ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE

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gratitudeGratitude—the art of giving thanks — is one of many virtues according to Jewish tradition. The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha-tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.”  This expresses the fact that the good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours. If you lost your job but you still have your health and your family, you surely still have something to be grateful for. If your home is flooded but you and your family escape in good health, you still have something to be grateful for. Most of us focus so heavily on the deficiencies in our lives that we barely perceive the good that counterbalances them.  Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked qualities that we can access every day.

There is no limit to what we don’t have, so if that is where we focus, our lives will undoubtedly be filled with much dissatisfaction. Correspondingly, even if we are aware of our many gifts, we may grow indifferent to them, so that after some time we forget that they are even there and we come to take the good for granted.

Gratitude is something that does not come easy to us, and it usually takes effort to develop this quality through practice. Some Mussar teachers (i.e. those who teach practices for spiritual self-improvement) suggest a weekly practice of saying thank you to everyone who does even the slightest thing to help you. Examples might include gratitude for someone who holds open a door for you as you are exiting a store, a driver who lets you in and allows you to make a turn onto a busy road, or someone who lets you move up in a store check-out line.

A regular spiritual practice can help us cultivate an attitude of gratitude. The opening prayer in the Jewish prayer book is called Modeh Ani, meaning “thank you.” It is meant to be said when one opens one’s eyes in the morning.  The essence of the prayer is the grateful acknowledgement of the gift of life that we have been given, the greatest of all miracles.  It’s so easy to take for granted when it is a daily phenomenon, and if we immediately turn our attention to our daily routine.

Research by the psychotherapist Amy Morin details the benefits of gratitude:

  • Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Not only does saying thank you constitute good manners, it can also help you win new friends.
  • Gratitude can improve psychological health. Leading researchers have shown a strong link between gratitude and well-being.
  • Gratitude can reduce a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and frustration to regret.
  • Gratitude can improve empathy and reduce aggression.
  • And, according to a 2011 study, spending some time at night to jot down grateful moments can help you sleep better.It is never too late to show your gratitude. A letter that recently arrived at Beth Judah Temple, where I currently serve as rabbi, reminded me of this. Beth Judah is near the Coast Guard School in Cape May, and each year Jewish coast guard cadets join the congregation for Shabbat morning prayer and are warmly received and welcomed by the congregation.   This letter recently arrived from a coast guard member who was a cadet nearly 50 years ago:                I was fortunate to have found the hospitality of your congregation in 1969 as a coast guard cadet. The weekend visits were the highlight of my schedule for 10 weeks. Although it’s been a long time, I realize that I needed to still thank you for the kindness you showed the stranger all those years ago and how much I enjoyed your generosity.                A.S.

     I often like to reflect on the words of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav: “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.” May we all continually strive to develop an attitude of gratitude, and develop practices that will improve ourselves and the world.

 

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MARCH MADNESS

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march madness

Once a week I have a phone conversation with Bernie (now in his 90’s and retired) who was the owner of KTAV Publishers, an important Jewish publishing company. I grew up reading many KTAV books, and learned to read Hebrew with a Hebrew primer that is still used today in religious schools and synagogue adult learning programs as well.  Our personal relationship began back in the 1980’s when KTAV published one of my first projects, Shabbat Delight: A Celebration in Stories and Games. For the next 25 years KTAV published many more of my books and our personal and professional connection deepened. We saw each other regularly at rabbinic and educators’ conferences.  My wife and I were honored to be invited as part of the family when Bernie’s late brother Sol received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University and more recently to Bernie’s 90th birthday brunch.

As a college student, Bernie played on the Yeshiva University basketball team and his stats are recognized in a book on noted Jewish sports figures. Bernie and I talk about a myriad of things on our weekly calls, but our conversation always includes basketball and his beloved New York Knicks.  The Knicks have always had a strong support base, even though they have not been a very good team for many years now. Bernie knows all of the nuances of the game, and talks about coaching strategies, his favorite players, and what it might take for the Knicks to again become champions.

The other day the news broke that Yeshiva University’s basketball team will go to the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time in its history.  Even the New York Times printed a very comprehensive article that included details about the players with pictures of them both on the court and in study, with their kippot on their heads and fringes (tzitzit) showing beneath their uniforms.  I called Bernie and needless to say he was ecstatic.  He reported that he will be listening to the first game on Yeshiva University’s own radio station.  Admittedly, although I am much more of a hockey and a baseball fan, I have been captivated with the excitement of the event.

The Yeshiva basketball team is called the Maccabees, named for the ancient band of freedom fighters. A New York Post headline blared (in a pun on the Hebrew word for “gotta” as in “ya gotta have faith”):  “YESH THEY CAN and the online Jewish publication Tablets declared that the team’s making the NCAA tournament was “one of the most unlikely Jewish sporting feats ever.” Religious studies and secular academics have traditionally overshadowed sports at YU, although its women’s tennis teams and university roller hockey teams have fared very well.

One of the challenges for a basketball team composed of observant Jews is time constraint of Jewish observance.  With so many Jewish holidays throughout the year along with the Sabbath every week, players have less time for shooting practice, lifting weights and reviewing videos of plays and strategies – not to mention that they can’t compete in games on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  At YU team practices begin before 6 AM, finishing in time for prayer and religious studies which begin at 9 AM. Luckily, the NCAA  has graciously accommodated by scheduling the YU team for games on Friday afternoon (rather than the typical Friday night time slot) and moving games scheduled for Saturday afternoon until after the Sabbath ends with nightfall.

According to the players, their faith informs their values and the way they play the game. They see their faith and upbringing as an advantage.  In fact, the team has started studying passages from the Torah (Five Books of Moses) before games this year. Many of the players participated in basketball programs at their Jewish Day High Schools and Yeshivas in their teen years, so they have a lot of practice at balancing their religion with their athletic pursuits.

The Maccabees of bygone days were a fearless group of warriors who fought for Jewish identity and religious freedom.   I’m rooting for the success of the Yeshiva Maccabees.  However the tournament turns out for them, I’m banking on them to play the game with courage and determination and the highest level of Jewish values and sportsmanship.  I’m thrilled that they are giving their school (and the Jewish people vicariously) a chance to win a national trophy.  As they say – you gotta have faith!

 

Promises, Promises, Promises

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New year resolutionI am writing these thoughts on the last day of 2017. With the new year almost here, many people (including myself) indulge in retrospection and reevaluating some of their life’s choices.

Thinking back, I am supremely grateful for many highlights in my work and personal life in the past year. I’ve been privileged to bring joy and comfort to my patients and their families and care givers through music therapy and spiritual support through my hospice chaplaincy work. It has been enormously gratifying to help set Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood on a path of growth and thriving.  The opportunity to innovate in the worship services, to meaningfully teach and learn with highly engaged congregants during Torah study, and to build community through the cultural Fellowship programs at community members’ homes have been exhilarating, leading to new friendships, new understandings and a growing congregation.  Outdoor summer musical Sabbath services, including Kabbalat Shabbat services on the beach in Cape May and Wildwood and lighting the hanukkiah on the mall in Cape May have fulfilled my dream of reaching out to the broader community and strengthening the Jewish presence of the community.  I have been touched and inspired by the courage and mutual sustenance for each other by members of The Kaddish Club that I started at Temple Sholom in Bridgewater a few years ago, that continues to be a powerful support system for those who have lost loved ones.  I have loved seeing the smiles and excitement in students’, parents’ and teachers’ eyes when my co-author Karen Rostoker-Gruber and I performed our magical musical educational Hanukkah program, based on our children’s book Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match at synagogues and JCCs. On a personal note, I’ve been blessed to share many new experiences with my grandchildren – including playing pinball games at my grandson’s birthday party, visiting the Crayola Factory together, and facing the challenges of an Escape room with them. I am also thrilled to announce the newest addition to our family—our grand dog Piper, who I can hardly wait to meet when we visit in Chicago in the spring.

And I am looking forward to 2018 with great excitement and anticipation. In the coming months I will be bringing programs about my newly released book Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith to even more synagogues and JCCs.  I am thrilled and extremely honored to have been invited to teach a graduate course to ministerial students at Drew University’s Theological Seminary.

In addition to reminiscing and taking stock of accomplishments at the end of a year, the New Year brings an opportunity to reflect on “unfinished business” – the things we want to change or start in the new year.  To spark the process for myself, I checked out some resolutions that others have shared.  Here are a few that resonated with me, in no particular order:

  • Be present! Make eye contact with people as you speak to them and really listen.
  • Don’t pull your phone out every time you’re bored! Give your mind time to wander and wonder.
  • Spend less time on social media and more on in-person connection.
  • Try new things! Set some new goals for yourself.
  • Exercise more and take more walks if you are able.
  • Eat more salad and other healthy foods.
  • Get more quality sleep.
  • Find a weekly activity that will help to make a difference in someone else’s life.
  • Be more compassionate.
  • Stop procrastinating.
  • Meet new people and make some new friends.
  • Be more polite.
  • Learn and commit yourself to civil discourse.
  • Volunteer and be more charitable.
  • Spend more time out of doors.
  • Find time each week to meditate.
  • Learn some new skills.
  • Bring more peace into your life by practicing non judgment.
  • Stay positive and open your mind to new possibilities
  • Remember each day that it’s never too late to repair what is broken.
  • Say thank you 10 times each day. Keep a journal and each evening write down several things for which you are grateful.

Unfortunately, all of us know how hard it is to keep New Years resolutions.  As an article in today’s New York Times reminds us:

New Year’s Eve is a time to set goals: to eat better, to save more money, to work harder, to drink less. It’s Day 1 on the road to a “new you.” But this road, as we all know, is difficult to follow. Humans are notoriously bad at resisting temptation, especially (as research confirms) if we are busy, tired or stressed. By January 8 some 25% of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept. (The New York Times, Sunday, December 31, 2017)

However, the article goes on to suggest some tips for how we can keep our resolutions:

Cultivating the social emotions maximizes both our “resume virtues” (those that underlie professional success) and our “eulogy virtues” (those for which we want to be remembered. In nudging the mind to be more patient and more selfless, they benefit everyone whom our decisions impact, including our own future selves. In short, they give us not only grit but also grace.

So as 2018 commences, take more time to cultivate those emotions. Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals.  Doing so will help ensure that every future New Year’s Eve will have more to celebrate than regret.

In Judaism, the number 18 has special meaning. Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and the numerical value of “life” (chai) is 18.  Wishing you a New Year of 2018 (20-chai) that will be filled with light, joy, health, peace and meaningful change in your life! And thank you for reading my Thoughts and sharing them with others.

Teach Your Child to Swim!

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coast guardTwo months before my Bar Mitzvah my parents sent me to my first experience at sleep -away camp. The camp was located in Utterson Ontario (150 miles north of Toronto). Situated on a beautiful pristine lake, the camp offered boating, sailing, canoeing and water skiing. In order to be able to participate in these activities you needed to be a competent swimmer and had to pass a deep water swimming test. Although my father of blessed memory was a good swimmer, he never taught me. That first summer I suffered the embarrassment of not being able to participate in all of the water sports, and especially the big canoe trip.

The summer camp program also offered classes on Judaism. I studied with a professor in residence who taught me (in a class on parent-child relations) that the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin lists the obligations of parents to their children.  Interestingly enough, providing basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter for a child does not appear on the list. Instead, the list emphasizes spiritual care – such as the obligation to inculcate morals and values in the child. But the obligation that appeared at the end of the list took me totally took me by surprise. Parents MUST teach their children how to swim – or find someone to teach them!  During that first summer at camp I learned that according to Jewish law, parents must ensure that their children can survive independently – including by being able to swim.

Now that I am the rabbi at Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood NJ, I am continually reminded of that first summer by our proximity to the water – and of my great admiration for those who protect and defend us on the seas. There is a Coast Guard Training Station in nearby Cape May.  Whenever there are Jewish cadets, Beth Judah has the privilege of hosting them on Shabbat morning during their eight week basic training course.  Over the years we have opened our doors and hearts to many brave young men and women who come from all parts of the United States, and even from Israel and beyond.  The course is extremely physically, mentally and emotionally rigorous, and many of the cadets have expressed how important the few hours of tranquility have been for them.  They have spoken emotionally about how important praying, singing, being part of a Jewish community and sharing in the Kiddush lunch has been for their spiritual and emotional well-being.

A couple of months ago a young cadet who had just begun his Coast Guard training came to Temple. His face was very sad and somber. In fact, when I spoke to him after services about his initial experiences he became quite emotional, confiding that he did not know whether he had what it would take to complete the program.  I offered him a prayer of healing and for the next couple of months he continued to come to Temple and was warmly embraced by the entire congregation.  What made his story even more memorable was that he told us a bit about his family background.  He and his family are immigrants from Mexico who discovered that they were descendants of Marranos (Jews who were forced to hide their identity in order to survive the Inquisition in Spain).  After learning their heritage, his whole family began the process of learning about Judaism in order to convert – when he was already a teenager! With each passing week the demeanor of our cadet changed.  He began to radiate confidence, to smile more, and to participate more comfortably in the service – accepting Torah honors and leading readings.  He expressed his belief that the spiritual support of the Beth Judah community gave him the courage, determination and fortitude to continue with the training in order to complete it.   Just today I learned that he successfully graduated from his course of training, and saw pictures of him and his proud parents that were posted on https://www.facebook.com/BethJudahTempleWildwood/, along with a message from his parents:  “We have no words to express how thankful we are with what you did. You provided him the human support needed for him to continue and finish the first step of his journey. We have been teaching our kids that Jewish life is about service, serving the family, the Jewish people and everyone.”

This story is a powerful reminder of what small acts of kindness can mean — embracing the stranger, offering hospitality to those in need, saying a supporting word to someone who appears a little down, letting our homes and places of worship be opened wide to all who enter.

As darkness falls — magic rises

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solar eclipse

Solar eclipse glasses…a full section devoted to the eclipse in the Sunday New York Times…radio broadcasts explaining the phenomenon and advising about safety practices…cross-country voyages and vacation packages to experience the eclipse.  Excitement is building in anticipation of the first total solar eclipse in a century to be visible in the United States on August 21st.  Before we knew what they were and how to predict them solar eclipses used to inspire fear.  We now know that a total solar eclipse occurs twice a year somewhere on the globe – but it’s been nearly a century since the last one was visible from the continental United States.  That means that next Monday when the moon covers the sun in the sky that a whole new generation will experience a celestial wonder unlike anything else.

I’ve been reading up about solar eclipses and I’ve learned some amazing facts. The temperature will decrease by as much as 15 degrees. Apparently, many animals appear baffled when an eclipse occurs. People have reported restless deer, screeching scattering birds and bees retreating to their hives. By some accounts, people experience strange inexplicable sensations. The whole show will last about 2 hours, from the time the moon first begins to “cover” the sun until the sun is finally whole again.

There are eclipse chasers (much like storm chasers) that venture great distances and go to extreme lengths to witness the magical experience. As a matter of fact, some of my very close friends have embarked on a cross-country trek in their R.V. with their grandchildren to view the eclipse from the Grand Tetons, where the sun will be 100% eclipsed.

Light plays an important role in many religions. In the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, God’s first words are “let there be light.” According to the text, the sun, moon and stars are created on the fourth day.  Light (in Hebrew or) and the planets, the sun, moon and stars are frequently highlighted in Jewish prayer. The siddur (Jewish prayer book) exclaims “with mercy You give light to the world”– “You created the sun and sent forth its rays, reflecting Your splendor”– “the stars are radiant with Your light”– “God fashioned the moon and set its cycles”– “the galaxies of heaven sing praises to God.”

One of my favorite evening prayers praises God for arranging the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan. God is proclaimed Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light. Perhaps the writer witnessed an eclipse!

Because the wonders of nature resonate so deeply with me, I always look for opportunities to pronounce a special blessing to acknowledge a beautiful sunset, a shooting star, a rainbow, or even an eclipse. Here are two suggested blessings for the solar eclipse:

 Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam she-kocho u-g’vurato ma-lay olam. (Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe whose power and might fill the whole world). The second blessing is: Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam oseh ma’aseh v-raysheet. (Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Source of Creation)

 I hope that wherever you find yourself on August 21st, you will savor and sanctify this once-in-a-century event.

I recently had a chance encounter with a retired professor of theoretical physics. When I expressed my excitement about the eclipse he surprised me with his response.  He maintained that an eclipse is just an accident of nature with no particular meaning, and nothing to get too excited about. I fervently disagree.  For me, the eclipse and every other wonder of nature is a “wow” moment. I can’t wait to experience it and when that first sliver of light emerges from the darkness it will for me affirm that even the tiniest spark of light can transform darkness. I will be heartened by the awareness that millions of Americans as well as visitors from around the world will unite in experiencing this singular cosmic spectacle. Our common humanity will be evident.   May awareness of this shared phenomenon turn our hearts to one another and cause us to redouble our efforts to bring more light to the world.

Sock Exchange

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A story in thissocks weekend’s New York Times caught my eye.  On May 4 Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada.  This summit meeting coincided with International Star Wars Day—a.k.a.#MayTheFourthBeWithYou, a.k.a. the day that thousands of Star Wars fans around the world indulge their inner fan-geek, dress up like Jedis and greet everyone in sight with the classic line from the film “May the Force be with you.” For that high level meeting Mr. Trudeau chose to wear two mismatched Star Wars socks — one in blue and gray with R2D2 and the other in gold and black depicting C3PO.  Set against Trudeau’s dark suit, white shirt and red tie, the socks were impossible to miss in the photo accompanying the New York Times article.  The article further explicated that Trudeau forthrightly acknowledged that he intentionally donned these socks to signal his membership as an unabashed pop culture fans. Furthermore, Trudeau posted a picture of his socks on his Twitter account with the words “These are the socks you are looking for,” yet another Star Wars allusion. The socks serve to reinforce Mr. Trudeau’s image as a new-generation world leader, one who identifies with and understands the concerns of much of his constituency. There’s nothing like bonding over a mass-movie phenomenon to convince a swath of voters that you share their value system.

For years male politicians have used their ties to indicate their allegiances, but this is the first time that I can remember socks coming into play as a signal item of haberdashery.  A few years ago I moved away from wearing my usual black or brown socks and began to wear very colorful ones adorned with all kinds of designs – even rainbows and guitars.  During my years as a congregational rabbi my socks were often exposed when I sat on the Sanctuary bimah and crossed my legs.  After nearly every service I would receive multiple compliments – less often about my sermons than about my socks.  I cannot count the times congregants of all ages would approach and say “I really like your socks.”  Nowadays, in my work as a hospice music therapist I continue to receive compliments from patients, family members and hospice staff who tell me that my socks cheer them up.  To be honest, I began to wear the colorful patterned socks because they made me happy.  I never realized that this simple act of whimsy would put a smile on someone else’s face, raise their spirits, and serve as a point of connection to them.  Now I know.

Coincidentally, I just learned of a very relevant holiday that is rapidly approaching.  Apparently, there are 1500 nationally designated days of commemoration in the U.S.   The average American is probably unaware of most of them.  May 9th is National Lost Sock Memorial Day.  It has been designated as the date to bid farewell to all of the single socks whose mates have been lost over the past year.  It is a response to the eternal mystery:  Where do all the missing socks go? Is there a washing machine heaven?

According to the official description, the appropriate commemoration of the day includes cleaning one’s drawers of all single socks and moving on.  Other recommended ceremonial commemorations include making sock puppets from the single socks, recycling them as dust rags or golf club protectors, or using them to store game board pieces.  The day’s official hashtag is #LostSockMemorialDay.

The appearance of the New York Times article about Prime Minister Trudeau’s unmatched socks practice has got me thinking, though.  Maybe I should hang onto those single socks.  I know that I will definitely continue to wear colorful patterned socks, but I’m not yet sure whether I will follow Prime Minister Trudeau’s sartorial trend and wear two unmatched socks. Maybe, I’ll take a chance and see what kind of reaction I get.

In any case, I will never underestimate the message of my socks!

Take me out to the ballgame…

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TEam Israel in kippotThose who know me know that I have always been a big baseball fan. This past year has been very special for me – the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 AND Israel entered into the World Baseball Classic.  A Team Israel baseball team?  It’s a gross understatement to say that baseball is not a big deal in Israel.  In a nation of around 8 million inhabitants, only about 1000 play baseball – even as recreation.   And baseball is clearly not part of the national culture.  I remember the time when I took a group of Israeli staff members at my Jewish summer camp to a professional baseball game.  They were ready to leave after the first inning, declaring the game too slow and boring and the intricacies that I tried to explain much too difficult and convoluted to understand.

There is only one full size baseball field in all of Israel, built by American Baptists in the early 2000’s. Several other smaller fields are said to be in the works. There has never been an Israeli-born major leaguer. A recent article in The Jewish Week newspaper described Israel’s early success in the World Baseball Classic Tournament as the quintessential Cinderella story. Team Israel defied heavy odds by winnings its first four games with a ragtag gang of mostly has-beens and minor leaguers.  Following their saga as it unfolded and as Israel advanced to being only one game away from the semi-finals in Los Angeles, I thought that perhaps this would be a new miracle story.  But alas, they lost to a very good Japanese team and their short season was over. Nevertheless, they represented themselves and the State of Israel with pride, even though, ironically, there was only one native Israeli on the team (who happens to live in Brooklyn).

The Jewish Week proposed that aside from providing much needed relief from the nerve-racking news of the day, Team Israel’s success offers up a vital message that transcends the boundaries of a baseball diamond. For almost an entire week this underdog team was the darling of the sports world.  Notably, its mascot is a five foot tall Mensch on the Bench, the popular toy modeled after the Elf on the Shelf. Baseball has plenty of actual menches on benches—including the great Sandy Koufax and the power-hitting Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, to mention just two.  The fact that Jews from so many strands of Jewish heritage made up Team Israel denotes far more about the miracle of how modern-day Zionism can unite the Jewish people than about merely fielding a baseball squad. And selecting Mensch on the Bench as the team’s mascot is a powerful reminder that ethics is at Judaism’s core, and that how you play the game (not just winning) is what counts in the game of baseball and the game of life.

What really touched me was seeing that when the Israeli team stood at attention for their national anthem (Hatikvah) before each game, they respectfully took off their baseball caps and donned yarmulkes. And on the eve of Purim, before taking to the field, they read the megillah (the scroll of Esther) in the dugout– another story of unimaginable triumph and Jewish pride.  Even though there is only one actual Israeli on the team, and even though the players are not necessarily observant, the one thing that they all share is their Jewish identity, pride and unity.

I would like to imagine that if Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary were alive today, he might send me a note after reading this blog. After all, he was the one who said that for a Rabbi to be successful in America, s/he must be able to talk baseball!