Thanksgiving is a holiday almost everyone loves: A day to gather family and friends, enjoy a turkey feast, watch a little football, relax . . . . Thanksgiving is the great equalizer in America: Jews and Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and the most secular among us all gather to count our blessings and appreciate the plenty so accessible to all of us.
Well . . . not all of us.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, please read with care and take to heart the following article by Rabbi Steven Gutow of the Jewish Center for Public Affairs:
Huff Post Politics: Americans Are Falling Off the Food Cliff -- We Can Stop the Pain
Posted: 11/16/2013 1:20 pm
This week, just days before Thanksgiving, lines at food banks will be growing. This is not unexpected. In fact, unbelievable as this may sound, this was scheduled. On November 1, 47 million Americans on SNAP (formerly food stamps) began receiving fewer benefits thanks to the expiration of funding from the 2009 stimulus. For a family of four, that reduction comes out to about $36 less for food for the month. Which brings us to this week; when those suddenly reduced grocery budgets begin to run out.
Congress saw this coming. We knew that even as food prices were increasing, working families, the unemployed, children, the disabled, and seniors would start to receive less assistance and problems with increased hunger in America would ensue. But not only were we allowed to go over the food cliff, Congress is actually debating even more cuts to SNAP. The Senate Farm Bill includes a $4.1 billion cut - almost equal to the $5 billion cut this month - and the House is making the Senate look like a humanitarian body by proposing a cut of $39 billion, eight times more devastating to the poor than the already problematic Senate proposal.
What made the fall from the food cliff even more painful is that we have been pushing our most vulnerable towards the edge for months. In March, the sequester went into effect, slashing nutrition assistance to low-income women and children, limiting the capacity of food banks, and cutting Meals on Wheels deliveries to homebound seniors. Not to mention cuts to Head Start and LIHEAP, the energy assistance program that had alleviated the need for families to choose between paying their heating bills and buying food. But that pain of the sequester was quickly forgotten because last month's government shutdown caused even more harm by diminishing these services even more. No doubt, 2013 has been a difficult year. And things are not looking better in 2014 as the next round of sequestration cuts goes into effect in January.
Bit by bit we are tearing holes in the fabric of our national human needs programs, and I fear the repercussions not only for those who need our assistance and protection, but for our nation. With one in seven Americans facing hunger, we went over the food cliff this month. Before that, the costs of disagreements that led to the government shutdown and sequestration were felt most by those with the least.
This week, as the food banks around the country work to meet the planned food cliff, we must acknowledge the choices we are making. Private charity is a noble but insufficient substitute. According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, the estimated dollar value of all food distributed by U.S. charities this year is $5 billion, the same amount as the cut that took effect this month.
However, we are still able to change our course. Instead of demonizing and punishing those who need support in this season of plenty and thanksgiving, let us unmask the face of hunger in the United States and dedicate ourselves to overcoming it. The truth is, over half of those who benefit from SNAP are children and seniors. For unemployed adults, SNAP serves as support to help them through difficult times with more than half of enrollees leaving the program within a year, most of whom are only on the program for 10 months or less. Instead of taking away food from those in need, we should strengthen this program which feeds families, helps children do well in school, and supports the most vulnerable.
With each cut, our country pushes more Americans down the food cliff. How long until we stop noticing the fall? This Thanksgiving, as many of us sit at our tables for an annual feast, more of our fellow Americans will have less to eat. With this stark reality we must choose a different path. Now is the opportunity. As they actively negotiate a Farm Bill, Members of Congress, acting on our behalf, should open their hearts and offer an outstretched hand to those who have fallen over the food cliff. Simply, there should be no more cuts to SNAP.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit here and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.
Each of our patriarchs has an iconic moment which has become a key element of his personality and his spiritual legacy: Avram responds with unquestioning alacrity to God's call to leave all that is familiar and embark on an uncharted spiritual and physical journey. God renames him "Avraham" -- father of multitudes.
Isaac, never re-named, never journeyed beyond the borders of his homeland Canaan, married his "love at first sight" match Rebekkah, and faithfully received and transmitted the covenant to his son, Jacob. God named Isaac before his birth: Yitzhak -- he will laugh.
In this week's Torah reading, Jacob is also re-named, mid-life, like his grandfather Abraham.
The event around Jacob's renaming is also centered around an iconic moment: Jacob has packed up his extensive extended family of wives and concubines and children and servants and flocks and is on his way back to Canaan to re-settle in the land of his birth. His reunion with his twin, Esau, looms large in his consciousness. Jacob has prepared for this reunion carefully. He does not know if Esau will meet him with aggression or affection. So Jacob divides up his travelling estate into two camps so that, worst case scenario, Esau will only be able to attack half of Jacob's family and belongings.
Perhaps out of anxiety, Jacob separates himself from all the rest of his convoy and sleeps isolated out in the wilderness. The Torah relates: And Jacob was left by himself. And a man wrestled with him until the dawn's rising. And he saw that he was not able against him, and he touched the inside of his thigh, and the inside of Jacob's thigh was dislocated during his wrestling with him. And he said: "Let me go, because the dawn has risen." And he said, "I won't let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name won't be said 'Jacob' anymore but 'Israel,' because you've struggled with God and with people and were able." (Breishit/Genesis 32:25-29). Jacob receives the new name "Yisrael" -- who struggled with God.
Each divinely-named patriarch adds another layer to the legacy of our tradition: the eternal generations of the progeny of Abraham; the laughter of Isaac who partnered with one woman in one place; and, most fascinating, Jacob's emergence whole and blessed from his struggle with God.
How extraordinary: one who struggles with God emerges blessed. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is encouragement to question God, explore God's strength and balance our own against it. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is not just permission, but a challenge to forgo passivity and find our own best grasp of God in our lives. Like Jacob, who failed to elicit the name of his Adversary, we will never know God completely, but it is clear that we will emerge from struggle blessed.
This Shabbat is one I look forward to every year: on the Friday evening of Veterans Day Weekend, our congregation honors veterans at our service and welcomes them at a Shabbat dinner following the service. Our veterans stand together and tell us their rank, where they served and a bit about their experience. Some remember their serial number! Some still fit into their uniforms or wear their military caps. It never fails to move me.
I'm a baby-boomer: I cut my activist milk teeth on Vietnam protests. I was anti-military, anti-war. I sang protest songs in coffeehouses.
Then I moved to Israel: my husband and then my daughter and then my son went through basic training and served in the IDF. I did a teeny-tiny bit of training and served in our local "Mishmar Ezrachi" / Civil Guard. What happened to the kid who led the Vietnam Moratorium in high school?
I learned about the necessity of maintaining a well-trained, ethical military force. I learned about the intense effort, focus, commitment it takes just to survive military service. I learned to revere those who have served.
So, in my tenth year at Torat Yisrael, we are honoring our veterans with a service and dinner for the tenth time.
Because those who have served have given over months and years of their lives for a greater good.
General Douglas MacArthur was honored by West Point in 1962. Here is an excerpt from his remarks as he accepted the Sylvanus Thayer Award, given “to an outstanding citizen of the United States whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto, “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.”
"Duty—Honor—Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean. ... But these are some of the things they do. They build your basic character, they mold you for your future roles as custodians of the nation’s defense, they make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of
difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength. They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, an appetite for adventure over love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman."
Please join me in thanking our veterans. Whether drafted or enlisted, they rose to the challenges of training and service and side-lined their personal aspirations and agendas for a significant chunk of their youth. We owe them.
Yesterday morning I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches named me "Faith Leader of the Year" at their 4th Annual Heroes of Faith Breakfast. My son and daughter-in-law and my very own Rhode Island cousin and a good friend all came to cheer me on (and I thanked the Council of Churches Executive Minister, Reverend Dr. Don Anderson for making me look good in front of my kids!). But I was also blessed with the support of our Torat Yisrael community which filled a table as well as my colleagues of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island which also shared and filled a table.
After listening to my dear friend and colleague, Don Anderson, say some generously complimentary things about me, I responded with the following:
When I was a little girl in East Orange, New Jersey, I was often chased home by kids in a local parochial school . . . they’d chase me through the alleys in our neighborhood and called me “dirty Jew.” When I was a young mother living in Jerusalem, I had rocks thrown at me from the Arab village across the road as I parked my car one night early on in the intifada years. I was not a promising candidate for interfaith leadership. The proximity of Christians and Muslims was more threatening than reassuring.
Jews engaged in the study of the Torah and rabbinic literature don’t sit in concentrated isolation in a library . . . we sit across the table from a chaver, from a study partner, and we examine, debate, argue, postulate, explore . . . the premise is that two heads are better than one. The premise is that one person, no matter how brilliant, just cannot bring out all the depth of meaning of a text alone. We each need a study partner to challenge us, teach us, show us paths we’d never be able to discover on our own.
Indeed, the premise is that where two people come together to study Torah, the shechinah, God’s most imminent nurturing presence, draws even nearer.
I can tell you that the collaborative effort I have engaged in with Reverend Don Anderson, Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Betsy Garland and so many other inspiring faith leaders in our state has been a journey of exploration, personal growth that has led to spiritual fulfillment. I have learned from and been inspired by my chaverim, my partners. These people have shown me paths I never would have discovered on my own.
The actions for which I am being honored this morning mean a tremendous amount to me and I am proud to be standing before you as the recipient of this year’s Rhode Island State Council of Churches Faith Leader of the Year Award. Reverend Mercedes and Bishop Wolf and Reverend Balark, whose ranks I join today, the previous recipients of this award, are each visionary and inspired leaders. The leadership of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches has taken an extraordinary step by bestowing this most respected award on a churchless rabbi. Members of my terrific . . . and patient . . . congregation, Temple Torat Yisrael of East Greenwich, are here today to support me and to express our congregation’s appreciation for this recognition. There is another whole delegation of leaders from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island who are also here in support and appreciation . . . the significance of this award is not lost on any of us . . . and is, indeed, treasured by all of us.
None of my actions, none of my achievements have been attained by sitting in concentrated isolation in my study . . . trying to build bridges between faith communities in a unilateral process is like clapping with one hand. It can’t be done.
Getting an award for the work I’ve done with my partners in faiths makes me a little nervous . . . because somehow the bestowing of an award feels like a summing up. But I don’t feel done with any of this; we have way too many more journeys to take together. There are still so many mistaken assumptions waiting to be blasted, so many barriers of wariness to lower, so many infinitely rich bridges of trust to build. The conviction that real faith creates a safe space for mutual respect and reciprocal learning fuels this journey. I first sat down at those tentative breakfasts with Reverend Anderson and Imam Ansari in the hope that we might demonstrate in some small way that real faith fosters peace. We’ve achieved much more than I had ever hoped with my chaverim, my partners in faith. When we come together to live the principles of all our faiths, the shechinah, God’s most imminent, nurturing presence, draws near and blesses our joint enterprise. Let’s keep that shechinah very busy!
A recent Huffington Post essay caught my eye: "Proof that Boredom Isn't As Bad As Your Parents Told You." (October 22nd).
In her essay, author Carolyn Gregoire wrote: "The constant connectivity of life in the digital age has created a situation in which boredom is a rarity. We are ... constantly receptive to "interestingness" and filling our brains with new information, whether via Twitter, news sites, Instagram or online advertising. Whether we're walking down the street, sitting at home, going to the bathroom (75 percent of Americans use their phones while on the toilet, according to a 2012 study), or sitting in the park, we're often filling our brains with information via smartphones at the same time.
These ceaseless streams of information and entertainment can keep us from ever getting bored or simply doing nothing, and that may not be a good thing....
We tend to cast boredom in a negative light, but it can actually be good for our thinking and our physical health. Daydreaming has been shown to boost creativity, and according to one psychologist, it could even help you to achieve the goals that are most personally meaningful to you. Taking the time to let your mind wander could also lead to unexpected insights."
My thoughts immediately went to Shabbat. When our people first began to set aside one day of rest, we were quite the phenomenon in the ancient world. Before Shabbat became the communal practice of our people, no one had the benefit of a weekly day of rest. Now, of course, at least one weekly day off from work is an almost universal practice.
In the context of our modern, plugged-in, constant-stream-of-information age, though, one traditional aspect of Shabbat observance may be more worth embracing: On Shabbat, traditional Jews (not just Orthodox Jews, but traditional Conservative Jews, too) do not use computers, do not use smartphones, do not watch television. Yes, traditional Jews have been benefitting from a day of restorative, day-dream promoting, mind wandering boredom for millenia.
Several years ago, I participated in a four-day retreat for rabbis run by the Jewish Theological Seminary. We met at Ramah Darom, the Conservative summer camp facility in beautiful, rural Georgia. The first day, 60 Conservative rabbis sat in a big circle, and we went around the room introducing ourselves. I watched as one colleague after another pulled out a cell phone and took in the fact that there was no cell phone reception at the camp. It was almost comical to watch the same progression of expressions cross everyone's face: Perplexity. Disbelief. Horror. Relaxation!
There is liberation of spirit in being incommunicado.
Fortunately, we do not have to journey to the wilds of Georgia to experience that liberation of spirit . . . all we have to do to attain that restorative state of day-dreaming, mind wandering latitude is observe Shabbat. The wisdom and the opportunity have been on our doorstep all along!
Thanks to our TY member and Cohen School teacher, David Wasser, I had the pleasure and challenge of speaking at the Moses Brown TEDx event last night. My mission: to sum up some aspect of my journey to Israel with Imam Farid Ansari and Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson . . . in 12 minutes! This is my TEDx talk . . . an apt topic, indeed, for this week's Torah portion as we contemplate the significance of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their offspring for our own lives.
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
There are a number of hugely significant moments in this week's parashah/Torah reading: from Avram's stunning act of faith in response to God's literally out-of-the-blue call: "Lech l'cha" / "Take yourself off to the place I'll show you . . . " to the first iterations of the covenantal promises of progeny and land. This is a touchstone parashah.
With so many founding principles and themes in this Torah reading, we often don't focus on an interesting dynamic of these early Breishit/Genesis chapters: God is changing or determining the names of everybody in the nuclear Avram/Sarai family. Avram becomes Avraham. Sarai, his wife, becomes Sarah. It is God who determines the name of the child Hagar will bear to Avram (Ishmael) and it is God who determines the name of the child Sarah will bear to Avraham (Yitzhak/Isaac).
Anyone who has been blessed with the opportunity to name a child has felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. as well as promise for the future and the potential of this new life. There are so many elements we want to weave into the names we choose for our children: our hopes for their future; qualities we hope will be integrated into their personalities; channeling the memories and the love of relatives who have not lived to see and hold this new child . . . .
There is something endearing about this image of God as the "namer" in this family. Not since the Eden generation, has God claimed the role of "namer." Indeed, God tasks Adam, the human, with the task of naming much of creation. (Breishit 2:19 "And Adonay God fashioned from the ground every animal of the field and every bird of the skies and brought it to the human to see what Adam would call it. And whatever the human would call it, each living being, that would be its name.")
The fact that God has taken back the role of "namer" at this moment signals the uniqueness of the relationship with this family. Even though we first encounter Avram and Sarai with perfectly serviceable names, God wants to mark them with names of God's choosing. There is a sweetness in these acts of naming. We are witnessing God's hopes for each one of these family members, the qualities they will display, their relationships with God and with other humans, are all rolled into these new names: Avram as Avraham will establish many peoples to carry on the tradition of this new relationship with God; Sarai (meaning "princess") becomes Sarah . . . the meaning of her name does not change, but the letter "hei" added to her name is understood to represent the name of God, thus making her a partner in the covenantal enterprise; Hagar's son is blessed with the name Yishma-el, promising that God will hear him throughout his lifetime; Sarah's son is to be called Yitzhak which evokes the joyous (and incredulous) laughter of his parents as they contemplate his birth.
We and our Christian and Muslim friends in the "Abrahamic faiths" are the legacy of these four people, named by God. May we, too, embody those hopes of God to be treasure our common ancestry as the descendants of spiritual royalty, and be blessed with God's listening ear and bring joy to those who love us.
I'm looking forward to a whole new Noah experience this year at Torat Yisrael. For years now, our youngest TY kids have come to services with their favorite stuffed animals on the Shabbat during which we read the story of Noah and the ark. We'd create a great procession of bears and puppies and even a unicorn or two as we'd follow the Torah around the sanctuary. My cat Crembo (named for an Israeli marshmallow treat!)
This year, we're trying something new . . . stuffed animals are still invited, but now our live animals are invited, too! Instead of meeting during services, we're going to gather in front of the synagogue with our (leashed) dogs and (caged) gerbils as well as our favorite stuffed animals and we'll sing our favorite Noah songs and perhaps tell a story or two, as well. And have a nosh, of course.
I noticed that when the Christian congregations in our area invite the members of their congregations to bring their animals along, they are offering a "blessing of the animals." Being an animal lover myself, I am all in favor of sharing our Jewish community with our own animals, too.
But the idea of "blessing the animals" wasn't really working for me . . . and then I understood what wasn't working.
In Judaism, our blessings are directed toward God . . . so when we are pausing to appreciate the cats and iguanas and parakeets we love, it's not so much that we are blessing them, or even asking God to bless them . . . rather we are blessing and praising God for having created these wonderful creatures and bringing them in to our lives.
There is a lot to be thankful for when it comes to our animals: unconditional love (well, perhaps not entirely unconditional when it comes to cats . . . ); a glimpse of beauty and grace and even humor in a day packed with "to-do" lists and bills and worries; companionship . . . people with pets are known to be happier, less lonely. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a study somewhere that said that pet owners are healthier, too!
I hope you'll join us with your furry or scaly or plush friend tomorrow. We'll share our admiration for Noah, the world's first champion of animal rescue, sing a little, meet each other's pets and thank God for bringing so much beauty and blessing into our lives.
After the austerity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah provide color and noise and joy . . . and, as the name implies, there is no greater joy (simchah) than our joy in having the Torah.
Our joy in the Torah comes from the unique place this text holds in our tradition: it is through the Torah that we find our collective identity as a people; we learn our history, our values, insights into the human character and insights into God. The Torah constantly challenges us with spiritual and behavioral goals which can engage us for a lifetime. The Torah provides us with hope in our future as long as we have a community with which to study and live with and provides comfort to us through the Torah's many assurances of God's love for us and commitment to our covenant, our brit, with God.
One of the Torah's greatest gifts to us is itself: unlike many other ancient faiths, the knowledge of, engagement with our quintessential sacred text was never reserved for an elite few . . . just weeks ago, as we read the book of Deuteronomy at Shabbat services, we were witness to Moshe commanded that the Torah be read aloud as the entire people were gathered together: men, women and all those old enough to understand. Every single Jewish soul has a direct connection to our Source . . . to God and to sacred text God has put into our hands.
This is one of the reasons why Simchat Torah is so powerful: each of us holds a scroll in our arms . . . we dance and sing and rejoice in our identities as Jewish individuals in a thriving Jewish community . . . . and it is the Torah we embrace that makes us possible.
Every few years (the algorithms of the Hebrew calendar are beyond me), Yom Kippur and Shabbat coincide, as is the case this year. It's an interesting contrast of themes and dynamics: Shabbat is supposed to be a day of עונג/oneg/delight. On Shabbat we are supposed to enjoy the best food of the week, wear the best clothes of the week, sing and relax and, yes, pray with our community. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of עינוי/inu'i/self-affliction. On Yom Kippur we are supposed to fast, to wear white (the traditional color of mourning), reflect, look past physical pleasures and, yes, pray with our community.
These seem to be mutually exclusive. So how do we understand this potent day of Shabbat and Yom Kippur together?
I found some inspiration from Ariana Huffington, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. Ms. Huffington is developing an initiative, The Third Metric, which aims to redefine success beyond the first two metrics of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back.
Huffington said she personally uses mindfulness and meditation to help achieve those goals.
"Silence is an amazing way to recharge ourselves," she said.
Making time to incorporate this third measure of success can not only change your life, but transform the workplace, Huffington said, by helping people become more creative, productive and connected.
"Olympic athletes get naps. When performance really matters, taking care of yourself is key," she said.
In a speech to more than 800 women at the Women Of Influence luncheon that included Twitter Canada CEO Kirstine Stewart, Huffington stressed that the "hurry-up culture" is not working, and that the whole concept of multitasking is a myth. (Huffington Post, 9/11/13)
On Yom Kippur, the day of the year during which we are given the opportunity to take stock of our priorities, review our relationships with our families and friends and community and God, we should take God as our role model. God, ultimately, has "rochmones"/mercy on us when we approach life with integrity and good intention. Why shouldn't we be as kind to ourselves and those we love?
The underlying thread of the delight of Shabbat flowing under the challenges of Yom Kippur are the best of that Third Metric of Ms. Huffington's. Breath. Let go of that "hurry-up culture." On this ultimate Day of Awe, give yourself permission to feel that awe.