Back from Thanksgiving in Seattle. Blog: fail! -but I like to amuse myself here and there. I am well into my Basic Judaism class now and enjoying it. Unfortunately a lot of the content so far has been familiar. Also quite unfortunate is my lack of participation at the synagogue beyond the class: grad school and a fiancee in LA stretch my time- especially weekend time- quite thin. I really regret not being able to invest more in my Jewish learning. But as the Talmud, I think, says, one should not put off Torah study for lack of time, for one may never have that desired time. So true!
So far in class we have covered the High Holy Days, ethics, Jewish education, Shabbat, and Hannukah. Here are a few interesting things I have learned or noted:
-from a Reform perspective, indifference is the greatest sin. I would have said the Jewish perspective would have pinpointed inaction, but I think here indifference is meant as an umbrella for not caring and not acting. Thankfully, this is one sin I steer pretty clear of. If I am not caring or acting, I am worrying about my inaction or indifference and its effect on the world, and if that isn’t an act of caring, I don’t know what is. My connection to the world around me has always been strikingly apparent to me- so apparent that I am often panicked by the repercussions of my actions and inactions. This awareness does not always lead to action, but often it does. It was also noted in class than even futile-feeling actions are meaningful and worthwhile because they are done in partnership with God. This is a powerful idea and certainly I have felt the sense of righteousness and spiritual community that accompanies good action even when it fails on the surface of things.
-according to the Talmud, the first question you are asked when you get to heaven is whether you conducted your business affairs honestly- interpreted in our class to refer to how we treat strangers. Caring about people we do not know can be difficult and certainly it is much easier to ignore the needs of people we do not know than those that we do. I always notice when strangers address me in a way that makes me feel that they recognize and respect my uniqueness and the full person that I am. It is hard to put into words, but there is a certain way we often treat people- as a means to an end, plus a dash of politeness and respect- that passes as “friendly” but misses the mark of seeing that person’s soul. It is the difference between seeing someone as the sum of their actions and seeing them as a yet unrevealed spiritual partner. There are people- often rabbis, ministers, psychologists, and the like- who regularly seem to try their best to treat each and every stranger as a human being as complex and worthy and any they know intimately. UU World this winter quoted Rev Kemler: “At a ministers’ retreat someone read a passage about why ministers make people feel uncomfortable. Is it because we dress in earth-colored clothes, and when we shake hands with people, we hodl their hands a second too long and gaze into their faces and say earnestly, ‘How ARE you?’ All the ministers in the room howled with laughter at the accuracy of this picture.” Yes, this treatment can become routine and cliche, but there’s something real and important about it as well. When we treat strangers as spiritual brothers and sisters, we can no longer make decisions that harm or ignore their well-being.
-our discussion of Shabbat touched on the essence of Shabbat as a taste of the world to come- a world perfected and whole. This reminded me of the much more somber simulation of the world to come- Yom Kippur- when bodily needs are set aside and souls are examined. Shabbat of course is supposed to be more celebratory in nature- enjoying the world that already is and experiencing its holiness, not trying to alter anything in the world. This elevation of purpose gives us a better perspective on what already is wonderful in the world, and how our busy pursuits occlude our appreciation of what is holy in the world. I think of this separation a bit like taking time on a long walk to turn around and appreciate the long distance we have travelled, the path that has afforded us our travel, the world that allows us to have this experience. We are released from our immediate goals to have a broader perspective on our world. Stepping aside from our normal routine- or simulating our next role in life- can have an enormous impact on our perspective. I remember graduating from high school and lining up for Escapade, our all-night school-sponsored graduation party. The day of graduation spawned an enormous upheaval in the social order of our student body. A cheerleader who had never talked to me came up and congratulated me on my academic achievement and admitted that she admired my pursuit of academics. I spoke to a grade school friend who had sat in drab goth garb in the hallway for four years, ignored by almost everyone. We expressed surprise and regret that we had not connected earlier. All over it seemed that suddenly hierarchies were vanishing, and people were beginning to see each other differently. We were exiting the high school order and entering the “real world,” and our disguises melted away. Senior week at Wellesley- a week of celebration before graduation- took on a similar feel. So it seems that there are pivotal moments of change in life when one way of being suddenly ends and a new level of understanding and insight is reached. Shabbat, as I see it, is somewhat of an exercise in these moments- stepping aside from the roles and duties we have during the week and experiencing the elevation of our souls in their absence, the perspective we gain from stopping and looking around and laughing at our narrow worldly perspective.
To end, a picture from Disneyland- we went on Wednesday to celebrate Rachel’s birthday. Here we are driving through Autopia- not our favorite ride, but a pace friendly for photography:
And in front of Tomorrowland: