Lisa’s Blog

Notes from the Executive Director’s Desk

Threefold Path of Action

image credit: Catherine MacBridge/Getty Images

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 discern what actions to take?

Following the teaching of Joanna Macy, we might consider three different paths: holding and taking care of those who urgently need our care; developing new life-sustaining structures for a better world; and cultivating a shift in consciousness, the ability to deeply take in and know how profoundly interconnected we all are.

These three paths themselves are interconnected, of course, and there is extraordinary work happening in all three areas. The goal of IJS’s teaching is rooted in the third path. Our practices, whether they are meditation, prayer, text study, middot work or body awareness, are all for the sake of opening our eyes to the underlying unity that is the hidden fabric of the universe. This is an essential knowing that can also inspire and support those who are immediately engaged in taking care of others and in leading us out of the darkness that is all around us.

And what a blessing to know that there are others on this path with us. Last week we held a retreat for our Kivvun cohort at the Trinity Retreat Center. We had frequently used this retreat center for our east coast retreats, enjoying the beautiful setting on the Housatonic River and the famously fantastic food, until they closed in the fall of 2013. But they recently reopened their doors and we went back, trying not to bring a comparing mind with us.

What we found was the highest standard of loving hospitality. Hakima, the Algerian women at the front desk, had boned up on her Hebrew and greeted us with a joyful, “Boker tov!” Julia and Heidi in the kitchen offered simple meals that were fresh, healthy, delightfully seasoned and absolutely delicious. But it was more than that. Without us asking, the staff removed the Christian iconography from the chapel so we could pray there for Kabbalat Shabbat without being uncomfortable. And on Sunday morning as they gathered for their own prayer, they sounded the church bell eleven times, one for each precious life that was violently ended during worship the day before in Pittsburgh.

Our Christian hosts embodied that loving unity for us, so that our experience of that interconnectedness could help us strengthen our own capacity to embody it and offer it to others. That is a profound action. As we go out and take care of others, build new structures, and yes, vote, let’s not forget the importance of cultivating that new sense of knowing as the loving ground for it all.

[image credit: CATHARINE MACBRIDE/GETTY IMAGES]

Rachel’s Legacy of Connection

Rabbi Rachel CowanIt 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 would come, how can it be that Rachel is no longer among us with her warm laugh, her compassionate ear, her wise teachings?

Another one of Rachel’s enduring legacies is the network of people she wove around her. I came to understand this in a bittersweet way. When I received the news of Rachel’s death, I was just starting a silent meditation retreat myself. It was immediately obvious that my place at that moment was not to be sitting in contemplation in a monastery. It was to be with my people, with Rachel’s people, to reach out, to connect, to hug, to comfort, to weep.

In the subsequent days, including at the memorial service itself, I found it so comforting to be part of the connections that Rachel had created. This is the physical manifestation of the love that Rachel gave and received and that continues through all of us. Some would say it is a manifestation of Divinity itself.

We can add another dimension to this from Sukkot, which we are celebrating this week. The custom of inviting ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah reminds us of the centrality of connection during our festive days. But we are not just talking about our friends and family, the usual cast of characters. We invite our mythic ancestors, the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, kings and wise women of our tradition, to join us as well. This reminds us that connection – and love – is not bound to this physical plane. It is greater than time and space. It is invisible, immeasurable, and yet deeply real. It is a source of comfort, inspiration and joy.

We will be gathering together for one more formal connection around Rachel and her life on October 3 at 11:00 EDT. (We will be taping the teaching for those who cannot attend.) We invite you to join the beautiful community Rachel brought together, directly and indirectly, and to tap in to the love that endures.

Re-Committing to Intention

Re-Committing to IntentionIn just two short weeks, the High Holy Days will be upon us: a new year, a new beginning, a new opportunity to live our lives a little more in alignment. At first glance it may seem a little odd that Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. If we are setting our sights forward and reconnecting to the possibility that in every moment we are recreated as a new creature, as R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev put it, why would we begin the season with remembering? Why not focus on envisioning?

One answer might be to reconsider precisely what we want to remember. Perhaps the Day of Remembrance is not a call for nostalgia or regret for days gone by. Instead, we might see it as an invitation to recall – and recommit to – our intention, to setting a direction for the purpose for our life.

The High Holy Days are a shining example of a spiritual practice that offers us its transformative power, to live more awake, aware and loving lives. We have inherited beautiful forms, rituals and practices, to help facilitate that. But then we forget why exactly we are engaged with these forms. Nonetheless we continue on and wonder why the rituals and practices are so empty. It’s not our fault that we forget: We are subject to so much information and sensory input that our brains are designed to forget as much as to retain. That protects our sanity (most of the time), but it also saps meaning from our lives.

The practice of setting an intention is there to help us remember to remember. It is helpful to begin each session of practice with an intention. Why am I engaging in this prayer? In this meditation? In this Torah learning? What quality of presence do I want to bring to it and how do I hope it might transform me? It is a small but crucial step of contemplative practice; in fact, it is what distinguishes spiritual practice from just any habit.

So on Rosh Hashanah this year we have another opportunity to remember. In fact, it’s a kind of meta-reminder. The holidays asks us to remember: Who is the person I yearn to be? What is the quality of relationship that I want in my life? What kind of a world do I wish to live in? And then within each ritual of the day, the shofar blast, the once-a-year melodies, the apples and honey, is a chance to practice remembering the intention. How can this particular act help remind me of those overarching questions I am asking about my life?

Shanah tovah to you all! May it be a sweet and intentional year.

 

Finding Curiosity

Sometimes hitlamdut, cultivating a lens of openness and curiosity, is simple and inspiring. It is reawakening a childlike wonder that brings joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging to this life.

That is not my experience these days. These days I am keenly aware of the voice inside that says, “We’ve seen this before and we know how it is going to unfold.” This voice looks back at history, at other times and countries, noticing patterns and predicting the future. It is rooted in the fear born of the real trauma of past generations. It is also rooted in the knowing that these things do indeed happen to other people in other places; why shouldn’t they happen to us, too? Childlike wonder seems impossibly naive and perhaps even foolish.

And yet. These days are exactly the context in which to bring the wisdom of hitlamdut, that embodied, fully engaged curiosity. What happens, for example, when I start paying attention to the sensation in the body? First I notice that I am irritated and uncomfortable. My breath is short. I feel pulsing in my face. That is actually interesting! What is that exactly? Then I become aware, oh, I am afraid. Now I can explore, what is fear like? I can bring a softness to the fear so that I can move towards responding to it, not being controlled by it.

To be clear, the goal of this practice is not to create a log for myself of what the experience of fear is like in my body. The goal is to develop my ability for hitlamdut like a muscle. Because the reality is that that fearful voice that says we know what is going to happen next is not a truthful voice. We don’t in fact know. That is worth remembering and practicing, because as Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

There is a great deal we cannot control in our world, and yet, we can still act. We can develop our capacity to see things with openness and curiosity, for hitlamdut. We can bring compassion to our own experience and connect with others’ experiences as well. We can discern what communal and political arenas we can step into and what steps we can take. Because this moment has never existed before and there is so much to do.

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.

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...

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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...

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How do I hold myself with love?

Early this spring, I traveled to California to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. Members of my extended family from as far away as Fiji and New Zealand came to gather, and I was amazed by the connections I saw between cousins who  so rarely have the opportunity to...

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Where Does Truth Live? (Within Us.)

The truth is that telling the truth is not so easy. The sages of the midrash wryly told that when God decided to create human beings, the ministering angels broke into factions. Justice and Lovingkindness were in favor of this new creation, saying that people would do...

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Now is the time for spiritual practice.

Perhaps the author Paul Auster said it the most succinctly: “It occurred to me that the inner and the outer could not be separated except by doing great damage to the truth.” One of the most radical intuitions that can emerge from contemplative spiritual practice is...

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Embodied Practice for Hanukkah

There is a mystical teaching that the light of the first day of Creation is hidden away in this world as the Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light. This light is no ordinary light. The Or HaGanuz brings the heat of timeless, limitless energy that penetrates and permeates...

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The Light in the Darkness

Many of us have come to recognize the symbolic power of the lights of Hanukkah. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which means around the last five days of the lunar month. Particularly when the festival falls later in December, it coincides with the winter...

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This is Enough

Imagine how we might respond if someone said to us, as Joseph does to Pharoah in next week’s Torah portion, Miketz: כט הִנֵּה שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בָּאוֹת שָׂבָע גָּדוֹל בְּכָל־אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: ל וְקָמוּ שֶׁבַע שְׁנֵי רָעָב אַחֲרֵיהֶן וְנִשְׁכַּח כָּל־הַשָּׂבָע בְּאֶרֶץ...

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What Now? A Practice for the Aftermath of the Election

There have been so many beautiful and helpful responses to the aftermath of the election. I would like to offer something a little different: In my practice recently, I have become aware of certain universal human experiences that seem to function like fields of...

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Interconnected: An Intention for Elul

Scene one: I went to the local farmer’s market and bought some berries. I brought them home and when I opened the box to finish my lunch with fresh fruit, I noticed that the whole package was laced with mold. I was annoyed; the berries weren’t cheap! I grabbed my...

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Tisha B’Av in Turbulent Times

It’s getting to the point where I dread checking the news or signing onto Facebook. The spiking of violence in so many parts of the world, including on our own streets, the unbridled vitriol, the screaming without listening, the hot rage – perhaps I am getting old and...

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A Summer of Delight

Last week I had the opportunity to be in Los Angeles for Father’s Day.  I was delighted to celebrate with my family by going up to a picnic area by a small creek - complete with a waterfall - in the San Gabriel Mountains.  When I was a child, we would often escape the...

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