Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Parashat Nitzavim and Rosh HaShanah: Suffering Together

Some weeks all roads point to the same truth.

Last night, my 6-year old niece Ruby, who was visiting our family on her own, was having trouble falling asleep because she was homesick. In the end, what worked was simply to lie next to her as she was crying, being with her in her sadness.

A friend of mine who is going through a period of illness told me this week that she tries to repeat to herself the phrase Imo Anokhi Be’Tzarah. “I am with him in distress,” a phrase referring to God’s ability to reside with the nation of Israel (or with an individual) in its period of suffering. The phrase gives her the comforting knowledge that God is with her in whatever she, too, suffers.

In this week’s parsha, Rashi makes a simllar comment. After asserting that God will disperse the people of Israel for their sins, the Torah goes on to describe how the people will repent and then God will bring them back to the land of Israel. Strangely, as Rashi points out, the word used to refer to God’s return of the people is veshav, meaning, “He will return,” not “He will bring back,” which would have been veheshiv. This strange locution, suggests Rashi (citing the classical rabbis) is designed to tell us that God Himself was in exile together with the people, with them in their distress, so that when the Torah reports their return, it also reports the return of God Himself, having suffered alongside the people.

God’s presence in our suffering is a frequent theme in Esh Kodesh, the work of the Piaseczner Rebbe from the Warsaw ghetto. In 1942 he was able to write: “This is the difference. The pain and grief that a person suffers over his own situation, alone, in isolation, can break him. He may even fall so far that he becomes immobilized by it. But the crying that a person does together with God makes him strong. He cries and takes strength.”

As we approach Rosh HaShanah this seems an important message – the message of Presence, God’s presence in our lives and our own ability to provide such presence for those around us, to know how to simply be with those who are suffering. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we come together to pray about the year that has past and the year that is to come, and each person brings with him his own burdens and sorrows. We come together, reviewing our lives with angst and intensity, to learn to feel God’s presence in our struggles and to learn to be so present for one another. I remember as a child in Cong Shomrei Emunah, sitting next to my mother all day in the back of the synagogue and feeling the weight of the sorrows of all those praying in the room. The room felt heavy with sighs and weeping and they entered into me. We don’t try to solve each others’ problems on these days; we pray together, and in so doing, learn to be present for one another as God Himself is. May we all be inscribed for a year of health, contentment and compassionate Presence and presence.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ahat Sha'alti: I Ask For Only One Thing

Ahat -One. Ahat sha’alti me’et Hashem. “One thing have I asked of the Lord, it I will request: to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life. To see the beauty of the Lord and to visit in His palace (Ps 27).” These are the words of a song I grew up singing, one which involves, in the second half, throwing up a kippah to the accompaniment of the word “Woow!”

The phrase is also part of the special psalm said daily from the beginning of the month of Elul through the end of the holiday season. This year, I am taken by that first word, Ahat, “One.” It reminds me of the other “one” I have been struggling with, the ehad, (masculine form) of the Shma – God is One. And also of the ahat of the Piaseczner Rebbe who talks about holding inside one’s head “a single holy thought,” machshavah ahat tehorah.

Wouldn’t it be nice to only have one single thought, to really only desire ahat – “one thing have I asked of the Lord?” One of the hardest things about the modern world is the stress caused by competing obligations and pulls for our attention and time. How will I ever get it all done, one wonders, as the mind rushes from one thing to another in a whirr of tension that clouds the mind and weighs heavily on the body.

This is the time of year we get to think ahat, one thought about Ehad, the One. Can we align our complicated lives with this one single important principle: seeking out God’s presence in the world. If God is one, the world He created is somehow one, and eyn od milvado, “There is nothing other than Him,” so that every single part of our lives is integral to His Presence.

Perhaps I sound like a fundamentalist. I don’t pretend to actually see the world in this single-minded way. But I wonder if it doesn’t make sense to try to bring wholeness to all these disparate parts, to feel when we wake up in the morning a sense of purpose and clarity of vision, a drive to be aligned with the One in everything we do? I suspect that in this ahat there is great peace and strength, that being aligned with the One means receiving the blessing – Vayasem Lekha Shalom.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Emet VeYatziv: True and Stable are We

Emet VeYatziv: “True and Stable.” So begins the paragraph immediately following the Shma. I take this as my mantra in moments of uncertainty and shakiness. Emet VeYatziv. There is a truth in the world that is stable and secure, that has always existed and will always exist. The world swirls around me with all its confusion, but there is something strong and secure to hold on to. Even though there is evil and there is falsehood and fakeness and pretension in the world, Truth undergirds it all. “Truth” is God’s stamp, stamped on to and into every piece of creation. We may stray, but we are true underneath. And we are therefore also yatziv, “stable.” When I say the word yatziv, I imagine a mountain and I feel like a mountain. There is nothing that can push me down if I connect myself to this eternal, stable Truth inside me.

On Summer Crickets and the Angels' Song

Tonight I stopped to listen to the crickets. They are loud! It makes me feel like the Piaseczner Rebbe is right – the whole world is singing a song to God, and it is only us that are not part of it. Hearing them, noticing their song, it sets off inside an urge to become a part of it, to join in their song. Maybe that’s why we talk about the angels’ song in the first brachah of the Shma, to remind us that there are songs already going on; the question is only whether we will join in the singing.

What’s amazing about those crickets is how we don’t hear them most of the time. What else don’t we hear or see? We are so busy, and some things can only be perceived with time. Like at the frog pond in Five Rivers, you can’t see the tiny frogs among the lilies unless you stand there staring for a while. Then you eyes begin to perceive things they couldn’t see before. Or in the swamp, at first you think there is nothing there, but gradually, the longer you stay, the more you realize the place is teeming with life. What else are we missing by not standing still?

On the Connection Between Geulah and Tefillah: Overflowing with Song

[**"Geulah" refers to the brachah of redemption, the last brachah after the Shma, just before "Tefillah" which refers to the Amidah, the silent standing prayer**]

On the cusp of saying the Amidah, the pinnacle of our prayer service, we remind ourselves of the Israelites at the Sea, how they sang out their new song together in joy. The rabbis say it is essential to keep these two pieces tightly linked, not to speak or make any kind of break between them --you should remember the redemption at the Sea and then go right into your personal prayer. As I think of this each morning, I pray for my mind and my heart and my mouth to be opened up like the Sea and to pour forth a new Song like its water’s waves. We are so closed up and covered over. We don’t see what the angels see in the first brachah of the Shma – for them it is clear that the world is full of God’s glory. But we are too weighed down by our harried lives to feel this. Once, at the Sea, long ago, human beings did see what angels see clearly, and they, too, sang out in joy. As we stand, getting ready to speak to God each day, we pray to be opened again to such sight, to such awakening, to such fullness of presence, so that our lips, too, may overflow with song. Ilu finu male shirah kayam. If only our mouths were full of song like the sea.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On the Month of Elul

Today is the first day of Elul. There is a tradition that sees Elul as an acronym for the words: Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi li – “I am My Beloved’s (God’s) and My Beloved is mine.” This year the phrase speaks to me of belonging. I am not just a floating atom in the universe. I have roots and attachments. Even if my human roots and attachments shift around, I will always belong because I belong to God. There is a thread in me that connects directly to my Source and it is a thread woven of love. I will always have a place. I am surrounded, embraced by Presence.

On Tefillah (Prayer) and Spaciousness

Sometimes I wake up engrossed in minute thoughts and plans for the new day, all wrapped up in the tasks and concerns that surround me. What tefillah (prayer) does is to expand my world, to make me conscious of the vast universe, of the earth and the sky and the sun that God has created afresh today and of God Himself in all His incomprehensible vastness and then, before Shma, of the angels and their proclamations of God’s glory (look what they occupy themselves with compared to what I am worried about!). Meditation practices talk about breathing space into one’s worries, letting them be, but opening up the space around them so that they seem somehow smaller, less of a big deal. That’s what tefillah does for me. It breathes space into my brain, into my heart. The problem with our problems is that they loom too large. Taken as simply a problem in the world, it’s all manageable, but somehow our concerns seem to take over so that one feels preouccupied and unable to truly think or focus or enjoy anything else until that problem is resolved. Tefillah is a prism that helps enlarge and shift the focus beyond the confines of the self.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tefillah Thoughts 1

1. Ashrei Yoshvei Veitekha: Happy are those who dwell in Your home, O God. I used to think this referred to the Temple or the Tabernacle or, in today’s world, to the synagogue. But today, looking out at the sun and the trees and the green sky, it occurred to me that it might also mean the world. Happy, fortunate are we who live in God’s home, this world. Happy, fortunate are we if we can appreciate that good fortune, if we can cherish the beauty, see the divinity in the world around us. There is holiness not just in the four walls of a prayer house, but in every step we take outside it. Ashrei Yoshvei Veitekha.

2. Karov Hashem Lekhol Korav, lekhol Asher Yikra’uhu Be’Emet: “God is close to all who call Him, to all those who call to Him in earnest.” It begins with us. As the Sefat Emet is always pointing out, you get what you put in. God is close to those who make the effort to call to Him. How to experience, to feel God’s presence? Call to Him and call to Him in earnest, with a full heart.

This morning I had a broken heart. It felt open and wounded. Nothing calamitous had occurred, but for some reason, after dropping my kids off at the day camp bus stop, I drove home with an emptiness and a loneliness and a sense of loss and endings. My children are leaving me. That is the way of the world. People leave each other. Some of our closest friends in Albany are moving out of town. There is a feeling of loss and grief.

I took the Piasetzner Rebbe’s advice this morning and decided to view such a feeling as “an opening of the soul,” an opportunity to cry out to God. Karov Hashem lekhol Korav. God is close to those who call Him, to those who call to Him be’emet -- in earnest. Usually it is hard to call in earnest; we are closed over to our soul and our feelings, a thousand practical concerns whirring through our minds. So, every once in a while, when the opportunity arises, and you are feeling strongly anyway – happy, sad, angry, irritated – seize the opportunity. That’s the Piasetzner Rebbe’s advice. Trying it this morning, alongside that feeling of loneliness and loss I also felt a sense of Presence.

3. Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Ehad: Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One. I have been struggling with the particularlity of Israel and confused about my connection to both the people of Israel and to all of humanity. I wonder if that’s what it means to say “Hashem Elokeinu” – this God of ours, ours in particular, is also “Hashem Ehad,” the God of Unity, of All, the God who helps us see the unity of the universe and the connections. We begin with a personal feeling about Him, that He is ours, but somehow that needs to lead us next to a sense of wholeness and openness to everything, to the Unity of all.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Parashat Re'eh: Today

Hayom. Today. A mantra in this week’s parsha and throughout the book of Devarim. It is today that I am talking to you, commanding you these things. As Rashi interprets, you should feel as excited about the Torah as you would about a new declaration from the king that all run out to hear.

That is how we should greet each day. We say that God is mehadesh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh breishit, that He renews the work of creation each morning with sunlight. All of creation, the grass, the trees, the birds and us are new each day. With what wonder we would look at the world and ourselves if we really felt that. It’d be like having the eyes of a child.

The word hayom literally means “the day.” Today is “the day,“ the most important day. Today the world was created. Today I experience revelation. The Rebbe of Kubrin, when asked: What is the most important thing a person needs to do, answered: Whatever needs to be done right now is the most important thing to do.

This message may seem obvious and simple, but it is such a struggle. We do so much planning and so much delaying of gratification, that after a while, we stop seeing the present as important. The present is always in the service of some other more important time. When does that other more important time finally arrive? How can we be really present to the present?