Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Confessions and Forgiveness

By Susan Esther Barnes

Because our congregation is so large, we have two services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One is at the local Civic Center auditorium, and the other is in the sanctuary at the synagogue.

It has become the custom at the sanctuary service on Rosh Hashanah for congregants to write down, anonymously, things they have done about which they feel guilty. A selection of these confessions is read aloud by other congregants ten days later at the sanctuary service on the morning of Yom Kippur.

This is a particularly moving, and sometimes brutal, part of the service. It is heartrending to hear of members of one’s community berating themselves for feelings which are only natural, or confessing to alcoholism, or blaming themselves for being molested as a child.

I can’t say I’m immune. Sometimes I catch myself beating myself up for things which, intellectually, I know are not my fault. This public reading of confessions on Yom Kippur certainly places my petty self-grievances in stark contrast to those that deeply matter.

It also reminds me that even though we might feel it’s appropriate sometimes to say, “There is nothing you need to be forgiven for,” there is great importance and power in transcending logic and engaging in an annual time for us all to hear, simply, “You are forgiven.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Can a Pony Tail Save the World?

At services on Friday night there were two women with long hair sitting toward the front of the room. It was hot, and both women wanted to put their hair up, but neither had a pony tail holder. One woman managed to put her hair up with a paper clip. The other braided her hair, but the braid fell out. Then she tried to tie it into a knot, but that came out, too.

Then, a woman sitting behind them dug into her bag and found a pony tail holder. She could have just handed it to the woman in front of her, but instead she gently took hold of the woman's hair and made it into a pony tail for her. She did a remarkably good job, too, considering she's the mother of men, so I imagine she doesn't have much practice putting up other people's hair. Nevertheless, she understood the situation, and made sure to fashion it in such a way that the hair was held well off the other woman's neck, allowing the air to circulate comfortably.

I believe there's a midrash that says every day God sends out an angel to destroy the earth, but then God sees an act of loving kindness from one person toward another, and calls the angel back. Putting aside the issue of a God who can't make up his/her mind, and an incredibly slow angel, there's something I like about the notion that even one small act of loving kindness can save the world.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Last Night's Silent Prayer

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last night was the evening of Rosh Hashanah. As I stood on the steps greeting my fellow congregants, I marveled at the number of faces I knew.

Once I was seated inside, I looked around the room. I remembered how, three years ago on this day, I sat in a room full of complete strangers, and felt so alone. I remembered how, two years ago on this day, I stood at the microphone in front of about 1,500 people and told them how alone I had felt, what I had done to change that, and how good it felt to no longer be alone. I thought about how good it felt this year to be among so many friendly faces, to be part of a community where I feel safe, where I feel loved, where I feel I belong.

In every service, there is a time for silent prayer. Sometimes I use the time to talk with God in words. Sometimes I use the time to talk with God in images or feelings. Sometimes I use the time just to listen. Last night, something completely new happened.

Last night, during the time for silent prayer, the only words I was capable of conjuring in my mind were, "Thank you." The words repeated in my head, over and over, as if of their own volition. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you." And each time the words repeated, a new image from the past year formed in my head. "Thank you," and I pictured a time when a woman held my hand. "Thank you," and I saw people bussing tables after a Sulchan Shabbat dinner. "Thank you," and I saw us gathered in a congregant's home one Friday night, singing together.

The words repeated and the images came, one after the other, all these experiences and all these people I did not have in my life three years ago, but who are now an integral part of my life. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," the words and the images came, one after the other, effortlessly and seemingly without end, until Fred began to sing "Osey shalom" and the moment passed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The List

By Susan Esther Barnes

Tonight is the evening of Rosh Hashanah. This is the time when we seek forgiveness from God for our transgressions over the past year. We also seek forgiveness from each other, because God forgives us for our transgressions against God, but for our transgressions against other people God does not forgive us until we make peace with one another.

Around this time in the year 2000, I was living in Nevada and talking on the phone with my best friend John in California. For the first time, I explained to him what happens this time of year, and I asked him if there were any transgressions for which I needed to seek forgiveness from him. To my surprise, he was able to come up with a list of items. Perhaps it should not have been a surprise. After all, this was the first time we had engaged in this discussion, but we had known each other for 15 years.

As John went through his list one item at a time, I listened, we discussed it, I apologized, he forgave me, and then he insisted that I tell him my list. I don’t think I was able to come up with much, but we discussed what I had, and I forgave him. It was a bonding experience. At the end of the discussion, he asked, “Explain to me again, why aren’t we dating each other?” I was at a loss. We began dating, and in January we will celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary.

As in all relationships, from time to time, things come up. We say something snippy; we don’t pay enough attention when we should; we do any number of things that hurt the other’s feelings. Whenever these things happen in our relationship, John and I immediately talk it out and seek the other's forgiveness. In these cases, it is rare for one of us not to say, “Are you sure we’re okay now? When Rosh Hashanah comes, I don’t want this to be on The List.”

Thus, The List, and our desire to be sure there is nothing on it, marks our days and focuses our intention regarding how we want to interact with each other. The last thing we want to have happen is to reach Rosh Hashanah and to find out the other has been harboring some hurt that has been festering over the past weeks or months. Instead, the threat of The List helps to ensure that we solve issues in the moment, as they arise. It reminds us that openness and honesty, as well as the willingness to broach uncomfortable topics, is one of the pillars on which our relationship is built.

Now, when Rosh Hashanah approaches and we sit down to discuss The List, it is empty. Once we confirm its lack of items, we take some time to talk about our relationship and our appreciation of each other. It is always a good beginning for the promise of a sweet and happy new year.

L’shana tova.


I'm not a poet, but here's something I wrote last year, less than two weeks after my husband was hospitalized for a couple of days with an infection in the sack surrounding his heart. It was a scary time, and about a month before Rosh Hashanah, so I was feeling a bit dramatic.

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed
Who shall live and who shall die

Each year I fear death will come
Before Rosh Hashanah
When I sit down to ask you
Is there anything I have said or done
In the past year
That has hurt you
I say the words and hang over an abyss
I fear the valley of the shadow of death
How could I have hurt you
So much worse
To have hurt you and not even notice
But how can I breathe if I have hurt you
And not only have I not noticed
But have committed a far greater sin
By not providing a safe place
For you earlier
To tell me what I have done
And instead allowed it to root in your soul
To fester there

If somehow I live through it
It is for this I shall repent

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Keeping Kosher

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’ve heard a lot of people who are not Jewish say they know very little about Judaism, but one thing they do know is we have dietary laws that say, among other things, that we can’t eat pork. When we follow these laws (kashrut in Hebrew), it is said we are “keeping kosher.” (I don’t know why it’s called “keeping” kosher instead of “eating kosher,” but that’s a matter to explore at another time).

The ironic thing about this being one of the few things people know about Jews is that most of the Jews I know don’t make any attempt to keep kosher. I certainly didn’t, until just over two years ago. I didn’t have any intention to start, either, but one day I was standing in line at a Mexican restaurant, and I thought, “I can have cheese on this, but if skip the cheese, it will be kosher.”

Technically, an Orthodox Jew would still not call it kosher, for a whole list of reasons which I won’t go into here. With apologies to those who disagree, I’m going to refer to “keeping kosher” in this discussion as following the basic dietary rules laid out in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). Namely, eating only those animals that have hooves and chew their cud, eating only those fish with fins and scales, and not eating pork. And for good measure, I’ll even throw in not eating meat or fowl together with dairy, although this strikes me as being a big stretch from the admonition in the Torah to not “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Especially since no fowl’s mother has milk.

So I was standing in line, thinking “If I don’t have cheese on this, it will be kosher,” and I ordered my lunch without cheese. Later that day when I was deciding what to have for dinner, it occurred to me that I had the same choice to make: For this meal, will it be kosher or not? Once again, I chose, for that one meal, to go with kosher. I made this same choice, one meal after the next, until, after a week or so, I decided it was enough of a pattern that it was time to tell my husband what I was doing.

I never made a commitment to keep eating kosher, and I still haven’t. I may keep doing it for decades without ever making a long-term commitment to it. But at some point over the last couple of years it changed from a whim, to an experiment, to a mild annoyance, to a habit.

Often, people around me have no idea I’m keeping kosher. It’s easy to order kosher food at a restaurant or to make kosher choices at a buffet without mentioning what I’m doing. When in doubt, vegetarian fare fits the bill without raising eyebrows.

When the subject of me keeping kosher does come up, I have received two kinds of responses. The first, from Jews and non-Jews alike, is curiosity. The two most common questions I get are, “Why are you doing this?” and “How does it feel?” I still don’t have a good answer to either question. To the former, I generally shrug and say something like, “I was standing in line at a Mexican food joint and I decided to give it a try.” To the latter, I generally say, “Not as annoying as it did in the beginning.”

I find the question about how it feels to be an intriguing one. Why do people think it would feel different? I suppose some people think it’s healthier, so perhaps they think I’ll say I feel more energetic or something. I don’t. Cutting out unhealthy foods like bacon and sausages still leaves plenty of room for potato chips, pie, cake, and other yummy, fatty, unhealthy foods. Maybe they think it would make me feel closer to the Jewish people, but it doesn’t. More on that later. Maybe they think it would make me feel closer to God, but there are a lot of other things that make me feel close to God with a lot less effort.

The second kind of response I get when I mention I’m keeping kosher is one I have received so far only from other Jews. It is open hostility. This is why keeping kosher definitely does not make me feel closer to the Jewish people. Rather, it distances me from some of them. I don’t know where this hostility comes from, but it must be from baggage these folks are carrying around from earlier in life, most likely from their childhood. Whatever the cause, even though I make it a policy not to even suggest that anyone other than myself ought to keep kosher, there are those who seem to respond to any mention of keeping kosher as if it were a personal attack.

So we are left with the question of why am I still doing this, more than two years later, if it doesn’t make me feel any different, and if it sometimes upsets other people. At this point, the only explanation I can offer is this: Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, a commandment. There are many other commandments that I keep. Every other commandment I do, be it giving money to a homeless person, observing Shabbat, or visiting someone in the hospital, makes me feel good. Therefore, to some extent, I do these things in order to feel good. Keeping kosher doesn’t make me feel good; most of the time it doesn’t make me feel anything at all. And that’s how I know it’s the only mitzvah I do only for God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

After S'lichot

Last night I attended a beautiful S'lichot service. If the blowing of the shofar during the month of Elul has not yet prepared us for the High Holy Days, S'lichot, which occurs on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, is meant to give us a good shove in the right direction.

The High Holy Days, also known as the Days of Awe, are usually my favorite time of the year. I enjoy the majesty of the services, the music, the drawing together of Jews all over the world. For me, it is normally a time of forgiveness, in which I strive to forgive myself and others. It is a time of renewal and a time for hope.

Somehow, this year is different.

Although I rarely have nightmares, last night I dreamt of torture. Not torture for the sake of eliciting information, but torture with the goal of keeping the vicitms alive so they could suffer as much and as long as possible.

Then I dreamt I was with friends on an island utterly unfamiliar to me. I joyfully explored the island, until I turned to look for my friends and found they were departing on the last transportation out, leaving me alone, lost, confused.

Why are my thoughts turning to these images at this time of year? Is it because, as we approach the day when our names will be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year, I reflect on this past year, when for the first time in a long, long time, people I know have died? Is it because I see the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, and it frightens me? Is it because I see the Jewish people fighting amongst ourselves about Israel and about which Jewish denominations are superior to the others, and I know it's this kind of in-fighting that contributed to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem?

To what extent is my inaction responsible for the things that are troubling me? Perhaps this year I need to seek forgiveness not for the things I have done, but for the things I have not done.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Does God Know We're Praying?

By Susan Esther Barnes

On the home page of our synagogue website is something that has caused a small amount of controversy. Over the word “prayer” is a picture of a young man, head slightly bowed, his chin gently resting on one hand curled around the other. What is this? Jews don’t traditionally clasp our hands when we pray, nor do we necessarily bow our heads. Is this a true representation of how we pray? On the other hand, this is a person, authentically immersed in a conversation with God, not bothering to think about decorum or tradition or what praying is “supposed” to look like. This is a prayer on a personal, fundamental level.

It got me to thinking: If we’re not generally bowing, kneeling, or holding our hands together in a particular way, how does God know when we’re praying? Many of our prayers start, “Baruch ata Adonai” (Blessed are you Adonai), but they don’t all start that way, especially the spontaneous ones. I suppose some of us may start our prayers by getting God’s attention: “God, could you help me out a minute here?”

There is a tradition that for certain prayers, we must have 10 Jews, called a minyan. There is also a tradition that even for private prayers, we say them out loud, with just enough volume so we can hear what we are saying. Does this mean God only hears the prayers we say out loud?

That doesn’t feel right to me. Certainly, whenever I address God directly, I get a response. For instance, if I just think, “Hey, God,” I get the feeling of at least a “Hey” back. Sometimes, I’m not even thinking about God; I’m thinking about something (or someone) else. Suddenly, a great idea will pop into my head, or I’ll suddenly remember something important that I’d forgotten. Where did that thought come from? Was it God helping me out? But I wasn’t even praying! Or maybe I was.

If God can hear our thoughts, then maybe everything we think is a prayer. Maybe that is how God knows when we’re praying.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Second Thoughts

I've been thinking about starting a blog for some time, but after I went to bed last night, I wondered whether I had made a mistake in doing this. Do I really want to put my thoughts and my writing out into the universe this way?

Then I had a dream. In it I had a new job and a new boss, and he said he may need to hire someone else to do my job. My feeling in response to him was, "I was born to do this. Just wait; you'll see."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To Kiss a Mezuzah

By Susan Esther Barnes

In my daily life I try to practice what Carl Rogers calls holding people in "unconditional positive regard." In most situations this requires little effort on my part; it really just means giving myself a mental nudge in the right direction if I begin to think critically about someone. In some situations, or around certain people, it takes a good deal more conscious effort and energy on my part to maintain my positive regard.

When I kiss the mezuzah on the way out of my home in the morning (or when I encounter one elsewhere during the day), I try not to touch it automatically or without thought. Rather, I always try to do it with intention. For that moment, while my hand travels to the mezuzah, I think about how I want to be in the world, and my intention to treat everyone I meet that day with unconditional positive regard. As I bring my hand to my lips, I remind myself that it is my intention to strive toward being the very best that I can be.

Sometimes, at some point during the day I walk into what is a difficult situation for me. It may be that I'm working with someone whose personality hits my hot buttons, or I'm feeling stressed, or it's a situation in which people have differing but passionate views. In those situations, I try to focus on the intention I had when I touched the mezuzah that morning. Sometimes, I find in that place in time there is nothing but me, and the others in the room, and my positive regard for them. And what flows from that is always good. It is as if when I touched the mezuzah that morning I drew out a little extra bit of the will to do good from it, and when I touched my lips I placed that will and ability inside me. In those moments I know, for that day at least, that I have truly have kissed the mezuzah.