Rabbi Fern Feldman

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The Darkness before Creation

When I explore my own nature, or experience the sacred, most often I feel a deepening into darkness.  Although dominating theologies create binaries, in which light is good and darkness is evil, when we recognize the multivalent nature of all that is, we see wave upon wave of dark and light.

Some say they want to “embrace the dark” when they mean, embrace the grief, anger and suffering in the world, and be present with it, rather than denying, ignoring or hating it. But that is not the aspect of sacred dark that interests me most.

What interests me is how in darkness all separation dissolves into oneness.  Darkness is depths, womb, soil where seeds sprout, soothing shade, night in which we grow and make long-term memory.  Darkness is source, essence, innermost being, transcendence, nothingness, emptiness, mystery.

When we discount the power of darkness, we devalue all one might associate with it—dark skin, women, and the earth.  Audre Lord wrote: “The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.” (from “Poetry is not Luxury”, in Sister Outsider, 1984)

We need the holiness, and the liberating power, of deepening into the dark.

Jewish tradition evokes many forms of sacred darkness. Nighttime study brings a thread of loving-kindness into the world. Divine presence can be a sheltering shade. Revelations occur at caves. Torah was received in darkness, formed of black fire on white fire, and still the ink is black. The infinite source of all is imagined as a burning black coal or a deep spring. Before God said “Let there be light” there was already darkness, the darkness of wisdom and beyond.  These images, and the texts that hold them, are openings that take us deeper into the sacred.

In Genesis, before God said “let there be light” there was “darkness over the face of the deep, the spirit/wind [ruach] of God brooding/hovering over the face of the water” (Gen.1:2). Biblical poetry is often structured with two parallel stitches in a verse. In this case “over the face of the deep” parallels “over the face of the water”, and “darkness” parallels “the spirit/wind of God”. There is something profoundly holy about this darkness, which Genesis tells us pre-existed what we think of as creation.

The creation story starts by saying “B’reishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz”, a strange grammatical structure saying something like “With a beginning of, God created the heavens and the earth.” The 4th-5th century CE midrashic collection, Genesis Rabbah (and subsequent Jewish tradition) interprets this “beginning” to be wisdom—Ḥokhmah. That is, with wisdom God created the heavens and the earth. In the proof text for this interpretation, Proverbs Chapter 8, Ḥokhmah is envisioned as a crone, standing at the crossroads. She says

 It is Wisdom calling, Understanding raising her voice.  She takes her stand at the topmost heights, by the wayside, at the crossroads…God created me at the beginning of His path (reishit darko).

Here we are given a vision of ancient dark female wisdom, assisting in the birthing of the world. The darkness in which all boundaries dissolve is a pathway that can take us beyond our individual selves into something bigger

The Zohar imagines the process of creation as a flowing forth from a deep spring or well.

In this image, the source is in the depths, and the flow goes up, (rather than the more common western image of source as up, with the flow going down.) Here, the closest we can imagine to the source of emanation of all creation is the dark point at the depths of the deepest spring.It is possible for us in our awareness to follow the flow of creation backwards to return to source.  The deeper we go into the dark, into our own inner depths, and into the infinite depths, the closer we get to the source, to the essence.

The Zohar also teaches:

Every person who presents his request before the King should focus mind and will on the root of all roots, to draw blessings from the depth of the well, so that it will gush blessings from the spring of all. And what is that? The place from which the river issues and derives, as is written: A river issues from Eden…(Genesis 2:10)…This is called ‘out of the depths’—depth of all, depth of the well, springs issuing and flowing, blessing all. This is the beginning of drawing blessings from above and below. (Zohar II 63b, Daniel Matt translation)

The Zohar invites us to focus our awareness in the deepest depths, to the place from which creation emanated, the source of all blessing. And the more we can draw the flow of blessing from the deepest of the deep, the more the world will be filled with the presence of the sacred.

I invite you to listen to the following recording, to enter a short journey back through the creation story to be held in the dark waters, and hear what wisdom you may find there.

The Darkness Before Creation

Darkness: A View from Kabbalah

The Darkness Before Creation: A Meditation

The Burning Bush and Black Fire

Moses had a revolutionary, revelatory experience while he was following his flock of sheep in Midian. The Torah, in Exodus 3:2 tell us:

:וירא מלאך יהוה אליו בלבת־אש מתוך הסנה וירא והנה הסנה בער באש והסנה איננו אכל

“An angel of Adonai appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.”

The burning bush that is not consumed sparked the movement for liberation from slavery that not only birthed our people, but continues to inspire liberation movements. It can inspire us, and give us guidance in how to take further steps in our own movements toward liberation in whatever forms we are called to.

So, what is the burning bush here to teach us?

The midrash[i] on Exodus 3:2 explains:

“From this they derived that the heavenly fire shoots out branches upwards, burns but does not consume, and is black in color; whereas fire used here below does not branch upwards and is red, and consumes but does not burn.”

It may be hard to imagine a black fire—perhaps it is counter-intuitive, or paradoxical. So what can we learn from this black fire?

The fire metaphor itself is multifold. It implies something awesome, powerful, something with the potential to give life or death. And then there is the concept of blackness, or darkness. When we see light, we see rays bouncing off of surfaces—we get the impression that the world is made up of separate, inherently bounded entities. But when we are in the dark, we are more easily able to sense that all boundaries are situational—we are able to feel beyond the limits of the self with a small S, and become aware of being part of a larger whole that includes all that is, and even all that is not. This may be why, a few verses after seeing the burning bush, Moses hid his face– In Exodus 3:6, the Torah says that “Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. “

ויסתר משה פניו כי ירא מהביט אל־האלהים

This is usually interpreted in a negative way, that it is unfortunate that Moses wasn’t willing to see what would have been revealed to him had he not hidden his face.

But there is another way of looking at this—in hiding his face he avoided focusing on the sense of sight, which most often makes us think we are separate individuals, with boundaries that are revealed as light bounces off them. When you hide your face, you enter the realm where boundaries disappear, and it is easier to sense being part of a whole that is all that is, easier to sense how we are not separate from G-d, or from anything else.

Later in Exodus, when Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, we are told “Moses came near the thick darkness (arafel) where G-d was.” (Ex.20:18). The Kotsker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel, comments[ii] that the arafel, the thick darkness, is the ikkar, the essence, and the p’nimiyut, the innermost part, and that is why the divine presence was there. In order to receive Torah, Moses had to go into the essence, the innermost part, of reality, somewhere beyond our usual understandings. When the Torah says Moses hid his face, it uses the root satar—samech, tav resh. The same root is used when the Torah talks about G-d hiding G-d’s own face. But it is also the root used for the word shelter—seter. The Psalms often ask for us to be held in the divine shelter, or hiding place. [iii] So it seems to me that if we are hiding with the Holy One, we are in the dark together—in intimate proximity, able to feel the interconnectedness of all.

So, perhaps too, in seeing the black fire of the bush, Moses was brought into a realm beyond the usual boundaries. He was empowered to move beyond what he thought possible, and he was given the means to do it, through the ability to connect with a power beyond his individual self.

This is in keeping with another image of black fire which comes from a teaching brought in Talmud and Midrash:[iv]

The Talmudic form of the teaching says the following:

“Rabbi Pinchas [said] in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the Torah that the Holy Blessed One gave, its hide is white fire, its ink is black fire; it is fire mixed with fire, carved from fire, and given from fire: “at His right hand a ritual of fire for them”.(Deuteronomy 33)”

If you have ever looked at the script of the Torah scroll, it is easy to imagine that it is written in black fire—the shape and flourishes of the letters are very reminiscent of flames, and not coincidentally. But the midrashic telling of the same teaching has an additional phrase at the beginning. It says:

“Rabbi Yochanan said: One who engages in Torah should see oneself as if he were standing in fire.” That is, we are not to experience the sacred fire of Torah just from the outside—we are meant to experience it from the inside. We are meant to be immersed in it. There is another teaching, that each Israelite is a letter of the Torah. If we look at these teachings together, we see that each of us is invited to experience ourselves as a letter of Torah, a letter made of black fire.

Medieval kabbalist Rabbi Isaac the Blind calls the black fire of Torah “the world to come”, and associates it with the Oral Torah—that is Talmud and midrash.[v] He explains that “It is the hue of a black fire on white fire, which is the Written Torah. Now the forms of the letters are not vowelized nor are they shaped except through the power of black, which is like ink. So too the Written Torah is unformed in a physical image, except through the power of the Oral Torah.” He also calls the black fire the “crown of the kingdom”, keter malchut. This is an interesting concept—keter, or crown, is the highest or most transcendent, sefirah, or sphere of reality, in the kabbalistic tree of life, while malchut, or kingdom, is the lowest, or most manifest.

Yet in this royal imagery, the crown sits right on the head of the king. So the whole system has a different topology from what we usually think of—it is not a linear hierarchic system, but rather circles back on itself.

Rabbi Isaac explains this concept with another image of black fire—the burning coal, in his commentary on the ancient text, Sefer Yetzirah.

Sefer Yetzirah says “Ten sefirot of Nothingness. Their end is embedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end, like a flame in a burning coal. For the Master is singular; He has no second, and before One, what do you count?” Rabbi Isaac the Blind explains this verse by saying:

“Their end is (found) in their beginning: just as many threads come out of the burning coal, which is one, since the flame cannot stand by itself, but only by means of one thing; for all [the] things [(that is, Sefirot)] and all [the] attributes, which seem as if they are separate, are not separate (at all) since all (of them) are one, as their beginning is, which unites everything in one word.”[vi]

The burning coal, then, reminds us of that from which all else emanates. “Their end is embedded in their beginning” explains what R. Isaac said in his previous text, that the black fire is the crown of the kingdom; that is, the ultimate source, which one might think is furthest from the manifest world, is actually closest to it. And all of it is rooted in that black coal, without which the flames that emanate could not exist.

Our source is in the darkness. Without it we do not exist. And although that darkness is the most transcendent we can imagine, it is also closer to us than anything else ever could be. It is our innermost being. And that dark source is where we go to experience the sacred, where we go both when we want to feel safe, and when we are challenged to go beyond the beyond—the innermost, the deepest, the furthest, the closest.

So, I invite all of us to take sometime in contemplation, whether by hiding our faces, closing our eyes to see deep within ourselves, or by seeking the black fire we are immersed in, the black fire of Torah, or the fire beyond our usual limits—the black fire of the burning bush. Whatever form of the sacred dark calls to you—take some time to be with it, or to be in it, to open to its call to go deeper, or further, to find where, or how, we might be led to answer the call for liberation.

Exodus Rabbah 2:5

[ii] In Emet V’Emunah (quoted in P’ninei haTorah)

[iii] The connection between the hiding of G-d’s face and the divine shelter in the book of Psalms is discussed in Herbert Levine’s book, Sing Unto G-d a New Song, Indiana University Press, 1995

[iv] Yalkut Shimoni, Brachah, 951 and Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 37a

[v] Unpublished manuscript, “The Mystical Torah—Kabbalistic Creation”, translated by Ronald Keiner in Joseph Dan’s book, The Early Kabbalah

[vi] Quoted in Gottlieb, Freema. The Lamp of G-d: A Jewish Book of Light. (Jason Aronson, Northvale NJ, 1989)

This paper is a slightly edited version of a talk given at Kehillah Community Synagogue, Dec 21, 2013, as part of a weekend workshop I taught on the Sacred Dark. It was published in Tikkun on December 29, 2015  http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/the-burning-bush-and-black-fire



Darkness in Creation, Revelation and Redemption

image from https://alicewebdesign.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/dark-water/Text of a presentation given by Fern Feldman at “She is a Tree of Life: A Conference on Judaism, Feminism, and Ecology”, in Eugene Oregon, May 2002

Darkness in Creation, Revelation and Redemption

When I focus on my own essential nature, or when I experience the sacred, most often what I find is darkness. This sometimes feels at odds with the commonly expressed ideas that the paths to holiness are to be found by ascending into the light. Certainly, light is an evocative metaphor for that which gives life, for the flow of divine presence. On one level, dark can be seen as that which blocks the flow of light. This can be limiting or protective, depending on the setting. But there is another level to the metaphor of darkness. That is the darkness beyond the light. Darkness is the place where all separation dissolves into oneness. It is the depths, the womb, the soil where the seed sprouts, the soothing shade, the night in which our bodies grow and our minds make long-term memory. Darkness is source, essence, emptiness, mystery.

Our minds tend to associate darkness with the earth, for a number of reasons. The sky can be dark or light, but the earth has no light of its own, unless we are aware of the molten core that can show its fiery light when it erupts. Under the surface of the earth it is always dark, as it is under the surface of anything. So, also we find that darkness is associated with depths, while light is associated with heights.

The hiddenness of women’s genitals, the dark of the womb from which we all come forth, and the association between women and earth, have all led to a metaphorical connection between women and the dark. And for purely physical reasons, dark skin and dark hair are associated with the darkness.

When we discount the power of the darkness, we risk devaluing all that we associate with it—dark skin, women, and the earth itself. And we lose the pathways that seek holiness through deepening into the dark.

There are so many levels and nuances of the sacred dark, but today I have chosen to address one aspect of the issue, due to how short our time is. That is the idea that sacred darkness is not just one way of conceptualizing the holy, but rather it is basic to the foundational concepts of Judaism—creation, revelation, and redemption.

In Genesis, before Hashem said “let there be light” there was “darkness over the face of the deep, the spirit of G-d brooding over the face of the water” (Gen.1:2). So we learn not only that darkness pre-existed what we think of as creation, but also that the spirit of G-d is being paralleled, if not equated, with that darkness. At the very least, darkness is more essential than light. The Bahir comments on Isaiah45: 7, “I form light and create darkness”, explaining that light was formed by making it, whereas in the case of darkness, “there was no making, only separating and setting aside. It is for this reason that the term ‘created’ (bara) is used.” (The Bahir 13)

The creation story starts by saying “B’reishit bara elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz”, a strange grammatical structure saying something like “With a beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” Rashi and the Zohar (and Targum Yonatan) interpret this beginning to be wisdom—Chokhmah. That is, with wisdom, G-d created. The Hebrew word for wisdom, Chokhmah, is etymologically and historically related to the Egyptian deity Hekh, and through her, to Hecate, the ancient Greek dark moon goddess of wisdom, personified as a crone, standing at the crossroads, midwifing everyone into life and death. The book of Proverbs gives a vision with which to imagine Chokhmah, also personified as a female. She says “It is Wisdom calling, Understanding raising her voice. She takes her stand at the topmost heights, by the wayside, at the crossroads…Hashem created me at the beginning of His path (reishit darko)…there was still no deep when I was brought forth…before the hills I was birthed.” (Proverbs 8:1-25) Here we are given a vision of dark female wisdom, midwifing the world into being.

But our tradition goes even further than that. In the kabbalisitc tree of life, chokhmah is near the source of the tree, but not there yet. The root of all, beyond all form, is the Ein Sof, without end. Jewish mystical tradition associates the dark depths as the source of all life, the Ein Sof. The Zohar (Vol.II, 42b-43a) imagines the Ein Sof as the source of a spring, which flows into an ocean, from which rivers flow that are the sefirot, the channels for the flow of divine into the world. In this picture, the initial emanator of all creation is the dark point at the depths of the deepest spring.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky, author of Netivot Shalom, points out that both our moments of redemption occurred at night. Pharaoh “arose in the night” (Ex.12:30) and told us to leave. So, the Exodus was at night. And, almost a week later the Reed Sea was split during the night. Not only was it at night, but we were assisted in the process by the pillar of cloud: “Thus, there was a pillar of cloud with the darkness and it cast a spell upon the night” (Ex.14:20). (I am indebted to the JPS Tanakh for this understanding of the root a-r-r, to cast a spell, rather than to light up). Netivot Shalom explains this through a commentary on the verse from Psalms, “To tell in the morning of your loving-kindness, and your faithfulness in the nights” (Ps.92:3). He explains that we merit loving-kindness in the day, which he parallels with redemption, due to our faithfulness during the night, which he equates with exile. The reason, he says, that the verse from Psalms says nights in the plural is to remind us of the two nights of our redemption, the first and seventh nights of Pesach. Here he is dealing with what I consider a more surface level of darkness, or night; that is the darkness that is a blocking of the light, as opposed to the deeper level of darkness, which is beyond the light. Both are paths to redemption, in different ways.
The Zohar shows us how the deeper level of dark is redemptive. The Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish, comments on another verse in Psalms (Ps. 42:9) “By day Hashem commands His loving-kindness, and in the night Her song is with me”. (Depending on how one reads the k’rei/ketiv in this verse, one could read ‘Her song’ or ‘His song’.) He says that “Whoever engages in Torah at night, the Holy Blessed One draws over that one a cord of loving-kindness”. (Hagigah 12b) The Zohar (Vol.II, 148b-149a) explains that this cord of loving-kindness comes from the original light of creation that was hidden away for the righteous to receive at the end of days, that is, at the time of the final redemption. But, earlier on, (Vol. I, 31b-32a) the Zohar explains that that original light of creation “issued from the darkness which was carved out by the strokes of the Hidden One”. Loving-kindness, and redemption in general, then, have their immediate cause in the challenging darkness, but their ultimate root in the essential dark.

Redemptive miracles like the Exodus and the splitting of the Reed Sea are in themselves moments of revelation as well. As the Mechilta says, a handmaid at the Sea saw more that Ezekiel and all the other prophets. (Mechilta, Parshat Shira, parsha 3) But our peak moment of revelation was the transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai. When the moment came for us to receive the Torah, the people became afraid. The Torah tells us “So the people stood at a distance, and Moshe came near the thick darkness (arafel) where G-d was.” (Ex.20:18) Why was the Torah given in the darkness? Why was the divine presence there? Philo wrote “Moses entered into the darkness where G-d was, that is into the unseen, invisible, incorporeal and archetypical essence of existing things. Thus he beheld what is hidden from the sight of the mortal nature, and in himself and his life displayed for all to see, he has set before us, like some well-wrought picture, a piece of work beautiful and godlike, a model for those who are willing to copy it. Happy are they who imprint that image in their souls.” (Philo, The Life of Moses, I, 158, quoted in Three Jewish Philosophers) That is, the Torah was given in the darkness because it gave Moses the experience he needed to transmit the Torah, which is itself a pathway back to that essential darkness. Almost two thousand years later, the Kotsker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel, comments in his book Emet V’Emunah (quoted in P’ninei haTorah) that the arafel is the ikkar, the essence, and the pnimiut, the innermost part, and that is why Hashem was there.

This may start to explain to us about Moses’ experience of receiving the Torah, but what about the rest of us? Shortly before the 10 commandments are given, Exodus 19:17 states “And they stood in the underside of the mountain”. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a), tells the following midrash: “R. Avdimi bar Hama said: The verse implies that the Holy One overturned the mountain upon them, like an inverted casket, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well, if not, your grave will be right here.” Commenting on this midrash, the Pesikta de Rav Kahana (Piska 7) says, “Israel accepted the Torah that was given out of darkness”. The Torah was given out of darkness, that is, the darkness over where they were standing because the mountain was being held over their heads. So, at the time of the giving of the Torah, the people as well as Moshe were having an experience of darkness.

Later, the people had the experience of thick darkness (arafel) in the Temple that Moshe had at Sinai. When King Solomon is building the Temple, he states (1Kings 8:12, and again in 1Chronicles 6:1) “G-d has chosen to dwell in the thick darkness— ba’ arafel”.

So we see that creation is birthed out of the darkness, from which redemption draws its source. And revelation of the divine presence comes from entering the thick darkness.
Genesis Rabbah (19:7) tells us that originally the essence of the Shechinah was in the depths. Through the wrongdoings of humans She departed higher and higher, further and further away from us. And through the righteous acts of humans She was drawn back down from level to level, until Moshe brought Her down below. May we all merit to find Her again and again in the deepest places.

Embodying Compassion at Rosh Hashanah and Beyond

family 5769 031Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Havurat Ee Shalom by Rabbi Fern Feldman

I want to talk to you today about rachamim—compassion. The tradition says there are 13 qualities of rachamim. We call on them repeatedly in the high holiday services. We sang them three times in front of the open ark about half an hour ago—they are on page 194 in the mahzor if you want to look at them.

The Torah tells us that when Moses was hidden in the cleft in the rock, and the divine presence passed by him, he heard these 13 qualities of compassion. And the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) teaches us that when we call out these words in prayer, we are promised that we won’t be turned away empty-handed. Rav Ezra Bick, proposes that the 13 qualities are not only a way of calling on divine attributes, but that these qualities as we chant them are actually a manifestation of holiness in the world. This means that our practice over these high holidays is part of actually bringing more compassion into the world.

And that is really why I want to talk to you today about compassion.

I feel a great, urgent need for compassion in the world right now. I am very worried about the state of the planet, and all its creatures—plant and animal. It terrifies me that we may be making this world literally unlivable for our own children, as well as for so many other life forms.

And for the humans of this planet in particular, I feel a very urgent need for rachamim, for compassion, as well right now. From the massive numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and the violence against people of color in this country, to the smaller scale—the great number of loved ones, and loved ones of loved ones, who are facing life-threatening illnesses and other serious challenges. And, also, truly, for my own self, I feel a deep need for compassion. Life is challenging, and I am pretty sure that, no matter how lucky, happy, good, successful, smart and beautiful you are, you can also think of ways in which you might want to ask to have more compassion coming to you, as well as through you. You, too, might feel a sense of urgency about drawing more compassion into the world in some way. So, I want to explore some of how we might imagine, and embody, a process of more compassion coming into the world?

Strangely, in the Jewish conception of things, the process of increasing the flow of compassion starts with contraction, and something I talked about last night–nesira, or splitting, which we can currently notice as the gap between one year and the next—when, according to some ways of thinking, the Holy One, and each of us, withdraws our energy a bit, as we let go of one year and make room for the next.

The nesira, or splitting, is a type of contraction, also called tzimtzum.[i] And, as we might suspect from the English word contraction, the contraction we call tzimtzum is part of a birthing process. As my teacher, R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l described it, “Every process which has gotten overinflated, lost, overly abundant, requires tzimtzum for its rebirth.” And, he explains, everything that happens is part of this pattern—the pattern of contraction, breaking, and repair. He says that these dynamics “are thought of as a) something that happened long ago; b) something that is happening now, part of the fabric of the energetic flow of the universe, as if, for example, the Big Bang was not an event but an ongoing process and c) A dynamic which is within every situation, interaction and process. If the pulsing of the universe is to breathe by shrinking and expanding, then the ongoing birthing of all things and events is in a constant state of labor, breaking (of the water and of the previous pregnant state) and of fixing the birthed one.”

So, we can understand, that any constriction, contraction, separation, or shattering that we experience is part of a bigger pattern of pulsing energy, part of a birthing process. And most especially now, at Rosh Hashanah, we can be aware of this process.

And now we can see a bit of how this fits together—the original nesira, the cutting of the dual primordial human, that was created back to back—being separated into two beings allowed them to face one another, encounter one another. This cut is also part of what allowed them to unify in a different way, and become co-creators in the process of bringing forth life. And similarly with a mother who is birthing a baby—the contractions, the breaking of the waters, the cutting of the cord—are all followed by the creation of a new being, who then turns and receives sustenance from the mother. The same process takes place within our understanding of the divine presence. [ii][iii]

So, we are engaged in a birthing process right now. And the root of the word rachamim, compassion, is resh khet mem, the same root as for the word rechem, womb. (Not all of us have one of these, and obviously, not all people with wombs bear children, but nonetheless, there is something to be learned from the experience of those who do have these experiences. My hope is that each of our embodied experiences can be something we could all learn from.) Part of what the connection between rachamim and rechem, compassion and womb, is about is that it tells us that compassion is not just something of the mind and heart– it is of the body. Compassion is, or can and should, be, materialized in the most tangible of ways.

When the mystical tradition maps qualities onto the body, it places compassion all along the central column—from the crown of our heads to the bottoms of our feet.

The tradition places compassion in the crown, the top of the head, which is seen as the seat of Will. Rosh Hashanah is said to be the crowning of the divine king—not an image most of us find it easy to relate to—but perhaps we can picture the royal crown as something we give, as we acknowledge that we are not the ones in charge here. As we recognize with humility that there is something bigger than we are individually. This awareness brings us to experience compassion. We are not the center of the universe. [iv]

And, the tradition places compassion in the center of the body–the heart, and the solar plexus. Sometimes we experience compassion here—when our hearts ache for the suffering of an Other, when we feel compassion flowing out of our hearts, and when we commit with the core of our strength to do something to help.

And, the tradition places rachamim in the generative centers of the body, the place of the rechem, the womb. This evokes the compassion we have for our children, and our intimates, those with whom we have intertwined our physical existence.

And finally, we find compassion in the base of the spine, and the bottoms of the feet, as we stand up to act in the world; as we, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, feel we are praying with our feet, and bringing compassion into physical manifestation.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and words that share a value share elements of meaning. The root of the word rachamim, resh chet mem, equals 248. 248 is also the number our tradition says is how many body parts we have—limbs, sinews and bones.[v] So even the root of the word rachamim tells us that compassion is something we are to do with all our limbs, sinews and bones.

This embodied experience of rachamim is a universal human experience—perhaps an experience of all sentient beings. It is what the primordial human was feeling in first seeing another human, when Adam, the earthling, said—“this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” When we feel compassion for another being, we can feel it in our bones– we can say “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” “Zot hapa’am etzem mei’atzamai uvasar mib’sari”

How would the world be if we felt that for everyone? What if every time we looked at anyone, especially anyone we tended to consider “other”, we said “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”? [vi]

Our liturgy is full of references to compassion, some easy to spot and others not.[vii] Anything mentioned 13 times is a calling forth of the flow of compassion.[viii] You can start to notice in the liturgy where all the 13s are. When we call on the name YHVH, when we make blessings, we are making a channel for compassion to come through, all along the central column of our bodies.

  1. David Wolfe-Blank z”l wrote that the 13 qualities of compassion “radiate throughout our universe from Rosh Khodesh Elul [that is, a month ago] until Simkhat Torah [that is, the end of Sukkot, a few weeks from now]…Because this happens every year around the High Holidays, every year is thought to be a further lurch of evolution based on the previous year’s energies, facilitated by the presence of these 13 fields of origination. These 13 qualities are therefore the mechanical or energic side of the Teshuvah process. We soften and stretch our hearts by doing Teshuvah, and God softens and stretches the fabric of the world by shining towards us the 13 qualities…” (Metasiddur p. 48.2)

Each one of the 13 qualities of compassion that we chant throughout this time period has their own nature. Compassion isn’t just one thing—it has subtle distinctions.[ix] When we chant them, we can consider how we can embody the different qualities, or aspects, of compassion. But before these 13 qualities, or part of them, depending on how you parse the sentence, we say “Adonai, Adonai”; we repeat the name twice. R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that on the High Holidays we need a healing in which we go to a second level of the divine name. This second calling upon YHVH is called the “Shem ha-Etzem”, literally the Essence of the Name. We might imagine this as a transcendence, beyond the manifestation of the name that has been damaged over the preceding year by our wrongdoings. But I want to suggest an additional interpretation. Etzem, in addition to meaning essence, also means bone, as in the phrase “bone of my bone”—“etzem mei’atzamai”. When we look deeply enough, when we let ourselves become aware, we find that in essence, we are all of one substance—bone of my bone. Rabbi Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that “during the ten days of awe, each of us is in possession of a second, more creative part of our souls. Just as Abraham was called Abraham, Abraham, and Moses was called Moses, Moses, as seen by the higher level of Yod Hay Vav Hay, so is each of us reconnected with our twofold name, a creative, powerful energy which enables us to restructure our awareness of God and of ourselves.”

So, I would like to suggest, that at this time we are also more able to sense that level which we might call “bone of my bone”. Perhaps at this time we can see more clearly that we are all connected, all one flesh. When we call on the qualities of compassion, when we suffuse in the flow of rachamim, we are both feeling the compassion that surrounds and holds us, and we are also letting it pour through us into the world. So may we be strengthened at this time in receiving compassion, and in being channels for compassion coming into the world.

And right now is the time for that strengthening to begin. The splitting, the nesira, that is the space between one year and the next, which perhaps up to this point we have experienced as a separation of some kind, now shifts. R. Wolfe-Blank z”l wrote that “The Nesira begins to be reversed at the time of the blowing of the Shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah[x]” (R DWB p. 22.2)

So, as we prepare to hear the shofar, we can become aware of a shift. We can look around us and see that all beings are “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”. The shofar builds a bridge of sound and energy [xi] to connect all beings. Any sense of separation we have been feeling is about to be washed away in a flood of presence. May we, in that moment, as we hear the shofar, become more fully channels for compassion to come through us, renewing us, and bringing blessing to the world.

[i] And this is also how the mystical tradition describes the process of creation—the mystical creation story goes that undifferentiated divinity, which was all there was, had a desire to give, but in order to give, there had to be something to give to. And so began the paradox of creation— although everything is part of G-d, nonetheless, there has to be an appearance of it not being so, in order for there to be giving and receiving.


[ii] Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l explains that “On Rosh Hashanah, the inner energy of Malkhut [that is, the base of the tree of life], the earth and our home, leaves and moves into Keter [or crown], our Source and Essence. This departure, called Nesira, is somewhat frightening and ungrounding, hence, the “awesomeness” of the period of the Days of Awe, beginning erev Rosh Hashanah. Reversal of this process begins with the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur. During these ten days, Malkhut [the manifestation of the holy in the world] is rebuilt, rewired, and refurbished.” (Meta-Siddur, p. 148.8)


[iii] I find it interesting that even the traditional terms for what is happening now have birthing overtones—the divine presence goes back to Keter, the Crown, and this is related to how the tradition says that Rosh Hashanah is the crowning of the divine King. And, of course, there is a moment in the birthing process when the baby crowns—and is crowned.


[iv] The 13 qualities of compassion are called a 13 spired crown, and the mystical tradition says this crown is made of lavender light, and it shines more and more brightly throughout the 10 days of awe, until it is so bright at the end of Yom Kippur, at Neilah, that we can barely see anything else.


[v] Also related is the fact that there are 248 positive mitzvot—the mitzvot are for the purpose of rachamim

[vi] So, too, when we pray for divine rachamim, we are praying for Hashem to sense that we, or those we are praying for, are of the same substance as G-d is. As my teacher R. Marcia Prager says, “the world is congealed G-d”.


[vii] In the prayer right before the sh’ma we repeat the root three times in a row. for example, Baruch She’Amar, which uses the word Baruch, blessed, 13 times, and Psalm 27, the psalm we say daily at this season, mentions the name YHVH 13 times. The expression of the divine name, and the quality of blessing, are both pathways for compassion to manifest in the world. Our most central prayer, the Amidah, on weekdays has 13 middle blessings, one for each quality of compassion.


[viii] for example, Baruch She’Amar, which uses the word Baruch, blessed, 13 times, and Psalm 27, the psalm we say daily at this season, mentions the name YHVH 13 times. The expression of the divine name, and the quality of blessing, are both pathways for compassion to manifest in the world. Our most central prayer, the Amidah, on weekdays has 13 middle blessings, one for each quality of compassion.


[ix] R. Wolfe-Blank interprets them thus: Ayl—expanding force of kindness; Rakhum—Merciful Womb; Khanun—Graceful Giver; Erekh—Long-Stretched Web; Apayim—Many Faceted Jewel; Rav Khesed—Maestro of Generosity; Ve’Emet—Dispatcher of Truth; Notzer Khesed—Funnel of Kindness; La’Alafim—Helper of Thousands; Nosay Avon—Tolerator of Distortion; Vafesha—Who Puts up with Intentional Error; V’Khata’ah—Shoulders Omission; V’Nakay—and Cleanses.


[x] “which, as promised, reverses the departure of the Holy One and draws back G-d’s interest and participation to be completed with the Shofar sounding at the end of Yom Kippur.”


[xi] A term from the writing of Yoel Glick

Some brief thoughts about light and dark at the end of Chanukah


The ancient sages Hillel and Shammai disagreed about how to kindle the Chanukah lights. Hillel said light one light the first night, then increase each night, until on the eighth night we light eight. Shammai said to start the first night with eight, and decrease nightly to one, more closely paralleling the decreasing amount of oil that would have been left that first Chanukah when one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days. The tradition says that, in general, Hillel and Shammai are both right, but we go by Hillel. Additionally, in the case of Chanukah, Hillel’s perspective is followed because in all things we attempt to increase in holiness, not decrease, so kindling more and more light seems right.

My friend Rabbi Sami Barth suggested to me this year that I should go by Shammai, because I connect so deeply with the sacred dark—he said, I would still be increasing in holiness, by increasing the dark each night. I thought about that, and realized that, although the dark of this time is so precious to me, (I love an essay by Levinas that talks about the darkness inside the vial that held the miracle oil), nonetheless, I want to increase the flames each night, because I have always seen Chanukah partly as a sympathetic magic practice where we increase the light each night in rhythm with the lengthening days. I believe that this is the reason why we light the candles from left to right, even though we add them to the menorah from right to left. The Temple menorah was on the south wall, and if we face south, and light from left to right, we are lighting sun-wise, that is, the direction the sun moves across the sky.

This Chanukah I was also telling our houseguest who lives in Australia that there have been conversations in recent years among Jews in the southern hemisphere about how to practice our seasonal holidays—people want to stay in sync with the rest of the Jewish world, and yet it is odd to have spring holidays in the fall, winter holidays in the summer, etc. It occurred to me that it would make sense for Jews in the southern hemisphere to follow Shammai, and light one less candle each night, decreasing the light each night around the summer solstice, as the nights start to lengthen. They would thereby continue to celebrate the holiday with the rest of the Jewish world, but also be in rhythm with the seasonal darkening of the time.

Your thoughts are welcome…

Revolutionary Time, Teshuvah, Shmitta and Yovel

DSCN00470033Rosh Hashanah morning 5775

R. Sholom Dovbear of Lubavitch wrote that “whenever someone wants to ascend from a lower level to a higher level there must be something delineating between the two levels.” He talks about a “river of fire” in which a soul can immerse to transition from level to level. I think this is one of the reasons we mark time—one of the reasons we have Rosh Hashanah. Today is not the same year as yesterday. Yesterday it was 5774; today it is 5775. We have made something to delineate between the two levels. We have an opportunity to live at a new level. As we cross the river of fire that marks the change from year to year, the future is open. How we live this embodiment of time is full of possibilities.

To explore this further, I want to share with you from an article I recently read by Swedish Jewish feminist philosopher, Fanny Söderbäck called “Revolutionary Time: Revolt as Temporal Return”. Her ideas provide a beautiful way of looking at what is going on in Jewish time, especially at this time of year.

Söderbäck discusses the importance of deconstructing the binary distinction between the two ways people tend to look at time—cyclical time and linear time. She points out that “women, so often relegated to the natural realm and to embodiment, have become the bearers of cyclical time, while men, who have taken upon themselves the task of subordinating nature and the body in the name of culture and reason, have come to lay claim to linear time and the progress associated with it. The two models thus correspond, respectively, to the conception of woman as an embodied creature and to that of man as a rational subject not bound to his body.” She adds that “black subjects, queer subjects, disabled subjects, laboring subjects, …[and] female subjects—have been reduced to immanence and presence in the service of building the future of those (white, heterosexual able-bodied men) who have laid claim to transcendence and freedom.” Söderbäck explains that “political projects that follow the linear model of time end up replicating the past through a repression of sorts. Those that, instead, follow the cyclical model repeat the very same past by idealizing it.”  I would add, that this binary of linear and cyclical time tends to be mapped onto all the other troubling binaries we can think of—light and dark, mind and body, good and bad. So, there is a lot at stake in troubling this way of understanding time, both in terms of how we think about the world, and in how we live in the world.

Now I am going to shift back and forth between my understanding of how this is relevant to us as Jews, and more about Söderbäck’s article.

We might notice that the binary distinction that Söderbäck delineates has often included Judaism on the side of cyclical time and Christianity on the side of linear time. Some segments of Christian thought see Judaism as existing in a non-progressing time, while Christianity involves linear, progressive messianic time—in which sin has been redeemed. Judaism and Christianity also are often mapped onto the body/spirit binary, where ritual practice that addresses our bodily acts, food and work, is devalued in comparison to religion that primarily mandates thoughts and prayers. Put simply, some see Judaism as being about law, and Christianity about love. We might respond by considering the ways in which Jewish law gives us guidelines for manifesting love in the physical world.

Conversely, patriarchal branches of Judaism have often made the claim that the Jews invented progress, that is, linear time—that the idea of a G-d that acts in history, who redeems us from slavery, points to a progressive march through time, where “real” transformation can occur, as opposed to early matriarchal cultures that lived cyclical time, where deities represented aspects of the agricultural cycle, which were the same from year to year.

I would claim, rather, that Judaism is a merging of these two ways of looking at time, and in itself is a deconstruction of the linear/ cyclical binary. One way of seeing this in Judaism is the way in which we integrate the solar and lunar calendars. Solar calendars, in which months are based on fractions of the year, without regard to phases of the moon, have tended to be associated with linear time. And lunar calendars, where each month starts on the new moon, and the year begins again after twelve moon cycles, regardless of the solar season that falls in, have been associated with cyclical time. The Jewish calendar integrates the two, so each month begins on the new moon, and the new year, as well as all the other holidays, maintain their solar seasonal associations, so Passover is always in the spring, and Sukkot is always in the fall.

But the connections between what Söderbäck talks about as revolutionary time and Jewish time run much deeper. So let’s go back to Söderbäck. She explains her ideas in terms of feminism, but she writes “I ask the reader to understand my discussion being relevant beyond questions of gender and sexual difference”.  Drawing on the work of philosopher Julia Kristeva, Söderbäck develops an alternative temporal model—rather than the linear/cyclical division of time, she talks about “revolutionary time”. She writes “Revolutionary time is modeled on a perpetual movement of return that is meant to retrieve the very body that was repressed in order to construct the linear-cyclical dichotomy and paradigm”; it is a model of time that “recognizes embodiment as the condition of possibility for …projection into futures as yet unknown to us.” Söderbäck writes “the movement of return…is indispensable for the possibility of a different future.”

I do not think it is a coincidence that this theory is coming from a Jewish thinker. Perhaps if she were writing in a Jewish context, she would call this model what we call it–Teshuvah. Teshuvah also tells us that return is what makes change possible, that return is what opens up the future. Söderbäck points out that a linear-progressive temporal paradigm runs the risk of making us forget the past—that is, if we can’t return to the past, we are likely to forget it—and for that reason, it also leads to a repetition of the past. Rather, she advocates “a view of time and our being-in-time as a perpetual displacement and renewal through the movement of return.” She means to “set in motion a temporal movement that neither forgets nor repeats the past, a model of time that allows us to redeem the past and the present without instrumentalizing them in the name of a future always already defined in advance.” That is, a model of time in which we return, and redeem the past and the present, allows for a future that does not repeat the past, a future that is not a pre-determined goal where we use the present as a means to justify the future, but rather, when we truly return, fully integrate the past, and embody the present, we make way for a future that is open. This open, redeemed future in Jewish thought is called “olam haba”—the world that is coming. “Olam haba”, usually translated as “the world to come”, literally has a present tense meaning, that is, “the world that is coming”, coming now, in each moment, as we engage in what Söderbäck calls “a perpetual displacement and renewal through the movement of return”.

She talks about a “successful revolution”—and by revolution she isn’t only talking about politics, but rather about the root meaning of the world to revolt, the Latin volvere, which has spatial meanings as well, like the revolution of the stars—she says “ a successful revolution—one that opens new doors into a future not already governed by the past—depends on a nonidealizing and continuously interrogative movement of return to the past as well as a chance to experience the dynamic and active processes of the present as they unfold. Both of these depend on a thoroughgoing return to the repressed of our current linear temporal model: the body.”

So if we are to live time in a way that can open up possibilities for the future as a process of perpetual return, the question is, return to what? Söderbäck tells us we need to return in two ways. First, we need to be perpetually interrogating, continually returning to questioning. This is what the process of Teshuvah is all about. In the cycles of day, week, month, and year, the Jewish calendar sets aside time to question ourselves, to take a “heshbon hanefesh”, a soul accounting. We take this time, right now, during the Days of Teshuvah to ask ourselves what we are doing. Some of us have been engaging in this process since the beginning of the month just ended, the month of Elul. Some of us are starting to question ourselves right now: What am I doing here? How am I living my life? Am I doing what I want to be doing? What acts have I have committed that need amends? Where am I going? This perpetual return to questioning our actions and our lives redeems the past, and opens the future.

Seccondly, when Söderbäck talks about return, she means return to the body, and return to materiality. She tells us that “time must be understood as inherently linked to embodiment.” And, “whenever time is conceptualized in terms of cyclicality or revolution (rather than linearity), there is an implicit connection between temporal movement and corporeality or materiality.”

We can read this return to materiality in relation to the sabbatical, in hebrew called shmita, and the Jubilee, in hebrew called Yovel—these returns to the body of the earth are revolutionary moves, bringing egalitarian social change. Today, this Rosh Hashanah 5775, is the first day of a shmita year, the sabbatical that takes place every seven years. The Torah tells us that every seventh year, the land in Israel is to be left to lie fallow. Any produce which grows of its own accord is deemed ownerless, and may be picked by anyone—human or animal. All debts, to people participating in the shmita system, are to be cancelled.  The shmita year is a reminder to us that we don’t actually own anything. Our material possessions are not with us due to what good people we are, or even how hard we worked, but rather, we have what we think of as our possessions because we are borrowing them. It is all a gift. And as such, it is not ours to hoard, waste or destroy.

The practice of shmita has had a number of positive influences in the land of Israel. Since Talmudic times, there has been a structure that allowed for communal harvesting and storage of crops, to be distributed to the community during shmita years, so the shmita has taught us how to feed ourselves collectively. In addition, since observant Jews can’t eat produce purposely grown by Jewish Israeli farmers during the shmita year, in practice, during shmita years, orthodox Israelis shop at Palestinian produce stores, building economic and social bridges between communities. In addition, even during the shmita years hydroponics are allowed, so the shmita has led to an increase in the exploration of alternative agricultural methods.

And even though the requirement for the land to lie fallow during the shmita only applies in the land of Israel, there is now a movement to consider what we can learn from it in the rest of the world as well. Yigal Deutscher of the Shmita Project of Hazon, a national Jewish organization working for sustainability, writes “The values inherent in
the Shmita tradition challenge a contemporary world striving for continual economic growth, development, and individual gains, which more often than not come with a loss to long-term ecological and social integrity. Shmita offers an old/new context in which to turn to the Torah for guidance, to learn timeless values for the real issues we face today. Perhaps there is a message embedded within Shmita that we can use right now to strengthen the movement for creating a healthier, more holistic and sustainable culture.”

So right now, today, we are beginning a shmita year. We are invited, all of us, to ask ourselves what this could mean for our own return to the earth: what can we contribute to its sustainability?

After every 7 shmita cycles, there is a Jubilee, or Yovel. The Torah teaches that on the Day of Atonement, at the opening of the Yovel, the shofar is to be sounded, all slaves freed, and every family is to return to its original landholding. Thus, every 50th year, all economic inequalities are to be resolved. The Jubilee Year is not observed in modern times because it only applies when representatives of all twelve tribes, and a majority of the world’s Jews, live in the Land of Israel. At this point, since 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel have been lost, it would be impossible ever to carry out the actual commandments of the Yovel. And there are differences of opinion about when the Yovel is to occur. But some who still keep count of it say that the next Yovel is a year from now, 5776. So we are now entering a shmita that may be leading into a Yovel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “Here the Torah whirls time into its loftiest spiral: the fifty-year rhythm of the Jubilee. The Jubilee…teaches about time and timelessness, about the rhythms of doing and being, wealth and sharing, work upon the earth and healing with the earth, inward ritual and outward action. In it is the verse (Lev. 25:  10) that found an echo in the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”” The idea of Jubilee has recently inspired a movement: the Jubilee USA network, an alliance of hundreds of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith communities working for debt relief for the world’s poorest people. For anyone who is interested, the Jewish branch of Jubilee USA has declared this October 11, two and half weeks from now, as Jubilee Shabbat, and is providing resources for communities who want to learn more.

On a more individual level, Söderbäck tells us, we open the future by return to the body, to awareness of our embodiment. And, when she says body, she also means soul. Citing Kristeva, she talks about the “various elements that transcend the dichotomy of body and soul.” The soul “allows you access to your body and to other people…While being an internal space, the soul is a space that, insofar as it is alive, connects us with others and with our own living bodies. To have a vital psychic space means to be capable of intersubjective relations, to desire, and to feel…” When we engage in the process of return, we heal the body soul split, we continually return our awareness to the whole of our being. We need to return to our own past, to what Söderbäck calls “the depth continent of her individual prehistory.” We would not return, she says, “in order to linger in the past or repeat it but to make possible new beginnings…allowing for continuity and rupture.” She tells us “bodies as well as the natural realm—both commonly associated with repetition and immanence—are in fact marked by variation, differentiation, and change….the body is born of difference and generates difference. Far from being a stable ground, the body is that through which displacement and interruption becomes possible…Why not return to the body and reclaim it for what it is: a locus of change displacement, and alteration?”

R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that sometimes, like Balaam’s donkey, our bodies see more than our minds. I invite us today, and throughout these days of Teshuvah, this time of return, to keep returning our awareness to our bodies, to the awarenesses of the body, the visions of the body, the messages our bodies are waiting to tell us about how, in living fully into our embodiment, we can become more whole, and we can move into a future that is open.



Psalm 27 and the meaning of Trust

The Slonimer rebbe, R Shalom Noach Barzovsky, writes about Psalm 27, the psalm we recite from a month before Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot. It is familiar to many people from the section that is often sung, that starts “achat sha’alti me’eit Adonai…”—“one thing I ask from Hashem, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to see loveliness of Adonai and to visit His Temple.…”

The sages asked why we are to recite this psalm in particular during this time of year. The siddur of Rabbi Shabtai, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, taught that it is because Psalm 27 mentions the name of G-d the yod heh vav heh, 13 times, corresponding to the 13 qualities of compassion that are shining at this time. So, Psalm 27 can be seen as a pathway for the flow of compassion.

How does this work? The Slonimer teaches that the words are our guide in this process. Psalm 27:1-3 read:  “Adonai is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Adonai is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened?When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me-they stumbled and fell. If a camp encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; if a war should rise up against me, in this I trust.” The Slonimer teaches that certainly there are times that our adversaries are (at least figuratively) rising up to eat our flesh. And in those situations, there certainly is plenty to fear. But, verse 1 asks—“Adonai is the stronghold of my life, from whom shall I be frightened?” No matter what is going on, we can draw on the power of trust, in hebrew, bitachon. Even when prayer and crying out for help don’t work, the Slonimer tells us,  it always helps to have trust in G-d, to lean on the Holy One.

The Slonimer tells a story from the Midrash on Psalms to explain this concept—Once there was a traveller who found himself at the king’s city, and spent the night outside. The king’s guards found him, and began to strike him. He said to them “Don’t hit me, because I am a child of the king’s household. When the guards heard this, they stopped beating him, and guarded him til morning, at which time they brought him before the king. The king said to him, “My son, do you recognize me?” The traveler said “No”. The king said “If not, then how is it that you are a child of my household?” The traveler answered “In supplication to you. I am not a child of your house, and I have never seen you before, but I trusted in you, that if I said I am one of the children of your household, you would certainly have compassion on me.” The king said “Since he trusted in me, release him”. The Slonimer teaches that when we have trust like this, and lean on Hashem, that in itself turns judgment/din to compassion/rachamim. When Hashem is our stronghold, there really is nothing to fear.

This is a very deep teaching. The Slonimer is telling us that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, it draws out compassion in Hashem, and, I would say, compassion in others. When I read this story, it reminded me of something that happened years ago. I was working at a crisis center in a not very safe area of Boston. My coworker, Gary, was a small Jewish guy with glasses. One evening, he went out to get everyone donuts, and on his way back, a mugger started coming at him. Gary ran, tripped on the curb, and fell down. Donuts rolled all over the street. The mugger ran up, and…started picking up the donuts and putting them back in the bag for Gary. He said to Gary: “You have enough trouble.” It was clear to Gary that the would-be mugger was really touched by his total vulnerability. He could have done anything to him in that moment, and what he chose, was to help him.

We may not all be this lucky in our interactions with other humans, or animals. But in G-d’s eyes, we are all little klutzes tripping on the curb and spilling our donuts everywhere. When we openly express our awareness that we are not in control of our lives, somehow compassion is aroused.

But that is not the end of the story. The Slonimer teaches that even though trust in G-d is always good advice, it is also among the hardest things to attain. We all know that we can’t count on getting what we ask for. We all suffer, we all lose loved ones; we all die. As the High Holiday mussaf prayers expresses our situation:

“The foundation of humanity is from dust, and its end is in dust. At the risk of our lives we earn our bread. We are like broken pottery, like grass that withers, like a flower fading, like a passing shadow, like a cloud that vanishes, like a wind that blows, like dust that floats, like a dream that flies away.”

We certainly can’t trust that Hashem will do what we want, or prevent difficulties. So then what does it mean to trust in G-d?

Trust usually implies that the one we trust cares about us. I do believe G-d cares about each and all of us, but this means something different when we have an expanded sense of what the self is that is cared for.

Several years ago, I wrote to my friend Nancy, whose brother had died the year before, and who at the time had metastatic breast cancer (she died a few years later). I asked her what she thought about divine providence.  She wrote:

It was really my brother’s illness and death that started working on my
perception of the divine. I got it really early on that what was happening wasn’t an emergency. It was just life. We live and we die. That’s how it goes. Different for all of us, but the same. Especially the same in the suffering. I remember going for a walk one day not long after he died. I was feeling really sad and alone and I walked down to the cliffs where there were scores of people walking. As i entered the fray, I realized that everyone there had or would feel what I was feeling. I felt more a part of the big blob of living and suffering and loving and losing and ebbing and flowing and dying than I’d ever felt. It felt like a gift. Not my brother’s dying. I could have done without that. But I really got it that part of what makes love so sweet is the knowledge, whether we acknowledge it or not, that we will lose everything we love. That’s what the songs are all about, no?

My experience of “god” is that it is what binds everything together, the sticky web, the inseperableness of everything. If I’m connected to everything, then I have everything I need. I lack for nothing. Even in sickness. Maybe even especially in sickness, as the boundaries that my mind creates to make things look and feel separate are more permeable. I don’t experience my illness as something personal. I don’t feel like “why me?” It’s more like “what? me?”

What I learned from her is that trust in G-d makes sense when we see ourselves as part of the ebb and flow of life. As Nancy wrote, “If I’m connected to everything, then I have everything I need.” And, so strikingly— “I don’t feel like “why me?” It’s more like “what? me?””

 What me? Indeed.

What Nancy experienced in loss and illness is very much like what the Slonimer writes next about Psalm 27. He says that in order to attain bitachon—trust—we need to fulfill the words of another psalm, very close in the book of Psalms to #27. In Psalm 25, it says “To You, Adonai, I lift up my soul”. That is, says the Slonimer, in order to attain trust, we need to nullify ourselves completely, turn ourselves over to Hashem. To nullify the self—that does not mean to destroy ourselves. My teacher Reb Zalman calls bittul hayesh, what usually gets translated as self nullification, as becoming transparent. We need to become transparent to the Source. The Slonimer cites Rabbi Levi Itzchak of Berdichev, the Kedushat Levi, who taught that Yom Kippur does not atone except for one who has nullified themselves completely to Hashem, as nothing and complete zero. This is the foundation of the power of trust. Trust flows from depending completely on Hashem, attaching ourselves completely, feeling, as Nancy wrote, part of the “big blob of living and suffering and loving and losing and ebbing and flowing and dying”. Reaching the awareness of not “why me but what me”.

Psalm 27 continues:

 “One [thing] I ask of Adonai, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life, to see the loveliness of Adonai and to visit His palace. He will hide me in His sukkah on the day of calamity; He will conceal me in the secret mystery of His tent…”

The Slonimer comments, we ask to dwell in G-d’s house—that is, we ask that our house be G-d’s house, that we should make a dwelling place of the sacred here with us. And, we ask to be sheltered in a sukkah, graced by the shade of the divine hand, under the wings of the Shechinah, the divine presence. In that place there is nothing to fear, we are at one with G-d.


The imagery here, of hiding in a secret covered place, evokes the process of self-nullification, of becoming transparent. In the dark shelter of divine presence, the boundaries that seem so clear to us in the light become blurred. In the dark, it is easier to understand and experience that all is one; that boundaries are not fixed, that we are truly part of something much bigger than we usually imagine. And that, says Psalm 27, is the safest, most trustworthy place we can be.

This is part of why we recite Psalm 27 during sukkot. Our own sukkah becomes the secret mystery of the divine tent. We dwell in it, and are graced with the awareness of being part of the flow of life.

And this is why the focus of Yom Kippur, in the Torah reading and the mussaf service is on entering the Holy of Holies. We study it in the Torah service, and then in mussaf we enact the process. Aaron makes a cloud of incense—a cloud of unknowing, of indeterminacy, in the deep darkness of the enclosure of the holy of holies. This is the only place where the mystery of the Name that means Is-Was-Will Be can be pronounced.  And the sound of the name of all that is, pouring out from the cloud of incense, caused us to fall to the ground, to prostrate ourselves fully, and feel our boundaries melt into the earth. Prostration is one of the easiest ways to to feel ourselves leaning on the source of life, to feel transparent to all that is.

And, as R. Alan Lew, wrote, at the center of the holy of holies “is precisely nothing—a vacated space, a charged emptiness, mirroring the charged emptiness that surrounds this world, that comes before this life and after it as well.” And, I would add, there is a charged emptiness, a nothingness, that is within us as well. As the Kedushat Levi puts it, in order to receive atonement “one  must cleave to the quality of nothingness.”

On Yom Kippur, we fast, we wear white, which is really not even a color, we become transparent, we become empty. And this opens a space within us, it makes us a vessel for the flow of life, for the flow of compassion.

Years ago, my kabbalah teacher Robert Haralick, who is also an electrical engineer, taught me that a tube, or a pipe, if it is very wide at the inlet and narrow at the outlet, will burst. That is, we cannot receive more than we give—we cannot hold it all. Yet, if the pipe is narrow at the inlet and wide at the outlet, giving more than it receives, it will become depleted.  But if the pipe is equally open at both ends, it can get wider and wider and more and more energy can flow through it. Once we have made ourselves empty, we can open ourselves wide, and let compassion flow through into the world.

And this takes us back to the concept of trust, in Hebrew bitachon. The root of the word is bet tet chet.

The word b’tach shares the same root. It means a  “hollow column-like receptacle of rain water ” [1]. So bitachon, trust, comes when we are a b’tach, an empty vessel, ready to receive and pour forth the rain of blessings, the flow of life that we are always a part of. When we let ourselves be empty, when we become transparent, when we become aware that we are part of the ebb and flow of all that is, we can lose our fear, and know that we are sheltered in the divine mystery. And from that place, we can open to receive and give compassion.

















[1] Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature
by Marcus Jastrow


Tzitzit are a Life-saving Rope–Parshat Shlach


Parshat Shlach ends with two short, seemingly unrelated, passages—one telling the story of someone who was gathering sticks on Shabbat, and was stoned to death for it, and the final passage of the parsha, giving the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes on four cornered garments). A strange juxtaposition, which numerous commentators have tried to explain, largely based on the idea that the keeping of Shabbat and the wearing of tzitzit were two mitzvot that the Israelites of the time were shirking.

However, it seems to me there is another, more interesting relationship. Often, disturbing passages in Torah are followed by teachings that are a tikkun, a repair, on them. Two examples of this are in the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah: The story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Avraham and Sarah, which can be considered the root of the conflict between Arabs and Israelites, is followed by the story of Avraham and Avimelech who enact an excellent process of conflict resolution over the ownership of some wells. The very disturbing story of the binding of Isaac, often seen as causing him long term trauma, is followed by a short passage mentioning the birth of Rivka, who, as his future wife, can accompany his healing.

         This disturbing story of the stick gatherer, which might be one’s worst nightmare of how others could behave—being stoned to death by one’s entire community—is followed by the mitzvah of tzitzit. So, the question then is what is the message of tzitizit?

The Slonimer Rebbe, 20th century Jerusalemite R. Shalom Noach Barzofsky, writes about the passage that ends our parsha, (and which, unlike the stick gatherer story, traditional davveners recite twice a day as part of the shma). The Slonimer asked what is so unusual about the mitzvah of tzitzit that the Torah says that you should see them, and remember all of my mitzvot and be holy to your God. He explains this by telling a story from the Talmud, about a person who was about to make a major transgression, and as he was on the verge of doing so, his tzitzit hit him in the face, and kept him from transgressing. Another midrashic commentary explains this by saying that tzitzit cause an increase in holiness. So the Slonimer asks what is so special about this mitzvah that it reminds us of all the other mitzvot and encourages us to do them, keeps us from transgressing, and adds to holiness. He’s explains this by citing another midrash, that says that this is like a person who was thrown into the water and the  ship captain tosses him a life-rope and says “Grab onto this rope with your hand and don’t let go, because if you let go, you’re not going to live.” The Slonimer explains that the mitzvah if tzitzit is a rope that ties us to the blessed One, and as long as that rope is in our hands, we are alive. Further, he cites another midrashic teaching on the tzitzit, that says that fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitizit is as if one has fulfilled all 613 mitzvot. Numerologically, the word tzitzit, plus the threads and knots of the tzitzit, add up to 613, and before putting on tallit some have the custom of reciting a kavvanah  “Behold, as I wrap my body in tzitzit, so may my soul, and 248 body parts and 365 sinews be wrapped in the light of the tzitzit, whose numerical value is [also] 613. The Slonimer points out that in other places in rabbinic texts, Shabbat and Torah study are each equated with keeping all the mitzvot, also. In these cases, it is a bit easier to understand what the connection is, as Torah and Shabbat both help us enact a deep connection with divine presence, but in the case of tzitzit, he still is not fully satisfied. So he looks to a commentary by the medieval Tosafot, who compare the tzitzit to the seal that would be worn by the servants of a king. Each king had his own symbol that would identify those serving him.  The mitzvah of tzitzit is only for four cornered garments, because we are servants of the One who created and rules the whole world—all four directions. The tzitzit bear witness to us, for ourselves, and to all who see us that we have committed ourselves to be servants of the Holy One. And although there are many ways to tie tzitzit, one of the knots on each tzitzit, called the kesher elyon, literally upper knot, is essential, a mitzvah d’Oraita, or Torah-based mitzvah. The hebrew “kesher elyon” can also be understood to mean “knot that joins us to the Supernal”. The Slonimer teaches that the knot is that which ties us to the Holy Blessed One, therefore, whenever this life-rope is in our hands, we are in touch with the flow of life itself.

R. Adin Steinsaltz explains that Rashi comments [Sanhedrin 88b] on this upper knot of the tzitzit, teaching that threads are not tzitzit simply by being threaded through the holes in the 4 corners of a garment, rather they only become tzitzit when the are tied in a knot. It is the knot itself that makes tzitzit.

R. Arthur Waskow writes about the tzitzit:

Gazing at these fringes teaches us to look deeply into the world…

How? Because the fringes are threads of connection between each of us and the rest of the world. Our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our souls do not end at a clear, sharp boundary between our own self and the others. It is not good fences make good neighbors, but good fringes make good neighbors.As we gaze at the fringes of connection, we remember that if we look deeply at these connections…we see the ONE Who connects us all.


So this is the tikkun on the story of the stick gatherer. His stoning is a harsh reminder of our boundedness and separation from one another; the mitzvah of tzitzit, on the other hand, are a binding together, showing us the threads of connection joining all that is in a web of being. The story of communally perpetrated execution speaks of causing death; the tzitzit are a life saving rope, connecting us to the flow and source of life.

And interestingly, this theme is carried further in this week’s haftorah portion, Joshua Chapter 2. Rahav, the prostitute who lives by the city wall, protects the other, the Israelite spies who come to Jericho to check out the land, by letting them down on a rope, a hevel, the same word the midrash uses for the life rope thrown out by the ship captain to the person in the sea. And then the two spies make an oath with her, so she can save her family by displaying a crimson cord. Both Rahav and the spies are strange others to one another, and both protect the other with cords of connection.

Our Torah reading tells us to look at the tzitzit, and the rabbinic tradition asks us to do this every morning. We remind ourselves every day that we are connected. We gather the tzitzit together, hold the life rope in our hands, cleave ourselves to the Source of Life, then look at these connecting cords, and remind ourselves once again that committing ourselves to life means recognizing that we are all bound together.





The big vav in Parshat Shemini–Cutting across all categories of being


In Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 11:42, the Torah tells us that we shouldn’t eat “Kol haholech al gachon”, “any creature that crawls on its belly”. The word for belly, gachon is spelled with one letter much larger than the others—it has a big vav. This is one of 16 or more letters in Torah (depending on the tradition of the scribe) that are written larger or smaller than the rest.
Whenever we see one of these letters, we have to wonder what the message is. We can start by realizing that the Torah is trying to get us to pay attention to the topic at hand— the large vav in the word for belly points to the importance of being mindful of what we put in our bellies. And especially when we are talking about animals, knowing that we cannot eat every animal helps us be aware that not everything in creation is here for our benefit as humans—as Maimonides teaches, every being has its own inherent worth.
But this particular large letter is more crucial than most. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30) tells us this vav is middle letter of the Torah—that is, it is the very center of the whole Torah. So perhaps we are to learn that what we put in our bellies is central, literally. And understanding that not everything is here just for us, means that we are not the center of the universe. (In fact, the letter vav is the center.)
However, when one actually counts the letters of Torah, this vav is close to 5,000 letters off from center. There are various explanations of why that is–[the Talmud records a conversation between two sages who say they can’t figure it out because they don’t know enough grammar to tell when certain letters should be included or not but that wouldn’t account for as big difference as there is. Some say our vav is middle letter of the Torah if you spell out each letter’s name, and then count those letters.] But in any case, it seems this teaching is there to tell us something other than its literal meaning —but what?
The tradition finds it important to tell us this letter vav in the word “belly” is the belly of the Torah.
If Torah has a belly, it is a creature. We already tend to think of Torah as alive– the book of Proverbs, and our liturgy, calls Torah the Tree of Life. The blessing we say after Torah reading gives thanks for a Torah of truth, and parallels it with eternal life being planted within us. The rollers that the Torah scroll is wrapped around are called atzei chaim, trees of life. From this, we get the idea that the Torah is a dynamic living organism, a plant. But in addition, the Torah’s parchment is animal hide. The Torah could be called a living animal too—an animal with a belly in its middle. Like an animal, it grows, loves and is loved. So we can see the Torah as both plant and animal.
But the teaching we are looking at here is coming from the actual physical letter vav, in it being made bigger than the rest. Torah ink, made partially from soot, or carbon, which by tradition can be produced either from the burning of plant or animal matter, is not long-lasting enough without the addition of something we consider inorganic, either iron or copper. This inorganic matter, this ink, is teaching us something. It is the very physicality of the letter, not the meaning alone, which gives over the teaching. The vav, by being bigger than the other letters, is communicating with us. The letter is not there just to represent some meaning that corresponds to it, it is teaching us something through its material presence. The nonrepresentational existence, in itself, of the letter vav teaches we humans. And it is teaching us that matter has agency. The vav is reminding us that the Torah is material. Not only does it have a body, and a belly, but its body is made of animal, vegetable, and mineral. And of all of those, the one that speaks to us the most directly is the ink, the mineral.
In the Torah’s existence as animal, vegetable and mineral, it crosses what we think of as the fixed boundaries between different types of created beings. This undoes the separations that are so common in Jewish thought, between four different domains: the domem, or silent, that is, minerals; the tzomeach, or sprouting, that is, plants; the chai, or living, that is, animals; and lastly the m’daber or speaking, that is, in this system, the human. These four categories are often seen as a hierarchy of levels of awareness, with increasing sacredness and value, placing the speaking ones, ostensibly just the humans, at the pinnacle of the system. But the Torah is a living entity, and its very being cuts across all categories of being. When carbon and iron, tree and animal make one living entity, known as Torah, and it speaks to us, when we pick the Torah up in our arms, touch it, kiss it, bless it, read from it, we are drawn into its reality, we enter the realm of its being. We then can become much larger than our individual selves, aware of the multiple worlds that are within and around us, and we become capable of experiencing the interconnectedness, the woven-ness-into-being that is the source of all, and is all.

Parshat VaYigash: Hashem is with Us in Suffering

In Genesis 46:1-4, Jacob/Israel (in hebrew, Ya’akov) has a vision on his way to Egypt:

1 So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 2 God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” 3 And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. 4 I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

One of my favorite authors, 20th century Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzofsky, Slonimer Rebbe, looks at this passage in his work, Netivot Shalom.

He asks a few questions. First, what is Ya’akov afraid of in descending into Egypt? If it is physical suffering, and the exile decreed for his descendants, then Hashem’s answer to him makes no sense. Secondly, why does Hashem say He will make Ya’akov a great nation there (sham)? And thirdly, why mention Joseph/Yosef?

The Slonimer says that Ya’akov is not afraid of physical suffering, or the servitude of his people which he knows is coming, (due to Avraham’s vision from Hashem), because he knows his people are strong enough to survive. Rather, he is afraid Hashem will not be there with them. He is afraid the divine presence will not make the journey. Thus the need for Hashem’s answer—I will go down with you to Egypt.
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