Jewish Superhero Carrie Fisher Dies During Hanukkah. Oy vey, what a year. I admit it – one of my first thoughts was can’t 2016 just be over already? My second thought was, “What about the next Star Wars movie.” Lets dispense with the second thought first. They already filmed episode 8, so we’ll see the General again. But seriously, someone died, and I’m worried about a movie? We think all kinds of things. The reason why I know about Carrie Fisher is because of Star Wars. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that I have that kind of mental association.
Prince’s death on the eve of Passover has touched a spiritual nerve for me. It took me a while to understand why a felt a connection between Prince and Passover. Then the phrase came to me: Prince was never a slave in Egypt. Let me give you some context.
The Torah refers to Egypt as “the narrow place.” It was a stage in the history of our people when our spirits were oppressed and confined by slavery. Spiritual oppression is severe – it saps the mind of will and the body of strength. We were limited in our choices, and did not feel empowered even to try. The “narrow place” transforms a story of physical freedom into a story of spiritual liberation.
In listening to the story of Prince, I heard a story of the fight for freedom. Remember when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol? It turns out he did that because he felt oppressed by a recording contract. Warner, which owned the rights to his music, only wanted one album a year. Prince wanted the business to serve his music, not his music to dance to the tune of the business. Unable to get out of his contract Prince changed his name in protest. He even wrote “slave” on his face. (See it here).
For Prince, changing his name, and cranking out a flood of albums to fulfill the contract was liberation, was an escape from his narrow place. If the company owns the name Prince, I’ll change my name so they don’t own me. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that “the Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year, and in every day.” Prince intuitively seemed to understand this. You are either growing and setting yourself free from what is holding you back, or you are still stuck in Egypt, in that narrow place. The connection between Prince and Passover is the story of spiritual liberation.
President Obama reminded us yesterday that Prince once said “A strong spirit transcends rules,” and went on to say that nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.” Sounds like a freedom we all can aspire to.
Good night sweet Prince.
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Image by Jimi Hughes from Ballymena, Northern Ireland via Wikimedia Commons
Passover is a wonderful holiday for getting together with friends and family. In fact, a Passover Seder is probably the most common Jewish practice in America. We like the ceremony, the special foods, and complaining about the Matzah. There is one thing you should know about Passover but probably don’t.
I just learned it, and my view of Passover has changed considerably. For me, Passover moved from being a holiday of Joy to a holiday of Joy AND an opportunity for spiritual growth. The Hebrew word for Egypt is translated as “narrow place.” Slavery in Egypt confined us to a narrow place, with constrictions on our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives. The Exodus is the story of liberation from the things that hold us back.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov (1772-1822) said, “The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year, and in every day.” I admit it – the quote gives me chills. What an amazing opportunity we have every day – to liberate ourselves from what holds us back. Each Choice Point* we face is an opportunity for liberation.
So the one thing you should know about Passover is that is is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Why not use this Passover as an opportunity to rededicate yourself to your Mussar practice? I suggest restarting with Enthusiasm, which teaches us to focus on proactively doing good things. And, it reminds us to finish the task. What is one small thing you can do to proactively to bring good into the world. And let me know if I can help!
*A Choice Point is the type of decision where we sit on the cusp of following the path of the Good Inclination or the Evil Inclination. See this post for more
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If you are Jewish and celebrate Purim, you might know that we are commanded to get drunk on Purim. In fact, tradition says that one should be so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story, Haman is the villain who tried to have the Jews exterminated, and Mordechai is one of the good guys who opposed him. Rabbis, scholars and everyday Jews have joyously followed this tradition, and of course debated what it really means for thousands of years. I won’t try to recapitulate their various arguments – indeed I haven’t read up on the subject. My understanding comes from Rabbi Jennifer Clayman, who taught me one interpretation: For most of the year we are expected to be restrained, thoughtful and dignified. For one day a year, it is important to cut loose, and go for unrestrained joy. (Apologies to R. Clayman if I am misremembering this.)
With Purim starting tonight, I’ve been thinking about this interpretation through a Mussar lens. The night of partying, silliness and even raunchiness balances everyday life when we are serious. Does that mean that if we spend our life drunk, should we spend this day sober? What is to be learned from having an experience far outside of your normal behavior?
I won’t be attending the Purim Shpiel tonight. The Shpiel is a funny re-enactment of the Purim story. It would be a great time, but I’ve just had too much going on. I’m wiped out from both work and personal stresses. Yes, the one who writes about work life balance isn’t going to the party because he has been working too much. I will, however, take the night off, and make it an evening of fun.
Whether it is tonight or in the near future, I wish you a window of unadulterated joy. Life will have its ups and downs. Sometimes the downs are trivial, sometimes they are severe. Whatever our life circumstance, we all deserve times of joy. Tell me about yours. I’d love to hear it.
Awareness of problems and the fact that others are suffering is a good thing. It’s the first step—and a very necessary step—towards meaningful solutions and increased healing and comfort.
But it’s only the first step. Awareness in and of itself does not help solve a problem, and thinking otherwise can actually cause a lot of harm.
To be clear, I do not fault anyone for wearing a pink ribbon to raise cancer awareness, or to recognize a loved one who struggled or is struggling with this terrible taker of life. I understand and support the sentiments behind the ribbon, and I believe the cause of supporting cancer patients, cancer research, and the eventual and inevitable discovery of a cure (or cures) is an important one.
I also worry that for some people, wearing a ribbon and raising awareness is seen as action enough. Mussar teaches that we should “run to do good,” which is how we practice the Soul Trait of Enthusiasm.
There are lots of things we can all do to help those in our community who have been afflicted by cancer. Make meals for families who are struggling to get by with a debilitated parent. Visit children to read stories, to play games, to hold hands, and to listen. Volunteer with the Road to Recovery program and drive cancer patients to and from their treatments.
Real action is almost as easy as purchasing a ribbon to pin on, and it does a whole lot more to solve problems and create good in the world.
It might just bring you a whole new awareness of what you can achieve, as well.
Set yourself an intention: What is one small way that you can “run to do good” this week.