“The rabbi who led prayers was outstanding…felt extremely inspired in regard to praying and appreciating the meanings of the prayers and the music.”

— Lay Retreat participant Winter 2012

Posts Tagged: learning

Wisdom from Our Teachers

I am coming up on the conclusion of seven years as the director of IJS – a full cycle, like the fullness of creation or the cycle of the fields. I am so proud of the work of IJS and how we have grown, offering spiritual seekers opportunities to deepen their practice, and reaching out to connect with new people who may not have even thought of themselves as spiritual seekers. I have learned so much about so many things. But one of the most meaningful “perks” of the job has been getting to know my predecessor, Rabbi Rachel Cowan.

Rachel is rightly known as a visionary pioneer in the Jewish world. Her own life experience revealed places where the Jewish community needed to grow and Rachel is the kind of activist who recognizes that if something is true for her, it must be true for others. She consistently connects her own needs to those of the larger community and helps make things better not just for her, but for everyone. You might even say for the sake of the Shechinah.

One of the things I have really learned from Rachel over the past seven years is what real wisdom means. I come from a family where intellectual learning is a critical criteria for someone to be considered an exemplary teacher. I observe how people are drawn to sit at Rachel’s feet and have come to understand that it is not exactly about her knowledge, although, make no mistake about it: she is extremely knowledgeable. But people want to learn from Rachel because of her wisdom. It is because of the way that she is authentic, open and real. There are no masks. You can witness how Rachel engages in on-going practice, in hitlamdut (engaged curiosity), in working on cultivating her own compassion and gratitude. You can feel her wisdom washing over you in all its gentle encouragement and it feels like a gift.

One of the students of the Maggid of Mezritch famously commented that he went to the rebbe to learn how to tie and untie his shoes. Rachel’s wisdom, born of years of commitment to spiritual practice, is a shining contemporary example of this insight. May our own commitment to our practice help us follow on the path she has set out before us.

Receiving Torah

Mt. SinaiShavuot, the holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah, begins on Saturday night.  The Torah itself describes this occasion as being accompanied by dramatic and terrifying noise and spectacle:  thunder, long shofar blasts, earthquake, fire and smoke.   As I type this, I am listening to the honks and sirens on Seventh Avenue far below, and I wonder:   if Mt. Sinai were in New York City, would anyone notice if God started proclaiming?

Mt. Sinai, of course, is in the middle of the desert, a place of profound and almost absolute quiet.  Some people say that the Hebrew word for desert, midbar, means “a place of speech.”  That sounds completely counter-intuitive unless you consider that a desert is a place that is so quiet that we might finally hear the Speech that is actually there all the time.  And in fact, there are midrashim, or rabbinic stories, that say that God is always speaking at Sinai, but that on the day Torah was given, the 6th of Sivan so long ago, the desert was completely silent so that we could really hear.

Contemplative Jews (including me) love those midrashim.  To a contemplative person, silence is clearly the better context to hear the voice of truth.  It is in the silence that the noise of life can settle down and reveal the hidden wisdom that grows underneath.   So why does the Torah text itself insist that the Torah was given in the midst of so much clamor?

Perhaps it was the setting.  Perhaps it was the extreme contrast between the quiet desert and the thunderous mountain that startled the Israelites into the possibility of hearing something new.  In that case, in our noisy lives, the contrast of stillness may be exactly the thing that startles us into that same possibility.

My intention for this Shavuot is to engage in some great Torah learning, to spend time with dear friends and to eat some New York cheesecake.  It is also to find a quiet corner, even in this frenetic city, to see if maybe I can hear something unexpected and true.