Judaism is not so much a creed as a series of concrete activities. Shabbat is a vivid spiritual experience if we make Kiddush and Havdalah and fill the space in between with traditional Shabbat activities: study, prayer, singing, dancing and festive meals. If we don’t do these things, Shabbat is just another Saturday.
"The Year is like a River" - September, 1996
This Shabbat is certainly not just another Saturday. This Shabbat marks four years since the passing of Rabbi Lew. I share those and other words of his, and I write these words of remembrance to honor this man whose life and teachings taught me and so many of us how the concrete activities of Jewish life can bring us the spiritual experience we seek.
One of my favorite teachings of his, one that comes up for me again and again, is his teaching from the 15th century commentator Don Isaac Abravanel in his description of the Torah, the five books of Moses, as a blueprint for a spiritual life. This teaching echoes the path of Rabbi Lew's life, as well as holding the gifts that he brought us.
Bereshit - Genesis, the stories of our tribal origins, represents the personal spiritual seeking, ending in a leave-taking. Rabbi Lew’s personal spiritual journey is well known, and we were lucky that his path led him here. For he was able to reach out and speak to the spiritual seeker in all of us. And he was able to show us how the rich traditions of Jewish ritual can act as signposts along the way.
Shemot - Exodus, our formation as a spiritual nation, represents revelation—hearing the words and concepts that will guide our lives and form our community. Through his teachings, Rabbi Lew brought us different meanings and interpretations of those words and concepts, showing us that revelation is not a one-time event of ecstasy, but something that can enrich our daily lives.
Which brings me to Vayikra - Leviticus, the nuts and bolts of the practice. Rabbi Lew was never one to water down practice simply to make it easier to follow. Instead, he inspired us to look to the deeper meanings, opening up the rituals in ways that made us want to participate as fully as we could.
Daily minyan is the modern version of the single lamb our ancestors offered up every morning and every evening. Praying every day we come to know the full range of human spiritual potential; from transcendent exaltation to stultifying boredom; from the frustration of not quite knowing what we're saying to the joy of being swept up in a spiritual energy larger than our own. Praying every day with others we get a very real sense of how difficult it is to join in real communion with others, and how wonderful it feels when we finally manage to do so; praying every day with others we come to explore that tenuous boundary between self and other which is always the real locus of the spiritual experience.
“The Minyan is for Your Sake” – November 1996
Bamidbar - Numbers, the forging of community as we wander for 40 years, is about bringing the practice into our lives. And that is where, I think, our debt of gratitude to Rabbi Lew is at its greatest. For he made it his mission to share with all of us his love of Judaism and the deep spiritual sense it has brought to his life. That's what made his sermons so special—he didn’t just talk about the practice, he lived it. He didn’t just teach about the benefits of meditating, he was there at 6 a.m. He didn’t just preach the importance of keeping our minyan vibrant, he participated fully. He kept looking for ways to reach us all.
As a case in point, I looked to one of my favorite sermons of his, one given Rosh Hashanah 5760, in 1999. It's a sermon that demonstrates why we will always be filled with respect and love and honor for Rabbi Lew.
He first sets a scene of a news crew filming meditation—"Apparently, this is a thing of great amazement – a bunch of Jews sitting in the room without talking; quick, get the cameras! Let's run this on the 6 o'clock news." They also film minyan. His description of minyan focuses on the time-honored Beth Sholom tradition of saying "Yasher Koach" – loosely translated, may the force be with you -- to everyone who participates in the slightest manner. Why do we do this? Rabbi Lew said: "We are congratulating you because of all the places you could have put your energy in this world, of all the forces you could have aligned your force with, you freely chose to be here, to put your energy here, to align yourself with the three thousand year old stream of spiritual energy we call Judaism"
Later in the sermon, Rabbi Lew goes on to relate that "Yasher Koach" moment to a moment in this country that demonstrated that same spiritual achievement — that moment in 1995 when Cal Ripken, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, played in 2,131 straight games, breaking Lou Gherig's record. Rabbi Lew understood that this achievement of being present and showing up each day made the difference in a world that doesn't always show up as we would wish. Rabbi Lew said "simple human presence – simply being present, simply persisting in being here – has tremendous spiritual power, It has the power to heal. It has the power to nurture."
Which brings us to Devarim - Deuteronomy, Moshe's last words to the people he has guided through the desert. I never heard Rabbi Lew mention Devarim in his Abravanel teaching, so one day I asked him what part of living a spiritual life did that book represent? He answered, “Devarim is about preparing for one’s death.”
Rabbi Lew left us too soon, but in the life he led, he understood that recognizing our mortality is an integral part of living a full life. And we have many of his teachings on this, as he spoke and wrote about Yom Kippur, the day in Jewish practice when we look to the meaning of death in our life. As he wrote in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared:
This is the only life we have, and we all will lose it. No one gets out alive, but to lose nobly is a beautiful thing. To know the core of our being is to move beyond winning and losing.
It is to enter that moment where life is deep and rich and God is present for us. We all lose, some of us nobly, and all of us with a certain amount of tragedy. But as Rabbi Zimmerman (a.k.a. Bob Dylan) reminds us, “there’s no success like failure,” and any loss that carries us closer to the core of life is no loss at all.
His memory, living on in his teachings, is a blessing
"The river of life is inexorable. It will carry us to the end no matter what we do. Our activities, Jewish or otherwise, are unlikely to effect the outcome very much at all. But they can effect the quality of the experience very deeply – in fact, they can transform it”