Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Kol Nidre D'var Torah

Earlier tonight we sang a short song that we only sing on Yom Kippur: Ki Anu Amecha. The translation of the title, “Because we are your people” comes from the opening line, which finishes “and you are our king.” Growing up I always liked this song because a friend of mine would sing the solo in the choir and I just really loved the tune. When I got older, it was pointed out to me that the metaphors in this song may be difficult for modern people to understand.

For example, the first line that claims “Because we are your people and you are our king” was written at a time when the Jewish people likely had a contemporary understanding of kingship. Even if we had to struggle between the king of our nation and God, our true king, we nevertheless had regular reminders of how one should relate to a king – bow in his presence, be obedient to his laws, et cetera.

However, looking at this metaphor in modern times, I do not think it is that difficult for us to view God as our king; in fact, perhaps the fact that none of us live under the rule of an earthly king makes it easier for us to regard our God as the one and only true king.

Another metaphor in this song is when we say: “Because we are your sheep and you are our shepherd.” Again, even though most of us have never experienced life as a shepherd, we understand the general idea of the metaphor; God looks after us just like a shepherd looks after sheep.

It was not until a few years ago that I came to understand this metaphor even more deeply. A friend of mine, Sam Apple, recently wrote a book, “Shlepping Through the Alps” based on his travels with a shepherd:

If you’re traveling the Alps with a Yiddish folksinger who also happens to be the last wandering shepherd in Austria and he assigns you the task of walking behind his flock of 625 sheep, you’ll discover that the little lambs sometimes tire out and plop down for naps. Since your job is to make sure no sheep is left behind, you’ll approach the sleeping lambs, your shepherd’s stick firm in your right fist, and shout, “Hop! Hop!” You’ll have learned to make this noise, which rhymes with “nope,” from observing the shepherd and his sons. On occasion, when a lamb is in a deep sleep and not responding, you’ll look around quickly to see whether the coast is clear. If the shepherd is far ahead or busy singing Yiddish ditties to himself, you’ll kneel down next to the sleeping lamb and say, “Come on, little cutie. Time to move on.” Then you’ll attempt to give the lamb a quick pat on the head. Usually the lamb will wake up before you touch it and scurry ahead in search of its mother. When this happens, you’ll let out several angry hop hops, as though you’re completely in charge.

Suddenly, you’ll reach a narrow passage and find you’ve drifted too far ahead and are now stuck in the middle of 625 tightly packed sheep. You’ll realize that the sheep, for all their virtues, don’t have much regard for human shins or feet. They’ll bump their woolly sides against you from every angle until you almost lose your balance. You’ll try to clear some space with your stick, but it will be no use. The sheep will treat you like the novice you are. Then, just as you’re regaining your bearings, a mangy gray sheepdog will race by and bark its angry orders. Your heart will skip a beat, and you’ll hurry ahead as fast as the others. If only for that one fleeting moment, you will understand the hardships of life in the flock.
… eventually your eyes will wander downward, and then all you’ll see is manure. Sheep droppings, you’ll come to appreciate, are formless, unaesthetic; droppings that, if not for the smell, could pass for mud. Next to the charming pebbles of goats or the healthy round cakes of cattle, the mushy green-brown splotches sheep leave behind can only disappoint. Still, you’ll keep staring at it because it’ll be everywhere, a parade of digested grass and Alpine flowers. You’ll see one sheep’s droppings stacked upon another’s. You’ll see globs of dried dung clinging like black icicles to the wool of sheep tails. You’ll get to know the droppings so well that, for the first time in your life, manure will seem harmless. You’ll walk through it as though you’ve been walking through it for years. You’ll stab at it with your shepherd’s stick for sport.

Apple’s book goes on to tell many stories about the shepherd and his sheep. While getting to know the life of shepherd made me connect better to the metaphor of God as our shepherd, nothing to me was more meaningful that this opening passage that I just read. Not only does God as shepherd show us that God cares for us, but God is so close to us that after walking through all of our wasteful, negative, or hurtful actions, God remains by our side in full dedication to each of us – one flock wandering this earth.

The other significant part of the metaphors of “Ki Anu Amecha” is its parallelisms; each “Ki anu” phrase, “ki” which means “because,” is followed with a “V’atah” phrase, meaning “and you are.” While other texts read simply, “God is my shepherd,” this song contains a “Ki” section – because we are your flock. It is not enough to say that God is our shepherd; it is a much stronger statement to also support this idea with “ki”, because – we, the Jewish people, we are one people, a flock in God’s keeping.

Why is this ki phrase so important? How does it extend the metaphor for us?

Harvard University social psychologist Ellen Langer writes about what she calls “mindful attention,” explaining the drawbacks of learning a skill to the point of doing it without thinking. She identifies examples of tasks where performance becomes inadequate when one only relies on past learning rather than from individually evaluating the current situation. When a task is rotely over-learned, it is more difficult for the learner to make adjustments when circumstances change, and thus his or her initial knowledge becomes less meaningful and less useful.

Even though Langer is writing in the context of education, her theory is also relevant to our understanding of connecting to God through metaphors. Simply having the prayer book display a metaphor, such as “God is my shepherd” is not always enough for us. The “ki” phrase, the section that tells us because, is the next step in our understanding, as well as meaning-making.

In 1978, Langer attempted to do an experiment with this word “ki,” “because.”

Standing in a line in the university library where others were waiting to use the copy machine, Langer posed three different questions to those in front of her.
1. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?”
2. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
3. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make these copies?”
Only in requests 1 and 3 was the word “because” used. Langer explained that 94% complied with the first request because there was some reason provided and introduced with "because". To the second request 60% complied without any reason being given. In the third case, where "because" was also used but reason of substance was offered, just a "because" clause, 93% still complied.
The addition of the word “because,” even in the case of #3 in which the person stated the obvious action, “because I have to make these copies,” merited compliance more often than in its absence. While I am not suggesting that we all go out to manipulate people with this newfound data, I would like to encourage everyone to use this word, “ki,” because, to maneuver our individual actions.

As we go into the New Year, let us examine ourselves carefully. Are we acting by rote, or our actions connected to the world around us? How often do we think through our actions? From choosing our words to choosing which companies to support, we have the opportunity to insert a “ki” phrase, to say “because” about everything we do.

On this Yom Kippur, we stand before God not just as servants of a King, but together by saying “Ki” – because we are Your people, Your children, Your flock. May God hear our prayers because they are full of sincerity. By taking our actions mindfully, we do justice to the things we are resolving to do in the new year.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


i. love. ting.

no, not tings - yeast covered corn pops...TING! Sweet, all natural grapefruit soda from the Carribean.

will i ever survive without it back in nyc?

google ads

so some of you may be wondering why there are ads for the kabbalah centre and other random thing across the top of my blog. i can actually earn money over time for having this bar there - even if people just come to my site and don't click i can sometimes even earn a few bucks. so, we'll see if it's worth it.
i also think it's kind of fun to see what google's automator thinks it should be advertising on my site. clearly there is some sort of search function that picks out key words and chooses what to put up there.
i guess if it doesn't change that often or if i never end up making money i'll just get rid of it. however, i've had 5 hits in the past two days; maybe it has a chance!

soul vegetarian

so i took my vegetarian soul to "soul vegetarian", a local vegan restaurant run by Black Hebrews. they had music that was in Hebrew and English; and they keep Jewish hoildays! (but only according to the Bible; not the Talmud) quite an interesting group. in any case, the food was fabulous! i had a plate that had a taste of a variety of things, including green beans, rice, tofu stir fry and a seitan stew. we also had fried breaded cauliflower that tasted stragely like fried clams (yes i ate fried clams in childhood).
those of you who know me well know that i eat meat occasionally, but really think i should be vegetarian (actually vegan!)- thus, vegetarian soul!

to the left here is one of the latest lizards. just on the wall inside the house!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

rainy sundays

it's chandler's warf! a small shopping center/office park by the water.

taught four kids in the usually parent run 'sunday school' this morning. we looked at the book of jonah, sang 'bo-bo-bo-boker tov," and ate honey rolls.

was supposed to go sailing and snorkeling today but the storm won. the boat of the woman who was supposed to take us out was full of water and had a dead battery as a result of yesterday evening's storm.

yesterday i lead a small discussion (okay it was me and one guy) on rav kook's fourfold song.

this afternoon i read more harry potter (100 pages left!), took a long nap, and munched on some nachos. i'm now enjoying a cool breeze on the porch (i'm wearing pants!) and trying to motivate for my talmud homework which i'll need to email in tomorrow afternoon.

tomorrow we'll try again for sailing and perhaps hiking. this of course, all weather permitting.

Friday, October 07, 2005

morning walk on the beach with the dogs

just your average's called "hay-penny beach" (short for half-penny)

i'm really here!

here's moose after he fetched a stick from the water. he had to swim out and ride the waves in!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

d'var Torah: Erev Rosh Hashanah

Here is the D'var Torah I gave on Monday evening. Tuesday morning we did something more interactive; I'll post the text when I get a chance. Enjoy!

There is a story told of a man who gave his son a gift of a white cloak. Before the son left to live in a far away land, the king instructed his son on how to properly care for it. The king made sure to explain that a cloak of such delicate material would need to be washed regularly in order to not accumulate stains. The son listened carefully to the king’s advice, and set off for his new life in a small, distant town.

In the first few weeks, the son took the King’s advice to heart; taking special care of the cloak, washing it regularly and with great care. However, the son eventually became tired of the ritual, washing the cloak less and less often, until he rarely bothered to wash it at all.

One day, it was announced that the king would be coming to visit the small town. As soon as the son heard the news, he immediately ran to see if he could make his cloak appear presentable for his father. At first glance, the task appeared hopeless. How long had it been since he’d washed it? He thought. It was too long to remember.

The son took a large barrel of water and dunked his cloak inside, hoping for the best. While a few stains remained, he was still able to clean off a significant amount of dirt from his cloak. What should he do? Wear the slightly stained cloak and hope for his father’s compassion? Or wear no cloak, risking his father’s disappointment?

Finally the son had an idea. He decided he would wear the cloak for his father, but bring with him the dirty water as proof of his final cleaning attempt.

The son braved the crowds at the center of town, finally moving his way up in order to greet his father. But his father did not recognize him at first glance. “Father, father!” the son called. A look of disgust and disappointment came over the king. “How could you be my son? I was sure to expect my son to be wearing a beautiful white cloak; not to be draped in dirty rags!” Mustering up the courage to speak, the son stepped forward. “Father,” he said. “I am sorry to say that I did not take as good care of this cloak as I could have over the past year. However, you must believe me that in anticipation of your visit, I have gone to great lengths to get as clean as it is today. To prove my dedication to cleansing this garment, I even saved the dirty water from this past week’s washing.”

The king looked at his son, then at the dirty water, then back at his son. Looking into his son’s eyes, he stretched out his arms to his son, embracing him with compassion and forgiveness.

Today begins the “yamim noraim”, the “Days of Awe;” the ten days of teshuva, or “repentance” from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

Repentance is a challenging process. The more time we spend in reflection, often the more confused or even depressed we can feel about a year not lived to it’s fullest. The overwhelming task of raking over a year’s work of actions may seem too daunting to attempt. Yet just like the King’s son, we must awaken to the season and make our best attempt. God would not ask of us something that was not possible; part of this examination is each person’s individual assertion of what he or she is capable of; the path of teshuva will be different for each individual.

Teshuva, the Hebrew word for “repentance” comes from a root meaning “to return.” It is during this season that we return to the truth of our past actions, finding a way to be honest with ourselves, and renew our lives with the new year.

The Rabbis teach that during this season, we each approach God with a perfectly balanced scale. On one side are our good deeds from the past year, on the other our transgressions. Each person is equally half-guilty and half-innocent. We must imagine each of our deeds as one that has the potential to tip the scale in favor if him or herself. Even if a person is righteous all of her days, if she rebels at the last she loses the benefit of her early deeds. But even if a person was wicked all his days, if he does teshuva at his last, his wickedness is never remembered again against him. [kiddushin 40]

As Jews, though we are expected to make regular teshuva for our mistakes, these ten days both God and our community are watching closely at our actions. Even a decree against us can still be overturned at this point.

At this point you may ask: So how feasible is this teshuva work? And is it all so heavy and spiritual? Is there a practical side to it?

A midrash, or legend, about Abraham tells about the time that he recuperating after his (adult) circumcision. As he sat and spoke one on one with God in this very holy moment, Abraham noticed three nomads approaching over the hill. Without so much as an “excuse me” to God, Abraham jumped to his feet in order to welcome the nomads, offering them food and drink. From this story it at first appears that Abraham’s immediate instinct to offer hospitality to strangers shows a turning away or even a disrespect to God. However, at second glance we come to understand that the selfless act of helping others is in and of itself an even higher level of experiencing the divine.

We walk in Gods ways both in seeking forgiveness and having an open heart to forgive others. Especially during the days of awe, we must each rise to a level that allows us to forget the details, look beyond what created the problem to begin with, and strive to behold every individual from God’s perspective.

A pupil once asked his rabbi “How far is it from east to west?” He replied “Easy, just one turn.” What we think is most difficult is in fact already within us. The most important act is pivoting our bodies in a new direction.

As we enter the final ten days of awe, I would like to bless everyone with a three-fold strength: the strength to take the first step toward repentance, the strength to emunlate God’s compassion in forgiving others, and the strength to find God in the most basic selfless actions.

Shana tova.

ocean sunsets and diet coke with (fresh) key lime

here's what i did today:
-slept late
-read harry potter
-drank mango banana yogurt smoothie
-downloaded mellel, now necessary hebrew word processing program
-chatted with friends on IM
-went for a walk halfway to the beach (it's really hot in the sun! and there aren't really sidewalks...tomorrow we will drive to the beach)
-went for a swim
-rescued a grey gecko who jumped in the pool running away from moose (the dog) only to have moose (the dog) catch him and spit him out on the pavement (no he didn't survive)
-made delicious jack and goat cheese quesedilla
-drank many rounds of diet coke with fresh wedges of key lime and lemon
-worked on assignment for Biblical Hebrew Grammar [on the computer!]

still in store:
-dinner with host family (they are hoping to take me somewhere with local delights, probably fish!)
-possibly join JL for trivia night at a local bar
-talking to the dogs
-more harry potter #4
-no more diet coke! must sleep eventually!
-take some photos so everyone can be even more jealous of my mini-tropical vacation

about the dogs

is it because i'm in the country that people enjoy the outdoors more, or is it the warm weather? i suppose there are plenty cold weather places that have people who love being outdoors.

there are THREE DOGS here at host family #1 during my visit to st. croix, VI.

moose: we call him "moo" or "moo moo." moose is very rowdy; likes to jump up and get mud on your shirt, but only if it's white or a nice one. he barks the most too. moose is allergic to somem local wild flowers so he spend a lot of time scratching himself. he's cute cause he follows me everywhere when i'm the only one home. today i took a swim here in the pool. after i did one length of the pool, just as i was reaching out to grab the edge and turn around, moose reached down and put his hand in my mouth! it freaked me out but i couldn't stop laughing. then i swam to the other end of the pool and he did it again! he thinks it's a game i am playing with him. even when i start out at one end and he is far away from the pool, he always manages to meet me at the other end with a huge lick.

zoe: zoe is older and bushier than moose. she doens't jump but she definitely likes to follow me around. she's here with me now on the porch licking herself. a few days ago i came home and took a nap. she wasn't so happy that i wouldn't allow her in my room. so she stationed herself up against the door and i had to push really hard to get out! i think this was her way of telling me she was mad at me.

cleo: i'm not sure exactly why i like cleo the best. probably cause she doesn't jump on me or lick me. she is small and furry and very old. she snores A LOT. i can hear her from across the house! tomorrow when we go to the beach with the dogs she won't come because she doesn't like going in the water. her favorite thing to do is chase peacocks! (which are wild here)

there's also a white cat. it's name is "knox" or something like that, but just like cw's cat, she goes by "kitty."