Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
Last week I had the opportunity to be in Los Angeles for Father’s Day. I was delighted to celebrate with my family by going up to a picnic area by a small creek – complete with a waterfall – in the San Gabriel Mountains. When I was a child, we would often escape the heat and smog of Southern California by going to this lovely canyon with its white granite walls, the cold honey-colored water, the smell of oaks and sage. It was the definition of summer time.
Summer brings us out into the world in ways that we often don’t have during the rest of the year. Sometimes it is a pleasant experience – warmth, greenery, the long days. And sometimes it is less pleasant, too hot or too humid.
But in any case, it gives us the opportunity to experiment with a teaching from one of the texts we often teach in our cohorts. It comes from a very early Hassidic source, Likkutim Yekarim: “A high rung: Always consider in your heart that you are close to the blessed Creator, that God surrounds you from every side. … Be so attached that the main thing you see is the blessed Creator, rather than looking first at the world and only secondarily at God. God should be the main thing you see.”
A high rung indeed! And a beautiful thought experiment as we move outdoors this summer. What would it be like to experience the world through the lens of “This is God”? God: the creek. God: the oak and sage. God: the rattlesnake. God: the humidity. God: the crush of people in the city. God: the open expansiveness of vacation.
If you wish, I’d love to hear how the experiment goes. And in the meantime, I wish you a summer of delight!
It seems to me that Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the revelation of Torah at Mt Sinai, is an extraordinary opportunity for us to explore listening as part of building our capacity to hear God’s voice. For some, that might not be such an intuitive suggestion. Even if we “believe in” God, which not everyone does, the idea of hearing God’s voice seems archaic. But it invites intriguing questions or thought experiments: How would we know what God’s voice sounds like? What would it say if we could hear it? How would we know that is the voice of Divinity? What practices might help us cultivate more attuned ears?
I have always admired, and committed myself to develop, the ability to listen more deeply, to bring my full empathetic presence to the person speaking. I know that when others do that for me, it helps me to hear my own truth with greater honesty and insight and to explore more deeply than I might have otherwise. When I am listened to in this way, I feel seen and held. In this noisy world filled with bombast and interruptions, that attentive listening can feel like a gift of cool water on a hot day.
Recently, I’ve noticed the emergence of another experience of listening. This listening seems to emanate from a very calm, still point at the solar plexus that moves out and creates a kind of contained spaciousness. When I listen from this place, I notice my emotions are less engaged, not because I have become cold and callous but rather because I am more able to get out of the way for the sake of the person I am listening to. This kind of listening feels very clean and holy to me; it is one I want to continue to cultivate.
One additional suggestion for exploring how to listen in a new way is one I learned from Norman Fischer. He gave a meditation instruction that began with listening to the ambient sounds, whatever they may be: birdsong, traffic, voices, music. Then, he taught, shift your attention and start listening instead for the silence (or perhaps Silence) from which all sound arises and to which it returns. What might you hear?
Maybe this Shavuot we can practice listening more deeply, respectfully, lovingly to the people around us. Maybe we can practice listening to the sounds of the world. And maybe we might hear a Divine voice. May whatever we hear bring blessing.
In my experience, Passover is a holiday that often fails to reach its potential to help us wake up to the power of transformation. The form of the holiday is so overwhelming: the occasionally obsessive attention to food and cleaning; trying to find the right balance of keeping everyone engaged and interested at the seder; the joys and pressures of hosting and being hosted.
And yet, Passover offers an opportunity to explore transformation like no other holiday, not even the High Holidays. The High Holy Days invite us inward, towards repentance. Passover explicitly links our inner liberation with liberation in the greater world and does so in the context of love.
Passover first invites us into our actual experiences through the eating of the ritual foods, the karpas, matzah and maror. For many of us, these foods are the only foods we eat mindfully all year! The attention to sensation in the mouth (and sinuses, in the case of horseradish) brings us into this moment with full presence. It invites us to investigate what is happening in the body now.
In addition to noticing the truth of our experience, the haggadah reminds us that in every generation we have the opportunity to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. This can prompt us to pause and ask ourselves what transformation we are seeking in our personal lives. There may be times at the seder itself that we experience constriction. Perhaps it is around a strained relationship with someone at the table or connected to a religious or political struggle. What would it look like to experience greater liberation in regards to that constriction?
Furthermore, the seder is filled with explicit and hidden references to redemption in the greater world, thereby linking personal liberation and liberation more generally. For example, the story of the five rabbis discussing the exodus from Egypt all night until their students came to remind them to recite the morning prayers is actually a coded story. According to some sources, the rabbis were so inspired by their reenacting of the Passover story that they planned a revolt against the oppressive Roman Empire, instructing their students to warn them with a cryptic phrase about the Shema if a Roman soldier happened to pass by. Our individual liberation is deeply linked to working for liberation in the world, towards welcoming in the spirit of Elijah and an era of greater justice and peace.
And perhaps most important of all, this whole story is framed in the springtime and the Song of Songs, the Bible’s sweet love poetry. The imagery of blossoming and fragrance, beauty and intoxication, the playful hide and seek (and find!) of lovers in a spring time garden reminds us that even when the work of liberation is exhausting and discouraging, love is still available. In fact, love is the foundation that allows the transformation to take place.
So in the midst of the cooking, cleaning, engaging, hosting and being hosted, may we all find a few moments to touch down into love, into mindfulness, and into the connection between personal and communal liberation so that we all may experience greater freedom and possibly even redemption.
Is it just me or does the world seem particularly dark these days?
I remember periods when everything seemed flush with potential and vibrant with possibility, but these times seem heavy with a kind of dread. We continually see cruelty and bloodshed splashed across screens of all sizes; in so many of our personal circles we have experienced loss and displacement as well. And this is not to mention the fact that the cherry trees were blooming in New York City on Christmas Eve–a wondrous and terrifying disruption.
How am I supposed to respond?
The unique contribution of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality is that we are working to infuse the lived life of Jews with meaning and wisdom through spiritual practices that open the heart and nourish the soul. These capacities are crucial to helping us respond to the darkness.
When my heart sinks in despair at the entrenched systems of suffering, my meditation practice reminds me that things do change and sometimes in surprising ways. When I feel rage rise in me at all those idiots out there, my weekly learning with my study partner helps me notice anew all the nekudot tovot, the points of goodness, in others and in my own life. When I want to turn away in self-protection, my prayer practice urges me to keep my heart open and to listen more carefully.
And my practice also reminds me to notice the blessings of love and health and fulfillment in my own days and to give thanks for them. As the poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It might have been otherwise.”
Over and over again I find that these practices are a lifeline for me in living a Jewishly meaningful, responsible, compassionate life, even when the world feels dark.
It seems to me that this year more people are going public with their discomfort with Avinu Malkeinu, the prayer of supplication that is one of the hallmarks of the High Holy Day liturgy. I suspect that much of the discomfort is due to the difficult metaphors that form the refrain of the prayer, addressing God as our Father and our King. Many of us avoid using male language in reference to God so we try to “fix” the prayer by gender-neutralizing it to “our Parent, our Sovereign” (which feels vague and unsatisfying to me). The real problem is actually deeper: We are stuck with these images of God that either infantilize us or just are so out of our lived experience that they leave us cold. And the explanation that “Avinu” is supposed to be about forgiveness and “Malkeinu” is supposed to be about judgment doesn’t help very much.
But—perhaps appropriately for Yom Kippur—I have a confession. The truth is that I absolutely love Avinu Malkeinu. I always feel disappointed when the holidays fall on Shabbat and we don’t get to recite it. My eyes often fill with tears just opening the machzor, the High Holy Day prayerbook, to that page.
Here is why: A teacher of mine once explained the metaphor like this: “Avinu” (our Father) is about much more than forgiveness. It is shorthand for the perfect parent, the one we all wish we had or could be. Avinu absolutely believes in us, loves us unconditionally, knows what we need and can always provide loving guidance. Avinu is endlessly patient, encouraging, and overflowing with compassion for our attempts to live the best we can in an often confusing and difficult world.
“Malkeinu” (our King), on the other hand, can be less about judgment and more about total surrender of control to a power against which there is no recourse. In the old days, the king could demand pretty much anything: your crops for his store houses, your sons for his army, your own body for his service. If you didn’t like it, that was too bad. There was no appeal. While most kings don’t have that power any more, the truth is there are plenty of important things we still cannot control. Malkeinu is everything that profoundly affects our lives over which we have no power, all the circumstances that we must comply with, whether or not we like it.
And then this extraordinary combination of boundless compassion and absolute power becomes the recipient of our deepest yearnings: Please, let this be a good year. Let our needs be taken care of. Let there be less suffering. Let these things happen in realms over which we have no control. And let them happen even if (even though) we have done so little to deserve them.
Sometimes it takes that evocation of a listener to remember and then utter our most vulnerable longings. And sometimes the fervent expression of those longings is its own answer.
May we all be sealed for blessings of compassion and abundance, joy and connection, in this New Year.