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June 2005
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August 2005

Let's talk about funerals.

"Let's talk about funerals." That's what Jeff said to me yesterday afternoon, as we planned to meet as usual for meditation and Torah study this morning.

He's going on vacation tomorrow (I'll be serving as shaliach tzibbur, prayer leader, over the next two Shabbatot), and historically when he goes on vacation he asks one of the region's other rabbis to be on call in the event that a congregant dies. This time, I am on call instead.

It seems, on the one hand, eminently reasonable. I have officiated at baby-namings and weddings; some day I will need to learn the other side of the life-cycle coin. A while back, anticipating Jeff's 2006 sabbatical, we talked about this eventuality; that's why I'm doing my best to enroll in a CPE program this fall. When Jeff goes on sabbatical next winter, I hope to have some pastoral counseling under my belt. But his vacation is nearly upon us; there isn't time to gain new counseling skills now. Which is why this seems, on the proverbial other hand, a little overwhelming.

So this morning, we talked. He told me which congregant to call to set the funeral home and chevra kadisha wheels in motion. How to set up a meeting with the family, and what to say to them when we meet. How to walk them through the funeral day and what it will entail, how to prepare them for things which may be hard (seeing the casket, e.g., or the ride from the synagogue to the cemetary.) How to help them decide what kind of shivah they want to do. How to prompt them for personal stories to use in the hesped, the eulogy.

I have a copy of the CCAR Rabbi's Manual, which contains the funeral liturgy I would need. has a recording of El Male Rachamim, the memorial prayer, which I can learn. But as Jeff ruefully reminded me, the funeral is the easy part. More  difficult, and maybe more important, is the work of helping the family begin to move through their grief.

Last time we I talked about this was April, after my first experience on the chevra kadisha. We agreed that next time our community had a funeral, I would attend, to see what Jeff does and how he does it. Fortunately we've been lucky; there hasn't been a funeral since then.

It's entirely possible we will continue to be so; with God's help, there may be no deaths during Jeff's absence. Deus volent, inshallah, and kein yehi ratzon, I won't need to rise to this particular occasion now. But if someone does die, I will need to tap into the strength I find when I officiate at other, more joyous, life-cycle events; I will need to rise above my fears that I don't know what on earth I am doing, and be present for the family in their loss. If this situation does arise, I must live up to what the community needs me to be.

I know that some of my readers are clergy. How did you find what inner resources you needed to handle your first funeral?

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All the Vows

Because I'm leading Shabbat morning services again this week, I get to spend today preparing to read and teach Torah. Though I'm mildly frustrated to discover that I can't translate this portion on-the-fly like I did a few weeks ago, I'm still having fun learning it. We're doing the very beginning of parashat Mattot, the part about the vows of men and the vows of women and how binding each kind of vow ought to be. (That's Numbers 30:2-17, in case you were wondering -- translated here.)

Here's the nutshell version: if a woman is young enough to be living in her father's house, then he has control over her speech; if a woman is old enough to be married, then her husband has control over her speech. Her vows only stand if the men in her life permit; only if she becomes a widow or a divorcée can her word stand as firm as that of a man.

On the one hand, this looks like a clear case of women being considered property. However ordinary that might have been in antiquity, it clashes with my feminist sense of egalitarianism. To me the truths that women are not property -- that our voices are as valid as those of men -- that we have the right and the obligation to define our commitments for ourselves -- are entirely self-evident. On the proverbial other hand, I'm not willing to scrap this passage of Torah. So how can I wrestle with it productively?

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Another week at Elat Chayyim

Elat Chayyim, for me, is like Miriam's Well, which (midrash teaches) followed our ancestors in the wilderness. The well contained such mayimei chayyim (living waters) that drinking from it nurtured both body and soul; it conferred Torah wisdom and insights, quenching thirst in all four worlds at once. I've just returned from a week-long Elat Chayyim retreat, and as usual, I feel steeped in tradition and enlivened by my learning.

I had three purposes in going on retreat. One was the pleasure of returning and dipping into that well. The second was Reb Shaya Isenberg's course Sharing Spiritual Wisdom: A Course in Deep Ecumenism. Thirdly, last week was a gathering-time for those involved with Aleph's various ordination programs, and I wanted to meet the rabbinic students and the other prospective applicants who were there.

This post is quite long (over seven thousand words) so read at your leisure. Herein you'll find class notes, conversational anecdotes, descriptions of the various prayer services, and (come Friday afternoon) a story about jumping in a river, among other things...

Continue reading "Another week at Elat Chayyim" »

Remembering Dick

A bit before one this afternoon, we picked our way carefully up the muddy path to the tent in the field at Cricket Creek Farm. Young men with huge umbrellas were stationed along the way, to escort people and keep us (more or less) dry. The rain stopped just before the memorial began, and the clouds lifted and reconvened, drifted apart and then together again, over the mountains all afternoon.

A remarkable range of people spoke about Dick, from Nancy Birdsall to Dick and Jude's longtime carpenter. One of Dick's nieces closed her remarks with Gandalf's farewell ("Here at last, on the shores of the sea, comes the end of our Fellowship. I will not say 'do not weep,' for not all tears are evil...") Several people read Dick's words, either excerpts from e-mail messages or passages from his journal like the ones I blogged a week ago. Almost everyone referred to Dick's energy, his openness, his generosity of spirit, his radical optimism, and his passion for making the world a better place

We closed with a reading from Kohelet (3:1-8, "to everything there is a season..."), a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh about continuation and change and the nature of things, and a recitation of El Male Rachamim and the mourner's kaddish. And the whole thing was framed with music. At the start of the afternoon a lone bagpiper walked down from the woods, playing all the way. At the end, a few guitarists picked up their instruments and we all sang Jamaica Farewell (reported to be one of the only songs to which Dick knew all the words), and his sons fired a cannon into the misty fields.

Then all three hundred of us retired to the stone barn for a beautiful buffet of breads, artisanal cheeses, olives and fruits. We milled around and reminisced and talked about how much Dick would have loved the afternoon. Seeing so many people from his life, together -- the friends he made as a teenager at summer camp alongside the professors with whom he taught, the young entrepreneurs he mentored embracing his beloved wife and children -- would have delighted him, I think.

The last story we heard came from our friend Margaret. When she and her family got the sad news about Dick's passing, they were in Canada. On their way home to North Carolina, they gave their kids glowsticks as nightlights for the long drive, and her oldest son Charlie (who's going on seven) was worried that his glowstick wouldn't last long enough. "Can we light it again if it goes out?" he asked.

Margaret explained that they could not. "It'll shine for ten hours, as long as we need it to. But after that, we can't light it again."

"Like Dick," Charlie apparently said, without missing a beat. "But his light lasted a really long time."


Tomorrow I'm off to Elat Chayyim to spend a week studying Deep Ecumenicism with Rabbi Shaya Isenberg. I'm looking forward to a week of meditation and prayer, to the conversations, to meeting new people and reconnecting with that wonderful place and everything it awakens in me. In some way I can't quite quantify, I'll be taking Dick with me this time, and that seems fitting.

If any of you will be there, please seek me out! And to everyone else, have a wonderful week; I'll be online again in about seven days...


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Nelson from Quo Vadis kindly tapped me to do the "bedside table" meme (which Rachelle originated). I blogged for almost two years without doing a single meme, and now I've done two within the last month; what is the world coming to? 

The meme is simple: list what's on one's bedside table. We've done similar writing exercises in workshops I've taught (I encourage students to offer a glimpse of a character, or of themselves, through the contents of a wallet or wastebasket) so perhaps this bedside table thing will offer you some insight into what my life looks like.

For starters, I guess I should explain that I don't really have a bedside table.

Continue reading "Bedside" »


"I've recently noticed that somehow, without much intention, little altars have cropped up everywhere around me. There are three in my office, one in the backyard, one on my bedside table...the windowsill over the kitchen sink...the corner of the living room. Just this week my neighbor caught me setting a new one up by my front door..."

So writes Rachelle of ThursdayPM, in her post Little Altars Everywhere: Recovering She. She talks about what's on her altars -- specifically the newest one, by her bedside -- and what the component parts mean to her, and why she has altars at all. Her post rang some bells for me, and I filed it away to contemplate (and respond to) later.

A few days after I read Rachelle's post, Dave at Via Negativa posted Home and Altar, a meditation on altars in twelve numbered sections. He asks great questions: "What happens to the home when it incorporates an altar? What happens to the altar when a religious sanctuary is converted into a private home?" (He also muses on the Abrahamic tendency to see strangers as incarnations of divinity, the nature of possessions and of ownership, and whether computers connected to the internet have altar-like qualities. Good stuff, and the comments on his post are also really worth a read.)

The confluence of blog posts got me thinking. In a way, my dining table is my altar. The rabbis interpreted the words of Ezekiel -- "I have removed them from among the nations and scattered them; I have become a small sanctuary (mikdash me'at) in the countries where they have gone" -- to mean that in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, the home table would become a new altar for offerings to God. When I light Shabbat candles, when I bless bread and wine, my words and intentions are my offerings to God, and my table becomes sacred space.

I like thinking of my table as an altar, a place where connections with God are forged. When we bless and share what we have, our table is graced with a presence beyond our own; our words and intentions become offerings to our Source, playing the role once filled by sacrifice. (That's why we wash our hands with a blessing before eating, and why we salt our double loaves at Shabbat.) Table-as-altar: absolutely, that resonates for me. That said...I have something in my house which bears some resemblance to Rachelle's altar, too.

Continue reading "Altarity" »

The virtue of attention

One of my favorite poems -- " Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver -- begins with the lines,

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.

I believe this, mostly. What we do matters, but we have worth independent of our actions. We should value ourselves for who we innately are, reflections of the Infinity from Which we come. But what might it mean to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves? And could that choice -- to notice and savor the world around me -- be a kind of "being good," despite Oliver's framing?

Lately I've been thinking about small, unorthodox mitzvot: not big ones like giving tzedakah or visiting the sick, but the little acts that register as virtuous in my mind though most people might not see them so. For instance, eating raspberries in summer.

How is this a mitzvah? Because raspberries are one of the glories of summertime, and in eating them I reawaken my sense of wonder at the season and its bounty. Raspberries grow wild at the edges of our yard, and when I pick them and scatter them atop my bowl of cereal I am saying to the Universe, "Thank you. I'm awake here, I'm noticing, so keep the good stuff coming."

By the same token, going for walks in the forest is virtuous. It gets me away from my desk and my overinflated sense of the importance of my responsibilities, and reminds me there's more to life than to-do lists. There's trees, and ferns, and tiny speckled frogs that blend in with last autumn's washed-out leaves, and conversation with friends who visit from afar, and each of these is important and deserves my attention.

Attention: that's the core of it. I want to be a person who pays attention. I want to mark the exquisite song of the birds -- I think they are wood thrushes -- that sing morning and evening outside our home. I want to notice the wrinkle of skin on a slightly too-ripe peach. I want to take advantage of what's before me, as though ignoring abundance were tantamount to rejecting it. In a way, that's the philosophy behind the practice of saying brachot; every time we bless a taste or a sight or an experience, we remind ourselves to take notice.

A bracha for today: You abound in blessings, Source of all that is. How good it is to open my eyes to all that You bestow on our world.

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In the spring of 1995, my grandmother Lali died (may her memory be a blessing). I was a college student then, and had a part-time job as a low-level html programmer at Tripod, the where Ethan worked, founded by two recent Williams graduates and a professor named Dick Sabot.

Everyone else at Tripod was college-age, or close to it; Dick was an anomaly. He had been a professor of economics at Columbia, Oxford, and Yale before coming to Williams. He had spent ten years at the World Bank, and served as a Senior Economic Advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank. And he was the only one at Tripod in those early days who knew much about running a business -- or, for that matter, about being a grown-up.

Shortly after Lali died, I found a packet from Dick in my student union mailbox. "Rachel," the note said, "As you come to terms with the death of your grandmother, my account of my own near death experience may offer a hopeful perspective." A hopeful perspective: Dick in a nutshell. Sure enough, paperclipped to his note was a sheaf of typed pages, an excerpt from something he was writing entitled To Die Would Be Such An Adventure.

It began by quoting from his journal, an entry dated June 28, 1991:

A week ago today, Friday, June 21, Jude's birthday, I died. I left this world as we know it and then returned. The technical term is cardiac arrest. My heart stopped pumping. The finely syncopated electrical signals that regulate its complex functioning had become a jumble, an electrical storm which transmitted noise but communicated no vital information to the heart muscle...

Continue reading "Memoriam" »

Blessed are the Papermakers

On our last day in Palermo, we walked as far as our feet would bear: from our hotel down to the marionette museum (alas, closed, despite what our guide book had predicted), past the beautiful twelfth-century church of St. Francis of Assisi (which we couldn't enter; a wedding was in progress), through a densely-packed street market where pyramids of glistening eggplants vied for space with t-shirt stalls decked in the pink-and-black of Palermo's football club. In a warren of tiny curving alleys -- the kind we'd seen all over Sicily, though these were harder than usual to navigate, on account of being torn up by construction -- we ran across a baffling street sign:


Neither my patchy Italian nor my badly-rusted Latin offered a match for cartari (my best guess was that it meant "map-makers") and I couldn't fathom why this sign, unlike all the others we'd seen, was trilingual. What had we stumbled upon? Was this tiny lane relevant to the Jewish history of Palermo, or its time under Arab rule? Did it have Abrahamic religious significance? We peered around the cement blocks and piles of rubble, but couldn't pick our way further down the street; we turned around and wandered elsewhere, the sign defined by its inscrutability, like a koan.

Of course, being me, I couldn't let the koan stand unresolved. A thorough googling, once I got home, yielded a bed-and-breakfast called Ai Cartari, in the neighborhood we were rambling around that day, housed in "an ancient building in which paper was made." Papermakers must be the cartari in question, and the narrow alleyway we stumbled across must lead to where they once worked -- now a hotel. But I still can't explain the existence of the Hebrew (cartari is transliterated, not translated) nor the Arabic (which I can't read; is it a transliteration, too?) Blessed are the papermakers, for their street will spawn contemplation for centuries to come.

By the by, my favorite 100 or so photos from the Sicily trip are online here. I appear only as an absence (hey, they're my pictures -- I was behind the camera), but I hope you enjoy.

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Getting a Jump on Chukat

Between one thing and another, it's three weeks since I last studied Torah with Jeff or cracked my Biblical Hebrew textbook. I feel bad about that, especially since next weekend I'm pinch-hitting again -- leading Friday and Saturday services, which includes reading Torah and running the Torah discussion. (I'm also giving a presentation on Jewish American poetry on Friday night, as part of our summer lecture series -- a brief talk annotating a handful of my favorite poems, plus a reading of some of my own Judaic work -- though that doesn't require my Hebrew skills to be especially shiny.)

This morning I opened my Tanakh to parashat Chukat to begin preparing the Torah portion. Jeff and I had agreed that I should read, and teach on, the passage where Moses is instructed to bring forth water from the rock. There's a lot of good stuff in those thirteen tasty verses: the implicit connection between Miriam's death and the dearth of water, Moses' cynical "listen up, you rebels; shall I bring forth water for you from this rock?", God's decision that because Moses and Aaron doubted  they will not enter the promised land. Moving beyond the p'shat (literal level), there's the terrific question of how we call forth the living waters that sustain us once our spiritual leaders are gone.

Of course every Torah portion is a good one, but this is an especially good one, and I can't wait to lead the discussion -- but I have to be able to read it, first. And since I haven't studied Hebrew in three weeks, I wasn't looking forward to starting my study again and seeing how far I'd slipped.

To my surprise, it turns out I can translate about 95 percent of the allotted portion without help. Sure, there are some words I didn't know -- "buried," "quarreled," "perished," "figs," "rock," "rebels" -- but I can easily learn those in a week. I think I'm going to be able to simultranslate this as I read -- a line of Hebrew, followed by its English translation -- for the first time.

My Hebrew is not what I want it to be. I still can't navigate הארי פוטר ואבן החכמים (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), and since that's a young adult novel, clearly I have a ways to go before fluency. But as nice as it would be to follow Harry's adventures b'ivrit, the reason I want to know the language is so I can read Torah (and, eventually, commentaries) in the original. And as much as I chastise myself for not practicing verb conjugations, I must be getting somewhere, because I can actually read this Torah portion.

Now I just have to master it reading from my (vowel-less) tikkun, and plan the discussion. Oh, and prep that whole poetry thing. Good thing Shabbat's still almost a week away...

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Shabbat at the Farm

Today we went to Caretaker Farm -- the CSA where we've belonged for the last decade -- to get this week's share of the harvest. We missed the last two distributions, thanks to the family vacation, and while we were away the Farm hit its summer stride: we came away with spectacular heads of lettuce, curling garlic scapes, late radishes, an enormous bundle of scallions, and vibrant multicolored chard (with red and yellow stems). In addition to what was available for us in the barn, we picked two glorious pac choi, a bag of spinach, a hefty handful of mint (not cultivated; it grows wild beside the farm pond) and a quart of sugar-snap peas.

On my way to the yellow flag that marked the sugar-snap rows, I ran into a friend from shul. "Shabbat shalom," she called, opening her arms to hug me. We exchanged holiday greetings, beaming at each other, and I told her my favorite Shabbat-at-the-Farm story -- about my minister friend Rick in the cherry tomato row one summer Saturday, declaring that this is some of the holiest ground he knows.

It is for me, too. The land at Caretaker has been lovingly stewarded. (Not just organic, Caretaker is operated on biodynamic principles.) Every week community comes together there: children petting the barn cat on the rock beside the flower garden, adults picking and talking and laughing in the fields. In the distribution barn the floorboards are worn from years of townsfolk filling our canvas bags with abundance that makes manifest the glory of creation. The passage of time and flow of the seasons is celebrated there. What could be more sacred?

It didn't take long to fill my quart container with peas. I couldn't resist popping one into my mouth as I picked. It was crisp and crunchy and tasted the way a field of green looks: fresh and earthy and powerful. As I savored it I said a blessing, thanking the Source of Life for keeping me alive and sustaining me and bringing me to that moment, to the sun on my face and the dirt beneath my feet and the first impossibly sweet and vibrant sugar-snap pea of the year.

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Muslims in America, on TV

Last night we watched a fascinating hour of television: an episode of 30 Days, created by Morgan Spurlock. He finds people from one walk of life and places them in a new context for a month, allowing them to really walk a mile in somebody else's shoes.

I didn't see his documentary Super Size Me (I didn't need a movie to tell me that a month of eating nothing but McDonald's will make a body sick), but my interest in the show was piqued when I saw him discuss it on the Daily Show. In the first episode, he and his girlfriend pull the Ehrenreichian stunt of trying to live for a month on minimum wage. (Predictably, they fail. The ep got good reviews, though.) And the episode he was plugging on Jon Stewart sounded right up my alley: it's called Muslims in America.

Spurlock placed David Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia, in a Muslim home in Dearborn, Michigan. For thirty days David dressed as a Muslim, ate as Muslims do, responded to the call to prayer five times a day. And he learned: from his host family and community, from a pair of imams and an Arabic teacher... and from the ordinary experience of interacting with non-Muslim Americans, and seeing those interactions from both sides.

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