The theme of this year's ALEPH Kallah is Kol Echad. Last night, at the opening plenary session, four New England-based Jewish Renewal voices spoke on this theme and what it means to each of us. I was honored to be one of the speakers, along with Rabbi Ebn Leader, Joel Segel, Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, and Rabbi David Ingber. R' David was the "host" for the evening, and he patterned it on a Hasidic tisch, a dinnertable celebration featuring teaching interspersed with song. In between our teachings, we led the community in some of my favorite songs and niggunim. It was really sweet! Anyway: my remarks follow below.
Reflections on Kol Echad
If you spell it כל אחד, it means "all is one." If you spell it קול אחד, it means "with one voice."
When I think of all of us speaking with one voice, I think of the teaching which says that when God gave over Torah at Sinai, God spoke with one voice and each person heard according to their abilities and inclinations. The revelation was singular; its reception takes as many forms as there are human souls, as many as grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky.
In recent years I've been turning my attention to one very particular voice: the voice of my child. His voice awakens me, touches me, inflames me with love, and occasionally evokes my exasperation like no other. Becoming a mother has radically changed my sense of God, and of what it means to say -- as our liturgy so frequently does -- that God is our parent.
I look at our child, I listen to our child, and I see the two of us, his parents, reflected in countless ways. But I also see difference. He is his own being, wholly. (And holy.) He is full of surprises. He has his own desires and yearnings, his own inclinations, his own likes and dislikes. Is this how God feels when She listens to each of us?
We cry out with our many voices, and each of our voices reaches God.
A poem from Waiting to Unfold:
EL SHADDAI (NURSING POEM)
Was God overwhelmed
when Her milk first came in
roused by our thin cries
She'd birthed creation
from amoebas to galaxies
but did She expect to see
Her own changeability
mirrored behind our eyes?
Nothing could have prepared Her
for the shift from singularity
And the blank-faced angels
offered their constant praise
without understanding Her joy
or the depth of Her fear.
There is a Talmudic saying that "more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." I learned this in rabbinic school as a metaphor for how God relates to the world. God, my teachers taught, is bursting with blessing. Our prayers prime the pump and cause that blessing to flow. Once I became a nursing mother, I had a whole new understanding of what it might feel like to be God, prickling with the urgent need called forth by our hungry wailing.
I remember my spiritual director telling my that my son would be the greatest teacher of Torah I could possibly have. And he's right. I have learned much about God and about Torah through this most mundane of adventures. And one thing I have learned is what it means to me to pray Shma koleinu, to say that God is the One Who hears our voices.
As above, so below. God hears our voices; but we are also called to hear the voice of God. Becoming a mother taught me to think about how God hears our voices when we cry out like children...and also how we hear God's voices when others cry out to us.
If the voice of one's child is the voice of God, then sometimes the voice of God is hard to bear:
Seven weeks in
I am rubble, strafed
by a round-cheeked pilot
who attacks at random
with his air-siren wail
I lie in bed
pleading with no one
for just one hour
but the monitor crackles
and deals its death blow
yet once he's milk-faced
and sleepy, head lolling
in the crook of my arm
I fall in love with the enemy
all over again
his imperious voice
and grabby hands, his eyes
like slate marbles
and his endless hunger
Reading that poem now, I remember the way I wanted to rebel, body and soul, against the constant need. The crying. Late-night feeding, after feeding, after feeding. And as this is true on the microcosmic scale, so it is true on the macrocosmic scale. God's voice calls us to wake up to hunger, to wake up to discomfort, to wake up to needs in the world which we know we're obligated to fill.
The voice of God calls us to bring comfort to the broken places in the world. As we move through these Three Weeks, there's an opportunity maintain the mindfulness practice of waking to the places in the world which need healing and comfort. This week, we can attune ourselves to hearing each others' cries -- as a new parent wakes from sleep when the baby wails:
you wake in your crib's embrace
from the dream of a distant heartbeat
a voice says cry out!
and you cry out
bewailing the tragedy of separation
until I gather you to my breast
glowing numbers shift silently
and your desperation eases
someday you'll learn to fumble soft stars
into their places
to nuzzle your giraffe
and count adinkra like talismans
but for now I am consolation
I make the rough places plain
Of course, being awake to the many forms of the kol echad isn't only a practice of noticing what hurts. It's also a practice of noticing what's beautiful, compasssionate, and sweet. Often the kol echad is a voice of laughter and joy. One final poem from Waiting to Unfold, written at a Ruach ha-Aretz retreat at Pearlstone:
MOTHER PSALM 6A psalm of revelation
Don't chew on your mama's tefillin
I say, dislodging the leather
from your damp and eager grasp.
We play peekaboo beneath my tallit,
hiding your face and revealing it
the way God is sometimes present
sometimes not. You like the drums,
the fiddle and clarinet.
You bang your rattle on the floor.
As we sing "Praise God,
all you elders and young children"
you bellow and and we laugh.
During silent prayer your yearning
opens my floodgates.
When the Torah is carried around
I waltz you in my arms, my own scroll.
All my prayers are written
in your open face.
The voice of God in is the bellow which interrupts formal prayer, and the laughter which follows. And the voice of God is in the mother who chides "don't chew on those straps, they're a holy object!" Though perhaps there is no more holy purpose than soothing the needs of a child.
Not all of us are parents. Some of us yearn to be parents but suffer the pain of infertility. Some of us may be estranged from our children, or apart from them when we wish we were together. But all of us have been children; all of us have given our parents the holy opportunity to hear God's voice in our voices; and each of us emerged not only from a mother's womb but also from the cosmic womb of creation. Each of us is a child of God, and when our voices cry out, God always hears us.
In the kaddish, in all its forms, there's a familiar refrain: yehei shmei rabba mevorach l'olam ul-almei almaya, "Let the Great Name be blessed in this world and in all the worlds."
Rabbi Arthur Waskow has taught that the Great Name, the Shmei Rabbah, is the Cosmic Name of God which is made up of all of our names together. When we lift up the names of all of our beloveds, the names of all of our teachers and our students, the names of those we hold dear, those names become part of something greater, as each individual star gives its brightness to the vast swirl of the galaxy.
Maybe the Kol Echad, the One Voice, works in the same way.
The more I reflect on this, the more it seems to me that God's voice is the unthinkable aggregate of all of our voices at once. If we are made in the damut and tzelem, the image and the likeness, then the only way I can begin to imagine the Holy Blessed One is to imagine every human being who has ever lived and will ever live. Surely one of the ways in which we are like our Creator is that each of us has a voice, and our voices have the capacity to create worlds and to destroy them. Kol echad: the voice of the One is made up of the infinite voices of the many.
This week may we hear God's voice when we hear one another.
May we be attuned to ourselves, and each other, as holy children of the One.
May we know ourselves, and each other, as voices of the One.
And may our voices come together to create something beautiful, precious, and strong.