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Go Slowly - Articulate Clearly - Mouth Shapes - Ground Myself
Breathe and Stay Loose

By Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe, Rosh Hashanah 5770/2009
This summer, Michael and I had the opportunity to visit the Catskills in New York to attend a cousin’s wedding. At first, I did not understand why would one want to get married in the Catskills because it is so far away from New York City and most of us were from out of town. The entire mishpocha was going so off we went to the Catskills. Within one hour after driving away from the city- we saw the beauty of the Catskills being surrounded by many lush green trees that is so unlike the many brown mountains of the Conejo Valley. As we had planned this trip, I wanted to see what else was happening on the other side of the country especially during those long summer days. It turned out that there was a yoga retreat that was going to take place nearby shortly after the wedding, so I immediately signed up as I thought this would be a great opportunity to have some real intensive physical yoga workouts for four straight days!
After the wedding, Michael and I drove through the winding roads to the yoga retreat. There were very few markers on the road so it was an adventure to find this place. We finally saw a big billboard stated: “Health is wealth, peace of mind is happiness, Yoga shows the way” along with directions on the bottom to the retreat. There was also a second billboard right above and it said: “Bruchim HaBaeem, welcome to the Hirschfield Camp, daily minyans, Shabbos services and plenty of Glatt Kosher food! “ I looked at both of them- thinking of the many Ultra-Orthodox Jews who would escape the hot humid weather of the city and go to the Catskills for the summers and seeing people coming from all over the world on their search for the ultimate enlightment. At that moment, I realized that this Yoga retreat was an ashram not a resort!
An ashram- is a place- a commune where people are on a quest to find happiness and peace, in other words, to discover complete bliss. Oy! At that split second, I felt like I was a on a tightrope trying to balance and decide which way to go. Would I want to be surrounded by the black hats? Nope. I immediately asked Michael, what am I doing here? And he was silent. I felt like a kid being dropped off at a sleep away camp for the first time. I was feeling very anxious and not wanting to be left behind but Michael kissed me goodbye and off he went. So I looked towards the ashram in the middle of the Catskills being surrounded by people whom I have never met. Ok… I said to myself. Ok - Hineni- here am I - a rabbi staying at an ashram! Am I crazy? God forgive me - but I am not here to become a swami or a guru…I am here to embrace a new experience and to strengthen my own self-being. That’s exactly what happened.
You see, “we are creatures of habit” as Rabbi Annie Tucker explains, “we develop a routine of doing things a certain way and we then do them automatically without much thought or effort. Any change from a routine requires effort and this distracts from comfort. Do this simple test. Fold your arms across your chest and note whether you place your right forearm over the left or vice versa. Now unfold them and fold them the other way. Your first reaction will be to fold them the usual way. After you have folded them the opposite way, just sit back for a few moments. You will notice an awkward feeling, because you have assumed a position different than the one you normally do.”
That awkward feeling was the feeling that I had when I entered the ashram but within several hours of looking at the world just a little bit differently, I learned so much about where and who I was at that moment.
So I learned that yoga is not all about going to the studio and doing the down face dog position. According to the Yoga philosophy, there are five points and they are: proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet and meditation. As I began to digest more about these points, I was quite pleased to know how similar they were to Judaism. They both emphasize the value of our physical bodies, our mental outlook on life and our spiritual growth – our souls. The Yoga teachings say that these three aspects: physical, mental and spiritual creates our holy and sacred presence here on earth and they all work together and not separately. This is so true for Judaism. The Jewish interpretation would be our goofeem- our physical bodies, our Ruach- our mental spirit and our nefesh- our spiritual growth. Now, during those four days, I took the time to think, to ponder, to ask questions about my goof -my body, my Ruach-my mental well-being and my nefesh- my soul. This experience was quite empowering and fortunately, in our Jewish calendar, we are given ten days to reflect and review these three aspects of our being during this time of the High Holy Days.
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaDin- the Day of Judgment. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is we who judge ourselves and not God. We must realize that no judgment is perfect because as human beings, we are not perfect. We tend to forget that. We are not godly- we are human beings. The Torah, just like the Yoga philosophy, reminds us that as human beings that those three parts: our goofeem, our Ruach and our nefesh must be judged.
We are responsible for our goofeem, our bodies and we have no right to destroy ourselves. Our goofeem belongs to God. What do we have to acknowledge about our physical beings? According to the Yoga teaching- “our physical body is meant to move and exercise. If our lifestyle does not provide natural motion of muscles and joints then disease and great discomfort will ensue with time.” Have we been eating the right foods? Do we give our bodies the physical nourishment and exercise they need? Have we kept up with our regular medical checkups? Another significant Yoga teaching is being aware of what we eat. They promote a vegetarian diet as it profoundly affects the mind and body together. There is a difference of opinion within Judaism as to whether or not we should follow a vegetarian diet however the Rabbis did come to a mutual agreement. The agreement was that it is much more significant to be aware as well as to acknowledge what we eat and where it came from. It is the simple ritual of reciting the HaMotzi- the blessing before we eat and the Birkat Hamazon- the blessings after we eat that reminds us to bless and thank the Creator and others who have provided or bought forth food to our tables.
The second aspect of our being is Ruach– the realm of our mental being- The Yoga teaching says, “that long before the invention of cars, planes, telephones, computers, freeways and other modern triggers of stress, the idea of proper relaxation was established. In fact, many modern stress management and relaxation methods borrow heavily from the Yoga tradition. By relaxing deeply, all the muscles including the mind can attain a deep inner sense of peace.” So we ask questions as to how we are doing with our mental being such as: Are we listening to ourselves? Have we been able to slow down against the hectic demands of our daily lives? Have we given time for our minds to do nothing but to just be? In Judaism, we are taught about proper relaxation related to observing holy time and space such as Shabbat and holidays. These fixed times on the Jewish calendar allows us to separate the sacred and ordinary days. This teaching goes way back four thousand years ago in the book of
Genesis! We forget that our mental well-being needs time to slow down since we have Shabbat every seven days. Is it possible to learn how to slow down in our overstressed world and to pause on Shabbat? Can we remember how to breathe again? Our goofeem, our bodies and our Ruach, our mental well-beings does not work alone rather it works together and that becomes the third part–our nefesh -our whole beings, our complete selves In the yoga world, this is called meditation. They emphasize: “We become what we think. Thus we should focus on positive and creative thoughts as these will contribute to vibrant health and a peaceful joyful mind. Following the various teachings can develop a positive outlook on life.” Meditation in the Yoga world includes experiencing silence within one’s self, within the community or within nature. One part of the program that I was required to do was to participate in complete silent meditation for approximately seven hours. It was a challenge. We were not able to talk or look at each other. During that time, I took a long walk into the forest and I actually felt that the trees were talking to me. Looking at them - I whispered quietly and I said thank you – God – Creator of the Universe for standing tall and for allowing me to be in your sacred presence. This was a moment of release when all demands of the outside world were removed from my presence and I felt deeply connected with God. God is everywhere therefore it is possible to meditate anywhere, as it is the opportunity to listen to one’s self and express what one is experiencing at that moment.
In our Jewish tradition, meditation is prayer. Prayer is a verbal or non- verbal expression that comes from the heart. It is not always about words nor does one need to know Hebrew but rather it is an opportunity to express our deepest spiritual needs. Prayer can be done privately –in silence by one’s self or it can be chanting the words of the Shema aloud together as one community. There are two main aspects of prayer. One is to connect with God personally and the other is to put ourselves in touch with the values that are important to us such as healing and peace that we hold most within our hearts. The purpose for us is to highlight those values that we desire to bring in our lives connected within the community of humanity.
There is a Midrash that teaches us that life is precious and says that even the most beautiful diamonds in the world are precious but not perfect. Like diamonds, we, too, have many layers of tarnish - now it is the time to bring back those shiny sparkles of our lives. Every shiny moment counts that what is given to us. Yoga teaches that we start where we are now. In other words, regardless of what we were doing before, today-now we can make the decision to choose how we want to change and go forward in our lives.
Therefore, I ask are we ready to remove the tarnish? Can we see ourselves clearly or not? Have we checked in ourselves? This check- in journey is called T'shuvah. T’shuvah means to change, to repent, to reflect, to admit our mistakes, to question our actions and to return. We recall the times we gave into temptation such as overeating and not exercising, the times that we did not listen to our family or friends or the time that we did not stop to listen to our own souls. We need to remember that indeed we are not commanded to be perfect, nor shall we indulge in the feeling of resentment at our own failure to achieve perfection and inner peace. It is through our imperfections that we can learn how to go forward and embrace the journey of life more fully.
Just as when God called – “Abraham! Abraham! And he responded,Hineni! Here am I!” Can we say that? Hineni! Here am I. I ought to slow down! The yellow light is flashing and eventually it will turn red. T'shuvah forces us to attain quiet reflection, serious thinking, to review what we have done this past year and to look forward to the new year.
Abraham Heschel, a famous 20th century theologian insisted, "that living is not a private affair. Living is what one does with God's time. God is waiting for us to redeem the world, to rescue his
creation. From a single spark of Torah, we can learn more than we think- that God needs us, each of us, more than we know." Heschel emphasizes that we cannot live alone- that we must work together in partnership with God. But before we can work together to do tikkun olam- to make a difference in this world - we must follow the lessons of tikkun hagoof- the repairing of our physical bodies, tikkun ha Ruach- the repairing of our mental well-being and finally tikkun hanefesh- the repairing of our own souls. To change for the better is what we as human beings aim for. Now is the time to change.
Staying at an ashram was a humbling experience. Every time I entered into a building, I had to take my shoes off as I was walking into a sacred place. This daily ritual reminds me of the purpose of why we have a mezuzah on every doorpost of our homes and sanctuary. It is to remind us that God is everywhere and we are God’s partners in this world. The questions still remain. When are we ready to allow God to enter into our lives? When are we ready to allow ourselves to embrace our lives? At this moment, we are here in this sacred place. This is a place where each of us is a sacred soul. My hope is that when you leave this place that you will take your sacred selves and remember to do tikkun ha goof, haRuach and hanefesh- to repair to the best you can of your bodies, your mental well- being and your souls.
Namaste is a polite Indian gesture of greeting or farewell. From Hindi, the word literally means “bowing to you.” Namaste also means “ I honor the sacred that is within you.” So I say to you- my fellow congregants, friends and family- Namaste -I honor the sacred that is within you. And I also say Shal om- I honor your presence in harmony and peace. May we be inscribed in the Book of Life for this year of 5770. May we embrace the chance to discover and reflect the many gifts of what we can offer for ourselves, for others and for God so that we can all together be blessed with good health, much happiness and peace as we begin this new year.
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