Friday, March 15, 2013

Zecher Litziat Mitzrayim:
Shabbat and the
Remembrance of Things Passover

For Congregation Ner Shalom, March 15, 2013

As we planned this musical Shabbat, Lorenzo and I had particular ideas about some Classical Reform hymns of my grandparents' era that we might be able to reclaim and bend a little and present in a fresh way. We began doing our research and found that those anthems, which everyone thinks are really dated, are, in fact, really dated. For the most part, our hopes for a Union Hymnal revival night began crumbling, and we fell back to our default plan of just having a night of beautiful music.

Then Gale Kissin stepped in. Gale's custom is to find music that excites her, rehearse it with the band, and then let me in on it. That gives me the holy challenge of figuring out how the various usually secular, sometimes sad, always beautiful songs, often in Yiddish, can function to prop up a night of Shabbos ritual. Sometimes that's hard to do, although mostly I'm the only one who sees the bumps, since mostly we're awash in the beauty of the music itself more than we are figuring out what prayer thematic it is supposed to relate to.

So this time I asked Gale, "What are you thinking of playing," and she told me that her band, Mama Loshn, was freshly rehearsed and ready to go on a variety of songs related to Pesach and our long-rehearsed story of liberation from bondage in the narrow land of Mitzrayim.

I found myself a little resistant to the idea, as Gale will attest from the whiny emails I sent her about whether this music wouldn't just be better for the Seder. Of course, Gale and I have enough of a relationship for her to know to ignore me; my complaints are the birth pangs of ideas, and all she has to do is sit tight.

So I began to wonder about my own resistance. I shouldn't be resistant. First of all, I find ancient Egypt interesting; I took a semester of Egyptian history in college, plus a full year of Classical Egyptian language, which has, alas, over the intervening decades, eroded into cocktail party chit-chat about hieroglyphics and bad snippets of jokes, such as singing "I got plenty Akhenaten" whenever there's a suitable setup. But that said, ancient Egypt has been an object of interest for me; and you all know how much I love Torah. So why am I resistant to another retelling of our ancient enslavement and flight to freedom?

I realized suddenly that it was a Pesach spillover effect. We tell the Exodus story on Pesach and I've frankly come to have mixed feelings about the holiday. It was once my very favorite. As a child, I loved seder, even though it was done in a kind of rote manner; nonetheless I was with grandparents and great aunties around a table doing a fancy ceremony and I was happy. Then as a young adult I began to appreciate how I could exercise my compulsive Virgo tendencies through the yearly ritual of cleaning and kashering the kitchen. And I loved the special diet, a daily reminder and signal of my Jewishness. I've never been a regular kippah wearer, but during Pesach I was revealed to the world as a Jew by the unmistakable trail of matzah crumbs wherever I went. In my twenties and early thirties I would attend or host seders that would go on until three in the morning, with singing and poetry and debate and the kind of fellowship that you only experience in the middle of the night after hours of group effort and perhaps one or two more than the customary four glasses of wine.

But then came middle age, when life became more complicated. Touring schedules that make it so that you will never have time to kasher your kitchen, at least not the way you want to; and worse, you will often arrive home on the morning of the day of seder, and hopefully you will have cooked and frozen some Pesach food in advance. And in any event, your seder that used to be so stimulating now has to work for the young children and the older children and the enthusiastic adults and the disaffected adults too. Your table will be filled with Jews, and there will no longer be enough non-Jews present to keep the Jews on their best behavior. And there's no more time to prepare yourself spiritually or to prepare a well-crafted seder. In part because now, at least for me, there's a congregational seder to prepare, which inevitably edges out the planning that used to be devoted to what happens at your own table. All in all, Pesach has, I confess, lost a bit of its sparkle.

And with my conflicted feelings about the holiday, so went the story itself. So now, when I hear about Pharaoh, or taskmasters, or plagues, I get sucked into a vortex of overwhelm and frustration and anxiety.

So: that was a big, if tangential, confession.

But in any event, I've concluded that my resistance is a disservice to an important story. The Exodus is a formative story. Right up there with Isaac being bound, or receiving the Torah at Sinai. This story is one so important that we retell it over and over. Not just in our annual Torah-reading cycle, but in our liturgy, for instance in the extended-play version of the V'ahavta, in multiple Psalms and, of course in the Mi Chamocha where every day we celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea. A story so important that we are commanded to tell it to our children, and we do so not at synagogue but around a table every year. It is a story that is supposed to live at home with us and suffuse our domestic spaces like the steam and aroma of Grandma's matzahball soup simmering on the stove.

This is a story that lends itself easily to metaphorical rather than historical readings. Mitzrayim as metaphor: enslavement, narrowness, oppression, injustice, fear. Everything that holds us back as individuals, as a society, as a world. And the Exodus, yetziat Mitzrayim, assures us of our ability, with some amount of chutzpah and some amount of faith, to break through those obstacles into the great wide unknown that awaits us.

But besides being a metaphor for our lives, there's another connection explicitly drawn by our tradition, and that is the relationship between the Exodus and Shabbat. In the Kiddush that we chant on Shabbat evening, the valences of Shabbat are explicitly laid out. We first call Shabbat zikaron l'ma'aseh v'reishit - a memory of the act of Creation. Shabbat is the pause that punctuated and gave final shape to that first week. Then we continue in the Kiddush: ki hu yom t'chilah l'mikraey kodesh. Shabbat is the beginning of holiness. It is the first thing mentioned in Torah that God calls holy. It is not the end product of holiness but rather the first occasion of it; it is what opens the floodgates of holiness into this universe.

Both of those understandings of Shabbat - creation and holiness - make sense to us; intuitive and clear.

Then we continue: Shabbat is a zecher litziat mitzrayim, a remembrance, a souvenir, of the departure from Egypt.

What does that mean? What do Shabbat and the Exodus have to do with each other? Shabbat is other-worldly, primordial. It was God's first thought and last act of Creation. Whereas the Exodus already takes place in another kind of time, within the much smaller scale of human history, or what we imagine to be human history. Shabbat has to do with our cosmology of holiness and time. The Exodus, at least on its surface, is about politics and migration.

How are they connected?

The rabbis would undoubtedly say that God brought us out of Egypt in order to keep Shabbat. They would say that Shabbat, though ancient, couldn't be practiced until there was a people who agreed to practice it, that people being us, in the desert, free at last, beginning our long wanderings.

But there's more to say here, because Shabbat is not just a day on the calendar, but is in itself the breath of freedom. The pause where something that has engaged you and burdened you stops and you perceive the difference. It is the sensation when, after a hard illness, you wake one day feeling better. It is the moment of quiet gratitude after you've fixed dinner and set it on the table and you finally sit down to eat, no longer the maker but the receiver. It is the sensation of relief you feel when you finally close your computer at the end of the day and you notice the cricket call outside replacing the psychic buzz of the Internet. Shabbat is not unlike the chord that continues ringing through the concert hall after the last note of a symphony is released. The moment of sad-happy-fulfilled directionlessness when you close the last page of the novel you've spent the last week with.

And the experience of Shabbat is not unlike the surprise and bewilderment and relief of the Israelites when they realized they were, at last, beyond Pharaoh's reach.

Shabbat is zecher litziat mitzrayim: either a souvenir of the Exodus or a remembrance offered for the Exodus. What I mean is that it's not clear which concept is the reminder and which is the reminded.

We can say that a way to get at the feeling of Shabbat is through the idea of the Exodus. Shabbat is a release from the narrowness of the week, in which we were enslaved to our ambitions, our struggles, our things. But it could work the other way. If you want to understand what the departure from Egypt might have felt like, but let's say you live in a shtetl in a country where you've never been free of persecution, where real freedom is practically unimaginable, then the way to imagine liberation is through the familiar experience of Shabbos.

Both Shabbat and the Pesach story represent a courtship with God, with the Shechinah. God called on the slaves in Egypt like a beau standing at the door, asking, "May I take you out sometime?" And on Shabbat, every week, the Shechinah arrives at our doors as a bride awaiting us. Both Shabbat and the Exodus mark relationship, even love affair, with the divine.

But I guess if I were to try generalize anything about this connection, I'd say that we are taught by our experience of Shabbat that there is a rhythm to things. Just as a sentence of speech arrives inevitably at a pause and a breath, so too the rhythm of our lives. And the rhythm of our societies. And our biology. And our cosmology. Every tyrant will eventually fall. Freedom will keep happening again and again. The days of our weeks and the years of our lives will succeed and supplant each other like Egyptian dynasties. We will build monuments with our hands and with our words. We will be our own slaves and our own taskmasters until the breath of possibility that we learn from Shabbat reminds us how to remove ourselves from the machinery of our slavery.

And one day our bodies will stop altogether and, we pray, what comes next will be freedom, spaciousness, relief, Shabbos. Forever Shabbos.

So let us sing the songs of our enslavement and our liberation, in all of our languages. Let us feel the rhythms of this life and this world, knowing that at the end of six days comes rest, at the end of pain comes release, at the end of struggle comes delight, at the end of our narrowest places a great and unknown land awaits.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Ki Tisa: Improvisation and Practice

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ March 1, 2013

It’s spring up on Sonoma Mountain. I’m able to witness this rebirth every day as I drive up and down. The grass is dazzling green. The Sonoma State students are trying out Gravity Hill by day and making out in their cars by night. Much of my route is grazing land and every cow on the Mountain now has a calf at her side. And those calves are fearless – they will stand in the road and stare you down. And they are furry. And frisky. They scamper like lambs. Oren and I saw a calf chasing a snowy egret in a field just to make it fly, like Ari used to do with pigeons when he was little. Chasing birds just for the fun and wonder and power of it. As if saying, “Look! I run like the wind!” These calves on the Mountain are full of frolic even though we know they will end up as heavy-footed ruminators, eventually taking a full day for a single patch of grass or for a single thought; although who knows? Maybe they’re still impulsive and bouncy on the inside.
So yes, calves are delightful.
Unless they are forged of gold and danced around by Israelites.
Because here we are this week, once again reading the old story. About how Moshe goes up the Mountain to receive the law and is gone for 40 days while God gives over not only laws of conduct but instructions for the architecture and appointment of the ark and the tabernacle that will hold it; the mishkan, the holy Tent of Meeting that will be the place, says God, where God and the Children of Israel will meet. But meanwhile, in the valley, the Children of Israel also want to meet the divine and, giving Moshe up for lost, they demand a god now. Aaron asks them for all their gold, maybe thinking that such a high price tag would sober them up. But they are generous; they in fact give it all up, because they want god that badly. They give their most precious things, the very items that capital-G God was busy commanding them to incorporate into the decoration of the mishkan.
The Children of Israel dance around their new creation, and sing, “This is your God, O Israel, who led you out of Egypt.” God is furious. Moshe calms God, but takes his turn to be angry as he descends the Mountain and sees the spectacle. The Children of Israel are punished for their act of idolatry or infidelity.
I never know what to do with this text. I’m not very good with simple right and wrong lessons, especially in matters of the spirit. I don’t like being told there’s a right way and a wrong way, and that the wrong way leads to punishment. This is why I belong to a community like this one and not to communities that are more unyielding in their view of how things should be done.
I can’t help but feel sympathetic to the Israelites, because the wrongness of what they did is not completely obvious, at least not to me. We know from Torah that they will soon be crafting things of great beauty to facilitate the human-divine encounter in the mishkan. Altars of wood and hide, with gold and silver and jewels. And statues of cherubim, too. So it’s not exactly the making of images that’s the problem here, because images are about to be made at God’s own request. We also know from God’s words to Moshe up on the Mountain that there are many skilled people among the Israelites, gifted by God with tremendous creative talent and filled with God’s spirit. Wouldn’t art-making as an approach to the Divine be a natural impulse for them?
I’ll defend them even more. There they were, the Israelites, in the Wilderness, a place with no landmarks, with no certainty. Might it not be a tough time to absorb the idea of a God that is also without landmarks, without physical certainty? They knew from Egypt that you represent gods symbolically through animals; seeing the unknown through the known; they knew the goddess Hathor was commonly rendered in the form of a cow. And for this new god, this upstart who impulsively took them out of slavery? What better image than a calf? Powerful and a future source of nourishment like Hathor, but still young and fierce and nimble like the calves on Sonoma Mountain!
The calf wasn’t a denial of God. At least maybe not. The people were certainly doubting Moshe’s return. But were they really doubting the existence of the God of Israel? They’d seen the Waters part. They’d seen the pillar of smoke by day and column of fire by night. They’d heard the thunder on the Mountain. Their daily diet was manna from heaven. No, I don’t think this was an act of rejection of Adonai, but of worship. They were just using the vocabulary they knew for it. I don’t know about you, but I remain sympathetic.
Their crime, if there was one, was not idolatry, but impatience, impulsiveness. They wanted a fast hit of ecstasy, and they got it. We see it in their euphoric singing and dancing around the calf.
Whereas, in contrast, the kind of worship God was asking for, the instructions for which had not yet actually reached the ears of the Israelites, involved something more time-consuming and deliberate. The Tent of Meeting, that is the tent where God and the people would meet, was something to be constructed with painstaking detail and tended with constant attention. Lights to be lit at proper times. Concocting the right incense, and burning it, and only it, twice a day. Sacrificing the right creatures in the right season; their blood to be sprinkled exactly the same way every time.
In the ritual world God wants, there is no quick fix. There is only practice, repetition, discipline, the consequence of which is, in God’s words, “There I will meet you and there I will speak to you.”
God seems to want closeness, but wants that closeness to come out of deliberateness, mindfulness, practice, actions, even seemingly small actions. But what of the ecstatic moment? Isn’t that remarkable also? Doesn’t it excite us and entice us too? Haven’t we experienced moments like that? Are those, in our tradition, simply valueless?
Maybe not. I recently read a beautiful teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and certainly no stranger to euphoric moments and ecstatic practice. In this teaching, the Baal Shem addresses the question of what happens when you have a mind-blowing God experience. Where your consciousness, your sechel, splits open and you have a glimpse of God’s unity and oneness and all-encompassingness, and it inspires you to this great love and devotion, because you’re grokking, really grokking a piece of God’s greatness. And this lasts for a brilliant moment – or a few. And then – poof – it’s gone. Your sechel is closed up again, and you don’t understand any of it. “What is that experience,” asks the Baal Shem.
So he explains by making a comparison to a shopkeeper in the market place. The shopkeeper sells sweets, and he markets them by giving out free samples. Think of See’s Candy or any Cape Cod fudge emporium. This first piece is free. And that first piece is also the last piece that is free. After that, the customer has to pay for it – with money that comes from and represents her labor. So the second encounter, the transaction for the second piece of fudge, is not something for nothing, but is a real exchange of value.
The Baal Shem Tov says that the brief moment of enlightenment, of God-awareness, is a free sample given milam’alah – from above. It is God’s free sample, and it is, in the words of Psalm 19, “sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.”
But after that first taste, we can only re-attain the experience milamatah – from below. Through our own labor: our study, our ritual, our practice.
“No pain, no gain,” says the Baal Shem Tov. When someone has attained their enlightenment through yegi’ah, or long, hard labor, their insights deserve to be believed. Just as we’d believe the insights of a longtime practicing Buddhist over an enthusiast just back from their first Vipassana retreat. Because we know the longtime practitioner has gone and meditated over years of cold mornings when she would have preferred to stay in bed. When she says this is worthwhile, it carries weight.
So the message seems to be that the God-hit is delicious, but it’s just a sample. From there it’s up to us. To establish a practice, maybe (hopefully) a Jewish practice, whatever that might be. I’d suggest it should be something inconvenient. Something tied to time. Unplugging your computer for Shabbat. Coming to chant circle not once in a while but every month. Committing to learning, as many Ner Shalomers have been doing through our Hebrew class or the countywide Introduction to Judaism class. Or committing to deepening your understanding of our forms of worship, as many Ner Shalomers have done by stepping up to lead services when I’m on the road. Or committing to an adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah track, as more than a half-dozen people in this congregation have just done. Or even committing to a regular personal practice of mindfulness and gratitude, maybe through learning Hebrew blessings for every occasion.
The Baal Shem Tov says, and I fear it’s true, that there is no substitute for hard work. There is no shortcut to the enlightenment, no matter how much pot you smoke or Ayahuasca you ingest. Sensing your Oneness with the Universe, meeting God at the Tent of Meeting, comes from experience, not accident. It comes with practice, not chance.
This isn’t an argument against improvising, chas v’chalilah. Improvisation is one of the things we do so well here at Ner Shalom. And, as you know, in my other life, my performing life, my skill as an improviser has specific value. But my best improvisations may come in the moment, but they draw from years of experience. I may blurt them out quickly, but I generally already know that they’re going to work. And the best improvisations? I repeat them, and they become tradition.
There are many ways – new, improvised ways as well as the age-old paths – to reach the mishkan, the holy place. But if you ask the question, “How do I get there,” the answer will likely be, as in the old joke, “Practice.”
So let us keep practicing and keep improvising – as a community and as individuals. May our improvisations come from an ever-deepening understanding of our lives and our tradition. May our learning be regular and may it fuel our creativity. And may the gold that is in our spirits adorn the place where we and God meet.