It never fails. At first we feel gratitude for gifts and blessings, but memory fades and gratitude drains. We’re not ingrates, but recall and attention are limited: life naturally gets in the way.

Forgetfulness is the human condition: let’s call it spiritual amnesia. For most of us living workaday lives, spirituality isn’t what drives us while sitting in traffic late for a meeting, or on line in a crowded market. The divine spark that Judaism associates with each soul, the unifying Oneness we call God and the blessings that abound all around seem to hide in plain sight. We don’t see, so we forget.

Here’s a reminder to my fellow amnesiacs: spiritual amnesia is a natural part of life, but so is remembrance. Spiritual life, in every form, prods us to remember (Hebrew: zachor) – literally re-member, bring back to mind – then live in ethical and caring ways inspired by what we remember.

Our challenge is that forgetting is like a black hole, cloaked in its own darkness. Much like a black hole’s gravity absorbs visible proof of its existence, so too spiritual amnesia. When we forget, often we forget that we forget.  Pulled by the gravity of routine and need, gratitude fades. Sucked into a vortex of distraction and overload, we forget our spiritual core. In spiritual amnesia, if we think of God or spirituality at all, we might not see or remember. It becomes natural then to ask, “What have You done for me lately?”

In this week’s Torah portion (Beshallach), miraculously the sea split, fleeing slaves crossed on dry land, Egypt was left behind and Israel went free. So awesome was the passage that the “lowliest handmaiden” achieved spiritual heights unattainable by the greatest prophets. Awe should have hard-wired gratitude forever, but just three verses later, amnesia set in. They grumbled (Ex. 15:24), lamented leaving Egypt (Ex. 16:3) and defied their liberator (Ex. 17:2) – symptoms of raging spiritual amnesia: “What have You done for me lately?”

It’s telling that Torah tells that story immediately after liberation. Forgetting is so human that to depict liberation idyllically, without the later amnesia and ingratitude, would be a lie. Liberationis the story of forgetting and remembering anew. It’s why Jewish liturgy tells this story twice daily. It’s why Jews tell this story annually at Passover. It’s why Jews are to tell this story as if each of us personally came up from Egypt.

One Biblical treatment for spiritual amnesia was visual. In this week’s Beshallach, we filled a jar with manna and displayed it to remember the miracle of food in the desert (Ex. 16:33). In a later portion of a similar name (Shlach), we tied a blue fringe on garments, “to look at it and remember” (Num. 15:39). Time evolved other mnemonics. Shabbat is to “remember” (Ex. 20:8). Yizkor is named for it. Jewish mitzvot are connectors for spiritual recall. Maggidut(spiritual storytelling), hitbodedut (speaking alone to God), hitbonenut (a Jewish meditation form), hashpa’ah (spiritual direction), sacred chant (what Sufis call zikr, like the Hebrew zachor, “remember”) – all seek to jog spiritual memory. All can help answer the amnesiac’s timeless question, “What have You done for me lately?”

Beshallach teaches that spiritual amnesia isn’t failure but an inherent part of liberation’s journey. Just as our ancestors forgot and received new chances, so can we: every day is another chance. We have tools for remembering, and we can help each other use them: as Talmud puts it, none can free oneself from prison (Berakhot 5b). Joining together in these ways, we can help break free and uplift spiritual amnesia into spiritual renewal.

R’ David Evan Markus

Happy 2016. January is the time when we often make New Year’s resolutions about eating less, getting more exercise, reading more, decreasing stress,  volunteering more, spending less, being more intentional, being less judgmental. And yet, if previous years are any indication, in a few weeks we will be slipping back into our old behaviors. Why is it? We were very serious about wanting all of those changes, how is it that we could let go of the resolve so easily?

As I was reading this week’s Torah portion, I got some insight into these questions. The portion tells of the seventh, eighth, and ninth plagues that God brings down on Egypt – hail, locusts, and darkness. And Pharaoh still can’t let go of the Israelites. Clearly, there were negative consequences for him hanging on to them that should have been sufficient incentives for him to let go, but his attempts were short-lived and he slipped back into his old ways. Like many of us with very good reasons to follow through on our resolutions, Pharaoh also had a hard time keeping them.

The text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what is our excuse? Some of us have an “immunity to change”.  Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have a recipe to help us overcome this in their book by the same title. They say that it isn’t enough to just have a goal that makes sense, but that one has to really, really want to accomplish it. One needs to want it at a gut level and have the guts to stick with it in order to let go of what might be standing in the way and to overcome what one fears about the change. One also needs to have the head and the heart working together. Sometimes we choose resolutions because we think should – like we should get more exercise – it makes sense for our health, for our weight, etc. but there is something in our heart that is blocking us from it. Perhaps we like our current routine and that would have to change to get more exercise. Perhaps, we don’t truly believe that we can actually accomplish the goal. Twelve step programs add a spiritual element to this list, what I would call inspiration and humility. Letting go of addictions is far more complicated than keeping resolutions and yet there are many elements in common for success.

Whether we are doing more of something or less of something, it will involve letting go of something else in order to change our current behavior or mindset. Making the resolution is clearly the easy part, understanding ourselves well enough and making the plan to overcome any “immunity to change” is essential to having our resolutions last beyond January and become integrated in who we are to become.

JoHanna Potts

As a lawyer, I have a particular way to read Torah. Let me share with you a line from this week’s Torah portion and see if you hear it the same way I do.

“God said: I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God.” 

It sounds like a contractual offer! “I will take you to me and I will be to you…” In fact, this sounds to my ear, and to the ear of many sages, like a marriage proposal. The One Power of the Universe calls out to us saying: “Hey, ISRAEL. I’m thinking we should get together, make it a permanent thing.” Now even in the ancient world where the bride was often in a less powerful position, nonetheless, her consent is essential. She has to approve of the deal, even if it is God doing the asking. The people Israel, the bride in this proposal, says “well yes that sounds nice but let’s see what you’ve got going for you. What are your prospects? Will you stand up for me and stand by me?”

And after a most unusual series of dates, that include events like a frog infestation, cattle disease and a hail storm, the people Israel are ready to go with God. They hurry out of the ‘house of bondage’ where Israel has been living in an abusive relationship, and rush out like elopers into the Sinai desert. It is what today we might call, a “destination wedding.” 

And what a complicated wedding contract! It’s a long one– so long it takes a year to read – now we call it the Torah. In this ketubah we learn that to keep the relationship with God going strong, we need reminders of the mutuality of our love. Love that ONE who is your God today and every day, in everything you do, from the moment you wake, to the moment you lie down again. Keep the relationship passionate! 

My work, my service — my avodah as a rabbi —is to find ways to keep the passion in the relationship going. Many people today feel estranged from God and some are already divorced. My role is to rekindle the passion. It is like being a spiritual marriage counselor. And the role of the Jewish Studio is to help infuse your life with the quality of joy one feels at a wedding. 

R’ Evan Krame

(adapted from my remarks at my ordination January 11, 2015)

It’s that time again – retrospectives on the secular year now ending, Top 10 lists, New Years resolutions, new calendars, the Baby New Year myth become childhood cartoon, renewed diets and gym routines perhaps soon forgotten, the Rose Bowl parade, maybe a hangover or two.

Among the social values of New Years is a sense of renewal – new chances, turning new leaves. As we turn the page from 2015 to 2016, it just so happens that the secular and Jewish spiritual coincide. This week we also turn to a new book of Torah (Exodus / Shemot), a portion of the same name, and with it a new chapter in Jewish spiritual history.  Generations have passed and the ancient Israelites have become numerous since we left the adventures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jaccob, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers who forayed down to Egypt.  The story now picks up many years later.  But much as the secular New Year begins with a retrospective, so too this new Jewish chapter: we begin by looking back to the names of those who came before (Ex. 1:1-5), to remember their history from which this new chapter emerges. As the familiar adage goes, we can know where going only if we know where we’ve been.

Now a new story starts, and what a start it is: Moses and the burning bush, and even God reveals a new name, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Ex.3:14) – not Cecil B. DeMille’s mistranslation of “I am that I am” but more accurately “I will be what I will be.”  In this new start, even God’s “name” leans forward to a future of perpetual change and renewal. Whatever our spiritual forebears understood the God of Genesis to be, the God of Exodus promises to keep revealing anew.

Whether that’s actually so in our own lives depends on where we look and how we see – whether we look backwards only to the past, or whether we also look forward to the future faithful to the past but not shackled to it. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l famously taught that nobody drives looking only in the rearview mirror: so too our spirituality must connect backwards but also lean forward toward a future we’ve never lived before. A spirituality that only returns us to where we’ve been and how we’ve felt, that only rehearses history by rote, ultimately leads nowhere except around in circles. The calling of Exodus, the calling of God’s “name” we encounter in this week’s portion, and the whole cultural ideal of the new year, evoke this drive toward real renewal – recommitting to the inner journey, taking new chances, forging new paths. That’s how we can make everything old new again.

So as we turn from December to January and from Genesis to Exodus, let’s resolve to make renewal real for ourselves and those we love – to truly renew in body, heart, mind and spirit. Happy New Year.

R’ David Evan Markus

Reconciliation within families is not always easy and yet the death of a parent often provides the opportunity to do the hard work of putting the past in the past and creating a new relationship for the future.

Vayechi, the final parsha in the book of B’reishit, closes the narrative on our ancestors. Just as parshat Hayyei Sarah (life of Sarah) begins the pattern of life summations followed by burial in the cave of Machpelah, Vayechi (and he lived) tells of the final ancestral burial at Machpelah, that of Jacob by an entourage of Joseph, his brothers, and Egyptian officers.

Each generation of biblical siblings has a different reconciliation scenario, putting aside their sibling rivalries. For Ishmael and Isaac, there are no details of the reconciliation beyond “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah;” for Esau and Jacob there is an elaborate presentation of tribute and Esau kissing Jacob and the two weeping together, and then the text again says very simply that Isaac was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob. For the final sibling reconciliation in the Genesis narrative, when Joseph is ready to reveal his identity to his brothers, he is so emotional he clears the room of his Egyptian attendants, the brothers kiss and weep with each other. The burial of their father requires leaving Egypt in order to bury Jacob/Israel in the land and they all make the journey.

And yet when they return to Egypt the brothers are not confident in the reconciliation. Is it their guilt for throwing Joseph in the pit that feeds this feeling or are they projecting their own lack of generosity? The Hebrew expression for the emotional kiss exchanged between the siblings and even Jacob and Joseph is “fall on his neck.” I see in this expression a metaphor for having one’s defenses down – your neck is exposed, that this kind of kiss is truly one of emotional vulnerability and exposure.

Years of sibling rivalry or estrangement can create emotional walls to protect us from repeated hurts and are not easy to remove. How can we feel safe enough to risk taking those emotional walls down? How can we accept our brothers/sisters for who they are and find the generosity of spirit to see that the hurt they have caused us might come from a place of pain for them? Can we ask them to do the same? Or do we reconcile ourselves to not being able to reconcile with a sibling and work to make peace with that within our hearts?

Perhaps if we focus as much on the reconciliations as the estrangements in the biblical narratives, it would help us see that in our lives as well.

Shavua tov,

JoHanna Potts

Now is the season of our depression. This is true both of the wintertime blues and of the corresponding Torah reading when Joseph’s family goes down to Egypt. Literally, the Torah refers to travel to Egypt as going down. As we equate depression with feeling down, there is a link between the descent of the psyche with the Torah reading of these weeks.

For anyone who has experienced the wintertime blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD” syndrome) the sense of feeling down rings true. I have long been one of those people. The limited amount of daylight can sap me of energy or impede clear thinking. On the cloudiest of days in December, I want to hide myself away. I feel down.

The Joseph saga reminds us that a descent can be for the sake of ascent. Joseph’s brothers stripped Joseph of his coat, tossed him into a pit and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Years later when reunited with his brothers Joseph explains that although his brothers sent him on this downward path, it was all for the sake of an ascent. Joseph perceives God as divine conductor, orchestrating a descent for a higher purpose. That is to say, God engineered Joseph’s trauma that ultimately led to Joseph’s elevation as a viceroy for Pharaoh and as a savior for his starving family. Feeling an outsider to Joseph’s story, and in the throes of real life sadness, God’s providence can be hard for me to perceive. With the deepening December gloom, at best God strikes me as puppet master, moving actors down and up.

For those with the SAD syndrome, the ascent comes as the days lengthen and the sun rises in the sky. The descent turns into an ascent. The seasonal depression turns and lifts.  What often comforts the SAD syndrome sufferer is to acknowledge the syndrome as a condition that will depart. The quest is to find something beneficial in the SAD experience. Torah stories of descent and ascent are a reminder that the well may be deep but from its depth can come the water we need. The scary part for those in the depths is wondering when and if the uplift will arrive.

Joseph’s story and its Rabbinic commentators, say the key to ascent is having faith in God. The Chasidic masters, many of whom were great psychologists in their own way, would have us practice being purposefully joyful even as we feel dejected. Their advice: sing to God, dance for God, pray to God. I know the advice works for me as a joyous Shabbat service and meal is the highlight of an otherwise dreary week.

Feeling down in these dark days of December, I ask myself to learn a lesson from the depression. Can I make a note to better appreciate the long warmer days to come? Can I discover new patience and compassion for others suffering from similar psychological challenges? Perhaps I will emerge stronger or better able to assist others. Focusing on what might be a positive outcome from this seasonal descent, I can begin to rise in anticipation of brighter days.

R’ Evan J. Krame

“Hope springs eternal,” wrote essayist Alexander Pope. This sentiment forms the spiritual core of Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, and (not coincidentally) also this week’s Torah portion, Miketz.

Hope, by its nature, transcends perceived reality however bleak. Hope is what remains when the night seems most dark, when the chips seem most down, when the deck seems most stacked against us. Hope sometimes is irrational, propelling us forward (or keeping us afloat) against seemingly endless odds. And yet, time and again, history and spirituality vindicate irrational hope as a powerful force of renewal.

Such is Chanukkah’s mythic history of Jewish resistance to Greek dominion: outnumbered and overpowered, ancient Jews had little earthly reason for hope that they could prevail. They did anyway.  Maccabee victors had no earthly reason to believe that remnant oil would be enough to rekindle and sustain the Temple’s eternal flame.  It did anyway. In this week’s Torah portion, the biblical Joseph had no earthly reason to believe that a forgotten political prisoner wrongly accused would catapult to Egypt’s highest civil office. He did anyway. Egypt had no earthly reason to believe that the nation could survive such a famine as never seen before. It did anyway.

Jewish life (and, indeed, all spiritual life) testifies to the miraculous illuminating power of hope – how even impossible odds can’t defeat hope without our consent. It is hope whose light we kindle on Chanukkah, the eternal spring of possibility precisely amidst seeming impossible odds.  This is the hope that dispels darkness: as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” Hope is the miracle before the miracle, and this hope is in our hands and hearts to bring to light.

This week, we can physically light candles for the Festival of Lights. Better yet: let’s spread the light of hope to somewhere dark in our lives or the lives of others. Even better still: let’s ourselves become that light, that source of hope, where it’s needed most.

It really is possible.  It starts with hope.  It starts with us.

R’ David Evan Markus

Refugees around the globe are not just a hot political topic but a moral challenge to us all. Today’s headlines represent a historic constant about the nature of those who observe such tragedies. In every prior generation, there were concerned bystanders who could have been rescuers but efforts were often too little or too late. Good intentions are important but action is critical. Such a story is part of Torah too.

In parashat Vayeshev, Joseph is sent off to find his brothers with their flocks. Upon his arrival they plan to kill him. Older brother Reuben heard the plan, interceded and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’ Instead, at Reuben’s suggestion, Joseph is dropped into a pit.  However, Reuben leaves the scene and the remaining brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Reuben returns and says: “The lad is not; and as for me, where shall I go?” Some commentators say this is an internal dialogue not shared out loud by Reuben with his brothers, representing his repentance at his failure to save Joseph.

How much are we like Reuben – expressing concern and then turning our backs on refugees in the pit? How much do we express outrage after they die but do little to help them live?  

For Jews, bystander status is untenable. We, whose history has been the persecuted and the refugee, have been quick to call to task a world that stood by as Jews perished at Nazi hands. Jews have a moral imperative to intercede and not leave the scene. And some of us are rising to this challenge, such as the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. In Canada, whole synagogues are pitching in to sponsor Syrian refugees. By contrast, U.S. politics (and some U.S. Jewish advocates) rail against Syrian refugee re-settlement, prompting one op-ed writer to ask, “How Can We Call Ourselves Jews and Bar Syrian Refugees?”

We return to the Torah and rewrite Reuben’s question for today, “If we don’t jump in and help, then where are we going?”  I myself have done little more than sign a petition, donate to HIAS, and express concern. I console myself with faint hope that the world will be gracious (but how often has the world been gracious?). I reason that bureaucracy is necessary for security reasons. I reason, I think, I weigh, I wonder, I hope: like Reuben, I go to a largely ineffectual inner dialogue that’s mostly about Reuben and not really about Joseph, sitting in the pit. How many of us similarly respond with inner dialogue that’s mostly about us and not really about war-torn Syria’s refugees?

I am reminded of Hillel’s saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) Each of us is balancing the need to care for ourselves and care for others.  But if not now, as Reuben learned, then people will suffer. 

Now means now. While we talk within ourselves and among ourselves, refugees are suffering and people are dying. Let’s not be Reuben anymore. (if you agree please share this blog post and take action).

R’ Evan Krame and R’ David Markus

This is the time of year that people either look forward to or dread seeing their families with Thanksgiving, Hanukah and Christmas in the holiday line-up for the next month. In my family, we joke that “family” is the other “f” word. If you ask adults and children for what are they thankful, many will respond “family.” For some though, that is a more nuanced issue and our torah portion gives us some parallels and perhaps some perspective.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, centers on Jacob encounter with his twin brother Esau. This is their first encounter since Jacob ran away to their mother’s family to escape Esau’s wrath at having had their father’s blessing deceitfully stolen from him. In advance of the encounter, Jacob divides his entourage and sends emissaries with all kinds of livestock as gifts or tribute. From our perspective, Jacob has every right to be fearful, many years have passed and the brothers have not made peace with each other.

The early Rabbis disagree on whether Jacob should have appeased Esau. Even some later scholars, such as Sforno (16th century), say that Jacob was “like a reed, able to bend in the wind, rather than a cedar which is strong but can be uprooted by a strong wind” (Ta’anit 20a) in contrast to Nachmanides who believes Jacob should have acted with strength not weakness. For them, these brothers represented warring nations and the dilemma is really how best to make a lasting peace treaty. To what extent is the more powerful thing to do to compromise or to stand firm? Is the answer the same when we narrow our lens and look at families?

There are many families like our ancestors, who experience a major (or minor) hurt that causes a major rift, and a family break occurs. The family gathers for Thanksgiving, all except for the family member who was hurt or caused the hurt. In fact, each party may have a grievance with the other. Who should make the first move to repair the relationship? Does it really matter who apologizes? Like Jacob, can’t we wrestle with our resistance to let go of the hurt and prevail? Can we be at peace if we are not at peace with others? Some hurts can not be reconciled so easily, and carrying the pain is a very heavy burden. Sometimes being at peace with ourselves requires us to let go of those relationships completely.

Thanksgiving is a perfect to time to begin a practice of opening our hearts, becoming more accepting of others, and becoming less judgmental. We can expand our families and “adopt” new family members offering love, hospitality and peace.

JoHanna Potts

Every Jewish house of worship echoes the iconic scene in this week’s Torah portion (Vayetze). Jacob takes a rock and places it under his head for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder rising from there to heaven, with angels ascending and descending along it. Jacob wakes with awe and calls the spot Beth El, House of God (Gen. 28:11-14).  Every synagogue (whether or not named Beth El) claims a hope that it too can lift a ladder to heaven and uplift us to awe.

Awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” is the wow of spiritual life – a quality of mind and heart that transcends itself, a sense of self (or selflessness) that can reorder reality and make life shine.  If awe reliably happened by itself, then every synagogue and every Jew would shine with spiritual glow.  Too often, however, it’s just not so.  Too often, synagogues are dull and spirituality seems elusive or illusive.

So what does it take to cultivate awe?

One path to awe is panentheism.  To modern mystic Arthur Green, the whole world pulses with holiness.  At least in potential, every rock could be like Jacob’s rock, the base of a holy ladder.  Imagine living that way, as if a stairway to heaven might appear at any moment, from any rock, right before your eyes.  Imagining living that way, with a sense of the possible.

Another path is serendipity.  This was the answer of the Sforno (Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550).  The Sforno taught of dreamy Jacob that he’d wandered to a place that he hadn’t intended to go.  It was precisely Jacob’s openness to serendipity – to receive unknown gifts of an unknown place on a road less traveled – that opened Jacob to awe.  Imagine living that way, with a sense of spiritual adventure.

A third path is surrender.  This was the answer of the Radak (David Kimchi, 1160-1235).  The Radak taught that Jacob spent the night in that spot because he was too tired to walk any further, so he surrendered to both sleep and to trust that he would be safe there.  It was precisely Jacob’s surrender – to not try to control what might happen – that opened Jacob to awe.  Imagine living that way, with a sense of trust.

So which is it – possibility, spiritual adventure or trust?  Which is it – feeling everywhere and everything pulse with holiness, being spiritually playful, or surrendering to what might unfold spiritually?  Maybe all of these?

The story of Jacob’s ladder maybe doesn’t offer a clear answer, but it asks a clear question of everyone who cares about spirituality and Judaism: where is awe in your life?  Whether with philosophy, adventure or trust, that kind of spiritual life is worth seeking.  Who knows: maybe from every rock a spiritual ladder really can uplift you into awe.

Rabbi David Evan Markus