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May 2017

The need for justice to balance love

Justice-love-scalesEarlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)

The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.

Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container. 

Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds. 

Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.

Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination.  Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse. 

Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure. 

This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did. 

A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.

The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share. 

May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.

 


#NOTALLWOMEN

"Not all women, trees, or ovens are identical." -- Mishna Pesachim 3:4, in the name of R' Akiva

 

Some women like winter. Some incubate babies
and some have no uterus. Some wear eyeliner.

Some are happiest in Israeli sandals
flaunting our pedicured toes.

Some are stronger than the steel cables
that hold up a suspension bridge.

Some of us are notorious.
Some of us write love poems.

Some of us have roots that go deep
into the earth and will not be shaken.

Some give our fruit and branches
and trunk until we are nothing but stumps.

Some grow thorns to protect ourselves
even if we're vilified for it.

Some women are more like trees
than like ovens: constantly changing.

Some women are nourishing and warm.
Some women burn with holy fire.

Some of us are irreducible, incomparable
like the Holy One of Blessing Herself.

Some women balance justice and mercy.
Some are mirrors: we'll give kindness

as we receive, but injustice causes
our eyes to blaze the world into ash.

 


This poem arose out of a wonderful line from mishna that I encountered in Heschel's book Torah from Heaven, which I've been slowly reading on Wednesday mornings with my coffee shop hevruta group for well over a year.

Some give our fruit and branches / and trunk until we are nothing but stumps. See Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (Wow, is that one messed-up parable about the damage of boundary-less love.)

[I]njustice causes / our eyes to blaze the world into ash. See the Talmudic story of R' Shimon bar Yochai, who spent twelve years in a cave, and when he emerged, was so outraged by what he saw as people's poor priorities and choices that his very gaze set the world on fire.


So much (Ahavah Rabbah)

Dear One, you love me so much
you give me your Torah
for argument and play
waltzing and conversation
from one life to the next.

Your Torah nourishes me,
familiar as the womb.
Wrap me tight in your Torah
like a newborn. Laugh in delight
when I learn to break free.

Your Torah lights up my eyes,
fuses my heart with my choices.
Give me just one letter
to suck like candy, like manna
changing flavor on my tongue.

Tell me a true story again
about who I used to be
or who I might yet be
-- like you, always becoming
who you are becoming.

Beloved, draw me close.
I've been scattered:
melt me until we mingle.
I want to come home in you.
Choose me again. Don't stop.

 


This poem arises out of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that is part of the traditional morning liturgy. Those who are familiar with that prayer (especially in its original Hebrew) will see many riffs on and references to its language here.

Like the poem Good (Yotzer Or), which I posted recently, this is intended to be daven-able alongside or instead of the classical prayer. 

(There are also some poems in the forthcoming Texts to the Holy that I've used at services as a stand-in for Ahavat Olam, the evening version of this prayer -- most notably the title poem of that collection. But none of those poems is specifically rooted in the language of this prayer the way that this one is.)

 


Good (Yotzer Or)

Beloved, You are good
and you wield goodness
in shaping creation

and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness

You make us new
with all created things.
You make me new.

I cling to yesterday
(who would I be
without the sorrows

that have worn grooves
into my back?) but
that's my own smallness.

You've made me new
formed me for this new day
a sapling unbowed.

The knot in my stomach
the knot in my throat --
You untie them.

Can I sit with You
for even a few minutes
before I tangle myself again?

 


In the yotzer or prayer, the blessing for God Who creates light that is part of our daily liturgy, we find the line "המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/ ha'm'chadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom ma'aseh bereshit," which describes God as the One Who daily renews, with God's goodness, the work of creation. This poem arose out of that line, and could be read or davened as part of shacharit (morning prayer), perhaps with the first and last lines of the Hebrew prayer as bookends. If you use this poem in this way, let me know if it works for you!


Change

1.

The CSA's first distribution week:
the flower gardent nascent, not yet formed.
The fields are all potential. No one knows
what plagues or pleasures yet will come to pass.
Who can say which plants will thrive this year?
This week the share's all leaves in shades of green:
tatsoi, arugula, yokatta na.
Atop my bag I nestle precious roots:
French radishes, like fingers, long and pink.
Pick up a pen to mark that I was here
on this first week in June, the season's cusp.
My name's listed alone, while his is paired.
The tears that come I blink away, and blame
upon the radishes' surprising bite.

 

2.

Clouds of pearly fluff float through the air
revealing hidden currents. Poplar seeds,
each with a silken parachute: they twirl,
make visible the breeze that strokes my neck.
I'm floating too, buoyed sometimes by forces
I can't see. Other times I feel
discarded by the tree that once was home.
Every breath I take's an act of trust
that in time I'll land, and root myself
in unfamiliar soil I can't yet know.
Can I learn to love being so light
I no longer insist I'm in control?
"God was not in the cloud: the still small voice..."
I wait, and drift, and listen for its sound.

Continue reading "Change" »


Holding my hand


28781688605_66f9c1d4bf_zWhen I wrap the straps around my arm
Shekhinah holds my hand.

Her small brown fingers intertwine
with mine. She holds on tight.

She whispers courage in my ear.
Says "don't hold up: be held."

Kisses my forehead, a mother
checking for fever or giving a blessing.

Our fingers tangle like lovers.
She strokes my palm and I shiver.

In grief I always think I'm alone --
think no one sees me, or wants to.

She shakes her head, exasperated
and fond. I keep forgetting.

Long after I've let go of her hand
she's still holding me.

 


the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

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The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

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But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

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The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


In humbling company

Os-1495650588-aa4h4pl014-snap-imageAlthough this came out a month ago, it only last night reached my eyes: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat. Written by Haley Codron, this opinion piece ran last month in the Orlando Sentinel, and it puts me in some truly humbling company.

As May is Jewish American Heritage Month, I want to honor three women whose Judaism shines through all they do: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and “Velveteen Rabbi” blogger Rachel Barenblat.

As I contemplate the leadership of Ginsburg, Sandberg and Barenblat, I’m reminded of advice from my parents. They told me what to discuss – or not to discuss – at dinner tables: politics, religion and money. A part of me understands where my parents were coming from; the three topics are flashpoints. But there has to be an element of “picking sides.” Which is precisely why the three women make a difference – a positive difference, and have influenced me and countless people around the world...

Codron writes about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the most extraordinary women alive today, in my estimation), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (whose book Option B I've been intending to read), and me. I'm honored to be in their company.

You can read the whole piece here: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat.


Light

Step one: we attuned ourselves to light.
I don't mean the sun, but what came first.
(Heavenly bodies were day four.) The fire
of the burning bush, the glowing cloud
that hovered over the mishkan, the presence
of creation's supernal flame made us lift

our eyes. When the pillar would lift
we set off; when it settled, we'd light
our cookfires. Back then we had presence
of mind to check the celestial forecast first.
Didn't let our desires to move cloud
our judgment. We were on fire

for the One Whose presence gleams. Afire,
we reached step two: learning how to lift
our hearts even when the cloud
didn't move. We can travel light
even if we're not going anywhere. First
we learn how to live with holy presence.

Step three: open to what wholly presents
itself. Strike the iron while the fire
is hot, but paint our doorposts first.
When we left Egypt we knew how to lift
our hearts to the One, how to light
the tinder of prayerful spirit into clouds

of incense. But God was not in the cloud:
only hinted-at in the wordless presence
that filled the tabernacle with light.
"More than God wants the straw fire
God wants the well-cooked heart," so lift
yourself to the altar. Sometimes the first

thing to do is burn. Sometimes first
we bank our internal fires, offer up the cloud
of self that rises. When the lift
comes, when our hearts become our presents --
that's the time to add fuel to the fire.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light

first tunes our internal radio to the presence.
Then we notice when we get cloud, and when fire.
Let our spirits lift, and become light.


I don't mean the sun, but what came first. At the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) God creates light, but sun and moon and stars don't materialize for another few days. From this our tradition intuits that the light of creation was something other than literal light, and there are many beautiful teachings about the supernal light of creation hidden away for the righteous.

The fire of the burning bush. See Exodus 3. One of my favorite teachings about Shabbat candles holds that when we kindle lights on Shabbat, we are to see in them the supernal light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed. 

The glowing cloud that hovered over the mishkan... when the pillar would lift. See this week's Torah portion, B'ha'alot'kha, in which a cloud hovered over the mishkan (the tabernacle / dwelling-place-for-God's-presence). When the cloud lifted, we went on our journeys, and when it rested, we stayed put.  (For a beautiful d'var Torah on that theme, see Rabbi David's The Reason for Patience.)

Strike the iron while the fire / is hot, but paint our doorposts first. The Exodus story is a paradigmatic narrative of leaping when the opportunity presents itself... but before so doing, the children of Israel painted blood on the doorposts of their houses, an act we now echo in placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of ours. Doors are liminal spaces -- life is full of liminal spaces -- and it's up to us to make them holy.

But God was not in the cloud. See I Kings 19:11-12. God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.

More than God wants the straw fire / God wants the well-cooked heart. A teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe. 

The One Who rolls back darkness before light. See maa'ariv aravim, our prayer for evening -- here it is in several variations.

Tunes our internal radio to the presence. This metaphor comes from Reb Zalman z"l, who used to speak about how God broadcasts on all channels and we receive revelation where we are attuned.


Glimpses of Shavuot 5777

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Isabella Freedman, where I just spent Shavuot.


Back when I first started blogging, I used to write about every retreat I attended. I was so thirsty for connection with Jewish tradition and with God! I kept a paper journal tucked into my tallit bag, and I wrote down everything. When I got home I would type up excerpts from my handwritten notes and turn them into blog posts. Everything was surprising and meaningful and new.

These days it tends to be my job to help to create the container within which the retreat experience unfolds. The teachers whose words I so thirstily drank in are now colleagues, and in many cases friends. And I'm no longer writing things down during every spare moment. All of these shifts have changed my ability to share retreat experiences with all of you. Still, I will try.

The first thing I want to remember from Shavuot 5777 took place before the retreat even began: I was part of the beit din, the rabbinic court, presiding over a conversion. After an extraordinary conversation, we walked together, singing Pure Heart, to Lake Miriam for mikveh. When the new Jew emerged from her third immersion, she was radiant with light.

I want to remember the two nights of davenen in the Isabella Freedman sanctuary where years ago I experienced most of DLTI. Both nights I sat with hevre, beloved colleague-friends, with whom I had the deep pleasure of singing in harmony, guided by Shir Yaakov's gentle presence and beautiful melodies and by Shoshana Jedwab's rich and resonant drumming.

I want to remember the late-night learning on the first night of Shavuot. In the wee hours of the morning I was in the beige yurt, where Rabbi David Evan Markus taught a lesson on how "why" grew up in Torah. And then I taught a lesson on eit ratzon, "a time of will / a time of yearning," and the giving of Torah, and what it means to say that God yearns to give.

I want to remember how it felt to wake, after a three-hour catnap, to daven hallel outdoors by Lake Miriam. I want to remember Rabbi Jill Hammer's's gorgeous Torah service on the first morning, and how she mapped the blessings that went with the first three aliyot to the three mother letters from Sefer Yetzirah, and paired each with a different color / texture of chuppah.

I want to remember the first afternoon of Shavuot: both attending Rabbi David Ingber's beautiful teaching in which he shared classical (midrashic and Zoharic) texts on suckling / nursing and the revelation of Torah, and then going for a walk with two hevre afterwards in the glorious sunshine, and unpacking his teaching and its meaning for us as we walked.

I want to remember teaching after dinner on the second night about the silent aleph and revelation (including that text from the Ropcyzer about seeing God's name in the face of every human being, which I've shared here before, as well as a variety of other texts about the aleph and revelation.) It was so sweet to share teachings that I love and to harvest responses from the room.

I want to remember sitting with three dear friends outside the sanctuary on the second morning of the holiday, arms around each other, singing and laughing through tears. And I want to remember doing "waking dream" work with Reb Eve in the gazebo beside the lake that same morning after davenen was over, and the images that arose for me, and what those images meant.

I'm not sure any of the words I've just written actually capture for you what the Shavuot retreat experience was like at Hazon / Isabella Freedman this year. In a certain way, the holiday retreat experience is ineffable: it's as much about the experience, the melodies and conversations and the early-morning mist over the water, as it is about anything I can chronicle or describe. 

Even if I can't write about it in a way that really conveys what the experience was like for me this year, I'm grateful for the opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the three great ancient pilgrimage festivals, and grateful to have been given the chance to help create the retreat experience for some 250 others, especially in such a beautiful and holy place.