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.)

 


Deep Ecumenism and Being a Mixed Multitude

Multitude-WebOne of the things I love about the Passover story is that every year the story is the same, and every year I hear it anew. (This is true of the whole Torah, too, but I knew and loved the Pesach story before I knew and loved the whole Torah.) Every year we retell how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And every year, something different about the story leaps out at me and says pay attention.

This year the thing that leaps out at me is the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with us from Egypt. When we left Mitzrayim, tradition teaches, we did not leave alone. A mixed multitude came with us. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."

I imagine us as a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into this community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice. This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell every Pesach, the story we allude to in the kiddush every Friday night and in the Mi Chamocha prayer every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.

Immediately upon leaving Egypt, we came to an insurmountable obstacle: the Sea of Reeds. On Monday night, Ben Solis-Cohen gave a beautiful d'var about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the brave soul who took the first steps into the waters. Nachshon kept going until it seemed that he would drown, and then the waters parted. This is a story about trusting in something beyond ourselves and getting through adversity we didn't think we could get through. Because in and of ourselves, we couldn't. As a theist, I would say God accompanied us, and therefore we became more than we thought we could be. That language may or may not work for you, but what matters is this: when the journey ahead seemed impossible, we found the courage to keep going, and the impossible became possible.

This is the story that constitutes us as a people, and it's not entirely an easy story. After we came through the sea, the waters rushed back in and swept away the Egyptian armies that had pursued us. Midrash teaches that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing, saying, "My children are perishing, and you sing praises?" Both "we," and "they," are equally God's children. The story that constitutes us as a people demands that we ask what price is being paid for our liberation, and by whom. Whose bondage or suffering is the price of our freedom and comfort, and what right do we have to exact that price?

It's our job as Jews to rejoice in our freedom, and it's our job to look at this system, this community, this nation, this planet, and ask how and whether we're complicit in the suffering of others who are not yet free. What is the price of our spiritual freedom, and who is paying that price, and what can we do about that? And considering our complicity isn't enough. It's also our job as Jews to work toward liberation for everyone. Until everyone is free, our liberation is incomplete.

The mixed multitude who left Egypt included people who were not Jews... as our Shabbat dinners here include those who walk on other spiritual paths. On most Christian calendars today is Good Friday. In their tradition, today commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. In their tradition, the price of spiritual freedom for humanity was the death of the rabbi they call Jesus who was both human and divine.

For our Christian friends, tonight is a dark night that will give way on Sunday to the brightest of new dawns. The emotional journey of going from Good Friday to Easter does for them what the emotional journey of Pesach can do for us. Remembering the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborns -- remembering the Egyptian army swept away in the Sea of Reeds -- impels us to recognize the preciousness of this life, and to cultivate openness to growth and change.

Following the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, I want to suggest that the best way we can relate to Good Friday is not by trying to be Christian, but by being all the more Jewish. This is what he called "deep ecumenism." From the authenticity of our spiritual practice, we can walk alongside others in theirs, partaking in a universal human journey that has multiple forms. And that journey would be darkened and diminished if even a single one of us didn't take part.

Every religion, Reb Zalman taught, is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be uniquely what it is, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we'd be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in even more trouble! Each community of faith -- including those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular -- needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others.

Humanity hasn't quite mastered this yet... but the rest of the world could learn a lot from Williams campus life. When the Chaplains' Office organizes a multifaith prayer experience after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mosques. When Williams Catholic, or Williams Secular, or the Feast, shows up to cook Shabbat dinner for WCJA. When Feminists of Faith gather on a Saturday afternoon, as we will do here on April 29. This is what it means to be a mixed multitude: not because we're stuck with each other, but because we embrace each other. Because our pluralism is part of who we are.

On Sunday night we'll enter into the seventh day of Pesach, which tradition says is the day when we actually crossed the sea. We'll remember how after crossing that sea, Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels, singing in gratitude to the One Who makes our transformation possible.

That's our job too: to sing out in praise. To cultivate gratitude and joy, without ignoring the things that are hard, either in our past or in our anticipated future. Miriam and the women are my role models in that. They'd experienced trauma and loss, they were on a journey with an unknown destination, they were carrying their whole lives on their backs -- and they danced anyway.

Miriam and the women teach me that no matter what I've been through and no matter what challenges lie ahead, there is always reason for hope and rejoicing. "Look around, look around: how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

This is the story that constitutes us as a people: a mixed multitude, welcoming and diverse -- growing and becoming, taking a leap of faith singly and together -- grappling with systems of oppression -- supporting each other on our various spiritual paths -- aware that transformation is always possible -- with hearts expansive enough to hold both life's adversity and life's joy.

We live into this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight during dinner at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image: "Multitude," by Sam Miller. (Source.)


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.]

 


Cleaning (the internal) house before Pesach

33837431415_1c3d90d643_zIt's Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat" -- the Shabbat that comes right before Pesach. Traditionally, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give lengthy sermons on the importance of properly cleaning one's house for Pesach and getting rid of every crumb of leavenable grain.

So that's what I'm going to do, except that mine will be very short, and mine isn't actually about housecleaning.

I mean, it's great if you want to remove the chametz from your dorm room, and by all means show up on Sunday to help us turn over the kitchen for Pesach here at the JRC! But tonight I'm less interested in the details of how to kasher a kitchen, and more interested in what this practice can teach us spiritually.

The word chametz (חמץ) comes from l'chmotz, to sour or ferment. In the world of tangible practicality, chametz means leavened bread, or things made from the five officially (according to Talmud) leavenable grains. But in the realms of emotion and thought and spirit, chametz can mean the old stuff in our hearts. Old patterns, old baggage, old hurts that we hold on to. The puffery of ego and pride. The sourness of old angers and insults. That thing somebody said, or did -- or that thing that we ourselves said or did -- of which we've never been able to let go.

Monday night we'll enter into the Festival of Freedom. Tradition teaches that we thank God on Pesach for what God has done for us in bringing us out of Mitzrayim -- not some mythic "them" back "then," but us, in our own lives, right now. The name Mitzrayim, usually translated as "Egypt," comes from the root צר (tzr), which means narrowness or suffering. We all experience suffering and inhabit narrow places. Pesach comes to remind us that we can leave emotional and spiritual constriction behind.

And when it's time to embrace change and new beginnings, we have to leap at that chance -- even if we don't feel fully ready, even if our bread dough hasn't had the time to rise. That's why our mythic ancestors baked unleavened bread for their journey. Walking in their footsteps, we too are called to leave behind our chametz, our old habits and patterns, the wounds we've been unwilling to forget, the disappointments that color our relationships with others and with ourselves.

Traditionally we search for chametz on the night before the holiday by the light of a candle. This practice comes to remind us that we find our chametz, the old and maybe painful stuff we need to relinquish, in darkness -- in the dark night of the soul, the tough times in our lives when light and hope seem distant and hard to find.

Clearing out internal chametz isn't easy. Often we feel resistance: we don't want to let go of an old story, or to forgive someone who's hurt us, or to believe that we ourselves can be forgiven for our missed marks. It requires some scrubbing, metaphysically speaking. Our work is discerning which of our old stories still serve us, and which have become chametz that we need to shed in order to move toward liberation.

There's a Zen parable about two monks whose vows instructed them not to touch women. They came to a flooded river and found a woman in need of transport across. One of them picked her up and carried her. After they reached the other side, the other monk fumed for about an hour, and finally burst out with "Why did you do that? We made a vow not to touch women!" The first monk looked at his friend and said, "I put her down an hour ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

What's the chametz you're carrying that you need to release in order to approach Pesach with unburdened shoulders? What's the old stuff in you that you need to clear away so that you can enter Pesach with a heart that is open and whole?

 

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.)

There's a practice of ritually hiding, and then discovering and disposing of, some leaven on the night before Pesach. Here's a one-page handout containing the ritual, the blessing, and a poem: Bedikat Chametz [pdf]


Glimpses of a week in Alabama

33641141506_8159a61cb6_zThere are so many things about my week in Alabama that I wish I could share with y'all.

The preaching at 16th Street Church in Birmingham last Sunday. I had thought I would miss the service, but the Jewish student and I who flew in that morning both arrived just in time, and holy wow, I have never actually seen preaching like that before.

The rosemary in the rose garden in front of the Presbyterian church where we stayed in Tuscaloosa, which I touched every time I went by, like a mezuzah. It scented my fingers, an olfactory hyperlink to many places and moments I have loved.

Four ChaplainsBuilding a "safe room" on our first day, in hard hats, on a bare slab on Juanita Drive, right in the heart of where the tornado devastated the city in 2011. Nailing two-by-fours together, framing walls, adding steel brackets, adding steel cladding -- to keep the inhabitants of that Habitat home safe if a tornado should come through town again.

Leading our first evening discussion on brokenness and mending through the lens of Rabbi Isaac Luria's teaching about the breaking of the vessels and our obligation to lift up sparks. Connecting that with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's teaching about how when he marched in Selma, his feet were praying.

The quality and caliber of our conversations all week long. Each of my colleagues taught one night, and each offered beautiful teachings drawn from their own tradition. (You can see the four of us in one of the photos illustrating this post -- taken outside of Habitat for Humanity's office in town. They'll print the photo and tack it up on a wall there as part of their illustrated address book of people who've come through town to serve in this way.)

Crouching in a patch of clay outside one of our rehab homes with a Muslim student, showing each other how to write and pronounce the root of the verb "to write" in our respective holy languages. (In Hebrew it is spelled כתב - k/t/v. In Arabic it is k/t/b. We both beamed.)

33704224946_2fdd09e0ac_zWorking on rehabilitating a home for someone in need. I was based primarily in her kitchen, putting doors and veneer on cabinets, tiling and grouting the backsplash, fitting baseboards and nailing down thresholds. I take comfort from knowing that when we leave, her home will be safer and more beautiful and more functional than when we arrived.

Taking on a long list of carpentry and construction tasks that I had never done before. I'm comfortable now with a circular saw, a table saw, a mitre saw, two different kinds of tile saw, not to mention nail guns powered by compressed air. (Comfortable enough to maintain a healthy respect for them! But no longer afraid of them.)

Today (Friday) is our last day on our various job sites. We'll knock off slightly earlier than usual so we can return to First Presbyterian Church, clean ourselves and the church, and make our way to Birmingham. The coming Shabbat will feature Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, Shabbat morning services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and afternoon mass at St. Francis Xavier before our closing reflections and havdalah. 

As the week draws toward its close, my body is tired but my spirit is soaring. I'm endlessly grateful to my chaplaincy colleagues at Williams for the opportunity to take part in this extraordinary week, to our hosts at First Presbyterian Tuscaloosa and St. Francis Xavier Birmingham for putting us up, and to the kind and patient teachers at Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa who so graciously and warmly helped us believe in ourselves as we learned new ways to serve.

 

 


An interfaith service trip to Alabama (after Shabbat)

FlamePurpleDECALAt the blessed crack of well-before-dawn on Sunday I'm heading south for what promises to be a truly extraordinary week.

Each year, the chaplains at Williams College partner with the Center for Learning in Action on an interfaith service trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (See Alabama Calling, Williams Alumni Review, July 2012.) This year I am profoundly blessed to be one of the chaplains serving my alma mater, which means I get to take part!

The four chaplains (Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, and Muslim) will travel to Alabama with a group of a dozen students from a variety of faith backgrounds. This year's group includes students who self-identify as Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Deist, and atheist.

We'll begin the week by visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (and those who are there on that Sunday morning will attend services at the 16th Street Baptist Church; I'm sorry to miss that, though am grateful that those of us who are flying in on Sunday morning will get there in time for the Civil Rights Institute.)

Then we'll spend the week working on a Habitat for Humanity building project together, building a home for someone in need and continuing to help our host community there recover from tornadoes that devastated the area a few years ago. We'll camp out in a local church social hall, and cook vegetarian meals together each night. (I've packed my sleeping bag. The whole thing is giving me fond memories of touring with the Williams College Elizabethans during my own undergraduate days.)

Each night a different chaplain will offer teachings on the shared theme of brokenness and mending. Those evening sessions offer an opportunity to introduce students to our four different faith-traditions, and also to get them talking with each other and with us about how the conversations we're having in the evenings relate to the holy work we're doing during the day. 

Over the course of the week, as we engage with the civil rights movement and how that historic and historical struggle for human rights dovetails with today's politics, I expect that (alone and together) we'll wrestle with our own relationships to race and privilege. For most of us, the American South will be unfamiliar territory, so there's learning to do there. And for most of us, the kind of conscious multi-faith community we're aspiring to co-create will be unfamiliar territory, too. I suspect that all of us will find ourselves pushing up against our usual boundaries from time to time. 

We'll seal the week with what feels to me like a gloriously multi-modal celebration of Shabbat: first we'll attend Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, then Saturday morning Shabbat services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and then Saturday afternoon mass (or as I've been thinking of it, Shabbat mincha in a different key) at St. Francis Xavier, with havdalah as part of our closing reflections and integration work on Saturday night. 

(As a student of the students of Reb Zalman z"l -- he who famously called himself a "Spiritual Peeping Tom" and said he liked to see how other people "get it on with God" -- I think that Shabbat sounds like an actual foretaste of heaven!)

I know that this will be an exhausting and overwhelming week -- and I anticipate that it will be at least as wonderful as it is challenging. I don't know that I'll manage to blog much while I'm away, but I imagine that I will harvest spiritual riches from this trip for a long time to come. 

 


New at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together

Logo

 

"I'm deeply distressed at the desecration of Jewish cemeteries," said my colleague Sharif at the weekly chaplains' staff meeting at our small liberal arts college.

"I'm deeply distressed by the mosques set afire," I said to him in return.

We both find hope in stories of interfaith solidarity across what can be a contentious divide between the children of Ismail and the children of Yitzchak. We've read about Muslims raising money to repair Jewish tombstones, and Jews raising money to refurbish torched mosques, and we take heart from those things.

But what could we do on our little campus to foster that spirit of interfaith solidarity and to bring comfort to two minority religious communities whose members are likely sad and anxious about bomb threats at JCCs and reports of rising Islamophobia?

The answer turned out to be powerful and simple: pray in each others' religious spaces, with and for each other...

Read the whole piece at Ritualwell: When Jews and Muslims Pray Together.

Thanks to the editors at Ritualwell for publishing the piece, and deep thanks to the interfaith comunity at Williams for so beautifully and bravely standing together.


What costumes can reveal

Purim-mask1

 

I remember the first time I saw a boy in drag and found him beautiful. It was fall of my freshman year. My first boyfriend lived in the entry next to mine, and he dressed in my clothes for a dance party thrown in Currier Ballroom by the organization that was then called the BGLU. He fit easily into my purple suede miniskirt and blue silk shirt. I made up his face the way I had learned to make up my own. And when his transformation was complete, he was gorgeous.

That I found him equally attractive when he presented as a femme man, and when he presented as a butch woman, was revelatory for me. (Those phrases sound binaristic now, but that was the language we used then.) That was my first step toward recognizing that the qualities that draw me -- intelligence, kindness, musicality, integrity -- aren't gender-specific. My boyfriend dressed in a costume that hid his everyday identity, and seeing him in that guise taught me something about myself.

Purim, which begins tomorrow night, is a holiday of masks and costumes. Everywhere around the Jewish world, people will wear costumes and veils, masks and disguises. Some of our costumes will be silly, or funny. Some will be random. Some will enable us to show sides of ourselves we don't usually get to display. Regardless: the act of putting on a costume invites us to think about the masks we wear every day, and in turn about what it would feel like to set those masks aside.

We all wear masks in daily life. Maybe we hide our vulnerability. Maybe we hide our yearnings. Here in this environment most of us don't feel the need to hide our intelligence -- intellect is valued here -- but we may feel the need to hide our hearts. We may hide a love interest we fear is unrequited, or compassion we don't feel safe expressing aloud. We may hide our strength. We may hide emotions that we learned, in childhood, it wasn't safe for us to manifest or express: fear, or anger, or joy.

The hero of the Purim story is Esther, whose name shares a root with נסתר / nistar, hidden. When Esther enters the palace of Achashverosh, on Mordechai's advice she hides her Jewishness. It's a lie of omission. She just... doesn't mention that part of who she is. Until, of course, the time comes when the only way she can save her community is to come out as a Jew and hope that Achashverosh's attachment to her will extend far enough to save her people too. Esther's willingness to stop hiding saves the day.

There's another figure in the megillah of Esther who's hidden, and that's God. God doesn't appear in this book at all -- at least not overtly. God's name is never mentioned. But our mystics tell us that God isn't absent; only נסתר, hidden. In our lives, too, divine presence may be hidden. But if we search for divinity, we can experience God everywhere: not just in the spaces that look holy, like Shabbat services, but also in spaces that might appear secular or profane, like costume parties or  a drag ball.

God's hiddenness, coming out, and drag balls: this d'varling may not be in everyone's comfort zone. (Maybe it's the drag that's uncomfortable for you; maybe it's the God-language.) I want to sit with that -- not flinch from it, not hide it, but embrace it. Because to say that God can be נסתר (hidden) is to say that we find God where we least expect to... including in and through our own spiritual discomfort. 

What are the things you habitually feel the need to hide? What would it feel like to have the safety to be your whole self -- not hiding, not silenced, not compartmentalized, but bringing all of who you are to every moment of your life? What would it feel like to recognize that you are a reflection of the Holy One of Blessing, made in the image and the likeness of God, not despite the things you usually tend to hide but precisely and absolutely in all of who you are?

The Esther story reminds us that there's a time for hiding, and a time for revealing. May we continually keep learning more deeply who we are and who we're becoming: when we choose to conceal ourselves, and when we choose to try on different faces, and when we choose to reveal our splendor and our light. May we be safe -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- when we veil and when we unveil, this Purim and always. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association. 


Dwelling in us


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Responding to fear with prayer and hope

In recent days, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated in St. Louis and in Philadelphia, and bomb threats at Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools are becoming commonplace. (There were 31 such threats on Monday; there have been more than 100 since the secular year began.)

My Facebook feed is filled with posts from friends whose children attend Jewish schools that got bomb threats this week, and friends who are grieving the desecration of the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried or the cemeteries where they provide pastoral care and preside over funerals.

Meanwhile, there was an arson attack on a mosque in Tampa, Florida -- the second such attack in Florida in six months. Four mosques have burned in the last seven weeks. Hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest since 2001. Hate crimes have risen massively, and the list continues growing.

My heart aches. I oscillate between grief and fury. I am not afraid -- I am fortunate enough to feel safe where I live and work and pray -- but I know that those who are more vulnerable than I, who occupy positions of less privilege by virtue of how they look or how they pray or where they live, are very afraid.

I can't do much to shift our national political climate. But I can take action in my own community to stand against hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and to stand with friends of many faiths in affirming that our differences are holy and that we stand in solidarity with each other in times of need.

The Chaplains' Office at Williams College is putting together an interfaith opportunity for prayer and togetherness for next week. We'll begin in the Muslim prayer space on campus, where the Jewish students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by Islamophobia and the fire at the mosque, and then in their sacred space we will say the prayers of our afternoon mincha service. 

Then we'll walk together from there to the Jewish prayer space on campus, where Muslim students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by anti-Semitism and by the cemetery desecrations, and then in our sacred space they will say the prayers of their maghrib sunset worship. 

There are a few things I love about this intention. One is that we will be consciously sharing our sacred spaces with each other, and saying our own late-afternoon prayers in each others' sacred spaces. (And for any participants who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, they'll have an opportunity to respectfully be present and bear witness during a few minutes of prayer in each of those traditions.)

I also love the fact that we'll be praying for each others' wellbeing. Jews will pray for the wellbeing of Muslim communities and sacred spaces (both local and global), and Muslims will pray for the wellbeing of Jewish communities and sacred spaces (both local and global). This shouldn't be a radical act, though today's political climate often mitigates against this kind of basic human connection of love and care.

And I love the fact that we're standing against terror and fear -- against arson and desecration -- against bigotry and hatred -- by coming together in companionship, prayer, and hope. I know that what we do on our small campus in our small town won't change national or global realities, but it might shift our own internal spiritual realities, and the prayerful connections it will strengthen will strengthen us.

 

 

Related news stories:

 


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.

 


What's rising in you? - a d'varling before Tu BiShvat

3241485547_7576e36723_zTonight is the full moon of the month of Shvat, which means that it's Tu BiShvat -- the new year of the trees. (I realize that here at WCJA you'll be celebrating Tu BiShvat next weekend. You get a week-long holiday! But tonight is the full moon -- on some secular calendars it's called the Full Snow Moon.)

Tu BiShvat is the first step toward springtime. I say that with awareness that the world around us does not look much like springtime right now. In Williamstown, mid-February means snow and ice, not soft spring breezes and almond blossoms. For me, that makes Tu BiShvat all the more meaningful, because Tu BiShvat becomes a holiday about hiddenness.

The Jewish mystics have a lot to say about what's hidden and what's revealed, נסתר and נגלה. The world we live in is a world of surfaces, and everything conceals deeper meaning and hidden sparks. On the surface, Tu BiShvat might seem to be about establishing an age for trees so that their fruits can be tithed. That's how the holiday originated, back in Talmudic times. But deep down -- say the mystics -- it's really about the spiritual sap of the universe beginning to rise for the spring to come.

It seems appropriate that this holiday remind us to pay attention to what's unseen. The outside world may be covered with snow, but deep down under the snow the roots of the trees are soaking up the water that will feed the sap that will support next summer's verdant greenery -- at least, that's what Jewish tradition teaches. Our work is to trust in the spring that we can't yet see.

Torah says that human beings are like trees of the field, and we too have hidden undercurrents that aren't always visible to the naked eye. As we move through this midwinter full moon, what is rising in you? What hopes are you nurturing, deep down in your most secret heart? What yearnings are enlivening you, even if you haven't spoken them aloud?

What gifts might you be able to bring to the world by the end of this semester? When the trees have leafed out, all chartreuse and fluttering in the spring breeze -- when the lilac bushes in front of the President's house bloom and scent the spring air -- what new ideas or artwork or music or activism or relationships might you bring into being?

That's what Tu BiShvat is about for me: the sap of our hopes, the sap of our dreams, the sap that will fuel our work in the world. Imagine your feet planted in the earth like roots. Reach deep down into the earth and draw up the sustenance you need. With every beat of your heart, you can draw up more hope, and more of the energy you'll need in order to create.

On the outside, the world looks like winter -- but in the heart of every tree, the first stirrings of spring are rising. This full-moon midwinter Shabbes, celebrate what's rising in you.

 

This is the d'varling -- the short-and-sweet teaching -- that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services.

 


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.)


An Extra Soul - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat at WCJA

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I've been thinking this week about the Torah of new beginnings. It's a new semester, a new beginning for all of you and all of your professors. And tonight marks a new beginning for me, too, the beginning of a new chapter for me at Williams. The poet Jason Shinder teaches, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." Whatever's on your mind can be the text you need to delve into, the lived Torah of your own human experience. What's been on my mind is new beginnings.

And hey, speaking of beginnings, every Friday night we sing a reminder of the creation story:

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת,  לַעֲשׂוֹֹת אֶת הַַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹֹלָם:  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹֹת הִיא לְעוֹֹלָם,  כִּי שֵֽׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְיָ  אֶת הַשָּׁמַֽיִם וְאֶת הָאָֽרֶץ וּבַיּוֹֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִנָּפַשׁ.

"The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant throughout the generations. Between Me and the children of Israel it is an eternal sign, (says God). For in six days, God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was ensouled."

A lot of translations will say "God rested and was refreshed." But I think "was ensouled" is a better translation. When God rested on the seventh day, something happened to the divine Soul. God got more of a soul. God's soul unfolded more fully. Something about Shabbat increased God's soulfulness.

First there was a new beginning -- the ultimate new beginning, the creation! And then God rested and was ensouled. As exciting as new beginnings are, it's not good for us to keep moving forward at their high energy level and frantic pace. Torah's creation story comes to remind us that it's important to take a break.

One of my favorite teachings says that we too receive an extra helping of soul on Shabbat. On Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, remembering in their twin flames the light of creation and the light of the burning bush, we too are "ensouled." We get a נשמח יתרה, an extra soul. (And tomorrow night when we make havdalah, we'll inhale spices as spiritual smelling salts, so we don't faint when our extra soul departs for the week.) 

The beginning of the semester holds all kinds of promise, and all kinds of challenges. It's easy to get caught up in thinking about your classes, your papers or lab projects, all the deadlines marching off into the distance between now and the end of the year. But tonight offers us something different: an opportunity to let go of the work of creating -- even the work of planning to create.

Tonight we get to pause in our work of new beginnings, and be re-ensouled.

An invitation to try something. Put your feet on the floor. Take a deep breath, and imagine the breath filling you all the way up, and all the way down -- from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. Let that breath go, and with it, let go of all of the week's stresses and frustrations. Set aside everything that worries you about the semester now beginning. Take another breath, and let it fill you all the way up again.

That's one way of glimpsing the extra helping of soul Shabbat offers us. Extra breath. Extra breathing room. Room for your heart to expand.

Another way the mystics see that extra soul is that it heightens our ability to yearn and to feel joy. The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov goes a step further and says the extra soul comes into being through our yearnings. Because we yearn, we get an extra soul during Shabbat. Yearning reveals who we most deeply are. What do you yearn for as this Shabbat begins? Get in touch with your yearnings, and your extra soul will unfurl.

May your Shabbat be soulful and sweet -- and enliven you for all the new beginnings, and all the future yearnings, to come.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association during Kabbalat Shabbat services. (I also offered a longer d'var Torah during dinner.)


Exciting news: I'm coming to Williams!

Williams-college_2015-12-01_15-11-26.638Exciting news: this spring, in addition to serving my congregation as their rabbi, I'll have the opportunity of another way to serve -- I'm going to be the interim Jewish chaplain to the College at Williams College, my alma mater!

In 2017 it will be 25 years since I first came to the Purple Valley to attend Williams. One of my first memories of that freshman fall is of going to Friday night dinner and services at the Jewish Religious Center (a.k.a. the JRC).

For the four years I was an undergrad, I was intimately involved with the Williams College Feminist Seder Project. The JRC is where I first met Rabbi David, with whom I now serve as co-chair of ALEPH. I am delighted by the prospect of being able to give back to the campus Jewish community that set me on the path to who and where I am today.

My work at Williams will have (at least) two facets: caring for the college Jewish community (a.k.a. WCJA), and engaging with the multi-faith community on campus. I'm excited about both of these. I'm looking forward to getting to know a new generation of Jewish Williams students and seeing how their Jewish experience at Williams both is and isn't different from the one I remember. And I'm looking forward to working with the Christian, Catholic, and Muslim chaplains on campus -- and with the student faith-communities they serve -- as together we navigate what it means to be people of faith in a multi-faith world at this moment in time.

I will also still be serving Congregation Beth Israel as their rabbi, and that's an honor and a privilege too. I'll still be leading davenen at CBI two Shabbat mornings a month and leading our meditation minyan on Friday mornings, teaching my five b'nei mitzvah students, offering an Introduction to Judaism class on Wednesday evenings, preparing for the round of winter and spring holidays, and offering pastoral care and lifecycle support to the shul community.

I know that there will be challenges in making two halftime jobs dovetail, but I am committed to making it work this spring -- and I'm excited about the possibilities of more closely connecting the synagogue in Northern Berkshire with the campus Jewish community of which I once again get to be a part.