Beyond our broken walls

Brickwallscrumbledplaster97566On the Jewish calendar we're in the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrows" or "in tight straits." This three-week journey began with 17 Tamuz, the day when we remembered the long-ago first breach of Jerusalem's city walls.

It will end with 9 Av, the day when we will remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and many other heart-wrenching catastrophes besides. This is a time of year for recognizing what is broken.

There's no shortage of brokenness to notice. Any dive into world news reveals tragedy and trauma. History is filled with broken places, and we carry those with us. And there are broken places in our individual lives. Relationships which have fractured, institutions which are damaged,  sorrows which make our hearts ache. I think we all know the feeling of being trapped in something that is broken.

And yet.

The brokenness isn't an end in itself. The year doesn't end with Tisha b'Av. On the contrary, some see Tisha b'Av as the first step toward Elul and the Days of Awe, the first step toward reorienting and realigning ourselves, toward our annual spiritual rebirth. Every life contains brokenness, but the brokenness doesn't need to define the life. Our broken places can also be openings for something new. As the great sage Leonard Cohen teaches, "There is a crack in everything; it's how the light gets in."

There's something interesting about reflecting on these broken walls (both historical and personal) while I am teaching at Beyond Walls, a retreat which encourages clergy to think about how our writing can take us beyond the walls of our religious communities, beyond the walls of our institutions, out into the world. Can we experience our broken walls as openings to a place of connection? When our walls break, can we respond by building doors? What holiness might we then be able to let in?


Sorrow and illness, from near and from far

I've written half a dozen different openings to this post, but none of them feel as honest as beginning with this truth: sometimes it's hard to be far away when a loved one is sick. As a rabbi I've bumped into this truth frequently, ministering to people whose loved ones are distant. But there's a gulf between experiencing something vicariously, even through profound empathy, and experiencing it in one's own heart. As I wrote a while back (Spiritual life in the open), I am learning now to navigate the experience of praying for a loved one who is ill. Sometimes that experience stretches me. Often I feel that I am not handling it well enough. (What would "handing it well enough" even mean? I'm not sure. But the feeling arises even so.)

Intellectually I know that even if we were in the same place, there wouldn't be much I could do. I wouldn't be able to heal them. I wouldn't be able to make them feel better. I wouldn't be able to magically lift the exhaustion or the discomfort. I wouldn't be able to do away with the myriad insults of longterm illness, from the pic line through which chemicals daily flow, to the side effects of those chemicals, to the weariness which makes even previously-pleasant experiences too tiring to imagine. But when I am far away, not only can I not do any of those things, but I only get scattered glimpses of how my loved one is doing. I'm looking at them through a tiny gap in a moving curtain -- a phone call here, some emails there, none of which are enough to add up to a complete picture. I imagine that if I were there in person, I would be able to help more. At least I would be there.

That's what runs through my mind all the time. And then I spend a few days with my loved one, and I recognize the ways in which even being physically present doesn't hold a candle to the limitless fog of longterm illness with no definitive endpoint in sight. These are rocky shoals and unfamiliar waters, and there is no lighthouse guiding the way. Nothing is easy. And my heart overflows with emotion, because this is not what I want for my loved one, and I am entirely powerless to effect any change at all. What does it mean to try to maintain optimism in the face of a beloved's suffering? What does it mean to try to maintain hope? To what extent am I obligated to cultivate hope even if my loved one can't join me in feeling that hope? There is a low thrum of grief, as steady as the beating of my heart. Jewishly we say that descent is for the sake of ascent, but I can't see how to transform this.

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This week's portion: listening to the holy space between

Here's the d'var Torah I offered this morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


שָׁמֹ֤עַ בֵּין־אֲחֵיכֶם֙ וּשְׁפַטְתֶ֣ם צֶ֔דֶק בֵּין־אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵין־אָחִ֖יו וּבֵ֥ין גֵּרוֹ

Hear out your fellow man, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.

This line leapt out at me this year. Literally the first phrase means "Listen between your brothers." Listen to the different perspectives of your brothers, your kinsfolk, those who are part of your tribe. Because even your kinsfolk will have diverse opinions and perspectives. And it's important to listen not only to "each side," but also to the Torah of the in-between, the space between their perspectives in which is held the truth that multiple truths can coexist, that "you don't have to be wrong for me to be right."

Our mystics teach that each letter of Torah is holy, and even more holy is the white space of the parchment which contains the letters and the infinite possibilities between them. The lived Torah of every human experience is holy, and even more holy is the space between us, the space in which we can choose to interact with lovindkindness and compassion, even when we disagree. Maybe especially when we disagree. It's easy to relate in an I/Thou manner which acknowledges the full dignity of every human being when we're on the same side. That becomes a lot harder when our disagreements are impassioned and heartfelt.

Listen between your brothers, and bring justice and righteousness to bear on how you respond. Bring tzedek to interactions between your kinsfolk, and also to interactions between your kin and those who are different from you. If someone of our community is in a disagreement with an outsider, an "other," we're still called to treat both parties with tzedek, justice and righteousness. Imagine the ultimate "other," the kind of person who are you naturally inclined to mistrust and to doubt. Now imagine one of "those people" disagreeing with one of "us." Now imagine what it would mean to respond to that disagreement with justice and righteousness, instead of with anger and fear.

The space between us is holy, like the parchment surrounding the letters of Torah. Because on white space, anything can be inscribed. It's infinite possibility. The Torah, midrash says, is written in black fire on white fire. The white fire is the blank parchment; the white fire is the endless universe of our interpretations and commentaries. The white fire is the space between us, and the space between us is holy. But how often do we fill the space between us with the stubborn insistence that one party is right and the other party is misguided? That one party knows the truth, and the other party is deluded?

As we approach Tisha b'Av, that day when we commemorate calamities from the shattering of the first tablets of the covenant, to the destruction of both Temples, to the expulsion from Spain, to the Chmielnicki massacres, to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, to every brokenness we experience in the world even now... As we approach Tisha b'Av, knowing that the fear, suffering, and devastation in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are at an extreme... As we approach Tisha b'Av, it is our job to remember the holiness of the space between us. To treat one another with justice and righteousness, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, even when our perspectives differ.

 


Variations on a liturgy for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av is almost upon us -- that painful day when we remember the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE. The anniversary, tradition teaches, of all kinds of other atrocities, from Crusades to the Expulsion from Spain to the Chmielnicki massacre in Poland in the 17th century to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto during the last century.

It's a dark day. It's also a darkness which contains within it the seeds of light and redemption. Tradition teaches that the messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av -- that from the depths of our grief will come the spark of our greatest hopes for transformation and wholeness.

This year I'm delighted to be able to share two versions of a Tisha b'Av liturgy -- a collaboration between myself and Rabbi David Markus who serves Temple Beth El of City Island. One version will be used at his "shul by the sea;" the other will be used at Congregation Beth Israel here in the Berkshires:

 

Download For the Sake of Ascent TBE [23 pages, 1.7mb, pdf]

Download For the Sake of Ascent CBI [17 pages, 173k, pdf]

 

Both versions feature excerpts from Eicha (Lamentations), the prayers of the evening service, and poems by Yehuda Amichai, Toge Sankichi, and Mark Nazimova, among others. Both feature prayers written by David and by me.

The TBE version draws a closer connection to the 9/11 bombings (after all, from City Island they could see the smoke rising); the CBI version draws a closer connection with recent trauma in the Middle East. The TBE version has a few songs which aren't in the CBI version; the CBI version contains a text study which isn't in the TBE version. The CBI version interweaves Eicha with the evening service, while the TBE version doesn't. They're variations on a theme.

I hope that these siddurim will open up some of this holiday's power and potential for the daveners who use them.

 

 


Fasting today with Jews and Muslims for peace

10504985_10154414238775171_7317168910845165076_oI don't usually fast on the 17th of Tamuz.

For that matter, I didn't even take on the practice of fasting for Tisha b'Av until a few years ago. (See This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av, 2011.) I didn't grow up observing the minor fasts, and I've never taken them on as a practice.

Instead I've tended toward finding other ways of understanding 17th Tammuz. Instead of focusing on the breach of Jerusalem's walls 2,600 years ago, I ponder breaches in the emotional walls which keep us safe, or the internal and interpersonal walls which need to come down in order for genuine connections to form.

But this year there is so much trauma and tragedy in Israel and Palestine, so much grief and destruction and fear happening right now, that I am fasting today and I am dedicating my fast to peace, compassion and kindness in that beloved corner of our world where so many people are suffering.

This was not my idea. Across Israel and Palestine, groups of Jews and Muslims are consciously choosing to fast on this day in solidarity with one another as what was initially called a Hunger Strike Against Violence, and has become part of an initiative called בוחרים בחיים / اختيار الحياة / Choose Life. The idea came from Eliaz Cohen, an Israeli Jew who lives in Gush Etzion, and Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Beit Ummar, north of Khalil (Hebron). Cohen is a poet and a self-identified second-generation "settler kid" who supports the idea of one homeland for two peoples. Abu Awwad is founder of Al Tariq (The Way), which teaches Palestinians principles of nonviolent resistance.

(For more, see the front-page story in yesterday's Times of Israel, Aided by calendar, Jews and Arabs Unite in Joint Fast: West Bank activists organize Choose Life, a shared initiative to combat political violence and promote coexistence.)

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Descent for the sake of ascent: the fast of 17 Tamuz

EJmR3188046On Tuesday, July 15, many Jews will observe Tzom Tamuz, "the fast of Tamuz" -- one of Judaism's minor fast days, commemorating the breach of Jerusalem's city walls which led (three weeks later) to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I say "many Jews" because I know that the minor fasts are not universally observed, especially in liberal Jewish communities. The notion of commemorating the first chink in Jerusalem's armor almost two thousand years ago may seem strange to us.

But I think there's value in observing 17 Tamuz, and being conscious of the Three Weeks which link it with Tisha b'Av, even if you do not fast, and even if you aren't certain you actually want to mourn the fall of a Temple you can barely imagine.

There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b'Av. At Tisha b'Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe.

In Hasidic tradition there's the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent. This drama plays itself out in a variety of places in Torah -- for instance, in the Joseph story, in which "descent for the sake of ascent" is a recurring motif. The downs are necessary precursors to the ups.

For Lurianic kabbalists, the whole of creation was a shattering which it is our unique privilege to be able to rebuild. If there had never been a rupture, then there couldn't be a healing.

EMy+barn+This drama plays itself out on the stage of every human life. We fall down, we get up again. And while our modern sensibilities may be offended by the notion that tragedy or trauma is necessary in order for growth or forward motion to appear, I believe that there are gifts to be found when circumstances have laid us low. As the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide wrote, "My barn having burned down, I found I could see the moon."

17 Tammuz, the Three Weeks which follow it, and Tisha b'Av which comes at the end of those weeks, are a time for us to delve together into descent. It's not only "my barn" which has burned down -- it's our barn, the place which was spiritual home for all of us together. It's not only my life which sometimes contains brokenness or sorrow -- it's all of our lives. We're in this together.

It can be tempting to want to paper over the places that hurt. To look on the bright side, to put on a happy face, to focus on the positive. I do these things all of the time. But 17 Tammuz and the weeks which follow are an opportunity to let ourselves experience moments of descent, together.

17 Tamuz is a day to consider: when and how do your "walls," the boundaries of your emotional and spiritual integrity, feel breached? What is it like to feel that something painful has come through your defenses? When and how do we come to feel that the integrity of our community has been shattered? What issues, subjects, or sore spots make us feel defenseless and alone?

The tradition says that 17 Tammuz is the anniversary of the day when Moshe came down the mountain, saw the people worshipping the golden calf, and in heartbroken fury shattered the first set of stone tablets containing God's words. What are the idols our communities have fallen into holding sacred? Can we allow ourselves to grieve the ways in which our communities are not yet what we most yearn for them to be?

The point of 17 Tammuz and the Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av isn't wallowing in anger and sorrow. It's allowing ourselves to recognize the things that hurt, the places where we are broken, so that together we can emerge from those places humbled and energized to begin the climb toward the spiritual heights of the High Holidays. Descent for the sake of ascent. If we're willing and able to go down together, we build bonds of community which will lift us to greater heights when it's time to climb up.

All of the things I've just written are, I think, true every year as we reach this moment in our seasonal-liturgical cycle. Here is something which is unique to this year:

This year the 17th of Tammuz falls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when our Muslim cousins are fasting from dawn to nightfall every day. (This "minor fast" in our tradition is observed in the same way -- morning to night, not 25 hours like Yom Kippur.) And this year, 17 Tammuz arises amidst tremendous bloodshed and suffering in Israel and Palestine -- the murders of the three Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha'ar, and Eyal Yifrah; the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, apparently burned alive; Hamas firing rockets into Israel (see A view from Jerusalem - Israel at war); Israel bombarding Gaza in return (see You can never be emotionally ready).

Eliaz Cohen, a poet who lives in the settlement of Gush Etzion, has suggested that in the midst of so much sorrow and violence in Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims can choose to consciously fast on this day in solidarity with one another, as a "Hunger Strike Against Violence." You can learn more at Fasting Together, Jews and Muslims Choose Life (FB, mostly in Hebrew) 0r War Looming: Make Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Ramadan Hunger Strikes Against Violence (English). Some of us who are the talmidim (students) of Reb Zalman are taking on this joint fast in his memory, knowing that he wept for both the children of Abraham and the children of Ibrahim.

Whether or not you fast from food and drink on 17 Tammuz, I ask my Jewish and Israeli readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about our Muslim cousins and Palestinian neighbors; whether or not you are observing the Ramadan fast from food, I ask my Muslim and Palestinian readers to please consider fasting from negative assumptions about your Jewish cousins and Israeli neighbors in turn. May this minor fast day, and the following Three Weeks of opening ourselves to grief, bring us together in our low places so that together we may begin the work of building a better world.


17 Tammuz, justice, and broken walls

2620422893_93cb85c9f4_mToday is 17 Tammuz, a minor fast day in Jewish tradition. Today we enter into the Three Weeks, also called Bein Ha-Meitzarim, "In the Narrows."

On this day, we remember the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem during a long-ago siege of that holy city, the first step toward the destruction of the Temple three weeks later. On this day, we remember the shattering of the first set of tablets which Moshe brought down from Sinai. When he saw the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, he smashed the tablets in sorrow and despair.

On this day, we allow ourselves to be conscious of what's broken. Moshe's heart broke when he saw his community choosing idolatry and wickedness. My heart breaks when I read that the Supreme Court has struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act. (See SCOTUS decision, pdf. For context, see Do we still need the Voting Rights Act?, PBS and Why we still need the Voting Rights Act, Washington Post.)

"In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics...Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines." (That's from the decision itself.) Halevai -- would that it were so! But I do not believe that racism is over. (Neither do the researchers behind this study, released last month.)

The New York Times notes that although the Court upheld Section 5, which protects voters in the places where discrimination has been the worst, "without Section 4, which determines which states are covered, Section 5 is without significance — unless Congress chooses to pass a new bill for determining which states would be covered." I fear that leaving it to Congress to reach consensus on where discrimination happens (before steps can be taken to ameliorate the discrimination) is tantamount to inaction. And inaction means that the discrimination can not only continue, but flourish.

17 Tammuz was the day when the walls of Jerusalem began to fail. Where are the places in our world today where the walls of human rights, the walls of justice, the walls of empathy and compassion are cracking and becoming unsound?

Whether or not you're fasting today; whether or not you were even aware, before you read this post, that today was the fast day commemorating the breaching of those long-ago walls; whether or not you place stock in the traditional teaching that today is the anniversary of the day whe Moshe smashed those tablets of stone -- don't let today pass you by. Don't look away from what's broken.

I believe that the dates on our liturgical calendar have real meaning. (Whether the meaning is innate in the day itself, or whether it accrues over the course of thousands of years of us investing these dates with meaning, I experience the meaning either way.) The spiritual valance of today, on the Jewish calendar, is brokenness. Today is a day to let our hearts break when we see what's wrong in our world. Don't fight it; experience it.

And -- because there is always a next step -- then gather your courage to do something about it. Hold on to the wisdom of the great sage Leonard Cohen, who wrote "There is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in." Every breakage is also an opening. May we bring light to this world's broken places, and justice to everywhere marred by its absence. Speedily and soon.

 


 

Related:

Rebuilding with our Torah and our hearts, 2012

The Three Weeks: healing our sight, 2012

The photo which illustrates this post is mine; from here.


An unusual wedding

The state park arises out of nowhere. The countryside around it is quite built-up, highways and office parks and car dealerships, but then the road enters a new town, and the trees grow thicker, and suddenly there's an entryway to a state park. I drive in and up and around to the picnic pavillion at the end of the road.

A handful of actors and a musician are moving picnic tables to create the sacred space in which the ceremony will take place. We ponder which direction the sun will be coming from on the morning of the wedding, check weather forecasts on our phones, decide to set things up beneath the pavilion instead of in the field. We practice with the chuppah. I talk through the ceremony: this, then that, then a musical number, then another reading, then this next part...

In some ways this is one of the most informal weddings I've ever done. The brides will simply walk from the campfire circle to the chuppah once everyone is seated; there will be little pomp or circumstance. In other ways, this is among the most complex. There will be guerrilla theatre, performed by a group of friends who do this routinely at weddings in their circle. The brides don't know what exactly they will do, nor when they will do it, but they know an interruption is coming. Every time I think about it, it makes me smile.

Friends who are musicians will provide processional and recessional music, plus three musical numbers during the ceremony itself. In the late afternoon light, as we relax at the picnic tables after our very laissez-faire rehearsal, groups of singers gather with guitar and portable keyboard to practice the music. Even though they start and stop a few times, and they're still working out the details of how their voices will play off of one another, it is surprisingly glorious. I wonder what it will be like when they are singing for the hushed and anticipatory crowd.

In traditional circles where the Three Weeks are considered a period of mourning, weddings are not performed during this time. In Reform circles, as this Ask the Reform Rabbi column notes, some rabbis abstain from weddings at this time, but others don't. I've come to think of the Three Weeks as a time when we are particularly attuned to suffering, and a time for discernment and teshuvah, but for me this isn't a period of mourning per se. I grieve for what is broken, but I also recognize that without the Temple's fall, rabbinic Judaism might never have arisen.

I find that I'm happy to be doing a wedding during this first week of Av. There's been so much sorrow already during these Three Weeks -- the bus bombing which killed Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the shooting at the movie theatre in Aurora, various personal sorrows among people I know and love -- that this feels like an antidote, a tikkun: a healing. When I sing "soon may we hear, in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of cheer, the voices of beloveds rejoicing in one another" it will be an extra-fervent prayer this year.

May our sorrow turn to joy, speedily and soon.


Rosh Chodesh Av; Ramadan Mubarak

New-Moon
A sliver of new moon.

This morning I woke to an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow which began:

Tonight (July 19, 2012), as the New Moon glimmers, the Jewish and Muslim communities both enter a solemn month, known to one as Ramadan and the other as Av. In both, fasting takes on great importance as a way of focusing spiritual energy.

During the whole month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As they do, they turn their attention from material gain and physical pleasures to the call of God to serve the poor, to work for justice, to meditate on what is deep joy rather than immediate pleasure...

Jews enter the month of Av with an eye toward its ninth day, Tisha B'Av, a day of lament for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. On that day, Jews fast for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset of the next day. This year the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat; so the fast and lamentation are postponed to begin after Shabbat on Saturday night, July 28, leading into Sunday, July 29.

Read the whole thing at the Shalom Center website: When Ramadan and Av unite.

The Muslim calendar is purely lunar; the Jewish calendar is lunisolar. (What does that mean? Here's the Wikipedia entry on the Hebrew calendar -- basically, we insert a "leap month" in 7 out of 19 years to keep our spring festivals in the northern-hemisphere spring, and our fall festivals in the northern-hemisphere fall. As previously noted, the rabbis who originated our calendar were clearly not thinking about life in the global South.) Ramadan moves around the solar calendar year; a few years ago it overlapped with the Jewish month of Elul (see Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, 2009.) And this year Ramadan overlaps with the lunar month of Av.

I had the feeling I had written about that particular confluence before, too, so I checked my own archives. Sure enough, last year Av and Ramadan coincided as well, and I wrote:

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

Read the whole post: Approaching Av...and Ramadan.

To my Jewish friends and readers I wish a meaningful month of Av, replete with awareness of our communal journey from the depths of sorrow (during this last of the Three Weeks and through Tisha b'Av) into comfort and joy. And to my Muslim friends and readers, a blessed Ramadan! May both of our communities find blessing in this month of prayer and reflection, and may this month strengthen our sense of our common ground.


Writing about the Three Weeks for On Being

My thanks are due to the folks at On Being who asked to reprint one of my recent VR blog posts. I'm a longtime fan of On Being with Krista Tippett  -- I posted about one of its episodes a few years ago, when it was still called Speaking of Faith (TV and religion on Speaking of Faith, 2009) --  and I'm tremendously honored by the reprint! Here's how they're promoting my post in the sidebar of the main On Being website:

During this sacred time of year for Jews, the Velveteen Rabbi ponders how she can not only stop seeing the faults in people but 'to perfect the art of seeing the good in people.'

You can read it now at the On Being blog: Healing Our Sight: Training Ourselves to See the Best in People during The Three Weeks. Thanks, On Being editors! I'm so glad to see that post reaching a wider readership.


The Three Weeks: healing our sight

According to Sefer Yetzirah, to each month of the Jewish calendar there corresponds a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a zodiac sign, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, a sense, and a controlling limb of the body...

That's from The Month of Tamuz According to the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah) at Inner.org, a website which collects the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. R' Ginsburgh teaches that the sense associated with this month is sight. And the tribe associated with this month is Reuben -- a name which comes from the same root as the verb "to see."

Our task this month, he teaches, is to rectify, or heal, our own sight. "[O]ne must train one's eyes (both spiritual and physical) to see only the inner positive dimension of reality and not to focus upon reality's outer, negative 'shell.'" On another page at that same site -- The Month of Tamuz: The End of Tragedy -- we read:

The sense of the month of Tamuz is sight. This means that the month of Tamuz is the best month of the year to learn to exercise our sight in the most positive way possible. Rectified sight involves both shying away from that which is negative (an ability associated in Kabbalah with our left eye) and training ourselves to see things in a positive light (associated with our right eye). In essence, both aspects are included in the right eye, which means that we should seek to see only the good points in others.

I love this idea: that this month it is our task to learn to stop seeing the bad in people, and to perfect the art of seeing the good in people. I make a year-long practice of trying to see the good in people, but there's something especially meaningful to me about the idea of strengthening that practice during this time.

We've entered the Three Weeks when we are bein ha-meitzarim, caught in the narrow straits of remembered grief and suffering. We remember the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash, the house of holiness where we once understood God's presence to dwell. I keep returning to the text from Talmud which teaches that it was sinat chinam, needless hatred between and among our community, which brought the Temple down. And I find that I'm feeling even more keenly than usual the wish that I could create bridges of understanding between people who don't see eye to eye.

If we could all spend these Three Weeks healing our sight so that we truly only see the good in one another, how might the world be different? I'm not talking about superficial pretense, but about really training ourselves to see the best in people. Imagine seeing the best not only in your friends, but in the guy who cuts you off in traffic; in someone who looks different from you; in someone whose political positions are the opposite of yours.

Imagine Democrats and Republicans not just pretending to like one another, or focusing on their common ground in order to get along, but really figuring out how to see the good in each other. Imagine AIPAC supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace supporters doing the same. Secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Soldiers and refuseniks. Israelis and Palestinians.

The classical tradition, I suspect, would argue that our task is to learn to see the best in each other within our community, not outside the bounds of our community. (Define those boundaries how you will.) But my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught that in this age of paradigm shift, we need to move beyond triumphalism to an organismic understanding of our place in the world. Each religion is a necessary organ in the body of humanity; we need to maintain our differences, but we also need to communicate and connect. Maybe the best way to do that is to learn to see the best in one another.

May our vision be healed; may we learn how to look at each other and to see not our flaws and failings and differences but our holy sparks, our souls which shine, no matter who we are.

 

I'm collecting used eyeglasses at my synagogue during the Three Weeks, with the intent of donating them to OneSight after Tisha b'Av. If you live locally and might have eyeglasses to donate, you can learn more at my From the Rabbi blog.


Rebuilding with our Torah and our hearts

"One who doesn't build the Beit HaMikdash in their own time, it's as though they had destroyed it." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1.)

Even those who are pillars of the world go to their rest without building the Beit HaMikdash in their days. But in truth, the righteous in every era do build in their days a part of the Beit HaMikdash! Each one adds the spark which comes from his/her own heart.

The idea that "anyone who doesn't build the Beit HaMikdash in their days, it's as though they had destroyed it" -- that means someone who doesn't understand which aspect of Torah learning is truly their own. That's the part of the Beit HaMikdash that person is supposed to be building, and if one doesn't know, then one doesn't build.

So one must pray for redemption, and to strengthen one's knowledge, and one's awe, and to understand what one doesn't yet know. That's what it means to "go up to the place which God has chosen." (Deut. 17:8.)

 

That's the Hasidic master known as the Bnei Yissachar (R. Zvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov, who died in 1841.) He's commenting on a line from the Jerusalem Talmud which says that one who doesn't rebuild the Beit HaMikdash -- the Temple in Jerusalem -- in his own time is as guilty of its destruction as those who tore the Temple down.

That's a tough idea for those of us who have ambivalent feelings about the whole notion of the Temple. Most liberal Jews today decidedly do not wish to restore Temple sacrifice. (Neither Reform nor Reconstructionist Judaism nurtures this hope.) We tend to see the the destruction of the Temple as the brokenness out of which the new paradigm of rabbinic Judaism could emerge, and we don't want to return to the old paradigm. There's also the matter of contemporary geopolitics; two Muslim holy sites now occupy the top of that mountain.

The Bnei Yissaschar, though, offers a reading which I find really beautiful. The righteous in every era do rebuild the house of holiness, he says; each of us lifts up the spark in our own soul and our own heart, and together we collaborate on healing the cosmic rupture. Someone who doesn't rebuild, and who is therefore considered (by the sages) to be as guilty as the actual destroyers -- that means someone who doesn't take the time to learn which aspect of Torah is truly their own, which spark they're meant to uplift.

I love the idea that each of us can contribute a spark to the building of the Beit HaMikdash. The Bnei Yissachar is not talking about actually rebuilding a structure out of stones and mortar. Rather, he's talking about co-creating a spiritual structure of transformation through putting our hearts and souls together. And I love the idea that we do this, each of us, by learning the Torah which is truly ours to learn and to teach, and then lifting up the sparks of that learning and teaching to God.

How do I know which Torah is mine? Which Torah I most need to learn and to teach in order to contribute my irreplaceable spark to this collective enterprise? I don't have an easy answer to that. Sometimes I think that "my" Torah is the Torah which most powerfully calls to me and which makes me yearn to share it with others. Other times I think that "my" Torah is whatever Torah I most need to wrestle with: the tough texts, the painful passages, what I need to redeem in my own ways. Often I suspect I won't know which Torah was most truly mine until my life nears its end -- if then.

During these Three Weeks when Jews around the world are mourning the long-ago siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple, the shattering of the place where we once felt we had a "direct line" to God, at least I can continue to learn Torah. And maybe I'll happen upon the teaching I most need to learn, and most need to teach, in order to do my part in the rebuilding which has nothing to do with the physical world of real estate and everything to do with the heights of holiness in the human heart.

 

With thanks to R' Eliot Ginsburg.


17 Tammuz: the walls begin to fall

One of the five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar is coming up this weekend: 17 Tammuz, the day when we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. On 17 Tammuz we also remember the breaking of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments when Moshe came down the mountain and saw the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf. (A side note: this year 17 Tammuz falls on a Shabbat, so the fast will be observed on Sunday, the 18th of Tammuz, instead.) 17 Tammuz is the beginning of the "Three Weeks," also known as bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the narrows" or "in tight straits" -- a period of semi-mourning which culminates with Tisha b'Av.

I didn't grow up observing 17 Tammuz or the Three Weeks (or, for that matter, Tisha b'Av.) The Three Weeks aren't universally observed in the liberal Jewish world. (See Do Reform Jews Observe the Three Weeks?)  Some of us are unaware of this fast day, and others may feel some resistance to commemorating it by eschewing food all through the daylight hours of the day. What does it mean to mourn the siege of a city almost two thousand years ago, the breaching of the first wall which led to the fall of the Temple, especially when many of us no longer see the Temple Mount as the axis mundi, the umbilicus of creation, the place where communication with God is uniquely possible?

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests that 17 Tammuz is a day to mourn the ways in which the structures of peace are being dismantled in our time. Hearing that, some of us may think of olive trees uprooted and homes demolished; others may think of the removal of settlers from Gaza. What are the impediments to peace in today's Jerusalem? There's passionate disagreement on that front -- which makes me also think: what are the impediments to peace between and among us, in our community, who see the situation in Israel and Palestine in differing ways? The Talmud (tractate Yoma) tells us the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, "baseless hatred," within our community. Are we any kinder than our ancestors were?

How are the structures of caring and compassion dismantled in our time? The structures of understanding, gentleness, kindness?

Whether or not you are fasting on 17 Tammuz, consider donating what you would ordinarily spend on a day's food budget to an organization which works to effect healing. Combatants for Peace works to create healing and change in the Middle East; RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) works to create healing for those who have suffered rape or abuse. Or choose a group in your community which works to alleviate some of the brokenness of our world.

What can we learn from the teaching that Moshe shattered the first set of tablets, broken-hearted at the apostasy of the community he served, on this same day when we remember the breaking of Jerusalem's city walls? Maybe that hope lies in learning how to care for that which is broken. Midrash holds that the children of Israel carried the broken tablets along with the second set of whole ones in the ark of the covenant. That which is broken is still holy, is still deserving of our respect and our care. "There is nothing so whole," said Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, "as the broken heart."

On 17 Tammuz; on every day of the year; may we learn to extend hope and kindness to all who suffer. May we learn that in our very brokenness lies the possibility of healing and transformation.


Tzom Tammuz

Today is the 17 of Tammuz, also known as Tzom Tammuz ("the fast of Tammuz"), one of Judaism's lesser fast days, which inaugurates the "Three Weeks" of mourning which will culminate in Tisha b'Av.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Reflections on 17 Tammuz. Here's a taste:

According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf...

For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

To see how I answered, read the whole essay -- and feel free to comment in response, either on that original post or on this one.


Reflections on 17 Tammuz

Today is the 17th day of Tammuz: a minor fast day in Jewish tradition, inaugurating the "Three Weeks" of mourning leading up to Tisha b'Av. According to the Mishna, this was the day the Romans breached the walls around Jerusalem, which led to the destruction three weeks later of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Tradition also holds that today is the anniversary of Moses breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he came down the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping that golden calf.

The Three Weeks are also called bein ha-meitzarim -- "between the straits." They're a kind of narrows, a temporary and temporal Mitzrayim. During these weeks, many Jews don't celebrate weddings; some eschew instrumental music (a source of joy), haircuts (a nod to vanity), and even saying the shehecheyanu (blessing of gratitude sanctifying time.) These mourning customs are intensified during the nine days of leading up to Tisha b'Av.

I've read some striking and resonant things about minor fasts like 17 Tammuz. In God In Your Body, Jay Michaelson writes:

I approach the five Temple-related fast days by expanding the metaphor of the Temple's destruction to embrace the principle of separation itself. Then I see my fast not merely as mourning, but also as the path to healing...

I draw strength from the knowledge that around me as I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are also fasting on this communal day -- even if my reading of the day's significance is different from theirs. Jews have never agreed on why we do anything; we have four new years, and three names for the Passover holiday. Yet community is built by doing... Secondly, and relatedly, is the aspect of humility in spiritual practice. Every year, I learn from the tradition, even if my relationship to it is no longer as orthodox as it once was...

I approach the five Temple-related fast days in the spirit of practice, and practice requires form. If we only do the practice when we feel like it, it isn't a practice.

Really good points, all. But for many liberal Jews, minor fasts like this one are barely on the map, and ditto the customs of the Three Weeks that follow. In The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that an increasing number of Jews maintain an observance of 9 Av, but not an observance of minor Temple-related fast days like this one. As Rabbi Everett Gendler writes:

There is a practical reason for phasing out certain of the minor fasts, aside from loss of the significance they once had. Now that we have added observances to the calendar -- Yom ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Atzma'ut, and more -- we need to drop those that mean little to us, lest we fill the calendar up with holidays. If too many days are special, what's special about special days?

He has an interesting point. Many liberal Jews no longer ardently hope for the restoration of the Temple-that-was, preferring instead to embrace the paradigm shift into rabbinic (and post-rabbinic?) Judaism as a necessary turn in the unfolding of history's spiral. For those who don't observe the Three Weeks in the traditional ways, and don't yearn for the restoration of sacrifice atop the Temple mount, can 17 Tammuz still hold meaning?

There's a kind of slantwise answer in this quotation from Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi:

There is a danger posed by the Three Weeks with its list of catastrophes that befell the Jewish people one generation after another. The danger is a paranoia that declares that everyone else in the world is wrong and therefore their fate is of little concern to us. Instead, we should generalize from our experience and become involved in the universal... The teshuvah for the Three Weeks is to examine how we have distorted the particular. In the midst of remembering our history, we must reclaim as well our role as planetary citizens.

It falls to liberal Jews today to turn and re-turn these narrow straits into a container for meaning in a way that shifts our focus to the universal. This drash by Reb Arthur Waskow finds resonance in the teaching that this date marked Moses' shattering of the tablets. He suggests that Moses shattered the tablets just as we today shatter a wineglass at every marriage. The breakage, paradoxically, seals the covenant of the relationship.

Whether by fasting or not, today Jews remember the breakage of Jerusalem's city walls -- the first step toward the destruction of the Temple, and the rebirth of Judaism which ultimately followed. Even as we prepare ourselves in three weeks to mourn the Temple's fall, and the experiences of exile that 9 Av represents, can we see the breaching of those city walls as a kind of sacred shattering, opening the possibility of something lasting and new? When the walls between us fall, and the dust of their collapse settles, what can we create in the new negative spaces that are left behind?


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