Last night, after cooking dinner and watching Tiger Woods fall from ahead to lose the PGA, I lost myself in the meditation of mincha/maariv, combining the late afternoon and early evening prayers which, when taken together, amounts to something like a large, multi-vitamin of spiritual practice. I was alone in the apartment and it was a rare luxury that was worth every second. In such moments I feel a keenly strong connection to God, which I find in this neighborhood to be coin of disputable value. There are those who find such musings preposterous--so certain are they of the lack of God's existence; there are those who find those expressions distantly admirable, feeling a vague sense of "something greater than the self" but somehow unable to close the deal and move into the territory of engagement; and then, there are those--a distinct minority--who are locked in as well. We're so small as a group we might consider developing a secret handshake. Few would know.
It's hard to make a minyan in this neighborhood; most of the liberal shuls barely manage it and my attempt last year to do so at CBE failed, but I'll try again, if only because I believe one must keep trying. And fortuitously, today, late in the afternoon, a member popped his head into my office to ask when it was starting up again--he said he and his wife wanted to go into the new year looking to reconnect to that spiritual practice. I immediately began thinking of secret handshakes.
This morning, at dawn, in my zeal to find that space so sublimely realized yesterday, I put on my tallit singing, wound my way in and out of psalms and blessings, prayed fervently for those in the family and the community in need of healing, and the moved toward my closing blessings. As I moved to think, think, think about the day, reaching up to grab my head, I realized I had forgotten to put on my tefillin. I felt absent-mindedly for them atop my head; looked to the left arm and saw nothing but an arm; and then scrambled to put them on.
Blind faith, I thought. Blind faith. In my zeal to reach God, I had forgotten what I had agreed to be part of my obligatory relationship to God. And herein was an object lesson I had never before experienced: in the race to serve God, I had actually served myself. And I felt suddenly what the prophets were getting at when they railed against the people for their vain offerings.
Who was this morning all about? Me? Or "Beyond Me?"
Later in the day I had a conversation with someone in the neighborhood who's thinking about joining the synagogue. He said he was interested in joining in order to give his kid an education--but certainly not on Saturdays, because that's when his traveling baseball team met. "I didn't have much of a Jewish education rabbi and no offense but when I sit in synagogue I don't feel a thing. But I figure if my kid gets a bar mitzvah, he'll be able to figure it out for himself."
My mouth started moving. Statistics and facts came out. But inside my heart was racing. Calmly, like a good outreach rabbi, I talked about the importance of learning together, of trying to model that Judaism and Jewish culture are shared family traditions; that no child can go it alone. I set the bar really low. I think I mentioned cds. "The truth is, I'm not going to try. It means nothing to me. But maybe it will mean something to my kid."
"I know the secret handshake with God!" I felt myself say. But I heard myself say something really neutral, like, "See you around." Oh, you ambivalent liberal rabbi! You failed!
I think that my zeal, weird as it may seem, would have been better. Give 'em something to remember, you might say. Like a really firm handshake. Or marks on the arm left by tefillin, tightly wound.