Friday, September 13, 2013

Yom Kippur 5774: Three Longings

For Congregation Ner Shalom

The Chasidim who, like me, love to toy with words, re-sorting letters to see what new can be found, have an interesting teaching about this day, Yom Kippur, which is called in Hebrew, Yom Hakippurim. They mess with the vowels just a little and point out that the name of this holy day could be read as yom k'purim. A day like Purim.

Of course on the surface, that seems ridiculous. These holidays are nothing like each other. On Purim we celebrate with indulgence. It is an ecstatic and intemperate holiday of costumes and merriment. So very unlike this solemn day of fasting and introspection. And yet the Chasidic masters are insistent that we notice that these two moments are linked. To my mind, the strongest bond between Purim and Yom Kippur has to do with hiding and revealing. Each holiday involves an unmasking of sorts.

At Purim we wear disguises, in deference to Queen Esther herself who, disguised as a gentile queen, is forced by circumstance to muster her inner resources and lower the mask, own up to who she is, and take responsibility for her fate and that of her people.

And here we are on this Yom K'purim, this Purim-like day, struggling to muster our inner resources and lower our own masks, to reveal to ourselves, and each other, and the Universe, and God perhaps, who we really are. What's in our hearts. What we're made of. And what we long for.

This does in fact take some unmasking. Because so many of our longings are invisible even to us, even though they inform so much of our lives. Our longings sit below the surface, like rules of grammar that indiscernibly conjugate our verbs and line up our words before issuing them from our mouths. The grammar of longing informs our values and arranges our choices. Our longing is the deep structure of our lives. And much of that longing plays its part without our even noticing it.

But tonight I'd like us to notice. I'd like us to take up three longings that I think we as a community struggle with and that we, as individuals, have often sent into exile as being, somehow, wrong or undesirable. Three longings which, I believe, deserve our attention and some honor and maybe even some forgiveness. These three longings I will refer to, for short, as House, Home and Whom.


We'll start with House, by which I mean the House of Israel. Being a Jew. The longing to be a Jew, to be a good Jew. 

Now I know that I was the one standing here two years ago reclaiming and praising the Bad Jew. But my point then is still my point now even though this time I'm using "good Jew" language around it. The idea is this: that wanting to be a good Jew is not something to be ashamed of. It can inform what you do in this world. It does not have to mean coming to shul every week, although you are certainly invited to do so (and you already have a name tag). It doesn't mean being orthodox or looking that way, although tzitzis on radical Jews and tefillin on women is always a bit of a subversive turn-on.

But what I'm suggesting is this. We all openly aspire to be good people; but maybe that's not quite enough. Wanting to be a good person is easy; it's a popular want. But owning the Jewish part of that is harder. The Jewish part that says "repair the world" or "feed the hungry" or "stop gossiping" or "have compassion" or "learn learn learn." That is what we've abandoned, the understanding that those ideas, clearly of universal application, originate - for us at least - in our own Yiddishkeit, in our own Jewyness.

Yes, those values drive us in beautifully universal ways. But it is always of note to me that the leaders of every modern Utopian movement, the visioners of anything designed to make the world better -- whether it's environmentalists or communists or feminists or unionists or Esperantists or even, I would suggest, early Hollywood folks dreaming up a world better than the one we live in -- every social exercise intended to make a better world has been seeded and populated by Jews. And then, almost simultaneously, the Jewishness has gotten erased right out of it. Erased, in large part, by Jews. As if being associated with Jewishness delegitimizes. That is what centuries of Anti-Semitism has done to us. We are driven to accomplish and to better and to be ashamed of where that spark came from.

So I ask, like I did two years ago when talking about Bad Jews, that we bring the Jew back into our jewbilation and rejewvenation and jewrisprudence and all the jewcy things we do. That we let our longing to be good Jews guide us in the world and we call it what it is. That we go ahead and fight for peace. For justice. For the Earth. That we strive and struggle and heal and learn at every turn. Not just because this is what humans should do, but because this is what being a Jew requires of us. That we let our beautiful universal values and accomplishments retain something of our fine specificity, of the flavor and temperature of the Jewish tables we grew up at. 


The second longing that I suspect many of us have abandoned is the longing for Home. And by Home I mean homeland, I mean Israel. This is a tricky subject, as you know by how you are tensing up right now.

But this land is the long longing of our people. Since the Babylonian conquest 2600 years ago, the sense of being in exile, displaced, deported, has been part of our psychological makeup and our spiritual essence and our cultural production. We sing Psalms about  our longing. Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini. "If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning." Centuries of poets have poured out their yearning. Libi b'mizrach va'anochi b'sof ma'arav; eych et'amah et asher ochal. "My heart is in the East and I in the uttermost West; how shall I find savor in food?" We conclude every year's seder saying, l'shanah haba'ah birushalayim. "Next year in Jerusalem." And then we hurry to explain, to apologize, that by Jerusalem we mean something metaphysical.

But Jerusalem is a place. Physical. In a physical country that we are for better or for worse deeply connected to. Now those of us of a certain age grew up at a time when the dream of Zionism -- of a present-day, non-Messianic, non-mystical return to the land -- when the dream of Zionism was still unmarred; when Zionism embodied huge and important values - the safety of our people, the end of exile, a halt to our long persecution, a brighter future than we'd had since the Golden Age of Spain, and our first crack at Jewish autonomy in millenia. Those of us of a certain age grew up with a powerful, deep, incessant longing for Israel, for Modern Israel, not the mythical place. An Israel of blooming deserts and Nobel Prizes and medical advances and folk dances. We longed to go, to live, to visit, to breathe it in. To see a new era and to be its emissaries.

But the problem now, of course, is that 65 years of history have intervened. Real life, on-the-ground, difficult history. Because we planted our dream in a land that was and wasn't ours. And our hope, over time, has given rise, and given way, to such suffering and such bitterness. We have learned things that were hidden from us as youngsters. We have learned about things done that should not have been done. The present-day leaders of the State have, in the name of survival, abandoned our great vision of a land of harmony and renewal. Those Jews who remain the staunchest supporters of the State of Israel have been forced to abandon the dream of peaceful co-existence and religious pluralism. Forced to go along with ghetto walls enclosing our supposed enemies; and forced to turn a blind eye to the Orthodox male stranglehold on religious life in Israel, including who is and is not allowed to pray at our holiest sites or to be called a Jew anywhere in the land still, tenaciously, called holy. So much longing abandoned in order not to abandon the State.

Meanwhile those of us who see ourselves on the Left, who articulate our criticisms of Israeli policy, we who are quick to see Israel's flaws, have also lost touch with something, and that is our deep love and longing for this place. A longing and a love that are still in our bones. A love that we have sent into exile out of disappointment or sadness or shame, but which, if reclaimed, would give us greater, not less, legitimacy when we say, "No, no, Israel. Not that way, this way."

What Jews on both sides of the debate have given up, it seems to me, is a longing for an Israel that is as great and holy and just as we can imagine it. And it is up to us to bring that longing back and let it inform our words and actions. We owe it to our people's past and to our people's future. 


The third and last longing I'd like to call in tonight is what I will call Whom. And what I mean by that is the longing for whom? For God.

Because I think this longing is in us, in each of us. Not belief, not faith, but longing. It is deeply rooted in our human experience. It is a longing that grows out of the disconnectedness of our psyches and the fenced in nature of our bodies. Our spirits, or the parts of ourselves we identify as spirit, tell us that we are capable of full and deep and complete connectedness. Perhaps it's a sense memory of the womb. Or else it's just imagination. But we long for a connectedness greater, deeper, more intimate and perfect than anything a lover or parent or friend could give us. We long for God to take that place. God, as confidante, as personal coach, as yedid nefesh -- the companion of the soul, always always present with us. I'm not certain any of us ever longs for a Creator God, or an angry God or a law-giving or justice-doling God. But this personal, immanent presence, this Shechinah, is something we yearn for, even while we might rationally deny any such emotion.

Or perhaps our longing isn't for that intimate embrace but for transcendence. To be able to experience something beyond the walls of our human existence. Beyond the limitations of our bodies and intellects. We do seek out such moments of transcendence in our lives, mystical moments, by walking in the woods or on the beach or hearing Beethoven performed or seeing some powerful piece of theatre. Or by dropping acid or marching in a protest or sometimes even by going to shul. We feel that transcendence in a flash; or sometimes it is like a deep glow inside, what Rabbi Art Green might call the n'kudat p'nimiyut, the internality of the God experience. Not a reaching out or up to touch the Divine, but a reaching and recognizing deep within.

Or maybe it's not connection or transcendence but life itself that we long for, the denial of which our finite physical bodies cannot comprehend or accept. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, said, "God may not in any way resemble or correspond to the idea we form of him [sic], but he is present in the very will-to-live, the reality of which we experience in every fiber of our being."

I think it is fair to give in to this longing, even without having any certainty about believing. I think it is fair to long, even while living in the not-knowing. More than fair. Because it is a fire burning within us. And it can inspire us to new paths, great actions, deep love, readier compassion. It can cause us to return on Yom Kippur to who we want to be, and how we want to be accountable.

But how do we notice and consciously stay in touch with that longing? We can't count on transcendent moments. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk characterized that flash of transcendence, of opening up, of revelation as God's free sample. Like the Sample Shack at Trader Joe. You get one piece of deliciousness for free. And after that you have to pay for it. Rebbe Elimelech instructs that our payment, our slow recapturing of the goodies, comes through practice: prayer and mitzvot and, above all, d'vekut.

What is d'vekut? There is no appealing English word for it. It means something like "clinging" or "attaching," both words carrying rather unattractive connotations of the relationships we had in our twenties. But d'vekut suggests attaching oneself to the idea or possibility of God in all things. Not just when in prayer or meditation or study or moments of ecstacy. But in the day to day. Holding a mindfulness of the godliness, the divine, the qi that runs through all things, even things we barely notice or consider insignificant. Expanding our consciousness until we can perceive the divine in the glorious and in the painful and in the mundane.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav described d'vekut as imagining oneself in the presence of the Shechinah. For Rebbe Nachman, this practice was a way to accustom oneself to being in the World to Come. And Rebbe Meshullam Feibush of Zabrizha said that the way to always notice the divine in the world is simply always to be aware of one's longing for God.

The truth is that we don't know. When I have moments of feeling God's presence, I can't tell you if I'm perceiving or projecting. I can't tell you if I'm looking outward or inward or if that makes a difference. I sometimes wish I had the certainty that some believers express, although I suspect that none of us is truly without doubt. If God is there, then God makes it difficult. Playing hide and seek with us all the time. And getting characterized by religion so severely and narrowly that it is almost always easier to say "no" to the idea than to say "yes."

But still, I'm okay with not knowing. I'm okay with spelling God with a question mark in the middle. I'm okay with God creating the universe, or God being a synonym for the universe. I'm okay with God being nothing like we've ever conceived and this cosmos being really good glamour-drag. I'm even okay with God being the ayin, the great emptiness. I don't know. And in this not-knowing, I will stay attuned to my longing; I will continue to look for God in the hidden places and let that affect how I see you and me and the dog and the tree and the rock and the sky and the microbe. And the joy and the loss.

As Medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi wrote, Yah ana emtza'acha, m'komcha na'alah v'ne'elam. Adonai, where shall I find Thee? Hid is Thy lofty place. V'ana lo emtz'acha, k'vodcha malei olam. And where shall I not find Thee? Whose glory fills all space.

Our universe, our reality, is like the Book of Esther; it is a place where God is never mentioned by name, and can only be found by inference. It is a place where God, if there is a God, is masked.

But this is Yom K'Purim. It is a day is like Purim. Where masks are lowered and the hidden is revealed. So on this Purim-like day, let us recommit to the longings that we've kept masked. Longings for House, Home and Whom. Let us strive, openly, to be better Jews as well as better people. Let us feel, without shame, our love for the land and let that guide us toward fashioning a fairer, kinder Israel that is truly a light to the nations. And let us revel in our longing for God, living it everywhere, locating it in our hearts and in the world, so that, whether God's mask ever gets lowered or not, we at least may be drawn to give our best to this creation and to each other and to our selves.

And let us say, Amen.

I wish a shanah tovah, a happy, healthy year to all my loved ones.
I am grateful to my study partner, Reb Eli Herb, for some lovely insights that made their way into this drash.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rosh Hashanah 5774: Burning and Longing

For Congregation Ner Shalom.

Gut yontiff.

Welcome again to this new year, to this new beginning. The birthday of the world as we know it.

I'm appreciating the world and its possibilities in a new way this week, having gotten back two days ago from Burning Man, which I attended for my first time, despite my advanced age and a social milieu which would seem to suggest that I'd have gone years ago already.

Photo: Oren Slozberg
Burning Man, if you don't know, is a vast week-long encampment in the Nevada desert, in which people come together from around the world to try out a different way of living. It's a celebration and it's a circus. People make art, splendid and colossal and ephemeral, to be disassembled or burned by week's end. They navigate a tent city with no roads or curbs indicating where you can and cannot go. Bicycles and foot are the transit of choice, unless you catch a ride on a vehicle refurbished to look like an octopus or an airplane or a merry-go-round.

The place feels like another world, this year one populated by 67,000 people, all longing for something different: to be creative, to live simply, to engage generously without the pressures and inequalities of money (which is not allowed to be used in the city), to experience freedom - artistic freedom, body freedom, sexual freedom. By day, Burning Man, in the narrow Nevada desert palette, looked like a refugee camp. And the people living in those beautiful tents - mah tovu ohaleycha - constituted a sort of tribe of refugees from a more complicated and more constricting existence. They had left their narrow places, like our own ancestors leaving Egypt, to become a desert people, and to experience a great expansiveness there.

There are even the rudiments of new religion in this gathering, as the annual rituals become more fixed, particularly the burning of "The Man" - the eponymous effigy that presides over the encampment until he goes up in smoke; and the burning of the Temple, a structure in which people leave notes of farewell to deceased loved ones, or to relationships gone bad, or to elements in their lives they need to let go of. These burdens are purged, kind of like we do at tashlich, when the Temple is set alight on the final night and all those intentions are offered up in fire rather than water, before tens of thousands of silent witnesses.

My experience at Burning Man, like all human experiences, was not without its blemishes. But still, on the whole, it had a flavor of Olam Haba, of the world to come, as was pointed out by the rabbi leading Kabbalat Shabbat services over at the Jewish camp at Burning Man. And in fact the whole week was more shabbos than I've had on any Saturday in memory. And the burning of the effigy of The Man - this year perched on a wooden space ship and done up to recall the robot Klaatu in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" - the burning of The Man, preceded by fire dancers and accompanied by fireworks was declared by my family to be: Best. Havdalah. Ever.

So I tell you all of this not as a "what I did over my summer vacation" report-back. I tell you because I am captivated by the idea that people came to this event full of longing for a new kind of living and a new kind of belonging. And what I noticed - and what particularly startled me - was the lack of impediment between the longing and the fruition. 

Because it's not that way back in this world, which we choose to call the real one. We yearn but the bridge between longing and living is sometimes narrow, or rickety, or sometimes already burned, but without the glorious ceremony.

Certainly each of us desires things. Good things, legitimate things. We want. A nice home. Or a partner. Work. Money. Health. Ease. Time. But these desires ride atop a carrier wave of deeper longing, that we don't always give voice to with the same specificity. I desire work, but what I long for is to be of use, or to belong. I desire money, but I what I long for is to be safe and feel safe. I desire a partner or a sweetheart or that hot guy I saw on the bus. But what I long for is to be held, what I long for is love, what I long for is not to feel so alone. I desire health, but what I long for is to keep living, to live and live and live the way this eternal-feeling soul of mine insists it can do. I desire justice or a better world or children or to leave some kind of a moral legacy. But what I long for is to feel that my time here has had meaning.

Maybe it would be easier for us if we didn't long. The Buddhists say that our longing is the source of our suffering, that disattachment is the path to spiritual happiness. I get that, and I think it can work. But it's obviously not a Jewish path. For better or for worse, ours is officially and full-on a path of longing, even if suffering is the price tag. In our tradition we long for return from exile. We long for the reemergence of an Edenic past. We long for peace. We long for Torah. We long for God. This longing, much of which I'll discuss more on Yom Kippur, is part of us. For better or for worse.

At Burning Man a friend was explaining to Ari, our 12-year old, how the structures that were being burned were designed with that end in mind. Besides being beautiful, certain faults were built in so that as they burned that would look glorious, their parts bursting into flame in the right order, the structure collapsing inward rather than outward. I was caught by this idea of vulnerability being designed right into the architecture. Because that is what longing is for us. It is our architecture, as individuals and as a people. And it is also a vulnerability. Longing impels us to move forward in this world. It is the only thing that does. Our yetzer - our deep impulse to do, to achieve, to live, to love, to experience another day. It is the machinery by which we travel. And it is a built-in weakness too, as we try consciously or unconsciously to fulfill our longing, sometimes in specific and surfacy ways, and we re-learn again and again the frustration at not being able to make our dreams come true.

So enough with the Burners and the Buddhists. What about the Jews? What does Torah say about this, about our longing? If, in Judaism, you want to think about longing, you are required to turn to Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, our ancient book of erotic poetry that Rabbi Akiva rescued from the discard heap 2000 years ago and elevated to a status above all the other books of Torah, calling it our Holy of Holies. Because, in his view - and in the view of every Jew since - in describing physical desire it gives voice to our ongoing love affair with God. Its words are some of the most memorable in our tradition. Ani l'dodi v'dodi li. "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Yishakeni min'shikot pihu ki tovim dodeycha miyayin. "Oh that he might kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine."

But a friend recently pointed out to me something about this book that I'd never noticed.  That at no point in Song of Songs is this love actually consummated. It is a book about anticipation, about longing, about looking forward. The lovers don't actually ever touch, despite their heightened awareness of each other.

Kol dodi hineh zeh ba m'daleg al heharim m'kapetz al hag'vaot.
My lover's voice comes to me skipping over the mountains
And jumping over the hills.

They see each other in their dreams.
Ani y'shenah v'libi er; kol dodi dofek pitchi li achoti.
I am asleep, but my heart is wide awake;
My lover's voice knocks, saying open up for me, sister.

The lovers describe each other's beauty; they anticipate a rendezvous; they go to the garden to meet. But we never see the meeting. The most contact we witness is a glance:

Hineh zeh omed achar kotleynu
Mashgiach min hachalonot matzitz min hacharakim.
Look! It is my beloved, standing behind the walls,
Observing from the window, peering out from the curtains.

That image! A lovesick youth, watching for the beloved to appear at the window, the way so many of us in our youth could, embarrassingly, be found pacing outside a dormitory or lurking at a cafe waiting for the object of our desire to walk by.

That is the closest the lovers actually come to each other in Shir Hashirim. A glance. Our great text of longing in Judaism celebrates not the fruition but the anticipation. It glorifies the suspense and honors the not-knowing.

And what a lesson this is for us. That we consider judging ourselves by the quality and flavor of our deeper longing, and not by whether or how our longings come true. We seem to be instructed to find the juice in the longing itself.

And in suggesting this, Torah is wise. Because we so often do not get what we want. And being created full of desire for stuff or people or a life you mostly you can't have is otherwise rather a cruel trick of nature. No, you can't always get what you want. Life unfolds in unpredictable ways. The physical world places limitations on what we can do and achieve. The culture places limitations on who we might meet and how we might interact and what futures we might concoct together. And other people's actions limit us too, because they also have longings that they're trying to work out in their own imperfect ways. But, suggests Torah, holiness is not in achieving the thing, it is not in having the most toys at the end of the game. Instead holiness is in the near Godlike longing inherent in each of us, even if the expression of it is flawed.

Now Torah is not, I think, saying don't want - don't want the house, don't want the job, don't want the lover, although the commandment of al tachmod, "do not covet," does sound a cautionary note about watching where your longing ends up. No, Torah is not saying don't want. But perhaps Torah is decoupling longing from acquiring. And by doing so it is suggesting that "not getting" is not the same as "failing." And for that matter, getting is not the same as succeeding and having is not the same as deserving.

But we are only human. We spend so much of our time and energy judging ourselves and others by these surfacey things; we become frustrated and unkind when we sense that we're not getting something that we desire, whether it's love or respect or safety or just the feeling that we belong. We judge ourselves as unworthy when love does not manifest in the way we'd imagined. Or, we make questionable decisions. Fueled by our longing for connection, say, we end up trying to make it happen with the wrong person, under infelicitous circumstances, in the last 10 minutes before the bar closes. Or we stay in a bad relationship because our longing for love is stronger than our longing for wholeness or our sense of already being loved. And over and over, we behave in ways we later regret because we have acted out of longings that we pretend, that we convince ourselves, we don't even have.

But not today. Not on this new year. Tik'u bachodesh shofar bakeseh l'yom chagenu. "Blast the shofar," says Torah, "on this day where there moon is hidden." In other words, for me, this is the moment, the annual moment, to break the silence and wake up to the longing that we have obscured, that longing that each of us has concealed from ourselves.

Teshuvah is what is required of us. Not atonement for sin. But a Returning to the deeper parts of ourselves. To dig through all this shmutz that comes from the misdirection of our longing or the frustration of some of its supposed goodies. And to honor instead the longing itself. Our yearning for love and closeness and safety and life; to feel the depth and loftiness and wonder of our eternal and insatiable yearning. And to forgive ourselves for so often getting it messed up in the translation. Letting go, as the Buddhists would certainly have us do, of some of the superficial cravings and attachments, and to look instead at what our deepest longings are and to honor what they say about us.

Take a moment right now, and look inside. Find something you've done that you're not proud of. And then go down one story to find the longing that was underneath that act. Notice the beauty of that longing, and go ahead and forgive yourself for the stupid thing that sprang out of it. And then think, if we were to give these longings some fresh oxygen, and relieve them of the burden of our judgments, who among us knows where they might go? How they might fly? Where any of us might find ourselves? What, inside of us, or in each other, or in this glorious Creation, might be speaking to our longing at this very moment, saying, "Come, come to the garden." What voice that we didn't hear until the shofar of this great and new day made us shut up and listen.

Longing is certainly a vulnerability in our architecture; it can weaken the joints of our lives and it so often proves flammable. But it is the noble stuff we are made of. And, unencumbered by judgments of success and failure, of should and shouldn't, of better and worse, who knows where that longing might bring us, and what beautiful, if temporary, art we might still make out of these lives we have been given.

Shanah tovah.

I am grateful for the insights of Rabbi Eli Cohen, Sasha O'Malley, my family, and the people of Burning Man.