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Bread and soup and blessing

The year after I graduated from college, I worked at the bookstore in Williamstown, selling textbooks to college students and "regular" (trade) books to townies. I liked that job. The work was sociable and not especially taxing, and the store gave me a thirty percent discount on books...which meant, of course, that I spent far too much of my small paycheck on books; they were so cheap! I used to enjoy opening the store: arriving early enough to turn on the lights, put on a pot of coffee, set some jazz playing on the stereo, roll out the awning. Like getting ready for houseguests every day.

The schedule was one of the best things about that job. In return for working Sundays, I got Fridays and Saturdays off. In those days the only Shabbat practice I maintained consistently was baking challah: I made bread every Friday that year. That physical act connected me to the rhythm of the week.

There's something about baking bread that has always both awed and soothed me. The alchemy by which flour, water, yeast and a bit of salt are transformed into bread still amazes me. And the process is so physical, so embodied: the scent of the poolish (yeast and water and flour beginning to percolate), the silk of a handful of flour, the satiny quality of dough as it becomes ready to rest and to rise.

I'm making bread and soup today, and as I set the dough to rise and put the chicken in my soup pot I thought, "what a classic Ashkenazic Shabbat dinner this could be!" Except, of course, that it isn't, exactly. Homemade bread yes, but not braided challah: this dough is golden with a cup of cornmeal, flecked with roasted onions and minced cilantro. The soup begins with a chicken, sure, but over the course of the afternoon I've added the black beans I soaked overnight, and dark poblano peppers, and a can of hominy. Later, as the dinner hour grows closer, I'll add fresh cilantro and a jar of the corn relish I put up last August.

But as I kneaded the dough this morning I whispered blessings, my hopes that this bread be capable of nourishing those who eat it on many levels at once. As I've been tinkering with the soup -- pulling meat off the bird's bones, slicing the jalapeño peppers I put up in September -- I've had the same prayer in mind. When I raise my wineglass tonight, I'll be thinking of my family and friends in farflung places, mentally and spiritually sending the blessings of Shabbat to their tables and their hearts. Isn't that what makes Friday night dinner into Shabbat supper? Not what we eat, but how we eat it; not what we make, but who we aspire to be.

A sweet Shabbat to all of you reading this, whoever and wherever you are.


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Notes toward a morning prayer practice

A friend emailed me recently to say that she's considering taking up the practice of davening in the mornings; she asked whether I would share a little bit about my own practices, how they've evolved, what siddur I use/recommend, etc. I started a response, and it ran long, so I thought I'd share it here in case others find it useful. The first thing I want to say is that morning prayer rocks. Every time I do it my whole day brightens. So I applaud you for considering taking it on! May it be a blessing for you.

If you're just getting started with morning davenen, start with something manageable. If you set out with the intention of davening a full morning service every day, you may discover that ordinary life doesn't easily permit that kind of sudden shift in practice, and you risk winding up discouraged when you can't live up to what you were picturing. So start small. Reb Zalman used to teach a practice called the Seven-Minute Daven, which I wrote about here. That might be a good place to start.

In my own practice, sometimes I pray silently. Sometimes I sing aloud. At minimum I aim to recite the shema (and her blessings) and the amidah, since in my understanding those are the prayers required in order for one to be yotzei (to have fulfilled the obligation to pray.) In season, I like to daven outdoors; sometimes when my day is really crunched I even daven in the car. (I have a good recording of the full morning service -- Hazzan Jack Kessler's Learn to Daven! -- with which I can sing along, though I've also been known to just sing the parts of the prayers I know by heart.) And, of course, once a week I daven with dear friends over the phone.

When I was first starting to develop my prayer practice I used Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructionist prayerbook. It has good translations and good poetry. Reb Zalman has also a spiral-bound all-English siddur for weekday davenen, available through the ALEPH store, which is quite lovely. These days I use the Koren siddur, which is all-Hebrew. If you have the luxury of being able to browse actual siddurim on a shelf somewhere before you choose your siddur, it's worth taking a few minutes to do so. But specific suggestions aside, what's important here is that the siddur feel user-friendly to you. And don't become so attached to the siddur, or so hung-up on the choice of siddur, that you lose sight of the prayers of your own heart.

Okay, now I'm going to get a little bit far-out. One of my favorite Renewal teachings is the idea that our davenen is a journey through the Four Worlds.

Continue reading "Notes toward a morning prayer practice" »

This week's portion: collaboration


By the time I arrive
the work is in full swing.
We've taken over the house:
here the corer and cutting boards,
there the bowls of apple cubes
touched with cinnamon.

The grinder is clamped
to the kitchen table, its wide tray
awaiting what comes off the stove.
Out comes applesauce, pink
from the shredded skins
of Cortlands, Empires, early Macs.

By the end of the day
everything we've touched
is sticky and fragrant.
We mop the floors
to the popcorn sounds
of two hundred lids sealing.

Maybe this is what it was like
for the Israelites back then.
Everyone brought the supplies
they had on-hand, the skills
to which each could lay claim
and they sat together

here the weaving and stitching,
there the clamor of carpentry
talking and cracking jokes
while Bezalel, Uri's son
who had in his heart the wisdom
to bring visions to life

carried his holy clipboard
from place to place. When the work
was done, did they sit back
and marvel at what they had made,
how holy presence dwelled
in the work of their joined hands?

This week I started working on a d'var Torah for parashat Vayekhel, and realized once I had a draft that it would probably work better as a poem than as prose. So I rewrote it, and I like this version a lot better. Not exactly a traditional d'var, I realize, but I hope it speaks to you anyway.

While I'm at it, this seems like a good time to mention a new page I recently generated for the blog: Velveteen Rabbi's Torah Commentary. It's a list of every d'var Torah I've written since I started blogging in 2003, organized by parsha. It's gratifying to see them all lined up like that! Anyway, enjoy.

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Praying my anger away

O my God and God of my ancestors, save us today and every day from anger, our own and that of others; from bad people, from wickedness in our friends, our companions, our neighbors; from the internal adversary within each of us; and from harsh judgments, our own and those of others, whether they are part of our community or outside our community.

This brief snippet of morning liturgy leapt out at me this morning. It's from a personal prayer the Talmud attributes to Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi (see Brachot 16b.) It's a passage I often breeze right by, but today it caught my attention. Probably because I really needed it.

Last night I read something online that made me angry. What it was isn't significant; what matters is that it tied my insides in a knot. Someone was saying something that upset me profoundly. I got angry, and defensive, and sad, all tangled together.

The tough part was, that morass of feelings stuck with me. After sixteen years online I'm smart enough to know not to respond when I'm in that kind of emotional place (thank God!) -- but I couldn't shed the feelings. I had trouble getting to sleep. I had uneasy dreams. The stuff was still reverberating in me this morning during my shower, when I usually try to recite modah ani to myself as a way of setting an intention of gratitude for my day.

After I took my blood pressure meds this morning, I felt a strong temptation to go and check out the discussion thread. (There's something ironic there, I realize.) I told myself I wasn't going to respond; I just wanted to see what people were saying. Of course, had I done so I would have entangled myself right back in the midst of what had made me so angry and so sad.

Instead I minimized my web browser and dialed in to my Tuesday morning shacharit group. And then during our davenen these lines jumped out at me. "Save us today and every day from anger -- our own, and that of others." Oy. Rabbi Yehudah, I am so right there with you.

I don't mean to suggest that anger is never warranted. Sometimes it's the only legitimate response. Sometimes it calls us to action. But most of the time, when I get angry about something, it feeds my ego and my sense of self. The puffery of righteous indignation feels good, in a certain way. Adrenaline starts pumping. I get to bask in the sense that I'm right and someone else is wrong. But I'm not sure that's good for me.

This makes me think of a teaching from the Me'or Eynayim. Reb Menahem Nahum wrote that we can serve God by becoming aware of, and refining, the middot (divine qualities) that are in our natures. Each of us, he taught, can become conscious of her/his own spiritual level, and of which middot are in need of repair -- and then we can engage in the internal repairs we need to do. This isn't just a nice option; it's our obligation. We need to become more whole in order to do good work in the world more wholly.

Maybe this is part of why I am so discomfited by the passages in Tanakh where God's anger blazes forth: they resonate with something in me that I don't want to strengthen. 


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DLTI links roundup

I find myself reluctant to stop blogging about DLTI -- as if ceasing to blog about the program would mean it was really and truly over. I imagine that the experience will continue to find its way into my writing, both here and elsewhere...but it's probably time to draw the series of posts written during the program itself to a close.

For easy reference, a final links round-up post. One way to navigate this material is through the DLTI category; that link will bring you to all of the posts on a single page, in reverse-chronological order. Or, if you prefer, here's a series of snapshots of the experience as it unfolded:

I was part of DLTI-4 (the fourth cohort to enter into the journey of the program.) A few of my dear friends are already enrolled in DLTI-5, the next iteration of the program, which begins in August. I envy them a little: they're about to embark on something truly extraordinary. I look forward to reliving the experience vicariously through their, perhaps, others have relived the experience through mine.

I can't thank my chevre, or my teachers, enough.

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readwritepoem: Lunar Eclipse


When first I lower my body
hot water scalds my skin.

Once my glasses have fogged
I scuff my feet into stolen slippers

and wrench the glass door open.
The sky is pricked with lights

around the red alien moon.
Blink, but it doesn't change back.

The air bites me all over
dry and thin and still.

I drift into the heavens
like a Mylar balloon

murmuring a blessing
no one's ever said before.

This poem is a response to the weather prompt at readwritepoem. (In this revision the weather isn't a direct focus of the poem, but it was definitely a big part of the experience. That was a mighty cold night in these parts.) Other responses to that prompt are linked here.

On the eclipse front, a few links: Reb Shai Gluskin posted a photo series and a poem. And Dave put up a photo essay that's also pretty dazzling.

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Shabbat mincha poem

I said on the DLTI-4 email list this week that our last week of DLTI felt to me like an extended Shabbat mincha (afternoon service-time): those last golden hours as the sun begins to set. As DLTI drew to its inevitable close I felt the same kind of sadness that I feel when Shabbat is on its way out, or when time with a dear friend is winding down and I know they're going to have to pack their bags and leave again.

Shabbat mincha is considered moshiach-tzeit, the time when our transformative potential is most accessible and we can whisper most easily into God's loving and listening ear. It's always hard to let that go. But we can't have Shabbat without chol (ordinary time), and we can't have DLTI (or any retreat experience) without our ordinary lives surrounding it.

So DLTI ends. Shabbat ends. Time with our loved ones ends. That's the natural rhythm of things. But it's also the natural rhythm of things that Shabbat always returns, and that the blessings we find in togetherness can sustain us even when we're apart.



For my fellow travelers in DLTI

Look how the afternoon light
is changing. Last night
we waltzed in the doorway,
sang until our voices deepened.

But our time together
is always already ending.
Weekday melodies
peek around the edges.

I'm not ready.
I throw myself at your knees.
What if even our strongest spices
aren't enough to revive me?

I know once we're apart
I'll remember how good it feels
to miss you. How everything
is meant to come and go.

Still, right now
in the light that emanates
from your face, I can imagine
how it would feel

if we didn't need distance
in order to know union
if you didn't need to leave
in order to return.

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This week's portion: the people, the calf, and Moshe

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, contains the story of the golden calf. Moshe is taking too long atop the mountain, so the people corral Aharon and say, "Come, make us a god who shall go before us;" we feel like we've been abandoned, and we're scared. So Aharon collects their gold earrings, and melts them, and the shape of a calf is formed. And the people rejoice, and make offerings, and they eat and drink and dance.

God is not pleased. Moshe convinces God not to strike the people down...but by the time Moshe reaches the camp, and sees the calf and the carrying-on, his own anger has been aroused, and he shatters the tablets of the covenant on the ground.

It can't have been easy, being Moshe. Ever since his encounter with the bush that burned but wasn't consumed, he's been asked by God to stretch himself in new and challenging ways. Despite his protestations, God chose him to go before Pharaoh, and to lead the children of Israel and the mixed multitude that accompanied them out of Egypt.

And now Moshe has spent forty days and forty nights atop the mountain, enfolded in fire and cloud. My teacher Reb Yakov Travis has taught me that when God instructs Moshe והיה–שם (v'heyeh sham), God means not only "wait there" (as the JPS rendering has it) but really be there: be fully present with every atom of your being. Moshe passes forty days -- that number which signifies a full cycle of inception, growth, and completion -- in that space. He descends, carrying the fruits of that labor.

But the people aren't ready. As his absence stretches from days into weeks, they panic. They want something tangible, so they make a calf and dance around it. Imagine spending forty transcendent days on a mountaintop, and coming home to that!

Continue reading "This week's portion: the people, the calf, and Moshe" »

Shabbat gleanings: DLTI week 4, post 2

The focus of the fourth week of DLTI was Shabbat, especially kabbalat Shabbat, the series of psalms and songs that expands ma'ariv (the brief evening service) into a celebration of cosmic unification rife with mystical interpretations. Kabbalat Shabbat was also the service I was blessed to be co-leading during the last session of DLTI, so it was a natural focus for my week on at least two levels.

One of the most powerful parts of the week, for me, was Reb Marcia's teaching about the deep meanings and implications of Shabbat -- which was accompanied by Hazzan Jack softly playing guitar, modulating melody on-the-fly to match her words. I'm not going to reprint the teaching here in full; merely reading it, without the impact of voice and melody (and absent the context in which it was delivered) wouldn't do it justice. But I'll share a few of the ideas from it that are most powerful for me.

To enter into Shabbat is to live in perfect harmony. All the blessings that manifest in the material world depend on Shabbat. Shabbat is the center of a six-petaled flower; all the days of the week arise out of it, and depend on it. Without that center, the flower couldn't thrive.

Shabbat is the tree in the center of the garden, the nectar in the flower, the center of the cosmic wheel. Symbols of Shabbat include the moon, Jerusalem, the Tent of Meeting, the Garden of Eden, King David, the bride, the Queen, the holy apple orchard.

Our practice of Shabbat restores primordial wholeness to the cosmos. It has the capacity to irrigate the thirsty world. Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors. It transforms and modulates the flow of God into the cosmos.

In order to understand Kabbalat Shabbat, you need to understand the difference between ceremony and ritual, between that which is symbolic and that which is theurgic. A ceremony is symbolic; it celebrates something that has happened. (Birthdays happen, with or without a ceremony.) A ritual is theurgic; it creates a new truth. A sacred event unfolding in the spiritual realm at that moment. (Like what happens under the chuppah: a cosmic shift.) Ritual ushers in a new reality in the material and cosmic realm. That's what Kabbalat Shabbat does.

The dominant energy of the week is duality, separation. Dualism is a gift: it allows for difference (day and night, hot and cold, chocolate and vanilla, me and you.) But it also has downsides. We never really know one another. We are each existentially alone. Shabbat is the counter to that, our chance to taste the river of oneness that flows through everything.

Living solely in separation is damaging, to us and to God. Shabbat is our weekly tune-up: a chance to repair brokenness, to effect union, one day out of every seven.

Our bad karma -- the combined effects of our negative actions and energies -- drags Shekhinah, the divine presence immanent in creation, into mis-alignment, like a divine slipped disc. Shabbat is a practice of divine chiropractic work, so that divine flow can be restored.


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New book for teenagers about God

Start with this premise: Judaism offers at least two [and usually many more] answers to every question.

We collected thirteen questions about God. Then we found a bunch of rabbinical students, young Jewish teachers, and other new voices in the Jewish world. We asked them the questions, and they gave us their answers. Sometimes they agreed. Sometimes they didn't. Some of their answers are really traditional. Some of them are off-the-wall. All of their answers are Jewish answers to Jewish questions.

That's some of the back cover copy on God: Jewish Choices for Struggling With the Ultimate, a new book out from Torah Aura Productions. It's designed as a text for the Jewish classroom, aimed at teenagers but crafted in a sophisticated and intellectually interesting way. The editors gathered a range of rabbinic students and young Jewish leaders, asked 13 big questions ("Is there a God?" "Do we have free will?" "Does God make miracles?"), and then assembled a patchwork of our answers.

The book includes my answers to the questions "If there is one God, why are there so many religions?", "Does prayer work?", and "Does God speak to people?" (Good questions for me -- these are right up my alley.) I'm honored to be the Jewish Renewal voice in this book, and I'm delighted to be published alongside folks like Danya. Anyway: if you work with teenagers, this is a good resource for you -- and even if you don't, you might enjoy the book anyway. It's a pretty little paperback; copies cost just $9.95. (I'm not earning royalties here or anything -- I'm just hawking it because I'm proud to be a part of it, and I think it's cool.) Thanks for the folks at Torah Aura for putting this together, and for launching it out into the world!

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This week's portion: vestments of beauty

On the last full day of DLTI, we worked on divrei Torah ("words of Torah," homilies that seek to both preach and teach.) Each of us had written a d'var on last week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh. First we paired up, and spoke them aloud to each other, one-on-one. And then a few of us volunteered to stand before the kahal, deliver their divrei Torah, and be workshopped on text and delivery alike. It was awesome.

That night I dreamed that I was walking with Reb Marcia, talking about divrei Torah as a spiritual practice. "You're right," I said to her, "I should take that on again. It was so good for me, the year I was doing it every week." When I woke, I figured the message in the dream was pretty clear. That morning I announced to my chevre that I'm going to do my best to write and share divrei Torah here again. 

I'm not sure I'm going to cross-post at Radical Torah this time around; a reader complained once that the texts I was sharing weren't particularly radical, and I think that's a fair bone to pick. Anyway, here's the d'var I wrote for last week's portion; I hope y'all enjoy.

Parashat Tetzaveh floods us with instructions for making sacral vestments for Aaron and his sons: breastpiece, ephod, robe, fringed tunic, headdress, and sash.

Every year I'm amazed by the richness of the sartorial detail. Fine linen. Gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarn. In those days these materials were precious. Even the colors feel significant: the rich sparkle of gold, tkhelet blue like the sky, purple suggesting royalty, crimson like the visible life-force that flows through our veins.

These garments, Torah tells us, should be made by those in whom God has placed hokhmah, wisdom or skill. Hokhmah is an important word. Joseph, who can interpret dreams, is described as having hokhmah; so is Bezalel, chief builder of the mishkan, who can shape reality with the work of his hands. Hokhmah has something to do with making visions manifest. That's the quality Torah calls for in those who make these holy garments for Aaron and his sons.

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Ineffable week four of DLTI

The further we've gone into the journey that is DLTI, and the more I want to tell people about it, the less I find I'm able to say. That's a little frustrating, but it makes a certain kind of sense.

According to one paradigm, the first week was the week of Awareness: realizing how much we didn't yet know. The second week was a week of Awkwardness: recognizing that we might know the names of the skills we wanted to acquire, but we didn't quite have them down yet. The third week, Skillfulness: picking up momentum, beginning to craft davenen that could soar. And the fourth week, Integration: weaving it all together.

According to another paradigm, the first week was the week of Assiyah, practical physicality: the nuts and bolts of Jewish prayer, words and nusach, the mechanics of davenen. Week two was Yetzirah, emotions: davenen with and from the heart. Week three was Briyah, intellect: relating to our prayers in a conscious way. And week four, Atzilut, essence.

Whichever way you slice it, we just finished week four: integration, essence, the culmination of the journey. No wonder I can't seem to figure out how to put this learning into words!

Trying to write about DLTI is like trying to write about a mystical experience. The experience itself goes beyond language. Any description I try to offer will say as much about me and the lenses through which I see DLTI as it does about the program itself. Of course I'm going to do my best to verbalize it; that's what I do. But I want you to understand that whatever words I offer, now and in the days to come, are inevitably going to miss the mark of explaining what it is we've just completed and why it means so much to me.

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Another wintry journey to DLTI

This photo was taken last year on February 14, the first day of the second week of DLTI. I drove down to Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman a day early on account of snowstorm; I spent part of the 14th bundled into snow pants and polarfleece, walking in my snowshoes on the frozen lake.

I'm having some déja vù today, because this year, once again, we're besieged by wintry weather on the day we're slated to begin our retreat experience. This time it's a deluge of freezing rain and sleet. My friend Joe is once again unable to fly north in his small plane; I'm hoping people won't be trapped in their travels, or get into trouble on the road as we make our way to the retreat center for these last few precious days. (Hell, I'm hoping I can make it down my own driveway!)

I broke the LCD screen on my digital camera on my way to Ohalah, so I am -- alas! -- camera-less these days. Which means I won't be posting photos from DLTI, and I don't blog while I'm there. So...have a sweet few days, everyone. If you're the praying type, please say a prayer for all of us who are traveling today in the "mixed precipitation." An early Shabbat shalom to all, and I'll see you on the flipside!

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The PaRDeS of pastoral care

Anton Boisen, the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education, taught that the pastoral interaction is an encounter with the human document. Jewish tradition centers around the encounter with God manifest in a written document. From that point of intersection, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman spins a four-tiered way of looking at interpersonal encounters based in a very old Jewish mode of textual analysis.

There's a very old story in Tosefta Hagigah 2:3 about four rabbis who entered an orchard -- in Hebrew, פרדס / pardes, which is the source of the English word "paradise." (You can find the story cited here; it also appears at the beginning of Pardes: the quest for spiritual paradise in Judaism, a lecture by Moshe Idel.) One of the four men dies; one goes insane; one loses his faith; and only one remains unscathed. This is a story about an encounter with ultimate reality, which is both exalted and dangerous.

In the Zohar, Rabbi Moses de Leon maps the story to a four-tiered system of textual analysis. Pshat is literal interpretation, remez is allegory, drash is homiletical or ethical interpretation, and sod is the mystical understanding that ties it all together. The initial letters of those words spell PaRDeS, and these four levels of interpretation are the orchard into which we enter every time we learn.

Rabbi Friedman takes those four familiar levels of interpretation and applies them to the pastoral care encounter. As she writes, "[t]he individual encountered by pastoral caregivers is as complex, multilayered, rich, opaque, and in need of explication as any sacred text." Wow.

Continue reading "The PaRDeS of pastoral care" »

Approaching our last week of DLTI

On Sunday I made my way to Newton to meet with one of my DLTI buddies, with whom I'll be co-leading kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday. We settled in her study with a pile of siddurim, tuned up my guitar, and talked our way through the Friday night service, offering different melodies each of us knows for the various psalms and prayers and taking notes on which tunes we both liked and which prayers we would each be most comfortable leading. It was a fun way to spend an hour, and it ramped up my excitement about returning to DLTI this week.

I can't wait to see everyone, my colleagues and teachers alike. After a year and a half of learning together, including three very emotionally and spiritually intensive weeks, this feels kind of like a family reunion! I'm eager to find out what we'll be learning this time around; I'm guessing it will be at least as intense as the previous weeks have been. And I know that spending five days davening and learning and immersing in the whole-body experience of DLTI will be restorative for me. But there's also part of me that's saddened to think that our final week of DLTI is rolling around, because that means the program is almost over; after these last few days, DLTI Four will be finished, and we'll never come together in this way again.

Of course, we'll still have our email list, for questions and conversation. Many of us are in one ALEPH ordination program or another, so we'll see each other in a continued way at ALEPH gatherings (like smicha students' week this coming summer, though I probably won't be there, since I'm hoping to be studying abroad -- more about that in another post sometime soon.) And we've formed connections that will far outlast the formal program; we've become mishpacha, family, for one another in some deep ways.

Still, some part of me is already anticipating the loss I will feel when the program is over. Mourning the reality that this chevre will never exist again in quite this way. One of my challenges this week will be to keep that anticipatory sadness at bay: not to stifle it, but to acknowledge it and then let it go, so I can experience the week as it unfolds instead of getting caught up in telling myself stories about how I think I'm going to feel later on.

I brought some of this up in conversation with my spiritual director last week, and he noted that I'll likely struggle with some of these same issues when I reach "senior status" within ALEPH (the last year or two of the program, at which point we'll know when I'm likely to be done.) That was a useful reminder for me not to borrow trouble -- that even though my DLTI experience is on the verge of ending, thankfully my ALEPH experience is not, and I'll have the blessing of being a student of these teachers (and a colleague of these wonderful people) for a good while to come.

Meanwhile, I have a service to co-lead on Friday night, a Torah study to co-lead on Shabbat morning, a d'var to offer in class sometime during the week, and days' worth of classes, communal meals, prayers, songs, and conversations to look forward to. Yeah, when the week is done, it will be time for a new crop of students to begin the incredible journey of DLTI. But fortunately I have a few friends who are in the fifth cohort, which makes it easier to anticipate our teachers turning their attention to a new set of talmidim. I get to revel in anticipation of how fun and broadening this will be for them, as it has been for me! But for now, at least, this wild and wonderful ride isn't over... and that makes me glad.


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An outsider looking at Lent

As those of you who are Christian are probably profoundly aware, Lent began this week. As always, I'm fascinated by the ways in which being part of the religious blogosphere offers me a chance to peek at the religious practices of others, and I'm already enjoying some of the Lenten blog posts that are rolling across my aggregator. For instance, Ash Wednesday Lavendar by RJ:

Ash Wednesday – and really all of Lent – is a journey more than a destination – a way of discerning and searching for the holy in the ordinary events of our human lives – and as you know if you have ever travelled, some journeys are wonderful and rich, some are messed up and filled with trouble, and some never get off the ground[.]

I'm also intrigued by Father Chris' post Washing off the ashes? He takes a fascinating look at the question of religious visibility on Ash Wednesday, and I think he's identified an important tension between following traditional precepts because there's value in doing so, and resisting the temptation to allow one's enactment of those precepts to feed the ego.

I see parallels between the 40-day Lenten period (symbolic of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert) and the 40-day period Jews observe between the beginning of the month of Elul and Yom Kippur. I've written before about how the number 40, in the rabbinic imagination, represents the period from something's inception (or conception) to fruition. With that in mind, I see these 40-day journeys as chances to mindfully inhabit the work of teshuvah, turning-toward-God, that's so foundational to religious life.

One of the things that's always moved me is the practice of refraining from offering alleluias in church during Lent. Once, several years ago, I went with a friend to Easter services (that's a story I should tell here, one of these days) and was blown away by the joy I perceived in those Easter alleluias, I imagine because the community had been fasting from praise for so long. I can't imagine going forty days without offering praise; I find it tough enough to eschew praise on the single day of Tisha b'Av! But the idea has stuck with me.

To my readers and friends who are entering into Lent, I wish you a journey that brings you where you need to go. (If you're blogging about it, let me know where.) May the rest of us be respectful witnesses to your travels.

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readwritepoem: Protection


I'd make a good boy scout:
tampons litter the corners

of every backpack and purse
waiting to unfurl, and

there are gloves in the pockets
of every coat I own.

The gloves my father wears
were his inheritance.

Cracked and creased,
they're always already old.

Once I lost a fur-lined glove,
sleek as a well-fed cat.

It reappeared in the spring,
sodden and sheepish,

when the ice shelf of our driveway
melted into a muddy sea.

I dried it in the dining room
and it was wearable again, though

battered, as if my left hand
had endured my worst nightmares

but my right hand
didn't know the clench of fear.

The current prompt at readwritepoem is dressing up your poetry. I had all sorts of ideas for this one, though once I started working on the poem, it was the glove idea that grabbed me and ran. This poem's been through several iterations this week, but I think I'm pleased with it. There's nothing Judaic in it, for a change, unless you count the very subtle hint of psalm 137 in the last two couplets, but I hope y'all enjoy it anyway. Anyway, you can read others' responses to the prompt here.

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A Biblical page-turner

If we think of it as a great work of literature, then who were the artists? If we think of it as a source to be examined in the study of history, then whose reports are we examining? Who wrote its laws? Who fashioned the book out of a diverse collection of stories, poetry, and laws into a single work? If we encounter an author when we read a work, to whatever degree and be it fiction or nonfiction, then whom do we encounter when we read the Bible?

For most readers, it makes a difference, whether their interest in the book is religious, moral, literary, or historical... In the case of fiction, most would find it relevant that Dostoyevsky was Russian, was of the nineteenth century, was an Orthodox Christian of originally revolutionary opinions, and was epileptic and that epilepsy figures in important ways in The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov; or that Dashiell Hammett was a detective; or that George Eliot was a woman.

...The more obvious this seems, the more striking is the fact that this information has largely been lacking in the case of the Bible. Often the text cannot be understood without it.

That's from the introduction to Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?, which I'm reading for my Biblical History & Civilization class. This statement may betray my total geekery (if it weren't obvious already!) but I found this book to be a total page-turner.

Friedman does a fine job of exploring different ways the Bible has been understood. His introduction of the documentary hypothesis is clear and solid -- and also not news to me; I've been familiar with the documentary hypothesis since my freshman year of college. (Thanks to my alma mater's religion department.) But Friedman untangles and teases out the various strands of the story -- both the internal stories contained in the Bible, and the meta-story of how we came to understand what we understand about the text's creation -- like a writer of fine detective fiction, and he kept me on the edge of my seat.

Some of the examples he draws on are familiar to me. (Two creation stories, two versions of the Flood, yadda yadda.) But others are new to me, and left me exclaiming out loud with glee. Ever wonder why the story of the Golden Calf appears in the text where it does, and what the calf represented within the context of its time, anyway? How do these stories align with political upheavals in antiquity, and what were the agendas and priorities of the various factions whose voices the Bible encapsulates? If we accept the multiple-source understanding of the text's authorship, who exactly wrote the various sources, and who redacted them into the whole we know today? Friedman has answers for all of these.

There's an interview with Friedman at Beliefnet that's worth reading, if you're into this kind of thing. I'm particularly struck by his point that "When you see it come together like this, it adds a layer of depth to your appreciation of the book. The whole is more than the sum of its parts."

Friedman's book is also just plain fun. I don't think I recognized what a rarity that is until I started doing some of the other reading we were assigned for this class this week. I remember reading some Norman Gottwald when I was an undergrad (the name Tribes of Yahweh springs to mind.) His book The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction is readable, but it's hardly captivating. Makes sense; Gottwald's books are academic tomes, Friedman's is a popular history. But I'll take nonfiction that's simple, readable, and clear over academic prose any day...and I'm glad that the syllabus parcels out limited doses of Gottwald, versus the two whole books of Friedman's we'll be reading over the course of the term.

Obviously Friedman's line of thinking isn't going to work for everyone. There are folks for whom the documentary hypothesis is a no-go. But for my part, I find that the more I understand about the human origins of our sacred text, the more awed I am by the ways God has worked in and through the text and its readers over time. Approaching the text as a scholar helps me approach it devotionally with even more appreciation of its quirks, its roots, and its power.

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Super Tuesday Eve

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and for once it feels to me that voting in my party's primary is actually a relevant act. (For me as a liberal here in blue-state Massachusetts, most years it's easy to imagine that my vote doesn't make much difference; but this year I think it does, and that's exciting.) According to the Jewish way of measuring time, tomorrow begins this evening at sundown; so it's erev Super Tuesday now, "Super Tuesday Eve."

Talking with my friends about the candidates, I've been struck by the extent to which each of us tends to have a few issues that we really care about, and how we each tend to evaluate candidates through the lens of those issues. For me, one of those issues is the place where politics and faith meet; I want a candidate who has faith in our ability to create a better world, and who genuinely respects this nation's range of beliefs and practices. Another of those issues is internationalism; I want a candidate who feels called to restore America's relationships with the rest of the world, and who thinks in international terms. On both of those fronts, I'm drawn to Barack Obama.

For many of you who read this blog, that litmus test issue may be Israel. Which is why I wanted to point my readers toward Why Obama is good for Israel, an editorial by Jay Michaelson (yes, the very same one whose collection of poetry I just reviewed.) Jay writes, "an Obama presidency would be of enormous benefit to a 21st century Israel, not because Clinton is dangerous in some way, but because Obama could reverse eight years of deepening hatred of America." Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the article is worth reading, and I recommend it highly.

I want to mention one more reason that I'm drawn to Obama: he fills me with hope. I feel called, even commanded, to relate to the world from a position of hope. Jewish tradition teaches me that the work of perfecting creation is work we are all obligated to do, and hope for a better future is a necessary prerequisite for that. The last seven years of American politics have not made that hope easy for me, and I've succumbed to cynicism and despair more often than I would like. The prospect of an Obama presidency gives me hope. To think that we could have a president who would say, and mean, things like this:

I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth - that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this - we have to do our part to make it a reality...

We can recognize the truth that... [t]he conversation is not over; that our roles are not defined; that through ancient texts and modern voices, God is still speaking, challenging us to change not just our own lives, but the world around us. [source]

AMEN! So, for those who'll be casting votes tomorrow, I offer the one-line blessing for voting that I posted on the cusp of the last Presidential election:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, אשר חונן לאדם דעת להבין ולבחור

Baruch atah Hashem eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher chonein l'adam da'at l'havin v'livchor.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who fills human beings with insight and knowledge, enabling us to understand and to choose.

And here's Rabbi David Seidenberg's beautiful prayer for voting (link goes to English text; you can also download a Hebrew .pdf from that site.) May we who are casting votes tomorrow be blessed to approach voting as a holy act -- and may we all do our part toward co-creating a healed and transformed world, now and always.

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Becoming a healthier pastor

The first reading for Reb Goldie's Pastoral Care Intensive class was Ronald Richardson's Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family. Caveat lector: it may be that if you are neither clergy, nor studying to become clergy, nor engaged in one of the "helping professions," this won't be especially engaging to you! But I found it to be a fascinating read.

Family systems theory "is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit." Basically, the idea is that families aren't just agglomerations of individuals; they're systems, and each of us plays a part in how her/his family of origin functions.  Coming to understand the system that is my family of origin can help me relate to that family in a healthier way -- which will in turn help me enact my ministry in a healthier way, because congregations often replicate family dynamics. As Richardson puts it, "While our later professional training adds a layer of sophistication and expertise that normally serves us well in ministry, when the level of anxiety goes up in a congregation and we become anxious, we tend to revert to our old family patterns and ways of functioning." Right.

Figuring out the various undercurrents of my family-of-origin is, in a sense, an exercise in self-differentiation, which isn't always easy or comfortable. "[W]orking on differentiation of self is like taking your little sailboat out on to the lake when a storm is brewing, hoping to learn something both about storms and yourself and about how to manage your boat in a storm." (That's Richardson quoting Michael Kerr, by the by.)

Over the course of the book, Richardson tackles topics like "the pastor's own emotional system and unresolved emotional attachment," the importance of differentiation of self (and the ways in which excessive distance between family members can be just as unhealthy as excessive closeness), the challenges of developing a new view of one's family of origin, and how to manage reactivity and expectations. He talks a lot about triangles within families (when two people relate by talking about a third person) and about the stories we've learned to tell about who our families are and why.

Continue reading "Becoming a healthier pastor" »