“My son was volunteering at a homeless shelter. In walked one of his high school classmates. I’m proud that he ran into the kitchen and helped there so his classmate would not see him.”
A few weeks ago, I started having very intense thoughts and memories of something that happened when I was in grad school 25 years ago. I did an elegant experiment, and got a hint of a major result. If true, it would have been a major find, the kind that can boost a career.
What did I do next? I talked myself out of it. I decided that it was a false positive artifact, based on a follow up experiment. What I remember most was how afraid I was. I was so freaked out that I didn’t push it. In hindsight, I should have grabbed that result with my teeth, and pushed the heck out of it to be absolutely sure it was wrong, before deciding to move on.
It wasn’t wrong. 2 years later, someone else published that major result.
Why did this surface for me now? I think I needed to process the experience. I never admitted that I blew it until now, and by allowing myself to feel a bit of sadness over it, I am healing a wound that I didn’t even know was there. Big opportunities don’t come along very often, and as I begin my journey in Rabbinical school, I don’t want to miss the next one.
And as often happens, the next soul trait for me os just what I needed to work on: Enthusiasm. It brings to mind a Mussar practice we all can try.
***************Here’s The Mussar Practice**************
Don’t let fear delay you. Ask for help.
Enthusiasm is the soul trait that helps us overcome procrastination. And fear is one of the primary things that leads to procrastination. Fear of failure and fear of success are two sides of the same coin. Neither is rational. Enthusiasm can help us overcome fear.
I should have asked for help. My friend Neal was all over the promising result, and would have helped me think it through and figure it out.
While these big opportunities are rare, small opportunities manifest all the time. If you cultivate the habit of getting help, you’ll have both the practice and relationships in place when the big one shows up.
Some may turn to other people for help. Others may turn to the Divine. Wherever you turn, the more help you can get sorting through various challenges, the better you’ll be in the long run.
My life has been great, despite having missed a chance for a big discovery. But the scientific discovery was delayed a few years. Who knows what might have come of it if we’d made that discovery earlier?
This week in my Torah class, we were writing about the story of the spies in Numbers 13. When the Israelites first reached the promised land, Moses sent 12 spies to check it out. They came back with a report of giants in the land, declaring “we are like grasshoppers in their eyes.” As a result of our fear, we had to wander in the desert 40 years; a dream delayed.
What about you? Have you ever missed a big one because fear held you back? Did you wander more that you would have liked instead of taking the straight path?
Want to know what soul traits might be making hard for you to overcome fear? Take the soul trait quiz.
In 2004 Rabbi Janet Marder at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos sent shockwaves through the Jewish world by blessing the non-Jewish spouses who were members of the congregation on Yom Kippur. The message was clear: Cherish your non-Jewish partner.
Rabbi Marder said, “What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.” You can read the entire blessing here.
The blessing took place a few years before my family joined that congregation, and people were still talking about it. At the time, my wife was not Jewish and we picked Beth Am because the website was covered with welcoming messages, and our makeup is diverse – interfaith, same sex, intercultural marriages abound. We felt comfortable and welcomed. But it didn’t mean that there weren’t issues, issues that I was insensitive to.
I now understand how much I took my wife’s decision to embrace raising a Jewish family for granted. When I went back and read the blessing today, the following passage really struck me. “You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language.”
As I have written before, I am uncomfortable when people use Hebrew phrases that I don’t know. How much more difficult it must be for people who did not grow up Jewish. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really put it together, I did not put myself in her shoes.
Rabbi Marder’s blessing from 13 years ago also reminds me how Mussar can help strengthen relationships, by helping us recognize and cherish the differences in the other. To be clear, I think it is particularly important to cherish the differences, because despite those differences, our partner chooses to be with us.
Mussar, particularly American Mussar, offers an opportunity offers intermarried couples an opportunity to share Jewish values in everyday life without needing to know Hebrew or traditional ritual practice. Being a good person is the essence of being Jewish, and Mussar offers a roadmap to bring our everyday actions into alignment with our aspirational values. Here are three soul traits that can help us cherish our non-Jewish partner.
Honor Rabbi Marder was demonstrating the Soul Trait of Honor, in that she was going out of her way to Honor the Divine spark in others, when they are different from us. We can practice Honor by asking our partner how they are doing, and if they are uncomfortable or struggling with any part of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Work to make them feel more comfortable.
Gratitude – I did not sufficiently appreciate my wife for agreeing to raise a Jewish family. Take my advice, say thank you, and go out of your way to show your Gratitude by being sensitive and inclusive. The person you are with wants to be included, and understandably may be struggling. As Rabbi Marder said, “We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.”
Order – Don’t just assume that your non-Jewish partner has to do all the child care or food preparation. When the kids were little, I often left it to my wife to take them out so I didn’t have to miss any of the service. Offer them an opportunity to participate in services and take your turn bringing the kids outside if they start to act up. And do some planning, to find an activity that the whole family can do together. For example, after services, plan to get together with a large group of friends.
Moses said, “I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26). This is a choice we all have every day. The reality is that you have someone in your life who care about you, but is really different. It might be an intermarriage, but there are other ways to be different. You might both be Jewish, but one of you is apathetic or unenthusiastic. Or you may share the same religion, but one of you is a vegan, or god forbid, a someone who supports the other political party.
You can choose to ignore the differences, and allow them to be a source of conflict or pain. Or, you can choose to make them a blessing, and go out of your way to connect despite your differences.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are given an opportunity to really look at those relationships, to make amends for our mistakes, and decide to do better in the future.
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Image Credit: Rosh Hashanah by Lilach Daniel via Flickr CC
Three weeks into Rabbi school, I have just one thing to say: I can’t believe how much work it is.
My challenge is to remain a whole person while doing all this work. I don’t want to neglect my family relationships, nor get away from my spiritual practice. Studying Torah and Jewish history for 30+ hours a week does not in itself bring spirituality into my life.
************Here’s the Elul Mussar Practice*************
So, I’ll prune away a few things that no longer serve me, thanking them for their service, and composting them so that they may bring life to something else.
When I was in my twenties, a friend told me I was really religious.
“Really?” I said. “I never go to the synagogue.”
“You are constantly talking about Jewish stuff. During Passover you are obsessed with Matzah.”
Maybe he was on to something. Thirty years later I’m off to Rabbinical school, and right now I’m obsessed with Hebrew. I’m taking an online class, and meeting with a tutor a few times a week on a separate track. I’m learning, but it is exhausting.
And, I’m noticing how often the English translation strays from the Hebrew. For example, in the Reform prayer book, it does not change the Hebrew in the prayers, but gives a translation removing gendered language and softening the role of the Divine. For example, instead of “His people Israel” it will say something like “the Jewish people.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Chabad translates Exodus 15:2 as God’s “strength and vengeance,” whereas most translations say “strength and might.” As context, this is in the Song of the Sea, an ancient poem presented in a special script within the Torah that recounts the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. Rabbi Janet Marder from Congregation Beth Am explained that the word “vengeance” incorporates an interpretation of this verse from the medieval commentator Rashi.
The words we choose have the power to change the world.
Hebrew has such a sacred place within the Jewish tradition that whomever translates it has tremendous power in how the words will be interpreted. The Hebrew word “Mussar” is translated as “rebuke” in much of the Orthodox word, instead of “guidance” or “discipline” which is much more in line with how we think of Mussar today. Just look at the difference it makes in the following Psalm 1:8
My son, heed the Mussar of your father, And do not forsake the instruction of your mother;
One translation shows an angry and disapproving father; the other two parents providing moral lessons, which is both easier for me to hear and more appropriate to the Mussar project as it stands today.
In a similar way, Jefferson’s word choices for the Declaration of Independence continue to have significant implications for our country. The phrase “all men are created equal” serves both as a beacon to highlight how far we are from living up to its promise, and the opportunity to reimagine it as “all men and women are created equal.”
Which brings us to a Mussar Silence practice we can all try during this time of division within our country
*****Here’s the Mussar Silence Practice*********
Speak respectfully about the other side, or at least do not call them names and make things worse.
Today, our country has political, social and class divisions that in my opinion threaten our future. The stakes are high, with intolerable situations like the immigrant detention camps. Yet if we cannot fight for change without name calling or demonizing our opponents, we will just exacerbate and deepen the spiritual sickness that is killing our nation.
As it says in the Mussar classic Pele Yoetz,“Silence at the time of anger is like water on a fire.” This does not mean to remain silent in the time of injustice. But when it comes to people who disagree with you, speak of the problem and try to get them to agree or disagree on whether it is a problem. Remain silent if you feel the urge to attack them.
Recently, I almost had to ban one of the most active people on the American Mussar Facebook page. While I agreed with their comments, they were name calling and being unnecessarily harsh, especially when the initial comment was nuanced and reasonable. They removed their comment after I asked them to, although they messaged me that I had shamed them publicly which is also not a proper way to use the power of speech.
This is not easy stuff!
Whether or not you can speak respectfully about people who vote differently from you, I know that we can all at least not dehumanize each other.
Want to understand why it is hard for you to stay silent? Take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz. No email address required.