Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Angel and the Shepherd

This week Torah tells us what it was like for Moshe to stand at the Burning Bush. But what was it like to be that fiery angel?

Enjoy this post for Parashat Shemot. Just click here.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chanukah 5776: Being the Light


http://www.irwinkeller.com/itzikswell/2015/12/5/chanukah-5776-being-the-light


Wishing a light-filled Chanukah to all.

Follow the link below to my recent Chanukah offering. In a world were bad things will continue to happen, and many good things too, what is our role? If the world is not "fixable", what is Tikkun Olam?

Maybe our job is simply to be a light.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

The View from the Ladder




Sometimes you just need a ladder, because the view from the ground is not good. You need to climb out of the fray, out of the noise, out of all that weighs you down...

[The Itzik's Well has moved. To read this post, click here.]

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Itzik's Well Has Moved!



Thank you for visiting this blogspot!

Feel free to browse around here for past posts. But from here forward, you'll find my thoughts residing at irwinkeller.com. To skip right to the Itzik's Well blog part of that site, click here.

If you previously signed up for email subscription, don't worry. I've got your number. If you notice you're not getting posts in your in-box, sign up again at the new site.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see today's post, about the power of blessing to re-think and re-shape our world, and what that might mean on the day after Paris, click here.

Be in touch!

Irwin

Friday, October 2, 2015

Road Trip Harvest

Sukkot Drash 5776

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ
Hazor'im b'dim'ah b'rinah yiktzoru. 
Who sows in tears reaps in joy. (Psalm 126:5)



Tonight is a night of hallel. A night of praise, of gratitude. We sit here, in the waning days of Sukkot. It is the time of our harvest, when we gather in all that we've cultivated, all that the weather has allowed, and feel grateful.

And I am feeling singularly grateful tonight and all this week. I just returned from a particularly magical journey. I flew to Chicago the morning after Yom Kippur. There I picked up my mother's car, which has been a subject of speculation since she died. Because everyone wants a car that was only driven by a little old lady going to church on Sundays. In her case it was the diner for breakfast, but the principle holds true. But I have the same blind attachment to that car as I have had to everything in my mother's house, and so, unable to part with it, I decided to bring it back here to California.

So I collected the car in Chicago, and my husband and I set out on a cross-country trek. I've never done this drive before. The northern route, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, ending up in a Nevada town rather optimistically named Jackpot, and from there home on Wednesday. This trip included two states I'd never set foot in and my first-ever visits to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands and Yellowstone.

So I am keenly aware of the joy and wealth of new experience that I harvested in this week's yield. New vistas. Discoveries. Good time together. We crossed the Great Plains, reading aloud a cautious and conscious combination of Lakota stories and Willa Cather. We binged on Krista Tippett's "On Being" podcast, getting dewy-eyed at the words of poets and thinkers, finding inspiration at 75 mph.

We were overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature. Big skies. Sudden storms. A night of driving under the chupah of the Milky Way, hundreds of miles from the nearest electric light, with the lunar eclipse unfolding over our left shoulder.


We spent two days in Yellowstone, which I kept calling Yosemite, perhaps because Yosemite has the word Semite in it, although truthfully, Yellowstone sounds much more like a Jewish name, changed from Gelbstein at Ellis Island. Yosemite, sorry, Yellowstone was tremendous. I'd never been around so much geothermal activity, with Old Faithful as the most humdrum of the lot. Pools, geysers, cauldrons, bubbling mud bowls. The sulfur breath of sleeping dragons, snoring under toasted meringue earth. And even in those most forbidding pools of searing, bitter water, there was life. Algae in gold and green and pink, turning the white volcanic ground into delicate Helen Frankenthaler paintings.

I found myself noticing the ways in which culture and nature have interacted. On one extreme was Mt. Rushmore. After a brief moment of excitement at seeing this famous thing that has been on postcards and highway rest stop placemats my whole life, it quickly came to look like a wound, a gouge, on the landscape. Whenever I tried to look at the sweep of the beautiful Black Hills, my eye kept getting drawn inexorably back to the white spot that was Mt. Rushmore, humanity declaring that its ephemeral governments outweigh the enduring hills.

In contrast, Yellowstone seemed to be much more about leaving nature to its own devices while giving us some access to witness it close up. I found myself grateful to the anonymous people who designed and built the network of wheelchair-accessible boardwalks that enable you to wander through this geothermal Eden without damaging it, or without damaging it so much. I appreciated how the designer would have had to be part architect, part educator and part aesthete. I was grateful for the tremendous beauty of this place, and for the opportunity to have, for a few minutes, front row seats.


But enough geology. The wildlife! We saw prairie dog towns. Pronghorns and elk. A single mama bear with her cub. In South Dakota we met feral burros that would crowd around cars and poke their muzzles into the windows in hopes of a junk food fix. We saw thousands of bison, huge and ungainly, their enormous heads the size of a 12-year old, and so much mass resting on their front haunches that their smaller rear limbs started looking to me like training wheels.

My appreciation of nature did not end there, but extended to things I learned about my husband's nature. For instance, that no matter how many herds of bison we had already seen, he will invariably elect to pull over to see the next herd, meeting each wave with equal scrutiny and delight. Similarly, if there is one more geothermal pool, and we have only seen 30 of them, why would we not opt for 31?

It was a wonderful trip. Short and packed. And Sukkot is a great time to be outdoors, and I loved bringing in this experience as the last of my harvest for the year.

Because my harvest contained other stuff as well, not all of it this much fun. It contained important if difficult learnings. For instance, a realization, after 8 years of leading High Holy Days, that the 10 Days of Awe will always, for me, be preceded by the 20 Days of Doubt and the 10 Days of Despair. And this, I finally learned, is my creative landscape, not a deviation from it. A hard learning but, I hope, a good one.

I harvested other important learnings this year, things about parenting, about loss, about second chances and new beginnings. I learned new things about learning itself. My harvest this year included many kinds of fruit. Some tasty and ripe. Some not so much.

But it could have been otherwise. So many others harvested bitter produce this year: loss of loved ones, loss of homes, loss of work, loss of health. We all experienced powerlessness over things happening in our families or communities or elsewhere in the world. And all of those can be bitter things to find growing in our fields.

But here's the thing about harvest: it doesn't all have to taste good, and it doesn't need to be processed all at once. No one reaps a field of grain and turns it into challah the same day. Some things might take years to figure out where they came from and what role they might play. No, the harvests of our lives don't require immediate action; they don't require instant insight. They just demand our consideration, our notice.

That is why this holiday of Sukkot has us move out of our homes and into the fields to live in the flimsiest of structures. So that we can get close to our harvest. Not the labor of it, but the wonder of it. Because good or bad, the harvest is wondrous.

There are very few requirements for how a sukkah may be built. But one requirement is that through the roof we must be able to see stars. And once we know that we are supposed to be able to see stars, how can we resist looking? How can we resist raising our gaze and seeing the vastness?

Seeing stars through the roof is an invitation to what the Kabbalists call mochin d'gadlut,  expanded consciousness. We spend our year caught up in all the particulars of our lives. Because our lives require so much attention and action. We describe ourselves as swamped, as trying to keep our heads above water, as buried under a pile of work, as overwhelmed. We constantly describe our vantage point as being smaller than and underneath the facts of our own lives.

But wait - look at the stars! Or the moon in eclipse, hanging brown and bulbous against a wash of galaxy. How can it not bring a kind of hush, a kind of liftoff, an aerial view of our landscape? Looking at our life, even briefly, from above; getting out from under it to breathe the crisp night air above it; to look at it with some distance, some dispassion, some compassion. This is mochin d'gadlut, the spacious mind that Sukkot, that the very architecture of the sukkah, invites us to try out.

From that great height, we can notice how extraordinary our lives are, even in their mundane particulars. We can see the strange bedfellows of joy and sorrow, hardship and jackpot, love and loneliness, sickness and health, challenge and blessing that populate our maps. In mochin d'gadlut we can see how remarkable this life is in all its complexity, and be free, for that moment, from the need to fix a thing.

So while this holiday is still upon us, let us bring in our harvests and see what's there. What will feed us now. What maybe should get canned or milled or pickled and put in the pantry, so that sometime later, at the right moment, we might discover it as the perfect ingredient, the salt or sweet of a future feast.

Chag sameach.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Year of the Good Word


Yom Kippur 5776





I've been grieving over the past few days over some words I said that I can’t take back. I yelled at my teenager in the most unseemly way. It was surprising enough to both of us that the teenager said, “Irwin, what is this really about?” And we were able to have a nice little meta-conversation that we don’t usually get to have. Although my stupid pride – or stupid shame – kept me from adding other pieces of the picture, like: your brother left for college yesterday and I’m really sad; and it’s almost Yom Kippur and I’m full of self-doubt . In any event, the immediate outcome of all of this was by all appearances okay. I apologized. He accepted my apology. But I was left haunted by my own words, wishing, like we all do, that I could take them back, and try the whole moment over again.
 
Because words are powerful. Torah tells us that this world came into existence through words (Psalms 33:6). God said, “Light!” and there was light. And then onward through a whole week of directives, with heaven, earth, tree, bug and human appearing one after the other, like exclamation points at the end of each of God’s sentences.
Our mystics understood words to be sources of power. Combinations of letters could force God’s hand. Words inscribed in clay could raise a golem to life or consign it back to the dust. In the kabbalistic view, the structure of our whole reality rests not on atoms or waves but on 22 Hebrew letters, like how in the Matrix movies reality is a projection of binary code.
Jews believe in the power of words. That’s why we have a Yom Kippur prayer like Kol Nidre, where we try to undo them. We say, Release us from our vows. Let our oaths be not-oaths and our promises be not-promises. The Kol Nidre prayer arose in times when Jews were sometimes forced to make oaths of fealty to king or cause or god not of our choosing. But I think it’s equally as powerful as a lament over our own, everyday misuse of words. We ask for our words to be nullified, for them to be reeled back in as if they were never uttered. We know that can’t happen. But we pray that at least the damage we’ve unleashed can somehow be stemmed.
Words are powerful and they can hurt in a million ways. As kids we used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me,” an adage that is an obvious lie. Because years later, the broken bones of our childhoods are healed. But the wounds from the names we were called, from the taunts of our tormentors or the fault-finding of our loved ones, continue to haunt us and to hobble us. My worst childhood memories do not involve fists, which I was reasonably good at dodging. The memories that haunt me are about words. There are a million examples. But I’ll just share that when the high school band, within a litany of cutesy year-end awards, voted me “biggest fruit” and this was read aloud by the band director to the band, the damage included an end of my musical life until I was coaxed back in my thirties.
Words are powerful.
And words are cheap. Now more than ever. I open my computer and am met by hundreds of emails; mostly ads; aptly called spam – both tasteless and treyf. By the time I get up from my screen, I have wasted hours of my “one wild and precious life”[1] on thousands of words that do no honor to this world and make no effort to.
The truth is that I love words. I studied linguistics for years. Words can tell you history much like fossils or the rings of a tree can. You can guess at migrations and cultural contact and technological developments and the evolution of metaphors that become so commonplace we don’t even notice that they’re metaphors.
Words are brilliant. And I think they deserve better than how we have come to use them. I think they have the right to convey something of substance, whether it’s love or hope or wonderment or consolation or important information (of course) or song or respectful disagreement or even playful nonsense. They obviously can carry other kinds of content, but I don’t think they like it.
In my first, short-lived lawyer job, I learned that my words were for hire. They had a kind of economic value whether or not I actually agreed with them. And as I assembled strings of words to help defend polluters or Savings & Loan looters, I felt both my unhappiness and theirs.  
Compared to that, my career as a singing drag queen was a dream. I could say anything! Fling words into the air in song and in jest, making people laugh. I would know before I said it how each word would land. In the Kinsey Sicks, we would use our words to poke fun at power, to point out injustice, even to make fun of funny things about words themselves. How lovely was this! But there was an occupational hazard too. I became – and still am – a little too quick with the sarcastic quip. See, the culture prizes ironic humor because we live in a cynical time. No one expects much good to happen. We expect to be laughed at if we speak from our hearts. So we speak indirectly, ironically, with a certain roll of the eyes embedded right into the syllables. I do value being funny. But I’m learning that it’s not always good for me to lead with it. Because I have too often let loose an automatic, not fully thought-out sarcastic comment and as the words leave my mouth I’ve seen them look back over their shoulders at me with disapproval.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if our words had veto power? If they could refuse us if they disagree with the purpose we’re putting them to. What if I opened my mouth in anger at my kid or unthinkingly in sarcasm and found that my words weren’t even there, that they had absconded to some margarita bar somewhere on the far side of my cerebral cortex, waiting for me to chill out. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Sadly that’s not the case. Words seem to show up for duty, no matter how dirty the deed. And that always surprises me. When some bub says to a presidential candidate, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims…when can we get rid of them,” I wonder how words can even contain such ugliness. How is it that they don’t shatter at its touch, like searing tea poured into glass, leaving shards of broken syllables scattered on the floor.
And then in those “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims” moments, we wait with hope for the candidate’s courageous riposte. Words that will put a halt to the hate mongering and redeem the moment and our morality. And the right words are there, in the bullpen, powerful words, real sluggers, saying, “Pick me! Pick me! Send me in.” But instead, the politician responds: “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” Using words to say nothing but only to wink back at hate.
Now it’s easy to condemn this particular pair of interlocutors. That particular moment was high profile and is still on our minds. Be aren’t we all guilty – I know I am – of leaving the right words in the bullpen when they’re needed? When someone speaks hatefully about Muslims, or patronizingly about African Americans, or makes a cheap joke at the expense of transgender people or fat people or Jews or some other easy, popular target. All those times that we leave our good words un-deployed – those are moments for which we need to make teshuvah. And to hope that the Kol Nidre prayer can reel back in not only our harsh words but also our complicit silences.
So I’ve decided that for me, 5776 is going to be the year of Right Speech. The year of the Good Word. Since last year, the shmitah year, represented the shabbes of a seven-year cycle, this year must represent the first day of Creation, the one in which God first spoke; the day in which words first had consequence. So here are 3 Jewish principles that I’m going to offer myself, and you by association, to guide my tongue.
(1)  Be like Hillel: kind and humble in your speech.
There’s a famous story in Talmud of a long-raging dispute between the School of Rabbi Hillel and the School of Rabbi Shammai.[2] A heavenly voice suddenly intrudes into the assembly and says eylu v’eylu divrei Elohim chayim. “Both these and those are the words of the living God.” Meaning that your adversary’s words might also come from a holy impulse, even if you don’t agree with them. Seeing that possibility can shift your feelings in any conflict. But there’s more. The heavenly voice continues, announcing that despite the holiness of everyone’s words, the School of Hillel wins. “Why?” asks Talmud, and goes right on to answer. “Because they were kindly and modest and spoke about their opponents’ view before their own,” unlike the School of Shammai, which had been known to go out of their way to scold Jews for the way they kept the law. So, Principle #1: be like Hillel. Let your words be kindly and modest.
(2)  Keep me from Lashon Hara
The idea of lashon hara, of evil speech, is an old one in Judaism. It focuses less on speaking meanly to someone, which mostly we all try to resist, and instead on speaking meanly about someone behind their back. Sometimes it is subtle. It can take the form of a joke. Or even just a tone of voice.
I do this more than I’d like to admit. It’s terrible and cowardly and so inviting because there isn’t a huge risk of being caught. And we can’t really pretend that it doesn’t hurt the person just because they’re not hearing it. It paves the way for other people to judge or mistreat them. And it hurts us too. It makes us more and more practiced at being uncompassionate; and I do not want a neshomeh that is practiced at being uncompassionate. So, Principle #2: keep off the lashon hara. If saying something about someone makes you feel gleefully guilty, maybe you actually don’t need to say it.
(3)  Silence is an Option
Sometimes in all of our struggles figuring out what is the right thing to say and what is the wrong thing to say, we forget that not saying is also available to us. That silence isn’t just absence of sound; it has heft and substance. Psalm 65 says, “God, to you silence is tehilah – praise.”[3] Silence is in itself a psalm. Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”[4]  
So maybe once, instead of delivering the well-timed quip, I might opt instead for silence. Profound things can happen in the silence. We can more readily relocate our Hillel-like compassion and humility. And sometimes, in the silence, if we listen, we can hear the kol d’mamah dakah, the still, small voice. The deep intuition or the angelic encouragement. What we stand to gain in our silence is sometimes far greater than what we stand to gain by opening our mouths, certainly by opening our mouths in anger or annoyance. And the soul-space that your silence opens up in you is now a new vessel to receive the light of the Shechinah. And doesn’t that sound nice? So Principle #3: Consider Silence.
So with these three principles and more as I stumble upon them, I enter this year of Right Speech, this year of the Good Word.
In Torah, in the Book of Numbers, there is a moment when an angel with a sword appears in the path of a prophet on his way to curse the Children of Israel. I want that. I want that app. May I be blessed when I open my mouth with a curse at the ready, that an angel appears before me. No sword necessary. The angel is enough. And may it stop me from my errand.
May I put my words to good use. And may I hold them with the care that I might hold a beloved child. And may I hold the child with the greatest care of all.


 Wishing friends and readers a g'mar chatimah tovah.


[1] “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver.
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b
[3] Psalm 65:2
[4] Psalm 46:10

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of


Rosh Hashanah 5776

I’d like to start tonight by telling you a dream that I had. Not recent. I’ve been sitting on this one for a year and a half, not knowing quite what to do with it.

The dream came to me while I was performing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was hot and I went to sleep with the balcony doors open, looking out over the dazzlingly blue Bay of Banderas. It was just a month after my mother’s death; in fact it was my first day out of shloshim, the 30-day mourning period. And in my dream, I walked into some old European sanitarium, and there was a doctor there and my mother too. And the doctor had figured out what was wrong with her and it was an easy fix and he'd just gone ahead and fixed it and she was instantly okay – younger and stronger than I’d ever seen her, and they said there was no longer a reason for her to be there. So I took her and we drove. But not home. We were now driving up a mountain in the middle of a Greek island; climbing, climbing as if up to Olympus itself, with the Mediterranean all around and views to the horizon in every direction.

As we drove, we sat side by side in the car, just as we had at the moment of her stroke. And at this point in the dream my waking memory began to seep in. I realized something was not right. I pulled over and told her that we’d already sat shiva for her and it had been so sad. And I fell on her shoulder and she held me while I cried.

Now that’s pretty much the entirety of the dream. It was beautiful and sad, and not particularly deep. It was clearly venting my grief, helping me let go of the weeks – and actually years – of worry about her health and wellbeing. It was my subconscious giving me a chance to feel some peace.

But it didn’t just feel like my subconscious, whatever that means. It felt messagey, like I know grieving people often experience. It felt like a hello. And a message that she was okay. And its feeling that way was, for me, a problem.

Because first off – and you might not know this – I am a terrible cynic. Despite this work of mine here on this bimah, despite the stories I tell here and the connections I draw between worlds, I feel like I am always holding some amount of it within quotation marks. I soar aloft here and then, thud, I land back in my flightless day-to-day. I’m not sure where I get such cynicism from. My family, on my mother’s side, are all Litvaks. And the Litvak, as you might know, always plays the role of the doubter in all the Chasidic stories, scoffing at the rebbe’s wonders, until he is won over in the end.

In my defense, I’m not alone in that cynicism. It resonates with much of our tradition. Talmud tells us our dreams are 1/60th part prophecy.[1] (Some of you might remember that 60:1 ratio from Selichot – this is the Jewish dissolution level at which something becomes nullified.) “Don’t count on your dreams for guidance,” imply the rabbis of antiquity. “The prophecy in them is negligible.” But, tantalizingly, negligible is not the same as non-existent. One-sixtieth is tiny but quantifiable. It’s one minute of every hour you sleep. That’s 6, 7, 8 minutes of prophecy a night, which really isn’t so bad. But, frustratingly, Talmud gives no guidance as to how to identify which eight minutes.

There’s more to why I don’t just jump to believe all such mystical moments, and I confess that in rallying Talmud to my defense just now, I was being somewhat disingenuous. Because the truth is I want to believe in mystical experience. I want a world where we are in conversation with God and with angels and who knows how many non-corporeal realms. And I always fear that that desire is just escapism or magical thinking, or that others will think that about me. Or I’m afraid of being associated with preachers who exploit faith for profit.

So although I’m drawn to the mystical, I am quick, I fear, to pooh-pooh the woo-woo, as it were. If I experience something transcendent, I soon douse the experience in a bucket of cold water.

But there are times when the mystical is so pressing, that it’s really hard to explain it away. Which brings me back to the dream about my mother 19 months ago.

I woke up from the dream, and looked out to the blue Mexican water, feeling sad and feeling spoken to. I couldn’t shake that feeling. I got up, dressed, and walked to the market for fruit and vegetables. Coming back, I wandered through town wondering how anyone can ever tell if such an experience is anything more than the heart’s wishful thinking; the brain concocting medicine for a spirit in need of it. I posed this “how can you ever know for sure” question in my head as clearly as one might pose an inquiry to a Magic-8 Ball. And just as this request for a sign formed, I looked up and found myself staring at a sign. I was standing in front of Club Mañana, a former dance club and theatre where my group, the Kinsey Sicks, had performed for several seasons. Mañana was now for sale and I was staring at the En Venta – the For Sale sign. My eyes were drawn down to the large-lettered name of the realtor. Marilyn Newman. And that, as a few of you might know, was my mother’s maiden name.

If I’d seen it in a movie I would have snickered. But I stood there, feeling stupid. That because of my insistent grinchiness, this hello from my mother had to come endorsed with a signature before I would believe it.

So, was this a coincidence? Of course it was. Might I have noticed this gringa realtor’s name, this ersatz Marilyn Newman, on some other “For Sale” sign two years earlier? Of course, I might’ve. I might’ve noticed it and called my mother on the phone and said, “You’ll never guess what I saw today!” I might’ve, but I didn’t. I only saw it in the slightly altered consciousness produced by the dream.

Talmud says that the age of the prophets is over.[2] No one talks to God face to face like Moses did.[3] But does that mean that the whole inter-worldly communication grid is down? Some of us still pray in formal ways. We imagine ourselves on these Days of Awe to be standing in front of a gate, not a wall. More of us pray in unofficial ways. We mutter thanks or please to God or to the Universe or to angels as we go about our business, as we feel our longings, as we escape dangers. We tell ourselves these are figures of speech. But still we use language that suggests that on some level, we see ourselves as residing within a field that is perhaps not supernatural, but somehow infranatural.[4] In other words, the divine courses through us and every corner of the world. And so everything that seems a simple matter of circumstance also carries with it a wink of the divine.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught that every blade of grass has a song of its own, a melody that comes from the sweetness of the water and the setting of the pasture.[5] And the song of the grass informs the song of the sheep that eat it, and of the shepherd who spends days lying on it, watching the sheep. Every living thing – no, every thing – has a kind of music that we can hear if we open to it.[6] Meanwhile, Talmud teaches us – and many of you have heard this – that no blade of grass grows without an angel standing there, encouraging it, saying, “Grow! Grow!”[7]

If you imagine both these ideas as having a kind of truth, then everything is talking to everything. The Divine talks, and Creation talks back, in a great, gorgeous cacophony not dissimilar to a Jewish dinner table. And if we are in the right state of consciousness, we might hear some of this crosstalk that we otherwise never would tune into; the crosstalk that sometimes seems to respond to a question in our hearts. Or that calls us to action when we need it. Or calls us to attention at just the right moment. And maybe what we need to hear in the crosstalk of the universe comes to us in the language of coincidence, because it is abundant, and we all understand its grammar. Coincidence is the Esperanto of divine communication.

And sometimes we don’t even need coincidence as a mechanism. We just know. We know what we need to know. It comes to us not like the blast of shofar or the bombast of a “For Sale” sign in a foreign country. It comes to us through silence, through a still, small voice.

This phrase, “the still, small voice” comes to us by way of a story of Elijah the prophet, taking refuge in a cave[8]. Elijah is having a crisis of faith, because things have gone terribly and God has not, at that moment, been proving Godself in the great blustery Hollywood ways Elijah desired. And so God causes a great wind to pass by the cave, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. And Elijah perceives that God is not in any of those things. And only after the cataclysms subside is Elijah able to perceive a kol d’mamah dakah, a “still, small voice,” the hush we will reference tomorrow in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the quiet reverberation that happens after the blast of the shofar. This is the place where communication happens. This is the quiet where the call lives.[9]

Because a call doesn’t have to be loud to be heard. And because a loud voice can be ignored just as easily – maybe more easily – than a quiet one. And that describes in a nutshell the difficulty of my long-delayed, long-deferred calling to become a rabbi. My desire to be a rabbi was so old, since childhood, that it had become habit. Its constant racket had become white noise. And once relegated to the realm of irrelevance, it stopped being a call altogether, if in fact it had ever been one.

It was only over this last year that I finally began to hear it in the silence. It was the shmitah year, the fallow year. I had shed some of my busy-ness. I’d retired from the Kinsey Sicks. And I no longer had a mother to occupy the sizable psychic space that having – and worrying about – an aging parent thousands of miles away can take up. And so there was a new stillness that I wasn’t used to having. And in that stillness this longing began to murmur again. It came to me in the form of desire, in the form of repeated crazy, uncanny coincidences. It revealed to me that this calling now lived solidly within the realm of possibility. I had the open time that the Kinsey Sicks left in their wake. And I had a family that would make it doable and there was a program that could make it possible. I could study remotely and maintain my commitment to this community. I was so well poised; so lucky, so blessed. And I began to wonder what was left to hold me back? The still, small voice asked me, over and over, “Why not? Really. Why not?”

Until I saw that the impediment was no longer circumstance. It was me. What stopped me from saying hineini, from saying “yes” to being called, was, ultimately, my investment in a particular story. My long-rehearsed, well-polished, coulda-shoulda-woulda life story about wanting to be and not getting to be a rabbi. Of having been too out too early. Of having been distracted by an epidemic. Of having gotten swept into show business and family and a million other compelling things. I realized that this story was precious to me. This story kept me safe; kept me insulated from the risk of failing at actually being a rabbi. Plus it was a compelling story – tragic and quirky. And you know how much I love being a quirky story.

And over months, in the silence, I realized that I could, finally, let that story go. That life was too short to hang onto it. And when the decision finally made itself, I sat and cried – from relief. Because it is hard work refusing a call for so long.

It is hard work refusing a call. I think you know that’s true, because I think we’ve all done it. Many of us are doing it now, laboring to say “no” to something we feel called to do, or to change, or to be: more generous, more engaged, move loving, more learned. Even to repair a long broken relationship. I suspect that if right now I asked you to complete the sentence, “If I could, if there was nothing to hold me back, I would _____,” you would be able to answer instantly. And yet so often we don’t do it. Because of some “can’t” standing in the way. There might be financial barriers or physical barriers of course. But there might be something else too. Some story, some bad experience, some fear, some hurt, someone who told you not to quit your day job, or some deeply conditioned low expectation of yourself, that keeps you from saying hineini, “here I am” when the still small voice calls you. Maybe this year, maybe this season, maybe this day, will be your time to look at that obstacle, at the thing the keeps you from saying yes, and asking yourself why it is so precious to you. Why it is more precious than being who you are called to be. Maybe it is something you can now, finally, let go of.

What more is there to say? Maybe there is no call from the divine. Maybe there is no prophecy in dreams. Maybe coincidences are simply a question of the mathematics of the universe. Maybe all calls, or at least the good ones, come from deep inside, from a place of knowing that sits in our bones and in our kishkes. As they say in the old urban legends, “The call is coming from inside the house.” And that would be okay too. And its being locally sourced doesn’t prohibit us from holding it with the care and honor that we would if it were divine. In holding it that way, it becomes divine.

And if the call is hard to hear, we might be able to cultivate ways to hear it better. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l said, “There are contemplative tools, such as prayer, meditation and so forth. The more you use those tools, the more attuned you’ll become to intuition.”[10]

So let me bless you, and let me ask you to bless me back.[11] May you be blessed to deepen into your intuitions. May you be blessed to be able to listen deeply. May you be blessed to remove obstacles in your path. May you be blesed to say, when the time is right, “Hineini, yes, here I am.”

Okay, so one final dream about my mother. But I didn’t dream this one. It was dreamt by an acquaintance and Kinsey Sicks fan, who called me urgently one day this spring because my mother had come to him in a dream asking him to warn me about something. I listened and felt the Litvak in me putting up a wall. Really? I thought. I should believe this why? Not to mention my injured vanity: the nerve of someone else to dream about my mother. In lawyerly fashion, I asked him why he thought my mother would’ve come to him with a message when she could’ve come to me directly. He said, “Funny, I asked her that. And she said that you were so busy, she didn’t want to bother you.”

Words my mother had, of course, said to me a million times.

Maybe it’s coincidence.

And maybe, like in the Chasidic stories, the cynical Litvak gets won over.

Thank you to Rabbi Eli Cohen and Reb Eli Herb (my "Go-Two") and Rabbi David Evan Markus for their support on this one. I was also moved by some timely things said by Rabbi Shohama Wiener, Jan Abramovitz and Charles May.

If my deciding to go to rabbinical school is news to you (and it might be) and you'd like to celebrate with me, consider a contribution to Congregation Ner Shalom.


[1] BT Berachot 57b. Five things are a 60th part of something else: namely, fire, honey, Sabbath, sleep and a dream. Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom. Honey is one-sixtieth part of manna. Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come. Sleep is one-sixtieth part of death. A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy.
[2] BT Baba Batra 12a
[3] Deuteronomy 34:10
[4] Rabbi David Evan Markus coined this word in response to my request for one meaning just this.
[5] Likutei Moharan, Teaching 63.
[6] You can try this out by glancing outside the window right now, looking at a tree and imagining its song.
[7] Bereishit Rabba 10:6.
[8] Kings I 19:9-13
[9] Leviticus, the third book of Torah, is called in Hebrew Vayikra, meaning, “He called,” because that is the opening word of the book. Vayikra el-Moshe, “He – or it – called to Moses.” The sentence, fascinatingly, doesn’t actually make God the caller. But this word, vayikra, has a very special orthographic feature. Its final letter, aleph, is written half-size. In every Torah scroll in existence. And the reason is not clear. But some say that it is a way of communicating that when one receives a call, it is not necessarily through speech, through a great booming voice. But rather in silence. Aleph is our silent letter. And, at half size in this word, it is taken to represent the kol d’mamah dakah, the “still, small voice” that Elijah perceived. 
[10] The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery, by Sara Davidson (2014 HarperOne).
[11] I’m so grateful to Eli Herb for offering me this formulation, which he learned from Maggid Yitzchak Buxbaum, who learned it from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Mikveh of Elul

This is a piece of a much more involved Chasidic teaching by the B'nai Yissachar, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), that I learned from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg through his Moadim L'Simcha class at Aleph and that I shared at the Selichot Service at Congregation Ner Shalom on September 5, 2015. Thank you to Cynthia Calmenson for insisting I post it.



If we think of all of the ways in which we've missed the mark; the longings that have gone astray; the hurts we've inflicted and the hurts we've absorbed; we see that it all comes from the fact of our lives in this physical world. We were once, the mystics would say, part of a great infinity that is God, the Eyn Sof. We mostly can't remember it. Because when we are born, we become subject to the needs of our bodies - the hungers, the longings, the frailties that drive us. We fall under the illusion that we are all separate from each other. And that we are separate from God. And cut loose like that, we wander through our lives, trying to do the best we can, but getting bruised and bruising others and ourselves all along the way.

This is the time of year when we do teshuvah, when we try to return. So, is there any way to return to the Oneness that we once experienced, the endlessness of God that we were part of? Can we let go, even briefly, of the separateness that is often the source of adventure and delight, but that also can cause us so much loneliness and pain?

There is recipe for dissolving. It is, as any cook can tell you: mix with water. When we immerse ourselves in the mikveh, we dissolve back into a greater Oneness.

But how much water do you need? Too little, and you end up with something lumpy, and that's not what we're looking for. Talmud tells us that a mikveh must have 960 lugin of living water in it. We no longer know exactly how much a log is. But the B'nai Yissachar, a student of the great Seer of Lublin, gives us some mathematics to explain why 960. So now we're going to do some math.

The first piece of the math is this. Talmud tells us that one part in 60 is the proper proportion for something to become nullified. If a drop of milk falls in the meat soup, it lets go of its nature and becomes one with the soup - and kosher! - as long as the soup is at least 60 times the volume of the drop of milk. Sixty-to-one is the ratio of bitul. Of nullification. Of dissolving. Of transforming.

Meanwhile our bodies, our physical human natures, that tug at us and pull us away from our Divine source are made up of 4 elements: fire, water, air and earth. But it's more subtle than that. If that were the full recipe for humanity, we'd be rather simple and rather similar. But we are all different from each other because in each of us the chemistry of elements is different. My fire-element is in itself made up of four elements: mostly of fire, but also some air and water and earth, in a combination that is unique to me. So each of us is made up of four elements, and those are each made up of four elements. And so, the B'nai Yissachar teaches, our earthly selves are composed of 16 elements of This-Worldliness. Those 16 elements are where we live our lives, and what keep us feeling separate.

So if we want, even for a moment, to dissolve back into Divinity, back to our Source, we need to dissolve each of those 16 elements. And by what ratio? Sixty-to-one, like the milk in the soup.

60 x 16 = 960

It takes 960 measures of living water in the mikveh to make our 16 earthy elements dissolve back into the infinite of God, to lose ourselves in the Divine soup.

But wait, there's more. The number 960 now becomes the number forever associated with the mikveh and our shot at re-absorption into God.

Why is that important? We are now in this special, tender period of teshuvah, of reflection and returning. It runs from the beginning of Elul through not just the end of the month, but onward 10 more days through Yom Kippur. A 40-day period of teshuvah. And of course every one of those days has 24 hours. Now wait for it:

40 days x 24 hours = 960

Bingo. The exact number that represents a mikveh.

And that, by the B'nai Issachar's reasoning, makes this period of time, the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe, a mikveh in time. We have 960 hours in which to immerse ourselves, in which to dissolve, in which to remember what it was like before we were born, when we were each other, when we were God.

We are 22 days in. We are in the center of the mikveh.

May we immerse; may we dissolve; and may we emerge renewed.