Beginning the Amidah by Connecting to Our Ancestors

Beginning the Amidah by Connecting to Our Ancestors … The opening to the Amidah prayer shifts the perspective from personal needs to the long arc of Jewish history.

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

The Amidah is the centerpiece of Jewish worship, an all-encompassing prayer of praise, supplication and gratitude recited three times every day. On weekdays, the bulk of it is made up of blessings asking God for a range of things, from healing to wisdom to rain. On Shabbat, it shifts to language describing the day of rest. The Amidah for festivals cites biblical passages referring to the specific holiday.

But regardless of when it is recited, every Amidah opens the same way.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקב

“Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob”

Many liberal congregations recite a modified text that also includes the Jewish matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

Why do we open the Amidah in this way? What spiritual dimension is added by turning to “the God of our ancestors”? And why is the text so repetitive, mentioning “God of” three times?

The opening of the Amidah helps us enter the proper state of mind in offering this prayer, shifting our perspective from the narrow focus of our own limited experience to a wider lens that encompasses our place in the chain of Jewish lineage. We ask God to hear our prayer not on account of our own virtues, but because of God’s love of our ancestors. We pray that we have a fighting chance in God’s eyes because we are their descendants.

In Hebrew, this idea is called zechut avot, the merit of the ancestors. Addressing God in this way reminds not just us, but God as well of the unique relationships formed with our forbearers, our avot, in the Bible. All of Jewish understanding was first forged through our ancestors’ direct experience of God. And it is only through their deep-rooted faith that we today have the audacity to ask God for anything for ourselves.

The avot not only established our right to pray, but also our schedule of prayer. Abraham prayed in the morning, Isaac in the afternoon, and Jacob in the evening — practices reflected in the three daily prayer services today: shacharitminchah and maariv. The three daily Amidah recitations provide three formal opportunities to stand before God as the avot did, connecting to our past while preserving our traditions for the future.

The avot also each had their own unique way of relating to God, and through their example we can find our own way of connecting with the divine. This helps explain the seemingly redundant phrase in the opening lines. Repeating “God of” suggests that the God of Abraham wasn’t precisely the God of Isaac and Jacob, which in turn invites us to ponder the nature of our own particular faith.

Abraham encountered God through theological inquiry and fearless debate. He heeded the call to leave his home and forge a new faith rooted in the belief in one God.

Isaac’s relationship was founded on submission. His very life was the fulfillment of a divine promise, and yet he was willing to give up his life because God commanded it. (Thankfully, this demand was only a test.)

Jacob is characterized by his unwavering faith through the highs and lows of a circuitous life. Even in the most challenging moments, through mortal fear and personal tragedy, Jacob never doubted that God was with him.

Reflecting on the character of our ancestors’ faith can inspire us to improve our own. Are we hospitable like Abraham and Sarah? Do we live by Isaac’s faith and take hold of Rebecca’s strength and generosity? Are we like Jacob, navigating life’s challenges without losing sight of God’s presence? Or like Rachel, who lent support to an exiled people, and Leah, with her legacy of quiet perseverance?

When we enter into the sacred space of prayer, our words are more than our own. We become tethered to a chain of faith that extends back to the ground zero of Jewish prayer. The Amidah invites us to tap into the wisdom of the ages and the deeds of our ancestors, asking that God’s ear open to us as we extend their legacy into our own.

 

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A Time to Pause, Reflect, and Rebuild: Tisha B’Av in 2019 by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

A Time to Pause, Reflect, and Rebuild: Tisha B’Av in 2019 by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

When the topic of back-to-school supplies turned to bulletproof pack backs, I knew that my teenage sons had become citizens of a new world. We went as far as to research price and performance of these new “essential” items. This is the conversation that ensued:

The older one asked: “Will these really protect us from Semi-automatic weapons? The review just says handguns.”

            The younger one retorted, “I don’t need a bullet- proof backpack. If there is a shooter, I am going to tackle him. I can take him down, don’t you think?”

            “You wouldn’t”, he was corrected,  “You would run in the opposite direction. you You will see how it goes in active shooter drills. The protocol is: Get off campus as quickly as possible. They train you to run away.”

             “Or play dead.” I added. “That seems to be effective.”

We all agreed – don’t rush the shooter.

Back to school has a whole new layer of meaning.

For these I weep. (Lamentations 1:16)

We must weep. We must prevent ourselves from becoming numb to the fact that our children are coming of age in a time when mass shootings, hate speech, fear mongering and xenophobia are pervasive.

What can we do with our feelings of despair, anxiety and rage?

The Jewish calendar provides a space in which to contemplate and reflect upon our current events as well as the events of the past.  Tisha B’Av or the 9th day of the month of Av is a dedicated day of national mourning that has been observed for thousands of years.

Even before there was a Temple, the Rabbis held that the 9th of Av was preordained to be a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. In the Bible, this was the day on which the twelve spies offered a negative report about conquering the land of Israel. Their profound display of mistrust in God’s power set off the forty year detour in the Wilderness (Numbers 13-14). “You wept without cause; I will, therefore, make this an eternal day of mourning for you (bechiya l’dorot). It was then decreed that on the  9th of Av, the Temple would be destroyed. (BT Ta’anit 29a).

Many other tragedies are recorded on this day in history.  According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6), both Temples were destroyed – the First in 586 BCE by the hands of the Babylonians and the Second in 70 CE by the hands of the Romans. Bethar was captured (a Jewish insurrection against the Romans, and Jerusalem was ploughed up.  In later history, the expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the outbreak of WWI, many Pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the atrocities of Holocaust, all occurred at this time of year.

Bitterly she weeps at night, her cheeks wet with tears. There is no one to comfort her of all her friends. Her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.” (Lamentations 1:2)

Observing the 9th of Av

These historical events have been etched in the psyche of the Jewish people. The  destruction of the Temple transpired more than 2000 years ago. However, in all of Judaism’s wisdom, the events remains in our consciousness generation after generation. On the 9th of Av each year, we keep the memory alive through ritualized mourning.  For 25 hours, we reflect on our history, contemplate our present, and brace ourselves for possible future outcomes. We gather in community to read the scroll of Lamentations and related dirges. We sit on the floors of our sanctuaries or homes, chanting the texts by flashlights. We digest the haunting words of Jeremiah, the perceived author of the text: “Her enemies are now the masters, Her foes are at ease…” (ibid. 1:3)

After the Temple was destroyed, the Talmud records a conversation among rabbis who were so traumatized by the events, they forsook music and entertainment, wine and meat.  They were ready to give up all the pleasures of life in order to keep the memory aflame. But the thrust of Jewish history is to move forward. To rebuild. To remember, but not to become paralyzed by the past. And so our commemoration has become localized to a three week period of mourning which intensifies on the 9th of Av with fasting and abstaining from all pleasurable activities.  Even the study of Torah is prohibited on this day.

Extending the Boundaries of the 9th of Av: Modern Terrorism

At times we may feel that we are still sitting among the broken stones. Adding to our historical awareness, our concern as Jews also extends to the State of Israel’s current safety and security. It is heart-breaking to hear about attempted terrorist attacks and murders.The persistent aggression on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict demonstrates that peace is no where in sight. Outside of Israel, we also have legitimate concerns. We are pained to witness terror attacks on Jews all over the world. The mass shootings this past year in Pittsburg and Poway keep our tears hot. Each time we hear of another mass shooting, no matter who the target is, we feel their pain.

“I have called on Your name. O Lord, from the depths of the pit. Hear my plea…” (ibid. 3:55)

 The Divine Presence in Exile

On the 9th Av, we are reminded that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was exiled from Temple as well. The Midrash teaches that God is with us in Exile. God hears our cries. God is waiting for our return just as we await God’s.

             The Divine Presence departed from the Holy of Holies of the Temple, after its destruction: “And the divine Presence kissed the walls and embraced the pillars, sighing, ‘farewell, o my house and my sanctuary! Farewell o my palace, o my dear home! Farewell to You!’ – Blessed be Your name, God, you who shall return the divine Presence unto Zion.” – Pesikta de Rav Kahana, 1868:

As we experience the 9th of Av this year, we have much to ponder with regard to the pain and suffering that persists – in the States, in Israel, and around the world.  This is a time to pause, reflect, and formulate our own constructive solution. The prophet Isaiah insists (Isaiah 58:6) “This is not the kind of fasting I have chosen…”  We are called upon to envision and work toward a better future – free from our enemies, free from bullet proof pack packs, bigotry, racism, and violence.   There is something that each and everyone of us can do to be part of a solution.

An Antidote: Curtailing our Contempt

There is a well known teaching that the Second Temple fell, in part, on account of the baseless hatred (sinat chinam) that was prevalent at that time.  The people of Jerusalem treated each other with contempt. Instead of standing strong against their enemies, their weakened community was susceptible to attack.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the philosopher and first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in British Mandate Palestine wrote regarding this:

If baseless hatred has the power to destroyed us, then we have the power to rebuild through baseless love (ahavat chinam). (Orot Ha’Kodesh 3:354)

We too, can redeem and be redeemed with baseless acts of love.  There is something that each of us can begin to do this day to work toward a healthier, more positive community, family, self. Yes, the 9th of Av was preordained to be a time of mourning, but it was also preordained to be a time of future celebration. So powerful is this drive toward love and renewal, it is believed that in future days, the mourning aspect of the 9th of Av (and the related fast days) will be annulled, and these days will be a time to celebrate.  What will be your part to make that a reality?

Help us to Return to You, and we shall return, renew our lives as in days of old. (Lamentations 5:21)

May we see the day when our love and respect for one another will outweigh our fear and contempt.

May we see the day when children will not fear for their lives as they go to school to learn.

May we see the day when these days of mourning are truly days of celebration.

May we see our way into a rebuilt Jerusalem, a rebuilt America, a more perfected world, paved with our good deeds and blessings from above.

One Holiday – Many Journeys by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

“One Holiday – Many Journeys” by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Passover is the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar.  It is no wonder – a home-based holiday, families gather around set tables, savoring rituals that have been passed down through the generations.  It also helps to have a script to follow – Seder plates filled, Hagaddahs open, wine poured, discussions flow. Families are encouraged to interpret the rituals their own way. The premise of the Seder, after all, is the open door – even the “Wicked Child”, who cares little for the traditions of the past, reluctantly takes her place at the Passover table. 

Passover welcomes each of us with its varied entrances and deliveries. There are those who enjoy the traditions and others who prefer a fresh look. Some come for the food, others for conversation.  Many focus on creating shorter child-friendly experiences, others opt to start at dark, debating the intricacies of interpretation throughout the night.

The emphasis on diversity at the Seder is reflected in the nature of the holiday itself. Widely known as “Passover” in English, it is also known by four other celebrated names:  Chag Ha’Pesach (The Passover Holiday), Chag Ha’aviv (the Holiday of Spring), Chag Ha’Matzot (The Festival of Unleavened Bread), and Z’man Chei’ra’teinu (The Time of our Freedom). Each of these titles offer a different perspective through which one can appreciate and celebrate the depth of the season. 

The well-known English name, “Passover”, is derived from the Exodus narrative in which the Angel of Death “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, sparing them from the tenth plague – the death of the first born. The tenth plague is the catalyst for Pharaoh to cede to the Israelite God, finally releasing the Israelite slaves into freedom. While it is natural to celebrate our freedom, even God silenced the angels from singing when the Egyptians were drowning, a sign of mourning for his creation.  While the name “Passover” isn’t going anywhere, we can challenge ourselves to explore some of the other uplifting themes of the holiday, through the passageway of Passover’s other names.

First, let’s consider Chag Ha’Pesach, the first iteration of this Biblical holiday. In Exodus (12:1-8) , God commands the Israelites to prepare for the journey with a communal meal. The beauty of the ritual is that they are commanded to share this moment of celebration with their families, neighbors and friends.  The Biblical ritual of the sacrificial lamb is as much about family and celebration as it is about placing the blood on the door post.  That is why when the Temple was destroyed in antiquity, the rabbis could easily pivot from the sacrificial rite to an emphasis on gathering and discussion. The celebratory meal was already an essential part of the core experience.

The focus on observing the holiday as a gathering around the family table, without the need for a lot of liturgy or synagogue-based ritual, creates a grand threshold for Pesach observance.

Chag Ha’Pesach

The name “Pesach” can be taken in an entirely different, but equally energizing direction. As the Hassidic masters have noted – Pesach can be read Peh-Sach, “the mouth that speaks”. The primary observance of the holiday is “v’higadeta l’vincha” (Exodus 13:8) – “and you shall tell your children…” – We are obligated to sit around the table and tell the story of our freedom, to learn from one another, to inspire inquiry and share our personal and collective narratives.  Story telling makes the Seder experience rich and personal.  Our stories, meshed with those of the past, invigorate the ritual, creating a living tradition. The personal infused with the communal, keeps the Seder experience creative and fresh, letting the next generation know that their stories matter, too.

Chag Ha’Matzot

The Torah refers to Passover as Hag Hamatzot, the “Feast of Unleavened Bread”: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Lord.” The Matzah is both the “bread of freedom” and the “bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). We are instructed, “You shall not eat anything leavened with it; for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly – so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your    life.”  (Deuteronomy 16:3).  For a simple cracker, the Matzah holds a significant weight of memory.

How can Matzah be both the symbol of our freedom and of our slavery?  Made of just flour and water, without yeast or leavening, it is symbolic of degradation and slave rations. But seen another way, Matzah represents the hurried nature of their freedom – they didn’t have the time to let the dough rise. That is to say, although they were slaves, they didn’t eat food like Matzah, they were accustomed to leavened bread. Had there been more time, they might have taken delicious breads and cakes on the way.  But the nature of their freedom was such that their bread was compromised. They could take only unleavened. Matzah then, is the bread of freedom – no matter how plain (and tasteless) – it is beloved for what it represents.

Chag Ha’matzot calls us to attention – to shift our perspective from slave-minded to free-minded.  Matzah tells us, we can eat all the bread we want and still be enslaved.  Or we can eat meager rations and feel completely liberated.  On Passover, we switch the paradigm so that we can focus our attention and energies on what really matters – on what sets us free.

Chag Ha’Aviv

Chag Ha’viv, the “Springtime Holiday”, evokes delightful imagery of the natural world emerging from winter slumber. It is the beginning of the grain harvest, tethering the start of this festival to Shavuot, which takes place seven weeks later.  Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count down the days of the Omer, recalling the barley harvest and daily measure that was brought to the Temple in ancient days.  By commemorating our holiday through the lens of Spring, we enter into the season of renewal.  The symbolic foods on the Seder plate, the parsley and egg, remind us of the sprouting of fresh greenery and the cycle of life.  The Springtime also points to an awakened state of mind, joyously renewing ourselves in the spirit of vitality and youth.

Spring is also the season of lovers.  An accompanying text of the season is Shir Ha’Shirim, the Song of Songs, recited in many communities on the Sabbath of Passover, and continuing throughout the season. The Song of Songs colorfully describes lovers frolicking in the apple orchard, stretched out beneath the trees. It is typically read as a metaphor for the love between God and the Jewish people.

A Midrash highlights the Exodus story as the moment when God and Israel join into union.  God, as it were, had been peering through the lattice, eagerly waiting for the moment when the Israelites would be freed so they could unite and move forward together.  This metaphor conjures up the image of God and Israel sanctifying their union on Mount Sinai, with the Torah offered as their Ketubah, their official wedding document.

Z’man Cheiruteinu

Finally, “Z’man Cheiruteinu” means the “Time of our Freedom”.  At Seder we recount: “In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt”.  This isn’t just a role play we take on at the table; it is an invitation to feel more free, to be more free, to dedicate ourselves to ensuring freedom for others. The Torah reminds us 36 times to “care for the stranger,” “don’t oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in a strange land.” On This holiday, we strive to create a little more freedom for ourselves and for others.  We commit to attending to whatever is holding us back and whatever is holding our society back.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is not just a place name, it refers to a“narrow place” –  a state of being or a state of mind.  The call to freedom is a call within. We ask ourselves – what are we slaves to on this day? What can we do break free? The Midrash tells us that our descent into slavery was slow. The Israelites were comfortable in the land of Goshen for many years. All of their needs were met.  By the time they realized how ensconced they were in Exile, it was too late, they were on the road to Egyptian toil. Z’man Cheruteinu harkens to shift our focus, to notice what is tugging at our attention. What discomfort are we avoiding, what leap of faith is calling us forward?

There are many pathways into this beautiful holiday. Whether you are in it for the food, the ritual, the conversation, or the inner path, may each step on the journey lead you to greater freedom, satisfaction, and blessing.

 

Tuning into Sacred Silence by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Tuning into Sacred Silence by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

As the world gets noisier, the need for quiet is more acute.  Amidst the norm of blaring screens and the ubiquitous blue tooth headphones, I mourn the loss of quiet wonder. In silence, we are primed to perceive what lies beneath the surface. Even something as ordinary as breathing can become a sacred act in quiet moments.  While it is possible to cultivate stillness with a bit of interest and effort, there are times when the roar of silence overcomes us quite unexpectedly.  Pay attention because those occasions are often a run-in with the Holy.

I imagine that something of this nature engulfed our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai. Imagine a community gathered there, over 600,000 newly freed slaves. Even though they had prepared to meet God, I can hear them engaging in unbridled conversation, laughing, sharing their hopes and dreams for their new course in life.

As they stood there ready, the rumbling of Revelation began. The Torah describes the set up as an overwhelming sensorial event: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn…The blare of the horn grew louder and louder, as Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 20:16-19).

One might expect the cacophony to have continued as God delivered the “Ten Utterances”. But, our tradition offers an opposing idea. A Midrash teaches that as Revelation burst forth from mountain top, a palpable silence took hold of the crowd:

“Said Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird screeched, no fowl flew, no ox mooed, none of the ophanim (angels) flapped a wing, nor did the seraphim (burning celestial beings) chant “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh (Holy, Holy, Holy!)” The sea did not roar, and none of the creatures uttered a sound. Throughout the entire world there was only a deafening silence as the Divine Voice went forth speaking: Anochi Adonai Elohecha – “I am the Lord your God” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 29:9)

The “sound and the fury” got their attention, but the real message was delivered in a sacred silence.

The Torah offers another example of Divine stillness emerging out of a thunderous maelstrom. In God’s revelation to Elijah in the wilderness, God offers His power though the shattering wind, earthquake, and fire, but only in the calm that follows, is God perceived: “… And after the fire came a still small voice – “Kol D’mamah Dakkah”. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (I Kings 19:11-13)

We can see from these sources that our tradition embraces holiness through stillness. I personally experienced this notion, quite unexpectedly, in an airport terminal, of all places:

An old woman had fallen while waiting on line to board a South West flight.  At first, it was unclear how she had fallen, but when people began to notice that a woman was crumpled on the ground, a remarkable thing happened – there was a “consensus of silence”.  The normal hubbub of the airport terminal came to an abrupt halt. For the duration of a good five minutes, everyone’s attention at the gate was focused in the direction of the woman on the floor. Even the announcements over the loudspeakers all around has paused.  The woman herself was eerily still as well.  A small group of men, her husband and two others, were quietly hovered around her, assessing her need for care. The rest of us silently bore witness, instinctively reacting with what we could offer – palpable silence – like the proverbial “hush” that washes over the crowd.

What was contained in that silence? To me, it was unequivocal holiness. That silence brought tears to my eyes. It occurred to me that throughout society, in moments of heightened anticipation, fear of the unknown, or solemn witnessing, no announcement for silence is necessary.  It is automatic and not just devoid of noise, rather fraught, focused, and alert. I imagine the base of Sinai or Elijah’s cave to have been just like that.

Coda: After about five minutes, the woman began to stir and slowly got up. It turns out, she had tripped over a piece of luggage and hurt her leg. EMS arrived to offer additional support. She seemed to be alright after all.  As if to announce: “The coast is clear!”  a tacit consensus resumed the normal din of boarding.

As we plough through the hubbub of our everyday lives, let us create the necessary space to cultivate inner calm in the storm – a space for stillness and deep listening. And if by chance you find yourself in an unexpected hush of a crowd, jump in and glean a message from the Divine.

Song(s) of the Sea by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Song(s) of the Sea by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Years ago, part of our curriculum for ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary was the art form called: “The Senior Sermon”. It was a daunting, yet celebratory rite of passage. To make matters worse, students didn’t get to choose their Torah portion; they were distributed by lottery.  As a singer, prayer leader, and music lover, I felt that I had literally “won the lottery” when I was given “Shabbat Shirah”, (the special Sabbath when the “Song of the Sea” is chanted from the Torah) as the scheduled date for my senior sermon.

Each year, when we come to this special Sabbath, I recall my Seminary days – our hard work and spirited community. But I also feel connected to the generations of women who have dared to sing and dance on the shores, grabbing the hands of those who would rather stand on the outskirts, bringing everyone into the circle dance, our celebration of freedom.

In Parshat Beshalach, we find two songs.

The more well-known and elaborate of the two is known as Shirat Hayam (“The Song of the Sea”). Spanning 18 verses of the Torah (Exodus 15:1-15:18), this song has come to be identified with the Israelites expression of faith and their recognition of God’s role as protector and warrior. Shirat Hayam has become a focal point of our tradition and liturgy, included in our prayer books and recited each morning. The rabbis included the song in our prayer books to recited during the Pesukei D’Zimra (“Verses of Song”) section of our morning prayers. When we arrive at Shirat Hayam during the weekly reading of the Torah portion, we pay homage to it by standing and singing it with a special melody.

The second song, shorter and less gallant, appears right after Shirat Hayam. In Exodus 15:20-21, we find these verses:

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The song of Miriam, recorded in one lone verse, speaks volumes. Some scholars claim that these two songs are one and the same. The 13th-century French scholar Hezekiah ben Manoah, better known as the Chizkuni, argues that since the Torah uses words sparingly, it did not repeat the entire song again, but merely alluded to the first line suggesting the rest to follow.

But the two songs in fact serve different functions. Shirat Hayam is a record of events when the Israelites had full faith in God and trust in Moses their leader. Miriam’s song functions more like prayer, its words more akin to liturgy.

First, consider the length: just one verse. In Eastern religions, one word or phrase can serve as a focal point of prayer. Reciting the word again and again, the worshipper can get lost in the experience of the sound. In the Hasidic tradition, this is how the niggun functions — the repetitive melody becomes a meditation, stirring the soul and captivating the heart. One can imagine the women as swirling colors, dancing on the shores of the sea, timbrels in hand, singing to God.

Second, consider the structure. Miriam’s song has an urgency to it. Shirat Hayam begins Az yashir Moshe — then Moses will sing. But Miriam’s song is written in the present tense, in the plural imperative: Shiru ladonai, sing to God now. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:8) recognizes this, stating that when Israel emerged from the sea, the angels came to sing to God first. But God said, let my children sing first because they are of flesh and blood. They must sing now before they die. But you, as long as you desire, you remain alive and can sing. Miriam grabbed the moment.

In Western culture, we don’t often experience this communal desire to sing, but the opportunities are there — in exceptional worship experiences, or even at concerts when throngs of fans sing their favorite song together along with the artist. At Jewish festivities, particular songs often spring to our lips. No one has to be asked to sing at a wedding or bar mitzvah. We do it instinctively in celebration.

Finally, consider the instruments. The biblical commentator Rashi wonders where the women found these drums. Could it be that the Israelite women, rushing from their Egyptian homes in the middle of the night with only a few precious belongings and some matzah to eat, brought drums with them? Rashi quotes a Midrash to explain:

With drums and dancing: “The righteous women of that generation were confident that God would do miracles for them; so they brought drums with them from Egypt.”

We can surmise from this commitment to shlep the instruments from Egypt that music must have played a central role in ancient worship. And glancing through the Book of Psalms, it becomes clear that music was in fact a focal point of Israelite prayer. Psalm 92 reads: “A song for Shabbat: Sing to God with a ten stringed harp with a voice and lyre together.” Or Psalm 150: “Praise God with the blast of the horn/ with the violin and harp/ with timbrel and dance/ with lute and pipe/ with resounding cymbals/ with loud clashing cymbals.” In the ancient temple, the Levites would accompany the sacrificial offerings with singing and musical instruments.

In our day, we don’t need a playbook to tell us to sing when we pray. It comes naturally. Melodies tether us to one another and to God. There is a mystical power in unbridled human song. It lifts the spirit and brings us to our feet, evoking the passion and celebration at the shores of the sea.

May we take a page from Miriam’s song book by creating our own unique songs of praise to God. They don’t have to be long, just love notes from the heart. On whatever shores we find ourselves, may these songs bring us together in freedom, community and lasting peace.

The Jewish Way To Make a Resolution by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

The Jewish Way To Make a Resolution

by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

Every New Year’s, people make determined resolutions to change in the coming year, to become the 2.0 version of who we were last year. We resolve to be healthier, better people, determined to make all of the necessary adjustments to make that a reality. But how common it is to find ourselves reconsidering our commitments within months or even days of having made them?

If you have ever found that your commitment you make to exercise is the only thing running out the door by March –  are not alone. Dan Diamond, contributor for Forbes, explains: “For all the good intentions, only a tiny fraction of us see our resolutions. “University of Scranton research suggests that just 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s goals.” (forbesbooks.com: “The Science Behind Setting Goals (And Achieving them)”

So, do we throw out our resolutions and just eat the pint of ice cream, already? Well, not just yet.  For those of us who have trouble sticking with a plan, there are many tried and true methods out there to consider. A study by Dominican University of California, for instance, offered these three effective strategies: commit to action by writing it down, create accountability by recruiting a peer, and establish a regular schedule to update a friend on your progress (see above article).  Knowing that you are not alone in the game can greatly increase your chances of success.

The resolutions themselves, aren’t necessarily the issue, often failure comes from feeling that we have gotten in over our heads, or that we can’t commit to change for the long haul. Ancient Jewish wisdom offers some sage advice for helping us attain our goals. A Jewish life, anchored in the rhythms of the year, can help us set benchmarks and assess our progress. While the Gregorian calendar marks only one new year’s, the Jewish calendar marks four such occasions. The flow of the year is literally built on the tides of renewal.

Here is what our tradition says about the four new years:

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Most people today observe only two of these occasions: the first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year as we know it, and the 15th of Shevat is Tu Bishvat, widely celebrated as a kind of Jewish Arbor Day. But the four new years, even if not widely observed, hint to a way of living that privileges fresh starts, opening us to the possibility of shifting our priorities, fine tuning our awareness, or even scrapping a whole plan and starting again. The calendar allows us to approach our goals dynamically, engaging in a process of forgiving ourselves when we miss our mark.

In addition to the four new years, the more common reset button of Jewish life is Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the new month. The new month is so significant it is considered the first commandment given to the Israelites before they left Egypt: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months for you.” (Exodus 12:2) To help the Israelites break out of their slave mentality, they had to take control over the way they marked time. To be truly free, they had to take time into their own hands.

Calibrating our intentions to the resetting of the moon anchors our own experiences in universal time. Each new moon is an invitation to make a break or take a fresh look at how far we have come. There are diets or habit-change programs built on 21 or 28 day cycles. Setting our resolve for a shorter increment of time can help see us through a small or even major change.  Setting a resolution forever, or even for a whole year, can prove untenable. But giving ourselves a month or a quarter might actually help us achieve a taste of the success we are looking for.

If all else fails, at least we can commit to being moon watchers, gaining our inspiration from the cycles of the natural world, taking in the tides of time that have captured the imagination of our people through the ages. Together with an appreciation of the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, we can learn to trust in a process that allows us to continually assess our goals and keep ourselves on a path of growth and personal exploration throughout the year.

A version of this article by Rabbi Danielle Upbin was published on My Jewish Learning’s website. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-jewish-way-to-make-a-new-years-resolution/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Miracle? by Rabbi David Weizman

What Miracle?  by Rabbi David Weizman

Upon settling in Pinellas county in the summer of 2002, I received some friendly advice from a long time resident. “Do you wear that kippah on your head all the time? ‘Cause if you do, you need some eyes on the back of your head too.” Not too long after that, there was a swastika painted on the sidewalk of the path we take home from shul. On another walk home on Friday night a guy was ranting from his garage about so and so, “that dirty Jew.” We have had people yell anti-Semitic things out the window and a group of girls once saluted us with the hiel Hitler sign. It was at that moment that I realized, we are not in New York City any more. It’s the kind of thing that most Jewish people in America thought was left back in Europe under the ashes of the Shoah. But last year, 2017, was a banner year for anti-Semitic acts according to the Anti-Defamation League, who keeps track of these things. One might think that after Charlottesville, there would have been such a public outcry to denounce the conspiracy theory that “the Jews will not replace us,” which would have pushed back such hate speech into the realm of the taboo where it was hibernating. That bear was awoken evidently, feeling hungry. And then there was Pittsburgh. I am not a guy who walks around in fear of getting shot for being a Jew, but you have to wonder … what’s going on here?

That’s exactly what the rabbis of the Talmud asked about two thousand years ago: mai hanukah? What is the reason for a Hanukah celebration? Surely they knew the whole story from that best seller, Maccabees I & II. What they conclude is that a miracle occurred, and it was not that a small band of brothers defeated Antiochus Epiphanies, a guy not so keen on Judaism. The miracle was that a small cruse of purified oil lasted for eight days until they could acquire more for the Menorah of the Holy Temple. Maybe the rabbis were trying to justify eating latkes and doughnuts with their focus on the oil, or maybe they liked the metaphor of making a little bit go a long way. It characterizes us as a people: few in number but able to shine a great light into the history of the world. Reflectors of the Divine light, of course, that manifests in creativity and productivity, in kindness and mercy.

The Talmud instructs us to place our lights of Hanukah outside the door so that it can be seen from the street, pirsume nissah, to publicize the miracle. But in times of danger, it is sufficient to leave them on the table. Is this such a time in America today? Who would even notice, with all of the Christmas lights, a little menorah in the window? But when the whole house is dark, save those few candles, people notice. Keep on shining.

Hag Urim Sameachi,

Happy Hanukah,

Rabbi David Weizman

 

 

“From the Depths” by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

“From the Depths” by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

Min Ha’meitzar karati Yah

Anani ba’merchav Yah

From a narrow place I called out to YAH

God answered me within the expanse.” – Psalm 118: 5

 

Traditionally, Psalm 118 is chanted as part of Hallel, a series of Psalms recited on Jewish celebratory holy days, such as Rosh Hodesh (the new moon) and the Festivals. Min Ha’meitzar is usually a call for celebration.  It is chanted from a place of freedom, from the headspace of having passed through the tough times. It suggests that we were enslaved, and now we are free.

It is not uncommon, however, for this verse to also find its way into personal prayer, when we are still in crisis –  the moments that cry out for answers, to find our way out to the other side.  This verse is a vision of how we long to feel and how we long to be seen.

I love the symmetry and rhyme scheme. Its literary nature hints to a Master Plan just beyond plain sight.  In translation, ha’meitzar is “the constricted space”, a narrow “blind spot”, our own personal Mitzrayim, which is the Hebrew word for Egypt.  Mitzrayim is enslavement, darkness, and hopelessness. When you are down and out, you aren’t just in the meitzar, you become it. Notice what happens in your body when you are stressed: tightness in the chest, tense shoulders, altered breath, temperature change, the toxic loop of negative thoughts. The meitzar becomes an all-encompassing grip on our sanity.

No one wants to be in the meitzar.  God doesn’t want us in the meitzar either. So, as the Psalmist suggests, God has already heard our cries. The verse points us to an answer that is always-already within us.  The antidote to our constriction, the verse suggests, is the creation of more space.

God is known by many names – some are transcendent, some more imminent –  Rock, Redeemer, Protector, Judge, Parent, or the Ineffable One – to suggest a few.

This prayer, however, calls for a singular name – the power of Yah.  You can’t get any more personal than Yah.  Yah is different than the Tetragramaton or Eloheem.  Yah is not Protector nor Redeemer. Yah is neither Judge, Father, nor Rock. Yah goes right to the Source –  our deep Soul-Connection.

Say it… well, first take a deep breath and then exhale…. Yaaaah….  That’s how you really say it.  Yah is the Breath of Life. It is an answer to our prayers.  Maybe not “the” answer, but it is the key to navigating our present crisis. Yah directs us to get quiet.  Conscious, mindful breath creates the opening for us to step into our soul-expanse. When we begin to focus on the breath, to slow it down, to welcome the discomfort instead of pushing it away, the grip on our body loosens and our thoughts become clearer.

From a place of calm, we are invited to take a step into a Wide Open Space – the merchav Yah.  We are invited to pause and take it in.  From the merchav, we can better choose from the full range of possibilities that lay ahead. We can see for miles; we can make a conscious choice about how to respond.  The Open Space doesn’t profess to solve our problems, and it doesn’t erase the root-cause of our trouble.  But it does provide us with the foundation to master our next step. It creates a “safe-haven moment” in which to reflect and prepare our way forward.

In times of crisis, the Psalmist reminds us that we can and should cry out to God. There is a place for wailing and gathering with others, but we must also allow ourselves to get quiet to hear an answer.

May we see the day when we can all breathe a little more easily, when we all feel a little more space, more openings, and more answered prayers. And may that Wide Open Space become the anteroom for a more peaceful tomorrow.

 

From Shattered to Whole – From Lost to Found: Reflections for a New Year

From Shattered to Whole – From Lost to Found: Reflections for a New Year

by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to remind us of something that we have been meaning to do for a long time. The calendar can tell us what day of the year it is, but not how we ought to be spending our time. Only we can be the time trackers – sometimes we just need a little help.

A story is told: Once on Rosh Hodsh Elul, the zaddik, Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev, was standing at his window.  A traveling shoemaker passed by and asked him, “Have you nothing to mend?”  In response, the rabbi threw himself on the floor and cried, “woe is me, the Day of Judgment is upon us and I still have not mended myself!”

We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, a forty-day period of reflection and renewal between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. The Midrash connects these forty days to the Biblical account describing how Moses went back up the mountain for forty days after the incident of the Golden Calf.  After having shattered the first set of Tablets, Moses returned to the mountain top to seek God’s forgiveness. In a poetic response, God gave Moses a second set of tablets – and a second chance.

The shards of the first tablets were surprisingly not lost. They were placed beside the second set in the Mishkan, the Holy Ark that traveled with the Israelites in the desert. Yes, that means, for forty years, the Israelites carried around a heap of broken rocks.

Don’t we all, in some way, carry with us shattered pieces of our past? Those pieces, at least for a time, are necessary to ponder, to remind us of the arduous journey toward wholeness.  But the two sets of Tablets and the energy of those forty days of prayer, give us hope. Just as God forgave the Israelites, guiding them for forty years in prosperity, we pray that God will forgive and guide us. Equally as important, just as the Israelites were able to forgive themselves, fostering a new relationship with God and Moses, so can we move on- forgiving ourselves and those who are close to us.

This metaphor of brokenness can help us prepare to enter the High Holidays.

Brokenness is not the ideal state – it is not an end unto itself, it is a means to an end. There is a period in which we sometimes dwell in brokenness – observing the pieces of our lives – but in experiencing brokenness, we learn how to put ourselves back together.  The best way to understand how something works, is to take it apart. Mechanics and engineers take apart machines, scientists dissect genes and other physical matter, therapists dissect thoughts and experiences.

Like any Ikea project, constructing a beautiful whole from disparate parts can be a challenge – requiring time, focus and understanding.  I have been known to assemble a book shelf or two, only to end up with with an upside down or backwards piece of press board. A perfectionist would cringe.  I, however, have learned that “good enough” is sometimes as good as it gets. We all know that life does not come with instructions.  But if we are wise to our own truths and trajectories, we can attempt to create manuals of living. We can learn how to build the best version of ourselves, backwards pieces and all.

We also need to know that we don’t have to work alone.

There is another Hassidic story told by Rabbi Hayyim of Sanz in which, a man had been wandering in a forest for several days, not knowing which way was the right way.  Suddenly, when he saw another person approach him, his heart was filled with joy because he thought that he would be able to get some directions.  When they neared one another, he asked: “Can you tell me which is the way out? I have been wandering in this forest for several days, and by now I am good and lost. The other said to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wondering in this forest for many days – but this I can tell you – do not take the way I have been taking for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way together.”

I love this story because I have been there. Literally. My husband and I were once walking through the woods that backed up to our family’s vacation home in the Catskills.  We were certain that we were just a stone’s throw away from Bethel Woods, the site of the historical Woodstock concert. Proverbially, we were trying to “get back to the garden”.

What was supposed to be a short walk became a frightening mis-adventure. I have never felt so hopelessly turned around. In my mind, we were lost beyond belief. Here is where it gets interesting. My husband, who is a seasoned hiker and former forest fire fighter, didn’t feel as lost. The problem was that I couldn’t accept his advice that would lead us home:  “Follow the path of the sun”, he said, “kneel down on all fours and follow the path like a deer.”  It all seemed so silly and unreasonable at the time, especially when he pointed out a tree that he recognized.  But when I allowed myself to trust in his experience and knowledge, I was able to get over my illusion of being hopelessly lost.  I simply followed his advice and we eventually did make it back to the house.  We never “got back to the garden” that day, but our experience was memorable nonetheless.

During the month of Elul, we are encouraged to take the path, to do the work, to inspect our pieces. But we don’t have to do it alone. Throughout  the High Holiday season, we have many tools that can serve as sign posts  along our journey. Here are three of my favorites:

  1. Cheshbon Hanefesh (“an accounting” of the soul) places us in a spiritual “tax season.” This is the time to review and take stock of where we have been and where we are headed, actively assessing how we spend our time, money, and energy. If our findings are favorable, we carry on, grateful for the “refund” that is sure to come.  Where we find areas to improve, we take note of where we overspent or underpaid. Our personal accounting provides us with the opportunity to manage the imbalance and set our budget of words, deeds and intentions for the coming year.

 

  1. The Shofar blast we hear each morning is our wakeup call to be mindful of our actions and thought patterns. When we hear the shofar, we are reminded to get back on the track – cut through the superficiality – and probe our lives for meaning. The blast of the Shofar can be piercing, shattering, or long.  But when the call ceases, we are left with the silence in which to ponder and prioritize.

 

  1. Psalm 27, which we recite each morning and night, focuses our attention on faith: “The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear, the lord is the stronghold of my life, whom shall I dread?” We are reminded that trust in God will light the way through our darkest hours. When we turn to God, it shouldn’t be in fear of judgment, rather in faith that that our work will pay off.

The days of Elul are passing quickly, but this year, as in years past, we know how to measure our time.  May the rest of the season evoke for us a sense of reflection, forgiveness, purging, and rebuilding. So, when the cobbler comes knocking at our door, asking: “Have you nothing to mend?” We can answer knowingly – “we’re mending, we’re mending” –  our project of renewal is well underway.

 

 

 

Lessons from a Flight Attendant by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Lessons from a Flight Attendant

by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

I recently flew on an airline known for its snarky, albeit entertaining, flight crew. As we prepared to disembark, we heard the usual script over the sound system, thanking the passengers for choosing airline X and welcoming us to the Tampa Bay area.  I thought he was finished, but then the flight attendant went rogue and closed with these heartfelt words: “Be kind to others out there. Try not to be impatient, especially on the road. Know that you can truly make a difference.”

In that liminal moment between our safe containment on terra firma and the relatively unexpected nature of what lies ahead “out there”, his words spoke to me. Essentially, the “rabbi in the jump seat” was reworking the teaching of Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, go forth and study.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 31a), which is an iteration of the verse from Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:18).  The problem with pithy quotes is that as powerful as they are, their potency relies on action.  Our “lived experience” is the teacher of their truth.

Our flight attendant likely felt the need to remind us of these holy teachings because our society seems to be losing its grip on the ethical life. We often remind our children of the “golden rule”, but as adults, we sometimes forget what it means. Notice how easy it is to get frazzled and impatient – especially during these long hot summer days.  Sometimes even the slightest infraction creates inner-turbulence: somebody says the wrong thing or looks at us the wrong way, a slow driver holds us up when we are in a rush, another solicitor lights up our cell phone. It doesn’t take much to yank us off the path of civility.

Our tradition, however, reminds us that we have options in how we choose to respond.

We can make the conscious choice to act and react calmly -even pleasantly, when faced with the daily array of unpleasant situations. How does that work? The first step is to notice our unconscious reactions to daily disturbances. There is always that moment when we make a choice: to let go or to dig in, to offer a kind word or to sling an insult – or to say nothing at all.  Notice how we pave a smooth path of compassion or a rocky road of harsh judgement. In our hands, is the power to make or break a great day – for ourselves and for the people we meet.

In more familiar terms  -whenever possible, “Be a Mentch”. I don’t think my flight attendant knows Yiddish, but he certainly knows what a Mentch does: “Be kind to others out there. Try not to be impatient. Know that you can truly make a difference.”  If we all try a little harder, with a little more humility and a little more love, we can surely make our lives a little easier.