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….

© Susan J Katz

…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.

Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You*

**Just added to my Event Calendar: “There is a Crack in Everything: Leonard Cohen’s Poetry of the Soul”

Welcome! You may be thinking that this will be a discourse or d’rasha, about Jews and Music…

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Or, This post is going to be about the musical, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat;

or that it’s about Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry;

 

it kinda makes sense, too, that this little d’rasha might be about Jews and Music because I’m Jewish and a musician.

But, as always, we’ll go a bit deeper…

In the last several weeks’ Torah readings we read about Joseph’s long saga, from being sold into slavery as a visionary youth, to being reunited with his father, Jacob. Jacob, long ago, had been told by his other sons, that Joseph was dead, torn apart by beasts. In Truth, though, we know that Joseph had been thrown into a pit by his brothers to die, and then they spared his life and sold him as a slave to a passing caravan.

And, we know from the Torah readings of the past few weeks, that despite enduring one of the worst sorts of familial deception, which leads to a life filled with other treacheries and deprivations; in the end, it all comes out okay for Joseph and his family.

  • Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh;
  • Joseph, the beloved son, is reunited with his father and embraces his brothers
  • There is prosperity and expansion for the Hebrews of Goshen

So, It’s all good, and that could be the end of this presentation: right??

Well, No…

That is because the Big Thing that I have learned over the years, the Big Thing to love about studying Torah, is how the stories in it are your stories and mine, too.

So, How is that? How could I, a Modern Day, Single, Jewish, Female, Senior Citizen, ever relate to the story of a Young, Impetuous, Man, from the days of Ancient Patriarchy, named Joseph? or to his brothers’ stories, or his father’s? After all, there are a few seemingly irreconcilable differences between myself and these characters in this story. So, here’s how:

~~Here is a way of finding personal lessons and wisdom from the Torah; it works, for me, and maybe for you, too~~

First, let’s think about so-called ‘Wisdom’ stories or texts, from any culture, and think about how far back they originated. Here are a few examples to get you started: the I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Koran, Australian Aboriginal Creation/Dreaming Stories, Native American traditional knowledge, Egyptian Book of the Dead….

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Why do humans make these sort of stories, ones that are passed down for generations, from times well before writing began that have lasted for long afterwards? Because Sages, those people of great insight who have the gifts of being able to integrate what they

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personally experience and observe with what they know and have been taught, and who have a deeply ingrained commitment or sense of purpose to preserve these lessons learned from the triumphs and follies of human experience so they will be available for future generations to learn from. By creating guidebooks, including the Torah, these wise people gave their generous gifts of love, compassion, and caring to us, their offspring, so that we could have them to guide us on our journeys, too.

Sometimes these books of wisdom, including Torah, can be hard to learn from. They are generally written in a poetic or mythological voice, often as metaphor and not as exact stories with exact lessons about exact people. This imprecision thus makes it possible for a Single, Female, Senior Citizen of modern day Toronto to see herself as Joseph in the Torah stories as much as a Young Adult Man could. In fact, being lost in the exactness of the characters–such as their gender, age, or ethnicity–removes the universal lessons that our elder sages so carefully prepared for us.

So, with that in mind, with the invitation to put yourself into the heart and mind of each of the characters of the Joseph story, let us continue!

We are introduced to a person named Joseph, who from the start of his life is different from everyone else. He has visions and presence that are real to him and his father, Jacob; but only pose a grave threat and create fear in his brothers. Jacob also nurtures Joseph differently from his brothers, and in a way that is appropriate to Joseph’s outstanding gifts of foresight and intelligence. However, his siblings only see a pompous brother who receives favouring. Their fear of Joseph fuels a cruelty beyond mere sibling rivalry and competition for parental attention: Joseph is disposed of, abandoned, but not killed outright.

For the next several decades of his life, Joseph will learn use his abilities and gifts over and over again, as we all try to do with ours, in order to survive. And, in addition, Joseph must also must learn how to use his great gifts in ways so they are no longer harmful to himself. His work is to learn how to let his visionary Truths shine, so that  he can lead his siblings and family through famines to prosperity and become reunited as a stronger and more concordant family clan.

And living fully in your story or Truth is your work, and my work, too. This is the story of our lives.

I mentioned universal cultural stories. Here are a few that are parallel sagas to our Joseph story:

  • Gilgamesh, the very earliest found full saga. About a youth who goes out into the world, meets life-threatening challenges, sorrowfully kills the thing he loves most, and returns home. Home is the same: it is Gilgamesh who is now changed.
  • The South American book of shamanic wisdom, The Four Agreements, teaches us how we are born with our Truth intact, and that we are pressured to lose our natural self and become like everyone else through cultural ‘domestication’.
  • Fred (Mr.) Rogers, who told children and parents for years, “I like you just the way you are”.
  • The Native American cautionary tale of the Stick, Corn, and Mud people. The Stick people support the Corn people as they grow; but, if the Corn person grows too much toward the sky (think of the young Joseph’s dreams), the Stick people who supported them will pull away, and the spindly Corn person will fall and become mired down in the Mud.
  • Then there is the story of the young Chinese Kung-Fu student who keeps asking his Master when he will be granted the honour of becoming a Master—and the Master answers by handing the student yet more stones to haul.
  • And, as promised, here is Leonard Cohen:

In so many varieties of ways, Leonard Cohen tells us that our purpose is to keep peeling away the veils and layers that hide our personal Truth. That our mission is always visible, yet we find ways to evade it. In his Poem/Song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (listen here: https://youtu.be/netfyjdNBrU) he tells us:

The ponies run, the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed
I’m back on boogie street
You lose your grip and then you slip
Into the masterpiece
And maybe I had miles to drive
And promises to keep
You ditch it all to stay alive
A thousand kisses deep

And sometimes when the night is slow
The wretched and the meek
We gather up our hearts and go
A thousand kisses deep…**

We have indeed, just so much time apportioned to us. Those things which are most deeply entrenched and always with us, are our enduring personal, real, Truth. Cohen explains how things go our way for a while, “the ponies run, the girls are young…You win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak”. But our mission, however clumsy or challenging, is enduring–

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is always there for us to master. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live your life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Does Joseph live his life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Let’s find out.

At so many turns, Joseph could have made the expected decisions of one who has become ‘domesticated’ or succumbed to societal expectations, such as: avoiding harm from his brothers by keeping his dreams and special multicoloured coat hidden; or partnering with Potiphor’s seductive wife, making them the ultimate ancient Egyptian ‘power-couple’; he could have not revealed who he was when his brothers came to Egypt during the famine; he could also have wrought revenge and had them all executed.

But, he did not. He was a visionary and knew that there was a further destiny he had to strive towards, ‘the summon’ as Leonard Cohen would say, to deal with the ‘invincible defeat’ of who he really was and what he needed to do. Choosing to be this way, overcoming defeat by choosing his invincible nature, brought him to a new relationship with his family, one that was as correct and fulfilling as ‘a thousand kisses deep’. Our duty, according to this Joseph story, is to know that immediate victories are temporary, and those tough things about ourselves that we are willing to embrace and struggle with, engage us as deeply as the most real and passionate experience of being.

Life is full of distractions, and like everyone else, I have many! if I allowed them, distractions could take over and control all the hours and days of my life: all the many online sales with demands to buy now!; staying on top of financial and home upkeep while the pandemic weaves uncertainty into everything; navigating family and friendships; maintaining the health and wellbeing of myself and my two rescue cats; navigating the complexity of my urban environs. The list of daily tasks seems to goes on and on. And each time, before embarking on any of these items, I pause and think of the Joseph story.

Like Joseph, I have been living out a long saga that has taken me to far off places and yet still know what drives me forward; it is not the daily temptations and distractions. I have other plans: to produce writing and music. One of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who, in addition to his work at JTS, was a congregational Cantor and music composer. He told me, “If I have to stay up until 2am to get my piece written, I will. It is my responsibility and no one else’s; otherwise, it won’t get done”. I hear in his words a Joseph, doing whatever it takes to not lose the most important part of his life’s work, while living his life.

The more important work for each of us is not laid out neatly elsewhere. And the life lessons of the Joseph saga are not limited to those who are chosen for world changing missions, or are visionary, or brilliant, or male. I see the life lessons of the Joseph saga as a template for each and every one of us: how we navigate the times when we come home to ourselves: giving birth, saying goodbye to loved ones, discovering our own mortality, times of questioning and hesitation.

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Go home or to your study today, and understanding this, re-read the Joseph story. Think of steps taken in your past, present or future as a parallel to how Joseph moves through his. What distractions have popped up that throw you into a pit, what job or title or too-good-to-be-true bargains have seduced you. Which of these put you into a prison, put you up on a pedestal, or allowed you to be you? And, most important, take time to remember and draw closer and more intimate with your more enduring self, the one who you knew you were, right from your earliest recollections.

If you don’t have a strong recall or sense yet, be patient. Make room for your stories by going for a walk, window shopping, a long drive in the countryside, meditating, writing a poem or prayer.

For us, the lesson is about staying the course when disruptions arise, whatever form they take. This is the lesson of Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You.

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*Full text of my D’var Torah, presented to Temple Emanu-El on Shabbat 11 December 2021, Toronto, Canada

**source: https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/42870/

 

 

 

 

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.”

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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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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.

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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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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!”

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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.

medium.com

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.

sneezingcow.com

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;

wels.net

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.

trevcomusic.com

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.

ebay.com

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.

msrempelmusic.blogspot.com

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.

alamy.com

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.

goodsalt.com

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.

onochurch.org

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.

postandcourier.com

Are You a Helper?

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

pinterest.com

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.

breakingisraelnews.com

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.

genkaku-again.blogspot.com

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.

verywellmind.com

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.”

judithrosenbaum.wordpress.com

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.

abcnews.go.com

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.

Uncomfortable Icons - Download Free Vector Icons | Noun Project

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

musiconline

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.

timesofisrael

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.

chabadorg

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.

spiritualawareness.co.in

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.

me.me

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.’*

rci.com

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.

 

Earth Bound

thecanadianencyclopedia.ca

Last night I began watching a film about Grey Owl, an Englishman who lived with, and as one of, the traditional Canadian indigenous peoples in the early 20th century.

My interest in the film was twofold: one, that Grey Owl was a conservationist whose writings had become popular amongst those of us in the ‘Ecology’ movement of the 1970’s in the USA.

The other draw was from my growing desire lately to touch the earth again.

psychologytoday

During social isolation, which is still going on in my community, I have been reluctant to venture outside. With my compromised immune system, it has seemed wiser to stay indoors in my apartment where I have control, as much as one can have, of all the germs, where they are, who they are from, and the ability to avoid or remove them. Whereas going outside means I am subject to others’ rules about how they manage, or don’t manage, their germs.

But, the safety of staying inside, with all my various activities and hobbies and plugged-in entertainment devices, had begun to take its toll on my spiritual wellbeing. I looked at photos and videos of places I’d been over the past year pre-lockdown, and felt better and inspired by the memory that such places exist and that I was in them. There were pictures of the Southern California desert in bloom and of my home there, and of Italy where I spen a month of respite in a monastery last summer. The cool desert breezes and swaying plants, the rushing waters over the rocks and under the old Italian town’s bridge were healing. They touched memories of both my body and the experiences in those locales.

I watched the Grey Owl film with a bit of trepidation: was he a real Indian or a white man passing himself off as one, and did it matter anyway? Before finding an answer, though, my own memories stepped into that conversation space.

As a little girl, I was captivated by anything Indian. I wore my pink Annie Oakley cowgirl skirt, vest, boots, hat and holster so diligently that I would not even take off the boots or guns for bedtime, and regularly spent hours rocking on the spring rocking horse on our backyard patio in my pink cowgirl garb.

But when all the kids got together to play ‘cowboys and Indians’ as was the suburban norm in the 1950’s, I always had to be an ‘Indian’.

I would fight my bravest fight, which mostly consisted of belly-crawling along the grass to surprise the ‘cowboys’, and then obligingly get shot, and roll, tumbling all the way down the grassy lawn embankment. Then I would stay there looking up at the sky; even after all the other kids finished shooting their cap guns and calling ‘blam blam, you’re dead’ to each other and mosey off to get a cool glass of Kool-Aid from someone’s mom. But I stayed there on the grass, gone to another place.

My memory of that place is a woods, an autumn and northern country woods, with thick trees, green leaves on the branches, brown and ochre and yellow ones on the ground. I would tiptoe quietly, my brown skin and deerskin breeches soundless as I padded along in my soft low cut moccasins. The breeze was cool as it blew through my black-brown braids and I followed some call or presence. I felt a deep pain, so deep and desperate. “I must save my people!” was pulsing me along the path through the thicket. “I must save my people” I would stand brave and tall, then kneel, and the words would envelope me.

Then I would be back once again, lying face up in the suburban lawn, now a bit itchy from the little gnats and grass blades on my skin, roll over heavily, and go try to find out where the other kids had gone.

I have been told that children of that age, about 3-4 years old, can’t have such ideas about saving others and that their frame of reference can only includes themselves. So much for Psychology! But the power of those dreamtime experiences from then on, defined my life.

In grade school, my grandfather would take me to the little museum in Santa Barbara, where we would push the button on the display box to make the rattlesnake shake its tail, ptssssss–t!, and he would laugh and poke me to make me jump to experience the snake’s attack. Then after that warm-up, we would go out to the grounds and walk the trails through the vegetation; he and I called them ‘the Indian trails’. Back at home, my grandparents bought me ankle bells to dance in and for the most part indulged my ‘Indian’ role playing.

As I grew a bit older, I started going to Girl Scout sleep away camp and ate up all the experiential activities of building cooking fires and cooking, sleeping outdoors in a sleeping bag under the big sky of the far away national forest where the camp was located.

Eventually, I was invited to join their elite ‘survival skills’ program, and moved on to learn how to build traps and snares, skin and cook our catch, identify plants that were edible or toxic and how to eat them, and night vision and stalking skills. Our final exam was to hike to a remote area with no facilities and no food, only a blanket and a knife and a cup and our own hand-carved spoon, and a hatchet for the group to use.

We stayed 3 days. We behaved much like The Lord of the Flies! except we got hungry, so those of us who were in tune with the concept that we really did have to forage and trap for food if we wanted to eat, got busy. In the end, we had some okay Lupine beans that we leached with boiling and cold water baths, and some meat. We had some meat because ‘Sioux’, as I was now called, responded to another camper’s shriek that there was a rattlesnake; I corralled it and chopped its head off when it tried to strike me. (I can tell this secret now, because my parents are no longer here to know about it!)

The next day we went back down the steep trail by the waterfall, to our counsellors. I was a bit of a hero, and the counsellors were very stoic when hearing that I’d killed the rattler. I’m sure there must have been some panicky feelings going on inside, knowing a camper had done that without adult supervision, but that was what they put us up to!

Upon return to camp, we cleaned up, which we all badly needed. That night was our last one together. We had a campfire and awards ceremony. In the spirit of maintaining Indian tradition we were each given a coloured pony bead for each skill we had mastered, strung on a multi-coloured cord. While mine wasn’t the longest string of beads, it came close with only 2 missing; but it had the only long jade green one, for killing a rattlesnake. The cords held a copper arrowhead pendant, and we also received a deerskin feather pendant necklace, for remembrance of our time together. I still have them, complete with long jade green bead.

That was in 1968.

Dad Yosemite

Today, Fathers Day, I looked once again at the photo of my father, sitting perched over Half Dome, his legs dangling from the top, shirtless and certainly a part of the whole; and nothing like the dad I knew who commuted 4 hours every day into downtown Los Angeles when he wasn’t far away at some salesman’s convention. When I found this photo last year, some of the mystery was resolved.

The other clue came last year and was from my updated DNA test results.  I am not 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, like most of my friends, but 92%: 7% is from an area that covers a remote Siberian area, the Yamal Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The native inhabitants of these areas are the Nenets or Sami peoples. My mother used to tell me that my grandfather’s mother looked Chinese, and so I am now guessing that there is some tethering of my ancestors with this earth bound sense of myself through true genetic inheritance.

Although my home is now an urban setting, the urge to touch the earth remains. My day today strolling the grounds, touching flowers and pine cones, walking along shrubbery, and taking photos of flowers and berries to look back at, has been grounding for me. Although we are unsure of our future abilities to mingle socially, we can rest assured that Nature will continue to anchor our innate humanity.

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My father loved his job with the Forest Service in Yosemite. He referred to it often as we grew up but not so much as he got older. Instead, he designed numerous cruise vacations to enjoy with my mother, and at home, curated the thousands of photos and mementos from them. He died unexpectedly from pneumonia, caused by a chest cold he picked up on their last ocean cruise, ten years ago.

Perhaps his excitement with packing his daughter’s duffel bag for overnight camp so many years ago was more than just a parental task: perhaps it had been his chance to touch the earth once again.

Dad Yosemite

 

Thunder and Music

Tonight I am breaking the silence.

It has been a year and a half since my last post on ‘The Compassionate Oboe’, and tonight I begin to write again.

Last night, I got out my big-sound oboe, my Yamaha 841L, my beauty that I can play as round and fully and deeply as I want; it is my instrument to make a Big Sound for outdoor playing. Tonight, it is my partner when the piercing voice of the oboe needs to be heard over the din of pain and chaos.

But, about my absence, where have I been? Where have we all been these past 17 months?

The answer begins with the spectacular thunderstorm began outside last night, a perfect response to the plaintive call of people in pain calling for healing, and needing to hear a response.

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Just the same way, two years ago before my absence, I underwent a major thoracic surgery. Some ligaments from my diaphragm had to be removed in order to release their pinching off the blood flow through the major artery that feeds my abdominal organs. I responded to those cries of organs beginning to fail and moved to the USA to have the surgery.

I did not know if recovery from such an invasive surgery could include playing the oboe again.

Then a few months later, just before my last Blog entry in September, my mother called me to be with her. She was dying and had begun to have home hospice care.

I flew north to stay with her, something I hadn’t done for years. My mother sat opposite me in her favourite swivel chair, a French wine cup balanced in hand, her belly swollen from the effects of leukemia on her spleen. The fire churned in her gas hearth and it was cold outside. She had never shared any of her inner thoughts with me before, but during this time together, her last weeks, she accepted and wore the mantle of elder, imparting her acquired wisdom to her surviving heir, as one is wont to do at the end of life.

“I’ve seen a lot”, she grimaced as she rocked harder in the chair, “grew up in the Great Depression, World War II, the 60’s and 70’s, but I never imagined things could ever be as bad as they are now.” She shifted her position, her breathing heaved and rasped but she spoke on. “We did so much to make things better–civic work projects made by the government to pull ourselves out of the Depression; fighting in those horrible wars, the Nazis. Then we had Vietnam and the fights for Civil Rights and Equality. Now look at what it’s all come to!” She paused to stare and conquer her breath. “The world is controlled by the wrong people, all our hard work is being undone.” Her voice changed to a sobering timbre now. “I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see any more of this.”

That was the end of her speech, and I felt so sad with her and for her. She indeed had worked hard; I recalled her grass-roots meetings at our home for liberal candidates in the 1970’s; her proudly taking me out of school to see Senator Eugene McCarthy speak; and how she showed us to not just hear about the plights of others in the news, but to roll up our sleeves and openly fight for causes we believed in.

And it was now about six months since my surgery. I had packed along my quieter oboe, my lyrical Covey, as a way to centre myself during what I knew would be an emotional visit. One evening, as she sat rocking in her chair by the fire, I quietly came in and set up my stand and music. I chose the most important pieces to me, and knew her fondness of classical music was deep. The pieces were Saint-Saens’ Oboe Sonata and Godard’s ‘Legende Pastorale’. I adored these pieces and had over the years striven to play them as well as my teacher, Joe Robinson, even playing along with his album recording. This time, I abandoned the student-mind and played the music; because music, this music, needed to be present here.

It seemed that some great shift happened during the playing. She never spoke, we were both silent, and I put my music away. I don’t remember what happened next, but all the years of vexation over my decision to play the oboe instead of the flute and so many other divisive causes seemed gone, and were replaced with the understanding that music had happened. A truce and peace emerged.

And then, last night, came the same.

I watched the news, the American news and saw what I already knew. I had gone back to the USA in 2017 to be in the quiet desert near where I grew up, and took advantage of the opportunity to have the life-saving thoracic surgery. Along with my mother last autumn, I realized that America had changed too much for my comfort.

I came back to Canada.

Part of my reason for returning to Canada was the violence in the United States. Not just recent politically motivated violence, but also the mindset that allows people to carry guns, literally or figuratively, to sort out disagreements, mirroring American values still extant from frontier tales and Wild West films. Being called un-American is just such a gunshot.

These were also the concerns of my mother. In her day, the protests effected political change and a peace-minded consciousness-raising for America. This time, though, America is not faring any better than other countries with their political problems.

As I watched the American protestors on TV I felt relief at the emergence of peaceful protest out of the more violent activity of the weekend; the images were so reminiscent of 1960’s on TV. With one exception: I do not see the same concerned reaction by the President or White House Administration.

Carried away with the energy and passion of the images, I longed to be there. I wanted to protest, too.

But I am here in Canada and the border is closed. Meanwhile, my move-in plans are stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. I live with piles of orphaned books and office supplies, because I cannot buy or bring in new furniture. But my oboe paraphernalia is unpacked, accessible and curated.

I stare at the grand Manhasset music stand set up for playing, at the music books and boxes of reed-making supplies that I had lovingly sorted for occasional use.

On Sundays I play a small concert of familiar tunes, ending with ‘O Canada’ in solidarity with others singing and playing at noon nationwide, to acknowledge our frontline health care workers.

That little concert is also the thread that keeps me alive and well in general and in particular, as an oboist.

But last night, outrage spilled over in me. In part it was over the huge expense of my new home paired with still living like a hobo out of boxes. Part was the outrage that political leaders could ignore science and common sense and forgo proactively taking care of citizens when the obvious signs of the coming epidemic were there in China months ago.

Thankfully, my personal inner outrage and pain were mirrored on the TV screen: I was not alone. We’ve all had too much. Too much anger with systems that are breaking down, with the racial indignities that are still rampant, with the replacing of facts with political egos: and in America, with a President who makes threats against its citizens’ safety and rights to gather and protest peacefully.

I was so pleased to see the peaceful yet powerful approach that was being taken and with the contained and focused encouragement by the mostly young leaders.

Their determined message for change surged through me, a charge felt beyond words. The years of confusion, of who I am and what my work is post-surgery, now became clear: Music.

My Manhasset was already set, and out came the Yamaha.

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I played, full, big, and passionately for all to hear, my balcony door wide open to the world. I began with the Beatles, because we all know they were the sound of the 60’s: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘When I’m 64’. Then came a few more tunes: ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Kum Ba Ya’, and Dvorak’s ‘Largo from The New World’.

Afterward, I gave my oboe its seasonal bore care with sweet almond oil and put it away. I felt an inner calm resume that had been lost for a very long time, for years perhaps.

Remarkably, just as I began to settle back onto my rented sofa, Nature took her turn to let go, too. An hour-long thunder and lightening show, complete with pelting rain and hail, seemed to validate the outpouring of pent up energy seen across the globe.

 

I swaddled all my oboe things away for the night, ready to be played tomorrow; because with those loud blasting cries, I was reborn.

 

 

 

 

Jewish Music: The Sounds of Our Lives

Presented to Congregation Beth Shalom, September 1 2018:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just what defines Jewish music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, over time, music left the synagogue.

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

The logical part of our brains must have decided that! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Think about what went well, what went wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Return You Home To Who You Really Are…

L’SHANA TOVA V’ZIMRA