Friday, January 30, 2009


The elevator was quite crowded.I squeezed into the closed space, turned a bit and my weary eyes met the most adorable, shining eyes of a little girl tucked cozily in the corner. She bubbled with aliveness, proudly and exuberantly declaring when asked where she was going,"I'm in pre-school!"I cheerfully complimented her on the colorful beads around her neck, adding a word of connection to her older brother who was engrossed in a POKEMAN book. Behind me were two teenagers, a handsome boy and a pretty girl. I proclaimed how lucky I was to be surrounded by such beautiful people.
The door opened and as I stepped out an adult man smilingly commented-"What office are you running for?"

I was somewhat taken aback. While appreciating the humor in the remark I felt a sadness at the note of cynicism that lurked beneath the joking response.
Are we so distrusting that any kind and complimentary word is immediately suspect? What has happened to our ability to accept the sincerity of another person and enjoy it? Why must we impose our defensiveness on the openness and natural good will of another well meaning individual?
While I recognize the need for caution, why has it deteriorated into cynicism?
Perhaps we all need a good dose of child-like gratefulness that I encountered in the sparkling eyes of that beautiful little girl in the elevator.
I have little worry that we will lose our grasp on things; we will lose, thankfully, some of our sadness and fear.
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


It was a rainy day in January; the rain poured down from the skies incessantly, drenching the air with a cold shudder. I sloshed along a side street in Queens and lifting my eyes from the slush below noticed a little old woman trying to cover her head with a plastic bag. She had no umbrella, and stood fully exposed to the harsh downpour.
I walked passed her and a few steps away found myself returning in her direction.
"Can I share my umbrella with you? " I asked.
She began to explain in a thick Yiddish or Russian accent that she was waiting for the car service to pick her up after a doctor's appointment, and was afraid that if she didn't stand out on the sidewalk, the driver would miss her and she would remain stranded.
We both stood under my tent-like Tanglewood umbrella for several minutes. The car arrived ,she thanked me and I was on my way.
As I walked away, I reconnected for a moment with an extraordinary experience I had many years ago during which I was overcome with an all-encompassing desire to devote my time and energy to helping, to rescuing people who needed some assistance in getting by each day of their lives; boarding a bus, a few dollars for a light meal, being escorted to a particular location,receiving directions to a destination which escaped them because of the disorientation that often accompanies old age.
This desire lasted only a few brief hours; it was the source of an incredible feeling of joy I had never experienced before. The desire disappeared gradually and all that was left was a memory, one which has since remained elusive and out of reach.
I had often thought about those treasured few hours, of the euphoria of doing good for others. Today, the memory returned a little more clearly; I am grateful for those few minutes ; I am grateful that a simple item, an umbrella, could bring some goodness to another human soul.
All we need, in fact, is to hold out our umbrellas over the heads of others and in that we touch their hearts and ours.
Perhaps, this is another way that can lead to the casting of God's umbrella, the canopy of peace that we so desire, over the heads and lives of us all.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


My wife and I attended another service at the renewal synagogue called "Romemu" in NYC.
Again it was heart opening and in Rabbi David Ingber's words, was the source of a Shabbat soul-shower. For me in particular, I am grateful that Rabbi David was able to wash away my aversion to the Torah parsha and leave behind a sense of renewed purity toward the sacred text.
Let me explain. The day before, I had sat down to review the Torah reading as I do each Friday and felt a resistance, an unease in pursuing this exercise. Usually I look forward to studying the parsha, making use of a variety of commentaries hoping to discover deeper wells of meaning and wisdom in the Torah.
Why did I have such difficulty with Va'Eyrah? The answer was obvious-the plagues. The parsha enumerates seven of the ten makot, the ten afflictions visited upon the Egyptians as a violent means of liberation. However necessary, I have trouble dealing with all the suffering and gore; I would have preferred a more gentle means of persuasion.
Rabbi David focused on the early segment of the parsha, the theme of God's name and the newness of the Name for Moses and Israel at that critical moment of our experience. Essentially the parsha was saying that we are free to seek out new names of God for ourselves, at the same time honoring names by which God was known to our ancestors.
This "Kavanah"-this intention embedded in the text, was very meaningful to me.For many years I have searched for a new name and I believe I have found it. It's really not new; everything about God is both old and new. What is new is my personal relationship to God's Name.
For me, above all names and signatures of God, God as Giver is my source of understanding and personal engagement. God as Giver-He opens His Hand and satisfies all living things with an open heart -is the bedrock of religion inviting all to be grateful for the gift of being and the gift of life. It is this awareness that has the power of blessing our lives with joy and peace.Thank you again, Rabbi David; thank you again, "Romemu."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The topic of the Sabbath has been investigated and written about by some of the finest thinkers, scholars and rabbis of all time. Sabbath’s landscape has been mined down to its deepest strata of meaning. What can be added to the wealth of interpretation and significance already brought to light by so many others, especially in the Jewish community where the Sabbath first found its public expression?
The Sages remind us, however, that "there are 70 faces to the Torah," that the Torah is an inexhaustible mine of knowledge, wisdom and inspiration. In the ongoing spiritual search for the meaning of the Sabbath, I would like to believe that perhaps I have stumbled upon a small yet shiny nugget not yet entirely polished to help its golden radiance glisten more brightly in the daylight of human awareness. In my humble opinion, this gem on the Sabbath’s tiara is that of gratefulness. If Sabbath is anything, and of course it is many things, it is essentially a day of gratefulness by which we can more fully appreciate its qualities of delight, rest, serenity and sanctity.
One monumental pillar of Shabbat that upholds and sustains its spiritual significance is the cessation from work. ”The Sabbath is a patch of ground secured by a tiny fence; when we withdraw from the endless choices afforded us and listen, uncover what is ultimately important, remember what is quietly sacred, Sabbath restrictions on work and activity actually create a space of great freedom; without these self-imposed restrictions, we may never truly be free. “
The Sabbath's purpose takes shape in our lives when we recognize our capacity to consecrate one day a week during which we can pay full attentiveness, in mind, body and heart, to the giftedness of life and the world, and by doing so succeed in converting time from a context of petition to one of praise, from a setting of dissatisfaction to one of gratefulness.

There are times when a universe of thought is contained in one word. Hebrew in particular is a language rich in multiplicities of meaning. Since each letter is equivalent to a number, it is not uncommon for Jewish tradition to interpret words, even individual letters, and their reference points, through their numerical value. Thus the mode of hermeneutics known as “gematria.”
I would suggest that one word in particular could be interpreted in such a way as to embrace the essence of the Sabbath as a day of gratefulness. “Ahavah,” love, is comprised of 4 Hebrew letters: “Aleph”=1; “hay”=5;”vet”=2;”hay”=5.The middle letters constitute another Hebrew and Aramaic word, “Hav,” meaning give. These two letters likewise add up to a numerical value of 7. The first and final letters of this word constitute the sum of 6.
Exercising one’s interpretive imagination, one can discover the core significance of the Sabbath in this word. The spiritual embodiment of the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, resides at the heart of the word for love, a word that spells out “hav”, meaning give. The Sabbath is a day during which we acknowledge God’s love as a source of the gift of our lives. This recognition allows us to give back in the way of grateful prayer and praise. “The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care…no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even pray for relief or anything we may need. It is a day of praise, not a day for petitions.” All has been given as a lover provides for his beloved’s needs. The world was created in six days-“aleph”=1 +”hay”=5, = 6.This was the act of God’s giving, which the Sabbath allows us to dwell upon internally and introspectively and celebrate ritually and liturgically for an entire day. Every component of this sacred 24-hour period is designed to enhance our awareness of life’s giftedness and blessing and to sensitize us to the reality of how grateful we could be so as to reap our greatest joy in being alive.
When the Sabbath arrives, each week, seeing the day as a gift by which to heighten our gratefulness for life ,is a source of the greatest blessing.
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Heschel informs us that, "On the Sabbath…we abstain primarily from any activity that aims at remaking or reshaping the things of space. What are the kinds of labor not to be done on the Sabbath? Those acts which were necessary for the construction and furnishing of the Sanctuary in the desert. The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time.”
What does Heschel mean by a sanctuary in time and how to build it? In my way of thinking about Heschel’s scintillating insight into the nature of Shabbat, I would propose a specific process and practice by which time becomes sanctified and its eternity experienced. On the Sabbath we refrain from any activity that involves the need to create, to reshape, to add, to enlarge, to improve or expand upon, suggesting that the world is incomplete and requires further creation with our hands, minds and talents. We abstain from imposing our own designs upon a work of creation that God Himself declared to be "very good.” Shabbat demands only one thing, and that is to immerse ourselves in the wonders of the world as they are. Shabbat is a day on which to decipher not human fingerprints but those of an Ultimate Source of giving.
Holiness in time is arrived at when the day is infused with a sense of being grateful for the gift of the world and life as it is. One day a week we pause and remind ourselves that the world is fine as it is; all that is required of us is to be thankful, to marvel at the marvelous. Instead of constructing edifices to “civilize” our environment and to impose the stamp of humanity upon it, Shabbat proclaims the utter fullness of life as it is, awaiting our grateful participation. Six days a week are set aside for “tikun olam”-the repair of the world, the exertion of humans to better our lives and improve upon the world, to be partners with God. Shabbat by contrast, signals a halt, a stepping back and taking stock of the gifts given to us by the Creative Source of the Universe. To work and create could be construed as an act of ingratitude, a response of greed and dissatisfaction. “On the seventh day man has no right to change the state of physical things,” to tamper with God’s world. Sanctity is impossible in a context of complaint and discontent. To sanctify the Sabbath as prescribed by tradition, an honest and openhearted sense of gratefulness is indispensable.
In the popular mind, Sabbath means rest. Resting means more than relaxing the body or not being engaged in any strenuous physical activity. In fact the Hebrew word for rest is incorporated in the term Shabbat.” And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy because on it He rested-“shavat”-from all the work of creation He had done.”
Only from the perspective of gratefulness for what is on this day of non-doing can we understand the rationale of Jewish law on insisting that down to the tiniest and most elementary of activities, one need be attentive to the possibility of crossing the line between impacting our world in a direct way and allowing the world to be, without the slightest interference.
Preoccupation with prohibition without an internal mindfulness of this system’s rationale in cultivating gratefulness on this day, however, is to betray the soulfulness of the day for the arid and lifeless mechanics of disembodied behavior.
Why Shabbat? For some, a satisfying answer is to emulate God by resting; as He rested so do we have the obligation to rest. Another response is understood in terms of obeying all of God’s laws pertaining to this day and as such we make this day one of dedication to divine authority and to the will of God.
I would prefer to see the Sabbath injunction take shape in our lives by recognizing the capacity we all have to consecrate one day a week during which we pay full attentiveness, in mind, body and heart, to the giftedness of life and the world, and by doing so succeed in converting time from a context of petition to one of praise, from a setting of dissatisfaction to one of gratefulness.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I have a photograph of Heschel taken from the front cover of one of his book’s entitled-I Asked for Wonder. I keep this picture by me most of the time. On occasion I will stop what I am doing and rest my eyes on his-It is hard to discern much from them but his face shines with wisdom, gentleness and concern. Wavy white hair and a white goateed beard and untrimmed mustache conceal a good portion of his visage-so much is hidden behind his appearance-a soft voice, a dazzling mind, a passionate heart, a sensitive soul always searching, seeking the full wonder and glory of God’s Presence.
He was a man of mind and of movement. Who can erase from memory his marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, Alabama, a place of enslavement and the defilement of human dignity? Who can ignore the poetry of his praise of the Sabbath, his penetrating analysis of the schools of thought of Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba? His doctoral dissertation on the nature of prophecy and the later masterpiece-The Prophets-reflected a spiritual insight and wisdom that elevated Heschel to the highest rungs of Jewish, spiritual thought.
Some of Heschel’s opponents have leveled the critique that he pandered to the non-Jewish world, seeking the acceptance and embrace from the Christian world. Is it a sin to reach out for reconciliation, to pursue peace? Through Heschel so many on the outside of Torah caught a glimpse of revelation and were awe struck with marvel and gratitude!

His 36th Yahrzeit-he died in 1973-will be observed on the Shabbat of Shemot, this coming Shabbat, when we begin the reading of the book of Exodus.
It is a tragic time for Israel-a period of descent, enslavement, of ensnarement in the narrowness of mitzrayim. While we may have been redeemed historically, spiritually we continue to find ourselves imprisoned in the constrictiveness of our thinking and feeling. Our hearts remain closed to God’s wonders, to the needs of God and our fellow human beings for redemption and liberation.
Heschel will always be the passionate voice of love and justice. If we would only hearken to his words…
May his memory continue to bless us.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I attended a rally in solidarity with Israel in New York today. As a rule, I avoid large crowds of this kind feeling that the presence of one body squeezed in among thousands of others serves no useful purpose.
It was bitter cold and I could not stand in the crowd for much longer than an hour.As I walked away from the sea of red hats it became clear to me why I had joined the others.In small part it was to support the solidarity of American Jews with Israel. Largely, however, I felt overwhelmingly alone surrounded by a sea of searing sounds that tore away at my soul. Erstwhile voices of reason and fairness metamorphised into a miasma of malice. Strident cries of-"Genocide, Holocaust, indiscriminate extermination of Palestinians, killing of children by Zionists" filled the streets of Europe's capitals; Koranic verses describing Jews as pigs and monkeys were orated with shrill hatred in places of Moslem holiness by Moslem holy men.
Bill Moyers, a personal "idol" of intelligence and fair, balanced social and political commentary angrily quoted Deuteronomy's injunction to destroy idolatry as a rationale for the alleged deliberate brutality of the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. What does Deuteronomy have to do with doing battle in heavily populated areas where Hamas exploits the innocence of civilians using them as human shields and callously converting mosques, schools, hospital and homes into places of launching pads from which rockets are hurled indiscriminately against the civilian populations of Israel? Where was Moyer's liberal understanding of Deuteronomy as an historical document whose literal meanings were always interpreted poetically, prophetically and figuratively by Jewish commentators throughout the generations? Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism of the past two thousand years, expanded and enlarged its understanding of the Torah text to exclude the remotest possibility of violent behavior against any non-Jew anywhere. It is sad that Liberal Baptist Moyers has regressed to a fundamental Baptism out of a sense of misplaced anger, perhaps guilt. Mr. Moyers: Have you forgotten that Deuteronomy contains the Ten Commandments? What about Deuteronomy 10:19-"You too must befriend,love the stranger.."
What does religion have to do with the political and military situation that leave's Israel little if any choice when its enemy Hamas is intractably determined to wipe Israel of the map? Perhaps it is apt to interject religion after all. I believe that Judaism has made it possible for Israel to respond with the kind of sensitivity and morality that it has exercised in spite of the greater danger to its soldiers and civilians.
As I stood in the cold, I did not hear a single word of insult or disparagement of any Arab, Palestinian or Muslim. By contrast, on my way home, as I overheard the protests of Palestinian supporters,Israel, Zionism and Judaism were well within the bounds of scurrilous and vile expressions of ethnic and religious debasement and slander. There is not a single Jew whose heart doesn't ache for the injury, pain and death of Palestinian innocent men , women and especially children. Yesterday, I attended Sabbath services which concluded with a prayer written by an Israeli rabbi on behalf of all the children of Gaza.I would be hard pressed to hear such a prayer in a mosque for the well-being of Jewish children traumatized daily by the whistle of rockets flying over their homes, kindergartens and air -raid shelters.
Today I needed my Jewish home. Throngs of Jews shivering in the cold warmed my heart and mind reassuring me that while Israel is not perfect-mistakes are made, but not intentionally; killing innocents is not the policy of Israel; Israel is not responding "disproportionately,"whatever that means.It defies logic to suggest that any war against an enemy can be won if the enemy suffers less than the defender! Tragically, Israel is simply trying to ensure the protection and safety of her citizens.
This is what home and family mean. When there is no place to go,when no one will let you in, there is one place that will always open its doors and embrace you-that place is home, the family, the Jewish heart and soul-Israel. For this I am grateful.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Each Friday could be a time in which we prepare ourselves not only for the physical activities of the Sabbath-preparing food, grooming oneself, making sure that all basic needs will be taken care of in advance so as to cease from work and be able to rest-but to spiritually anticipate the Sabbath as a day of gratefulness.
In thinking about the past week and a reason for my own feelings of gratefulness, I would like to share the following. A wonderful friend, a woman of intelligence, erudition and genuine warmth, called me from California to thank me for sending her my book-"I Thank therefore I Am." Needless to say, I was most pleased that she had read it and found it of spiritual importance to her. She then proceeded to inform me that her grand daughter saw the book on her desk and asked to read it. She returned a few days later and conveyed to her grandmother how the book on gratefulness would help her with her work. She is a teacher of autistic children. Their families understandably struggle with their ability to experience gratefulness in their lives. Perhaps the book could help her say something or express something that can lift the heavy burden of their lives and bring a drop of joy to their daily challenges.
It was a moment of deep gratefulness for me. If one person could be blessed for a single instant, then the reason for gratefulness is reassured.
Is this not a lesson in the gratefulness that comes with random acts of kindness that we can all perform, no matter how modest they may be? Is any act of kindness in fact modest, or "minor?" If we think of the past week , can we not discover at least one moment, event, experience, encounter, thought or feeling that can infuse us with a sense of thankfulness?
I believe that we all can discover reasons for gratefulness, if we only open our hearts to life's fullest blessings.
Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Last night my daughter and I saw the movie, "Marley and Me." We both love dogs, especially puppies that are labs or retrievers. We first had dinner together , which for me was a particular delight. I consider conversations with my daughter as both illuminating and heart-warming. As a social worker, she works with the mentally challenged and her dedication and sincerity to this kind of challenging work is inspiring.
While the movie was both entertaining and sad, the final comments by Marley's owner, John Grogan, a journalist, are comments that I found most meaningful for which I am most grateful. I don't recall his exact words. A paraphrase reads like this:
"Dogs are the most unique of animals in how they relate to human beings; unlike humans, whether your smart or dumb, rich or poor, tall or short, white or black, is entirely irrelevant. The dog deals with humans from the heart; she gives from the heart and receives from the heart. That is her gift to humans."
In this very complicated and worrisome world, we have a great deal to learn from the many "Marleys" out there. If we do, perhaps this planet will become a more peaceful and joyful place for all.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


It is the civil New Year. For a major part of the planet’s population, today marks the beginning of a period of renewed hope and opportunity. I however,still think about Hannukah and its message of the miraculous.
At a prayer service on the fifth day of Hannukah, prior to reciting the Amidah, the silent standing prayer, the layperson in charge announced: “ Don’t forget to add Al Hanissim !”
He reminded the minyan to include the special prayer for Hannukah whose first words are-“For the miracles.”
What a remarkable reminder for the days following Hannukah. Remember the miracles!
Wonders are not reserved for special occasions only. Everyday is suffused with the miraculous, with the amazement of being alive and embracing the totality of being.
So on this New Year’s Day I remind myself , “For the miracles,” and I praise.
May the New Year be one of enhanced awareness of the miracles of being alive.