Incantations and Incarnations

It is overwhelming. There is so much labor, so much instruction, so very much to do. Every sentence is another job; every verse another obligation. It is hard to read; difficult to approach.

We are in the midst of Torah portions that describe it all: the Tabernacle, its furnishings, the priests’ clothing, investiture.  What’s more, we will read it a second time at the end of the book of Exodus. Why?  In part because eyleh shemot, these words are – so often – words of magic and power.

Give it time and give it sound. Read the texts of Parsha Terumah and Parsha Tetzaveh aloud and you can hear what’s going on: One incantation follows another. Like any incantation, these have formulas: “They shall make…,” “they shall take…,” “there shall be…” The ark, overlaid with gold inside and out. The menorah, with all its botanical markers. The ephod woven of gold, sky-blue, dark red, and crimson. The belt stitched in gold, sky-blue, dark red and crimson.

The incantations are palpable. They evoke the physical. There is a surfeit of doing, creating, forming, making. The scent of blood and incense, the sound of tiny bells, the sight of gems and precious metals – these passages are rich with imagery, with action. The Israelites sew, hammer, engrave. Rabbenu Moshe immerses his elder brother; slaughters animals, daubs blood on the bodies of his brother and nephews.

It’s all part of a beautiful magic spell. We must use these colors, those stones, this fine metal, that sort of cloth. Everything is specified; everything is defined. And it all comes with meaning, with light, with nefesh (life). Aaron will put his hands on our sacrifice and carry our names on his heart.

God guarantees results. Do these things and I will make my Presence felt. There I will meet with you. There I will speak with you. I will sanctify; I will consecrate; I will abide. I, the Lord, your God. And through it all, it is not in the sanctuary, but in the people where God hopes to abide. Chapter 25: 8: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Or, one could translate, “that I may dwell within them.”

The work was, after all, holy work. Each small step in this human version of creation is part of a great and holy song. Can we imagine the cherubim stitched into the curtain? Who knows what the ephod looked like? Who can explain the significance of each stone as it once must have been?

No matter. The incantation is enough.

Who among us has not followed ornate procedures of our own to evoke power? Who has not walked ever so carefully over the cracks in the sidewalk, counted to mysterious numbers and back again, engaged in private rituals, spoken secret phrases? We are all magicians, conjuring divinity of some kind. Many of us hope that our incantations will grant us God’s counsel, God’s presence.

We conjure each day because we need more power than we have. We deal with the mundane, the ordinary. There are simple aggravations: How can I finish the list of tasks? There is deep, terrible pain. My mother’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse; she can’t sing Yiddish with me any more.

An incantation would be nice. A magic spell, to evoke the comfort, the content, the peace we long for.

The Israelites worked with sacred intentions. As we can, or must. Making the beds, finishing the project, cutting a deal. When we do our many labors with all the skills and wisdom of our hearts, we create an incantation, a magical connection to something beyond ourselves.

The Ba’al Shem Tov says: “One flutter of an eyelash for God’s sake makes the creation of the whole world worthwhile.”

There is an incantation in the work of our lives. We are all dressing the priests, making the offering, lighting the eternal flame. We do these things trusting that our work, whatever it may be, will be as holy as our intent.

No matter who we are and what we believe, this magic is worth doing.


Visioning the Godly in True Blue

Studying Torah begins and ends with a sweet realization: These texts reveal new truths at each reading.  The ancient authors of Torah knew that creating multiple possible realities was the very purpose of storytelling.

Last week, our congregational Torah study group occupied itself with Parsha Mishpatim, which includes the famed Book of the Covenant.  The Book of the Covenant, so scholars, likely began as a separate law code which was later integrated into a larger narrative composed by several different writers.

Personally, I think we’d be better off naming our writers “schools,” since the respective strands of text were themselves subject to internal revision before they were all redacted and re-redacted in later centuries.  But scholars are notoriously wedded to their terminology.  Hence, they call them the J,E,P, and D-writers, nodding in the general direction of a fifth R-writer for “redactor.”  In this case, the E-writer (I’d say E-school) is given credit for assimilating the Book of the Covenant into the E-narrative in Torah.

Has everyone fallen asleep?

Please don’t.  The fact that ancient Israelites wrote and retained different versions of certain stories (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are the paradigmatic example) is proof positive that there was no one authoritative account for all Israelites even in the old days.  Some of Torah even “corrects” other parts.  Example?  Just check out the way the pashal lamb is, according to Exodus 12:9, to be roasted.  The same pashal lamb is to be boiled, according to Deuteronomy 16:7.  Chronicles 35:13 offers an ingenious resolution to the apparent dichotomy: The lamb should be roasted after being boiled.  The Chronicler was bothered by discrepancies in the two earlier accounts and reconciled them with a brand-new recipe.

Our ancient forbears preserved variant traditions even when they contradicted each other.  That fact grants us the right to our multiple interpretations: Torah is a flowing, changing, living thing because both then and now the people of that book understood their narratives, their law codes, and their ideas to be subject to change.

That, I believe, is a very good thing.  It has all sorts of wonderful implications.  We can (and have) put women in the rabbinate.  We can (and have) included GLBT Jews as members of our clergy.  We can…

Well.  The study group spent some quality time looking at the laws of the Book of the Covenant.  We discussed how the law code aimed to protect property, land, and justice.  Ancient Israelites were warned not to accede to a majority opinion rather than tell the truth.  If required to give testimony, they were reminded neither to favor the wealthy nor the poor.  There’s a lot in Parsha Mishpatim that can make Jewish folk proud of their ancestors.

There’s a lot to struggle with, too, just as ancient Israelites must have done.  Take the literal possibilities of “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21: 23-4).  There is no example in Tanakh of this law being applied, which strongly suggests that our ancestors didn’t take this passage literally even way back then.  Still, my Torah study group sadly noted the ways Exodus 22:17, “You shall not allow a witch to live” was used in later centuries to justify persecution and murder on a grand scale – in some time periods, against Jews.

At the end of our time together, I asked everyone to look again at the final passage of the parsha.  Moses, the text tells us, ascends the mountain together with Aaron and his two sons, and seventy elders.  There they see the God of Israel, under whose feet is the likeness of a lapis lazuli stone surface, the very image of the sky in clarity and purity.  Miraculously, God did not raise God’s hand against the all-too-human beings who dared appear where divinity could be seen.  Instead, the Torah tells us: “They beheld God and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).

Most English translations of this passage do not do the Hebrew justice.  The verb used here for “seeing” is formed from the root chet-zayin-heyKhazah does not mean, simply, “see.”  It implies visioning.  A khozeh is a seer.  A khazon is a vision.  Those who were on that mountain visioned God, envisioned God, or had a vision of God.

Afterwards, they ate and drank.

I asked our study group to recall a time when they experienced Godness of some sort, to re-imagine a moment of divinity so powerful it simultaneously commandeered and sustained everything around them, including themselves.

We are mere mortals, despite (or perhaps because) of our dreams.  Must visionary experience inevitably give way to the everyday realm of assiyah, of doing?  Must we eat and drink to remind ourselves of our mortality after an encounter with immortality, after entering the realm of atzilut?

Or did those who beheld God take in the vision by drinking in the experience, by nourishing themselves with the divine so that they could be changed utterly, body and soul?

God’s feet, the text says, rested on a foundation of sapphire.  Sapir recalls, for the Hebrew reader, a word made of the same essential letters: Samech-pey-reish is a root used for “counting,” “relating,” and “writing.”  A sofer is a scribe.  A sefer is written text, a book.  The linguistic presence of these near homonyms in my mind made me ask the others: Was God standing on our story, on the narratives we have revered and struggled with for centuries?  The Tanakh is, after all, the foundation on which we build and rebuild our understanding of Godness.

So we ended our discussion where we began: The Book of the Covenant, the law, the Torah, the Tanakh – it is sourced in many voices, many readings, many possibilities.  What is godly stands, in significant measure, on that fact.


To be… to live…

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
Abraham Joshua Heschel

It happened at the first service I attended after my father’s death. I sang along with the others and heard my dad – instantly, singing harmony.

I don’t know how to explain that musical memory. By rights, I shouldn’t have it. I grew up in a mostly secular Jewish home with rare and brief bouts of synagogue attendance. I had about three months of Hebrew school, all told, and my bat mitzvah was potchked (Yiddish for “pasted,” “fiddled,” the product of messing around) together at the last moment. I was given a tape from the rabbi singing my haftarah portion and accompanying blessings without the slightest hint of inspiration or joy.  After I memorized it, we had a perfunctory service in the basement of a local elementary school. The temple was then under construction. I have no real memory of where the congregation was meeting otherwise (surely not that dank and terrible basement?) because we almost never went to services.

So why, to this day, can I hear my father singing certain prayers alongside me in that oh-so Ashkenazi accent with every kamatz the dialectical offspring of a marriage between “ah” and “oh”?

And why is it that prayer comes naturally to me as long as I am singing? Other avenues have been known to fail me.

When did I make that unspoken agreement with the Presence-Sweetness-Mystery that as long as I could sing I was oh-so-surely at God’s service, especially when I often think that making God a noun is about the deadliest thing we humans can do to religion?

I don’t understand it, really. I don’t know why I feel healed and whole when our congregation’s lay cantor, Angela Hodges, magically spins harmony over and under any melody I sing. I don’t know how my husband, Ralf’s, percussion becomes the heartbeat of the earth itself in all its manifold variations at every service. I do not know what is coursing through my feet and hands. I can’t explain why music and Hebrew and the two intertwining makes me feel like the world is clean and clear whether the prayer is joyous, plaintive, or thankful.

To be truthful, the sound of prayer is in most every song I sing. It’s something about longing and joy, I suppose.

It made no sense, I suppose, but I feared the effects of my recent thyroid surgery on my voice more than I feared a cancer diagnosis.

My history is riddled with relatives who battled cancer. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My aunt survived premenopausal breast cancer and thyroid cancer and lived until her nineties. My sister, Suzie, died young after a virulent premenopausal breast cancer exploded in her right breast and ripped through her body in less than a year.

Cancer took Suzie’s own extraordinary capacity to find a harmony to any melody I sang away so violently that I thought I’d never know what it was to sing together like that with anyone ever again.

To sing – and to dance – is to be. That has been true for me as long as I can remember. To be, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, is a blessing. Just to live is holy.

I can’t imagine how I would live without singing. If living is holy, then singing is one of the sweetest manifestations of holiness I know.

My surgeon took great care to spare the nerves to my vocal chords. He is proud that he was able to protect my voice so beautifully. There appears to be no change in timbre or quality.

Today he told me, “I was just glad to hear there was no cancer.”

He reminded me, of course, what was important. I do know what mattered most. I do.

Still, I hope to be forgiven for my gratitude for the chance for a future in which I can sing all my prayers in my own voice. I will sing my thanks for life itself. I will sing my hopes for a world that is clean and clear.

I will sing, for that is my own holy blessing.


Jewish Renewal, II

Maybe a bunch of Jews are longing for sweet and crazy-joyful celebration of who they are and what they do (and what God might have to do with all that). Or perhaps lots of people just find red boots fascinating. Another possibility? Jewish Renewal readers are out there just waiting to see something more about their own movement available on the world-wide web.

My posting on Jewish Renewal’s red boots produced more reader comments and more subscriptions to this blog than any other I’ve written – including the one on male lactation in the Talmud.

I mused about this some as I heard my Inbox bing and bing and bing again with comments and subscriptions and suchlike. Clearly, I had hardly begun nourishing the longing out there for Stuff on Jewish Renewal. I like to cook, after all, and I know that a good meal includes more than the main course.

My favorite dessert is dark chocolate mousse. I make it frequently. So, for a little textual dessert…

Jewish Renewal is an evening of Shefa Gold chants. One verse becomes the rich exploration of soul, of the Holy Breath that sustains our lives. Rabbi Shefa’s melodies and harmonies become mantras to live by; their beautiful repetition engraves them on the heart. Her Torah commentaries stretch the spirit. In them, she gives her readers the right to honor their own knowledge, their inner Torah, and to see it revealed in texts written thousands of years ago.

Jewish Renewal celebrates spontaneity, an in-the-moment approach to prayer as well as attention and intention to our deep roots and history.  Spontaneity: At Temple Or Olam’s Shabbat services I will happily sing in rhyme about the folks walking through the door, the children dancing in our midst, or matriarch Ruth Kingberg’s loving hugs.  Whatever is happening is a happening thing.

Here are the deep roots of Jewish tradition: We know that our relationships and friendships are about godding the world toward a meshiachzeit we long for, a time of real and lasting peace.

I like to sing about that, too, and my liturgy gives me age-old ways to do just that.

Jewish Renewal is the way our mashpi’ahs (spiritual directors) begin reflecting, considering, and even crafting healing rituals when they identify yearning for shleimut, wholeness. It is the way Rabbi Burt Jacobson brings us to Baal Shem Tov text study by beginning with meditation. It is the way we soak ourselves in the richness of tradition and Torah, the liturgical year and the practice of Shabbat.

It is the kippot on my congregation’s welcome table at every service.

I began making kippot years ago, and started mostly with pretty head coverings for all the girls of our congregation. I love to sew as I love to cook. Pink and purple and blue, beaded and braided and trimmed – I added some every year. I began finding little animal appliqués and made kippot for our toddlers. Ducks, alligators, donkeys, giraffes. I started making some for my colleagues and friendswith rich colors, with sparkles and beads and flowers.

I’d sewn blessings into each one.

God knows, we need blessings. We are wounded and small in so many ways, cut off from our own richly attired texts and traditions

How do we connect with a language we don’t understand but still use to sing our prayers? How do we find meaning in all the acts that seemed inexplicable to us in our youth? In what ways can we nourish our Judaism while enriching the world?

By renewing our understanding, our connections, our love of who we are, where we have been, and where we must go to make this world the one we hope and long for. We of Jewish Renewal can and long to do just that among fellow Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists and all the rest of humanity who are in pursuit of that thing we call a better world, a world renewed.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.


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