Monday, September 27, 2010


Try to imagine a world without mystery

a world where everything is explained to our reason’s satisfaction--

or will be soon, if not in our lifetime, then our children’s

or our children’s children’s for sure

Try to imagine a world without the Question of Questions

where every question, from trivial to perennial,  has its answer--

if only you find the right person or formula

if only you are diligent enough, patient enough

Try to imagine a world in which only you are moving

journeying among fixed points and planes and angles

seeking the perfect place to rest

forever, your hands and feet nailed in place

Then wake up from your nightmares

shake off the death chill

and taste how sweet the Unknowing

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Name and the Names of God

There is a Jewish practice and a Muslim practice of naming God that together teach us a deep truth about the One.
Jews carry the tradition of the Name that cannot be spoken.  It is the name the high priest once spoke once a year, on Yom Kippur, in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, as he was pleading for God to draw near in mercy.  After the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the pronunciation of the Name was lost.  Only the letters remain, Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh.  These four, the Tetragrammaton, stand as mute witness to the Ineffability of God, the Unity of God that transcends all thought and speech and calls into question all our thought and speech about God.  In daily practice Jews have two ways of  remembering this pointer to the Ineffability of God.  When the letters Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh appear in the Torah, we say “Adonai,” Lord—at once giving God a name while remembering that we do not possess the Name of God.  When one wants to refer to God in daily speech, to thank or bless or reflect on the One, one says “HaShem, “the Name.” The startling paradox of naming God “The Name” is a potent reminder that we do not have power over the One, nor can we limit the Limitless One (the Ein Sof of the Kabbalists). for to name is to limit, saying, You have these qualities and not others; you have this aspect of being and not others. The practice of The Name focuses our attention on the Light Beyond, that light in which we see light
Muslims carry the tradition of the 99 beautiful names, based on the Qur’an. 
"He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, The Fashioner, to Him belong the most beautiful names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, do declare His praises and glory. And He is the Exalted in Might, The Wise. (Qur’an 59:24)
"The most beautiful names belong to God: so call on Him by them;..." (7:180)
The beauty and truth of this tradition is the invitation to all people to call upon the One by the many names, names that do two things simultaneously: point us to the complexity and omnipresence of God, which requires the use of many names rather than a single name; and focus our attention on particular attributes or qualities of the One as they relate to our personal experience in the moment. Again, as with the Jewish practice of the Name, the Islamic practice of the 99 beautiful names embodies a paradox: speaking one or two of the beautiful names while aware that these names are only one of the ways to speak of or name God’s presence.  Thus, the practice of the 99 names keeps before one the transcendence of the One beyond all names, the inability to contain the One in a single name, while offering the faithful a way to approach the Limitless through the qualities of the One as they are refracted in the world, the One light, appearing in many colors through the prism of the world. 
Sufis chant these names in varying combinations during communal dhikr, the remembrance of God, and individual retreats.  All Muslims use these names in their daily devotion to pull their hearts toward the One in the way that they need at that moment.  One woman may call upon Al-Azeez, the Undefeated, while another meditates on Al-Wahhaab, the Bestower. One man may call upon Ar-Rahmaan, the Compassionate, while another may remember the One as Al-Fattah, the Opener, or Al-Sabur, the Patient.  One year a person may draw near to the One as Al-Kareem, the Generous One, another year as Al- Haseeb, the Reckoner. The practice is a celebration of the limitless ways the One is present among us and of the compassion of the One in drawing near to us in the way that our spirit uniquely needs. 
The names of the One are not limited to 99.  There are slight variations in the lists from one tradition and theologian to the next, but here is one version:
  1. Allah
    • Allah, He who has the Godhood which is the power to create the entities.
  2. Ar-Rahmaan
    • The Compassionate, The Beneficent, The One abundant in mercy for the believers and the blasphemers in this world
  3. Ar-Raheem
    • The Merciful, The One who has plenty of mercy for the believers
  4. Al-Malik
    • The King, The Sovereign Lord, The One with the complete Dominion, the One Whose Dominion is free from imperfection
  5. Al-Quddoos
    • The Holy, The One who is pure from any imperfection and clear from children and adversaries.
  6. As-Salaam
    • The Source of Peace, The One who is free from every imperfection
  7. Al-Mu'min
    • Guardian of Faith
  8. Al-Muhaimin
    • The Protector, The One who witnesses the saying and deeds of His creatures.
  9. Al-^Azeez
    • The Mighty, The Strong, The Defeater who is not defeated
  10. Al-Jabbaar
    • The Compeller, The One that nothing happens in His Dominion except that which He willed
  11. Al-Mutakabbir
    • The Majestic, The One who is clear from the attributes of the creatures and from resembling them
  12. Al-Khaaliq
    • The Creator, The One who brings everything from non-existence to existence
  13. Al-Bari'
    • The Evolver, The Maker, The Creator who has the Power to turn the entities
  14. Al-Musawwir
    • The Fashioner, The One who forms His creatures in different pictures
  15. Al-Ghaffaar
    • The Great Forgiver, The Forgiver, The One who forgives the sins of His slaves time and time again
  16. Al-Qahhaar
    • The Subduer, The Dominant, The One who has the perfect Power and is not unable over anything
  17. Al-Wahhaab
    • The Bestower, The One who is Generous in giving plenty without any return
  18. Al-Razzaaq
    • The Sustainer, The Provider.
  19. Al-Fattaah
    • The Opener, The Reliever, The Judge, The One who opens for His slaves the closed worldy and religious matters.
  20. Al-^Aleem
    • The All-knowing, The Knowledgeable; The One nothing is absent from His knowledge.
  21. Al-Qaabid
    • The Constrictor, The Retainer, The Withholder, The One who constricts the sustenance by His wisdom and expands and widens it with His Generosity and Mercy
  22. Al-Baasit
    • The Expander, The Enlarger, The One who constricts the sustenance by His wisdom and expands and widens it with His Generosity and Mercy
  23. Al-Khaafid
    • The Abaser, The One who lowers whomever He wills by His Destruction and raises whomever He wills by His Endowment
  24. Ar-Raafi^
    • The Exalter, The Elevator
  25. Al-Mu^iz
    • The Honorer
  26. Al-Muthil
    • The Dishonorer, The Humiliator
  27. As-Samee^
    • The All-Hearing, The Hearer
  28. Al-Baseer
    • The All-Seeing
  29. Al-Hakam
    • The Judge, He is the Ruler and His judgment is His Word
  30. Al-^Adl
    • The Just, The One who is entitled to do what He does
  31. Al-Lateef
    • The Subtle One, The Gracious
  32. Al-Khabeer
    • The Aware, The One who knows the truth of things.
  33. Al-Haleem
    • The Forebearing, The Clement
  34. Al-^Azeem
    • The Great One, The Mighty, The Perfection
  35. Al-Ghafoor
    • The All-Forgiving, The Forgiving
  36. Ash-Shakoor
    • The Grateful, The Appreciative
  37. Al-^Aliyy
    • The Most High, The Sublime
  38. Al-Kabeer
    • The Most Great, The Great
  39. Al-Hafeez
    • The Preserver, The Protector
  40. Al-Muqeet
    • The Maintainer, The Guardian, The Feeder, The Sustainer
  41. Al-Haseeb
    • The Reckoner
  42. Aj-Jaleel
    • The Sublime One, The Beneficent
  43. Al-Kareem
    • The Generous One, The Bountiful, The Gracious
  44. Ar-Raqeeb
    • The Watcher, The Watchful, The One that nothing is absent from Him
  45. Al-Mujeeb
    • The Responsive, The Hearkener
  46. Al-Wasi^
    • The Vast, The All-Embracing, The Knowledgeable
  47. Al-Hakeem
    • The Wise, The Judge of Judges, The One who is correct in His doings
  48. Al-Wadood
    • The Loving
  49. Al-Majeed
    • The Most Glorious One, The Glorious, The One who is with perfect Power, High Status, Compassion, Generosity and Kindness
  50. Al-Ba^ith
    • The Resurrector, The Raiser (from death)
  51. Ash-Shaheed
    • The Witness, The One who nothing is absent from Him
  52. Al-Haqq
    • The Truth, The True, The One who truly exists
  53. Al-Wakeel
    • The Trustee, The One who gives the satisfaction and is relied upon
  54. Al-Qawiyy
    • The Most Strong, The Strong, The One with the complete Power
  55. Al-Mateen
    • The Firm One
  56. Al-Waliyy
    • The Protecting Friend, The Supporter.
  57. Al-Hameed
    • The Praiseworthy
  58. Al-Muhsee
    • The Counter, The Reckoner
  59. Al-Mubdi'
    • The Originator
  60. Al-Mu^eed
    • The Reproducer, The One who brings back the creatures after death
  61. Al-Muhyi
    • The Restorer, The Giver of Life
  62. Al-Mumeet
    • The Creator of Death, The Destroyer, The One who renders the living dead
  63. Al-Hayy
    • The Alive
  64. Al-Qayyoom
    • The Self-Subsisting, The One who remains and does not end.
  65. Al-Waajid
    • The Perceiver, The Finder, The Rich who is never poor
  66. Al-Waahid
    • The Unique, The One, The One without a partner
  67. Al-Ahad
    • The One.
  68. As-Samad
    • The Eternal, The Independent, The Master who is relied upon in matters and reverted to in one’s needs
  69. Al-Qaadir
    • The Able, The Capable
  70. Al-Muqtadir
    • The Powerful, The Dominant, The One with the perfect Power that nothing is withheld from Him
  71. Al-Muqaddim
    • The Expediter, The Promoter, The One who puts things in their right places
  72. Al-Mu'akh-khir
    • The Delayer, the Retarder, The One who puts things in their right places
  73. Al-'Awwal
    • The First, The One whose Existence is without a beginning
  74. Al-'Akhir
    • The Last, The One whose Existence is without an end
  75. Az-Zaahir
    • The Manifest, The One whom nothing is above and nothing is underneath
  76. Al-Baatin
    • The Hidden
  77. Al-Walee
    • The Governor
  78. Al-Muta^ali
    • The Most Exalted, The High Exalted, The One who is free from the attributes of the creation
  79. Al-Barr
    • The Source of All Goodness, The Righteous, The One who is kind to His creatures, who covers them with His sustenance and specifies whomever He wills among them by His support, protection, and special mercy
  80. At-Tawwaab
    • The Acceptor of Repentance, The Relenting
  81. Al-Muntaqim
    • The Avenger, The One who victoriously prevails over His enemies and punishes them for their sins
  82. Al-^Afuww
    • The Pardoner, The Forgiver, The One with wide forgiveness
  83. Ar-Ra'uf
    • The Compassionate, The One with extreme Mercy
  84. Malik Al-Mulk
    • The Eternal Owner of Sovereignty
  85. Thul-Jalali wal-Ikram
    • The Lord of Majesty and Bounty
  86. Al-Muqsit
    • The Equitable, The One who is Just in His judgment.
  87. Aj-Jaami^
    • The Gatherer, The One who gathers the creatures on  the Day of Judgment
  88. Al-Ghaniyy
    • The Self-Sufficient
  89. Al-Mughni
    • The Enricher, The One who satisfies the necessities of the creatures
  90. Al-Maani^
    • The Preventer, The Withholder
  91. Ad-Daarr
    • The Distresser, The One who makes harm reach to whomever He wills and benefit to whomever He wills
  92. An-Nafi^
    • The Propitious, The One who makes harm reach to whomever He wills and benefit to whomever He wills
  93. An-Noor
    • The Light
  94. Al-Haadi
    • The Guide
  95. Al-Badi^
    • The Incomparable, The One who created the creation and formed it without any precedent or example
  96. Al-Baaqi
    • The Everlasting, The One for whom the state of non-existence is impossible
  97. Al-Waarith
    • The Supreme Inheritor, The Heir, The One whose Existence remains
  98. Ar-Rasheed
    • The Guide to the Right Path, The One who guides
  99. As-Saboor
    • The Patient, The One who does not quickly punish the sinners.
The Name and the 99 names--both practices are powerful and life-giving.  We might be tempted to say that the Jewish practice of the Name points us more toward the transcendence of the One, the Islamic practice points us more toward the immanence.  This is misleading, for it ignores the wide variety of names for God in Jewish prayer—Father, Shepherd, Judge, Lover, King, Compassionate One, The Patient One, Bestower of Gifts Resurrector--and it ignores the many names in the list of 99 that point specifically to the One’s transcendence—Al-Muta-ali, Al-Haqq, Al-Ghaniyy, Al-Baaqi.  Both the Jewish and the Muslim traditions point to the transcendence and immanence of God equally.  This is a graceful balancing act both traditions have mastered: when pointing to the transcendence of the One, never to be far from the glories of the One’s immanence; and when pointing to the manifold glories of God’s presence in the world, never to forget that the One exists beyond all human limitation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

After the Intensity, What? God in the Doldrums

For Jews, the Days of Awe have ended.  For Moslems, Ramadan has ended.  For Christians, we are in the long flat time between Easter and Christmas.  When our rituals and practices of prayer and fasting focus our hearts and minds on drawing near to God, it may be easier for us to remember God and “know before Whom we stand.”  But what about when those strong winds of community and tradition abate and we are left in the daily round of life.  We still have our weekly practices of services to blow us forward. We still have our daily practices of prayer and blessing. They keep gently moving us  forward.  And yet, we feel—after the freshening winds of that intense concentration on God—the dull and deadening affect of ordinary life.  We get caught up in the distractions and demands around us and—it seems--we stop moving toward the One. 

How to recapture that intensity of communion and purpose in our daily lives of “ordinary” time?  The early Hasids offer help.  Try to keep before you at all times the unity of the One, which means God is present everywhere and there is nowhere where God is not.  One way to do this is to repeat to yourself through the day the words of the prophet Isaiah, ”The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (6:3).
As the Baal Shem Tov teaches:
We say, “Here O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
     When we say that “the Lord is One,” we mean that nothing other than God exists in all the universe.  It is thus written, “The Whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
     The main idea here is that a person should consider himself like absolutely nothing.  He should realize that he has no essence other than his divine soul, and that this is a “portion of God from on high.”  Therefore, nothing exists in the world except the absolute Unity which is God.
     The main idea of this unity is that “the whole earth is filled with His glory.”  There is therefore absolutely nothing that is devoid of God’s essence.  (The Light Beyond, ed. Aryeh Kaplan, p. 37).
And also:
God is present in every movement.  It is impossible to make any move or speak any word without God’s power.  This is the meaning of the verse,”The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Is. 6:3). Kether Shem Tov 273 (The Light Beyond, ed. Aryeh Kaplan, p. 42).
And this:
     It is written, “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Is. 6:3). This means that even the physical world is one of God’s garments.  The verse therefore says that “the whole earth is felled with God’s glory”—even the physical.  “Glory” alludes to a garment.  Likutim Yekarim 17c. (The Light Beyond, ed. Aryeh Kaplan, p. 43).
What would our days be like, our lives be like,  if at every moment, in every circumstance, in every situation, with every movement we made and every person and creature and place we encountered—on the bus, stuck in traffic, arguing with a friend, holding our babies, sweating after a run, cooking dinner, watching clouds drift by—we said to ourselves, “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory”  and saw through these the garments of the One? 
Try it for a day.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Final Note

The twenty-four things that hinder teshuvah are to be taken with great seriousness.  Our self-examination must know no bounds.  And yet.  And yet the rabbis (ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary) always sound clearly the ground note of Torah: God is the Father of Compassion, the Womb of Mercy, who throws “the banner of love over us,” receives us in love.   As Maimonides says:
“Yet all these sins and those like them, despite the fact that they hinder teshuvah, do not altogether prevent it.   For if a person sincerely does teshuvah and turns from his or her sins, that person is considered penitent and has a share in the world to come.” Hilkhot Teshuvah IV.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Twenty-Four Things That Hinder Teshuvah

As we  approach Yom Kippur and the communal repetitions of our litanies of confession, the Vidui and the Al Chet, it is good to deepen the self-examination we have been practicing throughout Elul and the Days of Awe. One way to do this is by taking to heart some of the rabbis’ “Twenty-Four Things That Hinder Teshuvah.” Of these, four are great sins, five close teshuvah in the face of the sinner,  five prevent a person from turning in complete teshuvah, and five are sins toward which the sinner will always be drawn and will find it hard to leave off.

There is one more set and it is this set of five I want to focus on: the “sins for which the sinner may be assumed not to do teshuvah, because they are trivial in the eyes of most [people].  The result is that the sinner imagines she or he has committed no sin.” (See translation and full text in  S.Y. Agnon, The Days of Awe, pp. 111-115.)   Meditating on these may help us enter the public, communal confessions in new ways.  Who are these “trivial” sinners who sin by imagining they have not sinned? We might call these sins sins by way of abusing the imagination.

1. One who eats a meal where there is not enough for the host; this act is a minor form of theft. The guest imagines that he has not sinned, and says to oneself, But I ate with the host’s permission. [This applies to more than food.  But she said it was fine for me to..]

2. One who makes use of a poor person’s pledge, which may be merely an ax or a plow.  The borrower will generally say in her or his heart, They have not lost their value.  Why, I have stolen nothing from that person!  [This applies to more than tools.]

3.  One who looks at a person they may not marry and imagines to themself that they have done nothing wrong.  For they say, Did I lie with her/him, or even come near her/him?  They do not know that even eying a man or woman lustfully is a serious iniquity, for it leads to the act of lust itself, as it is said, “and that ye do not about after your own heart and your own eyes.” (Numb. 15:39)

4. One who tries to gain honor through disparaging another.  They say in their heart that what they have done is not a sin, since the other person was not there at the time, and could not suffer from any shame.  Moreover, they think that they only contrasted their own good deeds and wisdom with the deeds and lack of wisdom of their fellow human being, so that people might gather that they were to be honored and the other to be despised.

5. One who is suspicious of innocent people says in their heart, I am committing no sin, because (they say), What harm have I done to that person?  I only suspect them; perhaps they are guilty, and perhaps they are not.  This person does not realize that thinking of an innocent person as a possible transgressor is an iniquity.

May our self-flattering imaginations not lead us astray as we complete the Days of Awe and teshuvah.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Can We Forgive Ourselves?

I once left someone I had loved and promised to love forever.  The pain I had caused him was almost unbearable--for me as well as him.  I asked him to forgive me.   He refused.  He was deeply, deeply wounded.  And it was I who had harmed him.  The responsibility for his suffering weighed on me.  Without forgiveness, it would crush me.    When it became clear he would not forgive me,  I wrote to him, “If you will not forgive me will have to find a way to forgive myself.” His reply, “No one can forgive themselves.  Only God can forgive.”

This experience has stirred questions in me for over a quarter of a century.   I realize now that I should not have asked him so soon for forgiveness. As Hazrat Inayat Kahn teaches, “Don’t ask anyone for something they cannot give.”   He was not ready.  And at that moment I wanted his forgiveness inauthentically,  more as a balm for my suffering than as a genuine reconciliation or at-one-ment.

I believe he thought I leaped to forgiving myself as an easy way out of responsibility and guilt, a cheap “grace” I doled out to myself like a cheap little god. As if to say--with a narcissistic ego that does not see the harm it does to others,  with a cold heart that does not vibrate to the suffering others’ hearts--“Well, I did it and it’s over and I just have to let it go and move on.”  Just like that. 

That’s not what I meant or experienced. I trusted that in time, God’s time, The Father of Mercies would forgive me, the Womb of Compassion would enfold me.  But meanwhile, my experience of God was bound up with all my other relationships.   If one is torn or crooked, all suffer.  In a spider web, with God at the center weaving and adhering the edges into a perfect pattern perfectly fitting the surrounding space, even one broken filament mars the whole, one small cut makes the whole web tremble.  I felt that my being would remain torn by this relationship in which someone I had loved and hurt went through life angry at me and refusing me his forgiveness.   Without the person’s forgiveness, I felt I would never be whole.

What good was it to me that my tradition made it clear, as many do, that if a person who is asked for forgiveness refuses, he or she is in the wrong?  It was not a matter of right or wrong, who bare the greater responsibility, when I had discharged my debt and fulfilled my obligation—though that, too, was important.  It was a matter of feeling at one in the world.

To feel at one, I had to forgive myself.  Meaning, I had to stop judging myself in a way that crushed my spirit, killed its hope for transformation, of my self and  of this relationship gone awry.  I had to stop playing the part of the all-knowing god who saw what I had “really” done and what the irreparable consequences “really” were. And I had to stop depending absolutely on the forgiveness of another person for my sense of wholeness, attunement with the One.  The quality of every relationship we have affects our relationship to the One, but no one relationship has the power to blot out or block our relationship to the Whole.  That is what I needed to see.  This very large rupture in my life, as real and painful as it was, was not able to destroy my relationship with the One or prevent me from moving toward wholeness—unless I let it.  If I let it, I would be causing more harm.  I had to accept that I had caused this harm, that the other person adamantly refused my repentance, and that I was still on the way toward wholeness

Paul Tillich, in his famous sermon, asks, “What is grace?”  His answer:  “Accept the fact that you are accepted.”   The One is already, always, moving toward us in wholeness, inviting us to move toward it. To be on the way toward wholeness does not relieve us of our need to make teshuvah, repentance.  It does free us from relying absolutely on the outcomes of our repentance and the forgiveness of other human beings.  We can still move toward wholeness, even as we hope and wait in patience for certain ruptures to be healed.  And on the way, we can rest in that Wholeness, the One, given to us.

This is what spiritual leaders, psychological counselors, and well-meaning friends are reminding us of when they say, “You have to forgive yourself.”  Not, “Take your acts of harm and neglect of others lightly. All that really matters is you.”  But, “Let nothing obstruct you on the path toward wholeness.  Receive the gift and promise of wholeness present now, a wholeness that is not of your making.”

In these ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, between the world created anew and the world made whole, we prepare to ask the One to forgive us.  We intensify the examination of our spirits.  We go to those we have harmed and ask for forgiveness.  We forgive those who ask to be forgiven by us.  These are both acts beautiful beyond compare.   And if, in spite of all your have done to repair a relationship, it remains torn, keep your heart open to the day it might be made whole, and in the meantime, rest in the wholeness of the One toward which we are all traveling.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Great Crime--Elul 29

Rabbi Bunam said to his hasidim:
"The sins which man commits--those are not his great crime.  Temptation is powerful and his strength is slight!  The great crime of man is that he can turn at every moment, and does not do so."

(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim II: 257)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Not Upon Our Merit"--Elul 28

In the daily siddur we pray:
Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love.  What are we?  What is our life?  What is our piety?  What is our righteousness?  What is our attainment, our power, our might?  What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors?  Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason.  For most of their actions are meaningless, the days of their lives emptiness.  Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion when all is seen as futility.

But we are Your people, partners of Your covenant...
This is the paradox we stand inside everyday, but with a greater sense of urgency during the Days of Awe.  It is there, between "We are nothing" and "We are Your people," that our prayers of petition, praise, and thanksgiving rise. There is no surer place to stand.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Purify Our Hearts to Serve You in Truth"--Elul 27

Once again, within the eight words of this prayer, we find the inner and the outer, the heart and the deed, bound together. Not prayer or tzedakah.  Not ritual or ethics.  Both prayer and tzedakah is our refrain.

Once again, in this brief prayer, we find the individual bound up in the communal "our." 

Once again, in these words, we hear a call to do heshbon ha nephesh, to take an honest look at ourselves before the Creator and True Judge of All and ask ourselves, Whom are we serving? And are we serving for recognition, for ego, or "in truth"?

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."  A lifetime would not be enough to plumb the wisdom of these eight words. 

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."  When all other words fail you, lean on these as your prayer and repeat them ceaselessly.

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."  When your mind wanders during services, bring it back to center, back into communion, with these words of beauty and holiness.

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Making Peace with the Dead--Elul 26

It is customary all through the month of Elul to visit the graves of one's ancestors and relatives.  I've often wondered about this custom.  I could understand the tzedakah part of it--distributing tzedakah to the poor who would congregate near the graveyard for this reason. But what were people actually doing when they fell on the graves making supplication? Were they asking God to overlook their sins for the sake of the merits of their ancestors?  Were they avoiding their responsibility as individuals by lumping themselves for judgment with their pious family, people in good standing?  If so, these theologically suspect practices were not to my liking at all.

Here's what I do understand:  We all carry conflict, hurt, alienation, resentment, fear, and other disturbing emotions toward others in our lives.  If we are blessed, we have an opportunity, or we make opportunities, to turn toward these others in love and forgiveness before it is too late.  That is one of the gifts of the Days of Awe--to make us aware of the urgency to do just this before the Gates of Healing close.

But what do we do if we have missed all those opportunities with a significant person in our life, and they have died?  Visit the grave, and take the opportunity you were not ready to take before.  Talk your heart out.  Make peace between you.  If you cannot visit the grave, have this conversation before a photograph of the person. If you do not have a photo, seclude yourself and sit across from an empty chair and start talking.  

The call to teshuvah, repentance, turning toward the other in love and forgiveness, transforming life into greater wholeness, is not limited; it encompasses all our relationships, with God and animals and the earth as well as humans, with the dead as well as the living. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Praying Selichot and All Prayers with Strength--Elul 25

Tonight near midnight Ashkenazim begin Selichot, reciting psalms and prayers that ask for forgiveness, selicha, in order to soften and awaken our hearts for the Days of Awe. Why midnight?  Because of David, who says of his practice, "At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto Thee because of Thy righteous ordinances" (Psalm 119:6). And also because by midnight the energy of our bodies has abated enough to allow us to concentrate more intently on matters of spirit. 

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's advice for how to pray is good advice for how to pray the penitential psalms and supplications during this midnight watch (and all during the Days of Awe services) so that we don't fall into rote recitation but let the words carry us beyond ourselves:

Rabbi Nachman admonished us strongly to put all our strength into the words of prayer.
     He said that a person must force himself a great deal when he prays.  A minority opinion holds that a person shouldn't force himself in prayer.  But this is not right--a person must force himself with all his strength when he prays.
     Rabbi Nachman also said that when a person prays with feeling--that is, when he connects his thoughts to the words, paying attention and listening to what he is saying--his strength is automatically drawn into the words of prayer.  This is because a person's strength automatically waits and looks to be drawn into holy words.
     When a person prays with feeling, all his powers are drawn into his prayer.  Then he prays with great strength, even though he isn't forcing himself.
(The Chambers of the Palace:  Teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ed. Y. David Shulman, 119-120)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Piety and the Scope of Tzedakah--Elul 24

Tzedakah is our obligation to act justly to those who are in need. Another way to think of those who are in need, beyond economic need, is to think of those who are vulnerable to injustice and thus bear a disproportionate burden of suffering in the world.  To all those we owe justice, and we can do justly in relation to them in many ways. 

We are accustomed to hearing that it is not enough to give money or food to those in need--those these, too, are good.  We are also to help them learn skills and gain the ability to support themselves.  Here's another way to do tzedakah:  become a vegetarian and/or join the hechsher-tzedek movement.  As Rabbi Morris Allen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Mendota Heights, MN and others have been teaching for years, and as recent news reports have confirmed, the kosher meat industry has engaged in unjust practices against its workers.  Just as rabbis in New York in the early twentieth century pronounced the matzot in Jewish factories treif because it had the blood of the hands of the underpaid and ill-treated women who made it in it, so contemporary rabbis are arguing that the unjust treatment of human beings in kosher meat plants renders the meat unfit for consumption.  They have formed the hechsher tzedek project to ensure that the foods Jews eat are not only ritually kosher but ethically kosher as well. For more information, read Rethinking Kashrut: An Interview with Rabbi Morris Allen.

In these last days of the month of turning and during the Days of Awe that end with a complete fast, let us think about tzedakah and the food we bless on our tables everyday. As the prophets continually remind us, ritual does not displace ethics; the two nourish each other.  The haftarah for Yom Kippur, Isaiah 57-58, puts it bluntly:

6 No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock the fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.
Whether eating a Rosh HaShanah feast, giving tzedakah to avert the evil decree, or fasting on Yom Kippur, it is justice, tzedek, we are to pursue, not a false sense of piety that raises us above and beyond our fellow creatures. The test of true piety is this: does it bear fruit in acts of righteousness and lovingkindness?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tzedakah and Supersition--Elul 23

To make teshuvah, to turn to the One, in part is to become whole, to integrate ourselves as the image of the One.  One goal in this is to bring our inner lives in harmony with our outer actions. This is why we can never be satisifed with sounding the shofar; we must hear the shofar and let it wake up our hearts.  This is also why we can never be satisfied with giving tzedakah in any cursory or calculating way.  Giving tzedakah during the Days of Awe does not pay our debt of sins or bribe the Judge to look the other way or lessen our sentence.  How ridiculous! we might say.  Who thinks that?  Yet we sometimes act as if this were true--as if giving tzedakah in multiples of 18 will ensure a good year.  Yes, pray U'netaneh Tokef, acknowledging it is God who decides who will live and who will die, who and who will suffer in the coming year, but--just to make sure--give tzedakah.  This is superstition and it is incompatible with monotheism.

When we give tzedakah, just as when we perform any mitzvah or act of chesed, we are to act without hope or thought of reward, in this world or the world to come.  We give tzedakah, we "do justice," because this is how those called to walk humbly with God live.  Giving freely means giving generously; it also means giving up all expectation of recognition, reward, or benefit. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tzedakah and Charity: A False Choice--Elul 22

To give tzedakah (money) to or do tzedakah (acts of righteousness) for those in need is commonly distinguished from charity, which comes from the Latin word caritas, love. Charity, it is often argued, is something a person chooses to do because she or he feels kind or loving or compassionate toward those in need. In contrast, tzedakah, it is argued,  is an obligation to act toward another in justice, separate from any feeling one might have or not have toward the other; it is not dependent on pity, empathy, compassion, kindess, love, or any feeling.

This is a false choice.  Certainly, if one if offered the choice between having a fleeting feeling for a homeless person but doing nothing about it and giving a homeless person food or money even though one feels no sympathy for them it is better to give without feeling.  We keep repeating this choice as if it we a true one because of the long history of the argument between Judaism and Christianity.  We each want to claim our turf and announce that we got it right.

But Jews have never argued that it is best to give without love or chesed.  What madness would this be?  And Christians do not encourage people to feel without acting in love.  Caritas is often spoken of as a law of Christ, and this law entails feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping those in need, tithing. For both, Jews and Christians, the goal is to bring our actions of justice toward others, especially those in need, in harmony with deepest hearts.  No matter where we start and in what direction we are moving, from actions to feeling, or conviction to action, we are all on the way to the same wholeness. 

So when you think "tzedakah," don't think, "not charity" or "better than charity."  Think "God has shown you, O Earth Creature, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah  6:8)