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The Idol of the Fourth Wall: Ki Tissa 5784

On Monday night, for the first time since before I had children (meaning at least 21 years ago), I went to the opera. Not just any opera, but the premiere of a new production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Met–a production that lasts four hours and involves a huge cast and elaborate sets. And, because it was opening night, there were a lot of people decked out in their finery. It was a scene.

Yet what made this night so memorable was the singing–and especially that of the soprano, Lise Davidsen, who was making her Met debut in an Italian opera. This was a big deal, as Davidsen, a Norwegian-born star in the opera world, is known for her work in German pieces (Wagner, Strauss). But Italian opera is a different animal, and there was a lot of anticipation about how she would do.

Suffice it to say, she brought down the house–both with her aria before the first intermission and then, most memorably, with her rendition of Pace, pace, mio Dio in the final act. And that was when the moment I’ll never forget unfolded. You see, unlike in virtually any other Western performance art form, opera not only invites the audience to applaud mid-performance, after every solo (jazz does this), but, because it’s a theatrical performance, there’s a pause in the action when that happens (something that doesn’t happen in jazz). While most of the time the applause runs its course and the show goes on, occasionally something magical can happen.

That’s what happened on Monday: Davidsen’s performance was so immediately appreciated and beloved that the audience clapped and clapped, hooped and hollered, yelled “brava!” and “bravissima!” for what seemed like an eternity. Even the conductor and the orchestra started applauding. And Davidsen, trying to remain in character, simply couldn’t ignore it–she ultimately had to break character and acknowledge the reality of the moment with a smile and a hand to the heart. Only then could the performance go on.

It was that breaking character–breaking through the “fourth wall” of the performance–that made the moment indelible in my memory, and probably in that of the several thousand other members of the audience, because it is such a rare thing to witness. Performers and audience alike are so committed to maintaining that imaginary wall; it is a fundamental part of the experience of theater and music, ceremony and ritual. We invest spaces like theaters and symphony halls–and synagogues–with an artifice that allows another world to come into being. When we break that wall, the experience can be jarring, just as it can also be magical.

The story of the Golden Calf is a counterpoint to the story of the construction of the Mishkan that it interrupts. And while its most fundamental lesson, of course, is to be ever mindful of the possibility of idolatry, some of our tradition’s most insightful, even radical, interpretations see significance not only in the people’s construction of the calf, but of Moses’s smashing of the tablets of the law in response. As Rashi, quoting the Talmud, famously says in his very final comment on the Torah at the end of Deuteronomy: “The Holy Blessed One agreed with Moses’s action, as it says, asher shibarta (Ex. 34:1), which implies that God said, ‘Yishar koach,’ Good work breaking the tablets.”

I wonder if we might think of these two breakings–the breaking of the tablets and breaking character/breaking the fourth wall–as partaking of or expressing a related impulse. In the case of Lise Davidsen, the moment demanded that she break the fourth wall in order to acknowledge her own humanity and that of the audience, which wanted to express their love and appreciation for her singing. In the case of Moses as interpreted by the Talmud, the Holy One recognizes that the moment called not for standing on ceremony, but instead for the expression of emotion–disappointment, anger, rage–of Moses’s gesture; or, perhaps, on an even deeper level, the moment called for a lesson that nothing, not even words of Torah written by the finger of God, should become an idol, immune to the realities of the world, and thus the tablets had to be broken.

How do we discern what the moment calls for? That’s one of the reasons we practice. Through our mindfulness, we hopefully become aware of the overt and subtle ways idolatry operates in our hearts and minds: in the things we cling to, in our inability to live with uncertainty, in our stubborn desire to maintain an impermeable, unbreakable fourth wall between the lives we live and the stories we tell ourselves about them.

We don’t seek to break the fourth wall all the time, of course, or even most of the time. In both opera and in Torah, those moments of breaking are meaningful only because they are rare. But I would suggest that one of the reasons we practice is so that we might  know when those moments have arrived–and that we might have the courage to break those idols when they do.

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Cultivating Joy, Here and Now

משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
When Adar arrives we abound in joy

–Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 29

An enormous wave of renewed fear and reawakened trauma has been washing over us since October 7. As we follow the news while the war rages on, our joy may be eclipsed by deep-seeded patterns of self-protection, our nervous systems may be highly aroused, landing us in fight or flight mode as we brace ourselves, tense up, and/or withdraw into ourselves and hide in fear. As we enter the month of Adar I this year, we may be wondering if we’re even permitted to cultivate joy in the face of so much hurt.

Our response at IJS is clear. The war between Israel and Hamas is likely to continue for the long haul, and the ongoing rise in antisemitism will probably intensify as well. And so, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate more joy so we can meet the challenges ahead with a buoyant, hopeful, and resilient heart, and find some inner spaciousness, self-compassion, and freedom in the midst of our individual and collective suffering.

“Yes, but how?” we may ask. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov¹ offers a path:

“The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath” (Ex. 31:16).²

Melancholy and the physical husks³ inhibit the soul’s joy… Therefore, the Torah provides a piece of good counsel: “The land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord” (Lev. 25:2).⁴ Meaning, we must bring the land—that is, our physical body—some relief and cessation (shevitah)⁵ so that it might experience physical joy. Through this, the soul can rejoice in Spirit (Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Ki Tissa #5).

Our teacher reinterprets the injunction to keep the Sabbatical year (Shemitah) and allow the land to rest as an instruction point for self-care. A sad heart and a tense body, he suggests, tend to block the innate joy of the soul. Providing the physical body (the earthy part of our being) with rest and restoration can release emotional and physical blockages that keep the soul’s innate joy from shining brightly through our whole being.

At IJS we’ve long taught that we can build an inner Shabbat sanctuary–a refuge from the suffering and tumult of our lives–by dedicating periods of mindful practice to cessation, rest, and restoration. Such practice periods afford us the opportunity to care for our bodies by slowing down, releasing tension, relaxing deeply, and coming into a nourishing quality of embodied presence. The more embodied we become, the more we can process and release embodied emotional knots that keep us contracted, fearful, narrow, and reactive. In time and with repeated practice, the simple but powerful act of observing these inner phenomena with loving, non-judgmental attention allows these knots to unfurl, revealing the innate luminosity, freedom, and joy of the soul and allowing its radiant glow to saturate every part of our being.

True, the fear, tension, and trauma of this time may be propelling us to harden; clench up; withdraw; fall into hopelessness; or move into quick, frantic action. Such patterns may be indicators that it’s time to dedicate time for mindful practice. Here are some instructions to support you.

Practice Instructions: Practicing Self-Care, Cultivating Joy

Silence your phone and put the to-do list on hold, even if only for a few minutes. Give yourself the gift of presence, softness, and restoration.

Find a comfortable posture, sitting on a comfy chair, cushion, or mat, with your feet firmly planted on the ground or some blocks or thick books. Alternatively, you may choose a supine posture, lying on your back on a soft, comfortable surface (e.g. a yoga mat, rug, or blanket), and laying a support under the back of your head if you feel any strain in the neck. If you sense any pain in the small of your back, consider bending your knees while keeping your feet planted on the mat.

Your eyes can be closed or open and downcast with a soft gaze. Rest your hands where they land comfortably, palms up or down.

Take some deep, relaxing breaths, drawing the breath all the way down into your abdomen, and noticing the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe in and out. With each inbreath draw your attention into the present moment. With each outbreath, release any tension, tightness, clenching, or bracing, wherever you may sense it in the body.

Continue to do this and notice if any emotional pain arises or makes itself known of its own accord (don’t go looking for it). See if you can sense where you feel it in the body with an allowing, non-judgmental stance. See if you can welcome it on the inbreath and release it on the outbreath. Don’t try to push it away. Instead just notice if breathing out deeply might open some space around the painful emotion or support it to unfurl of its own accord. If this exercise becomes too intense and you find yourself recoiling or becoming numb, stop attending to the breath and shift your attention to the sensations of your feet on the ground or those of contact between your hands (you can even give yourself a hand massage!) for the duration of your practice period. Or you can ground yourself by opening your eyes if they’ve been closed, looking around the room, and naming items you can see.

As you conduct this practice, simply notice if your awareness becomes brighter, more spacious. Notice if any contentment, happiness, or well-being shine forth from within your innermost being–naturally, spontaneously. There’s no need to try to make anything special happen. Simply rest in awareness, notice what you notice, and feel what you feel.

Conclude your practice by stretching in any manner that feels comfortable, revitalizing, and grounding. Offer yourself some words or a gesture of gratitude for practicing, and make a note of anything you may have learned.

  1. The Ba’al Shem Tov (d. 1760) was the charismatic founder of Hasidism. His teachings continue to serve as a source of inspiration and guidance on the spiritual path for countless Jews, and have been fundamental to the Neo-Hasidic theology of IJS since its inception.
  2. Referring to the seventh day of the week, Shabbat.
  3. Though the word “kelipah” (husk) carries a variety of associations in the kabbalistic tradition, in this context it seems to connote something like a stiffening of the tissues in the body.
  4. Referring to the seventh year, Shemitah.
  5. The Hebrew “שביתה” (shevitah) shares the same root as שבת, Shabbat.

Clothing Inside and Out: Tetzaveh 5784

I was boarding an airplane recently when the man in front of me, who looked to be about 20 years my senior, turned and asked, “How long have you worn a kippah?” He was not wearing a kippah, so I was a little startled by this very direct question. But my mind picked up on other cues and quickly filled in a story that he was Jewish and was asking this question out of a sense of solidarity.

 
“Since I was 19,” I told him.
 

“I’ve been thinking about wearing a kippah in public recently because…” he trailed off. “Well, you know why.”

 
The line moved and we were on the plane, and that was the end of the conversation. But his last words lingered with me. I didn’t know exactly why, of course. My surmise is that he meant he wanted to show Jewish pride at a time when acts of hatred towards Jews have increased dramatically, when many Jews experience greater fear and trepidation about displaying their Jewishness in public. I think–again, my mind is filling in a story based on two lines of conversation here–he meant that he wanted to show it to the world, to be loudly and proudly Jewish, and that wearing a kippah was a way to do that. He hadn’t done it yet, but seeing me wearing a kippah in the boarding line gave him a little nudge.
 
 
Parashat Tetzaveh provides readers of the Torah our annual seminar in clothing, as it describes in detail the garments of the Kohen Gadol (high priest). “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment,” the Holy One tells Moses. “And you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest” (Ex. 28:2-3). Rashi notes here that the Torah is saying that it is through putting on these garments that Aaron becomes installed as Kohen Gadol–that the clothes literally make the man. Before he puts them on, he’s Aaron, Moses’s brother; once he puts them on, he becomes identified–to others, to the Divine, and to himself–as something else.
 
 
I don’t think of myself as someone who thinks a lot about clothes. My middle son pays a lot of attention to sneakers; I don’t get it (in the same way that he doesn’t get how I spend time comparing the recordings of the same Beethoven symphony by different orchestras–we all have our mishigas). But I’m a human being who lives in various communities, so of course I do think about clothes a great deal, even if I don’t do so consciously. I think about how I’m going to show up, what my clothing will communicate to others about me, how it will contribute to setting a tone, how it will or won’t display kavod, honor, to the others in the room, real or virtual.
 
You may or may not be a clothing person, but chances are you too, at least subconsciously, think about these questions too. When we scratch their surface, I think we find these questions can quickly become rather intense, as they are bound up with our sense of self, our social location, our relative sense of power and security–or lack thereof–in the world. I think that’s what underlay that short conversation with the man in the airplane line, and why, weeks later, it still echoes for me.
 
 
How might our Jewish mindfulness practices help us navigate these questions with greater ease and wisdom? In many ways: By helping us slow down and make our clothing choices with more awareness; by assisting us in cultivating the courage to dress in ways that we might be intimidated from doing; by nurturing the internal space for us to remember that, no matter how we dress, the Divine spirit resides within us and all beings. Just as it was for Aaron and his children, our clothing both informs and expresses who sense ourselves to be and how others understand us; it becomes a liminal space in which our sense of inner and outer takes shape. Such spaces are precisely where our practices can help us most.

Habits of the Heart: Terumah 5784

The other night I pulled off our bookshelf a thick volume from my childhood, “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents.” I was into politics and government as a kid, and at some point (before the presidency of Bill Clinton, to judge by the men profiled in the book) I had acquired this one. I’m still something of a government nerd–my kids sometimes get out the almanac on Shabbat afternoons and quiz me–though as I’ve aged into the life stage in which I can recognize and relate to U.S. presidents as my own contemporaries, I see them with less mystique and, perhaps, more sobriety.
 
In her exceptional 2004 book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. Board of Education, Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen offers a reflection on the model that–we hope, at any rate–presidents of the United States hold out to the rest of us, particularly as it relates to one of the most basic elements of living in a democracy, namely the need to talk to strangers. I quote the full passage here, because I have long loved and taught it and I think it deserves to be read and studied in its entirety:
 
‘Don’t talk to strangers!’ That is a lesson for four-year-olds. Eyes that drop to the ground when they bump up against a stranger’s gaze belong to those still in their political minority. If the experience of the most powerful citizen in the United States is any guide, talking to strangers is empowering; the president is among the few citizens for whom the polity holds no intimidating strangers. Presidents greet everyone and look all citizens in the eye. This is not merely because they are always campaigning, but because they have achieved the fullest possible political maturity. Their ease with strangers expresses a sense of freedom and empowerment. At one end of the spectrum of styles of democratic citizenship cowers the four-year-old in insecure isolation; at the other, stands the president, strong and self-confident. The more fearful we citizens are of speaking to strangers, the more we are docile children and not prospective presidents; the greater the distance between the president and us, the more we are subjects, not citizens. Talking to strangers is a way of claiming one’s political majority and, with it, a presidential ease and sense of freedom.
 
Allen is, I believe, pointing us toward what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about two centuries ago, namely the habits of the heart that are foundational to sustaining a diverse democracy. How we encounter strangers in our neighborhoods and our communities–whether we approach them with an open-hearted faith or a closed-hearted fear–is one of the constitutive elements of the character of our larger polities. As Judge Learned Hand said in an Independence Day speech in 1944, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.” The condition of our hearts and the condition of our democracy are, in a profound way, intertwined.
 
The heart plays a foundational role in the construction of the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for the Divine: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:2). The Mishkan was required to be constructed of voluntary donations, not taxes or seized property. Everything within it–all its curtains and rods, the ark and the menorah and the altar, all the clothing of the priests–all of it had to be imbued with an opening of the heart, an opening which was then reciprocated by the Divine: “They shall make me a dwelling place, that I may dwell among them.” As Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser (Malbim, 1809-1879) puts it: “A holy sanctuary like this exists in the heart of every person, and it is possible to create it in every time and era.” When we open our hearts, we create a space for the Divine to dwell within us.
 
It’s Presidents Day weekend in the United States, and I don’t need to remind you that it’s a presidential election year. As we move further into this season, the pressures to harden and close our hearts will no doubt increase. So I find myself thinking about the ways in which our spiritual practices can not only help us cope through the inevitable travails of a year like this, but can help us even see in them opportunity–to open our hearts, to have the courage to talk and listen to strangers, to discover anew where and how the Divine might reside within us and the world.

A Conversation with Rabbi Toba Spitzer

We are grateful to  Rabbi Toba Spitzer for speaking with IJS President & CEO, Rabbi Josh Feigelson! Please enjoy the conversation recording below.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer has served Congregation Dorshei Tzedek since she was ordained in 1997 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). Rabbi Spitzer is a popular teacher of courses on Judaism and economic justice, Reconstructionist Judaism, new approaches to thinking about God, and the practice of integrating Jewish spiritual and ethical teachings into daily life.

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