Jewish Music: The Sounds of Our Lives

Presented to Congregation Beth Shalom, September 1 2018:

I live, year in and year out, in a constant state of emptying and letting go, of internal inventory of what resonates as my truth, and what does not: it is my nature to do so; and I gain balance and meaning through being this way.

Thankfully, I have found a vocation that requires this sort of temperance: as a Jewish Spiritual Care Chaplain. Our extensive training is that when we pay a spiritual care call to someone, we must leave ourselves outside the door. We enter the room as an empty vessel, and create a sacred space with which to invite in the Divine Presence.

My other Profession, as a Musician, is the same. One must empty themselves of distractions as preparation for standing before an audience to perform; otherwise the music will be crowded out by unresolved thoughts and feelings.

This is even more so if one is a Prayer Leader, a shaliach tzibor: the prayers will not reach the heights and depths that touch the hearts and souls of congregants: the sad places, and the memories of joyous times, or of loved ones that have passed, if one’s being is preoccupied.

At no time of the Jewish year is this work of emptying and creating sacred space

ayedison.org

for ourselves more important than at Selichot and during the Yamim Norai’im Days of Awe.

 

Just what defines Jewish music?

And…How do we learn to empty and renew as a pure vessel, and as Torah bids us, as newly fallen snow, to let go of the past year and be receptive to the New Year that lies ahead?

Maybe the secret can be found in the voice of the cantor on Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrey, the sound of the ancient Oboes in Temple Times, or in the sound of the Tekiah of the ram’s horn Shofar.

In other words, let’s talk about Jewish Music and how to prepare for the Jewish High Holy Days.

It is now accepted that humans had musical sounds before spoken language. That is not surprising: banging on logs or vocalizing to send and feel messages is something even animals do.

clikr.com

As humans we are unique in having created languages, but words speak primarily to our logical brain centers and thinking.

We have another equally important part of our brain that works alongside the logical mind, and it responds to felt stimuli. That means emotions, but also physically felt stimuli. Music.

stickerforwall.com

Music is vibration. When we engage with music, we can turn off our busy thinking minds and let the experiential part of our bodies take over.

I know this as a Hospital Chaplain: how many times have I sat with a patient who was deeply feeling, but we agreed, couldn’t find words for what they were experiencing?

Listening to music or singing prayers is often the vehicle that moves patients through difficult experiences and allows them afterward to then articulate their needs and hopes.

­­­According to Peter Gradenwitz, an instrument, “the halil occurs in the Bible for the first time in connection with the anointment of Solomon.

slideshare.net

This instrument is not mentioned as having been used in the services of the 1st Temple, although one commentator thought it came from the days of Moses: in the 2nd Temple two to twelve halilim were used on twelve days of the year—at the first and second Passover sacrifice, on the first day of Passover, at Shavuot, and in the eight days of Sukkot.

Though in Modern Hebrew a halil is a flute, the Biblical equivalent has been interpreted as a double reed of the oboe family, because no flutes appear on any picture of neighboring civilizations at the time, and the Greek and Latin translators of the Bible were surely right when rendering “halil” by a word describing an oboe. In later Aramaic translations, the instrument is called an ‘abub’, the modern Hebrew word for oboe.”

These days, you can find YouTube videos of music as it was thought to have been performed in Temple Times. Go have a look.

But even before the Temples were built, King David wrote his Psalms. According to Alfred Sendrey, out of 150 psalms, 55 contain the introductory indication la-menazzeach.

Menazzeach is the singer chosen to lead the music or to officiate as precentor who probably instructed the choir, and may be considered the precursor of the Cantor or Hazzan. The first singing master of the Davidic music organization was Chenaniah. We read in (1Chron 15:22): “He was master in the song, because he was skillful”

Leaping from King David to the Exile we find a serious reference to musical instruments in Psalm 137:

dwellingintheword.wordpress.com

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and also wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow within it we hung our lyres. For there our captors requested words of song from us, with our lyres, playing joyous music. “Sing for us from Zion’s song!” How can we sing the song of Hashem God upon the alien’s soil?”

The psalm is wrought with the pain of not only being exiled from Jerusalem, but with the taunts of their captors, demanding they joyously play music of Zion for them. Instead, the exiles hang up their instruments upon the willows by the rivers of Babylon. And thus, in sorrow, ends the prominence of instrumental music in Jewish worship.

When the Temples were destroyed and Rabbinic Judaism began, music didn’t go entirely away. It became the tropes and nusahs that we use in our prayer liturgy and text readings. Ask any rabbinic student: studying page after page of Talmud is almost impossible without having the familiar sing-song chant with which to read it. The verses of Torah and Haftarah are written in metrical phrases designed to be sung, not read as prose.

The ways of singing and of performing music in both Temple and synagogue became a decisive factor in the development of Occidental music; for the earliest Christian precentors were brought up in the Jewish houses of worship, and only adapted ancient Hebrew custom to a new purpose when they converted to Christianity.

The church took over the responsorial singing of the Middle Eastern modal melodies and many other Oriental musical features.

interletras.com

The hand signs and accents, the trope marks, were also adopted and from these, called by the Church ‘neuma‘, which came from the Hebrew word ne’ima, for a modal song or melody, became in the Second Millennium CE the musical notations that now indicate the exact pitches and durations prescribed by a composer. Almost as we have today in sheet music.

So, over time, music left the synagogue.

Our sages, Poskim and Gaonim, decided after the Jewish Diaspora to move away from feelings and emphasize text and words; and then they decided that after centuries of music in the Temples that now carrying and playing musical instruments was deemed work that violated the Shabbat:

The logical part of our brains must have decided that! 

Music became the thing of ceremonies, of celebrations. Musicians for weddings became known as ‘song vessels’ or klei zmir. “Klezmer” became the name for our unique style of Jewish popular music.

We Jews brought our instruments and music with us to the United States in the 19th-20th centuries, and deeply infiltrated and defined everything from Jazz to pop show tunes. There is a great documentary about Jewish music in Hollywood, I think on PBS or National Geographic.

So, Jewish music became entertainment. But that too is changing. Some teshuvah, or thought about return, is happening with regard to music in synagogue by some Jewish movements. The reasons for removing it have been reflected upon and felt, and changes are slowly being made. Many synagogues, including Conservative synagogues are embracing instrumental music as an essential partner to liturgical prayers.

Tonight, this evening of Selichot, of remembrance, forgiveness, and new opportunities to be better versions of ourselves, is also an opportunity to try a new way to enter Teshuvah. Let us try through the model of music.

As I said earlier, playing music requires becoming an empty vessel. And I thought I’d been playing oboe pretty well, until I decided it was time to wean myself from the comforts of sheet music and learn to play jazz improv. The first words of the improv workshop instructor knocked me off my seat:

She said, “Jazz is about listening and allowing empty space.”

Here was the bridge between music, chaplaincy, and teshuvah.

I have talked about the first two, music and spiritual care, now. But tonight, Selichot, is particularly themed about Teshuvah.

I going to presume that most of us here know the general formula:

*Reflect back on a regrettable situation from the past year.

*Think about what went well, what went wrong.

*Try to apologize to any other person involved, keeping it simple: no qualifiers such as justifying what you did; just a straight heartfelt apology is good.

*Have that talk with God: did you have a fallout or breakup or divorce with this spiritual relationship?

*And also remind yourself of why you decided that any of these were your best choices at the time, and allow yourself to feel. That part is hard, the regret, the sorrow, the hurt for a past decision. But let the feeling wash over you, and then it will pass, as if you were left lying cleansed on a beach after surviving a stormy sea.

*Forgiving yourself or the other person is essential: this is how we become cleansed, empty vessels. This is how we grow from the willful hanging on of hurts and baggage, to the willingness to become the engaged adult. This is Selichot.

*The final step comes in the future: if in the same situation, will you do the same thing, or were you able to let go of the wrong decisions of the past and grow into the better ones for the future?

You have to be empty and listen in order to do this work of teshuvah. You have to be able to turn off the thinking and noise in your head in order to feel the remorse and move on.

We Jews have evolved a clever way during Elul of shutting off the inner talk and texting that may be distracting us: We blast on the Shofar!

 

breakingisraelnews.com

The Shofar is the remnant of Biblical instruments that is very much extant. No one shouts, Hey wake up and listen to God! Don’t text while praying! from the Bimah. It just won’t work. That would just be mere words.

But the Shofar, with its penetrating pure sound, makes a direct hit into our hearts and pulls us upward, releasing us from our bondage to words and thoughts.

denajohnson.com

No one wants to sit with difficult feelings all alone. That’s rough. The good news is that you don’t have to be alone; whether it happens in synagogue or the privacy of your home. Because on Rosh HaShanah, as always, God is present. And at this time of year we think of God as our King, but not a king to punish us for our past mistakes; a watchful King, a King who wants us to be strong the way God is Strong, too. We prepare by cleansing ourselves inside and out, and then march past, not knowing how the year will be, but knowing that we are accompanied by our King.

As we’ve discovered, Jewish music is everywhere, from Jazz to Gregorian chant to Hollywood to Bnei Mitzvoth and wedding celebrations.

This year, let Jewish music be part of your renewal. Remember our rich heritage of worship with music and musical instruments.

This year, we’ll have oboe music as you enter the sanctuary for Kol Nidrey; and when you hear the Shofar during the services, let the sound cleanse your mind, and allow the process of Teshuvah and Selichot to…

…Return You Home To Who You Really Are…

L’SHANA TOVA V’ZIMRA

Spring Cleaning Items for Passover: Gossip and Privacy

The season of Pesach (Passover), often called The Feast of Freedom, provides an opportunity for seeking out and removing any tangible and spiritual burdens we may be carrying.

shearith.org

The Torah instructs us that every year we shall eat only unleavened bread and re-tell or re-enact the hasty departure of the Hebrew people from enslavement by Pharaoh in Egypt at Pesach time. We observe this commandment by removing ‘fluff’, or chametz in our homes; things that have fermented or leavened beyond their simple state over the year, as a way of creating a physical memory of how to pare down to simplicity and basics. We can then become less burdened and more receptive to the greatness of simplicity, enjoy the grandeur of Nature, and each other.

Let’s look at two related areas of chametz for which most of us could use a good Pesach Spring Cleaning: Gossip and Privacy.

terrywilliams.wordpress.com

First of all, what is Gossip? Is it merely idle conversation to pass the time with friends? Or do we use gossip as a transaction currency? For example, currying favor by suggesting we have some ‘material’ about a boss at work, or about a neighbor. Some of us want to attract a circle of friends through gossip that defines who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

This doesn’t read as being very nice, does it? Well, research about social intelligence bears out the fact that we use gossip as a social transaction currency. Gossip can be a lucrative commodity, and we all exchange that commodity as gossip currency at times. Some of us are more strategic about this than others, but nonetheless we all do it.

Judaism recognizes that we gossip and also the seriousness of harm done by gossip. Three types of gossip are defined in our texts: Slander–LaShon HaRa, literally translates as ‘the evil tongue’; Lying–Motzi Shem Ra; and Tale Bearing–Rekhilut.

Slander does not involve lying, it is the damage to the person’s reputation that is the harm done by sharing truth inappropriately. Slander means making a true yet derogatory statement about another person. An unjustified derogatory remark about another person, the evil tongue wagging, even though it is the truth, is forbidden.

Lying about somebody, making false statements about them, is called defamation of character (Motzi Shem Ra) and the harm done is self-evident.

bedsider.tumblr.com

Rekhilut (Tale Bearing) is like a peddler (Rokhel) buying from one person and selling to another. The tale peddler hears a remark, wants to profit from it, and then goes to tell the person spoken of what was said about them; this leads to harm done via the conflict and controversy that arises, with some anticipated benefit for the gossip peddler who spread the tale.

What is the difference between Slander and Tale-Bearing? Slander is defined as making a derogatory but true remark about somebody, while tale-bearing means going to the person who was spoken of and reporting this fact to him, saying, “So-and-so said such-and-such about you.”

In the Jewish perspective, gossip raises a whole class of ethical and moral concerns because the root intention of gossip is to harm a reputation. In the Torah, one’s reputation is their name, and if their name is tarnished or destroyed, so is that person or clan. For example, when Moses speaks to the burning bush he asks God, “What name shall I give?” He doesn’t ask God “what powers or weapons should I say I have”, or “what punishment shall I tell them I’ll bring”. Moses asks “whose name shall I give for who sent me?” And God answers, “Yi’h’yeh asher Yi’h’yeh” I Am that I Am. God’s Name=Reputation is God’s Power. Although Pharaoh believed his magicians were as powerful as Moses’ God, in the end God’s reputation as powerful was upheld at the closing of the Sea of Reeds upon Pharaoh’s army.

We each have our own unique reputation and name. Next to murder, the most destructive thing we can do to someone is destroy their name. Think about this. It is said that if what you spread is true, it’s gossip: if what you spread is false it is like murder. Just a little misinformation can sully forever how a person is perceived by others. Rumors or private matters spread in the public domain ruin businesses and politicians.

Publicizing what is private is powerful medicine. Navigating in close quarters requires maintaining a delicate balance between being who we know we are and appearing to be what others want us to be.

Gossip invades privacy. The Jewish model for building healthy communities that preserve privacy comes from the story of Balaam, who blessed the Israelites, rather than cursing them as Balak had ordered him to do, in Num 24:2-5:

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

chongsoonkim.blogspot

The Gemara, Talmudic commentary (Bava Batra 60a), gives Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation:

What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.

The Talmud Oral Law, in Bava Batra II, tells us how this passage of Torah Written Law is applied to a situation in which privacy is violated by poor alignment of adjacent homes:

If the damage occurs immediately, or it begins to take effect immediately and its effects gradually increase, it is considered as though he has shot his neighbor with his arrows, and the neighbor can object to his activity. This applies to damage that is caused by one’s actions to the neighbor’s property, e.g., his walls, pit, and various plantings on his property, as well as damage that is caused by noise or foul odors.

In this Blog post about cleaning out our inner and outer lives for Pesach we learn that gossip invades privacy and murders the victim’s reputation; and invading a neighbor’s privacy with loud music is like shooting that neighbor with arrows.

Do we need to seek out gossip or can we simply go next door and ask how our neighbor is doing? do we need to have our radio or TV on mega speakers, or can we tone down our technology and enjoy the simple beauty of birdsong in our yards?

Here are a range of Passover Spring Cleaning tips, from physical to spiritual actions, to help with defining and removing the leavening that burdens:

*Make time to review what you own or possess. Compare that list to what you really need. Find ways to let go of the chametz; give things to charity, apologize to a neighbor. It’s like cleaning the caches in your computer, which also runs better when the caches are cleaned regularly.

*Jewish Prayer: Central to liturgy is the Amidah silent devotion, said three times a day. At its close, is this meditation about gossip: הש”ם נצור השוני

…Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking bitterness; protect my soul from those who would slander me; I shall present myself, humble as dust. Frustrate the evil plots of others upon me; may their plots be as dust, protect me from them; Do this for the sake of Your Name; of Your Eternalness; of Your Holiness; of Your Torah, in order that we may be delivered to Your Embrace…

*Watch your own courtyard and enter others’ with respect. If they let you know that your radio or TV is too loud, turn it down; don’t continue to ‘shoot them with arrows’ with your TV. You might like the sounds of nature in your yard, too.

*Curiosity. This is nature’s best remedy for relationships. If you are not sure who someone is, ask them. If they seem different than you, engage them with friendly questions though your genuine and natural curiosity rather than ask someone else and rely upon hearsay or gossip that may or may not be true.

Feel motivated to dig in and clean? That is great! Me too.

May we all grow and thrive through knowing one another.

wikipedia.org

Shabbat Shirah: drama, drums and dancing*

 

“And Miriam the Prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took the drum in her hand; and all the women went forth after her, with drumming and dancing” 

from the ‘Song of the Sea’, Ex. 15:20

Torah is filled with mechanisms for bringing us closer to God through sacred words and music. Shabbat Shirah, which is on January 27th this year, is a special Shabbat for focusing on the power of music in celebration and with re-creating sacred moments.

Here is what the Song in Ex. 15:1-21 looks like in a Torah scroll; notice especially the unusual layout and design:

We can tell from this special text arrangement that this is a song rather than prose.

The Song of the Sea can be read, chanted or sung. For verses 1-3, there is a tune that is not the regular Torah trope; it is a bittersweet musical mode, designed to reflect the gravity of receiving redemption from Egypt at a high cost to the Egyptians.

This bittersweet melody brings up a personal memory for me; that of a moment in the Jewish weekday service.

It is a moment of reliving the revelry and the sadness of the scene at the Sea of Reeds. The sacred sound that comes to me is of the voices of the staff and students of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Cantorial School in New York, where I studied Sacred Music.

Every Wednesday morning our ‘mifgash and minyan’ service was the place where we Cantorial students and staff met, and prayed, in our own space. I recorded precious moments of sacred sound, of these klei kodesh (holy vessels), singing as a minyan ‘off pulpit’ during one of our services:

 

Is there a melody, or song, or nign (chant sans words) that transports you, too, into a sacred space?

Therein is the power of music and song; it creates sacred time and space, whether in a house of worship or while out running errands.

energy gateways.com

Sometimes in my work as a Spiritual Care Chaplain, I might hum this melody or maybe another nign, to transport myself into a prayerful or grounding mode between seeing patients, on my way to meetings, or during my breaks. These chants are a simple, portable, and direct conduit from everyday busy-ness to a different dimension–of sacred place.

Now as we come to the end of the Torah’s passage of the Song of the Sea, the Torah gives us another treat.

We read how it was the women who sang the closing lines of the Song. Led by Miriam the Prophetess, the Israelite women all take up drums and dance, singing the closing words of the song.

womeninthescrriptures.com

Torah tells us Miriam was a Prophetess, in fact that is her name, מרים הנביאה Miriam haNevi’ah in 15:20, Miriam the Prophetess; then after that she is called אחות אהרון Aharon’s sister. Her relationship to Moses is not mentioned here.

Torah describes how Miriam picked up a drum, and the next thing, all the women do the same; and following after her, drumming and dancing, they sing the words that close the Song of the Reed Sea in 15:21.

 

The next musical memory of the Song of the Sea: from my year at JTS, at Commencement.

Truth be told, I was not in the Cantorial School to become a pulpit Cantor, but to learn the traditional music of the Jews so that I could adapt it to musical instruments.

Nonetheless, they made me learn to sing! and there I was, with lots of coaching and mentoring, an Alto in the JTS choir, singing my heart out alongside some of the world’s finest Cantors.

At Commencement, the newly ordained and invested rabbis and cantors queued up on the marble stairs inside the great JTS inner atrium for a group photo. Someone started a nign from the Song of the Sea, ‘Ozi v’zimrat Ya’, from 15:2.

Here is the melody, sung in 2015 in Jerusalem at a gathering of Women of the Wall:

 

My next encounter with the Song of the Reed Sea

My summer with JTS included a Chaplaincy Internship with the VA Hospital in Brooklyn. Having a Middle-Aged–Jewish–Woman, as a VA Chaplain was a stretch for some of my male peers and teaching supervisor! But when the VA Staff Chaplains heard I was a Musician, they snapped me up, to facilitate a weekly ‘Music and Spirituality’ group for the VA’s new Substance Abuse Rehab program.

The participants in this program were amazing. All of them, except one Jewish man, were Black or Hispanic; the Jewish Veteran sadly had lost his connection to Judaism over the years. Most of the dozen men were Veterans from Vietnam, fifty year ago. Somehow they survived long enough to make their way to this VA Hospital and this rehab program. They had been coping and using drugs for 50 years.

My first session with the guys, after having been abandoned to sink or swim by the staff Chaplains, began with my playing a powerful oboe solo piece, Britten’s ‘Pan’:

 

ides.org

The piercing, plaintive sounds told them I knew the territory. After breaking the ice, they talked—a lot. Each week I tried something different: they never knew what the little Chaplain Lady was going to do next!

It became time for me to put off my fear of singing for them. Mulling over what I could pull off, I realized that the best thing was to lead what I know; always a good thing for an artist. I chose two nigunim and one of them was ‘Ozi’, the same tune as with the Women of the Wall.

I chose these Hebrew nigunim rather than a familiar song in English. I did not want the words to interfere, I wanted them to sing with their own heartsong-voices.

I put the transliterated words on the blackboard and sang it once for them, then invited them to join me:

Ozi vezimrat yah; vayehi-li lishu’ah

First a baritone sang along, then a couple more hesitant voices. The baritone got stronger and shortly we were all singing, as if a mighty locomotive had slowly chugged out of the station and was now steamrolling full throttle down the tracks.

6IEE.com

Soon, they were on their feet, and then I knew it was time for me to step back and get out of the way. The song from the Torah now took on the timbre of a Sunday morning Harlem Gospel Church chorus. They bent, and shimmied, clapped in time, singing, fully liberated– rocking the room as it filled with warmth and love. The love train barreled down the tracks.

I now engaged the most important lesson in Davvening (Prayer) leadership training: how to bring a train like this safely back in to the station! I resumed singing with them, bringing in hand gestures to match theirs, then slowed them down, then sat them down, then wound down the volume and tempo until the train puffed to a rest.

The room was silent. They knew from experience what to do next. The camaraderie from the singing had created a new sacred space to share with each other, and heal.

I can’t say that I am a singer or a successful pulpit Cantor, but I can say that I know how to adapt the power of music and the stories it carries as a medium, for creating healing opportunities.

As Karl Paulnack, head of the Boston Conservatory of Music, tells us through a lecture to his new students:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.”

Those of us who are musicians, including Miriam haNevi’ah, understand that what we do is intangible; and thus will seldom be given the honors it deserves.

In today’s Song of the Sea, Music and Women are given the Crowns and Honors. Shabbat Shirah shows us that the most celebratory moment in our history was captured in song, and sealed with the music and dancing of women, led by a Prophetess.

robincohn.net

Shabbat Shalom

*D’var Torah Sermon, given Shabbat Shirah January 27 2018 at Congregation Beth Shalom, CA

 

 

Lights, Candles, Chanukah!

It’s the penultimate day of Chanukah, the seventh of the eight days of celebration. Last evening, just as sunset was approaching, I set up and lit my new Chanukiah (Chanukah candelabra) to enjoy its warmth and welcoming light. The candle flames, at once familiar and comforting, glowed in their new arrangement, reminding me of many other firsts this year: that I haven’t bought a new Chanukiah in decades; this is my first celebration of Chanukah as a resident of the USA since I was a teenager; and, in keeping with life in a very remote region, this was my first time buying a Chanukiah by online ordering.

amazon.com

Yet, the many themes to this חג האורים Holiday of Light remain comfortingly constant over time. After lighting the candles, I always look forward to sitting next to them; this year it was by a little table at my front window to enjoy the many images that arise as the burning candles glow.

Here are some gleanings of those Chanukah reflections:

photo: Tom Hogan

A Festival of Light. It gets dark early now, and it is truly dark here in this official Dark Sky Community. No street lamps or outdoor lights are allowed here unless they are blunt and point downward. The natural rhythms of night and day are much more activated. The impact of how special and sacred lights may have been in Maccabean times is keenly experienced here. Stars explode forth and blanket the sky when the moon is new or waning; animals are busy with owls hooting, coyotes yelping, bats squeaking; bedtime shifts from midnight to 9pm.

Lighting candles reminds us of our human ability to adjust the rhythms of nature, but not nature itself.

bkreader.com

Tradition! Just like in the song from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, lighting the candles at the appointed time of year and singing the special blessings provides a familiar landmark in the onward unfurling of the unknowns that lie ahead. Even still, as I hold the lit shamash candle and gently touch each candle in the proper order, a liminal time machine transports me back into the amazed and agog infant/toddler, brown eyes brightly reflecting the magical flames of the pretty rainbow candles, taking in the warmth and light when so dark and cold outside, the smiling faces of family as they watch our little countenances transfixed with the first rapturous gasp of the glowing candles, the familiar songs, and Chanukah foods.

Time travels forward, but for humans, it goes in spirals, with each new year forward replaying familiar holiday cycles and bonds.

Rededication. This for me is the core of what Chanukah is. What does that mean, rededication? The story of the Maccabees tells us about how these brave warriors prevailed over Antiochus IV and recaptured the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus had enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews, such as worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and kosher dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. And worse, many Jews had adopted Hellenistic ways, wanting to assimilate rather than endure harsh punishment. The Maccabees prevailed and were able to remove the pagan idols, foods, and installments, and restore the Temple to its Jewish ritual purity.

danadler.com

The underlying theme is that the Jews themselves had left behind their own traditions and either heeded the siren call of the indulgent Hellenistic lifestyle or allowed themselves to be coerced into it. Taking exception to this, the Maccabee Hasmonean family, some think of them as the ‘Jewish Taliban’, were strong-handed in their ways of upholding Jews to their Jewish values. Yet, if it weren’t for that zeal, Judaism may have become assimilated and absorbed beyond recognition.

They fought to keep Judaism pure and as a living faith tradition. Did they succeed? Well, look what happened to the Seleucid and Greek Empires (hint: they’re gone). Jews are still around and lighting Chanukah candles to celebrate the miracle of surpassing that danger.

By reflecting on the benefits of observing our Jewish traditions, even if they may be obscure or droll, we can stand up to and say “No” to diversions.

kidzworld.com

We can recall the value of our traditions and rededicate ourselves to our core values of study, giving charity, and doing good works in the community. We can resume with fresh dedication our core practices of how we worship, eat, dress, care for one another, and observe Shabbat.

As each new year of Chanukah arrives, it simultaneously creates new lights and rekindles old memories; it mingles stories of heroic and dedicated ancestors with modern day challenges to preserving Jewish traditions. What is familiar helps us to undertake the new.

Whatever your spiritual grounding is, be it a religion or faith, nature, or a chosen community of fellowship, take this time of winter night to remember and recall, and rekindle you inner sparks of light.

lifeinnaples.net

!חג אורים שמח

Happy Chanukah, Holiday of Lights!

Va Yetse: And He Went Forth

flicker.com

Yaakov (Jacob) left Beersheva and headed toward Haran. When it became dark he placed a stone for a pillow and lay down to sleep. Then he had a dream of a ladder, its base on the ground and the top reached up toward heaven. God’s Angels were going up and down on it.

In many theologies, from Taoism to Judaism, humans are the link between Heaven and Earth. This is apparent in how the ladder has its feet on the ground and top in the heavens. The link between these realms is Yaakov.

As a sleeping dream, Yaakov then sees God and hears God telling him that Yaakov and his descendants will inherit the land upon which he sleeps. The waking Yaakov still has a sense of God’s Presence over the next 20 years.

commons.wikimedia.org

During those 20 years Yaakov works for his uncle Lavan (Laban). At first, Yaakov works toward having the hand of Rahel (Rachel) in marriage. But Lavan tricks him and provides his other daughter Leah. Although Yaakov can marry Rahel a week later, he must work another seven years to pay for her hand. After those 14 years, when Yaakov is ready to leave with his share of livestock, Lavan creates a complicated system of accounting of them. It takes Yaakov another six years of tending and breeding before he can take the right portion, those animals with marks or streaks.

This story begs the question, how much do we allow ourselves to be in apprenticeship, servitude, or manipulation by our superiors before we learn to overcome and surpass, and regain our individuality?

Yaakov was spoken to and appointed by God, yet for 20 years he worked as a servant to Lavan. Eventually, Yaakov reaches the point of seeing his own value and wanting to resume the destiny set out by God, to inherit the land where he lay in Haran.

Fate interceded. Yaakov was waylaid by Lavan. This was a necessary step in the formation of Yaakov’s destiny. Under the servitude of Lavan, Yaakov developed the understanding that he must move on. He then also learned how to master his Fate and become a mature and confident strategist, necessary skills for leadership of his family clan and nation of descendants.

joseph.mallozzi.wordpress.org

I am reminded of the story of the disciple who dutifully moved stones for his Master as requested as part of his training. He grew tired of moving the stones and asked when he would advance from apprentice to master. His Master laughed, pointed and said, “Move more stones!”

We believe it is a Master, teacher, or employer, who dictates when we are finished with our education. And although sometimes we must earn a certificate or degree, we still find ourselves going back for more education, CEUs, PD, and even higher level degrees. You will continue to carry stones until you are ready, as Yaakov was, to forge ahead with your purpose, work or destiny.

Yaakov spent time growing from resentful youth, into a man who could use the knowledge he’d gained from years of tending Lavan’s flocks to reward himself with the fortune he’d earned for Lavan. Even Lavan acknowledged that Yaakov was lucky for him: his flocks and wealth were nothing until Yaakov showed up.

In addition to leaving as a wealthy head of a very large household, Yaakov had confidence. You might even say Hutzpah. Lavan, angry that Yaakov left without his knowledge, was cajoled into having a treaty land pact with Yaakov that was satisfying to them both. Indeed, Yaakov no longer carried stones for Lavan.

gooddailyquotes.com

With regard to the American Thanksgiving holiday this week, Yaakov was grateful to God. He made pillars to God both before and after his life with Lavan. Lavan for his part, never really seemed grateful until Yaakov created the pact with him. Lavan’s outlook was changed, he acknowledged with gratitude Yaakov’s contributions and his own gains; he then blessed his grandchildren, Yaakov’s clan.

Truly, when we act as a link between Heaven and Earth, we may fulfill our Destiny; to bring gratitude, acceptance, and holiness into the lives of others as well as to ourselves.

©Susan J Katz 11/2017

Noach and Texas: Lessons from the Floods

 

This post is a D’var Torah (sermon) that I was invited to give on Shabbat Noach at Congregation Beth Shalom in Bermuda Dunes, CA on October 21st:

Last Shabbat, our Spiritual Leader, Ken Hailpern, gave an inspired d’var Torah about how so many of our Jewish values of caring for others and taking responsibility come from the earliest chapters of Beresheit (Genesis).

iamthewordthecomforter.blogspot.com

We heard how God brought words of comfort to Cayin (Cain) whose face fell after seeing how his brother Hevel’s (Abel’s) sacrifice was accepted, but not his own. And we heard how Cayin replied to God, “am I my brother’s keeper?” when God asked Cayin where his brother Hevel was. I will return to these sacred moments later.

Today’s parasha (weekly Torah reading), about Noach (Noah) and the Flood, apparently was an inspiration for Ken. He asked me to explore the Biblical Flood story in the contexts of recent worldwide natural flood and hurricane events, and with my participation as a volunteer American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Chaplain, assisting with evacuees in southeast Texas.

But I have to go further back, to my first encounter with the Flood story, when I was about 3 or 4 years old,

plunked down for my first time in a Jewish Sunday school classroom, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley,

just as they were about to sing the “Arky-Arky” song. Anyone know it? (🎶 Noah, he built him, he built him an Arky-Arky [repeat]🎶).

I wasn’t sure who this Noah fella was, but the song was great!

This fabulous song was followed by a discussion about who or what God was–did he sit on a throne in the sky? was he old? did he have a long white beard? or was God invisible and wise?

I was hooked on Judaism from that day onward.

Okay,

now let’s go forward many decades to my current version of Jewish engagement:

In 2010, after decades of volunteer and lay leadership in the Jewish communities of Vancouver, BC, I decided to begin the arduous path of training to become a spiritual care chaplain. It took about 5 years of full time study and I am now an NAJC Professional Jewish Chaplain.

 

I moved to the Southern California desert this past May, not to take a job; but to enjoy better health in a serene and protected desert locale.
And then, just as I was unpacking and wondering what I might want to do in my new community, hurricane season came to the United States.

In response, my professional chaplaincy associations sent out emails for those who wished to fast track to join the American Red Cross for deployment.

 

 

I did not have to think much about going, except–that this deployment would not be restful, and it could cause me some health problems from exposure to contaminated water and lack of good sanitation.

I responded to the email anyway, went to my regional American Red Cross (ARC) Head Quarters, and after an introductory ‘boot camp’, I was sold.

I had responded online on Friday, and was in Houston four days later, on Tuesday September 5th.

I had the privilege of meeting the National director of Disaster Spiritual Care (DSC) at Houston HQ, and with his approval, was assigned the George R. Brown Convention Center mega shelter, which now housed 1,200 evacuees, down from 5,000 at one point.

The second day there, just as I was settling into getting to recognize residents’ faces and enjoy the company of newfound colleagues from other faith groups, I was told to join two others and drive to Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas. There were as yet no DSC chaplains at all, and the 3 of us would attend to shelter work for that entire region.

We each had our own rental vehicle because unlike anyone else, the three of us were to cover the entire southeast Texas area. We were housed in a staff shelter with 200 other volunteers, on cots, with freezing A/C blasting to keep germs at bay, and no potable water to bathe in or drink.

Staff shelter, Beaumont

Over the usual breakfast of sugary granola bars and fruit cups and potato chips, we decided to split up and drive to different areas of the region to see where the greatest need was.

I settled on ministering in just one shelter—the Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, TX—“TJ”. Port Arthur is one of the poorest areas of southeast Texas, and the US in general. These people were now in their 3rd or 4th shelter, with all of their belongings stuffed into old bags or plastic storage bins beneath their cots.

I use the word ‘minister’; it is not a Christian word, it is noun and also a verb that is used in many contexts. For example, I lived in Canada for almost 40 years and there we have Ministers in our Provincial and Federal houses of government. Ministers administer services to people, both secular and faith-based. The work is ministry.

I had little trouble easing into ministry in Port Arthur. The residents, evacuees, were predominantly black, very low income, and often with health problems. Anyone affluent had already found alternative housing somewhere else, with a relative, friends, etc.

These remaining 250 or so people at TJ were looking for places to live, and were waiting for organizations such as FEMA to assess their homes for damage and give them funds to repair or rebuild.

Perhaps because of my life experiences as a cultural ‘outsider’, a single, middle-aged Jewish woman, living in predominately white Christian communities, and receiving chaplaincy training mainly with Christian peers–I was able communicate my otherness, go alongside others whose lives are not mainstream, earn trust, and be with them in their search for spiritual comfort.

I mainly roamed the vast rows of cots filling the two gyms at TJ, checking in with my eyes and ears and ‘Spidey Sense’ with residents. I was their advocate when needed services were not being given, a guide and motivator when the chips were down, prayed with and for them, held their hand if waiting for the ambulance, comforted and debriefed when traumatic incidents happened, ran interference when tempers flared, got crabby volunteers to loosen up, and made referrals to my colleagues in Disaster Mental Health and Disaster Medical Assistance Teams.

I also made sure kenneled pets were watered and fed, cleaned up childrens’ toys, and played maid and waiter to pamper burned-out parents.

When I arrived at TJ, the residents had already been there 10 days, and found their spiritual leaders—amongst themselves–an assistant minister and his wife; the maintenance man for the school itself was a church pastor.

I thought about other Bible characters, such as Amos and Elijah.

pinterest.com

The example of the spiritual leader who is a regular person, someone who tends orchards, plows their own fields, and cleans schools for a living. We don’t know what Noach did for a living, but we do know that he was by nature righteous, and someone who walked with God; perhaps strolling together in conversation, as one would do with an earthly companion.

No one at TJ ever asked me, “Why did God do this to us?” or “God has sent a Flood like in the Bible, to punish us and the earth”

Instead, almost everyone I sat with talked about Faith. They had Faith that there would be relief. They had faith that despite the disaster, God was walking with them, and watching and taking care during this disaster. They often had anecdotes of previous hurricanes or floods they’d evacuated from, and how by trusting God and accepting the help that God had sent, that they had been taken care of then, and were certainly being helped now.

I think we Jews don’t talk enough about Faith like this. Much like the term ‘Minister’, Faith is seen as a Christian concept. In Judaism, we talk more about ‘Mitzvoth’ and Actions.

But I want to tell you that Faith and Mitzvoth are the same thing.

As an example, it is a mitzvah to keep kosher. Many of the rules of kashrut do not make logical sense. But observant people do them anyway. Why? because it is an act of faith.

Faith works in that we do not have to understand why, that by being consistent and having these structures of precise foods or ways of blessing them, we will grow inner, rather than outer, strength, grow stronger as individuals and as a people, and thus know God better.

In this same vein, the people of Port Arthur knew how to recognize God’s faith in them. They could graciously accept help because they knew they could not get by on their own–and that God was at work when neighbors helped neighbors, rescue operations came, shelters went up, and agencies came to assist.

They knew how to reach out to one another because their Christian teachings told them that that is the right thing to do; people from all over the world reached out to help.

It was a privilege that after only 3 days with them, the two TJ preachers asked me to co-lead a Sunday morning service. Having had the privilege of attending black gospel churches in Harlem and Brooklyn during my chaplaincy education, I was so very pleased to join them.

Sunday service

On Sunday, alongside a mighty preacher with his golden baritone voice, this man motivated by personal loss, by the flooded homes, and the pain and longing in that shelter; and alongside the assistant minister lovingly reading Psalm 27; I gave prayers of thanks to God for spreading his sheltering wings; and encouraging all to reach out to give help; and to reach out to accept help; and all of us came together in song to close.

These men and women of faith have become life-long friends. We led another service together the following Sunday in yet another shelter, which these 250 residents had been transferred into.

Now: Let’s go back to the stories of Beresheit, of Cayin and Hevel, and of Noach. From the story of Cayin we learn that even if we are God and try to reach out to comfort someone when their face has fallen, it is up to that person to accept what is. We cannot arrogantly expect to change or fix others, even when wearing an ARC cap and vest:

As a chaplain, I have learned to accept my clients’ choices. I stay out of their way because I have faith in them. Sometimes, by seeing my non-judgmental faith in them, they find restored faith in themselves or with God.

In parashat Noach, although the story of a destructive Flood outwardly seems so apropos to my situation, it was really the character of Noach and the instructions that God gave for building the Ark that characterized what I experienced amongst the evacuees.

In Gen 6:9, “Noach was a man of simple righteousness amongst his generation. A man who walked with God.”  נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדרתיו את־האלהים התהלך־נח׃

Religion is not mentioned in the Noach story. God tells his walking partner, Noach, a man that stood out amongst others, that humans and all life have made a mess of things, and that he will destroy all of it but save a few good seeds, and start fresh.

And in Gen 6:14 what does God tell Noach to line this protective ark with, to keep it watertight and safe, inside and out? כפר pitch. The same root letters as kippur, as in atonement.

When we are ‘at-one-ment’, when we trust inside and out, when we follow illogical algorithms of faith, our lives become straighter and less complex.

We are then walking with God.

Far from being a punishment, many of the shelter residents expressed their belief that the hurricane was a blessing because it caused so many lives to be repaired.

Indeed, family members who had been estranged were now reaching out to each other to provide homes and assistance; people who had been isolated before were now flourishing by finding meaningful helping roles; people were returning to church; having lost excess baggage, many were now finding blessings and gratitude for small things.

In this hurricane flood Ark/shelter, they were finding at-one-ment.

Ken, you picked a great Shabbat for this d’rasha; I feel that my life has come full circle: my childhood affinity for Judaism and Jewish ways that began with the “Arky-Arky” song became manifest in the most unlikely of environments, and I thank you for allowing me this opportunity to both share the stories of the people of Beaumont Port Arthur, and to create a deeper understanding of the stories of Beresheit.

It was a privilege for me to know these people. I was fortunate to have a role where I could freely do my job. No one told me how to offer DSC to these people; we were deployed because we were seen to have the expertise to be self-directed and create an ark of at-one-ment for the people of Port Arthur.

I saw faith enacted, and it gives me comfort to see how powerful faith; in God, in one another, and in oneself, can be.

Shabbat Shalom

©Susan J Katz 2017

First World Problems vs Beaumont,TX

I am writing from the deck of a cruise ship after having spent two weeks on deployment as a Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Chaplain in Texas.

Currently, I am the cruise ship’s rabbi and chaplain for the Jewish High Holidays; however for the weeks of September 5-19, I was deployed by the American Red Cross (ARC) in the role of DSC or Disaster Spiritual Care to provide assistance after Hurricane Harvey.

Let me show you what I learned about the difference between First World versus Real World problems, and spiritual distress.

My deployment to Texas occurred within 72 hours of signing up with the Red Cross Volunteer Connection site. It would have left sooner but I took a day to pack and find neighbors to mind my new home in the Southern California desert area.

As a hospital chaplain with 6 Units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I was fast-tracked into service. My flight arrived in Houston, TX around 9pm. My cellphone immediately rang with instructions to pick up a rental car and drive to a staff shelter in a church near downtown Houston: I had been binge-watching the original ‘Mission Impossible ‘ episodes for the past few weeks; now I was living them!

In brief, I did not sleep that first night in Houston.  On a bare Red Cross cot with not enough blankets to keep warm, I began my 2-week saga of life with ARC Disaster Relief.

My cot, Beaumont Civic Center

Breakfast was granola bars and coffee and I received yet more instructions by text to go to Houston HQ. I met the lead of DSC operations there and received my first briefing interview. My placement was to be at the Houston George Brown Convention Center (GBR), where refugees had numbered over 3,500. Now the Red Cross was downsizing to 1,200 residents, hoping the city of Houston would soon accommodate the remaining evacuees.

While at the GBR I ministered to people of all faiths, mostly helping residents locate the right services for their needs: FEMA, food stamps, reunification services, meals.  I was approached by news media who asked me to provide a resident who could tell their story of being homeless and how the Red Cross would help them find housing. I hesitated to do this, as my profession’s ethics require confidentiality with clients. “We don’t wish to exploit anyone” the media rep said. I claimed inability to provide such a resource for the news media. My primary duty was to aid survivors and ease their distress.

After two days at the GBR, I was transferred to Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX, where I spent the remainder of my deployment.

Here is a daily meeting for ARC volunteers at the Beaumont HQ:

 

 

 

 

 

I was assigned a cot at a new location in downtown Beaumont, and there remained for a few days. Like all of Beaumont we had to rely upon bottled water, as tap water was not potable; shower at your own risk.

Staff shelter, Beaumont

Drink and bathe: product placement

Let me tell you about southeast Texas. The community of Port Arthur is amongst the poorest in Texas, and certainly under-served with regard to receiving enough public support services. I know this from first-hand experience, not through news media or social media sources. This made my role of DSC chaplain stretch from immediate bedside spiritual care, to spiritual care in the form of community advocate as well.

Chaplains do more than provide religious, prayer, grief recovery or comfort services. We are also watchdogs and advocates for our clients. Just as I might have watched the nightly news and felt driven to speak for and advocate for relief and services to the people of Port Arthur, I was grateful to have the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and become an advocate in person.

I was at cot-side all day with individuals, and also made reports to any and all support providers to ramp up their services; both emergency and medical aid, mental health support and interventions, insuring clients were on lists with real appointments for financial, food, and insurance claims.

I also played the role of ‘loyal opposition’; working within the care system, while taking risks by speaking up with administrators about shortfalls in services from government agencies, medical services, placement and reunification services, and housing programs.

Although life was harsh in the shelters, with hundreds of citizens lying in close quarters on cots, it reflected what I observed as an acceptance for poor conditions as the norm for Port Arthur denizens. However, I am not able to share any photos online that may show evacuee-guests in them due to confidentiality concerns.

The Port Arthur shelters were created in the gymnasia of a high school. Here is a photo of the theater in the music department; it is indicative of the paucity of funding for core arts programs that might inspire and elevate the aspirations of students in Port Arthur.

Music Theater, TJ High

How would you feel if this were the music theater for your child’s school?

My role officially was not to change what was before the hurricane. But I can show you and ask: What can you do to correct this disparity in educational facilities and funding?

Everything that creates a community evolves from its educational system, which ultimately contributes to the wellbeing and welfare of our nation.

collaborative leading of Sunday prayers

Next, direct spiritual care. Yes, I am Jewish, and no, very few in south Texas who were affected by the hurricane were. I want to commend the local Beaumont Jewish community for reaching out beyond its own membership to the community at large and distributing items it collected to provide for survivors’ basic needs and beyond. One member even did my laundry for me!

The Red Cross encouraged faith communities to join them as a partner in disaster. Creating a system of ongoing local community-based aid, such as the Jewish and other groups did, will enable longterm local aid, so vital to self-determination and neighborly outreach.

Now, if you are wondering why this essay title says “First World Problems”, here comes the answer: whatever troubles are turning your crank, e.g. disappointment with your Internet provider, or with a recent dining experience, or with bad office politics, perhaps this essay about life in Port Arthur can reset your perspective.

Look at the photos here. They are the real thing; not images from social media or broadcast news:

setting up shelter, pronto!

building a tent city

high-tech tents for evacuee-guests

If you are looking for ways to actualize your concerns or find your voice beyond what you can post to FaceBook, then consider signing up to volunteer or work in disaster relief. You will see the difference between what we in our comfortable First World privilege expect, versus what the reality is. And best of all, you can take your awesome advocacy skills and apply them first-hand toward fixing world problems.

Flags in shreds, Port Arthur

Not all of North America and Europe are living in First World Comfort.

Yes, you can do something. Volunteer, donate, organize, remember, comfort.

Sharing a shelter coffee with a stranger who calls their temporary cot ‘home’ may just be the best cuppa joe you’ve ever enjoyed.

 

May you be inscribed for a good life this coming year…Susan

Solar Eclipse: ‘The End’ or ‘The Beginning’?

 

Monday’s solar eclipse in the USA provided a writing opportunity for merging my science background with gleanings from theological and faith practices.

The timing of the eclipse—falling on the Hebrew date of Rosh Hodesh Elul, or the 1st day of the month of Elul, and exactly one month before the 1st day of Tishri or Rosh haShana, the Jewish New Year—was laden with significance.

The Hebrew calendar is based upon the lunar cycle, and each Jewish month begins on the occurrence of the new moon.

whitewolfjourneys.com

This is different from other cultures whose calendars are based upon solar cycles, such as our civic Gregorian calendar. And it is the new moon, not the full moon, that is the significant phase of observance.

The Biblical significance of the sun and moon begin in Genesis Ch.1 v.14. God says that there shall be lights in the expanse of the heavens, to divide day from night, and:

longislandwatch.com

“והיו לאתת ולמועדים ולימים ושנים”

“…they will be signs, for the set aside times, and for the days and the years.”

What God has created then with the sun and moon are not merely two planetary light fixtures, but objects in the expanse of sky above that provide signals to us for the observance of seasons and other specially set or appointed times.

We observe that the moon has cyclical phases and have set the new moon as the beginning of the each new month. The crescent of new moon emerges after its disk has waned fully leaving darkness. In observance, we take time off, especially women, and look forward to the moon’s cycling back to fullness. The eclipsed moon disk signals the time of pause before a new cycle begins; it is the hidden becoming manifest; the time to reflect upon what had been and what can be; the grieving of what was unfulfilled and the anticipation of success in the future. We are given the monthly gift of renewal.

eclipse2017.nasa.gov

On the science side, according to NASA a solar eclipse occurs when the moon, earth and sun are so aligned as to block one another’s light during the moon’s orbit around the earth. A solar eclipse can only happen if the new moon phase passes near one of the angular nodes of the moon’s orbit around the earth, explaining why there is not a solar eclipse with every new moon.

So the month of Elul in the USA this year has had two birth phases, the lunar new moon and the solar eclipse, both by biblical and scientific reckoning.

This solar eclipse held special spiritual significance for many. I wanted to know what that was like for different peoples.

I  studied surveys of various ethnic and cultural groups to understand. What I learned was that for cultures that base their calendars and reckoning on the sun, such as we do in civic North America with the Gregorian calendar, a solar eclipse can be an ominous event: The great object that provides light, safety, energy and food—disappears.

beliefnet.com

For those whose culture is solar-base, even for the 2-1/2 minutes of the total eclipse, this is an ominous portent for some. Theological and liturgical explanations include: heralding the Rapture which will whisk away Christian believers and leave behind everyone else to face seven years of awful tribulations; God’s judgment upon humanity and against human sin; kings were not able to stop the sun’s disappearance, even by royal decree; Ancients filled the skies with other gods; Judaism, with its plethora of blessings for every natural event, has none for a solar eclipse.

Other traditions see the eclipse as a time for deeper introspection and prayer. In Judaism rather than providing a blessing, the Talmud gives lessons about the value of prayer at such times. In Native American traditions, commentators say their people see the time of solar eclipse as the liminal moment, the time between one world and the next. The National Museum of the American Indian set up a blog for indigenous peoples to post what their traditions are, and indeed the imagery of prayer, of self-reflection and change, of imminent rebirth, were commonalities.

This, then, is the time to pause and reflect on what has been; and upon what one may wish to step into as the light returns.

Whether your practice or culture is solar or lunar-based, the one thing in common is that prayer helps to ground one’s faith that indeed, the vanished sun or moon will indeed reappear. We have both God’s Word on that, and NASA’s.

Our ancient ancestors didn’t have NASA to explain the celestial events. Faith is the legacy they gave to us: that whatever happened in the past can be repaired as we pause in the liminal shadows and reflect on what and who we can be, in faith that the light will return.

~~Wishing You and Yours a Meaningful and Reflective Month of Elul~~

Lech Lecha, and Arrive!

Although we are nearing the end of the year-long cycle of reading the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, I am drawn to the themes in Chapter 12 in the Torah’s first Book Bereshit, or Genesis.

This Book is called Lech Lecha in Hebrew, which is translated as urging someone to ‘go forth’. Yet, so much more…

yi.wikipedia.org/wiki/תחת

There is an emphasis, a kick in the pants or as we say in Yiddish a potschke en tuchas.

You would say this to someone who is procrastinating or avoiding an encounter, putting off a decision, denying a problem, or overstaying a visit.

The Torah is once again doing us a favor. No one will willingly call you out or name for you the immense discomfort you’ll endure in order to maintain a status quo. But there is always a Torah story for that. And that is one of the gifts of studying Torah. Sometimes a close reading of a biblical story or passage about a predecessor can jog us into our own resolution when we are stuck.

shcofbuckhead.com

But, it’s not enough to simply listen to or read the story. You have to really be engaged with the task. Here are some suggestions: let yourself not only hear or see the words, but as the story is told go into it fully. Feel the heat of the desert on your skin, see the infinity of the black and star-filled nights, taste the sweetness of the cool clear water or nurturing manna, feel the hefty weight of the swords in battle, the powerful arms of a chariot driver, the voice urging you to walk forth despite fatigue or pain.

Engage your inner vision; of taste, smell, skeleton and muscle. This is your way out.

Out of what? Well, only you know that. But here are some more insights from the Lech Lecha story. God tells Abram to go forth. Weren’t things okay for Abram already? All we know that he is a descendent of Noach (Noah), and then God calls to him to go forth one day.

There are many stories, or midrashim, that try to explain this sudden communication from God to Abram to act. The first midrash I knew about was told to us preschoolers in Sunday school. That Abraham (his name was actually Abram) smashed all the idols in his father’s store becaulse he didn’t believe they were real, like the real God he knew.

homestead.org

Although it is almost cartoon-like in simplicity and meant for children, I think that is a good adult explanation too. Isn’t that story describing the moment when everything you had always believed before, now crystallizes into a new truth? Remember when you realized that there was no Santa Claus and your parents were wrapping all those gifts for you under the tree, or that if you wanted to buy more toys you had to earn some money, or that you really had a dysfunctional family and really needed an escape plan?

Yes, these are concepts from childhood, but what did you do when you realized their truth? did you move forward and start giving as well as receiving gifts on holidays, did you create a means to earn income or did you seek out other safe places to live or work? Or are you still waiting for everything to go back to the innocent way it was before you had those awe-filled awakenings?

I ask this very personal question for you, as a favor, so you can start to move toward your answers.

Some of the outcomes of not heeding a call to move forward, and instead clinging to the perceived safety of the old and familiar routines, are not good. Some outcomes are: feeling too tired to act and sinking into depression, expressing helpless rage at others or self that things are not staying the same anymore, or coping by numbing through addictions.

resurgencea.org

Individuating into your own self-sustaining person is a daunting, difficult path. Yet once you know the truth of your circumstances, the courage can be summoned to take action.

When Abram started to listen to God’s Voice he grew out of being a son/child. As the Torah says in detail for us: he went forth from his land, from his birthplace, and from his father’s house toward the land which God would show him.

Heeding God’s voice was for Abram a true act of faith; he did not know where he was going, only that he should go. He was leaving behind all that was dear and familiar to follow a Presence that told him to go. And that by doing so he would make a great nation; and his name, or house of descendants, would be blessed.

I am not saying to wait for actual or imagined words in your ears or mind to know when to move forth, although that can happen. But when you have an insight; and a paradigm has shifted for you, that is a time to listen carefully with your inner ear. The real courage is to heed the call; keeping you eyes and ears open allows the details to grow clear.

Courage and strength to face the difficult and unknown comes from the faith that going forth means growth; and is indeed better than staying still.

shuvaisrael.com

Lech Lecha!

Instruments, Music, High Holidays*

During my summer break in Amsterdam, while attending a gathering with musicians from around the world, I came full circle back to Jewish instrumental music, and to the upcoming Yamim Noraim, the Jewish New Year season.

Lunchtime discussions with composer and musician colleagues from such places as Iran, Armenia, and Turkey included experiences with local contacts in the Jewish music communities where they live; music

Salomon Salzer

Salomon Salzer

that had originated in Persia and then moved into Turkey as musicians fled persecution some 400 years ago. The subsequent rise of the great Cantors and Jewish composers of Europe in the 1800s such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski exemplified the growth and popularity of exotic or ‘oriental’ music interests in Austria and Vienna prior to WWI.

Louis Lewandowski forward.com

Louis Lewandowski
forward.com

Here the connection amongst my international peers became personal: For several years now, I have played Lewandowski’s heavenly adaptation of ‘Kol Nidrei’ on oboe, accompanied by cello, as the opening to the Kol Nidre service that opens the holy day of Yom Kippur at my local synagogue.

I want to share with you how having such instrumental music enhances the Yamim Noraim experience for congregants and patients, and some of the technical and practical information you might want to have about engaging such music for your place of worship or service.

Chaplains such as myself are mostly all aware that music has therapeutic, spiritual and healing capacities. We work with music therapists, sing at bedside, and bring recorded music to our patients and families to ease their time while unwell or transitioning. We can also bring ensemble music into worship or reflection time.

galleryhip.com

galleryhip.com

The benefits of instrumental music are that there are no words: it is pure experience, both for the listener and the performer. When I play Lewandowski’s piece, there is a moment when the notes climb just so high; and then I let go. The notes are released and go upward, unfettered by words or ideas; I think some even may still be rising.

I have had feedback from congregants that they, too, went somewhere at those moments of musical release. No words were exchanged. No sermons said, or liturgy sung, or readings read. Just a rising above, a seeking toward the Ineffable, and then a slow, blessed, and reflective return to the here and now.

pinterest.com

pinterest.com

That for me is the opening to the Kol Nidre service.

Practicalities if you wish to engage instrumental music for the High Holidays at your place of worship:
Play the music in secular time, before candle lighting, from the Bimah or other visible place, after everyone is seated and quieted. Musicians’ dress in white. Perhaps play some lovely Jewish melodies for ambience, as people are finding their seats, with no need for an attentive audience. Some good melody choices are: (Erev shel Shoshanim) “ערב של שושנים”  (Avinu Malkeinu) “,אבינו מלכנו”(Dodi Li)“,דודי לי.” Keep the ensemble small, 2-3 musicians.

How to compensate the musicians? We have to talk about that. Although we say musicians “play” music, it is a job — and hard work! Please pay appropriately. The rate should be about $300-$500. Remember, there is a great deal of time invested by musicians for recruiting the right ensemble, choosing repertoire, rehearsals, clothing, for time setting up, the actual performing, and then taking down. What would you pay a guest speaker for a keynote plus other speeches at a major synagogue event? Adjust according to the venue: a care home, a chavurah, a large urban synagogue, etc.

I love doing the work of bringing instrumental music into spiritual care settings. I also believe that bringing instrumental music to worship is a form of spiritual care for the congregants who are not in a care home or hospital. We can all benefit from the inclusion of spiritual connection through instrumental music to our already well-founded traditions of liturgies, Torah, and sermons.

beliefnet.com

beliefnet.com

Try this for your ימים נוראים and let me know how it goes.

לשנה טובה ומתוקה ומוסיקלית

*this article can also be found in the Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains Newsletter pg. 9