A Very Narrow Bridge

The world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. ~Nachman of Breslov

Category: Community


Here’s something I’ve been thinking about: The people I love are pretty much normal.

Yeah. I know.

Anyone who’s ever heard me talk about someone I love—not least of all my kid—is reading this with a certain amount of skepticism. The amount of skepticism that usually involves saying something like “bullshit.” But it’s true.

They are my normal. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is that warm, or that compassionate, or that funny. That not everyone has that kind of presence, or depth of insight. That not everyone laughs that way, or smiles that way, is that talented. So when I meet someone and mention that I’m my sister’s brother, or my brother’s brother, or my friend’s friend, or my son’s dad and that person lights up (and this happens a fair amount), I am delighted. But I’m also a little confused. Because those people whom I love are also just normal.

They are just people like everyone else. They are moving through this life just like everyone else. Subject to the same emotional spectrum as everyone else. Just as crazy, fussy, annoying, angry, stubborn, distant, full of bad habits and self-defeating behaviors as everyone else. As me. And I love them. And I think they love me too. We share that love. Not despite the fact that we are normal. We share that love because of the fact that we are normal.

Love is a normal part of being human. It’s there for the taking. Because we are human. It’s there for us. Love. And I know. There are some people who don’t feel loved. And there are people who are abused by the people who they want to love them. And human beings do detestable things to each other.

But I think the horrendous things human beings do to each other, to animals, to the planet, are not arguments against love being a normal part of being human. I think they are arguments in its favor. Those acts, those hate-filled acts, come from fear. From distortions and complete misunderstanding of the nature of love. And none of us is immune to that kind of misunderstanding. It happens in degrees; thank God not all of us are damaged enough to act out on that misunderstanding in violent, hideous ways, but sometimes we just don’t get it.

Being human is hard.

I just re-read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, one of my favorite books. Here’s what the main character says about love:

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence? (238)

I love that quote. This has been a really shitty year. A lonely year. Sometimes a violent year. It’s sucked so far. But those three sentences remind me, again and again, that I don’t get to control things. I don’t get to choose how people love me, and I don’t have to subject myself to other’s demands on how I love them. I get to be who I am and accept the love that’s there for me. And I get to send some love to myself. Because I’m human. And that’s hard.

But there’s a way to do it. It’s not easy, but there’s a way. I have to remember that we are all just people. Just normal people. The people I love and the people I don’t. And me. And you. We are all just moving through this life.

Gilead takes the form of a very long letter written by John Ames, a 76-year-old Congregationalist Minister to his son, who is not yet seven. He married late in life, and his love for his wife and son is the slow, deeply burning love that comes with age and comfort. Though, when he first meets his wife his love is the awkward, embarrassing, self-doubting love that shows up at the beginning of things—he writes sermons hoping to impress her and then feels foolish when he delivers them looking at her. He takes his hat off in her presence and then feels stupid for having done it.

Here’s how he describes how he feels:

I can tell you this, that if I had married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which would not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor he has hidden from the world – your mother excepted of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face. (237)

He loves them so much that, had he never met them, he would still love them. He would still love them because he understands that the love he has for them is a reflection of Love. “An embracing, incomprehensible reality.” And he loves them simply because they are who they are.

I get that. That’s how I love my son. For his ordinariness. Not because he’s smart or funny, or because he is a fantastic baseball player. Not even because he moves through the world with a startling ability to accept Love. Without naming it, without demanding it, and without being ignorant of the fact that being human is hard.

I know. I can see your skeptical face. And I can hear you laughing and saying “bullshit.”

But it’s true.

The Shape of Silence

I am drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book.

It’s silent.

It’s early in the morning and it’s quiet—my favorite time of day.  But what I’m experiencing is silence, not quiet. It’s the silence I only feel when my son is waiting for me to wake him up. A defining silence. A silence with a shape.

Once I was in a yoga class and we were chanting with the teacher. It was a small class, but it was a small room and it was crowded. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t hear the people next to me.

I couldn’t hear their voices.

It’s hard to pick out a single voice in a room with a lot of people chanting together.  I tried listening to the person next to me.


Then I noticed the silence around her voice.

Not her voice. The silence. And I got it. We were chanting because of that silence. That silence in between our voices. The silence that connects us.

Our voices move into that silence and the silence makes room for them. It doesn’t resist. It can’t because without our voices in that room the silence couldn’t exist. And without the silence we would never hear our voices. They would be mixed together. Competing.

We need that silence because silence creates humility. I could hear because of the silence around me. If I had only been listening  to the sound of my own voice, I would have missed the beauty of other voices and I would have been worse off for it.

This week we read Parshat Hukkat (Bamidbar [Numbers]: 19:1-22:1). The Israelites are in the desert and there is no water. Miriam has died and her well, which had provided water until that point, has disappeared. God tells Moshe and Aharon to assemble the people and speak to a rock in their presence and it will provide water for them to drink. It doesn’t work out that way. The story goes that Moshe hits the rock with his staff and, because of this, he’s not allowed to enter the promised land. Because he hit it instead of speaking to it.

Actually, he does speak. Just not to the rock.

… וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם…
He said to them, “Now listen, rebels, can we get you water from this rock?” (20:10)

Then he hits the rock.

I’m not sure it’s the hitting that’s the real problem. I think it’s the speaking to the people, rather than the rock. To me it sounds like he’s speaking to hear the sound of his own voice. He’s not speaking to the silence of the rock or, even more to the point, to the silence of the water. He’s talking to the people. To the rebels. He’s talking in opposition. About how great he is.

He should have spoken to the water. The water would have given him more shape than just talking did.

Water is yielding, it makes room for us. It moves out of the way to accommodate our shape, the same way silence gives our voice its shape.

It’s time to wake my son, so I open the door to his room. He’s awake. Reading a book. And the silence between us is a connection. It gives shape to our relationship: A son-shaped silence and a father-shaped silence.

Home is The Present

My friends are getting new furniture. And painting. And rearranging. They are spending a lot of time with paint chips, and catalogues, and at furniture stores.

And they are so happy with this project. And so excited to see how it will turn out. And, honestly, it’s amazing to watch. They are making their home reflect who they are. Who they have become over the years.

But there’s more. There’s a lot more at work. They are creating a space that will remind them of who they are. The colors they are choosing aren’t just pleasant to look at.

They are more.

Those colors are manifestations of who they are. And who their children are. And who they all are together, as a family. Even as their kids are getting older.

As they are painting and rearranging, they are noticing that things they’ve owned for years fit perfectly into the new places. That they match the new colors of the walls as if they’d gotten them with this house, this color, this corner in mind.

The hooks they are choosing to put up near their front door are more than a convenient place to hang coats. They are a welcome to those of us who visit. Their house is becoming a place to live their values, more and more.

So of course it makes them happy to do this work. And of course it makes me happy when my friend shows me ideas in catalogues and then waves her arm across the room to explain where a chair or a sofa might go. It is important work. Work filled with joy.

This week we read Ki Tissa (Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-34:35). It spends a lot of time on a shopping list. A shopping list of items to build the Mishkan. The dwelling place.

The Hebrew word: משכן‎, has the same root as one of the God’s Names: שכינה‎ (Shekhina), which is how we refer to the Divine Presence. The Immanent God. It’s sort of the noun form of the idea of Being Present.

The Mishkan was temporary; it was taken down and set back up as the Israelites moved through the wilderness. It was a Place for the Present. No one was pretending it was permanent.

Then, a little way in–past the first part of the shopping list (Can you please pick up a copper basin for the priests to wash their hands in? Oh…right…also and myrrh—500 weight should be enough. And cinnamon…should I write this down for you?), we meet Bezalel.

.רְאֵה, קָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה
.וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָל-מְלָאכָה
…לַחְשֹׁב, מַחֲשָׁבֹת
See, I have called Bezalel…by name, and I have filled him with the Divine Spirit, wisdom, understanding, and the deepest knowledge of every craft…to design designs (to think thoughts)

Bezalel is chosen to be the master craftsman, the designer, of the Mishkan, the home for the Presence. 

For a guy with no lines, Bezalel has a lot to do. And that name. Bezalel means “In the Shadow of God”

But Bezalel has within him some pretty remarkable gifts. The Divine Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. The Deepest Knowledge. And, with these, he can design designs. Think thoughts.

He’s been called by name. He’s been given these amazing gifts. And all he has to do to make it happen is be himself. Be true to himself. Be present. He’s creating a home for that Presence. One that will be more than the copper, gold, silver, wood, cloth, spices, water, and fire that are going into it. They are lovely, these elements, but there’s so much more going on here.

So much more.

Because all these items, all these designs, and plans, and choice…all this work is about creating space for the Presence. One that’s a manifestation of the Divine within him and that can only happen with all that work. That work to build something that manifests that Divine within all of us.

Spirit. Wisdom. Understanding. Deepest Knowledge. We all have them. It’s just that sometimes they are in the shadows.

My friends are busy at their work. Similar work. Maybe even the same work. Building their own space for the Shekhina. For the Present. And all they have to do is be themselves.

And they are having so much fun.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

Benno: Ha, ha. You’re a spiritual teacher whether you own up to it or not. Ha, ha!

Harry: Am not!

Benno: You are this thing you are. And I, personally, really don’t care what you call that. Colleague, friend, advisor, teacher…don’t care. I just like that we have the conversations that we have.

Yes. My friends are really like that…some of them are even worse.

It’s easy to repeat the question “Who do you think you are?” to yourself. It’s easy for me to repeat it to myself, anyway.

But am I the best judge of that? I’m not sure. I think maybe not always.

I have all sorts of ideas of who and what I am built up. Some of them are right and some of them are very wrong. Sometimes I am able to just be who I am, unapologetically. Sometimes I get myself tied up in Gordian knots and I have no idea how to cut through them. So I try to be something else. Try to present people with what I think they might want me to be.

But that doesn’t work. When I try to prove how mindful, smart, thoughtful…whatever else…I am, I just end up asking myself again: “Who do you think you are?”

And the more I choose—or avoid—titles for myself, the worse it gets. Sometimes to the point of absurdity:

“You call yourself Shabbat-observant, but you just turned the light out in the bathroom?”  or “You call yourself a yogi but you leaned on the horn and called the guy in the Escalade an asshole to yourself for driving like that?” or even “You call yourself a loving father and yet you would buy conventional bananas instead of organic?”

I’m not always completely mindful. Of my spiritual practices, of my temper, of what I eat. You can ask around, people will tell you it’s the truth.

But those same people, some of those same people at any rate, will tell you that I am mindful, smart, thoughtful and a whole bunch of other things. Because, they see me.

Me. Not their conceptions of me. Or my conceptions of myself.  Me.

And they know that I am what I am, and who I am.

Because I opened to them. I just let them see me. Whether it’s upside down in the yoga studio, or at the bagel place, or in the meditation hall, or wherever. I just opened to them.

And it was terrifying.

And that’s hilarious.

The other day I read this:

It is essential to surrender, to open yourself, to present whoever you are to the guru, rather than trying to present yourself as a worthwhile student. It does not matter how much you are willing to pay, how correctly you behave, how clever you are at saying the right thing to your teacher…. Such deception does not apply to an interview with a guru, because he sees right through us. Making ingratiating gestures is not applicable in this situation; in fact it is futile. We must make a real commitment to being open with our teacher; we must be willing to give up all our preconceptions.

—Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (39)

You can substitute any number of titles for “guru”, “teacher”, or “student” and it will still be true.

Those titles don’t matter because we are these things we are and the people to whom we truly open ourselves don’t care what we call ourselves. They will always see us for who we are no matter what. And we will always see them the same way: Honestly, compassionately, and with love.

The trick is that we have to also send some of that love to ourself.



While I Have Your Attention…

My havruta is laughing.

From across the table I want to know what’s so funny.

“This chapter is pretty appropriate—just read it.”

…Arrogant people think that since they have afflicted themselves and practiced self-mortification they they are tzaddikim, but the truth is not so…

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Kitzur Likutey Moharan 10:5

Now I’m laughing too.

Tzaddikim are spiritual masters. Like Rebbe Nachman, for example.

On the face of it, what he’s saying is “Don’t think that a little fasting is going to make you capable of doing my job.” He later writes that it’s wrong not to bring one’s prayers to a true tzadik.

But first he goes into a whole bunch of stuff about how ordinary people carry around a bunch of shame and energetic baggage left over from their conception.

I know.

Okay. I took a couple of liberties with the text based on our conversation while we were studying, but that’s pretty much it. We are flawed and filled with shame, us ordinary people. We need spiritual masters to guide us.

And there’s a not-so-gentle tap on my shoulder and a very clear message:
“While I have your attention, don’t think that just because you know some stuff and study cool texts with your havruta that you’re immune. You are not lacking in shame and self-mortification.” 

But Tzadik is also a name of one of the sephirot. It’s associated with Yesod (foundation), which connects heaven and earth. I think of it as the Jewish Muladhara (Root) chakra, pretty much because it is the Jewish Muladhara.

Anyway, Rebbe Nachman could also be saying that unless we get to the root of things, to the place where the rubber hits the road, we’re going to be stuck with that shame and self-mortification. Stuck in a place where we forget how much we are loved.

And that would suck.

And that’s why I’m laughing.

Because there’s another tap on my shoulder. Quite a firm one, actually. And the very clear message:
“While I have your attention, I’d like to remind you of that casual conversation you had before moving into silence at your retreat. About shame being the worst thing there is. The most destructive thing there is. And remember how the person who told you that sat behind you in the mediation hall and laughed that amazing laugh for the rest of the week? And how it made you laugh? I want to remind you there was a reason for that.”

And I’m laughing because we’d just been talking about all of this. All of it. Before even opening the book.

And that’s funny.

And I’m laughing because these taps on the shoulder are so lacking in subtlety.

And that’s funny.

And I’m laughing because I’m so annoyed at Rebbe Nachman, and my havruta, and the Very Clear Messages because I know what they are all saying. And I know what they expect of me. They want me to open my heart, even if it breaks again. They want me to attach myself to a lost cause. And lose if I lose. And they want me to laugh as I do it.

And that’s really funny.

I’m at a yoga class.

It’s a very hard yoga class.

The teacher keeps saying “I’d love for you…” As in “I’d love for you to feel the relationship between the lower and upper frameworks of you body…”

And, the thing of it is, she really does “love for us.” She moves around the studio proving that. That’s why we come to this class once a month. That’s why we love learning from her. And why we’ve been together in her classes for years. Because she brings such incredible love to her teaching.

And that’s why we suffer through the really hard asanas. And why we brave the really frightening ones—like the one tonight requiring a partner to support us while we drop back from a standing position into a full backbend.

Because of that love.

I allow myself to drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana, which I can do because I trust the person supporting me so much, and because I have my feet solidly rooted to the floor. And, upside down, I look around the studio and see people I truly love, and they are all upside down too.

And I feel a gentle tap on the shoulder. And a very clear message:
“As long as I have your attention, I’d like to remind you that they love you too. Very much.
Oh…and I’m still here.” 

And I’m laughing.

What’s Happened So Far.

I’ve been given an assignment; I need to write a spiritual autobiography.

I’ve decided to share this outline with you .

I probably won’t share the completed one with you. Sorry.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

It all started with the people.

With the visit from The Rabbi to my house when I was three; I fled in stark terror and hid in my room.

Then Sunday school and “God is One” and the bronze doors on the ark in the sanctuary and trips to the choir loft.

With camp and laughter and boats and swims across the lake and Cat Stevens songs around campfires. With my best friend, whose house was filled with Jewish art and whose parents actually sang whole prayers at Shabbat dinner.

And then it moved to the unplanned-for Bar Mitzvah I demanded.

And confirmation, and studying Buber and Heschel with the rabbi and my friends in his office. To college and helping to take the entire Hillel budget and spend it on a colloquium about peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

To disappointment and anger and running very far away. To a gentle tap on my shoulder and the clear message: “I am still here.”

Then to studying Mishna in my professor’s office. To Israel. To the huppah. To sandwiches and beer and text study in Philadelphia. To youth programming in Baltimore. To Israel again. To blessing my son Friday nights before he was born:

 היה אשר תהיה והיה ברוך באשר תהיה
“Be who you will be, and be blessed in who you will be.”

Then to a bris and another blessing:

“Be like your namesake and listen for the קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה. The thin voice of silence. The still, small voice.”

Then heartbreak. And to the beit din.

To a gentle tap on my shoulder and the clear message: “I am still here.”

Then to potluck minyanim in apartments around New York for Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv. And holidays and Hebrew study.

To Washington DC. To traditional synagogues where I didn’t feel quite at home.

To someone telling me: “You know all this yoga and mindfulness and meditation is just going to bring you back to Judaism, right?” To “Yes, but not just now.”

To a gentle tap on the shoulder and the clear message: “I am still here.”

To a Rosh Hashanah potluck. And then my tallit wrapped around me at Kol Nidrei.

To my mother’s funeral. To shacharit every morning. To latkes and shabbat candles and holidays.

To studying with a havruta. To kashrut. To Shabbat. To Rashi. To piyyutim.

And then to this week: Parshat Vayigash (Bereishit [Genesis] 44:18 – 47:27)  and this line. This one simple line.

לֹא-אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי, הָאֱלֹהִים
“It was not you who sent me here, it was God.”

I was mistaken. It wasn’t the people who got me to this week. The people were helping. Just, I really hope, as I have been helping them.

What has gotten us all here? You, me, the people who made everything in this post happen,  the cocker spaniel down the street—all of us?

It’s the thin voice of silence saying:  “I am still here. There is nowhere else but Me.”

Benno U’veini

I was talking to Benno a while ago. Here’s some of what we said:

Benno:  Can we talk about being disciplined?

Harry: Yep.

More highlights:

“We are taught that being disciplined is about doing the things we don’t want to do, and that it’s unpleasant.”

“I am struggling with what I want vs. what I am willing to do about it…and I realized this morning that being disciplined (for me) has more to do with being thoughtful, and less about denying myself something.”

“A Lenten discipline is about being thoughtful. Not about self-denial. We make choices…we agree to those choices. That is discipline.”

“Throughout the year, we take some things on, and give things up. We make choices, mindfully.”

“I am struggling with the ‘agree to those choices’ part.”

“I am in control. I have made my choice–I can be angry at [the situation], or I can just be myself with an open heart. I have agreed to the choice.

I can also say “No” throughout my day/week/month/year. Or to respond to requests with a suggestion for something I feel would serve the project—or whatever—better.”

“I just have to hold myself to my agreements, like walking more, better, or accept that they aren’t working and make a new agreement with [myself]; if walking’s not what [I] need, what could I do instead?”

This week we read Parshat Re’eh (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 11:26 – 16:17).

It begins:

.רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anochi notein lifneichem hayom brachah u’klalah.

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse.”

We have choices. The parsha (Torah portion) continues (and I’m just going to translate and sort of paraphrase it):

A blessing if you will listen [for] the connection to God, which I explain to you today. A curse if you do not listen [for] the connection to God and turn away from the Path which I explain to you today…

We can choose what we want to do. We can listen for those connections, or we can ignore them.

But we need to accept our choices and live with the consequences.

The parsha goes on to give 55 mitzvot, which is kind of a lot. Actually, it’s definitely a lot if you think about them as commandments. When I was taking liberties in my translation, I used the word “connections” for mitzvot. You can see where I learned that here.

55 seems like a lot.


Discipline isn’t about being forced to do things we don’t want to do, or not to do things we really want to do. It’s about mindfully making choices and accepting what will come from them. Blessings…or curses.

It’s really 55 opportunities for mindful connection. To yourself, to the community, to God. That’s the practice.  That’s why I love being Jewish.

I’m incredibly lucky to have my Episcopalian friend to teach me Torah.

Oh, the title for this post is a pun on “Beino u’veini” which means “between him and me.” I didn’t make the pun and I can’t take credit for it.

Eleven Months Part 8: Eleven Months and a Little More.

I am sitting in the synagogue. Again.

My friend Batya is standing at the front of the congregation about to give a short talk. “Here we are, all together.” She says. “Here we are, all together…again.” She’s making a point about Shemini Atzeret, the holiday we are observing, but maybe also a point about the sheer number of holidays we have observed lately. The Jewish month of Tishrei has more holidays than any other; in the past three weeks there have been twelve days worth of holidays. We have been together. A lot. And this particular holiday is solely about being together. Again.

But, while we might be ready to have regular life back, while we are even getting tired of holidays (the next Jewish month, Heshvan, actually has no holidays at all—possibly to give us a break), we are together and I’m glad.

On September 30th I said the last Kaddish in the eleven months of observing this mitzvah for my mother.

It was the day before Sukkot began. For eleven months I went to the synagogue just about every day. I took shelter there. I allowed my heart to heal within its walls. I got back on my feet, feeling its floor beneath me. I moved through seasons. Then it ended. I read a prayer of thanks for the community, received a lot of hugs and it was over. That night, Sukkot began and life moved, at least temporarily, outside.

Sukkahs are flimsy. They are meant to be. The same ceiling that allows us to see the stars lets the rain in and makes the floor soft with mud. The walls have gaps and a strong wind could blow the whole thing over. Overnight, I moved from the solidity of concerete and stone into the uncertainty of canvas walls and bamboo roof.

Except I didn’t.

The same people were there, all through Sukkot. The same people with whom I spent an hour every morning, or an hour on Saturday afternoon praying. The people with whom I shared meals, and who waited patiently while my sense of humor returned. The same people with whom I practice yoga, or drink beer, or watch baseball. The people who taught me to tie knots and pack a frame pack for days of hiking. The person to whom I read and with whom I play catch. The person who used to read to me when I was small. And the person who went with me to a sukkah in the Occupy DC camp in McPherson Square last Sukkot. They are all here with me as I move out into the world again.

So while those who continue to say Kaddish stand to recite it, I sit and I hope I support them–hold them up as much as they held me. Because we are all temporary and so much more fragile than those structures we built for the holiday that just passed. But today we are here. Together for one extra day.

Eleven Months Part 6: How to Pray

I wrote before about attending shacharit (morning services) every day—particularly in the context of mourning. As the year has passed and I’ve returned to the rhythms of Jewish life and blended those rhythms into my larger life, prayer has become more and more part of my consciousness.

I knew about prayer, I thought. I knew the structure of the service and the evolution of the service over the many, many years since Judaism adopted organized prayer as a spiritual practice. I understood the tension between keva (the formal structure and rules surrounding prayer), and kavanah (the intentional or mindful aspects of prayer). Despite that knowledge, or maybe because of that knowledge, I still need to constantly teach myself how to pray. Praying every day has underscored to me how much prayer changes each day, and I think that’s part of why there is a fixed structure. Structures, like yoga asanas or fixed prayers, provide a profound opportunity for reflection and even for creativity.

So I’ve made a list of various ways to pray, depending upon my mood, or my level of energy, or my spiritual needs. I wrote them for myself as a series of intentions to hold as I sing through the service; the “You” in this list is me.

  1. Enter the room.
    Your attendance means something here. Everyone in the room is counting on you. Without you and nine others, no one can pray the complete service. More than that, your presence counts for everyone in the room as well. Be there, be present.
  2. Say hello.
    Acknowledging that you are here with other people is how you begin praying with them.
  3. Imagine you don’t know the words or their meanings.
    You don’t know the nusach. You don’t know anything about this prayer service at all. Let the others sing it to you. Notice how they use their voices, the rising and falling of the music, the changes in tempo and pacing. Be receptive—that awareness is the opposite of passivity.
  4. Imagine you know the words to the prayers, but not their meaning.
    Pay attention to how those words are formed by the shapes you make with your mouth and your breath. This can be a gateway to understanding more about yourself.
  5. Know the words and their meanings.
    Count the number of times certain words come up, or simply note when they do. Try the Hebrew words for: Love, Compassion, Earth, Wisdom, Kindness, Gratitude, Redemption. Choose one each day. Try to take that word with you when you leave.
  6. Sit up straight when you cover your eyes and say Shema: “Listen.”
    Feel the vibration of the word travel down your spine to its base in your tailbone. Listen to your back body. What do you have held there?
  7. Vary your pitch.
    If you lower your voice an octave during the prayer that begins emet (true), when you get to the word yafeh (beautiful), you will feel it through your entire body.
  8. Match pitch.
    If you match pitch with the person sitting next to you, the moment of singing in unison with that person will remind you of the connection you have with that person. You are in this together in a very meaningful way.
  9. Stand
    Feel the floor underneath your feet. Feel the earth beneath the floor supporting you, holding you up.
  10. Open up.
    As you stand to pray the standing prayers, move your shoulder blades toward one another and keep the sides of your body long. Your heart will open and your spine will gently stretch. Remind yourself of the strength of the connection between your mind and body. There is no difference between them, really.

I use this list a fair amount. Some mornings I wake up excited to see where some of these practices bring me and I find that I leave the synagogue feeling the same way I do when I leave my favorite teachers’ classes. Some mornings—more mornings, even most mornings—I rely on the structure of my list to get me focus myself on being present as I pray. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Those days I struggle to keep up, to keep my focus, even not to be annoyed at the fact that I’m at the synagogue at 7:30 in the morning when I have a meeting at 9:00. Those mornings, I have done something just by walking through the door.

Eleven Months Part 5: Start Now

Tisha B’Av begins at sundown tomorrow Saturday, July 28.

The saddest day of the Jewish year is one filled with tragedy upon tragedy. One of these tragedies, the destruction of the Second Temple is said to have been caused by sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

Is baseless hatred actually justified hatred that nets the hater nothing, as is concluded in the lesson I linked to just now? Or is it hatred for hatred’s sake?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. You know why? Because everyone gets angry and everyone has the potential to hate. Sometimes anger seems justified: You break my heart, I’m hurt and I’m angry with you. You hurt someone I love, I’m hurt and I’m really angry. And, if I hold on to that anger, it becomes hate.

One story behind the destruction of the Second Temple is a story of clinging to anger, public humiliation, more anger, and vengeance.

Hatred destroys. It destroys our cities, but it also destroys us. Hatred focuses ourselves on ourselves. Hatred removes the possibility of connection to each other from our consciousness.

Tisha B’Av is about remembering these tragedies, but not in order to cling to the pain they caused the Jewish people. We can note our tragedies without adding them to a scorecard of pain and suffering and reasons why we have the right to be angry.

It’s about remembering those tragedies so that we can move on. We are hurt. We are angry. We are bereaved. These are normal human states, but we can take this day and focus on moving forward. Letting go.

As usual, someone else said this much better and more succinctly:

Tisha b’Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the point of turning toward this process by turning toward a recognition of our estrangement from God, from ourselves, and from others. ( Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l): This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, 2003, p. 52)

And so, in the middle of summer, in the middle of the heat and the bright, long days, we can consider those limitless possibilities that summer brings to mind, but first we should turn inward and do a little letting go.