“One of the life messages I took from the retreat was to notice, instead of being judgmental, during meditation – and during life as well.”

— Lay retreat participant, Winter 2012

Posts Categorized: Blog

Imperfections

A number of years ago, I approached the High Holy Days with a great sense of inadequacy. I was keenly aware of all the ways in which I missed the mark, that I fell short of my own expectations and that I was unable to keep to my intention. It was a sobering and unpleasant realization.

As I was working with this sense of inadequacy, I was looking forward to the part of the Rosh Hashanah service that includes a full prostration. Not every synagogue does this, but traditionally, during the Malkhut section of the shofar service, we recite the Aleinu. As we say the words “We bend the knee and bow before You,” some communities engage in a full bowing, sinking to our knees and lowering our heads to the floor, in a deep motion of submission to the King of Kings (or, if you prefer, all that we cannot control in our fragile lives.)

I was anticipating this embodied experience to be one of humility, of publically acknowledging my imperfection on this holy day. But instead something surprising happened.

As I touched my head to the floor, what rushed through me was not a confirmation of my unworthiness, but rather a wave of forgiveness. This is how human beings are, imperfect, I recognized anew, and I am no different. And it is okay. Forgiveness is possible, even forgiveness of ourselves, and with that softening, we are actually more free to move through the world in sacred ways.

I suspect that many of us will hear sermons this High Holy Day season about the urgency of the work there is to do in the world – and it is in fact urgent. But perhaps we can find the space to practice forgiveness for our own sweet selves, for not living up to our expectations and not doing enough and not doing what we do perfectly. After all, as we are reminded in Unetaneh Tokef, we are compared to a broken dish, a breeze passing by, a grass that withers. And perhaps it is precisely because of our vulnerability and our imperfection that we are so precious and so worthy of compassion.

May we find forgiveness for our own humanity so that 5778 might be filled with blessings, sweetness and peace for us and for the world.

 

Praying with Our Feet

The other day I got together with a friend who is one of the wise advisors in my life.  I told her about a particular issue I was grappling with.  She shared a meditation instruction of bringing attention to the sensation of my feet on the floor and really focusing on the way gravity presses the feet down into the support of floor.  As I practiced with this instruction, I felt a kind of stability that opened up a clarity that helped me understand what steps to take next.

The very next day I was learning a text from Likkutei Halachot with my study partner.  The topic was about how to find eitzot amiti’ot shleimot, wise advice, the kind that can lead you where you really need to go, not just in the short term, but for long term attainment.  This book was written by Nachman of Breslov’s beloved disciple, Nathan, and—as is usual for Nachman teachings—there were lots of metaphors for the wise advice that we all seek.

Given my experience the day before, I was astonished to see that one of the metaphors for wise advice was raglayim, the legs and feet!  Nathan explains that this is because the legs and feet symbolize the lower levels of a spiritual journey, when we are in the depths and really need that wise advice.  That is when we are most receptive to hear the council of true tzadikim and to understand the guidance of the sages who can make the wisdom of Torah alive to us.

These are days when many of us are, in the memorable words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “praying with our feet.” Sometimes it seems like there isn’t time to do things like meditation or setting aside an hour to learn with my study partner.  But this is precisely the time for those practices.  They help me pay more attention to the wisdom of my own body and the wisdom of the sages who lived before me.  These practices help me see more clearly.  They remind me that I am not separate from the rest of the world, and that keeping myself grounded and clear is adding more groundedness and clarity into the world.  They help me take better care of other selves that I encounter, in my family, on the subway, as I react to the headlines.

Grounding.  Support.  Clarity.  True advice that brings greater wholeness and opens a door to the next right steps.  As we enter into Elul and take true stock of our lives, we hope some of these offerings will help us do just that.

 

The Shelter of Shabbat

The morning I wrote this greeting, I woke up very early. We had just concluded the final retreat for our second Clergy Leadership Program cohort and I was heading to the airport to return home for Shabbat. In the eastern sky there was the tiniest sliver of the crescent moon, just rising, heart-breakingly beautiful. It was just a few days before the month of Av began, with that same crescent moon setting in the west.

We are heading towards the end of the Three Weeks, the period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, the season of loss and horror in our mythic history. It is the season of siege, deprivation, enormous suffering, terrible destruction and there are many traditional customs of mourning that mark this season.

In fact, the one thing during this period that continues to be a beacon of joy is Shabbat. It is worth asking, if the world is burning around us, how can we celebrate Shabbat? Shouldn’t we be dedicating ourselves towards fixing this world that is experiencing so much horror? How can we take the time to dedicate to spiritual practice?

One answer to this question comes from a Netivot Shalom teaching about Noah’s Ark that we studied at our retreat. The metaphor is different, but the question is the same: When the flood waters rise up around us, threatening to drown us, how do we survive? What do we do?

The Netivot Shalom suggests that Noah’s ark, that temporary shelter, is actually a hint towards the practice of Shabbat. Shabbat, he teaches, is nothing less than the connection between the heavenly realms and the earthly realms; it is God’s dwelling place on earth. It is a pinah tehorah, a pure little place, where we can take refuge.

I think this offers three insights that are especially important during times of destruction, remembered or present. If Shabbat is the connection between heaven and earth, taking refuge in Shabbat is not about closing ourselves off from the world, but rather about gaining a greater perspective. It is often true that suffering causes our perspective to narrow, which makes it more difficult to make wise decisions. If our practice on Shabbat can help us open back up to the larger picture, we might know how to respond better when we return to facing the world.

Also, when we are closed up in the ark, buffeted by wind and rain, temporarily safe from the destruction around us, we realize that there is a limit to how well we can steer the boat. Parker Palmer teaches that “functional atheism,” acting as if everything depends on us, is a shadow side to leadership. Shabbat reminds us that yes, when havdalah is over, we must go back to acting. But the world depends on more than just our own efforts. Shabbat helps us cultivate this deeper trust.

And finally, Shabbat offers us the inspiration to go back out into the world once the flood waters subside, having experienced a glimpse of that pure little place that the world can be. By rooting us in joy and peace, community and spaciousness, we remind ourselves what we are working towards.

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom, a beacon of joy during this dark time in our spiritual calendar.

Embodied Practice for Hanukkah

candlelight-yoga

There is a mystical teaching that the light of the first day of Creation is hidden away in this world as the Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light. This light is no ordinary light. The Or HaGanuz brings the heat of timeless, limitless energy that penetrates and permeates matter and animates our physical bodies. It also exists as light waves of thought and feeling within our more subtle bodies of emotion and intellect. The Zohar states that this first light of Creation, this hidden light, is hesed, lovingkindness. Vibrating within each of us is this primordial, hidden light of love.

In the Hanukkah story, hesed wins. Light increases and drives away darkness. Hanukkah thus challenges me to reveal and to embody the healing power of love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Sometimes, being a Heart Warrior, a modern Maccabee, requires the courage to feel how my body holds fear and the willingness to let it be touched and softened by the transforming presence of loving attention. Other times, being a Maccabee means standing firm and strong, emboldened by the love I feel lighting me up inside.

How do we embody this miraculous power of love? We bring awareness to the body and pay attention without judgment to whatever is arising. We meet our bodies with compassion and curiosity. When we can receive our own beings just as we are, we strengthen a vessel that can reveal the hidden light of hesed that is inscribed in our very cells, no matter what we are feeling in the moment.

Begin standing with your feet hip distance apart. Let your arms rest by your sides. Close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor. Draw a deep breath through your nose. Watch the breath move down through the neck, the chest and belly, into your hips, and back out through the nose. Repeat several times. Visualize the breath kindling the light hidden inside the face, the neck, your heart, under the shoulder blades, your belly, and hips.Allow the sense of light to grow inside you with each soft, deep breath.

Next, again begin by feeling your feet firmly on the floor. From that grounding, as you inhale, raise your arms and clench your fists as you cross the forearms over each other in front of your chest. Furrow your brow and clench your jaw.

As you exhale, release the fists and uncross your arms. Let the arms lower towards the earth with palms open and facing forward.

Repeat several times. Notice what happens to the energy in your body as you clench your fists and cover your heart. Notice what you feel as you soften the hands and release the hands and arms by your sides. Explore moving your arms and torso in ways that clench, hold and guard your chest, and those which open and soften the hands and chest. See, with curiosity, how you move between states of open and closed. See if you can bring the state of openness to the following posture even as you engage your muscles and find your strength:

Star Pose

Take your feet wide apart, facing forward. Inhale and lift your arms up to shoulder height. Spread the fingers wide. Inhale and rotate the arms so the palms face the sky and the armpits are opened upwards. Strengthen through your legs, toning through the upper thighs. Lift up through the crown and the sides of your waist as you send the tail bone to the floor and draw your stomach in towards the spine. Enjoy several long inhalations and exhalations as you sustain the muscular energy to remain firm and toned in this pose. With each breath in and out, visualize the cells of your bones, muscles, organs, tissues, each filling with light and growing softly brighter. Fill yourself with light and scan your body. Where are you holding very tightly? Can you soften and let the light bathe you there? Stand firm and burn softly, and, brightly as you embody a luminary pulsing with the light of Divinity.

Now return your feet to stand under your hips and let your arms rest by your sides. In the stillness, notice what your body is feeling as you receive the gifts of having sown seeds of light through your body in the pose. Is there tingling? Warmth? Sweat? A quickened heart rate? Feel all that there is to feel in this body now. There is no need to do anything other than be right here.

What if, as Carl Sagan asserts, we really are stardust? And what if these stellar beings we are hold the energy of hesed, lovingkindness, hidden in our DNA and physical bodies since the beginning of creation? Practice shining this love through your eyes today as you greet others. Shine it into your own heart, belly, hips, hands and head. Become a modern Maccabee, letting your firm yet open stance become the vessel through with divine light burns steadily and bright.

With warmth and blessings,
Rabbi Myriam Klotz

The Light in the Darkness

3507-one-menorah-3rd-night

Many of us have come to recognize the symbolic power of the lights of Hanukkah. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which means around the last five days of the lunar month. Particularly when the festival falls later in December, it coincides with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. When you combine the longest nights with waning of the moon at the end of the lunar month, when it does not appear in the night sky, you get some VERY DARK nights. It is precisely then that we light Hanukkah candles. Moreover, following the teaching of the School of Hillel, we increase the number of candles each night. So, just as the world is getting darker (at least here in the northern hemisphere), we are bringing more and more light.

But the months following Kislev are pretty dark themselves. And that darkness, and its persistence, is reflected in the Torah readings at this time of year. Hanukkah will always coincide with the Joseph story, and always with him in the “pits”. We either conclude Vayeshev with Joseph in prison, or begin Mikketz with him still there. While we witness Joseph’s rise to power, we also experience his ongoing conflict with his brothers. And when that is overcome, we suffer the death of Jacob and then Joseph in Egypt – and anticipate the slavery to come.

Furthermore, the mystical tradition identifies the weeks of first six readings of the book of Exodus as a time when negative forces prevail in the world. These weeks extend through the Hebrew months of Tevet, Shevat and into Adar. We can imagine why this might be: after all, everyone is cooped up inside, and possibly stir crazy. The weather outside is harsh, physically difficult to deal with, and hazardous to health. These months also coincide with the first six weeks of the book of Shemot (Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim). Using the initial letters of these parshiyot we can spell the word ShOVeVIM, signifying that which is wild, transgressive, backsliding. So, from the beginning of the Joseph story through to the crossing of the Sea in Beshallach, we have been living in darkness, inside and out.

So, even though we lit lights on Hanukkah, the weeks and months that follow are shadowed and dangerous, spiritually challenging and potentially dispiriting. Yet, the lights of Hanukkah are not forgotten. By the first week of Adar, just at the end of this beclouded period, we come to Moses’ birthday, 7 Adar. The midrash (Ex.R. 1:20) claims that when Moses was born the house filled with light. This was the light of Creation, the light hidden away in Torah to be revealed to us by Moses, and from which we can always find light. Although this light was “hidden away for the righteous” in the world-to-come, the Zohar claims that were it not for this lights constant radiance the world could not exist.

So, when we light the Hanukkah lights we are not only dispelling the darkness around us during that very dark week. We are bringing light into our hearts and souls to sustain us through a very dark time, so that we ultimately might taste freedom at Passover. And, this is true not only at Hanukkah, but all year round. At any moment we can turn inward to touch our own vitality, to sense the breath moving in the body, to recognize our capacity to perceive light even in the darkness, and to know that redemption will come.

With wishes for a beautiful holiday,

Rabbi Jonathan Slater