Friday, August 29, 2014

Tefilat Haderech—the Traveler’s Prayer

For the journey of Elul, I’m pleased to share a poetic translation of this prayer followed by a teaching, by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg. Happy Labor Day Weekend!

3 Elul, Friday, August 29

Traveler’s Prayer

A prayer for the journey
We could say it every day
When we first leave the soft warmth of our beds
And don’t know for sure if we’ll return at night.
When we get in the trains, planes and automobiles
And put our lives in the hands of many strangers
Or when we leave our homes for a day, a week, a month or more –
Will we return to a peaceful home? Untouched by fire, flood or crime?
How will our travels change us?
What gives us the courage to go through the door?
A prayer for the journey
For the journey we take in this fragile vessel of flesh.
A finite number of years and we will reach
The unknown where it all began.
Every life, every day, every hour is a journey.
In the travel is the discovery,
The wisdom, the joy.
Every life, every day, every hour is a journey.
In the travel is the reward,
The peace, the blessing.

In writing this interpretation of the Tefilat HaDerech, the Traveler’s Prayer, (originally found in the Talmud Berakhot 29b and appearing in siddurim by the 16th century) I realized how universal the images of traveler, path, and journey are. Every moment, we face the un-known because each moment is truly new. It never existed before. We might be beset by fears, anticipating potential hardships. We might close off to the new experience because it is not familiar and hence beyond our grasp or control. Or, we might remind ourselves to approach whatever comes with presence, trust, and a spirit of discovery. We can choose to let curiosity and wonder guide our steps. This prayer invites us to set out on a journey, whatever the journey is, with an open heart and an open mind.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Starting anew

2 Elul, Thursday, August 28  

Watching my friend take a crumb from the loaf of challah that Shabbat changed my life. At least, it changed my perspective on challah. For years, even decades, as I’ve struggled with overeating, challah has represented one of my greatest temptations. The way we customarily tear at it, rather than slice it, allowed me to believe that I wasn’t eating all that much. I lost count of each soft, sweet, delicious shred of Shabbat delight. I even lost my ability to savor it.

When my friend took that crumb and passed the loaf on, her restraint illuminated a new reality:

I asked her, don’t you eat bread?

The answer was no. But not a stark no, a “no” that prohibited an entire category of food. Weeks later when I stayed in her home, she had spelt bread, Ezekiel bread, home-made challah without wheat. By that time, I had made a significant change in my attitude toward food. For the first time in my life, I began to eat to live, rather than live to eat.

I have not given up bread entirely, but I enjoy it sparingly. In fact, I enjoy most things sparingly. The difference is, I enjoy it all: fresh spinach sprinkled with peach-flavored white balsamic vinegar, plain yogurt with berries, sweet red peppers, well-cooked salmon, a summer peach.  

Walking into a grocery store or perusing a restaurant menu, the choices can be overwhelming. The selections are tempting. But just as I once modified my eating habits to keep a kosher lifestyle, I learned that I can limit my menu to the healthy options. Having foregone cookies and ice cream for nearly four months, they no longer call my name. Feeling fit and healthy has become more important than whatever happens to be on the table in front of me. It’s a choice I make at every meal.

Starting eating this way was not easy at first. Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are difficult. Having supportive family and friends has been a great source of strength. And it all began with the one friend who showed me that it’s ok to have a Shabbat meal without devouring half the challah.

Whether struggling with food or a host of other issues, I have learned this: our lives do not need to continue the way they always have. The lies we tell ourselves can be exposed and refuted. We do not have to be the same person we think we have to be. Each day we are given the opportunity to begin. Again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All beginnings are difficult

Day 1, Rosh Hodesh Elul, Wednesday, August 27

Kol hatchalot kashot.
All beginnings are difficult.

So we learn from the Talmud, and often it’s true. The first day of a new job. The first time a child goes to camp. The first column I have to write. Where to start?

I usually love new beginnings. As a child I set out my outfit for the first day of school, eager to make a fresh new start, to see old friends, to learn something new. New projects excite me.

On the other hand, sometimes I need a push. The transition from A to B, from the comfort of what is to the discomfort of what might be, takes an extra measure of energy.

Like stepping into a cold swimming pool on a hot day, sometimes the best way to start is just to take the plunge. Set aside fear and worry for a moment and one-two-three immerse in the total experience

So I stop wondering when I will have time, what will I have to say, whether it will be good enough and I sit down and write.

Making a fresh start is what this Elul practice is all about. We have twenty-nine days together until the New Year actually begins. Here is your push. Today the moon is a slim sliver but its light will grow each day. As the earth rotates on its axis, each minute offers a new opportunity that will never come again. Each day that passes holds infinite possibility. What will you begin? Where do you want to go? And if not now, when?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Finding the Blessing in Every Day

This week, as we watch the moon narrow to a sliver, many of us are aware that Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month before Rosh Hashanah, will fall on Tuesday and Wednesday. The month of Elul marks the end of summer. It also calls us to prepare for the New Year. With the sounding of the shofar each morning of Elul, we begin the season of repentance.

In light of this seasonal transition, this week’s portion, Re’eh, invites us to begin to reflect on the meaning of our lives.

“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”  (Deut.11:26)

The word hayom can mean this day, meaning the very day that Moses was speaking to the Children of Israel. It can also mean today, a reminder that every single day we make the choice between blessing and curse.

This phrase is echoed a few weeks later, just prior to Rosh Hashanah in the portion Nitzavim, where we read:

“See, I set before you today life and goodness, death and hardship” (Deut.30:15) and “I have set before you blessing and curse; choose life that you and your offspring may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

In case we need a nudge, the Torah urges us to choose life, not death, blessing and not curse.

These verses divide our world into two stark choices, blessing and curse, life and death, goodness and hardship. Yet that is not the world we inhabit. Our choices are not always so clear. Our values sometimes conflict. What appears to be a blessing may turn into a curse, and vice versa.

The Vilna Gaon, understanding that these dilemmas can paralyze us, taught that the answer lies in the verse itself: “I have set before you.” He teaches that if we wonder “’How am I to know which path is good and which is not?’ The answer is ‘before you.’” Our problem is often that we do not take the time to truly examine which path to take. Instead we blaze ahead out of desire or urgency or fear, without really choosing at all. The answer is “before you”: in front of your eyes, if you take the time to look.

Torah is an important guide, says the Vilna Gaon. As Rabbi Akiva taught, study leads to action. Through practice we can learn to distinguish when we are following a path for our own self-interest and when we have chosen what is truly right. Through experience, and paying attention to our own inner thoughts, we can develop the sensitivity to recognize the good path, the path of blessing.

The portion continues with the admonition, “blessing, if you obey the commandments…and curse, if you do not obey.” However this translation does not accurately reflect the nuance of the Hebrew. Blessing occurs, not if, but ka’asher/when you obey. Curses come im/if you do not obey. The commentators explain that the blessing is part of the experience, when you do the mitzvah, while the curse comes as a result of our disobedience, if you disobey.

If the blessing is part of the experience itself, we might wonder what constitutes the blessing?

According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev,

“even now in your lifetimes, when you fulfill the commandments of the Creator you will receive a blessing in this world. Scripture then goes on to say what that blessing is as the verse continues, ‘when you obey.’ This very fact, that you obey Me and do My mitzvot, this itself will be a blessing, since there is no greater delight than this. Thus, the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” (quoted in A Partner inHoliness, by Rabbi Jonathan Slater) Rather than do mitzvot to receive some compensation, whether in this life or in the World to Come, Levi Yitzhak is inviting us to open our eyes to the blessing, and even the joy, embedded in the act itself.

Many of us know that feeling that comes from doing what is right. I’ve witnessed this truth while working with students for their bar or bat mitzvah. If they struggle with the Hebrew, or prefer to play basketball rather than practice their chanting, if they find the preparation confusing or boring, all of that changes on the day of their ceremony. While leading the congregation on the bimah, most students suddenly realize the blessing that comes from all of their effort. While they thought they were doing it for the party or the gifts, they understand in their souls that the greatest blessing was in achieving this moment.

Though we may resist following orders, though we may be reluctant to stick our necks out, though the task may seem burdensome or tedious, when we get down to it, doing what is right feels good. The blessing can be found in that very moment, when we act.

One word that repeats throughout this portion may give us another clue to where to find the blessing. In Re’eh, the Torah instructs us seven times: v’samachta / you will rejoice. (Deut. 12:7,12,18, 14:26, 16:11,14, 15) In each instance, we have a particular mitzvah to fulfill, and the Torah insists that it be done with joy. Likewise, Psalm 100 encourages us to “serve the Holy One with joy.”
I know people who cheerfully do whatever is asked of them. They get pleasure from helping others. Without complaint and with a smile, they do what needs to be done. These individuals are my inspiration. Here, the Torah encourages us to do what we are called to do with joy. In that act, we will find the blessing.

As we enter into the month of Elul on our journey toward Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, may we choose blessing, today and every day, and do it with joy.
published in The Jewish Advocate, August 22, 2014

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Flavors of Tisha B'Av

Every year Tisha B’Av comes in a different flavor, like a melting dish of ice cream in the middle of summer. Only there’s no ice cream on a fast day. Only a hint of flavor.

Some years Tisha B’Av comes in the flavor of history. We retell the past events ceremoniously yet without pity. Without pits. Without tea. No pain, no comfort. Just storytelling.

Some years Tisha B’Av comes in the flavor of ideology. With great passion we debate its observance, not certain of what to do with it. Yet often, very certain. It’s a day to celebrate the dawning of rabbinic Judaism, the end of temple sacrifice. It’s a day to remember those who have hated us, pursued us, persecuted us. Whether we choose to fast or not, the flavor is strong.

Some years Tisha B’Av comes in the flavor of intellectual curiosity. With emotional distance we discuss Jewish power, Jewish exile, Jewish identity. But we stand apart from swallowing it all.

This year, Tisha B’Av comes in the flavor of pain. The pain prevents me from thinking straight. It moves us to irrational thoughts and deeds. The pain is overwhelming. The only way to taste Tisha B’Av this year is to feel the pain: my own pain, the pain of those around me, the pain of victims and the pain of the perpetrators. The pain of the innocent and the guilty. This year, Tisha B’Av tastes bitter.  Taste the bitterness and, like biting the horseradish, let the tears come.