Keepers of a Way

Dear Friends,

As a vision of God came to Ezekiel on the banks of the Kebar river, 622 BCE, ‘and the living beasts came and went as a shimmer of lightning,’ so one came to me this week, on the banks of the Hudson, in the year 2018. A scorpion’s tale rose from the hollow of my back, it’s stinger bit into my body, and her poison offered these prophecies …

The gods live. We go about our lives running to and fro as witless chickens assured that the gods are not real. The gods live.

Every human ego is a wondrous expression of spirit. Our struggles, the pain and hardship that we experience when we don’t get what we want, when small and mighty deaths greet our being – the gods smile and laugh at our little egos. How funny, how cute, are these little personalities making their way on the path toward enlightenment. We are welcome to take their perspective any time – hehe, what a funny little ego you are, I am! Perfect just as we are.

Judaism, this ancient mode of service, a way of turning our hearts, minds, spirits to the loci of the divine. Since the times of Abraham, Isaiah and Ezekiel, since the days of the prophetesses that have been erased by misogyny, has our people used this language and these customs to serve. We are keepers of a way. Judaism is not our tradition to use as it suits the marketplace of our lives; we are responsible for endowing this mode of service with renewed life-force, stewarding the way into its future. We are keepers of a way.

And we have no control, and neither do the gods. Our sense of autonomy, directive, the ability to change the world; we are not in control. As time unfolds before us, the gods too watch as spirit becomes. Control is a profound illusion, a mistake, egos struggling for substantiation. This is not to say that intention and service are not the most profound modes of being, but when we can arrive at the understanding that it is not our personal power that creates what is to be, then spirit can more fully realize that which she aspires to. The great pain of the political charade that plays out before us, the torment that a government and its evil henchman carry out, they will suffer greatly in the fires of hell for their sins; spirit will have her way with them. And those who suffer on their account will know peace. But you and I, release your sense of control – let loose your grasping hold on reality, it is causing you suffering. She is working her magic always, hidden from our eyes, and in time, all will be well. Step back into the dance of life when your chariot begins to lift from the ground.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

 

PS – The Epichorus is playing and recording this summer, and some of the material inspired by our High Holy Day services is on the setlist.

July 22nd – We’ll be at Racebrook Lodge in the Berkshires, with a big band. Come join us for the evening, or for the whole weekend. It’s magical up there. (I will also appear as a special guest at the concert on July 21st).

July 24th – We’ll be at Sisters in Brooklyn, as part of the Brooklyn Maqam Hang. An instrumental ensemble will perform original pieces alongside repertoire from the Jewish communities of Syria and Iraq.

August 24th/25th – We’ll be recording at Dreamland, a beautiful wooden church studio near Woodstock. If enough folks are interested in coming through, we’ll barbecue, and maybe even get you on the record as The New Shul choir. Let me know if you’d like to join us!

Joy HaimsComment
Off Cocooning

Dear Friends,

As our hemisphere spins into summer, another school year comes to a close and our community ventures off to the watering holes that surround new york city, I am yearning for the quiet of summer hibernation, turning down the rabbinic output a bit, to pursue silence, darkness, creativity, and the little ecstasies that make a summer. I hope your summer will be filled with all of these!

But as I perused the wisdom library this week, I realized upon a major blunder that I enacted!

Two years ago we studied language, our centerpiece - wilderness is nothing but language. We studied cries and screams and words, poems songs and prophecies, all the vocal utterances that can emerge from a human mouth. We saw ourselves as wildernesses that have mouths capable of giving expression to the deep mystery within us, for the sake of communion and beauty.

It turns out I mistranslated the entire theme! In the language of our ancestors, dibur, yes it means language, but it's language of the highest expression, language that's true and good, spoken in kindness, received by mighty ears. That kind of language is called prayer. It should have been ... wilderness is nothing but prayer. The generation of the wilderness didn't even have to build their tabernacle, they spoke-prayed it into existence.

Summer should be filled with devotions that we understand as prayers. To define the old word, a prayer is any activity marked by the following characteristics: 1) It tunes your being like a cello, to greater balance. 2) It situates you within the wide context of humanity and the stars. 3) It's creative, mirroring the creation acts of Genesis, let there be ... 4) There are words of conversation and learning that lift and rise and steal you away from what you think you are like a butterfly entering exiting a cocoon, only your transformation will be less visually apparent. In the language of Rumi, there are ten thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Bon Voyage butterflies. Enjoy the wilderness cocoons.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
Blessing of the Ancestors

Dear Friends,

 

It surprises me that the culture of our time is still profoundly governed by ethnocentric concerns. Though we are surely capable of seeing the humanity in all people, often race, religion, language, or some other marker becomes a source of vast division. In our mythic wisdom book, the ancestors stories present the idea that all of us exist on account of the countless generations that preceded us, and stretching back far enough we arrive at an entity, real, mythic or imagined, that holds those divisions together. This is the blessing of the ancestors.

 

May those who bless you be blessed, may your name be great.
May you be as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the seashore.
May all the people of the earth be blessed by your presence.

 

The blessing of the ancestors is the heirloom of all humanity. Backward through generations like rope unwoven, somewhere our mothers and fathers are shared. Just as you were a child born unto ancestors so may you be an ancestor to a sea of children.   

 

But from the moment the world was created, blessing was the province of gods and angels. From now ever onward that power is yours.

 

Look up and count the stars, their tally unfathomable. May your good deeds be incalculable. May you be blessed beyond your own comprehension.

 

In your greatness and in your lowliness you are blessed.

 

Like the sand of the seashore, like that which gives boundary to oceans. Like the ebb and flow of time, the unceasing crash of waves, like the source of life from which spirit sprang, mutable like water. May you be a body and a face of spirit entirely your own.

 

Blessed are the children of the ancestors, kindred in substance to sand and stars and all the eye can see. Nerve castles, electron moons, capillary pathways like zodiac constellations. Blessed are the children of earth and sky.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

 

Joy HaimsComment
Pink Umbrellas in Borough Park

Dear Friends,

Rumi and I hopped in the car late Tuesday afternoon for an adventure. The week before I had taken up conversation with a chassidic guy on the subway and told him I was after old books that are hard to find. He said, "Eichler's!" A few days later we were on our way, and Rumi had no interest in old Hebrew books, so I promised her a new umbrella to save her from the constant wet grey of the week. "What color umbrella do you want?" "Pink!" Off to Borough Park we went in search of old Hebrew books and a pink umbrella.

I thought we'd been transported to Israel. We were the only non-chassidic garbed folk around. We found our pink umbrella in a girls' accessories shop, and then walked the few blocks to Eichler's. 

There is a prohibition in chassidic communities of studying mystical material before the age of 40. I haven't quite crossed that bar. Each time I asked for a book, beginning with a harmless commentary, ending with the high mysticism, I got another look that read something like, "What the hell are you going to do with such books?" But we weren't treated unkindly, maybe because I had Rumi in tow, and we made it home to Park Slope with some old letters from Nachman of Bratslav, the Berdichever, and Isaac Luria.

I got to study some of the ancient sources with our Bat Mitzvah twins this week, and after our time with the material they made this beautiful depiction of the hands of the high priests as they bless the people. The sources say that God's presence leaps like a dear, whenever a community rises to make a blessing, the divine spirit absconds to that place. And then she hovers, like a lover peering from beneath the lattice, her presence dwells in the spaces between the fingers of the priests.

I asked the twins, do you think God's presence can dwell anywhere, everywhere? They answered, "sure, but it concentrates some places more than others."

Be a puddle of presence! Carry a pink umbrella!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
War On Four Planes

Body - Palestinian bodies are maimed and slaughtered. No Israelis have yet been wounded. This is an unjust war; all the weapons lie with one side. But Israeli bodies know bloodshed too. They’ve been stabbed and blown to pieces on busses, maimed by tractors.
 
Heart - There is suffering for all people. Mothers and fathers who have lost children, brothers, sisters. There is anger all around, and fear. There is love all around too, but it can be just as senseless.
 
Mind - Politicians scheme stories to justify injustice. Histories, theologies, worldviews concocted into bizarre equations that somehow compute answers that condone violence, destruction and oppression.
 
Soul - There is no war. The material that composes the universe does not know the meaning of the distinctions that comprise our world, Jew, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli. This is the place from where our kinship is traced.
 
 
Dear Friends,
 
I am sad and angry after a day of death in Palestine. I imagine my attention to the situation in Israel and the plight of the Palestinian people has not gone unnoticed in this community. Though I hold a great love for Israel, I am convinced that it is our responsibility as practitioners of Judaism to uphold the principles of our faith in all arenas, regardless of political sensitivity. Our tradition holds that all human beings are created in the divine image, that we should welcome the stranger among us, aspire to love our neighbors as brothers and sisters. All of those values were violated today, on a day meant for celebration.
 
I hope to speak with great clarity, in simple statements of fact. I think it is of vital interest that our community be a home for conversation, and pioneers of a new kind of speech concerning the relationship of Judaism and Israel. We will insist that basic rights and freedoms be granted to all people regardless of ethnicity or faith. Until this is achieved whatever freedom we have is marred.
 
We begin this practice by refusing outright to make this into an issue of sides. There are certain principles required of decent human beings fashioning a just society. Surely the wisdom values named above are all foundational. We’ll continue to explore the intersection of spirit and wisdom with politics as we stand witness to the events in Palestine and Israel in the years to come.
 
I am praying, on the subway, deep in the belly of the earth, from the bridge above the water, for the safety and wholeness of all people, that the scales be tipped to compassion in those who believe humanity can be divided into camps. I hope you are with me.
 
Rabbi Zach Fredman
 
PS - I’ll be pleased to hear your thoughts

Joy HaimsComment
One Eye Laughing

Dear Friends,
 
Yesterday was the thirty-third day [לג lag] of the period between Passover and Shavuot known as the omer. It marks the death day of one of the great rabbinic sages, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In mystical lore he is the author of the Zohar and the father of Jewish mysticism. On the day he was to die, he proclaimed that, ‘this day is for me,’ and before he died he gave over many secret teachings. He called the day, yom hilula, a day of celebration, of the light that he could give over. Across the hillsides bonfires are lit to honor his light.
 
He lived at a time when the Romans ruled Palestine, and he was vocal in his critiques of their political oppressiveness. Tension grew and the Romans sought his head, and he was forced into hiding with his son. They took hermits lives, alone together in a cave. The story goes, that in order to insure the longevity of their clothing they’d only wear them for prayer and Shabbat. The rest of the time, they’d bury themselves in holes in the dirt, and spend the entirety of their days studying the Torah. A carob tree sprung up to provide them nourishment, and a stream flowed from the depths of the cavern.
 
After twelve years in the cave, they heard a voice that told them it was time to go out, the Roman king had died. They left the cave and saw the people engaged in their work, farming, shepherding, playing. Rabbi Shimon was angered by their apparent disregard for devotion, and everything he set his eyes on was set ablaze. The voice told him to get back to the cave. After another twelve months they came out again, without eyes on fire.
 
The story is a lesson in judgment. As one devotes more and more time to a spiritual path or any conscious work, there will rise an inclination to condemn the apparent laziness of the uninitiated. God has no grace for such judgment. The task of the work is selfish in this sense; you are only responsible for your own being. But when we change the conditions of the field we inhabit, we are bound to affect all those who reside in our proximity. When he offered them fire they could only be destroyed, but when he gave them light, they have set it in its place, and it continues to burn.
 
Our teacher, Rabbi James Stone Goodman, often cites a source; they say of Bar Yochai that you might see him, one eye laughing, one eye crying. This is the pinnacle of being, when you can reside in all the apparent dualities at once, sorrow and joy, holy and mundane, life and death, one eye laughing one eye crying.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
Crown of Self

Dear Friends,

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a unique Chassidic mind, a manic-depressive, who taught in wild creative parables, roosters, princes, and magic jackets – today he teaches us about inwardness. As the ancient Hebrew often does, surface language contains a treasure house of meaning. The Hebrew word for inwardness [pnimiut] is drawn from the word for face [panim] – inwardness is your face, all the many faces one can make on the inside. Inwardness – our thoughts, feelings, dreams, the conscious and unconscious mind, the world that belongs uniquely to us as individuals which the world outside can only intuit by our face.

Nachman begins with a wonderful claim, a chain of symbol associations. He says that faith and soul are nearly identical, and that neither are entities that one must accept without substantiation. By exploring our inwardness with intention we can meet our own soulfulness and feel for ourselves the root of faith.

He says that we learn about inwardness from the Ten Commandments, which begin “I am the Lord your God.” Have you ever stopped to ask what it means for God to say “I?” If you’ve made it past spirituality 101, then you’ll know we are not talking about the divine with a subjective ego, like Zeus or Poseidon. What does it mean for the all, the infinite, the vast interconnectedness of the universe to say “I?”

Then Nachman quotes a few tasty sources. The Talmud says that “I [Anokhi]” is an acronym, each letter a word, and it means, “I give you my soul in these words.” The words of the Torah become vessels to contain god’s “I,” god’s being, god’s soul – the words of the Torah, all language, reveals inwardness, just like a face.

The other source is from the Zohar, which reminds us that there are two Hebrew words for “I,” the one we learned already, Anokhi, is the grander form of, Ani, the two words distinguishable only by the letter, kaph [כ]. Why are there two ways to say, “I?” Every time we say “I” or experience ourselves there is a vastness of identity from which we are capable of speaking. There is an identity which some call the ego, and for the most part it reigns over our being. The ego is established by all that we perceive in the world outside. We see a body, waking, walking, eating, communicating with the world – this is the “I” of Ani.

But there is another way to experience the self. What happens when we speak ourselves into being from within? This is the “I” of Anokhi. The world within us is incredibly vast, inwardness ever onward without measure, doorway upon doorway. And all those who have journeyed there before will tell you that the “I” who speaks from that place knows wholeness, fearlessness, and love absolute. Inwardness is the crown of our identity. Who are you? I am father, I am rabbi, I am teacher, I am comforter, I am blessing-maker – but before all of that, I am the thoughts feelings images ideas prayers that compose my being at night like silent music only I can hear.

There is one letter that distinguishes “I” Anokhi [אנכי] from “I” Ani [אני], the vast world between ego and soul marked by the letter kaph [כ], which stands for the symbol of a crown [כתר]. Inwardness is the crown of the self. What is a crown? It is the symbol bestowed upon the one who has made the journey inward. That person has found the inner point where all souls touch, the jewel on her head, an outward sign of what her inwardness contains. It’s written all over her face, yours, mine.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

 

Joy HaimsComment