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.


On Avram and Sarai and #MeToo

This d'var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.


Metoo-480x480This week's Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God's command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth -- or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I've always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, "You're beautiful, and if they think you're my wife they'll kill me and take you -- so pretend to be my sister instead." And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.

Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires "sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels." Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!"

Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh's court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.

I don't want this to be in our Torah -- our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women's rights and women's bodies and women's integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.

Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.

But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.

Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity's part, and arguably even on God's part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word "patriarchal" comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren't always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.

This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.

Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram's sake. We don't know; Torah doesn't say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.

I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don't do anything; I've never really thought about it.

And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don't walk alone. I don't go out at night. I don't park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don't wear certain clothes. I don't make eye contact with men...

Most of us don't even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don't want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That's the assumption when women's bodies are property.

Guess what: it's still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men's need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.

Here are some things we can do to be better than this:

Listen to women. (Here's a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn't have a voice in this story: don't replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her. 

Don't say "but men get raped too." Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don't derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that. 

If you're sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone's not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no -- or "not right now" -- even if they say it through body language instead of words -- then don't do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else's body. 

Understand that men feeling entitled to women's bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.

If you are a man, you may be thinking, "but I don't do those things!" I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It's in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It's shaped the way I think about my own body, and there's a lot that I'm working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here's the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can't.

I wish this story weren't in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren't such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.

That trajectory -- seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited -- is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week's Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go. 

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 

Posted with gratitude to my hevruta partner, who helped me think through this. Shabbat shalom to all.


The Open Invitation

 

Noahs-ark-blueChodesh tov: a good and sweet new month to you!

Today we enter the month of Cheshvan, a month that is unique because it contains no Jewish holidays at all. (Except for Shabbat, of course.) After the spiritual marathon of Tisha b'Av and Elul and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, now we get some downtime. Some quiet time. Time to rest: in Hebrew, לנוח / lanuach. We've done all of our spiritual work, and now we get to take a break. Right?

Well, not exactly.

When we finish the Days of Awe, we might imagine that the work is over. But I want to posit that the work of teshuvah, of turning ourselves in the right direction, isn't something we ever "complete"... and that Torah's been giving us hints about that, if we know where to look.

Last week we began the Torah again, with Bereshit, the first portion in the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos, "and God saw that it was good," the forming of an earthling from earth. Last week's Torah portion also contains the story of Cain and Hevel, the first sibling rivalry in our story. The two bring offerings to God. Hevel brings sheep, and Cain brings fruits of the soil, and God is pleased with the sheep but not with Cain's offering. Cain's face falls, and God says to him, "Why are you distressed?"

It's an odd moment. Surely an all-knowing God understands perfectly well why Cain is upset. This is not rocket science. Two brothers make gifts for their Parent, who admires one gift and pointedly ignores the other one?! Of course Cain feels unappreciated. This is basic human nature. How can it be that God doesn't understand?

The commentator known as the Radak says: God asked this rhetorical question not because God didn't understand Cain's emotions, but because God wanted to spur Cain to self-reflection. God, says the Radak, wanted to teach Cain how to do the work of teshuvah, repentance and return. Imagine if Cain had been able to receive that lesson. Imagine if Cain had had a trusted rabbi or spiritual director with whom he could have done his inner work, seeking to find the presence of God even in his disappointment. But that's not how the story goes. He misses the opportunity for teshuvah, and commits the first murder instead.

That was last week. This week, we read that God sees that humanity is wicked, and God decides to wipe out humanity and start over. But one person finds favor with God: Noach, whose name comes from that root לנוח, "to rest."

And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.

Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message.

The invitation to make teshuvah is always open. The invitation to discernment, to inner work, to recognizing our patterns and changing them, is always open. And to underscore that message, last week's Torah portion and this week's Torah portion both remind us:  the path of teshuvah was open to Cain, and it was open for the people of Noah's day, and it's open now.

Even if we spent the High Holiday season making teshuvah with all our might, the work isn't complete. We made the teshuvah we were able to make: we pushed ourselves as far as we could to become the better selves we know we're always called to be. But that was so last week. What teshuvah do we need to make now, building on the work we did before?

The word kapparah (atonement) implies covering-over, as Noach covered-over the ark with the covering of pitch. What kapparah hasn't worked for you yet? Where are the places where you still feel as though your mis-steps are exposed? What are the tender places in your heart and soul that need to be lovingly sealed and made safe? This week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we still have a chance to do this work. Will we be wiser than the generation of Noah? Will we hear Torah's call to make teshuvah now with all that we are?

Here's the thing: as long as we live, our work isn't done. I don't know whether that sounds to you like a blessing or a curse. But I mean it as a blessing. Because it's never too late. Because we can always be growing. Because we can always choose to be better.

May this Shabbat Noach be a Shabbat of real menuchah, which is Noah's namesake, and peace, a foretaste of the world to come. And when we emerge into the new week tonight at havdalah, may we be strengthened in our readiness to always be doing the work of teshuvah, and through that work, may our hearts and souls find the kapparah that we most seek.

 

I'm honored and delighted this week to be at Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, visiting my dear friend Rabbi Jennifer Singer who blogs at SRQ Jew. This is the d'var Torah I offered there for Shabbat Noach -- which I share with deep gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for sparking these insights.

 


The stranger in our midst: Ki Tavo and Dreamers

635965444098234916-381174497_CYyDgmBUoAA12IkAt the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read instructions for when we have entered the land of promise. When we enter that land, we are to recount where we came from, remember our hardships in life's narrow places, and then enjoy the bounty of our harvest, together with the Levite and the stranger who lives in our midst. Then Torah instructs us to set aside a tenth of the yield of the land and share it with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

That's the first dozen verses of this week's parsha: remember our hardships, be grateful that with God's help we have made it out of slavery and into freedom, and share what we have with the needy -- especially those who have nothing of their own (the Levites), the immigrant or migrant or refugee, and those who have no one to take care of them and keep them safe.

Our Torah was written a very long time ago. Sometimes it reflects sensibilities that are deeply alien. Sometimes we have to grapple with it, or turn it in a new direction, in order to find meaning in it. But for me, this year, these verses sound a clarion call that's all the more striking for how ancient we know them to be.

No one in this congregation, to the best of my knowledge, is Native American. That means that all of us are descended from people who came to this land in search of something better than what we had known before. The first Jews came to North Adams in 1867 from Eastern Europe and Russia. My own ancestors came to this country more recently than that, from Poland and from Russia and from the Czech Republic -- which was called Czechoslovakia when my mother was born there.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to the United States hoping that it would be the "goldene medina," the land of prosperity and promise. My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to this land in hopes that it was a nation that held to be self-evident the truth that all human beings are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, had to struggle with a governmental system that sometimes held Jews in low esteem. There were quotas. There was red tape. There was economic anxiety, and when there is economic anxiety, people turn on the Other: on those who don't speak or look or dress like them. You don't need me to tell you how many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn't get permission to enter this country where they would have been safe.

Today, this Shabbat, is the culmination of a week during which the President chose to end protection for "Dreamers" -- the children of undocumented immigrants who came to this country, often at great risk to themselves, out of those same hopes that brought my own mother and grandparents here. The "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program had given them safety, security, refuge, and belonging. Some 800,000 young Americans are now living in mortal terror of deportation to so-called "home countries" that are not their home.

When you enter the land of promise, says Torah, the first thing you need to do is stop and remember where you came from. Torah cites the story of how our ancestors fell on hard times and descended into the land of Egypt and there were enslaved. (Each of us can tell our own family story of hard times that led someone to make the perilous journey to the United States. There were pogroms in the village. There was antisemitism in the town square. There were Nazis marching. We remember where our people came from, and how fortunate we are to be where we are now.)

And then, says Torah, you take your abundance and you share it. Share it with the stranger who lives among you: the immigrant, the refugee, the powerless. Share it with the Levite, who has no land of their own to farm and no crops to harvest. Share it with the person who has no protector to keep them safe from the cruelty of predators. Then, and only then, can you go to God and say, I've kept Your commandments, please give me blessing.

All of us are migrants to this land of promise. And if we have the safety of citizenship, we owe it to the Dreamers to fight for their safety and their inclusion and their continued right to live in this nation they already call home. We owe it to the Dreamers to protect them from the cruelty of a predatory government that would strip them of their status and send them packing. Then, and only then, can we go to God and say that we're honoring the mitzvot and we seek blessing.

Sometimes Torah is ambiguous. And sometimes Torah offers teachings that appear to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. But on this issue, Torah's teachings feel timeless and timely and unspeakably important. Today is Shabbat: a day to live as if the world were already perfected and suffering were already a thing of the past. But tomorrow when we re-enter the work week, I hope you'll remember Torah's call to action. We live in a land of promise. It's incumbent on us to remember how fortunate we are to be here, and to share our good fortune with others in need.

 

See also: HIAS Slams Trump Administration's Decision on DACA, Urges Congress to Protect Dreamers (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), US Jewish Groups Blast Trump's Decision to Scrap 'Dreamers' Program as Cruel, Unnecessary (Ha'Aretz) How You Can Help (Mashable)

Also, from the Reform movement: Take Action to Protect DREAMers.

 

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


Eat, be satisfied, and bless - a d'var Torah for Eikev

Shabbath-vachalta-vsavata_07-50x402-e1433537246991I was working a few days ago with a friend's daughter who's becoming bat mitzvah in a few weeks. I found myself remembering a moment shortly after my own celebration of bat mitzvah.

Faced with the prospect of writing a mountain of thank-you notes. I took up my pretty new stationery and I wrote, "Dear so-and-so, thank you for the gift, love Rachel" over and over and over. 

When my mother found out that I hadn't been personalizing the notes, she made me throw them all out and start again. She insisted that I say what each gift was and why I appreciated it.

And that's how I learned that one must be specific in a thank-you note. "Thank you for the thing, whatever it was" will not cut it. (Not for my mother, anyway.) Enter this week's Torah portion, Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יָה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless YHVH your God for this good land that God has given you.

From this springs the custom of birkat hamazon, the "grace after meals," also called bentsching. Our tradition teaches us to offer that prayer after any meal at which bread is consumed in a quantity as large as an olive. Even for a bite-sized gift, we're meant to say thank You.

The traditional birkat hamazon contains four blessings: for the food, for the land, for the holy city of Jerusalem, and for God's goodness. Those blessings are adorned with an introductory psalm and a series of blessings that call God The Merciful One, plus additions for Shabbat and festivals. This is how our tradition works: a short text is embroidered with additions, and the additions become canon too.

And while it's easy to roll our eyes at that process of accretion -- this is how we wind up with long prayers: because we get attached to the new additions, but we can't bear to get rid of the original material! -- the process often yields liturgy that I truly love singing. And I do love bentsching (singing the birkat hamazon) when I'm lucky enough to gather a table of people who want to sing it with me.

Besides, one could argue that the impulse comes out of the same place as my mother's decision to make me rewrite all of my thank-you notes. It's not enough to just say "Hey, thanks for the thing." If we're doing it right, we ought to articulate gratitude for the food, and for the land in which the food arises, and for our holy places, and for the goodness of God that leads to the gift of sustenance in the first place. 

Then again, it's often our custom here to sing abbreviated liturgy. This is true in its most concentrated form when we have contemplative services. But most of the time we opt for fewer words and greater connection with those words, rather than singing the full text of what the most liturgical versions of Judaism might prescribe. Most often when we bless after a meal here, we sing brich rachamana:

בּרִיךְ רָחָמַנָה מָלְכַא דְעָלמַע מָרֵי דְהָאי פִתָא.

You are the source of life for all that is and Your blessing flows through me.

(Aramic translation: Blessed is the Merciful One, Sovereign of all worlds, source of this food.)

You have probably heard me say that that blessing originates in Talmud. You may also have heard me say that it's the shortest possible grace after meals that one can offer -- for instance, if one were being chased by robbers and needed to make the prayer quick. This is a popular teaching, though I can't actually source it! But it shows awareness, in the tradition, that sometimes we can't manage full-text.

For me, then, the question becomes: how do we sing the one-liner in such a way that we invest it with the kavvanah (the meaning and the intention) that the long version is designed to help us cultivate? How do we sing the short version without falling into the trap that I fell into as an overeager thirteen-year-old writing "thanks for the thing"?

One answer is to go deep into the words. This short Aramaic sentence tells us four things about God: God is blessed, and merciful, and is malkah, and is the source of our sustenance. I want to explore each of those, but I'm going to save the untranslated one for last.

1) God is blessed. What makes God blessed? We do, with our words of blessing. We declare God to be blessed, and by saying it, we make it so. (If this intrigues you, read Rabbi Marcia Prager's The Path of Blessing -- it's in our shul library.)

2) God is merciful. The Hebrew word "merciful" is related to the Hebrew word for "womb." God is the One in Whose Womb all of creation is sustained. When I really think about that metaphor, it blows my mind. The entire universe is drinking from God's umbilical cord!

3) God is the source. The source of all things; the source of every subatomic particle in the universe; the source of the earth in which our food comes to be, and the hands that raised or harvested or prepared what we eat, and the source of the things we eat that sustain us.

4) And God is malkah. That word can be translated as King, or Queen, or if you prefer gender-neutral, Sovereign. But to our mystics, the root מ/ל/כ connotes Shechinah: the immanent, indwelling, feminine Presence of God -- divinity with us, within us, among us.

God is blessed because we invest our hearts and souls in speaking that truth into being. God is mercy made manifest in our lives. God is the source from Whom all blessings flow. And God is that Presence that we feel in our hearts and in our minds, in our souls and in our bones. It's that Presence -- or, if you'll permit me some rabbinic-style wordplay, those Presents -- for which we articulate our thanks. 

To be really grateful is to be grateful for the specific, not the general. (That was my mother's thank-you note lesson all those years ago.) The Aramaic says 'd'hai pita,' "for this bread," not just for bread. I'm grateful for this bread that I took into my body. That makes it personal, because gratitude is personal by definition.  If we don't take our gratitude personally, then it's not gratitude; it's just rote words.

Our task is to eat, because ours is not an ascetic tradition. To be satisfied, because that is a healthy response to consumption. (Alexander Massey suggests that we cultivate satisfaction as a good in itself, and pray from there.) And then our task is to bless, and to really feel the awareness and the gratitude and the presence, to take them personally and make them real -- no matter what words we use.

 

Image source: a challah cover bearing the words "you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless," available at one of my favorite Judaica stores, The Aesthetic Sense. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


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