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The Eternal God is my strength: God makes my feet like the deer’s, and lets me stride upon the Heights. - Habakuk 3:19

This time last year, Boston Marathon runners were coming over the finish line, having pounded 26.2 miles into their legs. We all know how last year’s Boston Marathon was different from other marathons–in this city and elsewhere. This year’s Boston Marathon is different from prior ones. And still, we celebrate today all those who cross that finish line.

Coming up on this first anniversary of last year’s tragedy, coinciding with the 127th running of the Boston Marathon, we now know as a broad Boston community that we are strong and resilient, and that we are better together. These lessons do not need to have come out of the bombings, because they are what a runner learns when he or she goes out to complete a marathon. The exhaustive emotionality of a marathon is something anyone who has finished that distance knows in their bodies and in their hearts. I’ve personally been feeling an echo of that exhaustion over the last few weeks as various news outlets have been running remembrances as we approach this first anniversary.Rabbi Hirsch completing the 2007 NYC 1/2 Marathon

This year’s Marathon also coincides with the conclusion of Passover, our festival of liberation. With those two things coming together (and because I had to figure out an elaborate path to get to shul for services. Darn road closures), I’ve been wondering about what our tradition has to say about running and fitness.

Looking through the available texts on this, two stand out.

The first is a talmudic conversation between Rav Huna and Abaye. It was reported that Rav Huna noted that “One who leaves the synagogue should not take large strides because it creates the impression that he is eager to leave” (BT B’rakhot 6b). Don’t run from the synagogue, lest someone think you’re running from God. But what about running to the synagogue? “It is a mitzvah to run and one is permitted to rush and take large strides,” says Abaye, for “one who eagerly enters a synagogue displays his enthusiasm to follow the path of God” (ibid).

When we run from something, it is looks like fear. When we run toward something, it displays enthusiasm and spiritual adroitness. Running toward goals, objectives, destinations, toward that finish line at 26.2, can be a spiritual practice if it enriches of our lives, enriches our relationships with one another, and enriches our connection to the Divine.

Maimonides expressed this notion in his Shemonah Perakim, “Man needs to subordinate his soul’s powers to one goal, namely, spiritual perfection. He should direct all of his actions, both when at motion and when at rest, and all of his conversation toward this goal so that none of his actions are in any way frivolous… The purpose of his body’s health is that the soul finds its instruments healthy and sound in order that it can be directed toward spiritual growth.” All that sweat we let out at the gym, all of the training miles we put into our legs, all the nutritional awareness, the scheduling to make it to that-special-yoga-class, and the like–those things are not for washboard abs and a strong body alone. We take care of our bodies (read: fitness is critical) because it is a pathway to spiritual perfection.

We are better people in the here and now when we put fitness and health as one of the top things on our personal priority list.

I have, at times, found this hard to keep in my heart. So I keep a reminder on my desk. There, sitting in a simple frame is an old advertisement from a running shoe company. The tag line is “We know that 26.2 is the short part.” Around that are a series of photos, each documenting different steps runners take to train and prepare for marathons. Those are the tough moments in marathons, not race day, itself.

For twenty-ish weeks, runners have been preparing for today. For the past year, our city has been preparing for this first anniversary. And as we celebrate the close of our festival of liberation, let’s recognize just how critical it is that we continue to care for our own health and fitness.

It’s good for the spirit.

Recently, I found myself in a Judaica shop, picking out a kiddush cup for a family friend’s son who was becoming bar mitzvah. As I searched around, I wanted to find one that both was beautiful and reflected the young man’s personality. Browsing up and down the shelves, there were countless objects, each one artistically designed, speaking out and saying—I am beautiful, and I want to help beautify your rituals!

In reality, one does not need anything more than a paper cup to make kiddush. We only need a stick of cinnamon for havdallah, not a formal spice box. A tallit is constructed out of a four cornered piece of fabric, with tzitzit tied on the corners. I even once used a small branch as a yad for Torah reading, because for my life, I could not find a proper pointer.

Walking around any Judaica store, I am struck by the thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty that goes into the making of our ritual objects. Judaism is not world-famous for its material culture; yet, our community has constantly created beautiful objects to be used in our most sacred of moments.

The want for this beauty comes out of a concept known as Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the enhancement of a mitzvah (commandment) through aesthetics. We are commanded to affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of our house. Take a small wooden box with the proper small scroll, set it diagonally on the doorpost, and say the blessing—there, we have fulfilled the mitzvah associated with mezuzah. But how does that plain, small box draw our attention to our obligation? Beautify the box, making it interesting and eye-grabbing, and suddenly the mezuzah has transformed into an attention grabber for something that we—as the Jewish community—are supposed to do.

Hiddur Mitzvah, our efforts to beautify the things that we as Jews do, is also made meaningful by memories created around the times those ritual objects are used. My favorite example of this was the tallit that I gave my brother and sister-in-law when they were married. My brother picked it out. It was a large tallit with a blue geometrical pattern that was woven into the stripes along the edges. We incorporated that tallit into their chuppah. It was the canopy under which they were married. And now, my brother wears that tallit each Shabbat. All the more so, we wrapped his daughters up in that tallit when I performed their baby namings, welcoming them into our community as daughters of the Covenant. We have charged that tallit with great power. The mitzvah that is fulfilled each time my brother puts it on is beautified by the memories of these various moments and the anticipation of other meaningful moments.

I am confident that I am not alone in the practice of placing meaning on family heirlooms, along with the want to beautify the rituals that we perform in the contexts of our families and our community. When we embrace and practice Hiddur Mitzvah, we bring light and life further into the commandments and rituals, the meaningful moments of our Jewish experiences.

Bringing light into our community is something that Anita Winer z’’l was dedicated to. She understood the power of aesthetics in our tradition. That is why I am so proud of what our congregation has done to keep Anita’s memory and blessing alive through the Open Your Eyes fund and the Shine a Light initiative.

Beginning last month, and going well into 5775, our congregation will have the opportunity to engage, learn, connect, and create in different ways, all designed to lift up the beauty of our tradition, through the context of visual and performing arts. We hope that this initiative will involve everyone within the congregation in some way or another.

The beauty of our tradition—through the glow of Channukah candles or the light that shines through a stained glass window—has the power to enhance our relationship to Jewish life. Hiddur Mitzvah calls us to consider what we do as Jews, and how we work to make it meaningful and special. I hope you will join in one of the many opportunities over the next months to bring beauty to our tradition.

Just before Thanksgiving, Temple Shalom held its annual Pie & Tie Drive. We’ve had a Pie Drive for many, many years–sending out pies to homebound individuals as part of Thanksgiving meals. It’s been a wonderful tradition within our community.

Just a couple of years ago, we added in the ties. They go to Year Up, and organization dedicated to providing “urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.” Earlier today, I received an email from one of their organizers, with photos of their Dress for Success class. Many of the participants learned how to tie their ties that day, remarking things like “This tie matches my shirt perfectly. It’s like it was made for me!” and “I look sharp in this tie.”

It’s so great to be able to draw connections between ourselves and other organizations around town. I am so grateful and proud that we can be a part of a broader community. Thank you to everyone from our Social Action team who made the Pie & Tie Drive a success this year.

Here are some photos from their Dress for Success day:

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Here are my remarks from last night’s Kabbalat Shabbat service. I’d love to know what others think about the Getting Things Done system, and how it plays as a spiritual practice. If you have any thoughts, make sure to leave your comments here.

Shabbat Shalom!


Guest blog post from Ellie Goldman, Director of Youth Engagement

In second grade I sat next to a boy named Jason.  I don’t remember his last name but I know his first name was Jason because it was on the board every day with a bunch of checks next to it.  He was the kid who was in trouble at every turn for one thing or another – he was a bad seed and even though we were only seven – we all knew it.

One day our teacher sat us all down and said we needed to discuss something as a class.  She said that Jason (who was there as well) was really having a hard time, that staying focused was difficult for him and that he was falling behind.  She said we were all going to work together to get things back on track.  As a class we strategized about possible solutions.  One classmate asked Jason if he might have trouble hearing the teacher.  Another thought perhaps he needed a snack in the middle of the day because he was hungry. Ultimately we concluded that it was we who were the distraction.  Sitting near friends was a temptation he struggled to overcome.  We made him want to talk and joke and turning away from the socializing was just harder for him than for other kids.  Image

We brainstormed different options and then that afternoon we constructed a 1-man cubby around his desk. I can picture it like it was yesterday – covered in yellow, waxy butcher paper and extending high above his desk.  We moved his seat so that it was without an immediate neighbor but still part of the larger group.  Someone thought having headphones might help as well to dull the noise of the room so we outfitted his desk with those.  At the end of the day Jason had his own private learning oasis and we had all been a part of the process.  I can still see him sitting there, hunched over a worksheet or a book with his headphones on working away.  That cubby changed his whole existence at school and it changed me as well.

I think about Jason and his yellow cubicle frequently, sometimes daily.  I think about how my brilliant teacher saw a little boy, branded as a bad seed, who had a desire to learn and she asked us to help him succeed.  She crafted a conversation that was not shameful or demeaning but rather powerfully respectful of him and trusting of us.  I think about how beautiful it was to create a space that was separate for him but which ultimately allowed him to be included and to become a learner.

That single day, more than thirty years ago, has completely shaped the way that I understand what it means to be in community and has guided me throughout my career working with young people.  I am constantly aware of Jason, what his needs were, how he encountered school and how we provided for his needs in a spirit of joy and support. In this, the month of Inclusion Awareness I am grateful for that 2nd grade lesson about what it means to be responsible for one another and how important it is to value each individual, even (especially) the ones who struggle the most.

T-Minus One Day

I’m writing this post from Logan Airport in Boston. I’m waiting for my flight down to Miami. In just over 24 hours, I’ll be boarding a flight to Cuba with 30 other souls from Temple Shalom.

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Now is the time to get excited about this trip. For ten days we’ll tour around Cuba, experiencing the Jewish community there, the culture, and the life that makes up this country.

I honestly do not know what we will encounter. I know, though, that what we will find there will be eye opening. I look forward to learning about Cuban life today. I look forward to experiencing Cuba culture. And, I’m hoping to get in a Cuban baseball game.

While on this trip, I’m going to keep a video journal. With the infrastructure in Cuba, I won’t have the ability to put up any posts or videos. So as soon as I return, I’ll be getting that up and running. I will also be collecting photos, videos, and journals from our trip participants. I’m excited to share all of this at the completion of the trip.

Until then, I’m looking forward to some good weather and great company. See you on the flip side!

Confession time: Impromptu, public prayer has always made me anxious. It has taken a lot of work to recognize and articulate the natural prayers that my soul wants to speak. From time to time, when called upon to pray in public, with no time to prepare my thoughts of what to say, I find myself tongue-tied.

Letting one’s soul loose is challenging. 

I found myself confounded recently, in a situation only Serendipity, herself, could have foreseen. On a Friday afternoon, I was out and about running some errands. Along the way, I decided to stop off at a florist, to buy some flowers for my fiancé, Liz. 

The florist shop was tiny, with only enough space for one customer and the florist, herself. Behind the counter stood a middle-aged, small, African-American woman in nurse’s scrubs. She was smiling as she was finishing up a beautiful bouquet. As I began to describe the thing I wanted to bring home, she decided she needed to make me something special, right there on the spot. Nothing already prepared from her; it was only made-to-order. 

So I waited, as she made me this custom bouquet of flowers. She was performing art right in front of me, which I found transfixing. She brought me out of it when she struck up a conversation. “You look like a creative type,” she said. “What do you do for a living? Please tell me you do something where you create.” 

“Well I suppose I have to be creative to a certain extent,” I replied. “But if I tell you what I do for a living, you have to promise to believe me.” How many rabbis does a person run into on a given day? 

She agreed, and when I told her about my calling, she stopped what she was doing. She looked at me and said, “Thank God. I knew I was supposed to meet you today.”

The woman launched into a story of what had happened to her the evening before. She works as a nurse at night, at one of the hospitals in Longwood. The night before, she and a friend of hers, also dark-skinned, took a break around 3:00 AM. They were walking to a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee, when they walked past a group of white teenagers. They passed by them, when suddenly one of the boys spat on the ground in front of them and shouted the N-word right in their faces.

“I’ve lived in Boston all my life,” she told me, “and never before have I experienced such overt racism. Covert bigotry, yes. Overt, no. Boston can be a difficult city, but I haven’t ever had someone spit at me. 

“I need you to pray for me, Rabbi. I need grace. I need grace, now. Will you pray for grace with me?”

ImageI did not realize in the moment I was supposed to start praying then and there. I could not come up with any words. How could I pray? Here she was having just faced baseless hatred, and she wanted grace—what we would call chesed v’rachamim, kindness and compassion. I had no response. I felt the prayer sitting stone-heavy in my heart; it was real and it was present. But pray out loud at that moment, I could not bring myself to do it.

In the Jewish community in which our prayers are routinized, spontaneity has a place but is not easily achieved. I am envious of my Christian counterparts whose liturgies are flexible enough to allow them to speak aloud prayers that articulate their hopes, their dreams, their anxieties, and their reasons for thanks, praise and petition. 

Prayer should be natural—as natural as breathing. To cultivate a prayer life takes work. And in our community, when we come into services, knowing what to expect, prayer can work if we work at it. And we can find the space within our liturgy to speak those prayers that exist genuinely within. Our liturgy is ripe with opportunities to connect—to connect with those around us and to connect with the Higher Realm. Prayer can take us to unexpected places. In the face of adversity, this woman wanted a prayer that would bring her grace, kindness and compassion. How she can place those things together within that experience is a real-life riddle for those looking from the outside. Prayer is the key to unlocking that riddle. The Jewish community would do well to imagine expansively about what prayer can be when we look up from our prayer books, forget the words we’re supposed to be saying, and get down to the real work of trying to pray with our whole souls. 

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