Category Archives: divrei Torah

Revising the poem: a d’varling for Shabbat Shuvah

poem
וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths… (Deut. 31:19)

וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deut. 31:22)

 

These are two verses from this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech.

The classical commentators have various theories on what it means that Moshe wrote down “this poem.” Does that mean that on that day, Moshe wrote down the entire Torah? Does it mean that he wrote down some specific fragment of Torah, from this verse to that verse, but not the whole thing? I admire their commitment to detail. But what strikes me is the fact that Moshe uses the word poem in the first place.

To be sure, there are portions of Torah that are clearly poetry. Some of them are even written on the scroll in unusual ways — like the Song at the Sea, a very ancient poem that is written in an interlaced pattern that evokes brickwork, or perhaps the waves of the sea. But over the course of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe refers to what he’s saying sometimes as a Torah, which we could translate as a Teaching; and sometimes as a שירה / shirah, which is the Hebrew word for poem.

Moshe seems to be saying that the entire Torah is, in some way, a poem.

When I was a chaplaincy student, during my first year of rabbinical school, I learned to think of hospital room visits as opportunities to encounter the “living document” of a human soul, the Torah of our lived human experience. Each life is a Torah, and delving in to the meanings we find in our lives is a kind of Torah study.

Of course, our tradition mirrors that metaphor in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which describes the Book of Memory opening. That Book “reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it.” We write the Book of Memory with our every choice, our every action, our every word.

Moshe says the Torah is a poem. And my chaplaincy supervisor taught that each human life is a Torah, a book that we write with our actions and our choices, worthy of study. From these two teachings, I come to the inescapable conclusion that each human life is, therefore, a poem.

Here’s a thing I know about poetry: it benefits from revision.

We live in linear time, which means we can’t revise the actions and choices we made yesterday — we can’t go back in time and edit out the things we now regret having said or done, or left unsaid or undone. But we can revise ourselves. We can revise our habits and our hearts. Indeed: that’s precisely what the work of teshuvah is about.

If there were ever a time to look at the poem of our lives and figure out where we need to revise and reshape, now is that time. It’s Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. I want to offer an alternative name for this Shabbes, in keeping with our Vision theme for the Days of Awe this year: the Shabbat of Revision. Re-Vision: seeing ourselves anew. Revising ourselves into a new form. That’s the work of teshuvah, and it is always open to us.

The poem of your life is in your hands. How will you revise yourself this year?

 

Teshuvah

God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of Rachel.

I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;

God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God

sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.

I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem

to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.

I want every reader
to come away more certain

that transformation is possible.
I’d like holiness

to fill my words
and my empty spaces.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter

and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.

If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) The poem was written in 2004 and can be found here, along with Rabbi Rachel’s other new years’ poems.

 

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What we choose to serve – a d’varling for Shabbat Ki Tavo

SONY DSCLate in this week’sTorah portion, Ki Tavo, there’s a set of blessings and curses. Torah promises us that if we follow the mitzvot and walk in God’s ways we will be blessed with abundance, and if we turn away we will experience curses. And then Torah says:

Because you would not serve Adonai your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve — in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything — the enemies whom Adonai will let loose against you. (Deuteronomy 28:47-48.)

Some of us may struggle with the notion of a vengeful God Who would repay us for breaking faith in these ways. (That’s certainly not my God-concept.) But what happens if we read the verse not prescriptively but descriptively? In other words: this isn’t about what God will “do to us” if we turn away from the mitzvot. This is about the natural consequences of choosing to turn away from a path of holiness.

Does the idea of serving make us uncomfortable? Maybe we want to say, I’m nobody’s servant — I live for my own self! But in Torah’s frame, that’s an impossibility. Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: not so that we could be self-sufficient and serve our own needs, but so that we could enter into covenant with God and serve the Holy One.

Everyone serves something. That’s a fact of human life. The question is what we will choose to serve, and how.

In Torah’s understanding, either we can dedicate our lives to serving the Holy One of Blessing — through the practice of mitzvot both ritual and ethical; through feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable; through cultivating gratitude for life’s abundance; through working to rebuild and repair the world; through the work of teshuvah, turning ourselves around — or we can turn our backs on all of that.

And if we turn our backs on all of that, says Torah, we will find ourselves serving a master who is cruel and uncaring. Maybe that master will be overwork. Maybe that master will be a political system that mistreats the immigrant and the refugee. Maybe that master will be whatever we use to numb ourselves to the brokenness around and within us.

But there really isn’t any other choice. We can’t choose not to serve. We can’t choose to be completely self-sufficient and not bound in relationship — that’s not how the world works. In Torah’s stark framing, either we can serve God or we can serve something else, and the inevitable fruits of serving something else will be disconnection and lack and facing down a slew of internal enemies.

This is not to say that if we are facing internal enemies like anxiety and depression, it’s a sign that we’ve turned away from the mitzvot or turned away from God. Many of us are plagued by those internal adversaries, and I thank God for the abundance of tools at our disposal for helping us deal with them, from therapy to spiritual direction to all of the practices that can help us maintain an even keel.

Being servants of the Divine doesn’t mean we’ll be spared those challenges. But  Torah says that if we turn away from the obligation to serve, we’ll meet with what feels like enmity. If we turn away from the obligation to serve, we’ll experience lack — maybe because our needs won’t be met, and maybe because we won’t have cultivated the mindset that would enable us to feel grateful for what we have.

Choosing to serve God means choosing to be in relationship. It means choosing love, and choosing hope, and choosing ethical actions, and choosing spiritual practice, and choosing to work toward repairing both the broken world and our broken hearts. Choosing to serve God means choosing to be attentive both to the needs of others and to our own neshamot, our own souls.

As you walked into this sanctuary this morning you may or may not have noticed the words emblazoned over the doors: עבדו עת–ה׳ בשמחה / ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, “Serve God with joy.” Over our ark is the other half of the verse from Psalm 100, באו לפניו ברננה / bo’u l’fanav birnanah, “come into the Presence with gladness.”

The question I invite us to sit with this morning is this: what does it mean to serve the One with joy? Is the verse urging us to serve God and to do so joyously — or to cultivate joy and make that a form of holy servive? And what would it feel like to come into the Presence with gladness: to feel in our hearts and know in our minds that we are surrounded and suffused with holy Presence, and to be glad?

What would it look like, what would it feel like, to do our teshuvah work from that place?

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

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

Pursue

Run after justice
the way an eight-year-old
runs after the ice cream truck
chasing its elusive music

sandals slapping asphalt
until panting, calves burning
you catch it
and taste sweetness.

Run after justice
with the single-minded focus
a thirteen-year-old
brings to their phone.

Run after justice
the way the mother
of a colicky newborn
pursues sleep.

Run after justice
whole-hearted and open, as though
justice were your beloved
who makes your heart race,

whose integrity shines
like the light of the sun,
who makes you want to be
better than you are.

 


Run after justice. See Deuteronomy 16:20.

[W]hole-hearted. See Deuteronomy 18:13.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

 

Rabbi Rachel offered this poem at CBI this morning to close our Torah discussion. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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 that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat B’ha’alot’kha (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) 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.

 

And bring you peace

blessingIn this week’s Torah portion, Naso, God speaks to Moshe and tells him to transmit to Aharon the following words of blessing to give to the people:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ / May God bless you and keep you.

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ / May God’s presence go before you and be gracious to you.

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם / May God’s presence be always with you and bring you peace.

Two things strike me about this passage this year.

The first is the Divine game of telephone. Granted, this is a common game of telephone at this point in the Torah: God speaks to Moshe and tells him to tell us pretty much everything. But in this instance, I see an extra layer of meaning in the way the transmission comes through. God telling Moshe to tell Aharon to tell us becomes an example of a deeper truth: blessing is connective. Blessing is relational. Blessing originates with God, but we speak it into being through our connections with each other.

The other thing that strikes me is the content of the blessing. For many of us this is a familiar text. Some of us maintain the practice of saying it to our children every Friday night. In some communities the rabbi offers it as a closing benediction after every service. I say these words to every b’nei mitzvah kid who stands on our bimah. At last weekend’s conversion, I offered these words to our new Jews. These words are so familiar we may not pay a ton of attention to them most of the time.

But notice:

The text promises that God will bless us and keep us — but it doesn’t claim that God will keep us free from struggle or change.

The text promises that God’s presence will accompany us with grace — not just “graciousness,” in the sense of gracious hospitality, but grace, חן / chein, that unearned and un-earnable flow of abundance from on high — but it doesn’t claim that grace will spare us life’s ups and downs.

The text promises that God will be with us and will bring us wholeness and peace — but it doesn’t claim that “peace” means perfection or an end to our spiritual work or our spiritual growth.

Elsewhere in this parsha we read about the ritual for when spouses suspect each other of infidelity and there has been a breakdown of their relationship that may or may not be reparable. And we read about the promises of the nazir, one who makes certain commitments to God for a stated period of time. With this juxtaposition, Torah seems to be saying: the promises we make to each other as human beings may or may not endure. Our human promises may be temporary or time-limited.

But the promise that God makes to us is not time-limited or temporary. When we stand as channels of blessing for each other, when we speak these words of blessing to one another, we invoke God’s accompanying presence and grace and care. Always.

God’s presence and grace and care can’t protect us from challenges or disappointment… but they will always endure. God will always keep our souls safe in the palm of Her hand. God’s presence always accompanies us and showers us with love we cannot earn and cannot lose, no matter what. And that presence always offers us access to wholeness and peace: not through pretense, but through authenticity and realness.

Because שלום / shalom doesn’t just mean the absence of conflict. It means the presence of wholeness. And wholeness doesn’t come when we put a bandaid over our sorrows: wholeness comes when we allow ourselves to be real, in our sorrow and in our joy. Putting a bandaid over our sorrows (spiritual bypassing) is fragmentation: I feel this, but I will pretend that. And fragmentation is the opposite of wholeness. Wholeness requires us to feel what is, all of what is, with all that we are.

May you feel God’s presence blessing you and keeping you, no matter what curveballs life throws your way.

May you feel God’s presence accompanying you and steeping you in a love that can’t be lost.

May God’s accompanying presence in your life bring you wholeness, now and always.

Amen.

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this Shabbat (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Image: a papercut of this passage by David Fisher.

 

 

 

Lift up your heads, and know that you count

Take a census, this week’s Torah portion tells us. שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל — literally, “Lift up the heads of the community of the children of Israel.” Don’t just count them: uplift them. Let them feel in their hearts and know in their minds that they count.

Of course, the text goes on to specify who we should count: the men. We didn’t yet have consciousness of how limited — and limiting — that paradigm is for us and for the world. But the core teaching that every one of us counts is some powerful Torah.

Today we encounter these words as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Before we can receive Torah tonight, we have to lift up our heads. We have to take an accounting of who we are.

We have to make sure we know that we all count: men and women and nonbinary folks, Jews by birth and Jews by choice and seekers of other traditions who walk alongside us. We have to take note of every one of us, in all of our multiplicity and diversity of experience and background and heart.

Tradition says that all of us were there at Sinai — the soul of every one of us, every Jew who ever was or ever will be. And since we know that a mixed multitude left Egypt with us, surely that mixed multitude stood together at Sinai too. Shavuot is our celebration of covenant with God, and every one of us is part of that covenant. If even one soul had been missing, it wouldn’t have been complete. We all count.

Three members of this community formally joined the Jewish people yesterday. [Here’s where I was going to say some things about that, connecting them to the Torah portion – but that part was personal and is not being published online.] As of this weekend they count in a minyan: another form of counting and being counted.

Does the concept of counting ring any other bells for you right now? For seven weeks we’ve been counting days, ever since the second seder. Tonight that count culminates in revelation. Today is the final day of the Omer. According to our mystics, today is the day of Malchut She’b’Malchut — the day of immanent indwelling feminine divine Presence; the day of Shechina.

May we be suffused with awareness of holy Presence as we prepare ourselves to receive. May we prepare ourselves to be sanctuaries — so that Shechina can dwell with us, and among us, and within us, now and always.

 

This is (more or less) the d’varling I had intended to offer this morning at Shabbat services on our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat, had the camp not canceled the retreat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week’s Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring “strange fire” before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week’s Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, “did it wrong,” and were instantly killed.

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron’s reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there’s nothing one can say.

I don’t have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can’t understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach — according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, “even the merest handmaiden.” Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today’s Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don’t necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation.

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin — and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that “there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition’s ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now.

So here’s my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal… so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

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