Tetzaveh 5779

Tetzaveh 5779

This dvar Torah was delivered at Anshe Emet in Chicago.
Parashat Tetzaveh, 11 Adar Rishon, 5779

Shabbat shalom! It is an honor and privilege to be with you this Shabbat. I wish to extend a sincere thanks to the Kehilah Kedoshah committee, as well as to the Anshe Emet clergy for inviting me. Parashat Tetzaveh, coming directly on the heels of parashat Terumah, continues the instructions for building the mishkan or tabernacle. The bulk of our parsha centers on the holy garments that are to be created for use when performing the priestly service in the mishkan. Just as with last week, we see here a lengthy and very detailed description of how these clothes are to be fashioned and which materials are to be used. As was true with the mishkan, every detail is tended to. Our Torah’s attention to detail here again signifies to us that this is an incredibly important aspect of the service that the kohanim would be performing. If a kohen did not have the priestly garments on, he was still a kohen but was unable to perform the priestly sacrificial service.
Commentators have noted that it is curious that our Torah spends some 400 verses describing the construction of the mishkan, all of its implements and the priestly garments to be worn at this point, when the Children of Israel have just been freed from slavery. Why do we shift so quickly in Shmot from Divine revelation at Sinai to a detailed discussion first of miscellaneous civil laws in Parashat Mishpatim, to the mishkan’s construction in Terumah and to the fashioning of the priestly garments in Tetzaveh?
Much has been made of the fact or perhaps truism that for those of us who are visual, judging someone by their appearance is pretty commonplace and often quite subconscious. For those of us who are nonvisual or for whom visual information plays a less central role in how we navigate the world, the messages we receive about clothing do quickly translate to a snap judgement of the individual wearing that clothing as well. There are reasons why we wear particular garments at particular times, even without the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim, and even in a time in which kohenim play a far less central role in Jewish worship. Though we are not able to replicate the garments of the priests, we are to remember that we are all members of a holy people, and one way we signify that to this day is by the wearing of fringes or tzitzit. Some of us choose to wear a tallit katan underneath our clothes, as well as a larger tallit when at morning prayer. Others of us choose to mark ourselves as members of the Jewish people through the wearing of a kippah. And still others choose to wear jewelry with a magen David or other important Jewish symbol or signifier. When we choose to mark ourselves in this way, we are affirming the importance of our Jewishness. However, we must also navigate the world knowing that our commitments read in a variety of ways to those we encounter, and we know, instinctively, that we cannot control the reactions or attitudes of others. We likely face a variety of responses, some supportive, others curious, and perhaps, most unfortunately, others that are hostile or judgmental. We hope that by visibly signifying our Jewishness, we are able to offer a window into what it means to live a life of Torah and mitzvot. And, at the same time, we know that the choice we make to mark ourselves as Jewish also lends itself to an increased exposure to the projections and baggage that others carry.
For the past decade or so, February has been designated as Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, a time when Jewish communities across North America take some time to think about the many intersecting issues impacting Jews with disabilities in all facets of Jewish life. We might do a cheshbon—an accounting—of where our communities are on any number of metrics pertinent to inclusion. Are our sanctuaries accessible to all who want to find a spiritual home within them? Are Jews with disabilities assuming a variety of leadership roles within our kehillot? Do folks feel warmly welcomed when they enter our sacred spaces? What are we doing to help strengthen genuine, mutual, authentic, reciprocal relationship-building for everyone in our communities? These are some questions we sit with this month, and too often, we opine that we are not seeing changes as quickly as we would like. Often, the work feels overwhelming, momentous, multifaceted and diffuse. Where are the support structures, the educational frameworks that we could rely upon so that we don’t feel like we are constantly reinventing the wheel? It feels like there’s a missing ingredient, an element that is absent from the conversations we have this month, and thus I want to draw our attention back to the discussion of the priestly garments.
Just as those of us who visibly mark ourselves as Jewish—as other—in a majority non-Jewish country sometimes encounter snap judgements and projections from others as we go about our day, so, too, do people with disabilities. In a world that humans created to structurally advantage some bodies over others, our Jewish tradition radically and importantly reminds us that we are all created in the Image of G-d, that we each carry a spark of divinity within, and that, because HaShem gave us free will, we can choose whether to reveal that divine spark into the world through how we treat others. We can also choose, through our actions and attitude, to conceal that holiness, that divinity. As a dear friend, mentor and colleague of mine, Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser importantly teaches, people with disabilities are experts in the art of managing the anxieties, the discomfort and fears of others. We do it every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. We know all too well what it feels like to live in a world in which a moment’s glance, a split second decision has the power to radically alter our lives. We know what it feels like when the so-called experts on our disability, impairment or diagnosis make predictions about our outcomes that severely hamper us. Sometimes, we might even come to expect the naysayers, the “I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to do that”, the “I just don’t know if that’s possible—it’s never been done before”. And, worn out and worn down, we might enter our Jewish community carrying a lot of fear and prepared with our defensive armor. What sort of attitudinal barriers might we encounter? Those of us who are working to develop a sense of pride in our identities as people with disabilities might hope that our visibility will help diminish the stigma that accompanies all of us on our journeys through life. And yet, that still, small voice in the back of our head nags at us—will I be able to show up as who I am in all that I am here?
I am the first blind woman, as far as I am aware, to become a rabbi. That meant a lot of things—it meant moments of tremendous joy and celebration, a profound sense of accomplishment and a deep awareness of the abundance of blessing in my life. It takes a village to raise a rabbi and in the case of this rabbi, it took a village of people unafraid to think outside of the box, who said yes even when they didn’t know how we would get from point A to point B. It meant folks saying yes even when that meant a lot of trial and error, even when that meant soul-crushing spiritual despair and disappointment. They said yes even when it meant that they would need to sit with the humility, the anavah, that it takes to recognize when they don’t know what they don’t know. They said yes with the Emunah, the knowingness, that collaboration and authentic partnership would make all of the difference.
And yet. I also know deep in my bones what it means when a snap judgement, a split second decision based on my appearance and ability status resulted in a no. The Shabbat tables I sat at, week after week, in which people questioned how I would ever go to rabbinical school. The programs that took one look at me and, assuming that accommodating me would be too costly and burdensome, said no. When we allow that narrowness, that discomfort, that fear to entrap us, we lose so much Torah, we lose so much richness, because we are afraid of our own vulnerability, we are afraid of what it means to be the child who doesn’t know how to ask. Or, worse still, we don’t know how to be the simple child, the one who has questions but, out of fear of offending, closes doors of possibility and promise. We don’t know what it means to sit with our growing edges, our fears, our discomforts. Our contemporary culture, long on visual aesthetics and short on contemplative moments, teaches us that sitting with ourselves is scary and ought to be avoided. And, yet, we know that we build truly accessible and inclusive spaces not by looking at these intersecting and interlocking concerns s a series of problems to be solved, throwing up our hands when a solution doesn’t immediately reveal itself. We know that we build deeply inclusive and accessible communities when we honor the wisdom of others, when we are willing to inhabit the expansive space of not knowing, when we bring our beginner’s mind, our radical curiosity to the fore. And we know, because HaShem revealed HaShem’s Torah to all of us, in a way we could understand, that we must set aside quick judgements in favor of allowing all of that Torah into our holy places.

Reflections on the Spiritual Practice of Hitbodedut

This reflection was written in 5777/2017.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Section 25 of Likutey Moharan on Hitbodedut

A person should set aside a set time daily to speak with God freely in their vernacular, instructs Rabbi Nachman of Breslov to his students and disciples. This daily practice, an addition to thrice-daily liturgical prayer is known as hitbodedut, deriving from the Hebrew root meaning seclusion. Hitbodedut is a contemplative meditative practice, a solitary practice and one rich with emotion and raw, honest human longing and yearning. It is perhaps one of Rabbi Nachman’s most well-known practices. Rabbi Nachman suggests that individuals who wish to engage in hitbodedut do so at night and find a location, such as out in a field or on a road where they will not be interrupted. The idea of nature joining with the individual in their prayer or hitbodedut practice also plays a critical role for Rabbi Nachman.

Hitbodedut is rooted in the traditional understanding that Yitzchack went out to the field in solitude to pray, which is why Mincha is typically attributed to him. Nevertheless, the practice itself is far more innovative than it is following in the direct lineage of a spiritual master. Rabbi Nachman provides specific instructions for practitioners of hitbodedut, some of which I perceive as helping create a ritual container within which the practice can take place. Hitbodedut is still practiced by Breslover Chasidim today and is of increasing interest in Jewish circles beyond it. I find the practice both deeply uncomfortable and profoundly moving. The beauty of the practice lies in that it is accessible to absolutely everyone, everywhere. Though Rabbi Nachman imagines hitbodedut as a verbal practice, done in the vernacular, and involving both petition and praise, if speaking aloud does not work for you or if you encounter obstacles, such as discomfort, boredom, self-consciousness, etc., writing may work just as well. If you don’t believe in a personal God who hears prayer, this practice might feel alienating or even trite. For me, though there is much I don’t know about God, one thing I do feel I know is that I believe in a God of resilience. Hitbodedut, then, invites me into a dialogic space, paradoxically in which I am not necessarily seeking a direct answer but instead receive greater clarity as the practice unfolds. I believe hitbodedut can be an incredibly generative and co-creative practice for us moderns who often balk at formalized prayer. At the same time, however, hitbodedut is intensely, sometimes painfully uncomfortable, which is why it is intended to be done in private. The unease emerges from the fact that hitbodedut is a frankly rigorous practice, in which the practitioner comes face-to-face with the rawness of their own experience and emotion in ways that they might prefer to push down, bottle up, compartmentalize so they can move on with their day.

Hitbodedut breaks us of that habit by forcing us to spend a set length of time in the practice daily, regardless of whether we feel like doing so. In that way, it is similar to traditional davening. If one believes one has an obligation to thrice-daily prayer, there are plenty of times that that prayer feels utterly lacking in kavannah. Though kavannah is as important in early Chasidism as it is in Kabbalah, it is easier to pray by wrote. Not at all ideal, but certainly those of us who are regularly engaged with the siddur cannot but admit to doing. Hitbodedut, similarly, can be done without kavannah, but it is significantly harder to. The fact that hitbodedut is explicitly intended to be done in the vernacular because it is easier for someone to express the full range of human emotion in their first language points to its radical accessibility. Hitbodedut, like formal prayer, is meant to include both petition and praise, positivity and struggle, whatever is on the heart of the practitioner on any given day. It is also just that much easier to have a free-flowing dialogue with God in a language in which the full spectrum of emotional expression is possible.

Hitbodedut is one of those practices that is both bound by opening and closing ritual—such as washing the hands and thanking God for the time you’ve had with God, and is also radically unpredictable and open. In that way, it is a highly therapeutic practice, and a profoundly risky one. I believe it has tremendous potential to radically alter our prayer lives. What I find particularly refreshing about how hitbodedut is imagined by rabbi Nachman is that if a person feels distant or alienated from God, all the more so should they engage in the practice, even if that is only standing there and saying to God, “God, I wish I could pray to you but I cannot”. The lack of apology for feeling far from God is so liberating, especially when it comes from someone such as Rabbi Nachman who also taught that there was no greater mitzvah than joy. Joy doesn’t come so easily, and yet, that doesn’t mean that we don’t or cannot return to our daily practice, even if it is cloaked in anger, frustration, yearning for that which we cannot have. Finally, hitbodedut is something that can be done by everyone, regardless of background. Rabbi Nachman noted that even the great righteous ones or tzadikim engaged in hitbodedut, felt far from God, etc. The radical equality in that is profound for how we might think about prayer individually and communally.