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On blessings and curses (Radical Torah repost)

Kallah: another day in the life

This morning I rode in a golf cart from the dorm where I sleep and eat to the building where classes and services are. My friend who was driving the cart told me he'd only gotten two hours of sleep because he'd been up until 4am singing, telling stories, and sharing Torah with a group of illustrious teachers, and I felt a pang of envy. People were singing and schmoozing and telling teaching stories all night and I wasn't there! But I'm increasingly aware that I can't do everything. If I want to wake up at 6:30 to daven (which I do), then I can't stay up late singing with friends and teachers. Kallah: an exercise in recognizing my own limitations.

I attended Rabbi Jeff Roth's morning service, a sweet chant-based service which consisted of pearls extrapolated from the liturgy. Many of the chants are the same ones I learned from him at my very first retreat at Elat Chayyim back in 2002 (seven years ago -- even before I had started blogging!), so I had a real feeling of having come full circle. He had some beautiful things to say about breath: how God breathed into the dust to create the first human, how we and the trees inter-breathe. Also how God is the breathing-out to our breathing-in, God is the counterpart, the out to our in and in to our out, that which is always before us or opposite us -- which gives new meaning to shviti YHVH l'negdi tamid (Psalm 16:8), usually rendered "I keep God before me always."

Our Torah reading (one short & sweet aliyah) was from the story of Balaam and Balak. It made me chuckle, because two summers ago at week three of DLTI some of my classmates performed a dramatic reading of the Torah text complete with voices and postures -- our Balak wore sunglasses and had a cellphone glued to his ear, our Balaam climbed onto a table and chanted eerily as though she were channeling, and our ass brayed her verses on all fours. I'm not sure that story will ever be the same. (As it happened, my friend who played Balak that year was sitting right next to me during this morning's service, and whispered, "Are you remembering what I'm remembering?" Indeed I was.)

Reb Arthur's Eco-Judaism class began on Tuesday with Biblical texts about the environment, and then moved to Talmud texts about the environment. Today's primary subject was Zionism and the environment. We had a rousing class discussion about the early Zionist paradigm of building the land and being built by it, about whether and how it's possible for the land to become an idol, the interconnection of the Israeli and Palestinian ecosystems, the ethos of development in the era when industrialism was triumphant, and about the question of whether the human race as part of God's creation is willing (and has the good sense) to do the work of preserving God's creation. We also talked about Reb Arthur's Haftarah for the Rainbow Covenant, which sparked a conversation about the difference between primary texts and commentary and what it might mean to write new primary texts today which speak to the big questions. (The text has been translated into Hebrew by Reb Zalman; you can read the English and Hebrew side-by-side in this pdf file.)

I lunched with a friend who's in the process of applying to the ALEPH rabbinic program, and then came to the bookstore to interview Linda Hirschhorn for a future issue of Zeek. I arrived about 20 minutes early, so I sat down on a tiny little couch to read... and fell fast asleep! Apparently even getting a good solid eight hours of sleep a night isn't enough to mitigate the overstimulation of spending time with so many wonderful people, so many conversations, so many experiences rolled into one.

In Reb Burt's afternoon Baal Shem Tov class, we studied an incredible teaching:

Our venerable teacher the Baal Shem Tov interpreted the verse "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) as a commentary on the verse "And you shall love Adonai your God" (Deuteronomy 6:5.) Because each person contains a spark of divinity, when we really see the inner qualities of another person, what we're seeing is the Godliness in them -- so when we love one another, we're really loving God.

His text is framed in particularistic language, which makes sense given his original context. I find that I need to reframe it in universalistic language in order to really access it, but once I do that I find it pretty remarkable. It opened up a terrific conversation about what it means to love God, to love another person, to love even someone who has hurt one or who is difficult for one to deal with, all the way to loving someone who has committed atrocities. Some of us in the room felt that aiming to love someone who has done bad things is either impossible or irresponsible; others felt that this teaching is really valuable and could be personally transformative as a spiritual practice. The class totally energized me, and I sailed through dinner (which I ate with two recent ALEPH musmachim) and chorus rehearsal.

And then I returned to my room, feeling slightly lame for skipping the evening programs but aware that if I fell asleep sitting up on an uncomfortable bench this afternoon, that's my body's way of telling me that I need to rest. Shabbos is coming, after all, and I want to be well-rested enough to stay up late tomorrow night enjoying the singing and dancing... so it's a quiet night for me! Another chock-full day at the 2009 Kallah.

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