31 August 2010

Passion (or, in Hebrew, the middah/value of z'rizut)

I thought that I would (with his permission) share this letter that I just received from congregant, Stephen Schoeman.  I find his comments well-reasoned, thought-provoking, and, dare I say it, passionate:

Dear Rabbi Abraham,

        Many years ago Rabbi Goldman gave a sermon on passion which I have always remembered and which has inspired me over the intervening years. He was not referring to the passion of love but to the passion of belief in a cause.

       Sadly, today, there is so little passion. I don't see it in my college students with a few exceptions. I don't see it in Congress or in The White House or most anywhere else in the political world. Or among the clergy (no reference to you).  Or in the general population.

         There was passion in the 1960's. True, a terrible decade of assassinations, civil rights murders, the Vietnam War, and bloody civil rights marches. But there was a passion on the college campuses and in the churches and temples missing today or at least it seems to me.

         President Jimmy Carter in his famous "malaise speech" told the American people that they were materialistic and selfish. This speech, panned by the press and the public, led to his defeat to Ronald Reagan so it has been said.  

         President Carter, of course, was right and displays today in his humanitarian work with his Carter Center the passion he wanted in others back then. I know that he is persona non grata to many American Jews who know little if anything about the Carter Center or about his writings or remember, if they ever knew, that it was HE who made possible peace between Israel and Egypt. Even Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat thought the task impossible.
          President Kennedy also called for passion as in the Peace Corps.
          President Lyndon Johnson in his Great Society and War on Poverty called for passion.
          Hubert Humphrey called for passion.
          Martin Luther King, Jr. called for passion.
          And there, of course, were others.

          Today? As I said, passion is in short supply. One of the major criticisms of President Obama is that he does not show passion for his programs and policies. I think there is some truth to this about his more cerebral approach to politics and the nation's and the world's problems. But he is not alone in this criticism. Nor am I trying to be partisan.

            I am a life long liberal registered Democrat as has my family been for one hundred years.

            Where is the passion in the editorials in The New York Times?

            But there is passion. And it, sadly, comes mostly from the far Right. The Pallins and the Becks and the Limbaughs and the Cheneys. I don't fault them for their views. They have a right to them. But where on the Left is the opposing passion? From President Obama? From Senate Majority Leader Reid? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has passion. She was, I understand, the person who persuaded President Obama after the Senate defeat in Massachusetts to continue the fight for health care reform.

             I do not want to be partisan. I am not attempting to be. I do want the youth of our country, if not the adults, to show passion, to care, to protest, to march, to object, to raise concerns about the public good. It once was so. It can be again today.

             Enough of the comings and goings of Paris Hilton and Brad Pitt and the rest of the celebrities. Enough of the reality TV shows. Enough of the twitter, Facebook, Google, Blackberry, Fax, Ipod technology-the new toys of our age.

             And more attention paid to the public policies problems, small and large, which must be solved if this country is to survive and prosper. The crumbling infrastructure. Race relations. A collapsing economy. The tens of millions of people out of work, under-employed, discouraged from looking for a job, foreclosed, or having seen their business go bust.

            We know that passion for Israel among the youth is dwindling. Passion for the United Nations may not even exist anymore. Nor passion about global warming. Or health care reform. Or civil rights. Or environmental degradation. Or tolerance. The list is nearly endless.

            We need passion more than ever. I do not mean passion without judgment or fact. I do mean the caring and the giving and the concern which mark a humane society.

            I hope my words may be inspiration for one of your monthly columns in Temple Topics or for a sermon or for both.

            Kindest personal regards.

            Steve Schoeman

26 August 2010

Mazal Tov to our sister congregation, Szim Salom in Budapest

Hurrah for our sister congregation in Budapest - Szim Salom on their new building.  See the article from the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Now it's our turn to have a place to welcome them to visit us!

02 August 2010

Drop that Ease(y) Button!

In his almost weekly 77% Weekly, my colleague, Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer (whom I have oft-quoted), the spiritual leader of the Religion Outside the Box community, offered the following essay for this week

It disturbed me and, since I was not at ease, I felt compelled to respond:


I'm afraid that I have to offer a different interpretation.  A mind at ease is not a good thing; it is dead.  We are human beings, we live by our curiosity - that is what brought us down from the trees.  I am a progressivist, I am not looking for life to go backward to a simpler time, I am looking to make the world a better place for all.  While I understand the use in tempering desire before it becomes unattainable (or unhealthily attainable) lust, I believe that unrest is what drives us to improve the situation not only of ourselves, but hopefully, of others.  How can I be at ease, when there are people starving down the road (be it for food, health care, education or opportunity)?  

There is a nice prayer from the new Mishkan T'filah (adapted from a reading by Mitchell Salem Fisher) in the Shabbat evening service, which says, in part, "Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises form a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans...  Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action. (MT, p.173)

When I look to moderate my discontent, to make it possible to be satisfied with my life, I turn back to the words of Rabbi Tarfon from  Pirke Avot (which you have quoted before) - "It is not our responsibility to complete the work".  But, he continues, "Neither are we free to let it rest."

(Rabbi Mayer's article is below, for those who cannot follow the link above:)

(24/40) Mind At Ease.

Mind at Ease

A profound quote from Tao Te Ching has been stuck in my head for awhile. I’d like to share it with you here:

Unawareness of one’s feet is the mark of shoes that fit.
Unawareness of one’s waist is the mark of a belt that fits.
Unawareness of right and wrong is the mark of a mind at ease.

Is that not a great quote?

The first time I heard it, I reacted by thinking, “I don’t like that. That can’t be true.” Of course, we have to remember that just because we don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Unawareness of right and wrong is the mark of a mind at ease.

My son was a perfect example of this the other day. The label on the back of his shirt was irritating his neck. He’s only three, so he couldn’t have owned that shirt for very long – maybe a year – but in that year, the label has not once ever irritated his neck. As far as I know, he’s never even noticed that the label existed prior to that day. But the minute Emmett began noticing it, his mind was no longer at ease.

Once you notice something is wrong, your mind is uncomfortable.

If something doesn’t bother you, hasn’t even entered your consciousness at all, then your mind is fine. How could it not be?

It’s all those things on our mind – “This is right! This is wrong!” – that cause us to be agitated. That’s where our problems start, when we think we know something, or we believe something ought to be a particular way. The result is that we’re frustrated. We feel a sense ofdis-ease.

There’s a Zen notion that the mind should be like a pond that reflects the image of the moon. The pond doesn’t actually contain the moon, it just reflects it.

Can you imagine if your mind reflected back reality as it was, as opposed to making so many judgments on it?

Of course, we make judgments on everything. Criticizing, stating our opinion, asserting our viewpoint makes us feel like we’re important: “Yes, I’m here! I exist!”

How about if we took a moment not to do that? What if we allowed our minds to be at ease for once?

Think about whatever is in your mind that isn’t comfortable. You can’t decide to un-notice it, right? But perhaps you can work to become more at ease with it?

This week’s spiritual-religious advice: ease your suffering, stop judging.

With love,

-Rabbi Brian