Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dalai Lamas of Our Faith

This past October, I was blessed with the opportunity to hear true words of wisdom. At Temple Emanu-El in Miami, I watched as the most acclaimed figure in Buddhism sat in front of a panel of various religious leaders to impact over four hundred audience members with his insight. After some welcome speeches from the religious studies directors at the Florida International University and an exquisite music piece, the crowd rose and applauded for this petite, humble man who walked into the sanctuary. He casually strolled inside and waved to the other scholars on the dais as though he wasn’t the ultimate pope of Buddhism. The audience and I, however, could not contain our excitement, for it is not every day that His Holiness the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso flies in from Tibet to speak to us.
The virtuous Dalai Lama, though reserved and soft-spoken, discussed a pivotal topic that related to all of the various people sitting on the bimah and in the audience: the significance of world religions. As the 14th leader in line of Ashoka Moriah himself, the Dalai Lama expressed his daily religious morals with a sense of compassion and pride.
“The morals [of both Buddhism and monotheistic religions] are similar: compassion, teaching and peace. Whether it’s one or no god that promotes this, these values are cherished in most every religion,” he said.
Whether it’s his purity and devotion toward spirituality that inspired me or just his long tunic-like robe that gave him a wise appearance, the Dalai Lama captivated my attention just by that statement. In almost every religion in the world, teaching spiritual values takes precedence over everything. I know for a fact that in my own religion, Judaism, the theological teachings of the faith itself override the actual practice. And once the knowledge of our religions is gained, the practice becomes meaningful. With meaning behind our action, compassion and good intention ensues, and with good intentions and compassion, we could all have the power to strengthen our faiths.
The Dalai Lama then continued to cover the anticipated topics, including his personal experiences with spirituality, but what fascinated me the most was his outlook on life.
“If I see something selfishly and only through one perspective, I look again. Faith, too, has more than one dimension. There are many dimensions at which to look at life when dealing with faith, but you need an open mind to create unity; that takes over thousands of different dimensions to see.”
That idea got me thinking; do we as faithful people separate ourselves because of our beliefs? Do we only see our faith and others’ through one dimension? I’m sure all the faith activists and pacifists in the world first began seeing faith all around them from only one perspective, but obviously that was an ephemeral phase. While it is wonderful to gain all the knowledge possible on our own separate faiths, we should probably face the obvious truth: creating unity among all religions requires more than one faith alone.
I’m sure that the Dalai Lama wasn’t born and raised with the knowledge of every existing religion; however, he chose to explore and understand the other religions that were represented on the dais with him. He realized that in order to create unity, he would have to step out of the comfort of the knowledge of his own religion and recognize others around him. Since he has chosen to recognize, understand and respect other faiths in the world, the Dalai Lama is today an acclaimed spiritual leader in not only Buddhism, but through every perspective of faith. By choosing to use the knowledge of his own religion to gain knowledge on others, he has moved one step toward unity.
Though the Dalai Lama may be wise beyond his years, we can begin the same steps to forming religious unity in our own communities. We can start with the small steps. My faith could take this goal and easily pursue it in our lives. Let’s not just claim to have a wonderful relationship with the Christian and Islamic faiths, but rather, step out of the comfort level of our prerequisite knowledge and learn. Open a New Testament or a Koran; see what unites our Scriptures. Before we say that we understand Buddhism just like the Buddhists do, let’s study its complex values together, with them. Before we place a defensive wall in front of our faith, let’s embrace the fact that there are faithful people all around us, and through the Dalai Lama’s teachings, we can realize that we’re not all that different. Through understanding each other and accepting that we’re all faithful, we can all respect each other. We could, in fact, be the Dalai Lamas of our faiths.
As a faithful Jewish teen, I’ve committed myself to learning about my faith, while understanding it through every perspective. I also know, however, that I will always be exposed to every other faith in the world, and unity is really not impossible. Rather than looking at life through only one dimension of faith, that being Judaism, I’m committed to learning about the faiths that surround me. If I read a different scripture with a closed mind, I read it again. If I see an interesting worship center, filled with faithful people inside, I disregard my comfort level and walk inside. In the future, if I feel myself defending my faith without recognizing the other faith's perspective, I will (try to) close my mouth and listen first. These are the steps I have already begun to take to reach unity. For at the end of the day, faith has the capability to bring us all together.  
From this lecture in Miami, I realized that a good spiritual leader does not have to be religious, but rather a knowledgeable, respectable person. With an open mind, you, too, could be the next Dalai Lama. With an open mind, you and I, together, could explore the thousands of dimensions of faith. And together, we can create unity.

A Trip Through the Bible

I think it’s safe to say that I am…different. As my mom says, I was born “a different breed” compared to most teenagers my age. I used to consider myself to be pretty normal, actually—that is, until I realized that something as simple as my birthday wish would completely oppose to that of a normal sixteen year old. This year, upon the arrival of my sixteenth birthday, I did not add a new car to my birthday wish list, but rather, a ticket to the “Holy Land Experience” theme park, a biblical tourist site based in Orlando.
While the few that actually visit this New Testament centered attraction are active church members, African Americans, and Hispanics, I somehow felt the inexorable desire to visit this religious site myself. After all, it sounded perfect place to spend a sweet sixteen. With temple models, Jerusalem streets, interactive shows and singing Jesus’s, one could easily say that this was no average “Harry Potter World,” but rather…an incredible trip through the Bible.
The website itself was inviting enough, and I had been eagerly waiting for almost a year to visit the real scene in person. After some gesturing and begging, I finally convinced my family to take part in this biblical excursion, and I am so appreciative that they did; I enjoyed every minute spent at the “Holy Land Experience” theme park.
As soon as we entered the parking lot for this biblical site, I already knew I was in love. Greeted with bursting crystal waters and convivial music, I understood the primary mission of this theme park: to experience first century Jerusalem through a historical, educational, and theatrical perspective.
The Trinity Broadcasting network really went all out with the biblical ambiance, filled with various crucifixion shows, worship gatherings, and other unique exhibits; I really did leave the park that day satisfied and overjoyed to see such an acclaimed religious theme park.
But why did I love it so much? At the end of the day, the “Holy Land Experience” is a biblical Christian theme park; the staged shows covered the gist of the New Testament and it seemed just coincidental that the actors there greeted visitors with the friendly “shalom.” Why did I enjoy this experience, moreover, why do I now actually miss the “Holy Land” in my own state?
Maybe it was the uniqueness of the small, gospel- preaching terrain. The “Holy Land Experience” is perhaps the only theme park in Orlando that replaces the Mickey Mouse ears for tabernacle models, but that kind of uniqueness is appreciated by the rare breed of teens like me. The park itself was about one quarter the size of “Islands of Adventure,” but this one quarter offered so much more value to the religious Christians in the world; I actually wished there was a small, convenient theme park for every religion.
Along with the interesting shows and activities, I noticed the people. The actors here weren’t desperate faithless professionals in search of theatre careers, but rather devout Christians who merely sing and act to glorify G-d. Anyone could have seen that their biblical characters in the historical performances brought forth values that they carry as people, even after they exit the grounds of the mock first century Jerusalem streets. Not only did they portray their assigned characters, but they truly believed in their characters, and all the Christian values that accompanied them. The actors at the “Holy Land Experience” theme park never once broke out of their characters, for they are those characters.
I think every theme park, every popular attraction, every tourist site, should thrive off the same intentions as the “Holy Land Experience.” This non-profit organized biblical experience proved that with passion, Psalm 102: 22-23 could easily be fulfilled.
“His praises in Jerusalem, when nations gather together, the kingdoms, to serve the Lord.”
This Jerusalem experience, though primarily targeted toward the Christian faith, attracts a variety of religious groups, enabling all visitors to learn and experience together. While the gory crucifixion scenes may not be for everyone, they work for the rare breed of religion-centered teens, like me.
Beyond all the Jesus-based activities, the “Holy Land Experience” brought Psalm 102: 22-23 to life; this Orlando religious attraction offered all religions the opportunity to experience first century Jerusalem together, the actors portrayed a passion for what they do and who they are as faithful people, and the entire trip through the Bible was an unforgettable one, satisfying my simple sweet sixteen wish.

Devarim- V'etchanan

Today, any person with a distinct career is asked follow up questions about his/her profession. For example, if you are a chef, one would ask: do you food? Or to a doctor: So you medicine? Usually, the answers to these questions are “yes, as a chef I love working with food, or yes, as a doctor, I love working with healing.” I, however, am a different case. I want to be a rabbi. So when people hear this, their initial reactions are “ do you G-d?” My answer: I don’t know. It changes every so often.

Are we supposed to love G-d? A spiritual, yet invisible being? Am I supposed to publically and proudly love something that I have never seen? I mean, there are reasons for my varying relationship with this theological force we grasp as “G-d.”

For example, last week, I spent four days interning with RAVSAK, the Jewish day school network based in New York City. I mingled and worked with educators and scholars, observed programs downtown, and noshed on Kosher bagels and spreads on the upper west side. All in all, for someone like me, it was a fantastic week, and I loved G-d for bringing me there.

Other weeks weren’t as fantastic. Failing Geometry tests and balancing work with stress often reduced me to tears. I would blame my anger on anything I could, whether that being my innocent teacher, my genetics, or usually G-d as well. So, one could say, I was struggling with faith.

After being asked questions about my relationship with G-d, I decided I needed an answer. So, on one, hot summer afternoon, I resorted to the basics of Judaism, and opened my Tanach to a random page. I said, “Ok, G-d. Do something cool, work your magic, inspire me.” No, the Tanach didn’t begin to fly, nor did a $100 bill fall out of it, but I was inspired that afternoon. My tanach was opened to a relatively small book in the book of “Ketuvim” or Writings, called “Iyov” or Job. I had never studied the book of Job before, but since that day, it has become my favorite book in the bible.

Take a wealthy man with infinite faith in G-d, test his true loyalty to G-d by cursing his life and making it miserable, and you’ll have Job of Uz. G-d picked out a good man from the crowd, and turned his life upside down, just to see if his faith would surpass every obstacle. And it did. When Job lost his loved ones, his shelter, and his health, his mere response was from chapter 1 verse 21: The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job could have cursed and blamed G-d, but he chose to rely on his faith for comfort instead. G-d liked Job from the beginning, and I started really liking this guy, too. He had unbreakable faith, confidence in G-d, or as my sister would call it, “Job’s got swagger.”

I’ve realized that faith is all around us. Whenever we hope for something, or wonder about something, we are putting faith into action. Every time you step onto that scale, you inhale, and have faith, or hope, that you lost some weight. Every time your son or daughter gets into a car, you have faith, or hope that he or she will return home safely. You may not think you’re directly praying to G-d, but then who would you be praying to? Faith is simply that positive energy; the hope that things will be ok; the comfort in believing that spirituality is more powerful than any weight- gaining snack or reckless driver.

I could definitely, however, bring chapter 1 verse 21 into my life: I certainly know G-d has taken away some good grades I needed to ace math, but He gives me bigger joys in life; my loving family, my motivation in religious studies, my health; all factors that I would never trade for better knowledge of isosceles triangles. I have a lot to be thankful for, and after that afternoon, I decided to be like Job and choose faith. By doing so, I faithfully praise whatever spiritual being brought and keeps my family here, under both positive and negative circumstances. By choosing faith, I have gained a new perspective on life: When I have fantastic weeks, I praise G-d for bringing me happiness, while during not-so-fantastic weeks, I praise G-d for allowing me to overcome the obstacles that accompany the harder weeks, and hope that there is always a deeper reason for any sadness and loss in my life. Of course, I sometimes still doubt the power of theology, but I have faith in the idea that something more powerful than all of us; a power that I can pray to.

Today, it is easy to bring a spiritual comfort, that being G-d into our lives, but even easier to take Him out all together. Next week, on Tisha B’Av, it’ll be easy and tempting to lose faith as we mourn the destruction of the Second Temple. As a Jewish community, how have we NOT lost our faith entirely after being victimized in genocides, and scapegoat-filled situations for all these years?! Tisha B’Av next week will certainly remind us that G-d was rather unusual when protecting our Jewish community throughout the years, but it’s those moments of confusion and doubt in theology where faith can come through the strongest. At the end of the day, no one really knows where G-d was during those rough moments in our lives, nor do we really have answers as to why we undergo losses every day.  We can, however CHOOSE to lose or weaken our relationships with G-d because of those tragic events in our history and today, or we can CHOOSE to sustain faith, or optimism in theology and just hope that there were reasons behind these tragic events. We could all be like Job. Because at the end of the day, isn’t losing faith the worst tragedy of all?

So, do I publically love G-d? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I have faith that everything happens for a reason, and I’m not going to blame and avoid the greater theological force in the world that brings me non-materialistic happiness. I’m comforted to know that there was a man in our Tanach that had unbreakable faith in G-d, no matter what circumstance, and on this year’s Shabbat Chazon, I want to be just like Job, with faith as strong as his; a level of faith that will alleviate the obstacles in my life, while making the blessings that much greater.

Psalm 17

“Display Your faithfulness in wondrous deeds, You who deliver with Your right hand those who seek refuge from assailants. Guard me like the apple of Your eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings.”                -Psalm 17: 7-8
Since the arrival of 5771, I committed myself to read at least two chapters from the book of Pslams per day, in hopes of inspiration of any sort. Since then, however, I have just read a monotony of liturgies regarding G-d and His power, mercy, and kindness, etc. Though the words, written by the famous King David, are indeed eloquently expressed, I had yet to read anything remotely meaningful to my every day life. That is, until today.
After skimming through various divine-related Psalms, I came across Psalm 17. Though Psalm 17 was written for and about G-d, I used my unorthodox faith perspective to discover an interpretation of my own. After coming across this particular verse, (printed above), I slowly began to wonder if these words could be relative to people, rather than just a divine figure.
Display Your faithfulness in wondrous deeds..”
This obviously doesn’t only apply to G-d. There are many Jews, Gentiles, and people of all back rounds who display their faith through wondrous deeds. The concept of faith alone ensues to strong and powerful actions. People in our history, whether biblical or recent, have formed reputations for themselves by their faith and deeds. We recognize and honor the faithful people like Mother Theresa and Susannah Heschel, who have changed the world because of their faiths. We also recognize more than honor the unordinary people, like Pastor Terry Jones in Gainesville, who has also changed the world, though not quite for the better, because of his faith. Along with G-d, people in the world displayed their faithfulness in wondrous deeds, and have shaped the world with their actions, whether those actions and intentions were remarkable or merely terrifying.
You who deliver with Your right hand those who seek refuge from assailants.”
Though in religious history and spiritual present day life, G-d has used His right hand to comfort those who were and continue to be afraid, there are people who spend their lives comforting others today. In fact, many synagogue and church outreach programs prioritize their journeys around “Bikor Cholim," or the visiting of those who are assailed physically or mentally. Even I know a certain person that assuages my daily incidents with my personal assailant, that being math. In history, in my community, and in my own home, I am very fortunate to know people who use their right hands to comfort others.
“Guard me like the apple of Your eye, hide me in the shadow of Your wings.”
 G-d is certainly believed to guard “Kol Israel,” or the people of Israel, along with “v’al kol yoshvei tevel,” or all the others dwelling in the world. I also know, however, that the average parent is believed to fulfill the words of this verse. I could ask any parents in my community today, and would most likely hear that they not only feel obligated, but the desire to guard their children from any possible harm in the world. All the parents that I am fortunate to know undoubtedly use the apples of their eyes to watch over their children. In this case, my parents are no different.
When I read and analyzed this particular verse in Psalm 17, I realized that all of these relatable indications of the verse apply to my dad, Michael Goldberg. Though he would perhaps be the last one I know to affiliate himself to any organized religion, he is the first person I know to promote faith, or hope, through action. His actions of faith revolve around kindness to the ones he loves, and even the people he barely knows. With his right hand always bringing to comfort to those who need, my dad applies faith to every one of his actions, even if he may not realize it. As a reliable parent, he ensures me that my one deadly assailant, math, will not expunge my life, but also as a fellow fifteen year old would, he makes me laugh to replace the moments where I would have otherwise cried.
“Guard me like the apple of Your eye, hide me in the shadow of Your wings.”
Out of love, my dad guards me inside the shadow of his wings, but encourages me to create a set of wings for myself. I’ve been raised under his right hand of inspiration and creativity, but also with a motivation to perfect my own right hand. My dad implies every day that my sisters, mom, and me are the apples of his eye, and I hope he knows that he is the apple (or toasted bagel with munster cheese and tomato) of ours. After fifteen years of knowing him, I can easily say that I not only love my dad unconditionally as a parent, but as one of my best friends, and as he reaches a new age and chapter of his life, I hope he knows and will remember this for the next 364 days following October 7th, and for the rest of the years to come.    
No, neither my dad, nor anyone that could relate to this entire verse, is G-d, but maybe there’s a reason that this particular verse stood out among the others. I’m sure that for parents, guarding their children is like second nature, but for the children, we usually recognize our parents’ actions as more evident than those of G-d Himself. I strongly believe that this verse, with these words, don’t only praise G-d’s actions, but also model the standards of every exceptional parent in the world. Though my only proof of that is my faith, I have every reason in life to praise G-d, or whatever divine figure works above, for He created my parents who model Psalm 17 today.
I may not have read the Old Testament chapter of Psalms as traditionally as how it’s written, but I can happily say that after reading Psalm 17, I have found my inspiration, and he doesn’t leave the four walls of my home. Happy Birthday, Dad; I love you very much.

Unetane Tokef: Fear Behind The Liturgy

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

You probably recognize these words. This prayer is recited when Jews all over the world congregate at local synagogues for the welcoming of a new Jewish year, or “Rosh Hashanah”. On Rosh Hashanah, we recite these words while believing that we are being judged and analyzed on account of our actions, whether positive or negative. When chanted in Hebrew, these words typically blend in with the rest of the service; it’s the English translation that is depicted among the other readings in the machzor.
If you think about it, the words are very direct. Basically, this prayer states that G-d has written our destiny and seals it on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. It continues by listing the many drastic ways in which our destinies can result. From fire to water, earthquake to plague, this list just exudes a negative, dramatic vibe that I personally do not understand. These harsh words really affected me this year while standing in my own sanctuary and lingered in my thoughts after I had left my synagogue. When I read these words on Rosh Hashanah, a scary image of G-d holding a huge book of life and analyzing the world appeared in my head, and that’s when all of my questions started forming.
Though not every word in any siddur is completely clear to me, doesn’t it seem odd that such a joyous holiday would include such threatening words? As a young Jewish teen with knowledge on these holidays and lots of blind faith, why do prayers in my own faith scare me?   
Though the list of harsh life destinies created some discomfort that morning, it was the last sentence that bothered me the most:
“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”
From what I concluded in this prayer, the listed death and life options in the “Unetane Tokef” have all been possibilities for us and G-d chooses our fates, but if we act righteously, our predetermined futures can be altered for our benefits.  From what I personally concluded, I am so bothered by this prayer all together, mainly because I doubt the message that this prayer is trying to send. I had always believed and supported the concept of unchangeable fatality; why do people’s righteous actions suddenly change the fate that G-d has planned for them? Moreover, why do only some people’s actions of kindness change their predetermined destinies, rather than everyone’s?
 Though the events in our Jewish history, such as the birth of the state of Israel and the success of Rabbinic Judaism around the world, have certainly proven that prayer and acts of kindness thrive in our religion, what about the major suffering in the world? From the Holocaust to the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, the Jewish faith has a reason to question G-d’s power and our faith. Even today, there are so many stories about the miracles people have experienced as a result of their prayers and acts of kindness, but the same amount of tragic stories are told of those who have lost and continue to lose everything, even with their constant prayers and acts of kindness. Though, today, we can accept both the good and the bad from G-d, primarily to focus on the blessings in life, (Job 1:21) why should we believe that on every new Jewish year, we all have the opportunities to change our fates through acts of kindness if there are still tragedies every day?
As I remember the millions of Jewish lives lost throughout history, or the thousands of American victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I can’t help but wonder why their prayers and acts of kindness in life failed to change their miserable destinies, especially when a portion of the victims survived, when they might have prayed the same amount as the person who died.
While struggling with the literal words of the “Unetane Tokef,” I decided that as a faithful Jewish teenager, I still want to participate in all the prayers on the future days of judgment. After searching and reading various commentaries on this particular prayer, I came across an interpretive version of the “Unetane Tokef” that was written figuratively, rather than emphasizing the literal power of the words. Taken from a Reconstructionist machzor, I found comfort, rather than fear, in the revised prayer and intend on reciting the Reconstructionist words of the “Unetane Tokef” in the future.
The prayers and ideas in Judaism can be taken literally or figuratively. Though in this particular prayer, I dislike the literal terms of our possible destinies, I take comfort in knowing that there is a place and time for me to seek my own connection to G-d during the universal Day of Judgment.
As we enter what will hopefully be a healthy, happy, and successful 5771, I hope we can all find comfort in what we read and only enhance our spirituality in unity.
L’Shana Tovah.

Unetane Tokef- Reconstructionist version:
When we really begin a new year it is decided,
And when we actually repent, it is determined.
Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist;
Who shall be happy, and who miserable;
Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition,
And whose hopes shall be quenched by the waters of failure;
Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy,
And who shall be torn by the wild beast of resentment;
Who shall hunger for companionship,
And who shall thirst for approval;
Who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity;
Who shall be strangled by insecurity,
And who shall be beaten into submission;
And who shall be content with their lot,
And who shall wander in search for satisfaction;
Who shall be serene,
And who shall be distraught;
Who shall be at ease,
And who shall be afflicted with anxiety;
Who shall be poor in their own eyes,
And who shall be rich with tranquility;
But teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah
Have the power to change the character of our lives.