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Archive for August, 2014

Seeing and Counting with Blessing; Re-eh

How do you know if it’s a blessing or a danger? That shiny new car – that you cannot afford, or is a gas guzzler, that lovely piece of cake, but you’ve had two already? That glass of wine -but you’ve had enough? That attractive person smiling at you: are they trying to sell you something you don’t need?  Is looking enough to know? Then how?  Well, we always will begin by looking!

What’s real, what illusion? Vision:  It can either mean insight to truth, or an imagining. The word “television” means seeing at a distance, and my son tells me there are screens with 8000 pixels per inch, beyond what the eye can see – what’s going on in that beyond? And is the existence on the screen real? “Seeing is believing” I’ve heard said, but in truth, what we see on the surface is not real. What about those times when something’s right there but you just don’t see it. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously flawed. Check out National Geographic’s “Brain Games” which features magicians playing fast and loose with our “realities” by directing our attention or inattention.  The Torah portion this week is named “Re-eh” meaning see because it begins with that word!  “See, I set before you this day blessing and curse”, says God.  Blessings if you follow the Mitzvot, curse if you do not… and to make the choice visually clear and dramatic, the Israelites are to set up the blessings on a green, lush mountain, and the curses on a barren one. God challenges us to choose well. But it isn’t always obvious, or easy to look beyond the surface!  The text could have just said: I set before you this day, what is added, what is God trying to tell us by beginning with “Re-eh, see”? Be careful! the text warns many times “guard and listen” “don’t be lured” by idol worshipers, dream diviners, false prophets, by loved ones luring you astray. Guard and listen. follow the Mitzvot!

The first Mitzvah the Israelites got as a nation, before we even left Egypt was that of Honoring the new month, in this case Aviv, spring’s month. This coming week Tuesday and Wednesday begin a new month  – the month of Elul which leads us to our journey approaching the High Holy days, our inner journey of teshuvah, an upward journey to finding joy and love. Elul is the month whose very name is an acronym for love, from the song of songs: Ani L’dodi v’dodi li. Of course, the word “month” is based upon “moon” and the Jewish month begins with the new, or barely visible moon. Her light changes nightly and predictably, and the celebration of the moon who rules the night has long been connected with women, and in Jewish tradition is a holiday which celebrates women!

A story of the moon from the legendary town of Chelm, home of the infamous wise fools. The townspeople loved the times when the moon shone brightly in the heavens. In the beautiful glow of the evenings  their homes filled with happiness and they were content. Children listened, all responded with kindness. But as the moon’s light ebbed, gloom and sadness seemed to settle upon them all.  “This just won’t do”, they said. “We must figure out a way to keep joyful even on the dark nights,” proclaimed the leaders.  “If only we could catch the moon,” said Yossele the tailor “we would have it, and could release light into those dark nights!” But how? the people wondered. Yankel the tailor mused, “Last week I was sipping a bowl of borsht. As I ate, I noticed that in the bowl was the light of the moon! Perhaps if we had a large enough bowl we could catch it!”  And all the brilliant folks of Chelm enthusiastically nodded – what a great Idea, they proclaimed! And so it was determined to try to trap the moon. In every home pots of borsht simmered.  Someone donated a bathtub, others contributed boards of lumber, and Moshe the carpenter directed the volunteers to construct the world’s largest soup tureen.  One night as the moon shone full and bright, the townspeople brought all their borsht and dumped it into what must have been the world’s largest soup bowl.  The moon light shimmered. “ooh”, admired the townfolk, and then several of them lifted the lid and “crash” covered it tightly. At that exact moment a cloud came to obscure the moon.  “We’ve done it!” they rejoiced, “we own the moon light”. Never again need we endure dreary depressing nights!” And they danced and rejoiced all the long night!  But the next night, as the sun sank beyond the horizon of Chelm and darkness spread, the moon rose once again.  “Treachery!” thought the townspeople. “Someone must have let the moon out of the pot!”  And so the search was afoot, house to house, all were interrogated as to their whereabouts during the day of the theft. And one by one, each denied the deed, had alibis – working in the field, studying in the classroom, caring for the shop. Finally the geniuses of Chelm, with no other suspects, reluctantly knocked on their beloved Rabbi’s door. “Excuse us Rabbi, but could it be you…?”  “Yes it was I who let the moon out of the pot,” sighed the Rabbi.  A murmer of surprise spread through the people, of disbelief!  “But we worked so hard, why would you do this, Rabbi?” “Why? I will tell you: because there are some things which we enjoy when they are ours completely,” began the Rabbi. “Like my shoes!” Cried Yossle, “Like my candlesticks,” cried Breyna. “That’s right!” the Rabbi explaine  “But their are other things that we cannot own, that we can only enjoy by sharing them,” continued the Rabbi. “Like Love?”, asked Asher, “and hugs,” offered Miri, “and joy”, shouted Aviva! “Yes, like joy and hugs and love!” responded the Rabbi. “And the moon?” asked Shmuel?  “Yes, the moon” Replied the Rabbi. “But now we will forever have to have dark, scary, gloomy nights each month” “what on earth shall we do?”  The Rabbi stroked his beard. “It is true” he said, “that we will all have some gloomy, dark days., it’s part of life.” But we can help each other through these dark times,” he continued, “by sharing something comforting and fortifying during these difficult times!”  “Like what?” they asked. “Like Soup!” answered the Rabbi.  And so it became a tradition in Chelm. On those darkest of nights, neighbors would knock on each others doors and share a bowl of borsht, and perhaps a hug.

What is real, what illusion? It’s an illusion that the moon creates light or is  gone when it’s dark just as it’s illusion that the moon can be captured in a soup tureen. But you can feel the tide, the moon’s pull. Illusion – that it’s possible to have only joyful times by grabbing and holding on to reflections and shadows, but real that you can share the soup you’ve captured it in.  It is also an illusion that while walking through New York on the way to your concert or show, that the homeless person on the street is invisible. Should you give them a dollar? How do you know if it’s a blessing or a curse? Re-eh continues, “if there is a needy person among you. do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin…give readily and have no regrets…for there will always be needy ones in your land..” which is kind of sad, but true.

So how do you know if it’s blessing or a ‘curse” – where can we look for guidance? “Follow my Mitzvot”, is God’s advice in parashat Re-eh for how choose blessing. I learned this week through Reb Arthur that Mitzvah can be translated “connectedness” If you connect deeply to a friend, or a beggar or to a tree in the forest or bird in the sky, or a child, then love commands you to care.  And the new month can help us know:  Elul, “Ani L’Dodi,,,I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Truth is that by listening and opening up to, and embracing one another we can find our way. Perhaps the only way to avoid the illusion is to see with our hearts. from a song I wrote last week at the conference:

And if we build bridges of Love, And if we build them heart to heart;

Then Eden blooms again; and many waters cannot quench this love of ours:

And then we will choose blessing as we count our way through the new month to Rosh Hashanah – the new year. Not just counting our blessings, but counting WITH blessings, day by day, moment by moment. “And if we choose rightly and often enough then the broken fragments of our world will be restored to wholeness” (Chaim Stern, Gates of Prayer)

Eilat Chayim

I went someplace new, took a leap of faith, and I was totally plugged in and energized by the experience. I saw the program description, a course called “Wild Roots of Torah” about nature, Torah, music and stories…. and it sounded like a perfect fit! It was part of Eilat Chayim  program at Isabella Friedman nature center in the Connecticut Berkshires, a beautiful location to be sure:  majestic Pines and Aspens surrounding a small lake, complete with a playful resident muskrat and swooping swallows. But more beautiful were the energy and caring and kindness of the teachers and participants. And the joy of finding resonance – with the people, the surroundings, with ideals and values, and hopes we shared

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Wednesday:   it is pouring at the  nature center. Rain makes tiny circles in the lake, and runs in rivulets down trees and ground.  I am engaged with the program “Wild  Roots of Torah”, led by Rabbi Natan Margalit and Cara Silverberg (our nature guide).  R’ Natan is a gentle, kind, wise soul with an easy smile that lights up playfully whenever we find wonderful connections, or in appreciation of natural beauty.   On our first afternoon, Cara asked the group to find something amazing in our surroundings, and to enthusiastically share it. Natan was found soon swinging from a low, flexible tree branch!  Cara is passionate, and deeply connected to nature, movement and music.  It’s the second day, so, as per plan,  we are discussing water – in the world, in life, in metaphor. It’s the only rainy day and the weather/text coincidence strikes us, one of many coincide-incidents these last 2 days.  In the text we are studying, humanity is moving from the well watered river valley plains civilizations, to hills and valleys watered by rain from above (The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth as the gentle rain from heaven, pops in to my head) We’ve also just been singing “Thank You for the water which nourishes my soul”, and water is a metaphor for Torah.  As we are born with a gush of waters from the amnion, we had to leave the well watered Garden of Eden in Genesis to be adults, and cross to sea of Reeds to birth a nation. In the same way we must leave the well watered valleys of childhood to the hills and valleys of our lives. It’s really unhealthy to maintain an umbilical cord of dependence – maybe like drowning with too much water, we explore with Natan. Yet, we yearn for safety and security. R’ Alan Lew writes: “our life is a river and it’s goal is taking us home”.

One of our group, Jeremy, has a tattoo from Song of Songs on his arm colored like flame: “Set me as a seal upon your arm”, it says, and I know that next the text reads: “Love is as strong as death… many waters cannot quench this love of ours”. So It occurs to me in a flash: LOVE IS THE UMBILICAL CORD WHICH CANNOT EVER DROWN us, and can lead us home to the Garden.

Cara has been sharing with us her own (and others’) personal connections with the natural world around us. She shared a story about a plant called Colt’s foot, which is medicinal and helped ease a cough she’d been suffering from. She came to feel and view the plant very personally,  in relationship. It was starting a shift in me, from seeing and analyzing the natural world to developing a more aware, more keenly felt relationship. And life and Torah may be at its core about relationships….

In our next move, the group was instructed to take the experiences we’ve had and create something to express them. Each group member created and later shared their art, poem or song. With melody in my head, I wrote this song to distill a taste of the inspiration I was experiencing.  But first a bit of explanation: Adamah means “earth”, but it also contains the name of the first earthling: Adam. And Mayim means “water” in Hebrew. and is part of the word for “sky,” Shamayim. The song is called “Adamah, Mayim” and each element has it’s own melody, and then the two melodies come together in the end. Adamah rolls a bit, then reaches down. Mayim’s melody soars unrestrained.

Ruach is the Hebrew word meaning both wind and spirit; Aish means fire.

Adamah; Adamah, Adamah (2X)

To be aware when bare feet touch down,

We’ve found connections through the sacred ground

We are of earth, its colors and hues

Heed love’s commandment to choose life!….

Adamah!

Earth must drink, I must drink, crystal clear mayim!

Earth must drink as I must drink, sweet droplets from Shamayim

Mayim, Mayim, Mayim! Mayim, Mayim, Mayim Rabim!

the quality of Torah’s unrestrained; It falleth as the gentle rain

We must build bridges, of love

and if we build them heart to heart

Then the garden blooms again

and Many waters will not quench this love, it remains

Earth must drink, I must drink, crystal clear mayim!

Earth must drink as I must drink, sweet droplets from Shamayim

Winds carry us on eagles wings

Ruach my spirit soars and sings

Ruach, the wind can take us higher

Inspired, sparked, on fire.

Rising like mist from the lake warmed by sun’s gentle rays

Rising from the face of the earth, mist can never stay

Ruach, Aish, the spirit and the fire

Ruach, aish, carrying us higher.

We must build bridges, of love

and if we build them heart to heart

Then the garden blooms again

and Many waters will not quench this love, it remains

Thursday: our fourth of five days. After a starry, peaceful night, I joined a morning worship service that took my breath away, and kept my eyes welling for nearly an hour. It was unconventional, heartfelt, radical, beautiful, led by elder statesman Rabbi Arthur Waskow. In a multicolored cap/kippah, Arthur leads a service transformed and transforming: a bass, warbling voice which invites clarity and opens doors and connects souls to one another, to timeless tradition, and to the world surrounding.

He wants no less than to reinterpret the name of God, (spelled Yud, Hay, Vav, Hey) to sound like breathing, and the inter-breathing connected-ness that is God, rather than the traditional “Adonai”, meaning “Lord”. We read Arthur’s original Shema interpretation, moved to create and share an original chant right there, which had never existed before! There were only nine of us, in a majestic sanctuary whose walls were almost entirely windows.  Not a minyan (a gathering requiring ten adults). Huge pines, however stood right outside breathing in our carbon dioxide, turning CO2 into tree, and sending out oxygen. Arthur passionately made the case that the trees as God-valued creatures be allowed join our minyan.  And they did. Soon we read in Torah that if we created a just world, then the rains would fall, rivers flow, and our life be sustained, and if not, there are real and serious consequences akin to climate change karma. The service ended about 8:15, a few minutes late. Now there’s a window above the ark, like a second eternal flame.  And just as we were ending the service, waxing poetic about that “someday” where God would be One,  the sun came streaming through that window right on to my face, and the faces of those near me. It was magic – like the Rocks of Stonehenge positioned to capture important celestial moments, and I was blessed to be there to notice.

It is our third day, and we are studying the element of air in nature, in Torah, in metaphor, and in relationship to our life. We are listening to the sounds of the birds – for their meanings within the ecosystem, and to one another, in population.  Sitting still, I listen, looking up into trees and sky. After lunch I climb the red trail to the top of the nearby hill and cliff (with the help of Joe, a helpful classmate).  Sitting still again I begin to soar in my imagination, and just then,  three buzzards circle silently on an air current past me.  I strongly feel awareness of this  vertical dimension of air!  Yesterday we’d discussed the planes verses the hill country:  Perhaps its meaning is adding a vertical dimension to our awareness of the universe, new inspiration.

Friday: I awake to mist, which the sun burns from the lake and trees as it silently rises. This is our last morning here. Our element is Fire, and the mist rose like smoke, but was actually composed of water, elevated by fiery sun! We studied fascinating text of a prophet Hoshea (saving). It begins as a very strange text of a prophet who is commanded to marry a harlot, and does!, falling madly in love with her. It is supposed to be a metaphor embodied of the relationship between divine and human , where the human partner prostitutes herself (ourselves) for material possessions. But somehow, through this mess, love pierces and renews, culminating in a renewed, pure “betrothal” which does two amazing things: Renews Noah’s covenant with the earth and its creatures, and 2) breaks the warrior’s bow (same Hebrew word as Noah’s rain bow in the clouds: Keshet),  and the sword of war. WOW, what a vision.

Our assignment following this study was to go out for awhile and synthesize our own vision.  I first stood, then sat on my tree stump. I reread the text. I mumbled a quick b’rachah (and was really aware of the water, etc.. that I took in to my body), and then had a startling picture in my head. With that blessing, that awareness of two parts of creation connecting and merging (me and the water), a tiny spark of light pierced the space between things, and I was a part of a luminous larger organism.  This image reflected what I had heard last night about the various parts of the body capable of doing this illuminating and connecting.  It was now part of my world view.  Each day we yearn for understanding. It was my insight to learn that to really know something we become different – affected and connected to that person, or tree, community, or sip of water.  In this connection, love rides the light beam (like that Einstein imagining), pierces the lonliness, and carries the possibility of healing and saving.

Wild Roots, Ekev

Tuesday, Eilat Chayim: 

“To See the World in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower; To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, eternity in an hour” William Blake
I used to say these words to my daughter as a newborn, so tiny, yet so beautiful and profound in her just being there.
This week I’m studying with Rabbi Natan Margalit at the Isabella Friedman Jewish nature retreat, a week long course called Wild Roots of Torah. It is Tuesday and I just had the most amazing insights from a spruce twig and my partner’ s white and black pebbles. We were engaged in studying natural objects using the Pardes method of Torah study – beginning with a simple description, deepening to personal connection, then to life lessons, and finally to mysterious unity. I might have been skeptical, but I spent the most amazing day in Nature/Torah study. There was a moment in the forest in which after learning to really activate my awareness, the plants and trees around me came alive with a palpable presence, almost like that feeling when a child’s born, and suddenly was in the room with me, looking my way. Today the woodland air seemed to tingle with life and possibility. It was weird!

So I described my spruce twig, its scent was fresh and fragrant. It bent and felt soft, its needles alternated from a central stem. Deeper: its scent reminded me, a city girl, of the forest, as did its colors, which made me smile and relax. Deeper still – its needles had to be tiny rather than broad to withstand the frost. Yet each one was arrayed at a different angle from the stem, so that together they contributed to the large lushness of the spruce, and captured enormous amounts of sunlight. Further the stem reminded me of my own spine, with limbs and other things radiating out. In fact, I have much in common with this plant – sharing almost 50% of my genetic material with this ancient cousin who builds cells a lot like my own, and it breathes out the oxygen I breathe in (and vice versa). So the spruce and I are all part of the grand design, the One-ness


Then I turned my attention to my partner’s pebbles – one rough and black, one white and smooth. They are Torah, she told me: Black fire and white fire, as the letters of Torah are surrounded by the white parchment – the spaces surrounding each level pregnant with  meanings and interpretations. What about  an even deeper meaning? I offered this possibility to my partner:  this white smooth pebble may have been forged in a stream, a part of the rock cycle, thousands or millions of years in the making just to form this perfect white stone, and may very well be soil particles in the future! We saw the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower! Really!

Chevrutah, is what this method of study is called, pairing off to learn with the synergy that comes from interacting, exploring, even arguing “for the sake of heaven” – of finding truths. And it’s just magic! In our next venture we linked Pirke Avot section on what it means to argue “for the sake of heaven” as did Hillel and Shamai, who disagreed, but honored the words of their opponent. The opposite would be those who try to crush their opponents utterly. Natan brought in a quote from Michael Pollan’s Second Nature in the battle of a farmer against his insects. In trying to destroy insects with DDT or plants with Roundup, harsh, unintended consequences result. “Better to keep the quarrel going, reasons the good gardener…” We must maintain the struggle between different truths, perhaps it is an essence of life, we concluded.

In relating this lesson to our lives, we found this: The bully that only cares to belittle and squash his target may cause the suicide of the victim, or his own destruction or both. Rhonda is a social worker. In the attempt to utterly crush poverty with President Johnson’s Great society, laws that allowed only single women with children to receive checks chased men away, and encouraged a culture of dependence. Always the struggle against poverty, and never the victory? There is some aspect of truth in all arguments, Rhonda concluded, and so the deepest truth is present in allowing both sides of the argument to remain viable.
“Elu v’ elu divre Elohim chayim” Natan reminded us: After a three year argument between the schools of Hillel and Shamai, God’s very voice was heard to say: both this and that argument are the words of the Living God. Living in the complexity, and the striving toward truth. “What can we learn from this about the Israel/ Palesitinian conflict?” asked another student. Perhaps that peace can only come when honor is granted the opponent, when the conflict is for the sake of a better future for the children, rather that to crush an opponent.

Earlier today,  we read in Deut. Chapter 11 that the Creator was searching/ looking after us in the land of Israel! I found it surprising that God could be searching for us like some game of hide and seek – isn’t it usually we who seek?  But  this was a moral seeking  – insisting that we turn our efforts to creating a just society so that the very rains and dew from the sky would come. Today in the world we are burning up, and in some areas drying out. Rains that had fallen no longer do. The link of ethical negligence to climate change is powerful, and real.  We choose actions of relationship or of combat with one another and with elements of the natural world. And it seems unlikely that these actions can impact the larger world or even the climate – but they do! Each of our actions matter.  There really can be a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.

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