Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), an ordained Lubavitch rabbi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and one of the most profound and important Jewish thinkers of our age, was born in Zhovka, Poland ( now Ukraine), in 1924 and died on July 3, 2014, in Boulder, Colo. His journey through time, space and thought was most remarkable. My first meeting with his teachings was through Reb Zalman’s younger sister, Ada, z’l’, who at 19 was tall, thin and strikingly beautiful, and who became my Hebrew and religious school teacher at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. I was about 11. Our teacher-student relationship lasted about eight years, and then we became good friends. The Judaism she taught me was vibrant, alive, breathing, meaningful and deeply spiritual. She inspired me to become a rabbi.
I came to know Zalman through his early books, “Fragments of a Future Scroll: Hassidism for the Aquarian Age” (1975) and “The First Step: A Guide for the New Jewish Spirit” (1983). I had founded congregation B’nai Horin — Children of Freedom and became its rabbi in 1968. Our first in-person meeting took place over breakfast at Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax Avenue. Our conversation was about “authentic” Jewish practices and rituals. He said to me, “When you ask yourself that question about authenticity, be sure to look out the windshield and not just the rear view mirror; not just is the practice or ritual authentic from a traditional standpoint, but is it authentic for you, personally, now, and is it likely to be authentic in the future?” That teaching has guided me my whole life. I became active in the Jewish Renewal movement and, later, Zalman ordained me a morenu (teacher) and rabbi.
For a couple of years, Reb Zalman and I co-officiated High Holy Days services for B’nai Horin, and then he went on to co-officiate High Holy Days services with Makom Ohr Shalom here in Los Angeles.
What I most remember about Zalman are his teachings to me through his writings, the ones that most deeply touched my heart, mind and soul, and which helped shape me, as a person and as a rabbi, the ones that are blessings in my life. And I would like to share a few of them here, which I have incorporated into our congregation’s Sabbath and High Holy Days prayer books:
“God is internalized in our souls and consciousness; God is projected externally onto the cosmos. God is imminent; God is manifest. But what God is like is up to each soul to decide. We create our image of God from the feelings of our hearts, the insights of our dreams, from our memories and our reflections, from our interactions with the universe and with each other.”
“Every day we need to realize we are integral to the universe, we are part of it — not a separate entity only passing through. We need to reconnect with it every day to establish our natural place in the order of the universe, where we are filled with light, acceptance and at-one-ment. The energy flows everywhere; it is how God ‘gods.’ This is the great orientation. The rhythm of organic time is inherent in all of life, it is within us on all levels of our being. Organic time is actually flowing inside us. It is one of the voices of God. Reb Nachman of Breslov called it ‘the voice of my beloved — the pulse.’ ‘If you want to know God,’ he said, ‘you need only to listen to his/her voice within. You need never be lonely or out of touch with his/her inner spirit. You can always touch your pulse and say, “Oh there you are.”
“If you want to learn how to say a blessing, every time you feel something really good happening, or even something rough or painful, say, ‘Baruch ata Adonai, thank you for blessing me, you make the sun shine,’ or, ‘Today is a beautiful day.’ Each time you focus in this way, feeling blessed becomes a reality, and you learn about prayer and life.”
“Sit there where you are and as if you believe that God exists, as real as a rock, a tree, a bird, your hand, your heart, as real as your inner you, where your secret feelings are, your pain and fear and wonder and hope and longing and love and strength and weakness. Open your heart and say with every cell and awareness of your being, ‘Here I am, this is me, I accept the world, I ask the world to accept me, please.’ Now begin to ask for the things you need — common sense, forgiveness, help in the struggle to live, to make a decent living, for emotional and/or physical healing. And when you make a request, seal it with ‘Thank you, God.’ ”
“Our task is clear. We are here to fulfill our potential for godliness. Even with all of our weaknesses and faults, we strive toward that great and sustaining goal. Even if you can manage only one step at a time, this journey must be made, in the end, it is the only journey worth making.”
“That being or sum of beings we call ‘Messiah’ is held prisoner in the surface tensions existing between person and person, men and women, older and younger, richer and poorer, group and group, nation and nation. Wherever tensions and resistances are reduced so that energy can be shared, the quantum leap is made to the Messianic Era. The Messianic future, with its blessings, awaits you at the other side of our awakening, so let us light the light of the candles of our souls and welcome the Sabbath.”
I am so very grateful that you, God, have blessed me, and so many others, with bringing Reb Zalman into our lives, and the teachings and memories he leaves us.