“I love this group. I wish my whole life was as loving as my life when I am at an Institute event.”

— Janice Rous

Posts Categorized: Executive Director’s Blog

Responding to Darkness


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.


Avinu Malkeinu: An Extraordinary Combination of Boundless Compassion and Absolute Power

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.

Hot Off the Press!

As a child, I was always the kid who loved hanging out with the older kids. I was the oldest child in my family but usually among the youngest in my grade and I liked the company of kids who were capable of so much more. In rabbinical school, I was the one right out of college who preferred my second career classmates. They had so much more life experience and were so much more interesting than my own age peers!

So it may come as no surprise that, although I was born just after the “Boomer” generation, I have been very interested in their experience of approaching old(er) age. And I am delighted that the Institute is adding an important voice to this conversation: a brand new book by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal, called Wise Aging: Living with Joy Resilience and Spirit.

This book is truly a delight. Edited by Rabbi Beth Lieberman and published by Behrman House, it is a warm, wise and often humorous exploration of the gifts and challenges of growing older. The challenges might be more obvious than the gifts: the changing body, living with loss, confronting mortality. And yet, the gifts that can emerge are marvelous. Consider the possibility of renewing and repairing essential relationships or of developing the capacity to be more joyful, patient and generous. Consider the possibility of really thinking through what kind of legacy we wish to leave and the opportunity to finally bring our lives into greater alignment with how we have always wanted to live.

Aging, if we approach it wisely, gives us the opportunity to integrate all the learning we have done, especially the spiritual learning, regardless of whether we began early or late, so that we can live with greater meaning, less fear, more love.

Rachel and Linda designed the book to be used in Wise Aging Groups, small facilitated groups where these questions can be explored in safe, sacred community. Through our Wise Aging Training Program, we have trained more than 180 facilitators across the country, most of whom are offering Wise Aging groups on a local basis. But even if you don’t live in a community where a group has been formed, pick up the book. It draws you in and helps open the heart.

Between Yearning and Desire

It is true that I recently got engaged, but it is also true that I had been contemplating love for some time before I met my beloved. In fact, one of the great benefits of having been single for such a long time was the experience of many kinds of love from all kinds of expected and unexpected sources: from family and friends, students and teachers. And also from sunshine and boulders and from characters in books. From relatives long dead. From God.

At a recent retreat, we had the privilege of learning with Dr. Melila Hellner-Eshed, who introduced us to the Idra Rabba, highly esoteric passages from the Zohar. According to these mystical teachings, the most ancient, primordial manifestation of God continuously trickles forth love as light or milk, without any will or effort. There are other manifestations of God that are more concerned with justice and morality, but the most fundamental nature of existence is this image of love. (Of course, the Zohar circles back to say that even though it may seem that there is a “most” fundamental aspect, everything is really a unified whole – but that’s another topic.)

Somehow it makes sense to me that if you strip everything else away, what is left is love. It is often what I experience when I reach a deep place in my practice, whether it be in meditation or in prayer. Sometimes I can sense that loving connection that is independent of will or effort. It simply is.

And this calls to mind another distinction which has been part of my musings about love: the difference between yearning and desire. Yearning is a spiritual stance, an orientation of longing to connect with that fundamental love. It is not about obtaining anything or getting any answer. In fact, yearning is its own answer.

Desire, on the other hand, is focused on an object, human or otherwise, which we may or may not acquire. It is easy to confuse with yearning, but in desire, we seek to be satisfied. And alas, as the Buddhists and others point out, desire is usually satisfied only temporarily, if at all. We often get bored with what we possess – and we experience great suffering when we do not get what we desire.

Desire arises and we can be skillful or unskillful in how we respond to it, but yearning can be cultivated as a devotional practice to help remind us of all the expected and unexpected places we might experience love. Not the love that demands conditions and reactions, but just the sweet generous love that flows in everything and which we can offer back as a gift in service of the Divine.