Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah

For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity...

These are the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, in my favorite book to reread at this time of year -- This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

For ten days -- ten magical days -- the aseret y'mei teshuvah, "ten days of teshuvah" -- we inhabit a liminal space, a space of in-between-ness. We have entered the Days of Awe through the gate of Rosh Hashanah; we will exit them through the gate of Yom Kippur; but for now, we float in the middle.

For now, if we are fortunate, the experience of Rosh Hashanah (or the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah or the Torah reading or the experience of being with family and friends or the experience of not being with family and friends) has opened something up in us.

If we are fortunate, we are having moments of wakefulness, moments of realizing oh my goodness, this is my life, this is the only life I have. Moments of feeling the urgent tug toward change. Moments of knowing that whoever we have been, whoever we think we are, is not the only way for us to be.

Continue reading "Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah" »


The sweetness of honey; the gates, open

15345560796_e8d6443d17_nAs a child, I loved being able to drizzle my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey. I remember eating leftover challah toast with honey on the mornings right after the holiday. The golden honey pooling on the rich white bread always seemed deliciously decadent, especially in our Pritikin household. I knew that the honey was a kind of prayer -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." (That's what's behind the custom of dipping apples or challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah.)

But I thought that was a one-time thing. Honey on challah, honey on apples: we ate those on the holiday itself, and then maybe for a few days until the Rosh Hashanah challot were nothing but crumbs. I didn't learn until I was in my mid-thirties that there are customs of continuing to eat honey on one's challah, and praying for a year of sweetness, until Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret means "the pause of the eighth day." It's the 8th day of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when (tradition says) after we've lived seven days in our sukkot, God murmurs "this has been so sweet; don't go yet; linger just a little longer?" So we stick around and celebrate one more day of festival together. And though we read during the closing service of Yom Kippur that "the gates (of repentance) are closing," some hold that they remain open until we reach Shemini Atzeret. Hence the tradition of continuing to put honey on our challah all the way until then.

I love the feeling of urgency which comes during the last service of Yom Kippur. The day is almost over; the long day of fasting and prayer and song is almost gone; and what has it gained me? Have I gone deep enough into the liturgy and into my own heart and soul? Is it going to change me? I want to be compassionate and kind to everyone I meet, I want to be mindful -- but have I done the inner work I need to do? The gates are closing, the liturgy tells us. The day is passing. We pray the whole closing service with the doors of the aron kodesh, the holy ark which contains our Torah scrolls, open to remind us that the gates are open and the way to God is open. The sun goes and turns.  Let us enter Your gates!

I appreciate that urgency. (I think I need it. Every year when we reach Ne'ilah, that closing service, it lifts me to a place I couldn't have reached otherwise.) But I also appreciate the teaching that the gates remain open during this whole holiday season -- that we can still sweeten our bread with honey, an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come, until Sukkot is drawing to its close. Even after the dramatic end of Yom Kippur with its long and piercing tekiah gedolah, the gate of teshuvah (repentance / return) remains open to us.

When we make teshuvah, we sweeten the year to come. Not because we gain any control over what's ahead, but because we've created a shift in ourselves which will allow us to experience more sweetness. That's the message I hear in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we sing on the days of awe each year. Who will be contented, and who will be restless? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? We can't know what the new year will hold. But when we practice teshuvah, tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (giving to others), we can ameliorate whatever is to come, because we create change in ourselves. We can't change what will be, but we can change how we experience whatever comes our way.

Of course, teshuvah doesn't happen only during this time of year. Teshuvah can be an every day journey, an every-week journey, an every-month journey. And I believe that God is always waiting with open arms, ready to welcome us with love, any time we turn away from our misdeeds and try to orient ourselves in the right direction again. Our liturgy teaches that "we are loved by unending love," and that's always true, not only during the holidays.

So what does it mean to say that the "gates" are open, or closing, or closed? Maybe the gates are our own. Maybe they are the gates of the season. Once we make it to the end of Sukkot, we will be spiritually worn-out from the intense emotions and intensive holiday journey of this time of year. We will need to close the door on this chapter and move into what's coming. We can't live all year in this state of heightened intensity. We are the ones who close the gates.

The gates which are now open are the gates of our hearts and souls. What do we want to draw forth from ourselves as we move through these gates? When the time comes for us to close the gates on this season, who do we want to have become?


Returning in love: short thoughts on Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Here's the brief d'var Torah I offered at yesterday morning's Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

If you only take one thing away from this morning's Torah reading, let it be this: that teshuvah is a two-partner dance, and that God is always ready to turn to us in love.

This week's Torah portion speaks in terms of blessings and curses. We might call those "good outcomes" and "bad outcomes." We know that our choices come with consequences, and that sometimes our poor choices lead us to unpleasant consequences. And we know that sometimes we receive outcomes we didn't wish for, even when we've chosen as wisely as we could.

Torah teaches that when we consciously choose a life of mitzvot, connective-commandments, blessings will be open to us. This doesn't mean that if we abide by the mitzvot then nothing painful will ever happen to us. But it could mean that if we weave the mitzvot into our daily lives and into our practice, we'll have more resiliency when the painful outcomes happen, as they sometimes do.

And Torah teaches that when we make teshuvah and turn-toward-God, God is always already turning-toward-us in return, with love.

We've all had the experience of hurting someone's feelings, and then feeling reluctant to apologize for fear of how that person might react to seeing us again. People are complicated. Sometimes we respond from a place of reactivity. But the guiding force of the universe isn't like that. When we make teshuvah, says this Torah portion, God responds to us in love.

If you've paid attention to the Torah readings we've been encountering over the course of this whole year, you might feel inclined to argue with that. It's true that in Torah, God does not always seem to respond with love. Personally, I think that one of the things we see in Torah is the children of Israel learning how to be a people, and God learning how to be our God.

Like any new parent, God seems to respond out of anger sometimes. But if we remember that the name God gives to Moshe at the burning bush is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming," maybe that can help us understand God as constantly growing and changing. God is in the very process of growth and change.

Here is one thing I know for sure: ahavat olam, neverending love, is an essential part of God. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that we read this portion each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, precisely at the time when we might be getting most anxious about our journey of teshuvah. "Don't worry," the Torah seems to be telling us. "It's going to be okay. God will greet you with love, no matter what."

On the heels of that teaching comes one of my very favorite passages in the whole Torah:

11Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

This mitzvah, this connection, this instruction, is not beyond us. It doesn't require us to be someone that we're not. It doesn't demand that we change altogether before we even attempt to take it on. This is a mitzvah which is already sweet in our mouths, already encoded in our beating hearts. Place two fingers on a pulse point and feel for your heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub: you turning toward God, God turning toward you. You reaching out, God reaching back.

Make teshuvah. Turn in the right direction again. Align yourself with your highest dreams and hopes. And you will be received with infinite, neverending love.


Ki Tetzei: on right relationship with each other

Here's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday. (More or less -- when I offered it aloud, I extemporized and added some bits, but this is where it started out.) (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


 

This week's Torah portion is filled with instructions. Here are some of them which speak most to me this year (lightly paraphrased):

If someone works for you, pay them right away. You never know when someone might need payment desperately. Don't shame them by making them ask.

This is a time of year when requests for dues abatements and Hebrew school tuition abatements come across my desk. These verses in Torah remind me how important it is to respond to these requests lovingly.

If someone's children misbehave, try not to judge the parents. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Parenting can be difficult.

If someone's parents have done wrong, try not to judge the children. We are not responsible for the actions of those who came before us.

When the Torah speaks of not putting people to death for the sins of their parents or children, I hear a message about the importance of responding to people with generosty of spirit.

Maintain perspective about the difference between wants and needs. Remember that you don't need to own everything. Practice sufficiency.

Whatever abundance comes your way, be sure to share it. Cultivate a sense of trust in the universe which will allow you to give freely.

Though most of us no longer have fields or vineyards in which those who are hungry may glean, we can still choose to share with others, and to train ourselves to trust that we don't need to hold on to everything for ourselves.

Always remember the hard places and tight straits which you have known, and let those memories impel you to kindness and generosity.

We're almost halfway through with the month of Elul. This is the month during which we prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe. This is a time of teshuvah, the spiritual work of re-orienting ourselves in the right direction again.

One tradition teaches that we should seek to repair our relationships with each other during Elul, so that during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we can focus on repairing our relationship with our Source.

The mitzvot enumerated in this week's Torah portion are mitzvot bein adam l'chavero, mitzvot between people. Directions for right action in our relationships with each other.

May we be strengthened in our intentions and in our practice. May these mitzvot become engrained in us, engraved in us, channels through which our behaviors naturally flow. Kein yehi ratzon.

 


A poem for #blogElul 11: Count

Blogelul2014-1COUNT (ELUL 11)



September ticks by. Count
your way through. It's time
to get the year's bill, measure
what the soul has spent. Turn
over your hands, see each day
marked on your palms anew.

Remember sharpened pencils, new
backpacks, how you would count
the hours of school's first day?
When we learn to resent time
an Eden is lost, a turn
we can't undo or measure.

Now how do you measure
your heart's response to new
beginnings? And in turn
do you remember to count
kindness given or received, time
to pause and breathe each day?

This is the day
that God has made: let us measure
ourselves against the marks time
has drawn on the doorframe. New
means that "before" doesn't count:
consult the old maps, turn

toward your yearnings. Return
to a clean slate each day.
Stop, this instant, to count
blessings. Who could measure
the gift of your body made new,
trees shifting colors, time

eddying like a river? It's time
to forgive yourself. Turn
around and make it new.
The sages say repent the day
before death, but who can measure
what's left in the glass? Count

your time a gift every day.
Turn toward mercy. Take the measure
of your soul anew. Make it count.


Today's poem takes me back to one of my favorite poetic forms, the sestina. (There's a whole sestina category at this blog, because I've posted so many of them over the years.) This form, which relies on six repeated end-words, seemed appropriate for today's prompt.

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.


New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah

Last spring, just before Shavuot, I brought two classical midrash about the giving of the Torah at Sinai to my Hebrew school class, and one of my students made some fannish connections.

Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. (Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

I brought this midrash to my class, and one of my bar mitzvah students -- a big fan of the television show Doctor Who -- raised his hand and said, "It's like the TARDIS was there, translating!" I knew exactly what he meant.

TardisWith some prompting he explained to the class that the TARDIS is a time machine. It appears to be an iconic blue police box, though it is famously "bigger on the inside." And it contains a translation circuit which ensures that no matter where or when its inhabitants travel, everyone can be understood. I told him I thought that drawing an analogy to the TARDIS was an interesting way to think about the teaching that everyone heard Torah in a language they could understand. The tradition also teaches that "Torah has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Arguably the Torah too is "bigger on the inside" -- always containing more than we imagined.

Then we moved to the second midrash I had brought:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. At the Red Sea God appeared to them as a mighty man waging their wars, at Sinai God appeared to them as a teacher, as one who stands upright in awe when teaching Torah; in the days of Daniel, God appeared to them as an elder teaching Torah, for the Torah is at its best when it comes from the mouths of old men; in the days of Solomon God appeared to them as a young man in keeping with the youthful spirit of Solomon’s generation. At Sinai, then, when God said, I am Adonai Your God, appropriately God appeared to them as a teacher teaching Torah. (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 12)

This, too, made my student think of the Doctor, because the Doctor also appears in different guises at different times: young and old, warrior and scholar. He was so enthusiastic about drawing out these lines of inquiry that I promised him that he could speak about this at his bar mitzvah if he were willing to do a bit of extra learning with me, a bargain which he eagerly accepted.

As I worked with him over the summer on his d'var Torah ("word of Torah" -- the spoken-word teaching he would offer at his bar mitzvah which would relate Torah and Jewish tradition to his own life), we talked both about how he understood his Torah portion and its relevance to his life, and about how these midrash evoke his favorite pop culture hero. (Of course we also talked about how Jewish understandings of God are different from the Doctor, because that matters too.) When he spoke from the bimah, he spoke about his Torah portion; about his participation in one of our congregation's social action projects; and about how he related Doctor Who to his understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Continue reading "New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah" »


Reparations and teshuvah

I want to call your attention to a remarkable essay published last week in the Atlantic, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called The Case for Reparations. It is long, and it is tremendously worthwhile. Here is one very brief quote, to pique your interest:

Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

Once you've read it, I commend to you the following specifically Jewish responses:

Ask yourself | Jewschool. "Once you read this very long piece (very long but read it) and nod to the facts and shake your head at the horrific racism at all levels most likely, most probably, you will think: But my family didn’t live in the U.S. when it engaged in slavery. But that doesn’t matter. Anyone living in the United States benefits from the economic realities built on slavery. Every white person has been enriched by the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and Federally insured lending practices. This goes well beyond being afraid anytime the police stop you or having people cross to the other side of the street when you pass at night."

 The Jewish Case for Reparations -- to Blacks by Emily L. Hauser in the Jewish Daily Forward. "In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet... We learn in Pirkei Avot that while we aren’t required to complete the task of righteousness, neither are we free to desist from it. Otherwise, we run the risk of (in Coates’s words) 'ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.'"

Late in the essay, Coates writes:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

Coates is calling us to a process of what my tradition calls teshuvah -- the internal work of discernment, atonement, and creating change.

I hope his essay sparks a major American communal conversation. And I especially hope that it sparks a conversation in the American Jewish community (or, more accurately, American Jewish communities -- we are many and varied!) about racism, about our complicity in racist systems, and about teshuvah.

 


The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.


Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)


This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

Continue reading "Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)" »


As we approach Yom Kippur

Please_forgive_me_by_geekindisguise-d4rv291This late afternoon / early evening we'll enter into Yom Kippur and into Shabbat.

These aseret y'mei teshuvah (Ten Days of Re/Turning) have been chock-full of preparations in every realm: from the physical (setting up chairs, preparing for tomorrow night's break-the-fast) to the emotional (weathering the emotional rollercoaster of actually making teshuvah), the intellectual (finishing touches on those sermons!) to the spiritual and ineffable.

I wish I had the spaciousness to reach out to each one of you individually to ask your forgiveness for any ways in which I have missed the mark in our relationship in the last year. As it is, this blog post will have to do.

I know that I have missed the mark over the last year. If my words or deeds have caused you pain, I hope that you can forgive me.

Please know that I likewise extend forgiveness to you. If your words or deeds have wounded me, I affirm that I am doing my level best to forgive. I will not carry relationship snarls or tangles from the old year into the new one.

May we all emerge on the far side of Yom Kippur feeling lightened and cleansed. Shabbat shalom and g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for good in the year to come.

 

Image source: geekindisguise on deviantart.


#BlogElul 17: Awaken

Blogelul2013My friend and teacher Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel has an album called Awaken, Arise!. The title track begins, "Awaken, arise to the wholeness of your being / Awaken, arise to the beauty of your soul..."

This is one of the side effects of regular prayer practice, for me. When I dip into davenen I awaken, in Reb Hanna's words, to the wholeness of my being. I remember that there is more to me than whatever's at the top of my to-do list this morning.

Elul is a season of awakening and arising. The great medieval sage Maimonides (also known as Rambam) heard in the shofar's call the words "Wake up, you sleepers from your sleep, you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return to Me in teshuvah!"

It's traditional to hear the shofar every day during Elul. For some of us that means blowing shofar each day. For others, maybe hearing the shofar on YouTube. And for still others of us, the hearing of the shofar may be more metaphorical than actual.

But even a metaphorical shofar can pack quite a punch. Wake up! The year is waning! Are you the person you intended to be?

These days I most often awaken to our son's presence in our doorway. Each day he comes to wake me into relationship, into my role as mother and caregiver. His footfalls on the stairs call me out of sleep. Wake up! It's morning-time! I had a good sleep! Can you put on your robe and make me waffles? His needs are generally pretty prosaic, but they're non-negotiable. When he's hungry, he's hungry -- it doesn't matter if I wanted to sleep another ten minutes.

The presence of our not-quite-four-year-old is a kind of shofar, waking me to the responsibilities of my day.

Everyone I meet can be a kind of shofar. Every voice can call me to awareness and recognition: of wholeness and brokenness, of "the beauty of my soul" (in Rabbi Hanna Tiferet's phrasing), of the ethical realm in which I have obligations to the Other, of the ways in which I've missed the mark and need to do better.

Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise, a noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The ram's horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you?

That's Rabbi Alan Lew in his book This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, the chapter on Elul, which is titled "The Horn Blew And I Began To Wake Up." This is the month during which we are called to wake up to all of who we are, to all of who we have been, to all of who we could become.


#BlogElul 13: Forgive

Blogelul2013Please be aware that this post mentions a parent mistreating a child, and makes references to addiction and infidelity. If that's likely to be triggering for you, please read with care.

I have a memory from my chaplaincy training at Albany Medical Center. I was sitting with my colleagues, a mixed group of ten clergy and laypeople from a wide variety of traditions, and we were exploring together the question of how to extend pastoral care to someone who had done something terrible. Is it our job, as clergy, to extend forgiveness? What if the patient is near death; does that change anything for us? What if the person to whom we are ministering has done something we feel is unforgivable?

Hospitals are holy places in part because they bring us into contact with life and death, with sickness and health, and those in turn connect us with fears and anxieties which most of us keep submerged most of the time. I remember a lot of pre-surgical patient visits where the patient wanted to talk with me about regrets, about fears, about broken relationships, about hurts both inflicted and received. In Talmud there is a teaching that one should make teshuvah (repent/return) the night before one's death -- and, of course, since one never knows when one's death may be, one should make teshuvah always. The night before a surgery can awaken a deep need to make teshuvah -- and also to struggle with forgiveness, both given and received.

As a chaplain, I understood my job to be primarily about presence. Being present to whatever was being expressed, and to the unique human being who was expressing it. The phrase I used a lot that year was "Manifesting the listening ear of God." But sometimes what we hear, when we listen to the people we care for, can challenge us. Sometimes it triggers us, pushes our buttons, raises our own mental and emotional stuff.  There are rules about when we, as clergy, have to report something we've learned in a pastoral visit. (For instance, cases of abuse.) But there are also times when we hear things which don't require reporting, but do require some inner work. Often the challenge is simply to sit with something painful, and to figure out how to respond with compassion both to those who have been hurt, and to those who have inflicted hurt on others.

Continue reading "#BlogElul 13: Forgive" »


#BlogElul 4: Accept

Blogelul2013Accepting what is. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Just -- accept. Experience whatever life gives you.

And when life, or the universe, or God -- however you understand it -- gives you something pleasurable, it's easy to accept. A lunch date with a friend: why yes, that sounds grand! An evening with my family: what a treat! An ice cream cone: sure! 

But sometimes we're handed things we didn't ask for, things we don't want. Difficult diagnoses. Postpartum depression. The loss of a job or a loved one. No one wants to accept those. As though in accepting them, we're acceding to them, agreeing to them somehow.

Does it make a difference if one makes a conscious decision to accept whatever comes? Does that give one any kind of agency in the situation? (Is that feeling of agency enough when what comes is difficult or painful?)

Sometimes I get hung up on my expectations. When I develop a sense for what I think is coming, when I write a "script" for an encounter or an experience, and then life doesn't match those expectations, I can get stuck in the disjunction. Thinking that I know what's coming can be a barrier to accepting what is.

As we move into Elul, into this month of teshuvah leading up to the Days of Awe: can I make a spiritual practice of striving to accept whatever life hands me?

Can I accept whatever each day contains while still working to examine and perfect my heart and my soul? I don't want to accept the places where I miss the mark, the places where my relationships or my actions aren't what they should be. Where's the right line between accepting what life holds, and not accepting the places where I could be doing a better job of being the person I mean to be?




To-do lists, teshuvah, and whatever gets in the way of the work

I feel this week as though I'm running at a faster clock speed than usual. It's not quite mania, but it's not all that different from it, either. There's a low buzz of anticipation at the base of my spine. When I sit still in silence, a million waves of thought rise up and crash on the rocks of my consciousness. Elul is upon us, and I am vibrating.

Just before Shabbat began last week, I bought a copy of Rae Shagalov's Elul Book as a downloadable pdf, and I showed some of the calligraphy to my congregants on Shabbat morning. Here's the passage which particularly struck me. Here's the text (and a thumbnail which shows part of her calligraphy...)

7824828536_a00586b87f_mWake up from the beautiful dream of the whole year! If you received a court summons in the mail, you would feel a shock of fear. You would call the best lawyers. You would call all your friends and ask for their advice. You would carefully go through all of your accounts to determine the truth of your situation.

It's Elul! Your summons has come in the mail! Feel the shock! Call your lawyers! Call your friends! Go through your accounts today! Determine the truth of your situation! Who are your lawyers? Your mitzvahs. Who are your friends? Your good actions!

Sometimes, a person refuses to wake up. What happens? His friend shakes him awake so he won't be late for an important engagement. We have a choice. We can wake up on our own, early, and prepare ourselves carefully; or we can pull the blanket over our heads, refuse to wake up, and be shaken awake by our greatest friend in the world...

I wish I thought that Elul and its teshuvah work were the only reason I'm feeling a bit busy and buzzy and aswirl. I know this is the month for serious internal work. I know I have only four weeks during which to kick my teshuvah process into gear. But I suspect that another big piece of the reason why I'm feeling so agitated is that there's just so much to do before the Days of Awe begin.

Time to reach out to people who never responded when I offered them honors in our high holiday services. Time to check my high holiday songsheet drafts against the prayerbook to make sure I have the right things on each songsheet. Time to intensify the search for someone willing and able to take ownership of the project of getting our congregational sukkah built. Time to troubleshoot and figure out why the high holiday cds we burned for our entire congregation won't play on a cd player, and only half of the tracks will play in my car. Time to, time to, time to --

And at the same time, there's a part of my brain which whispers: time to wake up. Time to take a good hard look at my life. Time to discern, where do I habitually miss the mark? How can I become a better version of myself? What are the places where I'm spiritually lazy? Only four weeks now to prepare myself to attempt to lead my community in prayer, to stand before the King of Kings in God's own throne room, to make something meaningful for those who join us in prayer, and how can I do any of those things if I haven't also done my own teshuvah?

This is my second year as a congregational rabbi, and I'm still figuring out how to balance all of this. I feel as though my own internal work has to take a backseat until the congregational logistics are under control -- and yet if I don't do my own internal work, I won't be able to lead the congregation in the way that they deserve.

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. I learned that from the poet Jason Shinder, of blessed memory. Can I find a way to tackle the congregational pre-high-holiday to-do list which will allow me to live out the teshuvah, the repentance and return, that I know I need? Can I make phone calls, send emails, generate revised to-do lists with prayerful consciousness? I've said for years that my challenge is figuring out how to live out my spiritual aspirations not when I'm on retreat, not when I'm on a break from ordinary life, but precisely in and through my ordinary life. Not separation, but integration. Here's another opportunity to (try to) do just that.

Here it is, Elul again at last, the scant four weeks between now and Rosh Hashanah dwindling by the minute. Can I trust that what I'm doing is what I'm meant to be doing? That everything will get done, somehow, some way? That I can make teshuvah not when I'm done with the work at hand, but even as I do the work which needs to be done?


VR Podcast 4: Elul and Teshuvah

VRPodcastLogo

VR Podcast Episode 4: Elul and Teshuvah.

Tomorrow we enter the new lunar month of Elul -- a perfect time for a new VR Podcast!

In this episode of the VR Podcast I talk about the lunar month of Elul, explore some ideas about teshuvah (repentance / return), share Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's translation of Psalm 27, and close with a blessing for you for the month to come.

 


VRPodcast3-Elul

 

To listen online or download:

18 minutes, 20 seconds / 17.6 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.



 


This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey

This coming Shabbat at my shul we'll begin discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we enter this season.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the first three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share a few favorite passages here.

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThe journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discpline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I love this way of describing the journey of this season. And I love Rabbi Lew's assertion that every soul needs to express itself, every heart needs to crack itself open, every one of us needs to move from denial to consciousness...and that the meaningful dates on the Jewish calendar over the next few months, from Tisha b'Av all the way to Sukkot, are designed to be our spiritual touchstones on this recurring journey.

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: beginning the journey" »


Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last.

Kenyon’s poem is set at the end of the summer, on the cusp of the transition to fall. The trees are sere; the barn is full. The harvest has been brought in, and though the grasses intend to grow, they are headed for their fallow time, their sleeping-time. In just a few days, at Sukkot, we will celebrate our harvest: and for those of us who no longer farm, who most likely don’t even make hay, the harvest must be metaphorical. What emotional and spiritual riches can we gather to salt away for the winter which is coming? What might we be able to harvest today, on Yom Kippur, from our time together?

“We are shorn / and purified,” Kenyon writes: the grass is shorn and somehow we come away feeling that our excess too has been trimmed away, that the falling rain has made us pure. What is shorn away from us on this day of atonement? What would it take for us to feel pure?

Continue reading "Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »


Forgive

I hope all who are reading this had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah! We're cradled now in the embrace of the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah on one side, Yom Kippur on the other. These are the aseret y'mei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance and return.

There's so much I want to write. About my first Rosh Hashanah as a "real rabbi;" about reaping the harvest of the sacred storytelling class I took last summer at the ALEPH Kallah; about watching my parents discover my son anew at this wonderful moment in his life. Maybe next week I'll have time to share some of those stories and reflections.

For now, I just want to say -- and I mean this, honestly -- if I have hurt or offended you in the year which just ended, I ask your forgiveness. Jewish tradition recognizes a distinction between sins which impact the relationship between a person and God, and sins which impact the relationship between people. As we read in Talmud:

את זו דרש רבי אלעזר בן עזריה, (ויקרא טז) מכל חטאתיכם לפני יי תטהרו, עברות שביןאדם למקום, יום הכפורים מכפר. עברות שבין אדם לחברו, אין יום הכפורים מכפר, עד שירצה את חברו

R. Elazar b. Azariah taught this interpretation of the verse "From all your sins you shall be made pure before God." (Lev. 16:30) For transgressions between a person and the Everpresent One, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions between a person and one's fellow, the Day of Atonement atones only if the person regains the other's goodwill."

I ask for your goodwill and your forgiveness for any places where I may have missed the mark in our relationship in the past year.

Wishing all who live by the Jewish festival calendar a g'mar chatimah tovah -- may you be sealed for a good year to come.


As Elul draws to its close

Tomorrow night, at the closing cusp of Shabbat, we'll hold Selichot services -- the formal beginning of our high holiday season. The Days of Awe are almost here! Here are a few of my favorite posts from this moment in previous years:

  • Release, 2010

    Hatarat nedarim means "releasing of vows." It's a ceremony in which one person assembles three others to serve as a beit din, a court of law... The idea is that these friends serve as representatives of the court on high, and that if each of us can honestly say to these friends that we made vows in the last year in error and wish to be released from them, as our friends hear and accept our regrets, the heavenly court does the same.

  • Looking forward to selichot, 2010

    "Ana B'Koach" is the prayer I turn to when I'm asking for help in letting go of something that has me all worked up in guilt and recriminations. I'll be singing Hanna Tiferet's melody for the prayer, which features just the first line... So often we tie ourselves in knots over things we've done or haven't done. This season of teshuvah (repentance / return) is a perfect time to work on untangling what's become tense and knotted in our spiritual lives.

  • Petition: a prayer for selichot, 2009

    Compassionate One, remember / we are your children // help us to know again / that we are cradled...

  • The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, 2005

    Buying groceries, and learning Torah. Making a pot of Joe (because my grandmother Rachel's honeycake recipe requires a cup of cold coffee) and practicing the last section of Tuesday's Torah portion, in which God hears Ishmael’s soundless cries...

Shabbat shalom to all; may this Shabbat bring a heightened sense of how near we are to these majestic Days of Awe!


How do I want to be remembered?

This morning I wrote my own obituary. It was homework for the Sage-ing class I'm taking during this final semester of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) program. And wow, was it a fascinating experience.

Writing the story of my life to date, in condensed but meaningful form, was thought-provoking. What are the details I would want to share about my growing-up, about my formative relationships, about my childhood and my college years and my journey into poetry and the rabbinate?

Then, of course, the obit became more of a "here's what I hope the rest of my life might look like." I hope to live for many more decades; I'm only 36. So I spun out a fantasy of what the next fifty or sixty years might hold for me, and then wrote about it in the past tense, as though it had happened exactly the way I'm imagining.

If, God willing, I live into my nineties, how would I want to be able to describe my life? How would I want to be able to describe my relationships, my work, my impact on the world? How do I want to be remembered?

It's an amazing spiritual exercise. And, not for the first time, I'm struck by the additional power this class has for me because I'm taking it during a fall semester, as the Days of Awe approach. We're well into the month of Elul, the month which offers the opportunity for reflection and discernment before the New Year comes.

This obituary exercise is a powerful thing to do just before the Days of Awe. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Everyday I write the book) teaches us that God opens the book of memory, which reads from itself, as each of us has signed our name through our deeds. What are the actions which I've recorded in the book of memory this year? Who am I, and what do I want my time on this earth to be?

Before you ask: sorry, but I'm not going to share that obituary here! The part which describes the life I haven't yet had feels too personal and revelatory. (Besides, I don't want my advance obituary to show up as a google search result.) I am saving it on my computer, though. Maybe I'll take the time to revise it over the years to come as my life unfolds. If nothing else, someday it will give my descendants a glimpse of how I saw myself while I was still here.