Musings

Adaptation

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**A Special Note for 8 September: Queen Elizabeth II died today at her home in Balmoral, Scotland, after a reign of 70 years. Writing as a Canadian: she was our Queen. I saw her once about 20 years ago from only a few metres away, as she passed by during a royal visit to Vancouver. The crowd parted just as she came by, and there her countenance, with the most dazzling and awakened violet eyes caused me to blurt out “THERE SHE IS!” despite my indifference to the monarchy up to that moment. I admired her so very much after seeing how she presented herself that day. We are all sad here today.

Here was a person, inspirational in her unwavering clarity of who she was, which guided her through unimaginably complicated events throughout her reign. She remains a role model for us all.

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“Adaptation”

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A few weeks ago I watched a film I hadn’t seen for many years, ‘The Big Lebowski’, and with fresh eyes saw themes that helped shape how I want to approach Autumn and the upcoming Jewish New Year. The film first came out in 1998; and it was exciting to watch, with its collage of scenes and characters chock full of  humour and pathos. The Jewish bits, played out so well by John Goodman, made the film an instant hit and source of many jokes amongst my Jewish friends, including bestowing the moniker, ‘The Dude’ onto one of them.

In fact, after viewing and then reviewing for professional chaplains journals, two of the other Coen brothers films, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’, I began to see how they create films that are chock full of Biblical themes, played out by contemporary characters and situations, creating tensions between Good and Evil. Even so, I wasn’t sure this would be the case after watching the opening scene of ‘The Big Lebowski: The Dude, clad in bathrobe and sandals, is scanning the dairy case and then gulping from a carton of half-and-half; upon his arrival home, after paying 69 cents with a check for the opened milker, two thugs repeatedly flush his head into his filthy toilet. But, I was tickled by the characters, and viewed the whole film.

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This time around, I was delighted: themes popped out as the opening credits rolled, along with the tune of ”Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’ and a blissfully winsome tumbleweed obeying whimsies of breeze taking us with it over the foothills of Los Angeles, into the basin, and finally the surf of the Pacific Ocean. Then, we see Jeff Bridges, The Dude, standing in the dairy aisle as before, but now I saw what the director and camera wanted us to see: A tall, contemplative man, in sandals and a robe, bearded, with flowing, shoulder-length honey-coloured hair. A bright halo cast by the overhead lights surround him, and he has the resigned look of someone who carries a great burden on his shoulders.

The film plays out as a series of challenges to the integrity of  The Dude; he is consistent and adamant that he is The Dude and nothing will change that, not for anyone, not for any reason. As a result of his resistance to mould himself to others’ needs, he, and often his car, are the recipients of threats, rage, violent acts, and meanness, often meant for others.

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The Dude sustains himself on White Russian cocktails (hence the need for the visit to the dairy aisle to buy half-and-half) and ‘doobies’ a.k.a. marijuana joints: what drives him forward and gives purpose to his life is a passionate obsession for bowling. But, as a target and receptacle of the violence, fears and pain of others, he serves a larger purpose: the one constant in their lives that people can reliably turn to, no matter what is thrown at him.

Thus, the tumbling tumbleweed rolls on. A familiarly mustachioed cowpoke in a ten-gallon hat wraps up the story, leaving us with the comfort of knowing that ‘The Dude Lives’, if we ever need him.

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Here’s how this gay film, a fantasy romp through vignettes of our rumpled, unemployed, alcoholic doper, fits into this sacred season of reflection and renewal.

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The plot is set as the rumpled Dude leaves the dairy aisle for his bungalow, and two men jump him and begin flushing his head into his filthy toilet and then urinate on his prized oriental rug in order to get him to reveal where he his hidden some large sum of money that his ‘wife’ stole. His bowling buddies figure out that there is a very rich man, also named Jeff Lebowski in town, whom The Dude was mistaken for. The Dude visits this ‘Big’ Jeff Lebowski in order to get compensation for his ruined oriental rug. The Dude identifies himself as ‘The Dude’ and not by his birth name and steadfastly insists this who he is, and not anyone else, echoing the Ineffable/God’s self-defining name, “I Am That I Am” of the Bible. Capable of seeing others only through corporate-coloured lenses, the Big Lebowski then asks what kind of work The Dude does. The answer, that he is not employed, sends the Big Lebowski exploding into a rant, pummelling him with the epithet of ‘bum’ and yelling, “Bums will always lose. Go get a job!”

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So, I began to see where we go wrong for ourselves. More often than not, we allow others to control and define who we are: our employers, our families, social media, our faith communities. And, there is good reason for letting them: these people whom we allow to exert control, due to their wealth, or social status, or titles conferred upon them, can be so frightened of our autonomy that they become violent and threatening and suggest doomsday scenarios of hell, poverty, and loneliness, if we don’t comply.

Our new role model, the Dude, likes himself, and isn’t put off by the so-called consequences of doing so. He likes the life he has created: bowling, White Russians, smoking dope, bungalow in L.A., a car that runs, and his bowling friends. No pets or spouse or dependants; just himself. Yet, others keep trying to destroy that, by urinating on his favourite rug, calling him a bum and a loser, abusing his car, taking him for a patsy in their schemes. His dream of winning in the bowling league championships are deflated when his PTSD-driven, violent, gun-waving friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) says he won’t play if it’s on a Saturday because he is ‘Shomer Shabbos‘. Friends alternate between sabotaging his plans, and crying on his shoulder over their self-inflicted problems.

So, the message, much like that of TV’s Mr. Rogers, is that we can like ourselves ‘just the way we are’; but, as the Coen brothers show us, it’s just not that simple. Like the tumblin’ tumbleweed at the start of the film, even if we roll blissfully along with the breeze, untethered and unburdened, the wind is unpredictable. It takes us to and fro, over the busy highway and hopefully safely across, along the highways and suburban roads of life, and then end our rolling in the peaceful waters at the end of the land. As The Dude moves along steadfast in his centred self-hood, everyone around him is in chaos with their attachments to money, lifestyle, greed, PTSD, and fear. The Dude knows who he is. He is so appealing to others because of that.

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People are always seeking someone who will be their rock of integrity, someone they can rely upon when they are afraid or hurting, such as a friend, counsellor, or religious figure. Others suss out self-knowing dudes, those bums whom they cannot control, in order to snuff them out. Either way, the destructive obsessions of others always seem to be redirected toward and absorbed by The Dude. Somehow, he finds ways to roll with it all and continues to be who he steadfastly is.

In watching this, it occurred to me that this is what we can choose to work towards in the New Year, the release from those attachments that tie us down and cause us to succumb to the inevitable and inescapable good and bad things in life. You may see The Dude as a bum and a loser who copes with booze and dope, like the Big Lebowski did. Yet, we do find out in the end that the legless, self-made philanthropist Big Lebowski is actually a common thieving embezzler and crook. You may be affronted by The Dude’s booze and drugs as escapism. Okay. Choose other ways of sustaining yourself beside these, such as learning how to set boundaries to keep unwanted intrusions by people and events out so that you can maintain who you feel most comfortable and complete being.

The hard part, though, is knowing and believing in who you are. That comes first. How do we do that? Is there a guidebook, a map. You’ve been told to do this before: ya-da ya-da ya-da, you say, yet another New Age simple-minded, empty meme, to Be Yourself.

You do already know what to do, though. Not only hear, but heed, the little voice inside that says, “this is really you, do it” when opportunities unfold. The more often you heed rather than out-think the call, the easier it becomes. Find others who share and value being and becoming themself, too; and bring them into your social or self-growth circle; look for things that are attractive to you, such as oboe playing is for me.

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At this time of reviewing the past year or years, and reflecting on what you liked or didn’t like, what you succeeded at and how you fell short, perhaps there is some virtue in considering once again, the benefits and risks of being your self. Yes, there is work and a price that comes with being yourself. But, can you really ever be someone else?

Wishing You and Yours the Best of the Autumn Season and New Year…Susan

 

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Judaism, Ability and Disability

When we think about disability, or any concept for that matter, it is from our own personal experience and perspective. For most people, that would be as an able person whose knowledge will come from others. Those others we learn from may or may not be people living as dis-abled persons. My experience of growing up as an able person, becoming an adult living with disability, and then recovering (more or less – now I’ve become a Senior Citizen!) has allowed me to see and speak from both an abled and disabled perspective.

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It has also allowed me to be that much more fully present with people of all abilities, in my role as Spiritual Care provider.

A few weeks ago, the weekly Torah readings touched upon the role of the Israelite priests in great detail. The emphasis is on how the priests are intermediaries between the people and God and therefore must be free of blemish, as well as abide by certain codes of dress and spiritual focus. In the context of their era and locale, it was understood that whether it was the King or the Priest who stood as intermediary, they had to meet high standards. In some ancient societies, the king was required to perform feats of strength and endurance, and if he did not succeed, he was killed and replaced, believing that a weak king could, for example, cause the ceremonies to bring rain to fail, disastrous for the people as a whole.

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The intermediary had to be a blemish-free vessel through which the Goodness of the Divine could flow and sustain the people, unhindered.

Of course, conceptual drift also takes place.

What was once a selection for leaders and divine intermediaries based upon observed purity from amongst a priestly or royal lineage, drifted towards and reinforcing a basic evolutionary and instinctive fear of ‘the other’.

 

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This fear is not just a human artifact; other creatures have it, too. Think of the mating season battles that go on between pairs of horned rams, tooth-and-clawed lions, primates, spurred roosters (‘cock o’the walk’), the winner being the one who will sire the most vigorous offspring. Imperfect flowers may not succeed in becoming pollinated, and a queen bee emanating the wrong pheromone to her workers will be torn to bits and replaced by them.

 

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Conceptual drifts can lose their anchoring connection with Torah and bring in their wake other disasters, as well. People who have nothing to do with priestly duties, and are different in appearance, are often shunned if not at least marginalized: they may appear different due to a dis-ability; or due to a heritage or racial difference. I think of the excuses for genocide that targets ‘others’ over the ages, such as the Nazi quest for ‘Aryan Purity’.

Social Darwinism in the 1920′ and ’30’s spawned the eugenics movement in the United States, which focused on eliminating undesirable traits from the population. Proponents of the eugenics movement reasoned the best way to do this was by preventing “unfit” individuals from having children. During the first part of the twentieth century, 32 U.S. states passed laws that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 64,000 Americans including immigrants, people of color, unmarried mothers and the mentally ill.*

When we read in our sacred texts, “Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm;…” we see how qualified and specific the instruction is, as to what and when the limitations are to be applied.

This is not a global condemnation of people who are ‘other’ or different: it is a specific and limited separation, bound by time and duty. Outside of these parameters, differences are not a limiting factor. In Torah, Aaron’s offspring could be High Priests regardless of physical differences, with a wide range of duties they could perform.

I do hope this brief discourse sparks new ideas, interest, curiosity and a desire learn more about disability, how we go about our everyday life, our beliefs, and about Torah and Jewish learning.

* https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/social-darwinism

** Leviticus 21:17-23

 

A Release of Birds

I woke up at 3:50am today.

It was a dusky time, before dawn, cloud cover shadowing any light emanations from either the sun or moon, and I opened my windows to let in some night-freshened air. The familiar sounds of birds entered the windows, wafting and then entwining with the dewy fresh air. Familiar birds, Robins, House Sparrows and Finches. They were familiar, yet not so familiar. I hadn’t heard them in a long, long time.

Over the months that have become a year and a half in my current home, I’ve kept the windows shut: it’s noisy outside, with Yonge St traffic on one side and the whirring of rooftop HVAC systems on the other. Then there’s the dirt and dust that these mechanical urban denizens kick up and into everything. And then there’s the smell, usually awful, of a neighbouring apartment dweller’s cooking, coming from their kitchen vent, so conveniently located just below my most accessible window.

But this morning, this so very early morning, there were almost no vehicles on Yonge St and no one cooking next door. There was just me and the birds and the fresh air. It brought me back to an earlier time, my adolescence, when I was a Wildlife Biology student and would relish the opportunity to get up so early to go out birdwatching. And, so I did.

As I pulled off my nightgown and put on the simplest of pants, a wool t-shirt, and moccasins, a song floated into my ears, filling in and smoothing the gaps between bird chirps. It was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

It was so very fitting. Usually, these musical ‘earworms’ of mine have a message, so I allowed it to meld with the actual birds calling in the growing dawn outside with the memories of how I once used to prepare for birdwatching, the wee hours of the morning portending auspicious and precious and sacred encounters out-of-doors.

I was so very surprised at how fast I was ready to go. These days, it could take me a half an hour to get ready just to go out and get a can of cat food and loaf of bread from down the street. Instead, there I was, all dressed, my nice lightweight monocular around my neck and clipped to the pocket of my waxed cotton down-filled jacket. Off I went.

The song now wafted along with me, in the background of my mind. What was Leonard Cohen singing about? While preparing my Leonard Cohen lectures, I recalled seeing a photo of him looking fondly out a window, trees and shrubbery just visible on the periphery of the frame. Was he listening to the birds that had inspired this song one morning, early? I understood the song so much better now.

Birds appear a few times in the Torah, performing a variety of duties and awakening the imagination to the lesson being shown by them. Most of us are familiar with the dove that was released from the Ark in order to see if the flood waters had receded enough to go out onto the dry land. Different birds are released, one being a Raven. Eventually, a bird returns with an olive branch, evidence that there must be enough of a true peace on the land to sustain a tree and its fruit. We feel joy and relief, and understand that when one endures a real or metaphorical storm of Biblical proportions, there will be a new world opened to us.

In last week’s Torah portion, there is a sacrificial rite performed that requires two birds. It is the ritual performed when someone has recovered from צרעת tzara’at, a whitish skin affliction in humans, and also of surfaces such as walls or leather. Tzara’at is almost always cured by a spiritual transformation in the Torah, for example when Moses’ sister Miriam is afflicted after behaving in a manner that seems defiant to God, and Moses pleads אל נח רפא נה לה Please God, Heal Her Now.

The ritual signifying the end of a person’s tzara’at requires two birds. One is killed and the blood is drained into a basin with water. The second bird is released but not until after being dipped into this basin with the first bird’s blood mixed with water. When I read this, I understand that what had been is now passed away, and that what will be bears the memory and essence of that past being. There is no clean and complete break from who we once were, we are the same person, but have now been released from whatever unresolved spiritual bondage it was that had been disabling us.

How we go forth is important, too. What did Noach do when he, the most righteous man God could chose to build the Ark and assemble all the pairs of creatures to be preserved in it, finally set out into the newly washed world? He got drunk, had incestuous relations with his daughters, and resumed being who he was before the Flood.

That is one way to do this stepping out into a renewed world. Right now, we are all in our third year of pandemic. We keep releasing the Doves and Ravens, but are they bringing back signs of dry land yet? It depends upon who you ask. Some people thought there was no need for an Ark in the first place, that the coronavirus pandemic was a hoax. Others believe that their is good dry land out there, because, after all, it’s been more than two years already and it’s time to get back to enjoying life – which is a desire for dry land not supported by evidence from our communities of scientific scouts.

In fact, the first day the mask mandate was lifted here in Ontario, I went out to buy a pair of walking shoes and had to drop everything and run out of the store because two people came in, wearing no masks, stood right next to the bench where I was trying on shoes, and one of them began coughing and not even attempting to cover her mouth. Just like the old days, before the pandemic. Those halcyon days, when you could cough anyway you wanted to, and never bothered to wash your hands unless they looked dirty.

We all do want to be released, if we’ve managed to stay afloat and aboard this great Ark of the Pandemic. But a few things need to happen: we need good evidence that the land is good and dry. And, we need to carry some of the essence of who we were before the Pandemic, so that we can be reminded of how to leave behind beliefs and behaviours that didn’t serve us well, and move forward.

Where is Our Wisdom? Jethro and Moses

Recently, I’ve had some conversations with friends and professional peers, where the word ‘wisdom’ has come up….

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…our discussions often include the big topic of how to navigate what lies ahead as the pandemic shifts and moves forward; indeed, none of us has lived through any extended world disruption as has been caused by this current global pandemic.

We speak of our personal lives and compare how we are doing. I am doing fine, all things considered. With my own paradigm shift, brought about by a relocation to a new city in 2020, just as the pandemic hit Canada and extended sheltering at home ensued, there were no precedents of a life with former habits to compare with. Being newly settled, I had no former routines, such as  favourite restaurants, school or work, or ways of making ends meet that might be disrupted; and my housing was safe and secure.

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From the picture windows in my home, these days I watch life go on outside. Cars drive past, people walk dogs, meet and dine at picnic tables across the street in the park (even when it’s -10ºC), squirrels chase each other and fight over buried acorns or partners; the sun rises behind me, beautiful sunsets fill my afternoon picture window, rivers of clouds pass over, and winds blow and the moon passes through its phases – all in good order.

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But, the news headlines give quite a different story. One recurrent theme is that there is a Mental Health Crisis. Attributed to the pandemic and reiterated as if a breaking story, the almost inescapable exposés and interviews focus on people struggling to live and attend school and work from home, often in close quarters, without their former ways of physically distancing themselves. Stories of lost income due to jobs that have evaporated, of small businesses having to shut down, of people not being able to pay rent, and of evictions.

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We get media ‘feel good’ stories, too. There is the young man who makes air filter systems for homebound senior citizens, the young woman who goes for brisk walks in the -20ºC weather and gleefully tells everyone to get out and enjoy the weather, and volunteers manning vaccination clinics.

 

 

Reports of systemic stress include the curtailing of health care services. Elective surgeries, necessary cancer care, and even care for COVID patients are being portioned out and triaged or postponed. The high costs and impairment of health care systems are the result of health care systems not designed for the huge influx of acutely ill patients. This is also driven along by the high rate of front line health care workers who are unable to work, losses due to their becoming ill, burnout, and being attracted to less risky, more predictable jobs.

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People express their angst in various ways. One person, who went to the local emergency department in their community with an infection, found a 3-hour wait just to see a triage nurse, let alone get into a queue to see a doctor. They told me they went home and treated it with a poultice recipe recalled from childhood, declaring: “We’ve gone back to Medieval times! We’re replacing medical care with folkways and home remedies!”

Other people reactivate and share their own fears: hording is particularly popular. When the announcements began about the Omicron variant, one person’s reaction was, “We’re going to run out of toilet paper, people are going to horde again, better stock up.”

 

Young people are particularly hit hard. I know many are doing very well, but even in my small world, I experience other who are not – acting out, with hair triggers on their rage. I consider myself a mild-mannered senior citizen, but when I take a walk and a woman half my age and twice my size shoulder checks me as she passes by on the sidewalk and then chases me, shouting, “You punched me! You just punched me!”, I have to attribute it to an unmet need to blame someone for something, no matter who or what it is. The young man living upstairs from me has taken to stomping around and slamming drawers and doors so hard that my dishes and windows rattle, as if having temper tantrums throughout the day. And then there was the woman lurking about in an underground parking garage who ran up to my car screaming, “You are a white racist, get out of here! Just because you’re white and I’m brown doesn’t mean you can park wherever you want to!”

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We look to our leaders, whether politicians or high ranking medical advisors, for their expertise and guidance and regulations that should protect us from the virus and all the chaos that it causes. Sadly, many of them are becoming stymied by the ongoing modulations of virus behaviour, and hence it seems we are hearing inconsistent or vague predictions or mandates. Beyond these public appearances beginning to lose their appeal and caché, they seem to provide no clear path to follow, as if we are now in the midst of the jungle, armed only with a machete to chop out a path; if we only knew which way to chop.

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And, how will we know? How will we know locally, regionally, nationally, globally, or personally, what the correct path is? And, will it be the same path for all?

Perhaps the Torah can show us how to navigate and move forward.

This Shabbat, from parashat Yitro (Jethro) in the Book of Exodus, we read of an important conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro).

In this section, Yitro pulls aside Moses, who is still the single and primary leader and guide for all of the Israelites, and gives him some sage advice. Yitro himself is a minister or priest of the Midian people, so his acumen as a spiritual leader is well-established. He has observed how being a singular figure for such a multitude is becoming an untenable role for Moses. Yitro is also aware of his own foresight, seeing what trouble will be lying ahead if this keeps up. Yitro comes from his place of background and silence, and now steps up, saying to Moses,

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“You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you – for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.”

Yitro takes further action, going beyond simply telling or retelling this headline news: his wisdom tells him it is time to give advice to Moses, based upon learned knowledge and insight. Yitro keeps it simple and direct: delegate out responsibilities. He also gives Moses a road map, and lays out the qualities for the people who Moses should choose: accomplished, God-fearing, truthful, and despising of money. These chosen representatives will be assigned locally, regionally, nationally, to settle minor disputes; major disputes will be brought to Moses to resolve.

The particulars of creating a tiered judicial system may not the exact situation relevant to how to navigate our modern pandemic. What is relevant, though, is the harkening to wisdom we are shown in this story.

First, Yitro must make up his mind, that although he is a foreigner, and a father-in-law and not Moses’ father, it is time for him to speak up. But, he does not speak meekly or in euphemisms, or offer vague suggestions, or fall flat as one of many opinions that Moses hears every day from his stiff-necked crowd of lost Israelites. Instead, Torah sets the tone by telling us that Yitro is a minister, a person of insight, of wisdom, one who knows how to apply insight for the good of others as well as themself and for those close to him.

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Not everyone wears a mantle of priesthood, as Yitro did. However, we all do have our gifts or talents or abilities, and hopefully we know what they are, and which ones we do not have. This is part of personal growth. It is also the beginning of assuming wisdom. As we grow older, we leave behind the youthful and folly days of testing ourselves and others; elders have come a long way, have overcome and survived challenges, and discerned patterns of how the world works. It is our duty, as we grow and become elders, to impart this learned and processed knowledge to our offspring and future generations.

Sometimes we accept the belief that only those wearing a mantle of authority – ministers, artists, chiefs, pols and elders – have all the answers. But the truth is, Wisdom is not reserved for specially set apart or elevated experts.

It can affect mental health and self-confidence to believe that only others have the answers. When others’ views are so vague or indecisive or downright contradictory, we can filter and glean from them what works best for ourselves. Rather than feeling as if a bug stuck on a pin, swirling and twirling, gnawing and thrashing around and at others, we can trust in ourselves to grow and find novel solutions that we can live with.

Perhaps this is the time to be Yitro, or to be Moses. You know who you are in this story.

If you are Yitro and have deep insight and have navigated life’s challenges successfully, speak up, share your wisdom with others: your children, the merchant whose shelves are almost empty, in simple ways when you are out, in conversation with people you care about.

If you are Moses, accept wise counsel when you are overwhelmed, or about to become overwhelmed. Delegate your burdens to people you trust and who have navigated challenges well in the past. Take time to reflect and recall who those good people are and were in your life. This recollection of good influences, in and of itself, can open up a pathway through the jungle.

The Israelites of old didn’t have a road map, either. Thankfully, we have their legacy, through stories such as the conversation between Yitro and Moses, in the Torah.

Chanukah: Welcoming the Stranger

The other night I was returning home from orchestra rehearsal. We’d had a good time together, and my energy was high and light; it was our final rehearsal before an upcoming recording session for next week.

It’s an interesting group, a traditional Chinese orchestra, with strings Pipa, Zheng and Erhu; winds Sheng and Suona, and of course the Dizi wooden flutes.

Erhu   Chinese Drum Suona Best Quality DXH 8881 Concert Grade Professional Chinese Bamboo Flute Dizi At Cheap Price, Online Drums & Percussion | DHgate.Com

I fit in somewhere with my Western oboe, and there are cellos and double basses, too. The percussion section is a busy kitchen with all sorts of drums, chimes, gongs and cymbals.

Our music is both traditional Chinese compositions, such as ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, and also some world music. For example, we’ll be recording two Uighur pieces, ‘Alamuhan’ and ‘Dance of the Youth’. The music is all upbeat, yet has movements that express such deep pathos via the soothing warm tones of the strings and Sheng, echoed by the crying call of the wooden flutes and now also with the deeper, evocative oboe voice. You can see some of our corps in rehearsal at the Toronto Chinese Orchestra’s FaceBook page .

So, with the floating melodies of Erhu drifting me back to my truck, and the light snow falling, I headed home. Or, so I thought.

My first stop was for a snack. It was almost 10:30pm and stopping at the local Chinese supermarket after rehearsal to peruse the arrays of colourful packages along the aisles in the brightly lit market adds to my already gay feelings from the music we’d just played together.

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I picked out two packages after carefully reading the ingredients, and after the checkout process, brought them neatly into my truck and opened them for noshing on the 25 minute drive home. The snow still swirled a bit, but I was glad to be on my way home to see my two cats and watch a bit of TV (usually a ‘Matlock’ rerun) before going to bed.

My GPS app got me as far as the on ramp to the highway heading west. It was closed! Darn. My app wouldn’t register the closure, and instructed me to drive in what ended up being a 360º circle back to the same on ramp. The funny thing was, I was part of a pride of other drivers who were taking the same circular route, likely given by their various GPS apps.

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The joy of the rehearsal kept me feeling upbeat and positive. I tried to report the closure to my app again with no success, but this time it told me to get onto the highway and drive east. I obeyed. Oops, when it instructed me to get off, it took me to another westbound on ramp–which was also closed. Oh Snap!

I began to eat the snack more voraciously, and decided to take a timeout to fill my gas tank up. It’s a good idea to keep the tank more than half-full in sub-freezing temperatures. After negotiating all the various reward and payment cards and agreeing to a pre-payment amount, my truck tank was filled and I felt more focused on how to get home. You see, Toronto has never-ending construction–and also keeps its decisions about road closures a well-kept secret. Highway 401 Westbound was closed for the night where I needed to get on.

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Now some detour signs appeared. I guess those went up while I was getting fuel.

I dutifully followed the signs. There were so many detour routes to choose from! D-6, D-9, D-11, D-14, D-16. Which would you choose? The signs were tiny and didn’t say what the difference was. After 3 times around the same loop and finding myself back at the same closed on ramp, I tried D-14 and finally ended up at the Don Valley Parkway, and on my way home. My 25 minute happy drive took 2 hours! and I was still happy.

Our rehearsal music and good cheer carried along through all the twists and turns; the route was so much like our music: happy to find the onramp; dark feelings when it was closed; then tentativeness as I followed the detour signs into unknown and not well lit parts of the city’s outskirts. Then joy at seeing other cars merging towards an onramp; and sadness that it, too, was closed. The final dash home to the finale–I’d picked the correct detour route, and joyfully cruised familiar highway home.

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Music is created to tell us what life is like. I would have felt strange and alone, dissociated from the reality and familiarity of how the roads normally work, but the music and companionship of the rehearsal informed me that this is how life is, and the more we play in it together, the better it gets.

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Recently, I was in a discussion about how to greet new people when they enter a faith community. I was told that here in Toronto, no one invites strangers to their homes and that the onus of invitations is on the newcomer. It begged the question: how does one feel welcomed and stop being a stranger?

As Jews, we are commanded, urged, and reminded frequently in our sacred texts and liturgies to welcome the stranger, because we once were strangers in a strange land (Egypt). And, we know what happened to our Hebrew ancestors when they were treated like strangers–400 years of enslavement. It doesn’t say anywhere that certain geographic locations are exempt from this duty.

My experience of impersonal treatment of drivers on my journey home, by closing a major highway with no signs, and then confusing ones, is one way a city can cultivate feelings of alienation and being unwelcomed. Some unidentified, hidden, civic body made the decision to close the highway without consideration to avoid leaving drivers in the lurch to fend for themselves. Or, maybe it did advertise the closure to media outlets known only to already entrenched Toronto denizens (found it now on Twitter!)

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Especially during these days of pandemic, doing acts that allow others to feel seen and valued keeps our human societies afloat. The ‘each person for themself’ mentality, or the more insidious ‘I got away with it’ culture we find ourselves in, is being tested by none other than a microscopic coronavirus. Keeping each other in the dark, hoarding, and leaving new settlers to wander aimlessly contributes to the at-times chaotic manner with which we as a society make our decisions about how to navigate forward into the unknown resolution of living with the ongoing pandemic.

We don’t have to break our commitments to safety to be together. There are amazing new and revamped media platforms for staying connected with those we already know and love, and for bringing in those who we don’t yet know well, and who could be enriching our lives.

A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt after Joseph was gone, and what did he say? “Who is this Joseph? I don’t know any Joseph”. Will that be you? how will you navigate the famine-like path that takes away those things that used to feed you and I: the restaurant meals, travel, or going out to concerts films and plays? or the new supply chain shortages and the eroding of peoples’ patience in general as we face waning vaccine immunity and new virus variants of concern? Will you end up with a closed heart that leads to disaster, as Pharaoh had; or be guided by the wisdom inside haunting melodies, transcend popular myth, and take the trip home–together.

At this time of Chanukah, as the shortening of days swings back into lengthening hours of daylight, we can choose also to leave behind darkening trends that don’t serve us well, and rededicate to the light and wisdom of new personal and social paradigms.

lifeinnaples.net

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Abraham and Isaac: To the Brink

Last week’s Torah portion, called Parashat Vayera in Hebrew, has a full and long story arc that spans from

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the three guests who visit Abraham as he heals from his brit milah, or ritual circumcision, to the story of Abraham binding his son Isaac as a sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Akedah.

Today, let’s look at the story of the Akedah, as this is a story with so many levels of interpretation, each of which provide us with rich opportunities for reflection and personal growth.

The story begins with a foreshadowing: that after surmounting several obstacles along his sojourn the the unknown land that God has promised Abraham, it is written that God tested Abraham. Hadn’t Abraham already been tested? hadn’t he already heeded the formless Voice and left behind all that he’d ever known to go forward to an unknown land; argued with God over the merits of redeeming at least some inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; engaged his wits to gain passage through a dangerous land for a second time; become the father of Isaac with Sarah, both in their old age; and expelled his other son and concubine in order to please Sarah and establish her offspring as Abraham’s lineage? All this has already happened in Vayera. So, what new test could God have in mind?

The narrative of story line is one level of reading Torah, and it is rich with family dynamics, geography, foreign cultures, and heavenly beings and conversations.

Another level is how does the story fit into the overall picture of events. In other words, how does one event relate to the previous or the next one? do we see how they are related, and what do we learn about how events in our lives are more than random events?

In some Torah study traditions, there are two more levels with which to read the text. These would be: how we see the wisdom in each story teaching us lessons; and the fourth is to experience the ineffable and mystery contained in the story.

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Let’s stay now with the third level in our Torah parashah, the level of finding wisdom, inspiration and insight. And let’s narrow our focus on just the vignette or drama of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac by Abraham, as a sacrifice.

First of all, what was God thinking here?

The Hebrew text reads: וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם

which translates, “and God tested Abraham”.

Okay, a test! But we do not know anything more than what is written. We do know what tests are, though. They are a way to see if you are staying engaged and on track, whether it is in your math class or a relationship. And we do know that as Abraham follows the instructions he received earlier, to leave behind the place he’s always known, he encounters many challenges. He endeavours to stay on track and engage with God through listening and discussion.

Think about your relationships, and which ones last, and which ones don’t. We often hear that relationships require work. But unlike our math class, we don’t have an instruction book for that.

P We observe how trusting in an inner call to action, such as Abraham heeding God’s Voice telling to leave everything behind and go forth with Sarah; taking risks by speaking one’s truth, even to God; engaging with a conflict to its resolution (Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom or Sarah laughing at the angels’ promise that she will conceive); can lead to fulfillment of promises, such as the miraculous birth of Isaac when Sarah is in her nineties.

These elements of risk-taking in a relationship bring Abraham, Sarah, and God closer. But God has one last and most risky test of character and commitment left for Abraham.

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In the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, God now calls for the beloved son of the couple’s old age, Isaac, to be brought to a mountain top to be slaughtered on an altar as if he were a sacrificial animal. Besides being a ghastly request, God is actually calling Abraham to do just what the other peoples, such as Moloch worshippers, whom he’d left behind in his ancestral home, would do for their idols and gods: put their own children upon altars, as sacrifices.

In this strange and unique splitting off and separation of Abraham from all the other idolatrous peoples, God first instructs him to do just what these child-sacrificing peoples do:

“Take your son, your favoured one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

Biblical Archaeology Society

The drama mounts as the father and son ascend to the place in the heights, punctuated by the pathos of scenes such as Isaac seeing only the kindling wood, and asking his father where the sheep is for the burnt offering. And further, without having actually been told this, Abraham tells him, “God will see to the burnt offering, my son”.

Where are you now? On the edge of your seat? I am! As my grandmother Dot z”l would say of such stories in the Torah, “…and what a great plot!”

Pause for a moment. Ask yourself what pulls you personally into this drama.

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We will all have different answers to that question. Perhaps you are scared for poor Isaac, or feel rage at Abraham. Perhaps you are analyzing what sort of psychological damage could result from this threatening behaviour by a parent on their child. And why doesn’t Isaac, who by now must be an adult, go along with the perilous and confusing journey up the mountain? Or, perhaps you simply want to know how the story ends and prefer to skip all the details and who said what to whom.

Perhaps you are tapping into your own quest to understand the nature of what draws us into unknown territory, just as Abraham and Isaac do. Will Isaac/myself be killed? Will Abraham/myself actually slaughter the one thing that he/we cherish(es) most? What will happen?

We can heed the urge or impulse that moves us toward risking the unknown. We may hesitate, analyze, bargain, compromise, or ignore it altogether. We may see the danger of following an impulse as one with no guarantee of a safe outcome and balk at it. Or, the draw to risk may ignite our sense that it is the correct time for making changes and taking a new direction.

These are possibilities, and learning how and when to heed or pass on them, is our spiritual challenge.

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God and Abraham have a relationship that has significant repercussions on others. Everyone is brought to the brink of destruction, to the precipice.

Isaac may die, Abraham may lose Isaac, devastate Sarah, and destroy their lives forever; and, God may lose Abraham.

Therein lies the dynamic that binds God and Abraham to this doom-laden mission. Abraham is listening–and God sees that. A ram is substituted for Isaac on the altar at the moment that Abraham raises his knife to kill him. They have all gone, with so little dialogue or discussion or analysis, to the brink together.

What was God’s test of Abraham? Certainly establishing that Abraham and Sarah have the mettle and ability to leave behind the familiar, with unshakable Faith and Trust, to navigate unknown paths which lie ahead.

What voices or calls do you heed, and by what measures can you navigate choices in your relationships?

©Susan J Katz 2019

 

Rosh HaShanah: Back to Normal?

 

The Jewish year is bookmarked with holidays, Holy Days, feasts, fasts, and celebrations.

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Thank Goodness! Every year we know there will be Passover, Chanukkah, Tisha b’Av, and Rosh HaShanah. We can plan ahead, mark our calendars, prepare our travel plans and guest lists, and make time for personal preparation and reflection.

We also know that it is normal each year to have changes in our lives: Relationships are lost, new ones found; illnesses come and go or remain; work and finances are gained and lost; transitions to new homes, new states of health, new relationships, and new work all can happen. The unpredictability of these events does not allow them to be marked on an annual calendar in the same way as the dates for the holy days. Yet, our predictable timetable of sacred dates is related and intertwined with the natural and unpredictable unfolding of our lives.

A helpful way of explaining this intertwining comes as metaphor. Some of us best perceive concepts and ideas this way, through imagery and story. Try this:

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digitalnative.wordpress.com

Picture the Jewish year not moving forward as an arrow in a straight line through time, or as merely a closed circle that keeps looping around itself, but as a spiral, which both moves forward and cycles around. So, we still have our bookmarked observances that we return to, but not perpetually returning us to the same spot as we began, such as, say, in the film, “Groundhog Day”.

There are still some givens: for example, we don’t wake up on Rosh HaShanah the same person we were last year on Rosh haShanah. Looking in the mirror, you may see a few more wrinkles or grey hairs or freckles, and this may even jog your brain a bit more toward the idea that time has moved forward and you have changed.

newsweek.com

newsweek.com

Rosh haShanah reminds us that, before running to the phone to book Botox or hair salon appointments, try to thank the mirror for what it is showing you; that you are growing and changing. And not just on the outside, but inside, too.

This past year, the world event of the Pandemic has touched and changed the lives of everyone on the planet as a whole. So, collectively, we have all shared a life-altering experience, a sharing that is uncanny and rare. This is in addition to our normal year of personal change, and so discovering how to move forward into the New Year will have elements that are not quite the same as past years, either.

On a personal level, this past year has brought enormous change. Out of the depths of the Pandemic, came the great levelling of the social playing field for those of us who are partially or fully home-bound: Everyone became home-bound! Thanks to video conferencing platforms formerly relegated to last minute work meetings or the small pond of home-bound people who are tech-savvy, the entire world now became accessible to all through our computers and electronic devices.

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bloglet.com

Interestingly, being mostly home-bound became unnoticed and irrelevant; I could interact with people, barrier-free just like everyone else. I did things that had become too onerous over the past six years: attended synagogue and Torah study, went to concerts, played music and took music lessons, had medical appointments, and attended business meetings of all sorts–just like everyone else. No one saw my chronic illness and they would be surprised if I brought it up. Even more importantly, my self-identity as a ‘disabled senior’ changed, too; my overall health has improved with this new ability to engage with the world on par.

So, for me, life changed drastically. Thanks to the ease and abundance of telemedicine, I could have consults with doctors and other healthcare professionals that would have been impossible for me to attend prior to this past year. The same with music: I could participate in classes, made a video recording and have another lined up, took fabulous workshops and classes from such diverse places as the Metropolitan Opera, KlezKalifornia, and the International Double Reed Society. And the staying at home gave me time and energy to write and win writing awards for the past two summers. I showed up, my voice was heard, and I was a contributor alongside everyone else. And, I now am able to engage with activities outside of home once agai.

My story of successes enabled by the opening of the world during the Pandemic is not unique. I will continue to reflect upon how I and how my identity have changed. What is troubling me, though, is how we are being guided by recent news and headlines,

“Back to Normal!” “Revenge Travel” “Fully Open” “Vaccine Passports” “Welcome Back, Good to See You Again!”

crresearch.com

crresearch.com

While these convey the desire to you for things going ‘back the way they used to be’, certain truths are missing. Nothing goes back the way it used to be. Once you have crossed a threshold, it is crossed. All of our myths and legends and scriptures tell us that.

Think about the first saga written, about Gilgamesh, who came home to the same ramparts as when he left, yet he was no longer the lad who had left; he had overcome impossible challenges on his walkabout. Or, Moses dwelling in the desert after a soft life in the Palaces of Egypt, and when enough change in him had elapsed, he encountered the burning bush of God’s Presence. He could no longer be the common husband and shepherd.

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medium.com

Do we really want to go back to our habits of long rush hour commutes, wandering shopping malls, making-and-breaking-date routines, and excluding anyone who can’t keep up? Or, do we want continuity with our discovery that being outdoors and in nature is good for us, that nature needs to be protected, that our elders and the dis-abled have overcome great challenges and so are venerable role models holding valuable wisdom, and that spending time alone and in isolation away from our former distractions is how we get to know our weaknesses and our strengths.

The question here is, then: what do we gain by trying to go back to the way things used to be, what will we lose by doing so, and how have we changed?

My prayers for the New Year will include not only reflections on personal growth areas, but also discernment of ways to preserve what society has gained during this pandemic. How did my identity grow and change over the year thanks to technology, how can I support the continuation of social inclusion now that the world-at-large has developed the means to provide it, and learning how to enjoy social inclusion after many years apart from it.

Some answers will arrive in the form of the still, small, voice. And certainly, at Rosh HaShanah we can always count upon the great blasts of the Shofar to awaken and open up our ears, minds, and hearts.

bje.org.au

bje.org.au

 

 

 

Jacob and Laban, Coming of Age – At Any Age

This evening I was playing a piece that enchants and inspires me every time I hear it, and it does all the more so when I make the opportunity to play it. Yet, that I can indeed once again play this piece after so many years of near incapacity, fills me with even that much more awe and inspiration.

In practice this evening, unlike in the past when playing oboe was a fond and fulfilling routine, I took nothing for granted, let no errors go uncorrected. Not the slight breaks in airflow or sound between notes, not the over-blown pitches, or bumpy steps over smooth phrasing.

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I worked over, ‘wood-shedded’, my habit of wobbly hand work over the instrument’s C-D bridge, and from F down to Eb, and from B up to Eb. I did this by putting my mind into each finger, timing their placements on the keys so to match the breath; and then asked my fingers if they were was happy with the sound we were making. The conversation invited loving, gentle and correct fingerings to be made over these keys.

As the dialogue between mind and hands proceeded, each success celebrated and repeated, a new song emerged from the score in front of me. Shedding the old, habitual, chopped up phrasing that was the result of my technique’s constraints allowed the correct phrasing to emerge. I understood the piece and conversations within it as never before. A new era of music playing and appreciation was dawning;

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I now played the music as written, rather than as per the limits and parameters of my technique, and the music suddenly appeared, as if stepping out from behind a cloud.

What was this special piece? ‘The Sonata for Oboe and Piano’, by C. Saint-Saëns Op. 166. I first heard it played on the 1998 recording by Joseph Robinson 10 years ago, and have been in a swoon over it ever since. It was only a fantasy to ever be able to play it myself.

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Once I was a competent enough oboist and dared myself to try playing it though, it became a standard in my personal repertoire. Playing it for myself became a way to create retreat and comfort.

Tonight I had uncovered the beauty and integrity of the Sonata, much as a restoration curator of classical paintings painstakingly reveals a masterpiece hidden away under centuries of accumulated of dinge and grime.

I also had a big memory: Not so many years ago, I occasionally provided a ‘Music and Spirituality’ program for a hospital’s inpatient Psychiatry. Each time I went, there would be a different crop of inpatients in the group. The program provided a processing opportunity for them; the Psych staff attended to observe how the patients were managing.

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My memory was of the time I brought a variety of sensory things for the patients to try out, some auditory, some visual. I opened the space with calming recorded music as they entered the group room and seated themselves around the large table. I also brought some cutouts of animal cards for them to select and share their thoughts on, if they wished. This seemed like a low impact way to bring comfort and familiarity into the participants’ clinical environs.

The recorded music was the Sonata. Its tentative nurturing calls, plaintive cries and delicate appoggiaturas seemed just the right thing for soothing and welcoming people over a threshold and into the activity.

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As usual I did not read the patients’ files or take briefings from staff ahead of time. I prefer to work cold, coming into spiritual care ‘as is’, without preconceived notions of the care recipients or the interpretations of them from other staff. But as the music played on, I saw one of the patients, someone close to my own age who sat across the table, lock into a stiffened face. He appeared about to break into tears, but instead hung on stolidly inward, expression held flat and pale.

I stopped the music, it seemed to be a disturbance for him rather than the comfort I’d expected. So much for planning! The patients were now invited to pick 3 or 4 of the animal pictures, which they all did. Except the man with the stolid face. We were began to go around the table to share our pictures, what we picked and why, how we felt about our animals. But then the man began to wail.

Oops, now what have I done? I felt a panic, would the Psych staff be annoyed that my program was upsetting their patients? One of my spiritual care talents or gifts is to unwittingly step directly into a patient’s most guarded hurts. I learned early on that these breaks are where the healing takes place. But it still remains a surprise when the shatterings of calm happen.

I knew that my job was to help these patients open up in a safe space, but this was a huge eruption! I watched and let him bawl, and the staff and other patients did, too. When the momentum of sobs eased, there became an opening, and I asked him what had brought the emotions up.

It was the music.

Tell me more about that, I asked, and he did. He had been a professional oboist himself, and this was a piece he’d worked on and perfected, and had performed at significant events. Playing oboe had meant everything to him, which I thoroughly understood, and as he lost more and more of himself and drifted into illness, he had stopped playing oboe altogether. It was this moment, of hearing this piece, that he realized just how deeply he had sunk into illness. He had believed he’d had the ultimate loss, and would never play his beloved instrument again.

I wanted to encourage him to go back to playing again, but instead gave him room to mull over the choices he’d made and this loss. I saw from the other staffs’ faces that this was significant. My jumping to encourage him to play oboe again was the least helpful thing to do right then. In fact, that would have been about my needs, not his. The oboe playing might perhaps resume some day, once the other bigger issues that had brought him to this current level of illness were resolved.

The time left for sharing the animal cards had passed by and gone. Instead of that, the other patients listened to his story, and some also had tears. His story had stirred up recognition and painful feelings of loss for others, too. The work of opening up was done, not exactly via the white lace and doilies activity I had planned, but in a significant way nonetheless. It was time to end the session.

After the patients left the room, the lead Psychiatrist for the program came up to me to express her wonder and gratitude. That man had been ‘a hard nut to crack’, refusing to accept how unwell he was and downplaying the impact of so many accumulated losses. With him so stoic, they had not been too certain of the benefits of treatment, or his prognosis, but now they saw hope. Her gratitude was enormous.

I have no idea what happened with that patient after this breaking open; it does speak to the power of music, and of tenacity and drive of spirit.

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In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob meets his future wives Rachel and Leah. He also meets his biggest nemesis, Laban, his uncle and soon-to-be father-in-law. Jacob went to work for Laban as a young man, in love with Rachel and earning a living to support his new wives and family. But gaining wives and a job and money did not make him a fully mature adult; his Uncle Laban played him for the innocent over and over again.

Jacob succeeded in outgrowing his acceptance of this demeaning treatment in two ways. First, he stopped seeing himself as a hapless youthful victim. That liberated his beliefs that Laban was his controller. Second, Jacob used his smarts to create a way to surpass Laban and gain liberation and independence; he used his knowledge of flocks and breeding to create a scheme that would outsmart Laban’s expectations.

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Jacob, no longer a soft, trusting youth, was now an empowered and successful husband and a keen business man. It was not by passive inheritance that he earned the title of Patriarch for the Jewish people.

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And so, Jacob models for us how to change from being a victim to becoming mature. It took several experiences of treachery by Laban before Jacob finally became activated enough to outgrow his uncle, but he took that challenge on, and did.

And so, we have choices. If we perpetually suffer in silence as the obedient child we cannot grow. Something has to awaken and liberate us from others’ fears of us responding to our strong and natural feelings of dignity and self-direction.

We must feel the pain and anger of what is making us hostage or unwell, as did Jacob in the Torah, and the oboist in the inpatient group. Judging ourselves as if there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ feelings can be ruinous. All feelings are important and must be felt and listened to in order to thrive and become self-sustaining.

Jacob had several choices once he finally felt enough frustration, and chose to be smart and confident and outdo his abusive uncle and truly become the master and overseer of his own household. We have choices, too. I don’t know what the man in the program eventually chose to do, but I do know he had a loving team of professionals and patient peers to help figure that out.

Music is emotive information, without analysis and words. Emotions allow us to directly access what is deep inside. As one experienced Psychologist related to me about talk therapy, “talk is cheap; it’s the relationship that counts”. And music is relationship: feelings expressed and shared, passed amongst composer, performer and audience.

Let us learn what we can from the music we hear, from feelings that it evokes, and how these touch us inside and can set us in motion toward better things.

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Are You a Helper?

“Smother Love”  “I did a Mitzvah!”   “But, I did it for you!”

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How we love to both giggle and wince at these quotes. Yet, we wouldn’t laugh at these familiar lines if they didn’t hold some kernels of truth.

It’s almost Rosh HaShanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, the annual designated time for reflection and change, to discuss the ins and outs how to be a Helper.

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Many of us see ourselves as good people, and one way we show this is to help others. This desire to help is a virtue, really, and a basic tenet of most religions. In Judaism, we are commanded to remember the widow, orphan and stranger even as we celebrate our own abundances or successes.

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But, sometimes a virtue can be overdone to the point of becoming one’s undoing! This is best described in the Enneagrams, the ancient nine points of personality typologies that help us understand what our virtues or personality inclinations are, and how those same strengths of character can also become our undoing when we don’t maintain them in balance.

My agenda for bringing up the Enneagrams and not a Jewish text right before the New Year, is to offer you a perhaps new vehicle with which you can do the inner work of review and change during this season of reflection, reconciliation and renewal.

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I’ve chosen point TWO of the Enneagram, which is sometimes called ‘The Helper’, to further illustrate my message for this post, which is how to help others who may require it, in the best way. I’m particularly thinking about those of you who, due to the tragedy of the pandemic, are driven to be helpful to people who are ill, face ability barriers, or are home bound; people who may be in hospital, isolated at home, or need someone to help with chores. You may belong to a Jewish Chesed group, or church Outreach committee, or an organization that provides assistance as a volunteer or paid staff.

So, let’s explore further:

In my first two days of Chaplaincy training I had to read about the Enneagrams, and much as I complained about not wanting to study personality theories or new ways of labeling people, learning about the Enneagrams was probably the best learning and preparation for my work that I was ever to have.

I paid particular attention to point TWO (I am a ONE). This is because TWOs, the Helper type, were the people who I was often meeting as volunteers in the hospitals and on charitable deeds committees. It was hard to discuss with volunteers why rolling up your sleeves and being helpful is a good thing, but also requires training and supervision. The lessons of Fr. Richard Rohr, who captures this personality type with such clarity and elegance and compassion, allowed me to understand and better this imbalance of desire to be a helper with how the help was being offered. Here are some excerpts from his writings* about TWOs:

“As soon as they hear the little word “need,” they scrape together the last remnant of their energy to rush to help you…TWOs are extremely sensitive to the needs of others, but not aware of their own needs…“Hell hath no fury” like TWOs who suddenly realize that they are doing all the giving and not receiving what they feel they deserve in return.”

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And author Sandra Maitri shares**: “They have a self-sacrificing facade: this is the proverbial Jewish mother syndrome in which she appears to be thinking of others first and putting them ahead of herself, but in fact it is really manipulating them in this way on her own behalf. The passion of pride manifests here as a hidden sense of entitlement and privilege – a conviction that others must take care of them in compensation for their martyrdom, and that they deserve to keep the best bits in the kitchen for themselves.”

This doesn’t sound very good, does it! The self-effacing and selfless, tireless person who makes sure everyone knows how they are the helping-est person on the block, or in the church, or synagogue, or hospital auxiliary…may actually have a bad temper or self-serving motivations underneath all that goodness.

There, I said it. The difficult thing, the elephant in the room, the little boy who cries out, “The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!” Too often, I have seen unrestrained or untrained helpers lauded or receive awards and recognitions for their very public humanitarian achievements. But there may have been a cost for this.

Quite often, sadly, it is at the cost of those they have set out to help.

Because their helping is self-motivated or awarded with public recognition, the delivery may be more in accordance with achieving personal gratification but not in accordance with the needs of the care recipients. Especially at this time of the Jewish New Year, there may be appeals to congregants to roll up their sleeves to help. Please insure those of you responding to these opportunities also receive proper training, because your desire to help is important and we do want and need to support one another at this time of global economic and health challenges.

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In our current pandemic situation, you may already be volunteering, for example, bringing groceries to an elder in a long term care home. Are you picking out what you think is best for them, or what they have carefully put on the list they’ve provided: are you picking out some trendy alkaline water you like, instead of the distilled water for nasal rinsing they’d put on their list, for example. Are you grabbing anti-bacterial wipes when what they asked for was anti-viral wipes? Or rushing to quickly drop off bags of groceries and get on with your day, something they could hire someone to do, instead of sitting with them for a personal visit.

Of course, other much worse things can happen at a corporate level, with charities scandals that we sometimes hear about, which is of the same nature as a TWO personality. This could be, for example, in a charity that is continually lauded for its disaster relief programs, while turning a blind eye to its internal lack of religious accommodation or disability integration protocols.

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So, if you are wriggling in a bit of discomfort right now, that is good! You may be wriggling because of some self-awareness emerging, or because you recognize that you are tolerating or even lauding the unhelpful Helpers in your midst.

When ‘helpers’ do not realize they are not respecting the needs of care recipients, they are doing harm. When a helper is sure they know best what a care recipient needs despite the clear requests from the care recipient, they are doing harm. When a helper uses the stories of how they helped others to raise themselves up, they are doing harm. They may be on the surface doing the mitzvah of helping others, but is this truly being God’s helping hands?

Richard Rohr* shows us the way through this dilemma:

“The gift of TWOs is genuine humility, the reverse of pride. When TWOs reach the point where they recognize their real motives (“I give so I can get”), they may cry for days. When a TWO can finally cry tears of self-knowledge, redemption (healing) is near. At such moments, TWOs realize that they have perhaps damaged and injured other people while supposedly “wanting the best for them.” This is deeply humiliating. Redeemed TWOs deeply and profoundly know their innate value and preciousness and so don’t need to be continually affirmed from the outside.”

During this High HolyDay Season, the lessons of the redemption of the Helper TWO may speak to you.

It takes true courage and bravery to allow the truth to enter in, to feel the emotions that truth evokes, and understand how your beliefs and actions have affected others and may need adjustment for the better. This is what Teshuvah is: reflection and returning to our balanced Self. This is how we compassionately release ourselves from overweening ideas and actions and begin to mend our relationships and future actions for the better. This is how we grow and change and become better helpers, for ourselves and others.

L’Shanah Tovah U’metukah,  May You Be Blessed With A Sweet and Good Year

ayedison.org

*https://cac.org/type-two-need-needed-2016-04-28/

**https://www.personalitycafe.com/threads/type-2-excerpts-from-maitri.151511/

There Will Still be Hidden Instruments Playing

 

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A few weeks ago I tuned in to a much anticipated Gala Concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren.

To set the timbre of the concert, she opened by reading the following poem by the 13th century Persian Poet, Jalaluddin Rumi:

Where Everything Is Music

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Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

The poetry perfectly matched not only the music chosen by the guest artists, but also reflected the intrepid and authentic intentions of the IPO for deploying music as balm and reminder of good things we all have inside.

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Meanwhile, from dark forces on the outside: a cyber attack completely disabled the broadcast.

Yes, a cyber attack on a Global Music Gala. When the world needed music most, ugly politics, ignored the message of music, tried to destroy it.

And so, it is fitting that the Torah reading for that week was the story of Korach.

myjewishlearning.com

The context of this tale in the Book of Numbers is that the Hebrews, my ancestors, had recently sent spies into the land of Canaan. Their report that the land was unsuitable, was just one too many complaints about how the world works outside of the familiar life of enslavement in Egypt. God tells them that no one from this group of former slaves will enter the Promised Land; their beliefs and mindsets were not shifting over toward formation of a mature self-determining  people.

Instead, the people that enters the Promised Land will be of a new perspective, a new generation that would have no memory of life in Egypt; enslavement will not be part of their narrative memory.

And then, almost before this serious information can resonate fully in the minds of the wanderers, an insurrection is mounted. It is led by Korach, who sees everyone as equals and believes no one person should be making all the decisions and challenges the right of Moses to lead the people, saying, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?”

He does not grasp, has no understanding of, what leadership means, or why they have been turned away from the Promised Land. He only sees that Moses and God are schlepping everyone endlessly around the desert, when they have finally made it to the Land: and like a child who does not understand the need to grow and ready oneself for new responsibilities, it is making him miserable.

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It might feel just like this, these days. We all want to be in the land flowing with milk and honey, we want to see our friends and families, get back to our jobs and earn money and have a good life, now and for our children. But, here we are—pandemic and isolation.

It is hard to see what the future holds. The truth is, we cannot. Instead, we must look at each day as the whole of our experience. All our familiar chores and socializing have been suspended, and by now we know that we must persevere and not rush to re-open our lives. Already, some countries or zones are reeling from an intense second wave of pandemic cases because of opening too soon. We are in a wilderness, right along with the Biblical Israelites.

We can’t do what we did in our former lives. In fact, we had lived a sort of enslavement before the pandemic. Like the Israelites our enslavement was a dependence upon things outside of ourselves. In the Hebrews’ case, they had to obey their human captors.

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Some of us were enslaved to the demands of advertising and peer pressure: have expensive cars, elite schools for our children, unnecessary medical procedures, fancy nails. Like taskmasters, they drove themselves and others hard to acquire the means to have these things and be worthy. Others had to make ends meet by taking multiple jobs and leaving children for others to look after.

Now we are forced to see life stripped of these things and can make decisions about whether to resume chasing them or not. So many have lost the little they ever had to get by on, and must find a new way to make ends meet.

Also, in truth, we have always had our own self to fall back upon. Whether living solitary, or with family, or house-mates, we are living a new type of life: facing ourselves, full on. We’re not used to that: being alone on Saturday night was the worst thing possible during our formative adolescent years. But maybe it’s time to change that, too.

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Being alone was billed as ‘scary’. Those thoughts you used to avoid are now dancing around your consciousness all the time with no distractions from work or shopping or parties, as before. Like the wandering Israelites, we have left the enslavement behind, but also have not achieved freedom. Like Korach, we are leaving the familiar past, but not seeing what is ahead or have a destination–yet.

We have this idea that there is a ‘when things get back to normal’ or ‘things open up again’, just as did the spies in the Bible. But, in reality, we have left all that behind.

We have to transform that thinking, from the inside out and see the new land for what it truly is, or end up like Korach, swallowed up by the great gorge of our fears.

There are some previous pandemics to look back at for clues about where this will lead us as a global community. But what about our own personal trajectory in all this? How do we emerge ready for the new land we will find ourselves in?

Some of the answers will come from during this time of peeling away distractions and allowing deep listening for what lies beneath.

Look back at the poem by Rumi:

Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

When a musician plays music, the instrument is a tool, and what they play, the music, comes from deep engagement with the heartbeat of everything. One of my oboe teachers and mentor, Joseph Robinson has said,

The best moments have been breathtaking, transcendent and unforgettable, and each reminds me of what [Marcel] Tabuteau once said when I asked him whether he could remember any best moments in his long career…Pausing for a moment and looking toward the Alps, he said, ‘There were a few good notes … and they are still ringing.’*

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Everything is music, as Rumi says; musicians use their instruments to capture these ineffable notes, to share the music.

You can do this, too–Yes, you.

Here’s how: In your present you have unfinished business, financial troubles, loss of loved ones, illness, grief. Don’t forget to look at what resources you do have.

…and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

galleryhip.com

You too, can capture the music. It’s okay to be hidden. The Israelites had to stay in a wilderness with nothing familiar to anchor to, in order to coalesce into a people with an identity; with roles, structure, and distance from the desire to go back to how things used to be.

Finding a new angle of repose takes time; finding the music comes from listening, and from clues and from integrating the information. Write them down, share with family, make art, engage a counsellor.

We are in a time of broken and burned up instruments; just let the former structures that played your tune go and yield to the sounds that you hear.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

Oh, yes, and as for the cyber attack on the IPO Gala Concert? the IPO concert immediately became available for free until the end of July, on FaceBook.

*Robinson wrote in ‘The Wilson Quarterly’, in 1995.