Monday, September 21, 2015

Tashlich-casting away

Rosh Hashana-
water lapping jagged  rocks
wiping them clean
of dust and dirt

like a dog’s tongue 
licking with love
leaving  behind wonderful wetness

we empty pockets of leftovers
perhaps long forgotten
moments of coldness,
fear and untouchability

crumbs of callous forgetting
that she too hurts when ignored;
cast them away 
and fill the emptiness with human empathy

Yom Kippur-
Casting casts a frightening net of contrasting consequences
“Al Taslichaynu”-pleas of “Cast us not away”
pierce vaulted sanctuary ceilings
 I feel my “koiach”  seeping out,
of hardening arteries, wrinkled skin,
eyes filmed with fog
ears snatching  muffled 
 waves of sound

is it time to be cast away?
has the moment arrived for God to do some 
housecleaning , to clear away the clutter?

allow us our crumbs, all we have now
is the Rebbe’s ‘sherayim’
the Master’s remaining morsels
rendered holy by divine devotion
like shattered fragments in Your Holy Ark-

 we ask not for more.

not ready to submit 
to  tides that will cast us back into ocean’s depths
swallowed up by the beast of inevitability
a place of eternal darkness

not yet, not yet,

“Al taschlichaynu!”

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Alongside a butterfly

a butterfly followed me today
weaving an invisible wreath of lightness
with his wispy wings
around my heaving body

he floated, shining blackness in
a late afternoon’s
fading sun

and I plodded along a country road
heavy legs of flesh and bone
barely bearing me along the way

She wings by
brushing my sweaty arm
with a silken kiss

my winged companion
flutters ahead
a silent counterpoint
to my gasping breath

oh to be a butterfly, I thought,
recreated,  rewired with willowy wings
From  caterpillar , invisibly  inching along a gravel path
laden with a heaviness of being
to a fluttering flash
in that same waning sun

to feel the fling  of freedom for one fleeting moment,
the lightness of being, the summer air my home.

A New Prayer for the New Year

God gives and God takes
i’ve prayed all my life for God to give
bicycles, beauty, brains-
Can’t ignore
some modest gains
a bicycle waiting for me after school
prayer answered but 
never enough
don’t want stuff-
adoration, love
from those I love.

We pray “please give”-
this year, soul gears in reverse-
please take
O great Receiver,

Weighed down with waste
agonizing anger
jealousies that gyp me out of joy
fear,handmaiden of guilt
grinding  the heart into ground’s dust

in your Omnipotence, accept as gift 
all ruin and refuse of shattered hearts
for you but a trifle, for me, mud-laden  mortal, crushing,
 I totter in drunken stupor  squashing sadness into oblivion

Purify the pollution of my soul
In Your Compassion cast  it into the vastness of the universe,

claim the  compost of my torment 
recycle it as a medley of  joyful melody 

You are the Great Taker
I surrender all toYou
Pain, fear, guilt, hopeless view of tomorrow
let me be without 
the baggage of so much rubbish

I pray I not litter my life in the New Year 
Accept my refuse with ‘rachamim,”

May it be Your will.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Grateful for the Threefold Blessing of Teshuvah, Tefilah and Zedakah
We all suffer; life is hard , even for those who are blessed with much. Suffering is beyond objective measurement since it is so deeply  a subjective experience as well. Indeed, only the very fortunate few suffer little- sadly, overwhelmingly vast numbers of sentient beings suffer much too much.
Suffering can be alleviated in many ways-multiple resources that help healing, feed the hungry, provide shelter, educate and entertain, make life more just, secure and livable, are available but sorrowfully inadequate to eliminate suffering entirely. Moreover, sources of suffering happen beyond human control-natural disasters, happenstance occurrences, accidents, and a wide array of circumstances that are haphazard and  random.  Suffering’s end seems to be reserved for some distant, eschatological moment in the far away future.
And yet, what most of us pray for, in traditional ways or unconventionally, is the removal of suffering from our lives. We wish to be comfortable, secure, happy. These are the things we desire most, for ourselves and our loved ones.
On the High Holidays, we pronounce a brief statement of instructive prayer.
“U teshuvah”-Repentence
“U tefilah “-Prayer
“U’zedakah”-Deeds of kindness
“Can remove the severity of the decree.”
In earlier translations, the wording was different-”Can avert the evil decree!”
If we pay attention to the wording of this threefold response  to “evil” in this world, the traditional reading-”Can avert the evil decree”- suggesting that the performance of these actions will prevent evil from befalling us, is incorrect.  The text does not read: ‘gezeirah raah’-an evil decree; rather it reads ‘ roah ha’gzeira,’ namely, the severity or negativity of the decree. Therefore, the traditional translation is inaccurate and holds out what I believe to be a false promise. This earlier translation conveys a  literal understanding  of reward and punishment, one that is  is no longer feasible in our contemporary world. To the best of our observations  as rational beings who subscribe to science as a meaningful way by which to deal with painful problems, the quid pro quo relationship between wrongdoing and punishment or doing good and being rewarded by God as a prize for goodness, simply does not work for most of us.  Not only doesn’t it correspond with the our rational observations  of life, it also leads many to suffer unnecessary disappointment and resentment.
 The above triad of responses to the  inevitability of suffering cannot protect us against the decree but it can help lessen its severity and remove those features of life’s many unkindnesses that have the potential for crushing our lives into paralysis or dejection. The threefold spiritual path proclaimed above points  to  ways by which we can come to terms with the inescapable reality of evil over which we often have no control. Further, they guide us to discover a way by which to extract life’s  joy and meaning that can be contained in the  human experience  in spite of its many miseries and atrocities.
Let us examine each approach.
1.Teshuvah-literally, the Hebrew definition of this term is “return.” What do we return to as a means of dealing with life’s unfairness? Traditionally, it represents  a beckoning  to return from ways that have lead us astray back to the right path, back to God’s ways, if you will. 
 ‘Return’ can be understood as a “getting back to basics,” as discerning those dimensions and qualities of life that are essentially simple things, fundamentals of human existence. When we can achieve such awareness of life’s myriad gifts available to all, then this journey of return  to the center of our lives can uphold us and anchor us in our encounter with “evil” and suffering. Even those who suffer most for no apparent rhyme or reason, can discover the tiniest crack through which the smallest glimmer of light can shine through and cast its precious life-enhancing light on the darkness enshrouding  the victim of life’s cruelty. This return to life’s most elementary components-a flower, a blue sky, a gentle breeze, a warming sun, human love- while challenging and seemingly  out of reach in the midst of despair, nevertheless,  contain the seeds of  hope and  relief, well-being and a feeling of gratitude that is self-nourishing and opens the heart to receive the eternal light of the universe’s goodness.

2.Tefilah- Prayer. For me prayer does not mean asking for things .Perhaps for others, in a state of helpless suffering, the possibility or the faith that God will respond in a direct way and alleviate our pain in some miraculous way does provide strength and a potent way by which to soften the blows of life.
I  believe that the prayer of greatest potency is that of praise and thanksgiving, words rooted in gratitude. If one reviews  the  basic prayers of Judaism ie. Amidah, one discovers requests for the fundamentals of life in general and Jewish life in particular. Such gifts as wisdom, healing , justice, prosperity direct our prayerful attention. If we could translate these requests into statements of gratitude for these basic gifts of life both in their reality and potentiality, I feel convinced that prayer can serve as another powerful prong in the triadic path  toward easing the severity of dreadful decrees.The Hassidic  tradition maintains that God showers us with unlimited gifts; the purpose of prayer is to open our hearts to receive them.
Tefilah guides us in a direction that takes us beyond ourselves to God, a transcendent reality, the universe.

3. Zedakah-compassion.
One of the impediments to gratitude is the feeling that it carries with it  an unending obligation  to someone or something. Many dislike the  feeling that they owe something to others; it interferes with our desire for autonomy and self-determination and is seen as onerous, an obstacle in our path to greater ease and joy. Yet, gratitude itself requires only two things-to simply say thank you, and show that what you receive is deeply appreciated and needed, acknowledging the other’s goodness and kindness, which is, in itself, an  act of compassion toward the other. Acting  gratefully is a form of compassionate behavior allowing  one  to recognize that now and after you are gone others will  think of you and your life out of a sense of the very same gratefulness and praise that is expected of you toward others. Gratitude generates love and kindness; awareness that all of life is a gift-even your own hard-working accomplishments-enhances your clarity  and sensitivity to the giftedness and value of other peoples’ lives and our capacity to respond compassionately to all living beings. 
Zedakah’s focus is another human being,  the “ other “ in our relationship to life and the world.
One can say,  gratefulness  is the basic measurement of human morality and compassion. 

An ancient Eastern sage once said:  there are three essentials  of life:
simplicity, patience and compassion.
Judaism would declare:
Teshuvah-return to simplicity.
Tefilah-pray with praise, patiently.
Zedakah- Let gratitude be translated into compassion.
May the severity of any and all decrees be lessened and made  tolerable by the sweetness  of a brand New Year.

Grateful for the Shofar Process

Interpretations of the shofar abound. Saadiah Gaon, a Jewish luminary of the 10th century provided ten cogent and inspiring explanations referred to widely during this High Holiday season.The fascination with the shofar has elicited countless other associations and implications.
I would like to humbly add one more.
The sounding of the shofar represents to me a fundamental spiritual process of change. Each set of sounds, and the Hebrew words that are pronounced to evoke these sounds, point to a psycho-spiritual dimension of this process.
The first sound -Tekiah - is closely related to the condition of being immobile. The Hebrew root word “takoah,” is defined colloquially as ‘stuck.’ We cry out the sound -Tekiah- calling for help, hoping that somehow someone will  throw us a life line, a rope, a cable, and yank us out of the mire of our stuckedness.
How does this experience of pulling ourselves out of the place of feeling that we are trapped, that we can’t make any headway towards a new possibility in our lives, find some resolution internally so that we can begin to feel some looseness, some lightness, some emerging glimmers of freedom?
The shofar process invites us to recognize the next step. “Shevarim”-brokenness, the root word  “shavor,” to break,  contained in the instruction. When we allow ourselves to feel our brokenness, without fear, shame or a sense of inadequacy, then we discover that we can slowly  slip out of place of paralysis and move in the direction of greater openness and acceptance, one which lifts the onus of an intolerable weight from our souls. Moreover, the psychological function of “breaking apart,” of “partializing,” can ease the overwhelmingness of being stuck in a place of over-generalization, of experiencing a  particular life circumstance  as absolute, unchanging and unchangeable. The hardness of ‘Tekiah’, with its rigid and static brittleness can be softened and made nimble  with the permission to be broken, imperfect, incomplete.In the words of Ernest Hemingway,
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.”

The non-judgmental  awareness  of human imperfection and brokenness allows us to  understand and accept that so much of life is unstable, hanging on a thread, shaky and uncertain. The”Teruah “ comes along-its root-”ra- oah”- wobbly, flimsy, tottering- further instills in our hearts the wisdom of life’s impermanence and fleetingness.  The teruah’s definition of crushing and shattering  takes the three sounds of shevarim and lengthens them to a total  of nine, the parts of life’s puzzle being shattered into even  tinier fragments and components.The picture puzzle of our lives has been disassembled. We stand at the crossroads of a new opportunity to reassemble the broken, shattered fragments of our life.
At last we sound the final note of the shofar process-”Tekiah gedolah!” -the great tekiah ! This  is much more than a temporal length of sound; tekiah’s inherent definition contains the concept of connecting, of plugging into, something of greatness-‘gadol.‘ How do we put back together the pieces of our lives? How do we create a coherent picture of ourselves and life using the myriad components of mind, body and heart?

Tekiah gedolah-the process announces the crescendo instruction of -take heed, pay attention-”shema” -listen carefully to these notes of spiritual dynamic movement, to the greatness and largeness of the universe, and the  inner, infinite , authentic self, the  capacity of the human soul  to achieve greatness , even divinity. Essentially, the lens of this awareness of life’s greatness is linked to our ability to say thank you, to praise in the face of all things. Thus gratitude becomes the spiritual insight by which the disassembled pieces of life’s puzzle can be reassembled  as interlocking  components that  fit into a place of unity and clarity, completing a picture of beauty and security.