Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Praying with Knives in Wonder Valley


[This post was co-written with my husband, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, and is also posted on his blog, which can be found at www.NiceJewishArtist.com. Photos are courtesy Rabbi Rick Winer and Bill Leifer.]

It is always a privilege and pleasure to worship and create in a new community — making new friends, gaining new insights, and bringing new works of art into being. This past weekend was such an experience, when we joined Temple Beth Israel of Fresno as the scholar and artist in residence for their 2017 Shabbaton retreat (in Wonder Valley, California).

The heart of the weekend was “praying with knives” — meditating on the Saturday morning prayers and then using knife and paper to explore their meanings.

Providing encouragement and guidance

In our Shabbat morning worship Rabbi Shawna encouraged worshippers to choose a prayer that intrigued them, reflected a personal experience, or spoke to how they were feeling right then, and to focus on it during personal silent prayer: to read it more than once, to connect with the language, to read it slowly to pull out meaning, to imagine what words they would use if they were writing the prayer, to see what images came to mind when reciting the prayer, to meditate on the feelings that it invoked. And when our service finished, we began to pray with knives.

Isaac gives some drawing and cutting tips

After a bit of guidance from Isaac on approach and technique, and a little experimenting with their knives, the worshippers began to wrestle with their prayers — first sketching out some basic ideas, and than translating that idea to a papercut design.

Mark and Cindy, hard at work!

No two creations were the same, even when people chose the same prayer. Several people used rays of light in some fashion, but each time it was a part of a different prayer. A few people asked us to figure out which prayer they were working on based on the images they were trying to convey in their sketch, in a pictionary-meets-prayer sort of moment.








The prayer book was explored in its entirety — worshippers weren’t limited to the standard prayers that compose a service, but also explored psalms, readings, quotes and songs in the artwork. The lines that we often skip over because they are placeholders were sometimes the inspiration that reached out and grabbed someone.


Rabbi Laura Winer shares her papercut prayer.

At the end of the Shabbaton on Sunday everyone had a chance to share their artwork. Prayer by its nature is personal, and it can be a vulnerable moment to share a piece of artwork based on prayer, even among friends — but so many people wanted to stand up and share what they had created. The art and stories took prayer to a new level; for some they had a favorite prayer that they were excited to represent, for others something just caught their eye.


Side-by-side with the prayer that inspired it.

We so often think of prayer as written, as the recitation of words written on a page. But all written prayer started out as someone’s inner thoughts — as a spontaneous moment of prayer — and over the years became a part of our standard worship service. In Hebrew school we often begin by teaching prayers; mastering them in Hebrew is often a requirement for bar or bat mitzvah. But beyond familiarity with the words of others, prayer is our attempt to express our deep yearning or to articulate our gratitude or to help us shift our own perspective, and we are able to do those things through art. In their creations participants expressed gratitude, their dedication to helping others, their appreciation for the people in their lives, looking inward, creation.

The retreat coincided with the Torah portion Vayekiel, in which we learn that God assigned Bezalel to create the mobile tabernacle — the mishkan — and the objects that go with it. Bezalel is a craftsman skilled in many art forms, but we learn that each of the Israelites has something to contribute to the creation of the mishkan. God is the ultimate Creator — the Torah begins with divine creation, culminating in the creation of human beings in God’s image — but we have the ability to create as well, and when we do we are connecting with the Divine within ourselves.

[For more information on how you can bring "the dynamic duo" to your community, please contact Isaac via email: isaac@nicejewishartist.com.]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How Women Lead The Fight Against Pharaoh

The women in the Torah know something about how to respond to a repressive Pharaoh.

In the time of our slavery, the Egyptian midwives Shifra and Puah are ordered to drown all the Israelite baby boys, but they refuse to do something morally repugnant, and they ignore Pharaoh’s command. Not only do they refuse to be a part of this immoral order, but they actively work against it in order to save and protect others. They could have given up their jobs and turned over the responsibility to people more willing to follow Pharaoh’s orders, but instead they continue to act as midwives, helping the Israelite women and then lying to Pharaoh about why the population continues to grow. Their action saves lives. These are women who do not follow immoral orders; they are at the center of one of the first acts of civil disobedience.  

Pharaoh’s daughter also refuses to follow her father’s commands. When she finds Moses floating in the Nile she knows he is a Hebrew baby; she is aware of her father’s order, and knows the only reason why a baby would be floating in a basket in the river. And yet, she picks him up. She brings him home and even allows his own mother to act as his wet nurse. She knows exactly what she is doing, countermanding her father, but she does what she can to save a life. No act is too small — in saving just one person, Pharaoh’s daughter saved an entire people.

Perhaps the most difficult act in times of fear is keeping hope alive; in this we have the example of Miriam and her mother Yoheved. There is a midrash which teaches that in response to Pharaoh’s cruel order, the Israelite men all divorce their wives in order not to produce any children, so that none of them would be in danger of being drowned in the Nile — but Miriam knows better. She tells her father that his decree is even more severe than Pharaoh’s; she tells him that he is condemning both males and females; Pharaoh’s harsh decree might not be completely realized, but by ceasing to have any children at all the Israelite men are guaranteeing that there is no future. Miriam is right. The people do not realize that redemption is on the way — Moses has not been born yet — but Miriam knows that you cannot have a future without hope. Her mother Yoheved also has faith; she hides her newborn son until she can no longer keep him a secret and then places him into a basket on the Nile. She makes it watertight to protect her son the best she can, because she has hope that he will be rescued. Miriam and Yoheved teach us how important it is to continue to live, to love, to raise children and to have faith and hope in the future. At a time when it seems as if there was no hope, these women do not accept that this is the way of the world; they act from their faith that things can get better as long as we don’t give up.

These women, both Egyptian and Israelite, working separately but together, teach us how we can bring about change in even the most challenging of times. These women teach us how to stand up and do the right thing, how to help in whatever way we can, and how to have hope for the future.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sleepless in the Sukkah

The first year we had a home of our own our oldest daughter was only a year old and we built a sukkah in our backyard. It started small and we added a bit to it every year. When our kids were little we used to read bedtime stories in the sukkah — taking out the air mattress and pillows and blankets and cuddling up together to read before carrying the kids upstairs to bed. As soon as the kids were old enough, we tried sleeping outside in the sukkah — and it was a huge hit with the kids. The dogs were confused; they could not figure out why we would all sleep outside when there was a perfectly good house right behind us, but they curled up with the kids and waited patiently for the humans to realize that we were supposed to sleep indoors.

And so a family tradition began: every year at Sukkot we picked a weekend night to sleep outside in our Sukkah. We didn’t manage to do it every year, because some years it was just too windy and the sukkah could barely stand, and there was a year or two when the kids were on fall break from school and we were not home, but whenever we could we would all gather the air mattresses, the sleeping bags and blankets and pillows and all sleep together outside in the sukkah with the dogs.

Somehow it became the most important thing about Sukkot for my kids — what I always thought of as a nice treat when the weather allowed for it, became the thing my kids most look forward to. This year it was not looking good; Sukkot started out way too windy, and we had to take most of it down because it was blowing away. Once the weather cleared, the only night we would all be together to sleep outside was a school night and the practical side of me thought we would just have to skip it this year. But my three teenage daughters insisted that we sleep in the sukkah as a family. My oldest is applying to college this year and has been wondering if she will be around to sleep in the family sukkah next year… my 15-year-old is at a Jewish camp this weekend and did not want to miss sleeping outside with the rest of the family… and my youngest would have slept in it ANY night, windy or not. By Thursday night the wind had finally died down, so — school night or not — we were sleeping in the sukkah.

One of the lessons of Sukkot is about finding sanctuary in the temporary. A sukkah is, by nature, temporary and flimsy and does not make a very stable home — that’s why there are some years our sukkah practically blows away — but this year my teenagers reminded me of all that is permanent about a sukkah. It has become a part of their experience, a part of their memory and an important part of our family tradition. Our sometime-precarious sleeping-in-the-sukkah tradition has become ingrained into our children as one of the most important parts of the holiday. 

So, even though the practical side of me reminded me of why it was a bad idea — the air mattress will deflate in the middle of the night and it will be cold in the morning and we will all be up as soon as the sun rises — and despite knowing that nobody would get a good night’s sleep — not even the dogs, who still can’t figure out why we are all in the yard — I said yes to sleeping outside in the sukkah on a school night. I said yes, because Sukkot also reminds me that sometimes you have to just let go and enjoy what you can. And sipping a cup of coffee, tucked into a sleeping bag on a half-deflated air mattress is a great way to start the morning. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

No Regrets - Kol Nidre Sermon 5777

No Regrets
Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik
Temple Ahavat Shalom – Northridge, California


The Maggid of Dubnow was once passing through a town and came upon an old, abandoned barn. On the side of this barn were 100 targets. And in the center of each target, was an arrow.  100 targets, 100 bullseyes. He was amazed. Immediately he went to the town square  and asked the villagers who was the marksman that had such amazing skill. They pointed to a boy,  sitting off to the side with a bow and quiver next to him. “Young man,” he asked him,  “how is that you are so skilled to have accomplished this incredible feat with your bow and arrow?” “It’s really easy,” the boy replied, “I shoot the arrows first, and then I paint the targets around them.”

If you draw the bullseyes after you shoot the arrows, you never regret a single shot.

American culture celebrates this “No Regrets” attitude. We hear it all the time, as if living life without regrets is the secret to happiness. Life is too short to live with regrets; don’t waste your time worrying about things that you have done.

On the surface it sounds ideal: “I have no regrets because I am happy with who I am right now. I have no regrets because I don’t waste my time dwelling on the past, I am focused on the future.” No regrets, no looking back, just moving on.

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best: “Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done.” And it sounds like good advice for life… until you remember who said it. It was Lady Macbeth, advising her husband not to waste time regretting his past actions…like committing murder.

The sociologist and author Doctor Brene Brown teaches that living without regrets “doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection.” To live a life without regrets is to live an unexamined life, and Jewish tradition teaches us that that we need to be examining our lives, especially on Yom Kippur.

In our confessional, we pray these words: “Adonai, we are arrogant and stubborn, claiming to be blameless and free of sin. In truth, we have stumbled and strayed. We have done wrong.” It is the height of arrogance to come here on Yom Kippur and say that we have examined our lives and have no regrets. It is much easier to reflect on the year when we justify our mistakes as what we intended to do all along, when we shoot first and paint the targets later. But painting the targets after the fact does nothing to improve your aim, and we are here because we have missed the mark and have made mistakes.

It is not easy to admit to our regrets and failings, which is why we recite them together in the plural: Ashamnu, we have sinned, we have done wrong.

Our tradition teaches that regret is universal and both necessary and unavoidable and we have to face up to it.

Even God has regrets.

God regrets choosing Saul to be the king, telling the prophet Samuel, נחמתי “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and has not carried out My commands.” God, who should have known better, made the wrong decision.

Later, in the book of Jeremiah, we learn that God regrets using Rome to destroy the Temple and sending the Jewish people into exile.  נחמתי “I regret the evil I have done to you”

And probably the most well-known instance of God’s regret is in the story of the flood. Not long after creating the world, God regrets doing so.  The Torah teaches that,

When Adonai saw how great was the wickedness of human beings in the earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, Adonai regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick. So God thought, “I will wipe the humans off the face of the earth,  נחמתי I regret the day I made them.”
God’s regret is so profound that God takes an extreme action to try to fix it, tries to erase the mistakes made with humans and go back and start all over again. What started with good intentions —the creation of human beings — has gone horribly wrong. It is from a place of deep regret that God destroys almost all that had been created.

The Talmud explores God’s regret and there is debate about what exactly God regrets about creating human beings. As part of that discussion, Hillel and Shammai argue about whether it would have been better for human beings to be created or not have been created at all. In one of the rare instances when Shammai wins an argument it is determined that it would have been better had human beings not been created. However, the rabbis go on to say that since we already were created, it is our responsibility to examine our both our past and future deeds. This is what we are doing here tonight.

We come here to work on our souls,  to sit with the uncomfortable truth that we have not always done the right thing  and that we need to do better. Yom Kippur challenges us to name our regrets because that is the first step of Tshuvah — repentance — and how we become better. 

Regret is painful and uncomfortable. We cringe with regret. It forces us to face the worst in ourselves, the moments when we would like to tell ourselves that we were acting out of character, a momentary blip instead of who we really are. Yet it is those moments that we truly regret that teach us who we really want to be and how we could be better.

Part of the pain of regret is that  we have to take responsibility for our actions —we must admit that we had a choice and made the wrong one. We could have done something differently. We could have made a better decision. We could have exercised more self-control.  We could have taken the leap. But we did not. And it is frustrating to imagine  how things might have been better if we had only done something differently. Regret is the first step — that intense, emotional response to our self-examination that helps us to own up to our mistakes and change ourselves.

Doctor Brene Brown teaches that “Regret is one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary…Regret is a tough, but fair teacher. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.” 

If you have no regrets, then you are not doing the work of Yom Kippur. That is what really would be a waste of time — to spend all these hours in prayer and contemplation and not leave this place changed. 

The Talmud teaches that one who has no regrets —who says, “I will sin and repent and then sin and repent” —that person is not truly penitent. Tshuvah is about recognizing what we have done wrong and learning from it, so that if we were to face the same circumstances again we would do something different.

Brown says something similar to the Talmud based in modern psychology: “There’s a power in… saying, ‘I do regret this decision. What can I do differently? How can I grow? How can I change?’ It is an uncomfortable but really important reminder to learn to do things different next time.” Regret is painful,  but if you let it, regret can be the motivation to act differently in the future. 

Reflecting on the last year and on our lives, our regrets come in all sizes.
Some of us may have big regrets —things that were life-altering and continue to unsettle us —but most of our regrets are smaller, more ordinary occurrences. We fail to act kindly. We pretend not to see someone in need so we don’t have to stop and offer a hand. We pass up opportunities because we are afraid. We intentionally misunderstand a cry for help so we don’t have to answer it. We don’t take a chance,  sticking with what we know instead of trying something new. We are silent when we should speak up. We say the hurtful thing because the other person deserved it, or because we were justifiably angry, or just because we were hurting and wanted to offload it onto someone else. These moments happen all the time. Perhaps this is why we want to ignore them and pretend that we have no regrets.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy and tradition are clear: we are supposed to remember and regret all of these things. We confess our sins over and over. In case we are tempted to say we have no regrets, reciting Al Chet and pounding our chests reminds us otherwise —it reminds us of everything we have done wrong, categories of sin we may have forgotten about until we recite the words together.

“What we regret most,” says Brown, “are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves.” 

Our regrets can help teach us to take that chance, to speak up, to be kinder.

Our regret can remind us to refrain from hurting someone just because we can, to refrain from the revenge that feels good in the moment, to hold back the hurtful words that are truly better off unsaid.

Perhaps the reason regret is so painful is because it forces us to acknowledge that there are some things we can not fix. There are some mistakes that we can not undo, chances we can not go back and take, words that we can not unsay, there are things that are irreversibly broken.

God regretted creating human beings and tried to start over, but we know that you can’t go back and erase mistakes, and what God did next is equally regrettable, destroying the earth and living things in an attempt to wash everything away. 

After the flood waters recede God seems to regret destroying the world in anger and promises to never again cause such complete destruction.Knowing that humans still have the capacity for evil and concerned about the temptation to once again send rains, God creates a reminder in the form of a rainbow, a promise to stop the rain and not let floods again destroy the whole earth.God learns through experience and regret.

Later in the Torah, the Israelites have escaped Egypt into the wilderness, only to panic and build a Golden Calf. God is ready to destroy them and start over with Moses as the new father of the Jewish people.

Moses reminds God about the promise to Abraham,Isaac and Jacob that their offspring would be numerous and would populate the promised land. Moses asks God to repent from the plan to wipe them out.God listens to Moses and here uses the same word for “repent” as was used to express regret over creating humans: נחמתי nechamti, I regret. God has regrets and repents, and does not act on the impulse to punish the people by completely destroying them.God is learning, and changing. 

When later faced with a similar situation, God makes another choice, and does not act in anger. This is true repentance: choosing not to repeat the action that you regret. 

An admittedly-fallible God seems at odds with the theology of Yom Kippur. Instead of being all-knowing and all-powerful as portrayed in our prayers. 

An all-knowing God would not make mistakes, our Torah teaches that God does not know everything; instead God feels sorrow and has regrets. An all-powerful God could go back in time and change things, but our Torah teaches that even God does things that can not be undone. 

Rabbi Brad Artson teaches that: “A timeless, changeless God cannot regret. Regret means being different than you were a moment ago…Over and over again the Torah emphasizes a God who expresses emotion, a God who is always meeting people in relationship, and changing because of that relationship.”

God’s regrets are a lesson in Process Theology, a theology which teaches that God and the universe and everything in it are constantly changing together. Process theology understands that God is not a static and unchanging being, but instead is growing and evolving, alongside humanity.

If God is capable of regret and repentance and change, then these things are woven into the fabric of the universe and we too are capable of regret, repentance and change.

One of the most fascinating things I found when researching this sermon is based in the Hebrew we use for these concepts that shows how they are woven together. The Hebrew word used in Torah to describe God’s regret — נחמתי nechamti — and that God later uses to mean “repent” —is the same word used elsewhere by the prophets to describe God’s offering of comfort. It may seem odd to use the same word for regret and repent and comfort in Hebrew, but this is the real key to Yom Kippur. Reflecting on our deeds and learning from our regrets is ultimately where we will find comfort. Regret, repentance and comfort are tied together. And comfort is an important part of the process: first an examination of our deeds, then regret for our mistakes —both big and small — then repentance, and finally the comfort that comes from learning from our regrets. Yom Kippur is a reminder that we can change, we are constantly changing  and we can change for the better.

You can come away from Yom Kippur with a sense of comfort and satisfaction with who you are now and everything that has brought you to this point —not because you have no regrets, but because you have learned from them.

 Regret is a powerful teacher.
May wrestling with your regrets teach you to learn from your mistakes.
May you find true repentance and may you change for the better.
May your repentance lead you to forgive yourself
and give you the wisdom to act differently in the future.
May you continue to grow and change.
May we all be able to say nechamti — I regret.
Nechamti — I repent.

Nechamti — I have found comfort.

Reshuffling Life - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

“Reshuffling Life”
Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5777
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik
Temple Ahavat Shalom – Northridge, California


What if you could arrange the events of your life in another way? Perhaps you wonder how different your teenage years might have been if only you had the knowledge you have now… or maybe some of us wish we still possessed the optimism and energy of our youth. We might imagine reordering entire days or years of our life.

Author David Eagleman imagines a different way to organize the events of your life. In his vision of the afterlife you relive all of your experiences, but similar activities are grouped together. He writes:

You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. Eighteen months waiting in line.  You can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy.  Three months doing laundry. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

At this time of year, we envision a metaphorical Book of Life — a clean slate where our names might be written for another year of life and blessing. Now try to imagine another book… another type of ledger… where how we spend every second of our time is written down and calculated.

Eagleman’s numbers are based on averages — so you might spend less time sleeping, or more time doing laundry, but as estimates go they’re not too far off. That said, he leaves out an important category I know many of you are wondering about: how much time have you spent in High Holy Day services? According to my calculations,  the average Reform Jew will spend about 33 days over the course of a lifetime, more if you stay for the whole day on Yom Kippur. I hope you've got a comfortable seat.

It’s surprising to realize how much time we spend on all of these activities. Organizing every second into categories, the way Eagleman does, certainly gives us a different way to look at how we spend our time. Which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing here tonight, and over the course of the next ten days. Thinking back over the year that just ended, reviewing our choices... reviewing how we spent our time. Were we engaged in the things we wanted to be? The things that matter to you? Or were you wasting time? Rosh Hashanah is an annual reminder that life is short, and so much of our time is taken up by such little moments: laundry and showers and waiting in lines. It seems impossible in one lifetime to fit in everything we want to do. We have limited time; how will you use it?

The Psalmist was acutely aware of how finite our time is when he wrote, “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but even the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness… Teach us to count our days, that we may obtain a wise heart.”

The Psalmist knew that wisdom comes from knowing that our time is limited; it is precisely because we have only so many days that we are forced to examine them.

If you had an infinite lifespan, there would be no urgency to focus on important tasks, or to fix your mistakes —you could waste time on unimportant things until you were ready to live a life of meaning, and still have an infinite stretch of years ahead of you. The Psalmist is not telling us to count our days, but telling us to make our days count. It is up to us to find something meaningful in every day. Life will be difficult, there will be trouble and sorrow;  it is how we respond to difficulty that matters. 

Our patriarch Isaac knew better than anyone how short our time is. Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches that Isaac had a near-death experience when he went under the knife, about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham on Mount Moriah, and from that experience he gained clarity about what is truly important in life. Like many who have faced their mortality when staring death in the face, Isaac’s new understanding of life’s brevity leads him to reorient his life, to focus on what writer David Brooks calls “Eulogy Values.”

In his book The Road to Character, Brooks posits that there are two types of values: Resume Values and Eulogy Values. He explains that Resume Values are the skills and talents you have that you bring to the marketplace. Eulogy Values are just what they sound like: what people will talk about at your funeral — things like “whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.”

Isaac is frequently thought of as the least of the patriarchs. He is not the communal leader that his father Abraham and his son Jacob are recorded as being; he is often viewed as a mere link in the chain between generations. He is not a warrior or public figure; he does not have a huge family; he is not known for his wealth or his skill in negotiating with others. Isaac, perhaps because his own life flashed before his eyes as he thought he was dying,  goes on to lead a very different life from the other patriarchs. His priorities are different. He spends more time focused on Eulogy Values than on Resume Values.

Isaac has a deep sense of empathy. He is the only one of the patriarchs to plead to God on behalf of his wife when she is unable to get pregnant. He dedicated his life to Rebecca, and never takes another wife or concubine to prove his virility or to ensure that he will have heirs. Isaac is also the only patriarch to be described as loving his wife — and he remains in love with her throughout their lives. Isaac at one point tells King Abimelech that Rebecca is his sister, thinking that his wife is so attractive that someone would want to kill him in order to have her for themselves.

This is decades after they have met — they have adult sons! —but he still finds her irresistibly attractive and assumes everyone else does too. They don’t. Nobody else is interested in Rebecca; it is only Isaac that continues to see her as beautiful as the day they met. And in that same story we also see their playful intimacy with each other; it’s abundantly clear that they have a deep and lasting relationship. Isaac’s focus is on love, connection and partnership.

Isaac is more concerned about peace than material wealth. When he is challenged about the wells he has dug, he willingly hands them over to the Philistines instead of going to battle. Isaac does not put others’ lives on the line to gain or preserve his wealth; he is aware that accumulating a larger fortune is not worth risking the safety of his family or others who depend on him. Isaac is a peacemaker; he knows that not every battle is worth fighting and his restraint results in a harmony between him and the surrounding people.

Isaac stays in the land of Israel all of his life; unlike Abraham and Jacob he never sets foot in Egypt, and is the first Jew to practice farming — planting and staying in one place until the harvest; showing his dedication and patience. 

Isaac is shocked at the point of a knife into an awareness that his life is fleeting and he learns not to take life for granted.

Isaac is the often-overlooked patriarch because he does not have the prestigious resume and outward success that Abraham and Jacob do, but his life is an example of what it means to cultivate Eulogy Values — to live a life of meaning, loyalty, devotion and peace, focused on relationships and faith. 

The ram caught in the thicket granted Isaac another chance at life. We have such a moment as well in these Days of Awe. As the ram was Isaac’s salvation, the call of the shofar is our wake-up call — a reminder for us not to take life for granted either. It is in this moment that we let our own lives flash in front of our eyes. All of the good and all of our sins.

David Brooks suggests that the theologian Augustine offers a good working definition of sin — that when you sin it is because you have your loves out of order. “We all love a lot of things. We love family, we love money, we love a little affection, status, truth,” Brooks says. “And we all know that some loves are higher. We know that our love of family is higher than our love of money. However, when those ranks begin to shift, that’s when sin comes in. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money. [But] if we’re lying to get money, we’re putting our loves out of order.” If a friend tells you a secret and you share it at a dinner party, you are putting a love of popularity over your love of friendship.

This definition of sin is also a way to organize a cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our soul; how we spend our time is an indicator of what we love and what we value the most.

On Rosh Hashanah we ask ourselves, “how did we spend the past year?” If you were to reshuffle the events of this past year, does the way you spend your time reflect your values and what’s most important to you?

The reality is that we can’t spend every moment doing something that we love, or only the things that bring us joy — we need our sleep and it is impossible to avoid pain. But there are many, many hours that we do have control of — and on Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that it is up to us to determine how we will spend those hours.

When we try to imagine our lives reshuffled into orderly categories, all of our pain and heartache all at once, it seems unbearable. Eagleman points out that it is because we experience all of these things in small amounts that they are manageable. 

In reflecting on the past year, when we think about our moments of pain, we also remember the moments of comfort — the kind word... the friend that reached out… the hug when we needed it. How often in the past year were we that source of comfort? How often did we make someone else smile?

We have choices in how we respond to the world around us, how we respond to the inevitable heartbreak that none of us can avoid, how we respond to the challenges that test our abilities. The average person spends five months of their life complaining. We can choose not to spend our hours that way. We can stand up for others. We can take responsibility and make amends. We can nurture our friendships and love deeply. We can help bring peace to our homes, our community and our world.

As we begin the New Year, we take stock of our lives. Are you living the way you want to be remembered? Are you living a life that reflects your values?

If not enough of your hours are spent doing things that are meaningful to you, if your time does not reflect your values, you can start by changing just one hour: spending one more hour a week doing something that matters to you — something important that reflects who you really are and what you value. Just one more hour a week. Only eight and half minutes a day. And it adds up — by next Rosh Hashanah that’s 52 more hours working on your eulogy values, two more days spent doing the things that matter. Let the call of the shofar wake you up and remind you to make your days count.

Our lives are made up of so many little moments.
May your moments be filled with joy,
May your hours be filled with contentment, 
May your days be filled with meaning and 
May your years be filled with purpose

And may you find blessing in this new year.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Summer Camp Packing Tips - What I've Learned After 10 Summers of Packing For Camp

This will be our 10th summer at Camp Newman. When we started, I packed for everyone — now my kids can pack themselves. These are my tips from 10 years of packing for summer camp.

You’re going to forget something, and that’s OK
There will always be something that your kids will forget or wish they packed, but don’t worry — camp is a community, and they will share clothes and shampoo and help each other find what they need... and that’s part of the fun. Don’t overpack, and don’t worry; your kids are learning how friends help take care of each other.

Just like Las Vegas — sometimes what goes to camp, stays at camp
Not everything that goes to camp comes home again. Don’t send anything to camp that you would be heartbroken to lose. If you love it and can’t live without it, leave it at home. And label EVERYTHING you bring with you. 

Label everything
I can’t say this enough. I have seen the inside of a cabin halfway through camp: stuff is everywhere. The kids just throw all their stuff together and shove it under the bunk when they’re in a hurry to clean up. Things fall off the clothesline, towels get left at the pool… I have even seen a sleeping bag in the lost-and-found - if you label it, you are more likely to find it again.

Ziptop bags are the best
In addition to toiletries and stationary, put underwear and socks in separate bags; it makes it easier to find clean socks and underwear when they’re not tossed in with the pile of clothes.

Be prepared for “color wars”
Bring things in red, blue, yellow and green — and not just a t-shirt. Bring lots of things in those colors — shorts, bandanas, headbands. The more you have, the better. And if you don’t use it, you will likely have a friend who will want to borrow it.

Lots of sunscreen
Seriously – lots. I also send a sunscreen stick to make it easier for kids to put sunscreen on their faces. Kids will share, counselors will remind kids to apply and reapply, but I try to make it as easy as possible for my kids to stay slathered in sunscreen.

Regarding your feet
Closed-toe shoes are a great idea. I love my Keen sandals; I'm sure they have saved me from a bloody foot on more than one occasion. Many camps are requiring shoes that have either a closed toe or heel; make sure to read and follow the rules. That said, bring a pair of cheap flip-flops for the pool or shower or for stepping outside to hang up a towel on the clothesline. They’re not an alternative to shoes — they’re an alternative to bare feet.

Extras
My kids suggest sending an extra set of pajamas, as one set gets dirty on the overnight. And an extra set of clothes so they have something to wear on laundry day.

Theme events
Pack some crazy accessories. As kids get older their groups have more theme nights and activities. Send hats, costume-type clothes… hit up the thrift store for unusual clothes — especially 80s things. Yes, parents, we are now old enough to be a theme night.

Bedsheets
I send a fitted sheet to go on the mattress under the sleeping bag. No particular reason; it’s just a nice little touch of home.

A book
Or two. My kids love to read and sometimes there is downtime when a kid just wants to read. You don’t need to send enough for the summer — here is where the sharing thing comes in again — because kids will pass books around the cabin; my kids have discovered new authors that way.

Pre-addressed and stamped envelopes
If you want your kid to write, make it easy. And then don’t panic when they don’t write — if your kid isn’t writing, it’s because they’re having too much fun with friends to stop and send you a letter.

Don’t send electronics or cell phones

Do not try to sneak in electronics or cell phones. Camp is a chance to unplug. Your kids are well cared for at camp and they are learning independence, and that means not being able to call mom and dad. For kids struggling with homesickness, calling home tends to make it worse and not better. Send your kids letters instead - even if they don’t write back, campers love to receive mail.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

This sermon is making me uncomfortable

Last spring my friend Portlyn talked me into lifting weights.

At first I said no.

I am not a gym person and it is so far out of my comfort zone I can barely see it from here. I do not enjoy exercise, I don’t get that endorphin rush that  even casual athletes talk about, but I know it is good for you and Portlyn persisted and so I eventually gave in and called the gym.

The first time I walked in the door I wanted to turn around and walk out again. It seemed that everyone around me knew exactly what they were doing: what to wear, what kind of water bottle to have, where to stand and how to move… Everyone looked like they had a purpose, whereas I had no clue and I was sure everyone could tell that I didn’t belong. 

I was so uncomfortable that I could feel it on my skin, that sense of unease that everyone was staring at me and finding me lacking. I did, in fact turn around, and there was my friend, blocking the door and reminding me that nobody was looking at me or even cared about what shoes I was wearing. It was awkward and I did not like it, but I did go back and kept going back.

I still don’t really enjoy it. It’s still outside my comfort zone, and I still feel awkward, but I am getting stronger so I keep going. But every time I start to get a bit more comfortable, every time I start to feel like I’m getting the hang of it, someone hands me another weight and I am shoved right back out of my comfort zone.

I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that phrase: the “comfort zone.” It was first defined back in 1907, when two psychologists — Robert Yerkes and John Dodson — discovered that there is an “anxiety neutral” zone where one has very little anxiety and very steady behavior: the comfort zone.
It’s not surprising that humans are most comfortable in the absence of anxiety, there is a whole industry dedicated to relieving anxiety and stress. And while there is nothing wrong with feeling at ease, staying in your comfort zone leaves you with no reason to grow or change. And the longer you stay in your comfort zone the more challenging it is to get out of it; it can lead to a state of inertia.

What Yerkes and Dodson discovered through experiment is something we instinctively know: to grow we need to try new things. To change we need to be disturbed. We need to push ourselves to do things we’re not quite sure about.

Sometimes we’re forced out of our comfort zones — we lose a job, we suffer an injury, or we lose people we love. Sometimes we choose to leave the comfortable behind by taking a risk and discover we are capable of far more than we thought.

The Torah is filled with examples of people who could only achieve greatness once they stepped outside of their comfort zone.

Adam and Eve could not stay in the Garden of Eden, as comfortable as it was; there was no chance to become fully human until they left and were forced to find a new way. Judaism teaches that leaving the Garden was necessary.

Abraham and Sarah had to leave their home to connect with God and to parent a nation. And when they got comfortable — when they finally had a son who would be the first of descendants as numerous as the stars — God demanded that Isaac be sacrificed, testing Abraham’s core beliefs.

Jacob, too, had to leave home in order to create his new family — and along the way he wrestled with himself to forge a relationship with God. He also had to deal with what was assuredly an awkward confrontation, meeting face-to-face with the brother he had tricked out of his birthright. Without these trials Jacob would not have grown from a spoiled, favored boy into a man and the father of a nation.

Moses was uncomfortable with his role as leader of the Jewish people, but he had to stretch past his discomfort before he could lead them out of slavery to freedom. And as terrible as slavery was, the Israelites had become comfortable there; once free, they constantly complained about the desert and even asked to go back to Egypt. But the path to freedom in the promised land could only be found while wandering in the desert.

I could go on and on with examples in Torah — not just because it is our tradition, but because it is in my comfort zone. But to really understand what it means to push ourselves and why we need to do so, we need to get out of my comfort zone and into mussar.

Mussar is relatively new for me. I can admit that I am not as versed in it as I am in Torah and I have to also admit that saying in front of all of you that I don’t know something is way out of my comfort zone. 

The word “mussar" means instruction, but we understand it as self-improvement that focuses on living a more conscientious life and heightening our awareness of the world and our responsibilities in it. In short mussar is about “becoming more of a mensch.”

Our examples in the Torah teach us why it is important to make a change, but mussar tells us exactly how to do it — it is a step-by-step action plan. Most of our days are taken up by doing just what we have always done; mussar challenges us to recognize these moments and to make better choices so that our actions align with our values.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, an early 20th century philosopher considered one of the great mussar teachers, had a method for improving and changing behavior. He taught about the concept of a bechirah point, or a “decision” point. We all have one, and for each of us it is different.

Most of our decisions are habits, things that we don’t necessarily even think about — it is obvious to us, says Dessler, how we will respond in the majority of situations. A bechirah point is different — it’s a moment that gives us pause and makes us question our values — a choice we’ve never had to make before and possibly will never encounter again. Everyone’s choice point is unique, and it changes as we mature and change.

How do we change? Jewish wisdom understands that we each have two impulses which pull us in different directions. The yetzer tov — our good inclination — is the voice that reminds us of the truth; some people call that voice our conscience. The yetzer ra, also called our evil inclination is our selfish impulse, our greedy impulse, or jealous reaction; it encourages us to see the world as if it exists only for our personal benefit. When faced with a choice we may know what’s right, but our self-interest can lead us astray. These two forces are constantly at odds with each other, but we can train our yetzer tov,  our good inclination to be the stronger force.

And as we make decisions about our actions the balance between the yetzer tov and the yetzer ra changes. The more we listen to our good inclination, the better choices we make and we can change our habits for the better and become our best selves.

Mussar is a way to do this. We know that one-time resolutions are not the path to change — how many of us are still making the same promises we made last year, still asking for forgiveness for the same things as last year? We can’t expect to become new people overnight, to wake up tomorrow on Rosh Hashanah morning transformed — but we can make better choices. You can remain content in your comfort zone… but if you do, you will never realize your full potential. Real change is in the details.

The details are often easily overlooked and our slide into sin can be so slow and subtle that we do not even notice our own bad behavior. If not held in check our moral compass will shift and we will no longer recognize when we are wrong. 

That is why we come here on Rosh Hashanah: to determine where we have gotten off-track. To shift the battle line between our yetzer tov and yetzer ra. When our habits and behaviors are more ethical, the territory controlled by our yetzer tov gets larger and we become more virtuous.

One of the places your bechirah points come into play is when you have to decide, do you speak up when a friend tells an offensive joke or do you laugh it off? Do you look the other way when someone is being harassed because it’s none of your business? Do you remain quiet when a colleague says something derogatory because everyone has their own opinion? 

When we avoid speaking out because it is uncomfortable we not only move ourselves toward our yetzer ra, our evil inclination — we move our whole culture in that direction as well.

Over the past few weeks the National Football League has been an example of what happens when our cultures moral compass slips. A video came to light of an unconscious woman being dragged from an elevator by an NFL player. Minor charges were filed and the offender was suspended for two games… but these reactions were minor and perfunctory, and passed nearly without comment. We did not reach a collective bechirah point until a more graphic video surfaced — of this player punching the woman so hard he knocked her unconscious. The circumstances had not changed, but it was not until faced with the images of that kind of violence, the NFL and the public could no longer ignore it.

But the sad truth is that our culture can tolerate knowing that women are victimized; we acknowledge it’s wrong, and yet we don’t do anything to change it. Violence against women on college campuses is almost a given. The “yesallwomen” campaign of the summer showed just how common misogyny and harassment of women is. It shows how far off course we are that we need to see graphic violence before we say that we are upset by it. We know it exists, but it takes video footage to really make us uncomfortable. 

When it comes to cultural change, it often takes huge violations for us to recognize that we need to change. As Jews we must not shrug our shoulders and say, “that is just the way things are; it is too big to fix.” There are some things about which we must never say “boys will be boys.” As Jews we are called to stand up for the vulnerable and to notice when our society is drifting toward our collective yetzer ra. When the Torah says we have to take care of strangers, widows and orphans, that is our call to stand up for all who are suffering from an imbalance of power. We are obligated to get our of our comfort zones, to say the unpopular thing, to shine a bright light on injustice and to demand change when change is so clearly needed. How we treat the weak, the disenfranchised, the minority populations, and those not in power is a barometer of how we are doing as a society. In addition to personal reflection on Rosh Hashanah we need to reflect on what needs to change in the world around us, we should not be comfortable with the way our society treats the marginalized.

If we have become complacent about a little misogyny or a little homophobia — if we are not offended because it is just a little bigotry, a little racism — if we don’t speak out about a little anti-Zionism, a little anti-Semitism — then we surely need to get out of our comfort zones. 

Judaism requires that we have to go beyond what feels good to what is good. We have a higher purpose: to be God’s partners in creating a more perfect world, to spread justice, to care for others, to find meaning in our lives. 

Over the next ten days your task is to think of all the ways you have become comfortable and complacent…and ultimately that kind of introspection can lead you to take new risks and stretch beyond your limits. By being aware of our personal bechirah points, our decision points and how they shift as we evolve, we can see a path to righteousness. By being aware of what is happening in the world around us we have a chance to bring cultural change. At Rosh Hashanah we are reminded to think of the trajectory of our lives, we are reminded to think long-term, to think about who we are and who we want to be and the kind of society we want to live in — we are challenged to grow and change. We are also challenged to make a difference — to remember our role in the world, to work to create a more just society.


May this New Year be a year of growth and change for us. May our worship here together inspire us to move beyond what is comfortable to what is challenging. May you recognize all the moments you are faced with a choice and may you find the strength to make good choices. May your yetzer tov always speak louder than your yetzer ra. May all the little steps you take in this New Year lead you to a life of increased meaning and holiness.

Shana Tova.