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At ordination, one of my sister ordinees noted that the primary question she is asked is why did she become a rabbi… it is a frequent question for me too. My stock answer is sisterhood and my daughter’s beautiful soul. But how is also an important question: 140 flights to and from LA on Southwest, the flexibility of the people i work for, and especially from my family. And Rabbi Stacy Friedman also deserves credit – when I met with her about 7 years ago about becoming a rabbi, she did not laugh at the idea and she pointed me in the direction of the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, the transdenominational seminary that nourished my heart, soul and mind for the past five years. She understood that, despite my commitment to Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College would not be able to meet my family’s individual needs, while it turned out that AJR (AJR) used great flexibility to do exactly that. My family also exhibited remarkable flexibility to allow me to leave for 2-3 days a week, 35 weeks a year for 4 years. R. Stacy also told me at the end of my first year in seminary that she was already planning tonight’s service, exhibiting complete faith in me. For this, I am grateful.
The journey took a circuitous path… I was president of Sisterhood back in 1994, when I attended my first Women of Reform Judaism/URJ biennial (URJ was still UAHC back then!): where I had my first experience of praying with 4,000 committed Jews, saw Debbie Friedman for the first time and feasted from a smorgasbord of learning opportunities. I was completely hooked. Whatever I had to do to have access to that kind of spiritual experience – I would do. Be sisterhood president? No problem. Create programs, with all the messy details? Of course. Serve on the temple board? Well, if I have to. Because the learning wasn’t just book knowledge – the texts illuminated the challenges of my life. And each time I studied was an incredible high.
An example: for a sisterhood retreat, no one wanted to chant torah, so I decided it was time to learn. (My bat mitzvah, at age 12, comprised 1 verse of haftarah…) Cantor David Margules burned a CD, and with the text and his voice on my computer, I learned the first five verses of Genesis. As I sat in my office, tears streamed down my face as I dove into the river of all the Jews through the millennia who had learned these same verses. I remember Sam pleading with me to “turn that racket off!” until he saw the tears…
And working with as part of the High Holy Day Sanctuary Service leadership all those years allowed me to partner with this deeply spiritual and creative group of people and gave me the confidence to imagine I could DO this, lead people to a spiritual place. And you don’t have to be a rabbi to do these things.
But I personally wanted more. Yearned for more. Craved more. And the path opened up to me. And I have learned so much, been excited so often by our tradition.
For example, I learned that virtually every time I read a torah portion, I rediscover that I love that portion – there is so much in it! And so it is with this torah portion, Be’ha’alotecha – the 3rd parasha in Bemidbar or Numbers, the fourth book of Torah…
First let me detour to give you one definition of Jewish spirituality: it is the effort to strengthen our neshamas – our souls – against the yetzer hara… the inclination toward evil. And so, one way to look at Judaism is as a set of spiritual disciplines.
And this week’s torah portion offers several clear hints about why this must be so: “And the people took to complaining bitterly before God.” We complained about everything – we didn’t like the manna (even though it tasted like rich cream – or in the midrash, whatever we wanted) – we wanted meat (even though we had all our livestock with us)… even Moses (whom God tells us is a very humble man, the most humble of men…) became overwhelmed: he tells God that he can’t handle the unruly mass of us and if God doesn’t do something – well, kill me now! And then just a little later, we stumble upon Miriam and Aaron speaking against their baby brother, and for this, Miriam (alone) is stricken with the white disease and must spend a week outside the camp, for which Moses utters the immortal words – El Na Refa Na La – Please God heal her.
When left to our natural devices, it seems our souls could benefit from a little discipline, no?
So the Jewish spiritual disciplines:
Moadim – our sacred calendar
Mussar – the discipline of self-reflection
Tefilah – prayer
And Torah… I’m going to talk about the first two tonight.
Moadim: each holiday has its own spiritual task – spiritual tasks that truly we are supposed to work on every day, but sometimes we don’t actually get around to it, and so we have a holy day to reflect on that spiritual work… For instance, Shavuot, which just passed on Wednesday, is the holy day the rabbis calculated was the day we received the Torah… And our spiritual task? To figure out if and how each of us can be present to the divine presence and translate that into something usable to reach our best selves.
Mussar: The 1,000 year old spiritual path of transformative practices based on insights and teachings found in Jewish texts. And yet, Mussar is not an intellectual exercise; indeed Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal, who lived in 18th Century Italy, wrote that his text, The Path of the Just, didn’t teach anything innovative: any thinking person already knew what he had to say: they just didn’t employ it. The goal is to transform personality or human nature itself in the service of reaching an essential human value: service and responsibility for other human beings. ‘Mussar’ means instruction, correction, accepting reproof of a moral/ethical nature. It is entirely about doing the spiritual work to be able to be healthy in ourselves and in our relationships, to connect to the best parts of ourselves… And it requires work. And offers real benefits…
Moses, we learn this week, was the most humble, anav, of people: from this we learn that humility is not about being meek, mild, self-effacing, but about having an accurate measure of ourselves – taking up the right amount of space. For example, most women take up too little space in our own lives and we all know people who take up a lot of space.
There is a story of the Chofetz Chayim, a 19th and 20th century Polish rebbe who had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world. When asked how he had achieved this success, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Jewish spiritual disciplines offer us a way to deal with the behaviors that we have shown since at least biblical times: who among us hasn’t been jealous of our siblings or has not complained about something? These disciplines require our whole being – heart, mind, body, soul. You don’t have to become a rabbi to experience the joy of all these connections and the depth of learning that can change your life. You just need to show up with all of your being. It’ll be worth it…