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A Suggestion for Your Celebration Consideration

Celebrating Wisdom

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

Let me get directly to the point. I would like to suggest a new ritual for you to consider.

It will need some adapting to your particular religious tradition (or lack thereof), but that is okay. I can’t do everything!

As we move to the end of May, the Jewish community will celebrate one of its major festivals, Shavuot. The agricultural origins of this ancient festival lie in the fact that it was the gathering of “first fruits.” Along the way, the historical aspect of the giving and receiving of the Torah was added to the festival’s profile.

I am not concerned with those interpretations here. The festival gets less attention (and knowledge) than the other major festivals in our year and pales when compared to the recently observed Passover. Most Jews today associate the holiday with the ceremony of Confirmation, at which teens affirm their allegiance to Jewish tradition and faith. This comes a few years after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, usually at around 16. It is a very important celebration.

Yet, it came to me that there is another way that this festival can be interpreted. The receiving of the Torah implies the gathering of wisdom. Why not create a ceremony in your synagogue, church, mosque, or spiritual gathering place that celebrates the acquisition of wisdom. I am talking about real wisdom. Not book knowledge, but the wisdom that each of us have after living four or five or six or more decades of life. I would bet that you, at 50, 60, or 70 look at things a lot differently than you did at 13, 16, or 36! Why not institutionalize a ceremony that celebrates the gift of life, recognizes that we have lived, and looks forward to many more years of life and wisdom?

Now, lest you think this is all based on fantasy (not that there is anything wrong with that), let me introduce you to the ceremony of Simchat Chochma, which is Hebrew for the celebration or rejoicing of wisdom. Such a ceremony exists and has been celebrated by people in synagogues around North America in recent years. It has been more private than public, and that is why I am suggesting that each religious tradition takes on this idea and shapes it to its own tradition.

The ceremony can involve the use of classic symbols like water, candles, flowers, and fruit. There is no standard ritual yet in operation. The ritual that I am referring to can be found in a book that discusses how congregations can proactively address the longevity revolution before us (To Honor and Respect, URJ Press, Part of the liturgy used by the woman who celebrated this includes these very wonderful words as prayer: “As today I celebrate my life’s continual unfolding, I am awestruck by the wonder of my being. And so I pray that kindness and compassion may be on my lips, that strength and courage may be with me in my comings and goings, and that I may continue to learn from and to teach those dear to me.”

Let me suggest that the time is right for religious institutions to celebrate the wisdom our generation has gained from the living of our life and to recognize the value of one’s life experience.

I would love to know your reaction to this suggestion and if your religious community would be open to such a new idea.


A Time for New Beginnings

Leaving “pediatric” religion behind

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

The Jewish calendar cycle is a fascinating one. It leaves little time for relaxation. The community has just finished the powerful High Holiday experience, and a mere five days after Yom Kippur, we are focused on a week-long festival of Sukkot, which points us to our relationship with nature and reminds us, as we dwell in temporary “booths,” of the fragility of life itself. The festival ends with a celebration of the Torah and is marked by the fact that we begin to read the scroll again.

Every year we do this. We end Deuteronomy and immediately begin with the story of creation in Genesis.

There is great symbolism in this for our generation. This ritual tells us, quite literally, that we grow every year. We are never the same person from one year to the next, and the possibility to learn or experience something new is always present. In fact, to be fully engaged as human beings, we must be open to the experience of the new. We read the same stories every year, but more often than not, we look at them a little differently. No doubt something has happened in the past year that has changed us. We are, in a sense, recreated, and see with different eyes. It is empowering to consider that an entire religious tradition gives us permission to recreate ourselves every year and encourages us to change and grow and search.

This idea of searching for the new seems to be growing more powerful. In recent years, as I have been doing workshops and programs for my work, I have encountered increasing numbers of baby boomers who seem to be unsettled in their own spiritual skin. They are seeking some sense of purpose, some redefinition of what it means to be a member of a religious community. They wonder, increasingly, what all of that means. Of course, “the search” is a classic religious motif. That makes it all the more important when we realize that this idea of, at a certain age, a growing need to explore new ideas and new types of religious expression is characteristic of so many classic figures. Indeed, one can make the argument that from doubt can spring a new type of spiritual strength, a more adult or mature spirituality that speaks to the needs and contingencies of modern life. There is a time to put “pediatric” religion aside. That time, it seems, is now.

And what, in this season of renewed creation, are we searching for? A good insight into that can be gleaned from a wonderful essay by Rabbi Jack Bemporad in a collection of articles drawn from the journal Parabola. Rabbi Bemporad edited this collection in a book called The Inner Journey. In the essay, Bemporad notes that people are in search of reassurance that life will be secure and recognition that our life has meaning and a sense of connectedness, not only to other people, but also to some transcendent mystery.

Reassurance, recognition, and connectedness seem to be three good points to focus our own sense of search.

The temporal and fragile nature of all of this is also symbolized by the sukkah. These symbols remind us that our search for redefinition or change or growth may not be easy and may have to encounter storms of doubt and winds of uncertainty. Yet, do we really have a choice? Nothing stays the same; everything does change.

One of the great messages of this season for the Jewish community (a message often ignored, by the way) is that we are all part of a continuous, ever-changing cycle. To not change is to die, and that is a grievous sin. The death of one’s spirit or soul is a tragic thing to behold. We are given the gift of growth and the freedom to search for our own definition of the sacred in our life. This is very exciting and empowering on the one hand—and frightening and challenging on the other. I hope to continue to explore some of this tension in upcoming articles.

In the meantime, shalom.

Choosing Life, Part 2

The shofar calls, but…

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

The second half of September sees the global Jewish community assembled to welcome the New Year of 5770. It is a time of introspection and contemplation. It is also a time for renewal and re-visioning.

One of the most powerful symbols of the New Year period is the ram’s horn, or shofar. A series of powerful blasts highlight the New Year celebration of Rosh Hoshonnah, and a long, slow sound brings the 10-day period to a close as the sun sets on Yom Kippur. This is a season when we are called upon to literally assess who we are, to put our spiritual lives in order, and to reflect on what we wish for the coming year. The prayers of the services are powerful, and the music is stirring. The readings from the Torah are designed to raise significant questions about life and our relationships to God and our fellow human beings. All in all, it is a season that calls on us to again, choose life!

But do we listen?

Here is a little prayer-wish for all of us on this season. I include myself, for this season finds me at my own spiritual crossroads. As the New Year begins, I, along with many of my generation, am quite aware that things are changing. We are gradually accepting, or at least acknowledging, our aging. We are at a stage when we are trying to figure out, really, what these next years will be, what they will mean, and how we will make sense of them and our place in them. This year, the shofar will call us to awaken our souls, and we wonder, to what?

One of my favorite readings during the season is from the book of Deuteronomy. This is the last of the five books that make up the Torah. The reading comes from the 29th and 30th chapter of the book and contains the phrase that is the basis of much of Jewish theology and civilization: “Choose life.”

This often-quoted phrase is the message for us. The shofar will call us to worship and remind us of the infinite possibilities for life that rests within each of us. This is a key message for us this year, and indeed every year. Choose to celebrate and enjoy the life we have been given. There is no more precious gift. Do not wait. Do not put off what you wish to do. Seize life, celebrate it, embrace it, wrestle with it. It is there for our living.

The reality check for this is also within the liturgy. One of the themes that runs through the prayers on these holidays is that, despite our wishes, we do not control much of life. The randomness of our own existence is always present, and its impact grows on us as we age. Thus, says the Torah reading, in the face of the randomness of so much of life, choose to live it. There is an old Yiddish expression that translates as “Man plans and God laughs.” You can make the argument that this expression correctly sums up one of the major themes of the holidays. It is as if the tradition is reminding us that plan as we might, so much happens that we do not and cannot control, we must remember to celebrate and enjoy the life we have.

A new year is now dawning. May it be a year of peace and joy, happiness and health for you and all who you care for and who care for and about you. And most of all, my prayer for you and me, is that we have the courage to choose life.