New in The Wisdom Daily: wisdom about refugees, from a talking Biblical donkey

...There’s something inherently funny about [a] talking donkey, but her voice hints at a deeper theme. “What did I ever do to you, that you should hit me with that stick,” said the beleaguered beast of burden. The Israelites might say the same thing to King Balak: what did we ever do to you, that you should seek to curse us for fleeing from horrific circumstance?

King Balak felt threatened by the presence of refugees on his doorstep. It’s not hard to find a contemporary analogue, someone in a position of tremendous power who looks at refugees and sees, not human souls in need of help and welcome, but a teeming horde of foreigners whose very presence is a threat...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily: Wisdom about the refugee crisis… from a talking Biblical donkey.


Cloud and fire, waiting and leaping


Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024In this week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lot'kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.

"Whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp."

The commentator known as the Sforno -- Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 -- notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.

So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.

The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn't just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It's also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.

The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don't have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it's time to sit with what is, and when it's time to leap into the unknown. That's discernment work we have to do on our own -- maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)

The new Jews we're celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say "beginning to learn" because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition -- including me.)

And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.

In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.

This week's Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we're in a period of waiting and discernment, we'll be able to tell when it's time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we're in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we're headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness -- and that we can always course-correct as needed.

And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don't have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.

This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l'hitpallel, literally "to discern oneself." It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it's time to sit still and when it's time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for his teachings Waiting to Exhale and The Soul of Waiting.

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: Steve Silbert's Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.


And bring you peace

BlessingIn this week's Torah portion, Naso, God speaks to Moshe and tells him to transmit to Aharon the following words of blessing to give to the people:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ / May God bless you and keep you. 

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ / May God's presence go before you and be gracious to you. 

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם / May God's presence be always with you and bring you peace.

Two things strike me about this passage this year.

The first is the Divine game of telephone. Granted, this is a common game of telephone at this point in the Torah: God speaks to Moshe and tells him to tell us pretty much everything. But in this instance, I see an extra layer of meaning in the way the transmission comes through. God telling Moshe to tell Aharon to tell us becomes an example of a deeper truth: blessing is connective. Blessing is relational. Blessing originates with God, but we speak it into being through our connections with each other.

The other thing that strikes me is the content of the blessing. For many of us this is a familiar text. Some of us maintain the practice of saying it to our children every Friday night. In some communities the rabbi offers it as a closing benediction after every service. I say these words to every b'nei mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah. At last weekend's conversion, I offered these words to our new Jews. These words are so familiar we may not pay a ton of attention to them most of the time.

But notice:

The text promises that God will bless us and keep us -- but it doesn't claim that God will keep us free from struggle or change.

The text promises that God's presence will accompany us with grace -- not just "graciousness," in the sense of gracious hospitality, but grace, חן / chein, that unearned and un-earnable flow of abundance from on high -- but it doesn't claim that grace will spare us life's ups and downs.

The text promises that God will be with us and will bring us wholeness and peace -- but it doesn't claim that "peace" means perfection or an end to our spiritual work or our spiritual growth. 

Elsewhere in this parsha we read about the ritual for when spouses suspect each other of infidelity and there has been a breakdown of their relationship that may or may not be reparable. And we read about the promises of the nazir, one who makes certain commitments to God for a stated period of time. With this juxtaposition, Torah seems to be saying: the promises we make to each other as human beings may or may not endure. Our human promises may be temporary or time-limited.

But the promise that God makes to us is not time-limited or temporary. When we stand as channels of blessing for each other, when we speak these words of blessing to one another, we invoke God's accompanying presence and grace and care. Always.

God's presence and grace and care can't protect us from challenges or disappointment... but they will always endure. God will always keep our souls safe in the palm of Her hand. God's presence always accompanies us and showers us with love we cannot earn and cannot lose, no matter what. And that presence always offers us access to wholeness and peace: not through pretense, but through authenticity and realness.

Because שלום / shalom doesn't just mean the absence of conflict. It means the presence of wholeness. And wholeness doesn't come when we put a bandaid over our sorrows: wholeness comes when we allow ourselves to be real, in our sorrow and in our joy. Putting a bandaid over our sorrows (spiritual bypassing) is fragmentation: I feel this, but I will pretend that. And fragmentation is the opposite of wholeness. Wholeness requires us to feel what is, all of what is, with all that we are. 

So I say to you today:

May you feel God's presence blessing you and keeping you, no matter what curveballs life throws your way.

May you feel God's presence accompanying you and steeping you in a love that can't be lost.

May God's accompanying presence in your life bring you wholeness, now and always.

Amen.

 

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

Image: a papercut of this passage by David Fisher.

 


Lift up your heads, and know that you count

078f18a43033a8495bf3c77a0e40085cTake a census, this week's Torah portion tells us. שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל -- literally, "Lift up the heads of the community of the children of Israel." Don't just count them: uplift them. Let them feel in their hearts and know in their minds that they count.

Of course, the text goes on to specify who we should count: the men. We didn't yet have consciousness of how limited -- and limiting -- that paradigm is for us and for the world. But the core teaching that every one of us counts is some powerful Torah.

Today we encounter these words as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. I don't think that's a coincidence. Before we can receive Torah tonight, we have to lift up our heads. We have to take an accounting of who we are.

We have to make sure we know that we all count: men and women and nonbinary folks, Jews by birth and Jews by choice and seekers of other traditions who walk alongside us. We have to take note of every one of us, in all of our multiplicity and diversity of experience and background and heart.

Tradition says that all of us were there at Sinai -- the soul of every one of us, every Jew who ever was or ever will be. And since we know that a mixed multitude left Egypt with us, surely that mixed multitude stood together at Sinai too. Shavuot is our celebration of covenant with God, and every one of us is part of that covenant. If even one soul had been missing, it wouldn't have been complete. We all count.

Three members of this community formally joined the Jewish people yesterday. [Here's where I was going to say some things about that, connecting them to the Torah portion - but that part was personal and is not being published online.] As of this weekend they count in a minyan: another form of counting and being counted.

Does the concept of counting ring any other bells for you right now? For seven weeks we've been counting days, ever since the second seder. Tonight that count culminates in revelation. Today is the final day of the Omer. According to our mystics, today is the day of Malchut She'b'Malchut -- the day of immanent indwelling feminine divine Presence; the day of Shechina.

May we be suffused with awareness of holy Presence as we prepare ourselves to receive. May we prepare ourselves to be sanctuaries -- so that Shechina can dwell with us, and among us, and within us, now and always.

 

This is (more or less) the d'varling I had intended to offer this morning at Shabbat services on our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat, had the camp not canceled the retreat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Image source.


Love and justice

B_7eQn4WEAAc7w_This extraordinary quote from Cornel West has been floating around lately: "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

Love and justice are two sides of the same coin. That's a familiar idea to me from Jewish mystical teaching and theology. In the spiritual journey of the Counting of the Omer, the first divine quality we cultivate in ourselves is chesed, abundant lovingkindness -- and it's always followed and matched by gevurah (sometimes called din): boundaries, strength, justice.

It's not only in our mystical tradition, either. In the Torah the call to love our neighbor / our other as ourselves is juxtaposed with "do not bear false witness," "treat workers fairly," and "do not stand idly on the blood of your neighbor" (do not stand by when someone is being harmed, whether with actions or with prejudice or with words.) We practice love through justice.

Love doesn't exist in a vacuum separate from justice. Without justice, "love" is a feel-good veneer hiding a rotten core, what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage."   

This isn't just about our individual choices (though those do matter, and should be ethical and just to the best of our abilities). It's also about our systems and structures and communities. If with our silence we normalize unjust behavior, we become complicit in that unjust behavior even if we didn't perpetrate it ourselves. From the macrocosm (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white nationalism) to the microcosm (e.g. lashon ha-ra, sexual assault, abuse), Judaism calls us to actively pursue justice not only as individuals but in community. We do this not separate from the call to love the other, but precisely as an expression of that call to love.

One might imagine that love is "spiritual" and justice is "political," but Judaism teaches that the spiritual and the political are always necessarily intertwined. Torah and Talmud both interweave "spiritual" teachings with "political" ones. Halakha ("Jewish law," though the word comes from the root meaning "to walk," so I like to translate it as the Jewish "path" or "way of walking") concerns itself deeply both with spiritual / ritual life and with political / community engagement.  My religious tradition and spiritual path call me to care for the widow and orphan, to love the stranger, to pursue justice, to give hatespeech no quarter.

Love is a core spiritual value in most religious traditions (including mine). But love isn't enough. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) by itself isn't enough: it needs to be balanced with gevurah (boundaries, ethics, justice), among other things. If we only want to feel love and don't also put our hands to the task of building justice, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't willing to do the hard work of seeing toxic systems and structures for what they are, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't capable of naming injustice and demanding better, then we're doing it wrong.

Because -- as Cornel West teaches -- love is what justice looks like in public. Torah urges us to love our neighbor, our other, as ourselves. That doesn't mean "love your neighbor the way you yourself want to be loved" -- I mean, in some cases it might, but it can't mean only that. It has to also mean "love your neighbor the way they want to be loved," and "love your neighbor in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity and worth," and that requires demanding for them every human right, every due process, every dignity to which they are entitled. It means not allowing hateful speech of any kind to stand, much less to proliferate. 

Love can't be separated from justice. Anything less isn't the love we're called to pursue.

 

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017.


My latest for The Wisdom Daily

...Our ancestors believed that only something “perfect” was fit to be given to God — whether as an offering, or as the one who facilitated the offering. Reading those words now, I’m struck by how neatly they align with the negativity we’re taught to feel about our bodies. Only someone “perfect” will be desirable, says the toxic siren song of American culture. Only someone “perfect” will be wanted, will be cherished, will be blessed with companionship on life’s journey...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily. Read it here: Perfect Bodies Are Glorified Everywhere... Even In the Torah


A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed. 

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation. 

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now. 

So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

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


Hametz, fire, and miracles: a d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol

Bread-fireIt's Shabbat HaGadol: "The Great Shabbat," the Shabbat before Pesach. The Shibolei Haleket (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, d. 1275) explains, "on the Shabbat before Passover the people stay late into the afternoon... in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven..."

Everybody ready to listen to instructions for kashering your kitchens?

Just kidding. Though I am going to talk about hametz, and this week's Torah portion, and miracles.

The word חמץ / hametz comes from lichmotz, to sour or ferment. Hametz is grain that has fermented. When we left Egypt, we didn't have time for natural sourdough to leaven our bread, so we baked flat crackers and left in haste. Torah offers us two instructions 1) eat matzah as we re-live the Exodus, and 2) get rid of leaven. The matzah part, we'll do during Pesach. The getting-rid-of-leaven part, we have to do in advance.

Today is Shabbes, our foretaste of the world to come. Today we do no work. We rest and are ensouled, as was God on the first Shabbat. But tomorrow, and in the weekdays to come, many of us may be doing some spring cleaning as we prepare to rid our homes of leaven for a week. Of course, getting rid of leaven doesn't "just" mean getting rid of leaven. It can also mean a kind of spiritual housecleaning.

Hametz can represent ego, what puffs us up internally. The therapists among us might note that ego is important: indeed it is. Without a healthy ego, you'd be in trouble. But if one's ego gets too big, that's a problem too. The internal search for hametz is an invitation to examine ego and to discern what work we need. Some need to discard the hametz of needing to be the center of attention. Others need to discard the hametz of not wanting to take up the space we deserve. 

Another interpretation: hametz is that within us which has become sour. Old stories, old narratives, old scripts. Old ideas about "us" and "them," old angers, old hurts. Look inside: are you carrying the memory of someone who made you angry? Are you holding on to old grievances? Search your heart: what's the old stuff you need to scrape up and throw away?

That's where this week's Torah portion, Tzav, comes in. This is the ritual of the burnt offering, says God. Keep the fire burning all night until morning. And every morning, take the ashes outside the camp, to a clean place. Notice that removing the ashes is mentioned right up there with burning the offering. Because if the ashes are allowed to accumulate, they'll choke the fire. 

The spiritual work of keeping our fires burning belongs to all of us. It's our job to feed the fires of hope, the fires of justice, the fires of our own spiritual lives that fuel our work toward a world redeemed. Keep the fire burning all night: even in our "dark" times, when we feel trapped, even crushed, by life's narrow places. 

The thing is, over the course of a year our fires get choked with ash. Disappointments and cynicism and overwork and burnout keep our fires from burning as bright as they could be. This week's Torah portion reminds us to clean out our ashes. (It's no coincidence that Tzav comes right before Pesach.)

Pesach offers us spiritual renewal. Pesach invites us to live in the as-if -- as if we were redeemed; as if we were free; as if all of this world's broken places and ugly "isms" were healed. But in order for our spiritual fires to be renewed, we have to clean out the ashes. We have to get rid of the hametz, the schmutz, the ashes and crumbs and remnants of the old year that have become sour and dusty, in order to become ready to be free.

Ridding ourselves of the old year's mistakes and mis-steps in order to begin again: is this making you think of any other time of year? If this inner work sounds like the work we do before Rosh Hashanah, that's because it is.

I learned from my teacher and friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz that we work on our imperfections both during Nissan (now) and Tishri (the High Holidays), and we can dedicate one to working on our "external" stuff and the other to what's hidden or internal. The Megaleh Amukot (Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira, d. 1633) wrote that these two months of Nissan and Tishri correspond to each other, because during each of these seasons we're called to seek out and destroy hametz in body and soul.

Another link between Passover preparation and the teshuvah work of the new year: this season, too, is called a new year. Talmud teaches that we have four "New Years"es. The new moon of Tishri is the new year for years. The new year for trees, Tu BiShvat, is in deep winter. The new year for animals is on 1 Elul. And then there's the new moon of Nisan, ushering in the month containing Pesach... and this entire month has the holiness of a Rosh Chodesh, a New Moon. This whole month is our springtime new year. 

Right now the moon is waxing. The light of the moon can represent God's presence -- sometimes visible, and sometimes not, but always with us. Right now there's more moonlight every night, and we're invited to experience more connection with holiness with each passing day. Our work now is to clean house, spiritually, by the light of this waxing moon -- in order to be internally ready to choose freedom. 

When you think of a miracle, what do you think of? Maybe the parting of the Sea of Reeds: that's a big, shiny, visible miracle from the Passover story. But hope growing in tight places is also a miracle. The fact that we can make teshuvah is a miracle. The fact that we can grow and change is a miracle. The fact that we can do our inner work and emerge transformed is a miracle. This is a month of miracles -- as evidenced by its name: the name Nissan comes from נס / nes, "miracle."

On Thursday night, some of us will hide crusts of bread around our homes. We'll search for them by the light of a candle. And then on the morning of the day that will become Pesach we'll burn them, destroying the old year's hametz. Whether or not you engage literally in that ancient custom of bedikat hametz (searching for / destroying leaven), you can do that work spiritually. (And we'll begin some of it together during our contemplative mincha service this afternoon.)

What is the old stuff you need to root out and discard in order to walk unencumbered into freedom?

How can you "carry out the ashes" so the altar of your heart can become clean and clear, ready to burn with the fire of hope, the fire of justice, the fire of new beginnings?

 

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


"For one who truly loves..."

39911307485_352177954a_z"For one who truly loves, there is the commandment-like need to provide goodness for the beloved that turns the love from sentiment to substance."

My Wednesday morning coffee shop hevruta group is reading Mesillat Yesharim ("The Path of the Upright"), by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone. This morning, one of the sentences that leapt out at me came from Stone's commentary -- the line I cited, above.

"Love of God" can be an abstract concept. What does it mean to "love" the infinite source of all? But we can understand love of another human being. The love of a (healthy) parent for a child, the love of a friend for a beloved friend. If we are lucky, we know what it is to love.

And when one loves, there is a yearning to do for the beloved. Not because it's "commanded," but because one just wants to. I give to my child not because anyone told me to, and not because of anything he will do for me in return, but just because my heart calls me to care for him.

It's easy to say "I love you." But far more important, for Luzzatto, are the actions that underpin our words. It's not enough to say; we also need to do. In relationship with a human beloved, we do whatever we can to bring sweetness to that beloved. That's what "turns the love from sentiment to substance" -- that makes it real.

Our mystical tradition teaches that each of us is enlivened by a nitzotz Elohut, a spark of divinity. The love I feel -- that motivates me to yearn to provide goodness for those whom I love -- is, in a way, love of God. Because when I love another human being, I'm also loving the spark of God within them, whether I'm aware of it or not.

(That intersection between loving others and loving God is the place out of which Texts to the Holy was written.)

Our daily liturgy reminds us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. Saying those words is easy. More important, though, is doing those words. I think Luzzatto is saying that we (should) express love of God through seeking to act in a way that brings the Beloved joy. In this, we ourselves find joy. 

It's a tall order. In every moment of my day I have an opportunity to choose to follow my yetzer ha-tov, my "good impulse," rather than my yetzer ha-ra (my ego, my drive, my "evil inclination"). I know how often I fall short. It's easy to fall into asking, who am I to imagine that I can give God joy?

But when trying to bring joy to God feels like more than I can grasp or manage, I can shift focus from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the cosmic Beloved to my smaller human beloveds. And then my anxiety vanishes, and I can feel the channels of my heart opening, and it is the easiest thing in the world to let love pour through.

 


Choose life: what Ki Tisa teaches us about Shabbat


32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zThe Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [or: was ensouled].

That's in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many of us know these words because they have become a part of our Shabbat liturgy, as the prayer we call by its first word, V'shamru. We sing these words on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings before kiddush.

Immediately before these familiar verses, there is another instruction to keep Shabbat as a sign between us and God. But this one contains some more challenging language:

You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on Shabbat shall be put to death.

Oof.

The medieval commentator Rashi (d. 1105) clarifies that the death sentence only applies if the person does work on Shabbat in the presence of witnesses, AND if the person was warned, immediately before doing the work, what the penalty would be. This is a pretty common rabbinic move: taking something in Torah that startles us with its harshness, and adding qualifying stipulations that make it much harder for the harsh law to be applied.

The Sforno (d. 1550) is less apologetic about the starkness of this command. He writes that anyone who deliberately desecrates Shabbat thereby denies God Who created all things including rest. Someone who performs secular tasks on Shabbat has clearly lost consciousness of what Shabbat means, and therefore deserves execution. You make your choices, you live with the consequences.

I agree with the Sforno that our choices have consequences, but I read these verses a little bit differently. I see them not as prescriptive, but descriptive.

Another way to translate "מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת," usually rendered as "will be put to death," is "he will surely die." This passage comes to teach us that one who doesn't honor Shabbat, who doesn't honor the holiness of resting from workday acts and workday consciousness, will bring themselves closer to death. One who works constantly, and lives in a state of workday consciousness 24/7, will be deadened thereby.

Every week when Friday night and Saturday roll around, we make choices. Will we disengage from work, and from our worries, and from 24/7 cable news, and from all the things that make us feel trapped like rats in a maze? Will we set aside our burdens and welcome the presence of that extra Shabbat soul enlivening us and enabling us to take a full, deep breath? Will we affirm that connecting with our deepest selves and with our Source matters more than our to-do lists and our deadlines?

That's the choice. We can let Shabbat transform us, or we can stick with the rat race. And if we choose the endless rat race, we're going to wind up feeling dead inside.

Choose rest. Choose Shabbes. Choose life.

 

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

 


"Come to Pharaoh," and whom we choose to serve

Come-here-pleaseThis week's Torah portion is called Bo, for its opening words ויאמר יהו׳׳ה על–משה בא על–פרעא / Vayomer YHVH el-Moshe, "Bo el-Paro" -- "And God said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh.'"

Most translations say "Go to Pharaoh." But the Hebrew is pretty clearly "Come." For me, the difference between "come" and "go" is that the first one connotes "the place where I am." If I say to my son, "Come here, I want to talk to you," I'm asking him to come where I am. If I say "Go over there," I'm telling him to go to the place where I am not. So when Torah says Bo el-Paro, I hear God saying, "Come here to Pharaoh -- to the place where I also Am." (This is not my own insight -- Zohar scholar Danny Matt sees this as an invitation to "come" into God's presence, too.)

We might prefer to imagine that God is not with Paro. Pharaoh is the exemplar of toxic power-over. He regards the children of Israel as subhuman. He describes them with words that connote vermin swarming. He's ordered policies that literally kill all of their male children. And yet with this one simple phrase, Torah reminds us that there is no place devoid of God's presence. Not even the place where Pharaoh is.

The next thing we read in Torah is a bit troubling: כי–אני הכבדתי את–לבו / ki-ani hich'bad'ti et-libo, "For I have hardened his heart." Whoa, hold up: God hardened his heart? Wouldn't it have been easier for God to simply soften Pharaoh's heart so that the children of Israel could be set free without all of this drama?

But if we look back at last week's Torah portion, we'll see a different phrase. Last week, Moshe and Aharon spoke to Pharaoh, and Paraoh hardened his heart and did not listen. Three times we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen, before we reach this mention of God hardening his heart. (Many of our commentators observe this, among them Rashi.) I think Torah is teaching us some deep wisdom about the human heart.

The heart flows in the ways to which we habituate ourselves. If we practice gratitude every morning, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward gratitude. If we practice compassion toward others, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward compassion. And if we practice hardening our hearts -- maybe by telling ourselves that "those people" aren't our problem; they're a different generation, or their skin is different, or they dress differently or pray differently or speak a different language -- then we train our hearts to incline toward hardness. Like Pharaoh's.

Torah says God hardened Pharaoh's heart, but Pharaoh had already hardened it, time and again. I think God just got out of the way and let Pharaoh continue being who he had already shown himself to be. That doesn't mean God isn't with him. We don't get to say that God is only "on our side." But it does mean that Pharaoh's made his choices, and there will be consequences.

That's verse 1.

In verse 2, God continues that the purpose of the signs and wonders -- the ten plagues and our subsequent liberation -- is so that we may teach all the generations to come the story of the Exodus. This is our core story as Jews, and we tell it in our daily liturgy, in the Shabbat kiddush, and in the Passover seder.

And in verse 3, Moshe and Aharon say to Pharaoh, how long are you going to be like this? Let God's people go so that we may serve God. In God's words, שלח עמי ויעבדני / shlach ami v'ya'avduni, "Let My people go that they may serve Me." The root ע/ב/ד means service, both in the sense of the service the priests performed in the Temple of old (and the "services" we attend today) and in the sense of serving God with our hearts and our lives and our being. As we read earlier this morning, "Everyone serves something; give your life to Me."

Everyone serves something. The question is, do we serve Pharaoh -- emblem of commercialism and and overwork, dehumanization and xenophobia, all of which are still perfectly alive and well in our day -- or do we serve something else?

Judaism invites us to choose "something else." Judaism invites us to make the profoundly countercultural choice of spending 25 hours each week disengaged from work, not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Judaism invites us to say: there is something more important than all of our making and doing and achieving, and that something is Shabbat rest. Not just "taking a nap," though the Shabbos schluff is a time-honored tradition, but opening our hearts and souls to the weekly rejuvenation that becomes possible when we disconnect from workday consciousness and open ourselves to something beyond ourselves.

Judaism invites us to set aside the worries of the workweek and take a deep breath that goes all the way to our kishkes, all the way to our insides. On the seventh day, Torah teaches, שבת וינפש / shavat va-yinafash -- God rested and was ensouled. (We sing these words in the prayer V'shamru each week.) When God rested from creating, God's-own-self became ensouled in a new way. So do we.

May this Shabbat be a time of real rest and re-ensoul-ment. May we be reminded of the things that are more important than our budgets' bottom lines. And may our lives be lives of service to God -- and to the spark of divinity manifest in every human being with whom we share this earth.

 

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


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

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

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.


Miketz: letting yourself dream

OriginalThe beginning of this week's Torah portion, Miketz, describes two of Pharaoh's dreams. First he dreamed about seven healthy cows who got devoured by seven gaunt cows. Then he dreamed about seven healthy ears of grain that got devoured by seven thin gaunt ears. Disconcerting images.

Both times, he woke and realized he'd been dreaming. And then one of his servants remembered the fellow named Joseph, languishing in prison, who was able to interpret dreams. And so Joseph was released from prison, and brought to Pharaoh to help him understand the meaning of his dreaming.

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l, wrote:

When my daughter, Shel, was 8 years old, she asked me, "Abba, when you’re asleep, you can wake up, right? When you are awake, can you wake up even more?" 

(-- Expanded Awareness and Extended Consciousness)

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, we can wake up more. We can wake from complacency. We can wake from routine. We can wake from taking things for granted. We can wake to hope and to wonder. That's the good news. The frustrating news is that such awakenings are rarely permanent. We wake from complacency and recognize that if we want a morerighteous world, we have to build it... and then we forget. We wake from routine and recognize that being alive is a miracle... and then we forget.

This is spiritual life: being awakened into awareness, and then falling out of awareness, and then awakening again. None of us can live in a perennial state of gadlut, expansive consciousness. The great thing about the fact that we keep falling asleep is that we can also keep waking up. We're designed to keep waking up. I posit to you that being "asleep" isn't actually a bad thing. Spiritually, maybe we need the oscillation between forgetting and remembering. And maybe being "asleep" helps us daydream.

Pharaoh was troubled by his dreams. We've all had that experience: a recurring dream that sticks with us long after the day's first cup of coffee. We wonder: what is the dream trying to tell us? What does it mean? My friend and teacher Rodger Kamenetz, author of The History of Last Night's Dream, teaches that dreams aren't "texts" to be "interpreted." Rather, they're landscapes of feeling. They can give us deep access to our emotions. (If this interests you, learn more about his practice of dreamwork.)

I wonder what would happen if we approached our waking dreams the way Rodger suggests approaching our sleeping dreams: entering the emotional landscape of the reverie, with a trusted guide and companion, and seeing what we can learn from that exploration of our yearnings. Waking reveries are different from nighttime dreams, but I think we should treat our daydreams with the same presumption of depth and meaning that we bring to thinking about the dreams that play out while we sleep.

I think our daydreams can tell us a lot about what we yearn for: not what we think we're "supposed" to want, but what our hearts and souls actually crave. Maybe we ache for love, or for comfort, or for justice, or for being fully uplifted in all that we are. But most of us are taught, in a variety of ways, not to credit those yearnings. What would happen if we chose to wake up: not from those dreams, but with those dreams? What would happen if we brought our daydreams more fully into our waking lives?

We always reach parashat Miketz at this time of year. I imagine there's something different, psycho-spiritually, about reading Miketz in Australia or Argentina where right now it's high summer. Where I live, this is a season of deepening winter. Long nights, short days, battening down the hatches... Winter's a great time to hunker down and pay attention to our dreams -- the sleeping ones, and the waking ones -- to see what they tell us about what we fear, and what we love, and what we yearn for.

What do you dream of: for yourself? For your family, whether blood or chosen? For your community? For your world?

If we allow ourselves to face our yearnings, we also have to face fear that our yearnings might not come to pass. The dreams of our hearts are tender. (If you're going to delve into them, I hope you do so with a trusted guide, maybe a therapist or spiritual director.) When Joseph helped Pharaoh understand his dreams, Pharaoh made decisions about the future of his nation (and ours, too). What changes might we make if we took our own dreams seriously -- the sleeping ones, and the waking ones too?

May this winter give you us space and safety we need to look at what we yearn for... and may we find the inner reserves of fuel we need in order to make those dreams come true.

 

With gratitude to my hevruta partner for opening up for me these connections between Miketz and dream.

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Mikeitz Sketchnote

My friend Steve Silbert has been drawing weekly sketchnote illustrations of each week's Torah portion. This week he writes:

This week’s Torah portion is called Mikeitz, which means “after”. In context, it’s two years after Joseph was sold into slavery. Since this parsha falls on the first night of Hanukkah I chose to sketchnote a dvar Torah by my friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. In her dvar Torah she connects this installment of the story of Joseph with Hanukkah through the divine spark that exists in us all. Near the end, she brings it all together by writing that "Whatever clothing we wear, whatever persona we adopt, it's our job in this world to be human candles. To shed light in the darkness, wherever we go."

Shalom.

And here's his illustration:

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I'm honored to have inspired his sketchnote this week! I think this is such a beautiful way to engage with Torah.

You can leave him feedback on his Facebook page or on Twitter.


#URJBiennial 2017: Ten Years of the Women's Torah Commentary

24033021147_99aca2340e_zIn the shul that I serve, two editions of the Torah are tucked into the seats in our sanctuary. One is The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Gunther Plaut -- the standard (male-authored) commentary that appears in most Reform congregations. The other is The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Eskenazi and Weiss, which came out ten years ago featuring entirely the commentary and voices of women.

I attended a session celebrating the book at the URJ Biennial featuring Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, associate professor of Bible at the NY campus of HUC-JIR (also responsible for American Values and Voices) who served as associate editor of this book.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss began by explaining that the story of this volume started 25 years ago. Cantor Sarah Sager was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a district biennial in Albany, and as she prepared her d'var Torah on Vayera she started to think about Sarah and asked a question that 25 years ago was a novel one: where was Sarah when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

She researched this, and discovered that she wasn't the first to ask the question, and that in fact people were beginning then to work in diverse fields to uncover and recover a more complex picture of women than the pshat (surface) Torah narrative suggests. But there was no organized, cohesive way to access this work. She ended her d'var Torah with the charge to commission the first feminist commentary to the Torah.

The leaders of the Women of Reform Judaism established a commentary committee that brought together rabbis, scholars, WRJ leaders and others. (We see a slide depicting the agenda for that gathering, including items like "Discussion of 'feminism, 'womanism' and other related terms." Wow.) The next step was a pilot project called Beginning the Journey: A Women's Commentary on Torah, edited by Rabbi Emily H. Feigenson, featuring the voices of HUC-JIR graduates. That book made clear, Rabbi Dr. Weiss says, that the way to move forward was to focus seriously on scholarship: women scholars in Bible, rabbinics, and other fields.

The editors were named; an editorial board was established (and oh, wow is it a "who's who" of amazing women in Biblical scholarship!); and they came up with the vision of a multivocal edition. For each Torah portion they would feature the Hebrew text, translation, commentary, a section called "another view" that offers another voice on the parsha, a post-Biblical piece, a contemporary reflection, and a section called "voices" which collects poetry and other creative responses. The intention was for the book to be definitively Jewish and definitively feminist, modeled in some way after Mikraot Gedolot which is always printed in editions that feature text surrounded by commentary.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss spoke about the diversity of the book's readership, and the extent to which it's been embraced across the denominations. She offers us a quote from Blu Greenberg:

Here are the voices of women from across the entire spectrum of Jewish life... although this work was initiated, funded, shepherded, overseen, edited, and largely produced by two extraordinary Reform Jewish scholars... it does not have the feeling of being owned by any one group, which explains why it has become the property of the whole Jewish people, as indeed any good commentary should.

It sounds like the book's creators have a sense now that what they did was historic -- in a way that wasn't entirely clear to them at the time. Rabbi Dr. Weiss says now that "The book translates feminist Biblical scholarship into a format that's useful for...laypeople and clergy of all genders." I agree.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss shared with us also an excerpt from this article by Rabbi Hara Person, Why Women’s Torah Commentary Matters Today More Than Ever Before. Rabbi Person writes:

The publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was historic because when women become scholars and commentators of Torah, we take our rightful place in the sacred dialogue of text study, fulfilling the age-old Jewish responsibility of creating ongoing Jewish engagement and meaning. When women create a Torah commentary, we declare that the lives and experiences of the women of the Torah matter, and thus that the lives and concerns of contemporary women matter, too. This commentary stakes a claim for women in the narrative of our tradition and the sacred endeavors of our community, and in so doing, women are empowered to share their voices both within the Jewish community and in greater society.

I was also excited to hear from Dr. Ruhama Weiss (no relation to Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss!) that the book is now being translated both into Hebrew and into an Israeli women's culture idiom. There are plans afoot for an Israeli women's commentary that will feature some of what's in this book and also some of what's happening in Israeli women's commentary now.

Dr. (Ruhama) Weiss led us in a study of a poem by Nurit Zarchi called "She Is Joseph," touching on questions of feminist interpretation and women's representation in the Bible, and explored how our male sages responded to the story wherein Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar's wife (and what their responses say about their own anxieties about masculinity and gender) -- a fabulous exploration, and the kind of Torah study that reminds me why I'm grateful this book exists. 


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

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

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

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

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


The people who partner with God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 

 

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


One lesson from Talmud

6a00d8341c019953ef01bb09d4c4d1970d-320wiThe Forward's Rabbi Roundtable continues. This week's question was, "“If there is one lesson Jews today should learn from the Talmud, what is it?”

Many of us said something about pluralism, diversity of voices, and embracing complexity. And more than one of us chose to cite the passage from Sanhedrin that notes that all humanity was created from a common ancestor so that no one should be able to say that they are better than everyone else.

Click through to read all of our responses: One Lesson Jews Today Should Learn From the Talmud.


Through the (double) door: Chayei Sarah

Desert-cave-james-barrereIn this week's Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, Avraham purchases a cave in which to bury his wife Sarah. The cave is named מכפלה / Machpelah. In English, it's just a place-name. In Hebrew, it has a meaning. 

The root of that word, כפל / k'f'l, means to double or to fold. Rashi says this teaches us that it had a lower and an upper cavern. (Others say, possibly a cavern within a cavern.) Or, Rashi suggests, it was called "doubled" because couples are buried there. Tradition teaches that Adam and Eve were buried there long before Sarah and Avraham. But our mystical tradition sees here something much deeper -- pardon the pun.

The Zohar teaches that when Avraham first entered the cave, he breathed the scent of fragrant spices: a sign that within the cave was an entrance to the Garden of Eden.

For our mystics, the cave of Machpelah -- the doubled cave -- was two places in one. On one level, it was a physical place, a cave in the earth. And on another level, it was a doorway to another reality, a portal to the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden represents both the very beginning of time and the afterlife, the level of heaven where the righteous reside with God clothed in garments of light. Machpelah is a portal between earth and heaven, between "this world" and the "world to come," between a reality in which we live apart from God and a reality suffused with divine Presence.

My son likes to play iPad games, like The Room and House of Da Vinci, that involve solving puzzles. Both of those games involve a mystical eyepiece, and when that eyepiece is activated, hidden things spring to life. Invisible ink becomes visible; hidden symbols and markings begin to glow. It's as though there were another layer to reality, a realm of secrets, and only those who have eyes to see can decipher the clues to the hidden reality beneath. That's pretty much what our mystical tradition teaches.

"Come and see," says the Zohar. That's the Zohar's refrain: come and see. Open your eyes. If we know what we're looking for, we can find ultimate reality, the presence of God. We can see that this cave isn't just a cave: it's also a portal. We can see that this moment isn't just this moment: if we go through the portal of Machpelah, we simultaneously access the beginning of time and the culmination of all things.

But sometimes we can't see what's in front of our eyes. We get caught up in appearance: this looks like a cave, it's just rocks and dirt. So the Zohar offers us another path in: the scent of spices, which is the scent of Eden, the place-and-time of humanity's beginning and our most transcendent joy. Tradition says that when we smell spices at havdalah, our souls get a "hit" of the scent of Eden. Spice and fragrance are also associated with Shechinah, the immanent indwelling Divine Presence. The scent of spice, which is the scent of Eden, opens us to God.

Maybe there are scents that hyperlink you with other places and times. For me, one is honeycake baking, which immediately says "Rosh Hashanah." Another is Bal á Versailles, my mother's perfume. Another is rosemary on my fingers, which links me with where I grew up, and with travels in Israel, and with a friend's back yard in California, and with a church rose garden in Alabama, and other places besides.

For the mystics, Machpelah was a trans-dimensional portal, a doorway in space and time. The physical cave of Machpelah is now beneath a building that is half-mosque, half-synagogue, and hotly-contested by all. But even in this physical place far away from that Land, we can harness this Torah portion's invitation to be transported.

What transports you? What connects you with God, whether for you that means God-far-above or God-deep-within? What sounds / sights / sensations / flavors / scents lift you out of yourself and into connection with something greater than yourself? On this Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, what is the doorway you need to walk through to find the peace and connection and wholeness that will restore you?

 

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


Visions of Renewal: Vayera and renewing our Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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