On holy anniversaries

The Counting of the Omer is ending. The festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening at sundown. I'll be celebrating with folks from Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams), Congregation Beth El (Bennington), and a few faculty members from Williams, at the Williams College Jewish Center. Our plans call for a brief evening service at 7:30pm, followed by a wonderful line-up of evening teachings.

This year we're doing something special to kick things off: master storyteller Diane Wolkstein will grace us with her rendition of the story of Ruth, since Ruth is the text traditionally studied at Shavuot. And then, as we've done in years past, clergy and congregants from the different communities will take turns offering Torah teachings of various sorts, interspersed with breaks for dairy snacks and schmoozing. We usually go until 1 or 2am; not quite the traditional all-night study session, but definitely something out of the ordinary, and a chance to connect with the unique spiritual insights which sometimes arise when one is engaging with powerful texts during the night. The celebration is open to all, so if you're so inclined, please join us.

We understand Shavuot as the anniversary of the date when Torah was revealed at Sinai, the date when we and God entered into holy covenant, a moment when the entire Jewish community (past, present and future) was mystically present and mystically experienced an ineffable connection with the infinite. One popular metaphor holds that Shavuot is the wedding anniversary of our people's marriage to God, and the Torah is our ketubah, the beautiful handwritten document which articulates our promises one to the other.

As it happens, tomorrow is also another kind of anniversary for me -- the more mundane kind, though no less wonderful for all that. As my thirteenth wedding anniversary wanes, Shavuot will be getting underway. It is a blessing indeed to have the opportunity to celebrate these awesome moments of remembrance... but in the case of both of these relationships, the relationship far supercedes the day on which we celebrate it. Torah is always being revealed, and we're co-creating this marriage day by day. The love manifest in this sacred text, and the love manifest in our marriage, are always being renewed. I am more grateful, and more lucky, than I can say.

 

 


A Ruth poem for Shavuot

The counting of the Omer is nearly complete; the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate the revelation of Torah at Sinai, is next week. At Shavuot it's customary to read the Book of Ruth. In honor of the festival, here's a poem about Ruth.

 

THE HANDMAID'S TALE (RUTH)


Time for a different kind of harvest.
Sated with bread and beer
Boaz and his men sleep deeply
on the fragrant hay.
The floor doesn’t creak.

When Boaz wakes, his eyes
gleam with unshed tears.
He is no longer young, maybe
forty; his face is lined
as Mahlon's never became.

Who are you? he asks
and I hear an echoing question:
who is it? what is it? who speaks?
Spread your wings over me, I reply
and his cloak billows high.

Now he clasps my foreign hand
and kisses the tips of my fingers
now skin glides against skin
and the seed of salvation grows in me
the outsider, the forbidden

we move from lack to fullness
we sweeten our own story
and as my belly swells I pray
that the day come speedily and soon
when we won't need to distinguish

Israel from Moab
the sun’s radiance from the moon’s
Boaz’s square fingers
from my smaller olive hands
amen, amen, selah.

 


Morning prayer, on retreat and after

1.

On the first morning of Shavuot I had Drew in my arms. He had been asleep in the stroller during Reb Zalman's 4am teaching, but not long after we began to pray at 5am he woke up, and thereafter I was holding him on my lap or in my arms or wearing him in a sling. I didn't bother to hold a siddur (prayerbook) -- my hands were, quite literally, already full. This is what I've been doing at shul when I make it to Shabbat morning services, too: holding Drew and praying aloud without a written text. (I am grateful that the prayer life I developed during my early years of rabbinic school means I know the liturgy well enough to be able to do this!)

Anyway, back to Shavuot. That morning I danced Drew around the back of the room, dandled him on my knee, and nursed him on a couch in the adjacent lounge while listening to the community sing a psalm of thanksgiving responsively with Reb Zalman. (He would call out a line like "Praise God, all the whales and little fishes," and everyone would chorus "Hallelujah" in multi-part harmony.) I remember davening that way with him one Shabbat morning back in 2004; this time I wasn't part of the singing community, but we listened to it from the next room.

I enjoyed dancing Drew around the back of the room and singing along. I loved the feeling of enfolding both of us in my new Bnai Or tallit, and I loved thinking about how he is already steeping in the melodies of prayer. And I even enjoyed nursing him in the other room and listening to the psalm as it was co-created by the kahal, though I also felt a pang of wishing I were able to lend my voice instead of just listening in from afar.

Continue reading "Morning prayer, on retreat and after" »


The Torah of our Mothers: Reb Zalman, Shavuot 5770, 4am

My favorite thing about Shavuot is the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the celebratory all-night study session. We stay awake and learn Torah all night because we don't want to accidentally sleep in and miss the anniversary of the revelation -- and because the kabbalists of Tzfat used to teach that a special influx of Torah insight and divine blessing is available in the middle of the night, and all the more so when we're studying on Shavuot eve. It's one of my favorite forms of Judeo-geekery. I just love the fact that we celebrate one of the year's major festivals by learning all night long.

Of course, this year there was no way I was staying up all night, even given the amazing line-up of teachers scheduled at the Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman. I have a six-month-old, and sleep is a precious commodity in my life! Not to mention, I couldn't go gallivanting off to study Torah all night and leave Drew alone in the room, since he still wakes to nurse pretty frequently (especially when we're on the road.) On the first night of the retreat I put Drew to bed at 8pm, an hour after his usual bedtime, and -- regretfully -- I put myself to bed not all that long thereafter.

But we did make it to Reb Zalman's shiur (lesson), which was at 4am, followed immediately by sunrise services at five. As it happened, Drew was up to nurse at 3ish and I had trouble getting him back to sleep, so I put him in the stroller in his pyjamas and we headed over to the main building. He spent the next hour and a half or so in the stroller with the umbrella hood pulled over him and my raincoat thrown over that to keep his little enclosure nice and dark; I rolled him around the back of the room, slowly, and he slept through Reb Zalman's whole talk.

Reb Zalman's teaching was beautiful. He began with Mishlei (Proverbs) 1:8 -- " שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּך / Shema, bni, mussar avicha, v'al titosh Torat imecha. / Hear, my son, the mussar (self-improvement teachings) of your father, but don't forget the Torah of your mother." That was his big theme, though he divagated from it and then returned repeatedly, each time turning it over to show a new facet of what it might mean.

I wasn't taking notes during his shiur, so what follows is an incomplete recounting of what Reb Zalman said. With that disclaimer, here are some of the ideas which stuck with me.

Once upon a time, he reminded us, we used to go to Jerusalem for the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals. In those days, we understood that Jerusalem was the place to connect with God: not so much to see God as to be seen by God. He offered some wordplay on the word yirah, usually rendered as "fear" or "awe," which can also be creatively read as "being seen." So when the tradition tells us to have yirat Shamayim ("fear of heaven,") that doesn't necessarily mean we ought to feel afraid of God but rather that we should know ourselves to be seen by God.

That led him to a story about a Sufi master who had twenty disciples, each of whom wanted to succeed him. The master gave them each a bird and instructed them to go someplace where no one could see them and to kill the bird and then return and he would give them the next set of instructions. Nineteen of the twenty returned with dead birds in hand, but one of them returned with his bird still alive. When the master asked why he hadn't followed the instruction, he replied "I couldn't find any place where no One could see me!"

Reb Zalman hit some of the themes I've heard and read from him before: normative halakha versus illustrative halakha, paradigm shift, the need for a new cosmology and a new ethics which arises out of that new cosmology, how seeing the earth from space changes our perspective on who we are, the need to relate to one another as cells in the body of Gaia, how each religion is like an organ in the body of humanity (each organ needs to have its own integrity but also to communicate with the others in the system), how even within Judaism we can understand ourselves organismically (one part of our community is like the spine which keeps us straight; another part of our community is all heart; and so on.) Ultimately he brought all of this back to teachings about the mussar of our father and the Torah of our mother.

When I heard the phrase "the Torah of our mother," I immediately thought of how over the last few decades we've been adding women's voices to the tradition: female halakhists, female midrashists, the perspectives and stories of Jewish women which were for so long absent from the recorded tradition. But it turned out that Reb Zalman meant something deeper than just this. He talked about masculine consciousness, which is punctive (formed of points on a line), and feminine consciousness which takes slow change into account. (Both men and women can have each of these, of course.) Feminine consciousness understands, e.g., that a baby of six months has different needs than a baby of one week. In this era we need that kind of feminine consciousness, that kind of awareness of how our community's spiritual needs have shifted over time as we have changed and grown. We need the Torah of our mothers, and that's what he urged us to seek to receive at this anniversary of the revelation of Torah at Sinai.

On the Sinai front, Reb Zalman spoke about the Torah which comes down from above at Sinai, and the Torah which rises up from within at Sinai. There's the Torah which comes down like rain (this is a bit of wordplay, since the word "Torah" comes from an archery root and is related to the word for a kind of driving rainfall), and the Torah which rises up like dew. Dew in our tradition is a symbol for divine grace, unmerited but plentiful, and he linked dew with the Torah of our mothers as well as the Torah of our mother planet. We need to receive and be open to the Torah of our mother in this era, in order that someday we may be able to read both the black fire of the letters of Torah and the white fire of the spaces between them, to see and to value both figure and ground.

At that point I thought of Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood Together" -- both because of the motif of black fire / white fire, masculine wisdom / feminine wisdom which Feld's poem and Reb Zalman's remarks share, and because the poem is about how women were at Sinai too but weren't able to write our experience down because we were always holding the baby, and that's where I've been at during this retreat myself. (Which is new for me; as you may have gathered from my copious Elat Chayyim blogging over the years, I usually keep a notebook in my tallit case so I can jot things down constantly while I'm here.) Being here with Drew in my arms, instead of with a notebook in hand, has been a fascinating exercise. When I think of it as being in the moment, I appreciate it; when I think of the notes I wish I'd taken, and the things I know I'm already forgetting, I feel some chagrin.

From Reb Zalman's shiur we moved directly into our morning davenen -- he sent a messenger outside to report on whether the morning star was visible, and when it was, we began to sing and to pray. Drew woke up shortly after we started praying. I moved in and out of the service, sometimes holding him in my arms, sometimes pushing him in the stroller, sometimes nursing him on a couch in the adjacent room, sometimes wearing him in a didymos wrap on my chest with both of us enfolded beneath the big rainbow-striped tallit I recently inherited from my sister (who had no idea it was a Reb Zalman-designed Bnai Or tallit when she used it as her chuppah 25 years ago!)

In the late afternoon, I ran into a friend from a previous retreat who asked me to tell her about Reb Zalman's talk, which she had missed because she needed sleep at that hour. I had taken a few moments while Drew catnapped before breakfast to jot down the outline of the above reflections, so I did my best to report it to her. She thanked me -- and told me that she had made the same request of several other people and that no two of us had told her the same things! She mentioned a few things that other people had chosen to recount, and as she listed each one I realized that yes, he spoke about that, too. It was a wonderful blind-men-and-the-elephant moment -- realizing that what each of us takes away from a Reb Zalman lecture says a lot about who we are and what Torah we each need to receive.

All in all, the Shavuot retreat was pretty terrific. I was mildly frustrated that I missed some evening programming because of Drew's bedtime. But that's a pretty minor complaint (and has more to do with my life right now than with the retreat per se.) It was a real blessing to be able to be there with Drew, to introduce him to so many of my rabbinic school teachers and friends, to see him receive a blessing from Reb Zalman, and to experience for myself the blessing of Reb Zalman's early-morning teachings while my son slept in the stroller.

I love knowing that someday I'll be able to say to Drew, "You don't remember it, but the first Shavuot of your life I took you to Isabella Freedman, and we woke up at three in the morning to hear Reb Zalman teach..." And there was something very powerful about hearing Reb Zalman's teaching on the Torah of our mothers at this moment when I am so immersed in discovering the Torah of my own motherhood.


Shavuot is coming

Last year at Shavuot I was just barely at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy. My shul and the shul up the road held a Tikkun leyl Shavuot (an all-night study session on the eve of the festival) where I taught a Hasidic text about seeing God in one another's faces. I wound up studying all night, which I wrote about briefly in the post Standing again at Sinai. What I didn't write about then, because I wasn't ready to share the news of my pregnancy with the wide world, was what it felt like to study Torah all night knowing that inside me a whole new kind of Torah was waiting to be revealed. I figured it was probably the last time for a long while that I'd be up for learning Torah all night, but I couldn't really imagine what my life would be like by the time the festival rolled around again.

Shavuot is in just a few days, and sure enough, my life has changed in ways I couldn't have imagined. (It's also remained constant in ways I couldn't have imagined.) This year I'm celebrating the festival of first fruits and revelation in a new way: I'll be spending two nights at Isabella Freedman, enjoying the Shavuot retreat with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, his wife Eve Ilsen, and my friend Reb David Ingber. Reb Zalman has celebrated Shavuot at Isabella Freedman before (last year I posted the first in a set of YouTube videos, filmed there during a previous Shavuot, of Reb Zalman reading-and-translating the book of Ruth in his own inimitable way) but this will be my first time spending the holiday with him. Of course, I'm taking Drew with me. He's been to Isabella Freedman before, but only for an evening; this will be his first time on retreat with me.

I'm looking deeply forward to the learning and the davening and the singing: all the things I always love about spending time with my Jewish Renewal chevre (friends.) That said, I know that this retreat won't be quite like any other I've ever attended. Drew's needs are still paramount; they trump even my desire to imbibe Reb Zalman's teachings at this time of holy downloading! I'm hoping I'll be able to dance Drew around the room as we daven, play with him quietly on a quilt as Reb Zalman teaches, and if needed pass him around the room to other friendly folks who like babies. Of course, if he fusses I'm also prepared to take him out of the room or walk him around the campus...and to wake up often at night to nurse, since he's reached a stage where he doesn't sleep well away from his own familiar crib. If there is all-night Torah study at Isabella Freedman during Shavuot, I won't be able to participate in it, but perhaps I can regard our inevitable late-night feedings as a chance to receive a unique flow of blessing.

Knowing that this retreat will be shaped by my new obligation to juggle my desires with Drew's needs feels like a good encapsulation of my life right now. These days I can't focus all of my energy on learning Torah the way I used to. But I keep remembering something that my previous spiritual director, Reb Burt Jacobson, said to me last year: that Drew would be one of my greatest teachers of Torah. I remember, too, my fellow chaplains at Albany Medical Center telling me that someday when I became a parent I would enter into a whole new kind of theological education! Maybe the critical thing is that I can't focus my energy on Torah the way I used to. But I can still immerse myself in Torah: now in new ways, changed and enriched by this experience of motherhood which is changing and enriching me.

I'm looking forward to seeing what insights arise for me during this festival of Shavuot: through the study and davening and singing, and also through the continued experience of learning how to be the mother to Drew that I want to be.


Shavuot teaching: in your face!

Here's the teaching I offered during our tikkun leyl Shavuot this year. I give this over in the name of my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg, who guided us through this text in his Hasidic Sacred Year class recently. The translation below is my own; parenthetical material is my attempt to keep things clear.

We began with a chant (שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד/ Shiviti Adonai l'negdi tamid / I keep God before me always) and then dove into this text. It's dense but beautiful; I hope you enjoy!

Seeing the Aleph at Sinai / "In Your Face!"

Zera Kodesh, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropczyce [1760-1827], vol. II, p.40a, Jerusalem, 1971


In the midrash, we read "Anochi/I am Adonai your God" (Exodus/Shmot 20:2 -- this is the first of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances or Sayings.) The midrash around this verse says, "Face to face God spoke with them on the mountain from amidst the fire." (Deuteronomy/Dvarim 5:4) Said Rabbi Avdumi from Haifa, (quoting Midrash Rabbah), 22,000 angels came down with the Holy Blessed One to Sinai. As it's written (Psalm 68:18) "God rides with his entourage, twice ten thousand, myriads of angels, and the Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness."

Some say "The holy name YHVH is written on their hearts." Another opinion: the Name is within them. Our rabbis teach that the name of Elohim is mixed into each of the angels: Micha-El, Gavri-El. So God says to the people Israel, you will see in the divine Face many faces (or: see the divine Face in the many angelic faces); but don't be of the opinion that there are many gods in heaven! And know that I am one God, as it says, Anochi Adonai elohecha.

This can be explained in the fashion that I heard from the mouth of my teacher, Menachem Mendel of Riminav, who quoted Psalm 62:12 -- "One thing was spoken, two things have I heard." (In other words: God may say one thing, and we hear it in two different ways. Or maybe we hear it in as many ways as we are individuals!) It's possible that when God spoke at Sinai, we only heard the א / aleph (the silent first letter) of the word Anochi from the Holy Blessed One. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) writes that "A wise man's lips bring him favor" (which is obviously the case with this teacher of mine, who was wise indeed.)

Understand that the holy words of the living God are "like fire, says God, like a hammer that shatters the rock." (God's words come into creation with great power and force. Or, maybe he's comparing his teacher's words to God's words -- since his teacher's words, when they encounter Torah, break it into many beautiful pieces for us to savor.)

We also need to understand what's written in Torah, that "face to face" or "multiple faces, God spoke with us from within the fire on the mountain." But it's also written in Torah that "you didn't see, on the day that Adonai spoke to us within the fire, except for a voice." (So one verse says that God spoke to us face to face, but another verse says we saw nothing but a voice.)

Our ancestors, of blessed memory, wrote sweetly that we should hold God in front of us at all times. They wrote books of wisdom in which the holy and unpronounceable name YHVH is hinted-at by the (silent) letter aleph.

The aleph is written in the form of a vav with two yuds attached. (Picture a slantwise ו / vav, with one י/ yud above it and another below: that's what a printed א / aleph looks like.) In gematria, Jewish word-math, we see that this deconstructed aleph adds up to 26 (vav = 6, each yud = 10) and the holy name YHVH also adds up to 26 (10 + 5 + 6+ 5).

But where this is really hinted-at is in the face of a person: one's two eyes are the two yuds, and the nose is like a letter vav, and in this way the face takes on the form of the letter aleph. This is what it means when it says (in Genesis/Bereshit) that we're created in God's image. The letter aleph is hidden in plain sight on the human face, and since the aleph represents the holy Name, that means each person's face has the holy Name on/in it.

This is the seal of God that is inscribed on the human face, and this is why we are instructed to see the likeness of the Holy Blessed One in one another. And this is why "I keep God before me always" is a fundamental principle in Torah. We are called to see God in each other human being, because God is within us.

And when we were blessed to be among those at Sinai, and heard the voice and "saw" what was spoken, we saw this form of the letter aleph which points to the divine name, and understood it to be the form of their own faces.

Questions:

1) Do you perceive a tension between the idea that God spoke to us at Sinai face-to-face, and the idea that we didn't see anything but a voice?

2) What is the difference between having God "on your heart" and having God written "on your face"? Is one more internal than the other?

3) What are the ethical implications of seeing God in every human face?

4) How might we live with "I keep God before me always" as a mantra or motto?


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Standing again at Sinai

My shul and the shul up the road joined forces again to spend Shavuot together, singing and noshing and learning well into the night. This year we had nine lessons on tap:

  • The many faces of Torah - Rabbi Pam Wax

  • Maimonides and Jewish teachings on saving a life - Bill

  • Akdamut and Sacred Melodies - Cantor Lisa Arbisser

  • The changing meaning of the land of Israel in Jewish thought - Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • A philosophical lesson on the akedah - Jesse

  • The Music and Poetry of the Book of Psalms - Cantor Bob Scherr

  • A lesson on Brit Milah - Joan

  • Water and Revelation: Let's Go Down to the River to Pray - Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Seeing the Aleph at Sinai (a.k.a. "In Your Face!") - me

(As in years past, when lessons are taught by congregants I'm listing them by first name only, in case anyone has privacy concerns. Clergy who teach lessons get whole names, since I figure our names tend to be pretty public anyway.)

I'll post my own lesson momentarily, in case anyone's curious; it's a gorgeous text and I was delighted to be able to teach it! In a happy coincidence, I exchanged email recently with a leader from a synagogue in Buenos Aires, and sent him both the Hebrew text and my English translation, so I think this same text was taught in BA on Shavuot eve, too. What a delightfully small world it is sometimes.

Our tikkun wrapped up around 3ish, and by the time we were through with our brief closing ceremony (passing the Torah from person to person, each cradling her for a time, and then reciting a kaddish d'rabanan to seal our study) it was 3:30. The rational thing to do would have been to come home, but some of the Bennington folks were planning to last all night and urged me to join them! So I drove up to Bennington with them and settled into Vi's lovely home (all bright colors and artwork everywhere) and we talked about our Omer journeys and then listened to the last of Reb Nachman's Seven Beggars folktales. And by the time that ended, the sky was lightening and it was dawn.

It's been years since I've actually stayed up all night on Shavuot; I expect I'll regret it later today, at least physically. But there is something amazing and unique about the feeling of learning Torah all night, opening myself to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark, especially knowing that so many others around the world were doing the very same thing. Chag sameach, everyone -- I hope your holiday is sweet.


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Reb Zalman reads the book of Ruth

The book of Ruth is traditionally studied at Shavuot. (I've blogged about this before: Ruth: Returning where we've never been.)

If you're interested in hearing the story of Ruth told in a unique way, allow me to recommend a set of YouTube videos of my teacher Reb Zalman. There are seven of them in total, adding up to 35 minutes, and you can find them here. Here's part one:

The Book of Ruth told by Reb Zalman - part 1.

This is a recent video, filmed last year; Reb Zalman translates the text on the fly, occasionally chanting a line or two and offering his own interpretations. Though the text is traditional, his rendering is very much his own, and it is lovely.

This was taped at the new home of Elat Chayyim (the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.) Given that Reb Zalman and many of my friends (seen when the camera pans the room) are wearing tallitot, and that there's a Torah scroll wrapped in front of Reb Zalman in front of the room, I'm guessing this may have been part of the extended Shavuot morning Torah service.

Reb Zalman will again be teaching at Elat Chayyim this Shavuot; would that there were two of me and I could attend! Instead I'll be here, celebrating Shavuot with my own community. Still, hearing him give over this lovely interpretation of the text makes me miss the retreat experience a little less.


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Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage

I taught the last lesson of the night at our tikkun, which I called Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage. I began by talking about two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah, and heaven and earth as witnesses -- that's the one I've encountered most often.) I talked about what it's like for me to be celebrating two anniversaries this weekend, ten years of marriage and this ongoing relationship with the Source of Blessing, and how the two intersect and interact for me.

Together we looked at a handful of texts, including this one from Zohar:

Rabbi Shimeon used to sit and learn Torah at night when the bride joined with her spouse. It is taught: The members of the bride's entourage are obligated to stay with her throughout the night before her wedding with her spouse to rejoice with her in those perfections (tikkunim) by which she is made perfect. [They should] learn Torah, Prophets and Writings, homilies on the verses and the secrets of wisdom, for these are her perfections and adornments. She enters with her bridesmaids and stands above those who study, for she is readied by them and rejoices in them all the night. On the morrow, she enters the canopy with them and they are her entourage. When she enters the canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them, crowns them with the bride's adornments. Blessed is their destiny. (Zohar I:8a)

The bride in this context is Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling aspect of God; the spouse is the Holy Blessed One, the aspect of God that's wholly transcendent. We're the bridesmaids, attending the Shekhinah on the eve of her marriage; all who study Torah on erev Shavuot strengthen her and cause her to rejoice, and in return YHVH crowns us with the Shekhinah's jewels beneath the chuppah at dawn.

We also read this, from Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays:

One of the most beautiful images of Shavuot of that of the marriage between God (the groom) and Israel (the bride.) Developing this image, Pesach is the period of God’s courtship of Israel, and Shavuot celebrates the actual marriage. Sukkot, then, is the setting up of a bayit ne’eman—a household faithful to Judaism.

Even the midrash’s problematic imagery of God holding the mountain of Sinai over the Israelites’ heads while saying “Accept My Torah or else!” is transformed in this romantic symbolism as the mountain becomes a huppah—a wedding canopy for the marriage.

My handout also included Rabbi Simon Jacobson's essay The Cosmic Marriage (which we didn't discuss, but I wanted to include because it's thought-provoking, if hetero-centric) and The Shavuot Marriage Contract by Philip Goodman which talks about the Sephardic custom of beginning the holiday by reading a ketubah which formalizes the relationship between God and Israel.

We also read and discussed a few of my favorite poems about marriage: a Wendell Berry poem which I posted a few years ago, Marge Piercy's Reshaping Each Other, and Rumi's This Marriage. Each of these was written about a human relationship, but we chose to try reading them as though they'd been written about relationship with God, which yielded some fascinating perspectives. The exercise reminded me of the extent to which our relationships with our human beloveds are always a reflection or refraction of our relationships with the divine Beloved, and vice versa.

We closed by reading Hosea 2:21-22, the verses recited each day as the final twists of tefillin are affixed to one's hand. "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in lovingkindness, and in compassion." Those are the marriage vows that Ethan and I spoke to each other ten years ago, so I get a little shiver every time I say them. The verse recited upon donning tefillin continues, "And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know God."

The verse is talking about a knowing that inheres in deep identification-with the other. It linked beautifully back to the first lesson of our night, in which we explored the kabbalistic prayer said before the tikkun leil Shavuot begins. That prayer makes clear that our study is undertaken for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed Name and the Shekhinah -- a union of transcendence and immanence. During the tikkun we study God's names in all of their permutations (whether via the traditional assemblage of texts, or via the more interpretive dance through Torah in which my liberal community engages) in order to bridge the binary between God-far-above and God-deep-within. That's the kind of knowledge Hosea's talking about.

One of the women in the circle spoke about the leap of faith involved in taking the first step down the aisle when she married her husband many years ago. It's a truth of relationships and of spiritual practice, too: one doesn't begin a marriage by saying, "okay, so, tell me everything that's going to be entailed in this relationship over the next X years, and then I'll decide whether I'm up for it or not." One begins a marriage with an existential yes! Just so in our relationship with the Holy Blessed One -- remember, Torah tells us that the Israelites' response to God was na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Action comes first. We take the leap of enacting our relationship, trusting that our understanding of one another and our bond with one another will deepen as the years go by.


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Ten wonderful shiurim!

Chag Shavuot sameach / happy Shavuot to all!

Like last year, my shul and the shul up the road celebrated Shavuot together. We had a really sweet time. This year we began the night with almost forty people present, around an enormous seminar table, and we savored ten lessons over the course of the evening:

  • What are we supposed to be repairing at the Tikkun? An investigation of the kabbalistic creation of the study vigil on the night of Shavuot, taught by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • What's in a Re-Naming? Another look at the story of Jacob's new name, taught by Joan

  • Shavuot and unharvested fields in Torah, taught by Karen

  • The sounds of prayer and study: how our musical traditions influence our approach to praying and learning as a community, taught by Cantor Bob Scherr

  • Honoring the Image of God: What does Jewish Law have to teach about Torture?, taught by Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Three folk tales about Shavuot, taught by Werner

  • Water, Wells and Words: A Look at Miriam's Relationship to Water, taught by Betty

  • Spaces Between: stringing pearls of Torah into narrative, taught by Elma

  • Musical Settings of Revelation, taught by Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

  • Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage, taught by me

I was especially moved by Joan's teaching about Jacob's new name Israel, which drew deeply on an essay called "The Engendered Shema: Sarah-Echoes in the Name of Israel" by Elizabeth Wyner Mark (published in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought -- I'm psyched to dig up the article next time I'm at the college library.) And Karen's teachings about gleaning led me to consider the ways in which Shabbat and festivals allow us to glean holiness in the margins of our work lives -- how relationship with God is something we harvest best when we sit still. 

It makes me really happy that our two congregations celebrate Shavuot and Simchat Torah together. There's a wonderful energy in our togetherness. When we first began our short festival maariv (evening service) the wave of song and impromptu harmony swept me away. We opened the evening with the blessing for Torah study, in order that our every interaction from then on -- the formal learning, and the informal conversations over espresso mocha milkshakes -- would be a form of engaging with Torah. And we closed the evening a hair before two, the seven final stalwarts standing in a circle in the sanctuary and passing the Torah around. Each of us receiving and giving.

I'll post later today or tomorrow about the lesson I taught. For now, I'm having a sweet slow day -- after several wonderful days of houseguests and anniversary celebrations of various kinds, I'm pretty beat! -- and feeling really blessed.


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The historicity of revelation

I've really been enjoying my Biblical History & Civ class this semester. That's a testament to Reb Leila, who is a top-notch instructor. She's very organized, she lectures well, and she's structured the class in such a way that most weeks we're doing the teaching, which is a great way to ensure that we're internalizing the material. My familiarity with Biblical history and early Israelite civilization was pretty limited before this, so I've been devouring this material pretty avidly.

We've spent a lot of time lately with Bernhard Anderson's Understanding the Old Testament, John Bright's A History of Israel, and Yehezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel. These are solid scholars and their books are valuable to have on my bookshelf (both literally and metaphorically), though what's especially fascinating is the extent to which they disagree. That's intentional, of course. We're learning as much about the meta-story of how our history has been understood (by Jews and by non-Jews, over the course of time) as we are about the history itself.

But none of these writers lend themselves to pithy blog posts. They're a little on the dense side. (I contemplated trying to turn my in-class presentation on the United Monarchy into a blog post, but concluded that it just wasn't likely to appeal.)

But this past week we read an article that struck me as bloggable -- and even germane to the time of year we're entering. It's an article by Dr. Edward L. Greenstein called Understanding the Sinai Revelation, which takes a fascinating approach to questions about the historicity of Sinai (which strike me as parallel in many ways to questions about the historicity of the Exodus; suddenly this material feels appropriate for the period leading up to Pesach, and even more for the period between Pesach and Shavuot.)

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Zohar lesson from erev Shavuot

The lesson I taught the other night at our tikkun leyl Shavuot was called "Zohar and the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning." I based it on a teaching from Daniel Matt's 1983 translation of the Zohar (the "Book of Splendor" -- there's a bilingual version of the Zohar online here), the germinal work of Jewish mysticism.

The packet I handed out included several texts: a passage that Matt calls "The Hidden Light" (you can read the very beginning of it online here, but that's hardly satisfying, so I'll append the whole passage to the end of this post -- it's about 570 words and is really worthwhile), three excerpts from Torah which are cited in the Zohar piece (the birth of Moses in Exodus 2, the description of Moses "irradiated" and glowing in Exodus 34:29-34, and the first three days of creation as described in Genesis 1), and the footnotes to the Zohar piece (which are extensive and fascinating.)

One of the things I really like about this translation of Zohar is that it is formatted like poetry, and the visual prosody shapes the way the text reads. It's allusive, rich, and strange -- qualities I think are less daunting in poetry than in prose. We talked some about that, and about the origins of the Zohar (both the traditional understanding that it dates back to the 2nd century C.E., and the contemporary scholarly understanding that it was written by Moses de Leon in the 13th century) -- and then we read "The Hidden Light" and the Biblical pieces I had attached to it, and talked about what questions and issues they raise for us.

Since we were studying this together at a late-night tikkun, I opened the conversation by noting the part of the passage which talks about studying Torah at night. Maybe we're more sensitive to a particular kind of light, the light of wisdom and insight and real illumination, when we're not engaged in looking at visible light. When there's sunlight, we're caught up in what ordinary light allows our eyes to see, but at night maybe our eyes are opened in a different way.

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Wednesday morning, 3 a.m.

This year, my little shul banded together with the shul up the road for a joint tikkun leyl Shavuot (late-night Shavuot study session.) We met at 8pm at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center -- good common ground. After a sweet evening service, we settled in for a series of six lessons:

  • "Song of Songs and Ruth: Two Songs of Love" with Cantor Robert Scherr;

  • "Continuing Revelation and Liturgical Change" with Karen, a fellow congregant from my shul;

  • "Zohar on the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning" (my humble contribution to the evening);

  • "Could Christian Traditions Have Impacted Shavuot?" with Rabbi Steve Gutow;

  • "Growing the Torah to Include the Lives of Gays and Lesbians" with Rabbi Jeff Goldwassser;

  • and "Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter: the Potry of Stanley Kunitz" with Rabbi Joshua Boettiger.

In between lessons, we schmoozed, and noshed on all kinds of goodies. Dairy is traditionally associated with the festival of Shavuot, so of course we ate that -- excellent Italian-style homemade cheesecake, e.g. (Though my favorite dairy treat this year had to be the espresso milkshakes. What could be more ideal for late-night learning?)

At least twenty people were present at the start of the night -- a terrific crowd for our small town. Though we tried to be timely, a few of our lessons ran a little overtime; we were just having too much fun learning with and from one another! We studied until just before two, and then had a sweet wrap-up -- we gathered again in the sanctuary (by now only about nine strong), removed the Torah from the ark, and passed it from one person to the next, an embodied symbol of the revelation and the covenant we share. We sang "Esa einai el he-harim" ("I lift my eyes up to the mountains"), our nod to the Sinai story, as we danced and cradled the scroll around the room. And then together we read a kaddish de rabbanan, the form of the kaddish recited after Torah study, with that paragraph I so love:

On the community of Israel, upon our rabbis and their students, and on all the students of their students, and on all who engage in Torah here and elsewhere, may there be peace for them and for you, grace and kindness and mercy and long life, and plentiful nourishment, and salvation, from our God in heaven, and let us say: Amen.

And then we grinned, and hugged, and did a spot of cleaning-up, and then I drove home under the amazing starry night sky humming my favorites among the niggunim (wordless melodies) we had sung over the course of the night.

I didn't take any notes; for once, I was too busy being present to act as transcriber. I can tell you that our lessons dovetailed as though we had designed them together; that the themes of the night included revelation, time, history, Torah, language, poetry, and the garments in which mystical experiences may be clothed; and that I came away feeling awed, moved, and deeply connected with my community and my Source.

Sometime soon I hope to post about my own teaching. I'll type up the passage from Zohar that I taught, and the questions and prompts and references it raised for me. For now, though, it's time for a holy Shavuot nap -- at least a few hours before I begin the new day! If anyone's reading this in the middle of the night, I hope your tikkun has been as delicious as ours was -- and to everyone, no matter when your eyes meet these words, I wish a sweet and joyous Shavuot.


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Shavuot verses

We've counted our seven weeks of seven days between Pesach and Shavuot, between one once-upon-a-time spring harvest offering and the next, between liberation and revelation. Shavuot begins tonight at sundown -- whee!

In celebration, I offer a poem, written a few years ago and collected in my as-yet-unpublished book-length mansucript Manna. Chag Shavuot sameach -- wishing a joyful festival of Shavuot to all.

 

LONGING

 

I'm thirsty for davening
in this gritty desert
of car wrecks and cell phones.
Every person killed
anywhere
keeps the promised land
blocked to our passage.

Who knows the path
to short-circuit
this wandering?
Some days manna falls
but others we're back
to toil, scratching
like chickens in the dirt.

If I was there at Sinai
to sign the ketubah
God offered, black fire
on white, most days
I don't remember.
Everyone forgets the unity
we started with.

This year
when our anniversary comes,
God, I want to stay up
all night
to feel the letters
traveling up my hands
into my heart.

I want to sing holy at dawn
with the birds
in the willow behind shul
who open and close each day
with praise.

 


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Returning where we've never been

This post was initially written as a combination paper and sermon last year. It's long -- about 3000 words -- but as we approach Shavuot, when Ruth is traditionally studied, I wanted to share it here.


A young widowed woman, an outsider technically forbidden to enter into the house of Israel: Ruth seems an unlikely figure to star in her own book of Torah.

There's some emotional baggage weighting the relationship between Moab and Israel. In Deuteronomy we read that Moab and Israel must remain separate. Though the grandchildren of Edomites and Egyptians are permitted to join the community, Moabites and Ammonites never can, because of their former cruelties. Yet in this story Ruth, a Moabite woman, enters Israel as a foreign daughter-in-law, and becomes the ancestor of King David. There's a turnabout, a significant shift which the story never explicitly addresses but which is nonetheless at the story's heart.

On the surface, the book of Ruth is a simple one, a short story about a young woman who follows her mother-in-law into a new world and whose kindness is repaid a thousandfold. But there's more to Ruth than the pshat (surface) narrative. In Ruth's actions and their repercussions we can find teachings about how to transgress -- literally, to cross over -- wisely and well.


Ruth begins in the days when the chieftains ruled, a Wild West era of unlawful action. There has been a famine in the land. Elimelech ("My God is King") took his wife Naomi ("Pleasant") out, away from Bethlehem ("the House of Bread.") He fathered two sons in the foreign land of Moab, but then he died. These sons married local women, and then both of them died, too.

All of this is effectively prologue. When the real story begins, Naomi is in dire straits. Her husband and sons are dead, and though one daughter-in-law has sworn to stay by her side Naomi is unable to see Ruth's presence as a blessing. The two women journey empty-handed to Bethlehem, a painful homecoming for Naomi. "Do not call me Naomi," she chastises her old friends. "Call me Mara,  for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty." Naomi renames herself "Bitter," feeling devoid of hope and utterly alone.

To her credit, Ruth doesn't say, "Stop wallowing!" (Ruth also doesn't say, "What am I, chopped liver?") Ruth simply cares for Naomi, compassionate even in the face of her mother-in-law's inability to recognize her loyalty. In poet Alicia Ostriker's midrashic retelling, Ruth muses[1], "Greeted with joy on her return by her townspeople, she announces that she is empty. It is I then who must fill her."

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Tikkun leyl Shavuot

My little shul had a lovely little Shavuot observance this year. Since it's traditional to eat dairy at Shavuot, we began with an ice cream social. We were a small group, maybe fifteen in total, of all ages. We ate ice cream with caramel and hot fudge and whipped cream. One of my b'nai mitzvah students helped to watch the rabbi's littlest girl. The kids played with hula hoops.

Then we lit the festival candles, and Jeff, our rabbi, gave a little vort of Torah. Shavuot, he pointed out, is the only one of the shalosh regalim (the three once-upon-a-time pilgrimage festivals when the Israelites used to take sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem) with no major observance. At Passover, we hold a seder and eat matzah, taking the holiday into ourselves; at Sukkot, we build little booths and dine in them, placing ourselves inside the holiday. But at Shavuot, there's nothing we need to do, per se, other than be conscious of the holiday and rejoice in it.

Shavuot celebrates z'man mattan Torateinu, the time of our receiving of the Torah at Sinai. And the reason we don't have big observances on this major festival, he said, is that we're already so immersed in what it commemorates. Because we live lives imbued with Torah, we're already celebrating, all the time -- at Shavuot, we just pause to remember and be glad.

A major rainstorm was coming, and thunderclaps punctuated Jeff's words like vast echoes of "Amen!" We held a short and sweet evening festival service, punctuated by one of my favorite niggunim, and then about eight of us settled in for an abbreviated tikkun leil Shavuot (late-night study session.)

We didn't try for an all-nighter, as we have the last few years; as our congregation grows younger (e.g. lots of families with little kids), achieving critical mass for an all-night affair on a weekday just isn't feasible. But we had a terrific study session even so; Elma taught a lesson on the meanings and implications of ruach (loosely, "spirit,") and Jeff taught a lesson on the last two commandments (the one about bearing false witness and the one about coveting) which drew on Talmud, the Chofetz Chaim, and a variety of other sources to explore the deep implications and nuances of those instructions in our lives.

And now the counting of the Omer is over. The spiritual passage from liberation to covenant has reached its fruition again; the anniversary of our covenant with the Source of Being has enlightened and enlivened us. Now we get to keep working on living out that covenant, creating lives that shine.


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Revelation!

We did it again! The tikkun leyl Shavuot I orchestrated at my synagogue lasted until dawn, like last year. Over the course of the night there were some surprisingly transcendent moments, and though I'm entirely exhausted now, it feels terrific to have fully celebrated the holiday when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the foundational covenant moment of the Jewish people.

We began the night with an evening service at eight pm. Five of us were there: Jeff (the rabbi), Joanne (the congregational president), Marc (a retired writer and editor), Darlene (a poet, who you might remember from my post about the chevra kadisha), and me. I think we were probably all concealing anxiousness about our low numbers. Last year we began the night with about twenty people, and dwindled to five as dawn approached. What would happen this year, with only five at the start of the night? My intention was to accept and enjoy what is rather than bogging myself down in expectations; the low attendance was my first challenge in that regard.

Below the fold: descriptions of all of the lessons we taught (don't miss the ketubah text we wrote in the middle of the night!), links aplenty, the astonishing arrival of dawn, and some sleep-deprived ruminations on what Shavuot means.

Continue reading "Revelation!" »


All Night Long!

My Shavuot experience began at eight yesterday evening, as ten of us congregated at shul for the evening service. At nine, I kicked off the study session with a Ten Commandments lesson, in which we read Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood at Sinai," read the Ten Commandments as they appear in Torah, and then brainstormed our own list of commandments/precepts for our community and our lives. Our discussion ranged from the nature of Torah (Feld has some beautiful ideas about what happens when the written text meets the intent/energy of the reader) to our most deeply-held beliefs about how to live. In the end, we came up with thirteen precepts, some of which mirror the Torah closely, others of which are purely our own.

Peter, a professor of literature at Williams, taught a lesson on the Book of Ruth. He read much of the story to us, pausing to lead discussion about the story's motives, the characters' motives, the trick of inclusio (repetition of key words and images, which the original audience -- used to hearing these things aurally -- would have known to listen for).  We looked at motifs of emptiness and fullness, at the various strengths of Naomi and of Ruth, at generosity (shown by Ruth in sticking with Naomi, and by Boaz when Ruth is gleaning in his fields). And we looked at that fascinating benediction at the end of the story, in which the village folk wish Ruth to be like Tamar: what does it say that both Ruth and Tamar are praised by the tradition, when they behave in such unorthodox ways?

Rich, a friend who I ordinarily see at the community-supported organic farm in town, taught a lesson on ways of reading ancient rabbinic texts, particularly the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud). I never knew that he'd gone to grad school in religion; he doesn't talk about it much, and he says it feels like something that happened to him in a former life, but he still led a fascinating discussion based in an article he'd published eighteen years ago. We looked at Talmud's particular density and logic (it takes some work to learn to see the logic there).

Barbara, an afficionado of Israeli folk songs, taught us three of her favorites. It was nice to cleanse the palate with some singing after the heady intellectualism of the Talmud lesson. We continued the singing theme as Liz spoke to us about her experiences with chant and meditation, and taught us three Hebrew chants based on prayers.

Between each of these we broke to stand up and stretch, to kibbitz, to nosh on fruit and cheesecake. I shared the really cool thing I learned from Islamoyankee at Islamicate, that Islam too has a tradition of all-night study and prayer on the holiday commemorating the revelation of the Qur'an to the Prophet (pbuh). I love it when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael turn out to be cousins after all.

Jeff taught a lesson on "Unnatural Judaism" -- looking at whether or not Judaism considers itself to be "natural," e.g. part of the natural world. We read, and discussed, short texts from Exodus, Genesis, Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, the Babylonian Talmud, and Maimonides' A Guide for the Perplexed.  Topics covered ranged from the nature of the yetzer ha-ra (the so-called "evil inclination" -- we decided that it is desire), how God's plan for creation changes over the course of Torah, why God handed out free will in the first place, who benefits when we perform mitzvot, and this wacky idea that in order to fulfil one's true nature one needs to accept discipline to transcend one's nature.

My friend Seth taught a lesson on Jewish humor: its essential characteristics and typical subject matters, what makes it funny, what makes it work. He told dozens of Jewish jokes, some of which had us rolling in the aisles, and then invited us to tell our favorite Jewish jokes, too. Apparently our humor is smart, is often a defense mechanism, often blends pride with self-deprecation, and often simultaneously glorifies and pokes fun at Talmudic logic. (After having studied some wee snips of Talmud, we found the Talmudic jokes especially hilarious. Or maybe it was just the late hour...)

My friend Sandy taught a lesson on strong women in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically Abigal and Bathsheba (the two wives of King David). The differences in their stories are pretty fascinating, and to me it looks like a parable about how power corrupts; when David is ascending to power he attracts a virtuous wife, but when he's already in power and sees a woman he wants he acts wrongly to take her and God is displeased. Then we read the story of Jael killing the general with the tent peg, which is far bloodier (and more sexually suggestive) than I remembered.

And I closed out the night by looking at part of this week's Torah portion: the story of the sotah, the test administered to a woman suspected of adultery. When I started preparing my lesson, I thought this was one of the weirdest (and least feminist) passages in the Torah; by the time I'd read half a dozen commentaries, I was starting to see it as surprisingly subversive of patriarchal authority. (Dr. Blu Greenberg's commentary on this is excellent, and Judith Abrams has some interesting things to say about it as well.)

And then it was very nearly five in the morning! The five of us remaining at that hour joined hands and I led us in a meditation serving as a modified kaddish de rabbanan, the special kaddish we say after Torah study, and then we hugged and cleaned up the cheesecake plates and coffee cups and went home. I don't envy Jeff, who had to lead a morning festival service at 9:30; for my part, I sang the morning blessings in the car, driving home in the mist and the rising light, and then I slept until eleven.

I never imagined that we would actually study until dawn. (Inviting Sandy and Seth clearly qualifies as stacking the deck; they're geeks like me, plus they're night owls.) I'm tremendously grateful to the friends and fellow congregants who taught lessons. My only regret is that I missed my planned AIM study date with Naomi Chana; we were supposed to meet online at three. Maybe next year...