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Intentional Communities

The phrase “community of practice” is one of those bandied-about terms that seems particularly suited to Jewish spiritual groups: Community and practice – how obvious and how obviously beneficial!

And yet, it’s also not so simple. Just because you happen to share a profession, a craft or a practice with a group of other people doesn’t mean that the group will in fact be supportive or a good learning environment. The stories to the contrary are many and we might even say that particularly in our individualistically oriented society, the difficulties of communities of practice sometimes seem to outweigh the benefits.

One way to address this is to think of creating communities of practice as a spiritual practice itself. We can start by setting explicit intentions. By setting an intention, we have an anchor that we can return to – again and again – when we notice that we have moved away from the intention.

Those of you who have participated in IJS retreats know that we begin each retreat with guidelines about creating intentions around safety. They include things like being aware of judgment arising and trying to hold it with curiosity instead of conviction; assuming and extending welcome; allowing people to listen to their own inner voice, even when we think we know what it should say; “double confidentiality” which gives people the space to say something vulnerable and not have to revisit it unless they so choose. These guidelines help create intentions for a community of practice that supports the participants in the community in doing their own deep work of truth telling and loving kindness.

In your communities of spiritual practice, what are your intentions? What kind of community are you intending to create? What kind of transformation are you hoping to cultivate? What are the conditions that will help facilitate that? How do you communicate them to the entire community?

It sounds easy – and it’s not, even in the relatively small and temporary context of a retreat. But, as those of you who have participated in IJS retreats also know, the effort is worth it. As our summer retreat season closed, we saw once again the true power of a community of seekers, coming together and finding a safe environment, the way the heart can open, bonds can form and deepen, awareness expand. And those experiences can give us inspiration and fortitude to take with us as we continue on our way.

Rage and Love: Reaching Out

Last week we offered a meditation retreat for activists from across the country, thanks to a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation in memory of Rabbi Rachel Cowan. At the end of a few days of cultivating a loving heart through meditation, prayer and silence, the participants shared their thoughts and experiences of connecting contemplative practice with their work as activists. Several of them expressed the tension between the rage they felt in response to their own experiences of oppression which then fuels their work and the healing power of reaching out – and in – in love. It was such a relief to immerse in love. But what about the justifiable anger at all that is hurtful and unjust in our world?

This question caused me to reflect in turn on an experience of conflict that arose in my own life. In the aftermath of my own anger and hurt, I struggled with my habitual response of withdrawing, of creating greater separation between myself and the other. I know that separation may initially feel comforting, but it also brings greater suffering. I often teach the midrash that says that when God separated the upper waters from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters wept over the separation. Out of compassion for their anger and hurt, God refrained from saying “It is good” and indeed the Torah does not include that blessing for the second day. Separation does deepen suffering; in fact, one of the aspects of the suffering is that when we are in its grip, it is more difficult to reach out in love.

And yet, as one of the participants commented, aren’t we all deeply yearning for more love?

Perhaps the answer is to hold it all, to make space for the anger and hurt, these difficult but important human experiences that both protect us and separate us from others. After all, separation was essential for creation to happen. The practice can be not to get stuck there. From the separation it is sometimes possible to reach out again in love which can lead to healing. In the case of the conflict I experienced, the conversations that took place afterwards created a new sense of closeness and understanding. That is not always possible. But even when it is not, to reach in with love and compassion for our own suffering can be a transformative intention. And that itself is a blessing.

Hey Big Talkers: Shhh

We Jews are known for being big talkers. We are stereotypically a people of a lot of words, of arguments, of big ideas, of strong opinions. I remember once speaking to a Catholic boys’ school in Missouri. The first kid raised his hand and said, to his teacher’s mortification, “Our science teacher is Jewish and she talks fast, too. Do all Jews talk fast?” (I quickly said, “Yes!”) It’s not surprising that people frequently raise their eyebrows when they hear what IJS does and ask, “How do you get Jews to be quiet?”

We are coming up to the end of our “kayak trip through the Omer,” as our colleague Marc Margolius has been guiding us, weaving our way through the middot, or ethical traits, that prepare us for the splendor and awe of revelation at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. On Shavuot, we are told, we get to re-experience the moment of great mythic meeting between the Divine and ourselves, a direct experience of communication with the Source of Life itself, lovingly distilled into Torah, the wisdom for a good life that has been handed down – and yes, discussed and argued over – for generations.

There are all kinds of midrashim about what actually happened at Mt. Sinai. What is striking is how many of them veer away from the Biblical narrative that describes a noisy, thundering encounter and suggest instead that the surprising thing about Sinai was how quiet it was. In fact, it was so quiet that people for once could hear that kol dmama daka, that subtle quiet Voice that is speaking all the time.

I have been reflecting recently on all the unexpected places we might hear that same voice if only we would stop talking and listen instead. I have participated in a number of diversity trainings over the past few months and am appreciating the transformational power of really listening to unique voices of queer Jews and Jews of Color. Through my family I am connecting more with people from other countries and other religions and the more I listen, the more I sense how the life force that flows through them all takes on different garments in sometimes difficult but always marvelous diversity. (That is like Torah itself – sometimes difficult and always marvelous, because Torah too is a garment for Divinity.)

Our teacher Sheila Pelz Weinberg sometimes says that the word “wait” can be considered an acronym for Why Am I Talking? As we are dedicating ourselves to better communication – with each other and with God – perhaps a good first step is simply to listen.

Facing Our Vulnerability

In our people’s mythic calendar, this is the time of year that we are journeying from the Red Sea to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot. For me the annual pilgrimage started, as it does most years, when I made the journey to my parents’ home for Passover. And as usual, each time I boarded the plane, coming and going, I whispered the traveler’s prayer to myself.

I love tefillat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer. I love how it asks that we arrive at our desired destination alive, in joy and in peace. I love how it names a list of crazy uncontrollable things that happen in the world and asks God to protect us from them. I love how it asks that we might be seen with loving eyes by all who meet us and that our endeavors be blessed. I love how it makes a claim that our prayers are heard.

I must confess that it felt particularly poignant to be saying this prayer in the aftermath of the shooting that happened at the Chabad synagogue in Poway this week. I heard all the piercing questions arise: How can we reconcile the reality of our violent world with the claims that God is listening to our prayers, that there can be such a thing as safety, such that we can actually trust strangers? The traveler’s prayer seems suddenly unspeakably naïve.

And yet, I know that the traveler’s prayer comes from a time when traveling itself was a terribly dangerous thing to do. Instead of traffic jams and flight delays, the list of possible obstacles on the road includes ambushes, bandits and wild animals. It is precisely when we are feeling most vulnerable that we can open our hearts in prayer.

The truth is I don’t say the prayer because I believe it will actually keep the plane in the sky. I say it in order to mark the fact that I am on a journey that is out of my ordinary routine. It is a way of setting an intention for new experiences, to remind myself that the destination is always life, joy and peace. It’s a way of taking sober stock of the precarious state of the world, of the common fragility of life and all the things that make me – and all of us – so terribly vulnerable. And it’s a way of reminding myself that it is a practice to trust that others will in fact deal kindly and generously with me, even when I am a stranger on the road. (And most of the time, they really do.)

May our journeys this season, both physical and spiritual, be blessed along with all of our endeavors!

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

This 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...

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Sweetening the Root

The 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...

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Loved, Clear, Courageous

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Threefold Path of Action

Even before the horrific massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. The forces at play are so huge and the stakes are so high. How do we muster the courage to act? How do we even...

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Rachel’s Legacy of Connection

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...

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Finding Curiosity

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Wisdom from Our Teachers

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First Comes Effort, then Comes a Gift

Several years ago, the New Yorker featured a cover that showed a woman sitting in the lotus position, ostensibly meditating. You can tell she is so wound up that she is about to jump out of her skin. If you look carefully in the direction of her baleful glare, there...

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Act Kindly (Demand Justice)

The 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...

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Teach Me Your Way

Part of my daily practice includes a fragment of a teaching from the Piaseczner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. He instructed his students to work with Psalm 86:11: "Teach me, YHVH, your way that I may walk in your truth. Unify my heart to revere your name." He...

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