Two Cups a Day

I don't know about you, but I've been feeling rather exhausted these days. I am a long-time coffee drinker, but had worked hard to cut back my intake to just one cup a day this summer. Now, however, as the mornings grow darker and the days are colder and shorter, I'm finding myself craving that second cup again and the caffeine jolt it might bring.

I don't know about you, but I've been feeling rather exhausted these days. I am a long-time coffee drinker, but had worked hard to cut back my intake to just one cup a day this summer. Now, however, as the mornings grow darker and the days are colder and shorter, I'm finding myself craving that second cup again and the caffeine jolt it might bring.

For me, some of this exhaustion comes from being particularly busy at Kavana. The fall is always a busy season in the Kavana office, as we move straight from the High Holidays into the season of program launch. In addition, we don't have a second rabbi on staff at the moment (since the sunsetting of the JEN Rabbinic Fellowship in summer 2020), nor a full-time education director. As a result, our small core staff team has been working extraordinarily hard and is stretched a bit thin these days. I appreciate the support of our staff members, old and new (more on that below), of our board, and of our many partners who serve as volunteers and help to power Kavana's core work! Please stay tuned for more details, over the coming months, about an upcoming search for an additional rabbi -- I can't wait!

Finally, on top of all this is the existential weariness that I know so many of us are feeling, as a result of the pandemic's cumulative effects over time and our sense of concern about our society and world.

In this week's parasha, Abraham and Sarah (who begin as Avram and Sarai) embark on a series of journeys that must have also been exhausting. The Torah portion opens with Abraham's command to leave from Haran to "the land that I will show you" -- and thus begins the history of our wandering people. Even upon their arrival in the land of Canaan, our heroes don't stay put -- they journey from Shechem and Elon Moreh to Bethel and Ai, and then in stages to the Negev. They continue down into Egypt, where Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister (I can only imagine how wearying that episode must have been for Sarah, in particular!), and then they reverse the journey, traveling back up and through the land of Canaan again.

The covenant God makes with Abraham emphasizes stability, as does the Haftarah associated with Parashat Lech Lecha, in which Isaiah offers the people of Israel a message of reassurance. In the opening verses of the Haftarah, one theme that really jumps off the page is the promise of strength for the weary. In four consecutive verses (Isaiah 40:28-31), the Hebrew verbs for growing faint and being weary -- ya'ef and yiga' -- are repeated over and over again, as well as the language of strength, koach.

הֲל֨וֹא יָדַ֜עְתָּ אִם־לֹ֣א שָׁמַ֗עְתָּ אֱלֹהֵ֨י עוֹלָ֤ם ׀ יְהֹוָה֙ בּוֹרֵא֙ קְצ֣וֹת הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יִיעַ֖ף וְלֹ֣א יִיגָ֑ע אֵ֥ין חֵ֖קֶר לִתְבוּנָתֽוֹ׃ נֹתֵ֥ן לַיָּעֵ֖ף כֹּ֑חַ וּלְאֵ֥ין אוֹנִ֖ים עָצְמָ֥ה יַרְבֶּֽה׃ וְיִעֲפ֥וּ נְעָרִ֖ים וְיִגָ֑עוּ וּבַחוּרִ֖ים כָּשׁ֥וֹל יִכָּשֵֽׁלוּ׃ וְקוֹיֵ֤ יְהֹוָה֙ יַחֲלִ֣יפוּ כֹ֔חַ יַעֲל֥וּ אֵ֖בֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִ֑ים יָר֙וּצוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א יִיגָ֔עוּ יֵלְכ֖וּ וְלֹ֥א יִיעָֽפוּ׃ {ס}

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is God from of old, Creator of the earth from end to end. He never grows faint or weary, His wisdom cannot be fathomed. He gives strength to the weary, fresh vigor to the spent. Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall; But they who trust in the LORD shall renew their strength, as eagles grow new plumes. They shall run and not grow weary; they shall march and not grow faint.

Last week, I heard Rabbi David Kasher of IKAR give a lovely D'var Torah about the Shabbat zemer (table song) "Yom Shabbaton," composed some 900 years ago by Yehudah HaLevi, a Spanish Jewish physician, philosopher and poet. Rabbi Kasher connected the song to Parashat Noach, as its lyrics draw on the image of the dove being sent out of the ark to find a resting place. In the poem, the resting place that the dove finds is Shabbat itself, and this Sabbath day becomes a resting place for us too, the ever-journeying, ever-weary people of Israel -- as it reads: "yona matza bo manoach, v'sham yanuchu yagi'ei koach," "the dove found in it a resting place, and there the weary of strength will also find rest." (If you're curious to investigate further, here's a link to the Hebrew text of Yom Shabbaton and a beautiful interpretive translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.)

As Chava Mirel pointed out during Kavana's monthly Singing Circle last night, this entire year is really a grand resting place for our feet, as it is the Shmitah (Sabbatical) year. During this year we are called on to release and rest in all sorts of ways. We release the land from its obligation to work for us, and allow it to rest. We release one another from debts, and allow a restoring of communal ties and social order. And, on a spiritual level -- as we discussed last night -- each of us has the power to release ourselves from that which makes us weary, be it self-doubt, judgment, anger, etc. -- and find renewal.

Abraham and Sarah begin our story as a journeying people... a people in need of a permanent place to call home, in need of rest and renewal. So it stands to reason that we -- their descendants from across the generations -- continue to need a blessing of release, and the gift of strength for the weary (us). The language from this week's Haftarah, embedded in the Isaiah verses above, have made their way into our siddur in the form of a one-line blessing. This bracha is not one we recite only every seven years, or even every seven days on Shabbat alone, but rather one that has become embedded in the morning blessings we can recite each and every day. As part of a longer list of Birkot HaShachar, the Morning Blessings, we recite:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam ha-notein la'yaef koach.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who gives strength to the weary.

And so today -- drawing on the memory of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah who journeyed, on the reassuring words of the Prophet Isaiah, on Yehuda HaLevi's poem about the dove finding rest on Shabbat, on our current location here in a Shmitah year -- I pray for strength for all of us who are feeling weary and exhausted. Knowing that we are part of a long chain of tradition, and that we can draw on the spiritual tools that have been developed across the course of our Jewish history for strength -- is itself buoying to me.

May we find our resting places this week, and renewal, and strength when we are weary. Now to brew that second cup of coffee!  ;-)

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum