Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be.
Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be.
Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be.
Not what ritual is, but what ritual ought to be.
Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future. Ought challenges my creative imagination and opens me to the realm of possibilities and responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dream.
Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade.
Ought demands not only a knowledge of history but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming.
Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking.
Ought is the freedom of spirit.
Ought we not Ought?
Harold Schulweis z”l, was an activist, author and Rabbi of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. www.vbs.org
The seeking of spiritual light is gained through having faith and trust in God. Prayer provides the path, leading to inner strength and pushing us toward greater honesty with ourselves.
With honesty comes clarity, as we come to see the truth of our condition. We can then change what we can and accept what we can’t.
Whatever it is that you have, you must make work for you. In this way, we keep moving toward the light. When we minimize our own talents, when we envy what others have, when we give in to despair, we choose darkness. When we do so, we should always remember this is a choice, not destiny.
The light is always there if we have the courage to seek it. And, with faith and trust in God, we need never seek it alone.
Mary J. Blige has six Grammy awards, seven multi–platinum records and fifteen years of love from the public, critics and fellow artists. www.maryjblige.com
Midrash tells us that our name, Yisrael, when vocalized differently, can become “Yashir Eil” – “God will sing.” We are God’s song in this world. Full of potential for harmony – tension, joy, sorrow, anger, comfort, pain, and majesty – God sings through each of us. Elul is the time to focus and question: what Godsong will be heard through my life in the coming year? Chasidic wisdom likens each of us to a shofar.
Were it not for the breath of God blowing through me, I would make no sound at all. Elul is the time to tune up, sharpen our skills, and be a song that is worthy of being heard.
The shofar is narrow at the beginning and wide at the end. May we remember to begin with ourselves, and then open our hearts and our ears and our eyes to understand that we too can be bigger – we can be wider – and our smallest actions can make a huge difference in the world.
“Yashir Eil.” Be the song; make it good. Awaken others – with your voice and your gifts and your actions – to sing out also, and give honor to the Composer of it all.
Ellen Dreskin is an ordained cantor and the coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at Hebrew Union College in New York.
There is an enormous, untouched potential inside every one of us. It is hope. And hope’s incredible power enables us to survive.
Hope contains spectacular power, a power that seems as though it captured bits of the bursting energy of creation. Psychologists at major universities are now discovering that hope is potent and that it plays a significant role in a wide variety of human endeavors – in school, on the job, and in the family. Hope also provides immeasurable benefits for our physical health and for all forms of depression.
Hope can make us better prepared for our own promotions. It can make us better able to manage daily stresses and setbacks. It can help us ride out severe personal crises and cope with critical illnesses. It can even enable us to enhance the way we handle our own aging and to be more satisfied with life.
This spiritual quality of our hope can enable us to grow personally, to look with optimism to the future, to broaden our horizons, and to dream the dreams that make people great.
But there is a difficult task we must first tackle, and it takes purposeful and mindful thinking: we must materialize hope and give it shape. We must take a sensation and make it into a structure. We need to analyze what hope is capable of doing, extract it from the entanglement of cobwebbed daydreams, raise it up from romantic wishing wells, and then distill it for our own purpose and use it to help humankind.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm holds a chair in Rabbinics at Yeshiva University and is President of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice. www.nijh.org
For a long time, I thought that things – people, experiences, relationships, myself – could be fixed. I’ve since come to believe that while improvement, transformation, and growth are possible, and even desirable, fixing something is not.
To fix something implies that you can make it what it once was – restore it to its original state, unblemished – as if it had never been broken. It’s a mistake, this logic: a misguided notion, an unattainable and even undesirable goal that kills potential.
To want to fix things is honorable; it implies a sense of justice and fairness in the world…to right a wrong, to cure a disease.
But I think in the focus we place on fixing, we lose sight of the potential of the cracks. When something cracks open like an egg – be it an object, or our hearts – the messiness is evident, even overwhelming at first. Everywhere we look, there are shards that must be pieced back together – millions of tiny pieces seemingly too innumerable to count.
But we have more power than we think. We can change our perspective. We can look at what has been broken, and we can figure out how to put the pieces back together to create something new and potentially much, much better – even if we don’t recognize immediately what the transformation has given us.
With a little grace and a second glance, we can hopefully discover that by relaxing our need to fix things, everything will settle into its proper place.
Ruth Andrew Ellenson received the National Jewish Book Award for editing “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.” www.guiltguide.com
I have gained perspective on the art of aging over the last decade of my 74 years. The gift of perspective is, in a word, “gratitude” – the conceit that my cup is half full, and each day more and more so.
Years ago, my life was filled with excitement, wonderment, and adventure, but also beset with varying degrees of anxiety about what tomorrow might bring. Now, I truly pass my days without such concern, and with few lapses, I feel grateful for what I have, for those I love, for work that satisfies – and, happily, the focus of my life is all about tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Is my life different now from the way it once was? Not really. But the shift in the angle of the glass – the tilt of the reflection that has reframed my perspective – has made an inestimable difference.
I’m reminded of the lesson of the goat: A rabbi is consulted by a man who proclaims that his life has fallen apart. “My wife hates me, my children disobey me, I can’t pay my bills, no one respects me.” The rabbi solemnly counsels the man, “Buy a goat and live with it for a month – in the house – and then we’ll talk.” The man obeys the rabbi. Soon the goat has chewed his clothes, eaten his food and done his business on the carpet. Chaos reigns. Desperate, the man returns to the rabbi and throws himself on the rabbi’s mercy. “What should I do?” he wails. “Get rid of the goat,” says the rabbi calmly. One month later the man returns. He fairly shouts to the rabbi that he’s the luckiest person in the world, proclaiming to all in the ‘shtetl,’ that the rabbi is a genius.
What’s the gift of aging? Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get rid of the goat.
Peter Yarrow is a political activist and the Peter of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. www.peterpaulandmary.com
“The smoothest path is full of stones.” Yiddish Proverb
One day my daughter, Noa, who has physical disabilities, asked me if she could have a rock climbing party for her twelfth birthday. I froze. I’d always been so careful to protect Noa from disappointment. I’d gone to great lengths to create parties where she wouldn’t get left out or feel that her friends surpassed her. I said, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” “But why?” she pressed me. “It’s too expensive,” I said. But day after day Noa kept pushing for the rock climbing party. Eventually I gave in. But I was still worried.
On the day of the party Noa put on a climber’s harness, and to my amazement, she pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms and boldly made her way up the wall. It wasn’t easy, but she climbed and climbed. She was fearless, beaming with joy. I was so wrong about her.
During the party there was a boy about Noa’s age who was too frightened to climb. His father was encouraging him, but he stood frozen in his place. His muscles were strong, but his fear was stronger still.
That day my daughter taught me an invaluable lesson: our greatest disability is fear, our greatest strength is courage. In climbing, it is the smoothest surface that is the most treacherous. A rough rocky landscape is fertile ground for ascension. If you want to rise up don’t fear the bumps. Turn every stone into a step.
As I looked around the gym that day I couldn’t help but wonder if the key to a meaningful life was embedded in that rock wall. The beckoning stones gave me my answer. The challenge in life is a simple as this: Do I stare at the wall or do I climb?
Rabbi Naomi Levy is an author, speaker and spiritual leader of Nashuva, a groundbreaking Jewish outreach community in Los Angeles. www.nashuva.com
I used to think that every person on the street
held a secret,
every storefront a story
now I drive past them without wondering
what they know.
My life has changed in ways
I never could have prepared for.
I only get whiffs of what has changed:
a glimpse of a memory
of how we all stared into one another
in the weeks after the earthquake,
why orange flower blossoms and jet fuel
make it smell so good to walk out into the air after landing at LAX;
what midnight felt like, back when it was easy to stay up late.
What has changed about me most,
I am guessing,
is the way it feels to feel.
The smoke and ether behind my actions
are all completely different
from whatever drove me at ten or twenty or thirty
My childhood is only photographs.
But when I’m looking to mark in ink what has changed
evidence is nowhere to be found,
like a shadow moving when I turn to it.
Jill Soloway is a comedian, playwright, author and the creator of the Golden Globe award winning series Transparent. www.jillsoloway.com
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Once again Moses is wearing himself out carrying the burden of the Jewish people on his shoulders. God intervenes by taking some of the spirit that is in Moses and sharing it with others. How can this happen without diminishing Moses? Commenting on Numbers 11:17, Rashi says, “He was like a light that is placed in a candlestick from which everybody lights his lamps, and yet its illuminating power is not diminished.”
I love to seek the light of holiness by studying sacred texts or by sitting in contemplative practice, but the most powerful way to be bathed in light is by serving others.
Giving our light to others might start close to home by helping our neighbors who are struggling mightily during these tough economic times. Our service might move us far from home as well—to spend our vacation helping out in south Tel Aviv slums or treating patients in one of Haiti’s tent cities.
Against a secular culture that places each individual at the center of the universe, we can choose to be part of something larger than just ourselves. Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self, connecting us to a world of meaning and light. Rebuilding broken lives in the developing world is surely a part of our sacred calling, as is caring for our Jewish elders in Brighton Beach.
In these days of Elul and beyond, we don’t have to go far seeking some extra light; all we have to do is give others some of ours.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. www.urj.org
Write a letter. Address it to those you love – your spouse, your children and grandchildren, your friends. Put into this letter everything life has taught you: what you learned from childhood, from growing up, from your education. What you learned from marriage and raising children. What you learned from work, from your triumphs and successes in the world, from your failures and disappointments. What you learned from the death of loved ones, and the path of mourning. What is the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom of your life? What is your message?
Do this for three reasons:
Do it for yourself. You deserve to know what life has taught you. According to a Jewish tradition, each individual human soul carries into the world one letter, one byte, of God’s message. You are a vessel of God’s truth. Have you discovered and delivered your message?
Write the letter for your loved ones. No one lives forever. And when your time comes, what a gift it would be to your loved ones to hear your voice, to know your wisdom.
Do it for your soul. Modernity has brought us many gifts. But one of the casualties of modernity is contemplation. Our ancestors lived in a much slower world. They had time to think, to dream. So we live exhausted from day to day, from appointment to project to vacation and back again, without ever stopping to wonder why and without the chance to grow in wisdom. That’s why we age. Without connection to the truth within, the spirit grows old and the soul grows tired.
No one is old who knows the truth of his or her existence and the purposes of life. Write the letter.
Ed Feinstein is the rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, and a lecturer at the American Jewish University. www.vbs.org
It was early September. My husband and I went on a high-speed car chase around the valleys and mountains of the Grand Tetons to capture a glimpse of the setting sun. With five minutes to spare before the spray of light turned dark, we found a spot nestled in a valley on the side of the road with no mountain crag to obscure our view. Simply the horizon, the setting sun, and majestic colors of miracle and awe.
As we watched the spectacle before us, I heard a sound that I had never heard before. I rolled down the car window and saw hundreds of black birds that had come to nest for the night in a small grove of trees. The birds were barely visible except for a dance that looked like the shadow of wings and leaves fluttering against the dusk.
Out of the far distance, as if from thin air, appeared a solitary bird racing at what seemed like the speed of light toward the grove to join the others. As she landed on the treetop, birds fluttered, rising and settling until they all made room for the new arrival and found their place.
As the trees, leaves, and birds became mere dark silhouettes against the blackened sky, the sound of them became somehow louder. And as the sky grew darker and darker, the music brought light to my soul. Black birds disappearing in the trees at night sing an eternal song, echoing a truth, a melody that is easily forgotten. Even in the darkness there is music. It is what makes us holy and good, moral and compassionate, fully alive, aware, kind.
That music is the sound of our humanity brushing up against our divinity.
Teach us, dear God, how to listen.
Karyn Kedar is a prolific writer and the Rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield Illinois.
The great thing about the world of the spirit is that gravity doesn’t apply. Inertia can be overcome. Our secular culture teaches us to focus on ourselves when we have problems – whether through healthful things like self-help books and therapy, or through numbing things like comfort food, self-medication and complaining to friends.
A teacher once shared with me a special tool for lifting oneself out of sadness and depression. It is a very Jewish way to lift yourself up, and it isn’t something you might expect to hear from a rabbi.
He said to turn your focus away from yourself and on someone else. Lifting up another person through meaningful, regular volunteer work is a remarkable tikkun and a way to heal the world. It also has the wonderful side effect of healing your own scars. When you feed someone who is hungry, visit someone who is ill, or help a child who badly needs a mentor or tutor, you not only bring healing to our world, but you also create a miraculous new sense of self-worth. Through lifting up others, we lift up ourselves.
Throughout the Torah, our ancestors put others first, despite their own difficulties and times of confusion and grief.
May we be like them, moving through our struggles this year by committing to help others. Shanah tova u’metukah.
Sarah Lefton is a creative innovator and the founder of Jewish Fashion Conspiracy and G-dcast.com, a lighthearted cartoon series for teens. www.lefton.net
As someone who fell in love with God and Torah as a collegian, I dreamed I would have a child with whom I would share my newfound passion. At my rabbinical school, I would see professors and their children swaying together in prayer or over a text, and I would imagine the thrill of sharing that piety with my (as yet unborn) child. When my wife, Elana, and I were told she was expecting twins, my heart and my fantasies soared. Yet, my beloved daughter, Shira, is not drawn to religious services. My son, Jacob, diagnosed with autism at age three, has difficulty speaking or turning the pages of a book.
I had dreamed of a child who would love the Torah as I do, and who could share that love with me. God, it seemed, had denied my dream.
As Jacob prepared for his bar mitzvah, he mastered Facilitated Communication, an assisted typing technique that proved he had taught himself to read! Able to hear through walls, Jacob had achieved remarkable sophistication and depth by ruminating on the conversations of others. Jacob and I began to learn together. We studied the weekly Torah portion and the prophetic readings. We studied the prayer book, and Jacob composed a soulful commentary. After his bar mitzvah, I committed to learn how to facilitate Jacob’s typing, which meant we could embark on further learning and have real conversations, too. Every Sabbath, Jacob and I sit in my study, and we discuss, and we learn – Torah, Heschel, Jewish history or philosophy. His comments continually lure me, and with the purity I see sparkling in his eyes, he reminds me to love God and Torah.
It turns out that it was not God who said “no” to my dreams. It was my rigid sense of what “yes” was supposed to look like that blinded me to God’s great, big, wonderful “YES” and almost blinded me to the miracle that is my son.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. www.bradartson.com
I learned in bodybuilding that the best way to gain strength was to take my muscles to their absolute limit – to the point of failure – where they were so out of energy that they couldn’t even lift a small amount of weight. Then, after a few day’s rest, they would not only be ready to lift again, but they would also be bigger, stronger and able to lift more than ever before.
Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?
We all make mistakes in life, and when we fail, we have two paths we can take: we can bury our head and our hopes and let embarrassment, shame and doubt prevent us from ever reaching our goals, or we can take responsibility for what we’ve done, learn from our choices, make amends and move forward. I’ve learned that the latter course of action lets me take my failures and turn them into great wells of experience, from which I can draw wisdom and perspective as I continue on life’s path. I do not forget the mistakes – we never should – but, I don’t let them keep me from reaching my dreams.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is an actor, producer and two-term Governor of California.
As the new year approaches, I resolve to focus on joy. This has been my kavannah every year since September 11th.
It isn’t easy for me. I’m good at worrying. I’m good at crossing things off my to-do list. Hey, I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Don’t talk to me about joy; it’s not part of my culture. We Jews have filled libraries with the historical litany of our losses, our pain, our despair. Besides, you get to a certain age as an individual or as a
people, and joy becomes a tall order.
And yet, the challenge sticks like a burr on my jacket. In yoga, my teacher asks if we’d like to bring an “intention” to the class. An intention is the same thing as a kavannah. It’s a goal, a focus for the day’s practice.
When she makes this invitation, joy comes to mind. I place an intentional smile on my face and try to make joy my kavannah, both on and off the mat.
Joy is not the same as fun. Fun is a product – something to consume. “Did you have fun?” is such a different question from, “Did you experience joy?”
Nachman of Bratslav, who struggled with depression for much of his life, equated joy with holiness. He did not say that holiness, or doing mitzvot, or being a good Jew would give you joy. He said that joy itself is the throne of holiness…That joy is kadosh.
What a concept.
Anita Diamant is an author and the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh in Massachusetts. www.mayyimhayyim.org
Imagine riding in a speedboat on a lake with an automatic pilot set to go east. If you decide to reverse and head west, you have two possible ways to change the boat’s direction. One way is to grab the steering wheel and physically force it to head in the opposite direction. By sheer willpower you could overcome the autopilot, but you would feel constant resistance. Your arms would eventually tire of the stress, you’d let go of the steering wheel, and the boat would instantly head back east in the way it was internally programmed.
This is what happens when you try to change your life with willpower: You say, “I’ll force myself to eat less…exercise more…quit being
disorganized and late.”
Yes, willpower can produce short-term change, but it creates constant internal stress because you haven’t dealt with the root cause. The change doesn’t feel natural, so eventually you give up and quickly revert to your old patterns.
There is a better, easier way: change your autopilot, let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.
This mental shift is called repentance, which in Greek literally means, “to change your mind.” You repent whenever you change the way you think by adopting how God thinks – about yourself, sin, God, other people, life, your future…the whole beautiful speedboat ride.
Rick Warren is Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA and the author of ‘The Purpose Driven Life.’ www.rickwarren.com
Last summer, I met a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jewish teens at a Shabbaton for LGBTQ youth. Each teen described the experience as “the first place I’ve felt like I could be both queer and Jewish, like it was a normal thing.” I will never forget their expressions of joy and profound relief at finding a community where they could just be.
The teens shared a sense of wonder at how good it feels to be fully seen and understood. When you can be your full self in a community, they reflected, you do not notice that you are being welcomed and included; you simply feel like you are a part of things.
Their desire for an unselfconscious, easy embrace by their communities encapsulates for me what makes building a welcoming community much more than a system or set of procedures. Surely, there are steps that every community must take to become inclusive of LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities, poor and working class people, and others who experience oppression. But once we change policies and implement programs, the process of change must become an art: imaginative, inspired, idiosyncratic, and organic.
No one wants to feel the labor of being welcomed. As the teens put it, we all want to feel normal and effortlessly understood. For me, true inclusion runs so deep that no one can imagine the world any other way.
Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet, an organization promoting advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. www.keshetonline.org
The l6th of January, 2009, is the day when my three precious daughters and niece were killed by Israeli shells. I do not want anyone in this world to see what I have seen.
What I have lost will never come back. I need to go forward and be motivated literally by the spirit of what I lost, and to do them justice. I lost three precious daughters, but I am blessed with five other children and the future. I believe that life is like riding a bicycle, as Einstein says, “To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” I will keep moving.
And what about forgiveness? Is forgiveness necessary? When you forgive someone, you forgive and value yourself. Forgiveness is about letting go, completely and permanently.
Then there is the choice, the crossroads: the path of light or the path of darkness. I chose the first. Most people assume that this path, that of forgiveness, is difficult, but in the long run it is easier to forgive than to live with hatred or be consumed with revenge.
Forgiveness helps you move forward, away from the pain of the past to the brightness of the future. Indeed, forgiveness opens the door to a future that will not repeat the old tragedies. Sometimes the beauty in forgiveness is to forgive when you do not know whom to forgive and when no one asks you for forgiveness.
Whatever the situation, to err is human, but to forgive is truly divine.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, M.D., M.P.H., is an Associate Professor in the Dala Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. www.daughtersforlife.com
Where can we who walk in darkness find brighter light? I suggest we look no further than to the preacher/poet, John Newton. He was a former slave trader who saw the light. Today he is best known as the composer of the hymn, Amazing Grace!
Again and again in the Bible, we read the invocation, “Let me find grace in thy sight, O Lord.” Find grace? Perhaps most of us wait for grace to find us. And often it does. When grace finds us, we come to see God’s sight is not the problem, but our insight: I was blind but now I see. But far better that we heed the words of the Bible and not wait for grace to find us. Far better to find grace and to seek the light.
During the years of my active ministry, the choir would mesmerize worship with an original choral masterpiece, “If it wasn’t for the grace of God.” I was not alone in being unable to resist the tears and to join the cheers in praise of the God of our weary years. Nor was William Wilberforce who in 1811, deeply influenced by John Newton, succeeded in getting the English Parliament to ban the slave trade. The choir is preaching of the disgrace of not accepting God’s grace.
‘Twas grace that drove Newton to tell his story, the unfolding saga of how suffering drove him to his Savior, how thirst drove him to living waters, and how he found grace and sought the light.
All of us light-seekers join hands and hearts with John Newton in saying–
I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I wish to be.
But thanks to the grace of God, I am not what I used to be.
Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray is the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics and Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California. www.crcc.usc.edu
1978-2014. My younger self awaits me in that old home. He stares at the future that would be me; I ponder the past that was him. We connect on a bridge made of yearning and nostalgia. Hesitantly, we embrace. We fall to our knees and sob.
I ask if he ever told dad about how he bounced the ball that cracked the chandelier in our living room. He asks if I will ever stop doing and start being. I say, “You should have told the satin-haired girl you loved her when you had your hand on her shoulder for the school play.” He says, “Work less, love more.”
I advise, “Be patient and familiar with discomfort and loneliness – in those moments you will burst into expressions that will be me.” He advises, “Don’t judge me so harshly.”
“Don’t let others discourage you from dreaming. Failure is a suitcase full of regrets…I should know.” He urges, “Your gray hairs, your wrinkles, and your scars are signs of battles won.”
I beg, “Never hold tightly to someone who wants to go; never anchor a ship that must sail.” He asks why I came back to visit? I applaud him for not embarrassing the math teacher when she was unable to solve a problem to which he knew the answer. He insists, “Tell your patient her grim prognosis.” I disagree. “You are too young to understand. There comes an age where hope feeds hunger more than food. You have much to learn.” He tells me I have much to unlearn.
I wonder if my younger self was wiser than the older me. I wish to return into innocence, to be born into the freedom afforded only to children, to go back to Eden, and to throw the apple into the lake that echoes my love into eternity.
Afshine Ash Emrani is a cardiologist, Assistant Clinical Professor at U.C.L.A., a writer, and a mystic.
What makes us different from or better than God’s other creatures? A cheetah is faster, a butterfly more beautiful, and a lion mightier by far. Scientists tell us that dolphins can laugh, elephants can exhibit altruism, and malamutes can love. Animals procreate and they protect; they grow ill and they die. But we alone know that we will do so. We exist, with the sure knowledge that one day, we will not. And yet we build bridges, read books, half-listen at cocktail parties, decide between puce and magenta, and cultivate flowers. Years from now, will anyone care what I was named or what I believed or what I wore to the movies?
We consider death as something that happens — or did happen, or will happen — to somebody else. But life is finite. We lease our minds and bodies for an indefinite term but with the sure knowledge that we cannot buy it out. And so, in the daily acts we perform, seen and unseen (but mostly those unseen), we are all writing our own obituaries.
And yet still we walk and still we talk and stand and sit and take out the trash, and decide what is trash and what is not, what to keep and what to discard. And what does it matter anyway? Because there is something paradoxically and delightfully, magically, wonderfully unreasonable within us that builds and reads and listens and decides, and believes that it all matters, because somehow it really does.
Let us make the year ahead one of blessing, of reciprocal connection, of caring, and of healing.
Marshall Portnoy is the Cantor of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. www.mlrt.org
Rosh Hashanah is “Head (rosh) Changing (shenah) Day.” You can’t have a new year with an old head. So if you want a new year, you are going to need to get a new head.A new head is a story-free head. Your stories define you. If your stories are positive and loving, then you are optimistic and loving. If your stories are negative and fearful, then you are angry and afraid. Regardless of their emotional charge, however, stories are not reality.
A new head is story-free. A new head engages reality with compassionate curiosity, going into what is without the baggage of what was or what is supposed to be.
If you want a new head, identify the stories you carry with you. Ask yourself: “Am I absolutely certain this story is true?” “How does telling this story make me feel?” If you are telling stories you don’t know to be true, stop telling them. If telling your stories makes you anything other than just, kind, and humble, stop telling them. In fact, stop telling stories altogether.
Who are you without your story? You don’t know, and not knowing is the key to having a new head.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning poet and essayist, whose liturgical writings are used in prayer services throughout North America. www.rabbirami.com
Poppy is four years old. The only shelf in the cabinet she can reach is the one with the plastic Tupperware. She has started filling containers with water, snapping on lids, and placing them about the house. It is her new favorite game. One for Mama, one for Papa, one for Tessa, one for Ollie. Her hands can hold one at a time. Her dress is the color of marmalade. She chirps songs that have no words.
When Poppy is twenty-five, she will follow a love to France. In the summer time she will make jars of cold tea, place them in the sun to steep, and forget them in the sunny corners of their house. He will love her for this. That, and the daisies in her hair; the way she reads in doorways, purring show tunes to the crinkle of the page.
When she is forty-seven, Poppy’s garden will be the talk of the street. Her French tulips will dip over the sidewalk, dragging leaves against the pavement. She will carry jugs of water—overflowing onto her arms, her overalls—back and forth from the house to the yard. This is her way now, since her son has worn holes through the garden hose with his trike. She does not mind. He rides circles around the jugs, while she sings and turns the soil.
Eighty. And Poppy carries cups of water to leave around the house. One to the desk for while she is writing, one to her bedside every night. The walk to the kitchen is long and her lavender nightgown is thin. Open the cabinet, find the cup. Turn on the tap, fill it up. Snap on the lid, off to bed. She hums to the radiator. Sometimes she forgets the words.
Sarah Kay is a poet who often forgets where she left her tea. www.kaysarahsera.com
There is much I have learned in a journey that has taken me from Beverly Hills all the way to the Beverly Hills Post Office with a brief sojourn in the Fairfax district. I have learned that no sojourn in the Fairfax district is too brief, and that by cutting through Loma Vista, I can avoid the rush hour traffic on Coldwater.
My mother tried to instill in me an ethos of toughness and self-respect through the oft-repeated aphorism, “Never let anybody spit in your kasha.” I have taken those words to heart and have never, not once, served kasha. My father showed me by example that a deeply contented life can be had if lived by the abiding principles of kindness, graciousness, respect for the dignity of others, and major denial of all things scary and bad.
I, myself, have concluded thus far that life is glorious and magnificent beyond description, and the notion that we live this life fully aware of its inevitable end is fundamentally a comic one. Laughter, therefore, seems the most appropriate response to that Universal Joke.
David Kohan is the co-creator of Will & Grace.
Recently I had a conversation with someone who said to me, “You wrote a very beautiful book; it’s very uplifting and encouraging. However, isn’t there a dark side to aging?” And he is right, there is a more somber side.
I find myself now in my December days. In my book I spent a lot of time on October, becoming an elder, and November, serving as an elder. I was much more skimpy on December. The reason is clear: I wasn’t there yet. Now I am.
Now is one of the best periods of my life. I’m harvesting so much of what I sowed in the world.
And yet, when I look in the mirror before I put on my public face, I view this slightly stooped old man with wrinkles. The business that I describe as coming to terms with one’s mortality has since become coming to terms with actually dying. And, there is a tiredness that feels chronic. Thank God sometimes I feel less tired and more ready to anticipate and enjoy the good things in my life. Still, it’s only a distraction from the pervasive tiredness.
I’m sharing this with you, not because I want to discourage you. On the contrary, I want you to know that going from aging to saging is a positive journey, optimistic and full of sunshine. But I also need to correct the beautiful high notes by playing some somber bass notes to balance and strengthen the truth of what we present.
I do not feel a pang of unlived life. I handled my life repair for much that needed Tikkun. I believe I have mostly done the Tikkun needed. I bear witness to you that the elder-ing work is real.
As we age, our brains are hardwired to reject change. We are conditioned to resist new challenges and remain within our comfort zones. However, growing older should not mean that we must exist within self-imposed boundaries.
In the 1960s, President Eisenhower received the gift of a rare, white tiger named Mohini. For years, Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo and spent her days pacing back and forth in a 12-by-12 foot cage. Finally the zoo decided to build her a larger cage so Mohini could run, climb and explore. But when Mohini arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly adapting to her new habitat. Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself, and paced there until her death, never enjoying the new opportunities in front of her. Mohini exemplifies the classic conditioning most of us live within. Although she was a magnificent, powerful creature, Mohini was convinced her “place” was just a 12-by-12 foot square. We all have the propensity to behave exactly like Mohini. Based on our conditioning, we create invisible cages for ourselves, limiting our lives within their boundaries.
But we don’t have to succumb to our internal imprisonment. Throughout the High Holidays, we will hear the shofar blast. Historically, the shofar signaled the release of all slaves at the end of the Jubilee year. That sound should make us ask, “What enslaves us? What weighs us down? What baggage do we hold onto?” And then, let it go. The High Holidays present us with a tunnel: an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed cages, to find our route to freedom and to live life with renewed passion. The shofar inspires us to free the Mohini inside and move beyond our boundaries.
Judaism is all about life – love of life, reverence for life, building new life. But life also brings death. The pessimist says, “You begin dying the moment you are born,” not only referring to the steady decline of our own lives but also the universe around us. We consume resources to clothe, feed, educate, and protect; we use up animals, plants, water and air as we spiral along the continuum from birth to death.
Yet Judaism teaches a more powerful lesson about life: “Therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15.) Although God is the giver of life, human beings have great choice in the matter. Choice resides in a thousand daily decisions—what we eat, how we drive, what cosmetics and cleaning chemicals we use. We choose life in other ways. One is repentance, the theme of the High Holy Days. We are asked to shake off bad behaviors so as to enhance life and not harm others. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik adds another dimension: teshuva as an act of re-creation. We must pause to review our lives, examine stale routines and static relationships. Becoming aware of life’s partial deaths enables us to live at new depths of intensity and goodness in the coming year.
Aging presents these selfsame challenges. Can we be born again – to life? Most people create or achieve success once – by their 40’s – then coast or repeat until they retire. Many people stop reading after graduating from college, calcifying their brains long before dying. Judaism offers an alternative: “In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not hold back” (Ecclesiastes 11:6) The Rabbis comment: If you raised a family in your youth, renew it in your later years. If you created in your prime, do so again now. Those who love, dream and create again as they age are models to humanity — filling the world until their dying day — with life.
My mother-in-law’s mind is full of holes. She spends most of the day in a placid fog, a place where there’s nothing left to do but walk the dog and wonder what’s for dinner. Every time it’s chicken, she rolls her eyes and kvetches, “We had this last night!” No one argues with her anymore.
The situation is undeniably tragic. She’s only in her early 60’s, has already suffered through cancer and a mastectomy, and her dementia has been diagnosed incurable. Yet, her disease has set into motion a certain regeneration: both of her sons have returned to Savannah to help care for her and to assume their roles as men alongside their father, who is finally learning to treat them like the mensches she raised. Her grandchildren — my kids — sit beside her and sing with gusto while she plunks out the same damn Disney song on the piano: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed…”
Whenever there’s music, she remembers exactly what to do. She snaps, she swings her arms; she’s particularly fond of jazz hands. This is endearing when “Funkytown” comes on the radio and she shimmies around the living room, less so when we’re in line at the grocery store, and she sashays off in the direction of someone’s cell phone. My husband and I have made a family pact to never let her dance alone. Often we resemble a circus without a tent, a multi-generational band of spastic merrymakers getting down to the sound of the garbage compactor. Helping someone keep her grace doesn’t always look graceful.
We hold faith that God loves us so, and yet still, life hurts. Sometimes healing comes from accepting what is. Hope is learning how to dance with it.
I was young and earnest with a dream summer internship at the Justice Department, living in dorms crowded with college kids from around the country. My roommate was coming a week late and I anxiously awaited her arrival, certain we’d be best friends forever. Way too early one morning, there was a knock on my door. “Hi. I’m your roommate” she said coolly, pushing past me. “So happy to finally meet you!” I said. “Where are you working this summer?” No answer. “Have you lived in DC before?” Still no answer. “There’re some great people on our floor – I’d love to introduce you …” She wouldn’t even make eye contact with me! My face started to burn – I turned and walked out of the room, embarrassed by what an easy cry I was. I called my folks, convinced that this was going to be the worst summer of my life. Should I try to switch rooms? Get an apartment? Pack up and escape back to New York?
I avoided the dorms until late that night, and when I finally returned I was relieved to see that the lights were out and nightmare roommate was sound asleep. As I tiptoed in, I noticed a note on my pillow:
I’m so sorry we didn’t have time to connect more today. My name is Cathy, and I’m working on the Hill. I just want to let you know that I’m deaf, so if I’m not looking directly at you, I won’t know that you’re talking to me. Sorry – should have mentioned that this morning – it’s always awkward when I meet new people. By the way, I saw that you’re reading Invisible Man. That’s my favorite book! Can’t wait to get to know you this summer.
Al het she’hatanu l’fanekha – for the sin that I committed before You by assuming the worst of Your children. Please forgive me.
We think of self-examination during the month of Elul as a path to repentance. But it is more fundamental than a step toward something else: We examine ourselves to know who we are. Our darkness and our sins are part of us, stitched into our soul. Without coming to grips with what you have done wrong, you can never understand your own soul.
Our character is reflected in our actions and our relationships. But neither is the whole story. Some revelations call for introspection. Who am I? Have I become the person I was meant to be, or am I betraying or trivializing my destiny?
Look at a picture of your childhood self. Would that child be proud of the adult you have become? No one else on earth can answer that for you. Elul calls us to be deep sea divers into our souls. The stories in this book will serve as a spur to self-reflection. This is a time of year for repentance — acknowledgment, reparations, healing.
Equally it is a time for discovery. Only by apprehending who we are can we shape real hopes about who we might become. Forge ahead without fear into the mystery of your own soul and emerge wiser this year, and kinder.