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

Hod of Netzach, the space that brings eternity into focus. 26 Days of Omer 5780

Today is twenty-six days, which is three weeks and five days of the Omer, in the year 5780. הוד שבנצח, Hod ShebeNetzach, Splendor of Endurance.

Netzach and Hod are the pillars of bringing the Divine into lived reality.

Having the vision to move towards the Good and the Holy: Netzach.

Creating a temple within yourself, clearing mental space and ordering physical space in alignment with that vision: Hod. 

Hod of Netzach, the space that brings eternity into focus. 

Allowing myself space to pray

Today, I allowed myself to sink into deep, contemplative prayer, uncovering painful and revelatory truths. 

I realized how deeply my ability to pray transformed through Davennen Leadership Training Institute. Sadly, the beginning of DLTI 11 is postponed. And I do not know when I will see that spirit family again in person. 

My Yetzer HaRa convinced me that prayer was not a practice I needed to seek if I could not sleep. Now I remember my soul yearns for the sweet suckle of Divine intimacy only available through the expanding flows of Jewish prayer. There is an order to the day that becomes clearer when benchmarked by Jewish services. Morning blessings, afternoon gift, evening kiss. 

Prayers for my family, my friends, and the world

Pain flows when I allow myself to sink into how much I miss the other people who help me thrive in this world. In particular, I wondered when I will see Yosef again, who lives in Baltimore and gives amazing hugs. He also gave me the most amazing gift, a copy of Siddur Masorti, an egalitarian Sephardic weekday prayer book, at the end of the fourth and final week of DLTI. I am so grateful we are eternally connected through our love of traditional prayer and egalitarian space. 

May we each find the way into self-reflexive meditation and contemplation that expands our souls and reminds us that we are on a journey through the splendor of eternity. 

Eternity before COVID-19

5779 / 2019: Bringing holiness into daily life.

5778 / 2018: We cannot control the twists of time.

5777 / 2017: Sinking into the core truth of my life.

Waking with Gratitude

I remember the first time I tried to understand positive psychology. I was reading a book in line at Disneyland. What, I’m the only one who passes her line time reading nonfiction?

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

I remember my first few times wrestling with the idea of virtues, I had to push aside my internal prejudice. The only context in which I had previously heard the word was as an antonym for “vice,” and my only context for “vice” was Catholic / European history with a side of horror movies. In other words, it all sounded very goyish to me.

In reality, there is a deep tradition of positive psychology built into Judaism. Morning blessings, Birkat HaShachar, are succinct meditations on gratitude, mindfulness, and intention. Traditionally, Jews said the words soon after waking up, before gathering for communal prayer.

Traditionally, the first meditation is Modeh Ani, which translated in the word order of Hebrew is: “Thank I” (as in “I thank,” the subject often comes after the verb in Hebrew). In the Koren Sacks siddur, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains: 

On waking, our first thought should be that we are in the presence of God. Since we are forbidden to speak God’s name until we have washed our hands, the following prayer is said, which, without mentioning God’s name, acknowledges His presence and gives thanks for a new day and for the gift of life.

Here is a translation of Modeh Ani, combining words chosen by Rabbi Sacks and the Mishkan Tefillah translation, along with my own interpretation.

I thank You, living and eternal Sovereign
for returning to me my soul in mercy
Great is Your faithfulness.

Meditating into the Presence of the Divine

Focusing on the description in this prayer allows me to sink into gratitude for the blessing of life. 

מלך חי וקים, Melech Chai V’Kayam. The flow of Living and Eternal Sovereignty.

The spark of life, the flow of time embodied. What is Alive and Eternal? What is my being oriented toward? What is Sovereign in my life? How can my transitory life become a vessel for the flow of eternal life? 

Thinking about the Living and Eternal Sovereign pushes me to wake up to the Wonder of Being. I try to allow that to be the first fully chosen thought of the day.

I know that Goodness is faithfully with me at all times. Holiness and Awe are my companions on this journey. We can choose to make room for them, or we can focus on mundane, dying darkness. The petty and the cynical are death traps.

Living into רבה אמונתך, Rabbah Emunatecha, the breadth and fullness of Your Trust / Faithfulness is my holy calling.

When we weave faithfulness into the fabric of our days, we coach ourselves to be vessels of holiness. Being conscious of the precious soul within me and the unique souls who surround me. We are each made B’tzelem Elohim, in the shadow of the Divine. We are each mortal shells wrapping a spark of eternity, the Divine who resides within each of our souls. Each individual contains worlds, each individual is worthy of whole-hearted attention and love. I am worthy and my journey is an important part of the sacred march of time.

None of us remain fully aware and awake, even when our eyes our open. I have lost countless hours to mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and watching YouTube. The Divine is not troubled by our forgetfulness. In mercy, She restores our knowledge of our souls. The gentle kiss of eternity that continuously moves with us as we walk through the world reminds us to live with empathy and trust in ourselves.

May today and every day be a day of thankfulness for me. May I forever remember the holiness at the heart of my consciousness. And may I sink into the Faithfulness Who guides me on my journey. Amen.

V’Etchanan: I pleaded with HaShem

Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, just ended. Last week’s Torah portion began with the word “v’etchanan,” I pleaded.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

Our sages say that Moses was praying for the ability to pray. The original fore-prayer. The term fore-prayer was coined by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi to describe the need to prepare oneself for prayer.

The ultimate version of this is the prayer that is not a prayer, a line from Psalm 51: “Adonai, s’faitay tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha;” traditionally translated as “O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise” which is the opening meditation before the formal beginning of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, known simply as Prayer / Tefillah in Judaism’s oldest surviving discussions of liturgy.

Still, it feels like getting ahead of myself to speak about that beautiful line of poetry. The first fore prayer I say in the morning is a command to my soul from Psalm 104:

Bless, my soul, HaShem. HaShem, my God, You are very great; clothed in majesty and splendor, wrapped in a robe of light; spreading out the heavens like a tent. [Based on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks‘ translation in the Koren siddur.] Barchi nafshi, et HaShem, HaShem Elokai, Gadalta Me’od, Hod V’Hadar Lavashta; Oteh Ohr Kashalmah, Noteh Shamayim Kariyah.

Or as Rabbi Mordecai Finley translates it:

My soul, Bless HaShem! HaShem, my God — very great; clothed in majesty and splendor; wrapped in light like a robe; spreading out reality like a map.

I cherish beginning my davvenen with this line of poetry. It is the most beautiful description of The Cause of Being that I have: the Essence of the Universe that is wrapped in light. Try to sink into the idea that reality is unfolding like a map and you may never read another word of prayer.

These are the words I utter before I prayer; specifically, before I say the blessing for my tallit and wrap myself in it, imagining that I am wrapping myself in light — as I wrap myself in the light of the tradition, the light of holiness, the light of goodness. I also try to remember that I cannot see all of reality. That whatever I am upset about or anxious about or enjoying is just a fraction of the reality that exists in the world.

And yet, I continually fail at these meditations because I fail at the most basic aspect of the life I yearn for: consistent, daily prayer.

I looked into a lot of aspects of last week’s Torah portion in preparing to speak about it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park. Ironically, I failed to mention anything about fore prayer during my d’var Torah.

There is so much to say as we embark on that seven week journey toward the High Holy Days. What is sovereign in your life? What do you revere? How do you show your reverence on a daily basis?

They say that the Haftorah portions for this period reflect the ascent to the holiest days of our calendar, rather than being related to our Torah portions. And yet, I find them to be intimately related. I cried out to HaShem and She answered: “Comfort, oh Comfort.” Nachamu, nachamu – the words from Isaiah that begin the prophetic portion are a clear response to the anguish we feel. Anxiety for failing to meet our own expectations of ourselves. Shame that, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, we put our ego between HaShem and ourselves. Embarrassment that we still worship idols; we covet physical things and focus our energies on material reality, ignoring the palaces in time calling to our souls.

It is all okay. Ain od. There is nothing else. The Divine is everywhere, experiencing everything alongside us. And She will suckle us through the narrow places and we will arrive into ourselves when we are ready to take our place and heed the call to our own depths.