Being Our Best Selves – Reflections on sabbatical

I am so grateful for this community affording me the opportunity to get away.

It is great to see you all. Sabbatical was extraordinary, and I am so grateful for this community affording me the opportunity to get away.

I want to frame sabbatical by a ritual during our prayer service. At the end of the Amidah and Mourner’s Kaddish we take three steps back. I was always taught that those three steps back was leaving the Divine Presence, but I have added to the meaning of this act as a result of sabbatical. The steps back can also symbolize the need to create space in life – space for others, our souls, our thoughts and God. Sabbatical created the ability to step back – and you have no idea what will emerge until you take those steps back.

What did those steps back afforded me the opportunity to do?

Travel: We went on some wonderful trips. Mimi and I traveled to Israel for the first time as a couple. We took a family trip to the East Coast for college visits, theater and friends. We had a great trip to Lake Tahoe for relaxation and inspiration from nature.

Reflection: I had the opportunity to slow down, reflect, process and change routine a bit. I got to see how other synagogues do Shabbat and study. I reflected about health, well-being, community, faith and being present – and emerged with some new habits. I got to cook delicious dinners so Mimi could come home from work to a warm meal and took care of some chores that have lingered on the “to do” list for quite some time. I hope to return different than when I left.

Study: I took extraordinary classes from wonderful teachers. These included: Science of Mindfulness, Old Testament, Science of the Aging Brain, Sciece of Integrative medicine, Nutrition, Podcasts/Lectures with Hartman Institute, Rabbi Sacks. These studies impacted me deeply and I now have integrated meditation into my life, have different nutrition habits, and have new thoughts of safeguarding personal time

Reading: I treasured the opportunity to read all kinds of books. These included Jewish books on the Exodus, Maimonides, Adam and Eve, and the Talmud; Israeli literature, good novels, biographies, and other interesting non-fiction.

Renewal and new beginnings: I am returning with a sense of well-being, happiness and gratitude. I will look forward to sharing some of the insights I have gained in these past 5 ½ months. I have given much thought as to how to maintain these blessings and hope to succeed in that challenge.

The portion on the Shabbat of return from sabbatical, Be’ha’alotecha is full of lessons of how to live life with meaning, purpose and wisdom. I want to continue to share some of the lessons of sabbatical, while diving into the portion and explore how Moses provides lessons in thoughtful living. I will weave some stories from my first week back which I hope will bring the lessons to life.

What are some of Moses’ lessons?

He teaches the ability to say, “I don’t know.” It was the time of the Passover offering and a group came to Moses upset they could not participate because they were impure. They protested, “Why should we be prevented from making the offering because we were tamei – impure?” Moses didn’t know the answer, essentially saying, “I don’t know.” He goes to God to seek an answer. God comes up with a great solution – Pesach Sheni – celebrate the next month on the fourteenth day. When I slowed down and reflected, I thought about the need to be more comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” “I need to think.” “I need to pray.” So much is going on in the world that is important – and we need to respond – but too often in the rabbinic world we think we need an immediate response – but sometimes we need to say, “I don’t know.” Sabbatical was embracing the power of uncertainty.

Moses was willing to ask for, embrace and nurture help. Moses has a moment in the portion where he loses it – he gets angry at God for having to deal with the constant discontent of the Israelites and God has him select 70 elders. Moses need to learn to seek help. I am so grateful for the help that allowed this sabbatical to happen so successfully. There is an amazing clergy, professional and lay team here. Bill, Rabbi Ilana, Cantor Barbara, Gary, Ann, Rosa, Laura, Natalya, Rebecca, Caroline, Martine, Terrah all stepped up in amazing ways. I am so blessed. And when you let people help, they shine. We saw that here at CBJ when I was away.

Having these people, and being people who help may be one of the keys to a life well loved. Are we allowing others to help so they can shine? Or do we feel a need to do everything ourselves? Are we appreciating the help we receive from others? Are we able to help in ways that people need? On Sunday I did a wedding for Elana Miller. Some of you may know her or her parents, Terry and Meredith. Elana is a young psychiatrist and a couple years ago she wasn’t feeling well. She went to the doctor, and it turned out to be cancer. What fear and anxiety we all felt. She went through grueling treatment. Her boyfriend at the time couldn’t deal with it and broke up; and in the midst of it she met Daniel. She had been driving herself to her treatments and when she and Daniel started to date, his response wasn’t: “Do you need a ride? Can I drive you?” It was “When is your next treatment? I will take you.” We need helpers. We need to be helpers. That was a piece of sabbatical.

Moses sees the best in people. He sees potential and talent, even in the face of other’s harsh judgment. There is a moment in the portion where two others, Eldad and Medad, who are not part of the 70 elders who go to the Tent of Meeting begin to prophesy. Joshua gets upset and calls on Moses to restrain them – feeling that this role should belongs only to the selected elite. But Moses sees things differently. He sees something special in these men – he sees their gifts and embraces them.

Story 2 from this week: I did a funeral on Thursday for the father of a dear family friend, Les Bard. I grew up with the Bard’s in Sacramento. In my eulogy I shared that I had been thinking about him recently as a moment on sabbatical triggered a memory. Mimi and I went to Lake Tahoe and passed a place where I went on a hike with the Bard family on a trip where I tagged along over 40 years ago. I had a vivid memory when Les found a few moments to let me know how much he appreciated me being on the trip with them. It is a seemingly small thing, but it lifted me up. I was a teenage kid and here was a contemporary of my parents seeing the best in me. When we see the best in others and say it – they soar. It happened with Eldad and Medad. It was who my friend’s father Les was to me. It is who I want to be as a friend, husband, son, brother, father and rabbi. Sabbatical allowed that piece of me to grow.

Moses lets his life be infused with faith. Listen to the description of his gathering the elders at the Tent of Meeting: “The Lord came down in a cloud and spoke to him. He drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders.” Moses lives with a deep awareness of God – and it impacts those around him. Every day on sabbatical I tried to go outside and appreciate the world around me. As I experimented with new spiritual practices like meditation, which focuses on the now, my faith was enhanced and grew. Faith changes you – and you can’t know it until you try it.

One more story from this week: On Tuesday, my first official day back to work, we had the Beit Din for Harold Liang and his son Ethan. In the essay he wrote, Harold wrote an amazing story of his encounter with the Divine. I have been given permission to share this story. Harold and Jamie have 2 daughters, and had been hoping for a son – but after 7 years of trying – it did not happen. They were in Beijing for a tech startup and then the SARS event happened. I don’t know if you remember the SARS epidemic, but it was scary. Beijing became a ghost town and there was great fear. Harold and Jamie moved their daughters back to California to stay with grandma, and then they found out Jamie was pregnant. Given the epidemic – if you had the virus it would affect the fetus, and Jamie’s age and health condition, the doctor advised them to have an abortion. They decided that it was the right decision given all the factors. Harold wrote: “I had very mixed emotions before the day of  the abortion and did not sleep well. I prayed. The next morning when we woke up and opened the blinds, we saw a winter wonderland. It was the largest snowstorm in Beijing history. It was not possible for us to go to the hospital. Jamie was staring out into the snowstorm for a long time, then turned to me and said…maybe this is meant to be. Tears gathered around my eyes and I responded to Jamie with ‘let’s try’ Like Moses, Harold and Jamie felt the spirit of God. As he prayed he understood that the God he prayed to, was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (that’s another part of the story) and decided to try to understand our One God. Ethan Gabriel was born and Harold writes, “I thanked God for this gift and promised Ethan we would walk through this miracle together.” Like Moses, Harold listened for the still, small voice of the Divine – a lesson for all of us. And here they are. Next week is Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah.

So sabbatical was full of renewal, joy, learning, family, connection, gratitude; and returning to work I bring all of those things to a job full of meaning and holiness every day. Let’s return to those three steps back during the prayer service. What words do we say when we step back? We say Oseh Shalom. Maybe we step back when we say Oseh Shalom because in order to create peace we have to take a step back. Sabbatical was an extraordinary opportunity to step back and create space for peace.

And now, with great joy, I am back. So far this week: a funeral, a wedding, a conversion, a Bar Mitzvah – now all I need is a baby naming! I am glad to be back. Shabbat Shalom.