Mother poem: croup
Morning prayer, on retreat and after

The Torah of our Mothers: Reb Zalman, Shavuot 5770, 4am

My favorite thing about Shavuot is the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the celebratory all-night study session. We stay awake and learn Torah all night because we don't want to accidentally sleep in and miss the anniversary of the revelation -- and because the kabbalists of Tzfat used to teach that a special influx of Torah insight and divine blessing is available in the middle of the night, and all the more so when we're studying on Shavuot eve. It's one of my favorite forms of Judeo-geekery. I just love the fact that we celebrate one of the year's major festivals by learning all night long.

Of course, this year there was no way I was staying up all night, even given the amazing line-up of teachers scheduled at the Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman. I have a six-month-old, and sleep is a precious commodity in my life! Not to mention, I couldn't go gallivanting off to study Torah all night and leave Drew alone in the room, since he still wakes to nurse pretty frequently (especially when we're on the road.) On the first night of the retreat I put Drew to bed at 8pm, an hour after his usual bedtime, and -- regretfully -- I put myself to bed not all that long thereafter.

But we did make it to Reb Zalman's shiur (lesson), which was at 4am, followed immediately by sunrise services at five. As it happened, Drew was up to nurse at 3ish and I had trouble getting him back to sleep, so I put him in the stroller in his pyjamas and we headed over to the main building. He spent the next hour and a half or so in the stroller with the umbrella hood pulled over him and my raincoat thrown over that to keep his little enclosure nice and dark; I rolled him around the back of the room, slowly, and he slept through Reb Zalman's whole talk.

Reb Zalman's teaching was beautiful. He began with Mishlei (Proverbs) 1:8 -- " שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּך / Shema, bni, mussar avicha, v'al titosh Torat imecha. / Hear, my son, the mussar (self-improvement teachings) of your father, but don't forget the Torah of your mother." That was his big theme, though he divagated from it and then returned repeatedly, each time turning it over to show a new facet of what it might mean.

I wasn't taking notes during his shiur, so what follows is an incomplete recounting of what Reb Zalman said. With that disclaimer, here are some of the ideas which stuck with me.

Once upon a time, he reminded us, we used to go to Jerusalem for the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals. In those days, we understood that Jerusalem was the place to connect with God: not so much to see God as to be seen by God. He offered some wordplay on the word yirah, usually rendered as "fear" or "awe," which can also be creatively read as "being seen." So when the tradition tells us to have yirat Shamayim ("fear of heaven,") that doesn't necessarily mean we ought to feel afraid of God but rather that we should know ourselves to be seen by God.

That led him to a story about a Sufi master who had twenty disciples, each of whom wanted to succeed him. The master gave them each a bird and instructed them to go someplace where no one could see them and to kill the bird and then return and he would give them the next set of instructions. Nineteen of the twenty returned with dead birds in hand, but one of them returned with his bird still alive. When the master asked why he hadn't followed the instruction, he replied "I couldn't find any place where no One could see me!"

Reb Zalman hit some of the themes I've heard and read from him before: normative halakha versus illustrative halakha, paradigm shift, the need for a new cosmology and a new ethics which arises out of that new cosmology, how seeing the earth from space changes our perspective on who we are, the need to relate to one another as cells in the body of Gaia, how each religion is like an organ in the body of humanity (each organ needs to have its own integrity but also to communicate with the others in the system), how even within Judaism we can understand ourselves organismically (one part of our community is like the spine which keeps us straight; another part of our community is all heart; and so on.) Ultimately he brought all of this back to teachings about the mussar of our father and the Torah of our mother.

When I heard the phrase "the Torah of our mother," I immediately thought of how over the last few decades we've been adding women's voices to the tradition: female halakhists, female midrashists, the perspectives and stories of Jewish women which were for so long absent from the recorded tradition. But it turned out that Reb Zalman meant something deeper than just this. He talked about masculine consciousness, which is punctive (formed of points on a line), and feminine consciousness which takes slow change into account. (Both men and women can have each of these, of course.) Feminine consciousness understands, e.g., that a baby of six months has different needs than a baby of one week. In this era we need that kind of feminine consciousness, that kind of awareness of how our community's spiritual needs have shifted over time as we have changed and grown. We need the Torah of our mothers, and that's what he urged us to seek to receive at this anniversary of the revelation of Torah at Sinai.

On the Sinai front, Reb Zalman spoke about the Torah which comes down from above at Sinai, and the Torah which rises up from within at Sinai. There's the Torah which comes down like rain (this is a bit of wordplay, since the word "Torah" comes from an archery root and is related to the word for a kind of driving rainfall), and the Torah which rises up like dew. Dew in our tradition is a symbol for divine grace, unmerited but plentiful, and he linked dew with the Torah of our mothers as well as the Torah of our mother planet. We need to receive and be open to the Torah of our mother in this era, in order that someday we may be able to read both the black fire of the letters of Torah and the white fire of the spaces between them, to see and to value both figure and ground.

At that point I thought of Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood Together" -- both because of the motif of black fire / white fire, masculine wisdom / feminine wisdom which Feld's poem and Reb Zalman's remarks share, and because the poem is about how women were at Sinai too but weren't able to write our experience down because we were always holding the baby, and that's where I've been at during this retreat myself. (Which is new for me; as you may have gathered from my copious Elat Chayyim blogging over the years, I usually keep a notebook in my tallit case so I can jot things down constantly while I'm here.) Being here with Drew in my arms, instead of with a notebook in hand, has been a fascinating exercise. When I think of it as being in the moment, I appreciate it; when I think of the notes I wish I'd taken, and the things I know I'm already forgetting, I feel some chagrin.

From Reb Zalman's shiur we moved directly into our morning davenen -- he sent a messenger outside to report on whether the morning star was visible, and when it was, we began to sing and to pray. Drew woke up shortly after we started praying. I moved in and out of the service, sometimes holding him in my arms, sometimes pushing him in the stroller, sometimes nursing him on a couch in the adjacent room, sometimes wearing him in a didymos wrap on my chest with both of us enfolded beneath the big rainbow-striped tallit I recently inherited from my sister (who had no idea it was a Reb Zalman-designed Bnai Or tallit when she used it as her chuppah 25 years ago!)

In the late afternoon, I ran into a friend from a previous retreat who asked me to tell her about Reb Zalman's talk, which she had missed because she needed sleep at that hour. I had taken a few moments while Drew catnapped before breakfast to jot down the outline of the above reflections, so I did my best to report it to her. She thanked me -- and told me that she had made the same request of several other people and that no two of us had told her the same things! She mentioned a few things that other people had chosen to recount, and as she listed each one I realized that yes, he spoke about that, too. It was a wonderful blind-men-and-the-elephant moment -- realizing that what each of us takes away from a Reb Zalman lecture says a lot about who we are and what Torah we each need to receive.

All in all, the Shavuot retreat was pretty terrific. I was mildly frustrated that I missed some evening programming because of Drew's bedtime. But that's a pretty minor complaint (and has more to do with my life right now than with the retreat per se.) It was a real blessing to be able to be there with Drew, to introduce him to so many of my rabbinic school teachers and friends, to see him receive a blessing from Reb Zalman, and to experience for myself the blessing of Reb Zalman's early-morning teachings while my son slept in the stroller.

I love knowing that someday I'll be able to say to Drew, "You don't remember it, but the first Shavuot of your life I took you to Isabella Freedman, and we woke up at three in the morning to hear Reb Zalman teach..." And there was something very powerful about hearing Reb Zalman's teaching on the Torah of our mothers at this moment when I am so immersed in discovering the Torah of my own motherhood.