I love learning — less about an accumulation of facts than about new ways of thinking and being. The sages said that one who learns from everyone is truly wise. One thing I learned early in my career was not to be afraid of exposing my ignorance by asking questions. Most people appreciate when you show enough curiosity and courage to become better informed, and usually someone else has the same question that they’re afraid to ask. And then there is the endless stream of books, workshops, lectures, sermons, courses and classes. Whether I’ve taken them or given them they have been a tremendous gift.
I’m not sure how much I learned in Hebrew School. I didn’t like it very much. I don’t know too many who did. And yet, I’ve found Jewish education as an adult to be an unbounded treasure. It has opened insights into our heritage and into my soul that I never could have imagined. It has opened me to a rich world of practice and belief. I pray — that I have succeeded in passing this heritage on to my children; that I might inspire them to continually educate themselves to the unfathomable depths of meaning that is barely touched upon in Jewish grade school education; and that they should receive all of its rich benefits, and pass this love forward, each in their unique way, to the succeeding generations.
I have discovered that there are words that some of us have allowed to slip out of our Jewish lexicon — words that we must reclaim. I’m thinking of grace (chein in Hebrew), for one. In either tongue, grace often means simple elegance or refinement of movement. Less often it’s used to describe the unmerited blessings that we enjoy. For instance, it was through no personal achievement that I was born to a life of relative liberty and abundance. Recognizing my God-given blessings — the often-overlooked daily miracles — leads to gratitude. I cannot give thanks enough.
I’m not sure if my optimism was learned or inborn. Maybe it’s a choice each of us can make. Lately, I see it connected to faith — another lost word (emunah). I know faith can be misplaced or misleading, but I prefer it to despair. I have to believe that, on balance, the world is a good place, especially if each of us does what we can to tip the scale in that direction.
I have struggled with, and may have, at last, come to terms with the much maligned and often discomfiting word God. I developed a seven-word statement of my theology: ALL IS GOD. THANK GOD. DO GOOD. For the record, I don't believe in the God that you probably don't believe in. I don't believe in a “cosmic bellhop” that is waiting to fulfill my every wish. I don't believe in a persona that sits in judgment meting out reward and punishment, nor one who created the world in six days. I do believe in awe and wonder at the miraculous existence of everything from the smallest subatomic particle to the farthest galaxy, from a microchip to the Golden Gate Bridge. I do believe in the non-rational, non-material bond that unites us all as creatures in this vast inexplicable universe. I do believe in love, which also defies measurement and definition. That's what ALL IS GOD begins to mean to me. For that alone I could be in a continual state of gratitude — THANK GOD. I also believe that the greatest benefit in letting some version of God-consciousness into one's life is that it evokes an awareness of the need to do acts of love and kindness, to be ethical and moral, to be a mensch, in other words, to DO GOOD.
I am learning to accompany others on their spiritual journeys. As long as we live, we are continually growing and it’s important that we do so physically, emotionally,
intellectually, and, to no lesser degree, spiritually. Some aspects develop faster than others at different times of our lives. For me, in the last decade or so, I have truly been on a spiritual quest. It's not unusual for that to be the case later in life, but there is so much to be gained by recognizing the reality of the non-rational part of existence as early in life as possible. After all, it exists, whether it is evident or not.
I have learned the power of devoting space and time to daily prayerful solitude. No, I don’t always pray per se. By prayerful, I mean taking time for gratitude, reverence, awe, contemplation, inner peace — paying attention to my inner voice and to my inner wisdom. In the words of Wilferd Peterson, “Slow me down Lord. Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. …and inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life's enduring values that I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.”
I have learned, even as a fairly gregarious guy, that I can be lonely in a crowd and feel extremely connected to others even in my solitude. I have often observed the pelicans at the baylands. I wonder how they know when to huddle together and when to fly solo. My father read the words of Kahlil Gibran at our wedding, “…let there be spaces in your togetherness.” All of this is to say that it’s important to find the right balance of we time and me time.
I have learned about the concept of B’tzelem Elohim — that we were all created in God's image. Learning this and living it are two very different things. I am still learning to look for that spark of holiness in everyone — especially in those in whom it seems most hidden. That generous acceptance of all includes myself. I’m not sure which comes first, although I suspect that seeing the Divine within opens the window to seeing it in others.
I am slowly learning to balance confidence with humility. This is so much better than masking low self-esteem with arrogance as I have so often done. Loving and respecting exactly who you are should be the Eleventh Commandment. As Marianne Williamson said, “… It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. …playing small does not serve the world. … We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.”
I yearn to be exactly who I was put on earth to be, and often feel much like Zusya who wept at the thought that he had not succeeded at being Zusya. Deepak Chopra wrote that, as parents, our primary task is to support our children in discovering their dharma, by which he meant helping them find their true purpose in life or, as my friend Greg Kimura put it, their cargo — “You have gifts. The world needs your gifts. You must deliver them.”
I trust you have learned a few things from me. Debbie said that I taught her, “…that life is more fun when approached creatively. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for convention, but a little weird is good and keeps things interesting.” Jake said I taught him, “Revel in your strangeness — we all have some, so why not wear it.” I’ll give the credit for creativity, weirdness, and revelry to my mom. I’m happy to pass it on.
I have learned to say, “I’m sorry.” I wish I had truly learned to make teshuva (repentance) by not committing the same misdeeds repeatedly. I suspect that that is a lifelong process. No one gets it perfectly right. That said, forgiveness of self and others becomes essential. As Stephen Levine mentions, “Buddha likened anger to picking up a burning ember in your bare hands with the intention of throwing it at another….” Ouch.