Posts Tagged ‘judaism’

The Joy of Struggle

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016
By Sam Glaser
For most of us, summer is a carefree time. As one Jew wrote: “Summertime, and the living is easy.” We all have sweet memories of summer vacations at camp or road trips adventures with the family. Thanks to our agrarian past, schools had to offer a few months off so that the kids could help with the harvest. Nowadays our kids use that time to forget everything they learned the previous semester. For Jews, there’s one wrinkle in the enjoyment of the long, hot days of our beloved summer. Just in case we are having too much fun at the beach, the spoilsport rabbis of yore gave us three weeks of semi-mourning smack dab in the middle of waterslide season.

The Three Weeks serve as an “ice bucket challenge” to cool us off amidst our summertime frolicking. We are commanded to always serve God with joy, in every situation, everyday. During this short period of time, however, we “lessen” our joy by refraining from such things as live music, weddings and haircuts. Minor inconveniences, but just like preparing for the happier holidays, they make a difference in our day-to-day, just enough so that we acquire a sense of mourning that begins with the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and peaks in the observance of Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av.) This day is the saddest on the entire Jewish calendar and commemorates the destruction of our Temples and other assorted calamities throughout history. Our experience of the Ninth of Av is intensified thanks to the three-week gradual integration of the tragic loss of Jewish influence and cohesiveness when our Temple was destroyed. I’d like to examine the purpose of struggle and hardship in the Jewish experience and hopefully find a silver lining behind our personal and collective tribulations.

Everyone knows the saga of the boy who found a caterpillar and put it in a cage as a new pet. Soon he observed the fascinating metamorphosis as the caterpillar disappeared within a cocoon. Just as he assumed that his prized pet was dead he noticed a small hole in the cocoon…just as he was promised, a butterfly was trying to emerge! At one point he noticed that it was stuck so he took a scissors and ever so carefully opened the hole a bit wider so the new creature could emerge. Sure enough the butterfly appeared with a large swollen body and small, misshapen wings. Days went by and those wings never grew. The malformed butterfly spent its last days crawling around the cage and the boy learned that the wings only develop when the butterfly mounts a tenacious struggle to escape its cocoon. His misguided act of kindness led to the creature’s doom. The lesson is, of course, that life’s struggles make us strong and give us the ability to fly. This is the period when we acknowledge 3500 years of Jewish suffering, hopefully perceiving that it has made us stronger. On the personal level, when you are in a tough situation, practice choosing the situation! Embrace it. You may ask for God’s kindness to make the pain go away, but realize that this challenge is a gift from God to help you grow. I know…easier said than done.

Last month I had a bit too much fun with the kids at shul. I love getting mobbed by the local children who know I that I’m a big kid who will happily chase them to their heart’s content. At one point I had a line of kids waiting to be swung by Sam the human swing. All went well until later that evening when I felt a funky twinge in my neck that sent tingles down to my thumb and forefinger. Sure enough, the next day I couldn’t sit down without immediate pain. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t drive and I became an ornery grouch. I opted for massage and chiropractic, both of which gave me relief, until I tried to sit down again. I was inconsolable in this place of darkness. I felt like my career was over, that I’d never be able to ski or bike, that without yoga my body would plunge into a downward spiral. No one could convince me otherwise. Thankfully a few weeks later I was scheduled to perform in Reno and at the High Sierra Music Festival. I wasn’t sure how I would pull it off but remarkably, after five days without deadlines in my studio or enduring LA traffic I was cured, thank God! Perhaps it was the magic of the soul-enriching Sierras. I emerged with a new “no piggyback ride” policy and a reminder that it’s much easier to be grateful for life challenges after the fact.

I recently enjoyed a mid-summer hike with my brother Yom Tov. We set out on a favorite LA trail that hugs a mostly dry riverbed as it ascends through stands of sycamore and oak. The trail then departs the shade of the riparian zone with switchbacks that lead to a series of rocks with panoramic views that we have named Shipwreck, Hawk and Eagle. As we gingerly avoided the poison oak that arched towards our exposed legs, we discussed the struggle of the typical artist. Is a life filled with obstacles a prerequisite for great art? I remarked that I noticed that in the wonderful autobiographies by Sting and Joe Jackson that their early years were fraught with financial and familial turmoil. Both authors chose to end the books with the first taste of stardom. In other words, once these singers hit easy street, their lives no longer offered the challenges that made for compelling reading.

As we crested the apex of Hawk Rock I mentioned to my brother that I often wonder why it is that God has opted to maintain the two of us on a financial precipice throughout our adult lives. While we enjoy frequent miraculous salvations from destitution, this situation engenders stress and worry especially for our beloved wives. I have discovered that the more I “go for it” in my career, the more I reap such salvation. Month to month we always seem to make it, establishing for me the clarity that in spite of a modest bank account one can live abundantly with joy and bitachon (trust in God.) Perhaps it’s due to my limited funds that God’s providence is readily apparent! My brother responded with a teaching of the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, z”l: God keeps the emissaries that are doing God’s work hungry. In other words, if they are self-satisfied with the riches of life, they will opt for retirement on the beach instead of life on the road or a career in education. When Aish was in dire financial straits the Rosh Yeshiva launched on a multi-year tour of the Diaspora to teach and fundraise. He pointed out to his frustrated acolytes back in Jerusalem that without the cash flow issues, all those people around the world would not have been touched by his presence. When I pondered this reality, I realized that my brother is right. Would I fly to destinations around the globe for my concerts and workshops, enduring the pressure of deadlines and the physical and emotional pain of travel if I didn’t have to? Or would I move my family to a chateau in Fiji and forget the woes of the world?

Life disconnected from life’s vicissitudes does not make for great art. Perhaps that’s why many successful musicians are never able to top their debut album. That precious early repertoire typically chronicles the adventures in the trenches as the artist claws for recognition. The sophomore release often fails to recreate this degree of emotional intensity and without radical reinvention, the performer joins the heap of “one hit wonders.” Great artists take us on a ride as they chase a personal vision, never satisfied with the status quo. We marvel as Picasso transitions from Blue to Rose, from Cubism to Surrealism or as Miles Davis pushes the boundaries of jazz regardless of the critic’s disdain. Miles lambasts those who imitate others or who at the sunset their careers, “ape” themselves. In other words, having nothing novel to offer, they simply perform an endless greatest hits package into their retirement. He stated, “if you’re trying to ape…you don’t have anything to give the world, you might as well be dead.” The message is simple: celebrate the process, don’t settle for the same old same old, remember that all the drama in your life is your life, learn to perfect the art of making lemonade out of lemons.

All of us, in whichever career we have chosen, can be artists. An artist seeks to deliver the best at all times, no matter who is paying, without regard to impressing anyone. A true artist isn’t afraid of individuality, of performing his or her task with total integrity. Artists are known to be extremists, defying convention, standing out from the crowd. In Judaism we can approach our faith as an artist, crafting a unique relationship with the Creator, painting our personal practice with nuances that customize our religious experience to match our predilections, all within the rubric of Halacha (Jewish law.) We can each be extremists in our own way, choosing those mitzvot that speak to us and making them our raison d’etre. According to famed Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and by extension the artist defines who and what they are. In other words, if we decide we are an artist, then we are! While Rambam may encourage the middle path, the “shvil hazahav,” in some ways we must become extremists, fashioning our lives as daring artists, pushing the boundaries in those areas in which we hear a calling.

We are naturally attracted to extremes, to polarities that go beyond our personal experience. Only these extremes have the velocity to become ingrained in our consciousness that is already overflowing with input. My Aunt Lynnie taught me this important lesson when I was a child. She had returned from a tropical vacation at Club Med with a gift of three beautiful shells for our family. As she explained how she scuba dived to find these treasures she reported about the people on her trip that she really liked and a few that she found obnoxious. I then queried about all the other people that she must have met but didn’t mention. She responded with a lesson on the bell shaped curve: only those individuals that delight or disgust you are going to be remembered. This begs the question: how do you want to be remembered? What unique communal contribution will mark your having visited this planet?

The same paradigm is extant in my memories of grade school. Those peers that made a lasting impression were extreme in some way. Extremely athletic, beautiful, talented, smart, extremely kind or extremely annoying! I too was extreme in my own way; when I run into my teachers after all these years, I find that they usually remember me. I was a devious class clown and had no tolerance for mediocrity. Some teachers loved me, some despised me, but all had an opinion. I thrived with magnanimous teachers who understood that my perfectly timed joke or clever prank was never malicious but only intended to get a laugh and get me some attention. Others chose to do battle and therefore I got kicked out of nearly every educational institution that I attended. One of my Hebrew School teachers, Michael Waterman, admitted to me that his rowdiest students were the ones who went farthest in life. They had the gall to take on the establishment, to stick their necks out, often possessing natural self-confidence, quick reflexes and the ability to defuse dry, overly serious situations. This begs the question whether as parents we should always be pressuring our children to fit in, to toe the line.

Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo named his venerable Jerusalem-based institution the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. He emphasizes that Avraham’s quintessential trait wasn’t necessarily chesed (kindness.) It was his utter refusal to accept a substandard status quo. Only when he was willing to accept the role of rebel, regardless of the reaction of his family and society, was he able to follow his unfettered logic to the revolutionary conclusion of Ethical Monotheism: that a loving, unique Presence is intimately involved in our lives and created the world for our pleasure. The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu recognizes and uplifts the holy rebel. Rabbi Cardozo insists that we keep kosher as an act of disobedience against eating like an animal, that we join a community in prayer as an act of rebellion against the tendency to think one can go it alone, we use the mikvah to protest against our society’s obsession with sex. This is quite the opposite of the current tendency of “religious” communities to commit to mitzvot in order to fit in or to please a wrathful deity.

Sadly, the typical “Moshe Rabeinu” Talmudic style of study creates a “safety in numbers” reluctance to challenge and innovate. This is the modus operandi of the Charedi world, and it is quick to decapitate any rebel that refuses to or cannot toe the line. Rebbes feel that they cannot reward the “bad” boys, and paranoid families are forced to excommunicate lest they endanger the shidduch opportunities for well-behaved siblings, God forbid. Is it any wonder that there is a epidemic of “off the derech” youth (those abandoning traditional Judaism,) many of whom are like zoo animals released in the wild, without the basics of street smarts or secular education to survive in society at large. My brother Rabbi Yom Tov states that Orthodox youth are given 90% of Torah. What they are missing is the first 10%: the “why” of Judaism: why we do mitzvot, why we serve God, why we are different from the other nations of the world, why we merit redemption. Picture that butterfly without the chance to fight its way out of the cocoon. Without a personal engagement with the WHY of Judaism, observance can become rote and meaningless.

Clearly all the movements in Judaism are facing unprecedented challenges. The answer to our collective salvation lies in offering every individual the permission to dedicate his or her individuality to the service of the Jewish people and ensuring that service to God is artistic, mindful and joyful. The struggles that our people face are like those of the butterfly…we are writhing and striving and competing, building and breaking and building again. While it is hard to perceive the merit of setbacks, the challenges we face are creating the most powerful, beautiful wings, wings that allow us to soar in this greatest adventure of human history.


The Gift of Israel

Monday, February 1st, 2016

By Sam Glaser

Any discussion of Judaism must include mention of Israel. Israel is part of a powerful interdependent triad that includes God and Torah. All Jews are part of Israel, we are the Children of Israel, offspring of Jacob/Israel and we are also united as Israel, the Jewish community. This heavenly “belongingness” is hinted to throughout scripture; when our biblical heroes die they are “gathered to their people.” Furthermore, we are all spiritually unified with Israel the geographic entity. This tiny country is not just another global travel destination for Jews; most feel a palpable sense of holiness and a sense of being home. When I walk the land on my annual trips I feel joy in my step and a hard to suppress drive to hug everyone I see. It’s not uncommon for seemingly casual trips to the Promised Land to result in radical spiritual transformation for unsuspecting Jewish tourists. This is the source of the power of programs like Birthright, Gap Year and Aish’s Jerusalem Fellowships. This is why folks like my younger brother, a visiting surfer dude from Southern California, checked out a yeshiva in Jerusalem for the first time and decided never to leave.

A year after my brother got to Israel I had the opportunity to spend a month in the Holy Land to study, perform, and most importantly, to verify that my brother wasn’t brainwashed. I was recently engaged and used the experience to bone up on “chassan classes” (workshops with the Rosh Yeshiva for new grooms.) I found my brother in excellent shape, happy and resolved to pursue a path of holiness. He was anything but brainwashed! He suggested that I go to the kotel and find a Lubavitcher named Guru Gil who might show me the biblical instruments that he had hand crafted. Sure enough I found Gil (Rabbi Gutman Locks) joyfully wrapping tefillin on any willing tourist. I told him of my musical predilection and he offered to serenade me on his handmade harps and lyres right after Shabbat. Gil acquired the guru moniker because he followed his spiritual muse to India and acquired enlightenment and many followers in the process. At one point he led a commune in Baja California, the very location where I’m writing this essay. After coming to an intellectual and spiritual dead end with capitalism, Hinduism and Christianity, Gil was marooned with his unexplored heritage while visiting the Holy Land. He found that the countless hours of meditation didn’t hold a candle to simple outreach to other Jews with acts of kindness and became a giant in Torah.

That Motzei Shabbat I found my way to Gil’s Old City apartment and took my seat in his spacious living room with a half a dozen other guests. He gave us a booze-enhanced concoction and asked us to relax as we turned our chairs to face the Temple Mount. As he prepared to pluck his harp, I felt serene and buzzed and was ready for whatever vision the music might summon. He told us to direct our attention to the vortex of holiness that springs from the foundation stone of the Holy of Holies, the fount of Torah that we speak of emanating from Zion in the Psalm “Ki Mitziyon tetzei Torah.”

At first I was dwelling on the beautiful pentatonic tuning of the finely crafted instrument. Eventually I was able to venture beyond the physics of the note interactions and allowed the sustaining strings to evoke visions of iridescent grandeur. No, he didn’t feed us hallucinogens! I envisioned a black and white vortex spinning up from this crucial singular point, black fire on white fire, culminating in two heavenly orbs. These swirling orbs were fiery crimson and the deepest indigo and at one point the two separate spheres combined in an explosion of incendiary, regal violet. It was clear to me that these colliding circumferences were the imminent combinations of the souls of my fiancé and me. I felt a deep knowing that our union was heaven sent and that there was purpose and importance to our combined, yet unknown mission. Whatever that mission would be, I felt clarity that it would center around directing the attention of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish nation, to this wellspring of holiness originating in Zion but available wherever hearts are open. On the day we met, my wife’s very spiritual roommate reported that she perceived two brilliant orbs joining together…I felt privileged that God had given me the gift of seeing the same vision.

Every single day in the life of the Observant Jew revolves around Israel. The quest of Aliyah is the persistent back-story of each of our festive occasions. The Shabbat liturgy repeatedly mentions the importance of remembering our origin story, namely, the formation of our nation in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert on the way to Israel. With all this emphasis on where we began, it begs the question, “Where are we going? The Jewish People clearly are working on more than getting to the next meal or surviving yet another Arab attack. What is it we are striving for? Why are we anchored to this strip of land in the hostile Mid-East? Why are the nations that surround us taking up arms in every generation? What do they want from us? What do we want for ourselves?

The Torah leaves us on a cliffhanger with these questions largely unanswered. Moshe dies on the border and the Jewish People wait for his successor Joshua’s lead to make the conquest of the Promised Land. One has to delve into the Torah’s sequel, known as Nevi’im, or the prophetic writings, to get the full picture of our mission statement. From the time of the settling of the land until the two exiles, Jewish history appears like a grand sine wave, with the apex of peace, faith and invincibility leading to a nadir of self indulgence, decadence and defeat and then back again. Much like our turbulent wanderings in the desert, we go from dutiful service to complaints and dissension, repeatedly testing God’s patience until destruction ensues. Each time on this hopefully finite cycle we gain more insight into what it might take to stay on top and the process begins yet again.

With the devastating conquest of the Romans and destruction of the Second Temple it appears that the jig is up. The Torah’s prophecies of the Jew’s utter despair, remaining few in number and serving a protracted sentence wandering the nations is tragically fulfilled. It seems all is lost; our mission has failed and we are now orphans of history without a homeland or hope. However, we receive certain guarantees in this ultimate exile in which we are still entrenched. We are assured that God will be with us, that the Torah will always be accessible and that at some distant point we will all come home. Our grand story is still very much alive, only now we have left our nest to spread our message to all the nations. After 2000 years of remarkable influence in every corner of the globe we have returned to our homeland with great signs and wonders. History continues to unfold in our Internet age with Israel at the forefront of current events in every day’s news broadcast.

Israel serves as the punching bag for the world’s malevolent obsession with Jewish exceptionalism. Our detractors seethe with envy and struggle to knock us down from our supernatural, unprecedented eternity. That a persecuted nation without a land should survive the millennia and still ask the “four questions” at the seder table and celebrate in fragile sukkot? That this “disgraced” people should commit the ultimate chutzpah of coming back to their land to create a flourishing first-world country amidst medieval, violent tribal monarchies? Who can tolerate such brazen behavior from these annoying Jews?

When searching for Israel on a globe it becomes immediately apparent that in spite of the excess of press received it is truly tiny and vulnerable. Smaller than the state of New Jersey, there isn’t sufficient space on the map to indicate the name of the country so “Israel” floats in the Mediterranean with an arrow pointing to a small, shapeless chip of paint. This geographic perspective also clarifies the logic behind God’s choice of a homeland for God’s treasured nation. If our purpose is to merely survive intact then we could have been located in the Amazonian jungle. But if our mission is to influence the world with the truth of ethical monotheism, it makes sense to locate our capitol at the crossroads of the world. Indeed Israel is directly in the trade route of both North to South and East to West movement between Eurasia and Africa. Israel’s centrality is not only geopolitical, it is geological: before the Suez Canal was dug, a raindrop falling in the Israeli hills would flow to either the Pacific or the Atlantic ocean.

There is also logic to God choosing a land without abundant natural resources. With no land-based oil reserves, limited mining opportunities and an inadequate water supply, the residents of the land are forced to innovate and thereby apply those innovations to all areas of life, the very engine of the “light unto nations.” Whereas the Nile was the ever-flowing body of water for the boastful Pharaonic deities, our Jewish homeland could never rely on grandiose self-satisfaction; the trickle that is the Jordan River leaves us perpetually dependent on God’s compassion in the form of rain to survive. This beneficent dependence is the crux of the fundamental spiritual message that we spread while dwelling at the crossroads of the world.

The initial journey to the Promised Land started with an element of surprise and mystery. Avraham’s first commandment was “Lech L’cha” or “go for/to yourself” to a land that I will show you. Within the initial call to action is a requirement of trust, coupled with a reassurance that all will go well. This simple lesson can inspire every Jewish journey; we go forth into the unknown with faith that God is by our side, every journey is a revelation both of the external world and our own personal topography. Soon after reaching the land, further tests challenge our patriarch. Famine strikes, requiring that Avraham seek refuge in Egypt, and then he is told that his progeny will serve as slaves in a strange land before their miraculous deliverance. Indeed, Isaac struggles to get along with the locals and his attempts to establish permanence by digging wells in often in jeopardy. Avraham’s grandson Yaakov acquires for our nation the name Israel at the breaking point of his wrestling match with an angel. The lesson is that the Land will be won only with effort and suffering, those crucial elements that are required to make any conquest meaningful. Our patriarchs set the stage for the tenacious determination that possession of this spiritual terrain requires.

The Dalai Lama opted to study the Jewish people to understand the method for surviving exile. He learned that all of our holidays center on the relationship with Israel and that all our central prayers include requests for a strong, vital homeland. We face Jerusalem as we pray and even salute the attributes of Israel every time we utter thanks for a slice of bread. Since the destruction of our Holy Temple we leave a part of a new house incomplete, symbolically break a glass at wedding, and sing Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, Jerusalem) at a b’rit milah. Once a year we sit on the floor in shoddy clothes crying fresh tears for our vanquished kingdom. As Napoleon famously said, “A nation that cries for its Temple for 2000 years surely will see it rebuilt.”

To travel to Israel today is to take ownership of this cosmic miracle of the modern Israeli State. I implore my audiences around the world to make THIS the year that they venture on the very the steps of our forefathers and four mothers. We take spiritual ownership of the land not by talking about it but by walking about it. I emphasize the wonder of the various waves of immigration from around the globe over the course of this past century. As of 2016 the majority of the world’s Jews live in Israel! Let us make aliyah not because we are persecuted but because we are inspired by our Judaism to want it all! Israel has everything! Spiritual and material riches await! From tropical reefs to arid desert, lush fields to snow capped mountains. There are Jews from every corner of the earth, every skin color, every degree of observance, flourishing in every occupation. For the action sports minded: surfable waves, river rafting, rock climbing, world-class mountain biking and even skiing. Whatever you seek, Israel delivers!

The Jewish People are still wandering the desert, the desert of ignorance and brutality, attempting to sow the seeds of loving-kindness, justice and charity. The forces of evil in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, BDS, holocaust denial, are no match for the vast power of the Jewish spirit. We are engaged in a mission of world redemption and in the process are struggling to influence in a patient, loving manner while maintaining our unique identity. The trials of each generation seem one and the same, largely because they are eternal: to hold on to the dream of freedom against all odds, to keep the faith and keep our focus, to teach, touch and entertain, to find laughter amidst tears and in times of defeat, to pick ourselves up and strive once again. This is the mission of the Jewish People for the benefit of all mankind, the true gift of Israel.

I wanted to finish this essay with a pair of powerful moments that I experienced this week. One of the great gifts in life is getting “winks” from God. Everyone gets them from time to time. We often call them small miracles or coincidences. I have taught my kids to say “large world, well managed” instead of “small world” when they happen. I got two profound winks over the past several days that I’d like to share. One instance occurred while skiing with my boys in the promised land of Vail, CO. I was going to travel to Toronto for a Shabbaton and my sons had to get back to Yeshiva University in NYC after their winter break. Why not ski Colorado on the way? We flew to Denver and drove a few hours to get five days in this ski paradise that I believe has no equal. We timed it well: every day from first run to closing time we were flying down the slopes blanketed with fresh powder, impossibly blue skies and no crowds.

On our last day on the hill I was hopeful to meet up with one of my good college buddies who has moved to the Vail area. Unfortunately, my iPhone kept freezing up and we were unable to touch base. At about 1pm we were doing laps on one of my favorite runs, The Star in the remote Blue Sky Basin area in Vail’s famed Back Bowls. My son Max is quite the kamikaze (almost as fast as his dad!) and was flying just behind me when he caught air off of a lip and unfortunately did not see a diminutive fifty-year-old woman cruising on the other side of him. He tackled her midair and they tumbled together about a half dozen times. I watched the whole thing and was utterly horrified. I slammed on the brakes and the woman’s friend screamed at me to call ski patrol and find her friends with whom they were skiing. When I saw that Max was OK, I told him to wait with her and exchange information and then Jesse and I flew down in search of the woman’s compatriots. We didn’t find them but thankfully by the time we rode the lift back up the ski patrol had arrived and was loading the poor pummeled woman in a toboggan, mostly as a precaution. Who was waiting with Max? My college friend Brian Ogawa, the guy I was looking for! Yes, it was Brian’s friend that my son mowed down. This was not how we hoped to connect…but this “large world, well managed” moment gave us both a serious jolt of wonderment. Thank God, the woman is fine and Max escaped with a bruised leg and an important lesson of the need for a bit more caution.

Soon thereafter, following four days among the “frozen chosen” leading a Shabbaton for the largest synagogue in North America, Beth Tzedec, Toronto, I led a community Rockin’ Youth concert on Sunday and then flew directly to Cabo San Lucas to deliver a Tu Bish’vat jam for Chabad of Cabo. Yes, it’s been a decadent week! My wife and daughter flew down from LA to join me for some fun in the sun and thankfully Chabad has delivered delicious meals to our hotel everyday. Today I opted to do a dive in the nearby city of La Paz in order to experience a very rare treat in the underwater world: swimming with the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark. Jacques Cousteau calls this unique gulf “the world’s aquarium.” The local dive boats charge around $200 a person for the trip but one can find local Panga boat captains willing to do the same thing for about $20, especially if you have your own gear.

I expected the Sea of Cortez to be much calmer than the Pacific side of the peninsula but sure enough once past the breakwater we were tossed about by 6-10 foot whitecaps. After about forty minutes of turbulent travel, the captain announced to the Mexican tourists and me that it was time to suit up. I noticed that only I was getting ready. “What?” I stammered, “You folks aren’t getting in?” “No,” they replied. They weren’t crazy enough to jump in the water with these 30-foot plus creatures lurking about the depths. “Oh, great,” I thought, “I’m on my own!” When a vast grey shadow longer than our boat cruised by, the captain yelled, “Now!” I plunged into the roiling depths and swam towards the looming spotted skin of the leviathan before me. The whale shark was slowly ambling by and seemed to be keeping pace with my panicked strokes as I attempted to keep up. I travelled alongside with the beast only a few feet away! I attempted to avoid the mouth that could have swallowed a Smart Car and also ensured that I steered clear of the tail that could have smacked me unconscious. After fifteen minutes or so of matching it’s pace I could no longer keep up and so I flagged down the vessel to pick me up. This crazy experiment repeated another three times as we trolled the area.

My forth dive in the water was the most transformative. I was now slightly more relaxed, as relaxed as one could be alone in turbulent surf with a sea monster! At least now I attempted to film the adventure with my GoPro camera, whereas before I was too freaked out to remember to breathe! At one point, the shark that I was chasing met up with a fellow giant and they affectionately rubbed heads against one another. For the first time I was able to just enjoy the scene without having to frantically keep up and I felt an uncanny sense of union with these peaceful creatures and with all of creation. I then followed the smaller of the two beasts for a while and finally flagged down the boat. When I flipped onto the safety of the deck I looked back at the sea to say farewell to my new friend and the shark rolled on its side and WAVED its six-foot long pectoral fin at us. I’m totally serious! And not just once…but for about twenty seconds! Yes, I’m still freaked out. And yes, that was a powerful wink from the Creator of the Universe Who LOVES when God’s beloved human partners enjoy creation.

Getting in the Holy Spirit

Friday, May 9th, 2014
by Sam Glaser

After fifty-six monthly newsletters featuring 2500 word essays, it should be no mystery to my regular readers that I am surreptitiously writing a book. When I get to newsletter number sixty I will have assembled nearly 150,000 words or 500 novel-sized pages. Looks like I have some editing to do! My goal is to get this project launched in 2015 and the working title is The Jewish Missionary Handbook. Yes, I realize this hints to Mormons and bedroom Olympics – but the fact is that the Mormons are a great example of tirelessly spreading the good news and sex sells books. I’m very passionate about getting this heartfelt message out there: I feel that North American Jewry has lost its “mission statement” and I intend to do my part to get us back on track. The following essay will serve more or less as the opening chapter.

The Jewish People are the original missionaries in human history, with the goal of bringing the world to an loving appreciation of God, righteousness and holiness. Our deep-seated drive to teach the world about ethical monotheism is a spiritual legacy from Avraham, the first Jew. Over the millennia our attempts to missionize were thwarted by persecution and sadly we have retreated inward. At this point, before we can reignite our beacon to the nations, we have to “circle the wagons” and reclaim our critical message. It is my hope that the pages that follow serve as wake up call that living Jewishly 24/7 is attainable and attractive and that we can again lead by example. If we’re not living it, we can’t be giving it! I also hope that potential Jews-by-choice and those Jews-by-birth interested in returning to tradition can use this text to guide their ascent and focus on the pleasure of the process. My qualifications for writing are simple: this tome is autobiographical in nature and I am only recommending spiritual leaps that I have attempted myself. I don’t have a PhD; this is advice from the trenches, with lessons learned in the school of hard knocks during two decades of performing and teaching on the road.

To date, my newsletters have had a common theme: connecting Jews of all stripes to each other and to their Creator. Yes, I deviate from time to time to rant about childrearing, trends in music and travel adventures, but the majority of these articles focus on two basic words: “Kedoshim tihiyu,” or you shall be holy. That statement from Leviticus sums up our core national aspiration. Everything else is commentary. While our sages debate exactly what this seemingly vague mitzvah might entail, the bottom line stems from the ending of the sentence: “for I, God, your God, am holy”. Put simply, we are to strive to be God-like in our behavior. Every circumstance is a “choose life” moment, a divinely orchestrated series of situations in which we are challenged to choose wisely. In other words, “What would Moses do?” is the question to keep on our tongues.

Striving for holiness requires that we define our terms. The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking about holiness is the angelic realms or the High Priest doing the Temple service on Yom Kippur. The Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that an exhortation to holiness in the book of Exodus uses the term “people of holiness shall you be,” in other words, holiness isn’t just for priests and angels. Within the context of our messy, mistake-ridden humanity we are to emulate the angels. In fact, “kedoshim tihiyu” was delivered not from Moshe to Aharon or to the elders, but from Moshe to the entire assembly. This lesson is for ALL of us. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, all those who are “opting in” to actively celebrating our heritage, must make holiness the first priority.

The root of the word kodesh means separation. That root is in many important Hebrew words that employ this same integral meaning: Kaddish serves to divide our prayer services and Kedushin is the word for marriage wherein two people separate themselves from all others. The first time holiness is mentioned in the Torah is right at the top with the creation of the day of rest. Sure enough, with the Kiddush we verbally disconnect Shabbat or Yom Tov from regular days. Do you see a pattern here? Immediately after telling us to be holy, God lists all the sexual pairings that are forbidden, yet another separation. The laws  involving kashrut sanctify us as a holy nation AND separate us from the other nations. Yes, that sounds politically incorrect in a melting pot society. But if God’s treasured nation loses its holiness/separation, we assimilate, intermarry and eventually lose our ability to keep the light on, that is, the light unto nations that has so fundamentally transformed western civilization.

The key to holiness is abstention. In truth, abstention sounds like a bummer. Who wants to be a party pooper? It’s clear, however, that the greatest rewards in life are gained through abstention. Marital bliss and the resulting gift of children can only take place when one abstains from extramarital affairs. Accessing the deepest potential of the Sabbath and holidays requires a long list of abstentions. In fact, the way we celebrate is largely framed in the negative by the things we CANNOT do. We then fill the empty space that remains with nurturing activities like prayer, long meals and family time that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. God seems to be teaching us the invaluable lesson that most worthwhile endeavors involve postponing immediate gratification for a brighter future. I’m reminded of the research study wherein children tempted with delicious marshmallows would receive extra ones if they could wait. The kids were tracked throughout their lives and those who were able to abstain from the treats for a certain period of time were the most successful in life.

Whereas Rashi claims that a state of holiness is the result of abstaining from the illicit sexual acts that are enumerated in the rest of the Kedoshim parsha, Ramban argues that holiness arises from abstaining from those things that are ARE permitted to us. He points out that one can keep kosher and still be a slovenly glutton. This teaches that holiness involves balance. Eat kosher food, but don’t be a pig! Learn Torah, but don’t be a snob. Make a fortune, but give tzedakah. We may be a separate nation that “dwells apart,” but we are loving and tolerant to others. In the search for holiness it’s tempting to go to extremes or attempt asceticism but as the Rambam states, the key is to remain integrated with one’s community and to walk on the “shvil hazahav” or a balanced path. Perhaps the best biblical example of the importance of balance can be found in the laws of becoming a Nazir (one who feels the need to get super-frum for a period of time.) One might think that undertaking “extra” commandments is commendable but remarkably, when one completes the Nazirite period, he or she must bring a sin offering.

Our sages divide our commandments into positive and negative. Thou shalt vs. thou shalt not. The “shalt” category is simply a list of 248 divine pathways for connection at our disposal. The 365 “shalt nots” are those activities that will clog up those divine pathways. Stop for a moment and ponder that the next mitzvah you do, even giving a buck to a beggar, is opening a divine pathway to holiness. The grand total is a God-given 613 commandments (and not 613 “suggestions!”) They are the key to retaining holiness. Yes, it is worthwhile to debate the nuances of observance, but not at the expense of simple faith and service. The mitzvot are our most invaluable inheritance. Every single mitzvah you do has “angels doingbackflips.” Some claim that this system is archaic, valid only in biblical times or that Judaism today is a vestigial rabbinic construct. I’d like to argue that more than ever these principles are crucial for understanding the world, staying married, staying in shape, taking a weekly break from technology/media and igniting our imperiled national spark.

In fact, I believe that the net result of learning about holiness and applying the lessons leads to nothing short of a Matrix-style taking of the red pill. One enters a new realm, a powerful, palpable parallel universe. A realm filled with joy and tranquility. Even when everything seems to be going wrong! This transformation is the logical result of entering the path that God has created for his chosen people. Electrons have distinct pathways, planets have orbits, a forest left on its own will flourish. We humans are utterly miraculous in terms of the inexplicable design of our bodies and souls, the pinnacle of God’s creation. Of course we too have a path! We call it halacha, which literally means “the pathway” and is the term for the body of Jewish law. Seen this way, law isn’t confining or strict, it’s liberating! Taking on mitzvot with intention, understanding and balance can launch us on a trajectory where one can soar with God. Prayer becomes a mind-blowing tool of sweet partnership and dialog. Human interaction becomes refined and enlightened. Sounds utopian, right?

When we walk with God we can immediately perceive when we are off track. We feel the disconnection in our bones. I used to arrive at the synagogue on the High Holidays and wonder what I was doing there. I’m a “good person” after all! Why get on this woolen suit in the heat of late summer and stand here for hours with people I only see once a year? Transitioning to a mitzvah-focused life in my mid-twenties changed all that. Slowly but surely I was becoming spiritually sensitized to my own holy path and could intuit with some degree of confidence when I had strayed. It wasn’t about being ridden with guilt or feeling like I had to please my parents. Now I was in shul on the holiest day of the year with twenty-five precious hours to set things straight with my beloved Creator and best friend. Striving for holiness restores our internal compass. It clears the muck that clouds the glass and resets our magnetic north.

King David summarizes the formula for entry into holy space in the Psalm: “Sur meyrah v’asey tov.” Run from evil and do good. That’s it. Distance yourself from doing negative commandments and actively do the positive ones. Easy, right? Part of running from evil requires clarification of what is evil in the first place, and remaining vigilant against our temptation to the allure of the “dark side.” One might think that 613 commandments are more than enough. (Some think 10 are more than enough!) Well, there is much more to it; our rabbis have instituted a system of fences to keep us from trampling on the mitzvot and enhance our chances of successfully accomplishing “sur meyrah.” These fences are an integral part of halacha and negotiating them requires learning the nuances with a qualified rabbi. “Sur meyrah v’asey tov” also informs the teshuva (return) experience…until we stop the mistake we are making, only then can we apologize and resolve not to repeat it. I immerse in a mikvah before Shabbat each week and it is upon these words that I meditate while underwater.

There are two pitfalls I want to disavow: one is the misconception of personal limitations keeping one out of the game. That’s the voice in your head that says, “But I’m too ______ (fill in the blank with “bad at Hebrew, broke, far from a synagogue, depressed, busy, annoyed…”) My friends, there are 613 mitzvot to choose from. Start with one and make it your own. Do it for the wrong reason (guilt, shame, because I told you to, to make money, you are afraid God will strike you down) and eventually it will become a natural part of your life for the right reason. Don’t wait for a miracle or a patient rabbi to appear. Be the person in your group of friends who joins a synagogue, takes a stand for Shabbat, doesn’t eat shrimp. One of my favorite lines in the Torah is, “it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven…nor is it over the sea…rather the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart.”

The other pitfall is feeling that the “yoke of heaven” is a burden. Sure, no one wants a yoke around his or her neck! But a yoke allows oxen to plow and thereby bring sustenance and hopefully abundance into the world. Remember that all these rules and regulations are really our freedom, a source of pleasure and joy. Our sages point out that our biblical heroes lost their access to prophecy when they weren’t in a place of joy. You can see it in the text, for example, when during the twenty-two years Jacob was mourning Joseph he never spoke to God. We are trying to open our spiritual channels to perceive holiness. If observance is making you sad then it is counterproductive. Get out, lighten up, try another mitzvah, try another synagogue, try another community. Torah is “our life and the length of our days.” We are commanded to serve God with happiness and all the calamities mentioned in our holy texts only occur when we fail to do so.

Once the Jewish world gets its collective act together I believe anything is possible. An end to war, hunger, misery. We are seeing this come to fruition in our own times. So much remarkable technology emanates from our beloved Promised Land. Jewish Harvard professors teach the world about happiness. Zany Chabad rabbis on TVenlighten non-Jewish families about shalom bayit (peace in the home.) An unbroken chain of Jewish Federal Reserve chairmen keeps the world economy afloat. Now if we would just learn how to get along as a People, we could truly teach the world about peace. I have found that the most successful members of clergy (in all Jewish denominations) are those that eshew the ivory tower in order to get in the trenches helping congregants do mitzvot. We have tolerated enough Pew reports and population studies to see that promoting Judaism removed from mitzvot and the resulting gift of holiness is like trying to animate a body without a spine. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say that kids are leaving synagogues not because they don’t want religion, but because they DO want religion. Jewish unity is the final cornerstone of our grand mission and I believe we won’t find that elusive unity until we learn to celebrate our differences and rally around Torah.

So there’s the mission statement. Now on to the commentary.  Enjoy the adventures in the book. I had to endure over a thousand flights (in coach!) to bring you these stories and insights. Every month I swore I wouldn’t write another newsletter. But I did. Step by step over the past six years I worked towards a goal of writing a book about my passion in life. Baby steps, persistence and patience are the key elements to reaching any goal. So too with our collective quest for holiness and redemption. That’s why Jacob saw a ladder and not a rocket ship. You’ve got to sweat the climbing, one rung at a time. I hope this humble manuscript will encourage you to “take it up a notch” in your quest for holiness and connection. I welcome all of you to share with me your personal journeys, both the triumphs and crises. We can learn so much from one another. I’m so grateful that you have taken the time to share my journey.

Strapping Up

Monday, April 7th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

My first exposure to tefillin was in a basement workshop of a holy sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem.  I was in Israel for my Bar Mitzvah; a lucky Brentwood, CA boy whose parents opted not only for an LA celebration but also for a meaningful few weeks touring the Promised Land.  The culmination of the experience was a second Bar Mitzvah service at the Western Wall where I read Torah at the spiritual “ground zero” of our planet and forged an unbreakable bond with Israel and my people.  I remember my new tefillin straps feeling sharp and rough; it would be months before the leather would soften and feel comfortable on my skin. After this trip my father made a point of praying with me in his rich, walnut-lined study in the mornings before school, allowing for quality father-son time and ensuring that my tefillin would actually get some use.

Unfortunately I fell into the pattern of most of my Conservative peers and my Bar Mitzvah year would be the last time I’d have any shred of active Jewish life.  Yes, I attended confirmation and a few youth group activities but Judaism as I saw it was for nerds and those without a social life.  Mypriorities were fitting in at public school, skiing, biking and surfing and playing with my band.  I was proud to be Jewish and enjoyed family Friday Night dinners, but my tefillin were relegated to a dark closet never to see the light of day.

Fast forward to my twenties when I was building my first recording studio and working as a full-time composer.  I was chasing TV and movie score work, producing my first albums for clients and trying to get a record deal with my own band.  I was approached to write some music to benefit the Operation Exodus campaign (Hineni) and a song for a Camp Ramah Hallel service (Pitchu Li) and suddenly found myself referred to as a Jewish composer. Accelerating this awakening was meeting John and Ruth Rauch whose Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity was offering a two-week arts seminar in Jerusalem, all expenses paid.  I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem and was excited to get some inspiration to write some more Jewish tunes, so I applied and got accepted to the program.

Imagine the thrill of living in the elegant guest artist hotel Mishkenot She’ananim in Jerusalem where creative types of all sorts performed, collaborated and workshopped late into the nights. I wrote another three songs that would become part of my first Jewish album and bonded tightly with the international group of composers assembled from the four corners of the earth.  On one of the final nights of the program one of our mentors made a point of having a one-on-one conversation with me. Phillip said, “Sam, I’ve noticed you are a deeply religious guy.” I laughed, waiting for the punch line.  “No, I’m serious,” he insisted.  I responded that I couldn’t imagine why he might have come to this conclusion and he replied that he had overheard me in dialog with the Israelis on our program and noted that I always took the religious side of our theological arguments.

Phillip concluded that I should further investigate this side of my personality and perhaps it would bear some fruit.  When I asked how I might do that he suggested that I choose a mitzvah and make it my own. We pondered the alternatives and he then asked if I had ever wrapped tefillin.  “Yes,” I replied, “I have a pair that I received for my Bar Mitzvah.” Phillip told me to try putting them on and using this spiritual activity as a way to remember the connection I felt in Israel.  Upon returning home weeks went by before I made it over to my parent’s house and found the aged leather in the exact place where it had been left sixteen years earlier. The next morning in my beachside apartment I tried to put them on.  I had very little recollection of how to tie the straps or utter the appropriate blessings. I did know enough once I got them on that it was a good time to say the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, to thank God for the blessings in my life and ponder my connection with my heritage.

Midway through my prayers the phone rang.  As I reached for the receiver it dawned on me that this was my time to pray and I shouldn’t interrupt the moment with a call. As I uttered the ancient words, however, I did pause to listen to my answering machine as it picked up the message: it was my friend Jymm Adams from the Sports Channel of LA asking me to do all the music for TV broadcast of the Dodger and Angel home games that season.  I reached my strapped up hands to the heavens and said, “We’ll try this again tomorrow!”

I never got another lucrative mid-prayer phone call, but this small daily exercise of faith gave me something much more: a palpable relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth.  As long as I was setting aside a few minutes each day to pray I started to navigate the challenging waters of the long winded P’zukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and the central prayer, the Shmoneh Esrai.  I added paragraph by paragraph onto my personal ritual, not wanting to bog myself down with too long a service but hoping to increase the fluidity of my Hebrew reading.  I was suddenly grateful for the hours of Hebrew School, Camp Ramah and practice with my cantor and Bar Mitzvah tutor. Thanks to those with the thankless task of teaching this class clown, I could actually read the Hebrew and with time could flow through the siddur.  Before long I could get through the majority of the Shachrit (morning) service and put on my tefillin like a champ.  Eventually I learned to focus on the meanings rather than just pronunciations of the words and learned to close my eyes and simply dwell in God’s presence.

At first the whole binding exercise seemed like a masochistic reenactment of the binding of Isaac, attempting to sublimate ego and will to that of the Almighty in a servant/master relationship. Perhaps tefillin are a physical expression of our being “bound” in a covenant with God. Contracts and covenants are good in that they inspire a sense of trust for each party; I was learning to trust God in my daily life, and I was hoping to become someone that God would consider a trustworthy partner in the healing of the world. As I grew in my spiritual intelligence I realized that tefillin commemorate a much greater degree of intimacy that can only be compared to the covenant of marriage: When we wind them around our fingers we utter the betrothal passage of Hoshea that is often recited at marriage ceremonies. For me, tefillin represent a daily “chuppah” moment just like at Mount Sinai, where I get to participate in a loving embrace of my “partner” in creation.

We all know that tefillin are mentioned four times in our Torah, most notably in one of our most important prayers, the Sh’ma. It is these four passages that are carefully transcribed with the same care as a mezuzah or Torah scroll, both in the head and arm boxes. In the Sh’ma our love affair with God is described as one that involves all our heart, soul and might. So too do we wear the tefillin on the arm close to the heart, on the head, the seat of the soul/intellect, and might, the realm of action on our bicep. There is also an idea that the head straps hang unevenly down towards our genitalia. Essentially we are employing a very physical system of checks and balances, a daily uniting of our spiritual and material existence, our yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (good and evil inclinations,) all within the realm of love. Tefillin offer us the chance to walk the middle path, to keep our intellect, emotions and physical being in peaceful coexistence in service to God.

Another virtue of this practice is the idea of unifying the transmission of both the written and oral law.  The Chumash (Torah) advises that we place a sign on our arms and between our eyes, but does not tell us exactly where that place is, what that “sign” looks like or even to employ leather and parchment.  Yet for millennia Jews have worn the same black boxes in more or less the same way.  I remember on that Bar Mitzvah trip how we hiked to top of Masada and learned that the 2000-year-old tefillin that were discovered were indistinguishable from those of today. Clearly Moses was shown diagrams and visions in addition to just taking dictation on Sinai. This oral law gives us the “meat” on the bones of our written transmission of God’s will. By wearing tefillin everyday we deepen the connection of these two worlds of understanding and take our place in the chain of transmission.

I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s book aptly titled “Tefillin” for anyone curious about the role of gender and the deeper mystical aspects of this mitzvah.

These days I wear my tefillin wherever I wander.  I find that I am often in airports or on the rooftops of hotels looking for a quiet corner to strap up and say my morning prayers. I know it appears strange to onlookers but laying tefillin makes a definitive statement: “I’m Jewish, this is what we do, thanks for respecting our differences.” I welcome the questions that often ensue. When I’m not in the synagogue, I have a favorite spot on my east-facing porch where I am greeted with the warm morning light, flitting hummingbirds and the perfume of jasmine. With my own kids I am relaxed with pushing them to get to a minyan on Shabbat, but I consider the wearing of tefillin every weekday inviolate. Their willingness to do this mitzvah is a prerequisite to participating in our family vacations or any activities on Sundays. Thankfully they get it, largely because they see me doing it and they intuit the importance of consistency. Hopefully it’s more than guilt that motivates them…they have their own loving relationship with God…why mess that up? As Woody Allen says, “80% of life is showing up.” I believe that faithful behavior like a daily appointment with one’s tefillin elevates elusive faith into the realm of knowledge.

I’d like to finish with a tefillin story.  Everyone that I know that wraps on a daily basis has a good tefillin story, usually about their quest never to miss a day under any circumstances. One day on a concert tour/family vacation on the North Shore of Kauai I did my morning service on the beach overlooking a perfect double overhead swell at Hanalei Bay.  After davening I stashed my tefillin in the car and paddled out to have one of the most exciting surf sessions of my life. The locals were helping me get into position to drop into some of the smoothest and deepest bowls of bright green glass of my aquatic career.  After a few hours of breathless exertion I returned to my rental car surprised that the interior smelled of cigarette smoke.  I then realized that someone else had been in the car.  I checked under the seat to find that my phone, camera and tallis/tefillin bag were gone.

I searched the area, interviewed onlookers and filed a report with the police, to no avail.  My son Max was Bar Mitzvah age but had left his tefillin in LA and I didn’t know of anyone else in the North Shore that might be observant. What would I pray with on the following day, the last weekday of our trip?  I had another problem…how would I reach the guy with whom I was supposed to be jamming that night?  After my concert the night before, some locals were inspired to get me together with a percussionist to do a show in a club. But now without my precious iPhone, I didn’t have any of their contact information.  It dawned on me that some friends of ours from LA were vacationing on the South Shore. Perhaps we could reach them and arrange to get together and borrow their tefillin.

Sure enough the Brant-Sarif family agreed to meet us for a hike on the North Shore. We met on the edge of a certain condo complex where a steep trail heads down a cliff to a system of ocean-side sea caves inhabited by giant sea turtles. Following our explorations we scaled the cliff back to the parking lot and went back to their car so that my son and I could daven with tefillin. Time was of the essence since they had to get back down south before Shabbat came in. Just as I strapped up, a warm Hawaiian drizzle started to fall.  To avoid getting my friend’s tefillin wet we all dashed into the alcove of one of the condos and shared an animated communal mincha (afternoon) prayer session.

Just as we were davening the owner of this particular condo came walking down the stairs and shouted, “What the…” Upon closer inspection he stated, “my mishpocha!”  Sure enough he was a Jewish guy from the mainland that had recently made Hawaii his home.  He demurred when we offered him to try on the tefillin but he invited us into his condo for a drink.  When I introduced myself as a visiting musician he responded, “You’re Sam Glaser?? We were supposed to jam last night!”  Yes, this condo where we were huddled, trying to sneak in our mitzvah of tefillin before Shabbat began, was the very home of the person that I needed to reach the day before.

Wearing my tefillin on a daily basis has been nothing other than a window to perceive the daily miracles in my life. Thanks to this discipline I have a regular rendezvous with the Almighty that is fulfilling and unshakeable.   Ensuring that I never miss this appointment has created some truly memorable moments.  I’m also reminded of the power of an encouraging word: just like my mentor on that Israel program gave me the idea of tefillin as a way to connect my trip to further spiritual growth, so too do I try to offer similar suggestions to those with open hearts whom I encounter. Finally, tefillin offer access to the deepest realms of the soul: a connection of mind, body and heart, a binding of servant to master and a daily reenactment of our sacred marriage with the Creator of the Universe.

In Search of Hidden Miracles

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

The other night over tofu curry my wife was explaining the concept of fiscal vs. calendar years to my kids. Times they are a-changing: my seventeen-year-old Jesse just opened his own E-Trade account so that he can play the market on his own. He used to hunt bugs in the backyard; now he’s studying corporate cash flow! She told him that most individuals in the US seem to follow the January to December calendar model, making January the back to work month following a holiday vacation and a drunken New Years Eve. My dad’s swimwear business went summer to summer since we shipped everything by May and then had to figure out what to do the next season.

We then discussed that most synagogues work on a fiscal year that begins with the High Holidays since that’s when they put on the “big show” for the crowds of the penitent and do most of their fundraising. That schedule holds true in my business also since my gigs follow the ebb and flow of synagogue life. It seems to make sense to start the Jewish calendar year on Rosh Hashana, literally the “head of the year,” but indeed, that’s not how it goes in the bible. In fact, just as we are about to leave Egypt with great signs and wonders, our first commandment as a nation is to keep a calendar. Once we become free men and women, we are personally accountable for the passage of our time and must learn to use it wisely. We also have to know when the fifteenth of the month is so that we can properly conduct our national homecoming party, the seder. Therefore the Jewish year actually begins in Nissan, the month of Pesach, which makes this month, Adar, the last month of the year and both a time to party and a season of reckoning.

What exactly we’re supposed to be feeling in this final month of the calendar is concealed behind the mask of our beloved Adar holiday, Purim. Yes, it’s a great holiday for kids but the real magic requires deeper analysis. The scroll that we are commanded to read, Megilat Esther is one of the final entries in the chronology of the Jewish biblical canon and interestingly, has no mention of God’s name. We start the year with the Pesach Haggadah and it’s manifold recitations of gratitude to God for the plethora of miracles performed on our behalf. Missing from this text is the mention of the story’s hero, Moshe! By the end of the Jewish calendar year, no discussion of God and it’s all about Queen Esther. What has changed? Evidently over the Jewish year we move from emphasis to God’s revealed hand in our redemption (Exodus) to a focus on the action of individuals with God operating behind the scene (Esther). I think the message here is that God is always with us even when that isn’t clear, and that we’ve got to get into the game.

The rabbis teach that the ten plagues in Egypt transpired over a nine-month period. This was our national gestation; we morph from Avraham and Sarah’s mishpocha (family) into a great, holy nation. Over the course of the next few millennia we read about the fits and starts of our spiritual adolescence traveling to and living in Israel and then finally, by the time of Esther, we renew our covenant as adults. No more need for coercion, no more need to have Mount Sinai held over our heads, we accept the yoke of the commandments willingly and with joy, knowing that God’s intimate Presence follows us wherever we wander. In fact, the title of our text holds the answer to the puzzle of Jewish survival through this long exile: Megilat Esther can be translated as “revealing the hidden,” it’s a lesson plan in adopting a world view where we perceive God’s hand behind all events.

Therefore, the vibe of this month of Adar is to bask in the emunah (faith) that we have crafted over the Jewish calendar year. Every holiday that transpires, beginning with our national homecoming (Pesach), reenacting the receiving of Torah (Shavuot) and then the High Holidays, serves to build this invisible shield of Divine love and protection. By the time we’re getting ready for Purim we rejoice in the seemingly “God-less” story knowing firmly in our hearts that God’s grace is behind all the events in our lives. In fact, the word emunah alludes to “craftsmanship,” sharing the same root as the word “amanut,” the arts and crafts that we used to do at camp. The subliminal effect of full immersion in the Jewish holiday cycle forms a level of belief that is real, tactile, or as my Rosh Yeshiva used to say, offers “five finger clarity.”

One of the gifts of Judaism is the feeling that we are part of a big-picture national destiny, that time is marching towards a goal and we are here as Jews to do our part to bring that ultimate tikkun olam, or fixing of the world. When one is focused on a greater goal, the day-to-day mishaps become trivial. This eschatological passion has kept the Jews on track through millennia of abuse and deprivation. As Monty Python’s Black Knight might have said, “it’s just a flesh wound.” That’s because in our hearts we know we’re on an important mission as a people and that God is cleverly guiding history towards a powerful goal. When Queen Esther is given the chance by Uncle Mordechai to be the hero, he warns her: if you don’t take a stand here, our salvation will come from somewhere else. In other words, as Jews we can opt in to this great adventure or relegate ourselves to the sidelines. God will get the job done regardless. I say: let’s get on the playing field and go for it! My generation is sadly, for the most part, opting out and it is this bitter fact that keeps me packing my bags for yet another trip rather than sitting in the comfort of my recording studio.

There’s another aspect to this evolution that began with overt miracles to God’s working subtly behind the scene. Imagine that you are imprisoned and have a prison guard right outside the cell. Obviously with the watchful guard on the scene you are on your best behavior. When the guard goes on rounds, however, that’s when you can do headstands, scrawl graffiti or go back to digging that escape hole with a spoon. The God of Nissan is an overwhelming presence that limits our freedom of choice, whereas the God of Adar gives us the space to express the fullness of our human gift of choice. I believe that all history is following this same principle and more than ever we live in age where we are stratified into believers and “secular.” That intelligent people can deny God’s presence fills me with mirth. Just look at how powerful God is, like the guard on his rounds, giving us the freedom to perceive God, or not. Amazing!

I also see a remarkable shift of the power center of humanity moving from a single leader into the hands of the masses. In fact, Judaism teaches that we are on a continuous down-slope of leadership as we move farther from Sinai. But there is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as we move towards our ultimate redemption. The internet is one of the best examples of this modern revolution of self-empowerment. As of 2014 the majority of folks in the developed world have smartphones in their pockets. That means they have Google readily available for any question under the sun, not to mention the over a million remarkable apps at their bidding. When our greatest leader Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mt. Sinai his face was glowing. His light was so bright that he had to wear a mask just to deal with the regular folk. Perhaps Moshe had to die before they went into the Land of Israel so that the Jews would learn to stand on their own two feet and become leaders in their own right. Hold up a candle in daylight and it’s light is irrelevant…but in a darkened room it can light the way. Fast forward three millennia and we have democracy, ipads and near total literacy. Our leaders may not be as monumental as those of the bible or even those of our previous generations but we live at a time when more than ever, every individual soul can shine.

The most important theme of this, our final month of the year, is that of joy. Living in a state of simple faith brings on the greatest joy. The month of Adar is the capitol of joy and Purim is its headquarters. At the end of days our sages tell us that Purim will be one of the only holidays that we celebrate. Because it’s all about joy in the end. We’re commanded to lessen our joy in the month of Av since we commemorate the loss of our national sovereignty and our beloved Temple. When Adar comes in we’re told to increase our joy. Reading between the lines reveals that we must ALWAYS be joyous. Lessening joy means we’re still serving God with joy! All the disasters foretold in our Torah occur because we forget to serve God with joy. When our service becomes a burden…look out! The true goal of Adar is seeing that the seeming “bad” breaks in our lives are all for our good, that we must accept them without despair. Jews can never despair. Gam zeh l’tova…this is also for the good. It’s one level to have acceptance. The Adar challenge is to accept pain with JOY.

Seven times every nineteen years our rabbis instituted a system of leap years to keep our lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar. This is required because according to the Torah, Nissan, the season of our redemption, must occur in the spring. Some argue that the rabbis chose the month of Adar to double because it is the last month of the year. I believe that there is more to it. If one is choosing which month to double, make it the most joyous of months! Imagine a double Av…yuck! Furthermore, when we get the chance to go through an experience a second time we can enjoy it so much more. We may have “been there, done that.” But if we take advantage of even more wisdom and perspective the second time around it’s much more powerful. In this case, Adar 2 can double our joyful emunah!  The Talmud debates whether it is better to seize the day and celebrate Purim in the first Adar. It then concludes that it is more important to celebrate in the second month of Adar in order to maintain its thirty-day proximity to Pesach. That way our holidays of redemption at the end and beginning of our canonic saga are juxtaposed. Just like we go right from finishing the Torah on Simchat Torah to starting immediately with Breshit (Genesis), we flow from our cycle of God’s hiddeness right into a deeper appreciation of God’s light revealed.

I urge you to go to a place where Purim is celebrated with joyful abandon. If you live in LA…just walk Pico Boulevard. Take advantage of the transformative power of the four mitzvot on this special day: hear the megila, give substantially to the needy, give a few items of food as a token of friendship and eat a hearty meal at the end of the day. For many of us, intoxication gets us to a place where the heart is opened, we love more readily and tears of joy can flow. For some of us getting intoxicated is a mistake. I find that when I’ve had a few l’chaims my empathy muscle is stronger and charity becomes more natural. Maybewalk over to a 7-11 and take care of the people outside. Acknowledge the miracle of God’s stewardship in the your life. Take a stand for a friend with a gift of food, the gift of time and a patient ear. Be deeply grateful for the feeling of belongingness to this remarkable nation. Make this Purim the day you emulate Queen Esther, becoming an integral part of the solution to the issues that face our people and the entire world.

Keeping Consistency Constant

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

The night before my son Jesse left for summer camp in Wisconsin we were sitting around the dinner table discussing discipline. We turned to our sixteen-year-old counselor-in-training to get his feedback on our parenting style. Jesse commented, “Dad, you have never punished me.” “Really?” I responded. “Yep. Never.” I asked my wife if this is a good thing. She responded, “probably not.” I guess I will be remembered as an “old softy” and clearly Jesse has the healthy quality of omitting certain memories. So how do I enforce discipline? My technique seems to be treating my kids like adults and making consequences real. Indeed, there are ground rules in our mostly peaceful household. If they are broken, our kids immediately sense that the placid order of our micro-universe has been altered. Yes, they can keep pushing or nudging and drive us crazy, but why do that? It doesn’t get them anywhere.

I think there are two key factors that have kept us sane while raising the next generation of LA Jewish kids. One is that we leave most of the heavy lifting to God. What we eat, how we treat others and what we do on Shabbat and holidays isn’t something we have to negotiate. We have a 3500-year-old tradition that offers precise guidelines to keep out of one another’s hair and perceive God’s presence in our everyday lives. The kids see us not only respecting halacha (Jewish law) but also loving it. We appreciate that the genius of Judaism is in the details. We don’t obsess about the supposed limitations but we embrace them. We lead by serving as an example and not by lecturing. And we live in a community where love of Torah and a natural adoption of halacha is the norm.

The other factor is the focus of this essay, consistency. We’re not perfect, but as parents, we are really there for our kids. Going to bat for them at school, helping them grow, not tolerating wasting time or mistreatment of others. When we say we’ll be at the corner to pick them up, we show up on time, give or take five minutes. Dinner is on the table for a family sit-down every night. I think our kids sense that we are all teammates and that we will do whatever we can for them within our means. No really means no. And as hard as it is to have a meeting of the minds, my wife and I do try to dispense justice in tandem and resist our kid’s attempts to play one parent against the other. Our parenting style isn’t “disciplinarian.” Just disciplined.

Consistency is one of the few themes that we areconsistently repeating. All three of our children take lessons on their respective musical instruments and must practice regularly if they want to continue. We encourage them to find friends that are trustworthy and do not run hot or cold based on ever-mutating peer popularity contests. We teach follow-through and expect them to meet the obligations they have taken on. I regularly emphasize the teaching that the holy ark was lined with gold leaf on the outside AND on the inside. Why waste precious gold on the inside? The lesson in a nutshell is that being consistent isn’t just an outward attribute; a true tzadik is holy on the inside and the outside. Learning to be consistent as kids makes them better sons and daughters and I believe will make them better employees, employers and most importantly, spouses.

I regularly reflect on our “chassan and kallah” classes when we were newlyweds. Torah wisdom suggests that the guys make their wives the “queen” of the household, and women must demonstrate sincere respect for their husbands. The marriages that thrive seem to be those where the couple is very consistent in managing these two behaviors. Men, you have to make your wife number one. And remind her daily how she rocks your world. Any less and she feels “hated,” much like Leah felt hated by Yaakov. Women, while it’s true that you may wear the “pants” in the family and may even be the primary breadwinner, you have to keep your husband feeling respected and venerated. And not just on Father’s Day. Anyone can be a tzadik for a minute or two. It’s consistent proactive behavior that keeps marriages strong.

Another piece of advice we got as neophyte grooms is to ensure that we consistently satisfy our wives both in the bedroom and the way we pitch in around the house. The key is to set a standard during the first year of marriage that is reasonable. In other words, not firing on all cylinders at the starting line if that is a pace we can’t maintain. During that first year of marriagewe minimize outside distractions to find a point of deep connection and passion, thereby allowing one’s spouse to feel secure that the pattern of love and duty established is not going to diminish. The true aphrodisiac in a loving relationship is consistency: honesty and reliability that builds real trust and thereby builds intimacy.

Similarly, those growing in Judaism have to set an observance level that they can maintain and not burnout. Yes, we all need to be learning and growing; good enough is the enemy of greatness. But not all at once. Most wise teachers suggest a “baby steps” pace so that the growth remains consistent and practical. It’s hard to take someone seriously that jumps from eating Big Macs into a glatt kosher ascetic the next day. Just like we build marital intimacy with consistency, so to can we bond with the Creator of the Universe. The same dynamic is at play: don’t bite off more that you can chew, take one mitzvah at a time, take on Shabbat one hour at a time, show up for prayer whether you feel like it or not. Every mitzvah has angels doing back flips. Consistency with one’s commitments to God are the engine of the relationship; after all, God created the concept of fidelity and thankfully is infinitely patient.

As many of you know, I am excited about The Possible You, a seminar in powerful Jewish living that I deliver about every other month. One of the key aspects of the work is to distinguish “emes” from “sheker” or truth from falsehood in terms of our relationships with God, one another and ourselves. When we are consistent we are bringing truth into the world. When we break our word we bring falsehood. The goal of this work is in respecting the power of the word, creating reality with our declarations and maintaining that reality by being consistent. This isn’t a recipe for guilt every time you are running late, just something to keep in mind when you have a lapse. One can simply restore emes to the world by apologizing, re-committing to a new goal and moving on. The prophet Shmuel says, “Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker,” usually translated as, “The Jewish People are eternal.” A better translation is “the eternity of Israel is intact because we don’t deceive,” or that our close relationship with God is unbreakable when our word is our bond.

We all have areas where we are inconsistent. Usually it’s those very areas that are crucial for our personal task (tafkid) in life. Thank your Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) for tripping you up in the very place you need consistency. It knows exactly what to do to keep you from reaching your life goals. The $100,000 question is then, how can we create more consistency in our lives? I think the key is threefold: once we identify things that make us procrastinate, give us heart palpitations or get us addicted, set small, manageable goals in

writing and tackle them one by one. Too big a mountain and we’ll never try to climb it. Another method is to bring God into the picture. For example, when I have a creative roadblock I ask God for a new song before I go to sleep. I am rarely let down. Some folks feel funny praying on their own behalf. Establish your small goal and ask for God’s help in achieving it, in the same language you would use asking a friend to do you a favor. Finally, allow yourself a sense of triumph when you accomplish each step and reward yourself for being consistent. For me, chocolate ice cream is a great perk. In fact, I think I’ll use that one right now as a reward for getting this essay written.

There are so lessons we can learn from that simple sentence we utter upon awakening: Modeh Ani. I am grateful to you, living and eternal King, Who consistently returns my soul with abundant compassion. Consistency is God’s gift to us. That we can busy ourselves surfing Facebook while our lungs breathe, blood circulates and food digests is nothing short of a miracle. Every sunrise is a miracle. It just loses its impact by virtue of repetition. “Modeh Ani” asks us to not even leave our beds without acknowledging that our miraculous lives are sustained by God’s quiet consistency. Perhaps the best way to emulate the Creator is with an emphasis on bringing that same consistency to our interactions with our children, spouses and everyone we meet.

A Love Letter to My College Bound Son

Friday, April 12th, 2013

IMG_8800SMby Sam Glaser

Dear Max,

I just booked our Summer family vacation in Lake Tahoe. It will be an amazing place to spend a week…serious mountain biking, hiking and water skiing. As excited as I am I can’t help but be a bit melancholy. I have had the great gift of being your dad for the past 18 years. You are a superstar kid and have given me nothing but nachas (Jewish joy.) I celebrate the fact that you are entering your college years with so much enthusiasm and readiness to take on the world. I believe in you, Max. There’s nothing you can’t do.

So yes, it’s our last family vacation with all of us together for a while. Too soon we’ll have our last family dinner, our last Shabbat, a rockin’ graduation party and you’ll be off to camp and then the Holy Land. What a gift to have a year in Israel before college kicks off. Dreamy. I think some parents of teens are ready to see their kids hit the road. I’m not one of those parents. I love spending time with you. My greatest memories are the time we’ve spent together. We’ve had amazing adventures, deep musical connections, great conversations. I dig all your friends and love the fact that the gang comes over every Shabbat afternoon. I have great joy being your music teacher and getting to see you grow on the guitar in Jazz Ensemble and rockin’ Pro Tools in our recording technology class. I love watching your mom look at you with unfathomable love in her eyes.

In fact, everyone that I know that has ever met you only has great things to say about you. That’s a pretty rare thing. I’ve never seen leadership ability like yours. You’ve had it all your life. You are totally comfortable in every situation that you find yourself. On my concert tours on which you’ve joined me you are connecting with the synagogue youth whether it’s Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Your teachers and rabbis rave about you. I get to watch you every year on the Pesach programs that I lead. Mom and I just gasp at how the entourage gravitates to you and how when you move on, they move too!

You are so at ease with yourself and remarkably you wear your confidence without pushing anyone down. Working the crowd without having to be the joker or the troublemaker or the scammer. Clearly you have learned only the good side of the things from your devious dad. Other than driving too fast. You are incredible with kids and are a beloved cousin, counselor and mentor. You are so open and loving with those “specially-abled.” You are so totally there for your four beautiful grandparents. You are a wizard on the guitar, with the computer, with just about anything you do. You have gotten school wired and should have so much pride that you have excelled more and more every year, on every report card and are busting out nearly straight A’s your senior year. Do you see a certain trajectory here?

And now you’re off to the Promised Land. Oooooh you are so lucky. It is such a wild, beautiful, exciting place. A place where holiness is flowing in the very air you breathe. The opportunity for connection is so powerful and present. You will be in an amazing growth environment with rabbis and peers that will support you into your own spiritual flight. Starting your post high school educational and professional life with Jewish fundamentals makes so much sense. After all, whether you become a hedge fund manager, psychologist or rock guitarist, you will have a serious foundation in place. I first got turned on in Israel when I was just a bit older than you. I was totally ready to do great things in my life and my heart was open. It may be hard to believe but you will become even more open as you put teenage angst, LA hype and living with your parents behind you. Yes, you can spend the year partying, but if you can find the discipline you will come out of this year with a passion to maximize every moment of your time, becoming more creative, productive and the master of your destiny.

There are a few things I’ve been thinking about now that you are launching into your official Israel gap year, a tradition, thank God, for most of the young people in our community. I’m so happy that you have my brother Yom Tov and Leah and their amazing eight kids to hang out with on a regular basis. Please bond deeply with all of your cousins. They miss you so much. They have been deprived of having you in their life and deserve to get their fill of you. You will blow them away and I know that they will see what a towering mensch (real human) you are. I’m getting weepy as I write this. I’m so proud of you, Max. I love you so much. You are such a credit to our family, a living testimony that mom and I did pretty good job with you. You are an extension of us to the world. We will be living vicariously through your adventures. Please keep us posted!

You are already a powerful ambassador for the Jewish People. Everyone who sees your kippah feels your good vibe and feels good about the heritage you represent. Do you understand what an intense Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that is? You will likely ramp up your commitment in Israel. It’s true that many “frum out” there but not just on the surface. You just feel God’s presence so powerfully through your learning and holy lifestyle that you would never ever do anything to mess it up. You do mitzvahs not because your parents or rabbis expect something out of you. The motivation comes from an outpouring of intense love for your relationship with God. The relationship becomes palpable. Why would you ever mess up your best friend in the Universe?? You will be driven by sweet longing and unspeakable gratitude for your life and everyone you meet will be deeply attracted by the light that you radiate. Yes, you!

You also know from your hyperactive father that our Judaism doesn’t mean you have to sit on your butt and study all day. Judaism means that you are out in the world, spreading light. Yes, we’re an Orthodox family, but we ski and surf and vacation and travel and drink in everything that life has to offer. Except non-kosher wine, of course. I give you permission to get on a bus to Eilat the moment your neshama (soul) tells you you need a break. Go spend some time underwater… learn to scuba dive (as your chassidic cousin Avrami just did), mountain bike, climb, play beach volleyball (my captain of the YULA Volleyball Team!) When you have a l’chaim please have a round for your old dad back in LA – and have a designated driver.

I hope you can get to the Old City as often as you are able. Catch as many minyanim (services) at the Kotel (Western Wall) as you can. It’s the center of the universe! Try your hand at bargaining in the Arab shuk. You’ll get a kick out of Yom Tov’s 10:00am daily lecture at Aish, in a spectacular room overlooking the Temple Mount. Your zany uncle catches major air on his mountain bike as he flies down the Arab Quarter steps. He gets to his class out of breath and addresses an unusual group of hippies, deadheads, Harvard grads and grandparents with an unscripted flow of whatever is on his mind. Anyone can come to his class and it would give him great nachas to see you there. Remarkably our yeshiva, Aish Hatorah, has become the number one outreach address in the world. It has the biggest Jewish website in the world. It brings over more young people to Israel to learn than any organization in the world. I’m not saying your should ditch your program in Mevaseret but I hope you can wander the Rovah (Jewish Quarter) and get to know my old Aish rabbi friends that will be excited to meet you.

Speaking of Aish, as you know we’ve been members of Aish LA since you were born. There are plenty of other synagogues that we go to and love, but Aish is our home. It’s where you crawled around every Shabbat, where you boys had your Bar Mitzvahs, where you rock the teen minyan. What you’re going to discover is that it’s more than just a shul. It’s a movement. You’re a part of it whether you realize it or not. You have seen me and your mother dedicate much of our time, money and effort towards making sure that every Jew we meet has the chance to get excited about Judaism. It’s why you’ve had strangers at a good percentage of your Shabbat meals. It’s why I leave you to go on the road every other weekend. We love sharing our heritage and it breaks our heart when our fellow Jews throw it away.

In my secular upbringing, I was raised with a devotion to Israel and the Jewish People but had no experience keeping kosher, davening (praying) or respecting Jewish law. It’s sad when you think about it. We had no idea what we were missing. Can you imagine your life without ever sukkah hopping? Partying up and down Pico on Purim? Surrounding yourself in the 24 hour feast that is Shabbat? We didn’t even know how to say the Shmoneh Esrai (central Jewish prayer.) Worse yet, we didn’t have clarity on God’s presence in our lives and the power of Torah to keep our act together. Thank God both your mom and I had great parents who gave us plenty of love and values. But we were in a free form “what the hell is this life all about” mystery and forced to explore the cultures of the world to find answers. Yes, there are lots of interesting answers out there, but not the fundamental truth that we celebrate in our own texts.

After my whirlwind four months in yeshiva the first time around, my mind was completely blown. I had amazing and patient guides to teach me and was mature enough to make my Yiddishkeit (Judaism) my own. I was so taken with Israel and the commitment of the people that I met there that upon returning to LA I started a Jewish library so that I’d have books to keep me connected. I became an advocate for Orthodoxy even though I wasn’t quite living it myself. I took “baby steps.” Shortly after I got back my friends started getting married. Most of my buddies with whom I grew up married non-Jews. Most of them didn’t bother getting them to convert. Our vast, 3500-year odyssey ended with them, the chain of Jewish transmission broken. They have kids who have no connection to their heritage and if they ever do connect, will have to jump through hoops to become Jewish.

I knew at that point I had to be part of the solution. I started writing Jewish songs. I met your mom and started doing Shabbas. After another trip to Israel I started wrapping tefillin and davening three times a day. Along the way I got my brothers to study over there and thank God two of them became Aish rabbis and have changed the lives of literally thousands of people. I know it’s hard for you to imagine your bubbie eating treif (non-kosher food.) She only started keeping kosher because some of her kids wouldn’t eat in her home and her reaction was, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Now she has sixteen Jewish grandkids who love their heritage and wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m telling you all this so that you understand that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we are on this path and that nothing would get in our way of giving you this rich Jewish life that has so nourished you. Yes, Jewish day school has left us broke. But we feel like we’ve won the lottery.

Not to overdo the accolades for our shul but I think it’s important to point out to you that the outreach revolution began with one man, Rav Noach Weinberg, zit’s, who had a vision and would not be defeated. He tried and failed several times establishing yeshivot. I think Aish is number seven. King Solomon in Proverbs tells us that the righteous fall seven times but always get back up. Thanks to Rav Noach’s tenacity, we have the incredible life that we do. Please learn from his example, Max. The sky is the limit. Dream big. Get back up when you fail. Depression is not an option. Just get back on the horse and try again. Know with perfect clarity that Hashem is with you. The days we have on this planet are too few to waste feeling sorry for yourself. Get up and get moving. Your face and your mood are public property. Don’t pollute the world with a scowl. Rav Noach always had a sweet smile for everyone and fought with grace until the end of his days. Keep the good attitude, keep the faith, keep smiling and the world will smile with you.

I hope that in your study you’ll find that there is no divide between our spiritual life and material life. We can make money in a holy way. We ski at the speed of sound because it nourishes and refreshes us. We eat only after we thank God for the miracle of our food. We are intimate with our wives and as a result deepen our marital bonds and bring holy children into the world. Living in the realm of Torah doesn’t make you a recluse or weird. You have a gift that you can share with Jews of all stripes. You have a gift that you can share with all nations. They don’t need us to try so hard to be like them. They are blessed by blessing us. Those whom you meet throughout your life will be fascinated by your story, by the things that make you different. In this politically correct world no one is allowed to “dis” people because they are different. We can use that to our advantage. We can be the best Jews we can be, living in the world, interacting and influencing and serving as a Kiddush Hashem, perhaps the highest of all mitzvot. Along the way you may meet some people who are not so excited about the Jewish People. You don’t have to be so excited about them either.

I’m telling you all this so that you get some perspective of what you are getting yourself into. This trip you are taking is not just for you or your family. Your learning is for K’lal Yisrael (the Jewish People,) for all the nations, for all those martyrs who perished in the Holocaust and other times of persecution. It’s to empower you to become a shining example of a great Jewish man, a spiritual leader that will help to bring back our disenfranchised brothers and sisters. You are truly learning when you are able to teach that particular subject. I hope you learn in order to teach. I hope you understand that it’s selfish to be complacent, to be self-satisfied while there are so many unaffiliated Jews that have no concept of the diamonds in their hands. I’m not saying you have to join any particular shul or movement. I’m just saying that you have a very unusual family and very serious passion in your veins that you have inevitably inherited. Yes, you are going to Israel to study, travel, party and make lifelong friends. You are also going to get a sense of the importance of your life’s mission, beyond just earning a living and raising a family. It’s your turn now, my beautiful son. I pray that you’ll use your vast abilities to be a hero for the Jewish people, to continue to be the powerful role model that you already are.

So, my dear Max, there’s my shpiel. There are some other things I want to discuss…we’ll save them for the next jacuzzi. Please try to break away from the computer to have a few more jams, oshkibunis (walks) and conversations with me. I treasure every minute we have together. Your friends will come and go over the course of your life…your family is forever. Make these few months meaningful. Hug your mom frequently. Try to imagine a world where she’s not cooking for you, driving you everywhere, feeding your friends, doing your laundry, making you ice chai just the way you like it. Start listing all the things she means to you and see where the resulting burst of gratitude leads you.

Please try to give love to your sister. She needs you. She needs your hugs and your compassion. She is going to miss you so much. She will be crying real tears of grief when she doesn’t have you around. You may think she’ll be fine but I promise that the gravity of the fact that you are gone for so long will profoundly affect her. You have this precious time to leave an impression. Regarding your brother Jesse, you already know that he adores you, looks up to you and so values your companionship. You guys are best friends and that fact alone has me crying again. He may not be able to express the intense bond he shares with you, but trust me, it informs his being. You have created big shoes for him to fill. You have set the bar high. Give him love and honor. Build him up and avoid words that tear him down. May you always take great pleasure in his successes in life and may he always celebrate yours.

I love you Max, Ze’ev Dov ben Shmuel, my pidyon haben, my beautiful, precious son.


The Possible You

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

by Sam Glaser

December is a time for new possibilities. Thanks to “holiday spirit” the world becomes a kinder, more colorful place.  I just returned from Manhattan where the midtown buildings were transformed into magnificently wrapped presents. Even the cops were friendly. December means that our fiscal year is ending and we ponder what we might do differently when January comes around.  Inclement weather demands that we spend less time outdoors, more time with inside activities that make us more internal, intellectual, introspective. The Torah portions of the season deal with dreamers; between Jacob, Joseph, the butcher, baker and Pharaoh we have eight dreams to cross-reference and inspire our own musings.  Finally, Chanukah calls on us to fill the darkest, shortest days of the year with light and we are challenged to unveil our own unique light unto the world.

Wintertime is usually high season in my tour schedule. As soon as the High Holidays are over, the synagogues and JCCs that I visit are back in cultural arts mode, peaking with the week of Chanukah when just about every institution has a celebration of some sort.  This is the period for me to live my possibilities, to fulfill this sweet life-task of creating programs of uplift and enthusiasm and deepening Jewish connections.  I’m often asked how I can get on airplanes every other weekend, leave my family yet again, pack my clothes, shlep my luggage, sleep in funky beds and subsist on bagels and cream cheese.  I often respond, “well, I have three kids in Jewish day school.”


What’s really driving me? I’ve been averaging between 40-50 cities a year since 1997. Sixteen years later, that’s a lot of cities, a lot of flights and a lot of bagels.  The impetus for all these adventures starts with the songs.  I don’t ask for my songs. Most of them are midnight gifts that I awaken to and stumble across the house to record so that I don’t awaken my wife.  They accumulate and create an unspoken but palpable psychological pressure with an unmistakable mantra: “record me now!” Nascent songs beget the late hours of intensive concocting in my studio, which beget more albums, which beget more concert tours so that I can get them out to my beloved listeners.  My joy of singing, tickling the ivories and cajoling audiences into states of delirious Jewish happiness creates the environment for more songs and the cycle starts yet again.

Milestones tend to make us more reflective. 2012 marks the twentieth year since my first Jewish CD Hineni was released. (actually, it was on cassette…now that really dates me!) This month also marks my fiftieth birthday, on a day I’m lucky enough to share with my musical hero, Beethoven. This is truly a season of introspection for me. What are my possibilities?  How can I take this composing-performing cycle to the next level? What is the legacy I want to leave?  What can I do to combat the assimilation and indifference that I have personally witnessed over the course of my career? How can I be the best husband, son, father and friend?  How can I truly transform the universe using my unique gifts?

I had a revelation this month that I’d like to share. Sometimes when I’m interviewed by Jewish newspapers or DJs I’m asked how a Jewish music performance or workshop can effect lasting change. The fact is that I do my shtick and then hit the road, making no guarantees for the efficacy of my message.   I respond that I try to make the deepest impression possible in my concerts and workshops and then I leave a “review course” in the form of my CDs.  It is my hope that my chosen art form spins for years in cars and computers, regaling my listeners with what I like to think of as “audio Judaica.”  I also keep the channels of communication open via email and Facebook. Still, a little voice inside queries if there another way I can be part of the solution, to better uplift my audiences.

My brother, Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser has another method of inspiring transformation.  Like me, he performs and teaches for a living. But I now see that there is a tremendous difference in our approach, thanks to “The Possible You,” a powerful seminar that he has founded. He takes responsibility for every one of the attendees in his Jerusalem-based twenty-hour program.  He will work with anyone who is not getting it, and relentlessly pursue those who bail before “graduation.” With an intensely paced delivery of profound insights coupled with music, visual aids and group sharing, a crucial set of life tools are communicated to the full spectrum of learners in all modalities.  The results are nothing short of astounding and my brother’s reputation is growing exponentially.  He has cobbled The Possible You from the wisdom of Kabbalah, Mussar and Tanach. It’s tailor-made for the Jewish neshama.  Now with several thousand graduates, myself included, I see The Possible You changing the world.

I’m one of his first trainees.  It’s a bit strange to take orders from my little brother. But my sibling has become a giant and I am honored that I get to learn from him. My heart is swelling with nachas that I had a small hand in nudging him onto his path. We’re best friends.  I believe that it is natural that our trajectories on this planet are colliding, for the good of the Jewish People and the world. We’ve spent a lifetime pulling all-nighters deep in conversation regarding the transformation of the world and ourselves.  Over the years Yom Tov has sent me to various seminars to learn the language and witness the potential for this work. Finally this last week I got to see him in action firsthand.

I just spent an amazing week with my brother in the Boro Park shtetl of New York and then afterwards we met up in LA.  These were his first two Possible You seminars on US soil.  His first group was primarily Chassidic and the second was hip LA twenty-somethings.  I can’t properly describe the experience of witnessing the growth and clarity gained by such diverse audiences in such a short span of time.  Participants work in new realms of trust and commitment, connecting with truth, respect for one another, respect for themselves.

Over twenty hours, strangers become allies and loving friends, taking a stand for each other’s success in life. They open the door to estranged family members and experience real healing for wounds gathered over life’s journey. It sounds too good to be true, right?  I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.

I’m excited to use my experience connecting with a diverse cross section of US Jewry to tweak The Possible You for North American audiences.  I’ll be offering the workshop one weekend a month starting in February 2013, primarily in LA, but also on the road in conjunction with the concerts and Shabbatons that I lead.  I’m not sure if this is the “next thing” that will fulfill my midlife urgings, but it seems like an organic extension of what I offer to the world and my unique relationship with my brother.  I hope not only to help in the lives of participants but to train others in the delivery of this unique process. Most importantly, I will be working in a new realm where I don’t just sing and split, where I can take the time to connect more deeply and take active responsibility for each participant’s progress.

I’m reminded of a favorite vort (Torah thought) on the fact that when God hears the cry of the Jewish People during our slavery, the word for cry is in the plural. Why? Because God hears our cry before we actually are in such pain that we are crying aloud. This is a great lesson for improving interpersonal relationships. Think of friends that might be crying on the inside. A real mentsch doesn’t wait for his or her friend’s problems to escalate! The vort finishes with an idea that blows my mind: Read the passage in Exodus, “I (God) will redeem you with an outstretched arm” very carefully. Perhaps the intention of this line is that God redeems all those who have their arm outstretched to others. I hope to use this next chapter of my life to keep my arm outstretched, to perceive the silent cries of my brothers and sisters, to be more than a fleeting source of entertainment.

On a practical note, I need some guinea pigs to take the ride with me on my first Possible You in LA. I welcome any of my dear readers to join us for a three-day action-packed weekend of bliss February 9/10/11. Yes, you have to sit for twenty hours. But it could be the best twenty hours of your life! Thanks to a generous benefactor who is a graduate, scholarships are available. Let me know if you are interested…details to follow on my website.

I invite my readers to make this holiday season a powerful time to realize possibilities. For yourself, for your community, for Israel, for the planet. Let us take stock in what is truly important. Let’s strive to live in that important/not urgent quadrant. Let us lay the groundwork for our legacy and ensure that we have no regrets along the way. What do you want your own eulogy to sound like? Where are your priorities? Who could use a phone call from you today? May all of our spirits soar like the sweet, holy flames on our menorah and may we merit redemption speedily in our days.

Why Are We Here?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

By Sam Glaser

I’d like to thank my friend and mentor Rabbi Simcha Weinberg for the inspiration for this newsletter.

My favorite comic of the season is Bart Simpson at the blackboard scrawling, “I won’t count how many pages are left in the Machzor.” Formal prayer is an acquired taste, and its acquisition is best achieved with frequent prayer. This theological Catch 22 is exacerbated by the fact that many of my fellow Jews only show up to pray on the two days a year when the prayers are by far the most long winded, confusing and complicated. I have a theory that the intensity and importance of the High Holiday liturgy requires that the chazzan keep the congregation engaged in participatory melody, and the rabbi uses his teaching moments primarily to answer the elephant in the room question: “Why are we here?”

Thankfully I came armed this year with several powerful divrei Torah on this very subject to share with my sweet congregation in Virginia Beach, VA. During Elul, the last month in our Jewish calendar year, I dive into the Machzor (holiday prayer book) out of necessity. As cantor I feel that it is important to run the High Holiday services several times in their entirety so that I am fluid on the melodies and liturgy and can focus on deeper meanings. In order to give words of illumination when I give a sermon, I spend the month steeped in holy books, holy websites and sitting eagerly in the front row when various Torah luminaries grace my shtetl in Los Angeles teaching holiday preparation workshops.

The net effect of this preparation is much like the difference between rushing through an art museum versus taking a comprehensive tour with a knowledgeable docent. It’s great to just show up and see some paintings, but the effect of deep preparation and a powerful guide creates a completely different experience. I realize that if I weren’t leading the holidays in a professional capacity I would not put in the time. But because I do make an effort, I can see how making that effort in other areas of my life would make a profound difference.

I’d like to offer a five part answer to the “Why are we here” question that I hope will enhance the experience of my dear readers come this Yom Kippur. The key “take home” concepts are first impressions, aspiration, desire, beauty and royalty.

First impressions: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are truly portals to newness. We are told that “we never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but the miracle of this holiday period is that God gives us that very gift. We are judged “where we are at,” with a completely new chance to be the people we want to be. We learn from Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from Avraham and Sarah’s home, in the Torah portion read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, that God judges Ishmael not for the mischief he caused with Isaac, nor for the trouble he would create for the Jewish People in future generations. Ishmael was judged where he was at the moment when he was fighting for his life, dying of thirst in the harsh desert, and God answered his prayer with a miraculous rescue. This powerful opportunity to become new again isn’t just semantics. Our cells are continuously regenerating. We know we are vastly different from the people we were ten years earlier. We know that change is possible because we HAVE changed as a result of our deepest experiences, both triumphant and traumatic.

When my wife and I were contemplating the wedding of our dreams we realized that the most profound weddings that we had attended were those few Orthodox nuptials that we had witnessed. We started learning with a favorite rabbi about the deeper meanings of all the customs and decided that while a full blown Tish, Bedeken, Kabbalat Panim and Yichud might bewilder our guests, the spiritual rewards of these traditions were worth the effort. The way it works is that the guys go to a tish where they drink, toast, sing and take care of the formal documents. The ladies greet the bride, a queen for the day seated elegantly at the Kabbalat Panim, and receive her exalted blessings. Then the guys rowdily march the groom out to see his bride, as if for the first time ever, and revel in her majesty. My rabbi suggested that we not see each other or even speak a full week before our big day. “Not even speak? Isn’t that severe? What about the last minute details? What about entertaining our out-of-town guests?” I asked in exasperation. He said, “When you first see your beloved bride, the one you have chosen out of all others in the world, you don’t want to think, “How could you have said that to me last night?”

We wisely took the rabbi’s advice. We created a most powerful first impression that will remain forever etched in our minds. Our capable photographer caught the crystalline tears as they cascaded from my eyes as I veiled my bride in a totally overwhelmed state. Our task is to conjure such a first-time meeting when we stand in the synagogue. The new you. Totally separate from the person you were before walking in the room. Just like Adam, the first man. Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the anniversary of the creation of the world. In actuality, it is the birthday of Adam, the anniversary of the sixth day, the one that really mattered. Just like Adam stood alone in a nascent Garden of Eden, the very definition of a fresh start, so too can we on this first day of the year, and every day thereafter.

Adam’s first prayer was one of aspiration. He saw an incomplete world and according to Rashi, felt in his heart, “this could be so much more!” This is the theme that should inform all of our prayers during this High Holiday period. We’re not davening for selfish reasons; we must see a world of potential and want that potential realized. Only when Adam prayed did the rain fall and create the vast greenery of the garden. Let us all be like Adam and truly want greatness from ourselves and from our world. We live in a time of information overload. Constant news updates, constant connection. After enough bad news it’s easy to close our eyes, to ignore the world’s pain. This is the season to reawaken our aspirations, to remove complacency from our hearts, not to accept the status quo. Think big thoughts! God will hear your prayer! We could be so much more.

God gave Adam a few jobs: take care of the garden, name the animals, avoid certain trees. Adam became a Yes-man, calmly awaiting God’s next command. God quickly saw that this was not ideal (lo tov) and realized that the key to inspiring Adam to take initiative, to think outside the box and feel a sense of desire, was to give him the gift of a wife. Eve ignited his passion and cajoled him to reach his potential. We see proof of Adam’s complacency in the fact that God put him in a “deep slumber” much like God did with Abraham and Daniel. Rather than seeing the overarching prophetic visions like the other biblical heroes, Adam saw nothing during his sleep. Adam’s newfound desire with Eve was a good thing: although he ate from the forbidden tree, at least now he could be a partner with God, not just an employee. This time period, therefore, is the season for the rekindling of desire. We sing Zochreynu L’chaim in our prayers acknowledging that God is DESPERATE for us to desire life, to act as his “hands” in the world, to fill our days with purpose and beauty.

Speaking of beauty, a popular Midrash from the book of Exodus tells us that the Jewish women made mirrors of copper to use when beautifying themselves for their husbands. Most couples had given up on reproducing in the face of the crushing slavery. We were redeemed in the merit of these women who made the effort to show their exhausted husbands both of their images in the mirror. The husbands could see the beauty not only of their wives but the wives would remind their husbands that they too were beautiful in their eyes. The women rekindled their appetite and thereby ensured the future of the Jewish people. In light of their “illicit” origins, Moses was reluctant to follow the command to turn these mirrors into the kiyor, the washbasin that the cohanim (priests) would use in the Mishkan. But God insisted that the cohanim would see their reflection and be reminded just how beautiful they were to God. My friends, we are all God’s children. We are so beautiful to God, just like our own children are beautiful to us. We slide home at the end of a tough year of hard knocks and bruises to our ego. We may get dressed up in our nicest clothes and show up in style to the synagogue on the High Holidays, but inside we feel like a mess. This is the season of restoring our inner beauty, knowing that we are a treasure, one of God’s precious children.

We are so beautiful in God’s eyes that in fact that we are supposed to feel like royalty. One of the crucial changes in the liturgy is the repeated emphasis on God as melech, or king. The Rosh Hashanah service opens with the cantor’s bold Hamelech fanfare, we make the melech insertions in the Amidah or risk having to start the whole thing from the beginning, and we cry out with the plaintive Avinu Malkeynu, our Father our King. Does an omnipotent God need our flattery? Well, yes. A king is powerless without subjects. And having a king as your Father in heaven elevates you to the rank of prince or princess. Our sages tell us that we earned our pedigree by being the offspring of our exemplary matriarchs and patriarchs. The Akeyda, the binding of Isaac, which we read the second day of Rosh Hashanah, sealed our regal status in the eyes of all the heavenly realms. If we do our job over the High Holidays, we emerge whitewashed of sin and reunited with our Creator and our meritorious ancestors. We leave in royal robes, deeply perceiving our inner beauty, filled with aspirations to make the world a proper kingdom for God.

It’s not only Rosh Hashanah where we see mention of God’s kingship. An important part of our Yom Kippur service is the re-enactment of the procedures followed by the priests in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple.) The reason is not only to commemorate what was. It is to remember that we had a palace, a national central address fit for our King. When we sing about the rebuilding of Jerusalem we’re not talking about the Ben Yehuda mall. Think of the sound of the shofar as a coronation trumpet; think of the unforgettable melody of the evening High Holiday prayers as the coronation suite. Thanks to the genius of the commentator Ba’al Haturim, we see that the gematria (numerology) of the Beit Hamikdash equals 861. So does the word Rosh Hashanah. There is an integral connection that bonds both concepts, inspiring us to reclaim our regal heritage and turn our hearts towards Jerusalem.

Perhaps the best way to answer the “why are we here” question is to rejoice in the fact that we are judged. Judgment day sounds like a frightening eschatological B-movie. We live in a time of unparalleled political correctness where judging others is frowned upon. What’s good for you is good for you just as long as you don’t hurt anyone. Dress in woolen suits on a hot day and sit in a synagogue to be judged? I’ll take the beach! But the reality is that we crave judgment. We’re desperate to know that we are on a true path. We spend millions on success coaches, consultants and seminars to help us realign our trajectories and reach our goals. Parents that don’t judge kids destroy their kids. Give your child consistent reward and punishment and you show your love. Ignore him or her and you demonstrate disinterest or even hatred. The idea of God judging me gives me comfort that God cares about me. In response to the love of my Father in Heaven, my Avinu Malkeynu, I am swooning with love that I am eager to reciprocate; I joyfully enter Sukkot with care that I don’t do ANYTHING to damage this precious relationship.

Chassidim frown upon saying the Vidui (confession) on Yom Kippur with a sad voice. How mind-blowing is it that we can fix everything? That God forgives us? That makes me want to cheer! A chet (sin) literally means “missing the mark,” in other words, there can be no intentional sin, only being off target because we don’t perceive the gravity of our actions. Those sins that give us impetus to repair our relationship with our Creator become mitzvot! Confession is a Torah mitzvah, and we must serve God with joy! I’m not recommending putting on a clown suit and parading around the bima (pulpit.) But when you pound your chest in pain for all those shortcomings of our humanity, do it with a smile inside, knowing that God cares, judges us with love and is ALWAYS ready for us to come home.

The High Holidays are about restoring what we always have inside, which is a sweet, loving child. Our inner child is quick to recover from a hurt, openly affectionate and sees the world with wide-eyed wonder. That child knows he or she is beautiful, is filled with desire, and since the world revolves around him he can be a tyrant prince. When a toddler sees his dad on his knees with his arms outstretched across the room, he RUNS into his daddy’s arms with joyous abandon. Rabbi Weinberg quoted the Zohar as stating that the shofar blast is really a lullaby. I know that in my last blog post I referred to the Talmudic reference that the sound is supposed to a forlorn wail modeled after a certain nameless biblical character. But for now, just picture that the final tekiya gedolah at the end of Yom Kippur is a gentle lullaby from God, just for you. May the answer to “why are we here” be perfectly clear: all we need to do is simply run into the arms of our loving Father in Heaven, and hold on to that feeling everyday of the year.

The Art of Letting Go

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

by Sam Glaser

I’d like to share a revelation that I had during a camping trip in awe-inspiring Kings Canyon, CA last week.  I spent much of Shabbat afternoon by a wild river. There’s not much else you can do at a campsite with a small eruv around the tents on a long, hot summer day. Over the course of several miles the rushing water warms from a numbing glacial chill to a balmy 75 degrees. A few dear friends and I walked among the rocks, found perfect places to dip our feet and occasionally submerge to cool off. After a few lazy hours we felt at one with the flow, relaxed and open. During these rare moments of peace I try to ask the deep, dark questions that rarely see daylight. My new friend Frank was on hand to help me with one quandary that had been nagging me.

Rambam tells us that it is cruel to face adversity and not ask why such a thing might be happening. I had pulled a muscle in my calf a few weeks earlier while skateboarding with my son. We were watching the pros at the X Games and then doing some freestyle ourselves. It finally got better and then I managed to re-injure it on a Kings Canyon hike, just when I reached full mobility. Oy…another two weeks of limping? So why now, why my calf, and why the re-injury? Frank believes that revisiting the same affliction helps one recognize that he or she didn’t learn the lesson the first time. I never thought much about my calf strain…these things “just happen” when you over extend, right?

One thing that’s been on my mind is the imminent departure of my oldest son who is now a senior in high school. My wife and I are awakening to the fact that the next family vacation will be the last with all of us together, at least for a while. Soon there will be a missing person at our dinner table. And then another kid will join him, then another. We are hearing the footsteps of Empty Nest Syndrome, and my reaction is to greedily hold on to each moment. I’m shooting more pictures than ever, trying to pack in memorable activities, filling my son’s head with words of guidance, boosting confidence and issuing warnings. Simultaneously I am grappling for traction in a topsy-turvy economy where music is often the first line item cut from disappearing budgets and downloads prevail. I’m learning that my reaction to all these issues is really the same: hold on for dear life, hoard my assets, maintain status quo, wear a convincing smile.

As I expressed these insights I told Frank, “I’m

trying to hold onto my kids just like I’m trying to hold onto this water.” As I reached into the river for handfuls of water it just escaped through the cracks in my fingers and continued on its inevitable descent. I sobbed tears of sadness and relief as I acknowledged this bittersweet pain that I have been carrying inside.

When we feel the need to grab so much we send a message to the Universe: I don’t have what I need, I’m living in fear, and I’m desperate. Holding on creates tension; imagine a fist clenched tightly closed, a contorted bronze sculpture calcified in a defensive, protective pose. That’s me. Where there is no movement there is no grace, no flexibility. Our sages teach us to be supple like the river reed. A dry, brittle twig will break under pressure. Stay liquid, stay open, and stay available. Just like that river flows effortlessly towards Fresno, I must be at peace with change to allow the Divine flow to nurture me.

I’m not sure why that gastrocnemius muscle is called a calf, but we can learn a lot from the mention of the calf in our text, specifically the golden variety. Frank and I discussed the biblical scene of an entire people losing faith in their leader, panicking, creating a replacement deity. Do you see the connection? Panic, anxiety and melancholy cripple one’s faith. Even the afterglow of Divine revelation at Sinai wasn’t enough to keep the Jewish People connected. How much more so do we fall in this generation when current circumstances conspire to annihilate our faith. Bottom line: I am a man of faith who has no faith. I run around the country to fifty cities a year singing songs of love for God and yet my personal faith in

God’s ability to sustain me and keep my family together is crumbling. Rather than serving as an example of holiness and living at peace with the Universe, open to whatever God has in store, I am a frightened child trying to protect all my toys from the neighborhood bully.

My kids will spend a year in Israel, go to college, marry and propagate the species, God willing! That’s what we want! As parents we are archers, pulling back the bow with all our strength and launching our beloved offspring into the fray, using the best aim we can muster. Then they are flying. Separate from us. Leaving us. They will follow their own voice, make their mark on the world, stand on their own two feet. Hopefully they are standing on our proverbial shoulders, with as expansive a view as we can provide. To try to stop the process is like trying to dam up a rushing river. You can try to pile up stones in a Sisyphean rage…or just let the water do what it’s going to do anyway.

In my career, I will continue to have challenges and they will force me to innovate, create partnerships and grow. Why is it that I can counsel friends with clarity, seeing the rich horizons that lay just beyond, and for myself I see darkness? One of my buddies on the camping trip is an actor and yoga instructor. He is 37 years old and says he can’t marry his girlfriend until he has a stable income. Did I mention that he’s an actor and yoga instructor? God wants us happily married! The flow will come! Of course God will continue to look out for my family! Of course I will succeed! Like everyone else, God has given me a unique set of gifts, a piece of the global puzzle that only I possess. God has a purpose for me. I have to make the effort, but I must remember that God will finish the task. Trying to do it all is the act of a pagan. I have God on my team!

One of our nights in the campground we went to the ranger led astronomy lecture. We were astounded to learn of the vastness of space, the size of the great celestial bodies, the mind-stretching distances in the universe. Our sun is just one of over 200 BILLION stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way is just one of over an estimated billion galaxies. For all of our human accomplishments we still haven’t set foot on a single planet in our own quaint solar system. Around the campfire we were marveling that the same God that brought about the Big Bang lovingly created our brains and bodies. God creates new suns in explosive supernovae and still “sheps nachas” when I wrap my tefillin.

After the lecture Ranger Bob brought us to a clearing in the forest where we could peer into the pitch-black new moon sky with a sixteen-inch mirror telescope. My friends, I saw a global cluster, the Whirlpool Galaxy and “eye of God” Ring Nebula with my own eyes! All of these celestial bodies have a specific place in the universe, predictable orbits that they follow, so reliable that we can use their light to steer our ships through the night. All of creation is on a path, with atoms in ordered arrays, electrons and protons spinning around nuclei, trees arching towards the sun, ants marching in single file, pelicans drafting off each other’s wingtips. Why should I dread any aspect of my own path, my lifecycle? Thankfully the Jewish People have been given the gift of a long and winding road of 613 mitzvot, in a system called Halacha, the path. Jewish law can be seen as oppressive and burdensome, or as a collection of helpful spiritual signposts to keep us joyful and inspired on the annual orbit of the Jewish year.

When I am resisting change and anxious about the future, I lose the Divine flow and close myself off to perceiving the path of peace. Judaism has

amazing tools to stay on track but I can testify that it is possible to live within halacha and become a robot. I think the key is focusing on filling our lives with kindness to others and gratitude to our Creator. I am grateful for the time God has allotted me to be with my children. I am grateful for vacations and National Parks. I am grateful for stars, rivers and friends. I am grateful for the air that I breathe. I am grateful for my wife, my children, my parents, my extended family. I am grateful to be Jewish. I am grateful for skateboards, skis, guitars and gravity. I am grateful for challenges to overcome. I pray that all of us learn the art of letting go, prying open our hearts to the messages of Heaven and finding our true path. Thanks to a river, a telescope and a new friend, I am a bit closer to finding my own.