Being visible "Tractate Kiddushin 31a of the Talmud says that the purpose of wearing a kippah is "to remind us of God, who is the Higher Authority 'above us'." Wearing a kippah makes me mindful, helps me bring blessing to what I'm doing, and reminds me to sanctify the work of my hands. Of course, an argument could be made that I'm always in God's presence, that I ought to bring blessing even to secular activities like folding laundry and buying groceries, and that every moment is worthy of sanctification. So why don't I wear a kippah all the time?"
What makes a minyan? "Wherever ten Jews gather for prayer or for the reading of Torah, the tradition tells us, the Shekhinah dwells among them. (That comes from Psalms, 82:1.) Reading from the Torah scroll is one of the most beautiful and powerful liturgical acts in our repertoire, so it makes sense that we don't do it lightly. But surely the indwelling presence of God is among us even if fewer than ten are gathered; and surely one could argue that there is merit in a lenient policy which would allow small communities like ours to reaffirm our connections with (and derive blessing from) the presence of God manifest in the Torah service even on days when our numbers are few. So why be sticklers about needing ten?"
The longest night "Imagine that someone fell ill suddenly, and was unresponsive by the time the ambulance arrived. Imagine one family member after another hearing the news and descending into grief. Imagine a burly priest driving in at two in the morning to offer the Sacrament of the Sick. Imagine the difficult decisions of organ donation and life support. Imagine the long crescendo and decrescendo of goodbyes. Imagine that the night went straight through 'til morning."
In sickness and in health "My last on-call shift at the hospital was ten days ago, and on the eve of that shift I was diagnosed with a minor infection. No big deal; I got myself some antibiotics and assumed that was the end of it. I wasn't contagious, so I figured I could still live up to my responsibilities as hospital chaplain for the night. As I drove the hour to Albany, I was aware of some discomfort. I told myself it would be good for me, would help me respond with full compassion to the patients I was there to serve. Being sick, I thought, could make me a particularly good chaplain."
Purim homily "On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God."
Passover, matzah, dialectics "Matzah and hametz consist of the same ingredients. Matzah is made of flour and water; hametz is made of flour and water. The difference is first internal; making matzah is a conscious choice. "Okay," one says to oneself, "this is going to be matzah; I have only eighteen minutes to make it; go!" That act of mindfulness, of kavvanah (conscious intent), is the first thing that matters in turning potential-hametz into actual-matzah. The other thing that matters is the action that arises out of that intention."
Planning for pluralism "The real question is how to create a service -- take the Jewish one, since that's the one I'm actually trying to compile -- which will be simultaneously comfortable for those within the tradition, and comprehensible for those outside it. How should we navigate the fact that different Jewish communities pray in very different ways and styles? How to deal with the fact that we won't all know the same melodies for many things, that some of us are accustomed to praying solely in Hebrew and others are accustomed to praying primarily in English, and that when it comes to translations our different siddurim (prayerbooks) probably don't match?"
The nadir of the year "When the Days of Awe roll around, we'll do a different kind of inner work. During Elul and the Days of Awe we are called to consider our relationship with God and with the world. We consider where we have missed the mark and how we can continue the work of growing into the people we mean to be. 9 Av is a necessary precursor to that. Before we can make teshuvah as individuals, the tradition teaches, we need to re/turn to our Source together. The ninth of Av gives us 25 hours within which to do that: to remember our sorrows, to weep for what we've lost, and to derive strength from sharing our grief."
On the perils of holiday menu-planning "It's been eleven years since I first marshalled my resources to cook for Rosh Hashanah. My maternal grandmother (of blessed memory) had died the previous spring, and I wanted to make a Rosh Hashanah feast to honor her memory. We always used to gather at her house, when I was a little girl, on Rosh Hashanah afternoon after shul. There would be Cornish hens with wild rice stuffing and giblet gravy, and carrots cooked with honey, and challah and apples and bowls of honey to dip them in..."
Five tastes of Shabbat Shuvah "It was so cold it took my breath away. I immersed four times fast -- one for each of the four worlds, four elements, four directions -- said the blessing quick quick, and climbed out onto the dock, euphoric both from the physical sensation of the water and from the emotional sensation of being clean and clear for Shabbat. Some of the women, obviously hardier souls than I, stayed in the water a while, contemplating each world before dunking, swimming the backstroke for a while, and so on. One woman called out names of God at the top of her lungs, and as she dunked the words echoed into the sky."
Thanks for being part of the adventure of Velveteen Rabbi this year! It's been a pleasure being in conversation and community with all of you -- and I'm looking forward to sharing 2007, and many years beyond.