Elul: A Time of Preparation

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashahnah, is a time of preparation in the Jewish year. Unlike Passover, for which we prepare by cleaning, and engaging in physical change of our environment, Elul is about spiritual preparation. It is a time of spiritual/life  inventory.

As the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) approach, we take stock of our lives. We look back at where we were at the beginning of this Jewish year, and where we are now, at the end. We take note of the habits that make up our lives, and we judge them, and ourselves.

Much like making resolutions before New Years, Elul is the time when we look forward to who we want to be. It is a time of reflection and potential. Change is hard and frightening, yet having a time for change built into the year forces us to confront ourselves with the need for change. There is the story of Zusya:

Reb Zusya, a righteous rabbi, lay dying. His disciples surrounded him, and were astounded to see that their teacher and sage, a man whom all regarded as a model of appropriate thought and deed, shook with fear at the prospect of death and judgement.

“Master,” said his disciples, “why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do fear judgement?”

Zusya took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied: “When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Master of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble in terror, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked his, how shall I respond?”

During Elul, we seek not to become the perfect person, but to be the person we are meant to be.

The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

Creation: How it Really Happened

We are taught that when God created the world, it was by saying, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Anyone who has ever been involved in a remodel knows that this isn’t how it happened.

First, God said, “Let there be light!”

Then the contractor responded, What kind of a light would you like?”

“You know, one that will be different from the dark.”

“Oh, there’s darkness, too? Then you need to have a light that will complement the darkness. What color is your darkness?”

“Darkness has color? Really? It just kind of looks dark to me.”

“Oh, yeah. You’d think all darkness was just the same. But really it’s not. And if you get the wrong color light to go with your darkness, it will look all wrong, and bother you whenever you look at this universe.”

“Okay, if you say so. Are there swatches or something I can compare my darkness to?”

The contractor pulls out a big book of swatches, thousands of swatches of darkness and hands them to God. “Here you go, come back when you know which one best matches your darkness.”

Some two and half weeks later, following many conversations with the heavenly hosts, many repetitions of the “there are different kinds of darkness?” conversation with each seraph, God got back to the contractor.

“I think we’ve selected “tenebrosity” as the shade of darkness that best matches what we thought.”

“Great,” the contractor responded. “Now, which kind of light would you like?”

“Oh, you know, a good basic light that goes well with tenebrosity,” said God, feeling sophisticated.

“Well, that’s good. That narrows down our choices. In fact it eliminates several infinite sets of light, leaving us with only this infinite set.” The contractor thumped another sample book down in front of God.

“I’ll get back to y0u,” God sighed.

And so God sorted the lights, dividing the neons from the incandescents, the full-spectrum from the infra-red. And God said, “let there be ‘resplendent’ light.” And the contractor placed the order, and some month later, the after the order arrived, and contractor’s workers were done with a couple of other projects they had been working on, there was light.

And God called the light “day”, and the darkness God called “night”. At which point God noticed that while there was light, there didn’t seem to be any particular sources for the light. So God called the contractor.

“Umm. The light seems to be sort of abstract, not actually coming from any particular point. It just sort of drifts around, getting mixed up with the darkness.”

“Of course it does. You didn’t order any light fixtures.”

“Light fixtures?”

“You know, lamps, or chandeliers, or fixtures set into the ceiling or something.”

“I kind of just assumed that when we ordered light, it would come with those.”

“Oh, no. That would never work. People get very picky about their light fixtures, so they need to be able to choose their fixtures separately.”

“Okay,” sighed God, “is there another catalog to look at?”

“Here you go.”

And God took the catalog, and he saw the catalog, and God saw that the catalog was big. And eventually God chose a sun, a moon, a strobing pulsar and stars of light for fixtures. And the contractor saw the selections, and said they were good.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament, a great light and a lessor light–”

“Just a second,” interrupted the contractor. “What firmament? And besides, you just ordered these lights. It’s going to take a while for them to get here. Which is just as well, really, cause if you want them put into a firmament, we’re going to need to build the firmament first. Oh, and by the way, they’ve discontinued strobing pulsars. Do you have a second choice?”

And God sighed, vowing never to create a universe again.

Teaching the Unteachable

Teaching mysticism is difficult. Mysticism deals with direct experiential knowledge of God, while affirming that the nature of that God is beyond human expression (and perhaps even understanding). Mystics then attempt to use human expressions to describe this experience and the understandings they have gained, using metaphor and analogy. To make it all the more complex, the mystic (at least in Judaism), sees the lines between metaphor and reality as blurry, and perhaps even non-existent. Other than that, it’s an easy task.

Traditionally, Jewish mysticism (of which I consider Kabbalah to be one type, while others consider the entire history of Jewish mysticism to be included within the bounds of Kabbalah) was taught one on one, over the course of years. The students who studied mysticism were already learned in Torah and Talmud, and knew all biblical text intimately. In my case, I have two hour-and-a-half sessions in an undergraduate classroom with students who will be three-fourths of the way through a semester long course on an introduction to Judaism. Somehow, I find this daunting.

I have spent years studying Jewish mysticism, and at times even consider myself a mystic, in the tradition of Art Green (while hurrying to add that I am neither nearly as learned as he, nor do I have the depth of his understanding of reality). Most days, I still struggle to understand Jewish mysticism. Most days, I am completely confused as to what the authors of a text I am reading are trying to say. Sometimes, I get it. Now, I am to teach it.

Many teachers of Jewish mysticism distinguish between teaching about mysticism and teaching mysticism. Teaching about mysticism is to teach the terminology and the beliefs held by their practitioners as an outsider, an anthropologist looking in. But for the mystic, whose understanding of the world is that we are all part of the Oneness which is Divinity, to teach from the outside view seems to ensure a lack of understanding of the subject. How can one understand something from the outside, when there is no “outside”?

And so, as I prepare a pair of class sessions, going through possible readings, debating the merits of Gershon Sholem’s German-style modernist scholarship about mysticism as opposed to Larry Kushner’s or Art Green’s experiential accounts of Jewish mysticism.  And I am confronted with a basic paradox (upon which paradoxes, after all, mysticism is built): how does one teach about something experiential in a non-experiential way?

Teaching is Fun

After two weeks of teaching at Willamette University, I’m ready to declare teaching fun. I’m sure I won’t always feel as positive about it as I do right now, but I just finished going over my students first set of  “response papers,” an every-other-week writing assignment in which I ask them to react to the readings, the lectures, or their own reactions to the course. Designed to be more blog-post than academic assignment (my instruction was that it should take 10 – 20 minutes), the responses have been as diverse as my students, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

It’s my first chance to see what students are connecting to in the course, or being challenged by in it.  One reason I love teaching is that I love forcing people to think beyond preconceptions, to explore ideas at a deeper level, and many of these students are doing exactly that. Whether reflecting on how what they are learning affects their own faith (non-Jewish), or thinking about the contrast between studying history and studying the mytho-historic account of a culture (in this case Judaism), to reflecting on teaching style, or a very detailed reaction to a specific page in the reading, it’s all been great.

I’m having so much fun with these response papers, I’d love to make them weekly (relax, students, I’m not going to do it). Even though I suspect it takes me as long to write notes on these as it took many of the students to write them in the first place, the thoughtfulness shown in the writing, and the connections made between material we’re covering and the rest of the world makes it a fabulous exercise. Judaism teaches that we learn as much from our students as we do from our teachers. I’m honored to be learning from my students.

Stubborn Sermons

I’m working on my Yom Kippur sermons. Or rather, I’m trying to work on my Yom Kippur sermons. But they’re refusing to be worked upon.

They are steadfastly refusing to write themselves. Which frankly, just seems churlish of them.

To make matters worse, they won’t even tell me what they’re about. Is one of them about the Isaiah quote, “Is this the fast I desire?” Good sermon topic, and not one I’ve written previously, but I keep hearing that line in my head as spoken by a John Wayne impersonator, which I’m pretty sure is my brain adapting some stand-up comics bit about John Wayne playing Hamlet, and saying, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” None of which is helping me out at all, because I’m pretty clear that John Wayne and Isaiah have radically different voices.

I could talk about God. I like talking about God. Of course, I started off doing that for Rosh Hashanah, and wound up writing a different sermon entirely, because the God sermon was way too dry.

Prayer is a good subject. But, the problem with talking about prayer in a sermon is that the sermon comes a the end of the service–after the prayers have all been said. Which means it often feels like I’m explaining how to do what we just did. Feels a bit backwards.

The flip side of this is that some of my best sermons have been completely off the cuff. The flip-flip side, is that some of my worst sermons have been completely off the cuff. When I go in trusting that I’ll have something coherent and meaningful to say, 80% of the time, I do. It may not be quite as polished as I’d like, but it tends to be pretty good. About 10% of the time, I have something meaningful to say, but it doesn’t come out coherently, and meanders a little. It’s the last 10% of the time that I try to avoid: I start to speak and realize the sermon isn’t going where I wanted it to, and start rewriting an extemporaneous sermon in my head while I’m speaking. Those sermons tend not to work out so well.

So I’ll push through, and try to a least get some drafts out that I can react to: ideas that I can either develop or reject. And sometimes, in the process of putting down an idea, a sermon pops out, pretty much finished.

Fear and Trembling

In the Jewish tradition we are taught to face the High Holidays, the Yamim Nora’im, with fear and trembling as we evaluate our actions and failings. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays.

For rabbis, Elul is also a time of preparation, both spiritual and logistical. It is our busy season, during which we are preparing what expected to be our four (or five) best sermons of the year, at least five distinct services, not to mention the logistics associated with that (facility setup, making sure the various committees are ready to do their thing, etc.).

For me, this year, I’m also organizing a new congregation, which means figuring out things like opening up a bank account, initial meetings with potential members, finding insurance, creating marketing materials, borrowing machzors, and desperately wondering what else I’ve forgotten. All in all, it’s a somewhat daunting prospect.

Which brings me back to fear and trembling. This year, I’m awfully close to outright panic.

A Landmark Day in My Life

Today has been a day of great significance in my life. Two things happened, each of which may be seen as a turning point in the story of my life.

Today, in forming Mikdasheinu, I filled all of the obligatory roles for the Board. This doesn’t mean I can’t add more board-members, merely that I now have enough to move forward. It means Mikdasheinu is actually going to happen.

Secondly, today I bought my first pair of reading glasses. I don’t need them all the time; only when the print is small, my eyes are tired or it’s dark. And they’re not particularly strong. But the fact is, when I’m wearing contacts, I need reading glasses for some close up work.

Building a New Community

It’s time for me to make something happen. To move a dream onto the path of reality. Specifically: it’s time to begin building an inner-East Side Jewish community.

There’s a lot of details left to work out. Some of them I’m deliberately leaving up in the air until I have a group of collaborators to create the community with me. Other details I just haven’t worked out yet. But there are some things I do know:

  • It will be a community which, while Jewish, will be welcoming to non-Jews as well, whether in interfaith relationships or not.
  • It will be a community which is welcoming to people of all genders, sexual orientations and identities.
  • It will be a mult-generational community.
  • We will join together to find fulfillment in spiritual experience, whether through traditional Jewish modes or less traditional modes.
  • And there will be services, at least on occasion, because I like praying, damn it.
As for the rest, it’s waiting to be worked out. And I’d love for you to be a part of working it out. Because I don’t want this community to be a reflection of me: I want it to be a reflection of those of us who consider ourselves “inner-East-Siders” and “Jews.” So drop me a line, let me know that you’re interested. Because I have a good feeling about this.

The Road Ahead

It was recently brought to my attention that while I know what’s happening in my professional life, you all may not, and might wish to know.

For the last year or so, I’ve been actively engaged in rabbinic job search. I am looking for work, maybe in a congregation, maybe on a campus, maybe in some other setting, which is rabbinic in nature.

For some of you, this is not news. Some of you may be surprised that I might be looking for anything else. But my path has been varied enough, and covered enough different types of employment, that clarity is a good thing.

While at CubeSpace, as an entrepreneur, I saw my role at CubeSpace as part of a rabbinic path. I was leading a community, albeit not a Jewish community. Many of the functions were similar, in terms of community building, providing a spiritual center for the community (even if most members of the community did not think of it that way), and serving as the one who made sure community events happened.

Since CubeSpace closed, I have been looking around, exploring various possible paths, and realized, about a year ago, that where I really belong is in a Jewish setting, in a rabbinic role. These are the settings that make me feel alive and fulfilled. These are the roles that sustain my spirit. And, perhaps as important, this is a career I don’t have to invent from scratch.

So, if you know a congregation looking for a rabbi. . . send them my way.