Give Until It Feels Good

For anyone who has ever done fundraising, or participated in a fundraising effort, you have certainly heard the expression ‘give until it hurts’.  A good use of Jewish guilt, to be sure, but is that really going to motivate a sense of generosity?

In Exodus 25:2, God says: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.”

This is an invitation to explore and discern the true generosity of our hearts.  For the Mishkan – the sacred Tabernacle in the desert cannot be built solely upon of a sense of duty, obligation, fear or debt. Only willing and generous hearts can bring this endeavor to its fruition.

Through heart-motivated giving we show that we recognize, embrace and support the diversity of the world around us.  By giving to some cause or situation, it becomes connected to us and we become connected to it.  Giving evokes gratitude, an appreciation for what we have in a way that we understand that sharing it with others can change our lives for the better. Winston Churchill wisely said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” As we act to contribute to our world, we are reminded that change is in our hands, that we can make a difference, that we must make a difference.  Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” – we change the world when our hearts move us to act.

Giving untethers the soul from self-focus to free it for communal attentiveness. We are part of something larger, which gives us greater meaning and purpose in life.   What do we know about generosity, the middah – the character trait – behind giving?  I believe that a great purpose of a spiritual community is to cultivate generosity, for we only learn and experience that middah, that trait, when we are in contact with the world around us.  Generosity promotes a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens our ties to others. Note that it is never about how much; it is about the act of giving and connecting.  Scientists also believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high.” No surprise, really, that this open-hearted giving is a stress-reducer! Our tradition understands this; here, we see how it is built into our ritual and history.

However, the lesson isn’t concluded with this week’s portion.  This week and next week are all instructions of how to build the Mishkan and establish the Levites as its spiritual caretakers.  What follows these instructions in the ensuing chapters is the building of the Golden Calf by the Israelites. While that is created from the contributions of the Israelites, it is an idol born of impatience and faithlessness.  So giving of the heart is has to have a component of discernment – not just giving, but giving to good and just causes.  For me, giving provides me with a perspective of the world and my life, and keeps me from any self-pity.  Cliché as it may be, today is the day, now is the time, don’t wait: go find something today to which you are going to make an open-hearted and important contribution.  Then, keep giving until it feels good…and since it isn’t about how much but how often, keep doing it over and over!

[Terumah 2014]


The Day After

[Parashat Mishpatim 2014]

The day after – whether after a celebratory time such as after a wedding, after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of a child, after the birth of a baby, on the second day of a new job, after college graduation; or, after a difficult and heart-wrenching time such as after the death or burial of a loved one, the second day post-op or a the after receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, the day after the decision to divorce…  What happened yesterday was life-changing in some huge way, and then life patters on.  The day after.  For us, in our annual historical retelling, last week was standing at Sinai. The majesty was breathtaking, the moment was awe-inspiring.  And then, it is the next day. So, what happens the day after Sinai?

What happens the day after is life –how we live in a real way with the monumental change we just experienced. There are new understandings, new behaviors, new guidelines, new rules, for life has changed in that moment; it will never again be the same as it was before.  In Torah, at the conclusion of the revelation of law, the people declare to Moses that they will do all that God has commanded them (24:3); then they reiterate the promise with a further powerful phrase: “‘All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!’ ”—their words ‘naaseh v’nishma’, literally, “we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). In this case, the Israelites affirm their free choice to listen to God and be faithful to the covenant, to hear God’s voice with even greater clarity.

Understanding God, what God wants from us, or anything else for that matter, is all about learning to listen. The more we strive to listen and pay attention to the details and circumstances around us, the more we can fine-tune our actions to reflect what we have learned, and the better we will be able to discern what God is trying to tell us in that moment of life.

Mishpatim – These ancient rules for life are what we find here in this portion. Some make clear sense; some just are what they are. Some we like and some we don’t. Most apply, while some we have to adapt or abandon. The Mishpatim are primarily those laws dictated by reason and personal interaction, such as the prohibitions against theft and murder. Even if the Torah had not been given, we could probably agree that these are the kind of principles important in the function of a healthy society. Following the revelatory transcendence at Sinai, these imperatives about how we are to behave and to act toward one another communicate Godliness in relation to the everyday-ness of our human existence.

There is a Midrash, revealing this human vulnerability in living up to these ideals:

After God taught the Ten Commandments, Moses went up to heaven to get the Torah.  The angels tried to stop him.  They threw things at him.  They yelled at him.  They tried to scare him.  One angel said, “People lie. They can’t obey the Torah.”  Another angel said, “People steal. They can’t keep the Torah.”  Angel after angel had something to say.  Moses asked God for help.  God said, “If you want the Torah, you have to convince them.”  Moses thought.  Then Moses said: “Okay angels, every one of you who was a slave in Egypt, please raise your hand.”  Not one hand went up.  Moses said, The Torah says, “I am the Eternal, the God who took you out of Egypt.”  Then Moses said, “Who here has a mother or father?”  Not one angel answered.  Moses asked, “How can you do: Honor your father and mother?”  The angels were silent.  Then he said softly, “The Torah is for people, not angels.”  Then one angel said, “You’re right. People need the Torah.  They need help doing the right things.”  Every angel in heaven agreed. (Shabbat 78a)

Keeping in mind that we all need help and guidance, here are a number of spiritual imperatives that have arisen for me over these weeks and months in the presence of the physical and health challenges I have had:

  • Don’t ever say things can’t get worse; your thoughts go there and then there you are.
  • This collar I am in forces me to look up and really see what is in front of me.
  • Trust where your next step will be; if you were paying attention before, you saw where you needed to place your foot.
  • Love when you can, cry when you have to, be who you must it’s a part of the plan (yes, I like Dan Fogelberg!)
  • Be kind, even when you are in pain. Karma is a bitch.
  • Keep smelling the roses.
  • Stretch and strengthen mind and body; they follow one another.
  • Do whatever it takes to keep track of your whole self; you are more than your crisis.
  • Patience is an important middah to cultivate, and,
  • Waiting in the unknown is soooo hard – hence the ‘sovel – suffering’ in Savlanut (Patience).

The words of  parashat Mishpatim remind us that our interactions as human beings are meant to invoke God’s presence; that after the moment of revelation, after the instructions, even as we desire to ‘listen and do’, we need to remember that we will sometimes still need help doing the right things.  This Shabbat, as we once again read these mishpatim, let us be inspired to give reflection to our own personal imperatives that can enhance our daily living.

Help! I Need Somebody….

How can we know when it is time to ask for help?

The Talmud (Berachot 5b) tells us of Rabbi Yohanan, a scholar who would bring comfort and healing to his colleagues when they were ill.  Once, Rabbi Yohanan himself fell ill. R. Chanina went in to visit him. [R. Chanina] said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? [R. Yochanan] replied: Neither they nor their reward. [R. Chanina] said to him: Give me your hand. [R. Yochanan] gave him his hand and [R. Chanina] raised him. Why could not R. Yochanan raise himself? They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.

In other words, in difficult circumstances, much as we might want otherwise, we need assistance – we cannot successfully ‘do it all ourselves’.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we learn this lesson, along with Moses.  He has welcomed his father-in-law Jethro, a priest of nearby Midian, to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness. While Moses might have wanted to enjoy a more relaxing visit with the family, we read, “On the next day [after Jethro arrived], Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.” (Exodus 18:13). Jethro takes note of this, wondering why Moses is doing all of the work of leadership by himself.  Although Moses has not complained about his burden, Jethro states “The thing you are doing is no good.” (Exodus 18: 17), and then he goes further to share some unsolicited advice: get help!  He suggests that Moses empowers wise individuals, “…individuals of valor, who fear God, trustworthy ones…” (Exodus 18: 21).

Here is what interests me most.  Moses was not complaining here to Jethro of being overworked or overwrought.  He had accepted his responsibilities; according to the text, there is nothing to indicate here that he believed himself to be incapable or that he was burned out.    By the time we reach burn-out, our situations are often far past where we really needed help.  Why can’t we see it? From where does the resistance come?

There may be many reasons, as varied as each human being, including but not limited to tendencies toward perfectionism, fear of rejection, or asking for/accepting help a sign of inferiority or incompetence.  Who among us has not at least once though “I should be able to cope with this by myself” or “life should just be different.”  The tendency to see the world as it “should be” as opposed to seeing the world as it actually “is” (and often according to very unrealistic standards) is not healthy for the psyche or the soul.  If we are honest with ourselves, in order to seek help we need to be strong enough to accept that we have weaknesses that need support.  The truth is that by refusing to ask for or accept help we also ignore the fact that we are social beings who need to co-operate with and relate to one another in order to ensure that we thrive.

So here I sit, continuing to recover from surgery, still needing to ask for some assistance every day.  Even as it is obvious when I need help, I still feel resistance, that somehow I should be further along in my recovery, or that perhaps I am pampering myself.  How can I tell when I need help? When is it time to ask?  Certainly, at times it will be more obvious than others.  While on occasion it is to facilitate and support me toward actually completing a particular task or fulfilling an obligation, more importantly it is when my life would be fuller having someone share that particular step of life’s journey with me.

[Parashat Yitro]

Into The Waters of Faith and Joy

“The panda eats shoots and leaves.” “The panda eats, shoots, and leaves.” “The panda eats shoots, and leaves.”  Meaning is changed by the modifications in grammatical punctuation.  So too, context and juxtaposition of sentences alters our understanding of what we read.  How and in what sequence we join words, phrases and paragraphs set up a specific basis of expectations and interpretations.

“And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared God; they had faith in the Holy One and in God’s servant Moses.  Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Holy One.” [Exodus 14:31-15:1].

More often than not, we don’t connect these verses, even though they are subsequent to one another. That is, we conceptually finish chapter 14 with verse 31, and then turn to chapter 15 with a fresh pair of eyes. More so in this particular chapter change because we read this very special section, Shirat Hayam – the ‘Song of the Sea’ as a stand-alone slice of Torah in our daily prayers and on certain holidays, represents a transcendent moment of transformation for our people.

Reading these two sentences sequentially and connected rather than with the natural pause of a chapter change sheds light on the connection between fear, faith and song.  Rav Kalonimos Kalman, an 18th Century Chasidic master, reminds us that in the Chasidic tradition, song arises from joy – one who is joyful sings and offers praise.  One who is fearful and full of dread cannot offer song.  At the moment by the sea, the Israelites were full of fear, as our text tells us above.  Yet, he posits that they yearned for a time in the future that they would in fact feel joy.  I believe that experience, the yearning for something deeper in our lives is the definition of faith. Therefore, he continues that by virtue of that faith, the Israelites merited the joy they desired in the future, and God enables them to attain their future in the present – they are thus able to sing and affirm God’s presence in their lives, even in the midst of their fear and dread!

The connection between joy and song goes very deep in the human experience.  Think about singing your heart out in the shower, or when you find yourself humming a tune– it is most likely an expression of how you are experiencing the world in that moment; it is not about the quality of your singing per se, but about the source of the underlying emotional phenomenon.  The physicality of raising and opening one’s own voice, of “bursting out in song” is an expression of pure joy and love.

“….They had faith in God…….that then they would sing…..”  Reading these two verses as connected beautifully reminds us that just when we least feel like singing, when we are farthest from joy and love, is exactly when we have to call upon our faith to draw forth song [joy] from deep within our souls, drawing future potential into our present experience, mindfully opening again and again to God’s loving and joyful presence.

[Beshallach 2014]

Parashat Bo – Looking Backwards and Ahead

Bo el Par’oh’ – The beginning words of this week’s parasha are generally translated as ‘Go to Pharaoh’, the context of which is God telling Moses to go to Pharaoh’ in order that God can display God’s might and supremacy to Pharaoh and the Egyptian people.  However, the word ‘bodoes not actually mean ‘go’; rather, it means ‘come’.  Thus, the use of the word ‘come’ is an improper translation.  Clearly, the spirit of the instruction is that God is telling Moses to go to Pharaoh; the word ‘come’ would normally be usually used in the way: ‘Come here…’ rather than giving directions to an individual to ‘come to’ somewhere else.   That is, when we tell someone to come, it is not usually to direct them to move from near us to far away, but rather to move from a distance to be closer to us.

Another biblical verse comes to mind which uses this same word ‘Bo’. Psalm 100 reads: ‘Bo’u l’fanav bir’nana—All come into God’s presence with rejoicing!’  It is clear here that the instructive word ‘Come’ is in fact the Psalmist exhorting the reader to come close, to rejoice in God’s presence.

In fact, the word ‘come’ in this Psalm sounds like an invitation, as in ‘Come, join in…’  Applying this understanding of the word to the opening of this week’s parasha, to what could God be inviting Moses?  I think the word ‘Bo’ in both places are invitations, one and the same: we are invited into God’s holy place and healing presence; it is a perpetual and open invitation, available day and night when we are ready.   I like to think that in this moment in Torah it is God beckoning us to come into the challenges of slavery and redemption ahead, as darkness is also a part of life into which we must also enter fully and be present.

Bo’u l’fanav bir’nana – from the Psalm, this is the hint that the invitation applies in times of rejoicing. Bo el Par’oh – this tells us that we are also, even especially invited in times of suffering. God’ sacred presence and love is with us in all of it, with us in the pain and the illness as well as in the joy and gratitude. This knowledge and faith can provide us perspective and empathy to be able to dwell in both places, to continue to live through all of life’s moments.

The confluence of this portion with the week of this new world year beckons: the promise of holiness and blessing calls us to the New Year 2014. The task for us ahead is how we choose to live it.  We don’t just fall into it; it is a reminder that we have a role and responsibility in how we choose to live.

In the midst of my own personal journey from pain to wholeness, I am helped by this to see and feel more clearly that I am not alone, that I am not a victim of life’s capriciousness.  I did not choose to be in this situation at this time, yet here I am.  To be open to this difficulty as a catalyst toward change is the best that I can do – learning from the experience in order to teach better, to listen better, to live better.  I pray these days of transition into 2014 bring blessings of abundance, hope, healing and peace.