Passover and the wilderness

I hope you had wonderful Passover seders and, for those who celebrate Easter, a terrific Easter as well. Passover is my favourite holiday of the year. I love the ritual, the storytelling, and the focus on children. I have young children and it has been beautiful to watch them begin to engage with some of the traditions that I remember as a child. In particular, this year my daughter sang the whole of the four questions in Hebrew. She took learning and practicing really seriously, and she really shone at the seder. She also was an expert negotiator when it came to returning the afikomen in exchange for a present. I can remember being her age and doing these same things. That sense of continuity is meaningful.

There is also a sense of change that is meaningful. Each year we tell the story of the exodus, but each year we do it differently. There is a tension between tradition and change that all Jews, but particularly Humanistic Jews, wrestle with. When I grew up, we told the story as though it were literal. Now we tell it as myth. When I was a child, we spoke about the “four sons” uncritically, including the “wicked” and the “simple” child. Today, we speak about how the metaphor of the “four children” tells us that we need all kinds of people in the world, and that sometimes what someone perceives as “wicked” is really someone who is critically-minded. And on our “night of questions,” we encourage questioning. We want to instil that sense of inquiry.

For adults, the seder reminds us to check in with ourselves. The meaning of Passover does not end at the seder. Rather, the seder is a call to ensure we are doing our utmost to enjoy the freedoms we have, fight for the freedoms still needed in the world for ourselves and others, and to ensure that our freedom does not impinge on that of others. How do we reach our own “promised land?” A better world…

The above quotation by Michael Walzer has been meaningful to me for years. This year just before Pesach I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, which is about having the courage to be an outlier, to speak one’s truth even when it is unpopular. The book reminds me of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, who spoke of leading “lives of courage.” Sometimes it is hard to foster change when the pull of tradition is there. Humanistic Jews give tradition a vote but not a veto. We do not practice traditions that conflict with our contemporary values. We value tradition, but we do not value it above everything else. Sometimes at our family seders, or at other times of the year, we need to brave that wilderness.

Walzer and Brown both speak of togetherness. In order to brave the wilderness we need to find “our people.” Sometimes this is our family. Sometimes it is chosen family — friends who feel like family. Sometimes it is community. A Jewish congregation, like the Oraynu congregation where I serve, is often the place where we brave the wilderness together.

Passover is eight days of changing our usual habits to make space for thinking of what kind of freedom is possible in our lives and our world. I look forward to walking the wilderness with you.

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Goals/resolutions check-in

If you were reading my blog or receiving this email blast in January, I wrote a piece about New Year’s resolutions. I understand that the Jewish new year is Rosh Hashanah. I also understand that if you live in North America, you also experience January as a new year. In my own life, I actually find I mark three periods of transition in a year: September with Rosh Hashanah and the start of the school calendar, January as a new start (especially after the vacation time and slipping of good habits that December inevitably brings), and spring time as a time of rejuvenation and renewed energy. We are inching towards spring and a couple of months have gone by since the resolutions post, so I wanted to check in. How are you doing with your goals? If you didn’t set goals maybe now is a good time. They don’t have to be the usual ones: weight loss, finances, general organization and management. Maybe they are fun goals: try surfing, eat a whole cake, spend a day doing only things you wish to do. Or maybe they are more meaningful. I suggested a way of looking at the year in terms of monthly themes to focus on:

January – tzedakah (charity/justice)

February – chesed (loving kindness)

March – hochma (wisdom)

April – yetzira (creativity)

May – rachamim (compassion)

June – sameach (joy)

July – seder (organization and order)

August – Tiferet (balance)

September – rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October – achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December – ahava (love)

I love the way these Jewish values can lend meaning and structure to my life.

I am a real believer in goal setting. As a humanist, I feel strongly that if I want something to be different in my life, it is me who has to make it different. I don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. I believe in the efficacy of hard work with clarity about my own intentions.

One of my personal goals this year was to learn more about how to achieve goals (does this make me sound like I’m boring at parties?). I have been reading interesting books, learning about things I know nothing about (like sales, like building websites, like habit formation techniques). I decided 2018 would be a year of big goals for me, and to make them happen, I had to learn more about, well, how to make them happen.

If you do have goals that are meaningful to you, whether they are immediate or long-term, check in with yourself right now. Are you on track? If not, what could you be doing to get on track? How is your 2018 going? If you’re having a bad start to the year, what can you do to change it?

Many people I know have found 2018 to be a difficult year so far. There may be good reasons why that is so — from school shootings to serial killers, the news has been bleak. There are also, of course, personal challenges such as sickness and loss that some are dealing with. However, as we ushered out 2017 people were saying things like “good riddance to a terrible year!” Prior to that, 2016 was known as the “worst year ever” due to some very high profile deaths and an election result that was disappointing to say the least. Do you see the trend? 2016 was bad. 2017 was bad. 2018 is bad so far. If this reflects you and your thinking then I want something more for you. We can’t control the messiness of the world. But we can control the small corner of our own lives and our own small sphere of influence. What can you do to make this year a great one for you and for the people around you? Let’s stop wishing time away until an imagined future when things will be better. They will never be better! Or, more accurately, they will never be perfect. To a large extend the future is shaped by what we do today.

Purim Jews and Passover Jews

We are now in the period between Purim and Passover. On Purim the tradition is to drink until one confuses Haman with Mordecai. We remember the peril of the Jews, and our oppressors. We say the name Haman and/as we blot it out with noise. We remember in order to forget. We get to go on living, but always with that noise in the background reminding us we are not quite safe. In the bible, we are told to remember the name Amalek, another would-be Jew-killer. What does this constant remembering do to us?

On Passover the sentiment is quite different. We recall the metaphorical journey out of Egypt. And the bible tells us to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. One act of remembering, the Purim-style act, is about our own self-protection. And one act, the Passover-style, is about using our experience to foster empathy over others.

You’ll hear people talk about “Purim Jews” and “Passover Jews” citing this difference. Does Jewish history make you more likely to feel insular, craving a Jewish community that will provide you with a sense of safety and the comfort that comes from being with those like oneself? Or are you a “Passover Jew,” using Jewish experience to foster connections with others who have been slaves, exiles, imperilled?

Of course, the dichotomy is false. The nice thing about these holidays being close to one another is that they remind us that it is natural and reasonable to be both interested in self-protection and also interested in the well-being of all humanity. Striking a balance here is important for obvious reasons. We should not be self-interested to the point of cruelty to others. We should not be so giving to others that we victimize ourselves. You know the Hillel quote (if not, look up “Hillel quote” and you’ll find it).

I was born in South Africa and when I was young I remember being so puzzled by Jewish South Africans who had been happy to be part of apartheid’s despicable treatment of Black people. Did they not know better after the persecution of their own people? I worry about these types of Jews, the “Purim Jews,” and what they do to us as a community. Not only do they perpetrate terrible crimes and injustices in the name of Judaism and Jewish survival, but they also lessen and weaken the Jewish experience by framing what it means to be Jewish in apocalyptic terms.

Think about it: do young people feel drawn to be Jewish when it is framed as a responsibility and terrible obligation? Or do we excite people about being Jewish when it is framed more as a joyful and beautiful experience?

What in our own humanity gets reduced when we feel we cannot be generous to others because we are constantly in self-preservation mode? And what of those others? Are they not deserving of the care that we crave?

If you’re Canadian you likely know of the recent miscarriages of justice in the deaths of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine, two Indigenous youths who, in two separate stories, were killed. They were also failed utterly by our Canadian institutions, including the legal system. I haven’t spoken or written about this yet because I couldn’t do so without oscillating between tears and blinding rage. But I can’t stay silent about this. We need to change things in Canada to foster meaningful reconciliation. Our systems of education, the law, child protective services, aren’t working. The Jewish community has been painfully silent about these cases and, with some exceptions, Indigenous issues more broadly. I see it as a Jewish imperative to do something about this. We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are settlers on this land. We need to start loving our neighbours. I have written letters to my MP in support of legal reform and donated to funds to support Indigenous youth. It is not enough but it is something. If this issue doesn’t move you then focus your energy where you feel it is important. But if you are similarly outraged, I really encourage you to use your voice at this time. We can’t afford to be “Purim Jews” now, there is too much at stake.

Passover is on its way, with its themes of rebirth and resistance. Passover is my favourite Jewish holiday of the year. I love the ritual. I love the creativity with which people infuse their seders. I love matzah pizza. Mostly what I love is the metaphor of this Jewish story that has been the cornerstone of Jewish identity and experience for generations. We were in bondage, now we are free. With that freedom comes the obligation to help others achieve freedom.

Unplugging

My last blog was about multitasking and mindfulness and this week I want to write about “unplugging.” Last year I spent 5 days at a resort with two girlfriends. It was hard to get wifi at the resort – there was just one area that had it and it was crowded and uncomfortable. I decided that I was spending 5 days free of my phone. I told my partner that if there was an emergency to call the resort directly and that I was offline. It took me a full day to lose the feeling that I was missing something by not carrying my phone around. Whenever there was a lull in activity (my friend had to get up to use the facilities after our third margarita, say), I found myself reaching for the phone to check messages as I usually do. But no phone was there! I was alone with my thoughts. Sometimes that can be scary, but sometimes it can be freeing. I was left to contemplate, to daydream, and to simply shut off my thinking mind. Life used to be like this all the time. When riding the bus, or finding oneself alone, it was common to just… be. But now we are used to constant distraction or tasks. And I’m not even getting to the part about always feeling like we have to be available and accountable to our jobs or our families — even on vacation.

I’m working on finding freedom from my phone and unplugging more often. I set a deadline for when the phone goes off at the end of the day. It no longer gets to sleep with me in my bedroom. It does not join me during meals or times when I’m with someone in person. My phone and I are consciously uncoupling (if you don’t know what this refers to you can easily look it up… on your phone?).

The Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, is a weekly reminder to unplug. It can be unplugging from work, from stress, from the demands we face during the week. And it can also be an invitation to be free from technology for a while. Most of the Jews I serve are not strict about following Jewish law concerning using electricity or driving on Shabbat. But have you ever tried it? It makes the imperative to rest impossible to avoid. It also makes us get outside and walk, talk to the people around us, connect. Unplug to connect — imagine that.

On the Shabbat of March 9-10, sundown to sundown, it is the Day of Unplugging. Reboot, a great organization, challenges all of us to commit to being free of our phones / computers for the full 24 hours. I am doing it and I hope you will join me! This is a photo of the yurt I’ll be in that day:

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But you don’t have to be in a yurt in the middle of the woods to unplug. If you wish to join the Day of Unplugging, I encourage you to sign up with Reboot’s page and check out their resources like conversation starters with family about technology use: https://www.nationaldayofunplugging.com

They’ve also sent me some nifty “cellphone sleeping bags” to store your phone in for the day. The first ten of you to write me at rabbidenise@oraynu.organd tell me you’re Unplugging will get one in the mail!

Happy unplugging!

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Multitasking and mindfulness

Here’s a quick exercise: look around the room you’re in, wherever you are, and notice everything that is red. Study the red. Memorize the red. Now quickly without thinking close your eyes and recall everything that is yellow. I’ve both done that exercise and led students in doing it this week. It is eye opening what escapes our notice when we are focused on something else.

I have been thinking about issues of focus and lack of focus lately in my own life and work. Like many of you, I am someone with lots to keep me occupied, lots to focus on, in each day. I sometimes catch myself sending that “quick email” while one of my kids is asking for my attention. Or tempted to check that text while driving (I don’t do it). Or watching a television show I have chosen to watch, but finding my mind wandering and reflecting on the congregational program we just had or is coming up. And, like many of you, I think of myself as pretty good at multitasking. I juggle two big jobs (one as rabbi/officiant and one as professor at Trent University) and two little kids (they are four and two years old this April). I also am also a spouse, a friend, a doula, a Wen-Do Women’s Self-Defence instructor and board member, a creative writer, a researcher, and an avid health/workout nut as of late. I also have do to things like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, driving, caretaking, etc. Also I really like to keep up to date on certain Netflix shows. There is a lot going on and sometimes I need to multitask in order to fit it all in.

And yet lately I have been feeling the cost of all that juggling and multitasking. I’ve seen compelling research that when we think we are multitasking well, we often are not as effective at any of the tasks as we think we are and as we would be if we separated them. That is, we think we are seeing all the colours but we are really only seeing red. I have started to experiment with what will happen if I slow down and do one thing at a time. I’ve started chunking my time into blocks: parenting, Oraynu work, Trent work, side hustle projects, television unwinding, cooking and eating, tasks I tend to avoid, etc. To know how long a chunk is I sometimes use a timer, or I sometimes use my own sense of when something is completed or is good enough for now, or I sometimes use external factors like my kids getting home from daycare. What have I found? I’m generally more productive and a whole lot happier when I focus in on something and try to block out everything else. In short, I’m trying to see only red for a while, and then switching my focus to yellow so that I can eventually see the whole spectrum.

For productivity purposes, this is a good thing. But perhaps for purposes of perspective, the red/yellow exercise has a different set of meanings. We all go through life with a particular set of values and beliefs. For many of us connected to Oraynu, those encompass (but this is neither a prescriptive nor an exhaustive list): belief in the power of humans doing good, belief in community, connectedness to Jewish peoplehood, trust in rationality and science. Our beliefs, values, and experiences inform our perspective, our lens through which we view the world. Many of us know of phenomena like confirmation bias; we seek out articles or research that confirms that which we believe. Or the “bubble” we surround ourselves with; people who are like us and think like us. This only bolsters and strengthens our perspective. This is natural to a degree (we all do it). But the red/yellow exercise reminds us that as we view the world through one lens, we are not seeing certain things. That is, whatever it is we choose to focus on, we are missing something else.

Ironically, me focusing in on one task at a time has left me feeling freer and more open to see the world in new ways. I’ve used the tools of focus to broaden my focus. I’ve challenged myself this past month (new year and all) to read books from perspectives I usually don’t consider or follow. I’ve asked students of mine who I know disagree with my politics to be brave and debate with me and other students and model what respectful engagement and debate can look like. I’ve just tried to see more yellow around me. Maybe even some blue and orange every now and then.

So here’s a challenge for you: try to focus on one thing you tend to ignore or miss — whether it’s an idea, an experience, a feeling, even a person, and try to focus on them for a while this week. See if that makes you open up to something new. And in the weeks to come we’ll be talking more about focus. Using the messaging behind Shabbat, the day of rest, to unplug, be mindful, be grateful, and more.

Tu B’shevat: the New Year of the Trees

A few years ago, I was hosting a Tu B’shvat seder for Jewish youth in their 20s and 30s. The Idle No More movement had begun and was demanding better rights for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. I was thinking about what I know of traditional Indigenous knowledge, that nature is supreme, that the number four is special (there are four seasons, colours, directions, elements) and creates the medicine wheel, and that communities are formed around the land. All of these, including the number four, are central to the holiday of Tu B’shvat, the birthday of the trees. I decided to bring together Jewish and Indigenous teachings and create a Tu B’shvat seder that was intercultural and spoke of our associations with the land traditionally as Jews, and more contemporarily as Canadians.

The next year we broadened this seder, inviting an Indigenous teacher named Kim Wheatley to co-lead and to bring in songs and other elements (such as cedar tea, maple syrup) into the seder where we were tasting the traditional fruits and nuts of the holiday. We partnered with Ve’ahavta, an organization devoted to social justice. And we filled our little space at the Borochov Centre with 80 people!

Last year we held the event with yet more partners. We joined with the Miles Nadal JCC and Shoresh, the Jewish environmental agency. Over 100 people came. We also added an element of activism, signing a petition to clean up Grassy Narrows which has suffered the effects of mercury poisoning due to industry and has been ignored by governments.

This is my favourite event of the whole year. It is soulful, meaningful, and beautiful. The seder touches on every sense: we notice the colour of wine/grape juice, we smell, feel and taste the fruits, we hear beautiful music and Indigenous drumming. We are hosting this event once more and I really hope you’ll be there to experience it. The themes of social justice and caring for the earth, the intercultural connections, and the partnerships all coalesce to make this a program that exemplifies what Oraynu is all about. See you there!

Happy 2018! It’s not too late to set some resolutions…

We celebrated Rosh Hashanah back in September, but most of us also mark this time of year. Given that we have two “New Years” (more even, there are actually four in the Jewish calendar, the next being Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the trees), it’s useful to pause and reflect. Did you commit yourself to any goals at Rosh Hashanah that need attention now? How have the last few months been? And what are you seeking in the months ahead?

Some of you might be setting resolutions. Others might shrug the tradition off. There are other ways I’ve been exploring this year. Check out the work of http://www.susannahconway.com/ who has a New Year’s workbook or, if that’s too much to take on, a little challenge to find one word that will be your anchor this year. Words she suggests might work for you are: presence, mindfulness, hope, peace, rest, joy, laughter, strength. Is there a word that you hope will be thematic for you in 2018?

You might be more interested in asking yourself some questions for reflection. These ones are useful: https://nosidebar.com/intentionally/

As Jews, it might be interesting to consider whether our worldview, our goals/resolutions, and our way of being in the world is inflected and informed by Jewish values and experience.

Do you have any resolutions centred around Judaism for this year? Here are some ideas:

-Learn something new about Judaism

-Research a historical period/place and how Jews lived. For example, what was life like for Jews living in the Ottoman Empire? Or Jews in China?

-Start a new Jewish practice: light Shabbat candles each week, start doing Havdallah on a monthly basis (there are Humanistic ways to do these rituals), celebrate a holiday you’ve never celebrated before with your family

-Attend a, or attend more often a, Jewish-themed film, speaker, book talk, etc

-Do some text study online or in a group. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, even Kabbalah…

Sometimes a year is too daunting to consider. Perhaps we can commit to one Jewish value/idea to inspire us and work on per month. Here’s an example (you can sub in your own Jewish values if you wish):

January – tzedakah (charity/justice)

February – chesed (loving kindness)

March – hochma (wisdom)

April – yetzira (creativity)

May – rachamim (compassion)

June – sameach (joy)

July – seder (organization and order)

August – Tiferet (balance)

September – rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October – achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December – ahava (love)

If you’d like to ask me about Jewish sources or insights into any of these concepts, please drop me a line! I’d love to chat.

The new year ahead is like freshly fallen snow (of which we’ve had plenty!): somehow pure, a little bit like a blank canvas, something inviting us to muck it up and make our tracks all through it. No one’s year will be perfect or pristine. But I hope all of us experience adventure and laughter, joy and peace, health and happiness.

Happy 2018! Let’s make this a great year, together.