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.
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.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.