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On blessings and curses (Radical Torah repost)

The second of this week's Torah portions is Balak. Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this parsha back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

"Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness."

Earlier in the parsha (parashat Balak), we learned that Balak was agitated to see the Israelites -- victors in war against the Bashanites -- encamped beside him. They were so numerous, Torah tells us, that they hid the earth from view. (I imagine a valley, sage and scrub, blanketed with people and goats and tents.) So he hired Balaam, talented with curses, to curse these new and warlike neighbors so that they might go away.

Curses one and two have failed, and now Balaam turns his face to the wilderness. He turns his back on Balak and regards the desert, the empty place where God is easy to find. Often in Torah, revelation is found not among the teeming throngs of civilization but b'midbar, in the wild place of the desert, and this is where Balaam looks for guidance.

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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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Choice and change (Radical Torah repost)

This week we're reading a double Torah portion. Here's the d'var Torah I wrote in 2007 for the first of this week's portions, originally published at Radical Torah (which appears, once again, to have disappeared.)

In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers some striking insights into this week's Torah portion of Chukat, riffing off of the first verse in the parsha, "This is the law of the instructed-ritual that YHVH has commanded, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, that they may take you a red cow, wholly-sound, that has in it no defect, that has not yielded to a yoke[.]'" (Numbers 19:2, transl. Everett Fox.) Levi Yitzchak writes:

In our world, it appears to us as if we were created to engage in the things of this world. But in truth, that is not the case. The primary reason that we were created was so that we might come to recognize the unity of the Holy Blessed One...

That is the sense of "This is the law of the Torah:" there are mitzvot that reason compels us to perform. When we do them, we do not sense so strongly that we are performing them because the Creator commanded these mitzvot. That is why the Blessed Creator gave us commandments that reason does not comprehend. When we do them, we more readily recognize that we do them only because of God's commandment.

It's easy to understand why ethical commandments are important. How we treat one another matters. But ritual commandments, especially ones (like the red heifer) which don't make much sense -- those can be harder to cherish. For Levi Yitzchak, the illogic of a chok (a commandment which can't be made to fit our sensible paradigm) is precisely what makes it important. In accepting the chukim, we accept the "yoke of heaven" and acknowledge God's sovereignty.

There's something beautiful about that. It affirms that there are things in this vast universe which are beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. That life isn't all about us. That, as Levi Yitzchak writes, we were created for an ineffable purpose -- recognizing the fundamental unity of infinite God! All of our strivings and disagreements and philosophical ruminations are not the point. Performing chukim has an impact on our spiritual awareness. They're devotional practices, not intellectual exercises.

There's also something difficult about it. The red cow becomes a kind of red flag. Maybe especially for women, who may feel that we are always already trying to break free from the expectation that we will submit ourselves to priorities which come from someone else. The world is too full of hierarchy and power-over, and siting ourselves in a position of submission to incomprehensible mitzvot can feel like another iteration of the same old song and dance.

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This week's portion: water from the rock


When Miriam died    there was no water
the wadis dried up    the springs didn't flow

as though the desert    were mourning her passing
her living waters    blocked by stone

we thirsted for wisdom     we drank salt tears
we ripped our robes    and wailed for the Black Land

all Moshe could imagine    was striking the rock
the water he called forth    was chalky and tasteless

not like Miriam's melodies    not like her dance
when our feet wove grapevines     and our hearts were bells

This week we're reading two Torah portions: Chukkat and Balak. The Torah poem I wrote this week comes out of the first of those portions, Chukkat, which contains the death of Miriam, sister of Aharon and Moshe. The recounting is simple: "Miriam died there and was buried there," Torah tells us, and adds immediately "The community was without water..."

From this juxtaposition, this week's Torah poem was born. Miriam is often midrashically connected with water. A story holds that a well followed the Israelites in their wanderings through the desert. Filled with mayimei chayyim, waters of life, the well renewed all who drank from it. When Miriam died, her well disappeared. Torah is often described with the metaphor of an ever-flowing wellspring. God, too, is sometimes known in this way: as Source of Life (in a desert climate surely this denotes water) or as the Wellspring of all that exists. So it's possible to see Miriam as deeply connected with Torah and with insight.

Because the Israelites have no water, they turn on Moshe and Aharon. God tells Moshe to speak to a rock and it will yield water; Moshe strikes the rock instead. It does yield water, but God is incensed, and tells Moshe that he will not be able to enter the promised land. Generations of commentators have struggled with the question of what exactly Moshe did wrong. Is it that he slightly shifted God's commandment? Is it that he related to the rock with violence instead of with gentleness? One way or another, it's a fascinating literary moment in the Israelites' wilderness story.

So this week we remember Miriam. What does she represent for you?


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Tefillin davening

I went this morning to an incredibly sweet service led by my friend Simcha. The service was designed to highlight the mitzvah of tefillin, which I first took on when I turned thirty.

We entered the little chapel on the third floor of the student center (big windows painted with stained-glass patterns) to the sound of Simcha and her husband Reb Shawn singing "Kamti ani liftoach l'dodi / I will open to You, my Beloved / Will you open, open to me?" in a beautiful two-part round. Then Simcha spoke briefly about tefillin. She talked about how the line we recite while wrapping around the hand (from Hosea: "I betroth you to me forever, I betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy...") is sometimes written in English with a capital-Y You (so: it's us speaking to God) and sometimes written in English with a capital-M Me (so: it's God speaking to us.) The Hebrew, of course, connotes both at once. There's a reciprocity, Simcha said; tefillin call us to awareness of the reciprocal relationship of love between us and the universe.

We looked at some of the traditional texts related to donning tefillin (which you can find in the Artscroll siddur on pp 6-7.) Simcha talked about the texts in the box of the arm-tefillin and the head-tefillin, which remind us of God's unity, of the relationship of love between us, and also of how God brought us out from slavery in order to be in relationship with God. The arm-tefillin are next to the heart to remind us of the centrality of our loving relationship with God. We bind them on the hand to sanctify the work of our hands, and we bind them on our foreheads, near the seat of our consciousness, in order that the soul which is within our consciousness might be aligned with divine will. And after telling a few stories about her own relationship with the practice (and acknowledging that this, like every spiritual practice, ebbs and flows in our lives -- but, Simcha said, tefillin is a practice which calls us back to relationship) we returned to song.

I helped two women put on tefillin for the first time, showing them how I learned to wrap the binding around my arm and hand. Together we recited the blessing. All over the room were little clusters of people like us, gesturing and wrapping amid the buzz of low conversation. And then we davened a short morning service. After modah ani (the blessing for gratitude) we sang a line from psalm 42: "K'ayal ta'arog al afikay mayim, ken nafshi ta'arog elecha elohim (As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for You)," which is a beautiful expression of longing for the relationship which the tefillin represent. The service itself was lovely; I was especially moved by the chanting of the ahavah rabbah blessing, which speaks of God's love for us. Most of the room chanted one line over and over in impromptu harmony while Simcha chanted the English translation over the top.

After the service I had the chance to chat briefly with a few people, and then came to class, where I spent 15 minutes or so doing "spirit buddy" time (one-on-one connection, talking about where we are and how we're doing) with a friend, and then it was time to begin Eco-Judaism class! From one gem in the setting of the morning to the next.


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