Together

With the notion of Tikkun Olam fresh in my mind I decide it’s time to find out what will happen when I try to reconnect with my old neighbors, the family of Hassidic Jews that lived a few doors down from us when I first moved to Los Angeles. Followers of Kabbalah might think of Tikkun Olam as the process by which pieces of the original vessel, shattered by the “Big Bang,” are brought together once again.

I studied a map of my old neighborhood and found an orthodox synagogue seven blocks from the corner of their apartment complex. As ultra-orthodox Jews, I knew they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. This was the only place it could be. Perhaps the family had moved, but it seemed likely that someone at the synagogue would remember them. I would reconnect with their community if not the family itself.

I called the synagogue and made sure they were alright with visitors and to see if I needed to do something with my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”

By the time I left for the Saturday morning service, the only thing showing besides my hair was my face and hands. I arrived early. I thought parking would be a nightmare, but a space directly in front sat waiting. I wondered what the building was before being converted into a synagogue. A WWII dance hall? Inside looked like an old gymnasium. I spotted a couple of elderly women behind a partition and I joined them. They were speaking in hushed tones and they nodded in my direction and went back to whispering. I flipped through a prayer book with no English or phonetic translation, just a sea of squiggles, and listened to the rain falling outside. Everything felt damp and dreary and not at all welcoming. I wondered how often they were visited by non-Jews. I reviewed my motives hoping some element of insincerity would grant me good reason to flee. I decided I was coming from a genuine place and that the discomfort was a sign of this effort’s importance.

No one paid any attention to me. Male voices chanted on the other side of the room divider. More women arrived but they seemed not to notice me. They set about chatting quietly with one another. Every once in a while one would stand, bow, take a step back, and mouth prayers. Occasionally some kids would wander in to say a few words to their moms before being ushered back to their classroom.

I sat mutely for what felt like a very long time. As the sounds and activities went on around me, I was painfully aware of my own presence, even more so because no one else seemed to notice it. After what felt like an eternity, a woman my age approached and asked what brought me here today. I could tell she was trying to be friendly, but she didn’t smile.

I’ll call her Rachel. She looked surprisingly normal. I knew her hair was a wig because most Hassidic women use wigs to cover their real hair, but it looked like my hair except better. My hair was a fuzzy mess from the moisture in the air but hers was smooth. I explained to her about living down the street and how I saw the kids but never spoke to them. “I’ve come back,” I said. Spoken to a stranger, the endeavor seemed bizarre, but she nodded like it was the most natural thing in the world.

She said, “My husband grew up there.”

I stared mutely. I couldn’t believe it. It was that easy. I had found them.

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Forever light

Part-way through the Friday night Sabbath-welcoming service, the singing stops and the rabbi makes his way to the front of the room. Several individuals break from the congregation to join him.

This is a joyous occasion, the rabbi explains, because tonight the newest addition to the family before you receives her Hebrew name. Only then do I notice that one of the women is holding a tiny bundle in her arms and I put the pieces together: this is a naming ceremony, one of the most significant of the Jewish life-cycle rites of passage. Boy babies are normally named during a bris eight days after being born, but female newborns are named at the synagogue in front of the entire congregation.

The mom, holding the infant, huddles with both grandmothers. The rabbi wraps their shoulders in a single prayer shawl, pulling them in close. He speaks to the women, expressing sentiments you might expect to hear: how this baby is the future, the continuation of all of her ancestors who lived before her. Then he flips the script and addresses the baby directly. “You will one day be an ancestor like us,” he tells her. For me, his words conjure an image of this room in 70 years: this brand new human is the older generation wrapped in a prayer shawl giving out special names.

I still have that in mind when the congregants begin singing the Mourner’s Kaddish. When I first realized this prayer for the deceased was a part of every service at every synagogue, I thought it was intended specifically for those who were grieving. When we came to it, all those who had lost someone within the last year or so stood, and sometimes the rabbi requested them to call out the name of the departed. I didn’t know or understand the significance of the Hebrew words being recited by the congregation, but I sensed it was a sorrowful lamentation, the shaking of a metaphorical fist at the cruelty of death. I thought people stood because they were meant to see one another and thereby know they were not alone in their grief and to allow the rest of the congregation to identify those in need of our support. I believed the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish was akin to other life-cycle ceremonies in Judaism—whether a naming or bar mitzvah or wedding—that act as markers in a person’s life tying her to millions of others in the past, present, and future. The ceremony might transform what feels like an ordinary occasion into one with extraordinary potential or it might reassure a person who feels overwhelmed that what they are experiencing is actually very ordinary.

I was surprised when I saw an English translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and realized it doesn’t even mention death. It’s simply a collection of lines praising and thanking God. Only then did I learn the true purpose is to rise up and proclaim your joy and love at a time when you might feel bitter or lost or angry. But the Mourner’s Kaddish continues to be spoken by the entire congregation day in and day out long after the official grieving period for any one person has passed. The gratitude it expresses is offered on behalf of all those who are departed, giving voice to worshipful words they can no longer utter here on earth. Through future generations, the dead continue to honor God.

Only then did I sense how those who are no longer here rely on those who are to continue expressing faith thereby carrying on the task of bringing light into the world. It’s such a big job, no one generation can do it alone. It’s an on-going responsibility that rests on the shoulders of countless generations. Only together can the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, be achieved. I learned that the literal translation of Tikkun Olam is something like “forever light.” Each generation after the next working to endlessly shine light here on earth is how the healing takes place.

Power of Kabbalah

At the appointed evening and time, I arrived to a conference room at the Kabbalah Centre. With eight other curious souls and here is what I learned from three attractive young women: sign up for the Power of Kabbalah (POK) class and all the secrets to Kabbalistic teachings would be revealed and my paradigm shifted. Each 10-week course will take me further on my spiritual quest. POK 1 teaches that I create my own reality. POK 2 shows me how to remove my blockages. Finally, in POK 3, I learn to become a purer channel for the Light of the Creator. If I sign up for the complete series—POK1, POK2, and POK3—I get a $770 value for $520. Payment methods include Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, Cash, or Check (Payable to the Kabbalah Centre).

So, from what I gathered, I could have everything I wanted in the world—in particular “lasting fulfillment”—if I knew how to properly receive these gifts. Except what I wanted was to know exactly what Kabbalah was, which no one would tell me. I also wanted to take a look in the Centre’s main sanctuary, which I was told was off limits, and to sit in on a class in session—from which I had been swiftly booted.

Yet, at the Kabbalat Shabbat service in an ordinary reform synagogue just a few blocks from the ice skating rink I frequented as a teenager, on an evening when I did not expect anything and yet was open to what might come, I happened upon a group of people who were inviting, maybe even pulling, light into the world. No slick marketing materials, no fancy jargon, no pretty girls with evasive answers. Just a surprising number of old ladies and a bunch of other normal folks sitting in a big circle using their voices and imaginations to fill up with joy and gratitude and a sense of abundance so as not to be the sort of people who move through the world feeling needy or lacking—you know the sort, people who are willing to manipulate and lie and steal and hurt because they are hungry, always hungry. As I sat and sang, I understood a primary purpose of Kabbalah, if not all the specifics. It is this: to toil in the privacy of your own heart to know and feel that you are and possess more than enough so that you can show up to any situation with something to give. It might take an inordinate amount of work to acknowledge and meet your own voracious need, but it must be done so you’re not, intentionally or unintentionally, looking to sources outside of yourself to meet that need. Instead, you are able to offer empathy, support, forgiveness, or joy. Your light shines because your vessel is full and you have more than enough to share.

During my visit to the Kabbalah Centre, I bought a book called God Wears Lipstick: Kabbalah for Women by the wife in the husband-wife duo that founded the center. I hoped it would shed light on the Light. In it, she explains that before the universe as we know it formed, all that existed was the light and the original vessel. Everything we perceive as matter was united in this single vessel until the Big Bang blew it apart. Now we think of ourselves and all we see as being separate, unique entities when our true nature is really one of cohesiveness. The book explains that, in a sense, life is a process to “regain our former wholeness.”

The Kabbalah Centre

I joined the outer circle of the Kabbalat Shabbat celebration at the reformed synagogue. In the center of the room sat the rabbi, canter and several musicians whose instruments included a harp, violin, and dobro. As I flipped through the pamphlet to lead me through the service, I thought about how ordinary everyone in the room looked—regular grandmas and grandpas and middle-class couples, not the eccentric wizened elders one might associate with an ancient mystical tradition. These were people who shopped at Target and attended their kids’ soccer games. Then the band started up and all the voices joined together. My pamphlet had phonetic translations of the Hebrew and some English explanations, but I opted to play it by ear. These were the usual prayers, but performed in a steady rhythmic fashion. I found I could join, particularly at choruses when phrases and words were repeated over and over in a beautiful hypnotic loop. At one point everyone stood and turned to face the doors of the room. Rising, I quickly consulted my guide and found we were at a prayer to greet the Sabbath. The explanation read, “The Kabbalists used to go out on Friday nights and dance as the sun was setting. It is traditional to face the entry of our prayer-space on the final verse to greet the Sabbath bride.” I had seen this analogy before—Sabbath addressed as a woman, particularly as a wife-to-be—but in this context I understood the connotation on a deeper level. In a sense, we were welcoming our own ability to receive, nurtured by the vessel-like, feminine aspects of Sabbath.

Profound Kabbalistic tidbits arrived at unexpected times throughout my Judaism journey, like offerings dropped in my path, but the one time I went looking for them—when I visited the actual Kabbalah Centre—they were harder to come by. For years, I had been reading about the Kabbalah Centre, usually in the captions beneath tabloid photos of celebrities exiting a building with a little red string freshly tied around their wrist. Or it was Madonna in an interview talking about her life-changing study of this ancient wisdom, and mysteriously revealing that her “Kabbalah name” is Ester. I had no inkling what Kabbalah was and when I decided to visit the Kabbalah Centre in the early stages of my journey I still hadn’t grasped the basics.

I found the place on a busy street in what appears to be an old Spanish-style house. It was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and no paparazzi were in evidence on the sidewalk outside. Inside, young women seemed to be running the show. One was at a reception desk, another manning the gift shop. A third was wandering from room to room. She approached me. She had a name tag and was something called a “Study Path Manager.” She couldn’t have been more than 25; that she should be the first representative of an ancient wisdom I associated with wizened elders struck me as strange. Maybe she’s very wise, I thought.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “What is Kabbalah?”

By way of an answer she posed a scenario. “Say you gather the best basketball players in the world,” she said, “but you don’t give them the rules of the game. What happens?”

I stared at her fresh, dewy face. I was confused, how did we know they were the best players if they don’t know the game? “They aren’t able to play?”

“Yes! Kabbalah is the rules.”

She handed me a bright shiny flyer that said, “YOU DESERVE GREAT THINGS” and invited me back for a free seminar on Tuesday night at 7 pm.

In the round

A circle is a powerful symbol. I think most Kabbalists would agree that a circle represents one of the most potent forces in the universe. The Jewish mystic tradition divides the world into two basic components: the source of all power, infinitely giving energy and light, and the repository of this power, which holds and gives it shape. In Kabbalah, the latter is referred to as “the vessel,” often symbolized by a circle, like a container’s open mouth. One might think that the source of power is the force in the universe that demands all our attention, but Kabbalists emphasize the critical role of the receptacle—without which the power would be undirected and useless. Much of Kabbalah concerns the proper management of this power and the word “Kabbalah” means “to receive.”

After the service at a conservative synagogue, I mentioned my intention to explore Kabbalah to a middle-aged lawyer with gentle, watery eyes. “Be careful,” he said, his eyes widening like two pools swelling, though whether he was warning me about L.A.’s Kabbalah “Centre” specifically or Kabbalah in general I wasn’t sure. Kabbalah has a reputation for being unsafe and stories abound about its ancient practitioners losing their minds, driven to madness during the exercises meant to tap into the universe’s power; these include chanting, singing, breathing, dancing, meditation, and visualization. The trick is not just drawing the energy but being able to properly channel it. When this transaction is not mastered, a person may cling to the power, feeding unhealthy self-interest—or misdirect it, fueling negative objectives. For this reason, Jewish leaders often say that only mature pupils under the guidance of the most skilled teachers should attempt to practice Kabbalah.

Yet, Kabbalistic notions seem to permeate all aspects of Jewish life. Casual references to Kabbalah and Kabbalah scholars peppered the talks of rabbis at practically every service I attended. Basic Jewish concepts were described to me using Kabbalistic ideas: the emphasis on passive activities on Sabbath is designed to foster the “receptive,” rather than “productive,” aspects of our nature and women are excused from many traditional practices because our vessel-like qualities are naturally more fine-tuned than those of men. I even encountered an explanation of the Messianic era in these terms: the period itself will be one of receptivity, which is the source of the peace that will prevail, like a Sabbath that extends indefinitely.

Without meaning to, I happened into a special Kabbalah-inspired service at a reformed synagogue. I thought it would be a typical Friday night ceremony that welcomes the Sabbath like those I had attended at other synagogues. I expected something bare bones, just a handful of people led by a lone rabbi. But this was different. The folding chairs in the large room were arranged in concentric circles starting with a small one at the center and spiraling out; by the time I arrived, the only spaces available were along the outer ring almost to the wall. A photocopied sheet explained that this “new model of worship” began a few years earlier; introduced as “Fifth Friday,” it initially took place only when a month had an extra Friday, but it was such a huge hit, they introduced it as a regular monthly service renamed “Kabbalat Shabbat.” If synagogue leaders were hesitant at first to officially label their new model Kabbalistic, they were emboldened by the congregation’s acceptance. In addition to seating in the round, the entire service is sung by everyone present.

I found an empty seat sandwiched between two young families facing the boyish rabbi and female cantor in the middle circle…