Monday, September 29, 2008


For the first time in over 45 years, I will not be officiating at formal synagogue services. I confess that I am overcome by feelings of strangeness and disorientation. I no longer experience the familiar feelings of being frantic before the holiday, wondering if my sermons are adequate, reviewing in my mind all the necessary procedures of a "successful" High Holyday service.Instead, I am relaxed, free to think and meditate on the spiritual significance of the occasion and free to records these words.
My "synagogue" will be a hospital where I expect to conduct a brief, televised service for the Jewish patients and then visit with them.I will then join others as a congregant for the remaining segments of the service.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make use of my skills and knowledge for the benefit of those most frightened and alone on a day which brings so much joy and togetherness to others.
Previous times have separated me from my family-I look forward to being in their loving company participating in the Rosh Hashanah meal with a state of mind that is serene, grateful and especially joyful.
The word "Shanah" suggests change. We are usually reluctant to change, fearing backsliding rather than advancement.Rosh Hashanah summons us to embrace change gratefully and transform each moment of opportunity into gift of blessing for ourselves and for others.
May we all be granted a New Year of gratefulness and goodness, and reap much joy from God's countless gifts.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


"...and you take them to heart...and you and your children heed them with all your heart..then the Lord your God will open up your love the Lord with all your heart order that you may live."(Deuteronomy chpt.30)
The segment that is central to the concept of Teshuva-the capacity to change by turning inward and returning outward to the Source of all things-highlights the heart as the psychological and spiritual locus for this transformation.
The challenge of the High Holydays is not only to remember with the mind but to redeem with the heart.
During this period of Teshuva Jewish tradition intentionally deprives us of external ritual and directs us to focus our entire festival experience to the intangibles of the heart and soul.The only external object of Jewish celebration is the Shofar, the ram's horn, whose sounds likewise have been d esigned to awaken inward thoughts and feelings of renewed awareness and commitment.The Shofar is a prayer without words whose sounds of brokenness, wailing and eventual hope arouse the heart, the innermost spaces of our identity and meaning as children of one Divine source.
For teshuvah to unfold, our hearts must open to the blessings and gifts of life.We taste the sweetness of all things through our senses and mind; in the final analysis however, our most passionate prayer is for God to "open our that we may live."The heart is the home of our lives.May we be blessed with a new year of life that is linked to open- heartedness that brings joy and peace.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


This is a hectic time in Jewish households and synagogues.The pace of preparations-buying seats for services, writing sermons and reviewing prayers, deciding on menus and meal arrangements for family and friends is frantic, and beneath it all, we struggle to deal with the anxiety of a year drawing to a close and the uncertainty of a New Year about to begin.
For many this is not much to be grateful for. But beyond the temporal and material concerns of the day, we have been given a spiritual gift of renewed possibilities for change and improvement. For the gift of teshuva I am most grateful.I cannot think of a more spiritually rewarding capacity.It represents the very lifeline of Judaism and human experience. It asserts that we are not victims of fate but self-determining beings of dignity and worth.
Teshuvah translates literally as "turning" or "returning." In the opinion of some the required turning of the High Holydays is a behavioral one. We make a resolution to change our behavior and proceed to do it when the New Year begins. Easier said than done!
Teshuvah challenges me to turn inward and make a subtle yet significant turning of my perspective on life. Each Rosh Hashanah offers me a dramatic moment during which to focus on the spiritual capacity to approach life, others and God with a response of gratefulness in feeling and in deed. As we cultivate this attitude in on-going mindful meditation, prayer and thought, we discover our souls turning toward the awareness that all of life is a gift.This gradual process of teshuvah continues year long, hopefully enriching our minds and hearts with the happiness that comes with gratefulness.
I wish you all a New Year of renewed gratefulness and joy.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


People often ask: Why do you devote so much spiritual energy to gratefulness? After all, there are many other spiritual ideas and practices that are of equal importance!
A partial answer can be found in the Torah reading of this past Shabbat-Parashat Ki Tavo. A major section of the reading is quite depressing and demoralizing. It graphically outlines the curses, the punishments, the catastrophic suffering that will befall those who disobey God’s Torah.
“All these curses shall befall you…because you did not heed the Lord your God and keep the commandments and laws that He enjoined upon you.”(Deut. 28:45)
Here we encounter the curse of behavioral disobedience. Yet, most interestingly and for me a complete revelation, is the verse that follows.
“Because you did not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”(V.47)
The Hebrew-“U’vtuv lev”- lit. with goodness or fullness of heart, can be translated as gratefulness. Furthermore, the curse befalls us if we are unable to be grateful not only for specially valuable or precious things, but “me’rov kol”-for the abundance contained in all things, in everything. Another way of interpreting the phrase-“me’rov kol” is by translating the words as “most of everything is good!” Life is far from perfect and no one is spared suffering or hardship. By and large, however, life holds out a gift that warrants gratefulness and generosity. The nature of the world is such that life unfolds with the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Most babies survive birth and are healthy; most people have the bare necessities of life; many are the moments in life when we can rejoice and celebrate. This of course, is not to suggest that there aren’t many who are hungry and impoverished for whom we should invest resources and concern. Injustice abounds; but so much of that is human neglect and greed, not the withholding of nature’s bounty.
The Torah statement is a ringing declaration of a fundamental spiritual truth: At the heart of blessing is the capacity to experience all things gratefully. Conversely, the absence of gratefulness creates a spiritual void that is filled with the perception of being cursed.
Choose life –cultivate gratefulness and be blessed.


The Torah insists that first fruits-Bikurim- be brought to the Temple as an expression of gratefulness for blessings of a rich harvest. The act of bringing this gift was accompanied by a ceremony in the sanctuary, which included a declaration of the farmer’s personal link to the history of his people.
Bikurim can suggest not only the first but also the best of what one has.

Several days ago, I, together with almost two hundred people, were witness to a ” first fruits,” a bikurim, ceremony not in a Temple but in a setting of hope and rehabilitation for seniors in Montreal, Canada. The gifts brought before God were the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.
After two and a half challenging years of extraordinary effort, my sister-in –law launched a book containing the “first fruits” of twenty individuals –“senior artists, a sculptor, writers, community leaders, a rabbi, a superior court chief justice, an 85 year old university graduate and the recipient of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award.”
Sensitive to others as sources of strength and inspiration, especially the elderly, my sister-in-law’s journey to the “first fruits” ceremony began with an idea. Why not record the achievements of ordinary people who do extraordinary things? Why not recognize people’s lives publicly so that they may encourage and inspire others? Why not return the gifts of life to these generous souls and in so doing remind them that their lives truly matter?
With an ingenious title in mind for the book-Honorable Menschen-she sprang into action mobilizing many at the Senior Citizen center to interview, support and fund this project. As editor –in chief, she made wonderful use of her many skills as a writer and as women of genuine sincerity, she gained the participation of many.

The event arrived. Presentations and declarations of connection and affection were made.
Amidst these words and audience applause, the twenty “honorable menschen”-from the age of 65 to 104- sat with eyes radiating the light of inner validation and self-worth. They were given perhaps the most precious gift of all-the awareness that their lives had meaning and purpose, that their struggles and triumphs really mattered. Two of the recipients could not speak; paralyzed, they were confined to a wheel chair. In fact, with all the declarations of praise, pride and honor, we all remained speechless, overwhelmed by the spiritual beauty of the moment.
At the conclusion of these activities, my sister-in –law thanked me for coming to Montreal and sharing in her joy.
Doreen, thank you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Since my retirement, I am now able to read the daily newspaper in a more leisurely and thoughtful way. At times, the reading leads to contemplation. Today, as I scanned the pages of the New York Times, my heart sank. The economy -the failure of major banks and financial institutions -the weather-hurricanes sweeping through Texas and Haiti-a frightening photograph of a crowd of Indonesians being swept away by a stampede which trampled to death twenty one people in the rush to receive a four dollar handout from a wealthy landowner during Ramadan-persistent acts of violence and terror in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan-left me in a state of despair and powerlessness. What is one person to do in the face of these overwhelming crises? So much injustice, so much suffering and unfairness, so much apparent randomness and chaos!
Then I turned the page and my eye riveted on a photograph of an elderly white woman standing alongside two young Afro-American boys , measuring their height.I plunged into the words of the article and as I read my heart began to emerge from its dark depths and soar into the light of hope and renewed possibility.
One 84 year old grandmother, by adopting youngsters who had no natural families they could depend upon, was able to make an extraordinary difference in these children's lives.I learned that there many programs are in place that fund and foster such engagements of care and love. Imagine, I thought, if the growing millions of senior adults, many of whom have no grandchildren of their own, could adopt the millions of children who need grandparents to love and care for in a way that only grandparents know how. What a different world this would be.
For a few moments,I forgot about Wall Street, and was uplifted by this inspiring, everyday possibility of Main Street America and beyond.
It goes without saying that we should never forget the ills of the world; to do so would be a response either of denial or outright callousness.
But, to be grateful for a genuine and ordinary opportunity to bring light into our individual worlds is to discover a path of inspiration and hope, a way to elevate our souls in spite of the lurking darkness that surrounds us.
I am grateful to this woman for not only bringing strength into young people's lives but also for shedding her radiance of goodness upon so many who have read her story.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

GRATEFUL ON 9/11 ???

Not far from where I live I can see the entire skyline of Manhattan. Today I am keenly aware of the absence of two structures that used to rise above all the others and are no longer- The Twin Towers.
Today is the seventh anniversary of that day of infamy and heroism, that day that changed our world and our lives.
Again, we remember. Throughout the land and beyond our borders people will gather-in houses of worship, schools, places of business or on busy street corners-to pause, to reflect and to honor.
Today our humanity engenders memory.
Today, our humanity offers us the gift to transcend and transform horror and pain into new possibilities and renewed hope .
The path of this potential metamorphosis is gratitude.
Today I am grateful that this country has been spared further terror of the magnitude we remember.
Today I am grateful for the passionate heroism and self-sacrifice of so many.
Today I am grateful for loved ones who showed the world that in spite of loss and grief of the highest order, somehow the gift of life and love is inextinguishable.
Today we stop amidst our busy and self-absorbed lives and for a moment at least, lift our heads heavenward and say: "Thank You."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I stumbled on a record I have not listened to for almost forty years. The recording was sandwiched between many other old records,all of which were packed away. After all, we are living in the age of the CD- vinyl recordings are relics of the past to be relegated to the dust bin of history.
I retrieved the recording and played it-it was almost an ineffable experience. I was transported by the beauty of the music, especially the voice of the cantor, lyrical and sweet, straightforward in its recitation of the prayer without resorting to the excesses of flourishes and repetitions often heard from Ashkenazic interpreters of cantorial music today.
The recording was a Collector's Guild item containing the music of the French Synagogue.
It had been recorded before World War II; the heavenly voices of both cantor and choir were brutally silenced in the German death camps.
The style of the music is a blending of Ahkenazic-European and Sephardic-Spanish(Middle Eastern) traditions. The music is pure without "extraneous layers and parasitic adornments."
As I listened, I responded differently from how I was able to appreciate this music in my twenties. I was always fond of the music. This time however, the music touched a place in my heart that was both magical, majestic and miraculous. I could not help but feel grateful for the moments of listening that escorted me spiritually into the current season of the Days of Awe. The music was, if anything, awesome.
I can only refer to the jacket of the record to convey the sacredness of these sounds.When commenting on the arrangement of the music, the author states:"the compositions,arrangements and choral direction are notable for their exquisite, subtle harmonies and tonal balance."
I intend to listen to this selection of the High Holyday liturgy as often as I can; I am confident and grateful that it will lend special depth to this season of renewed thankfulness and awareness of life's beauty and wonder.

Monday, September 8, 2008


One of the fun things about eating Chinese (kosher, of course) is the fortune cookie. Not the cookie which usually fails to meet even the most elementary standard of a desirable dessert; but the fortune inscribed on a tiny slip of paper is the source of anticipation and excitement.
Our minds know that these words are mass produced in a mechanical way and have no bearing whatsoever on the outcomes of our lives. Yet, a tiny part of a deeply embedded feeling, primitive, irrational but hopeful, titillates our thinking into believing that perhaps the words of the fortune cookie will contain prospects of something new and improved in our lives. So, we outwardly engage in a playful game with others as we share these magical portents.
Recently my fortune cookie read- "You will soon be given a wonderful surprise!"
I thought-this is general enough to cover all sorts of possibilities. And as I found myself wondering what the surprise could be-I was anticipating a series of results to several efforts I had undertaken, especially in my writing- I realized that this fortune had a very profound lesson regarding the concept of gratefulness.
After all, is not every moment of every day a surprise, and a wonderful one at that?
Our thinking is often mistaken when we look forward to one-time special surprises, all of which may indeed be wonderful, but neglect to recognize the wonder inherent in the gift of living itself.
In fact I am given wonderful surprises every moment that I am blessed with life. Each surprise awaits my awareness and gratefulness, and my thanksgiving.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


The mailroom of an apartment building housing five hundred families, many of which are elderly, is much more than a place where you get your mail. Residents emerge from behind tightly locked doors into a common space where renewed encounters create a community of family members. At the very least, formal greetings are exchanged and individuals are recognized by their neighbors, bestowing upon even the most socially isolated a feeling of togetherness and the reassurance of not being totally alone.
One elderly woman, walking ever so slowly and deliberately to collect her mail, bent over and mumbling to herself, looked up and recognized a familiar face.
She has been living in this apartment building since its inception in the 1970’s. Without family, the residents are her spouses and siblings, children and grandchildren, the hub of her emotional life.
Holding several pieces of mail in her hand she was heard saying, in a squeaky, enfeebled voice:” Whenever I get a request from a charity, I always send them at least eighteen dollars. Sometimes I’ll send them thirty six-you know why-its two times eighteen which is life in Jewish. I can’t afford to send more, but how can I refuse to send anything? It’s the right thing to do.” The man she was talking to replied: “God bless you-you are a real mensch.”

How inspiring can the act of a weakened old woman be! I realized how grateful we should be knowing that there are countless such “menschen”-kind, simple and generous people, who innately understand the ordinary meaning of kindness. These simple acts of goodness are the lifeline of their lives and those of so many others. God bless them all, indeed.


I love coffee. This makes my son unhappy who never lets up in his vehement claim that “coffee is a drug!” Many consider coffee unhealthy and habit forming. Some have substituted tea for their coffee due to health reasons. Yet, some evidence suggests that there are positive health benefits to coffee as well.
I am grateful that coffee is still legal, even quite universally popular. It delights me to sip coffee at work or relaxing.
My daughter brought to my attention a poignant article in Oprah magazine, entitled “Not Just a Cup but a Just Cup.” Knowing my love of coffee and my attachment to things Jewish, this article spoke volumes of the power of coffee in human affairs. It tells the story of a Ugandan man in a kippah who was almost killed in the World Trade center on the morning of 9/11. JJ Keki is the 48year old chairman of the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative in eastern Uganda, an interfaith group of more than 700 coffee growers: Jews, Muslims and Christians.
JJ was tortured by the local police when he tried to build a synagogue under the cruel hand of Idi Amin. After 9/11, he went door to door urging people of all faiths to come together and grow coffee, and by growing coffee, to spread peace.
The coffee cooperative, with help from Kulanu, a nonprofit organization that works with Uganda’s Jewish community, has found a distributor for its coffee, a coffee company in Fort Bragg, California, called most appropriately, the Thanksgiving Coffee Company. The cooperative is guaranteed a minimum price of $2 a pound no matter what the market does, a big improvement over the 60 cents it had been getting. They sell the coffee online at
JJ is also a musician. One of his songs goes like this: I’ve traveled the world and seen nothing as good as coffee .Our only solution is to grow coffee. Brothers and sisters come, grow coffee.
He adds: We use what we have to make our enemies into friends. You don’t need PhD’s. We have coffee.”
Each morning, as the arousing aroma of brewing coffee titillates my nostrils I will remember with gratitude the magic of coffee not only to enrich my pleasure and to stimulate my mind but also to be the beverage that can broker good will and peace among strangers, even enemies.
Perhaps when the Messiah arrives, we will celebrate not only with a good wine or a glass of shnappes, but we will drink a “lechayim”-to life- with a cup of piping hot coffee from the Thanksgiving Coffee Company as well.