A day for the soul


Trust the Jews to begin the holiest moment of the year on Yom Kippur not with a prayer, but with an ambiguous declaration. The Kol Nidre is not a prayer; it is a text that describes various categories of vows and oaths from which, ostensibly, we are attempting to free ourselves.

The text is full of complications: Which vows can be annulled? Does the text annul the vows of the coming year or just those of the past year? And, more philosophically, can I ever live up to a moral ideal where I won’t need to be forgiven for broken promises?

I came across some of these “complications” this year when I glanced at the commentaries in my Sephardi ArtScroll prayer book for Yom Kippur. This got me thinking: Shouldn’t I try to understand the Yom Kippur prayers and texts a little better while I emotionally recite them?

My personal tradition has always been to turn my mind off on Yom Kippur and surrender to the experience. I engage in intense Sephardi chants for the good part of 27 hours, and then go home without a voice and totally drained. But I confess that this year, before the big day, I had some ambivalence. Maybe because I’ve become more consumed over the last few years with understanding Judaism and the Jewish world, I asked myself, with some guilt: Have I outgrown this personal tradition?

I got my answer slowly, as the night and day wore on. It started with the words of Rabbi Yehuda Moses, right before Kol Nidre, when he spoke about Yom Kippur as a day for the soul. The rabbi, who runs a growing Sephardi minyan inside the venerable Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard, spoke of Yom Kippur as a day when Jews ought to put all their differences aside and connect to God through their collective soul.

As he spoke about this collective soul, I thought of my Orthodox friends who were praying in other shuls in Pico-Robertson, as well as my friends who were praying in Reform and Conservative shuls all over town. I also thought of my Jewish friends who might not even be in shul. Yes, I thought, the rabbi is right — every Jew owns a piece of the collective Jewish soul.

But while those words opened my heart, my mind was still unsettled by this pesky “need to understand.” What about connecting intellectually to the thousands of words I was about to read and chant? Was my more visceral and melodic approach to Yom Kippur outdated?

I needed a break from my Sephardi davening to help find my answer.

It so happens that I had promised Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, where I am also a member, that I would join him for the Musaf prayer (I figured this would be the wrong day to break a promise). It hardly surprised me that the Ashkenazi melodies, while beautiful in their own right, were completely different from the Sephardi ones.

When I returned later to my Sephardi minyan, it struck me that all Jews recite pretty much the same prayers on Yom Kippur — but it’s how we sing and express these prayers that really moves us.

In my case, I realized that my tribal-sounding Sephardi melodies connected me not to my Jewish friends in Los Angeles, but to my Berber ancestors from the mountains of Morocco.

This is true for many of us: When we pray on Yom Kippur it is, in many ways, the melodies that connect us to our familial past. We might have “the book” to keep us connected to the collective Jewish family, but we have our melodies to keep us connected to our individual families. 

There’s something else about melodies: While words speak to the mind, melodies speak to the soul. Maybe this is why I do very little learning and lots of chanting on Yom Kippur. As Rabbi Moses said, this is a day for the soul.

I have plenty of time during the Days of Awe to search for the meaning of rituals and prayers and do the work of repentance. But when Yom Kippur arrives, with the theme of repentance already in my consciousness, I like to turn off my busy brain and let the soul take over.

I tune out the noise of words and tune in to the intimate power of the holy chant.

As I was chanting the final prayer of Neilah with my son standing next to me, I felt that power. I remembered standing next to my own father in Casablanca while he was chanting the same melody, and I thought of some distant great-great-great-great-grandfather chanting the same melody a few centuries ago somewhere in Morocco, perhaps also with his son standing next to him.

At that moment, there was no need for any intellectual understanding. There was only connection. By chanting these melodies, I was honoring an unspoken vow to my forefathers and connecting to God through their souls.

And that was enough meaning and understanding for one day.

Facing God, and the challenge of individual conscience


Is there really a need to write a book in favor of conscience?

Who opposes conscience?

As Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis demonstrates with his characteristic eloquence, erudition and verve in his new book, “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights, $19.99), we all do — and we need to think about it again.

French Catholic activist Charles Péguy wrote that everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics. The inspiration of faith gets solidified into systems, laws, hierarchies, ideologies. People of faith struggle to create laws that embody the best of the original inspiration. What began in a moment of revelation becomes embodied in a code, and by that code we live.

Living by that code is fine, so long as your moral compass points to the same direction as the code. Individual conscience can disrupt the system, however. And we cannot sustain a legal system if people feel free to disregard it.

What if the legal system, however, is not the product of human beings but God’s law? In religious traditions, there should be no room for individual conscience, because God’s word overrides our poor powers to figure out what is right. Who are you to know better than the commanding voice of Sinai?

Except that, as Schulweis points out, the Jewish tradition has indeed made room for individual conscience. In the Bible, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom. Moses resists God’s expressed will to destroy the Jewish people. The rabbis repeatedly test the assumption that the biblical law is fixed and inviolate.

Schulweis offers startling instances of rabbinic protests against God in the name of conscience. The Talmud goes so far as to nullify laws the rabbis cannot accommodate within the scope of their understanding of God’s will.

In cases such as stoning a rebellious son or destroying a city tainted with idolatry, the rabbis simply conclude that such a son or city “never was and never will be.” In certain rare cases when the Torah speaks in a way that contradicts what the rabbis believe God would want, they subvert, circumvent or simply cancel the pronouncement.

This is not to say that the rabbis never take positions that violate conscience — theirs or ours. Conscience is a tricky thing; sometimes it leads us in different directions. But while it may not be triumphant, it also will not be stilled. We see the tradition struggle with issues such as agunot (women who cannot obtain a divorce), even when conscience is not permitted to simply override law.

For Schulweis, a theological liberal, conscience will point in one direction. My guess is that for some of his readers, there will be other conclusions of conscience.

Schulweis is aware that not everyone’s conscience will yield identical results. His point is not that conscience always points in one direction but that it should not — indeed cannot — be silenced. From his tour of the Jewish tradition and some isolated incidents that throw further light on the subject (such as the principled stand of Henry David Thoreau against the U.S. government), “Conscience” brings us to the premier modern example — the Shoah.

Schulweis has become famous for his innovations and causes, perhaps none more so than his prescient early recognition that to acknowledge and honor Holocaust rescuers did not diminish the horrors of the Shoah. Rather, such recognition teaches us that even in the most terrible circumstances, human beings can rise to goodness.

Schulweis writes that no single variable seems to explain rescuers; some of them were even anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, in an age when the legal system, social pressure and deep prejudice all pushed for people to persecute Jews, or at most be indifferent to their fate, several special individuals risked themselves, and at times their families, to rescue Jews, and often it was not a solitary individual but a group: “Human goodness in Nazi-occupied lands called for a conspiracy of men, women and children of conscience.”

The globe is still marked by events that call for courageous individuals who must break out of the thrall of cruel but conventional ideas. How many in Rwanda or Darfur had the courage to behave as the remarkable rescuers whose stories are told in this book? Would we?

Schulweis’ book is short and powerful. It is a challenge to all of us who find that authority and conformity are powerful forces shaping our thoughts and constraining our actions. In recounting a Talmudic story about the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, Schulweis quotes the rabbinic admonition: “Palga barakia lo yehavei” — Heaven does not grant halves. Perhaps that is why heaven has granted our rabbi a whole heart filled with wisdom.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Searching for the soul


On a recent Friday night, during one of her rare articulate moments, I asked my 88-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s if she could feel her soul.

“Yes, I certainly can,” she answered slowly, searching for her words, as she struggled to express the reflection of the feelings inside.

“How?” I probed.

“I believe in it. I always have,” she said.

I had come to Grancell Village at the Jewish Home for the Aging to pick up my 90-year-old father and bring him home for Shabbat dinner. My mother was so unusually alert that evening, so I brought her too.

At our house, with our adult children present, her ability to talk continued. I was so surprised that I brought out the volumes of hand-written recipe books that she began in 1947 and asked her if she knew what they were.

She picked them up and felt them. “Of course, I know what these are.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“These are a part of me,” she said slowly. “They are connected to who I am.”

I noticed that she had answered far deeper than saying, “These are my recipe books.”

I didn’t need any more evidence that she indeed felt her soul.

The next day, my father told me, she had reverted back and couldn’t string three words together.

At the age of 56, I have learned that we assume upon ourselves many labels and classifications during our lifetime. As much as we try to hold on, nothing stays static. In the last year, one of my most active identities has become being the son of an Alzheimer’s victim. As each week passes, the week before looks like a time when my mother was capable of miracles. A little more than two years ago she was still driving and cooking Rosh Hashannah dinners for 20 people. Now I don’t even have to worry about her reading this article. Always a voracious reader, she stopped reading a year ago.

My father, who doesn’t appear a day above 60, has stepped up in a big way, always at her side, completing her sentences and her movements, so that they can remain together in their apartment at the Jewish Home.

In my new capacity as the son of an Alzheimer’s victim, I have many questions. Some of them are Jewish questions. One kept me up for hours the other night, leading me to my bookshelf at 3 a.m., combing through volumes to see what insights I might glean. What happens to the soul during Alzheimer’s?

Right now, while my mother is still in physical form, where is her soul? The soul that was so deeply emotional, at times irrational, always larger than life, filled with equal amounts of love and anger, happiness and discontent that could burst forward with dancing, singing, crying, yelling and admonition—the soul that always reached out to those in despair, touching people with deep reservoirs of friendship and concern?

Does that soul still exist? Is it sick, too? Does it also have Alzheimer’s, while she is still alive? Maybe it is completely present, having pulled inside itself until it is released from this ailing body? There are comments my mother still makes as she did at my house that evening, when I can still see sparks of her soul.

When I put this question out to my friend, Larry Neinstein, a cantor and doctor who is head of student health at USC, he had much to say. Larry has multiple myeloma. In the last two years, he has survived through a successful blood transplant and refers to his ongoing chemo treatments as appetizer chemos, main course chemos, dessert chemos and triple high-dose atomic blasts. Larry thrives in remission, holding his breath of life from blood test to blood test. He is an inspiration to our entire circle of friends, who all stand in awe of his active life filled with family, work, hikes, music, trips abroad and his continuing to attend international conferences as a world-renowned keynote speaker on adolescent medicine.

Larry wrote me a few days later:

“The soul, I think, is only a flickering light when we are born,” he wrote. “It gains and grows in strength, meaning and depth throughout our life, through our families, our friends, our colleagues, through the profound moments, through music and through dance. At the same time, our soul is partially emptying itself to others, to our children as they are born, to friends and to the colleagues that we touch. It was like an ‘Ah ha!’ moment, when I was staring at my 1-month-old granddaughter’s eyes, and she was staring back with a combination of emptiness and fullness, of love and yearning, for her soul to have a chance of so much to come.

“I realized at that moment that my soul is in so many places and people, to one small degree or another,” he continued. “And the better life I have led, the deeper that soul that is in me, but the less that is left as I age. If I have led a full life, there will be none left on one side, and an immense amount left elsewhere.” 

Another friend of mine, a writer and editor, when I told him about these same questions, asked me in return, “Is this really about the questions?  Isn’t all this actually about the relationship with your mother?”

I gave his very penetrating question days of thought. While I might be psychologically in constant relationship with her understanding, and acting out the effect a parent has upon a child, I am no longer in an active give-and-take relationship with my mother.

As I told my brother, wife and kids recently, “The mother I knew is gone. This is not the same woman. This is a remnant of my mother. Shades of my mother have been removed, lifted to some other place. Without her full soul, I may recognize her physical appearance and even some of the things she says; her expressions and her scant memories. But while I give her all the respect and care she deserves—the attention and even interaction—there is no longer the exchange of dynamism and love between us that there once was.

She told me just three years ago, while we were driving on the 405, “You see this freeway?  If I ever get Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia, you roll me out of this door right here and tell them I jumped out myself. I don’t ever want to be living like that in one of those places. Do you hear me?”

That was the mother with whom I was having a relationship. I often wonder what my responsibility is toward the mother I knew and her ebullient soul, as opposed to one at the Jewish Home?

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

A night for the soul


Have you ever heard words of Torah that made you really uncomfortable? Where you almost started to squirm, not because you were bored, but because you were rattled?

This happened recently when I had a “Torah in the Hood” salon at my place for about 20 Jewish singles.

The class was connected to Purim, and it was billed as “A mystical journey into a mysterious holiday.” The speaker was the Chasidic mystic and philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” which on its back cover has a raving blurb from a fellow mystic named Bob Dylan.

Little did we know during the polite chatting over Moroccan tea that we were about to be ambushed by the rabbi’s provocative riffs on the human soul.

With the glow of candles reflecting softly on his long white beard, Rabbi Friedman didn’t waste any time. He started by telling us that the struggle in Judaism is not to find the truth — because we already know it. The struggle is to realize we know it, and then make it compatible with our reality.

Argument is part of the noise that makes us forget we already know the truth. When we get drunk on Purim so that we can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman,” it is to show us that beyond the state of knowing and reason — when our minds are plastered — our souls are intact and sober, and they know the truth.

The body might be drunk, but the soul is our designated thinker — it never stops knowing the difference between Mordechai and Haman, between right and wrong, between holy and unholy.

Rabbi Friedman was talking about the human soul as if it had a mind of its own, a very confident mind.

The soul doesn’t need argument or reason to make its point. It knows that this is wrong because it is wrong, and this is right because it is right. The soul doesn’t need to explain why you should go to the gym or visit the sick or control your anger or resist gossip or be Jewish. It is our Godly instinct. It just knows. It just is.

It was a little disconcerting to hear something as nebulous and intangible as a soul being talked about like a human asset at our disposal. But the notion that we could mine — even emulate — this asset was exciting.

According to the rabbi, we suffer from inner conflict, in part, because we don’t allow ourselves to enter the state of “soulful knowing.” Our rational minds are taught to process everything — to challenge, to argue, to debate, to struggle, as if those acts themselves had some overarching truth. In the process of all this processing, our egos become the heroes. We become self-conscious instead of soul-conscious.

When we’re not in touch with our souls, we’re also confused about our roles. Our egos make us worship uniqueness. But the Torah values roles above uniqueness. When we praise the Woman of Valor on Friday night, we don’t praise her for being unique; we praise her for being trustworthy, respectful, resourceful and compassionate. We praise her knowing soul.

In this mode of living, there is little room for tortured debate, agonizing dilemmas or self-absorbed obsessions. The struggle becomes to lower the noise level in our minds, nourish our souls with Godliness and then allow our soulfulness to permeate our reality.

In short, the rabbi was telling 20 well-educated Jews to put their minds in the service of their souls. But wait, the real discomfort in our Torah salon was still to come, and it started when someone brought up a perennial hot topic in the singles world: Looking for a soulmate.

Rabbi Friedman explained that the biggest obstacle in romantic relationships is what he calls the “third thing.” This third thing is the all-consuming question one asks of potential soulmates: Are they fulfilling our needs?

We are in love with our needs and, because love is blind, we are blinded by them. We’re in love with love, status, security, sex, laughter, companionship, intellectual stimulation, spiritual inspiration or whatever else we might need at any point in time. When we meet someone, we don’t see a real person; we see a potential need-filler.

But need-filling is not the same thing as soul-filling. Needs are noisy and shifty, while souls are quiet and eternal. When we care about each other’s needs at the expense of each other’s souls, we become needmates, not soulmates.

As the rabbi reminded us, our needs can play tricks on us. They can come and go and change without notice, and then what? Who is left facing us? Who is that person we are having dinner with?

In his soft, almost whispering voice, Rabbi Friedman suggested another way. Perhaps the path to true love is to lower the noise level in our minds and bring only one thing to the table: the desire to learn who the other person is, so we can touch their souls.

Romantic unions that are born in this fashion are not flashy, but they create real soulmates.

By now, after 90 minutes of this spiritual jazz session, Rabbi Friedman had challenged us to look at our minds and souls in a different way, and he turned our views on love and soulmates upside down. Not bad for a night’s work.

What’s more, he didn’t let us off the hook by using obscure language that no one understands. As far as esoteric messages go, his words were remarkably clear. Maybe that’s why they shook us up — and also drained us.

The reaction was not polite enthusiasm. It was more like, “What was that?” People left slowly and silently, as if something deep and quiet inside of them had been touched.

Their souls, perhaps?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

The so-called ‘perfect date’


The date was going really well. The conversation was flowing. We were practically finishing each other’s sentences.

“Have you ever been to Azumi Sushi?” I asked.

He smiled, secretly, a half smile.

“What is it?” I asked him.

“I was just about to say that,” he replied.

Not that going to the same sushi restaurant meant that we were soul mates, but we had a number of issues we agreed on beyond the superficial. Religion, family, politics, even our lifestyle goals — retire early, travel much — seemed to be in sync. Clearly, the person who set us up wasn’t high on crack — he’s a Jewish boy and you’re a Jewish girl — because we had a lot more in common beyond the nature of our religion, age and geographic location.

I could tell he was excited by these things. The way he paused when I said something he agreed with, like wanting to do Friday night meals for the camaraderie, and his eyes lit up like a Vegas jackpot if I happened upon a subject we had the same feelings about.

These are the kinds of dates I hear about all the time, usually from women. The dates where (finally!) everything is simpatico and natural, almost as if you’re not on a date at all. And then he doesn’t call.

“How could he not call?” these women complain. “You don’t understand, he told me that ___________,” they say, pointing out all the intimate details the guy shared, and all witty repartee they both shared, and all the lack of awkwardness that for sure meant the date was going superbly.

“How could he not call?” they say. “I thought it was going so well.”

I can tell you why he didn’t call. I can tell you why he didn’t call, because I was just on one of those dates where everything seemed to be going perfectly, but it didn’t work out.

It didn’t work out because I wasn’t interested. I know it started even before we met. On the phone we spoke for about an hour, maybe even longer, and it was like talking to someone who was really interesting, but who I wasn’t interested in. I don’t know why.

Not that I’d given it much thought. After our conversation, I didn’t analyze it, or him. To be honest, I didn’t think about him much, and that’s because I didn’t have that heart-pounding anticipation that can, yes, come even from just talking to a faceless person on the phone. But, I reasoned, all that heart-pounding anticipation has never exactly steered me in the right direction, so perhaps apathy isn’t the wrong emotion to have before a blind date either.

But when I met him, everything became clear. He was exactly as described: An average looking guy, not freakishly short or tall, somewhat of the teddy bear type and, well, just not my type. He was one of those guys I was neither dying for nor repulsed by — he just wasn’t for me.

“Why don’t you go out with him again and give it another shot?” my friends would say, if I would ever tell them this story, which I wouldn’t because then I’d have to hear yet again how they hated their husbands for the first X months before they married them. (If you ask me, they are all too readily connected to that initial animosity, which is why, except in the first grade and in Shakespeare, love should never begin with hate.) In any case, I didn’t hate this guy, and I’d never hate him. I knew this, just as I knew I’d never like him any more than as a … friend.

By friend I didn’t mean that I never wanted to see him again either romantically or platonically, or that I wouldn’t mind inviting him to my parties and introducing him to others in my circle who were really my friends.

I knew this from the moment I saw him, but what was I supposed to do? Was I to tell him this in the beginning? Was I to allude to a long and complicated dating history so as to dissuade him from liking me? Not that everyone likes me, but when someone does, and it’s one-sided — what is the proper etiquette?

I decided to be myself. I wasn’t overly flirtatious in a way I might have once been in order to entertain or to fulfill some ego-need to be liked by all; I just answered his questions, asked a few of my own (hopefully, although maybe I didn’t manage to get in too many) the way I would when I am out with a friend.

Which is the unfortunate answer to all those people who thought they had the perfect date and never heard from the other person again and are wondering “why?”

Why? Because it might have been a perfectly nice date, but it’s not a perfect date unless the people are right for each other.

Both of them.

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:

We’d All Rather Be in Venice


“What a bunch of shleppers,” my father remarks, his head doing a 180-degree pan as he takes in the view. “Not one of them has anything unique to say. Such
conformists. Just looking at them makes me nauseous.”

I turn to look, so that I, too, can take in the same view. Yes, we’re at the cemetery, looking at a hillside dotted with graves marked with headstones. It’s a quiet, pastoral setting. No one is saying much, except my father, who as usual can’t — or won’t — stop talking. This particular rant has been a perennial, ongoing drama in my family’s life, ever since my mother died.

It’s been two years this week since my mother, Betty Switkes, died, and we still haven’t had the unveiling. Jewish custom dictates that you unveil the headstone a year after the person dies, but my father has not found the right stone or the right words to inscribe on that stone, so she rests in this unmarked grave. People who pass by this spot might suspect the person buried here is a forgotten soul, but nothing could be further from the truth. She is the focus of his obsession.

He explains to me and anyone else who cares to listen: “The stone should tell the world what a unique person she was. Not just her name and her dates, but it should say something about her.”

“How about beloved wife and mother?” I offer.

“No! Every headstone says that. Look around you. Beloved wife and mother. Beloved wife and mother. Dime a dozen. Not at all unique.”

“She was uniquely your wife and my mother.”

“You don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” he stresses.

Actually I do. He doesn’t want to say goodbye. Once we have the unveiling, then what? As long as he can put this final ritual on hold, he can postpone that final farewell.

“When Betty died, half of me died,” he says.

He talks about her: “She did so much with her life. We threw the best parties. She was the greatest hostess. And her charity work. Always volunteering, always helping someone. And her exercise. She was a pioneer. She developed special exercises for the elderly. Seniorcize. I want to put all that on her headstone. So people know who they are dealing with.”

Note the present tense.

“Do you really want the headstone to look like a resume?” I ask. “Besides, everyone who knew her knows what she accomplished. And everyone who didn’t know her never will.”

He doesn’t hear me.

My father has decided on a double headstone, and that makes sense. They shared a bed for 56 years, so they should share a grave.

But that further complicates the problem of finding the appropriate inscription. If there’s a unique inscription on my mother’s side of the stone, then there must be a comparable inscription on my father’s side. It has to be balanced. Maybe the inscription should be about their life together.

“Write one inscription that applies to both of you. Perhaps something about your marriage,” I offer.

His face lights up. I suggest: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
He rejects it: “Absolutely not. That’s on every ketubbah ever written. C’mon. Think outside the box.”

Here we come to the crux of the problem. Joe Switkes is loud, fun and eccentric. He’s brilliant, expressive and totally unreasonable, a man of action, bold action. And death is the state that has no verb. Talk about irreconcilable differences.

He’s thinking about their marriage and fondly recalls the days they spent at Venice Beach, playing in the sand with their granddaughter.

How about, “We’d rather be in Venice,” I offer.

He laughs.

“That’s good. It takes it away from all this depressing stuff you see around here. I want our headstone to be unique and fun,” he explains.
But then I have second thoughts. When I’m looking at my parents’ grave, I don’t want fun.

He takes another stab at it. How about, “Betty was beautiful and caring, and Joe was smart and humorous.”

I say, “Dad, don’t clutter up the headstone with a lot of adjectives, it’ll read like a profile on JDate.”

He comes back with, “Together they lived a life that was a joy, an adventure and lots of laughs.”

I don’t think so. “Keep it dignified and sparse. Think poetry, not prose.”
Valiantly, the whole family pitches in, making suggestions. My husband suggests, “Beauty and the Beast.” Mom was like Belle – beautiful, well read and independent. Dad is like the Beast, a true prince with a heart of gold, but one must first deal with his hideous temper.

We all howl with laughter. It seems perfect, but then Dad has second thoughts. Beauty and the Beast strikes him as juvenile, and he’s not convinced that all of their friends will “get it.”

I turn to Ecclesiastes and read this beautiful passage:

theellenloop@hotmail.com.

Perfectly Imperfect


Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

 

Brisket for the Soul


Exploring the stack of old Jewish cookbooks and family recipes my mother brought to me when she visited from Atlanta, I found a note. On the top of a small white paper, in her handwriting, were the words Rosh Hashanah, and then the list; Apple Charlie, Challah, Kugel, Green Bean Salad, Brisket. I asked her if this meal plan was from last year, but she said no.

"That must have been from many, many years ago," she said while standing in my California kitchen with afternoon sun lighting half her face. That must have been why, when I read it, I tasted decades of family holiday meals and decided we should buy a brisket and make it together.

She chose a nice 4-pound cut, and since the ingredients for my mother’s brisket are basic staples, salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic, onions and good wine, we lost no time shopping around. But since it cooks entirely on top of the stove, gently, over hours, it gave us lots of time to watch over a deep, bubbling, burgundy sauce, while absorbing rich scents, filling my tiny kitchen, taking us back all those years, then filling us up right where we were. And when, after an overnight of cooling, my mother showed my how to slice (carefully against the grain) and reheat (layering the tender meat) back in the gravy, framing it with softened orange carrots — I took a picture of our creation, right in the pot, because it was beautiful.

When I looked up different brisket recipes, I found all kinds of creative approaches; one using a spicy apple butter sauce, one cooking the meat in molasses sweetened navy beans, and one adding a blanket of cooked prunes. But all of them had a key element in common: time. Each requires at least an overnight of marinade and anywhere from three to six hours of low-heat cooking to soften and season the meat. For Mom’s brisket, the techniques are straightforward, the ingredients few, but if the definition of soul food is cooking simple foods, nice and slow, then a Rosh Hashanah brisket must be good for the soul.

Kaethe’s Stovetop Brisket

The seasonings and gravy for this recipe are light enough to gracefully enhance the flavor of the meat. But if you like more spice, add salt and pepper to suit your tastes and enjoy!

4-pound beef brisket

1 1/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)

1/4 teaspoon pepper (to taste)

4 large garlic cloves, sliced thin

1 large onion, sliced thin

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup dry red wine

5 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon paprika

3 large carrots

Rinse brisket in cold water and place in large dish with sides. Thinly slice garlic coves and onion and arrange under and over meat. In small bowl, combine and whisk salt, pepper, 3 tablespoons olive oil and wine. Pour over meat. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning meat once.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in heavy, deep, wide skillet over medium heat. After scraping off — but saving — onions and garlic, place brisket in pan, searing each side until slightly brown, about four to five minutes. Place meat aside on platter. Pour marinade into pan, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, return meat to pan, scatter onions and garlic above and below, and spoon liquid over top of brisket. Sprinkle top with 1/4 teaspoon of paprika. Cover and reduce heat to low, simmering approximately three hours, turning after halfway through and sprinkling other side with 1/4 teaspoon of paprika. Add whole carrots during last hour. Test with knife. Meat should be soft but firm enough not to shred.

Turn off heat. Let cool slightly, then remove from marinade.

Place meat in large dish, cover and refrigerate overnight for ease of slicing. Strain gravy to separate onion, garlic slices and whole carrots from liquid. Then store each in refrigerator overnight.

Skim fat off top layer of marinade and pour into deep, wide skillet. Mash onions and garlic with spoon and add to marinade. Heat on medium low. Test for salt or pepper preferences. Cut brisket in 1/4-inch slices against the grain and layer into marinade with carrots. Cover and rewarm approximately 30 minutes or just until gravy starts to bubble. Do not overcook. Serve brisket slices on platter with some gravy spooned over and remainder on the side.

Serves 10.

For the Kids


Soul Solution

Summer is over, now the real work starts. Last week we remembered hard-working Americans on Labor Day. But that’s nothing compared to the work we Jews will do over the next two weeks — on our souls. There will be a lot of hard-core thinking:
What did I do that I won’t do again? What do I want to do better? How can I learn to be a more generous, considerate person? And how will I show it?

“Apples Dipped in Honey for Rosh Hashanah” is a song many of you know. Well, how about honey dipped in apples? Here’s a great idea for a Personal Honey Bowl.

Core the apple, but make sure you do not go through the bottom. Use the spoon to scoop out more of the apple. If your apple has absolutely no holes, you will not need a cup. Just pour the honey straight into the apple hole. Now each person at your table can dip their apple slice in the honey that’s in the apple.

Drama in Israel, High Stakes in the U.S.


Israeli politics is always a mix of high drama and low comedy, but the current fight within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s divided government is anything but entertaining for Jewish leaders here.

Israeli commentators have noted that it is a struggle for the soul of the Likud party. How that turns out will have consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship and on Israel’s already-low standing around the world.

It will also have a major impact on an American Jewish community that has come together to support a beleaguered Israel, but which is unlikely to stay together to support settlers who want to remain in their Gaza and West Bank enclaves.

According to sources here, the pro-Israel lobby has sent an unambiguous message to Sharon and his warring government ministers: expect problems in U.S.-Israel relations if you can’t approve a comprehensive Gaza withdrawal plan.

The reasons aren’t hard to grasp.

President George W. Bush, initially cool to the plan, latched on to it last month as an alternative to the stalled Mideast “road map.” To help Sharon win the promised Likud referendum on the pullout, the president offered some dramatic concessions, including rejection of the Palestinian right of return and an acknowledgment that Israel can retain some West Bank land after a settlement with the Palestinians.

Bush paid a big diplomatic price for those concessions; European and Arab allies were incensed at just the moment when the administration was seeking their help in the Iraq tangle. Their anger intensified when Sharon lost the Likud referendum and began talking about a watered-down or phased plan, making President Bush look like the sucker of the decade.

The administration can’t afford a second loss. Now, officials here clearly expect Sharon to find a way to sell the plan to his government and start implementing it — pronto.

Bush’s need for a diplomatic victory will only increase as he holds a series of meetings here and abroad this month trying to enlist international cooperation in the effort to bring a semblance of stability to Iraq.

Officials here expect a full withdrawal, not a piecemeal or partial one, and they expect Israel to coordinate with the hated Palestinian Authority to prevent a Hamas takeover when Israeli troops and settlers evacuate Gaza.

Sharon has gotten that message; this week he is sending his foreign minister to Cairo to discuss the handover with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With an election only five months away and both parties scrambling for Jewish support, the Bush administration has no intention of publicly squeezing Israel.

But the message is going out through diplomatic channels: after Nov. 2, there could be hell to pay if Sharon does not make good on his deal with Bush.

If Sharon loses the withdrawal fight to the well-organized settler minority, the role of the settlers in setting national policy will dramatically increase, with huge diplomatic consequences.

President Bush’s unusually strong affinity for Sharon has everything to do with the Israeli leader’s tough and uncompromising response to terrorism, nothing to do with his longtime advocacy of settlements, which this administration, like its predecessors, continues to regard as an impediment to any peace process.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, may identify with Israeli settlers, but the core of Israel’s political support on Capitol Hill has little sympathy for Israel’s not-one-inch crowd.

Since Sept. 11, the American public has gained a better understanding of the problems Israel faces. But that new sympathy could evaporate if Sharon is defeated by a small band of settlers regarded here as ideological and religious zealots.

There are also potential communal consequences.

The Jewish community has long been divided over the best route to peace in the region, but it has mostly put those divisions on hold since the resumption of widespread Palestinian terrorism in 2000.

Sharon has been a divisive figure over his long career, but by and large American Jews have stood behind his government as it confronts terrorists and a Yasser Arafat that even avid doves concede is not a fit partner for peace.

But beneath today’s veneer of unity, the Jewish community is more divided than ever. An increasingly vocal minority, backed by powerful friends in the Christian community, reject any new territorial concessions. But a majority still support the concept of land for peace negotiations, although many remain skeptical about the current Palestinian leadership.

A failure by Sharon to put over the plan will bring those divisions back into the open and intensify them as American Jews choose up sides in the fight between settlers and mainstream Israel.

The groups that call the Gaza plan a “surrender” or “retreat” plan may be among the loudest in Jewish life today, but it’s the Jewish mainstream that Israel relies on as the foundation of its political support in this country.

That foundation, as well as relations with a sympathetic administration, is at risk as Sharon fights the most difficult battle in a life of difficult battles.

No Half Love!


Will I fall in love again?

After 17 years of marriage? At 42?

Will I even recognize the feeling? How soon will I allow myself to feel that vulnerable? That trusting?

Here’s a shocker: I’m cynical. I tend to regard women who come into my life with the narrow-eyed acuity of a fact checker. I have quickly become an instant documentarian, a sharp-eared debriefer in the Guantanamo Bay of the heart.

An astute interviewer, I listen for instant disqualifiers — gross insecurities, knee-jerk judgmentalism, debt, uncontrollable recoiling at the mention of sex.

Call this the Yiddish model of wary romance. At best, this model is worldly and practical.

"Love is a fine thing," the Yiddish saying goes, "but love with noodles is even tastier."

At its worst, this model is as despairing as Kafka, who let us know that "there is infinite hope — just not for us."

My Yiddish model admits that there is indeed infinite love between men and women, but that I’m destined for membership in the other 99.8 percent of the population.

It’s a seductively comfortable working model for dating. Why? Because it begins in fear, and so keeps me armored, garrisoned, provisioned and snugly out of the range of fire.

But, as Goethe’s Faust famously cried, "Two souls dwell, alas, in my breast."

And so my Yiddishe kop rides atop a body suffused with a Hebraic soul. Built of love, not fear, it belts out the Hebrew of the Song of Songs — "Love is stronger than death," and "Let me lean against the stout trunks, let me couch among the apple trees, for I am sick with love."

My Hebraic heart doesn’t fact check women, it listens optimistically for a singing partner — for spontaneous appreciation of beauty, for playful verbal dexterity, affection, exuberance, sensuality, beneficence.

This Hebrew model of love is far more uncomfortable. It pounds at the ribs. It is a ready conflagration under the skin. It is a psycho inner-puppy that persistently leaps to imagine a future of conjugal bliss. Hebraic love, as the Song of Songs reminds us, is a promise of love that, in its fullness of heart, is so expansive, so complete, that it can serve as nothing less than a metaphor for God’s love of us and for the human love of God.

Whoa. Yeah. I want love like that. And outsinging Kafka, there’s an optimistic voice in me that believes I, single, unfettered, can have it.

Because the great thing about starting out fresh at this point in my life is that, past the anxieties of youth, and before the frailties of age, I’m at full power.

For the first time in almost 20 years, unable to blame someone else, unburdened of the need to please someone else, I get to create the life I want. As ideal as I want to it to be.

And so, when I met a woman with an inspiringly buoyant, happy heart, I found myself blurting to her, "No half love." I was spontaneously striking a deal right from the start. A veteran of an increasingly listless marriage herself, her whole face lit up.

"No half love," she repeated. We weren’t in love yet, but if we were going to be, we were pledging ourselves at this important threshold to an idealism of, well, biblical proportions. What does that translate to in everyday life? To me, it means drawing from a bottomless well of generosity; it means kindness under stress, patience when gloom visits, quiet amid chaos and an almost giddy joy in the other’s happiness. All in all, it means maintaining a steadfast X-ray vision through the inevitable husks of daily imperfection to the divine creamy filling within.

Will I fall in love again? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that though I crack wise in Yiddish, my heart soars with a more ancient yearning…

Set me as a seal upon thy heart

As a seal upon thy arm

For love is as strong as death…

Many waters cannot quench love,

nor can the floods drown it.

Undrownable. Amen.


Adam Gilad is a writer, producer and CEO of Rogue Direct, LLP. He also
teaches creative writing based on Jewish texts at the UJ and privately. He can
be reached at adamgilad@yahoo.com

Jewels of Our Lives


There are stories that one needs to hear many times in order to remember them, in order to file them in a manner that they can be retrieved when needed. But then I’m sure you have listened to stories that you heard not only with your ears and memory, but with your soul as well; stories that you knew the moment you heard them you would never forget them. Thirteen years ago, I was standing in a store of sefarim (holy books) in Yerushalayim with my rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach. He took a book off the shelf, kissed it and handed it to me while saying, "Do you have this book? You must have it."

It looked like so many other books in the store, so many other books in my library. "It’s the Bat Ayin — the teachings of the holy Avritcher Rebbe — you must have it."

"But who is he?" I asked.

Reb Shlomo looked at me and said, "Remember the story with the precious stones? It is him!"

I smiled as my eyes teared. "Yes," I said, "I remember."

The Bat Ayin, Rav Avraham Dov of Avritch, was one of the Chasidic leadership who made aliyah in 1777. One day, a stranger entered his chazter (courtyard) in the city of Tzfat and Rav Avraham ran to greet him. The Chasidim couldn’t hear what they spoke of, but as soon as the stranger left, the rebbe returned to his study and did not emerge for three weeks. The Chasidim were puzzled: Who was that person? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his study for three weeks? Their puzzlement grew when the rebbe finally emerged and commanded his Chasidim to prepare the most amazing tish (a rebbe’s table).

The Chasidim did as they were told. They ate and drank and sang and danced. But the whole time, all they really wanted to know was: Who was the stranger? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his room for three weeks?

At last one of the Chasidim mustered up the courage to ask the rebbe, "Why?"

The rebbe silenced them and began: "Many years ago, while still in Avritch, I would always sit for hours with anyone that came from Eretz Yisrael. I would question them about the Holy Land and what it was like to live there. One day a shliach d’rabanan [charity collector] showed up and we talked endlessly. When he stood to leave I begged him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘I’ve told you everything.’

"But I insisted, ‘Tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Ma’arat Hamachpela along with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs you will know.’ And he turned to leave.

"I begged of him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Kever Rachel [Rachel’s tomb] and cry with her, you will know.’ And again he turned to leave.

"I continued to beg, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘I’ve told you all I can. When you get there you will see for yourself, even the stones are precious stones. Even the stones are made of emeralds and rubies and diamonds!’ And with this he left.

"So you see," the rebbe turned to his Chasidim, "when I arrived, everything was exactly as he said it would be. Everything but the stones — they were regular stones, they weren’t precious stones at all. I could never understand why he lied to me. Why the last thing he told me was not true.’

"Three weeks ago, he walked into the chatzer, and despite the passage of 20 years I recognized him immediately. I ran to him and said, ‘Everything you told me was true, but the stones! Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me they were precious stones when they are not?!’ He looked at me and said with dismay and surprise: ‘What? They’re not?’

"So I locked myself in my study and I began to cry. Every day I would cry and look out at the stones. Today, finally, while looking out of the window I realized that every stone was precious. Every stone was an emerald or a ruby or a diamond!"

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) tells us that on Rosh Hashanah the Books of Life and Death are opened and that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are all registered in one of the two books. But who does the actual signing? Who else but God could do this? The Avritcher Rebbe tells us that it is our own signature that appears in these books. If we choose to look at ourselves, at other people, at our world, at the events of our lives as jewels, then indeed we have signed ourselves in the Book of Life.

The Avritcher Rebbe had to cry in order to transform his sight. And you? Will the transformation happen through joy? Through prayer? Through dance? Through learning? What will it take for you to sign yourself in the Book of Life?


Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Dream a Little Dream


Joseph’s life is linked to dreams from his youth, and the way in which he responds to dreams reflects the level of his maturity.

As a boy, he delights in using his dreams to torture his brothers and triumph over them. While he never interprets these dreams, their meaning is so clear as to need no expert reading. Indeed, everyone who hears him relate these dreams knows he is using them to raise himself over others.

His next dream encounter is in an Egyptian jail where he tells Pharoah’s chief butler and baker the meaning of their dreams. Here we find a maturing, but not yet mature, Joseph. He says to them: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Genesis 40:9) This is a statement reflecting newfound humility. He realizes that dreams come from God and that only God can reveal their meaning. Having said this, however, he then says, "Relate it to me," as if he were God! While realizing the need to go beyond ego, Joseph is not ready to actually do so.

When Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and asked to interpret the king’s dreams, however, he does so from a very deep and spiritually mature place: "That is beyond me; it is God who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare." (Genesis 41:16) There are two points that must be made regarding this text.

First, to be able to say "that is beyond me" is the key to spiritual life. It is the affirmation of the surrender that is needed if we are to realize God and godliness in our lives. It is the equivalent of Jacob’s "God is in this place and I did not know." (Genesis 28:16) These are both expressions of surrender. Joseph’s "I cannot do it" and his father’s "I cannot know it" are reflections of a level of spiritual awakening that reveals the limits of self and the limitlessness of God.

Second, to recognize that "it is God who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare" is to realize that even when we seek to do good, we must realize that we are merely vehicles for God. Thus, we should take no pride in doing good, for that is why we were born. The Torah is not saying that we should ignore the needs of others and let God take care of things (Joseph certainly does not do this), but rather that even as we go about caring for others, we should not let that feed our ego. We should let it envelop us in a greater gratefulness that we are privileged to serve. We are not caring for others. Rather, God is caring for them through us.

Here, then, is the key to living spiritually: Knowing what is beyond and allowing God to respond. The first puts the ego in its proper place; the second allows it to be used for the proper purpose.

But we would be remiss to stop here and not take up the issue of dreaming itself. The talmudic sages tell us that prophecy is a small component of dreams. They come from God and speak to godliness, though they do so in a manner that is far from prophetic clarity. Where do they come from? What do they mean? How shall we use them?

Some dreams are simply the mind processing the day’s events. Others are the cold pizza you ate during Letterman or Leno. These dreams are most often nonsensical. They do not stay with you. Yet, there are other dreams that you cannot dismiss no matter how hard you try. These dreams come from the soul.

There is a game children play where one child closes his eyes and tries to find a ball the other children have hidden. As he moves closer to the goal they call out words of encouragement, as he moves farther away from it they call out words of despair. Dreams are like this. The goal is God. When you are moving closer to God in your thoughts, words and deeds, the dream sends word of encouragement. When you are moving further away, the dream shouts out words of warning.

No one can tell you for certain what your own dream is saying. All you can do is carry it with you and ask God. If you do this sincerely and humbly, you will know. If you do this sincerely and humbly, your very asking of God will move you closer to God. Your response to the dream will make the dream a voice for good.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of The Simply Jewish Foundation,

One Day More


This week, we break the linear reading of Torah to honor the holy day of Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly, a day added to the seven days of Sukkot. Midrash Rabbah (29:36) explains Shemini Atzeret by way of an analogy: A king invites the whole country to a feast. When it is over and the people are returning home, he turns to his children and begs them to stay a little bit longer saying: "Your departure is painful to me."

We have gathered with God to celebrate the feast of the earth’s bounty, and now God says to us: "Wait, don’t go just yet. Spend one more day with Me, for your separation pains Me."

One way to understand this is to note that in Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, the Torah reading assigned to Shemini Atzeret, the holy day itself is not mentioned. We can read about Shemini Atzeret in Leviticus (23:36) and Numbers (29:35-39), but not here. Why? Because staying with God one more day should be an act of love rather than an act of obedience. God wants us to stay with Him, and we want to stay with God.

Shemini Atzeret, then, is a day to linger with God. And what does this lingering involve? We are to come before God with "whatever your heart desires — cattle, flocks, wine, alcoholic beverage, or anything that your soul wishes; you shall eat it there before God and rejoice — you and your household" (Deuteronomy 14:26).

Notice the difference between whatever your heart desires and anything that your soul wishes. The heart desires things: cattle, flocks, drink. The soul wishes for company: eating before God with your loved ones. The heart rejoices when it has something to rejoice over. The soul rejoices when it has someone to rejoice with. For seven days we rejoice over the bounty that God has given us. On the eighth day we rejoice with God.

See this in terms of the midrash above. The king invites the whole country to his feast. When the feast is over, the people leave. His children, too, prepare to depart, but he says to them: "Linger with me yet another day, for your departure pains me. Being separate from you distresses me." Only his children are invited to stay with the king; only those most intimate with God feel the call to stay one more day.

But isn’t Shemini Atzeret obligatory on all of us, and not simply those who feel called by God to God? Yes, God is calling each of us — even if we don’t hear the call. The obligation to linger gives us the opportunity to hear the call. It is as if once the din, tumult and partying of Sukkot has quieted down we can finally hear God calling to us: stay with Me one more day.

What is staying with God? The Kotzker Rebbe once asked, "Where does God dwell?" He answered his own question saying: "God dwells wherever you let God in." Staying with God means staying open to God; staying open to God means seeing the Divine in, with and as all that is. It is realizing that God is ein sof (unbounded) and that there is no thing that is not God — for that would put a limit on God. Rejoicing with God means rejoicing with your family and the world. Rejoicing with God means embracing the world with godliness.

Why just one day? Because "one day" means "this day," and "this day" — today — is all we have. Our sages tell us to do teshuvah (repentance) one day before we die. Since we don’t know when that day is, one day becomes today. The same is true here. God is saying to us: "I am glad your heart rejoices in all the things I have given you, but now put those things aside and rejoice in Me and My company." If you rejoice in the company of God today, you will rejoice with God forever, for today is the only day you ever have.