Tuesday, October 31, 2006


יום שלישי ט' בחשון תשס''ז

. . . I am barely aware this year of this _holiday_ coming. . . . . Which is something worth reflecting on -- I see it as an indicator of how deeply immersed I am in my job and the spiritual work it involves. When you're so immersed in something so intense, you might not notice some of the things that make up important elements in the community of people around you. And, I think, for a spritual leader and caregiver, it's important to try and notice when you're _not_ noticing something big. . . like Halloween. . . . . . and so this blog entry is my way noticing that I'm "not noticing". :)

I also have barely noticed that tomorrow is my birthday. A friend sent me an "e card" this morning and I found myself wondering, "why is she sending me an e-card? What could that be about." . . . It was only when I opended it up and saw the Happy Birthday message that I realized, "oh, yeah, tomorrow's my birthday."

I've decided to stop putting the Hebrew date in the title of a blog entry every day. Instead, I'm just going to do one short "just a bit of what's going on in my life and the world" blog entry every day and to put the date in that entry at the top.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

יום שני ח' בחשון תשס''ז

OK, so, I still think I like the basic idea of entering the Hebrew date in the blog every days (as a _spiritual_ practice) to build my awareness of the Hebrew calendar and the rhythm of the Jewish year, etc. . . . . but I'm not sure this series of title-only blog entries in Hebrew make for a readable blog . . . so i need to think about a better way of doing this. . . . Today was a fairly good day. A normal work day. . . . Kind of busy. #*#

Become what you are . . .

. . . was the name of an album by Juliana Hatfield, an underrated indie rocker whose music was extremely meaningful to me for a good number of years. . . and it's also what I think Spiritual Direction is about -- becoming who you are.

I've been giving a great deal of thought to Spiritual Direction ("SD") over the last year or so. . . . There's a phrase in the Information Technology field -- "a late adopter." My Father, of Blessed Memory, was a classic late adopter. He loved computers (he was a Systems Analyst) and technology in general, but his experience wtih technology made him very suspicious about the flashy hype that people put up around new computers and software. You really had to prove to him that it was worth adopting something new. But when he did adopt it, he did so with great seriousness and fervor (witness how he kept track of even the minutest detail of his finances on it when he finally bought a PC!!).

I'm a sort of late adopter to -- especially when it comes to new _spiritual_ technology. I'm very suspicious of all the breathless _flash_ that comes along with _new_ spiritual practices. I need to feel that something is serious, rigorous legitimate and well-rooted in the thousands-years old Jewish tradition.

And, so, I've sort of come to my interest in SD in a backwards way. First I tried something very rigorous and serious -- the world of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). CPE, for those who don't know, is the standard way that Chaplains (hospital and otherwise) are trained. It's called "Clinical" because it -- like most medical education -- does _not_ take place in a classroom. Rather, it's an on-the-job sort of training where the student learns through intensive review of his or her experiences with patients.

Most mainline Protestant denominations require their seminary students to do a summer of full-time CPE (something students often dread intensely because of the intensity that CPE, and hospital work in general, has a reputation for). But only a small fraction of rabbinical students do the training. I was one of those few.

There are so many things I love about CPE (I love it so much I've signed up for a two-year full time residency that I am in the middle of right now). But one was the opportunity to talk seriously with my supervisor and others about what Christians call "discernment" -- the process of trying to determine just where it is that God really wants you. Or, more specifically for the rabbinical student, where and how you should best serve as Rabbi (and whether you should become a Rabbi in the first place).

For a wide variety of reasons, I did not find much room to do this discernment when I was in rabbinical school. I was able to learn many things in rabbinical school -- and am grateful to my teachers and for the great friends I was able to make there among my fellow students -- but I simply did not find it to be a "safe space" for sharing my struggles with fellow students and professors. I felt as though I was expected to have arrived at the school's doors essentially already fully formed and not as a 'work in progress.'

CPE, then, was a breath of fresh air for me -- here "discernment" was highly valued and encouraged. It was supported.

As I've developed in my work as a resident chaplain -- and as I've considered whether I should try to become a CPE supervisor (a kind of educator and guide who trains other chaplains) -- I've had more and more opportunities to help other CPE students with their discernment process. I have found that I love this work. It's an amazing opportunity to have a kind of intimate engagement with another person -- to join them for a bit in their (beautiful) struggle to become what they are . . . . It's a Holy work. . . . because it's God's call that people are trying to hear, the call to serve God. . . .and one of the most beautiful things to find in other people is their desire to be part of the Holy. . . to be connected to it through what they do in, and with, their lives. And, so, the moment of the struggle to discern is a moment that a person is at his or her most beautiful. . . it's a real priviledge to be able to be present at such moments.

And so, now, I think I've fully made the journey here in this post _backwards_ to Spiritual Direction. . . . because what I wrote in the last paragraph sounds a lot like SD to me. . . . Or, at least SD as I understand it at this point. When I was recently starting to read a book on Jewish Spiritual Direction,
edited by Howard A. Addison and Barbara Eve Breitman, I wrote down my definition of SD (as it stands now):
SD is about learning one's own unique, personal path re how to serve God [and Israel] through the help of a guide or director. The main tool for this task is self-examination and reflection.
This seems a bit different than this definition that Addison gives (pg. xviii):
For many, spiritual direction might best be described as a contemplative practice through which people companion one another over time as they reflect on their spiritual journeys and expand their awareness of the sacred dimensions that underlie the ordinary and extraordinary events of life. (emphasis mine)
What's missing to me in the above definition is a concept of _service_. That is, it seems to be all about developing _awareness_ of God (or what some people might call developing a God relationship).

To me (and, in Addison's defense, I am only quoting one sentence from a whole book), this is at best only _half_ of what a true spirituality is really about. It's only about the indvidual. It's entirely inward looking. But a real spirituality -- certainly, at least, in the traditional spiritualities of both Judaism and Christianity -- is outward looking as well. It is about community, and, yes -- dare I say it -- about obligation. It's about holding something in common with other people of faith. It's about acting in the world. It's about trying to make this world more like the world God wants from us. It's about service.

Some years ago, I read a really great book called Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America by Robert C. Fuller. He lamented that too many Americans are living this sort of half spirituality, a spirituality that is all about the self and satsifying the needs of the self. He thought this ultimately is an empty vision of spirituality. I could not agree more.

So, if Spiritual Direction is _only_ about connecting with God then I don't think I'm much interested in helping people with it. But, if it's also about finding where God wants you to be -- about finding how God has made you to serve -- then I am interested.

In the coming months and days, I'm going to be trying to get a better sense of this. I have some great opportunities here at the hospital to find out more about spiritual direction. Some of my colleagues here, especially the Catholic ones, have had much experience with either being directors or being directed. I want to find out how their own understanding of spiritual direction matches up with my own.

And I'm starting to reach out within the Jewish community to find out about people's experiences with SD and about training programs. Last week, I had a phone conversation with Jinks Hoffman, a Toronto-based spiritual director and psychotherapist who has a chapter in Addison and Breitman's book. I also recently spoke with an RRC rabbinical student who meets once-a-month with a spiritual director as part of a program they have there.

I'm also continuing to investigate whether training to be a CPE supervisor might fit into my future, and I had a phone conversation on Friday with somebody at the Healthcare Chaplaincy in New York to try and determine whether that might be a place for me in the future.

So . . . getting back to the become what you are idea, I think that some would criticize _my_ definition of spiritual direction above as being _too_ close to psychotherapy. Obviously, there should be a difference.

I had a fascinating on-going debate with a good rabbi friend about this over Rosh HaShanah. He thinks therapy is very important and should perhaps maybe even be required of rabbinical students. But he's very suspiscious of Spiritual Direction, finding it to be a kind of gimmicky thing.

I argued that there is more in common between the two than there are differences. Surely, there are differences. The goals are different. The players are different. In Spiritual Direction, God is also in the room. It's not just about fully actualizing your personal potential. It's about finding the direction that God wants of you and getting closer to God. Spiritual Direction might be more narrow, in this sense. It might only be about discerning where God calls us, about such narrow questions of whether one should become a rabbi or not. Or what kind of rabbi once should become.

But, I think the core techniques and the core process is the same -- they are both counseling relationships where the main goal is for the client/directee to learn more about his or herself. In both, the big issues ultimately revolve around relationships with figures of primal authority, whether they be the Deity or about the parents that raised us. The same kind of unresolved issues -- the same kinds of hurts and joys and defining moments -- are in both.

So, I'm going to keep thinking about this. I'm going to read some more of the chapters in Addison and Breitman. I'm going to keep talking to people. Jinks Hoffman told me that there's a Intro to Spiritual Direction retreat to be held in August at Isabella Freedman (I think she told me Aug. 14-19); I'm going to see if it's possible for me to attend that.

So, that's all there is on this for now. . . . . but I'm sure I'll be writing more about it in the future.

PS -- Other works (besides Hatfield's album) called become what you are include:
PSS Some Jewish spirituality and spiritual direction sites

Saturday, October 28, 2006

אף עד כאן (even this far?)

. . . it's a reference to the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva, and to the final words he uttered as he was being murdered at the hands of those who tried to destroy the Jews and their love of Torah. It's a story that has deep meaning for me and that deeply shapes how I understand Judaism and my own faith and work (and, in particular, why I think this blog is part of my Torah, too).

The story of his death is but one of many stories about Akiva. He was part of that great generation of Rabbis who figured out a way to preserve Judaism without the great Temple that was heart and center of Jewish life before the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. He supported the last great revolt (around 130 CE) against the Romans. The Talmud tells us (Brachot 61b) that at one point the Romans decreed that the Jews could no longer busy themselves with the Torah. Akiva was not afraid. He boldly defied this decree and brought together public gatherings of people to study Torah.

One day the Romans arrested him for this and brought him out for execution. It was the time of day for reciting the Shema. Despite the fact that he was being tortured terribly, Akiva recited the prayer. His students were stunned:
רבינו, עד כאן
Master, even this far!?!?!?!

Akiva's response to his students amazes me. In this terrible moment, he not only finds the strength to follow his religious practice, but he is able to show love for his students by teaching them one last lesson of Torah. Some words of the Shema have always troubled him, he says -- what does it mean to say בכל נפשך, with all your soul you should love God?

Akiva says it means, even if God would take my soul I should love and obey God. Even in the moment of death. Even in the most extreme condition that a human can find oneself in, that place is still the place for Torah. Its place is everywhere. That is the great lesson Akiva teaches. And that is the inspiration I find in it -- that the place of Torah is everywhere. It is in everything we do. It is not something that we do when we walk into a House of Worship or when we are in the presence of a clergy person. It goes everywhere.

There is a famous story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was known as a man very careful about observing Jewish law and ritual, certainly the kind of man who would be in synagogue on Shabbat and who would _not_ be walking long distances on Shabbat. And, yet, there he was one morning marching in a civil rights march with Martin Luther King. Someone asked him how he could not be in synagogue. He answered, "I'm praying with my feet."

Heschel was not saying that going to synagogue and following Jewish law were not important; just that they are not enough. There are other things the Torah calls us to do. He was saying that on this particular day the Torah called him to be somewhere else. This, too -- fighting injustice by supporting civil rights -- was a place of Torah. Even this far. Torah is not just in synagogue. It's out here in the world as well. In what we do in the world. In the way we relate to our neighbor.

Heschel was a deeply spiritual man and one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century. The story of his civil rights march also teaches us that, to be spiritual, an act does not have to be all dressed up in some kind of explicitly spiritual clothing. On that day, just moving his feet was spiritual -- was prayer. He didn't need to speak any words, or talk about God. Moving his feet was spiritual because of what motivated him to do it. It came out of his faith, out of his love and understanding of Torah and what Torah commands of us. It came out of the deepest reaches of his heart. Out of the parts of his heart that reached out beyond himself and his personal wants and concerns to the world and humanity as a whole.

I think of this often in my work as a hospital chaplain. So much of what I do is "just talking" talking to people, or sometimes just standing silently with them around their dying loved one. I never question whether this, too, is spiritual, whether this, too, is Torah. I think of Rabbi Akiva. I know that the Torah extends even this far. All this is spiritual.

Akiva's story also teaches us a lot about the importance of knowing who we really are, and of standing by that. Before his arrest, Akiva was asked by someone who saw him teaching Torah in defiance of the Roman order if he was not afraid of the authorities?

Akiva answered with a mashal, with a parable:

To what is this matter (with the Romans) similar? A fox was once walking along
a river. He saw fishes moving in groups from place to place. He asked, "why are
you fleeing?"

"From the nets that men cast upon us."

The fox replied, "would you like to come up on the dry land and we will dwell together here as
our ancestors once did?"

"The fish said, "Aren't you the one that they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever, but foolish!! If we are afraid in the place in which we live, how much more so in the place in which we would die"

That is, the Torah is to the Jew like water is to fish. It is life itself. It is the air we breath. Things from the world around us may hold us in fear as we study Torah. But how much more so we would be in fear if we were to abandon it.

Again, I see the wisdom of this so often in my work in the hospital. For the people who have a Torah -- who have some kind of faith or other source of spiritual support -- there is much less despair from an illness. There may still be fear and despair -- few can face cancer and other serious illnesses without suffering some fear and despair -- but it will be much less. They will be much stronger.

We never know when the day may come suddenly -- as it did with Rabbi Akiva -- that we may die. Will we know who we are when that day comes? Will we know what we care about most? Will we be crippled by fear, or comforted by the belief that things of importance and permanance will live on when our time is over?

I hope that this blog will help me to take my faith even that far, that it will help me to learn more about who I am, about what means the most to me and how I can best serve God. I hope this blog will help me to share some of that Torah with others. I hope my Torah will extend even this far.

יום ראשון ז' בחשון תשס''ז

I had a nice, restful Shabbat. With the clocks changing overnight, they will certainly be starting and ending very early now.

End of an era

WASHINGTON -- Red Auerbach, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Boston Celtics to nine NBA championships in the 1950s and 1960s, died Saturday. He was 89.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Walking with God

What does it mean to walk with God? This week’s parsha begins with the words:

אלה תולדות נח, נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורתיו, את האלוהים התהלך נח

These are the generations of Noah:
Noah was a righteous and pure man in his generation.
With God walked Noah.

With God walked Noah.” The traditional commentators here compare Noah with Avraham who tells his servant that he walks before God (Gen. 24:40).

But, when Moshe commands the Children of Israel, he neither asks them to walk with or before God. Rather, they should walk after God (Devarim 13:5). The Ramban comments that this after is not a reference to a physical position. Rather, it is a command to follow (after) the counsel of God and to seek insight into the future only from God and God’s true prophets.

The Rabbis of the Talmud also thought this after has nothing to do with a physical position, but is rather about following the ways of God. They say it's about following God's attributes (מדות/midot). That is, to imitate the ways of God, to follow after God's ways (Sotah 14a):

Just as God clothed Adam and Eve, so too shall you clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick Avraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1), so too shall you visit the sick
These last words are one of the great foundational texts in Judaism for the command of Bikur Holim, the command to visit the sick. This is a command not just for Rabbis, but for lay people as well. For all of us.

There are two more weeks before our Torah reading cycle will bring us to that scene of the suffering Avraham at the Oaks of Mamre. Is there someone you can help in those next two weeks? The commentators say that the only thing God did for Avraham then was visit with him, just to be with him for a while. God didn’t even say anything.

Thus, in our efforts to walk after God, we don’t have to bring any great words with us when we visit the sick. You just need to bring yourself. That is all you need to perform this great mitzvah, and this is all you need to console and uplift the suffering. There is no better time than now.

May your coming week be a sweet one.

One element of the Jewish calendar is the weekly Torah reading, or parsha. This coming Shabbat's reading is Noah, Gen. 6:9-11:32. It features the story of the Flood, as well as the Tower of Bavel. It is the last reading before the Torah turns its attention away from the story of the creation of the world and of mankind as a whole, and, instead, turns to the more specific story of the creation and development of the Jewish people. Next week's parsha -- Lech Lecha -- begins the story of Avraham, that great first Jew whose story begins with God's emphatic call to leave his native land for the Land of Canaan.

יום שישי ה' בחשון תשס''ז

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

יום רביעי ג' בחשון תשס''ז

My (quick) bio

My name is Alan Abrams. I am a Resident Chaplain at the Reading Hospital in Reading, PA, where I try to be part of bringing healing to the suffering through love, compassion, Torah, understanding and guidance. I became a rabbi in 2004 at the University of Judaism. I have a Talmud MA from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I abhor injustice. I believe in the potential of people. I know they are made in the Image of God, and I believe in the Awesomeness of God's Presence and Glory. We can search for that Glory in three places -- in the Torah (Holy texts), in nature (the world that God made) and in other people. Glimpses of God can be found in the interactions between them. In the hospital I see much that is difficult -- much ugliness and suffering. Much pain and blood and death. But all that is overshadowed by what I see happen between the people. God's Glory is there in the love I see they can show for one another. It is there in the caring that they show around illness and death. Sometimes a person talking to me suddenly looks up and says, "you have a hard job". And, in those moments, my heart says, "yes, I do have a hard job. But it is a privilege to be here in this place. I get to see God here. Thank, you, for allowing me to be here in this trying moment for you. And for giving me a chance to see a piece of what is Holy in you. I hope you will have some peace when you leave this place and that I may have been able to play some small role in your finding your way to it."

יום שלישי ב' בחשון תשס''ז

I'm going to try and enter every Hebrew date in this blog every day to raise my consciousness of the Hebrew calendar. . . . In general, I want to try and use the blog to help me raise my consciousness about different aspects of my spiritual life. . . To, in effect, turn the blog into a spiritual practice. . . . a tool -- along with תפילה and תלמוד תורה and גמילות חסידים, etc. -- to build my spiritual life. . . . and my rabbinic growth. . . . and growth as a chaplain. . . . . . I think that one of the reasons I've been thinking of starting a blog has _nothing_ directly to do with people reading it. . . . Rather/אלא, it's about finding a form of _self-discipline_ that works for me. . . . . There's something about using a form where there's even the mere _possiblity_ that someone might read it, that helps me approach the task with a greater degree of discipline. . . . So, I'm hoping to take some things where I've been seeking greater to develop greater discipline and move them into the blog. . . . make them regular features of the blog. . . . and thus make them regular features of my life (spiritual and otherwise).

Parsaht נוח this Shabbat. . . one of the true greats!!!! . . . Shabbat's getting earlier, it comes in at only 5:50. . . . It always amazes me to think of how many foundational stories are packed into some of these parshiot. . . . Just the fact that the story of the Flood/מבול and the story of the Tower of Bavel (מגדל בבל) are in the same parsha . . . amazing..

Monday, October 23, 2006

Just do it!

For some time now, I've been thinking of starting a blog . . . . and have thought long and hard about they "why's" and "how's" of how to do it. . . . A lot of good and productive contemplation there, but, no real decisions. . . . And, so, I'm just going to start and let it develop as I go. . . . . . And, so, here it is -- my first posting. :)