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Why I Walk to Shul: Shabbat As Mindfulness

https://i1.wp.com/churchillpolarbears.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/DSC_0078.jpgIt’s raining outside today, which has me thinking about an old joke:

Q: What does a bear do when it rains?
A: It gets wet.

Let’s contrast that to what I do when it rains:

  • First, I check the weather with Siri to see exactly what time it will be raining and for how long. Sometimes if I need more complete information, I go into Google because it also gives the chance of rain (by percentage) for each hour.
  • Next, I agonize over whether to wear my nice shoes or not. (I really don’t want to ruin them in the rain….)
  • Then, I search for an umbrella. It could be in the front closet, or somewhere in the foyer, or (most likely and least usefully) in the car.
  • Most often I don’t find the umbrella so I make a run for it. And then – just like the bear – I get wet.

We modern people tend to see nature as “other” – as a resource to be mastered, or a nuisance to be dealt with. This has been part of the human experience ever since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. We plant seeds and reap our crops, and then we make food and clothing and shelter out of them. We live on this planet, but not exactly in harmony with this planet. And we see ourselves as something higher, something other.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Human civilization is the result of this kind of thinking. Morality comes from the idea that we are more than our animal impulses. And if we didn’t understand ourselves as the masters of nature, we could never have accomplished the things that we have – there would be no medicines, no cell phones, no space travel, and no gourmet recipes.

But the other result this kind of thinking is the otherness of nature. Rather than just getting wet like the bears, we spend time figuring out how to cope with, and mitigate, and change the natural world around us. How to remake it in our own image. And we tend to forget to stop and just appreciate it.

One “antidote” to this in the Torah is the Sabbatical year. The book of Leviticus teaches that every 7 years we should leave the land to lie fallow for one year, without planting anything. We do this because it’s good for the land – it allows it to refresh and regenerate. But we also do it because it’s good for us. It helps us to foster the thinking that we don’t always have to be trying to master nature. That we are a part of the world, and not apart from the world.

That’s a lesson we need much more often than every seven years. Which is why, fortunately, we get it every seven days.

Throughout Jewish literature, Shabbat is framed not only as a cessation from work, but as a cessation from creative work. In Genesis, God spends six days creating the world – shaping and forming and building – and then stops to rest. In fact, the traditionally forbidden forms of work – including sowing, reaping, baking, cooking, and cutting – are the processes by which we harness natural resources and use them for our own purposes. It’s not about exertion (God wasn’t “tired” after 6 days) – it’s about the fact that it’s good for us to stop trying to master the world and instead focus on appreciating it.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath that Shabbat is a day to “turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” In other words, to stop creating for long enough to appreciate what has already been created.

In modern language we call that mindfulness. It is the practice of being where you are. Not planning for the future; not worrying about what has not yet been accomplished; but being conscious and aware of what IS. This is not easy to do – the human experience is by nature a creative one. But there is also goodness in practicing appreciation.

https://i1.wp.com/static2.businessinsider.com/image/57d6fbcfb0ef97c5098b508f-1190-625/these-are-hands-down-the-most-comfortable-dress-shoes-youll-ever-wear.jpgThat is why I like to walk to shul on Shabbat.

It’s not that I think I have to – as a liberal Jew, I believe that I have the choice. But I am aware that I spend most of my life trying to get quickly from place to place. And when I’m speeding up the road at 60 km/hr, I’m not taking the time to appreciate the world around me. But one day a week I can slow it all down. I can see the sights, and hear the sounds, and walk through parks, and notice things I haven’t noticed before.

Do I always walk to the synagogue on Shabbat? I do not. Sometimes I’m running late; sometimes I’m in a hurry to get the kids out the door. But having it as an aspiration reminds me to think differently, to be more mindful and more appreciative. It helps me see the world around me not only as a nuisance, not only as a resource, but as a gift.

 

Between Holy and Ordinary (or “Why I Turn Off My Work Email on Shabbat”)

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Once we were slaves. Now we are free.

Shabbat is Zecher Liy’tziyat Mitzrayim – a reminder of our Exodus from slavery. On Shabbat, we are meant to embrace freedom, to throw off the shackles of the things that enslave us.

As a Reform Jew, I take seriously the mitzvah of Shamor et Yom Hashabbat – safeguarding Shabbat by refraining from work. Traditional Jews refrain from all manner of “work” on the seventh day: driving cars, flipping light switches, cutting paper, sewing buttons. But these are not the activities that enslave me. These are not the activities that eat away at my time, or from which I need to be liberated.

No, what enslaves me is something different. Something less solid, but more ubiquitous. It is the constant connectedness to the outside world, to my professional life, to the everyday needs and tasks that assault me through the device that I carry in my pocket.

In the 21st century, we are surrounded by information in ways that previous generations could not have fathomed. It’s exciting: technology keeps changing; screens keep getting bigger; download speeds keep getting faster. But the danger of the information age is in the blurring of boundaries. Where previous generations would “leave work at work,” we carry our work with us. Where our parents and grandparents differentiated between office time and leisure time, we struggle to draw that distinction. Our professional obligations have the power to permeate every place and every moment… just like the Egyptian taskmasters of old.

I’d like to say that on Shabbat, I turn off my cellphone. I’d like to say that one day a week, I disconnect from the outside world. But I don’t: I text with friends; I occasionally check Facebook; I am available for congregational emergencies. As a genuine technology addict, I cannot bear the thought of being without it for 25 hours. (And actually, connecting with friends is an important part of Shabbat.) But I CAN bear the thought of being without my work email, of tuning out the ordinary needs and tasks that rule my life on a daily basis.

And so that is what I have begun to do. Every Friday, as the sun begins to set, I open the email settings of my iPhone and simply flip the switch from “on” to “off.” It is the most liberating, most empowering, and perhaps holiest moment of my entire week. It is my way of fulfilling the task of Shabbat, l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol – to distinguish between holy and ordinary.

It is a start.

The Life That We Would Like to be Living: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5773

September 19, 2012 1 comment

The Architect Frank Lloyd Wright tells about a memory. He was nine years old, and he was walking across a snowy field with his no-nonsense uncle. The boy wandered this way and that, collecting reeds and taking in the scenery, while his uncle walked straight across the field. Upon reaching the top of the hill, to two looked back. Uncle John pointed to his straight line of footprints, and then to Frank’s meandering path and he said sternly, “There’s a lesson in that, you know.”

Frank Lloyd Wright later said that that moment had shaped his philosophy. While Uncle John had intended to teach about the virtues of avoiding distraction, “I determined right then not to miss [out on] life, as [he] had.”

Life is too precious to miss.
Life is too precious to be spent looking down rather than around, to be spent working rather than playing.

But it seems today our world is constantly throwing at us new ways to miss out on life. New devices that teach us to look down rather than out. New excuses to bury ourselves in our work and our daily tasks and forget about what really matters.

On the High Holy Days, we take time to reflect on our lives and our choices. We ask ourselves: Do my daily actions reflect my values? Am I living the life I would like to be living?

Today, it seems that the boundaries between our work lives and our real lives are being constantly eroded. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the day, because balance is the thing that we are all missing. It used to be that our parents and grandparents would get in the car in the morning and drive to the office. Today, we carry our offices with us. Today, we can edit digital documents at the dinner table, answer emails from our beds, and text our colleagues from red lights (though it’s illegal, thankfully). With our smartphones in our pockets and our Bluetooth devices on our ears, we are accessible 24/7/365. We spend more time looking down than out; we spend more time working than living.

According to a government survey,  “one in four Canadians works 50 hours per week or more.” Ten years ago it was one in ten.[1] And those of us with smartphones – forget about it! – they put in an extra 365 hours a year.[2] That’s 15 days a year that we spend answering emails on our tiny little screens when we’re supposed to be paying attention to our families and ourselves.

In the 21st century, our technological advances and our lifestyle changes have blurred the line between our work lives and our real lives. And it’s our real lives that are suffering.

This may seem like a uniquely modern problem, but our texts tell us that even our earliest ancestors struggled to balance their obligations with their private lives – some with more success than others. In fact, the Torah gives one example of a Jewish figure who became so completely all consumed by his work that his family fell apart. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name is Moses.

We know Moses as the great prophet and leader of our people. But it’s easy to forget that he was also a human being with a family. And we forget with good reason, because according to Torah, for much of his life, Moses’ attention was focused anywhere but on his family. Here is a man who was so important, who had so many responsibilities, that they consumed his entire being.

According to Exodus 18, Jethro had to teach Moses how to delegate so that he wouldn’t try to do everybody’s jobs for them. According to the previous chapter, Moses sent his family away for extended periods of time. According to Exodus 4, he forgot to circumcise his own sons. The Torah doesn’t even mention the birth of his second son Eliezer; it’s not clear that he was even there.

In fact, the text calls Moses’ family not by their names but as “Ishtecha Ushnei Vaneiha – your wife and her two sons.” Her two sons, taught Rabi Hiyya, because she, and not Moses, had raised them.

In that sense, Moses is a tragic figure: one who achieves extraordinary things, but does so at the expense of his private life. Moses is undoubtedly the greatest teacher, prophet, rabbi, judge, and leader in the history of our people. But as a husband and father… he was kind of lousy!  In fact, the Torah is full of prominent people who mismanaged their personal lives because they were too busy doing great things. There’s Abraham, whose dedication to his mission manages to estrange both his wife and his son. There’s Joseph, who gives up his Jewish identity in Pharaoh’s court. There’s Isaac, who sows seeds of discord between his children that last for generations.

And although these stories are extreme, we may be able to see glimpses of ourselves – of our bad habits, of the choices that we wish we were making differently. And if we look closely, perhaps we can find solutions as well.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes about a friend of his, an Episcopal minister, who – like many of us – had a desk full of papers. Once a month, the minister would take every piece of paper, and throw it away! So Rabbi Kushner once asked his friend, “What if there’s something important on your desk?” The minister explained, “If it’s important, it’ll come back.”[3]

The problem with our lifestyle today is not that we have too much to do. The problem is that that it’s hard to remember what matters most, when you are constantly inundated by all the details.

Before going any further, it needs to be said: From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing wrong with working hard.  Hard work and a fulfilling career are great virtues. Why else would the Torah tell us that David was a shepherd and Adam was a gardener? And many any of the earliest Rabbis were known by names like “Rabbi Yochanan the Sandle-maker” and “Rabbi Hillel the wood-cutter.” (By the way, I’ve always wanted to be known as “Rabbi Micah the Rock-Star,” but it hasn’t taken off yet.)

So our earliest rabbinic role models also defined themselves around their careers. But the reason they were great rabbis is that they found time for personal study, for teaching, and self-betterment. That’s not easy to do.

Rabbi Meyer Twersky wrote:

The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works hard to keep us too busy. That way we have no energy left to think, to reflect, to better ourselves.

Fortunately for us, there is an institution in Judaism that was created precisely for the purposes of thinking, reflecting, and bettering ourselves… and it occurs every single week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

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 said that very Friday night 2 angels follow us to our doors. If they find a home prepared for Shabbat, a meal ready to be enjoyed, a family spending time together, then they bless us, saying, “May it always be so.”

Shabbat is Judaism’s answer to the challenge of finding balance in life. Once a week, we Jews are commanded to withdraw from the working world – to go 25 hours traditionally without cooking, mending, lighting fires, working at our professions, or in any way trying to control or own the world around us.  It is through Shabbat that Judaism attempts to give us freedom from our enslavement to our everday obligations. In fact, you might say that the Jews invented the weekend.

But there’s more than that.  Shabbat is, at its core, a matter of human dignity. It is a concrete manifestation of the idea that every person deserves to rest. It’s a reflection of the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, since God also rested on the seventh day. Most importantly, it is the way that we as Jews are meant to care for ourselves, so that we can better care for the world around us.

The story is told of a woman who would walk back and forth each day between her home and the well of water outside the town. She always carried two buckets – and one them had a hole in it. And while many people believed it was just broken, it most definitely was not. Each bucket had its own job, the woman would explain: with one bucket she cared for own needs – she carried water to her home. And with the other bucket, the one with the tiny hole in the bottom, she shared her water… with the earth, the animals, with the plants that needed it. And if either of the buckets had ever been lost, the whole task would have been rendered useless.

We cannot care for our world unless we care for ourselves. We cannot be at our best in our jobs and our schools and our communities unless we have taken the time to rejuvenate our bodies and our souls. Shabbat is a gift to help us find rest and strength and balance in our lives.

“Big surprise!” you’re thinking. “The Rabbi is giving a sermon on Shabbat.” But before your eyes start to glaze over, let me just say that I’m not giving the sermon you think I’m giving. This is not part of the sermon where I’m going to tell you to come to shul more often, or to read more Torah, or to start saying more blessings.

No, this is a different sermon. Because I believe that a new century calls for a new approach. That instead of the same old same old, it is time to find fresh ways to celebrate Shabbat – ways that make sense in our world. That is the Jewish way.

There’s an old joke that tells about Moses standing on top of Mt. Sinai, and God enumerating the commandments:

 God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any dairy with milk?

God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses: “So, we should have separate dishes for milk and meat meals, and then another two sets for Passover?”
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “Got it — we should have two separate dishwashers. And we should wait eight hours after eating brisket before having any cheesecake.”

God: Fine, have it your way.

As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish practice has changed through the ages. And that means that it must continue to change, continue to evolve, in order to meet our needs. All joking aside, our movement has put a lot of thought into redefining some of the important institutions of Jewish life. Our belief in egalitarianism led us to redefine what it means to be a rabbi. The environmental crisis led us to redefine what it means to keep kosher. And in the information age – in a time of unprecedented access to technology and unprecedented demands on our time – we will need to redefine and reclaim Shabbat as our own. We need it too much to let it go.

A few years ago the Union for Reform Judaism released a set of Shabbat cards with ideas for ways to make Shabbat meaningful. Not the traditional ways, but new ways. I’ll read a few:

  • On Shabbat, I have something special for lunch. Our favourite is falafel with salsa.
  • Whenever possible, we spend Shabbat outdoors: hiking, gardening, or skateboarding.
  • Unlike the rest of the week, our children aren’t allowed to wake us up on Shabbat morning.
  • I do not run errands on Shabbat.
  • I don’t open mail on Shabbat.
  • I turn off my Blackberry on Shabbat.

All of these are things that ordinary Reform Jews around North America are doing because they recognize just how powerful that Day of Rest can be. And what makes these ideas so powerful is that they address real needs in our lives. The Talmud doesn’t know about smartphones, but they are certainly the greatest intrusion on our time. The sages would have told us that gardening wasn’t approproate on Shabbat, but in a world where we are so disconnected from the earth, what better way to get back to nature.  As Reform Jews, it is our right and our mandate to find modern and meaningful ways to live our Jewish values.

If Judaism says to eat your favourite food on Shabbat, and you like sushi better than chicken soup, then have sushi for Shabbat dinner. (And then invite me!) If Judaism tells us to appreciate nature, then for God’s sake go tobogganing on Shabbat afternoon. Our Shabbat may look completely different than our great-grandparents’ Shabbat. It may even look completely different from our own preconceptions, But it will be just as authentic, just as real, just as meaningful, because it addresses the real lives we are living.

I’m proud to announce that this year, Temple Kol Ami will be launching an initiative called “Reclaiming Shabbat.” It is a challenge to ourselves to find meaning in Judaism’s oldest and most important holy day. I’m challenging each member of our congregation to celebrate 2 Shabbats a month – on in sul and one at home, and to find creative ways to do so, beyond coming to services and Religious School.

So starting this morning, I want you to start brainstorming, about how you can Shomer Shabbat – how you can observe Shabbat in a way that will work for you and your family, and we’ll share those ideas with each other – through the Voice, through the Kol Ami blog, and on the bulletin board outside this door. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to a favourite restaurant. Maybe it means DVRing your favourite TV show and saving it for Saturday afternoon, or writing haiku on Friday afternoon about the events of the week, or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking a meandering walk through a snowy field – not to get from one place to the next, but simply to enjoy being where you are.

Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat, he said, is the institution that has kept us Jewish. It has set us apart, it has sustained us, it has made us holy. It’s time we return the favour.

Let us resolve in the coming year, not to miss out on our lives – not to spend our precious minutes looking at screens and focusing on things that, in the end, do not matter. Let us resolve to spend one day a week, or one hour of one day, building relationships, rejuvenating ourselves, living the life that we would like to be living.

Amen.

T’fillah – Like Child’s Play

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

If there is anything that the URJ Biennial is known for (other than Obama, this year), it is the Shabbat services. Services at the Biennial tend to be big, musical, and highly orchestrated. The key word there is BIG –  it’s hard to be anything but, when you have 5000 people in the room!

This year was no different. Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Memphis and Cantor Jen Frost of Deerfield, IL, injected beautiful music and thoughtful readings into their worship. But as anyone who has ever prayed by Jumbotron knows, it’s not easy to create a sense of community and spirituality in a group so large. Kol hakavod to the rabbi and cantor who took on this challenge.

So for all that I loved the music, the overwhelming size of the room and the crowd were not allowing me to connect spiritually. That is, until I took my eyes off the big screens, and looked down. There, a few rows ahead, was a two- or three-year-old child: rolling on the ground, skipping up the aisle, dancing to the music, generally enjoying himself.

I was mesmerized. This kid was having the best time – he might have been enjoying the service more than anyone else in the room!  And every time his Dad called him over and asked him to settle down, I wanted to shout, “No, don’t make him stop!”

There is a famous Chassidic story of a child who plays his flute at Yom Kippur services, and whose sincerity is said to carry the entire congregation’s prayers to heaven. That was how I felt last Friday night: up until I saw this child, I was singing and reading and participating. But once I noticed his joy, I was praying.

Information Overload: Is Shabbat the Solution?

July 11, 2010 1 comment

These days, we spend our lives connected to information,  and connected electronically to the world. At any moment of the day, you can find out the answer to almost any question; and at any moment of the day, others can reach you – through email, phone, online social networking, etc.

This kind of access – and this kind of accessibility – raise important religious questions.What are the boundaries between our home lives and our work lives? What kind of time are we devoting to self-growth or to family or to our inner lives if we are always connected to the outside world? If we spend our lives building and conquering (so to speak) the world, then when do we stop to appreciate and be thankful?

That’s why I was so intrigued by Kai Ryssdol’s interview on Marketplace with William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry.” (The interview is here. You can read it or listen to it online.) I will start by admitting that I have not read William Powers’ book, though I think I would now like to. I was most intrigued by Powers’ reference to his family’s “Internet Sabbath.”

In my family, we do something we call the “Internet Sabbath,” which has no religous meaning, it’s completely secular. But on Friday night, we unplug the household modem which serves my computer, my wife’s and our 12-year-old son’s, and it’s unplugged every weekend until Monday morning.

Au contraire, Mr. Powers! You may not think that your Internet Sabbath has religious meaning, but you have stumbled upon the very essence of Shabbat. From Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath:

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. (p. 13)

The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it. (p. 28)

Shabbat is a time to stop trying to master the world and instead to live in the world. Ultimately, that is why we’re not allowed (according to tradition) to light fires or build buildings or cook food on Shabbat: because it is the one day of the week when we do not seek to control the world around us. The benefit of an “Internet Sabbath” is not only that it removes the distractions that might take us away what’s really important, but also that it may help us tame our impulse to be constantly accomplishing and acquiring.

Not that there’s anything wrong with acquiring and accomplishing; it’s just that’s there’s also something to be said for appreciating, and observing, and breathing… and resting.

Categories: Judaism Tags: , ,

Redefining Success

March 14, 2010 8 comments

My six-year-old son had a birthday party today… for the first time since he was 3.

Oh, we’ve celebrated his last 2 birthdays with him. We’ve taken him out dinner, gotten him presents. But he hasn’t been in a place where he could handle having a lot of friends come over. In fact, he wasn’t even really in a place where he had friends.

Rami has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning Autism. He is very high functioning – he makes eye contact, has high level conversations, and spends the majority of his day in a mainstream kindergarten classroom. If you met Rami, he would stike you as a very bright, very articulate six-year-old who talks a lot. But Rami also has difficulty with emotional self-regulation, sensory overload, unexpected changes, and making social connections. He has been known lock up in refusal mode when he doesn’t get his way, or when he is surprised by something (even something he likes). And even when he is not in tantrum mode, Rami is not quiet. His sensory issues make him want to fill silence with noise. He has trouble reading social situations (including things like when he is supposed to be calm). He moves around, fidgets and plays with things, asks a thousand questions, and disrupts things that he doesn’t particularly like. (And for all that we try to prevent it, our younger boys’ behavior often looks like Rami’s, since he is their big brother.)

Rami’s difficulties are such that we have not really been able to take him, or our other boys, to Shabbat services for about the last 3 years. (My being on the bima doesn’t help an already tough situation.) This has been incredibly painful for Shoshi and me, because Kabbalat Shabbat is so special to us. We met over leading services for our NFTY group; we have been camp songleaders together, and led services for youth groups and college groups; we have been a part of and/or founders of several small, creative, independent minyanim. We love Shabbat davenning, and not being able to share it with our family hurts in a very real way.

So last month was a good month. Over the course of the year, Rami has worked very hard on his flexibility, on dealing with situations that are beyond his control, on using his words when he is uncomfortable or confused. And last month, for the first time, he and his brother came to Shabbat services. They started in babysitting, and Shoshi brought each of them – individually – for about 10 minutes of the services. They sat and participated, and then went back to babysitting. We were almost in tears.

This certainly wasn’t my picture of what our family’s religious life would look like. I always assumed my kids would sit in the front row, singing their hearts out and breaking congregants’ hearts. But they had other plans. The amazing thing is that from where I’m sitting now, this looks an awful lot like success.  I’m not necessarily satisfied to stay right here, but I’m happy that we made it this far.

There is a parallel between that Shabbat service success and today’s birthday party success. For the first time, Rami invited over 5 friends. (He has 5 friends!) They played in the back yard, drew pictures together, ate cake and ice cream, and had a good time. It was a far cry from his brothers’ loud, high-energy parties, but for a kid who doesn’t even really ever have playdates, this was success.

Proverbs 22:6 reads, “Teach a child in the manner that is appropriate to him, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Jewish tradition understands that people learn in different ways, and have different abilities and needs. (In fact, this passage is one of the origins of the Pesach tradition of the Four Children, which encourages us to answer different children’s questions in different ways.) Sometimes we have to rethink the way we teach our kids so that they can be successful on their own terms. And sometimes we have to redefine what we mean by success.
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