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A summer Sunday in Rensselaerville (all are welcome)

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I've never been to the First Presbyterian Church in Rensselaerville, NY, but their all are welcome page makes me love them already. I'll be worshipping with them next Sunday, August 5, because I've been invited to preach.

How does it come to pass that a rabbi will be preaching from their lectern? It turns out I'm far from the first to do so. Every summer they they welcome clergy and religious folks of different faiths to bring spiritual sustenance to their community. They've been doing that for more than 100 years:

For a short period in the second half of the 19th century, the village of Rensselaerville was a lively industrial town as the first site of the Huyck Woolen Mills. When mill founder and Presbyterian Church member F. C. Huyck Sr. moved his mill to Albany, he did not sever ties with the village or the church. But as jobs left with the mill so did many of the village residents, leaving the church without enough members to maintain a year-round pastor. The church continued because the Huyck family returned to Rensselaerville each summer to vacation and provided for a pastor during their stay.

F.C. Huyck Sr.’s granddaughter Katharine Huyck Elmore expanded the vision of the summer services, in the mid-20th century, to encompass various faith traditions and invited ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns and other preachers to bring their messages of compassion, social justice and stewardship of the world and community to our pulpit.

Their theme for this summer is "And still we rise" (after "And still I rise" by Maya Angelou), and everyone who's preaching there during the summer season is offering a reflection on that theme.

They asked me a few months ago to give them the title for my sermon. While I often struggle to come up with sermon titles (usually I write the sermon first and then figure out whatto call it), in this case I knew right away that I would call my remarks "Descent for the Sake of Ascent." I will draw on Torah, Hasidic tradition, and the unfolding of the Jewish sacred calendar to offer hope, strength, and consolation appropriate for listeners of any faith.

Worship begins at 11am. If you're in or near Rensselaerville next Sunday, I hope you'll join us.


The ties that bind

43592524802_927057d438_zGoing through a box of old papers and photographs in my parents' garage, I unearthed an embroidered velvet bag. Inside it was a set of tefillin -- old and worn, with straps that are thin both in diameter and in heft. One of the batim (the little houses that hold the scrolls) was partially crushed, and one of the retzuot (the straps) had broken into two pieces.

I was amazed. I went upstairs to find my father. The initials on the bag could be his: were these his tefillin?

"I don't think so," he said. "I don't recognize them. I don't think I've ever seen that bag before. Besides, mine are in my bedside drawer." 

We went to his bedside table and sure enough his own tefillin were there, in their velvet bag, just as he thought... along with yet another set of tefillin!

"These are mine," he said, taking his own set briefly out of their case, "and I don't think I've put them on since my bar mitzvah! But I have no idea where this third set" -- the other ones in the back of his drawer -- "came from either."

This third set of tefillin has no bag or carrying case. Unlike the ones in the embroidered bag, which are clearly damaged, these seem to be intact. They show some signs of age, but the retzuot feel firm and the batim feel solid. 

After some reflection, he decided that the third set -- the one in better shape -- probably belonged to his father Israel Barenblat z"l, and the ones in the velvet bag might have belonged to his grandfather Benjamin Barenblat z"l. But we can't be certain. We don't know the origins or original owner of either set.

I didn't bring my tefillin on this trip. Holding these -- especially the seemingly-intact third set -- made me yearn to put them on. So I said the blessings and wrapped myself in them. 

Was it my imagination, or did I feel a pulse of energy coming through them, a zetz of connection with whichever ancestor once owned them?

They definitely felt unfamiliar. My own tefillin were brand-new when they were given to me thirteen years ago. They are a different size than these, and their straps feel different beneath my fingers and on my arm. But even though these were clearly not my tefillin, they felt good on my body. As tefillin always do, they activated my awareness of connection with God -- always thrumming beneath the surface. I sat in them for a moment, and said the shema silently, and marveled, and then took them off.

Both sets are coming home with me, and I'm already making inquiries with my friend Rabbi / Sofer Kevin Hale to see if he will check them and make repairs as necessary. Maybe one of these sets will pass to my son when he becomes bar mitzvah. 

For now, I'm traveling home with the family tefillin safely tucked into my carry-on. I'm thinking about my family and its generations. I hope my ancestors to whom these once belonged would be happy to know that their tefillin have found a new home with their descendant the rabbi, even if my rabbinate would have been unimaginable to them.

Whenever I visit my birthplace and my parents I expect to come away with a renewed sense of connection to where I come from. But these tefillin crystallize that connection in a beautiful and unexpected way. I am grateful.

An early Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


Family bikkur cholim

Am_pm_pill_organizerThe mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is said to have originated with the Holy One of Blessing. When God visits Avraham by the oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, that's understood to mean not just the literal heat of afternoon but the internal heat of fever. God visits Avraham as Avraham is recovering from his circumcision. In visiting the sick, we emulate God.

Another teaching, this one from the Gemara, holds that the Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence -- hovers over the head of the sickbed like a mother bird protecting her young. God's Presence is with those who are ill, whether they are aware of it or not. When we visit those who are sick, we enter into the divine Presence. The sickbed is a sacred space.

When we visit those who are ill, it's not our job to offer explanations for why we think they are sick, or tell them why their illness isn't so bad, or tell them how to feel about however they are. It is our job to be present, be kind, be ready to listen. To hold space for whatever they want or need to say. To take their cues about what they want to discuss. To let them rest when they need to.

And... all of these responsibilities may become more difficult if the person one is visiting is part of one's family. We all have roles that we play in our family systems: caregiver, rescuer, mediator, truth-teller, clown, the one who cheers people up, the one who picks fights, the one who makes peace. When someone is ill, those roles and their familiarity may lock old patterns in place.

Part of the work of bikkur cholim with one's own family is cultivating compassion for oneself amid the inevitability of sliding into those old roles. If you are visiting a family member who is ill, cultivate kindness both toward the person you are visiting, and toward your own neshamah (your own soul) as you do the visiting. You too are likely to need some gentleness and care.

For anyone who's doing the work of bikkur cholim, it's important to seek out a trusted friend, or rabbi, or spiritual director with whom you can process whatever comes up for you. Don't burden the person who is sick with responsibility for your reaction to their illness. Emotional reactions are normal! Don't be afraid to lean on your own support network before and after you visit.

It is natural to want to "fix" things -- especially if the person you are visiting is a member of your family. And... making things better is not your job. No matter what. The best gift you can offer is your presence, and your attentiveness to their needs. And you can best tend to the one who is sick if you're attentive also to your own needs for solitude and downtime and care.

 

Related:

Praying for what's possible, 2014


Fresh air

N31766772985_1412396_6955In 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, an independent not-for-profit organization, was created with one simple mission – to allow children living in low-income communities to enjoy free summer experiences in the country. [Source]

Back when the Fresh Air Fund was started, tuberculosis was a serious danger, and fresh air was understood to be restorative. We have other ways of treating TB now, but the Fresh Air Fund is still sending low-income city kids to the country. Their mission -- "getting children out of the city and into fresh air where they [can] play freely and not worry about the grinding pressures of hunger, crime, and poverty – remains unchanged." [Source]

Some months ago, the local Fresh Air Fund representative contacted me to see if I would share a flyer with the synagogue community. The place where I live is part of their Friendly Towns Program, and I have congregants who have hosted Fresh Air Fund kids in years past. Of course I agreed to share their materials with my shul community. And I thought, "Wow: wouldn't it be great for my kid if we served as a host family?" 

I ran the idea by my kid, and he agreed enthusiastically to the idea of hosting. My ex and his partner and I filled out the paperwork, underwent the requisite background check, and waited. Finally we learned that we'd been matched with a boy a year younger than ours. And this week we are a Fresh Air Fund host family, in our two households, introducing a city kid to life in northern Berkshire (and southern Vermont, where he is joining my son at day camp for the week.)

When I ran the idea by my kid all those months ago, I think he was mostly excited about the prospect of having a playmate. We talked about how it's a mitzvah (a commandment, a core part of Jewish life and practice) to be generous and hospitable, and to share what we have with those who have less, but I'm not sure how much that really penetrated his consciousness. 

I don't think my son realizes how fortunate we are. He has not one but two homes: his father's house and mine. He has summer camp opportunities, and a condo pool, and pretty much all the LEGOs a kid could want, and great expanses of back yard and woods to run around in. I want him to learn that it's our job to share our abundance. One way we try to do that is that half of his allowance each week goes to tzedakah. Another way we're trying to do that is inviting someone who doesn't have all of those opportunities to share for a week in the bounty we enjoy.

And... while I know I just said we're sharing our abundance, we also can't position ourselves as the generous hosts who "have" and are sharing with those who "have not." These boys both have things to teach each other and to learn from each other. In a way, this is a cultural exchange program both for the city kid who comes here, and for the country kid who hosts him. 

As our first Fresh Air Fund week unfolds, I think both boys are learning a lot. Our visitor speaks Chinese on the phone home with his parents, while my son's vocabulary is sprinkled with Hebrew words. My son marvels that his new buddy walks to school and to the grocery store and takes the subway all the time -- those are city norms that are unfamiliar to my small-town kid. Meanwhile, his new friend had never swum in a pond or a stream before, and finds it strange that we have to drive to get anywhere other than our mailbox and the condo pool. 

Welcoming an unfamiliar kid into the household is a learning experience for all of us. It's an opportunity for my son to learn how to be a gracious host, which is an important mitzvah though not always an easy one. Sharing one's stuff with another kid is hard, especially when that other kid is a stranger, especially when you may not easily be able to find common ground. I'm learning how to moderate the two boys' needs, taking into account the fact that one of them is a visitor far from home and the other is my own kid whose wants and needs I know well.

I'm grateful that we're doing this -- and I'm grateful not despite the challenges, but in part precisely because of them. I think my son is growing a lot this week, and I suspect that as I grapple with the challenges of parenting (or serving in loco parentis for) two very different kids, I'm growing too. And I'm happy that we're able to give this city kid a week's worth of country adventures: frog ponds and campfires, swim dates and streams, evening popsicles on our mirpesset under the wide open small-town sky. 

 

Deep gratitude to Camp Sarsaparilla in Pownal, VT, which offers scholarships each week for Fresh Air Fund kids. 


Seven energies, seven weeks, coming soon

Tree-of-Life-DetailedSeven is a special number in Judaism. Seven are the days of the week (six days of creation + Shabbat). In many Jewish weddings, the partners circle each other seven times. We make seven stops when carrying a casket to the grave. Seven are the colors of the rainbow.

We count the Omer for seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and some of us do a reverse Omer count during the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. And all of these sevens can be echoes, or reminders, of the seven energetic qualities that our mystics find in divinity (and in us.)

Our mystics understand God to be both transcendent (infinite, beyond our grasp) and immanent (reachable / relatable / embodied in creation). They envisioned a map of ten divine qualities or energies (called sefirot) through which God's infinity flows into finite creation.

You might imagine the sefirot as electrical transformers that enable the energy of divine infinity to "step down" and modulate to a level that's graspable in physical creation.  Sometimes these ten qualities are depicted as nodes in a map of energy-flow. Sometimes they're depicted superimposed over an image of a tree, or over an image of a human being.

At the "top" of the map is Ein Sof -- "Without End," limitlessness, infinity. ("Top" and "bottom" are metaphors for something that's not actually spatial at all, but we use a spatial metaphor to help us imagine this.)  The "upper" three sefirot are usually considered so lofty that we can't reach them. (Different schools conceptualize the upper three in different ways and with different names: "Crown" and Wisdom and Understanding, or Wisdom and Understanding and Knowledge.)

But the "lower" seven sefirot are energetic qualities that are accessible to us and are manifest in creation. These are the energetic qualities that we cultivate and discern during the year's two seven-week corridors of inner work and counting: one in the (Northern hemisphere) spring between Pesach and Shavuot, and the other in the (Northern hemisphere) late summer / early fall between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. They are chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, and malchut.

Chesed is love, lovingkindness, unbounded flow. Chesed is the outpouring of overabundant love. 

Gevurah is boundaries, strength, judgment. Gevurah is a strong channel, and the ability to discern good from bad. 

Tiferet is harmony, balance, beauty. Some see tiferet as the perfect harmony of love and boundaried-strength.

Netzach is endurance and perseverance. Netzach is the energy of persistence, the energy of eternity.

Hod means both humility and splendor. This can be a kind of koan: splendor-in-humility, humility-in-splendor.

Yesod is foundations, roots, generativity. Yesod roots us in the generations, both past and future.

Malchut, sometimes translated as nobility or kingship, is presence and manifestation. Malchut is associated with Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence, the divine feminine, the essence of Shabbat. 

Each person manifests each of these qualities. One component of the inner work that Jewish tradition calls us to do is discerning which of these qualities we need to strengthen and how to keep them in good balance. Each of these is a good thing when balanced with the others, and each can become a negative thing if it grows unchecked. (For instance, chesed -- lovingkindness -- is a wonderful quality -- but if it flows without limit, it can lead to ethical breaches, boundary crossing, and spiritual bypassing.)

Tisha b'Av is coming up at the end of this week. After Tisha b'Av, there are seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. During the seven weeks after Pesach (the Omer count) we begin with the quality of chesed and culminate with the quality of malchut. During these coming seven weeks, we begin with malchut -- presence, Shechinah, the divine feminine -- and "ascend" the energetic ladder all the way back to chesed, the energy of lovingkindness that will lead us into the start of a new Jewish year. 

 


A week of learning, vision, and building with Bayit

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Bayit's summer learning week together begins with Shabbes. We come together from all of our various home places, put on our Shabbes whites, and daven, walking outside with a guitar to welcome the Shabbat bride into our midst. When we gather around the dining table, our kiddush soars, and my soul with it. We feast and talk and laugh and sing the birkat hamazon (grace after meals). We walk to the beach under the just-past-full moon and swoon at the sparkling path of moonlight across the waves.

On Shabbes morning our davenen is long and leisurely. Leadership flows organically: someone picks up the guitar or begins to offer a melody and the rest follow. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz gives over some Torah, and we talk about Balaam, social justice, and when it is and isn't someone's job to educate those who mistreat them. Later we study when one can send a shaliach (messenger) on one's behalf and when it's important to do a mitzvah with one's own hands, and social justice, individual, and community.

There's beach time, text study, singing. There's the indescribable sweetness of spending a full Shabbat with others who care as much as I do. There are long afternoon conversations, and singing around the table as daylight wanes. There's havdalah outside, our hands cupped around the candle so the ocean breeze doesn't blow it out. There's late-night conversation about what it means for our building work to be a tikkun for what has been broken, and even later-night Pictionary with endless laughter.

And that's just the first night and day.

Visioning

We daven every day, gliding in and out of service leadership, singing in harmony. We dedicate hours to talking about Bayit's mission and vision, about the projects that are already underway, about partnership and collaboration, about what we yearn to build. We cook meals and clean up from meals and walk across the street to the beach and lounge by the ocean and swim and bask in the sunshine. We dive deep into the nature of innovation, systems and structures, how to wisely do spiritual R&D.

We study Ezekiel with Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, diving into difficult questions of theodicy, relationship, spiritual formation, privilege, bypassing, gender, and grief. We study the theology of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy): how narratives and instructions from earlier in Torah are recast there, and what it means to hear God's voice and study God's word, and immanence and transcendence, and what the Deuteronomic God asks of us (learning and love.)

We study mussar, Shabbat, and medical halakha and ethics with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. There's a text from the Nezer Yisrael -- about Shabbat, oscillation between giving and receiving, and how divinity can be manifest in authentic relationship --  that lights me up like a Chanukiyah. There are teshuvot (responsa) and texts that raise big questions about identity, disability, change, personhood, and the halakhic process. We talk and grapple and question and learn.

We spin blue-sky dreams about where we want the Jewish future to go and what we want to build, about curation and collaboration and innovation -- and then we anchor those dreams in six-month and one-year and three-year and five-year plans. We talk about empowering folks to build an accessible, meaningful Judaism now. We talk about governance and publishing and the internet and spiritual seekers and "all ages and stages." Then we set our work aside and immerse in the ocean, with joy.

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We begin to brainstorm about how we might re-invent the second day of Rosh Hashanah. What is the spiritual journey of that day, and how is it different from the first day? What do our communities need on that day? What elements ask a new uplift? What is the valance of teshuvah (returning / "repentance") on that day distinct from the day before? What kind of temporal and spiritual runway do we need so our communities can accompany us into the spiritual territory we want to explore that day?

One night we bring folding chairs to the beach and daven ma'ariv with a guitar, accompanied by the waves, beneath the spread of stars. No one has a siddur, but it doesn't matter; we have the words and the matbe'ah (the service's internal structure) by heart. We sing to the One Who placed the planets in their orbit and the stars in the heavens. Because it came up in conversation earlier that day that one of us loves "Hotel California," we close with "Adon Olam" to that melody in multipart harmony.

When Bayit's summer learning and visioning week comes to an end, I'm sad to leave this space of learning and visioning and holy play... and grateful to have such hevre with whom to do the holy work of building together. Deep thanks to The Jewish Studio, our fiscal sponsor, for making this week possible -- and to my hevre, for dedicating their hands and hearts to the proposition that everyone can be a builder, and that a meaningful, accessible, renewing Judaism is ours to build together.

 

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With [some of] my Bayit hevre: building toward the Jewish future together.