A Mitzvah and a Thought of Anne

Anne Frank (Britannica.com)

At Religious School a few weeks ago, the class that I work in (mostly ages 3-6) was learning about what a “mitzvah” is. Religiously speaking, a mitzvah is a commandment, and the Torah does not have only 10 like many people believe. There are actually 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in the Torah! While a mitzvah is a commandment, which is certainly stronger than a “good deed,” the word seems to sometimes be used to recognize when someone acts in a charitable or noble fashion that falls in line with the teachings of the Torah. 

My son, Cameron (Chayim Ben-Yehoshua V’ Penina in Hebrew of course) is in the Religious School class that was learning about mitzvot. This Sunday lesson led to what I believe was his first micro experience of dissonance between his Jewish upbringing and the dominant culture of assimilation. Cam was playing with his friend from school one afternoon, and they were laughing, riding bikes, playing with toys, and doing all of the things that typical 5-year-olds like to do. Cam’s friend was being very nice to him, and decided to share one of his special toys. “I don’t do this for everyone, you know” Cam’s friend made sure to point out. Cam quickly replied, “Thank you so much! That’s a mitzvah!” He looked back at me eagerly for approval regarding his use of the word, and I gave an encouraging and proud nod. His friend looked at him confusedly, and said, “What?” Cam, seemingly amazed that someone might not be aware of everything that he is aware of said, “You shared with me. It was nice. That’s a mitzvah!” His friend, now sure that this conversation was not going to be resolved in any satisfying manner, quickly moved on. Cam looked back at me in a puzzled fashion, and I explained to him that not everyone knows what a mitzvah is.

I didn’t think much of this little interaction until a couple of days later. Living Jewishly in America requires the striking of an interesting balance. Many people, not only children, are simply not quite aware of Jewish cultural norms. In a previous post, I wrote about how my mother had to call the school on the High Holy Days when I was a child to fight for no new work. The more that I unpack living Jewishly, the more important I think it is to publicly embrace our Judaism and all of its beautiful and robust traditions. This is easier said than done. We are living just one year removed from the horror that was the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting, and less than a year from the shooting at Chabad of Poway. Jews are being randomly attacked on the streets of Brooklyn, and anti-semitism feels like it is in our societal air. Due to these truths, full assimilation might seem attractive and safe to many. 

Our Shabbat Siddur says that “We are a people in whom the past endures.” Jews of the past have overcome horrors that might collapse a people, but we have always emerged from the darkness with an unshakeable spirit. Anne Frank, of blessed memory, famously told us that “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Anne’s words must endure. We must not be afraid, but stand tall and proud. I too believe that people are basically good at heart. Hate is born out of ignorance, and ignorance can often be quashed by quality human connection and communication. Anne seemed to believe this, and we would be honoring her amazing spirit to live in such a way. This notion is not one of naivete, but of faith in the fact that light will ultimately pierce through darkness.

“A mitzvah is a commandment, and sometimes Jewish people use the word to talk about good deeds in general. It is a Hebrew word.” It would not take much time to say these words. I want to teach my son to explain rather than to expect. I want him to be proud of his Judaism, and also proud to share. At the end of the day, aren’t we all really just neighbors here on this planet? I remember something in the Torah about treating our neighbors in some sort of way…

Isn’t that a mitzvah?

Shalom,

Joshua

R’fuah Sh’leimah

“There are no throw away people”

As the Rabbi so honestly and passionately spoke these words during one of his many brilliant sermons, I felt pieces of my life connecting. The sentence itself might not seem earth shattering, but when truly unpacked, it means everything. 

As some of you know, I work in a leadership position in the mental health field. I happen to work with individuals who have chronic and persistent mental health issues that hinder their day-to-day lives to the point of disorder. Many of the individuals that I know as multifaceted, colorful, talented, smart, and great people are often considered the “throw away” people of society. Have you ever walked or driven down a city street, and seen a person sauntering by, clothes possibly tattered? Have you witnessed someone who was talking to themselves or responding to internal stimuli in some way? Do you also notice how the majority of people tend to avoid, if not ignore, people who seem to be mentally unwell? Let’s be honest here. Who has not at least heard a comment akin to, “Oh, there’s that crazy guy,” or “Avoid that street, there are a lot of crazy people there.” Well, if you have not, I have certainly heard comments like this to make up for us both. 

I know so many of “these people” now. I know their names. I know their struggles. I know their backgrounds, their dreams, and their traumas. I know why they are walking down the street, being cast aside as vagrants by much of society. I am lucky enough to be in a position to get to know people. Mental illness, while treatable and certainly manageable, can be a thief. It can take the functionality of a brilliant mind, or the children away from a loving parent. As we Mental Health First Aid trainers say, it can certainly rob an individual of their ability to live, laugh, learn, and love.

This is not a mental health post. I could certainly harp on the statistical fact that 1 in every 5 Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness, or that individuals with mental health diagnoses are actually 8 to 11 times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than those without diagnoses. In a media which portrays people with mental health struggles as violent and dangerous, many are actually among the most vulnerable of our human family. 

While chanting the Mi Shebeirach I thought of the phrase R’fuah Sh’leimah— Complete healing of body and spirit. R’fuah Sh’leimah is not talking about healing only the body, but the wholeness of an individual. Overall health does not exist without mental health. When someone is not sound of mind and body, they are simply not sound at all. As Jews, we bless the ones who need healing. Oftentimes, the man or woman wandering aimlessly around the streets, talking to themselves is in need of R’fuah Sh’leimah. The man on the train who seems unkempt needs R’fuah Sh’leimah. Perhaps he is sick, and having trouble taking care of his activities of daily living. Do we ever take for granted our ability to simply get up and groom ourselves? To someone who is truly suffering from mental illness, this seemingly mundane task can be almost unimaginable. R’fuah Sh’leimah, or complete healing of the body and spirit, tells me that the Jewish way is to take into account the suffering of all types of ailment. 

“There are no throw away people.”

The Rabbi repeated this toward the end of his sermon. The face of one of the men I work for (I work for the people I serve) popped into my head. I reflected upon how he walks for miles down the street daily, head down, fighting the voices that kept him awake the previous night. I have the honor of sitting down with him and figuring out how to help in any way that I can. He opens up to me about his torment, and we come up with strategies, we laugh, and sometimes–he smiles. I wonder how many people view him as “throw away” on a day-to-day basis as they walk or drive by him. When I think about it, I cannot help but hope that the world begins to look at what’s behind the curtain of those whom society has so quickly labeled as irrelevant. 

If there truly are no “throw away people” we must care about and nurture everyone’s health and well-being equally. R’fuah Sh’leimah should not be reserved for those on the healing list during the Mi Shebeirach, but also for those who have never been counted in any significant way. While we go about our busy lives, perhaps we should take a moment to think of the people who have been thrown away or counted out by society. If we change our minds, we change how we see the world. If we can change how we see the world, perhaps the world will change. 

Shalom,

Joshua

Big and Tall(it)

As I have mentioned before, I will be celebrating my Bar Mitzvah as an adult in just a few short weeks (ah!). While the ceremony itself involves quite a bit of preparation, some of the minutiae of planning sort of hit me a bit later. One of the most intriguing experiences that I have had while getting ready for my November morning has not involved hiring a caterer for the kiddush luncheon, or sending out invitations. No. What, you ask? Well, take a look at this:

Size 8: 8” X 42” (20 cm X 105 cm)

Size 12: 12” X 42” (30 cm X 105 cm)

Size 36a: 36” X 52” (90 cm X 130 cm)

Size 18: 18” X 72” (45 cm X 180 cm)

Size 24: 24” X 72” (60 cm X 180 cm)

Size 36: 36” X 72” (90 cm X 180 cm)

Size 45: 44” X 64” (110 cm X 160 cm)

Size 50: 48” X 68” (120 cm X 170 cm)

Size 55: 52” X 72” (130 cm X 180 cm)

Size 60: 56” X 76” (140 cm X 190 cm)

Size 70: 60” X 80” (150 cm X 200 cm)

Size 80: 68” X 84” (170 cm X 210 cm)

Size 90: 72” X 84” (180 cm X 210 cm)

  • Average height bar mitzva: Size 36
  • Tall bar mitzva, short adult: Size 45-50
  • Average adult: Size 55-60
  • Large or tall adult: Size 70-80
  • Big & Tall and supersize: Size 90 (judaicawebstore.com) 

Confused? I was! This is just one of many online sizing charts that I came across while searching for the perfect tallit to wear on the big day. For those who don’t know, the tallit is a prayer shawl that Jews wear at certain times while at schul. The shawl can be worn in the traditional way, which basically covers the whole back, or in a more “modern” fashion, which is almost like a scarf. Of course, sizing depends on the manner in which you plan on wearing the tallit, how you would like the tallit to fit, and also how well you can understand the dimensions on the charts. You can also choose the type of tzitzit that you would like. The tzitzit are the fringes on the tallit that are actually used during prayer and Torah service. The commandment to wear the fringes (tzizit) can be found in Numbers 15 if you are interested in the origins. I eventually emailed a few of the most reputable tallit shops, and I got a few different answers. I heard everything from “we don’t usually carry that size,” to “just look at our sizing chart.” But, I already did, and I was confused, so I emailed you…

Well anyway, after deciding upon the tallit that I was comfortable with, and that seemed to be the right size, I put my order in, and received that fresh and wonderful confirmation email. The next day, I received another email in the afternoon. “Wow, they are already shipping it!” I thought to myself as I clicked the email open. “Thank you for your order, but unfortunately we don’t have that tallit in that size. We actually don’t have many in that size.” Oy. By the way, I am about 6’ 4” with fairly broad shoulders, so I am used to having some trouble finding the perfect size in anything worn. I suppose I just did not envision this issue extending out to holy wear. I searched around some more, and I found a tallit that I really liked. I caved in and just picked the largest size that they had from a drop down menu. I chose the Ashkenazi style tzitzit (I wasn’t aware of all the details of this before), and I ordered.

I finally received my tallit in the mail. A handsome white tallit with some gold and black on the cloth part (called the beged). There are a few Magen David, and some Menorahs adorning the beged. The blessing for the tallit is written along the neck of the tallit:

Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam A-sher Ki-de-sha-nu B’mitz-vo-tav V’tzi-va-nu L’hit-a-teif Be-Tzi-tzit. (Chabad.org) 

 Well, through all of the searching, I am more than happy with my tallit, and this is just one of the details that make this day so special to me. I have never owned a tallit, and I hope to pass it down to my son one day, maybe even on his Bar Mitzvah. I just hope he’s at least as “tall-is” I am. Wow, that’s bad, so I should end on that for sure.

Here is the final tallit (pictures of me wearing it will be saved for later!):

Shalom,

Joshua

From Zero to Simchat

I started reading Hebrew about 7 or 8 months ago, and I have truly enjoyed every moment of learning how to navigate the language and all of its beautiful nuance. I could literally not read a word of Hebrew in January or February of this year, but with practice every day, I am now essentially reading by sight at a good pace. I find that reading Hebrew is relaxing for me, and I get to focus on something completely outside of my day-to-day earthly duties. Even more than that, I have been able to specifically practice the Hebrew that I will be reading for my Bar Mitzvah celebration without the niqqud, or the vowel symbols that go along with the letters. For those who don’t know, the script in the Torah itself does not have the niqqud, which lets you know what vowel sound you need to produce. Look at the picture at the top of the post for what the text of the Torah actually looks like. The long item is called a yad (hand), which is a pointer you use to follow along while reading.

Today, I had a pleasant surprise while I was performing my Religious School duties at the Temple. The Rabbi called me in to his office, and asked me if I was up for a challenge. Since the Torah and Haftorah readings for my Bar Mitzvah are going so well, the Rabbi wanted to keep me engaged in furthering my Hebrew reading skills and experiences. After quickly agreeing to whatever challenge he had in mind, he asked me if I would be interested in reading some Hebrew directly from the Torah during Simchat Torah service on this coming Friday. Of course, an aliyah (coming up to the Torah. Moving to Israel is a different kind of aliyah) is an honor, and I am happy to prepare myself for this undertaking. I will be reading a bit of the absolute end of Deuteronomy, and the very beginning of Genesis (B’reshit), to signify the end of one Torah cycle and the beginning of another. 

I wanted this little blurb to express how honored I am to do this, but also to demonstrate how you truly never know where life is going to lead you. Even less than a year ago, I never would have imagined that I would be reading Hebrew at the level that I am (or maybe at all), let alone be getting asked by a spiritual leader to read directly from the Torah during a meaningful service. If you are thinking about starting something new, jump in and try it. Practice, embrace it fully, and see how proficient you can become. As the words in Hebrew start to become sight words, and as my skills sharpen, a feeling of connectedness with ancients and my Jewish heritage also grows.

Are you putting off trying something new, or something you have always wanted to do because you think it’s too late, or are afraid to fail? Take a chance, I think you will be happy that you did. I started with a little yellow book with basic Hebrew letters in it, and now I am on to the ancient and holy scroll of our predecessors. It is never too late or too difficult to go for it. 

Nike Swoosh.

Shavua Tov,

Joshua

Heschel and Glory

Current Read: God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel

So, I try to read as many Jewish-themed texts as possible. I read the Torah portion every week (almost) and supplement with numerous other texts from Elie Wiesel’s classic Night to the Sefer HaAggadah. Now that I have undertaken the sharing of this blog, I have even more impetus to continue my quest for wisdom in this manner. I just finished Gil Troy’s new book about Zionists, which was essentially an update of Theodor Herzl’s original work. If you are interested in an accessible way to read about influential Zionists from past to present, I would highly recommend Troy’s volume (The Zionist Ideas). More to come on Zionism later.

Forward to my current read. Abraham Joshua Heschel is someone whose name I have heard a myriad of times, but I am just now delving into his work. I am only about 100 pages into God in Search of Man, and I find myself feeling as if every paragraph he writes deserves its own post. I suppose that is why he wrote so many books–because he had amazing ideas and insights. I just finished reading Heschel’s chapter about “glory.” Glory is one of those words that seems to be used often, but its meaning is a bit cumbersome and nebulous. Heschel approaches this word from a religious perspective, and I could not help but find it fascinating. 

Heschel says: “The glory is the presence, not the essence of God; an act rather than a quality; a process not a substance”

“The whole earth is full of His glory, but we do not perceive it; it is within our reach but beyond our grasp.”

Now instead of summarizing the rest of Heschel’s chapter, I would like to discuss what you think it all means. Since the glory of God exists even outside of the realm of human perception, is it our responsibility as human beings to tap into and sense the glory of Godly presence in every moment? Heschel believes that human perception of glory is an extremely rare happening. Human beings are accustomed to routine, and become indifferent in terms of finding the gloriousness in what we typically perceive as humdrum moments. 

Heschel believes that this whole conversation might actually be impossible to have in a truly profound way, as we cannot ultimately describe or know glory. The beauty of glory is knowing that we are known. This is one of the ideas that seems to be behind the title of the entire book. God is aware of us at all times, even when we are unaware, doubting, mindless, apathetic, uncaring, or distracted. Isn’t it a beautiful notion that God is constantly mindful of us? Even at times when we do not know it or feel it, the presence is everywhere.

Heschel appears to believe that the biblical prophets were aware of the glory, and this is one of the qualities that made them prophetic. There will come a time (perhaps in a messianic age) when all will be aware of the glory. 

What kind of world would it be wherein humans are aware of the awareness, so to speak? I would love to know your thoughts. 

Shalom,

Joshua

What a Mensch!

Since it is already a bit late tonight, I just wanted to take the time to give overdue credit where overdue credit is due. As the reflective Days of Awe are now in our rearview, I would like to thank my mother. Please don’t get the wrong idea here. This is not an ultimate “thank you for everything, mom” post. That would be a much longer, heavier, and thoughtful undertaking. 

I would like to thank my mother for being so persistent in the face of insurmountable odds. What am I talking about? Well…raising children Jewishly in my area of Upstate New York was an interesting experience. By interesting I mean that there really weren’t very many Jews at all. I remember many grade school conversations that went something like this:

Classmate: So, do you speak Jewish?

Me: Jewish isn’t a language. I think you mean Hebrew? 

Classmate: What is that?

Me: It’s the language that you thought was called “Jewish.”

Classmate: Oh, do you speak that during Jewish Christmas, Chanukah, right?

Me: Well, we say prayers on the holid…I have to go.

Classmate: Well, Merry Christmas!

There were many conversations similar to this. Life in the Diaspora, am I right?! Kids were actually always (for the most part) nice, and wanted to find out more information. But, back to mom.

“They better not assign any new work on the High Holy Days this year.” 

This was a sentence that my mother recited verbatim every year right before Rosh Hashanah. She was speaking of some unwritten holy school-wide policy wherein all of the teachers would magically realize that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur existed, take them into account, and refrain from assigning new work on the days that Jewish people went to schul. Now, for the yearly follow-up quote:

“I can’t believe they are assigning new work on the High Holy Days. I am going to have to call the school.”

And call the school she did–every year without fail. She would complain, and I think she would get some sort of canned answer, and things would never change. As I look back, I find a certain beauty in her sisyphean task of yore. She could have just stopped calling, but she never did. There’s a lesson there somewhere, and something that seems very Jewish about her resolve. 

Just an FYI: my cousins lived about an hour south, and their schools closed for the High Holy Days. 

Anyway, todah rabah mom!

Ho ho ho! Meeerrrry Sukkot…Wait…

Shalom,

Joshua

What Kol Nidre Did

So, if you ever read the bottom of any of these posts, you will read that I am a singer, and even though I am not doing this professionally anymore, I still find a lot of enjoyment and pleasure in singing around the house or at temple. When I was asked to sing during the Kol Nidre on Erev Yom Kippur, I was immediately excited at the opportunity to get in front of people and sing, as I had been performing for most of my life. 

Ah, Performing. This is where my thinking was askew. I thought that I would be performing for the rest of the temple during the singing of the Kol Nidre toward the beginning of the service of the same name. Little did I know just how disparate this experience would be from any other “singing in front of people” experience I had ever taken part in prior. 

First, let’s delve into my psychology education a bit for a buzzword. Flow. What is it? According to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (If you make a video of yourself pronouncing that surname and send it to me, I will be impressed. I will also not know if you’re actually correct. So, go ahead!) flow is that feeling you get when you are completely enveloped in an experience. Time often moves slowly, or goes by rather quickly. Action and awareness begin to merge into one, and self-consciousness soars out the window. Flow is achieved when the experience is the reward itself. There is no goal, only the moment. 

Whoa. Yeah. A flow state is incredible, but not always easily attainable. However, when I stood up in front of the bimah at my schul, surrounded by a group of Jews that had come together to pray, I listened for the opening chords of the Kol Nidre. I closed my eyes, and singing started to simply come out of my body. Allow me a quick digression. To be honest…during most of my singing and performing career, I was taught to be prepared and to think about what I was doing at all times. Cognition was often key, and it was usually a somewhat herculean struggle to think about something like where to move during a song, while simultaneously emotionally investing. How would the audience receive the performance? How would the reviews be? When was my next costume change? You get the picture. I never left my body in any sort of metacognitively recognizable way when I was singing for an audience. I was a performer and audience members were the spectators. Self-consciousness was the name of the game as a professional performer.

Back to the schul on Erev Yom Kippur. Again, singing started to flow out of me. I was chanting these ancient Aramaic words, and I felt a sense of connectedness to thousands of years of some indescribable entity. There was a heightened quality to my senses while I became completely lost in the hauntingly beautiful melody and phrasing. I stopped caring about notes, and about that phrasing…about performing. I was not performing at all. I was experiencing something with souls that surrounded me. I was flowing, and it was an experience that might have seemed like the singing of the Kol Nidre for a minute and thirty seconds to some, but felt like a soul changing experience for me. As I eventually sauntered back to my seat, I realized that the sides of my eyes were wet, as though tears had begun to form in some very innermost part of myself. The rest of the service was icing on the cake from that point. 

What brings you into a state of flow? Do you know? If you aren’t sure, I recommend you try engaging in an activity you love for the sheer enjoyment of it. Prayer itself can bring flow, but the mind can easily wander. With the anxieties of life, it is so easy to be distracted from living in the exact moment, but wow, when it happens, it is certainly an experience that does not leave you quickly.

I hope that I can find some level of flow again soon, but if not, I really do hope I get to sing the Kol Nidre again next Yom Kippur. 

Shalom,

Joshua

A “Schul’s” Errand?

So, I am going to start with a quasi thoughtful post, but don’t always expect this. Sometimes I just might want to talk about how my five-year-old son sings Hineih Mah Tov while he uses the bathroom.

Many Jews have heard cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am’s famous quote: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” While this seems to be historically true, an article in Forward by Jane Eisner points to the fact that a 2018 poll by Pew Research Center has found that a majority of young Jews claim to have absolutely no religion at all. Some of these individuals, although non-religious, are often extremely proud to be Jews. The question has become–Who will keep Shabbat in the future?

I am going to take a confident leap and assume that I can be considered a “young Jew,” as I come in at age 33, and have a Kindergartner and another little one on the way. As Americans in general become more and more disconnected from “organized religion” (Eisner cites 22.8% as unaffiliated with religion in general), the already small number of Jews are in danger of losing the vitality of connection. 

Let’s be clear. I get it. There are a lot of things going on in the modern world, and most of them take place on a small handheld device that makes bell-ringing noises at us when we don’t pay attention to it. It’s easy to write off the spiritual world when the digital universe is so easily accessible. But as I read about and experience dwindling numbers of Shabbat service-goers on Friday nights, I cannot help but think that young Jews might  need to consider connecting in a profound way. 

Our temple’s rabbi first introduced me to the idea of a temple or synagogue as three things. Younger and more religiously ignorant me would have been so happy to hear this. There exists  the idea of the beit tefilah, or the house of prayer. This is probably what most people think of when they reflect upon religion in general. The beit tefilah encompasses the songs we sing and the beautiful prayerful poems that are recited at a service. Many young moderns might view this as archaic and uselessly ritualistic. Unless you have truly experienced a beautiful service, I would certainly beg to differ. 

Secondly, a schul can be a beit midrash, or a house of study. Even the most unaffiliated of Jews can surely find a wonderful class of interest, or even tiptoe into a Torah study session. In an age when us “young Jews” pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to study the music of The Beatles and Introduction to Buddhism (guilty!), the value of a general education is surely something that us greener folks can appreciate.

Finally, the synagogue is also a beit knesset, or house of gathering. The schul can be a place where Jews can come together to simply be…together. We can celebrate, nosh, kvell and kvetch. We can embrace life and mourn loss. The importance of human connection cannot be overstated. Face-to-face interaction is certainly a dying form of communication, but as we Jews know, what is seemingly lost can certainly be brought back to life. 

To sum it up, the temple or synagogue can be a lot of things to a lot of different people. I hope that we younger Jews can find a way to utilize our schuls and keep them relevant (and actually open) as we move forward. Try out a Shabbat service on a Friday night. Maybe pick up a Hebrew for beginners book (This one helped me tremendously: Joshua Recommends This!)  

Essentially, it seems that we need to keep Shabbat in some form or fashion in order to ensure that the future is secure. The next generation of children singing Hineih Mah Tov while going number 2 certainly depends on it. 

Shalom,

Joshua