Yes we said yes we will yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


Exile and expansiveness - a d'varling for parashat Bo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Mission Accepted - a d'var Torah for parashat Shemot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Free to be - a d'var Torah for parashat Vayigash

Life-Files-Sorry-Who-are-Youוְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

That's the verse that leaps out at me this year. And within that verse, one word: בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע, "he made himself known."

The root of this word is the simple verb meaning to know. To know, to perceive, to distinguish one thing from another. This verb can mean to know someone "in the Biblical sense," to make love with someone and thereby know them deeply. It appears here in the causative form: to cause oneself to be known.

To cause oneself to be known.

How often do we dedicate our energies to ensuring precisely the opposite? We work hard at hiding ourselves. We hide our tender hearts. We hide our fears. We hide our insecurities. Men in particular are taught to do this in our culture: to hide their vulnerability, because it makes them "weak" or "feminine."

Or perhaps we show our insecurities, and hide our confidence and our strength. Women in particular are taught to do this in our culture: to soften, to backpedal, to hide our strength lest we be perceived as uppity or mannish or threatening.

I have been accused of being unfit for leadership because I act "too much like a man," because I speak my mind and draw clear boundaries.

And I have been accused of being unfit for leadership because I am not enough like a man, because I cry easily and I allow myself to be vulnerable.

If we allow these binaristic gender stereotypes to persist, we can't win. And we can't do what Joseph so bravely does in this week's parsha: we can't allow ourselves to truly be known.

The stereotypes are reductive, and they're also flat wrong.

The Jewish mystical tradition depicts God as being ultimately unitary and beyond all human knowledge, and also at the same time available to us through multiple faces or aspects. God has no gender, and yet we understand God as having both masculine and feminine qualities. God is the ultimate source of lovingkindness and compassion, and also the ultimate source of strength and boundaries.

We who are made in the divine image and likeness manifest these qualities too -- all of them, no matter what our gender expression may be. We do ourselves and each other a great disservice when we insist that men are "supposed" to be strong and women are "supposed" to be gentle, that dad is "supposed" to be the disciplinarian and mom is "supposed" to be the source of comfort... and I mean this not only in our family systems but also in our organizations, in our communities, on boards and committees, in social circles.

What we are "supposed" to be is who we most deeply are. All of who we are, in our fullness, with our contradictions and our yearnings, our hopes and our fears.

In order for Joseph to feel safe making himself known to his brothers, he needs to see that they have changed. He needs to see that they have truly made teshuvah, repented from their earlier mistreatment of him so profoundly that when faced with a similar choice they would choose differently than they did when they sold him into slavery. When he sees that they have made teshuvah and have changed, then he sends the courtiers out of the room and reveals who he truly is.

Each of us needs to do our own inner work, our teshuvah work, our work of repentance and repair. We do this work not only for the sake of our own souls, but also because when we do this work, we give the people around us permission to do it, too. When we do this work, we give the people around us permission to make themselves known to us, to reveal the sweetness and the strength, the vulnerability and the courage, of who they most truly are. When we do our own inner work, we make it safe for those around us to be like Joseph: to be real and whole and free to be who we are at last.

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


On being enough, the "inner accuser," and letting our light shine

רָנִּ֥י וְשִׂמְחִ֖י בַּת־צִיּ֑וֹן כִּ֧י הִנְנִי־בָ֛א וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֥י בְתוֹכֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְה

"Shout for joy, daughter of Zion! For behold, I come, and I will dwell within you, says Adonai."

That's the first line of the special haftarah reading for Shabbat Chanukah, Zechariah 2:14-4:7, which I chanted many years ago at my bat mitzvah.

I've remembered that opening line all these years. But there's much in this haftarah from Zechariah that I didn't remember. For instance, Zechariah's vision of Joshua, the high priest, standing before God as though on trial, with השטן / ha-satan, "the Accuser," there to accuse him. But God rebukes the accuser, says that Joshua is a "firebrand plucked from the fire," and makes his dirty garments white as snow.

Then an angel wakes Zechariah and asks what he sees. Zechariah describes a vision of a golden menorah, mystically fed by a stream of flowing oil direct from two olive trees. Zechariah asks the angel what this means, and the angel tells him, "'Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone' -- so says the God of Hosts."

The vision of the golden menorah may be why these verses are chanted on Shabbat Chanukah. They evoke the miracle: the oil that should not have been enough to keep the eternal flame kindled, but somehow it was enough. Or maybe the miracle is that our forebears took the leap of faith of lighting the eternal flame in the first place.

These verses evoke, too, our sages' decision centuries ago not to include the story of guerilla warfare in our sacred scripture. The Books of Maccabees, which tell the tale of the insurgency against Antiochus, are not part of the Hebrew Bible. When we tell the story of Chanukah, we tell the story of the miracle -- the oil, and the faith -- not the story of insurgents fighting soldiers. "Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone."

What we have, what we are, is enough -- even at times when we fear we don't have enough to offer. Even when all we have are the tiny sparks of hope we nurture and carry in our own hearts. We read in Proverbs that "The candle of God is the soul of a human being." Our souls are God's candles. It's our job to be the light of the world. So far, so good. But what do I make of that perplexing passage earlier in the haftarah, the vision of Joshua and ha-satan, the Accuser?

This year I read those verses as a parable about internal reality. I know what it's like to hear the words of my inner accuser. That voice tells me that my mis-steps disqualify me from being the person I want to be. Who am I to claim to be a servant of the Most High when my garments are so shabby -- when the life I try to weave is so riddled with mistakes, disappointments, inadequacies? That voice reminds me of all the good I intended to do in the world that I failed to do, the loved ones whose suffering I cannot alleviate, the problems I cannot fix. 

But the Holy One of Blessing sees me otherwise. God sees me through loving eyes. God sees my good intentions, even when I don't live up to them the way I wish I could. God sees my struggles and my griefs not as a sign that I am failing, but as the refining fire that burns away my illusions. God says to my inner accuser: this soul is a burning branch plucked from the fire of human circumstance, and her yearning to do better and be better is what enables her light to shine. God says to my inner accuser: see, I forgive this soul's mis-steps, and I make the garment of her life as white as snow.

Each of us has that inner accuser... and each of us can experience redemption from that voice when we remember that we are seen also through loving eyes. If you believe in a God Who sees you, then those loving eyes are Divine. If you don't believe in that kind of personalized deity, then those eyes may be those of someone in your life... or they may be your own eyes, when you take the leap of faith of seeing yourself the way you wish your dearest beloved could see you. 

In Zechariah's vision, Joshua's garments become white as snow. Just so for all of us. When we do our own inner work to try to be better, our tradition teaches, we are forgiven. And the sorrows of the old year, the stains and smudges on our life's "garment," do not disqualify us from hoping for better in the year to come. On the contrary: it is precisely with awareness of our mistakes and our sorrows that we are called to hope for better -- to kindle the light of hope even when reason would argue otherwise.

Our task is to let our light shine, and to trust in the One Who ensures that what we have, that what we are, is enough to meet whatever comes.

 

This is the d'var haftarah I offered at my shul earlier today, on New Year's Eve Day which is also Shabbat Chanukah which is also my bat-mitzvah-versary. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


In this place

C4f767653e18511c3a2ad131b105f7d3In this week's Torah portion, our forebear Jacob is on the run from his twin brother Esau. He lies down with his head on a stone, and he has a dream, or a vision, of a ladder rooted in the earth with its top penetrating the very heavens. On that ladder he sees angels moving up and down continuously, traveling between earth and heaven and earth again. When he wakes, he exclaims "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"

I can't think of a more appropriate Torah portion for our New Member Shabbat. As I look around the room at all of your faces, I know that God is in this place for sure.

Finding God in this place is what we're all about. Not only "this place" in the sense of the synagogue building, though we are blessed with a beautiful building and it is easy to feel the presence of the Holy when we gaze through these enormous windows at the willow tree and the mountains.

Some of us find God in this place via davenen, which is to say, prayer. Davenen is a Yiddish word. But the Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, which means to judge oneself. Some of us find God here by entering into prayer, and in so doing, coming to know ourselves more deeply. What arises in me as I bless the creator of light this morning? And what will arise in me as I bless the creator of light tomorrow morning, or next Shabbat, or the Shabbat after that? As we pray together, we witness our own subtle movements of soul. As we say and sing these familiar words we connect ourselves with the community and with our tradition, and maybe we find God in that connection.

Some of us find God in this place via service -- not the "service of the heart" that we know as prayer, but service of others. Those who gather here each month to cook meals for homebound seniors as part of our Take and Eat crew find God in dedicating their hands and hearts to feeding the hungry. Those who bring childrens' pajamas to our collection box, so that those who can't afford warm winter sleepwear for their children can rest easy knowing that their kids are safe and warm on the coldest nights... those who bring toys to our gift collection box, so that those who can't afford gifts for their kids this winter can rest easy knowing that there is something for them to give... in serving others here we make this place holy, and maybe we find God in that.

Some of us find God in this place through Torah study. Whether that means sitting here in the sanctuary discussing the weekly Torah portion, or studying a text during the kiddush after services, or participating in our book group, or taking part in our Introduction to Judaism class -- all of these are forms of Torah study, and all of these are doorways to noticing the presence of God.

Look around the room and recognize that God is in this place. God is in this place because we make this place holy with our choices, with our study, with our service, with our prayer. 

One of our tradition's names for God is המקום –– "The Place." God is in every place where people truly meet one another. God is in every place where people pray, and in every place where Torah is learned. We read in the Mishna (Avot 3) that wherever two people gather and study Torah together, the Shekhinah is with them. Shekhinah is one of our tradition's names for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. Sometimes we experience God as transcendent -- up there, out there, far away, too vast to imagine. And sometimes we experience God as immanent -- right here, with us, even within us. In Torah (Exodus 25) we read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם -- "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." Or maybe it means "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them."

We have made a sanctuary here in northern Berkshire. May it be a place where God dwells with us and within us. May we always wake to the presence of God in this place, in this moment, in this interaction, in this breath. May each of us be a blessing to this congregation, and may this community be a blessing for each of us, now and always.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. Image by Albert Houthouesen.

 


Evolving, like Pokémon

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My seven year old is a huge fan of the Japanese cartoon series Pokémon. If you have never shared your life with a Pokémon fan, you might not know that Pokémon are animated creatures (many of them adorable) with varying skills and talents.

On the instruction of their trainers, Pokémon battle one another to see who will prevail. When they are in circumstances of extraordinary extremis, they glow with an inner light and then evolve into new forms with new names. When a Pokémon evolves, it retains the memories, relationships, and general personality of its previous form. But it also changes, growing into a new version of itself with new skills and abilities, denoted by its new name.

There are parallels between this cartoon and the core story of Jewish becoming. Torah tells us that once there were a pair of twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, who wrestled with each other even in the womb. They were estranged for many years. And then came the night when Jacob knew that in the morning he would encounter his estranged brother again...

That's the opening of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily, which explores the intersection of Pokémon and next week's Torah portion. Read the whole thing here: Evolving, like Pokémon.

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A Blessing for Becoming (like Esau)

MaxresdefaultReading this week's Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau. 

His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father's innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac's knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?" asks Esau.

And Isaac replies, "But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?"

Esau says to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!" and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau's words: "can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?"

Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. "By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother," Isaac continues, "but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck."

Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau. 

Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God -- the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it's like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau's place, rather than Jacob's, how does Isaac's blessing make us feel?

It's easy to see Isaac's blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. "You'll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him." But I think we can find more in it if we try. 

The first part of Isaac's blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone's birthright even when we're in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac's blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts. 

The next part of Isaac's blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau's. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us -- whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere -- we can draw strength from Isaac's blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.  

And finally, Isaac's blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac's blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac's blessing that things will get better. Isaac's blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.

We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it's like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.

But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn't ask for and didn't want, can serve us well when times are hard -- and even more so when times are sweet.

My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don't come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.

And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.

May Isaac's blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.

 


Waking up again - for People & The Book / The Jerusalem Report


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How much of your life do you spend sleepwalking? How much of your life do you spend going through the motions, carried forward by force of habit rather than any particular consciousness or will? Most of us do this, much of the time.

I wake in the morning, make the kid breakfast, get us dressed, pack our lunches, see him safely onto the schoolbus, and go to work, glancing at emails and Facebook messages all the while. Your variation probably looks slightly different, but not that different. Morning routines followed by the workday, evening routines followed by sleep.

There are good reasons why human beings routinize daily acts. Otherwise we'd be paralyzed by possibility. But the danger of routine is that we stop noticing what's beautiful, or moving, or real. Our lives become cookbook recipes from which we never divagate. We forget to add the most critical ingredients: mindfulness and heart. We move through our lives asleep.

This week's Torah portion offers us a striking example of what it might look like to wake up. Jacob rests his head on a stone and dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it. (Ex. 28:12) He has an encounter with God and when he wakes he is shaken: "Surely God is in this place," he exclaims, "and I -- I did not know!" (Ex. 28:16)...

Those are the first few paragraphs of my latest essay / d'var Torah, written on next week's Torah portion, Vayetzei, for the "People & The Book" section of The Jerusalem Report

Those who live in Jerusalem can pick up a print copy of the magazine; others can click through to read the column at The Jerusalem Post

 

 


On grief and moving forward

This morning I presided over a funeral for a beloved member of my congregation. It was hard to shake the sense that many of us were mourning not only that loss, but also the loss of a vision of our nation as a place of hope and inclusion. Even those who are happy with yesterday's outcome may be feeling shaken by the reminder of how stark are the divisions within our nation.

To everyone who is feeling grief today, I say: it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling, take permission to feel it. Let yourself grieve.

Take comfort in what you can: the presence of friends or family, whatever sweetness or kindness you can find, a cup of coffee, the fact that the sun rose this morning.

Recognize that grief comes and goes in its own rhythms. So, too, does healing. Be gentle with yourself today and in days to come. Be gentle with those you encounter.

When grief is strong, it can seem impossible to imagine that one will ever feel differently. But this is not all there is. Loss is not all there is. Grief is not all there is.

Jewish tradition wisely instructs mourners to retreat from the world for a week. The customs of shiva are designed to insulate mourners from the hard edges of the outside world. They remind us to take the time we need to tell stories, to remember, and to grieve.

At the end of shiva, there is a custom of leaving one's house through one door, walking around the block, and then entering the house through a different door. We will emerge from our grief changed by the experience of the grieving. We will exit what was and enter into something new.

In this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, God calls Avram to leave his home and go forth into the place that God will show him. The opening words are often translated as "Go forth," but they can also be understood to mean "Go into yourself." Like Avram, we too are called to journey deep into ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual work of becoming.

Avram had to leave everything that was familiar. He too must have felt that he had lost his narrative about who he thought he was and what he thought was ahead of him. But somehow he found the strength for the journey, and so will we.

We may need to grieve, but we must resist despair. Despair is corrosive, and it denies our agency and our ability to create change.

We can cultivate hope. We can build a better world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will come after us to continue trying to build a world of justice and lovingkindness, a world in which no one need fear abuse or mistreatment, a world in which diversities of all kinds -- of race and creed and sexual orientation -- are honored and celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are protected. A world in which bigotry and hatred vanish like smoke, and generosity of spirit and compassion prevail.

In this moment I don't know how we will do that. I don't know what steps we will take or how they will get us where we need to go. But I know that this is the journey to which we are called, and that we will journey together.

 

 


You may find comfort, as I did, in this from Rabbi David Evan Markus: The Day After.

Cross-posted to my congregational blog.


Safe from the storm: a d'var Torah for parashat Noach

Arkwave

This year as I read this week's Torah portion a three-word phrase leapt out at me. It comes after the part about how Noah built the ark, and all the animals that he collected inside it -- between all of those descriptions, and the Flood itself. ויסגור ה' בעדו: "And God shut him in."

Rashi notes that the literal meaning of this phrase is that God closed the door of the ark behind Noah, protecting him from the waters that would rage outside the door. The commentator known as the Radak writes that "God protected him against the chance of even a small hole opening in the ark as a result of the powerful rains." One way or another, this verse seems to be saying something about God protecting Noah and keeping him safe through the storm.

As the cold weather approaches, we -- like Noah -- batten down the hatches. Maybe we tinker with our storm windows, spray insulation into cracks and crevices, put an extra blanket on the bed. If that's true as we anticipate literal storms, how much more true as we anticiapte emotional and spiritual storms. Every life has periods of turbulent waters. As we face those waters, we yearn to be cared-for and tucked-in, to have God's presence securing and protecting us.

I'm not a sailor, but I know that when big storms arise sometimes the only way through is to lower sail and let the storm rage. Often storms move us to new places: as the winds and currents can move a boat into new waters, when emotional currents surge strong they may carry us to places we didn't expect. Authentic spiritual life asks us to weigh anchor and let ourselves be moved, trusting that even when external circumstances are swirling around us we can touch stillness and eternity.

One of the reasons to maintain spiritual practices when the sailing is smooth is so that those practices are there to sustain and protect us when storms pick up. If I remind myself every morning to pause to articulate gratitude for being alive, then maybe when the tough mornings come the habit will be engrained enough to carry me through. If I pause before sleep to try to let go of the day's mistakes and hurts, then maybe I can wake into the infinite possibility of the new day, even when sleep came on the heels of weeping.

How can we feel secured and protected, as Noah might have felt when God lovingly closed the door behind him? Maybe it's a phone call or a text message from a friend reminding us that we're not alone. Maybe it's reading an essay that makes us feel seen and understood in who we most deeply are. Maybe it's putting on a piece of jewelry that feels like a talisman. Maybe it's a session with a therapist who reminds us that our stories matter, or a spiritual director who companions us in our journeying.

Our liturgy tells us that we are loved by an unending love, an אהבת עולם. For me, the presence of that love is what secures the door and keeps me safe from the storm. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of that love in the love I feel for my child, or the love he feels for me. Sometimes I brush up against it in the connection between me and my most beloved friends. Sometimes I feel that love manifest in the extraordinary beauty of creation, in the rise of early morning light over our hills now dressed in November's muted palette or the calliope song of geese migrating overhead at dusk.

What makes you feel seen and cared-for? What carries you safely through life's storms?

 

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

 


Back to the beginning

Thebeginning

This week we begin again. The cycle of fall holidays is finally over: we have returned to ordinary time. I don't mean by that term precisely what my Christian cousins mean by it -- for them it has a more particular liturgical meaning than it does for us. What I mean is something more like חול / chol, non-sacred time. Usually we speak in terms of שבת וחול / shabbat v'chol, the holiness of Shabbat and the ordinariness of the non-sacred workweek. After the star-studded expanse of the Days of Awe and all that comes before and after them, this first ordinary Shabbat of the new year feels to me almost like a kind of chol. It will be Shabbat, of course, which makes it holy -- but it's a holiness that partakes of the regular rhythms of the year. The smaller ebb-and-flow of Shabbat-and-week, rather than the big peaks from which we have only recently descended. We have returned to normalcy.

As the parent of a first grader, I am conscious of the gifts that come with normalcy and routine. Transitions are hard. Big holidays are disruptions in ordinary time, and they need to be -- we need them to be. We need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to be confronted with experiences that awaken our sense of awe and majesty, that remind us that we are mortal and today might be our last chance to lead the kind of life of which we can be proud because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Jewish tradition is wise in giving us these things, and in giving us so many of them in a row that our emotional and spiritual defenses weaken and let our true hearts begin to shine through. And after so many of them in a row, now we need the return to ordinary time. Just as my son needs to return to the regular rhythms of schoolnight bedtime, so we need to return to our regular rhythms too. 

And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there's still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It's a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.


Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart

Open-heartIn this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moshe gives instructions to the children of Israel and to Joshua who will lead them into the land of promise. This year as I read this Torah portion, I was struck by a repeated phrase. חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, "Y'all be strong and resolute," Moshe says to them. And in the next verse, he speaks directly to Joshua and says the same thing in the singular to him: חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒. 

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, "Y'all be strong and resolute." The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra writes that we become able to follow this instruction when we know that God is walking with us in all of the places where our path takes us. No matter where life takes us, when we know that we are not alone, then we can be strong and resolute. Or, as Reb Zalman z"l translates those words, that's when we can be sturdy and make strong our hearts. 

We find that phrasing in his translation of psalm 27, the psalm we've been davening since the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Over Rosh Hashanah (and again this morning) we sang a beautiful setting of one verse from that psalm:

קַוֵּה אֶל-ה׳:
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה׳

Keep hope, keep hope -- keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.

There's a kind of echo effect for me between the verses from Torah, with their repeated refrain of "be strong and resolute," and this verse from the psalm we've been singing. Torah tells us to be strong, whereas the psalm invites us to strengthen our hearts. How do we do that? Our singable translation offers an answer: by opening them, and by cultivating hope. 

We strengthen our hearts when we work to keep them open. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to each other, maybe especially at this time of year as we immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, repentance and returning to our truest selves. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to the unknown future, and to cultivate hope.

The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.

For Rabbi Sacks, hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now.

Hope is built into the structure of Jewish time. Jewishly speaking, a day begins with sundown and moves toward morning. ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר -- "and there was evening and there was morning." Why does a Jewish day begin in darkness? So that the natural trajectory of the day moves from darkness to light. Night represents fear and exile -- which makes perfect sense to any child who has ever been afraid of the dark -- and the coming of day represents the rebirth of hope. Or as the author Anne Lamott teaches (in her book Bird by Bird), “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

The actor Christopher Reeve, of blessed memory, used to say that "once you choose hope, anything is possible." He knew something about situations that look hopeless: he said this about hope after he had the riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. What I find interesting about the quote is that he used the word choose. It takes some work. It's a turn, like teshuvah.

The existential turn of teshuvah is always open to us. The existential turn of choosing hope is always open to us. No matter what cards you've been dealt, you can choose to open your heart wide and keep hoping in the One.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning. 


Words we can't un-say: a d'var Torah for parashat Ki Tetzei

Words2In this week's Torah portion there is an intriguing passage (Deuteronomy 24: 1-4) about divorce. Torah says: when a man takes a wife and possesses her, and then finds something about her displeasing, he is to write her a bill of divorce and she is to leave his house. If she should marry a second time, and then divorce a second time -- or the second husband should die -- her first husband is forbidden from marrying her again.

The Sforno says that this is because to allow remarriage in this way would be a recipe for wife-swapping. Rabbenu Bahya says that this is because the woman in the story has been "known" by another man, so of course it would be inappropriate for her to be intimate with her first husband again. Unsurprisingly, these classical commentators and others take for granted the text's apparent assumptions about gender, marriage, and power. 

There's plenty that is problematic about this passage from a modern perspective. For starters, the idea that a woman "belongs" to anyone other than herself. The presumption that divorce is necessarily initiated by the husband because his wife is no longer pleasing in his eyes. The lack of agency granted to the woman. The notion that a woman who has been with another man becomes תמא / tamei, emotionally and spiritually charged in a way that would be damaging to her first partner if they got back together again.

Not to mention the fact that the text doesn't speak at all about how the woman in this situation feels: did she want to divorce in the first place? How about the second place? What kind of grief is she enduring, especially when the second marriage ends? Torah doesn't say, but we can begin to imagine.

That said, I think we can glean some wisdom from this passage despite its troubling dynamics.

First, let's remove the genderedness from it. Torah is teaching us that a marriage has to be consensual, and requires the active participation of both partners. When a marriage becomes irreparably broken for one partner, it's no longer a consensual whole, and the partnership is broken. A bill of divorce must be written so that the partners can release each other.

Anyone who is considering taking these steps needs to know that words ending a marriage, once said, can't be un-said. Once the marriage has been broken, even if one or both partners should later regret the breaking, it can't be glued back together into the configuration it had before. No one should go into divorce thinking "well, if this doesn't work out, we can go back to the way things were." There is no "going back." Only going forward. In our modern paradigm sometimes former partners do re-marry, but there is no re-creating the wholeness of the first marriage when it was new.

That significant words, once said, can't be un-said is a running theme in this week's Torah portion. The verses about divorce come shortly after verses instructing us to take care in vowing vows to God, because when we promise things to God, we have to live up to them or incur sin. It is better not to make vows, says Torah, than to make them and fail to live up to them.

Promises that we make to God and fail to sustain... we'll come back to those on Kol Nidre night. Once we've said them, we can't un-say them, but we can ask God to forgive us for our failure to live up to who we intended to be.

Promises that we make to each other and fail to sustain... once we've said them, we can't un-say them either. Neither can we un-say words that end a relationship. We should take care with our words, and not commit ourselves to promises we can't keep or to endings we aren't really ready to face. But maybe especially during this month of Elul, we can ask each others' forgiveness -- in all of our relationships -- for failure to live up to what we thought would be. 

 

 

[Image source.] This is the d'var Torah I offered at my synagogue yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Balancing judgment with love

Have you ever been asked the question "if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island, what five books would you take with you?" One of mine would be Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. I reread that book each year at this season.

Here's a short quote from that book, talking about this week's Torah portion:

Parashat Shoftim... begins with what seems like a simple prescription for the establishment of a judicial system: 'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' But the great Hasidic Torah commentary, the Iturey Torah, read this passage as an imperative of a very different sort -- an imperative for a kind of inner mindfulness. According to the Iturey Torah, there are seven gates -- seven windows -- to the soul: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.

On a deep level, says Rabbi Lew, this passage has nothing to do with establishing a system of judges and courts. Rather, it's about mindfulness and teshuvah, that existential turning that's at the heart of this season.

'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' We can't always control what we see. Sometimes we see things we wish we could un-see, or hear things we wish we could un-hear. But we can make choices about how we respond to what we see and hear. Maybe there's political rhetoric this election season that upsets me, or someone in my sphere who's acting unfairly or unkindly. I can't un-hear the offending words or un-see the offending deeds, but I can choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself as I respond to what the world presents to me.

I can choose to cultivate lovingkindness. I can choose to cultivate good boundaries and to say "enough is enough." I can choose to cultivate the right balance between love and judgment. This Shabbat offers an opportunity to do precisely that.

Shabbat Shoftim -- "Shabbat of Judges" -- always falls during the first or second week of Elul. The moon of Elul is waxing now, and when it wanes we'll convene for Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy for that day describes God as the Judge before whom all living beings must appear. On that day the book of our lives will read from itself, reflecting the lines we've written over the last year with our words and our deeds, our actions and our inactions.

But before we get to Rosh Hashanah, we have three more weeks of Elul to go. Our sages read the name of this month as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." Before we stand before God as Judge, we have the opportunity to experience God as Beloved. Tradition teaches that this month God isn't in the Palace on high, but "in the fields" with us. We get to with the Source of All in the beautiful late summer meadows, talking with God the way one might talk to one's most dearly beloved friend.

Because here's the thing about your most dearly beloved friend, the person who loves you most in all the world: that person notices your flaws, sure, but they see your flaws in the context of your good sides. Your best qualities. Imagine someone who loves you so dearly that they can't help seeing everything that's best about you, every time they look at you. During this month of Elul, that's how God sees each of us. That's the backdrop against which the judgments of Rosh Hashanah take place.

This week's Torah portion instructs us to pursue justice, and it doesn't seem to be speaking only to those who do the work of justice for a living. This work falls to all of us. Pursuing justice, and engaging in the work of judgement and discernment, is on all of us. Where are we living up to our highest selves, and where are we falling short of our ideals? As the Iturey Torah asks, what do we want to let in through the gates of the senses, and what words and deeds and facial expressions do we want to let out?

And it's also our task to remember that we emulate God not only when we judge ourselves and others, but also when we cultivate love for ourselves and others -- in fact we are most like God davka (precisely) when we do both. Shabbat Shoftim always falls during this month of Elul, during this month of loving and being loved. The challenge is finding the right balance of love and judgment in every moment. It can be tempting to lean toward one and neglect the other, but that's a temptation we need to resist.

Balancing love and judgment is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If I bring nothing but chesed, abundant lovingkindness, to myself and to the world around me I am liable to spoil my child, turn a blind eye to unfairness, and let myself or others off the hook when I should be expecting better. If I bring nothing but gevurah, boundaries and strength, I am liable to be overly strict, to cross the line from discerning to judgmental, and castigate myself and others when I should be responding with gentleness. 

May this Shabbat Shoftim, this Shabbat of Judges, inspire us to balance our lovingkindness with good judgment, and to infuse our discernment with love.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered last night at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Pursue justice: a d'var Torah for T'ruah

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This week's Torah portion contains one of the most famous justice-related verses in Torah: "צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, / tzedek tzedek tirdof" -- "Justice, justice shall you pursue!"   

Although the parsha begins with the injunction to establish judges, this instruction -- to pursue justice -- doesn't seem to be aimed solely at those whose job it is to judge. Even those who don't practice justice for a living do judge others, whether or not our judgements have legal standing. So what does it mean to judge justly -- not just for those who work in the justice system, but for the rest of us, too?

That's the beginning of the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, for T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

You can read the whole thing here: Pursue Justice So That You May Truly Live.


When life feels like a wilderness, at The Wisdom Daily

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The folks at The Wisdom Daily have published my latest essay. It's about repetition, and patterns, and this time of year, and discovering who we really are. 

Here's how it begins:  

Sometimes life feels like a wilderness, wild and waste and inhospitable. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles, recognizing my own sorrows as ruefully familiar landmarks in an otherwise pathless desert. This painful issue – haven’t I been here before? This broken relationship – why are its jagged edges slicing into me again? This dysfunctional work situation – haven’t I spent forever struggling with these colleagues and their ill will? Why can’t I seem to get out of this place?

You can read the whole thing at their site: When Life Feels Like A Wilderness