A Year of Learning

A Year of Learning

Journey and Apprceciation

Last week we celebrated a special anniversary: it has been one year since my husband and I became foster parents to a wonderful 18-year-old refugee from West Africa. It has been a year of great blessing and joy and also of tremendous learning, as you can imagine, given that this is our first time parenting and we jumped right into teenagerhood – not to mention all kinds of cultural differences.

And yet, a year in, I realize that so much of the learning is simply refining the work we are engaged in all the time anyway. For example, one way to frame it is to take the spectrum between Netzach (victory, engagement) and Hod (receptivity, gratitude). These two categories are sephirot, part of the mystical map of how Divinity moves from the infinite to the tangible in our lives. That may sound very esoteric, but the applications are actually practical and can be very helpful.

What are these two ways of being? Netzach is the quality that urges us to get involved, to fix things, to form and act and create. It is about drive and success and doing. Hod, on the other hand, which literally means “glory,” is the quality of giving space, letting it be, feeling thankful for the ways things are, not needing to change a thing. Interestingly, both of these are understood to be divine qualities that can manifest in us and both of them are worthy of cultivation as part of our spiritual repertoire. The question is when do we bring what to bear.

So: when do we push (encourage) our foster son to do certain things and when do we stand back? When do we ask questions and when do we just give him his space? When do we lead with feeling energized and active and when do we lead with simply feeling grateful for the miracle of our family coming together?

These are the questions in every relationship – with children, parents, partners, friends, co-workers and neighbors. These are the questions we can ask looking out at our country and our world. And these are the questions we can ask of our own sweet lives. How much action? How much acceptance? How do we find the wise balance? How do we respond to what is needed at this moment again and again?

Sometimes just having the framework of these two qualities can help us notice our habitual responses and make better decisions. We hope that this investigation of netzach and hod will support you in your practice.

Where It All Begins

Where It All Begins

Institute of Jewish Spirituality LeadersThis month begins IJS’s 20th anniversary year! I was not personally present at the very beginning in 1999 when Rachel Cowan (z”l) and Nancy Flam brought together an extraordinary group of spiritual teachers and seekers in a process of sharing and learning that became the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. So much has changed and evolved since then.

But one thing that has not changed has been the core values that undergird our work. Like all values, they are aspirational. Like all intentions, we fall short occasionally and recommit ourselves to them anew. As we take stock of the last 20 years and begin the process of reflection and rededication towards the next 20, I wanted to share these powerful values with you in hopes that they inspire you as much as they inspire me.

Institute for Jewish Spirituality: Our Guiding Principles

Shiviti Adonai lenegdi tamid: I strive to cultivate an awareness of God in every moment.

We seek a spiritual practice that wakes us to God’s reality in all aspects of our lives. The whole earth is full of God’s glory!

Tzelem Elohim: The Divine Image

We affirm and strive to reflect the divine and infinite potential in each human being.

Kehilla Kedosha: Holy Community

Creating and maintaining a safe, intentional community allows for deep listening to ourselves and to others, and opens us for healing, connection and insight.

Im eyn ani li mi li?: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Jewish leaders best serve and inspire their communities when they cultivate and refine their own spiritual lives–you can’t give what you don’t have.

La aleycha hamlachah ligmor: You do not have to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it

Spiritual growth is a life-long process that requires ongoing commitment, practice and guidance.

Tikkun HaNefesh and Tikkun Olam

We understand that our work to cultivate awareness leads inexorably to acts of kindness and justice.

Ki tavo chochmah b’libeycha, v’da’at l’nafsehcha yinam: For wisdom will enter your mind and knowledge will delight you

While we inherit a unique religious tradition, we are open to, benefit from, and integrate wisdom from other traditions.

Redeeming Sparks of Language

We are committed to helping people connect their traditional Jewish God, language, and ritual with their authentic inner experience in order to nurture and expand their sense of experiencing of God as Jews.

Mechadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh beresheet: The world is constantly created anew

We believe in the power of Teshuva – the capacity of Jews and Judaism to change and grow and thereby be of greater service to themselves and to the world.

Sweetening the Root

Sweetening the Root

Sweetening the RootThe end of the year is often a time for looking back, a kind of collective secular cheshbon hanefesh: an accounting of what has transpired over the year. In addition to the list of top movies and songs, we can take a sober look at what were the big news stories, who passed from this world, where we are as a community, as a culture, as a planet, compared to a year ago.

It is easy to feel discouraged at the state of the world, to want to root up and throw away all the things we don’t like. But the neo-Hasidic tradition offers us a different approach. We are guided towards a process of hamtakat hashoresh, “sweetening the root.”

The phrase comes from a startling image. Imagine a great Tree of Life hanging upside down with the roots in the air. The roots are the source from which blessings flow down, through the trunk of the tree, through the various branches and then down into the many manifestations of leaves and blossoms that brush the earthly realm. Everything that happens in this world starts with the roots.

But the flow can get blocked or constricted in all kinds of ways. We experience this as the various forms of suffering. The answer, however, is not to chop things up and get rid of them. Instead, it is to bring things back into alignment so the sweetness at the root can flow unimpeded into the world.

So when we face suffering out in the world or in our personal lives, one possibility is to work to discover the hidden sweetness in the difficult thing itself that might help us act from a place of greater wisdom, connection and spaciousness. So for example, when I feel the heat of anger, perhaps I can discern the cooler energy—but energy nonetheless—of healthy self confidence that will help me act from holy boldness. When I feel fear, perhaps I can move, even slightly, towards a spiritual sense of humble awe in the face of all that is bigger than me. When I feel the grief of loss, perhaps I can shift my perspective towards receiving the love that continues to flow.

In each case, the goal is not to get rid of the difficult emotion. It is to sweeten it, just a little. Because on a deep, often hidden level, there is one Source for all.

May our looking back over 2018 bring us wisdom and perspective and may 2019 be a sweeter year for all.

 

image credit: worldbeyondyourown
Act Kindly (Demand Justice)

Act Kindly (Demand Justice)

Symbol of scales is made of stones on the cliffThe first time I led a seder was my sophomore year in college. There were nine of us in Perkins Hall, three Jews and six Catholics. I was so proud of my charoset and matzah balls. I borrowed haggadot from Hillel and confidently led us through the readings. But when we started the part after the meal, I stopped in confusion. “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You…for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation?” What was this? I had never noticed it before. It made me intensely uncomfortable. How did it square away with my favorite midrash, recounted when we diminish the wine in our cups for the Ten Plagues, about the ministering angels bursting into song at the Sea of Reeds and God rebuking them, saying, “My children are dead on the shores of the Sea and you want to sing?”

We speak a lot about the experience of interconnectedness and how spiritual practice helps us cultivate greater capacity for forgiveness and compassion. We often see this as a corrective towards the judgmentalism, which, while not being a uniquely Jewish trait, is certainly honed to an art form in many Jewish circles. Many of us have experienced how painful that judgment can be and strive to be gentler with ourselves and others. We seek a kindness in response to suffering, not vengeance. It is inspiring to read of God’s grieving for the dead Egyptians, even though they were the instigators of our slavery and our oppression.

But judgment is also a Divine attribute. The balance to chesed, or loving-kindness, is din, judgment. Judgment is necessary for justice to flourish. Cruelty should have consequences, not just for the victim, but for the perpetrator as well. The cry at the end of the haggadah is a cri de coeur: “We are still living under oppression! We need justice!” Many of us who know firsthand what it is like to be terrorized by another understand the righteousness of this plea.

It is a paradox. And yet, it seems to me that the spiritually grounded goal might be to develop the ability to demand justice while still remaining connected to the essential truth: that at our core, we are indeed all God’s children. Even those people we despise, even those we are scared of, even those we distain. On some fundamental level, we are not separate from them. It doesn’t mean that we have to acquiesce to them. But it means that we might try to see the me’at tov, the little bit of goodness in them that is a reflection of Divine goodness.

It’s a tall order. But perhaps if we were to catch glimpses of that truth, it might lead to the true liberation we all desire.