Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2014

I was thinking one morning about why we do the things that we do, and it occurred to me that we can classify three different kinds of motivations:

Some things, we do purely because we want to do them. We might go on a bike ride, go to the beach, go out to dinner with our spouse, or go to a movie simply because such activities give us enjoyment.

Other things, we do only because we have been compelled to do them. Into this category we might put actions like paying taxes, driving the speed limit at all times, and paying for each and every item we put into our shopping cart at the grocery store. We might also add to this category things that we are compelled to do by our biology, like aging, getting sick, or dying.

In between, there are the things that we do because we feel a sense of obligation or duty; we don’t want to do them, but neither is anyone specifically forcing us to do them. This is where we live most of our lives. No one is forcing us to work, but we feel a sense of obligation to provide for our family. Exercise or proper eating, for many people, falls into this category. It’s when you go on the bike ride or the walk or eat your vegetables even when you don’t want to, because you know it’s good for you. No one can force us to make charitable contributions or volunteer our time – we do so because we feel a sense of obligation.

These three categories overlap. There are things we do, such as the act of giving or exercising, that make us feel good while or after doing them.

The number of actions that we are actually forced to do is actually very low – there may be some authority that issues a threat if we take a particular action (speeding), but most of the time we know that we can break the law and not get caught, so it is only our sense of civic responsibility that slows us down.

Where does contemporary Jewish observance fall? I am grateful that it is not in the first category. There are no effective or desirable means to compel Jewish life today, nor should their be. Even our model of synagogue affiliation and dues has moved from the coercive to the voluntary.

What is your motivation for Jewish behavior? What kinds of things do you do purely because they give you enjoyment (Synagogue on Shabbat morning, building a Sukkah)?

What kinds of things do you do our of a sense of obligation (or perhaps guilt)?

If you agree that the pure motivation of desire is a higher level of behavior than the level of obligation; what might you do to elevate your Jewish practices? Can you imagine embracing a fuller Jewish life out of the sheer joy of it? How might you achieve this?

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – September, 2014

My apologies – I forgot to post this at the beginning of September!

“Is it hard to be Jewish in Grand Rapids?” was one of the questions that one of our Israeli Scout guests asked as we were eating breakfast. Yes, it can be difficult. Acquiring kosher food can be a challenge, especially meat. One or two days, 2.5 – 4.5 hours, a week of Jewish education for children is barely enough to scratch the surface, much less teach serious Hebrew and the richness of Jewish literature, calendar, prayer, and other daily practice. There is a growing disconnect between the American Jewish community and Israel, as supporters of Israel find themselves having to work hard to overcome apathy at best, and to justify even the existence of the State of Israel at worst.

On the other hand, for those who want to support and/or participate in a serious Jewish community, Jewish behavior is as natural as breathing. Rarely do I feel that it is an effort or a burden to be Jewish – celebrating Shabbat in the Ahavas Israel community, being aware of how I give my Tzedakah dollars and what food I put into my body, helping staff our Family Promise shelter dates, and learning and teaching Torah, this is what sustains me.

As we approach the fall of the year and our High Holidays once again, I encourage you to use the time of teshuvah to consider how you might enliven your Jewish souls. Our Scholar in Residence weekend this month, featuring Dr. Yael Aronoff of MSU, will answer many of your questions (or the questions your friends or co-workers might throw at you) on Israel. Let the return of our religious school students to class be a reminder that Judaism is not (just) for children – you, too, can find ways to learn Torah and Rabbinic literature both locally and online. You can find my weekly reflections on Psalms at embodiedtorah.wordpress.com – read Psalms along with me and add your own reflections in the comments.

May your new year be sweet and give you many opportunities to nourish your soul.

Psalm 59

They come each evening growling like dogs, roaming the city. (59:7)

Recently, while returning to the car after music lessons, my children and I heard a meowing cat – really more of a kitten – near the car. My daughter and one of my sons walked towards the sound and the cat came right out of the bushes and walked up to them. No collar, no identification. I love dogs, but am fairly indifferent to cats. On top of that, it was after 6:00 so the Humane Society was closed, and I know cats, being independent creatures, can take care of themselves fairly well. My daughter wanted to do something, find someone to take care of the cat, but in addition to the already mentioned reasons, I was hungry and I wanted to go home. Had it been a dog, I probably would have done the same thing – I would not have wanted to take it home, 6-7 miles away, in case its owner was looking for it. However, I would have felt badly about leaving a dog. My daughter, being more sensitive than I, felt badly about leaving the cat.

As much as I love dogs, there is something fear inducing about a stray dog. A hissing stray cat will not provoke much of a reaction in me (although I certainly wouldn’t approach it), but a growling dog brings up a primal fight or flight reaction.

This is not a surprising reaction. It is an empirically smart reaction, perfectly normal and expected. But if you think about it, it is the animal that I feel a connection with and have strong positive feelings for that potentially provokes fear, while the animal that I somewhat dislike that prompts feelings of indifference.

Isn’t this also the case with people? It is the people we have a connection with and feel closest to who have the power to evoke the strongest negative emotions in us – anger, fear, hatred, jealously, and disgust. Such emotions are generally undesirable and get in the way of maintaining a healthy relationship with our spouse, parents, siblings, or children. When those emotions come up it is worth keeping this in mind in order not be be over reactive – ‘fight or flight’ is proper when confronting a growling dog; ‘sit and have a cup of coffee and talk’ is a better reaction when dealing with an unhappy spouse!

Psalm 58

The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. (58:11)

Really? What a horrible image! I can’t imagine what terrible things this Psalmist experienced that caused him to rejoice in revenge.

To most moderns, revenge is an evil word – we prefer justice. Revenge is loaded with passion and anger, revenge is something we do to satisfy an emotional need to get back at someone who wronged us.

The better word is justice. Justice is fair, balanced, unemotional. Justice has no anger. In fact, justice can and should be mixed with mercy. Justice is something that should be dealt out only reluctantly.

What is wrong with the speaker in this Psalm, what trauma did he endure in his life? Apparently, he has been badly abused and understandably sees the people who abused him as irrevocably evil. He wants so badly to believe in a just God, but the only way that will work for him is if he personally witnesses the suffering of the wicked.

This kind of faith in God is doomed. If you only believe in a God who visibly punishes, you are likely to go through life unsatisfied and angry. Rather, I suggest envisioning God as compassionate, giving every person the chance to transform.

Virtually every person who has done wrong as the potential to change. If human beings didn’t have the free will to be evil and then turn away from their evil nature and embrace goodness, they were never good to begin with. The only way to truly be good is to know that one could be evil, and make the choice not to.

God’s compassion understands that the person who bullied you in grade school may very well have been acting out of a behavior learned at home. The person who behaves badly at work, criticizing, condemning, complaining, taking without giving, may very well have been taught a twisted sense of human relations principles from his or her parents. We do well to learn God’s compassion and act with it in our own lives. Don’t embrace the anger of this Psalmist – embrace the compassion of God instead!

Psalm 57

Awake, O my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will wake the dawn. (57:9)

Would that music had the power to awaken the light! There is deep darkness in our world as the calendar turns around to another anniversary of September 11, the number of murdered by the dictator of Syria dwarfs the number murdered in the attack on the World Trade Center and the two other hijacked planes.

Would that the harp and lyre had the power to open up the human soul to the power of love and acceptance! Instead, what we see is a growing movement of radical Islamic oppression. The world would live in darkness when the freedom to worship God according to one’s own spiritual path is denied, when one is murdered for worshipping Jesus or denying Muhammad.

Music has the power to bring people together, singing in harmony, but the music of much of the Middle East these days is not an inviting melody.

An old proverb of uncertain origin goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. A version of this first appeared in print in 1640 in a travelogue by the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller entitled, A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof.

How sad that he wrote this when traveling through Israel; and that more than 370 years later, the dark clouds still loom over much of the region.