Torah Speaks Steps

Eavesdropping at the Imaginary Yeshiva

From Kedoshim, 7th portion in the book of Leviticus

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ).

You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d (Lev. 19:18).

 

Two friends are learning in chevrusa (traditional form of yeshiva learning, based on studying in cells of two).

One: what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?

Two: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, hmmm, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.

One: Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!

Two: Brother! Like us.

One: You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor. Now that we understand it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done?

Say your neighbor is a drug addict.

Two: Oh my G*d.

One: Stay with me. Your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Jamie don’t you?

Two: Poor Jamie. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.

One: Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yai-yai so you rebuke your neighbor.

Two: You rebuke him?

One: Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey — I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have to do something. You talk to someone. It’s not a theoretical problem.

Two: You got that right.

One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? That’s contributing to the problem. I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – get some help. Suggesting how he might get some help.

Or maybe even going to somebody else.

Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Jamie. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!

One: Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .

Two: Stop with that.

One: Let’s continue with the verse: you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Jamie, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Jamie, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his illness, but still, we are called to do something.

Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Jamie. When Yudie did say something, Yudie rebuked him, he turned it against Yudie. Who are you, Jamie said to Yudie, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Yudie. So Yudie ended up feeling bad, bearing Jamie’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Jamie’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. I really see it now.

One: Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d.

Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Jamie’s problem, not ours — and when Jamie plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, ill. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Jamie because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.

One: You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d. That’s the way of G*d, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Jamie, with someone like me, I’m no different from Jamie — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.

Two: That’s what we could have done with Jamie. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.

One: Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am G*d: the way of love, the true course.

Two: Phew.

One: Good session.

Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?

One: For sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alive

 

Alive

I was called to do a funeral for a young woman who died from an overdose and left an eight year old son. I had never met her but I should have met her. She did eight months at a local treatment-residential facility and someone should have referred her to me, me to her, but I never met her never heard about her and a couple of months out of the facility she died.

I was called to do the funeral because I get this thing, etc., but the frustration for me to come in at the end of a story to make words to remember and explain and try for a little healing is a worthy activity but too late.

Elegist. How much more would I have liked to spend some time with her, to try to get her to the meeting I know has given life to so many.

But the treatment game is like other games, with all the same limitations of professional turf and incompetence and ignorance and carelessness. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, not the expert’s mother, not the expert’s daughter, not the referring agency’s kid. Up against all the limitations of everyone’s profession, including my own, when the human need recedes; how many times have my own colleagues neglected to make the right referral. I am stuffed with these stories.

I thought of her when I greeted a man new to the meeting, it was soon after she died. This man I never expected to see again. His story had been public, all over the newspaper, involving crime and weapons and prison time and a lot of years incarcerated. He introduced himself to me at the meeting, asking if I remembered him. Hello, he read the balloon over my head betraying me, of course I remember you and I’m surprised you’re alive it read out above my head.

He had ten days clean after so many years, a long history of treatments and prison and one hell of a mess of life. When he returns and comes for healing, he comes here.

Here. Still. Alive.

jsg

For Shalvah, Shalvah means Serenity,

working the borderline between substances and Substance

#freethestories

Hard and Easy

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Shalvah Journal
Big Tent #53
So Hard It’s Easy

Rabbi James Goodman organizes a recovery support group called Shalvah (Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew) that emerged out of an earlier effort started by Rose Mass and Rabbi G in 1981. Shalvah presently meets twice a week. It is bundled with two other programs, Positive Jewish Attention to Mental Illness-Mental Health and Jewish Prison Outreach because the borders are elusive.

He thinks it’s time to tell the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem. He’s asking everyone he knows for help, because it’s time. He feels like his community is asleep and the stakes are too high to be quiet.

#freethestories

A room full of difficult stories almost none polite most of them protected in their freedom to disclose by the principle of confidentiality. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is now part of the problem. What to do. It’s the same principle that applies to the discourse at the meetings: Tell your truth but be discreet. It’s a civilized discourse about unsavory pasts and alterable experiences. Regrets and falling down and getting up and on with it. I am transforming by being present.

Breath, air, let it move through, share, be economical with language, above all — listen. In our space a roomful of stories if articulated too much might scare the beejeezus out of someone. Don’t be scared, this is the safest room in town. Everyone says that.

In this room are stories of degradation and pain, descent and most often the hidden movement of ascent present in every story in some hidden or expressed way. We stay with our experience, strength, and hope. If it sounds hard, it is and it’s do-able. It’s life saving and healing and revealing and a release from the confines of what has become too narrow for us: Our former selves. Too small for us now. We do not cure, we transcend.

Our response to the challenges of our lives: We grow.

Thus the spiritual basis of our discourse, it’s not so much about God as it is about the ascendance of this or that over Self-full-ness. It’s not-god. There is a God, it is not-me. That’s as close as we get to a God concept. It’s not theology, it’s story telling for adults. This is my story, it has features of descent, it has features of ascent. It leaves the residue of hope. Jakob J my teacher of theology — you would be proud. I often quote you from one of our first classes: Think of theology as story-telling for adults.

We tell stories. A lot of the stories are gruesome. Most of them are funny. If we haven’t had one when we came in, we all acquire a sense of humor. We learn to laugh. This may one of the most important lessons of the group: Tell the truth but find the funny in it. I suppose funny is a form of detachment, some sort of Buddhistic disengagement with the heaviness of our own tales.

Yeah it’s heavy and true and brutal and we carried around a lot of weight for probably a long time, how good it feels to free it up with laughter. Accept and release. How is it that what might have killed us now makes us laugh? Exactly.

The strange algebra of what we do with talk and experience and breath and communication and truth-telling and real life responses to real life challenges.

We grow. We laugh. We tell some cautious truth. We disengage. We are serious and happy. We glimpse the possibility of a better life and we work toward it. Toward: Another good description of our process. A lot of Toward and How, less What. People do not generally give advice. No one will solve your life for you.

We have lost people, we have found people. We have found more people than we have lost but we do not forget that we lose people too. Beneath the laughter is serious business. I think of it this way: We are sitting in a circle around God. Sitting next to each other on the circle are tears and laughter. They are always in proximity. All of us sitting attentive, one eye laughing one eye crying.

That’s the easy part. We meet twice a week. Drama erupts, lives change, the eclipsing of former ways of being present in every meeting. Every meeting like a chapter in a drama of ascent and descent, the systole and diastole of hyper-awareness. It’s a wonder to witness.

The hard part is outside the room. How to take what we learn in our safety and make it real in the expanded circles of our lives. How to live in community. We talk about that. The goal is not talk, the goal is to live.

Epilog:

What to do with those who want to help? What to do about those who are reluctant to help? Example: We get a couple of bucks from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis that we mostly give back to advertising to the St. Louis Jewish Light. This year, the Jewish Federation trimmed down that money. Are they serious? Read the newspapers. We’re living an epidemic. Time to wake up.
#freethestories
#tooslowJFedStL

What We Do

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What We Do

Shalvah Journal
Thursday, Aug. 18

We have a schedule of speakers for three weeks out of the month. The first week of the month we practice a form of meditation or prayer or do some inner work with music and poetry. The other weeks we begin with a speaker, the speaker speaks for twenty minutes or so, and the rest of the hour is given to spontaneous sharing from the group.

This is the first time she has spoken in our group. She was urged to do so by her sister who also attends the group and it’s clear she has more experience with such groups than does her (older) sister who signed up to speak tonight.

The speaker tonight has been a loyal attendee to the group but has not spoken much, she comes and listens, and I think everyone in the room recognizes the look of someone searching and not sure whether this is the correct location for her search. Does she belong — this is the question that appears on her face at every meeting though she has not spoken much about it.

She went bold and signed up to speak. It was not an easy gesture for her. She came to the meeting this night wearing the drama of vulnerability on her face, she had a small sheaf of notes she pulled out, I had to write it out she said by way of explanation, it’s the only way for me. That’s fine, I said, you know the meeting is an hour long. I’ll stay within the limits, she said, maybe missing maybe not missing the joke. She was nervous.

I sat next to her and there were some announcements and discussion, I moved to her talk as soon as I could as I imagined it was agonizing for her to wait. She launched, reading her notes clearly and with good voice, articulating what she had written that was carefully thought through.

It was a rough story, she opened with a sense of herself she was taught from her parents that was brutal and devastating for a little girl to have heard early on in her life. It was a theme that continued throughout her talk with the details of failed and failing relationships, bad choices, disappointments, and also the sense of the few joys of her life easier to remember partially because they were in the minority of her experience.

Five, ten minutes into her talk I admit I was thinking uh oh, this could be a difficult thing for her and for many of those in the room, some who might not relate to some of the particular details of her life that she emphasized. It wasn’t what we usually talked about when we talked in our group. She knew this and prefaced her talk with I’m not sure I belong here and I don’t know how familiar this will be to anyone else in the room. Ten minutes into her talk I wasn’t sure myself. Plus there were four or five new people that night and they had no sense that this was not our usual meeting. There is no usual meeting; sometimes I forget that and we’ve been doing this a long time.

Then she came to the denouement I’ll call it, of what she gave over that evening. The last chapter. In the last chapter, the last eight nine ten minutes of her talk she went right to the heart of the matter.

She spoke about the emptiness within that she felt was behind many of her poor choices in life, her responsibility for missing some of the elusive happiness or meaning she pursued in her story, she talked about that space within that drove her that brought her to this meeting that she feels she is touching is touched when she comes to the group.

She spent the last seven, eight, ten minutes of her talk sitting in front of that need within that space into which we stuff substances food people love success whatever it is we are chasing that is in partial recompense for the inner strength or prosperity the inner life we feel is deficient, wounded, absent, emptied out; this the center of the deal we do at the meeting.

I felt the room spring to life. When she was done, every comment was right to the heart of the matter where she had landed, confirming her presence in exactly the right place, everyone who spoke sat in that inside place with her. I live there too they said and thanked her or congratulated her or embraced her for the courage of taking us all with her because we are all familiar with that place and when she visits there we all visit there and it helps us make the trip and make it home in a more whole-some way than the old journey of defeatism and negativity sadness and despair. Everyone who spoke was familiar with that place. Everyone seemed to be switched on by her talk.

The other quality of the comments was the complete generosity of spirit that erupted from the group that night. The comments were true and personal and perceptive and they were also generous. I was moved by both her courage to be that vulnerable and the generosity of the group to intuitively give over a truth to her that was so profound it could make a significant change in her life. That night. That one night. It felt that large to me.

There were also some difficult comments going around the room, necessary and no surprise to many of us in the group, but the hard material of truth-telling and getting up and on with it, full disclosure, vulnerability in the extreme, we’re all doing the best we can and for many of us it starts with truth-telling stark and painful but better than the alternative. There was that too.

Real life. Every meeting real life. People often ask me what do you do at those meetings? We don’t talk about drugs or alcohol or other substances that much; we talk about inside things. Difficult things. The meeting is called Shalvah. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew. There is no formula, few rules, just a couple of guidelines. You want to know what we talk about? Read these pieces. It’s time to tell the stories.

james stone goodman
#freethestories

Af Tsu Lokhes/In Spite Of: Story #51 Big Tent

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Story #51
Big Tent

In Spite Of: Af Tsu Lokhes

The day I wrote the piece #50 in the series Big Tent, June 20, 2013, describing a slice of the meeting the night before just a moment out of an hour of moments not to say too much respecting confidentiality to the maximum, I think I captured a sense of the life-saving nature of what we discuss when we convene on Thursday evenings. I wrote the piece late Thursday night only several hours after the Shalvah Recovery from Addictions meeting, submitted it to the blog site set up by my community to feature events and ideas etc. of the locals. I have a blog on that site, and I submitted my account of the Thursday night meeting the next day, Friday, the day after another heavy Thursday night session. It was fresh.

On that Thursday I decided to start a journal of the evening session, something written to capture a bit of what we do on Thursday nights that has been so healing for so long. I write about everything, I thought, I ought to write about this too. Besides, I had made a formal request for funding from my community after having been approached by the new CEO of the institutional mechanism asking me for it.

I write a journal of my prison experiences, I write about the mental illness project, I should write about the Shalvah recovery meeting we have been running in one form or another, almost continuously, since I came to this town in 1981. So I started to keep the journal, the first entry was that Thursday, that night, June 20, 2013.

The next day I was scheduled to have a phone conversation, I should note here, with the official CEO who represents my community and who contacted me about ways in which the community mechanism might support the program. I told him I would need him to see the program through the bureaucracy in which he works, make a case for it however that is done I don’t know, and whatever materials I could provide him I would do to the best of my abilities.

Of course they have a right to ask what is it that we do on Thursday nights. I invited them to come and see; I am sure I can get the permission of the participants for you to come because they all know the life-saving significance of the Thursday evening group [note: the group has much expanded since then, is now meeting twice a week, welcoming new people almost every week and we have discussed going to a third night] and I believe the group would compromise its anonymity/confidentiality to further the notion not for the sake of themselves but for the sake of others in our community and beyond whom we could be helping.

And if those who hold the purse strings did not want or could not attend any of our meetings, I could always refer them to my writings, and through the accounts anyone could discern a good sense of what we do on Thursday nights we call Shalvah (serenity).

He had given me a load of directions by which I could provide him for what he called a logic model (I had no idea what a logic model was) that he could then take into the place where he works.

He came back at me with a load of more requests, I had provided the information for the logic model as he requested, now he was asking for a metric (another notion I wasn’t familiar with, I have not been trained in these matters). I thought I included a metric with which to evaluate in the logic model we submitted (love this language), and by then I noticed that the vocabulary had shifted from how can I help you to how can this not happen, an elucidation of all the reasons why it would be impossible for his organization to support my efforts. I have experience with this kind of shift in language. I am sensitive to it; I’ve been at this a long time.

A few days after this conversation, one of the great leaders of our community passed away. He had been in the very position of the individuals I was now dealing with; I knew that his way was the way of activism. If he saw a need, his attitude was how are we going to do this, what I call the af tsu lokhes approach, a great Yiddish phrase that has the sense of in spite of — with an attitude. It’s a useful expression without an exact equivalent in English, a sense of: you think I can’t do what? I’m going to do it in spite of all obstacles and with more punch. Just because. I could feel the difference in the individuals I spoke with on the phone; there was no af tsu lokhes attitude.

The man we would soon be burying was a force in our community, and my experience with him was deep. When we started the addictions outreach, he was as a matter of fact in the same position as the individuals I was now speaking with in the early days of our program. These teachings were not lost on me; a week and a half later at his funeral I felt the need of such individuals now and what a loss to our community such a spirit is. Where are they when we need them?

I am searching everywhere for those af tsu lokhes individuals, who see a problem and all the difficulties attendant to relieving suffering, but enter with the attitude: Let’s do this thing, let’s make this happen, let’s do some good. Obstacles? Let’s go around them.

There’s a story my teacher used to tell. When there’s an obstacle in the road, you don’t sit down, unpack a table, have lunch. You build. Around it.

james stone goodman

Addiction or Old Wisdom

The Problem of Addiction
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by his story, we are saddened like everybody, but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.

It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction, how a person with twenty plus years of clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, etc., didn’t he have enough help, all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you have it for life, and it requires vigilance daily, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – you name it. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.

The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror.

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substance. The problem has a physical component, and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that. No one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him or her what he has to do for herself.

You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him or herself.

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person makes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: all you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense; every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

Rabbi jsg runs a program called Shalvah, “serenity” in Hebrew, that meets every Thursday night at Congregation Neve Shalom, 7 PM. It was founded in 1981 by Rose Mass and jsg.

Jones Hungers

Jones hungers in a way that cannot be
filled. It waits an active waiting its eyes
tracking you wherever you go.

Jones is an emptiness. A space a
hunger a bottom-less-ness.

Jones will not be filled by drugs by
booze by love by success by food by —

You may try to fill Jones with all or
some of these. Jones can only be filled
by Everything.

Until you encounter Jones — its
unformed and empty-ness — until you
fill Jones with something more
nutritious, sustaining, full — Jones waits
patiently and poised to spring.

You can spot Jones every morning in
the mirror and you will need to.

You will learn not to wrestle Jones; you
will learn to be bigger than Jones.

Jones is hovering and you are called to
Grow.

jsg.usa

How Do You Know Jones

How Do You Know Jones

Does it matter? I could tell you but it’s
not significant.

I know Jones. What difference does it
make – how?

I see Jones every morning in the mirror
and Jones knows me.

I have come to know Jones better, I
think, than Jones knows me. I have the
edge.

It’s not much of an edge but that’s all I
need — an edge.

The edge keeps both Jones and I on
our toes. Nimble. That edgi-ness.

It’s a matter of degrees, edges;
Absolutes? No way.

Jones loves absolutes, will try to
distract you with them —

Do not be distracted.

Stay on the edge. Keep the edge. The
edge, baby, the edge is everything.

jsg.usa

The Dragon Jones

The Dragon Jones

You need a lot of friends to elude that
dragon. Friends and talk. Talk talk, then
more talk.

Jones insinuates itself within, the
dragon Jones. The dragon will try to
engage you in conversation. Do not. No
talking with the dragon.

Talk to your friends.

Talk to others who know the dragon.
Make it daily. First today, then
tomorrow, the next day, etc. Every day
the dragon perches.

Every day is the day to meet the
dragon. Today, for example.

Take your friends with you until you
understand. We have to be together on
this.

Alone — we are lost.

jsg.usa

What To Do

Don’t know what to do
I can’t decide right now
The meditation was
Good

You’re about the same age as my
Daughter
And it gives me hope to hear you

Thank you for the quiet

[He left a large space behind him
One time he held my hand
Through the whole meeting
I was having a bad day]

I’m really glad to be here

He couldn’t practice tough love, he said
he had so much to learn
About love first

Try to be a person that has
Something To go
Toward
He said

I’ve been happy since January 24, 2004

— December, 2011