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"God is the ultimate Non-Fungible Token" or "Dear Texas State  Reps..."

04/14/2021 03:30:19 PM

Apr14

Pharaoh looked down into Goshen and instead of seeing the industriousness and creativity of Joseph’s progeny, he discerned a threat.  With no noted precursor or precedent that might raise suspicion, the Israelites were a risk he wouldn’t abide.  Israel, to his mind, was too successful, growing too quickly. They were different and thus they were “other.” Those who were at first threatened refugees from a blight in the land, from which Egypt was saved only thanks to one of Jacob's (Israel’s) sons, were now transforming in Pharaoh’s mind, into those who would necessarily rise up and undermine his hegemony.  Thus, Pharaoh targeted Israel by “othering” them, as he weaved outlandish stories of their magical powers of propagation and resistance.  It would therefore be up to Moses, in the name of the God who liberates the oppressed, to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom.  Israel assuredly wasn’t magically powerful or inherently bent on overtaking the Pharaoh’s throne, but neither were they less worthy of life than their Egyptian slave masters. 

Imagination and vision.  These are the precious domains of the human mind and human heart.  They are what makes us holy, as in “distinct,” from all other aspects of creation.  In this instance though, “Holy” doesn’t necessarily mean good or kind or just.  For it is precisely the imagination and vision of human beings, by which we are able to articulate the infinite value of each and every other human being, that can also lead us to deem “others” as less so.  It is our acuity to imagine the inner worth of another, especially one who appears or speaks or believes or affirms differently than we, that makes God’s grand experiment in humanity possible. Experiment?  Yes.  We haven’t quite proven God’s theory that if we human beings were given both a physical manifestation, as well as a mind that can envision far beyond what we see and know, that we will learn to consistently apply it for the good of the individuals and the world around us.

Unfortunately, as a "species," we are too often unwilling to allow for the possibility that our own understanding, or that of our social cohorts, our communities, our tribes, is too limited in breadth and depth to encompass all possible and peaceful forms of human expression.  As human beings, even with our knowledge of human history, we remain too committed to our tribes’ notions of identity, that it is to the detriment of the self-expression of others.  Too often, we act like its a threat to our own well-being.  Too often, especially with the grip of power in hand, we stand like Pharaoh, shocked by how others seek to live their truth and devise stories that don't diminish these others, but actually "aggrandize" them with mythical power that therefore must be halted. To wit, in the face of truly pressing needs, our Texas state representatives busy themselves with legislation that would deny trans-children access to health, safety and well-being, and would criminalize their parents for pursuing it, (see Senate Bills 1311 and 1646 and House Bills 1399 and 1424). Why is it that these Texas legislators perceive themselves as Pharaoh and not as Moses?  Is access to human identity so scarce that when one exercises their own divine right to express on the outside what they know to be true on the inside, that it is necessarily a threat to you? 

Perhaps you could take a cue from cyberspace.  You may have heard of this relatively new concept of identifying “the real Mccoy” of any particular “online entity” called a “Non Fungible Token” or “NFT” for short.  Recently, an artist named “Beeple” sold the NFT of his digital art installation for $68M and a New York Times reporter sold the NFT of his article about NFT’s for over $500,000.  The idea being that even though one can make infinite digital copies of anything online that will look and act exactly like the original, it is still possible to own it.  God is the ultimate NFT, but in Jewish tradition, while God’s image (the original) is the progenitor of all human beings, the beauty of creation is that each “copy” made is infinitely valuable.  Regardless of how different each of us look, act, love, and express ourselves, as long as we are not causing harm to another, we are a completely unique and beautiful expression of the Divine.  Imagine God as a single light passing through a prism, with rainbow of color flowing out from the other side.  Each of us is a part of that rainbow but in the end, we all trace our origins to that original unity.

Representatives, quit your bluster.  It’s a distraction and we all deserve more from you.  Please be our Moses and leave Pharaoh in the dust heap of history where he belongs.  The Prophet Micah asks, “What does God ask of us?  To do justice, to act with mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  How do your efforts comport with such a demand?

 

Memory is the  Secret to Redemption

04/07/2021 06:55:25 PM

Apr7

Mei libeinu anachnu sharim
Mei libeinu anachnu sharim
Uv’charta bachayim
Uv’charta bachayim…Chayim


From our hearts we sing
From our hearts we sing
Choose life
Choose life…life
 
Uv’charta bachayim, Uv’charta bachayim
L’ma-an tichyeh uzchor
Ki baz’chirah sod geulah
Sod geulah mei libeinu

 
Choose life and choose life
In order that you shall live
For in memory lies the secret of redemption
The secret of redemption from our hearts.



There was this bridge down at “Kibbutz” at Camp Swig in Saratoga, CA.  Dirt roads over a great big hill and back down again, maybe a 10-minute walk from main camp, but to me, it always felt like we were going somewhere truly specia
l. 
 
If we had a really good counselor, they knew to gather us at the foot of this bridge before we crossed it and into the building on the other side.  It was a beautiful wooden bridge, with tile-lined walls, and with colored tiles, the words – “Memory is the secret to redemption.” 
 
We would walk quietly and respectfully, past these words and enter into the Holocaust memorial.  An artist named Helen Burke was a camp celebrity there.  She wasn’t Jewish but she found profound inspiration in bringing life to these words with her craft. She was a metal worker and with both strength and finesse, she made copper and bronze unfurl, blossom, and sprout.  The tree of life came to life in that space.  On one side, giant windows exposing the trunks of trees; on the other the tree tops – life can always move forward and up – a message for a place inspired by the Shoah – the greatest destruction imposed upon the Jewish people in our history. 
 
Memory is the secret to redemption…what did those words mean, I wondered as a kid.  I mean what did they really mean?  For me, today, it is the stark and humble reminder that we are so much more vulnerable to the slings and arrows, the fates, and conjectures of life than we ever truly wish to believe.  Perhaps it’s a requirement to get through the day, this ability to live with that denial.  But is it a detriment as well?  Our ability to forget?  To turn away?  To pretend?  One must move on, for sure.  Or perhaps living isn’t so impossible even when we carry the broken pieces forward.  Perhaps to remember is to re-member ourselves to the losses we would prefer to leave behind.  On Yom HaShoah we light lights so that we can pick up the pieces once more and place them in our hearts. 

 

Passionate About our Holidays

03/31/2021 04:49:48 PM

Mar31

I’ve always loved this not so well-known movie called “Pleasantville,” in which a brother and a sister from the color-filled 1990s accidentally fall through the television set into the black and white 1950s. Their presence in the 1950s infuses a tremendous amount of w'rldliness.  They are in color, while the rest of the world around remains in black and white. However, their “roygbiv” color has a way of “infecting” the 1950s black-and-white television characters to the point where, as you can imagine, all heck is breaking loose. The movie ends with a scene in color in which black students enter a yellow school bus surrounded by white children. The message of the movie seems to be clear. While our goal should be to move towards enlightenment, and a richer, more beautiful multi-colored fabric of life, let us never pretend that life isn’t made more complicated (even if richer and more rewarding) when we step out of our narrow and fixed boundaries of comfort. When I was asked recently how I responded to the question of Christians celebrating Passover with a Seder, I knew this would require a multi-tiered approach.  The truth is, it’s complicated.  However, I think that is part of what leaving Mitzraryim is all about – leaving the narrow places that are kept narrow by simple answers to complex questions.  I think you will find this Vlog (Video blog), “Passionate Our Holidays,” a great place to consider these and other questions that surround what it means to live in a multi layered and textured world. 

Rage like a Sage

03/24/2021 11:15:07 AM

Mar24

There was a piece on NPR yesterday about rage rooms.  Rage Rooms are businesses with rooms filled with all sorts of “to be trashed” items like old cars with windshields intact, old big television sets – you know, the kind with the big tubes, not the newfangled flat ones, old lamps, ceramic dishes, computers and anything else that makes a lovely crash the moment you slam the unstoppable force upon it. 

 

“COME BREAK SOMETHING

Does the boss get on your nerves? What about the kids? Traffic? Crowds? Life? Well come and take all your frustrations out on inanimate objects with sledgehammers, baseball bats, golf clubs, and more. We also do parties, fundraisers, team building, date night, anniversaries, and more. We can handle corporate events, too!

Sometimes we need another outlet for our stress and frustrations. Feel free to really let it go. What happens here stays here. So, crying, screaming, cussing, is ALLOWED. Plus, you won't hurt the ones you love or go to jail. And you don't have to clean up the mess.”

 

This is the spiel from one such “rage room” here in Houston (I’m not endorsing any particular business, I’ve never stepped foot in one but I think I might soon!). This piece on the radio and my subsequent “surfing” led me to discover that this is a quite more common business than I ever knew. And of course, since you’re reading my blog, you will probably not be surprised when I say that there seems to me to be something very Jewish about this.

 

You are probably familiar with the Yiddish term, chutzpah, which essentially means “nerve,” the willingness to stand up to the powers that be.  Chutzpah isn’t a term only at home in Yiddish vernacular, it carries some significant ages-old, rabbinic weight. You see, chutzpah is defined as, “irrepressible strength” and “irresistible boldness,” and those special souls, who express it, are said to display “chutzpah klapei shemayah," chutzpah even in the face of heavenRabbi Ed Feinstein writes, “The Bible understood that people driven by fear close up into a clinch.  In the face of fear, conscience is occluded, compassion withers and dies.  Living in fear, we become indifferent to the needs of the other and deaf to moral ideals…The sense of powerlessness inevitably leads to cynicism and despair.” 

 

If you’re scratching your head and trying to wonder why someone would gun down innocent people in broad daylight, unfortunately I don’t believe we have to look further than this wisdom that is thousands of years old.  The main thing that has changed, of course, is the terribly easy means by which this seething anger and despair can be discharged with a violent ferocity none of our sages could have imagined. 

 

No, I am not saying that the answer to all our troubles are these rage rooms.  However, I do believe very strongly that the expression of anger and frustration is as human an expression as that of love and affection.  It’s perfectly all right to express anger.  Let it go. Let it be out there in the world instead of rumbling inside of you, but you have to do it safely.  Even in the rage room, you have to wear gloves and goggles and there’s a very limited number of people who can be in a room at the same time. What if we approached our anger that way too? God gave us a world that is ripe for the possibility for blessing but also replete with opportunities for loss and misery. It’s the Catch-22 of the inherent freedom of choice of all human beings.  We cannot become ourselves if we are not free to choose our path; but one’s freedom cannot be allowed to come at the cost of another’s. 

 

So, smash it out or write it out.  Talk it out or run it out. You can even punch it out (into a punching bag or the like). And you can pray it out.  God can abide your sadness and despair.  God can take your punches. Afterwards, God will even sit with you, bruised and bloody, hold you and tell you that God loves you.  So rage against God, God can take it.  Remember that Kindergarten song about “Love?”

“Love is something, if you give it away, give it away, give it away, love is something if you give it away, it comes right back to you.”

It turns out that the same is true for anger.  When you dump it on someone else, it doesn’t diffuse.  Nope. It just comes back with a vengeance.

Passover Plea

03/17/2021 08:37:09 AM

Mar17

OK, so I’m in the Ozarks. I’m on “vacation” this week with Natalie as she and the Woods Project Team scout out a new site.  So it’s kind of like vacation because I’m not working, at least officially, and she is. But it isn’t bad in the least. I’m in the middle of nature, hiking and camping with lovely weather and Wi-Fi. Who could ask for more?

Well I could, because...Passover is around the corner!  As always, we at Shma Koleinu are working our darndest to make sure that you have the resources you need to make your holiday meaningful and beautiful.  This year we have put together four ways for you to celebrate  but, unfortunately,  you’re just not signing up fast enough to quell my anxiety!  So, as I teach all those who are willing to listen…I need to breathe.  Relax.  And center myself. 

Done.  

And here’s what you need to do.  Please register right now  for one, more, or all of the following: 

  1. Rabbi Scott’s “First Night of Seder Homemade Gefilte Fish”;
  2. “Liberate My Seder II, ”  the Passover video  featuring La Forza del Dayeinu - a most unique, rarely experienced, Passover mini-opera starring Hannah Madeleine Goodman;
  3. “The All-Star Passover Seder” by Rick Recht and friends for families with young children;
  4. and , the piece de resistance, “Seder Fest,” bringing together via Zoom the CSK and HCRJ communities and “starring” Rabbi Scott, Rabbi Gross and Kelly Dean.   

 

Click HERE to sign up.

 

Thank you for joining with me to make this the best (albeit hopefully last) Zoom Passover ever! 

L’shalom

Rabbi Scott

The Usual Excuses

03/10/2021 08:10:17 AM

Mar10

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.  And like that – poof – he’s gone.”  Thus spoke the character, Verbal Klint, about the mastermind, super criminal Keyser Soce, as credits begin to roll in the movie, The Usual Suspects.  This line arose to my mind today and quite a few other times recently, as I listen to those who seek to re-write the history of the hours-long attack on the Capitol on January 6th, the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd suffered with a knee on his neck (watched and observed by anyone with a TV or a phone), the countless people of color who have been executed on video by individuals in uniforms, and of course, the “myth” of COVID-19 and the “uselessness” of masks.  Especially, as we approach Passover, the expressions that “there is nothing to be seen here, just move along, and trust the authorities,” reminds me of the eternal relevance of the story of the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus. 

What is the Pharaoh’s most important claim?  That he is God and with him, from him, and around him, he is therefore the TRUTH.  What is the biggest challenge to his authority?  Not only that there is another God who is perhaps stronger and more powerful than him.  But that the power of this God of Israel is found in the freedom and potential God gives to us.  Yes it is true that the story of the Exodus is based upon the trajectory of moving this erev rav, this mixed multitude of formerly enslaved human beings, from servitude to Pharaoh to servitude to God.  However, servitude to God is expressed most importantly in how we each stand for the truth of another’s freedom.  The source of God’s Divine power may be a mystery.  But its expression and relevance can only be found in how we each bring it to life for the sake of the other. 

Those who draw on Divine power, accessible to all human beings, in only a unilateral manner, blind themselves to what we are and why we exist.  Passover is important because it is the meta-story of the Jewish people – that once we were slaves and now we are free.  And that because we were strangers, we must not oppress the stranger.  We must not make of our neighbor, a stranger.  In the context of the Exodus, there are no excuses for purposeful estrangement.  There is no room for deciding who is worthy or who is not.  There is no allowance for lying, cheating or stealing, all the more so when the excuse that is offered is wrapped up in a sometimes (but not always) veiled attempt at disenfranchising the other. 

On Passover, we sing Dayeinu and Avadim Hayinu, the 4 Questions and Chad Gadya, we drink from 4 cups of wine, and hold aloft symbols imbued with the wisdom of our ancestors in order to resist the temptations of power.   We do these things to be “re-mindful” that the devil does potentially exist in every one of us, if we neglect and forget what makes a Pharaoh so powerful.  And that is allowing him to build a world around him that reenforces his insistence that he is God.  But Pharaoh is not God for if he were, he could never have been an enslaver of human beings as this is the ultimate falsity.  Discerning the truth as it relates to other human beings indeed starts, you guessed it, with hearing, seeking to understand and making room for the truly intimate worth of the other.  If one just holds up this measuring stick against false efforts of rewriting history that took place before our eyes, modern day Pharaohs turn to dust just as the ancient ones of the past.

Marshmallows and Golden Calfs

03/04/2021 09:13:17 AM

Mar4

Many of you have heard about, read about or even studied a famous psychological test called “The Marshmallow Test,” performed at Stanford University in the 1970’s by Walter Mischel.  Simply put, “The Marshmallow Test” studies delayed gratification in children.  A child is brought into a room with a table and a marshmallow sitting on a plate.  The child is told that she is going to be left alone for a few minutes, and if when the proctor returns, the marshmallow is still there, the child will be given two marshmallows.  There are tons of videos of this test on line, and they run the gamut from kids who sit there with quiet contemplation to kids whose eyes seem to cross, overwhelmed by their desire to eat the marshmallow until many of them do. 

I was reminded of these studies just in the past few days and you’ll soon see why.  But first, Torah.  This week we read from Parashat Ki Tissa, the Torah portion from the book of Exodus that recounts Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai and the Israelites subsequent descent into idolatry with the building of and bowing to the Golden Calf.  If you have read this Torah portion, you know that this doesn’t go well, really…for anyone – no one looks particularly great – not the Israelites, not Aaron, not Moses, not even God.  Tempers flare, ultimatums are demanded, unfortunate excuses are offered, and victimhood abounds.  Check it out here

It seems to me that the Marshmallow Test is quite pertinent here.  Delayed gratification (rather, the inability to enact it) seems to be at the heart of this moment, for all parties.  The Israelites, from whom this perhaps should never have been expected to be possible, seem to wait a decent amount of time (40 days!) before they lose their minds complaining that “that man Moses” has abandoned them.  Aaron, who doesn’t seem to be willing to put up much of a fight, tries to surreptitiously abide by the law, tip-toeing through his presentation of the Golden Calf, by reminding the Israelites that “tomorrow will be a holiday to Adonai.” God immediately lays the blame on the people and declares this project “null and void,” while Moses successfully placates God into rescinding God’s declaration, but then lays upon the Israelites a punishment that “may be” a bit too far (forcing the Israelites to drink the melted down calf, demanding they kill the Israelites most responsible, you know, “average discipline!”)

At the heart of these incidents seems to me to be an inability to wait it out.  Yes, it may be a lot to ask from a group of individuals who have never known anything else but slavery, but there is still a human element, a divine element, dare I say, that keeps us from descending into the behavior of wild beasts.  Interestingly, many different versions of the “Marshmallow Study” have been engaged for decades, one of which seeks to test the role of interdependence in succeeding.  With two children in the same room, each with a marshmallow in front of her/him, they are told, just as in the first, that if they can wait until the proctor returns, they’ll each get a second marshmallow.  However, in this test, they explain that success requires that both children not eat their marshmallow in order for both to receive a second.  The research found that no matter where they held this experiment, in all different parts of the world representing all different cultures, the interdependence experiment yielded far more successful results.  Meaning, the more interdependence required, the more the children successfully received their second marshmallow. 

Can we honestly say we’re surprised? And yet how cynical it is to witness our political leaders not only undermining this interdependence but pretending that the more independent we are, the better. We are interconnected no matter what we might prefer to believe. If there were ever any better examples than our recent electricity grid failure, not to mention the lifting of  Covid-19 mask mandates, I cannot think of them. You and I rely on each other, competition is not the be-all and end-all of life. Our ability to succeed in the world requires an open embrace of our vulnerability, our connectedness to each other.  It is only through reliance on, trust in and making room for each other that we can discover the godliness within ourselves.  Golden calves abound everywhere. The temptation to dive into immediate gratification, thinking only of ourselves or even just our “kind,” lies in our reptilian brain.  It’s there, sending us impulses all the time. But we evolved beyond it.  It’s time to act like it.

A Very Meaning-Filled Purim

02/25/2021 08:30:26 AM

Feb25

You can still join us tonight to Laugh over our people's ways of coping and Learn about heroes in our community helping so many others do the same in the wake of the recent Texas winter storm crises..

Exactly a year ago (according to the Jewish calendar) was the last time Shma Koleinu officially gathered in person for an event.  Our “Motown Megillah” performance directed and organized by Jerry Peperone and Richard Elbein, and starring our very own CSK-ers in the “backyard” of Axelrad Beer Garden, was for us, just a “typical day at the office.” And by “typical,” I mean, the ability to hang out in public, drink beer, eat pizza, and laugh out loud…together!  I know, it’s been a really tough 354 days since the last time the 14th of Adar rolled around...

And what do we live with today?  The new normal.  Of course, two weeks ago, we thought masking, hand sanitizing and the search for vaccines for our loved ones (and ourselves) was tough.  Add to that, the winter storm emergency/crisis that is still delivering Houstonians lefts, rights and upper-cuts.  Mit in drinnen (Yiddish for “in the middle of it all”), Purim begins tonight!    But this year, it’s about way more than marinating in our Jewish penchant for the journey from external attack to self-pity to gastronomic excess.  This year, one of the four mitzvot** (commandments) of Purim stands out above the rest: matanot l’evyonim – providing gifts to those in need.

Tonight, we will gather via zoom for a great evening.  A Purim variety show of sorts, it will include all the regular elements of a Purim celebration.  But, as the commercial goes, “Come for the frivolity, stay for the meaning.”  For tonight will include invitations to help support four different efforts newly dedicated to supporting Houstonians suffering from the winter storm crisis of last week.  We will briefly hear from Sacha Bodner of the Houston Jewish Federation, Jade Flores of LaUnidad11, Julia Retta, Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Abbie Kamin, and Paula McKenzie, Director of Major Gifts, from the Houston Food Bank.  Weaved and highlighted into our Purim celebration of spiel, parodies, and celebration will be important reminders about why focusing on the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim is so important this year especially. 

If you have not signed up for Purim Bingo, you still can.  While we cannot provide you with a home delivery of a Purim Box, we can email you your Bingo cards to be able to participate in our Bingo games and all the rest of the meaningful fun we are offering.  You can join us via Zoom and we will even be live streaming to YouTube Live and Facebook Live.  Join us! 

**The four mitzvot of Purim are: K’riat Megillah (public recitation of the Megillah – the Book of Esther); mishloach manot (giving gifts to friends); matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts to those in need); and se’udat Mitzvah (eating heartily).

...Therefore We Pray, O God, ...

02/18/2021 08:58:14 AM

Feb18

Hello friends, I know that most all of us find ourselves in the midst of this weather emergency and I pray that you are remaining safe and warm.  In the absence of my own words at the moment, I offer you these words of prayer and solace. May we go from strength to strength.  

Rabbi Scott 

 

We Cannot Pray to You

We cannot pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world
with paths to peace,
if only we would take them.

We cannot pray to You
to end starvation,
for there is food enough for all,
if only we would share it.

We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease,
for we might see
the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.

We cannot merely pray
"Root out despair,"
for the spark of hope
already waits within the human heart,
for us to fan it into flame.

We must not ask of You, O God,
to take the task that You
have given us.
We cannot shirk,
we cannot flee away,
Avoiding obligation for ever.

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to look on
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.

For Your sake and ours
speedily and soon, let it be:
that our land may be safe,
that our lives may be blessed.

Adapted from Rabbi Jack Riemer’s New Prayers for the High Holy Days, as it appears in Gates of Repentance, pp. 363-364

"Hayom"

02/11/2021 08:10:28 AM

Feb11

Imagine for a moment that the Torah indeed is born of the Divine.  That Moses does dwell with God at the top of Mt Sinai, receives the Divine instruction, and then writes it into a text.  And imagine the Creator, infinite, immeasurable, and unknowable, desiring to share the wisdom of eternity with these beings born of love, who are necessarily finite.  It is not difficult to understand the Rabbis’ imagination that God attempts to bestow the Torah upon many other peoples, who reject it, for apparently it was too cumbersome.  And that in this rabbinic vision, the only reason the Israelites accept Torah at Sinai, is because God is literally holding Mt Sinai over their heads, asking, “Do you accept the Torah?”  They of course most willingly oblige.  But what is it that is so difficult about accepting Torah? Is it the laws, rules and regulations that make life so much more difficult and challenging to exist, as we have for the vast majority of our history, as a unique and distinct minority, that even in our most liberal manifestations, causes us to stand out?  Or, is it perhaps the Torah’s regular reminder that what matters most is “the now” of this and every moment?  Is it the powerful demand for humility that stands witness against human beings’ vain attempts at immortality?  Is it the Torah’s subtle recognition that our lives are like a passing shadow? 

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a Tzaddik Gamur, a completely righteous human being, the Talmud teaches, is out seeking the Messiah, the Moshiach ben David.  He goes to Elijah the Prophet, begging him for direction. Elijah points Rabbi Joshua to the city gates, where, he tells him that the Messiah sits, cleaning the wounds and redressing the bandages of the lepers.  One bandage at a time, so that if the moment arrives when the Messiah is called, the Messiah can at once appear.  Rabbi Joshua rushes to the city gates, finds the Messiah, and asks, “When will you come?”  The Moshiach ben David replies, “Hayom” (“Today”) but as he continues, Rabbi Joshua is off to tell the world.  He and his disciples await but the Messiah doesn’t come, so Rabbi Joshua returns to the city gates.  “You did not come,” Rabbi Joshua says to the Messiah.  In return, the Messiah kindly shares, “you did not listen.”  I said, “Today,” but had you stayed and listened well, you would have heard me say, “if you but hearken to God’s words.  To bring healing and wholeness, to act with kindness and embrace joy, to share and mend and repair embrace, forgive and express compassion for all God’s creations, then, “Hayom.” 

Hayom – Today is all we have, really.  Surely we can process and perhaps better understand the past, and indeed we can plan and envision the future, but Hayom is ALL that is really in our grasp.  We can shape and mold and make Hayom into what we wish it to be.  What is the one thing today that you can do to make Hayom matter?

Hag Purim

02/03/2021 04:55:52 PM

Feb3

Do you know why the holiday of Purim is called, “Purim?”  Because pur means “lot,” thus meaning the “casting of lots.”  For this is how Haman determined the day on which the Jews of Persia were to be slaughtered.  Not who should be slaughtered, and not if the Jews should be slaughtered, but when.  And just how, according to the Book of Esther, are the Jewish people saved?  By a Jewish girl, debasing herself to participate in a beauty contest, for which she “marinates” in spices and oils, amongst the rest of the “herem,” to then be chosen by a drunk and stupid king.  And then, do you know how the Jews are saved?  Not really because of Esther or even Mordechai, but that the king should deign the Jews as “permitted” to defend themselves (seeing as how once a Kingly decree is declared, it cannot be reversed!).  This does not a strong people make, it would seem.  Yet this legend, which we tell and retell year in and year out, is really a tragedy, about which we say, “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.”  And so we make fun of this sordid history, this duplicitous tale with a Jewish “mardi-gras,” with embellishment, drunkenness and debauchery.  Now I cannot promise all of that for our Purim, but we will do our best to facilitate: “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.” 

Purim is meant to be cathartic and efficacious.  It is meant to be an invitation to laugh at our tragedies, not because they are worthy of humor, but because to laugh about them is to not be held by their control.  So!  We are going to laugh this year!  And play bingo!  And be entertained.  And remember that we owe it the millions who are lost to our people, to celebrate and ingratiate ourselves to the story of the Jews.  Its pretty wild, when you think about it.  How did we make it?  How is it that we are still here? 

Join us for Purim Bingo, Thursday February 25th at 7 pm on Zoom!

Life Goes On

01/27/2021 02:16:59 PM

Jan27

Said sometimes with hope and more often with muted acceptance, “life goes on” is a phrase that leaves so much to be desired.  In the midst of COVID, life goes on.  In the face of cancer and treatment, life goes on.  In the wake of biting and striking political winds, life goes on.  In the face of mysterious symptoms but no obvious diagnosis, endless tests, and doctors who employ the reminder that, “it is called the practice of medicine for a reason,” life still goes on.  However, how often are we willing to recognize that if life is to still go on, it must go on differently than we lived it before?

I am not necessarily a subscriber to the “Let go and let God” mantra.   I get why embracing my utter vulnerability is for me anyway, not empowering.  However, I do fully believe that in order to respond to the many obstacles and sometimes upending challenges of life, the only way forward cannot be found along the same paths we have walked before.  There are some who believe that everything happens for a reason, and there are others who will claim that the randomness of our lives is akin to the one in one-hundred-millionth chance of the mutation of a gene.  We will never know.  And no one has delivered to us the blueprints for how to fix it.  No, instead, we are invited to rise to the moment, and imbue it with the meaning we create.

A great Rabbi once taught that human beings would be well served by walking through their lives with two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one piece of paper, the words:  “The entire universe was created for my sake alone.”  And on the other piece of paper, “I am but dust and ashes.” The Rabbi recommended that when we are feeling quite down and depressed, alone and listless, we should read the piece of paper that reminds us that we are the reason for existence, but when we are feeling haughty and overproud, we should read the other piece of paper, reminding us of our deep and mortal vulnerability.  Both statements equally true and yet only temporally appropriate.

What I wish to teach is the deep and abiding reminder that if you have lived a life rather blessed and unharmed, Mazal tov, for you indeed have garnered good signs and beneficence. Your seeming invulnerability most likely stems from factors entirely unearned by you and perhaps some indeed as a result of “good living.”  But when misfortune, malady, frightening mystery visits your doorstep, you only have one meaningful act if you wish to move forward.  And that is to shift.  It is to squint and strain, it is to turn things upside down and inside out, it is to look up if you are used to looking down, left instead of right, in instead of out. It is to become ever more curious about the very things you are most sure and to allow this moment to become the watershed that you begin to build.

None of us enters our lives with a promise that all will be well all of the time.  None of us was even “invited” into this world; we showed up by such remote chance.  And it is this, the very randomness of our existence, that makes the love we experience and the love we share with all the other inhabitants of this world so marvelous.  We all come from the same stuff and the sparkles of stardust twinkle from our eyes.  And from those of all others.  The universe came to be for our sake alone, but because that is true for everyone else, humility is the only appropriate response to allow our fixed notions of life to break down in order for others to be built anew.  "Life goes on" is only a meaningful statement if we wish to pave new ways forward.   

A Broken Pane

01/21/2021 09:00:31 AM

Jan21

There’s a window pane in one of the doors entering the Capitol Rotunda that remains broken  from the insurrection on January 6th.  Well, not exactly broken perhaps, but riddled with spider cracks fissuring through the pane.  So much pain.  There’s been so much pain and suffering, and I know it didn’t start 4 years ago.  And I pray that we all come to understand that the hateful rhetoric that has become far too common a currency in politics, over our airwaves, floating invisibly right before our eyes in the guise of amazingly complicated and completely unique sets of 1’s and 0’s, IS the problem. 

Our better angels are being harkened to, but they do not suffer lies.  Manipulations of fact, battles seeking to upend consistency, the championing of hypocrisy “because the other side does it even worse,” as we say in Hebrew, nim’as li kvar!  I am fed up! 

Maybe this can be the inflection point.  Maybe this can be the opportunity to forge a way through the middle ground drawing together the most amenable leaders who “sit” 20% right of center and 20% left, edging out those whose positions aren’t radically different from their more centered allies but who differ drastically because of tone and approach.  Maybe as Leonard Cohen taught us all, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” 

Perhaps that broken pane should remain as it is.  A testimony to what occurs when light is not allowed to shine and illuminate deception. 

I remember when I was in high school, visiting the Capitol for the first time.  It is a place of stunning awe.  It is a space in which gigantic efforts have been made by gigantic people who nonetheless put their pants on one leg at a time. We often don’t realize the fragile existence of active freedom and the concomitant requirement of tzimtzum (reducing oneself) that must accompany it. 

We are not freed from Egypt for gluttony’s sake, but satiety.  We are not liberated from bondage in order to feed our voracious need for self-expression.  No, we are unshackled in order to insure the banishment of chains for all others.  And the pain endures for the many and the not-as-mighty who haven’t been seen because of the broken pain too many carry in their hearts. 

So leave the pane, and let the sun shine in, illuminating and thus requiring action, healing, wholeness, compassion and unbridled joy – as a guaranteed right to all of God’s children. 

But what can I do now?

01/14/2021 10:06:19 AM

Jan14

There’s a very famous teaching from Rabbi Hillel that goes like this:

 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

 

The news is disturbing and frightening, the quality of our political leadership is too often sporadic and self-serving, and all of us today exist within the context of a pandemic that yesterday, in one single day ended the lives of more people than Pearl Harbor.  Last week, our capital was under siege in a way not seen since the earliest part of the 19th century.  And wherever we fall on the political spectrum, it is a mournful moment to exist at a time when the President of the United States has been impeached twice.  It is indeed almost enough to make one throw up their hands and say, “I’m done!”  It happens to me at least once a day. And then I get back to work, recognizing that in this case perhaps the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.  Today, our focus needs to be on the individual, often small acts that lie entirely in our power to execute. Hillel’s words echo to us with a crucial demand that we’re not simply to read or study these words, with any kind of distance; we are to animate these words with our own volition.  What can we do?  

 

It may sound pithy to offer examples such as asserting an act of kindness towards someone in our lives in need of it, or digging a bit deeper into our income for some more tzedakah, picking up trash at a local park, or reaching out to a family member with forgiveness. Yes, these might read like Hallmark card aphorisms but at the end of the day, our “seizing” society isn’t “them.”  Its “us.”  We are the parts that make up the sum of the whole and sometimes we must remember that it is our single act of goodness that can tip the scales. 

 

You do know well what areas you can make an impact in. Following are a couple of examples that we invite you to participate in as this community seeks to be part of the solution.

 

Feeding the Healers: Since April, the Shma Koleinu community raised $5600 for the purchase and successful distribution of approximately 550 gourmet lunch boxes to medical professionals throughout Houston.  In the wake of the surging epidemic, we wish to continue this effort. Please make your contribution HERE

 

COVID Memorial on January 19 at 4:30 pm CST: Please consider participating in the COVID Memorial.  This Washington, D.C. ceremony will feature a lighting around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It will be the first-ever lighting around the Reflecting Pool to memorialize American lives lost. In this national moment of unity and remembrance, in addition to cities and towns around the country lighting up city buildings, and churches ringing bells, individuals are encouraged to light a candle in their window(s) at this moment to join in this countrywide moment of remembrance.  This is an event sponsored by the Presidential Inauguration Commission with a focus on national and communal healing, knowing full well that COVID doesn’t discriminate between political party.  Please fill out this form to confirm your participation.

 

10@Noon: Join us Monday – Friday for an inspiring and energizing 10-12 minutes of prayer, music and reflection. 

 

We will continue to add to the list!  We encourage you to seek to answer Rabbi Hillel’s soul stirring questions.  If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find there is so much that can be done.

Prayer for our Country

01/07/2021 09:07:36 AM

Jan7

On Yom Kippur, we offered this Prayer for our Country.  May our leaders and us hear its call and rise to this moment.

 

God of holiness, we hear Your message: Justice, Justice you shall pursue. God of freedom, we hear your charge: Proclaim liberty throughout the land. Inspire us through your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy. Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish. Let each of us be an advocate for justice, an activist for liberty, a defender of dignity. And let us champion the values that make our nation a haven for the persecuted, a beacon of hope among the nations.

May our actions reflect compassion for all people, within our borders and abroad. May our leaders and officials embody the vision of our founders: to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

We pray for courage and conscience as we aim to support our country’s highest values and aspirations: the hard-won rights that define us as a people, the responsibilities that they entail.

We pray for all who serve our country with selfless devotion - in peace and in war, from fields of battle to clinics and classrooms, from the government to the grassroots: all those whose noble deeds and sacrifice benefit our nation and our world.

We are grateful for the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness that our founders ascribed to you, our Creator. We pray for their wisdom and moral strength, that we may be guardians of these rights for ourselves and for the sake of all people, now and forever.

To hear this prayer offered by Senator Doug Jones, click here.

 


 

Made This Way

12/31/2020 09:01:49 AM

Dec31

My dearest Shma Koleinu,

For all of its spiritual teachings, Judaism is an extremely “this-worldly-oriented” tradition.  We certainly pray for peace and contentment, but we also pray for parnassah (a good living), achalta, v’savata uverachta (you shall eat, then you shall be satisfied and then you shall offer thanks), and for a refuah shleimah (a complete and total recovery of our bodies). 

Jewish tradition recognizes that while it is true that the pursuit of the material aspects of life can lead to folly, it is also rooted in the very nature into which we were created.  We are physical beings and we live in a physical world, so despite the occasional nihilism of our tradition, and the much more common nihilism of others, in the inimitable words of Lady Gaga, “we’re just made this way.”  And so is Shma Koleinu. 

Shma Koleinu is the result of a community that stakes claim to the idea that there ought to be no obvious and even invisible boundaries to access to Jewish life.  For seven years, we have built upon a foundation that is committed to the equal access to Jewish life for all Jews, Jewish families and those who love them.  Judaism is a well-source of wisdom and the more it can be made accessible and learnable, the more it can touch and connect lives, the more that there is Torah in the world, the better off all of us are. 

And as a supporter of Shma Koleinu this year, and over the past 7, you have made this possible.  We aren’t the only game in town, and we don’t seek to be.  But we have brought something new and generative to this Jewish community that has been about far more than Jewish continuity.  As an innovative, flexible, and dynamic organization, we have brought an inventive spirit that has remade Jewish life for us and has created ripple effects far beyond.   So thank you and all the others.  Thank you especially for this year and your willingness to “go with us” on this “virtual” but so very real journey.  Your generosity of time, talent, and treasure have made all the difference and will continue to as we take the next steps into the new year.

In the inimitable words of another great performer and teacher, I encourage you to click this link and then sit back and listen as Debbie Friedman sings us into 2021.

May we be blessed as we go on our way
May we be guided in peace
May we be blessed with health and joy
May this be our blessing, amen.
May we be sheltered by the wings of peace
May we be kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their
way to every soul
May this be our blessing, amen.
Amen, may this be our blessing, Amen.

From my home to yours.  From Natalie, Abraham, Sammy, Michigan (the dog) and myself, Happy New Year! 

Rabbi Scott

 

A Poem for Those Still Here, by Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss

12/24/2020 06:52:27 AM

Dec24

 

(Click HERE to Listen to this Poem.)

 

There are no acceptable casualties

Not as far as God is concerned.

There is no body count that will ever be OK.

In God’s place, you are the most important you that is.

 

The interrupted arc of any soul is not part of a greater plan

And no poetry or eulogy or elegy will suffice.

For God weeps when we, you, are in exile

From ourselves and God’s desire for life.

 

God we say, chafetz chaim, desires life

And all its glory, for this alone we are here.

To inspire we humans to choose life that we may live

This is the wildest call of all.

 

We are but long burning matches reaching for the wick

To shine brightly and with grace, wherever we happen to be.

To be partners, not servants, to the Divine, is why we are here

For God learned early on that God could not do it alone.

 

There is no one who matters not

No one whose journey isn’t blessed

No one whose question can be ignored

Because of how she has asked before.

 

Every life lost because his life “didn’t matter” to someone

Is a travesty of creation and the primordial light billions of years old

When even the smallest particle arrives after 14 billion years and cannot find one of us who should have been here to receive it

The angels cry and the firmament groans.

 

I do not know the answers for the forlorn

I do not know how to mend the most fractured hearts

Except to say that you do not have to be OK until you are OK

There is no remedy that can rewrite the past.

 

There is just we, our innately divine and human wiring

That electrifies our souls, and awakens us to what might yet be possible. 

Stay plugged in, even as you feel depleted

Stay connected even as you are frayed

Stay in touch, even when your skin smarts from the pain

For your life still matters and carries within it the grandest of possibilities.

Even as God weeps for the lost, God sits in shiva with you

Keeping in sight what is still yet unwritten by your hand.

 


 

 

 

God and Moses Walk into a Bar

12/17/2020 06:59:55 AM

Dec17

Scene: A Random Bar

Characters: God and Moses

Setting: Moses initiates the first fundraising campaign, with God serving as Moses’ fundraising consultant:

 

God: Moses, you know this Tabernacle is gonna cost a few shekels.

Moses: Well, it was Your idea to make it light and portable, yet dynamic and beautiful enough to do You proud.

God: Now, don’t blame me. These people have the pyramids of Egypt in their rear-view mirror.  It’s gotta be a little bit grand in order to keep their attention. 

Moses: All right, I get it.  But I think I am really going to have to threaten them in order to get these ex-slaves to part with some of their booty.  I mean, I still can’t get the image out of my mind of those Egyptians just handing over their shekels.

God: Well, there were those 10 plagues we brought. 

Moses: We?

God: I mean… I brought.  It’s this “Royal We” thing in translation that gets a bit messy.  I guess I should have thought about that back in Babel. 

Moses: Well, I still have my doubts about this fundraising effort.  So, what tack do you think I should try with them?  Fire and brimstone?  Staffs at High Noon?  Killer frogs?

God: Nah….give em a break. I think you should just ask them nicely – no pretense, no high-jinx, just use the magic word.

Moses: What’s the magic word?

God: Jethro.

Moses: Jethro?!, my father-in-law?

God: Just kidding. A little divine humor, Dante. 

Moses: What? 

God: Nothing.  Just ask all those who are moved in their heart to give, to do so. 

Moses: Asher lidveinu libo?

God: Yes, those who are moved in their hearts.  They are the ones who should give. 

Moses: I like that.  I mean, what we are building here is a portable structure for creating spiritual space….space for You, and by You, I mean We.  Am I using it right? 

God: Not exactly but you are catching my drift.  What I want them to know is that the best kinds of human organizations will always best be served by the voluntary generosity of time, talent and treasure. Im ein kemach, ein Torah.

Moses: Without flour, there’s no Torah?

God: No Moses, without money, there’s no Torah.  (Without money, time and bringing one’s best efforts.)  Great meaning and purpose are derived from the subsequent sharing of limited resources – it requires cooperation, generosity and keeping in mind that the more one invests in the organizations that have served her well, the stronger the community can become.  Every gift, no matter how large or small, is imbued with a spiritual depth that anchors the moment, the experience, the prayer and the people in something Divinely meaningful. 

Moses: So it really is the thought that counts!

God: That…and making sure you can pay the bills….

 

Shma Koleinu is built from the inspiration of this first “building campaign.”  We are a portable, flexible, inspired community that is here for you when you need us – whether weekly, monthly  or even just a few times a year.  Your support is what makes this possible.

 

Thank you to our sustaining contributors.  Your trust and faith in us keeps us going strong. (Sustaining Contributor = a household that donates any amount on a regular monthly or yearly basis.)

 

To those of you who have utilized our “services,” but have not yet participated in the funding of Shma Koleinu, please consider doing so.  Manna only fell from heaven back in the day.

 

And if you are so moved (and for some of you, perhaps your investments have moved in an upward direction), and you wish to raise or make an additional contribution this year, helping us “Strike our match,” we greatly look forward to hearing from you.  All the information can be found at www.cskhouston.com.

 

With love and great affection for this inspiring job,

 

Rabbi Scott

 

Writing our Lives

12/02/2020 05:17:17 PM

Dec2

This time of year, even and especially during this age of COVID, I find that people become a bit more nostalgic, perhaps a bit softer, reminiscing, observers of their lives. 

Ki hem chayeinu v’orech yameinu uvahem nehegeh yomam valailah.

For they are our life and the length of our days and we shall rejoice upon them each and every day and night. 

These words from Ahavat Olam remind us that we are the writers of the Torahs of our lives. Torahs?  Is that a type-o?  Maybe even heretical?  But think for a moment on the different chapters of your life, and how perhaps, from at least a close perspective, they don’t necessarily appear to be part of the story of a single protagonist.  Many of us have lived different lives in different places with different people.  Along the way, we develop different perspectives, different expectations, and different assumptions (unless of course, we have grown wise enough to not have any more of those at all!).  And in so doing, we become, God willing, better versions of ourselves.  One pop philosopher teaches, “If the you of 10 years ago wouldn’t recognize the you of today, you’re on the right path.” 

These are our lives and the length of our days – we are here to connect, to discover, to pursue curiosity and peace, in the goal of living well and with meaning, getting better at growing older, and keeping in mind and in heart, that the Torah of our lives is written by our hand.  Life may be filled with a myriad of “circumstances beyond our control,” but those parts of our lives are written in disappearing ink.  The only words that remain on the page are those we write ourselves.

"Giving Thanks this Thanksgiving"

11/25/2020 02:29:17 PM

Nov25

Dear Shma Koleinu,

Thank you.  Thank you 1000 times, thank you. You have made this possible.  You didn’t inherit this congregation from your parents or grandparents, or the many anonymous founders who came before.  Houston didn’t “need” another Reform congregation but you decided it needed something new.  We are not funded by a long accruing endowment or generational gravity.  We are the Mishkan, the tabernacle, the portable structure of the Israelites, whose whole, as Aritstotle taught, is far more than the sum of its parts.  Arks, Torah tables, ritual items, scrolls, books, speakers, microphones and these days, cameras, tripods, sound systems, virtual machinery, on their own is just a bunch of stuff.  When put together, all they form is a “set.” But with you, holy space. 

This is the beauty of Shma Koleinu – we bring Judaism to life in the midst of our lives.  This is only thanks, though, to you.  You believe in us.  You support us.  You encourage us and you challenge us.  (And by “us”, I mean you too!) We are so very grateful. 

There are so many today, right now, who are struggling to afford the basics of life, let alone a Thanksgiving feast.  In an effort to make the blessings of our lives matter even more, we would like to strongly encourage you today to make a donation in any amount to support the work of the Houston Food Bank.  Every dollar you donate to HFB provides three meals.  Imagine sitting at Thanksgiving tomorrow knowing that you personally fed one person for an entire day, one person who would otherwise have gone hungry. 

This is what it means to live life Jewishly.  This is why Shma Koleinu matters.  For sure, we need to take care of ourselves along this journey of life.  But along the way, some fall behind.  Let that not be the determination of their life.  Help them pick up the part they are carrying, without which, we will not be whole.

 

Click HERE for this week's upcoming events


 

"...so put on a happy face"

11/20/2020 11:13:36 AM

Nov20

I’m not sure that I’ve been very good company this week. I’ve been a bit prone to getting lost in a few too many hours of TV news. I put on a good face because I want no one to feel a sense of desolation, at least on my watch. But that doesn’t mean Natalie gets that good face all the time. COVID and our ever-discombobulating culture have, for the most part, presented someone like me, who generally relishes leaning into uneven ground, with significant catalysts for re-imagining Jewish prayer and spirituality. After all, as I have been wont to preach many times, it’s easy to be an optimist when things are going well. The spiritual work comes when we seek to find the good amidst the really difficult. Not because we are fatalistic, that this is all part of God’s plan. But that the plan, as unknowable as it remains, has always included the potential for the ups and the downs, the fortunate and the unfortunate. Nonetheless, I am definitely feeling the weight of this work. Keeping a stiff upper lip, keeping my eyes on the prize, putting one foot in front of the other, recognizing and affirming that it is these moments that help us feel the most alive… it’s all getting a little much. A lot much.

I do know that Shabbat and prayer and communal gathering, even though on-line, help. So please join us tonight. We need you to be there. As important, and please forgive me for my presumption, but you need it too.

If you haven't signed up for a Zoom link for Shabbat, click here to do so: https://www.cskhouston.com/.../recurring-live-stream

 


 

"Which Way to a Better World?"

11/18/2020 03:04:03 PM

Nov18

The Torah portion this week, called “Toldot,” revisits the story of the seeds of sibling rivalry. This oft-repeated theme in Torah and some of the greatest literature ever written, is laid out this week in a matter of verses. First, Rebecca struggles to become pregnant and even rails against the heavens over her deep distress from being unable to bring a child into the world.  Next, we no sooner learn that she is pregnant with twins who, as the text teaches, vayitrotzetzu habanim, have already begun wrestling and struggling for dominance, one over the other. Our sages of old, carrying their own prejudices and knowing who would come to bear the mantle of the Jewish people, imagine that the destiny of these nascent Jewish lives has already been set.  They would wrestle, the Rabbis taught, because whenever Rebecca would walk by a Beit Midrash (House of Study), Jacob would seek to reach out, so driven by his passion for study and learning.  And whenever Rebecca would walk by a brothel, it would be Esau whose yearning would betray his sacred genesis. 

Esau would be born, and he would be so named by his physical attributes, esav, ruddy and rough.  Jacob (Yaakov) on the other hand, would be named not by how he appeared but by the nature inferred of him, because he was holding onto his brother’s heel.  For lack of a more poetic definition, Yaakov earned the namesake of the “heel grabber” – one whose character was that of a person who would seek to pull another back so that he could get ahead.  I imagine that were I to have the choice, I would choose the former rather than the latter. Perhaps it is easier to be sized up by how you appear, than to be offered a mantle, that from day one, will hang over your head, always proclaiming that who you are today isn’t enough. Along these lines, I prefer to imagine the story through a Jewish mystical lens, that is one that would suggest that like other rivaling siblings, they are not two distinct people, but rather projections and characterizations that run through and manifest in all of us.  What is Jacob’s journey?  First he steals his brother’s blessing for a bowl of porridge; then he conspires with his mother, stands in pretense before his blind father, and takes advantage of, in truth, his brother’s deep commitment to provide for their father that which Isaac seeks.  Jacob’s malfeasance yields a stolen birthright, and then he runs away from all he knows to a land that God will show him- albeit a very different kind of “leaving” than that of his grandfather, Abraham’s. 

And then, in the middle of nowhere, he rests his head on a rock and he dreams. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he dreams and perhaps for the first time in his life, he discovers that God had been in this place all along. Angels from the earth to the heavens and back down again, a vision that is celestial but unclear.

Who am I? 

Why am I here and what’s next?

I am a shell of a human being with perhaps a hint of a seed. 

 

Over time, the seed will grow and help him become the father of a large family, the 12 tribes of Israel and according to Torah, all of the Jews who are to come ever since. So this is our story, not so much Jacob’s or Esau’s or Rebecca’s or Abraham’s.  That is why these stories matter – not to discern what it meant for them, but rather what their stories mean to us.

Who are we?

Where is God?  

Will we overcome our travails? Our namesakes? Our stories that others wove about us when we were young? 

Will we have our “Come to God” moment? Moments?”

And will we be open to them when they arrive? 

Will we presume them to be imposters, whose veracity we will doubt because they do not sound like all of the voices of the past? 

Or, will we declare, as does Jacob when he finally has his moment, “Achen. Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’Anochi lo yadati.“  “Behold!  God was in this place and I didn’t know it.” 

 

Paths of blessing are rather clear.  You know which is the direction that will yield more contentment for the greatest number of people.  You know better.  Whether you are one who navigates her life by the constellations of signs, portents and wonders or by those of kindness and goodness, staving off jealousy and greed, rage and selfishness, you know better. 

If the stories of our ancestors are not about us, they are about no one.  Their only gravity lies in the ways they are refracted through the prisms of our minds and our hearts.  All the rest is commentary.

 


 

"Memories of Jerusalem"

11/04/2020 12:44:04 PM

Nov4

I was a brand-new rabbinic student, sitting at a Jerusalem café with my professor, Rabbi Ben Hollander, z.l., who had been charged with providing me a primer on teaching prayer to high school students. It would be my job, as madrich, counselor for NFTY’s high school in Israel program, to meet daily with the students and teach and lead some version of prayer. I was an uber-novice in this area, having been inspired by visions of serving as a rabbi, having applied and been accepted to rabbinical school, but I had not been a youth group president or big involved in Hillel… but there I was with this job. The director of the program sensed that I would need some assistance and so in came Rabbi Hollander, may his memory be for a blessing, to work with me and to help me put together a plan. 

A note about Rabbi Hollander… Imagine a really beautiful and soulful version of Woody Allen, whose discombobulated exterior, truly belied his pristine soul.  He would lean on the dais as he lectured to us from thread-borne, dog-eared notes that he had taken when he was a student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, some 30 years earlier under the tutelage of Nechama Leibowitz (a great modern, Israeli, woman scholar at a time when few of these adjectives were generally strung together).  He was probably the last person I would’ve expected to teach me more about essential elements of Jewish prayer than anyone has done to this day.  His central premise for understanding the nature of Jewish prayer was that its purpose is to regularly and continually remind us of all that is going right in the world.  He would say over and over, we don’t need any help reminding ourselves of all that is broken. Jewish prayer on the other hand acts as a counter valance to human behavior, that evolutionarily may have made us physically safer, also made us soulfully challenged to easily find the good.

In the light of the memory of Rabbi Hollander, on this day after our national election about which we still do not have a final decision, I thought it would be a good idea to give ourselves the challenge of identifying the good that has nonetheless come from a rife, strident and existentially challenging political world.  I have three.

The first is thus far, by general consensus, that some of the great concerns about and threats of violence on election day did not come to fruition. Seeing very passionate and opposing groups peacefully protesting from two different sides of West Gray here in Houston, in front of the polling location at the West Gray Multi-Purpose center, protected and managed by the police with no subsequent drama other than verbal expressions for and against each other’s positions, gives me solace that democracy can be messy and imperfect but also peaceful.  The second is the sharp rise in ours and our fellow citizens’ knowledge of, attention to, and focus upon the really crucial, but too often ignored processes and safeguards of our democratic system.  High school civics has never felt as important to know and understand.  And the third is the gratitude that this moment does inspire from within me.  I am grateful that we have the spiritual tools to meaningfully respond to the moments in life when, not if, things don’t go entirely our way.  Whatever the outcome of this election, no one can un-see the divisions that exist in our society.  No one can pretend any longer that limiting one’s political speech to social media is enough.  No one can pretend that echo chambers are productive.  And everyone, whether or not they are spiritually or religiously driven, needs to regularly engage in efforts that open our eyes to all that is going right in the world.  It’s only when we do this that we can maintain an understanding of the world we are trying to build.

 


 

Upcoming Events

  • 10 @Noon - Monday - Friday, 12:00 pm, Words, Music, Meditation, Joy, and Healing With Rabbi Scott and Guest Musicians. Register HERE (if you have NEVER registered for 10 @Noon before.)
  • Shabbat, Friday, November 6, 6:15 pm Oneg, 6:30 pm Service led by Rabbi Scott with music by Kelly Dean. Register HERE (if you have NEVER registered for Shabbat Services before)
  • Kosher Pretzel, Saturday, November 7, 11:00 am, led by Rochelle Mannnigel and Rabbi Scott,  Register HERE
  • ERJCC Book Fair, November 7, 8:00 pm, Shma Koleinu is sponsoring, Jason Rosenthal, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me: A Memoir. Click HERE for more information and to purchase tickets.
  • Journey, Sunday, November 8, 10:30 am, Register for Journey HERE.
  • ​​​Schmooze Time, Wednesday, November 11, 12:15 pm - 12:45 pm, A little time to get together after 10 @NoonRegister HERE (If you have NEVER registered for Schmooze Time before) 

 

Connection - 101

10/27/2020 08:40:10 AM

Oct27

Monday, I introduced a new theme for 10@Noon, “Shame and Vulnerability.”  This is our third “theme” since we embarked on this venture of a 10-12 minute online gathering of those seeking some spiritual solace, and perhaps inspiration, on a weekday basis. 

We started with two of the middot, characteristics taught by our Musar tradition: “Humility,” Anavah and “Patience,” Savlanut.  One leads into the other- with Humility, we practice the art of finding our righteous places in the universe, but on a moment by moment basis.  At times, we are indeed meant to shine bright, but at many others, managing our “volume knob” is an intimate dance to the right and to the left.  The serious contemplation of “Humility” hones our agility for adjusting how big or small we need to be.

From this attribute of “Humility,” we discover that there are practices we can muster that help make it more accessible.  “Patience” is the art of expanding the distance between the fuse and the match.  Humility is both a thought and an act – but one doesn’t necessarily have to lead to or derive from the other.  Yes, indeed, the inner workings of our minds is important here, but these characteristics are significantly focused on our interactions with others, regardless of whatever machinations about others (or even ourselves) may have swum through our brains.  The proof is in the pudding, as it were.  There is the abundance of our thoughts and then there is how we CHOOSE to act. 

This week, we are raising up two new concepts, not officially part of Musar teachings, but certainly tangential to them or perhaps at their very origins: Shame and Vulnerability.  Brene Brown, a very modern day “teacher” of Musar, challenges us to focus on the manners in which our abilities to practice patience and humility are undermined by the stories we tell ourselves and, often without challenge, believe.  It is our gut, we are often taught to trust, however our guts don’t hold all of the wisdom of our bodies.  Our guts may awaken us to potential danger or even fortuitous chance, but they bypass the calming influences of compassion and empathy.  

Connection is why we are alive.  It's why we exist.

Shame is the voice that interrupts connection with messages of “not-good-enough-ness” that leads us to experiences of loneliness amongst even our closest family and friends.

Vulnerability is the only tool we have to combat shame – it melts in the face of our willingness to call it out. 

At the root of our ability to practice humility and patience is our deftness in the above.  Let us just contemplate these ideas, let them marinate in our minds, and see what arises.

 


 

Upcoming Events

  • 10 @Noon - Monday - Friday, 12:00 pm, Words, Music, Meditation, Joy, and Healing With Rabbi Scott and Guest Musicians Register HERE  (If you have NEVER registered for 10 @Noon before)
  • ​​​Shabbat, Friday, October 30, 6:15 pm Oneg, 6:30 pm Service led by Rabbi Scott with music by Josh GoldbergRegister HERE (if you have NEVER registered for Shabbat Services before)
  • Torah Study, Saturday, October 31, 11:00 am, Register HERE
  • Journey, Sunday, November 1, 10:30 am, Register for Journey HERE 
  • Couples in Conversation, Monday, November 2, 7:30 pm, Registration Required
  • Schmooze Time, Wednesday, November 4, 12:15 pm - 12:45 pm, A little time to get together after 10 @Noon, Register HERE (If you have NEVER registered for Schmooze Time before)
  • Kosher Pretzel, Saturday, November 7, 11:00 am, led by Rochelle Mannigel and Rabbi Scott, Register HERE
  • Saturday, November 7, 8:00 pm, ERJCC Book FairShma Koleinu is Sponsoring, Jason RosenthalMy Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me: A Memoir

 

The Fuse and the Match

10/19/2020 03:31:15 PM

Oct19

Patience is not my strong point, despite the numberless times my mother would admonish, “Patience is a virtue.”  “Lots of things are virtues,” I imagine my teenage self, mumbling under my breath.  Why should patience stand out so self-importantly?  Patience is for those who have to wait.  Isn’t life about going out and getting what’s yours?  Hot Potato?  Duck, duck, goose?  Monopoly?  Survivor?  The Bachelorette?  It would seem that so much of our world’s not so subtle messaging, teaches us from childhood to adulthood that patience may be virtuous, but virtue rather quickly gets thrown out with the bathwater.  The trouble is its really tough to clean up in a bathtub with dry rot.

Nonetheless, patience is tough.  I don’t know if its natural or not.  After all, I could imagine an evolutionary biologist making an argument that impatience is precisely what saved that caveman from being eaten by the sabre tooth tiger!  Then again, patience could also have been the silver bullet.  Whether natural or not, it ain’t easy for most of us, most of the time, despite the innumerous times you, as well heard that admonition from an elder: “Patience is a virtue.”

Perhaps most of us must suffer a great deal of foolishness, if not fools, before we discover the essential importance of patience, and its practice.  I don’t believe that those who are “better” at patience than others, are any less set back when someone cuts them off on the freeway, delivers a nasty retort to an offense (intentional or not), or reads about the latest political lie, distortion or graft.  No, those who are better at the practice of patience, have practiced the art of distancing the match from the fuse.[1] 

Patience appears to be the result of combining humility with responsibility.  This would seem to be a life practice that channels the notion of the imperfect manifestation of the tzelem Elohim (Image of God) that we are, with the ownership of our volition.  In other words, we know deep in our heart of hearts that we ourselves are not perfect, and there are plenty of examples when our reaction to something or someone was not a fair representation of what had been intended.  And if we know that, then we know that living as a tzelem Elohim means that all others do as well.  And therefore, over the course of their lives, they too have succumbed to the easy reaction of impatience, that imaginatively removes from our shoulders the responsibility to live in a way in which we don’t make matters worse.  Which is often what happens when our impatience gets the better of us. 

Savlanut, Patience, is our theme this week.  Join us for 10@Noon and Shabbat evening as we unpack this next midah, characteristic, in our exploration of ourselves. 

 

Upcoming Virtual Events - Week of October 22, 2020

10 @Noon - Monday - Friday, 12:00 pm, Words, Music, Meditation, Joy, and Healing With Rabbi Scott and Guest Musicians, Register HERE  (If you have NEVER registered for 10 @Noon before)

​​​Shabbat, Friday, October 23, 6:15 pm Oneg, 6:30 pm Service led by Rabbi Scott with music by Cantor Sara Hass, Register 
HERE (if you have NEVER registered for Shabbat Services before)

Journey, Sunday, October 25, 10:30 am, Register for Journey 
HERE 

Schmooze Time, Wednesday, October 28, 12:15 pm - 12:45 pm, A little time to get together after 10 @Noon, Register HERE (If you have NEVER registered for Schmooze Time before)

Torah Study, Saturday, October 31, 11:00 am, Register 
HERE

Couples in Conversation, Monday, November 2, 7:30 pm, Registration Required

Kosher Pretzel, Saturday, November 7, 11:00 am, led by Rochelle Mannigel and Rabbi Scott, Register 
HERE

Save the Date, Saturday, November 7, 8:00 pm, ERJCC Book FairShma Koleinu is Sponsoring. Jason Rosenthal, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me: A Memoir

 

 


[1] Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchak Perr

On Humility

10/12/2020 01:06:36 PM

Oct12

On Rosh Hashanah, which I know seems like eons ago, I spoke about the power of Humility. I referenced a story from the Talmud that serves as an origin tale for the prayer, Avinu Malkeinu.  The “Cliff Notes” version of the story is that Rabbi Eliezer was praying for rain and try as he did, he was unsuccessful in softening the heart of the Holy One of Blessing to bring rain to a thirsty landscape and people.  Once Rabbi Eliezer stepped down from the space before the ark, Rabbi Akiva stepped up and prayed deeply:  “Avinu Malkeinu….“Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You.  Our Father, Our King, we have no other King but You.”  And tradition teaches, the rain fell as bountiful blessing in response to the prayer of Rabbi Akiva.  However, this Talmudic tale doesn’t end there. Added to it is a clarification so to speak. It teaches that the rain came not because Rabbi Akiva was a greater man than Rabbi Eliezer or that his prayer was any more passionate, poetic or inspiring.  Rather, as the Talmud teaches, it was because Rabbi Akiva maavir el midotav, he was one who overcomes his righteous indignations. That despite the fact that at times there were individuals who would wrong Rabbi Akiva, he would act with greater forgiveness than even the retribution owed to him.  And that this was the Rabbis’ definition of one who is humble – one who resists the opportunity to extract his “pound of flesh,” regardless of how justified he might have been to act otherwise. 

This lesson came to me as I was studying the history of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, and I thought it made for a great sermon topic for the High Holy Days.  That said, it seems to me that this subject, Anavah, “Humility,” is too crucial and central to a just society that one reference on Rosh Hashanah doesn’t cut it.  According to the medieval rabbi, Bachya Ibn Pekuda, “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”  Now humility may sound to some like a luxury (or a necessity) better reserved for those blessed with power, prominence and acclaim.  That perhaps the majority of us can’t quite afford to be too humble – thus suffering the slings of those who would use it against us.  But this midah (characteristic) of Humility is not meant to cause one to suffer fools.  Rather, as Rav Abraham Isaac Kook would teach, “Humility is associated with spiritual perfection.  When humility effects depression it is defective; when it is genuine it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity.”

In other words, the practice of Humility, a centering effort that reminds us regularly and continually of our very imperfection, is the pathway towards both the strengthening of our self-esteem as well as a more fluid and approachable self in the world. 

This week for 10@Noon as well as Shabbat, we are going to dive into the theme of Humility and see what opens for us.  I would argue that the purpose of prayer and celebration is not only about the affirmation of what is good and working for us in our own world; it is also about a  striving for a better self.  What might that look like for you?

Driveway Judaism

09/10/2020 02:46:55 PM

Sep10

Next Tuesday, September 15, from 3 pm – 6:30 pm, drop by Rabbi Scott and Natalie’s home for Driveway Judaism.  Rabbi Scott will be waiting for you in his driveway, for you and yours to get video-ed:

  • Chanting the Torah blessings and/or
  • Singing the Havdalah blessings and/or
  • Wishing our community “Shanah Tovah u’metukah” (“Happy and Sweet New Year!”  

Links to practice videos and text are below.

Why?  Because we want YOU in our Livestream High Holy Days services!  To sign up, email Rabbi Scott to let him know about when to expect you and for his address.

This is going to be so much fun for you and for Rabbi Scott! He misses you and while you’ll be safely distanced, it’s always good to see each other in person. 

You can of course do these video recordings yourselves, but this way, you don’t have to worry about set up, you have the Rabbi there as your tutor/coach and he’ll send you home with some sweet wishes for a wonderful new year! 

The Torah blessings are those that are chanted before and after each Torah reading.  A “How-to-Chant-the-Torah-Blessings” video is available on our Shma Koleinu You Tube channel.  Just click here.

The Havdalah blessings over wine/graph juice, spices, light and the distinction between the “holy” and the “everyday,” will mark the separation between the end of the High Holy Days and the rest of the year.  A “How-to-Chant-the-Havdalah-Blessings” video is available on our Shma Koleinu You Tube channel.  Click here for a link to the video

And “Shanah Tovah u’metukah” means “We wish you a good and sweet year!”  It is pronounced, “Shaw-naw toe-vah oo-me-too-kaw.”

Losses and Gains

09/03/2020 08:58:05 AM

Sep3

Rabbi Morris Joseph teaches that when faced with the passing of a loved one, we often frame it as a “loss.”  But the truth, because death is, well, 100% ubiquitous… that perhaps we should seek to reframe our loss as a “lack of the gain” we were so fortunate to have had.  That because every one of us does indeed have a “sell by” date, that is fortunately left off the “package” of our own lives, the humility of the limits of our lives should inspire us to make each day matter.  Today is the 14th day of Elul, meaning we have yet about 15 more days to seek to make Rosh Hashanah matter.  You and I are only here for a bit, a blip, a nanosecond in comparison to the 14 billion years since God declared, “Let there be light.”  But that bit and blip and nanosecond is enough to create new worlds every day of our lives with the words we speak, with the tones we use, with the resentments we discard, and the generosity we channel.  Let your losses become your gains, for the alternative is to just to remain mired in yesterday.

Feet Up or Prayer Tablet in Hand

08/28/2020 09:34:23 AM

Aug28

It’s probably unnecessary to once again recognize the uniqueness of this moment.  But indeed it has been a very, very long time since Jews, Jewish families, and those who love them, as well as our neighbors, colleagues, and fellow strangers have found ourselves sheltering in our homes for fear of the outside.  Some are terribly frightened of the risks to their health and those whom they love.  Others are caught in the terrible vice grip of having to choose between livelihood and health.  Still others, in this moment, wonder where they will learn and where they will teach, and how these remain tenable.  So much heartache, so much fear, and far too many slings and arrows shot out of rage and anger and doubt.  

This is also a time of great promise - civic engagement growing in leaps and bounds, citizens paying so much more attention to their representatives, human beings praying and meditating and realigning priorities in ways and manners not often seen.  For many, this “Age of COVID” has been a wake-up call to the detritus of a civilization too often forgetful that indeed a society is only as strong as its weakest link.  I have personally witnessed the soulful growth of folks who had never really prayed before.  I mean, they have attended services, and at times, at moments, felt the fracture of a broken heart…but so many of us haven’t really prayed that much of our lives.  Perhaps it’s a civilizational hazard, at least when things are going mostly right.  We Rabbis are grateful for the High Holy Days.  Not simply because they have served us well, as congregations and Jewish communities, but because we “get you back” in so much larger numbers, at least for a little while.  However, as you are aware, this is a different time – different but no less important.  In fact, far more so.

I would argue that as unconventional as these High Holy Days will be for all of us, they may also be the most important Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers we have uttered.  Much is on the line – and as Pirke Avot teaches, “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, ‘The day is short; there is much work to be done; yet the laborers are lazy, even though the wages are great and the Housebuilder is insistent.”  No, not a terribly inspiring take on human beings but perhaps it’s just that God has high expectations of us:

…that we will overcome our jealousy to act with dignity towards our neighbor.

…that we will allow the din of the story of our fellow to be heard over the roar of our own.

…that we will accept that the messiness of viruses are a natural outgrowth of the fantasticness of being alive in a world in which our creative ability can be both our redemption and our undoing.  

The High Holy Days arrive for us just in time.  Almost exactly one half of a year has passed since COVID-19 became a household name (more “household” than we ever would have imagined) – enough time for the novel to cease being so, but not so much time that we cannot turn the ship.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are laden down with messages we must heed.   And so, Shma Koleinu endeavors to bring them to life with relevance, engagement, powerful lessons and truly inspiring, soul-lifting music.  

If you’re one of those who hasn’t ever really listened to our liturgy at this time of year, now is the time.  If you have rarely been touched or are simply in need of being touched by the holy depth of the words and teachings of this tradition that implores us to act with the belief that redemption is always possible, this year is your year.  You can sit in the comfort of your home, prayer book or prayer tablet in hand, choosing whether or not to wear shoes, getting to choose the exact volume you would prefer (or perhaps that which your spouse or partner prefers) and let the words of our faith wash over your soul as water upon rough stone.  This is your moment.  This is our moment when we can be renewed.  

Rabbi Scott's Intro  to and Susan Nerlove's    Blog "Shma Koleinu  Votes 2020" 

08/19/2020 06:43:22 PM

Aug19

Intro by Rabbi Scott

"So Holly reaches out to Susan Nerlove with an offer she couldn’t refuse (in my head, I’m hearing these words a la “The Godfather.”) 

"In the really lovely blog post that follows, written by Susan, she suggests that perhaps I might possibly weigh in on the Jewish view of the right to vote and one’s deep responsibility to exercise it.  I could quote Pirke Avot: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  I could offer the Talmudic teaching that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world entire.”  But I think my first and strongest go-to would be Hillel, which, yes, I know I recently quoted the great sage, but he is very quotable you know!  Im ein ani li, mi li?  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Ucshe ani l’atzmi mah ani?  And if I am only for myself, what am I?  V’im lo achshav eimatai?  And if not now, when?  In these words are the encouragement, the argument, the injunction that to demur from voting is to abdicate any sense of civic responsibility.  To limit one’s engagement to voting is to abdicate any sense of expecting that others should stand for you.  And to insist that there will always be enough time, is to disinherit from the legacy of those who acted for us when we needed them the most.  Whoever that is, whether in this generation or in a generation past, someone, somewhere, more than likely made a decision, without which we would perhaps not ever have walked this earth.  Consider this Judaism’s offer you just can’t refuse and Vote!

"Thank you Susan for your leadership and commitment to civil society and engagement."

 

Shma Koleinu Votes 2020

 

Image.jpeg

 

Monday, August 17, 2020

This morning I was chatting with my friend and fellow Shma Koleinu member Sara Jacobson, the first time we had been in touch since the pandemic began. When I told her about the post on voting Holly asked me to write, she shared a memory of having been too young at age 18 to vote in the 1968 presidential election.  After we hung up, she e-mailed me her recollection:

I really wanted to vote in the 1968 presidential election. So much was at stake with the Vietnam War raging and many other important issues being debated…I was going to turn 18 on Election Day, but I could not vote…18 year olds who could marry, work, be drafted (well, men only) and be expected to pay taxes did not have the right to vote in elections…[It wasn’t until 1971 that the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, lowering the voting age to 18]
 
In talking with Sara, I think about how this year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote. I think about the continuing effort championed by the late Congressman John Lewis to protect and strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Sitting in the dining room which has been my office since March, I think about how as the November 3 presidential election draws near, we are in the middle of a pandemic during which a trip to the polls requires a calculus of risk to our personal safety; and how even the U.S. Postal Service we have long taken for granted can’t guarantee that mail ballots will arrive on time.

We haven’t always had the right to vote, and in fact many of us with that right don’t always choose to exercise it. What does Judaism have to say about that? I am not a Biblical scholar (I’m sure Rabbi Scott can help us dive more deeply into that subject); but as a Jew who cares about voting, I have spent some time thinking about it.  Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Inter-Religious Affairs at AJC wrote a whole essay about democracy being a “moral imperative” in Judaism in which he delves into Torah and Talmudic tracts to support the argument. (https://www.rabbidavidrosen.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Democracy-A-Moral-Imperative-in-Judaism.pdf)