Sunday, April 13, 2014

Passover and art history

This is my most recent newspaper column about my trip to Chicago's Art Institute and the paintings I viewed that related directly to Passover coming up Monday evening. I hope you enjoy the read and feel free to give me your comments.
Have a joyous Passover.
Hag Sameah

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dying is part of living.

This is my most recent newspaper column about how not only medical professionals struggle with the way they speak about dying and death to patients but how this is a challenge for our society.Finding the right words is connected to looking deeply into the existential issues of life such as death and dying. I am not so sure we do well in American society towards accepting the meaning of how we die.
Thanks for taking the time to read the column. Your opinions are always appreciated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

HIPPA Privacy laws in the hospital impacts spiritual care of patients

Take a look at this newspaper column I wrote about HIPPA laws for privacy and its relation to pastoral care.
Thanks and have a good read. Your comments are always appreciate.
God bless

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My visit to a Quaker Meeting Service

Here is a recent newspaper column I wrote about my visit to the local Quaker meeting service. I hope you can read this please feel free to offer your comments.
Purim Sameah and Shabbat Shalom

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Golden Calf Story: Controlling our anger. God has a temper too.

Parashat Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
It has been a little while since I experienced a burst of anger. Like most of you, I understand frustration and annoyance and other emotions which can drive a person to lose one’s temper.  Anger is something different. Anger is visceral and we can feel the blood pressure rise and the adrenaline flow. Anger can propel us to actions that often get us into trouble and from which we usually but not always regret.
I experienced the raw emotion of anger in a conversation I had during a meeting this past week without any relation to Hilton Head or the Temple. I was out of town for the day and someone said something to me which triggered unbridled anger as well as hurt feelings. I stood up and could feel the anger swell inside my body. I made a brief comment that I was hurt by comments and then took myself out of the meeting lest I say something inappropriate and hostile to another person.
I left the meeting, got into my car and drove a few miles where I parked next to a store and just calmed down. I took a deep breath and sat inside the car. After about two minutes my phone rang and one of the people in the meeting called me to be in solidarity with me over the inexcusable comments that the other person uttered in my presence to me. As I was venting a bit I started to laugh. Why? I had just realized that I advertised in the Temple tidings that Shabbat morning’s Torah study session was about the story of the Golden Calf and was entitled “How do we deal with anger?” Then I proclaimed, “The Lord sure does work in mysterious ways.” Maybe there was a message for me in this situation. What could it have been?
I could see long before this week’s occurrence that in the Golden Calf story there is an abundance of wrath and anger going in especially in God and Moses too.  Basically God’s anger is in full force in response to the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf and calling it the God of Israel. In fact God is so angry that God says to Moses words to the effect, ‘I am going to wipe them all out and start over with you as the father of the nation.” Remember the Noah story when God exclaimed that he was starting over again by destroying humanity with a flood? We are talking Biblical size retribution by the Holy One against the so-called treasured people.
Yet Moses taught God an important lesson about anger. Notice that in response to God’s outcry Moses says, ““Why are you so upset to send forth your wrath against your people who you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm?  Why let the Egyptians say, ‘So Adonai meant evil when he took them out of Egypt to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth?’ Moses continued to appeal to God, “Turn from your fierce anger and repent of the evil you intend against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel to whom you swore ‘to give them the land and the covenant!’ Moses didn’t meet God head on with anger or aggression, but, with the moral imperative of a covenantal promise God had made and repeated many times in the Torah. Moses went around the anger rather than challenge it. Moses also reminded God of his own self interest that God would become totally discredited to the Egyptians by destroying the Israelites. Ultimately God’s response was that God pulled back his wrath from destroying the people and God calmed down. It is true that after Moses lost his temper and threw down the original Ten Commandments, God created an earthquake which swallowed up all those who chose to still worship the Golden Calf. It was destructive but not nearly as catastrophic as it could have been had God carried out his original threat.
It’s not easy to assuage someone from their anger in the moment it is ignited. Even the Rabbis teach that one should not try to calm someone down in the midst of their anger or rage. In other words if a temper flares the best advice is to let the person vent and then afterwards try to work with them. Hopefully the person can, after the initial outburst of wrath, be able to listen to reason. Secondly Moses succeeded at pointing out to God the consequences of his actions of breaking his own promise and being diminished in front of Egypt.
I am not saying that God did not have the right to be furious with us nor Moses was not justified in speaking so directly to God. It was just that Moses knew how to speak to the issues God was most concerned about which enabled god to retract his threat of national annihilation.

Being angry is not a sin. Raging at someone particularly in front of another person can be a sin especially if we end up embarrassing the person in front of others who witness the behavior. We may have been wronged but spewing nasty invectives against another in public does not enhance one’s standing. Controlling one’s emotions is not easy but knowing how to remove oneself from the situation before it escalates is a constructive strategy. It is exactly what I did knowing full well that had I remained in the meeting I was likely to say something equally inappropriate and diminish myself.
Dissuading someone from pouring their anger out in normal circumstances is counter to what Judaism teaches about getting a hold of one’s emotions. Judaism, through the Mussar school of thought, is all about how to channel one’s emotions in a constructive and godly way. Yet there are legitimate times when one is allowed to be angry but that does not automatically mean that being angry and sharing it in a situation justifies eviscerating someone else even if they deserve it.
There is a time to share anger with another and hopefully it can be done in private and respectful ways rather than as diatribe or a rant against others. At the same time it is important to learn how to remove oneself from the situation of exploding anger before the damage done by the anger outweighs the damage done by the original actions that precipitated the anger in the first place. Learning how to release anger before it unleashes itself is a religious and spiritual challenge. Taking the high road is hard and painful but at the end of the day it is usually the best way to go.
Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling is the first best step. Pausing before the ready fire and aim syndrome takes over is the next best strategy. Saying how we feel and acknowledging the hurt is not a sign of weakness. Instead it is the most effective way to get the message across to the other person how hurtful their comments were rather than trying to attack them. Releasing the anger is hard but it is in the moral and spiritual sense a good way not to get pulled into the fray.

In my case the individual wrote me an apology and I accepted. I hope we can get back on track to a good relationship which we had before. God learned to release his anger too and ultimately spared the Israelites from this most heinous of sins idolatry. In fact the Talmud is very much aware of God’s ability to experience anger when we read, “Does god pray?” “What is God’s prayer?” God says, I pray that my evil inclination does not over take me.” In other words God is trying to say, ‘I pray that I do not lose my temper over the children of Israel.’

Does attendance at a house of worship services determine who is very religious?

Here is my most recent newspaper column commenting on the recent Gallop poll rating the most and least religious states in the U.S. based upon how often people attend services.
Thanks for taking the time to read it. Comments are always welcome.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Davar Torah: Torah Portion Tzaveh book of Exodus 28. The meaning of light in the Eternal Light and art history

Sermon on Parashat Tzaveh Exodus.
I remember when I was traveling abroad as a teenager of 14 years old with my parents. We visited the Rijks museum in Amsterdam, Holland. It was my second trip to Europe and I was fascinated with the world of European culture. I didn't know anything about the great art works of Western civilization when my parents dragged me into the museum. As I was wondering around gazing at the multitude of paintings, I came upon one painting that struck me as a fascinating painting. I was captivated by it. I must have stared at it for quite awhile. It was Rembrandt's’ famous painting The Night Watch. The one aspect which drew me into the painting as none had before was Rembrandt's’ use of light. I was fascinated by the way the light in the painting was subtle but in fact dominated the entire work.  In fact that technique of using light in the painting made it one of the most famous classic paintings of Western Art history. That was the first time I learned that a central aspect in the art of painting was about how to use light.  Decades later I took from that experience a long standing appreciation for the challenge of using light not only in painting but in creative writing as well.
No wonder I felt a kinship with the Torah portion this week which in part focuses on the theme of light when the Israelites are constructing their first sanctuary which they called the Mishkan or Tabernacle. The portion speaks about the power of the Eternal light that burns all the time whether the Tabernacle is in use or not. It represents the eternal presence of God in the religious and ritual life of communal worship and in the spirit of the people creating this new faith tradition.
What does that light mean to us today? How can the Ner Tamid speak to us as a religious community as we too derive spiritual growth from the rich symbols inside this sanctuary? As it is with appreciating a painting like the Night Watch much of our benefit comes from our willingness to use our imagination. In the case of the Torah our imagination was supposed to be focused not only the object as art but as a symbol of religious enlightenment.
In chapter 28 of Exodus, God says to Moses, “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is over the Pact to burn from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages”(28:20).
The history of this light begins with it’s purpose as lighting up the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem which was called the Holy of Holies. This perpetual light was originally referred to as Ner  maaravi or western light since the Holy of Holies was west of it. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. the menorah was taken to Rome as war booty. It was then that synagogues began the custom of installing a Ner Tamid a perpetual light.  This light was also opposite the ark which was on the western wall but was eventually moved to be above the ark. This is of course the design we see today in a synagogues. Its purpose is well known as the representation of the God’s presence in this sanctuary.
To get an even more vivid picture of that menorah one can go to Rome today and see the ancient and famous Arch of Titus along the via Roma with the south panels depicting the Temple menorah and other ornaments from the Temple which are carved into the panels. This famous arch was the model of the Arch de Triumph in the 19th century constructed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Rather than a symbol of Roman conquest the Jewish community commemorated it as the presence of God everywhere most particularly in the synagogue.  From that time our sages used the imagery of light to provide our people hope in dark and more perilous times. In some midrashim they interpreted this light to be not for God but for us. As Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani in the Talmud said, “For God said, “The light is for you and not for me. I do not need the light.” Other sages compared the eternal light as a reminder for Torah study.
In one midrash based upon a verse in Proverbs “For the commandment is a lamp” the sages said, “Just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so he who gives for a worthy cause does not make a hole in his own pocket.  How do we know this? For a commandment is a lamp and Torah a light. (Exodus Rabbah) The point is that the kindling of the lamp is a symbol for the performance of a good deed. The lamp connects all of us to the idea that when we do good deeds we share it with others. The light one of us shares of our own good fortune does not diminish our own good fortune.
In ancient times it was the priest who symbolically represented the lamp for the entire Jewish people when he officiated in the Temple service in Jerusalem. Now we can all be the lamp that shares the light of the Eternal to the rest of the world.
If we focus our attention upon our Ner Tamid we can see that the light itself is small and modest. Yet that does not mean it is not a powerful symbol of who we are and the mitzvoth God wants us to fulfill. Like the light in Rembrandt’s the Night watch it too is modest but also powerful in his painting.
Judaism is all about sharing our blessings and good works with our fellow neighbor. Our faith teaches us to open our eyes and see our purpose in the world not just for our benefit but for the well being of all. Moreover we are all connected even though we live as individuals since the calling of our prophets was to join into a greater community of well being through study of sacred texts, communal prayer, and good deeds. This is what our religion stresses.
As the 14th century poet  Yedaiah ben Abraham  Bedersi wrote in his poem Behinat Olam: The Torah and human beings combined comprise the Lamp of God on earth. The Torah is the flame issuing from the flash of Him that dwells in the heavens.  Human kind,(comprising body and soul), is the torch that draws light from it. His back is the twinning wick and his soul-the pure olive oil.  Through their intertwining and fusion (torch and flame) the whole house becomes filled with light.”
We need to stop and focus on this powerful symbol of the Ner tamid to derive full benefit of its meaning for us as we prepare for prayer and as we reflect upon the religious experience in communal worship. Rembrandt’s the Night Watch used the contrasts of light and darkness . Even though it is a military painting it is the little girl in the painting which is the focus of the light. We too contrast the light and darkness in our lives. It is up to us find light out of darkness which is exactly what the Ner Tamid does for us. Are we all not high priests today who if we are open to the rich symbolism of the Eternal Light can kindle it for each of us using it to open our spirits to the potential for making a difference in our spirits inside this sanctuary and which will carry with us into the world we live in.