July 4, 2022 -

Lighting Up Our Community: Rabbi Nosanchuk’s D’var Torah on Our New Project in Jewish Spiritual Practice

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The prayer book that you hold in your hands – Mishkan T’filah– is named for the beautiful vision described in the verses of this Shabbat’s Torah portion. In our portion, the final verses describe the symbolic presence of God within the portable sanctuary the Israelites have been working so hard to build.  We imagine tonight the inspiration that must have uplifted the Israelites- seeing first a cloud cover the mishkan during the day, and then a fire appear within it at night. We are taught that the sparks of that fire could be seen l’eynei chol beit yisrael B’chol Maseichem, in the view of the entire house of Israel throughout their journeys.

It should come as little surprise to us that the work which Moses has directed the people of Israel in- the building, the weaving, the lifting, the threshing, the winnowing, and all other kinds of energy-absorbing work involved with creating this sanctuary was followed by the image of light in a darkened path the Israelites were traveling.

After all, Moses- more than any other in our history- knows what a flame that is radiant but not consuming looks like. Remember- at the moment of his commission, he bore witness to flames amidst a bush near where he tended to his flock as a shepherd! But here in our passage the flame is a signal that it is ok for the Israelites to travel, and that even while on the move, they will see God’s fiery dimensions- the sparks of a transcendent force in the universe drawn immanent to their tabernacle, a fire whose appearance in their holy space of convocation throughout the evening all the way until dawn.

Let’s think about that for a moment. There are many times in which the imagery of a flame is used to indicate a powerful connection for us in Jewish holidays, prayers, observances, and meditations.

  • In the world of ritual, we know that just moments ago in our wine and welcome reception, we lit Shabbat candles and signaled the beginning of Shabbat.
  • In the world of prayer, we know that the candles we light in our chanukiah are nerot halellu flames meantyou are not supposed to read by their light or to use it to guide your way from a place in which you are lost, testifying to the meaning that a flame continually holds to signal an unbroken allegiance to the Maccabean struggles for freedom for our people.
  • In the Midrashic interpretations of our Torah verses, we are taught that the ten commandments were written by God with black fire upon white fire, and that this caused Moses’s skin to radiate like a flame not just in God’s presence, but even when he emerges from the mountain and journeys to the Israelites, he remains illumined.

Why are flames such a popular motif in our testimonies and teachings, particularly in the life of Moses? What do you think?

I believe that part of the reason we are struck by flame imagery is because it is an elusive symbol. It cannot be easily contained and cannot be captured. Fire is also something which can appear to come out of nothing – but can suddenly cause both pain and possibility. I’d also posit that the power we respect of a flame is something that seems to represent to us almost the spirit of a human life itself. Psalm after psalm uses spark, flame, and light to indicate our integrity, our purity, our faith, and our terror for having lost faith.

One of my favorite meditations in our Shabbat prayerbook- tells us that our lives are no more and no less than a “finite flame.” We read that life itself is “kindled, it burns, it glows, it is radiant with warmth and beauty. But soon it fades, its substance is consumed and it is no more… [but it continues] we do not despair, for we are more than a memory slowly fading into the darkness. With our lives we give life. So something of us can never die; we move in the eternal cycle of darkness and death, of light and life.” (Mishkan T’fillah: A Reform Siddur)

I have long been struck by that image. Our life is kindled but the light also fades. But part of our path as Jews is to strive to give life and light away- to radiate something in our brief span of existence. I only really encountered that image when I was ordained a rabbi, and began to be in charge of finding meditations and metaphors that fellow members of our community could take to heart when they needed it most.  As a rabbi when I teach as often as when I learn, I strive to remain open to the light shed for me in which to learn through experiences I construct and others in which I enroll to continue to grow my knowledge and spirit.

Speaking of growth in knowledge. I’m often asked: “When do you get the time to learn yourself, rabbi?” Honestly, the answer I offer is that I get it from the same place you do. I find it. I beg and borrow for it. I trade off with Rabbi Caruso for the opportunity to go and grab it when it is being offered. And I try to give the people in my life the encouragement not only to learn and fill themselves with light- but to challenge me openly to do the same!  Tonight as I look back on what I’ve done to seek an immanent flame to rekindle my spirit and learning as a rabbi and as a Jew, the one experience that really stands out for me is the studies in which I’ve engaged under the guidance of a group called the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. In the confines of the IJS programs of study, reflection, and contemplative practice, I have learned how to learn and growth through partnered reflection on texts with other colleagues, through silence and speech, through yoga, meditation, and through Jewish mindfulness practice. Through all of these modalities, I have grown immensely. Recently our Cantor Sarah Sager began a path of study with IJS as well, and I have to say I’m already affected by how just the beginning of her inquiry has affected me in serving as her clergy partner and as shared leaders of spirit here on this bimah.

Recently you may have seen the announcement in our temple bulletin that our synagogue is actively partnering with Institute for Jewish Spirituality, as one of less than 30 Jewish institutions- including agencies, schools and synagogues nationwide- chosen as grantees of IJS and the John Templeton Foundation in a study. We are trying to see what the effect is in our communities of shining a bright and radiant flame on  these contemplative approaches to Jewish teachings on middot- qualities of human development and personal growth- such as patience, humility, forbearance, and so many others.

What IJS is up to in this endeavor with our temple is both what you might expect and what you couldn’t possibly expect. On the one hand, our project around middot is a part of a standard grant allocations process to help us support programming , staff energies, training, etc. as we grow connections to this work. That’s how it will appear in our budget allocation. But what no numbers on a budget sheet could ever describe to our temple leadership is what I believe in my heart of hearts. It is this: I see our growth in Jewish spiritual practice, and our lifting up middot, qualities of self-improvement as a process of studying just what happens if we do as Moses and the Israelites did at the conclusion of the Book of Exodus… they established a sanctuary not just for today’s needs- but that would guide them forward in a time of transition and throughout their travels in the wilderness.

They worked at it, as will we. They tried all kinds of endeavors in which they hadn’t been required to do before… in their case because no permanent community of Israelites had ever sojourned together such a distance and for so much time. They threshed and they gathered, they hammered and their chiseled, they used every type of precious material and all kinds of different physical activities just in order to build the tabernacle. Some of these activities were artistic and others were simply physically laborious others both.

We too are going to try to formulate and strive – through a whole different array of activities: through meditation, through silence and speech, song and teaching, to create something that will help us pass through this next period in our spiritual growth as a community. In some of these endeavors, which you’ll hear about in our schools, our lifelong learning programs, our caring community initiatives and even here in our worship, the activities will feel familiar and traditional and in other cases they will be new and feel different and a little concerning to you as a path of change. But I believe what we are striving to do by lifting up human qualities – what our tradition calls middot and asking God’s help in our bringing about improvement at practicing these qualities has an end-point not terribly dissimilar to what the Israelites saw from their journeys.

What did they see? They saw that their work and their dedication to the unity of God meant something. Some One had lit up their spiritual home. Some One. One force of unity had drawn immanent to their lives and experiences… and they saw that force the beautiful sight of sparks flying by a radiant flame out from their tabernacle, all night long.

This past week, a few of us, lay and staff members of the temple went to a conference to learn more about this grant initiative and to begin to take steps to strategize and to envision what it would be like if, wherever we were traveling, near or far, we knew that in the community of our synagogue there were opportunities to engage in the reflective and challenging and beautiful and often sweaty messy work of human growth, to be the persons we are yet to be.

That’s a pretty tall order for a 48-hour conference. Don’t you think? How do you begin to do that? To act on that grand of a vision? We began at our conference with the simple act of opening a brief passage from Torah and studying it with partners around a circle. Here is the text we studied

In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 8, we read: “The Holy One spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘when you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.”  The medieval commentator Rashi asks of this verse: why does the Torah use the clunky phrase B’ha’alotecha to describe the lighting of the lamps on the menorah? Wouldn’t it have been much more succinct and consistent to use the phrase l’hadlik to describe our lighting of the flame?

His answer- because the phrase be’halotecha, focuses on the moment you cause the flame to make Aliyah, to rise higher. He says: You are required to kindle the lamp on the menorah until the flame rises by itself.

Do you know the moment that Rashi is talking about?  Of course you do. Look back in your minds eye to your last time you were near a flame when it was lit.  I bet you’ll recall- when the wick or the firewood- or the oil in the lamp grabbed the energy of the kindling force and rises up in light?  Do you know that moment I’m talkinga bout now?  It is an exciting moment. Isn’t it?

Of course it is! But if you are not paying attention, you’ll never notice it. You’ll sinply miss it.

There are also other moments in which to pay attention while kindling a flame. If you can closely examine it: you’ll see that the wick needs to gather strength from within in order to rise up in light. If in a candle- it often digs a little trench right next to itself- it draws from its foundation the energy to be able to carry the flame on its own.

And in case you aren’t that observant to notice that moment of it needing to look within, I wonder if the next time you try to light a flame: you’ll remember to notice the moment of indecision, of concern, of fear that you have – that it may never take at all. That is a moment of vulnerability, a moment like the one the Israelites had when they were likely in the midst of the undertakings of two portions ago- building, threshing, winnowing, sweating, crying, kvetching, and all the time wondering- will this thing, this holy enterprise in which we are duty bound to take part- will it even take? Will God draw near?

Friends, I am clearly enthusiastic about seeking to unite these worlds of IJS and our Fairmount Temple, the world in which I’ve studied continually as a student of Torah, and this holy environment at our temple where I teach our students of Torah myself. I am trying, patiently, ever so gently, with the help of many teachers and colleagues to figure out a path to connect these worlds of spiritual growth.

Will you join me? Will you help me? Are you game?

I pray you are. Because it’s not really about our building a tabernacle. It’s not really about lighting a candle. It’s about paying attention, moment to moment, to the experiences we share, to vulnerability, to inquiry, to striving, to glowing, to lifting, to sharing sparks and light, and to permanently affecting our community’s path forward. I pray that soon we’ll know we were better for having tried to grow, for having made some new light, and thus made the world different for our having strived to truly live within it and light up the town in which we lived.

Amen.