Walk with balance, walk with strength

Yesterday was the Tenth Day of the Omer - tiferet in g'vurah - balanced beauty in strength.

At our Talmud lunch today, we studied the midrash about Abraham breaking idols (Bereishit Rabah 38:13).

The conclusion focuses on the power of Abraham's connection with God - Abraham walks through a fire unscathed on account of his spiritual prowess.

Perhaps the strength that we can find is one that allows us to find the difficult path through hazardous places - both within and without. This is strength that relies on balance - endurance that allows us to choose our steps and paths wisely.

Finding the right footing helps us walk with strength.

Inner balance leads to strong steps in the right direction.

Seek Strength

The Ninth Day of the Omer - strength within strength.

Pursuing strength, hardness, justice, often requires discipline - it is important to push ourselves.

With all our fuzzy language about kindness and love, we still know that at the core of our work we must pursue it with determination and rigor.

We must find that core of discipline, the spark of motivation that helps us push through to our next level, whatever and wherever that might be.

Strength can be a value - rigor can be a priority - finding the sources to persist requires us to dig deep.

Be determined. Persevere.

Strength starts with kindness

[Yesterday's Omer Counting Reflection]

A week devoted to our internal upright nature, the part of us that holds up rigorous standards, and seeks justice.

This is the week of g'vurah - the strong arm of our personalities.

The first day of every week of the Omer starts with chesed - loving-kindness.

When we start with kindness, our justice will be tempered with mercy.

When we start with love, our high standards will be softened with forgiveness.

When we start with compassion, our strict clinging to rules will be infused with a bending that is stronger than any easily snapped brittleness.

Let our strength be guided by love. 

The Practice of Kindness

"The appearance of things changes according to the emotions, and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves."
~ Khalil Gibran

On the Seventh Day of the Omer, doing in the area of loving-kindness, and on each week's seventh day, we work on the connection between theory and practice.

Bringing all our thoughts of loving-kindness into reality, into the world of malchut, the sphere in which all our thoughts get put into practice, requires us to recognize the goodness that we ourselves can author in reality.

We can act of out love , devotion, and kindness, when we connect with the boundless mystery within our hearts and souls that allows us to give and care for ourselves and others.

The Building Blocks of Kindness

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”  ~ C.G. Jung

Today, the Sixth Day of the Omer, is the day focused on yesod, balanced foundation and the interpreter of all those abstract ideas of the more profound mystical spheres into something practical.

How do we bring the idea of universal loving kindness into our minds as a "doing" instead of a "thinking" or "feeling"?

All actions start with a spark within us - even our on the spot reactions are rooted deeply inside. To consciously bring compassion and loving-kindness from our best selves into the world of action requires conscious balancing and internal negotiating - the job of that foundational interpreter, yesod.

A solid foundation takes an uneven footing on the earth to create a level place for a building and yesod helps us build a solid place within our minds to bring constructive and kind actions into the world.

Listen, learn, love

Hod - which is grace and smallness, humility, is our focus in the sphere of love and kindness today (we are leaving behind the fifth day of the Omer and entering the sixth tonight).

Humility can be a source of sympathy: "I can't possibly understand what's going on with someone else. I must silence all my voices to listen and understand who they are, what they feel, and what they need from me."

In order to be loving and compassionate we must meet people where they are, not where we think they are.

Listen and learn so that we can love. 

Loving Starts Within

On the Fourth Day of the Omer, as we think about netzach - the self at the center of things - in chesed - loving-kindness, I remember that I cannot give what I do not have.

Without caring about and for myself, I cannot offer caring to others.

Without loving something about myself, I cannot love others.

We begin with the self, and we must move on to love and care others from a foundation within.

Balanced Caring

The third day of the week focuses on the idea of tiferet - the harmony that comes when all things are balanced. Harmony in the area of loving-kindness - an important and occasionally subtle idea.

Devoting ourselves to caring for one another can drain our resources for self-care. When we work in a caring field - and probably every job today has an aspect of caring for one another - we can over-extend at the expense of other areas as well.

To find harmony as we care and devote ourselves to kindness is to understand that there is such a thing as too much. Giving until it hurts is not a solution.

Give, take stock, and take care, so that we can continue to be kind and loving another day.

Counting and Caring

Today is the First Day of the Omer, a Jewish period of counting and reflecting that connects the liberation of Passover to the receiving of the Covenant at Mount Sinai on Shavuot.

Each of the days of the seven weeks of the Counting have been given a theme by Jewish mystics. The first week and first day are both devoted to the idea of chesed in Hebrew, or loving-kindness, in English.

Just what is loving-kindness?

In the culture of the Jewish Bible, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, pointed out that "love" can be better understood to be devotional loyalty - as in "You must love God" and describing that love by talking about upholding the Covenant between the Universe and the Jewish People.

So we can talk about chesed as noticing what the world and the people around us need most, and offering it with care and devotion, and with no expectation of compensation.

Let us all find a moment to realize the great caring accomplished for our souls, our friends and family, and our larger communities, when we give out of compassion and devotion.

Overcoming Fear

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 – Saturday, October 4, 2014
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich


Ted called the rabbi about his wife Doris, who was dying in the hospital. Ted wasn’t a Temple member and was concerned about whether or not the rabbi could do Doris’ funeral.

“How is Doris?” the rabbi asked.

“Doris is dying. They say a day or two. Do I call over to the funeral home and make preparations now? We have cemetery plots but no funeral plans.”

“Is Doris in any pain? Is she awake and aware? Is she frightened?”

Ted still had more questions about the funeral. “Ted, Doris isn’t dead yet. The funeral director will be available later. What can we do for Doris now? Would you like me to visit her?”

Ted thought that a visit would be nice, but the rabbi shouldn’t make a special trip.

The rabbi found Doris alone in a room with two beds. “Hi Doris, I was in the hospital and heard you were here, so I thought I would come by and say hello. We met once before. Do you remember me?”

Doris opened her eyes fully. “Rabbi,” she managed to say.

“Yes.” He slid a chair close enough to the bed so he could sit and hold her hand. “How are you doing?” She didn’t answer, but she looked at him steadily. “Are you in pain?” Her eyes rolled up to the IV drip. The medication was adequate. “You don’t have to say anything. If it’s alright with you, I’ll sit here for a while. Is that all right?” She nodded.

Her eyes were open to him. Some of her history stared back at him. She knew why Ted had called the rabbi. It wasn’t the first time he had buried her.

There was no denial, but no acceptance either. Only resignation.

His eyes were open to her. She saw in them a reflection of her situation. She saw his concern and compassion. She knew he had made a special trip to see her.

“Would you like me to pray for you?” he asked her, still holding her hand.

Her surprise was evident. She had never prayed before. She had no notion that someone else could pray for her. To her surprise, she wanted him to say a prayer. She sincerely wanted it. Her desire struggled with her notion of hypocrisy. All her life she had never seen the point of prayer. Now that she was dying, she welcomed prayer. For the moment, she was stuck between her desire and her disbelief. Her desire won out. More than anything else in the world, at that moment, she wanted a prayer. “Yes, I would like that.”

“What do you want me to pray for?” the rabbi asked, knowing how crucial that decision would be.

He felt her shock through her hand. It flashed across her face. She knew for a certainty that the gates of prayer were open. She had two choices. She could pray to die.

She could pray to live. She had known she could die. She had not known she could live.

The rabbi read the argument in her eyes. She had a good reason to die. Could she find a good reason to live? He saw and felt the shift in her when she found it. He didn’t know what her reason was, but she had found it.

“I want to live,” she said.

“Can you say that again, please?”

“I want to live.”

In that instant her prayer broke through. The rabbi sealed it with a quick prayer of healing. The rabbi’s words were unimportant. The real prayer had burst from Doris’ heart. The rabbi had been there as witness, and nothing more.

He squeezed her hand. “I’m going to leave now. I hope to see you again soon.” She smiled in response.

Doris recovered. The doctors called it a remarkable spontaneous remission. She lived another six months during which she healed a rift with a son from whom she had been estranged for years. The next time she came to die, the son was present to hold her hand. 

In this story originally told by one of my teachers, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz, in his novel, The Seventh Telling, Doris rediscovered her ability to choose. Choice is a fundamental aspect of our humanity, and our Judaism, and may be the most frightening thing we need to reclaim on this day.

We are about to talk about the “Power of this Day”, how it causes us to stand in awe, and full of dread. This is one of the culminations of the Days of Awe, and Un’taneh Tokef, one of the central prayers of these days, stands before us as a declaration of a great decree upon the year to come. Have we done what we needed to do in order to end up on the correct side of the statement, “Who shall live and who shall die”?

Have I done what I needed to do?

Can I face the year to come feeling like God will decree for me a good year?

No.

You may not believe that a rabbi feels this way, but I do not actually believe this. In no way do I feel that there is a supreme personality weighing my year to come and deciding my fate for it and that if I do or don’t do something in particular at this moment, on this day, then my fate will be changed my some supernatural force.

Because, if I believed in such an idea, that God made a decree on October 4, 2014, on the basis of my level of sincere repentance, which would impact whether or not earthquake or plague struck my neighborhood in Charlotte sometime before the next year’s Yom Kippur, on September 23, 2015, (God forbid – I am both a rationalist AND STILL superstitious!), then my whole way of thinking the rest of the year wouldn’t work.

If my prayer or repentance could alter weather patterns, stock markets, or whether or not my family would suffer from hunger, then why would I do anything but pray?

What use would any of my actions be if I believed in the supernatural impact of prayer?

We know that this is not a choice for some being in the sky to make for us – it is ours to make – I must be the one to choose life. We must be the ones figure out how to navigate the twists of fate that will come our way, for better or for worse. And the prayer before us reminds us of that too – it concludes emphatically:

“But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and RIGHTEOUS DEEDS, temper judgment’s severe decree.”

These words, sung out every year at the end of our worrying litany of potential fates remind us that when all is said and done, our fate is in our hands.

Maybe this is the problem.

While it may feel great to know that it is all up to us, I am frightened about it.

A day “full of dread” indeed – Yom Kippur, when we remind ourselves that the entirety of our year is in fact on us to improve or ruin.

On top of all of that, like Doris in the story, we must accept that this choice before us is real and that choosing makes a difference. Our prayers reflect our willingness to open ourselves to possibilities – to go beyond the fear of the worst-case scenario and accept that we can choose something else. We must make a choice even though we fear to do so.

There are so many fears out there – the notion that we might be less responsible for some of the things going on around us would be a comfort. Taking all that on is just one more thing to be anxious about.

The future often holds the worst of our fears.

The future leads to death. I fight that all the time, and I hope mostly in a healthy fashion. I even joke that the reason I am so serious about running is that I am fleeing from death. I want to live long to see our kids grow up and live as adults.

After all, I am a forty-four-year-old with a seven-year-old and a ten-month-old!

Is that a positive desire, or just another expression of our fear of everything going wrong? I am not sure.

I do know that when I face up to my fears, I accomplish things that are truly important.

I fear that my struggle with the memory of my father, with my anger and resentment towards him, gets in the way of me being a better person, a better husband, father, and rabbi.

On Sunday I ran twenty miles, yes, all at once, and so had a lot of time to listen to podcasts. One of them, an interview between “On Being”'s Krista Tippett and yoga instructor Seane Corn, who talks about taking yoga “Off the Mat and into the World”, highlighted Ms. Corn’s experience of coping with great difficulties. Her experiences reminded me that I needed to choose to forgive my father. I needed to choose transform whatever injury I felt I received from him into a gift, and even to be grateful for the things that I once thought were hurtful. I need to choose to live my life, and let his life, now over for seven years, be an asset for me. After all, I am the only one in the relationship now, I had better figure out a way to make it work to my advantage.

When I hear “Who shall live and who shall die” I can take it as an inspirational statement to choose a better life in the year to come. 

The rest of this frightening prayer goes beyond life and death and into quality of life:

“Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

This gets deep into the heart of our difficulties – every single one of us wants to come out on the right side of these. And we want these things answered for our families and friends too.

It would be terrifying to think that our demeanor and seriousness on this day, on the days leading up to this day over the last month of our repenting, would actually result in harmony or suffering for us for the next year.

We want to accomplish the thing that would make this all work out – it would be so great if there were ONE thing we could do today to accomplish this.

Not so simple though.

Think about the consequences of a wrong action.

This summer we watched an Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers” – interviews with former directors of the Shin Bet – the general security agency tasked with Israel intelligence and counter-terrorism in the occupied territories since 1967.

In one of the opening scenes, as a surveillance camera tracks a van, one of the Shin Bet directors talks about the decision to take action. He says:

“Acting out of fear means killing people who shouldn't be killed.

“People expect a decision, and by decision they usually mean ‘to act’. That's a decision. ‘Don't do it’ seems easier, but it's often harder.”

Our responsibility for others' lives isn't usually so self-evident. Others' lives are not directly in our hands. We are not pushing any buttons that can end someone else’s life at any moment.

Still, everyone's lives are in our hands, every moment, every action, every inaction – each of these makes a huge difference, even when we don’t notice it.

Fear leads us to not merely make the tough decision to not act, or to act rashly, fear leads is to turn away and wash our hands of the whole thing.

To see ourselves in this prayer, to see ourselves as responsible at all times – this is what we are asking of ourselves on this day. We feel dread, because we can make a difference. We ease our fears, as individuals and as a community, when we realize we are not alone. We are in it together.

This is one of my definitions of God.

Instead of imagining that God will suspend the rules of the world for us – change the course of the reality on which we depend – merely on the strength of our prayers today, let us use these moments to connect with each other, and remind one another that these connections are the point of Un’taneh Tokef.

God is in what we create when we connect.

“Who shall live and who shall die…” – who among us will remember the value of our lives, and the lives of those around us, and use every day to make those lives worth living.

“Who will be degraded and who exalted…” – who among us will reach past our fears of connecting to a person in need. Who among us will reach past our fears of asking for help, and bravely turn to someone when we are in need. We are truly here for each other – we must ask and we must answer.

This moment is not about how we pray but how we live.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says:
“We are most God-like when we open ourselves up to the vulnerability of real relationships.”

When we open ourselves up to the choices and choose to connect with each other, with the world, with the sources of our fears and our hopes, then we can accomplish miracles, just like Doris did. We can choose life.

Feel our fear, because on this day we remind ourselves about the choices that lay in front of us every day of the year.

“But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and RIGHTEOUS DEEDS, temper judgment’s severe decree.”

And we have the power to overcome this when we are open, when we find openings, when we offer openings – to our selves and to one another.

Take a leap, decide to overcome our fears in the year to come...

Take a leap, decide to overcome our fears in the year to come...

Offering gratitude with our entirety

[a prayer I wrote for tonight's Shabbat worship - join us!]

We offer thanks with our whole selves:
good inclinations and less than good intentions,
anger, fear, and jealousy,
compassion, courage, and generosity.

We are all of these together.
We offer thanks and gratitude
for the chance to transform our difficulties
into opportunities for creation and connection.

We offer thanks with our whole selves.

Kindling our hearts in prayer

This Shabbat we read about the lighting of the menorah in the Tabernacle, an obligation that we all have to bring light into our homes, here's a quick meditation inspired by that and an anonymous 13th Century text, see Daniel Matt 's The Essential Kabbalah, p. 119 for the source text:

When we pray on our own we aim for unity with all,
we kindle the fire on the altar of our hearts.
By concentrating our thoughts, we unify our feelings,
our principles, our hopes, our dreams,
until they are drawn to the source of the infinitely sublime flame.
Here lies the secret of unifying which we perform in prayer,
raising up our ideas, like an elevating offering, towards one source.
In praise and in thanks
we draw ourselves nearer to the spark that ignites all.

Our Judaism helps make the everyday better

We bring our families to Shalom Park and CJP knowing that Judaism is much more than going to synagogue once a week.

Each and every day we can opt to improve everything around us.

What are our first thoughts in the morning? Joy or exhaustion? Contentment or complaint?

Take a moment to offer a thought and a word of gratitude first thing in the morning, whenever we have given up on hitting the snooze button. See what it does to change the morning. It may take a few tries. Look at our loved ones and think, “I am grateful for my family”, and let those loved ones know that we are thankful for them.

We can transform our days that easily.

Things that we care about, like health and fitness, are things that Judaism cares about too. Our teachers were not only scholars with their heads in their books. We come from people who explored all dimensions of living better - rituals and learning are only parts of Judaism. Mental and physical health, daily practices that improve things in small increments - learned Jews have explored these ideas for centuries.

Take a small step of gratitude, make a better moment every morning.

Day 49 of the Omer - time to do

Malchut in Malchut - the fullness of well-considered meaningful presence and realization in itself.

This is it. Plans have been laid, preparations have been made, we stand in front of our next big motion.

For the Israelites in our story, the mountain and revelation and eventually the holy land lay before them.

What is imminently in front of us? How can we bring all that we have learned and reflected on into the next moment?

Breathe, think, feel, balance, act.

May we all create and find and celebrate as we go forward.

Happy Shavuot tomorrow night everyone!

Day 38 of the Omer - higher and lower balance

Tiferet in Yesod - lofty balance of principles in the grounded balance of applications.

Keeping high minded ideas of balance and beauty as guides while in the thick of crafting the basics almost requires some cognitive dissonance.

Still, the two notions - a balance between intellectual concepts of beauty and a sturdy balance grounded in connecting to actually creating - fortify each other.

We aim to dig trenches that eventually lead to beautiful structures. All of this in the hope of fulfilling ideals balanced between other important values.

Including everything takes patience and attention - include some counting too!

Day 36 of the Omer - See kindly then build

Chesed in Yesod - loving kindness in foundation.

Before undertaking something from the bottom up, building solidly, we must see it through compassionate eyes.

A foundation stands well when started with the needs of others and the world in mind.

This is from Tuesday-Wednesday's Omer Count, catching up!

Day 35 of the Omer - Grow from smallness

Malchut in Hod - the manifestation of reality in humble smallness.

Gaining perspective must be put to some use. We engage in contemplating how insignificant we are so that we can act effectively. So we must put that acquired wisdom into action and not get lost in our insignificance.

The seed must germinate and grow or not fulfill its purpose.

May our counting lead us to better agency!

Day 34 of the Omer - Details Build Foundations

Yesod in Hod - a balanced foundation in smallness and humility.

Building solidly requires taking into account all the details, even the smallest of them.

Each fastener, each two by four, each decision in design, reminds us of their value when we look upon something well constructed.

Happy counting, building something out of small details noticed each day.

Day 31 of the Omer - balanced self-reduction

Tiferet in Hod - harmonious beautiful fine-tuned balance in smallness and grace.

We know that we should embrace some sense of smallness, to self-diminish and withdraw to make room for the growth of others. This is called tzimtzum by the Kabbalists and they imagine the Infinite reducing in order to create.

Doing this well requires a light and balanced touch - too much space and growth isn't cultivated, too much and it is stymied. A garden can easily be abandoned or over-attended - neither leads to flourishing growth or partnership.

Hold values in mind, pause and reflect, and then figure out the right amount of tzimtzum.

The days of the Omer are diminshing - this is the 3rd day of the 5th week.

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