Water from the living well

Test-your-well

Water from a well.

 

I sat down to write about the episode in this week's Torah portion, Chukat, where Miriam dies and the people have no water. And I kept thinking about the people who've been arrested for the supposed "crime" of giving water to save the lives of migrants and refugees at our nation's southern border -- and the camps along that border where human beings are held in horrific conditions. The world is so very broken. In the face of that, pretty words about Torah and water seem... insignificant.

Many of you have said to me lately that it's hard to sleep, it's hard to breathe, that you feel assaulted on all sides by the constant furor of the 24/7 news cycle and the constant drumbeats of the atrocities being committed seemingly everywhere we look. Me, too. So I struggled to find words to share with you today. It felt almost inappropriate, like a sign of a profound and terrible kind of privilege, to focus on Torah while the world is burning down, while our nation is in disarray, while people are being harmed.

And then I sat down with my Bayit hevre (as I do every week) to study commentaries on this week's Torah portion. This year we're studying the commentary of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. We agreed when we founded that organization that we wanted to meet regularly not only for work and for board meetings, but also for Torah study lishma, for its own sake. Learning for the sake of the sweetness of learning, strengthening our connections with Torah and with each other.

In one of the commentaries we read this week from the Sfat Emet, I found a teaching that gave me a different way to look at Shabbat and Torah study and why we need them even (or especially) when the world is broken. The Sfat Emet references the well that tradition says followed Miriam in the wilderness, providing water for the children of Israel. Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says it was one of the ten things created on the eve of the first Shabbat of creation, held in reserve until it was needed.

After mentioning Miriam's well, the Sfat Emet quotes Proverbs 5:15: "Drink water from your cistern, and flowing water from your well." There are two ways to get water: from a cistern, and from a well. A cistern holds "gathered waters" -- it's a tank, a water tower, a bucket on a roof. But eventually, a cistern will run dry. A well, on the other hand, is "joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring." A well is a symbol of intimate connection, in its root, to a source that will never run out.

This, says the Sfat Emet, is the difference between weekday and Shabbat. On weekdays we drink from a cistern. We measure out some of our saved water, and it renews us -- in the ways that it is able. But we know that the water in a cistern will eventually turn brackish and run dry. We know that our resources are limited. We always know, in the back of our minds, that there might not be enough. But on Shabbat, "the inner wellsprings are opened." On Shabbat, we get to drink from the well, from the source.

He's no longer talking just about the difference between water from a jug and water from a working faucet. He's talking about the difference between measuring out a little bit of our limited spiritual resources each day, and basking in the complete spiritual plenitude that Shabbat offers. Weekdays are a time of limited resources: we all know how that feels. There's so much that's broken. There isn't enough of me to go around. Shabbat is qualitatively different. Shabbat herself is the ever-flowing spring.

"Wellspring" and "Source" are two of our tradition's names for God. On Shabbat, we can open our hearts and souls to the flow that comes from the living well, from the living waters of Torah, from the living waters of divinity itself. That's how we renew ourselves for the week to come. That's how we refill our cisterns so we'll have water to drink, strength to go on, sustenance for the work at hand. In the Sfat Emet's metaphor, Shabbat is the one day of the week when water flows directly from God, for us.

Yes, immersing in words of Torah can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. Immersing in Shabbat practices can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. I get that. I feel it too. And... I think the Sfat Emet would say that when the world is on fire, we need our sources of replenishment even more. Each week we get to shift between the cistern and the living well -- if we chose to. Or we could just stick with the cistern, live in weekday consciousness 365 days a year... but I'm pretty sure we'll run dry.

Today the inner wellsprings are opened: will we cease from working and doing and worrying and checking Twitter and watching the world burn in order to drink from them? I know it can feel almost irresponsible to do so. But I believe it's irresponsible not to. We need this day of spiritual respite to refill our cisterns -- so that when we make havdalah tonight, we can choose to #bealight and begin the new week with a conscious act toward building a world of greater justice, righteousness, and love.

So today as Shabbat continues, take a break. Study some Torah. Sing a song. Dip in a swimming pool. Take a Shabbes schluff, a holy Shabbat nap. Live in the "as-if," as-if the world were already redeemed, as-if all of the suffering that consumes us were lifted. Refill your cistern in every way you know how. Because when havdalah comes, the world will still be in desperate need of repair, and we'll need to be strong and replenished and renewed and refreshed in order to face the challenges of that repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study group.


The old new, and the new holy - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat

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One of the verses in this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, says that if we walk in God's ways and keep the mitzvot, we will find ourselves in a position where we need to clear out the old grain to make room for the new. (Lev. 26:10) I'll say more tomorrow morning about what it might mean to walk in God's ways. Tonight I want to stay with this one little half-verse about grain.

Rashi explains that this verse means that the old grain we've stored up will stay good and sweet and healthy. It won't turn rancid or go bad. Even years after its harvest, it will still be nourishing and delicious. And eventually we'll have to move it out of our granaries to make room for the new grain, because the prosperity and abundance are going to just keep flowing.

A whole bunch of other subsequent commentators follow in Rashi's footsteps. Everyone seems to agree: this verse means we'll have more grain than we need, and miraculously it will not rot, and we'll need to clear it out to make room for the new harvest.

Okay, so what? Most of us today are not farmers. We don't have granaries. But if we read this verse metaphorically, I think it offers a deep teaching about spiritual life. The first promise I think Torah is making to us is that old grain -- old traditions, old pathways, old teachings, old ideas -- will still nourish. Our ancient texts and traditions remain rich and full of sweetness.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes, in his commentary on this week's Torah portion, that when we immerse ourselves in Torah we may only "get" 1/1000th of its meaning. And that's okay! What matters is that we're immersing. What matters is that we're learning, delving into the traditions and seeing how they shape us. They are old grain that still nourishes.

And the second promise I think Torah makes here is that the abundance of Jewish wisdom, the abundance in spiritual practice, the abundance that comes from tending our spiritual selves through learning, study, mitzvah, ritual, prayer, poetry, text and tradition -- that abundance doesn't stop. On the contrary, it keeps flowing. It is still flowing. It will always be flowing.

And sometimes we have to move the old ideas and teachings and practices to the side in order to make way for the new. Just as our priestly ancestors once moved the ashes off the altar so the eternal flame could continue burning, sometimes we need to let go of old interpretations or practices in order to make space for new ones that meet our spiritual needs in this hour.

Does this sound far-fetched? Am I stretching too far to find meaning in a verse that on its surface is about literal grain?

Rav Kook -- the first chief rabbi of what would become the State of Israel -- offered the teaching that "the old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." In Hebrew, הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש / ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh. And that first word, ha-yashan, "the old" -- is the same word we find in this week's Torah portion, the word for old grain.

Rav Kook found in ancient teachings about storing and using old grain a powerful teaching about renewing modern spiritual life.  Old grain, old ideas, old practices will be made new. We can renew ancient spiritual practices and make them alive in our hearts and souls. We can (I would argue we must) turn to that old grain and find sustenance in it!

And we can also sanctify new ideas and teachings and practices. We can make the new holy. That's the work of spiritual practice writ large: making the old new, and the new holy. Turning to the "old grain" that's already in our granaries, while also trusting that the "new grain," the new ideas and teachings flowing now, are also a source of spiritual nourishment and plenty.

May this Shabbes nourish us with wisdom both ancient and modern. May we drink deep from the ancient well of sacred time and traditional practices, and also from the newly-flowing stream of new traditions and translations and ideas. And in so doing, may we nourish our hearts and souls so that we can return to the new week restored and renewed in all that we are.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Second letter: challah

My house smells like challah.
Three weeks ago I went through
these same motions in your kitchen.

You gave me the best gift:
you came down in the wheelchair
you hated to use, tethered

to the oxygen tank, and heard
my son sing kiddush one last time.
When we whisked the napkin

off the spiraling challah loaves
tiny sugar ants were exploring
their swirls and curves. I almost

cried, but we brushed them off
and declared the bread intact
so three generations could bless.

That night, back in bed, you said
"it's been too short, but
it's been sweet." Did you mean

our visit, or your eighty-two years?
We flew home the next morning
not knowing we would return

within a week. For days I kept
marveling, "she ate steak
at Shabbat dinner," as though

that mattered. What I meant was
you were so alive. Shabbes is coming
and I can't FaceTime with you

from the place where you are now.
You'd say "don't be maudlin."
I'm trying, but every minute

takes me farther from the one time
I baked challah for you, deeper
into this world where you are gone.

 


The gift of bread

Challah

On the Friday of my son's winter vacation, I was home with him doing the things we did during winter break (board games, gingerbread house, youtube videos.) I was home and I had time on my hands, so I made challah. I hadn't baked challah since Rosh Hashanah. I'm a working mother, primary custodial parent to a third grader: most weeks I buy challah at the co-op, or in a pinch we make motzi over whatever other kind of bread we have in the house, an English muffin or a croissant or two. But during winter break I had the spaciousness, so I got out my Bennington pottery bread bowl and I made a batch of challah.

My son wanted round challah, because he likes it better than the braid that's traditional among Ashkenazi households during the year. I didn't feel quite right about making the spiral-shaped round challah that I make for Rosh Hashanah: that's a special shape for that one time of year! But we compromised: I found a new shape in my challah book (A Blessing of Bread, Maggie Glezer) that takes its inspiration from the sun. It came out beautifully. My son devoured it, declaring it the best challah ever. "You bake way better challah than they have at the store," he told me, and I beamed. "I wish you made challah every week."

This week I am trying a new rhythm to my Friday. This morning while getting my son fed and dressed and packed up for school, I started a batch of challah dough. By the time we left for school and work, it was sitting in the newly-washed bread bowl, covered and rising. After a few hours of work, I'll drop by the condo again (it's a mere five minutes from the shul) and shape the loaves. At the end of my lunch break, I'll put them in the oven. At the end of my work day, I'll take one of them on a pastoral visit to someone who is ill -- I kneaded prayers for healing and comfort into the dough. The other challah will be for my son and me.

If this works, I want to make it a practice. I miss baking challah. My first job after college was working at the bookstore here in town, and I organized my schedule so that I could have Fridays off to bake challah each week. (That was 1996, and that's when my now-ex-husband -- at the time, my boyfriend -- gave me the enormous Bennington pottery bowl I use for bread dough even now.) But in the decades since then, life has expanded to fill the space I give it, and I haven't made time for regular baking in years. Baking challah feels good. I love the way the dough feels in my hands. I love praying, sometimes singing, while I knead.

There's an alchemy to baking bread. Flour and water, salt and yeast -- and, okay, in this case also oil and eggs and a little bit of sugar -- transmute into something beautiful. Baking challah is a comfort to my neshamah, my soul. And it's something beautiful to place on my Shabbes table tonight, alongside the candlesticks that were an ordination gift, alongside the blue kiddush cup I bought myself when I moved a few years ago, alongside the blue-and-silver handwashing bowl I received from a friend who is a Jewish Buddhist nun. May our hopes rise like challah dough, and be met. May all be nourished, may all be fed, may all be loved.

 


The Sabbath Bee

6x9-1-416x624"Shabbat is different every week because we are different every week. Sometimes Shabbat shows up with dancing shoes, other times with a cup of cocoa and a bedtime story," writes Wilhemina Gottschalk in her introduction to The Sabbath Bee, her luminous new collection of prose poems, just released by Ben Yehuda Press. (It's part of the same Jewish Poetry Project beneath whose umbrella my Texts to the Holy was published earlier this year.)

"Some weeks Shabbat might be happy to give me a quick hug and let me return to my conversation with friends, while other nights the prospect of a mystical joining is so exhilarating that Shabbat and I sneak away together to the nearest janitor's closet." 

And that's just the introduction.

I adore this book of prose poems. If you've picked up a copy of the book, you already know that, because here's the blurb I offered for the back:

"Torah, say our sages, has seventy faces. As these prose poems reveal, so too does Shabbat. Here we meet Shabbat as familiar housemate, as the child whose presence transforms a family (sometimes in ways that outsiders can’t understand), as a spreading tree, as an annoying friend who insists on being celebrated, as a child throwing water balloons, as a woman, as a man, as a bee, as the ocean… Through the lens of these deft, surprising, moving prose poems, all seventy of Shabbat’s faces shine."

I love this book because these prose poems are familiar and surprising all at once. I love it because it shows how Shabbat can be different for us every time she comes, and it offers a window into what it can feel like to welcome Shabbat week after week: with bliss and with frustration and with joy.

Shabbat in this volume is a bride, a husband, a child, a storm, a blanket, a lover, a pair of dancing shoes. In one of the most delightfully surprising prose poems in the volume, Shabbat is a person and I become a puppy in her arms. 

Many of the pieces in this volume stand on their own as delicious little prose poems, but for me the real beauty of the collection is how each prose poem reflects and refracts the experience of Shabbat in conversation with the others. No one of these poems could stand in for the whole collection, because part of the point is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. 

If you are a fan of prose poems (which I am, and have been ever since David Lehman introduced me to them in graduate school some 20 years ago!), and/or if you know Shabbat, or love Shabbat, or perhaps once flirted with Shabbat, this book is worth your time. Available for $9.95 at Ben Yehuda Press

 


A Shabbes in the Garden

Our sages compare Shabbat to a garden. Shabbat is called both a foretaste of the world to come and a return to Eden, the primordial garden of abundance and bliss. What more perfect place to experience the sweetness of Shabbes than a garden? 

This past Shabbat I joined with folks from Temple Beth-El of City Island and Shtiebl (and their spiritual leaders Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Ben Newman) for Shabbat in the Garden, a prayerful adventure to delight body, heart, mind, and soul.

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We met at the front entrance to the New York Botanical Garden. After getting ourselves organized, we walked in contemplative silence -- marveling at the spectacular beauty all around us -- until we reached a shady place where it made sense to stop.

Beneath a spreading tree we sang a shehecheyanu: "Oh, Mystery • Grace unfolding • Oh, Miracle • It's You alone. / Oh, Mystery • Grace unfolding • Oh, Miracle • You bring us home!" Humming that melody we walked some more, past greenery and blooms.

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Beside a tiered reflecting pool we stopped again in the shade. After the story of Reb Zalman's daughter asking "When we're awake, can we wake up even more?" we sang "Awaken, arise to the wholeness of your being!" We woke up some more.

More walking, more quiet singing. Where we stopped to stretch up to the sky and pray nishmat kol chai, "the breath of all life praises Your name!" we were accompanied by the song of a waterfall and the basso profundo of a bullfrog in the pond.

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Beneath a shaded pavilion overlooking a meadow dotted with butterflies we sang the bar'chu. "As I call on the light of my soul, I come home." Reminded of the angel who encourages every blade of grass to grow, we sang holy holy holy like the angels do.

We sang Mi Chamocha, the song that Torah teaches we sang upon crossing the Sea, as we crossed the Bronx River. Our Amidah, the standing prayer, unfolded in silence overlooking the spectacular riotous blooms of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. 

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On an enormous expanse of rock we listened to mystical teachings on the week's Torah portion. We rose there to sing our closing prayers. We blessed wine and challah. And then we savored a celebratory oneg and impromptu conversation about God.

And when our community time together was done, Rabbi David and I walked through the most spectacular rose garden I have ever seen. More kinds of roses than I can describe, every shape and configuration and color and scent, and all of them in bloom. 

RG-Hero-spring

 

 

All photos courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.


Up the mountain, breaking Shabbes, and the things I can't control

Last week I did something that felt very strange: I counseled three people to break Shabbat.

I've been teaching an adult education class this year that I've called "Journey Into Judaism." We're all on a journey into authentic spiritual life, into the continuing unfolding of who we are and who we're called to become. Some of the students in my class are Jewish and seeking deeper connection with their traditions. Others enrolled because they're partnered with Jews. Others enrolled because they felt a pull toward becoming Jewish and wanted to learn more. 

This Friday, on the cusp of the Shabbat that will lead into Shavuot, three of my students will take the plunge into Judaism both literally and metaphorically. After spending some time with the beit din (the rabbinic court of three who will officially preside over their transition), they'll immerse in a mikvah and then emerge to a new chapter of their spiritual lives. Last Friday was the final Shabbat before their immersion, so -- following a very old custom -- I told them it's customary for them to break Shabbes.

Shabbat isn't something that just "happens." It requires a combination of intention and action; otherwise, it's just plain old Friday-night-and-Saturday. In common Jewish parlance, we "make" Shabbat (or Shabbes -- "Shabbat" is the modern Hebrew pronunciation, "Shabbes" is a more old-fashioned Yiddishized pronunciation, but they're the same word.) We make Shabbat when we enter into holy time mindfully. Through blessing candles and the fruit of the vine and bread, we sanctify time.

And as for "breaking" Shabbat, that means different things in different communities. Most members of my synagogue community don't "keep" Shabbat in the traditional forms. But my students and I have talked a great deal about Shabbat consciousness and holy time, and about different ways of honoring Shabbat, and about what Shabbat can look like. We've held two immersive Shabbatonim for the purpose of giving them full, deep, rich, sweet experiences of Shabbat from start to finish.

And last week I told them to break Shabbes. On purpose.  

In some communities, non-Jews are not permitted to observe Shabbat, and prospective Jews-by-choice are instructed to secretly break Shabbat each week before their immersion, because the covenant of Shabbat is between God and the Jewish people and they aren't yet part of that group. I don't hold that thick a line between "us" and "them" -- I am happy to share the sweetness of Shabbes with seekers of all stripes -- but it is true that once my students immerse, Shabbat will be "theirs" in a different way.

In some communities, prospective Jews-by-choice are encouraged to break Shabbat on purpose right before their immersion, to see what it would feel like to do so. If they've grown accustomed to candles and challah and wine, what would it feel like to forgo those things? If they've grown accustomed to seeking a heartspace and headspace that's apart from weekday consciousness, what would it feel like to intentionally open the bills on a Saturday afternoon and shatter that sense of separateness and peace?

The old paradigm of rabbinic authority was often top-down. But that's not the paradigm that's embraced in the community I serve. We aspire to practice an informed wrestling with the tradition, making conscious choices about how our practice evolves. I shared with my students the custom of breaking Shabbat before their immersion... and all of them engaged with it thoughtfully, and made their own decisions about how to honor it and what they were, and weren't, willing to forgo.

And I couldn't be more thrilled. Because in learning the custom, and pondering it, and checking in with their own discernment about their spiritual needs and their evolving Jewish practice, they unconsciously lived out exactly the kind of Judaism that is my hope and my prayer for them in days and years to come. They showed me that Shabbat means something to them, and that Jewish practice means something to them, and that they have taken permission to engage with the tradition on their own terms. 

A few days ago I spoke with Rabbi David, who will sit on the beit din, about the logistics of how the day will go. "I want their experience to be beautiful," I fretted -- feeling anxiety about the weather, and about the setting, and about all the things I can't control about how Friday will unfold. Rabbi David gently reminded me that I can't "give them" a perfect experience no matter how hard I try. My job is to lead them up the mountain. What they experience at the mountaintop is in God's hands, not mine.

I needed to be reminded of that, especially on the cusp of Shavuot -- another liminal space-and-time, another long-anticipated moment, another time when I want so deeply to be able to give those whom I serve a renewed connection with Torah and with our traditions and with our Source. What we experience on the mountaintop isn't up to me. That's not in my hands. My job is to lead people safely along the path, and to trust the Kadosh Baruch Hu -- the flow of holiness and spirit that we name as God.

The universe handed me another reminder this week that I'm truly not in control: the storm and tornadoes that tore through the Hudson Valley. The summer camp that was supposed to be our weekend retreat location remains without power. As a result, our retreat has been canceled. Thankfully, we've found an alternative way to hold the beit din: at a regional mikveh, with celebration (potluck supper, Kabbalat Shabbat, song and dance and joy) to follow at a local shul. 

My students' doorway into Jewishness will not exactly take the shape I had intended or planned, but it will be their doorway -- and as a doorway, entered mindfully, it will be holy. This will still be a Shabbat for them unlike any other that has come before. It will still be the Shabbat after I surprised them with the instruction to break Shabbes... and the first Shabbat for them in the flow of Jewish national and spiritual identity, the first Shabbat of the rest of their new and renewing Jewish lives. 

 

For my students, with endless gratitude.


Shabbat shalom

14305236341_27b5351f2e_zMay the Shabbat that is coming

bring comfort to all who grieve,

sweetness to all who are in need,

and balm for our wounded places.

May it bring us rest

and gentleness

and light.

May Shabbat enable us to shed

our world-weary weekday faces

and to soak in gratitude and wonder.

May we feel connected

with whose whom we love

and with our deepest selves

and with our Source.

May we emerge from Shabbat

nourished and ready

to meet the new week.

For now, may we prepare ourselves

to greet the Shabbat bride

with joy.

 


Sweetness from an extraordinary Shabbaton

Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024Many people, upon turning sixty, might choose to celebrate by throwing a party... or taking a trip somewhere... or perhaps trying to pretend the milestone birthday away. Not my friend and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame.

What he wanted for his sixtieth birthday was to learn with Rabbi Art Green, one of the Jewish world's shining lights -- and to share that learning with the community he co-founded (The Jewish Studio) and with friends, ranging from elementary school buddies with whom he's still in touch, to more recent rabbinical school friends like me.

So he planned a Shabbaton with Reb Art as the scholar-in-residence. He invited Shir Yaakov to come and share his music. And a group of his (and my) friends and colleagues stepped forward to lead prayer and offer our spiritual, musical, and liturgical gifts.

We spent Shabbes at Rockwood Manor, a house near the Potomac where I saw what were for me the year's first signs of spring -- daffodil shoots poking from the ground, flowering trees just beginning to bloom. 

Reb Art taught several times throughout the weekend. He taught texts from two Hasidic masters (the Sfat Emet and the Me'or Eynayim) about the mishkan (the dwelling-place for God's presence, sometimes translated as "tabernacle") and about the inner light that enlivens Torah. R' Evan interviewed him on Saturday after lunch, and we all got to bask in the learning from that conversation about God and journey and spiritual life.

A rotating group of about a dozen rabbis and musicians co-led prayer four times over the course of our 24 hours together. (I was among them -- I got to share my "Listen Up, Y'all" on Friday night, and to lead part of the service on Shabbat morning.) This group had never led prayer together before in this configuration. I don't know how the davenen felt to the kahal (the community), but for me as one of the leaders it felt both seamless and real. Seamless as though we had been sharing leadership for years, and real because we weren't "performing," we were honest-to-God praying. (Which is as it should be!)

I think the reason it flowed so smoothly was that we were leading lich'vod (in honor of, or for the reason of,) Shabbat, and God, and the friend-and-colleague who had brought us together. None of us was leading in order to shine as an individual gem. We were leading together in order to create something more than the sum of our parts. (As I write these words it occurs to me that that's not unlike the mishkan, the tabernacle, described in the Torah portions we've been reading -- for which each person brought their own gifts as a free will offering.) That was deeply nourishing for me. 

Our Saturday morning davenen was inspired by the last verse in the book of Exodus. When we were in rabbinical school, our friend and colleague Hazzan Daniel Kempin wrote a musical setting for that verse, which we taught at the start of the morning. Five of us each gave over a vort, a short teaching, about that passage over the course of the morning -- each of us shining light on a different facet of what that verse could mean. R' Evan had commissioned sketchnote artist Steve Silbert to illustrate that verse, and Steve's artwork offered a visual accompaniment to our words and our prayer.

On Shabbat afternoon, during the time between one learning session and another, some folks did yoga, while others went for a walk, while others chatted in the sunshine. (I sat in the gazebo with a handful of friends and studied some gemara with another of my Bayit co-founders,  Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, which was delicious.) Reb Art taught one final time, about the red heifer and connecting with the supernal light of Torah. As the day grew dark and Shabbat prepared to depart, we harvested blessings from our time together that we will carry forward into our weekday lives. And then we made havdalah, singing our way into the new week.

I'm grateful to R' Evan for choosing to celebrate his birthday in such an extraordinarily generous way: sharing food and prayer and song and learning with so many (including me!) It was a beautiful weekend, and one I know I will carry with me for a long time. 

 

Image: the Torah sketchnote commissioned from Steve Silbert.


Choose life: what Ki Tisa teaches us about Shabbat


32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zThe Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [or: was ensouled].

That's in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many of us know these words because they have become a part of our Shabbat liturgy, as the prayer we call by its first word, V'shamru. We sing these words on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings before kiddush.

Immediately before these familiar verses, there is another instruction to keep Shabbat as a sign between us and God. But this one contains some more challenging language:

You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on Shabbat shall be put to death.

Oof.

The medieval commentator Rashi (d. 1105) clarifies that the death sentence only applies if the person does work on Shabbat in the presence of witnesses, AND if the person was warned, immediately before doing the work, what the penalty would be. This is a pretty common rabbinic move: taking something in Torah that startles us with its harshness, and adding qualifying stipulations that make it much harder for the harsh law to be applied.

The Sforno (d. 1550) is less apologetic about the starkness of this command. He writes that anyone who deliberately desecrates Shabbat thereby denies God Who created all things including rest. Someone who performs secular tasks on Shabbat has clearly lost consciousness of what Shabbat means, and therefore deserves execution. You make your choices, you live with the consequences.

I agree with the Sforno that our choices have consequences, but I read these verses a little bit differently. I see them not as prescriptive, but descriptive.

Another way to translate "מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת," usually rendered as "will be put to death," is "he will surely die." This passage comes to teach us that one who doesn't honor Shabbat, who doesn't honor the holiness of resting from workday acts and workday consciousness, will bring themselves closer to death. One who works constantly, and lives in a state of workday consciousness 24/7, will be deadened thereby.

Every week when Friday night and Saturday roll around, we make choices. Will we disengage from work, and from our worries, and from 24/7 cable news, and from all the things that make us feel trapped like rats in a maze? Will we set aside our burdens and welcome the presence of that extra Shabbat soul enlivening us and enabling us to take a full, deep breath? Will we affirm that connecting with our deepest selves and with our Source matters more than our to-do lists and our deadlines?

That's the choice. We can let Shabbat transform us, or we can stick with the rat race. And if we choose the endless rat race, we're going to wind up feeling dead inside.

Choose rest. Choose Shabbes. Choose life.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 

 


The gift of an immersive Shabbat

39754613342_8305a9af90_zWhen I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat. 

The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls. 

I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. 

So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.

We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!) 

The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean. 

On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate. 

Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.

Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.

As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.

My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.

I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week.  I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time. 


A woman of valor

A woman of valor! Worth more than
business class tickets to anywhere.
Every day I pack my son's lunch,
tuck his homework into his backpack.

I pay the mortgage. I ensure
my car is legal and fit to drive.
I fold and put away laundry.
I text beloveds who are far away.

I serve, I write, I create.
I teach and accompany and plan.
Every Friday night I light
twin fires of creation and Sinai,

chant sanctity into my wineglass.
When the co-op runs out of challah
I uplift a sandwich roll.
I make holiness from what I have.

Even on days when depression
whispers cruelty in my ear
I cup my hands around gratitude's spark
and I tell my child he matters.

And at the end of the week
I sing myself this song. I promise
I'm enough (but not too much)
and I am beautiful in God's eyes.



There's a tradition of reading Eshet Chayil ("A Woman of Valor") on Friday nights -- traditionally, a man reads or sings it to his wife. (There's a translation online here. I also love In loco eshes chayil by poet Danny Siegel.)

I was working recently on a poem that became a lament for the fact that there is no one to sing those words to me. 

Then I thought, if there were a variant I could speak to myself, as a single woman and a working parent, what would it say? That's what sparked this poem.


A very special New York City Shabbat

This coming weekend I'll be in New York city for two very different and very special Shabbat experiences.

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The first is Shabbat By the Sea with Temple Beth-El of City Island. You can read about it in the TBE newsletter. The short version is: 7pm on Friday night at the home of TBE members Ken and Steve Binder, 2 Bay Street on City Island. (If it rains, we'll meet at the shul instead.) I was blessed to be present for Shabbat by the Sea last year (here's their post about it) and it was a highlight of my summer. I can't wait to return and to dance in my Shabbes whites with TBE friends as we welcome Shabbat by the water's edge. There's nothing else like it. 

The second is a Shabbat In The Garden adventure co-sponsored by TBE of City Island and by another Jewish Renewal community called Shtiebl, which will take place starting at 9:45am on Saturday at the New York Botanical Garden (meet inside the main gate, 2900 Southern Blvd). I'll be co-leading a contemplative morning Shabbat service with my friends Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl and Rabbi David Markus of TBE. (Here's the Facebook event where you can RSVP; wear walking shoes and dress for the weather.)

The first time I came to City Island I was delighted and surprised. It feels entirely unlike what I associate with the phrase "New York City" (or "The Bronx"), which just goes to show that New York is vast and contains multitudes and is perennially surprising, maybe especially to outsiders like me. (Though I get the sense even some lifelong denizens of the Five Boroughs don't know City Island either.) I've never been to the New York Botanical Gardens but I'm guessing I will find them equally beautiful. 

The coming Shabbat is a special one. It's called Shabbat Mevarchim Elul, the Shabbat immediately preceding the start of a new lunar month -- in this case, the lunar month of Elul, the month that leads directly to the Days of Awe. The name Elul can be read as an acronym for the phrase "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" -- a quote from Song of Songs that can be understood as an expression of love between human beloveds, and as an expression of love between us and the Divine.

Join us by the water's edge and in the garden of Shabbat. (And in the garden on Shabbat!) Let intimate encounter with the Divine be the updraft that lifts you into heightened readiness to prepare for the High Holidays. Join us as we savor high summer in two of New York City's most beautiful places. Join us as we seek the Face of the Beloved through song, dance, contemplation, and just plain being. I look forward to seeing you there.


Balancing joy with sorrow: a d'var Torah for Shabbat Shachor

BlackIt's Shabbat Shachor, the "Black Shabbat" that falls right before Tisha b'Av. Today our experience of the sweetness of Shabbat is tempered by awareness of what's broken, from our own ancient stories of destruction and becoming refugees to what we see and hear on the news even now.

Monday night will bring Tisha b'Av, when we'll go deep into this brokenness -- a paradoxical beginning to the uplifting journey toward the Days of Awe. In Hasidic language, that's a descent for the sake of ascent.

But how can we now celebrate Shabbat with awareness of these sorrows?

You might ask the same question of anyone whose loved one has received a fearful diagnosis, or of any mourner, or of anyone who knows the grief of ending a marriage or losing a beloved home or enduring any kind of loss.

In Jewish tradition, we suspend formal mourning on Shabbat and festivals. But someone who is grieving is likely to still feel their grief even on days that are supposed to be joyful -- maybe especially then, because the disjunction between how they are "supposed" to feel and how their hearts naturally flow can be so profound.

Shabbat Shachor offers us an opportunity to sit with that tension between joy and grief. For many of us, that's deeply uncomfortable. It's easier to paper over the sorrow and just be happy, or to keep joy at arm's-length and just sit with sorrow. Today our tradition asks us to resist both of those easy outs, and to sit with the dissonance of a psycho-spiritual chord that's both major and minor.

If you're feeling grief, today invites you to temper your sadness with Shabbat joy. If you're feeling Shabbat joy, today invites you to temper your happiness with an awareness of life's sorrows. This can feel like a grinding of our emotional gears. The heart wants to lurch to one extreme or the other -- sorrow or joy -- not to stretch wide enough to feel them both at the same time. Resist that temptation.

On Monday night we'll be wholly in a minor key. Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning for our communal losses: the destruction of the first Temple by Babylon, which led to our becoming refugees; the destruction of the second Temple by Rome; and a long list of other losses and griefs throughout our history. That day isn't quite here, but we can feel it just around the corner. We can see it coming.

I've learned as a pastoral caregiver that every loss evokes and activates every other loss. Sitting with our historical and communal losses can heighten our sadness around personal losses: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or a home, the loss of a relationship, the loss of health, the loss of hope. Maybe you're feeling that way today. If not, you've likely felt that way before... and will feel that way again.

And yet amidst all of that loss, both present and anticipated, today we're still called to open our hearts to the abundance and flow of Shabbat. On Shabbes we're still invited to taste perfection. Even if our ability to rejoice is subdued by circumstance or memory, we still offer thanks today for life's many blessings. We still open ourselves to the experience of feeling accompanied and cradled by divine Presence.

It's not a matter of either / or -- either we savor the sweetness of Shabbes, or we marinate in the bitterness of grief. It's a more nuanced and complicated both / and. On Shabbat Shachor we affirm that our hearts are flexible enough to hold both. And what we affirm today as a community carves pathways in our hearts that will help us affirm this truth in our own ways, on our own time, throughout our lives.

Today is our communal Shabbat Shachor, the day when we sit with this balance between grief and joy as a community. But in every life there are individual Shabbatot that take place in this middle ground, partaking in sweetness and in loss. Today reminds us that even when we grieve, Shabbat can still bring  comfort -- and that even at our times of greatest joy, some of us will still struggle with sorrow.

Today invites us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for each other, knowing that everyone lives in the balance, the tension, the middle ground between sorrow and joy. This is spiritual life. This is human life. May we recognize that even at times of rejoicing, we and our loved ones may be carrying grief...and may we help each other access gratitude and joy even during life's times of darkness.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


An Extra Soul - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat at WCJA

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I've been thinking this week about the Torah of new beginnings. It's a new semester, a new beginning for all of you and all of your professors. And tonight marks a new beginning for me, too, the beginning of a new chapter for me at Williams. The poet Jason Shinder teaches, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." Whatever's on your mind can be the text you need to delve into, the lived Torah of your own human experience. What's been on my mind is new beginnings.

And hey, speaking of beginnings, every Friday night we sing a reminder of the creation story:

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת,  לַעֲשׂוֹֹת אֶת הַַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹֹלָם:  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹֹת הִיא לְעוֹֹלָם,  כִּי שֵֽׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְיָ  אֶת הַשָּׁמַֽיִם וְאֶת הָאָֽרֶץ וּבַיּוֹֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִנָּפַשׁ.

"The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant throughout the generations. Between Me and the children of Israel it is an eternal sign, (says God). For in six days, God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God rested and was ensouled."

A lot of translations will say "God rested and was refreshed." But I think "was ensouled" is a better translation. When God rested on the seventh day, something happened to the divine Soul. God got more of a soul. God's soul unfolded more fully. Something about Shabbat increased God's soulfulness.

First there was a new beginning -- the ultimate new beginning, the creation! And then God rested and was ensouled. As exciting as new beginnings are, it's not good for us to keep moving forward at their high energy level and frantic pace. Torah's creation story comes to remind us that it's important to take a break.

One of my favorite teachings says that we too receive an extra helping of soul on Shabbat. On Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, remembering in their twin flames the light of creation and the light of the burning bush, we too are "ensouled." We get a נשמח יתרה, an extra soul. (And tomorrow night when we make havdalah, we'll inhale spices as spiritual smelling salts, so we don't faint when our extra soul departs for the week.) 

The beginning of the semester holds all kinds of promise, and all kinds of challenges. It's easy to get caught up in thinking about your classes, your papers or lab projects, all the deadlines marching off into the distance between now and the end of the year. But tonight offers us something different: an opportunity to let go of the work of creating -- even the work of planning to create.

Tonight we get to pause in our work of new beginnings, and be re-ensouled.

An invitation to try something. Put your feet on the floor. Take a deep breath, and imagine the breath filling you all the way up, and all the way down -- from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes. Let that breath go, and with it, let go of all of the week's stresses and frustrations. Set aside everything that worries you about the semester now beginning. Take another breath, and let it fill you all the way up again.

That's one way of glimpsing the extra helping of soul Shabbat offers us. Extra breath. Extra breathing room. Room for your heart to expand.

Another way the mystics see that extra soul is that it heightens our ability to yearn and to feel joy. The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Breslov goes a step further and says the extra soul comes into being through our yearnings. Because we yearn, we get an extra soul during Shabbat. Yearning reveals who we most deeply are. What do you yearn for as this Shabbat begins? Get in touch with your yearnings, and your extra soul will unfurl.

May your Shabbat be soulful and sweet -- and enliven you for all the new beginnings, and all the future yearnings, to come.

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association during Kabbalat Shabbat services. (I also offered a longer d'var Torah during dinner.)


How I sustain myself: Shabbat

32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zA congregant asked me recently how I am managing. She meant both the circumstances of my life -- single parent, working one job and about to start a second -- and our national circumstances, as the new administration makes decisions that deeply distress me. What I really understood her to be asking was how I sustain myself during difficult times.

One of my answers is Shabbat.

Every week we retell the creation story: for six days God labored creating the world, and on the seventh day God rested and was ensouled. We too can be ensouled, can experience an enlivening of our deepest selves, when we turn away from the world of work for 25 hours.

In some ways, the most sustaining Shabbatot are those I'm able to spend on retreat and/or with beloved hevre (rabbinic colleague-friends) because at those times I am able to truly set the world aside. There's no laundry or bills to ignore.

At those times I'm usually not leading davenen, and I can relax into the skilled hands of my colleagues, who I can trust to facilitate a spiritual journey through the liturgy. (If I am leading, I'm usually co-leading, which is its own kind of partnered dance and which gives me good "juice.")

At those times I can sink in to the rhythms of Shabbat in community with others who are attuned to those rhythms, from the high-spirited joy of welcoming the Sabbath bride to the full celebration of Shabbat morning to the poignant yearning of Shabbat afternoon as we prepare to bid farewell to our weekly "taste of the world to come."

But even Shabbatot when I am at home, "on duty" as rabbi and as mom, can be sustaining for me.

My Shabbat practices are sometimes idiosyncratic, and have shifted over the years, but here's one on which I am firm: I do not pay bills on Shabbes. If I open a bill on Friday afternoon and don't pay it by sundown, it waits on the desk until Sunday. It will still be there when Shabbat is over, and I need a day of respite from worrying about finances.

I also don't read the news on Shabbes. I give myself the gift of being able to look away from news media and political discourse for a day. This is good for me, maybe especially now. (Others have written about the importance of self-care in these times: see Mirah Curzer's How to stay #outraged without losing your mind.) Taking a day away from my own fury at the brokenness of our world strengthens me for the week to come.

In his book Jewish With Feeling, co-written with Joel Segel, Reb Zalman z"l (of blessed memory) wrote:

Save up for Shabbos those activities that pamper your soul. Here I would take a more lenient approach toward certain activities that traditional halakhah forbids, as long as they are done in the spirit of Shabbos. If you enjoy gardening for its own sake, rather than regard it as a chore you'd just as soon delegate to someone else; if you're enjoying spending time with your plants rather than working on a crop with which to feed your family, then gardening is a Shabbosdik activity for you. If you're a computer programmer by trade but a potter at heart, and if setting aside some Shabbos time each week would allow you to enjoy sitting down at the potter's wheel, then pottery is a Shabbosdik activity for you.

We might swear off the telephone during our Shabbos celebration -- nothing can introdude on a Shabbos like a telemarketing call! -- but have a special signal for family and friends (or simply use caller ID). A friend of mine used to have a telephone date on Shabbos aternoon with a woman he was engaged to, who lived in another city, and the first thing they'd discuss was their thoughts on the Torah portion of the week. The telephone becomes a sacred instrument when it allows us to do things like this.

Sometimes on Shabbes I cook a new recipe, something I've been wanting to try but haven't found time for. The traditional interpretations of the categories of "work" in which one does not engage on Shabbat would prohibit cooking on this day when we seek not to create change in the world but to find the gifts in what already is, but I've found that cooking something new can be restorative for me.

Sometimes on Shabbes I immerse in poetry -- whether writing or tinkering with my own poems, or the poems of others in which I can just luxuriate. Polishing the poems in Texts to the Holy, my collection of love poems to the Beloved, feels especially Shabbesdik to me these days -- but the simple fact of engaging with poetry can enliven my Shabbes.

Singing in harmony, when I can manage it, is an extra-special Shabbat treat. I'm an alto and some of my sweetest memories of the last many years of my life are of singing in harmony with others. When we are singing Jewish liturgy or psalms or Hebrew songs, that's even more true, but any singing at all can enrich the sense of connection that I look to Shabbat to help me access.

At the end of Shabbat I make havdalah. Sometimes that's bittersweet -- I can be reluctant to let go of the extra sense of connection with my soul and my Source that Shabbat can provide -- but I know that my Shabbat time will have strengthened my readiness to face the coming week... and I know it will come again, thank God, in six short days.

 


Poetry by the sea

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It's always a joy to visit Temple Beth El of City Island. For years I've been wanting to attend their annual Shabbat by the Sea -- and this year, on August 26, I will! Weather permitting, we'll meet for Kabbalat Shabbat at the seaside home of two members, Ken Binder and Steve Roth, who live at 2 Bay Street on City Island. (In case of rain, we'll meet at the synagogue instead.) 

This year, Shabbat by the Sea will be preceded by a spiritual poetry reading by yours truly. I'm planning to share some poems from my newest published collection, Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press 2016) as well as from the as-yet-unpublished manuscript of my next collection, Texts to the Holy, love poems for the Beloved (many of which were shared here in early form.)

All are welcome (though donations will be gratefully accepted before Shabbat begins). If you're near City Island, I hope you'll join us! Plan ahead for traffic and finding parking. Poetry reading at 5:45, outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat services at 7 (join us in the kabbalistic custom of wearing white to greet the Shabbes bride), lavish oneg to follow.

 


Four glimpses of the pre-Kallah Shabbat

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Mincha in the mountains.

1.

Unlike at last Kallah (when we were on a lake -- an easy natural mikvah), no formal mikvah experiences are scheduled for smicha week. But on Friday afternoon of my first week here, two friends and I decide to create our own. We make our way to the campus rec center, where there is a huge pool with a beach-like slope at one end, and a large and spacious hot tub, too. We opt first for the hot tub, and -- immersed in its foaming waters up to our necks -- we talk about what we need to release from our lives in general and from the week now ending in particular. And then we immerse. It's not a kosher mikvah, of course -- it's a swimming pool, with no source of living waters; for that matter, we're wearing swimsuits -- but on a spiritual level when I emerge from the waters after my final immersion I feel lighter. More radiant. More ready to welcome Shabbat.

 

2.

As I make my way back to my dorm after the festive meal that followed Kabbalat Shabbat, I am drawn to the trio of guitarists sitting on one of the semicircles of big stones on the lawn outside the building. (So are a few dozen other people.) I settle happily on one of the big rocks that serves as a bench, and as they play and sing, the assembled group sings with them. They play (and we sing) the birkat hamazon (grace after meals), prayers, folk songs, new melodies, old melodies. In between singing harmony with my friends, I have conversations with current and prospective ALEPH students, with faculty, with other musmachim (alumni / ordinands). We sing and sing and sing. And sing some more. Between the singing and the Shabbat wine, by the time I stagger up to my room (well after midnight, which means it's well after my bedtime!) I am exhausted... but grateful.

 

3.

On the campus where we're staying the grounds are pretty flat. But off to one side there are mountains, and I don't want to spend two weeks at the cusp of the Rockies and never actually see the mountains themselves! So on Shabbat afternoon two friends and I head to Horsetooth Mountain Park, and we walk up into the hills. It's a hot day, and we're at altitude; I huff and puff more than I would prefer. But the hills around us are extraordinarily beautiful. My spirits are lifted by the grasses and piñon pines and wildflowers, by the clouds scudding across the blue sky, by the sound of wind in the grasses. We sing bits of the Shabbat afternoon service to the special nusach (melodic system) used only at that time on that day. "Mincha" means offering or gift. In that moment, singing bits of the ashrei on a trail in the hills in the sunshine, everything feels like a gift.

 

4.

After evening davenen we make our way outside for havdalah. We form a huge circle, arms around each other. Fragrant teabags are passed out for our b'samim, the spices we will bless to prevent ourselves from fainting as the second Shabbat soul departs. Havdalah candles are lit. We sing the words I love so very dearly: hineh El yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad... (This is the God of my redemption; I trust, I am not afraid...) We sing the blessings sanctifying the One Who makes divisions between Shabbat and the week. When the candles are extinguished a few people sing to Elijah the prophet in Ladino, and then we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah in Hebrew, and then people start dancing as the musicians keep on playing. La-yehudim haita ora -- a prayer for light and joy and honor for us in the week now beginning. We sing, and we dance, and the week begins. 

 

Related: Six jewels from Clergy Camp.


Stay

 

The instant you depart
I'm counting the days.

When I'm wholly with you
everything is sweeter.

A simple swallow of wine
reveals new flavors.

My soul is doubled
like manna in the desert.

My laugh lines deepen.
I am radiant as a bride.

If only I could stop time
and stay in your embrace.

 


Counting the days. In Hebrew, days of the week are named by their distance from Shabbat. (So Sunday is "First Day," and Monday is "Second Day," and so on, until Friday is "Sixth Day" -- the last day before Shabbat.) My soul is doubled. On Shabbat, says the tradition, we receive a neshama yeteirah, an additional soulLike manna in the desert. We read in Torah that when the children of Israel were sustained by manna during their forty years' wandering, they collected twice as much manna on Fridays -- a double portion for Shabbat. (This is why today many follow the custom of having two challot on the Shabbat table.) I am radiant as a bride. Jewish mystics compared the Sabbath to a bride.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


You who love my soul

HEBREWFONTOne of my very favorite pieces of Friday night liturgy is a medieval love poem by R' Eliezer Azkiri called Yedid Nefesh. (There's a gorgeous setting of this poem on Nava Tehila's second album Libi Er / Waking Heart.) Our mystics imagined God as the cosmic Beloved, yearning for connection with creation even as we yearn for connection with divinity. Shabbat is when we and God meet in love.

At my shul we sometimes sing Yedid Nefesh in English, using Reb Zalman z"l's singable translation which captures much of the poetry of the Hebrew. "You who love my soul," the song begins, "sweet source of tenderness..." I am always moved by that way of describing the Holy One of Blessing: not as Lord, not as King (nor as Queen), but as the One Who loves us with infinite tenderness.

This love song imagines that as we welcome Shabbat, our tired souls can bathe in divine light and find comfort. By the end of the week we are worn out -- maybe in practical terms; maybe in heart or spirit. When we usher in Shabbat, we open ourselves to being healed. This song imagines us basking in divine light as one might bask in the presence of a beloved, deriving joy from the fact of that presence.

"My heart's desire is to harmonize with yours," writes R' Eliezer Azkiri (as rendered by R' Zalman z"l.) I love that line. I love the idea of singing in harmony with God, of having a heart which beats in harmony with God's. (The fact that I used to be a choral singer, and that I still derive tremendous joy from singing in harmony, probably contributes to how deeply that metaphor speaks to me.)

"As a deer thirsts for water, so my soul thirsts for you," writes the Psalmist. I know that feeling -- the feeling of a soul thirsty for sustenance, for connection. The feeling of a soul which yearns for God. I remember ten years ago, early in my rabbinic school journey, hearing one of my teachers describe me as "thirsty for connection with God." It was true then; it continues to be true now. It is core to who I am.

At its best, Shabbat offers me an opportunity to drink from that well of living waters, to satiate my thirst. No, that's not quite right. At my best, I'm able to take advantage of what Shabbat offers. The offer is always there; I'm the one who isn't always able to access it. Rabbi David Wolpe has written:

Friday night arrives. I know what my task is at this moment. I am to stop affecting the world and live in harmony with it. Even though I am a tangle of yearnings, on this day everything is to be perfect. I am to be satisfied with the many blessings that I have in my life. For once, I am to be at peace with the universe.

I find that idea incredibly compelling... and also often challenging. And I don't want to shame myself (or anyone else) for times when yearning, or mourning, or grief gets in the way of being able to experience the perfection which Shabbat is meant to encapsulate. But I take comfort in calling God "Beloved" -- whether or not I feel connected; whether or not I'm able to fully feel that "extra soul" of Shabbat; whether or not I can set aside my weekday strivings and be present with the perfection of what is.