Monday, December 6, 2010

Wisdom from the Broncos (Portion Va-yigash)

Reb Nachum, the son of the Rebbe of Rizhyn famously taught a life lesson by way of the three rules of checkers:

1. You can’t make two moves at once.

2. You can only move forward and not backward

3. Once you reach the last row, you can move wherever you want.

In that spirit, this week I am offering two Torah teachings gleaned from an important local source of inspiration: Boise State football.

Part One: We Are Not Defined By Our Failures (aka Teshuvah Springs Eternal)

When Kyle Brotzman missed two clutch field goals at the end of the Nevada game, I immediately thought of my old teammate on the Thomas Jefferson High School Fighting Colonials, Scott Norwood. Scott went on to a distinguished NFL career with the Buffalo Bills—and in 1991, he missed the last second kick that could have won the Super Bowl.

Scott Norwood refused to let that mistake define his life. He has since raised three children and launched a successful second career in business. As writer Karl Greenfeld notes in his 2004 Sports Illustrated article on Scott: “The measure of a man should not be his worst moments. . . It is how we deal with those moments that makes us who we are, and that is the most American measure of success: to fail once, to pick yourself up, and try again.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin. Thus the man who earlier sealed the deal to sell another brother, Joseph, into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring transformation. The word “Jew” (yehudi) is derived from “Judah” (yehudah). We are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Part Two: Faking It

In Sunday’s Idaho Statesman, sportswriter Brian Murphy notes that throughout the week following their devastating loss to Nevada, the Broncos had a tough time getting motivated. So how did Coach Chris Petersen prepare his team for Saturday’s game against Utah State? His strategy was both straightforward and brilliant: fake it. In Coach Pete’s own words: “You can’t go to practice without tremendous energy. We demand it and if they’re not feeling it, we tell them, ‘Fake it.’ Because eventually you’re going to start feeling it.”

The coach must be channeling his secret inner talmudist, because a famous talmudic teaching asserts: “me-toch sh’lo lishma ba lishma—If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, without real sincerity or intention, you will eventually end up doing it sincerely.” So the best way to change your behavior is. . . to start changing your behavior. It doesn’t matter if, at first, your heart is not in it. Once we get in the habit of doing the right thing, the intention will follow.

In other words—when in doubt, fake it.

A continued happy Chanukah to all, and, of course, good luck to the Broncos in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Light One Candle

One of the great tragedies of life is that it is so much easier to destroy than to create. Just consider the World Trade Center. It took many years for a gigantic team of architects, engineers, and construction workers to build the Twin Towers—and just one horrific fall morning for a handful of terrorists to obliterate them. Relationships—whether between individuals or nations—work much the same way: years of slowly accrued trust can be brought to naught with a single act of betrayal. Entropy prevails; as the novelist Chinua Achebe notes, “Things fall apart.”

And yet. . . people still overwhelmingly choose life over death and good over evil, and things come together at least as much as they fall apart. Why is this? I believe the moral at the heart of human life is not the sad ease of destruction but the miraculous ability of a little light to dispel deep darkness. One small candle can illuminate an entire room. Every day, legions of ordinary men and women perform countless unnoticed acts of valor.

This miracle is at the center of the festival of Chanukah, which begins on Wednesday night. As the story goes, a single cruse of oil burned for eight nights, illuminating the re-dedicated Temple with its flame. Therefore, at the darkest time of the year—the new moon closest to the winter solstice—we re-commit ourselves to our Jewish calling to bring light to a darkening world.

Over the festival’s eight nights, we burn thirty six Chanukah lights (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36). Yes, I know those little blue boxes actually contain forty four candles, but eight of them serve as the nightly shamash, the candle used to kindle the others, which is really just a glorified match rather than a symbol of the holiday itself. Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, author of Seasons of Life, teaches that each Chanukah light represents one of the lamed-vovniks, the legendary thirty six hidden righteous ones of every generation who secretly sustain the world with their light. Again: light is found in unexpected places, and a little goes a very long way.

This week, as Chanukah approaches, try asking yourself: Where do I find light when my world feels dark? And what can I do to kindle light—and blessing and hope—for others?

Happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Dan

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wrestling With God and Ourselves (Vayishlach)

Sometimes it is hard to pray.

Many of us struggle with the Hebrew, or with unfamiliar tunes. We may be distracted by random thoughts, or by conversations in the pews around us. Perhaps we are simply stressed out or exhausted. And then there is the matter of belief. God as literally described in the pages of the siddur and Torah may, at times, be difficult for us to accept and worship.

I have struggled with all of these challenges at various times, but when I read the commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, I discovered another-perhaps even more difficult-obstacle to praying with conviction.

Jacob famously grapples with an angel, who at daybreak blesses him with a new name, Yisrael or Israel-the One Who Wrestles with the Divine. But who is this mysterious adversary? Some say that it was the guardian angel of Jacob's estranged brother Esau. But the twelfth-century commentator Rashbam suggests that the angel is a reflection of Jacob's own inner nature, sent by God to prevent him from running away. Rashbam teaches, "The Holy One answers a person's prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his [or her] own opponent."

For Rashbam, the whole episode comes to teach us something about the essential nature of prayer: when offered with a whole heart, it entails a painful self-examination. To pray as true children of Israel is to wrestle with ourselves. Jacob encounters the angel because he resists the temptation to run from his faults and, instead, faces up to his shortcomings. This is the only kind of religious expression that enables us to grow. Good Jewish davvening isn't about mindlessly chanting a bunch of Hebrew words; it is about employing those words as shovels to dig deep into our own souls and then use the knowledge we gain to transform ourselves. For us, as for Jacob, real prayer entails seeing ourselves as we really are-and as we might yet hope to become.

We are Yisrael, or, in Art Waskow's profound translation, Godwrestlers. The Holy One calls us to truly search ourselves, to become our own opponents, and so to be worthy of the blessing and the name that is our inheritance.

In this season of diminishing daylight, may our prayers help us to shine a light inward, into the darkness of our own hearts and souls. By recognizing, living with, affirming and ultimately illuminating that darkness, may we grow in wisdom, compassion, and justice.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It Gets Better (Idaho Statesman column)

No one should be compelled to live a fearful, secretive life. This moral imperative is at the heart of the Jewish experience. Many times in our history, the oppression of the dominant culture and creed forced us to practice our faith covertly. Throughout the Middle Ages, when faced with the terrible choice of conversion or death, many Jews publicly embraced Christianity or Islam but continued to secretly observe Jewish traditions. In the year 1165, one of these “conversos” sent an inquiry to Moses Maimonides, the pre-eminent Jewish teacher of the age, asking whether he and others like him could still be considered part of the Jewish community.

Maimonides was uniquely qualified to respond. At the age of thirteen, he had fled Cordoba, Spain with his family when that city fell into the hands of the Almohads, a violent Islamic sect. Drawing on this experience in his “Epistle on Forced Conversion,” Maimonides expresses great compassion for the secret Jews, recognizing the cruel injustice that created their conundrum. At the same time, he concludes that his fellow Jews who are unable to practice their religion openly must seek a new place to live: “They should leave everything they have and travel day and night until finding a place where they can live openly as Jews.” To live in hiding and shame, as victims of others’ bigotry, is to be denied one’s full humanity.

I have been thinking of this difficult part of my people’s history—and Maimonides’ response to it—in the wake of this fall’s heartbreaking rash of suicides by gay young people. The roots of this tragedy run deep. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students are often forced into hiding by the pervasive bigotry of our culture. And who can blame them? Nine out of ten LGBT kids have experienced serious harassment at school—so much so that more than one-third of LGBT youth have, at some point, attempted suicide. This is a national disgrace: our ignorance and hate is, literally, killing some of our best and brightest students. Alas, unlike the Jewish conversos of Maimonides’ time, these young people usually do not have the option of moving to a safer place. Furthermore, at least the secret Jews could count on the support of their own families; for many LGBT young people, this is not a given.

It is, therefore, our obligation to make the world safe for these youth wherever they live, starting here in our own community. For people from faith traditions that have known persecution, our own experience should inspire us to act. Having known the burden of living a fearful secret life, we have a sacred duty to see to it that others cease to suffer this fate. Check out the “It Gets Better Project,” which was created by writer Dan Savage as a way for supporters to tell LGBT youth that it does, indeed, get better. Then do your part to make it better, speaking out for and working to create a culture in which we are all respected for who we are.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My "I"--I Did Not Know It

Waking up from his dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth, Jacob declares in wonder: “Surely God is in this place, and I—I did not know it!” That proclamation, from this week’s portion, Va-yelech, is one of my favorite verses of Torah. I love the notion that God is always present, and our challenge is to open our eyes to the Divine, which so often hides in plain sight.

How do we do achieve this wakening to the presence of the Holy One? Dov Baer of Mezritch, a great Hasidic teacher shares a profound insight through a slight re-translation of the verse. He reads, “God is in this place, for my “I” (my ego) I did not know.” By way of explanation, he adds: “I shall teach you the best way to say Torah. You must cease to be aware of yourself. You must be nothing but an ear which hears what the universe is constantly saying within you. The moment you start hearing what you yourself are saying, you must stop.”

In other words, we can only experience the divine when we step out of our inhibiting self-consciousness. As soon as you think to yourself, “I am encountering the sacred,” the encounter inevitably ends. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers an illuminating analogy from the life of Rabbi Chaim of Krosno: R. Chaim once stopped with his students to watch a man dance on a rope strung high between two buildings. The rabbi became so absorbed in the spectacle that his followers asked him what he found so fascinating in such a frivolous circus performance. “This man,” he explained, “is risking his life, and I am not sure why. I am sure that while he is walking on the rope, he cannot be thinking that he is earning a hundred gulden; he cannot be thinking about the step he has just taken or the step he is going to take next; he cannot even be thinking about where he is; if he did, he would fall to his death. He must be utterly unaware of himself.”

Since most of us will never be tightrope walkers, we might consider: how do we bring ourselves to the point where we do not know our “I”, where our egos do not stand between us and God? Rabbi Kushner suggests that we throw ourselves so fully into a sacred activity that we lose ourselves—in study, in prayer, or in acts of kindness and justice. Think about a time you have been in that state, utterly lacking self-consciousness. Maybe you experienced it while exercising, or listening to music, or marveling at the beauty of the natural world. It is, of course, impossible to remain in this state of ego-emptiness for very long, but a few of these “Jacob moments” can provide the inspiration and vision that we need to sustain us through periods of more mundane existence.

This week, as we occupy ourselves with this amazing story of Jacob’s encounter with the Holy One, try to find ways to make yourself “nothing but an ear which hears what the universe is saying to you.” See if, even for a moment or two, you might waken your heart to the miraculous presence of God in an unexpected place.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Willing and Waiting (portion Toldot)

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

This quote, from E.M. Forster, speaks to a paradox at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. As it opens, God tells Rebecca, who is struggling with a painful pregnancy: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will descend from you; one kingdom will become mightier than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.” Soon thereafter, she delivers twins, with Esau emerging first, followed by his brother, Jacob.

Perhaps because of God’s prophecy to her, Rebecca favors the younger boy from the start, while Isaac prefers his more macho first-born. This dynamic divides the family and comes to a head many years later, when Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac (who is now blind) into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. The plan involves a brilliant deception: she covers Jacob’s arms with sheepskins, so that when Isaac feels him, he thinks he is his hairy older brother. Although Isaac initially responds with some suspicion, in the end, the plot succeeds.

But all of this raises a question: If God has already told Rebecca of Jacob’s eventual primacy even before the boys were born, why is she so desperate to force the matter with all of this deception? Does Rebecca’s eagerness to seize the blessing for Isaac betray an underlying lack of faith?

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Diane Sharon argues this line: “What if, by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother, Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God? . . The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God’s behalf.”

For us, as for Rebecca, it can be very difficult to “let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” We strive mightily to determine our fate, to shape every detail in the course of our lives. I have wrestled with this challenge a great deal, personally and professionally. My first inclination is almost always to try to assert control over my circumstances. But as I grow older, I continue to learn that sometimes I can only gain what I desire by learning to let it go—to muster the patience to let God’s intentions blossom in their own time.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Days of Our Lives (Chaye Sarah)

While the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” the reading actually commences with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s laborious effort to procure a burial place for her. Through this ironic juxtaposition of the title and the ensuing subject matter, Torah invites us to ponder what constitutes a good life. When we lose someone that we love, we are often moved to reflect on the meaning of their days—and our own.

The portion begins: “This is Sarah’s lifetime: one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Noting the somewhat verbose and repetitive phrasing here, the great medieval teacher Rashi ( an acronym for RAbbi SHlomo ben Itzchak) suggests that the verse offers a subtle appraisal of Sarah’s life. Why doesn’t Torah just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” Rashi answers: “The wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were equally good.”

But how can this be? In whose life are all the years “equally good”? Certainly not Sarah’s. She celebrates ecstatic successes and suffers terrible losses. To cite just one example: Sarah miraculously bears a son at ninety, then finds out, after the fact, that her husband has come perilously close to sacrificing him at God’s request three decades later. Her life seems more like a roller coaster than the smooth and steady ride depicted by Rashi. Indeed, many of us find that we can relate to the character of Sarah precisely because we share her ups and downs.

The Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger notes this difficulty with Rashi’s commentary. He teaches: “There must be differences, variations, and changes during a person’s lifetime. There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age. But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days. . . Fulfillment, wholeness, completion—these can be found in every place and at every time. Thus, ‘They were all equally good.’”

As the Gerer rebbe notes, we all encounter triumph and tragedy and everything in between. Our challenge is to find meaning in all of these experiences—good and bad, sacred and mundane, thrilling and tedious, pleasurable and painful. Some years and days and hours are surely better than others. But as learning opportunities, all are, in a sense, “equally good.” To live consciously and conscientiously is to get the most out of every moment. This is Sarah’s enduring legacy. May it be an inspiration to us, this week and beyond.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Don't Look Back (portion Vayera)

When asked the secret of his legendary longevity and success, the great Negro League pitcher and home-spun sage Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back—something may be gaining on you.” His wisdom is both profound and obvious. We can neither change the past nor predict the future; all we ever really have is the current moment.

Yet who has not succumbed to the temptation to look back? As William Faulkner once noted, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t really even past.” Our history often pursues us. Sometimes it plays a positive role in our lives, offering us instructive lessons. Sometimes it takes the form of harmless nostalgia. And sometimes the pull of the past can be devastating.

In this week’s portion, Vayera, God destroys the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before raining down fire and brimstone, God sends angels into Sodom to rescue Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife and daughters. The angels warn, “Do not look back, lest you be swept away.” Lot’s wife defies their admonition and immediately turns into a pillar of salt.

Why does she look back—and why is she transformed into salt? As usual, our Sages offer varying interpretations. In their debate over the fate of Lot’s wife, they indirectly address the question of why we, too, frequently find it so difficult to break with the past.

Rashi points to salt’s essential quality as a preservative. Just as salt prevents things (like food) from changing, so did Lot’s wife sin through her inability to change, to separate herself from the immorality of the surrounding culture. By contrast, Nahmanides is more generous in his appraisal. His commentary suggests that Lot’s wife struggled to leave Sodom because she had so many friends and family members who remained there. He identifies salt with the tears she must have shed for the loved ones that she would never see again.

Why are we drawn back into the past? Sometimes we prefer our well-established and deeply ensconced routines to new challenges, even when we recognize the necessity of change. Other times, we are compelled by the legitimate pull of old and beloved ties. And often it is a complicated combination of these and many other factors.

This week, try thinking seriously about your past and your attitude toward it. When is it helpful to look back? When—as suggested by Satchel Paige and the story of Lot’s wife—is it harmful? How do we balance our tradition’s call to be present to the moment with its emphasis on communal memory? When do we need to draw upon the metaphor of salt’s preservative qualities? And when should we dry our tears and fix our gaze straight ahead?

May your week bring insights, answers, and an abundance of good questions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

One Step Ahead (portion Lech L'chah)

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, God tells Abraham, “Walk in My ways and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). The language here is strikingly similar to the description of Noah that we read last week: “Noah. . . was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

For the talmudic Rabbis, such parallels beg for commentary, so they offer an insightful comparison between these two biblical patriarchs. While both are clearly depicted as righteous, the Rabbis make a good argument for Abraham’s moral superiority. A close reading of the text notes that while Noah’s blamelessness is qualified by the term “in his age” (as I noted in this forum last week), the injunction to Abraham is unqualified. Furthermore, while Noah walks with God (et ha-Elohim), God commands Abraham to walk ahead of the Divine Presence (hithalech l’fanai). Noah is present with God, step by step—but Abraham actually takes the lead, with God’s blessing.

This difference in “walking” is borne out in the lives and actions of Noah and Abraham. When God tells Noah about the coming deluge, Noah does as he is told and builds the ark. He saves himself, his family, and the selected pairs of animals, but does not protest on behalf of the rest of humanity. By contrast, when God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps up and argues on behalf of their citizens: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Noting this distinction, the Hasidic tradition calls Noah a tzadik im pelz—a righteous person in a fur coat. When everyone is freezing, he covers himself with warm garments, without regard for those around him. Abraham, on the other hand, lights a fire that warms everyone in the room.

We Jews are the descendents of Abraham. It is not enough for us to walk with God; God asks us to take the lead in healing what is broken in our world. Self-interest is valid, but it is insufficient. As Hillel notes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Our challenge is to act in ways that spread the light and warmth beyond our own households. To be a Jew is, by definition, to be engaged in the affairs of the wider world, and to work for justice for all.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Walking the Turtle (Kol Nidre 5771)

Kol Nidre 5771: “Walking the Turtle”

Introduction: Silence as an Endangered Species

As our already frenetic world gets ever faster and louder, we are rapidly losing our last bastions of stillness. No one knows this better than acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has spent over thirty years crossing the continent with a portable sound meter, taking the sonic pulse of America. He is searching for quiet, for places devoid of human noise, where the only sounds are those of wind and waves, rustling leaves, bugling elk and whistling birds, the songs of streams and the drip-drip-drip of melting snow. But the silence he seeks is quickly becoming an endangered species. Even our precious national parks are suffering from increasing noise pollution, from cars and snowmobiles and airplanes passing overhead. There are now only a dozen places left in the lower forty- eight states where one can listen for fifteen minutes or more without being disturbed by man-made noise.

The World is Too Much With Us

I suspect that this sad fact comes as little surprise to most of us, for we are experiencing similar losses in our personal lives, which are becoming noisier and more frenzied at a truly alarming rate. We are awash in a deluge of email and internet, texts and tweets and twitters, i-pods, smart phones, apps and X-boxes, big screens and microchips. We are Bluetoothed, surround-sounded, unremittingly linked in and logged on. It is hard to even remember when spam was a treif lunch meat, a web was something spun by a spider, a blackberry was a fruit, and a friend was a person who you actually knew and spent time with. We have a bad collective case of TMI, Too Much Information, delivered on demand by an omnipresent media that frequently fails to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, or even between truth and rumor—all at a pace and volume that we cannot possibly take in. We are, in short, bombarded by a relentless, cacophonous din, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

It is enough to give anyone a headache, and slowly but surely, we are coming to realize that this torrent of technology exacts a toll. Although the science is still young, and far from conclusive, many researchers now suggest that our constantly wired world is re-routing our brains in some deleterious ways. How, exactly, this is happening, and whether these effects are permanent remains unclear, but one thing is certain: for all of the very real benefits of the new technologies, which can miraculously connect us to billions of other people all over the globe, there is a cost. Tools designed to save time leave us busier than ever. We are forfeiting the precious moments we once used to reflect on our choices, as our attention spans grow shorter and our craving for nonstop stimulation more intense. Rehab centers are filling up with internet addicts who struggle to tear themselves away from their computers and hand-held devices even to eat and sleep. They represent extreme cases, but there are many moments when we catch glimpses of such addiction in our behavior. Who among us has never felt the compulsion to check our email every ten minutes, or stayed on the cell phone while behind the wheel, when we knew we should be directing our full focus on our driving. Meanwhile, studies now show that as we accumulate ever more Facebook friends, we lose close confidants. Here, as in so much of life, more is not better. The more people we know casually, on line, the lonelier we get. Real intimacy demands things that texting and email cannot convey: patience, sensitivity, devotion, and awareness of subtle shifts in mood and tone.

Alas, paradoxically, our mad rush for efficiency doesn’t even make us more efficient. To the contrary: research indicates that when we multi-task, we believe that we are increasing our productivity, but are mostly fooling ourselves. With too much multi-tasking, we only end up doing a lot of different things badly, while experiencing profound stress and exhaustion along the way. William Wordsworth’s lament of two centuries ago rings with ever greater urgency: “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Reading Cereal Boxes

And yet. . . as easy as it is to point to technology as the catalyst for our frenetic lives, to do so would be to confuse a symptom with the root cause. Our cutting edge toys certainly exacerbate the problem, but they did not produce it. They are, after all, our own inventions, which spring from, and reflect, our desires. Our noisy, high-speed, wired world mirrors our interior landscapes at least as much as it shapes them. We create our environment in our own likeness; if it is defined by its harsh volume and relentless pace, this is largely because we, ourselves, tend to be acutely uncomfortable with silence and stillness. Too much quiet unnerves us, and we are all adept at filling the void with distractions, even if, in the absence of technology, we pack it with our own cavalcade of trivial thoughts.

Jon Kabat Zinn describes this experience in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. He writes: The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or that into each moment. . . That impulse would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary value of the contents. . . this impulse doesn’t care what it feeds on, as long as it’s feeding. The newspaper is an even better draw, or the LL Bean catalogue. . . It scavenges to fill time, conspires with my mind to keep me unconscious, just enough to fill or overfill my belly while I actually miss breakfast.

We have all been there, staring at that cereal box, our minds desperate for diversions, for any excuse to steer away from stillness. I experience this every fall on my annual retreat to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Logically, it makes no sense. The monastery is the quietest place I know, located sixteen miles off the nearest road at the mouth of a towering red rock canyon. And that’s the whole point—I go there for the silence, which the monks guard zealously. And yet, immediately upon my arrival, my mind kicks into high gear and I start compiling lists of things to do, books to read, essays to write, and ideas to contemplate. This is invariably how I spend my first two days on retreat: ceaselessly striving to be “productive.” Only after considerable time passes, usually by the morning of the third day, am I able to step back, calm my hyper-active mind, and enjoy the quiet.

When it comes to creating distractions, we are all geniuses. Indeed, our brains are so devious that they can even employ otherwise praiseworthy ideas and activities to disrupt reflective silence. A few months ago, I spent an entire prayer session in my study obsessing over the placement of my tefillin, which, for some reason, just didn’t feel right that morning. Laying tefillin usually enriches my spiritual life, as a physical reminder to focus on my prayers, but that day, my tefillin were the cereal box diverting me from quiet mindfulness.

Why does this happen? Why the constant temptation to use whatever we have on hand—even sacred objects and activities—to generate noise when what we really need is stillness? Why, for we who call ourselves human beings, does doing come so much easier than being?

The Roots of Our Fear: The Denial of Death

The Dutch-born Catholic priest and professor Henri Nouwen suggests that our discomfort with silence is rooted in fear. In his anthology, The Only Necessary Thing, he writes:

As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. . . In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections. This chaos can be so frightening and disturbing that we can hardly wait to get busy again, to run to our friends, our work, and other distractions.

Like Father Nouwen, I believe that a great deal of fear lurks just beneath the surface of our frenetic lives. We use our technology—and our chores and lists and reading of cereal boxes and even our friendships—to mask the painful thoughts that would otherwise bubble up from our inner lives. We run from stillness because it lifts the veil that hides our deepest, darkest anxieties.

Rabbi Alan Lew expresses this powerfully in his book about these Days of Awe, This Is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Echoing Henri Nouwen, and the anthropologist Ernest Becker, Rabbi Lew argues that our obsession with keeping busy is at heart a denial of death—which is, in the end, both futile and destructive:

Against death, which we see as the ultimate emptiness, we offer up the acquisition of objects.

Against death, which we see as the end of all feeling, we offer up the pursuit of pleasure.

Against death, which we see as the final stillness, we offer up a ceaseless rage of activity.

Consequently, we’ve become a nation of workaholics, a people who have come to believe that we can conquer death by dint of our own powers, by a ceaseless swirl of activities. To rest is to die, so we never permit ourselves a moment’s rest, a moment’s quiet.

But in the process we give up our souls, for in spite of our constant effort, there is failure and death all around us. We try not to see it, but the psychic squint we have to make in order to do this reduces everything in the line of sight; not just the void we are trying to ignore. And this squinting requires a tremendous expenditure of energy, energy we desperately need. It never works anyway. Sooner or later we will find ourselves tied to a chair under the bare bulb of the truth.

The Still, Small Voice

As Father Nouwen and Rabbi Lew both teach us, our existential anxiety is intense, and our desire to throw up distractions to evade it is powerful. The culture of avoidance that we have so carefully constructed conspires against our higher calling to confront our fear. Yet if we choose that default option and steer clear of stillness and reflection, we do, indeed, sacrifice our souls and deaden ourselves to the things that matter most. The signature prayer of these Days of Awe, Unetaneh Tokef, proclaims: “The great shofar is sounded, a still, small voice is heard.” The origins of this phrase lie in a passage from the book of First Kings. The prophet Elijah is on the run, hiding in a cave, when God pays him a visit. As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.” These holy days remind us that God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire or even in the shofar blast. Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down. The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always. But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly.

Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen! This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One. The Pslamist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.” The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.

Stillness, Restored

So how and where do we start to restore stillness to our lives? As Hillel taught, “If not now, when?” If ever there was a day to begin making space for quiet reflection, this is it. Virtually everything we do on Yom Kippur—the fasting, the long hours of prayer, the white shroud-like garments that remind us of our mortality—the whole package is about facing our fear of death and failure head on. There is always the danger of using the words of the liturgy as a distraction from doing this soul work, for like my tefillin, the prayer book can used to this unfortunate purpose when we obsess over its minutiae and their correct performance. But when we maintain our focus on the lessons at the heart of this most sacred day, the traditional prayers and rituals support our introspection and our slow but steady turning in teshuvah.

Today is also Shabbat, which may be Judaism’s greatest gift to humankind. In our cacophonous, wired world, Shabbat’s call to set aside an entire day for rest and renewal is more radical than ever. Our tradition explains the basis for Shabbat with two different but complementary phrases. First, it is zicharon l’ma-aseh b’reishit—a reminder of the work of creation. The implication is clear: the world will not end if we unplug. Our fast-paced labors are not nearly as important as fool ourselves into thinking. If God, the Creator, can take a day off, we can, too. And second, Shabbat is zecher y’tziat mitzrayim—a remembrance of our leaving Egypt. Just as God liberated us from Egyptian bondage, so can we free ourselves from our self-imposed enslavement to our own high tech creations.

If this sounds overwhelming, think small. I know that no one here, including myself, is likely to become shomer shabbes—strictly, traditionally Shabbat-observant—next weekend. But I am suggesting that we draw on our tradition in incremental ways to instill our lives with Shabbat shalom—with real Shabbat peace and tranquility. Try keeping your computer or cell phone off for at least part of the day. Use the occasion to refrain from spending money, to take a break from our incessantly commercial culture. Instead of driving to the store, slow down and walk to the park with family or friends—and leave the I-pod and the earphones at home. No matter where we start, Shabbat can help us experience the counter-cultural power of Judaism’s core message.

Then, just as the spices at havdallah carry the sweet fragrance of Shabbat into the rest of the week, so, too, can we infuse our working days with Shabbat moments. Let’s set aside some specific times and places as technology-free. We can limit the intervals for checking email, shut down our phones when we get in the car, keep our computers and other devices away from our dinner tables. When we commit ourselves to such small but significant practices, we carve out opportunities to rest and reflect, to stop doing and start being. And when we enter those portable sanctuaries in space and time, we can engage in the opposite of multi-tasking, which is mindfulness, the art of performing the humblest of tasks with rapt, full attention. Pet the dog. Play the flute. Peel an orange. Wash the dishes. What matters is not the content of the task at hand but that we do it with all of our hearts and souls It all comes down to being fully present in the moment, telling ourselves, “This is it.” As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us, gateways to holiness are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are.

Other Voices, Born of Light

And what do we do when our old fears intrude upon our hard-won moments of stillness and reflection, as they are so wont to do? We muster all of our faith and courage and wait them out. As Henri Nouwen reminds us, if we face our fears with patience and purpose, they, too, can teach us, and eventually, they make way for better, brighter possibilities:

If we have the discipline to stay put and not let those dark voices intimidate us, they gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.

These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love. They might at first seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them. However, they are very persistent and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. They come from a very deep place and from very far. They have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the One who sent us into the world, only light.

In short, our challenge is to endure, to sit with the darkness and despair without running away or yielding to the distractions—and in so doing, through the stillness, transform ourselves.

Conclusion: Walking the Turtle

Gordon Hempton travels the world in search of silence; fortunately, we need not go so far. As much as we need the special wild and quiet places that he is helping to preserve, we can find the ordinary, every day stillness that we require in our own back yards. All we have to do is unplug, slow down, and listen attentively.

In his moving memoir, The Counsel of Dads, Bruce Feiler tells the story of the flaneur, a new type of pedestrian that took to the streets of Paris in the 1840s. The flaneur’s calling was to amble through parks and arcades as slowly as possible, observing every detail. Their destination was not a place but a state of mind, defined by quiet reflection. To help them in their quest, each flaneur would take a turtle on his walk—and let the reptile set the pace.

On this Yom Kippur, this sacred Shabbat, I pray that we find ways to walk with turtles in the coming months. In this new year, 5771, may we draw on the wisdom of our tradition and our own courage and resolution to restore our souls through the blessing of stillness. And in so doing, may we hear, again, the beautiful whispers of God.

I conclude with the words of Pablo Neruda, from his poem, “Keeping Quiet”:

Keeping Quiet

And now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mosques and Synagogues

This piece, which was published in the Idaho Statesman on September 11, 2010, was co-written with my friend Dr. Said Ahmed Zaid, of the Islamic Center of Idaho

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Americans, for the most part, drew together with a sense of common purpose. We realized that the aim of the terrorists who perpetrated this evil was to use the ultimate weapon—fear—to divide, and thereby weaken, our nation, and we denied them that victory. Accounts of this brutal attack duly noted that Jews and Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, and Hindus and non-believers were all among the victims, and people of all faiths heroically guided and assisted one another amidst the rubble. To his great credit, President Bush adamantly refused to cast aspersions on America’s Islamic community. He asserted unequivocally, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is a religion of peace.” In this spirit, all across our nation, we gathered to listen and learn from one another. It was during this season of both grief and unity that the two of us writing this article first met. Then, as now, we did not agree on all of the great issues of the day. But we recognized one another as neighbors and began to forge a friendship that has continued to grow and deepen over the passing years.

Alas, nearly a decade later, an ill wind of anger and intolerance threatens to unravel America’s social fabric and thereby deliver the terrorists a belated victory. We are both deeply troubled by those who would diminish our nation’s precious legacy of religious liberty by blocking the construction of an Islamic Center and mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero. Like Rabbi David Ellenson, writing in the Washington Post, we believe that while visceral feelings around this tragically sacred site are understandable, “to refuse to allow this project to go forward would suggest that all Muslims are terrorists or covert supporters of terrorism, and that an Islamic House of God cannot preach and practice divinely inspired values of justice, freedom and human dignity for all races and religions. This is patently un-American and should not be tolerated.” We are distressed by cynical and opportunistic politicians and media outlets that are using this controversy to fan the flames of xenophobia and bigotry. It is imperative that we do not allow their demagogic statements to go unchallenged, or to poison our own communities.

Our founders came to the new world in search of religious liberty, and established this nation on a foundation of hope. In their wisdom, they enshrined freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights that defines the mission of America. Many of our people—Jews and Muslims—came to these shores because of that promise of religious liberty, and many have died to defend it. We therefore feel called to speak out when that defining national virtue is threatened. Once we start to circumscribe one group’s free religious expression on the basis of “not in my backyard,” we risk losing that freedom everywhere.

At the root of our current national unrest lies a great deal of fear and insecurity. We live, in many ways, in troubled times. But let us take note: rage and bitterness cannot assuage our fears by scapegoating an entire group that is part and parcel of our national fabric. The only way to move past them is to acknowledge and address them, honestly and openly, and in so doing, cultivate fear’s opposite: courage and faith. We desperately need real faith, not the narrow-minded triumphalism that would deny to other religious communities the rights and privileges we claim for our own, but the generous spirit at the heart of every great religious community which teaches that we are all equally children of the Merciful One.

And so, standing together as Muslim and Jew, we say plainly and unambiguously: build the mosque. And build synagogues and churches and ashrams and temples and meditation halls and humanist gathering places. Build them all, houses of worship of every faith and creed. And then recognize that it is only after they are built that the real work begins—the sacred labor of inviting one another into our respective homes and sharing our traditions. As we build sanctuaries, let us also build bridges, listening to and learning from one another.

The great Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.” May the citizens of Boise and beyond lead by example, moving from fear to faith, and from angry divisiveness to the unity that we call shalom and salaam and peace.