Tag Archives: prayer

Beginning — Again

The white trousers are packed away, the pools are closed, and school has started – which means that the new year is around the corner. I am happy to be back, ensconced in pre-HHD planning and rehearsals and sermons. I’m happy to be back with my peeps… And I am happy to back to my Before Shabbat blog.


As we enter 5779, I am deeply troubled and worried. There is enormous turbulence in the atmosphere. I get nervous as I watch the flight crew buckle up, which always confirms my worst anxieties about what’s going to happen next. I wonder if I should fret more or rather reach for the good stuff that is also present, if, at times, obscured by all of the clouds in our lives.

It’s rarely bump-free on the eve of a new year. Because life is not bump-free. This is a significant lesson older folk get to share with younger ones: that is, worrying about the future is a pointless waste of energy. Worse than pointless. Actually, it can lead to feeling paralyzed and helpless.

There’s a small saying about this: “Push it this way, it’s muck. Push it that way, it’s muck. And while you’re bemoaning your fate, you could be stringing pearls for the Holy One.” There’s so much garbage to complain about, so much regret and envy over not having what we deserve. What if we spent the same energy on gratitude?

Experiencing true gratitude is like unclogging spiritual arteries. It forces aside petty arguments and childish grudges. Gratitude reminds us that appreciating what is puts us in a mindset to appreciate what can be. I’m not suggesting that we ignore turbulence. Anyone who’s flown at all can attest to this truth. I’m suggesting that there’s so much more to life than the bumps and bruises. To stay mired in resentment is unhealthy and spiritually deadening. Resentment can become a part of your identity, a part of who you are as a person. You move from showing resentful behavior to being a resentful person.

Gratitude can lead us to consider changing how we do things and who we are. Even though I know that Charles Dickens was an antisemite and that A Christmas Carol was not written for a Jewish audience, I believe that Scrooge’s transformation was all about leaving behind resentment and embracing change, which makes it a perfect High Holy Day story!

A zebra can’t change its stripes, and a leopard can’t change its spots. But we are not doomed. We are constantly changing – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Medical research reveals that the cells in your body change about every seven years. Brain studies reveal extraordinary neuroplasticity enabling you to change neuropathways and, thus, habits and behaviors. Mindfulness research poses exciting possibilities for developing empathy, making better decisions and enhancing emotional regulation. Motivation science points to how fulfilling psychological needs affects almost everything we do and feel.

Gather your thoughts over the next couple of days. What are some changes you choose to commit to for the new year? Who is someone you need to apologize to? With whom do you have some unfinished business? What path do you choose to take – the path of resentment or the path of gratitude? The choice is stark. There is no middle road. And it’s not easy, not by a long shot. This is what the High Holy Days are for: to remind us that we can change AND that we must choose to change – no one can reach into our souls and make that happen.

I don’t take any of this for granted. It’s hard to move after being stuck in one place, identifying with the hurt we endure. That’s why we pray together. Our voices joined in unison remind us that we are not alone, that every one of us, in our way, is confronting scary issues and changes that may rock the status quo. We will get through this. Together. We will rise.

I am so honored, truly blessed! To be joining you for our 21st celebration of the New Year together. Our year-long 20th-anniversary celebration was something I will treasure forever. Liza and I and the Stern Gang wish you love and peace in the coming year.

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Prayer Critic

Last week we exhibited the artwork of three congregants. Either through subtle genius (Carol Miller) and/or the guiding hand of the Holy One, each artist’s work exists in its own rarified space. Howard Fineman works in photography: paper. Bette Ann Libby works in mosaic and sculpture: clay. Iris Sonnenschein works in quilts and tapestries: cloth. Paper, clay, and cloth. Three absolutely different media. If you mush them together you get a mess. But if you watch how our artists work with their chosen substances of expression, you get to see profound things happen; things like art.
What makes art good art is, of course, the foundational kernel of art criticism. Men and women have, for centuries, relied upon the judgment of others to help them decide a) whether or not they should see a particular play or go to a particular exhibit, etc., or b) once they’ve seen a particular play or exhibit, what exactly they saw.
Sometimes criticism is vital. There ARE complicated pieces of art or films that are more fully appreciated when seen through the prism of a scholar/educated observer. I truly benefit from the criticism of Roger Ebert, for instance. He understands every aspect of filmmaking and therefore has a more complete sense of how editing moves a film along. And it’s true that if he writes a negative review of a movie, I will definitely not go to the cinema to see it. Maybe a glance when it comes on tv, but I won’t spend theater money. Ebert, like any great critic, is a mentor, a teacher.
I also like good art criticism because I never learned anything in college or rabbinic school about art. At all. It’s a gaping hole in my education, so I need a good guide to help me contextualize it . What are all of those objects doing on the canvas in Renaissance painting? When Jackson Pollock painted Blue Poles, was he primarily composing or was he feeling? Do abstract artists know what it is they are going to create? Did John Coltrane hear a solo in his head before he played it?
I am all in favor of the critic as Seeing Eye dog, as canary in the coal mine of culture. The critic is the priest, the intermediary between the art and the beholder/listener. I’ve wondered about this model for contemporary praying. Sure in the old days we had priests who were our intercessors. But maybe it’d be nice to have a prayer critic or coach – and I include myself as a person who could benefit. Where to focus our words, how to use meditation in our prayers, what some other models of prayer may look like?
Our relationship to and with God can be so deeply intimate. But if we don’t think about that relationship, if we don’t nurture it, explore its various dimensions, then it remains superficial and unsatisfying. We can better define and nurture our spiritual lives, but not alone. The more we can learn about our relationship to God, the more deeply powerful prayer becomes. Perhaps just by asking each other a question or two about how we pray – or don’t pray – we can shake loose some perspective that we haven’t had before. Not critiquing prayer styles, or absence of prayer styles, but encouraging with words of respect and curiosity. I don’t know how we might accomplish this, but it occurs to me that sacred people already have the tools: consciousness, empathy, tradition, knowledge.
In fact if we think of the art of prayer, it may give us the courage to mold our prayers like clay, to stitch together our prayers like fabric, to compose our prayers like a photo. We become the critic and the artist all at once.
Shabbat Shalom

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