The Spirituality of Architecture and Furniture

by Rabbi Wendy Spearsliving room

We, the Jewish people, are all about our stories. I like to imagine my ancestors sitting around their fires in the wilderness, or around their fireplaces in their homes in all the places Jews have lived around the world, sharing the narratives that inform us about who we are. I see them comparing themselves to the characters in the stories, thinking about the motivations and actions of those people way back when. Those stories can be so exciting.

And then we have portions like T’rumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) that are a shopping list and a blueprint. When I was looking at the commentaries for this portion, Bible scholars seem to agree that this description of the Tabernacle architecture and its furnishings are a remembrance of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem rather than actual instructions for building the Mishkan in the wilderness during the wanderings there.

The salient point for the instructions is near the beginning of the portion, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9) Like the other peoples surrounding them, the Israelites also wanted a special place to worship their god that signified the grandeur and awe of that experience. This shopping list includes all the most beautiful materials they could imagine – fragrant wood, gold, silver, and blue, purple, and crimson fabrics.

Until I became a homeowner, I didn’t really appreciate architecture and interior design. When my husband and I began looking at homes where we would actually live, a lot of things came into focus that just weren’t on my radar. Not only the size of the rooms, but how the light came in through the windows at each time of day affected the colors in those rooms. There were rooms that helped me feel peaceful, and rooms that helped me feel energetic. How the kitchen was laid out affected how efficient we could be in preparing and cleaning up meals so that we had good time together as a family, talking about what’s important to us as well as sharing news of the day.

The various passages in Exodus that I used to find so boring I now see quite differently. Spirituality, now a personal, interior practice of the soul, is expressed in places as well as times. The space provides the environment where the soul can relax, feel connected to others, and be filled with a sense of awe. I have a new appreciation for the power of design of buildings and the furnishings that are inside them.

I think this shopping list and instructions are about bringing our best selves to foster our spirituality. As people rooted to the material world, it’s a challenge to create a place for spirituality every day. We talk a lot now about mindfulness practices, about getting into the place inside ourselves that brings us a sense of connection and appreciation for our outer places and inner spaces. Having a beautiful place to be and sit helps in this process. This is what the shopping list and instructions for the Mishkan represent for me today. I think about the feelings and thoughts I want to cultivate in my home.

My mindfulness practice each day begins at home, rather than at synagogue. My home is a reflection of my family’s values and personality, what’s important to us, how we make a comfortable space to relax, enjoy, and entertain. I made a shopping list when I furnished my home, as I do each time I want to change or add something. The most recent was about curtains – I needed brackets, rods, tiebacks, and the curtains themselves. I imagine the ancient Israelites doing the same when they wanted to create a holy place – the Mishkan. My home is my personal sanctuary; I want it to be beautiful and tranquil so that my mindfulness practice is easier. I strive to make space for where I want to be spiritually as well as for my family’s and my physical comfort. I imagine, then, meeting God in a holy place. And this text brings that into my consciousness.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com and on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.

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Let The Trees Teach You Torah

pomegranate-treeby Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of my favorite Broadway musicals is now a major motion picture. I’ve seen Into The Woods twice on stage and I’m looking forward to seeing Meryl Streep play the Witch, an iconic role played so brilliantly by the fabulous Bernadette Peters. One of the themes of the play is to be careful of what you wish, because it might come true.

The forest of European folktales is a dark and scary place, full of carnivorous animals that consider humans an easy meal as well as numerous other dangers that can catch the average walker unaware and unprepared. Certainly, Cheryl Strayed finds this to be the case when she walks the Pacific Crest Trail on her own as portrayed in her book and the film Wild. She faces down a bear and suffers through blistering heat and bone chilling cold. These experiences change her irrevocably, as are those who venture into the woods in European folktales. The characters are called to draw on their inner resources of intelligence and ingenuity, as well as their physical strength and perseverance. The folktale woods are places of magic and revelation, both about the world at large and the human psyche.

The trees in Jewish tradition aren’t clustered together as a dark and forbidding forest. They are the dry shrubs and scrubby trees of an arid landscape, providing shade and food. This wilderness, like the European forests, is also a place of magic and revelation; a bush burns unconsumed, a sea parts, and there is fire on the mountain. Jews recognize the wilderness as a place to participate in a revelation that God will continue to care for us and protect us. We experience awe as both wonder and a feeling that causes us to shake in our boots.

Historically, the trees that survive in the arid wilderness are the fig, the olive, the date palm, and the pomegranate. The pomegranate, with it’s abundance of juicy seeds, is by itself considered a symbol of abundance. It’s likely that Adam and Eve ate figs rather than apples, since figs are native to the environment of the Middle East. The honey in the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” refers to the sweetness of dates rather than honey from bees.

The Jewish festival of trees, Tu BiShvat (the 15th day of the month Shvat), begins the evening of February 3 this year. The medieval Jewish mystics expanded the holiday from simple tree planting and pruning to include a Passover-like seder that celebrates the turn of the seasons with 4 cups of wine (from white , to pink, to deep red), and a tasting of the various types of tree fruit (those with outer rinds or shells that are inedible, those that have inedible inner pits, and those that are completely edible inside and out) to increase our awareness and appreciation of trees and nature in general. It is also a time to share stories about trees.

Since we are dependent on trees, shrubs, and grasses for the balance of oxygen on our planet, let’s renew our celebration of Tu BiShvat with more tree planting in our own yards as well as in our community, and invite family and friends to share stories around a table with many kinds of fruit and wine. This is a great way to remind ourselves that spring is just around the corner, and to give thanks to God for all of our abundance and blessings.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Far Too Busy?

spinningby Rabbi Wendy Spears

The High Holy Days season is the most frenetic for rabbis as they prepare for the largest crowds of the year attending synagogue worship. In addition to writing and editing multiple sermons, rabbis are also focused on the opening of synagogue membership season. New folks are coming in the doors to check out what the synagogue can offer them, while veteran members are re-evaluating their involvement in on-going activities. As a community rabbi rather than a synagogue rabbi, I am a step removed from this although I see my colleagues trying to juggle a lot of plates.

The end of August and beginning of September is also the time many families make the transition from the relative relaxation of summer schedules to the fast-paced action of the new school year with its requisite renewal of sports practice, music and art lessons, homework, and Hebrew practice. I see many of my friends consumed by busy-ness. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte writes about all of this frenetic activity in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything on the to-do list completed.

Happily, I find myself in a very different place. I’ve entered a new chapter in my life in which I am succeeding in putting mindfulness into practice. I have one child in college and the other in high school. They have begun to take charge of their own activities. The hard physical work on my part of their early childhoods is completed, as is the need for constant conversation to stimulate their developing brains. I am devoting more time to my rabbinate, to my enjoyment of attending cultural activities with my husband, and to my own spiritual sustenance. I take time to reflect and be present much more in the moment. I used to admire my colleague Rabbi Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, for his ability to do this on a regular basis. As Brigid Schulte writes, “Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness. Then we starve the capacity we have to love. It creates this ‘unquiet heart’ that is ever desperate for fulfillment.”

With Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning on the evening of September 24, we have a tremendous opportunity to be present in moments of holiness within community. It is the time to begin reflecting on what we’ve accomplished and experienced this past year and to rejoice in that, while also recognizing the mistakes and hurts we’ve caused others and to make amends. I plan to read again the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes during the many moments of silence during worship. The wisdom literature attempts to teach us how to live a good life when we know that the people and things in this life are ephemeral. Much of the literature sounds as if it was written today rather than thousands of years ago.

While many people I know complain about being too busy, I find that I’ve really stopped feeling that way and saying those words. I make time for what’s important to me, whether it’s for myself or to spend with friends and family. As I think back on this odyssey of raising my children, I didn’t over schedule them with sports, lessons, and other activities. I tried to leave them enough time to just be. Sometimes we went on field trips to explore the culture of Los Angeles. Most often, we were at home on the weekends and available to each other or to be with friends and extended family.

While it’s in my nature to push forward and get a lot of stuff done, I’ve tried over the past year to stop cramming so much into each minute of the day. Previously, I was constantly looking at the clock, trying to determine how much I could get done before the next activity or appointment. I was consistently late, and I really hate being late. This year, I’ve been a bit easier on myself and have even left some things on my to-do list undone. I’ve started to exercise again and have let go of some hobbies. I can honestly say that I feel calmer, even though my calendar of activities looks as full now as it did last year. And I feel more prepared and eager for the opportunity for spiritual introspection on these quickly approaching High Holy Days.

#overwhelmed #busy #roshhashanah #rabbis #highholydays #mindfulness

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

Saturday Afternoon, Sixth Floor

The green elevator doors at University of Tsukuba

(Photo credit: moonhouse)

Shabbat afternoon I visited an elderly woman near the end of her life. When I arrived she was dozing, so I slipped into a chair by her hospital bed. I watched and prayed, nothing very fancy or formal, just opened my heart to the Divine as I sat next to her.

I was just about to leave a note and tiptoe out when she woke. She and I had visited often before this recent drop in her health, but this time it was a more one-sided conversation. We held hands and she talked to me. It was the conversation that takes place at many such bedsides: memories, regrets, accomplishments, a taking-stock of a life as that life nears its close. It was not a formal Vidui – not time for that yet – but an informal rehearsal, an experimental trip down the checklists of her life.

Despite what one sees at the movies, these are not usually dramatic monologues. We all have similar worries: Did I love enough? Was I loved? Was I good to those who loved me? Is there any unfinished business? Sometimes the conversation is rather like a defense attorney’s closing argument: I WAS good enough. I WAS good to my family. But there always echoes in the wake of those statements the question softly added, “Wasn’t I?”

I am a witness, and I hope to be a comfort. I am aware in those moments that someday I will be on the other side of that conversation. We are all here only for a little while.

The visit ended and we said our goodbyes. I may see her again, but nothing is certain. No family was there at the time so I slipped out the door. I walked to the elevator, where the door opened and closed on me and my thoughts.

What the Talmud Taught Me About Yoga: Lessons From a Non-Yogi

Like others before me, I am trying to participate in Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s #BlogElul. Here’s a thought for Day 3.

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The first time she said it, I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes. The second time too. Probably the third time. But somewhere along the way, the lights dimmed, candles burning, and the sounds of everyone else’s ujayyi breath lulled me into acquiescence.

I should state, for the record, that I had never been much of a yogi. Give me a good spin class or dance class, or sign me up for a 5K any day. If I am going to be exercising, I want to be breathing hard, sweating, and probably wondering if I am going to make it. But stretching myself, finding balance, and taking a moment of stillness? That sounds like hard work.

But, I fell in love with a dance class—and a community—and yoga came with it. And so,several days a week, I found myself closing my eyes, breathing deeply and finally giving in. “Take a breath. Let it travel through your body. And, just when you think your lungs are full—sip a little more air. And then a little more. Hold the breath, and in this space: Set an intention for your practice.” Yeah, right. Can’t we just start dancing?!

Let your mind go. Breathe deeply.

Somewhere along the way, though, I noticed that my experience in those opening moments shifted. I stopped rolling my eyes, and started closing them. I stopped smirking, and started breathing. And I began to set an intention—sometimes an inward reflection. At first, my intentions were solely fitness-based: Lose weight. Get in shape. Tone my arms.

But as those physical changes actually did start to happen, I noticed that my intentions grew more expansive, if still totally embodied: Love my shape. Celebrate my body’s abilities.

Then, my intentions grew wider, more integral to the life that I was living. Sometimes a specific goal. Sometimes a one word plan: Hope. Contentment. Focus. And my dance became more than just a way to work out.

Sadly, I had to leave my studio behind. But I often hear my teachers’ words when I embark on a new project, a new endeavor. And they came right back to me as I began Daf Yomi a few weeks ago. While I am not sure I will be able to finish it, I have—for the time—committed to studying a daf (two pages) of Talmud every day…for 7.5 years. And I thought to myself—I better set an intention. And so I did. One of discpline, of learning lishmah (for its own sake, and of rejoining a conversation I think desperately needs our liberal, female voices.

The Talmud begins with a discussion of the recitation of the Shema. After a thorough discussion of when to recite Shema, the rabbis begin to ask how we recite Shema. The case that they bring is of someone who is engaged in Torah study of some sort of another—even studying the verses that contain the words of the Shema—when the time arrives for the recitation of Shema. What, they ask, is he to do? The rabbis teach that if he directs his heart towards the recitation of the Shema, he (or she, I suppose!) has fulfilled the obligation to recite the Shema.

The word for “direction” here is kavannah. While it is often used to describe the parts of the prayer service that happen organically, in contrast to the fixed liturgical pieces, it more correctly means “intention.” It means your internal compass is focused, directed, on what you are doing—or what you hope to do.

And the Gemara continues with one short, weighty statement: Mitzvot require kavannah. To engage in the significant acts of Jewish life, it is not enough to do so woodenly, robotically, without deep thought and commitment.

As Elul begins, we are asked to take spiritual stock, to reflect on the year that was—to consider who we have been and what we have done. And this “inventory” we are asked to take should inform who want to become and the steps we’ll take to get there.

So, I invite you to sit. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Breathe in a little more. And set an intention for your practice.

Rabbi Sari Laufer is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She also blogs at torahblahnik.blogspot.com, and is Tweeting #DafYomi @rabbilaufer

 

The Freeway Blessing

English: A variable message sign indicating es...

A sign indicating estimated travel times for northbound traffic on Interstate 880 (the Nimitz Freeway) in Oakland.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Rabbi Ruth Adar

As I perched on the hospital gurney, I reviewed the facts: the SUV slipped into the space ahead of me on the crowded highway and then braked abruptly. Its lights glowed red as I pressed and then stomped my own brakes. Time slowed as my car slammed into the SUV.

Air bags will save your life, but to do so they punch your chest like a champion boxer. For a 57 year old woman, chest pains demand a trip to the ER, even if they come after an encounter with an airbag.  Once I got to the hospital, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they wanted to keep me for a bit “for observation.” That’s how I wound up parked on a gurney, meditating on the seriousness of driving a car.

Until the afternoon of April 17, I prided myself on my good driving record, but it was no more than a nice report card. I seldom thought about the fact that when I’m driving I hold the lives of other human beings in my hands, and others hold mine.

The Torah regards life and health as precious gifts. Deuteronomy 22:8 commands us to put railings on the high places in our houses to prevent accidents. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further in Bava Kamma 15b, saying that one should not keep anything dangerous, neither a biting dog nor an unsafe ladder. PIkuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is such an important mitzvah that it can override almost any other mitzvah: better to violate the Sabbath than to let someone bleed to death, for instance.

And yet that afternoon, I had climbed into my little car with its 3,000 pounds of steel, and barely gave it a thought. I had been driving for 41 years, and driving had become routine. I didn’t speed or break the law. I didn’t chat on my cell phone or fix my makeup as I drove. But neither did I ever reflect that I was holding the lives of others in my hands.

Sitting on that gurney, I began to see that driving is a sacred activity, or it should be. Driving mindfully, aware of the lives flowing with me and past me on the highway, could be a form of worship of the One who created all those lives.  Conversely, driving carelessly, driving distracted, or driving sleepy is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, because it invites the destruction of life given by God. Its very heedlessness is blasphemy.

I never found out why that car stopped so suddenly. All I know is that no one in the other  car was injured, my car was totalled, and I was lucky that I only had bruises. I am grateful that it was no worse.

Since that day, when I get in the car, I murmur what I have come to think of as the Freeway Blessing, a blessing to remind me to bring holy mindfulness to this sacred task:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hanoten l’chol chaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

“Choose life!” we are told in Deuteronomy. Behind the wheel of a car we each have that choice. I could have died on the freeway, but instead I was blessed: blessed with renewed awareness of the sacredness of life, and the responsibility we each have to preserve life.