Archive for the ‘Jewish Values’ category

Are You Spiritual?

November 29, 2012

It’s an elusive idea, spirituality. Broad and deep, spirituality is as hard to define as is love or goodness, truth or beauty. Yet several of us recently made an attempt to, if not define, describe spirituality at a temple board meeting.

Here’s how we described it: spirituality is connecting with God, people and community, nature and the world, through experiences of beauty, awe and wonder, meaning and purpose, and acts of transcendence.

Granted it doesn’t fit well on a bumper sticker and it’s probably too long for a fortune cookie. However, our attempt at a description of spirituality is inclusive enough to account for the many different approaches you and I might have toward it.

A challenge was raised in our discussion: many people may not be interested in spirituality. But they are interested in meaningful relationships and community. Does that sound like you?

Herein lies the beauty of how many of us understand what it means to be spiritual. Loving and friendly bonds with others is profoundly spiritual. As writer Parker Palmer so eloquently states, it “answers the heart’s longing to be connected with the largeness of life.”

Our celebration of Chanukah is a perfect illustration of the various entry points to spirituality:

Chanukah’s themes of miracle, rededication to God and sacred purposes, and human-Divine cooperation are points of connection.

The beauty and warmth of light, flame, and Chanukah menorah are other points of connection.

The smells and tastes of latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are still others way to connect.

The acts of gift-giving, receiving, and tzedakah are still other points of connection.

And parents and children, family and friends coming together in the comfort of home and hearth to celebrate and share in the warmth of their love are still other primary points of connection.

Some people will relate to one or two of the above-mentioned spiritual connections of Chanukah. Other people may relate to all of those listed. And some people will discover and connect with Chanukah in ways that haven’t been mentioned.

Like love and beauty, truth and goodness, spirituality is something fundamental in which I think we all engage. We may just call it by another name.

May you and your family have a happy Chanukah and a joyous season.



September 15, 2012

One of my favorite stories relating to the High Holy Days is about a king and his child. Perhaps you know it:

It once happened that a king’s son was at a distance of a hundred days’ journey from his father.

His friends said to him, “Return to your father.”

He replied, “I cannot.”

His father sent to him and said,

“Go as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you.”

Here’s to a good and sweet New Year 5773–a year of return, renewal, and blessings.

Shanah tovah!

Making Ready for Awe-Filled Days

August 17, 2012

I never was a Boy Scout (to my regret), yet I wholeheartedly endorse their teaching, “Be prepared.” I can think of very few instances in life where that advice doesn’t apply or lead to a more positive outcome.

It certainly holds true for the High Holy Days. Judaism encourages us to spend the entire month preceding Rosh Hashanah in preparation for the High Holy Days—to make ready, to be prepared. The preparatory month of Elul this year begins on Sunday, August 19.

To help make your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more enriching and meaningful, while also fulfilling the Boy Scout motto, I offer the following five resources to aid your High Holy Day preparation:

1. Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe (Central Conference of American Rabbis). There is no better place to start than the machzor—High Holy Day prayer book. It is filled with majestic prayers, beautiful songs, inspiring readings, and words of wisdom. The more familiar we are with the prayer book and its themes, the more we can get out of the High Holy Day experience. I encourage you to purchase a copy for your home, and begin reading it during Elul to spiritually prepare.

2. Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon. This is an undisputed classic by the Israeli Nobel Prize-winning author. Agnon created a masterpiece anthology of Jewish traditions, legends, commentaries, and teachings about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It never disappoints, even after dozens of readings, and it’s a wonderful aid in High Holy Day preparation.

3. “Jewels of Elul.” For the more computer-inclined, these reflective and brief aphorisms for each day of Elul will provide daily inspiration leading up to the High Holy Days. Visit to receive a daily jewel in your email inbox or to browse their website archives.

4. Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal by Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath. This collection of daily meditations for Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur serves as a spiritual guidebook to explore the themes of repentance and renewal. It allows for guided journal work.

5. The spiritual practice of Cheshbon haNefesh—literally, an “accounting of the soul.” This centuries-old practice consists of spending a few minutes each day in self-examination, reflecting on the past year and one’s behavior. How did things go? What went well? What do you want to improve upon? In the various areas of your life, how would you like to grow in the upcoming year—physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually? How would you like to grow in relation to your family, your friendships, your health, your work, your community, your faith and religious practice? This is a very powerful spiritual practice than can clarify what is most important in your life, and prepare you for the deep soul work that culminates in the High Holy Days.

I pray that this time leading up to the High Holy Days is filled with wisdom and insight, heart and soul, adding to your enrichment and experience of the awe-filled days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


The Livin’ Is . . .

July 3, 2012

Our lives can get so hectic and hurried sometimes. With long hours at work, varied responsibilities at home, errands, bills, the breakneck speed of life set by modern technologies, and a host of other demands—at times, we need moments just to catch our breath.

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” wrote Ira Gershwin in Porgy and Bess. Even in the year 2012, hopefully there is still some truth to this great lyric. If the livin’ is not easy, perhaps at least, it’s easier. Our burdens may lighten. The pace may slow a few steps. Nature may beckon us toward repose. These are all things that we desperately need during our fast and frenetic lives.

For thousands of years, Judaism has recognized such a need for rest and renewal in our lives. That is the purpose of Shabbat. On Shabbat, we let go of the burden of labor and constant doing so that our bodies and souls can be refreshed and renewed.

One day Rebbe Nachman of Breslov looked out his window and saw his friend scurrying about in the marketplace. His friend was running this way and that way, frantically engaged in his labors and responsibilities. After watching his friend carry on this way throughout most of the day, Rebbe Nachman opened his window and called out to his friend. “Joseph, have you seen the sky today?” Joseph stopped for a moment, and replied. “What! The sky! Who’s got time for that. I’m busy taking care of business.” To which Rebbe Nachman responded, “Joseph, look around you. All of the people you see here running around the marketplace, including yourself, will be gone in less than a hundred years. Everyone and everything in this marketplace will pass away. So why not take the time to look at the sky?”

During these summer months, when the livin’ is easy (easier), may we take the time to look at the sky.

Who Needs Shavuot?

May 15, 2012

It’s the black sheep of the Jewish calendar—unfortunately. Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is a holy day often overshadowed and overlooked in the contemporary Jewish world.

How could this have happened? It had such an auspicious start. The Torah considers Shavuot a major Jewish festival—right up there with Passover and Sukkot. In ancient times, it was thus distinguished as one of the three pilgrimage festivals in which all of Israel would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate. Even more so, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the ancient rabbis renewed and deepened Shavuot’s meaning: it is not only a major spring harvest festival, it is the very anniversary of God’s revelation to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Shavuot commemorates the giving and receiving of the Torah, the Jewish people’s greatest treasure. What could be more important than that!

So why isn’t Shavuot celebrated more widely today in America? The reasons are many. Always occurring in late May or early June, it has to contend with Memorial Day weekends and student graduations, finals, and absence from schools.

If that weren’t enough of an uphill battle, Shavuot also has to vie for attention among a crowded Jewish holy day spring season—including many modern-day commemorations. Shavuot comes seven weeks after Passover, five weeks after Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), four weeks after Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) four weeks after Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), and one week after Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day, celebrating its reunification in 1967). It’s not easy being Shavuot.

And then there’s the issue of Shavuot’s seeming twin: Simchat Torah. Every year, back in the fall, we’ve already rejoiced and danced with the Torah, celebrated its wisdom and message, and unrolled it for all to see.

For all these reasons, what need then of Shavuot?

The simple yet profound answer occurs in our Passover haggadah, when it says, “our freedom from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah, which gives our lives purpose and meaning.” In other words, Egypt leads to Sinai. Passover leads to Shavuot. Liberation leads to a life of Torah. We will always need Shavuot because it forever completes our spiritual journey and story.

This year Shavuot occurs on Saturday night, May 26-Sunday, May 27. Chag Sameach!


Season of Freedom

March 25, 2012

Jewish people around the world are preparing for Passover. Over two-thirds (67-68%) of American Jews will
attend a seder. Family and friends will gather in their homes to retell and relive the Exodus from Egypt. That story of Hebrew slaves being liberated from bondage, redeemed from a God who demands justice and righteousness of all people, is the great message of Judaism. It is our essential story and gift to the world.

The Passover story teaches the world that God is deeply concerned with the affairs of humanity, that freedom is the fundamental right of every person, and that redemption and transformation of our world is possible. Fundamentally, this is what we relive at every Passover seder, and what we retell at every Passover meal. Is it any wonder, then, that our tradition decrees that we tell this story year after year, from one generation to the next?

Such a story can only be told and experienced in the springtime, moreover, when the very earth itself can take part in the drama. Nature is redeemed from the bondage of winter along with the Jewish slaves from Egypt. God causes the earth to flower once again as surely as God helps a people to live once again. Nature is transformed in a panoply of vibrant growth and flourish just as a people is transformed—and a world can be—by the light of goodness, compassion and justice.

Passover is truly, in the words of the Jewish tradition, “the season of our freedom.” It is our perennial holy day.

Chag Sameach!

A Sustainable Chanukah

December 14, 2011

“A great miracle happened there,” we say, as we spin the Chanukah dreidel each year while eating latkes fried in oil. But what was “the miracle” of Chanukah?

Our tradition recounts more than one.

The first miracle is that a small band of Jews defeated the more powerful Syrian army in their struggle for religious freedom and independence. As our thanksgiving prayer at Chanukah time puts it, “God delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.” The Maccabean victory is a remarkable story of courage, dedication, and resourcefulness.

That small cruse of sacred oil found in the desecrated Temple—that should have burned in the menorah of the rededicated Temple for only one day, yet instead lasted for eight days—of course, constitutes the second miracle.

Add both Chanukah miracles together and we realize the miraculous partnership between God and human beings to do amazing things together. The Chanukah story demonstrates that, with God’s help, limited resources—both human and natural—can be stretched to transform our world.

We can apply the story of the Chanukah miracles to our lives today, particularly to our environment. Human use of earth’s natural resources—fossil fuels—has led to dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the air, threatening the health of our environment and the sustainability of the planet. How can we stretch one cruse of oil so that we can protect the well-being of the earth and its ecosystems?

Scientists have already given us the solution: reduce our energy consumption, reduce our carbon footprint, choose to use renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind. With God’s help, limited resources can be stretched to transform our world.

At this Chanukah season, our temple is making a commitment to environmental sustainability. Our modern-day cruse of oil will take the form of 125 solar panels to be placed on our synagogue rooftop, employing solar energy throughout our temple to reduce our energy consumption by 30-50%, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, reduce our costs, and do our part to help sustain and improve the world.

This solar project of the temple will help realize significant Jewish values such as tikkun olam, repairing and improving the world, and shomer adamah, protecting the earth and being good stewards and caretakers of our world.

Like the Maccabees before us, we’re going to take a small cruse of oil and with God’s help—in the form of the light of the sun—combined with human resourcefulness and ingenuity, we’re going to rededicate and renew our temple, as well as our environment and our planet.

What activities have you found to be effective in reducing your carbon footprint?