Recapturing a family tradition
A blessing for the new year, from Reverend Howard Thurman

Top ten (prose) posts of 2011

Every year I post a round-up of my ten favorite prose posts -- here's the 2010 edition. (Some years I also post a list of my ten favorite poetry posts, though I'm not sure I'm going to manage that this year.) It's always fun, as the calendar year winds down, to look back over what I've written and where this blog has taken me.

Perhaps not surprisingly, none of my posts about politics or current events (either in the US or in the Middle East) made the cut. It's interesting; whenever something major is unfolding I feel the burning need to comment on it, but as months or years go by, those posts don't stick in my mind, and upon rereading they often feel mired in their original moment. Or maybe I'm just more inclined to see my more spiritual work as timeless. Who knows.

Anyway: with no further ado, here are my ten favorites posts from 2011! Here's to 2012.

  • Three scenes from the day of my smicha. And then the ten of us sit in a circle facing outwards, with another ring of chairs facing us, and one by one, our teachers take turns sitting in the chairs which face us and they give us blessings. My teachers bless me with savlanut (patience), with the ability to balance the rabbinate and motherhood, with the awareness that it's always okay to put my family first. My teachers bless my ability to write, and also bless me that I might be aware that sometimes the writing is a safety net because words come so easily to me. They say extraordinary things about who they understand me to be and who they understand me to be becoming. I am blown away. Again and again my cup overflows. One teacher blesses me with words about the smicha of Moshe and the rabbis of the great assembly, placing hands on my shoulders, and I weep.

  • This is spiritual life. There's no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn't just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly -- as delicious as that is! Those of us who've had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn't "who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer" -- it's "who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?"

  • Tasks which have no limit. A funeral needs to happen when it needs to happen, regardless of whether or not it's "convenient" -- just as a child needs to eat, or nap, or be held, or be entertained at the moment when the child needs those things. (Older children's needs can, I know, be shifted somewhat...but that largely hasn't been my experience of parenthood yet.) Funerals can be painful, messy, inconvenient just as children can. It can be difficult, I am learning, for a rabbi-mama to simultaneously navigate the needs of mourners and the needs of a child.

  • A Passover letter to my son. Will you grow up in love with liturgy, as I did? I have no idea. You will become whoever you become. I do hope that you will come to cherish this holiday, this season when we retell the story of how our people came to be a people, how we were lifted out of slavery and constriction by God's mighty hand and outstretched arm. How it is possible that even though this is a once-upon-a-time story, it happened to each of us -- it happens to each of us even now. I hope you'll thrill to the songs and the flavors as each year's new spring unfolds. I hope you'll ponder the question of what it means to be free.

  • A sermon in poetry for parashat B'ha-alot'kha. This week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha, begins with the instruction to kindle seven lamps in the portable Tabernacle. The Torah is filled with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled among us. Of course, even if the mishkan's construction is a historical reality rather than a spiritual and literary one, centuries have passed since it was built. What can this verse about a golden lampstand tell us about our spiritual lives today? When I look at the verse through the prism of poetry, I find metaphors which hold meaning.

  • Seeking and finding (six more glimpses of Kallah). A glorious morning service out on the big quad. The air is cool at this hour and I relish my tallit wrapped around my shoulders. The davenen is led by two of my ALEPH chevre, both cantorial students, and the singing is wonderful: just the right balance between beloved melodies and classical nusach. I realize, at the end of the service, that I ought to have recorded it so I could sing along with it when I daven at home -- but I didn't think of that in time; it can only be what it was, a beautiful hour of prayer which arose and then disappeared like a sand mandala after a wind.

  • This year's wrestle with Tisha b'Av. During most of the year, I explicitly reject the victim mentality which looks at history through the lens of all of the awful things which have happened to us... but I've come to think that there may be value, once a year, in sitting with our painful history. Maybe if we go deep into these narratives today, we can free ourselves from the need to carry them with us every day as we live in the world. Maybe we need a day when we remember our collective traumas, from the Babylonians to the Romans to the Crusades, so that having immersed in those stories we can make the conscious choice to shape our narratives and to understand our place in the world differently.

  • Earth and pine. The fresh scents of newly-turned earth and sweet unfinished pine might connote a construction site, a place where new dreams are being built. I think of the ground opening up to hold a new structure, scaffolding rising into the waiting sky. But these are equally the scent of a Jewish funeral in summertime, when the earth is warm enough to be fragrant as it is opened to receive. The plain pine box in which Jews are traditionally buried has a woodsy scent which rises on the summer air, and the earth smells like new furrows, like farmland, like something precious enough to cradle in our own bare hands.

  • On compassion (inspired by Dr. Dan Gottlieb). 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.
  • A call for kindness during Kislev. Here is what I have to offer: be kind to yourself during these days. // Pay attention to what your body is saying, to what your heart is saying, to the places where your mind gets tied in knots. What are the stories you tell yourself about this time of year? What are the old hurts to which you can't help returning, what are the old joys which you can't help anticipating? Listen to your body, which is your oldest and dearest companion, and be gentle to it.