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Akedah poems

Last year, as the cantorial soloist at CBI, I gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In years past, our visiting cantorial soloists had offered a "sermon in song;" I offered a sermon in poetry, a cycle of ten poems arising out of the story of the akedah / the binding of Isaac, which is the story we read on that day.

This year I'm the rabbi and my friend Shayndel Kahn is our cantorial soloist; she will offer today's sermon at my shul. But in case you missed it last year, or in case you'd like to read it again -- I hope that the poems will speak anew to us this year, as I hope that the Torah story continues to speak to us! -- here's a link to last year's sermon for this day: The Akedah Cycle.

Spiritual Lessons of the Arab Spring (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)

Last winter there was a revolution in Tunisia. It began on December 17, in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

A policewoman, seeking a bribe, confiscated the illegal vegetable stall of an unemployed man named Mohamad Bouazizi. For years, the police had been routinely confiscating his wheelbarrow of produce, demanding bribes. On this day, he had already gone into debt to buy the vegetables he needed to sell to feed his family. And now his vegetables, and his street cart, were impounded, and he was harassed and humiliated by a city official and her aides. Bouazizi tried to see the governor to beg for his cart and his weighing scales, but the governor refused to see him.

Out of despondency, or out of desperate desire to make a statement, Bouazizi set himself on fire. This was not an act of violence against others, but a way of protesting and showing his despair. On December 17, the day when Bouazizi self-immolated, protesters took to the streets. They posted videos of their marches on Facebook. After 23 years of dictatorship under the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian people were fed up with corruption and misrule. Al Jazeera broadcast this smalltown Tunisian revolution throughout the Arab world. Less than a month later, Ben Ali stepped down from power.

That same month, a revolution unfolded in Egypt. Protests took place in a Cairo square called Tahrir—“Liberation.” More than a million people took to the streets and the square, rallying behind the aims of free speech, an end to police brutality and corruption, and an end to the state of emergency law which had persisted since 1967. They protested high unemployment and food price inflation. They demanded free elections, a say in the management of Egypt’s resources, and justice.

The protestors faced police willing to use tear gas and rubber bullets to drive them back. Ordinary people who lived near Tahrir opened their homes so that protesters could shower, and showed up in the square to cook food and sing songs. You may have seen news footage of Egyptian Christians linking hands to protect Egyptian Muslims as they prostrated themselves in prayer—a prostration which is akin to what some of us will do, later this morning, during the Great Aleinu.

Within days President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and a new chapter of Egyptian history began.

Since last December, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; a civil war in Libya; uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen; protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and in Gaza and the West Bank. Over the summer, unprecedented numbers of Israelis too have taken to the streets, setting up tent cities and protesting inequities in Israeli life, inspired in large part by the Arab Spring. A vast tectonic shift is underway. The world is changing.

It’s become popular to analyze the Arab Spring in terms of how social media—like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook—played a role in the organizing of protests and the disseminating of information. (Indeed, my husband Ethan has given many lectures on this very subject!) These technologies and their use worldwide have enabled a profound change in how people communicate. As those who were once voiceless connect with each other, they find strength in togetherness, and new possibilities arise.

Others look at the Arab Spring and ask: what does this mean for Israel? Let me be honest: I don’t know yet. I don’t think anyone does. But Israel’s security does not, must not, depend on a status quo where the inhabitants of neighboring countries live under oppression and repression.

The Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel says that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture[.]” These are lofty aims. As a rabbi, and as a Jew, I yearn for the day when every woman, man, and child everywhere in the world knows these rights and cherishes them as their own.

For me the most interesting question is what the Arab Spring tells us about the human spirit. What can we learn from these stories as we enter into the Days of Awe? On this Rosh Hashanah morning I’d like to offer three spiritual lessons I find in the unfolding of the Arab Spring.

Continue reading "Spiritual Lessons of the Arab Spring (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)" »

Happy new year!

Challah dough, rising.

As I knead the dough -- Leah Koenig's apple cider challah; thanks, Jew and the Carrot -- I pray aloud that this bread contain all of the blessings with which I hope my loved ones will be graced in the coming year. Blessings of joy and contentment, blessings of parnassah (income), blessings of togetherness, blessings of love, blessings of peace.

It's 8:30 in the morning; Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow night. Two honeycakes are in the oven. The challah dough is rising. The new year is almost, almost, almost here.

I can't serve these baked goods to most of y'all who are reading these words; leaving aside for the moment the reality that you live all over the world, there's also the non-negotiable fact that I am not, at this point in my spiritual development, capable of turning two loaves of apple cider challah into a feast for thousands.

But I hope all of you who read these words know that I mean for this blog to be a kind of feast, and that I consider all of you to be sitting around my metaphorical holiday table, and that the blessings I hope to bake into the bread for my family are also blessings I hope for each one of you.

L'shanah tovah tikatevu v'techatemu: may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Six ways to usher in the new year

Rosh Hashanah -- literally "the head of the year;" colloquially, the Jewish New Year -- is approaching! Wednesday evening at sundown we'll say farewell to 5771 and we'll welcome in 5772.

A few years ago I posted a set of Rosh Hashanah resources: sermons, explanations of liturgy, podcasts, you name it, all intended to help farflung readers enhance their experience of this special festival day. This year I'd like to offer something different: a set of six ways you can observe Rosh Hashanah even if you won't be coming anywhere near a shul (though I hasten to add, you can use these even if you will be spending all day davening in community, too!)

Six Ways to Usher In the New Year

1. Eat apples with honey or challah with honey -- or, really, anything you enjoy, with honey on top! This is one of my favorite tastes of the new year season...and some traditions hold that this taste should be savored from now until Shemini Atzeret (at the end of Sukkot), so you have some time to enjoy this one.

2. Jewish tradition holds that today is the birthday of the world. Stick a candle in a cupcake if you're so inclined; go outdoors if you're so inclined; wish the world happy birthday, and take some time to be grateful for the corner of the world in which you live, wherever that may be.

3. Eat a favorite food you haven't tasted since last year (a fruit that's newly in-season where you are? a favorite family recipe? something seasonal and delicious? personally I've been wanting to try the pumpkin ice cream at Whitney's Farm, though I'm not sure I'm going to manage it this week) and say the shehecheyanu, the blessing sanctifying time.

4. The Hebrew word shanah, year, can be understood as related to the word shinui, change; this festival offers us an invitation to usher in the change we want to see. Spend a little while thinking about your life, and identify one place where you want to change -- and begin that change today, right now.

5. Hear the shofar -- either in person, or on YouTube. Rambam -- aka Maimonides -- heard the calls of the shofar as saying, "Wake up you sleepers from your sleep, you slumberers from your slumber! Search your deeds and return in repentance!" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.) The Baal Shem Tov heard, in the sounds of the shofar, a metaphor for the broken heart which brings us close to God. When you listen to the call of the shofar, what do you hear?

6. Go to a body of open water with some bread in your hand. Cast bits of bread into the water, each one representing one of the ways in which you've missed the mark in the last year. As you cast the bread upon the waters, you might choose to use one of these contemporary rituals, or to read the traditional text from Micah (learn more here), or just to enjoy your own silent contemplation and the rush of the waters washing the old year away.

No matter what your holiday practices may or may not be, I wish you a good and sweet 5772! May we all be blessed with prosperity, good fortune, and companionship in the new year to come.

Hopes for Israel and for Palestine

Outside the Ein Yael checkpoint. As described in this post about the All Nations Café, 2008.

It's been a busy week for those of us who try to carefully follow happenings in/around Israel and Palestine. I want to write about this week's new developments, but I have a tremendous amount of work to do -- practically, emotionally, spiritually -- in preparation for the Days of Awe. Then again, engaging with happenings in the Middle East is arguably part of my work. Hence this post...though, thanks to the obligations of the season, this may be briefer (and my ability to respond to comments may be less) than might otherwise be the case.

Israeli-American blogger Emily L. Hauser is worth reading on Israel/Palestine this week, as always. Here's an excerpt from the post she put up on Friday, after both Abbas and Netanyahu had spoken to the UN:

After a quarter of a century of living, studying, reporting, researching, and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my demoralization has reached a low that I never dreamed possible. I cannot do it.

I will say only this: The Palestinian statehood bid is an entirely legal, nonviolent attempt at a work-around to Israeli and American intransigence. 

Along with the 600+ other members of the JStreet rabbinic cabinet, I support the existence of a free and prosperous Palestine which could be a good neighbor to Israel -- and, it goes without saying, the existence of a just and safe Israel which could be a good neighbor to Palestine. I know that many Israelis and Palestinians share this yearning. Everyone I know in Israel wants two safe, independent, thriving states alongside each other.

And yet it keeps not happening. Not only that: the two sides continue to be at one another's throats. Settlements continue to expand, carving the West Bank into the proverbial block of Swiss cheese. Rockets continue to be fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Injustice continues to unfold, and in its wake come its close cousins resentment and terror. I can understand why these realities might spark depression in those who care about this place.

Continue reading "Hopes for Israel and for Palestine" »

As Elul draws to its close

Tomorrow night, at the closing cusp of Shabbat, we'll hold Selichot services -- the formal beginning of our high holiday season. The Days of Awe are almost here! Here are a few of my favorite posts from this moment in previous years:

  • Release, 2010

    Hatarat nedarim means "releasing of vows." It's a ceremony in which one person assembles three others to serve as a beit din, a court of law... The idea is that these friends serve as representatives of the court on high, and that if each of us can honestly say to these friends that we made vows in the last year in error and wish to be released from them, as our friends hear and accept our regrets, the heavenly court does the same.

  • Looking forward to selichot, 2010

    "Ana B'Koach" is the prayer I turn to when I'm asking for help in letting go of something that has me all worked up in guilt and recriminations. I'll be singing Hanna Tiferet's melody for the prayer, which features just the first line... So often we tie ourselves in knots over things we've done or haven't done. This season of teshuvah (repentance / return) is a perfect time to work on untangling what's become tense and knotted in our spiritual lives.

  • Petition: a prayer for selichot, 2009

    Compassionate One, remember / we are your children // help us to know again / that we are cradled...

  • The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, 2005

    Buying groceries, and learning Torah. Making a pot of Joe (because my grandmother Rachel's honeycake recipe requires a cup of cold coffee) and practicing the last section of Tuesday's Torah portion, in which God hears Ishmael’s soundless cries...

Shabbat shalom to all; may this Shabbat bring a heightened sense of how near we are to these majestic Days of Awe!

A pre-holiday message

I sent this to members of my congregation this week, as part of a longer letter; I want to say it to all of you who read this blog, too.

Each of us comes to the High Holidays laden with memories. Memories of what shul was like last year, or the year before, or when we were kids sitting beside our parents or grandparents. Memories which we cherish, and also memories which may cause us pain.

Each of us also comes to the High Holidays bearing expectations. What do you imagine services might be like this year? When you anticipate sitting in synagogue, how do you feel: eager? anticipatory? already bored? (All of the above?)

I'd like to invite each of us to cherish the memories which bring us joy, and to release the memories which bring us pain. To let go of the vision of what we imagined these holidays would be, and embrace instead whatever they actually are.

I want to bless you that you might find the connections, the insights, and the spiritual richness you need, in whatever your experience of the Days of Awe may be.

L'shanah tovah tikatevu v'techatemu: may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year! (And Shabbat shalom to all!)

A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

Continue reading "A rabbinic conference call with President Obama" »



The Arctic, at equinox. Satellite image from Science photo library.

This morning I forgot what day it was; I told a friend it was Tuesday, and he gently reminded me that it is Wednesday. Cue panic! I have class this afternoon, I thought that was tomorrow! The new year is one day closer than I thought! Is everything going to be done in time?

In truth, I think I'm in fine shape. My sermons are written. My machzor (high holiday prayerbook) is marked-up with notes to myself, sticky flags to remind me which prayers I'm leading and which will be led by my friend and colleague who's serving as our cantorial soloist. There's a flurry of tasks to be done at the synagogue, but I think we're mostly on top of those.

What's challenging for me is the sense that I'm juggling so many balls that I might be dropping a few and I might not even know it. There are things I've almost forgotten to do, and remembered only in the last moment; what else might I have forgotten? What am I not remembering that I'm not remembering?

Of course, the Days of Awe -- as big a deal as they are! -- also aren't the only thing happening at this moment in time. Our religious school has gotten underway, and this weekend our monthly Sunday morning programs will begin. I haven't had time yet to move my summer clothes out of my closet, but I need to; that time has come.

My parents are coming to visit in just a few days. It's apple season. I just replaced the fading summer flowers in front of our front door with a pot of deep maroon mums. A piano tuner is here, making our old upright sing again. Roofers are working on re-shingling the roof of our house, so that (God willing) by the time Sukkot rolls around, only our sukkah will be open to the rain.

And my challenge in all of this is to keep breathing. (Right here; right now.) To trust that everything will get done -- or, that if something slips through the cracks, it'll all be okay in the end. To sing Psalm 27 and remember what I'm really seeking at this season: not just efficiency and productivity, but to dwell in God's house all the days of my life.

It's the equinox today, or something very near it. The hinge-point on which the solar year turns. Midway between the year's longest day and the year's shortest day. (Here in this hemisphere, I guess that makes it the official first day of fall; for my readers in the global South, it's the first day of spring.) The earth tilts and turns as it has always done.

Seen alongside the great cycles of the cosmos, my to-do list isn't such a big deal, is it? Surely this whole glorious planet is God's house, and all I need to do in order to dwell in it is to take a deep breath and remember.

Wise voices on Middle East politics and on Torah

If the Days of Awe didn't begin next week, I'd like to think that I would be taking the time to write something substantive and meaningful about what's happening in the Middle East right now. Instead, I'm offering links to a few essays I've found useful of late.

  • On the recent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo: Encountering Peace: The View from Cairo by Gershom Baskin. ("What's needed is stronger bridges, not higher walls.") Baskin writes:

    All of the Egyptians that I have spoken with condemned the attack against the Israeli embassy. The story on the street and among the youth leaders of the revolution is that the leaders of the mobs that torched the Ministry of Interior, the headquarters of the el-Ghad party and the Israeli embassy have been identified as members of the hated former internal security forces. They say that these people are actively working to undermine the revolution and to show that post-Mubarak Egypt is a lawless society where all security has broken down. They hope to hijack the revolution and to bring back the old regime.

  • On Israeli settlers and the so-called "price tag" policy: Price tag -- a violation of Jewish values by Rabbi Barry Leff. ("Jews have been world's favorite scapegoats since 4th century, so they of all people should be sensitive to how terrible it is to make someone a scapegoat.") Rabbi Leff writes:

    [T]he greatest sin the perpetrators of the price tag campaign commit is the sin of hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name. Attacking a mosque – a house of worship of the same God that we worship – and burning Korans that do reverence to many of the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets in the Torah –makes Judaism look bad. It gives our religion, and by extension, our God and Torah, a horrible reputation. It makes Judaism appear immoral, insensitive and disrespectful toward others in the eyes of the nations.

I want also to lift up two posts which focus on last week's Torah portion -- which I think speak deeply, if indirectly, to current events in the Middle East as well.

  • My Father, the Wandering Aramean… by Rabbi Brant Rosen at Yedid Nefesh. His post looks at two different ways of interpreting a verse from Torah (אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, usually translated as "My father was a wandering Aramean" but sometimes rendered in a very different way), and asks:

    These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day. Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify? The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?

  • Milk and Honey by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan at On Sophia Street. This essay offers me a blessing for the continuing journey. Reb Laura offers her own interpretive translation of part of this week's Torah portion ("When you come to a place of spiritual fulfillment, / an inner place that finally feels like “home,” / notice what ripens inside you...") and notes:

    In Jewish thought, the journey of the Exodus is the paradigm for all spiritual journeys.

    We move from the narrow place of slavery, to wander in the wilderness, and finally reach a land flowing with milk and honey... Some days, I feel I'm still in the narrow place.

My thanks are due to the authors of all of these essays, whose words have informed me and uplifted me this week.

How do I want to be remembered?

This morning I wrote my own obituary. It was homework for the Sage-ing class I'm taking during this final semester of the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) program. And wow, was it a fascinating experience.

Writing the story of my life to date, in condensed but meaningful form, was thought-provoking. What are the details I would want to share about my growing-up, about my formative relationships, about my childhood and my college years and my journey into poetry and the rabbinate?

Then, of course, the obit became more of a "here's what I hope the rest of my life might look like." I hope to live for many more decades; I'm only 36. So I spun out a fantasy of what the next fifty or sixty years might hold for me, and then wrote about it in the past tense, as though it had happened exactly the way I'm imagining.

If, God willing, I live into my nineties, how would I want to be able to describe my life? How would I want to be able to describe my relationships, my work, my impact on the world? How do I want to be remembered?

It's an amazing spiritual exercise. And, not for the first time, I'm struck by the additional power this class has for me because I'm taking it during a fall semester, as the Days of Awe approach. We're well into the month of Elul, the month which offers the opportunity for reflection and discernment before the New Year comes.

This obituary exercise is a powerful thing to do just before the Days of Awe. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Everyday I write the book) teaches us that God opens the book of memory, which reads from itself, as each of us has signed our name through our deeds. What are the actions which I've recorded in the book of memory this year? Who am I, and what do I want my time on this earth to be?

Before you ask: sorry, but I'm not going to share that obituary here! The part which describes the life I haven't yet had feels too personal and revelatory. (Besides, I don't want my advance obituary to show up as a google search result.) I am saving it on my computer, though. Maybe I'll take the time to revise it over the years to come as my life unfolds. If nothing else, someday it will give my descendants a glimpse of how I saw myself while I was still here.

On harvesting basil, just before Shabbat

This afternoon I leave work early and head for Caretaker Farm. There's supposed to be a frost tonight; we've been invited to come and uproot the basil plants before the frost blackens them. I kneel in the herb garden, uproot half a dozen plants, twist the woody stems until I can free their root balls and leave them there on the soft earth.

I bring home three grocery-store bags filled with basil plants: stems and leaves and bits of soil. It feels like the end of a season, a hinge, a turning-point into something new. The moon of Elul is waning. Selichot is a week from tomorrow. Change is coming.

"I wrote about this once before," I think, as I am carrying the plants inside, so when I deposit them in the kitchen, I pause to search for the post. Yes: Basil harvest -- September 16, 2007 -- four years ago, give or take a day or two. I remember that evening of picking late basil with Ethan, down in the fields as the last light lingered over the mountaintops.

Each year the same events unfold, but something in us is different. So much has changed since that 2007 post about picking basil. I couldn't have imagined then the bright, willful, rambunctious son I have now. I couldn't have imagined then that I would now be serving this community as its rabbi. And yet so much is unchanging: the mountains and the sky, the scent of the herbs, the vastness of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.

Alicia Ostriker's Psalm 27

Psalm 27 is traditionally read / studied / sung every day during the month of Elul. Here's one way to interact with the psalm today: by reading this contemporary poem which plays with the psalm's language and themes.


elul: psalm 27

we are told to say the following
every day for a month
in preparation for the days of awe:

you are my light my help
when I'm with you I'm not afraid
I want to live in your house

the enemies that chew my heart
the enemies that break my spine
I'm not afraid of them when I’m with you

all my life I have truly trusted you
save me from the liars
let me live in your house   

-- Alicia Ostriker (from her three-part poem Days of Awe.)


Thanks for this rendition of psalm 27, Alicia. What a beautiful distillation of what's at the psalm's heart.

(Here's Reb Zalman's translation of the full psalm; here's a wonderful Nava Tehila melody for one verse from this psalm; here's a round up of various links, essays, poems, and artworks arising out of the psalm; here's Achat Sha'alti, a musical setting of part of the psalm.)


Sufficient. "Enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end," says Merriam-Webster. "Adequate for the purpose; enough," says On the surface the term speaks of having what one needs, but underneath there's often a hint of perceived lack. Don't we want more than mere sufficiency?

Just "enough" sounds like it might imply scarcity. We want more than enough. More food on our plates, more shiny toys in our possession, more clothing in our closets. In the way we see ourselves, too, there can be the drive for more-than-enough. We hold ourselves to impossible standards, afraid that if we are just "enough," we're not doing all that we can or all that we should. There's a way in which "enough" doesn't feel like -- well, enough.

During this month of Elul, as the Days of Awe come hurtling toward us at light speed, I'm working on cultivating my sense that what I am, what I bring, is enough. Even if I'm not living up to some imagined super-mom ideal, the love and attention I bring to my son are enough. Even if our high holiday services aren't exactly perfect for everyone who attends, the love and attention I bring to the community are enough.

Enough doesn't have to imply "just barely." What if we embraced the sense that we're living up to everything we need to be? What if we replaced the word "enough" with "plenty:" what I'm doing is plenty; what we have is plenty; there's plenty to go around? What if "enough" connoted abundance, all our needs met and our wants fulfilled?

I found my way this morning to I Am Enough: a self-kindness collaborative. Here's the first post, from Tracey Clark, which explains how the collaborative came to be (and which also features a truly stunning image by Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.) The stories posted there are simple, direct, and moving. They're also all written by women, which makes sense to me; women often swallow a lifelong diet of subtle pressure to be more, to do more, to see ourselves as perennially not-enough. I know that men struggle with this too. And we don't have to.

Seeing ourselves as enough is a radical act. During this season of teshuvah, as we aspire to repair our broken relationships with ourselves, with others, with the world, with God, this is one place we might choose to begin. What would it feel like to know that we are enough?

On compassion (inspired by Dr. Dan Gottlieb)

I'd never read anything by Dr. Dan Gottlieb when one of my friends pointed me to his essay Lessons From a Wheelchair: Treat Your Body With Compassion this morning.

Gottlieb has been in a wheelchair for thirty years, paralyzed from the waist down. Several months ago, a recent accident on a ramp (which ended in an invisible stair) led him to fall, landing on his neck. Since that accident, he's lost more functionality and he's been in great pain. This essay chronicles the accident, his responses to it (including despair), and eventually his shift into a place of feeling compassion for his body and its suffering.

It's a remarkable essay, not because it chronicles such a riveting story but because of the simple acceptance and kindness it shows. My own health struggles have been infinitely less dramatic than Gottlieb's, but even so, my relationship with my body isn't always what I wish it were. My body isn't always what I wish it were! And it's so easy to get hung up on feeling frustrated by my body's limitations, or to fall into the habit of running my body ragged and not taking good enough care of myself.

Gottlieb's essay inspires me. Faced with physical trauma I can't begin to imagine, he finds his way to a place of feeling blessed by love and relating to his own body with compassion. This is the kind of profound existential shift which I hope that my prayer life (including my meditation practice) can help me achieve. This is, I think, a kind of teshuvah, a turning or re-turning to orient oneself in the direction of holiness and connection with God. When I can relate to my body, mind, and spirit with compassion, I am more able to experience God's presence in my life.

(Two other essays by Dan Gottlieb which I just read which have moved me profoundly: How I Know That Listening Is an Act of Love, about his accident and the act of listening which helped him move toward recovery, and Life Lessons We Learn From Our Children, about the sense of wonder that he's learned from his autistic grandson.)

In Jewish tradition God is often depicted as containing the paired qualities of judgement and compassion, din and rachamim. These are big themes during the upcoming Days of Awe. We understand God as the One Who judges us, and also as the One Who is compassionate toward us. We're created, Torah teaches, in the image and likeness of the divine; maybe it's not surprising that we relate to ourselves, and to each other, with judgement and with compassion, too.

It's easy to judge, and to find others -- and our own selves -- lacking. How might our lives change if we made a conscious effort, this month and every month, to relate to ourselves and to others with compassion instead? Try going a whole day without judging your body: don't knock yourself, don't look in the mirror and criticize what you see, don't get angry with your body if something hurts or if something isn't working; just cultivate compassion for your body.

The body is a good place to start. It's the physical house in which we each live, and I'm not sure I've ever known anyone who had an entirely uncomplicated relationship with their body. But once you can feel compassion for your body, how about cultivating compassion for your heart, and for your mind, and for your soul? What would that even feel like, replacing the constant mental narrative of judgement with deep compassion for ourselves and for others?

If we understand God as the source of both compassion and judgement, maybe cultivating our own compassion is a way to cultivate God's compassion. It could be what the kabbalists call "arousal from below" -- when we arouse our compassion here in the world where we live, we awaken and enflame God's compassion from on high. Or, maybe when we ourselves are more judgemental, we experience God as a harsh judge, but when we are more compassionate, we experience God as more compassionate too.

Powerful stuff for this moment in the Jewish spiritual year. Thanks, Dr. Dan.

New Year's Card 5772 / 2011

Each year I write a new poem which relates somehow to the Days of Awe, and share it as a new year's card with friends and family during Elul. (All of my new year's poems, from 2003-2011, are available here.)

Two years ago, my poem arose in part out of the experience of pregnancy; last year's new year's card featured a poem arising in part out of the experiene of breastfeeding. (If you click on that link, you can also find my poem translated into Hebrew by my friend Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn.)

This year's poem/photo card -- which continues the trend of drawing on parenting metaphors! -- appears below. I wish all who read this a happy and healthy new year!


Right here, right now: a poem of preparation



Early evening, the rains
finally over and gone
I take my son outside
and point out the rising moon
almost full, the lunar month
halfway past. From his vantage
the best part
is our fluffy white cat
perched on the railing
close enough to touch.
I'm thinking about
the Days of Awe: who's
our shofar-blower this year,
what have I forgotten to print,
gotta get that suit from the cleaners
but he's my Buddha, always
right here, right now.
My son knows how to let go
and laugh, wholly lifted.
I don't need to roll up my sleeves
and scrub my soul with a toothbrush.
Return happens in an instant
as soon as I release myself
and climb back
into God's arms.

This morning at meditation I offered our group the mantra I learned from Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries years ago: right here, right now. It's a powerful exercise for me in these hectic weeks at the start of the school year as the Days of Awe approach. Breathing in: right here. Breathing out: right now. Whatever arises in my mind from yesterday or last year or ten minutes ago, whatever comes bubbling up in anticipation of tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, just let it float away. Right here, right now. That's where teshuvah happens.

The idea of teshuvah as something which happens in an instant was raised for me by a recent post from Reb Jeff. I feel like my son is reminding me of the same deep truth. For all that I resonate with the notion of teshuvah as a practice of the internal work of discernment which is the appropriate focus for these weeks in our calendar year, there's also value in the notion of teshuvah as an instant existential leap.

I was feeling guilty earlier today that I haven't made more time lately for poetry, and then this poem came knocking at the interior of my consciousness. It's an early draft; I imagine it will change eventually. But I'm sharing it here in hopes of spurring myself to keep creating, and in hopes that it might speak to some of you.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur...and of every night.

During a conversation in my Sage-ing class about our responses to the Heschel piece that I wrote about last week, I had a realization that I think might deepen my experience of Yom Kippur. One of the repeated elements of our Yom Kippur liturgy is the vidui, the confessional prayer. We say it in each of the services on that day; it takes the form of an alphabetical acrostic of sins, recited in the plural. (Here's a good translation, with classical commentary, courtesy of Jonathan Baker.)

There's also a deathbed vidui, a confessional prayer said when one is dying. (The text of this traditional prayer is more personal than the vidui we recite on Yom Kippur, but both prayers are called a vidui, and they have themes in common.) Some who have encountered the experience of being with a loved one at the moment of death might link that vidui mentally and spiritually with the one we recite on Yom Kippur.

But Reb Nadya reminded us, in class, that the vidui is also part of the daily liturgy of the bedtime shema. (It's also part of the daily liturgy of penitential prayers called tachanun.) I wrote a little bit about the bedtime shema in a post about the angel song I sing sometimes to Drew; here's a solid introduction to the bedtime Shema at Chabad, and here's the text of the bedtime shema in English.

I think the vidui of Yom Kippur -- and for that matter the vidui before death -- would take on a different tone if we were accustomed to praying it (or something very like it) each night before going to sleep. If each night we tried to make teshuvah, to recognize where we've missed the mark and to release the karmic baggage of our own misdeeds and the misdeeds of others, then the work of making teshuvah during Elul and the Days of Awe would be an entirely different thing.

Here's the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which I keep at my bedside.

Bedtime Prayer of Forgiveness

You, My Eternal Friend,
Witness that I forgive anyone
who hurt or upset me or offended me -
damaging my body, my property,
my reputation or people that I love;
whether by accident or willfully,
carelessly or purposely,
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes;
in this lifetime or another incarnation -
I forgive every person,
May no one be punished because of me.
Help me, Eternal Friend,
to keep from offending You and others.
Help me to be thoughtful
and not commit outrage,
by doing what is evil in Your eyes.
Whatever sins I have committed,
blot out please, in Your abundant kindness
and spare me suffering or harmful illnesses.
Hear the words of my mouth and
may the meditations of my heart
find acceptance before You, Eternal Friend
Who protects and frees me. Amen.

(Rendered from the Hebrew by R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; reprinted with permission of the Spiritual Eldering Institute.)

How might our experience of the Days of Awe (and our experience of going to sleep and waking each night and morning, for that matter) change if we tried to take on the practice of saying this prayer -- or something like it -- every night before sleep?

Hurricane relief update

Dear Velveteen Rabbi readers and friends: what follows below is a version of the email I'm sending to members of my congregational community this morning. I know that most of you who read this blog are not local; I'm sharing this information here in case any of you happen to be able to donate in support of those in my community who are most in need.

I met this morning with the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Clergy group to discuss our continuing efforts to support those in our community who were displaced by Hurricane Irene last week. We've hired Robin Lenz to coordinate local disaster relief and to help our aid (clothing, food, money, housing) reach those who are dispossessed. Robin, who is working out of the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, can be reached via phone at 413-458-4273, and via email at robinlenz (at) rocketmail (dot) com; if you want to donate gift cards (Stop n'Shop, Walmart, Rite Aid) or if you want to volunteer your time to help Spruces residents, she's the person to contact.

The most dire need is housing. The 300+ residents at the Spruces are still paying their utilities, rent, and other expenses at the trailer park, even though no one can get back in to their trailers and many of the trailers have been condemned. Current estimates from FEMA are that 70% of the residents will not be able to return for some time -- perhaps ever. Right now the interfaith clergy group is putting people up at several area motels. Hopefully FEMA checks will start arriving soon for emergency housing, directly into the checking account of each of the displaced folks. Meanwhile, we're exploring the longer-term questions of housing for the refugees. It will likely be necessary to house these folks for the winter and we're not yet sure where or how that will happen.

Food is also needed. The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Clergy group is planning to begin offering a weekly community meal (on Sunday evenings) to the Spruces community so that they may be sustained both by the food and by the togetherness. If you would like to be part of these efforts, the person to reach out to is Peter Daniels at First Baptist Church - peterdaniels (at) mac (dot) com. (For now, the dinners will be at First Baptist Church on Thomas Street in Williamstown, with seatings at 5 and at 6pm.)

If you want your tzedakah to take the form of a monetary donation, I recommend sending it to one of the following two places:

Community Fund for the Spruces
Williamstown Savings Bank
795 Main Street, Williamstown MA 01267

Spruces Tenants Association
memo: disaster relief
c/o South Adams Savings Bank
273 Main St., Williamstown MA 01267

I've been tasked with thinking about the big-picture issues: affordable housing for seniors in our community, what is the town already doing and what's not yet being done, what else might be the longterm needs of these residents (donated legal time to help them navigate their situation? what else?) If any of you would like to help me think through these questions, please let me know.

The Days of Awe are fast approaching. This is the season of teshuvah, of re/turning to God, of doing what we can to ensure that our lives are aligned with holiness. A lot of people in our community still need our help. May we each find blessing in helping as much as, and however, we are able.


Pulped tomatoes; peaches under vodka.

My fingers are slightly scalded. I was too eager to pulp the blanched tomatoes; once their skins split in the cold water, I wanted to squeeze their gushy insides into the pot too fast. I should have let them rest. I'm nursing a cold drink now not only because I'm thirsty, but because it feels good on my fingertips.

Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend. Drew is, thankfully, asleep. I have two tasks at hand. First a bag of local peaches, bright and rosy, goes into the boiling water to blanch; now the skinned fruits, cut into dice, are adding their color and their flavor to an infuser of vodka. When we sip it in deep midwinter, we'll marvel at the way it brings back late summer's sticky heat.

And the tomatoes! Ethan brought home a bucket of heirloom tomatoes from Caretaker Farm on Friday. We spread the tomatoes out on our dining room table to ripen for a few more days, and tonight after Drew's bedtime I blanch and skin and pulp them. Five quarts of tomato pulp grace our chest freezer now, waiting.

I've lived in New England for 19 years now, but I'm not a native. I was born and reared in south Texas, where summer won't end for a long time yet. My parents are still enduring near-100-degree days -- while here, even on a relatively hot and sticky early September night, my son needs long-sleeved pyjamas. Part of what makes northern summer so sweet is that it is so brief. We love it because we know it isn't going to last forever. Having just read R' Heschel on death, with two funerals in recent memory, I'm conscious right now that it isn't just summer which inevitably ends.

Being who I am, I can't help linking all of this with this moment in the Jewish seasonal calendar. Elul: the month of walking in the fields with the divine Beloved. Elul: the month of intensifying the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re/turning toward God. Tonight I processed some of the season's literal harvest; what metaphorical and spiritual harvest will I gather in when we reach Sukkot at the end of this festival season? A few of my fingertips are tight and painful because my desire to dive in to the work at hand was too ardent; I didn't want to wait for the fruits to cool. Is my ardor for teshuvah, my ardor for connecting with God, that strong?

Where I live, everything is lush now. The goldenrod is bright and blooming. The trees are full, majestic in their dark green summer robes. Farmstands are practically giving away corn, peaches, tomatoes -- the fruits of our land at this time of year. But this morning I saw apples at a farmstand, too: apples which speak to me of autumn, of the turning year, of dipping in honey for Rosh Hashanah. The first early red and yellow leaves are beginning to turn.

We, too, are beginning to turn. Toward God; toward harvesting the fruits of the year now ending; toward the horizon where the darkening sky begins to draw autumn's cloak up and over creation. What of this summer will we preserve, in our spirits and in our hearts? With what memories will we feed ourselves when winter lashes at the windows? What is the spiritual harvest of this season for you?