Friday, December 2, 2011

Jacob's Ladder, Balance and The Jewish Future

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ

He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached the Heavens and the angels of God were going up and down it.  Genesis 28:12

In his book Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen, a work-flow guru, talks about different areas of focus in work and life using imagery from air travel, specifically delineating things in 10,000 foot increments.  There are the things we have to focus on at 3,000 feet, the minutiae of the day to day, the logistics, the concrete next actions to move something along.  He describes the twenty to thirty thousand foot levels as broader visions of projects.  Forty to fifty thousand feet is the big picture of life and work, our aspirations for ourselves, for others.  In Allen’s system, we are constantly moving between levels of focus depending on our energy levels, the context in which we find ourselves, how we prioritize, etc.  When we are at our best according to David Allen, we are as though we are moving smoothly across water, we are working at a seamless black belt level.  Of course, we still need to be aware of what level we are working at and why.  We have to constantly challenge ourselves to insure that we avoid neglecting one level in favor of another.  

The opening verses of our parashah present a similar idea far earlier than David Allen.  Jacob, while fleeing his brother Esau, settles down to sleep and dreams of a ladder, one firmly established on earth but reaching for the Sky.  Along the ladder, Divine Beings move both up and down.  There is constant motion.  God stands beside the ladder and beside Jacob, makes a covenant of protection and reviews the promises made to Abraham of descendants and a homeland.  God reminds Jacob that there is a larger goal at hand, that of Peoplehood. Implicit in the promise is that its fulfillment will take time and that there will be many steps and challenges along the way.  Until the goal is achieved, God promises to be with Jacob, never to leave.  In other words, there are 50,000 foot goals:  growing a people, being in constant Divine-Human relationship, and establishing a homeland.  Along the way, there will be lots of 3,000 to 10,000 foot details that have to be handled.  Proper work-flow and proper levels of focus are concepts that predate the modern period and, it seems, emanate from Torah.

In thinking about the work we do, that of strengthening the Jewish People and creating more love for and commitment to Torah, I wonder if we are working at the right levels, focusing on the right things and giving sufficient attention to all levels, from the 3,000 to the 50,000 plus foot levels.  Are we focusing too much on finding “Big Ideas” or the next “Great Jewish Idea”?  Are we focusing our attention too low by giving too much attention to symptoms and tactics when we should be focusing on whether or not we are moving in the right direction in the first place?  Do we worry too much about those on the periphery and ignore the core or is it the other way around?  Are we too focused on our own silos and turf thereby ignoring the power of networks to lift us up the ladder or help us learn from the experiences of other networks when they focused on details?  Maimonides reminds us that we should strive to pursue the “Golden Path,” that of moderation, and his exhortation applies here as well.  Finding the balance between focusing on the 50,000 foot vision challenges of the Jewish People and our 10,00 foot tactical/ operational challenges is the course we should be pursuing to insure a vibrant future for Judaism.  

In the silo in which I spend the most time, that of camp, the challenge presents itself in the following ways.  How do we balance recruiting campers and hiring staff with developing new programs to keep camp fresh while also focusing attention on what our vision of success looks like?  How do we energize our network of campers, staff members, parents, board members, alumni and funders to help keep camp viable financially and increase the role we play as a significant Jewish touch point in the lives of those same groups?  How do we balance fun and friendship with real health/safety concerns and meaningful Jewish learning and living experiences?  Trying to find the balance between these different areas of focus is where I spend much of my own time.

The image of the ladder, the movement of the angels, Jacob and God being near to one another and the greater goals of land, people, and relationship serve as reminders for us of the power of networks, the importance of Big Hairy Audacious Goals, and the importance of balance in focusing on broad agendas and on operations.  As we grapple with the serious challenges that face the Jewish People and Judaism in this period, from the gap in dialogue between Jews of different practice and ideology to questions of inclusion to the challenges of understanding between American Jews and Israel to how we engage Jewish teens in a more effective way (, it will be more important than ever to make sure that we are balanced in our focus, to pay attention to the broader questions and to the details and to avoid spending “all of our time planning” and no time actually executing those plans.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Parashat VaYera
God and Rescue, Hagar and Ishmael, Dr. Rick Hodes and Ethiopia

In re-reading Parashat Vayera this week, my attention was drawn to one particular story among the many challenging narratives of the family of Abraham and Sarah: the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.  Soon after Isaac is born, Sarah observes Ishmael teasing Isaac and demands that he and his mother, Hagar, be sent away from the family compound.  Despite its troubling nature, Abraham complies with Sarah’s demand after God reassures him that Ishmael will be cared for.  Sent out into the desert, Hagar quickly runs out of water, and hope, and deposits Ishmael at the base of some shrubs:

וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת כִּי אָמְרָה אַל-אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ

And she went and sat down opposite him but a good distance away from him, like the distance an arrow travels, for she said: Do not let me see the death of the child.  And she sat opposite him, and raised up her voice, and cried.
Genesis 24:14-15

I cannot imagine the amount of despair a person could feel that would lead them to choose to abandon their own child.  It is simply beyond my comprehension.

Fortunately for Hagar and Ishmael, all is not lost.  Salvation comes directly from God:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי,
כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם.  קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת-הַנַּעַר, וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת-יָדֵךְ בּוֹ:  כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ

And God heard the voice of the child and an angel of God called to Hagar from Heaven and said to her, What troubles you Hagar?  Do not be afraid for God has heard the boy’s voice where he is.  Get up!  Lift up the boy and hold him in your hand for I will make him a great nation.
Genesis 23: 17-18

The voice of God calls out from the heavens and saves Ishmael, revealing a well of water before Hagar from which she can draw water and rehydrate the child.  In the end, it is not Hagar who saves her son; rather, it is God, specifically God’s voice, that saves them.  

This week, I am thinking a lot about child abandonment and sources of salvation for such children due to a book I am currently reading.  Titled This is a Soul by Marilyn Berger, the book tells the story of Dr. Rick Hodes, a physician who has chosen to live his life in Ethiopia saving children with the most challenging health conditions imaginable and unimaginable. Dr. Hodes takes an unusual path which leads him to this extraordinary life mission.  Along the way, he becomes an observant Jew, a representative of the American Joint Distribution Committee, learns Amharic and adopts multiple children in Ethiopia to give them homes and to help pay for their medical treatment.  

Many of the children Dr. Hodes treats and sometimes adopts in Ethiopia have been abandoned by their parents.  In a place of constant famine and disease, children are often brought to Addis Ababa by family members and left there to fend for themselves, relying on foraging for scraps or begging to provide less than even the basic needs for survival.  They develop diseases common in areas of extreme poverty most notably a form of Tuberculosis that causes the spine to nearly collapse. Dr. Hodes raises money to maintain a makeshift clinic in town, to pay for back surgery, medications, and other procedures.  He creates a worldwide network of physicians and surgeons who work with their medical institutions to provide surgeries and treatments free of charge.  He changes lives.  The abandoned child seemingly condemned to a miserable, short life, riddled with disease is not an anonymous body part.  He or she is a soul.  In fact, the title of the book comes from a question the author asks Dr. Hodes as she observes him taking a picture of a patient that will be sent along with other documents to a physician.  Why send them a picture of the patient?  So that they remember that this is a soul.  

If human beings are the voice of God, as Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches us in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, then Dr. Rick Hodes is the embodiment of that Voice.  For children like Bewoket and Danny, those that are abandoned by their parents or whose parents stay with them but are hopeless about the potential for them to be cured and healed, Dr. Hodes is the angel of God calling out and revealing the well, the source of healing and salvation.  He is the doctor who is the voice of God, creating possibilities for long, healthy, inspiring lives.  He is proof that one person can change the world and he is the embodiment of the Talmudic statement that saving one person is the equivalent of saving an entire world.  Through his altruistic work, Dr. Hodes gives others the opportunity to do mitzvot by asking them to house children for six months or longer in the US as they undergo complicated surgery and recovery.  In fact, a member of the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin family who takes children into their home for recovery is mentioned in the book and referred to by Dr. Hodes as one of his angels.  

In a world where the news is dominated by leaders, celebrities and regular people acting in the most selfish and narcissistic ways, it is refreshing to read about the life of an exceptional and selfless person; to see a person act as an extension of God, bringing healing to those who suffer and family to those who are abandoned.  Dr. Rick Hodes serves as an example for us, a person we can seek to emulate whenever we encounter others who are in dire straights.  The world needs more people like Dr. Hodes... and so do we.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thank you to The Covenant Foundation for the copy of This is a Soul.  It is one of several books the Covenant Foundation gave as gifts to those of us attending the award breakfast for recipients of the new Pomegranate Prize, a new award whose goal, according to philanthropist Lester Crown, is “to provide the means for these already remarkable educators to further develop their skills, fulfill a dream or two, and have the chance to get to know others who, like themselves, are bringing fresh new ideas and abundant energy to the field of Jewish education.”  Congratulations to all five recipients of the Pomegranate Prize, especially to my friend and teacher, Anna Hartman from Atlanta, Georgia.  Congratulations to my colleague, mentor and friend, Amy Skopp Cooper, National Assistant Director of the NRC and Director of Camp Ramah in Nyack, who received this year’s Covenant Award at a ceremony in Denver this week.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Searching for Core Values

At the end of Parashat Bereisheet, having heard two versions of the Creation story, we learn that even the second Creation attempt was flawed (Genesis 6:5-8), at least where human beings were concerned.  At this point, early on in the Torah, all of the pursuits of the human heart are evil, or at least bad, all day long.  I find myself wondering what ingredient was missing in the recipe in order for humanity to find a balance, to pursue doing good in the world, to look out for the other, to behave in an ethical way.  In the formative moments of humanity, what was missing?

At the outset of Bereisheet, the only clear rule given to people is that they are not allowed to eat from the Tree of Life.  We also get the clear message that murder is unacceptable, hence the Mark of Cain.  Beyond these two explicit and implicit laws, however, there is not much else in the form of limit setting, no agreed upon list of rules, ethics or laws that serve as the foundation for the first society.  Parashat Noah leads us through the third Divine attempt at re-creation and it is in this parashah that the Rabbis find the basic rules of society known as Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noah, the seven laws of the children of Noah.  These rules, inferred from a midrashic reading of certain verses, include prohibitions against:

Sexual Immorality;
Blasphemy; and
Eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive.

Finally, based on the rabbinic interpretation, humanity must establish courts of law.

These seven laws, in the eyes of The Rabbis, are obligatory on all of humanity. They form the first set of core values in history.  If the first two creation stories end in failure, the third story, that of Noah, teaches that success in Creation requires an agreed upon set of basic rules.  As you might expect, what the seven rules are, or if the exact number of rules is, in fact, seven, is the subject of debate between the rabbis.  The above list, however, is the one that is generally agreed upon.

The Sheva Mitzot B’nai Noah got me thinking a lot about core values this week and, in a roundabout way led me to ask the following question: if these seven mitzvoth are the foundation of humanity, are what is required to have a just, sustainable world then what might be the agreed upon core values for the Jewish People today?  Overwhelmed by the enormity of trying to define the core values of Jewish Peoplehood, I narrowed my focus to concentrate on the core values of Conservative Judaism.   In my brief search for a clear statement of our core values, I recalled an essay written by Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch who was, at the time, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, titled The Sacred Cluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism. Success!

The Sacred Cluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism is elegantly written, and equally deep and soulful.  Dr. Schorsch explicates seven core values for Conservative Judaism:

In the essay, Dr. Schorsch proceeds to address each of the core values in great depth and concludes with a statement that Ramahniks know intuitively:

It is surely in order to ask in closing whether this unique constellation of core values has ever coalesced into a vivifying ideal. I would submit that in its Ramah summer camps the Seminary created an extension of itself: a controlled environment for the formation of a model religious community. Over the past half-century Ramah has compiled an extraordinary record of touching and transforming young Jews to become the most effective educational setting ever generated by the movement. All the core values of Conservative Judaism are present in spades, defining and pervading the culture.

At Ramah, we live the embodiment of the core values the founders of Conservative Judaism intended. 

Noah provides us with the foundations of the earliest attempt to identify the basic rules of civil society.  If humanity in general requires a set of core values, each subset of society must develop, wrestle with, and embody an additional set of core values that defines it.  Conservative Judaism is no different.  We may not agree on all of the core values listed by Dr. Schorsch.  Just as Hazzal, Our Sages, argued about what the seven laws of the children of Noah were, so too should we passionately argue and debate the core values of our Movement for today, and more important, for tomorrow.  When the debates are over, when there is a consensus list, we must work harder than ever to bring our core values to life in every setting in which we find ourselves

Shabbat Shalom.

To read more of Dr. Ismar Schorsch’s, The SacredCluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism direct your browser to:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

...And the Children return to their borders.- in Celebration of Gilad Shalit

At 4:04 am central time, the tears were allowed to flow freely.  Like so many others, I spent the day holding them back, not wanting to tempt fate.  So much could go wrong:  there could be delays; another appeal; last minute demands.  But now, at 4:04 am, I could not hold them back any longer.  At that moment, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai stood at the podium and announced the words that a family, a nation, and a people waited to hear for 1,941 days:

גלעד שליט חזר הביתה...ברגעים אלו, צועד גלעד שליט וניכנס לשטח מדינת ישראל

Gilad Shalit has come home...At this very moment, Gilad Shalit advances and has entered the territory of the State of Israel.

With these few, powerful words, a son was returned home alive.  A family was reunited. A nation was just a little more whole. A collective national exhale and joy became palpable around the globe.

Brigadier General Mordechai’s announcement did not bring Peace to the region.  It did not suddenly narrow the gap between rich and poor or establish safe borders.  It did not ease tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else.  It did not resurrect those who were murdered by terrorists or who fell in service to their country. But it did tell the us and the world that on this night one hero, the center of hope and prayers for five years, Gilad ben Noam v’Aviva Shalit was going to sleep in his own bed, in his own home, in his own community after 1,941 days of captivity and complete isolation.  


That is enough for us.

Pundits will argue the merits of the deal that brought Gilad home.  People will try to do the math in an attempt to justify or negate the deal.  There will be, and have been, debates about Jewish law regarding the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim, redeeming captives, and what price is too high. These kinds of conversations, debates and equations, however, will fail to win the point for they are all rational attempts to justify or condemn that which is completely irrational: the unconditional love of a parent for their child (or a nation for one of its children).

During these days of Yom Tov, the Torah commands us to be happy, to the exclusion of all other emotions.  I have to believe that this is an aspirational command for it is impossible to be completely happy when over a thousand terrorists are now free.  It is impossible to be completely happy knowing that friends mourn other friends, those who were murdered in bombings at Hebrew University and Sbarro Pizza and whose killers are now free.  It is impossible to be completely happy despite the strength displayed by a parent like Esther Wachsman who supported the deal to bring Gilad Shalit home even though her own son, Nachshon, was kidnapped by terrorists and murdered while in the army.   It is impossible to  be completely happy knowing that for the deal to work so many others whose parents, siblings, relatives and friends were murdered in the most horrible, unimaginable ways, had to watch as the murderers walked free into Gaza and beyond. Finally, it is impossible to be completely happy given that,  after more than 25 years, Ron Arad is still MIA with no knowledge of his whereabouts, no closure or solace for his family or for the other families whose children are missing-in-action.

Yet, even if complete joy is unattainable at this time, so many of us will be more joyous on this Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah knowing that in the town of Mitzpe Hila, Gilad Shalit will be alive and at home.  We will hug our own children tighter than ever.  We will dance with the Torah and will sing with greater gusto ושבו בנים לגבולם “And the Children return to their borders” for we have seen it with our own eyes.  

With thoughts of blessing for the family of Gilad Shalit and with continued tears of joy flowing, with prayers for his complete recovery from trauma caused by five years of isolation and captivity, and with the hope that despite the threats and promises of Hamas and others, that no other Israeli daughter or son every be kidnapped again, I wish us all Chag Sameach and

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur 5772

I could not help but keep looking over at my son Elan during the early part of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah to do a visual check-in.  He looked fine on the outside but I could not know what was going through his head.  The ark was open and the ba’al tefilah was chanting the words of the U’Netanah Tokef:

וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּום כִּי הוּא נורָא וְאָיום

Let us speak of the sacred power of this day - profound and awe inspiring.

The ba’al tefilah continued as the texts invoked images of God as Judge and Prosecutor, Expert and Witness, seated on the Divine Seat of Justice, reviewing each of our lives, deciding our fates and sealing them in ספר החיים - The Book of Life.  The voice of the community joined in:

בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמון

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!

I looked even more intently at Elan with increasing concern as we reached the next portion of this powerful and challenging prayer:

כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן
מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת.
מִי בְקִצּו וּמִי לא בְקִצּו
מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ

How many will pass on and how many will be born;

Who will live and who will die;

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

Who will perish by fire and who by water...

This summer, Elan and his friends experienced mourning and mortality when a peer passed away.  My instinct was to put my arm my son and hug him.  Through the entire U’Netaneh Tokef, Elan stood ramrod straight and looked, stoically, straight ahead. When Kedushah finally ended and we sat down, I asked him how he was and he told me he was fine.  Throughout the rest of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and during this period of reflection and teshuvah, I spent a lot of time thinking about this particular text knowing that both he and I would confront it once again on Yom Kippur.

A fascinating history of the tefillah, as well as reflections on some of its theological implications, was written several years ago by Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute and can be found at   This year, the prayer presented more personal challenges, among them:  

Must I read the U’Netaneh Tokef literally or can I read it as metaphor for the fragility of life?

To what extent do I believe that there is a causal relationship between actions and consequences?

Are there really two or three things that, if done during the year, negate the consequences of previous poor choices?

If this is a text that does not fit in with my intellectual outlook should I simply not say it?
Ignore it?

Should I write it off to certain historical contexts that no longer apply?

As human beings, we are often inclined to ignore difficult texts.  Rather than struggle with things we don’t like or with which we disagree, we skip over them or pretend they don’t exist.  And in the polarized society in which we live, we often avoid talking about difficulties with those with whom we disagree.  We surround ourselves in the cocoon of like-minded people precluding the need to struggle with others, with different approaches over the meaning of the text.  Deep insight comes through interacting with people we disagree with, when we listen genuinely.  We learn about ourselves, we clarify, we grow, and we sometimes change as a result of the encounter with the challenging text or the other’s perspective.

Over the years, my personal tendency with difficult texts has been to continue to say them, to struggle with them and, hopefully, to discover meaning and personal connection with them.  And so it is with U’Netaneh Tokef.  In my examining different commentaries on the text, I happened upon a powerful insight by Rabbi Leonard Gordon in Mahzor Lev Shalem, the new Mahzor of the Rabbinical Assembly.  About the U’Netaneh Tokef, Rabbi Gordon writes:

“Most of us prefer to deny the unruliness of our fragility.  But the facts on this list in U’Netanah Tokef are inescapable:  some will get sick; some will be born; there will be deaths by hunger and by wars.  The liturgy begs us to pay attention to these plain facts...After reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways that life might end, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through t’shuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.  Our goal is not security but a life of meaning that recognizes our vulnerability but rises beyond it.”

For Rabbi Gordon, for me at times, and for many others, the list of life statuses and endings in U’Netaneh Tokef reminds us that life is fragile, that there is always an end, and that we don’t know when it will come or why.

A close reading of the tefillah provides another perspective.  Such a reading yields an important point revealed in the refrain which says that “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!” This sentence, the one we can almost hear in the form of the congregation singing, does not specify who does the writing or the sealing.  It is just as possible to read this as a text about how we create our own different endings and beginnings.  This is not the peshat, the simple, intended meaning of the text.  Yet, I can both imagine God sitting in judgement and, at the same time, hold myself responsible for the consequences of my actions.  And so in thinking about U’Netaneh Tokef this year, I find myself wondering:
  • What parts of my soul did I neglect this year?
  • What bridges did I burn?
  • What new ideas did I have that I suppressed out of fear?
  • What regrets do I have that I continue to carry, allowing them to disturbme instead of reflecting, praying, learning and then releasing them?
  • What can I do to be at Peace, to be whole, to be “serene” and “tranquil”?
  • How can I work to be more fully alive in this coming year?

These types of questions require serious thought and serious answers.  U’Netaneh Tokef raises questions about ultimate endings and beginnings and our responsibility for the outcomes of our choices.   The tefillah demands that we consider the beginnings and endings of daily living and of interactions with both God and with humanity.

On the eve of the most solemn and sacred day in our calendar, I pray that this be a year when we recognize how we can be more at peace with ourselves, with our loved ones, with others and with God.  I pray that this be a year of good health and long life, of happiness and peace; that this be a year of supporting and being supported by others. I pray to have the strength to stand at Musaf on Yom Kippur, to encounter the U’Netaneh Tokef and, rather than feeling that it is all out of my hands, that I be inspired and emboldened to live ever more fully in this

I look forward to the insights I will gain from hearing what my children, Elan, Mira, Amalya,  and my wife, Becca,see and feel in this challenging tefillah.
Finally, I invite you to share your reactions to the U’Netaneh Tokef in general and, specifically, to the approach suggested here and to the questions raised by such an approach.

Shabbat Shalom, G’mar Chatimah Tova, and wishes for a meaningful fast for all.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Psalm 27: Satisfaction and Singularity

It seems that most years, soon after the arrival of the month of Elul, I write about Psalm 27, also known as the Penitential Psalm or the Psalm for the season of Teshuvah.  It is customary to recite this Psalm every morning and evening from the arrival of Elul through the end of the holiday season.  And each year, my focus is on one verse:

אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי מַחֲנֶה לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי

If they array a camp before me, my heart will have no fear.
Psalm 27:3

There is a perennial sense of relief in reciting this verse after camp is over.  There was a camp arrayed before me and now they have all gone home!  Saying this verse twice daily after the camp season concretizes both the sense of awe prior to the summer and the relief that follows the successful completion of that summer.  

In praying this Psalm the last few mornings and evenings, however, my attention has also been  drawn to another sentence.  In verse 4, the author makes a clear statement about his ultimate goal, his singular desire:

אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

One thing I ask of the Lord,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
to frequent God’s Temple.

Is the Psalmist expressing a fact or an aspiration?  Would he be singularly and completely satisfied?  Is there truly any one thing that can bring complete satisfaction and if so, is it Divine in nature?  The expressed desire of the Psalmist raises questions about satisfaction in this world, about desires, about needs, and about what we really seek.

In a consumerist world, where the cycle for new phones with more features in smaller and smaller packages becomes shorter and shorter in response to demands from the public, is it possible to ever achieve satisfaction?  Do we actually aspire to satisfaction or do we just aspire to more of whatever it is we seek?  The author of the Psalm looks sharply at the world in which he lives and comes to understand that a daily relationship with God, one that is so intimate that it feels as if he or she lives in God’s house, is all he truly needs.  Like Ecclesiastes, the Psalmist discovers that everything else is vanity and transient.  This is the setting we try to construct in the summer, in the camp arrayed before me as director. At camp, we seek to live in constant relationship with God’s glorious natural world and aspire to see people and nature as the reflection of God’s presence.

In this season of the year, can we squelch out all of the worldly, consumer noise that bombards us daily, engage in true, deep self-reflection and achieve the same singularity of desire and purpose as the Psalmist?  We are slammed with over 5,000 brand images and messages daily.  Can we look beyond what they tell us we want, be it a new phone or a new gadget, a new body or a new image, and see what is truly important?  For some, this is possible.  Others find it challenging if not nearly impossible to imagine such focus and singularity.  Perhaps that is why the mishnah in Pirke Avot sees the one who conquers his desires as the truly heroic person and the one who is happy with her portion and purpose in the world as the one who is truly rich.  My wish for the coming year is that we can all achieve the singularity of purpose and satisfaction expressed by the Psalmist.  Let us continue to strive for in strengthening our relationship with God as we work to make this world the full-time dwelling place of The Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.