Parsha Vayetzei: Fear, Flight, and Freedom

For most people, Thanksgiving is about food, football, and family. For me it has more in common with the themes of this week’s parsha: fear, flight, and freedom.

                The portion begins with Rebecca and Isaac’s concern over Esau’s interfaith marriage. There have been some hard feelings between brothers and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. “Go,” the parents say, “already it’s time to cut the apron strings. You should only find work on your uncle’s farm. Nu, maybe you’ll meet a pretty girl – not like that shiksa your brother married, feh, what does she know from pottage? Settle down before we’re too old to dance at your wedding. Would it kill you to make us grandparents before we die?”

                It’s Rebecca and Isaac’s concern for Jacob’s future that sends him on his journey, not his own desire to leave. Now he’s in the wilderness, alone, away from home for the first time. Remember how that felt? His brother wants to kill him. His parents expect him to make something of himself. He can’t go back and he has no idea what lies ahead. No pressure! At the end of his first day as a full-fledged adult he lies down on the ground and uses a rock for a pillow. He has a dream.

                In this dream God says, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Pretty powerful stuff. Jacob wakes from a deep sleep, shaken, and he says, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God.”

                It’s difficult for me to talk personally, but I’m going to share with you the story of my Thanksgiving 8 years ago. I was homeless following a quick divorce from a violent man. I lived almost 3 hours from my parents. My ex and I grew up in neighboring towns; for a variety of reasons I accepted his offer to drive me to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I had a nice day with them, did my laundry, ate my first proper meal in 4 ½ months. My ex drove up honking three hours late. My father hugged me goodbye. “Be safe,” he admonished.

                Halfway home, on a long stretch of back road, my ex stopped the car and tried to force me out. He demanded that I give him my cell phone, tried to push me out of the vehicle, screamed obscenities. While I kept a calm demeanor I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest. He walked around to my side, undid my seatbelt, and tried to pull me out of the car. I knew if I let him force me out into the black night I would not make it home. I had no idea where we were. I braced against the floorboards and clung to the seat bottom staring straight ahead. Someone in a nearby farmhouse must have heard him shouting, for suddenly a light appeared in the distance. He was not a man who enjoyed putting his violence on display; he hurried back to the driver’s seat and sped off.

                By the time we got to my 1990 half-ton pickup he seemed to have calmed down. I thanked him for the ride, put my laundry in the truck, and turned the engine over to warm up. Suddenly he pinned me against the door and demanded my cell phone again, threatening me. I remember clambering into the driver’s seat, kicking at him. I remember my biggest fear as I threw the truck in gear and shut the door was that I would hurt him. I remember the terrifying, determined, murderous set of his features as he clung to the side mirror, running alongside the truck as I backed up, trying to open the door. The wash of relief as he fell off…and the dread realization that he was following me, that I could not go home, that I had to flee.

                The needle read 1/8 of a tank. The orange light was on. 11 miles to town, and I got about 9 to the gallon. I stomped on the accelerator, fishtailing around curves and praying that the roads would stay clear of elk, deer, and other motorists. His new car tailed me, mere inches between us. He pulled alongside, honking and yelling. I braked hard and he sailed past me, then turned across my lane. I put the truck in reverse. He drove toward me in my own lane. I drove forward, passed him, and sped toward town. We played cat and mouse the whole way. He tried every trick – cutting me off, swerving into me, pushing me faster and faster. The needle was on E. I made the call no father ever wants to get. “Dad, he’s trying to kill me. I can’t stop. I don’t have any gas.” We reached the city limits. Surely now, I thought, he’ll settle down. There are police, traffic lights, witnesses. But he was out for blood and we hit Main Street doing over 50, me disregarding lights and he forcing other vehicles onto sidewalks and median strips.

                I called 911. “I’m so sorry!” I sobbed to the operator, “I ran a red light and I’m speeding! I never drive like this!” The woman encouraged me to drive to the police station where an officer would be waiting for me. The station was on the other end of town. Somewhere between downtown and the hospital a squad car pulled him over.

                That man tried to kill me two Thanksgivings in a row.

                I’ve heard people say time and again, “God doesn’t make bargains.” It’s true, we’re supposed to pray at all times, not just in dire straits. I remember pleading that night for strength, for clarity of mind, for safety. And I remember not feeling alone. When Jacob woke up from his dream that first cold, lonely night away from home, he made a bargain with God. He said, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.” You do your part, I’ll do mine. You know what that’s called in the Torah? A covenant.

                The Torah is more than a guiding light. It stands as a reminder that we are not alone, no matter what we’re going through. Worried about your children? So were Rebecca, Isaac, and Laban. Enmity between siblings? Feel like you’re walking in someone’s shadow? Esau knew about that. Are you lonely, uncomfortable, working hard but getting nowhere? Jacob’s been there. He wrestled with some tough stuff – literally! And he triumphed because his faith in that covenant was stronger than his fear. “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go.”

                Fear, flight and freedom. They’re the reasons we have Thanksgiving! A group of people fled from the fear of being burned as heretics and came to a new world to be free. Think how scary it is to meet somebody new. Now imagine having an entire tribe of strangers to dinner. They don’t talk like you, dress like you, or pray to your God. But without them, you wouldn’t make it through the winter. Dinner is the least you can do, and hey, it’s potluck! I’m sure the blessing over the first Thanksgiving included similar words to Jacob’s as the Pilgrims experienced true freedom from fear. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of the Lord!”

                I’m so thankful to be here. I’m thankful to have hot water and a toilet. I’m thankful that I’m safe. I’m thankful that I have enough. I’m thankful for people who love me, and I’m thankful for God who upholds promises. “Surely, the Lord is present in this place.” Everywhere, all the time. Baruch atah, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot. Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name is Goodness and You are worthy of thanksgiving.

                Shabbat Shalom.

Parsha Vayetzei: Fear, Flight, and Freedom

For most people, Thanksgiving is about food, football, and family. For me it has more in common with the themes of this week’s parsha: fear, flight, and freedom.

                The portion begins with Rebecca and Isaac’s concern over Esau’s interfaith marriage. There have been some hard feelings between brothers and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. “Go,” the parents say, “already it’s time to cut the apron strings. You should only find work on your uncle’s farm. Nu, maybe you’ll meet a pretty girl – not like that shiksa your brother married, feh, what does she know from pottage? Settle down before we’re too old to dance at your wedding. Would it kill you to make us grandparents before we die?”

                It’s Rebecca and Isaac’s concern for Jacob’s future that sends him on his journey, not his own desire to leave. Now he’s in the wilderness, alone, away from home for the first time. Remember how that felt? His brother wants to kill him. His parents expect him to make something of himself. He can’t go back and he has no idea what lies ahead. No pressure! At the end of his first day as a full-fledged adult he lies down on the ground and uses a rock for a pillow. He has a dream.

                In this dream God says, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Pretty powerful stuff. Jacob wakes from a deep sleep, shaken, and he says, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God.”

                It’s difficult for me to talk personally, but I’m going to share with you the story of my Thanksgiving 8 years ago. I was homeless following a quick divorce from a violent man. I lived almost 3 hours from my parents. My ex and I grew up in neighboring towns; for a variety of reasons I accepted his offer to drive me to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I had a nice day with them, did my laundry, ate my first proper meal in 4 ½ months. My ex drove up honking three hours late. My father hugged me goodbye. “Be safe,” he admonished.

                Halfway home, on a long stretch of back road, my ex stopped the car and tried to force me out. He demanded that I give him my cell phone, tried to push me out of the vehicle, screamed obscenities. While I kept a calm demeanor I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest. He walked around to my side, undid my seatbelt, and tried to pull me out of the car. I knew if I let him force me out into the black night I would not make it home. I had no idea where we were. I braced against the floorboards and clung to the seat bottom staring straight ahead. Someone in a nearby farmhouse must have heard him shouting, for suddenly a light appeared in the distance. He was not a man who enjoyed putting his violence on display; he hurried back to the driver’s seat and sped off.

                By the time we got to my 1990 half-ton pickup he seemed to have calmed down. I thanked him for the ride, put my laundry in the truck, and turned the engine over to warm up. Suddenly he pinned me against the door and demanded my cell phone again, threatening me. I remember clambering into the driver’s seat, kicking at him. I remember my biggest fear as I threw the truck in gear and shut the door was that I would hurt him. I remember the terrifying, determined, murderous set of his features as he clung to the side mirror, running alongside the truck as I backed up, trying to open the door. The wash of relief as he fell off…and the dread realization that he was following me, that I could not go home, that I had to flee.

                The needle read 1/8 of a tank. The orange light was on. 11 miles to town, and I got about 9 to the gallon. I stomped on the accelerator, fishtailing around curves and praying that the roads would stay clear of elk, deer, and other motorists. His new car tailed me, mere inches between us. He pulled alongside, honking and yelling. I braked hard and he sailed past me, then turned across my lane. I put the truck in reverse. He drove toward me in my own lane. I drove forward, passed him, and sped toward town. We played cat and mouse the whole way. He tried every trick – cutting me off, swerving into me, pushing me faster and faster. The needle was on E. I made the call no father ever wants to get. “Dad, he’s trying to kill me. I can’t stop. I don’t have any gas.” We reached the city limits. Surely now, I thought, he’ll settle down. There are police, traffic lights, witnesses. But he was out for blood and we hit Main Street doing over 50, me disregarding lights and he forcing other vehicles onto sidewalks and median strips.

                I called 911. “I’m so sorry!” I sobbed to the operator, “I ran a red light and I’m speeding! I never drive like this!” The woman encouraged me to drive to the police station where an officer would be waiting for me. The station was on the other end of town. Somewhere between downtown and the hospital a squad car pulled him over.

                That man tried to kill me two Thanksgivings in a row.

                I’ve heard people say time and again, “God doesn’t make bargains.” It’s true, we’re supposed to pray at all times, not just in dire straits. I remember pleading that night for strength, for clarity of mind, for safety. And I remember not feeling alone. When Jacob woke up from his dream that first cold, lonely night away from home, he made a bargain with God. He said, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.” You do your part, I’ll do mine. You know what that’s called in the Torah? A covenant.

                The Torah is more than a guiding light. It stands as a reminder that we are not alone, no matter what we’re going through. Worried about your children? So were Rebecca, Isaac, and Laban. Enmity between siblings? Feel like you’re walking in someone’s shadow? Esau knew about that. Are you lonely, uncomfortable, working hard but getting nowhere? Jacob’s been there. He wrestled with some tough stuff – literally! And he triumphed because his faith in that covenant was stronger than his fear. “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go.”

                Fear, flight and freedom. They’re the reasons we have Thanksgiving! A group of people fled from the fear of being burned as heretics and came to a new world to be free. Think how scary it is to meet somebody new. Now imagine having an entire tribe of strangers to dinner. They don’t talk like you, dress like you, or pray to your God. But without them, you wouldn’t make it through the winter. Dinner is the least you can do, and hey, it’s potluck! I’m sure the blessing over the first Thanksgiving included similar words to Jacob’s as the Pilgrims experienced true freedom from fear. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of the Lord!”

                I’m so thankful to be here. I’m thankful to have hot water and a toilet. I’m thankful that I’m safe. I’m thankful that I have enough. I’m thankful for people who love me, and I’m thankful for God who upholds promises. “Surely, the Lord is present in this place.” Everywhere, all the time. Baruch atah, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot. Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name is Goodness and You are worthy of thanksgiving.

                Shabbat Shalom.

Kol Isha: Music as Faith

Perhaps the oldest bit of musical liturgy we have is Miriam’s Song. Parshat Beshalach notes both a stanza of lyrics and the antiphonal (call and response) form.  While this song is the oldest recorded Jewish song, it certainly wasn’t the first. What led up to that moment of spontaneous praise on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, and how can we live it today?

Miriam was born at a difficult time. A narcissistic despot burdened her people with slavery. While she was young, Pharaoh decreed that all male Israelite babies should be killed. Imagine the turmoil – the troubled soldiers sent to drown the infants, the demoralized pregnant women and sorrowing new mothers terrified for their children’s safety. Yet the Talmud states that Miriam prophesied the birth of Moses and spoke of his specific purpose.

I am sure Yocheved sang lullabies as she placed Moses in the basket on the Nile. Imagine placing your three month old son on the Ohio, filled with hippos, crocodiles, barges, bathers, laundresses, etc. Would you have Yocheved’s faith, the strength to let him go? Miriam followed her brother to the steps of the palace, where Bat Pharaoh was bathing with her attendants. When Miriam saw Bat Pharaoh take the baby as her own (defying her father’s edict), she stepped forward into the presence of royalty and boldly asked if she could provide a Hebrew nursemaid.

I don’t think Miriam considered herself brave. Her faith was absolute; she knew what her baby brother meant to her people. The survival of one boy was a beacon of hope! Imagine Yocheved’s relief and joy at being able to nurse and raise her son! Within the palace walls, surrounded by foreign music, beliefs, and culture, a Hebrew mother rocked her baby and sang him the songs of his people.

Many years passed; Miriam’s details are lost to us. It is possible that while Moses and Aaron were demanding freedom, Miriam was composing a song to sing on the day of their deliverance. When it finally came, the word spread like wildfire: pack everything. We’re leaving now. Screams and wails erupted from the Egyptian community, filling the night. The Israelites left amidst the keening of bereft mothers, as they had once cried for their sons.

Picture millions of people streaming into the dark streets: babies crying, animals calling, parents trying to keep their children close, the throng growing dense, no time to bake bread, no clear destination. The frightening sound of a grief stricken and angry army swiftly approached. In the midst of this chaos, the Israelite women kept their instruments close at hand. When nothing – not even their survival or successful flight from Egypt – was certain, they had faith that they would have cause to celebrate. Their absolute conviction lay in Adonai. It was an unspoken promise that would be sealed at Sinai. Adonai will lead us and we will live to sing of his redeeming power. “A great responsibility is ours, and Yours as well, for if You do not sustain us…then who will sing Your praises?” (pg. 49, Mishkan Tefilah)

“The Rabbis state: ‘When Israel sang a song at their deliverance from Pharaoh’s host at the Sea of Reeds, even the sucklings and the unborn in their mother’s wombs raised their voices in praise.’” (The Complete Book of Jewish Observance, Leo Trepp, pg. 23)

Moses led the multitude of men in a call and response song. Miriam and hundreds of thousands of women answered, body and soul, expressing gratitude and elation with voice, instrument, and dance. Their faith had been rewarded, their freedom finally won.

Each year we are invited to experience Pesach as if it happened to us. I invite you to experience Mi Chamocha as if you were singing on the shore where we first tasted freedom. “…Celebrate this power that makes for freedom”, not only at Kabbalat Shabbat, but every time you sing. The Rabbis asked: Why is the song of Miriam only partially stated in the Torah? And in midrash is found the answer: the song is incomplete so that future generations will finish it. That is our task.

Song & the Jewish People

“The importance of music in the life of the Jewish people is found almost at the beginning of Genesis. … [Musician] is mentioned among the three fundamental professions…. Music was viewed as a necessity in everyday life, as a beautifying and enriching complement of human existence.” Pasternak, Velvel (2003) The Jewish Music Companion p. 9.

The first music director mentioned in the Bible is Jubal ben Lamech v’Adah. (Gen. 4:21) Jubal was a macher musician, known as the “father of all who play the harp and flute.” Jubal was also a pedagogue, one who developed and taught playing techniques.

“Jews have always been a singing people. The Rabbis state: ‘Song in worship is ordained in Torah. When Israel sang a song at their deliverance from Pharaoh’s host at the Sea of Reeds, even the sucklings and the unborn in their mother’s wombs raised their voices in praise.’” (The Complete Book of Jewish Observance, Leo Trepp, pg. 23)

                Miriam’s song may be one of the oldest recorded songs. The book of Exodus notes both a stanza of lyrics and the antiphonal form of the song. Not only was Miriam a great leader of the Israelite women, a woman of courage, incredible faith, talent, strength, tenacity, and independence, she was also the first woman (and second person) in the Bible referred to as a prophet. “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, ‘Sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.’” (Exodus 15:20-21)

Ritual singing on the part of both men and women was common in ancient Israel. Philo of Alexandria described Jewish women dancing in rows, chanting rhythmical songs in harmony. They were accompanied by tambourines, tofs, and other instruments.  The timbrel, or tof, is a hand-carried percussion instrument. In the midst of chaos – the plagues, angry Egyptians, packing all their possessions, fearing for their future – the Israelite kept their musical instruments within reach. At a time when everything seemed darkest, they had faith that safety and celebration lay ahead.

We sang in jubilant thanksgiving on the shores of the Red Sea, at Miriam’s Well, and before Moses departed. Joshua commanded the Israelite army to sing and play with such continual vigor that the walls of the city of Jericho collapsed. Similarly, Deborah and her general, Balak, led the army in songs of victory and praise. Saul received music therapy from a young and talented David seated at the harp. Isaiah, Ezekiel, David, and Solomon composed songs; Ezekiel was known for his pleasing voice and virtuosity. Even in Diaspora Ezra gathered a choir of 200 men to continue our tradition of song as prayer.

                It was our bard-king, David, who organized the voice of the Jewish people. Before the Temple was built he appointed musicians and choir masters. He instructed that music and song should precede the Ark when it was moved, established the ritual use of song during worship services, composed and performed a multitude of works during his lifetime.              

During temple times, the honor of singing within the Temple or on its steps belonged solely to the Levites. Miriam, Moses, and Aaron, all descendents of Levi, were born to lead the Jewish people in song. Although the Temple choir was exclusively male, only women were allowed to play the tambourine. The Mevaserot, a group of female singers and dancers, are mentioned twice in Torah: once singing and dancing under the direction of a woman named Mizpah, and once praising David’s victory over the Phillistine Goliath. That these women and their director are specifically mentioned speaks to the importance of song within Jewish life, worship, and tradition.      

Exiled in Diaspora, we sang, although singing during worship was prohibited. To the praises and lamentations of David we added a new category: songs of redemption, hope, and yearning to return to the land promised to our forefathers and, through them, to us. Steadily moved about over the course of history, subjected to cruelty and loss, we kept the precious and exacting Torah committed to memory through the tropes we still chant today. While we refrained from choral or instrumental music during services, because our worship should never approximate the glory we experienced when we gathered at the Temple, we sang with our families on Shabbat. In the 20th century we began to reintroduce psalms, hymns, and folk songs into our worship services, allowing congregants to actively participate in the public musical praise of God.

                Your body is a temple; a dwelling place for your neshamah, that spark of the Divine. Singing in worship enables us to pray with our bodies as well as our souls. Our voices are our instruments; our temples of flesh resonate as we pray aloud with ruach. The Rabbis asked: Why is the song of Miriam only partially stated in the Torah? And in midrash is found the answer: the song is incomplete so that future generations will finish it. That is our task.

Perspective

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to make a pre-birthday, and pre-High Holy Days pilgrimage. I almost didn’t go. I could think of a hundred reasons to stay mired in the darkness I was experiencing, to do the easy and familiar thing, to give up on myself. In fact, I was so down that I considered not participating in the holidays at all. I could not find a way to teshuvah, to return to Avinu Malkeinu. Without that crucial spiritual connection, what was the point of Yomim Noraim? “How can I possibly afford to go?” I asked Alex. “How can you afford NOT to?” he answered. In the pit of my stomach I felt that if I left on this journey, part of me would not come back. Alex is right. A lot more than I like to admit. “Let’s go as far as Lexington,” he suggested. And we kept right on going.

Arriving in South Carolina we stayed in a beautiful house overlooking a manmade lake. The views from the picture windows were secluded and peaceful, with squirrels and chipmunks cavorting both in and under the trees. I expected a time of rest and renewal – no, I demanded it -and in so doing I set myself up for disappointment. I didn’t swim because I couldn’t see if there were alligators in the lake. I tried to sit in an ancient hammock and was upset when I fell through. I was uncomfortable being without an agenda or duty. It was painful to focus on myself. “I quit! I am a failure at relaxing!” I shouted, miserable…so Alex took me shopping.

En route to the city we stopped at his brother and sister in law’s. The view from their home overlooks the third tee box of a golf course and was featured on a calendar. Nestled between the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th holes is a sparkling blue lake, and beyond the verdant, perfectly manicured greens the horizon is fringed by the dusky violet profiles of the Smokey Mountains. It is an exclusive view that perfectly demonstrates man’s dominion over the earth. “The world was created for me!” it shouted, but I was focused on being dust and ashes.

We spent our last full day at Biltmore, the 8,000 acre estate built for George Vanderbilt and landscape designed by my good historical buddy, Fred Olmstead. We went to see the opulence that a bottomless bank account can buy, the much coveted estate house and sprawling, perpetually blossoming gardens.

I am a closet historiphile; in particular, 14th to 17th century English history. In Biltmore you couldn’t sneeze without hitting a 16th century artifact! Tudor furniture and Low Country tapestries in a French chateau style house? Nu, there’s no accounting for taste. Then I learned that Vanderbilt’s daughter had married a British diplomat named John Cecil…as in THE Cecils…like, THE William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, Lord Privy Seal, and Secretary of State! The entire perspective of my visit changed as I realized there were likely as many period treasures in this house as in any one museum in Great Britain! I raced down the portrait galleries happily chirping, “I KNOW HIM/HER!” Alex enjoyed my excitement, but did not exactly share it. That is…until the tapestry room.

Three magnificent 500 year old tapestries line one side of Biltmore’s 90 foot long gallery. I asked Alex if he understood the middle one. He replied, “They MEAN something?” I read the woven symbolism to him, Biblical figures arranged by Old Testament on the left and New Testament on the right, explaining their contemporary political corollaries and translating the Latin at the top. I looked down at my map, then up to find I was alone. Assuming he’d put as much effort as he could into feigning interest, I proceeded to the next room…but Alex wasn’t there. To my great surprise he had gone back to study the other two hangings. I had changed his perspective; a tapestry can tell a story as well as insulate and decorate a room. In turn, he changed mine. ‘My useless knowledge has merit?’ I thought. This altered perspective was confirmed when I asked a docent if an inkwell was gilded or ormolu; she was so impressed that she pulled back the velvet rope and invited me to look at other items. “The greatest victory of the evil inclination is to make us forget our royal lineage. We were created to lift up the heavens.” Sometimes I try to forget; that applies to me, too.

We savored lunch in the original stable, now converted to a phenomenal eatery. As we gazed at the 117 year old tie stalls, I imagined my horses standing in that spot no more than six feet wide, tied to a ring in the wall. Alex and I discussed social perspectives on the humane and ethical treatment of animals a century ago versus now. Then I went shopping for wonderful souvenirs.

We drove home on Shabbat, and I have to say it wasn’t all that peaceful. Knowing we wouldn’t get home in time for Slichot, I took a detour, resolved to end the trip on a good note if it killed me! We arrived at Natural Bridge State Park just before sunset, and without asking Alex if he was game, I told him to start hiking! We’d been in a car all day, he was wearing boots, and I was wearing flip flops. But up we went. Straight up. For almost a mile. There were many trails, and many warning signs for bears. Since we were rapidly losing light, we chose the straightest, fastest route. There were times I wasn’t sure I would make it, and moments I’m fairly sure Alex wanted to push me off the edge. I kept telling him it would be worth it.

The trail plateaus directly beneath the bridge, affording a wonderful panoramic of the full arch of rock beneath the heavens. But to reach the zenith one must continue up two flights of steps, worn into the rock by myriad passing feet. Between the stairs, claustrophobic walls of stone force all but the smallest children to sidestep through. The toil, the press, the final ascent are worth it. At the top of the stairs waits the top of the world. Nothing but canopy and sky as far as the eye can see. We stepped onto Natural Bridge as the sun set on Shabbat. The sky, bathed in roseate hues, was our Havdalah candle, the sweet smell of pure fresh air our spice. Nothing formed or shaped the epic view but the hand of Adonai, and it was free. We basked in the encompassing, silent reverence of creation. Said S. Ansky: “Wherever you stand to lift up your eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Each day of your life is the Day of Atonement; and every word spoken from the heart is the name of the Lord.”

Alex and I attempt to have as much gratitude as possible between us. Practicing mindful expressions of gratitude with one person b’tzelem Elohim has made it easier for me to be thankful in more mundane times and places. I thanked him for being willing and able to make the trek, for his persistence which inspired me not to give up, and for his patience when I needed to take a breath. In turn, he thanked me for ending Shabbat in a creative way. He asked rhetorically, “Why is it so hard to have this feeling every day?” I concurred. The clarity, the peace I so desperately needed was close to me all along, but I had to be taken completely out of myself to find it. “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world.”

I didn’t want to go on the trip, I didn’t see how I could afford it. The same is true preparing for Yom Kippur. Cheshbon ha nefesh is too difficult; our pride cannot afford it. Yet how can we afford to miss the journey through the Days of Awe? Yom Kippur is the summit of the Jewish year. Just as the perspective of Natural Bridge from below does not compare to the reward that comes from persevering to the heights, so the weekly hilltop of Shabbat does not offer the magnificent perspective of the High Holy Days. We must work to get there. There are many paths to the top, each with its own obstacles. But we reach, we crawl, we lift each other up because in our cores we yearn to be reunited with the Divine.

God offers encouragement: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard from you, nor too remote…. No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.” As Alex and I climbed, dripping sweat and wheezing like two pugs on a treadmill, we passed many people making their descent. They smiled, offered encouragement and counsel on the easiest route and best viewpoints. “All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.” It didn’t seem possible, but less than an hour later the Alex and Madeline who’d struggled to the top with aching legs were traipsing down the mountain laughing! Well…one of us was laughing. The other was doing what she often does best. [How far to the parking lot? Take the keys, you’ll drive up the path and meet me halfway. Oy you could make a killing with a cab service out here. Already we’ve been walking for an hour! I would have packed a lunch but the bears, they eat lox. At least it’s not Rosh Hashanah, they’d dip me in honey like Winnie the Pooh. I don’t like to complain, but I don’t have the figure to be mauled. With the support hose I’m wearing they should only mistake me for a sausage. Hebrew National. Oy. No no, I’m fine, keep going. Leave me here alone in the dark like a dog. I’d turn on a flashlight but the bugs! Nu! That’s one thing you can say for the Exodus. There are no chiggers in the desert. No one leaving Egypt said, “leave the Manschweitz, take Off Deep Woods, you’ll be smart”. And a good thing, too, or my dining room would smell like DEET for three weeks after Passover! Oy I’m schvitzing on this path! At home I would slide right off the furniture. Still in the original plastic. I’m saving it for special, but feh, you never call. When I die alone waiting for you to commit, my mazel, I’ll get a seat with someone else’s tucas imprinted in the World to Come. But I’m not one to kvetch.] Why is it so difficult to have the same gratitude on the path as when enjoying the view?

Perspective.

While on the path we literally cannot see the forest for the trees, from the top of the mountain we resonate with the true size of things. There’s a saying in Swahili: the water in an empty coconut shell is like the sea to an ant. Yom Kippur reminds us who we are and before whom we stand. “At any moment we may turn and find You….endlessly revealed amid Your concealments, You stand awaiting our search, to lead us, with many a fall, upward to heights we tremble to climb.” It is easier to descend than to climb; we carry perspective down with our knowledge. We have confirmed our ability to rise, we retrace our steps with a broader view, we believe the next climb will be easier.

I ended my hegira with a spiritual shopping trip, focused on where I needed to go. Before we left, I felt that part of me would not return. I was right. Packing for a trip is as much about what baggage you choose to carry with you as it as what you choose to leave behind. I carried my disappointments, my hurts, my anger, frustration, and fear everywhere I went, and my bag was so heavy I could not even face the mountain. But on a trip I didn’t want to make with a heart that could not pray, I began to lighten the load, exchanging burdens with spiritual souvenirs. They took up the same amount of space, but the new load was much lighter on my soul. Alex reminded me of the importance of gratitude, the emotion of Sukkot, when God asks us to linger in that spiritual intimacy it took us all year to zero in on. Through Sukkot God pleads with us to enjoy the view, to memorize the moments of free, breathtaking splendor that are everywhere, as God is, if we only open our eyes. Just a little while longer before we descend through the human forest of 5773.

A tapestry can tell a story. A stable can be a gourmet restaurant. A painful hike can be a reminder of the blessing of health, and a new perspective on fitness! Two rock walls can be claustrophobic or reassuring pillars of God’s everlasting strength, as it says in Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord.” Every drop of rain, every still space, each breath, Shabbat and the weeks between can be ordinary, or extraordinary. It’s about perspective.

Having been inscribed for the years we are meant to have, may we each be blessed with the perspective we need to carry the purity of Yom Kippur and the gratitude of Sukkot forward. Each day may we be helped to a life that is whole.

Shabbat: Our Hitting Points

I’ve recently begun to take an interest in NASCAR. I was invited to my first race by a season ticket holding fan, and while it was certainly entertaining, I missed out on a lot of the experience because I didn’t understand what I was watching. Over race weekend at Kentucky Speedway, Sparta Kentucky was the third largest city in the state. There must be something deeper to draw a capacity crowd of 107,000 people than 43 cars with poor gas mileage driving 500 circles to the left. Always on a quest for knowledge, I immersed myself in the NASCAR culture.

 I learned a lot! I learned about the intense loyalty between drivers and their owners, and between fans and their drivers. I learned about the physics and engineering that goes into every detail of motorsports, from the track surface to the inner workings of the car’s components. I learned the rules, the rivalries, and the techniques used in racing. The more I understood, the more I was able to enjoy what I saw. The desire to understand made all the difference.

One technique arrested my particular attention. These drivers slide through corners banked as high as 30 degrees as close to 200mph as possible. To drive the fastest route, a driver will choose several visual points of reference and attempt to drive through  them each time he (or she) goes around the track. This is called “hitting points”.

Life is anything but simple, and the older you get, the faster the laps of your years seem to go by. Day in and week out, we rush from place to place, trying to experience as much as possible, trying to keep up with perceived expectations. We run our bodies and our souls harder, faster, and longer than any NASCAR race.

God, in God’s infinite wisdom, knew how difficult we’d make things for ourselves. At the beginning of every year, NASCAR hands out rule books. If you are affiliated with a racing team in any way, it is your job to study and know the contents of that book. While racers get a fresh set of guidelines every year, God’s rule book has been the same since Sinai. In fact, not only does the Torah outline how to handle hazardous conditions, who to choose as crew members, and the way to spiritual victory, God wrote a built-in hitting point for every lap we take.

Hitting points can change under way if a driver feels he’s not running his best route. God’s hitting point is certain: Shabbat. The Sabbath is the point to which we look each and every week, the space in time for us to commune with the Divine within and around us, an opportunity for us to find our center. If we aim for the peace of Shabbat each week, and carry the beauty of Shabbat forward as we leave that blessed day behind, we cannot fail to take the best possible course through life.

In his books The Sabbath and God in Search of Man, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“The seventh day is…a truce in all conflicts, personal and social….the exodus from tension….

To celebrate the Sabbath is to experience one’s ultimate independence of…achievement and anxiety.

The Sabbath is holiness in time. The presence of eternity, a moment of majesty, the radiance of joy. Man does not stand alone, he lives in the presence of the day.”

Shabbat is God’s best gift to us, God’s easily distracted children. This day of rest, this hitting point is not something we have to do. It is something we get to enjoy, every week. I hunger for Shabbat. I feel it coming with the same intensity and excitement as wait for my best friend after a long separation. Each week I sit in the sanctuary and watch the light in the window fade. My soul cheers when the sun sinks low. Shabbat is here – MY Shabbat. I can let go.

On page 63 of Mishkan T’filah we read:

“Let us stop the wheels of every day to be aware of Shabbat.
Find the stillness of the sanctuary which the soul cherished.
We need a quiet space to test the balance of our days,
The weight of our own deeds
Against the heaviness of the world’s demands.
The balance is precarious – steady us with faith:
Quiet places and stillness –
Where will hear our own best impulses speak,
From which we reach out to each other.”

It doesn’t matter what happens during the week. When you head for Shabbat services, take your watch off and let it go. The Sabbath is your refuge. Within the timeless borders from sundown to sundown, you can turn away from the world and feel the love and comfort of your Creator, as a child with a loving parent. Shabbat is not for the world. It is for you.

Ma yafeh hayom. Shabbat Shalom.

8/5/11

Parsha B’reishit

Bereishit

“[Beginning] God created heaven and earth….” Genesis 1:1

Growing up I spent every summer with my maternal grandparents. I cherished that time to build intimate, meaningful, complex relationships with them. It wasn’t always easy to be a child in a senior household. One summer my parents surprised me with a pottery wheel and a large brick of clay, perhaps as a deterrent against bending more nails in my grandfather’s workshop, but certainly to help me pass the time. While I never mastered the art of throwing pots, I did learn the rudiments of sculpting.

I am a classically trained pianist and published author; visual arts have never been my milieu. But sometimes I get the urge to create a physical, tactile representation of my feelings, and I turn either to acrylic painting or sculpting. I enjoy the mess of clay. I’m a Virgo and I love having my hands in and on the earth; feeling it swell, adhere, collapse, and form between my palms, under my fingertips. I love watching the clay become what I am feeling. I enjoy its malleability, that it will hold a shape as well as rock and yet abandon all shape without guidance.

Recently I’ve begun a series of sculptures, more than one of which involves the human form. As I sculpted a woman, I found myself contemplating Bereishit, the Creation. Sculpting a person (adam) out of clay (adama). How about that.

The First Day: Light

“When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void….”

Before I create a sculpture, I have an idea: a feeling, statement, or object in mind that I wish to convey. The sculpture is unformed, void. It isn’t a thing yet. It can’t BE until I fully understand what it is I wish to accomplish. When I can close my eyes and see every detail of the sculpture in my head, then and only then do I unwrap a brick of clay.

A member of my writing group who happens to be an atheist read a brilliant short story at one of our meetings about God trying to interest venture capitalists in His plans to create Earth. He had the blueprints (I believe He may have even had a working model), but He lacked business acumen. The investors were concerned that this plan would fail as worlds before had.

As amusing as the story was, I only have to see one leaf, one insect, one athlete to know that God had – and has – a complete, delicate, exacting plan prior to Creation. Everything that could be was conceived…and then God spoke.

The Second Day: Sky

“God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.”

I begin with a lump of clay. Actually, I begin with a brick of clay, which I must warm in my hands until it becomes workable. If I’m using pure dirt I have to add water, keeping the entire lump evenly moist throughout the sculpting process. If any part of the sculpture becomes dry it will crack and weaken the work. If I am using a polymer clay, I try to keep all parts about the same temperature so cracks do not develop.

Regardless, at some point the lump has to become…something else. I begin to feel the clay’s particular balance, which parts will stretch easily, where the base ought to be. And then I pull. The clay begins to expand. Without form – length, breadth, depth – without space, without leaving itself, the clay cannot be what I intend it to be.

The same principle holds for a child leaving its parents, for weighing an important decision, and, later in Bereishit, for Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden. We can’t appreciate the forest when we’re sitting in a tree, or the sound of music without the silence of rests. There is harmony in an expanse of separation.

The Third Day: Earth and Seas

“God said, “Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.” And it was so.”

God didn’t force the land to appear. God gathered the water into one area so the land could reveal itself. As I began to draw my intended design out of the clay, it balanced differently than I had intended. The actual sculpture is a mirror image of what I had in my mind because that’s the way the clay was weighted. Creation is not forceful. It was and is directing natural forces to come together in beautiful manifestations of a grander design. Note that throughout the Creation process, God never says, “that’s…passable, that’s…mediocre, that’s…awful, let’s start again.” God consistently surveys the happenings and seals them as “good”.

The Fourth Day: Sun and Moon and Stars

“God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night….” God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.”

I knew how I wanted the sculpture to sit, and what I wanted it to express. I began to draw the limbs out one by one. At first they were crude blobs; then I refined them, working muscles into each limb: bones into the ankles, knees, and elbows, thumbs on each hand. Under my warm touch the clay grew shiny and smooth. The little terra cotta woman began to mimic any inert person’s physiology. I straightened her leg, it contracted. I bent it, she kicked it back out. I found myself asking her to hold still! I worked a long time on her feet, trying to get them to match. One arch was a little higher than the other, one set of toes slightly longer. And her left shin wasn’t as flat as it ought to be. A little scrape, another little indentation to make the ankle bone pop out. Creasing a blob of clay from the thigh around to the glutes, both to give the correct shape and weight it securely. Every movement helped the sculpture become.

God knows how many lights there are in the heavens. While some may be bigger than others, all are important. Every light was put there, by day or by night, so we could appreciate light and darkness. But God did not stop at light versus darkness. We enjoy subtle nuances in color and hue, translucence, shadow, prisms. Think of all the words we have to describe the sky, the changing light through the phases of the moon. It wasn’t an accident; it is a gift.

Day Five and Six: Living Creatures

“God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of sky.” God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind the creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind…. God blessed them, saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.

God said, “Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature….” God made wild beasts of every kind and cattle of every kind, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth…. And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

I gave my little clay woman cheekbones, eyes, and a nose. I brought her forth from an inert lump of earth. At the end of my first day creating her I placed her on a plastic bag to prevent dust from drying her out and wrapped it in a towel, somewhat lovingly I think, since she was a physical manifestation of an ethereal idea I conceived. I saw that she was good. Not sixth day of creation very good, but good enough.

Creating her made me thankful for Elohai, my Creator. I am thankful that God didn’t stop at “pretty good” or “good enough”. Thankful that God played around with all my parts to make sure they were fully articulated, that the Creator determined the graceful proportions of all beings, the complex workings that keep us functioning, the variety of life on Earth. I am unutterably grateful for the mystifying instincts, camouflage, and kinetic gifts every one of God’s creations has, for the yearning for life we share, for the desire to be a little better as we pursue our purpose, be it tikkun olam or nest building, making minyan or migrating, etc. I am overwhelmed that God gave me – and each one of you – the edict to fill the earth and master it. That is very good indeed.

“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being…. And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food…. And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky….”

From dust we are created. To dust we shall return. All we are is dust in the wind. And in the meantime, from dust we create, for the glory of our Creator and the expression of the Divine that is within us. I challenge you to find a way to connect your adam with adama this week. Garden, walk barefoot, repot a house plant, sculpt. And be thankful for your design.

10/1/12

Parsha Matot

This week’s parsha is more than a little confusing. The Israelites, standing at the edge of the Jordan, are commanded to form an army and commit genocide. That’s right; God says wipe out ALL the Cannanites. God threatens them that, if they don’t follow through, there’s a comeuppance. Spoiler alert: the Israelite army can’t bring themselves to kill everybody.

The people of Cannan weren’t “evil”, per se, but God knew that if the Israelites settled down and got neighborly, pretty soon they’d all be intermarried and assimilated, and the Chosen People would choose another path. That’s not what God delivered them from Egypt and marched them across the wilderness for. They had a higher purpose. These instructions for wholesale slaughter are pretty tough to cope with literally. So what’s the deeper message here? God is telling the Israelites that they are about to enter their new dwelling, and they need to clean house.

Most of you know that Alex and I are having a big year. Moving in together – blending our family, our stuff, our lifestyles, and our routines – has been an extraordinary experience, possibly the sweetest growth I’ve ever gone through. And this year we’ve had to build our relationship, first week by week and now day by day, has truly brought us from a wilderness of trying to make it alone to the promised land of partnership. Finding our home truly ended up being a miracle. We struggled for months to find the right place, and I was in a pretty desperate situation at my old farm. It kind of felt like we were waiting to go down a water slide, with God as the lifeguard. “Wait…wait…wait…wait…GO!” In 3 weeks we packed and moved 2 houses, 2 horses, 50 sheep, blended 3 cats and 2 dogs, and lost 2 peacocks in a pear tree. We’ve ripped out 8 layers of wallpaper, green shag carpet that smothered original hardwood floors, a room full of faux paneling, the 1960s oven that needs an exorcism, miles of old fencing, and many bonfires worth of dead wood. We filled the General Store with wool, hung our family pictures in the hall, and set out the shofar and Shabbat candlesticks. It is our very first home together, a Jewish home, a farm that forms the roots of the life we will build for the next half-century, God willing.

We’re only the 3rd family to live in the 87 year old house. It’s tempting to save everything, to cherish every historic inch no matter how decrepit, but in order to preserve it, some things have to change (like electricity). Likewise, to have the best future we have to let go of the past. Before Alex and I moved, we cleaned house. Several trunk and truck loads went to Goodwill, more in the trash. Since we moved, it’s been more of the same. Each part of our home and land has been evaluated, but it’s not just the items we own that need renovation. We held onto bad habits, unhelpful coping mechanisms, expectations and behaviors that we neither wanted nor needed in our relationship. Our motto is, if you want something different, do something different. So we agreed to renovate ourselves and our skills as well as our stuff.

God said to the Israelites, you’re about to stop traveling. Clean house and make it your own. If you don’t, these Cannanites will be thorns in your side and you’ll lose your inheritance. In order to fulfill your promise, you have to let go of the wilderness. If you don’t, it will poison what I’ve given you.

How many opportunities do we miss because we didn’t let go of the desert side of Jordan? The past few months have taught me that I cannot fully embrace the blessings I have if I am holding on to anything else. And I do so want to embrace this sweet life. We stand on the riverbank every Shabbat. We pray for peace, we pray for guidance, we pray to be made whole. Every Shabbat is an opportunity to practice letting go of what is unhelpful or unnecessary so we can completely experience the blessings that God gives us every day. May we embrace them with open arms, may we lay waste to that which keeps us from our potential, and may we create an inheritance of peace.

Shabbat Shalom.

08/05/16