The Shabbat of Return

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul...

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, "the Shabbat of Return." This Shabbat invites us to come home to our deepest selves. To join together in that existential move of teshuvah: turning ourselves around, returning to who we most deeply yearn to be.

On one level this season -- especially these Ten Days of Teshuvah -- is a time for taking stock of who we are and repenting for our missteps. We ask forgiveness from those whom we've wronged. We try to learn how to forgive ourselves for the places where we've fallen short or missed the mark.

On a deeper level this season -- especially these Ten Days -- is a time for making teshuvah for our distance from God, our distance from our own souls, our distance from love and from holiness and from our deepest yearnings. Shabbat Shuvah is a time to re/turn to God. To re/turn to ourselves.

What do you yearn for? From what wholeness do you feel exiled? What part of yourself have you been denying? This Shabbat is time to come home. Come home to the Source of All. Come home to your own soul. No matter how far away you feel, you can always return. You can always come home.


Three moments of Shabbat morning gratitude

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1.

We have set up a circle of chairs behind the synagogue, surrounded by mountains and wetland and field. At the beginning of morning prayer the air is chill, but by the time we reach the bar'chu, the formal call to prayer, some of our folks have scooted their chairs into the patch of shade beside the small cement wall. When they turn east, they turn to face the wall -- and suddenly our little cement wall becomes the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. (It even has little finger-sized holes in it where one could place kvitlach, petitionary prayers!) I will never see that wall the same way again.

 

2.

During the Amidah, the standing prayer which is central to every Jewish service, there is a place (called the Kedusha) where the prayer calls us to imitate the choirs of angels singing "Holy, holy, holy." There is a custom of rising on our tiptoes with every repetition of the word kadosh, holy. As I am singing the Kedusha, a wee plane begins to take off from the tiny North Adams airport in the meadow behind the shul, rising into the sky precisely as we are lifting up onto our tiptoes. It is as though the plane is an angel, being buoyed by our prayers. It is as though we are angels, singing praise up into the sky.

 

3.

We sing Mi Chamocha -- the prayer which our ancestors sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds -- to the melody of "The Water Is Wide," and we intersperse the Hebrew with the words of that folk song. This is a tradition which Rabbi David brings from his synagogue on City Island, and it has become my favorite way to sing that prayer, especially when we're together and can sing it in harmony. The water is wide; I cannot get o'er. But when I know that God is with me -- when I know that I am loved by an unending love -- then whatever comes, whatever life brings, I know I won't have to cross the waters alone.

 


When we are mindful

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Judaism believes in the particularity of time, that certain times have special spiritual properties: that Shabbat has an extra degree of holiness; that Pesach (Passover) is the time of our liberation; that Shavuot is a time unusually conducive to revelation. But they have these special properties only when we are mindful. If we consciously observe Shabbat, Shabbat has this holy quality. If we don't, it is merely Friday night, merely Saturday afternoon...

That's Rabbi Alan Lew z"l in the book I reread slowly each year at this season, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Every year I start rereading the book around Tisha b'Av, the day of deep brokenness which launches us in to the season of teshuvah, repentance or return. Every year I find myself drawn to some of the same passages I underlined last year or the year before -- and every year some new passages jump out at me, too.

This year the first new thing I underlined was the quote which appears at the top of this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about sacred time, and about how being aware of where we are in the rhythm of the day and week and the round of the year can help us attune ourselves to spiritual life... and also how being unaware of where we are, or ignoring where we are, can damage that attunement. It's as though lack of mindfulness were a radio scrambler which keeps us from hearing the divine broadcast.

One of the things I love most about my Jewish Renewal hevre (my dear colleague-friends) is that we are jointly committed to seeking mindfulness. To living with prayerful consciousness, as my friends and teachers Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Marcia Prager taught us during DLTI. Knowing others who care about this stuff as much as I do is restorative. It lifts a weight of loneliness off of my shoulders. My hevre inspire me to try to be the kind of person, the kind of Jew, the kind of rabbi, I want to be.

There's much in ordinary life which pulls me away from the awareness I want to maintain. Away from consciousness of Shabbat as holy time, and of its internal flow from greeting the Bride to rejoicing in the Torah to yearning for the divine Presence not to depart. Away from consciousness of the moon and the seasons, and from the process of teshuvah (repentance / return.) Ordinary life is full of obligations, frustrations, distractions, and a whole world of people who don't care about the things I love so deeply.

Sometimes it's a little bit alienating -- carrying this tradition around with me like an extra pair of glasses, an extra lens which shapes the way I see everything in my world, all the while knowing that most of the people around me don't have this lens and probably don't want it, either. Sometimes it feels like an exquisite gift -- as though I had the capacity to see a layer of beautiful magic which overlays all things, because I'm willing to open myself to this way of seeing and this way of being in the world.

Without mindfulness, Shabbat becomes plain old Friday night and Saturday. Without mindfulness, the new moon of Elul coming up at the end of next week is just a night when we'll be able to see a surprising number of stars. Without mindfulness, Yom Kippur doesn't atone -- it's just a long day, maybe one we're spending with grumbly stomachs saying strange words in a language we don't understand. I don't want it to be like that. Not for me, not for you who are reading this, not for anyone.

There's nothing wrong with plain old Friday night and Saturday. (And so on: plain old new moon, September days instead of the High Holidays...) But because I've tasted the transformation that's possible when consciousness of holy time enlivens those hours and makes them new, I want to make these holy times more than "just ordinary." I want to sip that nectar again, and to come away with my spirit renewed. Because I know that diving deep into Jewish sacred time sustains me like nothing else.

What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time -- everything in the year, everything in our life -- conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption.... The passage of time brings awareness, and the two together, time and consciousness, heal... This is precisely the journey we take every year during the High Holidays -- a journey of transformation and healing, a time which together with consciousness heals and transforms us.

Here's hoping. May it be so.

 

Elul begins in one week. Rosh Hashanah begins five weeks from Sunday.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


Yearning

You know that feeling you get sometimes when you hear a piece of music and it makes your heart want to leap right out of your chest? Maybe it's because of what the words mean, or because of how the melody lifts you, or because of what the song represents in your memory. It makes you want to laugh, and to weep, and to do both at the same time, because it doesn't seem possible to feel so much.

Or maybe there's a person in your life who brings out that feeling in you. You see them across a crowded room and your heart does a somersault. You just want to be near them, to say something that will make them happy, to have the right to reach over and touch their shoulder. Your very being is singing because you are together, and part of you can't help already mourning that you will part.

Maybe there's a place that awakens this in you. You see it in your dreams and when you wake you ache with the fact that you're not there. Maybe it's a real place, and maybe it's somewhere you've never seen, and maybe it's someplace that doesn't even exist yet. All you know is, something is calling you there, and you want to be there; you want to go back; you want to be there and to never have to leave.

All of that is what Shabbat can feel like, sometimes, when I'm experiencing it with other people for whom it means as much as it can mean to me. On retreat it can feel like a visit to Brigadoon, to someplace magical, out of time. A place suffused with the music that makes my heart overflow. A place where I get to be with beloveds whose presence makes my heart sing. 25 hours is never long enough.

Shabbat can feel like reuniting with someone I love. And reuniting with someone I love can feel like Shabbat, no matter on what day of the week our reunion may fall. Can you imagine counting the days until Shabbat all week as though Friday sundown were going to bring the opportunity to embrace someone you adore? Can you feel the anticipation, the way that togetherness feels like being home?

Sometimes the yearning is almost painful. The yearning to be with the beloved (with the Beloved.) The yearning to be swept away by that music. The yearning to feel that bone-deep connection. And I know that I'm fortunate to feel this kind of heartache. Because I know that even though I can't live there forever, I will be visited by the miracle of the yearning -- even if it's only temporarily -- being fulfilled.


Praying in the nursing home

NursinghomeWhen I arrived at the nursing home with my guitar and a pile of prayerbooks, they kindly gave me a bellhop's cart. Better yet, they provided a staff person who could lead me through the labyrinth to the right elevator which would take me to the hallway nearest to the private dining room. In that room there is a china closet with  wine glasses inside, and a window with a distant mountain view. Aside from the speaker mounted in the corner, periodically blaring announcements, it feels almost like a home.

We'd never done this before -- bringing the service in to the nursing home. I have one congregant there, and he used to be among our most faithful daveners. We've missed him, the last few years as he's been increasingly unable to come to shul. And then his daughters asked whether we could bring shul to him. So we put the word out, and we hung a sign on the door of the synagogue in case anyone dropped by this morning expecting our usual services, and we met in the nursing home instead.

I had brought ten copies of a handout I had prepared, containing a song and a tiny excerpt from this week's Torah portion. I had brought a pile of fifteen siddurim. At first it seemed as though that would be sufficient, but as more and more people arrived, we pulled extra chairs in from the dining hall next door. Eventually people shared prayerbooks and looked on with each other, which had not been intentional on my part, though I think it actually led to a deeper feeling of connection with each other.

We sang as many old melodies as I could come up with, from "Mah Tovu" to "Adon Olam." The music is a carrier wave for the meaning behind the prayers, and I wanted to reach the patriarch who sat with us, eyes closed, clenching his daughters' hands. We touched on every prayer in the morning service, but did some of them in abbreviated form; what I wanted most was for the rhythms and sounds to gently enter our elder's heart. I chanted a bit of Torah and offered a blessing for everyone present.

After the Torah reading I shared a glimpse of the ideas about which I had planned to speak, about the Torah of wholeness and how each of us is a Torah (stay tuned -- I'll post that tomorrow), and then I offered an impromptu teaching about how our ancestors carried in the ark both the second set of tablets and the shattered first set of tablets. From this we learn to cherish not only our wholeness, but also our brokenness. We are precious not only when vigorous, but also when broken by illness or age.

When it was time for the kiddush afterwards we stood in a circle around the refreshments which our patriarch's daughters had provided. We sang the borei pri hagafen blessing over bunches of grapes because we had gotten our wires crossed about who was bringing juice and wine; we sang the borei minei m'zonot blessing over coffee cake because the same miscommunication had meant there was no challah. It didn't matter. All around the room were smiles, and clasped hands, and open hearts.

I love leading services in the sanctuary at my shul. We have an extraordinarily beautiful space, with tall windows looking out over an amazing panorama of wetlands and mountains and meadow. And yet there's something special about bringing our community and our familiar prayers into a setting like this. As a friend noted to me afterwards, praying in this way helps one to realize that the words and the heart behind them are what connects us -- not the building, no matter how beautiful it may be. 

 


Shabbat

CandlesThis has been a week with more than its share of heartache. And I know that every week fits that bill for someone, somewhere.

Shabbat is supposed to offer us a taste of the world to come. A drink from the fountain of eternity. A stroll through the orchard of Eden where we can linger with the Beloved to our hearts' content.

I wonder how many of us will struggle to shed the week now ending when sundown falls tonight. Will we have a hard(er than usual) time setting workday, weekday, worldly worries aside?

Weeks like this one, I realize how truly radical the idea of Shabbat is. That no matter how broken the world, no matter how important the work, we are called to set it all aside tonight and be with our loved ones and with God.

No one can struggle all the time. Whether it's an external struggle against hatred and intolerance, or an internal struggle with burnout or depression -- we all need to be able to set our burdens down.

When I light candles tonight I will pray with all my heart for more light.

When I bless wine tonight I will pray with all my heart for the joy it represents.

When I bless our son I will pray with all my heart that every parent who grieves tonight be comforted.

May this Shabbat bring joy to our homes and balm to our hearts.

 


Shabbat, technology, and tube socks

It really wasn't my intention to base multiple Hebrew school lessons this year around repurposed undergarments. But sometimes this rabbinic life takes me into places I didn't exactly expect to go. Case in point: yesterday I found myself preparing for my fifth-through-seventh-grade class by standing in line at the local Dollar Store (not my favorite shopping destination, but this time it was suitably affordable for my needs) with a double armful of cheap white tube socks.

I wanted to teach my students about Shabbat. I knew I wanted to begin with a short conversation about who creates holiness, God or us. (Psst: both, together.) I knew I wanted to convey that Shabbat is the holiest day of the year and it happens each week; that on Shabbat, we who are made in God's image rest as Torah teaches that God rested on the seventh day of creation; that Shabbat is a day to stop doing and to just be, to be "human beings" instead of "human do-ings."

In years past, I haven't been wholly satisfied with our conversations about different Jewish ways of understanding the commandment to rest and not do work. One year I taught a lesson about the 39 forms of labor which are traditionally understood to be prohibited on Shabbat, but it was hard to connect those to my students' lived experiences. It's too easy for them to start seeing Shabbat practices as deprivations, instead of as opportunities for connection, holiness, a different state of mind.

I know that most of my students have cellphones. And I'm pretty sure that if I suggested to them that they turn off their phones every Shabbat, they would balk. (As might their parents.) What I wanted instead was to get them thinking not about whether they use technology on Shabbat, but how they use it. For instance: is there a difference between using one's phone to call a friend and connect, vs. using one's phone to play a solitary game which keeps one disconnected from the world?

If nothing else, I thought there might be some interesting fodder for conversation. 

So I decided to make and decorate cellphone bags. Not with an eye toward shaming my kids for using their phones on Saturdays, but with an eye toward shifting how they use those phones on that special day. (And even if they don't actually use the bags most of the time, maybe the act of making them would be a consciousness-raiser.) The challenge was, I don't have a very large education budget, and I didn't want to spend money on fancy cellphone cases which I wasn't even sure the kids would use.

Enter the tube socks.

Continue reading "Shabbat, technology, and tube socks" »


Psalm 92 as rendered by Gaya Aranoff Bernstein

 

It's good to pause
to praise the Lord
and notice all you have
with Sabbath eyes

to take the sofa
off your back
and sit

to start the morning
sing the dawn
and see the work of God

to slow
the pace
of time

to wonder at the colors
and the fragrance of the earth
to look up and
to see cerulean skies

to wait until the stars bring back
inevitable night
and you resume your search
to gather shards
of shattered light

those who never stop
to lift their eyes
can't contemplate
the work
of God

the righteous are renewed by God
like palm trees near a stream
like cedars old and strong
and evergreen

 

from Psalmsongs: A Gathering of Psalms (Arthur Kurzweil Books, 2014)


Glimpses of a sweet Shabbat on City Island

First, a "City Island mojito" on Friday night:

Then, sweet davenen with "your band by the sea" at "your shul by the sea:"

A message imprinted as I lit the Shabbat candles:

A Shabbat morning walk by the water before services:

 ...and then more wonderful davenen -- soul-uplifting music -- harmony -- Torah -- conversation -- learning -- joy.


This morning I'll be teaching a master class in spiritual writing, as the culminating event of my TBE Shabbaton. (The class is at 10am at Samuel Pell House, 586 City Island Avenue; $20 for non-members, bring writing implements and an open heart.) At noon I'll read poems from 70 faces and Waiting to Unfoldtake questions and offer answers, and then enjoy some conversations and connecting before hopping in my car to head home to my family again.

Deep thanks to everyone at Temple Beth-El of City Island. You are a wonderful congregation and I'm so honored to have had the opportunity to sing, pray, teach, and learn with y'all!


#blogExodus 7: Blessing

12242603645_269a76785f_nThis past Shabbat was my first Shabbat home from my trip to Israel and the West Bank, and I settled back into our usual Friday evening traditions.

Step one is a trip to the A-Frame bakery for a challah and a cookie. We go there on our way home from preschool. I have known Sharon, the baker, for many years. (She catered the party after our son's brit milah.) Every week she marvels at how big he's getting, how tall, how chatty, how sweet.

Step two is Shabbat dinner with special guests who join us via videoconference. At the hour when our son habitually eats dinner, we sit around our small kitchen table with Shabbat candles, silver kiddush cups, and an open laptop.

Skyping with my parents for Shabbat has turned out to be a gift for me as much as it is for him and for them. I'm not sure I've ever lit candles with my parents on a weekly basis. Certainly not in the twenty-odd years since I left home. And now it's something I look forward to every week. Our son does, too.

The previous week when I was in Jerusalem, I experienced some really amazing Friday night kabbalat Shabbat prayer. It was a wonderful service, with great music, great kavanah (intention/heart), and terrific company. I adored it. And I also missed my son, and this Skyping-with-my-parents tradition, keenly. I was aware, in that moment, of what a blessing it is that I was able to miss him so. What a blessing to have him in my life. What a blessing to be in Jerusalem seeking a bit of sustenance for my spirit -- and  to have this reason to feel as though a part of my heart were somewhere else. My heart was in the west while I was in the east, as it were.

All of that was in my mind on Friday night as we sat at the table to Skype with my parents. Things started more or less as usual: he excitedly showed them a seascape he had made in preschool this week, they chatted a bit, and then we got down to making Shabbat. We blessed candles. We blessed juice. We blessed challah. And then, I reminded him, my last blessing would be for him. He knows this already; he sings along with the blessings now, and he knows that after candles and juice and challah I bless him.

But this time he surprised me. "And my last blessing is for you!" he told me in return. He used to respond to my blessing of peace with a blessing of "a piece" of challah, but it's been almost a year since the last time that happened.

"Do you want to go first?" I asked, and he said yes. So I sat back and waited, curious to see what would come out of his mouth.

He said, "Baruch atah Adonai -- " and then paused for a second, and finished, "love -- Mommy." He's got the beginning of the standard blessing formula down! After that the syntax admittedly got a little bit confused. Was he thanking God for love and for me? Was he equating Mommy with love? Was he asking God to give love to me? Honestly, I have no idea, and I couldn't care less. I was so tickled that he wanted to give me a blessing, that he's learned how our standard blessings begin, and that the blessing brought me together with God and with love. What could be sweeter?

It was the best blessing ever, and I told him so. He gave me a hug, and we cuddled for a while, and then I offered the priestly blessing, as I do every week, this time with him half-in my lap. And then we returned to chatting with my parents, who were delighted to have witnessed this spontaneous outpouring of Shabbat joy. A blessing for everyone.

 

The photo accompanying this post is a few months old (you can tell because he's wearing a wool sweater, and also it's dark outside at his dinner hour, which is thankfully no longer true), but it gives you the basic idea.

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

Blogexodus


A Shabbat evening with the Nava Tehila community

At my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat services, back at the old Elat Chayyim in 2002, I felt as though my soul had come home. Every time I have davened with Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, I have felt the same way.

When I saw that Nava Tehila didn't have a scheduled service during my time in Israel, I shrugged and figured that was just the luck of the draw. They only meet once a month; I was only here for ten days; it was okay. I made plans to spend Friday evening with Bill and Trudianne, two Jewish Renewal friends from Edmonton, whom I met at the Reb Zalman retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2004. I figured we'd come up with someplace to daven one way or another.

But then on Thursday night at my poetry reading (sponsored by Nava Tehila, and hosted in the home of a Nava Tehila member) I learned that the community would be having a service after all. It wasn't an official open-to-the-public service led by Reb Ruth and her band of amazing musicians; rather, a community service, led by community members, hosted in a community member's home. They were gracious enough to welcome us into their midst for the night, and it was exactly what my heart needed.

As the musicians began to play, people lit candles, and I went to kindle two tealights myself. As I lit them, I was overwhelmed by a wave of emotion -- thinking of my usual weekly tradition of lighting Shabbat candles with our son while Skyping with my parents 2000 miles away. I have had an amazing time in Israel, and will be enriched by this trip for a long time to come -- but I also really miss our little boy, and lighting candles without him made me a little bit weepy.

We sat in a circle in a gracious apartment with a big and beautiful mirpesset (balcony) from which one can see the Mount of Olives, the panorama of the Jerusalem foothills, and apparently on clear nights one can see the lights of Amman in the distance across the Dead Sea. There were several guitarists, one person playing a small harp, and one drummer. We moved through the psalms of kabbalat Shabbat, the service of welcoming the Shabbat bride, without any commentary or page numbers (or for that matter, siddurim) -- people just knew the words.

Many of the melodies were melodies I know from previous encounters with Nava Tehila, or from their two beautiful cds. (You can hear their music at Bandcamp.) Spontaneous harmonies unfolded. We sang with gusto. The musicians were terrific: all in synch with each other, changing tempo and mood effortlessly. At the best moments it felt as though we were all part of one organism, one heart with many bodies and voices giving voice to our shared Shabbat prayer.

When we went out on the mirpesset to welcome the Shabbat bride, I found myself overcome by emotion again. Grateful to be here -- grateful to be ringing in Shabbat with a room full of people who know what these words mean and who love them as much as I do -- amazed to be singing these ancient psalms, and these medieval Shabbat hymns, here, in this place, Jerusalem -- awestruck to be davening outdoors, looking over these hills which are at once so parallel to, and so wildly different from, the hills on which our deck looks out at home -- filled with yearning: for home, for here, for the healed and whole Jerusalem of my dreams, for my family (and especially our son), for connection with Shabbat...

And then someone I didn't know placed a kind hand on my arm, and I thanked her silently, and I pulled myself together and let the tears recede, and joined the singing again.

At one point, when we had paused for a moment, we heard the adhān ringing out from minaret after minaret. "God is great," someone murmured. "They're singing harmony with us," someone else said. A moment later came the riotous ringing of Friday evening church bells.

After an hour of luxurious kabbalat Shabbat singing, we heard a d'var Torah from a community member (usually given in Hebrew; tonight, in deference to the many visitors, he spoke mostly in English) and then another community member led us in a short-and-sweet ma'ariv (evening) service. We blessed juice and challah, enjoyed a glorious potluck (my contribution was the fresh strawberries I'd bought in the Old City that afternoon), and then spent some time in triads talking about how we're feeling spiritually as Pesach approaches. My trio sat on the mirpesset, and as we talked, we stopped to marvel at the fireworks down in the valley -- an Arab wedding, my hosts explained.

When we regrouped we sang some spontaneous niggunim -- more close harmonies, more deep feeling -- and then Bill and Trudianne and I regretfully bid the group farewell and caught a cab back to the Old City.

Before I left, I was honored with the request to share a poem. (I read this week's Torah poem from 70 faces, "Like God.") Before I read the poem, I thanked them for welcoming me. I said that every American rabbi comes to Jerusalem hoping for spiritual sustenance, for that feeling of one's soul being revitalized and rejuvenated -- and that I'm not sure everyone actually has that experience, even though it's what we come here for -- and that davening with Nava Tehila gives me exactly that: it fills me up and renews me to return home and bring these living waters back to the community I'm blessed to serve.


On havdalah

Image002On a recent Saturday at my shul, we paused in an evening program to make havdalah. Afterwards, someone emailed me asking to learn more, pointing out that havdalah was entirely new to them, and perhaps to others as well.

Probably you know we begin Shabbat with a simple ritual: we light candles, bless the fruit of the vine (a symbol of joy and holiness), bless bread (which for most Ashkenazi Jews means challah, though in other parts of the world Jews bless other forms of bread, from tortillas to naan) and in many households also bless our children. Before this ritual, it's still work-week; after the blessings are spoken and the candles are lit, we've entered into the time-apart-from-time which we call Shabbat. Havdalah is the mirror reflection of that; as those blessings began Shabbat, havdalah is how Shabbat ends. The word havdalah means "separation."

At havdalah, we light a braided candle with many wicks, and hold it aloft for all to see. In the most traditional paradigm no fire is kindled during Shabbat, so the striking of the match to light the havdalah candle is a powerful first sign that Shabbat is ending. We bless the fruit of the vine once more. We bless fragrant spices, and pass them around to inhale their heady scent. We bless God who separates one thing from another: separates light from dark, one community from another, the rest day of Shabbat from the six days of work. And then we extinguish the candle in the wine. With that sputter and hiss, Shabbat comes to its end.

After the candle is extinguished, many of us have the custom of singing "Eliahu HaNavi" and/or its twin song "Miriam HaNeviah" -- songs expressing hope for redemption. Then we might sing "Shavua Tov" -- "A good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!" And with that, the new week begins.

I love havdalah. It's one of my favorite rituals in Jewish practice. And it is very much a ritual, not a ceremony. What's the difference? A ceremony, such as a graduation, celebrates and makes official something which has already occurred -- in the case of a graduation, it marks the fact that a student has completed a course of study. (But the course of study is complete already, whether or not the student walks across the stage to receive the diploma.) A ritual, such as havdalah, creates a spiritual change while it is taking place.

I love havdalah because it's the second bookend, the close-parenthesis, which balances the ritual of making Shabbat in the first place. On Friday night we light candles and bless wine; on Saturday night we bless wine and extinguish a candle. On Friday night we begin something special and sacred, and on Saturday night we bring it to its close. On Friday night we open a door, and on Saturday night we close it. We both start and finish Shabbat with mindfulness, taking a few minutes to be aware of a moment in time when something changes. Havdalah is a hinge, a fulcrum-point, balancing between the Shabbat which is ending and the new week which is beginning. We teeter at the top of the hill for a moment and then tumble down the other side.

Orion-Jupiter-and-clouds-Nov16_2012S-1024x682I love havdalah because it's so poignant. Usually the ritual is done in semi-darkness; we're supposed to be able to see three stars in the sky, so night is really falling. The day of Shabbat is coming to its end. And we gather together, sometimes standing in a circle with our arms around each other, and sing these last songs and gaze at this candle and smell the sweet spices which are meant to revive us from the impending departure of that second Shabbat soul. It feels as though we're coming together to savor the last moments of Shabbat sweetness before they're gone for the week.

I love havdalah because there are so many beautiful teachings about its additional layers of meaning. For instance: when the braided candle is held aloft, there is a custom of holding up one's hands to see the light illuminating our fingernails and our skin. The Hebrew word for light (אור) and the Hebrew word for skin (עור) are homonyms: they are both pronounced or. When we hold up our hands before the havdalah flame, we remember the teaching (from the Zohar) that in the world to come we will wear skins made out of light, garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life.

But most of all I love havdalah because even without all of the extra teachings and interpretations we can lay on top of it, it works. It makes a difference. Spending five minutes in a darkened room holding that braided candle aloft, making these blessings, breathing in the sweet spices, and then plunging the candle into the wine -- it does something. You can feel the change in the energy of the room. Something has ended and something else has begun.

 


More:

Ending Shabbat: Havdalah - Ritualwell (overview, prayers and resources)

Havdalah: Taking Leave of Shabbat - My Jewish Learning (overview)

Havdalah blessings  - Union for Reform Judaism

Debbie Friedman's transformative havdalah melody (includes video) - Jewish Women International

The havdalah category of this blog

 

Image source for the second image: Astro-Bob.


Welcome your extra soul, and irrigate the thirsty world

Small-water-features-pouring-urnOur practice of Shabbat restores primordial wholeness to the cosmos. It has the capacity to irrigate the thirsty world. Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors.

So teaches Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. (I first shared these teachings here back in 2008.)

Our practice of Shabbat restores wholeness to the cosmos. That is one chutzpahdik assertion. That there is brokenness in the world (in all of the worlds) is beyond doubt. But to suggest that we can repair that brokenness through celebrating Shabbat? Holy wow. And yet this is what our mystics teach: that when we enter into Shabbat wholly, we bring healing to God.

What does it mean to say that "Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors"? Perhaps this: God experiences brokenness and separation, because we, God's creation, experience brokenness and separation. But on Shabbat, we create wholeness in ourselves -- and in so doing, we create wholeness inside God. Another way to frame it is through kabbalistic language: when we observe Shabbat, we enable God's transcendence (distant, far-off, high-up, infinite, inconceivable) and God's immanence (embodied, here with us, as near as the beating of our own hearts, relational, accessible) to unite.

And that is why when we experience Shabbat -- celebrate Shabbat, "make" Shabbat, enter into Shabbat -- we open a spigot of blessing to irrigate the thirsty world. Every blessing has the capacity to turn such a spigot, and Shabbat is the blessing of all blessings. Think of all of the sorrow, the distance, the brokenness, the spiritual and emotional thirst in the world. And then recognize that when we open ourselves to Shabbat, and allow Shabbat to work in and through us, we can become channels for the irrigation which would soothe that thirst. It is the active participation of our hearts and souls, experiencing the mitzvah of Shabbat, which unite God far above and God deep within. When that happens, blessing flows.

1389194539_b9e31c1b6dSome of that blessing flows directly into us. On Shabbat, tradition tells us, each of us receives a neshama yeteirah, an "extra soul." It stays with us until sundown on Saturday, when it returns to God. (This is one explanation for why we breathe fragrant spices during havdalah -- like smelling salts, they're meant to revive us from that soul's departure.) That extra soul is part of who we are, but during the week it's distant. We have two "levels" of soul (actually by some metrics we have four or five, but for now, I'm just talking about two) -- a "lower" soul which enlivens the body, and a "higher" soul which resides with the Mystery we call God. On Shabbat, those two unite. The reality of who we are is joined with the potential of all that we might be.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that Shabbat is equal to all of the other mitzvot put together, and that if just once every Jew in the world truly observed Shabbat together, moshiach would promptly arrive. The teaching raises some questions: what would it mean for all of us to observe Shabbat at the same time? How do we define "us" in a modern, post-triumphalist paradigm? How do we define "observed Shabbat"? For that matter, what would it mean for moshiach to come? But I understand that piece of Talmudic wisdom in this way:  if we truly experience the day of Shabbat, we can experience a taste of the messianic era. 

Of course, in order for that to happen, we have to make the time to enter into Shabbat. To stop doing and simply be.

We have to be willing to let Shabbat change us.

We have to be paying attention.

Shabbat, and that extra soul, arrive whether or not we notice. But if we can be mindful tonight as sundown falls -- how might the windows of our hearts be opened? With the eyes of that new soul, what might we see?

 


How Shabbat is like a snowstorm

DrivewayThis morning I met again with my usual cohort of Jewish clergy who study sacred texts together each week in the coffee shop. This week, one of our conversations about Heschel's Heavenly Torah went in a direction I didn't expect. We were talking about a passage which contrasts two different ways of approaching Shabbat. In one paradigm (which Heschel links with Rabbi Akiva's school), Shabbat is envisioned as the bride of Israel, our holy mate with whom we experience a supernal connection. In the other (which Heschel connects to Rabbi Ishmael and his disciples), Shabbat is compared to a wolf who causes disturbance both before and after his arrival. The Akivan image of Shabbat as our bride was familiar to all of us, but when it came to the Ishmaelian simile, we kind of scratched our heads: Shabbat, a wolf? What an odd comparison!

And then my friend and colleague Rabbi David Weiner shifted the metaphor in a way that made it clear. Shabbat, he said, is like a winter storm.

Before a storm, we scurry around procuring things we'll need -- batteries, flashlights, water, food, what-have-you. We're consumed with anticipation. We batten down the hatches and get ready. And then the storm arrives, and suddenly there's nothing we can do. We stay home. We relax. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids. Maybe we read books. Maybe we sit by the fire. Maybe we make time to daven or learn some Torah. All of our usual making and doing and planning is suspended during the time-out-of-time which is the duration of the storm. And then the storm ends, and afterwards we scurry around again, shoveling our walkways, digging out our cars, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

ShabbatJust so, Shabbat. Before Shabbat, we scurry around getting everything ready: the challah, the candles, the juice or wine, the festive meal. All of the weekday and workday to-do items have to be completed before sundown on Friday, because once the sun goes down, we enter into holy time. We stop making and doing and focus instead on just be-ing. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids, read books, sit by the fire. Ideally, of course, we daven and learn some Torah -- in community, if circumstances permit. Shabbat, like the snowstorm, gives us permission to set aside the to-do list and to just be for a while. And then Shabbat ends and we scurry around again, thinking about work again, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

Both a snowstorm and Shabbat offer a break from ordinary workday realities. A time to cease the mechanisms of production and to relax, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing we're supposed to be doing, so we can just be for a change. Of course, snowstorms come and go according to weather patterns most of us don't understand; Shabbat comes every seventh day without fail, if we are awake and alert enough to notice and experience her visit. (Also snowstorms can be dangerous, which is where the comparison breaks down a bit -- I can't really think of any way that Shabbat might pose a danger to anyone.)

It was hard for me to understand Shabbat being like the wolf who causes a stir both before and after his arrival, but Shabbat being like the winter snowstorm which forces us to slow down, stop working, enjoy family time -- that's a metaphor which immediately resonates for me.

For all who are experiencing major winter weather this week, may your snowbound time be safe and comfortable and as restorative as a midweek dip into Shabbat. And for all of us, no matter where we are, may the coming Shabbat bring us the relaxation, surrender, and whimsy which at our best we're capable of finding when the world around us slows down because of snow.


Thanks to the Union for Reform Judaism for reprinting this post at the Reform Judaism blog!


A poem about the end of Shabbat on the road

SEU'DAH SHLISHIT AT THE ATLANTA AIRPORT

 

Two thousand miles away
as evening cloaks the rockies
you gather to dine on song
as the angels do.

My holy third meal
will be local beer
and collard greens
at the airport food court.

You sing psalm 23 with fervor.
Even as the Queen prepares to depart
Her presence is so close
you can almost touch.

I wait for my aircraft.
Is this the magic hour
when my redemption
will draw near?


Se'udah shlishit means "the third meal." It's customary to eat three celebratory meals on Shabbat, one on Friday evening, one at Shabbat lunch, and the third late on Shabbat afternoon, and that third one is called se'udah shlishit. The meal is usually quite small; in some communities, it's only a token few bites of food, followed by long singing.

I have two strong memories of se'udah shlishit with my ALEPH community. One happened in January of 2009, the Shabbat when I had miscarried here at OHALAH. I remember sitting in an unlit room (with big windows through which we could see the impending evening) and singing psalm 23 and beginning to mourn my own deep loss. And the other happened in June of that same year, and was incredibly powerful and healing for me. I wrote about it here -- As Shabbat wanes.

It's a time of incredible poignancy. In a way, it's the time when Shabbat is most present and can be most palpably felt -- and in another way, it's the time when Shabbat is beginning to depart. There's also a tradition which says that at Shabbat mincha (afternoon prayer) time, that's when we are closest to moshiach (redemption.)

Yesterday, during the hour when I suspected my hevre (friends) were observing se'udah shlishit in Colorado, I was stuck in an airport, wondering when and how I would make it to Colorado for OHALAH. This poem was the result. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but writing it allowed me to feel connected with my community from afar, and I share it here with a smile.


Illustrated travelogue

When I left home it was a beautiful afternoon:

I decided to take route 43 all the way to the Northway, and it was stunning:

I caught sight of Albany from a distance as I drove by:

The Adirondacks were pretty glorious, too:

But then the hills went away, and as soon as I crossed the border the fields were sere and flat:

And by the end of the day I was safely ensconced with friends, making Shabbat creatively with a tealight and a Montreal bagel!


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.

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Shabbat shalom to all!

 

Drew and mama make motzi. Photo by David Curiel.

Every Friday, I post on my synagogue's Facebook page, "Shabbat is coming! Get ready for that extra soul to descend and enliven you..." I love the idea that we each receive a second portion of soul, a neshamah yeteirah, on Shabbat. An extra spiritual spaciousness. An opportunity to breathe deeply and open up our heartspace.

There's an old story which says that every Friday, an angel looks in through the window at each household. If that angel sees familial strife, dirty dishes, tension and frustration, the angel sorrowfully says, "...may next week be just like this one."

But if the angel sees a set table, a family relating to each other with loving harmony, candles and challah and grape juice or wine, the angel joyfully says, "...may next week be just like this one!"

As we move toward Shabbat today, may each of us find the resources we need (both practical and spiritual) to reach a state of readiness -- so that when that angel peers in at us, it is able to offer the blessing that our Shabbat joy should continue, now and always.

Shabbat shalom!


A poem for Shabbat by Danny Siegel

Erev Shabbas


by Danny Siegel

It's so stupid,
Wednesday afternoon,
soaked in the idiotica of errands
and all those "things to do"
that steal a man's minutes, his years --
I forgot the Queen.
Her Majesty was due at four-eighteen
on Friday, not a minute later,
and I was wasting hands, words, steps,
racing to a rushing finish-line
of roaring insignificance
I just as well could fill
with preparations for the royal entourage:
cleaning and cleansing each act's doing,
each word's saying,
in anticipation of the Great Event of Shabbas.

Continue reading "A poem for Shabbat by Danny Siegel" »