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.



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

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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Kedushat Levi on work, rest, action, speech, Torah

Here's a taste of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayekhel. My translation is indented; explanations and commentary are interspersed. He says some lovely things about the interplay of work and speech, weekday and Shabbat -- and then says something very powerful about the study of Torah, the building of the tabernacle, and the creation of new worlds. Read on!

"These are the things (דברים) which God commanded that you should do them, six days you shall do [work], etc..." (Exodus 35:1-2.)

The sages interpreted this (in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat) to refer to the 39 forms of labor. As it is said, "these [are the things]" -- this hints at externals [external forms of labor rather than internal ones], as the Ari (of blessed memory) expounded on the verse (Lamentations 1:16) "For these things I weep, etc," arguing that we need to heal them by means of work. When we say "to do," [as in: "these are the things which God commanded that you should do them,"] we're speaking in terms of healing.

Reb Levi Yitzchak is arguing that what God was really saying was not merely "these are the things you should do -- do all your work on six days, but on the 7th day, you should rest," but also "these are the things which God commanded we should heal / repair." In his reading, God is giving us an encoded instruction about the need to make a cosmic repair.

It is said with regard to Shabbat "God commanded to do," and with regard to the [building of the] mishkan it is written "which God commanded, saying." The Tur raises a question [about why one verse uses language of "doing" and the other verse uses the word "saying"], and notes that although creating the mishkan involved the mitzvot of making/doing, by means of the the work of the mishkan they repaired the world of speech. That's what Torah means when it says "which God had commanded, saying."

This week's Torah portion begins with the instruction about working during the week and resting on Shabbat, and then moves into language about the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites built as a dwelling-place for God. (The word mishkan shares a root with Shekhinah, the indwelling and immanent Presence of God.) It's this juxtaposition -- instructions about work/rest followed by instructions about the mishkan -- which catches the eye of the Tur, and later of Reb Levi Yitzchak...and on that juxtaposition, they're going to hang a fascinating new interpretation.

Reb Levi Yitzchak cites the Tur (a.k.a Jacob ben Asher) who noted that the first verse uses the language of "doing" (God commanded us to do something), and the other verse uses the language of "saying" (God commanded us, saying...) He tells us that although building the mishkan involved physical making and doing, as the Israelites built that tabernacle they were actually in some cosmic sense repairing the brokenness of human speech.

Sometimes it's hard to say exactly what we mean. Sometimes our words hurt one another. Sometimes we say the wrong thing, or we speak in a way we regret. Human speech is a flawed and often broken thing. When our ancestors built the mishkan, says Levi Yitzchak (following the Tur), as they attached wood and cloth and pegs together they were also cosmically repairing the brokenness of human language. In his reading, the Torah hints at this when it uses the word לאמר, "saying..."

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Purim Katan: a koan of a festival

In a leap year, as previously noted, there are two months of Adar. Each month of Adar has a 14th. On the 14th of the second Adar, we'll celebrate Purim. On the 14th of the first Adar, we celebrate "Purim Katan," "Little Purim." Because leap years arise only seven times in every nineteen-year cycle, Purim Katan is a relatively rare occurrence. So what does one do on Purim Katan? The rabbis of the Mishna tell us the following:

There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah, sending mishloach manot (reciprocal gifts of food), and gifts to the poor. (Megillah, 6b)

Let's unpack that. The Mishna is telling us that there is no difference whatsoever between the two Purims -- except the actual acts whose performance signifies Purim! On Little Purim, we don't read from the scroll of Esther, we don't send mishloach manot, and we don't give charity to the poor. So what can it mean to say that there is no difference between them, when at first glance it appears that they have nothing in common save their name? (I can't help thinking of the quote from The Muppets Take Manhattan: "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere.")

But I think we can find, in the koan of this invisible festival, a deep teaching.

Sometimes our celebrations take visible forms. Reading the megillah, dressing in costume, making noise to drown out the name of Haman -- sending mishloach manot, and feeding the poor -- these are the visible external signs of Purim, just as eating matzah and telling the tale of the Exodus are the visible external signs of Pesach, and eating dairy and studying all night are the external signs of Shavuot, and so on. The external manifestation of each holiday does matter! The physical acts which embody the observance of a festival help us experience that festival wholly.

But sometimes we can evoke the emotional and spiritual valance of a celebration without actually doing the acts we associate with the holiday at hand. Imagine if, a month before Thanksgiving, you had the opportunity to spend a day meditating on gratitude and family, thinking about the festive meal you were going to prepare and enjoy, imagining your dinner table and the people who will join you there. You wouldn't actually make the turkey or the cranberry sauce, but you'd think about them, and you'd contemplate gratitude and thankfulness and what role those spiritual states play in your life. How might that change your experience of Thanksgiving a month later?

That's the invitation of Purim Katan: to spend the 14th of Adar I meditating on the deep mysteries of Purim (the God Who is hidden from the simple text of the megillah, but plainly manifest all over the story; the queen who pretends to be something she isn't in order to preserve and celebrate who she truly is; the need, once a year, to ascend to a place where binary distinctions, like those between Haman and Mordechai, are no longer relevant) in order to begin to prepare ourselves for the festival that's coming, so that when the festival gets here, it's different for us than it otherwise might have been.

There are a couple of tiny ways in which Purim Katan is traditionally marked. We don't say tachanun, the (weekday) prayers of repentance, on Purim Katan. The tradition also prohibits fasting on this day. And many sources argue that there is an obligation to celebrate and rejoice. One d'var Torah I found online, written by Greg Killian, makes the point that "Purim Katan has no halachic requirements. Whatever we do to increase our joy on Purim Katan, we do because we want to, not because we have to."

Here's a teaching from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema. (This teaching is based on a talk given by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; I found it online here.) The Rema begins his commentary on Orach Chayim, one of the sections of the Shulchan Aruch (a central text of Jewish law), with a quote from Psalm 16:8 -- "I place God before me constantly." Later in his commentary, on the subject of Purim Katan, the Rema writes that in his opinion, it is not obligatory to feast on Purim Katan, but one should still eat somewhat more than usual, quoting Proverbs 15:15 "And he who is glad of heart feasts constantly." Note the two usages of the word "constantly."

The sages tell us that his first use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "I place God before me constantly," shviti Hashem l'negdi tamid, which I've written about before) is understood to suggest reverence for God; his second use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "he who is glad of heart feasts constantly") is understood to suggest joy. He mentions reverence first because it's a necessary precursor to doing mitzvot; he mentions joy second because joy is the natural outgrowth of doing mitzvot. What strikes me, reading this, is that there are no active mitzvot associated with Purim Katan. This holiday challenges us to experience the shift from reverence to joy without actually "doing anything."

Purim Katan begins this Thursday evening. How might you choose to mark this rare minor festival -- how might you reflect on the Purim story's teachings, and increase your sense of joy, so that in thirty days' time the observance of Purim itself can be more meaningful and more sweet, and so that your reverence can transmute directly into joy?

Kedushat Levi on Aaron's clothes

Reb Zalman tells a wonderful story about a rabbi serving his first pulpit. The president of the board catches sight of him studying a text in his office, and says to a colleague with some consternation, "I thought we got a finished one!"

The anecdote never fails to draw laughs in our community, because we know that the work of studying Jewish texts is never "finished." In that spirit, I've started studying the writings of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, one of the great Hasidic masters of the late 1700s, along with my hevruta David. We're going to try to meet each week to translate and discuss some Kedushat Levi. This week we studied two teachings, one short and one long. Here's the short one.

"And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory [or: gravitas] and for splendor. And you shall say to all who are wise of heart, 'Y'all shall make garments for Aaron to sanctify him,' etc." (Exodus 28:2-3)

We will see that Moshe sanctified Aaron (in ensuring) that Aaron should be clothed in the Holy Blessed One (Kudsha Brich Hu.) For the souls of the righteous are vessels for the highest divine qualities. That's what it means when the Torah says "You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother" -- that there should be, fashioned out of Aaron's very soul, holy garments.

An explanation of "for glory and for splendor": these are the Holy Blessed One and the Shekhinah. Those who were wise of heart made garments for Aaron out of his very self-ness. That's why in the first text it's written "for Aaron" and when it comes to those who are wise of heart, the text reads simply "Aaron."

- R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

The Torah text tells us that Moshe was commanded to make holy garments for Aaron, and then it tells us that Moshe was instructed to tell those who are "wise of heart" (the same description given to those who contributed to the building of the Tabernacle) to make Aaron's garments to sanctify him. Reb Levi Yitzchak reinterprets this. For him, this text isn't just about stitching some  of linen together. This text is about Moshe ensuring that his brother would be garbed on behalf of God in a deep way. The souls of the righteous, Levi Yitzchak tells us, are vessels for divine middot or qualities; Aaron's very soul becomes his garment.

In the Torah text, God tells Moshe that the garments should be made for Aaron "for glory and for splendor." On the surface, this appears to be a statement about priestly dress: the priest should be dressed in a splendid and glorious fashion. But for Levi Yitzchak, those two words connote aspects of divinity -- specifically, the Kudsha Brich Hu ("The Holy One Blessed Be He," or in my preferred locution, "Holy Blessed One" -- that's God's transcendent side) and the Shekhinah (God's immanent presence.) Aaron's garments should be made of his very soul, for the sake of God's immanence and God's transcendence, for the sake of the divine masculine and the divine feminine, for the sake of God Who is inconceivable and God Who is as near to us as our own heartbeats.

Aaron's holy garments, fashioned out of his soul, enable him to be clothed for the sake of divine transcendence and divine immanence. Those who are wise of heart, says Levi Yitzchak, fashioned garments for Aaron out of who he most quintessentially was in the world. He hangs this interpretation, in part, on a tiny inconsistency in phrasing: first the text says לאהרן ("for" or "to" Aaron) and then says אהרן ("Aaron" without a preposition in front.) To those who have ordinary minds/hearts, the situation was simply that skilled craftspeople were making clothes for Aaron. For those who are wise, however, it's clear that the clothes are made out of Aaron himself, out of his quintessence, for the sake of God.

In that sense, this passage can be understood in a new light. It's not just about stitching some clothing for a long-ago high priest, but rather, it teaches us that those who serve God can be garbed in the purity of their own souls in the service of the divine.

Shabbat shalom!


Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within

In 2009 I took a two-semester class called Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which looked at the round of the spiritual year through the lens of Hasidic texts. It is one of my favorite classes I've taken during this whole rabbinic school adventure. (Here's the series of three posts I made at the end of that class: The shape of the spiritual year, The year as spiritual practice, Hasidut and paradigm shifting.)

The group met once after our formal learning was over, during Chanukah, in order to study Hasidic texts about Chanukah. I wasn't able to make the class -- Drew was only a few weeks old -- but I downloaded the recording, and listened to part of it late one night as Drew nursed. But I didn't have the Hasidic texts in front of me, and it was hard for me to internalize the learning without the printed material to look at. Also I was exhausted and overwhelmed and it was the middle of the night! So I saved the mp3 for another day.

Chanukah approaches again, which makes this the perfect time to listen to this recording and take in some wisdom from the Hasidic masters, from my classmates, and from my dear teacher R' Elliot Ginsburg. Here are some gleanings from the first part of that extra class, taught around this time on the Jewish calendar last year. This text comes from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.

"The candle of God is the soul of man, searching all of one's deepest places." (Proverbs 20:27) In the Gemara we read about searching for leaven with a candle -- about searching our internal places as though we were searching the deepest cavities of our bodies.

(He's suggesting that there's a connection between our Chanukah candles, and the candle which we use to search for leaven before Pesach, and this idea that our souls are divine candles.)

The mishkan (sanctuary / dwelling-place for God) and the beit hamikdash (the Holy Temple) dwell in the hearts of every person in Israel. This is the meaning of the verse "Build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8) -- e.g., within the hearts of the people. When one understands that one's life-force is in one's soul, one is doing a kind of personal refinement or spiritual clarification. Every day when we say elohai neshama [in the daily liturgy, we recite "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure"] we're doing that spiritual work. There is a single point of purity in each person of Israel -- though this point is hidden, secreted away. But in the days when the Temple stood, it was revealed and known that our life-force was in/from God.

Once upon a time, there was an externalization of divinity. God's presence in the world was manifest through the Temple, which helped us recognize that God was the source of all life. Today, when that architecture no longer stands, the reality that we burn with divine life-force is hidden to us, and needs to be revealed through doing internal spiritual work.

Now that the mishkan is hidden, divinity can nevertheless be found by searching with candles [as we do on the night before Pesach, and as we do when we kindle festival lights.]

In other words: even without the Temple, divinity can still be found. We just have to search for it. And there may be something about the act of kindling lights which helps us do that internal seeking.

The candles [which we use in our spiritual seeking] are the mitzvot. We search for God by doing mitzvot. The way that we search, with all of our hearts, is to perform the mitzvot with all of our heart, soul, life-force.

We can see the mitzvot as tools of searching. He's not just talking about literal candles and the lighting thereof; he's talking about how each time we do mitzvot, we are kindling a kind of light. Through the mitzvot, we go inward. When we do mitzvot, they act as candles, illumining us. This is not how we usually think about mitzvot, but it may have extra resonance for us this week as we literally illumine the lights of Chanukah.

Continue reading "Sfat Emet on lighting candles and finding God within" »

Welcoming the Jewish Review of Books onto the scene

In our PO box recently I found a copy of the new Jewish Review of Books, a tabloid-sized quarterly chock-full of exactly what you'd expect. Two articles in the current issue are especially relevant to my interests, and while not all of the JRB's content is available online, these two articles happen to be online in full.

I turned first to The Chabad Paradox, Abraham Socher's article about Chabad Hasidism which doubles as a review of two recent books. "While mainstream Orthodox Judaism has seen extraordinary growth through the ba'al teshuvah movement of 'returners' to religious observance, the foundations were laid by Chabad," Socher writes. "And while Orthodox Jews often express disdain for Chabad and its fervent shluchim (emissaries), they also rely on them for prayer services, Torah study, and kosher accommodations in out-of-the-way places from Jackson, Wyoming to Bangkok, Thailand, not to speak of college campuses around the world."

(Indeed, on a recent visit to Litchfield, Connecticut, I saw a clapboard house with a sign on the front which said "Future home of Chabad of Litchfield," which led me to quip to my friends "Chabad is here, Chabad is there, Chabad is truly everywhere!" That said, a bit of digging led me to discover that the story may be a bit more complex. But I digress...)

Socher notes, too, that "the charismatic founders of the groovy Judaism that arose in the 1960s, from the liberal Renewal movement to Neo-Hasidic Orthodoxy, were Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi," both of whom were originally shluchim of the Lubavitcher rebbe. After offering a fairly comprehensive introduction to Chabad, Socher delves deep into two recent books about Chabad and messianism, exploring the question of whether the messianism at Chabad's heart is responsible for its success -- and yet might eventually be its undoing.

Continue reading "Welcoming the Jewish Review of Books onto the scene" »

Love one another

Behold, I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator...

The Mishna teaches that "for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until you appease your fellow-person." If we have hurt one another, we have to reach out to each other, or else Yom Kippur won't work. The Sfat Emet turns that teaching into something even more radical: on the day of Yom Kippur, he says, all Israel -- the whole community of God-wrestlers -- is meant to become one.

We are naturally close (the Sfat Emet continues) to one another and to God. Our sins -- the places where we miss the mark -- create separations between us and God, between us and each other, and between us and our deepest selves. Yom Kippur is a chance to repair those separations. To choose unity over division. To become one with my whole self, with my God, and with my fellow human beings.

Jewish tradition teaches that after the people sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moshe smashed the tablets he had just brought down from his mountaintop encounter with God. And then Moshe went back up the mountain and spent another forty days with God, and when Moshe returned, he was holding the second set of tablets. Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the day when he came back down the mountain -- when the whole community of Israel was assembled to hear God's words. The tablets were given on the day when the community assembled as one, when the community became unified in love.

On this teaching from the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Art Green writes:

Torah could not have been given without unity among Jews; it cannot exist in the absence of its most basic principle: "Love your neighbor as yourself." How, then, does Torah exist in our day? Perhaps it does not exist at all. New and convincing readings of the texts elude us because we do not love enough. Until we can all open our hearts to one another, crossing all the lines defined by "Orthodox," "Secular," "Reform," "Zionist," and all the rest, there will be no revelation for us; we are not yet singularly "encamped" at the mountain.

Responsibility for this division falls heavily on the heads of "leaders," each of them so committed to an intractable position that nothing is allowed to change, no new Torah can be received. But for how long can Jewish souls be nourished by mere repetitions of teachings or translations (even one such as this) of old sources? God will bring about the real renewal of Judaism only when we put down our loudspeakers of division and hatred long enough to listen.

(That's from The Langage of Truth, R' Art Green's translation of and commentary upon the teachings of the Sfat Emet -- several of the Sfat Emet's teachings about the festival of Yom Kippur are included in this book, and this is one of them.)

This Saturday, during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, I'll be reading Leviticus 19:9-18, a reading which culminates in the verse which is most central (both literally and figuratively!) to Torah: ואהבת לרעך כמוך, "And you shall love your neighbor / your Other as yourself." Before and after that service I'll sing a round which I love -- hareini m'kabel alai, et mitzvat ha-Borei: v'ahavta l'reakha camocha, l'reakha camocha. "Behold, I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator: to love my Other as myself."

The Sfat Emet says that Moshe returned with the tablets on the day when all Israel was connected in love. Rabbi Art Green adds that the new revelation we need in our day won't arise until we can love one another across all of the various boundaries which divide the Jewish community. I want to take the teaching even further. Not only do Reform Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist Jews, secular humanist Jews and Hasidic Jews need to find a way to love one another: we also need to find a way to love our "Others" across religious and cultural lines. Jews and Muslims, Christians and Jews, theists and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, those who staunchly support Park 51 and those who strongly oppose it -- when all of us can embody the "mitzvah of the Creator," that's when the Torah we need in our day will emerge.

May it happen speedily and soon. And may this Yom Kippur open our hearts to deeper and broader love.

Answer us

When I entered the sanctuary at Isabella Freedman at the very beginning of Yom Kippur, 2005 / 5766, a group of people were already seated in a rough circle on the carpet. Someone was playing a hand-drum. As I picked up the melody, I started to sing along. We were singing a little snippet of the Selichot liturgy (which is traditionally prayed starting on the Saturday night before the Days of Awe and continuing through Yom Kippur.) Here's the line we were chanting:

רחמנא דעני לעניי ענינא!
רחמנא דעני לתבירי לבא ענינא, ענינא!

O Merciful One who answers those in need, answer us!
O Merciful One who answers the broken-hearted, answer us!

The words are Aramaic. The tune we used was Hasidic in origin, though I don't know anything beyond that about its provenance.

Here's the tune we used: Rachamana D'aney on YouTube, courtesy of the folks at Ner Shalom.

That year on retreat, we returned to this chant periodically over the course of Yom Kippur; it became one of the musical and spiritual refrains of our day. We won't be singing "Rachamana d'aney" at selichot services at my shul this coming Saturday evening, but I find that it's often running through my head at this time of year, and alongside it, two Hasidic teachings which it calls to mind.

The Kotzker rebbe (Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) is reported to have taught that "There is nothing so whole as the broken heart." It's a powerful paradox, to think that we can find wholeness not despite our brokenness but through it. Everyone who's lived in the world is a little bit broken. We hurt one another; we experience loss; we miss the mark; we grieve. But this doesn't have to distance us from God, especially not at this holy time of year. God, our tradition teaches, answers us when we call out from the place of our broken hearts.

The Baal Shem Tov tells a story about Rabbi Zev Kitzes and how his broken heart enabled him to call out the blasts of the shofar with perfect holy intention. (I wrote about that story a few years back: the master key is the broken heart.) Jewish tradition contains many teachings about the holiness we can find in what is broken. Our broken hearts offer God a way in. Or, in the words of the great Reb Leonard Cohen, "there is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in."

Leonard Cohen performing "Anthem."

Historically I've been more comfortable with the idea of coming to God through joy than with the idea of coming to God through sorrow. I don't want to dwell on what hurts; who does? But this year, maybe because I've recently been through the valley of the shadow of depression and emerged into the sunlight on the other side, I'm keenly aware that even in the sweetest life there is some heartbreak. This year my question is, can we draw on our experiences of heartbreak as we strive to become more compassionate and more kind, to others and to ourselves? Do we have the courage to sit with what hurts, and to trust that God will answer our brokenness with the compassion we need?

What in you is broken, this year, as we approach the Days of Awe? What would it feel like to cry out and to know that God hears you, not despite your aches but in them and through them?

Returning to coffee & the Sfat Emet

There's a group of Jewish clergy who meet on Wednesday mornings to study Torah at one of the local coffee shops. It began as a hevruta of two; then I was invited to join; and over time the circle continued to expand until it reached its current configuration. The last time I attended the group was sometime shortly before Thanksgiving and before Drew was born. This week, for the first time in more than six months, I made it back.

We had some catching up to do, and of course I enjoyed introducing Drew to the members of the group who hadn't met him or hadn't seen him since he was tiny. We talked for a while about the flotilla incident and how to approach it pastorally in our communities. And then we moved into studying our text -- the first couple of commentaries on this week's Torah portion in The Language of Truth, R' Art Green's compilation of teachings by the Sfat Emet.

The first teaching talks about how the mitzvot (commandments) shine light into everything we do. "There is no deed that does not contain some mitsvah," writes the Sfat Emet (in Green's translation.) "But before doing anything, you have to offer up your soul as an emissary, gathering together all of your own desires in order to negate them, so that you can fulfill only the will of God." That sparked a great conversation about bittul ha-yesh (the annihilation of self or ego) in the service of others.

I talked a little bit about how parenting an infant is a perennial practice in bittul ha-yesh. As parents of a baby, we're called to put our own needs and desires aside in order to tend to the needs of another; surely that is a rich and deep spiritual practice, or at least it can be. It's one way of understanding what it might mean to set my own will aside in order to serve God -- or, to frame it differently, to attempt to align my will with the will of another, finding value in the practice of service.

It also strikes me that historically women have been expected to set aside their own desires in order to serve their children, and men (in this religious paradigm) have been expected to set aside their own desires in order to serve God. But in a world where women too want to serve God, and men too want to be present to their families, we need new ways of thinking about all of this. And yes, of course working in the world to make the money to keep a roof over one's head is a way of serving the family -- and changing diapers and doing laundry can be a way of serving God -- but too often, I think, we buy into a binarism which suggests that these two modes of service are separate, and that one partner (or one gender) inevitably has to be locked in to one or the other.

Anyway. It felt fantastic to return to the coffee shop and to the Wednesday morning learning, now with Drew on my lap. I love that he's going to grow up thinking that learning Torah is a perfectly ordinary thing for his mama to do with her time -- and that it needn't be rarefied, but can happen anywhere, even in a busy coffee shop on a weekday morning.

Omer, interrupted

Last year I didn't manage to count the Omer (that's the process of marking, and sanctifying, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation.) I had a good excuse for my distraction, but this year I'd like to do a better job of noticing the passage of time during this spiritually-rich season. 

Because counting the Omer is considered one long mitzvah which lasts for 49 days, most halakhists argue that if one goes a whole night and day without counting, one can no longer say the blessing. So in years past, I've followed the practice of only making the bracha when I've managed an unbroken streak of Omer-counting. But I've known rabbis who teach otherwise, and this year I'm going to try a different practice.

One of the biggest lessons I'm learning from parenthood thus far is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our sleep schedule still isn't what I might wish for, and I can almost guarantee that at some point in these next 7 weeks, I will forget what day of the week it is! I'm living by the baby's rhythms, not so much by calendrical time. If I only offer the blessing when I have a perfect track record of remembering to do so, my Omer count is liable to be truncated and I run the risk of missing the spiritual gifts that even a partial Omer experience might bring.

I know that this is part of the argument given for why women have historically been considered exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot: our lives can't be strictly-regimented in the way that the classical understanding of the mitzvot requires, because we have to take the needs of our children into account. But I come from a paradigm in which women and men both choose the mindfulness practice of the mitzvot. (For that matter, I also come from a paradigm in which men and women share the workload of parenting.) I need to find a way to experience the holiness of the Omer count from where I'm at.

A popular kabbalistic teaching holds that during each of these seven weeks, we move through one of the seven lower sefirot (emanations or faces of God, each associated with a particular divine quality.) Each week, a different sefirah comes into focus, and each day of the week likewise. Because we are created in the image of God, each of these combinations of qualities exists in us, too. I think of the sefirot as a multi-sided prism refracting divine light; as white light contains all colors within it, so divinity contains all of these qualities, and the prism of counting the Omer allows us to isolate these subtle gradations across the spectrum.

I may not manage to bless each day, but I don't want that to be a reason not to count at all. Maybe there's a way to turn the "imperfection" of missing a night or two of counting into something positive. Each time I bring myself back to mindfulness of the Omer count again, I can ask myself: what is it about today's special combination of qualities that resonates with me? Is there something in today's combination of qualities which called me back to awareness? What can I learn from the experience of reawakening to the Omer count today?

One of my favorite texts from the first semester of Moadim l'Simcha ("Festivals of Our Rejoicing," a class I took last spring and this past fall) comes from the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzofsky. He offers the following parable:

The path of serving God is like a person being elevated to the summit of a high mountain, where one is shown all of the beautiful and splendor which is around one, and one can see what good is to be found there. After that, one descends down to the bottom, and from there one works to ascend to the summit again through one's own strength, because after one has seen how good and beautiful it is to be up there, one would certainly make an effort through one's own strength to ascend! Just so, the service of God on high: initially one experiences "arousal from above" [God reaches down to us and arouses our desire for God], so that one can see how good it is, one can get a taste for that goodness, and after that one is returned to one's place [e.g. the bottom of the mountain] in order to climb to the top again.

On the first night of Pesach, we're elevated to great spiritual heights -- like being whisked by God to the very top of a mountain. Then the next morning we waken and we're at the bottom again -- but because we've seen the amazing views from on high, we're motivated to do the work of slowly working toward the summit. Having seen the splendor at the top gives us the impetus to keep climbing, step by step.

It seems to me that making myself mindful of the qualities which God and we share -- lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony, and so on -- is worth doing even if I'm not able to live in the constant state of devekut (cleaving-to-God) to which I might aspire. And what's more: cultivating that mindfulness is one way my tradition offers me to climb toward connection with God.

My Omer count this year won't be perfect. But I'm still on a journey toward Shavuot, toward the spiritual high of receiving Torah at Sinai. I'm still climbing that mountain, even if I pause to nurse the baby along the way.

On a tachlis (nuts-and-bolts) level, I'm trying a couple of new things this year. I downloaded the Omer Counter iPhone app (find it, along with other resources, here at NeoHasid.org.) I'm also reading Counting the Omer, daily blog posts by my friend Rabbi Min Kantrowitz who recently wrote a book about the Omer count. We'll see whether these keep me on track.

A Heart Afire, and an interview with the Rebbe

A Heart Afire is a book about early Hasidism, coauthored by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Natanel Miles-Ypez. I read it last summer and knew I wanted to review it somewhere; and back in the fall, before the baby was born, I also had the chance to interview Reb Zalman for a sidebar piece intended to accompany the book review.

The review and the interview are now both online at Religion Dispatches. Here's a taste, first of the review:

The book presents “diverse stories and teachings from across the spectrum of Hasidic spirituality” and the authors’ desire is to “lead the reader up to [these stories], like an attendant at a mikveh (ritual bath)—waiting while one dips—then providing them with a towel as they are led out.” This isn’t an academic exploration of Hasidism; these stories are meant to be an immersive experience.

...Schachter-Shalomi’s ecumenism peppers these pages despite their intensely Jewish focus. In a digression from an early chapter about the Baal Shem Tov’s life and “enlightenment,” Schachter-Shalomi writes that people often ask him about his own theophanies and he always wants to answer, “I’m not Rinzai, I’m Soto!” (In Zen Buddhism, he goes on to clarify, “the Rinzai school talks about ‘sudden enlightenment,’ whereas the Soto school recognizes gradual enlightenment[.]”) The Hasid who uses Zen parables to make a point about his own spiritual life: that’s Reb Zalman in a nutshell.

And here's a related tidbit of the interview:

I’m struck by the “deep ecumenism” here — how you draw on Buddhist, Christian, Sufi, Hindu teachings in order to illuminate Hasidic thought. Do you think that risks alienating more traditional readers?

It was a conscious choice. We could have eliminated these things and gotten more kudos from the frum [Orthodox] world. But the frum world has this material available! Along with exhortations for switching back to an older paradigm, to more halakhic behavior and so on. I was not interested in that.

When I was reading things like Aldous Huxley’s perennial philosophy or William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I noticed that those people have good material from Buddism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, but nothing Jewish...

Read the whole thing here: Better Hasidism Through Zen Buddhism (And Sufism and Science Fiction...) And once you've read it, feel free to leave a comment either there or here!