The anniversary of the revelation of Torah


Photo, sunbeams at Sinai, by flickr user jacobwod.


Tonight and tomorrow are the anniversary of the revelation of Torah.

The anniversary. One of my favorite teachings holds that tonight, Shavuot, is the Jewish people's wedding anniversary with God. On this date we stood together with God. We and God pledged ourselves in everlasting covenant. The written Torah, that beautiful hand-calligraphed parchment scroll, contains our ketubah, our written agreement of the promises we and God make to each other. One teaching holds that on this date, God held the mountain of Sinai up in the sky -- that we stood not at the foot of the mountain, but quite literally beneath the mountain; that the mountain was our chuppah, our wedding-canopy, for our marriage with God. (Another midrash holds that God held the mountain over us as a kind of threat. But I like the wedding midrash better.)

The anniversary of the revelation. On this day, long long ago, we camped at the base of Sinai. The Torah uses a singular verb to say that we camped there, and Rashi reads that to mean that the Israelite people camped there as a single entity, with one heart and one purpose. On this day, long long ago, despite all of our frustrations and our differences, we were together at the mountain as one. We were one people, one heart, one community. And in that state of oneness, we entered into relationship with God. In that state of oneness, we received revelation. We experienced divinity. We experienced the theophany, God's revelation-of-God's-self, a transmission of something from beyond our ken.

The anniversary of the revelation of Torah. What was revealed? Some say that God spoke the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments as we read them in Torah. Some say that God spoke only the first line, "I am Adonai your God," or perhaps only the first word, a great anochi reverberating. Some say that God spoke only the first letter, a silent aleph, and the whole rest of the Torah was communicated via ultra-compressed instantaneous download. The midrash teaches that each of us heard according to her or his own capabilities. Just as manna had a different taste for each person who consumed it, so the revelation reached different people in different ways. God spoke with one voice, but each of us heard the Torah which we most uniquely needed to hear.

My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) teaches that the revelation wasn't just a onetime thing: it's happening even now. God broadcasts on all channels, and we hear on the frequencies to which we're attuned. Ours is not the only revelation; other peoples, other traditions, have received other revelations on the channels where they're tuned-in. They've perceived different facets of the Infinite. We're all like those blind men in the parable, each of whom thought the elephant was something different because of what he perceived when he reached out to touch. But the existence of other revelations doesn't obviate ours; you don't have to be wrong for me to be right. The revelation at Sinai was a burst of divine presence, a transmission from beyond -- and that transmission is still going. As the Browncoats say, you can't stop the signal.

Each of us is a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to God's broadcast. On Shavuot, we open our hearts and attune ourselves to God. What's the revelation that you most need to receive tonight as the heavens open? What Torah does the world most need, right here, right now? What will you draw down and channel into the world this Shavuot?

Sleeping and waking, Torah and revelation

Midrash holds that the children of Israel fell asleep on the cusp of the revelation of Torah. This is the reason usually given for the custom of the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the late-night or all-night study session whose name means "healing on the eve of Shavuot." The healing needed is a kind of spiritual rectification, a chance to make up for our own mistake. When we stay up late studying Torah, we are saying to God (and to ourselves) that revelation matters to us; that we want to be open to the Torah which is coming. We don't want to oversleep this time.

Curiously, the midrash also tells us that God was pleased with the Israelites, and ensured that no mosquitoes bit them that night, so they could enjoy a deep and restful slumber. Perhaps, as the author of Angels, human beings, and the Torah argues, they went to sleep because they knew they couldn't grasp the full meaning of Torah with their conscious minds. They wanted to receive revelation in their dreams. And God got that; God was pleased! But God still asked Moshe to wake them up so that Torah could be given to people who were spiritually (and physically) awake.

In the Hasidic understanding, the Torah which we know in this world is a physical manifestation of -- and also a pale reflection of -- the supernal Torah which is known to God on high. Bereshit Rabbah (a classical commentary on Genesis) teaches us that when a person sleeps, a portion of their soul ascends on high and is united with God; upon waking, the soul returns to the body. Who can know what Torah was revealed to our ancestors in that holy sleep? Their souls (or, as another midrash has it, our souls -- since we all stood at Sinai, every Jewish soul which has ever been or will ever be) ascended on high and connected with God. And then they woke up, and received revelation in a different way.

I've long loved the custom of the tikkun leyl Shavuot. Late at night, the world feels different. I can believe that revelation takes a unique form in the wee hours of the night. When I used to stay up all night for fun in college, I relished both the silliness and the philosophical insights which arose at, say, three a.m. When I did my year of hospital chaplaincy, many years later, I found that some of my deepest and most meaningful encounters took place in the wee hours. Maybe we're more vulnerable in the middle of the night. Maybe we're open to things in a way which is different than the ordinary waking day.

Of course, since Drew was born, I don't stay up so late anymore. (Indeed: he's two and a half and I still haven't shaken the habit, learned during his first year, of keeping jealous track of my hours of sleep. When I wake in the night, I can't help counting how much sleep I've managed and how much I know I still need in order to function in the new day.) I've learned since having a child that sleep is a precious commodity, not necessarily replaceable, and that when I don't have it, I don't function well.

And yet, come Shavuot -- come Shavuot, I offer God my wakefulness until the darkest hours of the night, two and three and some years even four. Over the years, I've come to see the tikkun leyl Shavuot as a mysterious blend of waking-consciousness and dream-consciousness. My body is awake and I am giving myself to the experience of Torah study: in that sense, I'm repairing the mistake made at the night before Sinai. But after a while I'm not exactly awake -- not awake in the same way as during the ordinary daytime, anyway. Who knows what the revelations may come when I'm in that strange spacey middle-of-the-night headspace and heartspace? Once a year, I have a date with God; I can lose a little sleep for that.

Still, I can't help being struck by the mixed messages in the midrash. On the one hand, God kept the mosquitoes from biting on the eve of the theophany at Sinai. God wanted to ease our sleep, to help our souls reach the deep Torah which can be accessed not with the waking mind but with dreaming consciousness. And on the other hand, God told Moshe to wake us up (and our central holiday practice is one of attempting to "heal" our error in oversleeping.) Because the spiritual, heady, dreamy aspects of Torah which we can access while we're sleeping are only part of the revelation. The other part -- perhaps the practical tangible part, the this-worldly part -- has to happen while we're awake.

This is one of the reasons I love teaching Torah poetry in the middle of the night at Shavuot. Poetry can function on levels beyond the purely intellectual. Like dreams, poems often work associatively. They recast ideas and images in new ways. Reading Torah poetry in the middle of the night feels a bit like a waking dream -- a chance to fulfil both the mitzvah of staying awake for Shavuot, and the mitzvah of opening ourselves up to the revelations in our dreams.

Poems of Ruth - for Shavuot

Chag sameach! I hope you're having a wonderful Shavuot so far.

I promised I would share the poems I taught last night at the tikkun leil Shavuot co-created by my shul and the shul up the road in Bennington. Here you go -- enjoy!

Poems of Ruth


woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt

Shavuot 5772 / 2012

Poems by Marge Piercy, Rachel Barenblat, Catherine Tufariello,

Tania Runyan, Victor Hugo, Kathryn Hellerstein, Anna Kamienska

Download RuthPoems [pdf]

New toddler house poem for Shavuot

Shavuot in the toddler house

You don't remember, but
    you gathered at Sinai
        with the ganze mishpacha

the broadcast came
    in every language at once
        our spirits electrified

Torah in our mouths
    like mother's milk
        sweet as wildflower honey

You don't remember, but
    you learned the deepest Torah
        floating in my salt sea

an angel kept you company
    and taught you holiness
        you somersaulted with joy

you didn't know
    only traces would remain
        on the hard drive of your heart

You don't remember, but
    you spent night after night
        drawing down my Torah

I'll spend my remaining years
    learning the Torah of you
        every day revelation anew

This is the latest addition to my growing collection of "toddler house" poems, which I wrote -- and share -- in anticipation of the festival of Shavuot, which will begin this coming Saturday night.

"The ganze mishpacha" is Yiddish for "the whole family" -- an allusion to the midrash which says that the souls of all Jews who have ever lived or will ever live were mystically present for the theophany at Sinai. The idea that the divine broadcast was heard in whatever language each person understood / needed also comes from midrash (and is echoed in the Christian scriptures, as well.) The Torah-as-mother's-milk metaphor comes in part from the tradition of eating dairy at Shavuot. The image of an unborn child learning Torah in the womb and forgetting it upon birth comes from Talmud (Niddah 20b.)

All comments / responses welcome.

A poem about Orpah



Maybe you envisioned
your husband's grave
choked with weeds

maybe you knew
the Israelites would scorn
your foreign features

the sages say
God gave you four sons
because you wept as you left her

the pundits whisper
once Naomi was gone
you spread your legs for anyone

did the men of Moab
grind your body
like bruised corn

did you birth Goliath
and rend your garments
when you lost him too

did you live for centuries
destined for the sword
of one of David's men --

or did you bathe
your aging parents
and die a quiet spinster

comforted by the scent
of the wild rosemary
outside your childhood home?

In preparation for the lesson I'm going to teach at my shul's Tikkun Leil Shavuot (late-night Torah study gathering -- beginning 9pm, Saturday May 26; let me know if you want to join us!), I've been collecting poems arising out of the Book of Ruth. (Including my own The Handmaid's Tale (Ruth), which I posted here last year.)

To my surprise, no one seems to have written any poetry (contemporary or otherwise) about Ruth's fellow sister-in-law Orpah. So I settled in to see what I could write.

Most of the details in this poem come from classical midrash about Orpah -- there's a good online compilation in English at the Jewish Women's Archive called Orpah: midrash and aggadah. The final two stanzas have no basis in classical tradition, and come purely out of my own imaginings.

I welcome whatever response(s) this poem evokes in you.

70 faces of Torah for Shavuot

As we count the Omer, we're counting down the days until Shavuot. (This year Shavuot begins on  the evening of Saturday, May 26 -- just under four weeks from now.) Like children counting the days until a birthday or vacation, like a bride or groom counting down the days until the wedding, we're counting the 49 days until we can celebrate the anniversary of standing at Sinai and receiving Torah.

The sages tell us that each of our souls was somehow mystically present on that day: not only the souls of every Israelite who had survived the Exodus from Egypt, but the souls of every Jew who ever was or will be. When we celebrate Shavuot with mindful intention, we can glimpse that ineffable moment of transmission.

My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells us that the divine broadcast is still happening -- that God broadcasts truth and love and kindness on all frequencies all the time. This is the frequency to which our community has historically been attuned. If we open the ears of our hearts and souls, we can hear it even now.

In my favorite understanding, the Torah we received at Sinai wasn't just the words we know and love, dance with and wrestle with, read each week in the scroll of Genesis through Deuteronomy. In that moment of mystical download we received too all of the commentaries, the Oral Torah, the writings of our sages of blessed memory, all the way down to every d'var Torah written even now.

Every insight, every interpretation, every mind-opening understanding was packaged with the Torah when it came down. Torah, the sages say, has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

If you're looking for a contemporary way to connect with Torah, allow me to humbly suggest my collection of Torah poems. It makes a great Shavuot gift for anyone in your life who loves poetry and/or loves Torah. If your community celebrates Confirmation at this time, consider giving it to confirmands! Or to b'nei mitzvah, or to your rabbi, or to a friend, or to yourself. Find out all about it, read the first few poems, etc, here at the Phoenicia Publishing website.


A great Shavuot gift for one and all!

Shavuot 5771 / 2011

We met at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center (a place which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year -- it's wonderful and strange to me that I have accumulated more memories from celebrating Shavuot and Simchat Torah there as an adult than from attending Shabbat services there as an undergrad.) Hazzan Bob Scherr, the cantor who serves as Jewish chaplain at Williams, led us in a beautiful short and sweet festival service -- and in singing a variety of niggunim and songs in between the various lessons which were taught over the course of the night.

After davening, our evening of learning (and noshing on fruit and dairy and espresso milkshakes) began. Diane Wolkstein gave over a gorgeous retelling of the story of Ruth which interwove the Biblical text seamlessly with classical midrash about Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, and Boaz. In her telling, the setting came to life (a time of chaos, corruption, and fear of the stranger) and the characters leapt off the page and into the room with us. I came away newly-moved by the radical courage of Ruth and of Boaz, and by the ways in which their story shines new light on our time. (I think I may have to get myself a copy of her book Treasures of the Heart, which contains her retelling of Hebrew Bible stories -- including the version of Ruth she shared with us last night.)

Rabbi Howard Cohen taught a lesson on Wilderness, Emerson, and Transcendentalism, exploring the meaning of "wilderness" in Jewish texts (the place of revelation, a place where there is an overwhelming sense of Divine presence without the artificial filters of our inhabited spaces) and in American transcendentalists like Muir and Emerson, and then delving into questions of how 20th century American Jewish thinking was influenced by Emerson and transcendentalism. (Turns out that rabbinic leaders including Solomon Schechter, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Mordechai Kaplan were all Emerson fans: who knew?)

Professor Denise Buell taught a lesson called Remembering Revelations -- Canonical Texts and Me which challenged us to think about canonical texts and our relationships to those texts, and explored how texts and their range of possible interpretations leave ghostly imprints on one another. We read excerpts from Acts and from the letter to the Hebrews -- texts written from a sectarian Jewish point of view which later became foundational to the new Christian church -- and also from the fascinating homilies of Pseudo-Clementine of Alexandria (not considered canonical) which offer a reading of Jewish-Christian relationship in which each community is saved by virtue of their own prophet.

Robin K. taught a lesson on Kashrut: Kids, Calves, and Casseroles, looking at the verses in Torah which have to do with not seething a kid in its mother's milk and exploring a variety of questions and interpretations. Probably the most powerful part of that lesson for me was the idea that seething a kid in its mother's milk is about mixing life and death, since the mother's milk represents the essence of life itself -- that if one were to bring life and death together on the table in that way, it would be a sign of callous disregard for the mysteries of life and death and therefore a sign of (or a cause of?) spiritual brokenness.

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger taught on The Pros and Cons of Nostalgia, exploring the Jewish tradition's complicated relationship with nostalgia (on the one hand there's the vein in tradition which argues that our ancestors were the spiritual "greats" and that every generation since them is diminishing in holiness; on the other hand there's the vein in tradition which trusts that we are moving toward a messianic future and therefore every generation is closer to real holiness.) He brought song lyrics (The Boys of Summer), a beautiful quote from Andre Aciman, and teachings from his colleagues to bear on ideas of the festivals and nostalgia.

My lesson was on Torah Through Poetry's Window. I spoke briefly about midrash, shared my Ruth poem "The Handmaid's Tale", and then took requests for a handful of Torah poems from 70 faces (requests included "a leprosy poem" and "akedah poems," both of which I shared from the book -- as well as a Tamar poem and a Dinah poem, which I didn't have but hope to write in months to come.) I closed with Mobius (the final poem from 70 faces), which hearkened back to some of what Joshua had said about nostalgia for Avraham and for Moshe.

Our final lesson was Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser's teaching Love Letters: How the Rabbis Reinvented the Torah. Through the lens of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer and the Ahavat Olam prayer -- the blessings immediately preceding the shema in morning prayer and evening prayer, which are variations on the same theme -- we explored what the rabbis who established our liturgy meant to tell us about Torah. (Short version: Torah is love. Not about love, though sometimes it's that too; in the rabbinic imagination is love. By the by -- don't miss his post Shavuot: the Torah is your lover.) He took us through a midrash and a bit of Zohar about the passionate relationship between Israel and Torah, the ways in which Song of Songs can teach us how we're meant to relate to God, the idea that at the moment of revelation the commandments themselves kissed us on the mouth, the sense in which Torah reveals herself to us like a lover.

And then the few of us who remained (by then our numbers had dwindled to eight) gathered in the sanctuary again, and, singing, passed the Torah from arm to arm, each of us taking a moment to cradle her, to kiss her, to dance with her as with a baby or a lover, and then to return her to her place in the ark so that we could each drive home in the mysterious deep of the 2am night.

On holy anniversaries

The Counting of the Omer is ending. The festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening at sundown. I'll be celebrating with folks from Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams), Congregation Beth El (Bennington), and a few faculty members from Williams, at the Williams College Jewish Center. Our plans call for a brief evening service at 7:30pm, followed by a wonderful line-up of evening teachings.

This year we're doing something special to kick things off: master storyteller Diane Wolkstein will grace us with her rendition of the story of Ruth, since Ruth is the text traditionally studied at Shavuot. And then, as we've done in years past, clergy and congregants from the different communities will take turns offering Torah teachings of various sorts, interspersed with breaks for dairy snacks and schmoozing. We usually go until 1 or 2am; not quite the traditional all-night study session, but definitely something out of the ordinary, and a chance to connect with the unique spiritual insights which sometimes arise when one is engaging with powerful texts during the night. The celebration is open to all, so if you're so inclined, please join us.

We understand Shavuot as the anniversary of the date when Torah was revealed at Sinai, the date when we and God entered into holy covenant, a moment when the entire Jewish community (past, present and future) was mystically present and mystically experienced an ineffable connection with the infinite. One popular metaphor holds that Shavuot is the wedding anniversary of our people's marriage to God, and the Torah is our ketubah, the beautiful handwritten document which articulates our promises one to the other.

As it happens, tomorrow is also another kind of anniversary for me -- the more mundane kind, though no less wonderful for all that. As my thirteenth wedding anniversary wanes, Shavuot will be getting underway. It is a blessing indeed to have the opportunity to celebrate these awesome moments of remembrance... but in the case of both of these relationships, the relationship far supercedes the day on which we celebrate it. Torah is always being revealed, and we're co-creating this marriage day by day. The love manifest in this sacred text, and the love manifest in our marriage, are always being renewed. I am more grateful, and more lucky, than I can say.



A Ruth poem for Shavuot

The counting of the Omer is nearly complete; the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate the revelation of Torah at Sinai, is next week. At Shavuot it's customary to read the Book of Ruth. In honor of the festival, here's a poem about Ruth.



Time for a different kind of harvest.
Sated with bread and beer
Boaz and his men sleep deeply
on the fragrant hay.
The floor doesn’t creak.

When Boaz wakes, his eyes
gleam with unshed tears.
He is no longer young, maybe
forty; his face is lined
as Mahlon's never became.

Who are you? he asks
and I hear an echoing question:
who is it? what is it? who speaks?
Spread your wings over me, I reply
and his cloak billows high.

Now he clasps my foreign hand
and kisses the tips of my fingers
now skin glides against skin
and the seed of salvation grows in me
the outsider, the forbidden

we move from lack to fullness
we sweeten our own story
and as my belly swells I pray
that the day come speedily and soon
when we won't need to distinguish

Israel from Moab
the sun’s radiance from the moon’s
Boaz’s square fingers
from my smaller olive hands
amen, amen, selah.


Morning prayer, on retreat and after


On the first morning of Shavuot I had Drew in my arms. He had been asleep in the stroller during Reb Zalman's 4am teaching, but not long after we began to pray at 5am he woke up, and thereafter I was holding him on my lap or in my arms or wearing him in a sling. I didn't bother to hold a siddur (prayerbook) -- my hands were, quite literally, already full. This is what I've been doing at shul when I make it to Shabbat morning services, too: holding Drew and praying aloud without a written text. (I am grateful that the prayer life I developed during my early years of rabbinic school means I know the liturgy well enough to be able to do this!)

Anyway, back to Shavuot. That morning I danced Drew around the back of the room, dandled him on my knee, and nursed him on a couch in the adjacent lounge while listening to the community sing a psalm of thanksgiving responsively with Reb Zalman. (He would call out a line like "Praise God, all the whales and little fishes," and everyone would chorus "Hallelujah" in multi-part harmony.) I remember davening that way with him one Shabbat morning back in 2004; this time I wasn't part of the singing community, but we listened to it from the next room.

I enjoyed dancing Drew around the back of the room and singing along. I loved the feeling of enfolding both of us in my new Bnai Or tallit, and I loved thinking about how he is already steeping in the melodies of prayer. And I even enjoyed nursing him in the other room and listening to the psalm as it was co-created by the kahal, though I also felt a pang of wishing I were able to lend my voice instead of just listening in from afar.

Continue reading "Morning prayer, on retreat and after" »

The Torah of our Mothers: Reb Zalman, Shavuot 5770, 4am

My favorite thing about Shavuot is the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the celebratory all-night study session. We stay awake and learn Torah all night because we don't want to accidentally sleep in and miss the anniversary of the revelation -- and because the kabbalists of Tzfat used to teach that a special influx of Torah insight and divine blessing is available in the middle of the night, and all the more so when we're studying on Shavuot eve. It's one of my favorite forms of Judeo-geekery. I just love the fact that we celebrate one of the year's major festivals by learning all night long.

Of course, this year there was no way I was staying up all night, even given the amazing line-up of teachers scheduled at the Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman. I have a six-month-old, and sleep is a precious commodity in my life! Not to mention, I couldn't go gallivanting off to study Torah all night and leave Drew alone in the room, since he still wakes to nurse pretty frequently (especially when we're on the road.) On the first night of the retreat I put Drew to bed at 8pm, an hour after his usual bedtime, and -- regretfully -- I put myself to bed not all that long thereafter.

But we did make it to Reb Zalman's shiur (lesson), which was at 4am, followed immediately by sunrise services at five. As it happened, Drew was up to nurse at 3ish and I had trouble getting him back to sleep, so I put him in the stroller in his pyjamas and we headed over to the main building. He spent the next hour and a half or so in the stroller with the umbrella hood pulled over him and my raincoat thrown over that to keep his little enclosure nice and dark; I rolled him around the back of the room, slowly, and he slept through Reb Zalman's whole talk.

Reb Zalman's teaching was beautiful. He began with Mishlei (Proverbs) 1:8 -- " שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּך / Shema, bni, mussar avicha, v'al titosh Torat imecha. / Hear, my son, the mussar (self-improvement teachings) of your father, but don't forget the Torah of your mother." That was his big theme, though he divagated from it and then returned repeatedly, each time turning it over to show a new facet of what it might mean.

I wasn't taking notes during his shiur, so what follows is an incomplete recounting of what Reb Zalman said. With that disclaimer, here are some of the ideas which stuck with me.

Once upon a time, he reminded us, we used to go to Jerusalem for the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals. In those days, we understood that Jerusalem was the place to connect with God: not so much to see God as to be seen by God. He offered some wordplay on the word yirah, usually rendered as "fear" or "awe," which can also be creatively read as "being seen." So when the tradition tells us to have yirat Shamayim ("fear of heaven,") that doesn't necessarily mean we ought to feel afraid of God but rather that we should know ourselves to be seen by God.

That led him to a story about a Sufi master who had twenty disciples, each of whom wanted to succeed him. The master gave them each a bird and instructed them to go someplace where no one could see them and to kill the bird and then return and he would give them the next set of instructions. Nineteen of the twenty returned with dead birds in hand, but one of them returned with his bird still alive. When the master asked why he hadn't followed the instruction, he replied "I couldn't find any place where no One could see me!"

Reb Zalman hit some of the themes I've heard and read from him before: normative halakha versus illustrative halakha, paradigm shift, the need for a new cosmology and a new ethics which arises out of that new cosmology, how seeing the earth from space changes our perspective on who we are, the need to relate to one another as cells in the body of Gaia, how each religion is like an organ in the body of humanity (each organ needs to have its own integrity but also to communicate with the others in the system), how even within Judaism we can understand ourselves organismically (one part of our community is like the spine which keeps us straight; another part of our community is all heart; and so on.) Ultimately he brought all of this back to teachings about the mussar of our father and the Torah of our mother.

When I heard the phrase "the Torah of our mother," I immediately thought of how over the last few decades we've been adding women's voices to the tradition: female halakhists, female midrashists, the perspectives and stories of Jewish women which were for so long absent from the recorded tradition. But it turned out that Reb Zalman meant something deeper than just this. He talked about masculine consciousness, which is punctive (formed of points on a line), and feminine consciousness which takes slow change into account. (Both men and women can have each of these, of course.) Feminine consciousness understands, e.g., that a baby of six months has different needs than a baby of one week. In this era we need that kind of feminine consciousness, that kind of awareness of how our community's spiritual needs have shifted over time as we have changed and grown. We need the Torah of our mothers, and that's what he urged us to seek to receive at this anniversary of the revelation of Torah at Sinai.

On the Sinai front, Reb Zalman spoke about the Torah which comes down from above at Sinai, and the Torah which rises up from within at Sinai. There's the Torah which comes down like rain (this is a bit of wordplay, since the word "Torah" comes from an archery root and is related to the word for a kind of driving rainfall), and the Torah which rises up like dew. Dew in our tradition is a symbol for divine grace, unmerited but plentiful, and he linked dew with the Torah of our mothers as well as the Torah of our mother planet. We need to receive and be open to the Torah of our mother in this era, in order that someday we may be able to read both the black fire of the letters of Torah and the white fire of the spaces between them, to see and to value both figure and ground.

At that point I thought of Merle Feld's poem "We All Stood Together" -- both because of the motif of black fire / white fire, masculine wisdom / feminine wisdom which Feld's poem and Reb Zalman's remarks share, and because the poem is about how women were at Sinai too but weren't able to write our experience down because we were always holding the baby, and that's where I've been at during this retreat myself. (Which is new for me; as you may have gathered from my copious Elat Chayyim blogging over the years, I usually keep a notebook in my tallit case so I can jot things down constantly while I'm here.) Being here with Drew in my arms, instead of with a notebook in hand, has been a fascinating exercise. When I think of it as being in the moment, I appreciate it; when I think of the notes I wish I'd taken, and the things I know I'm already forgetting, I feel some chagrin.

From Reb Zalman's shiur we moved directly into our morning davenen -- he sent a messenger outside to report on whether the morning star was visible, and when it was, we began to sing and to pray. Drew woke up shortly after we started praying. I moved in and out of the service, sometimes holding him in my arms, sometimes pushing him in the stroller, sometimes nursing him on a couch in the adjacent room, sometimes wearing him in a didymos wrap on my chest with both of us enfolded beneath the big rainbow-striped tallit I recently inherited from my sister (who had no idea it was a Reb Zalman-designed Bnai Or tallit when she used it as her chuppah 25 years ago!)

In the late afternoon, I ran into a friend from a previous retreat who asked me to tell her about Reb Zalman's talk, which she had missed because she needed sleep at that hour. I had taken a few moments while Drew catnapped before breakfast to jot down the outline of the above reflections, so I did my best to report it to her. She thanked me -- and told me that she had made the same request of several other people and that no two of us had told her the same things! She mentioned a few things that other people had chosen to recount, and as she listed each one I realized that yes, he spoke about that, too. It was a wonderful blind-men-and-the-elephant moment -- realizing that what each of us takes away from a Reb Zalman lecture says a lot about who we are and what Torah we each need to receive.

All in all, the Shavuot retreat was pretty terrific. I was mildly frustrated that I missed some evening programming because of Drew's bedtime. But that's a pretty minor complaint (and has more to do with my life right now than with the retreat per se.) It was a real blessing to be able to be there with Drew, to introduce him to so many of my rabbinic school teachers and friends, to see him receive a blessing from Reb Zalman, and to experience for myself the blessing of Reb Zalman's early-morning teachings while my son slept in the stroller.

I love knowing that someday I'll be able to say to Drew, "You don't remember it, but the first Shavuot of your life I took you to Isabella Freedman, and we woke up at three in the morning to hear Reb Zalman teach..." And there was something very powerful about hearing Reb Zalman's teaching on the Torah of our mothers at this moment when I am so immersed in discovering the Torah of my own motherhood.

Shavuot is coming

Last year at Shavuot I was just barely at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy. My shul and the shul up the road held a Tikkun leyl Shavuot (an all-night study session on the eve of the festival) where I taught a Hasidic text about seeing God in one another's faces. I wound up studying all night, which I wrote about briefly in the post Standing again at Sinai. What I didn't write about then, because I wasn't ready to share the news of my pregnancy with the wide world, was what it felt like to study Torah all night knowing that inside me a whole new kind of Torah was waiting to be revealed. I figured it was probably the last time for a long while that I'd be up for learning Torah all night, but I couldn't really imagine what my life would be like by the time the festival rolled around again.

Shavuot is in just a few days, and sure enough, my life has changed in ways I couldn't have imagined. (It's also remained constant in ways I couldn't have imagined.) This year I'm celebrating the festival of first fruits and revelation in a new way: I'll be spending two nights at Isabella Freedman, enjoying the Shavuot retreat with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, his wife Eve Ilsen, and my friend Reb David Ingber. Reb Zalman has celebrated Shavuot at Isabella Freedman before (last year I posted the first in a set of YouTube videos, filmed there during a previous Shavuot, of Reb Zalman reading-and-translating the book of Ruth in his own inimitable way) but this will be my first time spending the holiday with him. Of course, I'm taking Drew with me. He's been to Isabella Freedman before, but only for an evening; this will be his first time on retreat with me.

I'm looking deeply forward to the learning and the davening and the singing: all the things I always love about spending time with my Jewish Renewal chevre (friends.) That said, I know that this retreat won't be quite like any other I've ever attended. Drew's needs are still paramount; they trump even my desire to imbibe Reb Zalman's teachings at this time of holy downloading! I'm hoping I'll be able to dance Drew around the room as we daven, play with him quietly on a quilt as Reb Zalman teaches, and if needed pass him around the room to other friendly folks who like babies. Of course, if he fusses I'm also prepared to take him out of the room or walk him around the campus...and to wake up often at night to nurse, since he's reached a stage where he doesn't sleep well away from his own familiar crib. If there is all-night Torah study at Isabella Freedman during Shavuot, I won't be able to participate in it, but perhaps I can regard our inevitable late-night feedings as a chance to receive a unique flow of blessing.

Knowing that this retreat will be shaped by my new obligation to juggle my desires with Drew's needs feels like a good encapsulation of my life right now. These days I can't focus all of my energy on learning Torah the way I used to. But I keep remembering something that my previous spiritual director, Reb Burt Jacobson, said to me last year: that Drew would be one of my greatest teachers of Torah. I remember, too, my fellow chaplains at Albany Medical Center telling me that someday when I became a parent I would enter into a whole new kind of theological education! Maybe the critical thing is that I can't focus my energy on Torah the way I used to. But I can still immerse myself in Torah: now in new ways, changed and enriched by this experience of motherhood which is changing and enriching me.

I'm looking forward to seeing what insights arise for me during this festival of Shavuot: through the study and davening and singing, and also through the continued experience of learning how to be the mother to Drew that I want to be.

Shavuot teaching: in your face!

Here's the teaching I offered during our tikkun leyl Shavuot this year. I give this over in the name of my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg, who guided us through this text in his Hasidic Sacred Year class recently. The translation below is my own; parenthetical material is my attempt to keep things clear.

We began with a chant (שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד/ Shiviti Adonai l'negdi tamid / I keep God before me always) and then dove into this text. It's dense but beautiful; I hope you enjoy!

Seeing the Aleph at Sinai / "In Your Face!"

Zera Kodesh, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropczyce [1760-1827], vol. II, p.40a, Jerusalem, 1971

In the midrash, we read "Anochi/I am Adonai your God" (Exodus/Shmot 20:2 -- this is the first of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances or Sayings.) The midrash around this verse says, "Face to face God spoke with them on the mountain from amidst the fire." (Deuteronomy/Dvarim 5:4) Said Rabbi Avdumi from Haifa, (quoting Midrash Rabbah), 22,000 angels came down with the Holy Blessed One to Sinai. As it's written (Psalm 68:18) "God rides with his entourage, twice ten thousand, myriads of angels, and the Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness."

Some say "The holy name YHVH is written on their hearts." Another opinion: the Name is within them. Our rabbis teach that the name of Elohim is mixed into each of the angels: Micha-El, Gavri-El. So God says to the people Israel, you will see in the divine Face many faces (or: see the divine Face in the many angelic faces); but don't be of the opinion that there are many gods in heaven! And know that I am one God, as it says, Anochi Adonai elohecha.

This can be explained in the fashion that I heard from the mouth of my teacher, Menachem Mendel of Riminav, who quoted Psalm 62:12 -- "One thing was spoken, two things have I heard." (In other words: God may say one thing, and we hear it in two different ways. Or maybe we hear it in as many ways as we are individuals!) It's possible that when God spoke at Sinai, we only heard the א / aleph (the silent first letter) of the word Anochi from the Holy Blessed One. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) writes that "A wise man's lips bring him favor" (which is obviously the case with this teacher of mine, who was wise indeed.)

Understand that the holy words of the living God are "like fire, says God, like a hammer that shatters the rock." (God's words come into creation with great power and force. Or, maybe he's comparing his teacher's words to God's words -- since his teacher's words, when they encounter Torah, break it into many beautiful pieces for us to savor.)

We also need to understand what's written in Torah, that "face to face" or "multiple faces, God spoke with us from within the fire on the mountain." But it's also written in Torah that "you didn't see, on the day that Adonai spoke to us within the fire, except for a voice." (So one verse says that God spoke to us face to face, but another verse says we saw nothing but a voice.)

Our ancestors, of blessed memory, wrote sweetly that we should hold God in front of us at all times. They wrote books of wisdom in which the holy and unpronounceable name YHVH is hinted-at by the (silent) letter aleph.

The aleph is written in the form of a vav with two yuds attached. (Picture a slantwise ו / vav, with one י/ yud above it and another below: that's what a printed א / aleph looks like.) In gematria, Jewish word-math, we see that this deconstructed aleph adds up to 26 (vav = 6, each yud = 10) and the holy name YHVH also adds up to 26 (10 + 5 + 6+ 5).

But where this is really hinted-at is in the face of a person: one's two eyes are the two yuds, and the nose is like a letter vav, and in this way the face takes on the form of the letter aleph. This is what it means when it says (in Genesis/Bereshit) that we're created in God's image. The letter aleph is hidden in plain sight on the human face, and since the aleph represents the holy Name, that means each person's face has the holy Name on/in it.

This is the seal of God that is inscribed on the human face, and this is why we are instructed to see the likeness of the Holy Blessed One in one another. And this is why "I keep God before me always" is a fundamental principle in Torah. We are called to see God in each other human being, because God is within us.

And when we were blessed to be among those at Sinai, and heard the voice and "saw" what was spoken, we saw this form of the letter aleph which points to the divine name, and understood it to be the form of their own faces.


1) Do you perceive a tension between the idea that God spoke to us at Sinai face-to-face, and the idea that we didn't see anything but a voice?

2) What is the difference between having God "on your heart" and having God written "on your face"? Is one more internal than the other?

3) What are the ethical implications of seeing God in every human face?

4) How might we live with "I keep God before me always" as a mantra or motto?

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Standing again at Sinai

My shul and the shul up the road joined forces again to spend Shavuot together, singing and noshing and learning well into the night. This year we had nine lessons on tap:

  • The many faces of Torah - Rabbi Pam Wax

  • Maimonides and Jewish teachings on saving a life - Bill

  • Akdamut and Sacred Melodies - Cantor Lisa Arbisser

  • The changing meaning of the land of Israel in Jewish thought - Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • A philosophical lesson on the akedah - Jesse

  • The Music and Poetry of the Book of Psalms - Cantor Bob Scherr

  • A lesson on Brit Milah - Joan

  • Water and Revelation: Let's Go Down to the River to Pray - Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Seeing the Aleph at Sinai (a.k.a. "In Your Face!") - me

(As in years past, when lessons are taught by congregants I'm listing them by first name only, in case anyone has privacy concerns. Clergy who teach lessons get whole names, since I figure our names tend to be pretty public anyway.)

I'll post my own lesson momentarily, in case anyone's curious; it's a gorgeous text and I was delighted to be able to teach it! In a happy coincidence, I exchanged email recently with a leader from a synagogue in Buenos Aires, and sent him both the Hebrew text and my English translation, so I think this same text was taught in BA on Shavuot eve, too. What a delightfully small world it is sometimes.

Our tikkun wrapped up around 3ish, and by the time we were through with our brief closing ceremony (passing the Torah from person to person, each cradling her for a time, and then reciting a kaddish d'rabanan to seal our study) it was 3:30. The rational thing to do would have been to come home, but some of the Bennington folks were planning to last all night and urged me to join them! So I drove up to Bennington with them and settled into Vi's lovely home (all bright colors and artwork everywhere) and we talked about our Omer journeys and then listened to the last of Reb Nachman's Seven Beggars folktales. And by the time that ended, the sky was lightening and it was dawn.

It's been years since I've actually stayed up all night on Shavuot; I expect I'll regret it later today, at least physically. But there is something amazing and unique about the feeling of learning Torah all night, opening myself to the insights which arise in new ways in the dark, especially knowing that so many others around the world were doing the very same thing. Chag sameach, everyone -- I hope your holiday is sweet.

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Reb Zalman reads the book of Ruth

The book of Ruth is traditionally studied at Shavuot. (I've blogged about this before: Ruth: Returning where we've never been.)

If you're interested in hearing the story of Ruth told in a unique way, allow me to recommend a set of YouTube videos of my teacher Reb Zalman. There are seven of them in total, adding up to 35 minutes, and you can find them here. Here's part one:

The Book of Ruth told by Reb Zalman - part 1.

This is a recent video, filmed last year; Reb Zalman translates the text on the fly, occasionally chanting a line or two and offering his own interpretations. Though the text is traditional, his rendering is very much his own, and it is lovely.

This was taped at the new home of Elat Chayyim (the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.) Given that Reb Zalman and many of my friends (seen when the camera pans the room) are wearing tallitot, and that there's a Torah scroll wrapped in front of Reb Zalman in front of the room, I'm guessing this may have been part of the extended Shavuot morning Torah service.

Reb Zalman will again be teaching at Elat Chayyim this Shavuot; would that there were two of me and I could attend! Instead I'll be here, celebrating Shavuot with my own community. Still, hearing him give over this lovely interpretation of the text makes me miss the retreat experience a little less.

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Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage

I taught the last lesson of the night at our tikkun, which I called Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage. I began by talking about two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah, and heaven and earth as witnesses -- that's the one I've encountered most often.) I talked about what it's like for me to be celebrating two anniversaries this weekend, ten years of marriage and this ongoing relationship with the Source of Blessing, and how the two intersect and interact for me.

Together we looked at a handful of texts, including this one from Zohar:

Rabbi Shimeon used to sit and learn Torah at night when the bride joined with her spouse. It is taught: The members of the bride's entourage are obligated to stay with her throughout the night before her wedding with her spouse to rejoice with her in those perfections (tikkunim) by which she is made perfect. [They should] learn Torah, Prophets and Writings, homilies on the verses and the secrets of wisdom, for these are her perfections and adornments. She enters with her bridesmaids and stands above those who study, for she is readied by them and rejoices in them all the night. On the morrow, she enters the canopy with them and they are her entourage. When she enters the canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them, crowns them with the bride's adornments. Blessed is their destiny. (Zohar I:8a)

The bride in this context is Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling aspect of God; the spouse is the Holy Blessed One, the aspect of God that's wholly transcendent. We're the bridesmaids, attending the Shekhinah on the eve of her marriage; all who study Torah on erev Shavuot strengthen her and cause her to rejoice, and in return YHVH crowns us with the Shekhinah's jewels beneath the chuppah at dawn.

We also read this, from Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays:

One of the most beautiful images of Shavuot of that of the marriage between God (the groom) and Israel (the bride.) Developing this image, Pesach is the period of God’s courtship of Israel, and Shavuot celebrates the actual marriage. Sukkot, then, is the setting up of a bayit ne’eman—a household faithful to Judaism.

Even the midrash’s problematic imagery of God holding the mountain of Sinai over the Israelites’ heads while saying “Accept My Torah or else!” is transformed in this romantic symbolism as the mountain becomes a huppah—a wedding canopy for the marriage.

My handout also included Rabbi Simon Jacobson's essay The Cosmic Marriage (which we didn't discuss, but I wanted to include because it's thought-provoking, if hetero-centric) and The Shavuot Marriage Contract by Philip Goodman which talks about the Sephardic custom of beginning the holiday by reading a ketubah which formalizes the relationship between God and Israel.

We also read and discussed a few of my favorite poems about marriage: a Wendell Berry poem which I posted a few years ago, Marge Piercy's Reshaping Each Other, and Rumi's This Marriage. Each of these was written about a human relationship, but we chose to try reading them as though they'd been written about relationship with God, which yielded some fascinating perspectives. The exercise reminded me of the extent to which our relationships with our human beloveds are always a reflection or refraction of our relationships with the divine Beloved, and vice versa.

We closed by reading Hosea 2:21-22, the verses recited each day as the final twists of tefillin are affixed to one's hand. "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in lovingkindness, and in compassion." Those are the marriage vows that Ethan and I spoke to each other ten years ago, so I get a little shiver every time I say them. The verse recited upon donning tefillin continues, "And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know God."

The verse is talking about a knowing that inheres in deep identification-with the other. It linked beautifully back to the first lesson of our night, in which we explored the kabbalistic prayer said before the tikkun leil Shavuot begins. That prayer makes clear that our study is undertaken for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed Name and the Shekhinah -- a union of transcendence and immanence. During the tikkun we study God's names in all of their permutations (whether via the traditional assemblage of texts, or via the more interpretive dance through Torah in which my liberal community engages) in order to bridge the binary between God-far-above and God-deep-within. That's the kind of knowledge Hosea's talking about.

One of the women in the circle spoke about the leap of faith involved in taking the first step down the aisle when she married her husband many years ago. It's a truth of relationships and of spiritual practice, too: one doesn't begin a marriage by saying, "okay, so, tell me everything that's going to be entailed in this relationship over the next X years, and then I'll decide whether I'm up for it or not." One begins a marriage with an existential yes! Just so in our relationship with the Holy Blessed One -- remember, Torah tells us that the Israelites' response to God was na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Action comes first. We take the leap of enacting our relationship, trusting that our understanding of one another and our bond with one another will deepen as the years go by.

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Ten wonderful shiurim!

Chag Shavuot sameach / happy Shavuot to all!

Like last year, my shul and the shul up the road celebrated Shavuot together. We had a really sweet time. This year we began the night with almost forty people present, around an enormous seminar table, and we savored ten lessons over the course of the evening:

  • What are we supposed to be repairing at the Tikkun? An investigation of the kabbalistic creation of the study vigil on the night of Shavuot, taught by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser

  • What's in a Re-Naming? Another look at the story of Jacob's new name, taught by Joan

  • Shavuot and unharvested fields in Torah, taught by Karen

  • The sounds of prayer and study: how our musical traditions influence our approach to praying and learning as a community, taught by Cantor Bob Scherr

  • Honoring the Image of God: What does Jewish Law have to teach about Torture?, taught by Rabbi Joshua Boettiger

  • Three folk tales about Shavuot, taught by Werner

  • Water, Wells and Words: A Look at Miriam's Relationship to Water, taught by Betty

  • Spaces Between: stringing pearls of Torah into narrative, taught by Elma

  • Musical Settings of Revelation, taught by Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

  • Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage, taught by me

I was especially moved by Joan's teaching about Jacob's new name Israel, which drew deeply on an essay called "The Engendered Shema: Sarah-Echoes in the Name of Israel" by Elizabeth Wyner Mark (published in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought -- I'm psyched to dig up the article next time I'm at the college library.) And Karen's teachings about gleaning led me to consider the ways in which Shabbat and festivals allow us to glean holiness in the margins of our work lives -- how relationship with God is something we harvest best when we sit still. 

It makes me really happy that our two congregations celebrate Shavuot and Simchat Torah together. There's a wonderful energy in our togetherness. When we first began our short festival maariv (evening service) the wave of song and impromptu harmony swept me away. We opened the evening with the blessing for Torah study, in order that our every interaction from then on -- the formal learning, and the informal conversations over espresso mocha milkshakes -- would be a form of engaging with Torah. And we closed the evening a hair before two, the seven final stalwarts standing in a circle in the sanctuary and passing the Torah around. Each of us receiving and giving.

I'll post later today or tomorrow about the lesson I taught. For now, I'm having a sweet slow day -- after several wonderful days of houseguests and anniversary celebrations of various kinds, I'm pretty beat! -- and feeling really blessed.

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The historicity of revelation

I've really been enjoying my Biblical History & Civ class this semester. That's a testament to Reb Leila, who is a top-notch instructor. She's very organized, she lectures well, and she's structured the class in such a way that most weeks we're doing the teaching, which is a great way to ensure that we're internalizing the material. My familiarity with Biblical history and early Israelite civilization was pretty limited before this, so I've been devouring this material pretty avidly.

We've spent a lot of time lately with Bernhard Anderson's Understanding the Old Testament, John Bright's A History of Israel, and Yehezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel. These are solid scholars and their books are valuable to have on my bookshelf (both literally and metaphorically), though what's especially fascinating is the extent to which they disagree. That's intentional, of course. We're learning as much about the meta-story of how our history has been understood (by Jews and by non-Jews, over the course of time) as we are about the history itself.

But none of these writers lend themselves to pithy blog posts. They're a little on the dense side. (I contemplated trying to turn my in-class presentation on the United Monarchy into a blog post, but concluded that it just wasn't likely to appeal.)

But this past week we read an article that struck me as bloggable -- and even germane to the time of year we're entering. It's an article by Dr. Edward L. Greenstein called Understanding the Sinai Revelation, which takes a fascinating approach to questions about the historicity of Sinai (which strike me as parallel in many ways to questions about the historicity of the Exodus; suddenly this material feels appropriate for the period leading up to Pesach, and even more for the period between Pesach and Shavuot.)

Continue reading "The historicity of revelation" »

Zohar lesson from erev Shavuot

The lesson I taught the other night at our tikkun leyl Shavuot was called "Zohar and the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning." I based it on a teaching from Daniel Matt's 1983 translation of the Zohar (the "Book of Splendor" -- there's a bilingual version of the Zohar online here), the germinal work of Jewish mysticism.

The packet I handed out included several texts: a passage that Matt calls "The Hidden Light" (you can read the very beginning of it online here, but that's hardly satisfying, so I'll append the whole passage to the end of this post -- it's about 570 words and is really worthwhile), three excerpts from Torah which are cited in the Zohar piece (the birth of Moses in Exodus 2, the description of Moses "irradiated" and glowing in Exodus 34:29-34, and the first three days of creation as described in Genesis 1), and the footnotes to the Zohar piece (which are extensive and fascinating.)

One of the things I really like about this translation of Zohar is that it is formatted like poetry, and the visual prosody shapes the way the text reads. It's allusive, rich, and strange -- qualities I think are less daunting in poetry than in prose. We talked some about that, and about the origins of the Zohar (both the traditional understanding that it dates back to the 2nd century C.E., and the contemporary scholarly understanding that it was written by Moses de Leon in the 13th century) -- and then we read "The Hidden Light" and the Biblical pieces I had attached to it, and talked about what questions and issues they raise for us.

Since we were studying this together at a late-night tikkun, I opened the conversation by noting the part of the passage which talks about studying Torah at night. Maybe we're more sensitive to a particular kind of light, the light of wisdom and insight and real illumination, when we're not engaged in looking at visible light. When there's sunlight, we're caught up in what ordinary light allows our eyes to see, but at night maybe our eyes are opened in a different way.

Continue reading "Zohar lesson from erev Shavuot" »

Wednesday morning, 3 a.m.

This year, my little shul banded together with the shul up the road for a joint tikkun leyl Shavuot (late-night Shavuot study session.) We met at 8pm at the Williams College Jewish Religious Center -- good common ground. After a sweet evening service, we settled in for a series of six lessons:

  • "Song of Songs and Ruth: Two Songs of Love" with Cantor Robert Scherr;

  • "Continuing Revelation and Liturgical Change" with Karen, a fellow congregant from my shul;

  • "Zohar on the Hidden Light: Creation, Moses, and Late-Night Learning" (my humble contribution to the evening);

  • "Could Christian Traditions Have Impacted Shavuot?" with Rabbi Steve Gutow;

  • "Growing the Torah to Include the Lives of Gays and Lesbians" with Rabbi Jeff Goldwassser;

  • and "Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter: the Potry of Stanley Kunitz" with Rabbi Joshua Boettiger.

In between lessons, we schmoozed, and noshed on all kinds of goodies. Dairy is traditionally associated with the festival of Shavuot, so of course we ate that -- excellent Italian-style homemade cheesecake, e.g. (Though my favorite dairy treat this year had to be the espresso milkshakes. What could be more ideal for late-night learning?)

At least twenty people were present at the start of the night -- a terrific crowd for our small town. Though we tried to be timely, a few of our lessons ran a little overtime; we were just having too much fun learning with and from one another! We studied until just before two, and then had a sweet wrap-up -- we gathered again in the sanctuary (by now only about nine strong), removed the Torah from the ark, and passed it from one person to the next, an embodied symbol of the revelation and the covenant we share. We sang "Esa einai el he-harim" ("I lift my eyes up to the mountains"), our nod to the Sinai story, as we danced and cradled the scroll around the room. And then together we read a kaddish de rabbanan, the form of the kaddish recited after Torah study, with that paragraph I so love:

On the community of Israel, upon our rabbis and their students, and on all the students of their students, and on all who engage in Torah here and elsewhere, may there be peace for them and for you, grace and kindness and mercy and long life, and plentiful nourishment, and salvation, from our God in heaven, and let us say: Amen.

And then we grinned, and hugged, and did a spot of cleaning-up, and then I drove home under the amazing starry night sky humming my favorites among the niggunim (wordless melodies) we had sung over the course of the night.

I didn't take any notes; for once, I was too busy being present to act as transcriber. I can tell you that our lessons dovetailed as though we had designed them together; that the themes of the night included revelation, time, history, Torah, language, poetry, and the garments in which mystical experiences may be clothed; and that I came away feeling awed, moved, and deeply connected with my community and my Source.

Sometime soon I hope to post about my own teaching. I'll type up the passage from Zohar that I taught, and the questions and prompts and references it raised for me. For now, though, it's time for a holy Shavuot nap -- at least a few hours before I begin the new day! If anyone's reading this in the middle of the night, I hope your tikkun has been as delicious as ours was -- and to everyone, no matter when your eyes meet these words, I wish a sweet and joyous Shavuot.

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