Oceanside shacharit
An ALEPH Listening Tour week in California

Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Metzora at Kehilla Community Synagogue)


Shabbat Shalom.  I come bearing perhaps surprising news: Pesach is almost upon us. This is Shabbat haGadol, the "Great Shabbat" immediately before Passover. Traditionally, as Reb David mentioned last night, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give sermons about preparations for Pesach.

Preparations for Pesach take many forms. For some of us this is a season of intensive physical house-cleaning, when we strive to remove every crumb of חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our homes. For many of us, this is a season of intensive spiritual house-cleaning, when we strive to clear the spiritual hametz from our hearts so that we may walk ever more upright into a future of renewal opening right before us. I don't much enjoy the physical housecleaning, but the spiritual housecleaning is my idea of a good time. I love that our tradition gives us this opportunity for reflection as Pesach draws near.

If I believed in coincidences, maybe I’d believe that our visit to Kehilla for the ALEPH Listening Tour just happened to coincide with this season of renewal.  But I think it's no coincidence that our time with you here, in this city which is one of Jewish Renewal's beating hearts, comes at this sacred season.

We set out on this year of listening to invite self-reflection – and reflection by all who care about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal -- about where our movement came from, where it's been, and where we might want to take it next.  We did so knowing that a future of renewal, all that this movement can be, is starting to open right before us -- and also knowing that it wasn’t yet clear what that future would be or how we’d get there.  There’s a certain leap of faith that we’re all taking -- being here in such a self-reflective way, visioning a future perhaps difficult to see, making ourselves vulnerable to the truths of what needs fixing, and going forward before our plans are ready.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Passover -- going before we’re ready, not yet knowing how or where, trusting the way forward for transformation and renewal, and taking a leap of faith not despite not-knowing but precisely into the not-knowing.

Our people have done this before.  Our ancestors left a familiar enslavement with no idea where God would take them or how their lives might unfold. With the Exodus we reboot the story of Jewish peoplehood, the story of becoming who we most deeply are. Each year we're called to rededicate ourselves to taking the risk of leaving enslavement and choosing to become.

That's exactly the spiritual challenge that Jewish Renewal places in front of us. Are we willing to take the risk of reshaping Judaism so that it truly speaks to this moment of such profound social, generational and planetary change? Are we willing to take the risk of co-creating that kind of Judaism, risking that we might fail? Reb David and I, and everyone at ALEPH, are taking the risk to trust that your answer is yes. 

For me, one of the most powerful moments in the Pesach story happens after the part we retell during the seder each year: the parting of the Sea of Reeds. Midrash teaches that the waters didn't part until a man named Nachshon walked into the sea -- in fact, the sea didn't part until the waters were up to his neck. Nachshon stepped forward into the future even though he couldn't have known for certain that the waters would part. That's where spirit calls us to go – into the future we can't yet see. The future of Jewish Renewal is one we will co-create with the Holy One of Blessing. Our task is to trust that the waters will part when we take the plunge, and then to leap in.

Last night Reb David offered a teaching from the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Beresovzky. Here's another. The Slonimer teaches that there are different levels of אמונה / emunah, faith. There's emunah of the heart, there's emunah of the mind, and there's emunah of the body. Perhaps paradoxically, for the Slonimer the highest form of faith is emunah of the body. When we're able to fully embody our faith in God, to literally leap into the sea before it parts, then the divine Presence dwells within us.  That’s when we can sing a new song of redemption.

We need to cultivate faith in the future: not just with our hearts, not just with our minds, but in all that we are. Cultivating that faith is the work of this Listening Tour. Imagine the Judaism the world most needs: what does that Judaism look like, and what do you want ALEPH to do to help bring it about? How should Kehilla and ALEPH partner in the work of weaving the Judaism you most want to see? What matters most to you about spiritual life, about Judaism, about Jewish Renewal? What do you yearn for?  What would it take for you to leap with us into recommitting to build that kind of Judaism together?

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This week isn't just Shabbat HaGadol; it's also Shabbat Metzora, which means that this week's Torah portion features cures for צרעת / tzara'at, a disease which can arise both in people and in homes. "Tzara'at" is frequently translated as leprosy, though the tradition tends to view it as a spiritual ailment, not a physical one. My favorite interpretation of what tzara'at might mean comes from Nachmanides, who viewed tzara'at as a withdrawal of godliness from the world.

According to Torah, the cure for tzara'at in a human being involves painting first blood, and then anointing oil, on the ear and thumb and big toe. It's striking that these are the same places anointed with blood on Aaron and his sons when they received smicha as priests, the parsha we read just a few weeks ago when Reb David and I were on our Listening Tour visit to Vancouver.

If tzara'at is a sign of God's presence withdrawing from the world, then the cure must be a tool for restoring the Presence. The anointing of ear and thumb and toe -- making holy our listening, and the work of our hands in the world, and the paths we walk -- isn't just for the priestly class anymore.  For us in Jewish Renewal, it's for anyone who has experienced God's absence. It's for anyone who has longed, anyone whose heart has yearned. It's for all of us.

Jewish Renewal offers tools for restoring our awareness of God's presence. As Rabbi Burt taught me many years ago, לית אתר פנוי מיניה / leit atar panui mineih, there is no place devoid of God -- but we might not see it, or know it in our bones, unless we open our hearts to noticing that holiness was always already here.  Our tradition teaches that God beckons even in the mis-steps, in missed opportunities and the 'hametz' of the past whatever we imagine them to be.  It's our task to find that spark of God hidden in all things, and make that Presence real among us.  That’s what it means to walk upright into the future of renewal opening right before our eyes.

I pray that the holy work of listening and dreaming the future will heal and empower.  May we clean out any hametz we find to make space for what's new.  May we be inspired to cultivate the next turning of a renewed Jewish future of embodied faith, so that together we can sing the song of our redemption.  May what we do here help to make this possible here, and for all who thirst, now and always.