Rachel’s Legacy of Connection
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
It is hard to believe that we are almost at the shloshim, the 30-day initial mourning period, for Rachel Cowan, who peacefully left this world at the end of August. For me, it has been a month of deep sadness and a sense of confusion: even though we all knew this day would come, how can it be that Rachel is no longer among us with her warm laugh, her compassionate ear, her wise teachings?
Another one of Rachel’s enduring legacies is the network of people she wove around her. I came to understand this in a bittersweet way. When I received the news of Rachel’s death, I was just starting a silent meditation retreat myself. It was immediately obvious that my place at that moment was not to be sitting in contemplation in a monastery. It was to be with my people, with Rachel’s people, to reach out, to connect, to hug, to comfort, to weep.
In the subsequent days, including at the memorial service itself, I found it so comforting to be part of the connections that Rachel had created. This is the physical manifestation of the love that Rachel gave and received and that continues through all of us. Some would say it is a manifestation of Divinity itself.
We can add another dimension to this from Sukkot, which we are celebrating this week. The custom of inviting ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah reminds us of the centrality of connection during our festive days. But we are not just talking about our friends and family, the usual cast of characters. We invite our mythic ancestors, the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, kings and wise women of our tradition, to join us as well. This reminds us that connection – and love – is not bound to this physical plane. It is greater than time and space. It is invisible, immeasurable, and yet deeply real. It is a source of comfort, inspiration and joy.
We will be gathering together for one more formal connection around Rachel and her life on October 3 at 11:00 EDT. (We will be taping the teaching for those who cannot attend.) We invite you to join the beautiful community Rachel brought together, directly and indirectly, and to tap in to the love that endures.
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
One goal of Jewish prayer is connection: to connect internally to our awareness of what is true, and to hold that honestly before our hearts; to connect with the world, which needs our efforts for its wholeness and fulfillment; to connect with God, to find our place in the world. In a creative reading, the word tefilah (prayer) is taken to mean “connection,” and then even more radically and creatively, made the meaning of davenen.
Sefer Toldot Aharon, Likkutim
Why do we call our prayer-practice davenen? When the Creator created the world, God considered all of the souls that would be born, and the prayers they would pray, till the end of time. Through that one moment of inquiry God created the first human – who therefore contained all the souls. At the end of time all will return to that initial original point from which Creation flowed.
The Talmud (RH 21b) teaches that there are 50 (in Hebrew signified by the letter nun) gates of understanding, and the Zohar explains that the whole world emerges from Binah (the dimension of understanding). Thus, at the beginning of the beginning, at that point of understanding and awareness, was the letter nun. When will we return to that original point at the top of the letter nun? Only at the end of time. Nevertheless, through our prayers each day we ascend that nun, each time one point further, toward the very head of that nun. At the end of time the nun will be complete, as at the time of Creation.
Now prayer (tefilah) signifies “connection” as in the phrase “a divine struggle have I wrestled (naftulei elohim liftalti)” (Gen. 30:8; Rashi cites a source that implies that the root t-f-l implies connection). One form of connection is sexual, which can be represented by the word du (part of the word tan-du, signifying “in tandem,” as there are two parties to sexual relations; see Yebamot 118b). Now, given that tefilah signifies connection, to what are we connecting each time we pray? That nun from the beginning of Creation.
This is du-nun, or for our purposes, dav-nun. We find, then, that even this non-Hebrew word by which we speak of prayer (davenen) shares the intention of the Hebrew: to connect all holy points to that nun, to return all to its head, as one, as at Creation.
Rabbi Nancy Flam
Written in loving memory of Rabbi Rachel Cowan
Rabbi Rachel Cowan was a connector. She loved connecting people that she thought should meet each other. Many, many life-giving projects and friendships blossomed from those meetings. At the close of the very first Rabbinic Leadership Training cohort in 2001, we got t-shirts made for the core faculty and for Rachel, who was instrumental in the creation of the Institute. We thought of short, individual sayings to put on the back of the T-shirts. Sylvia Boorstein’s said “The BeSHT of Meditation Teachers.” Arthur Green’s said “Textual Pearl Diver” (because he came up to the surface of the sea of Hasidic texts with the very best ones). And Rachel’s said, “Connector of Heaven and Earth.” She had a heavenly vision of tremendous justice to be established on earth, along with deep, experiential knowledge of God, and she worked in partnership with others to manifest those visions as realities on earth. In this way, she played the role of tzaddik, the one who brings Divine Plenty down to earth. But she also played the other critical role of tzaddik, lifting up every particular to the Divine Root. One of Rachel’s most remarkable qualities was her respect for, attention to and true interest in whomever she met. It didn’t matter if you were a famous public figure or a simple laborer, young or old, she gave everyone the same kind attention.
As we read the Torah from the very beginning again next week, this teaching on Parashat Bereishit (the first reading in Genesis) by the Me’or Eynayim (Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, 1730 – 1797) reminds us about the power of connection: within ourselves, with all others (and, in Rachel’s memory, let’s include all others in the more-than-human-world), and with God. The tzaddik is the “one” who embodies the “One.” In a Neo-Hasidic reading of this teaching, I believe that each of us acts as the “one” when we embody the “One.” Every one of us can be a tzaddik.
Me’or Eynayim, Bereishit
The Sages taught (B. Hagigah 12b) that there is one pillar in all the world that reaches from the earth to the heavens, and who is that? It is the tzaddik (righteous one). We know this from elsewhere, that the blessed Creator created the all the worlds through the Torah, that is, the twenty-two letters of the Torah. The blessed Creator constricted God’s self in these letters. The beginning of this process of constriction and emanation was in the letter aleph. Then, God constricted the light of God’s outpouring of preciousness and glory, along with the letter aleph in the letter bet; and then all of these with the letter bet in the letter gimmel, and so on, from one letter to the next. Thus, God continued to be revealed in the world even down to the letter tav, which is the lowest of all levels where good and bad prevail in admixture. Tav can signify both “you shall live (ticheyeh)” and “you shall die (tamut),”’ representing the realm of choice. The true tzaddik must connect himself with every level, even the lowest which have the quality of the letter “tav,” the most distant of all levels. He must draw near to them, level after level in the manner of “tashrak” [an acronym for last four letters of aleph bet, starting from the letter tav, to the letter shin, to the letter reysh, to the letter koof, etc.], from “tav” all the way up to the letter “aleph,” the cosmic aleph, the Chieftain of the World. After all, even the lowest levels were created by means of the letters of Torah. Indeed, the letter tav is one of these letters, and it contains some concentrated, partial revelation of the cosmic aleph, difficult to observe only due to its distance from the aleph.
A tzaddik who wishes to connect himself to the Blessed Creator must also connect himself to all of the letters of the Torah, from tav to aleph, drawing all the levels near to the cosmic aleph. This is the essence of wholehearted divine service: raising all of the lower levels higher and higher. This is the meaning of the saying, “There is one pillar in the world, and who is it? The tzaddik” (based on B. Hagigah 12b). The tzaddik is called “one” referring to oneness/unity – since he unites himself with all of the levels from the earth to the heavens. That is, he unites himself with the farthest reaches of earthliness/materiality, which is “tav ”, all the way to the heavens, the most exalted level, which is “aleph.” The tzaddik connects both heaven and earth, “for everything is in the [realm between] heavens and the earth” (I Chr.29:12). Onkelos translated “everything (kol)” as “holding onto (achid) both heaven and earth” because contains all of the levels, and unifies heaven and earth.
In this manner, the tzaddik is also called “foundation of the world,” just like the foundation of a building. Then, when one wishes to raise up the building, one begins under the foundation, and the whole structure built on that foundation will rise up as well. So it is with the tzaddik. He connects himself with all the levels. When he, himself, rises up higher and higher, all the other levels are raised up with him.
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
- Who do you think of as someone who fits the description “Connector of Heaven and Earth”? What of their qualities or actions most inspires you?
- Where in the world is it easiest for you to see God’s light, as if that place/occasion/person/emotion/mind-state might be closest to God’s aleph? Where in the world is it harder to see God’s light, as if that place/occasion/person/emotion/mind-state might be far from God’s emanating power, closer to the tav? What attitude or thought might enable you to connect the tav, even in the slightest way, within your awareness, to be linked back up to the Cosmic Aleph, to the Divine Source of All, so as not to be separated out?
- Tav represents the realm of choice, choosing life or death. What life-giving choices do you intend to make this year?
Rabbi Marc Margolius
In morning Jewish prayer practice, as we prepare to chant the Shema, proclaiming the Oneness of God, we traditionally gather the tzitzit (knotted fringes) on the four corners of our tallit (prayer shawl), bind them into one in our hand, and chant the words “v’haveinu l’shalom mei-arba kanfot ha’aretz – bring us towards wholeness/integration from the four corners of the earth.”
This physical and liturgical action ritually represents our awareness that while we live in a world of separation, each distinctive aspect of creation is woven into a whole and related to every other part. Everything is linked inextricably to a single whole. No person, place, or moment ever stands apart. Everything is connected by ahavah (love).
This is true even of those people or experiences which we experience as distasteful or “other.” We are connected by the quality of ahavah even to those whom we experience as “other.” This is illustrated in this Hasidic teaching (as retold by Martin Buber) about the Torah’s injunction “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, love your fellow as yourself:”
A disciple asked Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsburg (d. 1778): “How can I fulfill the commandment ‘love your fellow as one like as yourself,’ if my neighbor has done evil to me?” He answered: “You must understand that verse correctly. It means love your neighbor like something which you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this soul is inherent in all souls, just as your soul is in all parts of your body. It may happen that your hand makes a mistake and strikes you. Would you then take a stick and hit your hand, because it lacked understanding, and increase your pain? It is the same if your neighbor, who is of one soul with you, wrongs you for lack of understanding. If you punish him, you are only hurting yourself.”
Jewish tradition, as filtered through this Hasidic teaching, makes the radical claim that while our minds may try to convince us of our separateness, the deeper truth is that we are ever-connected, even to that which or those who most disturb us.
In Jewish mindfulness practice, we practice ahavah/love each time we notice our inclination to cut ourselves off from the truth of our experience in each moment, and remember to stay in connection with reality. We practice ahavah/love each time we are aware of our impulse to render those who offend us as “other,” and choose to remain in relationship with them. We practice ahavah/love each time we notice our sense of distance or alienation from that which we understand as God or the Divine, and remember that our alienation is an illusion. We are connected in every moment to everyone, to everything, and to the One – by love.
 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (Schocken: 1991), p. 190.
Where Inner work Meets World Repair
Rabbi Sam Feinsmith
Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, one of the great third-generation Hasidic masters, related that when he was young he wanted to repair the world. As he grew older, he set his sights on repairing his country. Later on, he sought to repair his village, and then his family. As an old man he adopted a much more modest goal: “Now I am trying to repair myself.”
I have always found this teaching inspiring. To me it serves as a reminder that I should stop trying to rearrange the people around me and focus instead on tending to my own unfinished business. Yet in recent years, I have also come to find his teaching unsatisfactory in that it overlooks one of the foundational insights of Jewish spiritual practice – everything is connected, we exist in a state of interdependence. If this is so, when I work on myself, I do change the world because I am a cell in the vast organism of life, I am connected to the totality.
Consider this teaching by the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism:
Concerning the verse “Come near to my soul, redeem Her” (Ps. 69:19), the Ba’al Shem Tov (of blessed memory) taught that it is a prayer for personal redemption for our soul from the exile of the yetzer ha’ra (our habitual base instincts). When each of us experiences personal redemption, collective redemption will follow and the Messiah will arrive speedily in our days, amen (Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Bereshit, #166).
Whether we realize it or not, we all co-create the nested systems – economic, industrial, political, educational, cultural, and societal – that make up our world. They are a direct outgrowth of individual minds working together to shape the larger ecology in which we all live. The collective redemption of the world thus depends in large part on the inner work each of us undertakes to elevate and expand our consciousness toward greater connection, mutuality, love, wisdom, and compassion. Each and every one of us is connected to the whole and all of its parts. There is no escaping the truth that we rise and fall together as one. Certainly, the environmental crises we now face brings this truth to light in unprecedented ways. And yes, we must get up from our meditation cushions and act. Yet we must do so with a deep grounding in wisdom, compassion, and connection.
Perhaps this is one of the messages of Sukkot: we take up residence in a structure whose walls are permeable and lacking in solidity. The sukkah is designed to remind us that the walls we erect between ourselves and others are, in fact, artificial. Our true state is that of connection and interdependence. May we embrace this truth, and use it to deepen our confidence in our inner work of growing toward personal redemption in the service of world repair.