Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Do Not Stand Idly By

Do Not Stand Idly By

Yom Kippur, 5775
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

The morning of December 14, 2012 started out normally, as these kinds of mornings always do. But then, sometime in the late morning, I noticed a few, troubling messages on my Facebook wall. A few of my friends who still live back where I grew up started wondering what was going on with all the sirens, and all of the police cars and ambulances rushing by, lights flashing. They were all hoping it was nothing too serious, but the size of the response made that seem unlikely. It wasn’t long before we started to hear what was happening. Before we all started to hear.

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. New Fairfield, my hometown, is considered part of the Danbury area, as is Newtown, home of the Sandy Hook elementary school. I’m sure that on that morning, almost 2 years ago, few of you had heard of Newtown, and probably none of you had heard of Sandy Hook. But, you probably recognize those names now, as it was the site of one of the deadliest, and most horrific tragedies of our time.

It’s a strange little quirk of human nature that relatively minor connections can draw us in, emotionally, to major events. A plane crash overseas will make the news. But, if just one of the victims lived here in Tampa, we’d all pay much closer attention, and feel the tragedy more keenly. That’s how I felt, that’s how I feel, about Newtown. Newtown wasn’t where I lived, but it was my home. I had friends from there, I attended youth group events there, and I have a few friends who have kids in that school system, and in nearby schools, today. I spent a lot of time holding my breath that morning.

There was a feeling in the wake of that horrific day that something had to be done. We all know how terribly difficult the gun issue is. We know the political difficulty of passing any legislation which regulates gun ownership, on any level. And we also know the difficulty of crafting regulations which, even if passed, could actually make an impact on the gun violence which touches so many in this country. But, the consensus — or, at least it seemed like a consensus to me, at the time — was that it was time to do something. Something.

But we didn’t. Nothing happened, more or less. 5 states passed minor gun control laws. 10 passed laws protecting the rights of gun owners. And the national government shamefully passed nothing at all, not even the widely supported implementation of universal background checks. All of that momentum just dissipated, or hit a brick wall. And so, consciously and deliberately, many who support greater restrictions on firearms gave up. Or, to be more precise, they gave up on the legislative option. As my colleague, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, said to me, if we can’t pass gun regulations in the wake of Sandy Hook, then we can’t pass gun regulations. There’s no use in trying.

Rabbi Mosbacher has his own, deeper connection to gun violence. In 1999 he lost his father to it. His father, Lester, was shot dead — murdered — during a petty robbery at his small business in Chicago. In the years between his father’s murder and now, Rabbi Mosbacher has spoken about gun violence and gun control a few times, but it was never high on his rabbinic agenda. Obviously, he had strong feelings about the issue, but he always realized how difficult, and possibly futile, it was to try to address. But, in the wake of Sandy Hook, and of the complete failure of the gun-control advocates which followed, Robert Mosbacher began to work with some others on a different path. Using a Community Organizing model, they formed a plan which was not aimed at gun control and legislation, but rather at gun safety, and manufacture.

Gun manufacturers have the capability of making their products safer than they are today. It’s obvious that no gun will ever be 100% safe. But, safer than today is, without a doubt, possible. Technology exists to micro-stamp the casings of bullets as they are fired, giving the police a powerful tool in connecting bullets with the gun which fired them. Smart gun technology, which guarantees that the gun can only be fired by its owner, or by a select few people, is already deep in development, and more or less ready for market. And, the gun manufacturers have a natural, strong relationship with the gun dealers, and can use that relationship to make it harder for straw buyers — people who buy guns with the express intent of turning around and selling them to those who can’t legally buy them in stores. Gun manufacturers have the capability of doing all of this, and more. What they haven’t had is the motivation.

Rabbi Mosbacher’s idea is to use the purchasing power of the public sector to influence the gun manufacturers. Through the military and police forces, our government is responsible for 40% of all firearm purchases in this country. What if the government, or large swathes of it, could be convinced to include gun safety and responsible citizenry as some of the criteria which they use when they purchase guns? What if they asked the gun companies not only to prove the accuracy and reliability of their weapons, but also their willingness to develop new and better safety features? What if they were asked not only about their guns’ manufacturing tolerances, but about their tolerance for clearly irresponsible dealers? Might it create a market for safer weapons? Might it create a world in which weapons were, at least marginally, safer?

Mosbacher is turning to other rabbis and asking them to get involved. He’s asking them to meet with the decision-makers in their communities — mayors, police chiefs and the like. And he’s asking those rabbis to ask those leaders to sign on to a pledge to do exactly this — to simply start asking about gun safety and civic responsibility, and to consider the answers, when purchasing their weapons.

When I heard about this, I deeply, passionately wanted to get involved. But, I’m not na├»ve. I know the danger of even dipping my toe into these waters. As reasonable, as fundamentally unobjectionable as this idea is, there are those who will nonetheless object. Vehemently. Passionately. Angrily. So, I sat with a few of our Social Action leaders here at the synagogue, and we talked through this issue. They agreed with the principle—again, it’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to trying to make guns safer without even touching on people’s basic rights. But, they also agreed that, whatever our logic might say, this is an emotional, deeply controversial topic. For better or for worse, our synagogue has a history of avoiding divisive, contentious political issues. Getting involved with this issue was, to put it bluntly, not worth it. And, reluctantly, I agreed. I got ready to call Rabbi Mosbacher and tell him that, with my apologies, I couldn’t get involved.

And then, I was reminded of the name of his initiative. Do Not Stand Idly By.

It’s a quote taken from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 16. “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." Do not stand idly by. When your neighbor is bleeding, there is but one imperative. We must do something. Anything. Anything except standing, twiddling our collective thumbs. And so, I won’t. I will listen to Isaiah, and I will take his exhortation seriously. I will use the contacts and connections that I have, and I’ll try to get those meetings. And I’ll try to get those leaders to sign on to our pledge. I’m going to try to make our world safer. I’m going to try to make a difference.

I’m going to ask everyone here to carefully listen to what I am, and what I am not saying. Because, I am sure that I’m going to be misunderstood, and misrepresented. The moment I mentioned the Sandy Hook massacre, some people here assumed that I was going to be talking about gun control. And some of you probably tuned out. So, if that was you, please listen to me. Because, if you thought I was talking about gun control, then you were wrong by two degrees. First of all, this is not about gun control. And this is not about legislation. This is not about limiting, in reasonable or unreasonable ways, anyone’s Second Amendment rights. This is about trying to find ways to get gun manufacturers to willingly and voluntarily make their weapons safer. Not gun control. Gun safety.

But, more importantly, ultimately, this isn’t about guns at all. This is about Isaiah. This is about "do not stand idly by."

The honest truth is that I don’t really expect to succeed. I don’t expect that, even if I’m successful in my meetings, and I’m not sure I will be, even if every police force in the area decides to follow what dozens of other police forces in this country have already agreed to, I don’t expect it to make a world of difference. I don’t think that this is the solution to the problem. Not to the entire problem, anyway. And I’m not 100% sure that it’s a solution to any part of the problem. But, that’s okay. I am willing to fail. I am willing to try something that doesn’t work. I’m willing to try something that can’t work. What I’m no longer willing to do is to not try anything, at all. I’m not willing to stand idly by the blood of my neighbor. Not anymore.

And, you can’t, either. You must not stand idly by.

There is a very good reason that the Haftarah this morning came from the book of Isaiah. Because no one in the Bible, possibly no one in the history of Judaism, has better captured the meaning of this day.

Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Isn’t this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

To sit here on Yom Kippur and to fast, and to reflect, and to admit, and to atone, while not committing, in a serious and binding way, to making our world a better place is not a fast at all. It is not a day which is acceptable to our God. It is a sacrilege. It is an abomination. It is not religion; it is a travesty of religion. The imperative which comes out of this day is actually quite simple: do something. Do anything. Find a shackle of injustice, and then look for a key or a hack saw to unlock it. Find someone who is oppressed, and work to set them free. Find a person who is hungry or naked, and feed or clothe them. Or, at the very least, try. It is not a sin to fail. It is the gravest of sins to not even try. Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.

Find a cause. Any cause. Talk to one of our Social Action leaders, and see which causes we’re already tackling here in our congregation. See if one of those speaks to you. If not, find another. It won’t be hard. Watch the news or pay attention to your own Facebook wall. Read a paper or just take a walk down the street. If you can’t find someone in need of your help, if you can’t find a cause which is worthy of your attention, then you simply aren’t looking. There is, tragically, no end to the causes which call out to us. No one person can work on them all, and no one person can fix even one of them, by him or herself. That’s okay. That’s why we have a community; that’s why we have each other. As Rabbi Tarfon taught, 2000 years ago, you are not obligated to finish the work, but you are not free to avoid it, either. But, can you imagine what would happen if we all actually took this seriously? Can you imagine what would happen if each and every person sitting here today were to commit to doing something in this next year to help make our world better? If each and every one of us would bind ourselves to the task of not standing idly by? Can you imagine, can you dream for even an instant what would happen if every single person in this city, in this state, in this country, in this world would so commit? Can you imagine what we could accomplish, together?

I have little to no patience left for the cynics and naysayers. I know that this — whichever “this” we’re talking about — won’t solve the problem. Rather than tell me why I’m wasting my time, why don’t you try something else, as well? I know that there are other causes which are calling out, and which I am ignoring while I focus my attention over here. Rather than shame someone who’s making an imperfect effort, why not be inspired by them to make an effort of our own?


Lo Alecha HaMelacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben horim lehivateil mimena—you are not obligated to finish the work, but you are not free to avoid it, either. Our obligation today, our obligation each and every day, is to try. To strive. To hope. To dream. To build. To come together and, with each other, to work towards the repair of our world. Our obligation, today, and every day, is to not stand idly by.

Accepting War, Pursuing Peace

Accepting War, Pursuing Peace

Kol Nidrei, 5775
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

Tonight, I want to talk about Israel. Actually, that isn’t completely true. Tonight I feel compelled to talk about Israel. After a devastatingly difficult summer for our Homeland, after the tragic, unthinkable kidnapping of 3 Israeli teens, the quickly escalating military conflict which ensued, the accusations, the destruction, the misinformation, and the immeasurable fear, pain and suffering felt by all those caught in this conflict, it would feel, for me, personally, unimaginable not to talk about Israel. As a Rabbi, it would seem to be a near dereliction of responsibility.

But, at the same time, I can't say that I actually want to talk about Israel. In part, that's because of how depressing, and how fearful it can be to think about, and talk about Israel, right now. I wish that, on this holiest of nights, I could again talk about our inner, spiritual lives, or about the hopefulness implicit in our annual process of teshuvah. And, I also worry about talking about Israel because it's not always clear how I should talk about Israel. As one commentator recently put it, when rabbis talk about Israel we often become B-level pundits. You don't need or want me to talk about Israel's strategic security situation, or anything like that.

But, I do feel qualified to speak about Israel's morality, and I think that it's vitally important that we do so. Because I find myself distressed and bewildered by the treatment which Israel receives on the world stage. I'm not surprised that Israel's enemies accuse her of the most heinous of war crimes. I'm not surprised that their allies support those claims while blaming Israel for the entire ongoing conflict. But, I'll admit to being continually, deeply surprised by the willingness of intelligent, well-meaning people, here in our own country and elsewhere, to buy into that narrative.

This conflict is not a result of some imperialist desire of Israel's to suppress, dominate and eventually displace the Palestinian people. This conflict was not created, and is not primarily perpetuated, by settlements, checkpoints, security fences or anything of the sort. Although some of those surely have been contributors to the impossibility of finding a resolution, ultimately this is and always has been a battle between a country and a people on one side, and a group openly and actively dedicated to their total annihilation on the other. Hamas has always called, explicitly, not for the freedom to create their own country, but for the eradication of the State of Israel. You will never hear me claim that Israel is blameless, but you most certainly never hear me claim that Israel is even remotely close to equally culpable in this terrible, ongoing war.

I am baffled when people accuse Israel of genocide, and condemn them for targeting civilians when they so clearly exert so much energy to try to avoid civilian casualties, while their enemy brazenly seeks to maximize them, friend and foe alike. I am utterly confounded when a group of academics join together to sign a letter criticizing Israel for, among other supposed sins, notifying civilians before an attack when Hamas literally encourages its own civilians to act as human shields.

To misunderstand the basic morality of the situation is, to my mind, to turn our backs on what is possibly the most significant component of being a human being — our capacity for moral judgment. That's one of the most important but most commonly overlooked lessons from the story of Adam and Eve. When trying to tempt her to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent tells Eve that, if she eats, she will not die. Rather, he says, "you will be like God, knowing good from evil." You will be like God, knowing good from evil. The Torah is telling us that we are closest to imitating God when we embrace and use our moral facilities. That we are truly living up to our birthright of having been created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, when we are able to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong.

Yes, as I said, Israel has certainly done things along the way which have increased enmity and made peace less likely. And, yes, during the conflict — as is tragically the case during any military conflict — some individuals have committed atrocities and crimes. But, that in no way changes the basic moral calculus of this war. I honestly don't understand how generally decent people don't see what seems so morally obvious to me. It's overused, and probably overly simplistic, but Golda Meir's quote still rings essentially true, even today. If the Palestinians put down their guns today, tomorrow there will be a Palestine. If Israel puts down its guns today, tomorrow there will be no Israel.

And so, I am personally and, more importantly, religiously committed to defending Israel's essential morality, and quite frankly, I don't even think it's very difficult case to make. I'm absolutely, unquestionably committed to defending Israel's right to self-defense which is, you should know, a deeply held Jewish value. Offering our other cheek to the one who attacks us is not a commandment found in any Jewish text. We have the right — actually, we have the obligation — of self-defense and self-preservation.

But while all that is true, and while I hold to it fervently, it is at least as important that we remember that there's a difference between a willingness to fight, and an eagerness to fight. There is an essential, religious, moral distinction between rightly assigning blame to an enemy bent on our destruction, and losing our own sense of moral direction through widespread, unyielding, vitriolic hatred. Judaism may not be pacifist — we don't believe that violence is always unquestionably wrong. But, we are peaceloving, because we believe that while sometimes necessary, violence is never good. And that is, I deeply believe, a fundamentally important distinction.

I think of it most clearly when I remember a midrash — an ancient rabbinic story about the Torah — taught to me by my teacher, Rabbi Jerome Malino of blessed memory. Jacob and Esau, as you might remember, were the bitterest of enemies. After many years in hiding, Jacob returns to try to reconcile with his brother. Esau rushes to him, embraces him, kisses him, falls on his neck, and they both cry. But the word “vayeshkehu—he kissed him”  has some strange dots above it in the Torah scroll. The rabbinic midrash explains that the word “vayashkehu” can actually be read to mean not, "he kissed him," but, "he bit him." In this version, Esau didn't hug and kiss his brother; he grabbed him, and tried to bite his neck in order to kill him. But, a miracle happened and Jacob's neck turned to marble. Those dots above the word are pieces of Esau's broken teeth. And the midrash goes on to explain that they did indeed both cry. Esau cried for his teeth. Jacob cried for his neck. He cried not because he had been harmed, but because he had been hardened.

Jacob cried for his neck. It is, to me, among most powerful phrases in all of rabbinic literature. Because it captures an essential truth about violence. Violence always damages us. Irrevocably. Jacob cried because, even though he won this fight, even though he survived, he had been left hardened. He was no longer fully the man he had grown up being. No longer precisely the man he wanted to be. Violence, even when directed at a deadly foe, scars us. Always. We never come out better for it.

The truth is, there are many texts which I could have used in place of that Jacob and Esau midrash. King David wasn't allowed to build the Temple of which he dreamt because he had fought many wars. The fact that those wars were fought for righteous reasons didn't matter at all to God. A righteous war still leaves bloodstains on the hands of the fighters, and no one so stained can possibly build something as sacred as the Temple, God says. When the Israelites saw the Red Sea slam shut on the Egyptian Army, they celebrated with a victory song. But another ancient midrash tells us that, when they were finished, the angels gathered to sing the same song. But, God wouldn't let them. "How dare you sing songs of glory while my people are drowning?" He chastised them. Even the Egyptians were human beings, created in the image of God, and their deaths, while necessary, were not good. It was nothing to be celebrated. That same sentiment is echoed in our yearly ritual at our Seder tables when we remove one drop of wine — each one a symbol of our lessened joy — from our glasses in remembrance of those who suffered through the 10 plagues which set us free. How can our joy be complete, when any of God’s creatures are suffering?

As Jews, we are allowed to fight. We are allowed to defend ourselves. But Jews do not dance in the streets at the deaths of our enemies. To do so is an affront to God. We may engage in violence, when necessary. We do not revel in it, we do not seek it out, and we do not want it. Jewish law forbids the carrying of weapons in a synagogue; violence and holiness cannot exist in the same space.

When I hear of the deaths of innocent Palestinians, my first reaction is not that those deaths are the moral responsibility of the terrorists who hide among them, although I do believe that to be the case. My first reaction, at least on my better days, is that their deaths are a tragedy. I am distraught every time an Israeli has no choice better than one which leads to the death of an innocent. And even the death of the terrorists themselves, as hard as this is for me to believe at times, are not a good. They are not a cause for celebration. I'm saddened by the loss of a life which could have meant so much more than it did, and I am saddened for our necks, which just became a little bit harder.

I care desperately about Israel's survival but I care equally deeply for the souls of those of us who love and support Israel. What I say about Israel here, tonight, or anywhere at anytime, will have an immeasurably small effect on the actual situation in Israel. But, what I say about it, and what I say about our enemies and their deaths, and what I say about civilian deaths, and what I say about hatred and hope, will have an enormous effect on me. To be a Jew is not only to dream of a day when war will be no more, is to actively and aggressively pursue that day, never giving up, never yielding an inch until we make it real. It is to know that our true goal is not the death of our enemies but rather the arrival of the day, ushered in by our own hands, when we can instead embrace them as friends. It is to be, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman identifies himself, a peaceaholic, someone who is addicted to the idea of peace. Someone who, regardless of what happened last time, will constantly and continually look for the next opportunity to make peace, instead of war. To not just prefer peace, to not just love peace, but to seek peace, and pursue it.

I stand by our right to defend ourselves. I stand by our right to defend our families. I stand by our right to defend our nation, both this one, and our homeland in the East. I stand by those rights unequivocally. But, I stand on my love for peace. I stand on my love for all of humanity. I stand on my adamant refusal to let hatred or fear run my life or ruin my soul. I will protect who I am, as fervently as I protect my life.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky taught that all blessings are grounded in love. Only one who feels love, only one who embodies love, can truly be or create or give a blessing. May this year be one of blessing for us all. One in which we finally find ourselves at peace, rather than winning at war. May our love for humanity only grow, and our pursuit of peace never falter.


And may we all be sealed in the Book of Life.

Practicing Spirituality

Practicing Spirituality

Rosh Hashana, 5775
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg


May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.
May your life unfold with ease.

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.
May your life unfold with ease.

In late July, I found myself sitting in a makeshift retreat center, carved out of the Westchester Hilton hotel, repeating those words, over and over.

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.
May your life unfold with ease.

Sometimes, under the instruction of our leader, I would be saying those words while picturing someone who loved me, endlessly and unconditionally. Someone who, when I thought of them, it would be sure to evoke an equal response of love from me.

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.
May your life unfold with ease.

Sometimes, I would instead be picturing someone whom I didn’t know very well. Perhaps the regular clerk at a store that I frequent. Maybe a congregant who I haven’t had a chance to get to know deeply, yet. Could I find in my heart a spark of that larger, closer love for those people?

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.
May your life unfold with ease.

Sometimes, I’d be picturing myself. May I be safe. And then, once or twice, we were told to instead picture someone who we did not love, at all. Quite the opposite — someone who evoked feelings of anger, resentment. Maybe even, if we were up to it, hatred. Could we find it within our hearts, could I find it within my heart, to picture them and, with at least a fragment of honesty say,

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.
May your life unfold with ease.

Why was I doing this? Why was I joined together with a few dozen other rabbis and cantors, repeating this like a mantra, over and over? I was doing it as part of the Clergy Leadership Program, run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. It’s a program intended to help clergy deepen our own spiritual lives under the assumption that only then — only if we have rich, meaningful spiritual lives of our own — can we possibly hope to be decent spiritual leaders for others. And so, for the second time so far, I spent four days, mostly in silence, working on my own inner life. I meditated. I chanted and prayed. I studied spiritual texts. And, like probably all of us on that retreat, and here today, I struggled with understanding precisely what spirituality is.

“Spirituality” is one of those words. One of those words which we often use so easily, without thinking about what it really means. We refer to our synagogue as “our spiritual home” and talk about making it a “spiritual community.” We seek spiritual moments. But what is all of that, exactly? What does it mean to be spiritual?

For a long time, my preferred definition of spirituality has been, “an awareness of standing in the presence of God.” But, I also know what a fraught, ambiguous, confusing, resistance-inducing word “God” can be. So, I often substitute “something greater than yourself.” Spirituality is “an awareness of standing in the presence of something greater than yourself.”

It’s not a bad definition. Most of us, maybe all of us, have had at least a moment or two in our lives like this. Not necessarily a moment when the heavens opened up and the light of God shined down on us. Just a moment when suddenly, something ordinary unexpectedly seems to be infused with meaning. Something which has always been beautiful is now something more — something we can’t quite define, but feel deep down in that place that we call our kishkes — our guts — or maybe we call it our soul. A moment when we sense… something.

Try this with me. Close your eyes and try to remember one of those times. It might be something fairly obvious, like the birth of a child or an extraordinary sunset at the beach. It might have been less expected, something which happened on a walk you’ve taken 100 times before, but never quite like this. A poem or song lyric which struck you with greater force than anytime before, or since. The simple, gratitude-filled pleasure of being alive on a beautiful day. Think of one. Remember how it felt. Remember how powerful it was and, this is important, remember how real it was. Remember how, at that moment, there were no questions and no answers, only the presence of the moment itself. And, perhaps, a hint or an echo of something Other.

And now, ask yourself a simple question: would you like to have that feeling, again? Would you like to have that feeling, or feelings like it, or perhaps even feelings greater than that, more often? Because that hints at the problem with my favored definition of “spirituality.”  Spirituality isn’t just an awareness. Spirituality is a practice. It’s a discipline. It’s something at which we can get better.

Everyone here has a natural, baseline athletic ability. Some of us were gifted with quite a bit of it; some not so much. But, whatever our natural capacity for hitting a ball or running a mile might be, one thing is universal — we can get better at it. With practice, I can hit the ball further and run that mile faster. It’s totally irrelevant whether I am or ever will be better or faster than you. What’s relevant is that if I want to be better or faster than me, the path is fairly clear. I have to practice.

The same rules apply to spirituality. We all have a natural capacity for spiritual moments. I honestly believe that we are not all equal in this respect; some of us are more naturally spiritual than others. But, we all have some sense for the spiritual. We all have times, maybe one you just thought of a few moments ago, when a spiritual moment forces its way into our life. It’s what my friend, Rabbi Ethan Franzel, calls “accidental spirituality.” But, far greater he would argue, and I would agree, is “intentional spirituality.” Finding something — and, really, there is an endless array of possibilities — which helps us access the corner of ourselves which naturally connects to the spiritual, and then helps to build it, like we build a muscle in the gym.

Some of you know that that’s my favorite metaphor for spiritual practice — the gym. Because here are a couple things I’ve come to believe, quite strongly, about spirituality and spiritual practice. First of all, you don’t need to do it. By which I mean, I’m not trying to tell you that you have to be more spiritual, or to make you feel guilty if you’re not. If someone truly, honestly doesn’t want to be able to run further, or faster, or doesn’t want or need to lower their blood pressure or get any of the myriad other benefits which come with regular exercise, then they don’t have to work out. Not going to the gym does not, in any way, shape or form, make you a bad person. But, if you want to be physically healthy, you’re almost certainly going to have to do something about it. I’m as sad as anyone here to tell you that sitting on the couch isn’t going to get you there. And that’s the second thing I’ve come to believe about spirituality — if you do want more of it, then it’s going to take some work. Just sitting on that chair isn’t going to get you there.

So, what does it look like? What is spiritual practice. Well, of course, it isn’t just one thing. There are lots of ways to engage in spirituality. Probably every religion in history has come up with its own forms, and Judaism is no exception. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a spiritual master, believed that focusing on the breath was often all of the practice that we needed. Quietly breathing, while repeating the line from Psalms (150), “Let all that breathes praise Adonai,” and with each breath imagining that God is giving us new life. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav recommended what he called hitbodedut—alone time with God. Basically, going to a private place and talking non-stop to God—just letting the thoughts and feelings pour out. I was pretty uncertain, and not a little resistant, the first time I tried this one. But, I can tell you that there’s a power in hearing yourself say something that, until that very moment, you didn’t know you were thinking. Many sages have taken one favored line from sacred text—”There is nothing but God,” “Adonai is our God, Adonai is One,” or “God was in this place and I, I did not know it,” to name just a few examples—and meditated on those words, very much like a mantra, and just waited to see what thoughts and feelings the repetition can evoke. Here on Shabbat mornings, especially when we have our Making Prayer Real workshop, we repeatedly chant a simple line or a niggun—a wordless melody—and try to experience the sense of flow when we stop thinking, and simply do. One of my personal favorites is spiritual study—using the insights of other Rabbis, particularly the great, early Hassidic masters, to give us spiritual reinterpretations of well known passages of the Torah. Studying in a way which moves our hearts, not just engages our minds. And, of course, these are just a sampling of possible practices.

So, let’s try one. Together, right now. I promise — it won’t take very long, and it won’t hurt at all. [Here’s the practice I led everyone through. First, pick that person that you love, and that loves you back, unconditionally. Take a few slow, deep breaths, concentrating very hard on your breath—how does it feel? Does does your stomach or your chest feel as you breath? Put all of your concentration on your breath. Now…picture that person again, and slowly say, “May you be safe, may you be happy, may your body be strong, may your life unfold with ease” 3 times. Breath a few more times, with just as much concentration on your breath. Let the final silence stretch out.]

It’s that moment, just after I’ve done some spiritual practice, that I’ve come to cherish. Because it’s in those moments of silently fading echoes that I come closest to understanding. Understanding what I just experienced, and what I didn’t, and what I want, and what I need. Spirituality, to me, anyway, isn’t about giving up my rational facilities and God-given sense of discernment. It’s about learning to appreciate and understand the parts of my mind, and the parts of my soul, which speak to something larger than logic and rationality.

It’s that false dichotomy and created conflict between spirituality and rationality which engendered so much resistance in me, for so long. I’m sure at least a few of you felt more than a twinge of that same resistance a few minutes ago, when we tried out that practice. “This is weird. This is flaky. This isn’t my thing.” It seems so darn unsophisticated, in a world filled with easy cynicism and enormous, tragic horror, to sit, breathe, and just think loving thoughts. Who does that? It’s so easy to write it off as some flighty thing that other, less serious people do. Trust me — I understand. I’ve said those things myself. And, at times, I guess I still do. But, I’m here to tell you, in no uncertain terms, that this stuff works. And, I’m not just talking about anecdotal evidence, although there’s plenty of that, obviously. Even good old science backs this up.

We now have decades worth of serious research about meditation, mindfulness and other spiritual practices. And, that research is as conclusive as can be — this stuff really does work. Ongoing practice results in measurable increases in our ability to handle stress. In our ability to handle pain. In our energy, focus and creativity. It can improve our sleep patterns. It can lower our heart rate, our respiratory rate, and our blood pressure. There’s even strong evidence that, perhaps tied to its stress-reducing ability, these practices can reduce cardiovascular disease and the rate and severity of heart attacks. And, the only side effects you have to worry about are increased happiness and a general sense of well-being. Those may even last longer than four hours.

People love to pit science against religion but they’re going to have a hard time of it when it comes to spiritual practice. The more scientists look at it, the more they confirm what religious practitioners have known for literally thousands of years. Spiritual practice works. It makes our lives better. It makes us happier, and it makes us more content. It makes us more caring, and it makes us more open. All we have to do, is do it.

And, as I mentioned before, there isn’t only one way to do it. Part of the joy of the spiritual world is finding the form and the practice which works best for each of us. For some it might be meditation, although even that isn’t only one thing; there are many types of meditation. For others, regular prayer, although probably with more focus and kavannah that most of us are used to, can work. Yoga and other “embodied practices” speak to many. There is spiritual study. Spiritual eating. Spiritual walking. There’s an endless menu of spiritual practices. You can find one which speaks to you, and which you can fit into your life. All you need to do is to decide to start.

Some of these are already happening here. These kinds of practices are precisely what we explore in our twice-a-month Making Prayer Real workshops and services on Saturday mornings. It’s the basis of our new, occasional Kavannah Shabbat services on Friday nights. More and more, it’s influenced how I teach, especially during Torah study on Shabbat. And, for those who want to try something right away, we’re having a 2nd day Rosh Hashana meditation service, tomorrow morning at 9:00. And, if nothing that we’re doing here resonates with you, but you still want to find something that does, we can sit and talk, and find something that does sound like it will work. There are no single paths, but there are more and more people who are looking to take this journey. You should really think about being one of them.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Sefat Emet, teaches that each and every person has within them a divine spark. A small piece of God, buried down, deep inside of us. And, every moment of every day that spark is struggling, striving to rise up and reconnect with its source. To reconnect with God. That spark, he teaches, is our soul, which was given to us only so that it could reconnect with holiness. All that we have to do it let it. Give that spark a chance to rise, and it will bring you with it.

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May your body be strong.

May your life unfold with ease.