Being Real: Digital Edition

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Once there was a toy rabbit who yearned to become Real. He loved his Boy, and he was loved by his Boy. And when his Boy fell ill, the toy rabbit was his constant companion.

When the Boy recovered, the doctors said the rabbit was contaminated and needed to be burned. In that darkest night, as the rabbit waited, he wept a tear. And from his tear a flower grew, and from within the flower came the Shechinah. She told him that as he had become real to the Boy who loved him, now he would be real to everyone.

Okay, in the original telling it wasn't Shechinah, it was a fairy. Close enough.

So in this sacred text -- which, as you probably know, is a children's book by Margery Williams called The Velveteen Rabbit, from which my blog takes its name -- the way one becomes Real is through loving and being loved... and through the actions fueled by that love, especially accompanying someone into the darkness of illness and loss. That sounds about right to me.

Becoming Real requires empathy. How can we safely feel empathy in these times of pandemic when there are so many reasons to despair? And how do we accompany each other, as the rabbit accompanied his Boy, when we are physically separated or quarantined?

That last question is the easiest for me to answer: we accompany each other however we can. Write a letter, send an email or text, make a phone call, meet over video... If nothing else, hold the other person in your heart and stretch out your soul to connect with theirs.

During this pandemic we're learning how to be in community even when we are physically alone. On the second night of Pesach, I sat alone with a Zoom screen in front of me -- and R' David and I co-led a seder for our communities, and it felt real. It wasn't "as-if" -- it was really seder. I imagine many of you had similar experiences.

I remember being a child, getting a long-distance phone call from my parents, and feeling amazed that they could be so far away and I could still hear their voices. There was a bit of a lag, as our voices traveled beneath the ocean, but that didn't matter.

Remember the miracle of long-distance phone calls? Or the first time you ever saw a loved one's face over video? Or: imagine reading an email and feeling that a loved one is with you. Or reading a blog post that makes you feel understood. Or texting with a friend, carrying their words and their presence on your smartphone throughout the day.

Our vernacular separates between the internet and "RL," real life. But connections forged or sustained online are real, just as our davenen together tonight is real.

An emotional and spiritual connection -- with another; with community; with our Source -- can be real no matter what tools we're using to create or sustain it. The bigger challenge is being real in the first place. The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us that being real requires openness and empathy enough to companion each other in tight places.

Sometimes it's hard to be real when someone is suffering. It's hard to sit with someone in their sorrow. The word compassion means "feeling-with" or "suffering-with." Being real asks us to feel-with each other.

Sometimes our own struggles prevent us from being real. When my son was born I suffered from postpartum depression, but I told my doctor I was fine, because I was ashamed and I didn't want him to really see me. That fear kept me from being real.

Sometimes it's hard to be real with God. Because I get trapped in katnut, in my small human mind. Or because the words of inherited liturgy feel empty. Sometimes prayer can feel like a long-distance call where I'm not sure anyone's picking up on the other end.

But authentic spiritual life asks us to be real. Our prayers aren't just words on a page, they're pointers to lived emotional experience. To really pray the words of Ahavat Olam, or to remix them anew, I have to feel unending love streaming into creation.

And, I also have to be careful about how I channel unending love. Authentic spiritual life asks me to open my heart -- to my yearnings, to the needs of others, to my Source -- and it also asks me to maintain boundaries. In the language of our mystical tradition, it asks me to balance the overflowing love we call chesed with the healthy limits we call gevurah.

Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel-with each other even during pandemic, even during this time of rising awareness of how systemic racism harms Black and Indigenous People of Color, even in times of personal grief. If we refuse to feel with each other, then we break that nourishing human interconnection that is our obligation and our birthright.

We need to feel, without spiritual bypassing, while maintaining a container strong enough to hold safely. This inner structural integrity can help us build systems and structures of integrity in this world that so needs repair. And that includes our Jewish communities, too: we need to be real in order to build a Jewish spiritual future worthy of the name.

And we need to be real for the sake of our own souls. I've learned that the flow of creativity requires me to be real: with myself, with God, with you. The posts and poems and prayers that seem to resonate most are ones written from that place. I think they speak to people deeply precisely because they're real. It's my responsibility to cultivate sufficient gevurah to write about what's real in a way that's safe for me and for my readers.

In seeking to strike that balance, there's risk -- and there's also reward. As we read in Mishlei, "As water reflects face to face, so the heart reflects person to person." (Proverbs 27:19) When I'm willing to be real, others are real in return. You meet my honesty with yours, my heart with yours, my words with yours, my prayers with yours.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that we all have our own unique login to the Cosmic Mainframe. "To log on to God," he said in 2004, "we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat." That login is open to us even in quarantine. We just have to be willing to be real at the table, the meditation cushion, the Zoom screen.

And our connections with each other and with community are still open to us even in quarantine. Online life, online davenen, online friendship: these aren't "virtual reality." They're as real as we allow ourselves to be.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at the 2020 Clear Vision Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. My Friday night d'var was designed to dovetail with the Shabbat morning d'var given by R' David Markus, The Mishkan's Next Digital (R)Evolution, and our paired talks in turn fueled the Mishkan Sandbox Lunch-and-Learn with our host R' David Zaslow.  (Cross-posted to Bayit's Builders Blog.)

 


Don't miss this digital Shabbaton

June12ShabbatonFinalHavurah Shir Hadash invites all to join their very first live-streaming Shabbaton  on June 12 and 13th with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, celebrating spiritual connectivity in the legacy of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), pathfinder and futurist for Jewish spirituality in the emerging digital age.

Register here! (And read on to learn more.)

This year’s Reb Zalman Memorial Scholars are Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, next-generation visionaries and riveting teachers for the next transformations of Jewish life. With music, poetry, spirited prayer with liturgy old and new, mystic visioning, and re-mixing of ancient text, together we’ll bring forward visions for a Jewish digital future worthy of us all. It’s a spiritual future Reb Zalman began to imagine long ago – but left for future generations to bring into being. That time is unfolding before our eyes, on our screens, in our homes, and in a society changing with once unimaginable speed.  Join us for a weekend of depth and height as we surf those changes in the only true way we ever can – together.

Rabbi Markus is the nation’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously holding a public oath of office.  In spiritual life, Markus serves as rabbi and music director for Temple Beth El (New York, NY), and seminary faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  In secular life, Markus presides in New York Supreme Court as part of a parallel public service career that has spanned all branches and levels of government – from presidential campaigns to legislation to environmental affairs.  Markus has won numerous awards as an “innovator in public service” (Harvard University).

Rabbi Barenblat is one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” (Forward 2016).  Barenblat serves as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel (North Adams, MA); her Velveteen Rabbi blog was rated as one of the top sites on the Internet (Time Magazine 2008).  Barenblat is an accomplished poet and narrator of Jewish spiritual life: her collections include Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda 2018), Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda 2016), Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia 2013) and 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia 2011).

SHABBATON SCHEDULE

Kabbalat Shabbat & Global Convening -  Friday, June 12, 6:30pm PT

Shabbat Morning Service & Visioning - Saturday, June 13, 10:00am PT

Lunch and Learn: Mishkan Sandbox - Saturday, June 13 , 1:00pm PT

Malave Malkah: Poems of Yearning - Saturday, June 13, 8:30pm PT

#BeALight Havdalah - Saturday, June 13, 9:00pm PT

FRIDAY KEYNOTE – GETTING REAL, DIGITAL EDITION (Rabbi Barenblat)

Today we’re distant from each other physically because of covid-19. At times we may feel distant from community and from God for all kinds of reasons. The answer to that distance is emotional keruv, drawing-near: but how? How can we use the words of our prayers (both those we’ve inherited, and those we remix and create anew) to connect across distance both physical and spiritual? How can we be real with our prayer lives and with each other even when we feel (or are) alone? How can we safely let ourselves feel, even in this time of pandemic, so that we can be spiritually authentic with ourselves, each other, and our Source?

SATURDAY KEYNOTE – THE MISHKAN’S NEXT DIGITAL (R)EVOLUTION (Rabbi Markus)

Since history began, we’ve danced with the sacred in forms that evolved with us. Jewish history of a desert-wandering Mishkan settled in a place, then a Temple, then another Temple, then out to exile. Homes and learning centers became society’s sacred spaces. Eventually synagogues and clergy roles re-exerted centralizing influence. Now with covid-19 hastening society’s digital leaps, what’s next? As sacred gatherings de-center to living rooms and pixels, what will be our Mishkan? How will we build it to channel “me” and “we,” here and there, tradition and change?

LUNCH AND LEARN – MISHKAN SANDBOX FOR THE GENERATIONS

Exactly how can we uplift spiritual connection when we’re physically separated, even sheltering in place? What specific best practices, individually and collectively, can co-create a vibrant Mishkan exactly where we are? Join our multi-generational panel with Rabbis Barenblat, Markus and Zaslow as together we sandbox tangible practices to enliven spiritual life for this digital moment of transformation.

MELAVE MALKAH – POEMS OF YEARNING

Before creation, there was an eit ratzon – a time of yearning.  Rabbi Barenblat will lead us into that eit ratzon through poetry and niggunim. 

#BEALIGHT HAVDALAH – PASSING THE LIGHT FORWARD

Rabbi Markus will lead a #BeALight havdalah, bridging into the new week and rededicating ourselves to building a world of connection, justice and love. 

Register here!


Once more, with pigment

28194225709_171c7c0b75_zTying tzitzit has become one of my favorite mitzvot. It's funny to remember that a mere four years ago the practice was new to me. I learned how to tie tzitzit in order to try out the mitzvah of wearing a tallit katan, the "small tallit" that some Jews wear in order to fulfill the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of wearing tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments.

I tried out the mitzvah myself in order to feel good about asking my students to do so, too. In those days I taught the fifth through seventh grade class at my shul. I wanted my students to learn how to tie tzitzit and to have the experience of wearing them, but they weren't yet old enough to take on the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the "big tallit" that adult Jews wear to pray.

In some shuls, tallit gadol is worn by kids of any age when they come up to the bimah to lead a prayer or song, but in my community the minhag -- custom -- is for tallit gadol to be formally taken on at b'nei mitzvah time as part of taking on an "adult" relationship with mitzvot. So we made tallit katan, and everyone tried it out and shared what it was like. (Here's the post I wrote then, about making my own tallit katan, and trying the mitzvah myself before assigning it to my students: String theory.)

In more recent years, the seventh graders have designed and decorated tallit gadol, a process that culminates in tying on the fringes that make it a ritual garment. But this year I'm working again with kids who have some time before their celebrations... so this year's "tallisareum" (a term I borrowed from Reb Zalman z"l) is a tallit-katan-making enterprise again.

In the years since I first learned to tie tzitzit in order to teach my students, I've learned Reb Zalman's mode of tying tzitzit, with the spiraling knots that make a diagonal line down the rows of seven and eight and eleven and thirteen knots. And I've learned more about different customs around colorful tzitzit.

The text from Torah that instructs us to wear tzitzit also instructs us to include a thread of blue. I asked my students what they thought that might represent. Their first thoughts were "sky" and "sea," which turn out to be exactly right: the blue represents the water of the sea, which represents the sapphire of the sky, which represents the sparkling floor described in Torah beneath the divine throne. (Actually Torah says it was like a sapphire floor, but not actually a sapphire floor. Nava Tehila wrote a beautiful setting for that verse. In any event, the blue reminds us of sea and sky and God.)

I've also seen the custom of including a green thread among the fringes on one's tzitzit. I asked them what they thought that might represent, and they suggested green growing things. Right again: the green thread is aimed at reminding us of our obligation to care for the environment. (I learned that from Rabbi Hanna Tiferet some years ago.) That seems particularly appropriate this week as we approach Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, a festival that reminds us to care for the earth.

And finally there's the custom of including pink and blue threads, representing the pink and blue colors of the transgender flag -- a reminder that we are all created in the Divine image regardless of gender or gender expression; a reminder of our obligation to treat people of all genders with kindness and respect. I learned that from my friend, teacher, and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz (you can see a photo of his beautiful trans inclusion tzitzit on his website.)

When my students tied their tzitzit on their tallit katan this year, each of them chose a different combination of threads. Some wanted trans inclusion colors. Some wanted earth / environment awareness colors. Some wanted the darker blue of the sea and sky. I love that they all made their own choices about what they want their fringes to remind them: not just that they are Jews, not just of the mitzvot writ large, but specific mitzvot of creation care and trans inclusion and remembrance of the Holy. 

The assignment, once the tzitzit are tied, is the same as ever: wear it at least once, and report back on what it was like. Each student can make their own choice about whether or not to visibly display their fringes. (Based on what previous classes have reported, the experience of walking around for a day with tzitzit on is a consciousness-raiser even if the fringes are tucked in.) I can't wait to hear what they teach me about whether and how their color choices impact their experience of this mitzvah.

 


Visions of Renewal: Vayera and renewing our Judaism

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Shabbat shalom! Thank you for welcoming Rabbi David and me into your synagogue and into your community this weekend. 

We named our weekend together "Visions of Renewal." I want to unpack that a bit. Why "vision," and what's "renewal"?

Over the last few years, as Rabbi David and I have traveled the U.S. and Canada, we've noticed that Judaism we all inherited often feels like a Judaism of receptivity. We've all received a tradition that others created.  Receiving can feel passive – like we receive the news on TV, or receive the family constructs into which we're born.  It just happens.

But this week's Torah portion, Vayera, is about a quality of vision that's not passive but active, literally a making-seen.  "God caused [Avraham] to see, on the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the opening of his tent in the heat of the day."

"God caused Avraham to see."  As we'll learn in tomorrow morning's Torah study, this Torah portion is about how Avraham sees, how we see, what he saw, what we see and why.  The upshot is this: in changing how he sees, Avraham changes his life.

We can spend a lifetime talking about Avraham, but I want to talk about us.  What do we see and tend not to see?  What covers our vision?  What can we do to make our vision clear?  That's the work of spiritual life: clarifying and renewing our vision so we can act in the world.  

When we look at spiritual life, do we see something obligatory? That's the classical view -- we do things because God commands us to do them. Or we don't, because those who brought us Reform Judaism rejected that paradigm. I serve a Reform shul not unlike this one, and most of my congregants tell me they don't feel "commanded." But then do mitzvot simply become irrelevant? (Spoiler alert: I'm going to say no.) Whether or not we see mitzvot as obligatory, they can renew our hearts and spirits. 

The Hebrew word מצוה / mitzvah is related to the Aramaic צוותא / tzavta, "connection."  Whatever your beliefs or disbeliefs about God, to me the key thing is how we connect – to God (whether far-above or deep-within), our ancestry, each other, our hearts and souls. If we see the connection hiding in each mitzvah, might that change how we feel about doing it -- or how we feel while doing it?

What about prayer: do you see liturgy as something you do because it's written in a book -- or something you don't do because it's written in a book? Do you see holidays as something you do because they were given to you -- or something you don't do, because they don't speak to you? Do you see spirituality as something that the rabbi and cantor give to you? Whether or not you were raised Jewish, do you see Judaism as something you either keep, or let go?

What if we could see all of this -- mitzvot, prayer, holidays, spiritual life writ large -- as something we actively make our own? The practices we name as התחדשות / hitchadshut, "Renewal," are about doing just that: making  it our own, renewing and being renewed.  Renewal isn't a brand or label. It's a way of living our Judaism, refining our capacity to see the richness and authenticity of spiritual life hiding in plain sight... and actively making it our own, so both our souls and our traditions can shine.

Take a step back and look at tonight's prayer service. Maybe you noticed chant, weaving of Hebrew and English, uses of silence, a focus on joy, themes popping out of the words – like vision, chosen for this week's Torah portion (Vayera) – a mix of ancient music and modern music. These reflect the spiritual technology we call "davenology" -- from the Yiddish "daven," to pray in meaningful ways attuned to spirit and heart. Renewal seeks to infuse prayer with heart -- and to infuse our hearts with prayer.

To use a metaphor I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, prayer is a meal and liturgy is a cookbook. We can't eat a cookbook. Renewal teaches: what matters is what helps us have a spiritual experience that actually connects us.  That's why we'll use Hebrew words, English words, sometimes no words. Classical words, contemporary words. Poetry, music, dance...  This isn't experimentation for its own sake: it's for the sake of deepening our experience of prayer.

Judaism is more than prayer, and Renewal is about more than "just" renewing our prayer lives. We bring this experiential approach to everything. One tool we use for that is hashpa'ah: in English, "spiritual direction." The Hebrew hashpa'ah comes from the root connoting divine flow. A mashpi'a(h) helps others experience the flow of divinity in the real stuff of their lives – family, work, faith, doubt, health, illness, sex, you name it.  About everything in our lives, we ask, "where is God in this?"

It's a big question.  When I began my training as a spiritual director -- both Rabbi David and I hold that second ordination -- my teachers asked me about my spiritual practices, and I started making excuses. "Well, I know I should be praying three times a day, but life gets in the way..." And my mashpi'a stopped me, gently, and said: I'm not asking you to tell me what your spiritual practices aren't. What are you doing in your life that opens you up? 

We can vision our spiritual lives negatively, in terms of what we don't do – we don't come to services "enough," or meditate "enough." But then our spirituality is negative, based on what we lack.  What if we actively vision it positively, based on the lives we actually live? If we're washing dishes, if we're folding laundry, driving the carpool, buying groceries: where is God in that? (We'll talk more about infusing ordinary practices with holiness in Sunday morning's session "Spirituality on the Go.")

Another of our tools is the collection of teachings, texts, and perspectives that come to us from Zohar and kabbalah and the Hasidic masters. These exquisite teachings can change the way we read Torah, how we experience time, how we live our lives.  We'll use these tools to study Torah tomorrow morning, tomorrow night when we enter into Jewish angelology, and on Sunday morning's session on "Mitzvah and Mysticism."  All of these are about connecting, actively changing how we see.

Davenology, spiritual direction, and mysticism are among the Renewal spiritual technologies especially near and dear to our hearts.  And here's the thing that's most important to me – not as a rabbi, but as a seeker like you: you don't have to be a rabbi for Renewal to enliven your spiritual life. You don't even have to be Jewish. These tools can help all of us transform our vision: whoever we are, wherever we're coming from, whatever we do or don't "believe in." 

That's what this weekend is about.  "God caused Avraham to see."  It's about seeing different, and being changed for the good.

On this Shabbat Vayera, this shabbat of active vision, may our eyes be opened to see what's been hiding in plain sight. May the Holy One cause us to be active partners in seeing the Judaism we yearn for, and bringing it into being in a world that needs us more than ever.

 

Offered at Temple B'nai Chaim in Wilton, Connecticut, where Rabbi David Markus and I are scholars-in-residence this weekend.