Author Archives: Josh Mark

About Josh Mark

Always looking in between the lines to find the inner truths and beauty, I feel blessed to live in a time of such wonderful promise. My story begin in Stamford, Connecticut and has taken me around the world to Jerusalem.

This week we read of the splitting of the Red Sea and the Manna that fell from Heaven.

Pretty heady, wild stuff.

Just so that we can look at ourselves in the twin mirrors of rationality and magic, let’s remind ourselves of some important words:

A miracle is a noticed moment that blasts apart our ideas of what is and what can be.

Science is the endeavor to figure out what lies before us based on what is already known.

Or more accurately, assumed to be known.

As one who loves science and the scientific method, all I can have is humility before the Cosmos.

That’s because in between the lines of what I know, is that which I have no idea of.

Is it possible that a gigantic body of water split open just at the right time?

Is it possible that Manna, that magical sustenance that fell from the Heaven each day of the journey through the desert?

Sure! Why not?

What are kinot?

As of this moment, come this Saturday night many of us will be sitting on the floors of synagogues reciting kinot. Someone long ago translated kinot as elegies for the tragedies that have shaped and punctuated the unfolding of Jewish history. While the word elegy seems about right as translations go i think it obscures the deeper meaning of kinot.

Kinot (or kina in singular) is a word repeated throughout the book of Jeremiah. That’s Jeremiah the prophet (not the frog) who tried and tried valiantly to get us to clean up our act only to watch us spectacularly blow it.

It’s a unique word for a prophetic vision or speech especially when so many other words are available to describe what Jeremiah had to say. So it’s introduction begs the question of what does it mean? What idea does it introduce?

The word kina derives of root letters, koof nun. Those two letters make up a lot of basic words in Hebrew. Two examples jump up: My Hebrew speaking friends know that if they wish to buy something at the store they must take those two letters, make a verb form out of them which sounds like koneh. Those of us who spend time in the company of nature know that a bird lays her eggs in a nest made up of koof noon, spelling the word ‘kan’.

This brings me to the sneaking suspicion that kinah, koneh, and kan emerge from one root which for us English speakers would best be described as ‘deep association’* (The fancy word is nesting). And when we speak of kinah we are speaking of a poem of deep association. Deep association to the point of wallowing in our past, in our missed opportunities, in the losses and in the catastrophes of our people.

But like so much else in Hebrew the pain also contains the comfort. The wallowing of kinah can give way to renewal of kniah, a deepened, perhaps even the deepest of the deep, connection with Divinity, Holiness, and Beauty, when peace and kindness will reign.

Soon. In our days.

*By ‘deep’ I’m speaking to the implications of the association. When i purchase something, koneh, it is mine. As in ‘mine! mine! mine!!!!’ If you take it from me then you will go to jail.

That’s a pretty deep association.

Sex, Heroism, And What Every Son (And Daughter) Wants To Hear

Everyone wants to be the hero. 

Not just a hero; 

The hero. 

We look at the horrors of the world and there isn’t one of us who doesn’t wish for a second for super-human abilities to rescue, to save, to right the wrongs and make everything ok. 

There’s nothing wrong with that impulse.

After all, heroism is an expression of our Godly nature.

The thing is though there are other factors to be considered. We cannot fly or through bolts of fire. That’s why Superman, Thor, and Wonder Woman (how could I leave her out?!) are heroes only in our imagination. 

But don’t worry; real heroism is still attainable for us. It isn’t flashy and it’s certainly much more subtle. Human heroism is in the moments of decision when the hero makes the tiniest of choices to do the hardest things possible: to act with grandeur in spite of lethargy and impulse. Working with the depressed and the addicted, I’m fortunate to spend my days in the company of such heroes; people who fight mighty battles that no one ever knows of.

While the rough outlines are innate to us, human heroism needs grooming. We need people to cheer us, to celebrate with us, to say ‘keep up the good work’, etc. There are, of course, some of us whose heroics will be unknown and unacknowledged except by those us who realize that we stand today on the shoulders of the anonymous heroes who came before us. But all of us need a pat on the back and the respect of those whose opinions matter to us.

Chief among those bequeathers of respect are our parents. I’ve listened to the storied and the famous, who’ve received award and recognition from world wide authorities, bemoan (and often cry) that they wish their mom and dad could see them, that they could say, ‘Wow! That’s an impressive achievement. I’m humbled. I could have never done that.’ 

Because there’s nothing like a pat on the back from mom or dad.

That to me is the lesson Jacob’s blessing and testimony of Joseph. In the middle of the beautiful Biblical poetry is a cryptic expression, ‘his bow was firmly established’ (Genesis 49:24). The Talmud comes to the rescue with a sensational interpolation: ‘But his bow was strongly established’ as referring to Joseph’s overcoming his temptation with his master’s wife. He calls it a bow because semen shoots like an arrow.’

Here’s a father, a Biblical patriarch no less, not only complementing his son but extolling a virtue that the vast majority of us would rather make believe doesn’t exist: his son’s sexual chastity.

Wow!

That totally rocks.

Jacob was saying to Joseph, ‘Joe, you’re a hero. You could have given into the seductions of Mrs. Potiphar (and who better portrays her than the great Joan Collins in Donnie Osmond’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?) and no one would have known. But you kept it together; you stayed faithful to the mission. I’m humbled. You’re my hero.’

While I’d probably be mortified if my dad mentioned my sexuality, I know now that Jacob was really on to something. If we want real societal holiness (as opposed to repression which is the really-bad-for-you-margarine-imposter for holiness) then we need to celebrate chastity and menchlichkeit. We need to inculcate in our children and in ourselves that sexual temptation is an opportunity to manifest our heroic side. We need to tell them again and again that the moments of temptation are their moments to shine. The world may not give them medals or put them on the cover of magazines, but they are our heroes.

 

Because every one of us wants to be a  hero. 

Four Mini Thoughts And A Story On Parah Aduma

The rite of Parah Aduma or Red Heifer and the laws spiritual purity are discussed at length in this week’s Torah portion. Click here to read the text. This portion offers a window into the Biblical view of the healer and the one in need of healing. As healers and as individuals in need of healing it makes sense to consider what we can take away from this parsha. Here’s four reflections which seem evident:

1) Being a healer requires sacrifice. Traditionally, we consider the Parah Aduma to be an inexplicable contradiction. The one who is tamay (traditionally translated in English as impure) becomes tahor (traditionally translated in English as pure) through the agency of a priest who then becomes tamay himself. The uninitiated ask how can that be; how can ‘medicine which cures one person make another sick’?. As a healer however I’ve realized that there is no contradiction. Empathy and caring require that I enter into the personal misery of each and every client. And going in there will not leave me unscathed (unless I don’t care or am too afraid to care). My faith, my health, my finances, my joy, and my serenity are constantly on the line in my work. That’s why I often find myself saying that this work is not for the faint of heart.

2) Healers must care for themselves. The priest administering the ashes of the Parah Aduma must immerse himself in a mikvah of water and wait till night fall to become pure again. This is the Torah’s way of telling us healers to rejuvenate our souls. Working with the despairing, the frightened, the addicted, and the confused I must have a ‘place’ where I go to replenish myself.

3) Commitment to healing is a personal choice. Healing begins when the one in need of healing says it does. The Torah tells us that the rites of the Parah Aduma are administered on the third and seventh day. That the Torah leaves out when that set of seven days begin tells us that it’s up to the one in need of healing to decide when his or her process begins, to declare when ‘the first day of the rest of my life is’. By leaving the process up to the individual, the Torah empowers him or her to recast his or her biography as he or she sees fit.

4) Our wounds and shame are part of the journey to healing. The Torah calls the mixture of ashes and water, ‘the waters of sin’ or ‘may chatat’. That’s funny. I would have thought that a better name would be, ‘the waters of purification’. What the Torah is teaching me with these words is even sin, when transformed, is a beloved part of the process of healing.

One event in my career illustrates how the willingness to enter the client’s hell helps. For reasons still unknown to me, a young woman suffering from a terribly unremitting form of anorexia decided that I would be her psychotherapist. I tried to dissuade her as there were far more experienced therapists in our day treatment program. She insisted and figuring that she had been unsuccessfully treated at the best eating disorders clinics in the country, I agreed because I had little to lose. To refuse her would only have meant that she would leave our program and not get treatment anywhere.

So we began.

A rookie to the world of anorexia and eating disorders I pretty much let her set the pace of treatment. Knowing that compulsory treatment had done nothing to help her, my plan was just to let her talk and unfold. As I would come to learn however young people with this kind of anorexia are not big talkers. So I brought up our mutual interests in art (she was an art design student) and pop culture. Every so often I’d throw in a story about my kids and their antics; she seemed to like those a lot.

Of course our therapy was not peaches and cream. The unit nurses and physicians warned me again and again how ill she was; that she could drop dead at any moment. For every meal that she consumed she missed four or five. She worked out for hours and hours. In fact, there were moments when I felt completely hopeless. Without any other ideas (and leery of what my supervisors might suggest) I shared my terror with the client. And then I did something totally off the wall; I put on my kippa  (this was not a kippa-friendly hospital) and I prayed aloud to Hashem for guidance. She sat quietly as I quite plainly spoke with Heaven.

I have no idea what this young woman thought of her therapist. At first I worried that I was making a fool of myself. But she kept coming back and in this business coming back is a big victory. She didn’t drop dead as expected. I do know that until our 18 months of work together (which ended when I made aliya in 2002) this woman had not stayed out of a hospital for more than 6 months since she was 12 years old. But I take no credit for this; God designed us so that when we are willing to enter the hell of the other, possibilities happen. All I did was follow the Manufacturer’s instructions

That’s the lesson of the Parah Aduma.

Elul & The Field Of Dreams

Ancient tradition tells us that the Jewish month of Elul, coming just before Rosh Hashana, is a time of introspection. This tradition connects the introspection of Elul to the special love and mercy through which God relates to us during this month. The name of the month Elul spells an acronym forming the words, ‘I am for Beloved, and He is for me’ (Shir Hashirim 6:3). While His kindness is abundant at any time of the year, during the 30 days of Elul we feel it more urgently and are stirred to turn towards Him. 

The Chasidic master, the Baal HaTanya, expands on the uniqueness of Elul with a unique metaphor. He speaks of a great king, customarily seated in his castle, surrounded by ministers and servants, who once a year ventures out to see his subjects in their fields. Instead of trekking to the castle, the common folk may approach the king as he sees them go about their everyday lives.

This haunting metaphor is laden with mystical illusions. For me however it emphasizes spiritual simplicity and innocence. A field is in contrast to a building. A field is a place of mud and of growth. It is far from the safety and cleanliness of a home. A field is where life is dirty and unkempt. A home is a place of security, a field a place of vulnerability to the elements.

During the year I build a structure around myself to protect my self from the harsh realities of my existence. This mesh of ideas, agendas, and opinions gives me the illusion of identity, control, and false superiority. In Elul I’m invited to shed my shell, to meet my Creator, as is, in a field of vulnerability. We meet sans the armor of arrogance, status, snarkiness, indifference, intelligence, or wealth. He in His infinite and unknowable love; me with my fears, wounds, warts, and my simple, aching desires. The two of us together come to reconnect, to rebuild, to plan an even better coming year.

Far from embarrassing, this meeting in the field is liberating. Schlepping around the armor of everyday life is pretty taxing. I’ve gotta look good and be on my toes lest anyone see that I’m less than the image that I wish to project. The silliness is that we are all playing the same exhausting game. Even worse are the burdens of guilt, shame, and fears which tire me out. Elul gives me a break from all that: I can be myself without the B.S. of self.

The vulnerability of Elul gives us real power. We all love stories of heroes who transcended circumstance to make the save at the last moment. The soldier who carries his injured buddy for miles through an unspeakable battle. Or anyone who overcomes the impossible to change the course of human history even if that change is nothing more remarkable than a spark of kindness in the dark of the everyday.

And we are all those same heroes.

When we shed our armor we can go beyond our selves. We can access our God given super powers. Without the protective armor of self, without the opinions and shame of the past we can extend ourselves to those who need our honesty and love. By revealing our true unsullied innocence we give others permission to come out of their shells.

But best of all when we let go of our fears we are free to meet with God in a field laden with the promise of renewal, love, and a year full of goodness for all.

Shana Tova to all!

The Beauty of The Unanswered Prayer

Standing in shul this morning, I noticed the placard with the name of this week’s Torah portion: VaEtchanan (Deutoronomy 3) which translated comes out as ‘and I beseeched’. This refers to the many, many prayers that Moses offered to God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land with the Children Of Israel.

But what did all that praying get him?

Gornisht. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing.

God unmoved, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Jordanian mountains.

On first reflection it seems an ironic story to tell us would-be believers. If prayer is supposed to be so great then why tell us a story in which prayer is so useless. Why devote an entire weekly portion of the Torah to unanswered prayer?

With a bit of reflection however an idea came to me: maybe the beauty of prayer has nothing to do with getting what we want. Maybe I had it all wrong: maybe prayer is not about getting what I want. Maybe the answers that we get are the ones that we cannot see with our hands. Maybe the answers to our prayers are the inner changes that come about through the act of prayer.

What are those inner changes?

Here’s one change that I’ve noticed for years: I, for one, find prayer to be a winnowing process which helps me sort through the innumerable distractions and attractions that eat up my mental and spiritual bandwidth. After prayer I’m much more focused and calmer. That effect has little connection with what I’ve prayed for; but there’s no question that the process of prayer brought that inner focus to emerge.

Yet I think that prayer offers much more than meditation and mental exercise. Prayer blows my cover: as much as I fancy myself as king s*&t, I’m nothing more than a broken down beggar trying not to lose what I’ve got. And you’re in the same boat. I don’t care how much money and fame you think that you’ve got. Prayer reminds me that with the (maybe) exception of thought I’m an owner of nothing.

It could be all taken away.

Like that.

Prayer whether answered or unanswered returns me to my humanity. It plucks me out of the delusion of ownership, ushering me into the community of beggars otherwise known as the rest of us.

And it’s nice to have a little company.

As much as I like it when my prayers are answered, coming back to myself is the best answer anyone can get.

And that is answer enough to any prayer.  

Why do we begin every Shemone Esray prayer with Avot?

The Avot prayer is a microcosm of Jewish history. It begins with Abraham and concludes with the promised redemption. This formula underscores that the mutual relationship between God and Man is rooted in the history of the Jewish people. Far from a deity that is cold and detached from the nitty gritty dirtiness of life here on Earth, Jewish belief sees a God present in our history. Through the good times and the bad times, through the tests and tribulations of our ancestors God is as still present now as He was then. And it’s from the recognition of His presence that we can get on with the business of prayer.

רוחניות יהודית ודלוזיות

כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאוד, בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו (דברים ל:יד)

בוא נשב דקה ונדון בדלוזויות. בלקסיקון הפסיכאטרי המערבי דלוזיה היא מחשבת שוא. ׳שוא׳ פרושו ללא הצדקה מציאותית. דוגמאות שכיחות: פרנויה שמתבטא כאמונה שאחרים רודפים אחרי וכוונתם ללא ספק לפגוע בי. או מסקנה שאני בן אדם עם זהות מיוחדת או כוחות מיוחדות. למשל: אני המשיח או אני יכול לחזות את העתיד. (פעם טפלתי באשה שידעה איך זרמה תנועה בכל כביש בארה׳ב.) או שאני מתועב וחסר ערך. 

רנה דקארט, אבא הפילוסופי של עידן המודרני, הזיז את מרכז אדם מהנשמה לראש. בעקבותיו, פסיכאטרים עד היום מתיחסים לדלויזיות כתופעה מחשבתית שמקורן במוח. הצלחתם המוגבלת לשכך ׳סימפטומים׳ דרך טיפולים תרופתיים אלו נותנת ׳קצת׳ הצדקה לגישתם למרות השאלות הרבות שעדיין מרחפות ללא תשובות וגם המחירים הקשים שתרופות אלה גבים מהחולים.

אולם כיהודי מאמין רנה דקארט הוא לא ׳הגדולֹ׳ שמודרנים חושבים עליו. בעקבות תורותיו התגלגל כדור שלג קָטַסטרוֹפִי שאיפשר השמדת רצח עם כלגיטימי במידה שהוא הגיוני (חלילה) ומרכזיות חומריות וכלכלה כבסיסים לאתיקה. בשבילי, חסרות לדלוזיות ערך עצמי. כיהודי מאמין, יש למחשבות ערך רק במידה שהם מחוברות למעשים דהיינו לקיום המצוות והימנעות מעבירות. לא משנה מה אני חושב: העיקר שאני אשתחרר מהמלכודת של חשיבה ולצאת מהתא כלא של הגיון ולהיכנס לצוותא של הקוסמוס שהיא הרגע של עשיית מצווה.

A Simplified Jew 000 What I Did This Summer

Sitting here in my living room on erev Shabbat after Simchat Torah, I take stock of a brutal summer. The heat wave, the dust storm, and now the violence which engulfs us come to mind. Our terrible and violence however only provided the ‘ambience’ for my own miserable discontent. Falling into depression and consumed by the horrible discomfort of anxiety, I struggled to keep my head about me. And, with the help of my wife, family, and friends, I seem to have made it to the other side.

Baruch Hashem.

Relapses into depression and anxiety are not new for me. Even as I struggled with this horrible darkness, it seemed to me that there was some purpose for these periodic descents into madness. Over the years, each relapse has been a journey from which I’ve brought back assorted souvenirs of ideas, perspectives, and new experiences. As tortured as I’ve been (and still am) these souvenirs enrich me. A firm believer in evolution and the hasidic ideal of descent as a prerequisite for ascent (yerida tzorech aliya), I see life as an unending series of upgrades even if the brutal descents are too much to bear.

So what have I learned? What great wisdoms have I brought back?

That dear reader is what you’ll be reading about in the coming posts. But here’s a start: If you want to know the nucleus of human misery, you’ll find it full of competing complexities.

Happiness comes with simplicity.

Shabbat Shalom to all.

Josh