The Sukkahs in Our Midst

By: Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Published by: Jewish Journal

On the corner of Washington Way and Venice Boulevard, an island grants pedestrians a safe haven as they cross the expansive street. Sometime within the past few months, a structure appeared on the island. With four walls of various materials and a sheet of bamboo as the only separation between the occupant and the sky, it was the first sukkah in Venice this year.

You’ve likely seen similar structures. When we leave our quarantine bunkers and make our way through the city, it seems as if a tribe of new people multiplies as plentiful as stars in the sky.

Throughout Los Angeles, row after row of tents — under overpasses, over concrete islands, standing side by side — proliferate. In many ways, they appear like the community of Israel as described by Rashi: “When Balaam cursed the Israelites, God changed Balaam’s curse into a blessing; he was struck by the beauty of what he saw in our itinerant, refugee ancestors.” 

Today’s sukkahs and their inhabitants, however, are controversial. In a recent Facebook thread, one woman posted about a local homeless man needing help, then was accused of enabling his presence in our neighborhood. Beyond their “Not in My Backyard” attitude, homeowners have a genuine fear of this proliferating tribe. Open up any Citizen app at 10 p.m. and it’s filled with orange squares reporting incidences of “shooting,” “armed robbery” and the mysteriously ubiquitous “man wielding hammer.” Fears of COVID-19 infection have recast the presence of the homeless into a kind of leper colony, with dogwalkers crossing the street rather than walking alongside them. 

THERE IS NO SHELTER FROM THE PANDEMIC, FIRES AND CIVIL UNREST WITHIN A SUKKAH’S WALLS.

Lining our avenues for blocks at a stretch, these sukkahs seem to create new neighborhoods in our midst and transform the conversation from one of homelessness to one of homesteaders. Their inhabitants are a rising tribe, some of whom are referred to as L.A.’s homeless population, although many of them, I have learned, don’t identify as homeless. They do have homes, they assert, such as this “sukkah” on a pedestrian island in Venice. 

The sukkahs in our midst are a visible reminder of the formerly invisible homeless. Since the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) annual “Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count” in January, the number of homeless individuals has significantly risen. The tents are proliferating, and people dwell inside of them. Are they a symbol of urban blight and human depravity, or do they serve as a visible reminder of our shared humanity and the temporal nature of life? Do they inspire us to look closer or turn away?

Tents in Penmar Park, Venice

A shelter, but not a hiding place

As Sukkot approaches, these tents remind me of the omnipresence of sukkahs in Jerusalem. As I walk in Venice, I consider whether or not the rabbis would consider these tents kosher. They have at least 2 1/2 sides with walls at least 40 inches high and have coverage allowing the starlight to make its way inside and shine upon the dweller. Some are built alongside fruit trees, and one has a pomegranate bush bursting with buds. I recall the uniquely crafted sukkahs in Union Square Park in Manhattan, N.Y., in 2010 — a reimagined design of what a kosher sukkah could be. I wandered through masses of wire, stacks of tinder and globular structures and was inspired by their temporal nature and the heartbreak of their evanescence. Seeing the newfangled sukkahs of Los Angeles, I think about how much the world has changed in such a short time, and yet, the structures arouse a similar heartbreak.

As I walk past these tents, I pass a lemon tree and it reminds me that I have yet to order my lulav and etrog. This year, it’s one per customer — no sharing. During Sukkot, we wave the arba minim, the four species of plant life (willow, myrtle, palm and citron) around us, marking the celestial sphere that surrounds us. Symbols of heart, eyes, lips and spine, of taste and smell are reminders that Sukkot is an embodied practice as well as a vestige of ancient pagan rituals, appropriated to worship the God of the Israelites. Sukkot is sensual; it arouses our bodies toward life. We crawl into the sukkah each night, surrounded by a bounty of harvest, constellations, tastes, smells, touches, sounds and sights, and we sleep inside of it. The sukkah is a womb, and as we slumber and dream, we dwell inside the mystery of life itself.

Sukkot magnifies the temporal nature of life and amplifies our relationship with the rustic world around us. There is no shelter from the pandemic, fires and civil unrest within a sukkah’s walls. Nature is indifferent to our existence and the sukkah is a visible reminder of nature’s steadfast persistence and ostensible victory. Oblivious to our suffering and the fragility of human life, dwelling in a sukkah reminds us that all of us are but visitors here.

The island Sukkah

Seeing Samuel

On one particular walk in front of these sukkahs, I happened upon a man whom I shall call Samuel. (In the Book of Prophets, Samuel was the son of Hannah, who was gifted to the priest Eli. Samuel helped identify King David, and it is from King David’s progeny, in the biblical imagination, that the Messiah will appear.) This Samuel, however, sat on the open concrete, his shirt exposing his heart, drooling as he cried. Morning joggers and cyclist passed him, indifferent. No one seemed to notice him. There are so many Samuels in Venice now, calling out to us to recognize redemption. 

But something drew me to him, so I said, “Hello, friend. My name is Lori. Why are you crying?”

Standing in front of him, I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance. Samuel was raw, his skin sunburned, his mouth agape, a figure of mournful, abject sadness. He was so exposed and I thought, maybe that is why the rabbis insist on Sukkot being “mo’adim l’simcha,” a time of rejoicing. Perhaps we created this celebration to defy the existential loss of life that we constantly face. We trot out our temporary dwellings like Christmas trees, gathering trinkets and tapestries each year to mask how temporary each year is. 

Although Sukkot is a holiday “d’oreita” (from the Torah), vivid descriptions of how Sukkot was celebrated in the ancient world are discussed by the rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud. The holiday culminates an annual cycle that begins with fecundity of Pesach, climaxes with God’s revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, and erupts with the harvest of Sukkot. Sukkot is the fulfillment of God’s promise, and in ancient Jerusalem, it included the water drawing festival, Simchat Beit Hashoavah. As described in the Talmud, candelabrum lined Jerusalem’s streets, jugglers passed torches, knives and wine goblets, and acrobats flipped and bound down the stone streets. The Levites formed an orchestra and everyone took to the streets to dance. The pageantry of Simchat Beit Hashoavah evokes imagery of a Jerusalem Junkanoo or Carnivale. 

THERE ARE SO MANY SAMUELS IN VENICE NOW, CALLING OUT TO US TO RECOGNIZE REDEMPTION.

In the same moment, as I considered this commandment of joy, Samuel’s tears reminded me that Sukkot is the bloodiest of holidays. The Israelites offered hundreds of animals as sacrifices on the altar, filling the streets with the rank stench of death and foreshadowing that an arid winter could bring crop failure, famine and our ultimate demise. Sukkot is our panoply of light and darkness, abundance and scarcity, past and present, as we continue to hang in the scales of justice for an uncertain future. Sukkot displays a dizzying array of truths, and the fleeting booths we build are a mere stand-in for the bodies that house our souls. 

Samuel blinked quickly and replied, “I lost my HUD (government Housing and Urban Development) housing after I had hip surgery. After the hospital, they sent me to an old age home, and when I was discharged, they told me my HUD was given away. They dropped me off at Skid Row 35 days ago, and I made my way to Santa Monica. I walked up to Venice yesterday.” He pulled down the side of his pants and displayed a fresh surgical scar. “I tried to get one of the LAHSA workers to help me, but all of the services are saying there is nowhere to go because of the COVID.”

I asked if he had a family. He told me about his mother in West Virginia, his brother in Ohio. “Where is your father?” I asked. “My father …” he stammered, and began to cry. “My father died a year and a half ago.” “And he really loved you?” I asked. Through his cries, he gasped, “Yes.” “What was his name?” I asked. “Jamie … James. His name was James.”

In the sukkah, we call forth our ancestors, or in Aramaic, ushpizin. Their presence draws forth the reality of the world that existed before we did, and reminds us that one day, not so soon in the cosmic sense of time, we will join them. As we look up at the stars through our sukkah, the very same stars that shone upon our ancestors shine upon us. Sukkot demands that we invite in the ancestral system; like the ofrendas (offerings) from Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), we place photos of our grandparents and great-grandparents inside the sukkah, and our meals take on a heavenly presence. Samuel’s grief reflects that wherever we may tarry, our ancestors are with us always, waiting for us to feel their loss, remember their words, integrate their love and find our way. 

Samuel and I walked toward the beach. He shared that he was HIV positive, that young people were doing drugs on the streets, and he cried again. “What’s making you cry?” I asked. “They are so young,” he responded.

The final days of Sukkot create an off-ramp into our lives. Hoshanah Rabbah is like the spin cycle that dries us out; circling in procession, we whack the willows to remove the final drops of transgression within us. Shemini Atzeret offers a seasonal turning from the arid months to the wet ones. This final observance prolongs the Sukkot festival by gently pressing down on the breaks, signaling that the High Holy Days are literally stopping. Our etrog and myrtle are to be dried and turned into besamim (spices) for Havdalah, an olfactory bridge to enter the next week, and our lulav will be upcycled and woven into a basket, where we will place these spices. Then, on Simchat Torah, we will rewind our ancestral story, and the cycle will begin again.

SUKKOT DISPLAYS A DIZZYING ARRAY OF TRUTHS, AND THE FLEETING BOOTHS WE BUILD ARE A MERE STAND-IN FOR THE BODIES THAT HOUSE OUR SOULS. 

Rejoice with the stranger

Samuel and I stopped at a bench. I’d bought him a sandwich. He ate heartily, and my dog snatched some turkey from his roll. Samuel laughed and ran his hands through her coat. “She’s a good dog,” he said. 

I spotted a Parks and Recreation vehicle patrolling the boardwalk and flagged it down. I asked the driver if he knew of any shelters that could take in new residents, “None,” he replied, “and I know. I’ve been living in this truck for four months now. I’m homeless, too.” 

I stayed with Samuel for another hour. I bought him a shirt the color of techelet(turquoise), and he told me it was his favorite color — he would have chosen it, too. He asked if I could get him a Mountain Dew. We picked up a few groceries, and it was time for me to go back to the place I call home. 

As I walked away, I turned back a number of times and saw him swigging his soda with futility in my heart — an incomplete mitzvah. As I walked down Ocean Front Walk, the lawns were filled with the sukkahs of the men and women of this new Tribe. My inner Torah echoed a chant from Deuteronomy 16:14: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities.”

A cop car passed slowly on the walkway. I wondered what sukkah Samuel would sleep in that night. Maybe he would camp on the beach beneath the stars, like Jacob at Beth El, with a rock as a pillow. My vision blurred, passing tent after tent. The words from the Sukkot haftarah echoed in my mind, expressing the paradox of life’s joys and sorrows: “Utter futility,” said Koheleth, a pseudonym ascribed to King Solomon, the purported author of Ecclesiastes. “Utter futility. All is futile.” 

And yet, the futility of it all hangs in a delicate balance: A time for weeping and a time for laughing; a time for wailing and a time for dancing.

My heart turned to Samuel … I’d look for him tomorrow.

The Statue of Liberty at Rosh Hashanah

American Wanderers: A New Covenant
by: Rabbi Lori Shapiro

 

Why the Statue of Liberty came to Rosh HaShanah

In preparing for High Holidays, I knew that we had to weave our liturgy into the presence of what America faces today. While reflecting upon social unrest, pandemic, political landscape, and economic hardships, I also found myself officiating Zoom funerals as well as live funerals for COVID victims. My heart broke with every story of someone who could not travel to say goodbye to a dying parent; for every individual that died alone; for the courageous staff of hospitals and caregivers. There is so much courage in our country through this time: the selfless love and serve attitude, the embracing of all peoples through sickness and health, the curiosity arising around implicit bias and racial relations. These spiritual giants in our midst made me think of how our country stands up for justice, and the image of the Statue of Liberty fixed itself in my mind. I thought of our prayer of life and death, the Unehtanneh Tokef  (the prayer that reminds us of our equality through our shared mortality), and I began to dream of a way to weave those two images together.

The Statue of Liberty is like Shechinah standing in NY Harbor. A feminine presence of godliness, she welcomes the poor, the downtrodden, the neglected, the stranger – of all colors, races and sizes. She lights the way for all. She is hope, she is courage, she is the New Colossus, steadfastly witnessing America’s vicissitudes. Upon research, I discovered a lesser known fact:
The Statue of Liberty was originally sketched to be an Egyptian woman of color.

Our Torah portion on the first day of Rosh HaShanah involves the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. Hagar is the mother of Ishmael, Sarah’s maidservant, and the woman Rashi teaches us becomes Keturah and marries Abraham after he buries Sarah. Hagar’s name means something like “The Stranger.”  Reading Savina Teubal’s (z”l) “Hagar the Egyptian”, I envisioned Hagar dressed as the Statue of Liberty singing to us at Rosh HaShanah services. I rewrote the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” to reflect our America today, and hired an open and gifted soul, KC Carnage, to dress as Lady Liberty and Deliver Us.

 

 

American Pie 2020/ Uneh Taneh Tokef 5781
Adapted from Don McLean for Open Temple High Holiday Ritual Lab 5781

A long long time ago
I can still remember how
Some music used to make me smile;
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make some people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver
With words of virus they’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about how many died
Then Something touched me deep inside
The day that George Floyd Died

 

So
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
And do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me why he died so slow?

 

Well, I know that you all cared for him
‘Cause I saw you marching with your sin
Your White Fragility
Taking a sub 9-minute knee

 

It was Quarantine, and we all got stuck
With no TP,  fear, and just out of luck
But I saw just how much we sucked
The day that George Floyd died…

 

I started singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

 

Now, for six months we’ve been on our own
Locked in our homes and all alone
But, that’s not how it has to be

 

When Kayne sang for the king and queen
In a ruse he borrowed from Putin
For a vote that comes from you and me
Oh and while the king was looking down
A judge raised up his broken crown
The courtroom was adjourned
Mueller’s verdict was returned
And while Bernie read a book on Marx
The donkeys protest in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day that George Floyd Died

 

We were singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
And singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

 

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
Fires burning it’s a fallout shelter
Orange skies, people falling fast
Blake was shot before a lawn of grass
For Breonna justice did not pass
With jesters on the sidelines as cardboard masks
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While peaceful marchers chanted a new tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never had a chance

 

‘Cause too many players tried to take the field
Then bullets came and made us yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day that George Floyd Died

 

We started singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys are drinking whisky and rye
And singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

 

And there we were all in one place
A Tesla rocket launched in Space
Maybe no time left to start again

 

So come on: Derek be nimble, Derek be quick
Derek sat on a Roman candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
Oh and as I watched him on the iPhone stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day that George Floyd Died

 

He was singin’
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

 

I’m just a girl who sings the blues
And I’m asking for some happy news
Cause I just can’t smile and turn away
I’m here at the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But my heart says that the music shouldn’t play
(Silence – then, a capella until final repeat verse)
In the streets orphaned children scream
The lovers cry, no poets dream
Not a word is spoken
Our lonely hearts are broken
And the three things I admire most
Liberty, Justice and the US Post
Were silenced out here coast to coast
The day that George Floyd Died.

 

And so we’re singing
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys are drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

 

Yes, we’re singing
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys are drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.

 

U’tshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah m’avirin et roah ha’gezerah.
But Return, Prayer and Righteousness will reverse the decree.

Not Everyone Can be a High Priest…Or Can They?

Jews often call Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year, but it won’t be unless we prepare for it both spiritually and physically. Holiness requires a vessel, and we can learn much from the extreme contingency plans undertaken by the High Priests in ancient Israel.

Discover the perspective of Open Temple’s Rabbi Lori along with other spiritual leaders and writers.

Not Everybody Can Be A High Priest… Or Can They? – Yom Kippur

Preparing for the High Holy Days in Pandemic Times

Preparing for the High Holy Days in Pandemic Times

From the article:

Although most non-Orthodox synagogues have made the decision to go completely virtual, Open Temple’s Rabbi Lori Shapiro told the Journal she plans to stream the High Holy Days services via her outdoor services, which will be held in the Venice synagogue’s parking lot.

In the run-up to the High Holy Days, Open Temple is holding multiple events based on this year’s theme: the American Wanderer. Shapiro plans to have a CrossFit Selichot shvitz, “where one sweats it out through liturgy,” and Elul Shabbat socially distant bike rides. Come the High Holy Days, services will have learning opportunities that touch on trauma, loss, activism, justice and faith, and a family tashlich “protest”  — “because there is a lot to protest this year,” — Shapiro said, adding that the protest will start at Open Temple and end at the beach.  

Open Temple Bike Shabbat’ers rally for the spiritual Call of Elul

The outdoor High Holy Days services will be “strictly choreographed,” Shapiro assured, so people feel safe and comfortable. Open Temple will transform the parking lot by creating artificial grass pods for families to sit in. Everyone will have lawn chairs and umbrellas and personal protective equipment, while the clergy and musicians will be behind plexiglass. All tickets for the services must be signed up for in advance to monitor capacity. Services will be condensed, so Shapiro said she is keeping the “greatest hits” to ensure all important concepts are covered. For those watching on the livestream, congregants will be able to interact with Shapiro in real time thanks to a social media influencer who will be relaying comments from the feed to her so she can acknowledge them during the services.

“The High Holy Days this year, we are creating, all of us together, in a social distance way, a holy temple community,” Shapiro said. “It is a time for rebuilding. It’s a time for connecting, it’s a time of emerging into this real unknown and the world as we know it is transformed. Never being the same again is the essence of what the High Holy Days are. They ask of us to become totally transformed.”

Tisha b’Av 5780: Broken American Wanderers

Sources prepared by Rabbi Lori

The word “Eicha” is translated as “Lamentetions” or “Alas!” but is really untranslatable as it is an emotional quality. Tonight, we explore this emotion on a walk through Venice of America. 

——-

The rabbis of the Talmud blamed the demise of the Temples (both the first and second ones) and other Jewish tragedies on sinat chinam, Hebrew for baseless hatred.

Reflect: What is “baseless hatred”? Where is there baseless hated in the world today?  Where do I carry this in myself? 

——-

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

Alas!  Lonely sits the city  Once great with people!  She that was great among nations  Is become like a widow;  The princess among states  Is become a thrall.

Reflect: Lamentations begins with the above verse. What city is being described? In what ways does this description resemble America today?

——-

“Five misfortunes befell our fathers … on the ninth of Av. … On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up,”— Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6.

Reflect: Tisha b’Av is the ninth day of the eleventh month – the 9/11 of the Jewish calendar year. Are there dates in your life that trigger memories of destruction that you revisit each year? How do you move through them?

——-

Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, the centuries in which they were regarded as a pariah people, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day they would be free to live as Jews without fear – Jonathan Sacks

Reflect: Does Judaism inform the way your faith moves through America in 2020?  If so, how?

————

The Gemara says: In every generation that the Beit Hamikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if in that in that generation it was destroyed (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1).

Reflect: What is the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) in my life? Why was it destroyed?  How can I begin to rebuild it? What are the barriers stopping me from doing this?

——-

The Rambam says that the entire purpose of a fast day is to contemplate and repent for our sins, and our ancestors’ sins, that were, and continue to be, the cause of tragedies (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ta’anit 5:1).

Reflect: What ancestral wounds prevent me from rebuilding my Temple? What would healing these wounds require?  Is there a first step that I can begin now?

——-

In Eternal Echoes: Reflections on our Yearning to Belong, Celtic spiritual philosopher John O’Donohue notes that the word “belonging” is comprised of the two fundamental aspects of life: being and longing.  He writes, “Belonging is the heart and warmth of intimacy. When we deny it, we grow cold and empty. Our life’s journey is the task of refining our belonging so that it may become more true, loving, good and free.”

Reflect: How have I sustained my inner sense of “being” through quarantine? In what ways do I need to connect with others through this time?  How can I deepen my sense of belonging through this time?

—-

Beginning the fast:

No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Reflect: Does fasting cultivate yearning and clarity for me? In what ways can practice over the next 24 hours deepens this work? What does the prophet Isaiah suggest?

—-

The Torah is a Mirror. Today, we shatter it and can no longer rely on its wisdom for answers. Today, we are instructed to look inside. Look for what is broken. Search for what has shattered. Seek out what has been destroyed. The goal is to first name these things so that we can begin our journey. The technology through which we achieve this is called “The High Holidays.” This ancient technology engages us in a journey called T’Shuvah, and its meaning and goal is one thing: To Return. 

Reflect: what do I want to return to?  What do I need to repair in order to begin this journey?

 

This is the work before us over the next nine weeks. May we all move forward together as we Open Our Temples, and Together, rebuild our world.

With Love and We are All in this Together,

Rabbi Lori

 

Can Mussar Help Us Repair the World?

By: Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Published by Jewish Journal

Revolution is complex and not for the fainthearted. I often have asserted that most of us are not meant to be Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, yet the fate of the world rests upon the work of each and every one of us and the perfection of our individual path. The cynics among us might dismiss this assertion as another expression of the famed butterfly effect of chaos theory. Popularized through a remark by noted scientist Edward Lorenz (1917-2008), he presented this idea at a scientific conference almost 50 years ago: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

While Lorenz’s question might suggest that the kindness in picking up a phone and checking in with an elderly friend or dropping off a meal for a shut-in neighbor perhaps has the power to change the world, it won’t. However, it is a step in the right direction.

Judaism is built upon the concept of an interior experience of personal betterment through actions. It combines a study of past wisdom applied to refinement of our present actions to build progress for a better tomorrow. Judaism’s goal, fueled by ancient concepts of the end of days, redemption and a Messianic world to come, is to cultivate and refine ourselves, each of us, as a “K’li Kodesh,” a holy vessel.

THIS IDEA OF PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION TOWARD BECOMING A HOLY VESSEL IN PURSUIT OF “HEALING THE WORLD” IS A CORE CONCEPT IN JUDAISM. IT ASKS EACH OF US TO ENGAGE IN A METHOD OF SELF-DISCIPLINED REFLECTION THAT HAS A LONG AND NOTED HISTORY. IT IS CALLED MUSSAR.

The word “holy” is one of the most prevalent words in all of Torah, and one that requires a lifelong curiosity to gain understanding. What does it mean to make ourselves holy? How do we do this? This idea of personal transformation toward becoming a holy vessel in pursuit of “healing the world” is a core concept in Judaism. It asks each of us to engage in a method of self-disciplined reflection that has a long and noted history. It is called Mussar.

Mussar, a contemplative Jewish practice, is achieved through a reflective process that deepens our self-knowing through an evaluative tool of behaviors called “middot.” In Hebrew, “middah” (the singular for middot) literally means “measure.” It’s not easy to look at our personal shortcomings. It is much more satisfying to take to the streets and demand others change before changing ourselves. In Mussar, change relies upon our personal fulfillment of our potential, as all of us are born with the capacity to acquire every middah through practice. Taking to the streets without such a sustained practice of inner growth is a formula for a firestorm. However, this takes work, and this work is both difficult and rewarding.

While tikkun olam in modern parlance is outward-facing — calling us into the streets and the world — Mussar faces inward. Beginning in our homes, Mussar spotlights individual behaviors, their impacts and interdependence with one another, and impact on family and community. Mussar views the perfection of our moral character as a formula to help heal the world.

According to Rabbi Ira Stone (founder of the Center for Contemporary Mussar), Mussar, commonly translated as “Jewish ethics,” is best translated as “discipline” (based on Proverbs 1:2) and presents a path of applying ethics and virtues to one’s life. Reading Stone’s translations of famous Mussar texts and experiencing a Mussar group lends itself to an embodied practice of Process Theology: to engage in a process of becoming, with one’s inner landscape as the dwelling place of God. 

Stone connects the idea of how the concept of salvation serves as an expression for the objective of all of creation:

“According to [the late Rabbi Mordecai] Kaplan, God is the power that makes for salvation in the world. As abstract as that sounds, it is a fundamentally religious viewpoint — what it is saying is that the achievement of a perfectly peaceful and just world is the aim of creation and that there is some kind of power, as it were, that sets this creation on its course with the purpose of achieving this salvational status. It is not simply the big bang, but the big bang infused with goodness; Kaplan begs the question: ‘Where does that goodness come from?’”

IN LIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC, ECONOMIC INSTABILITY AND CIVIL UNREST, KAPLAN’S INTERPRETATION OF MUSSAR AS A CALL TOWARD A COMMUNAL SALVATION IS MORE RELEVANT THAN EVER. 

As we look outward at a broken world, Mussar invites us to consider the origins and nature of creation, and its personal connection with each of us as partners with creation toward a moral good. Indeed, Mussar propels us to go beyond just “praying with our feet” and asks we connect each footstep with our unique “Soulprint” as a continuation of the origins and course of creation.

In 2020 America, it seems as if we are on a wild water ride, spinning out of control toward chaos. People are dying. Homeless crowd our streets, parking lots and underpasses. Unemployment is at unprecedented levels. Businesses are closing. Partisanship incites a new civil war fought on Twitter feeds and in media rooms. America has lost its way in its journey of self-betterment and societal salvation.

Benjamin Franklin: Toward an ethical America
Ben Franklin’s eponymous autobiography offers a method for character building through “13 Virtues.” Later in life, Franklin lamented that his treatise on character was only half-baked — life got in the way, what with revolution, Constitution ratifying and abolition efforts; however, his offering of virtues present a foundation plan and method for how every American could improve himself or herself with the objective of the betterment of American society.

There may not be a scholarly connection between Franklin’s “13 Virtues” and Exodus 34:6-7 “13 Attributes of God,” but the parallels are clear; there is something unspoken when we reflect upon these characteristics that conditions us toward the betterment of oneself and the betterment of society. In Exodus, God utters these qualities of God after the sin of the Golden Calf as a reminder to Moses and Israel of who or what God is: “God! God: God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet, God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third or fourth generations.”

In Torah, the ancients scribed for us a language that revealed a God through qualities of being: compassion, grace, slow to anger, kindness, faithfulness. These qualities are what we are asked to reflect upon as we move through a disciplined reflection of character accounting. Presently, there is talk in Los Angeles circles of “productive anger” and “sacred outrage.” While passion may fuel change, one might ask what personal experiences might dilute or foul the fuel for these efforts? When we take to the streets in protest, are our hearts actually broken open over the injustices toward our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color)  brothers and sisters? Or are we just brokenhearted from an earlier wound or pain from our own ancestral homes of brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, whose need to heal has roots three or four generations deep?

Chesbon ha-nefesh: Accounting of the soul
For those of us who enter into the High Holy Days with a call to do this inner holy work, our Days of Awe begin with an “accounting of the soul.” However, with Mussar, the act of “accounting of the soul” is a year-round endeavor. A 19th-century pamphlet popularized this work, and Jewish scholars have affirmed since the mid-1800s that this early-modern Mussar work, “Sefer Cheshbon Ha-nefesh” (The Book of Spiritual Accounting) — a Hebrew work published in 1808 by early Eastern European Jewish enlightener Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin — has some connection to the “Virtue” writings of Ben Franklin.

Franklin’s list of virtues were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility. In cheshbon ha-nefesh, Lefin’s list is equanimity, patience, order, decisiveness, cleanliness, humility, righteousness, frugality, diligence, silence, calmness, truth and separation. The parallels are apparent; however, a secular pursuit of virtue does not replace the existential hunger for an ineffable holiness. In any case, in 2020 America, Franklin’s call to cultivate a sense of personal accountability in service of a collective benefit is more relevant than ever.

The rise of the Mussar yeshiva
Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883), credited as the founder of Modern Mussar, was noted for his independent rulings and moral acumen that informed Jews of his time how to navigate the cholera epidemic of 1848. In a 19th-century parallel to COVID-19-era innovations in halachah on use of technology favored over live Shabbat and holiday services “to save a life,” Salanter famously ate and drank on Yom Kippur to personally demonstrate the need to eat and drink for emergency health reasons. His legal rulings illuminate the elasticity of Torah law when refracted through ethical reasoning in ways that express the plasticity of Jewish law to remain relevant according to time and place.

Salanter’s disciples through the yeshiva he led promoted a Judaism rooted in Torah that shed light on matters of Jewish ethics in a modern context. These houses of study developed into an emerging modern yeshiva system for the Jewish Everyman; no longer were Jewish studies accessible to elite families or merely relegated to folk tradition. This alternative network of unique yeshivot arose, each with its own distinct methods and curriculum that focused on a disciplined practice of self-mastery in pursuit of holiness for a changing world in Europe, post-Jewish emancipation. 

The yeshivot had great influence, and renewed interest in Talmud and text study arose. Additionally, in many of them, especially the yeshivot of Volozhin, the core curriculum spotlighted the advancement of Mussar’s famed disciplined ethical practices. The Torah Temimah writes of these students: “In Volozhin, Torah and derekh eretz [in this case, mores of contemporary society], walked hand in hand, neither one held captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The Volozhin student was able to conquer both worlds — the world of Torah and the world at large.” Eventually, these schools failed, as Russia demanded more secular studies and mandated classes taught in Russian, and later reboots disrupted by pogroms resulted in eventual annihilation in the Shoah.

However, the impact of this yeshiva movement continued to influence the creation of the State of Israel and American Judaism, with influences radiating to the establishment of Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Rabbi Solomon Schechter assigned Mordecai Kaplan to translate an earlier Mussar text, Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s “Mesillat Yesharim” (The Path of the Upright). Kaplan’s translation was published in 1936, just as many inheritors of this tradition were about to perish in the Shoah, and Judaism around the world sat shivah for what seemed to be decades, until the turning of the millennium.

The path into contemporary Mussar practice
As the alarm again awakens us to a changing world and calls on us to rise to this time of unprecedented civil unrest, it is clear that alongside this awakening comes the search for meaning and connection to something greater than our individual impact. However, instead of looking beyond ourselves, in an outward-facing effort to change others, we might benefit by considering that the first step to finding an answer lies within.

Mussar’s course of study, a curriculum disrupted almost 100 years ago, has experienced a renaissance over the past 20 years, and has emerged to help those of us on this path. Individuals continue to feel as if they “discovered” this rising network of Mussar study that flourishes in the progressive Jewish world, with communities of practice throughout the United States, Canada and elsewhere, with online classes through the Mussar Institute and the Center for Contemporary Mussar, among others. Contemporary translations of popular Mussar texts are included in the curriculum in most rabbinic seminaries, and students are tutored and encouraged to engage in personal Mussar practice.

FOR KAPLAN, THE WORK WE DO INWARDLY MUST BE FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE PUBLIC GREATER GOOD. 

However, are these lessons in the Mussar movement and its call for inner spiritual discipline fueling the work of tikkun olam or falling to it? What is the connection between the work of the inner landscape and the work of healing the world?

In Kaplan’s introduction to his translation of “Mesillat Yesharim,” arguably the foundation text of the modern-Mussar revival, Kaplan asserts, “Salvation occurs primarily on the corporate level, leading ultimately to the establishment of peace among nations. Each individual’s ethical behavior directly affects this collective mission positively or negatively. Collective salvation thus presupposes individual salvation.” Echoing the work of Franklin, it seems the connection of the personal work of Mussar for the benefit of a greater good is in order. In light of the pandemic, economic instability and civil unrest, Kaplan’s interpretation of Mussar as a call toward a communal salvation is more relevant than ever. 

For Kaplan, the work we do inwardly must be for the benefit of the public greater good. Kaplan connects the concept of the yetzer harah (evil inclination) with acts of selfishness or “personal interest,” and the work of yetzer hatov (good inclination) as possessing an attentiveness toward collective benefit. For Kaplan, the inner work of Mussar is one of a personal accounting of the soul toward a corporate good. For Kaplan, it is this commitment to personal betterment that will, effectively, impact the continued betterment of society.

The practice of this work is not achieved solely at a public rally, protest or phone bank, but begins with a personal reckoning, with a small group of people holding one another personally accountable, and where vulnerabilities and our “personal uglies” are encouraged to find expression. In a Mussar group, individuals learn to focus on middot, such as generosity, equanimity and humility, and spend time with each middah as it relates to one’s life.

Anthropologist Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, describes Mussar as “a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives. The goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul. The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Mussar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.”

Through these practices, the objective of a Mussar practitioner is to seek to remove these impediments from one’s personal spiritual curriculum to better serve the world. Morinis helps define a spiritual curriculum as involving the cultivation of an awareness around patterns of behavior that cycle through our lives and provides a concise image for understanding: “One might call [a spiritual curriculum] the karmic wall we continue to bash our head on.”

A Mussar practice is meant to cultivate such self-awareness in order to support our effort to “cycle up” in our lives and become more holy vessels of Divine Presence, ostensibly in service of a more just and peaceful world. Morinis’ work spotlights a personal relationship to holiness and godliness; quoting the Talmud, Morinis reflects upon how those living through a pandemic can learn from the rabbinic assertion that “a person who saves one life saves a whole world.”

“You can sit in the morning and read your newspaper and drink your coffee and see 130,000 died of COVID-19 and flip the page and say, ‘I need more coffee.’ ” This, according to Morinis, is the opposite of seeing a neshamah (soul) in the world, and it comes to bear on everything.

“If you don’t see that neshamah, as a world, you can minimize another. If you don’t see that other people are each individual, crucial embodiments of the divine presence, then you don’t wear a mask when you go outside. This is where these kinds of spiritual teachings really do show up. They underpin that which is built upon it. Unless there is a larger vision of teleology — that wearing a mask is a mandate, command, the way it is supposed to be — that it is more than just utilitarian — it makes it much more difficult for socially aware or ‘woke’ folks to privilege their reality of what their vision should be as opposed to anyone else’s.”

INSTEAD OF LOOKING BEYOND OURSELVES, IN AN OUTWARD-FACING EFFORT TO CHANGE OTHERS, WE MIGHT BENEFIT BY CONSIDERING THAT THE FIRST STEP TO FINDING AN ANSWER LIES WITHIN. 

In other words, unless we live in a covenantal moral system where each of us agrees upon a higher standard of conduct and therefore, takes personal responsibility for one another’s well-being, the number of 130,000 dead will be a long-forgotten number, exponentially lower than the total fatalities. The age of COVID-19 clearly illustrates our interconnectedness and deserves a shofar call to “corporate awareness” of moral character perfection, as the most mundane choices we make as we assert our own self-determination potentially dictate who will live and who will die. But it doesn’t stop there: What does it matter what you think about your Black, Indigenous and people of color brothers and sisters if you have abused your brother, neglected your kids or parents, or harbor resentment toward your neighbor?

Mussar bids us to do our personal work first and, against trend, ties it to a religious moral system of interconnectedness. Mussar compels us to understand it is on each of us to go on a “God Journey” and define that experience for ourselves, in service of a collective good, which may or may not bring about collective redemption. Nonetheless, it may save a life or two, whether through absence of character assassination or wearing our personal protective equipment. And whether we are two people meeting each other in a remote part of Central Park; jogging in our hometown; walking while wearing a dark hoodie; losing our cool in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s; or passing a counterfeit $20 in a corner store, Mussar calls upon each human interaction to require we connect with our own inner-moral acumen before assigning judgment to another.

It is to be gravely considered that if America continues to navigate with a fracture to this internal system of self-regulation, continues to hold up a mirror to police officers, continues Karen call-outs and other forms of accusatory behaviors before a deep dive into our own internal foibles; if we continue to ignore a greater moral system intrinsic to the most aspirational pursuit of human character, for all people, we will fail.

Want to heal the world? The formula is clear: Heal our holy selves first and the world will follow.

Time For Action

Opening our Hearts and Minds
Thoughts from Executive Director Zach Lasker

Three months ago, I was knocking on doors in LA suburbs to engage Angelinos in personal conversations around jailing. I felt a responsibility to leverage my privilege as a white male Jew to combat the injustices around criminalization that plague our country. My hope while canvassing was to open hearts and minds to the vital need that we explore alternatives to incarceration (health services, job training, etc.) as a more enduring, human-centered solution. Victory came on March 3rd when over 70% of voters passed a ballot measure to reform our county jails.

One step forward, too many steps back. COVID and recent police killings reveal deep rooted racial injustices; kids in low-income neighborhoods struggle to access education, illness afflicts communities of color at higher rates, unemployment is disproportionately afflicting minority workers, and certain police officers continue to unjustly target Black lives.

“At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, “I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.” -Talmud Taanit, 11a

Judaism is a religion of action more than speech. We have an obligation to be change agents in our society. In Pirkei Avot we read: Al tis-ta-kel ba-kankan e-lah be-mah she-yesh bo – Don’t look at the jug but rather look at what’s inside” (Pirkei Avot 4:20). Let’s lead with curiosity and respect.  Let’s honor the unique spark each individual embodies, recognizing that diversity of color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and ability add rich texture to the world.

I am filled with humility, hope, and joy by the invitation to join Open Temple as its first Executive Director. The opportunity to partner with Rabbi Lori, the board, our co-creators, and collaborators to look inside the jug of Judaism and humanity, to re-enchant, and to create space for diverse individuals to travel their soul journey hand-in-hand could not be more timely. I hope to get to know the faces of Open Temple by Zoom and soon over tea or on a walk.

But in the words of Hillel “Eem lo achsav, eimatai?”  Let’s confront racial injustice now. Open Temple wants you to stay safe at home and we’ve completely redesigned our June calendar to exclusively navigate the plagues of illness and injustice. Join me at offerings such as:

June 11: Racial Justice Phone Bank 
Dismantle white supremacy from your home

June 12: The Blessing of Children 
Rabbi Lori will bless future change makers, model anti-racist storytelling, and lead us in Shema

June 13: Shabbat Shal(OM) 
Meet me in our virtual yoga studio to cultivate inner light and the energy to be an outward-facing Warrior

Summer 2020: Jr. Racial Justice League
Interested in a summer program where kids ages 10 – 14 will design and implement an anti-racist community action plan?  Let me know!

Resources:
Check our website for resources on how to talk with kids about racial justice
With Spirit and Peace,

Zach Lasker, Executive Director

Resources for Families to Discuss Racial Justice

The painful consequences of racial injustice have been more clearly revealed with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.  One critical step towards justice is to communicate in an open, respectful, productive manner about this issue.  Here are some resources to empower you to enter into these conversation.

For Parents of Children All ages:
George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. What do we tell our children?
Talking to Children about the Shooting
Talking to children after racial incidents
Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers
They’re Not Too Young To Talk About Race
Talking With Children About Racism, Police Brutality and Protests 

For Parents of Early Childhood & Lower School Aged Children

Anti-Racism Resources for White Parents