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.

 

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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.


Moses, love, and light (a d'var Torah for Shemot)

Big-bang-theory-3172Here's the d'var Torah for parashat Shemot which I offered at my shul yesteray morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Talmud teaches (Sotah 12a) that when Moses was born, the house was filled with light. In this week's Torah portion we read that Moses' mother saw that he was good, and in Genesis 1 we read that God saw that the light was good. The same phrase is used to describe both Moses and that primordial light.

Remember that at the beginning of the Torah, God says let there be light, and there is light, and God sees that it is good -- and only some days later does God create sun, moon, and stars.

The light of the first day of creation is not literal light. It is the light of wisdom and insight. The light of love. Today we sang "For with You is the source of light" -- not talking about the sun and moon, but about that primordial light.

In the kabbalistic understanding, that primordial light shines from ein-sof, "without-end," the most infinite, transcendent, ungraspable aspect of God. Using the scientific paradigm, we might call it the light of the Big Bang, still emanating into our expanding universe. Or using Hasidic language, we could call it the light of God's yearning for us.

I love the teaching that God birthed the universe in order to be in relationship. Before there was creation, there was only God; but that was lonely. So God pulled back to make space for something which was not-God, and in that space, creation came into being.

In today's parsha we read about Yocheved birthing Moses. When we bring children into our lives, we too have to pull back to make space for something which is not us. We make room for relationship. It takes intention and awareness to respond to our children as Yocheved did -- to recognize and nurture the light in them.

If you've ever practiced yoga, you may have heard the greeting "namaste," which means "the light in me greets the light in you." The light in me greets the light in you. Maybe that's a glimpse of the first light that God called good, shining within each of us.

Yocheved, mother of Moses, hides him for as long as she can. When she can no longer keep his light under a bushel, she places him in a wicker basket and sets it afloat on the Nile -- the very river in which Pharaoh had commanded that all Hebrew boy-children be drowned.

But instead of the waters of drowning, these are waters of redemption. As his sister Miriam the prophet watches from afar, the daughter of Pharaoh finds him there. Immediately Miriam rushes to her side and offers to hire a Hebrew wet-nurse...which means that Yocheved is able to continue nursing her own child.

For our sages, the love of a mother for her child was symbolized by the act of nursing. And our love is a reflection of God's love, which is also likened to nursing! More than the calf wants to suckle, says the Talmud, the cow yearns to give milk. More than we desire God's blessing, God yearns to bestow blessing upon us. God yearns to bestow love. God yearns to bestow light.

Much later in our story, when Moses comes down from Sinai, Torah teaches that he had to veil himself because he was shining with divine light. His encounter with God was so profound that he came away glowing. Have you ever had an experience of such profound wonder and joy that you came away glowing? That's primordial light, shining through you.

On this Shabbat, may our eyes be opened to see the light in each other. And may our hearts be opened to receive the flow of love and light which God yearns to bestow.

 

Image: an artist's rendering of the Big Bang, from here.


Three tiny teachings on Chanukah's light

Light_shining1The Bnei Yissaschar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov) teaches: On Chanukah, we are given part of the or ha-ganuz, the primordial light which has been hidden-away since the moment of Creation and which is preserved for the righteous in the world to come. (This is the light of the first day of creation, before the sun and moon and stars were created; not literal light, but a kind of spiritual or metaphysical light, the light of expanded consciousness.) With this light, you could see from one end of the earth to the other. And with this light, we kindle other holy lights -- the souls within each of us.

(From his teachings on the month of Kislev; the final insight comes from Michael Strassfeld's commentary in The Jewish Holidays.)

 The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) teaches: "The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the spring we search our homes for leaven with a candle. (That's the ritual of bedikat chametz, hiding some leaven around the house and then "discovering" it with a candle, to ceremonially burn it before the holday begins.) At this season, we search our innermost selves for the spark of God which illuminates us (as the Chanukah candles illuminate what's around us.)

The mishkan, the dwelling-place-for-God (e.g. the holy Temple, the one whose rededication we celebrate at this season even though it's been destroyed now for almost two thousand years) -- that holy dwelling-place is within each of us, as we read in Torah, "they shall build for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them." (In other words: we built the sanctuary not so that God could live in it, but so that through the process of the building we might open our hearts for God to dwell in us.)

The Temple no longer exists; in our era the mishkan is  hidden -- but we can still find it by searching for it, which we do with the (metaphorical) candles of the mitzvot. We search for God's presence by "lighting the candles" of doing mitzvot. Doing mitzvot with all of our hearts, our souls, our life-force, is a way of searching for God's presence in the world.  Through doing mitzvot with intention and awareness, we are able to find the point within us which is the hidden mishkan, the dwelling place for God.

(Here's a longer exploration of this teaching: Sfat Emet on light and Chanukah, 2010.)

 The Sfat Emet also teaches: The miracle of Chanukah was one of light. This light allows us to find the hidden illumination / enlightenment which is in darkness and in our alienation.

* * *

As we kindle the Chanukah lights tonight for the last time this year, may we experience their light as a glimpse of that primordial light from the first moment of creation; may we find our souls kindled through the act of doing this mitzvah, and may we recognize ourselves as dwelling-places for God's presence; and may our lights connect us with the hidden illumination which can be found in even our darkest emotional and spiritual places.

 

 

 

 


The nighttime wrestle - a pearl of Torah for Vayishlach

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a stranger all night until dawn and receives a new name as a blessing. I'll say more about that in the d'var Torah I'm offering on Shabbat at my shul (which will be posted here on Sunday, as usual.) Today I'm sharing a tiny teaching adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.

In the line "a man strived with him until dawn," the Degel sees a reference to how each of us will struggle in life -- with our impulses and inclinations. Each person has two impulses or inclinations, the yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and the yetzer ha-ra(bad inclination.) We enter the world, he says, as holy souls, and the evil inclination has no sway over us. But this inevitably changes as we grow up and move into the working world, and we come to imagine that there are things we "have to do" to make a living. He lists lying or cheating others; I suspect each of us can think of times when we've justified choices about which we secretly don't feel so great.

Each of us will experience struggle with our own yetzer ha-ra -- and the struggle may be fiercest, somehow, during the black of night. All of our troubles, fears, and anxieties feel worse during the night. (Anyone who has struggled with insomnia knows this all too well.) But when the dawn comes, he says, our struggles are illuminated and we can recognize things for what they are.

A blessing for all of us: during these last days of parashat Vayishlach, may we be gifted with light which illuminates our troubles and our mistakes so that we can see them clearly and can emerge unafraid.

Shabbat shalom!


Duality within: on Toldot

The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself, if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.

And God said to her: two nations are inside you; / two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb. / One shall prevail over the other; the elder, serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22-24)

DualityOn the surface this appears to be a text about Rebecca and the twins battling in her womb. But the Torah is also a map for our own spiritual development, which means that this is also a text about each of us.

Our sages teach that each person has two inclinations or urges: the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination.) This is inherent in our nature as human beings.

[Remember that, for our sages, the yetzer hara is an integral part of creation. In midrash we read that when the sages imprisoned the yetzer hara in a cage for three days, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Which is to say: without the yetzer hara, there's no generative impulse.]

But the yetzer hara can also lead us in bad directions. Sometimes when we pause to do the work of discernment, we discover that we're not acting out of a place that's elevated or useful; instead we're acting out of selfishness or fear or anger. One who makes such a discovery about themselves might offer the same existential cry that Rebecca did: "if this is so, then why am I here?" Why am I even alive in this world, if I'm not living out the best self I can be? What's the point?

But we can engage in practices which strengthen our yetzer hatov, our good inclination. We can be mindful and attentive to that within us which is driven by our bad impulse, and with our attention and energy can transform the bad into good. As it says in Psalms, "Turn bad into good." Increase your ability to take the yetzer hara which is within you, and invert or transform it into yetzer hatov.

When you do this, your yetzer hara will surrender and your yetzer hatov will emerge triumphant. And then it will be possible for you to really serve the Holy Blessed One, even with those aspects of yourself which feel linked to your yetzer hara.

(Gently adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.)

This will be the Torah study text at my shul this Shabbat after our contemplative service, and I'll bring along some questions to hopefully spark our conversation. But I think this is one which merits thinking about for more than just one morning, so I'm sharing it here too. I welcome any responses y'all have to offer.


Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)


This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »


After the summit, the climb: a Shavuot teaching

This is the teaching I offered late last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. It's loosely adapted from the Netivot Shalom, a.k.a. the Slonimer Rebbe, a.k.a. R' Shalom Noach Berezovsky. I originally translated it for a Hasidut class taught by R' Elliot Ginsburg; this version is streamlined a bit for easier teaching.


Someone once asked my teacher why on a first visit we can come directly to him and all the gates are opened to us, but on the second visit everything is closed. He answered with a parable:

You're taken up to the top of a high mountain, and you see the view that is all around you, and notice how glorious it is there. After that, you're brought back down to the bottom. And now, you must begin to climb up to the summit under your own power.

Once you see how wonderful it is up there, that encourages you to use your own strength to get back there. Initially, we receive enlightenment from above, that we might see with our own eyes how good it is to serve God. As Psalm 34 says, "Taste and see that God is good!"

After that, we're returned to our original (spiritual) place. But now we can go up on our own, now that we know where the heights are and how wonderful they are. That's what gives us the strength to push ourselves to climb.

On the first day of Pesach, we receive enlightenment from above. (It's as though we received a cosmic download of divinity, all compressed into a tight bundle, and we spend the 49 days of the Omer unpacking that download, lighting up each individual quality within ourselves which corresponds to the divine quality of that day.)

The energy, the potential, for climbing up to Shavuot comes from the illumination of that first day of Pesach. The first seder lights us up and inspires us to climb.

The seven weeks of the Omer are a time of spiritual preparation, during which we ready ourselves to receive the Torah. At the moment of the giving of the Torah, all seven heavens are open. All of our middot, the spiritual qualities which we share with God, are open and illuminated.

The experience of constriction, Mitzrayim, tarnished us. But on the first night of Pesach, God awakens us from on high. That awakening gives us the strength to spend the next seven weeks cleansing ourselves from the residue which accrues when we enslave ourselves to worldly things.

Pesach is a moment of erusin, betrothal, when Israel as a people becomes given-over to God. The 49 days of sefirat ha-Omer are a period of preparation and courting, preparing for the moment of being lifted-up. And at Shavuot, we and God are wed.

During the 49 days of the counting of the Omer, we "turn from evil and do good," again in the words of Psalm 34. We turn from the evil of enslavement, and pursue the goodness of receiving Torah. We turn from the evil of our own worst impulses and bad habits, and pursue the goodness of our best qualities (which we share with God.)

Throughout this journey, we draw on the energy we experienced on high, that first Passover night, to carry us the rest of the way to union at the mountaintop again.

And when we work for it; when we come seeking God; when we make the climb; we awaken the process of the revelation of the Torah. We needed to get here under our own power, and now that we've made it, the revelation is ready to pour in.

 

Have you experienced feeling 'lifted up,' then having to work to get back there?
How can you "turn from evil and do good" in your own life?
What is the Torah you most need to receive this year?
Quiet your mind, go inward, and ask the Holy Blessed One for revelation.


Staying awake: Rabbi Ira Stone on Mussar

Why is it so difficult to do what is good? What is the relationship between living a religious life and an ethical one? How can religion fortify an ethical life? To these questions we will add one more: In a cultural milieu in which personal satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are deemed synonymous, can we hope to attain an alternate spirituality that promises to take us beyond ourselves not through intoxication, but through profound concern for the other people among whom we live?

...The ultimate threat to the soul is sleep. Once the other has called us, once we have fallen in love, we are enjoined to a life of never-ending responsibility...Learning to stay awake is central to Mussar practice.

The quotation above comes from Rabbi Ira Stone, in his book A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar. Mussar is a system of Jewish ethics and practice aimed at helping us live righteously.

He begins by outlining the basic philosophy and theology of Mussar practice. Mussar assumes that we are conscious beings, each endowed with a yetzer ha-tov (the good impulse, or impulse toward goodness) and yetzer ha-ra (the evil impulse, or impulse toward wickedness.) Both are a necessary part of our humanity. Mussar practice is intended to help us cultivate our best qualities, in order that we might resist the yetzer ha-ra's inclinations to become "forgetful" (or, in Stone's words, to fall asleep -- to ignore our obligations to one another and to God) and instead strengthen the yetzer ha-tov in being "awake."

And how do we do this? Through cultivating middot, character traits or qualities, which align us with ethics and holiness. Working on our middot allows us to develop the twin spiritual faculties of awe of God (yirat Hashem) and love of God (ahavat Hashem.) As we develop those strengths, that in turn helps us orient ourselves toward our better impulses. With greater awe and love, we can more easily make ethical choices.

The ultimate goal is the transformation and healing of all of qualities and our impulses, from negative to positive. It's a tall order, but one that I find tremendously resonant with my sense of spiritual practice. The student of Mussar, writes Rabbi Stone, may feel as though the texts at hand tell them something they already knew. The point isn't merely taking in new information: it's studying the things which we know to be true and right, but which something in us perhaps resists.

This isn't merely dry academic study. Rabbi Stone cites Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of the great lights of Mussar, in his insistence that Mussar texts be studied "with lips aflame" -- in other words, aloud and with passion.

Rabbi Stone offers a fairly standard list of middot, qualities. As I read through them, some leap out at me because they are qualities I have tried to cultivate; others leap out at me because they are qualities which still challenge me. Here are a few:

Equanimity. Rise above events that are inconsequential -- both bad and good -- for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.

Order. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly -- each and every one having a set place and a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.

Diligence. Always find something to do -- for yourself or for a friend -- and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.

Silence. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: "What benefit will my speech bring to me or to others?"

I've spent a lot of time, these last years, working on equanimity. And I know that I am happiest and most productive when my life is reasonably well-ordered. But I struggle sometimes with diligence and with silence. Sometimes I think I should be cultivating greater diligence, keeping busier, not wasting an instant of my precious life -- and other times I think: no, I'm only human, I've got a three-year-old, I need some downtime! Sometimes I think I should strive for greater silence, especially online where there's such a constant brouhaha of people gabbling -- and other times I think: no, today's world demands not that I remain silent but precisely that I speak.

And then I wonder: am I resisting a practice of improving my diligence because it's honestly healthy for me as a woman and a mother in 2013 to cut myself some slack? (Yes, almost certainly.) Or am I resisting it because I'm looking for an excuse to lose a few hours watching mediocre television and wittering around on the internet? (Yes to that too, I suspect.) Am I resisting a practice of silence because I genuinely have valuable Torah to offer to the world? (Yes, I think so.) Or am I resisting it because I'm not sufficiently spiritually-advanced to be able to sustain a practice of only speaking when my speech is really necessary? (Surely the answer to that question too is yes.)

Part of what moves me, in Rabbi Stone's writing, is the assertion that we need to remain awake and alert to our obligations because it is in these obligations to one another that we meet God. Mussar practice is a practice of self-refinement. As we refine our qualities, we become better-attuned to our love and our awe. Through love and awe, we become better able to perform mitzvot, to act with awareness that we are obligated to and for God and to and for each other. And that's how we cultivate true joy in our lives: not fleeting enjoyment, but real, deep joy. We cultivate joy through acting with mindfulness of the other, both the other beings with whom we share creation, and the ultimate Other who we understand as the source of all things.

 


 

More on this: Middot through text and practice, 2007.


Meeting our children where they are

On Pesach, the child asks the parent: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev sees in this a deep teaching about how to parent and how to be like God.

He begins this teaching in a slightly odd place: by wondering aloud why we have the tradition of ritually asking this question at Pesach and not, for instance, at Sukkot, when we're dwelling in little huts with permeable roofs. He notes that there's a teaching (in the Gemara) that some people say the world was created in Tishri, and others say it was created in Nisan. Some say the new year is in the fall, and others say the new year is in the spring.

Ultimately, his answer to this question ("is the new year in the fall or in the spring?") is "yes." Which is to say: they're both meaningful, though in different ways. In Tishri (the Days of Awe), we celebrate the creation of the universe which happened, he says, through chesed, divine lovingkindness. This is the birthday of creation, the new year for all beings and all things. Creation arose because of God's overflowing compassion and lovingkindness, and that lovingkindness extends to everything.

In Nisan (during Pesach), we celebrate the miracles and wonders which God performed in liberating us from slavery. Both of these are important beginnings: the creation of the world, and the creation of our people as a people. (Indeed -- we mention both in the kiddush, the blessing over wine, every Shabbat.) But they're different in tone. The Tishri new year is a universal new year, a moment of celebration for all existence. The Nisan new year is a particularistic new year, commemorating our community's origins.

And the question "why is this night different from all other nights" isn't asked at that other end of the year, at the universalistic new year of all creation. We ask it at Pesach, our festival of liberation. Here's R' Levi Yitzchak:

The Holy Blessed One constricts God's-self for the sake of God's people Israel, and takes great pleasure in this, and in this God's will is fulfilled. An example of this is the question of the son to the father ["Why is this night different" etc]. For the wisdom of the father is greater than that of the son, and only through his love for his son does the father constrict himself in order to offer a response to the son's question. And this is the example, as is known: the Holy Blessed One constricts God's self in the qualities of Israel and takes pride in them and their doing of God's will.

Or -- phrased in a more contemporary idiom --

On Pesach, it's the child's job to ask, "Why is this night different?" And it's the parent's job to constrict her/himself, and to channel love and knowledge into an answer which the child can process -- and also to take joy and pride in the child's growth and desire to know.

God's wisdom is greater than ours, as a parent's wisdom is greater than their child's. In love, God contracts himself/herself in order to make room for us and to answer us where we are. Just so, we too can pull back  in order to make space for our children, and to answer their questions in a way which will reach them where they are. When we pull back to make space for our children to grow, we follow in God's footsteps.

Kedushat Levi teaches us that God takes great pleasure in this tzimtzum, this process of self-constriction which makes space for us in the world. And God takes pleasure in us and in our questioning and in our growth. Like a loving parent, God holds back some of God's greatness in order to make room for us and to respond in a way that we can hear. And like God, it's our job as parents to gauge where our children are at, and to relate to them where they authentically are.

 

(You can find this teaching in ספר קדשת–לוי השלם; it's the second teaching in his דרוש לפשח / "Pesach teachings" section.)


Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov

In this workshop we will examine the influence of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Reb Zalman’s life and thought, particularly on Zalman’s creative way of renewing the practice of davvenen. Rabbi Burt will also discuss Zalman’s personal influence on his own life. The class will be taught through lecture, text study, guided visualization, and davvenen practice.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson was my first mashpi'a (spiritual director), and I've been fortunate enough to study the works of the Baal Shem Tov with him. As soon as I saw this session on the schedule, I knew I wanted to attend.

"When I saw the announcement of the theme, mikol melamdai hiskalti (from all my teachers I have learned), I immediately thought of Reb Zalman and the Baal Shem Tov," Reb Burt told us. He said:

I've been a student of the Baal Shem Tov's now for 35 years. And I believe that though he lived in the 18th century he is still a teacher for our time. He provided me with an orientation not just to Judaism, but an orientation to life that serves me every day. I want to talk about the Baal Shem and then talk about parallels I see in Reb Zalman's work.

Reb Burt teaches.

He offered some biographical details about the Besht. He was born around 1700. Some fifty years before he was born were the Chmielnitzki pogroms, 1648 and the following years. "These pogroms were among the worst experiences that Jews had ever had since the Fall of the second Temple." And he continued:

In my opinion, those massacres on top of all the dark experiences that Jews had undergone in the years of exile left a traumatic scar on the body of the Jewish people. That scar ruptured the relationship between God and the Jewish people. People thought: we sinned, and God took it out on us through the massacres. There was an abundance of guilt, and in its wake, a lot of asceticism.

I believe that the challenge that the Baal Shem felt was the challenge about how to heal that trauma. How to bring hope, how to bring love. Perhaps the chief tool that the Baal Shem used was prayer. There had never been a movement in Judaism before Hasidism that put prayer so much at the center of Jewish religious life. But it wasn't the old style of prayer. The Baal Shem felt that prayer needed to be reinvented in his time! To make a connection with God that would allow healing to happen.

As I heard him say these things, I started to realize the extent to which there are parallels between Reb Zalman's work and the Baal Shem Tov's. Working and teaching in the aftermath of a communal catastrophe, seeking to help our community heal from trauma, using the tool of prayer (and reinventing the tool of prayer) to make a connection with God which would allow healing to happen -- all of those things sound like Reb Zalman to me, for sure.

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Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

What there is to learn from this portion is to prepare yourself during the good days in which holiness is revealed, to set that light solidly within the heart so it will be there during the bad days when the holiness is hidden.

That's from the Sfat Emet -- the Hasidic rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- on Miketz, the Torah portion in which we read about Pharaoh's dreams about the fat cows and the lean cows which devour them. We'll be reading Miketz not this Shabbat, but next -- on the Shabbat which falls during Chanukah. Chanukah, when we celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, the triumph of light over darkness.

My dear teacher R' Daniel Siegel recently published, on his blog, a series of teachings from the Sfat Emet on Chanukah. Reb Daniel writes:

The S'fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.

Such a discovery requires sustained reading, and I am so grateful to Reb Daniel for sharing it. How remarkable that over the course of thirty-three years, the S'fat Emet offered nineteen teachings on this week's Torah portion, eighteen of which began with the same midrashic citation. Perhaps -- operating on the theory that one teaches best what one most needs to learn -- this was an idea with which he struggled, and therefore kept turning and turning it to find what was in it.

Year after year, the S'fat Emet returns to this idea that God sets limits around darkness, that darkness will not endure forever. Darkness, which he links with the yetzer ha-ra or evil inclination, has its limits; light, which is linked with blessing and with Torah and with Shabbat, is endless.

Living in the northern hemisphere, I find in this teaching the same message I find in the experience of kindling Chanukah lights: the light is always increasing. The darkness won't be forever. Of course, the darkness in these teachings is always more than merely literal.

The light which was created during the six days of creation shone from one end of the world to the other and was beyond time and contraction. The Holy Blessed One saw that the world wasn't worthy of it because of sin and hid it away for the righteous...Therefore, anyone who needs to attain an enlightenment must first pass through the hiding of the light in darkness.

I've only just begun reading and processing these S'fat Emet texts. I should spend the time to pore over each one in Hebrew as well as reading them quickly in English -- I know from experience that going into the Hebrew often gives me a different, a deeper, grasp of the concepts and the teachings. But on a first reading, in English, I'm struck by what I'm finding there. And today, I'm moved by this idea that in order to access the light, one often finds oneself moving through darkness.

For all who feel trapped in darkness right now -- the literal darkness of northern hemisphere winter; the emotional and spiritual darkness of trouble and sorrow -- I hope these glimpses of the S'fat Emet's teaching on next week's parsha may offer some glimmers of light.