Practicing Love, Building Holy Community
by Rabbi Diane Elliot
The Aquarian Minyan
I want to speak with you tonight about what it means to practice love in spiritual community, particularly in Jewish community, and most particularly, in our Aquarian Minyan community. I’m aware that there may be those of you here tonight who are new to the Minyan, who have come to share our High Holy Days. Please know that, as part of my speaking this evening, I will be laying out a vision for a way that this community might come into greater loving connection. If you feel drawn to participate more fully, you are certainly most welcome to join with us in the coming year.
To be completely honest with you, this has been an incredibly growthful and most challenging year for me, my first as the rabbi of a community, my first in the Bay Area. My work with and on behalf of the Minyan really began last August, in preparation for last year’s High Holy Days, and though my position began officially only in March of this year, I’ve done a great deal of work, much of it invisible, throughout these past thirteen months. I’m well versed in what it takes to be an artist and to draw collaborators into my artistic vision, but I’ve been on a steep learning curve about what it means to be a leader in spiritual community—a leader, not in terms of power and authority, but as a true spiritual guide and mentor. While we long for our spiritual community to be a space of safety and peace, it can often be a vessel that brings our difficulties with relationship--with the Divine and with each other—to the fore.
We are all wounded, separated from the Whole in some way, and we carry our wounds with us into our individual and our communal relationships. In my work as a healer I’ve learned that when people choose to bring these woundings to consciousness, with guidance and skillful attention, they can become great catalysts for physical and emotional healing and spiritual growth. When the patterns of wounding remain locked away from consciousness, they may be perpetuated for generations, turned inward, and projected upon others. In Jewish community, the deep wounds of our collective past affect our capacity to feel safe, to trust, and to be loving with one another. So, like many Jewish spiritual groups, the Minyan has experienced its share of pain, of splintering, and
—also true to our long lineage of strength as a people—of regeneration.
During one of the lively meetings of the ma’ariv leadership committee—the magnificent group of people who planned and stand here before you, leading this evening’s service—someone referred to me, with loving humor, as “our skilled herder of cats.” Last winter, when many of you and I were, together, considering the possibility of my serving as the Minyan’s rabbinic fellow, I sat down with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the Rebbe of the Jewish Renewal Movement and the rabbinic presence around whom this community coalesced, over 30 years ago, to ask for his blessing and advice. He told me, “Don’t try to lead! It’s like herding cats!”
As we all know, the word “herd,” or “flock,” is not usually associated with cats. But the image of the flock is an important one in our traditional High Holy Day liturgy. In one of the most powerful prayers of our entire Holy Day cycle, the “Unetaneh Tokef”—which begins, “and let us be seized by the holiness of the day!” and which Ben Brandzel will chant tomorrow—G!d is depicted as an imposing, awesome Judge, sitting on the throne of Truth, compassionate yet distant and all-powerful, decreeing “life!” or “death!” Then, in a remarkable turn of metaphor, we hear: “v’khol ba-ei olam ya-avrun l’fanekha / kiv’neh maron,” “All who come into this world of time and space pass before You / like a flock of sheep.” Suddenly G!d becomes the firm but gentle Shepherd, aware of each one of us, tenderly watching out for our welfare, individually evaluating each one’s progress, as we pass before Him.
In our makhzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, G!d is portrayed in many ways—as loving parent, majestic King, covenantal partner, giver and taker of life. Yet even as we intone the age-old supplications to the King of Kings, and the Tender Shepherd, Master Potter, Creator of Light and Darkness—we already inhabit a world that has outgrown these old names of G!d and the leadership models they both reflect and engender. No wonder we’re ambivalent about leadership! We are caught between paradigms.
While these images of by-gone ages still pull on us, our renewed sensibilities draw us toward a world in which, as Reb Zalman teaches us, the currents of creation flow two ways. It may be we who choose to raise up the King, to willingly submit to the Shepherd’s staff, or to be present with Presence in some new way. In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, “G!d needs us as much as we need G!d.” In the new paradigm, we are neither children nor subjects nor sheep nor even cats. We have come of age; we are of the Divine, and we may choose to acknowledge our Divine nature and to place G!d at the center of our lives—or not.
How, then, are we to encompass and embody this new/old model of planetary interdependence, in which Divinity flows through being, rather than standing over being in a position of control—a model of reciprocal co-creation rather than top-down control? How can we integrate the older mythic imagery of brit—covenant with a “Higher Power;” beit ha-mikdash—archetypal sacred space; and “ol malkhut shamayim”—“the yoke of heaven’s sovereignty?” We do need to carry forward the seeds of truth within these ancient images, but because they are framed in outmoded language, they can easily pull us back into the power-over dynamic of patriarchal hierarchy. We end up fighting over the illusion of power, instead of recognizing each other’s divinity, competing instead of loving.
What “action directives,” to use Reb Zalman’s phrase, can help us channel the awesome awarenesses of the makhzor and the wisdom of Torah into our day-to-day interactions? How can we address the wounds of history so as to bring restored faith in the goodness of life into the ways we function in community and conduct our relationships? How can we heal and progress, spiritually speaking?
I wrote in my pre-High Holy Day letter to the community of my attempts to hear and to honor and to hold the center among all the many voices, many cultures within the Minyan, as well as some who were once part of the Minyan, but who have left. I call this practice “hearing with G!d’s ears,” and it is a humbling, mind shattering, and ultimately, I believe, liberating way to live. Whether I practice this with the voices pulling in different directions inside myself or with my partner Burt or with my family or with the folks in this community, it stretches me wider and makes me gentler. It asks me to constantly detach from who I think I am and what I think I need, and to open to what I’m witnessing in the moment. Such holy witness is a form of love.
Committing to loving through holy listening is not an easy choice, though ease and lightness are among its ultimate benefits. For practicing love, inviting ourselves to keep our ears and hearts open to the Holy One in this world of multiplicity, has a way of bubbling to the surface everything that is not love. All the pain that Jewish women and Jewish men have suffered through all the generations, not knowing when the rug will be pulled out from under us, is held in our bodies, in our collective psyche, passed through our bloodlines, and manifests as fear and mistrust, hyper-alertness, an almost obsessive need to control our environment. But always we have the chance—particularly at this time of year when, it is said, that Moses descended with a new Torah, the second set of tablets—to ask for help, to allow ourselves to be re-made.
That re-making begins with emptying. We need, in Reb Zalman’s words, to take some of our “life space away from the ego and put it at the disposal of G!d,” in order to rebuild Shekhinah Presence in this world for the coming year. During the year, through the course of daily living, the delicate, semi-permeable membrane between finite and Infinite, the site of our interface with the Divine, becomes thin, worn out, and useless. We need to grow a new membrane to connect us once again with the Infinite. So we are given the gift of these holy days, a time to pour out our hearts, like the libations at the dedication of the Holy Temple, to re-find ourselves, our cells, in relation to the Whole, and to rededicate ourselves to Its service. We are given, each year, the opportunity to re-name G!d, to define a new relationship with Holy Presence.
It’s time to for us deepen our commitment to growing our community, and to grow into ourselves as full, mature, spiritual beings--to come into our own as mutual co-creators of this universe. This means not simply passing on the old models of leadership-followership, unconsciously enacting them or projecting them on others, but truly committing to the evolution of a new model, an organismic model, a cellular model—one that trusts the local intelligence of the membrane, the delicate interface between finite and Infinite, to which each of us has access and for which we all share responsibility. We need to commit to caring tenderly for it, each of us a shepherd in service of the Unimagineably Large Organism in which we all participate.
I believe that spiritual growth and transformation come as we stretch our capacity to notice our patterns around challenge and, as my teacher Bonnie Cohen puts it, to “sit in the synapse,” to inhibit the habitual response pattern of my nervous system and to make space for some new way to be to arise. “Hashiveynu eleychah v’nashuva, khadesh yameynu k’kedem:” “Bring us back to You, and we will turn toward You, always making new our days.” If I can staunch my feline reactivity, neither yawning nor roaring nor biting nor running away, then G!d wells up in the space I have allowed to open, transforming me from the inside out. As I practice hearing with G!d’s ears, seeing with G!d’s eyes, attempting to hold the space for all, being kind to myself, then hurt and fear and pettiness melt away, opening space for a completely unexpected word, thought, or gesture to emerge.
I have a fantasy that I’d like to realize if, during this coming year, I continue to serve as your rabbi. At our S’likhot service just before Rosh Hashanah, I introduced some teachings on forgiveness from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s potent little book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice. After these High Holy Days, I would like to begin offering a weekly practice group. In it we would be quiet together, pray together, learn a little Torah together. We would listen to one another. And we would explore and practice the Sh’losh Esrei Midot, the Thirteen Qualities of Lovingkindness: Adonai, Adonai, El Rakhum v’Khanun….” “Image of G!d, Likeness of G!d, Creative Force, Fearless Compassion, Engaging Life through Grace….” These are the qualities invoked by the synergy of Moses and G!d, human and divine, at a moment when the powers of human discernment in the community of Israelites had failed to guide them toward Truth, at the moment of their falling back from the majesty of Sinai into the comforting lie of the Golden Calf. These are the qualities called forth when the wounds are exposed, and they invite us to extend a deep lovingkindness to ourselves, which cannot help but overflow into our connections with others.
I would invite each of you to join me in extending the work of these Holy Days into a year-long practice, so that when we would meet next year at this time, to purify ourselves through fasting and prayer and song, we could look around the room and feel that we have done the Holy work of spirit together, in community, knowing in our very cores the great blessing that such difficult and worthy work affords us.
Such an extended exploration would bring us together in the heart of loving community, seeking the harmonious balance of tiferet, tender and vulnerable and strong, neither withdrawing from pain nor diving into it, willing to look deeply inward in order to gain the strength necessary to move forward together—not simply to perpetuate this community, but to do what we can together to heal ourselves, which in turn will help us to heal our wounded and glorious planet, strengthening each other to do the work we were sent here to do—to bring Wholeness and Love. Who will you be in relation to G!d, this year? In what forms will the Infinite come to you, and by what Names will you address Her in the coming months?