Middot through text and practice
July 17, 2007
"Stand where you are and serve in love: refining our middot through text and practice" was the second class I took at smicha students' week, taught by Rabbi Elliot K. Ginsburg (a.k.a. Reb Elliott, with whom I had the deep pleasure of spending Yom Kippur a few years ago) and Rabbi Shohama Wiener (Reb Shohama, the head of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah/spiritual direction program). As the syllabus explains,
The physicist Neils Bohr once said that the opposite of a simple truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. In our spiritual lives we are often called to balance opposing truths: the need to cleave to those we love and to let go; as Jews to simultaneously embody Yisrael (one who wrestle with God) and Yehuda (one who practices gratitude); to be open to moments of breakthrough and to cultivate the slow, subtle movement of soul. In this course, we will explore some key psycho-spiritual moments in the life of the spirit, drawing on classic kabbalistic and hasidic texts.
Middot can be hard to explain. The term "middah" literally means "measure," and middot are at once divine qualities or attributes, and attributes / qualities / character traits of the human soul. (Here's one list of middot, drawn from Pirkei Avot.) In this class we looked at the spiritual practice of refining our middot -- a theme that runs both through our texts and our lives.
Themes [of the class] include: tsubrokhnkeit, breaking open the heart and keeping the heart open when it isn't being smashed open; discerning what is being birthed and what is dying; and when to leap and when to attentively wait -- how in short to work with the ratzo va-shov, the ebb and flow of the holy spirit. We will also explore some practices of spiritual friendship, and key teachings on anger and equanimity, forgiveness, and self-acceptance / self-worth.
All that in five short days. (No, really.) It was a pretty amazing week.
Beforehand we'd been asked to read selections from Rabbi David Cooper's God is a Verb, and also Alan Morinis' Everyday Holiness: the Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. (Find Alan online at Mussar.org, if this kind of thing interests you. I hope to blog more about the Morinis book when I've had more time to assimilate its teachings.)
Once we arrived, we were handed a "short packet" of 84 delicious pages -- excerpts in Hebrew and English from Hasidic texts, folktales, Talmud, poetry (James Wright to Jane Kenyon -- side note, how much do I love a religion professor who also grooves on poetry?), the Degel Mahaneh Efraim (R. Moshe Hayyim Efra'im of Sedelikow, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov) and Reb Nachman of Breslov, Martin Buber and Mordechai Yosef Leiner (the Ishbitzer Rebbe)...and we danced and learned our way through most of the packet over the course of the week.
We also spent time learning in hevruta, meditating on middot cards, and entering into some teachings in an embodied way. (The practice built around holy waiting and holy leaping was incredibly powerful, in a way I'm not even sure I can describe.)
There's no way I can transcribe what we studied or how it's percolating in me even now. Here, instead, are some gleanings. This is in no way a comprehensive list or record of where we went in this class! It's just a handful of the teachings I treasure, filtered through my own idiosyncrasies, who I am and where I am at this moment in time.
A beloved definition of Hasidism: working on yourself. Hasidism is reflecting who you are in the world.
Classical Jewish interpretation is a process of continual revelation. We take the diamond of one pasuk (verse) and use it to cut another pasuk, revealing new facets that shine.
The B'nai Yisaschar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov, b. 1783) writes that to be a Jew is to be dedicated to two dimensions of being, soul-breath and world. When we pray "Nishmat kol khai / the breath of all life blesses You," we're working in the dimension of soul-breath/neshamah. When that prayer continues "min ha-olam ad ha-olam atah El / from world to world, You are God," that's the dimension of world/olam. We, Yisrael, are enjoined to heal the worlds on both of these levels. (And the gematria of Yisrael is equal to the gematria of neshamah plus olam -- soul plus world. The inner and the outer, the soul and the world: we have to work on both levels, that's who we are.)
The light of the divine is veiled so it doesn't blow out our circuits. Through middot practice, we take off our veils to manifest our true selves; and God veils God's self in order that we can apprehend God; and we meet in the middle.
The word ונתנו (v'natnu), "and they gave," is a palindrome. When
we expand our consciousness, we naturally give...and also receive, too. The flow comes from both directions.
Abulafia wrote that our lives are a knot in the rope of eternity, and then we untie and merge back into the cosmos.
In Ezekiel 1:14 we read about that the holy creatures (hayyot) wax and wane (ratzo va-shov) -- וְהַחַיּוֹת, רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב But hayyot can also be read as hiyyut, life-force -- which teaches us that life's energy is always waxing and waning, coming and going, going forth and returning. Spiritual life never holds still.
We see this also in the story of the sulam, Jacob's ladder -- the angels in his vision ascend and descend continually. Consciousness goes up and down; we can't stand still on a single rung. See the Hasidic notion of descending for the sake of ascent -- we draw down shefa (divine flow / abundance) and then help lift things back up. "Shift happens."
Nothing lasts forever. What enables us to love is also what makes us ache.
God is a moving target Who eludes the net of our language and our longing.
Sinai was a moment of expanded awareness, bringing together the binaries of birth and death, gain and loss. But this happens not only at Sinai; it's a perennial truth, a perennial happening.
The practice of being Torah allows us to be both whole and broken, like the two sets of tablets carried in the Ark.
"If we could hang all our sorrows on pegs and were allowed to choose those we liked best, every one of us would take back his own, for all the rest would seem even more difficult to bear." -- Hasidic teaching, per Martin Buber
It is useful to choose a short text, copy it out, and literally carry it with one -- in one's pocket or wallet, always at-hand. Take it out and read it. See how it changes as you live with it. See how you change as you live with it.
When to wait and when to move: this is a fundamental question in the tradition and in our own lives. The Israelites left Egypt before their bread dough had time to rise; leaping is important. But just so is pausing, reflecting, holding still. That's what we do every Shabbat.
Spiritual life knows both moments of intense soaring, and the more subtle movements of slow deepening. We need both of these, the blaze of kindling and the slow simmer of the coals. As Reb Nachman of Breslov has written, "More than God wants the straw fire, God wants the well-cooked heart."
Right now we're in a period of breached walls, shattered trust -- bein ha-meitzarim, in the narrow straits of the Three Weeks. Working with our own brokenness now allows us to do the work of teshuvah during Elul.
"There is nothing as whole as the broken heart." -- Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
"The broken heart is the open heart." -- HaBaD teaching
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said to his sons: Have care for an old person who has forgotten his/her learning under duress. For we say: Both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 8b)
Talmud tells us, on the matter of the taharah / tumah (purity / impurity) of earthen vessels, that an earthen vessel which has become impure can be purified by being broken and glued back together again. Tradition teaches that we too are earthen vessels, adam made from adamah. What does this tell us about our own brokenness and wholeness?
Once a seeker asked Yehuda Amichai how to become a poet, and he replied that if the seeker could do anything else besides poetry, he should do so. But if he couldn't bear not-writing, then nu, he should write. How true this is also of our spiritual work.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that each of us has a unique voice. We must each find that true voice in order for moshiach to come.
I offer deep thanks to both Reb Elliot and Reb Shohama, for guiding us into some deep and powerful material. This class was valuable on so many levels: practical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual. I know this course will continue to resonate within me for a long time to come.