Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shade of Wings

by Susan Weinberg

We all face times when life feels overwhelming. It is in these times of brokenness when many turn to prayer. Others may turn inward with meditation or creative acts. Our topic in this discussion was prayer, but we agreed to hold on an important underlying question: “Does the act of prayer require you to believe in God?” So, hold that thought and grab on to the concept of prayer wherever it feels meaningful to you. In small groups we spoke of finding prayerfulness in communal activity, in movement and in the outdoors. 

The Siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, became our sourcebook for this discussion as well as the work of both visual and musical artists. We began our discussion with Lab Artist Rani Halpern presenting on her recent work for the Interfaith Artists Circle on the theme of Meditation on Visual Prayer. 

Prayers. . . early stage - R.Halpern

Rani used the prayer from the morning service as her jumping off point for this visual midrash. This prayer addresses the body and soul, the gift of creation and healing. While visually beautiful, Rani’s work also contains layers of meaning, both literally and figuratively. She spoke of how the repetition of the lettering became a kind of meditation. She didn’t want it clearly enunciated, but rather a mumble as group prayers often are. She chose not to be representational as it felt too concrete for the soul and chose to make the letters more abstract in form. The design of her piece is layered and floating, some background, some foreground, both those private prayers of the heart and those offered more publicly. Rani used the cut-out letters floating against the letters written with an acrylic brush marker. It was pointed out that the way in which it was created also represented the progression of a day.


Rimon co-sponsored a virtual artist salon at the Sacred Arts Festival at the University of St. Thomas which also recorded comments on this work. You can find the presentation of three artists, one of which is Rani. All are well worth listening to, but you can specifically find Rani’s work beginning at 22 minutes.

Prayers of the Soul - Rani Halpern
Rani’s was a prayer with both words and visuals. We next turned to wordless prayer in the form of a nigun. A nigun is a wordless melody, a repetition of nonsense words. Sometimes it is slow and meditative, other times fast and jubilant. The nigun grew out of Hassidic tradition. It is a prayer for those times when we lack the words to express what we are going through. An example of a nigun is represented in this short clip by Joey Weisenberg who performs Revelation.

We examined some of the other significant prayers in Jewish tradition and I was struck by the poetry of them (for the full prayers go to handout-Sourcesheet for April). The Hashkevenu is a prayer that seeks peace when afraid. It is said in the evening in communal prayer or before one goes to sleep. The Hebrew contains the repetition of the sound of the Shin. Shh . . . shh . . .shh . . , it calms us into sleep. Hide us in the shade of your wings it urges. Shhh. . .

Prayer even leads us into the present as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (Chief Rabbi of Safed) offers a new prayer of thanks for imbuing humankind with the knowledge and understanding to create a vaccine. And when do you say this prayer? Why before you get the vaccine of course. Certainly a time of thanks.

We closed the lab with a quote shared by Robyn. "We don't see things the way they are, we see them the way we are!" (attributed to the Talmud). Our prayers come filtered through the lens through which we see the world. And yet, that lens is not immutable. The very act of prayer encourages us to view the world through a lens of gratitude.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Making Meaning

Our Framework- Four Glasses of Wine

by Susan Weinberg

As Passover approaches we began our exploration of brokenness by considering Jewish rituals that might incorporate breakage. We had previously discussed the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding. While more contemporary meanings have been ascribed to this it is actually based on commemorating the destruction of the temple. As I write that, I realize that it is the first time I’ve thought of the fact that the word commemorating implies community, we Co-memorate, we remember as a community. Hold that thought, we will come back to it. 


Other examples that were suggested including the tearing of a ribbon as a proxy for clothing destruction at a funeral, breaking of routine with a shiva, fasting and then breaking the fast, and the act of circumcision. We talked of tearing apart challah (breaking bread), breaking down a sukkah and the breaking of a marriage through a get. We also talked of the memory of brokenness that is commemorated at Yom HaShoah and the relationship that yahrzeit holds to memory of brokenness. It is in the act of remembering that we create wholeness. Memory is inextricably tied to both brokenness and wholeness, it is the connective tissue.


Dead Sea Scroll Fragments
Breakage creates fragments. Recently there was a discovery of Dead Sea scroll fragments dating back 1900 years. We try to reassemble the pieces of our history. Memory too comes in fragments, each connecting to another, but gaps separate them as well. Memory softens the rough edges of some of those we remember and it allows us to reassemble history with perhaps deeper meaning.

Breaking is also associated with laws as we are commanded to cut off the edges of fields for the poor to glean. Sometimes we require a level of wholeness to proceed such as with a minyan. On a larger scale we talked of the diaspora which broke the Jewish people across nations and how we are reunited through common rituals, if not geography. 


The Exodus itself represented breakage with the parting of the Red Sea. That in turn led us to salt which breaks things down and simultaneously preserves them, turning cucumbers into pickles. And so, we passed through the Red Sea and arrived at Passover and the breaking of the afikomen.


Remember that co-memorating? Passover is a perfect example of how we remember as a community. The Haggadah is based on oral tradition and it invites elaboration, midrash. We are given a framework, four glasses of wine, and we are invited to step into the story with our Pesach gathering, to fill in the framework. That is the work of midrash.


Meryll introduced the role of past, present and future in how we consider the story on which Passover is based. The past is slavery and we commemorate it through the symbolic elements of the meal and with story. The present represents a celebration of freedom. We recline and savor a bounty of food. In the future lies redemption and we do this through the act of remembering. We give charity, we gather food for those less fortunate and we are reminded that we were slaves and are now charged with taking care of those in need.


We turned our attention to the breaking of the afikomen and what it signified to us. Particularly in these unusual times, does it convey a new meaning? It is a pause in the seder, preceded by yachatz, washing of hands. Then we break the matzah in parts, some say half, others note that one portion is smaller. The smaller piece remains and the larger portion is hidden. Later the children go in search of the hidden portion and their reward for its discovery.


We discussed the increased attention on hand washing during this time of covid and the association of each section of the matzah with knowledge. The small perhaps representing what we know or think we know, often the uncertainty of our knowledge, especially in this time of covid. The larger piece represents more complete knowledge in the future, what we are to discover. Children are important to the seder, whether it is in asking the four questions or  in the discovery of the afikomen. We all have played different roles throughout the seders of our lifetime, once children ourselves. What is broken off is not lost, so long as our children remember. The search, memory and ultimate fullness are all connected.


Connectivity seemed to be a theme that many of us discussed. As we face a global pandemic, we appreciate our interrelation to the wholeness of humanity and the need to join together for the benefit of all. Ironically there is a paradox in that we often divide to define who we are, and who we are not. Some group discussions moved from family trees to how trees are connected and communicate through their roots, supporting each other by sending nutrients to those in distress. Trees have a symbiotic relationship with people, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, so are an apt metaphor for connectivity.


We left Egypt in haste. We left our home and broke the bonds of slavery, just as we now break matzah, goodbye home, goodbye slavery. In the seder we reintegrate community, we come home as a people. The eating of matzah brings us back physically. The finding of the afikomen by that next generation allows us to continue to transform our home, to keep it alive for the future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart

by Susan Weinberg

What we first learn or discover takes on new meaning as our understanding grows. With some perspective we could now begin to pick out the themes that echoed throughout our prior discussions.

In our earliest session we explored the story of Moses coming down the mountain to discover the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. Moses throws down the tablets in anger, breaking them into shards. While the tablets may have been broken, the break we are concerned with is the breaking of trust. All parties, God, Moses, and the Israelites, go through a process of regret and repentance whether for anger or a lack of fidelity. That is followed by repair and then remembering, one of the most important themes in Judaism.

Similarly the story of the Maccabees began with the brokenness of both the temple and the soldiers, in the latter case both physical and emotional brokenness. This too is followed by repair and remembering as each year we honor that rededication in our celebration of Hanukkah.

When we looked at words we considered the fact that wholeness and brokenness exist in relation to each other, living together, not as opposites.

This was the background upon which we revisited a quote that had been introduced as we began this journey. There is nothing more whole than a broken heart. 

This is a saying attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kootzk (1787-1859). Our handout (February Broken-Hearted-Whole-Hearted) shares the commentary by his contemporary Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1875) on this quote. 

So, what is meant by this seemingly paradoxical expression? 

In our discussion we made a distinction between acknowledging brokenness versus denying or suppressing it. We agreed that acknowledging is an important step on the path to healing. Brokenness is often associated with loss, but conversely loss often makes us aware of what we valued. That allows us to incorporate it into our life in different ways. Brokenness offers some unexpected benefits. As we put ourselves back together we also learn the empathy that may allow us to support others. Brokenness unleashes energy which can easily turn into obsessive energy, but can also be re-channeled in a positive direction. We talked of Rep Jamie Raskind who so valiantly managed the house impeachment team. Having just lost his son to suicide, he stepped into another maelstrom and presented his case with an authenticity and humanity that was in part generated by that energy of loss re-channeled into purpose.

To live is to have a broken heart. As we age, things break and tear and we learn how to navigate that brokenness and to own where the breaks are. Just as in Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, we embrace our flaws and imperfections. We wear those scars proudly, for they speak to the discovery of empathy and compassion. Our hearts are indeed more whole.

We closed our session with a discussion of the contemporary Hebrew song by Naomi Shemer, Ain Davar (It's nothing). The song incorporates the line "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart." It is a song that seems to speak to the grief of Israeli mothers who risk the lives of their children in the military.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Words Matter

by Susan Weinberg

Words matter. It is a phrase that has great significance at a time when we have experienced the damage injudicious words can create. Today's discussion focused upon words and their meanings. I frequently use the derivation and meanings of English words as a way to step inside of a topic.  For this discussion we looked at words in both English and in Hebrew.

We began with a visual exercise looking at the following two Hebrew words:



We knew one meant broken and the other whole, but which meant which and why? Some of us focused on the closed mem at the end of the second word versus the open resh at the end of the first, thinking of wholeness as intact, a closed loop. Others noted the tall lamed between the two smaller letters of the second word, representing wholeness as a state of balance.

In fact the two words are Shevar and Shalom and as you might guess, Shalom relates to wholeness. It is this word that we use to say many things, hello, goodby and peace. The expression mah shlomcha literally means "What is your peace?" Perhaps another way of saying “Are you at peace? Do you feel complete?” Most Hebrew words have a three letter root out of which we can build a world of meaning. 

Some Hebrew words that include these roots for broken are broken-hearted (שבור לב) and fragile (שָׁבִיר).

Note that fragile in English doesn't contain the word broken, but the Hebrew word does. An expression in Hebrew is "to break one's teeth" (לשבור את השיניים) meaning to work really hard at something, a phrase that reminded me of grinding one's teeth in frustration.

There are differences between how Hebrew and English address the same words. In English we talk about breaking the law while in Hebrew you transgress the law. Do laws break or do people violate them? There is a fine distinction between the two, with Hebrew placing the burden for repair on the individual rather than the law. 

The word for crisis in Hebrew is mashber (משביר). A crisis moves us in some direction. I find myself thinking of that open resh, the last letter in shevar. Breakage is an opening to a next step, a gateway perhaps to wholeness. For additional meanings in Hebrew and related artwork you will find our source sheet for Jan in handouts.

We shifted our focus to the more familiar turf of English and how we use the word "break." A bud breaks open. We use line breaks in poetry to clarify where one line ends and the next begins. We have daybreak, the dawning of a new day and we breakfast, breaking our fast. We say, give me a break and one of my favorites, a jazz break which is an improvised passage or solo. We also take a break, a pause from our existing routine as we have done during covid. Breaking is not necessarily a negative term.

There is a story in Kaballah about the creation of the world starting out of the breakage of vessels. You can read more about it in this article that explores those resulting shards as inspiration in architecture. The Genesis story has God breaking the waters apart to form the firmaments above. Creation seems to be an act that involves breakage.

We came back to the idea of a passage between brokenness and wholeness, a liminal state or suspension that inextricably links the two in the movement back and forth between those poles.

And a few references of interest. . .

I recently read a thoughtful book that provides insights into this topic, exploring how we move from disruptions to wholeness. I recommend it as an exploration of this theme. The book is by Bruce Feiler and titled Life is in the Transitions. You can read more about it at my personal blog.

Alison shared a video that you'll find below on an exhibition of a poem formed from fragmentary words projected on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Erik Jacobs, a Jewish artist of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, collaborated with Porsha Olayiwola, a black woman who is Boston's poet laureate, on the theme of Black as Light. Alison added an additional thought in light of our last meeting’s discussion of menorahs. Just as we are told to place a menorah in the window to celebrate Hanukkah with pride in our heritage, a candle used to be placed in the window to denote a home as part of the underground railroad.