The Mishkan’s Next Digital (R)Evolution

Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton 2020

June 13, 2020 • 21 Sivan 5780

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

(Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere.)

Shabbat shalom to all of us together במקום נורא הזה / in this awesome place, to honor Reb Zalman’s living legacy.  Wherever you are, our Zoom spiritual link is part of what Zalman imagined decades ago.  This spiritual space is what today is about.  We’re coming to know digital not as a mere filler for what’s real, but as a real vibrant מקום of its own.  Today is about what that might mean, and what it may ask of us.

Zalman might start us with a paradox about what we know and how we know it.  Zalman famously put it this way:

I start looking ahead … and suddenly I find [that] I am looking through the rearview mirror.  When you ask, “What would the future look like?,” I go into a nostalgic past, a romanticized past, and then go into a tribal thing, and think for a moment, “It would look like that.”  But it’s not going to look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.

Zalman’s rearview metaphor is about humility.  Maybe Zalman wouldn’t call himself modest – not the guy who urged us all to melitz yosher, spiritual intercession with holy chutzpah.  Still, there’s humility to know that the future won’t look how we imagine it.  Our history refracts future-questing vision so insidiously that usually we end up seeing the rear view of experience as some great vista up ahead.

Thus Torah this week calls Moses האיש עניו מאוד מכל האדם אשר אל פני האדמה / “the earth’s most humble person” (Num. 12:3).  Only such a person could see divinity באספקלריה מאירה / by a clear lens (B. Yevamot 49b) rather than hindsight.  Even more, in this week of Beha’alotecha – which opens with נרות המנורה / the menorah lights of the Mishkan, our first מקום נורא – our haftarah proclaims explicitly what the menorah light  means: לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר יהו”ה / “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, says [God]” (Zach. 4:6).  All light that we see is reflected light – rearview in all our vision and willful certainty.

Hence our paradox.  If only by anavah, not the might or power of rear-view vision by reflected light, how can we see the future – much less build it?

Zalman had advice on this.  Paradigm shifts like the one we’re in now – can anyone deny the tectonic shifts underfoot? – ask both anavah and holy chutzpah, humility and audacity.  No, the future won’t look how we envision it, but still we must build that future because people, communities and the planet need it now.  So we build what we see, and what gets built itself will end up different.  Fine!

So it’s in both chutzpah and anavah that we reach this Zoomosphere moment.  There’s no going back: yesterday’s “normal” is history, and mere nostalgia will cheat the future.  We must build the future, even if we only see it in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully not everything in the rearview is mere nostalgia.  Our hindsight can trace human spiritual history leading to our Zoomosphere, all of us “log[ging] onto God” exactly where we are, as Rachel quoted Zalman last night.  We might sense that history as the divine flow Itself, and imagine where that flow is leading.  And with some chutzpah, we might tell that story, all of spiritual time from the Beginning, על רגל אחת / “on one foot.”  One story in two acts.  Ready?

In a Beginning, the One created space and time.  Eternal sacred space called Eden ejected humanity; space itself re-booted with a flood of new life.  The One told Avram: lech lecha from ancestral space “to a land I’ll show you” (Gen. 12:1).  Avram raised sacred markers along the way.  Yitzchak “went out to talk [with God] in the field” (Gen. 24:68).  Jacob dreamed an angelic ladder highway: מה נורא המקום הזה / “Right here is the House of God” (Gen. 28:18), forgetting that every right here is, too.  His sons also missed it: cue centuries of bondage building sacred space for Pharaoh.  Freedom!  Sand-blind weeks to camp at history’s most famous sacred place nobody can find.  Two tablets!  Oops; two more tablets!  Build a Mishkan, complete with menorah.  Light it up and follow the cloud.  (That’s this week.)  Too afraid to go where I’ll show you?  In 40 years, a next generation will try again.  Enter the Land.  Build a Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile 70 years by the waters of Babylon, where we sat and wept remembering Zion.  Go back.  Build a second Temple, with menorah.  Light it up!  Exile.  End of Act One.

Intermission: God won’t be fixed in any one place.  The Sfat Emet (1846-1905) taught that we are God’s menorah, so “the essence of the Mishkan and Temple is that it’s in everyone.  That’s the point of ועשו לי מקדש שוכנתי בתוכם / ‘Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in them’ (Ex. 25:8)….  When the Temple stood, all knew that all life came of God,” but this knowledge kept depending on place.  So the Temple had to be destroyed to upshift our search for God from the constraining particularity of any place: “With the Mishkan hidden [in us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”

Act Two: Sacred space on the go.  The Mishkan’s table became every Shabbat table, learning centers like Sura and Pumbedita, Talmud, shuls, printing presses, books, liturgies, “correct” ways carved by power and custom.  Trade routes, living most anywhere but hearts still in the East.  Exile and inquisition.  Not so much the East: go West.  Enlightenment!  Liberty? Assimilation!  Denominations?  Fractures!  World wars?  Israel!  The nuclear age, the digital age, de-centering of every kind of institution, now a global pandemic bringing us together by separating us.  “With the Mishkan hidden, God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  How about on Zoom?

Rearview vision is good for seeing patterns.  The pattern seems to be that, all along, God used examples of sacred space to teach us cosmology.  Eden, Avraham’s matzevot, Yitzchak in the field, Jacob’s ladder place, Egyptian temples, Sinai, mobile Mishkan, two Temples, post-exile Shabbat tables, houses of learning, shuls – each sacred place was an example to show that מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).  But we confused example for essence; as Zalman put it, we “confused the pointer for the point.”  So pointers kept coming.  But rather than get the point, grief aroused nostalgia.  In Zalman’s words from 1993, we venerated each pointer as a holy “relic” rather than a “catalyst for the future.”

And again today.  Many grieve Jewish institutions failing by the day.  Many grieve physical shuls as the pandemic exiles us to our homes.  Now we must make sacred space in our homes – it’s here, or nowhere.  And that was the point all along.

Today’s exile to our homes is no ordinary exile.  It’s an inzile: it turns us in, and it turns us inward.  We’re roused to seek the very thing for which our inzile most cues our yearning – real connection.  And for once, the whole world can start to see the same things.  Now all humanity can experience each place, each home, that way.

In wise words inscribed on rearview mirrors: “Things are closer than they appear.”

Just as the menorah light lifts divine spirit over human might, digital means divine connection everywhere – or, at least, it can.  It’s not automatic: it asks us to transform.  We’re only starting to sense those transformations, and they won’t look quite like what we see.  But anavah balances with chutzpah: we must build our Digital Mishkan.  After kiddush, we’ll explore more about how, including some ideas around bending time if we’re not in the same time zone, and technical points like digital infrastructure, skillful means and a sacred ZoomCorps so nobody’s left behind.

Beyond the technical, Zalman urged “backward compatibility” when possible.  Dig deep, because our ancestors probably laid some foundation stone to anchor us.  And they did: 1,700 years ago, Midrash Tehillim 4:11 ascribed these words to God:

אמר הקב”ה: אני אמרתי כשאתה מתפלל, התפלל בבית הכנסת שבעירך. ואם אתה אינך יכול לילך בבית הכנסת שבעירך, התפלל בתוך ביתך. ואם אין אתה יכול לילך להתפלל, תתפלל על מטתך. ואם אין את יכול לדבר, הרהר בלבך.

God said, “I told you that when you pray, pray in a Beit Knesset in your community.  And if you can’t go to a Beit Knesset in your community, pray in your house.  And if you can’t go to pray, pray in your bed.  And if you can’t speak, meditate in your heart.”

How wise!  A synagogue always was called a Beit Knesset, a place of entering. It’s about entering another state and doing so together – not physically going.  Yet we’re still to “go” somewhere, even if we stay in our “house.”  So it’s about entering, by making an intentional shift where we physically are.

That shift depends on each soul, as it must now because we’re each in our own homes.  Inzile means that we can’t totally outsource to the rabbi, cantor, teacher, guru, yoga instructor or anyone outside.  We never could: only we can experience our space as sacred, but circumstances brings that truth close to home, at home.

Suddenly the only table in the Mishkan that can be sacred is our table, in our home.  If the Mishkan is to have a table sacred for you, only you can make it so.  It’s a radical, profound empowerment: it always was so, but now it hits home, at home.

If a Zoom connection is to be sacred for you, only you can make it so.  Skillful means will help – it’s still a shared medium – but it’s on you to “go” to sacred space by making intentional shifts in the sacred space that is our home.  We’ll harness the senses of embodiment.  We’ll take on ourselves to set our spaces in ways that aren’t routine; to dress for spiritual experience; to silence distracting devices like TVs and phones except for emergencies; to wash ritually before spiritual experience online.

That’s Assiyah, physicality.  In Yetzirah, we’ll accustom emotionally to open by new cues, new tenderizers.  We’re still carbon-based creatures: we evolved to feel, we learned to feel, by feeling other people first.  Our mirror neurons sympathetically resonate with others.  It’s why the physicality of collective gathering opens us emotionally, and it still can.  Our neuroplasticity, evolutionary capacity to rewire, will learn to take in others and cue us to feel deeply together online – but it’ll take time and focus.  It’s why we checked in with faces and bodies during the service.

And over time, we’ll learn how to meet new people digitally.  It can feel easier to go deep online if we already know someone, if digital connection activates the felt sense of pre-existing physical relationships.  That’s good, but can’t be the only way.  As we adapt, digital will feel less like a poor substitute for “real life.”  Digital is real, with real emotions, real spirituality, real prayer, real community, real tzedakah, real voting, real political campaigns.  We’ll get there.

Until then, this time of adjustment asks us to be gentle with each other and ourselves.  Until digital feels fully real, people may feel lonely.  If digital doesn’t hit the spot, we may feel even more isolated for all our so-called digital connectivity.  We may mourn “normal”: that too is our inzile, our turning inward.  These emotions will teach us if we let them, lest we become calcified and brittle.  If we let them, our inner defenses to the tumult of this time will ease and new inner landscapes will open.  Until then, let’s be gentle, take extra time with each other, and take it slow.

In Briyah, in thought, Zalman was right: we see the future in the rearview mirror.  However sure our vision, it won’t “look like that.  We are on the verge of breakthroughs that are so immense that we can hardly imagine them.  But it pays to imagine them, and it pays to … figure [them] out.”  That’s part of what we’re doing here – sandboxing, trying, testing, adjusting and trying again.

Wise spiritual building isn’t like how I cook pasta – throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.  Serendipity, yes, but not avant garde to be different for its own sake.  It’s not doing what we want just because we want it, without the healthy gevurah of standards, ethics and external accountability for them.  The collectivity and stakes of this moment, for the Jewish future and the whole world, ask better than that.

Digital is good for that.  Digital allows collaboration across most every divide in ways that can hasten the necessary re-ordering of systems.  It allows fast feedback, democratized, from everyone.  It generates more data and helps us ask for it and use it.  It will reward people, groups and systems that do.  And that is good: insist on it.

In Atzilut, in essence, divine cosmology is as it’s always been: מלא כל הארץ כבודו / “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory.”  Finally, finally, our inzile might teach us that every place is sacred space.  “With the Mishkan hidden [within us], God’s presence can be found everywhere.”  The Mishkan is where you are.  It always was. The menorah is within you.  It always was.  Light it up, and follow the cloud.  It will lead you if you let it.  It will lead us if we let it.  It always has.  It always will.

מה נורא המקום הזה

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

 

Offered as a keynote teaching at “An Emerging Judaism: A Global Digital Convening,” the Digital Reb Zalman Memorial Shabbaton organized by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon. Designed to dovetail with R’ Rachel’s keynote, Being Real: Digital Edition.

 

 

By Rabbi David Markus.

 

A New Melody for Gratitude

From founding builder Rabbi Bella Bogart comes this new setting for Modah Ani, the morning gratitude prayer. She writes:

Modeh Ani, meaning “I give thanks,” is a morning prayer traditionally sung or recited by Jews before rising from bed. It offers thanks to God for restoring a person’s soul when she awakens. The prayer highlights God’s mercy and trust in giving a soul back to a person to greet a new day, because Jewish tradition teaches that a soul departs from a person during sleep and returns in the morning.

Modeh Ani encourages me to recall entering a sacred covenant with God and to recall God’s trust in choosing me to help mend our broken world amidst the chaos of a new day. When my “soul” returns to me, my conscience and awareness also return, reminding me that I have the capacity and responsibility to build good relationships and healthy communities.

“I am grateful before You, living and enduring God, that you have mercifully restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!”

R’ Bella uses feminized God-language and names God as Breath of Life: modah ani l’fanayich, ruach ha’olam / she-he-che-zart bi nishmati b’chemla, rabbah emunatech. If you prefer masculine God-language and naming God as Sovereign / King, this melody also works well with the traditional words: modah/modeh ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayam / she-he-che-zarta bi nishmati b’chemla, rabbah emunatecha.

AJL wants Beside Still Waters in “every Jewish library”

Another great review of Beside Still Waters — this one from the Association of Jewish Libraries!

Rachel Barenblat, ed. Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal. Bayit: Building Jewish. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019. 179 pp. $18.00. (9781934730010).

There is a plethora of books, including several recent volumes, on comforting the ill and dying and their loved ones. This volume, edited by rabbi, poet and writer, Rachel Barenblat, contains teachings, readings, and services to guide the mourners.

The editor (named by The Forward in 2016 as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis) has divided the text into several parts, each marking a traditional period from death (including several versions of Vidui) through the first Yahrzeit. The book includes full Mincha and Ma’ariv services, with a variety of alternative readings, including two versions of the Amida prayer. In addition, there are numerous readings and poems directed to mourners at each stage of the journey and throughout the services. Many of them are from well-known names (Jill Hammer, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi); others are from less famous rabbis and authors. Each recitation of the Kaddish has a different interpretive text by a well-known modern thinker.

The result is that the process is made accessible to everyone, from observant to non-practicing Jews. This small book is filled with wisdom, both ancient and modern. It is meant specifically for spiritual leaders, i.e., rabbis, Chevra Kadisha staff, prayer leaders, and counselors. But its readings can provide comfort for mourners at all stages of the process. It should be considered for every Jewish library; we all can use its kind words.

Fred Isaac, Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA

Rabbi Jack Riemer reviews Beside Still Waters

Rabbi Jack Riemer reviewed our first print publication, Beside Still Waters, for the February 2020 edition of the Berkshire Jewish Voice. The review is reprinted below. Buy copies from your favorite bookseller or directly from Ben Yehuda Press, where you can also get a large-print edition. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more.) Deep thanks to R’ Riemer for the review and to the Berkshire Jewish Voice for publishing it!

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

Meditations on mourning and mortality, edited by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel

 Reviewed by Jack Riemer

For most of us, prayer is a closed world. Some of us know Hebrew, and some of us know the melodies and the choreography that go with the prayers, but who among us knows how to speak to God in prayer? Most of us are fairly good at keeping up with the service, but who among us knows what it means to pour out our souls to God? And yet, ever since the day when Hannah went into the Sanctuary alone, that is what prayer means according to the Jewish tradition.

Some of the meditations in Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, a collection of “liturgy both classical and contemporary for different stages along the mourner’s path” edited by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, fill a real need.

Ours is a death-denying culture, in which we are taught to ignore the oncoming of death so as not to make those around us feel uncomfortable. And so it is good to have a few different versions of the Vidui here, which is the prayer that we are supposed to say before we die.

Ours is a culture that tries to repress pain and anger, and so it is good to have a prayer to say in memory of someone who has hurt us, and whom it is hard to forgive.

Ours is a society in which most of us stand before the yahrtzeit candle with no idea of what to say, and so it is good to have a meditation for this sacred moment that can help us give expression to the feelings that we have inside.

Most of us mark the end of a year of saying kaddish by hosting a breakfast for the minyan, or by promising to stay part of the group, even though we know that we won’t, and so it is good to have a prayer available in which we speak to the one for whom we have mourned and still mourn, and wish that person an ascent to a new level of holiness, and in which we promise that the one for whom we have recited kaddish is and will continue to be a part of our lives.

Space permits just a few examples of passages that spoke to me.

On the Amidah

I have never been comfortable with the version of the first blessing in the Amidah that ends “pok’ed Sarah” – if, for no other reason, than because “pok’ed” in the Bible often means to punish. And so I am pleased to find “ezrat Sarah” in this book, instead, because it means “Sarah’s helper,” which makes a perfect parallel to “magen Avraham” (Abraham’s shield).

On Prayers of the Shema

Blessings to Zalman Schachter-Shlomi who, in the years before most of us had ever even heard of global warming or climate change, rendered the second paragraph of the Shema as a prophecy of what would happen if we continued to mistreat the Earth. Thanks to him, the “Vihaya im Shamoa,” which used to make us uncomfortable because it sounded like a threat from God who controls the rain, now speaks directly to our souls. What once seemed like a prayer that was far behind the times now reads like a prayer that is ahead of our times.

We owe much to the poet who gives us a fresh version of the “V’ahavta” blessing of the Shema in this collection. We owe whoever it was for the phrase: “with every heartbeat, with every breath, with every conscious act” simply because it is so much more alive than the “with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might, ” which we have been saying for so long that we no longer hear it.

And how much more alive are these words:

“Teach them to your children, talk about them at work,
Whether you are tired or when you feel rested.
Let them guide the work of your hands;
Keep them in the forefront of your vision.
Do not leave them at the doorway or outside your gate.”

Let me be clear: This text is not meant to replace the standard one. On the contrary, it only works if you know the original version, so that you can understand why the poet speaks of the work of your hands, or the forefront of your vision, or of the doorway to your house, each of which echoes a passage in the traditional prayer book. It is living midrash that the author is creating here – not a substitute for the text that we grew up with.

On Ma’ariv Prayers

We have said the prayer that thanks God for bringing on the evening so many times by now – both in Hebrew and in English – that it no longer helps us feel much awe at the setting of the sun. And so, I welcome this version of the prayer for the setting of the stars, a brief excerpt from which I cite below:

“The sun wheels over the horizon
Like a glowing penny falling into its slot.
Day is spent, and in its place the changing moon,
The spatterdash of stars across the sky’s expanse.”

There is more in this collection, including some pages that do not touch me and some that may not move you. But try it for yourself, and you may find in it echoes of moments when the soul of the writer danced or yearned or sighed or sung or screamed with pain. And you may find some pages that will stir you to do the same.

 

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the editor of New Prayers for the High Holidays and the three volumes of The World of the High Holidays, and of two new books of Jewish thought: Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Supermarket.

BESIDE STILL WATERS, A Journey of Comfort and Renewal is published by Bayit: Building Jewish and Ben Yehuda Press, Teaneck, NJ 2019. It is available on Amazon or directly from the publisher, and costs $18. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more at the publisher’s website.)

A time to build and a time to refrain from building

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In our fast-paced world it’s rare to take a sabbatical. A week’s vacation here and there is more the norm. But a full year? That’s an awfully long time.

For a farmer, leaving the land fallow for an entire year must feel like a lifetime. And yet that’s exactly what the Torah asks; “When you enter the land that I assign to you… in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” No planting, no pruning, no reaping.

The Torah assures us that even without human intervention, the land will provide enough for everyone to eat, both human and beast. But there’s one thing the Torah doesn’t say: What are the farmers and the builders and the do-ers supposed to do with themselves during the sabbath year?

Perhaps the answer is that they’re not meant to do anything at all. Or at least, nothing productive. Because sometimes stopping completely is the path to our most creative moments. And a week’s vacation simply isn’t long enough to do the important work of truly resting and recharging.

This week’s Torah portion is called B’har, “on the mountain,” and it begins with an anomaly. The opening sentence is a deviation from the normal introduction, which generally reads something like, “And God spoke to Moses, saying…”

This time, two words are inserted into the standard sentence, so it reads: “And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai.”  The addition seems unnecessary, since we already know that Moses and God are together on the mountain.

Calling our attention to the mountain is a reminder that Moses is in an elevated place, both physically and spiritually. He has left everything and everyone he knew below, and has gone to a high place, where his sole task is to listen to God. Later, he will transmit all that he heard to the people below. But for now, he is not responsible for doing, only for receiving.

We live in a world that seems to function at a breakneck pace. We hurry from here to there, hurling ourselves down highways at speeds that were once unimaginable, yet today are routine. We take vacations that are filled with sights and sounds, and return home elated by the wonderful experiences but often so tired that we jokingly say we need a vacation to recover from our vacation.

We construct lives of perpetual motion for ourselves and our families. We build an existence so structured around accomplishments that we become humans-doing instead of humans-being.  The lesson of B’har is to stop building, stop doing, and simply be.

From the heights of the mountain we can look at our lives with fresh eyes and understand anew the injunction from Ecclesiastes that there is a time to build and a time to refrain from building. Even as Torah guides us toward creating a better world, Torah also teaches us to abstain from building and give ourselves unstructured time for reflection and rejuvenation.

A year is a very long time. Even the ancient rabbis chafed at the thought of letting the land and people rest for an entire year, and they dreamt up ways to work around it by allowing just one field to represent an entire farm. But I wonder if we are short-changing ourselves by abbreviating our times of rest.

What would it do for our psyches if we took “a sabbath of complete rest” that lasted more than 25 hours? More than a week? Or a month? If we put down our tools and set aside our plans, put away our cell phones and computers, our radios and TVs? What if instead we breathed deeply, walked slowly, observed the sun as it rose and set, and watched in awe as the stars reeled above?

If we gave ourselves the chance to visit the mountain, perhaps we could return refreshed, both physically and spiritually, ready to embark on the next stage of our lives with  a renewed sense of purpose, ready to pick up our tools and begin once again to build the future.

 

By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Why This Firstborn Will Go Silent Before Passover: The Social Justice Ta’anit Dibbur

Among Passover’s many customs, the fast of the firstborn (ta’anit bechorot) fell into disuse. This ritual fast, commemorating Egypt’s victims of the Tenth Plague’s death of the firstborn, finds little traction among modern liberal Jews. Even most traditionalists arrange a ritual joyous reason to avoid the pre-Passover fast.

The day before Passover, however, this particular firstborn of Israel will fast – not just from food but also from speech. I will go silent – I will observe a total fast from speech (ta’anit dibbur) – and I will decline any excuse that might absolve me.

The reason isn’t virtue signaling. Rather, it’s to remind myself, and invite others to consider, that words and privilege can be as enslaving as iron shackles. It’s to renew my commitment to make space for the voices of all who feel excluded or diminished, whose identities or experiences have denied them privileges I enjoy – including the very privilege to write these words.

A Pre-Passover Fast from Food (Ta’anit Bechorot)

There are many reasons to fast before Passover – and not just make room for matzah! One reason is to mourn the too-high price of freedom. Talmud famously teaches that when angels rejoiced during the Exodus drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning and you sing Me praises?” (Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b). If Egypt’s first-born and soldiers died for Israelite liberation, their deaths are not less tragic. If angels had to learn that lesson, then so might we. Just as we spill drops of wine for each plague during the Seder (we can’t drink a full cup of joy at another’s expense), we can fast in poignant memory of the tragically high cost of freedom.

Another reason is to connect with today’s captives of body, heart or spirit. Until all are free, all are unfree. So taught Dr. Martin Luther King from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can fast, as I wrote elsewhere, to spiritually purge for every time co-religionists ever sung praises for another’s degradation. We can fast to rededicate ourselves to bringing Passover’s global message of freedom to the whole globe.

A third reason is to honor this year’s calendrical confluence with Good Friday. Jews need not understand the Jesus of faith as Christians might, but we can understand suffering, grace and redemption in common cause with our Christian cousins as they commemorate their own ritual descent and ascent rooted in Passover.

A Pre-Passover Fast From Speech (Ta’anit Dibbur)

The idea of a ta’anit dibbur (fast from speech) traces from the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” We fast from speech as a practice of purification. By ritually controlling the incessant drive to speak, we can refine the inner impulses they voice.

All the more so before Passover. Mystics re-read Passover (pesach) as the speaking mouth (peh sach), the spiritual liberation that could heal both Moses’ impaired speech and our own. Understood this way, the creative impulse that Jewish mysticism understood as speech – God’s speech, and our speech – can be healed and channeled to liberate the sacred in our world.

Consider the countless injustices and shacklings expressed as speech. Consider the enormous power of words to include or exclude, create or destroy, empower or enfeeble, uplift or suppress, liberate or enslave. Words can wound, or words can heal. Understood this way, any Passover worth its weight in matzah must focus intently on the power of words to help purify our words.

What does this have to do with the firstborn? In its day, primogeniture stood for privilege and societal power dynamics that locked privilege into the day’s reality map. By dint of gender and birth order, the firstborn male held special status legally, politically and ritually. Others were at best second best. And as for the individual, so too the collective: God told Moses to call Israel “God’s firstborn” before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:22). Later, liturgy attributed to Rav Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, transformed Israel into reishit tzmichat ge’ulateinu, “the first flowering of our collective redemption.”

We’ve come far since primogeniture’s days, but Passover becomes a mere tasty relic if we rest on past laurels. A living Passover means bringing freedom and equality to all in the flowering of collective redemption. A living Passover means pushing boundaries outward until they include everyone, and feeling deeply wherever boundaries or the call to expand them feels tight. Those tight spots are our meitzarim, our “narrow places” – literally our “Egypt,” the frontiers of today’s Passover ongoing call to liberation.

Understood this way, the “fast of the firstborn” is a radical and evolving call to name and invert today’s social structures that hold people back. The “fast of the firstborn” isn’t mainly about the “firstborn” but rather about the privilege that primogeniture wrongly symbolizes. It’s strikingly beautiful that Judaism can honor Passover – a defining experience of peoplehood and liberation – with this internal hedge against its own imperfect realization of this sacred calling.

Now let’s get personal. I seem like the personification of privilege. I’m the firstborn child – and a son at that. I’m straight and cis-gendered. I hold two graduate degrees, from Harvard, plus a rabbinic ordination. I’m honored with a judicial role and a pulpit. I teach in seminary and I’ve led spiritual nonprofits. I have seemingly unfettered opportunities to speak, write and teach. I’m not just a man; euphemistically I’m The Man! And most who know me know that I can have much to say.

That’s exactly why I and people like me should go silent before Passover – to remind ourselves of the marginalization and subjugation that others experience daily, to make space for them, and to recommit ourselves to that cause as a way of life for all time.

To be sure, I wasn’t born on third base thinking that I’d hit a triple. I’m the son of an immigrant. I did not grow up affluent. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I faced and overcame many obstacles both personal and familial along the way. But such is the American experience and, often, the Jewish experience. All the more reason for me to make space for tomorrow’s “me” – whoever and however they may come.

I think of my own mom and countless other moms denied a Jewish education or countless other opportunities on the basis of sex. I think of LGBTQI friends still fighting whether in or out of the closet, denied their rights at tragic costs to themselves and society. I think of people of color, of all backgrounds, whose lives as visible minorities still are fraught 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated. I think of talented people of all ages and stages blocked from leadership by crusty, recalcitrant power dynamics that cling to their own false solidity. I think of Jewish life’s virulent allergy to wise succession planning that shortsightedly robs institutions of healthy and vibrant futures. And I think of many leaders who undoubtedly think they’re doing leadership right but who wield emotional or spiritual authority in ways that are pervasively self-perpetuating.

That’s why I will go silent before this Passover. I will reclaim the ta’anit dibbur as a deliberate space-making practice both within and without. I hope all firstborns, whether literally first out of the womb or metaphorical firsts of privilege, will consider doing likewise. Let’s make space for others starting with one day, then one week, then for a lifetime, for all Jewish life and for all life. Let’s make space to heal speech, to heal power, to heal the world.

When we break our ta’anit dibbur at the start of the Seder, let our first word be Baruch: ”Blessed.” Let that flow of blessing be the purpose of our speech and all speech. And in that merit, may we, all of us, experience a truly liberating and sweet Pesach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi David Markus

 

 

On removing leaven (again)

 

From builder Steve Silbert comes this updated sketchnote for the first day of Pesach:

(This #VisualTorah sketchnote arose out of the post On removing leaven again.)

 

 

Announcing Beside Still Waters!

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Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

New from Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit

$18

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You can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon or via this preview PDF: BSW preview.

Order Beside Still Waters at Ben Yehuda Press now.

Ashrei. Happiness. Ashrei.

ashrei

 

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By Steve Silbert.

The Spiritual Life is Lonely

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“A Foggy Passage” Simon Kingsworth

The farther you progress in the spiritual life, the lonelier it gets.

The topics that used to consume you may now only arouse faint interest. (How many books did I read about “the future of the church” in my late twenties and early thirties? Hundreds. How many have I read since we moved to the island three years ago? None.)

The dichotomies that used to agonize you now all seem like artificial constructions that obscure a deeper Truth. (Is this an outward work? An inward work? Is this love of God or love of neighbor? How do you balance work with rest? Anger with forgiveness?)

The conversations that used to energize you all deflate like sad little balloons, without enough hot air to keep them afloat anymore. (In my case, denominational politics, theological esoterica, and the over-earnest discussion of “what does it mean to be the church?”)

Instead, you find that your gaze turns inwards: to the places of deepest unspoken hurt, to the deeper comprehension of self, to the wrenching, painful work of giving up all those external attachments that you thought were You.

In the process, you also discover loneliness.

I’ve discovered that there are precious few people who are able to have those conversations about matters like this, much less engage in this work with the necessary degree of maniacal consistency.

After all, it is a journey that their friends will not encourage them to take, because it can strip them of the unspoken tribal prejudices and previously energizing interests upon which friendships are based.

After all, it is a journey which our society, built upon superficial urgency and the frantic pursuit of novelty, is designed to prevent. (Don’t believe me? How many times did you check your smartphone today? And how many of times did you check it because you grew uncomfortable, bored, upset, or disturbed with something which you would prefer be left unnamed?)

After all, it is a journey which their churches, which institutionally depend on busy people highly invested in externals, simply do not have the capacity to imagine.

And the journey is hard, because the road is terrifying. From the comfortable ruts of life, you emerge into a dangerous, dark wilderness of spirit, filled with monsters of your own making. The road ahead seems like no more than a vague trail (pray to God for something as clear as a vague trail!) with the road behind always clear as day, beckoning for you to come back to safer ground.

My experience? Most people, if they don’t have journey companions, will take a few steps on that terrifying trail, and then retreat back to the comfortable territory of their familiar existence, filled with friends and jobs, religious observances and books, momentary bursts of passion brought on by the novelty of a new spiritual idea, and the steady, familiar rhythm of prejudices and interests that were formed in childhood.

The problem is that God (and by God I most specifically the Love that birthed the universe, that birthed each of us, and that lies at the truest center of our being,) can only be encountered fully in that dark wilderness of spirit.

Ideally, our spiritual communities exist so that people can find companions and guides for exactly this journey; but maintaining that communal ethos requires spiritual vigilance and produces very few institutional returns. This is why the communities that call themselves churches have turned instead to peddling a hyper-commodified mass market version of themselves, so that people may learn to possess God rather than learning to let God possess them. (This may be true for other religious and a-religious traditions, but I’ll let them speak for themselves on this count.)

I’m thankful that I’ve found a community, albeit a temporary one, that has helped me take my first full steps into the wilderness of my own soul. I also hear an echo of loneliness, sometimes even terror, knowing that soon that community will come to an end, and it is not a given that I will find other people to journey with me.

I don’t have any reassurances for me, but I do have advice for you if who have heard God’s call to walk a deeper path, even if that call is heard only in whispers.

First, step out the door on that new road, even if all you have is a backpack full of questions.

Second, find some people. Be wary of the good church people. Look for the pones hovering around the edges (or the comfortably self-differentiated ones in the middle.) Look for the ones who talk more about God and about people and less about “church”. Look for the ones who have a smiling, self-deprecatory honesty. Look for the ones who seem like actual humans, not religious facsimiles of themselves.

Finally, ask them to join you on the journey. Some will look at you oddly. Some will say “no”; or say “yes” but actually mean “no” when they realize what is involved. But remember, God is gracious, and if God is pulling you into the wilderness, then God will send you a couple of people who might dare to say “yes” along with you: people who will pick you up when you stumble, or get lost, and point you back into the darkness and say “keep going”.

Because, in the end, this is really the only journey ultimately worth taking.

It is just as the great Quaker mystic, Thomas Kelly, says,

Out in front of us is the drama of [people] and of nations, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of [people] an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history.

It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of [humans]. Is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hill comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. it is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare…And always its chief is – the Eternal God of Love.

THOMAS KELLY. A TESTAMENT OF DEVOTION. 1941.

 

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By Ben Yosua-Davis. Reposted with permission from A Glorious Mess.