Elephant in the Room

Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection on beginnings, on the birth story of humanity and on our own births. I was born in the winter of 1958 in Atlantic City. My father had received his rabbinic ordination a year before and the small orthodox synagogue in this sleepy beach town offered him his first position. The synagogue was inland but we lived a block from the ocean. I fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of waves.


My first five years of life were spent along, under and on the boardwalk. I wandered often, either with my older sister Sarah, my buddy Stanley or by myself.  By the time we left Atlantic City I knew every slat of the boardwalk from the Steeplechase Pier down to the Planter’s Peanut Man. My favorite store along the boardwalk had a display of stuffed jungle animals—how I wished that I could rescue one from behind the impenetrable glass enclosure.


I have snippets of memories, many very clear. Ladies in white gowns: The Miss America pageant held in the first week of September and always on Saturday. Woken in the middle of the night: The hurricane of ‘62 which destroyed the Steeplechase Pier. Heading to see the whale washed up on the beach: The car turned around once the announcer on the radio (finally) said, “April’s Fools.” The strongest man on the beach: The Orthodox Rabbi in town, my father. Television: Something we would watch by sneaking into motel rooms across the street.


We all have beginnings; we all have memories of those beginnings. Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect on our early and formative beginnings. How did those experiences shape us? How do they continue to shape us?


There are many influences on the life we live. Psychology has taught us: the earlier the influence the deeper the code. That code is translated into a way of seeing the world and us in relation to it. What did the hurricane encode in me as I surveyed the flood in our basement and saw the remnants of the Steeplechase Pier that had not been washed away to sea? What was encoded in me on that April 1st when I realized that my parents, the smartest people I knew could be so easily fooled by a prank? Each of our experiences is a little message encoded into us.


William White suggests that the “kind of organization one gives to memories” is what underlies individual character. “One’s memory must put its beads upon scores of different strings,” writes White in his book, Masks in a Pageant, “the work-string and the love- strand run through every life.”


It is intriguing to consider the memory filing system and whether they are neatly labeled in separately stored folders with names such as Atlantic City-The Early Years. It is even more intriguing  to wonder:  What or who is doing the filing? Neuroscientists have been mapping how and where memories are formed and stored but to my knowledge some aspects, such as “the who” of the memory system—who is deciding where to place memories–is still a mystery. What links are there, if any, between files and folders and is there a folder with plenty of subfolders and files that is labeled:  Events and Incidents Not to Be Remembered?”


There are many world events from this past year I would like to not remember (and some personal ones too)—that’s one of the problems though with “not remembering” as Immanuel Kant joked: “I have to remember to forget that!”


Whoever that who is who is filing my memories has a clever name for that particular folder of those memories I want to choose to remember to forget. It is labeled: The Elephant in the Room.



Eyes Wide Shut

In preparation for next week’s KE fall festival our faculty has been reviewing the teachings of Reb Zalman. He was a prolific writer and speaker (you can listen to some 1400 of his talks by accessing this audio collection http://bit.ly/1lYzXaN).


He is not the most “accessible” writer especially around topics, which he gladly engaged in often, that challenged some of his own loyalties to tradition and faith. So, as in all of life, I “hold opposites” of a man, a mentor and a mensch who struggled to be as radical as he purported we need to be, as egoless as he commended us to be, and as conscious of his fears that he wanted us to be alleviated from. Why is it so difficult even for a man who is constantly at it—constantly trying to live in a conscious manner to be fully authentic?


Perhaps Reb Zalman provides this answer from his book Paradigm Shift: “We claim that we cannot do this every day, that we cannot afford the tremendous inner expense of living deliberately each day. We claim we do not have enough strength.”


Yesterday I did have enough strength. It was really nothing much, but it felt quite radical. I was in the men’s locker room at a time of day when it is filled with older naked men speaking Russian—a language I am familiar with but not enough to engage in a conversation. As I was dressing, two men were in a prolonged discussion at the double sinks, one of whom was shaving. He had turned on the water and it was flowing out, serving no purpose as it waited for him to return to his task of removing shaving cream. I turned to him and asked about the water—he initially interpreted my words to mean that I needed to use the sink and then understood that I was pointing out to him that he was not being conscious of his use of water. To my amazement he turned off the water and replied in heavily accented English, “Yes, Yes, you I agree.”


I had thought, and therefore hesitated for a few seconds, that this man could easily have become irritated by a felt criticism—he was though totally receptive. He returned to his conversation and a bit later turned the water back on to complete his shaving. I finished dressing and exited the locker room. The lesson lingers on: It takes strength to be conscious—to live deliberately each day. This incident was about my awareness of another’s actions—it is all the more challenging to be aware of our own habitual ways, our own unawareness—our own not seeing.


This past week the big local (that is the U.S.) story has been the “face” of domestic violence. Ray Rice, a football player hit his wife (at the time she was fiancé). Domestic violence occurs at a rate of two dozen incidents per minute (that is a U.S. statistic) so why is this incident big news. It is not because Ray Rice is a football player—it is because his team, the Baltimore Ravens and the National Football League chose to not be conscious.


I could have averted my eyes; I could have decided that it was not worth confronting a stranger about wasting water. I chose not to. The Ravens owner and administration, as well as the NFL, chose to not see, they averted their eyes. (For those not familiar with the facts—there was an initial tape of the incident that was viewed by all the parties that showed Mr. Rice dragging his unconscious fiancé out of an elevator by her feet. There was also a tape from within the elevator that shows what happened as the elevator descended to the lobby).


It took a woman to confront the real issue in a hard-hitting interview yesterday. The transcript says it all. I present it here not to indict Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL or the Baltimore Ravens—I present it to help us see that when it comes to living deliberately, to living consciously, we have to be aware of what we do not want to see, what we are unwilling to face in others and in ourselves.


Goodell: That’s why we asked for it (the other—complete tape) on several occasions. Because when we make a decision we want to have all the information that’s available. And obviously that was the — that when we met with Ray Rice and his representatives; it was ambiguous about what actually happened.


O’Donnell: But what was ambiguous about her lying unconscious on the floor being dragged out by her feet?


Goodell: There was nothing ambiguous about that. That was the result that we saw. We did not know what led up to that. We did not know the details of that. We asked for that on several occasions. It was unacceptable in and of itself what we saw on the first tape. And that’s why we took action, albeit insufficient action. And we acknowledge that, we took responsibility for that — I did personally — and I take responsibility for that now. But what we saw yesterday was extremely clear and graphic and was absolutely necessary for us to take the action we did.


O’Donnell: But what changed? I mean, on the first tape she was lying unconscious on the ground, being dragged out by her feet. Did you really need to see a videotape of Ray Rice punching her in the face to make this decision?


Goodell: No. We certainly didn’t. And I will tell you that what we saw on the first videotape was troubling to us in and of itself. And that’s why we took the action we took. As I’ve said before, we didn’t feel that was sufficient, we didn’t get that right. But what we saw yesterday was extremely clear, it was extremely graphic, and it was sickening.


It is the Hebrew month of Elul. A New Year is coming. It is a month to wake up, to be more conscious. To be willing to see what is observable and what is off camera; from the pollution we see to the “unseen” global climate change, from Jihadist beheadings we see (or hear about) to our own unspoken prejudices and from partner violence (we see or hear about) to media that desensitizes us to violence.


Let us keep in mind what Reb Zalman offered:


“We claim that we cannot do this every day, that we cannot afford the tremendous inner expense of living deliberately each day. We claim we do not have enough strength.”


It takes strength to be conscious, to be aware and to be willing to see and acknowledge what is “off camera” and expand what we are willing to see and acknowledge.


Knowing Your Place

Jewish tradition enumerates a 48 fold path to the acquisition of knowledge, one of which is stated simply as “Knowing your place.” The Rabbis interpreted this quality to mean that every person has a unique contribution to make in this world. “The goal,” they say, “is to figure out where you fit into the grand scheme.”


Theodore Geisel knew that his aptitude was illustrating but it took his wife, Helen Palmer, to convince him to stray from his plan to be an English teacher and become one of the most prolific and read children’s authors of all time. You know him by his pen name: Dr. Seuss.


Dr. Seuss is author of the
Cat in the hat
But do you not see
He is much more than that.


Anapestic tetrameter is his poet’s device
Addressing what in us humans
Is not very nice
And among the most repulsive
A re-current vice
A need for establishing
One wrong and one right
And killing each other
All day and all night.


Myopia is the word
For this terrible scourge
Beheading our world through
An unholy purge.


And so we must read
To our kids, Dr. Seuss
With a prayer that his words
Will loosen the noose
Of that most abhorrent
Grotesque and absurd
The right to murder another
For God’s voice that you heard.


Our place in this vast, immeasurable creation was highlighted by the early writings of the Jewish mystics in a series of books describing the “body” of God. To give but one example from a 2,000 year old text:


The left ankle of God measures 190,000,000 parsangs. A divine parsang equals 1,640,000,000,000 terrestrial parsangs. [A parsang is a Persian measure of distance—equivalent to 2 miles or so].


Fast forward to this week, scientists have now mapped “our place” in the universe. Throughout the universe, galaxies tend to clump together in massive structures that astronomers call superclusters. According to the new map, Earth’s galaxy lives near the edge of the Laniakea supercluster, which measures 500 million light-years in diameter and includes roughly 100,000 galaxies. The region is just a small slice of the visible universe, which spans more than 90 billion light-years.


“Seeing a map gives you a sense of place,” says University of Hawaii astronomer Brent Tully, an author of the study describing the supercluster, published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature. “For me, having that sense of place and seeing the relationship of things is very important in terms of understanding it.”


Within the supercluster, galaxies are strung like beads on cosmic strings. The Milky Way is at the fringe of one of those strings, perched on the edge of the Local Void—an area where, as the name suggests, there isn’t much to be found.


These kinds of large-scale strings and voids are common throughout the universe. But Tully notes one surprise that emerged while mapping Laniakea: The supercluster is being yanked on by an even larger assemblage of galaxies, called the Shapley Concentration.


“It’s a really big thing, and we’re being pulled toward it. But we don’t have enough information yet to find the Shapley Concentration’s outline,” Tully says. “We might be part of something even bigger.”


If only we could take this in and know our place in a much grander scheme and value all that are part of that grandeur. To quote Dr. Seuss from his story Yertle the Turtle—a turtle who would be king by elevating himself higher and higher on the back of his turtle subjects, until the whole turtle structures collapses:

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!


And to say the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.


Leap Frog

Who has not heard this one: If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you gradually increase the temperature of the water it will let itself be boiled.


Happens to not be factual. Frogs indeed jump when the temperature of the water becomes too warm (well before it reaches boiling). Frogs are unable to jump if placed in boiling water (they die).


While this frog tale does not pass scientific scrutiny the analogy survives. It is a warning to humans to be smarter than frogs and recognize the early warning signs that threaten our safety and survival. Is it dismaying to learn that the instinct of a frog may be “smarter” than our sophisticated human intelligence?


Case in point: The most recently released report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (released yesterday) warns that if the world continues (this is the wording used in the article—interesting that the author uses this euphemism—world instead of humans) to spew greenhouse gases at its accelerating rate, by mid-century temperatures will increase by about another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) compared to temperatures from 1986 to 2005. And by the end of the century, that scenario will bring temperatures that are about 6.7 degrees warmer (3.7 degrees Celsius).


Frogs would find this alarming and instinctually jump! But John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, is skeptical of the claim that global warming is a major problem. He says people will do OK: “Humans are clever. We shall adapt to whatever happens.”


A minority opinion such as his would not be cause for alarm except that Dr. Christy has served as Lead Author (2001) for the U.N. reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr. John R. Christy is the Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He began studying global climate issues in 1987.


Today is the first day of the month of Elul, a month of preparation for the coming New Year. It is customary to blow the Shofar (ram’s horn) each morning to awaken ourselves to change. It is a time to realize what hot water we have gotten ourselves into and are immersed in—and to not use our cleverness to out-smart our own best interests.


Case in point: I have shared in class this summer my awakening to my personal risk for developing diabetes. My father died from diabetic complications at age 61. I had been gaining weight and being more sedentary for the past few years and my blood sugars had begun to increase—but ever so slightly. My older sister had already changed her eating and exercise habits a few years ago and had kindly sent me an article on the glycemic index of foods. The temperature of the water though had not gotten hot enough. Then my blood sugars came back this past May with an asterisk—pre-diabetic. It was recommended that I start medication—I suggested that I first try changing my diet and start to exercise more. My doctor set a weight loss goal for the year. He meant a year—I will reach that goal well before Rosh Hashanah.


What have I done? I am eating as much as I did before, just eating very differently. As part of my previous wake up routine—I used to have coffee and a muffin (29g of sugar)—now I am awake and have cottage cheese (4g of sugar) with my coffee. I am “carbing” my appetite; far less sugar, far less carbs as part of my overall diet.


So what does intelligence have to do with it? One might argue that denial is a form of stupidity. I would argue that it comes in many forms—some which would appear quite intelligent. Here is one “intelligent” denial: “I am going to die anyway so I might as well enjoy myself.” It is the same logic that humans may likely adopt (rather than adapt to or change before it is really too late) in facing higher and higher global warming temperatures—I might as well enjoy my fluorocarbon and carbon dioxide producing products and ignore the carbon footprint of the foods I eat.


The earth’s blood is pre-diabetic. A frog would have jumped already. Let us hope that the call of the Shofar will be heeded by us and a growing aware minority. We can only save the majority if a minority of people commit to save our planet and humanity and hope that it goes viral. We don’t have till next year, we must act now.




P.S. I will continue this theme and apply it as well to spiritual awakening in preparation for the Jewish New Year holidays. Also, if you would like to attend a small, intimate “service” for the holidays please join Kabbalah Experience for prayer, meditation and study for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (Thursday September 25th and Yom Kippur eve and day (October 3rd and 4th) in Lowry.


Dear KE Community

Dear KE Community;


Amidst all the challenging and tragic news it is easy to fall into despair about our human journey. We need to keep at the work we are engaged in—the more aware we are of the absolute necessity for us to evolve spiritually the more chance we have to survive. This is an interesting take on the idea that our mission is not merely to survive; survival is predicated upon our maturing spiritually.


In the spaces between summer classes we have been planning the next year of Kabbalah study and I wanted to update you on some new and exciting opportunities.


Fall classes start on Monday September 29th but fall Kabbalah study begins on Monday September 15th—see (below) our special program entitled Free Fall Festival of Learning.  (Click here to learn more.) 


This fall we welcome back Dr. Lorell Frysh who will be teaching 3 classes on Meditation and Mysticism across spiritual traditions and a special class on the Enneagram and Kabbalah. Susan Kaplan will reprise her teaching on Communication as a Spiritual Practice. We are honored to welcome Rabbi Jamie Arnold from Evergreen as a KE teacher. He will be teaching an Introduction to Kabbalah class and a special class in his area of expertise: Mussar and Kabbalah. Lili Zohar and Dr. David Sanders will offer some mini classes as well in late October.


Every year the curriculum evolves and this year is no exception with two new classes for students who are continuing beyond the core years of study. They are: Developing Awareness and Advancing to the Beginning. Students have been suggesting for a while that it would be very useful to return to the early concepts learned and now, with years of study, revisit them as a way to integrate and elevate their learning and themselves.


Classes in the fall will also be longer! Each class will now be 75 minutes (a consistent suggestion from your class evaluations) and will span 10 weeks (so overall more class time for the same tuition).


KE’s Free Fall Festival of Learning: Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi—known to all as Reb Zalman died on July 3rd. We were honored that he dedicated Kabbalah Experience four years ago when we moved to our current location at the Goldberger Center. To honor him and his significant contributions to spiritual leaning I am excited to announce that we welcome you back to Kabbalah study before the start of the fall semester. Starting on Monday September 15th-Thursday the 18th we will offer a full line-up of classes—each class will be on the topic of the class in the fall but will have as its focus a teaching from Reb Zalman. This week of classes, which we are calling our first Free Fall Festival, is an opportunity for you to come to as many classes as you wish, check out teachers and courses you may not have considered before and invite new students to join in. We will also have a free film night on Tuesday September 16th at 7:30—showing the film The Jew in the Lotus in which Reb Zalman is featured as he meets with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and some other special events. Mark your calendars now for this exciting opportunity.


Best wishes for a healthy and spiritually active summer,


P.S. Registration for fall is now open (click here to learn more) and you will be receiving the full schedule of special classes for the Free Fall Festival of Learning in August.


Life Isn’t for Everybody

I signed off before the summer on my way to Reb Zalman’s funeral. It was Friday July 4th. The Rabbis speaking at the funeral made mention of it being Independence Day. Reb Zalman was an independent–in thought and action. He was also an interdependent—he had a unique way of bringing people together—in life and in death. As I looked around at those gathered for his funeral many familiar faces shone forth—fellow teachers, fellow students, Rabbis across the spectrum of Jewish life. For a moment on that hill in Boulder the Jewish community was united.  We all wanted to share our grief and honor a man that had such a profound impact on our world.


I first met Reb Zalman in 1986 in a suburb of Philadelphia. I was living a few blocks away from Pnai Ohr, his place of study and worship.  As life had it we both moved to Colorado a few years later. It was in Boulder that we made a personal connection. On occasion we attended Shabbat services at Aish Kodesh synagogue and shared some Torah thoughts. We had two long discussions—one in the basement office of his home and one in my car (driving to inaugurate Kabbalah Experience). I have memories of each and every encounter and this memory of departing from the cemetery.


I walked backwards, away from the hill, away from the funeral, away from Reb Zalman. She flitted by me in an instant, a doe darting across the field and heading up the hill, toward the funeral, toward Reb Zalman. She was there one moment and gone the next. On her way to wherever she was heading, bound up in the source of life.


Reb Zalman spent a good deal of time contemplating his death. He was preparing for departing his body. He was helping those who loved him prepare for his departure. Life isn’t forever.


I know I am making an assumption but it is not a farfetched one. I assume that Robin Williams also spent a good deal of time contemplating his death. During an interview many years ago with Dick Cavett, Robin was on one of his delicious, frenzied jags and one-lined the following:  “And there’s the one guy at the suicide hotline who says to a caller: life isn’t for everybody.”


Robin Williams was also an independent and an interdependent. No one could ever pin him down or typecast him. His comedic style embraced every ethnic humor, he could transform in a split second from one accent or genre to another. And he brought people together.


We will never know the deepest thoughts and feelings Reb Zalman had—even those he shared with us personally and in his writings may not have reflected his inner most thoughts and feelings. We will never know the deepest thoughts and feelings of Robin Williams—even those he shared in quieter moments of an interview or through the people he portrayed in film.


Suicide though is not a condemnation of life or a judgment about its value. Life is so precious because it is not forever and for those of us who are spared the inner suffering of a tortured mind it is a gift. We were blessed by Reb Zalman and Robin Williams presence in our lives –what a gift for us all.


What though has become of our humanity when life is so disrespected by those who deem themselves arbiters of the value of life? We must face this truth:


Guns kill. Humans kill. Ideologies kill. 


Change the ideology. Change the human. Change the gun.