Elul

The Voice

Rabbi Meir would say: One person is different from another in three ways: in voice, in appearance, and in thought.
— BT Sanhedrin 38a

After a recent class, a psychiatrist shared a study with me about the power of the voice in offering consolation. The study compared the voice of a parent over the phone with the voice of a parent face-to-face and then with texting or other non-audial forms of communication. A parent’s voice over the phone or in person had virtually the same calming impact, but the “voice” of a parent in a text did not. The voice is a powerful mechanism in communication, an often-overlooked tool in today’s technological advancement, where the quick text has replaced the distinctiveness of the human voice.

We know from the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir that the voice is one of the hallmarks of a person. We even have an interesting biblical prooftext to this effect in a complex and troubling story. In Genesis, Jacob dresses like his brother but does not succeed in totally fooling his father. He got close to Isaac only to hear these terrifying words: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” (Genesis 27:22). The brothers were non-identical twins who looked different and sounded different from each other.

In the journal Psychological Science, researcher Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University attempted to show that a person’s voice can also affect his or her sense of confidence and authority. Ko was inspired to study this by Margaret Thatcher, who apparently had extensive voice coaching to make her sound more powerful and in control. As Ko said in an article about his research: “Our findings suggest that whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children, haggling between a car salesman and customer, or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions.” In his study, students assigned to high-power roles were higher in pitch and more monotone than those assigned to less authoritative roles. Fascinating.

This brings us to a voice we welcome back this week in the Jewish calendar: the voice of the shofar that is blown each morning in the Hebrew month of Elul leading up to our Days of Awe. The sound connects us to millennia of spiritual noise and to our own unarticulated cries as we begin this season of repentance and introspection: “Then have the shofar sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land,” (Exodus 19:19). We affirm this one book later: “Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the shofar throughout your land,” (Lev. 25:9).

Interestingly, the text of the blessing we make as part of our formal liturgy is not to blow the shofar but to listen, and not just to listen to the shofar but “to listen to the voice of the shofar:” “Blessed are you Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who commands us to listen to the voice of the shofar.”  The text intimates that the instrument has a voice. So whose voice is it?

In the Abraham narratives where the first shofar appears after the binding of Isaac, we could imagine it being the voice of the weeping father, the frightened son or the grieving, shocked mother. Looking later, it may be the voice of God at Sinai, where another shofar was blown. A midrash links these two shofarot, suggesting that the voice of personal covenant in a Genesis story playfully morphs into the voice of collective covenant in Exodus. The sound of that covenant? It’s the shofar. It sounds human but is not human; it is a wail, a sharp cry, the repeated intakes of breathlessness that represents who we are when we confront our rawest selves.

There is an argument in the Talmud about the legal status of someone who hears a shofar that is blown in a pit or a cave (BT Rosh Hashana 27b). If a person hears the sound bouncing off the walls of an enclosed space, has he or she fulfilled the requirements of the mitzva on Rosh Hashana? Later, rabbinic conclusions codify the law: the reverberations of the shofar are not the shofar. They are the echo sounds, an imitation of the real thing but far from the real thing. It’s only if the listener hears the sound of the shofar directly and in an unmediated way that the mitzvah has been observed.

The shofar reminds us that the piercing, truly human voice is the only real voice. A text is not a voice. An e-mail is not a voice. An unfulfilled good intention is not a voice. Only a voice is a voice. Someone may need your voice right now. You may need the voice of someone else. Nothing less will do.

Shabbat Shalom

To Love Again on Rosh Hashana

...Turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God.
— Jeremiah 31:18

In the haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashana -Jeremiah 31:2-20 - we enter Jeremiah's complex universe of exile and its travails. Yet we only read half of a 40 verse chapter. As a result, we miss out on verses that seem a clear fit for the season, like this one: "For I will be their God and they will be my people" (31:33) or "For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more" (31:34). Clearly the sages of old picked this text and parsed it with a specific goal in mind, namely that we absorb certain prophetic lessons.
 
Rabbi Binny Lau, in his wonderful book Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet contends that Jeremiah believed it was time for the divided nation of the Jews  - Judah and Samaria - to come together, the children of Rachel and Leah to be re-united. To accomplish this he must bring the Northern tribes, represented by Ephraim, back into the fold. Rabbi Lau depicts Jeremiah as a diplomat of sorts who shuttled between the two places in his attempt to fix the breech. "Like a professional mediator conducting political negotiations, flitting back and forth between the parties, Jeremiah tries to present each one with what it wants to hear, what it stands to gain."
 
In our chapter, we focus on the Northern tribes. Jeremiah wanted to entice these tribes back so he engages in a three-pronged seduction: the appeal of affection, happiness and nostalgia:


"And with a great love I have loved you, so I have drawn you close to Me tenderly. I will rebuild you, My maiden Israel, and you will be built; you will again play your tambourine and go out and dance with joy. You will again pant and enjoy the fruit. For the day will come when watchmen will shout from the hills of Ephraim, 'Come let us go up to Zion, to the Lord, our God'" (31:2-5)
 

If you come back, you will return to our romance, to innocence, to fiscal security. Most importantly, if you return, you will remove the distance that has set in between the people and their God. In order to accomplish this, Jeremiah recalled a favoritism for Ephraim and called him a  treasured son. He could never get away with saying the same thing in Yehuda. Such a memory would only cause additional strife, but to Ephraim, it is a welcome tease, as the prophet recalled the intensity of love and high regard Ephraim once enjoyed. Wouldn't Ephraim, Jeremiah agues, want to experience all of these feelings again?
 
Jeremiah also mentioned Ephraim's weeping grandmother, Rachel. If nostalgia fails, try guilt. Look at your grandmother crying on the border, waiting for you to come back. These tears produce self-reflection, and Jeremiah conjured Ephraim's response. "Chastise me, and I will be chastised, like an untrained calf; turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God" (31:18). In Hosea, Ephraim is called a trained calf, but here Jeremiah calls him an untrained calf (10:11). The trained calf is a precocious image. In the metaphor, a young and arrogant calf thinks he can handle a harness on his own. Jeremiah wanted to emphasize community, that we cannot live alone, that we bear responsibility collectively, that we experience joy and grief together. He tried to weaken Ephraim's hard shell by making him into a calf that is unsteady on his feet, who is open to guidance, to chastisement, to the petition of the prophet.
 
By creating the picture of a desirable future, Jeremiah began with a grand dream of God's love, of Israel's influence over the nations, of a people finally reunited and able to heal the wounds of fracture. But to achieve these lofty goals, those who seem impenetrable have to crack open. The promise of geographic return can only work with the emotional and spiritual desire to return. In his JPS commentary, scholar Michael Fishbane also alerts us to one of the most touching repeated words in this haftarah. It appears four times in these twenty verse, and it is a word of only three Hebrew letters: O-D, again. We read it in verses four and five, in twelve and twenty. Again you will take up timbrels...Again you will plant vineyards...They shall never languish again...My thoughts will dwell on him (Ephraim) again...
 
Jeremiah reminds us that life and love go through cycles of intimacy and distance. In times of distance, we cannot imagine that there ever was affection and joy. In times of heady romance, we can never imagine despair and enmity. Jeremiah uses the word "od" to remind Ephraim that he is in a low part of a cycle that can once again turn but only if he is ready to return, if he wants the picture that Jeremiah created for him.
 
Now perhaps it is more clear why Jeremiah 31 is particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashana. Jewish time works in a spiral, a cycle that brings us back each year through holidays and seasons that demand different emotions. As we enter the Elul and Tishrei cycle, we may become aware of a gnawing distance, of being unprepared, of feeling unworthy. We may have Ephraim's hard and impenetrable shell and need the moving prayers of these days to crack us open. We may experience, nationally, a sense of our fractured existence as a people and need to remind ourselves of the obligation of togetherness. We may be far away when God beckons us to come closer. In that closeness, we will dance, we will raise our instruments, we will experience joy. We will celebrate.

And we will do all of this together. Again.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Stay, Don't Stray

“Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].”
— Maimonides, Laws of Character, 6:7.

"I wish I had never seen that list," was the way a woman shared a difficult moral dilemma with me. She was referring to a list of married people who had signed on to the website Ashley Madison searching for affairs. When the site was hacked, names spilled out into public view. Circulating among her peer group, was not the name of one but the name of two husbands of friends in her circle. What should she do?

Before I had the chance to respond, she wrote back saying that she could not sit quietly knowing that a close friend's husband was on the list. She had a troubling job in front of her, one that many of us might not approach with her bravery. "I grappled with reaching out to her directly but decided I would first let him know that our community was aware that he was on this list, and it was just a matter of time before his wife found out.  I just spoke with him, and it was very tough and awkward."

The husband sounded surprised that the list was making the rounds and shared that registering was more of a curiosity than anything else. Yet this courageous woman who outed him to himself concluded that he must have been very curious because he had registered repeatedly over a year. He did commit to speak to his wife. With a lot of people in the know, he could not escape the pressure of the goldfish bowl approach.

"I wish I had never seen that list" is an understandable response and yet had she not seen the list, she may not have taken the first big step in helping a couple salvage a marriage. Others perhaps saw the same list, experienced shock but held back. I have taught many people who confessed that a friend or colleague was involved in an extra-marital affair, and they did nothing.

The medieval scholar Maimonides writes cogently of the need to serve as a moral insurance policy for each other. "It is a mitzva for a person who sees that his fellow Jew has sinned or is following an improper path [to attempt] to correct his behavior and to inform him that he is causing himself a loss by his evil deeds as [Leviticus 19:17] states: 'You shall surely admonish your friend.' He advises that this needs to take place privately and softly with the assurance that this needs to be done for his or her own good. Maimonides even advocates very harsh critique if the person refuses to listen. In situations of addiction, immorality and potentially life-threatening behavior, sometimes a harsh approach is the only one that will get through. Maimonides concludes this law with the quote above: "Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners]."

Many years ago at a retreat, I was teaching this law in an entirely different context, and a young woman asked to speak with me after class. She confided that a close friend had shared with her that she had begun an affair with a married man. This woman was married herself and had two young children. The woman who approached me was concerned that if she had a strained conversation with the friend about how wrong her behavior was, she would lose an old, close friend. I listened carefully, appreciating the emotional difficulty of her situation. I asked her one question, "What's more important, her marriage or your friendship?" She continued to discuss the friendship, and I asked her the same question again because we both knew the answer.

With all of the moralizing that goes on in our community, adultery is still the "quiet" transgression many are afraid to address outright. But it is the most fundamental breach and betrayal of the fabric of family, integrity and trust - the very foundations of our faith, as we read in Hosea, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in unfailing love and compassion." Our relationship with God and with the person we marry must be one of righteousness and justice, love and compassion.

Ashley Madison's motto is "Life is short. Have an affair." Our motto: "Life is short. Commit to a life of trust and meaning."

Life is too short to hurt the people we care about. Be brave. Protect the sanctity of the relationships that matter. Be a good friend. And if you are the one contemplating an affair or in the midst of a relationship that will break your partner's heart, it's the season of repentance and forgiveness. It may not be too late to save the most important relationship of your life.

Shabbat Shalom

Take the 30 day Challenge

May it be Your will, God, our God and the God of our ancestors, to renew this month for us for goodness and blessing.
— Blessing for the New Month

Let me introduce you to a new calendar. In the United States, there is National Mentoring Month (January), Black History Month (February), National Nutrition Month March, and Jazz Appreciation Month (April) and - don't feel left out - Jewish American Heritage Month (May). Towards the end of the year in November there is National Bully Prevention Month (November) and in between, every month is "decorated" with ways to create and sustain an interest in history, arts and medicine.         

A month is long enough to deepen a commitment and tweak a habit but not so long that it feels impossible. This might explain the unbelievable popularity of National Novel Writing Month (November), where writers and aspiring authors try to write an entire novel in a month and have chat rooms, get-togethers and coffee house challenges to inspire themselves and get support from each other. The idea is to immerse oneself long enough to create discipline and order through the formation of a supportive community.

 Does this work? It certainly does for many people because of what we are learning about the nature of habit. A number of books have come out in the past few years on habits and how to change them and have described habit as a muscle that must be activated, challenged and not overworked within a framework of time. "Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped." These are the words of Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.He writes that, "Willpower isn't just a skill. It's a muscle, like the muscles in your arms and legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things." If you are careful, you can engineer new habits and rid yourselves of bad habits as long as you recognize that this requires a lot of stamina and determination and you can't change too much at one time or you will weaken the good habit muscle.

In Jewish law, when people make a commitment to do something or take a vow but do not specify a time, the timeframe is assumed to be thirty days. We appreciate that people make commitments to force themselves to be what they want to be but need that extra push. We also acknowledge that when people want to better themselves, they should not be paralyzed or imprisoned by that challenge. We ask them to take it one day at a time and assume that a month may be just long enough to actualize this better self.         

Perhaps that explains why each month, when we say the blessing over the new month the Shabbat before the Hebrew month begins, there is almost always a sense of anticipation and newness in any congregation. You can hear a ripple of enthusiasm and hopefulness. The prayer itself was composed by Rav, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, close to two thousand years ago. It is mentioned in the Talmud [BT Brakhot 16b]. Rav actually said it every day, perhaps believing, - like our modern writers on habit - that daily affirmations of what you really want to accomplish spiritually are the best way to get you there.          

In the prayer we ask God for long life, peace, goodness, blessing, sustenance, bodily strength, a fear of heaven and sin, a life without shame or disgrace, one of prosperity and honor, one graced by a love of Torah and where our most heartfelt wishes are fulfilled. The entire congregation sings loudly of its desires for "life and peace, happiness and rejoicing, deliverance and consolation." And then we say a rousing "Amen" and hope that the month ahead delivers on these great expectations.

This past week, we celebrated the new month of Elul, the time leading up to our Days of Awe and personal transformation. Let's make it easier to improve ourselves by committing to a 30-day habit change in this sacred month: the Elul Challenge. Make it small. Make it do-able. Make it stick. As Duhigg says of his research, "Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything." Showing yourself you can change in one area gave people the motivation and inspiration to change other bad habits into good habits.

 And if it helps you to articulate what it is you want to change, drop me a line and let me know how you'll be challenging yourself and we'll support each other through the month. Take the Elul Challenge. There's no better time on the Jewish calendar than now. May the Force be with you.

Shabbat Shalom