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Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah

For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity...

These are the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, in my favorite book to reread at this time of year -- This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

For ten days -- ten magical days -- the aseret y'mei teshuvah, "ten days of teshuvah" -- we inhabit a liminal space, a space of in-between-ness. We have entered the Days of Awe through the gate of Rosh Hashanah; we will exit them through the gate of Yom Kippur; but for now, we float in the middle.

For now, if we are fortunate, the experience of Rosh Hashanah (or the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah or the Torah reading or the experience of being with family and friends or the experience of not being with family and friends) has opened something up in us.

If we are fortunate, we are having moments of wakefulness, moments of realizing oh my goodness, this is my life, this is the only life I have. Moments of feeling the urgent tug toward change. Moments of knowing that whoever we have been, whoever we think we are, is not the only way for us to be.

Continue reading "Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah" »

On Yizkor

I've just shared a post about Yizkor on my congregational blog. It's sparked by the fact that we'll recite the prayers of Yizkor, our memorial service, twice in the span of two weeks: once at Yom Kippur, and again at Shemini Atzeret. But what is Yizkor, and why do we say it twice in such rapid succession?

Here's a taste:

The word Yizkor means “Remember!” — and the service with that name is when we remember our beloved dead. We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons: Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret. (Even though mid-October won’t be winter yet, thank God. Some sources hold that the fourth yizkor of the year was once held in midwinter, but was moved to Shemini Atzeret for practical reasons of seasonally difficult travel.)

Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the 8th day.” Sukkot (in Israel and in the Reform tradition of which we are a part) lasts for seven days. On the 8th day, our tradition teaches, God says to us: wait! don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer? We call that day “the pause,” or “the lingering,” of the 8th day. And it’s on that extra day after Sukkot, when Sukkot is over but we haven’t yet pulled away from God’s presence, that we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.

The experience of Yizkor is different at each of these holidays...

Read the whole thing here: The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, the Yizkor of Shemini Atzeret -- What is Yizkor, anyway?

A transformative Yom Kippur

28285590_a11731b5f8_zI wonder how many of y'all reading this blog now were reading ten years ago when I attended my first Yom Kippur retreat at Elat Chayyim? I had felt for years as though Yom Kippur were eluding me. I could tell that it was supposed to be transformational, but I'd never been able to entirely find my way in. I always came out of it feeling that I wanted more.

And then I went to the old Elat Chayyim for a Yom Kippur retreat, and the experience opened me up. It was everything I had barely dared to dream the holiday could be. From then on, I went on retreat every year for Yom Kippur, until midway through rabbinic school when I began serving others during the Days of Awe instead of going someplace to be filled-up myself.

I took a few minutes this morning to reread my post about that first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur. I am humbled and moved to discover how many of those teachings have become integral to my sense of what Yom Kippur is and can be. Here are some glimpses:

I learned a new interpretation of the practice of beating the breast during the recitation of missteps: rather than castigating ourselves, we're knocking gently on the heart, asking it to open...

At one point, we went outside to talk individually with God for ten minutes. My insight during that walk was that talking to God from Elat Chayyim is like making a local call! I said as much to the group when we reconvened, to much laughter. The fact of laughter on Yom Kippur surprised and warmed me...

Teshuvah is like climbing a ladder, but the rungs are spaced farther apart than we can reach. We can't reach one rung while remaining safely on the previous one. There's nothing to do but leap...

One of the refrains of the holiday is "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed." From this we can intuit that while the heart may be solid on Rosh Hashanah (so words can be inscribed on it), it must be soft like wax in order to be sealed on Yom Kippur. So it is incumbent on us to soften our hearts...

Read the whole thing: Yom Kippur at Elat Chayyim (2004.) And thank you, again, dear Reb Elliot and Reb Jeff*, for the immeasurable gifts of that retreat: gifts which are still unfolding for me in my rabbinate, my service, and my experience of the holiday even now.





*In this case I mean Rabbi Jeff Roth, of the Awakened Heart Project -- not the other Reb Jeff, though I thank Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser for everything he taught me about high holiday prayer and leadership too.

Also: if you have no plans for Yom Kippur and are in (or can get to) New England, there will be an amazing retreat at Isabella Freedman; read all about it. Or, if paying for a retreat is beyond you, you're welcome at my shul, where we do not have tickets; all are welcome.

The sweetness of honey; the gates, open

15345560796_e8d6443d17_nAs a child, I loved being able to drizzle my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey. I remember eating leftover challah toast with honey on the mornings right after the holiday. The golden honey pooling on the rich white bread always seemed deliciously decadent, especially in our Pritikin household. I knew that the honey was a kind of prayer -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." (That's what's behind the custom of dipping apples or challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah.)

But I thought that was a one-time thing. Honey on challah, honey on apples: we ate those on the holiday itself, and then maybe for a few days until the Rosh Hashanah challot were nothing but crumbs. I didn't learn until I was in my mid-thirties that there are customs of continuing to eat honey on one's challah, and praying for a year of sweetness, until Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret means "the pause of the eighth day." It's the 8th day of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when (tradition says) after we've lived seven days in our sukkot, God murmurs "this has been so sweet; don't go yet; linger just a little longer?" So we stick around and celebrate one more day of festival together. And though we read during the closing service of Yom Kippur that "the gates (of repentance) are closing," some hold that they remain open until we reach Shemini Atzeret. Hence the tradition of continuing to put honey on our challah all the way until then.

I love the feeling of urgency which comes during the last service of Yom Kippur. The day is almost over; the long day of fasting and prayer and song is almost gone; and what has it gained me? Have I gone deep enough into the liturgy and into my own heart and soul? Is it going to change me? I want to be compassionate and kind to everyone I meet, I want to be mindful -- but have I done the inner work I need to do? The gates are closing, the liturgy tells us. The day is passing. We pray the whole closing service with the doors of the aron kodesh, the holy ark which contains our Torah scrolls, open to remind us that the gates are open and the way to God is open. The sun goes and turns.  Let us enter Your gates!

I appreciate that urgency. (I think I need it. Every year when we reach Ne'ilah, that closing service, it lifts me to a place I couldn't have reached otherwise.) But I also appreciate the teaching that the gates remain open during this whole holiday season -- that we can still sweeten our bread with honey, an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come, until Sukkot is drawing to its close. Even after the dramatic end of Yom Kippur with its long and piercing tekiah gedolah, the gate of teshuvah (repentance / return) remains open to us.

When we make teshuvah, we sweeten the year to come. Not because we gain any control over what's ahead, but because we've created a shift in ourselves which will allow us to experience more sweetness. That's the message I hear in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we sing on the days of awe each year. Who will be contented, and who will be restless? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? We can't know what the new year will hold. But when we practice teshuvah, tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (giving to others), we can ameliorate whatever is to come, because we create change in ourselves. We can't change what will be, but we can change how we experience whatever comes our way.

Of course, teshuvah doesn't happen only during this time of year. Teshuvah can be an every day journey, an every-week journey, an every-month journey. And I believe that God is always waiting with open arms, ready to welcome us with love, any time we turn away from our misdeeds and try to orient ourselves in the right direction again. Our liturgy teaches that "we are loved by unending love," and that's always true, not only during the holidays.

So what does it mean to say that the "gates" are open, or closing, or closed? Maybe the gates are our own. Maybe they are the gates of the season. Once we make it to the end of Sukkot, we will be spiritually worn-out from the intense emotions and intensive holiday journey of this time of year. We will need to close the door on this chapter and move into what's coming. We can't live all year in this state of heightened intensity. We are the ones who close the gates.

The gates which are now open are the gates of our hearts and souls. What do we want to draw forth from ourselves as we move through these gates? When the time comes for us to close the gates on this season, who do we want to have become?

Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)


The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We'd been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. "I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!" I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y'all have known me for a while now, so you're probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child's pose, you've had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you've had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It's a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God's hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

"Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear." I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it's always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah's jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

Continue reading "Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)" »

New poem: the story of Chanah

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, our haftarah reading -- the assigned reading from the later books of the Hebrew scriptures -- is the story of Chanah, from the book of First Samuel. For the last few years I've offered the haftarah as a storyteller telling a story. This year I'm sharing a poem instead. The poem draws substantially on classical midrash about Chanah. I hope it speaks to you.


Chanah Speaks

We didn't marry for love
but Elkanah (whose name
means "God is zealous")
had kind eyes and gentle hands
and I was not afraid.

How he'd learned
the ways of the marriage bed
I never asked.
We came to know each other
and came

to know each other again
and I walked around town
smiling that secret
newlywed smile.
Until the day I bled.

Regret pierced my heart.
But at the mikveh the women said
it can take a few weeks
don't panic, keep trying.
But I bled again.

And again. And then the moon
waxed and waned
and I stayed intact
and our hearts skipped like lambs --
and then I woke to blood.

The women stopped
meeting my gaze
at the mikveh, fearful
of my barren womb.
As if my eye meant harm.

Continue reading "New poem: the story of Chanah" »

The last #blogElul poem: Return

Blogelul2014-1RETURN (ELUL 29)

This month is all about return.
Take stock of who you are and start again.
You can always turn over
a new leaf. Nothing's written
in stone, no lock is sealed.
The important thing is to begin.

The habit may seem strange when you begin.
Pausing each night to turn and re-turn
the day's events in memory before they're sealed
by sleep? What's the point of that, again?
But you know your hard drive's written
by your words and deeds, over

and over. Go deep, let the waves wash over
your head. Once you're there, begin
to read the lines you've written
in your book of memory. Return
to where you started from again.
Life imprints the soft wax of your heart, sealed

like a signet ring, sealed
and drying fast. But it's not over
yet. You can try again.
Pick up your pencil and begin.
Only a few days until you'll return
your blue book, and what you've written

is what God will judge. Days written
on your body; your choices sealed
into your skin. Time to return
the library books you've kept over
due, face up to the fine, begin
to think about reading lists again.

Freedom's carved on your tablets again.
Inscribed with God's own hand, written
under your skin. Will you begin
to excavate what's concealed
inside your heart? Over
turn the harsh decree and return

again? On Yom Kippur is sealed
what now is written. Can you get over
your own fears? Begin. Be loved. Return.

This is the final poem of this year's #blogElul. Whether you've only just started reading, or whether you've been reading all the way along, thank you for sharing this journey.

(I'm already working on revising and polishing these 29 poems, and hope to make them available as a print chapbook before next year's Elul. Stay tuned for more on that.)

May your Days of Awe be awesome, meaningful, and sweet; may you be inscribed for a good year to come. Here's to 5775!


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

A poem for #blogElul 28: Give

Blogelul2014-1GIVE (ELUL 28)

Another chance. Is that so much
to ask? Give me a do-over.
Let me erase these wild formulae
from the blackboard and write
love letters instead. Hand me
that screwdriver; I want to fix
the things I cobbled together
in haste, the hinges between us
hanging broken. I won't waste
this time. Look how time itself
gleams, every moment a dewdrop
beading the finest of spiderwebs.
Every morning when I open my eyes
I'll shout blessings from the deck.
That my soul enlivens this body
still! I won't take it for granted.
I'll tuck a spoon in my pocket
and taste everywhere you take me.
I'll remember to give compliments.
I'll crease cynicism into quarters
like a battered old roadmap
and throw it away. I'll navigate
by whatever coordinates you give.


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

A poem for #blogElul 27: Intend

Blogelul2014-1INTEND (ELUL 27)

And what did I intend, after all?
To uncover beauty everywhere.

To travel even
into the heart of an enemy
and unlock the rusted gate.

To walk beside someone
for a time; to share
a simple sunrise as spectacular
as a nebula unfolding.

To act as though
I were really the person
your starry eyes imagine.

To be a story.
Remembered and retold.


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

Visiting those who are gone

OldMy congregation, like many communities, has a custom of holding a short memorial service in our cemetery on the Sunday afternoon just before Rosh Hashanah. It is usually an intimate affair. Those who attend tend to be our oldest members, who frequently have generations of loved ones buried in this hallowed ground. Many of our younger members are transplants to the area (as am I, though after 22 years I have come to feel pretty well rooted here) and don't have graves to visit here. And even if we did have graves to visit, I don't know that most of us would take on this practice.

Every time I prepare to lead this service, I think about my maternal grandmother, Alice Epstein z"l, whom we called by the Czech term of endearment Lali. She grew up in Prague, and used to grouse that Americans were peculiar in our reticence to visit cemeteries. In her childhood it was common practice to visit the cemetery on Sundays, perhaps bringing a picnic, and to spend time paying respectful visits to one's loved ones who had left this life.

I think I must have heard that story from her when we visited the new cemetery in Prague together in 1993 along with several other members of my family. ("New" because it was built in 1891 to relieve the overcrowding at the old cemetery, which had been in use since the 1400s. We visited that one too, though more as a historical site than as a place of our own family history.) Where the old cemetery was a crowded jumble of ancient Hebrew-carved stones, I remember the new cemetery as being stately and green, filled with ivy and tall trees and art deco headstones.

ArchI think of that Czech cemetery when I visit the one where I work today, because this one too is tree-lined and beautiful. And I wonder: is it Americans (as opposed to the Czech) who don't make a habit of visiting cemeteries, or is it the younger generation, no matter where in the world we are? ("Younger" in this case meaning younger than my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were born in the early years of the 20th century.) How many of us, in today's world, still live in the towns where our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents are buried?

My shul's cemetery is up in the hills just outside of North Adams proper, in the town of Clarksburg. To get there, one drives along route two and then up into the hills. One drives past houses and trees and horses at pasture before arriving at the gates to our cemetery, our "house of life." That's what Jewish cemeteries are traditionally called. The name arose because of the belief that when this incarnation ends, our souls continue to eternal life beneath the wings of Shekhinah. For many people today, maybe the cemetery is a house of life in that it reminds us that we ourselves are still living.

PnAnyway, our house of life is in a beautiful spot, surrounded by trees whose leaves rustle at this season as they begin to turn orange and red and gold. They'll flame brightly before they brown and fall. There's something especially poignant about holding our cemetery service surrounded by trees which are about to undergo, or are already undergoing, that change. It's so easy to experience the seasons as a metaphor for the cycles of human life.

Each year on the Sunday before the holidays I join a handful of our members in a semicircle of folding chairs and I lead them in prayer. The service itself is brief: a few prayers, a few poems, some singing which rings out against the headstones and the hills. The memorial prayer which I sing at every funeral. The mourner's kaddish, our prayer which reminds us to offer praise even in the face of death. And then the small crowd disperses to walk among the stones, to trace engraved names with wrinkled fingertips, to place pebbles as markers of our visit and our remembrance.

PebblesDuring this year's service I pointed out that the silent yizkor  prayers  of remembrance promise that we will engage in acts of tzedakah (righteous giving) in memory of those whom we have lost. I explained the traditional belief that giving tzedakah in remembrance of a loved one can help that loved one's aliyat ha-neshamah, the ascent of their soul to higher and higher levels of the heavens. Even if that image doesn't work for us, or doesn't mesh with what we believe about the afterlife, it's still a beautiful teaching.

After the service, when we were lingering at our folding chairs, someone asked what I believe about the afterlife. We talked for a while about what I believe -- I offered the image of the droplet of water rejoining the waterfall, the soul returning to its source; I offered my belief that those who have died can hear us when we need to speak to them, at Yizkor services four times a year, or when we visit them in their places of burial -- and how my beliefs fit with some of our tradition's teachings, among them the idea of gilgul ha-nefesh, the "transmigration of souls."

And then I sat for a while with a particular elder congregant, who reminds me every time we meet that when we first met he "engaged me" to officiate at his funeral. I told him, as I always do, that I remember the promise -- and that I'm glad that he hasn't yet cashed in that chit.

There is something awe-inspiring for me about being able to daven these prayers with our oldest members each year, and also with some of the children of our elders who come in remembrance of their parents. Our elders have seen a lot of rabbis come and go. I'm honored that they, along with the rest of my community, have entrusted the care of this holy community to me.

When I wake up on the Sunday before the holidays, there's always a lazy part of me which wishes -- just the slightest bit -- that I could spend this last Sunday of the old year curled up on the couch with a giant mug of coffee, the Sunday Times, and a good football game. It would be nice to relax into a little bit of normalcy and calm before the whirlwind of the Jewish holidays! But I know that when I get to the cemetery, its calm quiet will enliven me. I will remember every funeral over which I have been humbled to preside. I will greet my community's elders with gratitude for their presence and for my own. And for the remainder of the the old year, and well into the new one, I will be glad to have gone.

Returning in love: short thoughts on Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Here's the brief d'var Torah I offered at yesterday morning's Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


If you only take one thing away from this morning's Torah reading, let it be this: that teshuvah is a two-partner dance, and that God is always ready to turn to us in love.

This week's Torah portion speaks in terms of blessings and curses. We might call those "good outcomes" and "bad outcomes." We know that our choices come with consequences, and that sometimes our poor choices lead us to unpleasant consequences. And we know that sometimes we receive outcomes we didn't wish for, even when we've chosen as wisely as we could.

Torah teaches that when we consciously choose a life of mitzvot, connective-commandments, blessings will be open to us. This doesn't mean that if we abide by the mitzvot then nothing painful will ever happen to us. But it could mean that if we weave the mitzvot into our daily lives and into our practice, we'll have more resiliency when the painful outcomes happen, as they sometimes do.

And Torah teaches that when we make teshuvah and turn-toward-God, God is always already turning-toward-us in return, with love.

We've all had the experience of hurting someone's feelings, and then feeling reluctant to apologize for fear of how that person might react to seeing us again. People are complicated. Sometimes we respond from a place of reactivity. But the guiding force of the universe isn't like that. When we make teshuvah, says this Torah portion, God responds to us in love.

If you've paid attention to the Torah readings we've been encountering over the course of this whole year, you might feel inclined to argue with that. It's true that in Torah, God does not always seem to respond with love. Personally, I think that one of the things we see in Torah is the children of Israel learning how to be a people, and God learning how to be our God.

Like any new parent, God seems to respond out of anger sometimes. But if we remember that the name God gives to Moshe at the burning bush is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming," maybe that can help us understand God as constantly growing and changing. God is in the very process of growth and change.

Here is one thing I know for sure: ahavat olam, neverending love, is an essential part of God. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that we read this portion each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, precisely at the time when we might be getting most anxious about our journey of teshuvah. "Don't worry," the Torah seems to be telling us. "It's going to be okay. God will greet you with love, no matter what."

On the heels of that teaching comes one of my very favorite passages in the whole Torah:

11Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

This mitzvah, this connection, this instruction, is not beyond us. It doesn't require us to be someone that we're not. It doesn't demand that we change altogether before we even attempt to take it on. This is a mitzvah which is already sweet in our mouths, already encoded in our beating hearts. Place two fingers on a pulse point and feel for your heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub: you turning toward God, God turning toward you. You reaching out, God reaching back.

Make teshuvah. Turn in the right direction again. Align yourself with your highest dreams and hopes. And you will be received with infinite, neverending love.

A poem for #blogElul 26: Hope

Blogelul2014-1HOPE (ELUL 26)

For the heat-cracked soil of our hearts
to receive gentle rain.

For the winds which fan our blazes
to still themselves.

For the stains on the cobblestones
to be only pomegranate juice.

For every parent to wake joyful
because their child is safe.

For God to be able at last to stop
rending her garments with grief.

In Jewish tradition it is customary to rend one's garments in mourning when a loved one dies. This poem imagines God mourning every unnecessary human death as a human parent would mourn the loss of a child.

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

Praise for Days of Awe

I've received some lovely feedback on Days of Awe: the Velveteen Rabbi's Machzor for the Yamim Nora'im. One of the most generous responses has come from reviewer Susan Katz Miller, who writes:

RtoLHalfCover-smallMeanwhile, many of the most progressive Jewish communities have been working to create services that will honor tradition, while also breathing new life into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as well as all the rest of the days in the Jewish calendar). One of those visionaries is Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, an accomplished poet and Jewish Renewal rabbi often known by her blogging moniker, The Velveteen Rabbi. This year, Rabbi Rachel has published (with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) a gorgeous new Machzor (the prayerbook specifically for the High Holidays). Days of Awe inspires with new translations, lively illustrations, and poetry that avoids platitudes. Along with her own marvelous poems, she includes poems from Yehuda Amichai, Leonard Cohen, Marie Howe, David Lehman, Alicia Ostriker, Omar Khayyam, Phillip Schultz, Hannah Szenes, Herman Taube, and Rumi. The translations and interpretations come from rabbis including Shlomo Carlebach, Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, David Shneyer, Hannah Tiferet Siegel, and the much-beloved Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal.

In addition to infusing the services with carefully curated poetry and translations, this prayerbook invites and welcomes all (interfaith, disaffected, seeking) by explaining the sense and structure of the services. For instance, the repetition of the Kaddish through the services can seem bewildering and stultifying. Rabbi Rachel stops to explain that the Kaddish acts as a door to mark the transition to each new section of the service, and her Machzor illustrates this concept with a series of lovely photographs of different doors inserted with each recurrence of the Kaddish...

I expect Days of Awe will...exert an influence throughout the increasingly diverse and complex Jewish world.

You can read Susan's review at her blog: High Holy Days: Now With Great Poetry! (Susan is author of Being Both, which I wrote about last year.)

Meanwhile, in addition to kvelling at kind responses like Susan's, I'm also collecting edits for an eventual second edition of the machzor. This is the first year that this machzor will be used anywhere (to the best of my knowledge, it's being piloted in three congregations across the United States, as well as possibly in a small havurah in Thailand), and I am looking forward to collecting feedback so that I can improve it for a second edition. Stay tuned for more on that as the new year unfolds.


A poem for #blogElul 25: Begin

Blogelul2014-1BEGIN (ELUL 25)

Of course it isn't easy.
You'll wobble on your feet
like an unsteady calf.
Colors will taste different.

Old comforts will be strange.
Everyone you thought you knew
will look unfamiliar
through your remade eyes.

Dreaming, you'll mutter
in the oldest language.
And what kind of person
are you this time around?

Do you take the door
or leap out the window, wear
tweed or stripes or basic black?
Who do you think you are?

After coming through
these golden days
your skin will be tender
and your heart afire.

It's all right to be afraid.
You're not alone; never that.
Look for the messages
you set afloat in bottles

in your former life
drifting and bobbing
across the endless stars
to find you on this shore.


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

Through the equinox door

32062We're approaching the doorway between the old year and the new.

Just as Jewish tradition teaches us to put a mezuzah on our doorposts, to make us mindful as we transition from one place to the next, the holidays act as mezuzot on the doorposts of our year. We're moving from one place to the next. What memories do we want to bring with us? What baggage do we want to leave behind, outside the door?

This weekend we're approaching another doorway, too: the equinox, the hinge between summer and fall. Every door offers a chance to pause and look back. In the season now ending, where did I live up to my hopes for who I would be, and where did I fall short? What do I want to lift up and remember, and what to I want to let go of, to release?

What do I want to bring with me into the new year, and into the coming season of preparing to lie fallow for the winter? What do I need to focus on so that the qualities I want to cultivate will naturally arise in me?

I posted recently about Why I love Selichot services. (Those who receive this blog via email may have received an incomplete version of the post by accident -- please do click on the link and read the whole thing if you are so inclined!) But one thing I didn't mention in that post is that this year, Selichot comes on the eve of September 21, which is for me the first day of autumn.

For what do I need to say "I'm sorry" in order to enter the new season, the new year, with a clean slate? Where do I need to create repair in my relationships with other people, with my own soul, with the Earth, with my Source? What old resentments or frustrations do I need to shed in order to walk through this doorway with my spine straight and my shoulders unclenched?

Fall is coming. The new year is coming. Who do I want to become on the other side of this door?


This is a variation on the teaching I offered during this morning's meditation minyan at my shul.

Related: First day of fall, 2012.

A poem for #BlogElul 24: End


And every ending is a beginning.
Rolling back light before darkness

and darkness before light. Making
one year pass away and bringing on

the next. And when my life ends
you'll go on to a chapter without me

and I'll go on to -- I'll know
when I get there, but I'm not sure

you'll be able to read the postcards
I send from that other side.

The cardinal alighting at the top
of the pine,  the rough weave

of a rainbow tallit beneath your thumb
-- will you remember the language

of flowers, the meanings hidden
in the shofar's calls? Or will you

imagine that the world truly ends
at the thundering waterfall?

One door closes and another opens.
Start the story over again

with the spirit of God hovering
over the deep waters of the womb.

"Rolling back light before darkness and darkness before light" is a reference to the ma'ariv aravim ("Who Evens the Evenings") prayer which we recite every night: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, who rolls back light before darkness and darkness before light, who makes day pass away and brings on the night..."

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

A poem for #blogElul 23: Love

Blogelul2014-1LOVE (ELUL 23)

Four tiny books in a printed cardboard box.
A handprint, undated—maybe he was two?

An autograph-keeper with faded pages
inscribed in spidery curlicues of Czech.

The onesie and pants and booties we chose
for the cautious drive home from the hospital.

Silver posy of dried wedding lilies
tucked into the cup I carried by hand

from Karlovy Vary. I save these talismans
behind sliding glass as though they were portals

to voices I'll never hear again, hands
small and hot or soft and wrinkled in mine.

How does God bear the accumulation of memory?
Lives superimposed in time-lapse photographs.

Our bridges, skyscrapers, symphonies, sculptures
like the fingerpainted art my son brings home.

And when we're gone does God leaf slowly
through the still frames of our remembered lives

amazed that no matter how many souls we are
there's always room for more love?


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

Why I love Selichot

Those who subscribe to Velveteen Rabbi via email or RSS may have received an early / partial draft of this post; sorry about that, that wasn't supposed to happen! Here's the post in full.


Selichot-1I love Selichot. The word "selichot" means "pardons," and can refer to the series of teshuvah-related (repentance / return - related) prayers which we recite during the Days of Awe. It can also refer -- as it does in this instance -- to the service which begins the High Holiday season, on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, during which we begin singing some of those prayers once again for the first time in a long while.

I love it because it's intimate. Of course I love throwing back the walls of our sanctuary and filling the whole building with chairs for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a joy to see so many faces during the Days of Awe! But there is something extra-special for me about the intimacy of our Selichot services, which are usually attended by 20 or 25 people. I love being able to look around the room and see the faces of people who are dear to me.

I love it because it begins with havdalah. I don't make havdalah often enough. Every time I do it, I remember how much I love it, and I think: why don't I do this every week? (I should do it every week, I know! It is the closing ritual which bookends lighting Shabbat candles; I do that every week, so why don't I always do the short ritual at the other end of Shabbat?) I love the scent of spicy cloves, the light of the braided candle held aloft, the melody of the blessings.

I love it because it launches us into the High Holiday season. We are not a community where a daily minyan is reciting tachanun (the service of penitential prayers) on a regular basis, so for most of us, prayers like "Avinu Malkeinu" ("Our Father, Our King") and the vidui are only experienced during the Days of Awe. Selichot comes a few days before the holidays begin, and singing these beloved melodies and ancient words helps to emotionally get us going.

I love it because my little shul has adopted a practice I learned at the old Elat Chayyim years ago. At Selichot, while I play quiet guitar music, people write down (anonymously) on index cards things for which they seek forgiveness -- misdeeds and mis-steps -- places where they missed the mark in the last year -- baggage from which they seek release. These are collected and I weave them into one of the "Al Chet" prayers of Yom Kippur.

I love it because there's poetry. Every year we sing, and read, and daven, the words of some classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) and also the words of some contemporary authors -- this year including Fay Zwicky, Marge Piercy, Norman Hirsch. These words stir me deeply, and so does the experience of moving from Adon Ha-Slichot (traditional) to Naomi Shihab Nye's "Burning the Old Year" (non-traditional.) There's something in the interweaving of sources which opens my heart right up.

I love it because it's optional. At least, in the paradigm of the liberal Jewish world where I serve. People come to high holiday services for all kinds of reasons (including inchoate feelings of obligation) and I welcome everyone, always, regardless of what brought you in the door. But I know that those who come for Selichot are doing so purely because they want to be there, because they want to be on the journey of teshuvah, because they want to come together and sing and ponder and pray.

I love it because it is one of the bookends to the intensity of the Days of Awe. The journey goes from havdalah, to Selichot, then Rosh Hashanah, then Shabbat Shuvah, then Yom Kippur, which ends with havdalah again. (This is true even when Yom Kippur falls on a weekday; when it falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, the havdalah at its close is extra-special.) We begin with havdalah and we end with havdalah, but in between we've taken a spiritual journey which changes our experience of the familiar words when we recite them for the second time.

 And I love it because it feels like it's mine. Even in a shul as relatively low-key as the one I am blessed to serve, the High Holidays themselves have some extra grandeur and pageantry. And that's as it should be. I try to live up to the liturgy's grandeur while also keeping our services accessible and meaningful. But Selichot services are sweet and heartfelt, earnest and down-to-earth. Selichot feels like it belongs to me, like it's a natural outgrowth of my soul and my heart.


My shul's Selichot services will be held at 8pm on Saturday night, with a potluck dessert reception to follow. If you are in or near western Massachusetts, you are welcome to join us.


New year's card


ElulCardPhotosSpiritual life unfolds
    in staccato bursts of prayer:
        @God thanks, help, please.

Do You miss the measured curves
    of pen and ink on cardstock,
        our prescribed correspondence

each morning, picture postcard
    every afternoon, night's letter
        brief but complete? I do too.
But I trust Your mailbox opens
    to these ad hoc forms,
        praise You for gifts tucked

in the folds of my days:
    the cat's rusty purr, scent
        of candy-colored Play-Doh,

boy leggy as a flamingo
    bouncing on our bed at dawn.
        Teach me to listen like You

with endless love. Grant me
    another year to practice.
        Unfurl my heart's armor.

Comfort, please, the sick;
    console those who mourn
        open the faucet of blessings.

In return I'll turn
    toward You like a sunflower.
        Ever grateful for Your ear,

bent to hear
    what I need to say.
        Here's to the year.



לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year!

with love,

Rachel (Barenblat), Ethan (Zuckerman), and Drew


(For those who are so inclined, here's a link to my archive of new year's card poems...)

A poem for #blogElul 22: Dare

Blogelul2014-1DARE (ELUL 22)

To cross the threshold
between familiar and unknown.
To stop hiding. To dance
even if you feel
like an ungainly giraffe.
To let the tears come.
To throw your arms out
and pour light on the world.

To start over, relearning
everything. To notice
what you habitually rely on.
To push on the door
you know shouldn't be open
and laugh when it swings free.
To make a different choice
the second time around.

To admit that you're scared.
To find places you've never been.
To name something after
those you've lost.
To change the desktop, redo
the walls. To line the insides
of your pockets with silk.
To say goodbye this time.


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.