The Cycles in our World and in our Lives

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Today, not only are we about to begin Shabbat, but it is also Rosh Chodesh Av–the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. On the Hebrew calendar, every month begins when there is a new moon in the sky (even if it isn’t visible); it is a lunar calendar (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which is solar). Even so, the Jewish calendar has a solar correction because the sun and the moon aren’t always lined up; there is a leap month every few years so that Passover always ends up in the spring, Rosh Hashanah in the fall, etc.

Judaism is especially attuned to the cycles of nature. We not only mark the cycles of the moon, but also the various seasons and harvests that accompany them. Prayer times are set by the pattern of sunrises and sunsets.

There is only one major observance that does not line up with any astronomical or natural cycles: Shabbat, the day of rest. It does not reflect anything going on in the cosmos; rather it is based on the biblical story of Creation. Even so, it is an important part (the most important!) of the cycles that make up Jewish life. The mega-cycle of the year on the Jewish calendar causes us to appreciate the world around us, to confront our responsibilities, and find our place in the world. Each holiday asks us to focus on what we need to do in the world. Passover focuses on freedom, Shavuot on responsibility, etc. All the cycles give us context for our lives so that we are not simply running on a treadmill from cradle to grave. The calendar encourages us to live in and appreciate the moment.

I cannot help but see a parallel to the world of physical fitness. Many of us have our regular cycle of upper body days, lower body days, group classes. We may even have a rotation of cardio equipment we use. For those who take this seriously, the cycles and patterns provide a sense of orderliness; they present a plan where it is possible to see progress–to look back on where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go. These cycles can be quite effective.

In our society we often hear that we should not get “stuck in a rut.” We need to “break the cycle.” There is, however, a flip-side. We can use these patterns to help us organize our lives, set goals and even give our lives a sense of meaning.

On this new moon, I am reflecting on the bad things that happen in our world (that is a theme of the month of Av), and what I can do to prevent them. On this Shabbat (on which we conclude the Book of Numbers), I am thinking about closing one chapter and beginning another. I look to these cycles to help me find my place in the world and what I can do to reflect God’s presence in it.

The High Priest’s Grandson and Your Workout

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Thought for Shabbat

The end of this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, outlines the offerings to brought to the Tabernacle and later to the Temple.  It begins with the daily offerings, the weekly Shabbat offerings, and is then followed by the various festivals.

It is noteworthy that there was an offering presented by the priests every morning and every afternoon.  Sacrifices were seen by the ancients as a way to connect with God; during a sacrifice, the boundary between life and death was crossed and that mysterious and powerful act was thought to bring God’s presence nearer.  The Torah legislates that this does not happen only at special occasions or even just weekly, but rather every single day.

As a personal trainer, I can relate to this.  In ancient times, the goal of sacrifice was to draw near to God.  This could not be done in a haphazard way; it had to be done on a regular basis if there was any hope of achieving this aim.  The same is true for almost any goal we set for ourselves.  Whether in business, education or physical fitness, we need a regular program to help us get where we want to be.

I tell my clients that it is good that they see me on a (mostly) regular basis, but once or twice weekly may not be enough to lose the weight, tone up, build strength and endurance, etc.  The effort needs to be daily, lest we miss a day…and another…and another.  

Parashat Pinchas reminds us that this approach is valid not just in our earthly pursuits, but in our quest for the Divine as well.

Shabbat Shalom!

Back from Alaska renewed?

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I write this Thought for Shabbat from the airport in Houston on my way back from a wonderful vacation with Michele. 


We had the good fortune to travel to Alaska for a tour/cruise. It was a beautiful trip with great memories. 

We went primarily to see the majesty of nature before it is altered beyond recognition by global climate change; unfortunately, so much damage has already been done and we saw and experienced it first hand. It renewed in me the need to act in ways that are sustainable and even help to reverse the damage that has been done. 

Princess Cruises’ motto is “come back new.”  I certainly feel refreshed, but I think I’m still me. What is new, is an appreciation of the enormity and beauty of God’s Creation—and the obligation that each of us has to “till it and tend it.”


Shabbat Shalom!

What is Your Inner Voice telling You?

Thought for Shabbat

Shelach Lecha contains the well-known story of the scouts sent into the Land of Israel by Moses to check out the territory in preparation for the conquest.  One scout was sent from each tribe.  Although they all saw the same thing, not everyone agreed on what it all meant.  Ten of the scouts were afraid and said that even though the land was everything that had been promised, it would be too difficult to conquer.  The other two had faith that God—who had already wrought Ten Plagues on Egypt, split the sea, and fed them manna—would not fail them now.  Unfortunately, the voices of the ten won out and the Children of Israel were made to wander in the wilderness for forty years until a new generation arose in its place.

Shelach Lecha can be a reminder to all of us about the proverbial “voices” in our heads.  They can often be like the ten scouts, providing a million reasons why we cannot do this or that.  They are the voices that traffic in fear, negativity and stagnation.  They tell us we cannot get that new degree, lose that weight, find a new job, or even just be happy.  How often do we listen to the other two voices?  Do we look back and remind ourselves of the blessings that are a part of our lives?  If we take the time to really listen to the voices of positivity in our heads and in our lives, we may not only find ourselves avoiding forty wasted years, but also find ourselves in the midst of a “land of promise.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Michael Ungar

Meditation and Trying to Calm my Mind

Vizsla Meditation

For about 18 months now I have tried to build a meditation practice. I was first introduced to meditation at the Rabbinic Training Institute, a yearly program for rabbis sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

For a long time, I thought that meditation was a bunch of yoga/granola/tree-hugging hooey…until I tried it and learned a little more.

Meditation is not the only way that I try to calm my mind. I have been a regular davener (Yiddish for pray-er, ie, a praying person) for over 30 years, every day, three times a day. I will admit that not every prayer experience is what I hope it to be. Sometimes it seems like a chore, or I just rush through it, or I am anything but mindful–letting my mind wander in a thousand directions. Other times–especially when I am with a minyan (a group of 10 Jews)–I do feel spiritually connected, and allow myself to calm and simply be. Whether it is successful or not, it is significant that I take time out of every day to stop and try to connect with something outside of myself.

My favorite way to calm my mind is Shabbat–the seventh day, the day of rest. I feel like practically my whole week is aimed at Shabbat, preparing for it, waiting for it, missing it…. As an observant Jew, I try to have all the preparations ready before sunset so that I do not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc. It is a gift that God gave to us, and a gift that I give to myself each week. It is the one time during the week when I feel most present for myself and those around me.

And then there is meditation. Why is this so difficult? Why during the week is it nearly impossible for me to get my mind to settle? I find that many times I cannot seem to turn off the thoughts that rush into my mind, and then my thoughts run down the rabbit hole wherever it leads. Other times, I simply fall asleep.

I join a weekly Jewish meditation group on-line for 15 minutes of Torah teaching followed by 30 minutes of meditation; we sit in silence all of us, with our screens in front of us. Like my davening, there are times when it is great, and others where I feel like I “accomplished” nothing. I guess that is why it is called a “practice:” it is never perfect just a continual rehearsal to try to get there.

Speaking of practice, that is the same word used for Yoga. In the past, I have done a lot more yoga than I have since I moved; I hope to remedy this. Almost every time I practice yoga I do feel like my mind is calmed and I am totally present. Perhaps it is because it is so tactile, rather than simply a mind practice. It could also be the group setting (see my minyan comment above). Maybe the influence of others around me doing the same thing helps me to flow in the right direction. Maybe that is why the on-line meditation is so challenging.

Of course, the big question is: why is it important to calm one’s mind? We live in a world that now more than ever bombards us with information, distractions and demands. We often end up on that hamster treadmill, running and running, and getting nowhere and tired real fast.

not a metaphor for your life

None of us wants to live our lives this way, on a treadmill, never examining who we are, what we do, what interests us, what makes us passionate. On a regular basis, we need to calm ourselves and reconnect with the Source of All and with ourselves.

Not everyone will do this in the same way. Doing so, however, has great benefit. Not only does it helps us to ground ourselves in this big world, but it also has many health benefits.

Am I perfect at this? Is my prayer, my yoga, my meditation, my Shabbat everything I want it to be every time? Not by a long-shot; sometimes I am just that metaphorical dog asleep on the couch. In the meantime, I will continue to practice calming my mind, calming myself, and reconnecting with what is truly important in my life.

Exercise on the Sabbath

A few days ago at the Mandel JCC, a member who is a regular and long-time runner–who knows that I am a rabbi and a personal trainer–asked me (out of curiosity, I suppose), if running is permitted on Shabbat (the Sabbath).

This was not really the kind of question that I could answer on one foot (even though my left foot is still in a boot!), but I gave him the short answer, and promised to do a little more research. The short answer (so Jewish!) is: yes…and…no. It depends.

I started my “little more research” at my favorite Halachic (Jewish legal) source, Rabbi Googlowitz. A simple search on http://www.google.com revealed a surprisingly large number of web pages on this topic.

The long and the short of it…here is the issue. Traditionally, Shabbat is seen as being observed in two general ways: Shamor (guarding) and Zachor (remembering). These two broad categories come from the fact that the Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Commandments) appear twice in the Torah–once in the Book of Exodus and once in the Book of Deuteronomy–in almost identical form. With regard to the observance of Shabbat (the 4th Commandment), one version uses the word Shamor and the other Zachor. Commentators said that the verses differ in order to instruct us that there are two aspects to making Shabbat holy and special. One is through guarding (observing the myriad laws about what can and cannot be done on the 7th day); the other is through remembering (doing the non-legal things that bring enjoyment to the day like having a festive meal, visiting friends, studying Torah, etc.) , often referred to as Oneg (literally, “joy”). The question becomes: is running simply exerting one’s body and therefore considered to be a violation of shamor–a kind of “work” with a productive purpose…or…is running an enjoyable activity in whose participation we can derive enjoyment, and therefore a kind of Zachor/Oneg? If the answer is the former, it is forbidden; if the answer is the latter, it is permitted. So…you are allowed to run, but only if it’s fun!

This is a very condensed version of the answer, but I was surprised to find that two pretty traditional websites: http://www.aish.com (Aish HaTorah) and http://www.ohr.edu (Ohr Sameach) said pretty much the same thing. Check them out for yourself to get the sources and the context.

By far the most comprehensive article I could find on the topic was written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner; it was endorsed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbinic association of the the Conservative Movement–which is ironically the name of one of the liberal/progressive branches of Judaism). He covers all kinds of exercises and the various circumstances and contexts in which athletic activities are permitted or not. Here is the web address: https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/lubliner-recreation-sports-shabbat.pdf

My conclusion: like everything else having to do with exercise and athletic activity, if you’re not enjoying it…either you’re doing it wrong or perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it at all!

A Thought For Shabbat

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Thought for Shabbat

It is that time of the year when we in the Midwest are aware that there may be time when we will either get a notice on our phone, on TV, or hear the siren and we know that we will have to head to a safe area due to severe weather.  It is a part of living in this part of the country, and it seems a small price to pay to avoid volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.

This week, many Israelis were forced to seek shelter over and over but for a different reason; the threat was not severe weather but rather missiles launched from Gaza.  Although this happened far away, I have many Facebook friends who live in Israel for whom this was a frightening reality.  I do not know how one ever can get used to the mad dash to the shelters on a regular basis—sometimes after a long stretch of quiet.

And then, yesterday (after Israeli Memorial Day on Wednesday), the celebrations began for Yom Ha’atzma’ut.  Having been in Israel on Independence Day several times, I know how much fun it can be.  It is a day to reflect on the many accomplishments of the Jewish State as well as the sacrifices that made it all possible.

How Israelis are able to regulate their emotions from fear of missiles to the elation of the reality of Eretz Yisrael under Jewish sovereignty again after nearly 2000 years?  It takes a certain kind of special to do it, I guess.

This Shabbat let us give thanks for the many blessings that the State of Israel has brought.  Let us also pray and work for the peace and well-being of all of Israel’s inhabitants.  Next year, may there be no reason to fear…only reasons to celebrate!