Sunday, 24 July 2016

Steps on the Road to Freedom

Rachel Barenblat, the "Velveteen Rabbi," is an American poet and blogger who was ordained as a rabbi in 2011 and as a spiritual director in 2012. In 2013 she was named aRabbis Without Borders fellow by Clal, the Center for Learning and Leadership, and in 2015 was named co-chair of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal along with Rabbi David Markus.

I love her writing, even though I am not Jewish, because it seems to be to be very much continuing the wisdom tradition, and bringing it to today's world, bringing together, in Tony Thiselton's words, the Two Horizons of Past and Present.

Here are some quotations from her writings on change, on the journey of life, both inner and outer, and on healing wounds; in each, she challenges the reader to think again, and think differently, on these matters.

On Change
One season gives way to the next. Summer vacation gives way to school. On the Jewish calendar, we’ve just moved from an old year into a new one. All of these transitions come bearing gifts – as well as challenges. And if that’s true for annual transitions like the shift from summer to fall, how much more true it is for emotional transitions which may not follow any calendar or arise predictably. 

The illness of a pet, or of a family member. Facing mortality, or a marriage, or a divorce. Losing a job, or starting a job… All of these are transitions, and all may challenge our equilibrium and our sense of self.

Can I make a practice of welcoming whatever arises in my life with open arms – and then with equally open arms, letting it go when it’s time to transition to what’s next? Loving what comes and loving what goes requires equanimity. It requires that I not numb myself either to joy or sorrow. It also requires that I maintain awareness of the bigger picture, within which the joy and the sorrow, the coming and the going, are all contained.

On the Journey
Some of the things we accumulate, over the course of a life, are merely practical. I can’t say I have any particular attachment to the flatware in the silverware drawer, or to the mixing bowls, or to the couch. Other things have emotional associations: the print we bought to celebrate our engagement, or the giant and slightly misshapen ceramic bread bowl that my former partner gave me during my first year out of college.

The Torah tells us that the children of Israel journeyed in the wilderness for forty years, and that as they wandered, they were accompanied by a cloud that served as a visible reminder of the presence of God. When the cloud lifted from above the portable tabernacle that they had built, they set off on their journeying. When the cloud stayed put, so did they. Whether they were encamped or on the move, the cloud was always in their sight.

The commentator known as Rashi notes “A place where they encamped is also called ‘a journey’… Because from each place of encampment they set out again on a new journey, therefore they are all called ‘journeys.'”

Even the places where we make camp — the homes in which we settle, with all of their objects and memories — can be journeys.

On Brokenness
When a wound is infected, ignoring it or pretending it isn’t there won’t help. The only thing to do is grit one’s teeth and clean out the wound, and maybe suture it gently so that it can finish closing on its own. When the wound is emotional rather than physical, the same holds true.

No one likes to look at what hurts. But if we don’t face our own brokenness, we can’t sweep away the shards and prepare to rebuild.

That’s the lesson of this time of year on the Jewish calendar. We’ve entered a three-week period dedicated to sitting with what’s broken. In historical memory, these three weeks mark the time between when the ancient city walls of Jerusalem were breached and when the Temple was destroyed. In our own lived experience today, they’re an opportunity to notice our own places of brokenness. They’re an invitation to resist the temptation to turn away from what hurts.

When I was a hospital chaplaincy intern I learned that the greatest gift I could give someone who was suffering was not “the right answers,” but being with them: walking with them, sitting with them, opening myself to their experience instead of giving in to the temptation to plaster a band-aid over their hurt. I owe myself the same gift of presence. We all do.

When we can face what hurts, without flinching or turning away, we begin the journey of healing.. The wound begins to grow closed.

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