Friday, March 20, 2015

Spirograph, Leviticus, and the Cycles of our Lives

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Parashat Vayikra

New moon, new year, equinox, eclipse, junk in a basement. 
The possibilities are endless.

Today is a day when all the cycles collide. It's evening, the denouement of another day on this planet. It's Shabbos, the settling out of another week of struggle and effort. It's a new Hebrew month, the launch of a new lunar cycle. It's the 1st of Nisan, which is one of our people's four new years. (This one is declared in Torah, in the book of Exodus, but historically it relates not to Egypt but to the Babylonian calendar that we adopted in exile, which is why tonight is also Nowruz - the Persian new year.) Meanwhile this particular new moon, thin as a pencil line, traces the underside of a supermoon that is brushing close to us, closer than it has in months. Today was the equinox and the beginning of spring. And to top it off, overnight was a solar eclipse, dazzling the Scandinavians while we were sound asleep. It's like there's a big celestial party going on. All these cycles - 24 hours, 7 days, 28 days, 1 year, 14 months - all of them intersecting and overlapping like the whirling designs we used to make with our Spirograph sets when we were kids.

Do you remember Spirograph? I had a set. So did my sister. Over the last month, they resurfaced in the cycle of chaos and order that over the last year has characterized my mother's basement in Niles, Illinois. As you know from previous drashot, this basement is a magical treasure chest, a never-ending cornucopia of objects from every era of our family's history in this country. From immigration through junk peddling, political scandals, business ventures, cousins clubs and deaths; the basement is littered with diplomas, ketubos, NRA badges, meeting minutes, sheet music and an awesome collection of childhood games. Lynn and I looked at our Spirograph sets side by side. Hers had all the pieces, each one carefully put back in its proper slot after its last use some time in the 1970s. Mine was a mess, many of the translucent plastic disks cracked or chipped; none of them in the right place; the little pins that held pieces and paper to the cardboard backing were all over the place, threatening to prick whoever would reach into the dusty box heedlessly.

My sister decided to keep hers, and it took its place in her takeaway stack, perched atop Candyland and Mystery Date. I let mine go. It's hard for me to let anything go. But I decided to make a clean breast of it. A fresh start. I couldn't see myself at this point in my life sitting and drawing crazy psychedelic spirals anyway, and a half-ruined childhood game seemed a waste of my otherwise prodigious powers of sentimentality.

So I took a fresh start on that one, even while other items cycled back into my "reconsider" pile. See, the thing about cycles is that they're always giving fresh starts and second chances. What I mean is this: we all know that today is just a continuation of time. It is not qualitatively or empirically different from yesterday, other than the fact that it is later; the world is older. But today can feel like a completely different thing. What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours. A new month, a new year, all of these arbitrary markers signal possibility. Rebirth. Reset. Reboot.

Of course, sometimes the desired reboot doesn't happen. We get stuck in a rut, a needle in the groove of an old LP. Whether it's a habit or a grudge or an Israeli election, we don't know how to think, do or try something differently. How to clear the way for a new chance. Sometimes we need something extra, something a little more juiced up, to break the inertia. But what?

One possible answer comes from this week's Torah portion. This week boasts another new beginning, this one in our cycle of Torah reading, which stretches from Genesis to Deuteronomy and from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah. This week we orbit back into the Book of Leviticus, our great and ancient ritual manual. It details a system of offerings that themselves mark time and mark cycles of human experience. Our failings, our leaders' failings, our brushes with death and illness, our communal festivals, our personal joys - all of these end up marked in Leviticus as part of a cycle, marked with ritual offerings. We move from tamei to tahor - from states that are pervaded by everydayness to states that feel radiant with holiness. And back again. In English we call the states described in Leviticus "purity" and "impurity", which is unfortunate. Because they don't refer to physical states of contamination, but to a range of emotional states, spiritual states. Think of the way you feel after you break a promise. Or the way you feel after experiencing a loss. These are psychological states that Leviticus addresses, by prescribing the kind of repair you can do in your world to release it, or the kind of offering you can give to God in order to make a shift and experience, even if briefly, a new start.

In our culture, we don't recognize these fluctuating states in any open, community-supported way. Our emotional ups and downs belong to each of us individually. We hold them privately, even secretly. We are told they are aberrations from what we should be; they are disorders, rather than the emotional landscape of living. We do therapy and we are sold medication. We hide our messy states and pretend we're fine. And we move forward as if we weren't ever in a state of spiritual disarray, when actually we probably are most of the time.

The system in Leviticus, though it seems archaic and, in the case of animal sacrifice, barbaric, was far more accepting of the emotional topography of life than we are. It was assumed that you experienced the full range of life's gifts and sadnesses, fulfillments and foibles. And that you could mark those those by an interaction with the divine that would allow you to transition from one state to another; to let go of one part of the cycle and move forward into another.

In the Levitical code, there's always a new beginning available for you whenever you need it. And the prescription for that new beginning is usually an offering.

So I wonder what we can offer up to help us move from state to state, or to be mindful when we do?

When Lynn and I work in the Chicago basement, it doesn't clearly feel like a cycle, but more often like one, unending difficult state. A jumble of reverence and frustration and ambition and despair. We look at all the holy relics with which my mother was entrusted and ultimately burdened. We sit inside of it and wish it had a cyclical quality. After all, even Sisyphus has his "up" moments. Where are ours?

But then, unforeseen, came some change, through a ritual of offering. We had already been giving furniture and housewares to cousins and friends right and left. But one morning last week I opened a dry cleaner's paper garment bag to discover my father's army uniforms - two dress uniforms and one set of fatigues. They were clean and pressed. His overseas hats folded flat and pinned to the lapels. They had been in this garment bag since, I assume, 1946. They were in pristine condition and their discovery led to a quandary. What do we do with these? They suddenly were symbolic of our father. Not just his service in the army, but the gentle meticulousness that was so part of who he was. How could they be thrown out? We were stuck in a humbling and hobbling reverence for him and needed ritual to move from that state to a different one.

It was my sister's partner who saved the day. Sue said, "Call a theater." And we did. Lynn called Steppenwolf, Chicago's premiere theater, the one that produced Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf - performers whom my mother referred to never as "actors" but rather as "Chicago actors," as if that signified something obvious about their skill and their talent and their loyalty to the city of her birth. Over the past 20 years my mother frequently ushered at Steppenwolf. She would call us after a performance and tell us the storyline, mixing into it tangents about the other ushers and the very nice house managers, all of whose stories were as interesting to her as the plot of the play. Steppenwolf said they'd be happy to take the uniforms. Lynn inquired further. Would they take our grandmothers' and great aunts' fur-collared 1940s and 1950s coats? Yes, they said. And we collected them all up and we lay them on the back seat of the car like sleeping children, and we drove into the city. Laurel, the wardrobe mistress, accepted these with the gentleness and regard that one would hope was shown by the Levites as they accepted the offerings of the Israelites on the steps of the Temple. She examined them to see if they were in fact without blemish. She complimented them. She remarked to us about their uncanny state of preservation. As we left the uniforms and the coats on the costume shop cutting table, the altar of alterations, we felt a burden lifted. This was not like giving coffeepots to cousins. This was an offering, in a near-Biblical sense. We were offering up these objects of love to the greater universe. To the gods of creativity and catharsis. So that someone on stage one day in a diminutively sized seargent's uniform might make an audience member cry or laugh and rethink something in their life and be released from some state that they were trapped in so that they too could have a fresh start.

These clothes, held in suspended animation for seven decades, had now reëntered the cycle of things; they were recycled, upcycled. And we moved from our stone-heavy state to one of elation. Even knowing that the next day we might once again feel buried under the weight of our earthly responsibility. For today, it was new beginnings all around.

So new beginnings. From an outsider's view, every day on this earth just looks like a continuation of the previous day's developments. As Ecclesiastes would say, eyn chadash tachat hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun. But from the inside, from inside our cycles, new beginnings are possible all the time. A new year, a new month, a new day, a new chance. Just offer up what you need to offer up - your regret, your love, your gratitude, your hope. Let the regret burn away. Let the gratitude feed the gods. And then you can descend the Temple steps, into your new beginning, the place where possibility lives.

I am grateful to Suzanne Shanbaum who, when I was at a loss, said, "Write about new beginnings." And to Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who teaches the class I'm taking called, "Learning to Love Leviticus." Thanks to her and my classmates, I am.

Note: This drash is powered by Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom by clicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

My, You Look Divine!

Esther in the king's chamber. By Elisabetta Sirani

For Congregation Ner Shalom

May I just say? You are all looking divine.

And appearances matter on this particular week in our Jewish reckoning of time and symbol. This was the week of Purim. A story of danger and rescue, managed in large part by the Jewish queen of Persia, Esther, whom Talmud identifies as one of the four most beautiful women ever to have lived [BT Megilah 15a]. She was graced with a kind of beauty that was hard if not impossible to resist, and she ultimately used it not for her own advancement but to save the lives of her people.

In fact, placing herself right in the king's view was, at least to some commentators, a critical element of the strategy to save the Jews. When the edict for the Jews' destruction is issued, Mordecai reaches out to Esther, the palace insider, with the dire request that she should:

לבוא אל–המלך להתחנן–לו ולבקש מלפניו על–עמה

She should come to the king to make supplication to him and to petition before him for her people. [Esther 4:8]

So the Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, also known as the Berditchever, asks the question, "Why does it say 'before him?' Couldn't the text have simply said, "to petition for her people?" Why "to petition before him for her people?"

The answer might have been so that he would clearly see her beauty and his heart would warm. But the Berditchever sees the phenomenon in mystical terms. He says that when Esther enters the king's chamber, the Shechinah would enter with her. And it would then be important for her - for either Esther or the Shechinah - to be planted right smack in front of the king, so that the light of the Shechinah could melt his resistance.

So maybe we need to back up to make sure we're all on the same page or the same column of the same megillah. The Shechinah is what? It is, in Jewish mystical thought, the Divine that dwells among us. The concept is rooted in the Torah portion of a couple weeks ago where God says, "Build me a mikdash, a holy place, v'shachanti b'tocham - and I will dwell among them." [Exodus 25:8] Shachanti - I will dwell - is the same root as shechinah - the dwelling, the residing, the abiding. Before this moment in Torah, God is a character, a personage, a personality like gods of other mythologies might be seen. God speaks to select individuals. God frightens the bejeezus out of the Egyptians and out of the Israelites too. But there isn't yet a sense of God as a presence, which might in fact be the best translation of Shechinah. God's Presence, among us.

The Shechinah (as Shechinah lore evolved) came to be understood as the aspect of God that stays close to us as a people. The Shechinah comes with us into exile. And, in fact, the Book of Esther is one of the very few books of Tanakh that takes place entirely in exile. So in a sense, the Jews of Shushan would have had an intimacy with the Shechinah, even while they might have had a more skeptical relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the great God of the Cosmos, the fiery God of Sinai. God is never mentioned even once in the Book of Esther, as if salvation came davka without God's help. Whereas the presence of the Shechinah might be inferred in the story, the way it is inferred in our lives.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchever, is confident that the Shechinah accompanies Esther into  the king's throne room, when she goes in to invite him to her apartments, to resolve with a banquet the terrible trouble that was birthed at a banquet.

Why is the Berditchever convinced the Shechinah will enter with her? Because of her clothes. He points to the language of her entrance:

ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות

On the third day, Esther dressed in malkhut. Esther dressed in "royalty". [Esther 5:1]

What could that possibly mean? It's commonly translated as "Esther dressed in royal robes." Meaning robes of purple and crimson. But the Berditchever points then to Talmud's interpretation:

שלבשתה רוח הקדש

What she wore was the holy spirit. [BT Megillah 15a] The sages of the Talmud, who couldn't bear God's absence in the text, interpreted God right back in. And in the process they were, remarkably, presaging the idea the kabbalists would later call Shechinah. For the kabbalists, the word malkhut, "kingdom", did not just have a geographic or political meaning, but was the name of the last and earthiest of the Ten Sefirot, the nodes of divinity that each pour out a different element into the cauldron of Creation. Malkhut means "kingdom" in the sense of this being the realm under God's rule. Malkhut is Creation as we know it. Everything we have ever experienced exists in the realm of malkhut. We can intuit the other nine sefirot. But malkhut we live in. And in the kabbalistic view, malkhut is home to Shechinah. No, more: malkhut is the Shechinah. So for a kabbalist, whenever you see the word malkhut, you may dare to replace it with the word Shechinah. In which case, the megillah verse reads, "On the third day, Esther dressed in Shechinah." This is why the Rebbe was certain that when Esther entered the chamber, the Shechinah would be with her. She swept into the room, garbed in Shechinah.*1*

Maybe Esther is not unique. Maybe we all sweep into the room garbed in Shechinah whenever we are going to act in a way that brings us toward our purpose. Whether that purpose is justice or healing or tending nature or teaching or witnessing or even raising morale. Maybe there's a connection between getting close to our purpose *2* and getting close to the Shechinah. Mordecai himself suggests this when he says to Esther,

ומי יודע אם–לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות

"Who knows? Maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the malkhut." That you came to the kingdom. Or to sovereignty. Or to the palace. Or to this world. Or maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the Shechinah, or to the Shechinah's attention. [Esther 4:14]

So maybe it is Ruach Hakodesh, that holy spirit, the Shechinah, that each of us wears whenever we are acting in ways that are close to our purpose. Sometimes we can even feel it surrounding us, clothing us, when we perform those brave acts or those mundane acts that just feel right. Like we're wearing a shechinah robe, or a shechinah muumuu, or an off-the-shoulder shechinah toga.

But then sometimes the sensation of divine comes not from outside, wrapped around us, but from inside. In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God identifies an artist named Betzalel who will captain the team building the mikdash, the holy place whose construction God requested a couple weeks ago. God says,

ואמלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת ובכל–מלאכה

"I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding and knowledge and every skill." [Exodus 31:2]*3* The idea of the divine spirit infusing Betzalel stands in contrast, perhaps, to a conception of divinity as discrete and separate that is exhibited elsewhere in this very portion. When the Children of Israel give Moshe up for lost and demand a new god, Aharon has them remove their gold earrings. They pass them forward. He melts them down, and fashions a Golden Calf for their worship. [Exodus 32:2-4] Here the god is fashioned from the garb. When Moshe comes down from the mountain and sees this, he goes into a rage. He burns the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it. [Exodus 32:20] This could just be some kind of punishment or trial, much like the bitter waters adulteresses are subjected to drinking in the Book of Numbers. Or it could be obedience training, like sticking a dog's snout in its own pee. Or maybe it's some symbolic messaging on Moshe's part that divinity is within you, digested, integrated, in all your cells. It is not something worn as an adornment, and removed at will.

So then, is divinity in you, as in Betzalel's case, or around you, as in Esther's? Who's wearing whom?

Maybe we wear each other. We wear Shechinah in our Esther-like moments. When we speak truth to power. When we live our purpose.

And maybe God is wearing us as well. God experiences God's self through malkhut, through our vantage point, in a serious and playful game of dress up. We are God's garb. Not just our bodies, although those are certainly the fabric that holds the garment together. But our thoughts, our loves, our longings, our losses, our musical tastes, our moments of vanity, our quirks - all these are beads on God's necklace, embroidery on God's tunic. God tries on each of us, not for a moment in a fitting room, but for our whole lives.

At the Oscars a couple weeks ago, the faux regal red carpet ritual was played out again, like every year. As is the longstanding custom, the men were asked about their careers, the women about their dresses. And the recurring question was not "What are you wearing," but "Who are you wearing?" When I think of God wearing this world as garb, I like to imagine God on the red carpet; the reporter from E Network shoving the microphone toward the divine mouth. "And so God, who are you wearing tonight?"

"Well," God replies with feigned modesty, "tonight I'm wearing Esther. And Mordecai. And Haman. And Angelina Jolie. Oh, and Myra. And Lorenzo. And Shira. And everyone else here. And everyone watching. And you.

"Oh", God continues, "might I add? You all look . . . divine."


*1* I was very happy to stumble upon this teaching of the Berditchever last week. A couple days later I found that my teacher, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, had just blogged expansively and exquisitely about this very point. You can read her piece by clicking here.

*2* I am grateful to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen for making me think more deeply about purpose, and what engaging it feels like in the body and the spirit.

*3* In explicating the Ruach Elohim, or "spirit of God," this text fascinatingly identifies two (or three)  qualities that would later be considered higher kabbalistic sefirot: chochmah, binah and their synthesis, da'at. What would a kabbalist make of this in contrast to the use of malkhut in Esther? If the spirit is in you, is it from a higher source in the Tree of Life stepladder? And if you are garbed in it, then it is malkhut, or Shechinah, representing a more bottom-up, grassroots  kind of divinity?

Fine print: These drashot are made possible by my work at Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom by clicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]