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Beneath a modern tent of Abraham

Three congregants spoke from the bimah of my shul on erev Rosh Hashanah. The theme of this year's congregational learning will be Israel, so that was the subject of the mini-sermonettes. Maybe since I spent the summer in Jerusalem, my rabbi asked me to be one of the three who spoke.

I chose to tell a story about one experience I had toward the end of my stay. (If you were reading me over the summer, you'll recognize the story from this post.) If you'd like to read it, you're in luck; here it is.

Happy new year to all! May we be inscribed in the book of life for a sweet year to come.


Shanah tovah! Many of you know that I spent the summer in Jerusalem. I went with two goals in mind: to improve my Hebrew, and to get to know Israel in a deeper way.

Bidiyuk, ha-ivrit sheli, zeh mamash yoter tov -- my Hebrew is certainly better than it was when I went! And my relationship with Israel is deeper and more complex. Tonight I want to tell you a story about one adventure I had, about six weeks in to my journey.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when I caught a lift with an Israeli woman named Daphna. She's one of the co-founders of Nava Tehila, the monthly Jewish Renewal minyan in Jerusalem. We picked up a Romanian Christian woman named Simone, along with her baby son, and together we drove through a part of Jerusalem I had never seen. We passed the municipal zoo and the train tracks, and went through the Ein Yael checkpoint, where soldiers peered into our car, heard Daphna’s Israeli Hebrew, and waved us on.

We made a sharp turn after the checkpoint onto a rutted dirt road. The land there is beautiful: steep and rocky, speckled with scrub. We drove up and around until we reached the top of a hill, and parked our car. In the valley below, we could see the very edge of Jerusalem.

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The birthday of the world / pregnant with possibility

We hear the shofar and call out, "Hayom Harat Olam! / Today is the birthday of the world; Today the world is born!"

So says the liturgy according to most readings. And this birthday is not just one of celebration: "Today the world stands in judgment." These two motifs alone should give us pause today to consider what we are doing to the planet, to how we can restore the balance of the atmosphere, the balance of the waters and the air, of the forests and plains, the ocean and the continents.

But let's look more closely at these words, to see what they can teach us.

Harah means pregnancy, conception or gestation. Not birth, but the process which leads up to birth. Olam can mean world, but if we wanted to say "the conception of the world," we would say harat ha-olam. Olam really means eternity, from the root that means "hidden," or more precisely, the infinite that is hidden, beyond our limited perception.

If we wanted to say "the birth of the world" we would say yaldat ha'olam. Harat Olam means very literally, "pregnant with eternity", or "eternally pregnant." Today is pregnant with eternity.

That's a teaching from Rabbi David Seidenberg, of NeoHasid.org and the Shalom Center, and I think it's really cool.

"Today is the birthday of the world." We say it every year; we'll say it on Tuesday and Wednesday, that 48-hour span of time which Jewish tradition mystically considers a single extended day of Rosh Hashanah. But the liturgy says something slightly different than what the simple English rendition would suggest. As Reb Duvid notes, harah means "pregnancy," conception or gestation: not labor, not birth. I've never carried nor borne a child, but I can see from here that they're very different things. Rosh Hashanah isn't the world's "birthday," exactly; it's the day when we celebrate creation's pregnant possibilities.

And olam can signify either space or time. I like to say that olam denotes the whole space/time continuum. So if Rosh Hashanah is a day that's harat olam, it's a day for celebrating the pregnant possibilities inherent in the whole mind-boggling continuum of space/time! Kind of a far cry from "happy birthday, world," isn't it? Yes, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation, but it's also something deeper, something more.

I get caught, a bit, on his alternate reading of harat olam as "eternally pregnant." Having watched friends linger until and beyond their due dates, I can't help wincing at the implications of eternal pregnancy. (From what I've gathered, the end of pregnancy is uncomfortable at best and miserable at worst.) "Eternally pregnant" may be one of those phrases that just reads differently to women than it does to men; I'm guessing he meant something like "eternally rich with possibility," which has a much more positive valance.

But I love the other way he spins the phrase, "pregnant with eternity." What would it mean to understand Rosh Hashanah as the day when we recognize the infinite possibilities hovering just outside our understanding, waiting to be born?


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Rambam and Jessica Rabbit

1:1 If you transgressed any commandment of the Torah, whether a positive or a negative commandment, whether deliberately or accidentally, then, when you repent, you must confess verbally to God...

That's the first line of Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) by Rambam (Maimonides). We study it in my shul every year during our Torah study after services on the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. Notice how he begins with insisting on verbal confession. Surely God hears what's in our hearts -- so why does Rambam make a point of saying that confession has to happen aloud? Not because God needs it, but because we do.

From my Jewish Renewal four worlds perspective, it's clear that teshuvah ("repentance" or turning toward God) needs to happen in all four worlds. We need to experience teshuvah in assiyah, the world of action and physicality: that means saying the words aloud with our mouths, and hearing ourselves say them.That's what Rambam's talking about here.

And, I would add, we need to experience teshuvah in yetzirah, the world of emotions: to feel remorse, forgiveness, connection. We need to experience teshuvah in briyah, the world of intellect: to think hard about who we've been and who we want to be. And we need to experience teshuvah in atzilut, the world of essence and integration. With me so far?

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New year's wishes

Every year, I write a poem to send as our new year's card to friends and loved ones. Here it is now for all who read this blog! (The poem is on the right-hand side of the page; if your browser window is narrow, you might need to scroll.) Thanks for being a part of Velveteen Rabbi in 5768.



This week's portion: secrets

SECRETS (NITZAVIM)

Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deut. 29:28)


God inhabits our secrets,
nestles in our fantasies

like a cat curling up for a nap
in a pile of warm laundry

God hides in plain sight
veiled by the textures of creation

as Elul dwindles to a fingernail-paring
God sorts the stories we don’t tell

some God keeps in confidence
some ask us shyly to be spoken aloud

on Yom Kippur
when we knock on our hearts

we don't have to be afraid
to throw our screen doors wide


This week's portion, Nitzavim, contains one of my favorite passages in Torah, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, which talks about how the Torah is not baffling or beyond reach. It is not in heaven, that we should argue we need someone to ascend to bring it down; nor is it across the sea, that we should claim we need someone to make a long journey to retrieve it. Rather, it is in our mouths and in our hearts, always, already.

I initially thought I would write this week's poem about that, but after a while it became clear to me that the passage is already poetry -- it doesn't need to be transformed. (Or, at least, this year I don't need to transform it in that way.) This year I was drawn to chapter 29, verse 28, which mentions God's concern with what is concealed. The Hebrew word is ha-nistarot, "the hidden things" or "the things which are concealed." The word nistar is sometimes used to refer to God, especially in the mystical tradition which sees God "hiding in plain sight," disguised as creation.

As we approach the Days of Awe, and especially Yom Kippur, I love the idea that God can be found in that which is concealed -- even in the things we conceal from others, or from ourselves, if we're only ready and able to look.

[secrets.mp3]


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Equinox

EQUINOX


11:45 eastern daylight time
is when this hemisphere,
balanced on the knife-edge
of summer, tilts into fall.

Rise from the clutter of your desk
rotate your creaking neck
and slide the screen door open.
Remember how to breathe.

Walk across the wild thyme.
In the corner behind the lilac
past the tiny backyard meadow
the berry canes are fruiting.

Here are tight red berries
on their way to blackening.
And here ripe ones, dark and lush
glimpsed beneath serrated leaves.

What a way to mark the moment,
the hard work of two springs ago
paying off now as if by magic.
Recognize grace. Open your hands.

 

[Download equinox.mp3]

 

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Adventures on Dickinson Street

I don't really know the town of Springfield. It's kind of odd that I don't, because it's only fifteen minutes further away than Northampton, and we go to Northampton all the time. But Springfield is a city we most often pass on the interstate, not one we've ever spent time exploring.

Springfield is Boston's idea of "western Massachusetts," and we who live a solid hour and a half west of there can resent that sometimes. Boston puts state services in Springfield and claims they're convenient to us here in Berkshire county, and they're just...not. It's easy to hold a grudge about that. But the Western Mass Jewish Music and Arts festival was in Springfield today, which gave us a good excuse to explore a little.

We've been yearning for Vietnamese, and my sister-in-law had told us we might find it in a neighborhood called "The X," so that was where we went, meandering from exit 3 off I-91. When we started seeing Vietnamese nail shops and beauty salons in profusion, we knew good food had to be somewhere nearby. Sure enough, we found four different Vietnamese joints within a block or two of each other. We chose a place called Can Tho Fast Food, on the corner of Dickinson and Wilmont.

The whiteboard menus on the wall were entirely in Vietnamese. The woman behind the counter smiled broadly at us, but pretty clearly didn't speak much English. We managed to order sandwiches and spring rolls. I drank a can of coconut water. We listened to Vietnamese pop while we waited for our lunch. The food was sublime, a stunning balance of spicy and savory and sweet. We ordered more food because it was just so good, and beamed at the proprietress a lot. In the end, our extraordinary lunch for two cost $12.

We found our way back to the highway and drove one exit down 91, following the directions to the Springfield Jewish Community Center. The JCC is in Forest Park, a posh neighborhood of big trees and nice houses. It feels like it's million miles away from the X. But the funny thing is, although my directions took us via the highway and Converse street, the JCC turns out to be on Dickinson: the same street we'd been on for lunch.

I spent a few hours at the music festival, enjoying Golem (they sounded great, though the table where I was hawking Zeek only allowed me a line of sight to the back of the white canvas tent which held the stage, so I didn't technically see them play...) The festival was sadly under-attended, which was a drag. I saw a lot of happy little kids running around, and at the end of Golem's set there was some impromptu line dancing in front of the stage, but (at least while I was there) the crowd was pretty sparse. Still, I enjoyed basking in the equinoctial sunshine and listening to the music.

When we left the festival, we drove back along Dickinson toward the joint where we'd had lunch. There are three synagogues nearby -- I'm guessing this neighborhood has old Jewish history. (Some online searching leads me to this article about the Lathrop House, a kosher B&B which now occupies the building which housed first a Reform temple, then the Lubavitch yeshiva. I'll bet there's a story there.) Somewhere along the road, there's an invisible line between neighborhoods. Suddenly the architecture shifts, and the demographic along with it.

It's fascinating to discover something new in one's backyard. The Vietnamese population of Springfield is around 2,400 (source); I haven't been able to find a number for the Jewish population of Springfield, though the Jewish population of Hampden County is about 10,000 (source.) I wish I knew more about the history of the neighborhood, and how (and whether) these two communities have interacted over time. For all that they're (geographically) close together, they feel pretty far apart to me.


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Rabbis for Human Rights: DC in December!

Registration is now open for the second Rabbis for Human Rights (North America) conference, which will run from December 7-9 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. The conference is meant for rabbis, cantors, rabbinic students and "all who are committed to human rights." I'm a strong supporter of the work that RHR does, and I missed last year's conference for scheduling reasons, so I've already put this one on my calendar.

I've also put it on my calendar because I'm going to be liveblogging it, as I did the URJ Biennial and the Progressive Faith Blog Con. So if you're going to be there, let me know; I'd love to meet!

The conference's highlights will include sessions on:

The schedule also features a concert by Pharaoh's Daughter, which should be awesome (I've seen Basya Schechter play before, and enjoy her music a lot); "A Land Twice Promised: A compelling piece on Israeli and Palestinian women's stories" by Noa Baum; and a variety of study sessions and opportunities for communal prayer and song.

The conference isn't expensive (only $350; $300 if your travel costs are high; $180 for students), and it's an amazing opportunity to connect, learn, and be inspired. You can register online or print out a registration form to mail in via post here -- I hope to see you there!

12/10/08 ETA: There's a link to an index page of all of my conference liveblogging posts here; I hope you'll read, enjoy, and join the conversation!


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18 September, 18 Elul

Today is the eighteenth day of September. It's also the eighteenth day of Elul. Remember that in Hebrew, the characters which make up 18 spell חי (chai), which means "life." (That's probably the one piece of gematria that most Jews today know.) So anything with an 18 in it is considered auspicious.

I learned this morning that the 18 of Elul is a significant day in the Hasidic world: birthday of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) and birthday of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Chabad Hasidism. So it's not surprising that Jewish Renewal, many teachers consider 18 Elul to have unique spiritual energy. Here's a teaching that came across a Jewish Renewal list-serv this morning about the special properties of today:

Khai Elul is the day that the pattern of time kicks energy into the Teshuvah work that has been done and that needs to be done, bringing it alive, making its urgency felt and jolting it into motion, overcoming inertia.

It is best to have some degree of Teshuvah action, a plan, or at least intention of Teshuvah work in order to best receive this aliveness.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe's father-in-law, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, said that each day from Khai Elul to Rosh Hashanah, twelve days, is the time for a monthly accounting of the past twelve months of the year. The day of Khai Elul itself is an accounting and Teshuvah for last year's month of Tishray. It is a day to fix the High Holydays of last year, to break out of the cycle of High Holyday observance that misses the heart of meaningfulness and critically needed improvement.

That's Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank (may his memory be a blessing) in his book Meta-Parshiot, the section on Ki Tavo (this week's portion), which he calls "Making Elul Alive."

I love the idea that today is a day to think about the month of Tishri last year. To reflect on last year's high holidays, where they were meaningful and where they could be more meaningful if this year I made changes in my practice, my thinking, my attentiveness. When you reflect back on the Days of Awe last year, what do you remember that you want to duplicate, and where could you benefit from doing something new? I spent a while happily contemplating that question.

Then my pre-caffeinated brain processed the part where if we're invited to spend each of the next twelve days remembering one of the last twelve months, that means there are only twelve days between now and Rosh Hashanah. Wow, there's a lot of work to do: practically (is my house ready to host my family, arriving a week from Sunday? and how about preparations for that Yom Kippur pulpit?), emotionally (am I ready for my family? is my heart ready for this new adventure?), intellectually (do I know everything I need to know?) and spiritually.

I keep returning to "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." That mantra from my poetry professor Jason Shinder (may his memory be a blessing too) keeps coming back to me this month. Whatever gets in the way of my work of teshuvah -- whatever fiddly details or stress-inducing to-do lists are keeping me from the inner work I need to be doing -- those details and lists can be the locus of the inner work as well as the outer. It's always tempting to imagine that in a more perfect world, with more time and energy, we would do a better job of teshuvah; but this is the better world, right here and right now. Today's the day that's calibrated to kick our spiritual processes into overdrive: here goes.



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Rabbinic conference call with Senator Obama

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg just posted her liveblogging of a conference call in which Senator Barack Obama spoke to 900 rabbis. (Holy wow.) Here's a taste of Danya's report from the call:

[Senator Obama] quotes Rabbi Tarfon (not by name), "You are not free to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it." He talks about restoring America’s promise to care for the vulnerable, provide health care, care for children and aging, invest in alternate energy sources and create green jobs, to create an economy for all, not just for the rich. He wants to get back to "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper" as a value in the country...

He talks about how the new year is a time not just for celebration but for reflection and hard work. "I think it's time for us all to turn the page... and complete the work of Creation." He talks about the shofar as a way to rouse us from our slumber and help us repent for our misdeeds, chart a better path, as a call to action.

After Obama's opening remarks, four rabbis, one from each of the major denominations, got to ask him a question. Danya reports his responses to those, too.

Full disclosure: if it weren't obvious from what y'all know of me after reading my blog all these years (or from the photo of the bumper sticker that adorns my car), I strongly support Senator Obama's bid for the presidency. If Rabbis for Obama had made the decision to accept rabbinic students into their ranks, I'd be a founding member! But I think the notes from this call are worth reading regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. If you're interested in US politics and the coming election (and who among us isn't, these days?), pop over to Rabbi Ruttenberg's blog and read.


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This week's portion: beat

BEAT (SHOFTIM)

You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God. (Deut. 18:13)


Look, here in my hands:
my heart beats

like a bullfrog breathing.
I want to give you

all that I am, even the parts
I've been afraid to show

everything predictable in me
everything unoriginal

and in another chamber
everything strange,

longings and proclivities
I don't know the words for.

How gently you ask me
to peel back my ribs

and reveal what's inside.
To really believe

I'm a reflection of the one
who will never cast me away.


This week we're in parashat Ki Tavo. A couple of weeks ago I got my dates scrambled, and posted my poem for Ki Tavo -- Blessed -- during the wrong week. So this week, I'm going to post the poem I should have posted two weeks ago, a poem for parashat Shoftim. (With me so far? If you want the poem that goes with this week's portion, re-read "Blessed." If you want a full set of Torah poems and have been waiting eagerly for me to make up the week that I missed, this week's poem fills that gap.)

There's a lot of great material in parashat Shoftim. "Justice, justice shall you pursue" is there. So is a surprising and beautiful teaching about how, on the eve of battle, anyone who has built a new house but not lived in it; planted a vineyard but never harvested it; prepared to marry, but not yet experienced the marriage should be sent home rather than called to fight. (I wrote about that two years ago for Radical Torah.)

But the line that really spoke to me this time through was chapter 18, verse 3, an injunction to be wholehearted with God. What does it mean to be wholehearted? This week's poem is one possible way of answering that question. I'd love to know your answers, too.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you want a copy of the recorded poem, help yourself to beat.mp3

 

Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


Bassam Aramin in Zeek

One of the people I wanted to meet while I was in Jerusalem was Bassam Aramin, one of the co-founders of Combatants for Peace. Midway through my summer there, I blogged about a new essay he had just written, called The Palestinian Bar Mitzvah.

We didn't manage to meet. During my first few weeks there, I was busy getting acclimated, learning the city, accustoming myself to new places and new rhythms. Then suddenly time escalated in speed, the days became so full that they rolled away and carried me with them, and I didn't manage to reach out to schedule a meeting. I still regret that. Next time, I guess.

Robert Hirschfield has written a truly fantastic piece about Aramin -- part essay, part interview -- which was published in Zeek today. Here's a taste, which begins with a quote from Aramin:

"The Israelis too are being occupied. By the darkness of the occupation, by its immorality. We need their help. We need them to take action against the checkpoints, against the occupation. I believe in nonviolent change. But we Palestinians can't do it alone."

We sit together on a cold bench in the parking lot. A question keeps wanting to be asked. My question of questions. Stalled by a twinge of reticence.

"After what happened to Abir, did you re-think, even for a moment, your decision to dialogue with Israelis?"

The piece feels sharp, almost fragmented, which seems appropriate given its subject matter. It's a powerful look at the matzav (the situation) through the eyes of someone who's lived it in a way I can't imagine, and who's taking a stance I deeply admire.

Read it here: Words At Night With Bassam Aramin.


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Jewish music and art in Western Mass

This coming Sunday will bring the First Annual Western Massachusetts Jewish Music and Arts festival, a.k.a. WEMAfest, to an outdoor pavilion at the Springfield JCC. There will be a music stage -- featuring Golem, Neshama Carlebach and Jewmongous, among other artists -- and a "family pavilion" with storytelling and balloon artists to keep kids entertained.

And I'll be there, for at least a few hours during the afternoon, because Zeek is one of the event's co-sponsors. Zeek has events in a variety of places around the country over the course of the average year; usually I just shrug and bow out of attending, because I don't live in a major metropolitan area. This time, though, the event is in my neck of the woods -- more or less; a little under two hours from here, but that's practically local, as these things go!

I confess I'm not exactly sure where the "arts" part of the title fits in to the plan. Obviously there's music all day, but whether there will be visual art on display remains to be seen. Still, it should be a neat event, and I'm psyched that the organizers have invested the time and energy into making it happen more-or-less at my end of the state.

It looks like Golem is playing from 2:45-4, so if I can swing it, I'll plan to be there then. (Give them a listen here [mp3] if you're curious.) Some reviewers compare them to Gogol Bordello; to my ear, Golem isn't nearly as hard-edged as Gogol Bordello -- it's hard to match Eugene Hütz's furious mania -- but I can see why the comparison gets made.

Anyway, if this sounds like your idea of a good time, come! And be sure to make your way to the Zeek table and say hello.


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The fatiha in Hebrew; thoughts on poetry, scripture, translation

In our second Qur'an class we focused on the fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur'an. Its seven short verses make use of poetic techniques, especially assonance and rhyme. It's chock-full of Hebrew-Arabic cognates, and we talked about some of those. (We also talked about Aramaic-Arabic cognates; Bill explained that some words, including salat / set daily prayer and zakat / charity, come to Arabic from Syriac, which was the language of the early Christians and is related to Aramaic.)

I was so fascinated by the linguistic similarities that when I got home I googled "Hebrew Qur'an," and learned that the first official translation of the Qur'an into Hebrew is underway. (Other Hebrew translations have been available for some time, but are considered by some Muslims to distort the meanings of the text.)

Because the first few lines of the fatiha were so intelligible to me, I wanted to read the whole fatiha in Hebrew. At first I couldn't find a translation online, so I wondered, could I create one of my own? As I read about the etymology of the Arabic words I became increasingly intrigued by the linguistic overlaps, so I decided to give it a shot, as an exercise to help me understand the text more deeply. The last couplet proved the most difficult, but when I got stuck there, I tried searching for the first line as I'd rendered it in Hebrew, at which point I found three Hebrew renderings of the fatiha, here [עברית]; and then a friend pointed me to another, here [עברית] (with bonus commentary in Hebrew, if you're both interested & fluent.)

With assistance from those webpages, from this post about al-Fatiha which offers a close analysis of each Arabic word, and from Israeli friends whose Hebrew is better than mine by far, here's what I came up with. I offer this as food for thought and as a springboard for conversation; no offense is intended, and if I've mangled either language, I do apologize!


بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ

bismi llâhi r-rahmâni r-rahîm - in the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Caring

 בשם אלהים הרחמן והרחום / B'shem Elohim ha-rachaman v'ha-rachum

Continue reading "The fatiha in Hebrew; thoughts on poetry, scripture, translation" »


This week's portion: harvest

HARVEST (KI TETZEI)


Big pink Brandywines
rippled and bulging
anchor the ends of plants
now twisted and blackened.

Every week might be the last
for this embarrassment of riches,
sungolds like coins
in my green paper basket.

I pull up leggy purple beans
and strip them bare.
Basil stains my nails
and scents my fingertips.

And always the injunction
to leave some in the rows
for the fifty other families
who step lightly

on these fields, allowing
the hidden earthworms
to build soil tilth
in their mysterious ways.


When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow -- in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. -- Genesis 24:19

Deep in this week's portion comes this exhortation to leave a portion of the harvest in the fields for gleaners. Reading it, I immediately think of the kind of harvest in which I'm blessed to participate -- the weekly ritual of picking some of the more labor-intensive crops at Caretaker Farm, our beloved CSA.

There's an awareness that we're sharing the farm not only with all of the other families who join as members but also with the creatures of the natural world. Our compost scraps feed the animals and enrich the soil; the soil is home to underground organisms that shape its character; the character of the soil gives rise to the next year's produce.

In the plainest sense, this verse from our Torah portion is talking about the need to ensure that food is available for those who hunger. But on a deeper level, I see this verse as a reminder that the abundance we receive doesn't belong to us. We didn't create it, and we're not entitled to keep all of it. It's incumbent on us to make sure there's enough to go around. Enough food and clean water, enough security, enough roads and schools and social services that "the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow" -- immigrants, those who have no one to protect their rights, those who have experienced loss -- receive what they need. If we do that, God will bless us in all that we do.

As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of the post or if you want to download the recording of this poem, help yourself to harvest.mp3.


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A favorite poem in a new setting

I posted last week about giving a sermon to my pastoral counseling class. This week I'm enjoying the experience of listening to my friends' sermons! It's been lovely to relax into listening to their voices and their teachings.

In his sermon, my friend Jeff read a poem by Louise Glück which I have long loved. I think of it as a poem for March, a poem for that moment in the cycle of mud and ice and thaw. But when he presented it in a High Holiday context, I realized that it speaks to me at this season, too.


Snowdrops

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring--

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

-- Louise Glück, from The Wild Iris


"[R]emembering / after so long how to open again[.]" Isn't that's the work of teshuvah, deep down? Peeling away the husks of old habits and old paradigms, and reminding ourselves to open up to the gifts of the wild and complicated world.

Good poetry is like good liturgy: every time I read it, it says something different. Not because it's changed, but because I have, and it speaks to me where I am now, in this moment, right here.


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Riding With the King

One of my favorite stories for the month of Elul comes from the teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism. Once upon a time, the rebbe teaches, there was a king of a great kingdom. The people in his kingdom wanted the chance to meet with him, and they tried to schedule appointments, but they discovered that palaces are places of great hierarchy. They might have to wait months before they could gain an audience! And this troubled them greatly.

But then they realized the king had been out and about exploring the kingdom, and that he was only now on his way back to his palace. And while he was on the road, the usual protocols that made them feel like they couldn't approach him were temporarily in abeyance. Anyone who brought him some water or offered him a place to stay or walked beside his retinue for a while could have an audience with him in the countryside. Once he made it back to his palace he would seem distant from them, but while he was on the road, he was right there, reachable at any time.

One of the primary metaphors of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is God-as-king. It's a metaphor that may feel distancing or unworkable for us. We live in a modern world where kings don't have the power they once did. We may be suspicious of kingship, with its imperialist implications. But I see in Schneur Zalman's story a sense that our ancestors felt distant from the grandeur of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy too -- and that they longed, as maybe we long, to connect with an aspect of God with whom we can speak in an ordinary way. Elul is our chance to be on the road with the Holy One, part of God's own retinue.

(Somehow I'm guessing that's not what John Hiatt had in mind when he penned Riding With the King [YouTube]. Hope you don't mind that I borrowed your song title for this post, John.)

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Fall semester (more or less) underway

No two institutions follow exactly the same academic calendar. As a result, the edges of my semesters tend to be a bit ragged. Right now I'm still finishing up one of my summer classes, while one of my fall classes has already begun. The other three classes I'm taking this fall won't begin until after the High Holidays, for which I am grateful, because the Days of Awe are a busy season in this line of work.

(Of course, the corollary to this is that most of my fall classes won't end at the end of the calendar year; they'll run straight through January, by which point my spring classes will already have begun. I expect to be a stress case around Christmastime. But right now that seems a fair price to pay for being able to mostly focus on HHD prep between now and Rosh Hashanah...)

Anyway! This fall I'm taking four classes (or will be, once they all get going) and I'm psyched about all of them. Two are ALEPH teleclasses, and two are in-person classes. Two will involve a lot of reading in Hebrew (and Aramaic), and two are all-English. They span the fields of halakha, history, comparative religions / sacred texts, and contemporary Hebrew literature. Read on if you'd like to learn more.

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That time of year

It's that time of year: when the meadow in our backyard is rife with bright yellow goldenrod, when the little farm down the road is advertising both late corn and early apples, when we spend long hours in the kitchen blanching and pulping tomatoes we've picked off of withered end-of-season vines.

I said a shehecheyanu over my first fresh local apple of the year today. It's a Mac (I love early Macs), red shading into green in the palm of my hand. Sweet and tart and amazing; it tastes like autumn, like the new year's almost here. As, of course, it is.

It was a good weekend for practical work, assiyah work. Picking tomatoes, and making a homemade ragú to freeze for a snowy day. Putting up half a dozen jars of fermented cucumber pickles. Applying a first coat of sticky dark primer to the long frames of the sloping glass windows of our dining room.

And after Ethan assembled two big bookcases, I sorted armloads of books that had been piled on the floor of my study. Now they're shelved: poetry over here, rabbinic texts over there. The new level of organization gives me an almost physical sense of relief. Physical clutter in my workspace feels to me like a manifestation of mental and emotional clutter. Who knows what might be possible now that I've cleared the decks?

Who knows what might be possible: that's the question of the season. Beginning the school year, getting ready for the Days of Awe, savoring the first cool evenings of September. It feels like something miraculous is just over the horizon, almost upon us, almost here.


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