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My first video vort: on the bedtime shema

One of the things we did together at the second meeting of my Rabbis Without Borders fellows cohort was work together, in small groups, on making video vorts. "Vort" is the Yiddish word for "word;" a vort, in this context, is a word of Torah, a wee spoken-word teaching.

I haven't experimented with video. The other social media we'd been talking about -- twitter, Facebook, etc -- are pretty solidly in my wheelhouse, but video is a new one for me. And it turned out to be fun. Maybe because we were doing it together, as friends and colleagues, and all of us were stretching ourselves in one way or another.

Several of us showed our videos to our cohort, and talked about them -- who we thought the audience of each one was meant to be, what worked and what we could do better next time, etc.  Showing my video to my cohort emboldened me, so I decided to share it here, too, even though it isn't perfect.

Embedded below: Two minutes of me talking about one of my favorite mitzvot, the bedtime shema. I describe the mitzvah, explain how it manifests in my life, and talk about how I know when it's working.

If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can watch the video here at YouTube. Let me know what you think: is this a useful way for me to share occasional very short teachings here?


Rabbis Without Borders: Who is your Torah for?

800px-Hebrew_Sefer_Torah_Scroll_side_viewThe last couple of days I've been at the second meeting of my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. It's been grand to see everyone again. One theme of our session was the rabbinate and expanding technology -- social media, its uses and misuses, who is our audience and how can we serve them, etc. I enjoyed the session with Allison Fine, author of The Networked Nonprofit; she had smart things to say. But as someone who's been active online for 20 years, and active in the Jewish blogosphere for almost a decade, I think I came to that conversation with a relatively high level of competency. So I was more excited about the other learning we did together.

For me one central question of the session came from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: who is your Torah for? Over the course of his session, he said several things which resonated with me. He urged us to try to live in a way which acknowledges the need for walls, but keeps the walls lowered as much as we can bear. ("Walls keep us safe," he agreed, "but they can also become prisons.") He exhorted us to live in a mindset of abundance. To recognize that the spiritual and the material are always interconnected. To strive to live in a spirit of both/and rather than either/or -- and to bring the same compassionate both/and response to ourselves that we bring to the world.

We studied a short text from Talmud (tractate Avodah Zarah 2b-3a) about the question of for whom the Torah was meant. And R' Brad noted the fairly remarkable truth that although that text was written during a time when Jews were tremendously persecuted (and by and large had a lot of understandable anger and anxiety around that), the Talmud still presumes that the Torah is not ours alone, that access to God is not ours alone, and that anyone who studies Torah (in the language of the text, even an idolater) is as elevated as the high priest. Here are a few of the gems from that Torah study which I tweeted as it was happening:

The most iconic Jewish text we have (Talmud) was written not in Hebrew but the English of its moment: Aramaic.

Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2b-3a) teaches: there's no boundary b/w Torah and the peoples of the world. ALL of them.

In my wished-for world, the full dignity of the ultimate outsider is affirmed along with the full dignity of the full insider.

I think it's easy for people today who don't have familiarity with Aramaic to feel as though the Talmud is a kind of walled garden -- a Jewish treasure to which they don't have access. But R' Brad reminds us that Talmud was written in the vernacular of its day; it was meant to be accessible. It wasn't an ivory tower text designed only for the insiders. Beyond that, there's a thread in our texts, if we are willing to look for it and follow it, which reminds us that the wisdom we've been blessed to receive is not ours alone. This is the kind of post-triumphalism which drew me to Jewish Renewal, and which I also find in Rabbis Without Borders/Clal. R' Brad continued:

Of course you teach the Torah you most need. But it doesn't end there.

The unfolding #Torah of our lives is also a sacred text.

I "use Jewish" to serve people. That's who my #Torah is for.

The idea that we teach the Torah we most need to learn is one which was already very close to our hearts. And so is the idea that the unfolding Torah of our lives is a sacred text -- different from the written Torah we find in our libraries, but also holy. And the idea of "using Jewish" to serve people -- bringing Jewish wisdom, Jewish tools, to bear on the work of serving God and serving humanity -- is also close to my heart. We were all asked to ponder, and to answer, the question of "who is my Torah for?" As soon as I heard the question, my answer arose in me.

Glass-of-waterMy Torah is for anyone who is thirsty. Anyone who's thirsty for connection, for community, for God. Anyone who wants to make their lives holy or to become more conscious of the holiness in the everyday. Anyone who wants access to the rich toolbox of Jewish wisdom and traditions and ideas which I am blessed to have as my yerusha, my inheritance.

And then I thought: that would have been my answer ten years ago when I started this blog, too. I started writing VR for anyone who was thirsty, as I was, for connection with God and with tradition. Maybe especially for those who felt marginalized, who didn't perceive that they had a place at the table but yearned to be welcomed in.

That in turn raises the question for me: has that changed? Should it have changed? In the last ten years I've gone from being an aspirant to being, thank God, an ordained rabbi. I've gone from being someone who felt that I was outside-looking-in to being someone who feels blessed to have access to these incredible riches of tradition.

But I think my answer is actually still the same as it was. Maybe this is integral to who I am. My Torah is for anyone who yearns. I have better access now to the tools my tradition gives me for helping to connect people with meaning, to connect people with God. But I still want my Torah to be for anyone who's thirsty. "Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are needy, come and celebrate the Passover with us." That message from the Passover haggadah has long been one of my favorite things; and I think it shaped me more than I know. My Torah is for you who are reading this, whenever this is, whoever you are.


To shame someone is to shed their blood

תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים.

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

-- Babylonian Talmud, Baba Mezia 58b

Someone who embarrasses another person in public causes their face to turn paler (הלבין את פניו / hilbin et panav) as the blood drains away. When you shame someone, the Talmud says, it's tantamount to wounding them and shedding their blood. But online, we can't see one another's faces. If someone's blog comment or email causes the blood to drain from my face in shame or in sorrow, they don't know that; they can't see me. What -- asked one of my colleagues at the Rabbis Without Borders fellows meeting -- might be the new Gemara of how we should interact with one another in this online world?

This is something I've thought about. I've been blogging here since October of 2003, so almost ten years. And for the most part, my efforts to create and foster a kind and thoughtful community of conversation have been successful. I'm endlessly grateful to all of y'all who have contributed to those conversations over the years! But I've also been verbally attacked for things I've posted here. (And I'm not even going to link to things like the so-called Self Hating Israel Terrorists list -- whose name is such a delightful acronym -- and the things they say about people with whom they disagree.)

One of my dear friends and teachers, Rabbi Sami Barth, has a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his email signature and on his website. The quote is this: "When I was young I admired clever people; now that I am older I admire kind people." I'm right there with him on that one. Cleverness may be impressive, and there have been times in my life when I have wanted to be clever and to be admired for that, but these days kindness is what I really aspire to. And I like to spend my time in places, both online and off, where that value prevails.

But there's no discounting the reality that there are a lot of places on the internet where kindness and compassion don't seem to be the operating principles. I expect that anyone who has a blog has experienced some nastiness. And often it's the kind of nastiness that (I hope) perfect strangers would never choose to direct at someone in person. (See the xkcd cartoon Listen to Yourself.) But why, then, do they feel entitled to direct it at them via the internet? By what ethic is meanness an appropriate way to treat someone?

One of my colleagues, Rabbi Harry Brechner, suggests the following rubric. Before posting or sending anything, ask yourself: is it true? is it kind? is it important? He suggests that one should be certain that at least two of the three can be answered with "yes" before putting it out there.

As far as I'm concerned, the Talmudic teaching from Bava Metzia -- that someone who shames another person, it is as though they have spilled blood -- is every bit as true online as offline. A blog is a public space. When someone comes to my blog and insults me, or my teachers, or my teachings, or my values there, it is as though that person had shamed me in public. Because they have.

Being insulted or shamed in person and being insulted or shamed online feel quite similar. The blood drains out of the face, the heart pounds in the chest, tears hammer at the back of the eyes, a painful knot forms in the throat in exactly the same way, regardless of whether it's happening in the public square or on a blog. Beyond that: something cruel or shaming, once posted on the internet, is often persistent. It's searchable. It stays there.

I keep coming back to R' Harry Brechner's threefold communication rule: is it true? is it kind? is it important?

The things we write online feel important to us. And surely most of us say things we think are true. (I could argue with the veracity of some of those things -- so much depends on one's sources, what one reads, who one believes -- but I'm willing to give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they post things they perceive to be true.) But I wish kindness were more often at the forefront of our consciousness.

For me, any evolving Gemara which takes the internet and social media into account needs to recognize that interactions between people online are still interactions between people. The way we treat each other online needs to be as compassionate, and as rooted in holiness and in Torah, as the way we would treat each other anywhere.


VR at Reform Judaism and at Ritualwell

My thanks go to the editors at the Reform Judaism blog for reprinting my post Every body is a reflection of God. I serve a Reform shul and I'm delighted to have that post circulating to the broad Reform community.

And my thanks are also due to the editors at Ritualwell, who asked me to write a short essay about miscarriage, spirituality, and ritual. It's here: Through (Ritualwell). Here's how it begins:

Some years ago I flew to Colorado for OHALAH, the annual gathering of Jewish Renewal clergy and student clergy, carrying a dazzling secret: I was newly-pregnant. When I danced at kabbalat Shabbat services, I was already imagining what it would be like to bring an infant with me the following year. And then I went to bed feeling uneasy with cramps, and woke to blood everywhere.

That Shabbat was endless, and it was awful. What I remember most about that terrible day was the way that—as word spread—woman after woman came up to me to tell me it had happened to her, too. I had unknowingly joined a club of which many of my friends and teachers were already members. Once, twice, three times … Each of them had stories to tell, and though they could not offer healing, there was comfort in knowing that I was not alone—that so many other women carried this invisible scar.

You can read the whole thing at Ritualwell, along with a variety of other resources for pregnancy loss. They also linked to my free chapbook of miscarriage poems, Through. Thanks, Ritualwell editors. May all who suffer that grief find comfort, speedily and soon.


A melody before the seder's cups of wine

הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָּן לְקַיֵּם מִצְוַת כּוֹס רִאשׁוֹנָה מֵאַרְבַּע כּוֹסוֹת לְשֵׁם יִחוּד קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא וּשְׁכִינְתֵּיהּ.

Hin'ni muchan u-m'zuman l'kayem mitzvat kos rishonah m'arbah cosot l'shem yichud kudsha brich hu u-schinteh.

May my consumption of this first of four cups of wine create healing, effecting a unification between the Holy Blessed One and Shekhinah, God far beyond & God deep within.

That text appears in both of the current editions of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach (the 48-page version and the 82-page version) -- with the obvious changes ("first of four cups" becomes "second," "third," then "fourth") -- before each of the seder's prescribed cups of wine.

The formula which invites one to perform a mitzvah for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed One and the Shekhinah (לשם יחוד קודשא בריך הוא ושכינתיה) appears in a variety of places in traditional Jewish practice. Some say those words before putting on tefillin, or before counting the Omer. The Baal Shem Tov urged his followers to say those words before doing any mitzvah. I like to say them before each of the seder's four cups of wine.

When we read this little pre-prayer intention before each cup of wine, we invest our consumption with the hope that as we bless and drink, we will be able to effect a unification between the Kadosh Baruch Hu and the Shekhinah. Between the transcendent aspect of God which is beyond our ken, and the immanent aspect of God which is embodied in creation. Between divinity we can scarcely begin to comprehend, and divinity we experience in our daily lives.

These words presume that mitzvot have meaning, and that when we do them mindfully and with a whole heart, we have the capacity to impact the very being of God.

In recent years I've been aware of wanting some way to really enter into this prayer before each of the seder's four glasses of wine. And aware, too, that while the kabbalistic language speaks to me, these concepts may be strange or unfamiliar for many seder-goers. I'm not sure that pausing the seder and offering further discursive explanations actually serves the purpose of helping people enter into this practice.

Enter melody.

HineniMuchanNiggun

 

I'm not a songwriter, so I was surprised when this chord progression and this simple melody came to me. But I was casting about for some way of making this small prayer more accessible, and the melody arose. So I said thank-you for it, and I recorded it in three ways: as a niggun (above), as a song (intended to be sung before the first time this kabbalistic formula is recited), and in a shortened version which leads right into the blessing over wine. Here's the song:

HineniMuchan

 

And here's the version which uses only the first few words (הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָּן) and then moves into the blessing over wine.

HineniMuchan-BoreiPri


If this practice speaks to you, and if this melody speaks to you, feel free to make use of them in your seder(s). The first seder is four weeks from tonight! I want to be attentive to what quickens in me as this festival approaches. Behold: I am ready...

 


70 faces reading in Northampton

For those who are interested in more information about the Torah poetry reading, and the Torah poetry workshop, I'll be doing at CBI Northampton in a couple of weekends, here's a flyer created by the folks at CBI -- feel free to download and to share!

Rachel-Reading-Flyer
Here's the flyer for download:  Rachel.pdf

Hope to see some of y'all there!


Happy Purim / חג פורים שמח!

Drew at CBI me as McGonagall

 

We had a sweet little Purim shindig at my shul tonight. A few folks decorated masks beforehand with the markers and stickers which Drew and I had purchased at the art supply store. Then we all adjourned into the sanctuary for our Purim Spiel, ably written and directed by my friend David Lane.

I chanted a handful of verses from the megillah, and our Purim players retold the Purim story in fine style. Then we adjourned for hamentaschen (and tiny cupcakes, Drew's favorite) and, for the adults, a few celebratory nips of slivovitz. And then I brought Drew home while the party was still going on, because it was already well past his bedtime.

I came home to a beautiful Purim poem by my friend Kate Abbott. It's called Mordechai -- scroll down to reach the poem on that page. I love her imaginative insights into what it might have been like for Mordechai to rear the orphan Esther.

Whatever your Purim may hold, I wish you ora v'simcha, light and joy.

 

Professor MacGonagall and her son say: Happy Purim to all!

 


For more images from our Purim celebration, don't miss the Purim, 13 photoset at my congregation's Flickr account.

(The individual photos, above, are from that photoset, and were taken by Len Radin -- thanks, Len! The one of Drew and me is a cameraphone photo, but I love it anyway.)


Rehab

What moves me, right away, is the gentleness. They're standing a few feet apart, two adults younger than I am, each of them coaching someone elderly. They help them rise from their wheelchairs, stand with relative stability, and toss a bright plastic ball back and forth, back and forth. Each of the patients wears a wide striped belt for the therapist to hold onto.

After the game of catch, they work with cones. Each plastic cone is slightly smaller than a soda can, and each is a different vivid color, red and green and yellow and blue. Each physical therapist holds a cone somewhere just out of reach, and prompts their patient to reach for it, to stretch or bend as needed, and then to hand it to her or his counterpart. Back and forth.

Afterward I chat with the woman I am there to visit. She praises the physical therapists: they're young, she agrees, but they know what they're doing. She tells me that she's gotten to know everyone there, at least enough to greet them and say hello. And when someone is in really bad shape, she says, and they manage something they hadn't been able to do -- that's inspiring.

It has the feel of a kind of strange private club, though not a club anyone particularly wants to join. Its accoutrements are so determinedly cheerful they remind me of preschool. My son would love the mats, the cones, the ball. I wonder how many of the people there wrestle with frustration at needing to practice things like balance, or grasping, or bending down.

What fragile things these bodies can be. Thin skin and delicate bones and so many places that can hurt. I want to bless the hands and heart of every doctor and nurse, every physical therapist, every orderly. Afterwards I take myself out for a quick Chinese lunch. I warm my hands on a teacup. I whisper prayers into my tea.

 

 


70 faces events at CBI Northampton

70FacesSmall

On March 9 and 10 I'm doing two special events at CBI Northampton -- a congregation which shares a name with my shul in North Adams, but is located some 75 minutes away in a college town in the Pioneer Valley.

On Shabbat morning at 12:30pm -- after Shabbat morning services -- I'll give a reading from 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) in the synagogue library. I'll share some poems from the collection, as well as some remarks about how the collection came into being and how I see it as part of an extended tradition of creative responses to Torah. I have a few poems I always like to read at an event like this one, and I'll definitely share the poem for the Torah portion of that week, but I'm also open to share poems which arise out of other parshiyot if people have requests.

And on Sunday morning at 9:45am, I'll be teaching a Torah poetry workshop on the stage of the CBI Northampton social hall. We'll begin with some writing exercises to get our creative muscles limbered up, then move into drafting Torah poems of our own (if you have a favorite story in Torah -- or, for that matter, a story which has always troubled / challenged you -- I can guide you through working with that text) and then will share our poems and talk about them in a safe, welcoming space.

This year, CBI Northampton's adult education programs all dovetail with their learning theme for the year, a focus on ecology and the environment -- so in the Torah poems workshop, I'll be inviting us to be attentive not only to the details of the Torah text but also to the ways in which the natural world manifests in the Torah and in our poems.

All are welcome; if you're in the region, please join us!


Purim Pantoum

The king wants to reveal
but Vashti's body is her own.
What if every woman were so uppity?
his courtiers tsk and cluck.

But Vashti's body is her own:
the veil is her comfort.
His courtiers tsk and cluck.
Ladies whisper behind soft hands.

The veil is her comfort
as the palace doors open.
Ladies whisper behind soft hands
a new chapter is unfolding.

As the palace doors open
girls pour in like the sea.
A new chapter is unfolding.
Who will be chosen to serve?

Girls pour in like the sea.
Esther, the bright orphan
who will be chosen to serve
keeps her own counsel.

Esther, the bright orphan --
she piques the king's interest
keeps her own counsel
she knows how to curtsey.

She piques the king's interest
with fine foreign features.
She knows how to curtsey --
no one asks women to bow.

Her fine foreign features
don't mark her as a stranger.
No one asks women to bow
but men have their pride.

Don't mark her as a stranger!
Mordechai stands tall
(men have their pride)
Haman hammers. At his gallows

Mordechai stands tall.
Is this why Esther was chosen?
Haman hammers at his gallows.
She plucks her courage in both hands.

Is this why Esther was chosen?
The invisible hand of God at work?
She plucks her courage in both hands --
Tell the truth of who you are.

The invisible hand of God at work?
The King wants to reveal.
Tell the truth of who you are.
What if every woman were so uppity?


Purim is a topsy-turvy holiday, a holiday of inversions. I wanted to write another Purim poem, and the pantoum -- with its inversions and recontextualizations -- seemed like the perfect form. I welcome questions and/or comments. Enjoy!

 

(Related: Hidden, a poem about Esther, 2011.)


Jews and Words, by Oz-Salzberger and Oz

Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interruptions, debates, and disagreements, and on a unique human rapport. In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.

Ours is not a bloodline but a textline.

9780300156478_custom-88985a10a2804fdcb1c7333db8d5a56344253d02-s2That's the opening of Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. Amos Oz is a novelist whose works are read around the world; he teaches at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. Fania Oz-Salzberger, his daughter, is a writer and history professor at the University of Haifa. Together they have authored a short nonfiction book -- you might think of it as a very long essay in four chapters -- called Jews and Words, which I am just beginning to read.

Thus far I've read the first chapter, out of four, and it's already given me plenty I want to share with y'all.

Oz and Oz-Salzberger identify themselves upfront as secular Jewish Israelis. They unpack that statement into three components: they do not believe in God; Hebrew is their mother tongue; and their Jewish identity is not faith-powered. None of these things is true for me (well -- I'm not sure what's at the deepest root of my Jewish identity, though that identity currently plays out in ways which are integrated with faith) and yet none of our differences get in the way of my finding their writing compelling and beautiful.

And I can't help loving the fact that these two self-identified atheists still begin the book's first chapter, "Continuity," with a quote from the anonymous medieval Sefer Yetzirah. In my general experience, people who toss around ideas from the Sefer Yetzirah tend to be rabbis or kabbalists of some stripe, not self-identified atheists. Then again: what writer, anywhere, could fail to find resonant the idea that the very universe came into being through text, and that the letters of the alphabet are the foundation of all things?

While Abraham argued with God and Moses reiterated God's words, the Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis are in the business of unraveling, elucidating, explaining, and counter-explaining God and Abraham and Moses. Prophecy is mystical, but exegesis is human.

Unraveling, elucidating, explaining and counter-explaining: these acts are central to the whole business of being Jewish. I make this argument every time I teach about midrash -- that in some ways, what makes us Jews is our perennial engagement with these texts and with each others' interpretations of these texts. We weave ourselves into the fabric of tradition when we interact with previous generations' interpretations of the texts with which we still wrestle. (I often make this case alongside a case that fandom operates in a similar way. Fans, like Jews, constitute community through engaging with shared source-texts together, and through responding to one anothers' responses.) Unraveling, elucidating, explaining, and counter-explaining make us who we are.

The Jewish calendar lays down its daily, weekly, monthly, and annually recurring texts. Repetition can drain creativity, for sure, but it also has the strange ability to anchor, nurture, and even surprise. Reiterated lines sometimes beget music[.]

As I continue to interact with our texts on daily and weekly and monthly and annual levels, I recognize that there are moments when the repetition is numbing and moments when the repetition is uplifting and surprising. When I daven the same prayer day after day or week after week, it changes -- sometimes it changes me; sometimes it changes in me. And as far as reiterated lines, or reiterated words, begetting music -- that's exactly what sparked Command (Tzav) and Naked (Acharei Mot). When I open myself to them, the repeated words of our texts "anchor, nurture, and even surprise" me, time after time, year after year.

For Jews, the authors argue, "[d]ebate and dispute are ingrained onto the process of reading." And, they note, from Mishnaic times through the now-vanished world of the Eastern European shtetl, even the poorest Jewish children learned Hebrew from the age of three until thirteen. (Male children, generally, though in wealthier families the girls sometimes learned too. The paradigm shift involved in regarding women as men's intellectual and spiritual equals wasn't much faster in our community than anywhere else in human history.) But the point stands that, by and large, Jewish children have long been taught to read and to engage with texts. Reading, learning, and questioning are at the heart of our tradition.

Some hold that the Torah guards us as long as we guard the Torah, or that Shabbat keeps the Jews healthy and whole when we keep Shabbat in the same way. "Our own take is not radically different," father and daughter write. "What kept the Jews going were the books." Are the books inherently holy, or do we consecrate them through our study? "We hold one answer, and the faithful hold another," they note. (For my own part, I'm inclined to believe both of those stances at the same time.)

[I]f there is any chain at all between Abraham and us, it is made of written words. Like our ancestors, we are texted. And -- if one further liberty with the English language is permitted -- we are texted to our ancestors.

I love this wordplay. We are texted to our ancestors. Yes, indeed.

Here's one more quote to whet your appetite:

There is something singular in the past-gazing creativeness of those multitudes of literate Jews, their cumulative records, and their capacity to keep talking and making sense to each other across vast stretches of time, across languages and across cultures. They are all talking to one another. Like a constant argument at a never-ending Sabbath meal, it is not likeability or like-mindedness that keeps the flame alive; it is the lexicon of great issues and deep familiarities.

This short book is dense. I find that I want to read it in brief bursts and then spend time reflecting on what I have read. I expect that at this pace, it will take me a while to move all the way through it. But I am loving it, so far, and if these themes and subjects matter to you, I commend the book to you as well.


For more:


Every body is a reflection of God

I glance down at my body in the shower, and the first thought that crosses my mind is: oh, there's that little belly that I don't like. And then I make the conscious effort to think a different thought: oh, there's that beautiful belly which grew our son. I can make the shift, but it requires a kind of mental wrenching, pulling my thoughts away from the well-worn groove to channel them in a different direction.

I know that my body is a miracle. (I remind myself of that every day when I say the asher yatzar blessing.) So why does my mind still immediately leap to criticism, instead of praise? To the things I don't like, instead of the things that I love?

It's a cliché to say that this is what mainstream American culture teaches women to do, but I think there's truth in it. We learn to belittle our bodies instead of praising them. To always be striving to be a few pounds thinner, a little bit more like the images we see in fashion magazines. (I know that men wrestle with this too. But I think women get more of these messages than men do.) I don't think that's an emotionally or spiritually healthy way to live.

In her powerful essay Hello, I Am Fat, Lindy West writes, "I have lived in this body my whole life. I have wanted to change this body my whole life." Is there anyone reading this who doesn't feel a twinge of I-can-relate-to-that? I don't want to co-opt Lindy's words or her passion; my body more-or-less fits the norms my society values. But even with this body, I still struggle with the ingrained impulse to belittle. And I'm not alone. Here's fashion blogger Sally McGraw:

I’m a normal woman, in every way. And yet I spend inordinate amounts of energy hating this perfectly normal body. My own and only body...

Dear Body, // I owe you an apology...

I often wish for "more" or "better." Wish my spare tire could vanish, arms could hold muscle tone, hips would slenderize, boobs would enlarge, skin would clear up. My wishlist is long, but it contains items that I feel are quite normal. However, when I wish, I wish for different things than what you can naturally provide for me, and my wishes are insulting to the abundance of goodness you offer me.

That's her post A Letter to My Body - Part 2. Is there anyone reading this who can't relate to the desire for a body which is "more" or "better" instead of the body one actually has?

I want better for us. Not better bodies, but better ways of loving the bodies we have, and better ways of staying mindful of how amazing it is that we have bodies to love. Being who I am, I turn to Jewish tradition for tools I can use in this holy work. The asher yatzar blessing is one. And since I didn't include a translation in my last post about it, I'll offer one here:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God
Who forms the human body with wisdom
And creates within it a miraculous combination
Of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews.
It is known before Your throne of glory
That if one of these were to be open where it should be closed
Or closed where it should be open
We would not be able to stand before you and offer praises.
Blessed are You, Adonai, creator of embodied miracles!

(And if you want a beautiful calligraphic rendering of this prayer in Hebrew, soferet Jen Taylor Friedman offers one as a thank-you gift for those who make a small donation to Pardes.) In the birchot ha-shachar, the traditional morning blessings which are part of our daily liturgy, we bless God Who opens our eyes, makes firm our steps, strengthens the weary, crowns us with splendor. These bodies in which we live offer us endless opportunity for offering blessings.

And Jewish tradition holds that we are all made b'tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. Each of us is a reflection of divinity. What does God look like? Like me. And you. And you. And you. Every single human being who has ever lived and who will ever live is a facet of the divine reflection. Think about that for a moment, and marvel with me.

Every skin color. Every shape and body type. Every expression of gender. Everybody -- and I mean that in its most literal sense, every body -- is a reflection of God. What would it be like if each of us could unlearn the habit of disliking our bodies, and replace it with the mantra this body is a reflection of God, exactly as I am?


In praise of Sundays

cup of coffee

The thing I missed most about American life, the summer I was living in Jerusalem, was Sundays. (The thing I missed second-most was American-style coffee, which is to say, coffee made in a drip coffeepot. I never came to be a fan of Nescafé -- though I'm entertained by Shoshana Kordova's deconstruction of the brand-name into the Hebrew for "miracle coffee.")

The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday, which makes preparing for Shabbat much easier -- you have all day on Friday to do your shopping or cooking, get the house ready, and be in a position to be wholly relaxed and celebratory by the time the sun goes down on Friday night. It's an awesome luxury on a spiritual level. And it's also a practical necessity, since if you're in West Jerusalem -- which is where I was -- pretty much everything is closed on Saturdays, in deference to Shabbat. But by the time Shabbat is over, on Saturday night, there isn't much time for anything -- and first thing on Sunday morning, the work-week starts again.

I was only there for a summer. It wasn't long enough to adjust to this uniquely Israeli rhythm. I loved being in a place where Shabbat was built into the fabric of weekly life, and I loved the luxury of getting Fridays off to prepare for Shabbat -- but I always felt strangely cheated on Saturday night when it came time to go to bed early, and on Sunday mornings it was always a struggle to drag myself out of bed to go to school. Something in me yearned for the lazy experience of a morning I could use to do whatever I wanted. I could sleep in and laze around on Saturdays, if I wanted to -- but there were so many different synagogues and minyanim in Jerusalem where I wanted to daven, so Shabbat mornings usually meant waking up early and setting forth with my map and a pair of good walking sandals to find a new community with which to pray.

That whole summer when I was living abroad, I really missed lazy Sundays of reading the New York Times and drinking giant bowls of coffee with milk. And I missed the luxury of having a day to do whatever I pleased after the experience of Shabbat. There's something different about having the day of relaxation after Shabbat, rather than before -- since on Fridays, knowing that Shabbat was coming, I tended to be running around like crazy to arrange for everything before the stores closed.

Sundays have changed since we had a kid. Gone are the days of sleeping until 10 or 11am and then settling in to the couch with the Sunday Times until early afternoon! These days if we get to sleep until 7, that's a rare gift. And the mornings are likelier to include Kai-Lan cartoons and playing with the marble run toy than reading the Times. (The giant cups of American-style brewed coffee are, fortunately, still available.) But I'm still grateful for the simple pleasure of this weekly day of downtime -- a kind of downtime that's different from Shabbat, but still sweet.


I sat down to write a little bit this morning, and this was the natural subject which came to me -- though once I'd drafted the post, I suspected I might have written about it before. Sure enough, I had: Thank God for Sundays, 2008.


D'var Torah for Terumah: God Dwelling In Us

Here's the d'var Torah for last week's Torah portion, Terumah, which I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


This week's Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses in Torah: וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם / "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them."

We're diving deep this week into the description of the materials used to build the mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites built in order to carry the tablets from Sinai with them in the wilderness. Some interpretations hold that the mishkan is built on a mystical blueprint which matches the blueprint of creation itself. Others see the mishkan as a temporary, portable "first draft" for the eventual Temple in Jerusalem.

The mishkan is a big deal. We'll spend weeks reading about its construction. But the Torah offers up what is arguably the most important detail at the very beginning of all of the descriptions: the reason why the Israelites are building this sanctuary in the first place.

The word "mishkan" comes from the same root as the word Shekhinah, the divine Presence which dwells in creation. You might imagine, therefore, that God would dwell within the elaborate structures of gold and acacia wood, tanned skins, and woven tapestries of blue and crimson and purple which the Torah describes. Or that God would eventually dwell within the Temple, when we reach the point in our history when that structure is built, all shining white limestone atop one of Jerusalem's hills.

But God dwells everywhere. As our liturgy reminds us, מלוא כל הארץ כבודו / the whole earth is full of divine glory! The reason the Israelites built the mishkan was so that God would dwell within them.

Like our ancestors, we too build religious structures in our lives. Some are literal, like this beautiful building of cement and copper and wood and glass. Some are metaphorical, the structures of practice and ritual and prayer. But the purpose of all of them is to invite God to dwell within us.

You've heard me say something like this before, in introducing the ashrei. Rabbi Phyllis Berman taught me to understand that prayer's first line -- "happy are they who dwell in Your house, they will praise You forever" -- as an invitation for us to be joyous dwelling in our own bodies. This body, this heart, is God's house.

When we create beautiful places with the intention of opening ourselves to holiness, God takes root in our hearts. When we engage in beautiful practices with the intention of opening ourselves to holiness, God enlivens us. We are the mishkan, the tabernacle, the temple, where we seek for God to dwell.

Why do we need to build the structures -- the buildings, the practices? Why can't we just invite God in? Well, we can; but that doesn't always work. Just saying, "hey, God, I want to open myself up to you" -- what does that really do? For most of us, it isn't enough. A better way to cultivate holiness in our lives is to enter into the practices, to take on the work, of building something together.

We don't have a mishkan to build anymore, but we can enter into the work of building our synagogue community. Show up to make a minyan; mix meatloaf for Take and Eat; plant a synagogue garden in the spring; join the Hesed committee and visit our members who are homebound or sick. We build our community in a million little ways, and when we do, we invite God to dwell within us.


Bedtime prayers and the alphabet

Bedtime2My mother taught me to say my prayers before I went to sleep. She would sit by my bedside, and every night, I would recite "God bless Mom and Dad, Lali and Eppie" -- my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were then living -- and then go on to mention all of my siblings (and, in time, their spouses), and Eloisa (one of my childhood caregivers), and "my aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and friends, and everybody else, amen." And then I would say, or sing, the one-line shema.

I didn't know then that what I was doing had a formal name and was part of daily Jewish practice. Saying my prayers before bed and ending with the shema was a shortened version of kriat shema al ha-mitah, the traditional liturgy of the bedtime (or "in bed") recitation of the shema. That's something I've come to know in adulthood, as my study of Judaism has deepened. All I knew, when I was a kid, was that this was what I did every night, with my mother sitting by my bedside.

(I've posted about my favorite prayer from the bedtime shema liturgy before. If you want a beautiful downloadable rendering of that whole set of prayers, with transliteration and meaningful English, you can find one at the end of Rabbi Daniel Siegel's post The Cycles of T'shuvah.)

Saying my prayers before going to sleep was such an ingrained childhood tradition that I've never stopped doing it. Even on my tiredest nights, when I climb into bed, I silently thank God for people in my life, for the blessings of home and bed and enough to eat, and I say the shema. The tradition is more or less unchanged since my mother gave it to me -- though some of the people I used to bless have died, and others (most notably our son) have joined my list.

So it's probably not surprising that as Drew has grown, I've shared this practice with him, as my mother shared it with me. Before he goes to sleep -- as we're sitting in the gliding rocker where we used to nurse, after we've read a book together and turned on the white-noise machine and turned off the lights -- we ask God to bless his parents, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, amen. And then when he's in bed and I'm sitting by his bedside, smoothing the Thomas the Tank Engine fleece blanket over him and nestling all of his stuffed animals by his side, we say the shema. And then I tell him I love him, kiss him goodnight, wish him sweet dreams, and quietly tiptoe out of the room.

AlphabetclothinganimalspicaWell: that's how it goes some nights. Exactly like that, sweet and serene. But other nights, nothing goes as planned. He giggles his way through putting on pyjamas (often running around the room half-dressed, or pretending he thinks the bottom part of the PJs goes on his head), resists brushing teeth with remarkable stubornness, and when I invite the saying of prayers or singing of the shema, he shouts "no!" On those nights, what he usually wants to do is sing the alphabet song, instead. He sings it to me, then I sing it to him in lieu of a lullaby. (I miss the lullabies I used to sing to him when he was a baby, but I try to respect his desires.)

Anyway, last night was one of the nights when he happily joined me in listing the people we wanted to bless, but didn't want to sing the shema. Instead he sang the alphabet song. And asked me to sing the alphabet song. And then sang the alphabet song to me again. And as I sat on his bed listening to his voice, I remembered the Hasidic story about the little boy who came to synagogue but didn't know any of the prayers. So as the congregation was immersed in prayer, he recited the alef-bet -- the only Hebrew he knew -- in hopes that God would assemble the letters into prayers on high. And it was his sweet, simple recitation which lifted up the prayers of the whole congregation.

(There's a one-paragraph version of that story in a post from Rabbi Phyllis Sommers: Alef Bet. Another version appears in The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, and the story's available online via google books search: the boy who prayed with the alef bet.)

I love the idea that even when he doesn't want to join me in a formal prayer before bed, God can translate his alphabet singing into the most meaningful prayers of his heart.


A daily love song for the body

8471708130_bb8bd875ae_m One of my wintertime rituals is rubbing lotion into my hands and forearms. I keep a little tube of lotion on each of my two desks, the one at home and the one at the synagogue. I don't know whether the dryness stems from living with radiators and fires during the wintertime, or from some natural lack of moisture in the local winter air, but one way or another, my skin is always dry in wintertime. Hand lotion feels like an incredible gift. I can actually see my thirsty skin coming back to life, like a wilted plant becoming vibrant again.

While I'm rubbing the lotion into my palms and the backs of my hands, I say the asher yatzar blessing, praising God Who creates the human body with wisdom. After I had my strokes, I developed a new relationship with the idea that if one of the body's many openings should be accidentally closed, it's no longer possible to stand before God and offer praise.

My relationship with the blessing changed again when I became pregnant and started giving myself daily injections of blood thinner; I recited the blessing every morning as the needle's plunger found its way home. And then I treated my expanding belly to some lotion, both to soothe the sting of the injection and because I couldn't help marveling as my physical form started to shift and change.

Today the blessing has become mundane again. I'm no longer worried about blood clots sneaking their way into my brain; I take my handful of pills every morning, and I trust that they're all doing their jobs and that my blood will continue to flow freely where it ought to be flowing. And I no longer have to steel myself to pinch a generous fold of flesh and guide a needle home. But the habit of reciting the blessing remains, a reminder that my body is a miracle -- that every body is a miracle, always.

Several years ago I learned how to sing the sheva brachot, the seven blessings which are central to every Jewish wedding ceremony. I learned to sing them from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler, who chants them according to the trope (the system of cantillation) used for the Song of Songs. It's a perfect match. I love singing the blessings which sanctify the heart of a wedding using this ancient ancestral melody which is linked with our tradition's greatest text about companionship and love.

One of those blessings begins ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו -- Blessed are You, Adonai, Sovereign of creation, Who creates humanity in Your image. The asher yatzar blessing begins with those same words, though instead of "in your image," the daily prayer says "with wisdom," and continues on from there. But because I have so frequently sung those opening words to this Shir haShirim melody, that's the melody I naturally hear in my head when I think of the words of the asher yatzar blessing.

And it reminds me to relate to my own body with love. To marvel at the wonder of having a body that works, and to treat my physical form with the love, kindness, and compassion I seek to bring to my marriage and to all of my relationships. Every time I grace my body with lotion, every time I recite the asher yatzar, is a chance to sing a love song to my body. Imperfect though it surely is, this body carries me through the day -- enables me to walk, to touch, to eat, to sleep, to sing -- grew our son from component cells. Yes, this body is worth celebrating. Always.


Happy Adar - the gateway to the gateway to spring!

Cs-pur"When Adar enters, joy increases!" So says the wisdom of our tradition (B. Ta'anit 29a.) Why? The simplest answer is that the month of Adar contains the festival of Purim, and Purim is a festival of rejoicing.

Although Purim can seem, on the surface, like a purely fun-oriented holiday -- costumes, merriment, silliness, noisemakers -- there's more there than meets the eye. That's kind of Purim's theme, really. In the megillah of Esther, things aren't necessarily as they first appear. The king isn't really in charge; Esther isn't just a beautiful woman; and though God is never mentioned, divine providence is palpably present, subtly guiding events to turn out for the best.

One month later, at the next full moon (in years like this one, not a leap year) comes Pesach, the festival of our liberation. In Jewish spiritual time, Pesach is the entryway into spring. As I type these words here in western Massachusetts in early February, snow is falling fast and furious. Spring's usual signifiers feel a million years away.

But Pesach is about something deeper. Pesach is when we tell the central story of our peoplehood: that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in the Narrow Place, the place of suffering and constriction, and our God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Pesach is about leaving Mitzrayim together, crossing the Sea of Reeds and emerging into an unknowable and incredible openness and possibility on the other side. At Pesach we're like bulbs putting out the first shoots of new life, not knowing what we'll find once we break through the surface of the earth but trusting that if we keep pushing, we'll find the light.

Right now, at the new moon of the month of Adar, that breaking-forth into the light is six weeks away. And the first big step on our journey toward Passover and its liberation is Purim -- two weeks from now, at full moon -- when we'll tell the story of how Esther and Mordechai took the lead in liberating the Jewish people of Persia from persecution.

At Purim, we have the opportunity to liberate ourselves from our usual ways of thinking: we lighten up, sing silly songs, wear costumes which may reveal a different facet of who we imagine ourselves to be, and strive to ascend beyond our usual ways of thinking to see the world from a lofty, enlightened God's-eye view. (That's my favorite Hasidic interpretation of the injunction to drink ad d'lo yada, until one can't tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.)

And one month after that, we'll gather to retell the story which constitutes us as a people: that we were slaves and now we are free. That life was constricted and now it opens up. That more light, and more life, and more responsibilities, and more wonders, are in store.

The new moon of Adar is the first step toward spring, an opportunity to open ourselves to joy and liberation. No wonder our sages say מי שנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה / Mi she-nichnas Adar, marbin b'simcha  / When Adar enters, joy increases. May it be so!


More Adar wisdom:

  • The Months of Spring: Purim through Pesach by Rabbi Marcia Prager. "If we understand the spiritual journey that begins in Nisan, we'll have some of the tools we need to understand Purim and the gifts and challenges this seemingly minor holiday brings."
  • Joy Increases by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. "For those who are feeling beaten and battered by the darkness of winter and by the storms of life and sky, this is a time to focus on brightening our souls. Seek, pursue and create excuses for your own happiness. Be outdoors, sing, play, take pleasure, and delight in all growing things."

Dear you, who are feeling sad and afraid --

You know those days when the light seems all wrong, when your skin feels too tight, when anxiety or sorrow clutch at your heels? A sense of heaviness, as though your heart were made of lead. Tears banging at the back of the throat.

Oh, those days are so hard. It's almost funny, how completely your perspective can switch. Suddenly things which seemed manageable, even laughable, when you were feeling okay become more than you can possibly bear.

I could publish this post today, or next week, or a year from now, and someone reading it will be nodding along, thinking: she's talking about me. That's where I am. That's how I am. I don't know whether it will ever get better.

A wise friend told me, earlier this week, that her grandmother used to say that the painful things will always pass. I like that way of seeing the world. Yes: the hurt will pass, and things will get better. Though sometimes it's hard to trust that that's true.

Here's what I want to say, if you're feeling scared, or trapped, or overwhelmed. If, in Mary Oliver's words, "your spirit / carries within it // the thorn / that is heavier than lead -- / if it's all you can do / to keep on trudging --"

I am thinking of you. I'm holding you in my heart and in my prayers. Keep breathing. Be kind to yourself, in whatever ways you can. Indulge your body with a hot bath or a pot of good tea. Indulge your heart; let it feel whatever it needs to feel.

You're going to be okay. You won't always feel this way. We're all adrift on this vast ocean, and when the storms of depression kick up, the waves feel dangerous and endless -- but they will end. The waters will become smooth as glass again.

And when they do, you'll see all the rest of us in our little boats, waving. We'll paddle alongside each other, and lash our crafts together, and share meals and music, and travel together toward our collective destination. You are not alone.


Sestina for a three-year-old

 

You can turn anything into a car.
Drive your bread across the bright
expanse of table, look to see
whether I'm watching, if I'll say no.
Tell me you can do it, you are big
enough, you know you are three.

On tough days I count to three
then lift you bodily into the car.
Cue wailing. "No, mommy, I'm too big,
don't do that to me!" The sun's too bright,
the music's wrong, a world of no.
Two minutes later you're chatting: "see

the fields sleeping, mommy? I see
some horses, one-two-three!"
You emerge from your funk as though no
upset ever happened, pick up a car
and zoom the length of your lap. The bright
side: you never hold a grudge, big

arms outspread, your heart as big
as the moon you greet each time you see
her in the heavens shining bright.
"Hello moon! Look, I see three
stars!" and we pause outside the car
beneath the darkening sky. There's no

rulebook on snow days, no
limits to what we can watch on the big
tv, Pocoyo in his musical red car
trundling across the white expanse to see
what he can see. Now we are three:
new family constellation bright

in the sky's expanse, bright
as your laugh when I tickle you. "No,
do it again, again! Count to three
with your hand up here." The next big
leap just over the horizon, where we can't see.
Long legs kick the passenger seat in my car.

Bright stripes and new songs: you are big
enough to say "no, I can do it, see?"
Utterly three! Come on, get in the car.


I wanted to write a poem for this week's imperfect prose prompt -- "belief" -- but I couldn't get it to work. So I tried a sestina, because sometimes the strictures of the sestina form jar my creativity into working in new ways. That was better, but still not great. I think I chose the wrong end-words; no matter what I tried, the sestina still felt sentimental and trite. So then I tried writing an entirely different sestina, on an entirely different subject, and that one, I liked. So that's the one I'm sharing today, even though it has nothing to do with the prompt that originally got me writing.

(Speaking of writing and prompts: if you're following any literary blogs which offer regular prompts, will you link me to them? I miss Big Tent Poetry and Read Write Poem.) Anyway: hope you enjoyed the poem. All feedback welcome.