I am writing from the deck of a cruise ship after having spent two weeks on deployment as a Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Chaplain in Texas.
Currently, I am the cruise ship’s rabbi and chaplain for the Jewish High Holidays; however for the weeks of September 5-19, I was deployed by the American Red Cross (ARC) in the role of DSC or Disaster Spiritual Care to provide assistance after Hurricane Harvey.
Let me show you what I learned about the difference between First World versus Real World problems, and spiritual distress.
My deployment to Texas occurred within 72 hours of signing up with the Red Cross Volunteer Connection site. It would have left sooner but I took a day to pack and find neighbors to mind my new home in the Southern California desert area.
As a hospital chaplain with 6 Units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I was fast-tracked into service. My flight arrived in Houston, TX around 9pm. My cellphone immediately rang with instructions to pick up a rental car and drive to a staff shelter in a church near downtown Houston: I had been binge-watching the original ‘Mission Impossible ‘ episodes for the past few weeks; now I was living them!
In brief, I did not sleep that first night in Houston. On a bare Red Cross cot with not enough blankets to keep warm, I began my 2-week saga of life with ARC Disaster Relief.
Breakfast was granola bars and coffee and I received yet more instructions by text to go to Houston HQ. I met the lead of DSC operations there and received my first briefing interview. My placement was to be at the Houston George Brown Convention Center (GBR), where refugees had numbered over 3,500. Now the Red Cross was downsizing to 1,200 residents, hoping the city of Houston would soon accommodate the remaining evacuees.
While at the GBR I ministered to people of all faiths, mostly helping residents locate the right services for their needs: FEMA, food stamps, reunification services, meals. I was approached by news media who asked me to provide a resident who could tell their story of being homeless and how the Red Cross would help them find housing. I hesitated to do this, as my profession’s ethics require confidentiality with clients. “We don’t wish to exploit anyone” the media rep said. I claimed inability to provide such a resource for the news media. My primary duty was to aid survivors and ease their distress.
After two days at the GBR, I was transferred to Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX, where I spent the remainder of my deployment.
Here is a daily meeting for ARC volunteers at the Beaumont HQ:
I was assigned a cot at a new location in downtown Beaumont, and there remained for a few days. Like all of Beaumont we had to rely upon bottled water, as tap water was not potable; shower at your own risk.
Let me tell you about southeast Texas. The community of Port Arthur is amongst the poorest in Texas, and certainly under-served with regard to receiving enough public support services. I know this from first-hand experience, not through news media or social media sources. This made my role of DSC chaplain stretch from immediate bedside spiritual care, to spiritual care in the form of community advocate as well.
Chaplains do more than provide religious, prayer, grief recovery or comfort services. We are also watchdogs and advocates for our clients. Just as I might have watched the nightly news and felt driven to speak for and advocate for relief and services to the people of Port Arthur, I was grateful to have the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and become an advocate in person.
I was at cot-side all day with individuals, and also made reports to any and all support providers to ramp up their services; both emergency and medical aid, mental health support and interventions, insuring clients were on lists with real appointments for financial, food, and insurance claims.
I also played the role of ‘loyal opposition’; working within the care system, while taking risks by speaking up with administrators about shortfalls in services from government agencies, medical services, placement and reunification services, and housing programs.
Although life was harsh in the shelters, with hundreds of citizens lying in close quarters on cots, it reflected what I observed as an acceptance for poor conditions as the norm for Port Arthur denizens. However, I am not able to share any photos online that may show evacuee-guests in them due to confidentiality concerns.
The Port Arthur shelters were created in the gymnasia of a high school. Here is a photo of the theater in the music department; it is indicative of the paucity of funding for core arts programs that might inspire and elevate the aspirations of students in Port Arthur.
How would you feel if this were the music theater for your child’s school?
My role officially was not to change what was before the hurricane. But I can show you and ask: What can you do to correct this disparity in educational facilities and funding?
Everything that creates a community evolves from its educational system, which ultimately contributes to the wellbeing and welfare of our nation.
Next, direct spiritual care. Yes, I am Jewish, and no, very few in south Texas who were affected by the hurricane were. I want to commend the local Beaumont Jewish community for reaching out beyond its own membership to the community at large and distributing items it collected to provide for survivors’ basic needs and beyond. One member even did my laundry for me!
The Red Cross encouraged faith communities to join them as a partner in disaster. Creating a system of ongoing local community-based aid, such as the Jewish and other groups did, will enable longterm local aid, so vital to self-determination and neighborly outreach.
Now, if you are wondering why this essay title says “First World Problems”, here comes the answer: whatever troubles are turning your crank, e.g. disappointment with your Internet provider, or with a recent dining experience, or with bad office politics, perhaps this essay about life in Port Arthur can reset your perspective.
Look at the photos here. They are the real thing; not images from social media or broadcast news:
If you are looking for ways to actualize your concerns or find your voice beyond what you can post to FaceBook, then consider signing up to volunteer or work in disaster relief. You will see the difference between what we in our comfortable First World privilege expect, versus what the reality is. And best of all, you can take your awesome advocacy skills and apply them first-hand toward fixing world problems.
Not all of North America and Europe are living in First World Comfort.
Yes, you can do something. Volunteer, donate, organize, remember, comfort.
Sharing a shelter coffee with a stranger who calls their temporary cot ‘home’ may just be the best cuppa joe you’ve ever enjoyed.
May you be inscribed for a good life this coming year…Susan
Monday’s solar eclipse in the USA provided a writing opportunity for merging my science background with gleanings from theological and faith practices.
The timing of the eclipse—falling on the Hebrew date of Rosh Hodesh Elul, or the 1st day of the month of Elul, and exactly one month before the 1st day of Tishri or Rosh haShana, the Jewish New Year—was laden with significance.
The Hebrew calendar is based upon the lunar cycle, and each Jewish month begins on the occurrence of the new moon.
This is different from other cultures whose calendars are based upon solar cycles, such as our civic Gregorian calendar. And it is the new moon, not the full moon, that is the significant phase of observance.
The Biblical significance of the sun and moon begin in Genesis Ch.1 v.14. God says that there shall be lights in the expanse of the heavens, to divide day from night, and:
“והיו לאתת ולמועדים ולימים ושנים”
“…they will be signs, for the set aside times, and for the days and the years.”
What God has created then with the sun and moon are not merely two planetary light fixtures, but objects in the expanse of sky above that provide signals to us for the observance of seasons and other specially set or appointed times.
We observe that the moon has cyclical phases and have set the new moon as the beginning of the each new month. The crescent of new moon emerges after its disk has waned fully leaving darkness. In observance, we take time off, especially women, and look forward to the moon’s cycling back to fullness. The eclipsed moon disk signals the time of pause before a new cycle begins; it is the hidden becoming manifest; the time to reflect upon what had been and what can be; the grieving of what was unfulfilled and the anticipation of success in the future. We are given the monthly gift of renewal.
On the science side, according to NASA a solar eclipse occurs when the moon, earth and sun are so aligned as to block one another’s light during the moon’s orbit around the earth. A solar eclipse can only happen if the new moon phase passes near one of the angular nodes of the moon’s orbit around the earth, explaining why there is not a solar eclipse with every new moon.
So the month of Elul in the USA this year has had two birth phases, the lunar new moon and the solar eclipse, both by biblical and scientific reckoning.
This solar eclipse held special spiritual significance for many. I wanted to know what that was like for different peoples.
I studied surveys of various ethnic and cultural groups to understand. What I learned was that for cultures that base their calendars and reckoning on the sun, such as we do in civic North America with the Gregorian calendar, a solar eclipse can be an ominous event: The great object that provides light, safety, energy and food—disappears.
For those whose culture is solar-base, even for the 2-1/2 minutes of the total eclipse, this is an ominous portent for some. Theological and liturgical explanations include: heralding the Rapture which will whisk away Christian believers and leave behind everyone else to face seven years of awful tribulations; God’s judgment upon humanity and against human sin; kings were not able to stop the sun’s disappearance, even by royal decree; Ancients filled the skies with other gods; Judaism, with its plethora of blessings for every natural event, has none for a solar eclipse.
Other traditions see the eclipse as a time for deeper introspection and prayer. In Judaism rather than providing a blessing, the Talmud gives lessons about the value of prayer at such times. In Native American traditions, commentators say their people see the time of solar eclipse as the liminal moment, the time between one world and the next. The National Museum of the American Indian set up a blog for indigenous peoples to post what their traditions are, and indeed the imagery of prayer, of self-reflection and change, of imminent rebirth, were commonalities.
This, then, is the time to pause and reflect on what has been; and upon what one may wish to step into as the light returns.
Whether your practice or culture is solar or lunar-based, the one thing in common is that prayer helps to ground one’s faith that indeed, the vanished sun or moon will indeed reappear. We have both God’s Word on that, and NASA’s.
Our ancient ancestors didn’t have NASA to explain the celestial events. Faith is the legacy they gave to us: that whatever happened in the past can be repaired as we pause in the liminal shadows and reflect on what and who we can be, in faith that the light will return.
~~Wishing You and Yours a Meaningful and Reflective Month of Elul~~
Although we are nearing the end of the year-long cycle of reading the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, I am drawn to the themes in Chapter 12 in the Torah’s first Book Bereshit, or Genesis.
This Book is called Lech Lecha in Hebrew, which is translated as urging someone to ‘go forth’. Yet, so much more…
There is an emphasis, a kick in the pants or as we say in Yiddish a potschke en tuchas.
You would say this to someone who is procrastinating or avoiding an encounter, putting off a decision, denying a problem, or overstaying a visit.
The Torah is once again doing us a favor. No one will willingly call you out or name for you the immense discomfort you’ll endure in order to maintain a status quo. But there is always a Torah story for that. And that is one of the gifts of studying Torah. Sometimes a close reading of a biblical story or passage about a predecessor can jog us into our own resolution when we are stuck.
But, it’s not enough to simply listen to or read the story. You have to really be engaged with the task. Here are some suggestions: let yourself not only hear or see the words, but as the story is told go into it fully. Feel the heat of the desert on your skin, see the infinity of the black and star-filled nights, taste the sweetness of the cool clear water or nurturing manna, feel the hefty weight of the swords in battle, the powerful arms of a chariot driver, the voice urging you to walk forth despite fatigue or pain.
Engage your inner vision; of taste, smell, skeleton and muscle. This is your way out.
Out of what? Well, only you know that. But here are some more insights from the Lech Lecha story. God tells Abram to go forth. Weren’t things okay for Abram already? All we know that he is a descendent of Noach (Noah), and then God calls to him to go forth one day.
There are many stories, or midrashim, that try to explain this sudden communication from God to Abram to act. The first midrash I knew about was told to us preschoolers in Sunday school. That Abraham (his name was actually Abram) smashed all the idols in his father’s store becaulse he didn’t believe they were real, like the real God he knew.
Although it is almost cartoon-like in simplicity and meant for children, I think that is a good adult explanation too. Isn’t that story describing the moment when everything you had always believed before, now crystallizes into a new truth? Remember when you realized that there was no Santa Claus and your parents were wrapping all those gifts for you under the tree, or that if you wanted to buy more toys you had to earn some money, or that you really had a dysfunctional family and really needed an escape plan?
Yes, these are concepts from childhood, but what did you do when you realized their truth? did you move forward and start giving as well as receiving gifts on holidays, did you create a means to earn income or did you seek out other safe places to live or work? Or are you still waiting for everything to go back to the innocent way it was before you had those awe-filled awakenings?
I ask this very personal question for you, as a favor, so you can start to move toward your answers.
Some of the outcomes of not heeding a call to move forward, and instead clinging to the perceived safety of the old and familiar routines, are not good. Some outcomes are: feeling too tired to act and sinking into depression, expressing helpless rage at others or self that things are not staying the same anymore, or coping by numbing through addictions.
Individuating into your own self-sustaining person is a daunting, difficult path. Yet once you know the truth of your circumstances, the courage can be summoned to take action.
When Abram started to listen to God’s Voice he grew out of being a son/child. As the Torah says in detail for us: he went forth from his land, from his birthplace, and from his father’s house toward the land which God would show him.
Heeding God’s voice was for Abram a true act of faith; he did not know where he was going, only that he should go. He was leaving behind all that was dear and familiar to follow a Presence that told him to go. And that by doing so he would make a great nation; and his name, or house of descendants, would be blessed.
I am not saying to wait for actual or imagined words in your ears or mind to know when to move forth, although that can happen. But when you have an insight; and a paradigm has shifted for you, that is a time to listen carefully with your inner ear. The real courage is to heed the call; keeping you eyes and ears open allows the details to grow clear.
Courage and strength to face the difficult and unknown comes from the faith that going forth means growth; and is indeed better than staying still.
During my summer break in Amsterdam, while attending a gathering with musicians from around the world, I came full circle back to Jewish instrumental music, and to the upcoming Yamim Noraim, the Jewish New Year season.
Lunchtime discussions with composer and musician colleagues from such places as Iran, Armenia, and Turkey included experiences with local contacts in the Jewish music communities where they live; music
that had originated in Persia and then moved into Turkey as musicians fled persecution some 400 years ago. The subsequent rise of the great Cantors and Jewish composers of Europe in the 1800s such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski exemplified the growth and popularity of exotic or ‘oriental’ music interests in Austria and Vienna prior to WWI.
Here the connection amongst my international peers became personal: For several years now, I have played Lewandowski’s heavenly adaptation of ‘Kol Nidrei’ on oboe, accompanied by cello, as the opening to the Kol Nidre service that opens the holy day of Yom Kippur at my local synagogue.
I want to share with you how having such instrumental music enhances the Yamim Noraim experience for congregants and patients, and some of the technical and practical information you might want to have about engaging such music for your place of worship or service.
Chaplains such as myself are mostly all aware that music has therapeutic, spiritual and healing capacities. We work with music therapists, sing at bedside, and bring recorded music to our patients and families to ease their time while unwell or transitioning. We can also bring ensemble music into worship or reflection time.
The benefits of instrumental music are that there are no words: it is pure experience, both for the listener and the performer. When I play Lewandowski’s piece, there is a moment when the notes climb just so high; and then I let go. The notes are released and go upward, unfettered by words or ideas; I think some even may still be rising.
I have had feedback from congregants that they, too, went somewhere at those moments of musical release. No words were exchanged. No sermons said, or liturgy sung, or readings read. Just a rising above, a seeking toward the Ineffable, and then a slow, blessed, and reflective return to the here and now.
That for me is the opening to the Kol Nidre service.
Practicalities if you wish to engage instrumental music for the High Holidays at your place of worship:
Play the music in secular time, before candle lighting, from the Bimah or other visible place, after everyone is seated and quieted. Musicians’ dress in white. Perhaps play some lovely Jewish melodies for ambience, as people are finding their seats, with no need for an attentive audience. Some good melody choices are: (Erev shel Shoshanim) “ערב של שושנים” (Avinu Malkeinu) “,אבינו מלכנו”(Dodi Li)“,דודי לי.” Keep the ensemble small, 2-3 musicians.
How to compensate the musicians? We have to talk about that. Although we say musicians “play” music, it is a job — and hard work! Please pay appropriately. The rate should be about $300-$500. Remember, there is a great deal of time invested by musicians for recruiting the right ensemble, choosing repertoire, rehearsals, clothing, for time setting up, the actual performing, and then taking down. What would you pay a guest speaker for a keynote plus other speeches at a major synagogue event? Adjust according to the venue: a care home, a chavurah, a large urban synagogue, etc.
I love doing the work of bringing instrumental music into spiritual care settings. I also believe that bringing instrumental music to worship is a form of spiritual care for the congregants who are not in a care home or hospital. We can all benefit from the inclusion of spiritual connection through instrumental music to our already well-founded traditions of liturgies, Torah, and sermons.
Try this for your ימים נוראים and let me know how it goes.
לשנה טובה ומתוקה ומוסיקלית
*this article can also be found in the Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains Newsletter pg. 9
Selichot is the name for the Jewish service that comes on the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) before Rosh haShana, the observance of the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew word, selichot means pardons or apologies, reflections on the past and the act of saying some things we did were done wrong and we admit it. We admit it and also think about how, if encountered again, we would act in the same situation.
There are three types of errors or sins in Judaism: one that occurs by accident that you might not even know you committed; one that you know you committed and know was wrong; and one you know you committed and yet believe was right to do.
In all of these ways of erring, we suffer. Life cannot realistically progress in steps of frozen perfection. Such a need for control and perfection leads to mental and social breakdowns for both individuals and communities. Our sages knew that allowing our mistakes helps us to thrive and grow stronger. The pressure to be perfect when perfection is not achievable or even desirable, takes its toll. As long as we choose to acknowledge and consider how we can learn from mistakes to do the same things better, given the chance, we are released from the burden of regretting the mistake.
There are some formulas for actualizing the desire to return to wellbeing, how to process from mistake to lesson learned. The components are familiar terms: reflection, insight, feelings and emotions at the time of the incident. Were you so driven by emotions at the time that you spoke or acted without using your good judgment and intellect? What would you prefer had been happening, both in yourself and in relationship with the other person? Can you slow down the action and see it from the distance of today?
Now comes the work part. Understanding means now that you are away from the situation you can do the intellectual examination. Where is the moment when you did or said the thing you are regretting? Understand why you did it. Was it due to emotional charges you were compelled to yield to for example. If so, be comforted with what Daniel Goleman tells us about emotional intelligence: that the ability to tolerate delayed gratification will allow your nervous system to move away from the emotional seat of the brain to the intellectual one.
You can tell yourself, ‘wait, don’t take this bait, wait for delayed gratification’ next time. If emotional bait is set out, you don’t have to bite immediately. Let it dangle until it looks more like an opportunity to think than for biting.
Looking back on what you did is step one. Understanding through intellect and recollection is step two. Next, the healing part. Forgive yourself. No matter who did the bad thing, you must forgive yourself for having been drawn in, or for perpetrating the situation. Either way, you had your good reasons at the time. Forgive yourself for not having seen the better way back then. At the very least, no self-battering. You goofed, knowingly, unknowingly, or believing it was okay. You can always put your hands out to the sky and say, “I goofed and I want to get past it.”
God listens to these prayers. People don’t always listen or believe. You and God can have your own private talk about it. Any time. While washing the dishes, watching a sunset, during the silent Amidah in synagogue, in other spiritual homes or circles. This companioning and witnessing with God or with trusted others lends the power of feeling safe, so that you could now be faced with the same situation again, and know how to do it better.
The last step is to go back to the person or situation and apologize. A fad in the 1980’s was to turn to your neighbor in synagogue and tell them “I apologize if I have done anything to hurt you this past year.” That is not teshuva, a real return to the land of our souls, from before the error or sin. This is a copout formula.
Teshuva means speaking directly to the other party about the actual event. It means apologizing without explaining anything. The formula, “I’m sorry I didn’t turn in my homework. Because the dog ate it.” has never worked. “I’m sorry I didn’t turn in my homework.” Is sufficient. It is the bridge or kesher that you have now built between yourself and the other person. Don’t cheapen it with excuses, valid or not.
It is the apology that counts, not the reason for the mistake. If you can both learn from the reasons, very good, but know that it is the apology that holds the power to heal.
I hope this small foray into how forgiveness of self, of others, of prayer or witnessing, and of offering apology can heal relationships has gently touched and awakened some aching places. I hope you are able to unload some of the weight we all manage to assemble, usually so subtly we don’t realize it is there until it has been released through processing.
I know my life has been lighter these past few hours since Selichot, and wish us all further days of lightness and auspicious beginnings.
It is always a pleasure to take a stroll in Vancouver when we are having weather as lovely as we have this past week has been.
Today I took time out from my task of absorbing and adapting new Balkan and Klezmer tunes on my Oboe and English Horn to get some fresh air.
To my delight, the sidewalks near my home were chalked with happy notes pointing to ‘Cello Music’, some with whimsical musical notes in pretty colours. I knew right away who it would be at the end of the trail: Clara Shandler, Canada’s Sidewalk Cellist!
Clara is a treat to watch and listen to with her carbon-fiber cello and fusion of new and classical music.
It is also a treat to perform with her and I have had the pleasure of joining her on Oboe to offer liturgical music, particularly Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’, for the opening minutes before the Kol Nidrei service begins on the evening of Yom Kippur. I can attest to the melding of music and sacred time when we have played this piece together, notes intertwining as they ascend up to the heights, transforming players and listeners for the ascent back to earth. A wonderful opening to this Day of At-one-ment.
Today, Clara played solo in the park, a mix of Debussy, Fauré, live Gypsy and heavy metal riffs, with loops assisted by her electronica.
The important thing Clara does is to explain her music: its history, her history, her selection, and how it is blended. And, expect a quiz—listening for themed passages. The audience becomes fully engaged. It was a pleasure to sit on a blanket with adults and children, everyone engaged with the music, some crayoning her fun posters, and allowing the final chords to fade before applause. How refreshing! How al fresco!
The other thing about Clara’s music is that she shares it locally and abroad. She teaches music in Asia as well as touring Canada coast to coast.
For me, today’s neighbourhood stroll brought an unexpected treat. No one had to dress up or buy an expensive ticket or commute to a theatre. Music as no-big-deal made it a Very Big Deal.
The pleasure today was in the surprise of this found music; under a tree on a blanket; in the neighbourhood, simple and soft, complex and rustic.
That so many were attracted and attentive to this unexpected music-in-the-park reminded me of the Psalms.
You may have noticed a cryptic phrase opening many of these saying, ‘to the conductor of instruments’. This is no accident: the psalmist used their knowledge that music bypasses the complex thoughts that confound our lives. We find ourselves unwinding from those entanglements as music engages our non-verbal inner selves.
The Psalms were meant to have a music and rhythm, and for good reason.
Their words of comfort and healing were meant by the composer to be matched with the non-verbal sounds of sacred music. Need and example? look at the list of instruments in Psalm 150.
Next time you are strolling by a musician, Take 5 and allow the sounds to move your inner thoughts from words to music. And remember how special all of our musicians are at creating that charged elixir, including the Sidewalk Cellist!
My previous post spoke about crossing the narrow bridges over the narrow places of our lives, without our fears…
The post also referred to Shavuot as the time when Jewish people refresh our collective memory of standing together after seven weeks of wandering and chaos, as one people at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.
The tragedy at the Pulse Club in Orlando has created another time of wandering in chaos for so many people: the shooting victims, their families and friends, the United States, LGBTQ people everywhere, and the world.
Today, before beginning to chant the haftarah portion from the book of Habakkuk during our Shavuot services, I read aloud to the congregation from the letter below, sent by Idit Klein, Executive Director of Keshet, the national Jewish LGBTQ organization:
“…It is sickening that the deadliest mass shooting in American history targeted LGBTQ people during Pride month. When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai. So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.
May the memory of all who lost their lives in last night’s attack be for a blessing.
L’Shalom, with prayers for peace…”
Her message is one of comfort and community. The message in the chapter of Habakkuk also brings comfort.
The prophet says that it was a mistake to criticize God for allowing the weak to suffer while the powerful, such as the Babylonian captor Nebuchadnezzar, flourish. However, soon after Habakkuk observed that the Jews were gaining in strength and resolve; as they reconciled their own fears and weakness they began to engage once again. Their enemies were now succumbing to the wrath of God and Nature and fleeing from before the Jews.
This evening I went to the closing concert for our Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It was a night of farewells to a couple of beloved musicians. Amidst the adieus and accolades, Maestro Tovey also spoke the comforting power of music, of music healing sorrows in ways beyond words. He spoke about the composer Samuel Barber whose Violin Concerto was to be played. Samuel Barber was gay. Tovey asked the audience and players to dedicate the second movement to the victims of the Orlando shootings, followed by some time for silence. I have never experienced the Orpheum Theatre so engaged with the music, which was so strongly emotive and fulfilling.
I want to affirm my message to keep moving forward on that narrow bridge. Find the source of your fears.
In the case of the massacre in Orlando, yes an individual committed that tragedy. How are you doing with the fear that may arise in you? Do you feel weakened? Are you believing your fear is caused by others whom you feel a victim to? Or do you feel strengthened in your faith and resolve to keep moving over that narrow bridge, knowing you will find both challenges and rewards?
Can you remember that once the Jewish people began to see themselves as a people united with their resolve and faith, they could face their captors and prevail.
Please recall the victims and your sources of meaning, strength and resolve.
Zichronam l’Vracha לברכה זכרונם
May the memory of all who lost their lives in Sunday’s attack be for a blessing.
L’Shalom, with prayers for peace within yourself and toward others
The 50 days between Passover and Shavuoth mark are a time set aside to mark the Biblical journey of the Hebrew people from Enslavement in Egypt to Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Egypt is called Mitzrayim in Hebrew, meaning ‘narrow place’. This year, the retelling of the journey of my ancestors from out of the Narrow Place of bondage to receiving the Torah (Law), brought to mind a saying of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ‘“The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
This year has been a turbulent one worldwide. There are refugees streaming away from crises in their homeland, there are reversals of progressive gender equality legislation, there are demands by college students to be provided with a safe environment, terrorism is on the rise, and at least one American Presidential candidate is running on a platform of backlash against any progressive racial, cultural or gender policies. What is driving this? Fear.
Fear from all quarters is headlining the news these days. People are afraid. Some are afraid of losing their familiar way of life, some of losing their long battle for hard-won rights; some are expecting their path to be free of obstacles, others are creating obstacles to draw attention.
It seems they are all walking across narrow bridges, or wandering lost in the desert, while schlepping (carrying) along their old fears.
In the case of the Exodus story, as soon as there was any hardship in the desert, the people demanded to go back to the Narrow Place of Egypt where things were familiar, where they even fantasized they had dined on fish and leeks.
The wandering in the desert was scary; the best thing to do was blame someone, Moses their leader, for their scary predicament. It was much like crossing a narrow bridge: you are in an unrecognizable place, neither here nor there and can only go forward.
Fear of changes such as these arise in part due to a lack of structure or guidebook. The Hebrews escaped the Narrow Place knowing only that 400 years of slavery was enough, and they could not stand being slaves any longer.
They did not know where they were going; and that was scary. The narrow bridge they were crossing was certainly taking them away from a very bad place. If they could endure the chaos that resulted from a new and unfamiliar freedom things would certainly be better. They did not have a structure for this mass exodus; instead they just had to stay the course and keep walking, fear and all.
After many mishaps and building their own source of guidance with the Golden Calf, they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. I like this Biblical example of how treacherous it is to cross from places of chaos into those of order. I believe the model can be applied to ease our modern maelstrom of push-and-shove over newfound cultural, racial and gender paradigms and events.
I will share a recent personal experience. I was walking home from synagogue one Shabbat. As I passed the outdoor patio of a coffee house, I overheard a very loud conversation that was overtly using expletives against both Israel and Jews. I thought about what to do about this rather brash conversation and decided to turn the situation into an opportunity to ask what the basis was for the loud and offending remarks. First, I approached the loud group of young people seated at a table and simply identified myself as one of the Jews they were deriding. As I walked away, the young people beckoned me to stay and speak with them. Through these actions, we all set aside fear and embarked upon a walk over that narrow bridge together.
We talked. When asked, they could not provide any facts about Jews and Israel; they only knew their negative views from friends’ opinions and the abundance of left-wing popup news media on the street. They wanted me to give an overview of Judaism and I gave them some dates for important events in the formation of the modern country of Israel. I invited them to Google these and see what else they could learn.
Contrary to what fear might have said about this conversation, they thanked me profusely.
By taking those steps toward them a journey began, away from the enslaving ideas we had on both sides, toward a way of understanding how this chaos of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism came to be.
I also learned that diplomacy happens in direct 1:1 conversations: not through online polemics, international political gestures, grandiose political swaggering, or biased news media.
I have told this story about the coffee house conversation to others. Usually the first response is, with all that pressure to conform to the status quo of the neighbourhood, wasn’t I afraid to approach these young people? My reply has been that my only fear was that because I was peacefully walking home from synagogue when I overheard them, I might be violating Shabbat (the Sabbath) by potentially creating a conflict. However, the wisdom of faith told me that the honest way to create and perpetuate Shabbat peace was to take that walk on that narrow bridge and engage these people, without fear.
We observe the passage of 50 days from Passover to Shavuoth as an opportunity to take steps away from things that we are unsafely bonded to and find an order in our lives that matters.
There are still a few days left before Shavuouth begins, on the evening of June 11th. Find time over these days to leave behind something that holds you back—a habit, an addiction, a prejudice, a hurt—and move ahead with faith rather than fear, that something good lies ahead.
A few days ago I set out in my car on a road trip. I had my iPod set on shuffle. As I left the border crossing behind and hit the open highway, The Mighty Clouds of Joy came on, singing ‘He’s My Saviour in the Storm’: and from the bottom right of my view, the most remarkable rainbow arced fully over the highway; it remained in my forward view for a full hour and a half, until the sun set.
How so the passage of time keeps us treading in the same spot while simultaneously providing new frames of reference. In particular, I recall those decades of fantabulous mind-bending alternative reality discoveries most of us we Boomers survived, during the ‘1960’s-’80’s.
Those fantasmagoric new realities included the reflective internal arts of the Far East: meditation, Buddhism, the martial arts, and Taoism.
What I am discovering is that although they are sound and powerful tools to self-knowledge, their applications back in those turbulent days of change in North America were less so. In fact, the fashionable gravitation towards anything novel and unlike what our parents did ultimately led to accepting ersatz versions of the original practices. Despite this we still ingested digested and distilled versions of practices which by their very nature required patient, slow, disciplined commitment and engagement. In other words, we were engaging with these foreign practices and yet remaining just as we were; always looking for a quick fix for ourselves.
The disillusionment is palpable for most Boomers I meet with. We live in a new era of people long disenfranchised from organized religions and faith practices; and worse, have witnessed the unveiled, mundane wizards behind the curtains who manipulated the counterculture’s ‘sacred practices’ for their own commercialized success. Examples include the proliferation of entrepreneurism in yoga wear, their requisite slogans to encourage you to go to class (and look good at the same time), or the exposure of the empty teachings of Transcendental Meditation, and the leadership of the Bikram yoga franchise. The irony of this is our ongoing belief in instant fixes through these practices. Now, every mainstream medical and healthcare clinician is prescribing meditation, yoga, and tai chi as exercises for body and mind, fuelling an open and unregulated market of teachers and gurus.
In each of these settings, nothing new is being gained. The value of these ancient Eastern arts is that they are arts. They are not the equivalent of circuit training, riding an exercise bike, or doing a set of calisthenics with a qualified trainer. The oriental arts are not primarily meant to develop the body; they are meant to develop the mind through engagement with the body. This takes more than a prescription for lessons and not only repeating physical movements, but also understanding them.
Why would a Jewish Chaplain be writing about this? And why now?
I am noticing a trend in both the public media and in my practice that people are really stressed in general, which is nothing new. What is new is that we have lost our way as a society; we have lost or eschewed a reliable source to turn to when the going goes from everyday stressful into crisis.
How does it look when you are navigating a full time salaried day job or being a full time homemaker with all the work and busy-ness these require, and now you have a cancer diagnosis? Or your beloved father dies unexpectedly, or your child. Or your spouse tells you over dinner they are leaving and want a divorce. Now what?
People in general do not live in standby mode, ready and prepared for these things, unless they have some fear-based drives to live that way. In times of trust in faith, we grew up knowing, because everyone believed it so, that going to church or temple would provide a framework for navigating these rough times. Unfortunately, even these places succumbed to the lightness of empty experience. Boomers have created alternative rituals in yoga studios, the gym to be buff, to karate to earn a black belt, or doing drugs with friends and we got lost in Transcendental Meditation. These activities certainly have their value, but will they provide a source to turn to when the ordinary becomes unbearable?
I recall sitting with a friend many years ago. I was always impressed at how she had the wherewithal to be self-sustaining in her own private healthcare clinical practice. Yet, as we talked, she told me about her husband’s long history of drinking and how she no longer came home to find him adorably rummy; he was now impossible to be around. She and her adult children were in a crisis: there was no where to go for answers, for comfort, for directions out of this mess. She thought about closing her practice and just leaving the country altogether on her own. But what she really wanted to tell me was how much she regretted not having been part of a religion and having instead brought up her children without any sort of religious practice; no Sunday school, no weekly worship, no way of sorting out the deep questions and suffering they were all going through. She wanted to talk to me because my family did do those things and had built a spiritual foundation to turn to should we need it. For her and her family, it was a long road to embark upon on top of trying to cope on a daily basis. I encouraged her to invest herself and take the first steps anyway, acknowledging that it was certainly simpler to just escape.
Other manifestations of the ’60-’80’s indulgences of the Boomers include the continued belief that change can be instantaneous. We still want instant nirvana or enlightenment. And, being proud North Americans, someone will assure us that if we desire it, we can create it. We have moved somewhat beyond Timothy Leary and the promise of instant knowledge of the universe in a single tab of LSD; we now know that won’t happen. In fact what we have gained from that belief is a serious national problem with intravenous drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.
Back to that sunset with rainbow and gospel song. Not to parallel my new-found rainbow in the sky with the strawberry-fields-forever of the rock ‘n’ roll era, but to say that there are important and life-altering convergences that go on in our lives all the time.
We are too busy looking for a quick fix to see them. Even the experiencing of these ephemeral convergences has been co-opted. Synchronicities, the unbidden and mundane convergences that are life altering moments, ironically have lost their effect toward change by becoming something we actively seek. What the Eastern arts were originally designed for was to train ourselves through various practices to be able to notice those convergences. These moments of grace are natural occurrences that we observe only in the subtlety of quiet availability, developed over time, the same way that learning to play a piano gracefully and with satisfaction takes time and engagement.
Or in navigating the features of a computer, or learning to speak as an infant, or learning a new language. Do you remember your first steps as an infant? Probably not, but you have likely watched a baby taking first steps, and then the months and years to learn coordination and mastery of physical movements.
It is the same with our spiritual growth. There is no quick fix or quick lesson for that. If anyone tries to sell you that, fire them. And certainly don’t seek it, or you will find yourself with that familiar pastey taste in your mouth, disillusioned and empty after investing in a shortcut lesson in enlightenment.
I once took a meditation class at my local community centre. The instructor talked constantly for over an hour, and even after we finally got 10 minutes to sit quietly to try meditation, she gabbed at us about how marvellous serenity was. Instead of relaxing, all I wanted to do was shout at her, “You need to take a meditation class to learn to be quiet!”
These arts require knowledge as well as practice. On the outside we may look right with the right clothes, cushions, prayer books and garb, gee and slippers, but the deepening of the art comes from understanding what the path or process is and matching that information with how you do it. For example, tai chi is actually tai chi ch’uan, a martial art, and as such is meant as a means of cultivating focus for your inner strength. It may appear to be a lovely free flowing improvisational dance because of the gracefulness of one who is fully engaged in the movements, but each movement is actually the review of a lesson in focusing a neutralizing or deadly defensive move against an attacker.
When you have found your practice, whether it is prayer at a conventional religious community, meditation, martial art, creating music or a garden, you will have developed a sensitivity that invites meaningful moments that seem like nirvana. The moment I heard the gospel song and saw the rainbow appear as I sped onto the highway of a new country, the world shifted. I no longer worried about anything; I let go of everything because suddenly everything made sense. I felt a rush of gratitude for this unbidden moment of grace or deliverance at just the moment the song beckoned the listener to thank God. I was grateful that I had allowed myself the faculties to sensitivity to recognize the moment. I thought of the Beatles’ song, ‘The Fool on the Hill’, and felt how glad I was to have been that fool, regularly setting foot in my spiritual practices and studies knowing there is no instant fix.
*God is nigh in the new Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Hail Caesar!’.
From the opening moment when the main character, Mannix (Josh Brolin), is seen in the confessional at 4am, until the film’s end when we see him stride confidently in his purpose as head of operations of a large Los Angeles movie studio, we are gifted with the inside scoop on how God works.
What better venue to teach us about faith and God than a 1960’s Hollywood studio? The themes of adultery, kidnapping, extortion, forbidden homosexuality, McCarthyism, Communism, bribery, and graft run freely as we watch the studio in production of a film about the life of Christ.
We are at first amused with the opening scene of a man in the confessional asking forgiveness for having smoked a couple of cigarettes outside of his promise to his wife that he will quit. It seems petty and small. Although he desires absolution from the sin of lying, this montage sets up a notion that he is led by the nose of guilt and sin to confess, and not by any great intellect.
As the film progresses though, we learn more about Mannix. Several films are being shot simultaneously in various sets and locations. His job is to oversee and trouble shoot them all, and to keep the studio schedules and bottom line on track. He has his hands full: the star of the studio’s blockbuster, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped from the set; the Esther Williams knockoff (Scarlett Johansson) is single and now pregnant; the cow-brained heart throb Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) of their latest Western can’t act unless he is sitting on a horse or twirling a rope; the Gene Kelley-style hoofer, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is about to be outed by the gossip journals for having had gay sex with one of the studio’s star directors; and Mannix is being courted by the aerospace industry to sign on with them to head their nuclear weapons program for a guarantee of lifetime income. Meanwhile his wife phones to ask him to negotiate a better spot for their son on the Little League team.
At first it is all goofy and a bit reminiscent of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.
On set, Baird is drugged and then hauled off unconscious to a hideout in Malibu. After awaking in a chaise lounge still dressed in his Roman togs, the maid shows him into a room full of nerds eating cucumber sandwiches—otherwise known as Communists. He becomes intrigued, is swayed by their passion to have the Caesars of the world give all back unto the workers, whilst being photographed by his new comrades with the unspoken purpose of blackmailing the studio for a ransom.
Meanwhile, back at the studio, in desperation, Hobie becomes the fill in for a swishy high society film to replace the Clark Gable type who did not show. He looks the part in his tux, but with his cow pie vocabulary can’t please the director.
In order to make the Christ film sell, Mannix brings in clergy from Christianity and Judaism for their feedback and approval. As they sit politely around the table, the clergy begin with criticism of some technical aspects of the film. Mannix redirects them back toward giving their theological considerations. At first gracious and polite, the men of faith quickly evolve into a theological wrestling match about who is God, who is Jesus, and which of these can star in a movie. We observe that the only one in the room with any faith at all is Mannix; he presses them to attest that the film at least is not offensive.
Back in his office, a troubled Hobie walks in just as Mannix is trying to close the briefcase with the $100,000 ransom money for Baird.
Enter God, stage left.
Mannix then begins to perform his real work through inspired decision-making. He sees the gift of natural simplicity in the cowhand and in an act of inspired faith confides with him about the kidnapping and ransom. Hobie’s natural simplicity and goodness allow him to help out just as willingly any good and honest western cowpoke would.
I was fascinated by the Hollywood Communist subplot. Growing up as a child of the 1950’s-‘70’s, I knew that Hollywood blacklisted wonderful talent because of its fear that Communism would take over America through occupying its media, particularly films. Ghastly apparitions of these Communists were made bigger than life: scary, smart, intellectuals and geniuses from the Soviet Union. What we see in this film is a living room in a luxury hideaway filled with ectomorphs and endomorphs eating crust-less cucumber sandwiches, espousing ideas they barely understand, and arguing with each other about them. They call upon their sage Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), a thinly disguised avatar of Herbert Marcuse, who espouses in oblique terms about alienation from an increasingly totalitarian universe that trumpets its freedom at every moment.
The whole notion of a Communist takeover, dubious as it was during the height of the McCarthy flare up, is now turned on its head and portrayed as nothing more than a living room full of cranks. The final blow to any notion that the ideologies of these living room Communists had any social integrity comes when these intrepid Marxists row a dingy to rendezvous a Russian submarine. They beg Gurney, who leaps Hollywood-style from the dingy to board the sub, to take the ransom money from them, the lowly Workers, and give it to ‘The Cause’. So much for dispersing Wealth amongst the Workers of the World. Gurney takes his pet pooch instead, and the valise of money hurled toward him falls to the bottom of the sea. So much for The Cause.
The Coens have also hurled our beliefs in God, our religious institutions, Clergy, ideologies, and popular heroes down the drink…
But we are not left adrift for long:
The Coens bring us back to Mannix, once again in the confessional, same reason. But now, we understand his need for prayer. He is not a man draped in dogma, far from it. He deals with the fallout from religious dogma all day: protecting his gay director, his unmarried pregnant star; seeking ecclesiastic approval for the blockbuster film.
He is also wrestling what his own purpose is. Does he continue with this pivotal role in protecting Americans from their idols, despite his long overtime hours and mediocre pay? does he take the offer from the aerospace industry and gain monetary security while enabling the birth of the atomic bomb?
We watch him in fervent prayer. He then returns to the confessional to be forgiven about the cigarette lie again. This time though, he has a question for the confessor: what is one’s purpose in life, to do what brings security, or to do what feels right? the answer he is given is of course to do what is right. How will he know when that is?
we can feel when we are doing right, and when we do what feels right to us, we are doing God’s work.
When Mannix returns to work the next morning, he is light as a colt. He strides along the studio as his secretary follows him with the morning list of tasks. Each of the insurmountable problems of the day before is resolved: the pregnant star marries the stooge who was hired to temporarily adopt her child so she could then legitimately adopt it; the cowboy says his lines perfectly, because the director has made the words simpler; Mannix instructs his secretary to tell the aerospace rep No Thank You; the gossip columnist who had threatened to expose the homosexual liaisons of their star is told her witness to the scandal is a known Communist. Everything is in its place.
The penultimate piece is Mannix grabbing a loose-minded Baird by the scruff and telling him that as the star, his only job is to convince everyone in the audience that the actor on the cross is Christ, and nothing less.
We are cut to a marvelous scene: the Roman Clooney at the foot of the cross of the Jewish thief. And with a beatific countenance he expounds to the Roman beside him on the majesty of the teacher before them, and of his teachings about a new way for humanity. The Coens’ cameras are panning the set: handlers, script boys, costumers; all are awash in the glory of Clooney’s words. That is…until he stumbles for the last word of the script. We all fall off Mount Calvary and are back in Hollywood.
What was that last word? His co-star prompts him; “Faith“.
Oh well, in Hollywood there’s always time for one more take.
- A version of this article is also available in PlainViews March 16, 2016 Volume 13 No. 3, for professional Chaplains.