Friday, July 24, 2009

Visions and Visionaries

Yesterday morning I was watching The Today show as I got ready for work. Meredith Viera was interviewing Susan Boyle, the famous Britain’s Got Talent contestant who has been all over the news this summer. For those of you without a television or internet access, Susan Boyle walked on to the Britain’s Got Talent microphone and endured eye-rolling and taunting by the judges because of her frumpy looks and socially awkward comments. Then she began to sing. Her stunning, powerful voice filled the theater and immediately brought the audience to their feet. Famous naysayer Simon Cowell stared open-mouthed and teary-eyed as she belted from Les Miserables, “I Dreamed A Dream.”

Immediately Susan Boyle was catapulted into super-stardom. The YouTube video of her performance got over 3 million hits in one day. It has since gotten ten times that many. Though she ultimately lost the television program’s competition, it takes a Goodsearch to find out the name of the winner. It is Susan Boyle who we remember, and who we most certainly had not heard the last of.

The coincidence of her song choice, “I Dreamed A Dream” has not been lost on those who cover her story. Her dream was to sing, and sing she did. Perhaps this is the very reason for her popularity. That a person can tap into a talent so special that physical appearances, social ability, and mental ability melt away into inconsequential trivialities. All that matters is doing what she does best. She had a vision and worked to make it a success.

Very few of us have the vision to accomplish all of our dreams. We may be successful and happy, yet there is still the possibility there is something we still want. One of the best ways to accomplish our goals is to envision them already completed. We can close our eyes and see the health, wealth, family, happiness, whatever it is that we feel we desire. Sometimes our vision is out of focus and we need meditation and prayer to pull ourselves back together. Some of us are better at having the visions than others.

In Hebrew the word for vision is chazon. We find it in this week’s Haftarah, from the beginning of the book of Isaiah: Chazon Yishayahu ben Amotz, asher chazzan al yehuda v’yerushalayim. “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, which he envisioned about Judah and Jerusalem.” This Saturday is called Shabbat Chazon, in reference to the first word of the Haftarah. Typically the Haftarah will point to an element of the Torah portion. A word or a theme from the Parashah will be reflected in the Haftarah selection, allowing us to connect the later parts of the Bible to the weekly Torah reading. This week, however, the Haftarah is tied to the calendar, the last of three Haftarot of rebuke leading up to Tisha B’av this coming Thursday.

Isaiah alternates between harsh scolding of the Israelites’ behavior and compassionate consoling and reminding that if they change their ways, his destructive prophesies will not come true. In Isaiah 1:18, the prophet offers a deal with Israel:

"Come, let us reach an understanding, declares the Lord.
Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece."

In other words, no matter how bad it gets, no matter what we have done or what situation we find ourselves in, we can always make it better and succeed. Isaiah is referring specifically to the sins of Israel. Crimson is the color of blood and reminds us of the evil we do, the harm we do to others. Turning our deeds snow-white is absolution. When we do good, good things happen.
Isaiah is talking about the major sins of Judah, especially giving in to the idolatrous practices of their neighbors. But the concept holds true for lesser things in our lives, too. If we can purify our thoughts and our actions, envision our lives the way we want them to be and behave in a way that will get us there, our visions will be realized just as easily as red dyed wool can become like fleece.

Perhaps what we need now is not a vision of doom and gloom. Not a vision of cause and effect theology. What we need is a vision of optimism. In Yiddish, the term alle mailis refers to all the best that life has to offer. When a person has alle mailis, they have looks, brains, and talent all rolled in to one with the added bonus of loving family and friends. When we envision all these things for ourselves, it is the first step in making our vision a reality.

May all our positive visions this week come true.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Pre-Shabbat Thought


“The most profound change came when I turned off the TV. That suddenly transformed the whole Shabbat experience. It wasn’t about the electricity; it had more to do with the noise, the intrusion of the mundane into the sacred.”
“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
“No soup for you!”
“How you doin’?”
“To the moon, Alice!”
“Say goodnight, Gracie!”

Surely at least one of these popular TV catch phrases is familiar to you. Television informs our world. It is one of our major sources of information and entertainment. When I was in Religious School in Cincinnati, it was impossible to participate in conversations on Sunday mornings unless you had seen the previous evening’s Saturday Night Live. Thursday nights were dedicated to The Cosby Show and Family Ties (and if the President was on, it would ruin the whole evening). We couldn’t leave our Tuesday night dinners at Grandma and Grandpa’s house until after we had all watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! Before DVR’s, we would drive ourselves crazy making sure we were in front of the TV at the right time.

In the movie The Princess Bride, the narrator tells his grandson at the beginning, “When I was your age, television was called books!” When the rabbis of the Talmud were prescribing rules about keeping Shabbat (including the 36 categories of forbidden work), they had no idea what television was. They didn’t even know radio, electricity, or the printing press. Life was work and study. Families gathered around a table and listened to a wise master instead of staring at an electronic box for hours on end. To forego work on Shabbat provided an opportunity to focus more on reading our beloved texts.

Summer is a great opportunity to catch up on reading. We do it at the beach, at parks, and in bed at night. (It doesn’t hurt that most of our TV shows are on summer hiatus.) This week, in the spirit of both Shabbat and summer, I have two suggestions. First, spend a little extra time reading this Shabbat. Read with your family or friends, join a book club, or just pour a cold drink and relax with a book in your favorite spot. Second, let us know what you’re reading. I would love to learn from your suggestions, and I would be glad to share. Shabbat Shalom, and happy reading!

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Pre-Shabbat Thought

From the Union for Reform Judaism's, "Gift of Shabbat" Deck of cards:


“I differentiate Shabbat by keeping kosher: no milk and meat together, no otherwise forbidden foods, paper plates, etc.”
I am a “foodie,” or as much of one as a pescetarian can be. I love to cook and to eat. I watch Food Network and listen to The Splendid Table. I adore entertaining and cooking for family and friends. Food is very much a part of my physical and spiritual nourishment. (I’m even the one who typically comes home from a day at the office and cooks for my family.)

Cooking can be a chore, but it can be incredibly relaxing. The rhythm of the knife going through the vegetables, the creative nature of putting together a meal, and the soothing kitchen sounds of bubbling pots and clinking spoons can put me into a Zen-like state. Cooking before Shabbat dinner is even more special. Every Shabbat Natalie, the boys, and I gather around our kitchen table and recite the blessings over the candles, the kids, the wine, and the meal before we eat.

Food is eaten. A meal is experienced. The Shabbat meal is a special, shared experience. In our home, we don’t eat leftovers or throw together sandwiches. We spend time talking about what we want. We think about what foods go well together, what we have not had in a while, and whether I have time to make something as fancy as what I envision. Whatever ends up on the table is made with love and care, which is what the Shabbat meal is all about.

May your Shabbat meal bring you closer to the ones you love this week and always.

Shabbat Shalom!