Welcome to Mo-Drash ... the weird confluence of the Jewish tradition of Midrash and me!

What is Midrash? Literally, the word derives from the Hebrew root that expresses interpretation. Figuratively, it is the process by which Jews read between the lines of our sacred stories and seek insight from what we discover from each story, verse, word, letter and stroke of the pen.

Who am I? My name is Adam Morris, but known by many as Rabbi Mo. I spend a lot of my time serving in the role of rabbi, but I am also a husband, a dad, a runner and a 'weekend' craftsman (among other things). I try to move like Abraham to find my Place ... to wrestle like Jacob to know my Place ... and to snicker like Sarah to keep me in my Place.

B'makom she-ani omayd (from The Place where I stand),
Rabbi Mo

Friday, September 30, 2011

Happy Birthday To Me? - Day #9

It certainly is a weird thing to celebrate (and I use the term loosely) one's birthday on Rosh Hashanah - especially when that 'one' is a rabbi.  (Yes, if you did not know it was my birthday yesterday - #44!).  I can say that it is not a new phenomenon for me - being both a rabbi and a he of the late September birthday - to have Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur fall on the same day as my big day.  My approach to such confluences is to not make a big deal about it.  I know people genuinely want to express good wishes (and this year MANY people did, thanks to the transparency afforded by Facebook!), but, it never has felt right to make it part of what the community does on those day.  Besides, the truth is that I am so focused on what I am doing those days, it simply does not FEEL like my birthday.

In general, I still get a flutter in my belly and more than a tinge of excitement about my birthday.  Even birthdays that fall on a non-Rosh Hashana or non-Yom Kippur work day, have still felt like a special day.  Days in which I enjoyed the external attention and treatment I received and the internal recognition of marking another circuit around the sun on my special day.

We spend a lot of time in our heads these days of Teshuvah-making ... do we or can we really make a difference about how we think and the choices these same heads will make in the coming year?  My birthday/non-birthday yesterday makes me answers in the affirmative.  For everyone in the whole yesterday it was September 29th.  No one holds the power to change that fact.  If you sent an email, signed a legal document, etc.... yesterday it was and always will have been September 29th.  And as much as I look forward and enjoy that anniversary for me every year, this year my mind changed both of those realities.  As I experienced the day, in a very real sense it was not September 29th - I chose a different reality.  It did not FEEL like a birthday to me ... and I made that reality so.

It leads me to a few moments to revel in the power of our minds, our focus and our intentions.  While there is much to the world that is beyond our control and influence, there are still some small, significant parts that are only under our control.  I think, it is a very important concept to keep in focus, as we spend these next ten days trying to control, influence and affect the realities in which we each live.  We control how we approach each day and each moment of our lives - good ones, bad ones; birthdays or not.

Monday, September 26, 2011

My New World Record - Day #13

Yesterday a twenty-six year old man took off on a little run through the streets of Berlin.  Twenty-six and two-tenths miles later (forty-two and one hundred and ninety-five thousands kilometers for those of you keeping score in metric-land) he had smashed the world marathon record by twenty-one seconds.  Patrick Makau's final time was two hours, three minutes and thirty-eight seconds - and average of four minutes and forty-three seconds per mile.  As a marathoner myself  (I am even embarrassed to say this after mentioning that accomplishment, but it's too late now ...) I am awed and intimidated by such a feat.  At my best, which was my last race in May (pumping my chest out slightly, I tell you that) I clocked in at three hours and forty-two minutes ... somewhat off of the newly established world record.

I will never come to close to that feat.  I will never be the best at this marathoning thing that I do.  There is a pretty good chance that I will never even be the best in my age bracket for a given race at this marathoning thing that I do.  (Although, the longer I do it I imagine the smaller the numbers of competitors might become.)  I realize that there are some factors that are going against me ... my age and the natural evolution of my particular body; the ways my body may not be the perfectly wired machine that these elite runners may be and then there is the amount of time and energy it would take to even push myself to the elite level of my age bracket.

As I write that last 'reason', the line between 'factors out of my control' and 'factors that I am just too lazy or undisciplined to do something about' gets a little fuzzy.  I could run an extra day a week. (Oh, but I so hate the morning).  I could eat differently and enhance my body to do the work I am asking of it. (Oh, but eating is just one of my favorite things to do.)  I could go on, but I won't ... suffice it to say not only will I never even run twenty-six successive miles at a four minute and forty-three second clip, but I will never even run one mile at that pace of insanity.

I could go down the list of unreachable, yet highly desirable goals/dreams of mine that Vegas would put great odds against ever happening: playing centerfield for the Cleveland Indians, being the beat writer for the Cleveland Indians, writing the Great American novel, etc., etc.  It would be easy to examine these goals and see how I have fallen short of them ... and feel like I had failed.  Technically, it is 'failure', but I am really a failure because I will never run a world record in the marathon?

I worry that at times the entire experience of the High Holyday season feels like that kind of exercise in failure.  We are continually thinking about how we missed the mark, how we messed up (and in many cases we seem to mess up on the same things each year), what we lack, recognizing our limitations, remembering the precarious nature of our very existence ... it can be easy to worn out by this self-flagellation and feel like we continue to fail and fail again.

If we go down this path during these days  ... or the rest of the year ... we are out of balance. Perhaps the goals and expectations are too black and white and not enough gray. Perhaps we get caught up in expecting to be world record holders in the human race and that is not really the nature of this kind of race.  In those moments after I have crossed the marathon finish line, failure is the farthest thing from my mind.  I feel joy, satisfaction and even triumph.  I am not thinking about how far I am from a world record or even the other early forty year olds in my age category.  I am reveling in that moment and (believe it or not) beginning to plot my next race - asking myself what can I learn from this one?

The Sage Reb Zusya had an idea as to the true essence of this human race we each run. The legend goes that as he was dying, his students came to tend to him. “There is nothing you can do,” answered Zusya. “I’m dying and I am very frightened.”

“Why are you afraid?” the youngest student asked. “Didn’t you teach us that all living things die?”

“Of course, every living thing must die some day,” said the Rabbi. The young student tried to comfort Rabbi Zusya saying, “Then why are you afraid? You have led such a good life. You have believed in God with a faith as strong as Abraham’s. and you have followed the commandments as carefully as Moses.”

“Thank you. But this is not why I am afraid,” explained the rabbi. “For if God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”

Run your race.  Be your true self - celebrate your triumphs AND learn from your failures.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Forgetting the Tooth Fairy - Day #14

Tonight, as I was putting Dakota to bed the discussion subject of choice was teeth.  He was lamenting that he had only lost a couple to this point and wondering if he would need braces once his teeth all came in.  When I shared some of my experience with braces with him, he asked me if had lost all of my teeth.  I hesitated for a moment.  Of course I had lost all of my teeth, but I did not remember losing most of them!  I have to imagine that losing teeth was as big of a deal for me as it is for Dakota and Addison - our Tooth Fairy is quite dedicated.  How could I forget my own visits from the Tooth Fairy?  How could I not remember such significant events in my life?

I became concerned as my train of thought continued to what other significant events and moments I  could not remember.  I was worried as I thought about the important things that someone must have said to me that I don't even know were said because those things are either not in my head any more or just did not hang around as long as would have hoped.  I was embarrassed as I realized there are probably - no certainly - things that I have done to offend, upset or hurt people that I simply do not remember.  I also realized that, conversely, there are offenses, upsets and hurts done to me that I cannot recollect.

And, well ... I have no meaty, pithy response to give this some perspective.  I do not have the Jewish story or take that may lend some background to this dilemma. I only have this momentary realization (one that I might forget) that humbles me.  I am humbled - not in the sense that I feel small or insignificant -  but that I grasp for a moment both my possibilities- to love, to create and to heal and my limits - in loving, in creating and in healing.  Grasping both are essential to me in remembering before whom I stand.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Origins of Apple-ness - Day #15

I tasted my first honey-crisp apple of the fall today.  If you have not enjoyed the honey-crisp variety of apple you are missing out -- they are sweet, crisp and well, have a hint of honey.  Apples are one of those foods that the heavily depend on the state of the apple.  An eating apple that is mealy or not at the right time of ripeness becomes inedible.  (Unlike some foods, like pizza - for many of us out there such a thing as 'bad' pizza does not exist.)  However, when that apple - no matter your style preference (Pink Ladies are actually my favorite) - is just right, the experience of eating it is as satisfying as eating any other piece of fruit.

So, I am wondering about this apple-nee sensibility of mine -- from where does it originate?  Do I have a built in aesthetic sense of apple-ness and I know it when I see it? Is my apple aesthetic subjective and based on my tastes and peculiarities?  Is there a universal apple aesthetic that all of us share?  Are my apple preferences based on thousands  of different experiences of eating apples -  particularly those encounters with mealy, nasty tasting ones?  (i.e. I only know what I like from my extensive, life-time sampling apples of varying varieties and states of ripeness, crispness and sweetness.)

I think the answer to all of my questions is 'yes'.  Yes, there exists somewhere a unversal apple aestheic.  Yes, I have the tools within to realize that aesthetic.  Yes, some aspects of apple-ness that I treasure (like the Pink Lady) are not shared by everyone else (like those who live in the same house as I do).  And yes, part of the process uncovering both the universal aesthetic and my own preferences come from my bad experiences and mistakes of eating some nasty apples.

No, you have not stumbled onto a Food Channel blog by accident ... I've got more than apples on my mind, I've got LIFE and DEATH choices on my mind.  This morning we read the Torah portion from Deuteronomy that will make its reappearance in two weeks on Yom Kippur morning (N'tzavim).  In it the Israelites are challenged:  God had placed before you good and evil, life and death ... Choose LIFE!  Well, duh?  Who wouldn't choose life 99.9% of the time when given the choice of life or death?  So, why is such an overstatement of the obvious in the Torah this week AND on Yom Kippur?  It must not be such an easy choice ... kinda like developing or discovering an apple aesthetic and choosing the right apple each and every time.

Choosing Life - as we were challenged to do this morning and will again be challenged to do on Yom Kippur -- is nuanced, complex and just plain hard to consistently do.  So, tradition offers of this gift of time in the year to address 'Choose Life' challenge.  We take time to consider our choices - both in the past and ahead of us - so that we can fine tune our understanding of Life.  We work to remember what that universal understanding of Life looks like, sounds like and feels like.  We tune and hone the internal tools we use to keep that understanding at the forefront of our hearts and minds.  We try and balance how the way others understanding of Life affects us and our world.  We review the choices of our past - particularly the bad ones - and try to use what we learned from those choices in the coming year to 'Choose Life.'

May your choices be crisp, sweet or tart (whichever you prefer) and fulfilling.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

False Advertising? - Day #17

This Saturday night is Selichot. Technically, Selchot are prayers of penitence that are said through the entire month of Elul. However, it is the last Saturday night before the New Year that is a special night of Selichot. It has always been one of my favorite services of this season and even the entire year. I like it because it is a smaller and more intimate service during these very hectic days. As I announce it and promote it I find myself using words like mysterious, magical and mystical.

However, when I think long and hard about it - Selichot really isn't any of these words!  I am engaging in (more than )a bit of false advertising.   Mystery? There is no hidden agenda to it -- we focus on the High Holyday themes and do so fairly directly. Magical? I do not do any magic - no rabbits out of hats, card tricks or slight of hand. And as far as Mystical? As much as that tradition intrigues me, I am hardly a mystic. 

When I intellectually corner myself and ask myself why I use these words ... it's really about wanting these things.

All of this hype about focusing on Returning - to our Truths, our Ultimate Issues and the urgency attached to doing so ... places a premium for me on mystery, magic and mysticism.  I want a bit of the curtain pulled back, just a smidgen so I can get a cosmic hint as to what's behind it all.  I yearn for a sense that there is some wand that can be waved, just once in a while that graces the flow of life with some kind of extra spark.  I can sense the bigger layer of truth that lives along and behind and among the reality we know, but it is beyond me.

So, why is Selichot the place for me to so palpably feel my craving for the mysterious, the magical and the mystical?  I am guessing it has to do with the combination of the setting: There is the music - with its unique right balance of High Holyday tones and contemplative rhythm.  It offers the just right kid of psychic massage ... and carefully stretches those muscles of mine that may not always get stretched in other ritual settings.  There is the light (of the candles) and darkness (of the hour) that create the simultaneous sense of isolation and connection.  Such a paradoxical affect efficiently cuts away the truly irrelevant and enlightens the essential, it humbles and uplifts.

I believe the human being requires, craves and lives for such moments - no matter how we name them (religious, spiritual, ritual, natural, etc., etc.) - for they help us begin the acknowledge our nature, our limits and our possibilities.

Some very non-Selichot, irreligious words come to mind as I leave you to consider the mysterious, the magical, the mystical:

"Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
(Macbeth: Act 5, Scene 5 )

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Coxswain, the Kitty Cat and the Annoying Sibling - Day #18

What does your Shofar call say about you?  There are three of  them, you may know, three Shofar calls that are made on Rosh Hashanah: Tekiah, Teruah and Shevarim.  (Okay, there are four if you count the Tekiah G'dola - the big Tekiah - but in my book it is really just a long winded Tekiah.)

The Tekiah call is the stable, long and simple call.  Tradition teaches us it was the call used to gather the people for just about any reason a group of people could gather: festivals, defense, celebration, attack.  any kind of gathering that necessitated or were enhanced by the power of community.  In my imagination, I see Tekiah as the coxswain at the head of the boat - calling, urging the rowers toward their goal.  The coxswain/Tekiah call is constantly reminding them of the power in their unity and community and the attention needed to maintain it.

The Shevarim call is the series of three short, almost mournful calls. The word translates as 'broken things' and the call somewhat embodies that sense.  It is a call to get us to pay attention to the broken things ... and I suppose we can take it in many ways given our attention to our broken world, selves, etc.  Perhaps since there is so much of that focus on the brokenness of the world during this time of year, that aspect of Shevarim does not speak to me.  Instead, of broken I rather think of the weak, vulnerable things ... which sometimes can be some of the most precious elements of life.  What comes to my mind is the proverbial cute and adorable kid/puppy/kitten (you know, those images that advertisers know will sell anything) whose big eyes or impish nature simply melts anyone who encounters such a sight.  The Shevarim/Kitty Cat call demands us to pay attention to the weak, vulnerable yet valuable parts of us and the world.

The Teruah call is the repetitive, nine staccato burps from the Shofar.  The repetition, the brevity does not allow for us to savor the calls (as does Tekiah) or even wallow for a moment (as does Shevarim).  Teruah is morning revile, the annoying default alarm on any clock radio, the piercing beeping of the smoke alarm ... well, you get the picture.  What forms in my imagination is the pesky sibling who chooses to annoy by gently, but firmly poking her or his adversary with an index finger over and over and over ... well, you get the picture.  The Teruah/Annoying Sibling pokes at us as if to say ... enough rallying around the majestic call of Tekiah, enough indulging in the brokenness and vulnerability of Shevarim ... get up, stand up and do something about it.

Which one do you like the best?  Which call would you rather not hear?  How do your preferences change from year to year?  Which one will call to you this year?  ... The Coxswain, the Kitty Cat or the Annoying Sibling?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Looking for the No-Path Path - Day #19

Sometimes the path is clear and sometimes it seems like a dead end littered with bunches of rocks, fallen branches and nowhere to go.  I love to walk around my in-laws house outside Conifer.  There are no trails, just Colorado mountain 'wilderness' that flows over and around the mountain.  When I walk, however, I find that I need to change my approach and mindset that I use back in the city as I drive my car or ride my bike.  In the city there are clear roads and paths to follow, mapped out and created by others to create a safe and orderly way for all of us to get around.  In fact, if one does not stay on these roads and paths there could be trouble - whether it be cranky neighbors or uniform clad officers lining up to take me away.  Down the mountain I need to focus on staying on path and trusting those who planned and made the roads and paths that they will take me where I intend to be.

Walking around up the mountain - in the 'wilderness' - is a different story.  There is no path.  At first glance when walking it appears as if there is no way to walk and no intended place to walk towards.  I find that in this setting I need to look more deeply, more closely at the no-path before.  When I do, I notice that the two rocks ahead leave a nice sized space for me to walk through ... I detect a bit of a winding grade - hospitably carpeted by pine needles -- to get me around the next bend ... I discover a tree holding its branch out to give me just the balance I need to ascend the small crest in the hill.  Before I know it, there is a path and it takes me forward to the next place on my journey.

It sounds like an overstatement of the patently obvious, but I would not find these paths among the wilderness if I was not here.  Putting myself in this place and taking the time to explore I use some 'muscles' that I do not normally use on the bike paths of Stapleton.  I find that having these 'muscles' toned and in good shape serves me well when I find myself in other 'wilderness' settings - both of the physical and spiritual nature.

The ultimate mythic 'wilderness' experience takes place in the pages of Torah.  The Israelites spent generations in Egypt - on a very distinct and rigid path.  Imagine the path finding muscles they developed during their wanderings in the wilderness ... a hint of the muscle building we are about these days of Teshuvah.

If there is one thing that is certain for all of us - beyond the cliche of death and taxes - is that we all will find ourselves in new and unfamiliar emotional and spiritual places.  Taking time to leave the usual path and road we take each day, each week, each month to understand such 'wilderness' ... offers us a precious chance exercise those muscles that will help us see paths where there appear to be none.  

Monday, September 19, 2011

Butterscotch or Vanilla? - Day #20

Do you know that there are trees out there in the Colorado wilderness that have a lovely, sweet aroma to them if you get up close and take a whiff?  Who knew?  These trees, called Ponderosa Pines, are easily found throughout our part of the country.  The funny thing is that when each person takes that unexpected, yet magical whiff of the sweetness - they smell something different.  Most accounts have smell testers of the Ponderosa Pine reporting either 'vanilla' or 'butterscotch' as the scent they detected.  (I am one of the butterscotch smellers.)   How can two people smell the exact same thing and decide they think they smell something different?

The old 'two Jews, three opinions' aphorism comes to mind.  Problem with this solution to the vanilla-butterscotch question is the (a) the smell testers of these trees are not all Jews and (b) it's not like its the great debate of whether one prefers Latkes or Hamentachen this is a matter of science, not opinion.

In this time period - in which we speak of and consider the nature of sin and forgiveness - the vanilla or butterscotch dilemma seems to make a lot of sense.  I do not think there is research that lists those things that cause us to make others angry at us or that cause to get angry at others.  If such research existed, the butterscotch/vanilla quandary might be at the heart of MOST of the anger that is happening between loved ones.  Two people participate in the exact same event/conversation/exchange ... and yet they each experience it differently.  One 'smells' vanilla and 'one' smells butterscotch.  Each person begins to react to that exchange depending on how they heard, felt and process that exchange ... and, well, you know the rest of the story.

Knowing this tidbit about differing perceptions may make it easier moving forward entering into these quagmires of perception with loved ones (assuming we can keep our emotions in balance and remember it).  Knowing this tidbit, however, may not make it easier to go back and review the current hurts and wounds from past exchanges and do the work of teshuvah.  The 'vanilla' or 'butterscotch' smelling cat is well out of the bag - complete with all of the hurtful things said and felt.  It hits at the heart of any successful relationship, to remember that no matter what you think you 'smell', there is an excellent chance that the other is 'smelling' something else

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tunnel Time - Day #22

A funny thing happened at the end of my son's soccer game. The teams had done their post-game, good sportsmanship high five to one another and then the team began chanting in unison. I could not make out what they were chanting, it didn't seem to be something derisively directed at the other team or even something promoting their own efforts. It sound to me like "Tunnel!". My wife confirmed that "tunnel" was exactly what I had heard. Before I could even ask the next and obvious question, I saw other parents lining up in two lines that faced one another, raising their hands above their heads and clasping hands with the person facing them in the other line. And there it was - the tunnel. The boys from both teams proudly and energetically raced through the tunnel - wholly satisfied with this closing ritual for a game well played.

I flashed back to a different kind of human tunnel. This one consisted of teachers. They were the faculty of my high school. It was tradition that on graduation day the faculty would form a human tunnel - sans the clasping of hands across two lines - through which the graduating class would enter into the auditorium. They, instead, used their unclasped hands to clap as each and everyone of us made our way to the graduation ceremony. I remember being surprised and quite moved by this ritual. Our teachers seemed to be a forgotten part of the graduation hoopla. We were all focused on the way our lives were going to change - the colleges we would attend; the new experiences ahead of us; the way that this upcoming chapter of our lives would affect us and our families. The faculty standing there and applauding us meant many things - one them being a reminder of as caught up as we might have been in each of our own individual moment, that there was more than just an 'I' that was part of reaching and celebrating that moment.

I think about the I-ness and the WE-ness of the process of Teshuvah. There is a great deal of focus on our own personal reflection and growth. It is about the work that each of us an individuals has to do; about each of our own returning to The Source and seeking forgiveness from that Source and from those we love. However, the liturgy that guides through such a confessional on Yom Kippur is not an I liturgy, it is a WE liturgy. (i.e. It is written in the first person plural not the first person singular).

Why? I do not think it is because you may be responsible for my sins or vice versa. I think it has to do with the reason that my son and his teammates wanted to run through the parent and coaches' tunnel at the end of the game. I think it has to do with the reason that walking through the tunnel of my faculty still resonates so strongly with me twenty-six years later. We find an affirmation, an energy and an inspiration from being reminded that we all have a WE of which to be a part - whether these reminders occur in moments of celebration or in those moments when we may be reminded of our limitations and failings.

Even if you are a introvert (guilty), even if you are independent to the point of stubbornness (guilty) and even if the formality of communal prayer may not be always be the most conducive mode of inwardness (guilty) ... there some affirmation, energy and inspiration to be mined by being part of a WE. Elul signifies that this particular tunnel is beginning to take shape.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mo's New Word? - Day #24

Sometimes what seem like new words just pop up into my vocabulary.  It may very well be that someone else said this word in my hearing or that I came across it reading something along the way, but in my innocence and forgetfulness, it feels new and right.

A new word that I have heard myself uttering - mostly in ritual moments like Shabbat service - is 'godspace.'  It is nothing revolutionary or really new, but as I said it for the first time, it felt 'new' to me.  It came out one Shabbat as I was trying paint a verbal picture of how we use that time we call 'prayer'.  I was trying to express the challenge and value of taking the time to going inward, to be inside ourselves.  That part within - whether it is physical, psychological or spiritual -  where no one else can possible be, in the intimate of intimates, the inner Holy of Holies.  Then it popped out ... what I was trying to name was the 'godspace' within.

The more I played around with the word in my mind the more I liked it.  I think it was Rabbi Harold Kushner who spoke of 'God-shaped holes' within each us, maybe he was partly my original source.  Or perhaps it was how space or literally 'place' is actually one of the names for divinity given by our Sages - Makom.  It is this way of naming the divine that speaks most acutely to me in my understanding divinity.   I also think the word leaves room for many understandings of what 'god' may be ... perhaps the name of an actual deity who rents space in one's inner sanctum; perhaps the part of one's mind that allows for the possibility of divinity; perhaps the way or method that one uses to pay attention to the workings of the cosmos how they may affect or be affected by our choices, actions and thoughts.  I believe that the idea of an untouchable, impenetrable inner sanctum relates to the types who talk to god, the types who just listen to god; the types who do not believe that god listens or talks; and even the types who do not believe in god at all.

The thing about these godspaces within is that you just don't normally just walk in, sit down, open a cold one and let the party begin.  One must be mindful, intentional and spend time getting ready to enter.  Sure, every once in a while we get a magical glimpse of the light of the godspace as the door opens or closes - like in an intimate exchange with a loved or being awed on top of that mountain.  The nature of the godspace within, however, is that we need to spend time laying the groundwork and preparing to enter this space.  Every religious tradition offers a variety of methods to do so.  What most have in common - at least the genuine, authentic ones - is the recognition of this godspace, the importance of spending time within it, and the need to prepare to be there.

In another one of my 'surfing the web for one thing and finding something else' instances, I came across a wonderful way of expressing this kind of preparation on Rabbi Amy Schneirman's website.  (It is so good I wish I had thought of it.)  If you ever have painted any space in your home, you know that the actual painting - the part that transforms and beautifies the space - takes the least amount of time.  The prep work demands an inverse amount of time and energy.  I find the painting fun.  I find the prep work tortuous.  There is the removal of wall paper, the repairing of holes and scratches in the wall, the taping of windows, trim and the like ... yada, yada, yada.  You have to do the prep in the right way - or else the painting never reaches its potential. Spending time in your godspace takes the same kind of preparation ... and the preparation can be boring - especially in comparison to the experience of being there.

In a fashion Elul is the time which we take to prep the 'godspace' for our annual paint job - with the painting to be done when we are in our godspace during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Now is a time to prep your space, choose your paint colors and get yourself ready  ... and see what transformation awaits as spend some time in your godspace in the days ahead.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Just Missing The Rainbow Connection - Day #25

It was Friday night and it was six o'clock.  I was at Bluff Lake Nature Center and I was supposed to begin a Kabbalat Shabbat service.  Yes, there were some foreboding clouds in the sky ... but I still could not get past the fact that in addition to Hal Aqua and I, there were only 3 other people there for the service.  It is there in that moment that I need to make a judgement call, an executive decision ... hold the service or not?  Will a few more show up?  Will it feel weird to follow through with so few people?  Will it be disrespectful to those who did show up not to do something?  What should I do?

Truthfully, I was ready to abandon ship.  My internal rant had been running for a few minutes ... why do this service thing at all?  ... Synagogues big and small fail to draw any significant numbers for services and why - because what we do does not speak to most people, it does not fit into their lives (it does not even fit into my own family's lives much of the time) ... What is wrong with everyone? - Who in our crazy, busy world wouldn't want a small amount of time carved out of their week to stop and reflect, to catch one's breath? ... Seriously, how can we compete with a hike in the mountains or that view atop the ski run? ... Why should I judge an experience like this one on numbers and quantity, am I really that shallow - remember: save one soul and save a universe, right?

I was in no mood to help create a prayerful atmosphere for anyone else - whether it be three or thirty or three hundred.

And yet, we stayed ... I decided to just put my toe in the water a bit.  We would sing a few songs/prayers and see how it went.  Hal began to play and I internally sulked and let his music fill the space that I am supposed to help fill with my spirit.  I felt none of my spirit would suffice on a night like this one.  We sung and it was fine.  No, it was nice.  The music allayed my angst just a bit ... and then the rainbows showed up.

I don't care how old you are or how jaded you are ... I have not encountered many people who aren't hit with at least a moment of 'wow' when they first see a rainbow.  I saw the rainbows first as I faced the rest of the group, and so after my moment of 'wow' I pointed the rainbows out and then our small group shared the moment.  Then a funny thing happened, the moment did not end. For the next 35 minutes parts of one or both of the rainbows glowed in the distance.  None of us had never seen a rainbow hang around for so long.  The rainbows became the liturgy.  The rainbows filled that space that just a few minutes prior I felt incapable of filling.  The rainbows filled that space that just a few moments prior I wanted to abandon.

Now, I refuse to have a 'tie-it-up-in-a-nice-little-ribbon' take on the appearance and our experience of the rainbows.  Contrary to the Biblical rainbow myth, I do not think that God was reminding this small group of 'faithful' about our eternal covenant.  (After all, one did not have to be at the Bluff Lake service to see the rainbows.)  I also am not going to go to the place that might suggest a lesson for those who did not attend that they missed out on something spectacular.(So you had better join us next time, or else!)  As much as I want to take a message in the juxtaposition of my pre-rainbow rant and the appearance of the rainbows, it was not the first time I ranted in such a way and in previous times the rainbows did not show.

I think I want to stay in the ambiguity and mystery of the moment.  The things I ranted about have merit to them.  They are true and actual issues to which religious communities have to face and find responses.  The rainbows were spectacular, awesome and magical.  All were equally real and all were part of the same moment.  Despite our need to organize and categorize it, our world and our lives are not so neatly wrapped and bowed.  They are complex, messy and filled with much more ambivalent tones of grey than neat and clean blacks and whites.  Every moment holds the possibility for defeat, isolation and frustration.  Every moment also holds the possibility for wonder, magic and awe.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Over and Over and Over Again - Day #26

I find myself saying the same things over and over again ... and I am yet to determine if it is a good thing or a bad thing.  It obviously must not be too bad or else I would stop saying the same thing over and over again.  The things I am thinking about are not even negative or derogatory or destructive things (Like those euphemisms I thought I would never say to my kids and then I end up saying them anyway - 'Because I am the parent!' immediately comes to mind.)

I am thinking about the 'rabbinic' things that I say over and over again ... like in significant life cycle moments: before I welcome the parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to speak to their child, under the chuppah to a couple, when we gather at a funeral to say good-bye to someone who has died.  I hear myself saying the same thing - or at least similar things over and over again.  I wonder if people who have been to other B'nai Mitzvah or weddings or funerals of which I have officiated are doing an internal eye roll as 'Rabbi Mo' gives the same spiel once again.  Perhaps, they find some comfort in hearing similar ideas.  Or better yet, maybe I am just being a bit neurotic because only I am paying attention to me saying the same thing over and over again.  In those moments I truly mean and believe what I am saying, even though they may be the same words and sentiments that I expressed before to different people at a different time.

One of my favorite things that I loved to do when I led the oldest unit of campers at the  Goldman Union Camp Institute was to speak to them at the Friday night campfire before they headed off to their cabins and went to bed.  Each Unit Head had the chance to speak to her or his unit.  The Unit Head for the youngest unit went first and then sent those campers off to their cabins.  The Unit Head for the next older unit followed and then I was left with my unit and the rest of the camp staff hanging out around the fire.  I usually said something that captured highlights of the week or addressed the collective state of mind for the unit at that stage of the summer.  I thought what I chose to say each week was timely, sincere and I hoped it was meaningful to my kids.

It was my third summer in that role when I felt blindsided following one of my campfire chats.  It was not one of my current campers who approached me, but one of my former campers who was at that time a staff member.  He confronted me - with a sense of betrayal in his tone - telling me that I said the exact same thing to my current campers that night as I said to his unit on that same week of camp in a previous summer.  He was quite put off that I would - in a sense - care so little to use the same canned chat for each different group each year.  Of course, that could not have been farther from the truth!  Innocently, I simply said what I was feeling and thinking at that moment with that group - what are the odds that it would be the exact same thing?

The odds would be pretty low if you asked Kohelet.  Kohelet - that subversive, edgy voice we find in the book of Ecclesiastes chides us: "There is nothing new under the sun!" If there is truly nothing new, than am I perpetually sentenced to giving canned spiels without ever realizing it?!   Am I stuck with the same ole' song no matter how hard I try? And I ask again: "Is it a bad thing or good thing?"

In coaching us rabbis-to-be, one of my teachers in rabbinic school used to tell me something that she learned from one of her teachers.  She would say that in essence, each rabbi truly has one and only one sermon that she or he gives over and and over again.  It does not matter what you think you are doing, it really all comes back to the same sermon.  She was not being sarcastic or cynical. She was challenging us to examine our souls and their gifts with brutal and uncompromising honesty ... and from there try to understand, improve and even perfect the sermon we wished to give.

To this day I am not completely confident that her declaration is true - but the exercise of considering is invaluable to me.  I ask it as rabbi, but also re-frame it in terms of being a husband, father and friend.  Is there only one way I know how to be any of those things or do I have room to change and modify?  Do I continue to do the same things because they work, because I am lazy or because I am scared?  Is 'over and over and over again' about being consistent and disciplined or is it about being stuck and rigid?

These are some of the questions that draw my intensifying attention during these days of Elul.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Say "Uncle" - Day #27

Have you ever felt stuck in a moment or situation of your own creation and the only way out seems blocked by your pride and stubbornness?  The age-old "Say 'Uncle'" kind of moment comes to mind.  You know that kind of moment: you may have teased your brother or sister (or been teased by them) and all of a sudden you are in some kind of unbreakable wrestling hold and have to show your defeat and deference by uttering "Uncle" (or whatever creative phrase your conqueror suggested) to set you free.

I find that parenting offers many opportunities to feel this way.  Most commonly for me such a moment occurs following some tears flowing from one of my two children.  The tears resulting from some emotional or physical assault at the hands of my other child.  Following the time-out, the calming down, the talking about what happened comes my request/expectation/demand for the guilty party (as if there is only one guilty party, that would be easy ... but that is a subject for another post) to say: "I'm sorry".

It has always been my instinct to have my children since they could speak to apologize to whomever they hurt since.  I also must admit that I am pretty sure that for the first few years of this 'policy' developmentally speaking, they were not even up to the task of what I was asking them to do.  Of course, one of them would dig in their heels and refuse to grant me my request (one in particular, but I will withhold names to protect the innocent).  I would in turn dig in my own heels and further insist - with a complete list of consequences - why they needed to say: "I'm sorry."  And there it was, the moment of my own creation in which I was stuck - well past the window for my child to actually learn anything about apologizing - but entrenched in my own need to hear those two little words pass those two little lips.  Internally, I would ask myself: "What is the real value in the saying or hearing of these words at this point?"

We are the midst of a period of time of year during which - one could suggest - the Cosmic Parent is requesting/expecting/demanding us to utter those same two little words ...complete with consequences for the various kinds of inaction on our part.  If one's God concept and the Cosmic Parent do not mesh, then those of who lean this spiritual direction begin to ask and assess the nature and value of this forgiveness process.  I expect that all of us would find value in it on a societal and interpersonal level. Many times in life the utterance of these two little words - regardless of the depth of meaning and understanding behind them - make difficult moments more manageable and allow us to move on (or away) from draining and painful confrontation.

Jewish tradition, however, raises the stakes on "I'm sorry" beyond the "Can't we all get along?" level.  Tradition puts "I'm sorry" and its accompanying sense of accountability at the heart of the essence of our nature and our very survival.  There is life and death at stake not merely in utterance of these words, but in the understanding behind that utterance.  Jewish tradition would teach us that each and every wrong - committed knowingly or unknowingly - without proper acknowledgement isolates each individual further from her or his ultimate Source; exiles humanity further and further from the Divine.  This kind of thinking puts a little more punch behind those three succinct syllables.

Nu, which is it?  (Or better put, which is it for you?)  Purely and simply a "Say Uncle" kind of situation?  A couple of important, helpful words ... without the cosmic punch.  Or something greater, grander and more weighty?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nothing To Say - Day #28

Some days no matter the words that come mind, just don't cut it.  Today is one of those days, so perhaps these words (and the accompanying chant) may be a better fit for today.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

(Sadly) Truly Scrumptous No More - Day #29

I just finished watching Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang with my family .... it was the first time that I had seen the movie since I was my daughter's age (approximately 8 years old). Before I sat down to watch for a moment I recalled my memories of the movie. Beyond the flying car - my memories were mainly focused on the lead female character. I could not remember her name (the actress or the character), but I did remember the feelings I had for her! She may have been my first movie experience crush (it was either her or Anne Baxter playing nefertiti in The Ten Commandments). I was curious (even eager) to relive this long ago crush.

Well, Truly Scrumptous (yes, that is actually the character's name) didn't age too well. Technically, she probably looked better (as did the whole movie) in this blu-ray version than on whatever screen I met her first a few decades ago. In this viewing she was still blond and pretty, but wasn't my type at all! She ran around the whole movie in what looked like a wedding dress.  Truly was at first snobby and pretentious and then quickly made the turn to weepy and love struck. Yech!  So much for the good old days ...

I was thinking about the 'good old days' terms of one of the prayers we sing a few times during Elul and the Days of Awe (it is also sung at the end of the Torah service each week). 'Hashiveinu' the line begins ... 'Return us' and then' renew our days as in our beginning' The prayer and its meaning is sometimes taken in the spirit of: 'Oh the good old days, if it could only be like that again.' However, as I experienced in my reunion with Trudy Scrumptous, going back the the beginning or the good old days is not always a winning formula for finding meaning.

My understanding of this returning and this renewing is much more technologically formulated. The push this time of year is not for us to go back to the 'good old days'. It is not about lamenting that when we were kids everything was simpler or when people were more/less (choose one) _______________ (fill in the blank). It is about restoring our 'default settings'. We know this language from using any technology today. Everyday our phones, our computers our iWhatevers provide our portal to the world wide web.  In accessing that web each day they pick up viruses or unnecessary files and programs that get in the way of their efficient functioning. We restore those 'default settings' in an effort to clean them, even purify them - so that they can realize a more efficient and higher level of access.

Our experience is similar. In our everyday functioning our 'hardware' gets slowed down by our interaction with the 'web' around us. We need to restore our 'default settings' in order to realize our highest 'efficiency'. What are human being's 'default settings'? In a way a very personal question, but I would assume they have to do with remembering things what is most important to us, our unique gifts and talents and what parts of this world give us joy, meaning and a sense of place.

Hearing  'Hashiveinu' and its call to 'Renew' us as in the 'beginning' is the same the same thing as you holding down the reset button on your phone the extra few seconds, to achieve that reboot to your device's default settings.  Not only we each need to press that internal reset button, but we each need to spend some effort being able to respond to the question: "What are your default settings?"

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Smell of Shofar in the Morning - Day #31

As we sound the Shofar these days of Elul and get ready for its big show on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we pay attention to its distinctive, sharp call and sound.  Frankly, I think the noise it makes is getting too much of the attention ... we need to pay more attention to its smell.

Have you ever smelled a Shofar? (And I do not mean the nice and shiny outer shell of the Shofar, but sticking your schnozz down into its innards and taking a nice, deep whiff.)  It smells ... AWFUL!  Not surprising, as it used to be attached to animal.   Still, I think we need to pay much more attention to its smell ...

We have all heard a Shofar call ... and we associate its sounds with the sensations of the New Year (mostly positive) and at the end of Yom Kippur and our fast (all positive).  We invite the children into the sanctuary and delight as they watch the adults making these weird sounds.  We secretly (or not so secretly) time the great Tekiah G'dola blast and see how long the Shofar blower can hold it this year and cheer him or her on as she turns redder and redder.  We let the sound (as sounds often do) warmly transport us to seasons past which we spent happily in a familiar place and with familiar people.  These are all warm, wonderful parts of the Shofar sounds and we should make sure we preserve these associations and experience of the annual Shofar-palooza.

But we need a bit of that awful smell among the warm fuzzies of the Shofar sounds.  In the book of Joshua the sounds of the Shofar are so violent and powerful that they knock down the protective walls of the city of Jericho.  In other places in our sacred story the Shofar is used as a warning, a call to rebel, a signal to engage the enemy in military conflict.  The Shofar is perfect for this time of year because in a spiritual sense we are called to knock down walls (the ones between who we are and who we want become); to rebel (against the status quo that keeps us from progressing and evolving); to begin to engage the enemy (those choices, tendencies and distractions that keep us from sticking to our path).

For this reason I suggest that we need a little scratch and sniff Shofar action AS WELL AS hearing the majestic calls of the Shofar.  Perhaps this new layer of sensory experience will enable us to tune in to this fundamental spirit of the Shofar and what it calls us to do.  Let's not disregard the wonderful associations we have with its sound, but let's also let a little of the danger, the subversion and edge into our hearing it ... and in the sound and smell of it we can we can reclaim its spirit and respond to its call to wake up, pay attention and to stir things up.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wait for it ... Wait for it ... Day #32

A brief reflection for Day #32 ... the Psalm of these days of Elul is 27.  It ends by not once, but twice telling the listener to Kaveh, or Wait.  Wait (the Psalm says)  for You-Know-Who (not Voldemort, God!).  How subversive can our tradition get?  Could this ancient, archaic text challenge us with a more contemporary, counter-culture message than, WAIT!

Think about it ... we do not wait for much.  We are not very good at it in the least ... collectively or individually.  We do not know how to sit, stand or be in the in between.  It brings to mind a whole wilderness-related rant to follow, but I do not want to make you wait too long for the end of today's short post!  When we do need to wait our anxiety runs rampant.  We feel disrespected.  We worry that we are losing or wasting time.

Sometime today, just wait.  Pick a moment, especially one that demands you do not wait ... and Kaveh! Wait!  Pay attention: to what happens to you; to those around you; to what you have lost by waiting; to what you may have gained by be able to wait.

Wait for it ... wait for it ...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Snared By The Peace Trap - Day #33

I got snared by the Peace Trap this afternoon.

 This afternoon my Park Hill colleagues and I gathered to make final preparations for our joint remembrance on September 11th this coming Sunday morning. We have been working together since early in the summer to jointly create this opportunity for people to commemorate and reflect upon that day and the decade that followed. The group consists of clergy who represent Lutherans, Presbytarians, Church of Christ, Jews, Muslims and Episcopalians. Despite our different religious traditions (and yes, Lutherans and Epsicopalians and Presbytarians are different traditions, in spite of my Jewish tendency to lump all Christians together as one in our minds), we are still somewhat like minded. This like mindedness extends from the way we desired to commemorate September 11 to how we understand similar contentious social issues. And yet, after months of planning an experience such as this one - we were still discussing the use of or absence of certain words, ideas and symbols for Sunday's commemoration. For a moment I felt the tickle of irony forming in my mind as I internally snickered about the possibility of peace.  If this group could not get it together ...

And then I caught myself as I fell into the Peace Trap. You know the Peace Trap - the 'Hallmarkian', 'Disney-fied' idea about the nature of peace.  The 'end-of-days' and messianic vision of what the world will be like when we (finally) all get it together.  The Peace Trap is the understanding of peace that means the 'Us' in the world will finally defeat the 'Them' in the world (and the 'Them' in the world will finally understand that the 'Us' was right all along.  In the vision of the Peace Trap we create/find/discover a world without conflict and no one ever feels as if his or her ideals or values are challenged or threatened. That kind of thinking is the Peace Trap.

The only way to unsnare oneself from the Peace Trap is to take a good, long hard look at the true nature of peace.  Peace is messy. Peace is about acknowleding feeling unsettled and compromised ... and then choosing to live with those feelings because there is something greater than the discomfort of feeling those things. Peace is about accepting the differences and dissonance that follows, because growth and evolution occur only when there is friction and conflict.  After all, we can only make peace with those forces that oppose or threaten us- whether these forces are painful memories, unsettled issues, difficult people or others whom seek our pain or destruction.

The word we translate as 'peace' from the Hebrew is the word 'shalom.'  It derives from a Hebrew root that speaks to ideas of completed-ness and whole-ness. Being 'complete' is larger than simply an absence of conflict or threat.  Being 'whole' is greater than simply feeling like everyone agrees with us or knows we are right.  For our world to be complete or whole each and every disparate part within the world would need to accept the rest as part of that complete whole.  At the same time each disparate part would need to maintain its own separateness.  The same goes in imaging our communities, our families, ourselves as whole and complete.

Those moments this afternoon of still trying to determine what words and symbols belonged in our celebration ... were essentially peaceful moments.  Many different clergy, many different religions, many different people maintaining a larger vision for wholeness, while living out the realities of our different-ness.   It was hard.  It was fun.  It was meaningful.  It is life.

Seek peace and pursue it these days of Elul ... and beware of the Peace Trap.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nashvillian Time Warp - Day #34

Sunday night was a night like many others in my summers, I officiated at a wedding. This wedding was a llittle bit different for me. I stood underneath the Chuppah with a bride who some decade and a half ago was a confirmation student of mine. And as life/fate would have it, our paths brought us from Nashville, Tenneessee to Colorado. While I have had the chance to reconnect with last night's bride before the wedding, it was not until last night that I had the chance to do so with other Nashvillians whom  I have not seen since my departure 14 years ago. I had the chance to visit with her family - who were active at the synagogue and were individuals whom I fondly remember from my time there. I also had the chance to see some of her contemporaries from Nashville. While some of these people were the bride's fellow confirmands, to me they were my students, my 'kids' (even though I now must embarassingly admin to how close to being a kid I was at that time!)

Now, the experience and this concurrent rambling of mine is not exactly the usual 'time goes so quickly' type or reflection.   I did have those kinds of reactions and thoughts as I had the chance to visit with them ... awed by listening people who I knew so well as teens and who I thought as in some way as my 'kids' talking to me about their actual (without quotes) kids ... amazed by the realization that that when last I spoke with the parents of the bride, they were not much older than I am right now ... humbled to not be able to see relatives whose deteriorating health prevented them from being present or even aware that a wedding was happening.

It was not that I felt 'old' in reflecting upon these encounters, but rather that I glimpsed a moment of raw clarity as to the nature of time.  In a moment I felt its driving and relentless nature.  I felt the power of its incessant move forward - intertwined with our fates and destinies.  I was just a person at the beach - wading out for a feel of the water- who suddenly gets caught in the undertow.  I was helpless in its grasp and it filled me with wonder for its power and with fear from my own powerlessness.   It was reminding me that even if its power left my consciousness, it was still there moving, pushing and changing me and the world around me.  I wondered: What have I been doing the past 15 years?  Have I done as much or been as much as was possible?  What is next for me?  How will I do the most or make the most of whatever is next?

That glimpse of time, that sense of my true place in it all and the focus and urgency that followed was a hint of the days ahead.  I think if this time of year is working correctly, it serves to open up our eyes to see the true nature of time and our place in it.  Perhaps the Days of Awe is a period of AWE, because these days urge us to wade into the sea to encounter that power of the temporal undertow - to be sufficiently touched, moved, afraid, awed by the true nature of our lives.  In turn with just a glimpse of its nature we may discover humility, perspective and even inspiration.

Get your bathing suit ready, it's time to take a swim ...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My Round Shaped God-Idea and Its Square Shaped Hole - Day #36

There are some days that I lam able to lead a communal prayer service with a sincere focus and intent and there are others that I cannot get past the inaccuracy of the prayers. What I mean by inaccuracy is the ways that the words of the prayers so dramatically fail to talk about ‘God’ and the way that I understand and relate to ‘God’. The whole ‘king’ idea is certainly out for me, as is the concept of ‘God’ needing me or anyone else to praise, glorify yada, yada, yada. (For this reason you will never hear me refer to our communal prayer experience as ‘worship.’) There are times when I feel as if the traditional structure of the Jewish communal prayer service is the square shaped hole in which I am trying to shove my round shaped God-idea.

Unfortunately, I am not immune to such intellectual wanderings even during the High Holydays. In fact, I might be more prone to such wanderings and wonderings in the coming weeks as the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem to ratchet up this kind of spiritual dissonance. The dissonance increases when I place the liturgy of these days into the context of some of the broader themes of this time of year.  There is Teshuvah - the process in which we seek to return to God - with its underlying assumption that we have spent the last year straying.  Then there is the expectation of forgiveness.  We ask God (the same one whom we have been busy praising, glorifying and ‘worshipping’) to grant us forgiveness for what we have done to our family, friends, foes, that we may be written in the Book of Life (a.k.a. The 'You Can Live Another Year' Warrant).  In my role as rabbi - responsible for leading the services during the High Holydays - I find this spiritual dissonance of mine problematic, at best.

And yet, I keep coming back … and the beauty of My Elul Exercise is that I have 35 more days to ruminate all about it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Timbrels At The Ready - Day #37

I often tell each Bar or Bat Mitzvah something that I heard from someone much wiser than me: One does not select the story of Torah that you will read as you become a Bar Mitzvah, but the portion chooses you. Being a believer in some sense of this kind of mystery and magic, I was trying to pay attention at this morning’s Bat Mitzvah rehearsal …

As we began our review of the service the Bat Mitzvah brought out the hand crafted and colorful new tallit that she would bless and wear while she leads tomorrow morning’s service. Much to our surprise we noticed that in the location on the tallit where we expected to find the blessing one recites upon donning the tallit there was another Hebrew phrase. We examined it together and (also helped by the clue of the image of a woman dancing on the tallit) discovered it was this verse from Exodus: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand …" (Exodus 15:20).

With my own aphorism in mind, I wondered: What might I glean from the appearance of this phrase on this morning?

A bit of context first … Just a few beats earlier in Exodus , the Israelites had taken their last steps through the two walls of water created by parted Sea of Reeds. On the previous beat the walls of water crushed the Egyptian army as those same walls crashed and crumbled around them. Miriam grabs her timbrel (or some kind of musical instrument - scholars debate its true identity) and begins to celebrate. Following her lead many other women grab their instruments and join the celebration. When I consider this phrase on this morning one question comes to mind: Where did they get those instruments?

We have all played the game in which we hypothetically ask what items (beyond people and pets) we would take if our house was on fire or for any reason we had to leave our homes at a moment’s notice. Granted some musically inclined people would grab one of their instruments, but I am not musically inclined in that manner. I would imagine there would be many more things on my list (and other’s lists as well), especially if I was escaping slavery and wondering what I might need to survive in the desert.

Rashi, the prolific 11th century French rabbi, asked this same question about this element of the story centuries before it percolated in my mind. Rashi’s take: these women’s perspective was such and their faith so strong that they believed there would be things to celebrate out there in the wilderness. They knew they would NEED an instrument with which to lead a celebration.

They didn’t just grabbed their timbrels, the seized hold on an ATTITUDE. They expected to celebrate. Despite the urgency and chaos of the moment of leaving Egypt; despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead of them in the wilderness (including the possibility of hunger, thirst and even death) they grabbed their timbrels because they expected joy.

Its not a bad attitude to grab and hold on to … no one has to go too deeply into the news to encounter a sense of hopelessness or futility. If the news of the day was not enough, we are called to get very serious during these days of Elul. We reflect and review our limits, our failings, our pains, our sins … oy.

So, it is not at all a bad message for this morning of this day, or any morning of any day: Grab your timbrel. Expect joy. Be ready to celebrate.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

That $#%*! Ram’s Horn! - Day #38

For me the experience of blowing the Shofar is all about a lack of control.

Before I get to my issues, let's begin with an Elul custom: hearing a daily call and hearing of the Shofar blast. These brief daily Shofar blasts offer us a taste and a hint of the great, resounding calls that await us on Rosh Hashanah. There are many aspects of the Shofar upon which to wax philosophical: its unique sound; the nature of the notes that are ‘played’, the origin, history and symbolism of the Shofar - all which I imagine might become fodder for another post down the road. But, before I can get to conjuring all of that interpretation and spin, I must address my own Shofar-related incompetence.

I often joke that I missed the day in rabbinic school during which proper Shofar blowing technique was addressed. (For that matter, there seem to be a few important days of rabbinic school that I seem to have missed!) Now, it is not as if I can’t make any sound with the Shofar. I simply cannot get it to make the sound that I want it to make. I can do what I am instructed. I hold the Shofar at the right angle and with the right amount of pressure to my lips. I can use the proper lip formation and apply acceptable amounts of breath. I can even hear in my mind the way the different calls (tekia, shvarim, teruah) are supposed to sound. In the end, despite doing all of these proper things … I cannot control what comes out the other end of that $#%*! ram’s horn!

And beneath the sounds of those pathetic squeaks and squawks emitting from my Shofar, I hear the soft mocking of an old Yiddush proverb: Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht. Man plans, God laughs. No matter what sounds I think should be emanating from this ram’s horn or what I think I deserve to have ascend from it, the nature of the actual sounds seem beyond my control. Here is something that I clearly cannot control. Each year the re-emergence of the Shofar taunts me: reminding me about things I can control and what I cannot control and - not so gently - nudges me to consider my limitations.

Many people may have never seen, yet less picked up a Shofar and tried to manufacture the sharp, rich sounds that can be heard from it. Nonetheless, each person experiences moments (possibly just earlier today) when she or he felt that all of the correct things were said or done - to only find that outcome to be dramatically different (and possibly painful, annoying or maddening) than intended. Perhaps the call of the Shofar - the one we listen to with more than our ears - intends to call our attention to limitations and possibilities. It bids us to partake once again in Teshuvah, the act of returning to our Truths.  During this process of Teshuvah we remember: who we are, what we can do, what we cannot do and what will will do about all of the above.

Open up your ears and hearts and minds, because Elul and its Shofar has arrived.  It's taking names and kickin' butt - challenging each of us to listen up and pay attention to what the Shofar has to say.