Earth Goddesses Reborn

Dear Friends,

If religion and spirituality remain untilled fields for you -- and yet you feel a call to become a harvester of the wisdom heritage of humanity, pick up a book by Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of mythology. Much of my method for interpreting and lifting meaning from ancient texts comes from the insights he culled in his beautiful body of work. I go back to him so often, again now, in search of the Goddess, and an ancient feminine spirituality that has been caked over by thousands of years of patriarchy.

Last night he told me the story of how human beings birth gods. Male divinities, warrior gods, are born of cultures that are hunters, and shepherds, where men were responsible for the sustenance of the community. But in earlier cultures that subsisted on agriculture, women planted seeds in the earth, and were responsible for nurturing their communities. Of the sexes, the woman is the one capable of the regenerative process by which life is reborn, like the Earth bringing forth fruit -- priestesses, god as woman -- such was the way of the world, before the patriarchy invaded.

The Passover season that approaches brings with it our mythology of rebirth. But don’t let yourself be confused -- we’re not reading history, and we’re not only reading the story of Jewish peoplehood -- this is myth. And the whole of the story is a metaphor for the spiritual rebirth available to you in any season, particularly fitting, at the occasion when the Earth itself is also reborn with spring.

So read Exodus!  That’s your assignment.  But remember that all the characters, the gods and the humans, the famous lines, “let my people go,” the plagues, and the symbols, the bush, the sea split -- they are all taking place inside of you. If only you will let them.

Here it is --

One more thought. It occurred to us at a seder a few years ago, that this is one of the first generations of Jewish people who read the Passover story, and find more in common with the Egyptians than the Israelites. Our lives are not marked by oppression; that was not the case for most of our ancestors. As we take stock of our place in the world, and the responsibility that our privilege entails and our tradition demands, regarding the pursuit of justice for all people regardless of ethnicity, skin color, gender and so forth -- the story has changed.

The myth is universal. At every season we strive for rebirth with greater wisdom and compassion. But the unspoken mutable laws of society inhibit the grace by which some people are able to pursue the renewal of their personal and communal evolutions. We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know oppression in our bones. We cannot rest while others suffer.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Decorate the Uni-erse

Dear Friends,

With first light tuesday morning Rumi and I were downstairs. She was ready for anything, my eyes were barely open. She said, “Baba I need your help.” “With what?” She said, “I need you to help me decorate the uni-er.” “The what?” “The uni-erse” “The what?” “Babe I need your help to decorate the universe.” OMG. Mind blown. Rumi, all the rest of your life, I should wake up with the intention to help you decorate the universe. Isn’t that our job around here. New job title, rabbi / decorator of the universe.

It also happened that the portion this week details the construction of the Tabernacle, the wilderness church. The commentary from the Zohar, is one of my favorite teachings -- the holy blessed one commanded us to build the tabernacle in the same manner as the construction of heaven and earth, to be in the likeness of the upper dwelling place, that the two might join together, this and this, like a soul and a body join, and all are one. (Zohar Teruma)

What does it mean to create something in the likeness of the construction of heaven and earth?  At Hebrew School with the kiddos this week we built forts and mini-tabernacles of pvc piping and bright colored felt and tape, lots of tape, they must have used lots of tape when fashioning the universe.

I think I can ride the tape metaphor -- the secret is in the tape. How is it that a body and a soul can be joined? How is it that two beloveds can be one? How is it that heaven can descend and touch earth -- when the tape is placed just right?

We celebrated the life of Joyce Dutka yesterday, and Rabbi Naftali blessed her three boys, Steve, Barry, and David, with the verse -- Build me a tabernacle, that I may dwell within you. We read it as had never been before: Joyce, a prolific artist, sculptor, painter, wonderer, her most beautiful creations, her three children. She built them, and now she dwells within them.

The world is the work of an artist -- mad, brilliant, wise, inhabited by demons and angels. The artist chose two materials for her creation -- clay and spirit. And so long as they are in balance, the earth can be the abode of angels just the heavens. Breathe spirit into all your earthly dwelling places. Inspiration, creativity, delicacy and devotion, the wonder and mystery of the child that still lives within you, the love of a mother that is omnipresent and unceasing. Let them rest at the heart of all of your creations. And I will dwell within you.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Hakuna Matata vs. Repair the World

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year! I hope everyone is taking in the new year with joy, small or mighty, and something new to refresh the self and the world it inhabits, a reminder that your path of creation and repair is yours alone, so keep on, joy and refreshment in hand.

Within the Kabbalistic map of the psyche are three pairs of opposites that form the structure of our consciousness. The last of the three pairs had always remained mysterious to me. But in the emptiness of Cape Cod in winter, skimming through a book by Art Green I’d read before, something clicked, and now the teaching is clear. So here it is.

There is a war within us between our yearning to repair the world and Hakuna Matata. Yes, Hakuna Matata -- the “no worries” Lion King tune taught to the prince-cub by a meerkat and warthog duo in the jungle. With a philosophy of Hakuna Matata, the lion prince, not unlike his mythic predecessor, Moses, temporarily relinquishes the sense of responsibility to his pride. In it’s best incarnation in the Kabbalistic map, this sphere is called Acceptance, and it is balanced by the sphere of Striving; these two are the final polarity of the tree. Hakuna Matata is all about acceptance. The Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is it’s opposing force, a striving to repair all the brokenness we see in the world.

The last months were a period of profound tension for me. The culture we inhabit lends far too much significance to achievement, growth, expansion, activity -- to striving. And I was taken by that force. Taken to the detriment of my family, and all of you, who I am so privileged to dwell with, in community. One can strive too much, even in repairing the world. Now I am recalibrating the balance, between striving and acceptance, repairing the world and Hakuna Matata. Where are you swinging on this pendulum? Take a moment. All of the spiritual work is an act of balancing.

I read a story once, in a book about the Tibetan Dalai Lamas of history, and it has never left me. Hundreds of years ago, at one of the invasions of Tibet, a Dalai Lama watched from atop the Potala Palace as the city was being invaded and destroyed. He was peaceful, and at some point he whispered at all of the destruction, “it is perfect.” The story epitomized for me a spiritual metric for acceptance, non-attachment. Can we say, even in the most terrible circumstances, Hakuna Matata, or Baruch Hashem, Blessed is the Name? I’ve always kept the story because I found that kind of spiritual stature tremendously inspiring and profoundly scary all at once.

But the poles of the map drawn by the Kabbalists are not meant to remain distinct from one another. Maybe the Dalai Lama, his ability to accept the reality of destruction, was no sign that he would relinquish his city to the enemy without a fight. You can hold them together, striving and acceptance, left hand right hand, all at once. You can fight for the change you wish to see, even from a place of accepting where things stand now.

The two forces, Striving and Acceptance, find their integration in the image of the Tzaddik, the righteous one, associated with the new moon that will rise in the sky tomorrow, and the Zodiac image of Aquarius, the water carrier. As we temper the balance between the two forces that vie for control of our being, we find their center, as beings who pour our spirits freely over the firmament we wander.

Repair the World. Hakuna Matata. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
The Christmas Tree

Dear Friends,

We’re living at a time in which many of the walls that once separated communities have been brought down. At Chanukah parties around the world only weeks ago, I’m sure many people who aren’t Jewish lit candles, ate donuts, and exchanged gifts. As Christmas nears, and New Yorkers of all stripes walk to work through the labyrinth of Christmas trees that dot the city corners, numerous friends have asked after my perspective on this holiday, it’s symbolism, and what it means to play in rituals that aren’t entirely our own.

At The New Shul, we approach Judaism and spiritual practice from the mystic’s point of view, a radical perspective, which understands that religions are simply tool-kits to assist in spiritual and psychological evolution. From that vantage, another ritual, even a foreign one, is just another opportunity for consciousness shifting activity, ceremony, and celebration. There will be minor downsides to mixing and matching tool-kits, every bit will not attach to every screwdriver. But if you’re Jewish and shy about your Christmas Tree exuberance, don’t be bashful. Tell your friends, that your rabbi sent a message explaining the meaning of the Christmas Tree, because religion is simply the play-space of ancient symbol, and meaning, symbol, and ceremony, all transcend the bounds of ethnocentrism.

The Meaning of a Christmas Tree

1) Axis Mundi - In mythology, the Axis Mundi is the cosmic axis, the pillar connecting the heavens and the earth by which the world continues to stand. The Axis Mundi can be a mountain or an erected statue, a totem pole, a ladder, a beanstalk, a skyscraper, or a tree. In addition to its sustaining function, the axis is also the channel which mediates the gift exchange between heaven and earth. The heavens bestow on us their goodness, the bounty of our lives, sustenance and life-force. We in turn, in great gratitude for all that has been given to us gratuitously, give back through that channel, prayers, love, and gratitude, that heaven may know the contentedness of our hearts. What a beautiful celebration, Christmas, to bring into the center of our homes, at a dark and cold hour, the very symbol which is a sign of the bond of heaven and earth.

2) The Cross of Sacrifice - The Christmas tree is also a sign of the cross upon which Jesus is crucified. The mystical perspective is not dominated by the themes of sin and redemption that have done much damage to the story of Jesus. The child of god on the cross is a symbol of sacrifice. We cannot live in the world without consuming it. Something is always dying, as we live. But we are afforded the opportunity to give unto others just as much as we take. This ability to sacrifice, to give the world our time, our resources, our love, is the power by which healing and goodness flow into our lives. It is the supreme spiritual act. The custom of giving gifts, when material hedonism is removed from the ritual, is an homage to the gift of Jesus, and the power of sacrifice.

3) Tree of Life - The pine trees spilling needles into the streets, into our living rooms, is a sign of the one tree that stood at the center of the garden. It is said that all of the waters of the earth ran beneath that tree -- every sip of water that touches your lips, once touched the tree of life. She is a symbol of the eternal. So many of our woes and troubles rise up from false notions that our essence can be lost or will die. Oh but the tree of life. Soul, life-force, spirit, goodness, light -- all eternal. Those green needles in the white winter are a reminder that the sun will rise from the dark; that cycles are the vehicle of renewal. When we allow ourselves to be turned inside out through the circles of time, we ourselves are the tree of life.

Happy holidays everyone. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year! Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zach Fredman

PS - I’m converting to Christianity. There’s a Jesuit monastery in the Catskills off route 28; I’ll be there.

The New ShulComment
Insomnia Prescriptions

Dear Friends,

I sleep with ease most nights. A young one who wakes exuberant for play with the early light, plenty of good work to accomplish at day, the quiet of night is a balm now; the supine posture calls and I come with delight to the thought of sleep beside my beloveds. But last night I was awake, with thoughts and worries, that when placed on the great scale of being, amount to very little. I woke to swallow a few aspirin, checked my phone, and then retreated back to bed, this time, with meditation on the horizon.

Some schools discourage meditation in bed, because it teaches the mind that falling asleep mid-meditation is appropriate. Meditation should teach wakefulness. But we take another approach. Meditation can also teach stillness, and if stillness leads to sleep, so be it. Half an hour later, just before falling asleep, I found myself stiller than I’d been in weeks -- I was night. Here’s the assignment, give it a shot tonight.

1) Lay supine (face up). Uncross all legs arms fingers and toes. Lay your hands over your heart, left hand first, right hand over it. Close your eyes.

2) Breathe gently. Don’t force the breath in any which way. Allow each breath aspect to complete itself fully. Inhale as much as the lungs wish. Small pause. Exhale fully. Small pause. Let the breath cycle finds its rhythm, no forcing. Already, the pause after the exhalations should bring peace.

3) Now work the mind train. Know that all is well -- just as it should be. Even if things are not well, still -- this is what is. Cede to what is. Let go of fixing. Nothing you can think right now will change your troubles. Night is not the hour of conscious activity. Rather, what you need, what your body needs, and what your mind needs, is your release.

Just like a day we are made of two, light and darkness, consciousness and unconscious. If we allow it, night is the hour of repair, of dream, of healing, of rejuvenation -- and those activities are best accomplished without our input. Continue breathing, don’t continue any thought train that places you in the territory of work and toil, just let go. Let night work you.

4) Ten minutes in, you should feel much better. If you end up asleep, good, if not, the state you bring yourself to, may be more restorative than sleep! Keep at it. Don’t trade out for your phone, or your daylight mind. God likes you in the night-time, quiet, still, nothing but the north-wind blowing on your heart strings, music for the melody makers weaving another day out of the song of night.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom my friends,

Rabbi Zach

The New ShulComment
Dark and Light

Dear Friends,

To make it through the dark dark of winter, when daylight contracts to a few bright hours, the sun-ball tossed over the horizon in a low hanging lob, Jewish wisdom prescribes an eight day Festival of Light. Political origins aside, the holiday is an eight day meditation of the meaning of light. Bring the lights into your home, stare at them for eight evenings, shine them in the windows so others can see too. Be inside metaphors of light.

The Zohar, archangel of Jewish mystical texts, presents this stunning meditation:

In the flame itself, there are two lights

One white and luminous, the other black or blue

The white light is the higher of the two, and it rises steadily

The dark light is underneath as a pedestal

The two are inseparably connected.

The white resting and enthroned on the black

The base in turn attached to something beneath it (the wick)

And it keeps it aflame and impels it

to cling to the white light above.

The dark sometimes turns red

But the white light above never changes color.

The lower light, which is sometimes black

sometimes blue sometimes red

Is a link between the white light above

And the concrete body (the wick) below,

Which keeps it aflame.

The red light consumes anything beneath it

And anything it touches

For such is its nature,

to be a source of destruction and death

But the white light above it

Never consumes or destroys, and never changes.

(Zohar 51a)

The repercussions of this teaching are thus: that our darkness and our light are inseparably bound, the concrete body and the dark flame, even with all the pain and hardship and suffering they cause us, are the sources, pedestals for our true eternal flame. The mishigas of egos, and bodies, and loss, and all that we cry and mourn over, this is the very stuff the light lives on.

I’ve been within my own dark in the past weeks -- mental sufferings, frustrations, places of stuckness. And when the dark is isolated, it expands. But in light of this teaching, the dark is reframed. The dark flame, all the mental tribulations and strivings, have purpose unto themselves -- they are the bridge from wick to flame. Our yearning, even when it is partial and small, is that which brings light into the world. At the darkest hour then, the wisdom is not to turn away from the dark towards the light, but to see the dark for what it is, the source by which the light comes through. You will not be able to burn your light, unless you are willing to burn your dark.

You are a candle unto yourself. A unique flame, unparalleled in all of existence. No one else can illumine the world with your light. Don’t be shy. Find your dark and share your light. You cannot know who needs it most — so give it freely to all.

Shabbat Shalom. Happy Chanukah!

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Music Lessons with Bob Dylan

Dear Friends,

Dylan is doing a seven night run at the Beacon, and I was lucky enough to catch the show Tuesday night. I watched and listened like a young initiate at the feet of the master. The crowd was more subdued; the groupies and lovers who’ve followed him for more years than I’ve been alive, mystified by his unending incarnations. They come to sing the hits -- but he renders his audience mute. So transformed are the songs, even god, has no idea where he is going next. Bob Dylan is a master of song, poetry, ceremony, spirit -- so here’s my recap of the music lessons he professed Tuesday, lessons on music and life.

Wear a fine suit. Dress the band well. Grey suits on the bass, guitar, the drummer, the pedal-steel. Black hats. Burnt orange curtains lit with big vintage stage lights. The outer garment is a sign of the inner garment -- soul. Dylan in a chassidic long coat, with a splash of red.

Step out of time. Playing in four four, playing with the downbeat, it’s alright for folk music, for pop. Dylan has stepped into his twilight, part timeless mystic, part growling old bluesman. The beat, all the ways we cut up and measure time, weeks hours days appointments, they give steadiness and comfort, but they are only partial. There is another aspect of being, timeless, infinite -- masters of music and life, can step off the beat into the clouds, and drop back in, whenever they feel. He walks the stage like an angel.

Never play the same song twice. Can you imagine him having to listen to the crows sing the hits while he strums a guitar, night after night. He’d have died a lifetime ago. He morphs, he breathes, he invites inspiration, and what comes out comes out, right or wrong, it is always new. Life tempts us with the ease of repeated performance, tired and lazy, it’s easy to spout the same ideas, wisdoms, words for a lifetime. And you’ll be the walking dead. Words and songs lose their life with repeated use, but make a change, and life rushes back in.

Render your audience mystified. Be wild, be magic, be uncertain of what’s to come, that they might be uncertain too. Allow spirit to sneak in through the pulled blown reeds of a harmonica bending melodies blue. Give the angel of death a chance at the microphone, she’ll enliven the whole deal.

To a living prophet, and all he’s brought down.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment