2016-06-30
"This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared" sounds like a scary title for a book by someone known as the "Zen Rabbi." But while Alan Lew admits his new meditation on the High Holidays season might "scare them a little," it is meant to offer readers a new perspective on the most important time in the Jewish calendar. The book describes seven stages of spiritual contemplation, repentance, and renewal, from Tisha B'Av to the festival of Sukkot. Rabbi Lew is the leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and founder of Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center there. He recently spoke with Beliefnet about the major themes of his book and the holiday season.

Is the title of your book meant to frighten people?
I don't mind if I scare them a little. The title to me describes the essential transformation that is part of the holidays. The phrase "completely unprepared" really strikes a deep chord. It names something deep and pervasive in the human psyche. Although we're not often in touch with this feeling, deep down we all feel unprepared. If we look at our lives honestly, the events that really shape us, that really make us who we are, are the events we didn't prepare for, or we couldn't prepare for, like a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a relationship, or God forbid the loss of a child. Or suddenly a child appears surprisingly, or we fall in love. These are the things that really shape our lives.

We spend most of our lives preparing like crazy--we prepare for our professional lives, we prepare for our health by doing exercise, we do self-improvement, we always anticipate tomorrow, but the mounting evidence is that what we anticipate almost never occurs tomorrow. We live life like a kind of Maginot line--the line of defense that the French built to ward off the Germans and they ended up coming from a completely different direction. Our life is like that--it comes at us from a different direction than we think it's going to. It circumvents all our defenses and leaves us feeling very unprepared.

All of this is at the heart of the High Holiday journey, this journey of the soul that we go through every year at this time. It's built into the liturgy: the service that we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is taken almost word for word from the prayer service that went along with the public fast. Public fast was something practiced during Rabbinic times, the time of the Talmud, for public emergencies, the kind of things you couldn't prepare for--drought, a ship lost at sea, a city under siege. It's a liturgy for a spiritual emergency, for an urgent desperate matter you can't prepare for. The shofar is like the ancient alarm--it was something that we blew at a really desperate, urgent time.

So the High Holidays are a time of spiritual emergency?
Yes. We start out engaging in various activities which increase our awareness. The inevitable result of becoming more aware is that we realize we're not really prepared for our lives. The things that are significant in our lives are not the things we spend all of our energy defending against and trying to manipulate. That's only half of the journey. The other half is that once we realize that our preparations and our attempts to manipulate life don't work, we also realize we can let them go, that we don't need them. That is a great relief and a great healing.

This journey starts at Tisha B'Av, the day we remember the destruction of the Temple. It's a logical start on the journey to reconciliation, toward wholeness. Tisha B'Av is the day that we acknowledge our estrangement--from God, from each other, from ourselves. That's how you being a journey of reconciliation--by acknowledging your estrangement. It's exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks in our tradition is always the time it takes to prepare for a significant spiritual event--like the time between Pesach and Shavuot. Here we are at Tisha B'Av, sitting on the floor mourning this broken house (the Temple was called the house). We're crying and reciting dirges of lamentation for this broken house.

Months later, at the end of the journey, we're sitting in another broken house, the sukkah. Only now, we're rejoicing. We're singing and dancing. At first we saw the fact that the house was broken was a great catastrophe. And now we see we don't need it. We can sit outside with the stars in our hair and the wind in our face, and we're perfectly fine. And that's the real journey. It has two major parts--the first coming to the realization that we are completely unprepared, that we are in a state of urgent and desperate emergency. And then second realizing that it's alright.

If we go through this cycle year after year, do people ever become more prepared?
No. It's the journey of a lifetime. Ir's like everything in our tradition. Passover is the time of liberation, but it's not the only time during the year you can experience liberation. These moments on the sacred calendar are archetypal. They stand for things that happen all the time, but they sensitize us to the fact that they happen. It takes almost three months just to get the map down for this particular series of spiritual events. But it takes our whole life for it to happen.

And it continually happens, every year. The next year we spend the entire year erecting new constructs by which we live our life, and they have to fall down and break, every year. We have to discover that we don't really need them every year. It's a continual process and a process that takes the entire arc of our lifetime. It's a journey of the soul, from birth to death, nothing short of that.

You've explained what the "Unprepared" part of your title means. What do you mean by "This Is Real?"
We go about on the surface of our lives, working at our jobs and dealing with our relationships, and we're largely oblivious to the fact that the soul is going through this incredible melodrama. We discover the reality of that during these days--that the soul is living this life and death drama. Every year the soul discovers: Will it live? Will it die? Will it change?

For so many Jews, going to High Holidays services seems more like a chore than a spiritual experience. Do you have any practical advice for making the holiday services more spiritual?
The de facto theology of the High Holidays is that people feel a little guilty that they're so disconnected from Judaism or from their families or from their tradition, so they do penance by going to synagogue and boring themselves silly for long periods of time. It's a kind of purification. That's really a shame because there's so much more to these holidays than that.

There are two things I've really been urging people to do this year. During the period of Elul [the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish calendar], probably the most preparatory portion of this journey, to become more aware of ourselves, we should choose one very fundamental aspect of our lives--it needs to be something as fundamental as eating or sex or money--and be completely conscious to one aspect of this fundamental activity. Like eating, for example. It says in the Torah over and over again, 'you eat and you reach the point of satiety, then you stop eating and you bless God.' I think it's a very rare thing in our culture that someone eats because they're hungry, and it's even rarer that someone stops eating because they've reached the point of satiety. If you just watch that, you will be shown an enormous amount about yourself. Blake said "a universe in a grain of sand." And it's true that everything we are is disclosed in everything we do.

My second suggestion is to pay attention to the process of sitting there in the synagogue and trying to follow the prayer service. Every spiritual discipline works in the following manner, according to sociologist Herbert Benson: you're trying to focus on something, and thoughts arise. The significant moment in meditation, when all the psychospiritual aspects occur, is the moment when we realize that our mind has been carried away and we bring it back to the object we're trying to focus on. This is a tremendously significant moment because it shows us what we're not looking at and what we need to be looking at. It's a moment when the heart discloses itself.

One of the activities that stimulates this, as much as meditation does, is prayer, especially communal prayer from a prayer book. We're trying to concentrate on the prayer book, to focus on the words, and our mind gets continuously carried away. We spend a lot of time in shul daydreaming, and if we just get in the habit of gently trying to bring our awareness back to the prayerbook when we notice that it's happening, we will become conscious of the things that are carrying us away. We will become self-aware. Use the siddur [prayer book] as a meditation object, as an object of concentration. Constantly bring your mind back to it and pay attention to the thoughts that carry you away when you're trying to do that.

What do mean when you write "this is real whether you believe in God or not"? Is this a transformation that everyone goes through, regardless of religious belief?
If you have a soul, your soul is making this journey, whether you know it or not. Whatever you believe, your soul is making this journey. It's my firm belief that you'll do a lot better if you know where you're going, if you have a map for this journey. That's what the High Holidays provide--an experiential map of the journey that our soul is making throughout life.