What inspired the creation of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments?
I contributed an essay to the 2017 collection Seven Days, Many Voices, which was a compilation of articles focusing on each of the first seven days of creation, as described in Genesis 1. That project sparked my interest in editing a similar collection of essays, from a diverse lineup of authors, offering different complementary perspectives on the Ten Commandments.
What was the most challenging part of editing this book?
From its earliest proposal, one of the most important aspects of the book for me was that it include contributions from a diverse list of authors. I wanted the chapters to come from writers within the Reform Movement and beyond it, those who work as Jewish professionals and those who don’t. It was a challenge to secure contributions from such a diverse group of authors while still producing a finished book that would be comfortably at home in Reform settings.
What is something new that you personally learned while working on Inscribed? Did any of your own perspectives change?
I learned so much! The best part of my role in editing this book was that it gave me the ability to learn from amazing teachers with extraordinary expertise and insight in areas I had not explored deeply before—philosophy, military ethics, journalism, and so much more. For me, an educational imperative is at the center of Jewish life, and it was a joyful experience to spend so much time with so many marvelous writers and scholars.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
As a literary bloc, the Ten Commandments have endured and remained stubbornly relevant for thousands of years. I don’t think it’s impious to suggest that this is not because these Commandments are especially inspiring; instead, it’s because hundreds of generations have worked energetically to build relevance into the Ten Commandments. The beautiful and provocative writing of Inscribed’s contributing authors shows how this process of meaning-making continues to grow and unfold even in our own day.
Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.
And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.
Let me give you two examples:
Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:
Eloheinu Is our God
Echad Is One.
Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.
I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.
I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.
I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.
Mishkan HaSeder, the new Haggadah from CCAR Press coedited by Rabbi Hara Person and poet Jessica Greenbaum, contains a wealth of poetry in conversation with the seder text. In this preface to the book, Greenbaum explains how poems were selected for inclusion.
Metaphor’s regenerative powers of imagery, expansiveness, and personal connection have singularly sustained the imagination of the Jewish people and enabled us to arrive at this moment. Chaos—our first metaphor, and one we seem in relation to on a daily basis—became separated into harmonious parts to compose our first home, the Garden. We call Shabbat a bride, and during the Yamim Noraim, both the Great Book of Life and the Gates of Heaven are open. Metaphor has carried the Psalms through the ages so that goodness and mercy pursue us the rest of our days—they are always just now on our heels. The image of God, especially, is wholly reliant on metaphor, in the metamorphosing images of clouds, smoke, wind. Our close reading of the parshah continues, over centuries, to mine metaphor and uncover flashes of new truths like mica beneath rocks. Tradition teaches that Talmud is not finished being written until everyone has read it—because our individual sensibilities share in the creation of revelation.
By joining with our imaginations, metaphors write us each into the text; and of all the holidays, Passover’s dynamism wins the metaphor count. We are instructed to relive our ancestors’ enslavement, escape, and deliverance as though it were our own journey—while sitting around a table. How will each of us envision the mitzrayim, the “narrow space” from which we will make our way? And how will each envision a promised land? What signs show us the need to change, and what wonders nurture our faith that we can? The seder plate announces itself as a constellation of symbols and metaphors, and we connect the dots as we do the individual stars, for how it makes up a firmament of directions.
I first felt the organic relationship between poetry and Jewish text when I studied The Torah: A Women’s Commentary with Rabbi Hara Person, one of its editors, long ago. Seeing the text through its interaction with the poems was like being able to see the wind because of the fluttering of leaves. This revelation has led me in my own study and teaching since, and I can’t overstate my good fortune and pleasure from working with Hara here. In choosing poems that might encourage an authentic inhabitance of the seder’s progressions, Hara and I looked for ones that reflected, or countered, the text so that each participant might, then and there, relate candle-lighting, drinking, washing, breaking, telling—and questioning—to their own journey. We hope the poems hold a “bit of Torah,” an opening out of that moment of Passover. For their discerning suggestions toward that Jewish value, I thank Central Synagogue’s adult engagement class, who studied with me from an earlier draft of the Haggadah, test drove the poems at their own seders, and returned with (as usual!) salient and revelatory comments. But positive or negative, our personal responses to poems are ours to have, and huzzah for all responses, because passion reflects our profound sense of aliveness—and defines the authentic to each of us. The seder table allows us to be authentic together.
With the opportunity of co-editing this Haggadah, I thank all the poets, regard-less of their background or ways of identifying, for how they offer Jewish values to me, always: values of Havdalah, as a way to make time and experience distinct; tikkun olam as a response to brokenness and injustice; and turning it and turning it to see new coherence in the very world being considered. If you think of a poem you would prefer to the text, tuck it inside for next year! We invite your imagination, your history, your aspirations to the seder table through these stanzas—which live, as does the Haggadah, by being read and going through our own breath.
Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker who has published three collections of poetry. With Rabbi Hara Person, she is the coeditor of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, now available from CCAR Press.
Jerusalem, Nisan, 5780/April 2020: I’m sitting at my desk, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. In fifty years, when the coronavirus is a distant memory, please God—or perhaps by then all disease will have been wiped off the globe—some readers won’t know what I’m talking about. You do. Many of you, perhaps most, are doing the same thing in this precarious and surreal moment: protecting the preciousness of all human life—yours, your family’s, your neighbor’s—by drawing back from the world outside into the world within the walls of your own home.
The walls of my writing studio are covered with Jerusalem stone. My desk is a rickety home-office model, a put-it-together-yourself wood-simulation item purchased before IKEA was a thing. One wall of the study is lined with Jewish books, mostly siddurim, Torah commentaries, and other books of Jewish wisdom. Half of the bottom shelf is Hebrew-language books, a testament to my continued and only partially successful efforts to learn the holy tongue. The window faces east, my view through a tree-lined alley to a busy street that follows the 1949 armistice agreement line. The Old City is to the north. To pray, I swivel my chair ninety degrees to the left. The art on the wall behind me is Jewish, including a framed, hand-crocheted “Shalom” made by my Grandma Ida z”l, and a blessing for the home purchased with my wife, Ami z”l, too long ago to remember. My window ledge is full of family photos. As of this moment, everyone is healthy. Let it stay that way.
Some of you may have been sick or seriously ill with coronavirus. Some of you might be ill even now as I write or will, God forbid, become ill soon. Others may be grieving the death of a friend, a family member, or dear one. Some of you are walking into harm’s way to serve us: doctors, nurses, health-care professionals, police, fire, public safety, sanitation, food-chain workers, and more, all of the people in vital services. Each one of us is being asked—perhaps required—to consider what gives our lives meaning. What we value. Our connections. Our contributions. Our legacy. The past. The future. This very moment. This precious life. The place in which we encounter the Divine.
This is a book of prayers, poetry, and meditations inspired by divine encounters. The first half of the book draws from divine moments in our sacred texts, mostly Torah, but also the Prophets and the Writings. Written using a modern voice and a contemporary imagination, the text invites you to enter into these holy moments as experienced by our ancestors and to reclaim them as our own. The second half of the book focuses on holy moments in our daily lives, divine encounters that occur simply because we are human beings imbued with divinity. Divine encounters that occur because we’ve been given souls.
This book is a testimony to the preciousness of life. In the first half of the volume, you’ll walk with God in the garden, calling out to Adam and Eve. You’ll stand as witness to the moment of Creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s ladder, and the Golden Calf. You’ll hear the voices of Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother. You’ll leave Egypt, dance with Miriam by the sea, build the Tabernacle, and experience prophecy. You’ll encounter the Divine through experiences of our forebearers.
In the second half of the book, you’ll also be asked—perhaps challenged—to experience the Divine in your daily life. You’ll be asked to imagine flying between two horizons, step inside the light, and ride the river of life. You’ll encounter spiritual vandals. You’ll be asked to find the ethics in your eyes, the ethics in your hands, the ethics in your arms, and the ethics in your heart. You’ll experience the Divine in the poetry of living.
This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer is the third book in a trilogy with This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings and This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. This Grateful Heart focuses on time and seasons, providing prayers and meditations for our days, both the holy and the mundane. This Joyous Soul turns to the siddur, the prayer book, offering alternative readings for our classic liturgy. This Precious Life examines divine encounters in sacred texts and in our daily lives. This Precious Life is intended for personal meditation and communal prayer, as well as religious and spiritual counseling. As a book of meditations, it offers depth and breadth of emotion. As a spiritual guide, it brings intimacy and tenderness, humility and gratitude, supported by a foundation of strength, faith, and hope.
My goal in writing This Precious Life is to open you, the reader, to deeply experiencing moments of divine encounter using the liturgist’s hand and the poet’s eye to illuminate holy connection, to help you uplift your prayers and sing in praise. Along with those lofty ideas, there are practical uses for this volume. Use these offerings in your daily prayers, in writing divrei Torah, and in learning about and discussing the weekly parashah. Clergy and Jewish educators might consider using them as part of adult, teen, and Hebrew school education, as well as in Torah classes, sermons, conversion programs, counseling with congregants, and interfaith dialogue. Most importantly, my hope is that you are inspired to write new prayers in your own voice, based on your experiences of the Divine.
From here, sitting at my desk in Jerusalem, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to know what the state of the world—or the state of our worldview—will be when we return to the world or when you hold this book in your hands. What will happen to our trust, social interactions, the economy, our lives? How will we move through the world, day by day? How will the generation of children who sheltered at home be shaped by these precarious times?
This much is clear: This is a precious life. Your life. My life. Our lives. All precious. May we all live with a grateful heart and a joyous soul, sanctifying this precious life.
Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, was published by CCAR Press in the spring of 2020. In this post, Rabbi Eger shares how the book came to be.
Some rabbis collect their sermons and publish them. They are pearls of wisdom for the ages.
I may yet do that at some point.
But more urgently, I saw the need to center the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout my years of service as a rabbi, I had to create ceremonies and prayers for my community when there were no resources. I was ordained in the late 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when our beloved HUC-JIR still wouldn’t ordain openly LGBTQ+ people as rabbis or cantors. We lived in fear and in the closet. Maybe that is hard to believe now for our many openly LGBTQ+ rabbis and seminarians, but it wasn’t that long ago when we gathered secretly at CCAR Conventions late at night in someone’s room to connect with other queer colleagues.
Over the years, I wrote prayers for Pride Month and National Coming Out Day. I would write invocations and blessings for interfaith gatherings affirming the worth and dignity
of LGBTQ+ people, their families, and people with HIV. I had to invent, create, and imagine an authentic queer Jewish life when there was little liturgy available.
Religion is so often used to shame and hurt LGBTQ+ people. Too much violence and hatred are directed at the LGBTQ+ community in the name of religion. I purposefully write from a different perspective.
I tried to create prayers in a genuine Jewish voice that uplifted, instilling hope and healing. I tried to combat homophobia through prayers and reflections that reinforced the theology that all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. I tried to convey what today we call audacious hospitality, writing naming ceremonies for those transitioning gender, wedding ceremonies before we had any templates, and rituals for coming out. I wrote my first ceremony to celebrate someone coming out as gay in 1986! It was centered around an aliyah to the Torah, as a riff on benching Gomel and a Mi Shebeirach for well-being.
But luckily, over these same three-plus decades, LGBTQ+ Jewish life has grown and blossomed. We have seen tectonic shifts in not just welcoming LGBTQ+ and non-binary Jews home, but embracing queer life and queer Jewish voices.
Often when Gay Pride Month would roll around, many of you, my colleagues, would call or email me to ask for materials for Pride Shabbat. I shared whatever I had created that year. Clearly there was a need for a collection of resources to help communities live out our commitment to be welcoming and embracing places of LGBTQ+ folx. Not one for sitting around, after my time in leadership of the Conference, I knew it was the right moment to collect not only some of own writings, but to invite others to share their poetry, prayer, and passion—centering the voices and experiences of our queer Jewish community.
Mishkan Ga’avah represents some of the collected wisdom, voices, and experiences of Jewish LGBTQ+ people. It is a spiritual resource for both the individual and the community. I hope it inspires others to write creative liturgy and prayers using their own voices. And I hope it will offer comfort, solace, inspiration, and hope to LGBTQ+ people everywhere—a beautiful strand of pearls for all of our Jewish community to wear.
Read the same psalm every day for fifty days? The same one we read last year? Using the same book and the same practice? Yes. Yes. Yes and yes. Get a new notebook or open a new computer file. Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen. But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice (this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).
Why? Because the world has changed. Because the ways we see or hear, experience and reflect on the same words have changed. We know it to be true from our experience, reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle. We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way because of something or someone we encountered or considered. We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer, we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective. And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19, we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.
Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2) Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3) How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4) Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5) How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6) Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8) Who have we abandoned? (27:10) On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12) And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11) When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer? Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7) Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)
The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at www.tedallas.org
As we read numerous times throughout his eponymous book, Jonah flees from his moral responsibility, his sacred calling. When God calls Jonah to bring righteousness to Nineveh, and to save countless lives, he shirks his prophetic duties. When pressed to stand and represent the ideals of faith and repentance, Jonah flees. Why should we continue studying this man and his book? How can he, in his capricious self-centeredness, inspire us to be representatives of peace and understanding?
I’ve thought a lot about Jonah lately amid the tumult that has affected our nation. We, as a country, are suffering greatly. Extreme partisanship, racial divides, and lackadaisical, apathetic leadership have led America down a dark path. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police was a symptom of a greater problem we face—the lack of interest in introspection and the unwillingness to look at the meta-issues our nation struggles with. Intellectual stagnation has taken hold; the race to find consensus in the lowest common denominator has replaced the active search for reconciliation.
As I worked on writing my commentary on the Book of Jonah, I wrestled deeply with its ethical lessons. On the surface, Jonah is the antithesis of what we want in our leaders. His earthly cowardliness seems to stand at odds with his heavenly mission, and his constant deviation from his task shows that, perhaps, he is not up for the job. But this is precisely the brilliance of the Book of Jonah. Out of all the prophets featured in the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is the only one who seems to be like a regular human being. He has limits, he has scars, he has foibles.
And through his failure, we see ourselves. His life is a mirror to our soul.
But also, through Jonah’s failures—and there were many—we see the potential for spiritual growth and healing. During the prophet’s sojourn in the great fish, he reflects in quarantine, in complete darkness, on what must be the lowest moment in his life. The walls are closing in around him (literally, the gills of the fish move in and out at a steady pace, marching against the pressures of the sea), and Jonah seemingly has no options for escape. He has but one tool in his arsenal: he prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. And then he is released to complete his mission. Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh, saving the city and its inhabitants.
As I write in my book: “We have the capacity to improve the world while striving for spiritual fulfillment and further attachment to justice” (page 118). Jonah sought to escape his obligations; we shall embrace them.
At this current, challenging moment, we should pray as Jonah prayed. Our prayer should strengthen our deepest moral resolve to serve as listeners, humble allies, and bold mobilizers. At times of great import, much like what we are witnessing today, we must remove ourselves from the negative forces that bring us down so that we may elevate others. In other words, it seems as if we are to ruminate in great, dark quarantine inside fishes of our own making. Now more than ever, we need to engage and embrace those who are truly hurting. Unlike Jonah, we can charge ahead with empathy and passion. The #BlackLivesMatter movement should rouse us from our spiritual lethargy, galvanizing us to push society forward to end inequality and bigotry.
Let us hear the call and be leaders for positive change.
There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah. This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of theOmer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot.
The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study. While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon, the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition. A different suggestion on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually.
Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise.
Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives.
Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.
It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence.
Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth.
Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration.
 See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”
These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal.
What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness.
The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE.
Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction.
Seems like a happy ending. But not so.
Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.
It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need.
The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential.
These days, witnessing and receiving acts of kindness makes me cry. In this strange time of coronavirus, most of those tears come from witnessing something online. They are gentle tears. Only a few tears at a time. Almost imperceptible to others.
I know these tears. They are the tears that weave joy and suffering
with the holiness of witnessing. The kind of tears that, until now, I’ve
experienced only during Kabbalat Shabbat
when the shaliach tzibbur – the prayer leader – captures the essence of
the Sabbath in the song. To me, the tears themselves are a prayer.
A few days ago, in one of those moments of holy tears, I understood that getting through the COVID-19 isolation will be easier for me if I seek out moments of gratitude. (Here’s my CCAR One Minute of Wonder on gratitude.) But how? I already write a gratitude list every day. Perhaps by sharing my gratitude with others, and reading about the gratitude of others. The idea jumped out as a way to strengthen my own practice of gratitude while simultaneously helping others.
As a result, I launched a new Facebook group, Grateful Heart, Joyous
Soul, Precious Life, which offers the opportunity for members to post about
gratitude in our daily lives. Within a day, more than four hundred people were
on the page posting and reading about each other’s moments of gratitude. To
help her congregants cope, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal
Congregation in London invited her members to join and to share their gratitude
in the Facebook group.
I’m posting a daily “gratitude prompt” to help us all see different ways to be grateful. Gratitude prompts will be wide-ranging—words, music, and images. For example, there will be a song gratitude day in which people are encouraged to post links to their favorite songs. We’ve already had a flower gratitude day, in which people can post photos of beautiful flowers to create an online bouquet. There will be prompts for gratitude for safety, security, family, friends, favorite appliances, favorite memories, and many more.
The name of the page was a blinding flash of the obvious for me. It’s the combination of the titles of my two current CCAR Press books—This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day and This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings—as well as the working title of my next CCAR Press book, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer. Gratitude leads to joy. Joy and gratitude lead to a deeper understanding of the preciousness of each moment of our lives. Grateful Heart. Joyous Soul. Precious Life.
You are invited to join. And you are invited to share the link with your
congregation, as Rabbi Mulstein did.
In the spirit of joy, gratitude, and the preciousness of life, here’s “Prayer
of Gratitude” from This Joyous Soul:
Prayer of Gratitude
Today is a gift,
O my God,
To know Your world,
To receive Your blessings.
Rock of Ages,
Your works surround us,
Daily signs of awe and wonder,
Daily guides to joy and service.
Bless me with hands of strength,
A heart of courage,
A mind of understanding.
Bless me with a voice of praises,
A life of gratitude,
Days filled with hope and love.