Spirtual Practices That Don't Squeeze into Life

So, last week I wrote about how I was going to grow out my beard for the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot.  I chose to do this because it was a spiritual practice I thought I could squeeze into my life. After all, the only requirement was NOT shaving. I was unable to do it.

There were a few issues: first, came the invitation to testify before a committee of the Oregon House of Representatives in favor of two  bills, one establishing civil unions for same sex couples, the other prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. I figured I should look clean and well put together for that. Then there was the trade show I wound up doing this weekend…again I figured I should look put together. And then we hosted a major networking event at CubeSpace for a group that is somewhat more carefully groomed than the freelancers I tend to associate with (there was a great deal of makeup in the room) and I figured I ought to be shaved.

So here I am, a week later, clean shaven. And I’m looking for another spiritual practice, one which won’t interfere with my work life.

Jewish Practice Squeezed into Life

One of the reasons I became a rabbi was to be able t0 incorporate Jewish life more thoroughly into my own. Owning my own business makes it difficult to practice Judaism in the ways I might otherwise. When Friday night or Saturday morning roll around, I’m often too tired from the work week to make it to services. Weekday morning services certainly don’t happen very often anymore, since I’m at CubeSpace by they time they begin. And even preparing for Passover wasn’t possible in our usual way.

Most years, Eva and I spend one to two full days cleaning our kitchen  for Passover. We clean out all the Chametz (leavened bread), but also anything that might become leavened bread (flour), or pretty much anything besides matzah that contains flour. All of the food stuffs which are not okay for Passover we put in boxes in the basement. We change the dishes to special ones we only use for Passover, we wash all of our flatware and then dump it in boiling water to ritually cleanse it of any Chametz. We clean out all of the cabinets.

This year, we just didn’t have the time or energy for that kind of cleaning. In truth,  I have the sense that even now, with Passover begun, we have items with Chametz not only upstairs, but even on the counter in the kitchen. We are not eating the Chametz, of course, but it is present in our lives in a way we would normally not allow it to be.

At the same time that I find the demands of running a business to be limiting my ability to practice Judaism in the ways I have in the past, I find new practices more compelling. For instance, there is a tradition not to shave during the Omer, a period of 50 days between Passover and Shavuot. This year, for the first time, I plan to observe that tradition, because it is a way for me to mark Jewish time. If I am not able to make it to services for Shabbat, I tend to say the Sh’ma before bed each evening (traditionally, Jews recite the Sh’ma before bed and upon arising in the morning; it is a statement affirming the oneness of God). And though I may occasionally even have to work on a Saturday, I find myself wearing a Yalmuke more than I have at other points in my life.

I have found my practice shifting from the more conventional practices to the ones which fit into my life now. For the most part, I find that satisfying. I certainly miss the observance which is too hard for me at the moment and hope to return to it, but in the meantime, the little actions that are part of my day to day life keep me attached to Judaism. In this way, even when I cannot be fully present to Jewish ritual practice as I would like, I find new ways to practice.

Light in the Darkness

Chanukah is being celebrated this week by Jews everywhere. A minor festival, it has taken on an increased sense of importance in contemporary American society. Partly, this is a result of its proximity to Christmas. Another factor contributing to the increased emphasis on Chanukah is that it serves a basic human spiritual need.

Now, at this time of year, in the Northern Hemisphere, light is in short supply. The days are reaching their shortest, and it begins to grow dark as early as 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Many of us leave for work in the morning while it is still dark and arrive home in the evening after darkness has already fallen. In many parts of the country we find ourselves bundled up against the weather, be that cold, snow or incessant rain. There is a distinct feeling of being besieged.

And, at this time of year, we find festivals. Whether it is Christmas, Winter Solstice or Chanukah, it is a time when religion seeks to bring some light into the darkness. It is a reminder that despite the current darkness, the light will return. Spring will arrive, eventually, regardless of how far away it now appears.

Chanukah serves as a particularly potent reminder of this. Over the 8 nights, we increase the number of candles by one each night, increasing the light each night. We increase the light each night, an attempt to ward off the darkness.

The flames ward off the darkness within us, as well as the darkness outside. It is a reminder of comfort and warmth at a time of year that many of us have trouble. We can see in the flames hope for the lightening of the soul. Chanukah is an opportunity for us to refocus on the good in our lives, rather than being stuck in the cold and the bleak.

So this Chanukah, as we watch the candles burn, let the candles’ warmth shine into your soul and bring a brighteness into the darkness.

The "Holiday Season" or the Rabbi and the Christmas Tree

In one of my roles, I am a small business co-owner. CubeSpace (www.CubeSpacePDX.com) provides workspace to freelancers, consultants and those who are self-employed. We have lots of people coming through who are cross-section of Portland, and most of whom  are not Jewish. All of this is background to the issue: how do we decorate for the winter holidays?

Now, I am not one of those rabbis who has a strong aversion to Christmas trees and believes that it is impossible to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. In fact, my grandparents always had a Christmas tree, in part because my great-grandmother did. I like Christmas trees and see them not as a particular celebration of the birth of Christ, but rather as a celebration of light in darkness (and I don’t really understand the connection of the tree and Christmas at all, except as a carryover from Druidic solstice celebrations).

So, when it came time to remove the pumpkins and gourds from our Halloween/Thanksgiving decorating scheme, and move on to a winter holiday decorating scheme, the question arose (okay, I raised the question): how do we decorate? Do we do only Hannukah decorations, despite the fact that Hannukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday and only Eva and I at CubeSpace are Jewish? Do we do only generic winter decorations, with snowflakes and skiers and the like? Do we do only Christmas decorations, echoing the celebrations of most of the staff and customers of CubeSpace? Do we do everything?

General consensus was that we should do everything…which means that this afternoon I will go out and purchase, for the first time in my life, a Christmas tree. I am a touch confused  and amused by this–is there a special blessing to say when one buys a Christmas tree (Shehechiyanu–who has brought us to this season)? How does one buy a Christmas tree Jewishly, or rabbinically? What is the proper intention (kavanah) to have while buying a Christmas tree? Does one wear a yalmuke while buying a Christmas tree…and if so, how does one answer the confused questions that generates? Finally, does one cut a little off the tip of the tree in order to make it a “Jewish” tree?

I suspect many of these questions will only be answerable by experience…and that many more will crop up in the course of acquiring that experience. And as this season of Holidays progresses, I hope to begin to fill in some of these blanks.

The Search for Spirituality When Starting a New Business

I haven’t written in a while, despite the fact that there has been a plethora of good subject matter. After all, on the Jewish side, the High Holidays have come and gone, as well as the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot and the celebration of Torah called Simchat Torah. On the workplace spirituality side of things, I’ve been busily starting up a business, which ought to provide plenty of opportunity for finding moments of spiritual wonder. And yet, despite all this, I haven’t been writing. More accurately, I suppose, because of all this, I haven’t been writing.

I spent the High Holidays in New Jersey, at Fort Dix, leading services at the Main Chapel on base.  Most of the congregants were not active duty military, but rather folks retired from the military who live in the area. It was a wonderful community, and a real pleasure to spend the Holidays there. However, the holidays did fall just a couple of weeks before CubeSpace opened for business. So I flew out to NJ for Rosh Hashanah, flew back to Portland for a week of frantic preparation, flew back to NJ before Yom Kippur, and then back to Portland the day after Yom Kippur, arriving back just in time for Eva (my spouse and business partner) to pick me up at the airport, drive us straight to CubeSpace where orientation began for our employees about 30 minutes later. That was October 3rd, and some days it feels like the last time I stopped moving was when I was on the plane on the way to Portland.

So, what are the spiritual lessons of this period of time? What spiritual insights can I glean from phone systems that work perfectly until the first customer walks in, and then takes 30 minutes to fix. Or from a point of sales database that tested perfectly every time, and then refused to run the first two credit card transactions customers wanted to run? Or from printers that theoretically should work for every computer system, but somehow won’t let either Eva or myself print?

As I take a moment and think about it, I am struck by the patience and support that has been shown us by everyone, whether vendors, clients, staff or friends. Everyone has been wishing us well, and very understanding about the little hiccups along the way. People have been incredibly generous with suggestions, time and referrals.

It has also been a lesson for me in patience and action. I recognize the need for patience in waiting for business to develop, and, at the same time, that there are things to be done in developing that business. There is networking that can be done, which may or may not bring in business, but failure to do the networking ensures that it will not bring in the business. The knowledge remains, however, that however much  networking we may do, we still need to be patient, and let the business grow.

In some ways, this is very much parallel to the quest for spiritual fulfillment. There are things that you can do to encourage a sense of spiritual fulfillment, but many of them do not have quick payoffs. Instead, they require time and patience, without really knowing whether they will be effective in the end. Nonetheless, we know we have to try, even when it feels hard, if we want the possibility of fulfillment.

Overall, at the moment, I am tired, but also feeling fulfilled by my work, both rabbinic and entrepreneurial. And at the same time, I recognize the need to make more time for spiritual practice and reflection…and writing about that reflection.

Limits and Flexibility

Recently, I’ve been helping to put together a Human Resource Manual. In working on this, I’ve been struggling between wanting to inject a strong sense that the organization values employees, wants to work with employees and wants to welcome employees as human beings. At the same time, anything we put in writing is also part of a legally binding contract, and therefore there is the need to define limits…to describe what the official position is, not just what the intentions are.

The struggle here between an officially binding document and one that reflects the somewhat squishier ideals is a tough one. How does one say “take off the time you need to deal with your grief, but when you are asking to take off a week because you’re devastated by the death of your neighbor’s dog, you’re abusing the system”? Even when we talk about things such as taking time off for religious observance, how do you ensure that people who request that time are doing so for religious observance and not just for a day off? Who am I to differentiate between valid pagan holidays and an attempt to game the system by taking off groundhog’s day?

There’s no easy answer to this. Where we’ve ended up (and this handbook has not  been looked at by the attorney yet) is by doing two things. First, we state our intention or goal, and then we describe the  bare minimum of rights we are guaranteeing. I’m not sure how I feel about this as a compromise position, but it feels like it might be workable…at least for the moment.

Finding meaning in Tisha B'Av

The middle of the summer tends to be a bit of dead time in the Jewish year-cycle. Synagogues tend to be emptier, rabbis tend to be on vacation, and this “holiday”, Tisha B’Av, shows up. Tisha B’Av is not so much a holiday as a commemoration–a remembrance of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. It is a day of mourning on which Jews traditional fast and read the biblical book of Lamentations. Not a fun, happy, joyous holiday, and often ignored.

Part of the reason so many of us are inclined to ignore Tisha B’Av is that it is mourning something we don’t particularly miss: a Judaism which focused almost exclusively around sacrifices offered at a central Temple in Jerusalem maintained by a hereditary priesthood. This was  a Judaism which was far more carnal than that practiced today. While some of the sacrifices were baskets of fruit or grain, many of them were sheep, goats, birds or cattle. Blood was shed, sprinkled, drained, and depending on the type of the sacrifice, varying amounts of the animal were burned entirely, and in most cases some was assigned as food for the priestly caste, while some amount was returned to the individual offering the sacrifice for a barbeque. This was not a religion built around individual or communal prayers, home rituals and the like, but rather was a big, noisy, messy (though communal) religion. It’s hard to get truly nostalgic for that time and way of doing things, at least for most of us.

So how do we understand Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the end of this style of Judaism, the destruction of the Temples, which is supposed to be mournful, but most of us probably see as a step forward? I want to suggest that we think less about the destruction of the Temple, per se, and instead think of the Jews of that time period, and what it must have felt like to have had their entire religious structure come crashing down upon them. The Jews of the time did not have the option, when the Temple was destroyed, of heading to the temple in the next town to continue their religious practice in more or less the same way. Their entire understanding of what it meant to be a Jew, to worship the Divine, had to undergo a massive transformation.

I cannot imagine what would be a parallel shock to us today. Perhaps if suddenly God were to speak to all of humanity as we are told happened to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai? Sure, we believe in God as a “force of nature,” or perhaps the underlying principle of the universe, or as that entity whose very existence encompasses our existences, but how many of us believe in a Deity that can speak through a mouth of its (or I suppose, in this case I should say “his”) own? What if we were to be told that all those specific rules in the Torah were not metaphors, not humanity’s attempt to interpret their understanding of Divine or natural law, but were rather the literal word of God? What would it mean to us in terms of our understanding of the world? What would it mean in terms of our understanding of Judaism?

I think we would be left without any sense of comfort from the Judaism we had practiced–indeed, I think that Judasim would cease to be workable for us. Everything we had done all of our lives would be wrong. We would need to redefine Judaism from scratch.

Clearly, I don’t believe that this will happen, or that this is the nature of Divinity. I believe that contemporary Judaism is true and valid (though not with an exclusive monopoly on truth). But by imagining what would happen if we were so very wrong, we begin to understand what it must have been like when Judaism changed from a single centralized sacrificial religion to the home and synagogue based religion we practice today.

We begin to have an understanding, perhaps, of the bravery of those individuals who were able to carry on, to envision a new form of Judaism, despite the crushing destruction not only of their worldview, but also of their country and people. We may remember with honor those who picked up the pieces and continued on after the destruction of the Temple. Often we recall those who barricaded themselves in Massada following the destruction of the Temple and chose to die there; Tisha B’Av calls us to remember those who chose the harder path…those who lived through the destruction and created a new way of belief, a new way of life, that allows us to continue to affirm ourselves as Jews 1,935 years later. That is something that I feel called to honor, called to remember.

Let us mourn for the pain of those who lost their religion, their country, and in all too many cases, family members in the destruction, but who have left us a legacy that lets us continue to declare our Judaism in a meaningful way today.

Tisha B’Av begins at sundown on August 2, 2006 and continues until sundown of August 3rd. For more information on Tisha B’Av, see MyJewishLearning.com: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/TishaBav.htm

Edit (8/06/2008): For my post about Tisha B’Av for 2008, see here.

Summertime and the living is easy…

In many workplaces, the summer brings a slowing of the pace. Many of our colleagues are out of the office, many of our clients or customers are away, and the pace of work seems to slow a little. Which, counter-intuitively, makes this the perfect time to begin a practice of workplace spirituality.

 While the easier summer pace may make the need for a sense of spirituality in the workplace somewhat less pressing (slower pace, fewer demands, perhaps having just returned from a vacation all make work less grinding), it also makes it an ideal time to institute a spiritual practice. After all, the somewhat slower pace means you have the time to pay a little more attention to everything you do. Whereas during the busy season you have no time for anything but getting the work done, and usually not enough time to do that, perhaps you now have the time to get the work done and to pay attention to how you are getting it done. In so doing, you can create the patterns of behavior and mindfulness that will help make the busier times easier to deal with.

A first step in approaching workplace spiritually is to notice how you interact with others in the workplace. Do you regard them as individuals, just like yourself, who have diverse qualities, moods and needs, or do you see them as a means to an end? When someone does something that frustrates us, we often begin by ascribing malicious intent. Yet, thinking of our own actions, how often do we act maliciously? For most of us, we almost never act maliciously. Yet we assume that others do. What happens if you assume that the who is frustrating you is doing so because they are unaware of the effect it has on you, or that they have a reason for their action that feels valid to them (and would likely feel valid to you, were you in their place)?

From the other side, how carefully do we consider the impact of our actions on others? How often are we brusque with those we give tasks to, telling them simply to do things, without explaining why it is important, or how it makes a difference to us or the organization or client? I, especially, am guilty too often of failing to fully express my appreciation for a job well done, simply assuming that jobs will be well done, and commenting only when it is done poorly. I know better, intellectually, but in the busy-ness of everyday business, it is very easy to forget to express appreciation.

Think about how little a smile costs, and how much of a difference it can make to someone you work with. Very often we don’t think to smile when talking to people. But a smile can make the difference between feeling taken advantage of and feeling like what you are doing matters.

Finally, in working with others, remember that you are not the center of the world. That if your boss is grumpy, it may have nothing to do with you, but rather with an interaction he or she had with a child or spouse. By not reacting to the grumpiness (becoming grumpy in kind), we can help dissipate that grumpiness, making everyone’s day better. Remember, if you smile warmly to someone who is grumpy, it makes it harder to remain grumpy.

There is a lot here, and it is hard to practice this all the time. But if you try, life (and work) becomes easier. You will find yourself becoming less upset. You will find work more satisfying. You will find your relationships with people improving.

This may sound simple, or even simplistic, but it can be life-changing. It was, in fact, for me. It began a process of transformation that changed how I interact with the world as a whole, and even my understanding of what my relationship to the universe is. I hope that this small beginning will be useful to you, and a step along a path of growth and discovery.

What I'll be Blogging

Welcome. I am, I guess, your host, Rabbi David Kominsky. I wanted to start by letting you know a little about this blog, and what I’ll be doing here.

This space will (mostly) be about spirituality. I have two areas of interest in particular: Jewish Spirituality and Workplace Spirituality, and intend to write about both these topics.

Jewish Spirituality, for me, is about finding a connection to something beyond the self through the Jewish tradition. There are many different types of connection:

  • A connection to the Divine through prayer or meditation.
  • A connection to the tradition through text study.
  • A connection to the world or the Divine through social action.
  • A connection to the historical story of the Jewish people through the holidays or the stories.
  • A connection to family through celebrating the holidays or Shabbat.
  • A connection to the Divine or the Jewish tradition through structuring one’s life by keeping the Mitzvot (commandments).

That being the case, I see a wide variety of different activities and experiences as part of a spiritual practice, and even as a Jewish spiritual practice. So, for instance, Rebbe Nachman used to make it a practice to go out to the fields or forest each day to be alone and meditate. Just as much as prayer is a mode of Jewish spiritual practice, so is going out into nature to meditate. I want to help people explore Judaism and to find meaning for themselves within the tradition.

My second area of interest is Workplace Spirituality. This comes out of a belief that our everyday actions and experiences contain opportunities for spiritual fulfillment, and that by paying attention to each other as individuals in a workplace environment, we can all find our lives more fulfilling.

An awareness of spirituality in the workplace means treating our co-workers, customers, and even bosses, generously. For example, when a customer is berating you for a perceived problem (which really isn’t a big deal, isn’t your department and you can’t do anything about anyway), don’t take it personally, but think about what else may have happened to them that day so that they need to vent at you. And let them vent, understanding that the ire, while directed at you, is not caused by you. And that by letting them direct it at you, you may improve the rest of their day.

Workplace spirituality also means treating your employees as people. It requires a commitment to providing fair pay and benefits. It requires management that recognizes the needs of the individual, and balancing those against the needs of the organization. The payback is in increased loyalty, employee retention (which cuts training costs), and a happier workforce and workplace. Simple things can create a workplace that people feel good about going to in the morning.

So, these are my two focuses for this blog: spirituality in the workplace, and Jewish spirituality. I don’t expect anyone to find everything I write to be useful, or to ring true. It is my hope that everyone will find some pieces of what I write useful, and that you will skip over the parts that don’t speak to you, or which irritate you.

I, of course, welcome comments, suggestions, ideas and questions. Disagree with something I’ve written, or give an example which illustrates what I’ve written. Ask a question about how my ideas might apply in your life. Tell me what you think.

I look forward to a conversation as we move forward.