September 2021 / Tishrei 5782
Offered at the Aquarian Minyan's
Virtual Erev Rosh Hashanah service
Have you ever known a special tree? A spreading live oak or bay laurel, a towering redwood or pine, a great old oak or a gnarled apple tree? A tree whose leaves or needles sheltered you, whose trunk supported you, whose branches begged to be climbed, a tree that befriended you, comforted you, received your joys and sorrows and prayers?
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me….
wrote the poet Robert Frost. If you have known such a tree, then you know something of the great life-giving wisdom of trees, with their complex root systems communicating underground, through the mycelial network. You know why the great, mythic Tree of Life is a symbol for rebirth, renewal, and resource in so many cultures.
Tonight, as we enter a new year, a year of shmitah, a year of release and rest for the land and for our tired hearts, we are asking, how does this great Tree live inside us and we within it? How does it appear, disappear, and reemerge in different forms in our Jewish mythic, mystic tradition? How does it nourish and exhort us? What is it asking us to learn? to bring forth into the world?
We begin in Oneness. A mashal, a parable…. Once upon a time, so the Wise Ones tell us, this Earth was a lush Garden, and at its center stood a magnificent Tree. Its roots penetrated deep into the earth and drank from the four great rivers that issued forth from and watered the Garden, while its branches spread outward, shading every nook and cranny, and arched upward, touching the heavens. The Tree absorbed the light of the sun by day and bathed in the glow of the moon and the sparkle of more distant stars by night. It produced fruit of every variety—juicy oranges, fragrant apples, tart lemons, many-seeded pomegranates, and plump figs, to name just a few.
The Tree of Life, they called it, Etz Hayyim. Its very leaves breathed life into the sun-drenched, moon-kissed Garden. It sheltered many creatures, including the one tasked with naming and caring for the others––the one formed from Earth, the one called adam. “From this tree you are not to harvest,” decreed the Mystery. “She is the Tree of Oneness. Contemplate her, rest in her shade, inhale the fragrance of her leaves, delight in the varied shapes and colors of her fruit and eat what falls to the Earth, lean against her solidness, caress her bark. But do not pick, categorize, or analyze. Don’t ask too many questions!”
Now, though the Mystery had created adam in its own image and likeness, it had not fully grokked that, from the very beginning, adam carried within the seed of Two-ness, which by another name might be called “duplicity,” and a restless mind, which by another name could be termed “curiosity.” And so adam was destined to pick the fruits, to name and categorize them, and to learn, with great delight, that from each seed a different kind of tree may grow. From the One Tree, many! Just pick and plant and water and eat! And, endlessly resourceful, adam learned also to smoke the leaves, and to chop the wood and build settees, porch swings, and backyard fences. “Good fences make good neighbors,” that same poet noted.
And so the great Tree was split and cut and sold down the river, and the Knowledge of orange vs. apple, good vs. bad, ripe vs. rotten, right vs. wrong, love vs. hate, black vs. white, you vs. me, replaced the Wisdom of many-fruited, multi-colored Oneness. And so was born the religion of difference and exile, jealousy and competition, wreckage and breakage, war and suffering—or so the story goes.
Was this a failure of understanding? A failure of vision? Or perhaps just the nature of embodied life, how it was destined to be? Outside the sacred Garden now, humans proliferated and found they needed words to communicate across the distances that separated them. No longer were the vibratory hum and buzz of grasses and bees, the heartbeats shared with the birds and other animals sufficient for communication. Words, spoken and then written, soon became necessary for business—impressed into clay or inked onto parchment. Contractual words, sometimes benevolent, sometimes harsh and punishing––reminders of how to bridge the in-betweens: “v’ahavta l’reyakhah kamokha: Remember, love your fellow beings, for they are not simply like yourself, they are yourself.” But they—we—had forgotten.
And so there came to be a Torah, a contract, a brit, a written document laying out a contractual agreement between human beings and the Mystery, and our ancestors called it the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life. God’s blueprint for Creation, the Sages said.
She is a Tree of Life
more precious than gold
Hold her in your arms
and you will understand
Etz Hayyim hi––
Her roots are deep and wide
Her branches filled with light
And all her pathways are…
peace. Netivot Shalom. Wholeness. Shleymut. Torah became for us a portable Tree of Life, a locus where Oneness could be remembered and reconstituted, fenced in, so to speak, a way back to the Garden––or so they hoped.
Down through the ages, with each wave of suffering, shattering, and dispersal, a new story would emerge, a new version of the great mythic Tree, in whose shade the exiles longed to rest, whose fruit the scattered ones dreamed of tasting—new stories to somehow hold and heal the splits and rips and tears in the fabric of Oneness, which now more and more impaired humans’ ability to tend their earthly gardens, much less to remember at all the Original Garden, with the One Tree at its center.
In an early mystical work, the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, the Indivisible Creator carves out the universe with three tools—with numbers, the ten s’firot; with letters, the twenty-two otiot; and with consciousness. A thousand years later, the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria,described these same sefirot as vessels, into which the Infinite funnels a thin stream of its Boundlessness—a new, quantum Tree of Life, constituted of Divine qualities. But the vessels, too weak to hold the liquid light, shatter, scattering shards of divinity throughout the cosmos, sparks now hidden among the husks and shells of materiality. The Tree is splintered. In a world of brokenness it becomes our spiritual task to gather the shards and splinters and to somehow piece the Tree back together. In a world of brokenness, the life of the Spirit becomes a day by day, moment by moment, breath by breath affair.
Aleinu…it is up to us. With song and dance, with planting and chanting, with gratitude and tears, with praise and with reverence, with study and with silence, with compassionate action--teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah—we seek to reconstitute the wisdom of the ancients, of the shamans and the mystics and the healers and all those who have lived in loving balance with the Earth, to tend once again the Divine Garden, Shekhinah Herself, whose heart is the Tree of Life. Can you recall, somewhere in the far recesses of your memory, your imagination, how it was to sit in the shade of the great Tree of Life, the circle of dark and light, where there is no other, no you and he, you and she, you and them, where all are of the One?
To embody a thing is not simply to study, to know, to witness it, but to become it–to fully inhabit that which we already are. And isn’t that the essence of Teshuvah? We climb the branches of the Tree, the Ladder of Return, s’firah by s’firah––now humble, now strong, now generous, now firm, now efforting, now submitting, now active, now at rest––learning as we climb, that we’re part of a Whole we cannot see or wholly know or fathom, that we each already are a Tree of Life, birthed from the Sea of Divine Presence that waters our roots.
In our American lives this past year, we experienced a brief bit of respite, a change of leadership, the hope of science and big pharma beating back the virus with a vaccine. Yet black and brown people are still hunted down in cities and at borders, stripped of basic human rights, excluded from full citizenship. And the earth is still warming, the weather is wildly extreme, species continue to go extinct at alarming rates, and people are at war. Wave upon wave of crisis looms, as a new story struggles to emerge from the ashes of our forests, the dry basins of our reservoirs, and the ruins of our democratic institutions.
To embody the Tree of Life in our dire times—these times in which the entire project of Life’s continuity on Earth feels endangered—entails a mass Teshuvah of epic proportions. We are being asked, I believe, to integrate all the stories, to reclaim each incarnation of the sacred Tree—the Oneness at the center of the Garden, the living Torah, the sacred ladder of the Sefirot—to embody all these levels of Treeness, as we seek to heal our own selves, our ruptured communities, and our embattled Gaia Herself.
And so, in this year of shmitah––of release and return, when we’re told to stop extracting from and exploiting the Earth and to simply entrust ourselves to the Tree of Life, that her bounty will nourish us––it becomes ever more urgent to nurture and support one another, to embody those truths that the founders of this nation knew to be “self-evident” but didn’t know how to implement. Ever more imperative is the need to keep our eyes on the pole star; to see beyond the brokenness; to “place the Creator on its foundation” as our mystics teach; to return to Center with the faith that it will hold; to offer our resources, whatever we may have, in the service of those suffering and in need; to make reparations to the black and brown and indigenous people we and our ancestors have harmed, directly and indirectly, those ones who knew how to live in balance with the land––to learn from them and with them and with one another to live the Oneness, as best we can, through every layer of our beingness. This, it seems to me, is what it means to embody the Tree of Life.
May this new year bring us goodness
and the discernment to know goodness,
the moral compass to seek wholeness
the physical strength to act justly,
the grace to radiate compassion
and to live in gratitude,
and the spiritual vision to turn toward the Oneness,
ever-present, ever-glimmering through the surfaces
of our mirrored world,
the Oneness planted deep inside ourselves,
within our embodied lives,
and to love it into Presence.
L’shanah tovah um’tukah
 In the Torah each seventh year was designated a year of shmitah, a year of release, a Sabbath for the land. No crops were to be planted; the land was to lie fallow and people were to live on the crops they had gathered the previous year and on what the earth produced naturally. In addition, debts were to be forgiven and indentured Israelite servants freed. See Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7, 20-22; Deuteronomy 15:1-6.
 Leviticus 19:18. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that this verse is to be translated not “you shall love your fellow as you love yourself,” but rather, “you shall love your neighbor because s/he is yourself, quoted in Schneerson, HaYom Yom, 78.
 Sefer Yetzirah is earliest extant text of Jewish mysticism. Traditionally attributed either to Abraham or Rabbi Akiva, it is thought to date to early medieval times and appears in a number of different versions.
 Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), also known as the holy ARI, was one of the leading mystics of 16th century S’fat, and is considered the originator of contemporary Kabbalah. Many of his teachings were recorded by his disciple, Hayyim Vital, in a book titled Etz Hayyim, The Tree of Life.
 Return to God and one’s own true nature, prayer, and righteous acts—the three pillars of High Holy Days practice.
 The Feminine Divine Presence, identified as the 10th sefirah, Malkhut, Sovereignty/Presence. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that the whole material world and everything in it are manifestations of Shekhinah.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2021
Parashat Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
Leviticus 16:1-20:27 | April 2021
Where and when do you experience a sense of the holy? In synagogue, immersed in prayer and song or carrying a Torah scroll? Watching a radiant sunset or catching a first glimpse of the new moon against the deep, blue evening sky? Holding a newborn or gazing into the eyes of a beloved partner or cherished friend?
Recently I was overcome with a sense of holiness in an unexpected place. When I arrived at the Kaiser Permanente Covid Clinic in Richmond, California for my second covid vaccination, I joined the outdoor registration line with some trepidation, because I’d had some adverse reactions to the first shot, nevertheless aware of how fortunate I was to be able to receive this life-saving vaccine. Right away I noticed how much more efficient and humanely organized the Clinic had become since my first visit, five weeks earlier. At every phase of the process, masked aides stood ready to welcome, guide, and reassure the people of all ages arriving for their shots.
The line moved swiftly, and I was soon seated at one of the many inoculation stations in a large, noisy, indoor space repurposed for this use. A petite young woman in red scrubs administered the vaccine, while an athletic looking fellow with tattooed biceps monitored a computer, making sure that I was me, that I would receive the proper vaccine, and that it was all accurately recorded. As the computer guy handed me my “I’ve been vaccinated” sticker, I sensed him smiling behind his mask. “Congratulations!” he said. I felt my heart open and relief begin to trickle into my body. “Thank you for all your good work, for all you’re doing,” I said. For risking your lives to serve me and all these people, I thought. “Thank you for coming in!” he responded, and directed me to an area of red chairs at the far end of the room to wait for any immediate adverse reaction to the vaccine.
As I made my way toward the chairs, a slim young man in blue scrubs and hospital mask, with dark curly hair and black rimmed glasses, his face covered by a plastic shield and a stethoscope around his neck, approached and called out, “Diane Elliot?” “Yes!” I answered. “How did you know my name?” I felt strangely seen, known in the midst of this anonymous hubbub. “Oh,” he explained, as he led me to one of several curtained cubicles at one side of the room, “since you haven’t been able to come recently for regular check-ups and tests, we thought we’d take advantage of your being here to check in with you, to remind you of what care you’re due for and see how you’re doing.” They must’ve tagged me at the registration desk.
The health care worker, perhaps a nurse-practitioner, sat down near a desk with a computer on it and invited me to sit across from him, a few feet away. My eyes started to well up as I felt, for the first time in over a year, the simple human connection of sitting panim el panim with a caring stranger, someone I didn’t know but who was evidently concerned for my welfare. He saw my tears over the edge of my two masks and said, “I’m so sorry, we don’t have any kleenex here!” Fortunately, I’d shoved a couple of tissues in my pocket before leaving home, and as I wiped my eyes (I wouldn’t be able to blow my nose until I got back to my car), I expressed my gratitude for all he and other medical workers had given and risked during this past year. He responded, “The day that we received our shots, we had to wait in line, too. We medical workers aren’t used to waiting in line for care! But the moment that we entered that room, everyone became quiet. It was like being in a meditation hall. We were all crying.”
This disclosure brought more tears to my eyes. I told him that I was a clergy person, and that I felt so privileged to be able to work from home all these months, yet how challenging it’s been to hold people in their grief and fear, their illness and losses, people mourning their loved ones, especially grief-stricken that they’d not been able to be at their sides, to hold their hands as they passed. He responded with empathy, as he gently asked me about various medical conditions, my stress levels, and advised me about routine tests and inoculations I would need in coming months. When I rose to go and wait out the rest of my 30-minute vigil on a red chair, I thanked him again for his service. “It was so wonderful to be able to spend these 15 minutes talking with you, instead of sitting alone, waiting for some possibly bad reaction to the vaccine!” I could feel his smile behind his mask, as he reached toward me and said, “I’d hug you if I could!” The little curtained cubicle in the Kaiser Covid Clinic had become a mini-holy-of-holies.
This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, comprising five key chapters in the Book of Leviticus, teaches us about the nature of holiness as our ancestors perceived it. While much of Leviticus contains detailed injunctions for the priests about how to purify and maintain holy space and time through korbanot (sacrifices) and rituals of purification to be performed in the Mishkan, the “holy precinct,” this week’s parshiot also center Divine imperatives for living each day in ways that render the space within and between people holy.
You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind…. You shall not spread gossip amidst your people, nor stand by while the blood of your neighbor is shed—I am YHVH. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but call out their behavior, so as not to bear their sin. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people, v’ahavta l’reyakhah kamokhah, ani YHVH, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself, I am YHVH. (Lev. 19:14a, 16-18)
Here we find the roots of many practices for self-examination and refinement, developed over centuries, that enkindle what contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis calls “everyday holiness,” practices rooted in compassion for self and others, in the ability to sit in another’s seat, to perceive the world as another perceives it, and to act compassionately on their behalf. We hear how each of us is called to holy service, not only in the spaces we have designated as sacred, but in the streets, in our homes, in all the mundane spaces and the web of daily relationships in which our lives unfold.
We are living in what often seems to be an unholy time. For the past year, many of us have been isolated, cut off from family members and friends and the connective tissue of casual social interactions that hold and support us. We have witnessed the dire effects of public discourse being awash with slander, lies, and vitriol. We have painfully experienced, through the power of the media, what it means to “stand by the blood of our neighbors”—on the street in Minneapolis and in many other cities, in the very Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.—how anger and inciting speech and fear can infect whole communities with the inability to perceive the humanity of other people, much less to love them. This hurts all of us on levels we can hardly fathom. It’s a contagion no less deadly than the viral pandemic that has upended our world for the past year and more.
Yet, embedded within the overlapping series of crises of these difficult days, are sparks of holiness, embers waiting to be fanned into bright flame by the ruakh ha-kodesh, the holy breath that animates each of us. This is the “revolutionary love” of which Sikh lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur writes in her powerful, poignant memoir and call to action, See No Stranger. “Do not hate your brother or your sister in your heart.” Speak up, but only from a place of love. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because, as the Baal Shem Tov famously taught, your neighbor is the same as yourself.
For many of us, this pandemic year has been a time to take stock, to rethink our lives and relationships, to find new ways of working and serving. The spread of the pandemic and the enforced separations of this past year have brought home to us as never before our interdependence, how the well-being of all humans on this beautiful, amazing planet is interconnected as surely as the mycelial network that connects the vast fungal forests, as surely as the oceans of the world meld every river, creek, and mountain stream into one vast body of water.
What shines for me through the central mitzvot of this week’s parashah is their underlying intention of tending connection. We are to maintain certain membranes, certain restraints, to “mask up,” if you will, in order to honor the other, so that ultimately we may connect with more clarity and compassion, balance, and harmony; so that love may flow more freely between us and our family members, friends, and co-workers; so that we may act with compassion toward strangers; so that we will know ourselves to be in community with plants and animals, water and soil and air; and so that we may connect deeply and regularly with the Divine Oneness that sources and nurtures all connectivity. May we be blessed to remember, more and more, our own holiness and the holiness of the world. May the holiness of clear, compassionate, respectful connection flow through, enliven, and enlighten our every day.
 Morinis, Everyday Holiness, The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (2008).
 Kaur, See No Strange, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (2020).
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2021
Hanukah | December 2020 | Kislev 5781
In the spring, seven, the symbolic number of Creation, is emphasized in our Jewish calendar: seven days of Passover, followed by seven weeks of counting the Omer, beginning on the eve of the second day of Pesach. “Pesach,” the Hebrew name for the Passover holiday, refers to the skipping dance of the newborn lambs, the spring sacrifice of the pascal lamb in ancient Israel, and accompanied by the sweeping out of all leavened products from the previous year.
These ritual acts symbolize both the bursting of winter’s bonds and the Israelite people’s release from the political bonds of enslavement in Egypt. Shavu’ot, the holy pilgrimage festival that follows on the heels of the seven-week Omer cycle, literally means “weeks.” Although Shavu’ot takes us beyond the realm of seven's, since it’s celebrated on the 50th day, the focus of the season is a celebration of the winter barley harvest (an Omer measure of barley was to be brought to the Temple and waved as they days were counted) and spiritual encouragement for the healthy gestation of the all-important wheat crop. Over centuries, the Shavu’ot celebration of growth, hope, and welcoming new life became associated with the transformational encounter between the Infinite and the Israelite people at Mt. Sinai and the receiving of Torah—Divine instruction, the fruit of our freedom. But the focus on the barley and the wheat draw that Unbounded Sourcing right down into the realm of the physical, the domain of seven.
In the fall, however, the emphasis seems to be more on the number eight, the numeral shaped like an infinity sign that takes us beyond Creation into the realm of Ayn Sof, the Infinite Source from which the Cosmos, including our material world, arises. Sh'mini Atzeret, a day of lingering in Divine Presence at the end of the High Holy Day cycle, follows directly on the heels of Sukkot, adding an eighth day to the great fall harvest holiday, in which we're enjoined to “dwell in huts” for seven days (in Diaspora, the cycle lasts an extra day). In the mystical tradition of the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the whole High Holy Day cycle––beginning with the first of Elul a month before Rosh Hashanah and extending through Sh'mini Atzeret and Simhat Torah––encompasses a divine dance in which YHVH, the masculine aspect of the godhead, seeks unification with Shekhinah. Shekhinah, or Presence, is the name given to the feminine aspect of the Divine, immanent in this material world of separation. In this sacred story, Sh'mini Atzeret, the eighth day of lingering, is seen as the moment of zivug or erotic coupling between YHVH and Shekhinah, a time of great joy that releases a boundless flow of Divine shefa or blessing into the world.
The eight days of Hanukah, a rabbinic holiday not mentioned in Five Books of Moses, mirror those of Sukkot. This festival, marked by the nightly lighting of candles, from one to eight, commemorates the successful rebellion of the Hasmoneans against the rule of the Selucid Greeks in the second century BCE and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, after it had been desecrated by the foreign rulers. It may have been instituted as a substitute for the Sukkot observances that the priests had not been able to perform earlier, because of the Greek oppression. At this darkest time of year, we celebrate the renewal not only of the Temple of old, but of the Great Bayit, the hidden structure of the cosmos, the Dwelling Place of the Divine, accessible to us through dreams, imagination, intuition. Mystics tell us that in this month of Kislev, the month of Hanukah, we make a spiritual tikkun or repair in the realm of sleep, entering the world of deep, thick, winter hibernation. The ancients considered sleep to be “one-sixtieth part of death.” Immersed in a realm beyond the veils of this reality, we release our consciousness into the vast dreaming spaces in which we may draw on Infinite Resource and allow the Mystery to heal the tattered garments of our souls. We rededicate our hearts, the Holy of Holies in the Temple of our bodies, to service of these Invisible realms.
Our Torah readings at this time of year are filled with the power of dreams and dream-like states, not only those of Joseph the dreamer, whose story we always read during the Hanukah holiday, but also of Jacob. Both these ancestors achieve great success on the material plane, acquiring wealth, possessions, and power. But the deeper layers of their lives are defined in key moments by both dreaming and, in Jacob’s case, waking encounters with the Mystery. We trace, for instance, the course of Jacob’s spiritual development, which begins when, as a duplicitous brother fleeing for his life, he encounters ba-Makom, “by means of the Place,” in a dream, a ladder upon which angels, messengers of the Most High, ascend and descend, connecting Heaven and Earth in an unbroken flow. In that dream YHVH Godself actually stands over Jacob, declaring that the ground on which Jacob now lies asleep will one day be given to him and to his numerous descendants, and that God will be with him always. Awaking, Jacob exclaims, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי: “Truly, God is in this place, but I was not aware.” In awe and trembling Jacob announces, מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם “How awesome this place is, this is none other than the House of God––this is the Gate of Heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)
Yet, having set up a monument and bargained with God to ensure his own protection and prosperity, Jacob then goes on his way, seemingly forgetting the awesomeness of this sacred encounter as he makes his way in the world, acquires wives and flocks, and spars with his Uncle Lavan, ultimately stripping him both of daughters and many of his worldly goods. It’s only when Jacob heads toward home after 20 years away that his past rears up to confront him. Overcome by fears of his brother’s possible revenge, he divides his family and goods into two camps, sending the women and children ahead, both to testify to his wealth and to signal his willingness to be vulnerable. He himself hangs back, beyond the River Yavok. Here he is accosted by a being––not a chain of angelic presences ascending and descending, but, this time, one unidentified ish, a man. Is this a messenger? Jacob’s own shadow? Or perhaps the same Divine Power that stood over him in his dream at Luz, the Place of Light, that he renamed Beit El, House of God, all those years ago?
Now, in his second defining encounter with the Mystery, Jacob wrestles mightily all night, declaring that he won’t let go until this ish blesses him. Exhausted, injured, but triumphant, Jacob says, הַגִּידָה־נָּא שְׁמֶךָ “Now tell me your name!” (Genesis 32:30) But this manifestation of the Divine is not about to divulge its identity, to declare, “I am YHVH, God of your grandfather Avraham and God of your father Yitzhak,” as in the dream of the ladder. The Presence will not make itself known so directly a second time. Instead, the blessing is simply given, and as the morning dawns, Jacob receives a new name, which in itself is an answer to his query: "Yisrael," Israel, one who perseveres in his struggle with God and with life. Jacob bears forever after the evidence of this encounter as a kind of branding in his flesh, a dislocated hip, a torn tendon that leaves him with a limp. Is the p’gam, the defect, in his left or right leg, in his netzakh or his hod, his endurance or his splendor? his success or his humility? The text leaves us to decide for ourselves. But one thing is clear: if we are to come into the fullness of our lives, if we are to fulfill our transformational potential, we, like Jacob, must strengthen ourselves for inevitable wrestling matches with unnamed Adversaries. Especially in this late fall season, we are asked to open ourselves to receive and learn to trust the messages encoded in our dreams and visions, waking or sleeping. In so doing, we enlarge our capacity for holding and healing “previous experiences in [our] lives that, up until this point, [we] have not dared to attempt to pick up and heal.” Together we can support one another to know that we each “have ‘what it takes’ to return to these precious pieces of [ourselves] – claim them, hold them, and in [our] developing Compassion, help them transform.” (Ellen Kaufman Dosick, “Cosmic Times,” December 2020)
This is the legacy of Ya’akov, Jacob, the duplicitous one, the trickster, the cheater and the cheated, who comes to learn that only by facing life, owning his deficiencies, encountering his demons head-on, will he gain the promised blessing and become known to himself and then to the world as “YisraEl”–– the one whose life is a testament not only to his own perseverance, but to God’s; the one who becomes a channel for blessing, abundance, and love, despite his blind spots, his fears, and his failings; the one who, awed by momentary yet life-changing encounters with the Infinite, leads us all into an uncertain future, bearing the scars of the past, yet blessed.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2020
September 2020 | Tishrei 5781
Offered at the Aquarian Minyan's
Virtual Erev Rosh Hashanah service
Dear friends, I’m honored and humbled to have been invited to speak this evening, on this new moon of a new year, this Rosh Hashanah. What a blessing—what an urgent necessity—for us to be together, now, at the turning of the year, and thanks to this amazing technology, to meet in the zoomisphere—to hold big questions together, to face the uncertainty of the times ahead with the encouragement of our shared hearts, our Aquarian Minyan family, uplifted by the resonant High Holy Day prayers and soul-stirring music.
This year…. what a year. A year like no other. “Challenging,” “chaotic,” “unprecedented,” “apocalyptic”…. we’ve heard all the descriptors, reaching for a reality beyond imagining, repeated to the point of numbness.
There have been many times before in the story of humankind, certainly in the story of the Jewish people, when the veils have been thin, very thin. But never before in my lifetime have I experienced with such immediate visceral potency the thinness of the divide between living and dying.
I’d like to ask us to pause for a moment, as we enter this portal of the Holy Days together, to remember the hundreds of thousands who’ve died in the pandemic, of Covid and other causes, those who cannot get medical care or food, those struggling to survive the collapse of our social support systems, those who have no work, those risking their lives daily at essential jobs to keep our communities functioning, and those whose lives have always been under threat because of the color of their skin or their gender or simply being who they are. [pause]
Here we are, together, in this extraordinary time of living and deathing, opening to the possibility, the hope, the urgent necessity of transforming. Years ago, in a class preparing for the High Holy Days, one of my students, a psychotherapist, asked a simple, potent question: “Can people really change?”
On the one hand, that everything changes constantly is a given. We and everything around us are always changing states, moving, evolving and devolving, birthing, dying. Even after death, changes continue, though in ways that are mysterious to us. This is the nature of things. Scientists tell us that, of the approximately 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, some one million die every second, and that over the course of seven to ten years almost all of the body’s cells are replaced. If change is always happening, if the cells in our body are constantly being renewed why does it seem like the same old (and older) body each day? Why do we come back around again and again to the same stuck places in our psyches, the same arguments in our relationships, the same road-blocks in our communal lives?
Teshuvah—the essential gesture of this High Holy Day season—is a call to change, to change our lives, to revision our world, to empty ourselves and start anew. Rabbi DovBer Pinson, in his book Reclaiming the Self, The Path of Teshuvah, makes a distinction between change and transformation. “When Teshuvah is merely about change,” he writes, “it comes into direct conflict with any existing system that stands in resistance to that change. Yet real Teshuvah is of a higher order, not just about change, but about genuine transformation. It is a major spiritual shift, through which the by-product of change occurs organically.”
So what is the nature of this major shift that allows change to happen, that sets the stage for newness?
If to form is to shape or mold something that’s been perhaps dis-organized into something recognizable, nameable; and to re-form is to form again, to return a thing or person to its original form or to give it a new and better form; then we might say that to trans-form is to go beyond that which has been known or imagined, to transcend the imagined limitations of form.
What happens when you hold the intention, the deep prayer, that your work of teshuvah be not only formative or re-formative, but trans-formative? What happens in our physical world when we transcend form, transform matter? When we open our awareness to the realm of pure consciousness and pure energy, where all is movement, so constant as to seem still?
You know this space. I’m sure you’ve visited it, even if only for an instant, a breath. We’ve all experienced moments outside of time, when we say that “time stands still,” or that “the moment was endless,” because the cognitive mind, which creates time through its ability to transect with perception the flow of Universal Consciousness, has released its grip on reality and allowed pure awareness to arise, allowed you to float momentarily in the quiescent Sea of Being that just is. The kabbalists call this sea Ayin—No-thing. Nothing.
One of my great movement teachers, Nancy Stark Smith, of blessed memory, a world-renowned teacher and performer of contact improvisation, put it this way: “Where you are when you don't know where you are, is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is the place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else. I call this place The Gap.”
I dropped into “The Gap” during the first birth I attended, the birth of my goddess daughter, Anika. It was a sweltering July day in the family bedroom, and all who were present entered this extra-ordinary realm together. The mom-to-be, my dear friend Marilyn, a dancer and singer, was toning and breathing through each wave of contraction, and we, her birthing team, were chanting and groaning with her; sweating with her; applying pressure to her back, hands, feet; breathing with her. Afloat in The Gap, a realm outside of time-space, the Ayin zone of limitless creative possibility, we didn’t notice that our friend had entered transition, the final stage before giving birth. Only the dad-to-be, Don, who had kept one foot in the material world, abruptly alerted us to pack up and get to the hospital.
We arrived just in time to support Marilyn as she squatted on the floor of the birthing room and, in a whoosh, the head crowned and with barely a push our girl emerged. At that moment, a huge force filled the room, a living-deathing-breathing force, just for a few moments, before gradually shrinking down to baby body size. “Welcome, Anika,” we cooed. I rubbed her tiny blueish feet, until breath slipped in, gently, her feet turned pink, the cord was cut, and her lips found her mother’s breast. After many hours, my friend Elizabeth and I, both on the birthing team, emerged from the hospital room, dazed, elated, and drove to a nearby lake, where we sat on the shore, swirled our fingers in the cool water and marveled. Where had we just been? Had we been in that room for hours, weeks, or years? It was as if all of us had been born that day, and none of our lives would be the same. Ever. Transformation.
This “timeless time and placeless place,” which we sometimes call Shabbat, is the ocean of soul we need to dip into again and again, bringing back into our everyday awareness drops or thimblefuls or cupfuls of peace, wholeness, is-ness. Even—and maybe especially—in a time of crisis—a time like now.
What gives us the courage to stop doing, put down the phone, turn off the computer, and enter that formless state, rife with possibility and uncertainty, much less abide there? Emunah, faith—the same Hebrew root as aman, amen, truth. Faith connects us with the Divine, with the invisible Presence, the Ayn Sof, the Infinite that abides in the Ayin and witnesses the truth of who we are. Faith gives us the courage to reach beyond everything we think we know, beyond anything our everyday senses would lead us to trust, to allow ourselves to dissolve like the caterpillar in the chrysalis, to abide, even momentarily, in the Void.
And what gives us the courage to come back? Love, always and only love. Not sentimental love, not love as a feeling, but the kind of love that Valarie Kaur, the Sikh lawyer, filmmaker, activist, and spiritual organizer, speaks of in her new book, See No Stranger, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. If you’re going to read only one book this year, let it be this one! Kaur calls us to a love that is fierce, bloody, life-giving, awe-filled, trembling—the kind of love that gets you through a difficult birth, a love that enfolds the weak and the vulnerable, that honors differences, that fuels one’s resolve to stand up a bully, to speak truth to power; a love willing to listen to the stories of people not like ourselves; a love that tends even to an enemy’s wound—the only kind of love that could see us through the birthing of a new order. The kind of love that poet Maya Angelou, zikhronah liv’rakhah, describes as “a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.”
This love begins with self-love, self-acceptance, self-forgiveness. It begins with knowing your beingness is enough, your work is good enough, that no matter what, no matter that ayn banu ma’asim, that we have done nothing to deserve it, we are loved by God. Rabbi Alan Lew z”l writes, “Self-forgiveness is the essential act of the High Holiday season. That’s why we need heaven. That’s why we need God. We can forgive others on our own. But we turn to God…because we cannot forgive ourselves.”
What blocks self-love for you? Is it a story someone told you a long time ago about yourself that you’re clasping to your heart like a dear friend or holding in your belly like it would be your last meal? Now, this very Rosh Hashanah, is the time to tend this wound and ask for heaven’s help to let it go. Now, when we’re here together, holding this charged and holy space together. Because this is not solitary work. We can’t do it alone. We need one another more than ever at this critical juncture. Covid 19 has taught us so well that, whether great or small, wealthy or struggling to survive, we are indissolubly bound together on our ever-shrinking, ever-warming planet.
This is the “together” part of “transforming together.” Physically separated though we may be, this Rosh Hashanah, more than ever, we need to join the energies of our prayers to generate a great collective wave, a tsunami of tefilah to fuel a hurricane of tzedakah, of right action, to bring healing, in whatever ways we are able, if humankind is to generate the systemic impact that the survival of our very species on this precious and beautiful planet, this Gaia/Shekhinah we call home, this magical blue-green orb that has hosted Life through the eons, now requires.
Until we together commit to accept and to love what and who we are, each and all, until I am deeply rooted in myself, loving and accepting myself, my body, my strengths and my suffering and the suffering and strengths of my lineages, until I can become curious and accepting and loving and willing enough to cross the great divide to connect with “you,” whoever you are––until our hearts melt in tenderness and we aspire to see no stranger, either within our own beings or in one another’s beings, until I do my best to honor your story and recognize your story also, in some way, as mine, until in the words of the great Sufi poet Hafiz, we consistently insist that
the sword drop from people’s hands
even at the height of
their arc of
because we have finally realized
there is just one flesh
we can wound,
until a significant number of us, all ages, genders, political affiliations, commit to these things, nothing will truly transform here.
And clearly, we need to do it now. No more postponements, no extensions. The book is due, the bill must be paid, the eviction notice has been tacked to the door. If we cannot find a way to do it together, to each do our small part to make a home for everyone, that welcomes everyone, then we will all be evicted.
And we can do it. We can! “This is our moment,” Valarie Kaur writes, “to declare what is obsolete, what can be reformed, and what must be imagined…. When we create spaces to imagine together,…then we can begin to feel the world we want in our bodies. It feels safe and brave and free. It becomes like a memory we carry.”
Tomorrow we will hear the sound of the shofar, for Rosh Hashanah is also called, in the Torah, Shabbaton Zikron Teru’ah, a Shabbat of Remembering the Great Shouting—breath shaped into a ragged, primal cry by the ram’s horn, wailing, plaintive, strengthening, then stuttering and broken, then steady and sure, stretching into a blast of infinite faith. It is the collective voice of our own hearts, reaching beyond ourselves, touching our own truth, stretching to touch the Infinite, the Unbroken, the Source. Hear these words of activist-poet Dane Kuttler from her Social Justice Warrior’s Guide to the High Holy Days:
And G!d says: Hear the sounds of the shofar! And if you cannot hear the shofar, if you cannot step foot in the synagogue for whatever reason, then hear what is meant to wake you. Hear: I Can’t Breathe, Hear: Black Lives Matter, Hear the cries of refugees, Hear: the names of the restless dead. Wake. Stay woke. It is all a shofar.
I leave you with this question: what would you be willing to do to set aside your own preferences and give yourself to the task of transforming together with members of this community during the coming year? Please take a few minutes to reflect in silence.
[Ana b’Kho’ah niggun]
I invite you now to rise in body or soul or both to offer the first Amidah of these Holy Days. You’ll find the traditional prayers in Hebrew and English on pages 38-42 of your mahzor, and the prayers of your own body and mind and soul moving within you. May this holy moment unseal the lips of your being, so that your whole self vibrates with Divine Presence:
Adonai s’fati tiftakh ufi yagid t’hilatekha
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2020
September 2019 | Tishrei 5780
Haftarah Reading: I Samuel 1:1-2:10
Offered at Urban Adamah on Rosh Hashanah
Who is Hannah and what wisdom does she have to offer us on this Rosh Hashanah morning? We just heard Reb Brian (Schachter-Brooks) chant a condensed version of her story, which makes up Chapter 1 and the first part of Chapter 2 of the First Book of Samuel in the Bible: the beloved but childless first wife of Elkanah, taunted mercilessly by his fertile, second wife P’ninnah. Every year when the family goes up from Ramah to the Shiloh Temple, to make offerings to God, Elkanah gives P’ninnah and her children each a portion, but to Hannah he gives a double portion, “for he loved her and God had closed her womb.” (I Samuel 4:5) But her husband’s tender consideration brings Hannah no consolation; bitter of heart, disappointed by life, she weeps and refuses to eat.
Finally, one year, she can stand it no longer. Entering the Shiloh Temple after the others have eaten, she throws herself on God’s mercy, weeping her heart out, whispering wild prayers. “If You will really, truly see the suffering of your maidservant and remember me and not forget your maidservant and give your maidservant a son, then I will return him to You––a razor shall not touch his head.” If she is blessed with male offspring, Hannah vows, she will bring him back to this very temple to serve the Holy One.
As Hannah continues to spill out her heart’s deepest desires before the altar––the text reads hi midaberet al libah, literally, “she is speaking upon her heart,” as if to bear witness with words to her own heart’s torment––Eli, the old priest, watching from his seat in the corner, thinks she is drunk and orders her to leave. “No, my lord,” she answers, “I am a woman of shrunken spirit, pouring out my soul before God.” Then Eli blesses her and sends her on her way: “ufaneyha lo hayu lah od,” the text reads, “and her face was no longer the same.” In due time, a son is born to Hannah, Shmu’el, Samuel, literally, “God has heard,” and he will become a great prophet and judge in the land, the anointer of the first kings of Israel.
For the later sages of the Talmud, Hannah is the exemplar of prayer, the Biblical figure who teaches us how to pray. Rabbi Hamnuna opens the discussion: “How many great laws can be learned from the verses about Hannah!” The need to be focused in our prayers, to have kavannah or clear intention, to actually form the words with our mouths, but to pray silently or in a murmur—all these have come down to us over the millennia as models for praying the Amidah, our silent, standing prayer. But Hannah goes so much farther than what the rabbis remark upon.
There is a story told of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great 18th century mystic and shaman, that one year, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, he asked one of his close disciples to do the honor of sounding the shofar in shul. Overcome by this great honor, the man replied, “Of course, Rebbe, even though I do not feel qualified for such a holy task. If you would instruct me as to what I should meditate on while I’m blowing the different blasts, I would be most grateful.” So the Ba’al Shem taught the man the many kavannot, the mystical significance of the Divine Names associated with each of the blasts, which the man carefully noted on a piece of paper, lest he forget and lose focus as he blew. For weeks he practiced and studied, readying himself. But on the way to shul that Rosh Hashanah morning, a sudden gust of wind snatched the paper from his pocket, and when the moment came to sound the shofar, he froze in panic—the paper was gone! Frantic, heartbroken, unable to remember a single one of the kavannot, he burst into tears and blew the best he could. Later the Besht told him, “All of the kavannot, those detailed, kabbalistic formulas I taught you––they are like a ring of keys, each one fitting into one of the intricate locks on the many gates to Heaven. But there is another way to enter: an ax can smash any gate. Just so, a broken and humbled heart breaks open all of the gates!” This is what the shofar-blower did, and it is what Hannah does. Surrendering her grief and bitterness, turning it all over to God, she batters down the doors of heaven with her fervent prayer.
Some years ago, the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein wrote a book called Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. In it he speaks of emptying the mind and collapsing the self as a path to greater wholeness. He writes: “We fear that which we most desire, the falling away of self that accompanies a powerful connection.” We fear that which we most desire, the falling away of self that accompanies a powerful connection.
If we read Hannah’s story the way we would interpret a dream, seeing each figure in the story as a quality of our inner landscape, then perhaps Hannah, whose name means “grace,” is the yearning, the desire to actualize ourselves in the fullest way; her husband, Elkanah, is the part of us that says, “The status quo is fine, why not simply accept things as they are?” P’ninnah, the taunting rival, is the voice that derides our very yearning, tells us we’re worth nothing, that we don’t deserve fulfillment, and that it’s not possible anyway. Eli the Priest, the normative voice of society, at first embodies the judgment that blocks our creativity, and then the recognition that blesses our transformation.
And what is the quality, the spiritual intervention that unlocks this stuck situation, that batters down the doors of heaven? It’s Hannah’s full-bodied expression of grief, her opening up to loss, her bitter tears. Rather than continuing to sigh, to seethe, to clutch her bitterness to her heart, to make it her identity, she holds nothing back, and in so doing opens the clogged channels in herself. She brings herself present with the Presence. In becoming present there is peace, wholeness, shleymut, an internal settling. “Ufaneyha lo hayu lah od, And her face was no longer the same.” The Hebrew word for face, panim, is always plural—“faces”––and it refers not only to the face we show the world, but to our inner facets, the inner manifestations of our beingness. Something fundamental has changed within Hannah, and it radiates out through her face.
So this is Hannah’s first lesson for us––if we want to bring change into our lives, our world, we have to bring all of ourselves to the moment, and then we have to let things fall apart, to let go of what has been, even as we yearn for what has not yet come. And we have to express the feelings of grief and loss that accompany such letting go. Just as the seed must disintegrate in the earth before the plant can begin to sprout, we have to fall to pieces, bare our souls, express our pain, hold nothing back––bellow our fear, our frustration, our terror to the Uni-verse. We have to clear our clogged channels so that we may open, like Hannah, to receive the new life, the new structures, the creative solutions, that want to birth through us.
Rabbi Alan Lew, in his marvelous book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, teaches that the khagim, those times of year that, in the Jewish calendar, are vested with special spiritual properties––the holiness of Shabbat, the liberation of Passover, the revelation at Shavu’ot, the return to essence at Rosh Hashanah––manifest these properties only when we are mindful, only when we bring ourselves present within them. Rosh Hashanah, the ten days of return, the Day of At-One-ment, dare us to bring the fullness of our lives, our triumphs and our deepest sorrows, here, to this temple, today, right now, to raise our voices in song and prayer, to weep and to dance, to release what has been, and to embody our hopes in this very moment, that we may seed a different, wholer moment.
Hannah’s second lesson for us is perhaps even more profound. You’d think that, after all her tzurus, Hannah would want to hold onto this gift from God, this much-longed-for child. But no, she gives him back, as she has vowed, to the Great-Force-of-Love-and-Desire that birthed him, and in doing so, she releases him to his larger prophetic mission in service of the whole community. Her song of triumph is not a proud crowing over what she has gained, but a celebration of what is now possible, how the greater good is served when we turn our lives over to a higher purpose.
This is what I have also learned watching the courageous, outraged, grief-stricken young people of the world turning their pain into searing words of reproach for those of my generation who have failed them––failed to protect them in their schools and places of worship, in movie theaters and at music concerts, failed to curb the greed and business-as-usual that continues to degrade our planet’s ecosystems at an ever-more-alarming rate. This is what I have learned listening to the speeches of Greta Thunberg and to the voices of the tens of thousands of school children and young adults that her passion and determination have helped to mobilize, shouting out their pain, their anger, not to gain something for themselves personally, but in service of the whole planet.
On the day that Hannah brings her young son back to the Shiloh Temple, to dedicate him to holy service, she sings:
My heart exults in the Holy One,
my self-esteem has been raised up through Yah,
my mouth is wide open in the face of those who oppose me
for I have rejoiced in being stretched by You!
Some 3,000 years after this exultant song was composed, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a young poet, and to us all:
You mustn’t be frightened
if a sadness rises in front of you,
larger than any you have ever seen;
if anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows,
moves over your hands and
over everything you do.
You must realize that something is happening to you,
that life has not forgotten you,
that it holds you in its hand and
will not let you fall.
Take a moment now, before we return the Torah to the Ark, to drop deep into your heart, to release all the written-down words, and tenderly touch your own brokenness, your grief and fear, and your own deepest desires, your hopes, and prayers for the coming year. Don’t hold back. Pour out your prayers! Smash the gates!
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2019
Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
December 2018 | Tevet 5779
In this week’s parashah, the last of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, our perfectly imperfect patriarch, comes to the end of his long and eventful life—a life shaped, you might say, by the effort to grow into his father Isaac’s blessing—the blessing stolen from his huntsman brother, Esau: to receive the dew of the heavens, the abundance of earth, to be a lord among nations, and a ruler of his kinsmen. Now, lying on his deathbed, eyes “kavdu mizoken,” heavy with age, as his father’s had been at the end of his life, it is Jacob’s turn to bless his large, unruly brood, twelve sons, sired through four mothers—the beloved Rachel, the less loved Leah, and their handmaid surrogates, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Last year during the week of Parashat Va-yekhi, I was co-leading a retreat at Commonweal in the Pacific coastal hamlet of Bolinas, CA. Attending the retreat was a multi-generational group of artists and activists who had come together to deepen their connection to Jewish text and practice. I looked forward to chanting from Torah on Shabbat and had chosen some of these verses in which Jacob instructs and blesses his twelve sons. As is the custom in my Jewish Renewal community, I planned to introduce the verses with a kavannah, an intention, designed to “call” to the Torah whoever felt called by the essence of that aliyah, and then to seal the reading with a spontaneous mi-she’berakh, a blessing inspired by the encounter between the text, the moment, and the energy of the people present.
As I studied my verses throughout the week and meditated on possible kavannot, on the blessing that might come to all of us through Jacob’s sometimes opaque, seemingly prophetic blessings for each of his twelve sons, nothing was coming. Usually, when I’m to leyen Torah, streams of text and commentary, both old and new, flow together and mix with my intuitive sense of who will be in the room and what they might need to hear. Now I felt completely dry.
On Shabbat morning, before we gathered for our service, I walked through the pine trees to a small meditation hut perched on a windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Commonweal was founded more than 40 years ago, with a vision of providing healing retreat space for cancer patients and their families. Many of the folks who have come to meditate in the tiny chapel by the sea have brought both deep grief and the dawning of acceptance––for their own years shortened or for the imminent passing of a loved one. Alone there, in the quiet, resonant space filled with the loving energy of the many who had meditated there before me, I sank into a reverie.
Suddenly it was as if the ruakh ha-kodesh, the ocean winds outside and the rise and fall of breath within, had swept the heaviness from my eyes and freed an inner voice, whispering to me how to enter the Torah text on this particular Shabbat, surrounded by these particular folks, many of whom were young and burning with a passion for justice for people of all races and genders and classes, and for our earth. Quickly I made my way back to our communal meeting room, where the Shabbat service was beginning.
When it came time to chant the verses of Jacob’s final prophetic blessings for his sons, I explained how I had struggled to connect with the Torah’s message for this Shabbat and for our group, and how I had gone to meditate on the bluff. “What came to me,” I told them, “is that the I could not bring through this Torah, because the blessing for Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, is missing. In our parashah Jacob sees and touches and honors and blesses his two grandsons, Menashe and Efraim, Joseph’s sons, and then offers blessings for each of his own twelve sons, whose offspring will become the tribes of Israel. But nowhere is Dinah—the beautiful, raped, disgraced daughter of Leah—seen or mentioned or blessed.”
As I spoke, I could sense Dinah hovering just outside the room in which Jacob lay dying. Or perhaps she was far away, in exile. Had she come down to Egypt with the rest of the family to escape the famine in Canaan? Or had she been drummed out of the family? Ancient and contemporary midrashim, most notably Anita Diamant’s richly imagined The Red Tent, have attempted to fill in the bare bones of Dinah’s story, but I needed her here, this day, this Shabbat, present with her brothers at their father’s bedside, seen, acknowledged.
So I invited all of us, together, to channel the words of Dinah’s missing blessing. I can’t remember exactly what we said, it was so much of the moment. There were affirmations of Dinah’s being, expressions of comfort and understanding and honor. And there were tears. I heard one of my fellow retreat leaders, a male rabbi, sitting behind me, quietly sobbing. “Dinah, come, we welcome you! No matter what has befallen you in your life, no matter what path you have chosen, you, too, are our lineage holder! You, too deserve your father’s blessing. We honor you, we make space for you in this room, in our family. You are seen, embraced, invited.”
I felt the spirit of Dinah seep into the room. Only then, only after we had ignited the “white fire” of Torah, the invisible words emanating from between the lines of the Torah scroll and rising from our hearts and throats, was I able to chant the verses inscribed on the parchment.
Sometimes what is missing is as important as what is seemingly present. As countless generations of midrashists have taught us, it is often from these proverbial “white spaces,” these wellsprings of dream, imagination, and visionary truth, that the Torah needed for this very moment, the Torah that speaks directly to our hearts, bubbles up.
On this and on every Shabbat, let us bless our daughters and our sons, our nieces and our nephews, our grandchildren, our students—our beloved young people of every gender—not only with our words, but through the integrity with which we live and through our fierce, ongoing commitment to make this world a better, more habitable place for them to grow and come of age in. And let us never fail to witness, name, and cherish each one’s shining essence: “May God help you become exactly who you are. May the Divine bless and keep you safe; may God’s light shine upon you with grace; may you perceive the Holiness in the faces of others and in the world, lifting you up, cherishing you, making you whole.”
Khazak khazak, v’nit’khazek,may we be strong, strong, and strengthen one another.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2018
April 2015 | Nisan 5775
“Va-yehi ba-yom hash’mini…” It is on the eighth day that the dedication of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, spoken into being by God’s desire to dwell amongst the Israelites and built with their heart-offerings, culminates in Aaron’s successful performance, for the first time, of his priestly service. After he performs all the offerings flawlessly, according to Divine direction, Aaron raises his hands to bless the people, and YHVHmaterializes as a density visible to all! Holy fire leaps forth to consume the offerings, a great joyous cry of relief rises from every throat and, as if with a single impulse, the whole people throw themselves upon the ground in awe.
Suddenly, in the midst of this ritual high drama, a shocking rupture occurs—Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, each place fire and incense upon their fire pans and bring “esh zara, strange fire,” before the altar. In an instant, they are consumed by the same miraculous Divine fire that, just moments before, had engulfed with favor their father’s offerings.
At this excruciating moment, Moses says to his brother, simply, “This is what God meant when saying, ‘Through those near to me will I be sanctified; before all the people will I be glorified.’ ” Aaron’s response? “Va-yidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3) Rashi, the great 11thcentury Torah commentator, interprets Moses’ words as high praise for the spiritual attainments of Aaron’s sons. Moses is telling Aaron, Rashi posits, that it’s because of Nadav and Avihu’s “nearness” to God, their saintliness, that the final sanctification of the Mishkanhas taken place through their deaths.
I want to hear the tone of Moses’ voice, to see his face. Have his eyes softened in empathy? Are they brimming with tears? Is he speaking gently, attempting to offer his brother some comfort in the face of unspeakable loss? Or is he impassive, majestic, still rapt with the elevated energy of ceremony, teaching his brother yet another lesson about the Torah order that is henceforth to govern Israel’s religious and communal life?
And what of Aaron’s silence? Does it signify, as the Biur (Naphtali Hirz Wessely, German, 18th c.) suggests, patience, resignation, and an inner peace that accepts his sons’ fate and receives with equanimity ol malkhut shamayim, heaven’s yoke? Or is Aaron’s a shocked, frozen, stunned silence? After all, God stayed Abraham’s hand when Isaac was upon the altar! Why now must these sons, these princes of the people, be slaughtered along with the bulls, rams, and goats?
Only once in my life have I experienced the sudden, shocking loss of someone with whom I was emotionally and spiritually bound up. It was not the loss of my child or close relative, but of my teacher, R. David World-Blank z”l, killed in a car crash at the age of 47. At the moment I received the news, it felt like being kicked in the gut and having my heart ripped open at the same time. I wanted to cry out, to writhe, but at the time, I was living in a shared household with people I didn’t know well, with whom I didn’t feel safe. So I kept silent as I tried to stay present and ride the powerful feelings and sensations of wrenching pain alternating with numbness and disbelief.
The psalmist cries out to God, “l’ma’an yizamerkha kavod v’lo yidom, Adonai elohai, l’olam odeka, So that my soul might sing Your glory and not be silent, YHVH, my God, I will forever thank you!” (Psalm 30:13) In our parshah the quality of yidom is not a resigned or accepting silence, but a heavy-hearted silence that chokes off joyful song. Gratitude and praise, the psalmist suggests, can release the voice again, providing the antidote to this silence of despair.
But both the psalmist and Aaron know that this takes time. “Ba-erev yalin bekhi, v’la boker rinah, at night one lies down weeping, but with the dawn—joyful singing!” (Psalm 30:6) In the “dark night of the soul,” pain can be digested, and eventually transmuted into song. Aaron, ever more in touch with the human, fleshly realm than his God-centered brother, instructs Moses in this truth by refusing to eat the sin-offering within the sacred precinct on the same day that his sons have died. “Didn’t they, this very day, bring close their sin offering and their burnt offering before YHVH—and things like this befell me? Am I now to eat the sin-offering? Would YHVH approve?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Yom ha-sh’mini, the “eighth day,” takes us beyond the pale of Creation, the familiar rhythm of seven, and into the realm of the Infinite, where the mysteries of life and death, of joy and loss, of elation and heartbreak, flow into one another in a single song of simultaneous love and awe. It’s not an easy realm for most of us to inhabit.
When such ruptures, such losses occur in our own lives, may we be gentle with ourselves, honoring the nights of weeping, the days of silence, and taking the time, as Aaron teaches, to allow words of praise and thanksgiving and blessing to find their way through our shattered hearts and gradually back into our mouths, where they teach us, bit by bit, to embrace the Vastness, the infinity, for which we each are a vessel.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2015
Numbers 16:1 -18:32
June 2010 / Sivan 5770
Our Torah tradition seems to present us with two kinds of enemies—those who are “other” like Amalek and the Philistines, attacking Israel and threatening its survival from without; and those who transform from “us,” to “other” as their words and actions threaten to unravel the very spiritual and moral fabric of the community from within.
In this week’s parashah we witness the painful and disturbing swiftness with which the unity of the Israelite people can shatter, swiftly reconfigured to “us” and “them,” when Korakh, a community leader of impeccable lineage separates himself from the kahal, drawing other leaders of the community into a rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. In the ensuing spiritual showdown, orchestrated by Moses, the earth splits open, swallowing Korakh, the members of his household, and all their possessions, while 250 other leaders of the community who had stood with Korakh are consumed by G~d’s fire as they offer incense. When the people protest, G~d’s fury is unleashed upon them in a plague.
One classic interpretation of this troubling story is expressed in a passage from the Mishnah (Avot 5:17): “Controversy for the sake of heaven (makhloket she’hi l’shem shamayim) will in the end yield fruitful results, while that which is not for the sake of heaven will not. An example of controversy for the sake of heaven: that of Hillel and Shamai. An example of controversy not for the sake of heaven: that of Korakh.”
The sages imply something very profound here: the disastrous result of Korakh’s mutiny stems not from the relative merit of his complaint, but from the way he conducts the dispute. For is there not, after all, truth in Korakh’s claim, that we are all One before G~d, all holy? Had not the mishkan been built so that G~d’s Presence could manifest within each one of the Israelites and in the midst of the community, as well as through its prophetic and priestly leaders?
Contemporary Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg invokes Levinas’ image of “the voice from another shore” to further unpack Korakh’s failure. In her analysis, Moses, heavily invested in speaking, tries until the last moment to engage Korakh in an interaction that might have a chance of restoring the integrity of the kahal. But after making the initial accusation, Korakh remains silent, unwilling to engage with the “voice from another shore” that irritates and annoys him, unwilling to enliven the space between Moses and himself because, the Midrash suggests, he is afraid of being won over.
A controversy for heaven’s sake, as my colleague Rabbi Shelly Lewis wrote last week, “assumes a bond of trust and affection between the interlocutors. It also assumes a willingness to listen, to learn, and to accept the perspective of another if it proves to be the best. The sides seek the best, the most wise solution.” Refusing to engage, to take even a single step into the gap that separates him from Moses and Aaron, Korakh generates an irreparable crack in the community, one that is mirrored by the crack in the earth that opens under him, swallowing all that he is and has. In his disengagement, his fear to let his challenge be challenged, he controverts the very truth he seeks to assert, invoking heaven in a way that, ultimately, is not for heaven’s sake.
These past ten days, following news of the situation currently unfolding off the shores of Gaza, I’ve read many passionate, conflicting interpretations and felt the painful, unsoothable tension of a seemingly intractable conflict once again escalating, both in the Middle East and within our own communities. I’ve been tempted to ask, as I imagine the community of Israelites in the wilderness, exhausted and traumatized, must also have been asking as they witnessed the confrontation between Korakh and Moses: who has the ear of heaven? who speaks with the voice of heaven? who can be trusted?
But to ask these kinds of questions ultimately pulls me back from a terrifyingly shaky edge on which I need to stand—the place where I have to admit that I don’t know what’s going on. This is the groundless ground of true engagement, the Void between polarities from which, our mystics teach, all Creation was birthed. Korakh’s name, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “bald” or “absent,” hints at his inability to stay present in the face of this very Void (Ayin) in which opposites dissolve and something new can emerge. And so he falls, leaving a hole in the heart of the world, depriving the community of the richness he might have offered in service of the Holy, if only all parties had been able to stay engaged, present, and vulnerable. I pray that we may somehow learn at last to rest together in the place of Ayin, with humility and love, inviting the Light that can shine only through the broken shards of our certainties, our self-righteousness, our most dearly held convictions.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2010
April 2007 | Iyyar 5767
This week’s parashah presents a number of conditions that, in ancient times, were seen to render a person “tamei,” a word usually translated as “contaminated” or “impure.”
Particularly puzzling is the case of the metzora, a person suffering from the mysterious skin disease of tzara’at (which will later afflict Miriam when she speaks of Moses in a dishonoring way). A person so diagnosed by the priest would be required to go into a kind of mourning, tearing her clothing, shaving her head, and calling out, “Tamei, tamei, contaminated, contaminated!” He or she would be sent to dwell in isolation outside the camp until the affliction resolved itself. A priestly purification ritual would mark the person’s reintegration into the community.
The great modern Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz poses the question: why, when there are so many physical and spiritual challenges in life, does Torah make a point of teaching us how to combat this particular disease? As the beginning of an answer, Professor Leibowitz cites Midrash emphasizing that, in each suspected case of tzara’at, there is a waiting period of seven days, from initial signs to diagnosis.
The rabbinic commentators interpret this gradual, progressive onset as a sign of Divine grace; through these symptoms, a person is being put on notice by HaShem that he is out of balance. More specifically, the Sages point to the word metzora as a contraction of “motzi ra,” a person who “brings out the bad,” by speaking ill of another. They interpret the swellings, scabs, or shiny patches embossed upon the skin as physical manifestations of spiritual imbalance and ethical failure.
How is tzara’at cured? Torah tells us only that the sufferer is to be quarantined, sent into isolation. But we’re not told what the metzora does out there, beyond the pale of communal life. Does she fast and pray, weep and repent, take homeopathics, soak in Aveeno baths, use ointments and salves, do yoga? Or does she simply sit quietly, watch the changing light, listen to the wind, and wait for a sea change?
I find it significant Torah’s prescription for a disease that disturbs the integrity of skin is separation. Skin itself is both a separator and a connector. Like clothing, vessels, and houses, each of which could also become infected with tzara’at, skin serves as a defining boundary, differentiating inner from outer. In my experience, the everyday stresses of familial relationships, raising children, earning a living, and participating in community life often compromise our boundaries. When I’m flooded with information, when I’ve ingested more food or imagery or emotions than my systems can process, both my physical and my energetic skins express the distress. I become “thin-skinned,” “leaky,” irritable, more likely to lash out at a loved one or to dishonor or simply ignore my fellow beings. I can’t distinguish what’s emotionally mine from what belongs to others. I become tamei, cut off from the sacredness of life.
At such times, the most useful spiritual practice I’ve yet found is to declare myself “contaminated!” and to remove myself to a space mikhutz la’makhaneh, outside the camp, whether for an hour’s hike in Wildcat Canyon or a several-day-long silent retreat. I rest the faculty of speech that can be so abused and give my “skins” the opportunity to regenerate themselves. Sometimes knowing when to exit, when to absent oneself, is the most spiritually powerful action one can take. Perhaps this is the deep torah of the metzora: that when our boundaries become leaky and compromised, it’s the Divine Presence, woven into our very structure (“…v’shokhanti b’tokham,” ..”and I will dwell within them”), that bubbles to the surface, from under our skins, guiding us onto the path of retreat and purification.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2007
Rosh Hashanah 2005 / 5766
offered at the Elijah Minyan, San Diego
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
– Babylonian Talmud, Masekhet Sanhedrin, Perek Helek
My dear friends, l’shanah tovah, it is such a blessing to be here together with you this Rosh Hashanah morning. I’ve struggled and struggled with what to share with you this day—partly because it has been such a difficult year, as we spoke of yesterday, with so much change and loss and pain for so many of us, near and far. And also there’s heaviness in my heart, knowing that this will be my last High Holy Days sharing with you in this way. As I move toward completing my rabbinic education and toward changes in both my work and my personal life, I am flooded with the feelings of all that I’ve shared with this community, and with all I yet wish to speak and teach and learn. And at the same time, words fail me.
I guess you could say, I’m struggling to let go. So of all the many learnings that have come to me in this past year, I’ve chosen one small story I would like to share with you. It’s a learning about yielding, about how accepting the truth of this moment, changes, elevates this moment. I have no answers to share with you today, really only the shape of my own struggle.
Yesterday Rabbi Dosick spoke to us about heyn v’hesed v’rachamim, grace and unconditional love and mercy. He told us of how these qualities of God and the possibility of our connecting with God through them are always there for us, even in times of deep pain, of seemingly insupportable loss and sorrow. And that our mandate as human beings is to emulate these Divine qualities, from which the very fabric of our cosmos is woven, and to spread them to all others, even while offering them to ourselves.
How to do this? Some folks seem more naturally at ease in touching the holy, in knowing and embodying the truth of God’s grace in a direct, constant way. But for many of us, for me, the small pains and disappointments of life cause tightenings, knottings in our very beings. When great difficulty, tzurus, challenges us, we may tighten further. Like Hagar, who in fear and despair in the wilderness, cast away her son—like the Israelites worn down by the harshness of enslavement in Egypt—we suffer mikotzer ru’ah, shortness of spirit—a shutting out of love, of life, of God.
And so, my story. A little more than a year ago my dear partner, Burt, gave me this beautiful ring as a symbol of our love and commitment. A band of white gold, it contains eight tiny, exquisite diamonds taken from a ring that had belonged to his mother. I had known that rings are powerful symbols, but I was not prepared for the effect of being gifted with this ring. The diamonds seemed to hold the energy of Burt’s mother, Gert Jacobson, a powerful and creative woman, a pianist and painter, who had suffered deep frustration and depression in her attempts to alert American Jews to the horrors taking place in Europe during World War II. She had died years before I met Burt. I felt the responsibility, the holiness, of placing my finger into the empty space at the ring’s center, a space like the one between the keruvim above the Ark in the Holy of Holies, designed to draw God down into this material world. I would take the ring off each night, place it carefully in its box. Each morning, with awareness and a silent blessing, I would fill its empty space with my finger.
Last New Year’s Eve, having returned from a visit with Burt up in Berkeley the day before, I went with a friend to a party. When I got home I washed up a bit and, when I sat down on the couch to read before going to bed, I glanced down at the ring on my finger and discovered with a shock a small but gaping black hole in the row of diamonds. One of them had fallen out. I tried to think where I had been when I had last seen the ring whole. Surely I would’ve noticed if the diamond had been missing at the party. No, the stone must’ve fallen out somewhere in my house. I retraced my steps to the bathroom, where I remembered having taken off the ring to wash my hands and dropped it on the floor. On my hands and knees, I went over every inch of tile with my bare hands. Nothing. I tried to see down the bathroom drain. Then I went to the kitchen sink where, wearing the ring, I’d rinsed out some cups. I dug through the dispose-all, peering inside to see if anything was gleaming, dislodging a number of rotting lemon seeds, but nothing else. My heart sank. The probability of ever finding a thing so tiny seemed so slim.
Two mornings later I sat down to meditate before leaving for school in LA. I was still anguished about the missing diamond, but as I sat and breathed, something knotted tight in me let go. The thought came to mind my, “Nothing’s perfect. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect.” No relationship, not my relationship with Burt, or with my family, not school, or my life choices—everything I struggle with and wish to be different. So simple. I decided to wear the ring to school with the hole in it as a reminder. I got up from my meditation cushion and went into the bathroom to brush my teeth before leaving and afterward, as I often do, ran a tissue over the floor to pick up stray hairs and dust. I turned the tissue over before throwing it into the trash, and there, in it, was the diamond.
Sometimes we are swept away by the immensity of life’s blows. Yet how we meet the small, day-to-day griefs and disappointments is also significant. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the great mystic-shaman who founded the Hasidic movement of which we renewed Jews are spiritual heirs, taught that we react with fear or aversion to these small losses and griefs, tightening our bodies, our thoughts, and our spirits so uncomfortably around them, because they conceal within them fears of larger losses—ultimately of the greatest loss that of our own lives. So when we can yield, soften around these little fears and day-to-day losses, they lead us to God, because they come from God. In fact, they are God in disguise.
I would offer that true joy is a state of “radical acceptance”—a total and complete “hineni”–– that leads us through the doorways of pain, fear and difficulty by means of “God’s love-in-suspension,” which is the fragile, aching and beautiful “shimmering” of this created world. Hineni! Opening to the truth of this moment, I step across the threshold to a churning, quaking, shatteringly ineffable experience of the awesome grandeur of The One. The Baal Shem Tov was said to have exclaimed, “O my body! I am amazed that you do not shatter out of yirah—fear/awe—of your Creator!”
This is the magnitude of experience of the Divine Presence that drew Abraham up Mt. Moriah to a moment of truth with his knife poised above his beloved son bound on the altar. It’s something I’ve been able to glimpse and know only in fleeting instants, brief sighs of my being. I feel that every loosening no matter how small, every breath of acceptance, creates more spaciousness of spirit. I dance around the empty center, where God is, dipping my toe into eternity, hoping that one day I will be ready. I will let go.
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
The words to the chant with which I began this talk come from the Talmud, from Perek Helek, Masekhet Sanhedrin, and are usually translated: “No captive releases himself from prison.” Another way of rendering them would be: “No person who is tied up can undo her own knots.”
In this world of this world of duality, of seeming separation—of men and women and plants and creatures and mountains and skyscrapers and hurricanes and wildfires—I believe our lessons of letting go – in fact, all of our lessons – come through relationship. All that we attempt to own and must lose, all those whom we love most dearly and who inevitably leave us, or are left by us, teach us about yielding. Our mishpachah, our intimates—parents, children, spouses—so clearly mirror for us those places where we hold on tight to our ideas of ourself, to all that we deem so important. Our power struggles with our partner, the ways we shut him or her out, teach us how we resist God, in what ways we are unavailable to receive God’s chen v’chesed v’rachamim. If we are very fortunate, we also find or create an eydah, a spirit community of shared witness, willing to serve as mentors, mirrors, and projection screens for each other, eager to play together toward awakening God-consciousness.
Such a community has this one become for me and we for each other, a container for many of to share our strengths and enthusiasms, to hold each other in times of sorrow and deep dismay, challenging and praising, laughing (or not) at each others’ jokes, helping each other to perceive and thus to loosen the knots. We have grown together. How can I ever express my gratitude for this precious container with all its beautiful holes? To Dr. Gary Hartman whose spirit infuses every gathering and who taught me through the infinite grace of his letting go; to Dr. Burt and Ellen who share the gift of meditation through your generous and wise spirits and always loving presence; to the members of Shir HaYam—Cindy and Mark, Judith and Jack, Mark and Mary, Jack and Janice, Rhonda and David, Erin and Ken, Albert and Ahouva, Rebecca, Marlene—who have helped me grow as a leader have celebrated my leadership, and have become dear friends and spirit buddies for life; and to all of you, who have trusted and witnessed and encouraged and supported, through loving contributions of all kinds, this rigorous rabbinic journey I’ve undertaken.
And most especially today I thank Rabbi Wayne Dosick, who has made me his colleague. He and Ellen, both, have opened their hearts and their home to me; taught and prodded me; fed me; praised, commiserated with, gifted, and loved me. They have helped release me from prisons I wasn’t even aware I had locked myself into.
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
There is a yet deeper meaning here, one that extends beyond the ways in which we need each other and the world as mirrors, guides, mentors, even beyond the ways in which we address and are addressed by the Divine—a meaning that defies the capacity of language to express. It goes something like this: the “me” that is tied in knots can never set my-self free. The “I,” the very illusion of my separateness, is the knots, is the prison cell. As our great rebbe Albert Einstein put it, we can’t solve a problem from the state of mind that created it.
Letting go, accepting the holes which are “holy,” softening with love into the fear of loss—for brief instants, separation dissolves. As my friend Marilyn Habermas-Scher, a Zen priest, puts it, God lets go. “Letting go” lets go!
The Jewish Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, in her wonderful teaching tape titled “The Courage to be Happy,” says this:
"What I deeply trust is that it is possible to wake up and see all the pain and suffering in the world, in our own life, in other people’s lives, in the life of the whole world, and see at the same time the gorgeousness, the incredibleness of a lawful, just cosmos, to see the amazingness of life recreating itself in every single form of creation in every moment. I deeply trust that the awe of that radical amazement supports the awareness of suffering so that we can be grateful for our own lives and for life itself and serve with joy."
This is my deepest aspiration, as a rabbi-to-be and as human being: to be deeply present with what is, to trust the wonder, to be grateful for my life and for life itself, and to serve with joy. I thank you for witnessing me in it.
Ayn havush motzi atzmo mi bet ha-asurin
L’shanah tovah um’tukah, a good and sweet year to us all.
© Diane Elliot 2006
September 2003 / Tishrei 5764
Then Hannah opened herself up in prayer and said:
My heart exults in the Holy One,
my self-esteem has been raised up through Yah,
my mouth is wide open in the face of those who oppose me
for I have rejoiced in being stretched by You!
[I Samuel 2:1-10, my translation]
I invite you to take a moment, to close your eyes and take a breath…..and to recall the last time you cried. Recall, if you can, what or who moved those tears to rise in you, how it felt to release them, and how you felt afterward.
I want to speak with you today of Hannah, the first person in Scripture to entreat G-d in prayer. I want to speak with you about the resonance of silence, of words, half-formed, inchoate, whispered from the depths of a soul struggling to open to its own pain. I want to speak with you about voice, the full-throated voice, ebullient in song, that bursts from the belly of a being touched by G-d. And I want to speak with you about the power of tears – tears that trickle and tears that burn; tears that seep from the hidden, sore spots of the soul and tears that simply overflow when the heart is full; cleansing tears, purifying tears, tears as salty as the oceans that birthed life, tears that melt and soften, tears that transform. All these are Hannah’s legacy to us, her torah, and it’s no accident that the sages chose to include her story among the texts that guide us through this season in which we seek to rectify our relationships with ourselves, our fellow beings and with G-d.
At the recent Jewish Renewal Kallah (2004) an amazing teaching was shared, a teaching that wove together many of the texts chosen by our sages for inclusion in the machzor, the “script” for the drama of our Rosh Ha-Shanah experience. The theme that unites all these texts, it was suggested, is not judgment – for Rosh HaShanah is never referred to in written Torah as Yom Ha-Din, the day of judgment – but rather, tears. Long before the current psychological trend represented by Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, the Pietzetzner Rebbe, chief Rabbi of Poland who died in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, taught the primacy of emotion in our spiritual lives. The tzaddik, the righteous person, he wrote, is one who owns his heart, her heart, and a person who owns her heart is one who can access her tears.
So on Rosh Ha-Shanah we read of Hagar’s tears of resignation as she abandons her son Ishmael under a bush, unwilling to watch him die of thirst in the wilderness. And we hear the implied crying of the lad “ba-asher hu sham,” from where he has been left, to which G-d responds by revealing the saving spring of water to his mother. We note the tears of Abraham, conspicuous by their very absence, as he prepares his beloved son Isaac for sacrifice. Isaac’s tears, also absent, are replaced, in midrash, by the tears of angels, which fall into Isaac’s eyes as he lies bound upon the altar and cloud his vision forever after. Today’s haftarah from Jeremiah vibrates with the sound of Rachel’s “bitter weeping” for her exiled children, tears of radical empathy that shame G-d into the promise of redemption. Even the crying of a figure as minor as the nameless mother of Sisera, the wicked general whose death at the hands of Yael is chronicled in the ancient Song of Deborah, is evoked by the sages of the Talmud, who prescribe that the very manner of blowing the shofar should recall the quality of her wailing when she realizes her son will not return from battle. It was suggested that all these different flavors of tears – shed or unshed – teach us something about the nuances of our participation in the drama of these holy days, about what is being asked of us here and in the year to come – and in our lives.
No one at the Kallah, however, spoke about Hannah’s tears. What, I asked myself, is their taste and how do they nourish us? Like so many of the matriarchal figures in scripture, Hannah is childless. She is presented as a painfully unfulfilled woman, whose ability to feel loved by her adoring husband is blocked because she has been denied her heart’s deepest desire, a son. Doctors and psychologists are coming to understand how prolonged or extreme pain, whether physical, mental or emotional, leads to a numbing of our senses, a kind of inner paralysis that dulls our very participation in life. Our organisms cut off feeling in order to survive. I have noticed that even minor disappointments, piling up over time, lead to an attitude of subtle cynicism, a closing of the heart that keeps us protected – both from pain and from joyous participation in life.
Hannah, sunk in her own sorrow, verbally abused by her husband Elkanah’s other wife, the fertile Peninah, and unable to receive his offerings of love, somehow finds it within herself to break the cycle of numbness and despair and to respond in a radically different way. Surrendering her pain to G-d, she circumcises her heart, spilling her soul tears and whispered words upon the altar of the Holy One at the Shiloh temple. What inspires an action so unusual that it causes the aging priest Eli to chastise her for what seems to him to be drunkenness? The text tells us only: “v’hi marat nefesh (and she was bitter of soul) va-titpallel al YHVH (and she prayed to YHVH), u-vakhoh tivkeh (all the while crying her heart out).”1 Marat, bitterness, speaks literally of bitter water, specifically the undrinkable waters found by the thirsty Israelites who, after crossing the Sea of Reeds, had spent three frightening, waterless days in the wilderness. Hannah’s soul is filled with these bitter waters, her heart a brackish pool in the barren wilderness of her body. Yet somehow she is impelled, despite the custom of her world, where an orderly and correct relationship with awesome Divinity is maintained through the priests’ prescribed ministrations and the sacrifice of animals, to approach G-d directly, to offer up her tears and the silent movements of her lips.
The Hebrew root l’hitpallel , which we translate as “pray,” and which can be rendered more precisely as “intercede” or “interpose,” comes from an Arabic root meaning “to cut oneself in worship.” Our wise rebbe Ellen Kaufman Dosick recently reminded me that the word “tears” can also be pronounced “tears” (tares). In the depth of her pain, Hannah tears herself open with implicit trust that the Holy One will witness her suffering. If G-d will open her womb, she vows, she will dedicate its fruit, the son she will bear, to G-d’s service. And then we read: “v’Hannah, hi midaberet al libah; rak s’fateyha na-ot, v’kolah lo yishameya: and Hannah was speaking upon her heart; only her lips moved and her voice was not heard.”2 In the act of weeping out her longing and passion to G-d, Hannah speaks also into her own heart, opening at last to the depths of her own desire, silently mouthing words of yearning too ardent, too intimate to be spoken aloud. In one breath she surrenders all – her pain, her longing, even her unborn son – to G-d, and in this moment begins to find inner peace.
I feel a special kinship with Hannah, this mother of prayer, for Hannah is my Hebrew name. And I am named after my mother’s mother, Hannah Dreisl, “Helen,” as she came to be called when she arrived in this country from Hungary at the age of nine, just before the outbreak of World War I. Like Hannah of the Bible, she was a woman greatly beloved of her husband, my Grandpa Sam; and she was a woman unfulfilled, not for lack of children – of whom she left behind three, including my mother Florence, the middle one – but in years. She died at age 26 at the height of the Great Depression, having shed not her tears, but her life’s blood, and not to bring a child into the world, but to avoid having another one. A Chicago abortionist’s knife took the life that almost certainly would have ended, had she not left Hungary, in the camps of Poland some ten years later.
My mother was six years old when her mother died. She never grieved. She told me that at the funeral on a cold October day in 1930 at the Waldheim cemetery in Chicago, her father threw himself into the open grave, sobbing. But she kept quiet, not knowing what was happening or what to do. In her immigrant family, emotions were not easily shared. Growing up, I sensed a great sadness in the house of my mother’s parents (Sam had remarried after a couple of years) and never felt completely comfortable there.
I believe that unshed tears are passed from generation to generation. My mother carried these unshed tears lodged in her throat, and she passed them on to me. I discovered them only many years later, when I began to study singing and tapped into a well of tears caught in my own throat. I would sing jazz standards, songs of yearning and unrequited love. For two years I cried every time I sang. Only later did I come to understand that these songs are also prayers. I am still learning to cry my grandmother’s and mother’s and my own tears of grief and longing, and perhaps the tears of earlier generations and generations yet to come as well. It has taken me a long time to begin to name the yearnings of which they speak, and even longer to understand the joy which crying them liberates.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has described prayer as an “adventure of the soul” that shifts “the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”3 That first Hannah knew, or came to know, that tears of loss are folded into tears of fulfillment, those of fulfillment folded into those of loss, and that to risk fulfillment, we inevitably invite loss. In time she bore her son, and in time brought him back to the temple to enter G-d’s service as a new kind of priest, an anointer of kings. Then she prayed/praised aloud, and her prayer is a kaddish, a sanctification of the Great Name, an upliftment for all souls who yearn, for she teaches the most difficult lesson of true prayer: the lesson of surrender in the very moment of asking.
At this season, this Rosh Ha-Shanah, this moment of renewing our awareness of the constancy of change, the ever-present possibility of transformation, Hannah teaches me what my grandmother never had the chance to, and what my mother didn’t know how to: the power of opening ourselves to the Possibility Beyond Possibilities, of feeling our deepest yearnings with all of our being, of becoming radically vulnerable, even in the face of our world’s apparent harshness. “For it is not through strength that humans prevail,” she proclaims. She teaches us l’hitpallel, to cut ourselves open in prayer, to acknowledge that by ourselves we are incapable of creating what we most deeply desire – love, peace, wholeness – and yet, that if we fully open to those desires, if we can bless our own longings and let them flood through us without inner resistance, then we engage G-d’s co-creative force and draw it into our lives. Hannah challenges us to let G-d stretch us wide, and by example enjoins us to pray as if our very lives depended on it –for they do.
Of all the many worthy reasons we come together at this holy season – to review the past year; to let go of old energies and realign ourselves with our deepest purpose; to forgive and be forgiven; to celebrate successes and blessings; to lament the ways in which we as individuals, as a community, and as a human race, have failed to be kind, to be strong, to fulfill our potentials for goodness and fairness and truth -- perhaps the most profound is simply this: to open our hearts, to share our tears and to let G-d stretch us.
O G-d, Great Discerner, Holy Champion, help us to set aside our bashfulness. Teach us to touch in love the sorest, the least voiced parts of our own souls. Meet our tears and whisperings with your compassion, that our lives may open gracefully into whatever circumstances we face. Let us receive the blessings of this moment, this day and this coming year in healing gratitude. Amen.
1 I Samuel, 1:10
2 Op. cit., 1:13
3 Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.
© Diane Elliot 2004