Monthly Archives: January 2019

How can we keep from singing? (a d’varling for Beshalach)

In this week’s Torah portion (Beshalach), the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds. Upon experiencing that miracle, Torah tells us, three things happened: 1) they felt yir’ah, awe, and 2) they felt emunah, faith and trust, and 3) they broke into shirah, song. (And for me, the Torah is always both about what happened to “them” back “then,” and also about us here and now: our journey, our spiritual lives, our emotional possibilities.) Some of the words they sang found their way into daily Jewish liturgy:

 מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהֹוָ֔’’ה? מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ, נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת, עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh!

Who is like You, God — majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, Worker of Wonders?

And when we sing these words each day, we’re called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember and you get re/member — to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamocha is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.

The daily liturgy specifically mentions joy. “They answered You [and so we too answer You] with song, with great joy!” As the psalmist wrote — the words that are inscribed over our sanctuary doors and over our ark — “Serve the One with joy, come before God with gladness.” (Psalm 100:2) Once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, but once we emerged through the sea we became servants of the Most High. Slave or servant: the same word — עבד / eved — but the emotional valance is completely different.

Torah tells us that while we were in slavery, we experienced קוצר רוח/ kotzer ruach: constriction of spirit / shortness of breath, both physical and spiritual. Without breath, without spirit, it’s hard to sing. And I want to acknowledge the fact that sometimes genuine joy is hard to come by. Sometimes life’s constrictions — depression, or grief, or loss — steal our breath and our song. Pretending otherwise would be spiritual bypassing, using spiritual life to pretend that everything’s okay when it’s really not.

And. Every day our liturgy gives us the opportunity to remember — to really re/member — awe and trust and song. The Hasidic teacher known as the Sfat Emet writes that thanks to our faith and trust the Shechinah (God’s own Presence) came to dwell within us, and our faith purified our hearts and then we were able to sing. He goes on to say: in fact that’s the whole reason we were created in this world in the first place: to bear witness to life’s miracles, to be redeemed from constriction, and to sing.

I want to say that again, because it’s so radical. The whole reason we were created is to notice life’s miracles, to be redeemed from life’s narrow places, and to sing. “Everyone else has a purpose, so what’s mine?” The Sfat Emet says: awe, and liberation, and song. Our purpose isn’t to get promoted, or to climb the social ladder, or to rack up accomplishments. “If you want to sing out, sing out; if you want to be free, be free!” Our tradition says: the experience of freedom will naturally lead us to song.

Our daily liturgy reminds us of the Exodus. We remember it again in the Friday night kiddush, which tells us that Shabbat is a remembrance both of creation and of the Exodus from Egypt. Shabbat exists to help us re/member our liberation. Today we’re freed from the workday, the weekday, ordinary labors, ordinary time. Today we can bask in a sense of awe and wonder: “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!” And from that place of wonder, how can we keep from singing?

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Congregation Beth Israel  during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) She adds: “It echoes the themes in Answering With Joy by Rabbi David Markus. Each week he and I study the Sfat Emet together with our fellow builders at Bayit, so maybe it’s not surprising that this week our divrei Torah are quite parallel!”

Art by Yomam Ranaan.

 

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Shirah, Tu BiShvat and our Midwinter Shabbaton

Shavua tov — a good new week to you!

Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services, followed by our Tu BiShvat seder at 11am, followed by an afternoon of learning and spiritual practice! (Read all about our Midwinter Shabbaton and join us for whatever you can!) This week we’re reading from parashat Beshalach, and this week’s Shabbat has a special name — Shabbat Shirah, “the Shabbat of Song” — because the Song at the Sea is in this week’s Torah portion.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi David Markus and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert.

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI! Please RSVP for the Tu BiShvat seder so we know how many chairs and tables to set up.

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Midwinter Shabbaton at CBI: January 19, 2019

A Shabbaton is an immersive Shabbat experience. This year, for the second year in a row, CBI’s Journey Into Judaism class is having a Shabbaton in January. We’ll begin on Friday night with a Shabbat dinner for students and their loved ones, and continue on Saturday with a daylong adventure: morning services, our Tu BiShvat lunch seder (bring a vegetarian / dish to share!), and an afternoon of learning, culminating in havdalah when the sun sets.

The Friday night dinner is a class experience for students in the Journey Into Judaism class and their significant others / kids (of course, you can always have your own Shabbat dinner with friends and loved ones!) but all of Saturday’s events are open to all. Come for some or all of the day, whatever’s possible for you.

If you’re coming, feel free to tell us (cbinadams@gmail.com) or RSVP at the Facebook Event for the day. But you’re welcome to drop in and out, whatever’s feasible for you — RSVP is not technically required here!

That said, please do RSVP for the Tu BiShvat Lunch Seder (email the office or via FB Event) so we know how many chairs to set up, and please bring a vegetarian / dairy dish to share for lunch.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Bo.

Shavua tov — a good new week to you!

Please join us on Saturday at 9am for gentle learning about some of the prayers and songs of Shabbat morning, and at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Board member and Spiritual Life chair Steven Green. This week we’re reading from parashat Bo.

(Ever wondered what the word parashat means? The Hebrew word parashat means “the parsha of” or “the Torah portion of” — in other words, this is the Torah portion known by its first word, “Bo.” Each Torah portion or parsha has a name, usually the first word or the first notable word of the portion.)

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by me and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert.

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Vaera: Listening for a new name

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔”ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)

 

So what? What is Torah trying to tell us here in this verse from this week’s Torah portion? What is this verse really about?

We could read this verse as the text’s attempt to paper over an inconsistency. Our names for God change over the course of Torah, from our earliest ancestors to later ones like Moses. El-Shaddai is an older name in the strata of our sacred text, and יהו׳׳ה is a later one. A historical-critical reading uses those different names to show that Torah was written by different authors at different times. We could read this verse as an editorial attempt to smooth that out.

We could read it through the lens of what each of these divine Names means. El-Shaddai can be rendered as “God of Enoughness,” or even “The Breasted God,” God of nurturance and sustenance. יהו׳׳ה seems to be some kind of permutation of the verb “to be.” Maybe this verse comes to show us that in our spiritual infancy God was a Mother figure. As our people are growing up, spiritually, maybe we’re ready to handle a God-concept that’s more existential.

Whether we’re inclined to read it through a historical lens, or through a close-reading / etymology lens, we can always choose to read it through a spiritual lens. Spiritually, here’s what this verse offers me this year: God takes on different Names at different times. Our work is to open ourselves to the new name that will help us reach the land of promise. It was true of our mythic ancestors at this moment in the Exodus story, and it’s true of us here and now, today.

In last week’s Torah portion, at the bush that burned but was not consumed, God introduced God’s-self to Moses as אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה,  “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming.” אהיה, “I will be” or “I Am Becoming,” comes from the same root as the name יהו׳׳ה. That Name can’t be directly translated, but it seems to imply something about the nature of being and becoming itself. God is ever-changing. And we, made in the divine image, are always becoming, too.

“Your ancestors knew Me under one name, but here’s a new one,” God tells us. Sometimes we need to let go of an old Name, an old chapter, in order to be ready for a new one.  For instance, from House of Israel and Chevra Chai Adom, the two nascent Jewish communities in early North Adams, into Congregation Beth Israel. We remember and honor our community’s earlier names in its earlier incarnation. As part of our history, they will accompany us into our future.

And sometimes the work lies in learning to balance the old name and the new one. For instance, from Jacob to Israel, “the Heel” to “the Godwrestler.” Israel is the spiritual ancestor for whom our people is named — we are the Godwrestlers, the ones named after our willingness to grapple with the Holy! And yet, even once Jacob becomes known as Israel, Torah uses both names for him, reminding us of the need to integrate who we’ve been with who we’re becoming.

Sometimes a name stays the same, while the inner essence changes and grows. When my son was born my name didn’t change, but my soul changed. Or maybe my soul grew more fully into who I had always been becoming, on some deep-down level I couldn’t understand until that change came to pass. And: when I became a rabbi I acquired a new name to live up to and live into, but I didn’t lose the name given to me at birth. I’m both Rabbi and Rachel.

“Each of us has a name,” writes the Israeli poet Zelda, “given by the seasons, and given by our blindness.” What new name might be unfolding for each of us as we move deeper into this season? What name do we receive as a result of our blindness — what we are we blind to, about ourselves or about each other? What do we need to learn to see about who we are, about who we can choose to become, about how we can choose to become?

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but My Name יהו׳׳ה I did not make known to them.” Until now. At this moment in our people’s story, on the cusp of the Exodus from the Narrow Place toward the Land of Promise, God gives us a new name for God’s-self, a name that hints at becoming and at being itself. God says: you used to know me in one way, but open your eyes and see that I am more than what you knew. I am Becoming itself.

This week’s Torah portion invites us to ask: what’s the new Name of God that’s being revealed to us now? What’s the new possibility, the new identity, the new growth, the new becoming that we can vision-forth in this moment that was never possible before? This isn’t “just” about God. It’s about us, too, as we grow and change. What could we be becoming? What could our community be becoming, if we could open ourselves to who the future is calling us to be?

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered on Shabbat at Congregation Beth Israel. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)