Archive | Columnists

Listen to the shofar fully and attentively

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
My favorite question after camp is, “What do you do the rest of the year?”
First of all, getting ready for 900 kids and 250-plus staff is a yearlong job. However, I do have many other wonderful jobs during the year. Being a Jewish educator is a year-round job or, rather, a wonderful calling.
The fall holidays are a busy time for rabbis and Jewish teachers, and with the holidays coming so early, this year has been particularly busy. Everything is new for our little ones in preschool, yet how to give something new to those who have been celebrating the holidays for their entire lives is always a challenge. So I read and study and think, and sometimes find that thought that is new to me. So I share.
I was a musician many, many years ago, before I became a Jewish educator, so it was easy to pick up a shofar and get a good sound. Jonathan Wittenberg in “The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year” wrote something that, as a musician, struck me:
“If one strikes the keyboard of a piano, it produces a note. But if one blows into the shofar – even though one has some skill and has blown successfully on a dozen previous occasions – there is always a doubt. Responding to the atmosphere in the synagogue, or the spirit of the service, or some hidden facet of the blower’s state of being, the shofar may simply refuse to produce any sound at all. There is always a mystery, always a question.”
What is the question beyond whether I will get a good sound? Do I question myself, my beliefs, my hopes, dreams and more? But making a good sound is not enough – there is so much to learn about the shofar. And, the mitzvah is not in the blowing but in the hearing.
Wittenberg continues, taking the command to hear the shofar another step:
“Just to overhear it is not enough. If one passes a building and happens to catch the sound of the notes, that is not considered proper listening. There has to be a partnership between blower and hearer, a shared attentiveness. For the shofar addresses each person individually. Its question cannot be heard by proxy or by the outer ear only; we have to listen to it in the fullness of our own being.”
Attentive…intention – what happens to me inside when I listen to the shofar? Why do we come to hear and wait for that moment in services? Those who may have slipped out for the sermon come back for the sound. Why?
So the challenge this year is to listen attentively and with intention. When the holiday is past, take that skill of “attentive and intentional listening” into your life for the important sounds in your world.

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Historical Markers Help Us Remember Jewish History

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

If my mail is any indication, there are a lot of Jewish organizations, all worthy of our support. But there is one which does not send out mailers and also deserves our support.
The Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP) came to my attention recently, when I read that it assisted in the rededication of the Leo Frank Memorial in Marietta, Georgia. The marker had been removed because of road reconstruction.
Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager, was found guilty in the 1913 killing of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee.
Emotions ran high among the local citizens. Although evidence indicated that the custodian was the more likely killer, Frank’s religion and position probably worked against him.
The judge, feeling pressured, found Frank guilty, but gave him a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
The townsfolk had other ideas. Frank was forced out of prison and was hung to death close to where the memorial is now located.
Leo Frank’s innocence is still being sought. He received a full pardon as a result of an unfair trial, but he was never fully exonerated for the crime with which he had been charged.
Seventy years after Frank was murdered, a witness admitted that he had seen the custodian, Jim Conley, carrying the victim’s body the day she died.
He had kept silent for fear of he would be killed if he had spoken up. Conley had been the main witness for the prosecution.
Hopefully, this recent rededication and the efforts of the JASHP and the local Jewish community and friends will eventually result in Frank’s full legal exoneration.
As the rededication ceremony began, word arrived that in a few months, a 30-inch black granite marker would soon be installed next to the Leo Frank Marker, recognizing every person lynched in the United States.
This national anti-lynching memorial honoring over 4,000 victims will have the following inscription, “In respectful memory of the thousands across America, denied justice by lynching, victims of hatred, prejudice and ignorance.”
Markers such as these help us to remember our past so that important people, places and events will not be forgotten.
Admittedly, not every historical marker reflects an important person, place or event.
Texas, with its 16,000 thousand markers, has its share of seemingly insignificant inscriptions, such as “Former site of Bob’s Barber Shop.” But then again, if Bob’s Barber Shop was the only one in town, those folks probably did think it was pretty important.
Historic markers help us to learn and remember our history. Texas and American History textbooks fail to mention the 4,743 lynchings that occurred in the United States from 1882-1968.
More markers cannot erase the evil which occurred, but they can help us to be less ignorant of the truth.

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Don’t let fear block your heart from love

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

“Take good care of yourself.” A common phrase with different implications, depending on the context. If we look further, the question becomes what is “the self” — which aspect of you needs attention, and how do you take care of it?
When it comes to physical health, for example, taking care of yourself may mean giving your body what it needs to be strong — making sure to exercise, eating healthy and getting the proper amount of rest and recuperation.
Taking care of yourself mentally entails avoiding negative thinking patterns, being patient with perceived shortcomings — not being too “hard on yourself” and choosing to stay away from toxic characters or activities.
There is an ongoing relationship, an interaction born of tension, whereby one part of us nurtures, neglects or harms another part.
William Faulkner, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, mentioned “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Jewish mystical teachings describe this inborn conflict in a broader context, not only as a split within the heart, but as a struggle between two distinct souls inside us, each vying for control over our consciousness, feelings and actions.
In this context, when speaking of a relationship with the “yourself,” the person can look at the godly soul inside with great pain and compassion, realizing how through ignorance or unwise decisions, the most powerful and sublime spark was dragged through the mud, roughed up and suffocated — the imposed environment of a personal exile and prickly path that, if understood properly, would never have been chosen, yet in the long run (after the fact) is paved with lessons and unique opportunities for redemption.
Imagine witnessing an innocent child, who you are entrusted to care for, being beaten up or treated unfairly. You feel sadness, anger and outrage. So too, many of the experiences and emotional traumas people endure, from the moment the soul is thrust into an unfamiliar setting, leave their mark. Much of our drive and ambition — even “standing up for yourself” — is a form of protecting that child inside us who carries memories of the psychological blows and cuts that parents, instructors, peers or the larger world has thrown over the years.
And so, we arrive at the most auspicious time of the Jewish year for repair and new and better beginnings. Superficially, the current buzz words of teshuvah (repentance) and kaparah (atonement) are all about wiping the slate clean, seeking forgiveness from people and from G-d. But, within the broader spiritual framework, these holidays are just as much about reaching a new level of thinking — how we view and relate to ourselves.
In developing our own self-awareness, we automatically discover habits that are totally unworthy of us or decisions that conflict with what we truly value. In this sense, honest introspection can be a tricky maze of memories and emotions. We must tread a fine line between being too frivolous and easily forgiving oneself, dismissing damaging actions with excuses, or holding oneself accountable — a cathartic regret that also allows for letting go afterward, without carrying along the shame or guilt.
The beautiful facet of teshuvah (literally “returning”) and this day of kaparah (“cleansing”) is that whenever you sincerely go through it, it’s done; it counts—even if there will be a relapse.
Yom Kippur is about reconnecting to ideals to fulfill our unique potential. But reconnecting requires change, an internal elevation and willpower. Change begins in the heart. The heart is naturally untamed, always running from place to place, one scene to another, wavering between holy and harmful attractions.
We face critical decisions throughout the day. The power to choose freely stems from a deep level of the soul, but there are two conscious emotions that make tough choices easier.
The mainstay of the “heart” — our emotions and character traits — begins with love and fear. Love drives you to move closer. Fear pulls you away. The natural undeveloped soul applies its power of love to physical pursuits and gratification. Likewise, fear manifests as fear of failure, financial loss, dreading social rejection and so forth.
Inside the rival soul, however, these same traits of love and fear are applied differently. Loves propels us to give, to do good. Fear (of consequences) keep us from doing something immoral or destructive, even when, in the moment, we are pulled toward it.
Throughout the Torah, cultivating these two main emotions in our relationship with G-d is stressed time and again. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your G-d ask of you? Only that you FEAR the Lord your G-d and LOVE Him (Devarim 10:12)”
The lowest level of fear is anticipation of the consequences — worrying about harm to oneself.
A higher fear is blended within the emotion of love — when you love something enough, you automatically are afraid to be separated from it. In spiritual terms, all sin separates—affecting our soul connection through the display of disloyalty.
Healthy fear, the antidote, comes from the awareness of G-d’s presence, wherein this consciousness creates humility and prevents rash decisions. A more sophisticated development in the emotion is when fear merges to become awe, the overwhelming sense of being minuscule within the face of a much grander force, a feeling that naturally inspires a healthy mix of regret, embarrassment and renewed loyalty — and we are in “the Days of Awe.”
In this era, where spiritual movements and philosophies are explored almost like a hobby or trend, there is plenty of love to go around. Fear, on the other hand, is often misunderstood, looked at as “old school,” or some primitive view of a punitive deity. But in Jewish view, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. (Psalms 111:10, Proverbs 9:10)”
This type of fear is not simply watching your back or wondering “what will happen to me?” It stems from an awareness of where we stand. Its taking that same natural emotion and directing it where it belongs: to the primary mover of the universe, the source of life.
In kabalistic terminology, fear and love are the two wings that lift us beyond the animal world. Embracing love without fear, or vice versa, the soul attempts to soar with only one wing.
The deeper accomplishment during these “Days of Awe” is removing the blockage over the heart and soul to reveal the latent love and fear. Being able to feel healthy emotions is itself a gift, but this gift only comes as a response to our toil during these times—through teshuvah (regret and resolve), tefillah (prayer and attachment), tzedakah (charity and community work)—determining the fruitfulness in all areas for the coming year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Apologies to those I’ve offended

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

“‘You are old, Father William,’ the young man said, ‘and your hair is exceedingly white. But yet you continue to stand on your head. Do you think at your age this is right?’”
These words are from “Alice in Wonderland.” I surely qualify as old at 84, and my hair goes with it. But I have never stood on my head in my whole long life (although once I was able to lie flat on my back and touch my toes to the floor behind my head).
Still, as we journey through these Ten Days of Teshuvah, I make the head-banging effort of making things right with those I have wronged during the past year. Our tradition tells us that T’filla – Tzedakah – and Teshuvah may avert the stern decree. The first is easy enough; I’ve been praying since Selichot. The second: I open my pocketbook as widely as I can. But the third is the hardest: there are so many deserving my apologies.
So I’m starting with a group shoutout to all of you who read me weekly: I know I‘ve written things that annoy you, that you don’t agree with or that sometimes (not too frequently, I hope) even offend. So although I cannot say I’m sorry for having written them – because part of a columnist’s calling is the hope that words will stimulate thoughts and reactions, both positive and negative – I do ask forgiveness for any mental discomfort I’ve caused. (Remember: I love to hear from those of you who disagree as well as those who don’t.)
There’s a little Rosh Hashanah ditty that used to be a staple song for Jewish preschoolers. Its words are wonderfully simple: “Let’s be friends and make amends. Now’s the time to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Take my hand and I’ll take yours – Let’s be friends for always.” I’ve always thought we adults can learn a lesson from this, the essence of these 10 penitential days, which — if we’re honest with ourselves — are never enough for all our necessary apologizing.
Myself, I wonder if it’s too late to apologize for errors of all kinds — not just in the past year, but far before that. It seems the older I get, the more my hair turns into that of Father William, the more I remember what I’m truly sorry for. And sometimes, it’s too late to offer a personal “I’m sorry.” But I think that may be part of what Kever Avot is for; when I visit the cemetery as the New Year approaches, I tell my sorry stories to those who no longer walk this earth, hoping that they can hear me anyway and forgive me.
It’s a rule of nature, a law of life: people who actively interact with others make mistakes and need to say they’re sorry. The only way to avoid Teshuvah is to have lived as a hermit for the past year without saying a word to anyone. But that has never been our Jewish way of life. We are a people, each one responsible in a very subtle but very true and vital way for every other. When we give money to our Federations, we’re helping to shoulder that responsibility. Example: Although we can’t personally apologize to every Israeli for our stateside disagreements with their country’s policies, our Tzdakah helps take care of their real, personal needs.
Well, the Ten Days are half gone already, and I still have a lot of apologizing to do, so I’d better get busy telling many other folks what I’m sorry for, and how sorry I am, and how I want to be connected – to hold hands like preschoolers and sing “let’s be friends for always.” I hope my conscience will be clear enough to stand with my congregation on Yom Kippur, as together we can ask God’s forgiveness because we’ve first obtained it from our fellows. May we all live long enough to apologize again next year.

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The difficult decisions to make in old age

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

I recently received a difficult but thoughtful post from a dear old friend in Chicago. It poses the kind of important decision all of us must face from time to time; hers has come at the time of the approaching New Year.
When I say “dear,” I mean we have been friends for 62-plus years. When I say “old,” I mean on the cusp of 90. Now, she is in an assisted living facility in that same city, fighting kidney disease. In her case, the body is weak, but the mind is strong. Very strong. And that’s her dilemma for Rosh Hashanah.
Friend Bobbie has two daughters — one in Pennsylvania, the other quite close to her in Chicago. The nearby one has Parkinson’s. She would now like to relocate to be closer to her sister and three nieces in the same area; she has a good husband and one daughter (but she is away at college) and is anticipating need for support for herself as her disease progresses. She herself has been her mother’s primary support for a long, long time, and she wants to take her mother along with her.
Bobbie is nothing if not a realist. “I’m really not wanting to move,” she writes, “and they all know that. My friends are all gone now. My daughter and son-in-law are all the family I have here, and I’m not strong enough to live without them nearby…too many runs to the ER. And it’s a toss of the coin now when I will go into end-stage 5 kidney failure.”
Dialysis would be the only thing to keep Bobbie alive at this point, and she doesn’t know yet if that’s even a possibility — or if she would even want it if it is. In a few days, the vascular surgeon will determine if her veins are strong enough to handle a fistula — and that would take up to three months of healing before it’s ready for use. “They could make an entry into my stomach,” she writes. “Then I could do my own dialysis at home every evening. But it may mean there’s already too much calcification for anything to be done. If so, I’ll be gone within a month.”
Her mind is still 100 percent, which she now calls both a strength and a curse. She hasn’t even said she’d want dialysis, given the advanced gravity of her disease. “I have to educate myself more on the subject to make an informed decision,” she says. “On the positive side, I still have some time ahead of me. But I’m physically feeling my age, and I’m fighting a kind of depression: I’d like not to have to think about this all the time, but that’s impossible, since everything I do is a constant reminder…”
My old friend Bobbie has never been a quitter. She’s faced some very difficult life situations — a sad divorce; an addicted son she’s had to cut entirely out of her life to ensure her own peace and safety. This current dilemma shows she isn’t quitting now. She’d like to live, but she doesn’t yet know if there’s much time left for living, or if the strain of a major move might take the greater part or all of it. That’s her reality.
The one thing she has never mentioned is wanting to die. Some in her position might wish for death, might even think suicide. Not Bobbie. But “This live-or-die stuff is getting to me,” she says. “It’s as though the Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head…” Yet her sign-off tells me she’s getting ready to go to her living facility’s Labor Day party!
What’s the best response to a post like that? “Shanah Tovah” certainly can’t be right. But I’ll send her what support I can over the miles as she makes the (perhaps final) decision(s) of her life. So I ask: Please add my friend to your own prayer lists. Debbie Friedman’s prescient words, “for renewal of (body and) spirit,” invoke the only thing possible now.

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Approach intermarried couples with welcome

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

In Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried’s column titled “Intermarriage breaks the chain of Judaism,” dated Aug. 16, Rodney, a Jewish man engaged to a Catholic woman, asked why marrying within the faith was so important. With all due respect to Rabbi Fried, I’d like to suggest an alternative way to approach this question.
Rabbi Fried begins by acknowledging that at this point in the couple’s relationship, there’s probably not much he could say that would change Rodney’s mind and points out that if Rodney’s parents had been more diligent about giving him a stronger Jewish foundation, Rodney wouldn’t even be asking this question. Perhaps that might have made some difference. Or not. I know parents who are doing their best every day to make Judaism a priority in their children’s lives and still have children who marry out of the faith. I also know families who raised their children in completely secular households, and those kids chose to become religiously observant later in life.
Rabbi Fried also argues that interfaith marriage significantly increases the risk of divorce and warns Rodney that “you are putting yourself at an extremely high risk of sacrificing your own happiness, as divorce can be one of the most devastating events ever experienced in one’s life.” Studies have shown that the divorce rate is, indeed, higher among interfaith marriages, but there are so many other factors involved as well. There are also major challenges that come from different levels of observance, even within the same religion. I fear that using this argument with an already-committed couple might only lead to defensive pushback. As the parent of three adult children, the “OK, go ahead and ruin your life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you” approach has never turned out well. I’m also wondering about interfaith families who raise their children as Jews. Are there divorce statistics on this group?
Rabbi Fried also declares that “our lineage through the matriarchs and patriarchs, coupled with our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, has elevated us and altered our spiritual makeup, making us different from the other nations forever.” I am afraid young adults raised in a world of inclusivity, one that is becoming an increasingly color-blind melting pot, one that is accepting of what all faiths and cultures can offer the world, will interpret this statement as touting our superiority over others and reject it outright.
Make no mistake, I believe that marrying within the faith is the ideal. And I do believe that raising a child in a home where both parents identify as Jewish does increase the probability that their children will follow suit. But it’s certainly not a given. Unless one is raised in an ultra-Orthodox community, there is an ever-increasing chance that our kids will meet and marry someone of a different religion, race or gender identity.
So perhaps there is another way to approach this issue other than saying, as Rabbi Fried does, “By intermarrying, with one fell swoop you detach yourself as a link in that holy chain and sever your future generations from being part of that timeless legacy.” Because that’s a pretty heavy load to carry, and experience has taught me that many just don’t want the weight of that burden. Not to mention the fact that this dire outcome is not always the case. There is plenty of good research on interfaith couples that shows how people in such marriages continue to feel deeply connected to their tradition and pass it on to their children, especially if we support their efforts to do so and welcome them into our homes and congregations.
So, here’s what I might say to Rodney and his fiancée: I would also acknowledge, as Rabbi Fried did, that guilt about the grandparents turning in their graves is not a helpful or compelling argument. I would argue that we are generationally connected through history, culture, ideals, faith and a practice and belief system that have sustained us and that has stood the test of time. I believe that the Torah was given to us to help show us how to navigate the broken world that we live in, has helped us sustain our longevity and given us a love of learning and scholarship that has led us to success in a number of fields. I also believe that there is an inherent familiarity we feel when we meet other Jews, an unspoken commonality that we share.
Like Rabbi Fried, I would also discourage Rodney from letting his future children choose “who they want to be” faith-wise, as I also believe that it is can be confusing and stressful. But I would also point out that if Rodney comes from a Reform background, his child would be considered Jewish if either parent were Jewish, as long as the child is raised in a Jewish home. So, if Rodney’s fiancée is comfortable with it, I would recommend them both taking an intro to Judaism class to learn about the beauty and complexity of our religion.
Who knows? It might just lead them to decide that they want to pass this rich heritage on to their future children, whether or not the fiancée chooses to convert. We have many interfaith families in our synagogue who are actively involved in our community. They have raised children who are strongly identified as Jewish, have had b’nai mitzvah, go to Jewish camps and are involved in Jewish youth groups. The non-Jewish partners have been completely supportive, and it’s been very important to our congregation that we are, in turn, welcoming and supportive of them.
I believe that we have to acknowledge the reality that our children are living in an increasingly interconnected, multicultural, diverse society, where interfaith, interracial and same-sex marriage is becoming normative. And some of the reasons Rabbi Fried offered for choosing a Jewish partner may not resonate strongly or be meaningful enough to this generation. Learning how to embrace those who intermarry and make their families part of the community is, in my opinion, the best way to help hold the links in our spiritual chain together.

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Growth-mindedness does have its risks

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

I’d like to share with you a response I received to my last column.
Dear Rabbi Robkin,
I read your article regarding Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s dichotomy of having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset.” Your article describes the fixed mindset in man as one who “places artificial limits and avoids failure,” whereas the growth mindset generally “thinks big, exhibits more positive effort, and experiences less helplessness.”
You then described an experiment where Apple executive Scott Forstall nurtured a group of growth-minded individuals within a company think tank. These individuals were predisposed toward risk taking in order to fulfill Forstall’s charge to “do something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.” And it was these members who ultimately created the iPhone.
You then challenged us readers to adopt a growth mindset in preparation for the High Holidays so that we might break out of our adopted molds and grow to our potential.
I have several problems with this piece, but let’s start with the “experiment.” I am skeptical of the true risk taken by the company. Apple wasn’t the trillion-dollar behemoth that it later became, but it did have capital. This think tank may have been a risk, but I imagine the true risk was not for the company. The risk was taken on by the individuals within the think tank, some of whose ideas might not have panned out. Mr. Forstall does not let us know whose proposals were rejected, who left the company and who was fired.
Growth-minded individuals, who, as you say, are less risk-averse, sometimes succeed. We see this throughout history. There’s a reason that we discovered the western hemisphere, visited the moon and, yes, invented the iPhone.
And then there are the failures that are too many to name. They jumped off the Eiffel Tower with strap-on wings, explored the Antarctic, climbed Mount Everest and died. They lost their money in risky stock purchases. They put all of their funding into developing a car and lost it all. They flew to Hollywood to start a career in acting and ended up addicted or in debt. Society as a whole is not impacted by these failures. Collectively, we may even benefit from them, learning what not to do and moving on from there. But for the majority of the growth-minded, the results of risk taking are not as rosy as we’d like to make out.
Then there are the success stories, like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Christopher Columbus, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Howard Hughes, Thomas Edison, Harvey Weinstein and, well, Donald Trump. These people are successes. There is no doubt about it. They are also highly controversial figures. There is a consequence to beating the odds. You develop an ego, take more risks and build up casualties. You may be fine, but you may leave a trail of misery in your wake.
I think there is something to be said for having checks to unbridled growth. There is a difference between fear of failure and avoidance of risk. The fixed mindset as laid out in your article may not build trillion-dollar companies, but it will have a better chance at maintaining that company. The fixed mindset may make a lousy firefighter or cop, but it will make a great breadwinner and family member. Growth with balance is the key. We have a word for unchecked growth in the medical world — it’s called cancer.
As always, it was a pleasure reading your article and your insights. I look forward to your next column.
Sincerely,
Dr. Shimshon Kaplan
Cleveland, Ohio

I accept Dr. Kaplan’s assertion that unbridled and unchecked growth-mindedness has its drawbacks and risks, and I equally concur that fixed-mindedness is an underappreciated asset with considerable value to both the individual and society at large. I would only add that, even as the examples in my article are secular in nature (from both psychology and business), leaving room for Dr. Kaplan’s compelling counter-examples, the aggressive growth-mindedness I am endorsing is specifically the spiritual kind.
To this extent, consider this mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2:7) which discusses excess and, by extension, the topic of growth-mindedness.
“One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry… one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases manservants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace.”
The mishnah is juxtaposing the acquisition of physical goods and pleasures with the acquisition of their spiritual counterparts. And whereas exorbitant physical indulgences and their associated drives come with an exhaustive laundry list of detrimental personal costs, the same cannot be said of an ever-growing spiritual ambition and arsenal. Rather, “One who increases Torah, increases life.”
All that said, growth-mindedness in spirituality isn’t without its risks. To be open to growth is to be open to personal experimentation, and experimentation isn’t a one-way street. A common fear that I hear from outreach professionals like myself is that as quickly as a student can experiment themselves into Judaism and observance, they can experiment themselves out. And so we cling to the hope that our students will be growth-minded in their personal receptiveness to positive change, but fixed-minded enough to remain steadfast in their newfound commitments. A tall order indeed.
How beautiful, then, is the imagery of Torah as a tree of life. For a living tree grows and flourishes over time, while its roots, dug deep in the ground, serve as a resolute anchor, holding its fixed position in place and guarding it from the mighty winds that would uproot it. And so it is in Torah. We must always be growth-minded, adding new layers and fresh dimensions to our life’s spiritual edifice, and at the same time, we must be fixed-minded, establishing sacred anchors that keep our course straight and guard us from destroying all that we have built. Growth paired with stability. Two necessary components for the spiritual life.

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Rosh Hashanah goals 2018/5779

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
As the High Holidays are approaching, I have this feeling in my gut that it’s going to be like previous years that I’m not really sure what to be thinking about. I’m a very goal-oriented person, and my problem with the holidays is that I don’t really have any set goal to accomplish during this period, and all my training in business school didn’t teach me how to set goals for Rosh Hashana. Can you please help me?
Flustered
Dear Flustered,
The truth is, without knowing you and what you need spiritually, it’s difficult to help you set your goals, since each person connects in a different way to these special days. However, I’ve been thinking about some ideas that would apply to everyone, and perhaps these thoughts will help guide you.
R’ Moses Maimonides, the classical Jewish scholar and philosopher, writes a powerful message for the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Every individual should view him- or herself as if they are in balance, with equal merits and demerits. Thus, one should view the city and country they live in, that it is a similar balance, exactly half and half. Similarly, he or she should view the entire world, that the scale measuring all the world’s merits and demerits is balanced in the middle. Therefore, writes R’ Maimonides, one action done by the individual can tip the scale for themselves, their city, country, and the entire world, for the good, or the opposite.
This is a very powerful message, one that should impress upon us the truly awesome significance of our every action, and how much each individual counts and can make a difference in the eyes of God. We are not insignificant specks of dust among billions of other inhabitants of earth, but any one of us could be the one that will tip the balance and affect God’s judgment of the world for the upcoming year.
A cursory glance at world events shows us how much the world, especially the Jewish world, is hanging in balance this coming year. Anti-Semitism runs rampant in Europe, which, in the words of Simon Wiesenthal, equals that of the days of Nazi Germany preceding the war. The United Nations and international courts spend their days passing judgments against the State of Israel, outlawing her basic right to defend herself from acts unprecedented in the history of man. We stand before a judgment, an election, which very well may affect the future of Israel and, consequently, all of world Jewry. Israel is surrounded by enemies, especially Iran, which is tightening the noose around us. This is a year in which we are in need of much Heavenly mercy to pass through safely.
The message of R’ Maimonides is that we can all make a difference and provides for all of us a goal to accomplish during the High Holiday season. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the days to make positive Jewish New Year’s resolutions, to take a step towards our relationships with God. What that resolution is, is very individual and depends where you personally stand in that relationship and what is needed to enhance it. To study more Torah is always in place; that will open doors to understanding what practices there are.
Whatever positive step you take, hopefully that will be the one which will evoke the mercy of Heaven to bless the Jewish people and the entire world with a sweet New Year. May it be a New Year of peace, tranquility, prosperity and Jewish growth for you and all the readers.

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A guide to High Holiday apologies and forgiveness

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
The month of Elul is a time for reflection, and then we celebrate Rosh Hashanah joyously. Then the Ten Days of Repentance are upon us, and we must think about the challenges of forgiveness.
Often, we make a blanket apology such as, “If I have done anything to hurt you in the past year, please forgive me.” For those “sins/hurts” that we did not knowing, this works, but what if we have hurt someone? Apologies are hard.
I found an article on www.myjewishlearning.com with advice from Everett L. Worthington Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University. He gives this handy acronym to remember the steps of a request for forgiveness:
C — Confess without excuse. Be specific about what you’re sorry for (“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary”). Do not offer any kind of excuse. Do not let the word “but” come out of your mouth.
O — Offer an apology that gets across the idea that you’re sorry, and that you don’t want to do it again. Be sincere and articulate.
N — Note the other person’s pain. Acknowledge that your actions were hurtful.
F — Forever value. Explain that you value your relationship and you want to restore it more than you want to hang on to your pride.
E — Equalize. Offer retribution. Ask how you can make it up to the person.
S — Say “never again.” Promise that you won’t do it again (and mean it).
S — Seek forgiveness. Ask the other person directly, “Can you forgive me?”
This is a great model. Worthington goes on to say how people might respond to requests for forgiveness:
1. Yes, I forgive you.
2. I need more time.
3. I can make a decision to forgive you, but I’m still very hurt.
4. No, there’s nothing you can do to ever make it right. I don’t forgive you.
This is a challenging thing to do, but the steps are clear-cut. Maimonides goes further, saying that if someone turns you down, you should go back a second and third time. However, if they are still unwilling to forgive, you are considered to have atoned, even if forgiveness hasn’t been granted.
Remember also, if you are on the other side — being asked to forgive — often forgiving is as important to you as to the one who hurt you. We need to let the pain go for our own healing. Ideally, we should not be hurtful but that is not always in our control. However, it would be best not to wait for Yom Kippur to apologize.
Shalom from the Shabbat Lady.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Mourning a pet Jewishly is a controversial topic

Posted on 29 August 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
People often ask where I get ideas to write about, and that is a good question.
I must get between 6 and 10 newsletters, blogs and other “interesting stuff” daily. Some is interesting, and some I read quickly and delete. Sometimes, if I just find something that makes me wonder and I am hoping it answers questions you may have — it’s often those questions that start with, “What do Jews think about…?”
So, this comes from
myjewishlearning.com this past week: Judaism and Pets. We have a dog getting on in years who has been struggling with health issues this summer. Just as we have talked about and made plans (a will, a cemetery plot) for ourselves, what should we think about for our pets? Here are three interesting excerpts from the article (abbreviated):
Are there any Jewish rituals for mourning a pet?
The idea of mourning a pet in the way one mourns a relative is deeply controversial, with authorities from even the liberal Reform movement maintaining that reciting Kaddish or performing a Jewish burial rite for a pet is inconsistent with Jewish tradition. In a 1984 responsum, Reform Rabbi Walter Jacob wrote that it would be wrong to recite the Kaddish prayer for a deceased pet — not due to any explicit violation of Jewish law, but because of propriety.
“We should not use a prayer which is dear to the heart of every Jew to commemorate a dead animal,” Jacob wrote. A separate Reform responsum rejected burying a pet in a Jewish cemetery, again not citing any explicit legal precedent, but rather asserting that “the whole mood of tradition” counsels against it.
Can I euthanize my pet?
Jewish law prohibits cruelty to animals, but does not prohibit killing them. Virtually all Jewish authorities agree that euthanizing an animal that is suffering is permitted. In Man and Beast: Our Relationships with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought, Rabbi Natan Slifkin writes: “According to some authorities there is no restriction on killing animals, provided that one kills them in a painless manner. However, it seems that all would agree that if an animal is suffering, it is permissible to kill it in order to put it out of its misery.”
Do pets (and other animals) have souls?
Both the Midrash and Maimonides reject the idea that animals have an afterlife in the world to come, the implication being that they do not possess the higher immortal soul of human beings. However, the Jewish mystical tradition associated with Rabbi Isaac Luria believes in the transmigration of souls between humans and animals. A human soul that requires further rectification could be reincarnated in the body of an animal. For this reason, Hasidic Jews historically were often exceedingly careful about the kosher slaughter of animals for fear they might house the souls of repentant sinners.
Does hearing “answers” to Jewish questions mean you must follow the advice? Yes and no — we are often told that if we don’t want to follow advice, don’t ask. We may go for second opinions with doctors and the same is true for rabbis. However, remember that it is not about “rabbi shopping” — asking until you find someone who will agree with you. It is about hearing perspectives and ideas and then making a decision. For me, hearing a Jewish perspective is always helpful and when the day comes for our dog, this advice is helpful. Yet, it is never easy.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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