Rabbi Deborah J. Brin Pastoral Counseling & Spiritual Coaching ©2024 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin — Mishkan of the Heart
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin Albuquerque, New Mexico Pastoral Counseling & Spiritual Coaching
Rabbi’s Reflections Choose Life: Managing Your Spoons Yom Kippur Morning 2023 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin We just took the Torah out of the ark and will read aloud from her soon. As we paraded the Torah around the sanctuary, we sang “Al Shlosha D’varim”, עְל שְׂלוֹשָׂה דְבָרִ׳ם. The words are from Pirkei Avot 1:2, a collection of pithy statements from our sages that is found in the Mishnah, the oldest layer of the Talmud. The translation is: “The world depends on three things – on Torah study, on service and on kind deeds.” One of the key words in this sentence in Hebrew is ‘omeid’, עוֹמֵד. Al shlosha dvarim haOlam omeid, al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim. עְל שְׂלוֹשָׂה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד: עַל הַתורָה, וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה, וְעַל גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. Various translators choose different English words for ‘omeid’. The one I just quoted, “the world depends on three things” is from the ArtScroll series. The most common translation is to say that “the world stands on three things” (as opposed to “depends on three things”). Even older translations, such as that from Midrash Shmuel, a 16th C kabbalist born in Safed by the name of Rabbi Shmuel de Uzeda, said: “for three things the world was created”. These three things, upon which the world depends or stands or was created, are like the three legs of a stool that needs all three legs in order to be functional. Each leg can be considered not only a pillar upon which the world rests, the legs can also be metaphorical pillars upon which each one of us depends for our stability and our existence. According to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz who recently published a social justice commentary on Pirkei Avot, these three things represent our “cognitive development, our emotional development and our performative capacity”, that is, our ability to take action. [Pirkei Avot A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz p.7]. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who died in 2021, was in the line of the Chernobyl Hassidic dynasty. He was a psychiatrist who specialized in treating people with addictions. In his book Visons of the Fathers, a commentary on Pirkei Avot, Twerski writes that these teachings are “of particular significance today, because we are facing the threat of social disintegration.” He wrote that in 1999! Because of his expertise in addictions, he saw how critical these teachings are for the development and pursuit of a spiritual life both for individuals and for humanity as a whole. He urges us to set aside our seemingly insatiable appetites for “wealth, leisure, and greater conveniences”. These pursuits, he says, will ultimately lead to our destruction. Twerski firmly believes that “if people would adopt the goals in life suggested by the mishnah – to live according to the principles of Torah, to dedicate themselves to the service of God and to be considerate of others – we could reverse the incessant pattern of environmental erosion that threatens the existence of life on earth. . . and the world [itself].” Al shlosha dvarim haOlam omeid, al haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim. The world depends on three things, on Torah, on service and on acts of loving kindness. Since we sing this song every time we parade the Torah around the sanctuary it is familiar to many of us. You may be interested to know that there is another set of three things that sustain the world, and that is also found in the same section of the mishnah. Pirkei Avot 1:18 says: Al Shlosha d’varim haOlam kayam: al haDin, v’al haEmet, v’al haShalom. The world endures on three things: justice, truth and peace. These three are ethical and moral imperatives upon which the structure of our society and civilization is built and must be maintained. We need both action and ethics in order to continue to create and sustain the world in which we live. Ok. We’ve taken the Torah out of the ark and soon we are going to hear the alternative reading for Yom Kippur morning. It is from the end of the Book of Deuteronomy from the parsha, the section, called “Nitazvim”. All of the Israelites are gathered together and Moses is trying to remind them of everything that he has taught them and everything that they will need to know and do after he dies and Joshua takes over. Today we are going to hear part of his third and final discourse to the People. We hear the famous line, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life that you and your offspring may live”. [Dt.30:19] הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ Choosing life, for ourselves and for our offspring, how do we do it? What are we supposed to do to choose life and blessing for us and for those who come after us? The answer to those questions and the instructions for how to do it come a little earlier in the Torah reading. We are told, essentially, that we already have what it takes to choose life. We already have the knowledge and the skill-set, we don’t have to go searching outside of ourselves for it. The Torah says, “this instruction is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” [Dt.30:11- 15]. The knowledge that we need is already within us. It is in our mouth - - - when we sing the words of the prayers, there is wisdom right there for us to pay attention to. When we sit down and have a ‘heart to heart’ conversation with a friend or beloved and we share our experiences with them, the wisdom is ‘in our mouth’ and ‘in our heart’. In the context of Deuteronomy, the word ‘heart’ is way more than what we currently think of as heart. The Biblical idea is that the heart is the seat of our innermost selves, our thoughts and feelings, as well as our conscience and our soul. We already have what we need to lead a good life of action and ethics, of kindness and of justice. The trick is to make the right choices as well as wise choices. Choosing life each day, we are confronted by the realities of our individual existences, within the context of our society and our global, interconnected world. What does it mean to choose life? We make decisions every day, all day long and some of them are mundane and some are of greater consequence. Should I get out of bed or sleep in a little longer? What am I going to do today and what clothes should I wear? Am I going to take the time for a nutritious breakfast or grab a donut on my way out the door? Of greater consequence is knowing how to handle all that we need to do without ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ Finding ways to fulfill our responsibilities at work or school, running a household with or without children, and still be able to have a social life, hobbies and other meaningful activities can be elusive and hard to achieve on a consistence basis. We can get there sometimes, for a little while, and then somebody gets sick or we get a flat tire or our flight is delayed or cancelled. Then, everything goes haywire. We need to get better at rolling with what life presents to us. Each day is an improv where we learn to say “yes, and”. On stage in an improvisational action between characters, “no” stops the action. The attitude that the actors have to have is to go with whatever is presented to them and keep the action moving. That is “yes, and”. There is a concept in the disability community that I would like to share with you. It is called ‘spoon theory’. The basic concept is that we measure the energy required to complete any given task by talking about how many spoons it costs. It came about when a woman named Christine Miserandino was out to dinner with a friend. Her friend asked her what it was like to have lupus. As Christine described it in her essay in 2003 called “The Spoon Theory”, She got up from the table and gathered a pile of 12 spoons and then sat down again. She gave the pile of spoons to her friend. She asked her friend to recount her day, and every time her friend said she had done something like take a shower, get dressed, make coffee, make breakfast . . . Christine took away a spoon. It didn’t take long before the friend was only part way through recounting her day when she only had a few spoons left, and it wasn’t going to be enough to get her through to bed time. Christine used that very concrete way of explaining how she only has a certain amount of energy on any given day and she has to be very careful not to run out of spoons. If you’d like to see the full first-person version of spoon theory, Christine’s short essay can be found at “but you don’t look sick.com”. [https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by- christine/the-spoon-theory/] We learn from Christine that part of making wise choices is learning how to manage your spoons. For many of us, that means shifting our perspective. We don’t have to excel at everything. In fact, adopting an attitude of ‘good enough’ will help us with spoon management. Good enough is critical, as is learning to simply let go of the standards we used to have and all of the things that we used to be able to handle with ease. The dishes can wait til the morning. Wrinkled clothes can be thrown into the drier on the ‘wrinkle free’ or ‘refresh cycle’. If you are sick or challenged in some way, the friend who visits will have to understand that you are sick and can’t keep your house as tidy as you once did. AND, you need to remember that you are sick or challenged and that your friend loves you and it doesn’t matter if there is clutter. Spoon theory is not just for those of us who have a visible or invisible disability, a physical or emotional challenge, or for those who are dealing with the inevitable changes of aging. Every single one of us, no matter what our age or stage in life has too much to do and too much to handle and too much stress trying to get it all done. The best that we can do at any given moment may not be the best that we used to do or may be capable of doing in the future. Maximizing our spoons may mean letting ourselves off the hook and getting clear about our priorities so that we have more than enough spoons to make it through the day. It may mean changing things up and instead of keeping a never ending to do list, start to keep a done list. A ‘done’ list is a list of what we have actually accomplished. It helps to write it down so that we realize how much we actually do in a day that we take for granted. Here we are on Yom Kippur. Part of Yom Kippur is taking our inventory. Some of the questions we usually ask ourselves are: Who do I want to become? How do I want to show up? What do I need to change? Is there someone to whom I need to make amends? Perhaps we should also be asking ourselves other questions, like: Who am I now? Do I have limitations that I didn’t used to have? What truths do I need to acknowledge and what adjustments do I need to make? What in my life am I resisting and need to accept? Acceptance is hard. To accept something as true does not mean that we like it or approve of it. Reality is what it is and it can sometimes be unpleasant. Resisting or rejecting what is does not get us very far in making wise choices. Our perspective may need to change. Our perspective isn’t just how we think about something. From an artistic point of view, “perspective” is the angle or vantage point that we have on an object that we are viewing. Think of the difference in perspective between a still life painting and M.C. Esher’s “drawing hands”, where he drew a hand drawing another hand. When we need to shift our perspective, bringing in a friend or trusted loved one can help. Other people often have ways of seeing and perceiving what is going on in any given situation that is different from our own. Asking for, and being open to honest and compassionate feedback can help us shift from resistance to acceptance. Once we can see clearly and accept the reality we are facing, we can then make the adjustments necessary and adapt those changes in the way we go about our daily lives. Accept, adjust, adapt. Let’s go back to where we started. The three actions that are necessary for the world to exist are learning Torah [wisdom], being of service and doing deeds of loving kindness. As we learned earlier, they relate to our cognitive and emotional development and our ability to take action. These are also the things that we need for ourselves – we need to continue to learn about who we are and how to adjust to whatever realities we face; we need to be empathetic and compassionate with ourselves so that we can do what we need to do without negative judgements, and we need to have an attitude of loving kindness toward ourselves so that self-care becomes a priority. These are the three pillars that make a strong platform upon which we can stand. Without that strong platform for ourselves, we have an extremely limited capacity to be of any help to anyone else. Building that strong platform for ourselves takes time and perseverance. Just like building a physical platform or a deck for our back patio, we do it one board or one brick or one stone at a time. Day by day we learn how to manage our spoons. At first, some of our best learning comes from our failures. Those days when we run out of spoons, when we find ourselves needing to lie down immediately, help us understand how to protect our energetic resources. In 2006, at the end of my first year serving as the rabbi of Nahalat Shalom, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. During my recovery, I had to be very mindful of how much I could do in any given day. As I was getting better, I could do one errand. If I pushed it, and acted on the thought – well, the drug store is just a few blocks from the library – I would be completely and utterly exhausted. These lessons made it possible for me to understand my mother in a new way. Prior to my own cancer experience, when I visited her in Mpls., I would notice that she would put her shoes on and then lie down for 15 or 20 minutes. I thought to myself, “why didn’t she lie down before she put her shoes on”? Then, when I was recovering from thyroid cancer, I understood. I came to refer to myself as a ‘medically induced 85- year-old’. Before I put on my shoes, I was fine. It was the act of putting on my shoes that used up my energy so that afterwards I needed to lie down. My mother had never heard of spoon theory, yet she knew how to manage her energy. Unfortunately, simply lying down for 15 or 20 minutes in between activities may not be sufficient for our energy to be replenished and for us to feel refreshed. That is why spoon management is so vital - - if we get depleted, it can take a long time to replenish our supply. With practice and the necessity of learning how to get through our days, we do get better at prioritizing our tasks and we do become wiser about spoon management while having a meaningful life. Every day is different. Every life stage has its unique demands. When we are fortunate to have more spoons than we need, we can focus on pursuing justice, upholding truth and creating peace. In 1999 Rabbi Abraham Twerski saw that our society was disintegrating. Currently, everywhere we turn there is injustice, inequity and obliteration of people’s civil rights. There are more just causes than any one person or group of people can address. If you have extra spoons, then get involved in social issues that foster more justice, truth and peace in our world. As we are seeing with our current political environment, without truth there can’t be justice. If we have the collective willingness to be truth tellers and allow our current justice system to work, then we will have a functional and resilient democracy. Without truth or justice, we won’t be able to maintain a peaceful civil society. In this New Year, in whatever way we can, may we each strengthen the ethical principles upon which our society rests and take the actions necessary in our daily lives to make wise choices so that we may live, and those who come after us may have a safe and secure existence in a world that can still sustain life.
Choosing life, for ourselves and for our offspring, how do we do it? What are we supposed to do to choose life and blessing for us and for those who come after us?
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin Pastoral Counseling & Spiritual Coaching
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin Pastoral Counseling & Spiritual Coaching ©2024 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
Rabbi’s Reflections

Strengthen Our Hands — Kol Nidre,


Sunday, 11 October 2015 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin The call came a few days before Rosh HaShannah.A plan was in the making to hold an interfaith vigil for immigrant justice between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, and the caller wanted to know if I could be one of the speakers. This is the busiest time of year for any congregational rabbi and my plate was totally full. My reaction was swift and certain: I said “no”. As soon as I hung up, I began to reconsider. A few minutes later, I called back. Justin was overjoyed when I told him that this is such an important issue for us in Albuquerque and around the world that even though it was so close to Yom Kippur, I would be there. The two main organizers of the event were Rachel LaZar of El Centro and Justin Remer–Thamert of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice. Last Thursday, I wrote my three-minute talk, grabbed my shofar and went to the vigil in the Barelas neighborhood. Out of the approximately 150 men, women, girls and boys present, there were maybe 4 Jews and about 15 other non- Hispanics. There was no press coverage. The Catholic priest spoke first, in both English and Spanish. Then I spoke. I explained about our High Holy Days, about missing the mark, and about the symbolism of the shofar. This is some of what I said to them: “This ten day time period is a time of reflection followed by action… As for individuals, so it is for communities. [This] is a time when we look at our collective responsibilities and think about where we may have fallen short, and how we can do better. It is clear that one of the ways that we can do better as a community is to address the concerns of immigrants to this country and their families. We need to wake up to the terrible trauma and devastation to our communities when family members are separated from one another and people are forced to live in the shadows because they don’t have the right pieces of paper and have no way to obtain them. “During these High Holy Days, we blow a ram’s horn during services. It is called a ‘shofar’. We are taught that the shofar is sounded to wake us up from our habit of walking around the world as if we are asleep; to refocus our attention on what we need to be doing, and to remember what we need to do in order to live up to our goals and aspirations as a society to treat one another with dignity and respect and to help those we can.” Then I told them that I was going to “sound the shofar for justice for immigrants. It is also a symbolic ‘wake-up’ call to all of the citizens and political leaders in our country. The shofar is calling to all of us to awaken to the issues and concerns of migrants in our midst. The shofar is urging us to identify what is wrong with our immigration system and to work together to create compassionate and respectful solutions that bring people out of the shadows, and reunite families.” Rachel LaZar summarized what I had said in Spanish, and then I sounded the shofar – I blew a tekiah, a shevarim, a t’ruah, and a tekiah g’dolah. I stayed for the rest of the vigil. Watching everyone around me, listening to the rapid Spanish, hearing the translations into English when they were offered, I floated in my mind between the present and the past; between thoughts about the traumas and struggles of this Barelas community, and the traumas and struggles of our recent past. In that liminal state, I had two stark memories. One was from rabbinical school and one was a line from one of my mother’s poems that you heard earlier this evening. The line that echoed in my ear was: “we repent the weakness of our hands”. [Excerpted from “In the Fall” Harvest Ruth F. Brin]. My rabbinical school classmate, Mordechai Liebling, is the child of holocaust survivors. It was from him that I first learned that the trauma our parents experience is passed directly to us. We studied the Holocaust for most of a year, and on one of the many days that we were discussing it, Mordechai asked the rest of us what we keep in the suitcases under our beds. To his surprise, and to ours, it turned out that he was the only one who kept important papers, a few family photos, cash and a valid, up-to-date passport in an easy to grab case under his bed. It got us all thinking what we would do if we had to flee suddenly. What would we take? What was my unconscious mind, what the mystics call ‘the still small voice’, trying to communicate to me? We all know about the chaos in our world today, the thousands upon thousands of migrants fleeing Syria; and others who have fled from hotspots all over the world, from: Asia, Afghanistan, Africa, Nigeria and the Sudan, the Ukraine, and South America, mostly from Columbia. Just a few months ago, the UN released its estimate that in 2014 there were 60 million displaced people and homeless refugees wandering from place to place looking for food, shelter and safety. This is the highest number of displaced people since World War II. The UN breaks that vast number down into more understandable bits. Worldwide one in every 122 humans is displaced and that means that everyday more that 42,500 people pack up and flee their homes. Startlingly, more than half of these displaced people and refugees are children. Four months ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a man named Antonio Guterres, was quoted as saying, “With huge shortages of funding and wide gaps in the global regime for protecting victims of war, people in need of compassion, aid and refuge are being abandoned. For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict & persecution." [‘Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase’ 18 June 2015. www.unhcr.org/558193896.html] These are complex and desperately urgent issues that no one knows how to solve. In the September 18th issue of the Forward, there was a provocative piece about the current refugee crisis by Deborah Lipstadt, a Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. In her article she acknowledges the inevitability that our holocaust memories and traumas will be triggered by the current crisis. She, like us, is struggling to discern what is truly happening. She has made donations to refugee assistance funds, and still she wonders: Do we need to make distinctions between those fleeing a war zone and those who are seeking to leave a poor country with limited opportunities? How will Europe be changed by integrating these massive numbers of people – will they be integrated, will they be able to function in a democratic society or will this lead to a rightwing backlash? Why haven’t the oil-rich Gulf States, who are Muslim, not taken in any of these Muslim refugees? Lipstadt closed her article by saying, ‘when people are drowning and babies are suffering the time to deliberate and search for answers may well be a luxury’. Here in the United States we are insulated from the ceaseless waves of migrants by an ocean and the European Union. These are dark, frightening and chaotic times at home and all over the world. What is there to do? Whatever we can do, small or large. Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, zaycher tzadik livracha, used to tell us that we are all on this earth-plane because we are here to be deployed. I can hear him asking each of us: what is your mission to accomplish during this lifetime? Think about it. Yom Kippur is a long day of communal prayer and fasting. As the music of the liturgy washes over us, it is an opportune time to think deeply about ourselves and to ask what we are each called to do. What should we do? As my mother said in her poem, may her memory be a blessing: ‘We repent the weakness of our hands… mourning [our dead] we are forced into the jaws of self-analysis, into the claws of politics, into the canine teeth of empire.” What should we do? Whatever we are called to do. Whatever we can do. Many of us will send donations to organizations providing direct aid to the refugees. Some of us may venture into the ‘claws of politics and the canine teeth of empire’ in order to get our government to bring more refugees here sooner than the legal process currently allows. Still others of us may choose to get involved with issues of immigrant justice right here in New Mexico. We are all different from one another and our contributions to the solutions will be different. There are two critical questions to ask ourselves as we go through our day-to-day life: who can we help, and how can we do it? We need to be careful. Our busyness can keep us inflexible as we rush from one thing to the next trying to hold up our piece of the sky. Our busyness can limit our horizons, like horses with blinders on, we see only where we need to go and what we need to do to get through the day. Even if we are used to it, it is a place of constriction. If we are asked to do one more thing – we say “no”. Yom Kippur calls us to lift our heads up and gain a wider perspective. We need to prepare ourselves to notice opportunities when they present themselves. When we do notice, when we see beyond the demands of our own lives we toggle the switch to “yes”. “Yes” is the place of possibility and collaboration. You may have heard the story about the starfish. The original story was called “The Star Thrower” and was written by Loren Eiseley and published in 1969. The popular version goes something like this: A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a young girl who was reaching down, picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean. As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing?” The girl looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean”. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the man. “The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The girl listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As she threw it back into the sea, she said, “It made a difference for that one.” Our actions, small or large, will make a difference. In this coming year, let us grease the gears so that we can switch more easily between the needs of our own lives and the needs of the wider world. In this coming year let us notice opportunities as they arise to help others and say “yes”. If we do, we will not need to repent our lack of willingness or our inability to act. And we will not regret the weakness of our hands. Let us open our hearts and strengthen our hands. Let us do what we can. Remember what Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”