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A pre-Pesach miscellany

Jewish Woman on DIY haggadot:

The Spring 2009 issue of Jewish Woman Magazine features a lovely article called D.I.Y Seder. The writer, Rahel Musleah, included a fair amount of material from the interview she did with me several months ago on this subject. The article begins, in fact, with an anecdote I think I've shared here before:

When Rachel Barenblat's parents visited her from Texas five Passovers ago, several years had passed since the family had been together for the Seders. She and her sister—who both live in Massachusetts—had been using the "homegrown" haggadah Barenblat had written, a revealingly personal amalgam of the traditional text with feminist, creative and contemporary readings and poems. But she worried that her parents would miss the haggadah they were used to. "No one had ever questioned it, so I thought my haggadah would be strange and uncomfortable for them. It would be like...eating pasta on Thanksgiving instead of turkey." But her mother's face fell when she saw the stack of 20 old-fashioned haggadot Barenblat had bought and borrowed. "Oh," she said, "I thought we were going to do something different!" Barenblat had one copy of her haggadah. She adapted it for the children who were going to be present, and had it reproduced and bound for everyone by the evening...

The article does a lovely job of describing the joys and challenges of the roll-your-own haggadah phenomenon. And I'm delighted to share the page with Tamar Fox from MyJewishLearning.com and poet Marge Piercy, among others. The full text of the article is online, which is grand (though naturally I encourage those who are able to pick up a copy of the magazine.) Read it here.


A miscellany of Pesach-related links:

Reb Zalman has recently posted a couple of excellent resources for Pesach. Here's a link to his post on the Afikoman, and here's a teaching called Of four children revised.

If you want to create your own haggadah from scratch, you can buy the texts of the classical haggadah (for DavkaWriter, Word for Windows, or Mellel II) for under $20. I've also just learned about JewishFreeware.org, which seems like the latest variation on the Open Source Judaism theme. (Hat tip to the Jewish Woman article; I hadn't known about Jewish Freeware before I read that piece.)

If your sensibilities lean toward earth-based Judaism, Ketzirah puts out a beautiful haggadah called the Peelapom Haggadah. She writes, "This haggadah is the result of several years of work to incorporate a Earth-based Magickal Judaism sensibility to a haggadah that will also be enjoyed by friends and family." Usually $18, this year she's selling copies for $5 in celebration of its fifth anniversary.

And of course there is always my own Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, which aims to marry traditional texts with contemporary poetry and creative, joy-filled interpretations. (The most recent version is 6.0, so if you have an earlier version -- perhaps one with 2004 or 2006 on the cover -- I recommend downloading the newest version. It is free.)

In the realm of truly gorgeous haggadot, I can't resist linking again to The David Moss Haggadah (here's my post about meeting him & buying the version I could afford.) David's haggadah is one of the most thoughtful, artful, gorgeous Pesach resources I know.

On a more humorous note -- you've probably all seen this already, but in case you haven't: Moses is departing Egypt, a Facebook haggadah. Ahahaha. It's probably the kind of thing that won't be funny anymore in five years, and in ten years it will be utterly baffling, but right now it's hilarious.


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A day on the ice

I don't write here often about my curious fascination with the polar regions. Back in 2004 I had the chance to hear modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders speak at Pop!Tech, and blogged it in a post called Digression: obsession with the poles. And when President Obama was inaugurated I posted an inaugural ode which draws on imagery of polar exploration. But that's about it. Well: here's a third post in this unofficial series touching on ice and vastness and beauty.

In 1998 I picked up Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita, which is about the strange, unearthly beauty of the bottom of the earth. Since then I've read every polar exploration chronicle I can find, both Arctic and Antarctic, though my heart belongs most to Antarctica. Maybe it's so impossibly far away from where I live that it becomes a representation rather than a real place, a symbol of inaccessibility and yearning. (Annie Dillard reads this idea through a theological lens in a truly gorgeous way -- I recommend her essay "An Expedition to the Pole," which you can find in Teaching a Stone to Talk.) Like Dillard, and Wheeler, I love reading the polar exploration narratives because of their purity of yearning... and because Antarctica had no native population (save penguins and seals), I can revel in the history without being troubled by the problematics of colonialism and exoticism.

Well, alas, I can't announce at this time that we decided to set off from the tip of Argentina toward Antarctica. (Argentina is a delightfully affordable country in which to travel, but the relative strength of the US dollar there still doesn't make travel to Antarctica remotely reasonable.) But I feel like this vacation let me get a little bit closer to understanding life on the ice, because one of its highlights was a "minitrek" on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, which was incredible.

Continue reading "A day on the ice" »


The heart of things (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah.

The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the text at the center of the Torah, the kernel around which the other books form a kind of parenthesis or embrace. Now we're getting into the heart of things.

And the blood of things, and the entrails of things, the kidneys and the fat of things. In this week's portion, Vayikra, we dive straight into instructions for making korbanot, usually rendered in English as "sacrifices" though the word really means "drawings-near," as in "offerings which draw us near to God" (or maybe "draw God near to us.")

Continue reading "The heart of things (Radical Torah repost)" »


Haggadah for Pesach!

2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to velveteenrabbi.com and clicking through to the haggadah page.

Hello from Argentina! I have wonderful stories to tell...when we are home again. For now, I'm popping in to offer this, since a few folks have emailed to ask. There's no new version of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach this year; I'll be using last year's version again, and hope some of y'all will, too.

2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to velveteenrabbi.com and clicking through to the haggadah page.

Praise for the haggadah, version 6:

  • Your haggadah is stunning and I am so excited that you posted it; I have been having a ton of anxiety about not having the time to put together my own seder this year, and lo and behold—your haggadah gets posted. And I am liberated! -- Ellen Bernstein

  • This haggadah is truly amazing. Passover has always been my very favorite holiday, but as my political sensibilities have evolved, the celebration has become tinged with the constrictions of patriarchy and culture-boundness. I have longed for newer traditions that might challenge my family to collectively expand our understanding of oppression, and what our role is in interrupting it for not just Jews, but for all who suffer. -- Bree

  • For the second seder this year, I knew that I was going to have a diverse group of guests and was looking for a haggadah that would help make it traditional enough for everyone to experience a ritual that would be recognizable to Jews anywhere, but accessible enough for everyone to connect without difficulty. With your help, it was an amazing experience for all - 6 Jews (secular to Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Sefardi, American and Finnish), 3 Tibetan Buddhists, 1 French Catholic, and 1 German Presbyterian. -- Rabbi Rebecca Joseph

The most current version of the haggadah will always be called VRHaggadah.pdf, and will be available at the same URL where this one is, so next year you'll be able to find (hopefully) version 7.0 there as well! Creating the haggadah is a real mechaieh (life-giver) for me; sharing it with others is even more so, and I hope you enjoy. Feel free to use, to share, and/or to adapt at will; all I ask is that you share the material for free and credit apropriately.

Wishing all of you a sweet journey into Passover-time. Talk to y'all soon when I am home again!

Edited in 2010 to add: there's now a newer revision of the haggadah (version 7.0), so when you download the file, don't be surprised to see a different cover. You can read all about the latest revision here.

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Unleavened offerings of our hearts (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the post I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Vayikra plunges us headlong into the sacrificial system. In many liberal congregations, we brace ourselves for what feels like a descent into an old and inaccessible mode of interacting with God. Yearlings and doves, blood and oil -- surely this avodah is as distant as can be from the avodat ha-lev, the "service of the heart," that we offer today?

Our first challenge is that the English word we use -- "sacrifice" -- has all the wrong connotations. The Hebrew term is korban, which comes from the root meaning "to draw near;" in antiquity these offerings were the means by which the Israelite people drew near to God. Yes, we're talking about grain, frankincense, and animal flesh, but more importantly we're talking about a mechanism for approaching the Infinite.

In my shul this week we'll be reading and discussing Leviticus 2, about the mincha or grain-offering, a cake of fine flour, oil, and spices. The cake must be unleavened, "for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to Adonai." And each offering must be salted; "you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God." Who could read those words, early in the month of Nissan, without thinking ahead to Pesach?

Continue reading "Unleavened offerings of our hearts (Radical Torah repost)" »


A home for God among us (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote in 2007 for this week's portion, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Vayekhel-Pekudei: the end of the book of Exodus, and -- after much prelude -- the actual construction of the mishkan, the home for God's presence among the community.

And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the Lord, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants — gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for the Lord; and everyone who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service brought that. And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen...

What I love about this passage, this rich and detailed description of a construction project I can hardly imagine, is how grassroots it sounds. This isn't some decreed-from-above, top-down, serfs-laboring kind of process; this is everyone with a talent bringing that talent to bear on the work at hand. This is everyone in the community donating what they've got, whether it's gold or fine linen or soft leather. This is a veritable barn-raising, folks. Except that in a traditional barn-raising, the community comes together to build a structure for one of its members; here in our story, the community comes together to build a structure which will be inhabited not by any individual or family, but by the presence of God.

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Vacating the premises

A view of the Cheshire Reservoir, seen from the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail: my local environs here at home, from which I'm about to take a brief break.

Blogging will be light here over the next ten days or so, as Ethan and I are going on a much-needed vacation. This trip includes neither business obligations (for him) nor family/school obligations (for me); we're just going to spend ten days enjoying one another's company and enjoying the experience of seeing a bit of the world we hadn't seen before. I can't wait.

Don't expect complete radio silence; I've queued up a couple of Radical Torah re-posts to go live next week, as we move through the week of reading and studying the first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus. And it seems possible I might post from the road, if there are stories I want to tell. Then again... it seems equally possible that I might not.

Take good care of the internet while we're away! See y'all when we're home again.


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Perceiving God (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's Torah portion back in 2006 for Radical Torah.

When Moses had finished the work the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

The ancient Israelites saw clear signs of God: in the pillar of cloud and fire that guided them out of Mitzrayim and protected them from the advancing Egyptian army; in the dense cloud of smoke and fire upon Mount Sinai at the moment of the revelation of Torah; and in the cloud which rested over the Tabernacle, indicating God's presence among them.

The cloud showed the Israelites where to wander. The geographical distance between the place they left and the place they were going toward isn't so great; why take forty years to travel so short a way? Because the route God led them on was roundabout. Slavery damages not only the body but also the soul, and that kind of constriction lingers in the heart. God knew it would take the Israelites forty years to learn another way of being.

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This week's portion: instruction

INSTRUCTION (PEKUDEI)


How often I wish
for such clear instruction.
Build a structure
to house what you long for

inserting golden post
in golden socket
as though you understood
the grand design.

Anoint the dinner dishes
with Joy. Wash hands
and feet every time you enter.
Rest when the work is done.

And when the presence lingers
in your neighborhood
you'll know to sit still
and watch your breath

and when the cloud lifts
have your bags packed
be ready to leap
without fear.


This week we're in a double Torah portion, Vayekhel-Pekudei. (During leap years, the double Torah portions are each expanded into two portions; since this is not a leap year, the double portions are condensed into single longer readings, like this one.)

Last year I wrote my first Torah poem for parashat Vayekhel. That poem was called Collaboration, and I so enjoyed writing it that I decided to try my hand at writing a Torah poem each week. (Kind of my own spin on Jonathan Coulton's Thing-a-Week project, only instead of writing quirky and fabulous songs each week, I committed myself to writing divrei Torah in poem form.) This week's poem brings me all the way around the wheel of the year; I've written and posted one poem for each portion in the year, including the ones which didn't get their own weekly reading in the year now ending. Now my task is to revise a year's worth of Torah poems into a manuscript I hope will someday see print.

Anyway -- this week's poem riffs off of the instructions from God which make up this section of the book of Exodus. How do these elaborate instructions resonate for us today? In the absence of the jeweled priestly garments, or the golden implements which the Torah speaks so lovingly of anointing, how can we relate to what this week's portion describes?

The fourth stanza contains a tiny bit of wordplay which may not be immediately obvious: in Hebrew, the name most commonly used for the presence of God (Shekhinah) shares a root with the word for neighborhood (shekhunah / שְׁכוּנָה). The last stanza draws on the final lines of the week's portion, which explain that when the cloud of divine presence rested over the mishkan, the Israelites stayed put; and when it moved, they moved with it. In this I see a hint of the tension between waiting and leaping, which is an apt theme as we move into the season of Pesach -- stay tuned...

[ Instruction.mp3]


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The Chernobyler on the power of speech

It's been a little while since I've posted any of the material I'm studying in school, so I thought I'd share some pearls from a text I've enjoyed reading this week. In the class I'm taking on the Hasidic sacred year, we've been studying a gorgeous text from the Chernobyler rebbe on finding one's voice. (The Chernobyler is also known as the Me'or Eynayim -- I've posted about his work a number of times before.) Reb Menachem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl has some beautiful things to say about how unifying our thoughts and our speech is a precursor to the coming of messianic time.

It is incumbent on each of us, he says, to raise up the spark of moshiach which can be found in her own soul. (Okay, he said "his," but I'm a her, so I'm switching the pronoun.) Each of us must identify the particle of messianic consciousness which exists in her soul alone, and raise up that spark. This is how we make tikkun, repair. (In the original text, the obligation to raise up these sparks is clearly placed on the shoulders of the people Israel. In a contemporary pluralistic reading, I think one can expand the text to refer to the obligation shared by all humanity to transform creation.)

We do the work of uplifting our own sparks by ensuring that our speech matches our thoughts, especially when it comes to prayer. Prayer without intention is like a body without a soul, but when we pray with intention, then we're doing holy work; and when we do it together with one another, then the letters of our speech combine into a cosmic utterance of transformation.

I understand him to be saying that each of us needs to speak the truths that she is uniquely placed to speak, to pray the prayers of her own heart. When each of us wholly inhabits her own context, speaking the words which are hers to speak with all of her heart and soul, then together we collaborate on speaking transformation into being.

The Chernobyler puns between moshiach (messiah, messianic consciousness) and me'siach ("in/through conversation"), suggesting that we bring about the transformation of messianic consciousness when we speak with one another in mindful ways. Each of us holds a distinctive spark of transformation which could lead to the coming of the messianic era, but we can't deploy them alone. Bringing moshiach is a collective enterprise. It's dialogic, it's distributed processing, it's a collaborative joint project. Moshiach comes me'siach, through conversation: through the encounter where intention and speech are unified and I and Thou truly meet.

I love how this text places responsibility for repairing the world into all of our hands. In order to bring about transformation together, we each have to do our own work of repair. And I especially love the importance this text places on words. Words without intention are an empty shell, but words spoken (or perhaps also written?) with intention have the capacity to change the world! As a writer, as a teacher of writing, as a feminist, as someone involved with all sorts of creative exegetical communities, I love this idea that in order to transform creation each of us needs to find her voice. 


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Miscarriage poems: "Through"

In January, at Ohalah, I had a miscarriage. Every pregnant woman knows it is possible, but I doubt anyone feels prepared when it happens.

I was amazed by how many women came up to me, as word quietly spread, and said that the same thing had happened to them. Having tangible proof that I was not alone -- that this was survivable -- helped me through.

My mashpi'a (spiritual director) suggested that I consider writing poems as I moved through the experience and its aftermath. Writing offered me a way to externalize the roil of emotions. I wrote my way through the experience, and then as I felt ready I began to revise the drafts. To take the raw outpourings of my heart and turn them into poetry.

I wrote these poems because writing them helped me heal -- and because I wanted to offer them to other women who go through this. And to those who are caring for the women who go through this. So here they are.

Through-bigger

Through [free pdf] | Through [chapbook]

I want to thank this small manuscript's many readers: Sandy Ryan, Emily Banner, Ethan Zuckerman, Alison Kent, Dave Bonta. I also want to thank the editors of the journal Frostwriting, in which two of these poems -- "Knowledge" and "Threshold" -- were first published online, one in an earlier form. And I want to thank everyone who cradled me at Ohalah: my room-mates from the hashpa'ah intensive and the conference itself, the friend with whom I led services, my hevrutot and spirit buddies, and the many of my teachers and friends who held me, prayed for and with me, and offered blessings both tangible and intangible.

Through exists in a few different formats. The first is a limited hand-bound edition of twenty copies, graciously created by Alison Kent. That edition is not available online, nor for sale. I've given a few of those copies away; I'm hanging on to the rest, for now. I find healing in being able to hold them in my hands.

There is also a downloadable digital version and a print-on-demand chapbook version. The downloadable version (pdf format, linked above) is free for the taking; the POD chapbook is available at cost ($4.82, linked above), and no profit will be made from its sales (by anyone except the postal service.) It's important to me that these poems be available for free (or as close to it as possible); I'm putting them out there not to make money but to offer a window into this surprisingly common experience of grief and healing.

And if you're interested in hearing the poems read aloud, here's an mp3 version of the collection: Through.mp3. If you can see the embedded audio player below, you can listen to them poems that way. (Thanks to Dave Bonta for the suggestion of releasing the poems in audio form.)

I hope that these poems will be shared widely. Please feel free to print them or save them electronically. Forward them to anyone you think would find them valuable: as prayers, as poems, as one telling of the hidden story so many women undergo but no one ever seems to tell. If you want the chapbook edition, pick one up (hey, given the cost of shipping, pick up two and give one away!) or share the URL with friends. Someday I hope to create an online edition of the collection, which would allow folks to link to individual poems and to move between them in some simple way; stay tuned.

As an enticement to read, the first two poems in the collection are beneath the extended entry tag. Or, you can read a preview of the chapbook (the first few pages) here at lulu. I welcome feedback of every kind.

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This week's portion: re-entry

RE-ENTRY (KI TISA)


Coming down the mountain --
understand, being up there
was the best thing ever

I glowed with awareness
I practically levitated
and what I was bringing back...!

Torah you can't imagine
so transparent, so pure
divine mind, open to us

but the people I'd led
from enslavement
to the edge of revelation

forgot me, went whoring
after the gaudy creation
of their own wretched hands

what shattered on the earth
were my heart and God's
broken beyond repair


This week's portion, Ki Tisa, contains the story of the egal ha-zahav, the golden calf. The Israelites, worried when Moshe does not come down from the mountain for forty days and nights, panic and demand of Aaron that he make them a god to go before them. Aaron asks them for the gold they've been wearing, and forms it into a calf, cast in gold. The people dance and sing around their new idol, and when Moshe comes down the mountain he is furious: he shatters the tablets of the covenant on the ground.

This poem arose out of my wondering what it might have been like to be Moshe. I wrote last year about how Moshe might have felt, returning from the spiritual high of being in communion with God to find his people behaving in such a manner. This poem arises out of some of those same thoughts.

The tradition tells us that two sets of tablets were carried in the ark of the covenant: the whole second set of tablets Moshe brings down from the mountain, and also the first set of tablets which he breaks upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. As the end of this poem suggests, the broken tablets seem to me very evocative of a broken heart. I think there's meaning to be found in the notion that we saved the broken ones along with the whole ones. What is broken still has meaning, still has value. When we ourselves are broken-hearted, we need to be cradled and carried by our community no less than when we are whole.

I imagine that Moshe brought down a different facet of Torah, the second time he went up the mountain. He was changed, and as a result, the Torah he internalized was a different one, shaped by his brokenness in ways we may never fully know. 

[reentry.mp3]

 

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

 

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A mishkan in time (Radical Torah repost)

This is a repost of the d'var Torah I wrote back in 2006 for Radical Torah -- which was offline through the fall and into the winter, but I am delighted to report that it is once again online! I'm going to keep reposting divrei Torach here because I like having them all on my own site, but I'm happy to see that RT is back on the block; here's hoping we see some new content there soon.

In parashat Ki Tisa we read a series of injunctions about keeping Shabbat:

You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.

Of course, the rabbis took pains to reinterpret most of the death sentences in Torah, and this one is no exception. One way of reinterpreting these lines is to read them as metaphor. These can be descriptive statements, rather than prescriptive ones; they tell us something valuable about the need to pause in our labors.

Ki Tisa tells us that he (or she) who works on Shabbat is turning away from the sustaining potential of the day of rest. One who works all the time is indeed spiritually cut off from kin who take time off for rest, for prayer, for savoring splendor. How many of us have had the experience of going on vacation but bringing along the laptop and cellphone just to "check in" with work once or twice? More often than not, checking email or voicemail opens all kinds of trouble, and by the time the laptop clicks shut again we've lost the restful mindset of being away from the ordinary. And we've lost connection with our friends or family, those on the vacation with us, who are still in a vacation headspace we may no longer be able to access. The same is true of Shabbat.

Prizing work above all else is a kind of hubris. It asserts that our goals and achievements, our flow charts and to-do lists, are more important than relationships (either with others or with God). One who cares only for work may not be literally put to death, but she is certainly deadened. This text may also have literal resonance — someone who works all the time may be shortening her or his lifetime with stress — but over and above that literal meaning, it speaks to me on a symbolic level. Work all you want the rest of the week, Ki Tisa tells me, but take time away from worldly concerns to breathe, relax, sing, learn, connect with community and with God. This is the way to be the sanctified people God wants us to be.

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The end of Esther

A lot of bloggers are posting "Purim Torah" today -- think "April fool's posts," more or less. I don't have any Purim Torah to give over, so instead I'm posting a serious piece that I meant to post a few days ago but life got in the way.

There's a lot to love about the megillah of Esther. I've waxed rhapsodic about it before in these pages (I direct your attention especially to last year's Redemption and the true king and to The whole megillah, my 2006 review of JT Waldman's gorgeous graphic novel rendition of the story.) But near the very end of the scroll, there's some material I don't love quite as much.

Chapter nine of the megillah describes the revenge the Jews take on those who had desired to slaughter them, and reading it makes me uncomfortable.

Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

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Different Strokes

I posted last month that an essay of mine had been published in the February 2009 issue of The Women's Times. The story told in this essay will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but a few of y'all asked to see the piece, so I figured I'd share it here now that the March issue is on the stands. Thanks to the editors of TWT for soliciting and publishing the essay.

In June of 2006 I traveled to Montreal to meet friends. When I got off the train, I found that I couldn't speak French. I could hardly hold Ou est le metro? in my mind, and my English wasn't much better. I clung to a slip of paper with my hotel's address on it, and navigated my way via beseeching looks to strangers who kindly pointed me in the right direction.

I unloaded my luggage, met my friends for dinner, and said, "Something strange is going on." They embraced me and pressed Thai food and a beer into my hands. By the time I had eaten half a plate of dinner the mysterious inability to speak coherently had passed. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps I should see a doctor, but I was on vacation in a foreign city with farflung friends; I put it out of my mind. I was thirty-one.

Six months later, on Christmas Day, I lost vision in one eye. We were eating Chinese food and watching a movie when it happened. Half of my field of vision disappeared, as though a veil had descended.

I thought it was a floater. I feared a detached retina. But I didn't want to schlep to the emergency room on Christmas, so I didn't see a doctor until the following day, when the diminished vision didn't improve on its own. A visit to the opthalmologist led me to my first MRI, which showed that the visual problems were rooted in my brain.

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Eternal light (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah. Enjoy!

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

So begins parashat Tetzaveh: with instructions concerning the establishment of lamps outside the ark of the covenant.

When I think of oil and lamps, I remember a day late last summer. We'd spent the afternoon at the home of friends, with our kayak strapped to the roof of my car; after a thunderous but brief rainstorm, we drove home, stopping at a nearby reservoir to take the boat out on the water. I remember the unbelievable stillness, and how afternoon fog overlay the glassy-still surface of the water in the aftermath of the rain.

And then I remember trying to drive home, and stopping for a long while as road crews dismantled and dragged away an enormous tree which had fallen. Once we made it home, of course, we discovered that the tree had taken down power lines. So we settled in for an evening without electricity: an evening without our usual sources of light.

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This week's portion: high priest

HIGH PRIEST (TETZAVEH)


braid golden chains
to hold Aaron together
to wrap him tight

he carries the names
of the children of Israel
over his heart

make his robe like the sky
over Sinai
on a clear day

and on its hem
a bell and a pomegranate
a bell and a pomegranate

everyone will hear
him coming
everyone will know

and on his forehead
a third eye
"Holy to Adonai"

don't let him forget
he bears our wellbeing
in his bloodied hands


This week's portion, Tetzaveh, centers around instructions for preparing the first high priest, Aaron (brother of Moshe), for leadership along with his sons. We read about the garments prepared for him to wear, and about the breastplate adorned with twelve precious stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel.

Some of the details of the Torah portion found their way into the poem: the sky-blue robe, the alternating bells and pomegranates adorning the hem. The breastplate and the headdress. The description of the high priest's costume strikes me as a great jumping-off point for poetry. I'm fascinated by the symbolism of the colors of his garments, the stones, the gold plate hanging over his forehead bearing the words kadosh l'Adonai, holy unto God. Where Aaron wore the gold frontlet, we now wear tefillin; did his headdress feel anything to him like the tefillin does to me?

What didn't make it into the poem was anything from the latter part of the portion, which describes the process of anointing Aaron and his son as priests. Maybe that will be in next year's poem.

The priesthood is long gone, but these texts remain. What do they suggest to you this year?

[tetzaveh.mp3]


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Holy garments (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

Parashat Tetzaveh continues our immersion in Judaism 1.0. Last week we waded through elaborate description of how to stitch the threefold tent for the portable mishkan; this week we're drenched in details of the priestly garments for Aaron and his sons.

The minutiae of this week's portion may seen distant from our post-sacrificial liturgical lives. But that casual shrug -- "this bears no resemblance to the Judaism I know and love; this is foreign to me" -- is facile. Anyone who wears a tallit for prayer knows what difference a piece of cloth can make.

Praying bare-shouldered and praying wrapped in my tallit feel different. At the most recent yarzheit of my grandfather Isaac (of blessed memory) I davvened wrapped in his tallit -- old blue and white silk, instead of my rectangle of cream-colored hand-loomed cloth -- and that felt different still.

Even though I believe that God enfolds me at all times, and that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart matter more than what kind of clothes or shoes I wear to shul, there's something about that particular piece of cloth that changes the way I feel when I pray.

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Walking and falling at the same time

I'm settling in to the new semester's rhythms. The week starts on Sunday night with Moadim l'Simcha, the class I'm taking on the Hasidic sacred year. Monday is a good day for writing. Tuesday I'm usually doing work in liturgy, maybe beginning to look up words in my first Hasidic text of the week. Wednesdays I go to the coffee shop for Torah study, then dash home for liturgy class, then spend the afternoon on Hasidic text and preparing for Thursday's spiritual direction class. Thursday I have spiritual direction class, then teach Hebrew school. Friday mornings I study Kedushat Levi with my rabbi, and then Skype into a meeting with my hevruta to work on that week's Hasidic text for Sunday night. And then comes Shabbat, and then it's Sunday and my week begins again.

Just last week we got the essay questions which serve as the final exam for the Biblical History & Civilization class I took in the fall (which didn't end until well into February) -- one overarching essay about the era of the prophets and the nature of Biblical prophecy, and then a set of five other essay questions of which we're each asked to choose one. I'm writing that second essay on the Book of Esther, since it's seasonally appropriate. The two essays taken together are 19 pages, at present; it's a solid draft, though I'd like to make the writing shine a bit more before I hand it in. It's become my major project for Mondays.

The days are dense. (And that's without my nonprofit / volunteer obligations, which ebb and flow according to ineffable rhythms of their own; lately they all seem to be cresting at once.) I oscillate between a grateful awareness that I'm incredibly lucky to get to do what I do, and a kind of overwhelmed shoulder-to-the-wheel drive forward, counting the days until Shabbat, until our vacation when I intend to read several books simply for the pleasure of so doing, until the next thing.

I was talking with my spiritual director last week about this shift between these two modes of being, grateful and overwhelmed. In response he offered a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov about the states of gadlut and katnut, what one might call expanded consciousness and constricted consciousness, or big mind and small mind. When one is first starting out on a spiritual path, he said, the challenge is achieving devekut (cleaving to God; connection with something beyond ourselves) in the high moments -- in other words, b'gadlut. Just maintaining that awareness of cosmic connection once a week, on Shabbat eve or morning -- that might be all one can handle! And it's enough.

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