Previous month:
February 2015
Next month:
April 2015

Ki Tisa: Inspiration

Here's the short d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday for parashat Ki Tisa.


In the verses we just read, Torah tells us God has filled the craftsman Bezalel son of Uri with ruach elohim, "spirit of God" or "breath of God." In the very beginning of Torah, we read that ruach elohim m'rachefet al pnei ha-mayim, "the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters." God has instilled in Bezalel that same divine spirit which was manifest at the first moments of creation.

The craftsman Bezalel, it appears, was truly inspired. In / spired -- literally it means that someone (or some One) had breathed into him. God breathed inspiration into Bezalel, and in return Bezalel led the team of artisans who made the mishkan, the tabernacle which the Israelites are instructed to build so that Shekhinah, God's presence, can dwell within and among them.

So is inspiration something you either have, or don't have? Either God gives it to you, or you're outta luck? As a writer, my answer is no. Or at least -- not exactly. In my experience, inspiration comes and goes, but it can be cultivated. I have learned over the years that there are practices which will help to ready me to receive inspiration when it comes. As it turns out, Jewish tradition agrees with me.

The tradition prescribes a variety of steps which we should take if we seek divine inspiration. They include deep study of Torah, diligence in fulfilling mitzvot, cultivating piousness, and cultivating humility. Doing these things is no guarantee of divine inspiration, of course... but not-doing them is probably a guarantee that if God is offering inspiration, we won't be primed to receive.

I used to have a quote from the author Jeanette Winterson hanging over my desk. It read:

I do not write every day. I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day, and recognize in nature the same slow complicity. The same inevitability. The moment will arrive, always it does, it can be predicted but it cannot be demanded. I do not think of this as inspiration. I think of it as readiness. A writer lives in a constant state of readiness.

I think spiritual life too asks us to live in readiness. Readiness to receive whatever comes. Readiness to experience connection with something greater than ourselves. If we keep our hearts open; if we keep our spiritual selves open; then maybe that wind from Beyond will blow into us and through us, bringing us gifts to share with our community, and gifts to share with the world.


Shmita and interconnection at Purim to Pesach

My short meditation for the Shalom Center's Purim to Pesach project is now on their website. It's called Shmita and interconnection. (Shmita is the Hebrew word usually rendered in English as "Sabbatical" -- it means the year of rest which Torah mandates we provide the earth after every six years of working the land, and on the Jewish calendar this year is a shmita year.)

Here's how my piece begins:

Our sages took some pains to ensure a Jewish calendar in which Pesach would always fall in the spring. (They were operating in a northern hemisphere context; I don’t think the challenges of antipodean Judaism ever occurred to them.) In the northern hemisphere, Pesach is inextricably connected with spring.

As the earth shakes off the constrictions of winter, her frozen places thawing, so we remember our shaking-off the yoke of slavery to Pharaoh. As plant life and trees are “reborn” into the warming air, we tell the story of our renewal and rebirth out of the constriction of slavery and into freedom...

Read the whole thing at Purim to Pesach: Shmita and interconnection. (And to receive further daily teachings on how we can connect Passover with caring for the earth, you can sign up for the Shalom Center's email list.)

From Purim to Pesach


Today is Purim -- the full moon of the lunar month of Adar. Pesach (Passover) begins in one month, at the full moon of Nissan. There's a traditional teaching (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 429:1) which holds that "One must begin studying the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday." In the Mishnah Berurah (note 2, Biur HaGra) we are told to begin studying Pesach specifically on Purim itself. That's the impetus behind "Purim to Pesach," a new project of the Shalom Center.



The Shalom Center is sending out a new series of daily emails between now and Passover. The goal, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow explained it to me, is "to make broadly available powerful short kavanot (intentions) that reawaken and revitalize the meaning of Pesach, especially in a Shmita (sabbatical) year devoted to healing Earth and renewing social justice." Each day's post is by someone different who was solicited to share their words as part of this project: rabbis, activists, poets, writers & more.

This is a new twist on the idea of studying the halakhot (laws/ways-of-walking) of Pesach for a month before the holiday begins. Instead of focusing us on matters of ritual and praxis, these emails aim to focus our attention on what Pesach might come to teach us about our relationship with the earth, especially during this Shmita year when many of us are paying renewed attention to our relationship with consumption and with the planet. And they link Purim with Pesach, which I think is really neat.

I'm honored to be one of the writers whose words will be going out as part of this series, and I'll let y'all know when my post goes out. That said, I'm only one of 30 voices taking part in this project, and I'm excited about reading what the other participants have to say, too. If you want to receive these writings in your inbox, sign up for The Shalom Center's email list; alternatively, you can visit the Purim to Pesach website daily and see what new earth-oriented Passover wisdom has been shared.

Chag sameach -- happy Purim! And here's to Pesach, only one month away.

Disagreement for the sake of heaven

9Adar_LoRezEng_180I had the opportunity to do something really neat last night -- to participate in a livestreamed Torah discussion with two colleagues, organized as part of 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. What's 9 Adar? Glad you asked:

The 9 Adar project seeks to strengthen the Jewish culture of constructive conflict and healthy disagreements. In our ancient texts, it is called machloket l’shem shemayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). It means arguing the issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you are wrong, and acknowledging that both sides might be right. Approximately 2,000 years ago on the 9th of Adar, two major ideological schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, allowed their disagreements to degrade into terrible conflict. Today, we are using the day to promote the original culture of healthy and constructive conflict.

There have been a variety of 9 Adar events in various places over recent days and weeks. (The ninth day of the lunar month of Adar was actually a few days ago; our event happened a few days after the date itself, but was nevertheless part of the same "Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict" initiative.)

The conversation was between me,  my fellow Rabbi Without Borders Rabbi Alana Suskin of Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski (profiled as The Chareidi Rabbi from Virginia, though he's no longer there; he's now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sinai in Kauneonga Lake, NY and Crescent Hill Synagogue in Rock Hill, NY), moderated by Lex Rofes and Caroline Morganti of Open Hillel. The question we were given was:

The figure of Korach has fascinated readers of the Torah for millennia. To what extent do you sympathize with his mindset, and with his challenge to authority? To what extent, alternatively, do you feel that his behavior was ill-advised, or even malicious? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn about this story as we explore our relationships to conflict and authority today?

(Korach, you may recall, was the fellow in Torah who rebelled against Moses' authority; he argued that the whole congregation was holy, so why did Moses hold himself above everyone? Moses said okay, fine, let's put this to God and we'll see who God prefers; and the earth swallowed up Korach and his followers.)

We began by going around the virtual room and each of us offering a few thoughts about Korach. Here's more or less what I intended to say in my opening remarks about Korach and his story:

I find that when I'm teaching Korach to my b'nei mitzvah students, they universally take his side. "What's so bad about Korach? He just didn't want all of the power to be in Moses' hands. And who elected Moses leader, anyway?" -- that kind of thing.  I know that I have at times felt great empathy with Korach -- and yet I've noticed that over the last 15 years my empathy for Moses has risen and my empathy for Korach has decreased, and maybe that's a function of me becoming a rabbi, or maybe it's a function of me just getting older, I don't know!

For me, the Korach story is a useful illustration of how not to handle conflict in my congregation. If someone becomes angry with me and how I'm doing things, and I respond with my own defensiveness, then I'm setting the stage for some kind of disaster -- the earth might not literally open up and swallow anyone, but there could be hurt feelings, damaged reputations, etc. We have to find a better way of settling our disputes.

For me the critical question is: was Korach actually acting out of a sense that everyone in the community is holy? Or was he jockeying for more power of his own? If it's really about his own ego and self-aggrandizement (e.g. he wanted some of Moshe's power), then it makes more sense that the earth swallowed him up -- because his makhloket (argument) wasn't really l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven).

For me that's what this all boils down to: how to keep our disagreements (including those around Israel/Palestine) for the sake of heaven, instead of for the sake of me being right and you being wrong.

"If the argument is based in love and mutual respect for one another, then it's an argument for the sake of heaven," said Rabbi Kolakowski, quoting the Satmar rebbe. "The way to tell if someone's a zealot and is just arguing for the sake of arguing is, how does that person lead their life in general? Does he argue about everything, or is it only when it's something important and for the sake of heaven that he gets excited and speaks up?"

Rabbi Suskin began by noting that she feels strongly ambivalent about Korach. It's hard for us as moderns not to feel some sympathy for the position of "we're all holy here" -- and yet our commentaries on Korach are pretty strongly negative. It's difficult to do with Torah what we want to do with other kinds of stories, and tell the story from the point of view of the "bad guy" and thereby redeem him.

She pointed out that the rabbis suggested that the reason that Korach's argument was not for the sake of heaven was that when he protested that "all of the people are holy," what he was really saying was not that we all have the capacity to be holy, but that in and of ourselves, without doing anything, regardless of what we do, we're holy. She argued that it's not really Jewish to say "I'm holy no matter what I do; no one can judge me." We're part of the community; our behavior impacts those around us.

From there we shifted into talking about what it means for disagreement to be holy -- Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right -- the Talmudic stories of Reish Lakish and of Kamza and Bar Kamza -- the obligation to rebuke, and also the obligation to recognize where people are and to speak to them in a way that they will hear -- finding the partial truth in opinions with which we disagree -- and more! Here's the video of our conversation, which ran for about 65 minutes:

And if you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it on YouTube - 9 Adar Interdenominational Text Study. If this sounds like fun to you, I hope you'll go and watch.

Purim approaches

PurimPurim begins tonight at sundown. I used to not really get the appeal of this holiday, but over the years I've grown fonder of Purim.

Yes, for kids it's a fun opportunity to dress up and to make noise in the synagogue (drowning out the name of the wicked Haman.) But there's something here for adults, too. Purim comes one month before Pesach; it's a stepping-stone toward the coming spring.

Purim offers us a megillah (scroll) in which God is never explicitly megaleh (revealed). God's explicit presence is nistar (hidden) in this book -- as Esther (whose name shares a root with nistar) hides her Jewishness when she enters the royal palace.

But Esther reveals her Jewishness when her people need her, and God's presence is palpable throughout the story in the twists and turns of providence. Purim is a holiday of hiding and revealing: Vashti refuses to reveal her body; Esther hides until she needs to reveal her identity; God hides in plain sight.

And Purim is a holiday of inversions: Achashverosh exiles Vashti rather than accede to a woman's will -- and then winds up doing what Esther wants. Haman builds a gallows for Mordechai, and winds up swinging on it himself. Haman tells the king what should be done for someone the king wants to honor, and then has to enact that reward for Mordechai instead of himself. Haman orchestrates the massacre of the Jews, and instead the Jews are given the right to defend ourselves.

Purim is an opportunity to play. To turn things upside-down. To be silly. To hear a pulp fiction soap opera chanted or acted-out from the bimah (pulpit) instead of the kinds of material rabbis usually aim to present -- and to find the hidden meaning even in the silliness. And for the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet, it's an opportunity to ascend the tree of knowledge until we reach the high vantage point where our limited human notions of "good" and "evil" disappear into the Oneness of God. I can get behind that.

A freilichen Purim -- may your Purim be joyful!

If you like poetry, you might enjoy a pair of Purim poems I wrote a few years back: Hidden and Purim Pantoum.

Women in Religion at Williams College

E017fc0450ca91fbce474a3b6c82452987af1dbf-1This Thursday evening I'll be participating in a panel discussion featuring female religious leaders, moderated by my friend Reverend Rick Spalding (the head of chaplaincy at Williams College, my alma mater.) The discussion will be at 7pm on March 5 in Thompson Memorial Chapel, the big stone chapel that's right on route 2. Here's how the event is described on the college calendar:

The Williams College Feminist Collective is hosting a panel of female religious leaders to discuss their careers and how gender has played a role in their religious lives and careers. Panelists including Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Reverend Beth Wieman, and Chaplain Celene Lizzio-Ibrahim.

I'm delighted to take part, for a variety of reasons. During my own time at Williams I was one of the creators of the Williams College Feminist Seder, so it's neat to be invited back by the current feminist students' group. Also, I know Celene Lizzio-Ibrahim from the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Religious Leaders, at which both of us were alumna facilitators last year. I'm looking very forward to meeting Rev. Beth Wieman. And it will be fun to talk with them, for a public audience, about our religious vocations and our lives as women and how those things intersect.

If you're in or near northern Berkshire county, join us -- the evening is free and open to the public.

A reminder: psalm workshop coming up


The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers begins today. It's a pretty extraordinary month-long festival; there will be an event every day this month showcasing the voices and words of women here in Berkshire county. (In fact there will be 53 events at 33 venues, and most of them are free.) Pretty amazing, especially given that we're in a semi-rural area hours away from the nearest big city.

I'm taking part in two ways, and one of them is teaching a workshop on writing one's own psalms. (I posted about this a few weeks ago.) I'm teaching at 3pm on March 10 at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Writing Your Own Psalms

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, an ancient collection of poetry which also functions as prayer. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll explore what makes a psalm, read psalms both classical and contemporary, talk about the emotional tenor of the psalms and how they work both as poetry and as prayer, warm up our intellectual muscles with generative writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close with a psalm of thanksgiving for our time together.

If you'd like to sign up, you can go to the event's Facebook page and indicate there that you are coming. I look forward to seeing some of y'all there!