Thursday, July 31, 2008

Four Questions for the Jewish Fall Holy Days

Last Thursday, I sat with my rebbe high in the mountains overlooking Boulder, CO. He spoke to me of four questions that define our time; four questions that must be asked and answered, albeit humbly and open-endedly, if we are to live up to and out of the promise of the 21st century.

First, where did we come from, that is to say, what is the cosmological story that speaks to us today? Second, what is the ethic that arises from this story? Third, what are the upaya [Reb Zalman used the Buddhist word for “skillful means”), the mitzvot [acts of godliness that awaken us to the nonduality of life in, with, and as God, and my Jewish take on upaya] that allow us to embody that ethic in lived action? And fourth, what is vehicle or carrying that story, that ethic, and those means beyond ourselves into the community of generations?

It occurred to me as I listened that each of these questions spoke to one of the four fall Jewish holy days. Rosh haShanah, the anniversary of creation, is the ideal setting to ask about and tell the story of our cosmos. Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, is the perfect setting for discerning the ethic arising from that story. Where better to inquire into the mitzvot, the skillful means for living this ethic then Sukkot, our week-long encounter with impermanence and the “wisdom of insecurity” articulated by Ecclesiastes? And Simchat Torah, the omega and alpha point in the journey of Torah, is the perfect setting for exploring how best to build community rooted in story that can carry the wisdom of the cosmos.

When I shared this insight with Reb Zalman his face lighted up and he gave me the greatest gift a rebbe can bestow, “Yes, that is wonderful! Now see what you can to with it.”

I would have been happy had he left off the last sentence. What can I do with it? I have no community of my own. Indeed, I have not celebrated these holy days with others in years. I lead a solitary life, and spend holy days alone in the forest walking and talking with my Mother, who is the Face of God for me today.

Reb Zalman suggested that we collaborate on a book, fleshing out his questions in the context of these holy days, and inviting essays from creative visionaries who are themselves moved to contemplate these questions. Perhaps this is the way it will happen, I don’t know.

What I do know is that my fall holy days will not be the same this year as they were last year. There are now new questions to ponder, and new interior spaces to explore. What more could I ask from my rebbe?


Judy said...

These are truly wonderful questions to be posed during the coming holidays. All the more because they can and should be asked on two levels - as an individual and as a member of a community. They also should be asked each and every year not to see if the answers are the same, but to face the challenge of making the answers different, even more meaningful to the place we are in at the moment. Armed with these questions and the good reading that I bring with me to synagogue - Adin Steinzaltz and Rami Shapiro - I know the services will have much more meaning. Thank you, and thanks to Reb Zalman, for this wonderful teaching.

soldiermom said...

Firstly, I feel a bit envious about a tradition that honors rituals involving questions and not just answers. I have that same feeling for the idea of a "rebbe" (and yes, I had to look it up in wikipedia) who fosters questioning or even spends time with someone just to talk about spirituality.

In Christianity there are no rituals or holidays that revolve around the seasons; unless you count the one exemplified by the snow-globe of Santa kneeling by the manger. I don’t. I am not old enough to remember a holiday that was not commercialized into something secular. So far that is not the case with Judaism. It seems to me that your holidays might be ignored by Jews, but they are not messed around with by capitalism…or at least it seems that way. Maybe Jewish holidays are just not as sexy as a virgin mother and a resurrection.

I hear that some where in Christianity there are pastors who are becoming more comfortable with the question than the answer. I enjoy reading about them. It would be nice to experience that kind of relationship. We all need someone to spur us on to greater ideals.

You wonder how to carry that verdant message into the community when you are a solitary kind-a guy. Well, as a new member of your online community I look forward to reading about how you grappled with your rebbe’s questions. I will see you in my mind’s eye walking in the forest, or sitting on a mountain top. You keep walking, contemplating and writing, we need you out here in no-man’s land. Not all communities are face to face.

rbarenblat said...

Gorgeous questions from Reb Zalman, as always, and I love the way mapping them onto the fall holidays offers a way to shift how I think about the holidays that are coming.

For what it's worth, I would rejoice to read your dialogue with Reb Zalman on this subject.

(And should you decide to proceed with this conversation orally, I've been blessed with the opportunity to transcribe for him before and would happily do so for y'all.)