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Sitting with sorrow in the sukkah

Sukkot is called זמן שמחתנו, zman simchateinu, which means "season of our rejoicing." But what does one do if one isn't able to rejoice at this season? If sorrow, or grief, are getting in the way of the ability to rejoice? What then? My answer is this: we bring whatever we are feeling, in its fullness, into the sukkah with us. Even if it isn't joy. Spiritual practice asks us to be present to what is, whatever it is.

There are five megillot (scrolls) in Jewish tradition which are associated with particular festivals. At Purim we read Esther. At Pesach, we read Song of Songs. At Shavuot, we read Ruth. At Tisha b'Av, we read Lamentations. And at Sukkot, we read Kohelet (in English, it's called Ecclesiastes.) Think "A time to be born, and a time to die..." In every life, there is a time for gladness, and a time for sorrow.

When I am wrestling with sorrow, there is comfort for me in the knowledge that everything comes and goes. "This too shall pass" -- even the deepest of grief. הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל -- often rendered as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- can also be translated "Breath, breathing; everything is fleeting as a breath." Even our sorrows are not forever -- though they may feel that way when we are in them.

Sukkot is a festival of impermanence. For a week we do our best to dwell in our little harvest houses which must have roofs through which one can see the stars. We remind ourselves that the structures we build in our lives are not forever. The challenge is finding joy not despite the temporariness, but in it. Not despite life's sorrows, but even as we allow ourselves to wholly feel those sorrows.

Enter Rabbi Jay Michaelson's essay Entering the Gate of Sadness, published in Zeek in 2007. (Speaking of which, I'm looking really forward to reading his new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, coming in a few days from Ben Yehuda Press.) Jay writes:

Sadness is not an expression of the heart to be discarded in favor of those which are better. To believe that everything happens as it must is not to be fatalistic and cowed; it is not to believe everything happens for the best; it is to understand that sadness is part of the unfolding of the God Process. Praise God with it. Even that which is not, apparently, for our best may be turned to an instrument of praise. Not by denying its painfulness, but by deeply seeing this soul, in this body, at this moment, as manifesting the unfolding of the One. The pain is real, and it is God.

For me the critical words there are "Not by denying its painfulness[.]" There is always a temptation to respond to sadness by shutting it down, or papering it over, or pretending it's not there. Maybe especially at times of year when we feel we're "supposed" to be happy -- at anniversaries or birthdays, at holidays. But spiritual practice calls us to resist the temptation to put a bandaid on what hurts.

The mitzvah of Sukkot is  לישב בסוכה / leishev ba-sukkah, to dwell -- literally, "to sit" -- in the sukkah. If your heart is breaking, then bring that into the sukkah and sit with it as best you can. Sitting in the sukkah can be a kind of embodied meditation, an opportunity to feel what comes and what goes. Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals, but if you can't, that's okay. God is with you, wherever you are.

Maybe singing the praise-psalms of Hallel will "help," in the sense of lightening your heart, and maybe not. (You might find more resonance in מן המצר קראתי יה / min ha-meitzar karati Yah -- "From the narrow straits I called to You!" -- than in the more overtly joyful verses.) Either way, bring what is with you into the sukkah. Let yourself feel whatever you feel. And remember that this, too, shall pass.

 

Related: Joy, 2009.

 


The fourth of four lunar eclipses is on its way...

Temp-redmoon

We in North America are about to experience the fourth of four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, have coincided with Pesach and Sukkot. The full moon of this Sukkot will be eclipsed (on Sept. 28), as was the full moon of Pesach last spring -- and the full moon of the previous Sukkot and Pesach, as well. Over these two years, the full moon marking these festival times has been eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place, and at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses...

That's the beginning of an essay I wrote jointly with my dear friend and ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Markus. (Slightly updated to reflect the fact that we're approaching the fourth eclipse rather than the first.) I shared it here a couple of years ago when we first wrote it, but it seems worth sharing again as we approach the final eclipse in the series: Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts.


Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776

I'm doing something new with our b'nei mitzvah kids this year. (Credit where it's due: this is an idea I adapted from my friend and teacher Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Bay Area.) It's called Mitzvah Experimentation.

I brought this to our seventh graders in our first Hebrew school class of the year. The first thing we talked about was, what's a mitzvah. Some of them said "good deed," which is a fine answer, though not a direct translation. Others said "a commandment," which is what the word mitzvah means. A mitzvah is something which we are commanded to do, or to not do.

Commanded by whom? The most traditional answer is God. That word raises some eyebrows. Not all of my students are certain that they believe in God. What if you don't believe in God -- does that scotch the mitzvot?

There's a story about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, faced with someone who didn't believe in God. He asked that person to tell him about the God they didn't believe in. Because "maybe the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either!" Over the millennia we've thought about God, talked about God, and described God in all kinds of different ways. Some of those ways work for me. Some don't. Some might work for you; some might not. The name "God" can mean a lot of different things. And if my students want to talk about that, I'm happy to do so.

But when I go deeper into the question, what I hear is: if I don't believe in God, do the mitzvot matter?

Continue reading "Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776" »


The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.

That's a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.

Either way, I think it's equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.

If only I'd taken that job...
If only I hadn't hurt her feelings...
If only I'd married someone different...
If only I'd known then what I know now...

We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn't been dealt a particular hand of cards.

The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it's as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. "She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long..."

There's nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That's what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it's easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it's easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.

Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my "if onlies," what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?

Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?

It's not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination.

Continue reading "The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776" »


Almost Yom Kippur

TeshuvahYom Kippur begins tonight at sundown. We'll wear white garments as a sign of purity, or as a reminder of our mortality. We'll eschew leather, choosing instead to symbolize our conscious vulnerability with soft canvas shoes. (More about both of those here if you are interested.) We'll go without food or drink for 24 hours, subsisting instead on song and praise. (That makes me think of the last time I was with my Jewish Renewal community...)

Yom Kippur is a day set aside from ordinary life -- like Shabbat, only more so. It's a day for reminding ourselves of what's most important. On Yom Kippur we remember that we will die, and we think about what changes we need to make in our lives so that when we do leave this life we will feel that we lived as righteously and as well and as meaningfully as we could. On Yom Kippur we set aside the needs of the body and focus instead on the needs of the soul.

Yom Kippur is a day for intense teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning-around, turning our lives around, turning to face God again, returning to who we most truly and deeply are. Some of us have been engaged in introspection and cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of the soul) since the start of Elul, the lunar month which preceded this one. Some of us have been doing that work since Rosh Hashanah. And some of us may begin doing that work on Yom Kippur, in what feels like the eleventh hour. It's never too late. The great 12th-century sage Rambam (also known as Maimonides) taught that one who makes teshuvah is more beloved to God than one who never messed up in the first place. He taught that one who makes teshuvah rises closer to God than one who has never sinned.

I love Yom Kippur. I have loved it ever since my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur retreat at the old Elat Chayyim, and that love was intensified through the years of Yom Kippur retreats which followed (until I was privileged to begin serving my shul.) I love Yom Kippur because the Zohar teaches that it is the day when God is closest to us and most available to us, when we can most powerfully create repair in our broken souls and in the broken world. I love Yom Kippur because it is a day dedicated to prayer, song, Torah, introspection, inner work -- things I love deeply, and on Yom Kippur I get to share them with others. I love Yom Kippur because it is always a journey, and I never know exactly what it's going to feel like, but I trust that I will emerge on the other side feeling emptied, opened, and purified.

May your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.


Seeking out the goodness: a teaching from Reb Nachman

You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it's your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

That's the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, as translated by Rabbi Art Green. It's one of my favorite teachings from Reb Nachman. My friend and colleague Maggid David Arfa brought it to the first meeting of my congregation's Hebrew school faculty this year, and he began the meeting by reading it to us. It's a text I've encountered many times before, and every time it speaks to me anew.

Honestly, even just the first sentence  -- dayenu, that could be enough for me to meditate on for a while. "You have to judge every person generously." That's a profound spiritual practice. It's easy to see my beloveds through generous eyes -- but someone who has upset me? Someone who has hurt me? Someone who did or said something I find reprehensible -- can I judge that one generously, too?

This is why the Psalmist said, "Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." (Psalms 37:10.) He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they're sinful as can be. By looking for that "little bit," the place however small within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) and by telling them, showing them, that that's who they are we can help them change their lives.

The spiritual practice is looking for that "little bit," the nitzotz Elohut (spark of godliness), in each human being. Every person has such a spark within them, and if I make a practice of trying to see people through generous eyes instead of through skeptical or mistrustful eyes, my very seeing of them will be transformative for them, and they will live out their best selves instead of their worst selves.

That's a powerful theological statement about the power of being truly seen. Imagine if everyone who looked at me saw in me the very best things I have done. Imagine if, looking at me, what you saw was me at my most compassionate, my most kind, my most caring. You wouldn't be able to  impute ill will to me, because you would see my best self... and as a result, my best self would continue to manifest.

Even the person you think (and he agrees!) is completely rotten -- how is it possible that at some point in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is to look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way. Then indeed you will "look at his place" and find that the wicked one is no longer there -- not because she has died or disappeared -- but because, with your help, she will no longer be where you first saw her. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed teshuvah to take its course.

Even someone I think is completely beyond the pale. Even someone who has hurt me profoundly. Even someone who doesn't see the goodness in her or his own self! My task is to seek to see the goodness in that person, and in so doing, to erase my sense of their wickedness or their hurtfulness. My task is to see them anew, because when I see them anew, they become the way I newly see them.

It's a leap of faith. There's a defensive part of me which wants to say, "wait a minute -- how does that work -- surely it can't be true that if I just try to see someone through good eyes, they become their best selves in response to my seeing!" But I think that very defensiveness is a sign that Reb Nachman is on to something. And his wisdom here requires us to take on some substantial spiritual work.

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them -- now go do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: "Take great care: be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression." I've said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. "No goodness at all," you find. "Just full of sin." Watch out for Old Man Gloom, my friend, the one who wants to push you down. This is one of his best tricks. That's why I said: "Now go do it for yourself as well." You too must have done some good for someone sometime. Now go look for it!

I love the turn he takes at the end of this teaching. "Now that you've found some good even in a person who is difficult for you, don't forget to turn those same positive eyes on yourself!" It's a useful thing to read before Yom Kippur, at this time of teshuvah, of taking an accounting of which relationships need repair. It's easy to look at what's broken or damaged and blame myself for what needs re-aligning.

But Reb Nachman says: ah-ah, not so fast. I too merit the same generous eye with which he teaches me to seek to view others. The work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, of taking an accounting of the soul, isn't meant to make us feel bad about ourselves. (And neither is Yom Kippur, for the record.) It's meant to help us illuminate our innate goodness, so that we can enter into teshuvah with rejoicing.

 

 

I blogged about this same text in 2006.

 


The Shabbat of Return

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul...

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, "the Shabbat of Return." This Shabbat invites us to come home to our deepest selves. To join together in that existential move of teshuvah: turning ourselves around, returning to who we most deeply yearn to be.

On one level this season -- especially these Ten Days of Teshuvah -- is a time for taking stock of who we are and repenting for our missteps. We ask forgiveness from those whom we've wronged. We try to learn how to forgive ourselves for the places where we've fallen short or missed the mark.

On a deeper level this season -- especially these Ten Days -- is a time for making teshuvah for our distance from God, our distance from our own souls, our distance from love and from holiness and from our deepest yearnings. Shabbat Shuvah is a time to re/turn to God. To re/turn to ourselves.

What do you yearn for? From what wholeness do you feel exiled? What part of yourself have you been denying? This Shabbat is time to come home. Come home to the Source of All. Come home to your own soul. No matter how far away you feel, you can always return. You can always come home.


Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah

ThisisrealLongtime readers know that I maintain a practice of rereading Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation at this season. I begin reading it at Tisha b'Av, and finish reading it at the end of Sukkot. That's the period of time which the book covers, and Rabbi Lew annually enriches my journey through those two months and through my own spiritual life. 

One of the things I love about reading this book is that I have been underlining and making marginal notes in my copy for many years. There are passages I've underlined, and places where I drew exclamation marks in the margins. Blue ink, black ink, pencil markings. Each year my eye is drawn to the passages I marked in previous years, and often those passages still resonate for me. And each year my eye is drawn to something I haven't underlined before which is speaking to me in a new way this year because of where I am or what's on my mind and heart.

Here are some of the lines which leapt out at me this year.

First of all, we learn that Teshuvah can arise in the most hopeless circumstances... Most of us only embark on the difficult and wrenching path of transformation when we feel we have no choice but to do so, when we feel as if our backs are to the wall, when the circumstances of our lives have pushed us to the point of a significant leave-taking... Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for. Interestingly, God is depicted as the one who is doing the pushing here. We are in the predicament that has brought us to the point of transformation because God has driven us there. In other words, that predicament is part of the process. It is a gift, the agent of our turning.

It's easy for me to be glib about teshuvah, repentance / return. This year I am resonating with his point that sometimes transformation is most possible when we have exhausted every other alternative. Sometimes we aren't ready to change until we've tried everything else we can think of. Sometimes we only become ready to seek transformation when it becomes clear that the status quo is untenable. We may not know where we're going or who we're becoming, but we know we can't stay here.

Continue reading "Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah" »