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.