On Rosh HaShanah It’s Okay to Ask

Summer’s over, well almost. Here on Commercial Drive where I live, it’s still okay to sit at an open-air patio and tuck into a plate of jerk chicken, or sample a selection of Belgian beers with a cone of pomme frites, or sip an espresso and argue in your home tongue about soccer stats


Last evening I indulged with half-liter of Zinfandel and baked brie with a friend; my only concession to the season was worrying about whether it would be gauche to wear a straw fedora after Labor Day, or go with my black pin-stripe topper instead. I went with the straw. Afterward, although easily my bedtime, I wandered up The Drive to do some errands at the 24hr pharmacy and took in the last touches of summer evening blues notes and sidewalk dramas before cooler weather sets in.

What did I learn this summer? There’s always a story to share:

The first thing: what a J at the end of a sentence meansJ. I started getting emails and texts with these errant J’s and assumed that spell checkers everywhere were having a strange J-worm working through them. Then I decided with humility to ask someone: did she know she’d sent me a text with a J at the end of the sentence, and what it might mean? Google answered that one; a glitch that turns email smiley faces into J’s. Okay, now we get to see an onslaught of J’s until we all move on to using our words once again to say what we meanJ.smileysymbol.com

As usual, I did learn some Big Things. I would say that for me, the image I carried this past series of weeks between being a CPE summer Chaplain Intern and my upcoming year of CPE Residency, would be that of myself at the rim of a precipice. I reckon I’ve been at that precipice my whole life, and thought myself pretty enlightened that I could look down into the chasm and be alternately amused and terrified, but remain there on that edgy place and keep fresh.

In a way, that has been a good strategy for navigating life’s unpredictability, staying in a place of panoramas and choices of views and vistas. Creating music and words, learning, settling into patterns that are familiar, going to school, studying, housekeeping, and volunteering in the community.


What I didn’t see coming was that this seeming freedom and freshness was not providing me with comfort or answers to the reality of beginning a full time practice of presence for others after a 30-year hiatus from full time work. Merely standing at my familiar edge was not taking me where I needed to go any longer.

I needed to turn around, and here I found my place of falling: in teshuvah. Tonight the Jewish New Year starts, with its call to self-reflection and return to the land of one’s soul. In gratitude, I began to shift from the summery delights of The Drive, and tuck into this work of return.

I’ve found myself in the image of Jonah, whose story is the focus of Yom Kippur, struggling to deliver the message of imminent doom to my free flowing lifestyle. Everything was about to radically shift and I was not ready.blog.chron.com

So I ran away from the cliff edge and hid. Clearly, I was hiding in the belly of a great fish, because eventually, sensing that I was staying immobile in its great tummy and not moving along, I was belched out. That may have felt good to the fish, but now I was back at that edge and looking at the great chasm again. I realized that hiding was not a long-term solution, and it was no longer possible to merely stand on the edge and take in the view. My life was in motion and I needed to keep moving.

So, when I found myself belched up back on the ledge, I leapt in. Dop, right into the chasm. Free fall.

I don’t recall any story in Jewish text about a free fall like this. I do know about faith and the metaphor of leap of faith. As I fell, I had to let go of all of it, every intangible commodity that I had built up over the years, all my currency of choices and freedoms.

At various moments, I released some of the baggage that had kept me on the edge; it was now dragging on me as I fell. One piece was keeping my old computer. I could have done this years ago, but the safety of hanging on, not knowing what the future might look like, kept me from making such an obvious purchase for a writer and composer. There are no guarantees of success that come with the computer, so I let the free fall continue, recognizing that not having faith in what calls me forward, is a recipe for failure.

I kept falling. Next, transit. I loved being carless in New York. My love affair with transit bubble soon burst after returning funfunvancouver.blogspotto Vancouver: it’s wet here! and we don’t have subways all over the city, we have slow as molasses buses and toy Skytrains. It’s been a miserably wet and slow year on transit and slogging in the rain to get to a co-op car. All of the places I needed and wanted to go, and people to see, were waiting, and the romance of being car-less was gone. I accepted the very real limitations of the car-less life and decided to buy a car.

You might be thinking this is actually an indulgent way to start the New Year. In fact, that crossed my mind–Oy, more baggage to lose.

Here is a teaching that reassured me.

At the New Year, in our liturgy we ask over and over again from God for things; good health, food to eat, healing, success in our endeavours, long life, happiness, children: are we being selfish and indulgent? Is God bored with all these requests? Here’s what I learned from studies in chassidus:

We humans need stuff, like food and drink, marriage, commerce. We are earthly beings. Engaging in practices to become pure spirit or to dwell in un-embodied enlightenment isn’t what God has in mind for us, and I say this because God already has beings like that: God has the angels and heavenly beings.

Rosh HaShanah is on the 6th day of creation, not the 1st day. Why? the final phase of creation, humans, can remember God and God’s supremacy or kingship. And humans need all the things that were created on the first five days. So those things, whatever they are, sunlight, fish or vegetables to eat, water to drink, the stuff that we make cars and computers from, are necessary for elevating ourselves, to enable us in our humanness to help others in need, and to remember and celebrate God, the Source of all things.

It’s said in Psalm 107:5 ‘Hungry and thirsty their soul languished within them’. Standing on the edge as the perpetual observer and not eating or drinking prevents us from nourishing the soul, serving oneself and others, and elevating the everyday towards God. About 30 years ago, a psychic came up to me at a meeting and told me I am sitting on a fence and when will I get off and start helping others?

Accepting what is not going to change, I am finally taking that leap off the fence, taking the plunge that calls me to accept what gifts I have with gratitude, and move forward to learn to serve in a helping profession,

Two messages from my inbox yesterday: to ‘fall, knowing that there will be something solid on which to stand or you will be taught to fly’ (Patrick Overton);kuilapele.wordpress.com

‘Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated: you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps’ (David Lloyd George).

I thought this would be a summer of beach time or a holiday away; instead, it has been a free fall. Every time I get that stuck feeling, I remind myself of the free fall back in the chasm, it’s been the safest place yet, and I’m learning to fly.

May your year be filled with good things, health, music, wisdom, joy and healthy steps.


From Curing to Caring

I had long believed that Judaism was historically lacking in the wisdom to heal that so many other faiths and spiritual paths have built into them. This caused me to explore many other modalities of spiritual and physical wellbeing for sources of comfort, wisdom, and healing.


When I decided to embark upon the study path of Rabbinic Chaplaincy, one of my educational goals was to seek these sources within Judaism. After all, we’ve been around for over 5,700 years. We must have cultivated some gardens of wisdom in this area.

While studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was delighted to find myself in classes that presented this material from Jewish primary sources, eg the Talmud, Mishnah, Pirkei Avoth, etc.

In preparation to entering a year of residency in Clinical Pastoral Education in hospital here in Vancouver, I began to synthesize what I am learning, from a variety of educational sources. Here, as we anticipate the Jewish High Holydays during this month of Elul, is a first integration of my personal and theological understanding of the difference between curing and caring:



R. Johanan once fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not R. Johanan raise himself? 11-They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b)

Why bring this story to you as we approach the Yamim Noraim (Jewish High Holydays)? because I see in it much about the relationships and parallels between illness, health, and teshuvah (return to the Source). I am not suggesting that someone is ill because they made a mistake or committed a sin. In fact, we can all think of examples of well-meaning adults and children who experience illness or die, while many seemingly wicked people enjoy good health and long lives. So, that is not my purpose in sharing the above story.

There are two part to the above selection from Talmud that help us understand the nature of our pains or sufferings: notice in the story the question R. Hanina asks: Are your sufferings welcome to you?

Now, take a deep breath, and ask yourself this same question, too, Are your sufferings welcome to you?. Go ahead…ask. And listen for the answer. Are your sufferings welcome to you? are you ready to turn this around for yourself? if so, that is how our Jewish practice of teshuvah can help.




THIS SUMMER AT ALEPH’s annual Smicha Week for Ordination Students, I took a course on Teshuvah. Oy, did I learn that we commit avairos, as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, calls them. These are mistakes, ‘oopses’, some intentional, some we didn’t know we did until we find out later. The practice of teshuvah helps us to reckon with these so they don’t stay stuck to us, like toxic sticky notes, making us anxious or even ill.

Two steps are involved in this teshuvah practice: acceptance and forgiving our self; and, reaching out to another who may have been hurt or hurt us, with acceptance or forgiveness. We are limited creatures; it’s good to remember that sometimes.

The second thing to notice in the Talmud passage is the last line: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.



In creating teshuvah, in caring about ourselves and about others, we recognize that we cannot do teshuvah alone; that having someone to reach out to, to be a mirror, or to give an outside perspective, is needed. In my Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer, one of our lessons about  reaching out was,  ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

Sometimes others see the forest while we are too busy being lost amongst the trees. We all have our reasons for wearing blinders or hiding painful or confusing topics from ourselves.

When it was first suggested to me that I should consider using my intuitive skills in a helping career, I balked and said, “No! I couldn’t feel right asking people to pay me to tell them what they already know!”

Well, that was several years ago and to be honest, I have paid the piper to tell me things I thought I didn’t know, too. How long can one spin their wheels or rattle the bars on their self-imposed prisons? Thankfully, we live amongst those toward whom we can reach out, and reach in and hold up those hidden places to the light of day.

Of course, once you know something, you can’t go back and not know it. You can move ahead though, knowing that you have been freed from prison, to find a way to make teshuvah. This doesn’t mean you’ve been struck by magic bullet and a cure; what spiritual care offers is care to go alongside as you work your edges.

IT seems have become too guided towards the expectation of cures, and too far removed from the care once provided by our relationships with family doctors, neighbours and clergy.

Spiritual health is an essential part of physical health. May you be blessed with a year of health, happiness, peace, and long life.

Visiting the Sick, Knowing the Self

Last week I had a series of dreams that I could not remember any details of, except that they all had a dog in them…

It is unusual for me to not have recall after I awaken. I have a practice of recalling my dreams, where I find wonderful insights into my motivations and how to approach decisions that await me when I am awake.imgres


One of the dogs that came to me is my dog Carlea, who was my companion, conscience, and escort in my many activities and adventures for her first four years of puppyhood and adolescence. When I moved to New York 18 months ago, I knew was not the place for her; she had grown up in rural Saskatchewan and Vancouver, so it was out of the question to bring her into metropolitan Manhattan to be an apartment dog while I ran all over the City taking voice and music lessons, going to seminary, and chaplaining at hospitals. She still visits me sometimes, just a brief breeze of picture memory, and sometimes, like last week, she comes and lays her soft head and long muzzle on my belly while I sleep, my arm wrapped over her silky-bony frame. Maybe she was called because I had felt troubled by some looming decisions that were not yet fully in my awareness and would appear later in the week. Her presence was reassuring and loving.Carlea email


If someone were to ask me to describe what pastoral care is, or Bikkur Holim visiting the sick, or being a chaplain, that is how I would answer. Being a reassuring and loving presence, someone who comes, unbidden, to be a comfort and witness when someone feels disconnected or alone.

Our human quest to domesticate everything, including the medicalization of illness, how to be sick and how to visit someone who is sick, has necessitated the development of guidelines. We seem to have lost the natural instincts for what to do. Thankfully, our various ethnic traditions have preserved much of that indigenous wisdom we once had. Our traditions can offer us many tips for being a good visitor: things to say; and also things not to say–my teacher Rabbi Simkha Weintraub would call these, ‘unintended curses’; we have advice on how to offer help;we have the Jewish book of rules, the Kitzer Shulchan Aruch gives us strict details such as when to visit, where to sit or stand, what times of day not to visit, and more. The bottom line though, is to come, like Carlea: as yourself, yet without any agendas.


This isn’t so easy as its simplicity suggests: we all want to be helpful, and what is helpful can be hard to figure out on your own. In fact, if you do try to figure this out on your own, you’ll be missing the input of the person who is ailing: ask them what they want, otherwise, you are likely only serving your purposes and not theirs. Here are some examples of what people who are sick tell us, in a survey compiled by Rabbi Weintraub:

“Ask me, don’t exclude me or make assumptions about what I need”

“Listen. Don’t try to make ‘it’ better before you know what ‘it’ is”

“Don’t staunch tears. Don’t be afraid of tears or rage; respect them”

“Teach me how to pray—not just ‘nice’ prayers, but prayers that rise out of my rage, my loss, my paralysis”

“End the silence. Bring illness out into the open”

How is it that we have become so detached from someone who is ill that we suddenly start making assumptions about what they want, try to keep everything light, cover up the depth of their illness?

There have been many answers, and bearing in mind that we have all been sick at some time in our lives, it is not a foreign land or unexplored territory for anyone. What is happening then, is that the sick person becomes a mirror that reflects our own mortality, or ‘there but for fortune go you or I”. We want to be close and helpful, yet at the same time we keep our distance or create false lightness as a barrier to accessing our inner fears and discomfort about illness or death.




But, that’s okay, we all have that reaction. And, there are ways to be present without raising the shields that disallow the sick person their need for your company and companioning attention. The best solution is to know yourself. Be aware of what your needs are, and stay tuned to what the care recipient is asking from you.


In Native American tradition, Dog Medicine asks you to understand how much your sense of loyalty or convictions to offer care, are overturned by your need for approval or keeping things safe and comfy for you and others looking in on the situation. The modern practices of Spiritual Health Care do, too. The following questions are guides for you, taken from the shared wisdom of past and present. They offer ways to ask yourself how well you are tracking yourself while you care for someone else:

  1. Have I recently forgotten that I owe my allegiance to my personal truth, or am I seeking external gratification when I help someone?
  2. Is it possible that gossip or the opinions of others have jaded my loyalty to a sick friend?
  3. Have I denied or ignored someone who is trying to be my loyal friend when I am ill?
  4. Have I been loyal and true to my goals to be present for people in need on their terms?

The double Torah portion this week, Behar-Bechukotai, concludes with instructions for how to care for those who find themselves in times of need, widows, orphans, indentured servants. As always, we are reminded to treat them as members of one’s own household, and to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. What does this tell us? To not lose that God connection, the one that reminds us that because we may be in good straits now, that can change at any moment, and the person you are taking in, could one day be you.



Along these lines, there is a saying amongst the community of people with disabilities: they call the rest of us CRABs, “Currently Regarded as Able Bodied”.



In an instant, such as an accident or the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon, your healthy bodily capacities can be gone, and you will find yourself depending upon others as never before. In Judaism, we have the Torah to tell us how to respectfully engage people in need, bearing in mind that we were once in their shoes. And modern Spiritual Health Care practice tells us how to look inside and know who we are before, and as we are, offering help.


May we be blessed with remembering our capacities to truly who we are, as we companion with and help others.

This Sunday, May 5th from 1-3pm I will be leading a further discussion of Jewish and Modern Traditions for Visiting the Sick at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver. See my Events Page for more details.




Lost and Found

At our last meeting, my Spiritual Director treated me to a story that illuminated how the many threads in my life were not weaving together well as a garment.

He told me a Chasidic story about a man who cherished the one item left to him after his beloved father died—his father’s gold watch. Every day he would look lovingly at it and then put carefully away. One day, though, he couldn’t find it. He looked everywhere; needing to find it took his whole attention and nothing else mattered. After all, beyond the value of the gold watch, it was his father’s memory that he had misplaced. Finally, in utter despair, he gave up looking for the watch. He completely bared his soul, and beseeched God to help him.

“Why have You hidden the watch from me? My life is nothing without it.” And…then the watch dropped from above right onto the table in front of him.



A couple of weeks later, I wrote my Spiritual Director this message:

“Dear DDK,

Shavua tov, I hope you are doing well and found good things, especially to eat, over Pesach…

I wanted to check in this morning, after many thoughts to do so over the past few weeks, after our last meeting. Many things have shifted and I feel I am entering some new territory. I hope this check in is helpful for you too.

When I awoke the morning after our SD together, I recalled the prayer for gratitude and insight we’d closed with. Then, when I got up, I could not find my eyeglasses.images-1 That’s very unusual, there are very few places in my apartment they could be. Right away, everything felt like the story you told me about the man who couldn’t find his father’s gold watch. I sat down and thought about how I may be doing too much and not fully allowing them to register, only the actions and outcomes.

I stopped looking for the glasses and decided that insight was the only way to get answers now. I came back to my centre for a while and waited.

Then I knew: the glasses were not really gone anywhere, maybe it was me. Doing many meaningful things, and naïvely trying to control all their outcomes.

I sat with the not new knowledge that it was once again time to allow myself the grace to let go of the control method of navigating my life, and let God, or insight, or wisdom guide me. Then came a place of calm, much like being in the eye of a storm;

and then the storm also passed. You’ve probably guessed that when I got up from my chair, the glasses were easily found. images-1It was time to let go of the many stuck places I was in, and find better places to be. Suddenly, it was easy to know what to hang onto, and what I could let go of or replace.

Each morning, I’m waking in gratitude, or returning to deep gratitude; and as in the prayer you offered, take each step of the day with the possibility that it may hold insight or guidance, or wisdom.

This is very liberating: I’m finding a context for what I do now. Of course, that means entering new territory. My experience in hiking tells me to take my steps with deliberation and intention at this time, watching for loose rocks and bared roots while enjoying the embracing landscape.”Sue Grand Canyon 08

What have you lost lately…or better yet, what have you found?




Here’s what oboes can do:


A few weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks to manage. You know, those waves of days that are almost nauseatingly filled with appointments to book, appointments to keep, a broken light fixture in a strategic location in my apartment, re-scheduling of broken appointments, friends needing my ears and heart, keeping up with studies and work.


“Stop!” I said out loud to my music stand. I sat there, prepared for the step into fantasy that my daily oboe practice gives me; instead, the music scores on my stand said, ‘more work for you!’.


“Enough! I’m doing something fun now, and that’s it!” I put the reed into my mouth and started to bop out a few notes. I can do this, I thought, a ditty is about to happen, work can wait! Bum bum bum, bum bum bum, bi da bi da, bum bum bum. So far so good. And out it came. From beginning to end. I was having fun, and it wasn’t work…or an accident.

I notated the music. How satisfying to see a completed composition of my own on paper! It was beautiful. What creative muse got me there? Even if I had cleared my datebook and created a buffer zone of time devoted to creating a nigun, prayer without words, it would have been a struggle to plunk out each note, hours would’ve gone by, and then ending unfinished with, ‘Oy, this is too complicated, I’ll have to look at it some other time, if I can remember any of it tomorrow.’

Grateful for having the divine permission to create it, I put the put my new finished composition aside, and rehearsed my music for an upcoming symphony concert, then practiced my new instruments, the sitar and duduk, feeling all the while satisfied and released inside with having made the new music composition.


BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! The story is just beginning, because this music came for a purpose…

I just attended the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute (DLTI) at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, a prayer leadership ‘laboratory’ for Jewish religious professionals. My ‘team’ for this second week of laboratory was asked to prepare to lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service. We decided to bring not only our training and education in Nusah and liturgy into this most special of services, but also our instrumental talents.

What is Kabbalat Shabbat? Shabbat is the seventh day of the week, the day that God stood back from the week of creating, and knew that it was time to take a break. A real break. Not a day off to get the shopping done, a hair cut, mow the lawn. Shabbat comes from the root for the word to rest or set down, שבת. And Kabbalat comes from the root word to receive קבל; Kabbalat Shabbat is a real and welcomed break away from work.

Mousie by SJK



How does this Kabbalat Shabbat look then? Isn’t stepping out, filling the nest with new clothes and food, engaging in a hobby, a day off?


No, say the first century rabbis who gave the written narrative of the Creation story its depth and accessibility for us. No, real rest means a complete turn away from the work of creation and creating. That means no writing, although you can read and think creatively; no commerce, so no money handling; no cooking, no cleaning. This is the day to get all of that done ahead of time so you can have a full day plus 1-1/4 hours to absorb in wonder and gratitude that you have made it not only one more week, but that you can take stock of where you have come to over the week: For Big Things, like a new job or outfit or a new baby; small things you didn’t have a chance in the busy-ness of the week to pat yourself on the back for, like a new attitude or moment of self-care.images-2


It’s also a time to step aside from the harshness of life and have a talk with God. Ask, why am I at such a loss now? how will I know my wisdom? and be available to the messages that may appear to you in response.


That sounds good, but how does one enter such a conversation with God, with the Ineffable? We’re all gung-ho these days for a meditation retreat, and may even respond like Pavlov’s dogs, going into a lotus pose when a Lycra clad teacher clings a bell from her yoga mat.

How do we enter the right pose for receiving Shabbat? yogapositionsexercise.com


Our Davvenen team followed the tradition of the long ago sages of Tsefat in Israel, and saw Shabbat as the Bride, coming to meet God, the Groom. In keeping with this tradition, we knew that our fellow learners would enter the Sanctuary dressed in white, wising to welcome this Bride and Groom with rich and beautiful musical imagery in the prayer service.


Here’s where the oboe comes in: Picture the simplicity and poignancy of the sunset wedding parade in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, here the wedding party led to the ceremony by lilting oboe and singing, as davenners entered our house of prayer, and the meeting of Bride and Groom.oboist on the roof


We stood at the front of the Sanctuary, oboe playing, guitar strumming along by one of our teachers, my two co-leaders swaying and singing with the kahal (community): bum bum bum, bum bum, bum, bi da bi da, bum bum bum.mit went on and on—and on. I looked over at a teacher and besides beaming at the beauty and success of this wedding assembly we’d created, we had to move the service along!

The auspicious beginning continued. We were filled to capacity, a spiritual direction training program joined us, as well as several dignitaries. Shy as my teammates are in our weekday selves, on this Shabbat, we were The Holy Wedding Emcees.

As for the rest of the service, the ceremony went on and on. Waltzes were waltzed to our music; spontaneous ‘Ameins!’ and ‘Oh Yeah!’s, and ‘Yes Lord!’s were shouted Jospel-style to chanted words from Torah.



The time ran away with us, the beauty was intoxicating; somehow, with helpful cues from our teachers on how to rein in the energy, to leave out extra items, and keep moving forward with the service, we brought the service to its close, too.


A minor miracle seemed to have happened. Somehow the three most shy and introverted members of this DLTI group ended up leading this most dramatically special of the weekly cycle of services, and the fervor went to capacity.

What did I learn? What can I share with you, reader? First of all, the three of us were on a journey of love together. Our love of God, of Shabbat, and the spirit we believe is available to everyone deep inside, brought us together as a co-creative team. Patience, thoughtfulness,  and grace came to one another as we planned. We forgot our egos, most of the time, during our preparations. I wanted to share my new nigun music, Shayndel wanted to share her angelic lyre music, and Dovid wanted to share his love of Jewish liturgy and tradition.

We trusted our inner navigators that told us that we know how to bring in the Shabbat Bride, to be received by a holy assembly of worshippers, and God.

Alone, we each are on the shy side, together, our shared vision came alive.

I enjoy studying, writing and doing my own music studio work on my own. In the end, the reward for the intensity of creation within, happens outside of the studio, from the dialogue created through the communion of artist/prayer leaders and their congregation. At week’s end, after all our creating, we take time to love, celebrate, and rest with God’s Creations, too.images