Friday, July 26, 2013

Nachamu nachamu ami: where is solace to be found?

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman

ReBoot Mitzvah 20 July 2013/ 13 Av 5753

Shabbat shalom! I’m so honored and pleased 
to be sharing this moment with all of you.

To begin, I’d like to locate ourselves in Jewish time. This is the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, our collective day of mourning for destruction, desolation, and exile. Two things characterize this day ritually. First, the reading of Parashat Va-etchanan, which we are treated to a reprise of the giving of the Torah, as well as the Shema. Secondly, this day features a special Haftarah,  Haftarat Nachamu, first of 7 haftarot between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, collectively known as the haftarot of consolation.

I’d also like to take a moment to locate this day in the context of my life. I am 57 years old, past the middle of life (unless I should be blessed, like Moshe, to make it to 120!). This season of my life has been both a time of renewal and reinvention after a professional disappointment and a season of great sorrow. My family is companioning my Dad as he takes the slow path toward letting go of this life, and my sister, Jill, who is gravely ill with a disease that will rob her of length of days.

I am drawn to the question of our Haftarah, which begins: nachamu nachamu ami--take comfort, take comfort my people. The prophet asks: where is solace to be found in the wake of the breaking apart of that which we’d held to be our center? In the case of our people, Bet ha-Mikdash, the holy Temple was our sacred center, our place of one another, to God, and to the very possibility of beginning anew that the sin offerings provided.

Kabbalah teaches that shattering and destruction are woven into not just the story of our people, but into the very fabric of the universe. The world came to be through a cosmic shattering, shever–God attempted to create a world, but all did not go well. There needed to be space that was not God in order for there to be a world, so God withdrew just a bit. God created vessels to hold the world, vessels that would have divine light in them, but not be completely occupied by the divine. There was a cosmic accident--the vessels could not contain the divine light, and they shattered. The light that was previously everywhere and always was fragmented into sparks. These sparks were scattered, and encased in shards.  The human task in this world of darkness is to seek out and lift up those sparks of the divine, the work called tikkun.

My exploration of aging over the past 35 years as a rabbi and chaplain has shown me that shever and tikkun are shot through our individual human lives, as well. Particularly in the second half of life, we are confronted by myriad shatterings--moments when things simply cannot continue as before--professional disappointments, physical limitations, and, most of all, losses of dear ones.

What has intrigued me is the human capacity to emerge from shattering toward tikkun--many, many of the elders I have accompanied manage to BEGIN reach with zest for life, for love, for growth. I wonder what it is that fosters the desire, will and ability to seek out and find new light in the wake of destruction.

This, of course, is the task our people faced after the Hurban, destruction and exile. So what can we learn from the text of this Shabbat that can point the way toward solace and tikkun?

The comfort/solace/tikkun
A voice calls out in the wilderness:  clear a pathway, forge a path toward our God…
Behold the Eternal your God will come in strength.  Like a shepherd guiding her flock, God will gather the scattered ones, and take the babes to her breast.

In the wake of shattering, we need and can find new pathways to spiritual connection, to solace, to tikkun. I want to focus on two particular pathways toward solace and renewal:

Belonging...we who suffer are taught that we are connected--to each other, as we are addressed as ami--the people, to God, whose we are, and to ourselves. After the calamity, the Jewish people had to hold on to each other, perhaps getting past petty hurts and insults from the past (sinat hinam). They learned that holding hands, or silently being together, or embracing, they could gain strength and courage to go on toward light.

Torah--after shattering, downfall, destruction, we receive the Torah anew. Just as after the sin of the Golden Calf, new tablets were given to the people, so, too, after Tisha B’av, we get to experience Matan Torah once again.  When we pass through darkness in our lives, says the Slonimer Rebbe, we get to receive new Torah. In this way, every loss is a preparation for the possibility of new growth and flowering.

Pathways toward solace in my life

Connection: I am most profoundly sustained by the relationships in my life: my beloved, David, who both accepts me totally and calls me to grow and to refine my neshomeh. My beloved children, Anya, Anat, and Avram, who pull me toward new pursuits (baseball, swimming!), who humble me by calling me on my shortcomings and my wardrobe, who inspire me with their passion for what they see as right, for love and their willingness to continually, as Anat says, “just start over.”

I am sustained by my connection to my original family--tho’ we are spread from coast to coast, the threads of love and concern that connect me to Mom, Jill, Glen, and Dad and Jeannie, as well as my step-siblings, are precious and ever-present. I am sustained by the family I married into--I so delight in the warmth, exuberance and caring that I share with Doris and Ari, and with all of the cousins. I am rich in connection of my dear ones, my precious friends, those who have traveled the path of life with me from childhood (Lisa), from college (Elyse), and from my single days (Sue), my Rosh Chodesh sisters, with whom I am tenderly traversing all of life’s bitterness and sweetness, and my precious friends, neighbors and community members who share everything from a casual schmooze to showing up when my family or I really need help. Solace surely comes from precious connection.

Torah. The unwelcome shatterings of this part of my life have given me an opportunity to learn more, and to learn differently. A year and a half ago, my job ended--the money ran out, and the program I had considered the fulfillment of my vision ended. I needed to reinvent my professional life. I decided to take a gap year (or 2 or 3) to reflect, and to write, and to re-imagine my career.

One of the things I realized when I began to reshape my professional life was that I had always been in a gigantic hurray. I realized, too, that I had never started a single learning process of my adult life at aleph (a)...when I was 17, I began ulpan in Israel in Kittah Bet (2nd level). When I decided to go to rabbinical school, I skipped the first year and started in the 2nd year. When I became a chaplain, I was grandfathered into certification with one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education instead of the requisite four.

There were costs to this hurry--a feeling of never having the strongest foundation...of always “making it up as I went along,” of not connecting as deeply as I might have with those I learned alongside. There were holes and gaps, in my knowledge, and in my confidence.

Now, I want to learn--and live--with more spaciousness and more intentionality.

Part of what I want to offer professionally as a resource for aging is spiritual direction. I was a spiritual director at RRC 13 years ago, when the College first began to offer spiritual direction for the students. All of us directors lacked formal training...we read, we learned from each other, and Bobbi and Jacob, who actually had formal training, and we practiced by the seat of our pants. This time, I decided to start at Aleph--I enrolled a year ago in Morei Derekh, a 2 1/2 year training program in spiritual direction. I treasure the gift of filling in my gaps and learning with a peer group, of deepening as a human being, not just grabbing the knowledge I need for the task at hand. The learning is precious--sometimes frustrating, always humbling, and often surprising.

This ReBoot Mitzvah is part of my story of learning differently, of starting from Aleph. Temple Micah, my classical Reform congregation did not have Bar or Bat Mitzvah, only Confirmation at age 15. When I was in Israel on Eisendrath International Exchange program at age 17, those of us who had not had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah were invited to read a few verses of Torah on the top of Jebu Musa, the purported site of Mt. Sinai. It was exciting, but definitely didn’t have the feel of a Bat Mitzvah for me--I didn’t get to share the occasion with my family and friends, I didn’t give a d’var Torah, and I did not chant Haftarah….and, I hasten to add, I didn’t have a party! Last summer, on Shabbat Nachamu, I realized that it was 39 years since I had read from Parashat Va-etchanan on Mt. Sinai. I decided that the 40th anniversary, today, would be a great moment for a REBOOT, to fill in the gaps of what I had done so long ago by sharing it with my dear ones and community, and to finally learn haftarah trope, which I am embarrassed to say I had managed to miss even in rabbinical school!!!

I had to overcome not inconsiderable sheepishness in deciding to share this occasion--isn’t it a bit ridiculous for a RABBI who has been spending the last 28 years immersed in Torah and practice to have a bat mitzvah? I decided to go ahead anyway, for two reasons: one, there is always room for another simcha!!! I want to practice what I preach, in terms of marking moments of the second half of the lifespan with ritual and celebration and community. And secondly, I want to share this occasion as an example of beginning again, of tikkun through rebuilding or reinforcing a foundation, of never ever being finished learning and growing.

Here’s my blessing- -on this Shabbat Nachamu, for all of us. In the wake of life’s unavoidable shatterings, may we all find tikkun.  May we be nourished by connection to others who can offer humor, perspective, assistance, and most of all, presence. May we be sustained and challenged by new learning. May we never be too proud to be curious, may we reconstruct our foundations and awaken new depths. May we forge new pathways to light, to hope, to solace, and to love.

Questions for discussion
1. What have you found has given you solace in the face of shattering, destruction, loss?
2. What gets in the way of experiencing solace, finding the hidden light?

3. What new beginnings have emerged for you after shatterings?