Category Archives: divrei Torah

Living our Jewish values, all the days of our lives

Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

That’s the first line of this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, which means The Life of Sarah, or perhaps The Lives of Sarah. It’s a poignant name for the Torah portion, because the portion begins not with Sarah’s life but with her death. This week we read how Avraham purchased a burial place for his wife, and buried her.

There is no way to read those lines today without thinking of the eleven who were killed during Shabbat morning services last week at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The days of their lives were cut short by hatred and by the ready availability of guns. They were killed in a house of prayer because they were Jews.

We are not the only community to be targeted in these ways. I think immediately of the massacre in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church in 2015, and the massacre in the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012.

And we are not the only community that now feels afraid. The fear we feel now as Jews in America is connected with the fear felt by our Muslim neighbors, and our queer and transgender neighbors, and our immigrant neighbors, and our neighbors who are people of color. The cancer of bigotry and white nationalism that has infected our nation damages all of us.

And at the same time, this shooting is scary in specific ways for us as Jews. We carry the trauma of the Holocaust. We carry the trauma of centuries of dispossession. Our fear is linked with the fear that so many others feel — and it is also our own, unique to the story of our people.

And yet here we are in synagogue. Here we are, coming together in song and prayer, searching for meaning, striving for the taste of the World to Come that Shabbat offers us each week. Here we are in Jewish community. Because no amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop being Jews. No amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop singing and praying, learning and studying, standing up for the immigrant and the refugee, loving the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

If I have to die for those values, I will die for them. But far more important to me is my willingness to live for those values, and for those values to live in me. The best way I can honor the lives of the eleven who were killed last Shabbat is by living my Jewish values with all my heart and with all my might all the days of my life. And that means speaking up for the disempowered, and welcoming the refugee, and “walking my talk.” Halakha, the term usually translated as “Jewish law,” can also be translated as “our way of walking.” To be a Jew is to aim to walk a path of righteousness.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,” says the Song of Songs (8:6), “for love is strong as death.” Granted, love can’t make death disappear. No matter how much the Pittsburgh shooting victims were and are loved, we can’t bring them back to life. But love persists beyond death. Even when someone has died, we can continue to love them — our love persists as long as we draw breath. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we die, our souls return to their Source, to the wellspring of hope and love that we feebly name as God. We come from Love, and when we die we return to Love.

And while we live, it is our job to love. It is our job to love one another — in Auden’s words, “We must love one another or die.” How do we love one another? One answer comes from Cornel West, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Because I love, I demand justice not only for myself but for all. Because I love, I will work toward liberty and justice for all. Because I love, I will work toward a world where we have banished hatred and bigotry, slander and cruelty, xenophobia and white nationalism, racism and prejudice. We may not get there in my lifetime, but we have to keep trying.

That’s the best response I can offer to the tragedy of the Tree of Life shooting last Shabbat. We honor their memories by being who we are, being Jews walking a Jewish path, all the days of our lives. And we honor their memories by working tirelessly — once Shabbes is over — toward building a world redeemed.

Let us seal God’s presence into our hearts so that we are not afraid. Let us seal God’s presence into our arms, to strengthen us for the work of bringing justice to this battered world. Let us take comfort in our togetherness. And tonight when we make havdalah, let us rededicate ourselves to being a light in the darkness and building a world of greater justice and love.

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

 

Our job: to uphold and increase the light

Hands-holding-candle

” וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד / And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.” (Genesis 1:5)

This poetic account of the beginnings of creation — from the first verses of Bereshit, the opening of the Torah that we read each year at this season — is the reason why Jewish days begin at sundown. When God began to create the heavens and the earth, there was chaos. God hovered over the face of the deep like a mother bird. And then God spoke light into being, and saw its goodness, and separated it from the darkness. And Torah teaches that “there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.”

On the secular calendar, each new day begins at one minute after midnight when our clocks move from PM to AM, which is technically “morning.” (I suspect that most of us think of each day beginning when we wake up in the morning.) But on the Jewish calendar, a new day begins with sundown. Erev Shabbat comes before Shabbes morning. Kol Nidre comes before Yom Kippur morning. Every Jewish “day” begins with evening. As in today’s Torah verses, night comes before day.

There’s always something poignant for me about reading these words as autumn approaches. I love the long days of summer and everything that they represent. I brace against Seasonal Affective Disorder as the days grow shorter. And every year Torah reminds me with these verses that night is part of the natural order of things — and that it is the precursor to day. Dark will give way to light every day. Dark will give way to light in a bigger-picture sense as the round of the seasons continues to turn.

One of my spiritual tasks right now is cultivating faith that dark will give way to light in a psycho-spiritual sense, too. But psycho-spiritually, we can’t count on the planet’s natural orbit to bring us from darkness to light. We need to make that turn happen ourselves. God set the planets and stars on their paths of time and season, and the earth will continue to orbit the sun and to shift on its axis no matter what we do or don’t do. But the task of increasing the world’s spiritual light falls to humanity.

It is easy to feel, these days, that we are living in dark times. Every day brings a new outrage. (I could list them for you. I expect each of us could make our own list.) Faced with injustices both large and small, it would be easy to despair.

Our task is to resist that impulse toward despair. Instead we’re called to kindle and nurture light in the darkness: the light of integrity, the light of hope, the light of justice.  Because unlike the light of the sun, which will return no matter what we do, the light of justice needs our protection and our effort. The light of justice can easily be hidden, or diminished, or even extinguished. Our job is to protect it as it burns, and to ensure that its shining can reach every place that’s in need of its radiance.

And every place is so in need of that radiance.

Today is Shabbat. Today we live in the “as if” — as if injustice and corruption and cruelty and prejudice and despair were things of the past. And tonight at sundown when we begin a new day, it will be time to take action again, in whatever ways we can. Tonight at sundown it becomes our job again to build a world of greater justice and hope and compassion. Tonight at sundown it becomes our job again to nurture and protect justice and integrity. When the world around us is dark, it’s our job to be a light.

Later this fall, Bayit: Your Jewish Home will launch a new initiative we’re calling #BeALight. We’ll invite participants to make havdalah, kindling the multi-wicked candle that evokes our souls coming together in community. And we’ll invite participants to emerge from Shabbat’s restorative sweetness by taking a concrete step toward building a better world. Though that project hasn’t officially launched, I invite us to think about what we could do tonight after havdalah to bring more light into the world.

In this week’s Torah portion everything begins again. In a sense that’s a once-a-year phenomenon. But it’s also a weekly phenomenon, as havdalah gives us the chance to start each week anew. It can even be a daily phenomenon: in Mary Oliver’s poetic words, “Every morning the world is created…” As our liturgy teaches, every morning our souls are given back to us, clean and clear for the new day. So what will we do with our souls, with our selves, with our hearts as we begin again and again?

Tonight at sundown we’ll begin again, and the work of kindling and protecting the light of justice will be in our hands. What will we do in the new week to uphold and promote and share that light?

 

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

Image source: eagleinthestorm.

 

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.

 

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.