Beginner’s Mind Torah

Yesterday I had to transfer a Torah scroll from The Davis Academy Lower School campus to The Davis Academy Middle School campus. The scroll was being stored in an Ark that resides in a room adjacent to our Lower School gym. When I went to get the Torah scroll, I found our kindergarten students sitting politely and receiving instructions for their PE class which had begun only a few minutes prior. As I carried the Torah from the Ark and into the gym, I saw a kindergarten child jump up from his spot, point at the Torah, and shout, “Torah! Torah!!” It was a sweet moment of spontaneous spirituality and enthusiasm.

Imagine if each of us, upon seeing a Torah scroll in the midst of our daily lives, leapt up from our seats, pointed, and cried out, “Torah! Torah!!” What would our lives look like if we had such a natural and authentic love and respect for Torah?

The reason the Torah scroll was at the Lower School campus rather than the Middle School campus is because we needed both of our Davis Academy Torah scrolls for our Simchat Torah celebration. Simchat Torah is the holiday where we conclude an annual cycle of Torah reading only to immediately begin a new cycle, creating a seamless transition and ensuring that Torah remains an unbroken chain connecting Jews with one another and with the foundational teachings of our tradition.

Today, two soon-to-be Bnai Mitzvah will read from this very Torah scroll at our Middle School Tefilah (prayer) service. Somewhere around Middle School, maybe even sooner, something happens to the voice inside of us that used to shout “Torah! Torah!!” The voice doesn’t disappear. But it becomes more self-conscious. It takes its place as one among the many voices that speaks authentically from the soul. Instead of crying out, it’s more like a whisper. More like the “still small voice” that Elijah heard on the mountaintop.

There’s tremendous power in a mighty shout and there’s tremendous power in a soft whisper. There are ample times in life for each, and for most of the other manifestations of voice in between. But something about that kindergarten child shouting, “Torah! Torah!!” touched me deeply and summoned this reflection.

As we begin reading the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, we might do well to consider how we want to relate to Torah as we embark upon the next cycle. For some of us, it’s time to rekindle our awareness and appreciation of the Torah and its teachings. For some of us, it’s time to loosen our grip on what we think the Torah means for us and for others. For most of us, it’s a chance to nurture our spiritual and religious souls, to grow as Jews, people of faith, and human beings, living in a world that could be healed in some small way from our living the values that represent the best of what Torah teaches.

This year, this week, this day, this moment, we have the chance to encounter Torah anew. We have a chance to read, and listen, and study with new eyes, new ears, and with a spirit of delightful openness. We can, with intention and purpose, bracket our assumptions, biases, and opinions and hear the voice(s) of Torah speaking directly to us, perhaps in a shout, or in a whisper. And from that place, we can summon our response(s).

3 Jewish Prayers Every Person Should Recite

This morning I found myself discussing the meaning of some of the daily prayers that Jews recite each morning. It reminded me of the relevance and maybe even the necessity of finding words like these to remind and guide us as we journey through life. So here, in a bare bones fashion, are the prayers and their most urgent meanings (in my opinion).

  1. Modeh Ani– A prayer to be recited immediately upon waking up in the morning, this prayer was added to the morning liturgy to ensure that we find a moment, however brief, to express gratitude for the gift of this day. Modeh Ani is a reminder that however tired, grumpy, uninspired, or burned out we might be, today is a gift and our ability to experience this day is similarly a gift.
  2. Mah Tovu– This prayer is often misunderstood because people don’t know about it’s origins in the biblical story of the prophet Balaam. Balaam was sent to curse the Israelites, but every time he opened his mouth to speak, words of blessing came out instead. Therefore, Mah Tovu is a reminder that we are faced, each moment, with the choice between being a blessing and being a curse. We should choose to be a blessing and should summon all of our agency and creativity in service of this goal. Also, Mah Tovu reminds us of the power and importance of speech. We need to learn how to control our mouths.
  3. Elohai Neshamah– This prayer reminds us that we have a soul, and that our soul is good and pure. Reciting this prayer can serve as a reminder that it is in our nature to incline toward goodness, compassion, love, and kindness. This prayer reminds us that each of us has a soul and that listening to our soul can help us find our way in the world. Cultivating the inherent goodness of our soul is essential to living our best life and we should pursue this for ourselves and help create contexts that enable others to do the same.

Jewish Body, Jewish Soul

Jewish tradition honors both the body and the soul.

The ancient rabbis understood that, as human beings, we experience the world through the body. Our senses, our physicality, our material self. They taught us to treat the body with respect, to view the body as a gift from God, and to be mindful of how we treat our bodies. There are laws pertaining to what we eat, how we can and cannot manipulate and mutilate our bodies, how we deal with sickness and healing, and of course circumcision. The body was and is a source of great power and concern.

The same goes for the soul. These same rabbis viewed the soul as a reflection of the Divine. The soul comes from God and when we die, the soul returns to God. The soul learns, the soul feels, the soul speaks, the soul listens, the soul advises, the soul manifests the inner landscape of our being. The soul implanted in each of us is pure and holy.

In the Reform Jewish prayerbook the prayer for the body and the prayer for the soul follow one another. While they are two distinct prayers, their sequential placement demonstrates the unique and dynamic relationship between the body and the soul.

You can learn more and recite Judaism’s blessing for the body here. And Judaism’s prayer for the soul here.

Final Delivery

I just observed a tender, inspiring, and profoundly human interaction. John, the UPS employee who delivers packages to The Davis Academy a few times a week, was asking for our receptionist Ms. Janice. As it turns out, he wanted to say a last goodbye because today was his final delivery to The Davis Academy. After so many years, he’s retiring.

It was a touching moment, because Ms. Janice was in tears. As it turns out, those few moments each week when John would stop by to deliver packages were the foundation of a friendship. A friendship that spanned the years. Rain or snow etc…

There are people in our lives, sometimes at the center of our lives, sometimes on the margins. Some of them seem like constant fixtures, always there. Others come and go, sometimes with no lasting impression.

The vast majority are somewhere in the middle. People that we encounter in the mundane moments, around the edges, as we journey through our lives. John and Janice had that. A welcome distraction, an occasional interruption, some friendly words, a heartfelt smile. Can we really ever articulate what these people and these kinds of relationships mean in the context of our entire lives?

A Passion to Serve

Today I had the pleasure of hearing Sherry Frank speak about her life story as it is represented in her remarkable book entitled, A Passion to Serve: Memoirs of a Jewish Activist. As Sherry spoke, I found my heart opening to her message and felt inspired by her powerful testimony as a leader in civil rights, human rights, and many important causes of the last 40 years. As I reflect on the experience, here are a couple of personal takeaways.

  1. Everything comes from somewhere. Sherry spoke briefly about her realization as an adult that some part of her passion for social activism came from her father, who passed away when she was not yet a teenager. I’m reminded of the fact that my great grandfather’s mandolin hangs in a place of honor in my home and all the other ways that parents, grandparents, and others have influenced my life, personality, and choices without my conscious realization.
  2. Let Torah guide you. Sherry spoke not only about activism, but about Jewish activism. She spoke of the importance of knowing your tradition and helping others understand where you are coming from by making your spiritual and religious roots explicit. Sherry spoke about how she always tried to incorporate a Jewish value, idea, or teaching into her written communications and interactions. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of helping others understand where we are coming from and leveraging the power of religion, in this case Judaism, to do go.
  3. Stories speak louder than facts. Sherry told stories. She explained that she wrote A Passion to Serve so that her grandchildren could understand the world she came from and her place in it. Her stories were a powerful reminder of the importance of storytelling more generally. We make the most sense to others, and have the greatest likelihood of connecting with others to form relationships and coalitions, when we know our story, share our stories, and are able to hear the story and stories of others.

It was a wonderful afternoon of inspiration and learning. A great way to immerse myself in the central task of the month of Elul– spiritual reflection.

Thank you, Sherry!

A great definition of art

In episode #341 of the EntreLeadership Podcast, Seth Godin says the following about what it means to be an artist. He says that an act of artistry involves, “Doing something that’s not in the manual, something human, something generous, something that touches someone else.”

I consider myself an artist. But when I think about why I self-identify this way, it’s not because I write songs. My self-identification is closer to Godin’s description of an artist. I try to live a life that goes beyond the handbook or manual. I strive, like Hillel the Elder taught, to be a human being. I try to live a life of generosity, particularly of the spirit. And I measure my days, at least when I take a moment to reflect, in terms of whether my work and my existence touched someone else. To live that way, is to live art.

We are blessed to know

We are blessed to know people.

People like Davona.

People who bring light and joy and sweetness into our lives.

People who make our lives better.

Simply by virtue of our bumping into them in the hallway.

In the cafeteria.

In the workroom.

People whose laugh lowers our blood pressure. 
Whose faith remind us that God can be real.

Whose selflessness reminds us that we are here to give, and give, and give.

We are blessed to know people.

Who can identify bullshit from a mile away but know that’s not who you really are in your heart and soul.

Who ask theological and spiritual questions and actually seek out and care about the answers.

Who care about your ups and downs, and share theirs in return.

Who climb down into the pit with you and look up toward the light with their arm around you.

Who say “friend” and mean it.

Who make sacrifices without regard for self.

Who fall in love, again and again, but who most of all love life and the roller coaster thereof.

Who love nature, and God, and people, and music, and friendship, and family, and church, and work, and all the stuff of existence.

Who in their diagnosis open our hearts and strengthen us even in their moments of loneliness and fear.

Who in their passing leave an imprint on our souls and remind us to smile.

Who don’t deserve to die, but do deserve to be free from suffering.

Who we know without a doubt find their way to the Big Sky where we can always look up and find them watching over us with a smile.

A Blessing for the Night Before School Starts

This blessing can be read the night before the first day of school, or the morning of…

A Back to School Blessing for 2019-2020

Tomorrow our family goes back to school.

While we are sad that summer break is coming to an end, we are excited for all that the new school year brings.

There will be new friends, new teachers, new subjects, new experiences, new adventures, new discoveries, and so much more.

Dear God, as the new school year starts, we pray for Your blessing for our family.

Help us to make the most of the gift of our children’s education.

Help us to greet each day with a smile, a positive attitude, and an eager mind, ready to learn and grow.

Help us to appreciate our classmates, friends, and teachers.

Help us to live our values every day.

When the alarm clock rings, remind us that we are blessed in more ways than we can count.

Remind us that we are blessed, and that it is our joy and honor to be a blessing to our Kehilah (community) and our world.


Shavuot: Receiving Torah

As Shabbat and Shavuot approach, I wanted to share a quick Hasidic teaching recounted by the great philosopher, Martin Buber.
REVELATION EVERYDAY: The Kotzker Rebbe was asked: ”Why is Shavuot called (z’man matan Torah) ‘The Time that the Torah was Given,’ rather than ‘The time the Torah was Received?” He answered: “The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times.” (Martin Buber Tales of Hasidim)
What I find meaningful in the Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching is the idea of the ongoing opportunity and need to take Torah to heart. Not necessarily “The Torah” but Torah more generally understood as the ethical, spiritual, and cultural inheritance of the Jewish People.
I think that Jews and Judaism have a greater role to play in the betterment of society than ever before. I feel like the ethical teachings of Torah and Jewish tradition, the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, the belief that there are facts and truths and right ways of acting and living ones life– that these claims and perspectives need to be a part of the collective conversation.
The more reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate people who are able to be ambassadors of Judaism’s vision of a peaceful and just world, the better.
Speaking personally, and as a rabbi, there are days when I feel like I actively “receive” Torah and days when I don’t, due to the many demands, claims, and commitments that fill my days.
This Shavuot I will be thinking about how I can be a more engaged and active recipient of Torah and how I can help bring the important insights and unique worldview of Judaism into places where it is desperately needed.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Spiritual Review: BlacKkKlansman

This week I finally had a chance to watch Spike Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman. It was excellent. While I’m not in a position to offer a full review of the film, there are a couple of spiritual themes that really resonated with me and that I want to point out:

  1. The first theme that stood out to me has to do with ideologies of violence and hate. Clearly a film about the KKK engages with the theme of hate-filled ideology. After all, what is the KKK if not that? What stood out to me in the film is how compellingly it demonstrates a fundamental truth about hateful ideologies of incitement. While these ideologies do real and irreparable harm to the targets or victims of the hate, they also do real and irreparable harm to those who hold the beliefs. BlacKkKlansman reminds us that hatred and violence can never be only other-directed. Eventually those who are filled with hate and turn to violence will find that they inflict their hate and violence on themselves, their communities, and their loved ones.
  2. The second theme that stood out to me has to do with intersectionality and coalition building. As a rabbi, my ears perked up when the character playing Stokley Carmichael/ Kwame Ture quoted the ancient Jewish sage, Hillel (“If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?). More generally, the film reminds Jews and Blacks of the long period of time when Jews and Blacks united around Civil Rights and Social Justice. The two main protagonists of the film are, respectively, Black and Jewish. Their story lines, life experiences, and sense of justice intersect in important and authentic ways. They understand that racism directed against Blacks and anti-semitism directed against Jews are ultimately sibling expressions of a fundamentally hateful ideology. As many of the films viewers may not be aware of the rich history of Blacks and Jews joining together to fight institutional racism and ideologies of hate in America, the film does a service by honoring this narrative.