“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 Tagged: prayer

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.

Summertime Travels

Summertime – the great annual habit-breaker. If we are lucky, we have the opportunity to look up from our usual routine and try something new.  Often that newness involves travel.  And it’s curious:  some of us sit still to try to reconnect with clarity and insight.  But there are some insights that are easier to come to through motion.  It’s like when we stand in front of a wooden fence.  When we stand still in front of it, all we see are the slats, blocking what is on the other side.  But when we walk by it, we can often glimpse the garden through the cracks between the slats.

And yet, the moving itself is often the least pleasant part of the traveling.  We like to arrive at our destination, but dealing with traffic, lines, security and all the rest of it is a whole different story.  It can feel more like the fence, slowing us down, herding us along, keeping us out.

Reciting tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, can serve as an intention to help us transform the often harried experience of traveling.  The traditional Hebrew asks God to guide us in peace, to let us take each step in peace and to help us reach our desired destination alive, joyful and in peace.  It asks that we be kept safe from any kind of danger along the way and that we encounter only kindness and graciousness from those we meet.  Here is a link to the prayer:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefilat_HaDerech

Imagine if we took this on as a blessing practice.   If we began each journey with this blessing, evoking that sense of peacefulness and security for ourselves, then, from an inner place of joyfulness and peace, we might be able to bless all those people with us in those endless lines and crowds – perhaps even the really annoying ones – with the same blessing.  May you be guided in peace!  May you reach your destination safely!  May you encounter only kindness and graciousness!  May your prayer be heard!

That kind of inner spaciousness can transform the burden of travel into an opportunity to enjoy each encounter.  It can tear down the fence around the heart altogether.   (And of course, the summer traveling– the moving from place to place, the crowds, the aggravation, the pleasure, all of it – is nothing less than a facet of  – and practice for – our life journey, in which we can only pray to reach our destination in peace.)