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How Does a Rabbi Replenish His Soul?

For years I have been studying Torah weekly with one or two Chevruta (study) partners through the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (IJS). I have studied with a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Cleveland (Steve Segar), a Conservative Rabbi from Portland (Dan Isaak), a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Malibu (Judith HaLevy), and for years, a Reform Rabbi from Los Angeles (Karen Fox). Recently, I have renewed my study with the Clevelander Rebbe.

We have never really sat in the same room to study. We study by phone, with texts before us, and headsets over our heads. (It has been suggested that we begin using Skype so we can face to face study. Something to consider.)

Often we spend 20 minutes of the study hour talking with each other about our lives, our families, the joys and challenges of being a pulpit rabbi, our spiritual struggles and successes. Acquaintances begun at a week-long retreat have blossomed into friendships that have sustained us through life’s challenges and struggles.

Each week, we receive by email a text. Our IJS teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, sends weekly an email that gets us learning. It begins with a primary text (currently Degel Machaneh Efraim) – in Hebrew and English, Rabbi Slater’s explanation of the Degel text, some reflection questions and a guide for spiritual practice drawn from this text. The Chasidic texts are sometimes thick, laden with references to Zohar, Talmud, Midrash and other commentators. Thankfully, Rabbi Slater has done the heavy lifting by discovering and reprinting the texts cited. He also guides us through the sometimes incomprehensible discussion, pointing us always toward some deep insights about spirituality or life. The text study becomes the highlight of my week.

My learning this week?

In this week’s parasha, Shemot, we learn that vayehi ki yar’u hameyaldot et ha-elohim vaya’as lehem batim – And because the midwives feared God, God established houses (batim) for them (Ex.1:21). What does it mean that God established “houses” for the midwives? Connecting “houses” with vessels, Degel Machaneh Efraim leads us on a journey to realize that wisdom, when bounded and held in a vessel of fear/awe ensures that our wisdom is used for justice and good.

As Rabbi Slater explains:

“Fear gives boundaries to wisdom.” The basic understanding here is in the dynamic tension of the right and left sides of the sephirotic tree. Chokhmah (wisdom) is on the right side. Its tendency and desire is to expand, like love (Hesed). Yet, for wisdom to be useful, for it to apply in the world, it must have some definition, a framework in which it can be understood. That is the role of the left side, where Gevurah (which includes the quality of fear, yirah) constrains, sets boundaries and provides a vessel for Wisdom. This is the same process of constriction (tzimtzum) by which God’s vital force and light come to be contained and present in all creation. Fear – as limitation and gevurah – creates a home for God’s outpouring of life and wisdom.

As Rabbi Slater guides us:

R. Moshe Chaim offers us a practice insight here. What is wisdom? Ultimately it is the capacity to perceive and respond to the truth of any given moment, any given circumstance. We all know that there are times that we are clearer, more connected to our experience and so better able to choose how to respond, and times when we are not. On those occasions that we are not so free to choose how to respond – when we are surprised, angry, depressed, jealous, smitten by love, confused, etc. – it is not that we are not “wise”, but our wisdom is not connected to the totality of our experience. It runs wherever our passions run; it is misapplied. For our natural and acquired wisdom to be effective, for it to bring us happiness and benefit to one and all, it needs a container, a frame in which to function.

“Fear of heaven” is just such a framework. This is not fear in the sense of terror before pain or loss (although both may be present), or fear of punishment. Rather, it is the fear that arises when we recognize the unbounded and uncontrollable outcomes of our actions. We may strive to live impeccably, but we are likely to fail. That induces fear: awareness, caution, compassion for ourselves and for others. When we stop to consider the fact that every deed implicates us, it may become impossible to act. Yet, we must act. There is no holding back, no backing out. The goal is to act as much as possible, with our greatest wisdom and as well as we can to do justice, live with compassion and humility. And when we realize we have made a mistake, the challenge is to strive to rectify the mistake, to compensate – as best we can – for past mistakes, and minimize the mistakes we make into the future.

Learning with my chevruta (study partners) ensures that I replenish my Torah, the source of my wisdom and compassion. It points me to deeper levels of understanding and thus becomes a central part of my weekly spiritual practice.

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