Meditating spies


Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

A Festival of Lights — lite


How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Here’s a hint: Sing this song by Deborah Kornfield to the tune of “I Have a Little Dreidel”:

I have a brand new lightbulb,
It’s a miracle you see;
It lights the room completely,
Using half the energy.
Oh compact fluorescent lightbulb.
I really have to kvell;
It’s just so energy efficient.
And it saves you gelt as well.

The question is, in fact, the name of a campaign launched by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Humorous title and cute lyrics aside, COEJL is on a serious mission to heighten ecoconsciousness in a Jewish context, and this initiative focuses on — you guessed it — energy-efficient lightbulbs.

COEJL’s Web site describes its three-pronged approach of “engaging the Jewish community in awareness, advocacy and concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy conservation and sustainable legislation,” in order to “change how American Jewry responds to … daunting environmental problems.”

This all sounds good, but why, you may be wondering, is this a Jewish issue?
God said this to Adam: “See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created, I made for you. [But] be mindful that you do not spoil and destroy My world — for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

And, COEJL argues, Jewish values such as tikkun olam and tzedek should be extended to include not just people but other animals and plants.

OK, you’ve conceded. It is Jewish. But is this really about Chanukah?

Well, what about the Festival of Lights? About making resources last longer than we thought they could? Like for eight nights, perhaps?

High-efficiency lightbulbs actually last eight times longer than regular lightbulbs. Imagine that. And speaking of the number eight, see COEJL’s list of eight actions in eight days as a simple and concrete way to bring some ecoconsciousness into your Chanukah holiday practice.

So, you might be left wondering, just how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb? As many as possible. As of the writing of this article, more than 20,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs have been sold through COEJL, saving 8,250 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

So, as you nosh on your latkes this Chanukah, be a modern-day Maccabee — take action against global warming and environmental degradation.

Rachel Kantrowitz is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Avoid an Oops in Shooting Your Video


Little Rachel takes her first steps — but your camcorder battery dies before you get the shot.

Your family reunion includes Grandma Shirley, whom you haven’t seen in 15 years and, frankly, may never see again. You interview her on video, but when you sit down later to watch it, the sound is so bad you can’t understand a single word.

At my brother’s bar mitzvah, a family member showed up late with the video equipment, set up the camera and forgot to push record.

Whether you’re trying to capture a wedding, b’nai mitzvah or 50th anniversary celebration, the day will come and go whether you’re ready for it or not. Unless you’re prepared, the opportunity to capture family history can easily slip through your fingers.

Losing such precious moments can be depressing. But with a little advance planning, attention to detail and some practice, you can shoot home videos your family will kvell about for years to come. Here are some tips:

1. Don’t forget to push record. Once you push “record,” confirm that you are recording. Every video camera features a recording indicator, typically located in the viewfinder or the view screen. As you get ready to focus on your subject, the first thing you should do is look in the viewfinder or on the screen and note whether the recording indicator is on.

2. Charge your batteries. This is one of the most common mistakes. The battery that came with your video camera will not last longer than one hour. In addition, after a few years, rechargeable batteries don’t hold their charge well. Even buy an extra battery pack or two, charge them and have them on hand in case your primary battery loses its charge.

3. Focus on sound. Bad sound is often the biggest killer of home videos. Are you only using the standard built-in microphone? Be conscious of its limited range. If you’re recording someone nearby, try to get as close to the person as possible. If you’re at a gala event and someone is using a microphone, try to get close to the electronic amplification speaker.

4. Stabilize your shot. All modern video camcorders have a stabilization option. Turning this option on will improve your shots tremendously. I require my professional videographers, who shoot everything from wedding videos to commercials, to turn this option on.

5. Use both hands. Shaky camera work can give friends and family headaches. Do not hold the camera in one hand, stretching your arm out in front of you. Instead, hold the camcorder with both hands, and hold the camera against your body. For even greater stabilization, lean your back against a wall.

6. Forget the zoom. Don’t use the zoom. Instead of constantly zooming in for closeups and then zooming out for wider shots, try holding the camera against your body, framing your shot like a still photograph. To get closer to the image, simply walk closer, using your body as a large stabilization weight. To get a wider shot, simply walk backward — but be careful.

7. Look in two places at once. This is a more advanced move. Learn to keep one eye watching your camcorder’s viewfinder or screen and the other eye looking outside the field of the screen to see what person or object may soon be coming into your frame. This allows you to anticipate and prepare your camera move.

8. Learn from your mistakes. Take some time out a few days before an event and shoot some practice footage. Spend a few minutes reviewing a short piece of it, and note how you could improve.

Also, don’t save the camera for special events. Keep practicing your video skills by recording everyday family moments. After all, you don’t want to be scrambling for footage 10 years from now, when you want to create a video montage of your child to show during a bar or bat mitzvah.

David Notowitz is owner of Notowitz Productions, a video production company that specializes in corporate videos, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. His Web site is

The Fastest Therapy in the West


First there was speed dating. Now, there’s speed healing.

Welcome to The Ten Minute Method, a new form of condensed counseling offered by a Chatsworth therapist that promises to be both fast and affordable at $18 a session.

You may be thinking: 10 minutes? That’s just long enough to rearrange the throw pillows on the couch, pick at your cuticles as you fixate on a poorly framed Matisse print and hear, “We have to end now,” as your shrink eyes the clock on the end table. Not so, according to Richard Posalski, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage, family and child counselor who invented The Ten Minute Method.

“When people know they only have ten minutes, they’re prepared to crystallize what’s going on with them in a straightforward manner,” says Posalski. “In conventional therapy, roughly 75 percent of the time can be just venting and never getting to the problem.”

After 30 years in the business — Posalski was a social worker for the Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles and a member of the field faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before going into private practice — he says less “clutter and confusion” helps him use his intuition to get “right to the heart of the matter.” The therapist describes his counseling style as “Jewish pragmatic.”

So far, he’s conducted about 80 10-minute sessions and has helped patients with a wide range of problems, from one woman’s question about how to handle her sister’s holiday visit, to a mom’s inability to let go of anger at her son’s little league coach. Sessions, both in person and over the phone, deal with “everyday” issues, the type of concerns people are always approaching Posalski with at parties, as in: “This dip is great. By the way, have you ever treated anyone deathly afraid of flying?” Being approached at social events only reminds the counselor that most people have at least one question they’d love to ask a professional.

“There are all kinds of people that want help but would never get into therapy. Either it’s too time-consuming or too expensive, or maybe for the average person, the notion of having their psyche probed is a deterrent,” he explains.

If the idea of a 10-minute therapy session calls to mind those massage therapists who set up chairs at holiday office parties or in front of the health food store, that’s no coincidence. In fact, that’s how the counselor got the idea, watching a masseur set up his chair in the lobby of a local bed and breakfast. He thought, with limited time and resources wouldn’t a talk be as good as a rub?

“I just want to help people feel better,” he says. “And you don’t have to feel crazy to take advantage of a therapist.”

Posalski’s Web site is www.The10minutemethod.com. He can be reached for appointments at (818) 773-9988.

 

Hillel Readies Plan of Attraction


The Jewish college student of today is likely to be more interested in discussing religion than in practicing it. Therein lies a challenge and an opportunity, and Hillel, the college Jewish organization, says it’s ready to respond.

It was in the summer of 2004 that Hillel began work on a five-year plan to attract the two-thirds of Jewish college students who say they don’t go to Hillel activities. That troubling statistic has been one of the most talked-about findings from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS).

To find out more about the mindset of today’s Jewish college students, researchers culled current literature on “the millenials,” people born since 1982. They looked at studies, including the NJPS, Linda Saxe’s 2002 “Jewish Freshmen” study and the recently released “I-Pod Generation.” They also consulted executives from Jewish federations, Hillel staff and lay leaders; ran focus groups on six campuses, and analyzed responses from 603 Jewish undergraduates who answered a random survey.

Hillel President Avraham Infeld discussed the group’s findings at the General Assembly of Jewish organizations this week in Toronto, and Hille’s strategic pla will be released in 2006.

Millenials, both Jewish and non-Jewish, “tend to be very focused on accomplishments,” said Julian Sandler, chair of Hillel’s strategic planning committee. “They’re very capable, they have high regard for the values of their parents, they’re hypercommunicative and they tend to shun denominational labels.”

On religious attitudes, they have a more individualized worldview, a lack of interest in traditional institutions and an interest in diversity. Which translates to that preference for discussing religion than practicing it.

Above all, they are constantly multitasking. As one expert put it to Sandler, “They may have multiple windows open simultaneously to their identity, and being Jewish is just one of those windows.”

The Hillel team also concluded that Jewish students in the survey “were more likely to self-identify as Jewish by ethnicity, rather than by religion,” said Graham Hoffman, Hillel’s director of strategic resource management.

At the same time, students say they feel proud of their Jewish identification and are willing to publicly identify as Jews by displaying Jewish objects in their rooms, such as menorahs, mezuzahs and Israeli posters, and by wearing Jewish items, such as chai necklaces, Stars of David and T-shirts with Jewish slogans. (Wearing a kippah was not included in the survey’s list of Jewish items.)

Perhaps the most interesting data to emerge from the study, Sandler and Hoffman said, is what students described as the top barriers to their involvement with Jewish life on campus. Hoffman noted that an overwhelming number of Jewish students said they want Hillel to be “more welcoming,” a finding that validates increased efforts to be inviting, while also hinting at a need for further tweaking.

“Hillel has always been home to a certain group on campus, those who come with strong Jewish identification and strong Jewish values,” Sandler said. “We need to find those who are proud of their Jewishness, curious about their Jewishness, but not sure how to translate that into making their Jewishness an integral part of their lifestyle.”

One strategy has been to offer non-Jewish-specific activities or Jewish activities that also are open to non-Jews. Hillel at the University of Washington co-sponsored an outdoor showing of the film, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” during this fall’s welcome week.

And then there’s “hookah in the sukkah,” a program where Hillel builds a sukkah in the middle of a campus and invites all students, not just Jews, to join them for a meal.

 

Make Resolutions That Will Stick


"We have spoken slander; we have acted presumptuously; we have practiced deceit."

Each year we beat our chest and resolve to change. And each year, we make promises to ourselves: I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to stop gossiping. I’m going to learn to play the piano.

Yet long before Chanukah rolls around, the resolve has dissipated. With all our good intentions, we never quite manage to change.

"Unless you hit a crisis … most people don’t change their lives," psychotherapist Yona Kollin said. Her husband, Gilbert Kollin, rabbi emeritus of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, said that while the High Holidays provide a helpful mechanism for making positive changes in our lives, most congregants who attend services "aren’t necessarily there for resolutions."

For those truly committed to making changes, he said, the High Holidays can facilitate that process as they are designed to take us through a process of self-assessment.

"You ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do in the year ahead better than in the year prior?’ It’s like a business plan," Gilbert Kollin said. "Imagine you’re in bankruptcy court. You’re filing a moral Chapter 11 and saying to God, ‘This business is bust. But give me a year.’ And God says, ‘Show me a plan.’"

Spiritual preparation for the High Holidays actually begins a month prior to Rosh Hashanah, during the month of Elul. During that time, we are encouraged to take stock of the past year, pinpointing our strengths and weaknesses, examining the impact of our deeds and clarifying our goals. Teshuva (returning to the desirable path) involves three steps: Regretting our misdeeds, confessing them and committing not to repeat them.

It’s not necessarily an easy process, but as Yona Kollin notes, real change requires effort. "In cognitive therapy, you think about what you want to do and practice it over and over until it becomes automatic," she said. "It won’t happen without practice."

"It’s what Heschel called ‘a leap of action.’ You become what you do," her husband added. The High Holidays "hopefully give an opportunity to focus on whether your actions represent your thoughts," he said. "If you find dissonance, you have to determine what you want to do and what actions you need to take in order to get there." Having the thoughts without taking the actions, he said, will only lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

Both Jewish practice and psychological theory prescribe similar formulas for making change: Identify the goal, identify the steps needed to reach the goal and put your intentions into action. Repeat as necessary. Make goals specific, and focus on just a few.

But why even bother trying to change the very habits that we already know we’ll be seeking forgiveness for next year? After all, the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) lists a whole host of sins we’re destined to commit.

"God doesn’t expect us to be perfect," Gilbert Kollin said. "God has the role of judge, but also the role of parent … who might not demand an ‘A’ so much as an honest effort," he said. "We know we’re not going to be perfect, but the question is: Can we do better?"

Circumcision Lite


An undeniable physical reminder of a man’s connection to Judaism, circumcision has been an important focus of the first days of a boy’s life since before we received the Torah. However, for almost as long, there have been people who question the act of circumcision and those who have rallied for eliminating the practice.

Modern times are no exception. In fact, through televised programs and numerous Web sites, the anti-circumcision movement is gaining increased exposure and coverage.

Though most Jewish families still choose to circumcise their sons, some parents are looking for alternatives to their baby boy’s tearful parting with his foreskin. Often, these parents are torn between sparing their child the pain of circumcision and maintaining a connection with Jewish traditions and commandments.

As central as the mitzvah of circumcision is to Judaism, some parents have created alternative rituals. One such ceremony is called brit shalom, or covenant of wholeness, during which parents might read Bible passages and recite the traditional blessing normally recited at a brit milah, but there is no circumcision performed.

Another procedure called hatafat dam brit is also being used in place of a circumcision. Usually only appropriate in the case of already circumcised converts or adopted babies, or when a baby is mistakenly circumcised at the hospital, hatafat dam brit is a Jewish ritual circumcision performed by drawing a drop of blood from the site of the circumcision.

Dr. Fred Kogan, a prominent mohel in the Los Angeles area, is concerned about the increasing number of requests he is getting for this ritual. “People don’t want to circumcise during this big anti-circumcision movement and are looking for something to take its place,” he says. “People have been calling me now, saying, ‘We think it’s barbaric, horrific, and we don’t want to do this to our child.'” He adds that, on the other hand, parents may want to placate grandparents, and many don’t want to exclude themselves from the Jewish world.

In reality, there is no alternative to circumcision, Kogan maintains. “Circumcision is a cultural, physical sign,” he says. “It’s something you have to go through if you want to be part of the team.”

Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics, a Los Angeles Orthodox mohel, has not received many requests for circumcision alternatives, but he is quick to dismiss the appropriateness of hatafat dam brit. “It is totally invalid, totally meaningless. The only way that the drop of blood is valid is if there is no foreskin.” Otherwise, he says, “It is just a waste of a drop of blood.”

Rabbi Dennis Eisner, L.A. director of the Berit Milah Program (a joint project of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he is assistant dean, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is in contact with mohels throughout the world. Regarding invalid applications of hatafat dam brit, he says, “I don’t think it’s very widespread. … There may be people out there who are trying to appease parents, but those people are wrong. They are doing a disservice to the young men who are entering in the community. It is not what we’re about, not what we’re promoting, and not what we’re suggesting.” Though he recognizes that the once-asserted medical benefits of circumcision are now falling into doubt, Eisner does not see this as relevant to the Jewish act of brit milah. “There is some ambivalence about the medical act of circumcision, but we are not about the medical act of circumcision,” he says, but about entering into a covenant with God.

Leaders in the anti-circumcision movement say the number of Jewish parents looking for alternatives to circumcision is rising. Ronald Goldman, author of “Questioning Circumcision — A Jewish Perspective” and director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, Mass., says, “The large majority of Jews are not aware of the religious reasons” for circumcision “and do so for cultural reasons.”

Goldman, who does not see his ideas as a threat to modern Judaism, says his book is not directed at traditional Jews. “We are not here to tell people what to do, but to provide an alternative. We’re here to support Jews who are questioning circumcision, to let them know they are not alone. … We have been contacted by hundreds of Jews who are questioning circumcision. We’re also here to clear up the myths and misunderstandings about circumcision.” Goldman calls into question whether one really needs to be circumcised to be Jewish, suggesting that one only needs to be born to a Jewish mother. He adds that circumcision is in direct violation of the Torah’s prohibition against self-mutilation.

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Temple Sinai in Westwood says, “These points are dealt with extensively by the rabbis.” While there are laws against self-mutilation, circumcision is considered the removal of something that is not necessary, he explains, comparing the foreskin to the unneeded parts of a fruit. “It’s important at one stage, but it is ultimately not part of the fruit, like the stem of an apple.” Fasman says, “Human beings don’t own their bodies; God owns their bodies,” adding that it is God who is commanding us to circumcise.

Fasman sees the modern hesitations about circumcision as partly due to our rights-based society. “Rights is a whole new language, and it is often at direct odds with standard Jewish thought. We are inheritors of the rabbinic tradition, which is [that] we best fulfill our obligations in this world. We best fulfill our obligation through the performance of mitzvot.”

According to Anita Diamant in “The Jewish Baby Book,” the Torah refers to the foreskin as the orlah, which, she says, “means not only foreskin but also any barrier standing in the way of beneficial results. The word orlah is also used as a metaphor for obstructions of the heart that prevent a person from hearing or understanding God. Removing the orlah is interpreted as a permanent, physical sign of dedication to the ongoing task of perfecting the self in order to be closer to the Holy One.”

All parents of Jewish boys feel anxiety about their sons’ discomfort during the bris, but most accept it as part of being Jewish and as something the baby gets through. While Jewish parents seeking alternatives to circumcision are few, Kogan fears it’s a growing trend. “When anything starts, people say, ‘Eh, it’s nothing.’ But if I had three people call me in the past three years, and none in the previous 14 years, there must be a lot more people out there.”

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