Sing to Pray, Tell the Truth: My Meeting With Rabbi Darío Feiguin

Rabbi Darío FeiguinI love chanting through a service in nusach. There is something mesmerizing, meditative in gentle repetition and subtle variations on musical themes. But sometimes I have known a rabbi or cantor to focus more on demonstrating proficiency than channeling sincerely. Authenticity, though, is not ensured by maximizing the Hebrew and minimizing the time it takes to deliver it.

Our prayers are rich in meaning. Our prayers have a purpose. Even when I know my congregants cannot themselves translate the words I am chanting, I believe that if I daven the words from my heart, my cadences, my emphasis and my pauses will help them feel, even understand the kavanah of the siddur. I don’t always have to intermix English with Hebrew, or provide an introductory explanation. Music is a medium for heart and soul.

We pray while singing, and our tears tell the truth.

I went to Costa Rica this past July and relearned this lesson from another rabbi. I was there, in part, to daven, drash, and teach at Congregation B’nei Israel in San Jose. Rabbi Darío Feiguin and Ileanah Carazo, a former student of mine, had invited me. Ileanah is now preparing for the rabbinate through the ALEPH ordination program. She also serves on the B’nei Israel board.

B’nei Israel is beautifully served. Rabbi Darío savors prayer. Kabbalat Shabbat was a joyous and musical collaboration. The next morning, Rabbi Darío led Shabbat Shacharit almost entirely in nusach.

Most of the congregants likely could not translate the Hebrew of the prayerbook. Yet, Rabbi Darío used his voice to give over the longing, the hope, and the joy that is embedded in the siddur. He did not reduce nusach to a drone. He did not cloak it in a monotony it never, ever deserved. He did not rush. He did not go on automatic. He treated each prayer gently, honoring the words like the divine poetry they are.

In listening to him lead, wholly and simply, I came to know his heart. His davening brought tears to my eyes.

A congregation served by such a rabbi is a congregation that can welcome others. It is a congregation that is willing to be nourished by a stranger because its own rabbi is a teacher who values learning in whatever form it might take.

We were at the close of B’midbar that week, and I had been asked to lead Torah study. I knew there were many students of Judaism in the room, people coming home, returning to their tribe. There were also members of the shul whose Jewish ancestry could be traced back for many generations.

But they all possessed an inner Torah, I said, as we began our session together. They all possessed Torah wisdom.

We studied the last year in the wilderness together. We spoke of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. We reviewed the events that led Moses to rage and the people to apostasy.

“We have, each one of us, known a year of pain,” I said. “What wisdom, what inner Torah did you learn from a long period of struggle?”

Darío’s wife Yudi, a woman of energy and ebullience, had tears in her eyes. She spoke of family, community, safety. Another woman cried openly, and spoke of courage. One man spoke of learning how to feel worthy again.

“The Torah,” I said when our time drew to a close, “is our mirror and our oracle. It shows us who we are and it tells us who we can be. To read the Torah is to understand ourselves, our community, our purpose. Read Torah, and become a holy people.”

It was Darío who now had tears in his eyes. Why? Rabbi Darío loves his work, he loves Judaism, and he loves Torah and God.

Congregants led by a rabbi who can touch hearts can open their own. Congregants led by a rabbi who can teach will be able to hear. A rabbi conscious that each word chanted, each word read, each word studied can provide Torah to the world is a rabbi who can change lives. Darío is such a rabbi.

Rabbi Darío stepped forward, thanked me, and led the davening. In nusach. With devotion.

We prayed while singing, and our tears told the truth.

Descent for the Sake of Ascent: The Last Year in the Wilderness

wildernessAs we go up, we descend.

In B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, we travel through wilderness to the Promised Land. We make our first aliyah, our first “going up.” But during a last year of troubles, we spiral downward first. Why must we sorrow and grieve so? Why do we transgress and fail to trust?

As that last year begins, Miriam dies, leaving behind a people thirsty for water, for life. Aaron dies shortly thereafter, his death witnessed by his younger brother. There is yet more plague, threats of a curse from a foreign king, one betrayal after another. The Israelites are seduced; a final pestilence wipes out the last of the generation that had fled Egypt.

In B’midbar we descend, step by step, and no one is left untouched, uncompromised. Zealotry becomes permissible, even sanctioned. Transgression before the sanctuary results in death sentence. Pinchas kills two lovers at once, with one spear thrust through their intertwined bodies.

Exhausted and worn, Moses finds his humility, his generosity only to lose it again. He understands that he will never enter the Promised Land and ordains Joshua with grace and power. He responds to the requests of the daughters of Zelophohad to inherit for their father with compassion and understanding.

But then, God commands his servant: He is to avenge the Israelites on the Midianites: “Then,” YHVH says, “you will be gathered to your kin” (Num. 31:2). YHVH does not stipulate conditions; Moses does. When the men come back from the war, he is enraged. They have spared the women, the very ones who seduced the Israelites. He orders them to slay every male child, every woman who is sexually mature. Only virgins will be spared. They will be booty.

It must be total war: A war of annihilation.

The last chapters of B’midbar give us rage and aggression after initial chapters of complaint and rebellion. In the last year we spend in the wilderness we descend, we fall. We seem to have lost our way just as we are supposed to arrive.

How shall we go forward? We, too, know what it is to fall. We know the grief of loss and the pain of our own mistakes. We know all too well when we have missed the mark, failed to rise and nourish ourselves, our families, our communities, the broken world.

We are now at the lowest, most painful time in the liturgical year, just days away from Tisha B’Av, when our temples were destroyed and our people so often brutally treated, expelled from England and Spain, liquidated from the Warsaw Ghetto. Now, as we travel through the memory of loss, our year, too, is ending. The month of Elul, the time for reflection, is near. Yom Kippur, our hope for renewal, is before us. Can we free ourselves from the accumulated grit and dirt of our mistakes and transgressions and ascend? Reach our promised lands?

In the penultimate chapter of B’midbar, Moses is given instructions concerning assurance of refuge. Who does this text address? Those who have killed unintentionally. Those who have taken life itself without ever meaning to do harm.

Every one of us, every year, takes from this earth, takes from each other, takes from life itself – and not because we intend harm, but because, simply, we have missed the mark. Small, thoughtless action – the impatience we show a child or a spouse or a friend, the need to have it our way, the careless consumption of material things that neither enrich nor bless us – we long to live in the light of God and we find ourselves in so many shades of darkness, of removal, of descent from the divine.

But we Jews, we read to discover. We read to recover. In Massei, at the close of B’midbar, we read that there must be forty-two cities for the Levites and six additional, special cities that can promise refuge to those who have taken life unintentionally. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad. Six words. “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha…” – a Torah of forty-two words. We discover this: In the Shema, in listening to the Holy One, in the V’ahavta, in the loving of the Ruach ha’Olam, we will ascend. We will redeem our mistakes, our many acts of life-taking. We will rise to acts of renewal. We will find refuge in the city of the Shema.

We descend in order to ascend: yeridah tzorech aliyah. May we leave our wilderness spaces and deserted places, and go up, forward into our Promised Lands.

To Be a Blessel – Revisioning Pinchas

BlesselThe last chapters of B’midbar are painful reading. Apostasy is followed by a terrible, final, killing plague. An execution takes place inside sacred space. YHVH praises the executioner, while the human scribes who have recorded the story for over two millennia protest by calligraphy.

Pinchas’ name is written with a smaller-than-usual yod in the same verse that YHVH praises him for his zealotry (Numbers 25:11). Why? Despite divine approval, the tiny yod, so it is said, signals us that the Jew, Y’hudi, is diminished by an act of violence. Or the yod represents Ya: The divine in Pinchas’ soul has been made weaker through his act of strength.

Even the word shalom in the next verse, in which YHVH promises Pinchas a b’rit shalom, a covenant of friendship, reveals the discomfort of our scribes. The vav in the word shalom is written in two parts. Peace achieved by destroying our opponents must, by necessity, be broken – insufficient and incomplete.

It is hard to find sympathy or understanding for Pinchas. Every year I relive the scene in my imagination; every year I recoil from it. A sword through the bellies of intertwined lovers, the lovers bleeding out their lives in a space meant to sanctify God’s gift of life. The image is harsh, brutal, unforgiving. YHVH announces that Pinchas’ act has prevented far worse. Pinchas stayed God’s hand: YHVH was ready (again) to destroy the nation of priests the Holy One had envisioned, dreamed for Godself. The children of Israel had become a wayward, ungrateful, unholy people.

What we reject so thoroughly is so often a sign of something we refuse to see in ourselves. Is there something in Pinchas’ fierce certainty that frightens me because it seems familiar? Do I know what it is to struggle, again and again, with human aggressions and cruelties and long, in one fell swoop, to simply strike a sword through what seems so obviously evil?

We live in a world filled with horrors. Children are filmed as executioners; other executioners freely murder children. In the Sudan, in the Congo, Ethiopia, and Burma genocidal programs unfold before us. Fanatics couple with each other, make unholy alliances, and destroy life; sacred places, sacred cities, sacred art and culture are hacked apart along with the peoples they belong to.

We are all, every one of us, capable of picking up a sword. If I know what is right, may I attack those I am sure are wrong? Blunt or written instruments are available easily enough — at hand and on the tongue.

In Jewish Renewal we speak often about blessings. We make them, we aspire to them, we speak about their construction. We talk, too, about being vessels for the Holy One. How can we clear our souls, act as channels for the Ruach HaKodesh?

In 2002, Tali Kutzen, then three years old, invented a word I was gifted last week by Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. Tali, Rabbi Hanna Tiferet told me, combined two words into one, making of “vessel” and “blessing” the word “blessel.”

To be a blessel in some way, each day: An idea for our time.

For any time. I imagine Pinchas and the children of Israel on the edge of the Promised Land, understanding that the task before them is far greater than their fears. I want to see them embracing the task and not their terror.

Ascend and make aliyah. Go forward and up, and if you fall, rise again. Be blessels and there will be no tiny yod to write into any of us, no diminution of Ya in our soul or Y’hudi in our hearts.

May it be so: In all time, for all time.

Talking Truth – Second Sight

magic wand“We need to talk,” she said.

Oy, I thought. It’s that tone.

“About what?” I asked warily.

“About that stick you have in your hand.”

“What stick?”

“That thing you keep twirling about.”

“Oh,” I said nonchalantly, “I’m just practicing. Once I can twirl this real good, I’ll try juggling. Five balls in the air! Could be part of the show, right?”

“Someone is going to get hurt if you let it fly.”

“What are we really talking about?” I asked. But I put the stick down. “It’s not this, is it?”

“You want an honest answer?”

“You are a stickler for the truth…”

She smiled. “Very cute. Your ego,” she added softly. “We are talking about your Self.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Have you thought about the real shtick – the one that is made of all the stuff in your head? It will all come tumbling out of your mouth if you go on like this. It won’t be good.”

“What do you think I should do? Give up the job?”

“You are not seeing clearly,” she said firmly. “Your ego is leading you on.”

(Heads up: An annoying revelation is coming at you with the word “truth” written on it. In 22 font. Bodoni, no less.)

I didn’t like the ick in my stomach. I resisted.

“Where is God in all this?” she asked quietly.

“You’re mocking me, right?” I parried. “God,” I added dryly, “has apparently not made up the divine mind. Sometimes I get absolutely nothing. Sometimes I get a warning. Sometimes it seems YHVH is just fine no matter what I do.” I paused. “At least the officiating fee is fantastic. Makes for a nice change.”

“How do you feel about it?”

I could tell I didn’t like the question.

“Okay, I shouldn’t have taken this gig in the first place,” I admitted. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

“Yup,” she said. “I thought so.”

We both went quiet.

I like when the job is a fit. The visioning is invariably incredible, powerful beyond words. I love that flow going right through my fingertips into the sacred, sweet earth. I rejoice when the right words come in exactly the right moment. I don’t know what they will be before they arrive. But I always know when heavenly magic is happening: The blessing, the truth comes from beyond me, from above me. It is goodness and sweetness and eternity all rolled into one.

It’s a gift, and it always, always makes me grateful.

But I’m human. I’m susceptible, like anyone else. After all, even spiritual work needs to be paid for. It’s not like it didn’t take years to learn the craft. Sure, the negotiating, the interaction can take me into a different place.

It’s probably a sign when I get impatient to go, when my body gets me up too early in the morning. That usually means I just want to get the job done and get back home.

I’m off the divine grid. I teeter on the edge of the path, crowded and hemmed in.

“Look,” she said, “I’ve known you for so long.”

I put my head in my arms.

“You can press the reset button,” she said gently. “You can make your intentions holy. You can do it. Just let go and ask. Everything will turn out all right.”

It was a nice idea. Maybe, if I could slow down, I’d hear better. See better.

“I stand on your shoulders,” I said. “I’ve been doing that for years, now.”

“No,” she laughed. “You ride on them. Now, let’s go.”

“That would be good,” I said.  donkey

“And how,” she said.

It was finally my turn to smile. “Ma tovu…”

This post is in honor of Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, who knows how to talk to all sorts of magical beings.

On Choosing Kindness – In Memory of Evelyn Thiede

Evelyn Thiede

Evelyn Thiede

Five years ago today I was attending the last retreat of my rabbinic studies. It was a Thursday. Classes ended the next day. My chevre and I would celebrate Shabbat together, and everyone would go home, rich with new knowledge.

That Thursday was also the day when two of my then congregants were to have their beit dins; they had, with their spouses, traveled to the retreat site.

Beloved rabbis were to sit on the beit dins – Rabbi Victor Gross, Rabbi Nadya Gross, Rabbi Shaya Isenberg. With such rabbis, I could be certain that the two candidates would experience the best kind of beit din – one that would be reflective, considerate of heart and soul and mind. I could be sure that they would feel safe, welcomed into Klal Israel.

And so it went.

My husband, Ralf, and our son, Erik, also arrived that day. They were serving as witnesses for the congregants. We had also planned to drive to the Virginia mountains after the retreat for a short family vacation.

But it did not go like that.

During the afternoon, Ralf was oddly distant. Though my husband is a quiet man, he enjoys an opportunity to share in communal joy. But even at our celebratory dinner, when we laughed and joked about the delightful moments and the unexpected ones of the day, Ralf was withdrawn. Erik, too, seemed unusually reserved.

Very late that night, when the dinner was over, Ralf and Erik drove me back to the retreat center. Ralf parked, and turned the key.

“I think Evelyn is dying,” he said, turning to me.

Shocked, I held him as he cried.

My mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede had gone into the hospital that day for a procedure we all assumed to be essentially safe. A cyst had formed near her heart which needed to be lanced. But the operation went wrong. The surgeon cut into her heart. They tried to sew it together, without success. She was being kept alive by machines.

“Honey,” I asked, “why didn’t you tell me before?”

He explained. Hours earlier, when his brother had called, he had thought over what I was doing that day. I was sitting in on the beit dins. I would need to be fully present for my congregants. They would want my attention and my joy. Knowing earlier would not change any outcomes; Ralf and Erik would tell me as soon as they could, and that would be after the celebratory dinner.

I loved my mother-in-law; it felt to me that she was meant, like Ralf, to be part of my life. She was, in a way, a kind of Naomi for me.

Evelyn was a straightforward, kind, forgiving person. She liked to knit and cook and go on small excursions. She sang with a voice like a girl’s even in her sixties and seventies. My name always sounded beautiful when she said it. She thought of others first.

Five years later, Ralf’s decision still strikes me as profoundly, deeply generous.

He wanted to protect my congregants’ day and their joy. He knew he could do that. He was also right about me: The fear I knew in Evelyn’s last hours, the grief and the horror of it – all of that would have been impossible to box away during those beit dins or the celebration thereafter. I would not have been the rabbi my congregants needed.

I have had occasion, these past years, to think about what rabbis think they must be and must do for their congregants. Or rather, I have learned about what congregants think their rabbis must be and must do for them.

For some, the rabbi must remember every challenge each congregant is facing. They must respond immediately to every request. Rabbis must take the high road while congregants allow themselves to indulge in behaviors that would get them fired from their workplaces and “unfriended” by their social network on Facebook.

Judging the rabbi can become a congregational competition. Winning the prize for the harshest judgment and imposing the cruelest sentence appears, for some, to be a sought-after accomplishment. There are those who take pride in winning such a prize.

The appalling number of religious leaders suffering from depression, divorce, and addiction, the number of religious leaders who barely make it through a decade of service – these facts tell us about the price religious leaders of all faiths pay for entering the profession.

I do not regret not knowing sooner that Evelyn was dying. Ralf is his mother’s son, and Evelyn would have thoroughly approved of his choice. I know that with complete certainty.

I hope that the congregants who later discovered what had happened valued the generous decision Ralf made on their behalf.

Five years later, remembering the joy and the terrible sorrow of that day, I can only pray for this: That all congregants try to hold their religious leaders  dear – if only for their willingness to try and serve. I pray that they examine their own hearts and motives and remember to be constructive.  And kind.  Kind, above all.

May we act on behalf of others and for the sake of heaven, in this and every year to come.

Evelyn, I imagine, would love that.

From Fear to Resolve: Mourning Miriam in Parshat Chukkat

Ancient wellHow much time was given to mourning Miriam?

Not enough. There certainly was enough energy for resistance and rage, though. Miriam dies and the Israelites waste little time in attacking Moses and Aaron. Again. There’s no water, they complain. We are thirsty, they say.

Moses and Aaron must be anguishing over their loss. Miriam, who saved her little brother, who co-led Project Israel, a singer and dancer, a giver of life. Their own people offer no comfort. Quite the contrary. Instead, the Israelites, who have busily brought pitcher after pitcher of poison to force down Moses’ and Aaron’s throats, brew up more of the same.

“Why have you brought YHVH’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt…?” (Numbers 20: 4-5).

More complaints, more indictments. Two generations’ worth, now. You made us try to be free. You forced us to become a people with a spiritual purpose, with a divine promise to fulfill. You. You. You.

They exhaust me, those Israelites. Can’t they give it a rest? Are they really so dependent on Moses and Aaron, really so selfish that they can’t manage to take care of themselves – just this once? Or better yet, why not consider taking care of Moses and Aaron? Did they consider that?

Miriam, the tradition goes, brought water. Without her, Miriam’s well vanished. No wonder the people were frightened. No wonder they noticed their thirst with such force; without that well, they might die parched, burning from the inside out.

Why don’t they remember Miriam leading them in dance, invoke her joy and her hope, and go looking for sustenance in her name? They could have honored her and their own loss. They could have comforted Moses and Aaron, banded together to face their grief instead of indulging in fear.  Instead, they let fear rule. They used their fear like weapons.

Cruel. They cut and they wounded men who had been sliced open again and again.

Theodor Adorno wrote that you are only loved where you may show yourself to be weak without provoking strength. If that is the measure of love, then the Israelites did not know how to love at all.

I cannot blame Moses for striking out himself, for wounding the earth, for the exhaustion of his rage. When YHVH’s compassion is most necessary, it, too, fails. God pronounces judgment, and Aaron and Moses are to be denied the right to lead the Israelites into the promised land.

In Chukkat, we stand in a scorched wilderness composed of grief and rage and resistance.

Now, another task. Another grief. YHVH insists: Moses must walk his brother up Mount Hor. There, Moses himself must take the vestments from his elder brother’s body, transfer authority to Aaron’s son, watch as his brother dies. This time, the whole community mourns. For one month they grieve their High Priest.

Perhaps Moses found their grief cold comfort. The complaints will, after all, come again soon enough. One wonders why he does not abandon the project, walk up the mountain and lie down with his brother.

But he goes on and the people come to Beer. YHVH tells Moses to gather the people so that they may be given water. They assemble. Suddenly, they act – hopefully, joyfully. They sing the song they should have sung after Miriam died. “Spring up, O well,” they chant. “Sing to it” (Numbers 21:17). You might translate this verse: “Spring up, O well – sing to her!”

Is the well Miriam – her nefesh, her ruach, her life-giving force? Are the Israelites remembering Miriam’s song at the Sea of Reeds when she danced the first dance of freedom? Az yashir it reads in both places of our Torah scroll, “then [they] sang.”

But in Exodus 15:1 it is Moses and the children of Israel who sing (az yashir Moshe u’v’nei Yisrael). Here, in Numbers, only the Israelites are mentioned (az yashir Yisrael).

Moses, perhaps, observes, listens as they sing to the feminine, life-giving source of strength of the well, of its water, in honor or memory, perhaps, of Miriam, the prophetess.

Does this song offer Moses, who is now without brother or sister, a moment of healing? Does this song renew his spirit, make it possible for him to go on after all? In this moment, are the Israelites finally acting like a people – mature, considerate, able to be responsible for creating what they need?

If, at last, time was given to mourning and honoring Miriam, then it might have been enough. Grief could give way to hope; fear to resolve.

May it always be so.

White People, Take it In: On Racism and the Charleston Murders

Charleston murderedWe were checking out various apartments and homes for rent around our new town, Charlotte, North Carolina. My husband, Ralf, stopped to talk to different folks in in what appeared to be a diverse neighborhood.

I was sitting in the car looking at newspaper ads when Ralf got back into the driver’s seat.

“Find out anything?” I asked. For a moment, Ralf was silent.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I can’t believe the language I just heard,” he said. “I was just talking to that white man over there in that front yard. He told me we should think about whether we want to move in to this neighborhood.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and these were his words – the ‘niggers’ are taking over.”

It was 1990. Neither one of us could take it in.

Photo by James Keivom, originally published in the NY Daily News

That was a quarter century ago. And now? We are taking in Eric Gardner on the sidewalk, choking to death. We are taking in the vision of a 14-year-old African American girl pushed to the ground and kneed in the back by a white police officer. We are taking in Dylann Storm Roof’s murder of nine African Americans in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. During bible study, no less.

The list is, of course, endless. And we white people? We are, apparently, not sick enough.

There are so many pernicious ways for racism to run its course. Just cut out the facts of history, for example.

In 1999, I worked for the North Carolina State Department of Cultural Resources as the bicentennial coordinator for Reed Gold Mine. Reed Gold Mine is the location of the first documented discover of gold in America, and almost as soon as the family had sold enough nuggets, Reed began purchasing slaves to search for gold.

The white manager of the site called the place “John Reed’s farm.” John Reed’s enormous wealth was made on the backs of slave labor, but that went unmentioned in the tour shpiel which was delivered then, not unsurprisingly, mostly to white visitors.

Does this fact seem innocuous in comparison to the police brutality we have been witnessing in videos and pictures on YouTube? To a criminal justice system that routinely rounds up African Americans for, among other things, driving? To a mass murder of the faithful in a church sanctuary?

How about this (not small) fact: After WWII white people fled to the suburbs, often financed by banks who refused loans to African Americans. The result? Over decades, lower class white people were able to build home equity and inheritable wealth while African Americans were confined to decaying inner cities. One group got a hand up to the middle class; the other was prevented from moving at all.

These facts are among the millions of facts underpinning American racism. Racism is systemic, pervasive. It is not merely unacknowledged in this country, it is nourished by the white world’s inability to take it in.

Since 2000 I have seen more and more African American students in my classes at UNC Charlotte. They seem different from those I was teaching in the 1990’s. They are more self-assured, more confident. They seem, generally, to trust that I want to help.

Why should they?

Why should African Americans trust any white person who has a position of authority? Why should they trust any white person?

White people have enslaved black people, we have oppressed and persecuted black people, we have made it impossible for any black person to be born into true freedom.

A thousand, a million, an uncountable number of cuts. Banks, police, the criminal system – white America is sick with hatred and violence against African Americans. But not yet sick enough?

Why did those members of “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the south, invite in a lone white man into their community? Into their sacred space? Into their sanctuary?

“They were so trusting,” church historian Liz Alston said.

Now it is time: White people – all white people must consider what they must do to earn such trust.

Take it in.

Forgiving and Forgetting in Parshat Sh’lach L’cha

angry-crowdSix congregants were on the phone line to discuss Parshat Sh’lach L’cha. We pictured the awful scene: Moses and Aaron falling to their faces, Joshua and Caleb rending their clothes, a community threatening to stone their own leaders. Moses, asking God to forgive the cowardice and the craziness, and God relenting – partially.

There was much conversation about knowing how and when to forgive. When do those who oppose us function as dark angels with important messages? When are aggressive, angry people actually teaching us how to respond firmly and clearly to unhealthy rage and unwarranted destruction? When must we stand fast, insist on light and right?

One imagines what it took for Moses to stand again, to turn from the people prepared to stone him and his brother and to plead with his (and their) God. Pardon them. Pardon them, please, again. As you have since they left Egypt, as you have according to Your great kindness (Numbers 14:19).

No wonder, given the multitude of cascading transgressions we commit each year, that we quote this very plea after Kol Nidre. We must trust in God’s forgiveness.

Finally, I asked, “Do we need to discuss the Sabbath breaker?” Perhaps I imagined the collective breath; I certainly heard one familiar voice say firmly, “yes.”

There is no forgiveness this time.

The very community that indulged in collective cowardice now (perhaps?) does so again. They bring the Sabbath breaker before Moses and place him under guard, “for it was not clear what should be done to him” (Numbers 15:34).

YHVH issues judgment. The man is to be stoned to death. This time, the community does exactly as commanded.

One congregant points out that God Godself took the first Shabbat rest. Humans were created in God’s image, he says. They were asked only to be godly. Here, an Israelite flaunts everything, the whole project, the extraordinary gift of the Law given by God at Sinai. This one Israelite has spurned the first, fundamental act of God after creation is completed. God blessed that day, declared it holy. This is, the congregant points out, serious stuff.

But another notes that the Sabbath breaker could hardly have predicted the outcome of his transgression – after all, even the community does not know what to do with him at first. Why must YHVH be so severe?

A third asks: Why didn’t anyone speak up? We’ve seen Moses appeal to God’s ego to dissuade YHVH from destroying the entire people. In the face of this judgment against one man, Moses is silent. Aaron is silent. The people are silent. Why?

We acknowledge that the text comes from the Priestly school of writers. My congregants know by now that the Priestly school was all about institutionalizing the Sabbath, brit milah, Temple sacrifice and Temple ritual. Nevertheless, another congregant points out the obvious: Later redactors left this story in our Torah – and they sanctified it by doing so.

More discussion, and we are still unsure, at odds with ourselves. Can we accept the severity of this decree as a warning that the Sabbath was critical to our survival – that without its practice we, too, would die? Does the gift – and the observance – of the Sabbath ensure the life of our very souls?

Humans, so the saying goes, call out: “How long, oh Lord? How long?” And God answers back: “How long, humankind? How long?”

In his novel, The Buried Giant, writer Kazuo Ishiguro describes a post-Arthurian world suffering from forgetfulness. Characters struggle to remember what happened just hours earlier. Their past is barely present to them. Every memory they think they have is mere speculation.

At one point, an elderly couple discusses the possibility that it is God who is causing the mist that takes their memories. Perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done, one says. Or maybe God isn’t angry, but just ashamed. The other doesn’t understand: Why, then, doesn’t God merely punish humanity? Why make everyone forget?

“Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget,” the first answers. “…when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.”

Sometimes, our texts describe God ashamed. I was wrong to shrink the light of the moon, God says in one midrash and the Holy One even asks that a sacrifice be brought God’s own account, no less: “The Holy Blessed One said: bring an expiation for me because I diminished the moon… (Bereshit Rabba 6:1,4)

Sometimes, our texts describe God hiding from us: “But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God / Your sins have made Him turn His face away / And refuse to hear you” (Isaiah 59:2). God turns away from our crimes– perhaps in order to forget they ever occurred? How else could God go on?

A community rejects its charge and then turns on its leaders, threatening to kill them for asking for their courage and their faith. God forgives, partially, but soon after commands that same community to kill one of its members. Does the wrong done warrant this judgment or has God, tested by the people’s own spinelessness and aggression, simply forgotten forgiveness? When God turns from humanity, does God begin to forget Godself?

When we forget what makes us divine, do we forget ourselves?

B’ha’alot’cha: Torah for Our Times

pillar of cloudRabbi Shimon said, “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Be’ha’alot’cha is no mere story, but a story for our times. The Israelites are traveling away from Sinai, away from exaltation and revelation. They have been given a covenant and responsibility with it. They have been charged with obligations they do not fully understand, that they have yet to learn and to practice.

The Holy One goes with them, a fire in the night, a blaze wrapped in cloud by day.

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Kuma Adonai v’yafutzu oivecha v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha. “Arise, YHVH!” And he would pray: “May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You” (Numbers 10:35).

We chant this verse during Torah services, followed immediately by verses adding a critical postscript: Ki mitzion teitzei Torah: For the Torah came from Zion (Isaiah 2:3).

For many years I have read this text through the eyes of Rebecca Smith. During her bat mitzvah preparation, nearly a decade ago, we looked at this text together. Rebecca was  clear: She didn’t like it the text. It seemed like the description of an angry, vengeful, aggressive God.

Sometimes, your students help you form the questions you long wanted to ask yourself.

“What are God’s enemies?” I asked. “Who are God’s enemies?”

“Lies,” she told me.

Rebecca, at twelve, knew that whenever we lie to ourselves or to others we close off our hearts and souls to the divine. She named other enemies of God: Rage and aggression and the capacity to destroy.

“What’s in the Ark?” I asked.

“Truth,” she said.

And, in truth, the Ark held and holds Torah, the Torah that binds us and protects us. “When you are bound above,” the sages say, “you will not fall below.”

Of our Torah we say: Eitz Hayyim hi. She is a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). All her ways are ways of peace, we sing. But to make peace, to create peace takes clarity about our intentions. Who is our Higher Authority, our Source of All? What is our purpose?

In this week’s parsha, Moses hears the complaining, the carping, the whining. He takes it all in. It is too much. He cannot carry the weight of dissatisfied, hungry, devouring people. And the Holy One tells him: Find those who can receive ruach, spirit, and who can radiate what they receive. Find those who understand the purpose of this journey, the charge of the Torah, the holiness of the task. When two men Moses did not choose themselves begin to prophecy a boy comes to tattletale and complain. But Moses knows that there are many sources of wisdom. “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets,” he says.

Towards the end of Be’ha’alot’cha , Miriam and Aaron go about the people complaining, gossiping. Moses, they say, married a Cushite woman! Note well: They do not go to speak to Moses, they spread their vitriol elsewhere, instead. A culture of complaint, triangulation, and gossip is poisonous. Lashon hara devours its practitioners, infects its witnesses, and scars its targets.

YHVH calls Miriam and Aaron forward. Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. She becomes a vision of death.

She is the first prophetess of Israel, a woman charged with speaking God’s truth. Instead, she and her brother, the High Priest, have let venomous words do their awful, dangerous work among the people. Aaron is horrified at her punishment; he, too, is guilty. Miriam, the woman who embodied freedom and joy at the sea is now the vessel for the sick spirit of her community.

Moses prays: El na rafa na la. Holy One please, heal her please.

Truth, Rebecca told me years ago, was cradled in the ark, is held in our Torah. She is not made of mere stories but of knowledge and wisdom and life itself. Her ways are peace.

This week’s Torah portion is not a mere story, but a mandate. We, too, must have Moses’ courage to ask the Holy One of Blessing for healing.

May we pray to become whole and grateful inhabitants of our communities.  May we learn that sacred purpose and intentions must be shared and supported by all. May we be blessed with spiritual growth and goodness, with love of Torah. May the Holy One speak to us, and may the Holy One hear our prayer.

Come and see: So it is above.
There is garment, body, soul, and soul of soul.
The heavens and their host are the garment.
The Assembly of Israel is the body,
who receives the soul, Beauty of Israel.
So she is the body of the soul.
The soul we have mentioned is Beauty of Israel, real Torah.
The soul of the soul is the Holy Ancient One.
All is connected, this one to that one


Ruach Ha’Aretz: Jewish Renewal at its Best

RuachRabbi Daniel Siegel, the first rabbi Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z”l, Jewish Renewal’s founder, ordained, teaching Tanya, unpacking the Hebrew with gentle and infectious excitement. The texts fairly flowered before us.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan teaching theodicy (and the Book of Lamentations) with the help of poster-sized post-it notes. By the end of the week the room was filled with questions both human and eternal: What is God’s role in and on this earth? When God turns away, where do we turn?

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg and Rabbi Shohama Wiener team-teaching with bubbly enthusiasm and alternating bursts of energy and reflection in a Catholic retreat center in New Mexico. A combination to be experienced. Devoutly.

The davennen. Services rendered creatively or “traditionally,” some with movement, some with what Reb Zalman called “American nusach.” One mincha I remember was completely silent; nothing but breathing deeply and listening.

I remember the play the children put on for all of us one year. It was based on the legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, the thirty-six righteous persons who live quietly, anonymously; generous to all whose lives they touch. Without their presence on this earth, humanity could not survive. The laughter was lively; the insights sweet. Each child twirled or jumped or stroked an imaginary beard. They all had roles to play. Each was important.

I won’t forget the richness and the joy to be found at Ruach Ha’Aretz.

Ruach Ha’Aretz, ALEPH’s mobile retreat center, is run by Rabbis Nadya and Victor Gross. During my years studying for ordinations as a rabbi and as a mashpiah ruchanit (spiritual director), I went every summer – for the classes, for the davennen, for the sheer lovely wonder of Jewish Renewal at its best.

This year I’ll be teaching at Ruach. Our retreat theme is deep ecumenism, in honor of Reb Zalman. Deep ecumenism, for Zalman, meant transcending the task of learning tolerance or respect for other traditions. It meant engaging and participating on the richest of levels. We learn about ourselves when we get inside another way of thinking about God, about prayer, about holiness itself.

I teach many classes on the history of Jewish life in Christian realms. The territory is tender, difficult to traverse. It is pockmarked by hidden mines and open wounds. And yet, there were times before Christians and Jews built boundaries that have caused so much suffering. There were times, places, and spiritual spaces when they were able to transcend them.

Imagine yourself living during the first centuries of the Common Era, when ancient Judeans asked themselves and each other: Is Jewishness a question of religious belief, ethnicity, or geographic origin? Who genuinely belongs in Christian communities? Who belongs in Jewish ones? In some Roman homes of those first centuries, the gentile inhabitants lit Sabbath lamps. In others, Jews explained the teachings of Christ, the Messiah. “God-fearers,” men and women who made donations and swore oaths to YHVH, visited synagogues in Rome, in Alexandria, and Sardis.

Where were the boundaries between Christian and Jewish practices, between what we understood as holy and sacred in one tradition and what might be revered in the other? These are questions we have asked in every century we have shared. Jews of the Middle Ages put the iron key of a local synagogue in a laboring woman’s hand to help ward off the demons; when no synagogue was nearby, they sometimes approached their Christian neighbors to borrow the one that opened the church doors. The key to either house of God appeared to be a key to protection.

During my class, students will be taking something like Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine. I want us to explore other times when formative ecumenical conversations pivoted around questions of identity and boundaries. I want to see what happens when we bring Jews, Christians, pagans and philosophers to life in role-plays, in reenactments, in re-living. We will “channel” a slave of the second century C.E. whose Jewish education was overseen by the God-fearers of a local synagogue; we’ll try on the spiritual clothing of a Jewish Christian of a century earlier. We might become 16th century Jews who offered intercessory prayer in Christian cemeteries.

Wherever we land, we will ask: What really makes us Jewish or others Christian? How do we, as inhabitants of the 21st century earth, want to converse – deeply, and with understanding – with others?

Our boundaries and identities are a product of the past. But they can also be transformed by learning more deeply about our history. I know that my students and I will come out of our week together changed, surprised, better able to do the work of deep ecumenism.

Like the teachers I learned from, I hope I will give them an experience they will not forget.

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