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.


New film about the Baal Shem Tov

"The Baal Shem Tov was so different than other teachers of his day. They were studying the texts that were in books. And they were so smart about those texts, they were able to find the very fine finesses between one statement and another statement, and do a kind of philsophical building that they called pilpul... It led to cleverness, but it didn't lead to wisdom. The Baal Shem, on the other hand, didn't study at any of these schools. He lived and studied in nature. When people would say, he knew the voices, he could hear the speech of birds and of the trees -- it's not that they were speaking human language! It means that he had tuned in to the frequency where they were communicating."

That's my teacher Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it: A Clip from the Film.) This is part of an interview with Reb Zalman which appears in A Fire in the Forest, a new film about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Here's how the filmmakers describe it:

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures in Jewish history, but also one of the most elusive. Today, Jews all over the world, and even many non-Jews, revere him as the founder of the Hasidic movement, and as a model of piety and mystical spirituality.

But many also find it difficult to say why he is so important to them, and to characterize his unique contribution to Jewish spirituality. Thus, A Fire in the Forest, a new documentary on the life and legacy of the Ba'al Shem Tov, sets itself the task of answering these basic questions, exploring how the Ba'al Shem Tov’s teachings can be applied to our lives today.

To do this, the filmmakers traveled with Rabbi Marc Soloway, our guide on this journey, around the world, talking to leading rabbis, scholars and teachers of Hasidism, traveling to the graves of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual heirs, and to his own prayer-house and grave in the town of Mezhibozh in the Ukraine.

I'm really excited to see this. I've ordered myself a copy, and I'm looking forward to settling in with it -- both to watch the film proper, and to take in the extra interview footage that's part of the dvd extras. One of the other teachers featured in the film is Rabbi Burt Jacobson, with whom I was blessed to study the BeShT a few years ago. (See Two short teachings from the Baal Shem, 2009.) R' Burt has dedicated his life to immersing in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and he is an amazing teacher of those texts and of their meanings.

The film features interviews with a number of other rabbis and scholars who I admire greatly, as well: in addition to Reb Zalman and Reb Burt, the list includes Rabbi Dr. Mimi Feigelson, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Dr. Art Green -- as well as others who I don't yet know but feel certain I will learn from as I watch. I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to teach about the "Master of the Good Name" and about the continuing relevance of his teachings in today's world.


The Three Weeks: healing our sight

According to Sefer Yetzirah, to each month of the Jewish calendar there corresponds a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a zodiac sign, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, a sense, and a controlling limb of the body...

That's from The Month of Tamuz According to the Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah) at Inner.org, a website which collects the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. R' Ginsburgh teaches that the sense associated with this month is sight. And the tribe associated with this month is Reuben -- a name which comes from the same root as the verb "to see."

Our task this month, he teaches, is to rectify, or heal, our own sight. "[O]ne must train one's eyes (both spiritual and physical) to see only the inner positive dimension of reality and not to focus upon reality's outer, negative 'shell.'" On another page at that same site -- The Month of Tamuz: The End of Tragedy -- we read:

The sense of the month of Tamuz is sight. This means that the month of Tamuz is the best month of the year to learn to exercise our sight in the most positive way possible. Rectified sight involves both shying away from that which is negative (an ability associated in Kabbalah with our left eye) and training ourselves to see things in a positive light (associated with our right eye). In essence, both aspects are included in the right eye, which means that we should seek to see only the good points in others.

I love this idea: that this month it is our task to learn to stop seeing the bad in people, and to perfect the art of seeing the good in people. I make a year-long practice of trying to see the good in people, but there's something especially meaningful to me about the idea of strengthening that practice during this time.

We've entered the Three Weeks when we are bein ha-meitzarim, caught in the narrow straits of remembered grief and suffering. We remember the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Beit haMikdash, the house of holiness where we once understood God's presence to dwell. I keep returning to the text from Talmud which teaches that it was sinat chinam, needless hatred between and among our community, which brought the Temple down. And I find that I'm feeling even more keenly than usual the wish that I could create bridges of understanding between people who don't see eye to eye.

If we could all spend these Three Weeks healing our sight so that we truly only see the good in one another, how might the world be different? I'm not talking about superficial pretense, but about really training ourselves to see the best in people. Imagine seeing the best not only in your friends, but in the guy who cuts you off in traffic; in someone who looks different from you; in someone whose political positions are the opposite of yours.

Imagine Democrats and Republicans not just pretending to like one another, or focusing on their common ground in order to get along, but really figuring out how to see the good in each other. Imagine AIPAC supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace supporters doing the same. Secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Soldiers and refuseniks. Israelis and Palestinians.

The classical tradition, I suspect, would argue that our task is to learn to see the best in each other within our community, not outside the bounds of our community. (Define those boundaries how you will.) But my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught that in this age of paradigm shift, we need to move beyond triumphalism to an organismic understanding of our place in the world. Each religion is a necessary organ in the body of humanity; we need to maintain our differences, but we also need to communicate and connect. Maybe the best way to do that is to learn to see the best in one another.

May our vision be healed; may we learn how to look at each other and to see not our flaws and failings and differences but our holy sparks, our souls which shine, no matter who we are.

 

I'm collecting used eyeglasses at my synagogue during the Three Weeks, with the intent of donating them to OneSight after Tisha b'Av. If you live locally and might have eyeglasses to donate, you can learn more at my From the Rabbi blog.


Rebuilding with our Torah and our hearts

"One who doesn't build the Beit HaMikdash in their own time, it's as though they had destroyed it." (Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1.)

Even those who are pillars of the world go to their rest without building the Beit HaMikdash in their days. But in truth, the righteous in every era do build in their days a part of the Beit HaMikdash! Each one adds the spark which comes from his/her own heart.

The idea that "anyone who doesn't build the Beit HaMikdash in their days, it's as though they had destroyed it" -- that means someone who doesn't understand which aspect of Torah learning is truly their own. That's the part of the Beit HaMikdash that person is supposed to be building, and if one doesn't know, then one doesn't build.

So one must pray for redemption, and to strengthen one's knowledge, and one's awe, and to understand what one doesn't yet know. That's what it means to "go up to the place which God has chosen." (Deut. 17:8.)

 

That's the Hasidic master known as the Bnei Yissachar (R. Zvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov, who died in 1841.) He's commenting on a line from the Jerusalem Talmud which says that one who doesn't rebuild the Beit HaMikdash -- the Temple in Jerusalem -- in his own time is as guilty of its destruction as those who tore the Temple down.

That's a tough idea for those of us who have ambivalent feelings about the whole notion of the Temple. Most liberal Jews today decidedly do not wish to restore Temple sacrifice. (Neither Reform nor Reconstructionist Judaism nurtures this hope.) We tend to see the the destruction of the Temple as the brokenness out of which the new paradigm of rabbinic Judaism could emerge, and we don't want to return to the old paradigm. There's also the matter of contemporary geopolitics; two Muslim holy sites now occupy the top of that mountain.

The Bnei Yissaschar, though, offers a reading which I find really beautiful. The righteous in every era do rebuild the house of holiness, he says; each of us lifts up the spark in our own soul and our own heart, and together we collaborate on healing the cosmic rupture. Someone who doesn't rebuild, and who is therefore considered (by the sages) to be as guilty as the actual destroyers -- that means someone who doesn't take the time to learn which aspect of Torah is truly their own, which spark they're meant to uplift.

I love the idea that each of us can contribute a spark to the building of the Beit HaMikdash. The Bnei Yissachar is not talking about actually rebuilding a structure out of stones and mortar. Rather, he's talking about co-creating a spiritual structure of transformation through putting our hearts and souls together. And I love the idea that we do this, each of us, by learning the Torah which is truly ours to learn and to teach, and then lifting up the sparks of that learning and teaching to God.

How do I know which Torah is mine? Which Torah I most need to learn and to teach in order to contribute my irreplaceable spark to this collective enterprise? I don't have an easy answer to that. Sometimes I think that "my" Torah is the Torah which most powerfully calls to me and which makes me yearn to share it with others. Other times I think that "my" Torah is whatever Torah I most need to wrestle with: the tough texts, the painful passages, what I need to redeem in my own ways. Often I suspect I won't know which Torah was most truly mine until my life nears its end -- if then.

During these Three Weeks when Jews around the world are mourning the long-ago siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple, the shattering of the place where we once felt we had a "direct line" to God, at least I can continue to learn Torah. And maybe I'll happen upon the teaching I most need to learn, and most need to teach, in order to do my part in the rebuilding which has nothing to do with the physical world of real estate and everything to do with the heights of holiness in the human heart.

 

With thanks to R' Eliot Ginsburg.


Teacups and Torah

Ceramic teacup by Chris Warren.

Back in the days when Ethan and I studied Isshin-Ryu with Sensei Steve Buschman, we learned the parable of Nan-in and the teacup. (I heard it again at some point during my hashpa'ah training.) Here's how it goes:

A zen student came to the zen master Nan-in seeking wisdom, and they sat down to tea.

Nan-in poured tea into the student's cup. And then kept pouring. And the tea overflowed. Eventually the student could not contain himself, and exclaimed, "Can't you see that the cup is already full?"

"Just so," said the Zen master, "You are already full of opinions and certainties. I can't teach you until you first empty your cup."

In spiritual direction a few days ago, I re-learned that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that it is necessary to "give over" Torah -- to teach Torah to others -- in order to open oneself up to receive more Torah. When one teaches Torah, that act stimulates the flow of more Torah from on high.

(This is what kabbalah calls itaruta di'l'tata -- Aramaic for "arousal from below." When we give over Torah, when we give over blessings, our action "arouses" the divine will, and God pours more Torah and more blessing into the world.)

In order to receive more Torah, one has to give over the Torah one has already received. In order to receive the wisdom of zen, one must first empty one's teacup: relinquish preconceptions in order to receive that which is new.

They're not quite the same teaching. Nan-in was interested in clearing the mind of preconceived notions and assumptions in order to make space for new learning, new insights, new understandings. The BeShT was interested in the act of teaching, of giving-over Torah to students, as a mystical stimulus which would open the divine spigot and cause more Torah to flow into creation.

But I love the way that, in each of these paradigms, it's important to notice when one's teacup is full, and to share what one has with others, in order to make room for more. If one hoards blessings, then new blessings can't flow. If one maintains a full teacup, then there's nowhere for new tea to go. The only way to receive more is to give what you have.


The Things They Carried - a d'var Torah for parashat Naso

This is the d'var Torah I'll offer on Shabbat morning at my shul. If you're going to be davening with us, you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d'var with fresh ears!

May God bless you and keep you
May God deal kindly and graciously with you
May God bestow favor upon you, and grant you peace.

Those three verses from Numbers 6 are known as the "priestly blessing." Once these verses were recited by the priests. Today in some communities which preserve the distinctions between kohanim, levi'im, and Yisrael (priests, Levites, and everyone else), the descendants of kohanim recite these words at the end of the amidah with their hands upraised. In other communities these words are a benediction offered by the rabbi. I myself love chanting this blessing, every opportunity I get.

After this blessing, in this week's Torah portion, we read, "Thus shall they link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them." When we recite this blessing, we link God's name with our community; we create and strengthen the bonds between ourselves and the part of God's essence which is described by each of our many different names for God. "And I will bless them," Torah says -- the "I," of course, being God. When we recite these words, we are turning a cosmic spigot for divine blessing.

Immediately after this blessing, we read about how once the mishkan (the portable tabernacle; the dwelling-place for God) was built, Moshe consecrated it and its furnishings. Then the heads of the tribes brought carts and oxen as a gift to Adonai. On God's instruction, Moshe gave the carts and oxen to to the Gershonites and Merarites, two groups within the broader group of Levites. The Gershonites were responsible for the curtains and hangings and ropes; the Merarites were responsible for the posts, crossbars, tent pegs and so on.

But the Kohathites -- a third group of Levites -- did not receive oxen or carts, because they carried the most sacred objects, and they carried them on their shoulders. The ark of the covenant, which our tradition says contained both the whole tablets and the shattered set; the golden menorah; the table and vessels; all of these were carried directly by the men of the tribe of Kahat.

The Sfat Emet -- Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (d. 1905) -- offers a beautiful teaching about this by way of a verse from I Samuel as interpreted by the Zohar. (Bear with me! It's worth it.)

Continue reading "The Things They Carried - a d'var Torah for parashat Naso" »


Two texts before Pesach: a Rumi poem, and a Reb Nosson teaching

Remember the amazing Rumi morning service I attended back in January? I've been beginning to work recently on adapting the liturgy from that service for use at my shul, and am planning a Rumi Shabbat on May 5, about which more anon. Anyway, one of the poems we'll probably use in our Rumi Shabbat service is this one, which draws on the Qur'anic (and Torah) story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. I wanted to share it here in advance of Pesach, which is coming soon!

This poem reminds me of a Hasidic teaching about the Exodus from Egypt, which I will also share below. First, here's the Rumi poem:

Remember Egypt

You that worry with travel plans,
read again the place in the Qur'an

where Moses is taking the Jewish
nation out of slavery. You so

frantic to have more money, recall
what they abandoned to wander in

the wilderness. You who feel hurt,
remember the pavilions and houses

left behind. You that lead the
community through difficulties, read

about the abundant fountains they
walked away from to have freedom.

You who dress in clothes that appear
to have elegant meaning, you with so

much charm, remember how your face
will decay to dirt. You with lots of

property, "They left their gardens
and the quietly running streams."

You who smile at funerals going by,
you that love language, measure wind

in stanzas and recall the exodus,
the wandering forty-year sacrifice.

(Edited to add: this is a translation by Coleman Barks, and can be found in The Soul of Rumi -- online here via googlebooks.)

And here's the Hasidic teaching. This is commonly attributed to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, though my teacher Reb Elliot taught that this actually comes to us via Reb Nosson, Reb Nachman's disciple/amanuensis. Reb Nosson wrote:

Continue reading "Two texts before Pesach: a Rumi poem, and a Reb Nosson teaching" »


What I Carry

 for Dale

 

It was said of Reb Simcha Bunim that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam -- "for my sake the world was created." On the other he wrote: V'anokhi afar v'efer -- "I am but dust and ashes."

 

In my pockets: receipts
for last autumn's drycleaning,
tampons, tissues,

the crumpled ticket stub
from a Paris airport train,
worn from repeated fingering.

The whole cosmos unfolds --
from the Big Bang to right now
-- so I could wear these boots.

But I'm one tiny dot
on a vast pointillist canvas.
From a distance, no self matters.

The real trick, you're right,
would be to swap the papers.
Which shell is the pea under?

Maybe I'm insignificant.
Maybe I'm everything.
Watch me open my hand.


Kedushat Levi on embodying the qualities of our ancestors

This is the text I'll be teaching at our Torah study at my shul this coming Shabbat morning -- an extended riff on the first sentence of this week's portion. This is a short text from R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch; he was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people, because it was believed that he could intercede on their behalf before God. The text comes from ספר קעשת–לוי, page פג–פד. The translation is my own.


On embodying the qualities of our ancestors

"And Jacob dwelt in the land where his father had sojourned (or: where his father had been a stranger), the land of Canaan." (Genesis 37:1)

One way to understand this comes from Ramban in his book Faith and Trust. He writes that the Holy One of Blessing made a promise to Jacob our father, and Jacob's side of the bargain was to live in a state of יראה (yir'ah), awe/fear, fearing that which causes one to sin and therefore to stop serving one's Creator.

Each of us should strive to serve God in every moment. We are called to live in joy when we sees that our fellows have goodness in this world; but if, God forbid, things are turned around (and our fellows suffer), we need to share in their sorrows. And we should always be concerned about that which causes sin and thereby causes us not to be able to serve the Creator.

Jacob lived at this high spiritual level, in a state of yir'ah of that which causes sin and which would then make him unable to turn his hands to his obligation to his Creator. And this is what is meant when it is written: "Jacob dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned" (or "where his father had been a stranger") -- which is to say, he always had fear. The word "sojourned" / " been a stranger" implies a kind of fear. In what way was Jacob fearful? He was afraid of not being able to serve his Creator.

The land where "his father" had sojourned -- this is to say, he had the qualities of his father, e.g. the fear which characterized Isaac, as Isaac served his Creator through the quality of awe/fear, as it says, "the Fear of Isaac." (Genesis 31:42 -- "If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, hadn't been on my side...")

 

Questions for consideration:

1. What does it mean to us to live in the land where our parents sojourned? In what ways is this true for you, or not true for you?

2. How do you respond to the idea that we are called to live in yir'ah of God? That we are called to live in yir'ah lest we sin and therefore become unable to serve?

3. How is the condition of "sojourning" or "being a stranger" connected with fear?

4. What brings forth yir'ah in you?


Which came first: the ecstasy or the laundry?

Once upon a time, the sage Rashi and his grandson the sage Rabenu Tam had a disagreement about the order in which passages should be written in the tefillin which are worn on the head. And earlier this week, my hevruta partner David and I studied a text from the Kedushat Levi which explores this disagreement and its implications. (If you need a refresher on what, exactly, tefillin might be, here are a few links: Ode to my tefillin [2011], Connections [2005], and Surprises [also 2005].)

Okay, on to the disagreement and the question about what it means. In a set of tefillin there are two boxes: the shel yad (which goes on the bicep) and the shel rosh (which goes on the head.) In the head-tefillin there are four passages: two from Exodus, which talk about remembering the Exodus from Egypt and which make specific mention of tefillin (that's Exodus 13:1-10 and Exodus 13:11-16, for those who are interested), and two from Deuteronomy which we now know as part of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:13-21.) So two passages are about the Exodus, and two passages are about God's unity and about the blessings we will receive if we commit to the path of mitzvot. (With me so far?)

Rashi held that after the two passages about the Exodus, the tefillin should contain first the shema (the statement of God's unity which is central to Jewish faith and practice) and then the passage called v'haya im shemoa, "If you truly listen..." (Here is the traditional text  of v'haya im shemoa in Hebrew and in English; and here is Rabbi Arthur Waskow's interpretive rendition of that passage/prayer.) Putting the passages in this order reflects that first we need to accept and experience God's unity, and then we can take on the mitzvot and receive the blessings which will unfold from that.

Rabbenu Tam, Rashi's grandson, held that after the two passages about the Exodus, the Deuteronomy passages should go in the other order: first "if you truly listen..." and then "Hear O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One." In his understanding, we need to commit to the path of the mitzvot before we can truly understand and accept the unity of the divine and the reality that there is nothing else but God. (Even today, tefillin are written in both of these ways -- Rashi tefillin and Rabbenu Tam tefillin -- and many Hasidim wear both sets.)

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The Ishbitzer on the power of purifying the imagination

This week we're reading parashat Matot. Parts of this parsha may be challenging to the contemporary liberal religious sensibility. One of the pieces which challenges me is God's commandment that the Israelites must take vengeance on the people of Midian on account of the Midianites having induced the Israelites to be unfaithful to God, and the subsequent slaughter of every man in the Midianite tribe. (That story gave rise to my Torah poem for this parsha two years ago: Spoils.) This is a violent text. What can we find in it which might be redemptive?

Earlier this week, in the Wednesday morning coffeeshop Torah study in which I am blessed to participate, we read the Ishbitzer rebbe's commentaries on this parsha, and one of them struck me profoundly. He drashes the name Midian, מדין, as related to דמיון (dimion), imagination. (I don't know that this is etymologically sound, but as a bit of aural wordplay it works beautifully.) And building on that interpretation, he says that what this passage is really about is that we're supposed to seek out and kill the part of our own imagination which keeps us separate from God. When this negative midian / imagination is removed from our hearts, then we will be innately and naturally aligned with the will and the presence of God.

So this troubling passage isn't really (or isn't merely) about genocide; on a deeper level it's about ferreting out the part of one's own imagination that tells one untruths which keeps one separate and distant from the Holy Blessed One and from God's will for who and what we should be.

It's a radical drash, and it obviously requires the reader to take a substantial leap away from the pshat (plain meaning) of the Torah text. But for me, this is a beautiful and powerful interpretation. It allows me to reread this passage in a way which speaks to my spirit and my heart.

Shabbat shalom!


Kedushat Levi on the role of the spiritual leader (parashat Pinchas)

If you're coming to Shabbat morning services (and to the Torah study which follows) this week, you might want to skip this post -- or else, read and begin contemplating it now, so you'll have fully-formed thoughts to offer in our discussion! This is the Kedushat Levi text which David and I translated together this week; it arises out of part of the Torah portion which we'll be reading during services, specifically Numbers 27:15-23.

 


 

Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) on parashat Pinchas

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. He was known as “the defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because people believed that he could intercede for us before God.

Moshe spoke to Adonai, saying, "Let Adonai, source of the breath of all flesh [or: God of the spirits of all flesh] appoint a leader for the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." (Numbers 27:15-17)

The Blessed Creator causes shefa (abundance) to flow into the world of the serafim (angels) and into the realm of the cosmic creatures of the zodiac, and from there the shefa flows to us. The Blesed Creator sends that flow into the higher realms so that it can be received by us. It's as though the Blessed Creator were constricting God's-self into this stream of abundance, and sending forth this abundance so that we can receive it. And in receiving it, we find God. All of the chesed (lovingkindness) which flows into those higher realms is like a teaching or lesson which flows into the lower worlds to be received.

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"My mouth is a kiln / for smelting Torah..."

Longtime readers may recall that during my last year of rabbinic school I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of our Rejoicing," in which Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg led us through studying a variety of Hasidic texts about the festivals and the ebb and flow of the spiritual year. At the end of the first semester of that class, my final project was the creation of a brief collection of poems, each of which arose out of my own translation of a particular Hasidic text.

In anticipation of Shavuot, I wanted to offer one of those poems here. The poem comes out of a Sfat Emet teaching on parashat Emor (my notes tell me it was given over in the year 1872 and can be found on page 3:167a -- sorry I can't offer a more precise citation than that.) Hopefully this poem, like the text which inspired it, speaks to the ways in which counting the Omer gives us opportunities to refine our spiritual qualities in preparation to receive revelation again.


 

REFINING (SFAT EMET / EMOR)

the words of God
are refined silver

living embodied
we purify what we're given

my mouth is a kiln
for smelting Torah

Egypt was a place
for forging iron

base and heavy
like our speech

throats constrained
by Pharaoh's chains

but at Sinai
everything changed

Torah is coming,
make yourself ready

make your words
count


Kedushat Levi on the census as sacred study

This week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, speaks of a census taken by Moshe, a counting of the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai at God's command.

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) has a beautiful teaching which has changed the way I view this census recounted in Torah. He writes:

The souls of Israel are the body of the Torah, because the community of Israel make up the six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. We find that Israel is the Torah, for the soul of each person in Israel is like a letter in the Torah.

We find that when Moshe took an accounting, he was studying the Torah [which is embodied in the community itself]: that is the real meaning of God's command.

This week in our lectionary we begin a new book of the Torah. In Hebrew this book is called Bamidbar, "In the Wilderness," but in English this book's name is "Numbers." And yes, there are a lot of numbers here. Reading the census which begins the book, one could be forgiven for finding the material somewhat dry, a counting of distant ancestors who -- if they ever had historical life at all -- lived ages ago.

But Kedushat Levi teaches us to see otherwise. The soul of each of us is a letter in the Torah. When we look out at our assembled community, we can read the Torah which is embodied in who we are. In us, Torah takes living form. And, it stands to reason, if we want the whole Torah (which we do), then we need to ensure that the whole community "counts" -- all of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of our politics, regardless of which denomination we call home.

The census wasn't just a matter of counting heads in order to form an army. It was Torah study of the deepest kind: reading the divine letter which is at the spark of each of person's soul, knowing that together they are something transcendent, more than the sum of their parts.


Mitzvot, parenting, and "preparing the pot"

In our coffee shop Torah study circle this week, we studied the commentary of the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza) on this week's portion, Bechukkotai. The Torah portion begins, "If you walk in the ways of My chukot (statutes), and you keep My mitzvot, and you do them..."

In one of his teachings on this verse, the Ishbitzer notes that the way of God is not like the way of humanity. A person first prepares the pot on the fire, and then pours water into it. If I am planning to do a thing, I imagine it and plan out my actions -- that's "preparing the pot." And then when I actually do the action, I "receive the water." Not so, says the Ishbitzer, with God... and not so with God's ways. God first pours the water, and then prepares the pot. And we're meant to do the same.

When it comes to mitzvot, we're meant to open ourselves to them and to do them: not according to our own understanding or our own plans but according to God's. Pour the water -- do the mitzvot -- and then God will "prepare the pot," e.g. give us the spiritual benefit of having done the action. If we take the leap of doing the mitzvot, then God will make us ready to do them. It's an inversion of how we usually think about things.

A chok is a commandment which doesn't necessarily make intellectual sense, a mitzvah which we do not because the reason resonates for us but because the discipline of doing the mitzvah shapes us. Reading the Ishbitzer, this morning, I found myself thinking about mitzvot and discipline in terms of parenthood.

Right now my most constant daily practice is parenting my toddler. And unlike the other practices in my life -- my aspirations of daily prayer, e.g. -- this one is non-negotiable. I can't wake up in the morning and think, "hmm, I'm not sure I feel like getting out of bed now; I'll be a mother later." I took on the practice of parenting; I don't get to choose now to do it or not to do it.

I took on parenting without full knowledge of what it was going to be like or how it would change me. Sure, Ethan and I did our best to anticipate parenthood; to make plans, to purchase a crib, to dream about who our son might become. But at a certain point, we had to take the leap of entering into the experience, even though we couldn't predict all that it would entail. We couldn't predict how it would shape our lives, how it might change us, or what it would mean. In the Ishbitzer's terms, we poured the water, trusting that God would "prepare the pot" and create a container to hold us in this new adventure.

Some of the things I do as a parent bring me immediate joy. Some of them make sense to me. I knew I would enjoy them, and I do. And some of the things I do as a parent are difficult; they challenge my autonomy; they aren't always fun... but I've committed to doing them, and that commitment changes me, and it brings me gifts I couldn't have imagined.

Mitzvot work that way too. They're a discipline. Some of them are enjoyable in and of themselves; some of them challenge me. But I have to commit to doing them in order to find out who they're going to help me become.


On leaping, without delay - Reb Nachman on leaving Mitzrayim

In preparation for Pesach, my chevruta and I decided to study a Hasidic text I had learned a few years ago but hadn't looked back at since. This is Reb Nachman of Bratzlav (or Breslov) as interpreted / filtered through the words of his closest disciple, Reb Nosson, and this is a really beautiful -- and timely! -- teaching. My translation appears below (indented), with explanations interspersed.

One needs to leave Mitzrayim with great haste. This is the essence of the quote from Torah, "For they left Mitzrayim and couldn't tarry, and also they didn't make provisions [for the journey]." (Exodus 12:39) This truth is recapitulated in each person and in each era. In each person and in each time, there can be found a residue [of Mitzrayim], the cravings and woes of this world, and this is the essence of the exile in Mitzrayim.

In the traditional haggadah for Pesach (and in mine!) we read that in every generation, each of us is commanded to experience Pesach as though we ourselves had been liberated from Mitzrayim (literally "Egypt," though the name's meaning speaks of constriction and can therefore be understood in a broader way as that which constrains or enslaves us.)

Reb Nachman and Reb Nosson expand this teaching to say that in each of our lives, and in each historical moment in time, the exile of Mitzrayim is present: in our cravings, in our cravenness, in our sorrows. Each of us knows exile, and each of us needs to be ready to get out of there -- fast, without second-guessing ourselves. The text continues:

This is the essence of Pesach. At the moment of the Exodus from Mitzrayim, a great light from on high was revealed, as is known; and at that time, promptly, Israel went out in great haste and they couldn't tarry. For even if they had remained there even one more instant, they would have remained a remnant there, as is known.

Rebs Nachman and Nosson are playing with a Hebrew pun here: the word for "exile" is גלות, galut, and the word for "revealed" is גלוי, galui. There's a sense in which at the moment of the Exodus, we traded galut for galui, exile for a glimpse of God.

And there was danger. Had the Israelites lingered even a little bit longer, they might have become unable to depart at all. We too are in perennial danger of becoming so stuck in our spiritual distance from God that we forget that we even wanted to lift ourselves out.

In the moment of making this kind of exodus, it's forbidden to worry about parnassah, to worry "But if I do this, how will I make a living?" Rather one must trust in God and hope in the Blessed One and God will provide.

Parnassah means income, making a living, sustenance and livelihood: a perfectly normal thing to worry about, especially if one is about to make a major leap. But that's exactly what this text says we mustn't do. Instead, we're called to have trust and hope in God, Who will provide what we most need.

This is the essence of (that Torah reference again) "And also they didn't make provisions." If someone needed to flee from a dangerous situation, such as being trapped in a snare, one wouldn't think about parnassah or preparations, lest one be set-upon by thieves or robbers or wild beasts from which one would further need to be freed. One wouldn't pause in that moment of self-extrication to worry about making a living.

The same is true if a person needs to flee from She'ol around and beneath him, or from the tribulations of the world, turning instead toward what enlivens this world. One wouldn't look behind oneself at all. For one must not tarry, nor worry about parnassah, but trust in God and rely on God who never leaves us.

The state of spiritual exile in which each of us finds ourselves (at least sometimes; every person in every era) is, say Reb Nachman and Reb Nosson, like being caught in a snare in the dangerous desert with thieves and robbers and hungry wild beasts all about. If I were caught in a trap and needed to extricate myself before even greater danger came upon me, would I stop and worry about where my next meal was coming from? Of course not.

Just so, say these teachers, should we not worry about parnassah when the time comes to make a spiritual leap away from the sufferings of this world and toward connection with God. God never leaves us. At this season of Pesach, when we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt as though it were our own story of liberation, we're called to plunge into spiritual growth -- to choose to leap away from the spiritual mire of complacency and into the possibility of transformation.

Where in your life are you called to leap, right now, on the cusp of Pesach?

What would it take for you to be able to make that leap without tarrying and without looking back?


Kedushat Levi on Torah, God, Pesach, and becoming

Here's a teaching from Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev about Passover, becoming, understanding God and understanding Torah, all sparked by the verse (Exodus 3:14) "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh / I will be what I will be."

God, he writes, led us forth from Mitzrayim for two reasons: in order that we might serve God and in order that we might receive Torah. Given this, we might imagine it fitting that right after the Exodus, we would immediately have received the Torah -- but the Holy One of Blessing "passed over" or skipped the receiving of the Torah, presumably because in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus, the Israelites weren't ready to receive Torah yet, and wouldn't become so until they'd undergone all of the experiences of the wilderness which helped transform them from slaves into people who were capable of holy service. (We recapitulate this in our practice today, as we spend the seven weeks after Pesach moving through the Counting of the Omer and spiritually preparing ourselves to receive Torah at Shavuot -- we're not ready to re-experience the revelation of Torah at Sinai until we've done some spiritual work, ourselves.)

Kedushat Levi suggests that because God "passed over" the revelation of the Torah, choosing to skip it and come back to it later when we were ready, that's why this holiday is called Pesach, Pass-Over. (That's not the traditional explanation for the name, but I like it.) Anyway: he says that the first Ehyeh ("I Will Be") in God's name speaks in terms of the future, in terms of becoming: that which has not yet come to pass.

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