dancing through our days

Yesterday morning, my three-year-old son Evan wasn’t quite ready to be dropped at pre-school, so he joined me in the chapel for morning prayers.  He sat on my lap cuddling with me and playing with his constant companions — a red angry bird pencil topper and a doll of Diego, the animal rescuer.  Andy and I chanted our usual ten minutes of prayers and then I turned on our meditation playlist, which contains two mellow songs and then three progressively more up-beat songs.

During the two mellow songs, Evan and I cuddled and rocked to the music, as he, Diego, and birdy took turns giving me kisses on the cheek and telling me they loved me.  At that point, I was pretty much convinced this would be my most special prayer session ever. . . .  But then, during the first upbeat song, Neshama Carlebach’s Adon Olam, I felt a strange sensation on my leg and opened my eyes to find Diego dancing on my leg … with assistance from Evan, of course!  So, Evan and I joined Diego, and we danced through the last three tunes.  By the end, Evan was laughing, giggling, and begging for more.

When I announced it was time to go to school, he begged to stay with me.  I wrapped him up in my arms and said to him, “I know you are sad.  Andy and I don’t want to go to work either.  But you know what we have to do?”  Sniffling, he asked, “What, Ami?”   “Remember how it felt when we were dancing?  How happy you were right here?,” I asked, patting his chest.  He shook his head yes, and I said, “You just take that feeling with you all day, and when you start to get sad or upset, you just think about how it felt to dance, and then you smile and be happy.”  “Okay, Ami,” he replied.

To be clear, this “dancing” that I’m encouraging my son to adopt …  it is NOT the dance of Fiyero, from the Broadway musical, Wicked.  Although Fiyero encourages others to join him in “dancing through life,” his song reveals he wants others to join him in being “callow” and “shallow,” and in living a brainless, “unexamined life,” because “nothing matters, so just keep dancing.”

I, on the other hand, want my son to understand: “The universe is dancing and we are here to dance that dance with it and for the Creator.”  Andrew Harvey, Foreword at xii, Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained (2004), SkyLight Paths Publishing (Woodstock, Vt.).  As Harvey further explains:

Hesed, this bliss-fire of Divine Love, underpins the whole of the universe and is boundless . . . .  Every bird, every stone, every fern, every dancing flea is burning in its flame—it is the flame-stuff from which all the universe is woven in ecstasy [and] G-d gives the burning love of hesed to us constantly at all times, and in all circumstances.  That is what you come to know when your heart is opened in awe and humility to the Creator.  Infinite love is given; it is the nature of G-d to give it infinitely.  A Hasid knows this and dares to try to empty himself or herself so as to be filled with the divine passion of compassion and blaze with its rapture and hunger to serve all beings in the Real.

* * * * *

[T]he core secret of the Hasidic way [is] that to live the truth of reality requires the most determined imaginable commitment to a struggle against anything – pride, grief, anger, depression, inner doubt, laziness of being – that keeps you from knowing and burning in G-d’s joy.  To become a Hasid is to become a blessing for others.  You have to give yourself again and again and again to the great dance of praise and celebration, whatever the circumstances boiling around you. . . . To keep dancing . . . is not a denial of death, pain, horror, or evil.  It is a continual and ultimate affirmation of the mercy, power, and hesed of G-d, of the essential truth of life.  To keep dancing is a continual reimmersion in the fire of G-d’s glory to be turned slowly to pure gold in its flames.

Id. at ix-xi.

THAT is the dance I want both of my sons to learn . . . the dance that I am learning . . . the dance that comes more naturally to me with every passing day . . .  Baruch Hashem . . .

a community, even as we prepare to repent

Just about this time of year, seven years ago, I was struggling to decide what synagogue I would join, because none of them felt like a great fit for me.  After all, I’m a Jewish lesbian with mystical and Hasidic tendencies, married to a non-Jewish woman, with sons we are raising Jewish, so my spirituality and politics place me on opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum.  Finally, my Rabbi said to me:  “I understand you feel none of the synagogues is a perfect choice, Jen, but you have to choose one, because you need a synagogue.  You can’t be a Jew without a community.”  I laughed internally, thinking her statement was absurd, because of course I could be a Jew without a community, I would just be a Jew on my own, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, and teaching my kids everything they needed to know.

Flash forward seven years to today, about a week into the Jewish month of Elul.  Elul is the month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah, which ushers in the ten Days of Awe that lead up to our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur:  the final day on which we repent to G-d for our sins of the prior year. And only now, after seven years of studying, praying, and living Jewishly, am I beginning to understand the full import of the words my Rabbi said seven years ago.

On Yom Kippur, we stand as a community and request G-d’s forgiveness for a long laundry list of sins — each individual requests forgiveness for all the possible sins, regardless whether or not that person committed that particular sin this year, so that no individual feels the shame of repenting alone for a particular sin with the rest of the congregation listening.

In order to be prepared to ask G-d’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur, many Jews spend the month of Elul praying, contemplating the mistakes of the previous year, and thinking about how to avoid those mistakes in the upcoming year.  It can be a “heavy” time, if taken seriously, because who among us has not sinned this year?   But it can also be a very holy time, and a time of growth, inspiration, and repair . . . for us, for our relationships with others, and for our relationship with G-d.

To help his Hasidim, prepare for the journey of Elul, Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once shared this story with his followers:

      Once a woman became lost in a dense forest. She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by.  Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods.

Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, ‘Can you tell which path leads out of the forest?’

‘I am sorry, but I cannot,’ the man said. ‘I am quite lost myself.’

‘You have wandered in one part of the woods,’ the woman said, ‘while I have been lost in another. Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere. Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds.’

“What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well. We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the ways that have only led us back in.”

And here, again, in the words of Reb Chaim, I found a different version of the message of my Rabbi … to be a Jew is to understand that we are … each of us in our own unique way …  on a journey … sometimes fun, sometimes frightening, usually with completely unexpected twists and turns.  At one point or another, probably more often than we ever imagined possible in the arrogance and ignorance of our youth, each of us will find ourselves lost.  But in a community, we just might run into another soul who is lost in our part of the forest, who will wander with us … pray with us, share stories with us, laugh with us, cry with us, dance to new songs with us, help us find a path we hadn’t yet considered … until, together, we find our way out of the shadows.

None of us has all the answers and, in a community, we don’t need to be alone as we ask ourselves life’s hard questions, as we repent, or even as we prepare to repent.  I’m glad I listened to my Rabbi and found a community …

This post is dedicated to Rabbi Marci Bloch. 

Stopping to see life’s miracles

“The world is full of wonders and miracles but man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing.” — Baal Shem Tov (“BeShT”)

I don’t think BeShT could have envisioned the world of 2012.  It seems that for most of us, twenty-first century life involves constantly running from one task to the next: grocery, laundry, dishes, employment, our kids’ activities, volunteering, etc., etc.  While my list may contain different tasks from each of yours, our lists all share one common attribute — they are entirely too long!!

Modern life, even with all its technological advancements, has left us “slaves to the grind.”  Our labor may not be as physically demanding as our ancestors’ labor (as evidenced by our waistlines and the exploding rates of Type 2 diabetes), but our ancestors had the benefit of the quiet imposed by dark nights without electricity.  These days, the lights can always be on, so the ability to work is always there, pushing us on to the next task, until even the sacred activities that once rejuvenated us have been transformed into chores that eat up time needed for some other chore on the unending list of tasks.

We are SO busy running from one task to the next that we never stop long enough to see the miracles, much less take the time to truly appreciate them.  … Unlike in BeShT’s day, we don’t even have to cover our eyes, because our speed makes everything a blur!!!

And the key to a happy life, I believe, is to STOP!!  Stop running, stop moving, stop thinking about the next place you need to be or the next thing you need to do.  Let your world, your family, your self … let whatever is around you at any moment come into focus. Then just breathe …slowly… in and out … and see what you notice.  Who knows, you might suddenly find yourself surrounded by miracles, as I did:

       A few weekends ago, I decided to attend Saturday morning Torah study at synagogue.  I arrived 20 minutes early to have time to chant my usual morning prayers and to meditate, and I found a calm, private spot on the bimah in the old chapel looking out the east windows at the trees and the morning sun.

      After chanting, as my first morning meditation song was playing, I found myself sitting with my eyes uncharacteristically open, looking at the trees.  The sun was shining thru the gaps between the leaves. I began to notice variations in the color of the green leaves on one tree — darker and lighter; more and less vibrant; in shadow and in full sun; some reflecting the sun, while the sunlight seemed to glow thru the bottom of other leaves.  And then, as I continued looking at the leaves, I had this string of thoughts:

How amazing is it that there can be so many different colors of green on the leaves of a single tree?  . . .  that Adonai created this world with such incredible richness of color?   Look at all the different greens!! . . .

. . .  wow.  I wonder . . . is the distinction out there, really, or is it in the way that I see them?  Because surely the leaves are all exactly the same color of green, right?  It’s just the way the morning light is making them look? . . .

. . .  I’m not sure, but isn’t it amazing that my eyes can see all the distinctions between those colors of green??

. . .  And . . . really . . . it’s not my eyes that are seeing, right, it’s my brain . . . so how incredibly miraculous is it that my eyes send messages to some spot in my brain that recognizes that those leaves that I am seeing are so many different shades and hues of green???   That I can see them as different in this morning’s sun … 

By this point, I was so in awe of the fact that somehow — and whether you wish to call it evolution or G-d is truly beside the point to me — somehow I came to exist on this planet with the ability to comprehend that I was seeing all of those different shades of green . . . and the awesomeness of the miracle required to create my reality at that very moment caused tears to trickle down my cheeks.

I didn’t make it to Torah study that morning, because I sat on the bimah, looking out the window, watching the birds and squirrels, the wind in the leaves, and the changing colors of green in the leaves on the trees.

I learned more about myself, and life, and G-d in that hour than I had in a long, long time.