The lost post

I submit for your dissection a post that should have happened 3 months ago, but which I recently discovered, unpublished. Like a hidden gem, an artifact. The Basement Tapes. Hah! Re-reading the words, they don’t seem to have gone stale. In fact, the thoughts about tribalism seem to have been amplified with the events of the summer shortly after I left. I hope you enjoy my musings, old though they may be.

I’m on my way to Israel for Hannah and Sydney’s Bnot Mitzvah. Not too long ago, I woke up, having slept most of the way from Toronto. In fact, I missed just about the entire Atlantic crossing, which is too bad, since I wanted to see if I could see the aurora. I even picked a seat on the left window, the north side or the plane. It was a long-shot anyway- I’m sure there was nothing to see.

Anyway, we’re now flying over Brittany, the map indicating Lorient in the near distance, with Nantes our next crossover point. I’ve long wanted to visit Brittany, especially Lorient for the Festival Interceltique, the world’s largest Celtic music festival. Someday, hopefully. As we cross through northwestern France, I turn on Nolwenn Leroy, the French-Bretonne singer, and listen to Tri Martholod, a Breton song that means, three sailors. Next, Bro Gorsh va Radou: the unofficial anthem of Breizh (the Breton word for Brittany). What better time to listen to Breton songs!

And of course, my mind starts wandering away into the ether. Just thinking about tribalism and tribal conflict. Not too long ago, I was watching Youtube as Nolwenn sang Bro Gorsh at the Stade de France before the final of the French cup soccer match contested by two teams from Brittany. The crowd sang in unison, waving Breton flags, their faces painted with the Breton colors. It was an expression of “nationalism”, the of pride in their origins. Until the early 80s, local languages- Breton, Basque, Provencal, Langue d’Oc, couldn’t be taught in schools in France, so as not to separate the state (l’etat) into fragmented nationalities. But tribalism won out, and now there are many regional languages being revived in France.

For some reason, I’ve had many recent conversations about the tribal nature of people as a species. Not just concerning France, but everywhere- Israel, Ireland, France, Rwanda, South Africa, etc. etc. On my stopover in Toronto, I watched a World Cup match, and at the beginning, the crowd roared their anthems. Then, the teams went at each other, a peaceful proxy asserting national identity. Anthems and flags- is that really how we define ourselves?

Actually, as I sit on the Canadian flag carrier, I wondered about the US and Canada. Only a line on the map separates us. Or is it something deeper. Does that border divide us into distinct peoples, or did we become that way by virtue of having a border there? Chicken and egg?

And now heading to Israel, whose neighborhood is such a graphic example of that tribalism. Oy, it’s too much to contemplate. And we’re only over central France.

Erev Rosh Hashana 5775

Here’s what I said this year.  Hope you enjoy it.


[Sing] There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

It’s time we stop, Hey! What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.

Last year I gave you some homework. This year, I’m giving you two things to do. Let me recap last year’s assignment. Remember the Mikdash Me’at? Just to review: From the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet told the people that since the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, that God was a mikdash me’at: a little sanctuary. The rabbis expand the Mikdash me’at to mean synagogues and study halls, and later into our homes, our schools, our offices, our very beings.

I ended with this prayer: May this be a year when each of us constructs the Mikdash Me’at, the little sanctuary that is the holiest place in the world.

So, How many of you built your mikdash me’at this past year? Well, I was building mine, but a text message came in. Then another one. And 46 emails. I have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed about this, since I was the one giving the sermon, but I got knocked off course in the middle of doing my homework.

It’s not surprising, really. None of us is immune. We’re constantly “dealing with things”. Texts are coming in. Constantly. And emails. And the occasional phone call. I, and I think many of us feel besieged by our own availability and need to be IN TOUCH; it gives us comfort. I have a great picture from inside my sukkah of the three teenagers who were over building with me. We were taking a break, and in the picture is each of the teens on their cellphones; I was too, by the way. Inside the sukkah, which incidentally is a mikdash me’at!

I think it’s an addiction. We’re always using. We have a need for noise, for filling in our time- texting, Facebook posts, Instagram. We’re silent but not silent. We fill every empty space. It’s as if we have to fill every moment with interaction, with feedback. We look to others to tell us what to think.

As I reflect on this, I started to wonder: When did silence stop being golden? We fear silence and unfilled minutes. And it hurts us. It crowds out our ability to refresh, to renew, to concentrate on our spiritual selves. To just have some quiet would be so welcome.

We need a cure, and part of the cure is that we need to, and I hate this word, Unplug. We need to stop fearing silence and gaps in interaction. Turning off one’s cellphone occasionally, not responding to emails within 9 seconds of receiving them is not a sign of weakness or lack of commitment. I’m fairly sure my sukkah could have gone up first, and then the four of us building it could have resumed our texting or instagramming or whatever we were doing.

Over the summer, I was in Michigan, visiting family and friends, spending time at various lakes. My affinity for water is for another day. For a week, I didn’t check my email. When I downloaded my emails to my phone, I had 1,200. And guess what? It turns out that I’m really not that important! But that made me feel good; the world didn’t end when I didn’t check my email. I felt refreshed.

We of course have a weekly day of silence and unplugging. Gunther Plaut said: I view the Sabbath as a “useless” day. When we hear the word useless, it’s pejorative, a negative. But Plaut clearly meant it in a positive sense. He goes on: We must once again understand that doing nothing, being silent and open to the world, letting things happen inside, can be as important as, and sometimes more important than, what we commonly call the useful. I don’t know- even on Saturday afternoon, after a day of synagogue, I have frequently felt restless, like I’m not accomplishing anything. Useless is such a negative. But to be useless is so necessary. And we can think of it also as a “Use-less” day. A day when we’re not using, when we’re not feeding our addiction.

There is an organization called Reboot that is promoting a day in March, a National Day of Unplugging. I’ll be honest. I’m skeptical. Well, actually, I thought it a bit ridiculous. We have a national day of unplugging every week. It’s called Shabbat. Heck, today is a national day of unplugging. But unfortunately, I think it may be necessary. The trick is going to be unplugging on another day besides March 7. And then to keep doing it. So our first task is to unplug; not just from technology, but from anything that infringes on our silence.

The second assignment for this year is to do reflect and absorb. In the Talmud, the letters of the Torah and the spaces between each have an importance. Commentary says that the white spaces, the places where we fill in the meaning of the Torah, are more important even than the letters.

Rav Abraham Kook teaches that we can deepen our understanding by considering that extra space is left blank to separate sections of the Torah. The Sages explained that these separations allowed Moses to reflect upon and absorb the previous lesson. In other words, the spaces correspond to the realm of thought and contemplation.

Even though I was tongue in cheek about not building my mikdash me’at, I actually did build one this year. My Mikdash me’at is the Power Hour [describe it]. Now, I know that it isn’t for everyone. Actually, as one with a conservadox upbringing and a decidedly non-touchy-feely approach to worship, I didn’t know it would be for me.

But over the course of this past year, something happened. Something wondrous. And I can’t explain it fully, and I can’t say exactly when it happened. It touched my soul and spirit as has rarely happened for me in my life. One of the people who attends Power Hour regularly, my friend and chevruta, walked into my office, and, told me that he felt the same thing (with apologies to Buffalo Springfield): “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

I look around that room, at Power Hour, and it feels to me like each of us are cells, intrinsic to each other, that form a body. We gather around the Torah, form a circle, and share blessings with each other. There is an intimacy that I have rarely found in a prayer service. When we all join together to say blessing, to stand with each other at Yahrzeit, to ask for healing, there is a power.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the Power Hour is that we can reflect and absorb. Angela and Saul provide beautiful music, and we find kavana for the prayers together, but most important is that there is silence. There’s time for deep reflection, for closing one’s eyes, and absorbing the tune, the words of the prayers we say. There are people who don’t even open the book.

At the end of the service, I leave refreshed, present. Again, I’m not sure how to define this eloquently, except to say that I feel clarity. That clarity connects me to everyone on an even deeper level. Like I said, Power Hour isn’t for everyone, but if we can all unplug, reflect and absorb, even for one hour, it can change us for the better.

There’s a story that I (and probably many of us) have heard many times, but until this year, I never really connected to this, never really felt what it was talking about. A great pianist was once asked, “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” The artist answered, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.” The beautiful notes and the pauses between. The silence.

Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav said, Teach me, dear God, that often the most effective words are no words at all. Teach me how and when to communicate with that most potent gift of silence. Shana Tova.