My Leap of Faith

My leap of faith (first published in the Hamilton Jewish News), Summer, 2016

There is an argument to be made that certain points in life require a leap of faith. Some would say a leap in to faith in yourself, others argue that we require faith in the good intentions of others and finally for some there is the notion that we must give ourselves up to a higher power and leap in to the mystery. I understand that mystery to be an essential element of our journey together. Living, as we do in a rational age we often shrink from mystery. At times we relegate it to the realm of the fairy tale, in the pejorative sense.

I was once invited to a dinner being held by a publisher friend at a swank restaurant in the bowels of the financial district of Toronto. The Guest of Honour was the atheist writer Richard Dawkins. He was touring to promote his bestseller The God Delusion. I was seated beside Mr. Dawkins. He had taken a leap of faith. His belief was that science was truth and religion was a fairy tale that only the infantilized could appreciate. I asked him what made him believe that science was truth. He looked at me with what can only be described as a look of pity and proceeded to explain that the laws of nature were immutable. That religion had done nothing but turn us on each other and that the sooner we rid ourselves of this irrational nonsense the sooner we would save ourselves from this delusional and frankly feeble mindset.

I asked him why he believed science was truth if science itself is constantly being reshaped by new discoveries, new thinking and never before discovered possibilities.

To me science is how we attempt to articulate God. God is the eternal creative force that gives birth to the cosmos through a cycle of creation, transformation, death and rebirth. God is unknowable and worthy of our humility. Dr. Dawkins, it seemed to me, would be loath to bend his knee to God or the waiter serving our table for that matter. He, I think, saw the mystery as a puzzle. A Rubik’s Cube that some of us can figure out and others, the simpler of us, cannot. That dinner was many years ago and I was in a different place in my life. Since then I have left broadcasting, created and accepted new opportunities, and soon will be an ordained spiritual director. All have required a leap of faith.

I speak occasionally of my leap role model, Nachshon. He is part of the Exodus story. Moses brings the people to the shores of the Red Sea. Pharaoh has hardened his heart and has given chase. He will slaughter the Israelites rather than set them free. As Moses prays and the people panic Nachshon enters the sea, and here the question becomes, was he pushed or did he walk in to the water. I like to think that the answer is irrelevant. Sometimes our leap is self-propelled and sometimes we need a little nudge. So be it. What happens next is what to me embodies the ruach, the courage, the spirit that can bring meaning and deep intention to our journey. Nachshon walks in to the water, up to his knees, he does not falter; up to his hips, he carries on, next his chest and as Moses prays/begs God to save his people his inner voice says turn and see what Nachshon has done. By then Nachshon is almost completely submerged and Moses calls for the people to follow. The Red Sea parts inside of us when we make ourselves available to the truth that this life is not rehearsal. That we have a Pharaoh deep inside us, a Mitzrayim that is the tight space that makes our lives seem small. We must choose our liberation, make ourselves available to the ever present wonder of creation and, as a recent guest to our Shabbat table said, come to the realization that we are all just walking each other home.

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The Recipe: A Psalm, some Kabbala, inspired by Jewish renewal

The Psalm is a foundational piece of spiritual architecture. I’ve played a little hip hop riff on the psalm here, mixing the four worlds of kabbalah with the flow of the psalm narrative. Resonate if you will. Every life is a prayer.

Assiyah-The world of action
Yetzirah the world of heart
Beriyah-The world of the mind
Atzilut-The world of the divine

Assiyah-The silence stretches into yearning

Within it I rest, awaiting you.

Small rip of tension strains against the weight

The wait, The crush of love, The weight.

Yetzirah-You run, we run together

Away from me, from you, from all That I am, That I am.

No arrival can come before you after you without you

First word. Last tear. We are midwives to your never ending birth.

Beriyah-Oh God the crack I hear, I think, I hear

Prove God, Prove love

If X is Y /and why is X /then why, why?

The mystery that rushes towards me brings the

Crushed humility of the bended knee.

Atzilut-My arms are crossed, open crossed.

The truth takes hold, takes flight.

The light-strikes my eyes-my heart

My Heart My Heart

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Sabbath Reboot

We were recently contacted by someone who had read an article by Mardi Tindal in the The United Church Observer — a United Church publication. The article was about our New Sabbath Project — the weekly practice of breaking bread and building community, one meal at a time and also the spinoffs such as this blog, our work with a Kenyan Pastor who approached us after seeing our blog and our radio show on CIUT. We appreciated hearing from this reader because it reminded us that we really must return to this beautiful weekly ritual. In truth, we have had such an overwhelmingly busy year that some of the most important things we do for both our physical, spiritual and mental health, took a back seat to other demands. The Sabbath ritual is one we hope others will adopt and adapt to strengthen their communal and family lives. Maybe the year would have been easier for us if we shared the joy and a little bit of prep and hosting duties with a deeper network of sabbatical fellow travelers. Sharing helps.

We thought we would share Mardi Tindal’s article (link is also above) with you. Enjoy and feel free to respond and share on our site and theirs.

Soul Work
The invitation: Mark Sabbath in your life
Opinion

By Mardi Tindal

Thomas Merton provocatively described activism and overwork as “a pervasive form of contemporary violence.”

In the book Sabbath, author Wayne Muller quotes the 20th-century monk and then prescribes Sabbath time as a means of healing from this violence. “Sabbath,” he writes, “is more than the absence of work. . . . It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true . . . honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.”

Whether or not you think of your busy life as a form of violence, we all need to take time for reflection and to honour the perspective it brings.

Jewish friends have taught me much about the spiritual practice of Sabbath. Friday evening’s Shabbat meal (itself the model for the Christian eucharist, or communion) marks a day of rest, remembers God’s creation and looks forward to God’s shalom.

My own family for generations has enjoyed a tradition of Sunday dinners — not a formal liturgy, but gathering, pausing, giving thanks.

Sabbath traditions are more complicated these days. Our families aren’t all within easy reach, and many embrace differing traditions. How then to practise Sabbath?

Ralph Benmergui and Cortney Pasternak, two communication professionals raising their children with respect for his Jewish spirituality and her humanist values, decided to renew the ancient tradition within their busy lives. Their New Sabbath Project involves inviting people to share a Friday-evening meal and a blessing. It’s a practice they describe as “breaking bread and growing community.”

“We have to build spiritual bridges toward each other, between people who love each other and people who don’t know each other,” Benmergui explains in a recent conversation. “Having a meal together is creating a community one meal at a time.”

The practice is an informal reflection of the traditional Shabbat meal. It begins with lighting candles and sharing wine and bread. Then Benmergui and Pasternak invite their guests to offer blessings. “Whatever blessing you want,” says Benmergui. “Just say it. I don’t care if you’re blessing your goldfish.”

Of course, no one takes the invitation lightly. And their reactions testify to how deeply we need these opportunities.

“We saw the relief in them — that they could do something sacred, just that simply,” Benmergui observes. One guest turned to his spouse and said, “I just want to bless my wife, because we’ve been so busy lately, and I just want her to know how much I love and appreciate her.” The wife was almost in tears, and Benmergui realized, “This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t hard to do.”

Following a Sabbath practice allows for “a sacred space to be created, a container in which we can locate the love and the unity that’s actually present every moment anyway,” he says. “It’s sort of like when there’s a blackout. You kind of wish there were more of them (in warm weather, for a few hours every week), because everybody talks to their neighbour and nobody has a machine to look at, and you really feel your presence on the Earth. It’s kind of awkward, but it’s kind of beautiful. So there’s a way of doing that.”

Benmergui and Pasternak have offered a guide to creating your own Sabbath project on their website, newsabbathproject.com. They were delighted to hear from a Masai tribesman who’s also a Christian missionary. He came across their guide and has been holding Shabbat dinners in his Kenyan village ever since.

There is no one right way, they emphasize, to experience Sabbath. Which leads to the question: what are your Sabbath practices?

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.

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Can YOU say the “G” word?

I guess you could say I’m Religious.

I was just re-reading a little book that American author and public intellectual Chris Hedges wrote a while back called I Don’t Believe in Atheists. It is a brilliant and passionate refutation of absolutism regardless of it’s ideological underpinnings. Now on the face of it that would seem obvious but when applied to the arrogant musings of folks like British Scientist Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens it provides a healthy inoculation against those that claim that their total rejection of religious faith is somehow superior to the reductivist and cartoonish image that they claim all religious pursuit represents.

Hedges is relentless in his critiques and brings an admirable lack of ‘need for affection’ and careerism to the task that holds so many of us back from articulating a much needed and clear eyed analysis of what a world without non-rational modalities looks like. Many times I have found that saying that I am ‘religious’ has placed me across the divide. If one is religious they must be an extreme anti-intellectual at worst or naïve and misled for those who see themselves as ‘understanding’ of my condition.

Hedges deals with the need for non-rational ways of seeing and the rituals and traditions that can foster the nurturing of those elements of the human condition that lack scientific definition: Love, sorrow, beauty, evil et al. It is through religion that I encounter and am humbled by my imperfection; that I place in myself in an unimaginable and breathtaking universe. It is my weekly nod to my smallness and the rituals in which I partake bring me closer to the wonder and awe that people like Creation Spirituality founder Matthew Fox speak of.

Recently I had a friend over for one of our weekly Shabbat dinners. He is a good and kind man — an atheist and scientist. We sparred good naturedly about our differing beliefs as all around the table friends, new and old, gave blessings for the meal and reveled in each other’s company. The evening, as all of our New Sabbath Project Shabbats seem to be, was warm and meaningful. He argued that all can be explained through science and that we are responsible to each other to be moral and ethical, not to some magical being. Only after he left did it occur to me that science has given us so much but science could not have given us Shabbat. It is through the ritual and practice that religion obligates us to convene to show gratitude and to connect.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Chris Hedges and I Don’t Believe in Atheists: “Religion is our finite, flawed and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence-the struggle to acknowledge the
infinite-needs to be attributed to an external being called God…God
is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence… What are we? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?”

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Devotional Music in a Post Modern World

It has been described in some literature as an Experience of Devotion – a PROCESS of generating an aesthetic feeling as opposed to creating musical “product” per se – as a way of connecting with the divine. A process that involves rhythm, repetition, music and gestures. But when many of us think about devotional songs in our society – we often think of musical songs, chants mantra, hymns, meditations. Church hymns often come to mind. In the west, devotional songs were founded in the Roman Catholic Church, Russan Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church and others. But we know that devotional songs have a rich and diverse history outside the church as well – though certainly the devotional songs from the church were and are important. In India, devotional songs in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Carnatic, Malayalam and many more languages were composed and sung by different singers. Sufi Devotional songs were also very famous in this part of Asia. In fact, Sufis in other parts of the world – continue this tradition in the face of persecution in some areas. On this week’s show on CIUT radio 89.5 FM we speak to a couple of musical artists who have both more recently begun journeys into devotional music, one of whom has brought his traditions with them from Morocco to help him through the often lonely and difficult journey as newcomers to Canada.

You’ll hear my conversation with Moroccan born Hassan Al Hadi. He has been in Canada for more than 15 years – playing Arab-fusion music as an oud and guitar player based out of Montreal and putting out several albums. But lesser known than music on the albums he’s put out is his devotional music. It’s a spiritual tradition he brought with him from his community and family near Marakkesh Morocco where they regularly engaged in the Sufi tradition of devotional songs and chanting. Al-Hadi finds great comfort in the devotional songs of his family and community from back at home.

You’ll also hear my conversation with the lead singer of the award winning, world music, fusion based band Jaffa Road. Aviva Chernick only more recently delved into devotional Jewish music. We talk to her about her experiences and her journey here in Canada.

Hope you’ll join us and write in to join the conversation at newsabbathproject@gmail.com. You can also join in under my name at Twitter or Facebook.

Be well and take care of each other.

If you miss the show on CIUT 89.5 Sunday at 2, you can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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Culture and Memory: To Learn from or Repeat Mistakes

When we look back at some of the genocides and other atrocities that scar the history of the world — in the name of one thing or another — we realize that the role of “memory” is incredibly important. We can cope by choosing to forget or we can take the harder path of remembering and taking responsibility. That memory manifests in different ways for victims, survivors, perpetrators — entire societies. Historians and other scholars have written much on memory and culture and the influence of one on the other — and with good reason. If we eradicate memory, we are not able to see the gathering clouds — think of intolerance, racism,antisemitism and so on. It is only with our ability to remember collectively, that we can inoculate ourselves against them — or so we hope.

On the New Sabbath Project this week on CIUT on Sunday at 2PM artists and playwrights, authors and educators share their ideas around culture and memory through artistic and literary expression. Tom Dugan, Actor/Playwright and LA Drama Critics Circle Award-Winner talks about his one man play “Weisenthal-Nazi Hunter” and Opiyo Oloya talks about his book Child to Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

Hope you’ll join us and write in to join the conversation at newsabbathproject@gmail.com. You can also join in under my name at Twitter or Facebook.

Be well and take care of each other.

If you miss the show Sunday at 2, you can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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Forcing Sabbatical on my Busy Busy Life

Various religious and spiritual scholars have written about the crisis of work, sabbatical of some sort and the spiritual disconnect brought about by our very busy lives. In one recent audio transcript found online people in contemporary society are compared to horses in a cavalry charge — moving forward so fast and just going through the motions, thus preventing them from thinking about the important things in life — including their enslavement to work. The idea is to make them so busy – that they can’t pause to think.

A part of this same audio file transcript reads “We become enslaved to the wrong path in life; we can’t even get our priorities straight; we can’t see the bigger picture”…and our spirits are low.

One way I think to free ourselves and reconnect to the things that matter is to literally force ourselves to stop doing what everyone else around us is doing, take a step back and think — but also to use that time to do something positive. Now I get that people stuck on that treadmill may say “Nice idea — but who’s got the time?” Getting off that treadmill takes tremendous courage and often lots of time — to say nothing of disposable income or a good savings.

Several years ago, American journalist Po Bronson wrote a book titled “What should I do with my life?” The book chronicled the experiences of a number of people who had either left a professional life they found unfulfilling or unsatisfying to pursue their passions. Think here for instance – a big city, high paid hot shot who decides that what he really wants is to become a chef and open a bakery. Or people, who due to circumstances like raising children , give up on their own professional dreams, only to pursue them later — somethings in their 60s, when their partners are ready to retire. Or others who have these powerful but rare spiritual “epiphanies” that come with forced sabbatical, silent retreat and meditation — quiet space and time to actually think.

I’m convinced these epiphanies or whatever you’re comfortable calling them are about more than just pursuing professional dreams. This is about a spiritual deficit where the individual reigns over community; where even the lowest paid — to saying nothing of the highest paid — jobs, want all of you — 110 percent — so there is nothing left for anything or anyone else. And then, hey, in case you’re tired, burnt out or stretched to your limit — the message is shut up and be grateful. There are 100 other people in line for the job.

On this week’s New Sabbath Project Radio Show on CIUT, we’re talking My Busy Busy Life. We’ll be speaking to two fantastic people – Molly Finlay and Richard Pietro of Citizen Bridge— who left big jobs and big careers in the search for meaning. Hope you’ll join us and write in to join the conversation at newsabbathproject@gmail.com. You can also join in under my name at Twitter or Facebook.

Be well and take care of each other.

If you miss the show Sunday at 2, you can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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The New Sabbath Project Hits CIUT Airwaves – Sundays @2

New Sabbath Project on Radio – 89.5 FM Toronto
Listen at:
www.ciut.fm

A little while back Ken Stowar, the man who makes CIUT hum and of whom I’ve always been a fan, got in touch with me and asked me if I’d like to have a little corner of his radio station in which to putter around.

Now, I love radio but my work these days goes in a mighty different direction — as Executive Advisor to the President of Sheridan College. The job in post-secondary education has captured my imagination and really energized me and I wasn’t sure if there was much I wanted to talk about with folks on the radio.

But then I let it rumble around inside me for a while and along with
my partner Cortney Pasternak we decided that there were some things worth airing as it were. You see we do something called The New Sabbath Project. It’s our way of building community — one meal at a time. We do it on Friday nights and we invite all kinds of people to join us. Some are old friends, some we barely know and others we’ve never met — they just contacted us through our site and because of articles they read and asked to join. Dinner is a feast and our guests are expected to bring some food and drink along with them.

We begin our sabbath / shabbat celebration by gathering round the wine and cheese, dip our bread into homemade Hummous and slowly draw the curtain on our workaday lives and enter the architecture in time that is the 7th day. Some who come are secular, some are not. It doesn’t matter. When we sit to eat we light the candles as is the tradition I come from and say the blessing over them. Then we ask everyone to say a blessing over anything they like. I’m always amazed at how heart-felt and moving the simplest of blessings can be. Some mention God, most don’t. I’ve always thought I should do a show called “God or whatever.”

Anyways, after the blessings we raise our glasses, bless the wine, toast each other and break bread, literally. You see the Moroccan tradition that I grew up in meant that you took the Challah — the Sabbath, sweet egg bread and tore pieces off, dipped them lightly in salt to remind us of the bitterness and proximity of all that can enslave us and then the host throws the bread across the table starting from the oldest participant down to the youngest.

I’ve gotten pretty accurate over the years although occasionally it does end up in someone’s glass of water. After that we eat and drink and talk. The amazing thing is after we have done our blessings there is an intimacy
that seems to bring out the best in us; the passion; the sincerity; the big talk and soft hearts. For six days we do and for one day we are allowed to just be — with each other. This is what the 7th day brings, if you let it.

On the inaugural New Sabbath Project radio show, we’ll talk about the Sabbath as a day of reflection, an act of courage and, for those committed to — gasp — unplugging — an act of political and environmental resistance. Next week who knows? You may try tossing some bread around yourselves.

You can also listen at:
TuneIn Radio App
iTunes Radio (listed under campus radio)
StarChoice Satellite, Channel 826
Rogers Digital Cable, Channel 946
Bell Fibe TV, Channel 970

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Sabbath Practice as Political Resistance? What a Concept…For All of Us!

I ran into a couple of people this past week for the first time since the seasonal holidays began in December. I had assumed these people were “away” on holiday over those few quiet weeks. After all, they were “out of office” and out of reach. I imagined that these friends and acquaintances were off galavanting somewhere exciting or warm or both — enjoying a change of scenery. But no. As it turns out, these high functioning, super-engaged people were just taking a breath — coming up for air — absolutely exhausted by the frenetic pace of work that permits next to no time to recharge and heaven forbid – reflect. Instead keeping it all going with a big, public smile for fear of being pegged as “not quite up to it” or a “slacker“. One particular public figure, who professes to enjoy his work, lamented quite publicly that he simply could not find a way to incorporate such “breaks” or what we here call “sabbatical” into his life more regularly — but that he wishes he could. He is not alone. We, in Western society now take our lack of work-life balance — our inability to find or better yet make time to stop, rest, relax and reflect – as a given — an inevitability. We just don’t know how to wiggle out of this deep mess we’re caught up in — and our physical and mental health as well as our families are paying the price. But what if we looked at self-imposed, regular sabbatical from all things work, as a form of liberation instead of chains that tie us down?

American writer, preacher and activist Ana Levy-Lyons weighs in on the issue, comparing the weekly Jewish Sabbath Practice as “political resistance” in a recent Tikkun article. Levy-Lyons draws from Jewish Scholar and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Revolutionary Socialist and Philosopher Karl Marx to illustrate shared insights about “time” as the “ultimate form of human wealth” in our lives — showing that this idea of sabbatical transcends religious lines — crossing into the secular.

The problem she sees and I agree, is that in societies like ours, so-called “free time” is viewed as wasted time — a guilty pleasure even. I think we all have friends or colleagues (or maybe it’s us) who brag or laugh about skipping holiday time — worried in part about how it will appear to their bosses but also claiming that they are just too busy to make a holiday work. Further, as Levy-Lyons and many others have argued — far from freeing up our time, communication technology has had the opposite effect. She draws from Marx here writing “any surplus time created by labor-saving technology is immediately sucked back into the system to create more value — more money, more goods, more innovation”. Ever notice the times attached to some of those work related emails?

Imagine if, as she argues in refering to Heschel who said that precious time is stolen from us, the Sabbath is “a reestablishment of a primordial birthright…(For 25 hours once a week) We get to light candles, linger over meals, take aimless walks through town” and so on. How about just finding time to talk about things that matter? Engaging in community building or critical, creative forms of citizenship? We recently asked a progressive, Toronto area Rabbi why he thought our New Sabbath Project isn’t spreading more when people love the idea in principle and certainly love taking part. He explained that without buying into the idea of obligation, that it simply wasn’t sustainable. Talk to most secular people about the notion of obligation and the reaction won’t be a positive one. Who can blame them? Between the obligations (read demands) of work, paying bills and keeping up with housework and possibly family needs — who wants to add one more thing to the list?

How radical is the notion of reclaiming time? We’re not talking about simply the once or twice a year “holiday” or periodic unplugging — but a more regular (even ritualized?) and therefore purposeful or even conscious practice. Indeed Levy-Lyons writes that we must not confuse the idea of a weekly, ritualized sabbath (whatever that may look like to you) with simply a nice holiday away from work. The truth is we can’t wait for a revolution in the workplace to give us permission to make it happen — one that requires serious courage to change our outdated ideas about “work” and “productivity” and the impact of such notions on our families, our communities and our mental health. Heschel speaks about creating cathedrals of time and speaks of the ritual that accompanies obligation as the frame over which we can stretch the canvas of our lives. How we choose to fill that canvass is the challenge and opportunity that free will provides to us. Sabbath/Sabbatical/Shabbat – whatever you’re comfortable calling it –can be the seed that we plant from which community, reflection and connection can be nurtured and grown. Imagine creating a zone of personal prosperity – free of marketing, work in all it’s forms and (often mindless) consumption. Just 25 hours, just once a week, just to connect and give those we love and care for a chance to love us back.

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Sharing Circle, Dinner Circle-Guest Blog on New Sabbath Project

“As Leonard Cohen says you must build a fence around the sacred if you want to protect and nurture it in your life. Our New Sabbath Project is a step in that direction.” — Ralph Benmergui

This was how recent social innovator and community builder Craig Carter-Edwards recently began his guest blog for the New Sabbath Project. He was quoting Ralph who was paraphrasing Leonard Cohen from an interview he did with Cohen many years ago. We thank Craig for his contribution and we urge you to read his blog by clicking on the link above, visit his site, then visit ours. Please retweet and repost. Let’s build community and spread the word.

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