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Books High Holy Days Holiday Mishkan haNefesh

Wandering in the Desert with Mishkan HaNefesh

Editor’s Note: Most of the blogs on RavBlog are written by CCAR members. Occasionally, we share a blog by a special guest with a unique message. We are pleased to share this blog by poet Jessica Greenbaum.

I’ve resisted the impulse to tour our country’s beautiful deserts because of my clashing impulse to take a swim most days of my life. These two things just don’t go together. However, caught in that life-cycle moment of watching my youngest daughter gleefully wave goodbye from the window of her freshman dorm, I vowed to set out on new territory myself. Unlike Dante’s mid-life figure of The Inferno who finds himself in a dark wood, I found my mid-life self transported to the squint-inducing sunlight of Mesa, Arizona, which highlighted the orange and red striped canyons, and blue skies of the Tonto National Forest. The “forest” part was clearly tagged on to prize its rarest asset. Like the “green” of icy Greenland. I came to the desert ranch with a tour company that specializes in open water swimming vacations. Yes, they exist! They had mapped out a week’s course through three of the dammed lakes of the Salt River, also within the national forest. So, no problem swimming, but another problem loomed. Yom Kippur fell in the middle of the only week they offered. I took 40 seconds to think. Then, like any good tourist, I paid my money and packed my machzor.

As it works out, and for reasons fascinating only to myself, I was already waist deep in the most solitary experience of the holidays that I can remember. Unexpectedly, Rosh Hashana had been without my husband and girls: just me, Mishkan Hanefesh, and my laptop open on my quilt, for synagogue livestreaming. Whatever the congregation was doing virtually on the screen, I tried to follow on analogous pages. Just when I was getting teary about the yarzheit of my grandmother, I turned the page and—there it was! Stephen Ackerman’s awesome poem, “Effortless Affection,” which begins: “All last requests are granted / and this is mine: grasp my affection / in your hand and hold it there . . .”  Beshert. I had my prayer book, so I had my shul.

Well that had been okay for a Rosh Hashana Plan B in Brooklyn. But determined to hear Kol Nidre in person, I arranged that during my trip I would attend an Arizonan congregation. I brought Mishkan Hanefesh with me in case they were using some old wooden machzor—which they were. I turned to my own when my mind wandered. As uninspiring as the service was, the tiny congregation was hamishe, I was with other Jews, and I needed that. Packing my own machzor made me feel faintly ancient. All those stories of the Jew traveling from one town to another and ducking in somewhere for services . . . all I needed was a donkey.

But what to do on Yom Kippur day? I could return to the shul, but enjoying my first real vacation for nine years, shouldn’t I spend every day of it swimming with the tour? Two words stopped me: Sandy Koufax. If the great pitcher could sit out the 1965 World Series and inspire John Goodman’s line in the movie The Big Lebowski “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition: from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” well, couldn’t I skip a day? The surrounding canyon walls and idiosyncratic menorahs of saguaro cacti designed the most tasteful tabernacle from here to Woodstock. I decided to hang out with Mishkan Hanefesh. I told my fellow swim lunatics to plow on without me. I livestreamed my favorite NYC synagogue and practiced a mix of e-Judaism and reading, wandering around the immediate canyon with my MacBook open and machzor in hand, singing along. The new ner tamid looks like an apple with a bite out of it. Somehow this goes together.

Well, I never spent so long in services. Here’s what I liked about it. At that remove, I happily couldn’t miss the fantasy congregation—of close friends and family—I had never actually had. I was better able to concentrate on the demand Yom Kippur makes on the conscience. I wrote down those aspects of my personality I needed to confront. ( . . . page 2. . . .) The livestream lets viewers chat in the screen’s margin, a cyber gathering of the disenfranchised from all over the world. So you could still tell latecomers what figurative page we were on! If the NYC congregation was mumbling or otherwise leaving me behind, I could page through my machzor and find what I needed, learn what was there for me. I wasn’t bothering anyone when I fidgeted. I wasn’t thinking what I had to bring to break the fast, or if the brisket would be done. I had my prayer book so I had my shul. When the rabbi took a break for two hours, I took a little dip in the ranch pool. I know you’re not supposed to. But a little swim let me return to the pages and the services and take in what I could even if I wasn’t fasting when I was wandering. The desert and canyons surrounded. I was getting someplace, I could feel it.

Jessica Greenbaum is poet living in Brooklyn, and is the author two volumes of poetry, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), winner of the Gerald Cable Prize, and The Two Yvonnes (2012), which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet,  received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2016. Some of her poems are featured in CCAR publications, including The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and Mishkan HaNefesh.

 

Categories
Holiday Reform Judaism spirituality Torah

When Torah Becomes “Mine”

That look in their eyes when, for the first time in their lives, Torah is placed in their arms, is precious.

In that moment, they realize that they are cradling the Jewish story. They recognize that what was once at arm’s length, is now quite literally in their arms. They become Moses or Miriam, or Michael or Mandy, standing again at Mt. Sinai, receiving Judaism’s most sacred text.

Each year on Simchat Torah, it happens.

After we unroll the entire Torah scroll around the sanctuary.

After we read the end of Deuteronomy.

After we review the five books of our people, highlighting the most poignant stories and Torah’s most abiding Jewish values.

After we return to the beginning again to read the opening words of Genesis.

Then, the celebration of Torah leads to Kabbalat Torah, the receiving of the gift of Torah: Those priceless moments when someone holds Torah from the first time and finds herself right there in shalshelet hakabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah.

Sometimes it is an older woman whose synagogue back then did not allow girls to become bat mitzvah. Or an Israeli secularist who once saw Torah as the province of only an entrenched Orthodox political establishment. Or a college student coming back to Judaism after dropping out too early. Or poignantly a Holocaust survivor who missed out on receiving Torah before the world darkened around him. Or a Jew by choice choosing to embrace a new people. Or a ger toshav, a non-Jew who has dedicated her life to raising their children in the Jewish faith. Or the multicultural Jew whose skin color once made her feel unwelcome in the synagogue. Or the older gay man who for the longest time thought he was written out of the story.

For each of them, the progression – so delicious – is similar. Always, it reaffirms the power and poignancy of our most sacred Jewish text.

First comes the worry, a split second of terror: Am I holding it right? Will I be the one to drop it? What happens if I drop it?

Then comes a reassuring sense of calm: I’ve got this. I can hold this. I am doing this.

Then the amazement: I have Torah in my arms. I am holding Torah. Me.

Then the dancing: Look at me. Torah and me. Together. As one. I am part of its story. And it’s story is part of me.

Round and round the Torah goes, in and out of the circle of dancers. In and out of the arms of the community. In and out of the lives of its adherents.

Some might come back for Torah study. Some might disappear until next Simchat Torah. But all leave refreshed and renewed, having once again stood at Sinai and received the Torah.

Some love the unrolling of Torah. Others value the return to the beginning. But me? I love those moments when the public becomes the personal and for yet another person Torah becomes “mine.”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
Holiday

The Lulav and Jewish Unity

We hold the four species of the lulav together, as we wave them in every direction, symbolizing that all Jews – indeed, all humanity – must be united if God is properly to be praised. Nevertheless, I’ve never resonated to the specifics of the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, detailing the four types of Jews which the species are said to represent: the etrog, with taste and smell, representing Jews who study Torah and perform mitzvot; the palm branch, with taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not practice what they’ve learned; the myrtle, with good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who perform mitzvot but are not learned in Torah; and the willow, with neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both learning and Jewish observance.

Let me suggest an alternative.

Perhaps the etrog represents those who participate actively in Jewish worship, study, and performance of mitzvot as well as the stewardship of the Jewish community. The palm, then, might stand for those who practice Judaism actively but aren’t engaged in the business of the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The myrtle would symbolize Jews who give their time to Jewish communal governance but don’t often worship, study, or observe the mitzvot.

Dan Hotchkiss, author of Governance and Ministry, writes about a woman who has participated in building perhaps more Habitat for Humanity homes than any other volunteer. However, she has never attended a committee meeting. She wants to do the good work; governance doesn’t interest her. The converse is true of others, though they may engage in at least token volunteer work in Habitat’s service. The mistake we make, Hotchkiss teaches, is that we often ask people to be on committees, then frustrate them with unclear expectations: People who are eager to do the work end up being asked to make decisions, and vice versa. The palm branch and myrtle remind us that different Jews prefer engagement in different aspects of our community, and that we should embrace both.

But what of the willow, that symbol with neither taste nor smell? Which Jews does it represent? Each congregation I have served is blessed, and I do mean “blessed,” with more than a few “willows,” members who are neither eager to practice Judaism actively nor be involved in governance. Active congregants sometimes speak of these folks derisively, emphasizing that they attend “twice a year,” if ever. I, on the other hand, see these “willows” differently. Yes, I’m eager to find ways to engage everyone in Jewish life. Still, I am grateful for the “willows” who haven’t totally disengaged from the community, who stand up and let themselves be counted as Jews – and, in the case of the congregations I have served, continue to pay their annual financial commitments faithfully, even as they rarely “take advantage” of the “privileges of membership.”

On this Sukkot, let us rejoice in every Jew in our midst, appreciating even the “willows,” as we embrace members of the Jewish community of every proclivity. May we all pull together, appreciating one another, rejoicing that we do band together in diverse ways to serve the Holy One of Blessing.

Rabbi Barry Block serves serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.