Tag Archives: Torah

Jubilee Part Nine: Coming Home to My Land and Simchat Torah

Photo taken by Frederic Brenner, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.
Photo taken by Frédéric Brenner, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. I’m the one holding the far end of the scroll, in the white skirt. This picture was taken over ten years ago.

I am looking out over a sea of yellow, green, red and orange from the fourth story window of my father’s Denver apartment. The Rocky Mountains are visible in the distance and I can even see snow on the high peaks. The sky is blue with clouds. My father (who is 91 and super healthy) and his wife Judy are napping. I am wide awake and feel energized. My time here in Boulder and Denver has been packed so full that even trying to describe one event will take me many pages. I will be finding ways to share parts of this story as slices of a much greater pie.

I was in Colorado in mid-October which coincided with the culmination of the Jewish High Holy Day season of holidays, called Simchat Torah/Joy of and in Torah. We dance around our congregations seven times with the Torah scrolls in the arms of those strong enough to carry them and then we read the very last lines and the very first lines of the Torah. We can NEVER be done with Torah, so we immediately have to read the very first line after finishing the last line. There is a seamless sounding of Hebrew words and Torah between the last letter and the first. There are numerous mystical teachings about this, but the most obvious and frequently shared one is this:

The last word of the Torah scroll is the word Yisrael, and the first word of the Torah is the word B’reishit. The last letter then is an “L” sound, which is the letter Lamed.

Lamed

The first letter is a “B” sound or a “V” sounding letter named Bet or Vet. It is a letter with two names and sounds and considered one letter. It has the numeric value of two.

betvet-h

 

The Lamed has the numeric value of 30. Lamed is the tallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and it reaches up towards heaven. When you put the lamed in front of the bet/vet, you get the word “Lev.” Lev, in Hebrew, means heart and mind or heart/mind. It is not the word for brain. There’s an ocean of teachings in this, but I’ll stick to a strand of seaweed right now.

translation = a pure heart
translation = a pure heart

Our exercise in reading the way we do is to remember and highlight that the entire Torah from end to beginning and beginning to end is about our hearts. It is a journey through the Lev that brings us into relationship with each other, the planet, our teachers and all of creation in a joyous dance of loving-kindness, righteous and just society, goodness, compassion and forgiveness.

Before we read these words of Torah in their completion and beginning, we’ve danced the seven times around our congregations with them as our dancing partners. We form a procession of joyous folks following the scrolls and their bearers around the buildings we pray in. Or, we do seven joyous dances around and around like whirling dervishes for as long as we can. I found myself at Nevei Kodesh, the Jewish Renewal congregation in Boulder, where my friend Rabbi Tirzah Firestone was leading the services. All of us in the Jewish Renewal movement are still in deep mourning for our beloved Rebbe Zalman M. Schacter-Shalomi, may his memory be for a blessing. So, our prayers were laden with tears and honoring of him and it was so wonderful to be with a community of folks all collectively mourning his death, but also celebrating his legacy.

So, in honor of our Holy Torah, we danced for several hours with the two scrolls we had and we were pumped and JOYOUS! The wonder continued beyond my wildest imaginings and became extraordinary as the evening unfolded (literally). Rabbi Tirzah’s community chose to unspool the entire scroll with all of us present. We were instructed to form a gigantic circle, there were between fifty and seventy folks in this large Torah holding circle. Each of us stood shoulder to shoulder with our hands out in front of us and as the scroll was unwound in front of us, we held the top inch of it. We had to be careful not to touch the text and only hold onto the parchment at the top. This is a very intense and rare thing, the scrolls are extremely sacred, fragile and imbued with tremendous meaning. It takes a great deal of trust and faith for any congregation to do this. If a Torah scroll accidentally falls often the entire congregation has to fast and do penance. The Torah scroll is not a book, or a piece of parchment alone, it is considered sacred in and of itself and it feels that way to anyone engaging with it.

In our imperfect human circle, there were gaps where some people were too far apart from each other and places where some folks were closer together. I moved three times, going under or around the scroll to attend to these gaps. I am acutely aware of the Torah, in my body and blood and could not tolerate or hold the place of trust about these gaps in the circle. It was literally impossible for me to not go try and make sure that the tension in the scroll was not too great, behaving as is my nature, and being a Jewish mother to the Torah scroll, not just to the people holding it.

I helped a little boy get on a chair because having him hold our sacred scroll was too awkward from his height and he really wanted to hold onto it. So, we, his mother and I, had to keep moving him, and the chair and asking the people next to us to hold our parts for us while we helped him be able to also participate. This was one of many spectacular moments for me, being next to this little boy and his excitement about being able to participate, which he would not have been able to do if we hadn’t figured out the chair for him to get him up to the right height.

The circle was somewhat liquid at first until it was all figured out, which took about twenty minutes. By the time I was not helping someone or making sure there wasn’t a gap I found myself by the end of the scroll. I was shoulder to shoulder with some very stoned young men. They were very aromatic and smiley. This did not reassure me, but they looked capable and blissful, so I just kept checking in with them. Why did the whole scroll get unrolled? It’s a special thing to just witness, but Rabbi Tirzah and several other Torah readers wanted to give all of us something brilliant. They went around to each person, Torah readers on the inside of the scroll, with us Torah-scroll holders on the outside. We were instructed, individually, to remove one of our hands and point somewhere we couldn’t see in front of us on the scroll. The Torah readers then read for us a few lines from where we had pointed. So, we each got our own unique special Torah reading.

The lines that I got were from Deuteronomy 31:7-9:

“Moses summoned Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Yisrael. ‘Be strong and courageous, for you shall come with this people to the land that HASHEM swore to their forefathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it. HASHEM is the One Who goes before you; He will be with you; He will not release you, nor forsake you; do not be afraid and do not be dismayed.’ Moses wrote this Torah, and gave it to the Kohanim, the descendants of Levi, the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant of HASHEM, and to all the elders of Israel.”

If you’ve been following my Jubilee series, you will understand why this felt perfect for me. I am planning to go away for a retreat and I am actively looking for the right “land.” I know I am not going to do retreat in Israel, but this piece of Torah was telling me to be strong and courageous. To trust and to not fear, that the land will be given or shown to me and that I should not be dismayed. This is amazingly helpful for me. The piece about the Torah being given to the Kohanim (the high priests) and the descendants of Levi and all the elders of Israel resonates as well. I am a Kohen, which means I am a descendant of the Kohanim, and as one of those descendants, who is deeply engaged with this handed down powerful scroll, I find it holds me more than I ever have the chance to hold it.

My several hours of dancing with our Holy Torah and holding it and watching over it were a small fraction of how I am held and danced and dreamed and nurtured by Torah.

To be on the safe side, since interpretation of our Holy text is very complex, let me ask outright for help. In case you happen to know where the Holy One has put that land for me to spend silent retreat away from people on, please let me know. I am moving closer to this place, and like my ancestors, it is not something that is clear to me. Is it over the next ridge or around a corner or at your vacation cabin? This is a place I am coming to and journeying to, but have not yet found.

Please use the contact form here to email me if you are aware of or have the perfect place for me to spend a few solitary, quiet months of retreat and prayer.

May all your dancings and movements bring you closer to your Lev Tahor, your pure heart!

Jubilee Part Two: Quaking for The Divine

Nicole, in her red riding hood cape, age seven in Morocco
Nicole, in her red riding hood cape, age seven in Morocco

This is the second of several installments in the Jubilee Retreat Series, the first one is My True Heart Opens and should be read first.:

Seven cycles of seven equals forty-nine. In the Jewish tradition, this is very significant. Since, every seventh day is the sabbath and every seventh year is a Sabbatical called the shmita. The Jubilee (Hebrew yovel יובל) is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita, So, my forty-ninth birthday was last September. My birthday is always around the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah. I will turn fifty this coming September, so it is my Jubilee. I have been planning to go away for a long retreat for many years. I have told all my family members and most of my friends about this for at least ten years now. Since my youngest is only seventeen (another number with a seven in it), I cannot actually take my Jubilee retreat when I turn fifty. I am determined though to start on my Jubilee year-off before I turn fifty-one.

Both of my parents are Jewish by birth. Neither of them are Jewishly observant or religious. I wanted some connection to the force moving within and around me, to Holy Presence, and since neither my father nor my mother had any relationship to religious practice, nor any connections to Jewish community, my father chose the Quakers also known as The Friends. My father took me to Quaker meetings as a child. He liked them because they were mostly silent, they were educated, there were lots of intellectuals, and they were pacifists. I was in heaven from the first time I sat in Friends Meeting. Here, finally, were a bunch of folks/Friends all communing with and in relationship with Holiness. They were not discussing it or trying to argue against it, they were simply sitting in stillness and waiting for the voice, the still small voice, within them to make itself known.

I am anything but still, small and quiet. I was a slender young girl, but I was never quiet. The Boulder Friends Meeting was my first spiritual home. I would sit in meeting and, of course, The Divine would start talking to me. I would sit on my hands, try and be calm and as patient as a young girl can be, but eventually I would have to stand up and shaking and with tears streaming down my face, share how much The Holy One loved everybody and how beautiful they were. This was the most common theme that seemed to be coming through me. It is still my most common theme and my forever “good news.”

I was a young girl when this was going on and I felt as if I was the only child doing this kind of thing. Usually, the elders would speak or occasionally someone older would share something. I became a favorite of the elders and also made tremendous friendships with the other children at meeting. These friends were different from any other friends because I was encountering them in a spiritual context. They were truly Friends with a capital letter “F.” I spent years with the Boulder Friends Meeting and going to the Inter Mountain Yearly Meetings in New Mexico during the summers was one of the highlights of my early teen years.

The Boulder Friends Meeting was also home to Elise and Kenneth Boulding. These were two maverick human beings. Married for forty-plus years by the time I encountered them. They were white haired, tall, strong and beautiful. Kenneth was originally from England and a world-renowned and respected economist and Elise was originally from Norway and was a professor at Dartmouth prior to being in Boulder and also a world-renowned Sociologist. Both of them were intellectual giants. They had five children, all grown, by the time I met them as a young girl. Kenneth had written many books and several long love poems/sonnets of love for his wife. These were just the best and most wondrous people. Kenneth would sometimes speak after I did at meeting. When he spoke, you knew the voice of Wisdom, and Holiness was coming through. He was gentle and kind and had a slight stutter sometimes, his hair was like pictures of most mad scientists, white and wiry and going in ten directions at once. He was well over six feet tall. He had a strong accent and an extremely distinct voice, which was forceful and strong, even with the stutter.

He would often speak about my sharing as being a gift and he likened my young tears to tears of baptism. He would affirm that all of us need to experience this love and joy of Holiness, that the tears were a place of cleansing and newness and youth. He made me feel at home. I am crying just thinking of these people and this time in my life, when I was honored, even at the young age of eleven or so, as a person of merit and depth with something to share. In school, I was perpetually taunted and teased. At home there was still pain from my parents divorce and so much confusion. At Meeting, I was heard and seen and honored and not for anything I did, but for the voice of love and hope inside of me that couldn’t help but bubble up as soon as I got still and quiet in communion with other folks sitting still and waiting for inspiration and connection.

The first time I learned of the idea of a year retreat was when I was a young girl. Elise Boulding was a mother and an inspired feminist, professor, peace activist, and she wrote many books. My mother is also a feminist and artist and she collaborated with Elise when she was writing a book called The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time, first published in1976. My mother, Helen Redman, did the illustrations for this book. My mother and Elise worked together and I remember sitting at Elise’s table one summer afternoon with them both. Elise was speaking about her retreat, her year long silent retreat. What was this busy mother, grand-mother, author, professor and extraordinarily busy activist talking about? How could she have taken a year long retreat? But she had. Elise and Kenneth were very deep thinking and deeply feeling folks, their relationship to Holiness was not casual. Elise Boulding planted the seed in my young mind that a mother, wife, maverick thinker and activist, could retreat from all of that to seek stillness and connection with Holiness.

This seed, planted so long ago has been growing since then. It is now a veritable oak tree inside of me. I will always love my first spiritual base, my Friends from Boulder and New Mexico. I still love Quakers and the Friends Meeting and feel at home there. I am no Quaker though, I’m just too damn loud and very definitely practicing and in love with my Judaism now.

Imagine my delight when I uncovered that the Jewish tradition, which any well-versed Christian Quaker (like Elise), knew, has retreat practices related to the Jubilee Year and to daily meditation and stillness. There are instructions in the Talmud that suggest one should take time to get still and calm for an hour or so before beginning prayers and then do the prayers. After the prayers one is also instructed to sit in stillness and communion for another hour or so. If you do this the three proscribed times a day, that’s about seven hours of prayer and meditation. Not really something the average person is doing, but it is still there as the model of what should be done; an ancient instruction to engage in daily meditation and retreat.

There are also teachings about how a man should take a retreat when he is fifty to re-assess his life and prayer practices. I’m not sure a whole year is specified, but again the seed is there. There are lots of fascinating and deep practices related to the Jubilee Year. All debts are supposed to be forgiven, all land is supposed to revert to its original owners, and many other amazing and not easy to do things. To my knowledge, these practices were rarely observed, and alterations and amendments were made. Who wants to forgive all their debts? Who wants to give their land back to the original natives? Who are the original, original natives? How far back does one go, etc..?

I know that I need a retreat year to be by myself with the Divine only and I’d love to have all my debts forgiven, or at least take a break from thinking about them! It is also very hard for me to find my own sense of what is MINE to do and be around others. I am looking forward to the time and space, a luxurious amount of both, to go deep into the great mystery and see what I find and how best to serve Holiness, my family and community on the other side of fifty. Please stay tuned here, before I go away, and follow me to know more abut this adventure as it unfolds. To be continued………….

___________________

Nicole writes and remembers, with tears and laughter, from her home in Bayside she dedicates this teaching in honor and memory of her greatest teacher Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, May his Memory be for a Blessing. He came into this world on August 28, 1924 and left it on July 3, 2014. This piece was originally published in The Mad River Union on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

What Kind of Jew are You?

Open Poppy From Nicole's Deck and Heart, Flower made by The Holy One
Open Poppy From Nicole’s Deck Heart, Flower by The Holy One

I’m a heart opening,
Big Loving,
Always Seeking,
Torah Studying
Kinda Jew

not just a kinda Jew but
a full fledged
big practicing
kind Jew

I’m a never ending
pot o’ soup on the stove
kind of Jew

I’m a complex and
wild woman
mikveh loving and
Mussar loving
kinda Jew

I will
cook for you
pray for you
engage with you
sing for and with you
study with you
discourse with you
kind of Jew

I’m a sit with you
while you are dying
and sing the Shema
over you as you take your last
breaths kind of Jew

I will gently bathe your cold
body and recite love lines from
the Song of Songs
over your limbs and your whole body
I will work with others together and
wrap, gently wrap
you in a shroud
kind of Jew

I’m a start to finish
kind of Jew
I’m a long-winded
and lots to say kind of Jew

I say a blessing
over everything
that goes into my mouth
I say a blessing
when I arise
when I learn of a death
when I immerse
when I study
whenever I have or make time
when I do something for the first time
when I see an old friend

or a rainbow

I pray every day
pretty much all day
in some way

I light candles on Shabbat
I light candles for those
who’ve left this world
or for those
in need of healing

I honor my mother and my father
I strive to honor and be present
for my children, all the children
in my life, not just those I’ve
raised or birthed

I love my husband, my man
who is not a Jew
I love him completely
imperfectly and with all my heart

I’m an observe a lot of commandments
kinda Jew….but not all of them

I’m a wrestle with and dance
with the Divine kinda Jew
and I think
whatever Kind of Jew

I am

I’m some kinda Jew
looking for and
always loving You!

©Nicole Barchilon Frank, February 28, 2014 ~ 28th of Adar I, 5774

Introduction to Mussar

We are Holy at our core

We can uncover the core

Our difficulties, stresses, and problems in this life are the core curriculum of our lives, this is our spiritual homework

Acknowledgment: This extremely introductory and broad overview of the topic of Mussar is the result of eight years of study with my teacher Caroline Isaacs, my time with my Mussar sisters in group study, reading, reading, reading and more reading as well as studying great teachings, some of which are mentioned here. Please see all the links for more in-depth discussion and direction. This piece is truly meant as an introduction to the topic and I hope it stimulates much further study.

Mussar is introduced in Ba-Midbar/Exodus also in Devarim/Deuteronomy

Ha-Shem/The Name (see Teachings, -Naming the Divine?Why Ha-Shem article on the use of this word instead of the word God). Ha-Shem literally means The Name and it reflects the concept in Judaism that you cannot quantify or confine the Divine. It is unnameable, infinite and vast. Ha-Shem is not like my name or yours.

Ha-Shem gave us Mussar. Mussar can be translated to mean training/to train. It is also understood as the practice of Jewish ethical work. Mussar is a series of practice tools and teachings for learning to walk our talk. I often describe it as a way to shine up my soul, to work at scouring, lifting, cracking the code on the patterns, barriers, obstacles that are in the way of my greater self/soul/heart.

When first trying to describe it I wrote this short poem:

I’m trying to make my soul
shiny, shiny bright
so that everyone can see
its light

Mussar is practical and doable.

The main work of Mussar involves engaging actively  and becoming aware of the many middot/measures of energy/Divine flows that operate in our world and that we can work with to live with integrity, pursuing goodness and justice. The Hebrew word middot cannot be easily translated. The idea is that there are flows or measures of Divine Energy or Qualities that move through all of us and the world. By connecting with them in their essences and learning to identify them and dance with them or use them to help us with our lives, we can change and improve ourselves and our lives and the lives of those around us.

There are several key or central middot. Middot is the plural for middah. For the purpose of this article, using the word measure or flow of energy is the best way to conceptualize this idea. You do not have to believe in a Holy Being to practice Mussar or to understand the middot. They can also be translated as attributes, flows, energies, characteristics, or paths. Some of the central middot are:

Humility, Compassion, Faith, Trust, Generosity, Moderation, Equanimity…etc..

A student of Mussar attunes to each of these Middot for a specified period of time, usually no longer than a few weeks and studies this energy through teachings and the techniques described below. The student looks for how one is involved with this attribute and where one falls on a continuum of this particular energy. The more advanced student looks to harmonize and balance themselves with this particular energy and how to use it to improve one’s conduct and self. Throughout the year one goes through a cycle of these middot and re-visits them again and again throughout out ones lifetime of study.

Important Mussar Texts in Antiquity:

  1. Talmud
  2. Pirkei-Avot, Ethics/Teachings/Sayings of our Fathers
  3. 11th Century Spain, Medieval times: Chovot HaLevavot/Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Batya Ibn Pakuda,
  4. 12th Century: the RaMBaM (רמב”ם – Hebrew acronym for “Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon“/Maimonides continues this work with his Mishneh Torah
  5. 16th century: Yiddish translated into Hebrew Orchot Tzadikim/the Ways of the Righteous and then the Tomer Devorah/Palm Tree of Devorah by Moshe Cordovero
  6. Then into the 18th century Mesillat Yesharim/The Path of the Just by Luzzato also known as the RamChal.

There was a schism between the flowering of Hasidism/ecstatic worship of the Divine, deemed “wild” vs. the counter to the Hasidic movement. These folks went into Mussar practice and were called the Misnagdim. The Vilna Gaon was the main proponent of this and very opposed to the ecstatic Hasidic movement, in the 18th century. In the 19th Century Rabbi Yisroel Salanter pulled all the varied sources together and created and codified a system for Mussar study:

  1. Mussar Steibel (home practice)
  2. Practice Melodic Chants of Holy Phrases “with lips aflame”
  3. Don’t study alone, study with partner.
  4. Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh=Accounting of the Soul, keeping an honest journal of daily encounters and behaviors that one did and looking at them through the lense of whichever Middah one is studying.
  5. Hitpahalut: impassioned chanting of a melody, prayer or Holy phrase for 20-30 minutes for 30 days.

20th century Mussar leaders/teachers: Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Alan Morinis, Rabbi Arthur Green and many others. See The Mussar Institute.

There are real tools in Mussar practice and ways to confront our reflexive, seemingly innate and hard to change behaviors and inner inclinations. These tools work at a deep level. This is Soul Work, the deepest kind of work and central to this work is the idea that:

I am a soul NOT I have a soul

Perfecting our soul/our beings is a personal choice and everyone has their own path. There is no expectation of one size fits all or we have to all walk the same path, nevertheless Mussar practice is a tried, true and well-developed practice that has tremendous momentum, teachings, teachers as well as practical and clear results.

This is a 24/7 practice, the possibility to do it exists all the time. I think about it this way. I can put on my Middah glasses, and my Mussar cape, so that all I see and all who see me are encountering me fully present and practicing. This then reinforces and develops my awareness of my growth as a soul.

Addressing the Nefesh (first of four levels of our souls) and on up through all the levels is one part of our Mussar practice: See post on Four levels of the Soul in Tu B’Shevat Article (insert link)

Whatever we encounter or whatever obstructs us can be looked at through these Middah lenses. They may show us our particular and unique challenges and illuminate our character traits, and/or they can be indicators of the measure of the middah we are either in balance with or not.

Mussar is a striving to be more centered and includes the recognition that all of our experiences and behaviors can be measured on a kind of continuum that is not a place of judgment, but a place of informed awareness with an intention towards improvement. We will never arrive, but we can always keep practicing.

This practice, when done with devotion can undue the teem tuum Ha-Lev /stopped up heart). It is amazing and transforms one.

Our goal is Shelemut/Wholeness, but we won’t attain it necessarily. We can continue walking towards it, shoot our arrows and aim for the center which leads us to more and more moments of connection and experiences of connection and Holiness.

Mussar is a Matan/Gift from the Holy One to help us do the work

Awareness Practices:

“Take Time, Be Exact, Un-Clutter the Mind”

~Alter of Slobodka

This approach helps create a barrier between our impulse and our acting out or response to that impulse. SLOW DOWN, TAKE TIME.

Notice where you react to the teachings or to what others say, have a daily mussar journal, just note things, don’t judge yourself for reactions. This is about becoming aware of the contours of who we are and what the issues are. Mussar is not about FIXING IT. It is a subtle and very deep practice that really is about being a soul, not having a soul, being someone who is aware, not making ourselves aware. Over time you will see patterns and can work with them or just being aware of them will help them shift.

This is not a beat ourselves with horsehair whips and wear clothing that is full of needles so we bleed and remember how terrible we are kind of practice. It is not based on guilt, but on taking responsibility and awareness.

This practice is rooted in a core Jewish belief based on the idea that our souls are pure and that there is junk that obscures or occludes our souls. We can diminish the murky mess and crack through the hard shell that surrounds our souls. We can liberate and make visible the innately glorious and sparkling nature of our souls with OUR PRACTICE.

In Malachi 3:3 “He will sit smelting and purifying silver, he will purify the children of Levi and refine them like gold and like silver and they will be for him.”

When is the silver smith satisfied with the quality of her smelting and purification? When it is so clear and pure that she can see her face in it.

Basic Practice Outline:

Daily:

  • Morning Repetition of a simple saying related to the middah one is working on, this is said after the recitation of the first blessing we say upon awakening Modeh Ani L’fanecha.

  • Awareness throughout the day of the Middah and noticing of our interactions as mentioned previously.

  • Evening: writing down, briefly what you saw related to middah  and our selves in the day, any anecdotes or interactions that relate anywhere on the continuum. Just jotting them down, this is not about analyses. It is a practice without judgment. Re-read materials, jot down issues or highlight stuff you want to ask about or work with a partner on.

Weekly:

Check in for an hour or more with a partner or a group and go over materials, answer questions, check in, share from journal, not about therapy in traditional sense, return to the materials and use them to guide your encounter. Take turns being in charge or choosing a teaching to study.

Monthly:

Class with a Mussar practitioner or Rabbi and other students, discuss what questions came up during your study, share experiences, switch to a different Middah for the next month. Never spend more than a few weeks on one Middah.

All of the teachings and texts used here are excerpted from these and other texts,  and here are some links to those for further study:

©Nicole Barchilon Frank