This month is beginning: COVID lessons from Shabbat HaChodesh

Oh goodness. A million things I should be doing, including sleeping. Let’s be real — I haven’t been sleeping much. So I might as well remind myself of the brilliant Michael Fishbane insight I read this morning regarding Shabbat HaChodesh.

Special Shabbats to prepare for Passover

Before I quote Dr. Fishbane, a word about the Shabbat that just ended. It was the fourth of four special Shabbats (Shabbatot in Hebrew) that move us toward Passover. Two things make these days special: they have a unique, out-of-order Maftir portion. So that means the last thing traditionally read from the Torah on Saturday morning is related to the theme of the Shabbat. If we were all in synagogue for this, that would mean taking out two Torah scrolls from the ark — one for the regular weekly portion, one for this special ending portion. Then there’s also a special section of the Prophets: the Haftorah, related to the theme of the day. So this last special Shabbat is announcing THE MONTH. Because there are multiple first months in the Jewish yearly cycle; but the one coming up is the first month of the year according to the Torah. Yes, that means that the New Year / Rosh HaShanah is in the seventh month of the year; whereas Passover is in the first month.

Month One is About to Begin!

The thing is, before we were a Temple-based religion, we Hebrews were agrarian. (Probably before that we were nomads, but our holidays start from the cultivation of land part of our history.) And of course, like all good stewards of the land, we recognized Spring as a time of renewal, rebirth, and beginnings. So Nisan is the first month. It starts next Thursday, by the way. As it says in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

Mystical vision, Practical implementation

The Ashkenazic Haftorah portion for last week (aka earlier today) is Ezekiel 45:16-46:18. It offers a vision for the future Temple, which is different from the vision of the Temple described in Exodus. Rather than getting bogged down in these details, let’s look at the conclusion of Dr. Fishbane’s brilliant commentary on this passage from Ezekiel and its place as part of Shabbat HaChodesh:

The daubing of the entrance to the home and Temple with blood marks them off as two types of space. The first embodies the family, whose bonds are biological and legal. The family is the nuclear core of personal history and religious rite and preserves a parochial character by virtue of intimacy and a common name. Alongside this dwelling stands the Temple, whose space is communal and whose rites have an official and public status. The Temple opens its doors for collective worship and thus transcends the private histories of its worshipers. How one may live in both homes—standing firm in loyalty to hearth and blood, but open to the larger commitments a divine dwelling symbolizes—is a question each reader must answer repeatedly.

Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, p360.

This paragraph gut-punched me when I read it during my Zoom minyan this morning. In the context of 2020, the Temple in the above paragraph is a stand in for all of our obligations, responsibilities, identities, and communities beyond the walls of our homes. In a very short amount of time, my family was forced to collapse all that we do, and all that we are, into the space of our home. How are we living in both homes? Well, we must stay within the confines of the personal in order to protect the collective.

The Home and the Temple: Living Beyond Ourselves and Within Ourselves With Grace

And the question that I want to sink into as I prepare for the most unique Passover I’ll ever experience, is how to live in both homes simultaneously. How can I personally thrive while the world seems to be collapsing around me? How do I continue to make space for all the doors I was trying to open before my front door became the harbinger of potential death?

This I know for sure: I will not be the student I intended to be this semester. Since I have accepted primary parent responsibility for a four year-old and a six year-old without full-time weekday school / childcare, staying focused on my five graduate courses is difficult. Daf Yomi has fallen by the wayside. I’m a bit trepidatious that I might break my commitment to publicly counting the Omer. At the end of the day, none of that matters. If my family, both those within my home and those in other homes, makes it through this pandemic alive, that will be enough. If my neighbors are supported while so many of their jobs disappear, that will be enough. And if our essential workers — in healthcare, at grocery stores, at the postal service and other delivery personnel — survive and thrive, that will be enough.

Distinctions need to be made

Yet this magical, delicious Shabbat reminded me of the eternal truth of Shabbat, which is a refraction of the eternal truth of being alive: all of life is a balance of life and death. Judaism traditionally has laws about this. We bungle the translation and call them “purity” laws. What we’re really talking about are ancient ways to distinguish the living from the dead. As we continue our walk through this narrow place, this modern-day Mitzrayim, may we find the ways to allow ourselves to thrive despite the severe restrictions that surround us. If you are struggling to pay for your next meal or your next rent bill, you’re probably really angry reading my words. I deeply understand how lucky I am to be securely held by the love of my family in my home, in a community where I do not have to fear that my neighbors will spit on my Chinese Jewish kids. (Seriously, stop blaming Asians for this pandemic. It took an entire world to bungle the response to this.)

Choosing to Thrive

I am making a conscious choice to begin living differently in my second week of living with my entire family always under the same roof than I did my first week. I will be more conscientious of my time reading the news and interacting with social media.

I will not try to know how many new cases have been confirmed more than once a day. Since most of the country does not have enough supplies to perform tests; how much do the numbers really mean?

I will ground myself in the aspects of life that I have control over: my interactions with my family, my obligations to my communities, and my rabbinical studies.

I will make time for gratitude every day.

I will make time for prayer every day.

I will read a physical book every day.

I will tell my family I love them every day.

I will be present to the Present; to my physical body and the bodies around me.

And I will never give up hope. We are all deeply connected, beyond this mortal coil. May our bodies remain strong, our social distance complete, and may we be there for one another when we need help.

                

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.

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.

I meditated on the Sapphire Vision and terrified myself

Chanting this story at
DLTI-10 Week 3

At the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, we were asked to work on our leyning skills. That is, we were asked to step into the ability to decode tropes, the musical system used to chant the Torah. And for those of us who know the trope system, we were given intermediate or advanced options. We could work in partnership to chant conversations as a dialog in English or individually take a section of Torah and provide our own translation.

This project terrified me before I ever opened a Chumash. I am somewhat comfortable preparing a talk on the Torah, from the comfort of my own home with my teachers surrounding me. I take out five or six commentaries and meditate my way into a conversation on a portion.

My process for creating this English story based on the Torah

So, being at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, with a handful of unfamiliar commentaries, was quite disorienting. Further, I chose a section that I thought would allow me to enter into the deep mystery of knowing HaShem, Exodus 24.1-11; the section of the parsha Mishpatim known as the Sapphire Vision; an entry point into Jewish mysticism.

First, I went through the available commentaries and wrote a straight-forward English version of the text. I stared at those words, devoid of any women, full of ancient blood rituals, and I felt a chasm open up between me and HaShem. I asked our holy teacher, Hazzan Jack Kessler, how much space I had for interpretation. He encouraged me to explore the story however I wanted to, and pointed out how strange the ending of the passage is. (You see HaShem’s throne and your response is to eat and drink?)

I practiced chanting the Torah portion in Hebrew, to get myself more deeply connected to the holy sparks within it. I also assumed that it makes the most sense to follow the trope cadence already assigned when developing an English translation. So, initially, I was going to chant my English story as simply as Mishpatim describes The Sapphire Vision. And then, on the first day of English leyning, my holy sisters and brothers pulled out rare tropes to adorn their English. And I thought, well, if any portion deserves adornment, surely it is a vision of the Divine. Plus, all that fancy note work might keep people from booing me out of the room for the heresy of my story. (Because there was still a large portion of me terrified of sharing my story publicly, in front of an open Torah.)

In terror, I stepped forward.

This is the hardest thing I did last week. It cracked open a part of me that I didn’t know was there. I am so deeply grateful to Reb Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler, along with our other holy teachers, for creating the space that allowed me to greet the Shechinah with open arms.

Another Sapphire Vision

Click here for an audio version of this story.

Yah spoke to Moshe saying: travel up to Miriam and the kohanot. And Moshe went up; him, and Aaron, and the other males thirsting for Divine flow. Miriam showed Moshe the way in.

And Moshe returned and told the people all that he heard.

And Yisrael replied: all that Yah said, we shall do.

Moshe wrote instructions for living a life of goodness.

In gratitude, he built an altar to HaShem and placed twelve pillars around it. He prayed that the Holy One and Her people would fill the world with glory and love.

Then, Moshe took the book of the covenant and read into the ears of the people.

They said: All that Yah has commanded we will do.

Moshe blessed the people and thanked them for trusting him.

Moshe returned to the Mountain of Flow; he and all the men eager to meet the Source. Miriam greeted them; the Kohanot taught the spiral dance.

Lo, they glimpsed the Divine.

BRILLIANT, DEEP BLUE SAPPHIRE.

Blue / Black, Smooth as Ice, Firm as Mountains, Soft as Babies.

The men were overwhelmed. All of the men were overwhelmed by the brilliance. All of the men except Moshe.

Miriam held Moshe’s hand and he felt the pure love and emptying of childbirth.

They returned to the Kehillah Kedushah, the holy community, emanating the pure light of the Divine.

The men were overjoyed to be let in. And the men prepared a great feast. And all of them sat together. And they ate and they drank.