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Archive for October, 2012

Change is Hard

Change is hard, even change for the better. The saga of Abraham and Sarah is one of metamorphosis. One of the most metamorphic events in my life was the one that made me “mommy”. That was hard: oy! labor and delivery! God was in the room that day as I looked into my newborn’s surprisingly big eyes, and was moved to a pact of love.  I did not know what lay in store for us, and I knew the road ahead was fraught with danger, she was so vulnerable, and I so inadequate. But ahead we went to the life that would unfold. Ironically it is barrenness that besets Abram and Sarai,  (for those are their tadpole names) and perhaps catalyzes the start of their journey to change. Abram and Sarai leave wealth, comfort, familiarity to the call Lech L’chah, and L’chi Lach to become the mavericks they must be.  To leave: father’s home, birthplace and homeland.  But if God is everywhere, why a new place?…

A story of the seer of Lublin, who would one day become a great teacher. As a boy he was in the habit of going to the woods for hours at a time. So one day his father asked him why he went. “I am going to find God” replied the boy. Said the father: “My son, that’s beautiful, but don’t you know God is the same everywhere?”  “Yes,” said the boy, “but I’m not.”  So Abram and Sarai must go to a place they can find God.

A folktale from our tradition, adapted from Penninah Schram’s Stories One Generation Tells Another, is an fascinating parallel to this Torah tale.    Once in a small town in Eastern Europe lived a couple who had almost everything.  Abram and Sarah were wealthy, generous and wise. Everywhere they gave tzedakah, assisting the poor in their town, generous to a fault. And yet they could not conceive children. Sarah went to the Rabbi to ask what could be done. Listen and do just as I say. You shall host a feast for all the hungry of the town, and set the least of your guests at the head of the table. So, as the Rabbi had instructed they prepared a fabulous feast for the poor of the town. While serving, a ragged man approached Abram and asked to be seated at the head of the table. Disgusted at the beggars filth Abram rebuffed him, and showed him to a crowded table with others like him. The beggar insisted Take me to your wife, I have an important message. When he was brought to Sarah he informed her You did not follow the Rabbi’s directions! Because you have offered food, you shall conceive, but the child you bear will be in the form of a snake! Sarah realized then that the beggar was none other than Elijah, and wept at her fate. Abram comforted her saying Do not worry, this will be our child, and we will take care of him. And Sarah was comforted. Indeed when her time to give birth arrived, a snake was born to Sarah. The midwife  cried in fear and ran. But the snake/child was always kind and they cared for him, taught him and brought him up as their own. When the snake/child reached the age of 13 years, he asked  for a tallit and kippah, and for his turn to teach at the synagogue. After consulting with the Rabbi, the couple relented, though some fled from the synagogue. After this day, the snake would often disappear into the woods for hours at a time, and the couple trembled in fear for his safety, for they loved their child, but he always returned.  One day the snake/child approached his father saying Father, I am of age, and it is time to arrange a shiddach so I may enter into marriage. Abram was beside himself! But he went to the Rabbi, who said: Listen and do exactly as I say: travel to the neighboring town, and there find the house of the poorest hermit who lives in the wood. Ask to be his guest for Shabbat. Though strange things may pass, ask no questions. So, the couple traveled, and when they asked, townspeople directed them to a poor hovel outside of the town. A poor, bedraggled hermit answered the knock on the door. Please, sir, may we spend Shabbat with you? When the hermit replied that he had no food to share, and no beds for guests the couple responded Do not worry, we will sleep on the floor, and we will buy enough food for us all to share. And so the hermit agreed, and prepared a Sabbath meal. The couple noticed that the hermit prepared eight meals for the evening, set three on the table and brought five into a back room. But, heeding the instruction of the Rabbi, they asked no questions. The same odd pattern repeated during the morning and afternoon meals, with five meals brought to the back room. Unable to control their curiosity any more Abram exclaimed: Tell us, to whom are you bringing these meals? They insisted in spite of the hermits hesitation, until he admitted: I have five daughters but all are in rags, for I cannot afford clothes for them. Abram and Sarah were delighted: Bring them out, we will buy clothes for them all!  And as the daughters came out, each beautiful maiden was asked if they would agree to marry the couple’s son. The four oldest declined, but the youngest agreed, so desperate was she to escape her poverty. Nervously, they brought the maiden home, afraid she’d change her mind upon seeing their son. While she waited in the couple’s home, a snake slithered into her room, and before she had a chance to be surprised, he shed his skin and transformed into a handsome young man, saying Do not be afraid, and tell no one of my words, but know that everything will work out fine if you agree to be my bride. The young woman agreed, and so the wedding date was set. Nervously the couple arranged for the ceremony and celebration, and were delighted to see not a snake but a human son wearing the talit they had given him under the wedding canopy. Hugging their son, he explained: After you gave me the talit, I would go each day into the woods to study with Elijah the prophet, I have learned so much! And the couple lived happily for the rest of their days.

The saga of Abram and Sarai in Torah is one of enslavement to old ways, and of change: they first leave their home, to travel to the place that God will show them. Though they physically move, still they are  in old patterns, lacking faith that God is with them and that their future will be secure. Slavery is foretold in Abram’s vision, and echoed in Sarai’s slave Hagar, and in Sarai’s capture by Pharoah. But the brit, covenant, of circumcision accompanies a new name, a metamorphosis of spirit perhaps of Abraham and Sarah, and finally a son, named for laughter, Yitschak, is born – and yet another metamorphosis. But we, and are children are born all instinct and animal, like the snake/son. Though birth is a transformation, we must journey more to find our true selves, to reveal the mentsch (good human) behind the animal. Lech L’chah literally means go for yourself, Lechi Lach , the feminine form, means go TO yourself. Could it be that the real purpose of the journeys and the metamorphosis is to uncover our authentic self – so the snake can shed its skin to reveal the person hiding within?!

We all need a catalyst for even the most favorable change is hard, getting started is the hardest thing. Routine breeds routine, and we become enslaved in old ways. In the excerpt of Leah Goldberg’s poem below, set to melody by Benji Ellen Schiller, and recorded by Beged Kefet in One Little Dot, a prayer for openness to learning. Perhaps this openness, and learning is what’s needed for change But why does the poet pray for renewal of God’s days, not our human days? That must be our job: to learn and be open to change.

Teach me oh God a blessing, a prayer, on the mystery of a withered leaf,  On ripened fruit so fair, on the freedom to see, to sense, to breathe, to know,… to hope, ….to despair…Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise, as each morning and night You renew Your days, lest my day be as the one before, lest routine set my ways            Leah Goldberg


Rainbows and Prisms

Rainbows are amazing things.  A scattering of light, a blast of joy and color. What’s great about rainbows is they reveal what was always there – because white light contains all those wavelengths, hidden, waiting to come out. All you need’s a prism – something that touches the light at a good angle, with the power to uncover the beauty within. The same phenomenon can work with our soul’s light, and those inspirations in our life can touch us as a prism does. We all have that beauty as potential, after all we are b’tzelem Elohim -in God’s image. The trick is to open up enough to be changed. Maybe by music, or love, an event, a natural wonder…to be touched, to be liberated. And the rainbow’s impact is so much more powerful if it’s been dark for awhile. The other trick is to look for rainbows hidden in what’s around us.

In Parashat Noach, the world is drowning in darkness: the thoughts of people’s hearts are evil all the long day. A world of slaughter. It is out of this darkness that Noach sees rainbows, perhaps first in the eyes of his wife Na-amah, or his sons. In Greek myth Iris is the goddess of rainbows, also a messenger goddess. Iris: we name the uniquely colorful part of our eye for her – there are rainbows in our eyes, because that spark, b’tzelem Elohim is there. Iris is a messenger: malach, in Hebrew which is also Angel. So maybe it’s the messengers of our lives that can be our prism.
The rainbow becomes the sign of the Promise, the covenant, eternal hope in the sparkle of the sky, the sparkle in our eyes. Look for the Rainbow – it’s there, just hidden.

Debbie Friedman z”l wrote the Rainbow Covenant song, a melody I still use when I see a rainbow.

What’s in a rainbow that makes it so magical, linking the present with promises of old?

Eyes seeking color, hearts stretching far beyond the heavens,

Dreams not forgotten, memories of unfold

Where there’s a rainbow, we thank the Holy One, thinking of promises made long ago.

So when we thank you and think of your miracles, we know that the rainbow’s a promise we make too.

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu, melech ha-olam, zocher ha-brit, v’neeman b’vrito, v’kayam b’ma-amaro

(Adonai our God, Source of our blessings, Ruler of the Universe, you remember and are faithful to the B’rit, and the eternal promise to creation.)

I know I have to uphold my part of this sacred covenant, to do what I can, that life endures, by caring, loving, protecting,  My soul’s rainbow binds me powerfully to this promise. ..and God, please bless the prisms! and one more thing:

If Noah hadn’t saved all those animals on the teva, Kermit could never have sung that classic song: Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? Rainbows are visions but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide…. what’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing, and what do we think we might see? Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me. All of us under its spell, we know that it’s probably magic!

The Language of God.

Baruch She-amar v’haya ha-olam God spoke, and the world existed. (morning liturgy)

B’reishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz” (Genesis 1:1) With beginnings God created the heavens and the earth.

So after all the celebrations, we begin again with Creation. And God said, Let there be light! and there was light… it was good!   What a powerful, puzzling statement: with words begins the universe? How is that even possible, and what language could that be – so powerfully creative?
Five possibilities in this post.

First possibility: the words are mathematics: e=mc2or f=ma or pv=nrt…. the language of the universe’s physical laws, upon which so many things stem. These are laws of relationship, how one part of the universe is connected to another. For example according to e=mc2 matter is actually energy, congealed, related somehow to the speed of light, (which is also, somehow, a cosmic speed limit). Relationships are also part of the essence of Torah: linking you and me to the universe, and to  God, it’s creative power, linking  human beings to the natural world, linking family members, friends, enemies, nations. Math and Torah: both exist in relationships, the spaces in between, it’s where creation happens.

Second possibility: Could the language of God be Hebrew letters? R. Douglas Goldhammer, Skokie Ill, wrote a wonderful Kabbalistic vision of the language of God this week in Ten Minutes of Torah he writes: …imagine God sitting in front of a cosmic typewriter, punching the keys of the different letters of the Hebrew alphabet and watching the world come into being. God punched in the word adamah and the earth was formed. When the earth was formed, it was made up not only of molecules, atoms, and quarks, but also of the Hebrew letters that make up the word adamah. The ground, or the earth, was made up of infinitely small alefs, dalets, mems, and heis. Remove these constituent letters and everything comes tumbling down….. Each one of these Hebrew letters has a different cosmic energy force that God used to create the earth and its moveable parts. Poetry or anthropomorphism? and why Hebrew? AH, why indeed! Hebrew letters are also numbers, as all fans of gematria know. (Gematria takes the numerical value of words, and finds deep insights connecting these numbers to the concepts of the word) Each word has a numerical as well as symbolic and aural meaning. What better language than Hebrew to have the power of creation: the symbolism of ideas, the sounds of our hearts, and the mathematics all rolled into one language! Pure poetry, and creatively powerful. And upon what parchment is this language written? We know now that space is not empty, that the lowest energy state of space is a Higgs field, which gives photons mass as they interact with the field, zooming around at the speed of light! Perhaps it is upon this creative background on which God “typed” instructions!

Third possibility: maybe the language of God is light itself, or life itself.  An excerpt from Beth Schafer’s The Word

When all was dark and there was nothing
From out of the darkness there was the word
And when all was still on the verge of creation
From out of the stillness there came the word
   You are The Word, the first and the last
    Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam
    You are The Word, through Your lips life would pass
    Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam
A word to set the world in motion
A word to bring on the light
Let all hear with awe and devotion
That the language of God is life, is life

When it is dark and I can’t find my being
I reach in the darkness for Your word
And when I am still on the verge of creation
I search in my stillness for the right word…

As a composer, Beth  sings well of the struggle to create with words. You can create: weave a feeling, a concept, into  true communication, but only if you find the words that work!  Funny thing is I always thought the lyric here was: “the language of God is light” because light was first into the darkness, and so symbolic of inspiration itself, and perhaps because the photon which carries the energy of light is so fundamental. But our own existence is only through the magic of mysterious LIFE, another existence in relationships, more than the sum of the body’s parts is our life, and our Nefesh/soul.

A fourth, and fun possibility, maybe the language of God is MUSIC! Music is also one of those magical things which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s fun to imagine a world whose basic construction is sixteenth notes, or chords. It’s not impossible, because music itself is based upon the mathematics of wavelengths, and rhythms, timing and melody, and those relationships which we call harmony. I would not be surprised to see music woven into the fabric of existence itself

Final possibility: Perhaps the language of God is Love, After all, the story of the first earthlings, Adam and Chava is a part of this first portion too. And Love,  just as math and Torah and music, exists in the spaces in between, in relationship, as more than the some of its parts: it is creative.  This telling  is adapted from R. Ed Feinstein’s Capture the Moon. It’s called Paradise– and it’s the first love story.

From the day Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, they lived together east of Eden, tilling the earth and raising kids, struggling just to stay alive. After many years, when their kids were grown Adam and Eve decided to take a journey before it was too late, to see the world that God created. They traveled the world, exploring it’s wonders…standing on mountain peaks, trekking across vast deserts, and amidst the trees of the forests, watching the sun rise over the ocean, experiencing creation.  In their travels they came upon a place that seemed really familiar… the Garden of Eden, from which they’d been exiled. The garden was now guarded by a scary angel with a flaming sword. Scared, they ran away.

Suddenly they heard God’s gentle voice “My children, you have lived in exile all these many years. Your punishment is paid, come now, return to my garden, come home…and suddenly, the scarey angel disappeared. The path into the garden was before them.. but Adam had spent many years in the world, he was skeptical, he asked God: remind me again, please, what is it like in the garden?   why it’s Paradise! God responds, you never have to work or struggle again, no pain, no suffering, no death, no time… no yesterday or tomorrow, only an endless now… come my children, home to the garden!  Adam considered God’s words, a life with no work, pain, time or death.. a life of ease. Then he turned and looked at Eve, his wife, into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take food from the earth, to raise children, to build a home… He read in lines of her face the sorrows they’d overcome and the joys as well, all the laughter and tears.  Eve looked into Adam’s face and remembered joys and sorrows, of birthing children, and of death intruding too. Eve took Adam’s hand in hers… they looked into each others eyes, “no thank you, that’s not for us now, we don’t need that now” they said, They turned their back on paradise and walked home.

So maybe it’s love that is still creating the world.

Water, water everywhere, and a song.

All my thoughts have been drawn to water lately.

Ushavtem mayim b’sason mimayney hayeshua
Mayim, Mayim, Mayim, Mayim…

Why is it that at occasions of joy we sing and dance and shout about water? This song is from Isaiah – You shall draw water in joy from wells of salvation! Water is life, in so many ways, from tears of sadness or joy to the amniotic fluid or the parted sea from which we were born.  In the desert wilderness, especially. In a few days, the Amidah will change from the blessing of tal, the dew, to that for geshem, the rain and wind. Next week we read about the separation of waters in creation, and the following week about the terrifying, cleansing floods of Noah. It has been our wisdom to be mindful of water.

Some post-Yom Kippur thoughts. There are some things I really loved about the journey of Yom Kippur – the soul searching, the hugs, and singing my heart out. But I fear the dehydration my body endures,  it makes me really appreciate WATER. Awareness of water: we are mainly composed of water, it flows through us and dissolves things and pulses within our veins. Beyond our bodies, planet Earth is really the water planet – but only because of our miraculous “Goldilocks” location in the solar system: situated perfectly in distance from the sun so that our oceans neither boil off, nor freeze solid, it is water which keeps the temperature of our planet habitable. Water can do all these great feats because it is electrically polarized, statically sticky, weird. Also, and my Hebrew name is Miriam, containing yam, sea, within. Miriam is legendary not only for saving her brother from the Nile, and singing our freedom across the sea of Reeds, but while she lived, Miriam’s well of living water, mayim chayim followed the Israelites through their desert wanderings. Fresh water is precious,  it is life, we often take it for granted – we should not. Only one percent of the planet’s water is fresh and potable.

With climate change, increasingly drought haunts many regions. Crop failure means rising prices, starvation. In parts of our world children dig in muddy wells, scraping water and walking far distances to bring water home. Drought kills. Somehow we who are mostly made of water must waste it less, keep it pure, appreciate it more….draw water from the wells of salvation.

A wonderful song about water, by David Wilcox: the Farthest shore

Finally, I offer one more  song for this season of introspection and joy:  Dan Nichols’ All We Can Do. It’s about life and death and the potential in that space between. With last week’s Yiskor, and a death in my family, and Kohelet being read during Sukkot, where all is vanity, and with Moses approaching death, unable to enter the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, this beautiful song is perfectly timed:

Do as much as you can, with the time that you have, in the place where you are,

Eighteen words from a kid,

With less than a year to live,

Eighteen words from a kid

He knew so much more than we thought he did

Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor
v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena

What can one person do, the task is great and the day is short, words our fathers knew, we can’t do it all but we can all do more.

From all that used to be, to all that might have been, there’s no mystery, when we work with what’s in between

All we can do, is all we can do. All we can do is all we can do!

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