Tuesday, May 15, 2012

God's To Do List

If you were to look around at the Jewish world in which we live, would you be pleased? Would you see everything you ever dreamed of? A perfect world bereft of ignorance, selfishness, and intolerance? Most likely not. Unfortunately, such an ideal life would require tireless effort, true selflessness and dialogue that the average person tends to avoid. Today, we live in a harsh reality where the concepts of taking without giving, indulging without sharing, and judging without knowing overpower the seemingly insignificant acts of kindness.        

A wise and acclaimed scholar in history, Reb Nachman of Breslov, taught that every Jew has the potential to leave an impact in life through faith. “Every single Jew is a portion of God above, and the essence of Godliness is in the heart.” According to the rebellious lives we live today, however, would God really be impressed with the representation of inner Godliness that the Jewish population at large display daily? I would like to think that an active God has already mapped out His ideal “to-do” list of easily fixable goals for a more faithful world.

1.                        How we value our money. We have an obligation, as the future of the Jewish world, to remain responsible for our fellow men. Our monthly paychecks enable most of us to afford not only the basic necessities for our families, but also the lavish luxuries that embellish our lives unnecessarily.  Wealthy Jewish families invest in second and third homes by the mountains and beaches while their neighbors are struggling to afford their first. Larger congregations fund extravagant synagogues and sanctuaries while members of our Jewish community at large can barely provide nourishing meals on their tables. As Ruth Messinger explained in her article, “Ethical Consumption,” everyone needs to experience the sweetness of having enough. Perhaps we should reconsider the ways in which we consume our finances and take one more step toward eternal selflessness, a world in which we can provide for everyone to have enough.

2.                        How we value our time. If you have an extra hour of your day, how would you spend it? So many of us claim that we don’t have that extra five minutes to stop and think, let alone to take action to improve our world. However, if we do not strive to provide for our communities worldwide, then how else would we live up to our title as the “Chosen People?” For if we were not chosen on this earth to ameliorate it, then we merely exist, rather than truly live. Unfortunately, too many extraneous minutes are spent analyzing our inner selves and even worse—our neighbors of different backgrounds. We look at Jews of different denominations and audaciously claim that they are “less” of Jews than we are. In order to set the paragon for our faith, we must not consume our time in the flaws that diverge us from our neighbors but rather the sparks of light that unite us. In the future, we, as a whole, should focus on how we can utilize that extra hour to enhance our universal Jewish community.

3.                        How we value our community.  How often do we rely on our family, whether immediate, congregational, or external? Our stable community is the everlasting constant throughout every aspect of our lifecycles, varying from births, bnei mitzvah, weddings, other simchot, and the funerals. We have constantly been surrounded by a minimum of ten fellow Jews with which to celebrate during the zeniths of our successes, and mourn during the moments of despair. Your Jewish community, wherever it may be, has stood beside you during the days you will cherish for the rest of your life, and during the days you wish you could forget. Under any circumstance, we turn to that open community for all of our needs and troubles, but do we open our arms to them? Are we balancing our respective Jewish community or simply consuming its benefits? How often do we offer all of the time, support, and gratitude that we are provided with on a daily basis? If we truly want to be the waking representations of Godliness, then we must propel our stable communities to new heights. Never again should there be a congregant who must celebrate or mourn alone. Perhaps that is why Jewish law requires a quorum of at least ten people during a formal prayer service; no one should experience a life of faith by himself. If we were chosen to live by certain standards of faith, then we are obligated to enhance our communities together, not abandon them entirely.

The future of Judaism is in the hands of those who consume their money, time, and communities in the most genuine ways. We must take the portions of Godliness that we were given and enable faith, a uniting factor of every organized religion, to prosper. A community of faith is only jeopardized when it is unbalanced, unsupported, and unattended. It is our obligation to take God’s “to-do” list and transform it into a new reality, a perfect world that we strive to see. If we refocus our hearts and minds into the entire community, rather than just ourselves, we will truly be consuming our values correctly.

Tisch: Expand Your Table

Every Friday evening in Crown Heights was considered to be a holy experience. Jewish men of all ages would briskly walk through the windy Brooklyn streets, recognizing familiar faces as they entered Shabbat together. From a distance, one could see a swarm of black hats enter the modest home of the Hasidic Rebbe, where hundreds would gather to sit at his tisch. Melodious niggunim would be chanted, the volume of the singing increasing with each new tune. The Rebbe’s words of wisdom would echo through his dining room walls; they would enhance the warmth of Shabbat alongside the innumerable plates of chicken and vegetables. This tradition thrived in Hasidic communities; the Rebbe’s tisch was just one of the many enlightening factors that united that Jewish community.

Considering that the word tisch is a Yiddish term for table, it seems unusual that such a concept should be limited to religious Jews. Shortly after, however, I learned that a tisch is not only a Hasidic table of singing and eating Jews; it is rather a universal value that can be expanded to every community we visit.

A rejuvenating tisch is not limited to any age or gender. In fact, one does not need to a learned rabbinic figure to host such an enlightening experience. As a spiritually seeking seventeen year old, I found an ideal community in the grassy green acres of Clayton, Georgia. My growing passion for Judaism is nurtured and fostered at Camp Ramah Darom, a Conservative Jewish summer camp that eternally impacted my life. This past summer, I formed a unique bond with seventy-one other teens my age, each with a passion that compiled into one remarkable tisch. Every Friday evening, my Gesher eidah, or age group, would congregate around long tables and jubilantly sing various z’mirot together, laughing at the solos and hand motions that others would incorporate to the songs. Full from plates of baked chicken and boiled potatoes, my friends and I would listen attentively to the rebbes, or our college counselors, share personal stories regarding their faith and theology. This tradition constitutes a typical Shabbat evening at Camp Ramah Darom; it is what truly epitomizes the magic found there every summer.

After my life changing summers at Camp Ramah Darom, I was determined to find that same tisch, energy, and faith that my Conservative Jewish summer home provided. Eventually I came to realize that no two tables are alike; we must strive to create new spiritual circles rather than replicate them.

A tisch can be formed by a group of people that recognizes a common passion they share. That passion, however, need not be affiliated to any one Jewish denomination or synagogue. During my freshman year of high school, I was exposed to pluralistic Judaism during a RAVSAK teen shabbaton known as “Moot Beit Din.” With a common love for davening, studying, and debating, high school students from all over the country gathered for this one weekend in D.C to recognize and strengthen Jewish pluralism. Despite our denominational differences, my new friends and I were able to sit around a table on that Friday night and contribute to a memorable tisch, filled with rituals of every sect of Judaism. I sang with teens from every mark of the Jewish spectrum, expanding my standards for communal faith.

More recently, I have discovered that the essence of a tisch can be shared with other organized religions. I found myself delving into powerful discussions with my interfaith group, Common Ground Friends, over boxes of pizza at the local united Methodist church. Teens who are spiritually engaged in their own churches, mosques, and other worship centers joined me around a casual table in the church’s humble fellowship hall to share our religious differences, but also embrace the common ground that unites us all. Through music, food, and dialogue—everything which constitutes a traditional tisch—I fostered my own Jewish values while meeting teens that I consider my greatest friends today.

An ideal tisch community is nonexistent. How you expand your table, however, is what truly defines your walk of faith.

Find the Common Ground

“Religion does three things quite effectively: Divides people, Controls people, Deludes people.” – Mary Alice McKinney
Today, if you were to check the top headlines of any publications, you would come across the latest havocs and horrifying events that have occurred in our “progressive” society. Varying from murders, economic instability, and words of pure hatred, newspapers cover and print stories that remind us that there is plenty more work needed to be done in our communities. While many would assume that in the evolving world in which we live, issues like miscommunication and prejudice would naturally deteriorate; however, that has not been the case whatsoever.
Some consider religion to be the ultimate blame for all the negative media surrounding us. Others have blatantly stated that religion is the underlying source behind divergence and strife, the cause of all the wars worldwide. Unfortunately, the spite people feel toward religion and theology has not only enhanced the lack of unity among us, but also created the walls and boundaries that prevent us from ever overcoming this intolerance. I, however, view life differently. I think religion is beautiful—when viewed in an optimistic light.
While religion, like many factors that ignite differences in beliefs, is flawed, there is a consistent concept in every denomination, branch, and active group: faith. Faith, bereft of any laws, practices, or restrictions, can be simply defined as hope. Faith is not the proof for our beliefs; it is the hope that we believe serves a larger purpose. This sense of hope is the foundation of most religions; it brings people comfort to believe in something greater in the world, even if that idea will remain unseen forever. While faith alone offers no guarantees, it unites people from all walks of life and creates a community, strengthened and manifested through that one shared hope. While religion marks the lines and limits that separate humanity, faith, or hope, is the full circle we can strive to create together.
How can we, as Jews and people of all different religions, be united in some way? How can we overcome the boundaries that diverge us in order to truly coexist? Where can we draw the beginning sketches that will one day evolve into a full circle? Perhaps the solution is simpler than we think: find the common ground.
The common ground that connects people of all different walks of life is the hope, or faith, that unifies every religion. As an active, pluralistic Jew, I strive to find the common ground that enables me to learn and grow alongside people who view theology, rituals, and religion at large differently than I do. By recognizing first that no two walks of faith are identical, we can sooner accept our differences and search for the common ground that unites us. When we share mutual values, we will be expanding the lines and boundaries that once restricted us from coexisting.
It takes true faith, or hope, to accept that we may never find tangibility in our different religions. We must face the inexorable truth: the only proof we have for our religious opinions solely based on faith. However, we can use this same hope to change the world. By taking the first step of recognizing our differences in order to reach our similarities, we will be taking one step toward coexistence. Through interfaith dialogue and respect, we can learn from one another the ways in which to beautify religion, rather than eradicate it. Ignorance diverged us, bur faith, alone, can unite us once again. Because of hope, the everlasting message that serves as the backbone to every belief system, religion is truly beautiful when shared.

Torah for Today

Throughout my childhood, the Torah was considered a sacred object, one that was covered in velvet and locked away in an ominous closet each week. This heavy scroll was associated with thoughts of horror and shame when dropped on the floor; it was revered and acclaimed after surviving another entire year without blemishes or god forbid: smudges. The Torah and all of its values were not to be touched without rubber gloves or a yad, or else an angry Hebrew school teacher would magically appear from a hidden corner. Even worse, my relationship with this oversized text reminded me that the contents of this literature were merely history—never to be repeated.

For faithful people, both Jews and non-Jewish thinkers alike, the Torah is viewed as the polar opposite. They can take this heavy text, rip it apart from its bedazzled exterior, and focus on the core. Not once do they consider this sacred literature to be intimidating, but rather relevant as they apply its eternal messages to their daily lives. It’s not that these people consider the Torah to be any less divine; they just strive to create this “everyday holiness” that is more travel friendly. They can take the jaded parchment and fit it all into their palms of their hands, prepared to take it with them wherever they go.

Luckily, publishing companies eventually strengthened this concept of everyday holiness. At any Barnes & Noble across the globe, one can find JPS pocket sized Bibles and Etz Chayim chumashim on the Judaic shelves—soft covered books that hold the same sacred texts of our faith. What truly holds us all back from not only purchasing one of these pocket sized Bibles, but also making holiness more personal?

Nothing whatsoever held me back.

Today, I have my own purple JPS Tanakh, worn and faded from its constant traveling. The pages are filled with endless notes, highlighted verses, and most importantly, questions. With the ability to make my own initial smudges, I discovered and strengthened a personal connection to the texts ad traditions of my faith. Guided by the questions in my own book, I let myself seek the best answers—answers that carve and mold my own Jewish path.

While I have since gained a deeper understanding and respect for the traditional Torah that is read in synagogues, I value my personal text, filled with pencil marks and creases. I encourage you, regardless of your age, gender, or religion, to create the smudges that will draw you closer to your beliefs. I consider my small purple Tanakh as form of everyday holiness in my life; I know that if my Bible is falling apart, it shows that my life is not.

Perhaps the Torah, the essence of Jewish Scripture, is much more simple and contemporary as we all think: take your faith beyond its biblical origins and create everyday holiness.