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Memories and Making a Difference – Cantor Mary

15 Jan

I’m writing today from a cozy spot in the heart of Manhattan. Several times a year, I make a one or two day pilgrimage to New York City to visit my voice teacher and have a tune up, so to speak. Congregants are often surprised to learn that I still take voice lessons and are even more surprised that I remain with the same teacher after nearly 8 years, working together over skype and in person. I usually ask in response, “Do professional athletes have coaches? Do you think they have trainers?” Of course they do and so must professional singers.

I stood in Candace’s studio, just an hour or so ago, and as we started the familiar exercises, I was flooded by memories. I remember the first time I sang in this room. I remember the endless hours of frustration. I remember the successes. Those memories and feelings immediately call forward memories of the other parts of my life during those early years, the years when I spent one hour a week in that room and countless more practicing. I think of friends and school and work and commuting and dreaming about what the future might hold. Outside of the window, I notice that the sign across the street has changed, and I am back to the present.

My spot behind my teacher’s piano is one of the places where times collapses. Suddenly, all that was, was imagined, or might still come to be comes together into a single point of focus. I am, somehow, more myself and my potential self is more fully realized. These are deep memories – they are experiences that formed me and help me remember my past and to imagine my future.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his work The Sabbath that Shabbat is when we “collect, rather than dissipate time.” During the week, we dissipate time. We annihilate time as we race from one obligation to the next, focus on meeting our needs and the needs of those around us: gym, groceries, emails, meetings, deadlines, and alarm clocks.

But on Shabbat, moments are stretched longer and conversations linger. We are taught that shabbat is a mystical folding-in of all that was, is, and might come to be. Shabbat is a time when we sense the eternality of our people. When, if we stop long enough to tune-in, we feel the sanctity of lives lived before our own and lives that are yet to be. This is an awareness gained from slowing down, sitting back, and listening deeply that assures us that we are not alone, never have been, and are part of a great history past and story yet to be written. Shabbat is our collection of these moments, stacked one a top the other into a deep trove of memories and experiences.

This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira. It is both a memorable and challenging Torah portion, where the first 9 of the 10 plagues are exacted upon the Egyptians. Rabbi Dreyfus explores some of the difficulties with studying the suffering endured by the Egyptians as we went through the process of being wrested from our enslavement. I often think how much easier it would be to read this text, not as history as so many do, but as spiritual drama designed to link us viscerally to our very own story. The trials of the story, when read deeply, trigger a willing suspension of disbelief and allow us to be flooded by the memory of our people and to live our lives in such a way that our people’s history becomes our own story.

I haven’t seen Selma yet – but I will. I’ve heard that it is powerful and that the images, ideas, and events linger for hours after you’ve left the theater. Movies, music, architecture, paintings, theater – all art and everything we experience with our senses – has the power to trigger deep memories. A song may remind us of our grandmother’s hands, a smell of what it was like to feel very small, but very loved, and the feel of the pavement beneath our running shoes what it is to believe we can catalyze change. Our senses, as much as our intellect, can help us to access our deep memories and empower us to be who we are meant to be, not only who we happen to be right now. As we prepare for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, may we seek ways to access our deep memories and may we find the courage to live our own story and to help to write  the story of our people and all peoples with justice, righteousness, and holiness.

~Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

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THE GIFT I GIVE MYSELF WILL BE… by Cantor Andrew Bernard

23 Dec

As Jews, we have the advantage of experiencing many significant annual events twice: once as part of our Jewish year and once as part of the secular year. We have Sukkot and Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah and New Years, Memorial Day and Yom HaZikaron, Tu Bishvat and Arbor Day — to name a few. While the background and customs of these days may vary between the Jewish and secular observance, they also share some similarities that allow us to reflect on some important ideas twice each year.

New Years is a time when many people make resolutions for the coming year. They pledge to improve their physical health, to treat others more kindly or thoughtfully, or to get bad habits under control. Of course as Jews, we just went through this self-examination and self-improvement ritual a few months ago during the High Holy Days. For us, the New Years resolutions may be more of a progress report than a fresh start.

While making changes to improve our lives is a noble idea, it’s not all that easy. At this time of year, experts caution that the best way to make improvements is to start with something small and manageable, and to build on the little successes. Some of the things we want to change are pretty well ingrained. In other cases, we are often not even fully aware of some of the negative behaviors we engage in.

I’m not sure that the world is ever a really calm place, but the last few months have seemed particularly chaotic and unnerving. There has been violence and injustice. People have succumbed to fear and bigotry. Even when there is acknowledgment that we have to make the world a safer and more compassionate place no one, it seems, can agree on the path forward.

Fear brings out the worst in people. While self-preservation is a natural and healthy instinct, fear often causes irrational and counterproductive responses. We reject those we should embrace, we blame those for whom we should show empathy, and in an effort to cope with a complex world, we declare ourselves right and insist that others are simply wrong.

Even more insidious, we make ourselves feel better about ourselves not through self-improvement but by distracting ourselves with others’ misfortunes. Reflecting the tabloid culture, some people find it much easier to point fingers at the troubles or failures of others rather than doing the more difficult work of tending to themselves. Judging another person is a lot easier than taking personal responsibility.

There are plenty of things in my own life that are good candidates for change and improvement. Some of them are easy while others are deeply rooted and a constant challenge. But one of the things I gain from facing my own shortcomings is increased empathy for the challenges of others. The impulse to judge another person is deflected by self-awareness and honesty. It also helps me see that judging myself harshly is not likely to be a healthy or productive way to bring about change. Self-improvement must often begin with showing compassion to ourselves. And if I can learn compassion for myself, it should be an easier next step for me to find compassion for others.

This is a season of gift-giving. Most people enjoy getting “stuff” but I think the gift that can bring joy and peace to our troubled world is the gift of compassion — for ourselves and for others. This gift I give to myself is not selfish but a first step to doing the work of making this world a safer and more compassionate place. May our new year bring peace — to ourselves, to each other, and to our world.

gift