Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
Sometimes hitlamdut, cultivating a lens of openness and curiosity, is simple and inspiring. It is reawakening a childlike wonder that brings joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging to this life.
That is not my experience these days. These days I am keenly aware of the voice inside that says, “We’ve seen this before and we know how it is going to unfold.” This voice looks back at history, at other times and countries, noticing patterns and predicting the future. It is rooted in the fear born of the real trauma of past generations. It is also rooted in the knowing that these things do indeed happen to other people in other places; why shouldn’t they happen to us, too? Childlike wonder seems impossibly naive and perhaps even foolish.
And yet. These days are exactly the context in which to bring the wisdom of hitlamdut, that embodied, fully engaged curiosity. What happens, for example, when I start paying attention to the sensation in the body? First I notice that I am irritated and uncomfortable. My breath is short. I feel pulsing in my face. That is actually interesting! What is that exactly? Then I become aware, oh, I am afraid. Now I can explore, what is fear like? I can bring a softness to the fear so that I can move towards responding to it, not being controlled by it.
To be clear, the goal of this practice is not to create a log for myself of what the experience of fear is like in my body. The goal is to develop my ability for hitlamdut like a muscle. Because the reality is that that fearful voice that says we know what is going to happen next is not a truthful voice. We don’t in fact know. That is worth remembering and practicing, because as Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
There is a great deal we cannot control in our world, and yet, we can still act. We can develop our capacity to see things with openness and curiosity, for hitlamdut. We can bring compassion to our own experience and connect with others’ experiences as well. We can discern what communal and political arenas we can step into and what steps we can take. Because this moment has never existed before and there is so much to do.
I am coming up on the conclusion of seven years as the director of IJS – a full cycle, like the fullness of creation or the cycle of the fields. I am so proud of the work of IJS and how we have grown, offering spiritual seekers opportunities to deepen their practice, and reaching out to connect with new people who may not have even thought of themselves as spiritual seekers. I have learned so much about so many things. But one of the most meaningful “perks” of the job has been getting to know my predecessor, Rabbi Rachel Cowan.
Rachel is rightly known as a visionary pioneer in the Jewish world. Her own life experience revealed places where the Jewish community needed to grow and Rachel is the kind of activist who recognizes that if something is true for her, it must be true for others. She consistently connects her own needs to those of the larger community and helps make things better not just for her, but for everyone. You might even say for the sake of the Shechinah.
One of the things I have really learned from Rachel over the past seven years is what real wisdom means. I come from a family where intellectual learning is a critical criteria for someone to be considered an exemplary teacher. I observe how people are drawn to sit at Rachel’s feet and have come to understand that it is not exactly about her knowledge, although, make no mistake about it: she is extremely knowledgeable. But people want to learn from Rachel because of her wisdom. It is because of the way that she is authentic, open and real. There are no masks. You can witness how Rachel engages in on-going practice, in hitlamdut (engaged curiosity), in working on cultivating her own compassion and gratitude. You can feel her wisdom washing over you in all its gentle encouragement and it feels like a gift.
One of the students of the Maggid of Mezritch famously commented that he went to the rebbe to learn how to tie and untie his shoes. Rachel’s wisdom, born of years of commitment to spiritual practice, is a shining contemporary example of this insight. May our own commitment to our practice help us follow on the path she has set out before us.
Several years ago, the New Yorker featured a cover that showed a woman sitting in the lotus position, ostensibly meditating. You can tell she is so wound up that she is about to jump out of her skin. If you look carefully in the direction of her baleful glare, there is a little fly, innocently tooling around.
One of the reasons I find this image so funny is that I have been there myself so many times. I sit down to meditate or to pray with great zeal and focus – and then, something interrupts my plan. The drive I feel to engage in practice ends up eclipsing the practice itself; my focus shifts to how my plan was derailed and that I couldn’t meditate or pray as I (or my ego) wanted.
There is a seeming paradox between zeal and contemplation. Zeal is about acting now with a great sense of passion and confidence. Zeal is impatient, directed, quick. Contemplation, on the other hand, usually evokes “sitting with the issue” for a while. It is slow, receptive, internally oriented. How, then, can zerizut (zeal, alacrity) be a contemplative practice?
One answer might be one of my favorite teachings from Sholom Noach Berezovsky, also known by the title of his book, Netivot Shalom. “First comes effort,” he taught in multiple places. “Then comes a gift.”
When it comes to spiritual practice, it is important to draw upon our zeal. Zeal enhances our motivation, helps us overcome our inertia, commit to the effort. Spiritual practice is similar to going to the gym. It’s not enough to know about the benefits; you have to actually go to the gym before any transformation can take place. Zeal helps us make the effort and return to it again and again.
And then comes a gift. It’s not “the” gift; it’s “a” gift. We don’t actually know what will happen when we engage in practice. Sometimes we get distracted and annoyed. Sometimes it seems like nothing happens at all. And occasionally something very sweet and still and connecting opens within us. But whatever happens, whatever the experience is, is a gift.
So first the effort, and then a gift. When we stay focused on the effort, we can get so stressed by a small “failure” that we can forget why we are engaging in practice. But if we can lighten our grasp on the expectation created by our zeal and look up and see what is true in this moment, we can find our experience – whatever it is – to be rich and filled with grace. Or as the Irish poet, Galway Kinnell wrote:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
The first time I led a seder was my sophomore year in college. There were nine of us in Perkins Hall, three Jews and six Catholics. I was so proud of my charoset and matzah balls. I borrowed haggadot from Hillel and confidently led us through the readings. But when we started the part after the meal, I stopped in confusion. “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You…for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation?” What was this? I had never noticed it before. It made me intensely uncomfortable. How did it square away with my favorite midrash, recounted when we diminish the wine in our cups for the Ten Plagues, about the ministering angels bursting into song at the Sea of Reeds and God rebuking them, saying, “My children are dead on the shores of the Sea and you want to sing?”
We speak a lot about the experience of interconnectedness and how spiritual practice helps us cultivate greater capacity for forgiveness and compassion. We often see this as a corrective towards the judgmentalism, which, while not being a uniquely Jewish trait, is certainly honed to an art form in many Jewish circles. Many of us have experienced how painful that judgment can be and strive to be gentler with ourselves and others. We seek a kindness in response to suffering, not vengeance. It is inspiring to read of God’s grieving for the dead Egyptians, even though they were the instigators of our slavery and our oppression.
But judgment is also a Divine attribute. The balance to chesed, or loving-kindness, is din, judgment. Judgment is necessary for justice to flourish. Cruelty should have consequences, not just for the victim, but for the perpetrator as well. The cry at the end of the haggadah is a cri de coeur: “We are still living under oppression! We need justice!” Many of us who know firsthand what it is like to be terrorized by another understand the righteousness of this plea.
It is a paradox. And yet, it seems to me that the spiritually grounded goal might be to develop the ability to demand justice while still remaining connected to the essential truth: that at our core, we are indeed all God’s children. Even those people we despise, even those we are scared of, even those we distain. On some fundamental level, we are not separate from them. It doesn’t mean that we have to acquiesce to them. But it means that we might try to see the me’at tov, the little bit of goodness in them that is a reflection of Divine goodness.
It’s a tall order. But perhaps if we were to catch glimpses of that truth, it might lead to the true liberation we all desire.
Part of my daily practice includes a fragment of a teaching from the Piaseczner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. He instructed his students to work with Psalm 86:11: “Teach me, YHVH, your way that I may walk in your truth. Unify my heart to revere your name.” He taught a particular melody for the verse which I learned from Rabbi Nehemia Polen. I chant it to myself at the end of my meditation and before my prayer.
When I began working with this verse, I was struck by the goal of learning to revere God’s name. I am not typically drawn to yirah, the particular combination of fear and awe that is the mainstay of so much “Old Testament” religion. Jewish spiritual masters focus on both love and reverence as the twin hallmarks of devotion and in this day and age, don’t we need more love? Don’t we have enough fear?
And yet, this verse calls to me. It is becoming a more and more compelling instruction in humility which opens the possibility of living my life in attunement to something much beyond myself that also includes myself. And it turns out that yirah is the key.
Here is how I am working with the verse as an intention for my day. When I say, “Teach me your way that I may walk in your truth,” I remind myself that there are so many ways to go through the day before me. I will doubtlessly encounter all kinds of people; I will probably be annoyed at some point; I hopefully will experience a little connection. However, no matter what greets me, the one thing I can be sure of is that some spark of Divinity will be present in it. Whether I see it or not is up to me. I place myself in the position of the student: teach me, God, to go through my day seeing you in everything I encounter. I don’t really know how to do this. But if I see you, maybe I will respond more wisely and appropriately.
“Unify my heart to revere your name.” This part of the verse gives me the chance to bring a little compassion to the fragmentation of my own heart, all its distractions, its insecurities, the fragile ego that always wants more love, more affirmation. And then it reminds me that the greatness in the world is not my ego after all. It is that life force in everything, that flows in me and through me and which I seek to serve. When I can remember that, my life takes on its greatest meaning.
To me, this whole practice is a practice of humility, of remembering that the value of my day is not whether it was a “good” day or not, or whether pleasant things happened to me. The value of my day is in how I learn to see the teeming network of life that I am a part of, that I contribute to and am impacted by. Yirah, fear and awe, opens to ahavah, flowing love. I am ready for my day.