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October 2006
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December 2006

This week's portion: dreams, vows, changes

In this week's Torah portion, Vayetzei, we encounter Jacob's dream about the ladder to heaven, along which angels ascend and descend. And we encounter his vow, made upon awakening from that dream, that if God is with him in his journey and brings him safely home, then God will be his God.

It's a fascinatingly conditional vow, and it served as the jumping-off point for this week's reflection over at Radical Torah. (Which, incidentally, draws a lot on a text by the Me'am Lo'ez -- I posted about his work here a while back and people seemed intrigued, so maybe you'll dig this d'var, too.)

A taste:

I wouldn't be so sure that making a vow doesn't actually "do" anything. To be sure, no visible outward change arises. If I were to vow today to exercise regularly in the month of December, or to daven with greater kavvanah in shul this Shabbat, or to hand a dollar to the Salvation Army bell-ringer every time I enter the grocery store, there would be no noticeable change in the fabric of my world. (And, by the same token, were I to break any of those vows, it's likely no one would notice, much less call me on it.)

But when we make promises, we change ourselves in subtle ways. This is why Jewish tradition takes vows so seriously. Our vows say something about who we are, and who we hope to become. When we make vows we can't, or don't, fulfil, a kind of intangible detritus settles in our hearts...

Read the whole thing here: Dreams, vows, and changes.

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Velveteen Rabbi in the Berkshire Jewish Voice

There's a lot that I love about the world of blogs, in which I have the pleasure of interacting with fellow bloggers around the world regardless of where we might physically locate ourselves. But long before I was a blogger, I worked in local journalism -- which may explain why I feel so honored by the very gracious article that was just published about me in the Berkshire Jewish Voice, my region's more-or-less monthly Jewish newspaper.

David Verzi wrote the article, which is topped with the headline Rachel Barenblat: "When Can I Run and Play with the Real Rabbis?" The article covers a lot of ground, including my San Antonio roots, how I came to the Berkshires and why I stayed, and my professional trajectory over the last ten years. Here's a quote, in which I try to draw a throughline between some of my projects and passions:

"At The Women's Times," said Barenblat, "there was a value placed on telling 'real' stories of 'real' women, and at Inkberry the intent was to empower people to be able to tell their own stories... and to some extent, that carries through to the work I hope to do as a rabbi: to empower people to...speak their own truths in a Jewish context and understand their personal story as part of the broader Jewish story -- after all, Judaism is a religious tradition that pays a great deal of attention to 'story.'"

The article also delves into some of the tenets of Jewish Renewal, like the four worlds paradigm, the centrality of enlivening connection to God, and the need to integrate the traditional with the new. Plus it explains how the Aleph rabbinic program works, and quotes my sister's  fabulous term for Jewish Renewal, "groovy Judaism," which always makes me smile.

If you're in the area, you can pick up a copy of the BJV in all the usual locations. And to the folks at the BJV, I extend my sincerest thanks for a really lovely article. The whole experience was a pleasure, from the engaging interview to seeing this thoughtful piece of work in print.

Edited to add: with the permission of the BJV, I have posted the full text of the article (with accompanying photo) at my website, here. Enjoy!

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A taste of text

According to the rabbis, when God gave humankind Torah he gave it in the form of wheat for us to make flour from it, and flax for us to make a garment from it: Torah is the raw material, to be ground, woven, and spun (out). Inevitably, as time passed, the grindings, stitchings, and weavings of the word became more and more elaborate, the cloths more exotic and fabulous, the recipes more complex. No longer satisfied with  bread and cotton, readers revelled in the meta-textual equivalent of exquisite satins, Paisley patterns, Chicken Marengo, wild mushroom fricassee. The ur-words were cooked up / stitched together with contemporary buzz-words, fashions, anxieties, desires, to dish up the text in appetising ways.

-- Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture

Those are the opening lines of a book I'm beginning to read as part of the research for my Jonah paper. I think they're fabulous, and wanted to share them as food for thought. Perhaps sometime when I'm not deep in paper-writing, I'll blog more about her book, which is excellent. For now, at least I've copied down the opening lines, which really merit a post of their own anyway.

Her text/cooking metaphor is one I've been wanting to explore -- the way that retellings of old stories can be like recreations of old favorite recipes, and how an old classic changes when it's reinterpreted by different chefs (and, more, ordinary kitchen cooks with no formal training but a love of the art), and how a pinch of unexpected spice can change the whole flavor of a dish. More on that later, perhaps; for now, back to Jonah.

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Life, in a nutshell

From a babynaming to a funeral in the span of 24 hours: the life cycle in a nutshell. Yesterday's babynaming was long-planned; it's been in the works for some weeks. Today's funeral, on the other hand, arose with little warning, as they often do.

There's something fascinating about preparing for these two very different events so close together. Each has its own energy, and they are very unlike one another. Yesterday morning was a standard Shabbat morning service, which at our shul means lots of singing (and, when I'm at the bimah, also guitar); today the only melody was El Malei Rachamim, the melancholy mourner's prayer, stark against the backdrop of solemn speech.

When I am officiating at a lifecycle event, I need to be firmly-planted. There's something indefinable I've found I can tap into which allows me to meet other people's joy and sorrow with equanimity. Otherwise I'm not sure I could do what I do. Helping the baby's great-grandmother with her aliyah,  or listening to the Air Force bugler play taps in the stillness, would overwhelm me with empathetic emotion.

The baby-naming was sweet. The baby gripped my finger tightly as I formally bestowed her name, and prayed aloud the wish that as she now tightly grasps our fingers, so may she grasp hold of learning to grow in knowledge and wisdom during her years of life. Then I had to jiggle my finger lightly and point out that she would need to let go if she and her parents were to return to their seats! The little one smiled at me sunnily throughout the service, and the shehecheyanu that we collectively offered was fervent and heartfelt.

The funeral was also sweet, in its way. Grief feels more private to me than joy, so I won't chronicle it here. I'll mention, instead, this which struck me again today: how strangely truncated the funeral liturgy seems. Just as we're settling in to the process of remembrance, we rise for El Malei Rachamim and the service is over. Perhaps the originators of our liturgy meant to suggest the way a life well-lived often feels truncated, too. There may be more we wanted to say, but before we know it the page is turned and we enter a new chapter, ready or not.

As I write this I am home again. I have changed back into jeans and a flannel shirt (more my usual weekend wear than the formal suit I donned this morning), and outside our windows the sky is gold and pink and grey with sunset. I'm feeling subdued, unsurprisingly; it's been a dense weekend, and the tension between these two lifecycle events has tired me out a little. But that's okay. This weekend under my hands a new life formally entered the covenant and community of which I am a part; and an old life came to its natural end, a brush with mystery I can't fully understand.

This work matters, and I am blessed to be able to do it...even if it's never entirely done. There will always be transitions to sanctify, joys to celebrate, losses to mourn. For now, I offer silent thanks for the gift of having been allowed to walk beside these two families during these days, and for the added gift of being able, now, to rest.

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This week's portion: birth and brotherhood

In this week's portion, parashat Toledot, we read first that Rivka had difficulty getting pregnant. And once the pregnancy arrived, it wasn't easy, either. That was the start point for my d'var this week at Radical Torah:

Rikva does conceive — but she feels the dangerous struggle in her womb, and she says, “If so, why do I exist?”

The story continues from there in the way we have all come to recognize: the promise that her younger son will rule over the elder, the birth of hairy Esau and grasping Jacob, the twin birthright stories, the trickery.

But as a reader I’m reluctant to move on, caught by the moment of Rivka’s anguished cry. I imagine her tossing and turning on a bed of blankets, trying to find comfort despite the palpable struggle of the child (she does not yet know there are two) in her womb. Perhaps she fears miscarriage, or that her baby will tangle itself in the umbilical cord as it thrashes inside her.

And so she cries out. If this is happening -- and it is happening; the struggle inside her feels like it may kill her -- then why does she exist? Why has her life led her to this moment?

Read the whole thing here: Rivka's question, our answers.

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Hardy green

I pause at the gate on the way down the hill to say hello to three shaggy cows. They blink at me, perhaps wondering whether I come bearing food, and then all of a sudden turn skittish and scatter like sheep.

Most of the fields now are growing a cover crop of winter rye, to be ploughed under in the spring. Walking down to the two rows of brussels sprouts at the far end of the far field, I'm hyper-conscious of the wind and the quiet, the autumnal smells of leaves and woodsmoke.

The first third of the row has been picked clean: not a sprout to be seen, save those at the bottom of each plant, now blackened by frost. The topmost leaves have ice on them, in places. But I keep moving, gleaning a hard marble of sprout here, three there. As I traverse the field the pickings grow less slim and my bag begins to fill.

As I go, I murmur a shehecheyanu, because this is the first time I have picked brussels sprouts this year (and will no doubt be the last.) I say thank you for the plants, for the earth that grows them, for the hands that nurtured them, for the years of good stewardship of this patch of northern Berkshire soil. There is always so much to be thankful for.

The first time I saw brussels sprouts growing they looked strangely hybrid to me, clusters of tiny cabbages beneath collard leaves on a thick broccoli stalk. But we've picked them at Caretaker Farm several years running now, and I've come to admire their combination of stoutness and whimsy.

I come away with half a grocery bag full of small hard sprouts. They are purplish and rolled tight, but I don't think they're frostbitten -- the frozen ones were easy to identify, exposed to the cold at the bottom of their stalks. They will be delicious on our Thanksgiving table. Above and around me, the far hills are pale beneath the leafless trees.

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Two Jewish quarters

During our week in Central Europe I was fortunate enough to tour two old Jewish quarters: Prague's Josefov, and the Jewish quarter on the Pest side of Budapest. Josefov felt like a museum, Judaism under glass: a monument to a community that was radically truncated during the Shoah, and is struggling to return. (There are about 1700 Jews in Prague today). The Jewish quarter in Pest felt, in contrast, like the oldest corner of a community that still thrives. (Today Budapest is home to some 26 synagogues, and a community of 80,000 Jews.) I'm not a historian, so won't write here about the factors that led the two cities' stories to evolve in such different ways; instead I want to explore how the two places felt to me as a visitor and how the experience continues to resonate for me.

In Prague we spent much of a day exploring the Jewish Museum -- not a single discrete venue, but rather a series of six locations (most are old synagogues) which now serve as a kind of crystallization of what was once Czech Jewish life. It was Ethan's first visit, though I had been there in 1993 with my mother and grandparents, aunt and cousins.

Some of the things I remembered from that trip were still powerful for me this time around. The jumble of headstones in the old cemetary, for instance -- it's Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetary, and it's unlike anywhere else I've ever been. It's an amazing, overwhelming, beautiful place, somehow made more poignant by the bustle of commerce and tourism flowing by just outside the cemetary wall.

Continue reading "Two Jewish quarters" »

This week's portion: vision and grief

Hello again, all! I'm home from my travels, and belatedly posting last week's d'var Torah, for parashat Chayyei Sarah.

Last week's portion begins with the death of Sarah, and we learn that Abraham grieved her passing. This year, I explored that text through the lens of one of my favorite films, Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, and found resonance in the way the fictional character of Dr. Henry Farber refracts the story of Abraham:

[Farber] is a wanderer, headstrong, driven by his passions. He nearly sacrifices his relationship with his son -- not in as literal a way as Abraham, but in a way that's no less real for its allegorical qualities -- on the altar of his devotion to what he believes is right.

That devotion is, let me be clear, arguably legitimate, or at least difficult to dismiss out-of-hand. He has dedicated decades to his quest to give his beloved wife, blind since childhood, the gift of sight. He is a passionate believer in science and progress and possibility. But his devotion blinds him in certain ways. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically he fails to see what's right in front of him, and he's blind to how his actions, and his damaged relationship with their son, impact his wife's fragile health.

FYI, the post does contain spoilers for the film (though since it came out in 1991, I'm hoping no one will mind.)

Read the whole thing here: Vision and grief.

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Bound for Budapest and Prague

Somehow this trip snuck up on me, and I can't quite believe we're leaving so soon, but as Ethan just posted, we're off to Prague tomorrow. We'll spend four days there, and then a few days in Budapest. Prague is mostly vacation for us; Budapest will continue to be vacation for me (though not so much for him.) I'll return on the 18th, just in time to host speculative fiction author Naomi Novik at Inkberry, the literary arts nonprofit I used to run. Never a dull moment!

My last trip to Prague was in the summer of 1993 -- I was there as Ethan was on his way to Ghana for the year. I spent ten days in the Czech Republic that August with my mother, my grandparents, and my aunt and her two daughters, exploring our family's roots. My Russian grandfather went to medical school at Charles University, my grandmother was born and reared in Prague, and my mother was born there, so my familial connections to the place are strong.

I'm looking forward to returning, and to seeing some of Budapest with Janet, too. Blogging will be light while I'm away, but I'll post when I can. (Similarly, I doubt I'll be able to stay abreast of what's happening in all of your lives and blogs while I'm on the road, so please forgive me for not commenting, or replying to comments, in a timely manner.) Be well, everyone! And if you happen to be in or near Prague or Budapest next week, hey, drop me a line...

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I've written before about Zeek, "a Jewish journal of thought and culture," which I first discovered in the Elat Chayyim bookstore some years ago. The magazine exists both as an online publication and in (shiny and well-designed) print form, and showcases thoughtful, smart, often boundary-pushing prose and poetry. I'm honored that my own work has appeared in their pages from time to time. This is exactly the kind of literary, creative, and spiritual endeavor that excites me most.

It's especially exciting to me right now, because I've just joined the editorial board. I'm now a contributing editor, focusing on religion and spirituality, and will be lending my hand to both the print and online editions. There's a lot happening there at the moment, including several new editorial folks and a redesign; learn more at Welcome to the new Zeek, a letter from the editors.

I'm deeply thrilled to be a part of this enterprise. I'll be taking my copy of the beautiful new fall/winter print edition with me to Prague tomorrow night, and hope to read it on the plane. (I'll also be carrying the magazine with me in another sense; I'll have my laptop with me, so I can edit a short piece for an upcoming edition.) Nu -- go, enjoy the web edition, and consider subscribing to the print one. Single issues cost $7, and a two-year/four-edition subscription is $25; not a lot to pay for thought-provoking, high-quality work. Regardless, please join me in celebrating this fabulously cool publication, of which I am now a part!

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This week's portion: radical hospitality

This week we're reading parashat Vayera, which contains several really powerful stories. Here we have Abraham arguing with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and those cities' eventual downfall anyway. Here, too, are the unlikely birth of Isaac, the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, and the akedah (binding of Isaac.) These are some tremendously resonant and problematic texts.

I didn't focus in any of these directions in my d'var this week for Radical Torah, though. Instead, I wrote about the very beginning of the portion: the hospitality of Abraham.

The chuppah beneath which Jews marry is typically open on all four sides, and one teaching holds that in this it evokes Abraham's tent. A chuppah offers spiritual shelter, and represents the home a couple will build together, but it's not a permanent structure, nor a structure that can be entirely insular. The sense of home it represents and creates is a portable one, and one that's open to the presence of God in all directions. When we marry beneath a chuppah, we affirm our intention to be like Abraham, opening our doors and our larders to the messengers of God who appear in our lives.

Read the whole thing here: Radical hospitality.

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Reluctant prophet

Here's the thing about Jonah. The more I read, the more tragicomic the book and its main character seem. Jonah's the most successful prophet in all of Tanakh -- all he has to do is walk through Nineveh proclaiming its imminent destruction, and everyone promptly makes teshuvah, down to the cattle in their stalls! But the story isn't really about the Ninevites; it's about Jonah's reluctance to serve.

Jonah has the tremendous good fortune of not only feeling, but also quite literally being, called by God. His vocation is clear. He has instructions. But he's tortured, somehow, by the feeling that he can't fulfill the calling; he knows what God wants of him, but can't bear to do it, perhaps to think of himself as worthy of the instruction. He flees, as though he could find a place where God is not.

He offers something very like a psalm at his literal lowest point: in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea, as low as humanity can physically go. In his depression he's capable of reaching out to God...but once he's back on dry land, he's as surly as ever. He can't stand the notion that the Ninevites, wicked as he understands them to be, will be forgiven by gracious God. And when God does, in fact, forgive them -- because that is what God does; it is God's nature -- Jonah wails that he wants to die.

The kikayon plant shades him, and he feels a brief joy. But when the vine withers, he returns to his normal state of wretched fury. And what does God do? God just smiles -- I am taking liberties, here, but I could swear I see it just between the lines of the text -- and asks leading questions. "Are you really so angry about the state of the world? Are you really so angry about the vine, which you neither planted nor nurtured?

In my imagination God pays a pastoral care visit to Jonah, who practically quivers with petulance and rage. And God merely raises an eyebrow, and says, "Ahh. I see. Can you say more about that?" God extends mercy and understanding -- precisely the qualities which leave Jonah so cranky when God extends them to others -- to the reluctant prophet who resents his own being.

And we? If we hear God's voice telling us where to go, what to do and teach, we're liable to flee in the wrong direction just like Jonah did. Because anything would be easier than facing our obligation to go forth into the world and make matters better. Anything would be easier than accepting God's infinite compassion, which extends even toward those we deem hateful and wrong. We may even, like Jonah, cry out that we would rather die than live with the reality of the world in which things don't turn out the way we want them to, in which the wrong parties take power and wicked people are forgiven and we daily do appalling things to one another around the wide globe.

And God, infuriatingly, just asks us to explain to ourselves why we find this so difficult. And the story ends there:

You cared about the kikayon-vine, for which you did not labor and which you did not cause to grow; which between one night and the next, came into being and perished. And I -- should I not care about Nineveh, the great city, where there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who don't know their right hand from their left, and a great many beasts as well?

We never get to see Jonah transformed by his questioning, nor by God's response. Because this story is not about new insight, but about living in the struggle. In the daily frustrating grind of trying to come to terms with who we know ourselves to be, and who we're called to become. In the disjunction between the world as we yearn to see it, and the world as it is, and the role we don't want to have to play in bridging that chasm. The story ends on a rhetorical question; the answer is up to us.

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There's no getting around it: I've grown to really like spending time in our funeral home.

There's more than one in our community, of course, but this is the one I know best. The one which accomodates members of our shul. Where they leave the light on for us overnight, as our members come and go, keeping company with the dead.

This time I didn't get the message until it was too late to help with taharah. But I got the second call, asking whether I could take a shift as shomeret. So after an early dinner I let myself into the building and came upstairs to the room where the draped casket rests. I chatted briefly with the person who was here before me, who had anecdotes and remembrances to share.

And then I settled in for my evening. Read a little Torah. Prayed for a while. But mostly I soaked in the feeling of calm that this place seems to bring out in me. It's strangely timeless. The silence has a kind of hum to it, a restful energy.

This work, like the hospital chaplaincy I find I miss, removes me from my usual context. Whatever has been bothering or exciting me, making me apprehensive or elated or overwhelmed, recedes in this moment. I feel still and calm, a heart perfectly at-rest.

There are things more important than the ups and downs of my week, my accomplishments and frustrations. Like the mystery of our living, and the mystery of what comes next, the bridge none of us can cross. Here I am, breathing.

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This week's portion: going forth into something new

This week we're reading parashat Lekh Lekha, the story which begins with God's injunction to Abraham to go forth (or, perhaps, to go to himself) on what is now the paradigmatic Jewish journey of becoming.

The journey metaphor was rich in antiquity, and it speaks clearly and strongly to us today as well. Unsurprisingly, it's the focus of what I wrote this week for Radical Torah.

I'm not sure the kind of journey God invites Abraham (and, by extension, all of us) to take is ever "finished" either. Each one of us is always going forth from her land, the place of her birth, the house of her father. My land: the physical place where I feel at-home, the landscape I know intimately in every season, which in some sense I know best because I allow myself to leave and return. The place of my birth: my origin-point, physical and spiritual, the locus of my awakening. The house of my father: the interconnected web of my family, the community that shelters me and also allows me to reach beyond the limits of what's familiar and known.

Read the whole thing here: Going forth into something new.

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