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The Edible Torah

 

BlogElul Day 22: Dare

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulWe hear it variations on the theme all the time – “dare to be different”, “think outside the box”, “take risks”. It’s become a cultural mantra.

It’s also become so vague as to be nearly meaningless.

What does it mean to “dare”, or to be “daring”. Is it like that scene from “Christmas Story”: “I dare you”, “I double dare you”, “I DOUBLE DOG DARE YOU!”.

Years ago I was in an acting class, and we were encouraged to take risks. The trick, our teachers told us, was understanding the difference between a risk and a sure thing.

“Please understand,” one instructor confided, “Jumping off the Empire State Building is not a risk. It’s a sure thing. You’re gonna die.”

There’s no such thing as an un-calculated risk, but there are definitely times when the level of daring-do that we feel is out of proportion to the reality.

I remember the first time a particular person joined our minyan in the morning. He was exploring a new-found interested in his Judaism. While he had put on tallit and tefillin as part of a class, and in tentative attempts to pray at home, he had never done so in an actual minyan.

He was sweating bullets.

I found this incredible for a very particular reason, and told him so:

“I don’t understand. You are actually a brain surgeon. Every day, you go to work and crack people’s skull open and you poke at their grey matter. One sneeze and they’d be a vegetable. But this makes you nervous?”
He smiled sheepishly and muttered something about feeling like this (tefillin) was more risky than anything he had done in the operating theater.

To his credit, he showed up – and kept showing up – and eventually felt more at ease. But even today you can see in his face the gravity that he feels when putting on those leather boxes. It’s not a simple matter to him.

As we head toward the end of Elul and prepare to face God and be called into account for our actions, I think it’s important to understand the level of risk we are facing.

I can’t say for certain that there’s nothing at stake – that (as I mentioned a few days ago) as long as we show up all will be forgiven.

Even so, I believe that part of the point of Elul is to teach us that we dare not take the coming Days of Awe lightly.

BlogElul Day 21: Change

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulA friend once confided in me, that if you want to stop a bad habit, tell everyone. If you want to start a good habit, don’t tell anyone.

His theory was that we tend to do the opposite, telling everyone that we’ve taken up jogging or a healthy diet, or yoga. And when, because new habits are difficult and consistency is one of the most difficult aspects, we miss the mark we fear the disappointment other people will have for us. Even if their standards are too high. Even if we got 6 out of 10.

Meanwhile, when we attempt to stop a bad habit (but tell nobody, because do I really want to broadcast my bad habits in the first place), we lose out on the moral support (or positive peer pressure) that could get us back on track after the inevitable lapses.

My point is that change is hard, no matter what strategy you adopt. To expect anything different is to set yourself up for failure.

Teshuvah is no different. However, a thought from Rabbi Moshe Adler (http://www.bethelheights.org/rabbi.php) sticks with me. He teaches that Teshuvah means “to return”, meaning to return to God. But we can feel like we’ve strayed so far that the distance to return can be daunting, and it keeps us from making the effort. But, he says, Teshuvah doesn’t work like that. As we travel on our path away, God is quietly walking behind us. All we need to do is turn and God will be right there. The act of return – of teshuvah – is simply the act of turning around and taking the first step.

There are just nine days left in the month of Elul. Nine days to look inward. And when we find what must be changed, we need to know in advance that it will be hard, but that God is right there, waiting for us to turn around and find Him.

BlogElul Day 20: Judge

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

blogelul#dontjudgeme is a popular way to tag a message on social media these days. Used primarily after declaring a guilty pleasure, less than healthy choice, or socially inappropriate behavior, saying “dontjudgeme” is a way of admitting to a fault (whether real or percieved by society at large) but without making any promise of change.

Judaism, it should be noted, does not tell us not to judge. We aren’t encouraged to do it, but the sages recognized the inevitability of human behavior.

Rather, we are told that if we judge, we must judge favorably.

That guy with a kippah walking into McDonalds? He probably needed to use the bathroom. The orthodox woman with non-kosher food in her cart? Most likely she was buying for a non-Jewish neighbor.

While it sometimes feels like a stretch, the results can be transformative. No longer are you saddled with the weight of neigborhood hipocracy. Skepticism can take a back seat. Suspicion gets the day off. And in that freedom you are invited to take people and situations at face value. Better than face value, in fact. Because when the person them self says they don’t measure up in some way, it is still incumbent on us to find the good, the positive.

The other night at a school open-house, we were filing out to the respective teacher’s rooms. One person said “I wasn’t paying attention. Does anyone know Mr. Smith’s classroom is?” Then they added, “I guess I fail orientation.” A woman next to me replied, “I’m sure you were paying attention. You just didn’t remember.” and then she gave directions. I could tell from her tone that her comment – about not remembering – was said it in all seriousness.

While judging favorably is a year-round mitzvah, there is an interesting facet of this particular to the month on Elul, where part of our preparations for the Days of Awe include asking others to forgive us, and in turn forgiving others when we are asked. In those moments, there is no commandment of investigation, validation, or cross-examination. When being asked to forgive another, we are commanded to judge favorably.

So should the judgement go for us, on the day when we stand before the True Judge.

BlogElul day 19: Ask

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulThis post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

For some of us, one of the most difficult things to do is to ask. Asking for for help, or advice, or even for directions requires an enormous effort.

Our reasons are many – admitting fallibility or vulnerability can raise the specter of past hurts. Pushing out of our protective shell to connect with another person can prove terrifying. The fear of rejection may be an insurmountable obstacle.
Not every inability to ask manifests as a phobia. Some of us simply hate to pick up the phone to return a call. We put off the email that requires more than a terse “yes” or “no”.
Which makes it all the more remarkable when someone breaks free of those constraints and asks anyway.

When someone does that – reaches out to you to ask for directions; to speak in a language or on a topic that is not familiar (which is itself a request for your patience and engagement); to tell you a story (which is begging of your time and attention)

In those an many other situations, we should take an extra moment to consider what it took to ask. We don’t always have to say “yes”. We don’t always have to ignore our own needs for those of another. But we do owe the requester the courtesy of a kind response.

It costs us nothing.

And in this month of Elul, when we prepare to stand before God and ask for another year, we hope that once again that the principal of midah k’neged midah – that we will be treated by the Heavenly Court in the same way we treat others here in this world.

BogElul Day 18: pray

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulWhen someone says “I pray that…” what do you understand them to mean?

I was reminded this as I re-watched one of my favorite sci-fi series – FarsScape () and the following dialog came up:

D’Argo: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this fiasco, it’s that I will never be chained up again.”
Zhaan: “I pray that will be the case.”
D’Argo: “You can pray all you like. I was expressing a fact. Not a hope.”

That got me thinking, so I looked at how pray was used in older times. It used to be rendered as “prithee”. Wikipedia told me that:

“Prithee is an archaic English interjection formed from a corruption of the phrase pray thee. [...] Although the closest Modern English equivalent of prithee is please, [...] the word please suggests that the person being addressed is willing to comply with the request, whereas the word prithee suggests that he or she is not willing.”

This stands in stark contrast to the way Judaism views prayer. There are several words I know that mean “to pray”:

  • daven – “to move the lips”; or “from our fathers”
  • tefillah – to judge (ourselves, not others); or “attachment”
  • avodah – to serve, as a servant would work for a master

What I understand from this is that prayer should not be idle wishing, not a daydream of something that might someday be. Prayer is an active state – grounding ourselves to the traditions of our past, determining whether we have what it takes to make our prayers a reality, and then committing ourselves to the work of making our words come to be.

It is this engaged state of being that we should be cultivating in this month of reflection and self-analysis so that when we open our hearts to pray on Rosh Hashana, we are expressing a fact, not a hope.

BlogElul Day 17: Awaken

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


 blogelulIt’s 5:30am. My boys and I walk carefully through the grass because it is damp enough at this pre-dawn hour to soak through our sneakers. We have our tallit bags in one hand, and our thermos (hot chocolate for them, coffee for me) in the other. My oldest son also balances a long shofar in the crook of one arm.

A couple of blocks later, we stumble up the stairs into shul. Under the too-bright fllourescent lighting, we wait for another few men (and the official starting time of 5:45) before launching into Selichot prayers.

For Sephardim – Jews who hail from areas around the Mediterranean such as Spain, Morocco, Iraq, and Syria – the tradition is to do this from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur. Each morning we congregate and pray and sing.

The act of awakening each morning becomes a month-long metaphor for dragging my soul out of it’s slumber.

It’s emblematic of the Sephardic outlook that, while the prayers are penitential, the tunes are anything but. They are joyful, lilting, powerful, participatory.

As one member told me “It’s true that Selichot is a time to stand before Hashem and say we are sorry. But we (Sephardim) say to ourselves ‘But it’s DAD we’re talking to. Of course He’s going to forgive us.” We just have to remember to show up. So we sing with joy because we are here – we remembered – and our forgiveness is assured.”

It was this joyfullness that compelled my boys and I to drag ourselves out of bed each morning. Well, that and the hot chocolate. But even so, by this point – here on the 17th of Elul – the long days start to take their toll.

Far from being a negative, even the exhaustion becomes part of the experience. By Rosh Hashana, I find I have no energy left for artifice, nothing in reserve to hide from the truth or mask my falacies. I stand before The Creator stripped down to the barest of essentials, doggedly throwing myself into each prayer, begging for for another year which I hope – like my request for forgiveness – is also assured.

BlogElul Day 16: Understand

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulThis post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

Recently, Seth Godin had this to say about “understanding”:

In part, he says:
“Sometimes, we’re so eager to have an opinion that we skip the step of working to understand. Why is it the way it is? Why do they believe what they believe?”

I have found this is a common reaction (in myself as much as anyone else) when it comes to Judaism and especially the chain of tradition. It is extremely easy, as well as tempting, to write off what is foreign or worse – what challenges our modern sensibilities. In those moments, leaping to the conclusion that our laws were written by a bunch of backward, patriarchal, ignorant cave-dwellers can feel extremely comforting.

The problem is that doing so creates huge challenges for how we understand ANY part of our tradition. In our haste to blithely jettison that which we could not come to terms with, we find ourself in a situation where we have difficulty finding satisfying explanations for anything.

One morning not very long ago, I expressed my frustration to a Rabbi about a midrash that I felt was patently foolish.

He stopped me and asked me to re-frame what I said. It wasn’t foolish, he said. Or more to the point, he cautioned me in believing that I – with my zero years of Yeshivah training, zero ability to understand Hebrew, and 3 years of occasionally reading a midrash here and there – would have the necessary depth of experience to identify, let alone label, something as foolish.

For a moment, he said, presume that Chazal – the Great Scholars of the Ages – understood *at least* as much as we did about the world. What we know from books and talk shows and magazines, they understood from observing the world. If they sometimes made their point using scientific terms we now know to be incorrect (spontaneous generation), never the less their insight into the human condition is at least as accurate as ours.

He assured me that we all come up against a text or piece of information that goes against what we understand. In those moments, he said, the best thing we can do is to put a bookmark at that spot, something that notes this passage and says “I wonder what this is really talking about”. That’s it. Not to pass judgement, not to instantly deem it worthy or not.

We need, he explained to me, to trust that in time understanding will come our way.

BlogElul Day 15: Learn

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulI still can’t speak Hebrew.

After 3 years of minimal practice (not counting stumbling through services 3 times a day), incredibly and against all logic, I am still not fluent.

Pathetic, right?

Of course, when you put it like that, it doesn’t sound QUITE as upsetting as it is in my own head. When you put it like that, it’s pretty easy to see why I’m not “there” yet, and what it would take to get where I want to go.

What’s really happening here is that, as an adult, I have forgotten how to learn. More to the point, I’ve forgotten that learning – real learning that isn’t just a re-organization of facts or skills I already know; real learning that sticks with me for the long haul – that kind of learning is mostly failure.

Recently, Rabbi Davidovich of Heights Jewish Center Synagogue noted that a baby’s life is a constant series of (sometimes spectacular) failure. Failure to sit up, failure to roll over, failure to get that sparkly-noisy-happy-thingy in my mouth.

And while babies are certainly experts at expressing their discomfort, rarely do you see them get truly angry about their day of failures. And they never throw up their hands and say “that’s it. I’m just never going to walk. It’s not part of my core skills. I’ll focus on improving my already impressive drool-on-the-carpet talent instead.”

A child’s life is filled with failed attempts, until the moment of success. A child fails to stand up, until he does. Fails to read, until she does. And so it goes.
Here in the month of Elul, as we analyze our actions and intents over the past year and prepare to stand before the True Judge and take account for them, I think it is important to understand the value of failure as a part of the learning process.

As long as we are honest with ourselves, and honest in our intent to learn and grow, we can allow our failings to stand not as fatal flaws, but as expected steps toward success.

BlogElul Day 14: Remember

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.


blogelulToday marks our halfway point through the BlogElul project. I can think of no better way to mark the idea of Remembering than the speech Fred Rodgers (MISTER Rogers) gave in 1997 upon receiving a Lifetime Achievement award.

For those who cannot watch the link, the description here does it justice:

[Mister Rogers] went onstage to accept Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked … and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds … and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.

So I’m inviting you to take a moment to remember those who loved you into being. Chief among them may be a man who gently but irresistably insisted that we recognize how special we all are.

z”l – zichrono livracha: May his memory be for a blessing.

BlogElul Day 13: Forgive

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

blogelulDuring an interview in 1990, Oprah Winfrey heard a definition of forgiveness that changed the way she viewed the world. From that moment, forgiveness wasn’t about saying that what the the other person did was OK, or that it was all better, or that it didn’t matter any more.

“Forgiveness,” she understood, “is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.”

Whether we are talking about forgiving ourselves for something we have done; or someone else for what they have done to us or those close to us, it’s imperative that we recognize the power in doing so.

Without it, we move about the world (whether physical or spiritual) with a chain to a past that doesn’t help us grow.

In Judaism, there is a principal of “midah k’neged midah” – a personality trait is rewarded in kind. Courage with courage, falsehood with falsehood, generosity with generosity, spite with spite, Trust with trust, and so on.

In this month of Elul, we just take it upon ourselves to learn how to forgive, so that we have the hope of being forgiven.