The pandemic’s crushing weight

I have a vision of moving this blog to a new URL. A few weeks ago, I gained clarity into how off-putting my blog title really is. Considering how terrifying reality can be, does anyone want to learn spirituality from someone who claims to be broken? Isn’t there enough brokenness without bringing that into your religious life?

Brokenness and repairing the world within

Accepting brokenness as an innate part of the human condition was a huge step forward on my own spiritual journey. It is part of Luranic Kabbalism as explained by Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah. Yet, I also recognize how disconnected most Jews are from Jewish mysticism specifically and theology more generally. So I want to provide a URL that does not require a metaphysical leap. With HaShem’s help, that URL transformation is coming soon.

Real talk on life with kids

Now, I just want to be frank. Parenting two small children while basically being locked at home for the foreseeable future is a heavy weight. My four year-old is afraid to touch the floor. That makes it quite difficult to get him to pick up the mess he makes on a daily basis. My six year-old cries over the vagaries of playing video games. And refuses to meet with people via Zoom. So I’m not entirely sure how virtual TK and second grade will happen alongside my fifth year of rabbinical school. I’ve already put off my synagogue internship to allow myself time to be primary parent four days a week. (My classes meet on Sunday and Monday.)

Ways forward

I can’t tell you that scheduling time to attend minyans daily will help make your life feel more meaningful. Zoom services are fundamentally different from in-person davennen. We need space to find our own way into prayer and our own way into the structure needed to make prayer a daily part of life.

Another option is daily study. In 2020, I have tried Daf Yomi and reading through the psalter. I have not finished either of these projects. Yet, I can say with certainty that allowing space for deep reading– even if you never finish the book –is soul nourishing.

Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart

This summer, I am doing an independent study on Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Currently reading Bahya ben Joseph Ibn Pakuda’s The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart. I purchased the book in 2011 and deeply remember how long it took me to read the academic introduction by the translator, Menahem Mansoor. Desperately wanted to connect with the book, as it is the first comprehensive treatment of Jewish ethics. At the time, I stopped reading in the chapter about the importance of keeping the commandments. My progressive, antinomian ego could not accept moving through the logic of a different time. The book is revolutionary for three main reasons: its focus on the inward space of religious practice, its thorough description of repentance / teshuvah, and its statements on ethics.

Simultaneously, it is also a book of Jewish theology. Being a Jew born post-Shoah (after World War II and the Catastrophe), I wonder how to make Jewish spiritual practice relevant to people who are so jaded by our communal and individual experiences. Yes, absolutely, Jewish civilization and ethnicities are important in their own right. And yet, there is something deeply powerful — both in these received texts and in contemporary religious conversations, that should resonate with modern Jewish souls and the souls of seekers.

I have 200 pages more to read before offering more thoughts on Ibn Pakuda’s magnum opus. After that, I might dabble back into the Talmud or the psalter. I might also start another series of books — Daniel Matt’s translation of the Zohar. I have to constantly remind myself that it is okay not to read everything. That there’s no way for me to read everything. And yet, sometimes I think my books are gossiping about me and making snarky comments about how few I’ve read cover to cover…

Books, Books, Books!

Photo credit: Image by Lars_Nissen from Pixabay

The rod and the staff of the Divine

Friday, May 29, 2020 Shavuot סיון 5780 6

I am making my way through the psalter, reading a psalm a day. Accepting that my resolve may not allow this to be a truly daily practice, I pick it up as my endurance allows. 

The echoes of Psalm 23 were too great yesterday for me to consider it. There is so much cultural baggage attached to the psalm and the King James translation of it. Two years ago, we translated the psalm as part of our Hebrew class. 

Rabbi Abraham Greenstein pierced my soul with his explanation of the rod and the staff of HaShem. It is a metaphor that permeates Judaism, hiding in plain sight the essence of our traditions. We craft pathways towards goodness because we understand there are many impulses pulling on individuals. We see the Divine as the ultimate Shepherd: guiding us on life’s journey, reminding us that doing the right thing is not necessarily the easy thing. 

The rod limits are frame of movement for our own protection. Represented by Gevurah, גבורה, strength / discipline in the Sephirot. The Way, Halakhah, הלכה, was meant to hold us in a warm embrace, allowing us space to feel God’s holy Presence. The staff guides us on the journey. The internal compass and the Bat Kol בת קול, daughter of Voice, echo of prophecy, who lead us towards the Truth that seeks us all the days of our lives.

May we each have the ability to hear the Truth and act in alignment with that Truth.

Psalm 23

A song of David.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I do not lack.
In grassy pastures, He has me lie down, by waters of rest He leads me.
My soul He restores, He guides me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.
Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You set before me a table, in front of my enemies; You rub with oil my head; my cup runs over.
Only goodness and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall return to the House of the Lord for the length of days.

Original translation based on the teaching of Rabbi Greenstein

Becoming a Holy Community. Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

Crowd Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ תִּהְי֣וּן לִ֑י

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

We are called by Torah to be a holy people. Big assignment. What is holiness? How can we experience holiness beyond ourselves, within community? My questions about this idea led me to explore ethics and mysticism, Mussar and Kabbalah.

A Kabbalistic leader called Sfat Emet said: “First we set right our actions; then we listen. Then comes the time to correct our deeds.”

Mussar is straightening our thoughts, feelings, and actions with those around us – it is how we correct our deeds.

How can I grow by correcting my deeds? Well, maybe I can try not to speak from anger. Be compassionate to the souls around me. Recognize that my journey is only one story among billions occurring during this blink of the universe. We each live a unique story. I can try to understand yours.

Perhaps we can each minimize the control of our Yetzer HaRa, our inclination towards destructiveness. We can remind ourselves to get enough sleep, to not give in to every passing fancy on the internet. We can try to be fully present to our lives.

Seeking to act with straightness can help us walk into the Garden of Faith. We can choose the will to break bad habits. Choosing to pray and study wisdom texts can affirm the nurturing presence of the Ground of Being.

All of these actions help us learn about the holiness that pulses through the universe. Without right action, without Mussar, there is no Receiving, there is no Kabbalah. The Concealed Wisdom, Chochmah Nistar, is a false shadow without right action. We can really be a holy people and live in alignment with the Good in all of us.

Let’s go for it. Each of us finding, as best we can, the path that helps us become a wholly good person.

May we each find the courage to transform ourselves, to bring about constant renewal, and through our transformation be the Anshei Kedoshim we are called to be.

#—#

This d’var Torah was originally written for the final week of Davennen Leadership Training Institute. I had the honor of being one of three people to “lab” my d’var and receive editing advice from Rabbi Marcia Prager. Her version cut out many of the paragraphs regarding Kabbalah, in favor of laser focusing on good actions as the only real tangible thing we can do in this life. She looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know what holiness is; do you?” Rabbi Prager, one of the holiest people I know, said that to me. Since Judaism is full of sanctification and drawing us towards holiness, I decided to keep my thoughts about it as this thought piece moves forward. I spoke of it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park & Eagle Rock this Shabbat, which gave me the opportunity to again witness how difficult it is for me to speak for us. Not because I want to talk at people (heaven forbid!); but because I am still finding my voice to speak on behalf of other people. I am so hesitant to assume that anyone else is seeking what I’m seeking that I default to “I” language, as I am in this explanatory note. So thank you, Reb Marcia, DLTI, and the good people of TBI, for helping me find my voice.