2014 Daily Devotions (Thus Far)

  1. Most of us, at least unconsciously, assume self-transformation is impossible. We say to ourselves, “Maybe I can make little tweaks here and there, but I can’t fundamentally break the script of my life and rewrite a new one.” Untrue. In each moment, with each new breath, you are a brand new creation; limited, perhaps, by your past choices, but not consigned to any fate. New Year’s Day invites us to see ourselves in this light: A new year offers new chances, fresh starts, infinite possibilities. You are something new today, and can become whatever you dream.
  2. Free will is an interesting thing. If we knew all with total clarity, we would no longer have freedom; the right choice would be obvious and compelling. Yet how can our decisions truly be free if we do not have all the information we need in order to make them? Perhaps we only have two choices: Will we question, challenge, and strive to learn more? And will we have faith to do what we feel is right, even if we don’t know how it will all work out? Choose wisely.
  3. In every moment, we are met with choices. Some options represent God’s invitation to us toward a better future; others do not. The godly choice is that which leads toward greater love, justice, experience, and compassion. But even that is sometimes hard to identify. The routine practices of Judaism – like prayer – help us become aware of God’s presence in our choices, and enable making the right choice to become more like a reflex. Adopt a practice, and build a godly future into your muscle memory.
  4. I used to think Judaism would favor government surveillance. After all, we believe God is always watching us: “Consider 3 things, and you will not sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.” Won’t people generally act better if they know they’re being monitored? And then I remembered all the bad behavior on Reality TV; and speeding on roads monitored by cameras; and President Obama sanctioning NSA programs despite knowing that he had said, in front of an audience of millions, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Being watched doesn’t necessarily make us better.
  5. The great capitalist and philanthropist Warren Buffett once defined success thusly: During WWII, courageous non-Jews risked their lives in order to hide Jews from the Nazis. If you can name 10 people in your life who would be willing to do the same for you, you have lived a successful life. Define success by people, and not by property, and flourish.
  6. Heschel taught believing in one God means accepting that there is “no dichotomy of here and there, of me and them.” We are each of us interconnected parts of a unified whole. My fate is bound up in yours, and yours in mine. Each of us is thus responsible for eradicating injustice and suffering anywhere. When one person is degraded or brutalized, we are all of us diminished.
  7. The Hebrew word for compassion, rahamim, comes from the same root, reish-het-mem, as the word for womb, rehem. A pregnant mother suffers when her baby is in pain; the Torah calls on us to feel pained whenever we encounter others suffering. A pregnant mother nurtures and protects her baby; the Torah calls on us to provide for and defend those who are vulnerable. A pregnant mother becomes vulnerable in order to nurture life; the Torah calls on us to abandon our need for safety & control in order to care for others.
  8. Our hearts are valuable real estate. Yet we give up so much space to past pains and those who have wronged us. We allow them and the hurt they caused to remain with us, occupying our thoughts, tethering us to our past. What’s more is that, often, those who injured us don’t give it a second thought. Don’t give away heart-space so readily. Let go. Forgive. It’s not for them. It’s for you.
  9. Neurobiologists have discovered that feeling pained when others are hurting is a defining human trait. Empathy is characteristic of a high level of brain evolution. That’s why there are few greater sins in Judaism than hard-heartedness, encountering the suffering of others and remaining unmoved. Shutting ourselves off from those feelings denies our most authentic selves, making us, as it were, less than fully human. So when someone calls me a “bleeding heart,” I am not offended. What, after all, is the alternative?
  10. It is shrewd to create a backup plan, live with a safety net, and plan for contingencies. But beware: these can prevent us from putting our whole selves behind what we are truly called to do. Sometimes, you have to jump into the Reed Sea with both feet. Leave one foot planted on the shore (just in case) and the Sea won’t part; you’ll never make it to the Promised Land.
  11. In our weekly study session, an incisive congregant asked me what rule I would add to the “10 Commandments” if I could. My response? “Honor your sons and daughters.” How might this rule change families? How might it transform lives?
  12. God’s proper name, the Hebrew letters Yud-Heh-Waw-Heh, is a series of breath sounds. God’s presence is felt most near through our life-breath, filling our lungs, oxygenating our bodies. What holy creations then, are the trees and other flora, which transform un-breathable CO2 into Oxygen, enabling us to live, giving God actuality in the world?!
  13. Each day, I joyfully watch my toddler explore her world, discovering and trying new things. As I watch, one thing has become clear. She learns most when things do not go the way she expected: she tumbles down a stair, she falls off her rocking horse, she can’t fit the square toy in the round hole. These failures – painful and frustrating all – teach her how to successfully navigate her world. And so it is with us. Only through failing can we learn and grow. And only through trying the untested can we fail.
  14. “The angels called to each other and said, ‘holy…'” (Isaiah, 6:3). According to Rashi, the angels in God’s throne room ask each other permission to speak, and end up speaking in unison when they cannot decide who should speak first. According to Radak, they call each other, as well as God, “holy.” We are most like angels when we value what others have to say above what we want to say, when we treat all others as equals, and when we regard all others as holy. In Judaism, we imitate these angels in our daily prayers, training ourselves to act angelically.
  15. My toddler says “no” a lot. And yet I still love her. If anything, it makes me work harder to please her. Through this, she has taught me that saying “no” is good, a sign of self-confidence and self-knowledge. There are, of course, times when we all must do things we’d rather not. But too often, I unnecessarily say yes to others, agreeing to do things that do not make me happy or enable me to flourish, because I am afraid they may not like me otherwise. My daughter reminds: more often, the opposite is true. For us all.
  16. There are times when we all must do things we’d rather not. But too often, we unnecessarily say yes to others, fearing they may not like us otherwise. My toddler, on the other hand, says “no” far more than she says yes. Yet I still love her. If anything, her nos make me work harder to please her. You too can experience the liberating power of saying “no.” All it takes is a little self-confidence and self-knowledge: knowing that you deserve what you want, that your needs are at least as important as others’. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to be cute.
  17. No choice will be perfect. Sometimes, you will have to make a decision that others will not like either way. Remember that you have a right to do what is right by you, and, above all, that you are called on to serve only One master. Make the choice that honors you and God.
  18. You can say what you want about organized religion, but there is something beautiful about people who will schlep to synagogue in a blizzard to honor a lost loved one and community members who schlep just to ensure those mourners, even if they are strangers, are supported.
  19. A beautiful mystical teaching holds that God, Torah, and the Jewish people are one unified entity. In this view, “spiritual but not religious” is impossible. Community and practice support and sustain the spirit. And spirit awakens, enlivens, informs, and challenges community and its norms. Root your personal relationship with the Divine in a life of commitment and community. All will be the richer for it.
  20. When someone we love is in pain, many of us instinctively want to do whatever we can to fix the situation. Tragically, not every hurt is in our power to fix; some may not be fixable at all. Do not let your lack of power deter or distract you. Your real work is alleviating the isolation festering underneath the pain. Identify with and understand the pain, and be present. Even God cannot heal all wounds. Instead, God says, “I am with him in suffering” (Psalm 91:15).
  21. Judaism insists personal change is possible and necessary. But sometimes, it downplays the time change takes. So many of our behaviors – including the way we react to and interact with others – are deeply ingrained and instinctual. Change is more practice than willpower. We become aware of our patterns, then diligently and patiently retrain ourselves, building new behavior into our muscle memory. Hard? Sure, and slow. But it is the only way, and worth it to become the best you.
  22. Those who eschew religious ritual often claim it makes us less free. On the contrary, our being human is the root of freedom, and ritual keeps us human. We are distinguished from animals by our ability to mark time. Rituals celebrate and rely upon this mastery: only she who knows the time can have routines, deliberate behaviors affixed to certain points in time. So express gratitude daily at sunrise, noon, and nightfall. Recite sh’ma each night before sleep. Light candles at sundown on Friday. Be a human; set yourself free.
  23. One dimension of the command, “You shall love your fellow as yourself” is to honestly imagine yourself, to the best of your ability, in someone else’s life situation. Then genuinely consider how you would like to be treated in that situation. What you discover in that exercise becomes your responsibility toward that person.
  24. According to tradition, as Adar begins, our joy increases. The reason usually given is because the joyous holiday of Purim falls during Adar. But one Hasidic master wonders: Purim only lasts for a day. Why should the whole month be joyous? His answer: the name of the month is actually a wordplay, combining the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Aleph,” which is sometimes used to refer to God, with the Hebrew word “dar,” meaning dwells. Adar reminds that God is present among us, and the root of true joy is awareness of and closeness to the Source of Life.
  25. The Zohar, source text of Jewish mysticism, teaches that Moses appears in each generation. One Hasidic master explains that this means every single person has a hidden spark of Moses’ wisdom. How do we discover this hidden inner wisdom? By cultivating a humble spirit, Moses’ defining feature.
  26. Be aware of who you are in the drama.
  27. How much happier would we be, how much less pain would we carry and inflict, if we saw our lives as a series of experiments in living?
  28. The prophet Zechariah proclaims that, one day, “The Eternal will be sovereign over all the earth.” But wait: Isn’t God already sovereign? An ancient translator thus renders the passage, “The Eternal’s sovereignty will be revealed on that day.” God always rules, we just don’t recognize it. So it is with us: often our greatness is obscured by a lack of self-awareness. Acknowledge the glorious reality of who you truly are, and live the life you were always meant to.
  29. Who you are on the inside is more important than how you look. Nevertheless, appearances matter. Dressing your best shows that you respect yourself and honors those you encounter.
  30. “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Eternal One.” Loyalty to God, loyalty to self, loyalty to others. In that order.
  31. In the ancient Temple service, the Jewish High Priest would wear a breastplate containing 12 different gems, each inscribed with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. One reason: To teach that each of us is like a precious stone – beautiful, unique, and valuable – and that we all have a special place in God’s house.
  32. Our fear of abandonment leads us to sabotage our relationships and harm ourselves. That’s the Golden Calf story. Faith affirms that we are never alone, that we are always loved, and that we have inside what we need to make it on our journeys.
  33. Sometimes, “I like you” is a more powerful and more meaningful statement than “I love you.”
  34. If I could write a two-word note to my younger self, it would say “You’re enough.”
  35. I admit that I get quite angry when I feel I am the victim of an injustice. Yet, when the same happens to others, I find that it usually does not impact me as strongly, if at all. That’s exactly why the Torah commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Cultivate empathy for others so profound that, when another person is treated unjustly, you feel as though it happened to you.
  36. When you feel yourself overcome by emotion, ask: What am I feeling right now: anger, sadness, fear, or shame? What experience from my youth does this feeling, and this current experience, remind me of? Is there a way to separate what is happening to me now from what happened to me then? Only then can you respond to the present situation and not continually replay the past experience.
  37. God, angered, threatens to annihilate the Israelites for making a Golden Calf. Moses tries to stop God from punishing so harshly. Instead of telling God to stop being angry, Moses reminds God how acting out of anger will be counterproductive to God’s interests. So often, we judge and reject our and others’ feelings. But that approach is damaging and ineffective. Better to point to a beneficial way forward, and then act to attain it.
  38. The novelist Henry James once gave this advice: “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” The rest, as the great sage Hillel put it, is commentary.
  39. The Israelites fashion a Golden Calf, and God wants to destroy them. Moses begs God to forgive, arguing that destroying Israel would impugn God’s integrity and harm God’s reputation. Moses’ reasoning has nothing to do with the Israelites deserving forgiveness. Sometimes, we should forgive not because the other party deserves it, but because withholding forgiveness (or taking revenge) is more harmful to us than them.
  40. According to a midrash, an angel teaches us the whole Torah while we’re in our mothers’ wombs. We are born knowing and loving Torah. Seeing my toddler joyfully and lovingly react when the Ark is opened in synagogue, I can attest: this midrash is not a metaphor.
  41. “You all shall take your gift to the Eternal, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring it.” (Ex. 35:5) Each of us has a unique gift, something special to offer the world. Your heart yearns to give that gift to the world; follow its stirrings. Ignore those who try to dissuade you from offering your gift, or who try to convince you that your contribution should be more like someone else’s.
  42. For our time of increasing inequality, a deeply relevant piece of Torah: “Do not profit by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). We may not pursue our own livelihoods, our own wellbeing, and our own comforts in ways that harm others. We may not profit at others’ expense.
  43. Studies show that wealthy people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more to charity than those who live only among other wealthy people. This means we have an empathy instinct, but our hearts remain hardened unless we encounter need. Our obligation, then, is not to have more empathy, but to put ourselves in situations where our empathy can be activated.
  44. Real respect can never be demanded. It can only be earned. And how does one earn respect? Only by respecting others. “Ben Zoma says, “Who is honored? The one who honors people” (Mishnah Avot 4:1).
  45. Faith is not about certainty. It’s about trusting in a relationship with someone or something, despite a lack of evidence and even despite evidence to the contrary. That doesn’t mean we should ignore what we know, or abdicate responsibility to seek truth. But past behavior is not always a predictor of future performance; and sometimes trust, rather than knowledge, is all we can hope to have.
  46. “Let your student’s dignity be as precious to you as your own” (Mishnah Avot 4:15). Rabbi Elazar, the teacher of this rule, knew that social distinctions embolden us to denigrate others. Too often, we deride work subordinates, service providers, and “inferiors” of all stripes, “pulling rank” to inflate our self-worth. In those situations, treating others the way we would like is doubly hard, and doubly important. Remember: there is only One with a truly exalted status. Under God, we are all of us equals.
  47. Those who use the Bible as a pretense to exclude or hate, don’t understand the Bible. And communities centered on Torah are communities of love and inclusion.
  48. I love others despite their flaws and, in many cases, because of them. And it is also thankfully true the other way around. Don’t sacrifice the reality of love for the illusion perfection. You’ll miss out on a lifetime of beauty and joy.
  49. The book of Esther reminds us that our lives can radically change in an instant: Vashti is queen, Esther is a commoner; Haman is exalted, Mordechai vilified; in a flash everyone’s role is reversed. How do we respond to this reality? According to Esther, by rejoicing and giving. If you never know what the next moment will bring, don’t waste time bemoaning what you lack. Enjoy what you have and make sure others are cared for, too.
  50. On Sukkot, one’s sukkah must fit both one’s body and his/her table. A story is told of Rabbi Yohanan, whose body was in his hut, but his table was in his house. Seeing this, one rabbinic school says, “If you were practicing that way, you never fulfilled the sukkah obligation!” Yohanan doesn’t get points for intention and effort, because practice only makes perfect if it is the right practice. You won’t get very good at baseball by playing football, and even if you practice the right sport, you won’t get great by practicing poorly. Pay attention to your preparation, including (perhaps especially) in your spiritual practice.
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