Why is this night different?

Passover is my very favourite holiday of the year. I really adore sitting down to a seder that is, each year, both familiar and new. I love the ritual and tradition, the storytelling aspect, the focus on children, and, of course, the food.

Jewish teachings indicate that we are to make the seder new each year. I challenge you to figure out how to do that around your seder table this year. Perhaps it’s a new addition to the seder plate (last week I spoke about Ruth’s mix for intermarried/intercultural folks). Perhaps it’s a new poem or reading. Perhaps you find a creative and fun way to tell the story of the Exodus (one year my family told it by enacting the scenes in a game of charades).

The point of making it new is not just to keep things interesting, although that’s a worthwhile goal in itself. The point is that we must see ourselves as though we were slaves in Egypt, moving from oppression to freedom. For that to happen, the seder must be experiential and evocative. If our traditions are stale, we will experience distance from the story.

Each seder we ask “why is this night different from all other nights?” We should also ask why this particular night, this particular seder, is unique or special.

One of the things that makes each seder unique is the people who share the table. Sometimes there will be a new person: a new guest, friend, partner, child, who is at the table for the first time. Sometimes it’s the same group of people but everyone is at a new stage of their lives: having gotten married or had a baby, having lost a partner or loved one, having retired, changed jobs, or experiencing some other new change. Each year we grow and evolve and so each year we ourselves are new at the seder table. Take the time to find out who and how everyone is this year. And take the time to find out why this night is special, different from all other seders and gatherings.

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Photo of a Seder plate one person made for the SecularSynagogue.com Seder. If you missed it, join the community now so you don’t miss all the other fantastic things we’re up to! 

Intermarried/intercultural mixing it up this Passover

Passover is my favourite holiday! One of the things I love about it is how we take tradition and make it our own. This is something many secular/cultural Jews do all the time, for we give tradition a vote but not a veto in all of our Jewish practices. But at Passover this is what all Jews are meant to do: stick to traditional ritual and storytelling, but do it in a new way each year.

Do you use a contemporary Haggadah?

Do you tell the story of the Exodus in creative ways?

Do you put an orange on your Seder plate for gender and LGBTQ equality? (If so, you may want to check out the real story behind it: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/an-orange-on-the-seder-plate/)

There is a brand new tradition I’ll be incorporating this year. It comes from JewBelong, a website dedicated to eliminating “JewBarrassment,” the feeling we sometimes get in Jewish spaces when we don’t know what’s going on. This is for Jews and also for those who join Jewish families via Intermarriage, or others who end up with us at holidays and celebrations.

JewBelong’s Haggadah encourages adding “Ruth’s Mix” to the Seder plate. The biblical Ruth married into our people, and her mix on the plate is to show that all are welcome at the Seder table, particularly non-Jews in intercultural families. The mix is a blend of almonds, raisins, and chocolate, all delicious separately, but even better together. As folks eat the mix they consider that bringing cultures and peoples together heightens our joy.

If you want to check out their Haggadah with the section about Ruth’s mix, it’s here: http://www.jewbelong.com/holidays/passover/

Here’s to mixing it up and welcoming all at our Seder tables!!

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Passover prep


As soon as the beginning of April hits, I often realize that I have not prepared for Passover the way I had meant to. Every year I imagine I will create my own Haggadah (in my case, kid-friendly), clean my whole house in the manner of Marie Kondo, get to the end of my work to-do list, and then fall into the perfect seder-mode, as though some kind of Passover queen.

None of those things happen, usually.

Last year I did successfully create a kid-friendly Haggadah, using a blend of Oraynu’s fabulous Haggadah Roots and Branches (we sell those! You can get a set for your own table!),  and the resources on Haggadot.com. This website has assembled sources on all aspects of the Haggadah so you can easily create your own. Yes, most sources are theistic/traditional, but you can edit as you wish. It’s work, but I like that we have a family Haggadah made just for us.

The rest does not happen and is not likely to happen, if I’m being honest. The best I’m going to do on the house cleaning front is making it passable in short spurts (I like the method of putting on fast music and setting a timer for seven minutes) and perhaps a controlled amount of decluttering. My work to-do list will continue to get ever-lengthier, not shorter. I’ll resemble more of a Passover working mom than queen. But all of that is just fine!

I really think that we tend to sweat the small stuff when it comes to Passover prep, and lose sight of the big picture. What is this holiday about? It’s about ending oppression, celebrating freedom, gathering with loved ones, and engaging with a story that has served as the cornerstone of Jewish culture and community. It really doesn’t matter if you haven’t prepared the perfect meal with 8 courses or cleaned each speck of chametz (bread items) or dust from your home.

For me, the big moment of joy last year was hearing my nephew and daughter sing “Ma Nishtana,” the Four Questions, in Hebrew. There is something so powerful about the intergenerational links that celebrating Passover creates. I remember seders from childhood and it’s amazing to see my kids experience their power now.

So, do your prep. Keep your eye on the important stuff. If your home is a little more cluttered or your to-do list a little too long, you can still have a wonderful holiday.

To help you along, I’ve created a Passover prep guide. Check it out here:

 https://www.secularsynagogue.com/free-download

Happy Passover prep, everyone!

 

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Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now.

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages.

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical).

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting.

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now.

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages.

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical).

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting.

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

This is the beach where I was. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug. Join me!  

Playing well with others

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can build bridges with people and communities even where there are disagreements. It has been very sad to see what has happened with the women’s march. When it happened in early 2017 it was such a coming together around women and many different communities who were saddened by the election of someone who has been openly sexist, racist, and homophobic. The occasion was saddening but the event filled many of us with such hope.

Sadly this year the women’s march leadership has come under fire around issues of antisemitism. Linda Sarsour has long been seen as unfriendly to Jews because of her pro-Palestinian activism. However, Sarsour also did major fundraising for Jews after the Pittsburgh shooting and has condemned antisemitism many times. Tamika Mallory, another of the leaders, has attended events with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. It’s her participation that has really made many Jews feel unwelcome at the march. More Jewish voices have been added to the leadership, but it seems the damage is done. Many Jews won’t march this year, which I think is too bad.

We all need to determine what our red lines are. There may be people with whom we can’t stand in solidarity. However, sometimes we isolate ourselves to our own detriment. The values behind the women’s march are greater equity and safety for all. That should be a goal dear to us as those who suffer from antisemitism. More and more I’m understanding that we need broader coalitions in order to increase safety and representation of minority groups.

I also recently attended a meeting of Jewish leaders interesting in approaches to ending antisemitism and we spoke of similar dynamics. We need to partner with other marginalized groups and offer our support when they are the targets of hate. We do this because it is the right thing to do if we are serious about promoting justice in the world. We also do this because there many be times we ask others to stand with us.

Too many times Jews/Jewish groups don’t work with Muslim or Arab people or groups because of issues around Israel/Palestine. Rather than figuring out how to find common ground, we focus on our differences. This means we all lose out because we can’t count on each other for mutual support.

The community I serve in Toronto, Oraynu Congregation, is in a wonderful position to engage with other groups. We have spent the last few years investigating our relationships with others. We had a full weekend program on Jews in the Muslim world, via Dean/Rabbi Adam Chalom’s IISHJ presentation a year and a half ago. We have spent two years focusing on Indigenous issues. We have talked about Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. In each instance, we have come up against some attitudes we may continue to harbor which are based on stereotypes. In each instance, we likely realize we have more in common with other marginalized groups. And in many cases we *are* those groups. There are Jewish Arabs. There are Black Jews. There are Jewish/Indigenous folks. It isn’t an “us/them” situation at all.

More importantly, as we see a rise in the expression of white supremacist hate, we know we are better off sticking together with other folks who feel similarly threatened.

My hope is that all of us, those in Jewish communities or not, remember to try to find common ground. Seek to understand the motivations of the people with whom you disagree. Understand that things will be complex and messy but, even so, we are much stronger together.  

The people I serve are, above all, a group of people who care about doing good in the world. I know I can count on you — and that’s what continues to fill me with hope.

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Nothing is promised

I teach at a university, and specifically, I teach people becoming teachers. I have been in that role since 2012 and have had many fantastic candidates come through my classes. There is one that I can say is one of the best of the best. I watched him teach last year and thought, “this guy is better than most of the career teachers I’ve seen.” The school he was placed at tried to figure out how to hire him even though he still had a year left to finish his degree. And this person is not only a gifted teacher, he is a fabulous actor, a wonderful friend, a terrific student, a genuinely good-hearted person. I’m sure he saves puppies and sews booties for new babies on the side. Ok, maybe not that. But he is a truly terrific person through and through.

This past week he came to me and told me he has cancer. He is an otherwise healthy, twenty-eight year old. He doesn’t smoke, barely drinks, stays active, and takes good care of himself. Cancer.

I don’t need to tell you that this kind of thing happens without rhyme or reason and simply isn’t fair.

I don’t need to tell you that in the absence of believing in some higher power with some master plan, we have to boldly and bravely look at the chaos of the universe and accept our place in it.

And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, for we’ve all heard many times, that stories like this are a reminder to be grateful for what we have, and it’s our job to remember that nothing in life is promised to us. We are lucky if we are healthy. We are lucky if we get to live out our lives until old age.

So this message isn’t that. I do think it’s a good reminder to practice gratitude. But, for a moment, let’s just stick with the unfairness of it all. Because that’s where I’m stuck just right now and sometimes we have to just sit with it. I know that the “right” answer is to focus on the positive. But right now I want to focus on the pain of it. I am trying to really feel things lately, not simply reason or explain or distract myself away from them.

I am sad for him and his loved ones. I am sad for all those who suffer needlessly and senselessly. I am a little shaken by how unfair things really are. And I’m angry — why? Directed at whom? There’s no reason or purpose to it. Sometimes we just feel angry.

As Secular Humanistic Jews we tend to move towards the rational. Obviously I think this is a good thing. Lots of people have called our movement “Rational Judaism.” I’m a fan of using our brains, accepting science, figuring through problems, and evaluating our world through empirical data. I’m pro-reason. And (not but, and) sometimes it is reasonable to be unreasonable. Sometimes we just have to get through tough feelings and emotions, and sit with them, and accept that, sure, the world is made of chaos, and cancer doesn’t discriminate, and someone is going to get it so why not him... we can use our brains all we want but the feelings are still there and still matter.

I don’t call what we do and who we are “Rational Judaism” because, to me, being rational isn’t the point or purpose. I connect to Judaism to fulfill my spiritual and emotional needs. I have a university to foster the rational stuff. The rational has to do with how we access Judaism — we want it to be human-centred and earth-centred, based in a knowable reality. We don’t want our Judaism to conflict with what we know from science, archaeology, or other empirical data. So we work to create a Judaism that thrives without the supernatural. But we can’t stop at what we *don’t* believe. We have to move to what we do believe: Jewish culture adds meaning, depth, and beauty to our lives, community empowers us, our purpose is in doing good. The rationality isn’t the purpose. The emotional/spiritual is the purpose and we just don’t want the obstacles to rationality to get in the way.

This is my invitation to all of us to allow ourselves to hang out in the realm of the emotional a little bit more. Let’s give ourselves permission to really feel our feelings.

I won’t stay mad/sad at this situation forever. I know I will eventually move on to a place of acceptance and hope.

I have every confidence that this student of mine will be fine; he has good care and a good prognosis. I know for sure that my amazing colleagues are already doing all we can to make sure he is cared for and supported. There is lots of reason for hope. I understand that all of this will ultimately make me reflect with gratitude on my own health and the health of my loved ones. For now, though, I get to feel what I feel. It takes practice but it’s the only way to fully experience this crazy ride called being alive. And now, especially now, I want to really experience it.

Chrismakkuh and Chanukah

Lots of us are gearing up for the holiday season. Some families do Chanukah and some do something more like Chrismakkuh. What does your family do?

I've been thinking a lot about how families make the holidays their own. Part of what I appreciate about the holidays is the chance to create new traditions. At my husband Charlie's family Christmas dinner, they always make sure I have a lasagne. Why lasagne, you ask? No, it's not traditional for either Christmas or Chanukah. But I'm a vegetarian and even though there is plenty of food I can have, they wanted to make sure I have a main dish I can enjoy while they're all noshing on turkey.

I now associate Christmas with lasagne. Charlie, who isn't Jewish, associates December with Chanukah, something new to him.

We have negotiated all the things people negotiate: lights, tree, presents, how we blend or don't blend the holidays. Our way isn't your way, but everyone has to find what works.

Even in families where Chanukah is the only holiday being celebrated, you might come from different family traditions or ways of celebrating. Everyone has to negotiate how to make the holidays meaningful for them.

It's worthwhile to figure out how to make the holidays fit with your values.... how many gifts and for whom? Can tzedakah be part of the holiday giving? This year we made a list of people who help us, everything from garbage collectors to postal workers to hairdressers, and we're making cookies for them. It's a good time of year to spread some cheer.

For more on this, check out my Chrismakkuh guide: https://www.secularsynagogue.com/holidays/

However you are celebrating, I hope it will be with great joy.

Until next week,

Denise

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Let there be light!

We are now in the Jewish month of Kislev. This month we celebrate Chanukah and join cultures around the world whose festivals are made to increase light at this dark time of year. As I write this (a few days before you’re reading it), it is Diwali, and because I live in a South Asian neighbourhood there have been sparklers, fireworks, special sweets and celebrations in the streets. It has been a powerful antidote to the endless grey skies and the early darkness.

Chanukah is a bit early this year, and so our own festival of light will be all wrapped up before that other winter holiday which gets quite a bit of attention at this time of year. It’s a chance to let the light continue to shine - from Diwali to Chanukah, to winter solstice, to Christmas to Kwanzaa (Dec 26-31). Many festivals of light and joy at the time of year we need them most.

The Jewish contribution, Chanukah, is ours to uphold, but we can imagine ourselves in a chain of people(s) everywhere, increasing light. I love that image.

Chanukah is a bit of a shapeshifting holiday — its traditions have evolved over time and the places where Jews have lived. This year’s iteration for us will be inspiring and challenging — feelings the holiday naturally provokes. I hope you’ll be with us.

Wherever you are at this month, I hope you find lots of light and love to brighten the short, dark days.

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I Heart Hashem and Humanism

I was recently at a retreat for Rabbis Without Borders. This is a program that offers rabbis selected for their innovative work. We get training, opportunity for study, and the chance to form collegial relationships with rabbis across the Jewish spectrum. I knew I would be the only Humanistic rabbi there. I approached the first retreat last spring with a little bit of trepidation. Sometimes people, especially rabbis, in other movements, are not very friendly to us. I can take it — Humanistic Jews are built tough. But, still, four days of it (and these days run from 7:30 am - 9:30 pm) could be a little wearing.

The rabbis, however, were overwhelmingly kind. And curious! The truth is, they know a lot of their own community members are more like us than like “them” in some ways. There are so many people who don’t find prayer meaningful. So many Jews who would call themselves atheist/agnostic/cultural/secular/spiritual but not religious. They want to learn from me how we do what we do. I’m proud to represent us.

I also learn so much from them. There is so much creativity and innovation out there. I hope you’ll come to upcoming programs where I get to showcase some of what I’m learning and put it into action.

One thing that has been especially touching, is that I have formed a bond with an Orthodox rabbi named Isaiah. He is a really interesting guy — he grew up in the Chasidic community as a Jew of colour. He is a fantastic musician (you can check out his band Zayah online). He runs programs for Jews and for rabbis to try build bridges in the Jewish world.  What he sings, and teaches, is very theistic in nature, of course, but he is often driving at the same overall messages as I am. It’s all about kindness, tzedakah, joy, meaning, beauty.

I was voluntold to lead a service at this past retreat. The idea is to showcase how one’s movement does it, or highlight one’s particular style. At the spring retreat many rabbis said they’d love to see Secular Humanistic Judaism in action. So I agreed to lead a morning service this time around.

Something you may or may not know about me is that I am not a good singer. I see this as a strength; you should always feel comfortable singing if I’m around because you’ll never be the most tone deaf person in the room! However, when leading a service, I need back up. I asked Isaiah to help me by playing guitar and singing. The songs were Hine Ma Tov and the Humanistic version of Refuah Sheleimah, the song we sing to wish others healing.

Isaiah didn’t plan to subvert my message or anything. As I mentioned, the days at the retreat are long. And so he rolled out of bed and put on a shirt without much thought. The shirt said: “I (heart image) Hashem”. So there we were, co-leading the service, a Humanist and a Hashem-worshipper. The service itself was completely secular.

Afterwards, some people asked me if I was offended. I said, “of course I’m not offended!! I’m delighted!” Imagine a world in which we all helped one another live out our beliefs and values, even and especially when they contradict our own, in the spirit of cooperation and caring. I think Isaiah did something wonderful: he showed others what it looks like to be a helper, a friend, and a mentsch.

As we move into the colder winter months, and we begin to hunker down and hibernate, remember Isaiah and I, up there on a bimah, singing (one of us badly) together, delivering a message of hope and healing. Who can you reach or reach out to in the same spirit?

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Rosh Hashanah sermon - Can a Humanist Be Happy?

This was the Rosh Hashanah commentary from the service at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, September 2018 (5779). Note: it followed the reading of Jeremiah 31: 2-20, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah.

 

Stop me if you heard it: The Brandeis University rowing team has failed every time. They send an observer to watch the Yale and Harvard crew teams, and he reports back, "guys, we're doing it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling!" This joke works because of the stereotype that Jews yell, disagree, can’t steer together.

Jeremiah tells us that when the exiles return there will be immense joy, there will be celebration, there will be singing and dancing. Mourning itself shall turn to joy. But, with respect to Jeremiah, as the people who are more likely to call out “oy” than to experience “joy” we are perhaps still waiting for the prophecy to come true.

Quick exercise and please try not to overthink: If you have children or grandchildren in your life: what’s the one thing you want most for them in their lives?

And here’s one for you? What do you want for your life most this year?

Do the answers match up? #1 answer when parents are asked what they want for their kids is not a fancy job, or a spouse, or wealth. It’s happiness. When we set our own goals, they are often for these parts of life that we think might make us happy, but usually we do not set out simply to be happy ourselves.

Paul Golin, the Executive Director of our movement organization  the Society for Humanistic Judaism, was here this past June. He asked what job Judaism is doing in our lives, which I think is a really worthwhile question. It’s a question I put to you. I answered that I thought Judaism could be a force to make people’s lives happier, and Paul was surprised. He said something like, “wow, happy. I never considered happy. I’m not even sure I’m capable of happy. What I have is something more like righteous indignation.”

If you know me at all, you know I’m actually quite a fan of righteous indignation. I believe we are living in an incredibly pivotal political time and the very real fights we face around climate change, racism and discrimination, sexism and sexual violence, immigration and refugee rights, food security, and many more, are deserving of our fervour, our ferocity, and our fury. I’m a big fan of anger when it motivates us to act. I think we are entitled to be angry — there is a lot going on that should make us angry. But when you think about what you want for the children and grandchildren in your life is it to walk around being angry all the time? Of course not. We need to find a way to balance the righteous indignation with the joy. Can a Humanist be happy? I sure as hell hope so!

You are likely familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The bottom of the pyramid is filled with things we need to survive: food, shelter, water. As we go up the pyramid there are things like love and belonging. Further up is esteem, and the highest need we have, a need we are capable of achieving only if all the other needs are met, is self-actualization. I like a lot of what is in this theory, but I have two criticisms: firstly, while it is important to focus on the self, I believe we as humans actually need to focus beyond our selves. There is nothing on that pyramid about doing good, pursuing social justice, helping others. I think if we are to truly reach self-actualization we have to look outwardly as well as inwardly. The second criticism I have is the shape... the pyramid. Maslow suggests that we can’t focus on love and belonging until we have basic physiological needs met. I disagree. I think people who do not have the basic means for survival often experience incredible love and feelings of belonging. I also think the love and belonging help us find the tools to survive, for we are motivated by our own survival and that of the people we love.

I’m going to return to some of these concepts, particularly love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I think they are key to our happiness as individuals and as a people.

But first I want to explore more about why this happiness thing is so hard to come by, perhaps especially for Humanistic Jews. Partly it’s that most of us do not believe in a grand plan, in fate, in things being by design. When someone believes in those things, I think it is easier to resist despair. We not only have no faith that these things will all turn out fine because they are preordained, but we don’t necessarily have faith that the humans on whom we rely have the will or the skill to address the challenges we face.

I think there is something cultural at play too. In Michael Wex’s book “Born to Kvetch,” he discusses how Yiddish encoded something in the Jewish psyche. He says Yiddish is not a “have a nice day” language. One doesn’t ask “how are you?” Because the answer will be “how should I be?”

And yet there are examples of Jews who make happiness their mission, sometimes literally. The Chasidic movement is so successful because it has a goal of making Jewish practice extremely happy and joyful, almost frenetically so sometimes. The Chasidim sure bring the party, and you know what? They’re right. There is much with which I disagree in Chasidic and other branches of Orthodox Judaism. But Chasidism got the joy piece right. Why be or do Jewish if it doesn’t help make you happy? I stand by my answer to Paul Golin. I think Jewish identity, practice, ritual, and experience can absolutely help you up Maslow’s ladder, from offering love and belonging, to reasons for self-esteem and the esteem of others, and to self-actualization. Judaism also helps with the social justice piece that Maslow forgot.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about happiness. We have traditional sources on this.

The Mishnaic sage, Ben Zoma, expresses it very succinctly: Eizehu ashir? Hasame’ach bechelko. “Who is rich? He who is happy with his share.” Good advice.

Anne Frank noted, “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are different and yet the same.”

And many people who are not Jewish have much to offer in understanding how we can increase happiness in our lives and strengthen the link between doing Jewish and being happy.

In The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, we learn techniques that Rubin tried for a year to help make her more happy, a project she claims was successful, she is truly happier now. I’m a fan of Rubin’s. I get her daily “moment of happiness” emails with a quotation about happiness or something meaningful and I find it helps me start my day. One of the biggest takeaways from the Happiness Project for me, is one of the simplest. One of her rules for happiness is, “Be Gretchen.” She writes about how she always felt insecure about how she didn’t particularly care for music. She saw how much meaning it brought to others. She wanted to like it. She tried to like it. But she doesn’t really like it. She is happier focusing on the things that really are suited to her. In all things, be Gretchen. Or, you know, insert your own name. Later in the service we’ll here of the midrashic Zusya, a story from our own tradition with a very similar moral. Be yourself.

How does that map out Jewishly? Well, focus on the aspects of Jewish culture and practice that are meaningful to you and here’s the real trick: DFBA - don’t feel bad about it! If you are the kind of Jew who could not care less about Torah/Tanakh ( Tanakh is the Hebrew bible... like what we read from Jeremiah..) if you just went to sleep - if you’re that kind of Jew- guess what? DFBA! It’s ok! It’s better than ok! You now know your link to Judaism isn’t bible. But you’re here - so what is it? Personal betterment and fulfillment? Community and the traditions and people of our ancestral past? Social justice? Judaism has something to offer as we seek all of these things, and also shows us how these things connect. So, be Jewish your way. Be Gretchen or, rather, be you.

Last year I spoke about belief, behaviour, belonging. I returned to the concept a few weeks ago when reading Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, a book that I wholeheartedly recommend. In it, Brown speaks about the human need for belonging — the middle of the Maslow hierarchy.  Brown’s definition of “true belonging” is: when we are truly and authentically ourselves and feel accepted.” But, of course, we won’t always be or feel accepted. So we must foster self-acceptance... it is a book for what she called outliers. Those who buck trends. Those who, in her words, brave the wilderness.

“True belonging” — makes me nervous. It sounds and feels a little too much like True believer. Our community is a community of misfits, skeptics, and outliers. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have found each other in the wilderness. I love that metaphor because it reminds me of Passover - the Exodus story (sorry for the bible-haters...)  of Jews who wandered for 40 years. And still we wander... outliers.

The wilderness for Brown is being an outlier; being brave enough to stand up and stand out from the crowd. In her words, “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness” (49).

That’s us in multiple directions: some here left traditional Judaism and found this form of it which feels more authentic. Some left a family or community of disconnected Jews and found us and increased their Jewish experience and engagement manifold. Some married or partnered into Judaism and discovered us. But, for most of us, choosing to be in a Humanistic Jewish space on the high holidays is a sign of our outlier status. My mission is to help my community brave the wilderness - to lend support and foster community around the idea of being in the wilderness, a lonely, scary, but also beautiful space, open with possibility.

We have to sort out where we stand alone and where we stand with others. Brown notes that:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” (196). Be Gretchen.

Braving the Wilderness talks about the how of being true to oneself and being in community and society with others — I’ll take that up on Yom Kippur when I discuss “civility, certainty, divinity, diversity.”

Some of Brown’s best tenets are: “people are hard to hate close up. Move in.... Speak Truth to BS, be civil... Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart.” (7)

I love this last one best of all. We need a strong back to carry the load of working for justice, speaking our truth, being who we are. We need a soft front to stay vulnerable — it’s hard being truly who we are out in this harsh world. The soft front makes us loving, open, available. And the wild heart. If I could wish one thing for you this year, it’s this wild heart. What would or could you do with this year if you listened to your impulses? If you pursued an unrealistic dream? If you gave generously, danced maniacally, laughed and loved exuberantly?

Her book ends (spoiler) with a sentiment I feel is perfect for the start to the year:

“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”

I connect Brene Brown’s words with the reading of Jeremiah. The idea here is that we are coming out of the wilderness and so will rejoice. I’m thinking though that we never really come out of the wilderness. I think most of us are stuck in one wilderness or other for a long time. There is no true Promised Land. I’m not speaking of the dream and vision for the state of Israel precisely, but we can go there for a minute. It’s clear that there is more to do. We can apply this to our own lives too. With respect to Jeremiah, I’d like to invert the meaning of the passage: I don’t want to wander through the wilderness and expect joy on the other side; I want to know how we bring the joy to the wilderness.

Does being the wilderness, or being in the wilderness, make a person happy? Partly. It means that we are struggling for something, and often that something is beautiful and precious. Braving the wilderness gives our lives meaning, and meaning is key to happiness.

Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor focusing on positive psychology, notes in his book “Happier,” that we have words like “pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, and contentment” which “are often used interchangeably with the word happiness, but none of them describes [it] precisely (4)”.

In our service we note that there are many words in Hebrew for joy; these are part of the seven wedding blessings: gila, rina, ditza v’chedva.

All these words... but identifying a true definition for happiness still seems so elusive. I generally see myself as a happy person, but I’m so often not *aware* of being happy. Mostly we all just feel sort of regular. People who are generally unhappy are likely much more aware of it, but even they might sometimes experience pleasure, bliss, gila, rina, etc and not take stock of those feelings or how those feelings are aiding in increasing their overall happiness.

Ben-Shahar says that rituals help aid happiness (8), which is part of why it’s so important to mark holidays like this one, including all of the attendant rituals we experience here and at home — reading Torah, lighting candles, apples and honey. These are all part of what is happy-making about holidays. The specific experiences bring us joy and meaning, and the rhythm of the ritual happening annually also increases our happiness because it offers both the comfort of regularity and the excitement of the special — we do it every year but only once a year. For Ben-Shahar the real ticket to a happy life, or at least a happier life, is when our lives are filled with both pleasure and meaning. We need a mix of both pleasure and meaning for our lives to feel happy because either one alone is not enough. All pleasure all the time might sound good, sometimes it might sound really good!, but ultimately we get bored, feel unfulfilled, and cannot serve others if we are only about our own immediate pleasure. All meaning all the time feels a little weighty. We need time to let go, recharge, enjoy the fruits of our labour. Where pleasure meets meaning is where we can start to find real happiness.

When I ask you what your goals are for this year, maybe some are about pleasure: vacations you want to take, experiences you want to have with special people, etc. And maybe some are about meaning: social justice work you will pursue, career goals and milestones, working on developing or sustaining close relationships. All of these are worthwhile things to focus on this year. Sometimes we feel our dreams or goals to do with pleasure are too frivolous, unserious, undeserving of our attention, our money, or the sacrifice of others. “What right do I have to take off for the weekend with my girlfriends when I have a full house and a full inbox?” But what happens if we don’t focus on our own pleasure? We resent the people in our homes and those at the other end of the emails.

You may have heard me say before that I try not to tell people that I’m “busy,” but rather that my life feels “full.” It really does! I feel so grateful for meaningful work, meaningful family, meaningful friendships, meaningful ideas I get to read, discuss, and contemplate. I really do have a full house and a full inbox. Does this fullness leave me feeling fulfilled? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The fullness of it all can certainly lead to overwhelm, which I know is something many of you experience.

To be happy, we need the meaning and the pleasure. My best moments are ones like this when we are together, enjoying, truly enjoying our holiday, our community, our time to focus inward. There is a lot of pleasure here (at least I hope there is!). We even have honey cake afterwards! There is also, I like to think, some real meaning. I often feel happier after having attended a service or celebrated a holiday. The meeting of pleasure and meaning is why.

So, my challenge to you is finding out ways to bring pleasure and meaning together more often. I’m not saying that because I like you and so I want you to be happy. I do like you. I do want you to be happy. But it’s not just for you. I want you to be happy because I know that a lot of hurt is happening in our world right now. I know that when we are happy, when we are moving through the world like we love ourselves, we are more likely to bring happiness to others. We are certainly less likely to cause harm to others.

The happiest people I know are also the most generous, most giving, most caring. They can afford to be this way because they operate from a place of abundance and not scarcity. I want you to be happy because I know that if we could harness the power and potential of everyone here today when we are at our happiest and strongest, we could achieve incredible things in this world. And this world certainly needs us now.

As I look around, I see wilderness. I see pain, fear, hurt, anger. Lots of searching. Lots of frustrated wandering. The story of our people is this story. And we know what to do with it. The Chasidim know, the wedding couple filled with gila, rina, ditza knows, when we think of what we wish for our children and grandchildren, we know. Our lives must be purposeful. To achieve self-fulfillment, the highest level for Maslow, and to reach a happy life, a high value in and of itself: we need all of it: joy, anger, righteous indignation, struggle, meaning, purpose, pleasure, wilderness. I wish you all that and more this coming year. Shana tova u’metukah. May it be a very good, very sweet, and very happy year for you and yours.

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Are You a “Bad” Jew?

Are you a “Bad Jew”?  Admit it: you’ve thought it. You’ve said it. Sometimes apologetically or sometimes defiantly: “I’m a Bad Jew”. Why? Oh, the usual reasons. Don’t observe Shabbat, like bacon, are intermarried, don’t speak Hebrew, have no idea what the holiday of Shavuot is all about, etc.

We’re entering the High Holiday, Fall Festival, Jewiest time of the year. So I want to capitalize on this moment and tell you something serious, even sacred. You’re a good Jew if you’re a good person. 

Here’s a little bit of text for you (I’m a rabbi, after all. I’m gonna throw a touch of text your way from time to time) from the Prophet Isaiah, about the fast on Yom Kippur (Isaiah 58: 5-7):

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and to not ignore your own kin.

Yes! Right? I mean, Yesss! Most Jews are “bad Jews” if the metrics are fasting on Yom Kippur, keeping kosher, or lighting Shabbat candles regularly. Guess what? It doesn’t matter! You know how people say “You do you”? Well, I say, “You Jew you.” Jew it your way.

The bottom line is this: Judaism is not meant to be a religion or culture of relics and traditions that are devoid of meaning but people do because they feel obliged.  Judaism is meant to be a living tradition and culture that brings meaning to your life and goodness to the world. Isaiah knows what he’s talking about. What good does it do to fast, to afflict your soul, to pay for the High Holiday tickets, but then be a crappy person? No good at all. It’s not about any of the things you feel like a “bad Jew” about. It’s about how you treat others and how you treat yourself. That’s it. The Golden Rule. That’s all. It’s about Tzedakah, for charity and justice. Focus there this year and I promise, you’re a good Jew, a good person, and in for a good year.

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