Attuning to the Presence

WIT-922AThe verse which leapt out at me this year when I sat down to study this week’s parsha is this one (Leviticus 9:6):

ויאמר משה זה הדבר אשר צוה הויה תעשו וירא אליכם כבוד הויה

The JPS translation renders that verse as follows:

Moses said: “This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you.”

And then the text goes on to share the details of ancient sacrificial practices designed for that purpose. What struck me this year was that final clause, the one that speaks about us seeing the Presence of the Divine.

Here’s another way of rendering those same Hebrew words:

And Moses said: “This is the thing that Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) offers as a connective-commandment, in order that y’all may be attuned to the Glorious Presence of the Divine.”

We may imagine that seeing God’s Presence was something which was only available to our ancestors in Biblical times. Torah tells us that as they wandered in the wilderness they saw a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but we don’t get that kind of assurance. We don’t get that kind of connection.

Except that we do. Or we can. That’s what the mitzvot are for. The mitzvot are like tuning forks. The musicians among us know that when you strike a tuning fork it resonates at a particular frequency. The mitzvot help us attune ourselves to the presence of God, to the presence of something beyond ourselves.

The purpose of lighting Shabbat candles isn’t just to kindle a couple of pretty lights on a Friday night — it’s to arouse our ability to be conscious of God’s light in the world.

The purpose of making havdalah isn’t just to give us a nice bookend for the end of Shabbat — it’s to tune our inner instrument so that as we enter into the new week we resonate at God’s frequency.

The purpose of blessing our food before we eat isn’t just to remind us to be grateful — it’s to awaken our awareness of the sparks of divinity even in the thiings we consume.

The purpose of feeding the hungry isn’t just to relieve their suffering — it’s to recognize that God’s Presence is present in those who hunger.

The purpose of studying Torah isn’t just to learn about our tradition — it’s to tune our inner radios to the divine broadcast which is still ongoing.

God’s Presence is all around us. Every moment can be infused with awareness of divinity. That’s the lesson of hashpa’ah, spiritual direction, which asks: where is God in what is unfolding in your life right now?

Spiritual direction is a tool for becoming attuned to God’s presence.* Prayer is a tool for becoming attuned to God’s presence, and it’s one which is available to us here every week in community — and is available to each of us on our own every day.

And every mitzvah is a tool for becoming attuned to God’s presence, a tuning fork which rings out a sweet, clear note. When our hearts resonate with that note, when our hearts are attuned to God, then we can find the Divine Presence in everything we do.

 

This is the d’var Torah I offered at my shul during our contemplative Shabbat morning service yesterday.

*and it’s one which I’m blessed to be able to offer to our community because of the three years I spent in ALEPH’s hashpa’ah program.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to a contemplative Shabbat Shemini

Shavua tov – a  good week to you! Join us this coming Shabbat morning for services led by Rabbi Rachel. This week will feature a contemplative chant-based Shabbat morning service. We will sing brief excerpts from our liturgy, letting each one soak into our hearts and souls. (Though everything else will be brief and distilled into its purest form, we will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in fulltext form.)

This week we’re reading parashat Shemini from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus)

return-to-shabbatIf you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, some links follow:

And here’s the URJ’s compilation of commentaries on this week’s Torah portion:Tzav at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact Pattie Lipman.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Tzav.

Shavua tov – a  good week to you! Join us this coming Shabbat morning for services led by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield.

This week we’re reading parashat Tzav from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus)

return-to-shabbatIf you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, some links follow:

And here’s the URJ’s compilation of commentaries on this week’s Torah portion: Tzav at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact Pattie Lipman.

Collaboration with God: on Torah and bread

If you pay attention to the emails you receive from the synagogue office, you may have noticed that this month some of us are engaging in an experiment with the mitzvah of blessing our food. We’re making an extra effort, during this lunar month of Adar 2, to remember to say a blessing over the foods we eat. At the end of the month, we’ll take stock of how the experiment felt. We’ll examine whether, and how, practicing this mitzvah of expressing gratitude for our food may have helped us to flourish as human beings.

One of the core blessings over food is the blessing we’ll recite over our challah when this morning’s service is complete: the hamotzi.

Hamotzi

At first blush it appears to be pretty similar to all of the other food blessings, right? We bless God Who creates the fruit of the vine, the fruit of the tree, the fruit of the earth. The hamotzi is just like those. Isn’t it? Well — not quite. We say borei pri hagafen over wine or grape juice or grapes. We say borei pri ha-etz over apple juice or over apples. But the hamotzi doesn’t thank God for the grain of the field. The hamotzi blesses God Who brings forth bread from the earth.

Bread does not grow on wheat stalks. Bread requires human effort. God causes the grain to grow, but in order for there to be bread someone has to harvest the grain, mill the grain into flour, mix it with water and a leavening agent, shape it, proof it, and bake it. Without God, we wouldn’t have the grain — but without human beings, the grain couldn’t become bread. God may indeed bring forth bread from the earth, as the poetic language of our blessing teaches, but the means through which God does that work is human hands.

Human hands are needed to turn wheat into bread… just as human hearts and minds are needed for the transformation of Torah into its most meaningful form. Sixteenth-century Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, wrote, “Consider all of God’s creations, and you will see that they are all in need of some finishing act. Wheat must be processed in order to be fit for human consumption; it was not created by God in finished form… [and just so], Sages finish and complete the Torah.”

“The Torah of Adonai is perfect, restoring the soul,” says the psalmist. But if the Torah is perfect, how can it need to be completed? Maybe the problem lies in what we think perfection means. Look out our beautiful sanctuary windows at the sky. Would you say that the sky right now is perfect? I would. Or at least, I aspire to be someone who can always see perfection in the sky. It’s perfect whether it’s blue or grey, clear or cloudy. It’s perfect, and when it changes into something new, it will be perfect then too. Perfect doesn’t have to mean unchanging. Perfection can lie in the very continuity of change.

And perfect doesn’t have to mean finished. Maybe what makes Torah most perfect is precisely that it’s not finished… until we read it and add our voices to the tapestry of interpretation. Maybe Torah in a vacuum isn’t perfect. Maybe Torah becomes perfect precisely when we commit ourselves to engaging with it, to spinning its fibers into beautiful tapestries, to grinding and mixing and baking its grain into nourishing bread. Torah is the raw material given to us by God, the grain of the field awaiting our contributions of effort and heart. Our task is to engage with those materials and make them into something new.

This week we enter into the book of Vayikra, “And God Called” — known in English as Leviticus. This section of Torah is filled with the details of the ancient sacrificial system. It details the offerings our ancestors made before God: offerings in search of atonement or forgiveness, offerings of gratitude, wholeness offerings, elevation offerings. It describes the offering-up of bulls and goats, sheep and pigeons, elaborate breads and dishes of oil and flour. For many moderns, these are the most challenging portions in Torah from which to wrest meaning. Who among us can imagine communicating with God through the ritual slaughter of cattle and pigeons, or the burning of incense and fine meal?

The word for the service the priests offered in the temple is avodah, from a root meaning “to serve.”(The same idea is embedded in our English word for what we’ve come here for this morning: “services.”) Today we seek to engage in avodah she-ba-lev, the “service of the heart” a.k.a. prayer. The sacrificial system worked for us two thousand years ago… and then when our circumstances changed, we found a new way to understand the meaning of avodah. Who knows how we’ll connect with God in another two thousand years? The only thing I hope I can say with certainty is that we will still be wrestling with the question. We will still be figuring out how to transform the raw stuff of Torah into bread that gives us the spiritual nourishment we need.

What happens if we approach these descriptions of ancient sacrifice in the spirit of collaborative inquiry, bringing to bear on this Torah the leavening of our curiosity and the heat of our impassioned hearts?

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered yesterday at CBI.

Save the date: contemplative Shabbat morning, April 2

the CBI Spiritual Life committee

and Rabbi Rachel

invite you into a deep, sweet Shabbat

of contemplation and chant

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Contemplative Shabbat Morning Service

April 2 / 23 Adar II, 9:30am

Join us in going deep into silence and song.

Though we will be praying only selected “pearls” from the liturgy,

we will recite mourner’s kaddish in full.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Vayikra.

Shavua tov – a  good week to you! Join us this coming Shabbat morning for services led by Rabbi Rachel.

This week we’re reading parashat Vayikra, the first portion in the book of Leviticus.

return-to-shabbatIf you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, some links follow:

And here’s the URJ’s compilation of commentaries on this week’s Torah portion: Vayikra at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact Pattie Lipman.

New dates: class on death, mourning, and transformation

Dear CBI members and friends,

I have heard from several of those who wanted to take my upcoming class on Jewish teachings about death and mourning that the dates don’t work for y’all, so I am moving the class further into the summer season. The new dates are: June 5, June 26, and July 24. Here’s the description of the class:

Death, mourning, and transformation

This three-session class, taught by Rabbi Rachel, will explore Jewish ideas, teachings, and rituals around death and mourning. We’ll explore texts both ancient and modern which will offer us different Jewish ideas about death and afterlife, taharah and burial, and kaddish and mourning customs. The class will meet at 10am on Sundays June 5, June 26, and July 24

Price: $18 for CBI members, $36 for non-members. Register by emailing rabbibarenblat at gmail dot com.

I look forward to learning with y’all!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel