Mullah Nasrudin supervised the building of his own tomb.
At last, after one shortcoming after another had been righted, the mason came for his money.
"It is not yet right, builder."
Whatever more can be done with it?"
"We still have to supply the body."
This is my last post in A Year of Stories. It has been a labor of love, and I am grateful to you for coming along on the journey.
Tomorrow, Monday, June 22, is Tammuz 5, and marks Reb Zalman's 1st Yahrtzeit. Below you will find links to some of the amazing stories about both his preparation for death and the day of burial. The Nasrudin story makes more sense within the context of his preparation.
Here is a story of R Zalman preparing for his own death.
You can hear an interview with R' Zalman about his mindful preparation for death here.
Yesterday, my holy gathering, Minyan Oneg Shabbat, dedicated our Shabbat morning to R' Zalman's teachings. We read and discussed some gems that I had collected, many of them from R' Rachel Barenblat's blog The Velveteen Rabbi.
Yitgadal, v'yitkadash, shmai rabah...
Blessings to you all,
(If you have not already begun to do so, it is time to begin citing R' Zalman as we do all the sages)
Reb Zalman teaches:
Sometimes I talk with people and ask, "Who are you?" And they tell me their name. And I say, "Thank you, but who are you?" And they tell me they're the parent of, the child of. And I say, "Thank you, but who are you?" And they tell me about the work they do. And I say, "Thank you, but who are you?" And so on, until the only answer we can give is, "I am God."
My bubbe [grandmother] exemplified the priesthood of the kitchen. We all wish sometimes for that simple piety.
Look at the face of someone praying and you have an idea of what their God is like.
Just as we have physical DNA, so we also have spiritual DNA operating in us. We can't drive solely with the rearview mirror...but we can't drive without it, either.
Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya, Yechida [levels of soul as understood by the Jewish mystical tradition]: these are vast parts of ourselves we aren't aware of. When we shed our bodies of flesh, we still have bodies of energy.
Once I davvened in a synagogue in India. In the Hindi siddur [prayerbook] the word "Adonai" [Lord] was translated as "Rameshvar," rama eshvara, my chosen deity. Some people choose Ganesh, and some people choose Kali, and some people choose Adonai!
We give each other permission to fully celebrate the Divine in our own way ("you show me yours, I'll show you mine"!) We need a dialogue of devoutness between peoples, not a dialogue of theology which leads to argument.
One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, "Don't believe everything you think."
I'm interested not only in solo contemplative practice, but in "socialized meditation!"
The hadith, revelation to Mohammed, tells us, "God is closer to you than the vein on your neck."
If I could hear all of the vibrations in this room -- cell phones, broadband, wifi, radio waves, microwaves -- I'd hear a jumble. If I can tune in to a particular frequency, I might hear something I could understand. God broadcasts on all frequencies; we need to adjust our radios to attune to God.
Philosophers don't dig it because they want a single definition, an object. I'm talking about God as a verb. People who have triumphalist notions that God only speaks to the Jews are not correct. Different people attune to different frequencies; God speaks on all frequencies; we receive based on where we're open.
In Aramaic, the word for window is kavan, related to the term kavvanah [focus or intent, esp. in prayer]. In davvening, we need to open a window.
When we first saw earth from space, there was a paradigm shift. We can conceive of earth as a single being now. Earth is a being who maybe has emphysema now, has blood poisoning. And people who care only for themselves and their own expansion are like cancer cells. But every religion is a vital organ of the planet: all are needed, all are interdependent.
So then people ask, "If you're so universal, why be Jewish?" And my answer is, because the Jewish organ needs to be healthy, and if we're truly who we are, that helps the other organs be who they are.
We have a responsibility to tune in. Be clear what you are doing. What screen name do I want, to log in to God?
The person who leads prayer has to check out what the people can handle, and enter into it with them. In unfamiliar worship contexts, I pause and ask myself, "How can I serve God in this place and this way with these people?"
Find your ideal of God that you can be vulnerable to. For me, it's Ribbono shel Olam [master of the world]; for you it might be God as therapist, God as guru, as rebbe.
Even the four worlds teaching is only a mental scaffold.
Torah isn't just information; we don't just read it for the literal meaning of the text. Imagine if Eve said to me, "Zalman, I love you," and I replied, "Yah, you told me that last week, I know already!" It's not about the information.
Thanks to philosophy and advanced study, we can come to understand the enormity of God, of the ein-sof ["without-end," a mystical understanding of God]. The problem is, God becomes a little too big. What are we that this enormous and infinite God should find us significant? But this is a heresy greater than that of thinking God is small. To God a galaxy, a human life: each has significance. I am not an "oops" of God!
I'm a spiritual Peeping Tom. I want to see how people get it on with God. It's all real, in every religion; that's what escaped us in Hebrew school.
Concepts are objective. They're the means with which I think. But God is not a concept. God is in the nominative: not existence, but pure being.
Many religions have good ways of connecting with God. I'm a gonif ["thief"]: I steal them. And usually it turns out we had them already! What Judaism has which is unique is the idea of covenant...The Torah tells us we are children of (we share DNA with!) God. But the covenant is two-sided: anu amecha, v'atah malkeinu. ["We are your people, and You are our ruler"]. This is our root metaphor, deeper than our way of thinking. It's a relationship with God.
How often we davven words, discuss theology, without addressing God. It's almost an insult, to talk about God as though God weren't right here! We need to relate to God in the second person, I-Thou.
The Zionist dream is shattered. It doesn't energize us as it once did. The American dream, too, is shattered; the 4th of July used to be such an important yontif [holy day] for me! What will fill these gaps?
When we are infants, all our needs are filled by nursing. As adults there's a temptation to go to the refrigerator to fill all of our needs, but it won't work; it can only feed physical hunger. We feel scarcity on this plane, in assiyah, because we don't know the other planes exist. We need to learn the discipline of asking, "In what plane am I hungry?" Food will feed assiyah hunger, but yetzirah hunger is for love. Beriyah hunger needs great thoughts in order to be sated. And atzilut hunger requires us to go inside, to reach for God.
To connect with God, to log on to God, we need only awareness, because God is there all the time, making your heart beat.
The mystics talk about bittul ha-yesh, destroying "thingness," ego. But I don't want to destroy my ego! It's a good manager, though a lousy boss. My goal instead is to make the ego more translucent, more transparent. To remove opacity so divine light can shine. The ego says, "it's all me." But we need to own that everything in us is God. Some days I wake up and think, "Oy, God, you decided to be Zalman again today?"
The tradition teaches that the Shekhinah [feminine, immanent divine presence] is there whenever a minyan prays together; when one prays alone, angels carry one's words to God, and since angels traditionally were understood to speak only Hebrew, that's why prayer was supposed to be in Hebrew. For me: I want to davven in Hebrew on Shabbos because it connects us all around the world and throughout time. But during the week when I davven alone, I often want to pray in English because that way I can pour out my heart to the Presence that hears me.
The Jewish holiday cycle mirrors the cycle of a life. We begin with Chanukah, as light grows in darkness. Then comes Tu B'Shvat, things begin to vernalize, juice begins to flow. Then Purim, adolescence. Then Pesach, we're emancipated, like turning 21! By midlife we have a mature connection with God and receive revelation, and this is Shavuot. Then comes the midlife crisis: Tisha b'Av, the destruction of the Temple. Then the shofar blows, retirement comes, it's time for teshuvah(inner work/turning towards God), Rosh Hashanah. Then Yom Kippur, in which we realize that some things are only reparable if we meet God in atzilut to wipe the slate clean. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are full of zaide-energy. Sukkot is retirement age, we move out of our homes and into little dwellings. And then comes Chanukah again, and that's the end.
"Once upon a time," Eliade's "in illo tempore": we begin stories by hearkening back to holy time, elastic time, time before time.
If we can't remember the revelation at Sinai, we need to recreate the memory. It's like experiential karaoke! The tradition is the music, and we reenact and recreate the words of the song.
On Rosh Hashanah we install a new Godfield, because the old one has been clogged over the course of the last year.
God is scattered in our lives. But imagine if we came together to invest our mitzvot, our spirit, our bit of God in a kind of credit union in which we each had a share. We each make deposits, of prayer and energy; we pool our energy; and then we're connected and can draw from the pool too. And it grows with every generation. And we're all shareholders, stakeholders, in it. How many of us own shares in the future of Judaism?
Once we offered sacrifices, sheep. Then we offered words to mimic the sacrifices. Now we offer time and attention to God.
One of the greatest pains in old age is unlived life. Get a sense of your story, your trajectory, to plan where you want your life to be.
Once I prayed, "God, inscribe me in the book of Life!" And God said, "Don't be a fool! Write your own page."
Deep ecumenicism: really squaring ourselves with the ideas of a post-triumphalist period, with the idea that God speaks more languages than we.
When you run out of old stories, invent new ones. I told one to my children once about the Baal Shem Tov [early Hasidic master, lit. "Master of the Great Name"] of the future, on the Enterprise. A call came in from a planet needing help: a planet of creatures with two heads, who wanted to know how many are required for a minyan! So he goes to talk with them, learns who they are, discovers that in almost every case one head is a Hasid and one is a mitnagid! [A rationalist, opposing the mysticism of Hasidism.] So he decides, for a minyan you count ten heads and not ten penises...which also means you count women, too.
Activate the imagination to give meaning to your life, to help you repair your dreams and darn the holes in the world.
This is nothing new. I'm just here to remind you of what you already know. Learning it once isn't enough.
We are dreaming the dream of Judaism into the future.
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and