A week of learning and togetherness

34933977923_59b899ca49_zWhen I come down to breakfast, I find two friends at the table enjoying coffee. It takes approximately five minutes for us to wind up in a halakhic conversation. It's about the psycho-spiritual, halakhic, and pastoral implications of seeking to speak truth -- with intimates, and with the larger world -- while taking care not to commit lashon ha-ra (malicious speech).

The friend who's making breakfast laughs: the minute you add a third rabbi to the table, halakhic conversations cannot be far behind! Later breakfast conversations (over continuing cups of coffee) include concepts of God through a Four Worlds lens, and how one's needs in briyah (the realm of thought) might be different from one's needs in yetzirah (emotionally, relationally.)

And that's just the first morning. Another morning over coffee we talk about Jewish organizational life and spiritual bypassing. We talk about the Jewish future we want to co-create, and about projects we want to take on, and about who's doing meaningful and innovative work in our field that feels real. We talk about different Hebrew options for same-sex wedding liturgy.

And in between the deep conversations about the Jewish future, we cook meals and spend time together. One afternoon we rent rowboats and go out on the water. One evening we marvel at fireflies and fireworks over a lake -- tiny lights moving and gleaming, juxtaposed with enormous chrysanthemums of sparks that paint the night sky and then disappear into smoke.

We sit with our various machzorim (high holiday prayerbooks) -- Days of Awe, Harlow, Machzor Chadash, Kol HaNeshamah, Wings of Awe -- and sing snippets of melody and high holiday nusach. We share high holiday ideas and questions, talk about things we've done that have worked and things we want to try differently this year in the communities where we serve.

Our high holiday conversations oscillate between tight focus and granular detail (melody choices, when to use nusach, how do you do this prayer?) and macro questions: what does it mean to do "good"? If our souls are pure each morning, why do we need the Days of Awe at all? (We all agree that we do, but some of those whom we serve might not think so: how do we tend to them too?)

We learn with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, which is predictably extraordinary. With him we take a deep dive into mussar (ethical and spiritual self-improvement) and halakha around our dining room table. We sharpen our text skills and hone our spiritual responsiveness through deep encounters with text and with tradition, ably guided by his wisdom.

We learn a gorgeous R' Shlomo Wolbe text from the book Alei Shur about the idea that there are appointed times, of closeness to God and of distance from God. The Three Weeks (which begin next week) are a time when we recognize our distance from the Holy One. Far worse than distance, R' Wolbe teaches, is the condition of not even realizing that the distance is there. 

Another beautiful Wolbe text speaks about Torah as the path to shleimut, wholeness. Through Torah study and more importantly through doing mitzvot, he says, we transform our lives into living laboratories. In pursuing Torah learning and service, we become overflowing springs of renewal, we ascend toward holiness, and we become who we're meant to be.

We learn a text from the Maharsha about how it takes 21 days for a chicken to gestate or an almond tree to flower. He riffs on 21 days, exploring two three-week corridors in Jewish time: the Three Weeks (bitter) and the weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Hoshanah Rabbah (sweet), and how both of these can be doorways to God's presence and to purification of one's soul.

And we learn a text from the Afikei Mayim that riffs off of the Alei Shur, the Maharsha, and a few others that we had studied together, exploring the idea that God cries with us, and that Tisha b'Av is a day of closeness between us and God, as is Shemini Atzeret -- though one is a day of rejoicing and the other is a day of sorrow, they're both days of intimate connection. (Wow.)

We study questions of transgender and halakha, delving into texts from Talmud and Rambam, a heartwrenching 13th-century poem by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a pair of teshuvot from the Tzitz Eliezer, excerpts from a book by Edan Ben-Ephraim, and more. We grapple with our tradition's various ways of dealing with gender, relationship, and identity over the centuries.

What a profound luxury it is to spend time with chaverim (beloved colleague-friends), diving deep into liturgy and halakha, practice and purpose, for hours on end. Our learning will benefit the communities we serve, but even more than that, it enriches and enlivens our hearts and souls as Jewish clergy (rabbis and hazzan). Truly this is Torah study lishma: for its own sake.

I'm endlessly grateful to The Jewish Studio for creating and sponsoring this fantastic week, and to my hevre for learning with me and davening with me, laughing with me and harmonizing with me, pushing and pulling me toward insights I would never have reached on my own, and for feeding not only my body but also my heart, my mind, and my neshama -- my soul. 


The need for justice to balance love

Justice-love-scalesEarlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)

The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.

Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container. 

Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds. 

Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.

Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination.  Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse. 

Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure. 

This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did. 

A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.

The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share. 

May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.

 


Light

Step one: we attuned ourselves to light.
I don't mean the sun, but what came first.
(Heavenly bodies were day four.) The fire
of the burning bush, the glowing cloud
that hovered over the mishkan, the presence
of creation's supernal flame made us lift

our eyes. When the pillar would lift
we set off; when it settled, we'd light
our cookfires. Back then we had presence
of mind to check the celestial forecast first.
Didn't let our desires to move cloud
our judgment. We were on fire

for the One Whose presence gleams. Afire,
we reached step two: learning how to lift
our hearts even when the cloud
didn't move. We can travel light
even if we're not going anywhere. First
we learn how to live with holy presence.

Step three: open to what wholly presents
itself. Strike the iron while the fire
is hot, but paint our doorposts first.
When we left Egypt we knew how to lift
our hearts to the One, how to light
the tinder of prayerful spirit into clouds

of incense. But God was not in the cloud:
only hinted-at in the wordless presence
that filled the tabernacle with light.
"More than God wants the straw fire
God wants the well-cooked heart," so lift
yourself to the altar. Sometimes the first

thing to do is burn. Sometimes first
we bank our internal fires, offer up the cloud
of self that rises. When the lift
comes, when our hearts become our presents --
that's the time to add fuel to the fire.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light

first tunes our internal radio to the presence.
Then we notice when we get cloud, and when fire.
Let our spirits lift, and become light.


I don't mean the sun, but what came first. At the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) God creates light, but sun and moon and stars don't materialize for another few days. From this our tradition intuits that the light of creation was something other than literal light, and there are many beautiful teachings about the supernal light of creation hidden away for the righteous.

The fire of the burning bush. See Exodus 3. One of my favorite teachings about Shabbat candles holds that when we kindle lights on Shabbat, we are to see in them the supernal light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed. 

The glowing cloud that hovered over the mishkan... when the pillar would lift. See this week's Torah portion, B'ha'alot'kha, in which a cloud hovered over the mishkan (the tabernacle / dwelling-place-for-God's-presence). When the cloud lifted, we went on our journeys, and when it rested, we stayed put.  (For a beautiful d'var Torah on that theme, see Rabbi David's The Reason for Patience.)

Strike the iron while the fire / is hot, but paint our doorposts first. The Exodus story is a paradigmatic narrative of leaping when the opportunity presents itself... but before so doing, the children of Israel painted blood on the doorposts of their houses, an act we now echo in placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of ours. Doors are liminal spaces -- life is full of liminal spaces -- and it's up to us to make them holy.

But God was not in the cloud. See I Kings 19:11-12. God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.

More than God wants the straw fire / God wants the well-cooked heart. A teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe. 

The One Who rolls back darkness before light. See maa'ariv aravim, our prayer for evening -- here it is in several variations.

Tunes our internal radio to the presence. This metaphor comes from Reb Zalman z"l, who used to speak about how God broadcasts on all channels and we receive revelation where we are attuned.


New Torah commentary at My Jewish Learning

Earlier this year I was delighted to contribute a d'var Torah to My Jewish Learning for the first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus: Vayikra - What Silence Conceals and Reveals. They've asked me to write a few more commentaries for them, and one of them has just been published. This one's for the Torah portion called Korach, which we'll be reading later this summer.

Here's a taste of what I wrote:

... It’s easy for moderns to empathize with Korach. Maybe we too have chafed against leadership, religious or otherwise, that has seemed too top-down. The modern-day legal system under which we live says that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law, and the ancient priestly system that placed Aaron and his sons at the top of the hierarchy may offend our democratic sensibilities.

Most of all, Korach’s cry — “all of the community are holy, and God is in their midst” — speaks to us on a spiritual level. Torah teaches that when we build a space in our lives for God, God dwells among us (or within us). Being a leader doesn’t make one closer to God, and any leader who thinks that it does is in need of doing some serious internal work.

But this story isn’t as simple as it may initially seem. Korach is identified as a son of Levi — part of the “secondary” priestly caste in the ancient system that placed Kohanim (priests) at the top of the ladder, Levi’im (Levites, or secondary priests) beneath them, and Yisrael (ordinary Israelites) at the bottom. It’s possible that his rebellion wasn’t motivated by the kind of communitarian impulse that moderns might admire, but by the desire to depose Aaron and his sons so that Korach and his sons could be at the top of the hierarchy instead. Seen through that lens, Korach and his followers attempted a coup that would have replicated the same top-down use of power against which we want to think they are rebelling.

I’m also struck by the language the Torah uses to describe the incident: Korach and his followers “assemble against” Moses and Aaron. This isn’t a friendly conversation, a heart-to-heart about the direction the Israelites are taking in their wilderness wandering, or a question about leadership style and priorities. This is rebellion. ...

I hope you'll click through and read the whole thing: A Failed Rebellion.

Deep thanks to the editors at MJL for publishing my work.


Open to me

My breasts are full and tender:
I ache to give to you.

Say yes and I will bathe you
in flowing milk and honey.

Taste and see that I am good.
How I yearn for you to know me!

I want to quench the thirsts
that keep your heart from resting.

I crave your gasp of surprise
and your sigh of completion.

My heart's desire
is to share myself with you.

Open to me, beloved
so my precious words can let down.

 


 

This is another poem arising out of my study and reflection on the relationship between yearning and the revelation at Sinai. (See also I want.) 

My breasts are full and tender. The Hebrew word for "breasts" is shadayim; one of Torah's names for God is "El Shaddai," which can be understood to depict God as a nursing mother.

I ache to give to you. See Pesachim 221a: "More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." (See also "El Shaddai (Nursing Poem)," the first poem I wrote after my son was born -- now published in Waiting to Unfold.)

Flowing milk and honey. Song of Songs 4:11 speaks of "honey and milk under your tongue." One traditional interpretation holds that this is a description of Torah's sweetness. Just as milk has the ability to fully sustain a newborn, so Torah is considered to provide all of the spiritual nourishment that we need.

(Reb Zalman z"l taught that this isn't necessarily so -- sometimes there are spiritual "vitamins" we can most readily receive from other traditions, rather than our own -- but the tradition's likening of Torah to milk is one of the reasons why it's customary to eat dairy at Shavuot when we celebrate revelation.)

Taste and see. See psalm 34:8: "Taste and see that God is good."

My heart's desire. This riffs off of a line from the Kabbalat Shabbat love song "Yedid Nefesh" -- in Reb Zalman z"l's singable English translation, "My heart's desire is to harmonize with yours." Here I imagine that God's heart's desire is to share God's-self with us.


I want

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

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

the Jewish mother in me
aches to fill your plate)

but not just nutrients:
like manna that took on

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

to meet your every need
balm your every sorrow

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

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

you'll misunderstand them
sometimes you'll resent them

often you'll resent me
for the neverending letters

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

 


 

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

 

Notes:

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

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

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

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


A crack in everything

Broken-heart.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartIn this week's Torah portion, Emor, we read that no one who has a defect may draw near to God through offering sacrifices on the altar. And then Torah goes into exquisite detail about all of the different kinds of physical defects that would disqualify a priest from serving.

Fortunately for us, we live in a post-sacrificial paradigm. When the Temple was destroyed, we engaged in an act of radical reinterpretation. We no longer talk with God through burnt offerings: we talk with God through prayer, the "service of the heart."

In the old paradigm, anyone with a "defect" was disqualified from service. I want to turn that on its head: anyone who thinks they are perfect should be disqualified from serving the community, because they are so full of themselves that there's no room to let God in.

We all have imperfections. We all have broken places. We all have bodies that will age and will someday not work as well as they do now. (I suspect that for most of you, that truth is not yet a reality -- though for others it's old news; even at 20 one can be injured or sick.) We all have hearts that break and ache and grieve. We all have minds that sometimes fail us. We all have souls that sometimes feel lost and lonely.

This is what it means to be human. To be human is to be imperfect, and sometimes to feel broken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to serve not despite our brokenness, but in and with the parts of ourselves that feel most damaged. 

The word קרבן is usually translated as "sacrifice," but it comes from a root that means drawing-near. The English word "sacrifice" connotes giving something up, but that's not what the priests were doing. Their task was to draw near to holiness, to meaning, to what we call God.

That's our task, too. All of us have the opportunity and obligation to take our spiritual lives into our own hands. Spiritual life isn't just what happens on Shabbat or in the sanctuary. All of our life is spiritual life -- or it can be, if we're willing to be real with ourselves and each other.

And that means being real about the places where we feel whole and strong and beautiful, and the places where we feel crushed and ground-down. We draw near to God (and if the G-word doesn't work for you, try "holiness" or "meaning" or "love") not despite our broken places, but in and through them. 

The school year is ending. Some of us are feeling loss: our friends are graduating, or we ourselves are graduating, and our community is going to change. Some of us are feeling sorrow: the year wasn't everything we hoped it would be, or it was everything we hoped for but now it's over and what do we do with that?

My answer is: be real. Be real with yourself and with each other. Don't paper over the broken places. They're not a flaw in our lives or in who we are: they're integral to who we are. The great sage Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in." May our broken places let in infinite light and comfort, hope and love, now and always.

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

 


Shabbat, renewal, and you

A d'var Torah offered at Congregation Bet Ha'Am in Portland, Maine. Offered aloud by me; jointly written by me and Rabbi David

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 Welcome home.

Why am I welcoming you home when you live here and I'm the visitor? I don't mean welcome home to Bet Ha'Am; I mean welcome home to Shabbat – or more aptly, welcome home into Shabbat – because Shabbat is a homecoming.

Rabbi David and I are delighted to join you as scholars in residence, or maybe scholars in homecoming. This weekend we hope to share with you tastes of Renewal, starting with the renewal we call Shabbat. For six days we busy in our doings; on the seventh day, we come home to our sense of being human beings. 

When we can "just be," when we really know that we're enough just as we are, we can touch that loving miracle of spirituality that Jewish mystics call the World to Come, right here and now. That's what I mean by coming home.

Now I freely admit to y'all – and I say y'all as a good south Texan transplanted to southern New England, now visiting southern Maine – that not every Shabbat in my life lives up to this ideal of a homecoming. But tonight, singing and praying and being with y'all even for this short while, I feel the supernal Shabbat becoming that feeds my soul – and I feel at home here with you.

This sense of inner homecoming is Renewal – both the lower-case "r" of experiencing the love and joy we call the renewal of spirit, and the capital "R" of Renewing Judaism, and its umbrella organization -- ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal -- that Rabbi David and I call home. And these two Renewals are linked. A Judaism that is vital and vibrant in body, heart, mind and soul – what we call the Four Worlds of Jewish spirituality – is the quest and passion of Jewish Renewal.

Tonight we want to share with you how we see two Renewals as linked with the theme of our weekend together – holiness, for Parshat Kedoshim – and the heart of Parshat Kedoshim, to love our neighbor as ourself / ואהבת לרעך כמוך. How does Renewal relate to holiness and love?

Continue reading "Shabbat, renewal, and you" »


Because

ואהבת לרעך כמוך: אני הוי׳׳ה
Love your other as yourself: I am God. - Lev. 19:18

 

Because I am God
I ache
to give sweetness

my cup spills over
every time you need
or hurt

Because I carry
your heart
in mine

Because you carry my heart
in yours
you ache too

in the yearning
between us
is holiness

 


 

This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, is at the heart of the Torah: the middle portion of the middle book of the five. And in the very heart of the heart of the Torah is the verse cited at the top of this poem -- the injunction to love one's neighbor, one's other, as oneself.

This year I found myself thinking about the juxtaposition of that verse with the words "I am God." What is Torah trying to tell us -- what's the connection between God being God, and us being called to love others? I thought about the teaching from Talmud (Pesachim 118) about how God yearns to give us blessing. I thought about how when we love one another, we feel (and want to balm) one another's losses. I thought about how it is the nature of God to ache to give to us, and how we are made in the divine image and therefore we partake in that same aching. And I thought of the word kadosh, "holy" -- a root which appears repeatedly in this week's Torah portion, and also appears in the word kiddushin, the sanctified relationship between two beloveds. 

This poem arose out of all of those. It's not part of my Texts to the Holy series (it's spoken in the Divine voice to us, rather than in our voice to the beloved or Beloved) but is part of the newer series I've been writing lately, along with Always and God says yes.


Healing and second chances

HealingA few days ago we entered into the new month of Iyar. Here's my favorite teaching about the month of Iyar: its name is an acronym for something beautiful. Torah teaches that after the children of Israel crossed through the Sea of Reeds and reached the far shore, they sang and danced -- and then, once they began their journey in the wilderness, they became afraid. What if there were no potable water for them to drink? What if there weren't enough to nourish them in life's journey?

So God instructed Moshe to throw a piece of wood into a stagnant pond, and the water became sweet. And then God offered one of Torah's most beautiful reassurances, saying "I am YHVH your healer." That's the phrase we can see hidden in the name of the month Iyar: אני יה רפאך / I am God, your healer.

In the words of my friend and teacher Rabbi Yael Levy of A Way In:

Iyar is an acronym for this promise the Divine Mystery has made to us: I am your healer. On life’s journeys you will face the seas of struggle, celebration, fear and joy, and whatever comes, I am there to heal and guide you. (Exodus 15:26)

She continues:

Iyar is a month of second chances because the full moon of Iyar provides the opportunity to make up for something that has been missed. During Temple times, it was considered essential for a person’s spiritual and material wellbeing to compete a sacrificial offering for Passover. If circumstances kept someone from someone from making this offering, he/she was given another opportunity to do so on the 15th day of the month of Iyar.

Iyar says it is never too late -- no matter what situation we find ourselves in, no matter how far away we have traveled from our intentions or goals, it is possible to find our way back.

Every life contains missteps and missed opportunities -- times when we look back and realize we wish we'd chosen differently. If only I had reached out to that person then, instead of staying silent. If only I had walked through that door, instead of staying outside. If only I had said "I love you" while I still could. If only, if only.

Part of what it means to me to say that God is our healer is to say that God accompanies us into our second chances. I don't have a time turner; I can't actually go back in time to undo my mistakes, so that I could do then what I wish now that I had done. But Rabbi Levy points out that just as our ancestors were given the opportunity to offer the Pesach sacrifice late, we too can find opportunities to make up for where we missed the mark... and I think that's one way that God can help us to find healing.

Illness and healing are major themes in this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. Torah's ancient paradigm of tamei and tahor, impure and pure -- or charged-up with the energy of life and death, and absent that psycho-spiritual "electricity" -- may not speak to us. But part of what I relearn from this Torah portion each year is that when one is sick, whether physically or emotionally or spiritually, one may feel exiled from the community. Cut off and isolated. "Outside the camp" in an existential sense: alone even when surrounded by other human beings.

And in those times God comes to us and reminds us אני יה רפאך -- I am God, your healer. I am the One Who is with you in sickness and in health, the One Who accompanies you even when you feel most existentially alone.

When we are sick and feel isolated, the One Who Accompanies is with us. And when we are sick at heart because of the places where we missed the mark, the One Who Accompanies is with us too. May this month of Iyar be a time when our second chances gleam bright before us, so we can find healing in making amends, and making new choices, and remembering that -- as Rabbi Levy teaches -- no matter how far we've strayed from where we meant to be, it's never too late to find our way back. 

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at CBI this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Ready to be changed

Img_9134-e1332770936209This week we're taking a break from the regular cycle of Torah readings. Our special Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, the Shabbat that comes in the midst of this festival, returns us to the book of Exodus.

In this Torah portion, Moshe pleads with God, "Let me behold Your presence!" And God says "Yes! -- and no." God says, "I will make My goodness pass before you, but no one can look upon Me and live." God says, "Let Me protect you in this cleft of a rock, and after I pass by, you can see my afterimage."

This is among the most intense and profound moments in Torah. We could spend hours exploring this text... and instead I have two minutes.

I was talking about that this week with my learning partner -- after all, rabbis keep learning too -- and the question arose: so how long did it take for God to pass by? Probably none of us believe that God has a physical body, so this question is about Moshe's awareness. In Moses-time, maybe it took two minutes. Probably it happened in a flash. An experience -- even a life-changing one -- can unfold in two minutes. But understanding that experience, integrating it into the fullness of our lives, can take a lifetime.

The teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, said that "theology is the afterthought of the believer. You never have someone coming up with a good theology if he or she didn’t first have an experience." Experience comes first. Our attempts to understand that experience come after.

Understanding can happen in the body, when we feel something viscerally. Or in the mind, or the heart, or the spirit. Often it's one but not the other -- you know how sometimes you know something in your head, but your heart hasn't yet gotten the memo? Experience is easy. Understanding is harder.

Your years at Williams are like that too, filled with experiences that might take you weeks, or months, or a lifetime to fully explore. The thing is, we never know which moment will be the moment when an experience knocks us off our feet and changes us. We have to be open to it whenever it comes.

And that takes me back to Pesach. When it was time to leave slavery, the children of Israel had to go right then. No time to let their bread dough rise, just -- time to go, now, ready or not. One minute they were hemmed-in and trapped, and the next minute they were faced with wide-open possibility.

The haggadah says each of us should see ourselves as though we ourselves had experienced that transformation. Every life is filled with Exodus moments: when everything you thought you understood turns upside-down, when you realize your world is more expansive than you ever knew, when you have to take a leap into the unfamiliar and unknown.

A life-changing experience could happen anytime. Going from constriction to freedom could happen anytime. Liberation from life's narrow places, or God's presence passing before us in such a way that we feel the presence of goodness, could happen right now. Our job is to be ready for the experience of being changed. 

That kind of mindful living takes practice. College is busy. Life is busy. The life-changing experience of a moment may be a gift of grace, or a total accident. But good practice makes us accident-prone. 

So here's a blessing for being prone to the best kind of accidents, the serendipity that can change a life in the blink of an eye, the two minutes that can last a lifetime, two minutes that can change a life.

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image by Jack Baumgartner. [Source.]

 


What silence conceals and reveals - at My Jewish Learning

...It’s easy to shy away from Leviticus. The middle book of the Torah, Leviticus is rife with the details of a sacrificial system we haven’t practiced in the better part of 2,000 years. (And most contemporary Jews have no interest in returning to pre-rabbinic Judaism, which makes Leviticus even more alien and alienating). The first portion in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is also called Vayikra. The word means “And God Called.”

The first word of this biblical book is characterized by a textual oddity. In Torah scrolls, which are still handwritten with quill and ink on parchment, the final letter of that first word is always written extra-small. (It looks like this.) The silent aleph (א) at the end of the word is written in miniscule.

Without that aleph, the word would mean “and God happened upon.” With the aleph, it means “And God called.” Midrash teaches that Moses wanted to write “vayikar,” without the final aleph — as though God had merely happened upon him. But God insisted otherwise God didn’t just “happen upon” Moses, but called out to Moses on purpose! In the end, they compromised: The letter is there, but it’s tiny.

Set aside for the moment whether or not you believe that Torah was given to Moses in full on Mount Sinai, and whether or not you believe that the details of scribal practice are divinely foreordained. What interests me about this story — this push-and-pull between Moses’ humility and God’s insistence that Moses has a role —  is that it’s in our canon in the first place...

That's an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote for My Jewish Learning for the Torah portion Vayikra. Read it here: What silence conceals and reveals.


Face to face

Pic24This week's Torah portion, Terumah, contains exquisitely detailed instructions for the building of the mishkan, the portable dwelling-place for God that our ancestors created in the wilderness. But there's one element in the design that is intriguingly vague: the instruction to place two kruvim atop the ark.

It's possible that our Biblical forebears knew what kruvim looked like, so Torah didn't feel the need to offer blueprints. And it's possible that the kruvim were ineffable even then.

All we know is that they are made of gold, and they have wings, and they face each other. Well, in this week's Torah portion they face each other. In the book of Chronicles we read that when the Temple was built, the kruvim faced the Temple, not each other.

Given these two disparate descriptions, our sages decided that the kruvim had a mystical ability to move in imitation of us. When we in the community follow the mitzvot and treat each other lovingly, then the kruvim face each other in I/Thou relationship, as do we. When we reject the mitzvot and treat each other dishonorably, then the kruvim turn away from each other, as we have turned away from each other and from God. The keruvim become our mirror.

I had the opportunity recently to study a short text from the Aish Kodesh, a collection of teachings by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira who was the rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto. He writes that when we stand before God in prayer, when we speak to God as a "you" (in Martin Buber's language, a "thou"), we draw forth that aspect of God with Whom we can be in relationship. When we do that, we find God's presence in the act of prayer -- or maybe we find our own presence, our own deepest selves revealed to us.

We read in Proverbs that כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם לָאָדָם: just as water reflects our faces back to us, so our hearts can reflect us to each other. When I connect to you as a "thou," I see myself reflected in your heart. When I connect to God a a "thou," my yearning calls forth divine presence, and I see myself reflected in the Divine. Because I seek, God becomes revealed -- and so do I. God becomes the mirror in which I see my deepest self most fully.

And that brings me back to the kruvim in this week's Torah portion, which are also a kind of mirror. When we yearn for connection, and act out of that yearning, they face each other in mirror image. When we lose sight of our yearning for God, our yearning for connection and holiness, our yearning for sanctified relationship, the mirroring goes away. They no longer face each other, as we and God no longer face each other, and we lose the mirror in which we might have seen ourselves and God more deeply.

Spiritual life is a journey of constant rising and falling, waking and falling asleep, trying and failing and trying again. We strive to be the best people we can be. Then we notice that we've lost track of our best intentions. Then we turn ourselves around to try again. That existential act of turning ourselves around to try again is what our tradition calls teshuvah, repentance or return.

Making teshuvah is our perennial task -- not only during Elul and the Days of Awe (though we talk a lot about teshuvah at that season) but always. We can make teshuvah each week before Shabbat, and each night before sleep. It's our task to notice where we've fallen away and to turn back: to re-enter into relationship with the tradition and with our fellow human beings and with God.

When we turn to face each other, there's the potential for experiencing God's presence in the space between us, the relational space, the I/Thou space, like the relational space between the kruvim of old from which God's voice was said to issue forth. When we turn to face God, we prime the pump for revelation -- and whether it's revelation of God's self, or revelation of our own deepest self, doesn't really matter. Either way, we open the door to our own transformation.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

Related: 

  • Gaze, a poem that draws on these teachings from the Aish Kodesh, 2017
  • The Space Between, about the kruvim and God's voice issuing forth from between them, 2016

 


Dwelling in us


MishkanThis week's Torah portion, Terumah, contains one of my favorite verses in Torah: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם -- usually translated as "Let them make for Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell in their midst." It comes as part of the instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that our ancestors were instructed to build and to carry in the wilderness.

The word mishkan shares a root with the word Shekhinah, the name that our mystics gave to the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. They imagined a transcendent aspect of God, "up there," far away, unreachable, inconceivable -- and an immanent aspect of God, "down here," in creation, as close to us as the beating of our own hearts. Some would say that the mishkan was the house our ancestors built for Shekhinah -- the place where God's presence could dwell.

It was portable, with rings built into the sides and poles that went into the rings, so it could be carried in the wilderness. That teaches us that we can carry God with us wherever we go. I like that idea of the portability of spiritual practice. We don't have to come to a special place in order to have spiritual lives, even though it's nice to have a special place as beautiful as this one! We carry our spiritual lives with us. That really works for me.

And... going back to that verse from Torah with which I began, I want to offer a different translation that changes the meaning in a subtle but important way.

I like to read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם as "Let them make for Me a holy place, that I might dwell within them." The word בתוכם can mean either "in their midst" or "within them," and I prefer the latter. When I read it that way, it tells me that when we build structures for holiness in our lives, then God dwells in us.

When we take the time to make Shabbat special and separate from the workweek, God dwells in us. When we take the time to feel our inner sap rising at Tu BiShvat, or to celebrate the topsy-turviness of how costumes can both conceal us and reveal us at Purim, God dwells in us. When we retell the story of our liberation at Pesach, and reflect on the meanings of liberation in our own lives, God dwells in us. When we make a blessing before we eat, or say the shema before falling asleep, or murmur a prayer for gratitude upon waking, God dwells in us.

These are all explicitly Jewish acts, but I think this teaching has wisdom to offer us as human beings, not "just" as Jews. What if we could live with the intention that when we approach each moment with mindfulness, God dwells in us? How might that change our sense of everyday life?

Try this on: when we are true to who we most deeply are, God dwells in us. When we treat each other with respect, God dwells in us. When we live with integrity, God dwells in us. When we seek meaning in our lives, God dwells in us.

The ultimate source of meaning, and wisdom, and love, isn't just "out there" somewhere: it's also "in here," in our own hearts. Our whole lives can be the structures within which holiness can dwell.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at WCJA at Kabbalat Shabbat this week. Image by Adam Rhine.


Yes we said yes we will yes

Yes-1In this week's Torah portion, the children of Israel tell Moses, כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / "All that God has spoken, we will do." After that, they receive the Ten Commandments.

Wait. Doesn't that seem backwards? How could we accept the mitzvot, and only then learn what they are? How does it make sense to to agree to do, before we've heard what it is God is calling us to do? Almost every Torah commentator under the sun tackles this question, because it's a big one.

Lately I'm spending quality time with Menchem Nachum of Chernobyl, the Hasidic master also known as the Me'or Eynayim. And he says this is a teaching about how spiritually, no one ever stands still.

We're always rising and falling. Life-force ebbs and flows. Our connection with God ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel connected with something beyond ourselves, and enlivened by that connection. Sometimes we feel we've fallen away and meaning is nowhere to be found.

Our task -- he says -- is to remember that all of creation is filled with divinity, that (in the words of the Zohar) לית אתר פנוי מיניה / there is no place devoid of the Presence. It's easy to feel that at spiritual high moments when we're feeling connected and full of love. It's harder to feel that when life is difficult and God seems distant.

When we feel that we've fallen far from God, when we feel conscious of our shortcomings that keep us feeling disconnected, when we're feeling existentially lonely, that's when we need to remember that there's no such thing as "far from God." God, he teaches, is never absent or far away -- only sometimes very hidden. God withdraws in order to make space for us, or perhaps to encourage us to seek.

When we feel that we're far away from God or from goodness, God is actually right there with us in our feelings of exile, our feelings of loneliness, our feelings of despair. Sometimes everything seems clear and we can feel God's presence with us. Sometimes the clarity departs and God feels far away. But the distinction is one of epistemology, not ontology.

And the answer to feeling existentially far-from-God is to say yes -- even when we can't feel the presence of the thing we're saying yes to. Say yes to life, even if you don't know where life will take you. Say yes to spiritual practice, even if you don't know how spiritual practice will change you. Say yes to the mitzvot, even when you don't wholly know what they are. Say yes to God, even if you aren't sure God exists, or is listening. 

Agreeing to do before we've heard what it is we're supposed to do is an inversion. It's rising before falling. But the thing about falling is, it just spurs us to want to rise higher. One step back, two steps forward. At least, that's the Me'or Eynayim's take on it. Because spiritual life never stands still.

Standing still is stasis, and stasis is death. As long as we're living, we're growing and changing. My seven-year-old likes to say there's no such thing as doing "nothing" -- even if we're holding perfectly still, we're breathing, we're existing, blood is pumping through our veins. If we're alive, we're changing. In the Me'or Eynayim's terms, if we're alive, we're rising and falling.

We agree to do the mitzvot -- that's a moment of rising. Then we fall, because that's how life works. We touch elevated consciousness for long enough to give God an existential "yes we said yes we will yes," and then we fall away. But in our falling, we listen for God's presence in the world, and that's when we hear the Voice issuing forth from Sinai. שמע: we listen, and achieve a glimmer of understanding, and rise up again.

The first step is a leap of faith: כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / "all that God has spoken, we will do." We leap even though we don't know what we're leaping to. We leap, saying "sure, we'll spend our lives with You" before we really know Who God is or where God might take us. We leap knowing that we will fall... and that from our place of having-fallen, we can rise to greater heights.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at WCJA at Kabbalat Shabbat this week. The teaching from the Me'or Eynayim that I cite here can be found in Hebrew in the app ובלכתך בדרך; if you'd like to read it in English, there's a translation at sefaria.

 


My strength balanced with God's song: a d'varling for parashat Beshalach

32421398230_ca11c3da2d_zThis morning we sang excerpts from the Song at the Sea. We sang my favorite line from that song: עָזִי וְזִמרָת יָה וַיְהִי–לִי לִישֻעָה.

That line is often translated as "God is my strength and my might, and will be my deliverance." But zimra doesn't mean "might," it means "song" -- as in psukei d'zimra, our poems and songs of praise. Sometimes I translate this line as "God is my strength and my song, and will be my salvation." I like the idea that both my strength, and my song, are ways of finding God. But the best translation I know is Rabbi Shefa Gold's translation (and by the way, she also wrote the melody for this verse that we're singing this morning): "My strength (balanced with) God's song will be my salvation."

My strength, balanced with God's song, will be my salvation.

Some of us may be allergic to the word "salvation," which feels kind of... Christian, somehow. Though of course the notion of a God Who saves us was a Jewish idea long before the birth of Rabbi Jesus. One paradigmatic example of God's salvation is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds -- which is in today's Torah portion. God parted the waters and we came through. We sing about it every week when we sing Mi Chamocha -- "the water is wide..."

Y'all probably know by now that I don't understand this as a historical story. This is a true story in the way that great literature is true. This is a true story because it speaks to one of our deepest human hopes: that when we are in tight places, we will find a way out. That when we are trapped between an advancing army and the sea, we will find a way through. That if we step into the sea, if we cultivate faith in a better future, we can partner with something beyond ourselves to bring that better future into being.

We partner with something beyond ourselves. My strength, balanced with God's song.

We need our own strength in order to cross the sea, to face whatever difficulties arise in our lives -- and every life holds tsuris, "suffering," which comes from the same root as Mitzrayim, "the Narrow Place." Every life has times when we feel trapped in the narrowness of our own circumstance. Life's challenges call forth our strength. Our task is to feel our own strength flowing through us, and to know that we have the inner resources the moment demands.

And we need God's song in order to cross the sea. We need music that uplifts the heart. We need love to sing its melody in us. We need hope, and heart-opening, and joy. If we try to cross the sea without those things, we might manage to walk across the sand, but we'd be like the figures in the midrash who were so busy kvetching about the muddy sea floor that they forgot to notice the miracle all around them, and as a result, when they reached the other side they weren't really free.

My strength, balanced with God's song. That's what gets us across the sea. That's what gets us from the narrow place into expansiveness. That's what enables us to experience spiritual growth and transformation. Our own core strength, balanced with the ineffable: with song and joy, with meaning and love.

 

This is the d'varling I gave at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Exile and expansiveness - a d'varling for parashat Bo

Exile-300x178Right now in our cycle of Torah readings (parashat Bo) we're reading about the plagues and the start of the Exodus. Looking for inspiration on this week's parsha, I turned to the Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim, "The Light of the Eyes." (His given name was Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl.) He writes about Egypt as a place of existential exile, and about what happens to us spiritually when we are brought forth from there.

Slavery in Egypt is our tradition's ultimate example of גלות / galut, existential alienation from God. It's the paradigmatic example of constriction. When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we're also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now.

For the Me'or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It's a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don't even realize we've fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself.

When one is in this kind of galut, it's hard to know the difference between what will give life and what will deaden us. Torah instructs us to "choose life," but it's hard to know what will enliven us when we're in a place of alienation from our Source. What the Exodus offers us is the opportunity to leave existential exile, and in that leaving, to regain the capacity for moral choice.

In the state of galut that we experience when we're in life's Narrow Places, there's only katnut-consciousness, small mind. It's a vicious cycle, because exile creates small mind, and small mind makes it hard to imagine breaking free from exile.

Emerging from the Narrow Place means being reborn from katnut into gadlut, from small mind into expansive consciousness. The words גלות / galut and גדלות / gadlut are similar, but there's one letter of difference between them: the letter ד / daled, which -- as I was powerfully reminded by Rabbi David Ingber in his extraordinary sermon on doorways and welcoming the stranger last night -- is a delet, a door. Galut is exile; gadlut is greatness, or expanded-mind. We begin in exile. We go through a door, a transformation, a state-change. And then we reach gadlut, "big mind." And once we've reached expansive consciousness, we can seek to know God wholly. That's why we were brought forth from Egypt, says the Me'or Eynayim: in order to know God wholly.

We were brought forth from Egypt in order to see beyond the binaries of our own constriction. Once we begin to glimpse gadlut, the constrictions of exile fall away.

Exile can be self-perpetuating, because when we're in it, it's hard to see a way out. Depression is like that. Despair is like that. Overwhelm is like that. Sometimes if I look at everything that's wrong with the world, exile rushes in and washes me away. But if we can open our minds even for an instant to glimpse the prospect of a better life, the fact of glimpsing a redemptive possibility makes that redemption possible.

Shabbat is our chance to glimpse the world redeemed -- to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be. May we emerge from Shabbat ready to roll up our sleeves, to combat small-mindedness wherever we find it, and to choose to bring more life everywhere we go.

 

This is the d'varling (brief d'var Torah) I offered at shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


With what we are to serve - a dvar Torah for WCJA


Static1.squarespaceIn this week's Torah portion, Moses argues with Pharaoh about letting the people go.

It's framed as "let the people go so they may worship Adonai." Torah doesn't speak in terms of freedom for its own sake. Moshe seeks his people's freedom from servitude and oppression and hard labor -- and, it's not just about being freed from, it's also about being freed toward.

Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but only the men, which Moses rejects: no, we're not leaving women and children behind. Then Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but says they can't take herds or flocks with them. And Moshe says no, because:

וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה / "We shall not know with what we are to serve until we get there."

On the surface, he's making a practical point. The request was to let our people go so that we could worship God in the wilderness, and the way we did that back then was through animal sacrifice. In the physical world, when he says "we shall not know with what we are to serve" he's talking about goats and sheep. But in the worlds of emotion and spirit, Moshe's highlighting a fundamental truth of every new undertaking: we never know what a journey will ask of us.

Going from slavery to freedom, from servitude to Pharaoh to service to the One, from narrow straits to liberation: it's the core story of Jewish peoplehood. We retell it every year at the Passover seder. We remind ourselves of it every Shabbat when we sing Mi Chamocha, and when we make the kiddush over wine. Those of us who have the practice of daily Jewish liturgical prayer remind ourselves of it every day.

It's also a core story of our lives. We move from constriction to expansion, from unconsciousness to consciousness, from calcified habits to transformation, over and over again. As we grow up and leave a childhood home for college, or leave the Purple Valley for the wide world outside. As we outgrow old circumstances and start over. As we discover that we can be more than we have been, and then pursue that becoming.

Hold that thought, because I want to pause and look at what it means to serve. I said earlier that Moshe's request is to free the people, but not so they can be accountable to no one. He seeks to free them from Pharaoh so they can serve God instead. That may sound like trading one master for another. But I think it's not, and here's why.

Pharaoh dehumanized us. He signed an executive order to have our baby boys murdered. Pharaoh believed that we were inferior to "regular" Egyptian citizens. Pharaoh saw us as teeming masses of foreigners, people who prayed differently and dressed differently and therefore deserved a lifetime of slavery in the pyramid-industrial complex. When describing how Pharaoh saw us, Torah says "the Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed" -- swarmed, like bugs. Being enslaved to Pharaoh meant working for the betterment of someone who saw us as equivalent to cockroaches. 

Service to God is the opposite of that. To Pharaoh we were indistinguishable insects, but in God's eyes each of us is infinitely precious. Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image and the likeness of the One -- regardless of race or religion, shape or skin tone. To serve God means to serve the source of love and liberation. It means to choose to align ourselves with the force that brought us out of slavery, and to seek to break the shackles of those who are still enslaved.

But maybe you don't believe in God, not even the one I just described. That's okay. We can talk another time about why I'm more interested in engaging with -- talking to, wrestling with, demanding things of -- than believing in. No matter what you "believe in," there is service that awaits you, if you're willing to hear the call. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Work toward justice and human rights for all. Feed the hungry, protect the powerless, speak up for those who are victimized by structures of power and domination. That's the calling to which Judaism summons us.

And you won't know what resources you'll need for that work until you get there. You can learn. You can study. You can prepare with all your might. But the work of making the world a better place will require all of who you are, and you'll have to reach for strength and courage and conviction that you didn't know you had. Not once, but over and over again.

Every new chapter requires us to grow and deepen what we can offer to the world. It's true of a new semester. It's true of a new relationship, or a new job, or a new Presidential administration. We won't know with what we are called to serve until we get there. We won't know what this new adventure demands of us, what internal qualities of kindness or strength, courage or resolve we're going to need -- until we get there.

And "getting there" may be a misnomer. Because every moment asks us to dig deep and draw on the best of who we are. I know what resources I needed for yesterday, but yesterday's over. I know what resources I needed an hour ago, but that's then, and this is now. וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת–ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה -- We won't know what this new moment asks of us until we reach it. And then there will be another new moment, and another after that.

Right now it's Shabbes, a deep dive into holy time. This is the time to soak up what nourishes us, to set aside the pressures of the week. This is the time to remember who we truly are -- not when we're defining ourselves through what we do, or what we've accomplished, or what's on our to-do list, but through who our hearts and souls yearn to be.

And when we emerge from this Shabbat, life will ask things of us. The new week will make demands on us. Our professors, or bosses, or families, will make demands on us. The world at large will make demands on us. May you be blessed with the ability to dig deep and find the reserves you need for whatever liberation, whatever new adventure, whatever challenges lie ahead. Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight at the Williams College Jewish Association. (I also offered a d'varling, a mini-d'var, during Kabbalat Shabbat services.)


Mission Accepted - a d'var Torah for parashat Shemot

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Did you ever watch "Mission Impossible"? At the start of each episode, a recorded voice would announce "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." And then after explaining the mission, the voice would conclude "this tape will self-destruct in five seconds."

This week's Torah portion contains a scene like that, only without the self-destructing cassette tape. At the burning bush, God tells Moshe his mission: to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let God's people go.

Moses demurs, I don't even know who to say has sent me! And God answers "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh -- I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming. Tell them that Becoming Itself has sent you." Moses demurs again, and God gives him some magic tricks to perform, a staff that will turn into a snake and back again. Moses demurs a third time:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֖א בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָֽח׃ / But he said, “Please, My Lord, make someone else Your agent!”

At this point, God does not say "well, it's your mission if and only if you choose to accept it." God says, "fine: your brother will partner with you in this work -- now get to it." God gives Moshe companionship in the task ahead, but God does not give him the chance to say no.

Moshe was out tending sheep in the wilderness, not searching for a new mission in life. And then his eyes were opened to wonder, the bush that burned but was not consumed. And then he heard the voice of God telling him there was work in the world that only he could do. It's no wonder he balked. Who can blame him?

I have empathy for Moshe's "please, God, send someone else." He knew his own failings. He knew all the reasons why he didn't feel suitable for divine deployment. Maybe he liked his life the way it was, and he didn't want to get drawn into politics and into creating change.

Maybe he anticipated that the work of bringing change would be hard and that people would hate him. Sure enough, when he first goes to Pharaoh, the initial effect is that the people's labors are intensified, and the people curse him thoroughly. Leadership is rarely easy. Poor Moshe is disliked both by Pharaoh, and by the people he seeks to serve and to save.

"Please, God, send someone else!" Maybe you too have felt that way. Maybe you've looked at the road ahead and seen that it looks scary. Maybe you know your life needs to change, but you're scared of change and of the work it requires. Maybe you know our nation needs to change, but you're paralyzed by the enormity of the change we need.

Maybe you've been a parent bringing a newborn home from the hospital thinking "I am in way over my head," or started a new job thinking "why did they hire me, I don't have these skills," or stepped reluctantly into leadership wishing someone else had been willing to take the banner because you don't want the drama or the responsibility or the projections others will place on you.

Moshe didn't get to say no to his deployment, but he did get someone to share it with him. I'd like to think that we can all find that, if we keep our eyes open. All of us can seek a colleague, a friend, a brother, a partner -- someone who shares the calling and the burdens that come with it.

Moshe had that in his brother Aharon. Their skillsets were complementary: Moshe spoke to God, and Aharon had the necessary skills to speak to the people. We can take turns being Aharon and Moshe for each other. We can by turns engage with the life of the polis and the life of spirit. We can create change on the front lines, and we can create change behind the scenes. And together we can be stronger, and more, and more whole, than any of us could be alone.

We get to do the work together. We don't get to turn away from the work at hand.

All of us are tasked with perfecting our broken world -- which sometimes means healing the brokenness in ourselves, and sometimes means healing the brokenness in public life. All of us are tasked with speaking truth to power, fighting for freedom, helping the vulnerable push through the narrow place of constriction into liberation. All of us are charged with cultivating the sense of wonder that will let us hear God's voice issuing forth from the fire, and the sense of obligation that binds us to the work we're here to do.

Our challenge is shifting from channeling our inner Moshe -- "Please, God, pick somebody else!" -- to channeling our inner Isaiah (6:8):

וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת-קוֹל אֲדֹנָי, אֹמֵר, אֶת-מִי אֶשְׁלַח, וּמִי יֵלֶךְ-לָנוּ; וָאֹמַר, הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי. / And I heard the voice of God saying "whom shall I send, and who will go forth for us?" and I said, "Here I am. Send me."

The work is vast. Working toward redemption -- whether personal or national -- is not easy. But it's what we're here to do. When the work of change and transformation call, don't look around to see who else might pick up the slack. Say "Here I am. Send me."

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.