Glimpses of the Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton
August 18, 2014
Arriving back at this OMNI gives me a peculiar sort of Brigadoon feeling. Even though I know that my hevre (beloved study-friends) have been geographically scattered since we last met, when I return here and they are here too, it feels as though this place and this community have just been waiting for me to walk in again. The moment I walk in the door, I see people I know and love all over the lobby, chatting and checking in and hanging out, and it feels like home.
I knew that our community would continue long beyond Reb Zalman's time on this plane. I have been certain of this for years -- at least intellectually. And yet there's something in me which needed proof; needed to feel that the connections of our community are as real as they ever were, even though he is gone. Being together, remembering him together, matters so much to me right now.
It is wonderful to be here. And yet I see Rebbetzin Eve (Ilsen) walking through the lobby and it's still hard to believe that Reb Zalman isn't walking beside her. The sweet and the heart-clenching, all in one moment.
The bracelets we're given at registration, which we will need to wear in order to get into the Sunday "A Heart As Big As The World" event at the Boulder theatre, are not flimsy fluorescent-colored plastic like the wristbands I've received in other places. These are made of what feels like recycled paper, nubbly and rough. Then I realize that they are made of handmade paper which contains wildflower seeds. The idea is that we will each take our bracelet home, plant it, and come up with wildflowers. This feels like ALEPH in a nutshell -- sweet, lovely, a little bit orthogonal to the way most people do things, not only eco-conscious but striving to bring more beauty into the world.
Rabbi Arthur Green (or "Reb Art," as he has asked us to call him) begins the weekend with a beautiful teaching about the shema. First he tells us that if his Torah sounds familiar and like Reb Zalman's in many ways, it's because over the decades of their friendship Reb Zalman's Torah became part of him. (After Reb Zalman's earthly deployment ended, Reb Art wrote a beautiful piece about his relationship with Zalman -- My mentor, teacher, dear friend.)
The shema, he points out, isn't a prayer, because it has no atah, no You. It's not spoken to the One, there's no I/Thou interaction. In the shema, everything is One; there's no "us" and "God," there's just the unity of all things. Atah, he notes further, is spelled aleph-tav (the first and last letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet -- what in Greek would be the alpha and omega) and heh, which is the letter of breath and of Shekhinah. Put those together and you get atah, connoting "from beginning to end, enlivened with spirit"!
But the shema has no atah. What it has is unity. And the first line of the shema is sandwiched between the love-prayer of ahavah rabbah / ahavat olam ("a great love," "an eternal love," which our liturgy teaches God has for us), and the love-prayer of the v'ahavta ("And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart..."). Love leads us to oneness; oneness leads us back to love.
The final paragraph of the shema speaks of tzitzit, the fringes which are intended to remind us of the mitzvot. Reb Art notes that tzitzit is a feminine word, but in the paragraph we chant daily we say the words u'ritem oto, "you shall look upon (masculine) it." It, or perhaps him, not her. (I usually gloss over that when I sing the rendering in English.) So what is the oto on which we're meant to look, if not the tzitzit? His answer is -- God. And he gives us the image of holding up the tzitzit like fringes in a curtain: we're on one side looking at God, and God's on the other side looking at us.
At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat, Rebbitzen Eve leads us in an imaginal exercise of filling our innermost hearts with light and then sharing that light with a loved one, and then she kindles the Shabbat lights. She also leads us in a shehecheyanu -- an extraordinary moment of bittersweet celebration. I don't think anyone else would have had the chutzpah to suggest reciting that blessing which thanks God for keeping us alive until this moment. But when Reb Zalman's widow begins the bracha, all of our voices ring out with hers.
Shir Yaakov and Reb Sarah Bracha lead a song-filled Kabbalat Shabbat service, which is exactly the right gentle ramp I needed in order to transition from home to here, from anticipating this weekend to actually being in it, from workweek to sacred time. Shir Yaakov notes, as we begin, that this room in which we are sitting -- the room in which I was ordained! -- is full, so full, of history and memories. That's the starting place from which our prayers will arise.
For me the sweetest parts are singing part of Lecha Dodi to the melody of the bati l'gani niggun which Reb Zalman wrote in memory of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, his rebbe; and singing Reb Shlomo's psalm 92 variation ("The whole wide world is waiting, to sing a song of Shabbat..."); and singing some of Shir Yaakov's own melodies which I know from the Shir Yaakov / Romemu soundcloud but had never gotten to daven with him. At the end of the service, after the people who are in active mourning say the mourner's kaddish, Shir Yaakov quietly reads Reb Zalman's translation of mourner's kaddish. Hearing it read aloud in this place in this moment gives me chills.
I am so grateful to be in a room with so many of my hevre, my beloved friends, all of us singing and davening and rejoicing together. Seeing Reb Zalman's sons dancing in the impromptu hora line which snakes through the aisle. Adding my voice to the multipart harmony of our prayer.
And always there are the moments which defy description, which seem banal when written down but are glorious while they're happening. Discovering the small teepee on the hotel grounds (it's always wintertime when we're here for OHALAH; I'd never explored the gardens before); standing in it with friends and declaring it to be our ohel, our tent, which with intention we can transform into a mishkan, a dwelling-place for God; a few precious late evenings sitting with friends in the bank of Adirondack chairs in the night breeze, talking, connecting, laughing, telling stories, just being together. These are gifts beyond price.
Shabbat morning services are delicious. First Reb Arthur (Waskow) weaves a beautiful Torah discussion about the second paragraph of the shema. Then Reb Marcia (Prager) and Hazzan Jack (Kessler) lead a delicious psukei d'zimrah, the songs and psalms of praise designed to open up the heart. I especially love their use of part of "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising" (by Emmylou Harris) as a melodic container for the morning blessings. Also singing Psalm 150 to the tune of Miserlou, a melody which I associate with Pulp Fiction. (It suits the psalm surprisingly well.)
My friend Reb Hannah (Dresner) leads shacharit proper with tremendous sweetness. As I hear her sing, I remember how Reb Zalman used to beam when she led davenen. He loved how she refracts and translates Hasidut into her own feminine idiom. During the Torah service I'm honored with the opportunity to participate in leyning, chanting Torah. I chant, in Hebrew and English, the verses which I translated in the post Cut away the calluses on your heart. I offer a blessing for removing those hard places which obstruct our openheartedness -- and also a blessing for those who may be feeling as though their hearts are already raw, and who need salve and comfort in order to retain the openness with which we want to greet the world.
Reb Nadya and Reb Victor (Gross) lead us in the concluding prayers. Reb Victor tells some stories about Reb Zalman. And Reb Nadya leads us in an amazing Ein Keloheinu ("There Is No One Like God") interspersed with la illaha il'Allah ("there is no God but God.") Reb Zalman's, and by extension Jewish Renewal's, post-triumphalism and deep ecumenism were among the things which first drew my heart and soul here. This juxtaposition of our language for this truth about divinity, and our cousins' language for the same truth, is a beautiful illustration of the deep ecumenism which I so prize.
Sunday morning, 10am, the Boulder Theater. As the crowd gathers in this beautiful art deco building, Reb Zalman's voice is pouring out of the speakers, singing songs and niggunim, while a slide show of his life is cascading across the big screen.
Reb Tirzah (Firestone) opens the event with words of welcome, and her presence helps to hold the container in which the whole event unfolds. Father Matthew Fox offers a stunning opening benediction which is also a reflection on Reb Zalman's life and work. Charles Lief, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the president of Naropa University where Reb Zalman for years held the World Wisdom Chair, speaks beautifully about Reb Zalman's breadth of knowledge and of passions. (Truly, he says, it was more of a World Wisdom Loveseat, because Rebbitzen Eve was always by his side sharing her wisdom, too.)
Hearing Reb Art (Green) talk about Reb Zalman, his importance, his work, his legacy, is incredible. "When his soul reached heaven," he says (or something along these lines -- I'm paraphrasing), "God did not ask him why he was not Yochanan ben Zakkai, founding a new way of learning in a time of paradigm shift. God did not ask him why he was not the Arizal, master of kabbalistic wisdom. God did not ask him why he was not the Baal Shem Tov, bringing devotional practice to the people. God did not even ask him why he wasn't Reb Zusya, the holy fool!" Because Reb Zalman was all of these and more.
Throughout the event, spoken word reminiscences are interspersed with song. Hearing Hazzan Richard Kaplan sing is incredible, especially when he sings the Baal Shem Tov's Yedid Nefesh and closes his eyes and is visibly transported to other realms. He takes us there with him, and I remember how Reb Zalman used to love to listen to him bringing life to these old and deep Hasidic melodies. His singing becomes the vehicle which carries us aloft.
Singing along with Shir Yaakov and the band as they play his Or Zarua is the first thing that really cracks my heart open. "Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, joy" -- surely Reb Zalman sowed seeds of light wherever he went, and now in whatever realm his soul inhabits, surely there is joy. The whole theatre is singing, and I know I am not the only one singing through tears.
That's not the only time that weeping overcomes me. When Rebbitzen Eve gets up with the piano and band and sings "Here's to Life," by Artie Butler, a torch song of love and embracing life to the fullest -- when she walks over toward his big rebbe chair, sitting in a spotlight at the edge of the stage, empty but for the rainbow tallit he designed -- my tears fall again. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of her loss.
When we watch the (never-before-broadcast) video of the address "The Emerging Cosmology," given at the Roundtable Dialogue With Nobel Laureates in Vancouver ten years ago (which explains why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu and other luminaries were seated on stage), I laugh and clutch at my heart. His fur streiml! His joking about looking like someone from Fiddler on the Roof, and then breaking into song! His Star Trek "mind meld" answer to the teenaged girl who asks him a question! And in between all of these sweet things, a powerful teaching about post-triumphalism and organismic thinking and how we need to care for our world.
We close with a Sufi zhikr, a practice in which we remember God through chanting divine names, which breaks my heart open even wider. We are singing three lines, interwoven: bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, "in the name of the Compassionate, the Merciful;" ya salaam, ya shalom, may there be peace, God of peace; and a chant which Reb Tirzah tells us she wrote quite recently. "Reb Zalman asked if I would write a niggun when the time was right, to these words," she tells us, and then speaks the words tehi nishmato tzrurah bitzror ha-chayyim and they pierce my heart clean through, because they are a line from El Maleh Rachamim, the prayer we sing only in mourning. "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."
Murshid Allaudin Ottinger, a senior dervish of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, leads us in the zhikr. The full band plays: piano, violin which calls out like a human voice in jubilation and in grief, clarinet soaring high, three hand-drummers on different drums. The entire building is packed and we all rise and we sing and the melodic lines braid together. We are hand in hand, or arms around each other, or standing separately but swaying together as we sing: to one side, to the other side, forward. In the name of the One. Peace, God of peace. May his soul be bound up in eternal life. The zhikr builds and builds and I can feel how our singing and our prayer and our memories and our love are lifting Reb Zalman's neshamah higher and higher.
When the event ends my face is wet with tears and my heart is as wide-open as it can be. I am out of words, but I am so grateful, and so full of love.