Category Archives: divrei Torah

On healing and second chances

Healing

A few days ago we entered into the new month of Iyar. Here’s my favorite teaching about the month of Iyar: its name is an acronym for something beautiful. Torah teaches that after the children of Israel crossed through the Sea of Reeds and reached the far shore, they sang and danced — and then, once they began their journey in the wilderness, they became afraid. What if there were no potable water for them to drink? What if there weren’t enough to nourish them in life’s journey?

So God instructed Moshe to throw a piece of wood into a stagnant pond, and the water became sweet. And then God offered one of Torah’s most beautiful reassurances, saying “I am YHVH your healer.” That’s the phrase we can see hidden in the name of the month Iyar: אני יה רפאך / I am God, your healer.

In the words of my friend and teacher Rabbi Yael Levy of A Way In:

Iyar is an acronym for this promise the Divine Mystery has made to us: I am your healer. On life’s journeys you will face the seas of struggle, celebration, fear and joy, and whatever comes, I am there to heal and guide you. (Exodus 15:26)

She continues:

Iyar is a month of second chances because the full moon of Iyar provides the opportunity to make up for something that has been missed. During Temple times, it was considered essential for a person’s spiritual and material wellbeing to compete a sacrificial offering for Passover. If circumstances kept someone from someone from making this offering, he/she was given another opportunity to do so on the 15th day of the month of Iyar.

Iyar says it is never too late — no matter what situation we find ourselves in, no matter how far away we have traveled from our intentions or goals, it is possible to find our way back.

Every life contains missteps and missed opportunities — times when we look back and realize we wish we’d chosen differently. If only I had reached out to that person then, instead of staying silent. If only I had walked through that door, instead of staying outside. If only I had said “I love you” while I still could. If only, if only.

Part of what it means to me to say that God is our healer is to say that God accompanies us into our second chances. I don’t have a time turner; I can’t actually go back in time to undo my mistakes, so that I could do then what I wish now that I had done. But Rabbi Levy points out that just as our ancestors were given the opportunity to offer the Pesach sacrifice late, we too can find opportunities to make up for where we missed the mark… and I think that’s one way that God can help us to find healing.

Illness and healing are major themes in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. Torah’s ancient paradigm of tamei and tahor, impure and pure — or charged-up with the energy of life and death, and absent that psycho-spiritual “electricity” — may not speak to us. But part of what I relearn from this Torah portion each year is that when one is sick, whether physically or emotionally or spiritually, one may feel exiled from the community. Cut off and isolated. “Outside the camp” in an existential sense: alone even when surrounded by other human beings.

And in those times God comes to us and reminds us אני יה רפאך — I am God, your healer. I am the One Who is with you in sickness and in health, the One Who accompanies you even when you feel most existentially alone.

When we are sick and feel isolated, the One Who Accompanies is with us. And when we are sick at heart because of the places where we missed the mark, the One Who Accompanies is with us too. May this month of Iyar be a time when our second chances gleam bright before us, so we can find healing in making amends, and making new choices, and remembering that — as Rabbi Levy teaches — no matter how far we’ve strayed from where we meant to be, it’s never too late to find our way back.

 

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

Face to Face

Pic24This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, contains exquisitely detailed instructions for the building of the mishkan, the portable dwelling-place for God that our ancestors created in the wilderness. But there’s one element in the design that is intriguingly vague: the instruction to place two kruvim atop the ark.

It’s possible that our Biblical forebears knew what kruvim looked like, so Torah didn’t feel the need to offer blueprints. And it’s possible that the kruvim were ineffable even then.

All we know is that they are made of gold, and they have wings, and they face each other. Well, in this week’s Torah portion they face each other. In the book of Chronicles we read that when the Temple was built, the kruvim faced the Temple, not each other.

Given these two disparate descriptions, our sages decided that the kruvim had a mystical ability to move in imitation of us. When we in the community follow the mitzvot and treat each other lovingly, then the kruvim face each other in I/Thou relationship, as do we. When we reject the mitzvot and treat each other dishonorably, then the kruvim turn away from each other, as we have turned away from each other and from God. The keruvim become our mirror.

I had the opportunity recently to study a short text from the Aish Kodesh, a collection of teachings by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira who was the rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto. He writes that when we stand before God in prayer, when we speak to God as a “you” (in Martin Buber’s language, a “thou”), we draw forth that aspect of God with Whom we can be in relationship. When we do that, we find God’s presence in the act of prayer — or maybe we find our own presence, our own deepest selves revealed to us.

We read in Proverbs that כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם לָאָדָם: just as water reflects our faces back to us, so our hearts can reflect us to each other. When I connect to you as a “thou,” I see myself reflected in your heart. When I connect to God a a “thou,” my yearning calls forth divine presence, and I see myself reflected in the Divine. Because I seek, God becomes revealed — and so do I. God becomes the mirror in which I see my deepest self most fully.

And that brings me back to the kruvim in this week’s Torah portion, which are also a kind of mirror. When we yearn for connection, and act out of that yearning, they face each other in mirror image. When we lose sight of our yearning for God, our yearning for connection and holiness, our yearning for sanctified relationship, the mirroring goes away. They no longer face each other, as we and God no longer face each other, and we lose the mirror in which we might have seen ourselves and God more deeply.

Spiritual life is a journey of constant rising and falling, waking and falling asleep, trying and failing and trying again. We strive to be the best people we can be. Then we notice that we’ve lost track of our best intentions. Then we turn ourselves around to try again. That existential act of turning ourselves around to try again is what our tradition calls teshuvah, repentance or return.

Making teshuvah is our perennial task — not only during Elul and the Days of Awe (though we talk a lot about teshuvah at that season) but always. We can make teshuvah each week before Shabbat, and each night before sleep. It’s our task to notice where we’ve fallen away and to turn back: to re-enter into relationship with the tradition and with our fellow human beings and with God.

When we turn to face each other, there’s the potential for experiencing God’s presence in the space between us, the relational space, the I/Thou space, like the relational space between the kruvim of old from which God’s voice was said to issue forth. When we turn to face God, we prime the pump for revelation — and whether it’s revelation of God’s self, or revelation of our own deepest self, doesn’t really matter. Either way, we open the door to our own transformation.

 

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

 

Related: 

  • Gaze, a poem that draws on these teachings from the Aish Kodesh, 2017
  • The Space Between, about the kruvim and God’s voice issuing forth from between them, 2016

 

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.