Tuesday, September 17, 2013

For Sukkot

We have worked to bring down the walls. Now we can step out of doors and try to live in that space we have created.

It is not a space completely open to the elements. We do not venture out of our walls alone. What we have worked to create around us is a sense of Presence that we can carry with us wherever we go. This is the sukkah, a symbol of the mobile divine presence that accompanied the Israelites through their journeys. That is what we have worked and are working to create for ourselves through these Holy Days, a feeling that we, too, can carry God with us through the year, wherever we go and whatever happens to us.

We have vowed not to live indoors, behind walls that guard our egos, walls built of fear, anxiety and smallness of mind. The season of the shofar has helped us to begin to bring down those walls. The question now is one of living, dwelling, the question of the sukkot holiday. How does one live without such walls, open to the world, to the experience of life as it is? And the answer is the sukkah itself – we do not venture out alone, but with God’s Presence surrounding us and embracing us. This is a dwelling place that embraces, that keeps us company, without shutting out the stars. May we experience the joy of living with such Presence.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

For Yom Kippur

1. Getting Down to the Bare Truth:

The truth is always simple. If we could get rid of all the distractions and all the layers of obstacles – fear, ego, anxiety, physical distractions – that stand in our way, we could perceive the truth, inside us and around us.

The shofar blasts on Rosh HaShanah are like the blasts before Jericho; they can knock down walls for us, helping us shed whatever stands in our way.

On Yom Kippur the High Priest sheds his fancy gold garments and wears a simple white. We want to get to the bottom of things, to a kind of pure truth that lies normally hidden by the sparkles we put on ourselves for the world.

The Piaseczner Rebbe says that one of the principle ways to perceive God in the world is to cultivate in yourself a certain teminut, simplicity or honesty. When you ask a child a question, he says, the answer comes back to you straight from her heart. That is the charm of the child. We, on the other hand, have layers of thought and convolution before words come out of our mouths – if I say this, they’ll think I’m smart; if I say that, they’ll think I’m generous, . . . In the end what comes out is a bag of wind. The truth lies hidden beneath layers of social convention.

Truth is God’s sign, implanted in us as it is in every creation in the world. Our access to our Source is through this point of truth buried inside us.

It is not just in our interactions with others that we are often not totally present, not totally honest. It is also in our interactions with God. As Isaiah says in our Yom Kippur haftarah, “They pretend to seek Me every day, and they pretend to desire knowledge of My ways.” All these words of prayer we say – do they have wings to fly? What are they made of -- while we mouth words of piety and thanksgiving, are we thinking about what to make for dinner? What value do such words have – if they don’t come from our Truth, they will lie on the ground, dead and useless.

On Yom Kippur, we have a chance to taste the Truth. Tradition says that the gates of heaven are more open, that God is more accessible during this season, and especially on this day, as we, for our part are brutally honest about our own lives and shortcomings. May the spark of Truth we feel on this day carry us into a new year of temimut.

2.God is our mikvah:

Mikveh Yisrael Hashem (Jeremiah 17:13) literally means, “O Hope of Israel! O Lord!” but the rabbis playfully read it as “God is the mikvah, the ritual bath, of Israel” -- He purifies us just as a mikvah would.

I love this image of God as our mikvah. When one immerses in a mikvah, one is completely submerged in the water. Imagining God as our mikvah means feeling this sense of intense connection to God, feeling that He is all around us, that we are surrounded, embraced, cocooned by His presence. As we say in the daily amidah, God is our magen, our shield. It is as if we have a force-field around us of divine energy. The question is whether we can feel its presence, notice the face of God in everything around us.

3. Framing:

Do we really believe that God changes our decrees based on our repentance during this season?

We say: UTeshuvah utefillah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah: “Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree.” Many years ago, I heard from Catriella Freedman the following interpretation of this phrase in the name of Rabbi Sam Shor:

Notice that we don’t say that the decree itself will be nullified. The decree, it seems, whatever it is, remains intact. What changes is its “evil” nature. How can we remove its “evil”? Perceiving something that happens to you as essentially evil is a state of mind, a matter of framing. We have the capacity to remove our sense of this event as evil through repentance, prayer and charity. These are the tools we are given -- not to change what happens to us in the world – we don’t have control over that – but to change how we react to and perceive what happens to us. Prayer, repentance and charity are practices that help a person learn to have the kind of state of mind that can see opportunity in difficulty, find comfort in tragedy. They are practices of introspection and generosity and they can shape our habits of mind so that we no longer feel the “evil” nature of the decree.

Some Post-Rosh HaShanah Thoughts

1. On Bowing to the Ground:

Bowing all the way down with my head to the ground on Rosh HaShanah this year, I suddenly felt the intense vulnerability of this position. I can’t see what is coming this way and I am not physically prepared to react, prostrate. I relinquish myself; I submit myself entirely to God’s mercy. I have to trust that things will work out, not because I can see them and control them, because I can’t. And that is the truth.

Avinu Malkeinu Haneinu ve’Aneinu ki eyn banu ma’asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah va’hesed vehoshienu. “Our father, our king, have mercy and answer us, for we have no deeds.” We are nothing. In the end, what can we say for ourselves? We’ve tried? We’ve struggled? There is so much undone, so much imperfection. In the end of the day, we have no deeds, no words. And that is a great relief. To simply give oneself up to God’s mercies. Aseh imanu. . . vehoshieinu. “Deal with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.” Save us. After Rosh haShanah and after Yom Kippur, what will come out of it all – hoshanot, petitions for deliverance. What will come of all this is our realization that it is not reall in our hands, that we are very much in need of deliverance, daily, yearly, each minute. We submit, we let go, we trust.

Is this teshuvah, “repentance”? Doesn’t it require us to act to improve ourselves, to do better in the world? Yes, yes, but sometimes I think that at the base of most problems is a misperception about our relationship to this world, that maybe the best way to improve oneself is to really understand, in the deepest way possible, that one is not in control, to be able to truly submit oneself to God. Maybe this is what teshuvah means – a return to God, a return to an understanding that God is one’s Source, a total submission of the self. Once we realign ourselves, everything else falls into place.

2. On the Shofar Blasts:

This year, the shofar blasts reminded me of the shofar blasts outside the Jericho walls, loud and powerful, able to knock down obstacles. We put up all kinds of barriers around ourselves, protections built of fear and of ego. Can the shofar blasts help us learn to knock them down, to open up to what is out there without fear or hesitation, to knock down the illusion of individual separateness and let us feel a part of the universe, like a wave in the ocean, a blade of grass in the lawn, a note of sound carried on a wave of such sounds by the shofar?

Toot, toot, toot. The brokenness of the shevarim and the cries of the teruah are always surrounded by the oneness and unity of the tekiah. The tekiah gedolah gathers up those separate sounds and surrounds them, melting them into a single unit, along with our separate selves.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Few Rosh HaShanah Thoughts

1) An addendum to last week’s blog post on being present for each other’s suffering: This theme is also expressed in the blowing of the shofar, traditionally thought to resemble a cry. The Sefat Emet points out that the main mitzvah is actually to hear the shofar, not to blow it. This is a day to learn to hear those who are crying around us, to be present for their suffering, as God is.

2) Melekh: King. On Rosh HaShanah we pray for a time when the whole world will recognize God as king. Why is this important to us? Probably for many reasons, but this year, one strikes me – we say ki taa’avir memshelet zadon min ha’aretz – when You will remove the rule of evil from the land. Having God as king would mean the rule of justice and good and peace, and the end of cruelty, tyranny, torture and injustice. This is also the thrust of our daily prayer for justice: Hashiva Shofteinu¸ “Restore our judges . . . May You, alone, Lord, reign over us with loving kindness and compassion.” Every human justice system and every human system of rule is fundamentally flawed and has certain points of injustice. Yearning for the kingship of God over the world is a way of acknowledging this and yearning for complete justice.

3) Taher libeinu le’avdekha be’emet: Purify our hearts so that we may worship you “in truth,” sincerely, earnestly, honestly. I love this statement because it acknowledges that we need God’s help even in the endeavor of coming close to Him. Also, the end of the sentence clarifies the point: ki atah Elokim emet. For You are a God of Truth. We need to learn to worship God honestly, from that simple, pure place in our heart, because God Himself is made of truth. The Piasezcner Rebbe talks about acting with temimut, simplicity and honesty, as essential to seeking God because God’s seal is Truth. There is no point in trying to hide. And the only way to feel connected to God is to reconnect to the most honest, simple pure part inside of oneself. May we have the help to do this.

4) This one is for my brother-in-law, Eric: The Sefat Emet understands the name Rosh HaShanah as meaing “before the change.” Shanah, meaning year, comes from a root meaning either repeat or change – lihishtanot. The Sefat Emet explains that on Rosh HaShanah, as we celebrate the birthday of the world, we return to a time “before change,” before everything in the world broke up into separate pieces, before separateness, a time when everything was still unified and part of God. On Rosh HaShanah we get a chance to return to this simple and perfect sense of connection and unity with the divine.