Monday, October 3, 2011

The Rabbi's Tale

The Rabbi’s Tale—a Parable of Transformation (Rosh Hashanah Eve 5772)

“Our Rabbis teach: There are three paths to Torah—fire, water, and wilderness.”
-Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah

Once upon a time there was a rabbi who loved her community dearly. She had spent most of her adult life there, preaching and teaching, learning and listening, raising her own family and reaching out to those of her congregants. And they returned her love in abundance, treating her with deep respect and unassuming kindness. The rabbi and the congregation had grown up together, mourning losses and celebrating simchas, both personal and communal, sharing and supporting one another through halcyon days and hard times and everything in between. The rabbi was profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve this small and haimish congregation, and she had come to see her life with them as richly blessed. Now that she was well into middle age, it occurred to her that she would probably serve out her career, retire, and even die there—and somewhat to her surprise, she was at peace with this thought. She recalled the Talmud’s query: “Who is rich? Those who rejoice in their portion.” As she played that teaching over in her head and in her heart, she realized how lucky she was, for her portion brought her a wealth of joy. She smiled and thought to herself, “I am content.”

Still, she had lived long enough to know that this happiness would not last if either she or the community eased off and rested on their laurels. For alongside her enduring gratitude, the rabbi also sensed that her congregation and, indeed, the entire American Jewish community was on the verge of a significant crisis. Like most of her colleagues, she read the Jewish population studies, so she was well aware of their predictions of Reform and Conservative Judaism’s precipitous decline and possible demise through intermarriage, low birthrates, assimilation and apathy. She had never taken these grim reports too seriously, but recently, trends and events in her own congregation made them harder to ignore.

Each fall, for instance, the rabbi noticed more and more empty seats on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as significant numbers of congregants now opted to go to work and send their children to school rather than taking the days off. This shocked the rabbi, for even though she had grown up in the south among shrimp-loving, Sabbath-working classical Reform Jews, even those otherwise not so pious congregants would never have considered skipping out on the High Holy Days. Apparently the old motivators of guilt and obligation no longer held sway, as more and more Jews opted to stay away from shul even on Kol Nidre.

There were other troubling signs. The religious school was slowly but steadily shrinking. Clearly this was a nationwide problem, as the newly-appointed president-elect of the Union for Reform Judaism was a rabbi best known for his iconoclastic sermon, “The End of Religious School As We Know It.” Like many of her peers, the rabbi was struck by how the American Jewish community could be the wealthiest and best-educated in her people’s long history—and at the same time, the most Jewishly uninformed. She wrestled with how to educate the parents along with their children, rather than continuing the Sunday morning drop-off method that had proven to be such a failure.

The congregation’s budget was tight even in good times—and financially-speaking, these were not good times. And the core of synagogue regulars—a remarkable, devoted crew, to be certain—was growing older. When the rabbi’s own children were young, they accompanied her to synagogue every Friday night, where they happily hung out with their Jewish friends. Now, the community in the pews was getting grayer by the week, so that on the rare occasions when young families would show up with their toddlers and school-age children, they usually found no peers to play with and left with little incentive to return.

Over the past few years, the rabbi had come to see the classic model of synagogue membership as archaic, particularly for people under forty. She once asked the middle-aged members of her board—which is to say, some of her most active and engaged congregants—how many of their children had joined a congregation. Not one person raised a hand. Their sons and daughters—almost all of whom the rabbi had herself Bar and Bat-Mitzvahed—were proud Jews but did not choose to affiliate with synagogues. Instead, they practiced their Judaism a la carte—an activity here, a gathering there—rather than formally and financially committing to a congregation. It seemed to the rabbi that with membership, synagogues were still trying vainly to sell albums in an i-tunes world.

The rabbi was aware of all of these trials, and more: engaging teens and twenty-somethings, supporting the community’s ailing elders, and developing new leadership instead of burning out once-ardent volunteers—all while struggling to stay afloat in the depths of the worst economy since the Great Depression. She found these challenges daunting, and in her darker hours, she worried.

But she did not despair.

Remember, she was, as our story began, happy—in large part because she was, by nature, an intensely hopeful person. She was no Pollyanna; she saw the host of difficulties that lay ahead, for the American Jewish community in general, and her small shul in particular. Yet she also recognized, with strong faith and clarity, her people’s unheralded strengths: a thriving pre-school, the idealistic Jewish pride of the youth, the resilience of her peers, and the hard-earned wisdom of the community’s matriarchs and patriarchs. Her children were fourth-generation American liberal Jews; she refused to believe the naysayers who insisted that they and liberal Judaism had no future.

The rabbi had once heard that the Chinese pictogram for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” She liked this convergence; it reminded her that the Hebrew word for “crisis, ” mashber, was even more hopeful, for it means “childbirth chair.” Perhaps that is why the rabbi’s natural reflex was to see tough times as birth pains. Called by her faith to this labor of love, she yearned to lead her community in a fashion worthy of its sacred mission, to help them do their part in delivering the new Jewish world waiting to be born. The rabbi often wondered whether she was up to the task. And so, now mid-way through the journey of her life, she prayed each night that God might somehow show her the way.


And it came to pass at the new moon, on the eve of the month of Tammuz, in the season of the summer solstice, that the rabbi dreamed a dream.

She found herself in an expansive, plain white room, with no windows or furniture or features of any kind, save for one imposing black door barred by three locks made of copper, silver, and gold. She waited there, silent and alone, for what felt like an eternity though it may have been only an instant. Then, from out of nowhere, a messenger arrived in a tattered brown tunic, sporting a long grey beard, and a heavy cedar staff. He smiled sternly at the rabbi, then took her hand and introduced himself as Eliyahu Ha-Navi, Elijah the Prophet.

She met his gaze, bowed low, and said, “Hineni—Here I am. O Messenger from on High, has the Holy One of Blessing heard and hearkened to my prayers? My people and I are your humble servants. Tell me, now, what would you have us do?”

“There are,” replied Elijah, “three roads to Torah. Listen, learn, and live these three paths and you will receive a key for each, in due time. The first approach to Torah and transformation, for yourself and your community, is to travel the trail of fire. Go now, my child, for from this new moon until the next, you must follow the fiery way.”

The rabbi woke flushed and feverish, with the fearful knowledge that her journey had begun. For the entire month of Tammuz, as the moon waxed, then waned, her world was afire. Her nightly dreams were marked by blazing visions and visitations. She beheld burning angels, wheels of fire, brilliant lights and luminaries. And she met the fiery Jewish radicals whose passion for justice and truth had changed the world. Every night they came to her: Abraham the idol-smasher, Deborah the warrior, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose scorching words foretold the fall of kings and empires.

She also met more recent Jewish revolutionaries: Marx and Freud and Einstein, Emma Goldman and Betty Friedan. Ancient and modern, pious and heretical, they came and preached the power of fire, the capacity of blazing words and deeds to alter the course of history.

By day, the rabbi meditated on the meaning of her dreams. She considered the small but significant changes her own community had achieved by way of fire, through change born of passionate activism. She recalled with great appreciation the courage of both the founders of liberal Judaism and the foremothers of Western feminism, without either of whom she would not have had the opportunity to become a rabbi. And having seized that opportunity, she proudly counted the transformations that Jewish feminism had brought over the decades of her rabbinate: the opening of leadership to the long-neglected female fifty percent of the Jewish people, the creation of new liturgies and lifecycle events, and healthier models for both women and men to balance family and career. All around her, the rabbi realized, were the products of progress, born of fire: the movement toward full inclusion for gay and lesbian Jews, the hundreds of thousands of Jewish blogs and websites and other technological tools, and, perhaps most revolutionary and miraculous of all, the creation and success of the young Jewish nation that had risen like a phoenix in the land of Israel after two thousand years of exile.

As Tammuz drew to an end, the rabbi pondered all of these things and thanked both God and her nightly guides for showing her the blessings of the path of fire.


And it came to pass at the next new moon, on the eve of the month of Av, in the season of tears, that the rabbi dreamed another dream.

She stood, again, in the same large room, but now the once-white walls were replaced by ramparts of raging flames. Then Elijah appeared from out of the blaze and handed her a burnished copper key. “You have done well,” he said, “traveling the road of fire. The second approach to Torah and transformation takes up the trail of water. Go now, my child, for from this full moon until the next, you must follow the way of water.”

The rabbi woke up bathed in a pool of cold sweat.

For the entire month of Av, as the moon waxed, then waned, her world was awash in water. Rivers and rainstorms, cisterns and seashores drenched her dreams. Again, visitations filled her nights, but this time her teachers were cautious traditionalists and steadfast conservators, Jewish models of patience and perseverance. One by one, they came to her: Isaac, the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, whose lifework was to maintain the wells that his father had dug; Aaron and his descendants, the priests commanded to preserve the detailed rituals of service and sacrifice; generations of Jewish exiles determined to keep the faith by the rivers of Babylon. There was Akiba and his wife, Rachel, inspired to learn Torah late in life after watching tiny drops of water wear away the hardest stone. The rabbi met Rashi, tending his vineyard and teaching his students along the banks of the River Seine, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, scion of Hasidic dynasties, who was born in the Old World but, in 1938, on the eve of destruction, found refuge in the New, where he would become the poet and preacher, teacher and translator of that which had been lost.

By the light of day, the rabbi again reflected on the significance of these dreams. She pondered the way of water, considered the power of incremental change and the importance of preserving ancient traditions. She remembered the wisdom of one of her professors, who taught her that when people struggle to pray the words of the siddur, rabbis should not be too eager to modify the service. Sometimes, the professor said, the goal is to teach and transform the worshippers, to help them find meaning in the traditional prayers by uncovering their buried beauty. In this same spirit, by way of water, the rabbi noted that her generation’s Reform Judaism was reclaiming traditional practices that her parents and grandparents had sloughed away. As the world moved ever faster in a vortex of almost constant flux, the rabbi was deeply grateful for the comforting constancy of tradition. While she acknowledged the value of the new technological tools for information gathering and communication, she still drafted her sermons on yellow legal pads, penned letters to her children, and loved the heft of a real book in her hands. And so, as Av drew to an end, the rabbi thanked God and her dream-teachers for guiding her along the path of water, with its abundant blessings and consolations.


And it came to pass at the next new moon, on the eve of the month of Elul, in the season of preparing for the Days of Awe, that the rabbi dreamed again of that large room, whose walls were now sea-green standing waves. Then Elijah stepped out of the water and handed her a shimmering silver key. “Again, you have done well,” he said, “upon the road of water. The third—and final— approach to Torah and transformation is the trail of wilderness. Go now, my child, for from this full moon until the next, you must follow the way of water.”

Then the rabbi awoke, dazed and confused, unmoored in space and time.

For all of Av, the final month of the Jewish year, as the moon waxed, then waned, her world was wilderness. Nights brought visions of high mountains and far horizons, sweltering deserts, dense jungle, tree-less steppes and arctic ice fields, the world’s last vast and wild places, still mostly free of human habitation. And with the wilderness came a new gathering of visitors, storytellers and teachers. Each meditated on living with uncertainty, on opening heart and mind to mirror the uncluttered expanse of land and sky. They entered her dreams over roundabout roads, reminding her to focus on the journey rather than the destination. She met Moses and Miriam, camped in the Sinai, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the mystic author of the Zohar, hunkered down for thirteen years in his cave on the slopes of Mount Meron. Generations of Jewish wanderers passed by, expelled from one kingdom to the next. There were traders and merchants and refugees and a contemporary Jewish trickster from Hibbing, Minnesota who kept asking her, “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?”

During the daylight hours, as she prepared for the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi considered the way of wilderness. She recalled the many times she had struggled to muster the courage to leave all that was familiar for the promise of the unknown. How often her faith had wavered, how frequently her fears and insecurities had left her clinging to illusory comforts.

Yet she also remembered occasions when she had somehow overcome those fears and stepped forward, to find the unaccustomed ground firm beneath her feet. And what a joy it was to discover that her community was determined to share the journey with her! Over the years, she had led them into some pretty murky terrain, and to their enormous credit, they had followed, by her side. And so, as the month of Elul and the fading year drew to an end, the rabbi again thanked God, her guides, and her beloved community for walking her down the path of wilderness, bestowing so many blessings along the way.

And it came to pass at the new moon, on the eve of the month of Tishrei, the night before Rosh Hashanah, that the rabbi dreamed of walking alone through a seemingly endless tract of desolate terrain. She was weary, nearly despairing of ever finding the path when Elijah stepped out from behind a gnarled carob tree. Handing her a key of gleaming gold, he said, “Behold, you have successfully navigated all three roads to Torah and transformation—fire, water, and now wilderness. Well done, my child. Three keys now are yours; they hold the power to unlock the final door, which still awaits you. What lies beyond that portal, even I do not know, for it is barred to me. But if you wish, you may choose to enter.”

With that, Elijah struck the ground with his staff and the rabbi was immediately transported back to the large white room where it all began. It was again featureless and unadorned, save for the fortress-like door with its three locks of copper, silver, and gold.

But this time, the rabbi was not alone. For on that eve of Rosh Hashanah, the sacred day when the world labored to be born anew, she found her entire congregation waiting there for her—young and old, long-time friends and newcomers, women and children and men. She laughed and cried and smiled as they embraced her and she embraced them back. Then, she pointed at the door, held up the glittering keys, and. . .

No comments: