Traveling Through These Days of Awe

Rick Chess photoI’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.

How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?

Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.

We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring. [Read more…]

Yeshua Ha’Mashiach

In drafting my last post, “Orthodox Films Fill the Void,” I intended to end the piece with a story that would serve as a thematic button: the day after seeing Fill the Void (a remarkable film released this summer about an ultra-Orthodox family in contemporary Tel Aviv) I finally made good on a long-standing wish to visit a Messianic synagogue.

For the latter experience filled an even deeper void in its own right than the former—or filled the same void to a deeper degree.

But no less thematic was the fact that my cup had nearly runneth over the word count by the time I was done singing the praises of Fill the Void (and My Father, My Lord before it). As it is wont to runneth over here, looking back on that steamy Saturday morning last month at Congregation Beth El in Manhattan, where I first witnessed Messianic Jews sing the praises of Yeshua Ha’Mashiach, Jesus the Messiah.


More on that shortly. First, whence this desire on my part to go there, both literally and figuratively speaking? Good question. I’m glad I asked.

[Read more…]

Belief and Belonging

Last week I went and watched my son graduate from Virginia Boys State. After the ceremony, I waited through waves of boys in identical white shirts and blue shorts for him to emerge, and when he did, his shoulders were slouched and his eyes tired.

In the car I asked him, “How’d it go?”

He shrugged.

“Did you have a good time?”


“Did you learn anything?”


“Nothing at all?”

He said no, he hadn’t learned anything.

I kept pressing him, and eventually said, “If you had to give someone your takeaway from this past week in one sentence, what would it be?”

Without pause, he said, “[People of a certain philosophical/political stripe] are assholes.” [Read more…]

The Fragrance of the Unknown, Part 1

With less than two days before the retreat began, and only a grain of time unclaimed by other responsibilities, I opened the Etz Hayim to Parashat Hukat and began to read.

I’d been asked to lead an aliyah, a calling forth of worshippers to chant blessings before and after the reading of a portion of the Torah.

Rabbi Jeff Roth, my friend and teacher and leader of the four night silent meditation retreat, had asked me to prepare a teaching based on a few verses of my choosing from Hukat (the name of that week’s Torah portion, hukat means “ritual law”). Those worshippers drawn by the theme of my teaching, which offered before the chanting of the Torah, would be invited up for a group aliyah.

The blessing before the reading: an opportunity to gather one’s attention, inviting heart, ear, and mind to open to receive Torah’s wisdom. The blessing after the reading: an opportunity to experience the resonance of the Torah reading. Blessings before and after, and attending to the Torah reading itself: mindfulness practices. [Read more…]

An Original, Revised Torah

The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets. —Exodus 32:16

And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly. —Deuteronomy 9:10

Thereupon the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.” —Deuteronomy 10:1 – 2

God hewed the first set of tablets and wrote directly on them. Moses carved the second set, and then God, with God’s finger, inscribed the exact words that God said “on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly.”

A replacement, a duplicate, though not exactly, from original to replica, from presence, flashing and fleeting, to preservation. From “from” to “to” and the distance between.

The rabbis know distance well, an obstacle blocking our way back (to Sinai, to revelation). They also know the reaction to such an obstacle: intense longing to get back to where we once belonged, even though we know we can’t. [Read more…]