Visiting where I come from with my son

38615714700_782af0734e_zWhen I walk around San Antonio, time telescopes. I'm here now with my eight-year-old son -- and I remember being eight in this city too, attending second grade at what was then called the Jewish Day School. As he spends time with his grandparents, I remember spending time here with mine. 

We walk on the riverwalk and share illicit bits of bread with the ducks, and I remember feeding ducks at his age from the back of a motorboat on the Guadalupe. I'm sure my parents brought me to the riverwalk when I was his age, though I think the area where we walk now wasn't so built-up then.

He's come to San Antonio once or twice a year since he was born. There are places in my hometown that he remembers fondly but has outgrown. Like Kiddie Park. When we drive by it now on Broadway, my son remembers when the wee Ferris wheel looked huge and grand to him, and laughs.

This year 's highlight is visiting a ranch outside of Castroville, which belongs to two of my parents' friends. When we first mention the outing to him, he asks, "What's a ranch?" which makes my parents laugh: my little Yankee boy doesn't know what a ranch is! (My father explains.)

On the ranch we marvel at a chandelier made out of discarded deer antlers, learn about the difference between antlers and horns, and climb into a two-story treehouse that's built into a giant sprawling live oak. We pile into a red Suburban with the ranch manager and drive all around the land. 

While we're out roaming the land we spot zebras, and springbok, and water buck, and two kinds of deer bounding past prickly pear, sweet acacia, and mesquite. We see sharp-horned Watusi cattle at their feeder. We get to feed honey nut cheerios to fluffy Sicilian miniature donkeys who follow us around and take cheerios from our palms. 

It's sweet to be able to spend time with my son and my parents together, and to layer new memories for him (and me) atop the old.  And when our time in San Antonio (and environs) is up, it's also good to return to our own beds and regular routines. The best of all possible worlds: to feel blessed in our going out, and in our coming home. 

Shabbat shalom to all.

 

Photo: Texas flag, live oak tree, freight train. Taken in D'hanis, Texas. 


Seven poems for ma'ariv

29507891500_b16a1ea0df_zMany years ago, my friend Teju Cole put together a collection of contemporary poems with the intention of praying them daily as though they were liturgy. I remember printing them out and putting them on my desk in my study, and I remember praying them sometimes.

Alas, I no longer remember which poems he chose, though the fact that he had assembled a liturgy out of contemporary poetry was on my mind when I put together a morning service during National Poetry Month that interwove the Shabbat morning liturgy with the work of a variety of contemporary poets. (That liturgy featured Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon -- some of the poets to whom I most often turn when I'm in need of spiritual sustenance.)

I had both of those sheaves of poems in mind -- Teju's, and my own -- when I assembled a collection of my own poems for use in daily prayer. I've written several poems that intentionally riff off of the words, images, and themes of daily Jewish liturgy. One day it occurred to me to see whether I could pull together a handout that follows the matbeah tefilah (structure of prayer -- e.g. the roadmap of themes and ideas that we touch upon in daily Jewish prayer) using my own poems for each of the stops along that daily journey.

What I came up with was this: Seven poems for ma'ariv. [pdf] Ma'ariv is the name we give to evening prayer in Jewish tradition, and these seven poems are intended to follow the themes of our evening prayers.

Why seven? Seven is a symbolic number in Judaism: the seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, the seven "lower" sefirot that we inhabit as we count the Omer, seven wedding blessings (and seven times wedding partners circle one another), seven stops on the way to the grave... to name a few.  

These seven poems are also intended to map to seven specific prayers: 1) the ma'ariv aravim prayer that blesses God Who brings on the evening; 2) the ahavat olam prayer that blesses God Who loves us and expresses that love through Torah; 3) the shema; 4) the ge'ulah blessing for redemption that evokes coming through the Sea; 5) the hashkivenu blessing for God Who spreads a shelter of peace over us as we sleep; 6) the amidah / prayer in which we stand before God and speak the words of our hearts; and 7) the aleinu prayer that closes our evening davenen. 

I pray these poems sometimes as my abbreviated evening service. If you use them, I'm curious to know what works for you and what doesn't. (And if you've ever assembled a series of poems or readings intended to follow the flow of liturgical prayer in this way, I'd love to see it!)

 

A note on God-language:

Please note that that document contains the name יהו''ה, one of my tradition's holiest names for the One; if you print those pages, please treat them with the respect you would give a prayerbook.

I chose to include that Name, and not to translate or transliterate it, for a reason. That Name can be understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." Its untranslatability points us beyond all words. Our Creator is beyond language; our words can only approach the Infinite.

When I see the letters יהו׳׳ה, sometimes I render them aloud as Adonai ("My Lord"), sometimes as Shechinah (the immanent, indwelling Divine Feminine), sometimes as Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) -- and sometimes in still other ways. The unpronounceable / untranslatable Name reminds me that all of our names are only substitutes, and that our Source is beyond any words we can speak.


God in exile, school shootings, and building the mishkan together

Lord+prepare+me+to+be+a+sanctuary+Pure+and+holy +tried+and+trueIn this week's Torah portion, Terumah, we read וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם / "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within them." (Or "among them.") The word "I might dwell" is שכנתי / shachanti -- the same as the root of the name Shechinah, our mystics' name for the Divine Presence that dwells with us, within us, among us.

Jewish tradition teaches that God is both transcendent (far away and inconceivable) and immanent (indwelling and accessible). Our mystics call the transcendent, far-away part of God the Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One of Blessing). The name they give to the immanent, indwelling aspect of God is Shechinah... and they imagine that She is in galut, in exile, with us here in creation.

To say that we are in exile is to say that we live in a state of distance from God. We live in a world of disunity and disconnect. We live in a world that contains trauma and tragedy. A world in which human beings harm other human beings.

That part is true of all human beings: we live in a state of distance from God, and that distance blinds us to the spark of divinity in each other, and that blindness enables terrible things.

We here in this room live also in a nation in which school shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace. A nation in which our government is paralyed and polarized and seemingly unable to act. What can it mean to say that Shechinah dwells with us or among us at a time like this?

The Talmud teaches that Shechinah weeps at our losses. I believe that God feels our grief, and our impotence, and our fury, and our trauma. She grieves at every life cut short. She grieves with every devastated parent.

At other times of trauma over the last year, some of you have asked me: why didn't God stop that from happening? How could a just God allow such injustice to persist?

The only answer I can offer is this: God gave the world over into our hands. Phrased another way: God doesn't intervene to change the natural world. Not to stop a hurricane, not to prevent an abuser from abusing, not to alter the course of a bullet. Because if S/He did intervene, then we would have to ask: why did God spare this child with cancer but not that one, why did God prevent this shooting but not that one?

The God I believe in didn't "allow" Nikolas Cruz to end seventeen lives. That's on us: on human beings, who have made guns -- including assault rifles -- easy to acquire and to misuse. (And as of a year ago, protections that had prevented those with serious mental illness from buying guns have been stripped away.)

And it's on us to make things better. To call Congress, to write letters, to sign petitions, to show up and lobby and protest and demand that our lawmakers create change that will keep our children safer. We don't have the luxury of falling into despair or feeling as though nothing will ever change. Because if we use our feelings of powerlessness as an excuse not to do anything, then nothing will ever change.

And our children need better from us than that. The memories of the seventeen killed in Parkland, Florida this week demand better of us than that. And God needs us to be better than that. Because our hands are God's hands in the world. The only way to soothe the Shechina's tears for Her children is to make the world a place of such justice and righteousness that God won't need to weep with us anymore.

In the first line of this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moshe: tell the people to bring gifts for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where God's presence will dwell. The mishkan requires everyone's contributions.

And building a world redeemed requires everyone's contributions. Building a world in which school shootings are unimaginable requires everyone's contributions. Today is Shabbes, our "foretaste of the world to come," when we strive to live in the "as-if" -- as if the world were already redeemed. For today, we rest and rejuvenate as we are able. Tomorrow when the workweek begins again, we dive back into making this world better than it is today.

Because our schools need to be sanctuaries: safe places where our children can learn and grow without fear. And our synagogues need to be sanctuaries. And our homes need to be sanctuaries. And the whole earth needs to be a sanctuary: a place where God's presence dwells with us and within us, and no longer needs to weep.

 

Related: Prayer after the shooting by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, October 2017

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Joyful Life As A Religious Minority - on Reports from the Spiritual Frontier

I was interviewed recently for the podcast Reports from the Spiritual Frontier. My episode is live now, and the host -- my friend and colleague Ben Yosua-Davis -- titled it "Joyful Life As A Religious Minority." Here's what he wrote about it:

Artworks_coverJoin us for a conversation with Rachel Barenblat, Co-Founder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, blogger at Velveteen Rabbi, and Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA, as we talk about her experience of life as a religious minority. Hear about the gift of oddity, (9:30) the challenges and joys of being a religious minority (8:30), a more life-giving way to speak into Christian anxieties about Sunday sports, graying populations, and declining worship attendance, (15:00) and what it means to let new generations shape the tradition with their own hands (25:00). Hear more from Rabbi Rachel and other spiritual innovators by visiting us at www.facebook.com/reportsfromthespiritualfrontier or by subscribing to us via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever else you acquire your best listens for your week.

On Facebook he added:

Three reasons why you should listen[...]:

1) She's a calm, deeply grounded presence. If you're panicked about all the change going on in our country right now, she'll help you take a deep breath.

2) If you're particularly anxious about Christian institutional decline, she speaks specifically to our concerns about: worship attendance, money, and graying congregations.

3) If you want a look at how a non-Christian tradition is teaching its young people to "shape the tradition with their own hands."

I'm deeply grateful to Ben for the opportunity and for the fabulous conversation! 

Listen to the podcast here: Rachel Barenblat: Joyful Life As A Religious Minority. (He'll be posting a "B-side" mini-podcast on Thursday, featuring two of my poems from my new collection Texts to the Holy, too.)  And here are all of the episodes.


Gifts from this year's Rabbis Without Borders retreat

27973191_10215036347800075_406905700530029112_nThe first night of this year's Rabbis Without Borders alumni fellows gathering opens with a jam-session-style ma'ariv (evening service). Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl has assembled a set of songs that fit the evening service -- sometimes using English words, often using secular melodies.

(For instance, for our ma'ariv aravim / God-who-brings-on-the-evening prayer, he's set words about evening and transition to the melody of "Good Night, Irene." When people figure out what melody he's chosen, a ripple of satisfaction and laughter flows around the room.) There are a handful of guitars, a tenor ukelele, a djembe, some tambourines, and a couple dozen rabbis singing with gusto. What a glorious way to start the retreat!

The next morning I get to co-lead davenen with Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Evan Krame, two of my Bayit co-founders. Rabbi Evan offers his beautiful singable ashrei variation composed of alphabetical quotes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rabbi David offers the Gettysburg Address in haftarah trope because it's Lincoln's birthday. I offer Listen Up, Y'all, which I wrote for a service I co-led here two years ago at this retreat. We interweave nusach (the weekday melody-system) with melodies. We sing in harmony. I come away beaming.

This is one of the things I love most about gatherings like this one: the opportunity to daven with people who care about these words as much as I do. (Not to mention the opportunity to sing in harmony with friends, which is one of the most emotionally and spiritually satisfying things in the world for me.) I lead davenen regularly at my synagogue, and I always get some good "juice" from praying, but there's nothing quite like davening with friends in harmony while relaxing into the way the words and melodies and shared intentions can buoy me.

About half of the programming this year is provided for us / by us -- sessions on the things we're doing, or our areas of expertise, or various forms of self-care for rabbis. My Bayit co-founders and I offer a session on what we're doing and how we hope our RWB colleagues will partner with us. I attend a terrific session on the tension between pursuing social justice and ministering to a politically diverse congregation, and another on mysticism, shamanism, and folk practices (from angels to hamsas to amulets), and another on experiential pluralism through the lens of complementary flavors.

During our plenary sessions (the theme is "Leading in Challenging Times") we hear from Dr. Connor Wood of Faith In Depth, about conservatism and liberalism and how they play out in the religious sphere. We hear from Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins about vocation, balancing the pastoral and the prophetic, and being a religious leader during turbulent times. We break into small groups and discuss pluralism, how we invest our stories with meaning, where and how we build bridges and where and how we draw our lines. Both speakers are good, though honestly I'm here more for the hevreschaft (collegiality / friendship) than for expert speakers.

And the hevreschaft is sweet and satisfying and enriching b'chol olamot (on all levels). Really what draws me here are the conversations: at mealtimes, on couches in the hallways, over coffee in the morning and other beverages once night falls. We talk about life and relationships and transitions and spiritual practice and texts and Torah -- about what we're reading, how we're davening, what brings us joy in our work -- about innovation and pluralism and the cutting edge of spiritual life and what real spiritual R&D might be. This is what I'm thirsty for, in the ordinary sometimes-isolation of serving a congregational community solo, and I drink it up like a happy plant receiving longed-for rain.

When the time comes for me to take my leave of everyone (a bit early -- before the retreat has officially ended, alas) I'm sorry to go... but grateful to have had this opportunity to replenish mind, heart, and spirit with colleagues who care about spiritual life, innovation, and the Jewish future in some of the same ways that I do.


Off to Rabbis Without Borders (again)

LogoI'm off today to Pearlstone for the annual alumni gathering of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. As always, I'm looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues and friends across the denominational (and trans-denominational) spectrum.

This year we'll be hearing from guest speakers in the morning, on questions of political pluralism and how it interfaces with spiritual pluralism, and the afternoon sessions will be led by us. 

On Monday I'll be co-leading morning davenen (prayer) with Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Evan Krame, and at lunch we'll be sharing with our colleagues about Bayit: Your Jewish Home and opportunities for collaboration between Bayit and RWB. 

I'm looking forward to good conversations, meaningful davenen, and coming home rejuvenated from time spent with others who care about spiritual life, innovation, and the Jewish future as much as I do.


On building and making our tradition our own

Logo-twd-header...The Talmud draws a connection between children and builders. (The connection relies on a Hebrew pun between two words that sound almost the same.) All of us are tradition’s children, inheritors of richness from those who came before us. And all of us can be tradition’s builders. We have the opportunity (maybe even the obligation) to take up our tools and build the Judaism that the future most needs...

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily, on building and making our tradition our own, written in honor of my Bayit co-founders. Read the whole thing: Why Judaism Feels Like Home To Me


February: turning toward the light

26092538528_aee38fbf44_zFebruary can be a tough month. The Jewish spiritual calendar says we've taken our first steps toward the rising sap of spring, but the rising sap -- both literal and metaphorical -- is invisible to the human eye.

In New England where I make my home, we're entrenched in snow and rain and ice. The days are growing longer, but the world is still cold. My windshield is still obscured with its seasonal scrim of road salt. Winter won't unclench for a while yet. 

I've been taking comfort from the pair of hyacinth bulbs in my bedroom window. They were a gift from a friend a few weeks ago, and when I received them they were plain bulbs with root fronds below and only the tiniest nubs of green on top.

But within days they shot up, green leaves yearning toward the sun. And then they bloomed. Oh, their blooms! I've been under the weather for a few weeks now, but even so I can smell their fragrance, and it awes me.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that as plants are heliotropic -- they naturally turn toward the sun -- we human beings are theotropic. It's in our nature to "grow toward God," to turn toward the source of light that enlivens us.

As plants draw sustenance from (soil and water and) the rays of the sun, we draw sustenance from a more metaphorical kind of light. We draw sustenance from the "light" of love and hope and connection.

What do you need to turn toward, as we move deeper into this season? What enlivens you and lifts your heart? What gives you a sense of hope? What would it feel like to turn toward those things, and ride that updraft all the way into spring?

 


In the tradition of Rumi...

I'm proofing the pre-publication galley copy of my next book, Texts to the Holy, due soon from Ben Yehuda Press. (Pre-order a copy now!) Deep thanks to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for these kind words. 

Shabbat shalom to all!


Once more, with pigment

28194225709_171c7c0b75_zTying tzitzit has become one of my favorite mitzvot. It's funny to remember that a mere four years ago the practice was new to me. I learned how to tie tzitzit in order to try out the mitzvah of wearing a tallit katan, the "small tallit" that some Jews wear in order to fulfill the mitzvah (connective-commandment) of wearing tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments.

I tried out the mitzvah myself in order to feel good about asking my students to do so, too. In those days I taught the fifth through seventh grade class at my shul. I wanted my students to learn how to tie tzitzit and to have the experience of wearing them, but they weren't yet old enough to take on the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the "big tallit" that adult Jews wear to pray.

In some shuls, tallit gadol is worn by kids of any age when they come up to the bimah to lead a prayer or song, but in my community the minhag -- custom -- is for tallit gadol to be formally taken on at b'nei mitzvah time as part of taking on an "adult" relationship with mitzvot. So we made tallit katan, and everyone tried it out and shared what it was like. (Here's the post I wrote then, about making my own tallit katan, and trying the mitzvah myself before assigning it to my students: String theory.)

In more recent years, the seventh graders have designed and decorated tallit gadol, a process that culminates in tying on the fringes that make it a ritual garment. But this year I'm working again with kids who have some time before their celebrations... so this year's "tallisareum" (a term I borrowed from Reb Zalman z"l) is a tallit-katan-making enterprise again.

In the years since I first learned to tie tzitzit in order to teach my students, I've learned Reb Zalman's mode of tying tzitzit, with the spiraling knots that make a diagonal line down the rows of seven and eight and eleven and thirteen knots. And I've learned more about different customs around colorful tzitzit.

The text from Torah that instructs us to wear tzitzit also instructs us to include a thread of blue. I asked my students what they thought that might represent. Their first thoughts were "sky" and "sea," which turn out to be exactly right: the blue represents the water of the sea, which represents the sapphire of the sky, which represents the sparkling floor described in Torah beneath the divine throne. (Actually Torah says it was like a sapphire floor, but not actually a sapphire floor. Nava Tehila wrote a beautiful setting for that verse. In any event, the blue reminds us of sea and sky and God.)

I've also seen the custom of including a green thread among the fringes on one's tzitzit. I asked them what they thought that might represent, and they suggested green growing things. Right again: the green thread is aimed at reminding us of our obligation to care for the environment. (I learned that from Rabbi Hanna Tiferet some years ago.) That seems particularly appropriate this week as we approach Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, a festival that reminds us to care for the earth.

And finally there's the custom of including pink and blue threads, representing the pink and blue colors of the transgender flag -- a reminder that we are all created in the Divine image regardless of gender or gender expression; a reminder of our obligation to treat people of all genders with kindness and respect. I learned that from my friend, teacher, and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz (you can see a photo of his beautiful trans inclusion tzitzit on his website.)

When my students tied their tzitzit on their tallit katan this year, each of them chose a different combination of threads. Some wanted trans inclusion colors. Some wanted earth / environment awareness colors. Some wanted the darker blue of the sea and sky. I love that they all made their own choices about what they want their fringes to remind them: not just that they are Jews, not just of the mitzvot writ large, but specific mitzvot of creation care and trans inclusion and remembrance of the Holy. 

The assignment, once the tzitzit are tied, is the same as ever: wear it at least once, and report back on what it was like. Each student can make their own choice about whether or not to visibly display their fringes. (Based on what previous classes have reported, the experience of walking around for a day with tzitzit on is a consciousness-raiser even if the fringes are tucked in.) I can't wait to hear what they teach me about whether and how their color choices impact their experience of this mitzvah.

 


Building together, and the rotating rebbe chair

Bayit-logo-fullcolorWhen the seven of us came together to form Bayit, we brainstormed not only the kinds of projects we want to take on, but also the kinds of structures we need to build in order to support the work. Our bylaws offer a governance structure that's not quite like anything else I've experienced elsewhere, and I'm super-excited about it (because yes, I'm the kind of geek who gets excited about nonprofit governance!) It also feels emblematic of much that we hope to do and be.

Bayit has seven Founding Builders. At any given time, we have a board chair and vice-chair, as is standard on most boards of directors. We also have a secretary and a treasurer, and an ethics chair who leads our ethics committee, and those latter three roles last for a year. But the chair and vice-chair roles will rotate quarterly. We all get a turn.

At our December Senior Builder meeting we picked a first board chair, and the next person down the alphabet gets to be our first vice chair. In late March, the vice chair will become chair, the next person in line gets to be vice chair, and the first chair gets to be a regular founding builder like everyone else. It's also built into our bylaws that anyone who wants to do so can "pass," so no one is obligated to serve in the chair or vice-chair role if it's not a good time for them to take that role on. But everyone is entitled to a turn. Serving as board chair is something each of us gets the opportunity to do.

Bayit's founding philosophy is that we're all builders. That's core to our vision, both within the organization (in how the seven founding builders relate to each other, and to the other folks who collaborate and build with us) and in the organization's relationship with those who (we hope) will embrace and use and adapt and respond to the resources we'll provide. We want to live our values and to model mutual empowerment and healthy collaboration. As we rotate board roles, we each get the opportunity to grow in different ways, and to collectively take responsibility for balancing our skill-sets and energetics around the board table and across the organization.

EMPTY-CHAIRWe made this choice with loving awareness of one of the stories people like to tell about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers: the story of the rebbe chair and the Shabbes tisch. (I've told this one before, but it's worth sharing again.) Reb Zalman used to hold a regular "tisch" on Shabbat. A tisch (טיש‎) is a festive gathering around the table, often featuring food and a l'chaim (a toast) and singing and hearing the rebbe give over some Torah.

At the beginning of the tisch, he'd be sitting in the "rebbe chair" at the head of the table. And when he was done teaching, he'd ask everyone to rise, and all move over one seat, and whoever was then in the rebbe seat became the rebbe, and whatever they had to teach, the table received with the same attentiveness they had given to Reb Zalman. And so on, and so on, until everyone had had the opportunity to sit in the rebbe seat and to experience being in the rebbe role.

A rebbe, taught Reb Zalman z"l, doesn't have to be a singular individual in a position of power. Rebbe can be a role we fullfil for each other, a role into which each person is nurtured and nourished to grow.  The person "in the rebbe chair" isn't the permanent vertical top-down leader. The person occupying that leadership role is meant to be a fount of inspiration and collective guidance -- and that inspiration and guidance can, and should, and arguably must, come through each of us in turn. This means it's the job of each of us to honor our own rebbe spark -- and also to let it go so that the flow can come through others, too. 

Each of us can be the rebbe, and can honor the rebbe spark in the others around the table. Each of us can be empowered to lead, and to support others in leadership. Each of us can be a builder of the Jewish future of which we dream. That's part of what I understand Reb Zalman's vision to have been, and that's the activating philosophy behind Bayit. So tell us: what do you want your Jewish future to be, and what tools do you need in order to bring that vision to life? 

 


The gift of an immersive Shabbat

39754613342_8305a9af90_zWhen I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat. 

The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls. 

I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. 

So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.

We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!) 

The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean. 

On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate. 

Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.

Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.

As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.

My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.

I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week.  I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time. 


How to celebrate Tu BiShvat (and a renewed haggadah from Bayit)

Haggadah-coverTu BiShvat, the "new year of the trees," is coming at the very next full moon, the night of January 30. If you'd like to celebrate Tu BiShvat at home with friends or family, it's easy to do -- and it's a beautiful holiday that can open the heart to growth, renewal, and sweetness. Here's what you need:

1) Tree fruits. Ideally, you need at least one fruit in each of the following categories:

  • tree fruit with an inedible shell (e.g. oranges, bananas, nuts, coconut)
  • tree fruit with a pit or seed (cherries, plums, apricots, olives)
  • tree fruit that's edible all the way through (figs, mulberries, apples, pears)

You can use fresh fruits, or dried. You can have one fruit in each category, or several. You can opt to try a new fruit that you've never had before, and say the shehecheyanu for trying something new. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you want.

Some also have a custom of sipping a nip of either maple syrup, or etrog vodka, at a certain point in the seder. If either one of those appeals to you and is accessible to you, lay in a supply of that as well.

2) Grape juice or wine, both white and red. You'll need enough for four symbolic cups: one white, one white with a bit of red in it, one red with a bit of white in it, and one red. (Since you'll be mixing the liquids to create different colors in the glass, I don't recommend using expensive wine or juice for this purpose, but that too is up to you.)

3) A haggadah that will walk you through experiencing the four worlds and consuming the symbolic tree fruits and wines / juices that facilitate each step on the journey.

There are a ton of haggadot for Tu BiShvat online, and I've shared several here over the years. Here's the one I'll be using this year, co-created by myself and my fellow Bayit co-founder Rabbi David Markus (it's an update of the one we created and shared a few years ago):

It's a digital slide show, intended to be projected on a screen. If you'll be a small group around a small table, you could just page through the slides on your laptop. 

That's all you need! If you want to be minimalist: three pieces of tree fruit, two bottles of juice, and a haggadah. If you want to be maximalist, you can arrange a table laden with tree fruits and even decorations: bare branches representing winter, leafed-out branches from the florist, photographs of trees, whatever calls to your heart. 

Living as I do in a place where this time of year is deepest midwinter, I've come to love this holiday as a first step toward the coming of spring. I hope you'll explore Tu BiShvat and see what it opens up for you, emotionally and spiritually. If you do use our haggadah, let us know what works for you and what doesn't -- we're eager to hear. Leave a comment at the Bayit Facebook page or ping us @yourbayit on Twitter and let us know your thoughts!

 

You can also find this haggadah archived on the Spiritual Resources page at Bayit.


"Come to Pharaoh," and whom we choose to serve

Come-here-pleaseThis week's Torah portion is called Bo, for its opening words ויאמר יהו׳׳ה על–משה בא על–פרעא / Vayomer YHVH el-Moshe, "Bo el-Paro" -- "And God said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh.'"

Most translations say "Go to Pharaoh." But the Hebrew is pretty clearly "Come." For me, the difference between "come" and "go" is that the first one connotes "the place where I am." If I say to my son, "Come here, I want to talk to you," I'm asking him to come where I am. If I say "Go over there," I'm telling him to go to the place where I am not. So when Torah says Bo el-Paro, I hear God saying, "Come here to Pharaoh -- to the place where I also Am." (This is not my own insight -- Zohar scholar Danny Matt sees this as an invitation to "come" into God's presence, too.)

We might prefer to imagine that God is not with Paro. Pharaoh is the exemplar of toxic power-over. He regards the children of Israel as subhuman. He describes them with words that connote vermin swarming. He's ordered policies that literally kill all of their male children. And yet with this one simple phrase, Torah reminds us that there is no place devoid of God's presence. Not even the place where Pharaoh is.

The next thing we read in Torah is a bit troubling: כי–אני הכבדתי את–לבו / ki-ani hich'bad'ti et-libo, "For I have hardened his heart." Whoa, hold up: God hardened his heart? Wouldn't it have been easier for God to simply soften Pharaoh's heart so that the children of Israel could be set free without all of this drama?

But if we look back at last week's Torah portion, we'll see a different phrase. Last week, Moshe and Aharon spoke to Pharaoh, and Paraoh hardened his heart and did not listen. Three times we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen, before we reach this mention of God hardening his heart. (Many of our commentators observe this, among them Rashi.) I think Torah is teaching us some deep wisdom about the human heart.

The heart flows in the ways to which we habituate ourselves. If we practice gratitude every morning, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward gratitude. If we practice compassion toward others, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward compassion. And if we practice hardening our hearts -- maybe by telling ourselves that "those people" aren't our problem; they're a different generation, or their skin is different, or they dress differently or pray differently or speak a different language -- then we train our hearts to incline toward hardness. Like Pharaoh's.

Torah says God hardened Pharaoh's heart, but Pharaoh had already hardened it, time and again. I think God just got out of the way and let Pharaoh continue being who he had already shown himself to be. That doesn't mean God isn't with him. We don't get to say that God is only "on our side." But it does mean that Pharaoh's made his choices, and there will be consequences.

That's verse 1.

In verse 2, God continues that the purpose of the signs and wonders -- the ten plagues and our subsequent liberation -- is so that we may teach all the generations to come the story of the Exodus. This is our core story as Jews, and we tell it in our daily liturgy, in the Shabbat kiddush, and in the Passover seder.

And in verse 3, Moshe and Aharon say to Pharaoh, how long are you going to be like this? Let God's people go so that we may serve God. In God's words, שלח עמי ויעבדני / shlach ami v'ya'avduni, "Let My people go that they may serve Me." The root ע/ב/ד means service, both in the sense of the service the priests performed in the Temple of old (and the "services" we attend today) and in the sense of serving God with our hearts and our lives and our being. As we read earlier this morning, "Everyone serves something; give your life to Me."

Everyone serves something. The question is, do we serve Pharaoh -- emblem of commercialism and and overwork, dehumanization and xenophobia, all of which are still perfectly alive and well in our day -- or do we serve something else?

Judaism invites us to choose "something else." Judaism invites us to make the profoundly countercultural choice of spending 25 hours each week disengaged from work, not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Judaism invites us to say: there is something more important than all of our making and doing and achieving, and that something is Shabbat rest. Not just "taking a nap," though the Shabbos schluff is a time-honored tradition, but opening our hearts and souls to the weekly rejuvenation that becomes possible when we disconnect from workday consciousness and open ourselves to something beyond ourselves.

Judaism invites us to set aside the worries of the workweek and take a deep breath that goes all the way to our kishkes, all the way to our insides. On the seventh day, Torah teaches, שבת וינפש / shavat va-yinafash -- God rested and was ensouled. (We sing these words in the prayer V'shamru each week.) When God rested from creating, God's-own-self became ensouled in a new way. So do we.

May this Shabbat be a time of real rest and re-ensoul-ment. May we be reminded of the things that are more important than our budgets' bottom lines. And may our lives be lives of service to God -- and to the spark of divinity manifest in every human being with whom we share this earth.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.