Tishri 9: Three Good Deeds, Compassion, A Cantorial Soloist and Her Dad

Our next guest blogger is the cantorial soloist at Congregation Kneseth Israel and a professor at Harper College. Her sweet soprano voice is what lifts our prayers to heaven. However, I think what makes the services compelling is the kavanah, like this one, and her earnest, innocent optimism that makes my heart melt when I hear her sing Hininei or Kol Nidre.

You want me to lead High Holiday services?

I have to admit that I never really liked going to tefillah services; I can only remember a handful of services that really moved me. I always enjoy when I participate by leading a prayer or reading Torah or Haftarah, but generally speaking, services are not the way I connect with my love for Judaism. And yet this year and last, I have had the humbling honor of serving as the cantorial soloist for Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL.

I must say that at least for me, the responsibility of leading some of the most important services of the year has been fulfilling and meaningful in ways I could not imagine. As long and repetitive as High Holiday services can be, I love every moment of them, and the words take on significant meaning for me.

Digging deep into Avinu Malkeinu and finding our role in the mix

Just this evening (Wednesday September 11, 2013, less than 48 hours from Kol Nidre service), as I was waiting for the Rabbi so we could practice for Kol Nidre services, I was asked to fill in at a moment’s notice and teach Avinu Malkeinu to a group of Beit Sefer students. As a teacher and someone who is always in pursuit of “kavanah” (“meaning”), I like to make sure that my students don’t just practice how to pray but also learn the meaning of the prayers. As I was explaining the meaning of Avinu Malkeinu word for word, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before; we say “Asei imanu tzedakah v’chesed” which I translate to “create with us justice and kindness”. This is a literal translation, and I think most people would translate it to “grant us justice and kindness.” However, I like to emphasize the “Asei imanu” which literally means “make with us” or “create with us”, indicating that we are not just passively hoping God will bring justice and goodness into our lives. Rather, God will serve as our facilitator or guide, as we play an active role in creating justice and kindness for ourselves and others.

Sometimes, I think that when we as Jews get caught up in the traditions and rules, we can forget the heart of what it means to be God’s People. God created us and all humankind “b’tselem elohim” (“in His image”). As such, we were created to be like God.

What does it mean to “be like God”?

To answer this question, we need to understand who or what God is: we need to define God. But how does one define God? Of course, by defining someone or something that is supposed to be all-powerful and all-knowing, we are putting limits on this Great Being; we are saying what God is, and by omission, we are implying what God isn’t. But as humans, we like to define and categorize, and that’s just how we learn and process information. So we define God for ourselves, even if no definition does justice to whom and what God really is.

The Thirteen Attributes of God

The list of the Thirteen Attributes is the closest things to a definition of God that we have. And yet, it is not a list of physical characteristics, job responsibilities, talents or abilities, but rather a list of values: “God is merciful, God is compassionate…” When we clear away the things that don’t really matter in life, what we are left with are universal values. As far as I’ve seen, these values appear and reappear in every religion and culture that attempts to identify the heart of goodness, truth and what’s right.

Compassion, my Dad, and my website

The attribute I am most drawn to is “chanun” (“compassion”). In fact, when my Dad was in the hospital for the six and a half months before he passed away, I created a website called www.CompassionInJudaism.com.  The mission of the site is to spread compassion and loving-kindness through awareness of Jewish values, Biblical sources and texts, and the wisdom and stories of individuals who choose to contribute to the site. On the website, I define compassion as “genuine sympathy for and desire to help others who are suffering.”

Even though my Dad was the one who was suffering for so long in the hospital – struggling to wean himself off of his ventilator, and sorrowfully missing the taste of real food and his home – he knew that his loved ones were also suffering. Even though we hid it very well when we were with him, he knew that it hurt us to see him in such a state; in his compassion and love for us, he also hid his pain. Other than a couple brief moments when things were really bad, he was all smiles, making funny faces and telling jokes to the very end (even though he was unable to speak aloud). My Dad was a pure soul who truly and fully lived the Thirteen Attributes. But his is a story for another day.

Why create a website about “Compassion in Judaism?”

I started “Compassion in Judaism” because I wanted to create a single site where parents, teachers, mentors and children could find all the best online resources dealing with compassion. There are hundreds of great online resources for practicing Hebrew, reviewing prayer melodies, learning the traditions associated with each holiday and exploring the Bible stories. But there really aren’t any sites that focus on any of the Thirteen Attributes. Some sites have a handful of printouts or activities related to Jewish values, but I haven’t found a site dedicated solely to Jewish values and definitely not my favorite attribute: Compassion. Since I was researching and collecting online resources for my own use as a Beit Sefer teacher, I figured I’d create a website so that others can benefit from my research and assemblage.

What I consider to be “misdirected” prioritization found on the internet is reflected in most religious school curricula. In many religious schools, Jewish values are lightly touched upon throughout the religious school experience when they relate to a Biblical story or a holiday custom. Some schools have a single course dedicated to Jewish values, which is typically offered when the students are around Bnai Mitzvah age. It is my opinion that the values expressed in the Thirteen Attributes should be the core of what students learn in their Jewish education, and the stories and customs should be taught to support these core values. Some schools and individual teachers do it right, but I think that as a whole, the child, parent and/or school’s goal of getting a kid “to perform well” at his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah has overshadowed the most important lessons Judaism has to teach.

Three Good Deeds

Compassion in Judaism” focuses on Jewish texts. However, in my research, I have found many resources from secular and non-Jewish sources as well. At a certain point, I decided I would make another website to archive all of those resources, since they didn’t fit the mission of “Compassion in Judaism’s” site, but I felt it was important to share my findings. This was the start of my second website, www.ThreeGoodDeeds.org.  The mission of this site is to spread compassion and loving-kindness for nature, oneself and others through awareness of universal values, beliefs, and the wisdom and stories of individuals who choose to contribute to the site.

Please spread compassion and join in this effort of “asei imanu” (“create with us”)

It is my hope that people of all religions, cultures and creeds utilize my websites to help teach and spread compassion and loving-kindness. These sites are my attempt to play an active role in creating justice and kindness for myself and others, with God’s guidance. One of God’s Thirteen Attributes was literally my guide, so in that sense, God really did “asei imanu” – “create with us.” Please help me in my effort to spread awareness of one of God’s great attributes, compassion, by taking the time to review and share the website, www.CompassionInJudaism.com. If you know of resources that should be included on the site, please email them to me at suggestions@compassioninjudaism.com.
And if you know children who spend way too much time playing video or computer games, show them these sites. If they are going to spend their time playing video games anyway, why not encourage them to play games that promote and teach good values?
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
Stephanie Burak Fehlenberg, Cantorial Soloist, Teacher, Lover of the Golden Rule