After the summit, the climb: a Shavuot teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Staying awake: Rabbi Ira Stone on Mussar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Meeting our children where they are

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or -- phrased in a more contemporary idiom --

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Reb Burt teaches.

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

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

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

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

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Sfat Emet on Chanukah and on light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kedushat Levi on seeing God "face to face"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A teaching from the Sfat Emet for Rosh Hashanah

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R' Dov Baer of Mezritch on righteous indignation


Righteous Indignation

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

Understand that the kelipot scare him into doing evil things.

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


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

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

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

Happy election season, my fellow Americans. :-)

Cultivating equanimity

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

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

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


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, 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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