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#BlogElul 25: Begin


I love that this is the time of year when my religious tradition tells me we are beginning again.

In the northern hemisphere where I live, we are at the height of harvest. Already the nights are cooler than they were, the days noticeably shorter than in high summer. The corn and tomatoes and peaches and lettuces are exquisite. Summer is waning. We know that winter is coming. And it is now -- as the evidence of our senses tells us that we are moving toward an end, dwindling down to nothing, the days getting shorter and shorter -- that our tradition says we begin again.

(In the southern hemisphere, perhaps some of the meaning of new beginnings in September is that winter is giving way to spring, to new green and new life. I've never spent a round of the seasons in the global South. I'd love to hear from someone who has thoughts on what this seasonal / spiritual transition is like from that end of the planet.)

This is the season when the school year begins. This doesn't have a big impact on my family yet -- our son's preschool runs right through the summer -- but I know that someday it will. And  even though our son isn't beginning at a new school, he's starting in a new classroom soon, moving up a year. The goldenrod-yellow schoolbuses are beginning to ply the streets again. The stores are filled with notebooks and number two pencils, symbols of learning and of infinite possibility.

In Jewish tradition, it's always possible to begin again. This is in some ways the central message of teshuvah, repentance or return: that we can always start over. We can't undo the past, but we can move beyond it. Every morning, our liturgy proclaims, God returns our souls to us (having guarded them carefully while we slept) and every morning they are unblemished and pure. Every day we can make teshuvah, seek forgiveness, start over. Every day can be a new beginning.

#BlogElul 24: End

Blogelul2013I'm rarely ready for things to end.

I get attached to what is. Especially if it's something I'm enjoying (a weekend with dear friends, a stunning sunset over a lake, a cuddle with my child), though I'm capable of getting attached to even something I'm not enjoying (a dysfunctional relationship, a discomfort which becomes familiar), just because I get used to what is, and change is hard.

But everything ends. Both the sweet things -- sunsets, Shabbats, time with loved ones, every childhood, every life - and the bitter ones.

And every ending is also a beginning. The end of a particularly glorious Shabbat -- say, a Shabbat on retreat with my Jewish Renewal community, everyone all in white, a full day immersed in community and prayer and song and meaning! -- can bring tears, but without that ending, the new week can't begin. If we were to freeze time, we'd never move forward. This existence isn't meant to be static. Endings are built into the way things work.

I grieved my pre-child life once I became a mom. I missed the autonomy, both physical (what was it like before someone needed my body constantly for sustenance? soon I couldn't even remember) and emotional. I missed sleeping in. I missed spare time. I missed feeling in charge of my own life. But without the end of that life, I never could have experienced being someone's mother -- being this little boy's mother, in particular -- and those joys and sorrows (but mostly joys) have been so deep and so transformative that I now can't imagine who I would be if I'd never known them.

Some part of me doesn't feel ready for this Elul to end. I love this month of teshuvah and cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking an accounting of the soul. (And I'm never ready for August to end. I love the profusion of greenery, the fresh corn and tomatoes, the summer light.) But Elul has to end in order to get to the sweetness and the challenges of the Days of Awe; August has to end in order to get to the sweetness and the challenges of the coming autumn. Today has to end in order for us to reach tomorrow. Always.

One of the things I've always loved about the character of President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing is that he meets every ending with "...what's next?" I try to take that as a mantra, too. Everything ends. The question is: now that this is ending, what's next? Where do we go from here? What do we want the coming moment -- hour, day, week, month, year, lifetime -- to hold?

#BlogElul 23: Love

Blogelul2013Connecting with God is all about love.

I know that assertion seems strange to some of us, but I really believe that it's true.

Every morning we sing that God loves us with a great love -- ahavah rabbah ahavtanu. "You have loved us with a great love." Your love for us is so great that You give us Torah, a collection of stories and ideas and teachings to live by, as a parent lovingly gives their child stories and ideas and teachings to live by.

(I've been reading Heschel's Torah Min HaShamayim / Torah From Heaven recently, so I can't help being aware that I've just articulated the kind of view that Rabbi Ishmael would have espoused. Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, would argue that Torah is supernal and is inherently, mystically, holy -- the point isn't that it's rules to live by, the point is that it offers access to God. Well: either way, I suppose, Torah is an expression of divine love for us.)

Every night we sing that God loves us with an unending love, a forever love, a love which spans worlds. Ahavat olam beit Yisrael amcha ahavta -- "You have loved the house of Israel with an ahavat olam, an unending love!" Or, in the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro's beautiful poem, set to music so lovingly by Shir Yaakov, We are loved by unending love. (I love that setting and that melody. We'll use it at our evening services during the Days of Awe this year at my shul.)

God's love for us is unending and infinite. I believe that the whole of creation, from the most microcosmic particles to the vastest galaxies, is an expression of divine love. God so overflows with divine love that God brings creation into being in order to have somewhere to direct that love, in order to have conscious beings with whom God can be in loving relationship.

And the Days of Awe are all about love. Even the parts which seem, on the surface, to be about justice and repentance. Because God loves us, we are always already forgiven...but that doesn't obviate our need to do the work of teshuvah, to repair what's been broken in our selves and our relationships and our world.

FingerpaintingA few weeks ago when the Wednesday morning coffee shop clergy met (to read some of the aforementioned Heschel) we wound up in a conversation about our liturgy and whether/why it matters. One of my colleagues offered the metaphor that all of our fine liturgies, our prayers, our melodies, all of the high pomp and circumstance of these most elevated services of the year...are like a finger-painting a child proudly brings home to the parent. And because that parent loves their kid, they say "How beautiful, sweetie! I love it! I'll hang it on the fridge!"

No loving parent would ever say "Wow, that's a terrible drawing; what kind of artist do you think you are? You should be embarrassed to even bring that into my house." We try so hard to have grand high holiday services, to follow all of the rules and the customs of our communities, to make these services as perfect as possible. And sure, our efforts matter. But God isn't up there somewhere muttering to Himself, "what terrible artists. They should be embarrassed to even bring that into My house." God is the loving parent Who says, "How beautiful, sweetie -- you made Me a service! I love it! I'll treasure it."

Because God knows we're doing the best we can do. With our services -- with our spiritual lives -- with our lives writ large. And God loves us even though we make mistakes all the time, and even though our art isn't so great. We are loved by unending love. Even if we haven't set foot inside a synagogue since last Yom Kippur, even if we've been steadfastly ignoring God and forgetting to check in every day and every week and every month, even if we've screwed up royally. We are loved. And because we are loved, we have the strength to love in return.


My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood

Earlier this week I attended a screening of the short (25 minute) documentary film My Neighbourhood at The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. The filmmakers describe the film as being about "a remarkable nonviolent struggle in the heart of the world's most contested city." Here's the movie's official trailer:

(Edited to add:) For those who can't see the embed, it's here on YouTube. And for those who don't want to watch the trailer, here's a synopsis:

The documentary tells the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy growing up in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. When Mohammed turns 11, his family is forced to give up part of their home to Israeli settlers, who are leading a campaign of court-sanctioned evictions to guarantee Jewish control of the area.

Shortly after their displacement, Mohammed’s family and other residents begin peacefully protesting against the evictions, determined not to lose their homes for good. In a surprising turn, they are quickly joined by scores of Israeli supporters who are horrified to see what is being done in their name. Among them is Jewish West Jerusalem resident Zvi Benninga and his sister Sara, who develop a strong relationship with Mohammed and his family as they take on a leading role in organizing the protests.

Through their personal stories, My Neighbourhood goes beyond the sensational headlines that normally dominate discussions of Jerusalem and captures voices rarely heard, of those striving for a shared future in the city.

I'd read a lot about it (see East Jerusalem Doc 'My Neighbourhood' Wins Peabody Award by Emily L. Hauser in The Daily Beast, or Sumeet Grover's review in the Huffington Post.) In addition to winning a Peabody, this short film won both at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival and the Al Jazeera Documentary Festival -- how many movies can make that claim?

I knew I wanted to see it on the big screen. And I was especially interested in seeing it accompanied by the panel discussion which followed -- featuring Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Israeli writer, activist, refusenik, and poet Moriel Rothman (a frequent contributor to The Times of Israel and to Ha'aretz); and moderator Victor Navasky, Publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I expected that the film and subsequent discussion would move, challenge, and discomfit me. I find that trying to look at the Middle East with clear eyes and an open heart always does. 

Let me just say this: You should watch the film. It's 25 minutes long, and the whole thing is available on YouTube. It tells its story better than I can. If this is a part of the world that you care about; if peace and justice are issues that you care about; you should take 25 minutes of your life and watch this film.

Watching it made me weep.

Continue reading "My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood" »

#BlogElul 22: Dare


"As we bless the source of life, so we are blessed
As we bless the source of life, so we are blessed
and the blessings give us strength, and make our visions clear
And the blessings give us peace, and the courage to dare
As we bless the source of life, so we are blessed."

That's Faith Rogow's poem. In Jewish Renewal contexts, we sing it fairly often as a prelude to the Bar'chu, the call to prayer.

I'm always struck by the line about the "courage to dare." A quick Google search reveals that the phrase means different things to different people -- e.g. the Courage to Dare Foundation, bringing breast cancer awareness to rural communities -- but for me the phrase always evokes this Faith Rogow poem. I love the experience of invoking the courage to dare as part of our lead-in to the Bar'chu.

There is something daring about entering into prayer. About standing before God and offering our praises and our supplications as though we actually believed that the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Source of All Being, were listening to us. More: as though the Source of All Being actually cared what we had to say. That's the audacious claim made by Jewish prayer practice every day: that we can dare to stand before God, expecting God to listen.

During Elul, we dare to imagine that our process of self-examination is more than mere navel-gazing. That our inner work of teshuvah matters to how we will be in the world in the coming year; that, like our prayers, it matters to God.

During Elul, we dare to hope that despite all of our patterns and ruts and familiar old grooves, we can strive to be better people than we have been. We can aim to be more conscious, more kind, more giving, more forgiving in the year to come.

During Elul, we dare to face all of who we are: the places where we are glorious, and the places where we are dreadful. Our best actions of the year now ending, and our worst ones. We dare to admit that all of this is part of who we are.

We dare to stand before God as we take an accounting of ourselves. We dare to claim that we can change. We dare, even, to ask God's help in being the change we want to see in the world.


#BlogElul 21: Change (2)


Sometimes, when I'm leading Shabbat morning services, I pause during P'sukei D'zimrah, the series of poems and psalms which come after the morning blessings but before the formal service begins with the Bar'chu, and I say a word about all of these praises which we offer.

Many of my students over the years have asked me: why do we say all of these words of praise? Song, praise, adulation, thanks, glory, splendor -- this part of the service is positively dripping with praise. What gives? Is God so insecure that S/He needs to hear this kind of thing every day?

In my understanding, we offer these praises not because God needs to hear them but because we need to say them. Because when we place ourselves in a posture of gratitude and awe, day in and day out, something in us changes. When we recognize that we're not the center of the universe, something in us changes.

Sometimes I think that the point of prayer -- the point of all of our spiritual practices -- is to help us refine ourselves, to help us change, into the people we're meant to be.

Children benefit from routine. I am the parent of a going-on-four-year-old, and I can tell you from experience that daily routines help a lot. Just as our kid is happier and healthier when he gets meals at regular times, nap (or quiet time) at a regular time, bed at a regular time -- so I am happier and healthier when I say prayers with regularity. When I stop every day to articulate gratitude and praise to God.

Having a regular prayer practice changes me. Lighting Shabbat candles every week changes me.

And sometimes I'm resistant to change. I like the way I am now! I don't want anything to be different! I don't want to give anything up -- like maybe my autonomy or my sense of self or my self-satisfaction in the way things are!

When I catch myself writing those scripts, I try to just...notice. With compassion, without judgement. Hey, lookit that, I'm doing that thing again. Where I'm resistant to change because change is scary, growth is scary, and I'm not always ready for what's next. The critical thing at that point, for me, is to just take a deep breath and let the tension flow away. It's okay if I'm not ready to change right this instant. Take another breath. Maybe then I'll be ready. Or maybe the breath after that.

Sometimes change foists itself on us, ready or not. Major health crises can do that. So can parenthood. Getting, or losing, a job can precipitate change. All kinds of things can. But I think if we've already accustomed ourselves to the constancy of change, then when changes come along they're not so terrifying. Just as when we've already accustomed ourselves to recognizing that there's something in the universe greater than ourselves, sudden moments of awareness which bring that recognition to the fore aren't so overwhelming.

Change is always coming. The best tools I know for dealing with change are the best tools I know for dealing with life. Compassion, kindness, plenty of sleep, good hot showers, hugs, prayer. Patience with yourself when you screw it up. Willingness to try again. And again. And again.


You may have noticed that "change" appears twice in this year's set of #BlogElul prompts. Hence the (2) in this post's title. Fortunately change is something I think I could riff on every day, since my sense of change is always -- well -- changing.

#BlogElul 20: Judge | On why God-as-judge challenges me, and why I still need the metaphor


One of the predominant images in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

One of the most challenging images (for me) in our High Holiday liturgy is God-as-judge.

It's so easy to think of the human judges who have not ruled justly, and to project our anxiety about unjust human rule onto God. To respond with reactivity: I don't want to be judged. To buy into that ugly old line which says that Judaism is a religion of stern and strict Law (while Christianity, the unjust saying goes, is the corrective, a religion of Love.) Ugh. No offense intended to my Christian friends and loved ones; that's just such an appalling (and incorrect) oversimplification.

What fascinates me this year is this: even though I know better than to swallow any of that old negativity, it still crops up in my consciousness. I still struggle sometimes with the metaphor of God as judge.

But it is a metaphor. As surely as any of our terms for God are metaphor. God isn't really a Father or a King or a Judge, a Mother or a Beloved or a Wellspring. And at the same time God is all of those things and more. God is the limitless ein-sof of the kabbalists' imagining, that infinity without-end which human minds can't possibly grasp. And God is every one of the qualities we find in the sefirot as they flow and chain and spiral into creation; God is boundless love and boundaried strength and the balance between the two, God is endurance and humble splendor and generativity, God is immanent in all creation. God is masculine and God is feminine and God is neither and God is both. And God is Friend...and God is Judge.

God-as-judge can be a powerful metaphor -- but we have to remember that it's only a metaphor, and that it isn't the only metaphor. If God is a judge, S/He is the Judge Who rules with the perfect balance of strength and compassion, discernment and mercy.

When we hear that a person has died, the traditional response is Baruch dayan ha-emet, usually rendered as "blessed is the True Judge" or "blessed is the Judge of Truth." Rabbi Marcia Prager taught me that since the word emet, truth, contains the first, middle, and last letters of the alef-bet (א, מ, ת), we can creatively read  Baruch dayan ha-emet as "Blessed is the judge of beginnings, middles, and endings." Perhaps that's one sense in which God is our Judge: God is present, with clarity and discernment, as our lives begin and unfold and end.

And God is that moral force which calls us to be our best selves, which pushes us to recognize when we are falling down on that job, which goads us to notice how we could be better in the year to come. At least once a year we all come before the One and have to make a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls. As much as I love the personal metaphors for God -- Mother, Beloved, Parent, Source -- I recognize that there's a certain kind of awe-some trembling in which I don't necessarily engage when it comes to those more intimate metaphors. At this season, I need God to be a Judge so that I can meet that aspect of God Which helps me to judge myself.

Judge is a partzuf, a face or form or visage or mask through which we can relate to the Infinite. It's not the only mask God wears, but it is one of the ones we most often call upon in our High Holiday liturgy. What role does this partzuf serve for us? What is it that we need to call forth in ourselves which we can only call forth when we find ourselves face-to-face with this aspect of God?

Practices from Ki Tavo for entering a new phase of life

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Ki Tavo, last week's Torah portion. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

When you enter into the land, Torah tells us, be conscious of where you are and what you're doing. Bring the fruits of your labors as a gift to God. And then say, out loud, a passage which many of us may recognize from the Pesach haggadah, one which begins "My father was a wandering Aramean..."

What a fascinating instruction this is to find at the beginning of parashat Ki Tavo.

The most obvious reading of this passage is that it describes practices the ancient Israelites followed when entering into the Promised Land and making sacrifices there to God. Yes: that's one way of reading it. Absolutely.

But I'd like to suggest a second reading. This text can also offer us instructions for how to act, what to do and say, when we cross a boundary in our own lives from one phase to another.

What happens if we read this as a text about crossing the spiritual boundary between one part of our lives and the next?

Continue reading "Practices from Ki Tavo for entering a new phase of life" »

#BlogElul 19: Ask | on Psalm 27, and what that psalm teaches me to ask


One thing I ask, I ask of You, I earnestly pray for...

It's traditional to read psalm 27 every day during the month of Elul. I don't always manage to daven the full psalm in Hebrew, but I try to include the psalm in every day of this month somehow.

Over the years, I've collected several different variations on the psalm -- some creative interpretations, some melodies, some poems:

Reb Zalman's translation of psalm 27

Nava Tehila melody for psalm 27, verse 8

Alicia Ostriker's psalm 27

Achat Sha'alti melody by I. Katz

R' Brant Rosen's psalm 27 - you are my light and my hope

Kirtan Rabbi's Achat Sha'alti (info) and mp3

I love these poems and adaptations and melodies. But I don't want to lose sight of the point of the practice of engaging with this psalm daily during Elul. It's not (just) about the poems and the songs we've created to bring the psalm to life. It's about the yearning which is at the psalm's heart.

What is it that I ask of God at this time of year?

The psalm leads me to ask: please let me be with You. Let me dwell in Your house -- or, maybe, let Your house be manifest in this body, and in this place, in which I dwell. When I sit meditation, let the place around me become Your place. Let me be connected with you all the days of my life -- some of our sages say, "the days of my life" would mean in the daytime, but "all the days of my life" means days and nights both; 24/7; all the time. Let me experience Your wonders. Let me be so aware, so conscious, that every moment telescopes into intimate connection with Your presence.

The psalm leads me to ask: don't hide Your face from me. I know that in my experience You are sometimes present, sometimes not -- and I know that You are always with me, even at the times when I can't perceive Your presence. But please, Holy One of Blessing, don't hide from me. Don't turn away. All of life is impermanent; even my parents, whom I love more than I can say, will someday be gone. You, God, are the One Who is always here, will always be here, forever and ever, world without end. I am like a child crying in a darkened bedroom, frightened of the thunder. Help me to remember that You are with me, even when I feel alone.

The psalm leads me to ask: teach me Your way. Give me the wisdom to yearn for Your path, and the strength to pursue it even when that isn't easy. Help me to access the discernment and the kindness and the patience and the gratitude which are the natural outgrowth of following Your way. Teach me how to be the person I most yearn to be. Help me to be better than I have been. I know that the world is full of distractions and that I am prone to reactivity just like anyone else, but I want to learn how to be the kind, generous, mindful person You have given me the capability to be.

So maybe "one thing I ask of You" is a bit of an understatement. Or maybe all of these other things flow from that one first request: that I might dwell in Your house, knowing Your beauty and experiencing Your wonder, being with You in Your holy place.

There are other things I ask for every day, many of which are in the daily amidah. Give me knowledge, give me the ability to make teshuvah, please heal those who are sick. Forgive me. Bless the elders of my community. Bless the cycle of this year, help my nation to reach justice, help those who do cruel and hateful things to change their ways. Hear our prayer. Bring us peace.

It's a lot to ask. And sometimes I struggle because I know that not everything we ask for is going to be granted. But I think we need to keep asking. In asking God for what we want and need, we articulate those needs and yearnings not only to God but to ourselves.




#BlogElul 18: Pray


One of the things I love about Selichot services, which we hold in my shul (as in many shuls) on the Saturday night closest to Rosh Hashanah, is the chance to immerse in the melodies and themes of the Days of Awe again.

For those who recite the prayers of tachanun regularly during the year, and/or who recite a vidui prayer as part of the bedtime shema, some of the petitionary prayers in Selichot are regular companions. But for many of us, Selichot is the first opportunity of the year to encounter some of the beloved melodies and themes and words we haven't heard since last Yom Kippur came to its close. These are some of my favorite prayers in our vast and deep liturgy.

"Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul..." This short prayer is one I first learned at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York, when I went there for a Shabbat Shuvah retreat in 2003. I remember feeling that I was returning again to the home of my soul on at least two levels: returning to Elat Chayyim and to the presence of my Jewish Renewal community felt like a return, just as returning to the Days of Awe was a return. At that moment in time, I was still so amazed to discover that I could come home in a spiritual sense that every time I did come home in that way, it moved me to tears.

"Adon ha-slichot..." I think I first learned this one at the Brookline Havurah Minyan, back when I used to go there with my sister and her family on Yom Kippur, years and years ago. I love the sinuous Middle Eastern melody I learned there for this old piyyut. It translates to something like, "Master of forgiveness, examiner of hearts, revealer of depths, declarer of righteousnes -- we have sinned before You; have mercy on us!" It's an alphabetical acrostic, an A-to-Z of pleading for forgiveness. God, with every letter of the alef-bet, with everything in us from beginning to end, we yearn for Your forgiveness. What could be a better melodic reminder of the themes of this season writ large? We have missed the mark. We yearn for closeness with our Source.

"Ana b'koakh, gedulat y'mincha, tatir ts'rurah..." We've been using this one at my shul for Selichot services for some years now. This prayer is much beloved in Jewish Renewal, I think because of our neo-Hasidic roots. Our beloved teacher Reb Zalman comes from a Chabad lineage, and in the Hasidic world this prayer has many purposes and uses. This whole prayer is considered to be one long mystical Name of God. And it asks God -- in Reb Zalman's singable English translation -- "Source of mercy, with loving strength, untie our tangles!" I love the way it names God not as the source of justice (a common metaphor at this time of year) but as the source of mercy -- and the idea that God can untie our tangled places is incredibly resonant for me as we move through this season of teshuvah.

"Achat sha'alti, me'eit Adonai, otah avakesh..."  This is probably the prayer I've known the longest in my Jewish Renewal life. During my first week-long retreat at the old Elat Chayyim in 2002, I attended morning services every day. During that week we moved into the month of Elul, so we sang this excerpt from psalm 27 every day, since reciting this psalm daily during Elul is customary in Jewish tradition. I had never heard the psalm before that week. By the end of the week, the melody had become one of my touchstones, something to which I could return when I wanted to be more connected with God. Every year I rejoice when it's time to start singing it every day again.

These are prayers -- not necessarily prayer, if you take my meaning. Which is to say: these prayers are beautiful containers into which one can pour the innermost prayers of one's heart. My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) likes to say that our written liturgy is like a cookbook; it's a collection of recipes for spiritual experience. But in order to make the recipes, you have to add ingredients; in order to make the prayers real, you have to add your own heart and soul and being.

The prayer of this time of year -- for me -- is this:

Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe!
Shekhinah, Source of all Being!
I miss You. I miss closeness with You.
I have missed the mark. I've allowed myself to become distant from You.
Forgive me. Embrace me.
Help me know that I am forgiven and that I can try again.

That is my heart's prayer.



Related: A short service for Selichot, 2012; Petition: A Prayer for Selichot, 2009.

A reprint of an old Elul poem


August: my mind changes.
I want to think swimming,
grapefruit sorbet dripping
down a sugar cone, berries
behind the house, but I can't.

I'm cleaning, humming
the song my father loves
the way Barbra sings it,
looking for my bobby pins,
checking my tallis case.

One year mice chewed through.
At my sister's shul in Boston
another woman had my bag,
ivory on ivory, embroidered.
I had to claim the holey one.

Summer's not over, not even
here where snow falls
two months too soon.
Every night it cools I think
of apples weighting trees.

Zucchini bread like practice
for honeycake, the same
baking pan, the same motions.
The horn of the year spirals
to its tekiah g'dolah.


My friend Marisa James posted this poem to Facebook recently, saying that she was finding it meaningful this month. I hadn't reread it in a long time; I'm gratified to see that I still like it!

This poem was first published in my second chapbook, What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002.) Apparently that chapbook is available online, though I can't vouch for the seller; I also have some copies available for sale for $8, and if you want one, drop me a line and we'll work out shipping costs.

The song referenced in the poem is Max Janowski's setting of Avinu Malkeinu.

After this poem was published, I started writing and sharing Elul poems each year during the lead-in to the Days of Awe. You can read my archived Elul / New Year's poems here: VR New Year's Poems 2003-present.

#BlogElul 17: Awaken

Blogelul2013My friend and teacher Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel has an album called Awaken, Arise!. The title track begins, "Awaken, arise to the wholeness of your being / Awaken, arise to the beauty of your soul..."

This is one of the side effects of regular prayer practice, for me. When I dip into davenen I awaken, in Reb Hanna's words, to the wholeness of my being. I remember that there is more to me than whatever's at the top of my to-do list this morning.

Elul is a season of awakening and arising. The great medieval sage Maimonides (also known as Rambam) heard in the shofar's call the words "Wake up, you sleepers from your sleep, you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return to Me in teshuvah!"

It's traditional to hear the shofar every day during Elul. For some of us that means blowing shofar each day. For others, maybe hearing the shofar on YouTube. And for still others of us, the hearing of the shofar may be more metaphorical than actual.

But even a metaphorical shofar can pack quite a punch. Wake up! The year is waning! Are you the person you intended to be?

These days I most often awaken to our son's presence in our doorway. Each day he comes to wake me into relationship, into my role as mother and caregiver. His footfalls on the stairs call me out of sleep. Wake up! It's morning-time! I had a good sleep! Can you put on your robe and make me waffles? His needs are generally pretty prosaic, but they're non-negotiable. When he's hungry, he's hungry -- it doesn't matter if I wanted to sleep another ten minutes.

The presence of our not-quite-four-year-old is a kind of shofar, waking me to the responsibilities of my day.

Everyone I meet can be a kind of shofar. Every voice can call me to awareness and recognition: of wholeness and brokenness, of "the beauty of my soul" (in Rabbi Hanna Tiferet's phrasing), of the ethical realm in which I have obligations to the Other, of the ways in which I've missed the mark and need to do better.

Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise, a noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The ram's horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you?

That's Rabbi Alan Lew in his book This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, the chapter on Elul, which is titled "The Horn Blew And I Began To Wake Up." This is the month during which we are called to wake up to all of who we are, to all of who we have been, to all of who we could become.

#BlogElul 16: Change

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven..."


Many of us sing that song (in its setting by The Byrds) during Sukkot, the festival of harvest and impermanence, which begins four days after Yom Kippur. The megillah (scroll) assigned to that festival is Kohelet, after all -- known in English as Ecclesiastes -- which is the source of that bit of scripture.

We may study Kohelet during Sukkot in particular, but impermanence is a reality all year long. Change is a constant. Even when things appear to be standing still, subtle change is always unfolding.

I'm particularly conscious of this at this time of year, when the glorious greenery of the Berkshire hills begins to shift. Early in August, the first yellow or red maple leaf blows across my line of sight. I always feel a pang. I love the long days of summertime, the golden light, the abundance of flowers and leaves and vegetables and fruits. I'm not ready!

But I know that part of what makes the Berkshire summers so glorious is that they don't last forever. (In the words of House Stark, for any Game of Thrones among you: Winter is coming.) We don't live in the tropics; the days here shift, longer to shorter, warm to cold, and then back again. The real beauty is in the rhythm of the constant change.

Seasons are cyclical; human life is linear, more or less. (Though my good friend Reb Jeff wrote a beautiful post recently about how human life isn't really as linear as we tend to think -- Contrast and Commonality -- which I highly recommend.) There are cycles and circles and recurring themes in every human life, but outside of science fiction we experience the arrow of time going in one direction. We're all growing older, every day; moving further away from the transition into this life, and toward the transition out of this life. But as with the seasons, part of the work of this life is learning to find the beauty in the change, instead of getting too attached to any stage along the way.

I love having a not-quite-four-year-old. This is a charming, fun, funny, exuberant, wonderful age. There are moments when I think: I wish I could hit a cosmic "pause" button and stay with this age, because I love the person our son is right now! I love the cuddles and the silly songs and the goofiness and the earnest sweetness. But then I remember: if I could somehow pause him at this age, I wouldn't get to experience the blessings (and challenges, and frustrations) of what comes next. And what comes after that.

In parenting, it often seems that the only constant is change. I remember when he was an infant and I would become exasperated because just when it seemed we'd "figured him out," and knew how to soothe and comfort him, something would change and the old techniques wouldn't work anymore. The changes are different now than they were then, but change is still the constant.

Though I like to think that love is the real constant. Change is inevitable, change is always unfolding -- but our ability to love one another remains. Our sages teach us that this month’s name, Elul / אלול, can be read as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי / “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. (That’s from Song of Songs.) The Beloved, in this case, is God; this is our month for remembering that we can experience God not only as King and Ruler and Judge (the metaphors so prevalent in the traditional high holiday liturgy) but also as our Beloved and our Friend. This is the month when God walks in the fields with us, yearning to connect with us Friend-to-friend, Beloved-to-beloved. Life is change, but love always remains.

#BlogElul 15: Learn


There's always so much to learn.

There's Torah, and Torah is limitless. Not just the Five Books of Moses, not just the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, Writings), not just Written Torah + Oral Torah, but the sum total of every text and commentary and insight relating to Torah writ large. Not just the black fire of the letters, but the white fire of the spaces in between.

There's daily life, and daily life is limitless too. I can learn something from everyone I meet. I can learn things from the experience of moving through the check-out line at the grocery store, from every email, from every Tweet and Facebook message, from every person I encounter everywhere I go.

There's the lived Torah of my own human experience, and that grows at the rate of one minute per minute. As each moment unfolds, the Torah of my life can become richer and more nuanced -- or dimmer and more attenuated, depending on the choices I make about how to be in the world.

I want to be someone who learns from every moment. From the sweet and from the bitter. From the joys (new poems, book publications, dinner with beloved friends, my son laughing with delight as he masters a new skill) and from the sorrows (my strokes -- or the brain damage of someone whose blog I've only recently started to read -- or the leukemia battled courageously by a little boy whose journey I follow online every day.) I'm not sure that our joys and sorrows happen in order for us to learn from them, but when we do learn from them, we make meaning in our lives.

I want to find the right balance between Torah learning and life learning, between dedicating myself to the rich and limitless world of my own tradition and to the rich and limitless world of, well, the world. I don't want to forget the breadth and depth of the wide world. I don't want to forget the breadth and depth of my own tradition. And I don't want to overlook the breadth and depth of what I can learn simply from being conscious in my own life. I want to be capable of learning even from my mistakes. Especially from my mistakes. How else will I avoid repeating them when life brings me -- when I bring myself -- to the same circumstances time and again?

There's an old saying that "we teach best what we most need to learn." What will I teach during the coming year? What is the learning I will need to integrate during 5774 in order to be the Rachel I most need (the world most needs me) to be? What will I need to learn this year?



Related: Balancing learning and work, 2008.

Essay and postpartum poems at Postpartum Progress

When I look back now, I can’t believe it took me so long to recognize the postpartum depression for what it was. Sure, I felt hopeless and overwhelmed and I cried a lot, but I was a new mother, sleeping in 45-minute increments; surely that was how every mother of a newborn felt? My old life was over and would never come back; I just needed to accept that, or possibly to grieve it for a while. But the grieving didn’t end, and the acceptance didn’t come.

Before our son was born, I had been a poet and rabbinic student. I struggled, once he was born, to figure out how to hold on to those identities. When he was two months old I would enroll in one single rabbinic school class. But before that, I wrote poems. Not very many of them, but I wrote them. This sounds melodramatic now, but when I was writing them I felt as though I was saving my own life....


PPPlogoMy thanks are due to Katherine Stone at Postpartum Progress not only for her amazing blog and resource site, but also for publishing my guest post Unfold: Poems of Postpartum Depression, excerpted above.

My guest post at Postpartum Progress includes short excerpts from some of the poems in Waiting to Unfold, my second book-length collection of poems, published this year by Phoenicia Publishing and available both from Phoenicia and from Amazon.

If you don't already have a copy, I hope you'll consider buying one -- for yourself, for a new mother in your life, or for anyone you know who has struggled with depression and might find hope in this chronicle of motherhood and charting a new path through.

#BlogElul 14: Remember


There's an exercise I like to do during meditation on Friday mornings. I invite us to look back on the week now ending, starting with the first day of the week -- on the Jewish calendar, Sunday. What was Sunday like? What happened on that day? What was bitter, what was sweet? What do you want to lift up and be grateful for, and what do you want to release and let go?

And then we repeat the process with Monday -- Tuesday -- Wednesday -- all the way up to the present day, the cusp of Shabbat.

I like that meditative exercise because it gives me an opportunity, before Shabbat begins, to reflect on the week which is about to end. To mindfully move through what I can remember of that week; to express gratitude for the places where I lived up to my own expectations; to notice the places where I missed the mark, and set the intention of doing better next week. That's one of the wonderful things about cyclical time: this particular week will never come back again, but there will always be another.

It's more difficult to do this practice with a whole year. I can't remember every day of 5773, even if I tried. But I can do this practice writ large, on a macrocosmic scale. What are the themes of the year now ending? Where are the big-picture places where I lived up to my hopes for myself, and where are the big-picture places where I missed the mark?

What do I remember when I think back on the year which will soon be ending? The high holidays from last year -- the sweetness of reaching the end of Yom Kippur -- my son delighting in our sukkah. Travel to Texas to see my family, to Colorado and later to New Hampshire to see my ALEPH community, to Rhode Island this summer with our son. The winter's worth of snows and cosy wood fires and savory stews with friends. Purim, Pesach, the Omer. The mud and forsythias and daffodils of spring. Our son turning three, and growing to approach four. This summer's sights and sounds and scents and connections. Countless tiny experiences of compassion and kindness (both given and received)...balanced by countless times when I was impatient, or thin-skinned, or not as kind as I intended to be.

My task now: to lift up the things I want to sanctify and remember -- and to let go of the places where I fell short of my own expectations. To recognize the gifts in the sweet places -- and the gifts in the bitter places, too. To remember 5773, with willingness to let it slide into the past as I prepare for 5774.

When you look back on the year which will end with the next new moon, what do you remember?

#BlogElul 13: Forgive

Blogelul2013Please be aware that this post mentions a parent mistreating a child, and makes references to addiction and infidelity. If that's likely to be triggering for you, please read with care.

I have a memory from my chaplaincy training at Albany Medical Center. I was sitting with my colleagues, a mixed group of ten clergy and laypeople from a wide variety of traditions, and we were exploring together the question of how to extend pastoral care to someone who had done something terrible. Is it our job, as clergy, to extend forgiveness? What if the patient is near death; does that change anything for us? What if the person to whom we are ministering has done something we feel is unforgivable?

Hospitals are holy places in part because they bring us into contact with life and death, with sickness and health, and those in turn connect us with fears and anxieties which most of us keep submerged most of the time. I remember a lot of pre-surgical patient visits where the patient wanted to talk with me about regrets, about fears, about broken relationships, about hurts both inflicted and received. In Talmud there is a teaching that one should make teshuvah (repent/return) the night before one's death -- and, of course, since one never knows when one's death may be, one should make teshuvah always. The night before a surgery can awaken a deep need to make teshuvah -- and also to struggle with forgiveness, both given and received.

As a chaplain, I understood my job to be primarily about presence. Being present to whatever was being expressed, and to the unique human being who was expressing it. The phrase I used a lot that year was "Manifesting the listening ear of God." But sometimes what we hear, when we listen to the people we care for, can challenge us. Sometimes it triggers us, pushes our buttons, raises our own mental and emotional stuff.  There are rules about when we, as clergy, have to report something we've learned in a pastoral visit. (For instance, cases of abuse.) But there are also times when we hear things which don't require reporting, but do require some inner work. Often the challenge is simply to sit with something painful, and to figure out how to respond with compassion both to those who have been hurt, and to those who have inflicted hurt on others.

Continue reading "#BlogElul 13: Forgive" »

#BlogElul 12: Trust

After the sutures


Everyone falls down.
No one enjoys the aftermath.

But the real test
comes after the sutures --

the chance to thank the surgeon
who did his quiet work

despite the imprecations
and the thrashing.

Sometimes when I miss the mark
I flail and lash out

just like our three-year-old.
But when I calm

I remember how to thank You
for my mistakes, even when they hurt

for Your messengers who cradle me
for the mountains and the moon

for my son's long body nestled
into me like a crane

for Your arms and heart
holding me together

on the days when I break
and the days when I am whole.



Blogelul2013I started working on this post after our son got stitches, late last month. (He's fine! He just took a tumble, as very active kids are wont to do, and needed a few stitches on his chin.) What amazed me about the experience of taking him to the emergency room is that while he clearly had a tough time with the actual stitches (and who wouldn't?), as soon as the suturing was over, he calmed down, and as we left the E.D., he thanked every doctor and nurse "for fixing my boo-boo." It's incredibly powerful for me that our son says thank you after a traumatic experience like getting sewn up -- even though he didn't enjoy the stitching, he understood deep down that these people were there to help him, and that when people help you, you say thank you.

I'm sharing this poem today as part of #BlogElul -- you can find other posts on this theme by searching with that hashtag.

#BlogElul 11: Count

Blogelul2013Our tradition gives us two seasons of counting. In the (northern hemisphere) spring we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, also known as the Omer. As we count the Omer, we connect our festival of liberation with our festival of revelation. It's an opportunity to be mindful of the passage of time, and also to do the important spiritual work required each year to get us into the right spiritual and emotional space to receive revelation anew.

And in the (northern hemisphere) late summer / early autumn we count 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. (This is why my friend and colleague Shifrah Tobacman's book of poems is called Omer/Teshuvah -- turn it one way and you can use each poem as a daily meditation for the Omer count; turn it the other way, and you can use each poem as a daily meditation for the journey to Rosh Hashanah.)

Another interpretation: instead of counting the 7 weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, some count the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first day of the month of Elul) until Yom Kippur. The number forty has special significance in the rabbinic imagination. Forty were the days of the Flood, forty were the days Moshe spent atop Sinai; forty are the weeks between conception and birth (well, more or less -- that's how the sages of our tradition understood it, anyway) -- so forty can represent the transition from one stage into the next. A kosher mikvah must contain forty measures of water, and as a mikvah purifies the one who immerses in it wholly, so can this time of year purify we who immerse in it wholly.

What's the point of all of the counting? Is it just another opportunity to exercise our uniquely Jewish form of something akin to O.C.D? I don't think so -- or at least I don't think that's all it is. We count the days between one thing and the next because that helps us stay situated in this moment in time. The counting can help us combat the tendency to draft either into the remembered past or into the anticipated future. Beyond that, it links us both with that past and with that future. Today is the eleventh day of Elul. We've been trying to do the work of teshuvah for eleven days: how's that working out for us so far? We have the rest of Elul for our internal work, and then the ten first days of Tishri for external work, repairing our relationships with others and with the world. When we count the days, we keep track of where we are -- how far we've come -- and how far we have yet to go.




#BlogElul 10: See



When we entered the aquarium        
you flew to the glass wall.

Behind it: sunlit aqua water
as though we were standing

in the parted Sea of Reeds.
A sleek white shape swam past

spinning gracefully. "Look,"
you shouted, "a beluga!

A real beluga! Right here!"
Help me to see the world

as you see it, every day
a new reason to jump for joy.