Descent for the sake of ascent


2267916_1This is the sermon I offered this morning at Rensselaerville Presbyterian Church. You can read other sermons in their summer sermon series here. This year's theme is "And still we rise."

 

In Hasidic tradition -- in the Jewish mystical-devotional tradition that arose in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s -- there is the concept of yeridah tzorech aliyah. "Descent for the sake of ascent." We experience distance from God in order to draw close. We fall in order to rise.

The term "fall" may have connotations here, in this Christian context, that I don't intend. I'm not talking about the Fall of Man, with capital letters, as I understand it to be interpreted in some Christian theologies. Judaism doesn't have a doctrine of original sin. I'm talking about something more like... falling down. Falling short. Falling away.

The paradigmatic example of descent for the sake of ascent is the narrative at the end of the book of Genesis that we sometimes call "the Joseph novella." We just heard a piece of that story this morning, so here's a recap for those who need it. Jacob had twelve sons, and his favored son was Joseph, for whom he made a coat of many colors. Joseph had dreams of stars bowing down to him, sheaves of wheat bowing down to him, and his dreams made his brothers angry, and as a result they threw him into a pit. He literally went down. And then he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and the verb used there is again he went down: in Hebrew one "goes down" into Egypt and "ascends" into the promised land.

In Egypt, he fell from favor with Potiphar and went down into Pharaoh's dungeon. And there he met the two servants of Pharaoh for whom he interpreted dreams, and he ascended to become Pharaoh's right-hand man.

And because of those things, he was in a position to rescue his family from famine, thereby setting in motion the rescue of what would become the entire Jewish people. Descent for the sake of ascent.

His descendants would become slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. Finally our hardship was too much to bear, and we cried out to God. Torah tells us that God heard our cries and remembered us and brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Because we were low and we cried out, God heard us and lifted us out of there: descent for the sake of ascent.

Coming forth from slavery was the first step toward Jewish peoplehood; receiving Torah at Sinai, and entering into covenant with God, was the event that formed us as a people. Our enslavement led to our freedom which led to covenant and peoplehood: descent for the sake of ascent.

The summer season on the Jewish calendar mirrors this same trajectory. Just a few weeks ago we marked the day of communal mourning known as Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the lunar month of Av, the lowest point in our year.

On Tisha b'Av, we remember the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE. We remember the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Rome in 70 CE. We remember the start of the Crusades, the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, an incomprehensibly awful litany of communal tragedies that have all, somehow, against all odds, befallen us on or around that same calendar date. On Tisha b'Av we fast, we hear the book of Lamentations, we read poems of grief, we dive deep into the world's sorrow and suffering and brokenness.

And, Jewish tradition says that on Tisha b'Av the messiah will be born. Out of our deepest grief comes the spark of redemption. And every year Tisha b'Av is the springboard that launches us toward the Days of Awe, the Jewish new year and the Day of Atonement, of at/one/ment. Authentic spiritual life demands that we sit both with life's brokenness and life's wholeness. A spirituality that's only "positive," only feel-good, isn't real and isn't whole. When we sit with what hurts, that's what enables us to rise. Descent for the sake of ascent.

The Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim teaches that ascent and descent are intimately connected. When a person falls away from God, the experience of distance from the Divine spurs that soul's yearning to return. Falling down is precisely the first step of rising up. Our mis-steps are precisely what spur us to course-correct and adjust our path. Descent for the sake of ascent.

Looking at the world around us, it's easy to feel that everything is falling apart. Migrant children torn from the arms of their parents and imprisoned in cages. Hate crimes on the rise. People of color killed by police who are supposed to be sworn to protect. Incidents of prejudice increasing: against religious minorities, and against transgender people, and against people of color. Our political system seems to be broken. International relations seem to be broken. There is brokenness everywhere we look.

Our work -- the spiritual work of this moment in time -- is twofold. One: we have to resist the temptation to paper over the brokenness with platitudes and pretty words, "God has a plan," or "everything's going to be okay." My theology does not include a God Who sits back and allows rights to be stripped away for the sake of some greater plan we don't have to try to understand. And two: we have to face the brokenness, even embrace the brokenness, and let it fuel us to bring repair. We have to make our descent be for the sake of ascent.

When we feel our distance from the divine Beloved, there's a yearning to draw near. Our hearts cry out, "I miss Your presence in my life, God, I want to come back to You." Or in the words of psalm 27, the psalm for this season on the Jewish calendar, "One thing I ask of You, God, this alone do I seek: that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life!"

When we feel our distance from the world as it should be -- a world where no one goes hungry, where bigotry has vanished like morning fog, where every human being is uplifted and cherished as a reflection of the Infinite divine -- we yearn to bring repair. When we feel what's lacking, we ache to fill that void. Feeling how far we've fallen is precisely what spurs us to seek to rise. This is built into the very order of things. And that's where I find hope during these difficult days.

This is the work of spiritual life as I understand it. There are times that feel like a descent into the pit, a fall away from God, even imprisonment in Pharaoh's dungeon. This is true both on the small scale of every individual human life, and on the broader canvas of the nation or the world at large. But the thing about hitting bottom is, there's nowhere to go from there but up.

Our job is to inhabit every broken place, every spiritual exile, and let them fuel us to ascend closer to God and closer to the world as we know it should be. Then those who have sown in tears will reap in joy. Then those who went out weeping, carrying the seeds of the tomorrow in which they could barely find hope, will return in gladness bearing the abundant harvest of everything they need. Kein yehi ratzon: so may it be.


Seven energies, seven weeks, coming soon

Tree-of-Life-DetailedSeven is a special number in Judaism. Seven are the days of the week (six days of creation + Shabbat). In many Jewish weddings, the partners circle each other seven times. We make seven stops when carrying a casket to the grave. Seven are the colors of the rainbow.

We count the Omer for seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and some of us do a reverse Omer count during the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. And all of these sevens can be echoes, or reminders, of the seven energetic qualities that our mystics find in divinity (and in us.)

Our mystics understand God to be both transcendent (infinite, beyond our grasp) and immanent (reachable / relatable / embodied in creation). They envisioned a map of ten divine qualities or energies (called sefirot) through which God's infinity flows into finite creation.

You might imagine the sefirot as electrical transformers that enable the energy of divine infinity to "step down" and modulate to a level that's graspable in physical creation.  Sometimes these ten qualities are depicted as nodes in a map of energy-flow. Sometimes they're depicted superimposed over an image of a tree, or over an image of a human being.

At the "top" of the map is Ein Sof -- "Without End," limitlessness, infinity. ("Top" and "bottom" are metaphors for something that's not actually spatial at all, but we use a spatial metaphor to help us imagine this.)  The "upper" three sefirot are usually considered so lofty that we can't reach them. (Different schools conceptualize the upper three in different ways and with different names: "Crown" and Wisdom and Understanding, or Wisdom and Understanding and Knowledge.)

But the "lower" seven sefirot are energetic qualities that are accessible to us and are manifest in creation. These are the energetic qualities that we cultivate and discern during the year's two seven-week corridors of inner work and counting: one in the (Northern hemisphere) spring between Pesach and Shavuot, and the other in the (Northern hemisphere) late summer / early fall between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. They are chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, and malchut.

Chesed is love, lovingkindness, unbounded flow. Chesed is the outpouring of overabundant love. 

Gevurah is boundaries, strength, judgment. Gevurah is a strong channel, and the ability to discern good from bad. 

Tiferet is harmony, balance, beauty. Some see tiferet as the perfect harmony of love and boundaried-strength.

Netzach is endurance and perseverance. Netzach is the energy of persistence, the energy of eternity.

Hod means both humility and splendor. This can be a kind of koan: splendor-in-humility, humility-in-splendor.

Yesod is foundations, roots, generativity. Yesod roots us in the generations, both past and future.

Malchut, sometimes translated as nobility or kingship, is presence and manifestation. Malchut is associated with Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence, the divine feminine, the essence of Shabbat. 

Each person manifests each of these qualities. One component of the inner work that Jewish tradition calls us to do is discerning which of these qualities we need to strengthen and how to keep them in good balance. Each of these is a good thing when balanced with the others, and each can become a negative thing if it grows unchecked. (For instance, chesed -- lovingkindness -- is a wonderful quality -- but if it flows without limit, it can lead to ethical breaches, boundary crossing, and spiritual bypassing.)

Tisha b'Av is coming up at the end of this week. After Tisha b'Av, there are seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. During the seven weeks after Pesach (the Omer count) we begin with the quality of chesed and culminate with the quality of malchut. During these coming seven weeks, we begin with malchut -- presence, Shechinah, the divine feminine -- and "ascend" the energetic ladder all the way back to chesed, the energy of lovingkindness that will lead us into the start of a new Jewish year. 

 


Hametz, fire, and miracles: a d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol

Bread-fireIt's Shabbat HaGadol: "The Great Shabbat," the Shabbat before Pesach. The Shibolei Haleket (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, d. 1275) explains, "on the Shabbat before Passover the people stay late into the afternoon... in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven..."

Everybody ready to listen to instructions for kashering your kitchens?

Just kidding. Though I am going to talk about hametz, and this week's Torah portion, and miracles.

The word חמץ / hametz comes from lichmotz, to sour or ferment. Hametz is grain that has fermented. When we left Egypt, we didn't have time for natural sourdough to leaven our bread, so we baked flat crackers and left in haste. Torah offers us two instructions 1) eat matzah as we re-live the Exodus, and 2) get rid of leaven. The matzah part, we'll do during Pesach. The getting-rid-of-leaven part, we have to do in advance.

Today is Shabbes, our foretaste of the world to come. Today we do no work. We rest and are ensouled, as was God on the first Shabbat. But tomorrow, and in the weekdays to come, many of us may be doing some spring cleaning as we prepare to rid our homes of leaven for a week. Of course, getting rid of leaven doesn't "just" mean getting rid of leaven. It can also mean a kind of spiritual housecleaning.

Hametz can represent ego, what puffs us up internally. The therapists among us might note that ego is important: indeed it is. Without a healthy ego, you'd be in trouble. But if one's ego gets too big, that's a problem too. The internal search for hametz is an invitation to examine ego and to discern what work we need. Some need to discard the hametz of needing to be the center of attention. Others need to discard the hametz of not wanting to take up the space we deserve. 

Another interpretation: hametz is that within us which has become sour. Old stories, old narratives, old scripts. Old ideas about "us" and "them," old angers, old hurts. Look inside: are you carrying the memory of someone who made you angry? Are you holding on to old grievances? Search your heart: what's the old stuff you need to scrape up and throw away?

That's where this week's Torah portion, Tzav, comes in. This is the ritual of the burnt offering, says God. Keep the fire burning all night until morning. And every morning, take the ashes outside the camp, to a clean place. Notice that removing the ashes is mentioned right up there with burning the offering. Because if the ashes are allowed to accumulate, they'll choke the fire. 

The spiritual work of keeping our fires burning belongs to all of us. It's our job to feed the fires of hope, the fires of justice, the fires of our own spiritual lives that fuel our work toward a world redeemed. Keep the fire burning all night: even in our "dark" times, when we feel trapped, even crushed, by life's narrow places. 

The thing is, over the course of a year our fires get choked with ash. Disappointments and cynicism and overwork and burnout keep our fires from burning as bright as they could be. This week's Torah portion reminds us to clean out our ashes. (It's no coincidence that Tzav comes right before Pesach.)

Pesach offers us spiritual renewal. Pesach invites us to live in the as-if -- as if we were redeemed; as if we were free; as if all of this world's broken places and ugly "isms" were healed. But in order for our spiritual fires to be renewed, we have to clean out the ashes. We have to get rid of the hametz, the schmutz, the ashes and crumbs and remnants of the old year that have become sour and dusty, in order to become ready to be free.

Ridding ourselves of the old year's mistakes and mis-steps in order to begin again: is this making you think of any other time of year? If this inner work sounds like the work we do before Rosh Hashanah, that's because it is.

I learned from my teacher and friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz that we work on our imperfections both during Nissan (now) and Tishri (the High Holidays), and we can dedicate one to working on our "external" stuff and the other to what's hidden or internal. The Megaleh Amukot (Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira, d. 1633) wrote that these two months of Nissan and Tishri correspond to each other, because during each of these seasons we're called to seek out and destroy hametz in body and soul.

Another link between Passover preparation and the teshuvah work of the new year: this season, too, is called a new year. Talmud teaches that we have four "New Years"es. The new moon of Tishri is the new year for years. The new year for trees, Tu BiShvat, is in deep winter. The new year for animals is on 1 Elul. And then there's the new moon of Nisan, ushering in the month containing Pesach... and this entire month has the holiness of a Rosh Chodesh, a New Moon. This whole month is our springtime new year. 

Right now the moon is waxing. The light of the moon can represent God's presence -- sometimes visible, and sometimes not, but always with us. Right now there's more moonlight every night, and we're invited to experience more connection with holiness with each passing day. Our work now is to clean house, spiritually, by the light of this waxing moon -- in order to be internally ready to choose freedom. 

When you think of a miracle, what do you think of? Maybe the parting of the Sea of Reeds: that's a big, shiny, visible miracle from the Passover story. But hope growing in tight places is also a miracle. The fact that we can make teshuvah is a miracle. The fact that we can grow and change is a miracle. The fact that we can do our inner work and emerge transformed is a miracle. This is a month of miracles -- as evidenced by its name: the name Nissan comes from נס / nes, "miracle."

On Thursday night, some of us will hide crusts of bread around our homes. We'll search for them by the light of a candle. And then on the morning of the day that will become Pesach we'll burn them, destroying the old year's hametz. Whether or not you engage literally in that ancient custom of bedikat hametz (searching for / destroying leaven), you can do that work spiritually. (And we'll begin some of it together during our contemplative mincha service this afternoon.)

What is the old stuff you need to root out and discard in order to walk unencumbered into freedom?

How can you "carry out the ashes" so the altar of your heart can become clean and clear, ready to burn with the fire of hope, the fire of justice, the fire of new beginnings?

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


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.

 


Yes we said yes we will yes

Yes-1In this week's Torah portion, the children of Israel tell Moses, כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / "All that God has spoken, we will do." After that, they receive the Ten Commandments.

Wait. Doesn't that seem backwards? How could we accept the mitzvot, and only then learn what they are? How does it make sense to to agree to do, before we've heard what it is God is calling us to do? Almost every Torah commentator under the sun tackles this question, because it's a big one.

Lately I'm spending quality time with Menchem Nachum of Chernobyl, the Hasidic master also known as the Me'or Eynayim. And he says this is a teaching about how spiritually, no one ever stands still.

We're always rising and falling. Life-force ebbs and flows. Our connection with God ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel connected with something beyond ourselves, and enlivened by that connection. Sometimes we feel we've fallen away and meaning is nowhere to be found.

Our task -- he says -- is to remember that all of creation is filled with divinity, that (in the words of the Zohar) לית אתר פנוי מיניה / there is no place devoid of the Presence. It's easy to feel that at spiritual high moments when we're feeling connected and full of love. It's harder to feel that when life is difficult and God seems distant.

When we feel that we've fallen far from God, when we feel conscious of our shortcomings that keep us feeling disconnected, when we're feeling existentially lonely, that's when we need to remember that there's no such thing as "far from God." God, he teaches, is never absent or far away -- only sometimes very hidden. God withdraws in order to make space for us, or perhaps to encourage us to seek.

When we feel that we're far away from God or from goodness, God is actually right there with us in our feelings of exile, our feelings of loneliness, our feelings of despair. Sometimes everything seems clear and we can feel God's presence with us. Sometimes the clarity departs and God feels far away. But the distinction is one of epistemology, not ontology.

And the answer to feeling existentially far-from-God is to say yes -- even when we can't feel the presence of the thing we're saying yes to. Say yes to life, even if you don't know where life will take you. Say yes to spiritual practice, even if you don't know how spiritual practice will change you. Say yes to the mitzvot, even when you don't wholly know what they are. Say yes to God, even if you aren't sure God exists, or is listening. 

Agreeing to do before we've heard what it is we're supposed to do is an inversion. It's rising before falling. But the thing about falling is, it just spurs us to want to rise higher. One step back, two steps forward. At least, that's the Me'or Eynayim's take on it. Because spiritual life never stands still.

Standing still is stasis, and stasis is death. As long as we're living, we're growing and changing. My seven-year-old likes to say there's no such thing as doing "nothing" -- even if we're holding perfectly still, we're breathing, we're existing, blood is pumping through our veins. If we're alive, we're changing. In the Me'or Eynayim's terms, if we're alive, we're rising and falling.

We agree to do the mitzvot -- that's a moment of rising. Then we fall, because that's how life works. We touch elevated consciousness for long enough to give God an existential "yes we said yes we will yes," and then we fall away. But in our falling, we listen for God's presence in the world, and that's when we hear the Voice issuing forth from Sinai. שמע: we listen, and achieve a glimmer of understanding, and rise up again.

The first step is a leap of faith: כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / "all that God has spoken, we will do." We leap even though we don't know what we're leaping to. We leap, saying "sure, we'll spend our lives with You" before we really know Who God is or where God might take us. We leap knowing that we will fall... and that from our place of having-fallen, we can rise to greater heights.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at WCJA at Kabbalat Shabbat this week. The teaching from the Me'or Eynayim that I cite here can be found in Hebrew in the app ובלכתך בדרך; if you'd like to read it in English, there's a translation at sefaria.

 


Exile and expansiveness - a d'varling for parashat Bo

Exile-300x178Right now in our cycle of Torah readings (parashat Bo) we're reading about the plagues and the start of the Exodus. Looking for inspiration on this week's parsha, I turned to the Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim, "The Light of the Eyes." (His given name was Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl.) He writes about Egypt as a place of existential exile, and about what happens to us spiritually when we are brought forth from there.

Slavery in Egypt is our tradition's ultimate example of גלות / galut, existential alienation from God. It's the paradigmatic example of constriction. When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we're also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now.

For the Me'or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It's a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don't even realize we've fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself.

When one is in this kind of galut, it's hard to know the difference between what will give life and what will deaden us. Torah instructs us to "choose life," but it's hard to know what will enliven us when we're in a place of alienation from our Source. What the Exodus offers us is the opportunity to leave existential exile, and in that leaving, to regain the capacity for moral choice.

In the state of galut that we experience when we're in life's Narrow Places, there's only katnut-consciousness, small mind. It's a vicious cycle, because exile creates small mind, and small mind makes it hard to imagine breaking free from exile.

Emerging from the Narrow Place means being reborn from katnut into gadlut, from small mind into expansive consciousness. The words גלות / galut and גדלות / gadlut are similar, but there's one letter of difference between them: the letter ד / daled, which -- as I was powerfully reminded by Rabbi David Ingber in his extraordinary sermon on doorways and welcoming the stranger last night -- is a delet, a door. Galut is exile; gadlut is greatness, or expanded-mind. We begin in exile. We go through a door, a transformation, a state-change. And then we reach gadlut, "big mind." And once we've reached expansive consciousness, we can seek to know God wholly. That's why we were brought forth from Egypt, says the Me'or Eynayim: in order to know God wholly.

We were brought forth from Egypt in order to see beyond the binaries of our own constriction. Once we begin to glimpse gadlut, the constrictions of exile fall away.

Exile can be self-perpetuating, because when we're in it, it's hard to see a way out. Depression is like that. Despair is like that. Overwhelm is like that. Sometimes if I look at everything that's wrong with the world, exile rushes in and washes me away. But if we can open our minds even for an instant to glimpse the prospect of a better life, the fact of glimpsing a redemptive possibility makes that redemption possible.

Shabbat is our chance to glimpse the world redeemed -- to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be. May we emerge from Shabbat ready to roll up our sleeves, to combat small-mindedness wherever we find it, and to choose to bring more life everywhere we go.

 

This is the d'varling (brief d'var Torah) I offered at shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


New at The Wisdom Daily

Logo-twd-header

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

— Yehoshua November, “Two Worlds Exist”

These lines are from the opening poem of Yehoshua November’s new collection of poetry, Two Worlds Exist. When I first read them, they went directly to my heart.

Yes: the great teachings of my tradition often offer me comfort – and there are sorrows those teachings cannot touch. It is childish to imagine that if only I could find the right teaching, the right text, I could erase grief — my own, or that of someone I love. Better to let the texts do as November describes: to let them open up for me the sacred text of my own life and wait for me to answer their question with my choices, with my living....

That's the beginning of my latest post for The Wisdom Daily, which is both a personal reflection and a review of Yehoshua November's latest collection. Read the whole thing: Here Is Your Life. What Will You Do With It?


Among the roses

IMG_3662What happens when one visits a rose garden on Shabbat afternoon with a group of rabbis, having already taken part in Shabbat morning services; when one takes menucha (rest / rejuvenation) time to enjoy nature, to enjoy friends, and to sit with the still-resonating experiences of the preceding week? 

One might wind up finding mystical resonance in everything one encounters. Such as, for instance, the realization that this particular rose garden has seven tiers, seven levels to descend and climb.

Seven is a powerful number in Judaism. To a Jewish mystic, seven immediately suggests holiness. There are seven days of the week and seven colors of the rainbow, both of which point to the seven "lower" or most accessible sefirot (which one might understand as aspects or qualities of God, or as channels for divine light.) 

As soon as the seven levels are noticed, the rabbis in question might start skipping from level to level, naming each as they go: this level is chesed, lovingkindness; this one is gevurah, boundaried strength; this one tiferet, balance / harmony... These are the same qualities we mark daily and weekly as we count the Omer. In this rose garden we move from one to the next with only a few steps.

Or take the fact that the very lowest level -- the one that corresponds to malchut or Shekhinah: nobility, sovereignty, immanent Divine Presence, the Divine Feminine, embodiment in creation -- centers around a free-flowing spring. There is a free-flowing spring in the very heart of the garden. This is almost too remarkable a literary allusion to be coincidence.

In the Zohar, one of the foundational works of Jewish mysticism, malchut is compared both to a rose and to a free-flowing spring. And when each of the seven "lower" sefirot are mapped to days of the week, malchut is mapped to Shabbat -- the very day on which this rose garden visit is taking place. 

Long after returning home, those who wandered among the roses might pause and smile, remembering the sweetness of that Shabbat, the delight of finding an inhabitable map of the cosmos in which all paths lead to the well of divine abundance at the heart of all things, and the heady scent of roses in bloom.

 

With gratitude to the friend who suggested a visit to the Berkeley Rose Garden during a break between open mike conversations on the California swing of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


Letting your light shine

Glowing-person1וַיְדַבֵּר יי אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ...

"The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: If a person has in the skin of the flesh a sore ..." (Leviticus 13:1-2).

Tazria is not my favorite Torah portion. There are no "bad" Torah portions -- there's good in all of them! -- but I can admit that this is one with which I have struggled over the years. Some years I struggle with the teachings about childbirth. This year I got bogged-down in the verses about this skin condition and its treatment. Fortunately, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet -- Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- came to my rescue.

The Sfat Emet looks at the half-verse I cited above, and enters into it with a kind of Hebrew pun. He makes a link between the Hebrew words 'or (עור), meaning skin, and 'or (אור), meaning light. With this move, he radically transforms what Torah is talking about: suddenly this is no longer about an illness that generates sores in the skin, but a spiritual illness which does something to a person's inner light.

In Bereshit / Genesis, when the first humans are exiled from Eden, God makes them garments of skins. Our mystical tradition reads this creatively to suggest that we didn't have skins at all until we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- before we ate from that tree we were garbed in pure light. At havdalah, when we hold up our hands to the flame, we see glimmers of light reflected in our fingernails -- maybe a reminder of the light in which we were once clothed, or maybe a reminder of the light in which we will be clothed in the world to come, since there's also a teaching from the Zohar that in the world to come we will wear garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life. (I've written about these ideas before.)

So: Torah is talking about a physical affliction in one's skin, but the Sfat Emet is (mis)reading it as being about an affliction which keeps one's light from shining.

I've been thinking a lot lately about skin as what covers us and keeps us safe from the world. Have you ever had times in your life when you've felt especially "thin-skinned," especially vulnerable to harsh words or difficult realities? Sometimes I've come away from a week on retreat feeling that the week of prayer and study and community and safety has made my skin feel too thin for the "regular" world. Often by the time I get through the intensive spiritual work of the Days of Awe, my skin feels thin and my heart feels close to the surface, even exposed. 

Skin keeps us safe. But -- at least according to the Sfat Emet -- it shouldn't keep us from shining. You might remember that when Moshe came down from Sinai his face glowed, maybe because his inner light was able to shine through his phyical skin. It's as though his skin became transparent and everyone was able to see his true light. And it's worth remembering that his light was too much for the people, so he had to veil to protect them from the radiance he acquired as a result of his experience of God. Sometimes people don't want to see radiance. Maybe it scares them, or reminds them of how their own light has been kept from shining.

For the Sfat Emet, tzara'at represents a closing or clogging of our pores, which results in our light not being able to shine through. (It's noteworthy that the root of the word tzara'at suggests narrowness and constriction.) Tzara'at is a metaphor for what happens when we sin, when we miss the mark: we become clogged or closed-off and our light can't shine.

What kinds of things -- experiences, relationships, encounters -- make you radiant?

Can you feel it when your inner light is shining through? What does that feel like to you?

What gets in the way of your inner light shining? 

When something is blocking the flow of that inner light, how do you cleanse yourself -- what can you do in any or all of the four worlds of body, emotion, thought, and spirit -- so that your light can shine again?

 

This is a teaching I gave over yesterday morning during Torah study at the P'nai Tikvah Shabbaton in Las Vegas where I was privileged to be scholar-in-residence for the weekend. Deep thanks to Rabbi Yocheved Mintz and the P'nai Tikvah community for inviting me.

(Image source.)

 


The obstacle is the door

Another-doorI can't remember where I first heard the teaching from the Baal Shem Tov about lifting up the sparks of strange thoughts. Here's how that teaching goes:

It's human nature for one's mind to wander, even at times of contemplation or prayer. This is just what it's like to have a human brain. And then it's easy to imagine that one should castigate oneself for those thoughts which are getting in the way of connecting with God.

Not so, said the Baal Shem Tov. When those thoughts arise, our task isn't to banish them or to kick ourselves for having them, but to lift them up. Even an "unholy" thing has a pure spark of divinity within; find that spark and elevate it. (The binarism of holy / unholy may feel foreign or old-fashioned; just roll with it, because I think the teaching transcends the binarism.)

For instance, if one is distracted during prayer by the thought of a beautiful woman (of course he was speaking to men in a heteronormative context -- translate as needed into your own appropriate milieu), one shouldn't knock oneself for being distracted by that beauty. The thing to do instead is to lift up those sparks to God by thanking God for the God-given beauty which distracted you -- to find a way to make the distraction itself a path toward the One.

It's human nature to be constantly getting caught up in remembering the past (whether bitter or sweet), in anticipating the future (whether bitter or sweet), in telling oneself stories, in daydreaming about one's fears and one's hopes and one's desires. My meditation practice has revealed to me the constant chatter my monkey mind provides on all of those fronts. All of those can arise while I'm falling asleep, or driving the car, or washing dishes... and all of those can happen while I'm attempting to sit in meditation or to daven, too. 

It's easy to kick myself for that; to think that if I really had good focus I would be able to keep that stuff out of my mind while in meditation or prayer. But the Baal Shem Tov teaches that there is holiness -- there is God -- even in those recurring thoughts which seem to get in the way of prayer. Indeed: the machshevot zarot ("strange" or "foreign" thoughts) which get in the way of prayer are themselves a doorway into deeper prayer. They offer me an opportunity to make prayer out of my very distractions.

The obstacle itself becomes the door. This is a classic Hasidic move. Instead of feeling that gashmiut (physicality) is something which keeps us from God, we can use our very embodiment to drive our service to the One. Instead of seeing our mis-steps (or "sins") as things which distance us from God, we can see them as the first step toward making teshuvah, turning toward God again -- because when we fall away from God, we stimulate our own yearning to rise and reconnect. (Tanya / Likkutei Amarim, ch. 7)

The obstacle itself becomes the door.  Or, phrased another way (as I learned it from my teacher Jason Shinder of blessed memory), whatever gets in the way of the work is the work. (He was talking about poetry, but -- as I've said here many times before -- I find it a valuable teaching about spiritual life, too.) The hope or fear or yearning which gets in the way of my prayer can become the substrate of my prayer. The desires, anxieties, and thoughts which might appear to disconnect me from God become my way to connect.

 


Not to make oneself afraid

20524443011_6e82e3b421_zDo you know the song "כל העולם כולו / Kol Ha'Olam Kulo"? It's a setting (by Baruch Chait) of a quote from the Hasidic master known as Reb Nachman of Breslov. Here are the words as I learned them many years ago:  כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד / והעקר לא לפחד כלל, usually translated as "All the world is a very narrow bridge / the important thing is not to be afraid." (If you don't know the song, you can click over to my 2008 post about it.) 

I've just discovered that I've been singing it wrong all these years -- and while I like the song the way I learned it, the correct lyric is much more powerful for me.

I learned the lyric as לא לפחד כלל - "[the important thing is] not to fear at all." But it turns out that the original song lyric is different. In place of לפחד (to fear) it says להתפחד, which is a reflexive verb; it means something like to make oneself afraid, to "fear-ify" oneself. The important thing is not to make oneself afraid, not to live in a constant state of fear, not to act and think and make choices from a place of fear.

That works for me so much better than the injunction not to be afraid. "The important thing is not to fear at all" -- it has a nice ring to it, but who among us can live by that motto all the time? Sometimes fear is the only reasonable response to the situation in which one finds oneself. Sometimes fear is necessary. Sometimes fear is inevitable. And pretending that one isn't afraid -- trying to pretend any emotion away, no matter what it might be! -- is not spiritually healthy.

But "The important thing is not to make oneself afraid," or "not to live from a place of fear" -- that speaks to me. Reb Nachman isn't teaching that I should hide my fear from myself, or pretend I never fear, or berate myself when I do feel fear. What's important is that I not allow the fear to rule me. What's important is that I not allow my fears to limit me, to dictate the contours of my hopes, or my dreams, or my choices. 

There will be times in every life when the world feels like a narrow bridge over a deep chasm, a fragile and uncertain pathway with risk on every side. In those times, we're called not to eschew fear but to inhabit it... and to remember that if we don't let our fears rule us, we will be able to cross over to the other side.

 


Ladder (a tiny Hasidic teaching on this week's Torah portion)

Secrets-climbing-career-ladderIn this week's Torah portion, Jacob goes forth from Beersheva. He lies down with his head on the stones of a particular place, and he dreams of a ladder planted in earth with its head in the heavens and angels flowing up and down.

(When he wakes, he says "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" That's one of my favorite verses of Torah. I love that sense of wonder.)

The Degel Machaneh Efraim -- grandson of the Baal Shem Tov -- teaches that this is a passage about expansive mind and contracted consciousness. The angels moving up and down the ladder are a representation of the natural ebb and flow of our lives as we move from big mind to small mind, from a God's-eye view of the world to a limited human view and back again.

The thing is, our ascent and our descent are inevitably interconnected. Ascent leads to descent which leads to ascent again. When a tzaddik, a righteous person, falls from a high level (perhaps through losing sight of the big picture and getting mired in "small mind"), the experience of having-fallen gives rise to yearning which pulls him back up. Our low places spur us to climb.

I love this teaching about gadlut (expansive consciousness) and katnut (contracted consciousness) -- that they are interrelated; that falling is precisely the first step in rising again. And I love the idea that it's our distance from God, or our distance from expansive consciousness, which makes us yearn to erase that distance and be our best selves once again.


Seeking out the goodness: a teaching from Reb Nachman

You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it's your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

That's the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, as translated by Rabbi Art Green. It's one of my favorite teachings from Reb Nachman. My friend and colleague Maggid David Arfa brought it to the first meeting of my congregation's Hebrew school faculty this year, and he began the meeting by reading it to us. It's a text I've encountered many times before, and every time it speaks to me anew.

Honestly, even just the first sentence  -- dayenu, that could be enough for me to meditate on for a while. "You have to judge every person generously." That's a profound spiritual practice. It's easy to see my beloveds through generous eyes -- but someone who has upset me? Someone who has hurt me? Someone who did or said something I find reprehensible -- can I judge that one generously, too?

This is why the Psalmist said, "Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." (Psalms 37:10.) He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they're sinful as can be. By looking for that "little bit," the place however small within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) and by telling them, showing them, that that's who they are we can help them change their lives.

The spiritual practice is looking for that "little bit," the nitzotz Elohut (spark of godliness), in each human being. Every person has such a spark within them, and if I make a practice of trying to see people through generous eyes instead of through skeptical or mistrustful eyes, my very seeing of them will be transformative for them, and they will live out their best selves instead of their worst selves.

That's a powerful theological statement about the power of being truly seen. Imagine if everyone who looked at me saw in me the very best things I have done. Imagine if, looking at me, what you saw was me at my most compassionate, my most kind, my most caring. You wouldn't be able to  impute ill will to me, because you would see my best self... and as a result, my best self would continue to manifest.

Even the person you think (and he agrees!) is completely rotten -- how is it possible that at some point in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is to look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way. Then indeed you will "look at his place" and find that the wicked one is no longer there -- not because she has died or disappeared -- but because, with your help, she will no longer be where you first saw her. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed teshuvah to take its course.

Even someone I think is completely beyond the pale. Even someone who has hurt me profoundly. Even someone who doesn't see the goodness in her or his own self! My task is to seek to see the goodness in that person, and in so doing, to erase my sense of their wickedness or their hurtfulness. My task is to see them anew, because when I see them anew, they become the way I newly see them.

It's a leap of faith. There's a defensive part of me which wants to say, "wait a minute -- how does that work -- surely it can't be true that if I just try to see someone through good eyes, they become their best selves in response to my seeing!" But I think that very defensiveness is a sign that Reb Nachman is on to something. And his wisdom here requires us to take on some substantial spiritual work.

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them -- now go do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: "Take great care: be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression." I've said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. "No goodness at all," you find. "Just full of sin." Watch out for Old Man Gloom, my friend, the one who wants to push you down. This is one of his best tricks. That's why I said: "Now go do it for yourself as well." You too must have done some good for someone sometime. Now go look for it!

I love the turn he takes at the end of this teaching. "Now that you've found some good even in a person who is difficult for you, don't forget to turn those same positive eyes on yourself!" It's a useful thing to read before Yom Kippur, at this time of teshuvah, of taking an accounting of which relationships need repair. It's easy to look at what's broken or damaged and blame myself for what needs re-aligning.

But Reb Nachman says: ah-ah, not so fast. I too merit the same generous eye with which he teaches me to seek to view others. The work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, of taking an accounting of the soul, isn't meant to make us feel bad about ourselves. (And neither is Yom Kippur, for the record.) It's meant to help us illuminate our innate goodness, so that we can enter into teshuvah with rejoicing.

 

 

I blogged about this same text in 2006.

 


God, too, is lonely: a d'var Torah for Behar-Bechukotai

Lonely-loneliness-21529870-329-328Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week's Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, teaches that every seventh year we must give the land a rest. Every seventh day we get Shabbat, a time to rest and be renewed; every seventh year the earth deserves the same thing.

This is called the shmita year -- in English, "Sabbatical." And this year right now -- 5775 -- is a shmita year, which means that all over the world people have been talking and thinking and praying about how we can best care for our earth.

This week's portion also teaches us about the yovel, or Jubilee. After seven sevens of years, we reach the 50th year, a Jubilee year, during which all debts are canceled and all property is returned to its original owner. Or, I should say, its original Owner-with-a-capital-O, because one of the themes of this Torah portion is that the earth belongs to God and we are merely resident on it. As God says in this week's portion, גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי –– "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me."

This is a familiar category. Torah frequently speaks in terms of Israelites, outsiders, and the גר תושב (ger toshav), or resident alien -- someone who is not originally of our community but is resident with us and among us. It's a lovely inversion of the norm to say that even we "insiders" in the community are ultimately resident strangers, because when it comes to the planet, the planet belongs to God and we're merely borrowing space on it for the short spans of our lives.

Earlier this week I studied a beautiful Hasidic teaching about the verse "Y'all are resident-strangers with Me." Usually we understand it to mean what I just said -- that we are גרים ותושבים, resident strangers, on the earth which belongs to God. But the Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim offers a poignant alternative reading.

He cites a verse from psalms: "I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your mitzvot from me." (Psalm 119:19) Someone who is a stranger, he points out, has no one close to them with whom they can connect and tell the happenings of their day. A גר תושב / ger toshav is inevitably lonely. When such a person does find a friend, he writes, then they can joyously pour out everything which has been in their heart.

Here's where he makes a radical move. He says that the Holy One of Blessing is a lonely stranger in this world, because there is no one with whom God can connect wholly.

Let me say that again. God is a גר תושב / ger toshav.

God is a resident alien, a lonely stranger, existentially alone. This insight really moved me. I know that we all have times of feeling alone, and the insight that God too feels this way -- that our loneliness is a reflection of the Divine loneliness -- changes how I relate to those feelings of loneliness.

The Degel finds a hint of this in the psalm he cited. "I am a stranger in the land," said the psalmist -- as if to say, 'God, like You I am a stranger in this world, so don't hide Your connective-commandments from me!' The psalmist is saying: God, like You I am essentially alone. I yearn for Your mitzvot, Your connective-commandments, to alleviate my loneliness. And God yearns for us in return.

God is the lonely stranger, all alone in the world. We are the friend God finds, and when God finds us, God can pour out all of what is on God's heart -- in the form of Torah and mitzvot, our stories and our opportunities for connection with God.

"Y'all are resident-strangers with Me" can mean: y'all are strangers just as I, God, am a stranger. Y'all feel loneliness just as I, God, feel loneliness. And because we are together with God in this condition of loneliness and yearning for connection, we are never truly alone.

 

My thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman who studied this text from the Degel with me.

 


Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen in Zeek magazine

I am thoroughly delighted that Zeek just published my Q and A with Shulem Deen, the man who used to blog as Hasidic Rebel -- now author of All Who Go Do Not Return, new this week from Greywolf Press.

You can find my interview at Zeek:  Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen. It's long, but I think it's worth reading; I hope you'll agree. You can read the beginning here, and I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing at Zeek. Deep thanks to Zeek for giving me the opportunity to connect with Shulem, and to Shulem for a terrific conversation -- hopefully the first of many over years to come.

 

Zeektagline

 

When I began blogging as Velveteen Rabbi in 2003, I spent a lot of time building my blogroll — the list of links to other bloggers with whom I felt some kinship or whose work I felt was interesting and worth reading. One of the first blogs I started reading, back in those early days of the Jewish blogosphere, was Hasidic Rebel — written by a Hasid who sought an outlet for opinions and ideas that would have been considered heretical in his community. His blog, named for his persistent pseudonym, was also thoughtful, witty, and insightful — some of the best writing in the J-blogosphere.

In 2010 Hasidic Rebel came out and acknowledged his name. I remember feeling happy for him that he felt able to publish online under his “real name.” But I had little idea at the time what he’d gone through in order to get there — or what kind of struggles still lay ahead.

This week, Graywolf Press is releasing All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, the man once known as Hasidic Rebel who went on to become the founder/editor of the website Unpious: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe.

All Who Go Do Not Return is an extraordinary memoir. The writing is beautiful. The journey it chronicles is poignant, relatable — and also unlike anything most readers will ever have experienced. As a young man, Shulem Deen chose to join the Skverers, one of the world’s most intense and insular Hasidic communities. He married, and became a father to five beloved children. And then his natural inclination to learn and to question drove a wedge between him and the Skverer world.

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured his words here in ZEEK — don’t miss his 2013 essay Why I Am Not Modern Orthodox. But it’s the first time we’ve interviewed him. I’m humbled by his bravery and his openness.

His voice is an important one in our generation.

— Rachel Barenblat

 

ZEEK: Many of the people reading this piece won’t know about your background (and may not know of New Square). So for their sakes: tell us, in brief, about where you come from?

Deen-shulem-pearl-gabel-55104dedI was raised within New York’s broader, ultra-Hasidic (i.e. non-Chabad) community, which is composed of many sects, some stricter than others but all more or less of the same cloth: Yiddish-speaking, shtreimel-wearing, rebbe-centered, with strong emphasis on Hasidic custom and practice, and a near-fanatical insistence on remaining separate and apart from the outside world — geographically, intellectually, and culturally.

My childhood was mostly spent among the Satmars, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a young teenager, however, I grew close to the Skverers and found that it suited me more. I eventually went to study at the Skverer yeshiva in New Square, where I later married and lived for a dozen years with my wife and five children.

ZEEK: What was sweet, for a time, about life as part of the Skverer community?

The Skverers are more provincial than most other sects, due to the relative isolation of the New Square shtetl, so there is a degree of old-world simplicity that really appealed to me as a 13 year old. As a community, the Skverers are warm, hospitable, openhearted, and, on the whole, appear to be less preoccupied with materialism than some of the more “urbane” Hasidic groups. (Key words: “appear to be” — as appearances can be deceiving.) The shtetl is in fact a real shtetl (albeit American and suburban), and when I first encountered it back in the late ’80s, it had all the charms of a storybook setting...

 

Continue reading at Zeek: Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen.


Terumah: the Torah of 40

Here's the d'var Torah I had intended to offer yesterday at my shul. As it turned out, I touched on a few of these ideas and then went in a different direction, as we were davening at the local nursing home, but I hope you'll read the prepared text anyway.


God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me gifts...from every person whose heart is so moved.

 

This week's Torah portion, Terumah, begins with this instruction to bring gifts for use in the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary intended to be a dwelling-place for God. Terumah, the name of the Torah portion, is usually translated as "gifts."

Earlier this week I studied a Hasidic text written by the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov. In his book the Degel Machaneh Efraim, he offered a fascinating interpretation of the word terumah.

Terumah, he said, can mean more than simply gifts. The word terumah can be deconstructed, the letters rearranged, into תורה מ / "Torah Mem" -- the Torah of forty. (Remember, Hebrew letters double as numbers.)

מWhat is the Torah of forty?

Torah was revealed atop Sinai over 40 days, he writes -- just as a human being, in ancient rabbinic thought, achieved its form in the womb over a period of 40 days. He's drawing on a longstanding rabbinic interpretation which connects the number 40 with the time it takes for something to go from beginning to fruition. The rabbis also taught that 40 are the days between planting and harvest, and 40 are the weeks between conception and birth.

So Torah comes to us through 40 (days), and a human being comes to us through 40 (either days or weeks.) What happens if we re-read the opening lines of this week's Torah portion through this lens?

God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me the Torah of completeness and fruition; the Torah of every human being.

Human beings and Torah both require 40 units of time to emerge into this world. Ergo, each person is a Torah! This is a radical teaching, because in Hasidic thought the Torah is the most valuable thing imaginable -- it's a direct transmission of God's essence.

Later in this week's Torah portion we read:

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.

What can it mean to say that God dwells within us? The Degel teaches that that we bring God into ourselves when we study Torah, because Torah is one long and complex Name of God.

"God and Torah are one," says the Zohar -- so if we study Torah, and bring Torah into ourselves, then we are also bringing God into our hearts. The Zohar also teaches that God, Torah, and Israel are one, which is to say: we, and God, and God's Name as expressed in Torah, are all part of the same unity. In the language of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, we and Torah and God "inter-are."

The gifts we're called to bring before God are gifts of ourselves; gifts of our own completeness; gifts of new creation which only we can bring. The root of the word terumah is רם, which connotes raising something high. When we understand that we, and God, and Torah "inter-are," then we can bring our most unique personal gifts, and in so doing be elevated to the highest of spiritual planes. May it be so!

 

 

My infinite thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman for translating this text with me, and especially to R' David for helping me tease out its deeper spiritual implications. 

If the idea of "inter-being" is new to you, read this tiny excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh -- from his book The Heart of Understanding, which R' David and I also studied together some 25 years ago!


Go into the word and reveal the light: a different reading of Noah

Last week we read parashat Noach -- the Torah portion which tells the story of Noah, the flood, the ark, and the rainbow. One of my favorite teachings about this story turns it into something else entirely. It hinges on the Hebrew word teva, "ark," which can also be understood to mean "word."

When God tells Noah to enter the ark -- so teaches the Baal Shem Tov -- God is also saying, "Enter the word." Go deeply into the word. Which word? The words of prayer. God's instruction to Noah is also an instruction to all of us. We're meant to go deeply into the words of prayer.

Some interpretations continue: just as the ark had three floors or levels, our use of words has different levels: mundane or ordinary speech on the bottom floor, conscious speech on middle floor, and holy speech on the top floor. (I'm not sure this refinement originates with the Baal Shem, but it's lovely.)

The instructions in Torah continue: Noah should make a tzohar, a window, in the ark to let in light. We need to make spaces for light in our words, to ensure that every word we speak is one which brings light to the world. In everything we do, we need to make sure that divinity can shine in.

The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudlikov (usually known by the title of his best-known book, the Degel Machaneh Efraim), writes -- in one of his short commentaries on Noah and the ark --  that there is always light hidden in the darkness.

Sometimes, the Degel notes, light seems to be covered-over and we can't access it at all. At those times, it's our job to open up the covering and reveal the light. Because light can be found even in the darkness. Maybe especially in the darkness, because darkness is what makes us seek.

 


Two historic synagogues in Tzfat

After a wonderful morning of davening the morning service with my family and celebrating my nephew as he became bar mitzvah, and a delicious lunch at the Bar-El guesthouse, our guide Kobi took us to visit two historic synagogues before setting us loose to wander the streets of the artists' quarter.

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At the Karo synagogue: lights, and corner genizah; Sefardic-style Torah case.

The first is the synagogue named after Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, "The Set Table," a compendium of halakha first printed in 1565 which is considered authoritative in many quarters even today. Rabbi Karo was born in Spain in 1488, though emigrated as a child to Portugal when the Inquisition began. After the Jews were driven out of Portugal, he made his way to in Tzfat, where he was chief rabbi for 35 years.

The synagogue we visited bears his name, though it is not precisely the one where he davened. That one was destroyed in the earthquake of 1759. It was rebuilt, and then a second earthquake in 1837 took the second version down, too! But both times, the wall containing the aron, the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, remained intact. Some saw that as a miracle. Others, our guide noted, attributed it to the fact that the wall containing the ark was double-thick.

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At the Ari Ashkenazi synagogue: stained glass window; aron / ark, with wooden carvings.

From there it is a very short walk, only a few scant blocks, to the Ari synagogue, named after Rabbi Isaac Luria who is known as the Ari. That synagogue was built in the late 16th century, and may be the oldest synagogue in Israel to have been continuously in use. The Ari is the one of the original guiding lights of what we know today as kabbalah.

It was the Ari who took his disciples each Friday evening into a nearby field to greet the Sabbath bride -- the custom which has evolved into the service we know today as kabbalat Shabbat, "receiving" or "welcoming Shabat." (If you see a similarity between kabbalat and kabbalah, that's because kabbalah literally means "that which is received" -- wisdom which comes to us from beyond.)

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Ceiling at the synagogue of the Ari.

When I think of the Ari, I think of kabbalah. The idea that when God's initial light streamed into creation it was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels of creation shattered, leaving sparks of divinity scattered everywhere, and it's our job to perform mitzvot mindfully and thereby uplift those sparks back to God...? That's Lurianic; that's what tikkun olam means.

When I think of Rabbi Joseph Karo, I think of halakha, because the Shulchan Aruch has been so foundational. It's easy for me to forget that he too was a mystic. It is said that he was visited by an angelic being who taught him secret mysteries of Torah.

I can't say that I had a mystical experience in either synagogue; perhaps the general tourist experience isn't conducive to that. Still, they are truly beautiful prayer places, and I am glad to have visited them again.


What it means to become "perfumed" at Purim

Tree-of-life-jaison-cianelliPurim is almost upon us! The full moon falls this weekend, and Purim begins on Saturday evening at sundown. In honor of the coming holiday, here's an adaptation of a teaching from the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. (You can read it at greater length in this post from 2009.)

 

1. Above good and evil

We read in the Gemara that it is the duty of a person to mellow (or "perfume") oneself on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai'." This means raising one's consciousness until one is higher than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- in other words, expanding one's consciousness so much that the binary distinctions between good and evil fall away.

We read in the megillah of Esther about Haman's gallows, which is called "a tall tree of 50 cubits." (So there are two trees here: the tree of knowledge of binarism, and the tree which is the gallows.) There's an ancient teaching that there are 49 "gates" (or levels) of impurity, and the 50th level is the level of holiness. (There's that number 50 again -- like how Shavuot is the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer.)

If we can ascend past the 49 levels of impurity, we reach the 50th level where everything is holy. If we can reach that high level, we've gone higher than the tree of knowledge of good and evil; we've reached God's vantage, from which everything is good. "Perfuming" ourselves on Purim means opening our minds and ascending to that high God's-eye-view place.

2. Defeating Amalek

Amalek is the name given to the tribe which attacked the Israelites from behind during the Exodus from Egypt. Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, is considered to be a descendant of Amalek. Amalek and his ilk exist on every level of spiritual understanding except the top one, which is the level of holiness. (Maybe the Sfat Emet is saying that Amalek exists in some form in all of us, except for those who are at the very holiest level of spiritual understanding.)

Amalek pursues evil on those lower 49 levels, but at the 50th level, Amalek's power disappears. When Amalek attacked our ancestors, Moses lifted up his hands to God, and as long as his hands were upheld, the Israelites were able to rout the enemy. Moses reached up to God and Torah, and Amalek was defeated. God and Torah are what we find at that 50th gate or rung of spiritual understanding. So: ascending to that high level of spiritual consciousness also enables us to live without fear of our enemies, because at that high level, enmity can't harm us.

3. Accepting the Torah on Purim

There's even a teaching that our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, accepted the Torah on Purim.

What? you ask. Isn't Shavuot the anniversary of when we accepted the Torah? Well, yes. But there's also a midrash which says that we accepted the Torah at Shavuot under duress -- that God held the mountain over us like an inverted barrel, and we accepted Torah rather than perish. But another sage says, "Even if that is so, they re-accepted the Torah in the days of Achashverosh," pointing to a line from Esther which said that we "received it upon ourselves" -- he says that what we received, at Purim, was the highest form of Torah.

And when we approach Purim now with the appropriate consciousness -- awareness that at the highest levels there are no differences between good and bad, between Haman and Mordechai, between "my side" and "your side" -- we can access the highest Torah once again.

That's what it really means to become "perfumed" or "mellowed" -- not to get so drunk we forget who the good guys and bad guys are, but to become so enlightened that we see the unity beyond all differences. When we access that kind of perfume, we're breathing the scents of spices which filled the world at the time of the revelation at Sinai -- maybe even the spices which filled the world at the first moments of creation.

Happy Purim!

Image source: Jaison Cianelli.


Leah Vincent's Cut Me Loose

Cutmeloose_finalI can't remember how I first heard about Leah Vincent's memoir Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After my Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. I suspect I read an excerpt, probably at Unpious.com, and on the strength of that excerpt pre-ordered the Kindle edition long before publication. (Unpious is the magazine edited by Shulem Deen -- the blogger formerly known as Hasidic Rebel -- which specializes in "voices generally suppressed" in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox publications. It's worth checking out if you don't know it already.) One way or another, the memoir materialized on my Kindle, so I read it. And holy wow, is this one powerful, painful, and ultimately redemptive story.

Many years ago I reviewed the anonymous YA novel Hush by Eshes Chayil, which told a story of sexual abuse in a Hasidic community. There are ways in which Vincent's memoir reminds me of Hush -- the trajectory from loving and comfortable religious community to ostracism; the unflinching descriptions both of what can be sweet about growing up in a deeply religious community, and also of what can be almost unthinkably bitter. Of course, Hush is fiction while Cut Me Loose is memoir. (Also one is set in a Hasidische community and the other in a Yeshivish community -- though I suspect that distinction won't make much difference to a lot of readers; the two versions of deep Orthodoxy will seem equally foreign.)

Maybe because I came to the book only having read one excerpt, without having read the back jacket copy or any reviews, the book took me frequently by surprise. A trajectory from ultra-Orthodoxy, to going "off the derech," to some kind of new life in the non-ultra-religious world -- that, I expected. But I didn't expect the many mini-journeys along the way: to Britain, to Israel, the rastafarian "boyfriend," the cutting and suicide attempt, each turn off of the prescribed path darker and more painful. Vincent writes about all of this with powerful clarity, and I followed her emotionally into every place her journey went.

This is a tough book to read for me as a passionate liberal religious Jew, especially as a Jewish Renewal rabbi who claims connection through Reb Zalman with Hasidic lineage. I can see in this book some of the things I envy about committed religious community -- families automatically living according to our tradition's rhythms, from choosing a perfect etrog at Sukkot to dancing at Chanukah to turning the house upside-down cleaning for Pesach, experiencing every Shabbat as a time apart from time. But I also see here the things which are most upsetting about insular religious community: control, a rigidity which has no room for personal deviation, and a system which relies upon keeping young women thoroughly uninformed about the outside world (in the name of keeping them "pure") which, when it backfires, can be life-destroying.

It's easy to imagine the ways in which the grass is greener on the other side of that fence -- to fantasize that in a community where everyone cares about Judaism and God as much as I do, it must be easy to keep the rhythms of Jewish life; to live in constant devekut / union with God; to aspire to serve God with joy in all things. This book reminds me that there is a terrible shadow side to that kind of insularity, and that those who deviate from the community's norms -- especially women -- pay an unthinkable cost.

Looking at the book with my Bennington MFA hat on, I relate to it as a gripping memoir. Vincent is a skillful writer with a keen eye for the details which will make a scene pop right off the page. That old writerly adage of "show, don't tell" --? She does that, in spades. Several times, reading this, I thought back on Bennington conversations and panel discussions about memoir, memory, and the complicated ethics of telling one's own story when that story inevitably involves other people who may not wish for it to be told, or for it to be told in the way that feels true to the person writing the memoir.

Looking at the book with my rabbi hat on, I relate to it as though it were a congregant's story, and that makes my heart ache. This book isn't a polemic against ultra-Orthodoxy or against religion. It's just Vincent's own story, and the story speaks for itself. I'm thankful that in the end there is redemption, as well as a community of former compatriots (see Footsteps) who understand both where Vincent is coming from and where she's choosing to be. Still, I come away from the book aswirl with emotions. Wonder, anger, admiration, grief, and above all gratitude that we, her readers, are privileged now to bear witness to the story she so deftly tells.

There's a part of me that wishes I could offer pastoral care to the author of this book. I wish I could sit down with her over coffee or a glass of wine and offer her the listening ear and the loving response which her religious community didn't give. I can't help clinging to the hope that Vincent's sense of herself as a spiritual being, and her connection with God, wasn't thoroughly shattered by the ordeal of her upbringing and its aftermath. That's my own bias as a reader, and I own that. Part of what makes me angriest about Vincent's description of her upbringing is just how badly this religious community mis-served her -- how a family and a spiritual community which should have been a source of nurturing and support became a fountain of rejection, neglect, and emotional abuse.

The author's twitter handle, @EhyehLeah, hints both at God (Who, you may recall, named Herself/Himself/Hirself to Moshe as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am Becoming Who I Am Becoming") and at the author's own becoming. Maybe that's the best blessing I can offer: celebration of her process of becoming as it unfolds in these pages. May the Source of All Being bring comfort and companionship, self-determination and meaning, joy and gladness in the life she has chosen. And may there be many more books from this strong new literary voice. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so!

 

There's an excerpt from the book at JTA: The first step out of an ultra-Orthodox world.