Week 1: Going Forth and Returning
Welcome to the first edition of Sparks from the (Zoom) Windows, Romemu Yeshiva’s weekly newsletter. Our goal is to compile the most exciting and meaningful things from our learning and combine them with thoughts from our students, and practices to try at home. Since we believe that the power of hazara (review) is integral to our studies, we hope this newsletter will help us bridge the gap of distance learning, and support the development of a community of engaged learners. Additionally, since there are so many different avenues for learning with us this spring, we hope this newsletter/digest will help cultivate community between the different classes, the cohort, and the broader Romemu community.
Our first core class is studying Sefer Yetzirah, and we are so blessed to have Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD joining us to teach it. Having just completed a groundbreaking translation and commentary on this ancient and foundational work of Jewish mysticism (which you can order HERE), Rabbi Jill is the perfect person to lead us through this challenging text. As a leading scholar and rabbi who is at the forefront of reimagining Judaism, this course also offers students the unique opportunity to participate in looking back into the ancient tradition to brainstorm how to move forwards. Outside of teaching at our yeshiva, Rabbi Jill is an author, teacher, midrashist, earth-based mystic, poet, essayist, and priestess. One of the co-founders of Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, she has also been called “a Jewish bard.”
Sefer Yetzirah is a relatively short and cryptic text that Rabbi Jill says comes from “Jews that were up to something different” than those that created the Talmud. Rather than a legal treatise, this creative text imagines letters as the building blocks of the universe. By focusing our attention on these letters as well as on the cosmic components of space, time, and soul and the diverse elements that make up creation, its goal is to allow seekers to contemplate, and even partake in, the Divine creative process. This week, Rabbi Jill led us through close readings of sections from the first chapter in order to understand and apply these contemplative and visionary practices in our own lives.
For Rabbi Jill, Sefer Yetzirah provides practical answers to the existential question, “how do we experience the Divine in this realm?” She teaches that the verses are “not just a piece of writing, but a practice. It invites us into the practice.” Specifically, these are practices of cultivation that can shepherd us into a state of consciousness in which “wherever you are, you are able to be in a Divine/Cosmic temple.” In her unique and innovative reading of the text (which Rabbi David referred to as ‘Hammerian’), Rabbi Jill makes this reality evident. As an example, let us explore her teaching on the cryptic messaging of Chapter 1:4. Below is the Hebrew text and her new translation:
The First Instruction: Understand in Wisdom
עשר ספירות בלימה
עשר ולא תשע עשר ולא אחת עשרה
הבן בחכמה וחכם בבינה
בחון בהם וחקור מהם
העמד דבר על בוריו
והשב יוצר על מכונו
Ten inscriptions of the void:
ten and not nine, ten and not eleven
understand in Wisdom
be wise in Understanding
examine them, delve into them
stand each thing on its clarity
on its absence
and return the Creator
to Their Dwelling Place.
After noting its Zen Koan-esque qualities, Rabbi Jill focused on the second half of the verse (which holds the idea after which her book is named: Returning to the Place). Focusing on the line “stand each thing on its clarity”, she points out that the word בוריו (boryo), which is usually translated as ‘clarity’ or ‘essence’ here, can also mean “pit/absence/void.” This alternate reading then renders the teaching: “Recognize the solidity/emptiness of all phenomena.” This is to say that everything is simultaneously full and empty.
This idea is explored even deeper in chapter 1:6 with a beautiful assertion of the paradoxical nature of Divine Unity: “Their end is embedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end.” Like a coal and the fire that comes from it, Rabbi Jill explained that the One and the world of multiplicity are inextricably interconnected. We just have to ‘tune’ in to see this reality.
Connecting this ‘tuning’ to our yeshiva’s focus on mindfulness, Rabbi Jill explains that this text encourages us to “actually perceive. Rather than make up human notions, … [we can] clearly perceive what’s there.” Through ‘tuning’ into the simultaneous fullness/emptiness of all things, we can ‘return to the Creator’ and see the interweaving of the One and the many. This is the “returning” in the title of Rabbi Jill’s book; returning to the “what’s there,” (which she would encourage us to see as the lifeforce of the world). And if “what’s there” is actually the lifeforce of the world (the Creator? G-d?), then centering it in our consciousness is in truth ‘returning the Creator to its place.’ Amen.
To help prime our ‘tuning’, Rabbi Jill led the class through some of the many guided meditations contained within her book. For example, a meditation on chapter 1:4, entitled “Returning the Creator to the Place,” goes as follows:
Close your eyes and breathe out.
Focus on a central place in your body: mind, heart or belly.
See that a creative power dwells in this place.
Feel this creative power radiating outward through all the limbs of your body.
As creative power fills you, observe what happens in your body, heart, mind, and spirit.
What will you do with this creative power?
Breath out and open your eyes.
For our study of Hasidut, the Eastern European spiritual revival movement beginning in the 18th century, we are rooting our learning in the teachings of Rabbi Menachum Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl. He was one of the only people to be a student of both the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut, as well as the Ba’al Shem Tov’s key disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, and represents a primary source for both of their teachings. The text that we are studying is a collection of the rebbe’s oral teachings on the weekly Torah portion, which were translated from Yiddish into Hebrew by his students, and published as the book Me’or Einayim (Light of the Eyes) in 1798. This book immediately became a classic, and Menachum Nachum is often referred to simply as ‘the Me’or Einayim’.
Since each sermon provides rich material for endless contemplation and our method is one of depth not breadth, we will spend all three weeks focusing on the rebbe’s teachings on parshat Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha is the portion of the Torah in which Abraham is first sent on his spiritual and existential quest. Broadly, we will learn together how the rebbe understands this quest as being renewed for every individual in every generation, what he sees as the purpose of our existence in this world, the place of love in our spiritual life, the role of material and physical activity in our relationship with the Divine and our relationships with all people and all beings that we share this world with.
This week we started by really grounding ourselves in the titular verse in the parsha, Genesis 12:1, in which it says:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הי אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth (Lech Lecha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (JPS 1985)
Like all good Torah commentators, in his first sermon on this parsha, the Me’or Einayim focuses immediately on the peculiar phrasing of “לֶךְ־לְךָ֛” (Lech Lecha). Usually translated as “go forth,” medieval commentator Rashi explains that it really means “Go forth [to] yourself”, as in “for your own benefit.” The Me’or Einayim then asks, “how can Abraham, who is elsewhere called a ‘lover of G-d,’ (Isaiah 41:8) do anything out of an ulterior/personal motive?” He follows this up with a complex hermeneutical answer that is a tour de force of Torah and Hasidic philosophy. Although a complete explanation is beyond the possibilities of this short newsletter (find a full translation HERE), we will explore one of his primary ideas together: the importance of embodiment.
For the Me’or Einayim, it is not enough for a soul to exist up in heaven and serve G-d there. Although those souls get to bask in the light of the Shekhinah (Divine presence), they do not do so by virtue of their deeds, but merely by their nature as heavenly beings. Drawing on classic Kabbalistic framing, he refers to this as eating the “bread of shame,” which is to say they are only receivers, and not givers. What the soul really wants is to be a partner with G-d in the process of giving and receiving, not a passive receiver. This partnership model between G-d and humans is bread and butter Hasidism.
And so our souls descend to this earth and garb themselves in a material body to be able to serve G-d. Now that they are embodied beings, they can engage in a central tenet of Hasidism: avodah b’gashmiut, or “worship in corporeality.” In this understanding of divine service, all things in the mundane world can be uplifted to the level of holiness if we engage them with the right kavannah, or intention/mindfulness. Rabbi Arthur Green’s translation of the Me’or Einayim states that “It is out of your own earthliness that you may turn to [G-d’s] service.” This is precisely what avodah b’gashmiut is: having a body enables us to choose to serve G-d through our actions. That way we ‘earn’ our bread and no longer passively receive the “bread of shame.” Amen.
This beautiful teaching gives us a lot to think about as we rest over Shabbat:
What is our “earthliness”?
What does it mean to serve G-d through this ‘earthliness’?
And how can we cultivate proper kavannah/mindfulness?
Lastly, is there also something beautiful about just receiving? Do we need to hold a hierarchy of service? A hierarchy of ‘bread’, if you will?
Electives: Yiddish Ykhines
We have ten amazing electives this Spring, with topics ranging from Queering Kabbalah, to radical Talmud study, to exploring the Age of Aquarius through a Jewish lens. This week, we will be highlighting our course on Yiddish Tkhines taught by the amazing Rabbi Noam Lerman.
Rabbi Noam received their rabbinical ordination from Hebrew College and has worked as a chaplain, an abolitionist organizer, and a founder of both the Der Tekhines Proyekt and Let My People Sing. They advertised this class by presenting a new framing of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s famous practice of hitbodedut (or praying and conversing with G-d in the woods): did he learn this from his grandma?
In our first class together, Rabbi Noam gave a short lesson on the “who’s” and “what’s” of tkhines and explained why they felt called to reclaim this traditional practice (which you can hear about HERE). They explained that tkhines were Ashkenazi supplications that were once regularly written and prayed by women and gender non-conforming people. The inside flap of a tkhine book often said “For women and men who are like women,” by which it meant folks who were not literate in Hebrew, or folks who were but preferred the spontaneity and comfort of praying in their mother tongue of Yiddish. More generally, these were separate prayer books from the traditional siddur which were used by 1) women, 2) unlettered men, 3) women prayer leaders, 4) people whose personal yearnings weren’t captured by the traditional siddur, and 5) gender-nonconforming and trans people. By centering the personal experience of the person praying, these spontaneous supplications make speaking with G-d radically accessible, and this class is all about harnessing that power. After watching a video of Rabbi Noam’s grandmother’s bedtime tkhine and learning common structures, we started to see how it felt to “zogn tkhines,” or “speak tkhines.”
Our ‘homework’ this week is to try to zogn tkhines at least once a day as we go about our mundane activities. (One of the upsides to wearing a mask is that no one can see your lips moving in public!) To support this practice, Rabbi Noam gave us a few starting formulations, which you could try as well!
Ikh dank dir G-t az… (I thank you G-d that..)
Ikh beyt dikh G-t, ikh beyt dikh G-t, ikh beyt dikh G-t (I implore/ ask/ entreat/ beg/ plead/request..)…
Sh’ma her tsu liber G-t.. (Listen, Lord, beloved G-d..)
Ana ikh bet dikh liber heyr G-t.. (Please, I beg You, beloved Lord G-d…)
We will end our discussion of these spontaneous supplications with a tale:
Rabbi Noam’s bubbe was always speaking tkhines in Yiddish to herself. Rabbi Noam noticed that she repeated her requests over and over again, often doubling back to ask a second or third time. Puzzled, they went over and asked their bubbe: “Grandma, why do you repeat things in your tkhines?” and their bubbe responded, “in case G-d didn’t hear it the first time.”
In Our Own Words
In Rabbi David’s Hasidut class;
“I almost cried because it was the first time I was with a yeshivish teacher whose teachings spoke to me AND didn’t treat me differently for being a girl. My brain went: “Oh, does he think I’m a guy? Is my camera and name off? Oh. No. I’m just…being treated like a human being.” — Anonymous Student
“ASK the SCHEKINAH” by Betsy Shevey, NYC (she/her)
Betsy: Why are you in exile?
Shekhinah: I’m not. I’m here with you.
Betsy: Why do the rabbis say you are absent?
Shekhinah: The rabbis love paradox. Absence is presence, to conceal is to reveal, and so on.
Betsy: So empty is full and full is empty?
Shekhinah: Of each other, yes.
Betsy: Is coal a diamond in the rough?
Shekhinah: No, a diamond reflects light and coal contains light. A mirror and a lamp.
Betsy: Like the Torah?
Shekhinah: Everything is Torah.
Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of Sparks from the (Zoom) Windows!! If you are a current student and you like what you read this week and want to submit your experiences to be included in next week’s publication, please message our editor, Jonah Gelfand, on Slack for the google form.
Curious about Romemu Yeshiva? Join us for weekday practice. Click here for details about our open sits and prayer gatherings on zoom.