Taking note of 17 Tammuz
As Shabbat wanes

Seven jewels from smicha week


On Sunday evening the Nava Tehila folks lead us in singing as we move from a circle around the room into three concentric circles. We sing the faculty in, and then "sing in" those who are already ordained (some of my spiritual direction fellows), and then sing in the rabbinic pastor students and prospective students, and then sing in the cantorial students and prospective students, and then the rabbinic students and prospective students. Each niggun is different and each is beautiful. Then comes "spirit buddy time" -- a chance to connect in triads and talk about who and how and where we are. I talk about gratitude.


In Monday's morning service, we read about Moshe going to the top of the mountain to see the land, and then laying his hands (the original smicha!) on Joshua, who accepts the weight of new responsibility. We have the practice here of doing group aliyot, inviting up to the Torah those who feel called to connect with a particular theme. My dear friend Simcha Daniel calls up for that aliyah those who feel we're on the cusp of taking on new responsibilities which we fear might be too much for us without God's help. Along with many others, I go up to the Torah (hi, impending parenthood) and the aliyah shines. I love hearing the voices of so many of my friends around me.


On Tuesday morning, I learn a new tune written by my dear friend Shulamit, which we use both for Modah Ani (the blessing for gratitude) and for Ashrei. I teach my dear friend David to lay tefillin for the first time, and then I breakfast with more dear friends. By the time I get to my morning class I've already had a full and beautiful day. My classes that day feel almost like the icing on the cake; the davening and the conversations are enough.


One night this week, maariv (evening services ) begin with a meditation led by my friend Nahariyah. She invites us to close our eyes, to go inside, and to notice the voices of our inner critics. Thank them for their input, she advises us, and gently explain to them that during this smicha students' week we have prepared a special place for them, a soundproofed room which will have everything they need. Usher them gently into that room, she urges, and close the door, and draw a curtain over it. Those voices detract from our learning, our prayer, and our ability to be together. We don't need them this week.


I co-lead Wednesday shacharit with two dear friends, Yafa and Aura, both of whom were with me in Jerusalem last summer. We bring some melodies no one has used yet this week -- some Debbie Friedman tunes, accompanied with guitar -- and then shift gears into weekday nusach for the heart of the service, and then close with a tachanun niggun and a poem of mine (a psalm for the day) and a song.

Maybe my favorite moment is the prelude to the "Asher Yatzar" blessing for the body (which moves right into "Elohai Neshama," the blessing for the soul) -- I stand and say, slowly and deliberately, "The miracle of our bodies," and a low murmur of delighted assent moves through the room! During "Mourning into Dancing" [mp3] I see that a friend has been moved to tears.


We sing niggunim (wordless melodies) as mental / emotional palate-cleansers during classes here. It's a great way to clear the air, to transition from one subject to another. But before I came to ALEPH, I'd never imagined a classroom where the teacher and half a dozen students might break into spontaneous circle dance, just because they can.


Four hevruta buddies sit at a small outdoor table in the twilight. Our assignment: to study different versions of the shema al ha-mitah, the bedtime shema, and then to write our own. We read the versions we find in several different siddurim, and Reb Zalman's interpretive translation. We talk about what we find there: the request that God free us from the karmic baggage of our hurts (both those we've inflicted, and those inflicted on us), an expression of forgiveness, an expression of God's oneness, a request for protection as we sleep. We talk about other customs: singing Hamalach ha-goel oti ("The angel who redeems me," part of the blessing Jacob gave to his children) or Reb Shlomo Carlebach's "B'Shem Hashem / Angel Song" (which you can hear here, track 7). And then we craft our own prayer, each of us contributing a line in turn, going around the table again and again until our prayer is done and we all say amen. Our prayer is like a sand mandala: we don't write it down, so it drifts away on the wind.

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