Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
A friend and member of my community at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sophie Sartain, has written a wonderful piece on “Well-Being” in the current issue of LA Magazine about her daily walk on a popular Hollywood trail called “Runyon Canyon” whose trail head is several hundred yards from my synagogue. There the famous and unknown hike and exercise their dogs without leashes, one of the only open places in LA to do so.
The hike, requiring mild exertion and then excruciating effort the higher you go to the top of Mulholland Drive, enables the hiker to see Los Angeles from the beach to downtown. Sophie compares the levels of hiking up to Mulholland to the trek of the cherpas to the top of Mt. Everest. Granted, Runyon Canyan is hardly Mt. Everest, but to those starting out it feels as though it might be.
Sophie is a cancer survivor and a mother of small children, and Runyan Canyon has become her “gym.” As her conditioning progressed she was able to reach the summit, and having done so she discovered that this daily routine was meant to be more than just her personal gym and an opportunity to sight-see, meet friends and enjoy the dogs. This is what the hike came to mean to her:
At the Top my Runyon story took on a new dimension, for I happened upon the Wishing Box. A metal contraption with spikes protruding from its roof like the Statue of Liberty’s crown, the box was just there, unannounced and unexplained. When I first discovered it in 2011, it was painted with the message “Give a Prayer, Take a Prayer” and adorned with rainbows, flowers, and a geographically accurate globe.
Many people take advantage of this “Wishing Box” and have written down their fervent (at times trivial) wishes for fame and fortune. More importantly, they have prayed for love, good health, courage, and the fortitude to cope with their lives.
When we become ill, and when compelled to learn how to cope with our unmet dreams, personal limitations and fear of the future, we can feel very much alone and powerless in our lives.
The “Wishing Box” offers a vehicle for enhanced mindfulness and prayer, both of which can help us to stay present enough to count our many blessings and be grateful for them.
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June 20, 2013 | 10:06 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“Born on a Blue Day” (publ. 2007) is an extraordinary memoir written by a young British autistic savant, Daniel Tammet. His mental capacities are so remarkable that he was able to recite Pi to the 22,514th digit and holds the British and European record.
The author writes about his unique way of thinking called “synesthesia,” in which he sees numbers, letters and musical notes as colors and shapes. One of about 100 people in the world with his abilities, scientists believe that they are a consequence of hyperactivity in his brain’s left pre-frontal cortex.
Tammet is able to multiply vast numbers without having to write anything down. He is a gifted linguist and is fluent in 10 languages - English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Welsh, and Icelandic (which he learned to speak in one week!).
As a child his father introduced him to chess by taking him to the local chess club. Daniel was instructed by one of the older members and after familiarizing himself with the moves of the different pieces and then visualizing them moving in mathematical configurations, he beat his teacher in his first game. He went on to win many matches.
This engaging memoir tells the often painful story of Daniel growing up, isolated because of autism, Asperger’s and an early epileptic episode that almost killed him. As a child he was so unusual that he had no friends, which he did not miss because he was happy spending time alone in his room thinking.
Daniel only learned to become empathic (a problem for those with autism and Asperger’s) by associating his feelings about numbers and colors to feelings others experience in their lives. He wrote:
“Emotions can be hard for me to understand or know how to react to, so I often use numbers to help me. If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it. If I read in an article that a person felt intimidated by something, I imagine myself standing next to the number 9. Whenever someone describes visiting a beautiful place, I recall my numerical landscapes and how happy they make me feel inside. By doing this, numbers actually help me get closer to understanding other people.”
Daniel describes his obsessive and compulsive need for order and routine in life, explaining:
“I eat exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast each morning; I weigh the bowl with an electronic scale to make sure. Then I count the number of items of clothing I'm wearing before I leave my house. I get anxious if I can't drink my cups of tea at the same time each day. Whenever I become too stressed and I can't breathe properly, I close my eyes and count. Thinking of numbers helps me to become calm again. Numbers are my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality… No matter what I’m doing, numbers are never very far from my thoughts.”
Tammet is often poetic, especially when describing his love of numbers and words through color and texture:
“There are moments, as I'm falling into sleep at night that my mind fills suddenly with bright light and all I can see are numbers -- hundreds, thousands of them -- swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me. Some nights, when I'm having difficulty falling asleep, I imagine myself walking around my numerical landscapes. Then I feel safe and happy. I never feel lost, because the prime number shapes act as signposts.”
Despite his Asperger’s and autism, Daniel lives independently. When he was in his early 20s he told his parents that he was gay, soon fell in love, and moved in with his lover/partner.
Daniel Tammet is a wonderful story teller, and to read his words is to enter a unique world. He is a descriptive, honest and often touchingly vulnerable writer.
People have often asked him how he feels about being a human “guinea pig” to scientific researchers of the human brain. He does not mind because he knows that what is learned will expand knowledge of how the brain works. He is also interested in understanding himself better and says he wrote this book so that his family will understand him better.
This memoir is not only a fascinating read, but is important in understanding the nature of a true savant and the condition of autism and Asperger’s.
You can read an excerpt from "Born on a Blue Day" here:
June 14, 2013 | 9:22 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In this week’s Torah portion Hukat, Miriam dies and the people complain bitterly that there’s no water (Numbers 20:3-5). God tells him to take his rod and order the rock to produce water. But Moses, old and weary, instead of ordering the rock, strikes it with his rod. Though the people drink God punishes Moses from ever entering the Promised Land.
Talmudic sages said that Moses’ faith wasn’t strong enough, that because he failed to sanctify God in the sight of the people God deemed him unworthy to lead them into Canaan.
RAMBAM explained that Moses lacked compassion, that because the people were on the verge of death from thirst he should have spoken kindly to them instead of with words of rebuke.
Others say that in losing his temper Moses lost his moral authority to be leader.
And some say that because Moses claimed credit for the miracle of the water without acknowledging God, the Almighty denied him what he dreamed for most.
And there’s yet another explanation.
Earlier at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17) the people also had complained of their dire thirst. Similar to our portion God told Moses to take his rod, but this time to hit the rock instead of speaking to it.
Why? What was different then vs now?
The answer is that Sinai intervened between the two events. There, at that lowly mountain God sought a new way for the people, to erase the experience of slavery, to create a new people in which force would yield to reason, physical strength to law, violence to dialogue and compassion.
God intended that a new age was to begin, the messianic age, and Moses was to be the Messiah. However, when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he showed the people that Sinai had actually changed nothing, that God was just a more powerful Pharaoh with bigger magic and greater violence.
In a modern midrash on the “Waters of Meribah,” Rabbi Marc Gelman writes movingly of what God intended for the people, then and now (Learn Torah with…Vol. 5, Number 16, January 30, 1999, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman):
"When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of my presence to enter the land with them. The abundance of my presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part shall be called my Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be one. Only on that day will my name be one. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness gushing forth from my holy mountain where all people shall come and be free at last."
Turning to the present, we ask how we can apply the message of Sinai to the most challenging problem facing the Jewish people - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Sinai teaches that the power of the fist must give way to a vision of Oneness, and that vision requires us as American Jews to publicly support our own American effort led by President Obama and Secretary Kerry to help the Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict diplomatically in two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.
The status quo in which Israel occupies another people is morally, religiously and practically unsustainable. Israel will lose its soul, its democracy and/or its Jewish majority if it continues to occupy millions of Palestinians.
Israel must be helped to choose and the Palestinians must be helped to choose a new way that leads our two peoples and two nations towards acceptance of the other and a peaceful resolution of this conflict. The extremists on both sides need to be contained and controlled. Each side will need to make significant compromises for the sake of peace.
It will not be easy, but that, I believe, is the greater meaning of Sinai and we ignore it at our own peril.
Theodor Herzl said more than a century ago when envisioning a State for the Jewish people - Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – If you will it, it is not a dream!
If Israel and the Palestinians will it, peace is also not a dream.
June 11, 2013 | 7:31 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Those who say that PA President Abbas' constant refusal to sit down with PM Netanyahu without preconditions to restart negotiations for a two-state solution is an indication that he and the Palestinians are not able or willing to make peace is not the entire story.
When Israeli government leaders like Likud MK Danny Danon make statements that the government of Israel does not support a two-state solution, we have to understand that the Palestinians can legitimately argue that Israel too (at this point) is not a real partner for peace despite Bibi saying he is for a two-state solution.
Further, When PM Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians accept Israel as a "Jewish state" (which raises all kinds of problems internally including what "Jewish" means and who decides, and that such a designation excludes 20% of Israel's non-Jewish population) as opposed to the "Democratic state of the Jewish people" (which includes all Jews and every other non-Jewish citizen) Palestinians can legitimately argue that he is throwing obstacles in the way of finding a two-state solution.
Remember that no Israeli Prime Minister before Bibi ever made the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." The PLO and PA have recognized the state of Israel, but not with any more specificity than that - and why is it even necessary if a secure two-state deal can be reached? Israel will define itself. All that is necessary from the outside is that it recognize Israel - and that has already occurred and it will be affirmed when a two-state deal is made.
The Palestinians claim that they have no partner for peace in the Israeli government. Some Israelis claim they have no partner for peace among the Palestinians. There is truth in both claims. It is a mistake to lay all the blame on one side.
There has been a powerful silence among all American Jewish organizations in support of the Obama-Kerry mission except the Union for Reform Judaism and J Street. Why is that? I suggest that far too many of our organizational leaders are being led by cynicism and fear.
That negativity will not bring us closer to a secure two-state solution, which is in America's best interest, Israel's best interest, and the Palestinian's best interest. Rather, we need to be supporting Secretary Kerry vocally, letting the Obama administration as well as our senators and congressional representatives know of our support (call and email them all) and let the American effort take its course. Indeed, we will know in the next 2 to 4 weeks what success, if any, this American effort will have.
Even former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that Israel cannot afford for this American diplomatic effort to fail.
I ask that those who have already decided that a two-state solution is not possible to ask themselves what is the alternative - one state that loses Israel's Jewish character or an endless occupation that loses Israel's democratic character?
Time is not on Israel's side, and the only way to secure Israel's future as a democracy with a Jewish majority is in a two-state solution. If you love Israel as a democracy and the state of the Jewish people, this is the ONLY alternative.
Let your representatives know how you feel and support everything the American government can do to promote a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to this age-old conflict that results in two states for two peoples.
June 7, 2013 | 9:35 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The Wall Street Journal/NBC News published a poll this week reporting on the public’s approval rating of President Obama with special focus on his administration’s honesty and integrity in light of the Benghazi investigation, the IRS scandal and Drone attacks. The President currently enjoys a 48% approval rating and 47% disapproval, about what it was two months ago, largely along partisan lines but indicating a drop in approval among independent voters.
Sadly, there are many others in Washington who do not do nearly as well in the polls. The approval ratings for members of Congress as a whole have suffered dramatically in recent years into the low double digits not only because that august body has become so dysfunctional, but also because too many of our representatives refuse to compromise and find solutions to the nation’s many problems. Rather, they act more consistent with the laws of the jungle and abide by the philosophy that ends justify means, might makes right, cynicism trumps hope, and power is an ultimate “good.”
There are, of course, many decent servant-leaders in Washington and around the country who, despite formidable obstacles, seek to do well and work diligently on behalf of the common good.
This week’s Torah portion Korach considers both kinds of leaders as it tells the story of a major rebellion led by Korach and 250 Israelite leaders.
Korach was the first cousin of Moses and Aaron (Ex 6:18-21), a member of the priestly class and part of the ruling elite. The leaders around him are described as “Princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) The Talmud says of them “that they had a name recognized in the whole world.” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a).
Despite his elevated status Korach wasn’t satisfied. He challenged Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood, and his cohorts Dathan and Abiram questioned Moses’ leadership. Korach's goal was to unseat the divinely chosen leaders, and he appealed to the people to overthrow them using religious language and espousing the importance of rotating leaders in office, all of whom were equally worthy.
“And they assembled themselves together against Moses and … Aaron, and said [to them], ‘You take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them.’”
In actuality, Korach and his minions were not democrats at all; they were demagogues who manipulated and incited the masses for their narrow self-interests.
Rabbi Moshe Weiler, the founder of liberal Judaism in South Africa, has written that “Theirs [i.e. Korach and his cohorts] was the pursuit of kavod, honor and power, in the guise of sanctity and love of the masses.”
Onkolos (2nd century C.E.), in his Aramaic translation of the two opening words of the portion, Vayikach Korach (“And Korach took”) wrote It'peleg Korach (“And Korach separated himself”), suggesting that he did not consider himself to be one with the people nor was he interested in serving their interests.
Korach sought power for power’s sake and he ignited a controversy based on ignoble motivations and nefarious goals leading to the devastation of the community. In the end, the earth swallowed the rebels alive and sent them to Sheol in a spectacular inferno. (Numbers 16:31-35)
Korach’s eish ha-mach’loket (“fire of controversy”) became an eish o-che-lah (“a devouring fire”) that augured doom.
“The Sayings of the Sages” (5:21) reflects upon Korach’s rebellion and distinguishes between two very different kinds of controversy. The first is healthy and useful, pursued for the sake of heaven (l’shem shamayim) that brings about blessing and a stronger community. The second is a pernicious fight not based on lasting values and brings about disunity and destruction. Hillel and Shammai (1st century BCE) embodied the former, and Korach and his legions the latter.
Korach was essentially a cynic. Moses was the opposite, the humble servant-leader.
Who are we? Do we resonate with the voice of Korach or the spirit of Moses?
Who are our leaders? Are they interested only in power or in the common good?
Rabbi Rachel Cowan opines that though every individual may, indeed, aspire to be like Moses, Korach lives within our hearts too.
In thinking about ourselves and our leaders, the words of Maimonides remind us of the importance of pursuing higher virtue:
“The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7)
June 6, 2013 | 7:13 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a powerful and important speech at the American Jewish Committee conference, calling on American Jews to make their voices heard in support for negotiation efforts and a two-state solution. The speech was not given much attention from Jewish groups, but I, as a co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, believe that it is important to elevate Kerry’s call and to make sure that our community is vocally supporting Kerry’s efforts in the Middle East.
In that vein, J Street has released an open letter to the American Jewish community, which I hope will be circulated and read by many in an effort to galvanize support for a reinvigorated peace effort. The text of the letter can be found here.
The next few weeks provide a critical window of opportunity to do all that can be done to ensure that negotiations move ahead. I urge you to use this open letter as a jumping off point to encourage to your rabbis, synagogue leadership, friends and communities to vocally and actively support Secretary Kerry’s efforts.
June 5, 2013 | 10:13 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This past week I posted a blog on whether Jews should say the Mourner's Kaddish for a beloved pet. I have received many responses to that blog both in agreement with me that distinctions must be made between human beings and pets and that the Mourner's Kaddish is meant for mourners to say for parents, spouses, siblings, and children only, and in disagreement that since the Mourner's Kaddish affirms God in life that it is appropriate to say the Kaddish for a pet. Though I do not agree with this position, I am sympathetic, which leads me to post now these two blessings.
The first is my blessing when a beloved pet dies. The second was written by the famed scientist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer.
A Blessing on the Death of a Beloved Pet
Eternal God of Creation:
I am grateful to have enjoyed the gift of _______ (pet name)
Now that he/she has passed from this life.
Give me the strength and courage to cope with my heart-ache and loss.
Despite my grief, I am thankful that my beloved companion no longer suffers.
________ will live in my heart and memory as a dear companion of my soul.
As he/she enriched my life with love and devotion,
May I show similar care for the lives of all your creatures.
May he/she be at peace. Amen.
A Blessing to End the Suffering of Animals - by Albert Schweitzer
Hear our humble prayer, O God,
for our friends, the animals,
especially for those who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked,
underfed, and cruelly treated;
for all the wistful creatures in captivity,
that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted,
or frightened or hungry.
We entreat for them all
Yours and our compassion,
and for those who deal with them,
we ask a heart of mercy
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves,
to be true friends to animals
and so to share
the blessings of the Merciful.
June 2, 2013 | 7:44 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I have read this wondrous poem very infrequently at weddings over the years. I offer it only to couples who I sense have attained a special depth of camaraderie uncommon even for those who feel great love for each other.
The poem reflects a depth of generosity, humility, gratitude, kindness, tenderheartedness, acceptance, and understanding of oneself in relationship to the "Other" that could well be the standard towards which every individual aspires with his/her beloved. Though some young couples attain such a relationship by the time they come to the chupah, it often takes many years to realize and understand the poet’s deeper sentiments.
This is among my most favorite wedding poems. I have cited its origins as written in Wikipedia below.
I love you
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am when I am with you.
I love you,
Not only for what you have made of yourself,
But for what you are making of me.
I love you
For the part of me that you bring out;
I love you
For putting your hand into my heaped-up heart
And passing over all the foolish, weak things
That you can't help dimly seeing there,
And for drawing out into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked quite far enough to find.
I love you because you
Are helping me to make of the lumber of my life
Not a tavern but a Temple,
Out of the works of my every day
Not a reproach but a song.
I love you
Because you have done more than any creed
Could have done
To make me good,
And more than any fate could have done
To make me happy.
You have done it
Without a touch,
Without a word,
Without a sign.
You have done it
By being yourself.
Perhaps that is what
Being a friend means,
From Wikipedia on the origins of this poem and the “poet” named “Roy Croft.”
"This poem, which is commonly used in wedding speeches and readings and is quoted frequently (attributed to Roy Croft), is nearly identical in meaning to a German-language poem titled Ich liebe Dich ("I Love You") and composed by Austrian poet Erich Fried; the main difference is that Croft's version stops at the third-from-last line of Fried's poem, with the effect that Fried's poem contains two final lines for which Croft's version has no equivalent. Croft's version appears without further attribution in The Family Book of Best Loved Poems, edited by David L. George and published in 1952 by Doubleday & Company, Inc., then of Garden City, New York.
The poem "Love" was included in a 1936 anthology entitled "Best Loved Poems of American People" edited by a Hazel Felleman, and published by Doubleday. This would seem to imply that regardless of the origins of Mr. Croft, that Erich Fried in fact appropriated the poem himself and translated it into German, as he would have been only 15 in 1936. Seeing as the book was a compilation of best loved American poems, it is hard to see how he could be the author."