Had I not the assurance
that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living...
Look to the Lord;
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Lord.
Elul comes to an end with sunset tomorrow (Monday) and Rosh Hashanah begins. Rosh Hashanah is a day without work -- a joyful day, a new year beginning. I end my thoughts about t'shuva, repentance and atonement, about choosing a better path for the future, by contemplating the last two verses of Psalm 27:13-14.
Noticing my sins, examining my failings, experiencing the regret, rejecting those actions and resolving to avoid them, to do better in the future is difficult work. And it doesn't end today, or with Yom Kippur. It's an on-going task, that just becomes more salient for Jews at this time of the year. It would be an overwhelming impossible task "had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." For that is what I think that verse, unfinished, hanging there in the air pregnant with possibility really means.
Judaism is not about finding eternal life (although certainly some ideas about life after death exist within Judaism), but rather Jews are focused seeking connection to G-d, to the divine, to the goodness the divine in this life. Judaism is about the sanctification of life here and now. Sin and wrongness dull our experience of the divine, so we must strive to reconnect and eliminate those things that tarnish that connection. So I will look to the Lord.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Had I not the assurance
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Deepest rose: a leaf, a branch, a single tree
flaunts its flame within the green,
a day, a week, then fades to golden brown.
Crystalline light: the sky a frosted mauve,
highlights black lace silhouettes,
a sunset moment slips to shadowed night.
Golden pathway: sparkling ocean, setting sun,
an avenue of light, rocked by rolling waves,
extinguished in the evening fog.
Fragile joy: a face, a smile, a warming voice,
the touch of hearts within the crowd,
drawn on to different fates.
For other poets' poems on the same topic, see One Single Impression for September 28, 2008.
The photo entitled "ghost house" taken by me in early fall 1988, from the Moxham neighborhood of Johnstown on Grove Avenue.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Do not subject me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses and unjust accusers
have appeared against me.
While this is not a story that I wish to go into detail at this time, in this forum, I was once denied tenure in large part due to "false witnesses and unjust accusers." Despicable lies were told and retold so often that despite any evidence to support them, they came to be believed by a number of people who were influential in recommending that I be denied tenure.
I spent many years being angry about the unjustness of this decision. I was particularly angry with one individual who knew full well that the accusations were lies, but had other reasons to want me gone, and used the lies to accomplish that.
For years, ten years to be exact, I allowed my anger with this one person to poison my life. Every year at the High Holy Days I would think about this and pray over it, and recognize that I needed to forgive this person and let go of my anger. But was unable to find a way. I knew that I needed to forgive the person who wronged me, but that I could not offer this person a simple "I forgive you." This would only anger and antagonize him, because he believed himself to be in the right and I in the wrong. To gain the repentance I needed to move on, I had to do something that was genunine and sincere, yet would not be taken as hostile or a put down, or showing off.
Finally two years ago, I found the right action to take, that would allow me to let go.
The fact was that being denied tenure was the best thing that could have happened to me. I left a college that had a poisonous atmosphere, and found a new college with a supportive culture. I left a college that talked about the importance of teaching but did not honor or reward it, and found a new college that genuinely focused on quality teaching. At my new college I had opportunities to write, to be creative, to learn entirely new forms of pedagogy that would never have come my way had I remained where I was.
So two years ago, I wrote a simple, genuine, heartfelt letter of thanks. This freed me from dwelling, over and over again on the injustice, and allowed me to face situations where he was likely to be present with equanimity, rather than avoid them. In fact, I had not thought about the whole situation for the past two years until reading today's verse brought it to mind.
The verse says "Do not subject me to the will of my foes." What I make of this, based on my own experience, is that G-d cannot make the false witnesses and unjust accusers disappear from our lives. G-d cannot prevent them from doing us certain kinds of harm. But turning to G-d and divine inspiration can free us from the corrosive affects of anger, resentment, fear and anxiety. It is the inner harm, the psychic, emotional and moral harm that our foes will upon us from which G-d can protect us.
Late this afternoon, with the assistance of my kind veterinarian Donna Stidham, Miss Minnie kitty was gently eased out of this life. Miss Minnie's condition had slid down hill in the last couple of days. Today I came home from my weekly grocery shopping (a nearly four hour excursion) to find that she was in dire distress and laboring to breath, and I knew it was time.
So we said good bye to Miss Minnie, age approximately 14 years; good bye to Minnie with the "evil" ear tufts, "the minimum cat required," Minnie the psychotic cat, Minnie the ferocious, Minnie our cat mama and protector. Good bye to Minnie who used to be black but whose color changed to a soft brown, almost fawn in places, because of the steroid shots she took for her allergy to fleas. Later this weekend, after the rain ends, we will bury her in our small pet cemetery in the front yard under the pines.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Show me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my watchful foes.
When I first read this verse, I thought -- these days most of our "foes" are internal rather than external. These internal foes are things like fear, jealousy, greed, sloth, indifference, callousness. But as I look at the notes I jotted down yesterday (the actual Elul 23), with the MSNBC running as background noise in the other room, I have re-evaluated.
There really are real, flesh and blood, foes that people must face these days. In many places in the world today, ordinary people have to worry on a daily basis about real, flesh and blood armed foes. Earlier today I read a compelling piece on Rickshaw Diaries about the most recent suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. Last week, I read an extraordinary poem by Gautami Tripathy about a suicide bombing in India two weeks ago.
Gratefully, such terrorism is not an on-going experience in the U.S., but that does not mean that people here do not face external foes. These foes are more abstract and harder to grasp, like a meltdown in the housing market, waves of job layoffs, a crisis in the financial institutions, rising prices, unaffordable health care, and so forth. However, they are no less real, and no less threatening to us and our families, to our livelihood and security.
We can turn to the divine, to ask for help in finding our way amidst these dangers and foes. These external foes (like the internal ones mentioned above) will not be vanquished by prayer alone. Prayer, meditation, contemplation and other "level paths" of the divine help us gather the emotional and psychological resources that we need to take the actions that are needed to repair our troubled world (tikkun olam).
A phrase reverberates in my memory, one I came across it first in Gates of Prayer (the Reform prayer book) but it certainly has older roots: "Pray as if everything depends upon G-d, and act as if everything depends upon you."
Sunday, September 21, 2008
What constitutes t'shuvah? That sinners should abandon [their] sins and remove them from [their] thoughts, resolving in [their] hearts never to commit them again....One must verbally confess and state these matters which have been resolved in one's heart.
Moses Maimonides Laws of Repentance 2:2
The rabbis of ancient times had, as mentioned before, many different views about both faith and practice. Different teachers and sages offered up different approaches or systems for repentance. The one thing that all of them shared was that they viewed t'shuvah as a process that takes place is stages or steps. As I read and learn more this season of Elul about t'shuvah, I am struck by the similarities between the ideas of my chosen faith and those of twelve step programs like AA.
Judaism does not treat addictive behaviors like smoking, drinking, substance abuse, as sins in the same way that some other religions do -- focusing more on the damage we do to others than on that we do to ourselves. But there is a strong connection in Judaism between the process necessary for ridding ourselves of self-destructive addictive behaviors and stopping the sinful behaviors (such as those listed on Elul 18) which may also arise from deeply ingrained unconscious motives such as fear.
Verbal confession and verbal commitment are emphasized in twelve-step programs, and emphasized in Jewish texts on t'shuvah. Saying things out loud, even when we are our only audience gives power to our resolutions.
So I resolve and state for myself that I will work to pay attention and try to recognize and understand where the fear, panic or impatience is coming from before I open my mouth to say something harsh and hurtful, before I shoot off that e-mail with ALL CAPS, that will hurt someone.
Oh golden leaves
whose greatest beauty
is in the falling.
For other poems on this same theme check out One Single Impression
Photo was taken by me, September 1987 on Grove Avenue, in the Moxaham neighborhood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Do not hide Your face from me;
do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God, my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will take me in.
I sit in the quiet of my study, looking out on our neat green lawn shaded by huge maples and sycamore, the late afternoon sun hides behind the trees casting shadow across the yard. But it is not the sun that hides from me, any more than it is G-d that hides from us. Both the sun and G-d are there, hidden by the things that get between us.
It is easy to sit here, my work done for the evening, no children demanding my attention, my husband and dog out for their evening walk, and write about faith and practice. But most of the time life is not like that, most of the time the forest of our responsibilities to family and work, and the thicket of modern distractions (television, Internet) plunge us into shadow where the divine is hidden from us.
Human beings are often faithless and desert us, as the Psalm says even our father and mother may abandon us. It is hard for us to imagine that there is a force, a presence in the universe that is more constant, that is always there to be sought out.
It's easy for me to recognize the divine spark in the world as I drive to and from work -- looking out over our deeply wooded hills. It's the hours in between during which I have problems, and yet when I most need to be mindful of the divinity, to see past the shadows and the trees.
My most frequent sins, are the sins of impatience and intolerance with people who don't "get" things as quickly as I think they ought, who don't listen and don't read, and don't pay attention, who hold a piece of paper with big bold print that says "this test is due on..." and ask me "when is this test due?" This is really bad in a teacher. It is a form of arrogance and pridefulness. I have achieved the first stage of t'shuva -- I recognize these sins and regret them. I haven't yet found the way to successful break this habitual sins. I need to find a better way to interject a moment of reflection between the thought and the heedless action (the sharp tongue, the harsh tone).
Thursday, September 18, 2008
There are sins that can be atoned for immediately and other sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time.
Moses Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:4
There are many levels of repentance through which one draws near to the Holy Blessed One. And although there is forgiveness in relation to each kind of repentance, the soul does not become completely purified...unless one purifies one's heart and properly conditions one's spirit.
Rabi Jonah of Gerona (1200-1263) Gates of Repentance, The First Gate
I decided that I wanted to become a Jew when I was 15, but did not act upon that decision until I was 30,twenty seven years ago. Shortly after I turned 30 I began studying with Rabbi Leffler of the Reform Congregation in Lexington, Kentucky. Those weekly conversations we had made an indelible mark on my life and my soul. In one of those conversations Rabbi Leffler drew a diagram on the chalk board that sat in his office, like the one to the right. He said that some religions place their emphasis on the leg of the triangle between "me" and "G-d" with the idea that if one "gets right with" G-d through faith and prayer, that relationships with others will fall into place. But, Rabbi Leffler said, Judaism places its emphasis on the base of the triangle, the connection between "me" and "others," and that by working on our relationships to others, through following the mitzvot, that through building those relationships we will build our relationship with G-d.
So what does that have to do with the passages from the medieval Jewish thinkers (above) about repentance and atonement (t'shuva)? The vast majority of sins for which Jews must repent and atone are sins against others. I have mentioned previously the beautiful Ashamnu ("We have trespassed") prayer of Yom Kippur. Here are some of the sins listed: "we have dealt treacherously; we have robbed; we have spoken slander; we have acted perversely...we have done violence; we have practiced deceit; we have counseled evil; we have spoken falsehood...we have oppressed...we have dealt corruptly...we have led others astray." These, the majority of the sins in the prayer deal with acts against our fellow humans, not acts against G-d.
For the sins we have committed against G-d (such as blasphemy), our regret, rejection and resolution to sin no more can bring immediate repentance and forgiveness. But our sins against others often require us to perform acts of atonement, of restitution and restoration; not unlike in 12 step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous for example) where in order to change the individual must make amends to those they have wronged (unless to do so would bring further harm). Repentance and forgiveness can only come over time, as we work on our relationships with others.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
have mercy on me, answer me.
In your behalf my heart says:
"Seek my face!"
O Lord, I seek your face."
In Judaism some prayers, such as the Shema, should always be uttered aloud, and other prayer is silent, internal, like the silent Amidah in services. It is not for G-d's ears that prayer is aloud, but our own -- it focuses our own attention on our words, our plea, on our reaching out to touch the source of power, the divine.
One of the traditions of Judaism is that in the beginning G-d created the universe as a material container into which divine light and spirit were poured; but the material container could not contain the G-d's infinite divinity, and ruptured in a great cataclysm, creating the dispersed universe of space and matter that we know. But G-d's light and divinity clung to the shattered shards of the universe. Every molecule, every bit of matter in the Universe (including living beings) carry within the spark of divinity.
Our prayer goes out through that spark of the divine within us, and the answer comes back to us from that spark within. Notice how the Psalm says "In your behalf my heart says..." G-d speaks to us through our own heart, and through the hearts of others that carry that divine spark.
I think that there is no question that G-d hears us and has answers for us. What is questionable is whether or not we can hear that response that vibrates in all of nature, in all the people around us, and in ourselves. We seek G-d's face, yet it is all around us, just waiting to be recognized. Prayer is an opportunity to draw upon the power of the divine that will help us see and recognize G-d's face in all it's manifestations.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Now is my head high
over my enemies roundabout;
I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy,
singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.
The book Pollyanna was first published in 1912. In the decades that followed through the first World War and the great depression, the book continued to be extraordinarily popular with both adults and children. However, the word "pollyanna" came to be used by many during those decades as an pejorative label to describe someone who was blind to reality, living in an impossible dream world in which every thing had a silver lining.
Nonetheless, I still find this book whose charming heroine unself-consciously transforms those around her through her postive outlook to be refreshing and inspiring.
And I will sing and chant a hymn to the Lord.
Friday, September 12, 2008
What dark fruit will grow
from mountains stripped bare of green
chasing the black fire?
12 September 2008
Photo is of mountain top removal strip mine less than half mile from my home in Letcher County Kentucky.
View other poems on the "Seed" prompt beginning Sunday September 14, at One Single Impression
"He will shelter me in His pavilion
on an evil day,
grant me the protection of His tent,
raise me high upon a rock."
In my personal view, G-d initiated a universe designed to evolve and give rise ultimately to creatures of self-awareness, self-consciousness and free will (we humans being the only example of which we are currently aware, but that does not preclude others else where in G-d's universe). Such a G-d in such a universe does not intervene in the unfolding of events that result from the choices of free-will. But for those willing to open their hearts and minds, willing to reach out to the divine power of the universe, G-d provides shelter in which we can rest from the storm, gaining strength and courage. The divine power of the universe is found in the principles of nature, including basic principles that underlie human interactions, seeking that power and those principles, is seeking the rock or foundation on which the world stands.
In my personal view there is more than one path to achieve this shelter and find this rock. For me the path is through the Jewish scriptures and traditional practices and prayers. But I see my husband finding the same thing in a different way through the Buddhist scriptures and the practice of Buddhist meditation. He also finds the sheltering tent and the rock on which all is built.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I watched the memorial services at the Pentagon, shown in their entirety without commentary on C-SPAN. Beautiful, moving, somber, sad, yet hopeful, forward looking. The names were read, a bell was tolled. A military choir sang original songs. The high point -- a single bagpipe player providing the mournful strains of "Amazing Grace."
I feel sorry for brother, Frank. September 11 is his birthday, which is now forever overshadowed by tragedy.
"Who has achieved complete t'shuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned and abstains, although that person has the potential to commit the sin again."
Moses Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:11
The word that comes to my mind as I read this prompt for contemplation is "persistence." T'shuvah requires more than acknowledgement and repentance, it requires persistence in making changes. However, I am struck by the thought that change to a life lived fully in G-d's house, in harmony with G-d, is about just as much about developing positive actions and habits as it is about ending negative actions.
This view about nurturing positive habits is very central to Judaism. Of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah nearly a third are affirmative commandments: "To know G-d exists;" "To love G-d;" "To honor the old and the wise;" "To learn Torah and to teach it;" "To affix the mezuzah to the doorposts and gates of your house;" "To read the Shema in the morning and at night;" "To leave the gleanings for the poor;" "To give charity according to one's means;" "To love the stranger;" "To honor father and mother," and many, many more.
Persistence means coming back again after a slip or a lapse; not using the lapse as an excuse to say, oh well, I messed up I may as well not bother. This is one of my failings. It is easier to keep commitments to change when we involve others in our decisions and activities -- even if the others are just out there on the Internet.
I missed yesterday, Elul 10, the workload piled up, and I did not take time for contemplation, prayer and writing. In my past tries at this practice missing a day inevitably meant stopping altogether. But I made a commitment to a larger audience (even if you are a small one) as well as a commitment to myself. So persist I will.
Involving others to help us persist, is one reason why Jews engage in group repentance at Yom Kippur. We all, communally and publicly admit to the entire range of human sins and promise to make amends and change in the coming year. The confessional prayer Ashamnu, in my Conservative/Reform synagogue is recited in both English and Hebrew. I prefer the Hebrew, it is both beautiful and solemn and intensely meaningful. The cantor sings the first line (Ashamnu or "We have trespassed") and the congregation sings the same line back; and then the pattern repeats, cantor then congregation through the entire litany of sins.
So in this coming new year I seek persistence, to return when I stumble to the path of persistence in both the affirmative actions and avoidance of negative actions.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
One thing I ask of the Lord
only that do I seek;
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
to frequent His temple.
The amazing thing is that this wish has already been granted for all of us, for the universe is the house of the Lord, the temple of G-d; the plants, animals and people the inhabitants of that house. All we need do is open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to sense G-d all around us.
The problem is that so much of the time, the business of daily life, the buzz of work, school, chores, shopping, daily worries, fills our senses and hearts and blocks our awareness.
I feel lucky that I live in the country, where the world is still and green, and it is easier to sense the divine. But some times listening is scary, because it makes me aware of how far I need to go to be the kind of person I really want to be. So its easier many days to just turn on the TV and bury the senses in white noise. This year I resolve to spend more time just being in the world, to stretch out my senses for that touch from G-d.
Monday, September 8, 2008
The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that there are three stages of t'shuvah: regret, rejection, and resolution. Today's meditation prompt is from Maimonides' Laws of Repentence 1:1.
"How does one acknowledge sin? One says: I implore you G-d..., Behold, I regret [what I did] and am embarrassed by my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again."
This does not refer to being embarrassed in front of people -- whether one's family, one's friends, one's coworker -- but embarrassed before God, and before our own inner spark of the divine.
To be embarrassed on has to be aware, to be conscious, to notice error when it occurs. One has to own one's faults.
I have frequently found that it is easier to recognize my past faults, my sins of years gone by, than it is to recognize those of the present moment. But I have been working on this.
Less than rational fears--fears of someone else gaining control over me or my work, of someone else exerting dominance or taking away my ability to make decision, provoke me at times to retaliate or even make preemptive attacks with criticism and complaints.
I am noticing that I am becoming embarrassed (in the sense Maimonides meant) more often and more quickly. Sometimes quickly enough to stay actions that I will regret, but not always. Not always quickly enough to prevent me from sending that rude or critical e-mail, or prevent me from making the hurtful retort, but at least to acknowledge, admit my fault and make amends when possible instead of hanging on (sometimes for years) to my self-justifications and rationalizations.
I read in a blog recently about one family's tradition of "the groundhog" do-over. They got the idea from the movie "Groundhog Day." In this family, when there is something that goes wrong, when someone does something that is unacceptable or offends other family members, and they immediate proclaim a "groundhog" and start over, and do it right. Say, that mom is tired at the end of the work day, and when son comes into the kitchen to inquire about dinner she snaps at him impatiently. Rather than allowing him to slink off hurt, and her to simmer, then regret later what she said, she immediately announces a "groundhog" and has her son replay his entry into the kitchen. Then she greets him the way she feels she should have in the first place. This family discovered that after a while, it became less and less necessary to declare a "groundhog" because they learned to think before speaking and acting and not do or say things that needed amends.
I tried doing a "groundhog" once with my husband, but it seemed awkward and forced -- and I think John thought I was nuts. So instead I'm trying to apply the general principle instead of literally using the technique -- which I think is recognizing and confronting when one has erred, and making amends as soon as possible. I have a long way to go, but I think I'm on the road...
Miss Minnie entered our lives in January 1996. We saw this little rag of a black cat running with an obvious broken back leg through the snow. She was holed up under an old, unused bridge over the creek near our condo. It took more than a week of putting out food before we could capture her, and get her to the vet. The vet was astounded that she'd been mobile at all given that her back leg was broken clean through just below the hip. It required multiple surgeries and metal pins to put Miss Minnie to rights. After all the x-rays and surgeries were completed, but while her leg still had its pin, we discovered she was pregnant. The only reasonable thing to do given her poor health was to do spay/abortion. Most of the fetuses were deformed due to the x-rays.
It was late enough in Miss Minnie's pregnancy that her hormone levels signalled to her that she had given birth. She looked around for kittens to protect, and found John and I. She treated us like her kittens. She would groom us, sit on our laps and defend us against the approaches of our other 9 cats, and attempt to herd us away from danger (like the top of the stairs). She was a fierce and protective mother to us. Ultimately the hormones faded and after several months, Miss Minnie settled in as a regular member of our human/cat family.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Eleven years ago I purchased a guided journal for meditation and reflection during Elul and the first ten days of Tishrei. I've begun that journal three times in the past 11 years, generally running out of steam after 7 to 10 days into the project. This year, I'm going to try to work through the project, using my blog.
In Judaism faith and practices are inextricably intertwined. One important expression of that in Judaism is tikkun olam -- the obligation to engage in repairing the world, making it a better place. Faith and practices are mutually reinforcing, through practice we renew faith.
There are many kinds of practice, some focused inwardly heshbon hanefesh to make an accounting of the soul and prepare us for the outward practice. It is this type of practice we focus on in Elul.
During Elul it is traditional to recite and consider Psalm 27.
The Lord is my light and my help;
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life,
whom should I dread?
note: all quotes are from the TANAK translated and published by The Jewish Publication Society in 1999 (5759).
I foolishly thought that once I got tenure and had security in my livelihood that my fear reactions would subside. But fear had become a habit, a habit that I need to work to eradicate.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
To view poems by other writers on this topic see One Single Impression.
Everything is going wrong.
The walls are closing in.
Wait. Stop. Start again.
Things are fine, but that might change,
So I am building walls.
I think I’m closing out the fear –
the raging beast engulfs, devours.
So build walls strong and high,
And don’t forget the battlements.
A reinforcement needed here;
Send archers to protect that breech.
What if fear tunnels under walls?
Or learns to fly? What defense then?
Hire on some engineers, draw new plans,
make a list?
Or, perhaps, I’ll let the fortress melt
And on the open, level plain,
I’ll court my fear—
not safe, not tamed,
and practice dancing with the beast.
revised 6 September 2008
The photography is of a dry stack stone wall dating to before the Civil War on Paris Pike in Lexington, Kentucky. Many such walls are found in the horse farm region of central Kentucky. The photograph was taken by Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and can be found at http://www.contextsensitivesolutions.org/content/case_studies/kentucky_paris/#
In the very first show ever aired, there was one fake commercial that absolutely fascinated me. It was a parody of a razor commercial seen frequently at the time. The first double bladed safety razor, the TracII made by Gillette first went on the market in 1971, and was followed by many imitations in the next few years. One of the real commercials -- probably for the TracII itself showed an animated image of how the first blade in the razor lifted the hair and allowed the second blade to cut the hair closer to the skin. The fake Saturday Night Live commercial made fun of the whole idea of the need for two blades by carrying the image to ridiculous extremes (or at least they thought at the time was ridiculous extremes) -- the fake commercial featured a three bladed razor!
Imagine what the Saturday Night Live comedy writers of 1975 would make of today's five bladed razors!!