A Thought for Shabbat

Approaching the Herodian building over the cave

It has been noted by the Rabbis of our tradition–and by alert readers of the Torah–that even though our Torah portion for this week is called Chaye Sarah (literally, “the Life of Sarah”), the text actually talks about her death and the preparations for her burial.Of course, from the previous week’s Torah portions, we know something about her life…but not as much as we know about Abraham.

It is noteworthy that for all the praise that is heaped on Sarah by our Sages, Abraham seems caught off guard when she passes away.  Even though both of them were in advanced age, they made no preparations for burial plots; the resulting negotiations and purchase are what make up the entire beginning of the Parasha.

How could Abraham have overlooked this?  Perhaps it was that he was so focused on life that he couldn’t look forward that far.  Abraham does several things that show his focus on saving life (Sodom and Gomorrah, telling Sarah to pretend to be his sister, etc.)…even though he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac.Jewish tradition asks us to maintain a balance.  We must live in the moment and make the most of life, but we must also prepare for the fate that awaits all of us (we should live to 120!).  We cannot so focus on our end that we forget to live our lives to the fullest; we live so much in the moment that we forget that we do not have forever to be in this world.It is a difficult task to handle successfully.  The story in our Torah portion reminds us of this in a most dramatic way.

Would You Rather Be Happy or Live Longer?

Hour Glass

If you had to choose between long life and happiness, what would be your choice?

Guess what? You don’t have to choose. Happy people live longer. At least that is what research is showing. Studies about the connection have been going on for years, but all point to the fact that that happier we are, the longer we live.

Of course, what defines happiness for one person doesn’t necessarily define it for someone else. There are research questions that helped to identify the components that make up happiness. Five main areas are: 1. Having satisfying social connections, 2. Looking on the bright side, 3. Meaning and purpose in one’s life, 4. Spirituality, 5. and what Martin Seligman (co-founder of the Positive Psychology movement) calls flourishing with PERMA (Positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishment). For a full explanation of all of these, go to the article from http://www.cnn.com: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/30/health/happiness-live-longer-wellness/index.html

On this blog, I talk about nutrition, exercise and spirituality and how they can help to improve our health–physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is noteworthy that research now shows a strong link between happiness and long life.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It is a time for recognizing the blessings in our lives. That sense of gratitude helps to bring happiness our way. This is not an exercise just for the end of November; Jewish tradition’s mussar movement encourages us regularly to practice gratitude. Rather than focusing on the negative, we should be grateful for all the positives. The research shows: we will be happier…and for longer too!

And God Wouldn’t Let Him Sacrifice his Son Either

Image result for guns

“Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  That is the challenge that Abraham placed before God when he heard of the Lord’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham negotiated with God until they agreed that if 10 innocent people could be found, the cities would be spared destruction.
I think about the question posed by Abraham this Shabbat in the context of the epidemic of gun violence in our country.  Just yesterday another school shooting “swept away the innocent.”  Who in that school could have possibly been wicked?  Who deserves to have their life cut short in such a violent way?
The Constitution does guarantee the right to bear arms, but too often the 2nd Amendment seems to be an impediment to achieving the very aims of that same Constitution:  “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Too often it seems that the Constitution is used as a weapon itself, and the innocent are swept away along with the guilty.
Will we, like Abraham, raise our voices?  Will we protest?  Thoughts and prayers are nice but that is not what Abraham did.  He spoke truth to power.  Can we follow his example?

Following Abram Outside of Our Comfort Zones

Image result for comfort zone

There is an expression in the fitness world that is often found on motivational posters:  “If It Doesn’t Challenge You, It Won’t Change You.”  In other words, if we are doing exercises that don’t really push us beyond our comfort zone, we won’t see results; using the same weights and the same number of reps over and over is not only a recipe for boredom, but also for disappointment.  As a trainer, I continually work on progression, moving my clients from one level of challenge to the next.
This philosophy is true not just with regard to fitness, but in other areas of our lives as well.  At work, if we stick to the tasks we know well and never challenge ourselves to learn new skills or new parts of the organization, we will stagnate.  In school, if we only take subjects that interest us or are only on one topic, we will never expand our horizons and perhaps even our points of view.  In our relationships, if we merely ever stick to the tried and true, there is a danger of allowing love or friendship to slowly die.  We must always challenge ourselves.
I am reminded of this especially on this Shabbat when we read Parashat Lech Lecha.  The Lord spoke to Abram and told him to go forth from everything with which he was familiar to a new land where God would make him into a great and mighty nation.  Talk about getting outside of one’s comfort zone!  This was the ultimate challenge and not only did it change Abram (to Abraham!), but it altered the history of humanity.
Change is scary; it is tough to leave behind that with which we are comfortable.  One truth in life, however, is that change is inevitable.  We can be objects and have things happen to us, or we can be like Abram and be the subjects of our lives by challenging ourselves to be more tomorrow than we are today.

The morning after…

Dia de los muertos

As I write this message it is Halloween night across America and Dia de los Muertos in many Spanish-speaking countries.  I have lots of memories of trick-or-treating as a kid…and of lots of candy too.  
I don’t want to comment on whether Jewish families should participate or not, but rather to note that the macabre focus on the dead in Halloween is foreign to Jewish tradition.  But wait…what about Yizkor…and Yahrzeits…and Kaddish…and sitting Shiva?  It is true that Judaism has a way of memorializing the departed, but death is never glorified.  Martyrdom is not something to be admired, but seen as a sometimes necessary evil.  The Kaddish prayer is a praise of God and doesn’t even mention death.  The Book of Psalms tells us that “the dead cannot praise You [God].”  In other words, the preference is to be alive.
The Torah teaches us that we always have a choice.  Life and death are before us, so “choose life.”  We do not know what happens after we are gone.  We do not know for sure about the full nature of the spiritual world.  All we can know for sure (and even that in a limited way) is the world of creation in which we live.  
It is for this reason that Judaism never came up with a Day of the Dead.  Rather, each day is a day to focus on living life to the fullest.  May we all be blessed with many years of good health and life!  Lechaim!

Struggling with the Creation Story

Elohim Creation

Parashat Breisheet–the very first Torah portion–is always a joy to read. The stories of the Creation of the World, the Garden of Eden, and the first generations on the planet are among the most well-known in the world.Despite their popularity, there is a fair amount of discussion/controversy around these early accounts of life in our universe. 

“True believers” take the story literally and accept that the world came into being exactly as described in the Torah.  More progressive readers of the text see Breisheet as a myth created by the ancients to help explain how everything came to exist; those who read it this way find ways to both appreciate the stories and honor their understanding of scientific explanations of the origins of life.

The name Israel (Yisrael in Hebrew) means to struggle with God; we will get to that story in several weeks.  A hallmark of Judaism is that we do strive to understand the nature of God and our universe.  Not everyone agrees on how everything came about; in fact, it is hard to find a topic on which everyone agrees at all!  This is  a tradition that we can fine (literally) “in the beginning.”

Nevertheless, we can all value the accounts in Breisheet.  They are the legends that have been told over and over by generations upon generations in the Jewish and human family.  We may understand that they are not to be taken literally, and at the same time comprehend just how powerful and beautiful the stories are.

Shabbat Shalom!

It’s Okay to be Vulnerable

Vulnerable

It is natural for us as human beings to want to feel that we are in control of our own destinies.  We like to plan for the future, set goals and try to achieve them.  Additionally, we may also put up a front to hide our disappointments, pain and embarrassment when those plans do not come to fruition.
No matter how much we think we are in control, the truth is there is so much that is outside of our power.  Natural disasters can affect us.  Economic trends can touch us and our families.  A diagnosis can throw our plans into a tailspin.  We also know that we cannot change other people or control their behavior.  The only person that we can change is ourselves…and we know how difficult that can be.
The holiday of Sukkot in the middle of which we find ourselves is all about vulnerability.  From an historical standpoint, we celebrate the time in the wilderness when we wandered for forty years; we were totally dependent on God’s providence to survive.  We celebrate the harvest time; until it happens, we never know whether it will be a year of bounty or a year of scarcity.  The sukkah (the temporary hut we build at our homes for the week) is open on top so that rain and wind can get in; we cannot control the weather.
Vulnerability is often seen as a negative, but it also has a positive side.  When we are vulnerable we often reach out to others and open ourselves up.  When we lower that mask of infallibility, we connect with others.  Vulnerability teaches us to be humble–not to abase ourselves, but rather to understand our true place in God’s world.
The Yiddish expression is “Man plans and God laughs.”  I don’t know if God laughs, but we know our plans are often sidetracked.  When they are, it is an opportunity for us to regroup, refocus and recommit…and to seek comfort and support in those around us.