Psalm 36

I know what Transgression says to the wicked; he has no sense of the dread of God … (36:2)

Transgression personified is seductive. Transgression is that little voice inside our head whispering to us, that no one will every know that we have taken the unwise action that we are contemplating. Transgression urges us to break down the filter that a wise person places between his thoughts and his actions; between her emotions and her mouth. Transgression urges us towards impulsive behavior – sometimes it is only fear of discovery, fear of shame, fear of God that holds us back.

The meditative mind responds to Transgression: I am not going to act in the moment – I am going to sit on my impulses and live with my strong emotions until they quiet down. Only then will I be able to hear the other voice whispering inside my head, urging me towards equanimity, the calm, measured emotions of the wise, clear seeing person.

This internal dialogue is ongoing. It does no good to try to shut off the transgressive voice – it will not be denied. It does no good to try to shout at it, drown it out with counter arguments, it will just shout louder and longer. The only way to respond to it is by hearing the voice and letting it go. By giving it attention, you give it substance and reality. By embracing the path of equanimity, you choke off the source of its strength. The voice has no power. It is smoke. The slightest puff will dissipate it.

Psalm 28

Deliver Your people, bless Your heritage; shepherd them and raise them forever. (28:9)

In Hebrew, this verse has exactly 10 words. Because of an odd Jewish bias against counting people, this verse is often used on traditional settings to count people to determine whether a minyan is present. The bias comes from to main places in the Bible:

Exodus 30, where a half shekel ransom is taken along with a national census, possible to “atone” for taking the census.
Samuel 24, where King David took a census and as a result 70,000 people died of a plague.

Counting people or possessions was seen as dangerous, lest it attract the evil eye and cause death. In addition, there is something distasteful about assigning people numbers. Number are dehumanizing (e.g. Holocaust tattoos), and because they are associated with value, numbers may imply that some people have higher value than others. Therefore, Exodus 30 takes a coin from each person and counts the coins, rather than counting the people directly.

So, back to our verse, rather than counting a minyan by number people in the room, you might assign each person a word from the verse:

Hoshia et amekha, u-varekh et nahalatekha; ur’em v’nas’em ad olam.

Of all the verses that have exactly 10 words (I haven’t counted them, but I imagine there must be a good number), this is the one that has become popular. Perhaps because the verse is a plea for deliverance, and if we are going to do something as dangerous and dehumanizing as count human beings (even indirectly), we ought to do it with a prayer for their safety and deliverance, calling upon the shepherd God who takes care of the flock. You hear a popular melody of this verse here.

Psalm 27

One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, to frequent God’s temple. (27:4)

This verse brings out a particular religious tension for some. The question is to what extent should a religious tradition encourage its followers to seek complete union with the Divine at every moment such that one is living one’s life entirely in God’s house; versus encouraging its followers to live their lives in service to their fellow humans. At first glance, the Psalmist seems to be living on the side of withdrawal from the world in favor of exclusive union with God.

I learned many years ago from a kind and gentle Buddhist named Ken Wells that this is a needless dichotomy. One can be in meditation all day long while at the same time engaging with one’s job, one’s family, and all of the other tasks of one’s life. Being in intimate awareness of God does not preclude also being intimately aware of human needs.

Not that I have even come close to mastering what I need to do to maintain a meditative mind while taking phone calls, answering email, studying Torah, and taking care of a family. But periodically I come back to this verse, especially to a beautiful melody by Yoni Ganout (you can hear several versions here), and use it as a way to refocus myself when I feel myself becoming distracted and and impatient.

When we begin losing our equilibrium and becoming flustered or angry, taking a breath and narrowing our focus can help. “Just one thing do I ask. I am not asking for help juggling the dozen tasks and concerns on my plate – just help me with one thing. Help me to remember that God’s presence is at the center of everything I do. Help me to remember that the world I am living in is God’s house and the people who are demanding things of me are God’s people. Help me to remember that it is X days until Shabbat, when for 25 hours I can step away from many of the demands on my life and hang out for a few hours at shul among people whom I like.”

Psalm 24

Psalm 24 is sung in our services on weekdays and Shabbat afternoons (and on weekday Festivals) when we put the Torah away. It’s a beautiful, short psalm that begins by reminding us that God is the Creator and in order to deserve a home on this world, we have to treat the landLord and the rest of God’s creatures with respect.

Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in God’s holy place? — One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully. (24:3-4)

Of course, there is no one who has not missed the mark at some point in his or her life. No one’s behavior is unblemished, and no one heart is (i.e. thoughts are) absolutely pure. If thoughts of sin were equal to sin (not true in the Hebrew Bible), most people would be in deep trouble! Judaism has been accused of being so mired in a legal system that recovery is impossible – this is a misunderstanding of Jewish tradition.

In order to ascend the mountain and stand in the presence of God, we need to do the proper work. There is no shortcut up this mountain, there is no tram that takes you up without effort. The work isn’t hard, but it has to be done. Bad habits need to be considered and dismantled. We need to watch our patterns of speech, be careful how we speak about others. Lashon Hara, evil, reputation destroying gossip, will trip us on our journey up the mountain.

I am reminded of a deep Biblical teaching from the beginning of Leviticus, which presents a series of offerings, each of which purify the one who brings it. Large animals, small animals, birds, and grain – each accomplish the same end. The ritual of repentance is open to all, the path up the mountain is fully accessible, regardless of one’s economic power. Judaism has embraced that principle and continued to democratize itself. Judaism is not a race, it is no a closed tribe, it is a way to live your life according to Torah. It is not punitive – it provides a way to clean one’s hands. In the end, we believe that God, the righteous judge, is a loving and merciful God.

Why My Blind Son is Coming Home on Sunday, part 2

Just a little more than 48 hours ago, I was told that my blind son Solomon needed to come home on Sunday. It was a decision made by the director of Camp Ramah in Canada in consultation with a number of staff members.
A few minutes ago, Solomon told us that he is coming home on Sunday. This time, it is his decision. In the past 48 hours, a number of remarkable things happened.
First of all, I’d like to reiterate the fact that for the past five seasons, Solomon has been under the care of some remarkable counselors, teachers, waterfront staff, and other professionals at Camp Ramah in Canada. He has been supported, taught, and guided with care and love.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and extremely poor communication, the tremendously painful events described in part one of this post occurred earlier this week. The response to my article was for the most part supportive and helpful. I am grateful for all who commented on the blog, reposted on facebook and/or commented there, and otherwise spread the word. At the same time, my 12 year old daughter Sarah started a petition drive at Ramah to support Solomon, collecting 240 signatures. Other staff members approached the director offering to take a larger role in helping out Sol. The result was that the director experienced a complete change of heart regarding how he handled the matter. He called and expressed a sincere apology, to Solomon, to me, and to my wife. He took a second look at how staff could be assigned for the second month. He assigned one more person to be Sol’s advocate, and at my request, assigned a new parent liaison, Hillel Kurlandsky, to be Sol’s Yoetz, advisor/social worker.
Marisa and I were satisfied that the director sincerely realized that he had made a serious mistake, and took all of the necessary steps to correct it. At this point, the final decision of whether to stay for the rest of the summer was Solomon’s. Given all of the emotional upheaval that had occurred, we were not 100% sure that Solomon would still want to stay at camp. Sol and Hillel had two lengthy conversations, each more than an hour in length. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Hillel reported that Sol was remarkably mature and clear in his analysis of why he should stay — primarily, because so many people had worked so hard to reverse the decision of the camp — and why he should not stay. Of course, I wish Sol would have chosen to stay, but given what he’s been through, I understand why he has made the decision to come home.
I don’t know if he still wants to go back to camp next year. I don’t know if we can or should try to convince the camp to make allowances in a program designed to train counselors and other support staff, to accommodate a camper who currently does not have the ability to function as a counselor in training or a helper in most areas of camp. I’m sure that if the camp was willing and if Solomon was committed to it, we could find an area in which he could contribute meaningfully. I think we need to take a step away from questions about camp right now, and come back to it in a couple of months after the strong emotions have faded somewhat.
In the end, I want you to know that I still believe in the Camp Ramah experience, and I think I can rebuild my love for Camp Ramah in Canada. This unfortunate episode appears to be the result of a chaotic transition to new leadership; a new director, Ron Polster, who blundered quite badly. Ron, I want to thank you for acknowledging your mistakes. We are all entitled to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them and make appropriate apologies to those we harm along the way.
To those dedicated Ramah staff who I have hurt in the past 48 hours, I apologize. I am sorry for the damage I have done to the reputation of Camp Ramah in Canada by bringing this event into the light of public scrutiny. I did so only because I thought it was the only way that I could effect change.