Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2016

Elul 3: Do I judge? Heck, yeah.

People say it like it's a bad thing: "Don't judge."
"You're so judgmental."

Someone posted a concern on a Facebook page today: she felt bad for judging someone for both not vaccinating a child and for needing to tell that anti-vaxxer that she and her unvaccinated children weren't welcome to visit her and her newborn child.

I heard her loud and clear. And I wrote this:

Hi, (name redacted) ...

I'm a mom of a 32 year-old daughter and 29 year-old twin sons, so I think I'm qualified to say this: You are going to be an awesome mom (I bet you already are), and you are absolutely permitted to judge other peoples' choices. It doesn't matter how judging others' choices makes you feel; what matters is that - God willing for many, many years - you are going to be making life/death decisions for your child. You MUST judge other peoples' decisions because your discernment (a nicer, maybe more PC, word) may one day save you or your child…

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777: WAIT

I got the best advice from my son: "Mom, why are you even engaging with these people? Please stop."

I've got people on Facebook who - while holding similar philosophies in some areas - are 180 degrees from me politically. I long ago determined that arguing with these people is counterproductive, only useful if I believe - science notwithstanding - that heartrate-raising arguments is equal to a good cardio workout.

And so my goal for today is to WAIT (by the way, not an original concept - I learned it from Rabbi Andy Sklarz): Why Am I Talking?

Provocateurs and bullies want to be engaged. They poke, someone responds, and the game is afoot. Like fire, they need constant air renewal. So if don't engage, don't respond, they will run out of air.

So for today, I grit my teeth ... and wait.

Elul 29: Dear God ... (Return)

Dear God,

As I enter the new year 5777, I offer this "wish list."

Give me the willingness to examine my past year. I know I made a lot of mistakes and held onto attitudes and beliefs that didn't serve me or You or anyone else. Looking back isn't easy; I'd rather take the easy way out and pretend that I was A-OK. Yeah - that's not going to work.Give me the willingness to make a list of the people I hurt so that I can make amends to them. And yes, this year, let me put myself on that list, too.Sometimes I try to force a round peg into a square hole. This coming year, help me pick the right shape for the right puzzle. Instead of living a day or 2 or 365 in the future, may I experience every day as it comes. It's trite but true: yesterday is past, tomorrow is yet to come, today is a gift - and that's why it's called the present.Remind me to wait, to ask myself, "Why am I talking?"Remind me to say thank you to my body and my soul every morning…

Elul 28: Singing and praying on the crater crust (Give)

"To live, for me, Jane, is to stand on a crater crust that may crack and spew fire any day."

This bit of literary hyperbole, courtesy of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, is  on my mind this time of year.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur my cantor colleagues and I draw on every ounce of strength that we can muster. We may find ourselves teetering on the edge of a massive emotional cliff, so wrapped up in the power of the words and the beauty of the music that we feel like we're about to head into a dark territory and maybe not be able to hold ourselves back. We stand on that crater crust, praying that it holds.

My teacher, Cantor Faith Steinsnyder, warned us about these moments. Give the prayers, music, and words our all, yes; but hold something in reserve. And when we do feel so emotionally involved that we think we're headed over that cliff's edge, we force ourselves to dial everything back. If we go over that edge, we do ourselves and our congre…

Elul 27: God Bless Us, Everyone (Bless)

"Tiny" Tim Cratchit got it right.

Charles Dickens' sweet innocent may be considered a minor character in A Christmas Carol, but I think he's the star of the show. The foreshadow of Tim's death - foretold in the great Alastair Sim movie version by the Ghost of Christmas Future by a glimpse at Tim's empty chair accompanied by his crutch - is what finally brings Ebenezer Scrooge to his knees, leading him to the finest act of teshuvah imagined in a Christmas story.

Tim has an absolute belief that God's blessings are bountiful and full of hope and joy. His unwavering optimism - even in the face of his own fragility and mortality - cuts through the misery, pain, and sorrow that the bitter Ebenezer has nourished and nurtured his whole miserable life.

When Tim pronounces, "God bless us, everyone" at the Christmas dinner in Scrooge's vision, it's a sign that God's goodness is available to us all, from the most innocent person to the most dep…

Elul 25: Planning to intend

Think about it: does Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, have the same "let's change" impact of, say, December 31? If you're like me, the answer is no ... it's got a more powerful impact (didn't think I was going there, did you?).

I stopped making New Year's resolutions years ago, refusing to join the lists of people who sign up for gym memberships (only to stop going mid-February), diet clubs (ditto), classes of all stripes (double and triple ditto).

But every Rosh Hashanah, I look at that list of sins*, and it hits me in my soul: instead of spending the year thinking about doing the right thing so I could be the best person my Creator wants me to be, here I am again, frustrated that I'm right back where I was the year before. My only saving grace is knowing that pretty much everyone around me is in the same spiritual boat. I mean, clearly there's a reason that that list in the machzor, the High Holy Day prayerbook, hasn't changed in hundred…

Elul 24: Help me, Obi-Wan ... (Hope)

When I think of hope, I think about Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi ... two old battle-weary creatures for whom hope died off years ago.

I wonder what it was like to be Obi-Wan Kenobi, the great Jedi master, the hope and salvation for a planet about to be destroyed by evil. A hunted man, when we first meet up with Obi-Wan Kenobi, he's living incognito as "Ben Kenobi" in exile on Tatooine.

You'd think (given that he's a Jedi) that he'd have been aware of Leia's desperation, of Luke's innocently creating a "disturbance in the Force." Maybe he's lost some of his Force-type spirituality. Or maybe he is aware and doesn't care, worn out after years of being chased by Darth Vader & Co. I'm guessing that he and Yoda, apparently the last surviving Jedi, don't get together for coffee very often.

Obi-Wan, tired of the whole thing, just wants to be left alone to eventually fade into oblivion. He used to be strong, young, and powerful; now h…

Elul 23: Wednesday, September 23, 2015 at 6:50 (Begin)

Someone I knew hated the expression "new beginning" because it was redundant. The argument was that beginning implies new, right?

Not necessarily. A "do-over" is a beginning of sorts that acknowledges that the first try got muffed up. "Start again, from the beginning" and "begin again" are phrases I use regularly with students and choir singers. A "new" beginning is an attitude, a mindset, an awareness that we have a chance to do something with a fresh take, a new vision. 

Even  בראשית ברא אלוהים, B'reishit bara Elohim, the first words in the Bible, are translated frequently as "when God was beginning," implying that starting this new venture was an ongoing event. It's suggested that God had given this new world thing a go several times already, was about to abandon the effort, and only the angels' intervention gave God the oomph to give it another try ... this time with feeling (as the saying goes).

We're about …

Elul 22: The memory lingers on ... (End)

Nothing really ever ends.

Fred and Ginger knew this:

Our romance won't end on a sorrowful note,
Though by tomorrow you're gone; The song is ended, but as the songwriter wrote, The melody lingers on. They may take you from me, I'll miss your fond caress. But though they take you from me, I'll still possess ... **
Sound never really ends, it just fades away. A conductor may lay down her baton, but we continue to hear the harmonics and feel the sound waves vibrating. Phish songs never end. I thought the Philip Glass opera "Satyagraha" would never end. 
We humans never end, either. 
The worst of us, the Amaleks of our world, live on: we are commanded to remember their names precisely so we can blot out their names. 
Thankfully, the best of us live on through the genetics, attitudes, life lessons, tics, or eccentricities we pass to the next generation. Even without the genetic component, we pass on our essences through the love we share, the work we do with and for others.…

Elul 21: The airline safety guide (Love)

You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai. (Lev. 19:18)

You shall love the stranger that dwells with you (who will be for you like the native-born among you), as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Adonai, your God. (Lev. 19:34)

And you shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might ... (Deut. 6:5)

If you've paid attention to your flight attendant, you know that in the event of an emergency, you put your own oxygen mask on first. Only then do you help someone next to you, including a child. Why? Because if you don't have oxygen, you're useless to anyone else.

It's the same with love.

Start by loving and caring for yourself. It's not selfish; it's just a place to start.

Then move outward: your neighbor, your community, the strangers around you.

Then, finally, the realm of God: the spiritual love that holds all the others together.

But it all starts in your own home.

Elul 20 - Fulfill: What fills me up

Top 15 things that fill me up:

15. Singing
14. Stephen Sondheim
13. Hanging out with good friends
12. Playing with my puppy
11. Rodgers & Hammerstein
10. Spending an afternoon in Sephora
9. Watching students "get it"
8. Reform Jews who take their Judaism seriously
7. Chunky and chewy chocolate chip cookies
6. The Godfather (Part 2 and 1, in that order)
5. Movie music (not just movie musicals, although those are definitely wonderful; I mean movie music: Elmer Bernstein, Max Steiner, Leonard Bernstein, etc.)
4. Puccini
3. Les Miz
2. God
1. My family

This list could have been endless, but I had to start and stop somewhere.

So, nu ... what fills you up?


Elul 19: The TV Judge

Hot Bench
Judge Judy
Judge Faith
Judge Mablean
Judge Karen
Judge Ross
Judge Marilyn Milian

If you want to have a blast one day, check out all the television shows featuring judges. You can spend an entire day watching this stuff. From the obviously pretend (pretty much anything on
Justice Central) to the supposedly real (People's Court), these things are a hoot.

The judges' attitudes range from kind and compassionate to downright nasty. Some address themselves in the 3rd person (or the 3rd object), as in "The Court will receive this evidence."

No matter how they comport themselves, the judges are the gods of the courtroom.

While some of their judgments appear totally capricious, there is no recourse. There are no courts of appeal from daytime court TV. Emotional appeal is useless.

But that's not the way I think of God when I approach the High Holidays. The God of my חשבון הנפש, my cheshbon hanefesh, my accounting of my sins, is compassionate, discerning, loving,…

Elul 18: Asking directions

Q: Why did it take the Israelites 40 years to get to the Promised Land?
A: Moses wouldn't ask for directions.

Remember this the next time you're tempted to avoid asking for directions.

Elul 17: Spiritual Awakenings

Every day presents a new chance to do God's will, to be the best "me" God wants me to be. To do that, to be always aware of God's presence in my life, to learn and do God's will for me, requires a daily spiritual awakening.

So my goal every day, every morning, before my feet hit the ground - before I'm off and running helter-skelter in an attempt to do, do, do - is to say מודה אני - I face You, the everliving God, with gratitude for a new day.

Every new day I get to experience a spiritually awakening. I just need to remember to open my eyes.

Elul 16: Pray, but for what?

When I was a kid (which, spiritually, lasted until about 20 years ago), I believed that I could tell if prayer "worked:"

It worked if I prayed for something and I got it:

Passing spelling testsA new (or even used) bicycleFriends and relatives to be healed and not dieLosing weight It didn't work if I prayed for something and I didn't get it: Failing my spelling testNo new bicyclePeople I loved who diedNot only no weight loss but actually weight gain Mind you, I usually hadn't studied thoroughly enough for the spelling tests, the bicycle had been meant as a reward for making honors grades, loved ones were just too sick to pull through, and I just ate too much and didn't move enough. 
Prayer was a quid-pro-quo thing: I pray, God gives. And if I didn't get, God did me wrong.
I'm older and - I hope - a little wiser now. Prayer can't get me good grades (or a grades-dependent bicycle) if I don't study. It can't make the people I love get better if…

Elul 15: Change the lightbulb

Let's say I wanted to lose weight or learn a new skill. Easy, right? Eat less and move more, take  a class or find a teacher. 
Except, what if I liked to eat and didn't want to exercise or if I were convinced that I'm too old to learn new tricks. Not so easy now, is it? 
The bottom line: in order to change, I have to be willing to change. Change, whether it's weight, health, or skills, requires a psychic change of attitude. It's true
Every January 1st we make resolutions that are broken by January 31. And every Rosh Hashanah, we recite a litany of misdeeds and transgressions that - all determination aside - we recite the following Rosh Hashanah knowing full well that oops, we did it again.

All our good intentions get us nowhere unless and until we are willing to do what it takes to revise the way we look at ourselves and our world.

The problem is that  most of us aren't willing to do that until we absolutely have to. I knew someone who chain smoked for years u…

Elul 14: Teaching to Learn

I have no idea who said: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."  Or, "If you can't explain something to a six-year old, you really don't understand it yourself." It might have been Einstein, but no one knows for sure.

Whoever said it, it's critical to my teaching. If I don't get it, I can't teach it. In order to learn something, I have to imagine that I'm going to teach it. 

Elul 13: Try to Remember

Hearing Jerry Orbach, z"l, singing this song ... bring out the tissues.
Try to remember the kind of September When life was slow and oh, so mellow. Try to remember the kind of September When grass was green and grain was yellow. Try to remember the kind of September When you were a tender and callow fellow. Try to remember, and if you remember, Then follow.
Try to remember when life was so tender That no one wept except the willow. Try to remember when life was so tender That dreams were kept beside your pillow. Try to remember when life was so tender That love was an ember about to billow. Try to remember, and if you remember, Then follow.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember, Although you know the snow will follow. Deep in December, it's nice to remember, Without a hurt the heart is hollow. Deep in December, it's nice to remember, The fire of September that made us mellow. Deep in December, our hearts should remember And follow.
From: The Fantasticks Music: Harvey Schmidt Lyrics: Tom Jones

Elul 12: Forgive you, forgive me

Some people say that you have to forgive yourself before you can forgive other people. I disagree.

I think that forgiving other people is what gives me permission to say I'm sorry to myself. If I can acknowledge that other people make mistakes because they're human, then I can acknowledge that I make mistakes, too.

It's a paradox. And it's true.

Elul 11: Trust, but trust what?

Our psalms are filled with exhortations to trust in God. But what does that mean? Here's what I think.

Trusting God means that I have faith that God will support me always.

To trust God means having faith that God will give me the strength to get through hard times, inner peace when my soul is roiling, intuition to do the next right thing. It means that God is available to me 24/7, not just during crises or on Shabbat or festivals.

Sometimes I imagine God as the sole participant in that falling-back exercise, the one where a person lets go and falls back, trusting that the people behind her are going to catch. Sometimes God is the perfect mom or dad.

Developing trust in God can be tough, especially when we've been hurt or betrayed by people. But when we take a risk and realize that God isn't "people," that God is God, that's when we begin to open up a little bit and give it a shot.


Elul 10: Count a Lifetime

A lifetime isn't measured by the enormous things we accomplish; it's measured in the little instances: hugs, kisses, smiles. What makes a life count isn't the money or the possessions; it's the small stuff: calling a sick friend, saying you're sorry ... 
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year? In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love
Seasons of love Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life
Of a woman or a man? In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In …

Elul 9: Observe - a Yogi lesson

I don't do quiet very well. I like to talk, I like to be busy, I like noise. It's one reason that meditating is so stressful: sitting in silence, quieting my mind, makes me jumpy. (Years ago I practiced Transcendental Meditation; those two, 20-minute sessions a day were torture.)

What I've learned however is that sometimes observing myself and others without responding is hugely comforting. Shutting down my auto-response mechanism lets me turn off the judgmental part of my brain. I become aware of nuance and shades of gray. I pause my "on" button and suddenly I sense that still small voice that is Holiness.

Maybe I should try it more often.

Elul 8: Hear the silence

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp When my eyes were stabbed
By the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening People writing songs
That voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence "Fools, " said I, "you do not know
Silence, like a cancer, grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
And …

Elul 7: Choice - God, the Restaurant, and Malbec

Choices are good.
Choices are terrifying.
Choices are God's way of saying, "Hey, human, trust Me; you and I got this, and don't worry, there's no choice that can't be undone."

I'm a holy terror in a restaurant. I eyeball and dissect every possibility. I'm usually the last to order so I can see what everyone else ordered because obviously their choices are going to be better than mine. I torture myself and the wait staff: suppose I order this (and I don't like it) or that (and someone gets something better)? What if I daringly order a house-special cocktail and I really hate it instead of going with something safe, like a glass of Malbec?

Now take that food-ordering mentality and make it macro.

What if I mess up? What if I make the wrong decision? What if I disappoint myself and someone else? What if I make a choice and people stop loving me or leave me?

Here's the beautiful thing about having a relationship with the Holy One of Blessing: Unle…

Elul 6: Believe ... All that and chocolate chip cookies, too

I believe that there is a power greater than myself that provides direction, guidance, discipline, love, wisdom, and, most of all, strength.

I believe that there will be a day of redemption when the lion and the lamb shall get together over coffee (metaphorically at least).

I believe that God forgives all sins and that everyone who gives the aware-admit-atone-amend teshuvah process a solid chance will be able to be at peace with the past.

I believe that hate and evil will be destroyed, that the wheels of justice that turn oh, so slowly will indeed eventually turn, that history favors the righteous.

I believe that the Isaac's of the world - not the Abrahams or the Jacobs - are among the most valuable people. While they don't change the world, and maybe don't get all the glory, they do transmit values and lessons.

Oh, yes ... and I believe that chocolate chip cookies are God's way of telling the universe, "I love you."

(Browning graphic:; chocolate…

Elul 5: And acceptance is the answer ...

To do teshuvah is to return to the person I was meant to be, the person that God has in mind.

If I cannot accept where I am now, I cannot change.

Acceptance is a state of grace that opens me to the possibilities of growth, renewal, and return.

Holy One of Blessing, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change ...


Elul 4: The Essence of Understanding

"Do you really understand?"

This question is what makes my voice teacher great.

Even beyond her expertise, experience, and compassion, what makes her great is her insistence that I be able to translate her thoughts and teachings into my own language. What she's asking is if I internalize her lesson, the nuances of muscle movement, the inner secrets of the vocal chords' relationship with sound and words.

To be honest, I admit that sometimes I nod, trying to look intelligent. I don't want to appear foolish and ignorant, so sometimes I mildly evade the truth. Of course I hear the words and I understand their syntax and grammar and shallow, surface meaning. But she's asking for more: she's asking me to burrow ever deeper until I feel the essence in my kishkes.

How many times have we stood in prayer, reading the words, understanding the syntax and grammar and shallow, surface meaning ... and little else? Maybe this will be the year that I burrow ever deeper in…

Elul 3: Search, Google Style

I just Googled "search." It took .50 seconds to reveal that there are 12,700,000,000 results (I'm not even sure how to pronounce that number).

How cool would it be to Google all the ways I missed the mark last year? I think it would take way less than one-half a second, I'd click on each thing, fess up to God, make an amend if necessary and appropriate and move on.

Too bad life and teshuvah don't work that way. Teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are time-consuming processes, which is why we're given from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur and even beyond through Sukkot to make it happen.

Maybe some day there'll be a teshuvah app, but for now, I'll have to do it old school.

Elul 2: Act (as if)

כי אין בנו מעשים ...
Ki ein banu ma'asim ... We have no good deeds ...

We stand in front of God, our Parent, our King, and we acknowledge all the things we did wrong. We ask for grace, compassion, kindness even though we have no good deeds to recommend us. We aren't worthy of God's love, compassion, grace.

I know - it's a metaphor.

Most of us have felt that way, recognizing the demons that will just NOT SHUT UP in the middle of the night, believing that have nothing valuable to offer. We don't deserve God's compassion, we'll never get it, we will be failures forever.

Even then, we act ... as if.

We do the next right thing as if we knew what we were actually doing.
We get dressed in the morning, brush our teeth at night, acting as if we were God's children.
And eventually, most of the time, our "act as if" act becomes reality, and we realize that we are loved, we are worthy, we deserve God's compassion always because we are children of God.

Elul 1: Prepare, No Fear

I'm a "last-minute" person. Getting things done ahead of time isn't my thing. Mostly it's because I'm scared of not getting it right.