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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's verse 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


Texts to the Holy: now available for pre-order!

TextsThis is a happy week for publishing news around these parts!

A few days ago I shared with y'all about Beside Still Waters, a volume for mourners to be released this spring by Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit: Your Jewish Home (now available for pre-order). Today I'm writing with more delightful Ben Yehuda news!

My next collection of poems -- Texts to the Holy, a collection of love poems to the (divine) Beloved, or to a lower-case-b human beloved, as you prefer -- is coming out soon from Ben Yehuda Press, and is now available for pre-order at an advance price of $9.95. 

I'm starting to schedule readings for this spring. The book will officially premiere at a reading at the Tarrytown JCC (in Tarrytown, NY) at 1:30pm on March 18, where I will appear alongside two other Ben Yehuda poets, Maxine Silverman (author of Shiva Moon) and Jay Michaelson (the pseudonymous author of Is).

Stay tuned for information on other readings (and if you'd like to explore bringing me to your community for some combination of scholar-in-residence event and poetry reading, let me know!)

Meanwhile, here's some advance praise for the collection: 

From Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life and Finding Words:

These poems are remarkable, radiating a love of God that is full bodied, innocent, raw, pulsating, hot, drunk.  I can hardly fathom their faith but am grateful for the vistas they open.  I will sit with them, and invite you to do the same.

From Netanel Miles-Yépez, translator of My Love Stands Behind a Wall: A Translation of the Song of Songs and Other Poems, and co-author (with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) of A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters.

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy bridges the human and Holy, so that we realize the bridge is really just an illusion to get us to realize that the human is itself Holy—“Bless the One Who separates / and bridges. Even at a distance / we aren’t really apart.” And yet, in every honest line, she also comforts us in the uncomfortable knowledge that realization does not exactly bridge the unavoidable separation from That to which we are so close, and that sometimes, “yearning is as close as you get to whole.” The Ba’al Shem Tov or the Aish Kodesh couldn’t have said it better.

(You can see other kind things people have said about the book on my website.)

This collection has a special place in my heart, and I think it's the best work I've put into the world. I hope you'll agree. Pick up a copy now!


Coming in 2018: Beside Still Waters from Bayit and Ben Yehuda Press

UnnamedOne of the things I'm most excited about in the secular new year is a new publishing partnership between Ben Yehuda Press -- the press that published Open My Lips, and will publish Texts to the Holy this spring! -- and Bayit: Your Jewish Home, the new nonprofit organization I recently co-founded with six colleagues and friends.

The first book published jointly by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press will be Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, a volume to support the journey through grief and remembrance, and you can pre-order a copy now.

 

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One of the things I'm already loving about working with Bayit is that the Senior Builders span the denominational spectrum. I serve a Reform-and-Renewal shul; one of my fellow Senior Builders comes from the Conservative movement; another serves in a Reconstructionist context; still another comes from Orthodoxy. We have roots in, and connections to, all of Judaism's major denominations -- as well as to the trans-denominational world of Jewish Renewal. I'm hopeful that those roots and connections will help us collectively meet needs that aren't otherwise being met in the Jewish world. We're beginning our work with three keystone projects -- Publications, “Doorways” (a curated lifecycle resource), and a "Builders' Blog" (exploring how real innovation "works" in the Jewish world) -- and there are others in the pipeline about which I'm equally excited. 


This Publications project arises out of several things that are important to me: serving as a conduit for the flow of Jewish Renewal texts and materials into the world, and the editorial work that was my passion before I entered rabbinical school. I couldn't be more thrilled about this first book that we're bringing to print, and about the fact that it's coming out in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press.  Here's a description of the book:

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal invites a timeless journey both classical and contemporary, spanning illness, death, grief and remembrance.  This volume offers individuals and communities an easy-to-use, emotionally real and textually elegant companion for aninut (between death and burial), shiva (mourning’s first week), shloshim ( first month), yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).  It includes resonant new translations, evocative readings, complete transliterations, and resources for circumstances often overlooked in other Jewish texts (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave, abusive relationships, etc.).

Developed in Jewish renewal’s trans-denominational spirit, Beside Still Waters is crafted for use in synagogues inside and outside the denominational spectrum, in hospitals, chaplaincy and pastoral contexts, funeral homes and home observances.

The volume features contributions from some of my favorite writers, artists, spiritual directors, and liturgists, among them Trisha Arlin, Alla Renee Bozarth, Shir Yaakov Feit, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rodger Kamenetz, Irwin Keller, Rabbi David Markus, and the teacher of my teachers Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l. (Some of my own work also appears in the volume as well.) The full contributor list is online here (and also at the bottom of our book announcement on FB.)

You can pre-order a copy at the Ben Yehuda website, and you can read more about the book via the announcement we just posted on Facebook.

Thanks in advance for sharing my joy!

 

 


The Last Jedi through a Jewish lens

25018104_667783616943227_2857874915250405376_nStar Wars: The Last Jedi was deeply satisfying to me on several levels. I appreciated its feminism, especially in this current political moment when women's leadership has felt devalued in the public sphere. I enjoyed its subversive qualities. And most of all I appreciated what I understand to be the film's implicit theology, which resonates neatly with my own.

(Please note: this post is full of spoilers! If you haven't seen the movie and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading now!)

Luke tells Rey that the Force isn't a tool for lifting rocks or winning wars: it flows through everything, and is available to everyone. The movie wants to make sure we get that, so it offers that teaching in two forms: the pshat (surface) form of Luke flat-out saying so, and the remez (hidden / built-in) form of the discovery that Rey's parents were "nobodies." Rey isn't the next scion of some magical dynasty. She's just a regular person who's attuned to spirit and flow, and by extension, that means that any one of us could be (like) Rey.

This teaching about the Force is pretty close to my understanding of God. Many religious teachers (among them Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers) have offered the caution not to confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself -- not to confuse the pointer for the point, as it were. The Force is "the moon itself." What Luke calls the Force is what I call God, who in the words of the Jewish mystics "fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds." The Jedi tradition in which Luke placed his faith -- and in which Luke lost his faith -- was always only a pointer, never the point.

And Rabbi Luke knew that, at least on some level, because he taught it to Rey: the Force doesn't belong to anyone. On the contrary, it flows through everything and everyone. The core question of hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) as I've been taught to practice it is "where is God for you in whatever's unfolding?" God flows through all aspects of our lives: the things we consider sweet, and the things we experience as bitter. As the Zohar teaches, leit attar panui mineh: there is no place devoid of God. Or in Star Wars' language, there is nowhere that the Force is not -- if we open ourselves to that flow.

For me the tensest moment of the film was when Luke went to torch the ancient tree. I thought of my tradition's great destructions. I cringed to think of ancient texts burning (and was deeply relieved to learn that Rey had pinched them before leaving!) -- in part because there are too many stories of precious Jewish texts and teachings going up in flames, from Roman times to Kristallnacht.

But even when enemies have tried to destroy my tradition (Babylon, Rome, the Nazis, you name it) they've failed, and one of the reasons for their failure is that the tradition is more than our texts, as precious as those texts are to us. The tradition lives in the minds and hearts of those who cherish it. The texts contain endless wisdom for which I am grateful, but they too are the pointer, not the point. And as long as there's someone left to uphold our teachings and study them and learn from them, then our teachings remain alive. As for us, so for the Jedi. 

Luke and Kylo Ren are positioned as opposites, and that's not unreasonable, but (for a while, at least) they align in their desire to forcibly end the old ways. Luke wanted to burn Jedi history in order to wipe history's slate clean of his order and the mistakes that it had (and he had) made. And Kylo claimed he wanted to discard the past -- though given that his ultimate goal was still dominance, I don't think he was destroying the past so much as planning to recreate it in his own image. But both of them missed the point: the way to move forward is to know where and who we've been, flaws and all, and then to build from there.

That too feels to me like a very Jewish idea. Judaism today isn't identical to Judaism of a hundred years ago, or 500 years ago, or 3000 years ago. But neither is it completely discontinuous from what has been. Judaism is perennially renewing itself. I'm hoping that in Rey's hands, and in the hands of those she may someday teach, the Jedi tradition will do the same.

Given the timing of its release, I couldn't help watching the movie through the lens of the Chanukah story. Not the story of the violent rebellion against brutal Greco-Syrian hegemony, but the meta-story of how my tradition chose to valorize the tale of the miracle of the oil that lasted beyond all reason over the tale of that military victory. Because focusing on military might can all too easily lead to more death (like the Bar Kokhba revolt -- or like Poe's ill-advised choice to bring down the star destroyer)... but cultivating hope in dark times can give us the strength to carry on.

And the film ends on a note that resonates perfectly with that miracle-of-the-oil reading: a little kid recounting the story, and using the story to nurture a spark of hope. Hope for better than what exists now. Hope for a world without tyranny, a world of justice and kindness, a world where difference is celebrated and rights and freedoms are universally acknowledged to be the birthright of every living human being. May it come speedily and soon!

 


A woman of valor

A woman of valor! Worth more than
business class tickets to anywhere.
Every day I pack my son's lunch,
tuck his homework into his backpack.

I pay the mortgage. I ensure
my car is legal and fit to drive.
I fold and put away laundry.
I text beloveds who are far away.

I serve, I write, I create.
I teach and accompany and plan.
Every Friday night I light
twin fires of creation and Sinai,

chant sanctity into my wineglass.
When the co-op runs out of challah
I uplift a sandwich roll.
I make holiness from what I have.

Even on days when depression
whispers cruelty in my ear
I cup my hands around gratitude's spark
and I tell my child he matters.

And at the end of the week
I sing myself this song. I promise
I'm enough (but not too much)
and I am beautiful in God's eyes.



There's a tradition of reading Eshet Chayil ("A Woman of Valor") on Friday nights -- traditionally, a man reads or sings it to his wife. (There's a translation online here. I also love In loco eshes chayil by poet Danny Siegel.)

I was working recently on a poem that became a lament for the fact that there is no one to sing those words to me. 

Then I thought, if there were a variant I could speak to myself, as a single woman and a working parent, what would it say? That's what sparked this poem.


Miketz: letting yourself dream

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

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

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

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

(-- Expanded Awareness and Extended Consciousness)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Mikeitz Sketchnote

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

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

Shalom.

And here's his illustration:

25354119_10212948736665127_1047588486772676104_n

 

 

 

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

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


Rabbi Roundtable: "What are Jews, exactly?"

6a00d8341c019953ef01b7c9380f16970b-320wiThis week's edition of the Forward's Rabbi Roundtable asks, "What are Jews? — a race, a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, a nation….?"

I'm glad to see that many of us rejected the possibility of Jews as a "race," for a variety of reasons. I'm intrigued by how many people came up with the metaphor of a family to describe who and what Jews are (and what connects us across our many diversities.)

Here are our answers: Rabbi Roundtable: What are Jews, Exactly?


Light in the darkness

Ark-technology-oil_lamp_open_litEven in times of greatest darkness, when it seems that hope is gone, when you feel tapped-out and drained, when you have no more resources to draw on, when you've done everything you know how to do: don't give up. Do the tiny thing you can do, even if it doesn't feel like enough.

That's the message of the Chanukah story. Not the tale of military victory (which doesn't appear in the Hebrew Scriptures anyway; the books of Maccabees are in some Christian Bibles, but not in ours), but the story of the oil that shouldn't have been enough. The story of the rededication of the Temple, the place where we connected with God. The story of the light that burned in the darkness even after it should have gone out.

The light that burned in the Temple in days of old was supposed to be kept burning all the time. From that comes the custom of the ner tamid, the "eternal light" that burns at the front of every synagogue now. The light (whether oil lamps of old, or today's LED lightbulbs) is meant to remind us of what's truly eternal: God's presence. Our connection with something greater than ourselves. Hope. Love. 

Kindling the eternal light in the Temple when they knew they didn't have enough fuel to keep it burning was arguably foolhardy. But most leaps of faith look that way, until one takes them. And they so yearned to bring light into the world, to rekindle their reminder of divine Presence, that they kindled it anyway... and what shouldn't have been enough, became enough. 

Maybe you're feeling lately like you're not enough. Maybe you're feeling like the world demands strength and perseverance that you can't seem to manage. Maybe you're feeling like the darkness presses in on all sides and will not be defeated. Maybe you're feeling worn-down and hopeless. For personal reasons, or for national reasons, or for global reasons, or all three at once.

Chanukah comes to remind us: don't give up. Don't give in to the voice that says you aren't enough. Do what little you can, even if it doesn't feel like it's enough -- maybe especially if it doesn't feel like it's enough. Make the leap of faith of continuing to try to build a life, a nation, a world that is better than the one we've got now. Start tonight, with one little light -- one tiny flame against the darkness. And tomorrow night there will be two. And the night after that there will be three. 

Of course, it's not really about the candle flames. The literal flames on our chanukiyot are symbols. They remind us of a deeper spiritual truth: that we can bring light. That what we are is enough. That all hope is not lost. That when we can hope for better, we can work for better, and we can take back all of the places that have been desecrated and make them holy once again.

 

Related:

(You can find all of my Chanukah-related posts in the Chanukah category.) 

 


Nava Tehila at the #URJBiennial, and renewal everywhere

24993101_2068187270130664_5904868130532666653_n

A glimpse of where and how I davened on Friday morning.

 

One of the highlights of my URJ Biennial was davening last Friday morning with Nava Tehila.

This is not surprising. Longtime readers of my blog know that davening with Nava Tehila has long been one of my favorite things in the universe, anywhere. Let's see: great music -- check. Deep heart-connection -- check. Awareness of the flow of the matbe'ah (the structure of the service) -- check. Attunement to body and to silence -- check. Balance of contemplative and ecstatic -- check. Davening with Nava Tehila feels like coming home.

I love how they set the worship space up, in concentric circles with space in the middle, a kind of emptiness echoing the ancient holy of holies. I love how Dafna and Yoel work (wherever they are) with a cadre of holy levi'im, musicians who aren't just accompaniment but are part of the active leadership team. I love their melodies and harmonies. And all of these add up to more than the sum of their parts. Every time I daven with Nava Tehila, I come away with my heart and soul feeling recharged, reconnected, and rejuvenated, and my body buzzing from the dancing and the joy.

It was neat to daven with them at a gathering explicitly created by and for Reform Jews, and to see that they don't change what they do in any way based on the denominational identity of the community with whom they're davening. And I know that last week they were at the USCJ, the big gathering of Conservative Jews, doing the very same kind of thing -- and, I'm guessing, meeting with every bit as much joy and enthusiasm and wow! as they heard from the Reform crowd on Friday morning.

When I say that renewal flows through all of the denominations, this is part of what I mean.

Colorful tallitot are everywhere, for instance. Not only the rainbow tallit that Reb Zalman z"l designed so many years ago, each color of the rainbow representing one of the seven "lower sefirot" or aspects of divinity -- though I saw a bunch of those at the Biennial, as I do everywhere! (And I'm guessing most people have no idea who designed that tallit or what its origins are -- though if you're interested, here's the story, which I love knowing.) But the very fact of multicolored tallitot was one of Reb Zalman's innovations in the first place, back in the 1950s. Now they're a natural part of Jewish prayer life almost everywhere. 

And renewal melodies are everywhere. I can't tell you how often I've encountered a liturgical melody by Rabbi Shefa Gold -- come to think of it, we sang one on Friday night at the URJ Biennial before dinner in the ballroom where I was seated! Her melodies are known and sung across the Jewish world (and as with the tallitot, most people may not know where they come from -- it's easy for melodies to seem miSinai, as though we received them with Torah at Mount Sinai.) There are other renewal composers whose work is becoming part of the canon, too, like Shir Yaakov. And, of course, Nava Tehila, who share both their melodies and their way of davening not only in their Jerusalem home but in places they visit around the world.

Beyond the music, renewal modes of davenen (prayer) are everywhere. If you've ever been to a chant-based service, a contemplative service, a service that drew on Jewish meditative or mystical teachings, a service where people danced in the aisles, you've had a brush with some renewal ways of connecting with prayer. (I say "some" ways, rather than "the way," because there is no single way to pray in Jewish renewal. That's why as a renewal rabbinic student I was expected to learn how to lead prayer-ful worship using any prayerbook there is, from full-text to minimalist, across the denominational spectrum... and to pray not only with books and received liturgy but also with silence, and music, and the unfolding prayers of the heart.)

And the flow of renewal continues.  Renewal as it's unfolding now contains elements of what came before, remixed in new ways. I see Svara: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva as part of the flow of renewal. The Institute for the Next Jewish Future, the Jewish Emergent Network, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute are all part of the flow of renewal. (Some of these people and places may self-identify as part of the renewal of Judaism. Others might not choose the term "Jewish renewal" to describe what they do. But they're all part of renewal from where I sit.) Bayit: Your Jewish Home -- the new nonprofit organization I'm co-founding; stay tuned for more on that! -- is part of the flow of renewal. And so are many other places and spaces besides.

Renewal flows through all of the denominations, and in and through post-denominational and trans-denominational spaces, too. As software developers say, this isn't a bug, it's a feature. It isn't an accident or a mistake -- rather, it's part of renewal's core design. Renewal was never meant to be a denomination. Renewal is a way of doing Jewish, a way of approaching Judaism and spiritual life, that can enrich and enliven Jewish practice of all flavors. I've been saying that for years, but there was something extra-special for me (as a rabbi who serves a Reform-and-renewal shul) about living out that belief at the Biennial this year. 

 

Related:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Biennial-bound again

DownloadToday I'm off to the URJ Biennial, the big gathering of the Reform movement. 

The last time I attended a Biennial was 2005 in Houston, Texas. In 2005 I was a baby rabbinical student, only a few months into my first year of study. Now I've been a congregational rabbi for six years (and I served for five years before that as a rabbinic student intern alongside Reb Jeff!) I expect the Biennial is going to be a different experience for me this time around. 

If you want a window into how I experienced the Biennial a dozen years ago, here's the roundup of the 18 posts I made during the 2005 Biennial. The internet was a very different place then. Twitter didn't exist yet. Facebook was a mere eighteen months old. We spoke in terms of the "blogosphere" and the "J-blogosphere" -- terms that make me sound like an internet dinosaur now! I don't know whether I'll blog much from the Biennial, though if something unfolds that feels appropriate to chronicle in this space, I'll do so.

There are a handful of sessions I'd particularly like to attend, and a handful of colleagues I'd particularly like to see. Beyond that, I'm keeping my schedule intentionally open so I can take advantage of whatever opportunities for learning, growth, and networking arise over the course of the next several days. If you'll be at the Biennial, drop me a line and let me know -- perhaps our paths will cross...