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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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