I Try Not to Get Political on this Blog, but…

Black and White Candle

I am heartbroken by the events in our nation, but particularly by the never-ending stream of mass shootings. It is a nearly daily occurrence and there seems to be no end in sight. I got sick of thoughts and prayers a LONG time ago. When Congress did NOTHING after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, my understanding of what I thought this country stood for was destroyed.

In the Jewish community there has been a lot of talk about security–in general, but especially after the Pittsburgh massacre. Judaism teaches us that we have certain obligations: ritual and ethical (and that these often go hand in hand). Among our obligations are a number of commandments that instruct us to go out of our way to ensure that we prevent unnecessary injury or (God forbid) death. There is a law in the Torah that tells us that when we build a home, a parapet must be put on the roof lest someone on the roof accidentally fall off. Another law tells us that when we dig a pit, it must be marked off or cordoned off lest a person or an animal wander in and be injured. Jewish law over the centuries expanded on this idea, exhorting us to take all necessary steps to prevent bloodshed. We must ask ourselves whether we are taking the necessary precautions to prevent gun violence. (As if the daily news feed does not tell us already).

I know that a lot of folks place the blame for what is happening now on the person who occupies the Oval Office; he certainly has not helped (and many argue that he has made it worse). The truth is that mass shootings in this country predate the Trump Administration; his administration–along with those of previous presidents–bear responsibility for not doing more.

I have been involved in the gun control movement for over 20 years, having served on the board of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence for much of that time. The executive branch is only part of the issue. Congress has it in its power to pass common-sense legislation that would carry out the spirit of Jewish law and the American ethos–namely to do whatever necessary to prevent bloodshed and violence. Congress has failed to do so–even when both houses were controlled by the same party. The NRA is a powerful force in ensuring that this remains the case. It is up to US, the voters, to let our elected officials know that we are a bigger threat than the NRA. The way we do that is by pushing this issue in town hall forums, debates, and in our communications. Facebook and Twitter are not enough. They do not vote NRA shills out of office–only WE can do that.

Of course, there is also an issue in our State Houses and Capitals. Gerrymandering has ensured that in many states there will also be no action on this issue. Ohio is a purple state. It is the swing state personified when it comes to national elections. On the state level, however, it is all red…year after year after year. Gerrymandering has made sure that the State House stays firmly in the control of one party even though the state is evenly split and the majorities should swing back and forth on a regular basis.

The ONLY way I see a change on a national level is by voting those who are in the pocket of the NRA out. On the state level, gerrymandering has to be dealt with. And if you don’t think that the US Supreme Court has contributed to the perpetuation of this problem, think again; there must be a serious examination of what responsibilities should accompany the Second Amendment.

Our work is cut out for us if we want to Make America Livable Again. IMHO, here is where to start:

–Get educated on the issue–especially in your state. What legislation is pending? Who is supporting it? Who is sponsoring? Who is blocking it?

–Support organizations that are helping to raise awareness and support political initiatives to end gun violence. There are dozens, and many websites can direct you to those that will use your donations wisely.

–Do more than send your thoughts and prayers: VOTE!!!

These are not Jewish imperatives, or even American imperatives…it is our human duty and it is literally a matter of life and death.

Korach and Leadership

ORT-21 Tochka

Parashat Korach is considered by many to be the most revolting Torah portion there is.  (See what I did there?)  It is about the rebellion of Korach, Datan and Aviram against the leadership of Moses and Aaron as the Israelites began their wanderings in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

At first read, the case brought by Korach and his followers seems like a legitimate challenge.  They want to know who put Moses and Aaron above everyone else; after all, are not all the Israelites holy?  Traditional commentaries have noted that their complaint was really a cover for a power grab.  Whereas Moses felt a responsibility to God and the people, it appears that the rebels were more interested in elevating themselves.  These are two very different views of leadership, and ultimately God makes it clear which one is preferable; Korach and his followers were swallowed whole into the earth.

On this post-Independence Day Shabbat, we reflect upon the history of our nation.  Like at Passover, we recognize the value of the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted.  We also consider those whose leadership—like Moses’—brought us through many challenging times.  It has been the sacrifices of members of our Armed Forces that have helped to ensure our freedoms, but it has also been the service of duly elected officials that have labored on behalf of the people.  Likewise, each of us has a responsibility to hold our officials to the standards set by our Constitution and our history; that is part of what we do to preserve this grand democratic experiment.  Let us be wary, though, that we do so for the right reasons—not for a power grab, but rather to benefit all those with whom we share this great country.

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.

If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you

Image result for spinning bike

This morning in spin class as we were pedaling through a particularly difficult “hill,” the instructor said “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” I think this was a nice way of telling us that if we did not have enough resistance on our bikes, we would not get the full benefit of the workout.

Of course, this has applications beyond spinning. As a personal trainer, it is up to me to work with my clients to safely push themselves beyond their comfort zones. Many people come to the gym “knowing” exactly what their capabilities are, i.e., “I can only do 30 pounds on the leg curl,” or “the most can walk around the track is one mile.” In truth, none of us knows what are true capabilities are. How many people do we know who, when faced with adversity, have who shown extraordinary grace and courage? How many times have we surprised ourselves by doing something we never thought possible? How many of us have crossed a finish line in a race marveling that we reached this goal?

Staying in our comforts zones does not allow us to grow or change. If we never look at issues from a different angle, try something new, or connect with people with whom we believe we have little in common, we will find it difficult to move beyond where we are and who we are in this moment.

Staying in our comforts zones is also not a Jewish value. Our tradition places little emphasis on being “comfortable.” The laws in the Torah, the words of the prophets and the teachings of the Sages were all meant to push us to be more than we think possible–as individuals and as a people. We were not meant to stay in Egypt; we were destined to head out into a wilderness, not really knowing what the future would hold. Even the names “Yisrael,” which means to struggle with God, is a hint that we should never feel like we know all the answers, that we have “arrived,” and have no need to change. Our tradition is filled with challenges and this makes us who we are as a people.

The next time we walk into the gym, or into the same drama with family members, or the same dead-end conversations with partners and spouses, we would be wise to remember that if it doesn’t challenge us, it won’t changes us.

Don’t run from the challenge. Embrace it. Change.