Rosh Hashanah is Almost Here: Year in Review

It’s been an interesting year. It’s been a year with a lot of changes and with more to come.

Highlights of the changes a year has wrought:

  • 2015-09-09-selfieI’m now working as rabbi at a Jewish nursing home and assisted living facility. After years of working mainly as a freelance rabbi (with occasional forays into congregational work, academia, etc.), working within a single organization has a lot to recommend it. I’m enjoying creating longer-term relationships in my rabbinate. It is meaningful work that I find fulfilling.
  • Eva and I are in the process of adopting a child. After years of not being ready/not being sure we’d ever want or be ready to raise a child, we’ve taken the plunge and are now in the process of waiting. Which means that day to day life goes on pretty much as normal, with this great big possibility of monumental life change possible at any point from pretty much instantly to more than a year from now.

This leaves me in a somewhat odd frame of mind. For many years now (like five), there haven’t been a huge number of changes from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. It’s nice to have some really big changes (dare I say, even progress). At the same time, I’m very aware of the ways in which I’m still in a waiting position to see what comes next.

Each year is different. Each year brings newness. At the same time, the year is a cycle, ever repeating.

Working with the elderly, it becomes obvious the ways in which each life is unique. People make different choices, and even more, get dealt different cards in the game of life (yes, I know that one isn’t dealt cards in the board game). And, at the same point, certain themes come up over and over again, regardless of the experiences of a life.

Each year is also unique, but the more some things change, the more obvious it becomes that in some ways things remain the same. The details of the challenges change, but sometimes, it feels like the new challenges aren’t as new as I might like.

As we come to the new year–5776–I wonder what the next year will bring. I hope it brings a child to Eva and myself. I hope for continued satisfaction with work. I hope for a year of blessing and tranquility (okay, I recognize the contradiction between hoping for a baby and hoping for tranquility).

May the new year be a good year for all of us.

Walking the Walk

At my current job, whether at the assisted living facility or the nursing home, my walk distinguishes me. Specifically, the speed at which I walk. If I were to walk at my normal pace, I would have to weave my way between residents like a driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. And admittedly, there are staff that do–especially the nursing staff, for whom the goal

Sea Lion Striding across the Sand (Copyright David Kominsky, 2015)
Sea Lion Striding across the Sand (Copyright David Kominsky, 2015)

is to get to the next patient quickly.

I, however, have learned to consciously slow my walk. To walk at a similar pace to that of the residents. It communicates that I’m available to talk, willing to literally as well as figuratively accompany them on their journeys. And often it does lead to the start of a real conversation as people strike up conversations as I walk besides them.

I contrast this to the instructions I was given when I started my first job as a market researcher. The corporate environment there was one of business-like efficiency. We, as new hires, were instructed to always walk through the offices with purpose and direction–which meant, quickly.

I am struck by the difference: in the beginning I was to walk quickly in order to show clients that there was no time wasted. Now, I walk slowly to communicate to my clients that they aren’t wasting my time if they want to talk with me.

Occasionally, I still catch myself striding along, in a hurry to get to a meeting, or to the next item on my agenda. And I catch myself, and slow down. I remember that my walk communicates something, and that walking quickly means, “I don’t have time for you.”

Spirituality and Photography: Mindfulness

Recently, I’ve given a couple of lectures on Spirituality and Photography (combining two of my interests and giving me to a chance to show off some of my photography while talking about something I’m actually qualified to talk about, spirituality). A number of people have asked to look at my notes for the lectures. And I’m really flattered, but . . . that rather assumes I’m working from a rather more fully outlined schema than I in fact do. When I make notes for a lecture, class or sermon, I put down just enough words to remind myself what I’m trying to say, and the basic structure of what I’m trying to say. Often, I won’t even look at those notes during the lecture, but they exist in case I need them.

Nonetheless, people have asked for me to share, so I figure I’ll go ahead and write a series of blog posts on the subject of Spirituality and Photography, beginning today with Mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attempting to be aware of everything about something. So, if it is a sitting meditation, it might be a complete awareness of your body, breathing in and out, how your weight is being transferred to the chair or ground, and all thoughts that wander through your brain as you are trying to have no thoughts except those about your breathing, etc. If one is eating a piece of chocolate, we attempt to focus on the taste, the mouthfeel, the scent. To really notice the chocolate.

Looking at a photograph is very similar.

Blooming Dogwood
Blooming Dogwood

When we look at a photograph, we are completely aware of everything within the frame. Conversely, nothing outside the frame comes to our attention. In the photograph of the Blooming Dogwood, there could be a gorilla jumping up and down just to the right of the frame, but because it’s outside of the frame, we don’t pay it any attention. Our attention is limited to what is actually in the frame. (For the sake of relieving those of you who were concerned, there was, in fact, no gorilla in evidence when I took this photo).

This artificial limiting of what we pay attention to focuses our attention on what is present. The longer we look at the photo, the more we see. Color, composition, the things we can almost but not quite see, and our emotional response to the photo are laid more bare because our field of view is limited by the photographer’s choice in framing the photograph. To look at a photograph closely is to engage in a type of meditation.

When you take a photograph, the process is even more exacting. A photographer needs to develop the ability to truly see what we look at. It can’t be just about “gee, that’s pretty,” because what our brains see as pretty in real life will most often not translate to a pretty photograph. Our brains are able to filter out extraneous parts of an image. But when we create that frame of the photograph, we notice everything.

Forsythia
Forsythia

For instance, take the photo of Forsythia. I looked out my window one day a few years back, saw pretty flowers and took a photograph. When I took the photo, I wasn’t paying attention to the house in the background, the dead raspberry canes in the foreground, or the intersecting fences. Yet now, looking at the photograph, each of these intruding elements interferes with my attempt to show the profusion of yellow that spring forsythia blossoms bring. We are aware of the other visual elements because our brains do not filter them out in a photograph as our brains do in real life.

The photographer must learn to see real life as it will appear once photographed–to see all that is there, not just the part the brain wants to focus on. This is a form of mindfulness, of awareness of the world. Seeing what is instead of what we perceive. Paying close attention to the world is a common spiritual practice, across religious traditions. Doing it with a camera is just one more way of engaging our spiritual selves.

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 Olympics and Spirituality

Sports, perhaps especially the Olympics, are somewhat similar to religion. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, but from time to time, I’m reminded of the similarities:

  • We identify with a group/team based on certain beliefs/desires (we want our team to win, or to achieve salvation).
  • We participate in group rituals (prayer, coming together to watch sports).
  • There are sancta of the group–sacred objects that are invested with special meaning (ceremonial cups/souvenir  cups).
  • There are teleological hopes (achieving salvation/wait ’til next year).

But beyond this listing of similarities, I have a feeling that sports and religion function similarly in fulfilling a spiritual purpose. While this isn’t an unusual claim for religion, it’s less common for sports. Yet, spiritual engagement in sports is the best explanation for why we become so invested in sports (and particularly the Olympics).

We identify our own fate/fortunes with that of our team. Why does it matter to me if the Red Sox win? It doesn’t change my life in any material way. Yet when the Red Sox win, it makes me happy. It gives me joy. Somehow, I’m identified with the team, at an abstract, maybe even Mystical level. When a U.S. gymnast beats a Chinese or Romanian competitor in the Olympics, we celebrate. Why? Not because it will impact our quality of life, or the trade deficit, or anything “real.” And yet, it does seem to make a difference to us.

As with prayer, some of us participate alone in our homes, while others go out into public groups (I’ve been noticing a variety of pubs advertising that they’ll be showing the Olympics). During the “services”, there is both the set order of prayer/events, as well as the “sermons” (either commentary, or those feature stories about the locale of the games). There is even the “wisdom literature,” whether that’s a scriptural reading, or clips of USA Hockey beating the USSR in 1980.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are willing to give great importance to our spiritual lives, while trivializing the attention we pay to the Olympic games. Perhaps we should be more generous to ourselves around our Olympic habits (or addictions, as the case may be). The Olympics provide us with an opportunity to feel good about being Americans, without any partisan bickering, without any caveats (“I’m patriotic, but not pro-military,” for instance). Instead, we are all able to root for our athletes, who, in some way, represent us, and to feel pride in their achievements. And through that pride, to feel connected to all the other Americans who also feel pride.

Gratitude: A list

Gratitude is a spiritual practice found in many traditions. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to focus on what we don’t have, or what’s going wrong. We often fail to take note of all that is going right in our life, and even more, we fail to be grateful for the good things in life. So, here’s a (very) partial list of things I’m grateful for this morning:

  • My body: it basically works, no chronic pain or debilitating illness. Were my body not to function as it does, everything else in life would seem harder.
  • When and Where I live: Ovid (43 B.C. – 18 A.D.) once said, “Let other’s praise ancient times, I’m glad I was born in these.” We are less subject to hunger, the vagaries of the environment and disease than any people in the history of the world. I live in a house which is adequately heated in the winter, and can be cooled with fans or air conditioner in the summer. Not having food means needing to go to the grocery store, not needing to go hungry.
  • Being married to my best friend.
  • The Internet: Admittedly, a mixed blessing, but I am able to write this blog, and distribute it myself without any outside review process, without the costs which have traditionally been involved. Furthermore, when I wanted to check the wording for the Ovid quote, above, I just wiki-ed it. It has never been easier to learn or to share ideas than now.
  • Coffee: The flavor, the aroma, the warm morning goodness of it.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list (thank God there’s so much more!). Which makes the question of when to stop writing somewhat arbitrary, so, arbitrarily, I stop here, and invite you to think on some of your own reasons for gratitude (both great and small), and, if you are so moved, to share them in the comments.

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.

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?

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.