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January 2019

A time for silence, a time to speak

SpeakMaybe this is part of why I'm a poet: I'm an external processor. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" wrote EM Forster. Me too. I write my way to understanding the flow of my emotional life. I write my way out of the hurricane. 

When I had my strokes, I wrote about them here, and about the journey of exploration that followed -- the medical journey (we never did figure out what caused them) and the spiritual journey of seeking equanimity in the face of that enormous unknown. 

When I had my miscarriage, I wrote a cycle of ten poems -- and rewrote, and revised, and polished -- as my path toward healing. And then I shared them here, because I hoped they would help someone else who was navigating those same waters.

When the body involved is my own, when the story involved is my own, I can share openly when the spirit moves me. Because living an authentic spiritual life in the open is a core part of my spiritual practice, and because my words may help others.

And I know, from emails and comments over the 15+ years of this blog, that what I write does help others. That many of you have found comfort and strength here. That when I am willing to be real, that can call forth a mirroring authenticity in you.

But sometimes the story isn't mine to tell. I remember conversations about this when I was getting my MFA at Bennington (20 years ago) -- how do we chart a responsible path through telling the stories of our lives when those lives intersect with others?

I'm not talking about maintaining silence to protect someone who abuses power or causes harm. I'm talking about -- for instance, stories I don't share here because they're about my son. He wants to tell his own stories, and that's as it should be.

I make a practice of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try not to hide my sorrows or my joys. For me that's part of the spiritual work of being real, which in turn allows me to be a clear channel for the poetry and the other work that comes through me.

But there are some stories that need to stay behind drawn curtains, for the sake of others' privacy. Maybe they will emerge in poems, some years hence. Or in essays, written with the distance of time. Or in a eulogy offered someday in a shaking voice. 

What we see of each other is only ever a partial revelation. As Kate Inglis writes, "Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience." Be kind: you never know the story that someone is choosing not to tell.


Tetzaveh: becoming mitzvot, bringing light

One-candleThis week we’re in parashat Tetzaveh. The Torah portion takes its name from its first word, which means "You shall command." (It comes from the same root as mitzvah, commandment.) God is telling Moses to command us to kindle an eternal light in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. That's a mitzvah that we still fulfill, with the eternal light in every sanctuary.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet reads this verse in a beautiful way. First he notes the verse from Proverbs, "The candle of God is the soul of a human being." When we are in dark places, we light a candle to help us see. And God’s response to dark places is us -- we are the candles that God lights in order to bring light into the world. It’s our job to bring light.

I want to say that again, because it's so beautiful to me. We are God's candles. There's a ner tamid (eternal light) in every synagogue sanctuary, but the point of that lamp isn't just to be a lamp: it's there to remind us that it's our job to be sources of light in the darkness. The darkness of grief, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of fear. We can dispel those with our light.

That word tetzaveh, "you shall command" -- the Sfat Emet reads it creatively to mean, "you shall bring mitzvot into the souls of the children of Israel, so that they themselves become mitzvot." Bring mitzvot into our souls, and we ourselves will become mitzvot -- holy acts, connected at our root to the Source of all goodness. That’s what it means to be a light in the world.

The blessing for a mitzvah -- lighting Shabbat candles, or affixing a mezuzah -- contains the words אשר קדשנו במצוותיו / asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav, "Who makes us holy in connecting-command." The Sfat Emet is saying that this goes deeper than just blessing God Who gives us mitzvot. When we bring mitzvot into our hearts, we ourselves become connections with God. 

Rabbi Art Green writes in his commentary on the Sfat Emet that this is actually the purpose of our lives as Jews: to so thoroughly embody the mitzvot that we ourselves become mitzvot. To so thoroughly embody Jewish practices and values that they become who we are. And maybe that's another way of saying what Proverbs says, that our souls can be God's candles.

In Proverbs we read that a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light. A mitzvah is a candle, an opportunity to bring light into the world. And Torah is light -- we sing those words every time we dress the Torah scroll, תורה אורה / Torah orah!  For our mystics, the physical Torah we study in this world is a stand-in for the supernal Torah on high, and that Torah, the real Torah, is light.

So let's recap: our souls are light -- we're God's candles. The mitzvot are light -- they too are candles waiting to be lit. And Torah is light. Which takes me to the other words we sing when we're dressing the Torah, from the Zohar: ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוה  / Yisrael v'oraita v'kudsha brich hu chad hu, "Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One of Blessing, are all One." 

Us, and Torah, and God: the Zohar teaches that these are all fundamentally one. Our deepest essence is that we are One with Torah, we are One with God, we are One with the source of all light. Right now it's Shabbes: we can bask in that light. And in the new week, we can strive to live it -- to embody Torah, to embody the mitzvot -- so that we can be bearers of light in the world.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI on Shabbat morning, and is cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Offered here with gratitude to my Bayit hevre for studying the Sfat Emet with me each week.

 


Kate Inglis' Notes for the Everlost

Everlost...By the time you're an adult, you're rare if you have any less than three or four sizable chunks gnawed off your body, mind, or soul by one trauma or another. An apparently whole-looking person is not a wizard. They are a con man hiding behind a velvet curtain. Wholeness is something to prize only if you care most about the superficial. Let go of it and revel in plentiful company.

Every one of your emotions, outbursts, or lapses in social grace is 100 percent normal. In this extraordinary loss, you are ordinary. This is good. Your rage is normal. Your speechlessness is normal. Your running-off-at-the-mouth is normal. Your inability to know what you need is normal. Your difficulty occupying the same body that let you down -- that's normal. Your falling out with faith -- that's normal too...

I was browsing in a bookstore one day before lunch with a friend and my eye lighted on Notes for the Everlost: a Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis. When her twin boys were born prematurely, one survived and the other did not. Out of that trauma emerged this volume: part memoir, part "handbook for the heartbroken." It is dazzling. It is searing. It is holy wow.

Someday, you'll get as far as suppertime before consciously remembering. You'll be adding butter to rice, worried you've burned the almonds again. Your mind will chatter, as minds do:

Power bill

Snow tire appointment

Pretty sunset

Meeting tomorrow

Skype keeps crashing

Suddenly, putting on an oven mitt, you'll remember you ate a bomb.

The baby died

If you had asked me whether I wanted or needed to read a book about grief, and more specifically a book about a kind of loss I honestly cannot wholly imagine (and don't really want to -- who wants to imagine something this unspeakably painful?), I would probably have said no. I would have been wrong. I did need to read this book. It is a beautiful, real, raw, unflinching exploration of grief and loss -- and it manages to offer some redemption, not with platitudes or pretty words but with authenticity. 

I found that I couldn't read it all in one sitting. It's like poetry -- sharp, aching poetry -- and I found that the best way for me to consume it was to dip into and out of the book. To pick it up, read a few paragraphs or a few pages, and then set it down again. 

We sit outside by the creek. Josh and Kari tell me about someone who told them once, trying to normalize grief, that the aftershocks of loss never get better. We decide that's not true at all. We remember how it felt when it was new. And we know how it feels now. They say Liam's name, and I say Margot's name, and we all feel warm... we eat and talk while the fire burns high into the tree canopy, and they say Liam, and I say Margot, and together we decide being open is the way to better.

I've never experienced the kind of loss that Inglis chronicles here. I know that none of the loss I have ever known comes close, objectively speaking, to the grief she describes. But I feel at-home in her words, because I know what grief has been like for me -- the different griefs of my miscarriage, a loved one's illness, my divorce. Each grief is its own shape and color and dimensions. No two of mine have been the same as each other. None of mine are the same as hers. But I recognize my own heart in Inglis' words.

I commend this book to anyone who grieves, or has grieved, or might someday grieve. Inglis is wry and real and her words humble me and give me hope.

All we can do is be good company to one another, marking the most ancient of conditions: birth, love, longing, loss. Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience. We might as well share in the payment of it.

We might as well indeed. May all who grieve be comforted.

 

For those who are interested, here's an excerpt from the book.


Worth reading: on ethics in the Jewish world

Lately there's been a lot in the press about Jewish ethics systems failing -- in Jewish clergy associationsday schoolssummer camps and campus contexts. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus has written an op-ed on this subject, calling for systemic change. Here's a taste:

...Whether alleged misconduct relates to sex, money, administration, asymmetric power or other ethics infractions, the Jewish context vastly raises the stakes. Alleged misconduct, or responses inviting fairness critique, can exacerbate emotional and spiritual damage when identity, values or faith are on the line. Ethics systems for clergy and schools teach and model ethics, so those systems especially must be above reproach.

Too many confirmed reports, however, depict Jewish ethics systems failing. Reports show whistleblowers gaslighted or shunned for seeking justice. Investigators lacking proper training commit flagrant fairness violations, even deciding matters without speaking to complainants. Confirmed offenders are sheltered to avert shame, or perhaps for career or political reasons.

Too many hurdles. Too little expertise. Too little proper support. Wrong understandings of justice and reconciliation. It’s a tribute to victims’ courage that they come forward at all... It’s time to end the damaging and sometimes dangerous practice of Jewish institutions policing their own ethics. Jewish life needs a new and functionally independent ethics regime.

Read the whole thing: Jewish ethics demands an independent path forward. Deep thanks to R' David and to the Jewish Week / Times of Israel for this essay. May the changes called for here come to pass, speedily and soon.


A blessing for taking up space

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The Torah rolls, the two trees moving from side to side in parallel, their spool of parchment unrolling from one side and rolling up on the other. There's a rhythm to rolling a Torah: stretch and pull and glide, stretch and pull and glide. I am standing in front of the scroll, though the text is upside-down to me. Opposite me is the Torah reader who is rolling. Stretch and pull and glide.

I've been watching as others came up to Torah to blindly choose a verse and receive a customized blessing. At first when people said I should go up too, I demurred. I'm a visitor in this synagogue, it's not my place to seek blessing now! They wouldn't take no for an answer. So here I am, eyes closed. I breathe, and after a while I say, "There." I point the yad at the scroll.

The rolling stops. I open my eyes.

Though I don't know it in the moment, I've landed in parashat Terumah. The yad is pointing at a verse about the dimensions of the enclosure around the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our ancestors were instructed to build and to carry with them in the wilderness. It's Simchat Torah and I've just chosen the words that will become my blessing for the new year.  I feel a pang.

I've landed at the start of the building of the mishkan, among endless weeks of measurements and dimensions. What if there is no blessing for me in these words? But I should've known better than that. The blessing that I receive is exactly the blessing I most need, rooted precisely in the phrase where my yad fell: 100 cubits. It's a blessing for taking up enough space in the world.

Life teaches many of us, in so many ways, not to take up space. Not to be loud. Not to be visible. Not to shine too brightly, lest our light provoke jealousy. If we're flowers, we'd best not grow too tall, lest the lawnmower chop us down. Women in particular learn this lesson in insidious ways about our bodies (only desirable if they are small in appropriate ways) as well as our souls.

Anavah, humility, is sometimes rendered as "no more than my place, no less than my space." I understand the spiritual value of making sure I'm not taking up all the air in the room. But the value of making sure I'm not shrinking too far? Making sure I'm not hiding my light? Making sure I'm able and ready to take up space in the world? The thought is literally breathtaking.

I don't remember the words of the blessing. I do remember the room receding, the whole world seeming to shrink for a moment to the intimate space of encounter: the giver of blessing, the scroll between us, and me. I remember wondering what it would feel like to truly take up the 100 cubits to which I am entitled. I remember laughing, joyously, with tears of gratitude in my eyes.

 

With gratitude to the giver of blessing, and to the Giver of Blessing, and to my spiritual director for evoking this memory this week.

 


Reflections on an innovation retreat

Retreat

This week I participated in a rabbinic retreat focusing on innovation, and it was honestly one of the best retreat experiences I've ever had. The planning committee consisted of seven Rabbis Without Borders fellows who spent the last several months putting the retreat together (though our participant pool broadened beyond that group). We began the retreat with getting to know each other more deeply, creating a container for our time together, agreeing to kavanot (intentions) and processes.

One night Rabbi Mike Moskowitz taught us texts of chiddushim, innovations or new ideas. He began with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun ("ah, but over the sun, that might be another matter!") and brought us to the idea that each of us contains a part of the divine Soul and therefore each of us has unique Torah to uncover in partnership with the Holy. Another night, for Rosh Chodesh Adar, he taught texts about gender and clothing and what it means to reveal who we truly are.

One day Naomi Less from Lab/Shul led a stunning morning service that pushed some of our boundaries (in good ways), and brought some of us to tears (in good ways) and introduced us to Josh Warshawsky's gorgeous Ha-Meirah. It inspired really good conversations afterwards. Naomi also taught two fantastic sessions on Storahtelling and on innovation writ large, including some great text study that took us deep into the history and purpose and possibility of reading Torah aloud in community.

A propos of Naomi's beautiful shacharit -- and the retreat writ large -- I was reminded again that there is almost nothing in the world that brings me more joy than singing prayer in harmony with people whom I know and care for, and who care about our tradition's words and their meanings as much as I do. It is much of what I love about singing, much of what I love about prayer, and much of what I love about togetherness all in one. I know I've said that here before. I suspect that it will always be true.

Steve Silbert taught a session on the spiritual art of sketchnoting, gently and skillfully bringing us into his Visual Torah work and his practice of using images to learn and to teach. I came away with a new tool in my rabbinic toolbox, and also with ideas for how to incorporate his Visual Torah methods and practices into my teaching and my rabbinate. He brought wisdom to all of our sessions, too -- in his professional life he does facilitation work that overlaps a lot with some of the spiritual work that we do.

We held a related pair of sessions on innovation. In one we explored ritual innovations that we've tried, and why we've tried them, and how we brought them into being, and what kinds of responses arose from those whom we serve. In the other we explored what works, how we measure what works, what it means for a spiritual innovation to "work" anyway, how we balance qualitative and quantitative analysis, the appropriate role of entrepreneurial language in spiritual life, and more.

At our closing session we talked about what we're taking away from this retreat, teachings and melodies and grounding and connections. And we talked about next time, assuming that there is a next time -- and we all agreed that we want this to be a beginning, not a one-off. We brainstormed about what made this retreat so sweet, and how to replicate its sweetness, and what kinds of things we want to do together in days and months and years to come, and where we might go from here.

The conversations around all of these subjects continued on into meals and downtimes. One night we sang the whole Grace After Meals with gusto. One night we played a special edition of Rabbi Pictionary, created just for us! Those who were with us as teachers and "presenters" were also present with us during the retreat as friends and colleagues, which feels significant. In the closing session several people talked about the gift of experiencing a genuine absence of hierarchy, and posturing, and ego.

And that was all the more special because we consciously didn't erase our differences. Our group of participants came from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, ultra-Orthodox, and trans-denominational settings. Our approaches to halakha, to prayer, and to practice are as diverse as that set of labels would imply. There was a genuine sense that we were all there to learn from and with each other, a pluralism that was both real and deep. Everything we did together felt both real and deep. 

And that's the ineffable thing I can't quite describe. It's like singing with friends in really great harmony. Though harmonies at least can be recorded. Listening to them afterwards isn't the same as singing them in the moment, but it gives a sense of the beauty. This kind of real friendship, collegiality, and connection can't be put into words in a way that doesn't sound corny. So I guess I'll accept sounding corny. It's a small price to pay for a really terrific few days, and the promise of more to come.

 

This is the work for which we received funding from the Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation. I'm grateful to the Katz family for their fiscal support and to Bayit for providing the fiscal container within which the retreat could unfold.

 


Rabbinic innovation retreat

51048601_10216090303282329_1622317702997606400_nI'm off to Pearlstone retreat center again today for a rabbinic innovation retreat co-planned by a handful of my Rabbis Without Borders hevre and Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

Over the next few days we'll hang out, schmooze, learn, daven (pray), sing, draw, laugh, experiment, and have fun together.

We'll study texts of chiddushim (new insights/ innovations) with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, experiment with Storahtelling with Naomi Less, and learn the spiritual art of sketchnoting from Bayit's Visual Torah expert Steve Silbert.

We'll also spend some time playtesting innovations -- trying micro-innovations together, talking about what works and what doesn't, exploring how we know when an innovation "works" and what it means to apply measures and metrics to spiritual life. (This work dovetails with the Innovation Cohort that Bayit plans to establish this year -- for more on that, see section 5 of First Build.)

The retreat is generously funded by support from The Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation. I'm looking so forward to the learning and praying and playing and experimenting that we will do -- and to the learning and growth that I know will follow. 

To those joining us at Pearlstone: travel safe, can't wait to be with y'all soon! And to everyone else, stay tuned; we'll share gleanings from our work together as we are able.


Right speech beneath the sapphire sky

MishpatimYou must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

There's a very similar instruction in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus 19:16, "don't be a talebearer.") Speaking ill of someone has a name in Jewish tradition: lashon ha-ra, evil speech.

Jewish tradition holds that lashon ha-ra is equivalent to murder. Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that "Lashon ha-ra kills three: the one who speaks it, the one spoken of, and the one who hears it." 

Maybe you know the parable of the man who gossiped and then went to a rabbi seeking forgiveness. The rabbi took a feather pillow, cut it open, and let the wind blow the feathers away. And then he said, "lashon ha-ra spreads even more thoroughly than these feathers." Because speech, once heard, can't be un-heard.

The worst form of lashon ha-ra, our tradition teaches, is motzi shem ra, telling lies about someone. That's false tale-bearing -- the thing explicitly forbidden in this week's parsha, Mishpatim. That word means rules, or laws, or justice-commandments. This week's parsha is packed with justice-commandments. 

Torah is made up of both narrative, and legal material (commandments, ethical instructions). And I know that for many of us the stories can be more compelling than the legal sections. The stories are interesting, or thought-provoking, or occasionally distressing. The lists of laws can leave us yawning, especially when those laws seem out of date for today's realities.

Like "If an ox gores someone" (Ex. 21:28) -- I mean, who among us has an ox, these days? Though of course that verse is really about responsibility for someone else's harmful behavior, and tradition teaches that ultimately we are all responsible for each other. Still, I've noticed over the years that in our Torah discussions, people often engage more with story than with law.

That's why often, when we reach this portion in the Torah each year, I focus on the beautiful tale of Moshe and the elders ascending to God and their vision of the floor that was like bricks of sapphire. It's poetry: there's so much meaning to be found and made there! I love that story. I love singing Nava Tehila's setting of one of those verses, as we've done here today.

But I think Torah is wise in juxtaposing our poetic stories with our prosaic laws. Poetry doesn't mean anything -- beautiful visions of God's presence don't mean anything -- if not grounded in ethical behavior. Without the emotional and spiritual safety that come from right conduct and right speech, pretty visions of holiness are hollow at best and spiritual bypassing at worst. 

One of my favorite teachings about the tchelet, the thread of blue that winds through our tzitzit, is that it reminds us of the Sea of Reeds -- our place of liberation. And it reminds us of the sapphire pavement upon which God is described in this week's parsha. And sea and sky can be mnemonics, reminding us of tzitzit, which remind us of mitzvot, including right action and right speech.

May every glimpse of sea and sky and tzitzit remind us that the path to the sapphire heavens and the Holy One of Blessing must be paved with ethical choices. Otherwise our holiness is false and even dangerous. We may yearn for celestial brickwork of sapphire, but what really matters is building a community of holiness, right speech, and ethical choices here on the ground.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)