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Replenish

Series.replenishLife is full of obligations. Work, school, caring for children, caring for parents, deadlines, due dates, doctor's visits, the carpool, the groceries, the laundry, the bills. Then there's the news, which contains reasons for anxiety and spurs to action: postcards, petitions, protests, campaigns. Then there's the rabbit-hole of looking deeper into one's media choices: am I reading a sufficiently broad cross-section of sources, am I engaging with diverse viewpoints, am I putting my attention in the right places? If I'm an activist on this front, am I ignoring that issue? And meanwhile did I forget to pick up the dry-cleaning, and when will I unload the dishwasher, and is there milk for breakfast tomorrow morning, and, and, and...

Each of us could list a litany of stressors and obligations. (And for some of us making the list is comforting, offering a sense of "control" over the to-do's -- while for others the fact of the list itself can be anxiety-provoking, fuel for an emotional tailspin.)

But what would go on your counter-list, the list of things that replenish you rather than draining you?

Maybe it's curling up with a cup of tea or coffee, not as fuel for your daily work but as an opportunity to pause and savor. Maybe it's cuddling with a pet or a loved one. Maybe it's treating yourself to a good novel or piece of fiction. Maybe it's studying Torah or Hasidut or Mussar. Maybe it's reading poetry. (Maybe it's writing poetry.) Maybe it's a hot bath, or a visit to the gym, or a walk outdoors. Maybe it's yoga or meditation. Maybe it's prayer. Maybe it's wrapping yourself in tallit and tefillin. Maybe it's listening to music, or singing, or playing an instrument. Maybe it's lunch with a friend. Maybe it's Shabbes -- which could mean lighting candles and blessing bread and wine, or being with friends or family or community, or going to shul, or staying home; it could mean relinquishing technology for a day, or changing your technology use so that it nourishes rather than depleting.

For me one of the perennial challenges in replenishing myself is giving myself permission to focus there in the first place. There's so much that needs doing: on a personal level (work, dishes, parenting), on a community level (am I doing enough to give back?), on a national level (I'm not satisfied with the current American body politic), on a global level (am I doing enough to work against climate change, or toward greater interfaith understanding?) The work that needs to be done is endless.

And that endlesssness is precisely why and how I give myself permission to replenish my own well. The work is without limit: it will never be done. If I try to throw myself at it without stopping, I'll burn out and that will be the end of my capacity to make things better than they are. If I can pause to replenish, then I can return to the neverending tasks at hand with renewed vigor. 

There are things that replenish me in body, in heart, in mind, in spirit (all four worlds.) Some of them change with the seasons, though many are perennial. Over time I've learned what refills my well, and I've learned techniques for short-circuiting the self-critical voice that sometimes nags "why are you taking care of yourself when there's so much else to do?" I've learned that my body is nourished by good food and hot showers and clean laundry, and my heart is nourished by time with my beloveds, and my mind is nourished by reading and study, and my spirit is nourished by tallit and tefillin and song.

What replenishes you, and what are you doing to take care of yourself so you can wake with strength to another day?

 


Looking forward to Shavuot!

Shavuot is drawing ever-nearer!

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If you're looking  for more information about the progressive Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat that I'm organizing for members of my community along with members of three other small innovative congregations (Temple Beth El of City Island, Beacon Hebrew Alliance, and Shtiebel) here are some anticipated highlights of the weekend, and here's a thirty-second video about our retreat. We hope you'll join us (click on the "register now" button to sign up.)


Blue reflecting blue

41540405682_b46fa349c5_zThe view from my mirpesset.

 

It's traditional to tie a thread of blue into our tzitzit (the fringes on our prayer shawls).

Some say this is to remind us of when our ancestors "went up" to God and saw a sapphire floor that was "like" a floor beneath a throne that was "like" a throne. (I'm putting those words in quotes because -- as parashat Mishpatim makes clear -- an encounter with God is necessarily beyond all language.)

Others say that the blue thread in our tzitzit is "just" the blue of sky -- no need for mystical visions of sapphire, the blue threads simply remind us of the heavens. Still others see the blue thread as the blue of the sea. Maybe it's the blue of sea reflecting sky reflecting sea in endless conversation.

This morning I davened shacharit (morning prayers) from my little mirpesset (balcony) overlooking the water. I'm profoundly blessed to be spending this week in a place where I can see the sea, and the sky, in all of their ever-changing splendor. 

One of the standard morning blessings praises God Who spreads the earth over the waters. Today I inverted it, blessing the One Who covers so much of this planet with the wonders of the sea.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

 


Shabbat shalom

14305236341_27b5351f2e_zMay the Shabbat that is coming

bring comfort to all who grieve,

sweetness to all who are in need,

and balm for our wounded places.

May it bring us rest

and gentleness

and light.

May Shabbat enable us to shed

our world-weary weekday faces

and to soak in gratitude and wonder.

May we feel connected

with whose whom we love

and with our deepest selves

and with our Source.

May we emerge from Shabbat

nourished and ready

to meet the new week.

For now, may we prepare ourselves

to greet the Shabbat bride

with joy.

 


Yom HaShoah

Tbe-1521766167Today is Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a Jew and as a rabbi I feel that I "should" have something to say, but when I look inside to discern what my heart wants to articulate, I find only tears and silence.

In this week's Torah portion, Aaron's sons are killed and Aaron himself is silent. (I wrote about that a few days ago.) I often read his silence as a kind of stunned, grief-stricken numbness.  The horror is too great: there are no words to adequately express it.

There's a resonance between that passage and how many of us relate to the Shoah. Millions of human beings rounded up like cattle, forced into hard labor, experimented-upon without anesthesia, murdered and cremated: it's unthinkable. 

The attempt to wholly eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth: it's unthinkable. Mass extermination also of queer people, Roma, disabled and mentally ill people: it's unthinkable. Extermination camps and gas chambers: it's unthinkable.

The mind shuts down. The heart shuts down. The spirit shuts down. Because the alternative is screaming, wailing, rending our garments, a primal and existential outcry of why and how and where were You, God, when we were led to the slaughter?

Why? The only explanation is humanity's capacity for hatred -- which persists in our day. White supremacy, hatred of Jews,  hatred of Muslims, hatred of queer / trans folks, hatred of immigrants: all are part of the same hateful dehumanization.

How? Because during a time of fear, hatred of the other became ascendant and was normalized. Which is why we have to be vigilant, and push back against fascism and xenophobia and white supremacy and hatred, wherever / whenever they appear.

Where were You, God? There are a lot of different answers to that question. My theology holds that God was with us in our suffering. God was with us in the camps and in the gas chambers. God wept with us then and God weeps with us now.

On this awful day of remembrance, may all who mourn be comforted. May the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing. May the memory of the eleven million (Jews and others) murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing.

And tomorrow, when this day of remembrance is behind us, may we all reconsecrate our hearts and hands to the work of building a world in which these hatreds, and the horrors to which they led, are a thing of the past, never to be repeated.

 


A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week's Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu bring "strange fire" before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week's Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, "did it wrong," and were instantly killed. 

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there's nothing one can say.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can't understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach -- according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, "even the merest handmaiden." Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today's Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don't necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation. 

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin -- and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition's ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now. 

So here's my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal... so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

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


Pantoum for the Seventh Day

Step into the water.
You can't see the far shore.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Take a deep breath and keep walking.

You can't see the far shore.
There's no knowing what's ahead.
Take a deep breath and keep walking,
Cultivating faith in your body.

There's no knowing what's ahead.
This is what the sages mean by
"Cultivating faith in your body."
Can you trust that you'll make it?

This is what the sages mean by
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
Can you trust that you'll make it?
You're not crossing the sea alone.

"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
The only way out is through.
You're not crossing the sea alone.
Sing with me as we make our way.

The only way out is through.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Sing with me as we make our way.
Step into the water.


Step into the water. Today is the seventh day of Pesach, regarded by tradition as the anniversary of the date when our ancient ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds. 

Is the foam rising, or receding? Midrash holds that the waters didn't part until a brave soul named Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into the water and continued until the waters reached his mouth.

Cultivating faith in your body. See the teaching from the Netivot Shalom about how embodying faith enables us to sing.

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er. From a folk song, used in some communities as a melody for "Mi Chamocha," the song we sang at the sea.

 


Seeking: seeing the ordinary through new eyes

41103862801_a487c0fafd_zOn the eve of Pesach we search for hidden hametz by the light of a candle.

On Thursday evening I hid ten pieces of bread. I called my son downstairs when they were all hidden, and I handed him a candle, a feather, and wooden spoon. With those traditional implements he searched the house for hametz. The following morning I took the pieces of bread, along with last fall's lulav, and burned them.

On the first two nights of Pesach we search for the hidden afikoman.

The seder has fifteen steps (like the fifteen physical steps up to the Temple in days of old), and one of them is Tzafun, "Hidden." At every seder a piece of matzah is declared to be the afikoman and then hidden. The kids hunt for it and then redeem it (in some households, holding the seder "hostage" for a prize, because until the afikoman is found and shared, the seder can't continue.) 

Because of how the Jewish and Christian calendars overlap this year, our three days of (Jewish) searching bumps right into a (Christian) day when kids search for something hidden, too. Today my son will visit his Christian grandmother and search for colored plastic eggs filled with treats and small toys. He noticed the thematic resonance between our Jewish customs and this Christian one, and proclaimed it "awesome." I asked him what the searching means to him, and he said:

It's fun because it's about finding something new in regular places. If you find something new to do, then you always have it with you. And that makes it like you're traveling, finding new places, even though you're not going anywhere.

When I think about the candle-lit search for hametz, I think about the inner work of searching the corners of my heart for the last crumbs of old "stuff" I need to let go in order to be ready for freedom and transformation. When I think about the search for the afikoman, I think about the teaching that we hide the larger half of the broken middle matzah (rather than the smaller half) to affirm that there is more that is Hidden and Mysterious than we can ever grasp.

And now I will also think of the wisdom I received from my son. The candle-lit nighttime search, the afikoman hunt, and the Easter-egg hunt all take "ordinary" places and make them special and different because of the act of searching there. They enable us to "travel" without physically going anywhere, because they give us a traveler's wondering eyes. And when we train ourselves to seek the special within the ordinary, we acquire a skill that we can carry with us wherever we go.

As we move into the Omer journey of preparing ourselves to receive Torah anew, may we be blessed with eyes of wonder. May we continue to seek, and may what we find uplift us, challenge us, enrich us, and enable us ever-more to become the people we aspire to be. 

 

Image: searching for hametz by candle-light.