kol Echad: the voice of the one in the voices of the many, July 2013.

Also worth reading: Shema: Hear! Listen! by Gloria Scheiner at The Jewish Writing Project.

#BlogElul 8: Believe

Blogelul2013I look at today's theme: "Believe."

And I'm washed in memory: my dear friend Evan, at the ALEPH Kallah this summer, warbling, "I believe the children are our future..." Thanks a lot for the earworm, Evan. (And my apologies to everyone else with whom I've now shared that incredibly annoying Whitney Houston song. Two earworms in two days; something else to atone for, I suppose...)

I push that away and-- from the ridiculous to the sublime! -- I think of the prayer ani ma'amin, a setting of Rambam's Thirteen Principles. "I believe with a perfect faith..." (It's perhaps most famous for the melody which arose during the Shoah.) How many of us can recite that prayer, or any prayer, with "perfect faith"?

Of course, as venerated as Rambam's list of principles may be (many of us sing it, either as ani ma'amin or as the hymn Yigdal, during services), it's still something written by a single person. He was a great rabbi and sage, don't get me wrong! But Judaism doesn't have a creed per se -- not the way that some other traditions do.

One of the things I love about the modah ani prayer is that it explicitly reminds us, every morning, to be grateful to God Who restores our souls to us and Who has great faithfulness. Raba emunatecha, "great is Your faith" -- the word emunatecha has the same root as ma'amin, believe. (The root letters are א, מ, נ, which spell "Amen.") Some siddurim translate that line as "great is Your faith in us." I love the idea that faith is something God has in us. It's bidirectional. God is the One Who believes in us, even when we can't believe in ourselves.

There's a story which I've heard my teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) tell many times. Someone, the story goes, says to a rabbi -- intending to be provocative -- "I don't believe in God." When I've heard the story told, that line is usually delivered with a kind of so-there tone. Gotcha, rabbi! And the rabbi's response, at least as it's come down to me, is "Nu -- the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either." (There's a version of that story here: The God I Don't Believe.)

Here's how I understand that story: if "God" means a particular construct, that vision of the Big Old White Man With A Long Beard On A Throne In The Sky -- or if "God" means a force of venegeance and retribution in the world -- or if "God" means a cosmic force Who plays favorites among earth's peoples -- nu, that's not the God I believe in. I can join you in rejecting that understanding of God.

But if "God" means ein-sof, the kabbalists' understanding of the limitless infinity beyond all creation -- if "God" means the source of all blessing, the source of abundance, the source of love -- if "God" means a Presence Who yearned for relationship and brought the cosmos into being in order to be in relationship with us -- if "God" means something both far above and deep within, something we can glimpse in our moments of greatest love and deepest connection -- that's the God Who has faith in us. That's the ahavat olam, the unending love of which our liturgy speaks.

That's the God in Whom I believe. With as perfect a faith as I can manage. That's the God Whose love is extended to all creation, always.


#BlogElul 7: Be

Blogelul2013When I look at the one-word prompt for today's #BlogElul challenge, I find myself humming an old Doris Day tune: "When I was just a little girl I asked my mother, 'What will I be? Will I be pretty, will I be rich?' Here's what she said to me" 'Que sera, sera -- whatever will be, will be -- the future's not ours to see -- que sera, sera."

Oy. I mean, it's a catchy song, but it's not exactly my theology.

Well: it's true that the future's not ours to see, generally speaking. And it's true that things unfold sometimes not as we might wish, but in a way that's shaped by a vast and interconnected web of events and choices. Our actions and choices shape our futures. So do the actions and choices of those around us, and those who came before us.

But I'm not sure I want to blithely accept that "whatever will be, will be." Or at least: I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that I don't have any agency. I can't control what will be, but I have power over my own reactions. I can choose how I want to be in the world.

I want to be thoughtful. I want to be compassionate and kind. I want to be whole-hearted. I want to be mindful of others and of others' needs. I want to be thankful. I want to live with what my teachers call "prayerful consciousness," infusing my every moment with awareness of something greater than myself.

None of those things changes what will be. If our son is going to have a tantrum in the middle of a beautiful walk by the reservoir, and plunk himself down and refuse to walk any further, then that's what he's going to do, no matter how mindful I'm aiming to be. Or -- raising the stakes substantially -- if, God forbid, someone I love were to fall ill, my striving to be all of those things wouldn't change their diagnosis. If, God forbid, I myself were to be diagnosed with something fearsome, my striving to be all of those things wouldn't change my diagnosis either. But if I can try to be kind and whole-hearted and thankful, to be prayerful, to be aware of God's presence in my life, then I can bring those things into whatever will be. Into the sweet, and into the bitter. I can't necessarily shape what will be, but I can try to shape who I will be.

During the Days of Awe we'll pray the prayer called Unetaneh Tokef, which asks the questions: in the coming year, who will live, and who will die? Who by fire, and who by water? (And so on. Here's a post I wrote about that prayer back in 2005: Every day I write the book.) The refrain of that prayer teaches that tefilah, u-teshuvah, u-tzedakah, ma'avirin et-roa ha-g'zeirah -- "Prayer, repentance / turning-toward-Oneness, and righteously giving to others in need, can sweeten the harshness of the decree." I'm always struck by the fact that the prayer doesn't make the audacious claim that prayer, repentance, and tzedakah can change what will be. But they can sweeten what will be.

We can't control the future. But we have control over how we respond to the future we're given. If I can respond with prayer, with teshuvah, with tzedakah, then I can sweeten my experience of my life -- and in a certain way, that is changing what will be. It's an epistemological change (a change in what I experience), even if it isn't an ontological one (a change in the objective reality of what is.) What will be, will be. But who will I be, in response to whatever is? That's one of my big questions as we move through Elul: who is it, exactly, that I intend to be?

#BlogElul 6: Do

Blogelul2013When God gave us the Torah at Sinai -- so says our tradition -- we responded with na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Sounds kind of backwards, doesn't it? How can we follow instructions if we don't hear them first?

But Torah isn't just about following instructions. The receiving of Torah at Sinai was an experience of covenant, of connection. In this story, the tradition teaches us that sometimes we have to do something in order to really understand it. That in relationship, you have to commit to the other party even before you know everything it's possible to know about them. You make the commitment; you enter into the covenant; you do what that relationship requires. And over time, you come to understand your partner in deeper ways. You become able to "hear" things you couldn't have heard when you first started out.

Ideally, this is how the practice of mitzvot works. Lighting Shabbat candles, for instance: when I took on the practice of trying to light every week, regardless of whether or not I was "in the mood," regardless of what else might be going on for me as Friday evening begins, I didn't know what it would feel like to light every week. I didn't know how the practice might come to shape my life, or how it might impact my spirituality. Now that I've been doing it for some time, I can tell you that it speaks to me in ways I hadn't anticipated.

Because of my roots in Reform Judaism, I'm always exploring the interplay of tradition and informed choice. But perhaps because of my understanding of na'aseh v'nishmah, I'm also always probing to discern: if there's a mitzvah I don't want to perform, is that an expression of my informed choice, or a mulish refusal to accept the possibility that if I do the mitzvah with regularity it might speak to me in ways I can't imagine beforehand?

Maybe that discernment work is part of what it means for me to "do Jewish." My struggle to continually achieve the right balance between received tradition, renewed practice, and new choices about my Jewish life is itself a Jewish act. This is how I participate in covenantal community.

As Elul unfolds, in some ways there's not a lot we're supposed to "do." There's a tradition of hearing the shofar every day during Elul, and hearkening to its call: sleepers, awake! And of course there's the work of teshuvah, of repentance and return. Most of what we do during Elul is invisible. It's work of the heart, work of the soul. No one can see whether or not you're doing it -- except in the ways that doing this inner work can shape and change the outer face you present to the world.


 Worth reading: Rabbi Jill Jacobs' essay Do First, Understand Later: The Jews accepted the Torah with the statement naaseh v'nishma--we will do and we will hear.

Also: thanks to the URJ for crossposting this to the Reform Judaism blog: To Do is to Understand.

#BlogElul 5: Know

Blogelul2013Here are some things I know.

I know that there is meaning in this life.

I know that I can keep striving to be the person I mean to be, to live up to my hopes for who I can become.

I know I'll make mistakes. I'll miss the mark. I'll fall short.

I know I can pick myself up again and keep trying.

I know that these #BlogElul posts are earnest and heartfelt -- and that they will probably come across as hokey, at least to some of y'all.

I know that I've always been better at earnest and heartfelt than at hip and ironic, so I might as well embrace that. Especially at this season.

I know that my life is better when I get enough sleep.

I know that my life is better when I remember to say thank you. (And thank You.)

I know that I am happier when I walk more, when I sing more, when I read more poetry.

I know that the Days of Awe are coming soon; that I'll blink and they'll be upon us.

I know that I don't feel ready. I know that I never feel ready. I mean: my sermons will be ready, my prayerbook will be prepared, my to-do list will be conquered. But I won't feel spiritually ready to lead my community in the work of prayer and teshuvah.

I know that the fact of not feeling ready is one of the ways I know that I'm doing this "right." That if I felt fully ready, I would be deluding myself. That it's good to go into the Days of Awe with a little bit of trepidation.

I know that I'm unbelievably lucky to get to do what I do. I know that I feel incredibly blessed.

#BlogElul 4: Accept

Blogelul2013Accepting what is. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Just -- accept. Experience whatever life gives you.

And when life, or the universe, or God -- however you understand it -- gives you something pleasurable, it's easy to accept. A lunch date with a friend: why yes, that sounds grand! An evening with my family: what a treat! An ice cream cone: sure! 

But sometimes we're handed things we didn't ask for, things we don't want. Difficult diagnoses. Postpartum depression. The loss of a job or a loved one. No one wants to accept those. As though in accepting them, we're acceding to them, agreeing to them somehow.

Does it make a difference if one makes a conscious decision to accept whatever comes? Does that give one any kind of agency in the situation? (Is that feeling of agency enough when what comes is difficult or painful?)

Sometimes I get hung up on my expectations. When I develop a sense for what I think is coming, when I write a "script" for an encounter or an experience, and then life doesn't match those expectations, I can get stuck in the disjunction. Thinking that I know what's coming can be a barrier to accepting what is.

As we move into Elul, into this month of teshuvah leading up to the Days of Awe: can I make a spiritual practice of striving to accept whatever life hands me?

Can I accept whatever each day contains while still working to examine and perfect my heart and my soul? I don't want to accept the places where I miss the mark, the places where my relationships or my actions aren't what they should be. Where's the right line between accepting what life holds, and not accepting the places where I could be doing a better job of being the person I mean to be?

#BlogElul 3: Bless

Bless, O my soul, the transcendent and immanent One !
My Holy One, You are great beyond measure.
Splendor and beauty You put on;
You don light like a garment
Spreading the heavens like a curtain.
How precious is Your love, Holy One!
Humankind takes refuge in the shelter of Your wings.
They will be satisfied from the abundance of Your house
And from the stream of Your delights You give them to drink.
For with You is the source of life
And in Your light, we will see light.
Extend Your love to Your knowers,
And Your charity to those righteous of heart.

That's a setting of Barchi Nafshi performed by Hazzan Richard Kaplan, who is a hasid, a loving disciple, of Reb Zalman's. Some have the custom of reciting these verses when putting on a tallit for morning prayer.

I love the idea that God is robed in light as we robe ourselves in garments. And I love the idea that when we pray, we bless God.

It's easy to think in terms of asking God to bless us, or to bless our loved ones. But this prayer calls us to remember that we too are sources of blessing. That despite God's infinite greatness -- "my Holy One, You are great beyond measure" -- we bless God.

Maybe our ability to bless God, and to bless each other, arises out of the reality that we are made in God's image. Like God, we can create and destroy with our words. Like God, we can choose to speak curses or to speak blessings.

Today, on the third day of this journey into the month of Elul, may we find it in our hearts to bless God, and to bless everyone we meet.


#BlogElul 2: Act

Blogelul2013There's a famous passage in the Talmud (Talmud Bavli /Kiddushin 40b) in which the sages of our tradition debated, "Which is greater -- study or or action?" Rabbi Akiva's answer was, "Study -- if it leads to action."

Learning and doing are always two sides of the same coin. We learn in order that we might do. We study in order that we might act.

One of the "texts" which we study at this time of year is the unfolding of our own life. As you study the year which is drawing to its close, what action items become clear to you?

Are there places where you need to repair your relationship with the world of action -- to more closely align your actions with your intentions and your aspirations?

Maybe this means resolving to be more active in the coming year, to take more steps, to experience the outside world more often. Maybe it means examining and changing your patterns of consumption.

Maybe it means setting the intention of becoming more politically active in support of the causes you truly believe are just and right.

What are the actions you need to take in order to prepare yourself for the coming Days of Awe?


#BlogElul 1: Prepare

Blogelul2013If you pay attention to the moon, you may have noticed that it's been waning in recent weeks. The full moon of Av (on the Jewish calendar), the full moon of Ramadan (on the Muslim calendar), has been steadily shrinking. As surely as waves roll out and then roll back in again, now it's time for the moon to start growing. Today is new moon, Rosh Chodesh Elul. One month until the Days of Awe.

Here's a thing I love about our calendar: every thing is connected to something else. None of our festivals or holy days arise out of nowhere, sudden surprises after a turn in the road. If you pay attention to the unfolding of the calendar, the cycle of the year always takes you from Tisha b'Av to Rosh Chodesh Elul, to Rosh Hashanah, to Yom Kippur, to Sukkot, and on, and on, eventually leading us right back to where we started again.

Here's another thing I love: it's always possible to start paying attention, to become mindful, to dive in, wherever we are. Maybe you haven't been counting the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah -- nu, no big deal; start now, four weeks before the new year! You can always begin to prepare. It's always open to you. Start now, as the moon begins to wax, and when it wanes -- as it will inevitably do -- feel your heart and soul quicken with the approaching Days of Awe.

During this lunar month, we get ourselves ready. I don't just mean festooning our machzorim (high holiday prayerbooks) with sticky notes and melody reminders, though surely those of us who lead High Holiday davenen are well-immersed in that at this point in the year. I mean preparing our hearts and souls for the introspection of the season. Doing the inner work of Elul, which is the work of teshuvah. (Some say: Elul is the month for external teshuvah, doing the work of repentance and return in the external facets of our lives -- our relationships with others -- and the Ten Days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the time for the internal work and for repairing our relationship with God.)

I love that our tradition gives us a whole month to prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe. On your marks, get set, go -- now! But remember that this isn't a sprint; it's more of a spiritual marathon. It's all month long. Start looking back on the year that's about to end. Where have you lived up to your hopes and expectations; where have you fallen short? What is the teshuvah work you're going to need to do in order to try to do better in the year to come?

Are there relationships in your life which need some tikkun, some repair, before the Days of Awe? Our tradition teaches that Yom Kippur can atone for the misdeeds which injure the relationship between a person and God, but for misdeeds which injure the relationship between two people, before we seek God's forgiveness we have to humble ourselves and ask the other person's forgiveness. What's the work ahead of you on that front?

It's one short lunar month until Rosh Hashanah, until we come together in community (many of us, in communities which have suddenly swelled in size), until we come together before God on the Day of Remembrance. What would it take for you to feel truly prepared?


This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can't promise that I'll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people's posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.