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Fall classes at Tiferet

PSA -- the folks at the Tiferet Institute have announced their slate of new fall classes here.

Part of what's interesting about this announcement is that there really are "folks" at the Tiferet Center these days. The program is the brainchild of Rabbi Yakov Travis, with whom I've taken a few classes this year. He used to teach everything at the Tiferet Center himself, but this fall the teachers' roster has expanded to include Dr. Tamar Frankiel, Arthur Kurzweil, Dr. Alan Morinis (whose book on mussar I just read this summer) and Rabbi DovBer Pinson. (Teacher bios are here.)

Predictably, all of these classes sound cool to me (though Kabbalah and the Feminine and Kabbalistic Mussar are particularly up my alley...) Most will run for 11 weeks; tuition is $650, with a discount for those who sign up before September 4. (Classes begin the week of October 8.)

I'm currently waiting to hear back from ALEPH about which of their fall courses I'm taking (I signed up for three -- about which more anon, once I know whether I'm in all of them), and I'm still hashing out the details of a couple of independent studies -- and I'll be teaching Hebrew school again this fall -- and I have a few other irons in the fire -- so all things considered, I may not be able to commit the time and energy that these Tiferet classes deserve. But I dunno -- I'm tempted to try to take one anyway, because these are people I'd like to learn from.

I like the whole webconferencing phenomenon. Not surprising; I'm about as close to a digital native as a woman in her thirties can be. In the fifteen years since I got my first email account and set virtual foot on my first BBS, the 'net has been my shtetl. It seems entirely natural to me that these days I take classes, plan conferences, maintain friendships, and share much of my writing online. What's been new for me about Tiferet is the "video" part of videoconferencing. I'm so accustomed to text-based interactions that I had imagined video would seem corny, over-the-top.

But I like it. Especially when there are students in the classes who I don't yet know. These days when I sign up for an ALEPH telecourse (via conference call) I recognize almost every voice, and can quickly match voices with the faces and bodies I know in person. But the last Tiferet class I took was filled with people who didn't know each other at the start of the session, and it was useful to have a sense for what everyone looked like, how they smiled, how they moved.

Full disclosure -- I just joined an advisory council for an artist's colony / beit midrash called Tiferet Village, a sister project to the Tiferet Institute. I don't think that shapes my opinions about the value of distance learning in general or the Tiferet Institute in particular, but I mention it because it's related. Also because I'm honored and excited to be involved. Hopefully I'll blog more about it as that project moves from vision toward reality...

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The emotional journey of shofar

On Rosh Hashanah, it's a mitzvah to hear the call of the shofar. It's a central mitzvah during the month that precedes the Days of Awe, too; some make it a practice to listen to the shofar daily during Elul. (Here are some useful one-a-day meditations for hearing the shofar during Elul -- and, while I'm at it, a handy shofar mp3.) The shofar is meant to rouse us from spiritual slumber, to call us to make teshuvah and re/turn ourselves to God.

In the calls of the shofar, we can also retrace the emotional journey of a year in microcosm. (I learned this from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg in his class in middot last month, and I think this is a gorgeous teaching.) Here's how:

The first call is tekiah, a single whole note. Tekiah reminds us that once we were whole.

The second is shevarim, three shorter notes. Shevarim reminds us that we have known scatteredness.

The third is teruah, nine staccato notes in rapid succession. Teruah reminds us that we have been shattered.

And finally we reach tekiah gedolah, "the great tekiah" -- one note that lasts as long as the shofar-blower has breath. Tekiah gedolah reminds us that we can be restored to wholeness again.

Of course, tekiah gedolah is a much longer note than the initial blast which began the cycle. Through surviving brokenness, we can reach an even deeper kind of wholeness than we knew before. (I'm reminded here of the parable of the shofar-blower who lost his crib sheet, a story I recounted recently.)

The sages of the Talmud offered a teaching that relates to this one in a fascinating way. A clay pot, being porous, is susceptible to tum'ah ("ritual impurity.") If a clay vessel becomes tamei, the way to make it again tahor ("ritually pure," or as some would have it, "capable of again becoming tamei") is to break it and then glue it back together. Through the pot's brokenness, in other words, wholeness is restored.

We too are made from clay, at least in the metaphorical language of Torah. When we allow ourselves to be open to our own brokenness, we become capable of a deeper and more powerful wholeness than we knew in the first place. Tekiah gedolah packs its punch precisely because it arises out of scattered sounds. The places where we're glued back together are places where God can enter.

Of course, the great rebbe Leonard Cohen knew all of this, and said it more succinctly than I have:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

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Full moon of Elul

We turn off all the lights in the house and sit on the deck with friends, drinking wine, watching the moon through the clouds. A smattering of stars. The clouds are back-lit, unbelievable, hardly looking real.

There's almost no wind, the night is still. The cat prowls for prey in the tall grass. We're talking about Spanish art, about architecture, about old friends. While the moon illumines the clouds from within, I duck back out to the rock at the edge of our hillside where I've been davening shacharit.

I stand on the rock, breathing in the wild thyme that my feet unleashed when I walked across the lawn, blown-away by the beauty of the nighttime landscape. The last full moon of the year. Our roller-coaster pauses at the top of the hill; from here, we begin the rush toward Rosh Hashanah.

I talk to God, quietly, out loud. About places I went during 5767, Prague and south Texas and coastal Maine. The gems that sparkle in the setting of this year: time with family, time with friends, the holiday cycle spiraling forward. My strokes, and what I've tried to learn from them.

Help me process the year, I murmur. Help me work through it in the time that remains. Help me hold on to what I'm meant to hold on to; help me let go where I need to let go, to make room for the year that hasn't yet begun.

I say a shehecheyanu. As I walk back toward the deck where my friends are still sitting, the moon emerges, casting shadows and dappling everything with light.

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Coming home from a retreat or a vacation always feels like re-entry -- it takes effort to readjust to the atmospheric pressure of my ordinary life. I keep a running to-do list on the desktop of my computer, and by the time I left town it was chockablock with all of the things I knew would require my attention when I got home again. Predictably, this morning it seemed oddly like the list had grown while I wasn't looking.

I woke before the alarm, so I took my tallit and tefillin and siddur outside to daven shacharit (the morning service) on our deck. Dew, or overnight rain, dimpled the deck and its furniture, so there was nowhere I could sit comfortably. On a hunch, I walked through the grass to the rock at the edge of our hill where the cat likes to sit, and found the rock dry, so that became my prayer spot for the morning.

That corner of our lawn is comprised of wild thyme, which releases its fragrance when we walk across it. The place where I sat was surrounded by high forsythia that allowed glimpses of the valley and the hills through its branches. The cat bounded across the wet grass and joined me on her rock, and then expressed her exasperation that I wouldn't let her play with my tefillin or tzitzit, as usual.

As I wrapped up, I realized that a quick costume change would allow me to make it to yoga. So I went, even though I was antsy to start working. Because my spirit and my body are as important as my to-do list. (Will that ever stop feeling radical?) I need to walk my own talk where self-care is concerned -- maybe especially in these weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, as I work on tying up the emotional and spiritual loose ends of 5767 as well as the practical ones.

The yoga class was hard, and I spent a fair amount of time in child's pose, grateful for the solid ground that helped me catch my breath and gather myself to try again. It felt good, though. And then I picked up an iced coffee, zoomed home, and dove in to the email triage and the kids' machzor project with new energy. It was really good to be away (coastal Maine is really beautiful), and now it's really good to be home again.

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Vacating the premises

This marks the second August in a row that Ethan and I are lucky enough to get to spend a week in Maine. We'll be spending the better part of a week based in Belfast, hanging out with my in-laws, rambling up and down the coast, patronizing purveyors of used books, reading and going for walks and things like that.

I'll have my laptop with me (I write poems on it, and it's a great thing to offload digital photos onto) but I'm really hoping to take the week away from blogging, reading blogs, checking and answering email, etc. (Otherwise it would be startlingly like my ordinary life, and I understand that's not really the point.)

So have a wonderful week, all; I look forward to seeing you on the flipside when I'm home again! (At which point I expect to be in fullblown pre-High-Holiday "oh, man, I have to assemble a liturgy for a kids' service right this instant" panic -- but I'll let that be a problem for when I return. I'm on vacation now, see. Yay.)

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Shabbat shalom

One of the things I love about Fridays on retreat at Elat Chayyim is the way we're constantly conscious that Shabbat is on its way. The schedule inevitably changes, the flow of the day condensed in order to offer time for mikvah and for sprucing ourselves up. By the time we gather to welcome the Shabbat bride, most of us are wearing white, and all of us are sparkling. (Emotionally and spiritually, I mean, though some of us sparkle literally, too -- my little vial of glitter is always in-demand!)

There's something really delicious about easing into Shabbat there after a hectic week of conversations and learning -- like sliding into a cool lake in midsummer, or settling in to a hot tub on a cold winter day. The tradition teaches that we all gain an extra soul on Shabbat -- or maybe it's that we become newly-aware of the extra soul which was there all along. We lift ourselves out of the groove of weekday nusach, leaping into Shabbat melodies we haven't heard all week. We sing. We clap and drum. We dance.

Here in my home community, we're a little bit more sedate. People don't wear white, necessarily (though we will daven the evening amidah outdoors, among the wildflowers of the field -- that, at least, echoes the kabbalists of Tzfat in a certain way) and our style of worship is gentler, more contemplative. We may or may not make a minyan, tonight. There won't be dancing in the aisles.

Still, we'll gather to sing songs and psalms and to welcome the Shabbat bride into our midst. We'll reflect on the week that was -- its sweetnesses and its challenges -- and allow Shabbat to be both the culmination and the chatimah, the sealing wax that caps the week and lets us integrate it into our memories so we can carry it with us as we move on.

And I like to think that we're all welcoming Shabbat in together, no matter where we are in the world. My little congregation, and my DLTI chevre, and my family, and all of you. Whether we're together or apart, in community or flying solo, whirling in ecstatic dance or speaking words softly off the page: Shabbat is coming, our weekly taste of reflection and peace, and I am so glad.

Shabbat shalom, all.

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The master key is the broken heart

Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram's-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram's-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.

Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: "Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram's-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."     (-- Or Yesharim)

It's the beginning of the month of Elul, a time the sages set aside for contemplation and cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking an accounting of one's soul, in advance of the Days of Awe. This is the time the tradition offers us for doing spiritual work: reflecting on the year soon ending, paying attention to who we are and who we mean to be and where we might have fallen short in becoming the people we aspire to become.

The Hasidic story at the top of this post is a story for this time of year not only because it makes reference to blowing the shofar during the Days of Awe, but because it is about the kind of closeness to our Source that is possible through brokenheartedness.

It's easy to hold ourselves to impossible standards. To lose the slips of paper on which we've written the truths we swear we intend to remember, as Rabbi Zev Kitzes does in this parable. But the Baal Shem Tov reminds us that while esoteric teachings may open some of the gates of heaven, the master key is our own broken hearts. That our places of brokenness, the ways in which we are not fully whole, shatter the boundaries that otherwise keep us from connection with our Source.

I woke this morning to the news that poet Liam Rector has taken his own life. (His poem The Remarkable Objectivity Of Your Old Friends rings differently now than it ever did before.) I never knew him well, but I admired his strength and his wordcraft. Clearly he was suffering, and I believe he has found peace. Still, the news makes this Hasidic parable -- which I had meant to blog about today anyway; I'll be sharing it with my congregation during Torah study this Shabbat -- resonate in new ways.

Baruch dayan emet. To the extent that we all have broken hearts, each in our own ways, may our places of brokenness offer us direct access to the source of comfort, and may God be with all who mourn.

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Grab-bag of resources for Rosh Hashanah

Chodesh tov! It's Rosh Chodesh Elul -- the start of the new lunar month, which means the Jewish New Year is in a mere four weeks. Holy wow.

Last year I posted a grab-bag of resources for Yom Kippur, in response to a reader in rural Japan who wanted some materials he could use in planning his Yom Kippur experience. This year, a reader in Hawai'i has asked whether I can offer any pointers to resources for Rosh Hashanah, and I promised to share some thoughts at the start of Elul as the ramp-up to the Days of Awe begins. Which would be, um, now.

MyJewishLearning offers a good overview of the holiday, along with some good material about its liturgy. The folks at Ritualwell have collected a bunch of Rosh Hashanah resources, including poems, readings, and some simple rituals for tashlich (the ritual casting-away of whatever one needs to release from the year now ending.) And here's an earth-centered look at the lunar month of Tishri, courtesy of Tel Shemesh.

With no further ado, here's a miscellany of resources I've found and saved over the last few years: links to liturgy, book recommendations, sermons and divrei Torah, podcasts/audio, and stories and poems. This is my own idiosyncratic list, so please feel free to add links to other resources you recommend. May the month of Elul be sweet as we do the work of preparing ourselves for transformation!

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Religion, and the 3-petalled iris (DLTI week 3, post 2)

Often people say they are spiritual but not religious. Those who self-identify that way may find spirituality in nature, love, music, childbirth -- experiences that connect one with the ineffable. There's a realization that one isn't alone, that one is part of something. One feels love, and gratitude. "But I'm not religious." (Right? You know what I mean? Maybe you've heard that. Maybe you've said it.)

But what does "religious" mean, anyway? Religion is that which connects and binds. It's how we engage in the work of re-ligare, linking ourselves back with our source. It's like we're reattaching spiritual ligaments. And ligaments are by their nature flexible; they allow movement, and they hold us together.

Flashes of enlightenment can arise through "spiritual but not religious" experiences. But the feeling of connection is necessarily finite. That's the nature of things. We get stressed, overwhelmed, burdened. It's hard to keep the portal open.

Religion, at its heart, is about reopening our connections with the infinite. The practices of Jewish tradition are designed to cultivate and strengthen those connections.

No one imagines they can run easily and far if they don't work out with some regularity. Just so, we can't run spiritually if we don't stretch and work out spiritually. The practice of daily prayer is a chance to stretch spiritual muscles. It allows us to domesticate the peak experience.

Domesticate means to bring it into our homes. In other words, the ardent prayer of my first week on retreat at Elat Chayyim five years ago -- "I wish I could bring this home with me!" -- contained the seeds of its answer within it. Of course I can bring it home with me. I can and I do. That's the whole idea of daily prayer -- to connect me with the infinite. Not just when I'm on retreat, but every day of my life.

Walking the paths of our liturgical texts more closely and attentively helps me be awake to the possibility of transformation.

Our liturgical focal point during week 3 of DLTI was shema u-virchoteha, the shema and her blessings. (Many of you who read this blog know that the shema, which is said twice daily, is surrounded in the mornings by a trio of blessings, and in the evenings by a quatrain of them, three on the same themes as the morning plus an extra one asking God to shelter us in peace throughout the night.) The shema is like an iris, a magnificent flower with a deep center, and its blessings offer us a journey of consciousness toward inner change.

First, the blessing for God Who creates light. We praise the One Who every nanosecond completely renews the light of creation. On a surface level this blessing references physical light, but really we're talking about the light of wisdom, the primordial light which was the first thing to emanate into creation. Yotzer or teaches that in every moment I am new. Nothing is ever locked into how it has been. Every possibility lies before us at every moment.

Then comes the blessing for the God of love. This is love so vast, its enormity cannot be grasped by us. Infinite love manifests tangibly, crystallizing in teachings we call Torah. And just as visible light points us toward primordial light, tangible love points us toward primordial love. Love (ahava) leads us to oneness (shema) which pours back out as love again (v'ahavta) -- the shema is the filling in this love sandwich! Light and love awaken in us the willingness to dissolve in oneness. The shema calls us to be at one with where we are.

And from oneness comes the desire to return our love to its source and move into redemption. The ge'ulah blessing, the final petal on this iris, is our redemption song. The remembrance of liberation from slavery is woven into our liturgy and our consciousness. Every day we remember yetziat Mitzrayim, our emergence out of constriction, the parting of those waters and the passage through. Every day we look toward the possibility of unfolding and transformation which our tradition names redemption.

The siddur offers us this map of awakening, this process of daily reconnection. My relationship with the words changes as I pray them, as I change inside them, as they change inside me.

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First thoughts on week 3 of DLTI

It's funny, I said to Reb Shawn on Friday morning. Even if you'd tried to tell me during week one how remarkable this process was going to be -- how it would change my relationship with the liturgy, with the act of prayer, and with God -- I don't think I could have heard you. I had to live it.

Toward the end of week one, our teachers offered a rubric for understanding how we assimilate new skills into our toolboxes. First comes awareness -- aha! There are things I need to know (and maybe I didn't even realize I didn't know them!) Then comes awkwardness -- oy, now I know what I've been doing wrong, but that knowledge doesn't yet enable me to do things differently. Then comes skillfulness, when the work becomes transparent and we can work within it and be changed by it. And finally, integration.

Week three of DLTI is the week of skillfulness, when we find ourselves dipping into the liturgy in deep ways we couldn't have done in week one (the week of learning just how much we didn't know) or week two (the week of bumping into our mistakes and our baggage around those mistakes.) This week, we really started to soar.

The first night, when we gathered in the sanctuary after dinner for our opening program and for prayer, the energy in the room buzzed and crackled. When we started davening maariv (the evening service) we clicked right into the groove of evening prayer together as though we had never been apart. That feeling persisted for me all week -- it was like this kahal (community) and I had been praying together all along, every day since we parted in February. In a way, I think, we had. We carry one another in our hearts.

I entered DLTI looking for liturgical leadership skills, and I'm definitely getting them. I'm learning a lot about our liturgy; how to work within and augment it, how the pieces fit together and what they mean. But more than that, DLTI is teaching me how to pray, how to connect with the liturgy's big ideas and to speak with God from where I genuinely am. The practical skills arise out of emotional and spiritual growth. This isn't just about learning how to do stuff. It's about opening myself to transformation, and then leading prayer out of that new place.

How was week three of DLTI? Honestly awesome. It's amazing to see my colleagues grow -- not only as leaders-of-prayer, but also as leaders in our community, and as daveners in their own individual ways. It's amazing to see how we flourish within the structure of this program and this community, and how that structure and safety allows us to blossom. I think we really embodied prayerful consciousness, both within davenen and in the flow of our days outside of formal prayer time, and that gave rise to some pretty awesome stuff. (I know I surprised myself with the ways I was able to stretch and shine.)

There's more I want to say. As I process the week more fully, dip back into my journal and my notes, and also make headway in the work of email triage and re-entry into my ordinary life, I'll post more. But at least this is a start. In the tiniest nutshell, the kernel of what I want to convey is: Holy wow. I feel so blessed.

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Off to DLTI week 3

I'm off today for week three of DLTI!

If you'd like to be reminded exactly where I am and what I'm doing again, here are a few previous posts on the subject: Week 1 of DLTI (written last summer, after the first week of the program); DLTI: 4 worlds, week 2, post 1 and DLTI post 2: gleanings (about the second week of the program, which was back in February.) I imagine I'll post something about the third week of the program after I get home, in the fullness of time.

I don't expect to be online during the week of this retreat, so -- take good care of the internet (and yourselves, and each other), and I'll see you when I'm home again.

Shavua tov / have a good week!

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Five years of Elat Chayyim

Five years ago today I left for my first visit to Elat Chayyim. That's on the Gregorian (secular) calendar, of course; on the Jewish calendar that was the 27th of Av, and today is the 21st of Av, so we're off by about a week. Still, though -- by one reckoning, today marks five years since I first set foot on the Elat Chayyim campus.

That was the old Elat Chayyim, housed in a former Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. I remember parking my car, walking slowly and a little bit uncertainly to the main building to check in, and wondering what exactly I had gotten myself in for and whether the place could or would fulfill any of the dreams and expectations I couldn't help having.

That was before this blog began, so there's no record of my first Elat Chayyim week here in these pages. I spent mornings in R' Jeff Roth's Jewish meditation workshop, and afternoons studying tikkun olam with R' Arthur Waskow. I had my first taste of weekday shacharit in many years -- this time, davening in a yurt, seated cross-legged on meditation cushions, learning chants that matched each of the basic morning prayers. (We had the option of choosing "traditional" or "interpretive" morning prayer. Today I enjoy both; but oh, I'm glad I chose the interpretive davenen then!) For the first time, I saw women laying tefillin, which was awesome and attractive and a little bit overwhelming.

I had a lot of firsts that week. My first "mishpacha group" (a kind of ad-hoc family, a group with whom one processes the emotional roller-coaster of any week-long retreat), my first real conversation with God (walking in the fields and speaking quietly aloud, after the practice of Reb Nachman of Breslov), my first mikvah, my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat. I felt increasingly comfortable, at-home, luminous as the week went on.  By the end of that week I knew that I had found my Jewish tribe, and that someday when I felt ready to work formally toward becoming a rabbi I wanted to do it with this community, because the rabbis who had led our learning and davenen all week were the kind of rabbi I aspired to be.

Five years: that's all. On the calendar, it's a nothing, an eyeblink. And honestly, in lived time it doesn't feel like it's been that long.

And yet. Tomorrow I'll head back to Elat Chayyim -- in its new home at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center -- for the third week of DLTI, the two-year davenen leadership training program run by ALEPH. I've long since lost count of how many times I've been to Elat Chayyim; it is home for me now. And so is Jewish Renewal. I'm an ALEPH rabbinic student. Many of the teachers who first awed me during that first Elat Chayyim week are now beloved colleagues and, I hope, friends. I am -- baruch Hashem! -- on my way, learning how to live up to their example.

When I stop to think about how my life has been changed by that first week at Elat Chayyim, it takes my breath away. I'm overwhelmingly grateful to that place, and to the people who enliven it -- hell, to Rodger Kamenetz for writing The Jew in the Lotus which sent me looking for Reb Zalman which brought me to Elat Chayyim which led me right to where I am. So thanks, everyone. It's been an incredible first five years. I can't wait to see what the next five will bring.

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Awakening the heart

Okay, I can't help thinking that the Grossly Biased Guide to the Berkshires is the coolest new website I've seen this week, but that's probably because we made it ourselves here in my house of geekery. Besides that, though, the coolest website I've found this week is The Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism.

As their about page explains,

The mission of Awakened Heart Project is to promote the use of Jewish contemplative techniques that foster the development of a heart of wisdom and compassion. Cultivating an awakened heart leads to acting in the world with loving-kindness towards all beings recognizing them as manifestations of the Holy One of Being.

The site includes an introduction to Jewish meditation, practice instructions (a podcast introduction to contemplative Jewish prayer), Jewish chants (including a podcast of a complete contemplative morning service featuring guitar, chanting, and space for prayer), and a library of articles and meditation talks.

The list of teachers is a veritable who's who of the contemplative Jewish world: R' Alan Lew (I reviewed his book about the Days of Awe here), R' Jeff Roth (my first teacher of Jewish meditation -- I've blogged many of his teachings) and R' Joanna Katz, Abbot Norman Fischer (whose Zen-inspired psalms I reviewed here), R' Sheila Peltz Weinberg (who led the workshop on Jewish contemplative practice before the Panim trans-denominational rabbinic student retreat), and Sylvia Boorstein (author of That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist.) If you're interested in Jewish contemplative practice, there is no finer group of teachers.

This is an awesome resource, and it's entirely free. (My teacher Reb Marcia counsels that one should give tzedakah each week before Shabbat begins; this week my pre-Shabbat donation is going to be a small gift to the Awakened Heart Project, because I'm so moved by what they're doing and how they're doing it.) A hearty yasher koach to everyone involved!

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Generally speaking, I'm not in a position to contribute to Global Voices Online. And I don't think Ethan's ever written anything for Radical Torah. But at long last, here's a project on which we can (and do) collaborate: The Grossly Biased Guide to the Berkshires!

The GBGB is a place to showcase and show off the things we love best about the place where we live. About four years ago, a handful of our friends kicked this project off with a series of potluck dinners, a mess of emails, and a lot of conversation -- but maybe because were envisioning a printed guidebook to our fine county, that ship didn't ultimately sail. But recently Ethan and I have found ourselves discovering new favorite places in Berkshire county (after fifteen years!) and wanting to share them, and, we are with a new blog on our hands.

It's a fun project. I find myself already making a mental list of places I want to return to so that I can write about them.

If you live locally, or if you're interested in writing about rural places, check it out. (If you live locally and want to join our intrepid band of bloggers, let us know.) And if you live someplace else and wish there were one of these where you are, hey, start one up and see if it flies.

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August begins

I'm so glad it's August. Heat doesn't bother me. I was born a Texan, I luxuriate in it. I unfold in the sun like a bean plant or a raspberry cane. The greenery around us is hitting its wildest point; some of what grows along our driveway is as tall as I am, and the wisteria is trying to climb the house all the way to the sky.

I love the way the goldenrod always seems to start blooming six weeks before the Days of Awe. It's my first cue that it's time to start paying attention to who and where I am, because my change of year is coming. In our meadow the first goldenrod flowers are little sunbursts, surrounded by red clover blooms and diligent honeybees.

I love how the sign at the farm nearest our house changes with the season. Right now it has two words on it: "blueberries" and "peaches." I ate my first local blueberries today, big fat ones from the orchard down the road -- and then the first single berry from our own bushes, a concentrated burst of flavor that left me reeling.

And the peaches! Yesterday I said a shehecheyanu over my first semi-local peach of the year. I stood on the deck and reveled in the feel of its fuzz, the faint acetone scent, the way juice ran down my fingers and my chin. We ate our first local corn yesterday, too: $2.50 gets you six ears at the Bradley Farm, crisp and sweet.

There's always part of me that wants to resist the turn of the year, to hit the cosmic pause button so we can stay right here, right now, in summer's warm cradle. But that isn't how it goes. Real tomatoes, fresh berries, sprigs of basil eventually give way to blazing leaves and the honeyed smell of fresh cordwood, and to bright skies over crisp snow, and again to new green. But today it's early August, midway between the longest day of the year and the sun's hovering midpoint, and I'm so glad.

!זֶה-הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יה; נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ

This is the day which God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

(Psalm 118:24)

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Domestic Jewish agenda: candidates respond

A while back, the good folks at Jewish FundS for Justice asked the Jewish netroots to weigh in on the domestic agenda issues that matter most to us. (I first posted about that here.) Once our answers had been tallied, JFSJ sent a questionnaire to the current Presidential candidates to see what those folks had to say about the issues that matter most to us, including health care, the environment, education, and civil rights.

As of today, Senator Biden, Senator Edwards, Senator Obama, and Governor Richardson have answered, and all of their responses are available for download here (in .pdf form.) Some of what each man said is interesting and compelling to me; all of their responses are worth reading.

It's easy to grouse that all we hear from our Presidential candidates are soundbytes. Reading their responses to our questions is a good way to begin getting a more nuanced picture of who these men are and what they have to say about the issues we care about. Thanks for making this happen, JFSJ, and three cheers for the J-blogosphere.

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Preparing for the holidays: a place to pray

The countdown to the High Holidays has begun. We're about six weeks from Rosh Hashanah, which means most folks in my line of work are kicking into high gear. We have a lot of work to do to get ready. Of course, the tradition teaches that we all have a lot of work to do to get ready; the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah are prime time for internal spiritual work, self-assessment and discernment. We're suposed to take a deep accounting of who we are and where we're at so that we can do the real spiritual work of the Days of Awe themselves.

As the full moon of Av wanes, drawing us nearer to the month of Elul (which immediately precedes the yamim nora'im), I find myself thinking about how to prepare for the High Holidays on a practical level, not just a spiritual one. The inner work is important, obviously -- it's what I love most about this time of year! -- but there's external work that can make the Days of Awe much sweeter, too. Like finding a place to daven, feeling rooted both in a community and in the liturgical year.

Davening in a place where you know a few people, where you've been before and you feel welcomed and recognized, makes a huge difference. My big piece of advice for making the Days of Awe more awesome? If you don't have a place for the High Holidays yet, shop around a little. Pick a few Shabbatot between now and mid-September, and attend services a couple of times. If you have a place where you go for the High Holidays, but maybe haven't been there often (or at all) since last Yom Kippur? You get the same advice: pick a few Shabbatot, and go. Because High Holiday services feel completely different when they're set against a backdrop of some familiarity.

The Days of Awe are big and intense on an interpersonal level. Going to a shul where you can wave hello to people is way different than going to a shul where you're going to feel solitary and alone. (Trust me, the former is a lot more fun.) Plus, a lot of places grow wildly in numbers during the Days of Awe, and going from an intimate minyan to a packed sanctuary changes the emotional and spiritual dynamics of the davening experience. I often wish I could convince the twice-a-year folks to show up on an average Shabbat sometime; it would make the High Holiday experience so much richer, plus I think they'd enjoy seeing what we're like when our community takes its intimate form.

The Days of Awe are big and intense also on a liturgical level. The liturgy for the Days of Awe is rich, fascinating, and sometimes challenging. The mood in a synagogue changes during the Days of Awe; all this talk of repair and return, of God's sovereignty and our need to atone for the places where we've missed the mark, is heavy stuff! But it's not meant to happen in a spiritual vacuum. The liturgy for the yamim nora'im differs from the Shabbat liturgy thematically, melodically, verbally. Those differences highlight the Days' special themes, but those highlights don't show up unless you have some sense of what the HHD liturgy is different from.

Learning more about the holidays, their customs, their liturgy -- all of these things help, too, obviously. But any journey through the Four Worlds has to start right here in the world of assiyah, action and physicality, and on a physical level, the first way to start prepping for the Days of Awe is to find a physical place to be when the holidays roll around.

The High Holidays are like a marathon. Services are likely to be long. Distance from family (whether literal or metaphorical) can be really tough. Distance from God, even tougher. And I know the feeling of showing up at shul, wanting something meaningful to happen but fearful that it won't or can't (and then feeling culpable when the moment of transformation doesn't arise.) We have six weeks between now and the start of the holidays; how do you want to use that time, what do you need to check off of your personal list, so that the Days of Awe can be everything you need them to be this year?

As has been my custom for the last several years, I'll be spending Rosh Hashanah at my shul, and Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim. If you're looking for a friendly place in western Massachusetts for HHD services, or for a deep, meaningful, heartfelt Yom Kippur retreat, let me know.

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