Friday, March 26, 2010

Grace in the Sky

Recently, I traveled to Israel for the first time in three decades. It was not for lack of interest that kept me away. Life happened...and I am a fearful flyer. But I wanted to go on this particular trip so much that I displaced my nervousness by focusing on the trip's comprehensive itinerary.

Though only five days, my visit was an emotional experience. I have wonderful memories: the sights and sounds, of course, and the food, glorious food. The people I met, both my fellow American travelers and the Israelis, were unique, dynamic and passionate.

Yet my first and lasting impression is of the flight there.

It begins at the gate. El Al, Newark. Slowly, the passengers arrive and you notice: the Orthodox families with multiple children in tow; the young people, of all persuasions, with sandals on their feet, carrying heavy backpacks; the couples in their later years, going for a bris (circumcision) or a bar mitzvah; the Israelis going home.

We board the plane and instantly, it is a beehive of activity. A family, the lot of us, going together to Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. If you were to deplane now, you would have already seen one special aspect of Israel: a picture of Israeli society.

It is 1:30 am and dinner is served. Soon, there is silence. For a few hours, a blanket of calm.

What is amazing is how the flight attendants - young and seasoned, men and women - have been floating throughout the cabin, graciously tending to each person's needs expeditiously. They work the aisles, noting the passengers who need kosher meals, the children with air sickness, the praying gentlemen in their way. They are well-trained but there is more here: an ability to become one with the group. They, too, are family.

Five a.m. and I wake to movement. We still have five hours to go, yet the Orthodox men are up, preparing to daven, to pray. I watch their intentional choreography - first their jacket, then the tallit (prayer shawl), and finally, the wrapping of the leather straps of their tefillin (phylacteries). First one way, then the other. I am familiar with this routine, as my grandfather did it every morning. I sit in awed silence, remembering him some 30 years ago in the early morning light of his living room windows. It's daybreak once again, this time somewhere over northern Europe, and each man moves to the back of the plane, swaying and bending in unison with the congregation. The back of the plane, now sacred space.

Witnessing this strange yet special "shul in the sky" elicits an equally unique thought. I am safe on this flight... these religious fellow passengers offer me a sanctuary. My fear of flying, which I've had most of my life, suddenly dissipates. It is, of course, all in my head, but what a very special moment.

Leaving Israel five days later is incredibly bittersweet but I have no hesitation as I queue up at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Once again, the family is together and my anxiety is a thing of the past. Our group slowly moves through the winding rows. A quick hug, we say Shalom and we're on our way.

I sit next to a young modern Orthodox woman, on her way home to New York after a visit with her grandparents. We chat and enjoy dinner. Two hours into the flight, my spirits soar as a beautiful young attendant hands out individually wrapped, large sweet dates and says, boker tov, good morning. It is a new day, and it's Tu B'Shevat, Israel's Arbor Day. Only on El Al. Only in Israel.

Caring, understanding and menschlikeit. Grace at 40,000 feet.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gratitude and Grace, The Passover Reminder

The Jewish concept of thankfulness is rooted in the feelings expressed by the signature song of Passover : Dayenu, Enough. Gratitude is incremental: if G-d had only done this one thing, it would have been enough. If only these miracles had occurred and not others, it would have been enough, Dayenu.

Being grateful is a clear path to grace and ultimately, to happiness. If we are always searching for the next thing, if we don't stop to appreciate what we already have, how can we know happiness and gratitude? I've come to understand this as a way to stop the rush to acquire and take time to just be in the moment. Happiness and gratitude require time to explore and absorb.

Passover arrives six months after the redemption and renewal of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a reminder of the promises we made: to try harder to be better. The lessons of chametz (leavened bread) and matza (unleavened) are these: we have forgotten what we pledged. The fast of the fall has become hollow. We, like the yeasts of chametz, have risen - our image of ourselves is inflated. The seder (the traditional Passover meal; order of the meal) and matza are here to remind us, to remind me, that a year has passed: how have I changed this year, and now, at the half-way mark since Yom Kippur, where am I? What work do I have yet to do? We need to, if not endure the deprivation, feel the fast. The deflation of our egos as we imagine ourselves slaves serves as a potent and empathetic awakening: do the work.

A good life entails finding meaning and purpose. The writer, Victor Frankl, eloquently wrote about the need to pursue meaning in our lives. I want to ask: in our daily lives, do we include civility, grace, in this pursuit? Today's social media networks allow us to reach out to others, to search for "friends" in an effort to create community and fellowship. But are we truly feeling that community? Are we grateful for what we already have or ignoring the present for some elusive future?

Being a mensch is living up to our own expectations of ourselves.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making Mitzvot My Own

I was blessed some years ago to meet, quite by chance, a wonderful couple. They were older than my parents and we seemed to enjoy each other's company. We began to speak and visit on a regular basis. They had lived an early life that was quite extraordinary and romantic before becoming emigres to this country more than 50 years ago.

I felt a loving affinity towards the wife in particular and we discovered many connections in our lives. We soon came to greet each other warmly and I felt lucky to have her and her family in my life.

Over the past two years, my friend's husband has had health challenges and recently, he faced the most serious illness yet. While I spoke to her a few times each week during this period, I was very sensitive to their wishes for privacy. I worried and prayed for him, and hoped that all would be OK. I understood his wish for dignity at this very difficult time in his life and I waited and cared from afar.

Six weeks ago, he miraculously began to improve, and I started to visit them each week. It began as a mitzvah, a good deed, the right thing to do. I said it was to see him, but it was also to spend a little time with her, to share her stress and bring her some happiness from outside. As she was with him 24/7, it was the least I could do. I wanted to support her and share the difficulties and the small victories.

But something happened along the way to being a mensch: I found that the visits benefited me, too. It seems obvious, but there's more to it than simple good feelings about doing the right thing.

Each Saturday, I go to services and then visit my friends. It is what I do; it's become a part of my routine. I also visit my mother regularly on Saturday, but that isn't mitzvah, it's obligation. There's a difference here that I only now have begun to understand. When I see my mother, I fulfill my role as her caretaker. I want to do it but it feels different. When I visit with my friends, the mitzvah has gracefully morphed into something I want to do, that I can't imagine not doing. With G-d's grace, my friend will soon be well enough to be back home and I hope that I can continue our weekly conversations.

There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, 248 of which are "positive" deeds and thoughts that the Torah asks of us to perform and accomplish. In its wisdom, the Torah mandates us to give of ourselves in this way, giving service to our community. There is a higher purpose, but it's really a simple way of teaching us to be better people.

When the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they said, "We will do, and we will hear." First the doing, then the understanding.

I get that now.

Monday, March 22, 2010

An Historic Moment

Last night, we watched the ugliness of politics work to the People's advantage. No matter on which side you stood, making universal health coverage for every person in our country the law of the land is a powerful message. Legislators had passionate feelings which were expressed in moving (sometimes tense) arguments. And in the end, they did the right thing. That is, 216 of them, all from the same side, voted for what they thought was the right thing.

So it remains to be seen how we will understand what happened; do we believe that the side that didn't vote yes was not interested in being Menschen? Perhaps voting your conscience makes you a mensch too... they thought they did the right thing.

I believe that many of these benefits (the most immediate of which are included below courtesy of the blog, Crooks and Liars) are the work of people who care deeply about others. Perhaps, sometimes, leading by example may also mean waiting to see. At least, I hope that will be true, because these are important changes. I hope that people will come around to see this was good, and what 31 million uninsured Americans also deserve.

But most importantly, let's see if insurance companies will gracefully rise to the level of menschen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

View of the World

Our president campaigned on the empowering slogan, "Be The Change." I really liked its positive message: Go forth, and make a difference. You, not someone else, you.

Some years ago, my rabbi gave a moving sermon on the occasion of his installation. He spoke of the need for "grace" in our lives. To act in a graceful manner; to treat others with grace; to understand and interact with those in your everyday life with grace. He pledged to always be graceful with us, his congregation.

What is grace? It's often thought of as a prayer, as in the "grace" before meals. Webster defines grace, among other ways, as "...An act or instance of kindness or courtesy...."

I have thought about that speech often these last few years...and often these last few days.

It was just as powerful as the Be The Change message. Finding grace, doing grace - now that is a challenge. It encourages us to always think what someone else is thinking. They are vulnerable - like us; they are in need - like us; and perhaps, we can help them today.

It says in Pirke Avot, Sayings of the Sages (a collection of revered rabbinic thought), "When all around you are behaving badly, be the mensch." So I have named this blog Be The Mensch. A "mensch" is a good person; someone who tries to do the right thing all the time. I want to think and write about this, to consider grace and being a mensch.

Join me on this journey.