Keeping the fire burning

Kabbalat Shabbat Dvar – Parshat Tzav

Or Shalom Synagogue

Vancouver, British Columbia

March 25, 2016 • 16 Adar II 5776

Shabbat shalom.  For months Rachel and I have looked forward to this weekend, and we couldn’t be happier to be here.  I confess to a bit of East Coast jetlag, but your hospitality and warmth have been the best medicine.  Thank you David Kauffman for meeting us at the airport, and Rabbi Hannah, Reb Laura, Charles and Ross for hosting us.  And it’s a special delight to see ALEPH past chair Reb Jeremy Parnes from Regina, and of course our beloved Reb Daniel from Hornby Island.  Thank you all for being with us this weekend.

Many of you know that Rachel and I are spending our first year as ALEPH co-chairs on a Listening Tour – 13 visits across the U.S. and Canada (Montréal was two weeks ago), video sessions for Europe and Israel, and summits with seminary and denominational leaders in other streams of Jewish life.  In a sense, Or Shalom had a listening tour of its own, starting almost exactly two years ago to the day in 2014.  The Or Shalom Community Survey asked about your hopes and dreams, what’s going well, what aches, and what areas of change would be most wise.

Our intention for ALEPH’s Listening Tour is much the same, and already hundreds have shared with us hopes, ideas and kvetches about ALEPH, Jewish Renewal, Judaism and spiritual life.  So whatever is on your hearts and minds, we want to hear it.  If ALEPH is to fulfill its mission as an Alliance for Jewish Renewal for the next generation, then we need to hear it all – no holds barred and no sacred cows.  So thank you in advance for sharing with us in ways that are whole and real.

What people shared so far, and now to see you here, arouses in me an image of this week’s Torah portion: אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תקבה / “An eternal flame will be kept burning on the altar: it won’t go out.”  In olden days, this flame was the ritual fire, kept alight in the community’s core, ensuring ready access for what today we might call purification and forgiveness.  That image ask us two questions, “Today and in years to come, what will our flame be, and how will we keep it burning?”

Answers to those questions also are answers to our Listening Tour questions.  How can ALEPH and Jewish Renewal most sustainably fan the flames of Jewish innovation?  How do we collaborate to inspire the future of vibrant spiritual community across generations and countries, with enough skeleton to keep us together but not so much that we grow calcified or brittle?  Or to use a different metaphor, if all of us renewing Judaism are an ecosystem, how do we keep our ecosystem healthy and mutually supporting, and what’s ALEPH’s niche in that ecosystem?

It’s too early in our Listening Tour to offer answers – and for now, it’s not our role to offer answers.  That role is yours, both this weekend and long after, and I hope you’ll accept the role with blessings to share the future you most yearn for.  Maybe for now the questions themselves are ample enough flames to keep burning bright before us this weekend.

Even if it’s too early for answers, this Shabbat invites a dreamscape glimpse what answers can look like – and maybe our fire image offers hints for our time together.  By definition, the אש תמיד / eternal fire was built communally: it needed a constant supply of wood that had to be gathered and delivered, and pure olive oil that had to be refined.  It needed a constant supply of oxygen flowing in, and spent ashes of past consumption had to be removed to keep the flow going.  In these ways, the אש תמיד became the center of a spiritual circuit, with offerings, energy and oxygen moving in and through – priming the spiritual pump within and beyond.  And in constant flame, the אש תמיד gave universal access – with no delay and with nobody left out.

Community, constancy, centrality, universality and immediacy are five principles for our אש תמיד / eternal fire.  They are five principles for the next turnings of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, and from all I know of Rabbi Hannah as ALEPH colleague and friend, I know that these are core principles for Rabbi Hannah as well.  As we design the future, it must source deep in community, from you.  It must constantly move and flow, with space to breathe in new oxygen.  Its flame, what Reb Zalman called Renewal’s “spiritual technologies” – spiritual direction, sage-ing, davvenology, integral halacha, Earth-based Judaism and deep ecumenism – must become ever more central to how our communities do Jewish.  Its energy must be universal, truly open to all without barriers that might keep some at bay.  And access needs to be swift – as fast as the Internet, as close as our heartbeat.

And that’s as it should be, because Reb Zalman taught long ago that it all starts with hearts, and particularly the heart’s yearning.  As the אש תמיד needed oxygen to burn, so do ALEPH and Jewish Renewal need yearning.  Reb Zalman said this a generation ago, in 1996 at a workshop on spiritual leadership.  What excited Reb Zalman, he said, was the “very strong yearning and longing” in the heart that primped the pump of what we call God, propelling us forward.  Yearning must catalyze the inner fire just as oxygen catalyzed the אש תמיד.  We must renew that flow constantly, which means going into our center, our hearts, to feel yearning – our innate desire to draw close to our source.

Your yearning for a vibrant Judaism, able to renew from the inside out, is where this stop on our Listening Tour begins.  Your yearning is what catalyzes the flow.  So let your hopes, ideas and kvetches be this weekend’s קרבנות / offerings that we use to draw קרוב / close to the center of all that we share.  Tell us what must be brought in, what should be lifted up, and what to send away as spent ash.  Share with us from your hearts to ours, and together we can take a step toward fulfilling the call of our prophets, והשבות אל לבבך כי ה’ הוא האלהים / know in our hearts that the Name we call God is the essence of all things.

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