Turn it and turn it and turn it again…

I wish it weren’t so, but I kinda fell out of the blogosphere for a bit.  I could list the reasons why, but I won’t waste your time, I’ll just apologize and move on, sorry.

So, where are we?  We’ve done two full challenges so far, a blessing challenge and a tzedakah challenge.  Currently, we are in the midst of a Torah reading challenge.  The idea here is to read a section of the weekly Torah portion everyday.  Thankfully, the rabbis already break the portion up into nice, digestible chunks and there just happen to be seven in each portion.  If you don’t own a Torah translation (chumash), don’t worry, there are plenty of translations online.  You may not get the most recent JPS translation, but you’ll get the gist.

For a nice and easy guide to the weekly breakdown of the seven sections (these are actually the aliyot that are read each shabbat in synagogues around the world), just visit Hebcal.com  When you visit this site, you’ll notice that all the Torah portions are listed.  Next to each portion, there is the date that it is read in most synagogues.  Remember, although most of us are familiar with the Torah reading on Shabbat, the Torah portion is read throughout the entire week leading up to that Shabbat.  For instance, this weeks Torah portion is Vayechi and it will be read on Saturday, December 29th, but it is technically the Torah portion for this entire week.

Once the Torah portion is located, just click on it and a screen that looks like this should come up.

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 4.41.58 PM

Don’t worry about any of the columns except for the first one, “Full Kriyah.”  Here you will see the chapter and verses for each of the seven aliyot for the week’s Torah portion.  What is even better, if you just click on the hyperlink, you will be transported to another website where you can read the section for the day.

So, give it a shot, go ahead and read a bit of the weekly Torah portion every day.

Don’t forget, send me some reflections on the portion as you read it!

It’s Not Charity

Charity-According to Merriam-Webster.com 

      • benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
  • generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also : aid given to those in need

Origin

  • Middle English charite, from Anglo-French charité, from Late Latin caritat-, caritas Christian love, from Latin, dearness, from carus dear; akin to Old Irish carae friend, Sanskritkāma love
  • First Known Use: 13th century

While giving צְדָקָה (tzedakah) may fulfill some of the definitions of charity, it is much more than charity in the classic sense of the word.   Most importantly for Jews, it is a mitzvah.  Giving צְדָקָה is a one of our sacred obligations and it has helped define us as a people for generations.  Especially in times when no other organization would think to care for Jews, we made sure that our people were taken care of.  Today, while there are still many Jews in need, our community has the ability to help not just other Jews, but people all over the world.  At is essence, the Jewish notion of צְדָקָה recognizes that too much is not right with the world, that injustice surrounds us and we all have an obligation to help correct that injustice.

Like so many Hebrew words, צְדָקָה has a three letter root, צדק.  The essence of the root צדק is all about justice and righteousness.  Therefore, we can say that when we engage in צְדָקָה, we create more justice in the world.  I don’t know about you, but when I think of charity, I usually don’t have justice in mind.  I usually think that whoever is giving charity is giving out of the goodness of his or her heart.  The person who gives wants to do something good or nice.  Clearly, Judaism does not understand צְדָקָה in this manner.

It is an assumption, but I think most Jews out there, if they are giving צְדָקָה, usually sit down and write a check a few times a year.  It isn’t often that we actually feel money leaving our hands and going into a צְדָקָה box or even into another person’s hand.  I am not suggesting that we should stop writing big checks to organizations that we know are doing good work, but I wonder how our expereince of giving צְדָקָה might change if we gave it everyday.  How might we be changed if every morning we woke up and one of the first things we did was take some bills or some change and add to our collection?  What if it was the last thing we did before going to bed?  Might giving צְדָקָה daily reframe our entire day?

The צְדָקָה challenge has started!  Tweet #30doftzedakah and send me reflections to post.  I can’t wait to hear what this is like for everyone!

 

The First Challenge Comes To A Close

When I came up with the idea to do these challenges I just felt they would be a success.  Most of the time, when we come up with ideas, we know they will be hit or miss, we know there is risk involved.  This idea was different.  I knew, this idea would be hard for people to say no to, it is just too personalized, too easy, yet at the same time holds the possibility of profound transformation.

I know this challenge has been transformative for many.  Most clearly, I see that with my congregants who I see face to face with some regularity, but I know there are those out there across the world who are engaging in this challenge who I am sure have felt the effects.  Of course, a rabbi does not come up with an idea like 30 day Jewish challenges and then hope that folks participating will stop after the 30 days.  No, if this has been meaningful for you, keep doing the blessings!  Commit to another 30 days and see what it feels like.

Yesterday was the last day of the month of Cheshvan and with the setting sun we welcomed Kislev.  I will be posting more information about our next challenge tomorrow, but the challenge is quite simple, see what it feels like to give tzedakah everyday.  Take a little money out of your pocket or wallet and put it in a tzedakah box or some receptacle for the month.  At the end of the month, you can make a donation or keep adding to your collection.  More about that tomorrow.

I leave you with one more reflection and I think the perfect one to end this challenge.  May you all have a blessed day.

I went into the first Thirty Day Challenge of Blessings with confidence.  This was going to be easy for me. I would have no shortage of blessings as I regularly took the time to acknowledge all that I am grateful for.  I turned my attention to becoming “Twitter savvy” so that I could tweet my blessings.  I had no idea that within the first week of the challenge, that a single blessing would test my faith and have me questioning God’s role in my blessing, my prayers, and my life.

“Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe who…”

These are the words that I got hung up on.  My blessings usually came to me first thing in the morning or at night before I went to bed. These are quiet and reflective times for me.  These words at the beginning of my blessing were words that I said literally thousands of times during Shabbat Services and countless other times since I was a child.  Really thinking about these words made me question what God had to do with my blessing. I did not say my blessing that morning.  I couldn’t.  I wasn’t sure about God’s role in my life, my relationships, and the things that happened around me. This realization shook me to my core.  I was distracted the entire day as I contemplated my beliefs.

God and I had a good thing going during Shabbat.  Prayer during Shabbat had taken on real meaning for me.  After Shabbat as I went through the week, I rarely thought about God.  I seldom if ever spoke to God.  I realized during this very long day that I had taken the beginning words of many of our blessings for granted and did not consider their real meaning.  I closed my office door during lunchtime and shut off my light.  I closed my eyes and really tried to sort out my beliefs and God role in my life outside of Shabbat.

After lunch I faked it through the rest of my day.  As I worked with my clients and my staff tackling various issues, I kept thinking how unimportant they were in comparison to the really important questions that I was grappling with. I left work and as I pulled up in front of my house and remembered that I needed to park outside as my garage was full with items being moved.

As I went up the steps to enter the house, I stopped to see the most amazing spider web.  The sun was setting and it cast a beautiful light onto water droplets that clung to the web.  I looked at the intricacies of the beautiful web, a still struggling bug caught in the web, and the proud spider that did not move. It was awesome.  It was something that only God could have created.    Perhaps this spider web was mine to notice as a reminder that nature’s beauty and miracles large and small serve as a reminder that God is not only everywhere but truly accessible by means of the blessings we say.

Connecting God to whatever I am thankful for or acknowledging via my blessing has made a powerful difference for me. God and I have a new relationship.  We just don’t connect during Shabbat.  We connect daily. That said, I still have lots of questions.  I have to admit that I cannot see God’s role in all aspects of life and the prospect of that is frightening.  I’m beginning to feel that true faith requires trust.  Although I am not sure where it will lead, I know that I am on a journey that will help me to find these answers. It is a journey that will not end today as it is just beginning. So my blessing today is:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech Ha Olam who leads me to trust as he has led those before me.

Deb

A Brand New Day

Thank you, Chris.  This is a helpful reflection as we approach the end of this first challenge.  As someone who already has a meaningful blessing ritual, keeping up this challenge past the 30 days will be just a little easier, Chris.  For those of us hoping to incorporate this blessing challenge into our daily lives after the official challenge is over, you give us a great example.

How does one thank God everyday for thirty days?  Sounds easy right?  I thought so too when I started the 30 Days of Blessings at Temple Beth David.  Turns out after the first couple of days it got a little tough.  I mean sure I could thank God everyday for my children, my wife, the air we breathe, a sunrise etc.  But this was supposed to be a meaningful challenge, one that would require some daily reflection.  So I started by spending a few minutes each day reflecting and looking for something to be thankful for.  But with the pressures of running a business, raising two children and being a Jewish husband (ha ha) I often found myself lying in bed at night and remembering that I had forgotten to say a blessing that day.  It only had to happen a couple times before I decided that this was not what I intended and if I am going to “complete” this challenge I would need to do something different.

Turns out I didn’t need to do anything different just change how I thought about what the meaning of this challenge is.  A few months ago before the challenge I found myself up at sunrise every morning.  Being one who enjoys nature I started going outside for a minute just to enjoy the beauty.  It was probably the combination of the smells and the sounds of the summer, and the sun rising that made me take this next step; one morning I decided to say the Shema.  It felt really good and so I did it again.  About a month down the road it had become part of my morning routine.  It was around that time when I was in my car listening to my NFTY CD.  No I’m not some religious freak, I just really like some of the songs on it, also it is the only CD in my car and I am too lazy to change it out.  Anyway, I was singing along to Modeh Ani when suddenly it clicked that this was the morning prayer I was looking for.  Long story short I added that to my morning routine and have kept it up ever since.  Every morning I go outside (sometimes with the dog,  sometimes alone) and sing Modeh Ani then say the Shema and take a minute to feel the breeze, taste the rain or smell the dew and truly enjoy what God has made.

So now I told you that story to tell you this one.  Today while enjoying a breakfast burrito, I was asked if I had said my blessing today.  It only took a second to think and ask, “What do you mean?”  I then explained that I had not done my “#30dofBlessings” yet but that I had, as I always do now, said my morning prayers Modeh Ani and the Shema.  It was about 30 minutes after this conversation that another synapse had formed in my antiquated brain that connected my ritual of saying morning prayers and the intended purpose of the 30 days of Blessings Challenge.  The point is to thank God for not only the spectacular but the mundane and everything in between, to notice something every day and take a moment to enjoy its beauty whether it is visual, auditory, or it just warms the cockles of your heart.  So to answer the question, yes I did say my blessings, but I am far from the 100 required so I will always strive to do one more.

Making It Personal

Yesterday, I was going into the gym and I saw a woman who is doing the blessing challenge with us.  She began to tell me that she has said a blessing (almost) everyday and reading the blog, but she hasn’t been sharing any of those blessings with the world via twitter or the blog.  I told her that was fine and certainly a perfectly proper way of going about the challenge.  Let’s face it, sharing a personal blessing is a very intimate thing, we might not want to let the world in on our blessings.  This person continued to tell me how meaningful the challenge has been, she told  me that she has kept track of things she is grateful for and that adding the blessing has made what she has already been doing so much more personal.

As this person continued talking and explaining how the blessing format had made things personal, she also mentioned that the Hebrew was helping to do this.  When I heard her say that, I was happy and at the same time a little surprised.  Often times, we hear that Hebrew is a roadblock, that not having complete understanding of the words we are saying gets in the way of a person’s prayer.  I was so happy to hear that in this case, Hebrew was making this person’s experience not only more meaningful, but more personal.  I suppose it was really that part of the statement, that Hebrew was making it personal that really stayed with me.  I’ve been thinking about this moment ever since we bumped into each other.

I think a few things are going on, not just for this person I spoke with, but hopefully for all of us.  The beginning of the blessings are so familiar to most of us, it basically feels like second nature to utter that part of the blessing.  The familiarity is probably very important.  But, there is more to it than that, it isn’t just that we’ve said those words for years.  For me, at least, praying in Hebrew is as much about connecting with our sense of peoplehood and ancestry as anything else.  Our people have said בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם for so long, it is deeply personal when we utter those words as well.  Because the blessing formula is so old and connects us to much, it is personal in a way that goes beyond our person.  Beginning our blessings with  בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, propels us through generations, it takes us back in time and at the same time reaffirms what we are doing right now, right at the moment we utter the blessing that has come to mind.  Hebrew is the language our people have prayed in for thousands of years.  Yes, it is personal.

I’m Jewish, So Does It Matter If It’s Jewish?

Our last reflection piece by Susan was so beautiful, Susan brought tears to my eyes.  I was moved by her words and her ability to let us into her life and experience.  Susan also brought up an interesting issue, probably without even meaning to do so.  Susan speaks about how engaging in the blessings challenge has not been revolutionary for her, but rather a tweaking of something she has done for a long time.  Over the course of these challenges, others may have a similar experience, some of us may say, “Hey, I already am a conscientious eater, keeping some form of Kosher isn’t so different from what I already am doing.”  Of course, this is a good thing, it will make the challenges a bit easier I suppose.

Clearly, as Susan stated in her reflection, saying blessings in a Jewish context has had an impact on her (and I am glad Susan said that rather than saying it hasn’t changed much of anything).  But, there still may be folks out there who ask the question, “If I am (fill in the blank) already, does it matter if I do it in a Jewish way?”  On the one hand, no it doesn’t matter.  What you may already be doing is clearly meaningful to you or you wouldn’t already be doing it (whatever it is).  I would be lying if I said otherwise.  On the other hand, tweaking something you already engage in and making it a part of your Jewish life has the potential for even greater impact.  Staying with our current challenge, saying a blessing but not making it a part of our Jewish experience is like switching to a smart phone and not using it to browse the internet.  Yes, the smart phone is great, but think about how much we are missing out on.

As you may know, I developed this idea for 30 day Jewish Challenges after watching a TED talk by Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google.  I used one of my High Holy Day sermons to introduce the idea to my congregation and I ended that sermon with this idea.

One of my favorite midrashim says that before each of us is born, we are all great Torah scholars.  We sit in heaven studying, learning and debating. In the moments before we are born into this world, an angel comes and finds us, and touches us here, right above our lip, right in the center and leaves that small divot. The moment the angels touches us, we lose all memory of the heavenly yeshivah, we forget all the Torah we had learned.

When Matt Cutts engages in his thirty-day challenges, he is trying to discover something outside himself, he is trying to form a new habit or just see if he can do something new or different. When we engage in our Jewish challenges, we are not in the process of discovery, but rediscovery.  These challenges will lead us to places in the deep recesses of our souls that house the innate Judaism in us all. Come join me and together we can.

Often times, when I am working with students both young or old, I tell them that I think of myself as a guide, not instructor.  As a rabbi and teacher, I don’t see myself filling a vessel, the student is not some object for me to pour out my thoughts and ideas.  I see myself as trying to help my students uncover who they actually are at their core.  Judaism isn’t something we believe, it is something we are.  Whether by birth or conversion all Jews are connected, we all studied in the heavenly yeshivah together.

As the reflection pieces have shown so far, these challenges are truly about self-reflection and personal exploration.  Every time we say a blessing, or do any of the challenges we are about to do, we are learning about ourselves as a member of the People Israel.

Keep on blessings!