Falling Upward

DownloadOne day recently, two friends from completely different quadrants of my life sent me a gorgeous Rilke poem that Father Richard Rohr had posted on his website. I had run across the poem myself a few months before, and had already tacked it up over my desk. But when two people sent it to me within an hour of each other, I couldn't help feeling as though someone wanted me to be paying attention -- both to that poem once again, and to Richard Rohr who had posted it.

Then my friend and teacher Rabbi Jeff Fox, with whom I was privileged to study a few weeks ago, recommended Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by the same Richard Rohr. I ordered the book right away.

Rohr writes:

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong "container" or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.

The basic argument of Falling Upward is that most of us get caught up in "first half of life" issues and struggles and never make it to the work of the second half of life -- work that can only be done after one has done the internal work of the first half. Of course these two halves don't necessarily map to chronological age, and Rohr acknowledges that; it's possible to be quite young and already be doing one's second-half-of-life work, and vice versa. (If these ideas resonate, I recommend From Aging to Sage-ing, by Reb Zalman z"l.)

One of the challenges of spiritual life is staying open to being changed. Father Rohr writes:

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push -- usually a big one -- or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in -- but only to be moved out from...

The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up

The Hasidic masters had an aphorism for that one: ירידה לצורך עליה / yeridah l'tzorech aliyah -- descent for the sake of ascent. That's a frequent theme in Torah (the Joseph story is a paradigmatic example), and it's a frequent theme in spiritual life. Often we have to fall in order to rise. We descend or fall further from God (the language of distance is of course metaphor, but it's a good way of describing internal experience, even if we know that God isn't any "further away") and that descent itself sparks the yearning to ascend and seek closeness. 

Reading this book during the Three Weeks, I was struck by how Rohr's teachings suit this season in the Jewish calendar year:

By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths -- and therefore been kept from their own spiritual heights... The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying

Of course the ego wants to avoid falling or changing or dying -- that's the ego's job. Part of our work is ensuring that one has enough ego to be able to live healthily in the world, without necessarily allowing the ego to be in the driver's seat, as it were. It's natural to resist change and loss and "falling." And yet all of those things are built in to the rhythms of human life. As I learned recently in a beautiful text from R' Shlomo Wolbe, our times of distance and sorrow are an important part of spiritual life too. If we deny our pain and avoid falling, we're slipping into the trap of spiritual bypassing, and that's not a path of genuine growth.

If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage -- as if it were God! ... This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we expect from religious people, who tend to love the past more than the future of the present. 

Change -- or one might say התחדשות / hitchadshut, renewal -- is core to spiritual life. One of my tradition's names for God is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." God reveals God's-own-self to us through the unfolding of perennial change. The voice of revelation always sounds from Sinai, and it's our task to be attuned so that we can continue to enliven the world. That's the work of renewing Judaism, and the work of my rabbinate, and it's the work in which I believe Rohr is engaged, too, on his Christian path. And... I resonate deeply with his words about the profound irony of religious people, who should be pursuing growth, becoming attached instead to the status quo and fearing change. 

There's much in this book that puts me in mind of my spiritual direction training and my experiences in spiritual direction, both as someone who has worked for many years with a spiritual director and as a mashpi'ah myself. The Hebrew term for spiritual direction is השפעה / hashpa'ah, which comes from a root connoting divine abundance or flow. In Rohr's words:

More than anything else, the Spirit keeps us connected and safely inside an already existing flow, if we but allow it... Like good spiritual directors do, God must say after each failure of ours, "Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let's see how we can work with this!"

I love the idea of God as the ultimate spiritual director, sitting across from me and helping me grow. Often on long drives I imagine God sitting in my front seat -- a practice I learned from Reb Zalman z"l, who spoke of imagining Shechinah "dressed down" in blue jeans as his listening passenger -- and I pour out my heart to the One Who always hears me. Sometimes I even hear a response in return. (The title poem of my next collection of poetry came out of that experience...) On that note, the final quote I'll share here is one about being in I-Thou relationship with God, and being wholly seen. Rohr writes:

Many of us discover in times of such falling the Great Divine Gaze, the ultimate I-Thou relationship, which is always compassionate and embracing, or it would not be divine. Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us.

On the Jewish liturgical calendar we will shift soon (at the end of this Gregorian month -- erev Tisha b'Av is July 31) from the Three Weeks of mourning and brokenness to the Seven Weeks of consolation that lead us from Tisha b'Av to the Days of Awe. The challenge now is to let ourselves experience the "falling" of these Three Weeks, and to let ourselves be fully seen and fully known not despite our falling but even in and through it, so that our falling can be what Rohr might call "falling upward" -- descent for the sake of ascent, and for the sake of growth, and for the sake of becoming who we are most truly meant to be. 


Why three weeks of grief can help us heal - in The Wisdom Daily

...The Jewish calendar gives us these Three Weeks as a time for feeling the brokenness that characterizes every heart and every life. These weeks offer an invitation, and an opportunity to feel what hurts. Not because we’re going to stay in that brokenness, but precisely because we’re not — and because recognizing what’s broken is the first step toward healing, as individuals and as a community...

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: Why These Three Weeks of Grief in the Jewish Calendar Can Be Healing. Click through to read the whole thing.


Days of closeness, days when God feels far away

Crack-in-concrete-wallThe Jewish calendar is filled with moadim. Usually that word is translated as "festivals," though it literally means "appointed times." Each year we have moadim of closeness to God, and also moadim of distance from God. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are moadei shel keruv, appointed-times of closeness with God. The Three Weeks and Tisha b'Av are moadei shel richuk, appointed-times of distance from God.

That teaching comes from R' Shlomo Wolbe, whose work Alei Shur I studied recently with R' Jeff Fox as part of a week of "Rabbi (and Hazzan) Recharge" organized by The Jewish Studio. With R' Jeff we also studied a text from R' Shmuel Eidels (a.k.a. the Maharsha) that speaks of the Three Weeks as a period of growth toward fruition. Just as it takes 21 days for an almond tree to blossom, says the Maharsha, so we can understand the 21 days between 17 Tammuz and Tisha b'Av as a period of preparing for flowering-forth.

I don't usually think of Tisha b'Av -- that date of destruction and shattering -- as a time of fruition or flowering. But the Alei Shur reminds us that it is natural (maybe even good?) for our relationships with the Holy One of Blessing to have an ebb and a flow, to have times of intimacy and times of distance. (Indeed: distance is often what awakens in our hearts our yearning to reconnect.) And from the Maharsha we learn that even destruction can have a silver lining, and can spark the blossoming of something new.

Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks (also called Bein Ha-Meitzarim, "In the Narrow Places.") Today is the anniversary of the ancient breach of Jerusalem's city walls, and the anniversary of the date when Moshe broke the first set of tablets in anger and sorrow at the people's misdeeds. In three weeks, on Tisha b'Av, we'll re-experience the destruction of the Temples, our people's quintessential experience of shattering and distance from our Source.

In the Alei Shur's language, these 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. 

What does it mean to say that this is an appointed-time of distance from God? For me, it's an opportunity to notice where and when and how I already feel that distance. Maybe my sorrows are causing me to feel distant from God: maybe I'm grieving so hard I can't find God. Or maybe my joys are serving that function this year, if I let myself fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing -- maybe I'm over-focusing on the positive so I don't have to face what's difficult in my life. Either way, distance from God ensues.

The Alei Shur teaches that distance from God isn't, in and of itself, the worst thing. (Far worse is when we have fallen so out of alignment that we no longer even notice the distance.) He sees the distance as part of a natural cycle of being close and being far away -- a ratzo v'shov, as it were. When I notice that I'm distant from a beloved, and let my heart feel the ache of that distance, the ache impels me to reach out and be close to my loved one again. As with a human beloved, so with the divine Beloved.

Where do you feel distant: from your beloveds, from the Beloved, from your traditions, from your Source? What are the patterns and habits that contribute to that distance? What are the excuses you make to yourself for why it's okay to be disconnected, and what feels "at stake" when you imagine reconnecting -- what are you afraid of when you imagine letting yourself reconnect?

Today we remember the first breach in Jerusalem's ancient city walls. Where is your heart cracked-open? In what realms do you feel broken-hearted? How do you deal with the vulnerability of being fragile and breakable? What seeds might be planted in your broken places, that over these three weeks could be silently preparing themselves (preparing you) to flower into something new?

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


A week of learning and togetherness

34933977923_59b899ca49_zWhen I come down to breakfast, I find two friends at the table enjoying coffee. It takes approximately five minutes for us to wind up in a halakhic conversation. It's about the psycho-spiritual, halakhic, and pastoral implications of seeking to speak truth -- with intimates, and with the larger world -- while taking care not to commit lashon ha-ra (malicious speech).

The friend who's making breakfast laughs: the minute you add a third rabbi to the table, halakhic conversations cannot be far behind! Later breakfast conversations (over continuing cups of coffee) include concepts of God through a Four Worlds lens, and how one's needs in briyah (the realm of thought) might be different from one's needs in yetzirah (emotionally, relationally.)

And that's just the first morning. Another morning over coffee we talk about Jewish organizational life and spiritual bypassing. We talk about the Jewish future we want to co-create, and about projects we want to take on, and about who's doing meaningful and innovative work in our field that feels real. We talk about different Hebrew options for same-sex wedding liturgy.

And in between the deep conversations about the Jewish future, we cook meals and spend time together. One afternoon we rent rowboats and go out on the water. One evening we marvel at fireflies and fireworks over a lake -- tiny lights moving and gleaming, juxtaposed with enormous chrysanthemums of sparks that paint the night sky and then disappear into smoke.

We sit with our various machzorim (high holiday prayerbooks) -- Days of Awe, Harlow, Machzor Chadash, Kol HaNeshamah, Wings of Awe -- and sing snippets of melody and high holiday nusach. We share high holiday ideas and questions, talk about things we've done that have worked and things we want to try differently this year in the communities where we serve.

Our high holiday conversations oscillate between tight focus and granular detail (melody choices, when to use nusach, how do you do this prayer?) and macro questions: what does it mean to do "good"? If our souls are pure each morning, why do we need the Days of Awe at all? (We all agree that we do, but some of those whom we serve might not think so: how do we tend to them too?)

We learn with Rabbi Jeff Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, which is predictably extraordinary. With him we take a deep dive into mussar (ethical and spiritual self-improvement) and halakha around our dining room table. We sharpen our text skills and hone our spiritual responsiveness through deep encounters with text and with tradition, ably guided by his wisdom.

We learn a gorgeous R' Shlomo Wolbe text from the book Alei Shur about the idea that there are appointed times, of closeness to God and of distance from God. The Three Weeks (which begin next week) are a time when we recognize our distance from the Holy One. Far worse than distance, R' Wolbe teaches, is the condition of not even realizing that the distance is there. 

Another beautiful Wolbe text speaks about Torah as the path to shleimut, wholeness. Through Torah study and more importantly through doing mitzvot, he says, we transform our lives into living laboratories. In pursuing Torah learning and service, we become overflowing springs of renewal, we ascend toward holiness, and we become who we're meant to be.

We learn a text from the Maharsha about how it takes 21 days for a chicken to gestate or an almond tree to flower. He riffs on 21 days, exploring two three-week corridors in Jewish time: the Three Weeks (bitter) and the weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Hoshanah Rabbah (sweet), and how both of these can be doorways to God's presence and to purification of one's soul.

And we learn a text from the Afikei Mayim that riffs off of the Alei Shur, the Maharsha, and a few others that we had studied together, exploring the idea that God cries with us, and that Tisha b'Av is a day of closeness between us and God, as is Shemini Atzeret -- though one is a day of rejoicing and the other is a day of sorrow, they're both days of intimate connection. (Wow.)

We study questions of transgender and halakha, delving into texts from Talmud and Rambam, a heartwrenching 13th-century poem by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a pair of teshuvot from the Tzitz Eliezer, excerpts from a book by Edan Ben-Ephraim, and more. We grapple with our tradition's various ways of dealing with gender, relationship, and identity over the centuries.

What a profound luxury it is to spend time with chaverim (beloved colleague-friends), diving deep into liturgy and halakha, practice and purpose, for hours on end. Our learning will benefit the communities we serve, but even more than that, it enriches and enlivens our hearts and souls as Jewish clergy (rabbis and hazzan). Truly this is Torah study lishma: for its own sake.

I'm endlessly grateful to The Jewish Studio for creating and sponsoring this fantastic week, and to my hevre for learning with me and davening with me, laughing with me and harmonizing with me, pushing and pulling me toward insights I would never have reached on my own, and for feeding not only my body but also my heart, my mind, and my neshama -- my soul. 


Renewing Judaism

Tallits-135Renewing Judaism happens everywhere. That's one of the things that was affirmed for David and me during the Listening Tour: the renewing of Judaism is, and always has been, bigger than any organization. And that's exactly how it should be. The renewing of Judaism is organic, and multifaceted, and it’s all over the place. Those of us who are ordained in the lineage of Reb Zalman z”l are obvious and visible stewards of that renewing. But the renewing of Judaism is so much bigger even than the growing community of clergy who self-identify as part of that lineage.

Renewing Judaism means spiritual technologies that enliven Judaism. Matching aliyot of Torah with a theme that arises from the text, and offering a blessing rooted in those words and that theme. Making use of chant as a spiritual technology, maybe cherishing melodies from Rabbi Shefa Gold or from Nava Tehila. Offering a meditation minyan or integrating Jewish contemplative practice into our spiritual lives. Practicing hashpa’ah (spiritual direction). These are some of the spiritual technologies that have arisen over the last few decades -- and I can't wait to see what the next ones will be.

Renewing Judaism means liturgical creativity. Davening bilingually. Chanting in English. Interweaving classical liturgy with contemporary poetry. Setting ancient texts to new melodies that open them up in new ways (e.g. “Mi Chamocha” to “The Water is Wide”), and setting new texts to ancient melodies (e.g. contemporary poems in haftarah trope). Exploring the spiritual ramifications of using different names for God (not only Lord and King and Father but also Shekhinah, Source, Wellspring, Mother, Beloved). Passionate use of both words and silence. Praying with our bodies. Explorations and experimentations with liturgy and with prayer that seek to open the heart and enliven the soul. These are (some) expressions of how renewing our prayer lives can renew our Judaism in all four worlds of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

Renewing Judaism flows inside the denominations of Judaism. The renewing of Judaism flows in the Reform movement: my own shul is part of the Reform movement, and is a place where the renewing of Judaism flourishes.The renewing of Judaism flows in the Conservative movement: when we met with Rabbi Brad Artson at Ziegler as part of our southern California Listening Tour stop, we learned that he studies Zohar daily with the aid of his own handmade poster of the sefirot! The renewing of Judaism flows in the Reconstructionist movement: RRC hosted us in Philadelphia on the Listening Tour for a deep and rich conversation about precisely that. The renewing of Judaism flows in Orthodoxy: the existence of Yeshivat Maharat, ordaining Orthodox women, is a sign of renewed Judaism in the Orthodox world. (Indeed, Yeshivat Maharat hosted us as part of the very first weekend of the Listening Tour, back in May of 2015.)

Renewing Judaism flows outside the denominations, too. There are many independent communities and organizations where the renewing of Judaism is unfolding (Rabbi David’s shul on City Island is one of them. So are Romemu in New York City, Kehilla in the Bay Area, and Or Shalom in Vancouver, all of which we visited on the Listening Tour). During the Listening Tour we met with folks from all three of the other trans-denominational seminaries -- Hebrew College, the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, and the Academy for Jewish Religion in California -- because the fact of pluralistic rabbinical education is part of the renewing of Judaism. Pop-up shtiebls, home-based havurot, innovative projects like Lab/Shul (NY) and The Kitchen (SF), The Jewish Studio (DC) and Judaism Your Way (Denver), all are part of the renewing of Judaism.

Renewing Judaism is a movement, in the sense of “something in motion.” It's the flow of inspiration, creativity, innovation, and change as those manifest in modern Jewish life -- ideally rooted in and balanced with deep love of the tradition as we’ve inherited it. It's both grounded and creative, and constantly re-articulating the right balance between those two qualities, between roots and wings. The renewing of Judaism affirms that Judaism isn’t (and has never been) static or unchanging: change is core to Judaism and core to authentic spiritual life. (After all, as our liturgy teaches, God every day renews creation.) Our task is figuring out how to balance change with constancy. Sometimes that means our Judaism takes new forms. Sometimes it means that we reinterpret or re-enliven old forms. But tradition teaches that every day God's voice continues to sound from Sinai. If we open ourselves to it, we -- and our Judaism -- are constantly being renewed. 

Renewing Judaism is bigger, and richer, and deeper, than any single organization could contain.  On our travels around North America, and our videoconference conversations with people around the world, we sought to hear not only from those who self-identify as part of “Jewish Renewal” as it has existed until now, but also from people outside of that frequently insular bubble. We sought to hear the voices of people who were once connected with ALEPH and for one reason or another walked away. We sought to hear the voices of people who are engaging in the renewing of Judaism by other names: those who are renewing Judaism in ways aligned with ours in spirit and heart, no matter what name they use for what they do. We learned some extraordinary things about what the renewing of Judaism means to you, and about what you yearn it could yet become. Stay tuned: I'll share more about that in the next post in this series.



Today is Reb Zalman z"l's third yahrzeit. I offer these initial reflections on the depth and breadth of the Judaism he helped to inspire in his memory. May his memory continue to be a blessing.


About Bypassing

Spiritual-bypassingA few days ago I mentioned spiritual bypassing in my commentary on a short Hasidic text. A few of you reached out to me after that post went out, asking for more about spiritual bypassing: what it it, how can you recognize it, why is it important. 

For a basic introduction, here's a good article by Dr. Ingrid Mathieu: Beware of Spiritual Bypass. Dr. Robert Masters also offers a great essay about bypassing, calling it Avoidance in holy drag. His book Spiritual Bypassing is a classic in my field, and with good reason.

Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism in which one uses spirituality in order to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings. Maybe one wants to avoid anger, or grief, or loss, or boundaries. So instead of feeling that anger (or grief, or loss, or boundary, or whatever the thing in question may be), one papers it over, and calls the papering-over "spiritual." 

(The image illustrating this post is a great example of spiritual bypassing in pop culture: Princess Unikitty from the LEGO movie. She's a sparkling rainbow unicorn, and she over-focuses on the positive, refusing to acknowledge anything that hurts... until she reaches her breaking point, whereupon all the negativity she denied herself causes her to boil over in rage. Image via Stephanie Lin.)

It's easy to mis-use spirituality to justify avoidance of things that are painful or uncomfortable, like anger or conflict or boundaries. But this is not spiritually healthy, even though it disguises itself as spiritual. It is a spiritual sickness, disguised as spiritual health.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to experience what is: all of what is. And that includes the things we tend to categorize as "dark" or negative: pain, sorrow, loss, rejection, grief. (I wrote about that recently in my review of Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark.) 

The Jewish mystical tradition describes God via a series of qualities that exist in holy balance, such as chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaries / strength / judgment). When someone leans so far toward chesed that they reject its healthy balancing with gevurah, that's spiritual bypassing.

When a spiritual leader serving a community where there has been abuse (whether sexual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, or all of the above) ignores the abuse, or urges community members to rush to healing before there has been justice for the abused, that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to feel angry, or isn't comfortable with conflict, so they over-focus on sweetness and light while sweeping their anger under the rug (or encouraging others to sweep anger under the rug), that's spiritual bypassing.

When someone doesn't want to be constrained by someone else's interpersonal or systemic boundary, so they transgress it while convincing themselves that the boundary really shouldn't apply to them anyway, that's spiritual bypassing.

In all of these instances, the quality that's chosen for over-focus -- whether it be healing, or sweetness, or lovingkindness -- is in and of itself a good quality. That's part of the challenge: everyone likes healing and sweetness and lovingkindness, right? But these qualities are only healthy when they're used honestly, authentically, and safely -- and, as the Hasidic text I translated last week suggests, when they're in appropriate balance with qualities like judgment and healthy boundaries.

If I pursue healing at someone else's expense, then that healing is not only false but damaging. If I pursue pleasantries in an abusive context instead of naming the abuse for what it is, then my sweetness is not only false but also complicit in the abuse. If I disregard someone's boundaries because I think I should be exempt from their rules, then my "love" will cause hurt.

Even gratitude, the middah (quality) to which I most often gravitate, can be used in spiritual bypassing. When faced with trauma or grief, if I leap too quickly to "let me find something to be grateful for so I don't have to feel this thing that hurts," then the gratitude practice that's such a core part of my spiritual life becomes a tool for bypassing the thing I need to actually feel.

Spiritual bypassing is what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage:" a sweet topping disguising something rotten underneath.

Spiritual bypassing pretends to make things better, but it actually makes them worse. If a wound is infected, then suturing it and simply hiding the infection will not help the infection to heal. If a relationship is abusive, then pretending that it's healthy will not help the person who is being abused. (For that matter, it also doesn't help the abuser to name and recover from their own trauma.) Spiritual bypassing does serious damage to people and communities.

Authentic spiritual life calls us to feel what we feel, even when what we feel is uncomfortable or painful. Authentic spiritual life calls us to speak truth, even when we'd rather pretend there are no difficult truths to be spoken. Authentic spiritual life calls us to pursue justice, even when we'd rather imagine that if we close our eyes to injustice it will simply go away on its own. 

Any spiritual leader who claims otherwise is not worthy of the title. 

 


The need for justice to balance love

Justice-love-scalesEarlier this week, David and I studied a fabulous text from the Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev), to whom I was first introduced by R' Elliot Ginsburg, my teacher of Hasidut in rabbinical school. It's a short commentary on this week's Torah portion, Korach, and it packs a powerful punch. (Read it in the original Hebrew at Sefaria.)

The text riffs off of a short phrase in Numbers 18:19, "It is an eternal covenant of salt." Levi Yitzchak explains that this was said after the deeds of Korach. (For a reminder of what those were, see my post at My Jewish Learning, A Failed Rebellion.) Korach wanted everyone, including himself, to be priests. He didn't want to be a Levite, which was his own ancestral tribe -- he wanted to be a Kohen (a higher-level priest), and he wanted everyone to be kohanim.

Here's where Levi Yitzchak makes an interpretive leap: he says the kohanim / priests represent the divine attribute of חסד / chesed (lovingkindness), whereas the levi'im / Levites represent the divine attribute of דין / din (justice) -- sometimes called gevurah, the quality of boundaries and strength. Here's the problem with the Korachite rebellion: in wanting everyone to represent chesed, Korach leaves no room for din. He wanted everyone to be pure chesed, but in truth (says Levi Yitzchak), the world needs judgment and justice too. The world needs gevurah: boundaries, strength, a strong container. 

Ramban (also known as Nachmanides) understands salt as a combination of fire and water, which is to say, justice and lovingkindness. He says it's the combination of those two, the appropriate balance of those two, which sustains all the worlds. 

Levi Yitzchak teaches that the covenant of salt (representing the balance of chesed and din) came as a response to Korach's actions, in order to remind us of what's wrong with Korach's imbalanced view that everyone should embody only chesed. What the world needs is the appropriate balance of chesed and din, lovingkindness and justice.

Reading this passage, I marvel at how contemporary and real it feels. I've been in contexts where people want everyone and everything to be all-chesed-all-the-time, and they are not healthy contexts by any stretch of the imagination.  Love that flows without boundaries is a flood, destructive and damaging. When we over-privilege chesed at the expense of gevurah, there are no appropriate roles or boundaries... and a community in which roles and boundaries are not honored, in which gevurah is not honored, is a community that will inevitably be rife with ethical violations and abuse. 

Levi Yitzchak skewers the Korachite perspective that says everyone should express only lovingkindness. John Lennon may have written a catchy tune with the refrain "all you need is love," but on a spiritual level, he was wrong. The world needs judgment, discernment, and justice every bit as much as it needs unbridled or unbounded love -- indeed, as Ramban notes, a world that has only one half of that critical binary cannot endure. 

This is true not only on a macro level but also a micro level. Every human being is a world. Every one of us contains both of these qualities and more. Maybe you recognize chesed and gevurah as the first two qualities we remind ourselves to cultivate as we count the Omer each year. Every human being needs a healthy balance of all of the qualities that we share with our Creator: lovingkindness and boundaried-strength and balance and endurance and all the rest. A person who seeks to be only chesed will inevitably be imbalanced, and will wind up doing damage not only to himself but to their whole community -- as Korach did. 

A person who insists that chesed is the goal in and of itself (rather than as part of a healthy and balanced palette of qualities) will be naturally inclined toward spiritual bypassing, using feel-good spiritual language to mask deep-rooted avoidance of life's complexities. The same will be true in a community that privileges chesed over a healthy balance of qualities. Such a community will inevitably be not ethical, not healthy, and not safe.

The wisdom offered this week by Levi Yitzchak and Ramban is still relevant in our day: what we need, as individuals and communities, is the right balance of chesed and gevurah. The right balance of love and boundaries, in which loving flow is guided and guarded by ethics and justice. The right balance of all of the sefirot, all of the qualities that we and God share. 

May it be so in all of our communities, and in all of our hearts, speedily and soon.

 


#NOTALLWOMEN

"Not all women, trees, or ovens are identical." -- Mishna Pesachim 3:4, in the name of R' Akiva

 

Some women like winter. Some incubate babies
and some have no uterus. Some wear eyeliner.

Some are happiest in Israeli sandals
flaunting our pedicured toes.

Some are stronger than the steel cables
that hold up a suspension bridge.

Some of us are notorious.
Some of us write love poems.

Some of us have roots that go deep
into the earth and will not be shaken.

Some give our fruit and branches
and trunk until we are nothing but stumps.

Some grow thorns to protect ourselves
even if we're vilified for it.

Some women are more like trees
than like ovens: constantly changing.

Some women are nourishing and warm.
Some women burn with holy fire.

Some of us are irreducible, incomparable
like the Holy One of Blessing Herself.

Some women balance justice and mercy.
Some are mirrors: we'll give kindness

as we receive, but injustice causes
our eyes to blaze the world into ash.

 


This poem arose out of a wonderful line from mishna that I encountered in Heschel's book Torah from Heaven, which I've been slowly reading on Wednesday mornings with my coffee shop hevruta group for well over a year.

Some give our fruit and branches / and trunk until we are nothing but stumps. See Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. (Wow, is that one messed-up parable about the damage of boundary-less love.)

[I]njustice causes / our eyes to blaze the world into ash. See the Talmudic story of R' Shimon bar Yochai, who spent twelve years in a cave, and when he emerged, was so outraged by what he saw as people's poor priorities and choices that his very gaze set the world on fire.


So much (Ahavah Rabbah)

Dear One, you love me so much
you give me your Torah
for argument and play
waltzing and conversation
from one life to the next.

Your Torah nourishes me,
familiar as the womb.
Wrap me tight in your Torah
like a newborn. Laugh in delight
when I learn to break free.

Your Torah lights up my eyes,
fuses my heart with my choices.
Give me just one letter
to suck like candy, like manna
changing flavor on my tongue.

Tell me a true story again
about who I used to be
or who I might yet be
-- like you, always becoming
who you are becoming.

Beloved, draw me close.
I've been scattered:
melt me until we mingle.
I want to come home in you.
Choose me again. Don't stop.

 


This poem arises out of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that is part of the traditional morning liturgy. Those who are familiar with that prayer (especially in its original Hebrew) will see many riffs on and references to its language here.

Like the poem Good (Yotzer Or), which I posted recently, this is intended to be daven-able alongside or instead of the classical prayer. 

(There are also some poems in the forthcoming Texts to the Holy that I've used at services as a stand-in for Ahavat Olam, the evening version of this prayer -- most notably the title poem of that collection. But none of those poems is specifically rooted in the language of this prayer the way that this one is.)

 


Good (Yotzer Or)

Beloved, You are good
and you wield goodness
in shaping creation

and every single day
in Your goodness
and with Your goodness

You make us new
with all created things.
You make me new.

I cling to yesterday
(who would I be
without the sorrows

that have worn grooves
into my back?) but
that's my own smallness.

You've made me new
formed me for this new day
a sapling unbowed.

The knot in my stomach
the knot in my throat --
You untie them.

Can I sit with You
for even a few minutes
before I tangle myself again?

 


In the yotzer or prayer, the blessing for God Who creates light that is part of our daily liturgy, we find the line "המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית/ ha'm'chadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom ma'aseh bereshit," which describes God as the One Who daily renews, with God's goodness, the work of creation. This poem arose out of that line, and could be read or davened as part of shacharit (morning prayer), perhaps with the first and last lines of the Hebrew prayer as bookends. If you use this poem in this way, let me know if it works for you!


Change

1.

The CSA's first distribution week:
the flower gardent nascent, not yet formed.
The fields are all potential. No one knows
what plagues or pleasures yet will come to pass.
Who can say which plants will thrive this year?
This week the share's all leaves in shades of green:
tatsoi, arugula, yokatta na.
Atop my bag I nestle precious roots:
French radishes, like fingers, long and pink.
Pick up a pen to mark that I was here
on this first week in June, the season's cusp.
My name's listed alone, while his is paired.
The tears that come I blink away, and blame
upon the radishes' surprising bite.

 

2.

Clouds of pearly fluff float through the air
revealing hidden currents. Poplar seeds,
each with a silken parachute: they twirl,
make visible the breeze that strokes my neck.
I'm floating too, buoyed sometimes by forces
I can't see. Other times I feel
discarded by the tree that once was home.
Every breath I take's an act of trust
that in time I'll land, and root myself
in unfamiliar soil I can't yet know.
Can I learn to love being so light
I no longer insist I'm in control?
"God was not in the cloud: the still small voice..."
I wait, and drift, and listen for its sound.

Continue reading "Change" »


Holding my hand


28781688605_66f9c1d4bf_zWhen I wrap the straps around my arm
Shekhinah holds my hand.

Her small brown fingers intertwine
with mine. She holds on tight.

She whispers courage in my ear.
Says "don't hold up: be held."

Kisses my forehead, a mother
checking for fever or giving a blessing.

Our fingers tangle like lovers.
She strokes my palm and I shiver.

In grief I always think I'm alone --
think no one sees me, or wants to.

She shakes her head, exasperated
and fond. I keep forgetting.

Long after I've let go of her hand
she's still holding me.

 


the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

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The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

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But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

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The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


In humbling company

Os-1495650588-aa4h4pl014-snap-imageAlthough this came out a month ago, it only last night reached my eyes: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat. Written by Haley Codron, this opinion piece ran last month in the Orlando Sentinel, and it puts me in some truly humbling company.

As May is Jewish American Heritage Month, I want to honor three women whose Judaism shines through all they do: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and “Velveteen Rabbi” blogger Rachel Barenblat.

As I contemplate the leadership of Ginsburg, Sandberg and Barenblat, I’m reminded of advice from my parents. They told me what to discuss – or not to discuss – at dinner tables: politics, religion and money. A part of me understands where my parents were coming from; the three topics are flashpoints. But there has to be an element of “picking sides.” Which is precisely why the three women make a difference – a positive difference, and have influenced me and countless people around the world...

Codron writes about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the most extraordinary women alive today, in my estimation), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (whose book Option B I've been intending to read), and me. I'm honored to be in their company.

You can read the whole piece here: Judaism Shines Through All They Do: Ginsburg, Sandberg, Barenblat.


Light

Step one: we attuned ourselves to light.
I don't mean the sun, but what came first.
(Heavenly bodies were day four.) The fire
of the burning bush, the glowing cloud
that hovered over the mishkan, the presence
of creation's supernal flame made us lift

our eyes. When the pillar would lift
we set off; when it settled, we'd light
our cookfires. Back then we had presence
of mind to check the celestial forecast first.
Didn't let our desires to move cloud
our judgment. We were on fire

for the One Whose presence gleams. Afire,
we reached step two: learning how to lift
our hearts even when the cloud
didn't move. We can travel light
even if we're not going anywhere. First
we learn how to live with holy presence.

Step three: open to what wholly presents
itself. Strike the iron while the fire
is hot, but paint our doorposts first.
When we left Egypt we knew how to lift
our hearts to the One, how to light
the tinder of prayerful spirit into clouds

of incense. But God was not in the cloud:
only hinted-at in the wordless presence
that filled the tabernacle with light.
"More than God wants the straw fire
God wants the well-cooked heart," so lift
yourself to the altar. Sometimes the first

thing to do is burn. Sometimes first
we bank our internal fires, offer up the cloud
of self that rises. When the lift
comes, when our hearts become our presents --
that's the time to add fuel to the fire.
The One Who rolls back darkness before light

first tunes our internal radio to the presence.
Then we notice when we get cloud, and when fire.
Let our spirits lift, and become light.


I don't mean the sun, but what came first. At the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis) God creates light, but sun and moon and stars don't materialize for another few days. From this our tradition intuits that the light of creation was something other than literal light, and there are many beautiful teachings about the supernal light of creation hidden away for the righteous.

The fire of the burning bush. See Exodus 3. One of my favorite teachings about Shabbat candles holds that when we kindle lights on Shabbat, we are to see in them the supernal light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed. 

The glowing cloud that hovered over the mishkan... when the pillar would lift. See this week's Torah portion, B'ha'alot'kha, in which a cloud hovered over the mishkan (the tabernacle / dwelling-place-for-God's-presence). When the cloud lifted, we went on our journeys, and when it rested, we stayed put.  (For a beautiful d'var Torah on that theme, see Rabbi David's The Reason for Patience.)

Strike the iron while the fire / is hot, but paint our doorposts first. The Exodus story is a paradigmatic narrative of leaping when the opportunity presents itself... but before so doing, the children of Israel painted blood on the doorposts of their houses, an act we now echo in placing a mezuzah on the doorposts of ours. Doors are liminal spaces -- life is full of liminal spaces -- and it's up to us to make them holy.

But God was not in the cloud. See I Kings 19:11-12. God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.

More than God wants the straw fire / God wants the well-cooked heart. A teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe. 

The One Who rolls back darkness before light. See maa'ariv aravim, our prayer for evening -- here it is in several variations.

Tunes our internal radio to the presence. This metaphor comes from Reb Zalman z"l, who used to speak about how God broadcasts on all channels and we receive revelation where we are attuned.