Book review: Service of the Heart
Buon giorno, Sicilia!


We did it again! The tikkun leyl Shavuot I orchestrated at my synagogue lasted until dawn, like last year. Over the course of the night there were some surprisingly transcendent moments, and though I'm entirely exhausted now, it feels terrific to have fully celebrated the holiday when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the foundational covenant moment of the Jewish people.

We began the night with an evening service at eight pm. Five of us were there: Jeff (the rabbi), Joanne (the congregational president), Marc (a retired writer and editor), Darlene (a poet, who you might remember from my post about the chevra kadisha), and me. I think we were probably all concealing anxiousness about our low numbers. Last year we began the night with about twenty people, and dwindled to five as dawn approached. What would happen this year, with only five at the start of the night? My intention was to accept and enjoy what is rather than bogging myself down in expectations; the low attendance was my first challenge in that regard.

Below the fold: descriptions of all of the lessons we taught (don't miss the ketubah text we wrote in the middle of the night!), links aplenty, the astonishing arrival of dawn, and some sleep-deprived ruminations on what Shavuot means.


At nine the study began. Joanne taught a fascinating lesson about the history of the Reform movement in America, beginning with the first Jews in New Amsterdam (who weren't permitted a synagogue but were grudgingly granted a burial ground), continuing through the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the birth of Zionism in the 1890s (fascinatingly, it was seen at the time as antithetical to the Reform movement's universalist principles), the formation of the Free Synagogue by R. Stephen Wise, the first woman ordained as a rabbi, and on up to the present day. Our synagogue has only been affiliated Reform for five years, so this was neat stuff to learn about.

Then Jeff taught a lesson entitled "God's Spokesman: The Tricky Relationship Between God and Moses on Mount Sinai." We read Exodus 19 together, exploring what the text tells us about how God and Moses interact; then we read four (related) midrashim from Midrash Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud. My favorite was the short one from (Talmud) tractate Shabbat 89a, in which Moses ascends on high and finds the Holy Blessed One affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah (e.g. embellishing the calligraphy of the scroll). Moses enters silently, and God chides him, "Moses, is there no greeting of shalom in your town?" When Moses apologizes, God responds, "You should have lent Me some help in my work." Moses promptly declares, "Now may the power of Adonai be great, as God has spoken." I like the sense here that God is looking not for a subservient student, but for a partner in the work of creating Torah...and I like how Moses responds, by adding his voice and prayer to God's enterprise.

Darlene's first lesson was an "experiential" one which drew on Jeff's teaching: she unpacked a canvas tote bag of art supplies, and gathered us around a piece of beautiful heavy vellum paper to collaborate on creating an artistic representation of the relationship between God and Moses. We decided to depict Moses going up (or down) the mountain, and digressed into a fascinating discussion of where God is (everywhere, we decided, though most concentrated atop Sinai at the moment of revelation). We made the mountain of tissue paper and sand, represented the Israelites by tiny rhinestones and God's presence by glitter, and made Moses' path from pebbles pressed into clay. I think I can safely say that none of us had ever incorporated glitter or glue into our Shavuot observances before.

Next, under Marc's tutelage, we took a short while to consider and write down a short description of a moment when we had each felt intensely connected with Judaism, and then shared those with one another. Everyone's stories were deeply moving and personal, and the act of speaking them to each other was powerful.

I taught two lessons over the course of the night. My first arose out of the interpretation that Shavuot is a wedding anniversary, marking the union of our people with God. We looked at several versions of what goes into a standard ketubah (Jewish wedding contract) -- Orthodox and Reform and several variations thereupon. We talked about the elements that make up a ketubah, and then we worked together on writing a ketubah for our relationship with God. What do we promise to the One, the All, our Source? What are we promised in return? What are the fundamental tenets of our relationship? The text we came up with is as follows:

On the tenth of Sivan, this year and every year, the Bridegroom (God) said to the bride (the Jewish people): Anochi Adonai Elohechem. I promise you a life imbued with the possibility of meaning and redemption (the transformation of suffering into meaning).

The bride replied: I will love You with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might. I will be perennially conscious of Your presence (even on the days when that takes an act of will). I commit to being in relationship with You, to pursuing (acting on) צדק/justice/right action.

The entire Jewish community, past, present, and future, serves as witnesses.

We closed that lesson by reading this Sephardic ketubah le-Shavuot by the medieval Tzfat-based mystic and poet Israel Najara.

Darlene's second lesson was on the Ten Commandments (well, that's their usual name in English; we spent a while talking about how the Hebrew term aseret dibrot means something more like "ten sayings" or "ten utterances.") After a brief exploration of the different ways that different traditions number them, we discussed what these precepts are and what other items we might add to the list if, as one midrash claims, there was once a third tablet which Moses broke on his way down the mountain. We spent a lot of time on the first statement, "I, Adonai, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage," because it's the least commandment-like of the bunch. (We concluded that it's the statement of first principles from which the other statements derive). To the traditional list we added a few of our own: one about protecting the earth, one about honoring our children, one reminding us not to turn ourselves into idols by believing we're capable of perfection, one reminding us not to turn the Torah or the mitzvot into idols either, and one exhorting us to love ourselves.

My second lesson focused on tehillim (psalms). I began by reading a short passage from the Shavuot chapter in Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary:

Because tradition holds that King David was born and died on Shavuot, some people have the custom of reading the Book of Psalms, which was attributed to him. But the connection between the psalms and Shavuot is deeper than biography and legend. David's psalms reflect the mystical side of the Sinai experience, a side too often lost sight of in the preoccupation with Torah. Torah is only the more concrete dimension of the experience; the revelation of God, the divine being, is the spiritual/mystical one...

As later Judaism came to lay great stress on the mitzvot in all their detail, it became easy to think of Torah as a point ssytem for collecting merit badges from the Great Scoutmaster in the sky. In such a system, it is easy to forget that the real purpose of the mitzvot is to help us "to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" and to maintain a covenant with the living God....The psalms are a response to the revelation of God's presence and seek to continue the interaction that occurred at Sinai between the Eternal and the human. To counterbalance a night of studying Torah, then, it is important to read the Book of Psalms and thereby remember why we were given the Torah and by whom.

With that introduction, we spent a while reading and praying and discussing psalms, both Biblical and contemporary. First we dove deep into psalm 19 (here it is in Hebrew, and here in only slightly antiquated English), taking turns paraphrasing its sentiments aloud in our own words and speaking them to God through each others' ears. This is a davvening technique I learned at Elat Chayyim, and every time I've done it I've been blown away by the power of the experience.

The packet I assembled contained three versions of Psalm 19: the JPS translation, a variation by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, and a related poem by Ruth F. Brin. We used the JPS version in our prayer exercise, and decided that speaking the psalm from our own hearts had been so moving that we didn't want to read the other variants just then. Instead we discussed about half of the packet: the poems by Hafiz, Jane Kenyon, Debbie Perlman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marge Piercy.  You can read the whole handout here -- I had queried my friends and colleagues on WOM-PO for suggestions of poems to include, so posted the final handout to the list as a way of saying thankyou.

Back before Pesach, when we first discussed this year's tikkun, Jeff consulted his Palm Pilot and told me that, halakhically, "first tallit" on June 13th at our latitude (e.g. the first moment of approaching dawn when it would be appropriate to don prayer shawls for morning prayer) would be at 4:04am. When my psalm lesson ended, it was four in the morning! Jeff and Darlene and I stood outdoors for a few moments, listening to the morning calls of birds and the banjo-string sounds of the frogs in the marsh under the willow tree, before sitting down in the sanctuary for a festival service. It felt good to sing and read the psalms of Hallel after our psalm studies...and because Hallel is read on Passover too, and this year I celebrated the Festival services of Passover for the first time, I felt the connection between the two festivals all the more strongly.

We didn't have a minyan for the Torah reading, and by the end of Hallel our bodies were flagging, so we decided we would each read the Book of Ruth at home on our own time today. With hugs and handshakes and thankyous we left the synagogue; I drove home in the early morning mist.

Shavuot, Jeff posited last night, is a victim of its own simplicity. Alone among the pilgrimage festivals Shavuot is often ignored by American Jews, maybe because there's no dramatic observance attached to it. At Passover we reenact the Exodus in our seders; at Sukkot we reenact the harvest rituals of our people; but how can we reenact the revelation of God's teaching at Sinai? How can we recreate the moment when all the Children of Israel (and all of their descendants, now and forever) heard the voice of God, an experience that's fundamentally beyond what language can describe?

Maybe we can't recreate it exactly, but spending the night studying Torah -- studying, in Arthur Waskow's terms, "words which aim toward wisdom" -- strikes me as a beautiful way of celebrating our understanding of God, our sense of ongoing relationship with ultimate reality, and the text that our community cherishes as the sign of who we are. Happy Shavuot to all who are celebrating it today! May our awareness of revelation never cease.

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