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.
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 is a little fly, innocently tooling around.
One of the reasons I find this image so funny is that I have been there myself so many times. I sit down to meditate or to pray with great zeal and focus – and then, something interrupts my plan. The drive I feel to engage in practice ends up eclipsing the practice itself; my focus shifts to how my plan was derailed and that I couldn’t meditate or pray as I (or my ego) wanted.
There is a seeming paradox between zeal and contemplation. Zeal is about acting now with a great sense of passion and confidence. Zeal is impatient, directed, quick. Contemplation, on the other hand, usually evokes “sitting with the issue” for a while. It is slow, receptive, internally oriented. How, then, can zerizut (zeal, alacrity) be a contemplative practice?
One answer might be one of my favorite teachings from Sholom Noach Berezovsky, also known by the title of his book, Netivot Shalom. “First comes effort,” he taught in multiple places. “Then comes a gift.”
When it comes to spiritual practice, it is important to draw upon our zeal. Zeal enhances our motivation, helps us overcome our inertia, commit to the effort. Spiritual practice is similar to going to the gym. It’s not enough to know about the benefits; you have to actually go to the gym before any transformation can take place. Zeal helps us make the effort and return to it again and again.
And then comes a gift. It’s not “the” gift; it’s “a” gift. We don’t actually know what will happen when we engage in practice. Sometimes we get distracted and annoyed. Sometimes it seems like nothing happens at all. And occasionally something very sweet and still and connecting opens within us. But whatever happens, whatever the experience is, is a gift.
So first the effort, and then a gift. When we stay focused on the effort, we can get so stressed by a small “failure” that we can forget why we are engaging in practice. But if we can lighten our grasp on the expectation created by our zeal and look up and see what is true in this moment, we can find our experience – whatever it is – to be rich and filled with grace. Or as the Irish poet, Galway Kinnell wrote:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
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 started the part after the meal, I stopped in confusion. “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You…for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation?” What was this? I had never noticed it before. It made me intensely uncomfortable. How did it square away with my favorite midrash, recounted when we diminish the wine in our cups for the Ten Plagues, about the ministering angels bursting into song at the Sea of Reeds and God rebuking them, saying, “My children are dead on the shores of the Sea and you want to sing?”
We speak a lot about the experience of interconnectedness and how spiritual practice helps us cultivate greater capacity for forgiveness and compassion. We often see this as a corrective towards the judgmentalism, which, while not being a uniquely Jewish trait, is certainly honed to an art form in many Jewish circles. Many of us have experienced how painful that judgment can be and strive to be gentler with ourselves and others. We seek a kindness in response to suffering, not vengeance. It is inspiring to read of God’s grieving for the dead Egyptians, even though they were the instigators of our slavery and our oppression.
But judgment is also a Divine attribute. The balance to chesed, or loving-kindness, is din, judgment. Judgment is necessary for justice to flourish. Cruelty should have consequences, not just for the victim, but for the perpetrator as well. The cry at the end of the haggadah is a cri de coeur: “We are still living under oppression! We need justice!” Many of us who know firsthand what it is like to be terrorized by another understand the righteousness of this plea.
It is a paradox. And yet, it seems to me that the spiritually grounded goal might be to develop the ability to demand justice while still remaining connected to the essential truth: that at our core, we are indeed all God’s children. Even those people we despise, even those we are scared of, even those we distain. On some fundamental level, we are not separate from them. It doesn’t mean that we have to acquiesce to them. But it means that we might try to see the me’at tov, the little bit of goodness in them that is a reflection of Divine goodness.
It’s a tall order. But perhaps if we were to catch glimpses of that truth, it might lead to the true liberation we all desire.
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 taught a particular melody for the verse which I learned from Rabbi Nehemia Polen. I chant it to myself at the end of my meditation and before my prayer.
When I began working with this verse, I was struck by the goal of learning to revere God’s name. I am not typically drawn to yirah, the particular combination of fear and awe that is the mainstay of so much “Old Testament” religion. Jewish spiritual masters focus on both love and reverence as the twin hallmarks of devotion and in this day and age, don’t we need more love? Don’t we have enough fear?
And yet, this verse calls to me. It is becoming a more and more compelling instruction in humility which opens the possibility of living my life in attunement to something much beyond myself that also includes myself. And it turns out that yirah is the key.
Here is how I am working with the verse as an intention for my day. When I say, “Teach me your way that I may walk in your truth,” I remind myself that there are so many ways to go through the day before me. I will doubtlessly encounter all kinds of people; I will probably be annoyed at some point; I hopefully will experience a little connection. However, no matter what greets me, the one thing I can be sure of is that some spark of Divinity will be present in it. Whether I see it or not is up to me. I place myself in the position of the student: teach me, God, to go through my day seeing you in everything I encounter. I don’t really know how to do this. But if I see you, maybe I will respond more wisely and appropriately.
“Unify my heart to revere your name.” This part of the verse gives me the chance to bring a little compassion to the fragmentation of my own heart, all its distractions, its insecurities, the fragile ego that always wants more love, more affirmation. And then it reminds me that the greatness in the world is not my ego after all. It is that life force in everything, that flows in me and through me and which I seek to serve. When I can remember that, my life takes on its greatest meaning.
To me, this whole practice is a practice of humility, of remembering that the value of my day is not whether it was a “good” day or not, or whether pleasant things happened to me. The value of my day is in how I learn to see the teeming network of life that I am a part of, that I contribute to and am impacted by. Yirah, fear and awe, opens to ahavah, flowing love. I am ready for my day.
There are times when joy is an act of resistance.
I have to remind myself of that occasionally. On these days when there is so little daylight, when the headlines are so dire, when my beloved home state of California has been engulfed in flames, joy can feel like an effort that is just too heavy.
Sometimes joy is characterized as wimpy or self-indulgent. It is seen as being something private or even selfish, with little or no bearing on the larger community. But part of what we come to know experientially through our practice is how interconnected things are. Through contemplatives practices I come to see how much my inner experience is shaped by the expectations and habits of the world around us and how I contribute in seen and unseen ways back into the expectations and habits of the world.
So when fear, greed or anger are dominant around me, I often experience those unpleasant emotions more readily. And when I experience these things – and even more so when I act upon them – I add more fear, greed or anger back into the system.
Alternatively, when joy, generosity or gratitude are dominant around us, I can experience those emotions more readily. When I act upon them, I can strengthen those middot in the larger culture. Our joy is so much more than our own small story. It is an expansive energy that reaches out with a light heart towards connection, forgiveness and possibilities. Real joy can be contagious and ripple outward.
That’s why joy can be an act of resistance. Cultivating a joyful heart can be a way of saying no to fear, greed and anger. It can defy the diminishing light, both real and figurative. It can clear away the space for an opening, for newness, for real delight.
In the Talmud, the House of Hillel disagreed with the House of Shammai as to why we light Hanukkah candles. Shammai’s version was more reliably grounded in the historical record, but Hillel’s argument was simple: Adding more light adds more holiness. My experience over Hanukkah showed that Hillel had it right. The growing light, night to night, lifted my heart. I felt my joy growing too from its hidden holy source. It is not so easily extinguished, after all. And that is a true blessing.
Photo Credit: Huffington Post
Although occasionally I am told that I should have been a lawyer, the truth is that I really don’t like arguing very much. As a child and young woman, arguments and disagreements frightened me. But since, like it or not, arguments are part of how this life is, I have tried to learn how to conduct them wisely, whether they happen over the Thanksgiving table or on the larger political scene.
One of my great teachers in this endeavor has been Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He teaches that a machloket, an argument, has the power both to destroy worlds and to create them. The difference is a question of emunah, of faith.
Nachman says that when an argument arises, it can create a space in which new ideas can proliferate. These new ideas lead to the Torah itself becoming more and more complete. Since according to tradition, Torah is the blueprint of creation, if there is more Torah, there are more worlds with all their details and wonders and possibilities. But if there is a lack of faith, this doesn’t happen and instead, arguments become tools of destruction, tearing people and things down.
The example from the Torah is the pivotal story in which the Israelites were in the desert and worried about not having enough water to drink. They rebelled against Moses, not believing in his ability to take care of them. God instructed Moses to speak to a rock, but instead he struck it twice. Water started flowing, which took care of the people’s thirst, but because Moses did not show faith in God, he was not allowed to enter into the Land of Israel.
So what is this faith that Moses and the people failed to show? Perhaps it is an open, spacious acceptance of not knowing right now. This is the opposite of fear. The people were clearly afraid. They couldn’t see how they were going to be taken care of. And Moses, instead of modeling calmness and helping them trust that things were going to be okay, got hooked by their fear and hostility and reacted with harshness and violence. It can happen to the best of us. But he destroyed, instead of creating. He sullied the quality of emunah. And he paid the price.
Nachman adds that if Moses had turned towards his faith, he could have brought forth new pure waters from the rock, a metaphor for all the elusive, vital teachings that could have emerged from that challenging place. Perhaps those lost teachings are exactly the ones we need today.
We live in times when arguments and conflicts are proliferating on many scales. We are standing in the balance between the potential for new, vital, creative understandings that will help us move forward together and the potential for more violence, harshness and destruction. By cultivating this kind of faith, an open spacious acceptance, this Thanksgiving, perhaps we will bring new pure waters into the world and help tip the balance towards creativity and light. Then we will have even more to be grateful for.
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
The Place Where We Are Right