Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to My College-Bound Daughter

First day of kindergarten
This summer at camp there was a family of birds nesting in one of the trees right outside the dining hall. There were a few days early in the summer when we were told to keep our distance — the baby birds were learning to fly and the parents were not thrilled with humans standing next to their tree. One morning, one baby bird plummeted onto the table where we were having a meeting. After some adorable and awkward hopping and flapping the small bird wound up on the ground in the bushes and throughout the meeting we would look over to see if it was still OK. Was it stuck? Did it need help? Where were this bird’s parents? I was worried about the baby bird.

You probably realized far sooner than I had what was really going on. In two days my oldest daughter, Mira, is starting college and leaving our nest. Many of you have been through this before; you know the combination of intense pride and happiness that comes along with a vague sense of loss. In the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca, made popular by the band Semisonic, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Things are changing, and while it is a good and welcome change, it is still a bit of a shock when your kid does the thing you have been talking about for the last 18 years.

So last month, when I called my sister to discuss in great detail the pros and cons of a particular beach towel I was buying for Mira, she listened patiently before pointing out to me that I was nesting again — that my disproportionate concern about the size and color of a beach towel relative to another almost identical beach towel was similar to how I prepared for her birth more than 18 years ago.

Beach towels and bath caddies are the easy things, but what I really hope I’m sending her off to college with is the Jewish wisdom that will sustain and nurture her as she continues to grow into adulthood. What I really hope is that Judaism will continue to guide her, as it continues to guide me.

And so, I wrote a letter to my daughter to pass along some of that wisdom — and realized that starting college has much in common with starting the New Year. There are moments when we can feel that changes are coming— when we can look at a date or pass a milestone and know that from this moment on, things will be different. Some transitions are happy and welcome, like the first move-in date for college, getting married, watching your children get married, the birth of child or grandchild, starting a new job, starting retirement, moving to a new house. Others are not-so-welcome, like the diagnosis of a disease, the end of a relationship, losing a job, friends moving away, the death of a loved one.

We are all sitting here tonight on the verge of changes — some eagerly anticipated, others with more trepidation. None of us know what this new year will bring. We are all starting something new and unknown, right here, tonight, on Rosh Hashanah. So, while I may be addressing my daughter, this is for you as well. 

Dear Mira,

You are about to go forward into the unknown, starting a new chapter in your life. Our tradition teaches us how to go forward into the unknown. Abraham and Sarah follow God’s command to go to the land God will show them — they do not ask questions; they just leave everything they know and head for somewhere they have never been before. This must have been terrifying, to start a journey without knowing the destination, and yet they go anyway. They have faith that the journey will be worth it despite any hardships, and that they will find meaning and purpose along the way. Their path is not easy, nor without trials and heartbreak, and yet Abraham and Sarah become the first human beings in the world to bless other people.

Your path may not always be easy or straightforward, and as with our ancestors it is up to you to create meaning and purpose in your life’s journey. Sometimes you will find yourself exactly where you thought you would be, and at other times on a path that is more wonderful than you could have imagined or one that you would never have chosen or expected; like Abraham and Sarah, look for blessings and find an opportunity to share those blessings with others.

You will make mistakes. Some will be small and easily repaired, like missing a deadline. Others will be devastating and not so easily repaired. There are some things that you will only learn the hard way, and it will be painful. Mistakes are a part of life and part of growing up and learning; and you can’t avoid them no matter how old you are. It is up to you to decide to learn from your mistakes. The lessons of the High Holy Days can teach you how to do tshuvah, to truly make repentance. First you must admit that you have done something wrong — and not in general, but in detail; you must recognize your wrongdoing, without downplaying it or making excuses for yourself. You may want to hide from your mistakes sometimes, but owning up to them is the only way you will change. If you hurt another person, you need to apologize. Not a generic blanket apology on Facebook, not a text, not an insincere “sorry, not sorry” but a genuine apology where you acknowledge your part in causing hurt. Yes, this might be an awkward conversation, but it is a necessary part of the process. In the words of Dan Nichols, “embrace the awkward,” and your relationships will be stronger. If you can learn to take responsibility and apologize for the small hurts you cause, you will have the tools to do the same for the harder ones. And then, forgive yourself. It is OK to make mistakes; you don’t have to be perfect. Don’t beat yourself up over your missteps — learn from them, so you can do better in the future.

The Talmud teaches “Either friendship or death,” and it is more than just a folk saying. Friendship can save your life. The friendship between the young King David and Jonathan led Jonathan to protect David and save his life. But there’s more than just anecdotal or metaphorical evidence — new research shows that friendships are literally life-saving for everyone. A BYU study of hundreds of thousands of people found that the biggest predictor of how long you will live is your relationships. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier; they're also physically healthier, and they live longer than people with fewer friends. Dr. Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has discovered that loneliness is toxic. “People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that…their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”

So Mira, I hope you will nurture your friendships. It takes time to build trust with someone, to have the kind of friendships where you can share not just your joys but your disappointments and the things that embarrass you. You need people you can trust not to judge you and who will always tell you the truth. Practicing tshuvah, apologizing and making amends when necessary, will help you maintain those relationships over many years.

There will be times in your life when you are lonely. The Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a collection of teachings from about 1500 years ago, teaches us how to acquire a friend: by eating and drinking together, by studying Torah and debating with them, by spending time together, and by sharing private thoughts. I admit that I have not always been the best example of this, neglecting my own friendships at times. Don’t let other things get in the way; there will always be other things — classes or work or just the busyness of life — but you have to make time to nurture your friendships. Your life depends on it.

Mira, even when it seems like everyone in the world is a jerk, I hope that you will still be kind. Rabbi Mattia ben Cherish taught that you should be the first to greet every person — this is more than just good advice; it is good for you. The same study from BYU also found that the second biggest predictor of how long you will live is how much you interact with other people throughout your day. Rabbi Shammai taught that you should greet every person with a pleasant countenance; 500 years before the invention of cell phones Rabbi Obadiah ben Avraham of Bertenura understood this to mean not to offer things to your guests when your face is buried in the ground, because if you are not looking at them, it is as if you have given them nothing. If you are not paying attention to the person in front of you, if you are not present, it does not count. Treating everyone you come into contact with as if they matter sounds so simple, but acting on it can be very difficult. Remember that the rude waiter may be having a bad day and needs to be treated with kindness. Talk to the people you come into contact with; the cashier, other people in line, the girl who makes your coffee remember that they are people and that everyone has a story.

Stand up for what you believe in. If your relationship with Israel was a Facebook status, you would label it as “complicated.” For years you have been hearing about the dangers of anti-Zionism on campus. Make no mistake: anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, is anti-Semitic — but they are attracting Jews, especially Reform Jews, by pretending to be a social justice movement. You have learned here at TAS how important it is to stand up to oppressors, to fight for rights and to make sure that all people are treated equally. BDS preys on that by telling you that if you really, truly care about social justice you will recognize Jews as oppressors and will stand against Israel. There are people who will tell you that unless you denounce Israel you can not have a voice in any other issues.

This summer Jewish groups were asked not to participate in the Chicago Dyke March because a rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it was considered threatening and against the values of the marchers. Similar things were said by the organizers of that city’s Slut Walk. There are people who will try to tell you that you can not be a feminist if you are a Zionist. They are wrong. This is anti-Semitism. Calling it anti-Zionism does not change the fact that it is anti-Semitism. Zionism is the belief that Jews are entitled to a nation in our ancestral homeland, Israel, and modern Zionism encompasses our values of democracy, pluralism, and equality. A love of Israel demands honesty and a commitment to the continuation of building a morally exceptional society — to be a light to the nations.

The good news is that your relationship with Israel should be complicated. Israel is not perfect. The Israeli government is not perfect. Just as we can love America without loving everything our government or leadership does, you can love Israel without loving everything its government does. The treatment of Bedouins and discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews are just two of the serious issues that are deeply problematic. Loving Israel does not mean you agree with everything; it does not mean that you will not have reasons to legitimately criticize — there are legitimate problems and you should criticize when it is called for.

To be an ohav Yisrael, a lover of Israel, you need to stay informed, pay attention to what is going on in Israel, read the news, learn the nuances of the complex issue of creating peace and establishing borders with our neighbors, when you criticize, do it from a place of love, and stand tall as a proud Jew and Zionist.

Mira, there is so much in this world that can break your heart, and you will get your heart broken. And I wish I could protect you from it, but that is not the way our world works. We often try to deny this truth, but on these Days of Awe, we call it out. We name it when we pray Unatana Tokef, conceding that terrible things will happen in life, things we cannot avoid. You will be hurt, you will experience loss, you will be disappointed. Life will not be fair; don’t expect it to be.

The message of this prayer is not that repentance, prayer and charity will keep you safe; it is that those things help make sure that the things that break your heart, don’t leave you broken. It is not that tragedy has a reason or higher purpose. I don’t believe that everything has a reason; it is that you can choose to find meaning in the things that would otherwise break you. Learning, reflecting and connecting with others is how you will heal. 

And yet, don’t let fear of failure or hurt stop you from reaching out to others and trying new things. Don’t let fear stop you from enjoying life to the fullest. Yes, there will be heartbreak and disappointment and sadness,  at times, but, there will also be love and friendship and awe and gratitude.

The Talmud teaches that every human being will have to give an account for all that they saw that was permitted to them, but that they did not enjoy. There will be much to enjoy in this new year, many new adventures, new friends, new experiences — you should take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. ...To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As you begin this new chapter in your life, allow yourself to be amazed. Don’t be too cool for wonder and awe; geek out over the stuff you love, even if nobody else gets it; and let yourself appreciate all the wonderful things that are happening in your life. Embrace all the blessings coming your way; you deserve them.

May this New Year bring you blessing.
May the wisdom of our tradition guide you on life’s path.
When life is challenging, may you find comfort and strength.
May you always be an ohav yisrael, a lover of Israel.
May you always look for blessings and when you find them, share them with others.
May you have strong friendships that will sustain you.
May you experience all the joy that life has to offer,
in this New Year and in all of your years.

Shanah Tovah.

citations available upon request

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 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:]