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Story and truth

This morning I spent a while translating the first lines of this week's Torah portion, the one set for the seventh day of Passover: Exodus 14:30-15:21.

The passage begins simply enough. But then it becomes poetry, which looks different  from prose, and which is trickier to translate, though very beautiful. This particular poem is called Shirat Ha-Yam/the Song of the Sea, which Moses and the children of Israel sang to God after crossing the Sea of Reeds. The particular odd layout of this passage is often compared to brickwork, though I've also heard that it's meant to evoke the ocean crossing, with ragged waves drawing back on both sides and a column of Israelites in the middle. 

Verse eleven of the song is the one most people know from the regular liturgy: Mi chamocha ba'eilim, Adonai? Mi kamocha, ne'edar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh! ("Who is like You, My Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, awesome in praises, doing miracles!") That "among the gods" is often read as a signal that this liturgical poem predates the prose which surrounds it. Why would the text ask that question unless the existence of multiple gods were presumed? And while we're at it, what would it mean to us if the Shirat Ha-Yam were historically proven to be older than the rest of Exodus?

Or, phrased differently: if one buys the documentary hypothesis, can the Torah also be read devotionally as a holy text? (The simple answer seems to me obviously to be "yes," because I do and I do, but I think there's some merit in teasing this out a little further.)

Every few years it seems there's a new controversy about whether or not the Exodus "really happened." Is there historical record of Israelite slaves in Egypt? Can we explain the parting of the sea scientifically? How on earth did these nimrods manage to be lost for forty whole years in a desert that's honestly not that big? And, maybe most importantly, what does it mean for our faith if this story turns out not to be historically "true"? What does it mean for Jewish peoplehood if our creation narrative, the story of how our ancestors became a unified people in covenant with a redeeming God, didn't actually happen?

The thing is, while I respect that these are really vital questions for some of us, as far as I'm personally concerned the historicity of the Exodus doesn't matter a whit. As Rabbi David Wolpe has written, "The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us." Rabbi Joe Rappaport agrees:

The essential question of this tale, the message of Shirat Hayam has literally nothing to do with the great 'did it happen debate.' It is instead the lesson of Nachshon ben Aminidav, the midrashic hero who was first to step into the sea.... We are, in fact, a people of great faith--not in the simple sense that we believe all these stories we have handed down, but in a deeper sense which is revealed in the waves of this week's text. We are a people who has forever taken steps to make prayers real.

The CyberRav, too, says "Did the Exodus really happen? No one knows nor should they presume to answer. But I can tell you that the tale is a sacred tale, that it lies at the foundation of Jewish life, and that it guides us in our faith in God, justice, freedom, and the special relationship between God and the Jewish people."

Truth can exist outside of historical fact. (Indeed, this is the premise on which literature is built.) Whether or not my ancient ancestors were actually slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, what matters is that I choose each year to retell the story as if it were true. What matters is that I do my best to hew to Torah's injunction "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Mitzrayim." What matters is that I consider myself a part of the people who tell this story as a sign of our priority and identity. We were birthed from slavery into the freedom of uncertainty and the obligation of covenantal relationship: this is the most important story we tell about ourselves, and what matters is that we tell it.

One midrash tells us that the waters did not part until a guy named Nachshon bravely took the first step into the roiling waves: that says something important about the necessity of acting even when the outcome is unclear. Another midrash tells us that two Israelites named Reuven and Shimon hated the sea-crossing because they noticed only the grit and muck, the detritus left from the receding waters, and found the trek an agony of sludge. Others looked up, saw the towering walls of water on either side, and danced across in awe and joy. They walked the same path -- but the ones who focused on the dirt and the inconvenience missed the miracle altogether. That tells us something important about keeping our eyes open, and about openness to awe.

And the Shirat Ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, tells us that when we had safely reached the other side of the waters, our people sang to their Source. And I think that tells us something important about how to respond to momentous occasions in our lives, and about the imperative to sanctify our lives through offering praise.

Did the Exodus happen? Was the Song of the Sea a spontaneous outburst from Moses and the Israelites, or is it an older victory-hymn subsumed into the story we now call Torah? I'm not sure we can know. But even if the Exodus didn't happen in verifiable history, that doesn't affect my Jewishness, the joy I take in celebrating Pesach, or the beauty I find in the Shirat Ha-Yam. As Rabbi Barry Block (head rabbi at my parents' shul) said a few years ago, "May we ever derive meaning from the Exodus, whether it happened or not." Amen.


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Pesach at Elat Chayyim

I just spent three days on Passover retreat with rabbis Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Berman, and Marcia Prager, and cantor Jack Kessler. What a weekend!

Alas, many of the highlights don't translate well. The best parts for me were the new connections, prayers, and melodies. I don't think I can adequately blog the way it feels to sing and pray, open-hearted, in a room full of people who are invested in exploring and revitalizing Judaism the way I also want to do.

I can tell you a little bit about the seders and the davvening, though, and I can pass along some of the insights I gained through our study sessions. Maybe I can impart a little bit of the flavor of the retreat, what it was like for me to celebrate my favorite festival of the year in a community of like-minded folks. (Long-ish post alert: 2800 words. Read at your leisure.)

Continue reading "Pesach at Elat Chayyim" »


Bedikat chametz

This evening was the community matzah-bake at CBI. (Baking your own matzah is  both easy and fun; I recommend it.) When we were done, I helped clear the chametz out of the synagogue kitchen. We didn't do the bedikat chametz ritual with the spoon and the feather -- just boxed up the bread products, the flour, anything which is leavened, to be taken away.

The term chametz comes from the Hebrew l'chimutz, to sour or ferment. And it's forbidden during Passover. The prohibition comes from two Torah verses: Exodus l2:l9 ("For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses") and Deuteronomy l6:4 ("No leaven shall be seen within all your borders for seven days.") It's a reference to the story of the Exodus which we re-tell during the seder; our ancestors left Mitzrayim in haste with no time for their bread dough to rise, so they ate flatbread on their journey. As we replicate their journey in our own lives, we eat matzah, too. And to make sure we don't slip up accidentally, we eschew everything that rises.

The need to eradicate chametz for the week creates a spring cleaning frenzy in most Jewish households at this time of year. Metaphorically, the process symbolizes a spiritual house-cleaning, the opportunity to discard the unwanted in ourselves and our communities. This commentary takes a fascinatingly Buddhist approach: "The idea is that we divest ourselves entirely of that which symbolizes natural desires. Such desires, themselves legitimate, are nevertheless the root of slavery...."

One of my favorite parts of the seder I lead is a reference to this practice, and comes as we're just getting going, warming up for the journey at hand. We read a poem by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, called "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nisan." The poem is long and wonderful and has a beautiful rhythm to it. My favorite part of the poem is the end:

Some destroy Hametz with fire
others throw it to the wind
others toss it to the sea.
Look deep for the Hametz
which still gives you pleasure
and cast it to the burning.

When the looking is done we say:

All that rises up bitter
All that rises up prideful
All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful
All Hametz still in my possession but unknown to me
which I have not seen nor disposed of
may it find common grave
with the dust of the earth
amen amen selah . . .

After we read the poem aloud, we go around the table and give everyone the opportunity to name the chametz that she or he wishes to discard this holiday season. Usually I go first, because I knew this was coming and it never seems fair to put guests on the spot. Usually I begin with, "This year I want to let go of my need to have everything turn out the way I expected it -- especially the seder." And everyone laughs, because a seder involves some amazing cat-herding; it's a dinner party, it's a reenactment, it's a religious ritual, it's dinner theatre, it's a reunion! And it never goes as smoothly as I imagine, and it's always a little bit hard for me to let my expectations go and enjoy the slightly chaotic reality instead.

But this year I'm not leading a seder, and though I imagine the seder at Elat Chayyim will be full of this kind of participation, I don't know if I'll get the chance to say what I want to cleanse in myself this year. What I want to dispose of, cast away; what puffs me up. So I figured I'd do it here.

This year I'd like to let go of my perfectionism, my fear that what I'm doing isn't enough. Expecting more of myself than I do of others is a kind of ego trip, and dwelling on potential inadequacies means knocking the gifts I've been given. So when I catch myself falling prey to this very old impulse, I'd like to be able to notice it; name it; and, without judgement, just open my hands and let it float away. Because Passover is the holiday of our liberation from narrow places, and these fears are a narrow place from which I'd like to move on.   

Ordinarily, we perform bedikat chametz, the ceremonial cleansing of what's leavened, the night before Passover starts. But this year, since Passover comes right on the heels of Shabbat, we do it tonight instead. In the spirit of that process, I wish all of my readers strength in identifying what needs to be tossed out this year. And I wish you a joyous and fruitful holiday; a holiday in which liberation becomes real, and the suffering of enslavement only a memory; and a holiday in which your spirits soar through laughter and prayer and song, the only "leavening" we can keep.

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Passover is coming!

Passover has always been my favorite holiday.

When I was a kid, Passover meant two nights of seder with my extended paternal family. There are fifteen cousins in my generation on my dad's side, so seder was a great big family reunion, complete with food and drink and gossip and teasing -- plus hours of praying, storytelling, singing and schmoozing. I didn't learn to read Hebrew until I was eight, but when I was three my mother started paper-clipping a transliteration of the Four Questions to my haggadah. As I grew older I took pride in participating; I sang lustily and banged the table with my brothers and cousins when we got to the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) and the Hallel (songs and psalms of praise)...

The Passover haggadah was the first liturgy I fell in love with. I loved the familiar questions and answers, the stories, the songs, the turns of phrase. I still have a soft spot for the Silverman haggadah (which some branches of my family still use), though I find some of its choices and assumptions a little frustrating now. In college my liturgical pendulum swung in the other direction: I joined the feminist seder committee and worked to put together an alternative haggadah that highlighted the stories of the women in the Pesach narrative while honoring feminine and gender-neutral language for God. These days my ideal is somewhere between the traditional haggadah I grew up with and the mimeographed homegrown one I helped to write in college. But more importantly, I like the themes and ideas at the holiday's heart, regardless of where on the liturgical spectrum any particular haggadah falls.

I love the fact that our central narrative is a story about moving from slavery to freedom, from Mitzrayim (Egypt, though the word literally means "the narrow place") to self-determination and expansiveness. The ritual is full of possibilities, and provides excellent opportunities for identifying both our own constrictions and our obligation to bring liberation to all those who are not yet free. Passover teaches me that the stories we tell about ourselves matter, and that in every generation we must re-embody liberation as though we ourselves went forth from Egypt. Plus, there's singing, and matzah ball soup. What's not to like?

For the last several years I've had a practice of revising my own haggadah each winter, and using it in the spring. This year I am spending Pesach at Elat Chayyim, participating in the Passover Retreat led by Rabbis Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Berman, Marcia Prager, and cantor Jack Kessler. (If any of you will be there, let me know!) In part because I won't be leading a seder of my own this year,  I haven't revised last year's haggadah significantly enough to release a new version. Still, if you're looking for a haggadah which blends traditional and nontraditional, old (familiar prayers and songs in Hebrew and Aramaic) and new (poems by Marge Piercy, Martin Espada, and W.S. Merwin, along with some passages from the excellent Women's Seder Sourcebook), please feel free to use my haggadah, either for your own seder or as a jumping-off-point for the creation of your own liturgy.

Here it is in .pdf format:

The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Passover

Edited in 2009 to add: I've revised the above link so that it points to the latest version of the haggadah; this post was originally written about an older version of the text. Here's a post about the latest version. The latest version of the haggadah is available at velveteenrabbi.com/VRHaggadah.pdf [pdf]; in future years, new versions will have the same filename and will be located at the same URL.

Many people said kind things about it last year: Rick Richman wrote, "it is a beautiful haggadah. Worth reading and studying and using." Lorelei Feldman reported that "a friend hated breaking from the reading in order to eat!" Sandy Ryan said, "incredibly well-honed and interesting and real." I hope it enriches your Passover, and that you have as much fun with my favorite holiday this year as I know I will!


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Pastoral education

For some years now, I've been assuming that someday I would enroll in a Clinical Pastoral Education course. That timeline has been shortened from "someday" to "soon" because I've been asked to stretch myself and pinch-hit in a major way when my rabbi goes on sabbatical next year. Leading services, teaching Torah, and doing lifecycle events are within my current comfort zone; counseling people in an official capacity isn't. Yet.

So this afternoon I drove down to the Berkshire Religious Resource Center and met with the minister who runs the local CPE program. I liked him immediately: he has a clear voice, a strong grip, and that air of presence that one sometimes encounters in longtime clergy. He told me about the history of CPE and how it arose out of the Reverend Anton T. Boisen's convictions that we can interact with each other as "living human documents" and that religion can be brought to bear on medicine.

He also told me about the program, which takes 400 hours (of which 100 are structured group and individual education, and the other 300 are spent serving in a pastoral care setting, hospital or hospice.) There are two program options (a summer intensive, five days a week; or a September-May program that meets one day a week). Along the way he talked about personal and theological reflection, ways of listening, what we can learn from M*A*S*H, and why this work is so important and so fun.

Jeff said last week that his unit of CPE was one of the most useful parts of his seminary experience, as valuable and meaningful as it was difficult. Karen posted extensively last summer about her CPE rotations, and in the end gave me the impression that it was incredibly difficult and valuable for her, too.

On the one hand, this sounds pretty scary. What will it feel like the first time I sit down with someone who is terminally ill, or someone in chronic suffering, and seek to listen to them or pray with them? Who am I to offer these things? Then again, I know that even (or especially) the sickest and frailest among us are reflections of God; and who would I be if I let this calling pass me by? That Marianne Williamson passage is right-on, I think, even if Nelson Mandela didn't use it in his inaugural address. (Anybody out there know the source of that misapprehension?)

As much as the summer intensive appeals to me (I know it's what a lot of seminarians do; I can see the value in deep immersion, and I can imagine that a tight group bond forms between participants over the course of the three months) I don't know that I can commit to it. My summer calendar already involves a family vacation and a possible retreat, plus there's this small matter of my arts nonprofit to consider. So I think I'm likelier to apply for the fall, and do the one-day-a-week program through next fall and winter and spring.

The application looks like fun, too. The essay questions are nice simple ones, like "a reasonably full account of your life, including important events, relationships with people who have been significant to you, and the impact these events and relationships have had on your development." And "a description of the development of your religious life, including events and relationships that affected your faith and currently inform your belief systems." Maybe it's a good thing I'm leaning towards fall; this could take a while...


Facing impermanence

The call came as I was nursing a mug of tea. The woman on the other end of the phone -- I'll call her D -- is a fellow congregant at CBI.  We're both poets, both interested in midrash, so we've moved in similar circles for years, though I wouldn't call us close. She and her husband run our chevra kadisha, the group of volunteers which mindfully prepares the bodies of those who have died for burial. They're always looking for volunteers, and at my first synagogue board meeting Jeff urged us to consider joining them. He observed that in our tradition this is the most sacred work one can do, a final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it.

At the time, I was oddly tempted to volunteer. Though I'm comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it's difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies?  What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha seemed like an opportunity to learn. But in the end, I didn't offer my assistance. I wasn't sure I was ready. I wasn't sure I had time. I let my excuses get in the way.

Until yesterday morning, when the phone rang. An elderly lady in our congregation had died, and D was looking for volunteers to help prepare her body, at 5:30, right after work. No time to equivocate, no time to postpone. Help was needed that same day. I heard myself ask calmly how long the process usually takes; I reminded D that I've never done this before so I would need to be talked through it; and then I said I'd meet her at the funeral home. I hung up the phone not-quite believing the conversation had been real. How on earth would I get any work done, knowing that at the end of my workday I was going to have my first encounter with death?

Continue reading "Facing impermanence" »


New Zeek

I just got my copy of the spring/summer 2005 issue of Zeek magazine, which includes my poem "Asher Yatzar." I'm deeply pleased by the company my work is keeping; Rabbi Jill Hammer and Hal Sirowitz both have poems in this volume, too. The issue also features some terrific nonfiction, including "Not Pure Black and White: a meditation on baseball and race" by Michael Blumenthal, and "Religion, Spirituality, Contemplation, Love" by Jay Michaelson.

Jay's essay knocked my socks off. This piece explores "religion," "spirituality," "contemplation" and "God;" what those words do and don't mean, and how they overlap; and how the triangles of the Jewish star point in both directions, from our ordinary lives towards awareness of the One and from that awareness back into our lives. Along the way he converses with Schleiermacher, Heschel, Cordovero, Kerouac, and Anne Frank.

While I was reading the essay I grabbed my commonplace book off the shelf and copied several quotes down for ease of later reference. Here are a few of them:

Being religious, in the sense that I understand the term, is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of love. I have more in common with an atheist who dances than with the supposedly pious men who are asleep in their lives.

Moses asks how he's supposed to describe this YHVH process, or thing, or being, and gets the reply Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am That I Am." Take out the personal pronoun, and you get "It Is What It Is."

Being in love with God is like being in love with a person; paraphrasing Jack Kornfield, sometimes it's ecstasy, sometimes it's laundry.

Any essay that makes me reach for the notebook and pen is an essay worth rereading, and I recommend it highly, along with the rest of the spring/summer Zeek.  (For what it's worth, the quotes immediately preceding these in my commonplace book are from Wendell Berry and Madeleine L'Engle. I'd say about half of the quotes I copy are about writing and the other half are about God, but the ones I return to most often speak to both of my perennial fascinations...)

A single issue of Zeek is seven bucks. You can subscribe for $14. This is a beautiful journal and it's worth supporting. Buy it here.


Tricky Torah: Taharah & Tumah

My rabbi is fond of asserting that there are no "bad" Torah portions. Whether holiness is innate to the text or something that arises through our engagement with it, Jewish life is predicated on the assertion that Torah has value. All of Torah, not just the fun narrative parts. Okay. Fair enough.

Even so, there are portions which are...let's say...trickier to connect with than others. And we're in the middle of one of those portions right now. Tazria-Metzora (in most years, a double-wide Torah portion; this year, divided into two weeks' worth of reading, since this is a leap year and we need to stretch Leviticus a little) centers around what's usually translated as "ritual impurity." Here's how Tazria starts:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be tamei as at the time of her menstrual infirmity...She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is complete. If she bears a female, she shall be tamei two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days... (Leviticus 12:1-5, which begins online here.)

I want to argue that everything in Torah is valuable, but this is a difficult portion. Because the easiest reading of this text says that childbirth is somehow polluting, and that bearing a daughter is twice as polluting as bearing a son, and that's just offensive to me. So what do I do with it?

Continue reading "Tricky Torah: Taharah & Tumah" »


Blogger Shabbat

I had a very special erev Shabbat: dinner with three wonderful women I'd never met in person before, in one of my favorite towns. This evening I drove over the mountains to Northampton to meet Leslee (of Third House Party), Lorianne (of Hoarded Ordinaries), and  Andi (of Ditch the Raft). Andi and Lorianne were in town for a Women Practicing Buddhism conference at Smith; Leslee and I joined them for dinner on the spur of the moment, and I'm so glad we did.

We met in a bookstore downtown, then walked in the glorious spring evening air to the block with all of my favorite restaurants in it. Amanouz being full to the brim, we wound up at La Veracruzana, which was a little bit silly since Leslee just got back from Mexico, but we figured it was a better bet than sushi since Andi is about to move back to Korea where Japanese food is plentiful and not all that exciting.

We clinked beer bottles and toasted our togetherness. We talked about travel (Leslee told great stories about Holy Week in Mexico) and religious paths (Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism) and religious ideas (prayer, meditation, and sacrifice) -- totally my idea of a good time! Andi was a good sport and answered all of our questions about her intent to pursue ordination as a Buddhist nun. I already knew I admired her commitment to her path, but now I also know I admire her good humor and her warm energy, too. It sounds like she'll spend at least six years in Korea, probably more like ten, but she hopes to return to the States someday, to bring her new knowledge and groundedness to bear on the place of her origins. Yay.

The meal zipped by too fast; afterwards Leslee headed home, Andi and Lorianne went to a talk at Smith, and I (again, operating on a spur-of-the-moment whim) met an old friend for Vietnamese coffee at the Haymarket before returning home. On the way to the coffee shop I walked slowly, enjoying the night air, the sounds of motorcycles moving slowly through town, snippets of overheard conversation. This is the first really warm evening we've had, and the streets of Northampton were beautifully alive: pierced kids with multicolored hair sitting in flocks on the sidewalk, buskers playing guitar and trumpet, couples holding hands, people walking with clove cigarettes or ice cream cones.

I came away feeling genuinely blessed to know such smart, open-hearted people. We come from different places, and we're walking different paths, and connecting with each other is just so damn cool. Thanks for the evening, y'all, and three cheers for the internet! Shabbat shalom.


Joy Comes in the Morning

I just spent the evening curled up on the couch with a glass of red wine and a really enjoyable novel: Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning. My friend Emily said it made her think of me, so she lent me her copy. I devoured it in one long, happy sitting.

The protagonist of Joy Comes in the Morning is Deborah Green, a rabbi with whom I felt an immediate kinship. Maybe because the book begins with her morning prayers -- and her distractions, and her rueful recollection that she always means to davven more often than she actually does. (What? That rings a bell for me, and I love the reminder that even rabbis are human.)

Maybe I identified with her because she chose active Jewishness as an adult, or because she likes to sing, or because she grew up in the west and has chosen a northeastern life. Or maybe Rosen just made her a likeable character. One way or another, I connected with Deborah from the first page, and I rode the book's rollercoaster with her: her hopes, her crises, her wry musings on rabbinic life. "Deborah sometimes joked that being a rabbi was like working for a boss that everyone hated, like collecting rent in a bad neighborhood" made me laugh out loud, as did "Rabbis were spiritually promiscuous -- they belonged to everybody and nobody."

The second major character we meet is Henry Friedman, an older man who has had a stroke and who is planning to commit suicide to spare himself and his family his inevitable decline. He fails; in the hospital he is ministered to by Deborah. That's where Deborah meets Lev, Henry's son, a reporter for a science magazine. The defining fact of Lev's life to date is that he left his fiancée at the altar, and his life has been complicated (and a little empty) ever since.

And that's all the plot summary I'm going to offer, because this book is really worth reading and I don't want to spoil it for anyone. Rosen moves skillfully from one character's point of view to another, drawing out the book's overarching themes: how interconnected we are, the nature of faith (ineffable though it might be). This book asks, what does it mean to be religious? Is God real, and does that matter? These are important questions, and I'm impressed that this novel asks them. I'm even more impressed that, having reached the end, I think it may offer answers.

It's possible I loved this book because it's uniquely designed to make me happy: it's about a rabbi, relationships, faith, joy, love. What's not to like? (I felt that way about Myra Goldberg's Bee Season, too. How many popular novels are there which focus on geek kids, orthography, and the mysticism of Abraham Abulafia? Too darned few, I tell you.)

But I suspect this book is excellent even to people who are not me. (These reviews suggest that I'm right.) So if you're looking for a good read featuring real human characters and an interesting, poignant, and funny journey into Judaism, pick up Joy Comes in the Morning. The copy I just read is going back to my friend Emily, but I might have to invest in one of my own; this is a book that belongs on my shelf.


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More light

Growing up in San Antonio, I associated seasons with temperatures. Since moving north, I've come to think of seasonal change as more a factor of light than of heat. This is especially true of the liminal seasons, spring and fall.

We've had a few blissfully warm days; the cat has reacquainted herself with the deck, and dipped a cautious paw even onto the muddy lawn. But warmth can't be taken-for-granted yet. We always get spring snow in April. ("Spring snow." There's a phrase I would have thought was an oxymoron, once upon a time. Where I grew up, spring meant bluebonnets and the season's first sunburn. I've had to learn a new lexicon.) 

Pesach comes late this year because of the extra month of Adar. So in the gevurot blessing of the amidah, we're still praising God with the winter blessing ("You make the wind blow and the rain fall") -- we won't switch to the summer blessing ("You bring the dew of the field") for another few weeks.

Liturgically it may still be winter, but every sense tells me now is spring. The season's first moths are fluttering bravely outside my window, attracted by my lamp. This morning I saw tiny yellow flowers  on a hillside. And the days keep lengthening. I woke in daylight this morning; I drove home from work in daylight. Tonight I even made dinner before it got fully dark. What an expansive feeling! Though I know we'll get another cold snap, another hard frost -- though it's not Nisan yet -- this is spring because of the light.

The cold season has its blessings, which I've learned to savor. But some part of me overflows with thanksgiving every spring, and every spring I feel energized to tackle the broken world again. As Marge Piercy writes in her poem "Baytzeh: Season of the Egg,"

every day there is more work
to do and stronger light.

Amen to that.

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500 words of memory, take 2

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my grandmother Alice's death -- on the Gregorian calendar, anyway. (On the Hebrew calendar her yarzheit is 3 Nisan, which falls on April 12th this year; I'll say kaddish in her memory this upcoming Shabbat.) It seems strange to see her first name on the screen. Of course I always knew her name was Alice, but along with everyone else I called her "Lali," a Czech pet name, because Lali was born and reared in Prague. Though she married a handsome Russian doctor with an American birth certificate, I doubt she ever imagined that they would emigrate. Hitler's inexorable march towards Prague settled that, though, and they sailed for America in 1939.

The decades that followed are like legend to me. They lived in New York, Alexandria, McKinney. Once they lived in an old VA hospital where their children roller-skated in the long hospital corridors. Once, on a road trip to New York, my aunt and uncle were making such a commotion fighting that they distracted my grandfather into forgetting Lali at a gas station! By the time I entered the picture, Lali and Eppie lived in San Antonio, my childhood hometown.

Lali indulged me, as grandmothers so often do. She made chewy oatmeal-raisin cookies, and fudge that sparkled with yellow raisins. (That her fudge recipe was the one on the back of the marshmallow fluff jar didn't detract from its deliciousness one bit.) She let me eat cocoa puffs for breakfast. She applauded when I used up her entire roll of aluminum foil making pretend knight's armor, and let me play dress-up with her many beautiful silk scarves. She played me records on the big cabinet Victrola. In her eyes I was wonderful.

In 1993 we took a family trip to the Czech Republic. It was the last big trip my grandparents would take; already they were beginning to be disoriented by the rigors of travel. Still, I walked the cobbles of Wenceslas Square with them; we peered up at the window of the Prague flat where they lived with my mother so long ago; we ate Czech foods, zely and knedliky cut with string and, one night at a cottage outside Karlovy Vary, cold vodka and wild mushroom soup. I remember the woodsmoke, that night, and the strains of "Cherveny Shottischku," the one Czech folk song I grew up knowing (though today I can only sing the first line.) We returned to the castle in Cesky Krumlov where they had gone on their honeymoon so many years before. I think I knew even then that the trip was an ending, one last chance for them to return.

We hired an oral historian to interview my grandparents, so four hours of Lali's stories have been preserved. I listen to them on my computer now, in my iTunes library (what would have have made of my iPod, I wonder?) and find it hard to believe that she's ten years gone.


Wishful thinking

In a kind of early April Fool's Day prank, the group Jewish Women Watching sent out a press release earlier this week making it appear that the Conservative movement intended to address gender inequality in the rabbinate:

Since the ordination of Amy Eilberg in 1985, women rabbis have been an integral stronghold of the Conservative movement as it progresses into the future. On the evening of Tuesday, March 29 at 6:30, JTS will present the Gerson D. Cohen Memorial Lecture, "A Movement Transformed: Women's Ordination and Conservative Judaism"....JTS will use this historic event to unveil its plan to achieve gender and sexual equity in all ranks of the Conservative movement, with a commitment to achieving full egalitarianism by the year 2010.

The JWW press release listed the plan's primary points: fully eliminating the salary gap between male and female rabbis, beginning to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, and requiring all affiliated synagogues to commit to full gender egalitarianism, all by 2010.

Of course, they admitted to the hoax the following day. "'If JTS had wanted to claim the plan and commit to the actions outlined in it, JWW would have been happy to step back and let them take the credit,' said Clara Lemlich, a JWW member. In reality, the panel's moderator dissociated JTS from any proposal to comprehensively embrace egalitarianism and equity..."

I first read about this at Jewshool, and since then I've only seen the story amplified in one blog, Rabbi Jason A. Miller's. (He also noticed the joke names in the JWW's second press release. I'm sure if they were alive, Clara and Sophie would have cheered the prank -- and the intentions behind it.) I'm surprised it hasn't been more widely blogged.

JTS is actually celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women, and they did actually present an event called "A Movement Transformed," but I haven't been able to find an official response from JTS to the JWW press release or to the issues JWW raised.

Too bad. This is a hoax I can't help wishing were real.

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Open our eyes...

This morning at shul, after our usual mindfulness practice, we spent a short while doing insight meditation. We focused on a line from the liturgy: v'ha-er eyneinu b'Toratecha, v'dabek libeinu b'mitzvotecha, v'yached levaveinu l'ahava u-l'ira et-sh'mecha. Loosely translated, it means, "Open our eyes to Your Torah, cause us to cleave to Your mitzvot, and unite our hearts in love and awe of Your name."

The syntax of the verse draws a parallel between Toratecha (Your Torah), mitzvotecha (Your mitzvot) and sh'mecha (Your name). Each one leads to the next; engaging with Torah can cause one to practice mitzvot (literally "commandments," though the term has connotations of general righteousness), and that in turn can bring one to encounter God's name, to encounter the essence of God.

Going a little deeper into the verse, I think the first clause seeks a kind of consciousness expansion. (I see "open our eyes" as a metaphor for moving from mochin d'katnut/"small mind" to mochin d'gadlut/"big mind", microcosmic human consciousness to macrocosmic God-consciousness.) The latter two clauses feature verbs of profound connection: first dabek, then yached.  (Dabek, דבק/daled-bet-quf, shares a root with the term devekut -- usually translated as cleaving-to-God, a kind of mystical union. Yached, יחד/yud-khet-daled, shares a root with echad, "one.")

So how do these three things go together? Again, one leads to the next, which leads to the next. Mind-expansion that allows us to imagine God's way of seeing things can lead to  devekut/cleaving, which can lead to yachid/oneness. It's not clear to me whether we're asking for our hearts to be united with God, or to be united with each others' hearts in the service of God, but either way it's a pretty powerful message. We're asking for radical connection.

After meditation, I zipped through translating a decent-sized section (eleven verses) of this week's Torah portion, along the way learning vocabulary words like "calf" and "ox" (and learning nifty bits of Torah trivia, like the composition of the mincha, grain-offering, in antiquity). At one point I looked up at Jeff and said, "I think this is getting easier." He confirmed that I'm improving, which made me happy. I'm still not sure how to connect what I'm reading in Leviticus with my modern-day journey towards holiness, but I think that's okay. I want my eyes opened to Torah, like the verse says, but before I can grasp its deeper meanings I have to be able to parse the sentences. And though I'm not there yet, at least I'm moving in that direction.


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