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Practicing Judaism

Delivered on Yom Kippur 5777, October 11, 2016

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the old joke begins. “Practice, practice, practice.”

The musician knows that he or she must know the music so well that only after considerable practice can he or she unlock the sounds for other ears. In his book Outliers, Malcomb Gladwell describes this as the 10,000 hour rule. 10,000 is the magic number for greatness. Bill Gates wrote code since he was a teen, enabling his excellence as a young tech entrepreneur. Long before the Beatles invaded the United States, they collected 10,000 hours, playing gigs together throughout Europe. Practice, practice, practice. That is how we get to Carnegie Hall.

But practice does not make perfect. Pablo Casals knew this. Regarded as a pre-eminent cellist of the last century, Casals became known for his recording of Bach’s Cello Suites, among other masterpieces. In 1890, Casals was a young boy living in Barcelona, where he studied cello and piano. While wandering around a second-hand music store, he came across an old copy of Bach’s suites. That moment was life-altering for him. He began to practice the cello suites daily, something he continued to do every time he played his cello. As he played Bach’s Six Suites, he came to know them with his very being, but he hesitated to perform them. Practice, practice, practice — it did not immediately lead to a concert of those precious suites in Carnegie Hall. In fact, he only first performed them publicly at the age of 26, 13 years after he came upon them in that music store, and he only first recorded the Suites in his mid–40’s. Even though he knew every note and the spaces between each of the notes, Casals approached the Suites with a constant beginner’s mind. He was always practicing the Suites, never performing them. He never mastered them; he was always a student, the ever-practicing musician.

So it is with much of what we do. Practice, practice, practice. We do not expect to reach perfection; still, one’s practice can bring him or her closer to a glimmer of the Ideal.

In the spiritual realm, the concept of practicing has come into its own. Everyone has a practice these days. Practice is the metaphor we use for the spiritual journey. I—for one—have been an indiscriminate practitioner, a collector of practices. In rabbinical school, I discovered the power of yoga, and developed a serious routine for several years, until a bad experience with heated Bikram Yoga sidelined me. For a while, meditation was important. I meditated every day for 20 minutes. For about three months. One year, I read Julia Cameron’s classic, The Artist’s Way, and every morning I wrote three-pages of free-thought by hand, not stopping to correct spelling, grammar, or to censor myself. It was a beautiful practice to help unlock my voice, and to come to better understand the dual processes of thinking and creating. Practice, practice, practice. At one point, I was trying to maintain my writing practice, my meditation practice, and my yoga practice, all the while keeping up with my rabbinic responsibilities, my responsibilities to my family, getting to the gym, eating, showering. It became too much. My practices had practices. For as much as I wanted to be present in the practice, my mind and my being were far from still. I wasn’t anywhere, because I was trying to be everywhere. Casals did not try to practice every great piece written for the cello. His practice had focus, as our spiritual practices should as well.

Practicing brings the musician clarity; it clears aways the clouds that surround the music. With focused practice, what seems like complicated chord progressions, or quick shifts in keys or meter, become second nature. Spiritual practices should work the same way. When making a practice of writing every day, at first the words do not come easily. Like turning on a faucet that has not been used for some time, one experiences first drips, then trickles, and then a steady flow of words and expressions. Ideas start to come freely as one’s mind loosens up. A writing practice takes focus and it takes discipline, which rewards the practitioner over time.

So does practicing Judaism. Approaching our Jewish faith and our Jewish spirituality as a practice can take many forms. For some, it is expressed at home, while for others we practice together, here at Hevreh. Regardless of the location, a practice of Judaism requires one thing—being action-oriented. Practicing Judaism requires us to do something. The Jew has always been of this world, never the monastic sort. One does not contemplate Judaism; one practices Judaism.

The person who taught me this is one of the newest members of the Jewish community. Last month, Alex Kelly completed her conversion process, and is celebrating her first High Holy Days as having formally joined the tribe. Alex practices Judaism through the way she builds her home life.

Along with her decision to convert, she and her fiancé, David, were going through some other transitions: they were planning their wedding, starting new jobs with larger responsibilities, and had moved to Boston. When meeting together one day early on in her conversion process, Alex described her weekly reality—each and every day was filled with work. Her responsibilities were mounting, and she needed release. She was searching for a practice—something to do—that could help her find more space in her life. And here entered the simple and beautiful gift of Shabbat. This was the chance to meaningfully connect with her fiancé, to slow down time, and to see how living was living Jewishly. To put it in her words:

“the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat on a weekly basis made it all the more important in helping me cultivate my ‘practice’ of Judaism alongside a partner whose practice was previously limited mainly to the high holidays and major life events. Lighting candles and having dinner together or with friends and family on Shabbat has enabled us to integrate Judaism into our regular life and has helped us start building a sense of community…”

This is what it means to practice Judaism. Our lives are busy. So, the thought of adding in another practice may be daunting. But practicing Judaism is not about doing more. The gift of Shabbat is that we do less. We clear time and space for ourselves so that during the other six days of the week, we can be at our most creative. Jewish practice, despite what some believe, is here to simplify, not to complicate. Practicable Jewish actions are here to make things easier.

What are those Jewish actions? Our ancient Sages gave us three options: “Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omed,” we read in Pirkei Avot, “Upon three things the world stands: Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim.” The person who practices Judaism does so through the study of Torah, through practicing prayer, and through acts of loving kindness.” The Torah is our intellect. Through study, we practice Judaism, and gain insights into how Jewish living can be deepened and enriched. Avodah, prayer, is the outpouring of our soul. In our Shabbat morning liturgy we sing, “Ilu finu male shirah kayam, Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy in countless waves…” we could never quite say enough. Prayer as practice is the chance to pour out our souls like water. For what do long? For what do we hope? Practicing Judaism through prayer gives our longing and our hopes voice. And practicing g’milut chasadim, practicing acts of loving kindness is our opportunity to live our values; namely, to practice the central mitzvah of our tradition, “Ahavta l’reicha k’mocha, love your fellow human being as you, yourself, are loved.” When prayers fail, and focusing on studying is not possible, g’milut chasadim are what we can do with our hands, to show that we are living Jewishly. We do this when we stop by to see a friend in the hospital. We do this when we sign onto a social justice campaign that is going to make our society a bit better than it was the day before. Living by Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim are how we practice Judaism through our heads, our hearts, and our hands.

Like a Jewish version of the cast in The Breakfast Club, some of us are head-Jews, while others are heart-Jews, and some may best be hand-Jews. Or, we are some combination of the three, leaning on these different aspects of practicing Judaism depending on what is going on in our lives. For some, we practice Judaism by taking part in synagogue committees. For others, it is coming to Saturday morning services. Some may practice Judaism more privately, as the active inner-seeker, always keeping a Jewish book in his rotation. For others, that we are actively rodfei tzedek, active pursuers of social justice, is a way that we express our Jewishness. Practicing Judaism can happen in integrative ways, as well. Some are finding their practice of Judaism integrate with a yoga practice, melding Hebrew chant with their Vinyasa practice. When the Sages claim that the world is establish on these three practices—Torah, prayer, and loving actions—they are communicating to us that it takes different pathways at different points in our lives to bring us to our spiritual destination. Or, when we are in our spiritual destination, we practice Judaism in several ways. The important thing is that the practice is active. One chooses to do something, in a committed, focused, and disciplined way. And in that discipline, finds deepened meaning. The synagogue does not house a one-size-fits-all spiritual experience. We are writing a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

While this may seem a reason to stay away from it, it can also be encouraging. The only wrong thing someone can do is to do nothing. Each of us is the musician in the practice room, going over etudes and scales, practicing diligently. Practicing Judaism is an art. I want to invite you to be the artist.

On Rosh Hashanah, Sharon Braus, the rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, remarked to her community:

“If you think we’re here [in synagogue on the High Holy Days] to bring an annual guilt-offering to the Jewish God of Institutional Religion, you are wrong. We are here to remind ourselves of who we are, and who we are called to be. We are here to dream together about what we can build, and then to go get busy building. This is how we begin to find our way again.”

Yom Kippur is a full day for reflection. To strip away everything else, and to be present in our own beings, and to set the course afresh for this coming year. Let me invite you to dream about what can be built into your life. What can you do to practice Judaism? How can Judaism not just be something that happens on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but a spiritual path and practice that helps us build lives worth living.

It is time to do something, to start practicing. It is time to treat our Jewish ways of Torah, prayer, and loving kindnesses as faithful practices that will make us better people. Judaism is an action-oriented practice. In 5777, Rabbi Gordon and I, the Hevreh leadership, those who work so hard to make Hevreh a spiritual destination for anyone who enters it, is committed to creating opportunities for you to practice Judaism. That is our task. Now we need you to get busy, to do something, to say yes. Let us practice Judaism together.


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