Sermon of the Year


There are many unique quirks in the Orthodox tradition, but few that I love more than the late-afternoon sermon on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat that falls betweenRosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Here in Pico-Robertson, it’s the sermon many people wait for all year— the one that rabbis often spend months preparing.

Even its time slot is unique. Unlike regular sermons that are part of the morning prayer service, the Shabbat Shuva sermon has its own time and space: late afternoon, when the big meals and rituals are behind us, the light of dusk beckons, and everyone knows there are precious few moments left of their holy day of rest.

Film directors call this end-of-day light the “golden light.” It’s not the bright, naked light of the mid-day, nor the dramatic darkness of the night. It’s the light that bridges those two worlds. Spiritually, it’s the time when the past and the future caress each other — the day is still fresh in our mind, but we can feel the breath of the approaching night.

On Shabbat Shuva, the time of year is also golden: We’ve just left the bright intensity of the Day of Judgment and are about to enter the somber and moody intensity of the Day of Atonement.

It is under this golden, transitional light that hundreds of Torah-observant Jews migrate through the streets of Pico-Robertson every year to hear their respective rabbis give what is affectionately called “the Shabbat Shuva drash.”

It’s a sermon that comes with an ancient pedigree. Over the centuries, the tradition was for rabbis to give only two sermons a year, on Shabbat Shuva and on the Shabbat before Pesach. Today, of course, rabbis of all denominations have become human sermon machines, giving sermons every Shabbat and on all the holidays.

In the Orthodox world, however, maybe as homage to our ancestors, the rabbis still treat their Shabbat Shuva sermons as their most important of the year. There’s a sense of anticipation you don’t feel any other time of the year, even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A rabbi friend of mine, in trying to explain the uniqueness of the Shabbat Shuva sermon, has this theory that the sermon itself is part of the process of teshuvah (repentance or return) that is our central spiritual task at this time of year. In this view, the sermon is not just a sermon, but a deep personal act, one that can lead to some uncomfortable moments.

I’ve seen it happen. At Young Israel of Century City, I once saw Rabbi Elazar Muskin, during his Shabbat Shuva drash, express his personal embarrassment at a letter he had received during the previous year. It was from a visitor who did not feel welcomed at his shul. In front of a rapt audience, the rabbi stood there and took the heat. Then, in the spirit of teshuvah, he implored his flock to be welcoming at all times so the shul would never receive a letter like that again.

The most uncomfortable I’ve felt at a Shabbat Shuva drash was last week, when Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation meditated on the touchy subject of ulterior motives in religious practice.

I sat a few feet from the rabbi. While people were still shuffling in, I could see Kanefsky, dressed in a white robe, closing his eyes in deep concentration as he stood at the lectern.

He picked one phrase from the Shabbat prayer — “And purify our hearts to serve You with truth” — and asked: “Do we have a prayer?”

He spent the first 30 minutes making the case that no, we don’t have a prayer. Through the words of King David, Rashi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides, Isaiah and even Sigmund Freud, he dissected the simple reality that human nature is innately driven by self-interest and ulterior motives.

Yes, even when we live a religious life. We might tell ourselves that our motives are noble and Godly, but deep down, we know we are motivated by more mundane things, like a need for community, a desire to belong and feel accepted, the security of an orderly lifestyle, a craving for honor and recognition, and so on.

Kanefsky made it a point not to denigrate these motives, because they are part of human nature. But Judaism at its best, he explained, helps us transcend our natures in the service of a higher and holier ideal.

This is where it got uncomfortable.

Kanefsky accused himself of often having ulterior motives when he prayed enthusiastically on Shabbat. Why? Because deep down, he knew this behavior was expected of him, and it was hard to separate the motive of “playing to the crowd” from the purer motive of “serving God with truth.”

This might look like someone being too hard on himself, but if you were up close like I was, you could see that Kanefsky meant it. Evidently, he was going through his own teshuvah in front of his flock. He was telling us that while no one will ever have the purity of Abraham, the essence of being religiously observant and of doing teshuvah was to aim for a greater purity in our relationship with God.

To help us in that journey, he enlisted the words of Heschel from “God in Search of Man”:

“This is how we must begin in our effort to purify the self: To become aware of our inner enslavement to the ego, to detect the taints in our virtues, the tinge of idolatry in our worship of God…. The sting of shame is the only pain the ego cannot bear…. To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection.”

As people filed out of the shul and into the twilight on Pico Boulevard, I had this feeling that the rabbi had given us enough taints, tinges, stings and hopes to last us until the next sermon of the year.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Yom Kippur Dilemma


Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Liturgy reminds us what we can do to avert evil


Sept. 11, 2001, occurred just six days before Rosh Hashanah. It was the tail end of what had been a difficult 12 months on the Jewish calendar: violence in Israel, a presidential election arbitrated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Enron scandal.

Then, on a particularly gorgeous morning, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. Rabbis who had worked hard on their High Holy Days sermons all August rushed to rewrite them.

The liturgy seemed stunningly relevant. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? We acknowledge our vulnerability in light of death, the harsh decree. But, the liturgy tells us, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds) will avert — not nullify, but avert — the evilness of the decree.

In other words, we cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

So here we are seven years later, about to enter the Jewish year 5769. The deaths of Sept. 11 have been compounded by more deaths in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. In many ways our world is more violent and certainly more fearful than it had been. Evidence of evilness abounds.

But this is also the time to take stock of the ways in which our liturgy speaks to a universal human theme. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews, in the face of tragedy have chosen to move forward in these seven years — to engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

Teshuvah: For some Americans, the first step of repentance was to say, “I don’t know enough; let me repair my ignorance.” Since early 1992, groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women have been joining together in living rooms to discuss books about their respective faiths. The Daughters of Abraham book groups began in Cambridge, Mass., when one Christian woman realized she didn’t personally know any Muslims. Now there are 14 such groups in the Boston area alone. We just began one in Philadelphia and already there is a waiting list.

Tefillah: In 2001, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Albuquerque decided she wanted to pray for peace alongside Muslims. So she called the local mosque, where she knew no one, and found herself on the phone with a scientist and peace activist named Abdul Rauf Marqetti. They came up with the idea of a peace walk — a meditative, prayer-in-motion march for Jews and Muslims together.

In 2003, a group of Philadelphians decided to emulate them, and with no institutional backing, an ad hoc collection of Jews, Christians and Muslims began meeting monthly at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Kensington section of the city. The first walk began at the mosque, stopped for prayer at two churches and culminated at a synagogue. It drew 400 people. Plans are under way for the sixth annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace this coming spring.

Philadelphians are not the only ones praying with others. In 2000, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted a survey to find out how many congregations, if any, had participated in an interfaith service in the past year. The answer was 7 percent. By 2005, the number had grown more than threefold to 23 percent.

Tzedakah: The Hartford study had even more striking news. When it asked about community services, the institute learned that 8 percent of congregations had joined with those of other faiths to improve conditions in their communities. Five years later it found 37 percent — a nearly fivefold increase.

Which brings us to Eboo Patel, a young Muslim born in India and raised in the American Midwest. In 2001, he was in England completing his studies as a Rhodes scholar. When he returned to the United States, he had a big idea. The way Patel saw it, young people want to change the world, and extremists are expert at giving them a cause to believe in, an exciting and dramatic movement to be part of. But what about moderate, pluralistic, liberal men and women, he wondered, those who saw religion as a way to work across faiths to make the world a better place? Could they offer young people a compelling counterpart to what the extremists offered?

Patel thought so. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago to bring together young men and women of different faiths to serve their communities. Since 2001, his staff has grown to 20; Jewish teenagers and college students throughout the country are joining with Muslim and Christian peers to create a national interfaith youth movement.

Something is happening out there, something good. It does not eradicate the very troubling developments precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks, but in small ways it is helping our society achieve what Jews worldwide seek to achieve at this time of year — to avert the severity of the decree.

That’s worth remembering as we mark another anniversary of that beautiful and horrible September morning — and another Rosh Hashanah. This year our anxiety — who will live and who will die? — must be matched by our belief in our ability to make a difference.

We cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer directs the religious studies program at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

åArticle courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Polish the Soul for Elul


I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron,
but discovered after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass.

Only after finishing the project did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.

The word “teshuvah,” heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus, the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have blown it during the previous year.

Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah was created even before the creation of the world.

This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Judaism provides a spiritual technology for continually acknowledging both that to err is human and that we can repair our mistakes.

The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “teshuvah”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:

Boy Do We Need Teshuvah Now!


When I was a small boy — 6 or 7 — I became acutely aware that being a Jew made me a member of a tiny minority. I asked my mother why there were so few of us, and her answer was quick: “Judaism’s a hard religion, with lots of rules. When you’re Jewish, it’s not enough to believe, you have to actually do the right thing. Most people don’t want to work that hard.”

As I grew older, I discovered another reason for a scant Jewish presence in the world: persecution. Demographers have estimated that without the carnage inflicted by the Crusades and the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms, there’d be about 100 million of us.

But when it comes to one major cause of a diminished Jewish presence, assimilation, I do believe my mother was right. Being authentically Jewish is tough. It’s also part of what makes Judaism vibrant and meaningful.

I was reminded of this several years ago, when my youngest daughter brought home a study packet from school centered around the month of Elul and the concept of teshuvah — repentance, or literally, return. This fourth-grade material listed the elements of self-improvement elegantly and succinctly:

1 — Feel bad about what you did.

2 — Stop doing it.

3 — Admit you did it out loud.

4 — Decide not to do it again.

The quartet pertains only to sins committed against God. When one transgresses against another human being, a fifth stage is added: Beg forgiveness from your victim and, if not met with immediate assent, persist at least three times.

Repentance the Jewish way is tough love at its finest, a perfect road map for self-improvement grounded in a profound understanding of psychology. Yes, it involves guilt and much has been made of “Jewish guilt.” But that’s just one more bad rap against our religion perpetrated by self-hating individuals who’ve tried to reduce 3,000 years of proud, Jewish legacy to a loathsome whine.

“I’ve been crippled by Jewish guilt,” goes the chant, “therefore I can’t move forward.”

But the old joke — “How many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change” — is true. And healthy guilt — honest, heartfelt regret over doing the wrong thing coupled with the courage to effect behavioral change — can be a wonderful, empowering emotion.

Back when I worked as a child psychologist, I was clear about distinguishing my role from that of other doctors when I met new patients. “They do stuff to you,” I explained. “I work with you.”

My patients appreciated that, none more than the seriously ill kids I treated at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. These were youngsters with cancer and diabetes and birth defects and cystic fibrosis who’d been poked and probed and cut open and irradiated for much of their young lives, and craved a sense of control over their destinies.

Years later, as a cancer patient myself, I appreciated this on a whole new level. But even my physically well patients grasped the notion of being respected as volitional beings, and they reveled in confronting their maladaptive habits and learning new ways to cope. One of the many joys of my years as a psychologist was establishing partnerships with thousands of kids, guiding them toward insight and helping them help themselves.

Yes, the bulb has to want to change, but when it does, it shines brighter than ever.

Teshuvah is tough, but boy, do we need it now. Because repentance in the short attention-span, sound-bite-driven zeitgeist of the 21st century has devolved to smarmy, self-serving, spin.

And pseudorepentance — talk show repentance, public relations repentance, politician’s repentance — is worse than no repentance at all, because it consoles the wrongdoer, teaches him he’s gotten away with it and fuels further bad behavior.

Teshuvah raises the probability of improvement. Spin-doctored recitations virtually guarantee the repetition of sin.

In a teshuvah-driven world, Austria would stop trying to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German, and France would shudder at offering moral lessons to anyone.

In a teshuvah-driven world, countries like Switzerland and Sweden who maintained a noxious neutrality during World War II, and profited from it to the tune of billions of dollars, would be scrambling among themselves to return the filthy lucre to its rightful owners and would cast aside their postures of staggering self-righteousness.

A healthy dose of teshuvah would cause self-styled “progressives” to remember the transgressions of their philosophical forbears, when the left refused to condemn Hitler as long as the Nazi leader aligned himself with Stalin, only to relent when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The same goes for the spawn of those religious leaders who turned a blind eye to the extermination of millions, while inveighing against the establishment of the State of Israel.

Today, the philosophical spawn of both groups have chosen to forsake the only democracy in the Middle East and to align themselves with corrupt, thuggish Arab dictators, obsessing upon Israeli misdeeds, while maintaining a good German silence when Jewish babies are shredded to death in Jerusalem pizza parlors.

The failure to do teshuvah leads to the horrible confirmation of Santayana’s warning, quoted so often that it’s become a cliche, but no less valid for that: Forget the past and you’re condemned to repeat it.

Teshuvah is hard. Being Jewish is hard. But what holds true for muscle, applies to the human spirit: no gain without pain.

So perhaps there’ll never be a lot of us, and maybe that’s good — quality over quantity.

We Jews must adopt a dual approach: Never forget what has been done to us, never allow the world to forget and never cease to defend ourselves with power and vigilance. At the same time, we need to look deep within our own souls, taking a no-excuses approach to our own shortcomings, and working harder at self-improvement.

Teshuvah’s good stuff. We Jews need more of it.

So does the world.

Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 24 novels, five nonfiction books and numerous essays and scientific articles. He is clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at USC School of Medicine. His current novel is “Twisted” (Ballantine.) His novel, “Gone”, will be published in April.

Teshuvah for Tots Sets Right Tone


The concept of repentance is hard enough for grown-ups to get, so how do educators make the central themes of the High Holidays real for children?

While projects like tempera-painted honey dishes and party-whistle shofars are de rigueur, preschool and elementary school teachers take seriously the idea of having the High Holiday message of personal accountability set the tone for the whole year.

The Jewish Journal spoke with a few educators to get their thoughts.

Preschool

Nettie Lerner, director of Chabad’s Garden School preschool on Pico Boulevard, teaches about God’s closeness during this time of year through analogy:

“We teach them the story of the king in the field. The king is in his palace the entire year, and once a year he comes out of his palace to meet with all the different people, to get to know them and see how they are doing. He does this for a month all around the kingdom and then goes back to his palace and feels like he knows how to be a more effective king,” she said.

The Garden School also uses the High Holidays to establish rules of engagement among the kids.

The school practices conflict resolution, where a teacher stops the offending action and has each child articulate feelings and establishes empathy. Then, together the children and teacher come up with a resolution.

“We do this over and over, and that’s how we’re able to bring this concept of teshuvah to a preschooler,” Lerner said.

Kindergarten-Second Grade

At Stephen S. Wise elementary school, director of education Metuka Benjamin encourages teachers to use project-based activities around the High Holidays to emphasize Jewish peoplehood.

“First and foremost, we want to help children understand that being Jewish means they are part of a community,” she said. “This community has a shared history, ancestry and value system. We want them to understand that there are Jews all over the world, yet there is a connected spirit that ties us together. At this early age, understanding community is critical to helping them acquire a sense of pride about their backgrounds, while also feeling tied to Jewish friends and family here and around the world.”

Third-Fifth Grade

Rivka Ben-Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Heschel West in Agoura, has the whole school — and parents — blowing shofar every morning leading up to the High Holidays.

She concentrates on the idea of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. The word “chet,” Hebrew for sin, comes from the root of deviate — indicating that someone has missed a goal they set.

Ben-Daniel has students break into small groups to write a personal and communal “Ashamnu” confessional prayer, focusing on wrongdoings the class may have done as a group, and, privately, what they have done as individuals.

“We put them on paper and then we go to Malibu Creek Canyon, one grade at a time, and we read out loud the class sins, and we say goodbye to the sins and promise to start anew and welcome a new year by promising to strive to be better for the coming year,” Ben-Daniel said.

Teachers

Ben-Daniel goes through a similar exercise with teachers, asking them to account for their wrongdoings with students, teachers and parents.

“We ask the teachers to acknowledge what they have done wrong and to ask for forgiveness, to forgive other people, and to forgive yourself for what you have done wrong,” she said.

In addition, teachers are asked to write goals for themselves “in an area where they want to improve in their educational lives.”

 

It’s Not Too Late to Seek Forgiveness


“Who shall live and who shall die … who shall perish by fire and who by water?” — Unetaneh Tokef prayer

The threat of being handed a harsh decree at the close of Yom Kippur — and the difficulty of actually doing the introspective and conciliatory work necessary to avert it — can motivate some people to do … well, nothing.

On a professional level, social worker Jeff Bernhardt knows firsthand how people procrastinate. He’s also knows it personally, having walked into Rosh Hashanah services unprepared more than once. The experience prompted him to begin journaling as a way to spiritually ready himself. Then, after Sept. 11 and other events in his life, as he personally struggled with issues of life and death, he found his journaling transforming into drama. The result was “Who Shall Live …?” which follows the spiritual journeys of four diverse Jewish people, each grappling with his or her own issues and relationship with God.

The 45-minute play is often presented in synagogues as a theatrical reading on Selichot, a prayer service generally held after the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah.

“The idea is that it puts people in touch with the themes of Rosh Hashanah so they can walk into the service already in an introspective mindset,” Bernhardt said.

But what if you missed Bernhardt’s play and Selichot altogether … and then slept through Rosh Hashanah services? Yom Kippur is only a few days away. The Gates of Repentance will soon slam shut and you risk not being recorded in the Book of Life.

What can you do now?

“I’ll take three days [of repentance]. I’ll even take one,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.

He explains that teshuvah (repentance) is a serious and complex endeavor in Judaism that generally requires time. It involves restitution, seeking forgiveness of the offended party, not repeating the same transgression when given the opportunity and asking God for forgiveness. And only then do we come before God and ask God to forgive us as well.

“The more time and the more preparation, the better,” Diamond counsels, “but it’s never too late to start.”

So rather than feeling guilty that you’re trailing in teshuvah or trying unsuccessfully to rush the process, most rabbis, given these circumstances, advocate that you concentrate on starting the work, in an authentic and meaningful way.

Diamond suggests, in whatever time remains, to set aside moments for learning, prayer, meditation and tzedakah (righteous giving). He recommends reading “Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days” (JPS, 1996) by Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath as a way to initiate introspection.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, also suggests finding time for yourself to sit down with a pencil and paper, to think about all the significant relationships in your life — which might include parents, spouse and children — and to write down what’s strong about each relationship and what needs work. The paper can serve as a guide not only for asking for forgiveness but also for opening a dialogue — before Yom Kippur if there’s time, otherwise afterward.

“If you can’t write, make a phone call or take a walk and ask each person how the relationship has been. Take the time to talk,” she said.

Missaghieh also recommends the book, “60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the Holidays” (Kiyum Press, 2003), by Simon Jacobson, which provides daily readings and writing exercises for the months of Elul and Tishrei.

But introspection isn’t the only route. Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana, sees the value of relying on community to help you feel connected. She suggests listening to the sound of the shofar and letting the symbols touch you.

“There are teachers who talk about how the shofar itself can blast away sins,” she said. She also suggests finding and focusing on certain phrases in the machzor (prayer book) that speak to you and that can perhaps serve as a portal in.

Stewart Vogel, senior rabbi of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, also believes in the power of community. But he also realizes that services don’t work for all people. Thus, for the last eight years, Temple Aliyah has made certain books, purchased in quantity specifically for the High Holidays, available to congregants during services.

Some of these include “Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) by Lawrence Kushner and “The World Is a Narrow Bridge: Stories That Celebrate Hope and Healing” (Sweet Louise Productions, 2004) edited by Diane Arieff. Vogel explains that these books help create a sense of kavanah, or intention of prayer, for people who don’t have access to or an intimate relationship with prayer.

But Vogel is dealing with people who are already in shul, which he sees as a huge advantage.

“There’s a tremendous communal experience associated with Yom Kippur,” he said. “Most of the prayers are in the plural and express a communal relationship.”

Thus, he would advise people that it’s not too late to find a synagogue.

And, in a certain sense, showing up can be sufficient. Leviticus 16:30 states: “For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins,” which has been interpreted to mean that the day itself has the power to effect atonement.

But if none of these ideas grab you … or if you run out of time, don’t despair. Orenstein points out that it’s a misconception that teshuvah happens only once a year.

“Jewish tradition is to have a special time of year where that’s a focus, but it also happens throughout the year,” she said.

One instance is Hoshanah Rabah, the seventh day of Sukkot, when, according to some sages, the final judgment is really sealed. And this gives you time to catch a reading of the play “Who Shall Live…?” on Sunday, Oct. 23, at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills.

And still, if you miss that, Orenstein explains that the new moon holiday of Rosh Chodesh, also called Yom Kippur Katan, or the small Yom Kippur, is also a time for repentance. Plus, there’s even a request for forgiveness in the daily prayers.

So whether you start your work of introspection and repentance a day or so before Yom Kippur and cram for 5766 or whether you start the day after Yom Kippur and get a jump-start on 5767, Judaism gives us many tools and many opportunities to do the important, challenging and ideally ongoing work of teshuvah.

 

Human Atonement or Animal Cruelty?


Early morning on the day before Yom Kippur, groups of Jews will be gathering to hold squawking chickens by the feet and twirl them over their head while chanting a prayer. After the twirling, the chickens will be ritually slaughtered and given to the poor.

Kaparos, literally atonements, which has been performed in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Chabad House and at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, is one of the strangest-looking customs in Jewish liturgy. It is done to inspire repentance and to impress upon its adherents the seriousness of Yom Kippur. However, the practice has inspired the ire of animal rights groups, who consider it cruel to the chickens, and many are urging that Jews who practice this custom do so using money instead, which is an acceptable substitute.

Kaparos is not a mitzvah but a post-talmudic minhag (Jewish custom). It originated sometime during the middle ages. The idea was that since the Hebrew word for man (gever) and rooster were the same, a man’s sins — and his punishments — could be symbolically transferred to the rooster, in the same way that during the times of the Temple, people bought animal sacrifices as penance for their sins. Therefore, while slinging the chicken during kaparos, the person chants, "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."

Today, some people perform kaparos by swinging a bag of money over their head and then donate that money to charity.

Yet, kaparos is not a substitute for repentance, and it should not be assumed that someone could achieve penance and absolution by having a chicken take the rap for all their transgressions.

"The chicken does not replace me," said Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schmukler, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) who arranges kaparos with chickens at Yeshivat Ohr Elchonon Chabad. "The chicken is an innocent chicken. The chicken will not take the sin away from me, but what the chicken does is impress upon me, that what is happening to the chicken [should be] happening to me and this will arouse in me feelings of teshuvah [repentance]. Watching the chicken get slaughtered awakens you to the physical gravity of Yom Kippur."

Schmukler said that using chickens for kaparos is a deep and mystical kabbalistic custom, that combines the maximizes the forces of chesed (lovingkindness) in the world.

"Early morning is a time when God’s middos hachesed [kind attributes] shine, and the reason we slaughter the chicken is to oppress the powers of gevurah [restrictions]," he said. "Blood is a symbol of anger, because when you are angry the blood goes to your face, and when we take the blood out a chicken, we make a tikkun [spiritual correction] and sweeten the energies of the world. This is what kaparos is on a spiritual level."

But animal rights activist feel that kaparos produces particularly sour physical energy. Los Angeles kaparos locales are often the site of protests and demonstrations against the way the chickens are handled. These activists say that the chickens are cooped up in cages that are too small, without enough air or water, and that chickens are often harmed before they are slaughtered in the general chaotic atmosphere of the kaparos ceremony.

"Typically, we get a whole lot of letters [protesting kaparos] from grass-roots animal-rights groups at this time of year," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles (SPCA), a law-enforcement organization. "The theory is if you swing the chickens around, then you can use the chickens to eat. But if the swinging around causes them injury and suffering, then they are no longer qualified for kosher slaughter…. People have found suffering chickens with their necks broken but still alive. We wish that it would stop. While we are constantly assured that they are swung gently, it doesn’t preclude accidents."

Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), a Virginia- based organization that, according to their Web site, is "dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl," said that her organization has been lobbying the SPCA and rabbis for years to intervene and require some basic humane treatment of kaparos birds.

"It is great if people choose a compassionate alternative, and instead of twirling a chicken they toss up a coin instead," said Matt Prescott, campaign coordinator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But Schmukler says that the really proper way to do kaparos is with chickens, and that the protesters are wasting their time.

"People slaughter and eat chickens all over the city," he said. "What is the difference [between us and them]? They should go to packing houses and demonstrate there."

Kaparos with chickens will take place at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, 7215 Waring Ave., Los Angeles, on Sunday, Oct. 5, 6 a.m.-noon. For more information, call (323) 937-3763.

Cast Thy Sins Away


If you’ve ever been to Ocean Parkway — that long thoroughfare traversing all neighborhoods Brooklyn, connecting the BQE from "The City" (Manhattan), to the Belt Parkway from Long Island — you’d have seen the two "island" streets lining the two outer streets like an Israeli flag, where old men played chess, young mothers strolled their children and we teenagers hung out.

And one afternoon a year, when a tease of a chill hovered in the air, and the dark green leaves prepared to change into their red outfits, thousands of people would stream out onto Ocean Parkway and head en masse toward the center of the long thoroughfare, as if they were called by a Pied Piper or beckoned by an alien spaceship.

If you were Jewish — and who wasn’t in Brooklyn? — you were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and you were going "to do Tashlich," as we said in our Hinglish (Hebraicized English).

Tashlich, which means "you will cast away" in Hebrew, refers to the custom of throwing bread into a live body of water to symbolize ridding yourself of your sins.

The ritual — one of many steps of repentance beginning the month before Rosh Hashanah and culminating on the fast of Yom Kippur — has, in recent decades, grown so much in popularity that what started as a little-known custom with few historical sources has entered the mainstream: One of these years, on the High Holidays, Tashlich will be as ubiquitous as apples and honey.

If you want to see how Tashlich has gone mainstream, watch the beaches: Here in SoCal, from Malibu down to Manhattan Beach, on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (or the second, if the first day of the Holiday falls on Shabbat), you are sure to find a crowd — one that is bigger than last year’s — heading toward the ocean, preparing to throw away their sins.

Surely, Tashlich has reached the tipping point because there is even a joke Tashlich e-mail circulating on the Internet:

"Occasionally people ask what kind of breadcrumbs should be thrown," the e-mail reads. "Here are some suggestion for breads, which may be most appropriate for specific sins andmisbehaviors:

For ordinary sins………………White Bread

For complex sins………………Multigrain

For twisted sins…………………….Pretzels

For sins of indecision……………….Waffles

For sins committed in haste……Matzah

For sins of chutzpah…………..Fresh Bread

For substance abuse……Stoned Wheat…"

What’s the meaning of this custom? Where did it come from? And why the sudden surge in the practice?

"In recent years, for reasons that have nothing to do with the ceremony itself, Tashlich has become a very social mitzvah," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in "Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History " (William Morrow, 2001).

"People often descend on the same body of water from different neighborhoods, where they encounter friends and acquaintances they may not have seen since the preceding Tashlich. Partially for that reason, even though the ceremony itself is solemn — Tashlich has become more widely observed."

We Brooklyn Jews, of course, were religious trendsetters, practicing a giant community Tashlich since the 1970s. Each Rosh Hashanah, at about 4 p.m., tens of thousands of people slowly inched along the parkway, making their way through the sea of black hats, knitted kippahs, wigs, and coiffed heads that stretched as far as Ocean Parkway could go. It was the height of fashion, literally: one year, The New York Times even sent a photographer for the Sunday Styles Section. Our accessories? A bag of bread and the Rosh Hashanah Machzor, which had the liturgy for the ceremony from the prophet Micah (7:18-20):

"Who is like you God? You forgive sins and overlook transgressions,

For the survivors of Your People;

He does not retain His anger forever, for He loves kindness;

He will return and show us mercy, and overcome our sins,

And You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins;

You will show kindness to Yaakov and mercy to Avraham,

As You did promise to our fathers of old."

While the first official mention of Tashlich only dates back to the 14th century, most commentators agree that the idea of Tashlich emanated from the same biblical passage that gave us the custom of the shofar, the ram’s horn blown on the High Holidays.

Both customs are performed in remembrance of The Sacrifice of Issac, the Genesis portion we read the second day of Rosh Hashanah. When God commanded Abraham to "take your son, you only son" Isaac and bind him and sacrifice him to prove his devotion to God, Satan was given permission to put obstacles in Abraham’s way in order to weaken his devotion. Finally, Satan placed an impassable river in Abraham’s path, but it did not stop our plucky forefather. With his son in tow, he entered the river, until it came up to their necks — and then called out to God for help, and the river disappeared.

The custom of going to a body of water, the rabbis say, is to remember Abraham’s perseverance and devotion to God, and in our time of repentance, we should exhibit similar devotion, no matter the obstacles.

At Tashlich, when we recite the prayer, "Grant truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as you swore to our fathers from ancient times. In distress I call upon God, With abounding relief, God answered me" — we are recalling Abraham’s ancient cry for help.

By the 15th century, though, there was opposition to the practice of Tashlich. Some rabbis opposed it on religious grounds, because of the prohibition of feeding fish on a holiday. Yet fish are an integral part of Tashlich: The Kabbalah teaches that water symbolizes kindness and fish, with their ever-open eyes, are like the ever-watchful eye of God. (Today, many observant Jews perform Tashlich on a weekday, usually on the day before Yom Kippur, but even as late as Hoshanah Rabah, the seventh day of Succot, which is technically, the "extended" deadline for Tashlich as well as for the final closing of the Book of Life.)

Later, 18th-century maskelim (educated Jews) opposed Tashlich because they thought it primitive. But much of the opposition to Tashlich emanated from the fear of anti-Semitism: In the days of well-poisoning and blood-letting accusations, having a group of Jews walk en masse to a body of water to throw bread into it while chanting a prayer didn’t exactly help race relations. Some rabbis forbade the practice, others encouraged their followers to do it secretly, and some people just symbolically emptied out crumbless pockets.

In Brooklyn, we had plenty of crumbs to throw at Tashlich — just not a whole lot of water. Despite the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island, for some reason everyone made their way to this one landlocked yeshiva. You had to wait your turn — okay, it was Brooklyn, so you had to push your way — up to the black spike metal fence. After you said the prayers, you tossed your bread toward the center of the patch of grass, upon which stood a three-tiered bird bath. I hoped that if I made the shot, my sins would be cleansed.

But would they? Behind the bird bath, over the hundreds of pieces of challah littering the floor, was a sign that read, "Please Do Not Throw Bread."

So how important is the bread throwing anyway? For that matter, why bother engaging in the whole repentance process if we can just throw away all of our sins in one fell swoop? (Okay, for some of us it might take more than one throw to get rid of our sins…)

Tashlich is not the only repentance custom that suffers from literalness (throwing out bread = throwing out sins); it is similar to kaparos (atonement), the ritual practiced on the day before Yom Kippur. During kaparos you wave a live chicken over your head and then slaughter it, saying, "This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This chicken is going to be killed, and I shall enter upon a long, happy and peaceful life."

The slaughtered chicken is then donated to charity. Today, many people wave a bag of coins over their head instead of a chicken, as they are discomfited by the voodoo-ishness of the ceremony, which has also drawn, at times, rabbinic disapproval.

Both Tashlich and kaparos, though, find their roots in the "Scapegoat for Azazel," literally, the goat that Aaron was commanded to send off into the wilderness in place of the nation’s sins.

Here’s the thing, though. You’re not supposed to take any of these things literally: the bread we throw into the water, the chicken we slaughter, the goat which was sometimes actually thrown off a mountain to repent for the Nation of Israel — they are not our sins.

How can they be? Repentance, for us, is a complex process involving introspection, confession, apology and the pledging not to repeat your transgressions, not a simple equation of confession and absolution ("Forgive me father, for I have sinned…"). So the question remains, why bother with Tashlich at all?

"There’s something about the ocean," mused Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, when asked what the custom means to him.

"It’s always changing, reshaping and reforming," Leder said. "It’s a powerful place to do a powerful thing."

The Reform movement only recently adopted this custom. Even so, the Wilshire congregants have embraced the custom wholeheartedly.

"It’s an opportunity to do something concrete and symbolic in the same moment," Leder said. "The best Jewish practices connect both symbolically and physically."

Leder said some 500 people come to the beach, where everyone builds a long "wall of sand" which rises about 4 feet and stretches hundreds of feet down the beach.

People inscribe their sins on the wall of sand, and then grab fistfuls of the wall and toss the sand into the ocean.

"We want to do it in an ecological yet dramatic way," Leder said.

Mishkon Tephilo’s Rabbi Dan Shevitz is also concerned with the environmental effects of Tashlich, which is why he makes sure his group of hundreds clean up after themselves and feed the fish in moderation. But for him, the main problem is the entire concept of getting rid of your sins, shrugging them off like yesterday’s outfit.

"We don’t throw our sins out. As we have learned from environmentalists, there is no such thing as out. One can no longer flush [bread] into the sea and pretend it’s not there anymore," he said.

His Conservative temple has been practicing Tashlich since its inception in 1918, Shevitz said. But he tries to make it about feeding the fish, rather than unburdening yourself of sin.

"We don’t simply get rid of things, we have to improve them," Shevitz said. Your sins are a part of you, and if you try to throw it into the ocean, the wind will just throw it back in your face, he said.

"Real transformation [recognizes] that you are who you are, you have what you have, and you improve incrementally."

Can we get rid of our sins? Can we erase the past? Traditional liturgy seems to believe so. "Repentance, Prayer and Righteous acts temper judgement’s severe decree," we say in the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer.

"Repentance is not rational," explained Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Simon Wisenthal Center’s Project NextStep.

"There is really no human way of undoing what you’ve done. It is counterintuitive. But the holiday season teaches us that if we take the first steps, God will take care of the rest. The scapegoat of Leviticus symbolized our ability to rid ourselves of sins simply by completely dissociating ourselves from them, by exiling them far from our immediate world. Tashlich tells us the same — that not all sins penetrate to the core, but we can change if we will it."

This Sunday, when we stand at the water’s edge, the sun blinding us as it begins to gracefully ascent, we will rip off chunks of challah and cast it off into the tumultuous blue waters. Maybe a seagull will dive down and grab it, or a hungry fish will jump up in an arc and gobble it up.

Perhaps these creatures will have swallowed our sins, thus cleansing our souls, and ending the teshuva process.

On the other hand, having rid ourselves — symbolically or literally — of our worst transgressions, perhaps it signifies not an ending, but a beginning. After Tashlich, we are now ready to start anew.

For information on Tashlich services, see our Calendar on page 54.

Blowing the Shofar Is a Blast


"Go away!" Gabe, 15, yells at his two younger brothers, having been rudely awakened by a blast of the shofar.

Jeremy, 13, the shofar-blower, dives under the adjoining bed.

Danny, 11, the instigator, explains, "We need you to play Monopoly."

Normally, the shofar is not blown until the first day of the month of Elul, which this year fell on Aug. 9. It marks the start of the long process of introspection and self-renewal that culminates with a single long blast at the close of Yom Kippur.

But in our house, shofar-blowing began in late June, when Jeremy received three shofars as bar mitzvah gifts. They rest on the living room mantle beside the two that Danny already owns.

"Five aren’t enough," Danny says. "We need one for every person in the family."

While shofars double in our house as alarm clocks and noisemakers, failing to increase our popularity with our neighbors, they originally served as primitive communications and early warning systems.

The shofar is first mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:16): "On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled." It was also sounded, among other biblical references, to proclaim the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), as a summons to war (Judges 3:27), as a call to repentance (Isaiah 58:1) and to announce new moons and festivals (Psalm 81:4).

Later, the rabbis of the talmudic period decreed that the shofar be blown during the penitential month of Elul, every day except for Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashana. They also specified that the shofar be a ram’s horn, in remembrance of the animal that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, or a horn from a goat or other kosher animal, except for a cow, on account of the Golden Calf episode.

But it is Rosh Hashana itself that is known as Yom Teruah, or The Day of the Shofar Blast. In Leviticus 23:24, God commands, "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." The commandment is to hear, rather than blow, the shofar, and it is traditionally heard 100 times on both days of the holiday. When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, however, as it does this year, the shofar is blown only on the second day in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, due to the prohibition against carrying. That doesn’t apply to the Reform movement, which observes only one day and which allows carrying.

Curiously, while we are commanded to hear the sounds of the shofar, we are not told why.

Sa’adia Gaon, the 10th-century rabbi, offers 10 reasons, from proclaiming that God, in remembrance of creation, is king to recalling the binding of Isaac and the ram in the thicket to reminding us that the shofar will be sounded at the end of time, when the Messiah resurrects the dead.

And Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, interprets the commandment to mean: "Awake from your slumber, you who have fallen asleep in life."

And awaken we have, with a jolt. For the past two years, the shofar has roused us to a world of hideous evil and senseless destruction. On Erev Rosh Hashana 2000 (Sept. 28), violence erupted in the Middle East, the start of the current intifada. And less than a week before Rosh Hashana 2001 (Sept. 18), Muslim extremists ferociously attacked the United States.

This year, the shofar, with its eerie, piercing and surreal sounds, awakens us to a world of continued sadness, fear and seemingly irreconcilable conflict. To the knowledge that no matter how much we repent and resolve to improve ourselves, that no matter how many safeguards we erect or military strikes we carry out, tragedy can occur unpredictably and uncontrollably.

This year, the words of the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer, "who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who by water and who by fire," are frighteningly real. And there is no guarantee, as we have painfully witnessed, that repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil of the decree.

Nevertheless, we still need the shofar to summon us to repentance and prayer. But this year, in addition, we need the shofar to awaken us to new possibilities and new ways of thinking, to new hopes and new strengths. We need the shofar to pierce the darkness of the world and to help realize the Rosh Hashana blessing: "May the year and its curses end; may the year and its blessing begin.”

For our family, five shofars are a good start.

The Neurobiology of Teshuvah


As a scientist and a believer in human progress, I have been concerned about how well the established process of teshuvah (repentance) has worked. Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur – in fact, since the 11th century – we have recited the same confessional prayer, “Al Chet.” If we were any good at repentance, shouldn’t the list have changed in 1,000 years? Even if we don’t want to change the ancient formula, shouldn’t we be able to feel that we had eliminated or reduced at least a few on the list? Yet the list of sins remains the same, as does the ritual for expunging them. Why haven’t we improved?

Perhaps we are genetically stuck. The newspapers and scientific journals are full of genetic determinism. Human geneticists, aided by the massive investment in the human genome project, have identified hundreds of genes in which specific alterations cause conditions that range from mental retardation to dyslexia. Mouse geneticists have created models not only of human disease, but also of mating and mental processing. One recent headline concerned genetically engineered male mice that spent more or less time grooming their mates, according to which piece of regulatory DNA they received. Other transgenic mice were better than their sibs in learning to find an underwater platform.

Or maybe we are stuck with the particular wiring of our brains. A person who suffers a stroke that affects one region of the brain cannot hear; another person can hear but cannot recognize words; another can recognize words but cannot identify a photograph of the President; another can recognize the President but cannot identify the function of a hammer or a screwdriver. Similarly, a range of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders – many of which have genetic components – affect thought, memory, mood, and even religious experience.

In the face of such powerful biological constraints, can we really hope to change ourselves or our community? The answer is certainly yes.

It is true that genes determine the basic wiring of the brain and therefore the basic processing pathways for external information and internal feelings. But the brain is nothing if not a learning machine.

Neuroscientists talk about the brain’s plasticity, meaning that the brain can not only change but that it can also maintain those changes over time. Genes certainly influence many aspects of the brain’s structure and operations, but – as our everyday experience attests – genes alone do not determine who we are or what decisions we will make about our lives.

Evolution has produced a genetically programmed brain, adapted for plasticity. Humans may be hardwired to learn language, just as a songbird is hardwired to learn a song, but the particular language and the particular song depend on experience. We can also learn to pedal a bicycle, play a piano or putt a golf ball. While we learn these skills best during childhood, we maintain plasticity as adults.

In every case, learning changes the physical state of the brain. Even people who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injury can often recover lost functions during rehabilitation by practicing strategies that employ and strengthen alternate neural routes. Similarly, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy may well work by selectively entraining alternate neural pathways.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have been working hard to understand the nature of these changes, in humans and other primates, in mice and rats, even in fruit flies and sea hares. Several lessons have emerged. First, even without changing their circuitry, nerve cells can change the intensity of their communication with one another so that a particular circuit works more or less easily as a result of experience; a sea hare escapes more rapidly from noxious stimulus after several encounters, just as practice modifies our facility on a bicycle or a dance floor.

A particularly exciting recent discovery has been that, contrary to our previous understanding, some nerve-cell precursors preserve their capacity to divide even into adult life. These progenitors can generate new nerve cells in response to environmental stimulation. Putting young rats into an enriched environment (for example, by placing toys and other objects into their normally bleak cages) stimulates the proliferation of these cells, suggesting a cellular basis for the well-known benefits of a rich environment in early childhood. In the not too distant future, these neural progenitor cells may provide a means for repairing brains and spinal cords damaged by disease or injury.

Even without dividing, however, nerve cells can alter their shape and their connections as a result of environment and experience. Some of the most extraordinary such changes occur during the recovery from brain or spinal cord injury. Nerve cells – in both the brain and spinal cord – sprout new connections and make new signaling molecules. More heavily used neural pathways sometimes even take over from unused circuits, for example, in those pathways once connected to a now-amputated limb.

One well-known case involves an impressive man named Craig Dobkin, who was badly hurt in a climbing accident, severing his lower spinal cord so that he lost conscious control of his legs. Craig had some good fortune, however, in that his brother is Dr. Bruce Dobkin, Director of Neurorehabilitation at UCLA, a man who has pioneered new methods for retraining the brain and spinal cord after stroke and spinal cord injury. As a result of this retraining, Craig’s spinal cord has learned to pattern his leg movements even though it no longer communicates directly with the brain. The important result is that Craig can move on crutches, rather than only in a wheel chair.

Since his accident, Craig Dobkin has founded an organization called Play for Peace, which brings children from conflicting cultures together through cooperative play. The goal of Play for Peace is to promote positive relationships among people who have a history of intercultural tension, starting in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. By bringing children with unique backgrounds, values, and beliefs together through the seemingly simple act of play, Play for Peace sows seeds of compassion. It is as if Craig Dobkin has adapted his brother Bruce’s method of fostering spinal cord plasticity to the fostering of moral plasticity.

Our capacity for teshuvah is, I believe, a reflection of our neural plasticity. The limitations of our teshuvah do not reflect genetic programs, but the more basic problem of the nature of sin itself. Indeed, many of the sins listed in the “Al Chet” confessional seem to be rather subtle distortions of activities and thoughts that are positive: sinful meditations do not occur in an uncontemplative person; nor does contentiousness or scoffing arise in someone who has separated from the community; and sinful confession of the lips can only happen in someone who is moved to confession in the first place. Our problem then is to unravel the good from the evil. We need to increase our capacity to discern.

How can we take advantage of neural plasticity in making such important distinctions? To the extent that we can choose our experiences – internal and external – we can consciously change the workings of our brains, just as Craig Dobkin can consciously – if indirectly – change the workings of his legs. Just as we gradually learn to discriminate between creativity and cliché in literature, art, movies and music, we must train ourselves to discriminate morally between expansiveness and aggressivity, between involvement and voyeurism, between helpfulness and presumption. In our teshuvah, we must train ourselves to become connoisseurs of our own actions. The bad news is that this task is highly complex; the good news is that our brains are on our side – intellectually and emotionally. The meaning of the annual repetition of the same sins may be that our tradition recognizes that this struggle inevitably must continue from year to year.

For more information about Play for Peace, visit www.playforpeace.org

Power of Words


Each night before retiring, the great Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed – against other people, against God, against himself. Nachman would read the list over and over again, with increasing levels of agitation and remorse, until he welled up with sorrow.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are encouraged – really, commanded – to write something down. Upon crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Israel, the people are to “set up great stones, and coat them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).The commandment seems clear enough: to convey a message in writing. Yet generations of debates have ensued over what words, exactly, were to be inscribed on those stones. Was it the entire text of the Torah – what we call the five books of Moses? Or, was it just a list of mitzvot (commandments) which encompass the legal aspects of the Bible? Or perhaps these stones simply reiterated the Ten Commandments, and that was the “Torah” spoken of in the verse. What was on these stones?

The answer to this question remains a mystery. We don’t know for certain what words were inscribed. But we know something was written. In the end, what is meaningful was not what they wrote, but that they wrote. Immediately upon arriving in the land – after 40 years of desert wandering – the Israelites took the time to record something. They created a monument with words – words perhaps recounting their history, their trials, their legal system, their beliefs, their collective wisdom.

For us, this is a season of building monuments with our words. Throughout this month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, our tradition invites us to think, in detail and with brutal honesty, about ourselves. We are encouraged to devote these days to a cheshbon ha’nefesh(inventory of the soul) in which we evaluate our behavior over the last year and humbly seek to make improvements.

During these days before the New Year, we – like the Israelites who were at a dramatic, transitional moment – also stand at the edge of a precipice. The work of looking deeply within can be terribly dangerous. The liturgy of the High Holy Days suggests three possible ways to best approach the challenges of this season: through tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (righteous works) and teshuvah (repentance). In other words, the liturgy teaches us to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh by turning in three different directions: turning upward (to God, in prayer), outward (to others, in acts of righteousness), and inward (to ourselves, in contemplation and improvement).

Each of these turnings – containing the power to make radical change – is done with words. The Israelites at the Jordan River also understood this. As they literally walked out of their old existence and into a new one, they marked their transition with words. And God commanded that their enormous change be accompanied by words not just spoken, but written. Once the wisdom was inscribed, it somehow seemed that much more real.

When Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav sat considering his own behavior, he too opted to go even further than the spoken word. He too wrote down the inventory of what he might alter in himself. Why? Why not just stop at speaking the words? It is said that after repeatedly reading the list, he felt such great sorrow that he started to weep. The teardrops would fall upon the written words, and actually blur them beyond distinction. By reading the words he had written, he moved himself to the depths of emotion that might affect real change in the days to come. Perhaps this is the truest meaning of the phrase of greeting we use on Rosh Hashannah: Shanah Tovah Tichatevu: May you be inscribed – and may you inscribe yourself – for a good and sweet new year.

Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands and instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Cardinal Repentance


In a High Holiday letter to Jewish friends, New York’s Roman Catholic cardinal has expressed “abject sorrow” for centuries of anti-Semitism, and called for a new era of respect and love between Christians and Jews.

The powerfully worded letter from Cardinal John O’Connor echoed personal expressions of remorse made by Pope John Paul II and other senior church leaders in recent years and also echoed the Vatican’s official call for teshuvah, or repentance.

It appeared to be an attempt to heal recent friction in Catholic-Jewish relations over issues such as the possible beatification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII and a Vatican document on the Holocaust last year that many Jews believed offered too little, too late.

Jewish leaders, including author Elie Wiesel, were so moved by O’Connor’s “inspiring and courageous” message that they sponsored publication of the Sept. 8 letter as a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times so that the sentiments could be shared.

O’Connor couched his letter in the New Year’s greetings that he sends annually to Jewish friends and leaders. But he underscored that, just as 5760 marks the beginning of a new decade in the Jewish calendar, the coming year marks the beginning of a new millennium for Christianity, to be celebrated as a jubilee, or holy year, by the church.

He stressed that the pope has called on all Catholics to use the year 2000 as a time to reflect and ask forgiveness for past sins, including anti-Semitism.

“Part of the process of jubilee is a call for teshuvah, or repentance,” O’Connor wrote. “Ash Wednesday, March 8, has been specifically set aside as a day for Catholics to reflect upon the pain inflicted on the Jewish people by many of our members over the last millennium. We most sincerely want to start a new era.

“I pray that as you begin a new decade, and as we begin another millennium in our Jewish-Christian relationship, we will refresh our encounter with a new respect and even love for one another as children of God.”

“I ask this Yom Kippur that you understand my own abject sorrow for any member of the Catholic Church, high or low, including myself, who may have harmed you or your forebears in any way.”

O’Connor did not specifically mention the Holocaust.

His reference to any member of the church “high or low” was taken by observers to be a possible reference to Pius XII — as well as to a host of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, kings, queens and commoners who expelled Jews from cities and countries, burned them at the stake and otherwise persecuted them over the centuries.

It also followed the church’s line in condemning individuals for their actions but absolving the church itself from wrongdoing.

O’Connor spokesman Joseph Zwilling said the cardinal was referring to Nazi atrocities and other anti-Semitic acts during the last 2,000 years.

Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ staff expert on Jewish relations, said the letter “expresses the mind of the church very clearly and without any possible ambiguity. It’s not a new statement. He was not intending to break any new ground.”

Still, Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who helped sponsor the ad along with other Jewish leaders, said that “for the prince of the church to say the things he does, it’s very strong. He went very far, and it’s a great gesture of understanding.”


Catholic-Jewish

Forum

The American Jewish Committee will host Understanding and Hope, a forum that will examine the relationship between Jews and Catholics, on Wednesday evening, Sept. 29, at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The event, led by Cardinal Roger Mahony and Rabbi Harold Schulweis, features panel discussions on such topics as “Prevailing Jewish and Catholic Attitudes Toward One Another” and “Can We Correct the Anti-Semitic Interpretations of the Christian Bible?” with representatives from Hebrew Union College, Loyola Marymount University and B’nai David Judea Congregation. For more information and to make reservations, call (213) 637-7555 or (310) 282-8080.

Some Thoughts on My New Year


Another year come and gone. Another one beginning. For me, an occasion more for recollection than repentance.

So much seems connected to the past. My oldest son, Alexander, calls from Florida. There is talk about the summer gone by, plans for the future, a wish for the new year. I have a sudden flash of talking with one of my close friends just six months after he was born. My friend, a woman, knew me as carefree, youthful, reluctant to take that fateful step into adulthood. So how did I feel about being a father? she wanted to know. Had my life changed and, if so, how? I tried to explain, haltingly at first. Why, she said in amazement, you sound as though you’ve fallen in love. I treasure that moment.

Now Alexander is married, a college professor, a parent himself, planning to embark for Cape Town on a teaching Fulbright. The end of the earth.

I try for a memory from my childhood: I’m racing my 17-year-old uncle when I suddenly realize that he has a clubfoot. Without thought, I deliberately slow down. I’ll never forget the smile of pleasure on his face as he crossed the finish line ahead of me. The purest act of my life — at 7 years of age.

Inevitably, my memories return to my grandparents. They helped raise me; my grandfather taught me to read; their household was my home. My grandmother nursed me through a critical bout of pneumonia, which nearly took my life. But the new, experimental drugs worked on me; I regained my strength, only to watch her fall ill (with pneumonia). She died within three weeks — her life for mine.

Two months later, on my ninth birthday, it was my grandfather’s turn. His heart gave out. I stood there, shifting my new birthday football from hand to hand, watching my mother, my aunt, my uncles sitting shiva. I will not cry, I told myself. I will not show anything.

Did I want to join them? I was asked. No, I said, in as flat a voice as I could muster. I’m going to play football in the park, I said. I turned and ran from the house.

My life had cracked open and never would be the same. I knew that without a word being said, without even the ability to say the words. It was only years later that the magnitude of my debt, my obligation to them, became clear to me. It had shaped my life. You would think that time would blur the memory. Not so. The images are sharper, more pointed, closer at hand.

Is it that I am looking ahead to my own demise? Last year, when my mother was whipped by Alzheimer’s and my son Andrew (second-born) and I looked at nursing homes in the Valley, he turned to me and said: Be forewarned. If you place her in one of these homes, that’s what I’ll do to you. He was reminding me of the moral choices confronting me, just as I had taught him to recognize their presence in his own life. He did not have to make the threat, but I was touched by it. I hugged him. I felt like a man who had fallen in love once again.

I suppose a past can be constructed around family, marriage and death. The score for me is two marriages, one divorce. The weddings were wondrous occasions, and intimate too. The first, in my best friend’s home; the second, in my own. All our friends gathered around us; summer breezes; the pleasure and affection so palpable in the room. The sense, so crisp in my mind then and now, of a new play about to begin, the script still unfinished. It almost makes me want to embark on five or six marriages, or at least weddings, just to recapture the feelings of the day.

But then, of course, there is the sharp pain of divorce. The scars never truly disappear. It is always, for me, a reminder of great defeat and loss — more muted each year, thank goodness. The remembrance changes as time moves along.

Other recollections, more romantic and flushed with sensation, take over.

Of first love — in Paris, no less. Walking the narrow streets of the left bank, hand in hand; dancing in the Luxembourg Gardens; listening to Chet Baker play in the Hotel des Etas-Unis just for us — I thought it had to be just for us — in the early hours of a Montparnasse morning, when I was convinced that I and my world had been blessed, touched by magic.

The Days of Awe lie ahead; it is only fitting to cast our eyes back. This is the time of repentance for things said and done during this last year, and of resolutions for the year ahead. But I want something else: memories and images that take on a clarity and help me better understand the past. I realize once again that these pictures and events keep changing for me, that the present and the future have a way of altering the life I lived long ago; bringing some aspects of it into close up; highlighting edges and corners that were, until now, only dimly seen.

That’s my wish for the future, a simple one: to make the past more visible, to make my life more whole. — Gene Lichtenstein