Steadfast Love and Truth: the Path of HaShem, Psalm 25, verse 10

The path of God is a narrow bridge. Steadfast Love and Truth guide me towards Goodness.

All of the paths of the Ground of Being are steadfast love and truth;
For those who guard with fidelity His covenant and His testimonies.

כָּל-אָרְחוֹת ה״ חֶסֶד וְאֱמֶת
לְנֹצְרִי בְרִיתוֹ וְעֵדֹתָיו

Chesed v’Emet: Steadfast Love and Truth

Is it kindness, lovingkindness, or steadfast love? How to translate the constantly morphing חסד? She pulses with life, avoiding exact translation. Chesed is the deep feeling of being held in sacred relationship: a healthy partnership, where kindness prevails.

Some translate אמת (emet) as אמונה (emunah), truth as faithfulness. This is also the root of אמן, amen

HaShem’s path is for the lowly and wayward. We are led in steadfast love and truth.

Christians and Guardians

Fun fact: נצר is Hebrew for Christian. Before that meaning was invented, it was a verb meaning “guard with fidelity, keep, observe: elsewhere of man observing the covenant.” Wikipedia has an interesting etymology connecting Nazereth with נצר.

Concentric circles of meaning. Fundamental differences separate me from my Christian friends and neighbors. Yet, the core of our spiritual pursuits is connected: striving towards the best versions of ourselves, living in alignment with God. 

Finding my way to the path of kindness and truth

I have been thinking a lot in the last week about wayward paths. How certain we can be that we are pursuing the good, aligning with the holy, when we are really elevating our egos and nestling into the death grip of the Yetzer HaRa, inclination towards destructiveness. 

God’s covenant and testimonies should lead us on the path of kindness and truth. We need lampposts along the way. Human guides to break our complacency; remind us of the lies nipping at our best intentions. And we need to be forever watchful that we do not reify other humans. No matter how charismatic our spiritual leaders are, they remain flesh and blood. 

So I return to the Ground of Being. I breathe in humility. Breathe out anxiety and fear. May I be a watchtower for kindness and truth. Loosen my ego’s grip. Accept the world as it is. Sing out testimony to the soul-nourishing, life-affirming truth within God’s path. 

Books for the journey


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Following God’s path: Psalm 25, verses 8 and 9

Good and upright is the Ground of Being
therefore He guides offenders on the path.
He leads the lowly in justice
and He teaches the lowly His path.

טוֹב-וְיָשָׁר ה״
עַל-כֵּן יוֹרֶה חַטָּאִים בַּדָּרֶךְ
יַדְרֵךְ עֲנָוִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט
וִילַמֵּד עֲנָוִים דּרְכּוֹ

Translation relies heavily on Robert Alter, in addition to the BDB Lexicon

He is God. She is God. They is God.

I did not try to remove the gendered language from translation. I purposefully want to sit in the uncomfortable truth of the patriarchal representation of the Divine embedded in my tradition. 

Acknowledging patriarchy without diminishing the holiness of Jewish wisdom makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes, assumptions arise when I alter God’s gender in prayer. I see gender as a real thing that brings meaning to our lives. Yet the Creator of Reality is beyond gender. We attach to a gendered understanding of HaShem because it is the shadow of God that can be understood by humans. Becoming aware of God’s female aspects, of the ways in which the Divine is Goddess, allows us to break free of the barriers inherent in gendered language. Once we see that all gender expressions reflect Divine love in the world, we can live into deeper reality. 

Offenders and lowly: not willful sinners

Willful sinners know they are doing wrong and revel in their waywardness. Evil resides with willful sinners. 

Offenders — people who miss the mark, but are not intentionally going astray — seek guidance. Chataim is the plural form for people who commit chait. Rabbi Avraham Greenstein explains chait as missing the mark, short of ability. 

“Sin,” has gradations in the Jewish mind. The two other levels of sin involve stronger levels of choice in rejecting God’s instruction. Avon is a willful crookedness, being stuck on a tangential path. Pesha is rebellious rejection of God. 

Similarly, the lowly did not choose to be in that state. They may have been brought low by the inequalities inherent in society. Or they may struggle with depression. 

Waywardness exists within all of us

A core teaching of The Tanya: human inability for perfection.  Perhaps once in a generation, a tzaddik exists. Most of us are beinoni: pursuing the holy, struggling daily with the Yetser HaRa, the inclination towards destruction / chaos / evil. We beinoni have a war raging within.

These verses do not describe other people: they describe my own struggle to stay on the path of Goodness and Uprightness. When I raise my voice towards my children, I stray from the path of goodness. Every time I say things I regret. Every time I succumb to despair. It is easy to stray from the path of HaShem. 

The Ground of Being awaits my return. 

Alignment with Goodness and Truth is a daily struggle. I trust that the Cause of Goodness reveals the right way to me. As I move towards holiness, the Holy One, Blessed be She, moves towards me. 

Companions on the Journey


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Acknowledge the past, focus on kindness and goodness: psalm 25 verse 7

The offenses of my youth and my transgressions, may You not recall
In Your lovingkindness recall me. You.
For the sake of Your goodness, Ground of Being.

חַטֹּאות נְעוּרַי וּפְשָׁעִי אַל-תִּזְכֹּר
כְּחַסְדְּךָ זְכָר-לִי-אַתָּה
לְמַעַן טוּבְךָ ה״

Acknowledge transgressions and move forward

Has your mind ever played the trick of reminding you of every youthful transgression you ever committed? Perhaps the person you were in your early 20s does not resemble the person you are today. Let me put it simply: I am extremely grateful the internet was in its infancy when I was in college. 

Beyond my choices in college, perhaps I should try to scrub the internet of my blogging when I was in my 20s. Given the political nature of securing employment, perhaps I should have more anxiety about my peace activism. I do not want to hide my younger self: she was forged from Jewish values and persuasive rhetoric. Fundamentally, my persona coalesced around opposition to the status quo and mainstream ideas of security and nationalism. When I woke up to how rigid and angry I was on a daily basis, my surety cracked. Making space for uncertainty, I opened the door to returning to a relationship with HaShem. 

Wrapping myself in kindness and goodness

Lovingkindness / covenantal love: the choice to be in relationship and obligated to act faithfully.  For the sake of goodness. 

Within the text of psalm 25, HaShem is asked to remember these choices when connecting with a human. To embody the psalm, I must remember chesed, the sturdy love, the kindness, I should show to my family and my society. For the sake of Goodness, I choose to rise above my baser instincts. My transgressions are not as important as my commitment to lovingkindness.

Just as I ask HaShem to overlook my transgressions, so too must I probe to the deeper meaning of living in community. What words can I say to expand the reach of goodness? How can my actions embody the covenantal love embracing me continuously?

Flow through books


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Flowing with Compassion and Kindness: Psalm 25 verse 6

Recall Your compassion, Cause of Being,
And Your kindness;
For eternal are they.

זְכֹר-רַחֲמֶיךָ ה״
וַחֲסָדֶיךָ
כִּי מֵעוֹלָם הֵמָּה

Compassion begins in the womb

In Hebrew, the root of compassion is womb. רֶחֶם, rechem, means womb and from that root, רַחֲמִים, rachamim, compassion forms. In the womb of the Divine, I am surrounded by compassion and covenantal kindness / love / faithfulness. 

Kindness rooted in covenant

חֶסֶד, chesed, is a truly foreign concept, thus difficult to translate. 

Brown-Driver-Briggs gives the primary definition of chesed as kindness. This seems a simple word to accept, but I am compelled to precisely define kindness, because it is often replaced by lovingkindness when translating chesed. Google / Oxford Languages defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate.” Google defines lovingkindness as “tenderness and consideration towards others.” 

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer taught a course on psalms at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. In that course, she stressed that the actions implied by the word chesed rest on the covenant between God and Israel, the people who wrestle with God. 

Ultimately, the word represents the outflowing of positive energy based on a concrete relationship of chosen connection. This is why the root in a different form, חַסִיד, chasid, means a pious person. 

Tetragrammaton

When I type Hebrew names of God, I try to change them according to traditional malformations to indicate the ephemeral nature of this website. So, I wrote Elokai, replacing an “h” sound with a “k” sound. The true name of God is abbreviated as ה״, which itself is an abbreviation of HaShem, The Name. Jews do not pronounce The Name. Instead, we say the word Adonai, which means my Lord. 

The true name of God is referred to as the tetragrammaton, a fancy word that means “four letter word.” The precise translation of the tetragrammaton could be “was, is, will be.” It is a form of the Hebrew root “to be.” That is why I translate it as either Cause of Being or Ground of Being.

Existence rests on HaShem. The Oneness, the point before the Big Bang, the flow of reality. These are the essential aspects of the Divine. When I sink into my soul, when I rise above my ego’s attachments, then I can begin to connect with the Cause of Being. 

Values before material existence

Ultimately, this verse reminds me of a very Jewish concept: there are things that existed before the beginning. The essential thing that existed was Wisdom (see Proverbs 8). From wisdom flowed other aspects of the Divine, including compassion and lovingkindness.

This idea of the outpouring of Divine energy, which occurred before the beginning, finds voice in Jewish mysticism, particularly Lurianic Kabbalah

Concluding with verse 7

Alone, this verse is a patchwork of words and concepts. Psalm 25 verse 6 reaches towards verse 7, surrounding it with love and acceptance. Tomorrow, with the help of the Divine, I will sink into that reality.

Beautiful books


Image by Comfreak from Pixabay.

Being led on God’s paths: Psalm 25 verses 4-5

דְּרָכֶיךָ ה״ הוֹדִיעֵנִי
אֹרְחוֹתֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי
הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַאֲמִתֶּךָ וְלַמְּדֵנִי
כִּי-אַתָּה אֶלֹקֵי יִשְׁעִי
אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל-הַיּוֹם

Your paths, Ground of Being, lead me in.
Your ways teach to me.
Guide me in Your truth and teach me.
For You are my God of salvation.
It is You I wait for at all times.

Waiting for and hoping in HaShem

ק.ו.ה is a root that I previously thought always meant “hope.” Looking it up in the Brown-Drivers-Briggs lexicon, the meaning is “wait for.” On Pealim.com, the definition is “hope.” In the הִנֵה Biblical Hebrew Tool Box, it is defined as both “wait for, hope.” The Even-Shoshan Concordance defines it as “יחל, צפה” (not exactly useful for those of us who are not fluent in Hebrew). Those verbs have similar definitions on Pealim: “To await, look forward to, hope for” and “To watch, to await, to look forward to, to anticipate.”

Translations of this poem seem uniform in translating this root as “hope.” I am curious if waiting is the older understanding of the verb. Hope seems more aligned with a modern sensibility. Not physically waiting for HaShem’s appearance. Not expecting HaShem to change location at all. Rather, metaphysically placing trust in HaShem’s paths. 

Choosing to wait

Personally, I prefer being jarred by the consequences of “waiting.” It recognizes that I am not always prepared / aligned with the Divine. It holds space for the doubt that accompanies waiting. 

Acknowledging doubt

These paths that I fervently pray to be led on — am I always available to walk on them? What takes over when I yell at my children? Forevermore will I be able to dismiss my actions as the result of pandemic living? 

And am I sure I know the paths of HaShem? Is it truly important for me to continue slicing my way through this psalm, rather than preparing food for my family or reading books to my children? Will I have the stamina for this endeavor when my courses resume on October 18?

The solid truths guiding me

This I know for sure: the ways of HaShem help me separate from the chaos that surrounds me. I align with my higher self. I see time as a continuum, and my time on earth as a drop in the bucket of the universe. 

Truthful focus through waves of chaos

While I hold myself accountable for each of my actions, I do so gently. Each moment is another chance to let go and flow into the Goodness and Truth waiting to be seen. This is how I am delivered to the person I can become: when I believe in the reality of the Divine, I accept the reality of the world of values. 

Having strength to become more expansive. My bodily autonomy is not as important as my son’s need for security. I can push past being over-touched / almost strangled.  

Psalters, Bibles, Dictionary


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Belief, Judgment, Treachery: psalm 25 verse 3

I translate mimicking the word order placement in Hebrew, to give you a sense of how verbs may precede or follow their subject. In the case of verse 3, I reviewed multiple translations and looked up the majority of the words in the Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew-English lexicon (BDB). 

כָּל-קֹוֶיךָ לֹא יֵבֹשוּ
יֵבֹשוּ הַבּוֹגְדִים רֵיקָם

Yo! All of those waiting for You will not be shamed
Shamed: those who deal treacherously in vain. 

Robert Alter points out the chiastic structure of this verse. The layout A B B A, represents a chiasm. In this case: subject verb verb subject, first verset ending with the exact word beginning the second verset.

Shame, honor, social order

I have to imagine that for the psalmist, honor was most important. Similar to the way my Chinese partner describes ’saving face’ as a paramount value in Asian culture. The shame feared in this verse is larger than the personal feeling 21st century readers may imagine. Less tied to personal guilt, or personal identity — this is societal debasement. The message is clear: believers should prosper, swindlers should not.

The poem has not yet provided insight into the nature of the Divine or what it means to follow the Divine. Those pools will flow later. The key hinted at in this early verse is that the path of HaShem is the ethical one. Google / Oxford Languages defines “treacherous” as: “guilty of or involving betrayal or deception.” BDB defines habogdim as the ones who “deal treacherously, faithlessly, deceitfully in the marriage relation, in matters of property or right, in convenant, in word and in general conduct.” 

Personal application

This chiasmus gives me infinite hope. No longer do I need to see Judaism as telling me to feel shame for every single mistake I make, weighing me down with the infinite ways I am not living up to my vision for myself. Rather, girded by my belief in Goodness and Truth, I wait for the Divine as I move towards my vision for myself. I remember I am not the worst person in the world. I can remember that in the end, my word matters and my choice to be truthful matters. Liars who manipulate for their own gain reap what they sow. The parts of me that attempt to focus my attention on anger and resentment; my Yetzer HaRa, my inclination towards chaos, will be disappointed.

Psalters, Study Bible, and dictionary


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This month is beginning: COVID lessons from Shabbat HaChodesh

Oh goodness. A million things I should be doing, including sleeping. Let’s be real — I haven’t been sleeping much. So I might as well remind myself of the brilliant Michael Fishbane insight I read this morning regarding Shabbat HaChodesh.

Special Shabbats to prepare for Passover

Before I quote Dr. Fishbane, a word about the Shabbat that just ended. It was the fourth of four special Shabbats (Shabbatot in Hebrew) that move us toward Passover. Two things make these days special: they have a unique, out-of-order Maftir portion. So that means the last thing traditionally read from the Torah on Saturday morning is related to the theme of the Shabbat. If we were all in synagogue for this, that would mean taking out two Torah scrolls from the ark — one for the regular weekly portion, one for this special ending portion. Then there’s also a special section of the Prophets: the Haftorah, related to the theme of the day. So this last special Shabbat is announcing THE MONTH. Because there are multiple first months in the Jewish yearly cycle; but the one coming up is the first month of the year according to the Torah. Yes, that means that the New Year / Rosh HaShanah is in the seventh month of the year; whereas Passover is in the first month.

Month One is About to Begin!

The thing is, before we were a Temple-based religion, we Hebrews were agrarian. (Probably before that we were nomads, but our holidays start from the cultivation of land part of our history.) And of course, like all good stewards of the land, we recognized Spring as a time of renewal, rebirth, and beginnings. So Nisan is the first month. It starts next Thursday, by the way. As it says in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

Mystical vision, Practical implementation

The Ashkenazic Haftorah portion for last week (aka earlier today) is Ezekiel 45:16-46:18. It offers a vision for the future Temple, which is different from the vision of the Temple described in Exodus. Rather than getting bogged down in these details, let’s look at the conclusion of Dr. Fishbane’s brilliant commentary on this passage from Ezekiel and its place as part of Shabbat HaChodesh:

The daubing of the entrance to the home and Temple with blood marks them off as two types of space. The first embodies the family, whose bonds are biological and legal. The family is the nuclear core of personal history and religious rite and preserves a parochial character by virtue of intimacy and a common name. Alongside this dwelling stands the Temple, whose space is communal and whose rites have an official and public status. The Temple opens its doors for collective worship and thus transcends the private histories of its worshipers. How one may live in both homes—standing firm in loyalty to hearth and blood, but open to the larger commitments a divine dwelling symbolizes—is a question each reader must answer repeatedly.

Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, p360.

This paragraph gut-punched me when I read it during my Zoom minyan this morning. In the context of 2020, the Temple in the above paragraph is a stand in for all of our obligations, responsibilities, identities, and communities beyond the walls of our homes. In a very short amount of time, my family was forced to collapse all that we do, and all that we are, into the space of our home. How are we living in both homes? Well, we must stay within the confines of the personal in order to protect the collective.

The Home and the Temple: Living Beyond Ourselves and Within Ourselves With Grace

And the question that I want to sink into as I prepare for the most unique Passover I’ll ever experience, is how to live in both homes simultaneously. How can I personally thrive while the world seems to be collapsing around me? How do I continue to make space for all the doors I was trying to open before my front door became the harbinger of potential death?

This I know for sure: I will not be the student I intended to be this semester. Since I have accepted primary parent responsibility for a four year-old and a six year-old without full-time weekday school / childcare, staying focused on my five graduate courses is difficult. Daf Yomi has fallen by the wayside. I’m a bit trepidatious that I might break my commitment to publicly counting the Omer. At the end of the day, none of that matters. If my family, both those within my home and those in other homes, makes it through this pandemic alive, that will be enough. If my neighbors are supported while so many of their jobs disappear, that will be enough. And if our essential workers — in healthcare, at grocery stores, at the postal service and other delivery personnel — survive and thrive, that will be enough.

Distinctions need to be made

Yet this magical, delicious Shabbat reminded me of the eternal truth of Shabbat, which is a refraction of the eternal truth of being alive: all of life is a balance of life and death. Judaism traditionally has laws about this. We bungle the translation and call them “purity” laws. What we’re really talking about are ancient ways to distinguish the living from the dead. As we continue our walk through this narrow place, this modern-day Mitzrayim, may we find the ways to allow ourselves to thrive despite the severe restrictions that surround us. If you are struggling to pay for your next meal or your next rent bill, you’re probably really angry reading my words. I deeply understand how lucky I am to be securely held by the love of my family in my home, in a community where I do not have to fear that my neighbors will spit on my Chinese Jewish kids. (Seriously, stop blaming Asians for this pandemic. It took an entire world to bungle the response to this.)

Choosing to Thrive

I am making a conscious choice to begin living differently in my second week of living with my entire family always under the same roof than I did my first week. I will be more conscientious of my time reading the news and interacting with social media.

I will not try to know how many new cases have been confirmed more than once a day. Since most of the country does not have enough supplies to perform tests; how much do the numbers really mean?

I will ground myself in the aspects of life that I have control over: my interactions with my family, my obligations to my communities, and my rabbinical studies.

I will make time for gratitude every day.

I will make time for prayer every day.

I will read a physical book every day.

I will tell my family I love them every day.

I will be present to the Present; to my physical body and the bodies around me.

And I will never give up hope. We are all deeply connected, beyond this mortal coil. May our bodies remain strong, our social distance complete, and may we be there for one another when we need help.

                

Becoming a Holy Community. Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

Crowd Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ תִּהְי֣וּן לִ֑י

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

We are called by Torah to be a holy people. Big assignment. What is holiness? How can we experience holiness beyond ourselves, within community? My questions about this idea led me to explore ethics and mysticism, Mussar and Kabbalah.

A Kabbalistic leader called Sfat Emet said: “First we set right our actions; then we listen. Then comes the time to correct our deeds.”

Mussar is straightening our thoughts, feelings, and actions with those around us – it is how we correct our deeds.

How can I grow by correcting my deeds? Well, maybe I can try not to speak from anger. Be compassionate to the souls around me. Recognize that my journey is only one story among billions occurring during this blink of the universe. We each live a unique story. I can try to understand yours.

Perhaps we can each minimize the control of our Yetzer HaRa, our inclination towards destructiveness. We can remind ourselves to get enough sleep, to not give in to every passing fancy on the internet. We can try to be fully present to our lives.

Seeking to act with straightness can help us walk into the Garden of Faith. We can choose the will to break bad habits. Choosing to pray and study wisdom texts can affirm the nurturing presence of the Ground of Being.

All of these actions help us learn about the holiness that pulses through the universe. Without right action, without Mussar, there is no Receiving, there is no Kabbalah. The Concealed Wisdom, Chochmah Nistar, is a false shadow without right action. We can really be a holy people and live in alignment with the Good in all of us.

Let’s go for it. Each of us finding, as best we can, the path that helps us become a wholly good person.

May we each find the courage to transform ourselves, to bring about constant renewal, and through our transformation be the Anshei Kedoshim we are called to be.

#—#

This d’var Torah was originally written for the final week of Davennen Leadership Training Institute. I had the honor of being one of three people to “lab” my d’var and receive editing advice from Rabbi Marcia Prager. Her version cut out many of the paragraphs regarding Kabbalah, in favor of laser focusing on good actions as the only real tangible thing we can do in this life. She looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know what holiness is; do you?” Rabbi Prager, one of the holiest people I know, said that to me. Since Judaism is full of sanctification and drawing us towards holiness, I decided to keep my thoughts about it as this thought piece moves forward. I spoke of it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park & Eagle Rock this Shabbat, which gave me the opportunity to again witness how difficult it is for me to speak for us. Not because I want to talk at people (heaven forbid!); but because I am still finding my voice to speak on behalf of other people. I am so hesitant to assume that anyone else is seeking what I’m seeking that I default to “I” language, as I am in this explanatory note. So thank you, Reb Marcia, DLTI, and the good people of TBI, for helping me find my voice.

V’Etchanan: I pleaded with HaShem

Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, just ended. Last week’s Torah portion began with the word “v’etchanan,” I pleaded.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

Our sages say that Moses was praying for the ability to pray. The original fore-prayer. The term fore-prayer was coined by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi to describe the need to prepare oneself for prayer.

The ultimate version of this is the prayer that is not a prayer, a line from Psalm 51: “Adonai, s’faitay tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha;” traditionally translated as “O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise” which is the opening meditation before the formal beginning of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, known simply as Prayer / Tefillah in Judaism’s oldest surviving discussions of liturgy.

Still, it feels like getting ahead of myself to speak about that beautiful line of poetry. The first fore prayer I say in the morning is a command to my soul from Psalm 104:

Bless, my soul, HaShem. HaShem, my God, You are very great; clothed in majesty and splendor, wrapped in a robe of light; spreading out the heavens like a tent. [Based on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks‘ translation in the Koren siddur.] Barchi nafshi, et HaShem, HaShem Elokai, Gadalta Me’od, Hod V’Hadar Lavashta; Oteh Ohr Kashalmah, Noteh Shamayim Kariyah.

Or as Rabbi Mordecai Finley translates it:

My soul, Bless HaShem! HaShem, my God — very great; clothed in majesty and splendor; wrapped in light like a robe; spreading out reality like a map.

I cherish beginning my davvenen with this line of poetry. It is the most beautiful description of The Cause of Being that I have: the Essence of the Universe that is wrapped in light. Try to sink into the idea that reality is unfolding like a map and you may never read another word of prayer.

These are the words I utter before I prayer; specifically, before I say the blessing for my tallit and wrap myself in it, imagining that I am wrapping myself in light — as I wrap myself in the light of the tradition, the light of holiness, the light of goodness. I also try to remember that I cannot see all of reality. That whatever I am upset about or anxious about or enjoying is just a fraction of the reality that exists in the world.

And yet, I continually fail at these meditations because I fail at the most basic aspect of the life I yearn for: consistent, daily prayer.

I looked into a lot of aspects of last week’s Torah portion in preparing to speak about it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park. Ironically, I failed to mention anything about fore prayer during my d’var Torah.

There is so much to say as we embark on that seven week journey toward the High Holy Days. What is sovereign in your life? What do you revere? How do you show your reverence on a daily basis?

They say that the Haftorah portions for this period reflect the ascent to the holiest days of our calendar, rather than being related to our Torah portions. And yet, I find them to be intimately related. I cried out to HaShem and She answered: “Comfort, oh Comfort.” Nachamu, nachamu – the words from Isaiah that begin the prophetic portion are a clear response to the anguish we feel. Anxiety for failing to meet our own expectations of ourselves. Shame that, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, we put our ego between HaShem and ourselves. Embarrassment that we still worship idols; we covet physical things and focus our energies on material reality, ignoring the palaces in time calling to our souls.

It is all okay. Ain od. There is nothing else. The Divine is everywhere, experiencing everything alongside us. And She will suckle us through the narrow places and we will arrive into ourselves when we are ready to take our place and heed the call to our own depths.

I meditated on the Sapphire Vision and terrified myself

Chanting this story at
DLTI-10 Week 3

At the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, we were asked to work on our leyning skills. That is, we were asked to step into the ability to decode tropes, the musical system used to chant the Torah. And for those of us who know the trope system, we were given intermediate or advanced options. We could work in partnership to chant conversations as a dialog in English or individually take a section of Torah and provide our own translation.

This project terrified me before I ever opened a Chumash. I am somewhat comfortable preparing a talk on the Torah, from the comfort of my own home with my teachers surrounding me. I take out five or six commentaries and meditate my way into a conversation on a portion.

My process for creating this English story based on the Torah

So, being at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, with a handful of unfamiliar commentaries, was quite disorienting. Further, I chose a section that I thought would allow me to enter into the deep mystery of knowing HaShem, Exodus 24.1-11; the section of the parsha Mishpatim known as the Sapphire Vision; an entry point into Jewish mysticism.

First, I went through the available commentaries and wrote a straight-forward English version of the text. I stared at those words, devoid of any women, full of ancient blood rituals, and I felt a chasm open up between me and HaShem. I asked our holy teacher, Hazzan Jack Kessler, how much space I had for interpretation. He encouraged me to explore the story however I wanted to, and pointed out how strange the ending of the passage is. (You see HaShem’s throne and your response is to eat and drink?)

I practiced chanting the Torah portion in Hebrew, to get myself more deeply connected to the holy sparks within it. I also assumed that it makes the most sense to follow the trope cadence already assigned when developing an English translation. So, initially, I was going to chant my English story as simply as Mishpatim describes The Sapphire Vision. And then, on the first day of English leyning, my holy sisters and brothers pulled out rare tropes to adorn their English. And I thought, well, if any portion deserves adornment, surely it is a vision of the Divine. Plus, all that fancy note work might keep people from booing me out of the room for the heresy of my story. (Because there was still a large portion of me terrified of sharing my story publicly, in front of an open Torah.)

In terror, I stepped forward.

This is the hardest thing I did last week. It cracked open a part of me that I didn’t know was there. I am so deeply grateful to Reb Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler, along with our other holy teachers, for creating the space that allowed me to greet the Shechinah with open arms.

Another Sapphire Vision

Click here for an audio version of this story.

Yah spoke to Moshe saying: travel up to Miriam and the kohanot. And Moshe went up; him, and Aaron, and the other males thirsting for Divine flow. Miriam showed Moshe the way in.

And Moshe returned and told the people all that he heard.

And Yisrael replied: all that Yah said, we shall do.

Moshe wrote instructions for living a life of goodness.

In gratitude, he built an altar to HaShem and placed twelve pillars around it. He prayed that the Holy One and Her people would fill the world with glory and love.

Then, Moshe took the book of the covenant and read into the ears of the people.

They said: All that Yah has commanded we will do.

Moshe blessed the people and thanked them for trusting him.

Moshe returned to the Mountain of Flow; he and all the men eager to meet the Source. Miriam greeted them; the Kohanot taught the spiral dance.

Lo, they glimpsed the Divine.

BRILLIANT, DEEP BLUE SAPPHIRE.

Blue / Black, Smooth as Ice, Firm as Mountains, Soft as Babies.

The men were overwhelmed. All of the men were overwhelmed by the brilliance. All of the men except Moshe.

Miriam held Moshe’s hand and he felt the pure love and emptying of childbirth.

They returned to the Kehillah Kedushah, the holy community, emanating the pure light of the Divine.

The men were overjoyed to be let in. And the men prepared a great feast. And all of them sat together. And they ate and they drank.