Friday, January 17, 2020

Gratitude: The Path to Serenity (Shemot 5780)

Santa Monica beach at sunset

Fifty years ago this Shabbat I became a Bar Mitzvah. My preparations included jogging along Santa Monica beach listening to a tape of my Torah portion. I was anxious about all the learning. The beach path was soothing, calm, serene. 

The 50th anniversary has stirred up lots of memories. Mostly sweet ones. Two sour memories. One was dancing awkwardly and super self-consciously at the party after reading from the Torah. Another was during the service. This particular memory brings embarrassment and shame. Which is why it is so important to reflect on it even 50 years later. It is a difficult memory; still, I am grateful for it. 

After reading from parshat Shemot and doing the Haftara and reading my dvar Torah (my chance to teach about the Torah reading), I thanked my teachers, my rabbi, and my friends. But, and this is the embarrassing part, I did not publicly thank my parents. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Color of Jealousy: From Darkness to Light (Vayeshev and Chanukah 5780)

Colors have been on my mind. Last week JCHS students competed in Color Games. This week's Torah portion features a coat of many colors. And when Chanukah begins this coming Sunday night, some of us have customs for how will we mix or match candle colors on different nights. 

Sometimes colors are random, decorative, or superficial, or even silly. Even then it is human nature to give deep meaning to different colors. For instance, one graduate student held a workshop to explore subconscious associations with the different colors of M&M candies. It is true that those who favor blue M&Ms are trendsetters? Or brown are favored by traditionalists? Red represents confidence? 

At other times, the meaning of colors goes much deeper. In this week's Torah portion, we are told, Jacob favors one of his children so much, loves him so powerfully, that Jacob gives that son, Joseph, a coat of many colors. None of his siblings receive that favoritism or get a similar gift. This fires their jealousy toward Joseph. Their dark jealousy is so consuming it turns to hatred; a hatred that makes them incapable of speaking peaceably with Joseph. (Genesis 37:3-4.) Their dark jealousy is so powerful it erases family bonds and destroys their humanity. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Giving Thanks for the Kindness of Strangers (Thanksgiving 2019 and Toledot 5780)

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of complete strangers, I am here; able to write this post. Thanks to their rescuing me from severe dehydration and moderate heatstroke, I am here and able to give thanks!

I met these strangers this summer near the summit of the Sleeping Giant Trail on Kauai. The hike to breathtaking views was very steep, muddy, and slippery in spots -- cool breezes mixed with intense summer humidity and rain. The reviews we read in advance of the hike underestimated, to my mind, the difficulty of this hike. We did not bring enough water or eat well enough before our early morning start. A recipe for near disaster and lots of drama . . . 

Friday, November 22, 2019

My Parents Brainwashed Me: I Call It Teaching (Chayei Sarah 5780)

Parents provide powerful legacies for their children. A few years ago, Ethan Metzger, then a high school senior in New York, delivered a slam poem about it. Ethan recited, "My parents did brainwash me. My mom she incessantly told me as a child again and again and again to just do the best you can. And that idea is now so ingrained in my mind that I don’t define success as whether I got an A or won the game but whether I gave it my all. You can call it brainwashing if you want. That’s fine. I call it teaching.” 

How did your parents brainwash you?

Friday, November 8, 2019

Discovering Our Unique Gifts Deep Inside (Lech Lecha 5780)

A parent visiting my office last night asked why there are so many colored pencils at the work table. "It's not the art room!" they exclaimed. 

Sure, I have them there for doodlers. More important, though, these pencils are a reminder to treasure the uniqueness of each student and a valuable lesson from this week's Torah portion. Lech Lecha begins with the divine directive to Abram that he leave his birthplace and everything familiar, then venture out to a destination not yet specified in order that Abram will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2.)   

In Hebrew the directive, "lech lecha," usually is translated as "go forth" or "go! really go!" But the Kotzker Rebbe (19th century, Poland) reads the Hebrew more literally to mean “go into yourself.” That is, discover in yourself the unique gifts that belong only to you. Explore your highest potential. If you can activate that journey, then you will be a blessing to others. This framing is a reminder that these gifts deep inside are the ones we carry wherever we go. In my mind, these are the gifts that sustain throughout the journey of life no matter the detours or twists and turns.   the ones we bring with us wherever we go.  If we observe them and honor them, these gifts will sustain us throughout the journey no matter the destination.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Encircled by the Cages We Keep (Yom Kippur and Haazinu 5780)

At this season the Jewish community is focused on teshuvah -- translated often as repentance, it literally means to turn or return. We return to the highest goals we have for our behavior, we return to our community, we return to our friends and families. Each of these returns is a stop along the path we set for ourselves in the Jewish new year that has just begun. Those moves bring changes that transform our lives. Even the Yom Kippur liturgy echoes this thought ("Teshuvah . . . transforms our fate"). 

One colleague talks about her parents loving to needlepoint. In anticipation of Yom Kippur, they needlepointed the saying, "Teshuvah Changes Things." They proudly displayed the completed framed needlepoint on the mantle. It was gone
the next day. They asked their partner, "Did you see what happened to my needlepoint." "Yes. I took it down.' "But I thought you valued Teshuvah," the needlepointer exclaimed. "Teshuvah is just fine. It's change I can't stand!" 

Probing our relationship to change is vital to this season. As another colleague, Rabbi Erica Asch, teaches, "These holidays are not a time to change others. Instead, we must focus on changing ourselves." She observes that incremental are both achievable and impactful. Making a 180-degree turn seems impossible. But a turn of even 3 or 4 degrees if we hold to it long enough will dramatically change the path of our lives. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

What Woodchoppers and Songwriters Teach Us About Inclusion (Nitzavim 5779 and Rosh Hashanah 5780)

Woodchoppers are mentioned only once in Torah
UK Women's Land Army (1941)
Torah teaches a powerful lesson about human interaction this week. A lesson that it took researchers a few dozen centuries to figure out. That is, teams comprised of those with diverse perspectives and ideas outperform collections of individuals who all are similar to each other. 

This is especially true when a team is creating something, solving complex problems, or performing complicated tasks. The contemporary research is explained in Scott Page's The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. This was one of the books JCHS educators read over this last summer. 

Page writes about the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He presumes most people know that as a songwriting duo they top the "Billboard" list of songwriters with the most number one hits. What most people don't know is that in third place on that list is Martin Sandberg (who writes songs under the name Max Martin). Martin is famous for writing song such as I Want It That Way for Backstreet Boys, DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love for Usher, and I Kissed a Girl for Katy Perry. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Molding Character with a Forgotten Sheaf and a Magic Seed (Ki Teitzei 5779)

Last month, an international aid organization reported that after observing a 12-year decline in global hunger, there has been a concerning increase over the last two years. 

This called to mind a hand-lettered sign I saw in a community food bank: "Sometimes I want to ask God why She allows people to go hungry when there's plenty she can do to fix that. But I am afraid God would ask me the same question!" 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Finding Our Way (Shoftim 5779)

2017 Women's March Poster by Ruth Mergi
(Voicing pursuit of justice in Hebrew feminine)
One of the most famous phrases in the Torah comes from this week's portion. It's so famous that presidents use it in speeches. A Supreme Court justice has the phrase posted in her chambers. The phrase is "tzedek tzedek tirdoph - justice, justice you must pursue." (Deut. 16:20.) 

This phrase seems a fitting introduction to the season of introspection that began last weekend. That's when the Hebrew month, Elul, opened. It is the month that comes right before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year). This sense of being judged at this season moved the ancient rabbis to call Rosh Hashanah, "Yom Hadin - Day of Judgment [or justice]." As the calendar turns toward Rosh Hashanah it is customary to become especially self-reflective; judging ourselves and our behaviors in the year that's coming to a close. As my colleague, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein writes about this week's Torah portion, "It is now that I try and focus on the coming period of introspection and self-evaluation." 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Only You: The Power of Individuals in Community (Re'eh 5779)

"Smokey Bear" Turned 75 in August 2019
Earlier this month the U.S. Forest Service celebrated the 75th birthday of Smokey Bear - the iconic forest dweller who still encourages individual responsibility to prevent wildfires -- as many as 90% of which are sparked by human activity. 

When I was a kid, we took Smokey seriously whenever we were making fires or with people who smoked outdoors. Each of us thought, "It is on me!" 

In recent years, though, with the accelerating frequency and intensity of wildfires caused by climate change and urban planning factors, I wonder if Smokey's message still resonates. Can any one of us really prevent a wildfire?