Thursday, July 16, 2015

42 letter name (Matot/Masai)

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes the following about this weeks parasha:
"Forty-two stops or stages along the Israelites path are enumerated and named. Each stopping point on the journey holds a blessing for us. The Ba’al Shem Tov reminds us, “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the children of Israel will occur to each person between the time he is born and the time he dies.”"

Forty-two is a special and significant number. The stages along the way of our lives. The holographic journey of every person, through the desert to the promised land. It is also the source of the prayer "Ana B'Koach": the 42 letter name of God. This prayer, and the holy name it contains, breaks through gates and blockages. If you have ever stood before an impasse, with no idea how you will get to the other side, meeting your longing, frustration, hope and near despair, and prayed one more prayer, cried one more tear, hope one more hope, and seen a gate open to you that was just a closed wall, than you know the kind of breakthrough power in this prayer.  Here is a one version.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Parashat Balak: Song, Body, and Soul

In this weeks Torah portion, the sorcerer Bilaam is on his way to try and curse the Jewish people, when his female donkey refuses to take him any further. She has witnessed an angel that is blocking the path, which her master fails to notice. Three times she refuses to budge and is beaten, until Bilaam's eyes are open and he is able to understand what has been going on.

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes of this episode, "ALL OF US ARE BURDENED in some measure with the belief that body and spirit exist as two separate realms. Because this belief is buried so deeply, we may not even know it is there. But it is a lie that exacts a steep price and bars us from touching the fullness of what it means to be human which is to be a “holy animal.”

painting by Sheva Chaya
This week I had a chance to explore the meeting point between this kind of body wisdom and the voice. I was teaching a student and we did an exerise where we focused on a place in the body that was hurting, stuck, or in some other way asking for attention. The instruction was to either sing to or from that place, improvising, exploring what this place has to say and what it needs. Release? New energy? Oxygen? Love?

When I demonstrated this process, I connected to my lower back which had been hurting for a few days. To my own surprise, my voice as expressed from this place of pain had a different quality than my "normal" singing voice. It was actually richer and more harmonically dense in its overtone scale. It had a kind of raw power to it that carried on its own momentum, and, as I was singing, the whole paradigm of judgement that had followed this place of discomfort was suspended. The pain was no longer something that I wished would simply dissapear; instead, it became an interesting sensation that opened up something new and unknown, and even powerful, inside of me, that came through in my singing. I have actually experience in the past something akin to this, where singing freely in the center of a circle of women caused physical pain (that was probably emotional in origin) to simply dissapear. Another time, a woman in a singing circle was suffering from a migraine headache. When I shared a song, her headache went away.

May it be Hashem's will that we learn from our bodies and their many messages, and that we receive our healing from the highest medicine: music, and our own mysterious voices. Amen.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Parashat Chukat: Where is the Red Heifer?

This Torah is circular. All points point to the center. It won't follow a clear path, beginning, middle, and end. Although the whole point of Hukat is that this Hok kind of Torah injunction is beyond our rational grasp, the use of the ashes of a dead animal to purify those who have come in contact with death can also be seen as a kind of homeopathic Zen koan type of Divine direction. It seems that, paradoxically, these dead ashes are associated with life: the great Tzfat based Kabbalist the Arizal is said to have had some in his possession, which gave him a greater access to Life.


Where is this red heifer in our days?


(Musical break: an exploration of the red heifer theme from my newly, finally, released LP The Flood)


Well, I think of Miriam the prophetess, who dies in this parasha. The Esh Kodesh suggests that the death of the holy ones atones for the Jewish people, and that she was like a mother to Israel whose death atoned for her many "children", just as the Red Heifer is like the mother that atones for the sin of the Golden Calf, "cleaning up" after that extravagant, idolatrous mess. Miriam's death also marked the end of the wellsprings of water that flowed for us in the desert, until her brother Moshe's personally disastrous misstep in hitting the rock to cause the water to flow again. The Midrash says that it first flowed with blood, and then finally with water. Perhaps this episode is also hinting at the woman's wisdom we all know too well, having learned it with our blood and flesh: you can not force a heart, either to open, or to close.


Miriam of course is also associated with the drum, a round symbol of both faith and cyclicality, another gift of women's wisdom, which we live out in our flesh and blood. Birth and death, bordering our world, assure us of the certainty of both goodbye and hello. The circle dances of Miriam and the women are an historic and transpersonal memory of the highest spiritual state humans can experience; one that is awaiting Moshe and the men of Israel at a future date. (see Sarah Yehudit Schneider's commentary on the Meor V'Shemesh)


I once heard Rav Ginsburg teach that although most of the Torah has already been revealed, we are still waiting for the revelation of the Torah of the Moshiach: the Torah of song. Rebbe Nachman teaches about the healing power of song in his story "The Seven Beggars", in which he describes a (mythical?) castle made all of water, which represents the healing power of the 10 types of song, which are sourced in 10 types of joy.  (see my album The Water Castle for a musical rendering of this story Although each one of us has experienced firsthand the amazing power of music to transform our mood, spiritual outlook, and even affect our physical state, our knowledge of this musical medicine is at a very beginning stage. From ultrasounds, to using sound waves to break up gallstones, to the unfathomable meanings of the sounds of whales, to the effect of music on adolescent brain development, to the ability to use music to help Alzheimer's patients access both lost memory and verbal skills, we are just starting to notice and uncover this mystery. The Torah of Mashiach.


The Esh Kodesh, living at the time in the Warsaw Ghetto, as the atrocities of the concentrations camps were finally understood by those still counted among the living, wrote powerfully and heartbreakingly about the Magrepha, a small and mysterious shovel that was used in temple times for the gathering of the ashes of the sacrifices. Apparently, this tool, when used, created some fantastic number of sounds simultaneously, and was heard from great distances.  In learning about the ways that water was mixed with the Red Cow's ashes to purify the living from contact with the dead, we can start to both mourn all that was, all the losses that we have experienced, both as Jewish people collectively, and as individuals in our own lives, and also birth a vision of the future. No one can force a heart open or closed, but of all things in the world, the right song can penetrate even the most hardened hearts and constricted minds. We can see hints of the wonderous Water Castle in Simchat Beyt ha Shoevah, the pouring out of water ritual,  which brought about great joy, song, and prophecy, and the healing sounds of the Levites in the Temple, who worked in harmony with the Cohen priest to find the right sounds to break and find a new wholeness in the heart of the one seeking healing. We might even envision a water Temple, where the healing sounds of all kinds of joy (including Rina, the joy that follows tears) will be heard, and each person will receive the music specific to her own healing needs, whether on the physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual levels. Perhaps the healing sounds will produce their effects from the ethereal all the way down to the physical level, and our bodies themselves will rebirth in wholeness. The song of Miriam and the women can then act as our Red Heifer, as the pain of the past is reborn in the joy of the present, and, as the song says, "we will be like dreamers".

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tu B'Av: A fixing of the wholeness of women


Last night I was working with one of my students on moving her weight forward and backward on her feet. I told her to "take her pelvis with her" as she rocked back and forth, keeping it together as part of the whole picture. This is not just another part of her body, but the place that defines her womanhood.  Just as there is a "throat" that connects her head and heart, there is another "throat" below. In Hebrew, the cervix is actually called the "throat of the womb", and as Rebbe Nachman teaches, when it comes to a woman's body, as in all things, "as above, so below". I recently read of a new vaccination against cervical cancer, which now has been shown to prevent throat cancer as well.

I shared with my student how, the last time I sang in a mixed group of women and men, I had a feeling that I had to sing "from the waist up", effectively cutting myself off from the lower part of my body, in order to protect my modesty and privacy within the group. That was my experience. It disturbed me, because I had made so many changes in my life to try to come to wholeness, and here I was cutting myself up into pieces.  That's was when I was finally able to begin to embrace the Jewish approach to singing for women, to women only, after a long struggle, as the free bird within me wants to be able to sing out at any moment.

Our feminine organs are directly connected to our singing as women. Those dreaded words, "Kol B'Isha Erva" :) (a woman's voice is a kind of nakedness or exposure of her hidden places), hides this truth, which has been rediscovered by women singers of all persuasions across the world. To truly sing in wholeness, I have to connect my whole body, with all my emotions, my mind and spirit, and resonate that oneness with the oneness of G-d. It is this ingathering of all my "parts" that parallels the ingathering of the exiles for which we pray daily. And it is glimpses and flashes of this oneness in song, that connect us to a supernal Jerusalem, revealing a vision of oneness in a fractured world. As above so below, this flashes of the rebuilt Jerusalem on high parallel our flashes of holy unification here in the lower worlds. The Ramchal writes in his "Treatise on Hope" that by hoping towards G-d, with a prayer or a song, we pierce the space between our existence in the lower worlds, up to the heavenly heights, and G-d reaches down to us, putting His ear near our mouths, as above reaches down to below.

Since the time of Eden, there has been a fracture and collapsing of the feminine as it is expressed in this world. (See Sara Yehudit Shneider's book, "Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine")  As this is fixed, we, as women, come into our wholeness and full stature. And men also fix their way of looking at women, overcoming the tendency to see us as a collection of parts, as an object to be used, enjoyed, and feared, instead embracing our wholeness and the wholeness brought about by the union between man and woman in love and honor. It is ironic that this coming together, which has the potential to bring about the greatest unification in all the worlds, can also bring down so much brokenness.

The story of Tu B'Av is one that spans many generations. In the story of Pelegesh, a horrible crime is committed against a woman by members of the tribe of Benjamin. In hopes of avenging her gang rape and murder, her avenger cuts her body into pieces and sends one to each of the tribes. The horror that this crime sparks causes a civil war that eventually leads to this tribe being cut off from all of Israel, and left without women to marry and continue their legacy. This parallels the cutting of Pelegesh into pieces, both in making her an object to be abused, and in actually desecrating her body into pieces. This is as about low as it gets.

Tu B'Av is the fixing of this. Women wore white dresses, which they lent to one another. They lent across social lines of status, as a way of saying, "we are all one" creating a feminine circle reality in a hierarchical male dominated consciousness.  And then they went to dance together, circle dances of the vineyard, affirming the circle consciousness in the light of the full moon, which represents the feminine in its wholeness and fullness. There, the menof the tribe of Benyamin were invited to fix their way of looking at women.  As Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi teaches on this holiday, the women were in effect saying, "don't look just at my pedigree. You are not getting married just to have children with important family ties…there is more to it than that. And don't look just at my beauty, for it will fade in time, and I am so much more than how I look. And don't say 'I will marry a woman who isn't beautiful or pedigreed, for then I won't have to give her much in order to satisfy her', because you have to give, and have to want to give to her so deeply. This is your real essence as a man."

This fixing of the man's way of looking at a woman parallels the fixing of the Israelites' way of looking at Eretz Yisrael. With the incident of the spies at the time of the desert, there was a problem in the way that the spies viewed the Land of Israel. The spies gave a negative report of the land, saying that its inhabitants were giants who would crush the Israelites. They saw themselves as much smaller and weaker than they really were. They went on to cry all night in fear of going into the land. This was Tisha B'Av, the beginning of the brokenness and lack of unity in doing G-d's will to love and respect one another that would haunt us throughout the generations. The Temple was destroyed on that day in the future, beginning a long and tortured exile that reached its low in the Holocaust of our people in Europe in the last century. Because of the sin of the spies, it was decreed on high that most of the men of Israel would not enter the land of Israel, but would die in the desert. The women were not subject to this punishment because we did not take part in this sin. The word "Eretz" is the same root as "Ratzon", which appears in the blessing we say every day as women "Blessed is the One who made me according to His will."   The Midrash says that every year on the ninth of Av, the men would dig their own graves and lie down in them. A number of them would die, and thus be ready for burial. The last year in the desert, they dug their own graves and waited….but no one died. They assumed that their timing was off, until the full moon of Tu B'Av revealed that the curse had been lifted, and the fixing had been made: The people were ready to enter the land, too see it in a deeper way, to see it from up close.

But now there is something deeper. The sense associated in Kabbalah with the month of Av is actually hearing. Perhaps the way to fix the brokenness, the fractured perception of both women and the Land of Israel, is not through seeing, but through hearing. As Reb Shlomo Carlebach said about Av, "seeing is only on the outside with your eyes, you cannot see the inside. Listening has to do to with the inside. On the level of seeing, you see G-d threw us out. On the level of hearing, I hear he is taking us back…if you have this deepest depths, the house can be rebuild by itself. Who needs a house? What is a house without people knowing how to hear each other?"

Shema Yisrael: Hear Israel, G-d is One; this prayer was given over in the parasha before Tisha B'Av; the medicine given before the illness. Reb Shlomo gives over from the Gemara that the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Mashiah is like a woman giving birth to a baby. That the nine months of giving birth to a baby is also like the letter Tet, nine, which is Tisha B'Av, the day that Mashiach will be born.  A woman sounds 70 voices as she gives birth to her baby. We women are sounding 70 voices as we live from inside this long birth of a new Mashiach consciousness, all the pain and joy and beauty that it contains. 

The oneness and wholeness is revealed in listening. People listening to each other, our words and songs, to the silences between the words, what is unsaid;  listening to our stories without judging, listening to our own hearts, knowing to hear and value our own thoughts. We can hear past the illusion of ourselves as a collection of parts, to the essential oneness that is revealed in a woman's voice, which can bring together heaven and earth. In hearing, we are allowing that voice be a reflection of G-d's will, as opposed to an object to be possessed, in thought or in action. And as we learn to hear the depth of oneness expressed in women's voices, perhaps we will come to hear the hidden voice of our beloved Eretz Yisrael. Singing a new song. And she will be finally treasured: an expression of G-d's will, a free bird that can never be caged.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Recent North American Tour

Here is a series of posts about each of the stops on my tour: Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, Maryland, and Manhattan. By the end of these postings I hope to have some brilliant insights on the overall experience. I'm sure I"ll be seeing the forest any day now. Meanwhile, I still feel like I'm moving through the desert, tho I'm back in the Holy Land. Chodesh Tov!
Tziona Achishena

a fun jam with some high school girls in Toronto

March, 2013 North American Tour: Toronto

 I started out the tour in snowy Toronto. We were glad to get a good crowd considering that there was about a foot and a half of newly fallen snow outside! As I looked into the deep and present  eyes of the women in front of me, I felt that special magic feeling of G-d putting the words in my mouth, of tapping in to Beyond. Leah Bassett did an amazing job organizing; the place was beautiful, the lights magical, the sound divine. A highlight of the show was definitely Leah and Kari Issacson dancing to my song "Lo Gava Libi". I often hear about women doing dance performances to my songs but rarely get to see that myself, and it brought me a lot of joy, as well as a big hug from the dancers!
 Below is another big hug from the women's dancing circle. Hearts were open and women were reaching out to each other. Thanks to Rhonda (our host) and her beautiful family for being the most gracious and loving friend to me and Doda to baby Shlomo. I was able to really let go and relax in her home, some much needed r and r and a shabbes that I had been fantasizing about since last time.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Return to the Land of Your Soul

here we are in this beautiful time of year...the 10 days of tsuvah. a time of reconnecting to our real selves and souls, awakening, reaching out...and in. the subtle world of G-d fills the spaces within. A special birthday night, surrounded by the gentle waters of the Kinneret, wondering...could this be Miriam's Well? A place where kindess embraces us, and we are softened and made new.
on tap for this time:
* weekly class in Tzafnat with the beautiful young women of Israel: drums, clarinet, and flutes abound
* celestial Rosh Hashanah singing circle
* singing with a few hundred girls at a school near Haifa
have the most joyous and sweet new year!