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.