Category Archives: divrei Torah

My strength balanced with God’s song: a d’varling for parashat Beshalach

32421398230_ca11c3da2d_zThis morning we sang excerpts from the Song at the Sea. We sang my favorite line from that song: עָזִי וְזִמרָת יָה וַיְהִי–לִי לִישֻעָה.

That line is often translated as “God is my strength and my might, and will be my deliverance.” But zimra doesn’t mean “might,” it means “song” — as in psukei d’zimra, our poems and songs of praise. Sometimes I translate this line as “God is my strength and my song, and will be my salvation.” I like the idea that both my strength, and my song, are ways of finding God. But the best translation I know is Rabbi Shefa Gold’s translation (and by the way, she also wrote the melody for this verse that we’re singing this morning): “My strength (balanced with) God’s song will be my salvation.”

My strength, balanced with God’s song, will be my salvation.

Some of us may be allergic to the word “salvation,” which feels kind of… Christian, somehow. Though of course the notion of a God Who saves us was a Jewish idea long before the birth of Rabbi Jesus. One paradigmatic example of God’s salvation is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds — which is in today’s Torah portion. God parted the waters and we came through. We sing about it every week when we sing Mi Chamocha — “the water is wide…”

Y’all probably know by now that I don’t understand this as a historical story. This is a true story in the way that great literature is true. This is a true story because it speaks to one of our deepest human hopes: that when we are in tight places, we will find a way out. That when we are trapped between an advancing army and the sea, we will find a way through. That if we step into the sea, if we cultivate faith in a better future, we can partner with something beyond ourselves to bring that better future into being.

We partner with something beyond ourselves. My strength, balanced with God’s song.

We need our own strength in order to cross the sea, to face whatever difficulties arise in our lives — and every life holds tsuris, “suffering,” which comes from the same root as Mitzrayim, “the Narrow Place.” Every life has times when we feel trapped in the narrowness of our own circumstance. Life’s challenges call forth our strength. Our task is to feel our own strength flowing through us, and to know that we have the inner resources the moment demands.

And we need God’s song in order to cross the sea. We need music that uplifts the heart. We need love to sing its melody in us. We need hope, and heart-opening, and joy. If we try to cross the sea without those things, we might manage to walk across the sand, but we’d be like the figures in the midrash who were so busy kvetching about the muddy sea floor that they forgot to notice the miracle all around them, and as a result, when they reached the other side they weren’t really free.

My strength, balanced with God’s song. That’s what gets us across the sea. That’s what gets us from the narrow place into expansiveness. That’s what enables us to experience spiritual growth and transformation. Our own core strength, balanced with the ineffable: with song and joy, with meaning and love.

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel gave at shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

 

Exile and expansiveness

exile-300x178Right now in our cycle of Torah readings (parashat Bo) we’re reading about the plagues and the start of the Exodus. Looking for inspiration on this week’s parsha, I turned to the Hasidic master known as the Me’or Eynayim, “The Light of the Eyes.” (His given name was Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl.) He writes about Egypt as a place of existential exile, and about what happens to us spiritually when we are brought forth from there.

Slavery in Egypt is our tradition’s ultimate example of גלות / galut, existential alienation from God. It’s the paradigmatic example of constriction. When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we’re also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now.

For the Me’or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It’s a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don’t even realize we’ve fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself.

When one is in this kind of galut, it’s hard to know the difference between what will give life and what will deaden us. Torah instructs us to “choose life,” but it’s hard to know what will enliven us when we’re in a place of alienation from our Source. What the Exodus offers us is the opportunity to leave existential exile, and in that leaving, to regain the capacity for moral choice.

In the state of galut that we experience when we’re in life’s Narrow Places, there’s only katnut-consciousness, small mind. It’s a vicious cycle, because exile creates small mind, and small mind makes it hard to imagine breaking free from exile.

Emerging from the Narrow Place means being reborn from katnut into gadlut, from small mind into expansive consciousness. The words גלות / galut and גדלות / gadlut are similar, but there’s one letter of difference between them: the letter ד / daled, which — as I was powerfully reminded by Rabbi David Ingber in his extraordinary sermon on doorways and welcoming the stranger last night — is a delet, a door. Galut is exile; gadlut is greatness, or expanded-mind. We begin in exile. We go through a door, a transformation, a state-change. And then we reach gadlut, “big mind.” And once we’ve reached expansive consciousness, we can seek to know God wholly. That’s why we were brought forth from Egypt, says the Me’or Eynayim: in order to know God wholly.

We were brought forth from Egypt in order to see beyond the binaries of our own constriction. Once we begin to glimpse gadlut, the constrictions of exile fall away.

Exile can be self-perpetuating, because when we’re in it, it’s hard to see a way out. Depression is like that. Despair is like that. Overwhelm is like that. Sometimes if I look at everything that’s wrong with the world, exile rushes in and washes me away. But if we can open our minds even for an instant to glimpse the prospect of a better life, the fact of glimpsing a redemptive possibility makes that redemption possible.

Shabbat is our chance to glimpse the world redeemed — to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be. May we emerge from Shabbat ready to roll up our sleeves, to combat small-mindedness wherever we find it, and to choose to bring more life everywhere we go.

 

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at shul this morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

 

Mission: Accepted

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Did you ever watch “Mission Impossible”? At the start of each episode, a recorded voice would announce “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” And then after explaining the mission, the voice would conclude “this tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”

This week’s Torah portion contains a scene like that, only without the self-destructing cassette tape. At the burning bush, God tells Moshe his mission: to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let God’s people go.

Moses demurs, I don’t even know who to say has sent me! And God answers “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming. Tell them that Becoming Itself has sent you.” Moses demurs again, and God gives him some magic tricks to perform, a staff that will turn into a snake and back again. Moses demurs a third time:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֖א בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָֽח׃ / But he said, “Please, My Lord, make someone else Your agent!”

At this point, God does not say “well, it’s your mission if and only if you choose to accept it.” God says, “fine: your brother will partner with you in this work — now get to it.” God gives Moshe companionship in the task ahead, but God does not give him the chance to say no.

Moshe was out tending sheep in the wilderness, not searching for a new mission in life. And then his eyes were opened to wonder, the bush that burned but was not consumed. And then he heard the voice of God telling him there was work in the world that only he could do. It’s no wonder he balked. Who can blame him?

I have empathy for Moshe’s “please, God, send someone else.” He knew his own failings. He knew all the reasons why he didn’t feel suitable for divine deployment. Maybe he liked his life the way it was, and he didn’t want to get drawn into politics and into creating change.

Maybe he anticipated that the work of bringing change would be hard and that people would hate him. Sure enough, when he first goes to Pharaoh, the initial effect is that the people’s labors are intensified, and the people curse him thoroughly. Leadership is rarely easy. Poor Moshe is disliked both by Pharaoh, and by the people he seeks to serve and to save.

“Please, God, send someone else!” Maybe you too have felt that way. Maybe you’ve looked at the road ahead and seen that it looks scary. Maybe you know your life needs to change, but you’re scared of change and of the work it requires. Maybe you know our nation needs to change, but you’re paralyzed by the enormity of the change we need.

Maybe you’ve been a parent bringing a newborn home from the hospital thinking “I am in way over my head,” or started a new job thinking “why did they hire me, I don’t have these skills,” or stepped reluctantly into leadership wishing someone else had been willing to take the banner because you don’t want the drama or the responsibility or the projections others will place on you.

Moshe didn’t get to say no to his deployment, but he did get someone to share it with him. I’d like to think that we can all find that, if we keep our eyes open. All of us can seek a colleague, a friend, a brother, a partner — someone who shares the calling and the burdens that come with it.

Moshe had that in his brother Aharon. Their skillsets were complementary: Moshe spoke to God, and Aharon had the necessary skills to speak to the people. We can take turns being Aharon and Moshe for each other. We can by turns engage with the life of the polis and the life of spirit. We can create change on the front lines, and we can create change behind the scenes. And together we can be stronger, and more, and more whole, than any of us could be alone.

We get to do the work together. We don’t get to turn away from the work at hand.

All of us are tasked with perfecting our broken world — which sometimes means healing the brokenness in ourselves, and sometimes means healing the brokenness in public life. All of us are tasked with speaking truth to power, fighting for freedom, helping the vulnerable push through the narrow place of constriction into liberation. All of us are charged with cultivating the sense of wonder that will let us hear God’s voice issuing forth from the fire, and the sense of obligation that binds us to the work we’re here to do.

Our challenge is shifting from channeling our inner Moshe — “Please, God, pick somebody else!” — to channeling our inner Isaiah (6:8):

וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת-קוֹל אֲדֹנָי, אֹמֵר, אֶת-מִי אֶשְׁלַח, וּמִי יֵלֶךְ-לָנוּ; וָאֹמַר, הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי. / And I heard the voice of God saying “whom shall I send, and who will go forth for us?” and I said, “Here I am. Send me.”

The work is vast. Working toward redemption — whether personal or national — is not easy. But it’s what we’re here to do. When the work of change and transformation call, don’t look around to see who else might pick up the slack. Say “Here I am. Send me.”

 

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Free to be – a d’var Torah for parashat Vayigash

וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

life-files-sorry-who-are-youThat’s the verse that leaps out at me this year. And within that verse, one word: בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע, “he made himself known.”

The root of this word is the simple verb meaning to know. To know, to perceive, to distinguish one thing from another. This verb can mean to know someone “in the Biblical sense,” to make love with someone and thereby know them deeply. It appears here in the causative form: to cause oneself to be known.

To cause oneself to be known.

How often do we dedicate our energies to ensuring precisely the opposite? We work hard at hiding ourselves. We hide our tender hearts. We hide our fears. We hide our insecurities. Men in particular are taught to do this in our culture: to hide their vulnerability, because it makes them “weak” or “feminine.”

Or perhaps we show our insecurities, and hide our confidence and our strength. Women in particular are taught to do this in our culture: to soften, to backpedal, to hide our strength lest we be perceived as uppity or mannish or threatening.

I have been accused of being unfit for leadership because I act “too much like a man,” because I speak my mind and draw clear boundaries.

And I have been accused of being unfit for leadership because I am not enough like a man, because I cry easily and I allow myself to be vulnerable.

If we allow these binaristic gender stereotypes to persist, we can’t win. And we can’t do what Joseph so bravely does in this week’s parsha: we can’t allow ourselves to truly be known.

The stereotypes are reductive, and they’re also flat wrong.

The Jewish mystical tradition depicts God as being ultimately unitary and beyond all human knowledge, and also at the same time available to us through multiple faces or aspects. God has no gender, and yet we understand God as having both masculine and feminine qualities. God is the ultimate source of lovingkindness and compassion, and also the ultimate source of strength and boundaries.

We who are made in the divine image and likeness manifest these qualities too — all of them, no matter what our gender expression may be. We do ourselves and each other a great disservice when we insist that men are “supposed” to be strong and women are “supposed” to be gentle, that dad is “supposed” to be the disciplinarian and mom is “supposed” to be the source of comfort… and I mean this not only in our family systems but also in our organizations, in our communities, on boards and committees, in social circles.

What we are “supposed” to be is who we most deeply are. All of who we are, in our fullness, with our contradictions and our yearnings, our hopes and our fears.

In order for Joseph to feel safe making himself known to his brothers, he needs to see that they have changed. He needs to see that they have truly made teshuvah, repented from their earlier mistreatment of him so profoundly that when faced with a similar choice they would choose differently than they did when they sold him into slavery. When he sees that they have made teshuvah and have changed, then he sends the courtiers out of the room and reveals who he truly is.

Each of us needs to do our own inner work, our teshuvah work, our work of repentance and repair. We do this work not only for the sake of our own souls, but also because when we do this work, we give the people around us permission to do it, too. When we do this work, we give the people around us permission to make themselves known to us, to reveal the sweetness and the strength, the vulnerability and the courage, of who they most truly are. When we do our own inner work, we make it safe for those around us to be like Joseph: to be real and whole and free to be who we are at last.

This is the d’var Torah that R’ Rachel offered at CBI on Saturday. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

In this place – a d’var Torah for parashat Vayetzei

c4f767653e18511c3a2ad131b105f7d3In this week’s Torah portion, our forebear Jacob is on the run from his twin brother Esau. He lies down with his head on a stone, and he has a dream, or a vision, of a ladder rooted in the earth with its top penetrating the very heavens. On that ladder he sees angels moving up and down continuously, traveling between earth and heaven and earth again. When he wakes, he exclaims “God was in this place, and I — I did not know!”

I can’t think of a more appropriate Torah portion for our New Member Shabbat. As I look around the room at all of your faces, I know that God is in this place for sure.

Finding God in this place is what we’re all about. Not only “this place” in the sense of the synagogue building, though we are blessed with a beautiful building and it is easy to feel the presence of the Holy when we gaze through these enormous windows at the willow tree and the mountains.

Some of us find God in this place via davenen, which is to say, prayer. Davenen is a Yiddish word. But the Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, which means to judge oneself. Some of us find God here by entering into prayer, and in so doing, coming to know ourselves more deeply. What arises in me as I bless the creator of light this morning? And what will arise in me as I bless the creator of light tomorrow morning, or next Shabbat, or the Shabbat after that? As we pray together, we witness our own subtle movements of soul. As we say and sing these familiar words we connect ourselves with the community and with our tradition, and maybe we find God in that connection.

Some of us find God in this place via service — not the “service of the heart” that we know as prayer, but service of others. Those who gather here each month to cook meals for homebound seniors as part of our Take and Eat crew find God in dedicating their hands and hearts to feeding the hungry. Those who bring childrens’ pajamas to our collection box, so that those who can’t afford warm winter sleepwear for their children can rest easy knowing that their kids are safe and warm on the coldest nights… those who bring toys to our gift collection box, so that those who can’t afford gifts for their kids this winter can rest easy knowing that there is something for them to give… in serving others here we make this place holy, and maybe we find God in that.

Some of us find God in this place through Torah study. Whether that means sitting here in the sanctuary discussing the weekly Torah portion, or studying a text during the kiddush after services, or participating in our book group, or taking part in our Introduction to Judaism class — all of these are forms of Torah study, and all of these are doorways to noticing the presence of God.

Look around the room and recognize that God is in this place. God is in this place because we make this place holy with our choices, with our study, with our service, with our prayer.

One of our tradition’s names for God is המקום –– “The Place.” God is in every place where people truly meet one another. God is in every place where people pray, and in every place where Torah is learned. We read in the Mishna (Avot 3) that wherever two people gather and study Torah together, the Shekhinah is with them. Shekhinah is one of our tradition’s names for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. Sometimes we experience God as transcendent — up there, out there, far away, too vast to imagine. And sometimes we experience God as immanent — right here, with us, even within us. In Torah (Exodus 25) we read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם — “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Or maybe it means “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them.”

We have made a sanctuary here in northern Berkshire. May it be a place where God dwells with us and within us. May we always wake to the presence of God in this place, in this moment, in this interaction, in this breath. May each of us be a blessing to this congregation, and may this community be a blessing for each of us, now and always.

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered on Shabbat morning. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi. Image by Albert Houthouesen.

A Blessing for Becoming (like Esau)

maxresdefaultReading this week’s Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau.

His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father’s innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac’s knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” asks Esau.

And Isaac replies, “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”

Esau says to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!” and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau’s words: “can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?”

Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. “By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother,” Isaac continues, “but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau.

Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God — the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it’s like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau’s place, rather than Jacob’s, how does Isaac’s blessing make us feel?

It’s easy to see Isaac’s blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. “You’ll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him.” But I think we can find more in it if we try.

The first part of Isaac’s blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone’s birthright even when we’re in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac’s blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts.

The next part of Isaac’s blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau’s. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us — whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere — we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.

And finally, Isaac’s blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac’s blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing that things will get better. Isaac’s blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.

We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it’s like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.

But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, can serve us well when times are hard — and even more so when times are sweet.

My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don’t come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.

And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.

May Isaac’s blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.

These is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at the December 2 Kabbalat Shabbat service (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Safe from the storm: a d’var Torah for parashat Noach

arkwaveThis year as I read this week’s Torah portion a three-word phrase leapt out at me. It comes after the part about how Noah built the ark, and all the animals that he collected inside it — between all of those descriptions, and the Flood itself. ויסגור ה’ בעדו: “And God shut him in.”

Rashi notes that the literal meaning of this phrase is that God closed the door of the ark behind Noah, protecting him from the waters that would rage outside the door. The commentator known as the Radak writes that “God protected him against the chance of even a small hole opening in the ark as a result of the powerful rains.” One way or another, this verse seems to be saying something about God protecting Noah and keeping him safe through the storm.

As the cold weather approaches, we — like Noah — batten down the hatches. Maybe we tinker with our storm windows, spray insulation into cracks and crevices, put an extra blanket on the bed. If that’s true as we anticipate literal storms, how much more true as we anticiapte emotional and spiritual storms. Every life has periods of turbulent waters. As we face those waters, we yearn to be cared-for and tucked-in, to have God’s presence securing and protecting us.

I’m not a sailor, but I know that when big storms arise sometimes the only way through is to lower sail and let the storm rage. Often storms move us to new places: as the winds and currents can move a boat into new waters, when emotional currents surge strong they may carry us to places we didn’t expect. Authentic spiritual life asks us to weigh anchor and let ourselves be moved, trusting that even when external circumstances are swirling around us we can touch stillness and eternity.

One of the reasons to maintain spiritual practices when the sailing is smooth is so that those practices are there to sustain and protect us when storms pick up. If I remind myself every morning to pause to articulate gratitude for being alive, then maybe when the tough mornings come the habit will be engrained enough to carry me through. If I pause before sleep to try to let go of the day’s mistakes and hurts, then maybe I can wake into the infinite possibility of the new day, even when sleep came on the heels of weeping.

How can we feel secured and protected, as Noah might have felt when God lovingly closed the door behind him? Maybe it’s a phone call or a text message from a friend reminding us that we’re not alone. Maybe it’s reading an essay that makes us feel seen and understood in who we most deeply are. Maybe it’s putting on a piece of jewelry that feels like a talisman. Maybe it’s a session with a therapist who reminds us that our stories matter, or a spiritual director who companions us in our journeying.

Our liturgy tells us that we are loved by an unending love, an אהבת עולם. For me, the presence of that love is what secures the door and keeps me safe from the storm. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of that love in the love I feel for my child, or the love he feels for me. Sometimes I brush up against it in the connection between me and my most beloved friends. Sometimes I feel that love manifest in the extraordinary beauty of creation, in the rise of early morning light over our hills now dressed in November’s muted palette or the calliope song of geese migrating overhead at dusk.

What makes you feel seen and cared-for? What carries you safely through life’s storms?

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI Shabbes. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)