Thursday, September 24, 2009

What are you waiting for?

Yeshua taught:
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)
Jewish tradition says that at Yom Kippur, God only forgives sins we've commited against Him. The sins we've committed against other people, we have to go and ask forgiveness for. Yeshua taught the same thing, and he was pretty serious about it:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matt. 5:25-26)
It takes a lot of courage to go to someone and apologize, or even to ask, "Is there anything I've done over the year which I should apologize for?" But it sends a message to your loved ones that their friendship is important to you, and it sends a message to God that you truly love Him by loving your neighbor.

So what are you waiting for?

May all of the readers at Gathering Sparks have an easy and meaningful fast.


The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah--the Sabbath of Return. There are two special haftorah readings* for this week which have to do with repentance. Some excerpts:

Hosea 14:1-2

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!

Take words with you and return to the LORD.
Say to him: "Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.

Micah 7:18-19

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin
and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.

You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

On Shabbat Shuvah, Micah reminds us of something crucial during this season of repentance: Where is God in all of this? Delighting to show mercy.

Yeshua told a famous parable about return: the story of the prodigal son. The point of the parable is that God's response to us when we make to welcome us back to Him.

To read more about Yeshua's parable, I invite you to check out my first contribution to The Set Table--a commentary on Yeshua's parable of the prodigal son.

May you find shalom as you make your way back to God on this Shabbat Shuvah.

*Hosea 14:2-10, Micah 7:18-20

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tashlich now we've probably devoted a significant amount of time putting into practice all the things we've been talking about: examining ourselves before God, going to other people to apologize for things we've done wrong over the year, repenting for sin, and making resolutions for a better new year...

If that describes you, Baruch Hashem!* If not--well, you're in good company.

Let's face it: our lives are busy. Once we get done at work, there's tons to do at home. And if you're student, well...

Our tradition has a solution for this. It's called tashlich. Haven't heard of it? It's simple: take some bread** (and a few friends if you want) and go to a stream or river. As you throw the pieces of bread into the water, think over the past year--about the things that have come between you and God, or you and other people. Then remember God's promise:
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:12)
"That's it?" you ask leadingly. "That's it," I reply. There's no special blessings, no particularly prescribed way to do it.

In a season filled with many beautiful prayers aimed to assist us in voicing our heartfelt repentance to God, tashlich stands out as an action so basic that the simplest child can do it, even without fully understanding its meaning.

So if you're feeling like you haven't had enough time this season, I want to encourage you: try doing tashlich before Erev Yom Kippur on Sunday night.

*Bless God.
** You can also do tashlich with pebbles or stones if you feel that using bread is wasteful.

A Simple New Years Resolution

One of my favorite blogs is A Simple Jew. Here's a great example of why:
אתה. I have resolved that this one word, comprised of just three letters, is going to be the focus of my avodas Hashem for 5770. I have rushed over the word אתה so many times... Beginning with the new year, I have made it a practice to slow down anytime I encounter this word... It is my sincere hope that by doing this that my kavana [intent] and deveykus [devotion] will increase significantly over the course of the next year; allowing me to come even just a small step closer to shleimus hatefilla (perfected prayer).
What simple resolutions can you make during these days to help you come closer to God?

(A word of advice: if you make a resolution to do something better this year, tell a friend! I've done this several times over the past few years, and it's made all the difference. Special thanks to those friends--you know who you are!)

Friday, September 18, 2009

L'shana tova!

As we enter into Rosh Hashanah tonight and begin the coming year, may we be strengthened in the message of Yeshua (thanks to Derek Leman for these verses):

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:1)

And also in his universal message of repentance and forgiveness.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.(Matthew 6:12)

L'shana tova!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The 13 Midot

A major component of selichot prayers is the 13 Midot, the list of the 13 attributes of God, from Exodus 34:6-7. After the children of Israel sin with the golden calf, Moses is interceding with them before God. When it seems Moses has said all he can say, then God passes before Moses and makes this proclamation about Himself. Jewish tradition says that God wrapped Himself in a tallis when He passed before Moses, and that the Holy One was demonstrating to Moses how to intercede to Him. (If the idea of God wearing a tallis is weird to you, ask yourself, "Why?" It would probably make for a great discussion...)

I have read that the Torah is the basis for how man should behave, but the sages said that to be truly Godly means to emulate these 13 Midot. I believe that Yeshua was not only perfectly adherent to the Torah, but that he revealed through his life
Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious,
Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth,
Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations,
Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

God be merciful to me, a sinner!

The week before Rosh Hashanah, it is custom to say special selichot, or penitential prayers, as part of preparing our hearts for the holidays. At certain points during these prayers, it is customary to strike one's chest with one's fist as a symbol of remorse.

This reminds me of the parable told by Yeshua about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14):

[Yeshua] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yom Kippur, or "Don't Judge Me, Man!"

No one likes being judged. "She's so judgmental," is probably one of the most condemning ways you could describe a person. And judgmental religious folk are the worst--don't they know the saying "Judge not, lest ye be judged?"

If we let judgmental people hijack our understanding of God as judge, we're the ones who end up losing out. The ancient Israelites had a different view of judgment--they longed for it. When they were oppressed by foreign nations, they cried out to God: "Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their deserts!" (Psalm 94:2)

"Give the arrogant their deserts." How many times have you wished for that to happen? How many times have you had something unfair happen to you, or to a friend, and wished that someone with authority to fix it would step in? How much do the injustices in the world make you wish for justice? If you can't relate, ask around; I guarantee you know someone who's been treated unfairly and can tell you about the very real feelings that come when you feel like you're being treated unjustly.

"God will judge." This is ultimately a message of hope, especially for the poor, for the defenseless, for those who have no one to defend them.

But before we're ready to wholeheartedly call for God's judgment, we have to ask ourselves some honest questions. Have I done wrong by my neighbor? Am I a loving person? Have I been a part of the solution, or a part of the problem? As the Psalmist wrote:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139:23-24
When we're honest with ourselves, I think almost everyone is conscious of ways in which we don't live up to what we know to be right. Fortunately, there is an even better message of hope than "God will judge"--and that is that "God loves mercy." Again, the Psalmist wrote:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16-17
This is the theme of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement--that the God who created the world, who loves justice and hates wickedness, also loves mercy. As one of Yeshua's talmidim wrote:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Learning to Dance, Learning to Pray

Have you ever wanted to take dance lessons?

I'm not talking about the electric slide. I mean the kind of dancing when you're at a wedding and an old standard comes on, and somebody's aunt and uncle go over to the dance floor, and they start doing a foxtrot. Or swing dancing. Both partners are moving together, they know the right moves to make, and it just looks...beautiful.

I've always liked dancing, but when a song requires a specific step, more often than not I choose to sit and watch. Not because I don't want to join in, but because I don't know the steps.

So how is praying like dancing?

When it comes to prayer, many of us are the same way. We're great at freeform or spontaneous prayer, but when it comes to liturgical prayer, we'd just as soon sit it out. Perhaps you've even wondered: why would anyone want to pray a prayer that's already been written down?

The answer is: for the same reason that couples learn the steps in order to be able to waltz, tango, or foxtrot. The same reason that playwrights write down lines and actors learn them. The same reason that jazz musicians learn standards.

Improvisation, freedom, and spontaneity...

...all three are key ingredients in all three of these activities (dancing, acting, and music). But without the form (steps, scripts, standards), all the spontaneity in the world can still end up feeling rote and tired.

Jewish prayer is rich with liturgy. To really understand it, you must try to think of the siddur (the Jewish prayerbook) as the steps to a dance. It's merely the outline, to show you where to place your feet. But you're the one and God.

And there's more: by supplying you with words to pray, the siddur doesn't just give voice to things you want to say to God. It also teaches you new (old) ways to talk to God--not only individually, but as part of a people who have had an ongoing relationship with the God who first called them into peoplehood.

Prayer and the High Holy Days

The high holy day services have their own special prayers. All of these prayers have important meanings, and without understanding the meanings behind the prayers, we may find ourselves feeling unmoved...or bored. However, if we take the time to learn the meanings behind the traditions, we may discover a wealth of meaning...which will help our own relationship with God.

To learn more about Jewish prayer as "dancing through history," and how the siddur facilitates our "participation in a sacred drama," I recommend reading Rabbi Joshua Brumbach's two part series on rethinking Jewish prayer at the Yinon blog.

As you read Rabbi Joshua's articles, you can think about these questions:
  • What is prayer?
  • What are some of the obstacles that hinder us from praying? In what ways can the siddur help us to surmount these obstacles?
  • In what ways can liturgical prayers enable us to pray together with one voice as a community?
  • How does praying the traditional prayers of the Jewish people allow us to connect with Jewish history?

The Shofar 2, or 10 Reasons Why We Blow the Shofar

Why is this night different from all other nights? Why are we commanded to blow the shofar? Why do we eat kosher? Why, why, why?

If the Jewish tradition were like an annoying older brother, he would probably say "Sheket!"* to all your questions, and then go back to working on his blog whatever he was trying to say about how the spiral of the ram's horn resembles the intricacies of life's entanglements and blah blah blah blah bla...

Luckily for all of us, Jewish tradition isn't like a know-it-all older brother.

It's more like a zeyde...a twinkly-eyed Jewish family patriarch who loves to scoop you onto his lap and tell you stories about the time when Uncle Moshe led the entire family across the scalding hot sand, and how the manna tasted like borscht on Tuesdays and matzah brie every second Friday. Just like a zeyde, sometimes the tradition can tell stories that get kinda long, or go over your head, or even seem a bit gruff. But the older you get the more you realize that just as your bubbe or zeyde was an authentic link to the Jewish past, so the tradition is. And that without that link to the past, your Jewish present and future will be...well, let's just say more boring than a stage adaptation of Leviticus.

Jewish tradition is all about "Why?"

The midrash is all the "Why?"s asked by the great sages of Jewish history about the stories in the Torah. The Talmud is the "Why?s" asked by the sages about halakha (how we "walk out" the commandments in Torah). Why does the youngest child learn to sing "Ma Nishtana?" (the four questions) at the Passover seder? So she will be taught to ask "Why?"!

So why are you telling me this?

I'm glad you asked. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar--great! But why? Why did God command us to blow the ram's horn on this day once a year?
The Saadia Gaon (9th century Jewish sage) suggested not just one, but 10 reasons. You could say that this is part of a long tradition of "top ten" lists that goes back to Moshe Rabbenu and the Ten Commandments. I was going to write out the list myself, but Derek Leman beat me to the punch.
So go ahead, check out Derek's article on the Saadia Gaon's ten reasons why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Top that, Dave!

When you're finished, ask yourself:
  • Are the Saadia Gaon's reasons for blowing the shofar relevant to me today?
  • Which reason most resonates with me? What does that tell me about myself?
  • Which reason least resonates with me? Why? Does it point to an area in my beliefs where I could stand to learn more, or grow a bit?
  • How can I make sure to remember these reasons when we sound the shofar this Rosh Hashanah?

*Hebrew for "Quiet!"