Day Thirteen of the Omer

Yesod in Gevurah - a solid and balanced foundation in discipline and the exertion of power.

Keeping in mind solid footing before extending ourselves changes our outlook on strength itself.

When I think about this, even in an emotional and spiritual way, I still imagine it concretely in terms of taking steps on a mountain path, choosing a footing carefully. Or the idea of projecting strength through my arms and how different it is when I have to reach far. Firmly grounded, I am limited in the distance I can reach in strength, or step confidently.

With that image in mind, I get a different sense of the deeper nature of strength and discipline. Our strength depends not only on our stance, but also on where we stand. We depend on our connections to other sources of strength. True strength connects us to solid, balanced, support, and that often comes from outside sources.

Let us see our strength in the interconnections between us and all existence.

Day Eleven of the Omer

Eternal victory in strength and power.

I imagine that many of us begin an assertion of mastery with the idea, even the hope, of it lasting in perpetuity. I write, teach, and preach, consciously hoping that it will, in small ways, be remembered long past my physical presence.

Such a sentiment can be embraced. When I see myself as having a lasting impact on people and the world I am reminded to use more care in the application of strength and discipline so as to avoid the ripple effect of unintended consequences.

So an essential caveat to the use of strength is the consciousness of its potential for causes beyond our awareness in both width and duration.

Day Ten of the Omer

Beautiful balance in strength and discipline.

Let us use this day to expand our internal images of strength and beauty. I believe we are assaulted by impossible to achieve ideas of these concepts. Let's work on updating our internal pictures of these ideals.

Beautiful balance - we seek it in relationships that mesh just right, sometimes only once in a while; we aim for it in the recognition of the faces of all ages and stages around us engaged in profound joy at existence.

Strength and discipline - found in the attention to our efforts that require regular attention; seen in the people around us who devote time and energy to difficult tasks and get them done even when others find them too difficult.

The Omer gives us the opportunity to reflect on the meanings of words that may have been overwhelmed by forces outside our control. Let us take back these definitions and use them well.

Day Nine of the Omer

Strength and power within itself.

Each week of the Omer Counting we encounter a day focused on a concept within the same concept. This might seem to be an overly abstract exercise, and I will do my best to make it relevant.

Often we get distracted by the scope of a task, project, or value. For example, in order to get faster as I runner trainers recommend intervals, and tempo runs, and distance runs. None of which will make a difference if I don't manage to move my feet more quickly.

At the heart of every value is not all the ways that we try to balance it, at the heart is the thing itself. How can we use strength and strictness best? Start with an understanding of its inherent value. Structure helps. Discipline helps. Strength is useful. As we contemplate this value, the full week, and all the weeks of the Oner, remind us that effective strength is only one aspect of any answer.

Day Eight of the Omer

We begin the second week of the Omer today, thinking about the idea of gevurah, or "power" and "strictness", and we start with chesed, the element of kindness and compassion in the realm of strictness.

While these ideas form the ends of a spectrum - often described at each end as mercy and justice - caring and rigidity are intertwined as well. We aim to begin every act of power, every assertion of will, with an understanding that it should be for a greater good, a vision that includes kindness.

As a teacher and a parent I often err on the side of a stricter voice, even though I know that I must lead with compassion and caring. When I keep that kinder tone in the center, the firmness needed comes across all the better.

Day Seven of the Omer

Our final day in the week focusing on compassion and loving-kindness asks us to reflect on Malchut-Rulership - the mystical concept of the intersection between spirituality and action, where we put our principles into reality.

This morning I find myself reflecting on the cessation of acting as a reflection of compassion. Jews, and for that matter, Americans, love to shoot from the hip verbally - we like to respond quickly and definitively. I continue to work on thinking through my actions through a lens of caring before reacting. My silence may be the most compassionate response.

Day Six of the Omer

As we wind up towards the end of the first week of the Omer, a week focused on the idea of compassion and kindness (chesed in Hebrew), we come to the idea of solid balance in compassion. We may often argue against compassion and kindness as ideas without substance. As we explore the need to give and be connected in the Omer we also realize that all solid foundations begin with an act of generosity. Creation requires a gift of the self.

Judaism is a Physical Spiritual Tradition!

Skiing, running, hiking, yoga, Aikido, cycling - all of these have been part of my Jewish spirituality, and sources of meaning and inspiration for my approaches to Jewish mysticism, since I was a teen. They have been part of my rabbinate from the start! Go out, be physical, and be Jewish! Judaism is an embodied tradition - we embrace the physicality of spirituality!
Check out this link about the Kabbalah of Skiing, something I have been talking about for years :-)

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.

A Meditation Using the Sh'ma

When we go for a walk, especially in nature, we invite in change for the better. Green spaces improve our moods, change our outlooks, and walking in them gives us a boost. I love the quiet, and it reminds me to listen. Listening allows me to connect with inner sources of strength that I often forget about. Our central meditation asks us to listen, and the build upon our selves in the hearing.

“Shema Yisrael – Listen closely Israel…” – if we quiet our inner voices we can hear the wisdom from all around us – from people and from trees, from our teachers and from our students.

“Adonai Eloheinu – God is OUR God…” – when we listen closely we can hear those messages that may in fact be on our side and not against us. On first hearing I often make things as bad as possible – this must be my fault, I must have done something wrong. When I remind myself that the universe may not be against me, that it often offers assistance, I can hear things differently – maybe this is happening for a good reason, maybe it will turn out for the better.

“Adonai Echad – God is ONE…” – there is only one universe, and it may turn out for the better or for the worse at any moment. Still the picture will always be bigger than us, and probably beyond our understanding. Let us hold off from making final judgments. Let us accept that we can always get more context.

“Listen Israel…”

Writing Our Books of Life

Writing Our Books of Life
Yom Kippur Morning 5774
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a version of this story:

Imagine, you’re on the light rail in Uptown Charlotte, and you realize that your soul-mate, your “beshert”, the one intended for you, and you for them, is standing right next to you.

You are stunned, overcome with both love and disbelief. Suddenly the doors open, and your beloved is walking off the train car, into the world without you, and all you can manage to ask is, “What’s your phone number?”

You hear an area code and a few digits, and then the doors close.

As the train slides onward to the next stop, you madly dial every combination that completes the phone number, with no success. You run to the parking lot and get in your car, race back to the last station and begin driving around, searching, frantic. You get more and more desperate, fearing that you have lost this person forever, and begin driving recklessly, starting and stopping, running red lights, hoping to catch a glimpse of your beloved anywhere.

Before you know it, you get arrested, held overnight in jail, alone, and await your hearing.
You prepare for the moment of judgment, terrified. You know you have done wrong, and have no real defense for it except that you were chasing after your dearest love, from whom you had only received a few digits.
You enter the courtroom and look up to see that the judge is in fact your soul mate, the one you had been chasing, the one whose absence made you stray so far. Your soul mate says the words that change your life, “I know that you’ve made mistakes. That doesn’t matter now. Right now, I just want to be near you.”

[Thanks to Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman for leading me to that story.]

On Yom Kippur we imagine that we stand to be judged – before our consciences, and before God. There is the great and awesome view – we hold our selves up to high standards, and below a judge on very high. On the other hand, God is also our nearest companion, our dearest love, our consciences reside in the closest places of our minds and souls.

And even on this day – perhaps especially on this day – we imagine that God wants us to draw near. We approach God so that we can be understood by someone who knows who we truly are. We stand in front of a judge who has total understanding of our inner spirits, knowing that we are always doing our best, even when we fall short.

We must closely examine our deepest and most hidden places. We must look at the stories of our lives.

The stories that we tell about God help us tell our own stories. When we talk about God, whom we can’t really know, we really talk about our deepest senses of who we are at our cores, and how we are connected to the world.

When we write a story about God, we begin to write our own stories.

We get to edit these stories, update them, add new chapters to them, and even rewrite them. The story about God and us helps us tell a better story about us, and helps us write our own Books of Life.

There once were two brothers – Adam and David. Their parents loved them very much and wanted them to succeed in all that they did. Adam was the oldest, and his parents fell in love with him right away. Adam’s mother saw in him amazing physical skills. Adam climbed out of his crib on his own, he walked earlier than all the other kids, he was fast on his feet, quick with his hands, and strong. As he grew his mother always said, “Adam, you are a great athlete.”

When David was born his parents also fell in love with him right away. They noticed that he looked around differently than Adam, and seemed interested in investigating things more than moving them. They challenged him with infant and toddler puzzles and introduced him to reading early on. He showed a great love for taking things apart, and eventually for putting them back together. David was handy with devices and a self-learner. As he grew his parents would always say, “David, you are a great scientist.”

When we define others, we change them. Even in the smallest of ways. A recent study tested third graders of about the same level. After being given an easy test, half were told that they did well because they worked hard, and half were told that they did well because they were smart. The students received a second more difficult test, and the differences were amazing. The students who were told they worked hard significantly out-performed the ones who were told they were smart. When given a third even more difficult test, the hard worker crowd did even better. When we think we are smart, we are more likely to believe that we can do well easily, because it comes naturally, without effort, and so we give up more quickly. When we think we are hard workers, we will work harder believing that our efforts will pay off.

We don’t want to be defined by others’ definitions no matter how lovingly they give them. We want to hear them, be grateful for their advice and their compliments, and then use those words as opportunities to write our own stories. We can rework those defining words. David and Adam are great at different things, and they can be great at other things too. We can hear “you are a great scientist” and still go and do well in sales or as an accountant. We can hear “you are a great athlete” and still go and do well as a poet.

The heroes of our stories redefined themselves all the time. Jacob started as a man of the tents, a bookish person, and when he wanted to impress Rachel, he went and moved a stone that normally took a whole group of shepherds to move. Joseph started out as an obnoxious brat, flaunting his dreams about the future to his brothers, and became a humble interpreter of dreams to Pharaoh, and then saved all of Egypt, and his family, from famine. David started as a shepherd, became a warrior who killed Goliath, and then a king.

We rewrite our stories all the time. We will not be defined by others’ ideas. We are the people who persist even when no one believes that we can.

We are the authors of our own books of life.

As authors of our books, we have help with the words – the words of this season offer us writing tools.
We say: “L’shanah tovah” – for a good year.
We say: “G’mar chatimah tovah!” May we be finished for a good inscription in the Book of Life
And in our prayer book we ask: “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim” – write us in the book of good life.

Isn’t this odd?

We could say: have a great year! May you be written for an excellent life! May you be awesomely inscribed!
Instead, we aim for good.

In this, we take the hint from the original author, from God.
Looking at creation over and over, we hear: “God saw that it was good.” When God finished, and felt that all was thoroughly done well, the last verse of Genesis, Chapter 1 (Gen. 1:31) says:
Now God saw all that God had made, and here: it was very good!
“Tov me’od” – very good is as good as it gets for God.

Yet we are so hard on ourselves.

Good is never good enough for us. Our standards are so high.

We want perfect.

My wife Ginny used to listen to me compare myself to professional cyclists and runners – “I’m not really doing well in this marathon, after all, the ‘real’ runners beat me by almost two hours. I’m not even half the runner that they are!” She reminded me that I’m a rabbi, who occasionally runs marathons, not a marathon runner.

I’m sure that we all can think of times when we have held our selves up to unfairly high standards.

Rabbi Zusya was one of our greatest rabbis, and he was upset. His students gathered around him, concerned about his obvious anxiety and said, “Rabbi Zusya, what troubles you?”
Rabbi Zusya eyed his students sadly and said, “I worry about how God will judge me”.
His students were shocked. “Master, how could you possibly be concerned? You are as great a teacher as Moses!”
Rabbi Zusya answered, “That may be. Still, when I go before the Judge of judges, at my final reckoning, the question asked will not be, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ But, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

The goal is to be good. We must aim to be a good representation of our inner self, not some external standard, not some comparison to others.

Why should we aim for good and not perfect? Perfection is a trap – it is beyond us, and unreasonable to even reach for. The world is filled with opportunities for improvement, for doing better. Perfection is not of this world. Those closest to it in our tradition, angels, don’t get the same privileges as we do. Our place in this world is to aim for good, our weaknesses, are our assets.

The Talmud tells a story (BT Shabbat 88a):
At the time that Moses went up to Heaven, the angels said to God:
“Master of the Universe, what is that son of a woman doing among us?”
God told them, “He has come to receive the Torah.”
The angels said to God, “The Torah, the most desired one, the one with whom you created the world – now you are going to give her to flesh and blood? What are humans that you should be mindful of them, and this child of Adam that you should listen to him?”
God told Moses, “Answer them!”
Moses said to God, “O Ruler of the Universe, I am afraid that they will burn me with their breath!”
God told Moses, “Hold on to my Glorious Throne and respond to them!”
Moses said, “Ruler of the Universe – the Torah that you are giving me, what is written in it?”
“I am Adonai your God, Who took you out of Egypt…”
Moses said to the angels, “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you slaves to Pharaoh? Why do you need the Torah? What else is written in it?”
God: “You shall not have any other gods before me!”
Moses: “Are you living among the heathen nations? What else is written in it?”
God: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!”
Moses: “Do you work that you have to cease? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not take…”
Moses: “Do you give and take? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not murder! Do not commit adultery! Do not steal!”
Moses: “Do you have envy? … Do you have an evil impulse?”
They immediately thanked God…right then every one became a fan of Moses and gave him a gift.

One of my teachers, Ari Elon, taught:

“The angels finally accept that the Torah was not for them but for human beings in the real world, who have fathers and mothers, who work and envy, and who struggle with evil impulses.

“The Torah is for humanity, for human beings are the ones who can accept their weaknesses. Those who see themselves as perfect and cannot accept their weaknesses are angels who are not suited or able to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.”

Let us work to improve because we accept with love our imperfections. Let us embrace them as the reason we are here. Only because we not perfect can we relate to the real world and work together to make the world and us better.

We teach practices of prayer and thought to help us review and revisit. The entire idea of t’shuvah – returning to our deeds to make amends, with others, with ourselves, and with God – asks us to engage in thoughtful and compassionate reflection on our stories so that we can rewrite them for a better new year.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman describes the process of t’shuvah:

“T’shuvah ought to transcend the motivation of fear and instead be motivated by an inner vision of our selves and who we believe we ought to be. This is the idea of t’shuvah out of love. In this t’shuvah, memory still plays an essential role but it ‘s no longer God’s memory, it’s our memories. Rosh Hashana as [a day of remembrance] is not the day in which God remembers but the day in which we are challenged to remember.

“The ability to change requires a leap of faith, a faith in our selves, that we can begin anew, that who we were need not determine who we will be. We need to free ourselves from our past, to delete it, so that a new story, a new journey and a new person can emerge. To learn from the past often entails getting stuck there. A healthy revolution needs to be gradual but it also needs a moment of radical departure, a break, and t’shuvah is nothing less than a personal revolution.”

A personal revolution – a return to the past to edit our stories and write new ones for the future – let us enter this new year as writers, let us move from asking God to write us into the Book of Life, and instead write our own books of life. And so we go from the passive object of “kotveinu” – please God write us! – to the active “nichtov” – we will write!

We are the people of books – many books, not just one. And these books are the ones we write about the People Israel, the ones we carry on our backs, and they are the books we write about ourselves, the libraries in our hearts.
Every year we come with here with our books. As we seek to be written for the next year, so we seek to rewrite. We come here as authors and editors, with laptops and red pens. We reflect on what worked and what didn’t and we embrace the mistakes, the imperfections, the weaknesses, as the gifts of a creation that is good, that allows us the chance to improve and fulfill our roles as works in progress.

As works in progress let us be compassionate to each other and our fragile souls.

As authors of our Books of Life, let us write good stories for the year to come.

Let us be our own creators, let us look at our work and say, this is very good.

Let us take this pause on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, to accept our imperfections, and so make the improvements we need to make this year a better year for us all.

We start these holy days here:
Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim – Please write us in the book of good life!

Let us finish them here:
Nichtov atzmeinu b’sefer chayim tovim – We will write ourselves in the book of good life!


Rosh HaShanah this week, thinking all the time.

27 Elul

Daily we should take account and ask: what have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of profit in every human being! Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but privately; not only occasionally, but regularly. What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals. What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.

Written by Abraham Joshua Heschel,
included in Rosh Hashanah Readings edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins
Posted today by Rabbi Karyn Kedar

Yom Kippur is Coming

From Michael Strassfeld's A Book of Life (pp. 269-270):

The Likutim Yekarim (an eighteenth-century Hasidic work) asks, if there are sparks of holiness in all things as the mystics teach, then what are the sparks of holiness in sin? It answers that the sparks are in teshuvah  ["repentance"]. In the moment we realize that we have done wrong, we gain the opportunity to redeem ourselves by returning to the holy.

Let us enter Shabbat

In order to enter Shabbat, Abraham Joshual Heschel recommends: 

We who want to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. We must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling our own lives. We must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without our help. 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.

Time and Loss

Loss turns us all into time travelers. We must enter our memories to encounter our loved ones, bring them back from the past, and let our lives be their passage to the future.  

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 48 of the Omer - leap from solid ground

Yesod in Malchut - the solid balancing point in the wholeness that rules useful doings.

Our best steps start from solid ground. Bringing all the ingredients together to create that stable starting off spot requires all the principles that we have reflected on up until now.

Find that spot, build it even, and then take the next step trusting in our preparations, hoping for the best, and maintain openness to all the unpredictability that may ensue!

Prepare, plan, set our feet solidly, and then go and do!

Almost through the Omer now - we look towards Shavuot on Tuesday night.

Day 47 of the Omer - humble actions

Hod in Malchut - the awe of absolute irrelevance in the presence that makes reality happen.

We need ego, a sense of agency, to summon the will to act. We need perspective on just how meaningless we are in the scope of the universe to act with proportionality and to not take ourselves too seriously.

While every action counts, importance loses weight as the scale leans towards the universal.

Let us be humble agents.

Each day of the Omer is just a small step - eventually we reach seven weeks!

Day 46 of the Omer - power in each moment

Netzach in Malchut - the persistent particle of self in the manifest presence of meaning.

At every encounter we can connect to and influence each other. When we really listen we can change in response to each other and so the littlest of remarks can alter a person's perspective and thus the world.

Respect our words and attitudes. We have power to influence and be influenced.

Shabbat Shalom and happy counting!