Seven energies, seven weeks, coming soon

Tree-of-Life-DetailedSeven is a special number in Judaism. Seven are the days of the week (six days of creation + Shabbat). In many Jewish weddings, the partners circle each other seven times. We make seven stops when carrying a casket to the grave. Seven are the colors of the rainbow.

We count the Omer for seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and some of us do a reverse Omer count during the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. And all of these sevens can be echoes, or reminders, of the seven energetic qualities that our mystics find in divinity (and in us.)

Our mystics understand God to be both transcendent (infinite, beyond our grasp) and immanent (reachable / relatable / embodied in creation). They envisioned a map of ten divine qualities or energies (called sefirot) through which God's infinity flows into finite creation.

You might imagine the sefirot as electrical transformers that enable the energy of divine infinity to "step down" and modulate to a level that's graspable in physical creation.  Sometimes these ten qualities are depicted as nodes in a map of energy-flow. Sometimes they're depicted superimposed over an image of a tree, or over an image of a human being.

At the "top" of the map is Ein Sof -- "Without End," limitlessness, infinity. ("Top" and "bottom" are metaphors for something that's not actually spatial at all, but we use a spatial metaphor to help us imagine this.)  The "upper" three sefirot are usually considered so lofty that we can't reach them. (Different schools conceptualize the upper three in different ways and with different names: "Crown" and Wisdom and Understanding, or Wisdom and Understanding and Knowledge.)

But the "lower" seven sefirot are energetic qualities that are accessible to us and are manifest in creation. These are the energetic qualities that we cultivate and discern during the year's two seven-week corridors of inner work and counting: one in the (Northern hemisphere) spring between Pesach and Shavuot, and the other in the (Northern hemisphere) late summer / early fall between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. They are chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, and malchut.

Chesed is love, lovingkindness, unbounded flow. Chesed is the outpouring of overabundant love. 

Gevurah is boundaries, strength, judgment. Gevurah is a strong channel, and the ability to discern good from bad. 

Tiferet is harmony, balance, beauty. Some see tiferet as the perfect harmony of love and boundaried-strength.

Netzach is endurance and perseverance. Netzach is the energy of persistence, the energy of eternity.

Hod means both humility and splendor. This can be a kind of koan: splendor-in-humility, humility-in-splendor.

Yesod is foundations, roots, generativity. Yesod roots us in the generations, both past and future.

Malchut, sometimes translated as nobility or kingship, is presence and manifestation. Malchut is associated with Shechinah -- the immanent indwelling divine Presence, the divine feminine, the essence of Shabbat. 

Each person manifests each of these qualities. One component of the inner work that Jewish tradition calls us to do is discerning which of these qualities we need to strengthen and how to keep them in good balance. Each of these is a good thing when balanced with the others, and each can become a negative thing if it grows unchecked. (For instance, chesed -- lovingkindness -- is a wonderful quality -- but if it flows without limit, it can lead to ethical breaches, boundary crossing, and spiritual bypassing.)

Tisha b'Av is coming up at the end of this week. After Tisha b'Av, there are seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. During the seven weeks after Pesach (the Omer count) we begin with the quality of chesed and culminate with the quality of malchut. During these coming seven weeks, we begin with malchut -- presence, Shechinah, the divine feminine -- and "ascend" the energetic ladder all the way back to chesed, the energy of lovingkindness that will lead us into the start of a new Jewish year. 

 


A week of learning, vision, and building with Bayit

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Bayit's summer learning week together begins with Shabbes. We come together from all of our various home places, put on our Shabbes whites, and daven, walking outside with a guitar to welcome the Shabbat bride into our midst. When we gather around the dining table, our kiddush soars, and my soul with it. We feast and talk and laugh and sing the birkat hamazon (grace after meals). We walk to the beach under the just-past-full moon and swoon at the sparkling path of moonlight across the waves.

On Shabbes morning our davenen is long and leisurely. Leadership flows organically: someone picks up the guitar or begins to offer a melody and the rest follow. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz gives over some Torah, and we talk about Balaam, social justice, and when it is and isn't someone's job to educate those who mistreat them. Later we study when one can send a shaliach (messenger) on one's behalf and when it's important to do a mitzvah with one's own hands, and social justice, individual, and community.

There's beach time, text study, singing. There's the indescribable sweetness of spending a full Shabbat with others who care as much as I do. There are long afternoon conversations, and singing around the table as daylight wanes. There's havdalah outside, our hands cupped around the candle so the ocean breeze doesn't blow it out. There's late-night conversation about what it means for our building work to be a tikkun for what has been broken, and even later-night Pictionary with endless laughter.

And that's just the first night and day.

Visioning

We daven every day, gliding in and out of service leadership, singing in harmony. We dedicate hours to talking about Bayit's mission and vision, about the projects that are already underway, about partnership and collaboration, about what we yearn to build. We cook meals and clean up from meals and walk across the street to the beach and lounge by the ocean and swim and bask in the sunshine. We dive deep into the nature of innovation, systems and structures, how to wisely do spiritual R&D.

We study Ezekiel with Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, diving into difficult questions of theodicy, relationship, spiritual formation, privilege, bypassing, gender, and grief. We study the theology of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy): how narratives and instructions from earlier in Torah are recast there, and what it means to hear God's voice and study God's word, and immanence and transcendence, and what the Deuteronomic God asks of us (learning and love.)

We study mussar, Shabbat, and medical halakha and ethics with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat. There's a text from the Nezer Yisrael -- about Shabbat, oscillation between giving and receiving, and how divinity can be manifest in authentic relationship --  that lights me up like a Chanukiyah. There are teshuvot (responsa) and texts that raise big questions about identity, disability, change, personhood, and the halakhic process. We talk and grapple and question and learn.

We spin blue-sky dreams about where we want the Jewish future to go and what we want to build, about curation and collaboration and innovation -- and then we anchor those dreams in six-month and one-year and three-year and five-year plans. We talk about empowering folks to build an accessible, meaningful Judaism now. We talk about governance and publishing and the internet and spiritual seekers and "all ages and stages." Then we set our work aside and immerse in the ocean, with joy.

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We begin to brainstorm about how we might re-invent the second day of Rosh Hashanah. What is the spiritual journey of that day, and how is it different from the first day? What do our communities need on that day? What elements ask a new uplift? What is the valance of teshuvah (returning / "repentance") on that day distinct from the day before? What kind of temporal and spiritual runway do we need so our communities can accompany us into the spiritual territory we want to explore that day?

One night we bring folding chairs to the beach and daven ma'ariv with a guitar, accompanied by the waves, beneath the spread of stars. No one has a siddur, but it doesn't matter; we have the words and the matbe'ah (the service's internal structure) by heart. We sing to the One Who placed the planets in their orbit and the stars in the heavens. Because it came up in conversation earlier that day that one of us loves "Hotel California," we close with "Adon Olam" to that melody in multipart harmony.

When Bayit's summer learning and visioning week comes to an end, I'm sad to leave this space of learning and visioning and holy play... and grateful to have such hevre with whom to do the holy work of building together. Deep thanks to The Jewish Studio, our fiscal sponsor, for making this week possible -- and to my hevre, for dedicating their hands and hearts to the proposition that everyone can be a builder, and that a meaningful, accessible, renewing Judaism is ours to build together.

 

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With [some of] my Bayit hevre: building toward the Jewish future together.

 


New in The Wisdom Daily: wisdom about refugees, from a talking Biblical donkey

...There’s something inherently funny about [a] talking donkey, but her voice hints at a deeper theme. “What did I ever do to you, that you should hit me with that stick,” said the beleaguered beast of burden. The Israelites might say the same thing to King Balak: what did we ever do to you, that you should seek to curse us for fleeing from horrific circumstance?

King Balak felt threatened by the presence of refugees on his doorstep. It’s not hard to find a contemporary analogue, someone in a position of tremendous power who looks at refugees and sees, not human souls in need of help and welcome, but a teeming horde of foreigners whose very presence is a threat...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily: Wisdom about the refugee crisis… from a talking Biblical donkey.


Cultivating hope

That's a tweet from Representative John Lewis. (If somehow you don't know his story, I recommend the graphic novel trilogy March, which he co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by Nate Powell -- it brings the Civil Rights struggle to life.)

Many of us are reeling this week at the Supreme Court's upholding of Trump's horrendous and unethical #MuslimBan, followed by the news that Justice Kennedy is retiring. I'm hearing a lot of grief and fear and despair. (I too am feeling those things.)

I have two suggestions to offer. 

The first is: take care of yourself. There is no merit badge for enduring anxiety and panic. If you have a spiritual practice, strengthen it. If you don't have one, consider taking one up. The work at hand is immense, and our overwhelm helps no one. 

The second is: once your head is above water, find something you can do. If you have funds, donate. If you have time, volunteer. Register people to vote. Make phone calls to voters who might make a difference. And above all, do not lose hope.

I know that may sound naïve. But hope is not a luxury: it's a necessity. Without hope, life loses its brightness and despair settles in. Hope is quintessential to Jewish spiritual life, and I suspect that's true not just in my own tradition but across the board.

Raymond Williams wrote, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” (I learned that from a talk called Applied Hope, in 2016.) Here's a thread I read on Twitter this morning that gave me a bit of hope to cling to:

I take heart from that reminder. The Supreme Court's rulings should be expressions of real justice, but there have been times in our history before when SCOTUS has ruled unjustly. With hard work and persistence we can move toward justice anyway.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted recently "This is a relay, not a marathon." If you can carry the baton forward, then do so. If you can't, then take a break: have a Shabbes, turn off the news, spend time with a friend, whatever replenishes your well.

And then tag in and pick up a baton again when you can. The work of repairing the world is infinite; it will always be there for you to return to. When you feel depleted, pause and recharge so that you can rejoin the relay strengthened and full of holy fire.

Above all, do whatever you can to maintain hope in the better world you want to see. Dream it, so that you can work toward it. We may not see a nation (a world!) of compassion and justice in our lifetime, but we need to do everything we can to build it.


Approaching the Three Weeks

Jerusalem_Western_Wall_stonesSunday will be the 17th of the lunar month of Tamuz, the day when we enter the period known as the Three Weeks. I haven't had the spaciousness to write something new about the spiritual journey of this season this year, so here are two posts from previous years that I hope will still resonate.

The first one is a post about moadim -- "festivals" or "appointed-times" -- of closeness to our Source, and moadim of distance from our Source. Times when God feels near, and times when God feels far away. That language comes from R' Shlomo Wolbe, known as the Alei Shur:

...In the Alei Shur's language, [the Three Weeks] are a moed of distance. They're balanced by the three weeks from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeret, a moed of closeness and drawing-near. Our calendar gives us three bitter weeks, and three sweet ones... and we need to experience them both. The soul gets "out of whack" otherwise. It's not healthy to marinate only in sorrow all year long, or to allow ourselves only to feel joy all year long. Both of those extremes are spiritually damaging. We need the both / and...

Read the whole post here: Days of closeness, days when God feels far away (2017).

And the second is a post about how the Three Weeks lead us to Tisha b'Av, which in turn is our springboard toward the High Holidays:

...There is a deep wisdom in the way the Jewish calendar unfolds. Our festivals and fast days are waypoints along the journey we travel each year. 17 Tamuz marks the beginning of the descent toward Tisha b'Av. At Tisha b'Av, we mark the beginning of the ascent toward the Days of Awe. // In Hasidic tradition there's the idea that often in order to rise, one first has to fall. Yeridah tzorech aliyah: one has to go down in order to be able to go up. Descent for the sake of ascent...

Read the whole post here: The fast of Tamuz (2014).

May we all find the inner resources we need to do the spiritual work of this season anew this year, and may our inner work impel us in turn to the outer work of creating justice in the world.

 

(Local folks: here's a save-the-date for my synagogue's observance of Tisha b'Av on July 21. All are welcome.)


#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


When words fail

I keep trying to write something about the current state of affairs in my country and being too daunted to begin. My words fail me. What wisdom can I possibly offer about migrant children torn from their parents and held in cages? All I have is heartbreak.

But the fact that I am stunned and horrified and sickened by what's happening in my nation is no excuse for my silence. If I can't find words of my own, the least I can do is point to words by others. Here are five tweets I've signal-boosted in recent days (the first one of these is a thread -- click through to read the whole):

 

 

If you want to know what you can do to make this better, here's a list of seven groups supporting children at the border that need our help. Donating to organizations like these doesn't feel like enough, but if the choice is between "doing something insufficient" and "doing nothing at all," I believe the former is better than the latter.


Evening sky

Skiesherecould go outside and watch the sky change in the wintertime, but I rarely do.

Sunset is early in winter, and the air is too cold for my comfort most of the time, and my mirpesset fills up with snow and I can't open the door until that snow melts in the spring.

But in summer my balcony is one of my favorite places to be, and one of my favorite ways to spend evening time: gazing at the always-perfect and always-changing sky.

On the one hand sky-gazing can feel frivolous. There's so much that needs doing. On the micro scale there are household chores; on the macro scale there's the badly broken world.

But it's exactly because the work is endless that taking a pause from that work is so important. It's the same principle as taking a Shabbat: ideally it restores me for the week.

And even when I don't daven a full ma'ariv service I can pause to notice, and bless the One Who evens the evenings, mixing the changing colors of the evening sky.


On holding a printer's proof of Bayit's "Beside Still Waters"

42748909712_4ac3fbcfdc_zOne of the enduring mysteries of publishing, for me, is how different a manuscript feels once it's typeset and bound.

This shouldn't be news to me. I've been privileged to work with several fine publishers, from Pecan Grove Press (who published my first chapbook in 1995) to Phoenicia Publishing (who published 70 faces: Torah poems and Waiting to Unfold) to Ben Yehuda Press (who published Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy.)  And yet every time I hold a new printer's proof in my hands, I'm always awestruck by how real the volume feels, and how different that is from a PDF on my computer screen.

The volume in question this time is a printer's proof of the first third of Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, the volume for mourners being co-published by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press.  This book contains poems, prayers, readings, and meditations from some 39 people -- including some of the poets, liturgists, and rabbis I most admire. (There's a list of contributors on the book's webpage.) That they entrusted us with publishing their work is humbling.

And I think this book will meet a real pastoral need, and that's a humbling responsibility, too. Beside Still Waters is something that I need as a congregational rabbi who ministers to people throughout the mourner's journey. It's something that I need as a person who will someday walk the mourner's path myself. And I think it will meet the needs of a lot of people, across and beyond the denominational spectrum, in synagogues and chavurot, hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes.

42748909682_f9467be788_zMourning is at once deeply personal and -- at least in Jewish tradition -- also communal. The whole custom of shiva minyanim and kaddish is designed to embed a mourner in community. (Many meaningful books have been written about how  saying kaddish daily for a year changed someone's sense of self, God, and community.) Beside Still Waters is designed to help individual mourners on the mourner's path, but even more than that, it's meant to be used b'tzibbur, in community settings.

There are still several stops remaining on the journey toward publication. Based on this partial proof we've made definitive choices about fonts and typesetting style. Now the other two-thirds of the book needs to be typeset and designed. There's proofreading and copyediting work to be done, in English and in the transliteration and in the Hebrew (where sometimes nekudot, vowel dots and markings, get subtly shifted as an artifact of file transfer.) 

But seeing this partial proof makes the book feel real. I can imagine sharing the "Healing of Body, Healing of Spirit" and "Before Death" sections with someone who is dying. I can imagine leading a shiva minyan with the liturgy we've collected here. I can imagine using the book for yahrzeit and yizkor and times of remembrance. I can imagine this book going out into the world and making a difference in people's lives... and that gives me the energy I need to keep the behind-the-scenes work going.

I'm endlessly grateful to our publishing partner Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press, and to my hevre at Bayit, and to everyone who contributed their work to this book. I can't wait to bring it into the world and share it with all of you.

 

You can pre-order Beside Still Waters on the Ben Yehuda Press website. If you're interested in a bulk order for your community, let me know -- discounts are available.


Even legal limbo can be spiritual

...I blinked and the judge was wishing us well in whatever may unfold next for each of us. We walked out of the courtroom, and I was so dazed that I tried to put my purse back through the security scanner even though I know they don’t search you on the way out of the building. We agreed on the precise time and location of our next kid hand-off. We got into our separate cars and drove away...

That's a glimpse of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: reflections on the spiritual valance of being in legal limbo, and finding holiness in life's transitions.

Read the whole thing here: Finding what lifts my spirit as I wait for my divorce to be finalized.


The Sabbath Bee

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

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

And that's just the introduction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


A Shabbes in the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All photos courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.


A blessing for blowing the candle out

41enBytTguL._SY355_I love sitting with my son on the mirpesset in the evenings. He doesn't have a ton of patience for just sitting and watching the sky change colors, but I can usually entice him out for at least a little while.

Last night we sat on the mirpesset and I lit the citronella candle on his request. When it came time to go inside for his bath, he wanted to blow it out, but then he paused.

"We should say a blessing," he suggested. 

Generally speaking we make blessings when we light candles, not when we extinguish them, but I didn't say that. (I don't ever want to quash his spiritual impulses.) I said, "Okay, go for it."

"Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam," he began ("Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of creation" -- the opening words to many Jewish blessings), and then paused. "Wait. I don't know the rest of the words."

"You get to use your own words," I told him.

He thought for a moment.

"Thank You God for the light of the candle. When I blow it out, may Your strength flow through me," he intoned.

"Beautiful," I murmured.

And then he blew out the candle. (Which took a few tries; they're designed to be resistant to breezes!) When the flame went out, a plume of smoke rose and curled and danced up and around, revealing hidden currents. "Look, Mom," he said, "there's God's strength, flowing through the air!" 

Talk about sanctifying the ordinary.

Thank You, God, for the privilege of nurturing this extraordinary soul.


A week of learning, planning, and dreams

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A week of Torah study lishma (for its own sake), hevreschaft (collegiality and deep friendship), dreaming about the Jewish future and how best to empower people to build that future together, visioning and strategic planning for Bayit: Your Jewish Home, and also the beach and the sun and great food and davenen and singing: sounds like olam ha-ba / the World to Come!

It may indeed be a description of heaven. (At least for me -- I can't think of a sweeter way to spend a week.) It's also a description of what I'll be doing on my summer vacation! Bayit's founding builders are renting a house on the seashore during the first week of July, and we'll spend a week together learning, praying, playing, and dreaming big about the things we hope to build. 

We're bringing teachers from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Yeshivat Maharat so we can nourish our souls with Torah study. We'll do vision and strategic planning work to support not only the work we're already beginning to do (in publishing, in ritual resources, and in innovation / R&D) but also the work that is as-yet only in the early dreaming stages. 

We'll dive into big questions: what does the Jewish world most need? What does genuine innovation look like, and how can it be fostered and shared? What structures will best support the flowering-forth of renewal in Judaism and in spiritual life writ large? I can't imagine more meaningful conversations to be having -- nor better hevre with whom to build on those conversations.

The learning and visioning week will be once again be sponsored by The Jewish Studio, under whose umbrella Bayit is housed. I don't know what I'm most excited about: the Torah study, the seashore, the time with my hevre, the conversations, the vision and strategic planning work... or maybe the integration of all of those, which will add up to more than the sum of their parts.

 


Cloud and fire, waiting and leaping


Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024In this week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lot'kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.

"Whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp."

The commentator known as the Sforno -- Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 -- notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.

So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.

The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn't just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It's also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.

The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don't have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it's time to sit with what is, and when it's time to leap into the unknown. That's discernment work we have to do on our own -- maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)

The new Jews we're celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say "beginning to learn" because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition -- including me.)

And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.

In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.

This week's Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we're in a period of waiting and discernment, we'll be able to tell when it's time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we're in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we're headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness -- and that we can always course-correct as needed.

And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don't have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.

This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l'hitpallel, literally "to discern oneself." It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it's time to sit still and when it's time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for his teachings Waiting to Exhale and The Soul of Waiting.

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: Steve Silbert's Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.