“Do you know of a prayer for a surrogate?” The question came over Facebook Chat a few nights ago, sent by a young woman in my community named Tara. In the coming days, Tara will begin carrying an embryo for a couple who were not able to conceive on their own. For Tara, this has been a deep spiritual journey. She has two children of her own, and felt so blessed by easy and healthy pregnancies. And while cherishing her own beautiful sons, she felt overwhelmed by the deep pain and heartache that infertility causes to so many people. Tara knew she wanted to help.
In the Hebrew Bible, we meet many women who struggle with infertility. There’s Rachel, who watches her sister carry baby after baby, struggling herself to conceive her own beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There’s Hannah, who is so deeply pained by her inability to bare a child, that when she prays with all of her heart, Eli the Cohen believes that her passion and her devotion is a sign of being drunk. Hannah sways back and forth, opening her mouth, and only releasing a voice that is loud enough for she herself to hear. This kavanah, or deep intention, is the model that we use for personal prayer today.
Possibly the most well known story of infertility is found in this week’s Torah portion—Vayera. After struggling for years to conceive, Sarah is told that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age – and she laughs, and thus the child is given the name Yitzhak. Our rabbis teach that her laughter carries with it a feeling of surprise and even doubt. And yet, I prefer to focus on the essential truth that exists within big, unbridled laughter—tremendous, heartfelt, contagious joy. Sarah would finally know the extraordinary joy of being a mother.
Today, I know so many women and men who desperately want to experience that very same joy.
In just a few short days, an embryo will be implanted within Tara’s uterus, formed by a loving mother and father who are unable to create a baby without Tara’s help. And so, for Tara, I have written this blessing:
Makor HaChayim, Source of Life,
Inspire me to become a holy vessel, blessed with the opportunity to carry this precious seed, providing nourishment and warmth within the deep embrace of my womb.
Infuse me with patience. Through each hour of each day, may I have the strength to feel the blessing of the moment, knowing that with each breath that we share, life is closer to being renewed.
Rekindle within me courage, for in holding this seed, I am not merely making a child—I am also creating a mother and a father. I am forming a family. And within that family, a whole universe of possibility dwells.
And at this time, especially, instill within me the power and potential of love, that I may remain tender and devoted to all those who are connected to my heart. As my body changes and grows, so may my capacity to embody love expand and unfold as well.
Hoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot. It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.
There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes] from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”
What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.
The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova “A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).
Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.
And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Even as a teenager, at best I was probably pretty geeky, and what’s more, not appreciably bothered by it. I liked the Beatles, had hair down to my tush, wore nothing but jeans and t-shirts other than when I was hanging around at the Renaissance festival, and spent most of my free time reading. Even my mother, decidedly not a fashionista, would wonder aloud about which era I had been born into—apparently the one before hers.
When my son was a toddler, I read to him all the time. I often read classics—but a lot of the gender and race descriptions in some of those could be a bit squicky, so I would change them on the fly. This proved to be more difficult than one might think: toddlers—at least mine—have excellent memories, and like to be read the same stories over and over, which meant I also had to remember exactly *how* I read the story the last time. Because it had to be exactly the same.
These days, being unhip in the Jewish professional world is a terrible disadvantage. Grants go to the young and groovy -which I never was, even as a teenager—programs have to be innovative, and tefilah prayer services have to leave one panting with joy and overflowing with meaning.
I admit, I like a good indie minyan myself. And I have nothing against meaning, or innovation. But I do begin to wonder whether we really need those things—at least as much as we seem to think we do. Or even if we are sure about what they are and where they come from.
Our community has gone from one where elders are revered to one where they are ignored; where meaning seems to be derived from “finding something new to do,” and where innovation replaces commitment. It’s not that I don’t like new tunes, and I always find something new when I study a text (which I admit I prefer to davenning), but it seems to me that we have become hampered by our search for something to stimulate us. We want happiness, but what we seem to reach for instead is distraction.
I wonder what would happen if, instead of looking for new things, the Jewish community started cherishing some of our old things – starting with our elderly. I’d love to see a liberal shul teach their community to rise before their rav (or rabbah) and their aged (just FYI, I don’t work in a synagogue, so this isn’t some personal grandiosity).
What if, instead of “programs,” the shul simply instituted regular study at different intervals (for people who had different schedule-juggling needs) – no more movie-night slichot, but instead an evening of study followed by simple tefilah, maybe with explanations for those who are beginners? What if we asked our communities to make a commitment to some kind of regular out-of-shul meet-ups with other congregants, and to commit to attending weekday services a certain number of times a year? It would probably be different for different communities, but what I’m aiming at is less innovation, less programming, and stripping things down not to basics, but to core.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the warmest, most active shuls I’ve been involved
with are ones that aren’t so interested in inviting the hippest groovy innovator—they’re the ones that keep on rolling in their homely little buildings with active lay people who simply do human things week after week – phone calls and davenning, and bikkur cholim,and dinner together on Shabbat. Ones where there is a commitment to consistency.
It isn’t only toddlers who need repetition to learn and to feel comfortable, and it isn’t only geeky teens who are uninterested in doing something new, just because. I wonder how much of the “search for innovation” is counterproductive, and I wonder if we spent less time on flashy gewgaws, would we actually attract more people—people looking for an alternative to, or at least a supplement to, the highly innovative, always stimulating, constant change of the secular world.
A couple of weeks ago, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” “do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.
I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us. Continue reading
I am a self-confessed football fanatic. From September through January, my Sundays are centered around the performance of the San Diego Chargers (my star-crossed hometown team). The feeling of elation after a victory casts a positive glow throughout much of the following week, while a loss leaves me virtually inconsolable for the rest of the evening. My considerate spouse tends to discourage other non-fanatics from coming over to the house to watch games with me: I have been known to yell somewhat loudly, and I take literally the word “throw” in “throw pillows.”
To others who share this unhealthy obsession with football, the period between the Superbowl in February and the beginning of the season in late summer can feel like an eternity. But there is a spring oasis, a football three-day holiday, that emerges each spring called the NFL Draft. For seven rounds, football teams select college football players to add to their professional ranks for the coming year. Ostensibly, the purpose of the draft is to restock depleted rosters with relatively affordable players. But for football fans, the draft takes on a far more important role: it gives us hope: hope that these 20-22 year-old amateurs will take their physical gifts and become franchise players; hope that your team’s first-round pick this year will become an all-star rather than an expensive bust; hope, in short, of the power of potential to become reality.
Judaism, too, offers a spring-time multi-day exploration of the power of potential. From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, we count off a 49-day period called Sefirat ha-Omer (“Counting of the Omer”). According to Leviticus 23:15-16, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer (“sheaf”) of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” Despite its agricultural-sacrificial original context, the Counting of the Omer has become a period for spiritual rejuvenation. At a national level, the Omer bridges the gap between Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and Shavuot’s formation of Jewish communal identity with the receipt of the Torah. At a personal level, based in part on Kabbalistic (mystical) teachings, the Omer becomes an opportunity for individual spiritual purification from a slavish mentality (to money and materialism, work, preconceived notions, etc.) to one that is open and receptive to the instruction of the Almighty.
The Counting of the Omer has become more popular within Jewish circles, I believe, precisely because it taps into the Western cultural desire we all have—NFL fans and those indifferent to the gridiron—to celebrate potential. Despite the toxic nature of our political discourse, the relentless economic malaise we have experienced since 2008, and the tragic violence that continues to penetrate into our daily lives, we still yearn for hope. We still want to be inspired. So when our political and economic leaders fail us, we find other avenues for satisfying our innate need to find and experience potential. We are riveted by the latest hi-tech gadgets, from iPhones to Google Glass (often waiting in line for hours and paying ridiculous amounts of money) because of what they might enable us to do. We watch The Voice or The Bachelor because we want to be part of the process of “discovering” potential greatness. We live in a culture that venerates youth not only because we are shallow and vain but also because youth epitomizes limitless opportunity. For better or for worse, we are a “stem cell” culture: just as embryonic stem cells have the potential to transform into any other cells in the body as they mature, so too do we seek to recapture that fleeting time and sensation when we had not yet become what we are.
The Omer represents an authentically Jewish way to tap into this innate human need to celebrate potential without the cultural detritus of superficiality. Mindfully using the Sefirat ha-Omer enables us to take part in the excitement, the freshness, and the opportunity to re-claim the potential we still have to reinvent ourselves spiritually, both individually and communally. So I encourage you to take advantage of the time remaining in the Omer this year (we are at 34 days and counting). Visit The Huffington Post’s Omer Liveblog for some incredible visual and poet insights; begin reading or studying some text you have always wanted to but never found the time for; attend a yoga or meditation class for the first time; or just carve out a few minutes each evening to think about how you would like to improve your religious life for the upcoming year. Few of us are blessed with the physical tools to become professional football players, but each of us are blessed with the capacity for spiritual, intellectual, and moral growth. May the Omer remind us that we don’t need to wait to be drafted by others to take hold of our own potential for greatness.
I’ve just started teaching a new course at my congregation on Jewish mysticism. There are many ways to engage with this sizable topic: we could focus on the intellectual history of mysticism from Ezekiel’s vision of a holy chariot through Merkavah mysticism, the Zohar and Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah and Chassidism, to name just a few eras and genres of literature. But I have found that the theory can get in the way of what really draws people to want to learn more about mysticism.
Mysticism, in its essence, is about the experiential. It points to direct experiences of that which others have then sought to do the impossible with – to put those deeply felt and powerful experiences into the limiting vessel of words. We need words to try and convey something to someone else. But words will never enable another to truly get inside the experience.
Take the biblical account of the Burning Bush. I don’t know if I can believe in that account in a literal manner. A bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed. And a voice spoke from out of the bush. But here’s what I absolutely do know from the story that is recounted. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of historical accuracy, but rather in terms of what the essential message of that moment in the story conveys to me. Moses, who had left his people and could have spent the rest of his life tending sheep and living among the Midianites, has a life-course altering experience. He is ‘called’ to do something else with his life. So powerful is the tug that he is willing to go back into the lion’s den, so to speak, to confront Pharaoh and lead his people with whom he has had so little contact. Perhaps it was the earlier interaction that he had had with a slave driver that weighed on his conscience for all those years until he could bear it no more, realizing that he had a responsibility to change the situation for the enslaved. Perhaps it was a dissatisfaction with his simple life and the question that had gnawed at him as he wondered what his purpose on earth truly was. But out in the wilderness with his sheep he had a mystical experience that caused him to entirely change the direction of his life and, with it, the history of our people.
How do you explain that to someone else? How do you express in words the power of such a transformative moment? There is no question that the image of the burning bush is a powerful one that conveys not only the extraordinariness of the moment, but also conveys that this is a God experience. Whether it actually happened that way or not is almost irrelevant – the transformative power of the moment is undeniable.
When I started my Jewish mysticism course this past week, I asked attendees if they could think of personal moments when an experience was so deeply felt that it seemed to point toward the existence of something beyond the here and now. A moment, if you like, when you ‘peered behind the veil’ of material existence, if only for a moment. The examples shared were not hard to find. Personal experiences of healing, or working with the sick and the dying, were particularly prevalent, perhaps because at these moments of greatest vulnerability we are more likely to let down our own defenses and be open to something larger than ourselves. And, as people shared, there was an emotion that came with the sharing; that lump in the throat and the tearing up of eyes as, through re-telling about the moment in words, the power of the original experience was felt all over again.
That’s the experience that we need to pay attention to. So often, we get caught up on the ways that others have defined God for us. We get caught up in philosophical debates about whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing. We may find the intellectual exercise an engaging one but, ultimately, it will not bring us any closer to truly understanding the nature of God. The most we can hope for are the brief glimpses that emerge in the fabric of our everyday lives. And we can learn, through awareness and spiritual practice (meditation in particular, but not uniquely) to pay attention to these moments and let them teach us and guide the path of our lives.
A few days ago, I stumbled across a terrific quote, which I eventually tracked down to a New York Times article in which Rabbi Marc Gellman asserts, “‘I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,’ Gellman said. ‘Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! … Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is expressing gratitude.” The quote reminded me (and perhaps was inspired by, who knows?) of the Christian writer Anne Lamott, who is among my favorite writers. Last year she came out with a new book called, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, in which she asserts the same idea.
I happened to be struck by this quote, perhaps it was one of those moments when things come together – maybe Lamott would call it a miracle- because I had that morning had a peculiar conversation with my partner in which I was feeling a little sorry for myself (Not Attractive, I know). We had been talking about the need for people to share personal things in their lives with their friends, in particular, struggles and problems, and when he asked me who besides himself that would be (on the idea that one’s spouse should not be one’s only support -especially since they’re sometimes the problem that requires unloading) I had to admit that I had no idea who that would be.
It’s funny, but I’ve always felt terribly awkward about burdening other people with my problems. Perhaps I would have made an excellent Englishwoman, since I’m quite good at keeping the “stiff upper lip” and “carrying on” most of the time. But I just feel as though it would be wrong for me to bother people with my petty little bullshit. Is it arrogance? I have no dislike of people coming to me with their problems. To the contrary, like most people, I regard a confidence as a positive thing – part of relationship-building. So maybe it is arrogance – as if somehow I’m different and can get along without.
But I don’t think that I am the only person struggling with this. Indeed, I think it’s why so many people have trouble with prayer – and even with religion (as opposed to a nebulous and unstructured “spirituality,” which demands little of us in terms of self-revelation or discipline). Prayer is indeed “help, thanks, wow,” and there is nothing more difficult than to ask for help.
In an interview with NPR about her book, Lamott says, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.
“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
There are two levels to not asking for help: there is fear of rejection. What if someone did feel burdened by one’s TMI. On the human level, of course, this is obvious. Who doesn’t occasionally fear being rejected? And being told that you are making yourself too intimate in passing along the more than usual information is pretty scary. Being told that the other person does not want your intimacy.
But people can fear rejection on the divine level as well. The talmudic story of Elisha Ben Abuya, also known as “Acher,” – “the Other,” – is a classic example of this. Although there are several tales of how he became alienated from the community of the sages, it is what happens after that is full of pathos. It is, indeed, terrible. In several places, Elisha is described as being excluded from the possibility of repentance. His student, Meir, begs him to return (to repent and be re-accepted by God for –whatever it was he did), but Elisha tells him that he has heard a heavenly voice which told him, “All may return – except Acher”
And yet this idea is one in every other place foreign to Judaism. No one is truly ever eternally excluded from the possibility of returning to God. Repentance might be very difficult, it might even require one’s death to complete atonement, but it is not impossible. Perhaps what was really so pathetic here is that one can, reading carefully, interpret the passages as meaning either that Elisha wasn’t forbidden to return, but Acher was – in other words, he had to abandon his identity as someone different from everyone else, and allow his community to help him mend, or perhaps even that the only thing standing in his way was himself – that that voice that he thought of as God’s voice was only in his own head, and God would have accepted him back at any time.