Thursday, October 18, 2012

Grateful for a gem in the crown

I have just returned from spending almost six weeks in Spokane,Washington. I was invited for the High Holyday period to lend support to a colleague recovering from cancer treatment.
The congregation consists of about 200 families which occupies a beautiful synagogue structure and spacious educational building containing the most up to date equipment and convenience.
For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the beauty, spaciousness and grandeur of America's west. It was nothing less than a religious experience.The sea of evergreens, the majestic moutain tops, vast stretches of seared yellow fields which wave in the summer winds bursting with wheat stalks to feed a prosperous America, and luscious lakes and rivers bubbling  with salmon  making their  inexorable journey to their destined end,  the fisherman's hook and nest.
This is the crown of beauty which drapes the fortunate citizens of this blessed country.
The gem in this crown is the Jewish community of Spokane. The only significant Jewish presence in a radius of hundreds of miles in either direction-Seattle being 300 miles away on the west and Minneapolis, over a thousand, on the east.
One could say that this community is indeed a lonely one. Ironically, its isolation is its strength. Never before had I felt the utter value of each and every member of the community. The larger numbers elsewhere leave the impression that each resident in the community is easily replaceable by the many others. In Spokane the individual is a dominant factor in creating community. The need for one another is inescapable and imperative so that everyone recognizes the importance of everyone else.
During services, Hebrew school classes and assemblies, one could not ignore the powerful sense of family that infuses this community.
The shared intimacy and closeness was readily offered to me as everyone opened their hearts, hands and homes to me without restraint or reservation. I quickly felt at home and consider Spokane and Temple Beth Shalom as another of my cherished  Jewish homes on my particular journey through life.
I pray for their well-being, their Jewish growth and their continued gratitude for every single member of their extended family.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why the Shofar is Sounded on Rosh Hashanah-A chilren's midrash
A long, long time ago, the world was empty-there was no world. No stars, no moon, no sky with patches of clouds, not even a sun pouring out its light all over the place. No mountains or deserts, oceans or rivers, no meadows or plains. Not even a tiny patch of grass and certainly no fragrant flowers. No moos could be heard-there were no cows; no meows of furry kittens and no matter how far you looked, there wasnt a puppy in sight. There was nothing. From aardvark to zebra, not a single living thing. Absolutely nothing.
Well, not exactly. There was God. God was everywhere. Everything was God and God was everything. But God was lonely. And all that emptiness was, well, kind of boring,
So God decided to make a world, a sky, the land and seas, the sun, moon and stars, trees bursting with fruit, and crawling, creepy things, fish that swam and birds that fly. And of course, fluffy kittens and cuddly puppies.
How beautiful everything was. How exciting, how interesting,
However, one thing was missing. Me-you-people. And so God made Adam, the first person. From very corner of the world, God took earth and from all this soil a human body was fashioned. From head to toe-hair, eyes, ears nose and mouth. God made skin all over, and inside were veins that carried blood, a heart that pumped the blood into all parts of the body, nerves that carried messages to the brain, arms and legs and fingers and toes.
Finally it was done-Adam was finished. He lay there like a statue-quite a creation.
But, something was wrong. Adam didnt move. God hadn’t really completed the work.
There was one last thing that was left to be done. God blew breath, air, into Adam’s nostrils. A few moments passed and suddenly Adam’s nose began to twitch. Then his eye lashes fluttered, his leg moved, his hand twitched , a sound rose in his throat . Adam was now alive-he began to breathe . Now she could run so fast that she ran out of breath; now he could put his head in the water and hold his breath until he felt his lungs bursting inside. Now she could blow into the cold winter’s air and see her breath form smoky clouds rising above her. Standing up for the first time, he looked up at the beautiful blue sky, took a deep breath and spoke his first words:Thank you!
Time passed. More and more people were born. Towns and villages sprung up everywhere.The world was filling up and getting noisier and noisier.
One day, in a special land called Israel, in the Galilee mountains, a shepherd boy was leading his sheep and rams to a grazing spot so that they could eat and grow strong and healthy. It was a luscious autumn day. The deep blue sky stretched out for miles and all around were the songs of birds welcoming the New Year.
The shepherd could'nt have been happier. Suddenly, he spotted something lying on the ground. It looked like the horn of a ram. But there was no ram-only the horn.He picked up the horn and holding it in his hands he wondered, What can I do with this horn? He rubbed his hand along the rough edges, looked into the hole from the top and from the bottom. There was nothing inside.
Perhaps the horn helped the ram hear the whispers in the mountain winds, she thought. !So she placed one opening against her ear, hoping that it would help her hear distant sounds that she otherwise could not hear. It made no difference. He carefully licked the side of the horn-perhaps it would taste sweet like the honey of the comb. His nose wrinkled with a look of displeasure; the taste was dusty dry and flat. He looked through the small hole like looking into a telescope expecting to see far away things up close. He was quite disappointed when that did'nt happen either.
He was puzzled. For a few moments he did nothing.Then she brought the horn to her lips and blew air into the horn. Nothing ; just the silent sound of his breath. Feeling so frustrated that this beautiful horn could serve no good purpose-it didnt help her hear or see , didnt have any taste and felt rough and bumpy – all she could do is purse her lips tightly to hold back her anger. The tip of the shofar was pressed against her lips. She breathed a big breath of disappointment.
The quiet morning air was suddenly pierced with a loud wavering sound. Excited she blew into the small hole of the shofar again and another loud sound came bursting out of the other side.
The sheep and rams began bleating, their “baas” forming a chorus of song carried by the soft morning breeze. Filled with curiosity the shepherd blew again and again. Strong sounds, followed by short , stubby sounds and sounds that floated in the air rose into the vast , open sparkling sky.
My breath makes sounds, it makes music, the shepherd thought. How wonderful! People everywhere heard about the miracle of the breath in the shofar. Like the shepherd they too were amazed and thrilled.
It was decided by the wise men of the land that every New Year Day the shofar would be sounded to thank God for the gift of human breath. Since then, on Rosh Hashanah which is the birthday of the world and Adam's birthday too, the shofar reminds us to thank God with gratitude and love for the very breath of life.
So, when we listen to the shofar we realize how special is every breath we take.The next time you breathe,which of course is right now and all the time, pay close attention to your tummy rising and falling as you breathe. It's a miracle that we dont have to do anything ; but the breath goes on by itself, making us alive . Now we walk and run and skip and jump, all because of the air we breathe.
Thank you God for Your breath of life.

Monday, July 23, 2012

grateful for students

I have just completed another semester of teaching at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work.It was a summer class of students most of whom live year round in distant locations i.e.Toronto ,Canada, Israel. The class title is Jewish Social Philosophy in which we explore philosophical issues such as the value of time, the notion of change and the reality of suffering, and relate them to the field of social work practice. I was blessed with 23 bright, sensitive and genuinely caring individuals of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.Largely Jewish,and orthodox, there were students of Afro-American, Dominican, and Haitian background, and of other faith affiliations -Christian, Bhuddist,secular. All contributed to the diverse and beautiful bouquet of intellectual, emotional and spiritual colors and fragrances that enriched the class experience and made this semester a time for which to be profoundly grateful. It is somewhat platitudinous to state that we all learn from each other, that teachers often learn more from student than vice versa-all this was amazingly and refreshingly true in this summer experinece of gaining insight and a growing sense of gratitude for the presence of such human beings in the world. While the field of social work is being constantly challenged as a profession by virtue of the difficult economy and the increasing intensity and scope of human problems in our society, the hope endures that with students such as the ones I had the privilege to teach, social work will bring much needed light and service to the many dark corners of our world. I am grateful for this renewed sense of hope.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


“Good morning!” she said cheerfully. It was my turn to check throughmy products at the A&P and the cashier's greeting seemed natural andspontaneous.

I answered in kind, smiling and friendly.

In response she added: "I am thankful that I got another day today!”

I was hooked. "I am Jewish,” I announced .”In my tradition, the first words that a Jew recites when waking up, before doing anything else, are 'I thank You'-'Modeh Ani which is Hebrew for I thank you.”

Her eyes began to glisten with tears. " I felt like crying when you told me this.”

A pause was followed by: “When I get up I say 'thank you, Jesus, for another day'!

The transaction was completed, I wished her a good day and I was on my way.

A smile stuck to my face as I thought about the brief encounter. Different theology, same humanity.Different ethnic group-she, Afro-American, me-Jewish caucasian-same heart!

Perhaps in fact gratefulness is the unifying spiritual sensibility this world so desperately needs.

I was blessed with another moment of gratitude sharing which brightened my day. I thank You-Modeh Ani!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Where have I been!

Almost two months have elapsed since my last posting on gratefulness. Let me explain.I still have much for which to be grateful! I have been preoccupied in finalizing my work on the Passover Haggadah-Dayenu, which should become available in print within the next few weeks.
Concurrent with this has been my engagement in preparing a work on the Sabbath as a day of gratefulness, dedicated to our Rebbe, Abraham Joshua Heschel. In addition, I have been exploring ways by which to understand the Jewish festivals as occasions of sacred gratitude and have completed "A Gratefulness Guide to the Jewish Festivals".
These works include much color, illustration and images so as to enhance our sense of gratitude in considering the meaning of these sacred times in our lives.
Finally, I am convinced that the essence of prayer is praise and the expression of gratefulness and from this premise I am working on a prayer book, a siddur, which I title-the Modeh Ani Siddur-modeh ani," I thank," being the first words pronounced by the Jew upon awakening.
My ultimate objective is to create a small Jewish gratefulness library consisting of 5 volumes:
1.I Thank, therefore, I Am-Gateways to Gratefulness
2.Dayenu-The Gratefulness Haggadah
3.Sabbath-A Day of Gratefulness
4.A Gratefulness Guide to the Jewish Festivals
5. Siddur Modeh Ani-The Gratefulness Prayer Book.

Meanwhile, my heart is filled with gratefulness for the opportunity to devote my time and energy to what I consider this holy task.
With much gratitude to you who share in my spiritual path.