Miracles & Wonder

I stood in the middle of the happy chaos that is Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok just looking around. And I thought: is this real? Did I really do this? By myself? Am I really in Southeast Asia? And yes I was. The wonder of it was just that. Although the place itself revealed many wonders throughout my trip (more on that another time), the miracle was that I had actually done it.

So I dragged my suitcase around until I found the area, thanks to some good instructions, where most tour operators waited for their charges. This, of course with a slightly travel addled brain – roughly 25 hours of travel. Fortunately at this point my suitcase was lighter than it would later be. After three walks up and back the outside sidewalk of the terminal I found an official looking person and said “Bamboo?” (The name of my tour company.) And I was directed to the correct corral where I met a driver and was bused off to the hotel.

The details of hotel and food and group are for another discussion. What matters here is courage. I find that if I think too much, I will not take a risk. I heard about this tour company, looked them up, saw this tour and immediately sent a deposit. Why? You might ask. Not sure, just that it sounded amazing and like something I had never done, would never do. So this trip became my post retirement gift/adventure.

After a ridiculously long time of taking care of other people both personally and professionally, I did not know if I would have the courage to follow through with this plan. But I made a commitment to myself and by God I was going to follow through and just not think too much.

The funny thing is, just after returning home I was offered an opportunity for another trip, life altering in a very different way. And because of this adventure, I said yes without thinking for even a moment. Something I never would have done in a previous phase of life.

The payoff, for not thinking too much, was a life altering trip. A journey of body and spirit that was entirely unexpected in many ways. I was the oldest in my group by a decade or so but mostly found myself “keeping up”. I roomed with a stranger and spent nights in a bunkhouse in the jungle with a group of strangers. I was blessed by Buddhist monks and prayed in their temples. I was of service in many ways and was served up gratitude and smiles all along the way.

In the mountains outside of Changmai they grow wildflowers for commercial purposes, acres and acres of them, and they grow strawberries. Because the strawberries are allowed to ripen fully in the sun on the vine they are almost unbelievably sweet. Something we rarely experience in this country where everything is picked early, stored in cold and shipped long distances. I purchased there a box of natural, pure, unsweetened dried strawberries. They are in my refrigerator still and every so often I take one, close my eyes, and savor the taste of courage.

Learning ~ It’s Never Too Late

First, social media. Yes, like every baby boomer I have learned the basics of Facebook. And I do mean basics. The “gif” thing still escapes me but I don’t really care.  I spent a weekend recently setting up an “author” page, which you are probably on, and getting schooled on Twitter.  I now understand why everyone is looking down all the time, your twitter has to be maintained, stay fresh.

So ok, I have acknowledged that I am an author and my mentor and guru decided I could be trusted not to muck up my WordPress site and gave me “tools”.  Trust, how wonderful.  Joy, now I had to learn to use them.

After three tries and several repetitions, and a couple of requests for refresher texts, I managed to make a “tweet box”. I felt deeply accomplished.  I find that no matter how many times you tell me how to do something I cannot master it until I do it myself, hands on, several times.

And so it is with much in life. I have not been an adventurer since I was quite young.  In my late teens and twenties I was fearless, some of the reasons for which are for another time.  I was unafraid to go anywhere, do most anything.  I find now that I am willing and desirous of finding that courage again. With the “wisdom of age” however came fear and as a result, reluctance.

So how do you learn courage?  The same way you learn to tweet, by practicing, by doing, by going beyond the borders of what you already know. You learn to be alone by practicing being alone, by doing things you like to do even as they feel awkward.  Tweeting regularly is more work than I would have thought, but then again, so is courage.

Here I go again my friends.

Secrets & Courage

I had the great privilege of leading my Congregation’s Shabbat service tonight, what follows is the d’var from that service.

This week’s Torah portion is vayeishev, essentially the story of Joseph.  Often we who are not great Torah scholars think of Joseph as the story of the multicolored dreamcoat – perhaps you are old enough to remember that.  In my case it puts me in mind of a beautiful song written by the great song writer Dolly Parton called the Coat of Many Colors.  Both of these cultural references to the story of Joseph’s coat present a fairly sweet or optimistic picture.  Unfortunately, the story of Joseph is not, overall, a happy one.

My wonderful seventh level religious school class has been working through the early portions in the book of Genesis and each and every one is about family relationships; parents and children, brother and brother, husband and wife.  And most of these stories are full of conflict, violence or at the least deception.  And Joseph’s story is much the same, his brothers hate  him and he is exiled, going from place to place, away from his family.  Oddly he is generally oblivious to their hatred, tremendous self absorption.  But it is important to note here that no matter where Joseph went, through all his travels and travails even when he was the only Jew in Egypt, he determinedly retained his identity as a Jew.

What my students discerned is that in all these stories, there is a missing piece, much midrash but a big missing piece.  And that is the communication, the dialogues, the conversations that must have taken place between family members.  We are told the action, the facts of what happened, but not what was said.  It is hard to imagine that Cain and Abel went from nothing to murder with no talking or interactions between.  Or that Isaac trudged up the mountain with his father in complete silence.  These conversations are left to our imagination.  One hopes that the conversations took place and were just lost in the telling and retelling of the stories.  So it is with Joseph and his family, we know what happened but not what was said.

This portion generally falls on or near Chanukah so the challenge is to find the connection.  A side note here, the Chanukah story is not in the Torah or the Hebrew bible as a whole.  It was in the two books of Maccabees but when the Hebrew bible was canonized, the Rabbis left them out.  The Catholics, interestingly, did not – they included them.  There are many theories and as with so much of our tradition,  a great stew of debate.  But I digress.

This time of year is a time when many end their lives either intentionally or by simply giving up. And how much of that stress and sadness finds its roots in family relations, quite a lot  I think. And how much family dysfunction is a result of a failure of communication?  Again, quite a lot I think.  How many of us have families in which there are secrets? Those things we “don’t tell mom” or “don’t tell dad”.  In my family it depends on the subject as to who we don’t tell.  How many conversations have you had with family members in which you began or ended with the words “don’t tell…..”.  There are many reasons to keep secrets, some good, some not so much.

Maybe the story of Joseph is meant to remind us to bravely retain our identities, to fight for them as bravely as the Maccabees did to be public Jews.  This is the crux of the Chanukah story.  Maybe it is also to remind us to speak kindly to one another, to overcome our difficulties with family members, to listen to each other’s feelings and needs.  And maybe to remind us to reach out to the isolated, lonely, sorrowing or frightened among us.  To remember that a kind word or a civil dialogue can have enormous impact on someone or on a relationship.

As we light our channukiahs in the window, because we can, to symbolize our religious freedom, let us be proud of who we are and teach our children thus.   And may we be free from the bondage of silence, conflict, disunity and hatred.  Let us all be a light for kindness, freedom and peace.  Shabbat Shalom.

Chayei Sarah ~ it’s all about the women

And how fitting that this weeks’ portion is all about the women as we are in the midst of a firestorm of public accusations of sexual harassment and assault.  And even more importantly, a raft of local and state elections that in many instances favored women, often first time candidates.  Resistance has turned to running; and winning.

In this Torah portion Sarah, the first matriarch, dies at the age of 127 although Abraham, theoretically 137, is still alive.  Sarah is buried in a cave in Hebron and Abraham sends his servant off to find a wife for his son, Isaac, now I think 27; an advanced  age for marriage in those days.

The servant, Eliezer, asks G-d for a sign, understandable in light of the gravity of the task.  The sign comes when Rebecca show kindness to him and his camels, passing his “test”.  I love that the sign is kindness and generosity.  But it gets a little complicated here as Rebecca is the daughter of Abraham’s brother.  But nevertheless….

Rebecca is asked if she will go with this stranger, leave her home, her father’s house, and marry Isaac who she does not know.  And although her brothers wish a delay, she says yes and goes.  She duly marries Isaac and, by all accounts, is loved.

Finally, Hagar reappears as Abraham’s final wife giving him six more sons.  And so in the end, this portion is about the stamina, influence, loyalty and downright bravery of the women.  Sarah, who has made difficult choices but endured.  Rebecca who has had the courage to say hineini and march into her unknown future.  And Hagar who has seen her share of miracles.

When we bless our children we say “make them like….”.  And we name these matriarchs and patriarchs.  We are so in need of that blessing now.  No matter what your world views there can be little dispute that we are living in difficult, chaotic and frightening times.

So my wish for this Shabbat is that we have the stamina and enduring strength to make the hard choices as Sarah did.  That we have the courage to go forward boldly into the unknown as Rebecca did.  That we have the open mindedness to see the miracles that could save us as Hagar did.

May the examples of these women inspire us all; may we be like them always.  Shabbat shalom.

Things Your Father Wants You To Know #5 ~ Be A Man

That is a loaded concept in our culture. In the time of our fathers it meant things like always walking on the street side of a date so her dress doesn’t get splashed, and going down in a fight when someone slighted you, your wife, your girl, your family in any way. In many ethnic groups it meant revenge and in America generally it meant that men didn’t whine about feelings or express emotion in any significant way.

The world has changed a lot in some ways and not so much in others. You should still walk on the street side of a date and do old fashioned things like opening doors and at least offering to pay on a date. The other stuff is not so simple to figure out.

Fighting is not the first best way to defend yourself. If you or someone you love is wounded by words, then it takes a big man to ignore those words, reject those words and walk away from the speaker. If the wounds are caused by “hate words”, towards you or anyone, it takes a courageous man to speak up against those words, to refuse to allow hate speech to go unanswered. If someone violates what you believe in, it takes conviction to stand up for your principles. This last will be tested many times over in your lifetime. How you live your principles is one definition of what it takes to be a real man.

If you are attacked physically, use your mind first and then, if you must, fight back. If you can walk away from a fight, do it. But always defend those weaker and more helpless than you are. You have always stood up for friends or others you thought were being mistreated, never stop doing this; it makes a difference in the world, in people’s lives.

We have already talked about loving with all your heart. Be a generous lover (see your Grandmother’s advice!). Marry someone you would die protecting, that’s how you know its real; you will understand this when you have children because they are the only people you would choose over your partner if you had to make the choice. Protect those children fiercely and without reservation no matter what the personal cost; they will always remember that you did.

Make up your own mind about everything. Read, research, discuss whatever it is you want to know about and then make a decision. There are almost no irrevocable decisions in this life and you will make ones that turn out to be wrong. It takes a real man to admit a mistake, learn from it and move on. Nobody escapes mistakes but many people make the same ones over and over. Don’t just take the advice of your friends who probably have not done the research; or of anyone else unless you respect the depth of their knowledge. Have your own opinions and be gracious about listening to those of others, you might learn something.

Don’t be afraid to feel and don’t be afraid to show it. There is a time for emotions and feelings and a time not. Keep your feelings to yourself at work, most jobs value your intellect and your opinions about the job, not so much your feelings. In your personal relationships, let those feelings out, they matter and will make you a much more attractive man.

Real men love with open hearts and show it; real men use their brains and not their fists whenever possible; real men fight for what they believe in; real men are all different, not cut from some cultural mold that told them what to be. Real men are fully their own selves ~ so be a man.