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Gaze

I want to gaze at you
    not through lowered lashes
       protecting my tender places, but

heart splayed wide
    to everything I learn
       when I let myself be seen.

I want to gaze at you
    without flinching, knowing
       what you'll find in my eyes:

my aches and imperfections,
    the cracks in my clay heart,
       the tarnish clouding my silver.

I want to see all of you
    even if your pure light
       would burn out my circuits,

even if all I can glimpse
    is your shadowed silhouette
       through my sheerest tallit.

If I bring my whole self
    to yearning for you, if I seek
       to see and to be seen wholly

can I call forth
    the you who would be
       in relationship with me?

 


 

 

[C]racks in my clay heart. Jewish tradition describes the broken-open heart as a clay vessel; see Vessel (2008) and A crack in everything (2016).

[E]verything I learn / when I let myself be seen. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, teaches that when we relate to God as a "you," with willingness to bring our full selves to the experience, we receive revelation -- though it's not entirely clear whether it's revelation of God's self, or revelation of our own deepest self.

[E]ven if your pure light / would burn out my circuits. See parashat Ki Tisa. No one can look upon God and live; even Moshe only gets to see God's afterimage.

[T]he you who would be/ in relationship with me[.] This draws on another teaching from Kalonymus Kalman Shapira: when we stand in real relationship to God in prayer, we call forth the "Thou" with Whom we yearn to be in relationship. 

This is another poem in my ongoing Texts to the Holy series, a collection of love poems to the Beloved / beloved (capital-B or lowercase-b, whatever resonates most for you.)

 

Offered with thanks to Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek of Beacon Hebrew Alliance for introducing me to this text from Aish Kodesh by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also known as the Piaseczyner Rebbe, this past Shabbat afternoon. 


Coming soon to Temple Sinai

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This coming Sunday I'll be the featured poet at the eighth annual Jewish Poetry Festival at Temple Sinai. Temple Sinai is at 50 Sewall Avenue in Brookline, MA.

I'll be sharing poems at 2pm, followed by Q-and-A. I'm planning to share some poems from Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda, 2016) and from 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), as well as a few poems from my as-yet-unpublished next collection Texts to the Holy.

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My reading will be followed by an open mike (sign up at the door to share your own poem on themes of family, community, and/or Jewish life) and snacks.

After the reading I'll have books for sale, and am happy to inscribe them for you. I hope to see some of you there!

 

For more information: 8th Annual Jewish Poetry Festival at Temple Sinai.


Intensive care

A few weeks ago I received a couple of photo albums in the mail from my parents. One of them contained photographs from the first months of my life, beginning with the weeks I spent at what they then called "the neonatal unit." (Today the standard name for such a ward is NICU, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When I was born, the hospital at which I was born didn't have a NICU, so they rushed me to Santa Rosa. Today most hospitals have at least some capacity for neonatal care.)

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That's me, about a month old, in an incubator at the neonatal unit at what was then known as Santa Rosa Children's Hospital -- now called The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. I spent forty days and forty nights there before I was well enough to go home. The number feels symbolic to me, since in the rabbinic understanding, that's a period of time that represents maturation, fruition, and change.

While visiting Texas with my son, I had the opportunity to visit Santa Rosa again with my parents and my son: not only to see the current neonatal unit (which I had seen once before), but also to visit the even newer NICU that they're building now.

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Because of hospital regulations, my son couldn't go into the NICU, but he had the opportunity to use a stethoscope to listen to the heart of the baby mannequin they use in training, and to learn a little bit about the kind of care they provide to babies who are born too soon.

The whole visit was extraordinary, though there were two parts that were especially special for me. One was having the opportunity to walk through the NICU and say silent prayers for the babies who are being cared-for there. Sister Michele O'Brien told me that they are able now to operate on babies whose hearts are the size of a quarter. Dr. George Powers, who led us on our tour, showed us the equipment they use now and explained how it differs from what they had at their disposal when I came into the world.

The other thing that was special for me was visiting the hospital chapel with my son. When one first walks into the Children's Hospital, the chapel is the first thing one sees, which is intentional: a reminder that spiritual life and care are at the heart of what they do. It's a beautiful chapel, unsurprisingly, and we spent a few moments sitting there in contemplation.

There's a little metal "tree" in the back of the chapel. People are invited to write prayers on colored paper hearts and to hang them on the tree, and when the tree fills up, the hearts are taken out into the surrounding grounds and buried there, because -- in Sister Michele's words -- the place where the hospital stands is holy ground.

My son took a heart and carefully wrote "Thank You God for this," and then he paused. "Mom, can you write 'hospital'?"

I wrote "hospital," and he hung the heart on the tree. 

Thank You God for this hospital indeed. 

 

With gratitude for everyone at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio and the extraordinary work they do to provide care for families in need. 


Yes we said yes we will yes

Yes-1In this week's Torah portion, the children of Israel tell Moses, כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / "All that God has spoken, we will do." After that, they receive the Ten Commandments.

Wait. Doesn't that seem backwards? How could we accept the mitzvot, and only then learn what they are? How does it make sense to to agree to do, before we've heard what it is God is calling us to do? Almost every Torah commentator under the sun tackles this question, because it's a big one.

Lately I'm spending quality time with Menchem Nachum of Chernobyl, the Hasidic master also known as the Me'or Eynayim. And he says this is a teaching about how spiritually, no one ever stands still.

We're always rising and falling. Life-force ebbs and flows. Our connection with God ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel connected with something beyond ourselves, and enlivened by that connection. Sometimes we feel we've fallen away and meaning is nowhere to be found.

Our task -- he says -- is to remember that all of creation is filled with divinity, that (in the words of the Zohar) לית אתר פנוי מיניה / there is no place devoid of the Presence. It's easy to feel that at spiritual high moments when we're feeling connected and full of love. It's harder to feel that when life is difficult and God seems distant.

When we feel that we've fallen far from God, when we feel conscious of our shortcomings that keep us feeling disconnected, when we're feeling existentially lonely, that's when we need to remember that there's no such thing as "far from God." God, he teaches, is never absent or far away -- only sometimes very hidden. God withdraws in order to make space for us, or perhaps to encourage us to seek.

When we feel that we're far away from God or from goodness, God is actually right there with us in our feelings of exile, our feelings of loneliness, our feelings of despair. Sometimes everything seems clear and we can feel God's presence with us. Sometimes the clarity departs and God feels far away. But the distinction is one of epistemology, not ontology.

And the answer to feeling existentially far-from-God is to say yes -- even when we can't feel the presence of the thing we're saying yes to. Say yes to life, even if you don't know where life will take you. Say yes to spiritual practice, even if you don't know how spiritual practice will change you. Say yes to the mitzvot, even when you don't wholly know what they are. Say yes to God, even if you aren't sure God exists, or is listening. 

Agreeing to do before we've heard what it is we're supposed to do is an inversion. It's rising before falling. But the thing about falling is, it just spurs us to want to rise higher. One step back, two steps forward. At least, that's the Me'or Eynayim's take on it. Because spiritual life never stands still.

Standing still is stasis, and stasis is death. As long as we're living, we're growing and changing. My seven-year-old likes to say there's no such thing as doing "nothing" -- even if we're holding perfectly still, we're breathing, we're existing, blood is pumping through our veins. If we're alive, we're changing. In the Me'or Eynayim's terms, if we're alive, we're rising and falling.

We agree to do the mitzvot -- that's a moment of rising. Then we fall, because that's how life works. We touch elevated consciousness for long enough to give God an existential "yes we said yes we will yes," and then we fall away. But in our falling, we listen for God's presence in the world, and that's when we hear the Voice issuing forth from Sinai. שמע: we listen, and achieve a glimmer of understanding, and rise up again.

The first step is a leap of faith: כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה / "all that God has spoken, we will do." We leap even though we don't know what we're leaping to. We leap, saying "sure, we'll spend our lives with You" before we really know Who God is or where God might take us. We leap knowing that we will fall... and that from our place of having-fallen, we can rise to greater heights.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at WCJA at Kabbalat Shabbat this week. The teaching from the Me'or Eynayim that I cite here can be found in Hebrew in the app ובלכתך בדרך; if you'd like to read it in English, there's a translation at sefaria.

 


Davening: together, even when we're apart

2900184206_c61c8e8622_zMany years ago when I was in rabbinic school I used to daven one morning a week with a telephone minyan of rabbinic school friends. We were all in the eastern time zone, in states scattered across the country. We used a conference call phone line. We took turns leading davenen. It was a gift to me to hear the voices of beloved hevre, not to feel alone in my spiritual practice. Of course, the technology posed some challenges. If we wanted to sing along, we had to mute our own phones, otherwise our voices would cancel each other out. And eventually that telephone minyan came apart at the seams. Still, it was sweet, for a time.

In more recent years I've participated a few times in davenen via zoom, the videoconferencing app we use in ALEPH for Board meetings and other conversations. I have powerful memories of the Monday morning after Reb Zalman died, when the rest of the ALEPH Board was together in Oregon and I was far away in Massachusetts. I joined them via zoom that morning, and davened and sang and wept with them. I remember feeling like we were truly together. Of course, it helped that I knew everyone in the room; we were already a community. I remember being grateful that there was a way for me to be with them from afar.

The technological tools available to us for this kind of virtual community keep evolving. One recent morning shortly after I arrived at work at the synagogue I opened up Facebook to share a piece of synagogue news on my shul's Facebook page, and saw that Shir Yaakov was davening the morning service on Facebook Live. As is usual for me these days, my early morning had not offered me time for davenen. Early mornings in my house, these days, are all about getting myself and my kid fed and dressed, packing our lunches, making sure we both have what we need for the day ahead, and getting him on the schoolbus on time.

But here was one of my hevre davening in a way that I could join. It felt like a reminder from the universe of how I really ought to begin my work day! So I put on tallit and tefillin and sang with Shir. In the chat window alongside the video there was a steady stream of comments from others who were davening too. He asked us to name the places we were in, and the places for which we were praying. I saw the names of friends across the continent, and the names of people I don't know. From time to time a wave of little hearts would flow across the screen as people clicked on Facebook's "heart" button to share their love.

After the minyan ended I found myself thinking about how davenen connects us across places and times. Part of what's meaningful for me in davenen is knowing that others are singing these words too -- or perhaps other words that evoke these same themes -- around the world. As the hour for morning prayer moves across the globe, daveners enter in to morning prayer, together and alone. And there's also a way in which davenen connects us not only across time zones but across time -- some of these words have been recited in prayer for centuries, and will be recited for centuries to come. 

In in the world of assiyah (geographically), those of us who joined this Facebook Live minyan were all over the place. But -- at least for a while -- in the worlds of yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought), and atzilut (spirit), we were all together. Sometimes when I gather with community in person, we're in the same place physically but our hearts and spirits aren't necessarily aligned. Someone's distracted, someone's focusing on this morning's news, someone's grieving, someone's angry with someone else in the room -- there are all kinds of reasons why we can be disconnected. But at its best, prayer connects us both in and out -- with ourselves and with each other -- and also up

("Up" is a metaphor, of course. As I taught my students last night in our intro Judaism class, Judaism's God-concepts include both transcendence and immanence, the Infinite and the relatable. God is in the vastness of spacetime, and as intimate to us as the beating of our own hearts. My favorite metaphor for God these days is Beloved. The God to Whom I need to relate right now is the One Who sees me and loves me in all that I am. Prayer doesn't always connect me with that One... but as with any other practice, the only way to reach the times when it "works" is to keep doing it even at the times when I feel like it "doesn't work.")

At its best, prayer connects us with our deepest selves, and with our Source, and with each other. No matter where in the world we are. Even when we feel most alone, when we "log in" to the cosmic mainframe (that's language Reb Zalman z"l used to use), we're connecting with the Network that links us all. Prayer can remind us to open our hearts. It can attune us to the subtle movements of soul. And though sometimes when I pray with others I feel that I am still alone, sometimes when I am praying alone I can remember that what appears to divide us is illusory, and what connects us -- always -- is infinite and deep.

 

Related:

Visitation, a tele-davenen poem, 2008


My strength balanced with God's song: a d'varling for parashat Beshalach

32421398230_ca11c3da2d_zThis morning we sang excerpts from the Song at the Sea. We sang my favorite line from that song: עָזִי וְזִמרָת יָה וַיְהִי–לִי לִישֻעָה.

That line is often translated as "God is my strength and my might, and will be my deliverance." But zimra doesn't mean "might," it means "song" -- as in psukei d'zimra, our poems and songs of praise. Sometimes I translate this line as "God is my strength and my song, and will be my salvation." I like the idea that both my strength, and my song, are ways of finding God. But the best translation I know is Rabbi Shefa Gold's translation (and by the way, she also wrote the melody for this verse that we're singing this morning): "My strength (balanced with) God's song will be my salvation."

My strength, balanced with God's song, will be my salvation.

Some of us may be allergic to the word "salvation," which feels kind of... Christian, somehow. Though of course the notion of a God Who saves us was a Jewish idea long before the birth of Rabbi Jesus. One paradigmatic example of God's salvation is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds -- which is in today's Torah portion. God parted the waters and we came through. We sing about it every week when we sing Mi Chamocha -- "the water is wide..."

Y'all probably know by now that I don't understand this as a historical story. This is a true story in the way that great literature is true. This is a true story because it speaks to one of our deepest human hopes: that when we are in tight places, we will find a way out. That when we are trapped between an advancing army and the sea, we will find a way through. That if we step into the sea, if we cultivate faith in a better future, we can partner with something beyond ourselves to bring that better future into being.

We partner with something beyond ourselves. My strength, balanced with God's song.

We need our own strength in order to cross the sea, to face whatever difficulties arise in our lives -- and every life holds tsuris, "suffering," which comes from the same root as Mitzrayim, "the Narrow Place." Every life has times when we feel trapped in the narrowness of our own circumstance. Life's challenges call forth our strength. Our task is to feel our own strength flowing through us, and to know that we have the inner resources the moment demands.

And we need God's song in order to cross the sea. We need music that uplifts the heart. We need love to sing its melody in us. We need hope, and heart-opening, and joy. If we try to cross the sea without those things, we might manage to walk across the sand, but we'd be like the figures in the midrash who were so busy kvetching about the muddy sea floor that they forgot to notice the miracle all around them, and as a result, when they reached the other side they weren't really free.

My strength, balanced with God's song. That's what gets us across the sea. That's what gets us from the narrow place into expansiveness. That's what enables us to experience spiritual growth and transformation. Our own core strength, balanced with the ineffable: with song and joy, with meaning and love.

 

This is the d'varling I gave at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


What's rising in you? - a d'varling before Tu BiShvat

3241485547_7576e36723_zTonight is the full moon of the month of Shvat, which means that it's Tu BiShvat -- the new year of the trees. (I realize that here at WCJA you'll be celebrating Tu BiShvat next weekend. You get a week-long holiday! But tonight is the full moon -- on some secular calendars it's called the Full Snow Moon.)

Tu BiShvat is the first step toward springtime. I say that with awareness that the world around us does not look much like springtime right now. In Williamstown, mid-February means snow and ice, not soft spring breezes and almond blossoms. For me, that makes Tu BiShvat all the more meaningful, because Tu BiShvat becomes a holiday about hiddenness.

The Jewish mystics have a lot to say about what's hidden and what's revealed, נסתר and נגלה. The world we live in is a world of surfaces, and everything conceals deeper meaning and hidden sparks. On the surface, Tu BiShvat might seem to be about establishing an age for trees so that their fruits can be tithed. That's how the holiday originated, back in Talmudic times. But deep down -- say the mystics -- it's really about the spiritual sap of the universe beginning to rise for the spring to come.

It seems appropriate that this holiday remind us to pay attention to what's unseen. The outside world may be covered with snow, but deep down under the snow the roots of the trees are soaking up the water that will feed the sap that will support next summer's verdant greenery -- at least, that's what Jewish tradition teaches. Our work is to trust in the spring that we can't yet see.

Torah says that human beings are like trees of the field, and we too have hidden undercurrents that aren't always visible to the naked eye. As we move through this midwinter full moon, what is rising in you? What hopes are you nurturing, deep down in your most secret heart? What yearnings are enlivening you, even if you haven't spoken them aloud?

What gifts might you be able to bring to the world by the end of this semester? When the trees have leafed out, all chartreuse and fluttering in the spring breeze -- when the lilac bushes in front of the President's house bloom and scent the spring air -- what new ideas or artwork or music or activism or relationships might you bring into being?

That's what Tu BiShvat is about for me: the sap of our hopes, the sap of our dreams, the sap that will fuel our work in the world. Imagine your feet planted in the earth like roots. Reach deep down into the earth and draw up the sustenance you need. With every beat of your heart, you can draw up more hope, and more of the energy you'll need in order to create.

On the outside, the world looks like winter -- but in the heart of every tree, the first stirrings of spring are rising. This full-moon midwinter Shabbes, celebrate what's rising in you.

 

This is the d'varling -- the short-and-sweet teaching -- that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services.

 


Winter prayer among the trees

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"This is where I like to explore," my son tells me. To an adult eye, this is the smallish band of trees and underbrush between our condo development and the condo development down the road, but to him these are The Woods.

I remember exploring the woods across the street from my house with my friends who lived down the block, when I was a kid, and I am grateful that he has a place like this where his imagination can soar.

"Thank you for showing this to me," I reply, as I follow him.

 

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"This is a place where we can talk to God," he offers.

"Thank You God for the beautiful snow," I say, feeling tickled that this is still something he and I can do. I know that someday he will outgrow the desire to let me overhear his conversations with God, but that hasn't happened yet.

"This is the special place where I feel God's spirit," he tells me. "When you cross through here, you put your hands like this." He brings his hands together in prayer. I'm not sure where he learned that posture, but I am not about to argue with him. Here in his special place, he is the guide and I am the student.

 

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"Thank You God for the woods that you made and for the snow on the trees and for this place where we can talk to You," he says, and then emerges from the sacred grove. "You try," he tells me.

I cross into the place where he was standing and I emulate his posture. "Thank You God for this beautiful snow, and for the trees, and for my wise son who teaches me things every day. Amen."

He beams at me. "Thanks, Mom," he says. "Let's go explore some more."

So we do.


Dave Bonta's Ice Mountain

Icemtn-cover-500pxI've been a fan of Dave Bonta's poetry for a long time. (I reviewed his chapbook Odes to Tools at the Best American Poetry blog some years ago.) So when I learned that his new collection was coming out from Phoenicia Publishing -- the same press that brought out his Odes to Tools (and, full disclosure, also the same press that published my first two books of poetry, 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold) -- I pre-ordered a copy instantly.

Ice Mountain: an elegy is spare, elegant, and deeply moving. These are daily poems arising out of walks on Dave's home territory, a mountain which he describes in the foreword as "a high section of the Allegheny front across the valley to the northwest of our own mountain," in 2013 "desecrated by an industrial wind plant[.]"

In that introduction he writes eloquently about the price paid by wildlife for those wind turbines, and about the extent to which the Appalachians remain a "national sacrifice area" in our perennial quest for cheap energy.

The introduction offers a geopolitical framing. The poems simply offer windows into the landscape, interspersed with Beth Adams' linocut prints, as spare and elegant as the words themselves.

Some of them explore an interior landscape that hints at the outside world, like this one:

4 February

In a dream I run
through my half-remembered high school
still an outcast

I grew up with a woodstove
instead of a television
I know all the theme songs of oak

the crackle and bang
the hiss and whistle
and sudden sigh of collapse

I love "all the theme songs of oak," and how the phrase "sudden sigh of collapse" hints at (but does not directly reference) the ecosystem in distress.

Others are explicitly about the mountain and its power installation, and hint at an interior world, like this one:

4 March

Ice Mountain's propellors
spin at different speeds
face this way and that

you can't hear them from here
their low-frequency moans
like lost whales

what won't we sacrifice
to keep the weather just right
inside our homes

I love that he compares the propellors to whales -- lost indeed, so far from any ocean -- seeing even in their deadly monstrosity an analogy to something found in nature.

The natural world and the manmade world are always in uncomfortable proximity here, as in this poem:

15 March

the highway's tar has been bleached
by a winter's worth of salt
and in the mid-day sun

it almost shines
I squint at the shapes on the shoulder
as I pass

here some saltaholic's crumpled fur
there a fetal curl
of flayed tire

Dave resists easy binaries. There is a kind of beauty in the salt-bleached highway that "almost shines." But our human needs for progress come at the cost of animal lives, and this collection never lets us forget that. 

Because it is deep midwinter in the hills where I live, I am most drawn to the February and March poems, the ones that unlock the austerity and beauty of winter landscape. The summer poems feel dreamlike to me now, both in their beauty and in their dark undertones. I'm looking forward to rereading this collection at different times of year and seeing what speaks most to me on future re-readings.

Ice Mountain: an elegy is available at Phoenicia Publishing.

 


Waking up, and waking again

32381704706_b95c629574_zOne of the pieces of my work at Congregation Beth Israel for which I am most grateful is our Friday morning meditation minyan. We call it a "minyan" in recognition of the fact that the term can mean both the time of prayer ("I'm going to morning minyan") and the group that prays (a minyan is the quorum of ten adult Jews required by tradition for communal prayer that involves a call-and-response), but it's not a formalized group and there is no formalized prayer -- just sitting in meditation. 

The fact of this standing Friday morning meditation group is one of the things that drew me to CBI, back when my dear friend Reb Jeff was the rabbi and I was just beginning to contemplate whether I might be ready for rabbinical school. I figured, if this were a synagogue where people meditate and are interested in Jewish contemplative practice, it might be a good home for me. (Turns out I was right about that!) I've kept the minyan going since I began to serve the community as its rabbi in 2011. 

Our practice is simple. We begin in silence. After about fifteen minutes I offer a very short teaching, or guided meditation, or practice. (Most recently our practice had to do with cultivating compassion for ourselves and others. Often I offer a meditation designed to help us release the week in preparation for Shabbat.) After another fifteen minutes, we close with a three-breath practice from Thich Nhat Hanh that I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle, and with a  niggun. 

I love sitting in companionable silence in our beautiful sanctuary. Sometimes sunlight streams in through the big windows; sometimes snow falls outside. Sometimes we hear the rooster crow next door. And at the end of our practice time, I love opening my eyes and seeing the dear souls who have joined in over the course of the morning. Emerging from contemplative practice can feel like opening my eyes in the morning -- leaving what is almost a dream-state, waking up to a new reality.

And immersing myself in prayer or contemplative practice can feel like a repeated opportunity to wake up. In my experience, spiritual life is characterized by a kind of ebb and flow between wakefulness and sleep. I wake up (to the realities of the world around me, or to my own inner life, or both) and then I fall asleep again, and then I notice that I'm asleep and wake up. Rinse, lather, repeat. Spiritual life is a perennial process of noticing where I have been asleep, and waking up again. And again.

There's a story about the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l (of blessed memory) -- actually, it's about one of his children. His daughter asked him, "Abba [Father], when we're asleep we can wake up. When we're awake, can we wake up even more?" (His answer, of course, was yes -- as is mine. We can always wake up even more. Our daily liturgy blesses God Who wipes the sleep from our eyes, and I understand that as a truth both in the physical realm and the spiritual realm.) 

Waking up even from our ostensible wakefulness is part of what spiritual practice is for. Prayer and meditation can help to wake us up -- even if we think we're already awake, we can always wake to deeper truths, to higher levels of reality, to the work we are here to do in the world. (Spiritual direction can also be a tool that helps us wake up to who we are called to be.) I'm grateful to my Friday morning meditation group for their willingness to return and return again to the work of waking up together.

 

Related:


Exile and expansiveness - a d'varling for parashat Bo

Exile-300x178Right now in our cycle of Torah readings (parashat Bo) we're reading about the plagues and the start of the Exodus. Looking for inspiration on this week's parsha, I turned to the Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim, "The Light of the Eyes." (His given name was Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl.) He writes about Egypt as a place of existential exile, and about what happens to us spiritually when we are brought forth from there.

Slavery in Egypt is our tradition's ultimate example of גלות / galut, existential alienation from God. It's the paradigmatic example of constriction. When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we're also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now.

For the Me'or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It's a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don't even realize we've fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself.

When one is in this kind of galut, it's hard to know the difference between what will give life and what will deaden us. Torah instructs us to "choose life," but it's hard to know what will enliven us when we're in a place of alienation from our Source. What the Exodus offers us is the opportunity to leave existential exile, and in that leaving, to regain the capacity for moral choice.

In the state of galut that we experience when we're in life's Narrow Places, there's only katnut-consciousness, small mind. It's a vicious cycle, because exile creates small mind, and small mind makes it hard to imagine breaking free from exile.

Emerging from the Narrow Place means being reborn from katnut into gadlut, from small mind into expansive consciousness. The words גלות / galut and גדלות / gadlut are similar, but there's one letter of difference between them: the letter ד / daled, which -- as I was powerfully reminded by Rabbi David Ingber in his extraordinary sermon on doorways and welcoming the stranger last night -- is a delet, a door. Galut is exile; gadlut is greatness, or expanded-mind. We begin in exile. We go through a door, a transformation, a state-change. And then we reach gadlut, "big mind." And once we've reached expansive consciousness, we can seek to know God wholly. That's why we were brought forth from Egypt, says the Me'or Eynayim: in order to know God wholly.

We were brought forth from Egypt in order to see beyond the binaries of our own constriction. Once we begin to glimpse gadlut, the constrictions of exile fall away.

Exile can be self-perpetuating, because when we're in it, it's hard to see a way out. Depression is like that. Despair is like that. Overwhelm is like that. Sometimes if I look at everything that's wrong with the world, exile rushes in and washes me away. But if we can open our minds even for an instant to glimpse the prospect of a better life, the fact of glimpsing a redemptive possibility makes that redemption possible.

Shabbat is our chance to glimpse the world redeemed -- to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be. May we emerge from Shabbat ready to roll up our sleeves, to combat small-mindedness wherever we find it, and to choose to bring more life everywhere we go.

 

This is the d'varling (brief d'var Torah) I offered at shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


With what we are to serve - a dvar Torah for WCJA


Static1.squarespaceIn this week's Torah portion, Moses argues with Pharaoh about letting the people go.

It's framed as "let the people go so they may worship Adonai." Torah doesn't speak in terms of freedom for its own sake. Moshe seeks his people's freedom from servitude and oppression and hard labor -- and, it's not just about being freed from, it's also about being freed toward.

Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but only the men, which Moses rejects: no, we're not leaving women and children behind. Then Pharaoh suggests he might let them go, but says they can't take herds or flocks with them. And Moshe says no, because:

וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה / "We shall not know with what we are to serve until we get there."

On the surface, he's making a practical point. The request was to let our people go so that we could worship God in the wilderness, and the way we did that back then was through animal sacrifice. In the physical world, when he says "we shall not know with what we are to serve" he's talking about goats and sheep. But in the worlds of emotion and spirit, Moshe's highlighting a fundamental truth of every new undertaking: we never know what a journey will ask of us.

Going from slavery to freedom, from servitude to Pharaoh to service to the One, from narrow straits to liberation: it's the core story of Jewish peoplehood. We retell it every year at the Passover seder. We remind ourselves of it every Shabbat when we sing Mi Chamocha, and when we make the kiddush over wine. Those of us who have the practice of daily Jewish liturgical prayer remind ourselves of it every day.

It's also a core story of our lives. We move from constriction to expansion, from unconsciousness to consciousness, from calcified habits to transformation, over and over again. As we grow up and leave a childhood home for college, or leave the Purple Valley for the wide world outside. As we outgrow old circumstances and start over. As we discover that we can be more than we have been, and then pursue that becoming.

Hold that thought, because I want to pause and look at what it means to serve. I said earlier that Moshe's request is to free the people, but not so they can be accountable to no one. He seeks to free them from Pharaoh so they can serve God instead. That may sound like trading one master for another. But I think it's not, and here's why.

Pharaoh dehumanized us. He signed an executive order to have our baby boys murdered. Pharaoh believed that we were inferior to "regular" Egyptian citizens. Pharaoh saw us as teeming masses of foreigners, people who prayed differently and dressed differently and therefore deserved a lifetime of slavery in the pyramid-industrial complex. When describing how Pharaoh saw us, Torah says "the Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed" -- swarmed, like bugs. Being enslaved to Pharaoh meant working for the betterment of someone who saw us as equivalent to cockroaches. 

Service to God is the opposite of that. To Pharaoh we were indistinguishable insects, but in God's eyes each of us is infinitely precious. Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image and the likeness of the One -- regardless of race or religion, shape or skin tone. To serve God means to serve the source of love and liberation. It means to choose to align ourselves with the force that brought us out of slavery, and to seek to break the shackles of those who are still enslaved.

But maybe you don't believe in God, not even the one I just described. That's okay. We can talk another time about why I'm more interested in engaging with -- talking to, wrestling with, demanding things of -- than believing in. No matter what you "believe in," there is service that awaits you, if you're willing to hear the call. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Work toward justice and human rights for all. Feed the hungry, protect the powerless, speak up for those who are victimized by structures of power and domination. That's the calling to which Judaism summons us.

And you won't know what resources you'll need for that work until you get there. You can learn. You can study. You can prepare with all your might. But the work of making the world a better place will require all of who you are, and you'll have to reach for strength and courage and conviction that you didn't know you had. Not once, but over and over again.

Every new chapter requires us to grow and deepen what we can offer to the world. It's true of a new semester. It's true of a new relationship, or a new job, or a new Presidential administration. We won't know with what we are called to serve until we get there. We won't know what this new adventure demands of us, what internal qualities of kindness or strength, courage or resolve we're going to need -- until we get there.

And "getting there" may be a misnomer. Because every moment asks us to dig deep and draw on the best of who we are. I know what resources I needed for yesterday, but yesterday's over. I know what resources I needed an hour ago, but that's then, and this is now. וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ לֹֽא־נֵדַ֗ע מַֽה־נַּעֲבֹד֙ אֶת–ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵ֖נוּ שָֽׁמָּה -- We won't know what this new moment asks of us until we reach it. And then there will be another new moment, and another after that.

Right now it's Shabbes, a deep dive into holy time. This is the time to soak up what nourishes us, to set aside the pressures of the week. This is the time to remember who we truly are -- not when we're defining ourselves through what we do, or what we've accomplished, or what's on our to-do list, but through who our hearts and souls yearn to be.

And when we emerge from this Shabbat, life will ask things of us. The new week will make demands on us. Our professors, or bosses, or families, will make demands on us. The world at large will make demands on us. May you be blessed with the ability to dig deep and find the reserves you need for whatever liberation, whatever new adventure, whatever challenges lie ahead. Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight at the Williams College Jewish Association. (I also offered a d'varling, a mini-d'var, during Kabbalat Shabbat services.)


An Extra Soul - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat at WCJA

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I've been thinking this week about the Torah of new beginnings. It's a new semester, a new beginning for all of you and all of your professors. And tonight marks a new beginning for me, too, the beginning of a new chapter for me at Williams. The poet Jason Shinder teaches, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." Whatever's on your mind can be the text you need to delve into, the lived Torah of your own human experience. What's been on my mind is new beginnings.

And hey, speaking of beginnings, every Friday night we sing a reminder of the creation story:

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת,  לַעֲשׂוֹֹת אֶת הַַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹֹלָם:  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹֹת הִיא לְעוֹֹלָם,  כִּי שֵֽׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְיָ  אֶת הַשָּׁמַֽיִם וְאֶת הָאָֽרֶץ וּבַיּוֹֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִנָּפַשׁ.

"The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant throughout the generations. Between Me and the children of Israel it is an eternal sign, (says God). For in six days, God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was ensouled."

A lot of translations will say "God rested and was refreshed." But I think "was ensouled" is a better translation. When God rested on the seventh day, something happened to the divine Soul. God got more of a soul. God's soul unfolded more fully. Something about Shabbat increased God's soulfulness.

First there was a new beginning -- the ultimate new beginning, the creation! And then God rested and was ensouled. As exciting as new beginnings are, it's not good for us to keep moving forward at their high energy level and frantic pace. Torah's creation story comes to remind us that it's important to take a break.

One of my favorite teachings says that we too receive an extra helping of soul on Shabbat. On Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, remembering in their twin flames the light of creation and the light of the burning bush, we too are "ensouled." We get a נשמח יתרה, an extra soul. (And tomorrow night when we make havdalah, we'll inhale spices as spiritual smelling salts, so we don't faint when our extra soul departs for the week.) 

The beginning of the semester holds all kinds of promise, and all kinds of challenges. It's easy to get caught up in thinking about your classes, your papers or lab projects, all the deadlines marching off into the distance between now and the end of the year. But tonight offers us something different: an opportunity to let go of the work of creating -- even the work of planning to create.

Tonight we get to pause in our work of new beginnings, and be re-ensouled.

An invitation to try something. Put your feet on the floor. Take a deep breath, and imagine the breath filling you all the way up, and all the way down -- from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. Let that breath go, and with it, let go of all of the week's stresses and frustrations. Set aside everything that worries you about the semester now beginning. Take another breath, and let it fill you all the way up again.

That's one way of glimpsing the extra helping of soul Shabbat offers us. Extra breath. Extra breathing room. Room for your heart to expand.

Another way the mystics see that extra soul is that it heightens our ability to yearn and to feel joy. The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov goes a step further and says the extra soul comes into being through our yearnings. Because we yearn, we get an extra soul during Shabbat. Yearning reveals who we most deeply are. What do you yearn for as this Shabbat begins? Get in touch with your yearnings, and your extra soul will unfurl.

May your Shabbat be soulful and sweet -- and enliven you for all the new beginnings, and all the future yearnings, to come.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association during Kabbalat Shabbat services. (I also offered a longer d'var Torah during dinner.)


Full circle: back to Friday night at Williams

 

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I'm not sure when I first went to Friday night services and dinner at the JRC -- the Jewish Religious Center -- at Williams. But I'm pretty sure it was the first Friday of my freshman year, fall of 1992, a few months short of 25 years ago. College was new, and I wanted something familiar. Sure enough, davening the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat was comforting, and WCJA (the Williams College Jewish Association) offered a way of meeting new people, and also there was a home-cooked dinner made by students in the JRC's kosher kitchen. I went back. And I went back again. Going to Shabbat at the JRC became part of my routine.

This week I'm returning to Friday nights at the JRC, now as the interim Jewish chaplain to the College. During my days at the College this week I've been re-acclimating myself to what used to be a familiar environment. Much of the campus is as it was when I was a student, though of course there are new buildings -- new structures in places that used to be open and empty, or new structures in place of old ones -- and new names to learn. What once was Baxter Hall (the student union building, home of mailboxes, a dining hall, a snack bar, and WCFM radio station, among other things) is now Paresky -- where my office is.

But the JRC feels much the same to me now as it did then. It's still a white, airy wedding cake of a structure, lined with bookshelves, art, and plush couches. Another thing that hasn't changed is that Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services aren't led by the Jewish chaplain, but rather by students. This empowers the students to take their spiritual lives into their own hands instead of depending on a clergyperson to create spiritual and liturgical life for them. I remember how important that was to me when I was an undergrad, and I'm grateful that that tradition of student leadership hasn't changed in the intervening decades. 

Returning now as staff to an institution where I was once a student is a fascinating experience. From this vantage I begin to see things about the whole institution that weren't obvious to me when I was immersed in it as a student. I'm also aware that I need to be careful not to superimpose my experiences from then over what today's students are experiencing now. I've been there a week, and already I can tell that the institution has changed in some interesting ways. Today there is a vibrant chaplaincy team working together to support the complex tapestry of multi-faith campus community life. That didn't exist 25 years ago. 

But one thing that I suspect hasn't changed (much) is Friday nights at the JRC. Kabbalat Shabbat services are still student-led, just as they were then (though they're no longer using denominational prayerbooks -- now they use the Purple Valley Siddur, created just for use at WCJA.) Shabbat dinner is still planned, shopped-for, and prepared by students, just as it was then. I know that far more students come to dinner now than used to in my day. I'm looking forward to getting to know them, and to learning about each unique soul who chooses to infuse their weekend at this secular institution with a sense of Shabbat holiness. 

In college my dear friend David (now Rabbi David, my ALEPH co-chair) wore a kippah every Friday night, even after leaving the JRC. He would wear his kippah all evening, walking back to his dorm, or going to whatever social opportunity presented itself after our time at the JRC. It was a consciousness-raiser for him, a way of reminding himself that it was a a time out of time, even after he had re-entered the flow of secular campus life. (I think of that even now, sometimes, when I wear my kippah in secular spaces.) I'm pretty sure that if he could see me at WCJA tonight, he would be pleased for me -- and for this community that I'm now blessed to serve.