Sunday, September 14, 2014

Teshuvah--Transforming the Past (portion Nitzavim/Vayelech)

William Faulkner famously noted: “The past isn’t over.  It isn’t even past.”

In this season of preparation for the Days of Awe, we Jews are constantly reminded of the truth of Faulkner’s words.  The opening of our double Torah portion for this week, Nitzavim/Vayelech, exemplifies the way that past, present and future fold back upon one another.  Moses begins by speaking to the present, in which a new generation, born into freedom, is poised to enter the land of Israel: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God. . . from the woodchopper to the water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you today.”  He then invokes the future, proclaiming that God makes this covenant “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day. . . and with those who are not here with us this day.”   Finally, he recalls this past, reminding the people of their history: “Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations.”

This intertwining of past, present, and future is also at the heart of our primary task for this sacred season—the making of teshuvah.  Often translated as “repentance”, teshuvah literally  means “return”.  It is a way that in the present, we can return to the past and change its meaning for our future.  Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains this concept beautifully: “Obviously we do not undo the past.  What is done is done.  But what we do now about what we did then, while not altering the past deed itself, can place it into a new context of meaning.  By our present actions, we can effectively reach back through the otherwise impermeable membrane that seals the past and thus reshape it.  For example, we may have injured someone with a thoughtless remark long ago.  Now we not only acknowledge, regret, and repudiate what we did, we devote ourselves to repairing the damage.  We not only make amends and through them make ourselves into a finer person, we also heal the pain so that now in the light of our present turning, both the one we injured and ourselves regard our original transgression as the initiation of this greater intimacy and love.  We have placed the initial damage into a larger constellation of meaning.  Isolated, the past evil deed is only a great shame.  But seen from the present, as the commencement of this new turning, the meaning of the original deed has been transformed and the past is rewritten.”

This week, as we approach Selichot and the urgency of our preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe intensifies, reflect on how, today, you can change the meaning of past mistakes into future possibilities—and then act on your reflections.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Gratitude--the Mother of Virtues (Portion Ki Tavo)

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage. . . you shall take some of the first fruits of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and got to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.”

Cicero described gratitude as the mother of all the other virtues, and our weekly Torah portion, Ki Tavo bears this out.  The parshah opens with a ceremony of thanksgiving in which, each year, the Israelites offer the first fruits of their harvest to the priests in the Temple.  In this ritual drama, they recall their history of difficult challenges, celebrate God’s liberating power, and express their gratitude for their blessings. 

Commenting on this ritual, Maimonides focuses on the dangers of prosperity, which, if we are not mindful, can leave us spoiled and ungrateful.  He notes: “Offering the first fruits is a way people accustom themselves to being generous and a means of limiting the human appetite for more consumption, no only of food but of property…For people who amass fortunes and live in comfort often fall victim to self-centered excesses and arrogance.  They tend to abandon ethical considerations out of increasingly selfish concerns.  Bringing a basket of first fruits and reciting the prayer promotes humility.”

Psychologist Robert Emmons echoes Maimonides’ concerns in his book, Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.   Reflecting on what he calls “the poverty of affluence”, he reminds us that our wealthy, consumerist culture fuels ingratitude with its obsession with what we do not yet have.  We are constantly bombarded by messages to buy things we do not need, under the false premise that they will somehow make us happy.  But the true path to happiness lies not in acquisition but in gratitude—in wanting what we’ve got.

As we approach the Days of Awe, I encourage you to focus just a little more on enjoying what you have and counting your blessings rather than lamenting what you lack.   You might begin by keeping a gratitude journal, briefly noting, each day, a blessing or two for which you are thankful.  Or just spend ten seconds every morning by starting the day with the traditional prayer in which we give thanks for the greatest blessing of all: being alive. 

Modeh/Modah ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam sh’hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah rabbah emunatechah

I thank you, Eternal Sovereign, for restoring my soul to life—great is your mercy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Asking for Help

Summer is over, September is here, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lie just around the bend.

During this time of preparation for those Days of Awe, our tradition enjoins us to take a kind of spiritual accounting of ourselves, known as cheshbon nefesh.  We look back upon the year gone by, consider our failings, and focus our energy on how we can do better in the coming year. 

One of my goals as I enter this sacred season is to learn to get better at asking for help.  I recently finished reading M. Nora Klaver’s excellent book, “Mayday—Asking for Help in Times of Need” and have since been reflecting on why most of us find it so difficult to request assistance.  I’ll be speaking on this topic on Yom Kippur morning and it will also be the subject of our Yom Kippur study session to follow.

Ms. Klaver describes numerous attitudes and fears that deter us from turning to others in difficult times.  I’ll share many of these in my sermon.  But I’d also like to include some of your own thoughts on the topic.  So, please, take a moment and send me a short email,,  in which you share your musings on the challenge of asking for help.  Let me know what makes it challenging for you—and how you have managed to overcome the challenges and request assistance, despite your fears.  And if you have stories of how asking for—and receiving—help made a positive change in your life, I am very eager to hear them!  I’ll try to weave some of your collective words of wisdom into my Yom Kippur morning sermon, anonymously, of course.

Meanwhile, may this ongoing month of Elul be a time of reflection and growth for us all.

L’shanah tovah,

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guarding Our Gates (Portion Shoftim)

The service that concludes Yom Kippur is known as ne’ilah, roughly meaning “the hour of the closing of the gates”—a reference to the last opening afforded to us for repentance and renewal as the Days of Awe draw to an end.

As this sacred season ends, so it commences.  This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is always read at the beginning of Elul, the month of self-reflection and preparation that precedes the fall holy days.  It opens: “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.”  On a surface level, this injunction calls us to establish a legal system, but most commentators delve deeper into the imagery of gates.  The Hasidic teacher Mei Shiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica) reads the passage as a spiritual imperative, identifying the gates with the seven physical openings through which we take in the world: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. 

What does this metaphor teach us?  If we understand the “gates” in the passage to be the instruments of our sensory perception, what would it mean for us to appoint “judges” over each of them?  Mei HaShiloach implies that we must carefully govern both the information we seek to acquire and the ways in which we use that information.  Our challenge is to make every effort to view the world through positive attributes such as justice, kindness, compassion, and honesty.  If this was true for Mei HaShiloach almost two centuries ago, all the more does it apply to us, for we live in an age of information overload.  Our senses are bombarded daily with images and ideas—many of which are far from positive.  What we choose to take in goes a long way toward determining what we, in turn, put back out into the world.   Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant guardians of our “gates.”

In his wonderful book on our fall holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us: “Judges shall you put in all your gates.  This is how Teshuvah begins.  When Elul comes around again, watch the window.  Keep a mindful eye on the gates of the soul.”  As Elul begins, this Tuesday, and through the days that will bring us to Rosh Hashanah, try paying closer attention to all that enters your “gates” and how it affects your emotions and actions.

Idaho Statesman 20th Anniversary column

With this piece, I mark my twentieth anniversary as a Statesman columnist. When I joined the paper’s rotation of clergy writers, shortly after moving to Boise in 1994, I could not have envisioned that I’d still be doing it two decades later.  I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity, and to all of my editors, who have been, without exception, wise and very patient.  It has been a great pleasure to work with them all.  Through this experience, I have gained enormous respect for all of the professional op-ed writers, national and local, who somehow manage to publish two or three articles every week—my bi-monthly deadline is more than difficult enough for me!

I am taking this milestone as an occasion to look back at my collected columns and try to discern some running themes.  Although a lot has changed since I started writing in an age before internet and email, I do find some common leitmotifs.

 I’ve dabbled a bit in the expected religious topics: debates over doctrine and practice, biblical interpretation, Jewish theology and tradition, God and prayer.  I’ve shared personal stories about growing up as a rabbi’s kid and raising my own family, confessed my ambivalent relationship with Facebook and social media, and offered tributes to some of my personal heroes: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink.  I’ve written dispatches from distant places while on sabbatical, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Ronda, Spain, and even sent one in from a month-long trek in Nepal.  And, of course, I’ve done numerous stories from Israel, our Jewish homeland, where I have lived and worked on several occasions.  Many of those focus on the normalcy of daily life, which is rarely portrayed in the media, but I’ve also addressed the critical issues of war and peace from my perspective as a proud progressive Zionist.  This can be tough going; as I re-read my 2009 column on war in Gaza, I was struck by how little emendation it would need to speak to the situation now, five long years later.   That breaks my heart.

But the vast majority of my columns over the past twenty years deal with issues at the intersection of faith and politics: stewardship of God’s creation, separation of church and state, hunger and homelessness, religion and reproductive rights, economic justice, gun control, health care as a human right, feminism, education reform, and the battle for full equality for the LGBT community.

Above all, I see that I have returned, again and again, to the question of how our culture cares (or fails to care) for its most vulnerable members: racial and religious minorities, the poor, immigrants, the elderly and the sick and handicapped, lesbians and gay men.  These matters cross the boundaries between religion and journalism because they are, in fact, the fundamental concerns of all human beings living in community.  It has been a privilege to be able to wrestle with—and write about—all of them, and to share my thoughts with you, my readers.  I look forward to continuing the discussion for many years to come.