On Joseph, and faith in dark times: new commentary at My Jewish Learning

Crop-gb-vayashevThis week’s Torah portion takes us into the “Joseph novella,” which will continue through the rest of Genesis. As Joseph’s story begins, he’s tending sheep with his brothers and reporting on their behavior to their father Jacob. The Torah doesn’t tell us what exactly Joseph related to Jacob, or whether it was true, though the commentators Rashi (11th-century France) and the Radak (12th-13th-century France) suggest that his brothers were behaving unethically and treating each other poorly.

Joseph’s brothers hate him. In part because their father made him a fancy tunic. Joseph, for his part, is willing to name their ugly behaviors. And then, in what could be attributed either to arrogance or to naivete, he tells them his dreams — for instance, the one where their sheaves of wheat bow down to his. So they throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery...

...As a rabbi and spiritual director, one of my core questions is, “Where is God for you in this?” Spiritual direction invites us to discern divinity in whatever’s unfolding. But Joseph doesn’t need to be prompted with that query. Joseph feels God with him even while being unfairly maligned and punished. And because his sense of God’s presence is so strong, his sense of self isn’t shaken. That’s the quality in Joseph to which I most aspire: his deep connection with God...

That's from my latest Torah commentary for My Jewish Learning. Read the whole thing here: Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Faith.


The people who partner with God

ElshaddaiIn this week's Torah portion, Jacob is given a new name -- twice. Or maybe even three times. (It's the same name each time.)

The first time comes on the cusp of his meeting with his estranged brother Esau. He is alone; he wrestles all night; as dawn is breaking he tells his opponent "I will not let you go until you bless me," and the angel with whom he has grappled all night tells him his new name will be Yisra-El, Wrestles-With-God.

The second time comes later in the parsha. God appears to Jacob and says, "You whose name is Jacob: you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name." Then Torah reiterates the name yet again, adding "and thus, God named him Israel."

What's up with the triple reiteration of this name? One answer is that the redactor wasn't paying attention and he repeated himself, and said the same thing twice, and also conveyed something in multiple ways. But I think that's a cop-out. Our tradition invites us to find meaning in these repetitions. If Torah says it three times, it must be important. What is it telling us?

It's interesting that immediately after the third reiteration of Israel's new name, God introduces God's-self to Israel, saying, "I am El Shaddai; be fertile and increase, for nations will descend from you..."

Notice the juxtaposition of introductions. First God tells Jacob who Jacob is: one who wrestles with the divine. (This is one of our people's names to this day.) And then God tells Jacob who God is: אֵל שַׁדַּי‎‎ / El Shaddai. In Hebrew, names have meanings: they aren't just sounds. So what does this divine name mean? "El" is pretty straightforward; it simply means "God." But "Shaddai" is less clear.

El Shaddai is often rendered as "God Almighty," but I'm not sure that's a good translation. Some argue that the word relates to mountains or wilderness. Others, that it relates to a root meaning "destroy." But in modern Hebrew, "shadayim" are breasts. I like to understand "El Shaddai" as a name that depicts God as the divine source of nourishment and flow. God as El Shaddai is the One Who nurses all of creation, Whose abundance flows like milk to nurture and nourish us.

In a related interpretation, Shaddai is seen as related to the word meaning "sufficiency" or "enoughness." (As in די / dai, "Enough!" -- or dayenu, "It would have been enough for us.") El Shaddai is the God of Enoughness, the One Who gives us everything we need and then some. Perhaps the name El Shaddai can remind us that we too -- made in the divine image -- are "enough" just as we are. 

There's a sense of gender fluidity to this divine name, because "El" is a masculine word, and "Shaddai" (if you accept the shadayim connection) connotes femininity. Fluidity seems appropriate; after all, we call God the source of divine flow. The discipline of spiritual direction invites us to discern together where and how God's flow manifests in the life of each seeker. God flows into our lives in different shapes and forms.

El Shaddai is only one of our tradition's many names for God. The names we use for divinity change, as the faces of divinity we seek change.  Sometimes we need God to be the All-Mighty, our defender. Sometimes we need God to be All-Merciful. Sometimes we need God to be Friend, or Beloved, or Parent. For me, the name El Shaddai is a reminder that I can relate to God as the nursing mother Who aches to bestow blessings.

As the sages of the Talmud wrote, "More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." More than we yearn and ache -- for love, for abundance, for sweetness -- God yearns and aches to give those things to us. Think of someone you deeply love, to whom you want to give every good thing. Feel how your heart goes out to them: you just want to give! The name El Shaddai describes a God Who feels like that toward us. 

This piece of Torah reminds us who God can be for us -- and who we can be for God. The name Yisrael says it's our job to be in relationship with God. To dance, to push back, to waltz, to fight, to suckle: the wrestle takes many forms, but the relationship is always there. Even when we're angry with God, or when we feel as though God is angry with us, the relationship is there. The centrality of that relationship makes us who we are: the people Yisra-el, the people who partner with God.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 

 

Related: El Shaddai (Nursing Poem), 2009. (Also published in Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013.)


Visions of Renewal: Vayera and renewing our Judaism

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Shabbat shalom! Thank you for welcoming Rabbi David and me into your synagogue and into your community this weekend. 

We named our weekend together "Visions of Renewal." I want to unpack that a bit. Why "vision," and what's "renewal"?

Over the last few years, as Rabbi David and I have traveled the U.S. and Canada, we've noticed that Judaism we all inherited often feels like a Judaism of receptivity. We've all received a tradition that others created.  Receiving can feel passive – like we receive the news on TV, or receive the family constructs into which we're born.  It just happens.

But this week's Torah portion, Vayera, is about a quality of vision that's not passive but active, literally a making-seen.  "God caused [Avraham] to see, on the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day."

"God caused Avraham to see."  As we'll learn in tomorrow morning's Torah study, this Torah portion is about how Avraham sees, how we see, what he saw, what we see and why.  The upshot is this: in changing how he sees, Avraham changes his life.

We can spend a lifetime talking about Avraham, but I want to talk about us.  What do we see and tend not to see?  What covers our vision?  What can we do to make our vision clear?  That's the work of spiritual life: clarifying and renewing our vision so we can act in the world.  

When we look at spiritual life, do we see something obligatory? That's the classical view -- we do things because God commands us to do them. Or we don't, because those who brought us Reform Judaism rejected that paradigm. I serve a Reform shul not unlike this one, and most of my congregants tell me they don't feel "commanded." But then do mitzvot simply become irrelevant? (Spoiler alert: I'm going to say no.) Whether or not we see mitzvot as obligatory, they can renew our hearts and spirits. 

The Hebrew word מצוה / mitzvah is related to the Aramaic צוותא / tzavta, "connection."  Whatever your beliefs or disbeliefs about God, to me the key thing is how we connect – to God (whether far-above or deep-within), our ancestry, each other, our hearts and souls. If we see the connection hiding in each mitzvah, might that change how we feel about doing it -- or how we feel while doing it?

What about prayer: do you see liturgy as something you do because it's written in a book -- or something you don't do because it's written in a book? Do you see holidays as something you do because they were given to you -- or something you don't do, because they don't speak to you? Do you see spirituality as something that the rabbi and cantor give to you? Whether or not you were raised Jewish, do you see Judaism as something you either keep, or let go?

What if we could see all of this -- mitzvot, prayer, holidays, spiritual life writ large -- as something we actively make our own? The practices we name as התחדשות / hitchadshut, "Renewal," are about doing just that: making  it our own, renewing and being renewed.  Renewal isn't a brand or label. It's a way of living our Judaism, refining our capacity to see the richness and authenticity of spiritual life hiding in plain sight... and actively making it our own, so both our souls and our traditions can shine.

Take a step back and look at tonight's prayer service. Maybe you noticed chant, weaving of Hebrew and English, uses of silence, a focus on joy, themes popping out of the words – like vision, chosen for this week's Torah portion (Vayera) – a mix of ancient music and modern music. These reflect the spiritual technology we call "davenology" -- from the Yiddish "daven," to pray in meaningful ways attuned to spirit and heart. Renewal seeks to infuse prayer with heart -- and to infuse our hearts with prayer.

To use a metaphor I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, prayer is a meal and liturgy is a cookbook. We can't eat a cookbook. Renewal teaches: what matters is what helps us have a spiritual experience that actually connects us.  That's why we'll use Hebrew words, English words, sometimes no words. Classical words, contemporary words. Poetry, music, dance...  This isn't experimentation for its own sake: it's for the sake of deepening our experience of prayer.

Judaism is more than prayer, and Renewal is about more than "just" renewing our prayer lives. We bring this experiential approach to everything. One tool we use for that is hashpa'ah: in English, "spiritual direction." The Hebrew hashpa'ah comes from the root connoting divine flow. A mashpi'a(h) helps others experience the flow of divinity in the real stuff of their lives – family, work, faith, doubt, health, illness, sex, you name it.  About everything in our lives, we ask, "where is God in this?"

It's a big question.  When I began my training as a spiritual director -- both Rabbi David and I hold that second ordination -- my teachers asked me about my spiritual practices, and I started making excuses. "Well, I know I should be praying three times a day, but life gets in the way..." And my mashpi'a stopped me, gently, and said: I'm not asking you to tell me what your spiritual practices aren't. What are you doing in your life that opens you up? 

We can vision our spiritual lives negatively, in terms of what we don't do – we don't come to services "enough," or meditate "enough." But then our spirituality is negative, based on what we lack.  What if we actively vision it positively, based on the lives we actually live? If we're washing dishes, if we're folding laundry, driving the carpool, buying groceries: where is God in that? (We'll talk more about infusing ordinary practices with holiness in Sunday morning's session "Spirituality on the Go.")

Another of our tools is the collection of teachings, texts, and perspectives that come to us from Zohar and kabbalah and the Hasidic masters. These exquisite teachings can change the way we read Torah, how we experience time, how we live our lives.  We'll use these tools to study Torah tomorrow morning, tomorrow night when we enter into Jewish angelology, and on Sunday morning's session on "Mitzvah and Mysticism."  All of these are about connecting, actively changing how we see.

Davenology, spiritual direction, and mysticism are among the Renewal spiritual technologies especially near and dear to our hearts.  And here's the thing that's most important to me – not as a rabbi, but as a seeker like you: you don't have to be a rabbi for Renewal to enliven your spiritual life. You don't even have to be Jewish. These tools can help all of us transform our vision: whoever we are, wherever we're coming from, whatever we do or don't "believe in." 

That's what this weekend is about.  "God caused Avraham to see."  It's about seeing different, and being changed for the good.

On this Shabbat Vayera, this shabbat of active vision, may our eyes be opened to see what's been hiding in plain sight. May the Holy One cause us to be active partners in seeing the Judaism we yearn for, and bringing it into being in a world that needs us more than ever.

 

Offered at Temple B'nai Chaim in Wilton, Connecticut, where Rabbi David Markus and I are scholars-in-residence this weekend.


Breathing space

88dc79_be21bf798a984fed8baeddb3760a59f4To be fully alive and fully human, we need space, or room to breathe. This need is fundamental: it is rooted in our everyday experience. We all know what it is like to feel crowded, pressed, or overwhelmed. We know what it is to face deadlines, expectations, demands. We know these pressures can originate from outside us as well as from within us. And we know the relief, release, and freedom that come from outer and inner space -- room to breathe and to be ourselves. We owe it to ourselves, individually and communally, to find such room, such space.

Those words come from Father Philip Carter, in his essay "Spiritual Direction as an 'Exchange of Gifts'," in the March 2017 issue of Presence: an International Journal of Spiritual Direction. From time to time I pick up back copies of that magazine and leaf through them, and often I find that an idea or a quotation leaps off the page and demands my attention. Today it was Carter's words that grabbed me. 

"To be fully alive and fully human, we need space, or room to breathe..."

Shabbat is supposed to offer precisely that breathing room: one day of the week during which we can let go of our to-do lists and obligations, a day when we can focus on being rather than doing. Of course, that breathing room can be hard to come by -- especially for those who dedicate their days to caring for young children or aging parents, for whom Shabbat may not offer a genuine respite of any kind.

But this isn't just about our obligations. Even someone with a daily to-do list the length of my arm can still seek the internal and spiritual spaciousness that allows them to draw a full breath. This is the space the soul really requires: space to grow, space to change, the space of the freedom to become and in so doing to discern what would bring joy. Our souls need these things the way our bodies need air.

And without room to breathe, the soul can't flourish. Without space to grow, and maybe more importantly space to just be, the spark of divinity that enlivens us flickers and dims. A soul that is constantly constrained will be damaged by that constriction, in the psycho-spiritual equivalent of the maiming once experienced by women who endured having their feet bound and reshaped.

There are all kinds of circumstances that create constriction. Some of them are internal: grief, or depression, or personal struggles. Some are external: emotionally and spiritually abusive workplaces, or family relationships, or systems of oppression. The challenge lies in not internalizing the messages that tell us we either don't need to draw a full breath (spiritually speaking)... or, worse, don't deserve to.

You deserve to draw a full breath. You deserve to have room to breathe. You deserve to change and grow. You deserve to take up space in the world. You deserve to be honored, and valued, and treated like the precious soul that you are. Anyone in your world who tells you otherwise does not have your best interests at heart, and they have a vested interest in keeping you small, and they are wrong.

 


Falling Upward

DownloadOne day recently, two friends from completely different quadrants of my life sent me a gorgeous Rilke poem that Father Richard Rohr had posted on his website. I had run across the poem myself a few months before, and had already tacked it up over my desk. But when two people sent it to me within an hour of each other, I couldn't help feeling as though someone wanted me to be paying attention -- both to that poem once again, and to Richard Rohr who had posted it.

Then my friend and teacher Rabbi Jeff Fox, with whom I was privileged to study a few weeks ago, recommended Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by the same Richard Rohr. I ordered the book right away.

Rohr writes:

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong "container" or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.

The basic argument of Falling Upward is that most of us get caught up in "first half of life" issues and struggles and never make it to the work of the second half of life -- work that can only be done after one has done the internal work of the first half. Of course these two halves don't necessarily map to chronological age, and Rohr acknowledges that; it's possible to be quite young and already be doing one's second-half-of-life work, and vice versa. (If these ideas resonate, I recommend From Aging to Sage-ing, by Reb Zalman z"l.)

One of the challenges of spiritual life is staying open to being changed. Father Rohr writes:

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push -- usually a big one -- or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in -- but only to be moved out from...

The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up

The Hasidic masters had an aphorism for that one: ירידה לצורך עליה / yeridah l'tzorech aliyah -- descent for the sake of ascent. That's a frequent theme in Torah (the Joseph story is a paradigmatic example), and it's a frequent theme in spiritual life. Often we have to fall in order to rise. We descend or fall further from God (the language of distance is of course metaphor, but it's a good way of describing internal experience, even if we know that God isn't any "further away") and that descent itself sparks the yearning to ascend and seek closeness. 

Reading this book during the Three Weeks, I was struck by how Rohr's teachings suit this season in the Jewish calendar year:

By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths -- and therefore been kept from their own spiritual heights... The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying

Of course the ego wants to avoid falling or changing or dying -- that's the ego's job. Part of our work is ensuring that one has enough ego to be able to live healthily in the world, without necessarily allowing the ego to be in the driver's seat, as it were. It's natural to resist change and loss and "falling." And yet all of those things are built in to the rhythms of human life. As I learned recently in a beautiful text from R' Shlomo Wolbe, our times of distance and sorrow are an important part of spiritual life too. If we deny our pain and avoid falling, we're slipping into the trap of spiritual bypassing, and that's not a path of genuine growth.

If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage -- as if it were God! ... This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious people, who tend to love the past more than the future of the present. 

Change -- or one might say התחדשות / hitchadshut, renewal -- is core to spiritual life. One of my tradition's names for God is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." God reveals God's-own-self to us through the unfolding of perennial change. The voice of revelation always sounds from Sinai, and it's our task to be attuned so that we can continue to enliven the world. That's the work of renewing Judaism, and the work of my rabbinate, and it's the work in which I believe Rohr is engaged, too, on his Christian path. And... I resonate deeply with his words about the profound irony of religious people, who should be pursuing growth, becoming attached instead to the status quo and fearing change. 

There's much in this book that puts me in mind of my spiritual direction training and my experiences in spiritual direction, both as someone who has worked for many years with a spiritual director and as a mashpi'ah myself. The Hebrew term for spiritual direction is השפעה / hashpa'ah, which comes from a root connoting divine abundance or flow. In Rohr's words:

More than anything else, the Spirit keeps us connected and safely inside an already existing flow, if we but allow it... Like good spiritual directors do, God must say after each failure of ours, "Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let's see how we can work with this!"

I love the idea of God as the ultimate spiritual director, sitting across from me and helping me grow. Often on long drives I imagine God sitting in my front seat -- a practice I learned from Reb Zalman z"l, who spoke of imagining Shechinah "dressed down" in blue jeans as his listening passenger -- and I pour out my heart to the One Who always hears me. Sometimes I even hear a response in return. (The title poem of my next collection of poetry came out of that experience...) On that note, the final quote I'll share here is one about being in I-Thou relationship with God, and being wholly seen. Rohr writes:

Many of us discover in times of such falling the Great Divine Gaze, the ultimate I-Thou relationship, which is always compassionate and embracing, or it would not be divine. Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us.

On the Jewish liturgical calendar we will shift soon (at the end of this Gregorian month -- erev Tisha b'Av is July 31) from the Three Weeks of mourning and brokenness to the Seven Weeks of consolation that lead us from Tisha b'Av to the Days of Awe. The challenge now is to let ourselves experience the "falling" of these Three Weeks, and to let ourselves be fully seen and fully known not despite our falling but even in and through it, so that our falling can be what Rohr might call "falling upward" -- descent for the sake of ascent, and for the sake of growth, and for the sake of becoming who we are most truly meant to be. 


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.


Our spiritual work is our life as it is

Here-and-now_0"I would be more spiritual if my circumstances were more perfect."

That's the "first illusion" cited by Ward Bauman in "Letting God be God," an article in Presence about lessons learned from Meister Eckhart.  (And wow, is it a familiar illusion to me!) Bauman writes:

Meister Eckhart is emphatic that our spiritual work begins where we are right now, because God is in our circumstances as they are....

Eckhart goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to spiritual work. The sense that there might be perfect circumstances that would allow us to be more spiritual is simply an illusion. We cannot escape our circumstances for some better or more spiritual condition. Our spirituality is never dependent upon the exterior conditions but rather upon the inner condition of our heart....

Our spiritual work is our life as it is.

I read the article while sitting with my sick kid who was curled up on the couch watching cartoons and found it surprisingly relevant. I know that Meister Eckhart was a Christian monastic. Rearing children was not part of his life's work or his spiritual practice. But his point that "our spiritual work is our life as it is" can be a deep teaching about spiritual life and parenthood.

There's a temptation to imagine that if I hadn't been home with my sick kid, I might have done something lofty and "spiritual" with my day. But I know that in truth, spiritual elevation arises in the attention and intention I bring to whatever is at hand. That's true whether I'm leading my community in prayer, or checking my son's temperature for the umpteenth time today.

The struggle to remember that spiritual life is "our life as it is" (not as we imagine it could or should be) isn't limited only to those who are rearing young children. Anything can feed the illusion that if only my circumstances were more ideal I would lead a "more spiritual" life. If only I had the perfect job, or if only my relationships were in better order, or if only life were different.

"If only I could afford to hire a cleaning service, I would spend more time praying" -- so goes the fantasy, anyway. But the real work is what my Hasidic forebears call avodah b'gashmiut, "service in / through corporeality." Can I find God's presence even in cleaning my house or tending my kid? Can I remember that spiritual life is always and only ever right here, right now ? 

The place to encounter God's presence is this place. The time to open to God's presence is this time. Not the imagined place-and-time when all the obligations will be taken-care-of, when all the tangles will be untied, when all the obstacles will be surmounted. The "obstacles" themselves are opportunities to search for meaning, to open to something greater than myself.

As this week's Torah portion reminds us, God can be in this very place! It was true for Jacob who dreamed of a ladder linking heaven and earth, and it is true for me in my living room with the LEGOs and the in-ear thermometer and the kids' Motrin. My circumstances will never be perfect, and neither will I. The work of spiritual life is finding holiness in the here and now.


Writing one's own deathbed prayer

It's a strange experience, writing one's own deathbed prayer.

The vidui is the confessional prayer which some recite every night before sleep, and some recite every weekday / non-festival morning during tachanun (the penitential prayers), and some recite every month during Yom Kippur Katan (the "little Day of Atonement" which precedes new moon), and some recite every year on Yom Kippur, and some recite before death. (I blogged about this, and especially about the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, earlier this fall: the vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.)

The daily variant, the Yom Kippur variant, and the deathbed variant are slightly different -- but only slightly. In each of these, we reach out to God (whatever we understand that term to mean) and we ask forgiveness for our misdeeds and offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, so that the karmic baggage of our actions won't follow us into the world to come.

There are classical texts for the deathbed vidui, and they are lovely. Here's one (from the Reform Rabbis' handbook:)

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to and end, let me die, I pray, at peace. If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven. Protector of bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

But nothing says that one has to use the traditional text. So as part of the Sage-ing class I'm taking (in my final months of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah / Spiritual Direction program), I've been charged with writing my own vidui. My own deathbed confession. The prayer I imagine saying to God as I prepare myself to die.

On the one hand there's something more than a little surreal about this. I don't expect death to be coming for me soon; how can I honestly write a deathbed prayer when I have no intention of dying in the next several decades at least? But on the proverbial other hand, there's no telling when death will knock on one's door. We read in the Babylonian Talmud that Rabbi Eliezer declared: "Repent one day before your death," whereupon his disciples asked: How does one know which day that is? "Exactly," answered the sage. "For that reason, we ought to live our lives each day as though it were our last."

Writing one's own vidui is a way of following Rabbi Eliezer's advice, a way of making teshuvah (repetance / returning-to-God) one day before my death. And if I do not die tomorrow, as I sincerely hope not to do, then tomorrow I will be tasked with making teshuvah again. And again. And again. Preparing for dying in this way, I think, is really a way of choosing how to live.

So I've drafted my vidui. Per my teachers' suggestions, I will keep it, and will aim to update it over the years as needed and as my life changes. In it, I address God in the ways which are most meaningful for me; I thank God for my life and my relationships; I ask forgiveness for the places where I have missed the mark, and express my intention to let go of my regrets so that they will not encumber me wherever I am going. I close by asking God to help me release this life and to help me through the contractions of the dying process, contractions which will release me into something I cannot now imagine, something none of us can know.

Writing it was a powerful experience for me. Imagining reading it at my own death, or perhaps hearing it read by a loved one if I am not able to read it myself, is equally powerful. What an amazing meditation.

This is part of what I'm finding most meaningful about the Sage-ing work I am beginning to learn to do: the way it takes the daily and weekly and monthly and annual cycles of teshuvah and stretches them to span an entire lifetime. Over the course of my whole life, what will sustain me? Where will I miss the mark? What will I need to forgive, and for what will I hope that others can forgive me? How will I want to take my leave of the life that I have known?


How do I want to be remembered?

This morning I wrote my own obituary. It was homework for the Sage-ing class I'm taking during this final semester of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) program. And wow, was it a fascinating experience.

Writing the story of my life to date, in condensed but meaningful form, was thought-provoking. What are the details I would want to share about my growing-up, about my formative relationships, about my childhood and my college years and my journey into poetry and the rabbinate?

Then, of course, the obit became more of a "here's what I hope the rest of my life might look like." I hope to live for many more decades; I'm only 36. So I spun out a fantasy of what the next fifty or sixty years might hold for me, and then wrote about it in the past tense, as though it had happened exactly the way I'm imagining.

If, God willing, I live into my nineties, how would I want to be able to describe my life? How would I want to be able to describe my relationships, my work, my impact on the world? How do I want to be remembered?

It's an amazing spiritual exercise. And, not for the first time, I'm struck by the additional power this class has for me because I'm taking it during a fall semester, as the Days of Awe approach. We're well into the month of Elul, the month which offers the opportunity for reflection and discernment before the New Year comes.

This obituary exercise is a powerful thing to do just before the Days of Awe. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Everyday I write the book) teaches us that God opens the book of memory, which reads from itself, as each of us has signed our name through our deeds. What are the actions which I've recorded in the book of memory this year? Who am I, and what do I want my time on this earth to be?

Before you ask: sorry, but I'm not going to share that obituary here! The part which describes the life I haven't yet had feels too personal and revelatory. (Besides, I don't want my advance obituary to show up as a google search result.) I am saving it on my computer, though. Maybe I'll take the time to revise it over the years to come as my life unfolds. If nothing else, someday it will give my descendants a glimpse of how I saw myself while I was still here.


This is spiritual life

On the first day of the hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training program which I began in early 2009, my spiritual director described what her spiritual practices had been like before she had children, and then she talked about how her spiritual life inevitably changed once her kids came on the scene. She was clear that spiritual life does continue; but she noted that it may need to take different forms than it did before. (She said other things too, but that was what really struck me. I was newly-pregnant then, and did not know that I would miscarry a few days later, so I was hyperconscious of everything having to do with prospecive parenthood.)

I remember hearing similar stories from Reb Marcia, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program. At one point during DLTI, she reminisced to us about davening while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her kids to take to school and about singing along with a recording of the morning liturgy in the car. She told us those stories by way of encouraging us to get Hazzan Jack's Learn to Daven! cd and to listen to it often -- and she's right; it's a great way to become comfortable with the full text of the classical morning service -- but I think of her exhortation often now when I daven along with Reb Shawn Zevit's Morning I Will Seek You in the car on the way to daycare.

It's easy to think of spiritual practice as something we do when we can dedicate space and time away from our "regular lives." If I could just get on top of my to-do list, then I could make time to pray. If I didn't have dishes to wash, laundry to fold, thankyou notes to write, a desk to tidy, bills to pay, emails to return, blog comments to moderate.

But all of life can be spiritual life. I can begin my day with modah ani; I can say the blessing sanctifying the body as I moisturize my skin in the morning, or as I use the bathroom, or as I change diapers; when I see my son beginning to walk, I can follow the morning liturgy in thanking God Who makes firm our steps.

There's no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly -- as delicious as that is! Those of us who've had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn't "who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer" -- it's "who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?"

There's never enough time to get wholly on top of the to-do list. (If nothing else, cooking/dishes and laundry are self-generating tasks: cook one meal and eat it, and the next day you're still going to be hungry again.) The time to study a little Torah, or to pray, or to meditate, can't be "when everything else is done" -- because everything else is never done. Besides: Torah, prayer, self-care are important. More important, maybe, than the other things on our to-do lists a lot of the time...though most of us don't inhabit a paradigm where that perspective is commonly shared.

The real challenge of spiritual life -- for me right now, anyway -- is remembering that all of life is spiritual life. As I drive wherever I'm going, God is all around me. God is manifest in the people standing in the grocery check-out line or on the airplane jetway. Every step I take is an opportunity to be mindful of one foot, and then the next; every breath I take is an opportunity to inhale God in, and exhale God out. Spiritual practice doesn't just have to mean meditation, or yoga, or enfolding myself in tefillin and tallit and spending quality time with the siddur. Washing dishes can be a spiritual practice. Babyminding can be a spiritual practice. Self-care can be a spiritual practice.

There's a Hasidic idea of avodah b'gashmiut, service or worship through corporeality, which I love (and which I've blogged about before.) That idea goes like this: physicality, the mundane world in which we all operate, isn't an obstacle to connecting with God -- it's the very vehicle through which we can have that connection. Tending our bodies, tending our children, eating food and clearing the table: all of these are opportunities for spiritual connection. In Hasidic language, the task is one of "elevating the sparks" -- finding the holiness latent in each of these things, and lifting it up to heaven.

Every day is full of sparks waiting to be lifted up. Whatever you're doing right now can be part of your spiritual life too.


Spiritual direction from both sides now

This month I begin seeing spiritual direction clients -- a.k.a. "directees" or, in Hebrew, mushpa'ot. (The name for a spiritual director in Hebrew is mashpi'ah; the two words share the root שפע which denotes divine abundance or flow.) As I've mentioned this milestone to people in my life, many have asked, "what exactly is spiritual direction?" And I've thought: aha! A blog post is in order!

Spiritual direction is a relationship, a process through which one person helps another discern the presence of the sacred in their life. This discipline exists in many religious traditions (I know, for instance, that Jesuit priests in formation are required to be in spiritual direction -- as are ALEPH rabbinic students.) In my corner of the Jewish world, this relationship is called hashpa'ah (which, again, derives from the root meaning abundant flow from God.) In the words of my training program, "Hashpa'ah is the traditional term for the relationship with a spiritual director or mashpia who offers guidance and teaching on matters of Jewish faith and practice, and on a personal relationship with the Divine."

(As the wikipedia entry on spiritual direction notes, this Hebrew term is common in the Chabad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. Among Orthodox Jews who come from the less mystical and more rationalist end of the spectrum, a spiritual director is more likely to be called mashgiach ruchani. A mashgiach is someone who advises on the kashrut of a kitchen, and a "mashgiakh ruchani" is someone who advises on the spiritual lives of others.) In English, the name for this process or relationship is spiritual direction.

A variety of answers to the question "what is spiritual direction" can be found here at Spiritual Directors International. Among those answers, my favorites are Liz Bud Ellman's assertion that "Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday" and James Keegan's assertion that "Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment."

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Our first four days of hashpa'ah

My small stone heart. Apologies for the blurry cameraphone picture.

The first intensive of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah program will end tomorrow at 2pm, just in time for the Shabbaton to begin around 4. I've been trying to figure out whether/how I can write about the hashpa'ah intensive; it's been an amazing few days, but I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to describe.

I can tell you that there are nineteen of us in the program: some rabbis, some rabbinic pastors, the rest student clergy like me. I can tell you that we've been meeting at the Solstice Center, a ten-block walk from the Boulderado, in a carpeted room with a big round skylight. That our group includes half a dozen people from my DLTI cohort, as well as several other people I already knew, so walking in for the first time already felt like coming home.

Our faculty this week has included two rabbis and a psychotherapist, each of whom has spoken at length about how she came to be a spiritual director and about how she does the work of spiritual direction. We've experienced some amazing davenen with fundamental principles of hashpa'ah woven in: holy listening, speaking directly to/from the heart, sacred silence. We've done some powerful work in hevruta, delving into our spiritual autobiographies and exploring what called us to this work. Today we attempted our first sessions of hashpa'ah, and then talked about what worked and what didn't and where we tripped ourselves up and where we feel like we actually connected with the presence of God.

But all of this feels like I'm talking around what we've been doing, not about it. The truth of the matter is, most of what we've been doing has been personal and spiritual and kind of tough to verbalize. The internal work is (and needs to be) confidential; the "professional development" piece isn't all that blogworthy without the emotional and spiritual underpinnings which I either can't discuss without breaking confidentiality, or can't figure out how to describe without sounding purple and overblown.

It's been a really good intensive so far, though. I'm getting a lot out of it, and I think that spiritual direction work will be a meaningful piece of my rabbinate. I'm looking forward to our spring semester (we'll fill two sections of a telecourse called "Issues in Hashpa'ah," so I'll get to hear at least half of my classmates' voices on a weekly basis) and to the summer intensive. Based on my experiences with DLTI, I'm guessing that week two will quickly become even more intense than week one because we'll have all of this week's relationships and experiences to build on.

For now, I'm looking forward to our last session in the morning -- and to seeing how the learning we've done over these incredibly dense four days will percolate in me and through me in months to come.

 

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Middot through text and practice

"Stand where you are and serve in love: refining our middot through text and practice" was the second class I took at smicha students' week, taught by Rabbi Elliot K. Ginsburg (a.k.a. Reb Elliott, with whom I had the deep pleasure of spending Yom Kippur a few years ago) and Rabbi Shohama Wiener (Reb Shohama, the head of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah/spiritual direction program). As the syllabus explains,

The physicist Neils Bohr once said that the opposite of a simple truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. In our spiritual lives we are often called to balance opposing truths: the need to cleave to those we love and to let go; as Jews to simultaneously embody Yisrael (one who wrestle with God) and Yehuda (one who practices gratitude); to be open to moments of breakthrough and to cultivate the slow, subtle movement of soul. In this course, we will explore some key psycho-spiritual moments in the life of the spirit, drawing on classic kabbalistic and hasidic texts.

Middot can be hard to explain. The term "middah" literally means "measure," and middot are at once divine qualities or attributes, and attributes / qualities / character traits of the human soul. (Here's one list of middot, drawn from Pirkei Avot.) In this class we looked at the spiritual practice of refining our middot -- a theme that runs both through our texts and our lives.

Themes [of the class] include: tsubrokhnkeit, breaking open the heart and keeping the heart open when it isn't being smashed open; discerning what is being birthed and what is dying; and when to leap and when to attentively wait -- how in short to work with the ratzo va-shov, the ebb and flow of the holy spirit. We will also explore some practices of spiritual friendship, and key teachings on anger and equanimity, forgiveness, and self-acceptance / self-worth.

All that in five short days. (No, really.) It was a pretty amazing week.

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