There are stories, that I tell and read again and again. They intrigue me, challenge me and inspire me and, I hope as I share them, do all of that, and more to you. Every so often, one of the stories that I tell, either to get myself focused for spiritual work or to offer an illustration for connection and understanding to a community in prayer, actually plays out in the real world.
Walking in the mountains
When the Baal Shem Tov was young, he lived in the mountains of southern Russia. From time to time he would walk to the top of a mountain and lose himself in thought. Lost to the world, lost to himself, but found to G!d. Deep in this lostness and this foundness, he once began to walk where there was not ground to walk on. As he put his foot down, he was stepping into an abyss. But before he could hurtle downward, a nearby mountain moved, and closed the gap.
The Baal Shem Tov, all unknowing, continued on firm ground: lost to the world, lost to himself, but found to G!d. (from Day by Day by Chaim Stern)
On Simchat Torah, standing before our virtual community, with video being recorded, I found myself too close to this experience. I wasn’t lost in the moment or deep spiritual connection, but certainly not fully present in the physical task or maybe too sure of my past performance. There I was, lifting the Torah scroll after reading the end of Deuteronomy, right after laying Moses to rest and preparing for a new year and new cycle with a fresh start at Bereshit – the very beginning – in Genesis. As the Torah went up, I lost my balance and lost control of the Tree of Life handles of the Scroll and started to topple over. I, the Torah Scroll and our congregation, who would have joined me in the sadness of fallen Torah and subsequent fasting of restoration and atonement, were headed for an abyss, just like the Baal Shem Tov.
As the Torah fell, the very walls of the Sanctuary Building rose to the rescue, catching the Torah and me and holding us steady until the Cantor could arrive to get me on my feet and the Torah fully into our arms. I was mortified and upset. I spent that Shabbat mad at myself, “How could I let the Torah almost fall and hit the wall of the Sanctuary?” Then I remembered this story from the Ba’al Shem Tov. It is a vital part of Jewish life – from the splitting of the Reeds to the Burning Bush to the Ba’al Shem Tov – G!d’s presence runs throughout all creation, certainly through the wall of our Sanctuary, saturated with generations of prayer. Of course, that wall was in the right place at the right time in that way to support me in my moment of need.
I share this with you not to admit what happened on Simchat Torah but because I feel like we are balanced very precariously as a country and a world in this month of November. At the beginning of November, we will have election day and its aftermath. I can only pray that after the election all of the negative political and social energy and polarization that has ensued in these last months will dissipate and we will find a space of civility to solve the challenges of our times together once again. However, as Gates of Prayer (Gender sensitive edition page 75) declared… “prayer cannot bring water a parched field, nor mend a broken bridge nor rebuild a ruined city.” Just as the mountains rose up to catch the Ba’al Shem Tov, and the walls of our Sanctuary stood up to catch me and our Torah Scroll, can we envision, as individuals and as a congregation, standing up to lift our community and country out of this precarious place we are in?
To approach this action mindfully we have to reflect: Where do we reach to offer healthy support? What fear, anger and darkness about the past do we have to set aside? Can we see that we are part of one shared American and human experience, strive beyond political affiliation or demographic group to create a more perfection Union?
We can’t just reflect or post on social media or holler at the TV or internet. The mountains moved, the walls supported. As our country wobbles so precariously, pushed and pulled by a lot of negativity and angst, we must find ways, big and little, everyday and once in a lifetime, to bring forward positive life affirming, steadying energy through action.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz