God, You, Me and Algebra

Adapted from a drash (spiritual talk) given at Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis, on February 1, 2013.

Shabbat shalom.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asani b’tzelem Elohim.

Sh’ma Israel: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

I invite you to join me in a thought experiment, a little spiritual algebra. I am actually referring literally to mathematics, at least in principle. You may raise your eyebrows a little at this. Go ahead, I’ll wait.  And if you knew anything about the trauma I suffered in high school algebra, you’d question my sanity in even bringing the topic up.  But it’s the first Shabbat of February, and we are sharing each other’s wonderful company in this holy space, so let’s give it a try.

Every Thursday morning at minyan, where we pray the Shacharit service, we bless the miracles of daily life. One of the most meaningful blessings to me is the one I began with: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolm, she-asani b’tzelem Elohim. Blessed are you God…who made me in the image of God.

We are God's Image.

We are God’s Image.

A footnote in our siddur Mishkan T’filah informs us that this text “draws on the language of Genesis 1:27: ‘…in the divine image God created humankind.’ [And it goes on to state that] a spark of the divine is implanted in every human being.” (1)

What a powerful idea: God in us. Everyone, no exceptions. Inseparable from our neshama, our soul, our essence.  Let me return to algebra for a moment. We are made in the Image of God. We are the Image of God.

A = B

Also on Thursdays mornings, and just a few moments ago, and at bedtime, and for many Jews as they live their final moments, we say the Sh’ma, our creedal statement of monotheism. As we all know by heart, it begins, Sh’ma Israel: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear this: God is Our God, God is One.

Sh'ma Israel - שמע ישראל

Sh’ma Israel – שמע ישראל
Hear O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

Echad. One. What does “one” mean? At a minimum, the Sh’ma is a statement affirming monotheism, that there is one god. But what is “one-ness”? In a commentary on the Sh’ma, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Nehemia Polen cite the teaching of Sheneur Zalman of Liadi (Z”L) the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch Chasidim. He maintains that nothing exists except God, that any reality beyond God’s voice is an illusion. So beyond being a mere statement of the absolute uniqueness of God, from this perspective the Sh’ma is a statement of “radical monoism…. a declaration of God’s unity, [that] means …[in effect] that nothing exists besides God.” (2)

So, then: God is our God, God is all there is, God is One-ness. Let’s return to our algebra. God is One-ness.

B = C

Somewhere along the way, all of us were taught the Transitive Property: If A = B, and B = C, then A = C. I invite you to take a spiritual leap by asking your left-brain to join for a moment with your soul.

B’tzelem Elohim. If we are the image of God.

And Adonai Echad, God is One-ness,

Then each of us is connected to God’s creation and, through the divine image of God that is woven into our souls, to each other. To everyone. We are one. We are one-ness.

Our tradition teaches that everything is up for debate and discussion. There is no reason you should accept this application of mathematics to any matter of the soul, unless it is meaningful for you.

So to that end, I will close by inviting you to say with me the blessing and prayer that I opened with. And I invite you to ask yourself:

What would it mean if God is in you, and everyone, everywhere?

What would it mean if not only God is one, but also if you and everyone, everywhere are one with God?

Shall we?

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asani b’tzelem Elohim.

Sh’ma Israel: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

Echad. One-ness. Shabbat shalom.


(1) Frischman, Elyse D. (Ed.) Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur: Services for Shabbat. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007. 177. Print.

(2) Kushner, Lawrence and Nehmia Polen. “Adonai is One.” The Sh’ma And Its Blessings (My People’s Prayer Book, Vol. 1). Ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997. 93-94. Print.

Images : Healthapalooza, Yanivba


Big Questions


I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by Patrick Aleph of The G-D Project, as he toured the country to document what faithful people from many walks of life have to say about God and their spiritual/religious lives.

Spending a few minutes with Patrick as he was taping for his documentary was a fantastic gift. I am not a philosopher, and I am not a theologian. Yet, the invitation to talk about my random and unprepared thoughts about God gave me an opportunity to put a stake in the ground. A stake that is perhaps the first step in constructing something personal and wonderful that I can’t quite visualize yet.

We often avoid thinking about life’s “big questions,” not because we don’t care about them, but because we don’t know where to begin. And because the task can seem overwhelming as we go about our busy lives, we set it aside. But if we can open ourselves to the big questions, something unexpected and wonderful may happen.

Thought for today: How would you describe what you believe about life, the world and how (or if) we are connected to each other?

It’s Always Time to Learn


It's Always Time to Learn

I came across this little structure while on a walk recently in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. The sign says “Little Free Library…Take A Book, Return A Book.” What a wonderful idea.

The organization behind this project has inspired people to build more than 2,300 of these micro libraries around the world, which they say is more than philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built. And along they way they are inspiring community building and supporting the love of reading.

We never know when we’ll be presented the opportunity to learn something, or who will be be the catalyst for our education.

What opportunities did you have to learn today? Did you seize the moment?

Relationships: The Space in Between

The space between your heart and mine is the space we’ll fill with time.
Dave Matthews & Glen Ballard

First, I’d better come clean about a bias that I have: I am not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. There are a lot of us out there, for sure. We feel manipulated by this “Hallmark holiday” devoted to overt demonstrations of romantic love, best rendered by spending big bucks on oversized cards, chocolates, jewelry, and high-end dining. Don’t get me wrong – cards, and symbolic tokens, and lovely evenings out on the town can support intimacy and create life-long memories for two people in love. What bothers me is that the one day on our western cultural calendar that is devoted to romantic love is so skewed to the ideal, that the daily, real experience we have in our relationships can seem difficult and perhaps even unfulfilling.

Love being equated to “two hearts that beat as one,” as that schlocky Lionel Richie song suggests, emphasizes the excitement that brings lovers together at the expense of the loving work that keeps them in a healthy and fulfilling relationship. (Fans of Fox’s Glee are excused for their enthusiasm about Endless Love. The duet cover of the song that aired during Glee’s first season  was simply awesome.)

I’m content to leave the sappy love songs alone, since they make for nice car rides and play an important role in procreation. But they should never be relied upon for relationship advice.

Focus on the Space In Between

The Dave Matthews song quoted at the beginning of this post is definitely not a sappy love song, and it makes a useful point. Keeping an eye on the separateness between you and your beloved creates an opportunity for a deeper understanding of your needs, your partner’s needs and how your journey together can create fulfillment for both of you.

The trap of the sappy love song version of relationships is that while you’re feeling good with your partner, everything is fine. But when real-life stuff creeps in, especially when it’s related to how your partner’s needs are different from your own, you’re in for quite a let-down and perhaps disillusionment.

Psychotherapist and personal development teacher David Richo has written extensively about the challenges we face when look to others to “complete” us or to otherwise fulfill a lifetime of our unmet needs. Very simply, life can be a raw deal regardless of the depth or quality of our relationships. The things we love change or end, unfair things will happen to us, life may not conform to our plans, we will experience pain, and sometimes those whom we love most will be disloyal.

It takes two to tango in any relationship; while you have your challenges to deal with, your beloved has his or hers. And, both parties experience each other’s challenges by the way they attempt to get their needs met or act out their pain within the relationship.

Within a romantic relationship, maintaining that space in between allows both partners to understand their own wounds, sensitivities, needs and desires – or at least begin to work on creating that understanding. Instead of clinging to the illusion of utter and complete compatibility that is perpetuated by the Valentine’s Day version of romantic love, healthy boundaries – the space in between both partners – give us the room to live and love as autonomous adults.

An Old Idea

We can look back thousands of years to find that the Jewish tradition has something to say in support of the idea of how we concurrently understand and care for ourselves and others. Rabbi Hillel, who was born in the century before the Common Era (A.D.), remains well known to even the most modest student of Judaism for writing

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am not for others, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Clearly the impact of Hillel on Jewish thought extends beyond romantic relationships (and how they differ from secular love songs!), but it is a worthy thought experiment to consider his teaching in terms of how we interact with our beloved.

First, we have a duty to know ourselves and to understand what we need. We hold complete responsibility for our own happiness. No one else is going to make it happen for us. Yet we also are responsible for knowing the difference between what is good for us and what is good for others. Second, we have a duty to others, for without interdependency and self-less caring, the promise and meaning of our own existence are diminished.  Finally, the health of our relationships requires constant attention: we need to begin now and continue always.

It’s okay, really, to observe the customs of Valentine’s Day. But during your romantic dinner, be sure that the table in between you and your beloved has room for not only the candles, and wine glasses, and the gift box for this year’s lovely token of undying affection. If you can reserve space to share your needs, fears, and hopes and listen openly to those of your partner, you may well create a new tradition and many loving memories for years to come

This was originally published in a somewhat different form at TC Jewfolk.com

Photo: jowiki

Avoiding the New Year’s Resolution Trap

A new year and a new decade later this week bring up the annual question of New Year’s resolutions. My take: skip the resolutions and commit to living the promise of the you that you already are. I was invited to write a guest blog on this at TC Jewfolk. You can can read my piece here.

While you’re over at TC Jewfolk, take a look at some of the other fine writing Leora and Emily are assembling every week.

Best wishes to all for a happy, healthy and joy-filled decade ahead.

How to Make Amends to Another Person


Being an imperfect human being means that none of us is immune from hurting other people and, by corollary, it is inevitable that people will hurt us. One of the skills of a well-lived life is to be able to recognize and right the wrongs we have created through our actions.

This is a thread that runs through many spiritual and ethical belief systems. The 12-Step tradition that guides many people through recovery from a pattern of life-destroying behavior, emphasizes making an objective inventory of what we have done wrong in our lives and requires us to make amends to others we have harmed.

Judaism is another tradition that explicitly calls us to remediate the pain we are responsible for creating through our actions (or inactions). As I write this, Jews the world over are preparing for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. An informal tradition of this day devoted to reflection on the way we have lived our lives, is to reach out to people we have harmed and to make amends.

In our very defensive culture, a sincere statement of apology can seem to be a hard thing to do. Perhaps it is a threat to our self-esteem. Maybe it makes us feel weak. Maybe we just don’t know how.

In the spirit of this season of healthy repentance, I humbly offer these suggestions for making amends to another person:

  1. Accept that you screwed up. Don’t just feel bad that someone else feels bad about your actions. Really look at what you did and the consequences of your actions. It may be helpful to talk to a friend whom you trust to give you honest, un-sugar-coated feedback.
  2. Express sincere remorse for your actions. None of this “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt,” crap will do. Reach out to the person you wronged. Say to them something like this: “I am sorry that I _______. I know that I hurt you.” There’s a catch with this step: sometimes you may cause more harm to a person by making amends than by leaving them alone. Never express remorse just to make yourself feel better if it will hurt the other person further.
  3. The other person may not be able to accept your sincere and heartfelt apology. You must accept this gracefully, and move on. This doesn’t take you off the hook for having wronged them in the first place. It is okay to apologize again at a later time. If they consistently don’t accept your apology, despite your best efforts, then there is nothing further you can do. However, you will know in your heart that you have done everything possible to make amends.
  4. Where possible take another action to restore what was lost. It can be as simple as a sincere act of kindness to that person, or it may be something tangible such as repayment of an expense the other person incurred as the result of your regretted action. If the person you wronged is not prepared to receive your restitution, an act of kindness to a stranger or a contribution to a charity provides you the opportunity to put forth something positive to counteract your action.
  5. Reflect on what you have learned so that you can take the opportunity to attempt to live a more loving and ethical life.
  6. Once you have made amends to one you have wronged and have an understanding of how you did what you did, it is time to forgive yourself. Repentance also calls us to treat ourselves with loving care so that we are free to give our best  to others.

UPDATE: Leora Maccabee at TC Jewfolk takes a humorous look at making amends by spotlighting five famous apologies. You can judge for yourself whether or not they hit the mark.