As Cheshvan draws toward its close

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It's the day after the midterm elections. It feels a little bit like the day after all of the fall holidays are complete. 

I always come out of the high holiday season feeling some combination of exhilarated and grateful, and exhausted and tapped-out. Many rabbis I know joke that our favorite month is Cheshvan, the empty month that follows the intense round of festivals. We need the downtime (both practical and spiritual) after the Days of Awe, which can feel high-stakes both spiritually (it's arguably the most spiritually intensive season of our year) and practically (because many of us who serve bricks-and-mortar congregations rely on this season for the donations that allow us to keep our doors open and to continue to serve.)

But this year, Cheshvan has not offered the respite I yearn for. This year Cheshvan has included horrific antisemitic attacks, from pipe bombs and their accompanying antisemitic dogwhistles to the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And Cheshvan has also included the tense and intense ramp-up to the midterm elections. Yesterday I saw someone observe on Twitter that it felt like the entire nation was waiting for the results of a biopsy. That feels apt to me. And as anyone who's ever anxiously waited for test results knows, that immersion in anxiety is the opposite of restorative or restful. 

Now at least the waiting for results is over. If the "patient" in question is our democracy, last night I think we learned that the prognosis isn't as bad as some of us had feared. Indeed there are many reasons to feel hope, including unprecedented voter turnout, the preservation of trans rights in my own home state, the election of many remarkable progressive women of color to Congress, and many "firsts" that are worth celebrating, like the first Muslim American women in Congress, and the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor in the nation. 

And we also learned that we still have an awful lot of work to do before this patient can be declared healthy again. Voter disenfranchisement was rampant, perhaps most notably in Georgia. Nazi sympathizers have been re-elected to serve in our nation's government. Ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be working in some quarters, and that reality is deeply upsetting.

How do we balance our hope and our fear? How do we celebrate the very real accomplishments achieved by the tireless work of countless volunteers, while acknowledging how far we have to go before our nation is the bastion of welcome and diversity that we aspire to be? At the same time that I'm asking that national question, I'm also grappling with this jewish one: how do we celebrate the very real embrace of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors during this time of trauma, while acknowledging how far we have to go before antisemitism and white supremacy and white nationalism are a thing of the past?

I think again of the story of R' Simcha Bunim and his two slips of paper: "for my sake was the world created" and "I am but dust and ashes." The work of authentic spiritual life is learning how to hold these two truths simultaneously. Learning how to cultivate real gratitude and joy without falling prey to the danger of spiritual bypassing. Learning how to feel real grief and fear without falling prey to the danger of despair. How to feel these two opposites without blurring them into an amorphous middle that partakes neither in the grief of knowing how far we have to go nor in the joy of recognizing how far we've come.

I've seen many wise people point out that our work today is the same as our work every day: repairing the broken world. Being a light in the darkness. Working tirelessly to combat injustice and bigotry. That's our job as human beings and as Jews. It was our job before the midterm elections, and it is our job after the midterm elections. I agree with that wholeheartedly. And -- the month of Cheshvan is my annual reminder that we also need to give ourselves time to rest, and time to feel our feelings, especially in the aftermath of something that's taken up so much of our time, energy, attention, anxiety, and hope.

The work of rebuilding our nation into a place of liberty and justice for all isn't over. Yesterday was a big day, and today we may be feeling tapped-out. It's okay to take some time to decompress and to just be. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to start working again at redeeming our broken world and our broken society. True on a national level, true on an individual spiritual level. The work of authentic spiritual life isn't over, either. It's okay to feel tapped-out right now. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to once again take up the inner work of teshuvah.

The work isn't over. The world isn't yet redeemed. But we can pause to take stock of what we've accomplished, and we can allow ourselves space to feel both our anxieties about the path ahead and our exultation at every newly-rekindled spark of hope.  For now, it's the end of Cheshvan. It's the end of an election cycle. Here where I live most of the leaves have fallen. It's too soon to know what they will mulch and fertilize in months to come. For now, maybe it's time to embrace the feeling of going fallow, and to trust that in time with the work of our hands and hearts new growth will come.


The Open Invitation

 

Noahs-ark-blueChodesh tov: a good and sweet new month to you!

Today we enter the month of Cheshvan, a month that is unique because it contains no Jewish holidays at all. (Except for Shabbat, of course.) After the spiritual marathon of Tisha b'Av and Elul and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, now we get some downtime. Some quiet time. Time to rest: in Hebrew, לנוח / lanuach. We've done all of our spiritual work, and now we get to take a break. Right?

Well, not exactly.

When we finish the Days of Awe, we might imagine that the work is over. But I want to posit that the work of teshuvah, of turning ourselves in the right direction, isn't something we ever "complete"... and that Torah's been giving us hints about that, if we know where to look.

Last week we began the Torah again, with Bereshit, the first portion in the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos, "and God saw that it was good," the forming of an earthling from earth. Last week's Torah portion also contains the story of Cain and Hevel, the first sibling rivalry in our story. The two bring offerings to God. Hevel brings sheep, and Cain brings fruits of the soil, and God is pleased with the sheep but not with Cain's offering. Cain's face falls, and God says to him, "Why are you distressed?"

It's an odd moment. Surely an all-knowing God understands perfectly well why Cain is upset. This is not rocket science. Two brothers make gifts for their Parent, who admires one gift and pointedly ignores the other one?! Of course Cain feels unappreciated. This is basic human nature. How can it be that God doesn't understand?

The commentator known as the Radak says: God asked this rhetorical question not because God didn't understand Cain's emotions, but because God wanted to spur Cain to self-reflection. God, says the Radak, wanted to teach Cain how to do the work of teshuvah, repentance and return. Imagine if Cain had been able to receive that lesson. Imagine if Cain had had a trusted rabbi or spiritual director with whom he could have done his inner work, seeking to find the presence of God even in his disappointment. But that's not how the story goes. He misses the opportunity for teshuvah, and commits the first murder instead.

That was last week. This week, we read that God sees that humanity is wicked, and God decides to wipe out humanity and start over. But one person finds favor with God: Noach, whose name comes from that root לנוח, "to rest."

And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.

Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message.

The invitation to make teshuvah is always open. The invitation to discernment, to inner work, to recognizing our patterns and changing them, is always open. And to underscore that message, last week's Torah portion and this week's Torah portion both remind us:  the path of teshuvah was open to Cain, and it was open for the people of Noah's day, and it's open now.

Even if we spent the High Holiday season making teshuvah with all our might, the work isn't complete. We made the teshuvah we were able to make: we pushed ourselves as far as we could to become the better selves we know we're always called to be. But that was so last week. What teshuvah do we need to make now, building on the work we did before?

The word kapparah (atonement) implies covering-over, as Noach covered-over the ark with the covering of pitch. What kapparah hasn't worked for you yet? Where are the places where you still feel as though your mis-steps are exposed? What are the tender places in your heart and soul that need to be lovingly sealed and made safe? This week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we still have a chance to do this work. Will we be wiser than the generation of Noah? Will we hear Torah's call to make teshuvah now with all that we are?

Here's the thing: as long as we live, our work isn't done. I don't know whether that sounds to you like a blessing or a curse. But I mean it as a blessing. Because it's never too late. Because we can always be growing. Because we can always choose to be better.

May this Shabbat Noach be a Shabbat of real menuchah, which is Noah's namesake, and peace, a foretaste of the world to come. And when we emerge into the new week tonight at havdalah, may we be strengthened in our readiness to always be doing the work of teshuvah, and through that work, may our hearts and souls find the kapparah that we most seek.

 

I'm honored and delighted this week to be at Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, visiting my dear friend Rabbi Jennifer Singer who blogs at SRQ Jew. This is the d'var Torah I offered there for Shabbat Noach -- which I share with deep gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for sparking these insights.

 


On stillness after the holidays

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...This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow....

 

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Why the stillness after the wave of Jewish holidays is so important


Entering the empty month

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Today and tomorrow are Rosh Chodesh, new moon, the "head of the month" -- the beginning of a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're entering into the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is remarkable because it is empty: aside from Shabbat, which comes every seventh day all year long, Cheshvan contains no holidays. No feast days, no fast days, no special practices, no special liturgy. Nothing at all out of the ordinary. Jewish time is separated into kodesh (holy / set-apart) and chol (ordinary time), and the month of Cheshvan is -- aside from its Shabbatot -- completely chol

I love the Days of Awe. I love the whole rollercoaster: from the low point of Tisha b'Av, through the month of Elul (introspection, inner work, psalm 27), through Rosh Hashanah (day of judgement, birthday of creation), through the Ten Days of Teshuvah, through Yom Kippur (day of atonement, intimacy with God), through the seven days of Sukkot (little harvest house, lulav and etrog, facing impermanence) and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. And by the time we get to the end of all of those special days, with their customs and practices and words, I am wiped out.

Enter Cheshvan, the empty month. On the solar calendar we are moving toward winter in this hemisphere. The days are getting colder, the leaves have largely blown off the trees, the hills are taking on their more sere and muted late-autumn hues of soft purples and browns beneath frequently clouded skies. The outside world feels like a reflection of my internal spiritual landscape. The time for the finery of the Days of Awe is over. Now I cup my hands around a mug of tea, now I sit and breathe deeply, now I let everything that was activated and stirred-up in me by the holidays begin to settle like fallen leaves.

Cheshvan is the beginning of a spiritual fallow season. Just as the earth needs time to rest between harvest and new planting, so too do our hearts and souls. Now we let the ordinary passage of ordinary time work its magic. We trust that the coming season will somehow -- alchemically, mysteriously -- transform the discoveries and emotions of the holiday season into the inner qualities we will most need as we approach the festivals of (northern hemisphere) spring in a few months. We are like fallen leaves not yet ready to serve as mulch for spring's new growth. We are like seeds curled tight, waiting.

We can't know yet what will arise in us after the quiet winter. If we had a telescope to let us look far out to the horizon we could maybe barely glimpse the beacons of Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Pesach in the distance. But there are months between now and then. In the northern hemisphere the days are growing shorter. It's Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to let our hands be empty, let our hearts be open, let the hard work of the holiday season begin to percolate in our hearts and souls. It's Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to hunker down, tend our internal fires, and let ordinary time balm our tender places. 

 

Related:

Seasonal, 2013

 

[Image source]


Cheshvan

Tonight at sundown, when we enter into Shabbat, we will also enter into a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're about to begin the month of Cheshvan.

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Cheshvan is an empty month. A blank slate. An open expanse. It is the only month which contains no Jewish holidays (aside from Shabbat) and no special mitzvot. Some people have the custom of calling this month Mar-Cheshvan, "Bitter Cheshvan," because after so many weeks of feeling ourselves to be in God's presence, we enter into a whole month with no festival opportunities to feel that closeness.

Some rabbis (me included) joke that Mar-Cheshvan is short for "Marvelous Cheshvan," and that Cheshvan is our favorite month precisely because there is nothing in it. After the hard work and the emotional-spiritual rollercoaster of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, a month containing nothing but weekdays and Shabbat feels like a gift. A time to embrace emptiness and quiet. Thank God for Cheshvan; I can't keep up this work-pace anymore!

But I think there's a deeper truth hidden in the "I ♥ Cheshvan" jokes. Our festival cycle has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. Times of extroversion and times of introversion; times of intense spiritual work and times of quiet when the aftereffects of that work can reverberate in our hearts and souls. After the spring journey of Pesach and the Omer, we get a quiet period before the summer's fasts and Tisha b'Av and the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. After the fall journey of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, we get a quiet period before the small holidays which stud the wintertime lead us toward spring and Pesach.

(These are northern-hemisphere interpretations; if you live in the global South, the seasonal rhythm is inverted, but the holidays still lead one to the next, and the spiritually-fallow periods are still built-in.)

The quiet time matters too. It's like the silence after the chant, writ large. When a long-anticipated event is over, there can be a let-down. All that time preparing and getting excited, and now it's over; now what? But Cheshvan offers the opportunity to experience the quiet time after the feasts and festivals as a necessary part of the rhythm.

Reb Zalman (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak about the importance of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the spiritual highs we can experience on retreat, and using their energy to fuel spiritual practice when we're home again. Coming down from the big fall holiday season is a little bit like coming home from a retreat. We return our focus to all the details of ordinary life. But that doesn't mean that we're no longer in the radiant Presence. We just have to remember how to access that Presence through ordinary living. Avodah b'gashmiut, in Hasidic parlance.

We couldn't live at the intense pace of the Days of Awe and Sukkot all the time. From the practical work of preparing services and sermons and setting up chairs and building sukkahs, to the intellectual work of studying the holidays' texts and liturgies and themes, to the emotional work of noticing what arises in us during the holiday season, to the spiritual work of teshuvah and inner transformation -- there's no way to sustain that level of activity and experience all the time. And that's okay.

The downtime helps us integrate the experience we've just had. Try this metaphor on: the quiet month which comes after all of the festivals is like the morning after a grand and elaborate wedding. The planning and preparation all culminated in a beautiful ceremony and a fabulous party -- and now it's the next day; the first day of the rest of the couple's life; time to integrate the memories and carry them into whatever comes next. Tishri was the wedding. Now it's the morning-after.

The party is finally over. The last guests have gone home. Awaken to your quiet house, a sweet sunrise, coffee filling the room with fragrance. Cup your hands around your mug and look around you. Something new is beginning, right here in this quiet place. Welcome to Cheshvan.

 

Related: The year as a spiritual practice, 2009


Seasonal

PodA kind of emptiness comes at the end of this long cycle of holidays. After challah and honey, feasting and fasting, services upon services upon services. Just listing the names of all of the observances of the last few weeks tires me out again.

Sometimes memory telescopes in a way that makes far things seem near. At this moment in the year, though, I tend to find that it works the other way around. Things which happened not so long ago feel like ancient history. That first dinner, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah...? It was another eon.

In a way, in Jewish time, it was another eon. That dinner was before we ushered in the new year. That was 5773, relegated to memory now. I like the fact that I spent my last hours of the old Jewish year sitting around a table with my family, eating and talking and being together.

I went for a walk  few days ago. I didn't have the energy to contemplate driving someplace particularly beautiful or noteworthy, so I walked up and down our driveway a few times. It's a long driveway, and parts of it are steep. I paused from time to time to take photographs, working at reminding myself that even mundane places are worthy of attention.

I don't know what these seed pods are, but I find them strangely beautiful. I feel a little bit like these pods right now: burst open, after the pressures of all of these rituals and services and prayers. The silky stuff of my heart exposed under the early autumn sky.

Continue reading "Seasonal" »


The year as spiritual practice

Part 2 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here.


It might be argued that the spiritual year is the “spiritual practice” par excellence of Judaism. Assess this statement. What does it mean 'tzu loyfn mit der tzeit,' to "run" (or live) with the times?

Each year is one long spiritual practice, with inevitable energetic ebbs and flows. We have times of great activity and energy: preparing for Pesach in our homes, preparing for the Days of Awe in our hearts and in our congregations. And we have times of stillness: the mountain-peak of Shavuot, the holy pausing of Shemini Atzeret, the fallow month of Cheshvan. This is the ratzo v'shov (ebb and flow, cf. Ezekiel 1:14) of spiritual life, built in to our seasonal-liturgical cycle.

As the sage Mary Oliver has written, in her poem "Five A.M. in the pinewoods," "So this is how you swim inward. / So this is how you flow outwards. / So this is how you pray." For every inhalation, an exhalation. Lather, rinse, repeat. Spiritual life has peaks and valleys, and we need to be conscious of the everyday practices which will sustain us when we're not riding the rollercoaster of the moadim (festivals.)

To live with the times means being aware of the flow of the year, the way one holiday leads to the next. Our festivals aren't discrete gems studding a crown or individual raisins peeking forth from a loaf of challah; they need to be understood as part of a whole. I experience the moadim (even the sad ones) as high points, extraordinary time, set in the framework of chol (everyday). And we need chol in order to integrate the moadim. Each of the moadim takes us somewhere, and then points us toward our next destination.

Continue reading "The year as spiritual practice" »