Glimpses of Shavuot 5777

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Isabella Freedman, where I just spent Shavuot.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Shavuot and parenthood, then and now

When I think of my last Shavuot of rabbinical school, all I can remember are glimpses. Like the slide shows that I remember my parents used to project on the dining room wall. Most of my memories of my son's first year of life are like that. They're a punctive story told through images. He didn't sleep through the night until he was well over a year old, so my memories of that first year are spotty. The visuals are points on a line that don't quite add up to a whole.

When I try to call up the slideshow of those Shavuot memories, I see the square of light that used to shine when the carousel was first turned on, and then I see disconnected moments. Click: trying to get my kid to sleep in the portacrib in the closet area of my room at Isabella Freedman. Click: walking with the stroller in the middle of the night to the great hall, because if my kid wasn't going to sleep, then by God I wasn't going to miss Reb Zalman's 4am teaching.

Click: pushing the stroller in circles around the back of that room while I listened to the rebbe teach. He taught about the Torah of our mothers. Click: morning davening, singing in harmony with beloved friends. (Have I ever known a more fervent form of prayer than singing in harmony?) Click: morning davening, leaving the room so I could nurse my son in private on the other side of the wall. Nursing him while still immersed in the sounds of the community singing.

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My son and me: Shavuot, Isabella Freedman, 2010.

My son was six months old then. We had survived colic and postpartum depression. Sleep was still hard to come by. When I went to Isabella Freedman for Shavuot that year, I packed the "bouncy seat," the little inclined chair that played music and vibrated gently. I carried it with me. On the second morning of Shavuot I parked him in that seat so I could try to daven my way wholly through shacharit for the first time since he was born. It was harder than I expected.

By the following Shavuot, I was ordained and in the process of negotiating for what would become my first rabbinic position, serving Congregation Beth Israel, where I still serve. In coming years I would occasionally send congregants to Isabella Freedman to hear Reb Zalman teach, but I didn't feel able to go myself. I didn't return to the Shavuot retreat experience until last year, when I took a delegation from my congregation with me. (This year I will do the same.)

The year I took my infant son to Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, I knew that I would someday tell him that over the first Shavuot of his life I took him to hear my rebbe teach, and to receive a blessing from the teacher of my teachers. I wish I could remember the blessing that Reb Zalman gave him. I was still so sleep-deprived that my brain wasn't forming longterm memories, and I didn't know then that if I didn't write it down immediately it would become lost to me.

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My son and me, a few days ago.

I couldn't have imagined, then, what life would be like now. My son is seven and a half now: tall and lanky, funny and sweet. This past Shabbat we played Trivial Pursuit. The first question he drew was one about which day is considered the day of rest in Judaism, and he crowed with delight. He sings me songs, reads aloud, assembles his stuffed animals into elaborate families. (One is a family of stuffed kittens. The other features both Pokémon and giraffes.)

Parenthood has given me new ways to understand the idea that God is constantly revealing Torah. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that Shavuot is called the day of the receiving of the Torah, not the day of its giving, because God is always giving. Shavuot is when we notice the gift that we receive. Parenthood too is an adventure of always-receiving, though I'm not always mindful of the Torah that's coming through. I forget, lose track, and get caught up in ordinary life's minutiae.

And then every now and again I wake up again to the reminder that I can learn from the Torah of every human being I meet, including and especially the tall funny cuddly seven-year-old human being who is in my care and keeping. I'm grateful for what he teaches me about finding God in the presence of change. One of our tradition's names for God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." Parenthood is an amazing reminder that in change, we glimpse God.

 


I want

I want with all my might
to give you milk and honey

aspire only to feed you
(look: you're skin and bones,

the Jewish mother in me
aches to fill your plate)

but not just nutrients:
like manna that took on

each person's yearned-for flavor
I want my offering to you

to meet your every need
balm your every sorrow

fill your mouth with sweetness
you didn't know you didn't have

I want to give you my heart
but all I can offer are words

you'll misunderstand them
sometimes you'll resent them

often you'll resent me
for the neverending letters

that I can't stop pouring
because I can't stop loving you

 


 

I've been thinking a lot lately about God giving Torah at Mount Sinai, which we'll re-experience at Shavuot in a few short weeks. One of my favorite teachings about creation is that God brought creation into being because God yearned to be in relationship with us. I've been reflecting on how we might extend that teaching to say something about the revelation of Torah, also. What if God yearns to give us Torah, the way one yearns to give the gift of one's heart to a beloved? That's the question that sparked this poem. (And also a couple of other poems still in early draft form -- stay tuned for those.)

 

Notes:

To give you milk and honey. Torah is often compared to milk and honey; this is one reason why it's traditional to eat cheesecake at Shavuot.

Like manna that took on / each person's yearned-for flavor. See Exodus Rabbah 5:9: "Rabbi Jose ben Hanina says: ... the manna that descended had a taste varying according to the needs of each individual Israelite. To young men, it tasted like bread...to the old, like wafers made with honey...to infants, it tasted like the milk from their mothers’ breasts...to the sick, it was like fine flour mingled with honey."

For the neverending letters // that I can't stop pouring. I learned from Reb Zalman z"l that the revelation of Torah wasn't just a onetime thing that happened to "them" back "then" -- it's something that continues even now.

As Reb Zalman used to say, God broadcasts on every channel; we receive revelation based on where and how we are attuned. The flow of revelation into the world -- the flow of Torah into the world -- is for me first and foremost an act of divine love. 


Stop hiding: let yourself go free

_91021013_thinkstockphotos-517519673The festival of Purim (coming up this Saturday) is a holiday of concealment. At Purim we read the Scroll of Esther, a delightfully bawdy Persian court soap opera which doesn't appear, at first glance, to have much to do with spiritual life or with God. Jewish tradition doesn't shy away from this oddity -- we embrace it and find meaning in it.

The quintessential act of Purim is להתחפש, a reflexive verb which means to dress oneself up or to conceal oneself. We do this when we dress up in costumes on Purim. Esther does this when she hides her Jewishness (until the moment comes for her to reveal herself and in so doing save the day). God does this in concealing God's-self entirely; God is never even mentioned in the megillah (though to the discerning eye God's presence may be subtly manifest even so.)

Purim is about the self-reflexive act of hiding. But what happens when we shift that verb and make it no longer reflexive? We get the verb לחפש - to search. And searching is one of the quintessential moves we make before Pesach. On the night before Passover begins, there's a tradition of lighting a candle and searching our homes for "hidden" hametz (leaven), a physical hide-and-seek game that represents a deeper inner searching. We read in the book of Proverbs (20:27) that our own souls are God's candle -- just as we search for hidden leaven by the light of a physical candle, God uses our souls as candles to illuminate all that's hidden in the world.

When we search for hametz, we're not just looking for bread crusts. We're also seeking spiritual leaven, the puffery of pride and ego, the sour old stuff within us which needs to be discarded in order for us to move toward freedom.

The shift from להתחפש to לחפש, from concealment to searching, is the fundamental move we're called to make as spring unfolds, as we move from Purim (festival of masks and concealment) to Passover (festival of searching and liberation). At Purim, we may be hiding -- from others, and even from ourselves. Maybe it feels dangerous to let ourselves be known. Maybe there are truths we don't want to admit. Maybe we think there are parts of ourselves we have to hide in order to move freely in the world. Maybe we think we are better off if we conceal the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or the parts of ourselves which don't meet others' expectations.

But in order to move toward freedom, we have to turn the reflexive verb outward: we have to move from hiding (from) ourselves to searching for what's been hidden. If God hides in order that we might seek, then it stands to reason that so do we. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden from the world. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden even from ourselves. The hopes and yearnings that we've tried to keep under wraps, the sorrows and fears that we've tried to hide, from others and from ourselves.

May we do that unearthing through therapy, or hashpa'ah (spiritual direction), or a writing practice, or a prayer practice. Maybe we do that unearthing through conversations with a trusted friend who can help us see ourselves more clearly than we could see on our own. Maybe we do that unearthing through studying texts and delving into the passages that resonate with us. There are many ways to do the work of searching for who we really are. What's important is that we light the candle and we do the searching. Passover will come in the fullness of time no matter what, but the journey of the Exodus will mean more if we're willing to do this inner work.

The hametz we need to root out is not our imperfections (because everyone is imperfect) but the way we try to hide our imperfections, the way we shame ourselves for our imperfections. The internal narrative which says that we are only lovable, or only worthwhile, if we keep parts of ourselves -- our quirks, our mistakes, our tenderest places -- hidden. The need to conceal oneself can become a kind of Mitzrayim, a place of constriction. In order to emerge from the tight places in our lives, we need to stop hiding. We need to move from concealing ourselves to searching for ourselves in order to let ourselves go free.

And the journey takes us one step further. We move from concealment (Purim) to searching (Pesach) to revelation (Shavuot.) Purim's reflexivity primes that pump: first we own (and prepare to relinquish) our own hiding. Then we search for our deepest truths and begin to experience the freedom of wholly being who we truly are. Only then can we be ready to receive revelation anew. The journey to revelation begins right now. The places where we've hidden our hearts from others or from ourselves aren't impediments to the journey: they are the spark that will ignite the inner spiritual journey of our transformation.

 

 Dedicated to Rabbi David Evan Markus, from whom I learned this teaching.

Image: hide-and-seek, from the BBC.


After Sinai


For three glorious days
I'm with you on the mountain.

Face to face with your radiance
I remember how to shine.

I am seen. I open in places
I didn't know had been closed.

And then it's over. Even
in a crowd I feel alone.

I miss your voice so much
my own throat closes.

What I wouldn't give to be
in your sweet presence again.

 


 

For three glorious days. Torah teaches that the revelation at Sinai took place after a three-day period of preparation (Exodus 19). Face to face. God spoke to Moshe face to face (Exodus 33). I remember how to shine. When Moshe came down from Sinai he was radiant (Exodus 34). 

This is another poem in my Texts to the Holy series.


First fruits and flow

A d'var Torah written for the second day of Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, for after the bikkurim / first fruits parade. I wound up speaking extemporaneously, but what I said more or less followed this outline. 

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When we enter into the land we are to bring the first fruits of our harvest to the place where God's presence dwells, teaches the Torah. After we affirm where we are, we recount how we got here. Our ancestors wandered into the land of Egypt, and in time were oppressed there. We cried out to God, and God heard our cries and brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and brought us to this very place, a land flowing with milk and honey.

When we enter into the land --

Today I don't think those words can mean only the land of Israel. They can't refer only to what happened then and there. That may be what they used to mean, but we learn in Pirkei Avot (as Rabbi David mentioned on Shabbat morning) that "every day a heavenly Voice issues forth from Mt. Horeb" -- the revelation of Torah is ongoing, and it's our obligation to find new ways to interpret so that the Voice continues to speak in ways that can be heard.

I like to think that "when we enter into the land" can mean the landscape of the human heart, the interior landscape in which we each find ourselves this year. The season is turning. What new doorway are you walking through as summer approaches?

Granted, I don't want to overlook the land on which we stand today, or to say that the pasuk is only about interior journeying. Whether you call this place Isabella Friedman, or Elat Chayyim, or Hazon, it is indeed a land of beauty and abundance. But most of us who experienced this morning's parade of first fruits did not grow or harvest in these fields, and did not tend to these flocks. This is a borrowed land of milk and honey, and while it is a perfect spot for a pilgrimage, we will all have to go home when Shavuot is over.

Of course, so did our Biblical ancestors. That's why these three great pilgrimage festivals are called regalim -- from regel, foot, because we traveled to get there, and then we traveled home again. We here today drove in cars or took trains or perhaps flew to get here, and "here" is northern Connecticut rather than Jerusalem, but in a deeper sense we are walking precisely in our ancestors' footsteps. At least as far as the pilgrimage part is concerned. 

The first fruits of our harvest --

What harvest did each of us bring here today? The farmers from Adamah may have the most obvious answer, but I think that they too are bringing intangible offerings, as are we all.

That can't just mean the radishes we've grown or the goats we've reared. Of course those are first fruits, and they are beautiful. But the teaching has to be deeper than that. What about the fruits of your intellectual harvest, the ideas and teachings you've taken in and made your own? For those who are ending a school year soon, whether as students or as teachers, what thoughts can you harvest to offer on the altar? What about emotional harvest, the wisdom not of your mind but of your heart?

Continue reading "First fruits and flow " »


Yearning and revelation

Torah comes in many forms. There's written Torah and oral Torah and the Torah of lived human experience.

Revelation comes in many forms, too. Maybe, like the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, you see a piece of art and realize what fades and what endures, and you come away certain that you must change your life. Maybe you're out for a jog when you realize that the pastime you've been enjoying, the one that makes you happy outside of your job, is actually the thing you feel called to be doing as your paying work. Maybe you hear a piece of music and it moves you, and then the melody reverberates in your heart, opening up depths of feeling you hadn't known you were missing.

Revelation isn't just the things we learn, or realize, or recognize. It's how we allow those things to change us.

The Sinai moment is our people's quintessential experience of revelation. Some say that God's own self was revealed to the people on that day. And midrash (Exodus Rabbah) teaches that God's voice divided itself into 70 human languages so that everyone might understand it. Everyone who was there, regardless of age or social station, heard God's voice in a way that they could understand. So can we.

The thing is, revelation doesn't just flow on Shavuot. On Shavuot perhaps the cosmos is aligned in a way that might make it easier for us to receive. Everything we do on that day is designed to open us more deeply to what's coming through. But the divine broadcast is ongoing even when it isn't Shavuot.

Continue reading "Yearning and revelation" »


Join me for Shavuot at Isabella Freedman!

13178057_10154012469395781_6052018367941507131_nIn 2010, I was blessed to be able to spend Shavuot at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. (I wrote a little bit about the retreat: The Torah of Our Mothers, Reb Zalman Shavuot 5770, 4am, and Morning prayer, on retreat and after.) 

This year the Shavuot retreat -- co-presented by ALEPH -- features a lineup of some wonderful Jewish Renewal teachers and leaders. I'm honored to be one of the teachers at this year's Shavuot retreat.

I'm organizing a delegation from my synagogue to go down to Isabella Freedman, and as members of an ALEPH Network community we get a discount on registration. But the retreat isn't just for self-identified ALEPH folks -- it's open to everyone, and it is a tremendous experience. If you've ever wanted more out of Shavuot but haven't been sure how to find it, come to Isabella Freedman. Join us at the mountain. And get ready for some beautiful Torah to come down.

Learn more, and register, here at the Hazon website


A love poem to Torah - for Shavuot

 

MY TORAH


is a tall drink of water
on a thirsty day

the longer I know him
the more beautiful he becomes

I want to hold him close
and press my lips to his shoulder

to unfasten his gartel
with unsteady hands

to trace every letter
I find on his skin

He is milk and honey
on my tongue

anointing oil
on my hands

voice like flowing water
inscribing my heart

 


Many Jewish mystical texts hint that the relationship of the scholar with Torah is like romance. The Torah is the (feminine) Beloved, and the reader (presumed, of course, to be male) is the one who seeks Her beauty. Sometimes she is described as the beloved daughter of the King -- which is to say, God -- given to Israel in marriage.

I've never seen a poem which takes the opposite tack, anthropomorphizing Torah as beloved and male. If you know of others, please let me know.

Gartel is Yiddish for "belt;" in this context it alludes to the belt which in standard Ashkenazic practice goes around the Torah scroll, beneath the velvet mantle.

Chag sameach -- wishing you a joyous Shavuot!


On revelation

It is here that these classics come to life. They are not dry texts; they speak to us. Each is the opening voice of a conversation which we are invited to join -- a voice that expects reply. So in India we say that the meaning of the scriptures is only complete when this call is answered in the lives of men and women like you and me. Only then do we see what the scriptures mean here and now. -- Eknath Easwaran, Essence of the Upanishads



Fe_2007_calivingtorah_002_pWhat then do we mean by revelation?  Whether we understand the tale of Sinai as a historic event or as a metaphor for the collective religious experience of Israel, we have to ask this question.  Revelation does not necessarily refer to the giving of a truth that we did not possess previously.  On the contrary, the primary meaning of revelation means that our eyes are now opened, we are able to see that which had been true all along but was hidden from us.  We see the same world that existed before the great religious experience, but now see it differently.  The truth that God underlies reality, and always has, now becomes completely apparent...

Revelation, like Creation, is an eternal process.  The real faith-question regarding revelation, like that of Creation, is not "Do you believe that it happened just that way, so many years ago?"  It is rather, "Are you present to revelation here and now?" Are our inner eyes open to hearing the eternal message that calls out to us in every moment of existence?  That message, the true essence of revelation, is Torah in its broadest sense, and its call may come through a great variety of channels.        -- Rabbi Arthur Green, Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow


God is speaking on all 360 degrees; the question is, how do we open ourselves to the broadcast?

If I could hear all of the vibrations in this room -- cell phones, broadband, wifi, radio waves, microwaves -- I'd hear a jumble. If I can tune in to a particular frequency, I might hear something I could understand. God broadcasts on all frequencies; we need to adjust our radios to attune to God.

To connect with God, to log on to God, we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.

I believe in progressive revelation. A metaphor: my first computer had 36k of memory. And I could do a lot with that. But some things, I couldn't do! Every generation adds more bytes. What we couldn't do individually, we can do collectively.

If we can't remember the revelation at Sinai, we need to recreate the memory. It's like experiential karaoke! The tradition is the music, and we reenact and recreate the words of the song.     -- Reb Zalman (transcribed in 2004)


Happy Shavuot to all! May we each receive the revelation of Torah which we most need this year as our festival unfolds.


This Year's Revelation -- at Zeek

I have a new essay in Zeek. In this piece I draw on classical midrash and on Rabbis Without Borders thinking (as I did last year in the essay Being Meir) to make the argument that Torah belongs to all of us, no matter who we are -- and that God calls us to rise above the binaries which polarize us. Binaries within the Jewish community, binaries between us and other communities, binaries in the American political system -- what would happen if we could transcend those?

Here's a taste of the essay, a passage talking about the revelation at Sinai:

All of us were there. All of us heard.
 And what we heard, we heard according to our ability to understand. Torah comes to meet us wherever we are. Torah comes to lift us up, wherever we are. Torah comes to inspire us, wherever we are. And because each of us hears according to her or his own temperament and inclinations, we don’t always understand Torah in the same ways. But Torah doesn’t belong only to those who read it this way, or those who read it that way. Torah does not belong to religious liberals any more than it belongs to religious conservatives. Torah trumps those categories.

According to our midrashic tradition, God gives Torah to all of us — regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, age, race, creed, color, class, political party — and it belongs to all of us, wherever we are.
 oes that seem too radical? Look back at the beginning of the midrash: God’s voice divided itself into every human language. For all that our tradition privileges Hebrew, revelation didn’t happen only in that language.

Revelation came in every language, because revelation belongs not only to Jews but to all creation. As my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels; each religious tradition hears revelation on the channel to which we are attuned. The necessary corollary to that, of course, is that each religious tradition contains at least some ultimate truth. If some facet of the Infinite is revealed to each religious tradition, then it’s no longer possible to say that we have it right and they have it wrong.

Torah isn’t just for us, no matter how “us” is defined. [...]

I hope you'll click through and read the whole piece: This Year's Revelation.

Comments welcome.


Rituals, spiritual fidelity, and turning toward God (Naso)

Next weekend I'll be the scholar-in-residence at a Shabbaton at Temple Beth El of City Island. In anticipation of my visit, they graciously invited me to post a d'var Torah at their rabbinic blog. For the sake of completeness, I'm also archiving it here. Enjoy!


In this week’s Torah portion (Naso) is the strange ritual of the Sotah, which on its face concerns an allegedly unfaithful wife, a jealous husband, and a magic brew of water and dust. When our sages say of Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” I believe they invited us to turn this Sotah passage so it reveals not only old-paradigm patriarchy and heterocentrism, but also deep wisdom for today. Before we can turn it, though, we need to look with open eyes at what it is we’re turning.

Here is the p’shat (the simple surface meaning) of the Sotah ritual. If a husband suspects his wife of infidelity, he should bring her to the priest with an unseasoned grain offering. The priest will dissolve dust from the temple floor in a vessel of sacred water; write the words of a magic spell on a piece of parchment; dissolve those words in the water; and make the woman drink it. The spell indicates that if she was unfaithful, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend. (Some commentators read these words to imply miscarriage; others see them as describing an immediately visible physical response to drinking these “waters of bitterness.”) If the woman has not been unfaithful, then nothing will happen and/or she will remain able to conceive. Either way, that’s the end of the strange Sotah story.

Almost everything about the Sotah ritual challenges our the modern sensibility. First, the gender inequality: a man could accuse his wife of adultery, but there’s no parallel ritual for a woman suspecting her husband of infidelity. While a woman’s sexuality is “owned” by her father or husband, a man’s sexuality is his own and untestable. Second, the Sotah assumes heterosexuality: there’s no ritual for a same-sex couple. Third, there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that an unfaithful woman will inevitably miscarry or become infertile, implying that anyone who miscarries or is infertile may be suspect. I have a sense for how emotionally and spiritually devastating miscarriage and infertility can be in the modern world, and I have no doubt that these experiences were equally powerful for our female ancestors. To link the pain of infertility with this kind of moral judgment adds insult to injury. For these reasons and others, we cannot read the Sotah to guide difficulties among intimate partners in today’s world. We need to turn it around to make it meaningful.

What if we read the Sotah, instead, as a psychological drama in which its actors represent different parts of the self? Through that lens, the verses about the Sotah tell an entirely different story: here’s what to do if I come to feel that some part of me has betrayed the greater unity to which I aspire. First, I must bring my whole self to a holy place, a place of prayer and connection with divinity. Body, heart, mind, and soul: all of me must present in order to move forward. In that holy place, I meet with a spiritual facilitator, someone who has a deep connection with God (symbolized by the Sotah ritual of appearing before a priest). With that person’s help, I articulate where I fear that I went wrong.

Then there’s a ritual of washing-away my misdeed. We write the words down and then let them dissolve. I drink from the living waters in which my misdeeds have dissolved — a way of internalizing, literally taking-into-myself, how my mistakes have been forgiven and washed away (symbolized by the physical drinking of the Sotah potion). If my teshuvah process is incomplete and I haven’t wholly integrated forgiveness, this process may make me feel worse (symbolized by the physical effects of drinking the Sotah potion when one is “guilty”). But if I’m able to release myself from my own misdeeds, then I come away with a clean slate, ready to begin again (symbolized by the Sotah promise of fertility).

Seen in this way, the ritual of the Sotah becomes a kind of spiritual direction session, an opportunity to work with a trained facilitator to fully effect the transformation of teshuvah, repentance and return.

Continue reading "Rituals, spiritual fidelity, and turning toward God (Naso)" »


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.


The anniversary of the revelation of Torah

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Photo, sunbeams at Sinai, by flickr user jacobwod.

 

Tonight and tomorrow are the anniversary of the revelation of Torah.

The anniversary. One of my favorite teachings holds that tonight, Shavuot, is the Jewish people's wedding anniversary with God. On this date we stood together with God. We and God pledged ourselves in everlasting covenant. The written Torah, that beautiful hand-calligraphed parchment scroll, contains our ketubah, our written agreement of the promises we and God make to each other. One teaching holds that on this date, God held the mountain of Sinai up in the sky -- that we stood not at the foot of the mountain, but quite literally beneath the mountain; that the mountain was our chuppah, our wedding-canopy, for our marriage with God. (Another midrash holds that God held the mountain over us as a kind of threat. But I like the wedding midrash better.)

The anniversary of the revelation. On this day, long long ago, we camped at the base of Sinai. The Torah uses a singular verb to say that we camped there, and Rashi reads that to mean that the Israelite people camped there as a single entity, with one heart and one purpose. On this day, long long ago, despite all of our frustrations and our differences, we were together at the mountain as one. We were one people, one heart, one community. And in that state of oneness, we entered into relationship with God. In that state of oneness, we received revelation. We experienced divinity. We experienced the theophany, God's revelation-of-God's-self, a transmission of something from beyond our ken.

The anniversary of the revelation of Torah. What was revealed? Some say that God spoke the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments as we read them in Torah. Some say that God spoke only the first line, "I am Adonai your God," or perhaps only the first word, a great anochi reverberating. Some say that God spoke only the first letter, a silent aleph, and the whole rest of the Torah was communicated via ultra-compressed instantaneous download. The midrash teaches that each of us heard according to her or his own capabilities. Just as manna had a different taste for each person who consumed it, so the revelation reached different people in different ways. God spoke with one voice, but each of us heard the Torah which we most uniquely needed to hear.

My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) teaches that the revelation wasn't just a onetime thing: it's happening even now. God broadcasts on all channels, and we hear on the frequencies to which we're attuned. Ours is not the only revelation; other peoples, other traditions, have received other revelations on the channels where they're tuned-in. They've perceived different facets of the Infinite. We're all like those blind men in the parable, each of whom thought the elephant was something different because of what he perceived when he reached out to touch. But the existence of other revelations doesn't obviate ours; you don't have to be wrong for me to be right. The revelation at Sinai was a burst of divine presence, a transmission from beyond -- and that transmission is still going. As the Browncoats say, you can't stop the signal.

Each of us is a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to God's broadcast. On Shavuot, we open our hearts and attune ourselves to God. What's the revelation that you most need to receive tonight as the heavens open? What Torah does the world most need, right here, right now? What will you draw down and channel into the world this Shavuot?


Sleeping and waking, Torah and revelation

Midrash holds that the children of Israel fell asleep on the cusp of the revelation of Torah. This is the reason usually given for the custom of the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the late-night or all-night study session whose name means "healing on the eve of Shavuot." The healing needed is a kind of spiritual rectification, a chance to make up for our own mistake. When we stay up late studying Torah, we are saying to God (and to ourselves) that revelation matters to us; that we want to be open to the Torah which is coming. We don't want to oversleep this time.

Curiously, the midrash also tells us that God was pleased with the Israelites, and ensured that no mosquitoes bit them that night, so they could enjoy a deep and restful slumber. Perhaps, as the author of Angels, human beings, and the Torah argues, they went to sleep because they knew they couldn't grasp the full meaning of Torah with their conscious minds. They wanted to receive revelation in their dreams. And God got that; God was pleased! But God still asked Moshe to wake them up so that Torah could be given to people who were spiritually (and physically) awake.

In the Hasidic understanding, the Torah which we know in this world is a physical manifestation of -- and also a pale reflection of -- the supernal Torah which is known to God on high. Bereshit Rabbah (a classical commentary on Genesis) teaches us that when a person sleeps, a portion of their soul ascends on high and is united with God; upon waking, the soul returns to the body. Who can know what Torah was revealed to our ancestors in that holy sleep? Their souls (or, as another midrash has it, our souls -- since we all stood at Sinai, every Jewish soul which has ever been or will ever be) ascended on high and connected with God. And then they woke up, and received revelation in a different way.

I've long loved the custom of the tikkun leyl Shavuot. Late at night, the world feels different. I can believe that revelation takes a unique form in the wee hours of the night. When I used to stay up all night for fun in college, I relished both the silliness and the philosophical insights which arose at, say, three a.m. When I did my year of hospital chaplaincy, many years later, I found that some of my deepest and most meaningful encounters took place in the wee hours. Maybe we're more vulnerable in the middle of the night. Maybe we're open to things in a way which is different than the ordinary waking day.

Of course, since Drew was born, I don't stay up so late anymore. (Indeed: he's two and a half and I still haven't shaken the habit, learned during his first year, of keeping jealous track of my hours of sleep. When I wake in the night, I can't help counting how much sleep I've managed and how much I know I still need in order to function in the new day.) I've learned since having a child that sleep is a precious commodity, not necessarily replaceable, and that when I don't have it, I don't function well.

And yet, come Shavuot -- come Shavuot, I offer God my wakefulness until the darkest hours of the night, two and three and some years even four. Over the years, I've come to see the tikkun leyl Shavuot as a mysterious blend of waking-consciousness and dream-consciousness. My body is awake and I am giving myself to the experience of Torah study: in that sense, I'm repairing the mistake made at the night before Sinai. But after a while I'm not exactly awake -- not awake in the same way as during the ordinary daytime, anyway. Who knows what the revelations may come when I'm in that strange spacey middle-of-the-night headspace and heartspace? Once a year, I have a date with God; I can lose a little sleep for that.

Still, I can't help being struck by the mixed messages in the midrash. On the one hand, God kept the mosquitoes from biting on the eve of the theophany at Sinai. God wanted to ease our sleep, to help our souls reach the deep Torah which can be accessed not with the waking mind but with dreaming consciousness. And on the other hand, God told Moshe to wake us up (and our central holiday practice is one of attempting to "heal" our error in oversleeping.) Because the spiritual, heady, dreamy aspects of Torah which we can access while we're sleeping are only part of the revelation. The other part -- perhaps the practical tangible part, the this-worldly part -- has to happen while we're awake.

This is one of the reasons I love teaching Torah poetry in the middle of the night at Shavuot. Poetry can function on levels beyond the purely intellectual. Like dreams, poems often work associatively. They recast ideas and images in new ways. Reading Torah poetry in the middle of the night feels a bit like a waking dream -- a chance to fulfil both the mitzvah of staying awake for Shavuot, and the mitzvah of opening ourselves up to the revelations in our dreams.


Poems of Ruth - for Shavuot

Chag sameach! I hope you're having a wonderful Shavuot so far.

I promised I would share the poems I taught last night at the tikkun leil Shavuot co-created by my shul and the shul up the road in Bennington. Here you go -- enjoy!


Poems of Ruth

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woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt

Shavuot 5772 / 2012

Poems by Marge Piercy, Rachel Barenblat, Catherine Tufariello,

Tania Runyan, Victor Hugo, Kathryn Hellerstein, Anna Kamienska

Download RuthPoems [pdf]


New toddler house poem for Shavuot


Shavuot in the toddler house


You don't remember, but
    you gathered at Sinai
        with the ganze mishpacha

the broadcast came
    in every language at once
        our spirits electrified

Torah in our mouths
    like mother's milk
        sweet as wildflower honey

You don't remember, but
    you learned the deepest Torah
        floating in my salt sea

an angel kept you company
    and taught you holiness
        you somersaulted with joy

you didn't know
    only traces would remain
        on the hard drive of your heart

You don't remember, but
    you spent night after night
        drawing down my Torah

I'll spend my remaining years
    learning the Torah of you
        every day revelation anew


This is the latest addition to my growing collection of "toddler house" poems, which I wrote -- and share -- in anticipation of the festival of Shavuot, which will begin this coming Saturday night.

"The ganze mishpacha" is Yiddish for "the whole family" -- an allusion to the midrash which says that the souls of all Jews who have ever lived or will ever live were mystically present for the theophany at Sinai. The idea that the divine broadcast was heard in whatever language each person understood / needed also comes from midrash (and is echoed in the Christian scriptures, as well.) The Torah-as-mother's-milk metaphor comes in part from the tradition of eating dairy at Shavuot. The image of an unborn child learning Torah in the womb and forgetting it upon birth comes from Talmud (Niddah 20b.)

All comments / responses welcome.


A poem about Orpah

THE ONE WHO TURNED BACK

 

Maybe you envisioned
your husband's grave
choked with weeds

maybe you knew
the Israelites would scorn
your foreign features

the sages say
God gave you four sons
because you wept as you left her

the pundits whisper
once Naomi was gone
you spread your legs for anyone

did the men of Moab
grind your body
like bruised corn

did you birth Goliath
and rend your garments
when you lost him too

did you live for centuries
destined for the sword
of one of David's men --

or did you bathe
your aging parents
and die a quiet spinster

comforted by the scent
of the wild rosemary
outside your childhood home?


In preparation for the lesson I'm going to teach at my shul's Tikkun Leil Shavuot (late-night Torah study gathering -- beginning 9pm, Saturday May 26; let me know if you want to join us!), I've been collecting poems arising out of the Book of Ruth. (Including my own The Handmaid's Tale (Ruth), which I posted here last year.)

To my surprise, no one seems to have written any poetry (contemporary or otherwise) about Ruth's fellow sister-in-law Orpah. So I settled in to see what I could write.

Most of the details in this poem come from classical midrash about Orpah -- there's a good online compilation in English at the Jewish Women's Archive called Orpah: midrash and aggadah. The final two stanzas have no basis in classical tradition, and come purely out of my own imaginings.

I welcome whatever response(s) this poem evokes in you.


70 faces of Torah for Shavuot

As we count the Omer, we're counting down the days until Shavuot. (This year Shavuot begins on  the evening of Saturday, May 26 -- just under four weeks from now.) Like children counting the days until a birthday or vacation, like a bride or groom counting down the days until the wedding, we're counting the 49 days until we can celebrate the anniversary of standing at Sinai and receiving Torah.

The sages tell us that each of our souls was somehow mystically present on that day: not only the souls of every Israelite who had survived the Exodus from Egypt, but the souls of every Jew who ever was or will be. When we celebrate Shavuot with mindful intention, we can glimpse that ineffable moment of transmission.

My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells us that the divine broadcast is still happening -- that God broadcasts truth and love and kindness on all frequencies all the time. This is the frequency to which our community has historically been attuned. If we open the ears of our hearts and souls, we can hear it even now.

In my favorite understanding, the Torah we received at Sinai wasn't just the words we know and love, dance with and wrestle with, read each week in the scroll of Genesis through Deuteronomy. In that moment of mystical download we received too all of the commentaries, the Oral Torah, the writings of our sages of blessed memory, all the way down to every d'var Torah written even now.

Every insight, every interpretation, every mind-opening understanding was packaged with the Torah when it came down. Torah, the sages say, has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

If you're looking for a contemporary way to connect with Torah, allow me to humbly suggest my collection of Torah poems. It makes a great Shavuot gift for anyone in your life who loves poetry and/or loves Torah. If your community celebrates Confirmation at this time, consider giving it to confirmands! Or to b'nei mitzvah, or to your rabbi, or to a friend, or to yourself. Find out all about it, read the first few poems, etc, here at the Phoenicia Publishing website.

70FacesSmall

A great Shavuot gift for one and all!


Shavuot 5771 / 2011

We met at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center (a place which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year -- it's wonderful and strange to me that I have accumulated more memories from celebrating Shavuot and Simchat Torah there as an adult than from attending Shabbat services there as an undergrad.) Hazzan Bob Scherr, the cantor who serves as Jewish chaplain at Williams, led us in a beautiful short and sweet festival service -- and in singing a variety of niggunim and songs in between the various lessons which were taught over the course of the night.

After davening, our evening of learning (and noshing on fruit and dairy and espresso milkshakes) began. Diane Wolkstein gave over a gorgeous retelling of the story of Ruth which interwove the Biblical text seamlessly with classical midrash about Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, and Boaz. In her telling, the setting came to life (a time of chaos, corruption, and fear of the stranger) and the characters leapt off the page and into the room with us. I came away newly-moved by the radical courage of Ruth and of Boaz, and by the ways in which their story shines new light on our time. (I think I may have to get myself a copy of her book Treasures of the Heart, which contains her retelling of Hebrew Bible stories -- including the version of Ruth she shared with us last night.)

Rabbi Howard Cohen taught a lesson on Wilderness, Emerson, and Transcendentalism, exploring the meaning of "wilderness" in Jewish texts (the place of revelation, a place where there is an overwhelming sense of Divine presence without the artificial filters of our inhabited spaces) and in American transcendentalists like Muir and Emerson, and then delving into questions of how 20th century American Jewish thinking was influenced by Emerson and transcendentalism. (Turns out that rabbinic leaders including Solomon Schechter, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordechai Kaplan were all Emerson fans: who knew?)

Professor Denise Buell taught a lesson called Remembering Revelations -- Canonical Texts and Me which challenged us to think about canonical texts and our relationships to those texts, and explored how texts and their range of possible interpretations leave ghostly imprints on one another. We read excerpts from Acts and from the letter to the Hebrews -- texts written from a sectarian Jewish point of view which later became foundational to the new Christian church -- and also from the fascinating homilies of Pseudo-Clementine of Alexandria (not considered canonical) which offer a reading of Jewish-Christian relationship in which each community is saved by virtue of their own prophet.

Robin K. taught a lesson on Kashrut: Kids, Calves, and Casseroles, looking at the verses in Torah which have to do with not seething a kid in its mother's milk and exploring a variety of questions and interpretations. Probably the most powerful part of that lesson for me was the idea that seething a kid in its mother's milk is about mixing life and death, since the mother's milk represents the essence of life itself -- that if one were to bring life and death together on the table in that way, it would be a sign of callous disregard for the mysteries of life and death and therefore a sign of (or a cause of?) spiritual brokenness.

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger taught on The Pros and Cons of Nostalgia, exploring the Jewish tradition's complicated relationship with nostalgia (on the one hand there's the vein in tradition which argues that our ancestors were the spiritual "greats" and that every generation since them is diminishing in holiness; on the other hand there's the vein in tradition which trusts that we are moving toward a messianic future and therefore every generation is closer to real holiness.) He brought song lyrics (The Boys of Summer), a beautiful quote from Andre Aciman, and teachings from his colleagues to bear on ideas of the festivals and nostalgia.

My lesson was on Torah Through Poetry's Window. I spoke briefly about midrash, shared my Ruth poem "The Handmaid's Tale", and then took requests for a handful of Torah poems from 70 faces (requests included "a leprosy poem" and "akedah poems," both of which I shared from the book -- as well as a Tamar poem and a Dinah poem, which I didn't have but hope to write in months to come.) I closed with Mobius (the final poem from 70 faces), which hearkened back to some of what Joshua had said about nostalgia for Avraham and for Moshe.

Our final lesson was Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser's teaching Love Letters: How the Rabbis Reinvented the Torah. Through the lens of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer and the Ahavat Olam prayer -- the blessings immediately preceding the shema in morning prayer and evening prayer, which are variations on the same theme -- we explored what the rabbis who established our liturgy meant to tell us about Torah. (Short version: Torah is love. Not about love, though sometimes it's that too; in the rabbinic imagination is love. By the by -- don't miss his post Shavuot: the Torah is your lover.) He took us through a midrash and a bit of Zohar about the passionate relationship between Israel and Torah, the ways in which Song of Songs can teach us how we're meant to relate to God, the idea that at the moment of revelation the commandments themselves kissed us on the mouth, the sense in which Torah reveals herself to us like a lover.

And then the few of us who remained (by then our numbers had dwindled to eight) gathered in the sanctuary again, and, singing, passed the Torah from arm to arm, each of us taking a moment to cradle her, to kiss her, to dance with her as with a baby or a lover, and then to return her to her place in the ark so that we could each drive home in the mysterious deep of the 2am night.