Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen in Zeek magazine

I am thoroughly delighted that Zeek just published my Q and A with Shulem Deen, the man who used to blog as Hasidic Rebel -- now author of All Who Go Do Not Return, new this week from Greywolf Press.

You can find my interview at Zeek:  Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen. It's long, but I think it's worth reading; I hope you'll agree. You can read the beginning here, and I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing at Zeek. Deep thanks to Zeek for giving me the opportunity to connect with Shulem, and to Shulem for a terrific conversation -- hopefully the first of many over years to come.

 

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When I began blogging as Velveteen Rabbi in 2003, I spent a lot of time building my blogroll — the list of links to other bloggers with whom I felt some kinship or whose work I felt was interesting and worth reading. One of the first blogs I started reading, back in those early days of the Jewish blogosphere, was Hasidic Rebel — written by a Hasid who sought an outlet for opinions and ideas that would have been considered heretical in his community. His blog, named for his persistent pseudonym, was also thoughtful, witty, and insightful — some of the best writing in the J-blogosphere.

In 2010 Hasidic Rebel came out and acknowledged his name. I remember feeling happy for him that he felt able to publish online under his “real name.” But I had little idea at the time what he’d gone through in order to get there — or what kind of struggles still lay ahead.

This week, Graywolf Press is releasing All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, the man once known as Hasidic Rebel who went on to become the founder/editor of the website Unpious: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe.

All Who Go Do Not Return is an extraordinary memoir. The writing is beautiful. The journey it chronicles is poignant, relatable — and also unlike anything most readers will ever have experienced. As a young man, Shulem Deen chose to join the Skverers, one of the world’s most intense and insular Hasidic communities. He married, and became a father to five beloved children. And then his natural inclination to learn and to question drove a wedge between him and the Skverer world.

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured his words here in ZEEK — don’t miss his 2013 essay Why I Am Not Modern Orthodox. But it’s the first time we’ve interviewed him. I’m humbled by his bravery and his openness.

His voice is an important one in our generation.

— Rachel Barenblat

 

ZEEK: Many of the people reading this piece won’t know about your background (and may not know of New Square). So for their sakes: tell us, in brief, about where you come from?

Deen-shulem-pearl-gabel-55104dedI was raised within New York’s broader, ultra-Hasidic (i.e. non-Chabad) community, which is composed of many sects, some stricter than others but all more or less of the same cloth: Yiddish-speaking, shtreimel-wearing, rebbe-centered, with strong emphasis on Hasidic custom and practice, and a near-fanatical insistence on remaining separate and apart from the outside world — geographically, intellectually, and culturally.

My childhood was mostly spent among the Satmars, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a young teenager, however, I grew close to the Skverers and found that it suited me more. I eventually went to study at the Skverer yeshiva in New Square, where I later married and lived for a dozen years with my wife and five children.

ZEEK: What was sweet, for a time, about life as part of the Skverer community?

The Skverers are more provincial than most other sects, due to the relative isolation of the New Square shtetl, so there is a degree of old-world simplicity that really appealed to me as a 13 year old. As a community, the Skverers are warm, hospitable, openhearted, and, on the whole, appear to be less preoccupied with materialism than some of the more “urbane” Hasidic groups. (Key words: “appear to be” — as appearances can be deceiving.) The shtetl is in fact a real shtetl (albeit American and suburban), and when I first encountered it back in the late ’80s, it had all the charms of a storybook setting...

 

Continue reading at Zeek: Euphoria, Curiosity, Exile & the Ongoing Journey of a Hasidic Rebel: A Q & A with Shulem Deen.


Terumah: the Torah of 40

Here's the d'var Torah I had intended to offer yesterday at my shul. As it turned out, I touched on a few of these ideas and then went in a different direction, as we were davening at the local nursing home, but I hope you'll read the prepared text anyway.


God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me gifts...from every person whose heart is so moved.

 

This week's Torah portion, Terumah, begins with this instruction to bring gifts for use in the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary intended to be a dwelling-place for God. Terumah, the name of the Torah portion, is usually translated as "gifts."

Earlier this week I studied a Hasidic text written by the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov. In his book the Degel Machaneh Efraim, he offered a fascinating interpretation of the word terumah.

Terumah, he said, can mean more than simply gifts. The word terumah can be deconstructed, the letters rearranged, into תורה מ / "Torah Mem" -- the Torah of forty. (Remember, Hebrew letters double as numbers.)

מWhat is the Torah of forty?

Torah was revealed atop Sinai over 40 days, he writes -- just as a human being, in ancient rabbinic thought, achieved its form in the womb over a period of 40 days. He's drawing on a longstanding rabbinic interpretation which connects the number 40 with the time it takes for something to go from beginning to fruition. The rabbis also taught that 40 are the days between planting and harvest, and 40 are the weeks between conception and birth.

So Torah comes to us through 40 (days), and a human being comes to us through 40 (either days or weeks.) What happens if we re-read the opening lines of this week's Torah portion through this lens?

God spoke to Moshe saying: tell the children of Israel that they should bring Me the Torah of completeness and fruition; the Torah of every human being.

Human beings and Torah both require 40 units of time to emerge into this world. Ergo, each person is a Torah! This is a radical teaching, because in Hasidic thought the Torah is the most valuable thing imaginable -- it's a direct transmission of God's essence.

Later in this week's Torah portion we read:

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.

What can it mean to say that God dwells within us? The Degel teaches that that we bring God into ourselves when we study Torah, because Torah is one long and complex Name of God.

"God and Torah are one," says the Zohar -- so if we study Torah, and bring Torah into ourselves, then we are also bringing God into our hearts. The Zohar also teaches that God, Torah, and Israel are one, which is to say: we, and God, and God's Name as expressed in Torah, are all part of the same unity. In the language of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, we and Torah and God "inter-are."

The gifts we're called to bring before God are gifts of ourselves; gifts of our own completeness; gifts of new creation which only we can bring. The root of the word terumah is רם, which connotes raising something high. When we understand that we, and God, and Torah "inter-are," then we can bring our most unique personal gifts, and in so doing be elevated to the highest of spiritual planes. May it be so!

 

 

My infinite thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman for translating this text with me, and especially to R' David for helping me tease out its deeper spiritual implications. 

If the idea of "inter-being" is new to you, read this tiny excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh -- from his book The Heart of Understanding, which R' David and I also studied together some 25 years ago!


Go into the word and reveal the light: a different reading of Noah

Last week we read parashat Noach -- the Torah portion which tells the story of Noah, the flood, the ark, and the rainbow. One of my favorite teachings about this story turns it into something else entirely. It hinges on the Hebrew word teva, "ark," which can also be understood to mean "word."

When God tells Noah to enter the ark -- so teaches the Baal Shem Tov -- God is also saying, "Enter the word." Go deeply into the word. Which word? The words of prayer. God's instruction to Noah is also an instruction to all of us. We're meant to go deeply into the words of prayer.

Some interpretations continue: just as the ark had three floors or levels, our use of words has different levels: mundane or ordinary speech on the bottom floor, conscious speech on middle floor, and holy speech on the top floor. (I'm not sure this refinement originates with the Baal Shem, but it's lovely.)

The instructions in Torah continue: Noah should make a tzohar, a window, in the ark to let in light. We need to make spaces for light in our words, to ensure that every word we speak is one which brings light to the world. In everything we do, we need to make sure that divinity can shine in.

The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudlikov (usually known by the title of his best-known book, the Degel Machaneh Efraim), writes -- in one of his short commentaries on Noah and the ark --  that there is always light hidden in the darkness.

Sometimes, the Degel notes, light seems to be covered-over and we can't access it at all. At those times, it's our job to open up the covering and reveal the light. Because light can be found even in the darkness. Maybe especially in the darkness, because darkness is what makes us seek.

 


Two historic synagogues in Tzfat

After a wonderful morning of davening the morning service with my family and celebrating my nephew as he became bar mitzvah, and a delicious lunch at the Bar-El guesthouse, our guide Kobi took us to visit two historic synagogues before setting us loose to wander the streets of the artists' quarter.

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At the Karo synagogue: lights, and corner genizah; Sefardic-style Torah case.

The first is the synagogue named after Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, "The Set Table," a compendium of halakha first printed in 1565 which is considered authoritative in many quarters even today. Rabbi Karo was born in Spain in 1488, though emigrated as a child to Portugal when the Inquisition began. After the Jews were driven out of Portugal, he made his way to in Tzfat, where he was chief rabbi for 35 years.

The synagogue we visited bears his name, though it is not precisely the one where he davened. That one was destroyed in the earthquake of 1759. It was rebuilt, and then a second earthquake in 1837 took the second version down, too! But both times, the wall containing the aron, the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, remained intact. Some saw that as a miracle. Others, our guide noted, attributed it to the fact that the wall containing the ark was double-thick.

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At the Ari Ashkenazi synagogue: stained glass window; aron / ark, with wooden carvings.

From there it is a very short walk, only a few scant blocks, to the Ari synagogue, named after Rabbi Isaac Luria who is known as the Ari. That synagogue was built in the late 16th century, and may be the oldest synagogue in Israel to have been continuously in use. The Ari is the one of the original guiding lights of what we know today as kabbalah.

It was the Ari who took his disciples each Friday evening into a nearby field to greet the Sabbath bride -- the custom which has evolved into the service we know today as kabbalat Shabbat, "receiving" or "welcoming Shabat." (If you see a similarity between kabbalat and kabbalah, that's because kabbalah literally means "that which is received" -- wisdom which comes to us from beyond.)

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Ceiling at the synagogue of the Ari.

When I think of the Ari, I think of kabbalah. The idea that when God's initial light streamed into creation it was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels of creation shattered, leaving sparks of divinity scattered everywhere, and it's our job to perform mitzvot mindfully and thereby uplift those sparks back to God...? That's Lurianic; that's what tikkun olam means.

When I think of Rabbi Joseph Karo, I think of halakha, because the Shulchan Aruch has been so foundational. It's easy for me to forget that he too was a mystic. It is said that he was visited by an angelic being who taught him secret mysteries of Torah.

I can't say that I had a mystical experience in either synagogue; perhaps the general tourist experience isn't conducive to that. Still, they are truly beautiful prayer places, and I am glad to have visited them again.


What it means to become "perfumed" at Purim

Tree-of-life-jaison-cianelliPurim is almost upon us! The full moon falls this weekend, and Purim begins on Saturday evening at sundown. In honor of the coming holiday, here's an adaptation of a teaching from the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. (You can read it at greater length in this post from 2009.)

 

1. Above good and evil

We read in the Gemara that it is the duty of a person to mellow (or "perfume") oneself on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai'." This means raising one's consciousness until one is higher than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- in other words, expanding one's consciousness so much that the binary distinctions between good and evil fall away.

We read in the megillah of Esther about Haman's gallows, which is called "a tall tree of 50 cubits." (So there are two trees here: the tree of knowledge of binarism, and the tree which is the gallows.) There's an ancient teaching that there are 49 "gates" (or levels) of impurity, and the 50th level is the level of holiness. (There's that number 50 again -- like how Shavuot is the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer.)

If we can ascend past the 49 levels of impurity, we reach the 50th level where everything is holy. If we can reach that high level, we've gone higher than the tree of knowledge of good and evil; we've reached God's vantage, from which everything is good. "Perfuming" ourselves on Purim means opening our minds and ascending to that high God's-eye-view place.

2. Defeating Amalek

Amalek is the name given to the tribe which attacked the Israelites from behind during the Exodus from Egypt. Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, is considered to be a descendant of Amalek. Amalek and his ilk exist on every level of spiritual understanding except the top one, which is the level of holiness. (Maybe the Sfat Emet is saying that Amalek exists in some form in all of us, except for those who are at the very holiest level of spiritual understanding.)

Amalek pursues evil on those lower 49 levels, but at the 50th level, Amalek's power disappears. When Amalek attacked our ancestors, Moses lifted up his hands to God, and as long as his hands were upheld, the Israelites were able to rout the enemy. Moses reached up to God and Torah, and Amalek was defeated. God and Torah are what we find at that 50th gate or rung of spiritual understanding. So: ascending to that high level of spiritual consciousness also enables us to live without fear of our enemies, because at that high level, enmity can't harm us.

3. Accepting the Torah on Purim

There's even a teaching that our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, accepted the Torah on Purim.

What? you ask. Isn't Shavuot the anniversary of when we accepted the Torah? Well, yes. But there's also a midrash which says that we accepted the Torah at Shavuot under duress -- that God held the mountain over us like an inverted barrel, and we accepted Torah rather than perish. But another sage says, "Even if that is so, they re-accepted the Torah in the days of Achashverosh," pointing to a line from Esther which said that we "received it upon ourselves" -- he says that what we received, at Purim, was the highest form of Torah.

And when we approach Purim now with the appropriate consciousness -- awareness that at the highest levels there are no differences between good and bad, between Haman and Mordechai, between "my side" and "your side" -- we can access the highest Torah once again.

That's what it really means to become "perfumed" or "mellowed" -- not to get so drunk we forget who the good guys and bad guys are, but to become so enlightened that we see the unity beyond all differences. When we access that kind of perfume, we're breathing the scents of spices which filled the world at the time of the revelation at Sinai -- maybe even the spices which filled the world at the first moments of creation.

Happy Purim!

Image source: Jaison Cianelli.


Leah Vincent's Cut Me Loose

Cutmeloose_finalI can't remember how I first heard about Leah Vincent's memoir Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After my Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. I suspect I read an excerpt, probably at Unpious.com, and on the strength of that excerpt pre-ordered the Kindle edition long before publication. (Unpious is the magazine edited by Shulem Deen -- the blogger formerly known as Hasidic Rebel -- which specializes in "voices generally suppressed" in Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox publications. It's worth checking out if you don't know it already.) One way or another, the memoir materialized on my Kindle, so I read it. And holy wow, is this one powerful, painful, and ultimately redemptive story.

Many years ago I reviewed the anonymous YA novel Hush by Eshes Chayil, which told a story of sexual abuse in a Hasidic community. There are ways in which Vincent's memoir reminds me of Hush -- the trajectory from loving and comfortable religious community to ostracism; the unflinching descriptions both of what can be sweet about growing up in a deeply religious community, and also of what can be almost unthinkably bitter. Of course, Hush is fiction while Cut Me Loose is memoir. (Also one is set in a Hasidische community and the other in a Yeshivish community -- though I suspect that distinction won't make much difference to a lot of readers; the two versions of deep Orthodoxy will seem equally foreign.)

Maybe because I came to the book only having read one excerpt, without having read the back jacket copy or any reviews, the book took me frequently by surprise. A trajectory from ultra-Orthodoxy, to going "off the derech," to some kind of new life in the non-ultra-religious world -- that, I expected. But I didn't expect the many mini-journeys along the way: to Britain, to Israel, the rastafarian "boyfriend," the cutting and suicide attempt, each turn off of the prescribed path darker and more painful. Vincent writes about all of this with powerful clarity, and I followed her emotionally into every place her journey went.

This is a tough book to read for me as a passionate liberal religious Jew, especially as a Jewish Renewal rabbi who claims connection through Reb Zalman with Hasidic lineage. I can see in this book some of the things I envy about committed religious community -- families automatically living according to our tradition's rhythms, from choosing a perfect etrog at Sukkot to dancing at Chanukah to turning the house upside-down cleaning for Pesach, experiencing every Shabbat as a time apart from time. But I also see here the things which are most upsetting about insular religious community: control, a rigidity which has no room for personal deviation, and a system which relies upon keeping young women thoroughly uninformed about the outside world (in the name of keeping them "pure") which, when it backfires, can be life-destroying.

It's easy to imagine the ways in which the grass is greener on the other side of that fence -- to fantasize that in a community where everyone cares about Judaism and God as much as I do, it must be easy to keep the rhythms of Jewish life; to live in constant devekut / union with God; to aspire to serve God with joy in all things. This book reminds me that there is a terrible shadow side to that kind of insularity, and that those who deviate from the community's norms -- especially women -- pay an unthinkable cost.

Looking at the book with my Bennington MFA hat on, I relate to it as a gripping memoir. Vincent is a skillful writer with a keen eye for the details which will make a scene pop right off the page. That old writerly adage of "show, don't tell" --? She does that, in spades. Several times, reading this, I thought back on Bennington conversations and panel discussions about memoir, memory, and the complicated ethics of telling one's own story when that story inevitably involves other people who may not wish for it to be told, or for it to be told in the way that feels true to the person writing the memoir.

Looking at the book with my rabbi hat on, I relate to it as though it were a congregant's story, and that makes my heart ache. This book isn't a polemic against ultra-Orthodoxy or against religion. It's just Vincent's own story, and the story speaks for itself. I'm thankful that in the end there is redemption, as well as a community of former compatriots (see Footsteps) who understand both where Vincent is coming from and where she's choosing to be. Still, I come away from the book aswirl with emotions. Wonder, anger, admiration, grief, and above all gratitude that we, her readers, are privileged now to bear witness to the story she so deftly tells.

There's a part of me that wishes I could offer pastoral care to the author of this book. I wish I could sit down with her over coffee or a glass of wine and offer her the listening ear and the loving response which her religious community didn't give. I can't help clinging to the hope that Vincent's sense of herself as a spiritual being, and her connection with God, wasn't thoroughly shattered by the ordeal of her upbringing and its aftermath. That's my own bias as a reader, and I own that. Part of what makes me angriest about Vincent's description of her upbringing is just how badly this religious community mis-served her -- how a family and a spiritual community which should have been a source of nurturing and support became a fountain of rejection, neglect, and emotional abuse.

The author's twitter handle, @EhyehLeah, hints both at God (Who, you may recall, named Herself/Himself/Hirself to Moshe as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am Becoming Who I Am Becoming") and at the author's own becoming. Maybe that's the best blessing I can offer: celebration of her process of becoming as it unfolds in these pages. May the Source of All Being bring comfort and companionship, self-determination and meaning, joy and gladness in the life she has chosen. And may there be many more books from this strong new literary voice. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so!

 

There's an excerpt from the book at JTA: The first step out of an ultra-Orthodox world.


Moses, love, and light (a d'var Torah for Shemot)

Big-bang-theory-3172Here's the d'var Torah for parashat Shemot which I offered at my shul yesteray morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Talmud teaches (Sotah 12a) that when Moses was born, the house was filled with light. In this week's Torah portion we read that Moses' mother saw that he was good, and in Genesis 1 we read that God saw that the light was good. The same phrase is used to describe both Moses and that primordial light.

Remember that at the beginning of the Torah, God says let there be light, and there is light, and God sees that it is good -- and only some days later does God create sun, moon, and stars.

The light of the first day of creation is not literal light. It is the light of wisdom and insight. The light of love. Today we sang "For with You is the source of light" -- not talking about the sun and moon, but about that primordial light.

In the kabbalistic understanding, that primordial light shines from ein-sof, "without-end," the most infinite, transcendent, ungraspable aspect of God. Using the scientific paradigm, we might call it the light of the Big Bang, still emanating into our expanding universe. Or using Hasidic language, we could call it the light of God's yearning for us.

I love the teaching that God birthed the universe in order to be in relationship. Before there was creation, there was only God; but that was lonely. So God pulled back to make space for something which was not-God, and in that space, creation came into being.

In today's parsha we read about Yocheved birthing Moses. When we bring children into our lives, we too have to pull back to make space for something which is not us. We make room for relationship. It takes intention and awareness to respond to our children as Yocheved did -- to recognize and nurture the light in them.

If you've ever practiced yoga, you may have heard the greeting "namaste," which means "the light in me greets the light in you." The light in me greets the light in you. Maybe that's a glimpse of the first light that God called good, shining within each of us.

Yocheved, mother of Moses, hides him for as long as she can. When she can no longer keep his light under a bushel, she places him in a wicker basket and sets it afloat on the Nile -- the very river in which Pharaoh had commanded that all Hebrew boy-children be drowned.

But instead of the waters of drowning, these are waters of redemption. As his sister Miriam the prophet watches from afar, the daughter of Pharaoh finds him there. Immediately Miriam rushes to her side and offers to hire a Hebrew wet-nurse...which means that Yocheved is able to continue nursing her own child.

For our sages, the love of a mother for her child was symbolized by the act of nursing. And our love is a reflection of God's love, which is also likened to nursing! More than the calf wants to suckle, says the Talmud, the cow yearns to give milk. More than we desire God's blessing, God yearns to bestow blessing upon us. God yearns to bestow love. God yearns to bestow light.

Much later in our story, when Moses comes down from Sinai, Torah teaches that he had to veil himself because he was shining with divine light. His encounter with God was so profound that he came away glowing. Have you ever had an experience of such profound wonder and joy that you came away glowing? That's primordial light, shining through you.

On this Shabbat, may our eyes be opened to see the light in each other. And may our hearts be opened to receive the flow of love and light which God yearns to bestow.

 

Image: an artist's rendering of the Big Bang, from here.


Three tiny teachings on Chanukah's light

Light_shining1The Bnei Yissaschar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov) teaches: On Chanukah, we are given part of the or ha-ganuz, the primordial light which has been hidden-away since the moment of Creation and which is preserved for the righteous in the world to come. (This is the light of the first day of creation, before the sun and moon and stars were created; not literal light, but a kind of spiritual or metaphysical light, the light of expanded consciousness.) With this light, you could see from one end of the earth to the other. And with this light, we kindle other holy lights -- the souls within each of us.

(From his teachings on the month of Kislev; the final insight comes from Michael Strassfeld's commentary in The Jewish Holidays.)

 The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) teaches: "The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the spring we search our homes for leaven with a candle. (That's the ritual of bedikat chametz, hiding some leaven around the house and then "discovering" it with a candle, to ceremonially burn it before the holday begins.) At this season, we search our innermost selves for the spark of God which illuminates us (as the Chanukah candles illuminate what's around us.)

The mishkan, the dwelling-place-for-God (e.g. the holy Temple, the one whose rededication we celebrate at this season even though it's been destroyed now for almost two thousand years) -- that holy dwelling-place is within each of us, as we read in Torah, "they shall build for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them." (In other words: we built the sanctuary not so that God could live in it, but so that through the process of the building we might open our hearts for God to dwell in us.)

The Temple no longer exists; in our era the mishkan is  hidden -- but we can still find it by searching for it, which we do with the (metaphorical) candles of the mitzvot. We search for God's presence by "lighting the candles" of doing mitzvot. Doing mitzvot with all of our hearts, our souls, our life-force, is a way of searching for God's presence in the world.  Through doing mitzvot with intention and awareness, we are able to find the point within us which is the hidden mishkan, the dwelling place for God.

(Here's a longer exploration of this teaching: Sfat Emet on light and Chanukah, 2010.)

 The Sfat Emet also teaches: The miracle of Chanukah was one of light. This light allows us to find the hidden illumination / enlightenment which is in darkness and in our alienation.

* * *

As we kindle the Chanukah lights tonight for the last time this year, may we experience their light as a glimpse of that primordial light from the first moment of creation; may we find our souls kindled through the act of doing this mitzvah, and may we recognize ourselves as dwelling-places for God's presence; and may our lights connect us with the hidden illumination which can be found in even our darkest emotional and spiritual places.

 

 

 

 


The nighttime wrestle - a pearl of Torah for Vayishlach

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a stranger all night until dawn and receives a new name as a blessing. I'll say more about that in the d'var Torah I'm offering on Shabbat at my shul (which will be posted here on Sunday, as usual.) Today I'm sharing a tiny teaching adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.

In the line "a man strived with him until dawn," the Degel sees a reference to how each of us will struggle in life -- with our impulses and inclinations. Each person has two impulses or inclinations, the yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and the yetzer ha-ra(bad inclination.) We enter the world, he says, as holy souls, and the evil inclination has no sway over us. But this inevitably changes as we grow up and move into the working world, and we come to imagine that there are things we "have to do" to make a living. He lists lying or cheating others; I suspect each of us can think of times when we've justified choices about which we secretly don't feel so great.

Each of us will experience struggle with our own yetzer ha-ra -- and the struggle may be fiercest, somehow, during the black of night. All of our troubles, fears, and anxieties feel worse during the night. (Anyone who has struggled with insomnia knows this all too well.) But when the dawn comes, he says, our struggles are illuminated and we can recognize things for what they are.

A blessing for all of us: during these last days of parashat Vayishlach, may we be gifted with light which illuminates our troubles and our mistakes so that we can see them clearly and can emerge unafraid.

Shabbat shalom!


Duality within: on Toldot

The children grappled with each other inside her, and she thought to herself, if this is so, why do I exist? So she went to ask that of Adonai.

And God said to her: two nations are inside you; / two will branch off from each other, as they emerge from your womb. / One shall prevail over the other; the elder, serve the younger." (Genesis 25:22-24)

DualityOn the surface this appears to be a text about Rebecca and the twins battling in her womb. But the Torah is also a map for our own spiritual development, which means that this is also a text about each of us.

Our sages teach that each person has two inclinations or urges: the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination.) This is inherent in our nature as human beings.

[Remember that, for our sages, the yetzer hara is an integral part of creation. In midrash we read that when the sages imprisoned the yetzer hara in a cage for three days, no eggs were laid throughout the land. Which is to say: without the yetzer hara, there's no generative impulse.]

But the yetzer hara can also lead us in bad directions. Sometimes when we pause to do the work of discernment, we discover that we're not acting out of a place that's elevated or useful; instead we're acting out of selfishness or fear or anger. One who makes such a discovery about themselves might offer the same existential cry that Rebecca did: "if this is so, then why am I here?" Why am I even alive in this world, if I'm not living out the best self I can be? What's the point?

But we can engage in practices which strengthen our yetzer hatov, our good inclination. We can be mindful and attentive to that within us which is driven by our bad impulse, and with our attention and energy can transform the bad into good. As it says in Psalms, "Turn bad into good." Increase your ability to take the yetzer hara which is within you, and invert or transform it into yetzer hatov.

When you do this, your yetzer hara will surrender and your yetzer hatov will emerge triumphant. And then it will be possible for you to really serve the Holy Blessed One, even with those aspects of yourself which feel linked to your yetzer hara.

(Gently adapted from the Degel Machaneh Efraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.)

This will be the Torah study text at my shul this Shabbat after our contemplative service, and I'll bring along some questions to hopefully spark our conversation. But I think this is one which merits thinking about for more than just one morning, so I'm sharing it here too. I welcome any responses y'all have to offer.


Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)


This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »


After the summit, the climb: a Shavuot teaching

This is the teaching I offered late last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. It's loosely adapted from the Netivot Shalom, a.k.a. the Slonimer Rebbe, a.k.a. R' Shalom Noach Berezovsky. I originally translated it for a Hasidut class taught by R' Elliot Ginsburg; this version is streamlined a bit for easier teaching.


Someone once asked my teacher why on a first visit we can come directly to him and all the gates are opened to us, but on the second visit everything is closed. He answered with a parable:

You're taken up to the top of a high mountain, and you see the view that is all around you, and notice how glorious it is there. After that, you're brought back down to the bottom. And now, you must begin to climb up to the summit under your own power.

Once you see how wonderful it is up there, that encourages you to use your own strength to get back there. Initially, we receive enlightenment from above, that we might see with our own eyes how good it is to serve God. As Psalm 34 says, "Taste and see that God is good!"

After that, we're returned to our original (spiritual) place. But now we can go up on our own, now that we know where the heights are and how wonderful they are. That's what gives us the strength to push ourselves to climb.

On the first day of Pesach, we receive enlightenment from above. (It's as though we received a cosmic download of divinity, all compressed into a tight bundle, and we spend the 49 days of the Omer unpacking that download, lighting up each individual quality within ourselves which corresponds to the divine quality of that day.)

The energy, the potential, for climbing up to Shavuot comes from the illumination of that first day of Pesach. The first seder lights us up and inspires us to climb.

The seven weeks of the Omer are a time of spiritual preparation, during which we ready ourselves to receive the Torah. At the moment of the giving of the Torah, all seven heavens are open. All of our middot, the spiritual qualities which we share with God, are open and illuminated.

The experience of constriction, Mitzrayim, tarnished us. But on the first night of Pesach, God awakens us from on high. That awakening gives us the strength to spend the next seven weeks cleansing ourselves from the residue which accrues when we enslave ourselves to worldly things.

Pesach is a moment of erusin, betrothal, when Israel as a people becomes given-over to God. The 49 days of sefirat ha-Omer are a period of preparation and courting, preparing for the moment of being lifted-up. And at Shavuot, we and God are wed.

During the 49 days of the counting of the Omer, we "turn from evil and do good," again in the words of Psalm 34. We turn from the evil of enslavement, and pursue the goodness of receiving Torah. We turn from the evil of our own worst impulses and bad habits, and pursue the goodness of our best qualities (which we share with God.)

Throughout this journey, we draw on the energy we experienced on high, that first Passover night, to carry us the rest of the way to union at the mountaintop again.

And when we work for it; when we come seeking God; when we make the climb; we awaken the process of the revelation of the Torah. We needed to get here under our own power, and now that we've made it, the revelation is ready to pour in.

 

Have you experienced feeling 'lifted up,' then having to work to get back there?
How can you "turn from evil and do good" in your own life?
What is the Torah you most need to receive this year?
Quiet your mind, go inward, and ask the Holy Blessed One for revelation.


Staying awake: Rabbi Ira Stone on Mussar

Why is it so difficult to do what is good? What is the relationship between living a religious life and an ethical one? How can religion fortify an ethical life? To these questions we will add one more: In a cultural milieu in which personal satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are deemed synonymous, can we hope to attain an alternate spirituality that promises to take us beyond ourselves not through intoxication, but through profound concern for the other people among whom we live?

...The ultimate threat to the soul is sleep. Once the other has called us, once we have fallen in love, we are enjoined to a life of never-ending responsibility...Learning to stay awake is central to Mussar practice.

The quotation above comes from Rabbi Ira Stone, in his book A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar. Mussar is a system of Jewish ethics and practice aimed at helping us live righteously.

He begins by outlining the basic philosophy and theology of Mussar practice. Mussar assumes that we are conscious beings, each endowed with a yetzer ha-tov (the good impulse, or impulse toward goodness) and yetzer ha-ra (the evil impulse, or impulse toward wickedness.) Both are a necessary part of our humanity. Mussar practice is intended to help us cultivate our best qualities, in order that we might resist the yetzer ha-ra's inclinations to become "forgetful" (or, in Stone's words, to fall asleep -- to ignore our obligations to one another and to God) and instead strengthen the yetzer ha-tov in being "awake."

And how do we do this? Through cultivating middot, character traits or qualities, which align us with ethics and holiness. Working on our middot allows us to develop the twin spiritual faculties of awe of God (yirat Hashem) and love of God (ahavat Hashem.) As we develop those strengths, that in turn helps us orient ourselves toward our better impulses. With greater awe and love, we can more easily make ethical choices.

The ultimate goal is the transformation and healing of all of qualities and our impulses, from negative to positive. It's a tall order, but one that I find tremendously resonant with my sense of spiritual practice. The student of Mussar, writes Rabbi Stone, may feel as though the texts at hand tell them something they already knew. The point isn't merely taking in new information: it's studying the things which we know to be true and right, but which something in us perhaps resists.

This isn't merely dry academic study. Rabbi Stone cites Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of the great lights of Mussar, in his insistence that Mussar texts be studied "with lips aflame" -- in other words, aloud and with passion.

Rabbi Stone offers a fairly standard list of middot, qualities. As I read through them, some leap out at me because they are qualities I have tried to cultivate; others leap out at me because they are qualities which still challenge me. Here are a few:

Equanimity. Rise above events that are inconsequential -- both bad and good -- for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.

Order. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly -- each and every one having a set place and a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.

Diligence. Always find something to do -- for yourself or for a friend -- and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.

Silence. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: "What benefit will my speech bring to me or to others?"

I've spent a lot of time, these last years, working on equanimity. And I know that I am happiest and most productive when my life is reasonably well-ordered. But I struggle sometimes with diligence and with silence. Sometimes I think I should be cultivating greater diligence, keeping busier, not wasting an instant of my precious life -- and other times I think: no, I'm only human, I've got a three-year-old, I need some downtime! Sometimes I think I should strive for greater silence, especially online where there's such a constant brouhaha of people gabbling -- and other times I think: no, today's world demands not that I remain silent but precisely that I speak.

And then I wonder: am I resisting a practice of improving my diligence because it's honestly healthy for me as a woman and a mother in 2013 to cut myself some slack? (Yes, almost certainly.) Or am I resisting it because I'm looking for an excuse to lose a few hours watching mediocre television and wittering around on the internet? (Yes to that too, I suspect.) Am I resisting a practice of silence because I genuinely have valuable Torah to offer to the world? (Yes, I think so.) Or am I resisting it because I'm not sufficiently spiritually-advanced to be able to sustain a practice of only speaking when my speech is really necessary? (Surely the answer to that question too is yes.)

Part of what moves me, in Rabbi Stone's writing, is the assertion that we need to remain awake and alert to our obligations because it is in these obligations to one another that we meet God. Mussar practice is a practice of self-refinement. As we refine our qualities, we become better-attuned to our love and our awe. Through love and awe, we become better able to perform mitzvot, to act with awareness that we are obligated to and for God and to and for each other. And that's how we cultivate true joy in our lives: not fleeting enjoyment, but real, deep joy. We cultivate joy through acting with mindfulness of the other, both the other beings with whom we share creation, and the ultimate Other who we understand as the source of all things.

 


 

More on this: Middot through text and practice, 2007.


Meeting our children where they are

On Pesach, the child asks the parent: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev sees in this a deep teaching about how to parent and how to be like God.

He begins this teaching in a slightly odd place: by wondering aloud why we have the tradition of ritually asking this question at Pesach and not, for instance, at Sukkot, when we're dwelling in little huts with permeable roofs. He notes that there's a teaching (in the Gemara) that some people say the world was created in Tishri, and others say it was created in Nisan. Some say the new year is in the fall, and others say the new year is in the spring.

Ultimately, his answer to this question ("is the new year in the fall or in the spring?") is "yes." Which is to say: they're both meaningful, though in different ways. In Tishri (the Days of Awe), we celebrate the creation of the universe which happened, he says, through chesed, divine lovingkindness. This is the birthday of creation, the new year for all beings and all things. Creation arose because of God's overflowing compassion and lovingkindness, and that lovingkindness extends to everything.

In Nisan (during Pesach), we celebrate the miracles and wonders which God performed in liberating us from slavery. Both of these are important beginnings: the creation of the world, and the creation of our people as a people. (Indeed -- we mention both in the kiddush, the blessing over wine, every Shabbat.) But they're different in tone. The Tishri new year is a universal new year, a moment of celebration for all existence. The Nisan new year is a particularistic new year, commemorating our community's origins.

And the question "why is this night different from all other nights" isn't asked at that other end of the year, at the universalistic new year of all creation. We ask it at Pesach, our festival of liberation. Here's R' Levi Yitzchak:

The Holy Blessed One constricts God's-self for the sake of God's people Israel, and takes great pleasure in this, and in this God's will is fulfilled. An example of this is the question of the son to the father ["Why is this night different" etc]. For the wisdom of the father is greater than that of the son, and only through his love for his son does the father constrict himself in order to offer a response to the son's question. And this is the example, as is known: the Holy Blessed One constricts God's self in the qualities of Israel and takes pride in them and their doing of God's will.

Or -- phrased in a more contemporary idiom --

On Pesach, it's the child's job to ask, "Why is this night different?" And it's the parent's job to constrict her/himself, and to channel love and knowledge into an answer which the child can process -- and also to take joy and pride in the child's growth and desire to know.

God's wisdom is greater than ours, as a parent's wisdom is greater than their child's. In love, God contracts himself/herself in order to make room for us and to answer us where we are. Just so, we too can pull back  in order to make space for our children, and to answer their questions in a way which will reach them where they are. When we pull back to make space for our children to grow, we follow in God's footsteps.

Kedushat Levi teaches us that God takes great pleasure in this tzimtzum, this process of self-constriction which makes space for us in the world. And God takes pleasure in us and in our questioning and in our growth. Like a loving parent, God holds back some of God's greatness in order to make room for us and to respond in a way that we can hear. And like God, it's our job as parents to gauge where our children are at, and to relate to them where they authentically are.

 

(You can find this teaching in ספר קדשת–לוי השלם; it's the second teaching in his דרוש לפשח / "Pesach teachings" section.)


Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov

In this workshop we will examine the influence of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Reb Zalman’s life and thought, particularly on Zalman’s creative way of renewing the practice of davvenen. Rabbi Burt will also discuss Zalman’s personal influence on his own life. The class will be taught through lecture, text study, guided visualization, and davvenen practice.

Rabbi Burt Jacobson was my first mashpi'a (spiritual director), and I've been fortunate enough to study the works of the Baal Shem Tov with him. As soon as I saw this session on the schedule, I knew I wanted to attend.

"When I saw the announcement of the theme, mikol melamdai hiskalti (from all my teachers I have learned), I immediately thought of Reb Zalman and the Baal Shem Tov," Reb Burt told us. He said:

I've been a student of the Baal Shem Tov's now for 35 years. And I believe that though he lived in the 18th century he is still a teacher for our time. He provided me with an orientation not just to Judaism, but an orientation to life that serves me every day. I want to talk about the Baal Shem and then talk about parallels I see in Reb Zalman's work.

Reb Burt teaches.

He offered some biographical details about the Besht. He was born around 1700. Some fifty years before he was born were the Chmielnitzki pogroms, 1648 and the following years. "These pogroms were among the worst experiences that Jews had ever had since the Fall of the second Temple." And he continued:

In my opinion, those massacres on top of all the dark experiences that Jews had undergone in the years of exile left a traumatic scar on the body of the Jewish people. That scar ruptured the relationship between God and the Jewish people. People thought: we sinned, and God took it out on us through the massacres. There was an abundance of guilt, and in its wake, a lot of asceticism.

I believe that the challenge that the Baal Shem felt was the challenge about how to heal that trauma. How to bring hope, how to bring love. Perhaps the chief tool that the Baal Shem used was prayer. There had never been a movement in Judaism before Hasidism that put prayer so much at the center of Jewish religious life. But it wasn't the old style of prayer. The Baal Shem felt that prayer needed to be reinvented in his time! To make a connection with God that would allow healing to happen.

As I heard him say these things, I started to realize the extent to which there are parallels between Reb Zalman's work and the Baal Shem Tov's. Working and teaching in the aftermath of a communal catastrophe, seeking to help our community heal from trauma, using the tool of prayer (and reinventing the tool of prayer) to make a connection with God which would allow healing to happen -- all of those things sound like Reb Zalman to me, for sure.

Continue reading "Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov" »


Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

What there is to learn from this portion is to prepare yourself during the good days in which holiness is revealed, to set that light solidly within the heart so it will be there during the bad days when the holiness is hidden.

That's from the Sfat Emet -- the Hasidic rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger -- on Miketz, the Torah portion in which we read about Pharaoh's dreams about the fat cows and the lean cows which devour them. We'll be reading Miketz not this Shabbat, but next -- on the Shabbat which falls during Chanukah. Chanukah, when we celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, the triumph of light over darkness.

My dear teacher R' Daniel Siegel recently published, on his blog, a series of teachings from the Sfat Emet on Chanukah. Reb Daniel writes:

The S'fat Emet is, I believe, a uniquely organized Hassidic text because not only do the teachings follow the annual Torah reading cycle, but they are subdivided by the years in which they were given. And what I noticed is that the Gerer Rebbe gave nineteen teachings between the years 1870 and 1903, eighteen of which begin with the same citation from the same midrash and the first, while not citing that particular text, sets the themes for those that follow.

Such a discovery requires sustained reading, and I am so grateful to Reb Daniel for sharing it. How remarkable that over the course of thirty-three years, the S'fat Emet offered nineteen teachings on this week's Torah portion, eighteen of which began with the same midrashic citation. Perhaps -- operating on the theory that one teaches best what one most needs to learn -- this was an idea with which he struggled, and therefore kept turning and turning it to find what was in it.

Year after year, the S'fat Emet returns to this idea that God sets limits around darkness, that darkness will not endure forever. Darkness, which he links with the yetzer ha-ra or evil inclination, has its limits; light, which is linked with blessing and with Torah and with Shabbat, is endless.

Living in the northern hemisphere, I find in this teaching the same message I find in the experience of kindling Chanukah lights: the light is always increasing. The darkness won't be forever. Of course, the darkness in these teachings is always more than merely literal.

The light which was created during the six days of creation shone from one end of the world to the other and was beyond time and contraction. The Holy Blessed One saw that the world wasn't worthy of it because of sin and hid it away for the righteous...Therefore, anyone who needs to attain an enlightenment must first pass through the hiding of the light in darkness.

I've only just begun reading and processing these S'fat Emet texts. I should spend the time to pore over each one in Hebrew as well as reading them quickly in English -- I know from experience that going into the Hebrew often gives me a different, a deeper, grasp of the concepts and the teachings. But on a first reading, in English, I'm struck by what I'm finding there. And today, I'm moved by this idea that in order to access the light, one often finds oneself moving through darkness.

For all who feel trapped in darkness right now -- the literal darkness of northern hemisphere winter; the emotional and spiritual darkness of trouble and sorrow -- I hope these glimpses of the S'fat Emet's teaching on next week's parsha may offer some glimmers of light.


Kedushat Levi on seeing God "face to face"

For those who are so inclined, here's a short text from Kedushat Levi which arises out of one line of last week's Torah portion. This was our Torah study text at my shul this past Shabbat. This text can be found on p. 82 in my edition of KL. You can also find KL's teachings on this week's parsha, in Hebrew with slightly clunky English translations, at Kedushat Levi Translations: Vayishlach.

Kedushat Levi is the compilation of Torah teachings from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1809), who was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people because it was believed that he could intercede on our behalf before God. He was known for his compassion for every Jew.


"And he called the name of that place Peni'el [lit. "The face of God"], 'for I have seen God face to face, yet my life (soul) has been spared.'" (Genesis 32:31)

Some people serve the Blessed Creator in order that good things might flow from God because of their service.

This is a great spiritual level to attain: serving the Blessed Creator without the intention of receiving goodness for oneself. As a result of this, one becomes great and in control.

The essence of this is called "face to face," because that person serves the Blessed Creator and receives greatness and control, and God meets that person face to face.

The second way of relating to God is called "face to back," for the blessed Creator faces him with the divine face, and the person, as it were, serves in order to receive goodness upon himself.

This is the second (lower) level of "for I have seen God face to face." At this level, "and my life has been spared" speaks in the language of separation.

This is the hint: that it did not arise upon that one's heart to serve for the sake of something close to his soul, e.g., in order to receive goodness from the blessed God. This is a level of serving for one's own sake, and the other is a level of serving God not for one's own sake.

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A teaching from the Sfat Emet for Rosh Hashanah

This is my second-evening-of-Rosh-Hashanah offering, in lieu of a second-night sermon.

A teaching from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Sfat Emet. (Translation mine.)

 

"Inscribe us for life." [From the High Holiday Amidah: "Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake, God of life."]

There is a holy spark in each person's heart. This is the soul, the breath of life. Our Torah blessing says that God "planted eternal life within us." This holy spark within us is what the blessing is referring to.

Over the course of each year, as we grow accustomed to sinning, the material self overpowers that holy point of holiness. Each of us needs to ask for compassion from the Holy Blessed One, so that God will renew the imprint within us at Rosh Hashanah. This is what we're asking when we ask "inscribe us for life."

The two tablets (Exodus) were also inscribed (engraved). Our sages creatively mis-read "engraved" as "set free" -- free from the angel of death and the evil impulse. Upon receiving the Torah, the children of Israel were ready for their engraving -- the words on the tablets and the imprint in their hearts -- never to be erased. But our misdeeds each year mess that up for us. Now each year we need to have that "for life" inscribed within us again.

When we speak of being "sealed" for a good year -- in the Ne'ilah prayers of Yom Kippur -- that's a reference to this holy spark within us, which needs to be "sealed" safely away, like a fountain in the garden of Eden.

 

Let me unpack and re-state that, because it's beautiful, and it's worth really grasping.

There is a holy spark inside each of us -- something living and eternal, planted there by God.

Each year, our poor choices, our misdeeds, our sins obscure that holy spark.

On this day, we ask God to inscribe us for life -- to uncover and re-awaken the holy spark, the divine imprint, inside us.

Accepting Torah, as our ancestors did at Sinai, frees us from our worst impulses. But when we sin, we lose sight of that.

Today we ask God to inscribe us for life. Not just to inscribe our names in some mythical book, but to inscribe us: to write "to life!" on our hearts.

Our job, says Rabbi Art Green, is to keep the inner tablets of our hearts "free enough from the accumulated grime caused by sin, guilt, the insanely fast pace at which we live, and all the rest," that we maintain the spaciousness to nurture our inner spark.

May we arouse and sustain the inner spark which calls us to holiness, to righteousness, to compassion.

May our prayer on this Rosh Hashanah sluice the grit and grime out of the imprint inscribed on our hearts.


R' Dov Baer of Mezritch on righteous indignation

 

Righteous Indignation

Your anger should always be for "the sake of heaven."
Direct your anger toward the kelipot [forces of evil]
in the person who upsets you,
and not at the person himself.

Understand that the kelipot scare him into doing evil things.

Then you can use your anger
to bring the kelipot under the sway of holiness.

 


That's from God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, edited and translated by Or Rose and Ebn Leader. It's a quote from R. Dov Baer of Mezritch, from his text Hayim v'Hesed, #12. 

What are the kelipot? This concept (early medieval in origin) was re-imagined and popularized by mystic Isaac Luria (d. 1572.) Luria taught that God withdrew to make a space in which to place creation, and sent divine energy, in the form of light, into the newly-emanated world. But the vessels which had been created to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The broken shards of those vessels are the kelipot -- shells or husks or shards -- and they keep divine light hidden. Our task, say the Hasidim, is to peel away the kelipot and lift up the sparks of holiness which they conceal.

What I love about this short passage from Dov Baer of Mezritch is this: he reminds me that anger should be for the sake of heaven, not for the sake of ego or vindication. I like his teaching that if someone makes me angry, I should direct my anger toward the broken shards embedded in that person's heart, toward the thick callus preventing compassion from coming through, and not toward the person themselves. If anger is necessary -- and it sometimes is! -- try to point it at whatever is preventing the other person from being compassionate and kind, not at the person themselves.

Happy election season, my fellow Americans. :-)


Cultivating equanimity

Equanimity (השתוות / hishtavut) is very important. That is, it should make no difference whether one is taken to be an ignoramus or an accomplished Torah scholar. This may be attained by continually cleaving to the Creator -- for if one has devekut [deep connection with God], one isn't bothered by what other people think. Rather, one should continually endeavor to attach oneself to the Holy Blessed One. 

That's a teaching from Tzava'at HaRivash, the collected teachings of the mystical Jewish rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov. (A different translation of this passage appears here at Chabad.) This Eul, I find myself returning to this teaching again. I admire the ideal of equanimity, of responding to whatever arises from a place of centered acceptance and calm. As long as I do my best to be the kind of person I mean to be, to serve God and my communities in the ways I strive to serve, then that's what matters most. If I focus on my connection with something greater than myself, then I can handle things which seem in my limited understanding to be "good" or "bad" with equal grace and presence.

Even if life throws me curveballs, even if something goes wrong or if someone thinks ill of me, shouldn't I be able to hold fast to my faith and my spiritual practice, and to accept both the good and the bad with a whole heart? All I need to do is maintain mindfulness of God's presence -- as the psalmist says, and the Baal Shem reminds us, שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד; "Sh'viti Adonai l'negdi tamid / I have kept God before me always." (The word shviti, "I have kept," shares a root with hishtavut, equanimity.) "Good" and "bad" are limited human concepts; from the perspective of the divine, whether someone calls one an ignoramus or admires one as a Torah scholar is beside the point. This is, I think, what the Baal Shem Tov is saying. 

GizaCut4S

Early American shviti papercut; 1861. (Source.) A shviti is a meditative focus: we look at it and are reminded to keep God before us always, as the verse from psalms says.

When I had my strokes, several years ago, I spent a lot of time talking with my mashpia (spiritual director) about equanimity. I was struggling to come to terms with what had happened to me, and with my desire to know why I'd had the strokes and to reach some certainty that I wouldn't have another one. My mashpia at the time brought a variety of BeShT teachings to bear on our conversations. (I touched on this in my 2009 essay Different Strokes.) I seem to remember that I was able fairly easy to respond with equanimity to the immediate experience of the strokes; I found it more difficult to maintain equanimity as we moved into the realm of longterm medical uncertainty.

Maybe because spiritual lessons recur as our life circumstances unfold, this Elul I find that I'm working again on cultivating this middah (this quality) within myself. There's much in the world today which challenges my equanimity.

I know in my heart that the Baal Shem Tov was wise, on this issue as on so many. If I could encounter rejoicing and sorrow alike without being shaken, if I could receive insults and compliments alike without paying either one any mind, remaining focused on connecting with the Holy One of Blessing and bearing in mind what's really important (pro tip: not my own ego), that would be a high spiritual state indeed. I try, every day, to get a little bit closer. I do know that when I'm able to achieve something like devekut -- cleaving; attachment to God; deep connection with something far beyond myself -- everything in my life, both good and bad, takes on a different tone.

Sometimes I reach a kind of devekut when I'm leading prayer and we reach the bar'chu, the call to prayer. I find sometimes that when I'm playing guitar and singing the bar'chu something shifts in me. I can feel my voice changing, coming from somewhere deeper in my body. It's as though I'm no longer praying the prayer; instead the prayer is praying me. In that moment of singing and praying and praise, it doesn't even occur to me to wonder whether I'm leading a good service, or whether people like what I'm doing. It doesn't occur to me to remember that unkind thing someone said last week or the mean-spirited email I got the other day.

Sometimes I reach a kind of devekut when I am cuddling with my son. At night, him in his pyjamas, the two of us in the gliding rocker where we used to nurse. I'm singing him his goodnight songs, he's giggling and squirming in my arms, and I catch his laughter and then I'm connected to something so much bigger than myself. In those moments I forget my consternation at reading the news; I stop dwelling on mistakes and unkindnesses. It's like the Sfat Emet teaching about Purim, where one ascends so high -- beyond the top of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; beyond dualities -- that everything is good, everything is God.

I'm not sure that's equanimity; it's more like bliss. Maybe equanimity is the quality which enables us to encompass both the moments of blissful connection and the moments of agonizing disconnect. Because I can't stay in that lofty headspace and heartspace, no matter how I wish I could. At some point, we always have to leave mochin d'gadlut (expanded consciousness or "big mind") for mochin d'katnut (constricted consciousness or "small mind.") For me, the question is: once I'm back in "small mind," how will I respond to the world around me? How will I respond to injustice, to unkindness, to lack? How will I respond to compassion, to connection, to joy?

Striving for equanimity helps me respond to my life with gratitude, to relate to the world at large with the kindness and compassion I most value. Sometimes I manage it, for a while. Then something shakes me and my balance wobbles. Then I take a deep breath and seek balance again. I don't think equanimity is something one reaches once and then the journey's over. There's a reason we use the language of gardening to describe this kind of work: it's a slow and steady cultivation. Once it's planted in the heart, equanimity may be a perennial (to run with that metaphor a bit further), but it still requires tending, and watering, and care.