Tag Archives: Spirituality

Parashat Vayiggash – The Faces We Behold

What do we see when we look at another person? What do we see when it is a loved one? What do we see when we see it is someone whom we’ve not seen for a long period of time?  What do we see when it is someone with whom we have a challenging relationship? These questions flood my mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, which opens with the revelation by Joseph of his true identity to his brothers who have come to Egypt to procure food for their family as a famine has gripped the land of Canaan. I always find the opening scene of our portion to be one of the most emotional and gut-wrenching of stories we read in Torah. Our portion opens:

wm-Joseph-reveals-himself-Peter_von_Cornelius-thumb-640x640-3751Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh . . . Our father said, ‘Go back and procure some food for us.’ We answered, ‘We cannot go down; only if our youngest brother is with us can we go down, for we may not show our faces to the man unless our youngest brother is with us.’ . . .  “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die . . .  Please let [me] remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers . . .

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ His brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.’” (Genesis 44: 18- 45-5, excerpts)

We get a sense of Joseph’s pain as he confronts his brothers from his position of power and his veiled identity. The brothers face a man they believe holds their lives and the life of their father in his very hands.  At the moment when Joseph can no longer sustain the charade he empties the room of all his servants.  His cries are so loud that they are heard far and wide. He opens his eyes, he sees his brothers, and asks, “Is my father alive?” I find myself wondering why he did not ask, “Is our father alive?” It’s hard to know what is truly in Joseph’s heart. Yet, he hastens to assure the brothers that there was a purpose in what has transpired. It was God’s plan that they send him away. He draws them close and beyond the hugs and tears, assures them that they are going to be taken care. Joseph is able to see something in the faces of his brothers which triggers forgiveness and leads to reconciliation.

tzelemWe know that our tradition urges us to see tzelem Elohim, the “image of God” in each and every human being.  Teachings abound which seek to inspire us to make that a tangible reality in our everyday interactions with others. Earlier this week I came across a passage, not from the rich treasury of our Jewish heritage, but rather from a passage from the teachings of the Sufi Master known to the world as Rumi that struck me as in sync with both Joseph’s capacity to see God in what has happened, and our challenge in seeing each person we encounter as a reflect of “the Image.”  Rumi teaches:

Who could ever describe
The ways of the One who is like no other?
Anything I could say is only an attempt
At what might be needed now.

Sometimes God’s movement appears one way –
and sometimes as its opposite.
The work of real religion is bewilderment;
But not a bewilderment that drives you away
From Him, no, but bewildered like this –
Drowned and drunk with the Beloved.

One person’s face is turned
Toward the Beloved in awe,
Another only faces himself.

Gaze upon each person’s face.
Pay attention. Perhaps through service
You might come to know
The Face of the Beloved. (The Rumi Daybook, page 7)

As we read this Shabbat of reconciliation and the power of relationships renewed, may we hold in our mind’s eye, if not in our actual sight, the faces of those, in whose visage, we might glimpse a spark of holiness, of divinity, of healing and of blessing.


shabbat shalom

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The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

By Mary Jane Suzman

Temple Shalom Adult Learning recently sponsored a class aimed at members who in one way or another feel disengaged from Judaism and/or Temple Shalom. As one of the moderators of the discussion, I felt very fortunate in the folks who showed up. They one and all offered thoughtful perspectives, and were also respectful of others’ differing views.

While various topics were mentioned, the most common issue was difficulty with the words of the prayers in our prayer book. Many of our ancient prayers speak of a God who listens, answers and intervenes in the world. But in our group were some who held concepts of God that do not fit well with this liturgy, some who were agnostic and some who were atheist. Hence the discomfort.

Participants offered several ways of coping with the disconnect. Some enjoy the melodies and are comfortable singing the Hebrew words (which they don’t understand) and avoid looking at the English translations. Others spoke of the chants and melodies bringing a calm, meditative, peaceful state. Others found that the sense of community at the service helped. And some find that they simply cannot speak the words they do not believe, and remain silent during the problematic prayers.

For Reform Jews, I suspect that the disconnect between our liturgy and our beliefs is a widespread problem. I would like to suggest that we, as a community, share our approaches. What prayers bother us? What perspectives, solutions have we found? I will try to get us started by sharing two perspectives of my own, one to a particular prayer, the other to prayer in general.

I myself am a non-theist. While I have come to feel spiritually connected to our texts and to creation in ways that astonish me, God is not part of my life: no listener in the universe, no comforting presence in the world, no consciousness above or behind or within what exists. As you can imagine, prayer is a problem. How am I to approach the Shema, for example, so central to our tradition:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The Shema is actually where I will begin.

I learned that the word “Lord” in the Shema is actually a very poor translation of the 4 Hebrew letters YHWH. YHWH can be seen as an impossible contraction of the Hebrew verb “to be”: all that was, is and will be; all of existence; all of creation. With this view in mind, each week, as preparation for Shabbat, I seek out beautiful natural images. The most beautiful of the week will be the one I envision in my mind when I recite the Shema on the Sabbath. Often it is a sunrise or sunset, or trees or flowers in my garden or about Newton, or ice patterns on a window, or light sparkling on water. Once it was a white dove alighting in a niche on the Western wall in Jerusalem; once it was footsteps in the snow of those who came before me into the sanctuary of Temple Shalom. This search for beauty has brought joy to my life; when you seek it, you find it. Not only that, but cognizance of the beauty all around is a constant reminder that it is my job to till and tend, to help care for the earth. Not only that, but sometimes when I say the Shema, holding the vision of the week in mind, visions from all the weeks before shimmer around the edges, and conflate with it in a way that is inexpressibly beyond time, beyond space, beyond meaning.

And now a perspective on prayer in general: it has helped me to view religion not as a search for truth, but as a search for meaning. However it got here, the universe in its fullness is here. But it comes without meaning-in-itself. It is a uniquely human endeavor to overlay upon that universe a web of symbols, myths, rituals, that endow it with meaning and make moral action within it imperative. Our Hebrew ancestors have been doing this for 3500 years. The quest for meaning of my ancestor of 3500 years ago, in a very different time, place, and knowledge context, yielded different results than mine. But it was the same quest. When I recite some of those ancient prayers, I try for a bit to don the robes of our ancestors, for a bit to see the world through their eyes, to merge their quest for meaning with mine. But it is a struggle: sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Another deep teaching of our tradition is that words have power, and must not be spoken lightly. Sometimes I also remain silent.

I would love to hear from any and all of you who have struggled with the words of prayer and found a helpful perspective, a path to meaning. Such sharing could deepen our spiritual lives and enrich us all.

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Mazel Tov to Leah Sawyer!

Leah Sawyer, Wet Hair Moment

We share in joy with Leah Sawyer as we welcome her officially to the Jewish community! Today, Leah met with a beit din and immersed in the mikveh to complete her conversion process.

At services this evening, Leah will stand before our community as she recites Sh’ma holding onto our sacred Torah for the first time. We will also bestow upon her a Hebrew name.

What a milestone! In preparation for this day, Leah prepared a reflection on her Jewish journey:

Today I am choosing to become Jewish.  This is an important step for me – seven steps, actually, into the mikveh waters as a Gentile and seven steps back out as a new Jew – and a decision I do not take lightly.  After nearly two decades of thinking about the idea, and after 15 months of serious study and reflection, I am ready to become officially what I have come to feel inside, and to what I have been drawn for most of my life.

The question of “why Judaism?” is a hard one to answer – not because of a lack of compelling reasons, but because much of my motivation comes from somewhere deeper than logic.  Judaism just feels like the right fit for me, in an elemental way that defies description.

Growing up in a loving Irish Catholic family, my parents instilled strong values that included doing the right thing even at personal cost, prioritizing family and community, and the importance of kindness and generosity.  As I have grown in my life’s path, many of the specific tenets I believe in have changed, but those core values continue to guide me.  In Judaism, I find deep resonance with those values, and with new ones I have come to hold dear – inclusiveness, healing the world, feminism, and lifelong learning.  I still have many questions and expect I always will — in Judaism, I have found a structure in which I can wrestle with thorny topics and learn from others who are doing the same.  Most importantly, I have found an oasis of peace and calm in my life, a space of time in which I can recharge, and at the same time be challenged to be better and kinder.

My Jewish journey started in middle school, when I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and in short order, all of Potok’s other books) that gave me a window into a new world, and when our Christian Bible teacher Dr. D taught us ancient Israelite history and a smattering of basic Hebrew.  In college, as my once-ardent Catholic faith faltered, Dr. D’s statement that “next to Mandarin, Hebrew is the hardest language” was a spur to find a Hebrew tutor (difficult in deep rural Virginia) who introduced the aleph-bet, and to find a scholarship to study in Israel.

My six months in Israel taught me many things – that there are many kinds of hummus and they’re all delicious, Hebrew really IS incredibly difficult to learn, never to trust that an Israeli-organized “short easy” hike will be either short or easy, and that Israel is a deeply difficult and deeply beguiling country – but not so much about the actual religion of Judaism.  I learned that (at that time) most Israelis were culturally but not spiritually Jewish.

It was not until 2013, after a difficult period caused me to reexamine my life in many ways, that I began to think about Judaism more seriously.  At the time I was living with a roommate who had converted to Catholicism and taught high school theology.  Theological conversations with Andrea over red wine and pad Thai started me thinking again, after a long time of being closed spiritually.  I knew I couldn’t convert to Judaism, even with its lifelong pull, for a number of reasons… though in the end, none of those reasons stood up to debate or research.  I read Anita Diamante’s book Choosing A Jewish Life, my heart racing with excitement, and decided that this sounded right for me – I needed to know more.

After I contacted the Union of Reform Judaism and signed up for an intro to Judaism course, I started attending the local synagogue, Beth El Hebrew in Alexandria Virginia.  People were welcoming, but I struggled with feeling out-of-place, not knowing the melodies, and barely being able to sound out the Hebrew in the prayer book.  I kept coming every week and found a Hebrew tutor, and over several months I learned the melodies and came to feel less out-of-place, although I was still one of the youngest adults in the synagogue by several decades.

Following a sudden move to Boston for a new job, I was referred to Rabbi Neil Hirsch at Temple Shalom of Newton, who enthusiastically volunteered to shepherd me through the conversion process.  My first experience of Temple Shalom was Yom Kippur, which turned out to be hauntingly beautiful and meaningful in a way I hadn’t expected, as I reflected on the ways I wanted to change my life and myself in the coming year.  The evening Yom Kippur service was followed by a 20s and 30s break fast feast, where I met people my age, many of whom I have come to know well in the interim.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind year of growth and learning — I’ve lit Shabbat candles in my home, attended services at Temple Shalom and Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, studied Torah on Shabbat mornings (especially savoring the footnotes in the women’s commentary Torah), studied Hebrew prayers (thanks to Liz Piper-Goldberg), burned “Thanksgivvukah” mashed potato latkes, taken the introduction to Judaism course in Wayland (thanks to Rabbis Neal Gold, Jen Gubitz, and Alana Alpert, among others), learned about the conversion process at Mayyim Hayyim (thanks to Rabbi Julie Zupan), and participated in the 10-week young adult Eser study class.  Most importantly, I have met regularly with Rabbi Hirsch, whose calm kindness and insightful analysis of complex issues I came to value, as we discussed my evolving thoughts and questions about Judaism, until I felt that I was ready to be adopted into Judaism.

The Mishkan T’filah prayerbook has many beautiful passages for reflection, including one that brings tears to my eyes every time we read or sing it:

Standing on the parted shore of history

We still believe what we were taught

Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

That there is a better place, a promised land;

That the winding way to that promise

Passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there

Except by joining hands, marching together.

Today I join a beautiful 4,000 year old tradition, one with built-in growth and deep complexity.  It’s where I belong, and I am honored to join hands and march together into a new future.

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Running is Jewish

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.

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Parashat Pekudei: Enough! Time for Shabbat.

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!

[audio https://www.dropbox.com/s/f29glb4odu6jng1/DV-2014-02-28-194408.m4a]
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Uncomfortable Spirituality


A few days ago, my friend and Temple Shalom congregant, Andy Molinsky sent me a link to a recent blog post that he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. The title of the piece was Get Out of Your Comfort Zone. This was my sort of blog piece.

“No one likes to move beyond his or her comfort zone, but that’s really where the magic happens,” he writes. “It’s where we can grow, learn, and develop in a way that expands our horizons beyond what we thought was possible. Also, it’s terrifying.”

Spot on. Who ever would want to venture out to places unknown? It’s scary out there. But we also know that when we push to new horizons “that’s really where the magic happens.” From my vantage point, getting comfortable with being out of comfort is key to living a Jewish and spiritual life.

Think of Adam and Eve, placed in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is the comfort zone. Sure, Adam is there to till and tend it; yet, in the Garden everything is provided, with only one boundary defined: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat of it,” instructs God to Adam (Genesis 2:15). There is more than enough to sustain Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all the while Temptation plays his serpentine role. The Tree of Knowledge sits there in the Garden, tempting Adam and Eve to go against God’s directive, and to move outside the bounds of what’s allowable.

Much can and should be said about what it means to transgress against God’s commands. Yet, as an example of what it means to move outside a boundary or a comfort zone, its benefit is made clear by the text itself. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, their eyes open only to perceive that they were naked (3:7). In other words, doing something outside of the boundary brings learning about who you are at the core–your most naked self. Embarrassment and other emotional reactions included, transgression included, the fruit of the Tree yields knowledge, understanding, and insight. They can look at the natural world, with knowledge now at hand, to determine for themselves what is what. By transgressing against God, and by leaving the Garden, Adam and Eve enable their own personal growth. When we realize that we are free to explore, learn, and challenge, greater understandings of our world and of ourselves in that world emerge. Stepping out of our comfort zone is where the magic happens, and its where the spiritual growth happens. The Garden is the sanctuary, yet it is not the venue for spiritual growth.

This point was brought home for me last month, in a session I attended, at the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Biennial Convention. I attended a forum on the future of the synagogue, in which one of the panelists was Rabbi Sharon Brous, the spiritual leader of Ikar, a congregation in Los Angeles, CA. In her presentation, she gave a great line: Discomfort is a spiritual practice.

Amen to that. When we enter spaces in which we are prompted to be uncomfortable, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits are engaged in the process of trying to figure out how we fit into that space. For those who have ever been to a yoga class, we know this discomfort when the instructor shows some sort of up-side-down move saying, “Oh, it’s so easy!” and all we can do is fight to keep upright and not fall over on our face. That discomfort is frustrating; still, it is part of the practice, and it’s the reason we go back for another yoga class after that one. 

Somewhere along the way, I heard that a rabbi’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to create sanctuary for people when they come to be spiritually engaged. When we need that comfort, there is no better place to be than among our family and friends in our own community. The sanctuary is the place you go to get calm from the storm. If the objective is to be there for people in that time, we–spiritual leaders and synagogues–are hitting the mark. If the objective is to stimulate spiritual growth and exploration, the sanctuary as shelter, solely, will not yield those sort of results.

I want magic to happen when we push ourselves beyond our spiritual comfort zone, I want our spiritual horizons expanded, and I want our congregations to be ready and equipped for individuals who want to engage in that sacred business. 

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Seeking A New Path

Kol Nidre
September 13, 2013
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Gut Yontif – G’mar tov – Shabbat Shalom

Have you ever been driving when you heard something on the radio you absolutely had to remember, but there was no way you could stop to make a note? (How many of you made a note anyway?) In early August, while driving home from the Berkshires, I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker read a poem he introduced as, “Autobiography In Five Chapters.” At 65 miles an hour in the dark I could not write myself a note to look it up. So I spent the rest of the trip home chanting – “Autobiography in 5 Chapters,” as if it were a mantra. No sooner had I exited the Pike here in Newton, than I quickly pulled into the parking lot at the Hess Station on Comm Ave, and pulled out my phone. Of course, in a matter of seconds I had the poem. Looking at the screen on my phone, what I felt when I first heard the podcast was confirmed: “Yom Kippur” material. Here it is:

Chapter 1) I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5) I walk down another street.

That August evening I thought to myself, if that doesn’t scream Yom Kippur and teshuvah, I don’t know what does.

Now it is Yom Kippur and we have gathered anew. We have come to reflect, through prayer and introspection on our lives. Already tonight, and several times more tomorrow, we will recite the Viddui – our liturgical confessional in which we recite and chant, in several different ways, a litany of misdeeds. It’s our liturgical way of taking stock of those holes in our lives of which the poem speaks. None of us is personally culpable for the entirety of that litany. Nevertheless, we recite it — together, and in the plural. This leaves no one standing alone as they face their imperfection. I have also long thought that the recitation serves as a reminder for us to reach for the best we can be in the year before us, as we hear anew the litany of holes into which human beings are capable of falling. Our tradition is crafted to remind us of life’s fragility. It places us face-to-face with our own brokenness, in the hope that we can make a turn, that we can do teshuvah as we begin filling a new page in the book of our lives.

Today is not about the world around us. This day is specifically about us – each of us facing ourselves, facing our brokenness and facing God. It’s about trying to find the strength to honestly reflect on the bumps (or potholes) of the past year. Did we instantly declare, “it’s not my fault?” Did we pretend not to see things about which we might have been able to do something? Did we walk with our eyes closed or shielded? After all, if I don’t see it, can I be held responsible? Did we walk down paths which were wrong choices in years gone by and yet we repeated the choice; did we repeat words we knew had been hurtful in the past? And what changes will we make because of this Yom Kippur day? Will this merely be a day of reciting long litanies of misdeeds as we repeat the viduui again and again and will we then simply return to the same path and keep doing the same things? Or will we face ourselves, and our lives with honesty, truly opening our eyes so that we can enter this New Year committed to walking around the holes into which we have previously fallen? Will we look up, open our eyes, and accept responsibility? Where necessary or possible, will we choose a new path? Which of the five chapters will be our starting point in this New Year?

One of the goals I set for my Sabbatical time this summer was to try a new path, to do something out of the box, something out of my own comfort zone. While I always find new things to experience in Israel, by and large, my time in Israel is familiar territory. I knew that part of my time would be spent in the Berkshires so that I could be with Laura, and some of our children, who were spending their summer at our URJ Eisner Camp. But I wasn’t going to be part of “camp” in a formal way. So I set out to find a learning opportunity that might be available. The Berkshires are full of wonderful opportunities. I figured there just had to be something out there for me. With a bit of cyber-exploration back in the Spring I found what I thought might fit the bill – a seminar at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge.

I’d heard of Kripalu before. I know that there are many of you who have spent time there. In late July they were offering a seminar entitled Whole Person Well-Being. Sounded interesting – even sounded sabbatical-ish. Why not? Yoga – I could try that. Meditation – couldn’t hurt. It’s near camp. I can even leave each night and sleep in my own bed. Out of the box – for me, let’s do it.

I was unprepared for the impact that week was going to have on me. Whole Person Well-Being, along with the Kripalu Yoga and the Meditation practice I experienced turned out to be one of the most powerful “learning” experiences I have ever had. It reinforced the sense that I have articulated after other out-of-the-box experiences, that if we are willing to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts, there is “torah” everywhere. In the words of Dr. Peter Senge of MIT, “Learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it.”

I loved my time studying at Hartman, I loved the many concerts I attended, the books I read, the Red Sox games with my sons, and the many other things that went in to making up my summer sabbatical. But without a doubt, it was the time I spent at Kripalu that left me a different person.

Our teachers in the Whole-Person Well-Being Seminar introduced us to the notion that “Optimal well-being comes not from fragmentation, but by integration.” Through integrating five realms of our lives, we can attain well-being. If I were to re-cast that in Hebrew, I’d say we can attain a greater sense of shalom – wholeness. I believe it’s the same thing we seek through the heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our lives in which we engage during these Yamim Noraim. This pursuit of Whole-Person Well-Being is framed in five-dimensions of what my teachers call the SPIRE approach to living. In short, they teach that wholeness is enhanced by paying attention to and working on oneself in five core realms (SPIRE):

S – Spiritual well-being, in which we feel a sense of purpose and meaning, and our values drive our actions as we live mindfully.

P – Physical well-being, in which we demonstrate positive regard for our body; and maintain awareness of the innate ability of our body and mind to impact each other.

I – Intellectual well-being, in which we stretch and grow our minds by cultivating creativity and foster a love of learning.
R – Relational well-being, in which we intentionally contribute to and benefit from those around us in creating healthy relationships. We must also work to foster a healthy relationship with ourselves.

E – Emotional well-being, in which we work to increase our pleasurable emotions and cultivate the resilience to deal with our painful emotions.

Over the course of the seminar, we were led through an exploration of each of these five aspects of our lives; we were asked to assess ourselves in these areas; and by week’s end, asked to consider ways in which we might work on these dimensions of our lives as we make each and every day a part of the process of working towards Whole-Person Well-Being. Along with the yoga and mediation experiences, as well as quiet time for reflection and reading, I have to say that the Kripalu experience was for me a sort of personal High Holy Days – it was a Tekiyah Gedolah, it was a Viddui, it was a Heshbon HaNefesh. I left Kripalu just days before the beginning of the month of Elul, the month prior to these Holy Days, which is meant to be a time of spiritual preparation for these Holy Days. Day by day I set aside time to practice and work on some of what I took away from the seminar which was unexpectedly nourishing and full of joy. One of the challenges I have set for myself along with living what I learned at Kripalu throughout the year ahead, is to explore how I can integrate some of what I learned into my life here at Temple Shalom, and into our lives together here. I also believe that this SPIRE approach has what to say to a congregation as it seeks to define its mission and vision. Stay tuned.

As the poetry of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says, “Each of us is a shattered urn. . .” We are each broken, imperfect beings. Our High Holy Days come to provide each of us with a Tekiyah – a call to “wake-Up.” And we each respond differently in our lives. For me, this summer’s sabbatical, and especially the Seminar on Whole Person Well Being was an opportunity to reflect on the Five Chapters of my Autobiography and to consider what I will “write” in this New Year. It was a reminder and a reorientation to the reality that the soul work of which we speak so intensely during these High Holy Days is, in fact, a daily, and year-round proposition.
I know that I will undoubtedly step into holes again this year. There will be mistakes, and paths I will wish I hadn’t chosen. Yet, on this holiest of days, I am awakened to the reality that I have the capacity to write some, maybe many of those chapters differently this year. We all do! What do you hope to write on your page in Sefer HaHayyim – The book of Life? How will you attend to your SPIRE:

S-Spiritual – what will you do to nourish your spirit?

P-Physical – how will you care for your physical being?

I-Intellectual – Learning helps us re-create ourselves. What do you wish to learn this year?

R-Relational – As the authors of the classic study on Jewish life in the Eastern European shtetl put it, “Life is with people.”

E-Emotional — what can you do to enhance your emotional well-being?

How can we, as individuals, and as a community ASPIRE and INSPIRE, so we can care for our own and each other’s Well-being in this New Year?

This day gives each of us a chance at a fresh start. May this year’s journey be filled with meaning, with health, with creativity and learning, with ever-deeper relationships, where it’s needed, with healing; with joy and resilience, and with all the sweet blessings life can bring. And may we embrace the many ways in which we can share pieces of the journey together, here in our community.

Gut Yontif – G’mar tov – Shabbat Shalom

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A Side Project

A Side Project

As the High Holidays are hurtling toward us, I feel completely unprepared…

There, I’ve said it. Don’t worry, as far as work and sermons and Torah and such, I am completely on top of things. What I am unprepared for is the spiritual aspects of the month of Tishrei.

So, I’m going to slow things down a bit, build up my kavanah a bit. I’ve launched 29 Days of Tishrei as a personal project to help me do that. Each day, from the remaining days of Elul and all the way through Tishrei, I’m going to post up something that I think is of interest around the Holy Days, Festivals, and life that we live during this Jewish month.

I hope you’ll follow my musings over this next month or so!

Click the link at the top of this post to head over to the new blog, or go to http://29daystishrei.tumblr.com.

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Shabbat Satisfied

On Friday morning, I shared on this blog a story I had recently heard from my friend and community leader, Lisa Berman. At the end of that post I prayed–given all that had been going in the week–that Shabbat would come speedily.

This was before we had to cancel services for our community, as we all stayed in lock down for the remainder of the evening. When we made the decision to cancel services, I was frustrated. Not only was I saddened that I would not get to be with my community when I needed to be with others, but I was angry that I was being robbed of Shabbat.

But Shabbat did come, and my anger abated. After all, we were able to gather as a community Saturday morning and to have services and Torah study together. I was so glad to get to be with people I hold dear, so glad to have Shabbat morning services together, and so glad to get to celebrate a special young woman as she became bat mitzvah.

Following our morning services, I turned to Rabbi Gurvis and said, “Okay. It’s time for my run.”

“Have fun,” he responded.

I changed into my running clothes, stretched out, and then headed out from Temple Shalom onto Commonwealth Avenue. This was my first run since the explosions at the finish line, and while I was on it, I encountered Shabbat.

I headed inbound on Comm Ave. up the first of three hills in Newton that everyone always identifies as the root of heartache along the marathon route. It was beautiful out. Calm. A little windy, but it was refreshing. It was how Shabbat is supposed to be.

My turn came at the corner of Comm Ave. and Walnut St. Those of us who have driven past that corner are familiar with the Johnny Kelley statue. Two men are running, crossing an invisible finish line, holding hands as they cross it together. Both are wearing this year’s marathon medals.

This is actually the same man at two ages in his life. Johnny Kelley ran the marathon until he was into his 80’s. All around the statue people have placed flowers and mementos of goodwill in the face of the destruction that took place at the Marathon’s finish line. Next year, two marathon finishers will gift their medals to the statue to stay there until the next. As I took all of this in, I let out a deep breath, and I headed back the way I came.

A new prayer for this Sunday: May we travel from strength to strength, and may we continue to repair this world. Because we deserve that repair.

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Please Let Shabbat Come

With events and news currently breaking I want to share a story that I have been thinking about since Monday’s explosions. A few weeks ago, before we would have been able to connect the words marathon and bombings, Lisa Berman–Temple Shalom congregant and Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim–relayed to me a story about Pope John Paul II. It has lingered with me in full force. 

Pope John Paul II traveled constantly. In every trip he made, he met with Catholics and others all around the world. He would sit with those individuals, and he would often pray with them. As they prayed together, he would take on their prayers, their confessions, and their stories. The Pope weaved a cloak out of these experiences that he would wear and take with him from location to location. The more visits he made, the more prayers he took on, and the cloak would become heavier.

When the Pope would arrive back at the Vatican, no matter the hour of the day, no matter the day of the week, the first place he would go was St. Peter’s Basilica. He would make his way across the grand floor, straight to dais. Yet, he did not stay there. He made his way into the tombs underneath the Basilica, kneeling at St. Peter’s grave. There–alone–he would take that prayer-filled cloak, and lay it down at St. Peter’s feet.  All of those prayers, all of those confessions, all of those stories from the people he had met all around the world were left in Catholic safe, sacred territory. 

Every time the Pope traveled, he was witness to the brokenness and woundedness of our world. As he met with others, those breaks and wounds became his own. Yet he knew he could not let those weigh him down permanently. He had to take them somewhere, to leave them somewhere, to do something with that hurt. For Pope John Paul II, he transferred that weightiness through his own prayers at the feet of the man who was the first to hold his post.

Given the events of this week, we too need a place to take our prayers, our hurt, our brokenness, and our woundedness. If it were near the High Holidays, I would say that we Jews have Tashlich as an opportunity to cast off those worries. Yet, we need immediate help, and so I give thanks that Shabbat is coming. Events continue to break, and we do not know when it will be safe to go about our day. Should it be safe for us to congregate tonight, I cannot wait for us to be together, to share in prayer, and to lessen our burdens. Please, let beautiful Shabbat arrive. 

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