Fidgety – Rosh Hashanah 5778

fidgety

I don’t know if you were aware, but there was a major ruling in Jewish law in May of this year. This may have significant implications regarding your Jewish observance, so I urge you to take note and give serious consideration to the gravity of this decision. This past May, rabbis at the Scientific and Technological Institute for Halacha in Jerusalem determined that fidget spinners do not violate the laws of Shabbat.

Stop the presses. Not the cider press, of course – that’s still happening downstairs, right now. This silent, yet still annoying toy that has become the bane of the PTA is just fine on Shabbat. The explanation is simple – except for the fidget spinners that light up, which are still not allowed – these little devices don’t require any electricity. They’re propelled by your own fingers, and ball bearings provide the smooth, frictionless spin.

You may ask, “Rabbi Eve, there are lots of legal responsa out there. Why do you care about this one?” The answer is because – legal ruling or not – Judaism doesn’t need fidget spinners. We had fidget spinners long before there was anything called a fidget spinner.

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I spend a lot of time in my d’vrei Torah and other outlets, like this sermon today, talking about experiencing and living Judaism. Is it any wonder? My masters degree is in experiential Jewish education. It is my mission to show and tell you that you need not be a rabbi to lead a hands-on Jewish life. So much of what we do is literally hands-on.

  • Touching and kissing a mezuzah.
  • Touching and kissing the Torah.
  • Immersion in the mikveh.

Using the light of the Havdalah candle on our fingernails to show that we’re close enough to the flame to distinguish different parts of our hands.

  • The shaking of the grogger.
  • The shaking of the lulav.

The list goes on. 

And of course there’s the ultimate and original Jewish fidget spinner, the tzitzit. Show of hands – is there anyone like me who recalls sitting in shul when you were little and playing with the tzitzit on your dad’s or grandfather’s tallit? It was only the dads and grandpas back then of course. I have vivid memories of braiding my Papa’s and Zayde’s tzitzit or being wrapped in them in the chilly sanctuary, quietly snoozing while the rabbi gave his sermon. Now that I’m older, I’m somehow both the rabbi and the parent in this story. Even as adults, our fingers naturally and mindlessly drift to those beautiful fringes, which are meant to serve as a reminder of the mitzvot through their knots and string.

There is something about a tactile experience that is strongly associated with learning and memory, and there are some fascinating studies exploring why this is true. Dr. David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, published some of these findings in 2015 in a book called Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.

In his book, Dr. Linden explains some of the science behind our associations with touch, including the evolution of two distinct parallel pathways for processing the sense of touch. One pathway is responsible for the distinguishing characteristics of an object. Where is this object I’m touching? How much pressure is on it or is on me? What’s the texture of it? In other words, these are the facts about touch. The other pathway is for social and emotional context. This pathway activates the regions in the brain responsible for pleasure and pain and social bonding.

Both of these pathways give us signals about whatever it is we’re touching, and therefore, how we feel about something can affect how we feel something. The way language works is so interesting, isn’t it? How we feel about something can affect how we feel something.

Dr. Linden uses the example of someone putting an arm around your shoulder. It could be the exact same physical stimulation, but imagine the difference in how it feels when it’s a friend, a lover, your boss, someone you don’t really care for . . . in each case the context of the touch affects how that touch registers in your brain.

And the sensations and experiences can stay with us for a long time, especially when the movements are practiced and repeated. Has anyone played an instrument, then stopped for a while, and then years later picked it up again to have your fingers remember what to do seemingly without the help of your active memory? Our sense of smell is usually thought to be the most connected to memory, in that smells instantly and unmistakably trigger signals in our brains that match events and people and places. But our sense of touch is certainly connected intimately to us as well.

Back to the fidget spinner. So if it turns out all along we’ve had Jewish versions of things to occupy our fidgety hands, what can we gain from the groundbreaking ruling that fidget spinners are acceptable, albeit distracting on Shabbos? Perhaps we can learn from the symbolism of the toy more than from the toy itself.

When these little devices peaked in popularity, Chabad published a fun article on their website about finding meaning in fidget spinners. These are life lessons, cleverly viewed through the fidget spinner lens.

First, there’s the notion of momentum. Judaism reminds us that our job is to keep moving forward. Recall the blessings we give a child at birth and bar mitzvah: “May you be privileged to live a life of Torah, chuppah and ma’asim tovim.” We’re always looking forward to the next milestone, commitment, or experience in life. When you engage in community, in Torah, and in learning you find that you’re always in motion in some way.

But before the spinning starts, a fidget spinner needs a good nudge to get moving. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A Jewish journey begins with a good, old fashioned nudge.

And here’s a fun one. Did you notice that most fidget spinners have three arms? It was King Solomon who noted that a three-stranded rope provides the strongest hold. Likewise, our sages noted that a three-legged stool is sturdiest. Al ha Torah, al ha avodah, v’al gemilut hasadim. The world stands on three things.

Maybe you see a theme here. There’s nothing magical about the toy itself. At the beginning of this craze, there were all these theories that fidget spinners were the answer to ADHD and even helped kids with autism. If they do help you or your child, that’s wonderful. But let’s be realistic; it’s a fad. However, what we do know is that movement is a part of who we are. Movement in general is what science has shown time and again to be beneficial for a wide range of emotional, developmental, and psychological issues. Gross motor activity, exercise, some type of hands-on approach – that’s what is making the difference.

You could say the same about the countless examples we’ve seen over the last few weeks of people responding to Harvey and Irma and the wildfires here in our own state. If you’re providing help – if you’re taking the time to find out what and where the need is and offering even the little bit that you can – no one is going to ask you why you didn’t give more. On the other hand, if you stand by and do nothing, then you’re the one who will be left asking yourself why.

It’s the action of helping that defines us as Jews, and we are all capable of some action, however large or small. It’s the action itself. That’s the message of the fidget spinner. It’s a reminder that the experiential Judaism that I preach is as simple as putting your fingers together to light the the Shabbos candles. The tactile feeling is as attainable as dropping coins into a tzedakah box. And whether or not you’re here every Saturday or you can fit in one daily minyan every third month, it’s about the feeling you get when you run those tzitzit through your fingers. Shanah tovah.

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Meaning to the Mundane – Parshat Ha’azinu 5778

mundane

Are certain moments objectively meaningful, or are we responsible for assigning all meaning? There are plenty of events we call “life changing,” the ones that rock you to your core. Moments like the birth a child, the loss of a loved one, a great success in life – these are typically the ones that leave us forever changed in some way. Moments like changing the sheets on your bed, picking a place to eat lunch, finishing a particularly good book – these moments aren’t typically thought of as meaningful, nor do they usually add depth or beauty to our lives. But are moments really meaningful or not meaningful? Black and white? Or do we place meaning ourselves? Consider moments that seem ordinary, ones you engage in every day, but still contain a moment of magic like tucking in your child at night, a quiet conversation with a loved one, or a beautiful walk on a gorgeous day. These are moments that can take you by surprise; suddenly their ordinary nature isn’t so ordinary at all.

As we come to the end of the Torah, we find ourselves reading about massive miracles and life changing experiences of the Israelites at the same time that we’re reading about the mundane experience of simply plodding through life. For the Israelites, seeing God’s miracles, which happened so often for them along their journey, became a bit meaningless. Miracles, as strange as it sounds, became mundane and something they expected to happen. For us reading about it now, without grand acts of God taking place regularly in our lives, “miracles” are anything but mundane.

This past week we read the penultimate Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu. It’s the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning, and it’s actually structured as a poem explaining the pitfalls of negative behavior and the blessings of good behavior. The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain and into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah serves as a link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).

In one of the final lines of the text we read that the Torah is “not an empty thing from you.” In other words if the Torah appears to be meaningless, empty, or unclear, it is not the Torah’s fault, but your own inability to make meaning out of the text (or out of a moment). The final lines of the Torah remind us that it is our task to add meaning to our lives, and that is the purpose of Torah in a nutshell: adding meaning and purpose to what otherwise might be mundane.

New Year’s Reinventions

reinventions

Susan Nanus entered rabbinical school when she was 54 years old. Now 67, Rabbi Nanus is a member of the clergy team at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a thriving center of Jewish life (and of historical note, the first synagogue in Los Angeles). You might not have heard the name Susan Nanus before, but you might be familiar with the work she did in her previous career. In her late 20s, after graduating Yale Drama School, Susan started earning a living as a playwright and screenwriter. She went on to have a successful 30-year writing career, which included award-winning TV movies and plays on Broadway.

Throughout those decades of her first life, Susan was actively involved in the Jewish community, working part time in Jewish education. But it wasn’t until much later in life that Judaism inspired her to go in a completely new direction and reinvent herself as a rabbi.

I have transition and reinvention on my mind as we enter the High Holy Days. A new year brings with it an interesting mix of feelings. There’s the comfort of the yearly cycle, knowing we can expect familiar traditions, familiar change of seasons, and familiar annual events. At the same time, there’s a sense of rejuvenation that suggests anything is possible when we start fresh. How will you reinvent yourself in the new year?

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we are responsible for our choices in life and that the proper path is to follow the rules and be good people (and to repent when we’re not). Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. At the heart of these Torah portions is the transition – the reinvention – of Moshe from current leader to former leader.

In chapter 31, verse 2 of Deuteronomy we read, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” Although this transition may have been on his mind for quite some time, this is the moment when Moshe reveals that he is ready to help the change in leadership occur. It’s the kind of transfer of power we should aspire to; Moshe knows the time has come, and his acknowledgement of that sends a strong, levelheaded message. The self-awareness to understand when you’ve done all you can do means you’re putting the needs of your people ahead of your own. This is the model for leadership, and this is the model for transition.

It is challenging to let go, and yet even Moshe, who led the Israelites to redemption, was able to recognize when it was time to step down. Nitzavim and Vayelech remind us that change is necessary, but our High Holy Days remind us that change can be just the beginning. Shabbat shalom.

Faking a Mitzvah – Parshat Ki Tavo 5777

with-feeling

The best bar and bat mitzvah speeches are the ones where the student clearly owns the information, and the speech is delivered with feeling and with meaning. One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate is helping bar and bat mitzvah students with these speeches. I love the process of facilitating their discovery of the text, picking it apart to find something personally meaningful to them in even the strangest of Torah laws. When we start working on a speech, the student might not really connect to the meaning of the text on its surface. Eventually we start to talk about underlying themes and ideas, and slowly the words start to come together.

What I try to convey is that there’s a difference between what the students think I want to hear from them and their own, personal insight into the material. There’s no doubt that the more passionate we are about a cause or idea, the more likely we are to put in hard work, really living and embodying those beliefs.

The same is true with Torah. This week we read from Parshat Ki Tavo, which includes the final narrative of the Israelites preparing for their entry into the Land of Israel. We find out about the gifts the Israelites are to bring to the Beit HaMikdash and the blessings and curses bestowed on the land and on those who observe the Torah and God’s commandments. The parshah begins and ends with the requirement to recognize and give gratitude for the good that comes to us.

In chapter 26, verse 13 we are in the middle of learning about the tithing required of the Israelites. As they stood before God they were required to make a declaration of how and why they were tithing. Part of that avowal is stating, “I have not neglected any of your commandments.” The S’fat Emet interprets this to mean that the individual has not performed any of these mitzvot mindlessly, perfunctorily, or without feeling. The actions taken to perform mitzvot shouldn’t be done automatically or by rote. Each one should have intention and purpose behind it.

When we are fully invested and dedicated, that is when we’re truly giving and participating in community. In Judaism, as in our lives, we should “do it with feeling.” A bar mitzvah isn’t just about the party or turning a certain age, it is about identifying and investing in the future of your relationship with God. It’s not just about keeping tradition, but about believing you are a part of that tradition.

Over Troubled Water – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5777

houston

I’m sure you’ve shared my shock and horror watching the images of the devastation Hurricane Harvey has wrought on Houston, Texas and surrounding areas in the Gulf. News broadcasts and photos on the Internet bring both a sense of intimacy, as if it were happening in our own backyard, and distance, as we struggle with not knowing exactly how or when to offer help from so far away.

There’s a visceral, emotional component to natural disasters, not only for those suffering firsthand in the path of the destruction, but also for those witnessing the event from the outside. It comes from a natural desire to want to help and lend a hand, and it manifests itself in many different scenarios. Do you fight for the underdog? Do you like to support small businesses partly because they’re small? And is your heart moved to support those who might be having a difficult time?

This week we read Parshat Ki Teitzei, which discusses a variety of seemingly unconnected laws, including laws for going to war, picking favorite children, and charging interest on loans, among many more mitzvot. In fact this parshah has more mitzvot within its text than any other single parshah. On the surface these laws all deal with the “proper” ways to build and govern a society, but there is another theme that runs through many of these mitzvot, which is how we treat the vulnerable and less fortunate in our society.

Chapter 24 of the book of Deuteronomy focuses on the innate dignity of people on society’s margins. Specifically, this includes people from the widowed and the orphaned to the worker and the poor or downtrodden. Throughout this text, the Torah demands that we work to support them. For example, verses 14 and 15 of this chapter focus on the needs of the worker. We are required to pay wages right away, not withhold them or otherwise take advantage of an employee. The Torah declares that the penalty against an employer who abuses a laborer is guilt brought on by God. That is to say, in a dispute between the powerful employer and the more vulnerable hired worker, God is on the side of the vulnerable.

Human dignity is at the core of how we should treat one another, and to offend or oppress another human being is to offend and oppress God. As we learn from several of the verses in this week’s portion, this goes beyond acts of malice against other people to also mean suffering from outside causes, hurricanes included. Every human being has an inherent value, equal in worth in the eyes of our creator and in our own. Our job, according to Parshat Ki Teitzei, is to actively respect, honor, and support one another no matter the circumstances that created the need. When we can uphold this mitzvah, when we strive to see the worth and dignity in one another, there is no suffering alone.

Right now we have the opportunity to help the more vulnerable among us, namely a smaller conservative synagogue in Houston that faces months of work to repair the damage that has been caused by Hurricane Harvey. I hope you’ll join me in supporting our fellow community Congregation Or Ami; you can read more about what we’re doing and how to help here:

http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Neveh-Shalom-Supports-Houston.html?soid=1102633925361&aid=msUnyK3HMVA