Saturday, April 29, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 19: Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

Day 19: Hod in Tiferet, Glory in Balance
Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene

You can't stop gloom and chaos, but you can minimize their effects by balancing them with joy and optimism. Name something positive that happened today and something you are looking forward to tomorrow.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 18: Big Yellow Taxi

Day 18: Netzach in Tiferet, Endurance in Beauty
Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

"I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise." -Joni Mitchell on her inspiration for Big Yellow Taxi

On Tu B'Shevat, I wrote about Heschel's suggestion that the earth is not Mother Earth, but our sister, a sibling to humanity, both of us created by God. Today, Mitchell reminds us that we should not take nature's beauty for granted. The beauty around us will not endure without some help to maintain and protect it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 17: Try

Day 17: Tiferet in Tiferet, Beauty in Beauty
Try by Colbie Caillat

Take your make-up off
Let your hair down
Take a breath
Look into the mirror, at yourself
Don't you like you?
'Cause I like you

Caillat's Try is an anthem to our inner beauty, questioning the value our society places on outer beauty at the expense of who we really are. Don't hide yourself under makeup, she says; let your inner beauty shine and it will be reflected out to the world.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 16: Reflection

Day 16: Gevurah in Tiferet, Strength in Beauty
Reflection by Christina Aguilera

Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

Mirrors show us our outward appearances, but there is so much more to beauty than looks. Our actions reflect our inner beauty and strength.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 15: What A Wonderful World

Day 15: Chesed in Tiferet, Loving-kindness in Beauty
What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying "how do you do?"
They're really saying "I love you"

Louis Armstrong sees beauty not just in rainbows, but in the kindness that people show each other with a smile or a handshake. Today is a day to act out beauty and to find beauty not just in our natural surroundings, but in the kindness of friends and strangers who make each day brighter with just a smile.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 14: We Weren't Born to Follow

Day 14: Malchut in Gevurah, Leadership in Justice
We Weren't Born to Follow by Bon Jovi

We weren't born to follow
You gotta stand up for what you believe

When we see injustice, it is our responsibility to stand against it and speak up for what is right.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 13: Forever Young

Day 13: Yesod in Gevurah, Foundation in Strength
Forever Young by Bob Dylan

May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift

Things change whether we want them to or not. The world changes, people change, perceptions change. Change can be scary, but it doesn't have to be. The whole goal of counting the Omer is to achieve some personal growth, to change for the better, but we don't have to change everything about who we are. Today, think about your strengths, the foundational characteristics of who you are that you want to hold onto and that will help you through the changes that you will face in your life.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 12: The Way I Talk

Day 12: Hod in Gevurah, Glory/Humility in Strength
The Way I Talk by Morgan Wallen

Got some words you've never heard
'Less you come from down yonder
The Man upstairs gets it
So I ain't tryna fix it
No I can't hide it
I don't fight it, I just roll with it

Sometimes, the way we talk, how we look, or where we come from are sources of strength; we show off our roots with pride and find comfort in the familiarity of an accent or a place.

But other times, we try to hide the things that make us different out of shame or a desire to fit in. For the first two years after I left Chicago, I clung to "pop" despite laughs and quizzical stares from my Southern and East Coast friends, but nowadays if you come to my house, I will offer you a soda.

The Way I Talk recognizes this dichotomy. Wallen admits that "some people make fun of" his accent and the Southern phrases he uses, but he chooses to embrace his speech as a part of himself and his heritage that has value.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 11: Rocky Theme

Day 11: Netzach in Gevurah, Endurance in Strength
Gonna Fly Now (Rocky Theme) by Bill Conti

When I lived in Philadelphia, I lived down the street from the Italian Market and worked just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On my lunch break, if I was willing to brave the traffic on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I could eat lunch on the steps of the museum. Inevitably, a group of tourists would arrive, snap a photo with the Rocky statue, and then race up the steps humming the Rocky Theme. I never saw anyone make it all the way up the 72 steps to the top; usually they would stop short, raise their arms above their heads, and do the little Rocky dance on whatever step they had managed to reach, but it never failed to entertain.

The lesson? You need both endurance and strength to run up all those steps and to face your toughest challenges in life.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 10: Superman

Day 10: Tiferet in Gevurah, Compassion in Strength/Justice
Superman (It's Not Easy) by Five for Fighting

I'm more than a bird
I'm more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It's not easy to be me

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!" Nearly indestructible and determined to uphold truth and justice, Superman might as well be the embodiment of gevurah. But even the strongest of us need compassion.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 9: Live Like A Warrior

Day 9: Gevurah in Gevurah, Bravery in Bravery
Live Like A Warrior by Matisyahu

You wanna be brave
Don't be afraid

If you have been letting fear hold you back from doing something you really want to do, today is the day to throw caution to the wind. Put on a brave face and get it done.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 8: After the Tornado

Day 8: Chesed in Gevurah, Kindness in Justice
After the Tornado by Jim's Big Ego

Bad things happen
to the kindest people
God and the Devil
are kind of hard to tell apart

All faiths struggle to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful God with an unjust world. We see it in the Book of Job, in Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and countless sermons given by clergy in the wake of tragedies.

This song struggles with the devastating aftermath of a tornado, which has torn through a town and shaken the faith of the singer, who notes that "everything is wrong." When bad things happen, it is natural to look for a reason, but we know that sometimes there is no reason. Today, let's focus not on why bad things happen, seeking justice or meaning in a natural disaster or tragedy, but look for the kindness and love displayed by people afterward. We coordinate relief efforts, volunteer, donate - these outpourings of kindness attempt to right what has gone wrong and bring a sense of justice, strength, and resilience to an otherwise unjust situation.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 7: Stubborn Love

Day 7: Malchut in Chesed, Leadership in Loving-Kindness
Stubborn Love by The Lumineers

The opposite of love's a need for it.

You might think that the opposite of "love" is "hate," but The Lumineers make a compelling argument that the opposite of love is actually just needing to be loved. Elie Wiesel put it another way: "The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is indifference."

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year, my rabbi, Rabbi David Kalender, invoked Wiesel's words in a plea to combat loneliness. His d'var was a moving call for everyone to become leaders, to step up to help those most in need of community and love by helping to make a shiva minyan, visiting the sick, or acting as shomerim (the people who sit with a dead body before burial). Today, I am reminded of that important call to action. How can I do more? How can I provide loving-kindness for those who need it most?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 6: All You Need is Love

Day 6: Yesod in Chesed, Foundation in Love
All You Need is Love by The Beatles

There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
All you need is love

Love is the foundation of everything. As long as you have love, you will have the support to learn and do anything you want in life.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 5: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

Day 5: Hod in Chesed, Splendor in Love
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing by Frank Sinatra

Love is a many splendored thing
It's the April rose that only grows in the early Spring
Love is nature's way of giving a reason to be living

It can be easy to take love for granted, but it is important to recognize just how rare and special those relationships are.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 4: You Can't Hurry Love

Omer Introduction | Day 3 | Day 5

Day 4: Netzach in Chesed, Endurance in Love
You Can't Hurry Love by The Supremes

You can't hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said to trust, give it time
No matter how long it takes

Love is worth the wait.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 3: Forever and Ever, Amen

Day 3: Tiferet in Chesed, Beauty in Love
Forever and Ever, Amen by Randy Travis

They say time takes its toll on a body
Makes a young girl's brown hair turn gray
But, honey, I don't care, I ain't in love with your hair
And if it all fell out, well I'd love you anyway

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Randy Travis reminds us that beauty rooted in love is eternal, withstanding the test of time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 2: If I Had a Hammer

Day 2: Gevurah in Chesed, Justice in Love
If I Had a Hammer by Pete Seeger

Well I got a hammer
And I got a bell
And I got a song to sing
All over this land
It's the hammer of Justice
It's the bell of Freedom
It's the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

When Pete Seeger died in 2014, one of my co-workers asked who he was and my jaw dropped, because, for me, Seeger and his music epitomized the struggle for justice that we still are still striving to achieve today. He was not content with justice for some or love only for his neighbors, but needed to hammer out justice for everyone and show love to people everywhere.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Omer 2017 Day 1: One Love

Day 1: Chesed in Chesed, Love in Love
One Love by Bob Marley

One love, one heart
Let's get together and feel alright

At the seders that we all just concluded, we were reminded yet again to "love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt." With this lesson fresh in our minds, we begin counting the Omer with love in love, an important opportunity to practice empathy. How can we relate better to others, understand their experiences, and welcome them into our communities? The Torah and Bob Marley suggest that our own experiences should inform our outreach to the stranger. Love is not finite, confined to our own families and communities; it is limitless and universal. So, let's get together and share our chesed.

As we were wrapping up and heading home from a fantastic first night seder with friends and family well after midnight on Monday night, someone was vandalizing our local Jewish Community Center and a nearby church. They spray painted slogans and symbols of hate that have shocked and saddened our community. This morning at services, instead of a traditional d'var Torah, our rabbi invited us to discuss the incident together as a congregation. How did it make us feel? How did we address it at our second night seders? On this holiday when we celebrate freedom from oppression and God's protection, how do we process the hatred directed at us?

Some expressed their disgust and the sinking feeling of seeing a swastika on our beloved community center. One woman suggested that the cowardly vandal is seeking attention and that moving on from the incident would deny the person the attention they crave. Another woman thought it was important to address the problem wanted to strike a balance between moving on quickly and condemning it in the strongest terms. Finally, we discussed the importance of supporting our community in times of trouble, recognizing that it was not just the JCC that was attacked and that the Haggadah's entreaty to "let all who are hungry come and eat" reminds us to extend our kindness to all who need it. Like chesed in chesed, this means not only standing up for our Jewish community, but our neighbors at the Little River United Church of Christ and anyone else in need.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Omer 2017

Counting the Omer is one of my favorite Jewish rituals. Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count 49 days, ending on the 50th day with the celebration of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates our receiving the Torah at Sinai.

According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), we don't just count the days. Each week and each day also have a corresponding sephira - an emotion or aspect of God - so that as we count, we also reflect on the intersection of the day's sephira with the sephira of the week. The seven sephirot are:
    1. Chesed (חסד): love, kindness
    2. Gevurah (גבורה): strength, power, justice, bravery
    3. Tiferet (תפארת): beauty, balance, compassion
    4. Netzach (נצח‎): eternity, endurance, victory
    5. Hod (הוד): splendor, majesty, glory, humility
    6. Yesod (יסוד): foundation, connection
    7. Malchut (מלכות): leadership

    The first day of each week is the day of chesed. The weeks go in the same order, so the second week is gevurah, making the eighth day of the Omer (day one of week two) loving-kindness in strength.

    Counting the Omer in this way is meant to help us contemplate our inner selves and become better people over the course of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. Over the past few years, I've blogged my counting, including last year, when I paired each day of the Omer with a woman from the Tanakh.

    Before I finished counting the Omer last year, I came up with a new idea for the coming year: counting the Omer with music. Music has a way of reaching into our souls and stirring emotions that can sometimes be difficult to articulate, so each day this year I will pair the sephirot with a song. The counting begins tomorrow night at the second night seder. Happy Passover!

    Tuesday, February 21, 2017

    Anti-Semitism and the President

    ​Let's talk about all these JCC bomb threats.​

    I work at a Jewish Community Center. Thank God the building I work in has not yet been the target of a bomb threat, like ​nearly 70 other ​JCC​s across the country in the past month, but ​the threats still hit home​. My friends and colleagues have been evacuated from their offices and children shepherded out of harm's way per carefully-planned security procedures. These threats, some near and some far away, echo in my workplace in heightened security checks and more frequent reviews of evacuation plans.

    Dealing with anti-Semitism comes with the territory of being Jewish and it takes many forms. It can be an off-handed remark based in ignorance, graffiti scrawled on a synagogue, headstones overturned in a Jewish cemetery, or threats to Jewish community centers. If you can stomach it, you can listen to an audio clip of one of the past month's phone threats here.

    I​ would be lying if I said it wasn't at least a little scary to go to work everyday in this environment, but I am less gripped by fear than by anger. I'm angry that my workplace is a target because it is Jewish. Of course, I'm angry that anti-Semitism exists and is on the rise. I'm angry that these callers and vandals have so much hate in them and that anti-Semites and hate-mongers feel empowered in America today.

    When the first few waves of threats were called in, I thought I didn't need or want our 45th president to respond. I certainly wasn't going to hold my breath waiting for him to express concern for our communities. He was, after all, dealing with other enemies - the media, the National Park Service, millions of cases of voter fraud, and refugees and legal green card holders - and he has been busy spending our taxes traveling to and from his Florida resort. Besides, his speech - stilted, unrefined, combative, and limited in its expressive vocabulary - has never been able to move me to anything but repulsion. I did not need him to make some hollow statement, some empty gesture. 

    Except, I did need that.

    Yesterday, another 11 JCCs received threats and, like all the others so far, they turned out to be hoaxes. But yesterday, I realized that I had lost count of how many threats had been reported this year. Was this the third round or the fifth? How many times now had the Birmingham JCC where I used to work been forced to evacuate? And after watching the president specifically dodge a question about combating anti-Semitism just a week before, I had finally had enough.

    This president does not get to claim that he is the "least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life." He does not get to hide behind having a Jewish daughter or excuse himself because Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has "known [him] for a long time." This president ran a campaign of hate. His campaign rejected civility (or "political correctness"), revived the anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric of "America First," and evoked old stereotypes and tropes linking Jews to some secret global power structure that does not exist. He retweeted neo-Nazis and was hesitant to denounce the support of the KKK. His campaign and his victory gave hope to anti-Semites, racists, bigots, and all the worst slime of our society. And so, while I knew that nothing he could say would ring true to my ear as I enter my workplace every morning, I did still need him in his capacity as our president to say something.

    Yesterday, after the latest 11 JCC threats, his Jewish daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted:

    Last night, the White House released a statement condemning "hatred and hate-motivated violence."

    This morning, Hillary Clinton joined in:

    After all that, the president himself finally uttered the words he had been avoiding. During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he said:
    "The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil." 
    It is one of his more coherent sentences, without the asides and repetitive hyperbole characteristic of his speech. It is, of course, not enough. It feels insincere given his history on the campaign trail and the fact that it took almost 70 bomb threats and a month of nagging to get him to say anything at all about an issue that the president should be forced to address. So, while his statement left me every bit as underwhelmed as I expected it would, the fact that he said anything when he so clearly did not want to feels like a small victory and I'll take it.

    Wednesday, February 15, 2017

    Quote of the Week: Teamwork

    One of my boss' favorite phrases is "teamwork makes the dream work." I don't know where she picked it up and if it makes you groan at how corny it sounds, you are not alone. Yet, as we prepare to read Parsha Yitro this weekend, I can't help thinking that it is extremely relevant.

    In this portion, Moses' father-in-law, Yitro (or Jethro) visits the newly-freed Israelites in the desert and almost immediately notices the inefficiency of this new nation. All issues in need of arbitration are brought to Moses, who personally hands down judgments on all the people's problems. Seeing that this is tiring for both Moses and the people waiting patiently for their turn to be heard, Yitro proposes a solution: teamwork. Moses chose trusted leaders in the community to hear cases and make judgments for the people's minor issues, leaving only a "major matter" (Exodus 18:22) for Moses to personally hear. By delegating the work in this way, Yitro lessened the burden for Moses and shortened the wait time for the people, so that they would not be overwhelmed.

    Where the people had once spent entire days waiting to deliberate their problems, they could now be heard much more quickly, leaving time for other important matters, like finding food and water, protecting themselves from enemies, and worshiping God. We learn from this portion that asking for help and relying on others is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength and trust necessary for the furtherance of any nation and betterment of mankind.

    Tuesday, February 7, 2017

    Quote of the Week: Tu B'Shevat

    Friday night is Tu B'Shevat, a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the New Year of the Trees. In that spirit, I would like to take a moment to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds us every day.

    This weekend, we will read Parsha Beshalach, in which God finally leads the Israelites out of Egypt. There is danger awaiting us on this new journey, not only the Philistines and other people, but from the unforgiving desert wilderness. In Beshalach, we come up against nature again and again - our escape route is blocked by the Red Sea, scarce water is undrinkably bitter, then there is no water at all, and the ground is barren with no food to sustain us on our long trek.

    In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
    "Monotheism in teaching that God is the Creator, that nature and man are both fellow-creatures of God, redeemed man from exclusive allegiance to nature. The earth is our sister, not our mother." -Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone
    If the earth is our sister, she certainly acts like it in this parshaSometimes we don't get along with our siblings; we refuse to share our toys and withhold things from them. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder from our parents to play nicely, call our siblings more often, and look out for one another. In Beshalach, nature (with some prompting from God) takes care of us. The sea parts safely, bitter water becomes sweet, food appears on the ground like dew, and water flows freely from a rock.

    On Tu B'Shevat, how can we return the favor? Aside from taking a moment to appreciate our surroundings and enjoying this unseasonably warm weather, here are some other ways to celebrate the holiday:
    • Clean up your neighborhood - Next time you see a discarded food wrapper on the sidewalk, pick it up and throw it away. Or call your local Parks Department to volunteer to clean up a neighborhood park.
    • Plant a tree in Israel - You can donate online to the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in honor of a special occasion or in memory of a loved one.
    • Recycle - If you don't recycle at home or at work, look into recycling centers near you or talk to your coworkers about instituting a recycling program in your office. When I lived in an apartment complex that didn't recycle, I drove my cans, bottles, and paper to a recycling center 20 minutes away.
    • Composting - Try composting at home; the EPA has a handy guide to get your started. You can do it in your backyard or, if you're like me and don't have any outdoor space of your own, try a smaller composting container inside. I have a friend who has an indoor compost - it's a super-cute ceramic jar on her kitchen counter and it doesn't smell or anything.
    However you celebrate, chag sameach; have a happy Tu B'Shevat!