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Archive for September, 2012

Kol Nidre: All Our Vows?

Vows and promises are powerful things.  This Story Shulamis is adapted from Peninnah Schram’s Stories One Generation tells Another.

Many years ago in a far place a young woman, a princess, went for a walk in the country wearing a fine gown of gold and silver. As curious as she was beautiful, she decided to explore along paths she had never been, deeper and deeper into the woods. After awhile, she came to a well.

“Good”, she said to herself, “I am so thirsty, I will just sit in this bucket, lower myself for a drink” which she did, but was unable to pull herself back up. What did she do then? She began to cry for help so a passerby would hear.  After a long time, a young man walking nearby heard her cries. He went over to the well, looked down and saw a strange form in gold and silver. “Are you human or demon?” he shouted down. “ I am human, pull me up, I have no more strength” “Swear to me you are human, and if you are, then when I raise you up you must marry me”   She was very cold down in the well, so she agreed.  The young man pulled on the ropes, and soon the young woman was standing next to him and she saw how handsome was the young man and with a wonderful smile.

“Now that I have saved you, and you are more beautiful than I imagined, you must marry me immediately”, Said the young man.  Who are your family?, the woman asked guardedly. No worries, I am from a respected Jewish family, a Kohen.  “I thank you for saving me, but you must first meet my parents and ask their permission to marry?

“I will wait, then, until I meet your parents” he said, “give me your word that you will marry no one else, and that will assure me of our pledge.”   “My word of pledge without witnesses? The young woman asked with a smile. “Look, there is a weasel, and the well for witnesses, and besides, we have the stars in heaven above us too”

“Agreed” answered the groom to be. And he promised as they walked to come to her parents’ home soon. They parted, repeating their promise to be true.

Each day the young woman waited for the young man, but he never came. Days into months into years. But she remembered his strength, his smile, his promise. With time, more and more suitors came to marry her. At first she simply refused each one, giving an excuse. She did not speak of her pledge to anyone, though, and after a time she began to feign madness to keep her secret and her pledge, acting strangely, tearing out her hair, bursting into song, or into silence. After awhile no more suitors came.

And what happened to the young man?  He returned to the city and did not remain faithful to his pledge. He married another, and before long they had a son. One day, when the child was three months old, he fell asleep in the garden, and his throat was pierced by a weasel’s fangs. The sorrow was deep in that home.  After awhile the couple had a second child, whom they watched carefully – and he was strong and healthy. One day when the child was three years old, he ran out into the garden, quickly climbed up a well, lost his balance and fell to his death.  The mother hearing his scream ran over but too late.  She was inconsolable, and kept repeating “Why? Why?”  When the mourning period was over the grieving wife came to her husband to ask if he know why the children had died so strangely. “Husband have you hidden something from me? Have you ever broken a pledge? There must be a curse on us for all this to happen. Perhaps by telling me the truth we can prevent even more unhappiness”  When the husband heard his wife’s words he realized he must confess, that he was responsible for this grief.  He fell on his knees, wept and revealed what had happened in the wood so long ago when he rescued the princess.

His young wife listened, then walked over to the window and looked at the stars for counsel. After a few moments, she knew what to say.  “We must go and get a divorce, and then you must find the young woman to whom you gave your sacred word to marry. Only then can we all find happiness and peace in our lives

When the young man arrived in the town where his betrothed lived, he asked about her. Everyone told him “ She’s crazy that one, no one would want her for a wife” but after awhile, the young man was direct to her home.  At first the family tried to make excuses why he could not visit.  But he said, “bring 3 witnesses, I promise to take her with any defects she has” Only then they allowed him in. When the young man saw his betrothed, he was shocked by the change in her appearance. She looked like a wild woman, but even now he saw traces of her loveliness, and her smile and he loved her.

He approached her and softly whispered” I have brought 3 witnesses, but I have also brought with me the memory of our original  and true witnesses, the weasel, the well and the stars in the heavens”  When the young woman heard these words, she looked up to see the young man. Her eyes became clear and bright, her loveliness returned, and she spoke slowly with her true clear voice. “I have stayed with my promise to remain faithful to you, for once a sacred oath has been taken, it cannot be broken”

Upon hearing these words, the young man wept. Then he told his betrothed what had happened “ What happened to my children was because of my broken promise – for that I must atone. But now, my love, if your love for me remains as strong as my feeling for you, let us be married – with your parents permission, of course. Her parents wept and granted their permission to marry the daughter, if she consented. So she did, and they were married. They had many children together and lived a life filled with happiness and contentment.

I have a few minor problems with this story: Firstly: what of the vows to his first wife – doesn’t this divorce break those? And is it really wise to make a binding pledge at first sight under the stars? Can people really go crazy if a promise of marriage is unfulfilled? We know the answer is yes, sometimes they do.

There are many more stories like this in Jewish tradition. Childless Hannah pledges her son to the Temple if she conceives.  Not only in Jewish tradition, but Everywhere-  Childhood is full of these stories –“ I’ll let your child go if you guess my name – could it be “Rumpelstilskin” – well then you gave your word, you must let the child go.”

The Kol Nidre prayer that we say on the eve of Yom Kippur has always bothered me. I was in y Synagogue’s office one day in early October,  when the phone rang, and it was someone from the local press asking what the words Kol Nidre  meant for an article about the upcoming holiday.  Well, it’s from the prayer -It means “all our vows” I helpfully added. But I thought to myself and did not say– we pray that they be nullified.  Unravel the words?  forget about the obligations of our souls? Is this right, I thought – what would  the outside world think of us –and what do I think of us- we are obviously not folks of our word, if we pray each year that they be discounted!

I knew the tradition arose from the Spanish Inquisition, where many were forced to falsely vow. I know that we are fallible, and sometimes stuff happens, even after an honest try we just cannot fulfill our word. But still it left me uneasy. Until  I learned of the tale of Jepthahs’(Yeftach’s)  daughter. Here’s a summary. Yeftach is the soldier, son of a prostitute, he rises to power.  He takes a lot of pride in his strength.  His nation,  Israel calls on him to lead them in a fight against Ammon. He feels, or thinks he feels, God’s presence in his life and he knows he’s doing right – doing God’s work, helping his nation. He makes an oath with God:  “If I win, If I get back safely, the first thing I see when I get into the town, the first thing out of the door of my house, I will offer to God as sacrifice.  He wins. He comes home, and his daughter dances through the doorway.  The text said:  and he did as he had vowed.  and so it became a custom to say dirges for the daughter of Yeftah. (Judges 11:28)

Oh, my God! This stupid man, thinking he felt close to God, actually thought that Creator wants him to sacrifice his daughter.  According to midrash, Yeftah was as stupid as a block of wood, that’s why he lost his daughter. What made him think that’s what God wanted? Drunk with his own sense of power and  self righteousness  – he took his own words to be powerful law and murdered.  Joel Grishaver notes:  He could have gotten the high priest, Pinchas, to annul the vow, but he was too proud a “leader “ to ask anyone to help him.  He stupidly put one vow above all the other teachings, for example in our tradition that to save a life is greater than almost all the other laws. Yeftah’s kind of thinking can turn a religion dangerously cruel and radical.

So yes, vows are important , to us all.  If I promise to marry you I really will come for you. But our word, even our vow  is not more important than life, than truth. The story of Yeftah’s daughter shows us powerfully that Kol nidre is the perhaps counterbalance to taking ourselves and our words too seriously –seriously enough to do hurt. We must accept and embrace our own limitations even as we strive to be honorable and keep our promises. We make mistakes, our word is not divine law.  Perhaps that is what Kol Nidre is for. G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may you be sealed for Goodness this Yom Kippur.


Voice of Gentle Stillness

Elijah: Eliyahu ha navi saw an inspiring vision of God on the mountaintop. In Hebrew his vision is kol d’mamah dakah, the Voice of Gentle Stillness. Eli is the beloved, champion of downtrodden who never died (he rose to heaven on fiery chariot), so he visits us still to right wrongs, comfort the pained, and redeem us. I studied the verses of Elijah this July from First Kings 18:46-19:21, and really paid attention for the first time. I was wowed – these verses really spoke to me deeply, and as Rosh Hashanah 5773 approach I share my thoughts about God and Elijah’s inspiration: the Voice of Gentle Stillness, beginning with a summary of the story in verse:

Kol D’mama Dakah, a Voice of Gentle Stillness
Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu

Fearing for his life Eliyahu fled to Yizreala, from Jezabel
All alone and in despair, God please take my life! he prayed
I am no better than my fathers!

A messenger of God then touched Eliyahu suddenly
You are not alone, he said Eat my friend, and drink, I am with you.
Rise up from the darkness, and Go!
Rise up from the darkness, and know
Why you are here, are you listening?

God said Go to the mountain, I’ll be there!
Furious wind split the rocks, but Listen:
God is not in the wind.
After the wind, an earthquake, then a fire,

Trembling ground, singeing air,

But listen: God is not in the earthquake or the fire  .

Then Eliyahu could finally hear…
Kol D’mama Dakah, a voice of Gentle Stillness

  1. Eliyahu has a journey: from the depths of despair to insight and inspiration, aided by 2 malachim messengers that give him food and water, but more importantly the living message he’s not alone! The word malach in Hebrew means messenger and angel, they are the same thing, they are those people in our lives that touch us in some incredible way, They are US when we can be there for someone  Eli journeys from Darkness to light: insight,  inspiration – maybe without coming from the darkness, so yearning , he could not have gained the heights?   Eli’s insight: Shema, Listen, and  WHAT Eliyahu can finally hear that is pretty amazing: he tells us where to find God, and it’s earth shattering and mind blowing stuff:
  2. Kol D’mama daka, voice of gentle stillness – GOD IS HERE, in this voice! Just as revolutionary is knowing where God is NOT:  First thing up is a ruach, wind/spirit that is powerful enough to split mountains, shatter rocks.  One metaphor for God IS ruach, another is Rock, This is crazy – contradicting all CW what do you mean God isn’t in these things. But Eliyahu’s insight is NO. Earthquakes are pretty impressive and so powerful. Waddya mean God’s not here? And then there’s fire – a symbol of energy and spirit Why isn’t God here, and what is that VOICE? What do YOU think Eli’s vision , what is the still small voice?
  3. Maybe this: After the drama in our lives, the struggle, war, fighting, comes the silence pregnant with new hope, new life – That’s where God is!  Look, Eli’s life IS an earthquake, a drama But the insight of Eli’s journey is to Reject drama. This is maverick –we pray that God fashions light AND creates darkness. But as darkness is the absence of light, could the bad stuff be the absence of God?  God’s not in the destruction, Not sitting there zapping people for punishment. God’s in the Good stuff. The creative power of the universe.  What if God were ONLY the force animating creation, the miracle of new life, a baby born, a seedling sprouting, galaxies forming from nebulae, communities from caring individuals. Not in the drama that overwhelms us –A Vision of God worth meditating on, reaching for resonance with.
  4. But can God NOT be in whirlwinds? Well, maybe if we look deep within or beyond – God, and that voice is there – after all, the atoms of air and rocks, and the energy that sends them flying –are connected with the very forces of the universe, our atoms themselves forged in stars that exploded long ago  in the silence of space. In fact even empty space apparently has a field which gives particles reality, mass, it’s NOT empty, but filled with that same music of the spheres the ancients talk of. They meant the invisible laws that run through the fabric of the universe guiding the planets or stars. Maybe God’s sound is in this awe inspiring vibration. Fire and earthquakes even better places where matter and energy meet. Awareness of the majesty and intricacy of creation  can sound pretty beautiful –
  5. Another possibility: Maybe it’s the sound of Light: sound and light criss cross in Torah: at Sinai, we saw the thunder.  Eli has come from darkness of the spirit to the heights of the mountain, and now he can hear – light? What does it sound like?
  6. Or maybe it’s the invisible connections between everything Eli hears, if you could hear connections, what would they sound like, God?, Connections of action and reaction – between the hearts of people. Notice God’s answer to Eli’s prayer of Despair -It’s people. They bring him food and drink – with hands that care, the arms that hug, the voices that reassure. Connections between people. create communities, Connections between creatures that create living systems. In proper connection, parts of this world  combine to more than their sum.. Connections are what Torah’s all about, maybe if we listen this is the harmony we’ll hear.

Where is God? wherever we let God in. HOW? Eli’s insight maybe we can LISTEN to voices of gentle stillness – of other souls whom we can reach, to awareness of the universe,  to the harmony that’s there. Maybe that voice will teach us: Listen for the sounds of:

joy         Harmony                  Nature         Music              Friendship                      Love.

Kol d’mamaa dakah – the voice of gentle stillness, the voice of the most beautiful things in the universe, the song of God

Teshuvah: Find love.

It’s not an easy thing demanded of us  at this awesome time of year, to be open, to look within, to change. For me, I know if I’m worried, or stressed, it may not even be possible. So T’shuva , returning, or repentance, has got to begin with putting on my  own oxygen mask before attending to others.  All week, since S’lichot, I’ve been obsessed with a powerful song by Dan Nichols, I Found my Love, because I finally saw this mysterious song as an incredible personal journey of T’shuva, of finding a way from anxiety to a sense of love and peace. And I am drawn to these images of the waves, and the sounds of this song, and to a shared journey. May we all find that sense of peace and love this Rosh Hashanah, and may it open our hearts to the possibility of change.

Dan Nichols’ I Found My Love

And the waves come crashing in.

I got away for a couple of days; shut my mouth and opened up to the waves.

A gentle reminder, in the hush of the foam; that the waters inside you, pour it out and come home;

And the waves come crashing in, and the waves come crashing in.

The moment is here, and the moment is gone;  the peace I crave comes when now is my song

releasing the fear, and the lump in my throat; to dive in the deep space between every note.

And the waves come crashing in, and the waves come crashing in.

With my confessions crashing on the beach, I find the peace in me within my reach;

With every honest wave that washed ashore, I found my love….I found my love

And the waves come crashing in…. (It ends and begins with love).

September Leaves

Families! It happens sometimes, that one parent or sibling chooses to outcast another….

There’s a wonderful story, about families, confusion, and choices that bring blessing or curse. As you read this story, notice how many characters face crossroads and choose a fateful path. This story is adapted from Laura Simms telling of Flowering Words, from the book Mitzvah Stories

In the land of Kurdistan, there once lived a Jewish King and Queen who had three daughters. The king wanted his daughters to marry wealthy princes, and the two eldest did. But the youngest daughter fell in love with a poor man, and married him against her parents’ wishes. The king, displeased, banished her from the kingdom.

Soon afterwards, the king awoke blind one morning (of course he did, he banished his daughter!) Doctors could not heal him. But one doctor knew of a tree with magic healing leaves which could restore sight. The tree, however, grew in a distant and dangerous land, from which no one returned.  The king commanded his son-in-laws to make the perilous journey. He told them that if they returned with the leaves, he would reward them with wealth and power. If however, they returned without the leaves, they would be killed. Having no choice, they left with strong horses, gold and food. The youngest daughter begged her husband to go, though they were banished. She wanted to help heal her father. So the poor husband willingly set out on an old mare. He carried with him only the desire to heal his father-in-law. He agreed to the same conditions as the others.

The two princes came to the border of the Land of No Return, where a guard described the awful things they would face and the gruesome dangers ahead. Terrified, they turned around and fled for their lives. They knew they could not return, so they opened up an inn near the border and remained there.

The third husband came to the same border, and spoke with the same guard, receiving the same dire warnings. But his desire to heal the king was greater than his fear, so he insisted on making the journey. The guard told him that the only one who knew the way to the magic tree was a fierce giant who lived in a house in a nearby valley. The young man reached the house, which was as high as a mountain. When the giant’s wife saw the man, she urged him to leave:  Your life is in danger! she warned. My husband will want to devour you..  The youth insisted that he must finish his quest, and told his story.

As soon as the ravenous giant returned home, his wife fed him.   I smell a man!  roared the giant.  His wife told him of the brave visitor whom she had hidden under the bed. The giant was astonished at the young man’s courage, and his dedication. Since he had already eaten his fill, he told the young man the instructions he needed to reach the tree and its healing leaves.

You are the first human I’ve met who’s not a coward!  he said, and so he told him:  For seven days you must ride until you reach a crossroad,  In one direction is written “Take this road and find safety and happiness’ and in the other is written “Do not take this road. Whoever follows it will not return”  Do not hesitate, Take the

Road of No Return. Travel until the road ends and there is nowhere to go and then say out loud “What a beautiful path” Then the road will continue on.

Next there is a valley filled with poisonous snakes. No human can survive this, so you must call out “What a beautiful valley filled with honey!”  and the snakes will disappear.  After awhile you will come to a valley filled blood and awful beasts. You must call out “What sweet butter” . The valley will empty out and you can continue.

The giant went on:  Pay attention: When you come to a palace guarded by a dragon and a viper, you have arrived. If the creatures’ eyes are open they are sleeping and you can enter, if they are closed, they’re awake. Enter the palace while they’re sleeping and you’ll come to a door guarded by four lions. If their eyes are closed, they’re awake. Wait until their eyes are open, they are sleeping and you may enter. The door has bells, I will give you a cloth to muffle their noise. You will see a queen inside asleep on her bed. When she sleeps, all the creatures sleep with their eyes open. Beside her bed grows the tree with healing leaves. Fill a bag with those leaves and put some in your pocket as well. Carefully exchange rings with her. Then without hesitation, return just as you have come.

The young man did as he was told. retrieving the leaves, exchanging rings, and returning as he’d come. But when he’d crossed the border, he decided to stop at the inn of his brother-in-laws before returning to the king.

The two princes saw the sack he was carrying, and asked about his adventure. The young man told all except for the ring and the leaves in his pocket. Well, that night they fed him poison, threw acid in his eyes to bind him and locked him in a closet. They stole his sack and made their way back to the king to claim their reward.

In the inn the next morning the youth awoke caged and blind. He remembered the leaves in his pocket and healed himself. He broke out of his prison and made his way back to his wife on his slow mare.

He showed her the leaves he had, but she replied  you are too late, my sisters husbands have already healed my father.

Meanwhile in the Land of No Return, the Queen awakened, and saw the ring, and noticed the leaves missing from her tree. She soared on her magic carpet in search of whoever it was that had stolen her ring and leaves. She inquired everywhere until she heard about two princes, now prime ministers, who had healed the king. She travelled to the palace to hear their story. They told her what they recalled, but then said they’d found the leaves in a forest and picked them.

That’s a lie!  she said. The youngest princess’ husband rode to the palace that same day. He recognized the Queen. He showed her the ring, and told her his story, and not only her, but the king and the royal family as well. He told his story in exact detail – all that had happened. Satisfied, the queen took back her ring and returned to her land. The two prime ministers were banished from the kingdom.  Perhaps they will one day learn to tell the truth, and be allowed back.  When the king heard the third husband’s story, he understood all that happened, perhaps even the cause of his own blindness. The third daughter’s husband became a trusted advisor, and they lived happily ever after in the palace.  Perhaps the Queen still lives in her palace in the Land of No Return guarding the magic healing leaves.

Did you notice all the choices? The youngest princess? The Giant’s wife and the Giant? The Queen? Each choice carries with it a motive linked to karma, consequences. The youngest daughter’s husband is moved by pure kindness, giving him incredible courage.  He traverses a scary road to arrive at place of great blessing. His kindness becomes his bridge.  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, teaches R. Nachman of Breslov: the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.

September is a time of choices and new beginnings. My nephew is beginning his freshman year, my daughter her senior year at university, my son begins high school. We each begin a New Year full of promise And always as we begin September comes this Torah portion, Ki Tavo, where the Israelites are on the border of a new, promised land, where many choices await. How will they know which way to turn? Moses and the elders will teach them!  And I love the way they teach: it encourages me to be AS DRAMATIC AS POSSIBLE in my own teaching! These verses  (Deut 27:2) instruct the people as they cross into the promised land to place the words and commands they heard at Sinai on large stones. OK, those are the rules: so what? Well, there are consequences, Blessings or Curses for choosing, or not choosing rules of kindness and decency. To dramatize these consequences, the Blessings are to be shouted from a beautiful, green mountain with flowing streams, G’rezim, and horrible Curses shouted from a barren rocky peak (Ebal).  Could there be a more dramatic lesson plan?

So we begin our New Year with choices, small and large: what to say, what to eat, who to befriend, how much to drink. Some choices feel really good at first, but may turn out really awful. We tend to rationalize ALL our choices, so how do we really know the blessing choice from the curse one?.

Rabbi Joe Black has a wonderful song called The Blessing and the Curse  Some excerpts here:

When you come into the land,

when you cross that sacred stream,

Be careful where you stand,

at Ebal, or at G’rezim…..

…be careful what you gather,

 is it blessing, is it curse?

But who would knowingly gather curses, who would stand at Ebal?

What if it’s hard to tell the difference? So hard that it seems:

the moon will get you thinking the sun can quench your thirst,

be careful what you’re drinking, is it blessing or curse?

Things are seldom the way they seem,

 yesterday’s promise is tomorrow’s dream

Dreams become the glue that binds the universe,

They can help us tell the difference between the blessing and the curse.

So choices are not always labeled. But we choose anyway.  Just as in the story, the chorus of the song suggests that our dreams, our ideals, can be our gyroscope!

But shouldn’t day-to-day choices be made on more practical grounds? That’s what the king and the brother-in-laws thought! But choose a cruel act, or an apathetic one, and the world changes a bit for the worse. Choose kindness, truth, compassion, beauty, and that karma is real too. In the story, redemption is possible even following a King’s misdeed.  But in real life, there are no magic leaves, so I end with a question: what can be those magic leaves in our lives?

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