Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
There is something about waning that draws the attention to change in ways that waxing does not. It is in the evening liturgy, not the morning prayers, that we remind ourselves about the ordered orbits of the constellations and the way that light rolls away from darkness and darkness from light. When the day is new and light is abundant, we prefer to speak about renewal. But in the gathering darkness, we name it for what it is: change.
Similarly, it is during Sukkot and the palpably shortening days that we revisit Kohelet’s words about the ephemeral nature of life. There is a time for everything – and everything passes so quickly.
In addition to the transition to the darker, colder time in the Northern Hemisphere, we are noticing other changes, as well. Our beloved teacher, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, is beginning to teach less for the Institute; she will be formally leaving the staff at the end of the year, although she will continue to teach in a variety of contexts, including the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program. And in the larger community, the recent Pew study has found that cherished forms of Judaism in America are falling away.
We might see these changes as wanings. But, as Sheila herself, as well as Rabbi Art Green, discuss, the liturgy has it right. Darkness and light make way for each other. Familiar forms shift. New ones arise. Our practices teach us to pay attention with friendly curiosity. What is happening now? What will happen next?
One of Sheila’s most quoted stories is about a woman who suffered a stroke. She was left with two words in her vocabulary: “unexpectedly” and “temporarily.” And really, what else is there to say? We are constantly being surprised and change is constantly in and around us.
But perhaps there is one more word to add to the spiritual lexicon: “love.” Love for our teachers and fellow travelers, love for the ever-evolving world, love for our always surprising lives, love for the Divine that moves through it all. Love that transcends all the waxing and waning.
So much of our spiritual life is about remembering to remember, trying to really wake up and live our precious lives.
It is so easy to be lulled into sleepiness: the sleepiness of busyness, of mindless technology, of the closed heart and the superficial.
We know those things are hevel, meaningless, but we keep falling asleep anyway.
Nachman points out that “hevel” also means “quickly evaporating breath”.
On Rosh Hashanah the shofar plays a miraculous role: it transforms this meaningless, quickly forgettable breath into that primal cry that inspires trembling and being riveted wide awake.
The shofar then is actually the medium of transformation, the renewal of creativity and possibility.
May the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah reawaken the possibility of transformation for all of us.
And may our practice make us into living shofarot, human alchemists who can change spiritual sleepiness into vibrant attention.
And with a new burst of creative possibility, perhaps the New Year might yet bring peace and lasting blessings to all the world.
Ken yehi ratzon.
May it be so.
I recently learned the Yiddish phrase: “Iz geht schon auf Elul.” It’s just about Elul. Even though the sun feels like the height of summer, the soul’s season is moving steadily towards teshuvah, towards turning back to the way we know things ought to be.
One of the advantages of the holidays beginning so unusually early is that we have different metaphors from the natural world to inspire this work of teshuvah. For example, look at Queen Anne ’s lace, the common summer wildflower. As you can see from the photo, the flower is actually a fractal, a series of the same pattern on an ever smaller scale. The whole circular structure of the flower is made up of smaller clusters, arranged the same way as the entire flower. These smaller clusters, in turn, are made up of circular clusters of petals, also in the same pattern.
Spiritual practice works in this same fractal pattern. Working on an intimate level is a different manifestation of working on a more public level, but it is in fact the same work. When we consider teshuvah and turning back towards the way we know things ought to be, it can be overwhelming.
How do we take on the big issues, the long-held doubts and angers and pain?
How do we in fact forgive ourselves and others?
How do we realign ourselves to be truer to our soul’s desire?
How do we even allow ourselves to glimpse what our soul’s desire actually is?
Spiritual practice reminds us to start small. Set an intention. Maybe it’s to say a blessing before eating with real gratitude and humility. Maybe it’s to act more generously today. Maybe it’s to pay attention to one breath. Then, in the course of our day, we will forget. Our attention will wander. We will act according to old habits. We will get tired and discouraged. And yet – that is the opportunity to practice teshuvah!
This is the cluster of petals level. In these small moments, we can wake up and remember: Oh yes, my intention was to do this thing, but I forgot. But now I remember and so I can return and act according to my intention. I can return non-judgmentally. I am not a bad person because I forgot. People forget. It’s part of the human condition. That’s why we have Elul – to help us remember to remember.
Returning to our intention with compassion in the context of spiritual practice is actually practice for returning to the bigger intentions of how we live in the world. Perhaps we could say that if the petal level is analogous to the personal arena, the small clusters made up of the many petals are analogous to the interpersonal arena of our lives. The more we are able to gently forgive ourselves and return to our intention, the more we are able to forgive others in our lives and return to our intentions regarding those relationships. And then the whole flower could be analogous to our whole world.
Elul reminds us:
Summertime – the great annual habit-breaker. If we are lucky, we have the opportunity to look up from our usual routine and try something new. Often that newness involves travel. And it’s curious: some of us sit still to try to reconnect with clarity and insight. But there are some insights that are easier to come to through motion. It’s like when we stand in front of a wooden fence. When we stand still in front of it, all we see are the slats, blocking what is on the other side. But when we walk by it, we can often glimpse the garden through the cracks between the slats.
And yet, the moving itself is often the least pleasant part of the traveling. We like to arrive at our destination, but dealing with traffic, lines, security and all the rest of it is a whole different story. It can feel more like the fence, slowing us down, herding us along, keeping us out.
Reciting tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, can serve as an intention to help us transform the often harried experience of traveling. The traditional Hebrew asks God to guide us in peace, to let us take each step in peace and to help us reach our desired destination alive, joyful and in peace. It asks that we be kept safe from any kind of danger along the way and that we encounter only kindness and graciousness from those we meet. Here is a link to the prayer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefilat_HaDerech
Imagine if we took this on as a blessing practice. If we began each journey with this blessing, evoking that sense of peacefulness and security for ourselves, then, from an inner place of joyfulness and peace, we might be able to bless all those people with us in those endless lines and crowds – perhaps even the really annoying ones – with the same blessing. May you be guided in peace! May you reach your destination safely! May you encounter only kindness and graciousness! May your prayer be heard!
That kind of inner spaciousness can transform the burden of travel into an opportunity to enjoy each encounter. It can tear down the fence around the heart altogether. (And of course, the summer traveling– the moving from place to place, the crowds, the aggravation, the pleasure, all of it – is nothing less than a facet of – and practice for – our life journey, in which we can only pray to reach our destination in peace.)
I have a very exciting announcement to make.
But first, let me set the stage. We have long believed that cultivating mindful Jewish leaders could have a profound and even transformational impact on Jewish communal life. However, one of the persistent questions we have struggled with has been how to help alumni of our cohort programs transmit the practices that we have found so personally meaningful to their communities who are also seeking. The obstacles are many: overwhelming busy-ness, a lack of confidence in teaching the practices, Jewish organizational culture, lack of support, just to name a few.
Over the years, we have developed various tools to help address these obstacles. Starting this fall, we will have a new one to add to our repertoire.
The John Templeton Foundation has given us a major grant to support an innovative, national program to promote character development through mindfulness and tikkun middot practice in targeted Jewish communities led by Institute-trained rabbis, cantors, educators, mindfulness teachers, and community leaders. Over the next three years, we will work with 28 Jewish communities to bring a mindful approach to cultivating desirable behaviors or character traits (such as generosity, patience, truth-telling and humility) into the culture of these communities.
There are three significant innovations to this program. The first is that we will be providing training to help leaders bring a specific practice to their communities in a way that reflects the unique culture and realities of that particular community. Participants in the program will be given curricula, in-person trainings, regular webinar support and targeted consultations, all with the support of the other members of the cohort. Secondly, we will be exploring what happens when we make a systemic connection between strengthening individual character development and communal norms and culture. This will give us the opportunity to learn more about how transformation works along the spectrum of change within an individual, in interpersonal relationships, in institutions and in society at large. And thirdly, we will be pioneering a new approach to mussar that is grounded in mindfulness practice.
Rabbi Marc Margolius will be the director of the program. For more information, please visit the program page.
That a non-Jewish foundation with the clout of the Templeton Foundation has decided to invest in our exploration is just thrilling. We are hopeful that this will significantly improve the tools we can offer our alumni in helping to revitalize Jewish life.
For more information on the Templeton Foundation’s work, please click here.