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?
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.
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
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
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
There’s a famous
story in Talmud of a long-raging dispute between the School of Rabbi Hillel and
the School of Rabbi Shammai.
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.”
Silence is in itself a psalm. Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am
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.
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
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. (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
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
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.
No one talks to God face to face like Moses did.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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. 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.
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.”
So let me bless you, and let me ask you to bless me back.
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
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.
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
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.
The December Project: An Extraordinary
Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery,
by Sara Davidson (2014 HarperOne).
so grateful to Eli Herb for offering me this formulation, which he learned from
Maggid Yitzchak Buxbaum, who learned it from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
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.