Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ki Teitzei: Walking with God

Are you familiar with the poem, "Footprints in the Sand"? If not, you can read it here. It's a beautiful poem about feeling the Presence of God in our lives and how it can support us, or even carry us, through hard times. I wanted to start the series with that poem, because my first installment in the Elul series on Relationships begins with God.

Many of our commandments are considering to be "Bein Adam La-makom" - "Between the individual person and God." Keeping Kosher and observing Shabbat are among these mitzvot. But many of us have a difficult time with our relationship to God. It's not quite as simple as observing the commandments and feeling God's closeness in our lives. We may have lost relatives, experienced tragedies, or even just contemplated the Holocaust, anti-Semitism throughout the ages, hunger, poverty, or violence in the world. How do we reconcile these things? How do we connect with God despite the persistence of such atrocities?

The secret, to me, is in the poem about walking with God. Human beings are blessed, and cursed, to have free will, which allows us to choose to live decent, honorable lives and take care of one another... or be selfish, violent, and destructive. God does not interfere, because it would jeopardize the framework of free will.

The High Holidays are not just an opportunity to sit in synagogue and beat our chest (fun as that may be...). They are a chance to recharge our own batteries for the challenges of the year to come. One of the ways we do that is to restart (or perhaps start for the first time) our personal dialogues with God. And I say "dialogue," because opening ourselves up to a conversation where we hear and feel heard is essential.

The prayers we read in services are only meant to be a jumping-off point, inspiration to get your own exchange with God started. How do you relate to God? What is preventing you from starting this little chat? Fear? Skepticism? When I was a chaplain intern in New York, I heard several people in hospital beds say that "God can never forgive me for what I've done." People imagine that God is judging them or keeping them at bay, when in reality the lines of communication are always open. God has forgiven you, can you forgive yourself?

There are lots of distractions surrounding us at the High Holiday services. Friends and family members, long services, fasting, someone sleeping in the pew behind you, and gossiping neighbors all around. You don't need to stay focused throughout the services. Feel free to drift off, chat with a friend you haven't seen in ages, or maybe you're the guy sleeping distracting someone else! But at some point this High Holiday season, try to participate in your own conversation with God. Talk about what's happened in your life, what you hope for in the future, or what you're worried about right now. Sometimes life moves so fast that it feels like we're running through the sand, not walking. Maybe even sprinting! Just know that whatever speed you're moving at, someone is keeping pace right beside you.

Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why Begin in Elul?

Welcome to my blog! So far, this whole blogging experience is as new to me as this site is to you. But I look forward to sharing this journey with you, and look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments; I know that they will enrich and inspire my writing, which is what makes blogging such a wonderful endeavor.

So why start now? Well, I have just begun my work with Ohev Shalom, and I am trying to impress them! :-) I also think that rabbis today need to find new and out-of-the-box ways to reach people, and so far there aren't too many rabbis out there mastering the art of the blog, so I figure I'm doing ok. Furthermore, I feel moved by the spirit of the season - the month of Elul that will lead us into the High Holidays - to start thinking about renewal and rejuvenation.

I would like to kick off my blog with a four-week series in honor of Elul and aimed at leading us into the High Holidays (or really the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. A congregant aptly pointed out that the term High Holidays does not do the season justice. Thank you, Peter!). More than just "Elul," the theme of my series is Relationships. Ohev Shalom is learning a lot about new and old relationships right now, and I find that this theme is very much on my mind.

So what do I mean by Relationships? Our tradition tells us that all mitzvot, commandments, can be divided into two categories: Bein Adam La-makom (between a person and God), and Bein Adam La-chaveiro (between a person and fellow human beings).

Observing mitzvot involves creating relationships, and as we prepare for the Yamim Noraim, we reflect on how we have acted in the year that has gone by, and where we might have violated or offended those relationships. In the weeks to come, I will explore who we turn to when we need to be forgiven, and if there might be more than two categories of relationships we need to worry about before the Days of Awe.