Sufi calligraphy; image borrowed from Rumi Online.
You could be forgiven for imagining that all my rabbinic community does, when we get together, is pray. It's not true, of course. The Ohalah conference includes all sorts of plenary sessions and workshops. Also we schmooze, study together, break bread together, laugh and cry together. (Just within the first 24 hours of this year's conference, I got to study the halakhot of menschlichkeit with Reb Sami, to attend a tikkun olam committee meeting, and to pore happily over Rosensweig and Levinas with Reb Laura.) But the prayer is often a particular treat for me. I have other opportunities in my life for schmoozing and studying, but not always for encountering creative approaches to prayer.
Yesterday morning I attended a really beautiful service led by my friend Rabbi Ed Stafman -- a service in which each of the prayers of the morning liturgy was paired with a poem by Persian mystic poet Rumi. It was amazing. Reb Ed chose the Rumi poems so that each would illuminate a particular prayer or line of prayer. Some of the poems he chose were old favorites of mine; others were new to me. Many of them took my breath away, both as poems qua poems and as ways of expressing the ideas and themes I find in our liturgy.
I love the way that these poems offer me new understandings of the liturgy I know so well. And they're beautiful poems, too; they're excellent on their own. But used in this way, as lenses through which to read the traditional prayers, they open the liturgy for me in new ways.
Here's one of my favorites from that service. This is the Rumi poem which R' Ed paired with the blessing for peace which comes at the end of the amidah. (The translation is by Coleman Barks.)
Every war and every conflict
between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.
It is such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship
set and waiting for us to sit down.
What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks a little different
on this wall than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still the same light.
We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light, and when we praise,
we are pouring them back in.
I love this poem, especially the idea that "what is praised is one, so the praise is one too, / many jugs being poured into a huge basin." And I also love it as a mirror for the Sim Shalom blessing, which asks God to grant peace (and also goodness, blessing, grace, lovingkindness, and compassion) to us and to our community and our people.
This is exactly the kind of thing which draws me back to Ohalah each year: not only the chance to pray and learn and laugh and sing and dine with dear friends, but also the chance to be enlivened by new ideas which I never would have imagined had I not come. I'm already planning a Rumi-based service for the congregation I serve. (It will be on May 5; if you're in or near Western Massachusetts, do join us.)