Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Swab A Cheek, Inscribed For Life

On Yom Kippur, food is not allowed to go in your mouth. But cotton swabs are, and that’s important, because that (along with a bit of paperwork) is how you register to become a potential bone marrow donor.

Like many other congregations in our movement, Congregation Beth Am is partnering with Gift of Life to try to get as many people as possible registered in the National Marrow Donor Program. For many who are suffering from blood cancers or certain genetic diseases, a bone marrow or stem cell transplant is their best, or only, hope for a cure. By registering to become a donor, you might actually save someone’s life. On the day when we plead with God to include us in the Book of Life, we can be an active part in keeping someone else’s name written in that book. There is, quite simply, no higher mitzvah then this.

You might be surprised that there is no blessing for this act of potential life-saving (although some have been written in recent years). That’s not an oversight — in Judaism, we say many blessings, but none of those blessings are for moral deeds. They’re all for rituals. Is that because Judaism places a greater emphasis on ritual than it does on morality? No — it’s because of exactly the opposite.

When we say a blessing, we are attempting to elevate an ordinary act into a sacred one. Rather than just light a candle, I’m going to say a blessing first. And now, this candlelighting has become a moment of holiness. I can just eat a piece of bread, and enjoy it. Or, I can pause for moment, say a blessing, focus on how wondrous the simple act of eating bread can be, and thereby elevate that moment into something transcendent. Blessings are our tool for turning the ordinary into the holy.

But, you can’t turn a moment of helping another person into a holy moment, because it already is one.

When we register to be a bone marrow donor, or an organ donor, or when we give blood, or when we give tzedakah, or when we do any other act, large or small, which helps another person, we are doing something which is, inherently, holy. Trying to make it holy would be like trying to make the ocean wet. It’s already wetter than we can ever make it. Registering to potentially save someone’s life — that’s already holier than any words we might utter can ever make it.

We spend so much energy in synagogue trying to connect with the holy parts of our world. It would be an enormous shame if we missed this most sacred opportunity—the opportunity to save someone’s life. On the holiest day of the year, it will almost certainly be the holiest thing you will  do.

G’mar Chatimah Tova—May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

This is my column in CBA's September Digest, hitting your mailbox soon, if you're a Congregation Beth Am member. But, I wanted to get this out today, too. You see, today, Sam Sommer is getting a Bone Marrow Transplant. Sam is the son of my dear friends Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer. You can read all about him, and his fight against cancer, at SuperManSamuel.blogspot.com. May he be inscribed in the Book of Life for many, many years to come.

Friday, August 9, 2013

#BlogElul 3 - Blessings

[For those who don't know, #BlogElul is an invention of the brilliant Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Elul is the month leading up to the High Holy Days, and is traditionally a month of introspection. She blogs on an Elul-related topic daily, and encourages others to do the same. You can read her stuff at ImaBima.BlogSpot.com]

What, exactly, is a blessing? What does it mean to bless someone? What does it mean to be blessed?

It seems like it should be obvious. Ask someone, "Do you know what a blessing is?" and they'll undoubtably tell you that they do. Ask them to define blessing, and you'll probably get a lot of hemming and hawing. And then some self-referential, non-specific definition. We all kind of know what blessing is, but we can't really pin it down.

A few years back, I was able to take an on-line class led by Nehemia Polen, a brilliant Rabbi and professor, all about Blessing. And, he had a pretty radical theory about what "blessing" really meant, originally.

Plainly and simply, it meant acknowledgment.

You know how countries "recognize" each other? How we all like to make jokes about it ("Israel? Didn't I see you at the Feinstein Bar Mitzvah?"). What does it mean to recognize a country? It means to acknowledge that they exist, and therefore to be willing to engage in dialogue with them. Nothing more. But, it's so important, because it's the beginning--the beginning of relationship. Before that, nothing is possible. Afterwards, anything is.

That's everything.

What do we want from God? Blessing*. What does that mean? It means that what we want from God, more than anything else, is to be acknowledged. To be recognized as existing. As ourselves. After that, anything is possible. A conversation--a real conversation--can occur, because we've been acknowledged. As a human being, in the fullest sense of that term. As some one who matters.

* When do we want it? Now!

All relationship starts with that seemingly trivial, but ultimately foundationally sacred moment, of being recognized. With seeing the humanity, the spark of holiness, that lies within each of us.

Baruch Atah Adonai. God, You are blessed.

Now, bless me, too.