Cloud and fire, waiting and leaping


Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024In this week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lot'kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.

"Whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp."

The commentator known as the Sforno -- Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 -- notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.

So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.

The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn't just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It's also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.

The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don't have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it's time to sit with what is, and when it's time to leap into the unknown. That's discernment work we have to do on our own -- maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)

The new Jews we're celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say "beginning to learn" because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition -- including me.)

And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.

In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.

This week's Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we're in a period of waiting and discernment, we'll be able to tell when it's time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we're in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we're headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness -- and that we can always course-correct as needed.

And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don't have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.

This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l'hitpallel, literally "to discern oneself." It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it's time to sit still and when it's time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for his teachings Waiting to Exhale and The Soul of Waiting.

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: Steve Silbert's Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.


When surprises turn out just right: a conversion, though not as I planned

29791142_10155434505157371_4627250841242018874_nTwo years ago, before Shavuot, my friend Rabbi Brent Spodek asked me to serve on a beit din -- the rabbinic court of three who preside over Jewish legal matters -- for the purpose of taking part in welcoming a new soul into the Jewish people. Rabbi David Markus was the third member of the beit din. We gathered at Isabella Freedman before that year's Shavuot retreat, met with the prospective Jew-by-choice for meaningful conversation, then accompanied him to Lake Miriam for his mikvah immersion. 

One year ago, before Shavuot, Rabbi David convened the same trio for the same purpose. We met again in one of the yurts beside the lake at Isabella Freedman; had a deep and rich conversation with the woman who was choosing Judaism; then accompanied her to the same lake before that year's Shavuot retreat. Both of these were extraordinary experiences for me as a member of the beit din. We joked last year that since each of them had brought someone now, it would be my turn in 5778.

At the time I truly thought we were all kidding. I've been a rabbi since 2011 and no one had ever sought to study toward conversion under my auspices. And then two people independently came to me seeking study toward conversion to Judaism. I wanted them to have an experience of community, so I opened up a class and encouraged others to join. And it became clear that this year it would actually be my turn to be em beit din and to convene my colleagues for this humbling and holy purpose. 

I had a lot of time to plan how I wanted the beit din and the conversion to flow, and I had everything all planned out. The beit din and immersion would take place at a beautiful spot: Surprise Lake, the lake at the Hudson Valley summer camp of the same name where our three congregations were convening for a Shavuot retreat. My whole Journey Into Judaism class signed up for the Shavuot retreat and made plans to come down early to support their classmates who were taking the proverbial plunge.

And then storms and tornadoes tore through the area and Surprise Lake lost power, and the retreat was canceled, the day before the beit din. Some scrambling ensued. My rabbinic colleagues moved heaven and earth to make a Plan B possible, including helping us find lodging in a region where every hotel and motel is booked solid with folks still taking refuge from storm damage. And on Friday afternoon, my whole Journey Into Judaism class (plus family members) drove down to the Hudson Valley.

We met at the mikvah in Poughkeepsie, which is housed in an Orthodox shul. The shul was opened just for us, and a mikvah attendant showed us around. My students gathered in a classroom, and the beit din gathered in the shul library, and one by one we met with the candidates for conversion. Then we met with them together. And then we held a tallit-chuppah over their heads and sang Reb Zalman's mother's niggun (which we had sung often before class) as we walked down the hall to the mikvah.

The mikvah attendant (colloquially known as a "mikvah lady") helped us ensure that the immersions were kosher to her usual standards. The men on the beit din stood outside the door of the mikvah, listening for the splash and the sound of our voices from inside. Each of my three candidates stepped down into the water, immersed and made the blessing, and immersed again, and immersed a third time, and emerged reborn as a woman fully in the living flow of Jewish spiritual and national identity.

And then we returned to the library to sign their documents and bless them, and then we all drove to Rabbi Brent's shul in Beacon. There we were awaited not only by a celebratory potluck Shabbat but by a large crowd from his congregation who welcomed our new Jews into the room with a rousing chorus of "Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov." (I don't think they expected that -- to be so heartily welcomed by a room full of strangers -- though of course they weren't strangers; they were fellow Yidden.)

It wasn't the day I had spent so long planning. We weren't outside in the sanctuary of nature, immersing in a natural body of living waters surrounded by trees -- instead we were in a windowless interior room in a shul none of us had ever seen before. There was an unfamiliar woman inspecting them for stray hairs before their immersions, and giving them a lace doily to cover their heads to make the immersion bracha. And because all of this was in God's hands and not mine, it was absolutely perfect.

We'd talked a lot about how when one joins the Jewish people, one is joining the gantze mishpacha, the whole clan: not just my shul, not just places where the practice and custom matches what we do in our small-town Reform-Renewal community, but the whole thing. When one joins the Jewish people, our Conservative and Orthodox and Reconstructing and post-denominational cousins become one's family too. The Jewish family is big, diverse, complicated, sometimes exasperating, and sweet.

I couldn't have dreamed up a better example of that truth than arranging to immerse on 24 hours' notice at an Orthodox mikvah. Some of my students had never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue before (there isn't one in Berkshire County). But the wonderful people at Schomrei Israel opened their doors to us without hesitation, because that's what you do for fellow Jews. And then we showed up at an independent synagogue served by a Conservative-ordained rabbi and we were welcomed there too.

No matter how broad our conversations in our Journey Into Judaism class, they couldn't convey the experience of being part of this multifaceted people -- of being welcomed into this multifaceted people, with our wide range of customs and practices, modes of dress and styles of observance, melodies and prayerbooks. I couldn't convey in words what it feels like to walk into a strange synagogue in a strange city and feel like kin even when we differ, because our Jewishness connects us.

Last week's storms and the damage they caused threw a giant monkey wrench into my careful plans, and the way the day turned out was exactly what we needed. It taught my students something I couldn't have taught them on my own. It gave two communities the opportunity to enact the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. It gave us a lived experience of feeling welcomed and cared-for and part of something much bigger than even the trio of shuls that had planned a joint retreat.

I'm endlessly grateful: to the folks at Schomrei Israel and Beacon Hebrew Alliance for welcoming us, for my hevre on the beit din for joining me in this holy work, to the members of my class for driving down to support their classmates, to the three who entrusted me with their journey, to Soferet Julie Seltzer for lending us her apartment for a night, and to the Holy One of Blessing Who ensured that the whole day unfolded exactly the way it was meant to, with surprises that turned out just right.

 


Up the mountain, breaking Shabbes, and the things I can't control

Last week I did something that felt very strange: I counseled three people to break Shabbat.

I've been teaching an adult education class this year that I've called "Journey Into Judaism." We're all on a journey into authentic spiritual life, into the continuing unfolding of who we are and who we're called to become. Some of the students in my class are Jewish and seeking deeper connection with their traditions. Others enrolled because they're partnered with Jews. Others enrolled because they felt a pull toward becoming Jewish and wanted to learn more. 

This Friday, on the cusp of the Shabbat that will lead into Shavuot, three of my students will take the plunge into Judaism both literally and metaphorically. After spending some time with the beit din (the rabbinic court of three who will officially preside over their transition), they'll immerse in a mikvah and then emerge to a new chapter of their spiritual lives. Last Friday was the final Shabbat before their immersion, so -- following a very old custom -- I told them it's customary for them to break Shabbes.

Shabbat isn't something that just "happens." It requires a combination of intention and action; otherwise, it's just plain old Friday-night-and-Saturday. In common Jewish parlance, we "make" Shabbat (or Shabbes -- "Shabbat" is the modern Hebrew pronunciation, "Shabbes" is a more old-fashioned Yiddishized pronunciation, but they're the same word.) We make Shabbat when we enter into holy time mindfully. Through blessing candles and the fruit of the vine and bread, we sanctify time.

And as for "breaking" Shabbat, that means different things in different communities. Most members of my synagogue community don't "keep" Shabbat in the traditional forms. But my students and I have talked a great deal about Shabbat consciousness and holy time, and about different ways of honoring Shabbat, and about what Shabbat can look like. We've held two immersive Shabbatonim for the purpose of giving them full, deep, rich, sweet experiences of Shabbat from start to finish.

And last week I told them to break Shabbes. On purpose.  

In some communities, non-Jews are not permitted to observe Shabbat, and prospective Jews-by-choice are instructed to secretly break Shabbat each week before their immersion, because the covenant of Shabbat is between God and the Jewish people and they aren't yet part of that group. I don't hold that thick a line between "us" and "them" -- I am happy to share the sweetness of Shabbes with seekers of all stripes -- but it is true that once my students immerse, Shabbat will be "theirs" in a different way.

In some communities, prospective Jews-by-choice are encouraged to break Shabbat on purpose right before their immersion, to see what it would feel like to do so. If they've grown accustomed to candles and challah and wine, what would it feel like to forgo those things? If they've grown accustomed to seeking a heartspace and headspace that's apart from weekday consciousness, what would it feel like to intentionally open the bills on a Saturday afternoon and shatter that sense of separateness and peace?

The old paradigm of rabbinic authority was often top-down. But that's not the paradigm that's embraced in the community I serve. We aspire to practice an informed wrestling with the tradition, making conscious choices about how our practice evolves. I shared with my students the custom of breaking Shabbat before their immersion... and all of them engaged with it thoughtfully, and made their own decisions about how to honor it and what they were, and weren't, willing to forgo.

And I couldn't be more thrilled. Because in learning the custom, and pondering it, and checking in with their own discernment about their spiritual needs and their evolving Jewish practice, they unconsciously lived out exactly the kind of Judaism that is my hope and my prayer for them in days and years to come. They showed me that Shabbat means something to them, and that Jewish practice means something to them, and that they have taken permission to engage with the tradition on their own terms. 

A few days ago I spoke with Rabbi David, who will sit on the beit din, about the logistics of how the day will go. "I want their experience to be beautiful," I fretted -- feeling anxiety about the weather, and about the setting, and about all the things I can't control about how Friday will unfold. Rabbi David gently reminded me that I can't "give them" a perfect experience no matter how hard I try. My job is to lead them up the mountain. What they experience at the mountaintop is in God's hands, not mine.

I needed to be reminded of that, especially on the cusp of Shavuot -- another liminal space-and-time, another long-anticipated moment, another time when I want so deeply to be able to give those whom I serve a renewed connection with Torah and with our traditions and with our Source. What we experience on the mountaintop isn't up to me. That's not in my hands. My job is to lead people safely along the path, and to trust the Kadosh Baruch Hu -- the flow of holiness and spirit that we name as God.

The universe handed me another reminder this week that I'm truly not in control: the storm and tornadoes that tore through the Hudson Valley. The summer camp that was supposed to be our weekend retreat location remains without power. As a result, our retreat has been canceled. Thankfully, we've found an alternative way to hold the beit din: at a regional mikveh, with celebration (potluck supper, Kabbalat Shabbat, song and dance and joy) to follow at a local shul. 

My students' doorway into Jewishness will not exactly take the shape I had intended or planned, but it will be their doorway -- and as a doorway, entered mindfully, it will be holy. This will still be a Shabbat for them unlike any other that has come before. It will still be the Shabbat after I surprised them with the instruction to break Shabbes... and the first Shabbat for them in the flow of Jewish national and spiritual identity, the first Shabbat of the rest of their new and renewing Jewish lives. 

 

For my students, with endless gratitude.


The gift of an immersive Shabbat

39754613342_8305a9af90_zWhen I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat. 

The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls. 

I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. 

So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.

We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!) 

The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean. 

On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate. 

Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.

Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.

As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.

My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.

I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week.  I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time.