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The 70 faces book tour goes to Canada!

70FacesSmall

The 70 faces book tour is going to Canada! Here's the intel on two upcoming events happening across the border in Montreal, Quebec in just over a week:

May in Montreal

  • Havdalah & reading, May 7: Conversation and poetry reading with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (the Velveteen Rabbi). Rabbi Barenblat's poems interrogate, explore, and lovingly respond to Torah texts, balancing feminism and contemporary liberal theology with respect for classical traditions of interpretation. Her work invites us to engage both spiritually and critically with a body of writing that lies at the root of both the Abrahamic religions and much of Western literature. The event will begin with a brief havdalah service (wine, spices, and flame to mark the end of Shabbat) and continue with conversation about midrash and the sharing of poems from 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.) 7pm, 5035 boulevard de Maisonneuve West (in the children's chapel), three blocks from the Vendôme metro station. For more information, contact Shoshanna Green at 514-426-0843 or shoshannag@gmail.com

  • Modern Women, Old Testament: A Jewish-Christian Conversation with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of "70 Faces: Torah Poems," and Elizabeth Adams, author and publisher. On Sunday, May 8, Christ Church Cathedral will host a book discussion with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of a recently-published and highly-praised book of poems which approach the five books of Moses from a questioning, modern perspective.

    As a longtime poet and writer, newly-ordained rabbi, and recent mother, Rachel's work helps us look at these texts from new and personal perspectives. How can modern women and men engage actively with these early Hebrew scriptures, while still loving and respecting the Bible and remaining faithful Christians and Jews? What does the tradition of midrash have to offer to Christians? How can poetry -- a tradition deeply embodied in the Hebrew Scriptures -  free us to think and feel creatively about the human issues the Bible addresses in these stories?

    The program will start at noon with a simple lunch in Fulford Hall at the Diocesan offices, followed by the conversation between Rachel and Elizabeth beginning around 12:30 pm, then opened up to all participants as a moderated discussion/Q&A. Books will be signed and available afterward. Noon; Fulford Hall, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal. (For more: see the Event page on Facebook!)

All are welcome to attend both events -- if you're nearby, please do come! (And if not, here's a bit of good news -- the event with Beth Adams will be recorded and will be posted to YouTube. I'll share the links here when it goes live.) And for the latest up-to-date info about where I'm taking 70 faces, you can always check out the complete 70 faces book tour page...


Delving into boundaries: week two of the Omer

Stone wall, Lanesboro MA.

Today we're beginning week two of the Omer. Last week was the week to focus on chesed, abundant lovingkindness. This week is dedicated to gevurah, boundary and strength.

This is the week to ask, how does my strength allow me to serve God, to serve my family and my community, to be the self I want to be? Where am I strong, and where can I work on becoming stronger?

Gevurah is also known as din, judgement. This is the week to ask, how is my discernment of right and wrong? Do my actions unfold in a way which serves justice? Am I too quick to judge others or to judge myself?

Gevurah is connected with the second day of creation, when God separated the heavens from the earth. This is the week to ask, what in my life requires separation? Where should I be drawing my lines between one thing and the next?

Good boundaries must shape and guide even the most abundant lovingkindness. This is the week to ask, how are my boundaries? Where might they be too strong, and where might they need strengthening?

Gevurah is associated with discipline. This is the week to ask, what are my disciplines, and am I living them out in the best way I can? Where do I need to be more disciplined in my practice? Where might my disciplines be stifling me?

As each day of this week unfolds we'll have the opportunity to consider how gevurah interacts with each of the other six divine-and-human qualities on our list. How does love shape my boundaries and my strength? how does harmony manifest in my boundaries and my strength? how do my boundaries and my strength endure? what is majestic about my boundaries and my strength? are my boundaries and strength foundational for me? and how do my boundaries and strength manifest and contribute to the immanent presence of God in the world, Shekhinah indwelling within us, the kingdom of God here on earth?

Source of All, you called us to count the Omer in order to clear us of all that is in the way of our growth and service. Through my counting, may there be cleared any debris that is in the way of the light shining through. (-- from the closing prayer after counting the Omer)


A poem about mason jars, for Big Tent Poetry

Six pints of string beans.

 

Preserve

 

PRESERVE

 

Truth is, we like the labors
better than their fruits

pulling up the plants
spindly and overgrown

fingers scented and smudged
cicadas droning high

then we wash and we trim
count peppercorns like coins

the work's sweetest with extra hands
to pack the treasure tight

we swig cold beer and lemonade
as steam rattles the kettle

the jars line up like proud soldiers
medals gleaming

all winter they stand guard
reassuring me again

that there will be enough
that love will not run dry


This week at Big Tent Poetry there are seven prompts again, one for each day of this final week of National Poetry Month. I chose to write to prompt #1: Write a poem about things in mason jars.

Ethan and I do a lot of canning and preserving. The bounty at Caretaker Farm is so extraordinary, and we love being people who take advantage of that abundance. But often as not, we reach the tail-end of winter and our baker's rack is still piled high with jars of last summer's harvest.

Maybe our real challenge is to feel grounded enough in this incredible abundance to eat everything we've salted away, knowing that another spring will always come.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to these prompts.

[preserve.mp3]


Too great a teaching to only share once: Song for the Seventh Day

On the seventh day of Pesach, says Jewish tradition, we reach the anniversary of the moment when our ancestors -- fleeing from the forces of Pharaoh -- plunged into the Sea of Reeds.

The Slonimer Rebbe has a beautiful teaching about crossing the sea, love, and trust. I studied this text in a class with Reb Elliot Ginsburg a few years ago, and blogged about it when the seventh day of Pesach rolled around that year. Here's a tiny taste -- the material in parentheses is my explanation of the translated text:

The Slonimer writes that at the splitting of the sea, the enormity of God's love for us was made manifest. (We allude to this when we sing "Your children saw your sovereignty, splitting the sea before Moses" daily in our liturgy. Interesting that he reads sovereignty -- malkhut -- as a metaphor for love, isn't it?) At the parting of the sea, we sang the song which arose out of our realization that we are deeply loved by God. Experiencing that love, we feel love in return. Our love is so great that it sparks awe. (Or, phrased another way: the awe arises out of love. Awe and love are two sides of the same coin.)

The teaching comes from his commentary on parashat Beshalach. Here's the whole teaching again, for those who are interested: Song for the seventh day.


Six poems of praise (Hallel)

We recite Hallel (psalms 113-118) on festivals. Today I'm sharing a set of six short poems which arise out of Hallel. These are not direct translations -- they're somewhere between the original Hebrew text and the words of my own heart. I offer them in hopes that they may speak to you and might help you connect with these psalms of praise today -- whether you're reciting them because it's Pesach, or because it's Easter, or for some other reason altogether.


 

Sixpoemshallel

 

SIX POEMS OF PRAISE (HALLEL)


1. (113)

Yesterday's sleet has melted: I offer praise
the sky is a perfect eggshell: I offer praise

my husband has taken the baby out of the house
freeing me to wrap myself in rainbow silk

to squint into the sun and sing psalms
I offer praise


2. (114)

let all offer praise
to what brings us forth from constriction
when we remember to say thank you
the hills and horizon dance


3. (115)

You spun the heavens on Your unthinkable loom
and fashioned the elements of creation with Your deft hands

the heavens are Yours
but the earth is in our keeping

the dead can't praise, but we can
help us remember

Continue reading "Six poems of praise (Hallel)" »


Delving into lovingkindness: week one of the Omer

On the second night of Pesach, we begin Counting the Omer.

"Omer" means measures; the term "counting the omer" originally referred to counting the days between the barley harvest at Pesach and the wheat harvest which would be given to God as a first-fruits offering at the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot. Now it means the practice of counting the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between the festival when we celebrate our liberation from slavery and the festival when we celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Sinai and our communal embrace of covenant with God. Counting the Omer links the two festivals: we're not only freed from, we're also freed toward. These 49 days are our opportunity to mindfully walk a spiritual journey from leaving slavery to holy relationship with the Source of All.

There's a kabbalistic practice of connecting each week with one of seven divine qualities (sefirot): chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (boundaried strength), tiferet (harmony / compassion / beauty), netzach (endurance / eternity), hod (majesty), yesod (foundation), and malkhut (kingdom / sovereignty / Shekhinah / indwelling presence of God.) And since each week contains seven days, each week is a microcosm of the whole journey: there's a day within each week for chesed, a day for gevurah, a day for tiferet, and so on.

This first week of the Omer is the week of chesed, the week of lovingkindness. This is the week for reflecting on how love manifests in our lives -- divine love, and also human love which is (in my understanding) a reflection and refraction of the love God feels for us. Chesed is limitless love, limitless kindness.

This week I find myself asking: how can I be kinder and more loving? To those I meet -- to the people I know, and the people I don't know -- to those who agree with me, and even those who angrily disagree with me? How can I be kinder to myself -- how can I do the work of discerning what my heart and soul most need, and then kindly and graciously filling that need for myself? Can I feel, deep in my bones, that the universe is a kind and loving place for me to be? Can I extend lovingkindness to myself, and then once I am feeling whole and healed, extend it to those I meet?

After counting the Omer, it's traditional to sing Ana B'Koach -- a prayer asking God to untie our tangles. (I posted about that prayer last autumn.) This week I ask God to untie the places where I am tangled-up around love and kindness. Unbind the places where I am constricted. Undo the knots which hold me back. Help me to be kind.


If you want to learn more about Counting the Omer, or if you're looking for resources for your own count, here's a page on How to Count the Omer from NeoHasid.org (they also offer an iphone app), and here's a site where you can Count the Omer with Homer (d'oh! also on twitter.) Another of my favorite online Omer resources is this Omer Counter based on plants mentioned in the Tanakh by artist Pauline Frankenberg. And the Omer category on this blog features all of my previous years' posts on this theme.

Edited to add: after this post went live, Rabbi Shai Gluskin pointed here: Omer Teaching, Mishkan Shalom - each day, that page will reflect a new teaching meant for that day of the Omer, and you can also sign up to receive them via email. Mishkan Shalom also has a beautiful page featuring the Omer Counting Blessing and Instructions.

Wishing you a fruitful journey through these 49 days.


Briallen Hopper's sermon for Passion Week

My friend Rabbi Debra Kolodny sent me the text of A Sermon for Passion Week by Briallen Hopper, a faith blogger and divinity student (you can read Hopper at Huffington Post -- I'm certainly going to from now on!) and the sermon so moved me that I want to share it here. Here's how it begins, with a text from Lamentations (which in the Jewish community we read on Tisha b'Av) and with some of Hopper's own words:

“Thus says the LORD:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.
Thus says the LORD:
Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future, says the LORD:
your children shall come back to their own country.”

It’s been thousands of years now,
but Rachel is still weeping for her children.
She’s still refusing to be comforted.
But she’s not in Ramah.

Right now Rachel is in suburban Minnesota.
Her son Justin bravely came out at age thirteen and endured merciless bullying for two years.
He killed himself last August.
Rachel found his body.

Rachel is also in Indiana.
Her son Billy was called a fag at school.
His classmates told him to kill himself.
And so he did.
Rachel found his body too.

Dan Savage, who shared the sermon with the internet-at-large, called it a "mashup of an It Gets Better video and the Passion of the Christ." Warning for content relating to rape and violence against women and GLBT people; if reading this is going to be harmful for you, please guard your boundaries as needed. But for those of us who are not triggered by this material, this is, I think, a sermon we all need to read. Hopper writes that we like to talk about "justice," but

"Justice" cannot do justice to the stories
Of the people who come through our doors
Reeling with pain,
Trapped in cycles of trauma,
Covered with scars and bruises in their spirits or under their clothes.

I know this to be true, and my heart breaks reading the stories Hopper tells. But she also offers a powerful way of thinking about Jesus as one of these wounded children, and at the end of the sermon she also offers hope.

If this sounds like something you can bear reading, here's the link: A Sermon for Passion Week. Thanks, Briallen, for this powerful example of how to preach.


Luisa Igloria's "Trill and Mordent"

Over at Via Negativa, Dave Bonta is reviewing and blogging a book or chapbook of poems each day during April. For those who have more modest readerly ambitions, he's offering the Via Negativa Poetry Month Book Club, and invites the blogosphere to join him in reading, reviewing, and discussing four books of poems. During the third week of April, Dave and the others who are taking part in this collaborative conversation are writing about Luisia A. Igloria's Trill and Mordent. (Here's his review.)

I first encountered Luisa's poetry at Via Negativa, actually; that's where Luisa posts frequent poems arising out of / in response to Dave's "morning porch" entries. (Here's the link to all of Luisa's posts; here's one I especially like, Between, in response to A mourning dove skimming the treetops....) So I was pretty excited at the prospect of picking up one of her books to read in full.

I am the face
that floats beneath the water of itself,
that counts the passing stars and braches
overhead, wanting to attend to their beauty
before their waning, wanting to forestall
the eventual farewell for as long as the world
grants pardon.

--"If the Poem Were Glass"

These are rich poems, heavy with imagery like ripe summer fruit. Some of these are long poems -- like the one I just excerpted, above -- which challenge my focus...but even when my eye skims down the page I can't help stopping, repeatedly caught by images and phrases that grab me and won't let go.

Continue reading "Luisa Igloria's "Trill and Mordent"" »


A Passover letter to my son

Dear Drew,

This year, like last year, your experience of Pesach won't include our formal seder. For reasons of familial logistics and timing, we won't begin the seder until your early bedtime of 7pm. It's just as well; at sixteen months you are a creature of habit where bedtime is concerned, and we will all be well-served by giving you the pre-bedtime ritual of cuddling, books, and familiar lullaby which is part of your daily routine.

I've been singing Pesach songs to you in recent days. Sometimes when you and I play in Dad's and my bedroom, I take out my guitar and play the niggun I use for singing the order of the seder. You like flipping open and shut the metal clasps which hold the guitar case together. Sometimes, when I start playing, you beam at me. I sing the order of the seder to you, I sing Dayenu to you, I sing Eliahu HaNavi to you -- three musical motifs, the seder in a nutshell.

I've tried reading you Sammy Spider's First Passover, which I read to you last year before you were old enough to be bored. These days you push the pages of the book faster than I can read them, annoyed that they contain so many words. I've taken to summarizing: "Sammy Spider sees the Shapiros cleaning their house!" (Flip) "Sammy Spider wants a seder too!" (Flip) -- that's about where your attention span is, these days. Maybe by next year you'll be more interested in the story as it unfolds.

But not yet. This year, your Pesach consists of me singing you some songs and attempting to read you a storybook or two. We'll cut up a matzah ball for you and see if you like it. I'll bet you'll like haroset, if we can make some in which the nuts aren't a choking hazard. And I'm curious to see what you'll think of matzah -- the storebought kind, and also the kind Aunt Melissa's friends make from scratch. This time last year, you weren't eating solid food yet; all of these tastes and textures will be new.

Continue reading "A Passover letter to my son" »


Worth revisiting before Pesach

As Pesach draws ever-nearer, I want to take a moment to lift up excerpts from three of the pre-Pesach posts I've made in previous years.

1.

I'm fond of the metaphor which holds that, as we clean our houses of hametz before Passover, we can take the opportunity also for spiritual housecleaning, ridding ourselves of hametz -- that ego which puffs us up -- in the process. Here, too, the notion that hametz and matzah contain the same ingredients has something to teach me. The part of me which is appropriate for the festival of freedom, and the part of me I want to sweep away and burn, are made of the same stuff -- me. What I want to rid myself of is not a foreign object. It's made of the same flour and water, the same Rachel-ness, as the parts of me I want to keep.

Read that whole post here: Passover, matzah, dialectics (2006).

2.

Because Pesach is a holiday so many of us observe through dietary constraints, it's a great time to make eating a mindfulness practice. Every time we eat this week is an opportunity for remembrance. This week we're meant to relive our exodus from the Narrow Place, our journey from slavery into freedom. And we can remember it, at least for a flash of a second, every time we choose what to put in our mouths -- whether we "keep the Pesach" in a traditional way, or not.

Read that whole post here: On mindfulness and matzah (2007).

3.

I can't change the world financial situation. I can't change the reality that we live in bodies which break. What I can change is my reaction to things-as-they-are. I can change how I experience them, by committing myself to recognizing that I can feel expansive, liberated, grateful even though the world isn't always an easy place to live.

Everything hangs on that even though. I have to find a way to feel grateful for the innumerable blessings in my life even though other things are tough. I have to find a way to understand (again) that I'm always already liberated, that the freedom we celebrate at Pesach is always real. That's what redemption means. We speak in our liturgy about God Who redeems us from slavery -- that's always ongoing.

Read that whole post here: Exiting Mitzrayim (2009).

I hope at least reading the excerpts (even if you don't click through to read the whole posts) offers you some good food for thought as we draw nearer to the season of our liberation.


On leaping, without delay - Reb Nachman on leaving Mitzrayim

In preparation for Pesach, my chevruta and I decided to study a Hasidic text I had learned a few years ago but hadn't looked back at since. This is Reb Nachman of Bratzlav (or Breslov) as interpreted / filtered through the words of his closest disciple, Reb Nosson, and this is a really beautiful -- and timely! -- teaching. My translation appears below (indented), with explanations interspersed.

One needs to leave Mitzrayim with great haste. This is the essence of the quote from Torah, "For they left Mitzrayim and couldn't tarry, and also they didn't make provisions [for the journey]." (Exodus 12:39) This truth is recapitulated in each person and in each era. In each person and in each time, there can be found a residue [of Mitzrayim], the cravings and woes of this world, and this is the essence of the exile in Mitzrayim.

In the traditional haggadah for Pesach (and in mine!) we read that in every generation, each of us is commanded to experience Pesach as though we ourselves had been liberated from Mitzrayim (literally "Egypt," though the name's meaning speaks of constriction and can therefore be understood in a broader way as that which constrains or enslaves us.)

Reb Nachman and Reb Nosson expand this teaching to say that in each of our lives, and in each historical moment in time, the exile of Mitzrayim is present: in our cravings, in our cravenness, in our sorrows. Each of us knows exile, and each of us needs to be ready to get out of there -- fast, without second-guessing ourselves. The text continues:

This is the essence of Pesach. At the moment of the Exodus from Mitzrayim, a great light from on high was revealed, as is known; and at that time, promptly, Israel went out in great haste and they couldn't tarry. For even if they had remained there even one more instant, they would have remained a remnant there, as is known.

Rebs Nachman and Nosson are playing with a Hebrew pun here: the word for "exile" is גלות, galut, and the word for "revealed" is גלוי, galui. There's a sense in which at the moment of the Exodus, we traded galut for galui, exile for a glimpse of God.

And there was danger. Had the Israelites lingered even a little bit longer, they might have become unable to depart at all. We too are in perennial danger of becoming so stuck in our spiritual distance from God that we forget that we even wanted to lift ourselves out.

In the moment of making this kind of exodus, it's forbidden to worry about parnassah, to worry "But if I do this, how will I make a living?" Rather one must trust in God and hope in the Blessed One and God will provide.

Parnassah means income, making a living, sustenance and livelihood: a perfectly normal thing to worry about, especially if one is about to make a major leap. But that's exactly what this text says we mustn't do. Instead, we're called to have trust and hope in God, Who will provide what we most need.

This is the essence of (that Torah reference again) "And also they didn't make provisions." If someone needed to flee from a dangerous situation, such as being trapped in a snare, one wouldn't think about parnassah or preparations, lest one be set-upon by thieves or robbers or wild beasts from which one would further need to be freed. One wouldn't pause in that moment of self-extrication to worry about making a living.

The same is true if a person needs to flee from She'ol around and beneath him, or from the tribulations of the world, turning instead toward what enlivens this world. One wouldn't look behind oneself at all. For one must not tarry, nor worry about parnassah, but trust in God and rely on God who never leaves us.

The state of spiritual exile in which each of us finds ourselves (at least sometimes; every person in every era) is, say Reb Nachman and Reb Nosson, like being caught in a snare in the dangerous desert with thieves and robbers and hungry wild beasts all about. If I were caught in a trap and needed to extricate myself before even greater danger came upon me, would I stop and worry about where my next meal was coming from? Of course not.

Just so, say these teachers, should we not worry about parnassah when the time comes to make a spiritual leap away from the sufferings of this world and toward connection with God. God never leaves us. At this season of Pesach, when we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt as though it were our own story of liberation, we're called to plunge into spiritual growth -- to choose to leap away from the spiritual mire of complacency and into the possibility of transformation.

Where in your life are you called to leap, right now, on the cusp of Pesach?

What would it take for you to be able to make that leap without tarrying and without looking back?


Ode to my tefillin (for Big Tent Poetry)

Tefillin-ode

 

ODE TO MY TEFILLIN

 

Six years in
you still smell like leather.

I don't touch you
often enough, don't

let my fingers peruse
your velvet nest

but when I manage
to bind my arm

and hang your light
on my forehead

I can almost feel
what spirals through me.

I have to trust
God remembers our vows

even when I don't make time
to slip you on, string

around my finger
ring around my heart.


There's another week's worth of poetry prompts at Big Tent Poetry this week, one of which is Write an ode to a prized physical object. As soon as I saw that prompt, I knew what I wanted to write about... and as soon as I put the object in question on, the poem flowed.

(If you're here via Big Tent Poetry and are perhaps unfamiliar with tefillin, here are a few posts which might be helpful: Connections and Surprises -- about my impulse to buy myself tefillin, and about the surprise of being gifted with a pair -- and, while I'm at it, here's my Mother psalm 7, written in sumer 2010, which begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin...")

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see how others responded to this week's Big Tent Poetry prompts.

[tefillin-ode.mp3]


Review of "God's Optimism" in Zeek

Earlier this year I had the profound pleasure of reviewing Yehoshua November's collection of poetry, God's Optimism, for Zeek. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

November lifts the veil cloaking ordinary moments, revealing the holiness underneath. In one poem he writes about a moment in a university professor's office when, the professor's back turned, "I concentrated all my energy on whispering Hashem's name, / all irony faded / and angels were swimming from your lamp." I remember being an undergraduate struggling to lift up my Jewishness in the face of professors who spoke the language of Lacan and Derrida. I'm charmed by the image of the earnest student whose faith in things unseen brings angels into being and turns the light of philosophy into the insight of holy understanding.

Some of these poems make me choke up with tears I can't entirely explain. Like "Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah," which offers a scene I'm unlikely to ever witness in the flesh: young bearded men slipping out of their black-and-white garb to immerse in cleansing waters, ruing the tattoos that reveal the old lives they can never entirely escape. The Hasidic masters taught that one who has sinned and then returned to God is more beloved than one who has never sinned. This poem knows that, although that infinite mercy is subtext here, never text.

I think the book is stunning, and I'm so grateful to have had the chance to read it and write about it. Read the whole review here: Holy longing, holy language: Yehoshua November’s "God’s Optimism".


Bringing 70 faces to Vermont

70FacesSmall

One of the things I've been working on lately is orchestrating a handful of further events promoting 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems which was published by Phoenicia Publishing this winter. As the (newly-revised!) complete 70 faces book tour page indicates, I've got one event this month in Bennington, Vermont; next month I'm doing a couple of events in Montreal; and in June, I have four events happening in my birthplace of San Antonio, Texas.

Here's the scoop on the April event in Bennington:

Poetry: a doorway to Torah, a d'var Torah which will feature poems from 70 faces as well as poems designed to help us prepare ourselves for Pesach, at Congregation Beth El, April 16. Services are from 10am-noon, and I'll have about 25 minutes during the service to share poems: "Walk through the door of poetry into Torah with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, author of 70 faces: Torah poems." We'll continue the conversation over the kiddush afterwards. 225 North Street, Bennington, VT.

Hope to see you there!

(As a side note, if you're interested in Phoenicia Publishing or in small independent presses in general you might enjoy the interview that Marly Youmans is doing with Beth Adams of Phoenicia -- the interview is in three parts and all are posted at Marly's blog: part 1, part 2, part 3.)


Poem: letter to a war zone (for Big Tent Poetry)

דואר עקספרס / EXPRESS MAIL / البريد السريع‎

 

I can't be sorry
I don't know what it's like

my fears for my son
are commonplace

an icy road in the dark
one Jack Daniels too many

or a partner who hits him
or depression's slow bleed

not a person with explosives
strapped to her like a baby

or the artificial earthquake
of bombs falling

the closest he'll come
to his home rendered rubble

is if too much snow falls
and the deck begins to sag

forgive me
I don't want your shoes

I pray for the day
when you can walk in mine


Two of this week's Big Tent Poetry prompts are Write a letter poem to someone in a war zone or a revolution and Write a poem that starts, "I am sorry about _____." I had both in mind when I sat down to write this poem, though I wound up inverting that second prompt into "I can't be sorry" instead of running with the prompt as it was given.

The poem's title is "express mail." The title appears also in Hebrew and in Arabic, since I had the Middle East in mind when I wrote the poem and intended for the poem to be directed to "both sides." (The Hebrew phrase is pronounced do'ar ekspress; the Arabic pronunciation is al-bariid as-sarii'.)

I didn't record an mp3 of this week's poem because I have a dreadful cold (which I am hoping is not turning into a sinus infection) and believe me, y'all don't want to hear my voice right now.

Here's a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what others wrote out of this week's list of challenges.


Grant peace

One morning recently I was feeling antsy and at-loose-ends, unable to muster the focus to really daven. So I put on tallit and tefillin and opened my siddur to a random page from the quadrant of the book which I knew contained shacharit (morning prayer) to see what message I might find there. My fingers opened the book to the final blessing in the weekday amidah (the prayer, recited standing, which is at the center of liturgical Jewish worship -- the time when we stand before God and connect one-on-one through the ladder of the liturgy.) That blessing is called Sim Shalom: Grant Peace.

I've never spent a ton of time with this blessing; I confess it's one I often kind of breeze past. But when I opened the book to this page, I was struck by one phrase in particular:

ברכנו אבינו כלנו כאחד באור פניך / Barchenu avinu kulanu k'ekhad b'or panecha / Bless us, our father, all as one with the light of your face!

First, with barchenu, we're asking God to bless us. So often we begin our prayers with baruch atah, blessed are You -- but this time we're asking for the blessing to come from God to us. As Rabbi Marcia Prager reminds us in The Path of Blessing, the word baruch relates to breikha, fountain, and berech, knee. This word-root reminds us that we are in a posture (spiritually, if not physically) of bending in awe and gratitude...and that God is the fountain from which all blessings flow. Also, the -nu ending denotes "us." This is a communal request; even when I'm praying alone, I'm praying here for us to be blessed as a group, together.

Then comes avinu: we're reminding ourselves that God is our father -- our parent -- the source from which we come, the One Who continues to speak us into being, the One in Whose likeness we are made, the One from whom we are always running away and then returning as children do. With that one word, avinu, we articulate relationship. The metaphor of God-the-Father can be distancing for some people (some prefer to think of God as Mother; others prefer gender-neutral and non-hierarchical metaphors like Source and Wellspring.) Gender notwithstanding, the parent metaphor is an integral part of our traditional liturgy... and as a parent, I understand it in a different way now than I ever did before. When we call God "our father" (or "our parent") we're casting ourselves as the children who yearn to be cradled and to know that we can always return home.

Both of these first two words show that we're asking for that blessing together: this isn't just one person seeking blessing, but a community asking as one, and even when I pray these words alone I'm aware that I'm part of a community which is collectively in relationship with the holy. The phrase which follows stresses that theme: kulanu k'echad: all of us as one. Give this blessing to all of us, to the whole community of people who wrestle with our relationship with you -- and in the giving, help us to recognize that we are one. We are one people, one family, despite the endless differences in our choices, our appearances, how we dress, how we pray, how we understand You, how we relate to this or that political issue. No matter where we stand on JStreet or AIPAC or Jewish Voice for Peace, please, God, give us this blessing in a way which will unify us.

And the specific blessing we're asking for is 'or panecha, the light of Your face, the light of Your presence. We're reminding ourselves that when we say these words we stand in I/Thou relationship with God, panim el panim, face to face. Give us, together, the blessing which is inherent in the light of Your presence. The blessing we seek is the light which streams from eternity directly to us. Enlighten us together, God. Help us remember, avinu, that we are all Your children. Help us know that we are one community even though we're not all the same. And give us Your light.

A Hasidic reading of this line (by Zev Wolf of Zhitomir, cited in My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 2: The Amidah) asks, how can we ask God to bless us "as one"? Surely our needs are so varied and diverse that this is a strange thing for us to pray. The answer, Wolf writes, is that "each soul yearns for God's beaming face, the Or Hame'ir, 'the One who is the source of all light.'...And in that pure, divine radiance there is, of course, no differentiation whatsoever. There, everything is One."

I think maybe that's why I needed to encounter this line from the amidah. I've been feeling frustrated and saddened lately by instances in which it is pretty clear that we're not all one, or at least that we tend to forget our unity. But Zev Wolf is here to teach me that what we all yearn for most is the divine radiance of connection with the unity at creation's root... and the amidah is here to remind me that when we ask for the blessing of Presence together, that's our path toward seeking peace.


On Israel, Gaza, Goldstone

Last week Judge Goldstone posted an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes in which he indicates that had he known then what he knows now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.

Because I was fairly vocal on this issue (I blogged about an October 2009 rabbinic conference call with Judge Goldstone, and wrote an essay called The Goldstone Report: A Jewish View for the audience of Al-Jazeera) many of you emailed me once Judge Goldstone's op-ed came out, asking for my response to his new essay.

In his recent op-ed, Judge Goldstone notes that the Goldstone Report found evidence of potential war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity, by both Israel and Hamas. He notes that Hamas' crimes were obviously intentional -- "its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets" -- and continues:

The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee's report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.

God knows I took no joy in the Goldstone Report's suggestion that Israel might have targeted civilians as a matter of policy, and I yearn to take comfort from Judge Goldstone's assertion that this was not a policy decision. The op-ed gave me reason to read more widely around these issues, and I came away with the sense that everything is more complicated than it initially appears.

Continue reading "On Israel, Gaza, Goldstone" »


A haggadah reminder

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.

VRHaggadahCover2011

Pesach is drawing nearer (only two weeks away!), so I wanted to offer a reminder about the new edition of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach [pdf] -- the latest edition is version 7.1, which you can read all about here at this post.

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.

The haggadah features a blend of traditional text and creative/interpretive material, beautiful art donated by a variety of artists, some sheet music, and a wide range of readings, stories, and contemporary poems to draw from in crafting exactly the seder your heart and spirit want and need. And it's free: take, use, share, repurpose, as long as you continue to credit this haggadah and the authors and artists whose work appears herein! Feedback is always welcome; I look forward to hearing what you think.