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Ten years with the angels

1.

The year is 2005. I am at the old Elat Chayyim -- in its original campus, the Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. It is "smicha students' week"  and I am not yet a student. I'm spending the week with the ALEPH Ordinations Programs community: learning with them, dining with them, davening with them.

This is part of our mutual discernment process: is this the right program for me? (I know in my bones that it is.) Am I the right fit for them? (I pray with my whole heart that I am.) I am staying in a room with two students and another applicant. I don't yet know that I will begin the program in the fall.

DLTI -- the Davenen Leadership Training Institute -- is meeting during this same week. I will realize, years later, that this must be their third session of four. Their facility with leading prayer, and the way their energies and harmonies interweave seamlessly, would not be possible during week one.

But at this moment I don't know that, and I'm mostly just awed by the way they lead prayer. This is the first time in my life that I hear weekday nusach, the melodic mode used for weekday davenen, and I fall in love with it instantly. It's also the first time I ever hear an invocation of the angels at bedtime.

One night, my room-mates who are in the program sing it to the two of us in the room who are applicants. The melody is by R' Shlomo Carlebach z"l. "In the name of God, the God of Israel -- on my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel..." When did anyone last sing me a lullaby? It brings me to tears.

 

2.

The year is 2010. I am once again at smicha students' week -- this time at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. I am spending two weeks there with the entire AOP community. It will be my last summer residency as a rabbinic student. It is also my first summer residency with a baby.

My mother spends a week there taking care of the baby so that I can go to class. She brings him to me when he needs to nurse, and otherwise she strolls him around the grounds, reads him board books, plays with him. One night she asks me the name of the beautiful Israeli folksong I sing him at bedtime.

It takes me a moment to realize that she means this piece of traditional liturgy, set to R' Shlomo's melody. I explain that this is an invocation of the angels -- Michael, Gavriel, Uriel, Raphael -- to watch over us while we sleep. Part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. Every night, she listens to me sing.

 

3.

The year is 2015. I am perched on the edge of my son's bed. "Do you want me to say the prayers tonight, or do you want to say them?" I ask. Tonight he wants to do them himself. He blesses everyone. He sings the shema. And then he sings me the angel song, in Hebrew and in English.

Some of the Hebrew words are a bit garbled. And I have no idea what he thinks an angel is. But in this moment, I am awestruck. Ten years ago the idea of invoking the angels of wonder, strength, light, and comfort was new to me. Five years ago, it was new to my mom. But this is not new to my son.

For him, this is ordinary. A natural part of the bedtime routine, just like saying "God bless..." and singing the shema. And sometimes now, before his own bedtime, my son sings the angel song to me -- just as my friends did, bringing me to tears in that dorm room at the old Elat Chayyim, a lifetime ago.

 

 

Related:Bedtime angels, July 2015


ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour: Next Stop, Philly!

Banner2This weekend, my co-chair Rabbi David and I are off to Philaldephia for the next stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour! (That link goes to our new webpage describing the listening tour -- what we're doing, why we're doing it, where we're doing it. Every time I look at the graphic at the top of that page I want a Listening Tour t-shirt...)

Like our stop in Boston a few weeks ago, this weekend will feature some events which are open to the public. On Friday night we'll have Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night at Mishkan Shalom, which will feature some Torah from R' David and some poetry from me. On Saturday morning we'll be at P’nai Or, where the plan calls for Torah study at 9:15am and davenen at 10:30. There will be a 1pm lunch and a 2pm open mike session at P'nai Or where we will harvest hopes, dreams, and feedback from the community. If you're in the area, have an investment in the future of ALEPH and/or Jewish Renewal, and have an interest in adding your voice to the chorus, we hope you'll join us.

There will also be some events over the course of the weekend which are for a more intimate group of curated guests. We've done this in both of the cities where we've traveled thus far (New York and Boston) and both times it's been pretty extraordinary. Philadelphia is one of the centers of Jewish Renewal life, so this time around our balance of self-identified Renewalniks to others is different than usual. Over the course of our weekend in Philadelphia we'll be meeting with Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, Rabbi Deborah Waxman (President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), Rabbi Shawn Zevit  (of Mishkan Shalom and the ALEPH Ordination Programs va'ad), Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler (of P’nai Or and the ALEPH Ordination Programs va'ad), and more.

As in all of our Listening Tour stops, we're making an effort to listen to "insiders" as well as "outsiders." We want to hear from those who have been part of Jewish Renewal for a long time, and also those who are new to Renewal, and also those who perhaps don't see themselves as part of Renewal per se but are doing the kind of meaningful, heart-centered, innovative re-creation of Judaism with which we resonate. Our conversations thus far have been both broad and deep.

And we continue to make a spiritual practice of receptive listening. We want to hear what you need to tell us about ALEPH and about Jewish Renewal, whether it is praise or critique or a mixture of the two. We want to know your hopes and dreams for the Jewish future, and your suggestions for how to work toward that future. We commit to holding your feedback in confidence. And we will do our best to incorporate everything we're learning and hearing into the State of Jewish Renewal report which we intend to offer next summer at the ALEPH Kallah (July 11-17 in Fort Collins, Colorado -- join us!)

On a purely personal level, and as someone who collects different prayer experiences, I'm especially excited about our Shabbat davenen plans. P'nai Or was founded in the early 1980s by Reb Zalman z"l, and is now led by Reb Marcia and Hazzan Jack. Reb Marcia is the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program (and Hazzan Jack runs the ALEPH cantorial program), so I've davened with them many times over the years, though never in their home community. And Mishkan Shalom is home to A Way In, an initiative which focuses on Jewish mindfulness practice, of which I have been a longtime fan from afar.

(Reb Marcia and Reb Shawn together run the Davenen Leadership Training Institute, a two-year liturgical leadership training program about which I blogged frequently. DLTI was one of the best experiences I had in rabbinic school, and continues to deeply shape not only how I lead davenen but also how I enter into prayer in order to be able to lead others there. Getting to spend a weekend davening with the two of them is my idea of a good time.)

And I'm looking forward both to the open mike and to the curated sessions. It's inspiring and humbling to sit with people -- some of whom have renewing Judaism longer than I've been alive! -- and take in their insights about where Jewish Renewal has been and where we might yet go. And it's exciting to sit with people who are collaborating with us in the big-picture work of revitalizing the Jewish landscape and making heart and spirit central to Jewish experience -- regardless of whether they consider themselves part of "organized Jewish Renewal" -- and share hopes and dreams for what the Jewish future might hold and how we might work together in holy service to shape that future.

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Our Philadelphia weekend will be co-hosted by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, P’nai Or, and Mishkan Shalom. If you're in the Philadelphia area and are able to join us for Friday night or Saturday morning services, and/or for the open mike after Shabbat lunch, I hope to see you there.

 

(For more on this, check out An Update on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour at Kol ALEPH.)


When sadness and joy co-exist - at The Wisdom Daily

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My latest short piece for The Wisdom Daily is excerpted from a longer post I'm writing about Jay Michaelson's new book The Gate of Tears, which just came out this month from Ben Yehuda Press. Here's a taste:

Sadness can feel like something shameful, especially for people (like me) who make a practice of practicing gratitude. But sadness is a necessary part of the emotional landscape.

It's worth noting: Sadness is not the same as depression. The book distinguishes between the two, and so do I. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-liveable. Sadness is different.

Feeling sad hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But the emotion passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes, on rare occasions, I can feel that joy even while sadness is present. For me, that's the experience at the heart of The Gate of Tears.

Read the whole thing here: When Sadness and Joy Co-Exist. (And stay tuned for my longer piece in response to the book -- coming soon.)


Untie my tangles

 

I come to you tangled.
I come to you hurting
and afraid, my muscles
in knots, my heart sore.

You won't judge me
even if I cry myself ugly.
Even if my circuits are wired
strange. Even if I ache.

Run your gentle fingers
through me. Loosen
the snarls, the snares.
Remind me how to breathe.

Tell me I'm not too much.
Invite all of me
to walk with you. See me
and I become whole.

 


 

This is another poem of yearning which will probably become part of Texts to the Holy.

It riffs off of the prayer Ana B'Koach, which asks God to untie our tangled places. And the final stanza hints at a verse from this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha. In Genesis 17:1 we read that God says to Avram, הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים - "Walk before Me, and be תָמִים / tamim." Though that English doesn't really capture the reflexiveness ofהִתְהַלֵּךְ / hit'halech, which might mean something more like "walk with yourself" or "bring your whole self to walk." And what is tamim? Some translations say "pure;" some say "whole-hearted." In this context, I like to translate it simply as "whole."


Brought to you by diner coffee

I think of myself as pretty good at working with people remotely. I was a relatively early adopter, internet-wise. I've been online for well more than 20 years. I spent three years on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization with no physical address, working with colleagues all over the globe day after day via purely internet-based tools. And yet I can't deny that there is a different energy, a special spark, which arises when I can sit down with someone face to face. Maybe especially if our brainstorming is fueled by a neverending stream of surprisingly decent diner coffee.

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This is a photograph of my current favorite diner. This diner is on a relatively nondescript Main Street sort of highway in a smallish upstate New York town. We happened on it purely because the town in which it is planted is roughly midway between where I live and where my ALEPH co-chair lives. And besides, its chrome and mirrors gleam so appealingly on a sunny day! (And when you walk inside, you're greeted by a giant statue of a guy holding a gargantuan coffee mug.) Every so often, when we can swing it, we get in our cars and we each drive a couple of hours, and this is where we meet up.

It's enormous, and although there's frequently a healthy crowd, I've never seen it full. Maybe that's why they don't seem to mind when we show up, order breakfast, and then spend hours with laptops thanking the waitstaff when they come to top off our cups. It was at this diner, some months ago, that we first dreamed up a list of hopes for ALEPH six months, a year, three years hence. It was at this diner recently that we opened up that plan again and marveled at how many of those hopes and dreams are (with help from Board, staff, teachers, and the Holy One of Blessing) coming to pass.

Lately we've been joking that when we issue that State of Jewish Renewal report next summer at the ALEPH Kallah, we should indicate on the flyleaf that it is brought to you by this diner's neverending stream of coffee. Most recently it's where we met with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, "the Kirtan Rabbi" (about whose work I have posted before), to talk about next summer's Kallah, innovation space and the integration of serious text study with heart-centered Renewal spiritual technologies, and more. We only make it there every few months, but it's already becoming my diner-office-away-from-home.

I don't mind working remotely. On the contrary: I love the fact that when the ALEPH Board meets, I see friendly faces (on my computer screen) who are in a variety of locations and time zones. I love the fact that I get to work with terrific colleagues around North America and around the world. But there really is no substitute for facing a friend across a formica diner table, warming one's hands on a cup of joe in a satisfyingly chunky diner mug, making to-do lists and riffing off of each other's ideas, and then together -- dual laptops open, shared document cursor blinking -- diving in and getting to work.

 


To Shabbes


I want to plead "don't go!"
    though I know you'll return.
        I trust the future I can't see.

My strength is in your song
    even when I'm not certain
        how to play all the chords.

When you're with me
    every channel opens,
        sweetness courses through.

My unlovely thin skin
    becomes a cloak of light.
        I breathe the air of Eden.

Return quickly, beloved!
    I'm counting the days.
        I carry you in my heart.


This is another poem in the series of poems of yearning and longing which I think will probably become part of the chapbook which currently has the working title of Texts to the Holy.

There are a lot of references here to the prayers of havdalah, the ritual which sanctifies separation between Shabbat and week -- especially to the opening prayers which precede the blessings. Also to a teaching which riffs off of the fact that the Hebrew words for "skin" and for "light" are homonyms. (Find it at the end of this post.) There's also a hint at Yedid Nefesh, which I think is one of our tradition's most beautiful songs of yearning for the Beloved.

 


Mincha with Mary

12119191_875461919196358_4945788954738252986_nIf you had been among the leaf-peepers in a particular small town in southern Berkshire county on Saturday afternoon, you might have seen two rabbis wearing peacoats and kippot, sitting on a stone bench beside a shrine to Mary.

You might have caught snatches of Shabbat afternoon nusach (the melodic mode for that particular time of day on that particular day of the week) on the wind, along with the falling yellow leaves and the (unseasonal! too early!) snow flurries.

You might have seen those two people stand, and take three steps toward the east (not toward the statue), and bend and bow. You might have seen them rocking gently in prayer. You might have seen them laugh upon reaching the blessing which references winter weather.

And you might have seen them return to the bench, shoulder to shoulder, visibly amused at the sweet absurdity of davening Shabbat mincha prayers together alongside (not praying to, but praying beside) a statue of a nice Jewish girl, a spiritual ancestor from a couple of millennia ago.

And then you might have seen them say farewell to Mary and depart down the sidewalk, admiring the late afternoon light gilding the far-away tops of the hills, off to whatever adventure awaited them next.


White light, rainbows, and the soul: a teaching on parashat Noach

19360722113_02a6f45582_zWhen our ancient ancestors saw rainbows, what must they have imagined? Today's Torah reading suggests that they saw rainbows as God's mnemonic device, a reminder of the promise that God would never again try to destroy all life.

Today most of us would probably say that rainbows exist because of scientific principles. Raindrops refract sunlight, dividing it into its constituent wavelengths. White light becomes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Rainbows take something ordinary -- plain white light -- and reveal the extraordinary hiding within it. All of those colors in the spectrum are always already part of every sunbeam, but we don't see them until the raindrops refract the light.

And that scientific explanation takes me right back to theology. The kabbalists, our mystics, use this as a metaphor for God. God is singular, God is One -- like white light. But for those who have eyes to see, God's qualities fan out like the colors of the rainbow.

Hidden within the oneness of white light are the seven colors of the rainbow. And hidden within the Oneness of God are lovingkindness, strength and boundaries, harmony, endurance, humble splendor, generativity, and Shekhinah -- what our mystics called the seven most accessible qualities of God.

This year, the image of the rainbow teaches me about balance. When white light meets raindrops we see the spectrum of colors in perfect balance across the sky. No one color drowns out the others: they're all there. All of these qualities are part of God, and in God too they need to be in balance.

Too much gevurah (judgement) might lead to a harsh decree. Too much chesed (overflowing lovingkindness) might lead to emotional floodwaters. But when all of God's qualities are in right balance -- when all of the colors of the rainbow are present -- then the earth can know peace.

The rainbow reminds me of the need to accept and integrate disparate parts of ourselves: our lovingkindness and our ability to draw boundaries, our balance, our ability to endure. We who are made in God's image also contain all of these colors of self and soul, and we need all of them.

Sometimes we see our spectrum of inner qualities most clearly through the prism of tears. Whether we weep in sorrow or in gladness, times of deep emotion offer opportunities to see ourselves more clearly. When tempestuous internal weather meets the light of one's neshama, the light of one's soul, that light can be refracted through tears -- just as literal sunlight is refracted through rain.

What kind of rainbow is revealed in us when the light of the neshama is refracted through tears? What does it feel like to become aware of those internal colors, to accept our own range of emotion and spirit so that the rainbow of our whole selves can stretch resplendent across our inner skies?

 

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Noach. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Glimpses of Beyond Walls

The Kenyon Institute has released a beautiful video about Beyond Walls, the spiritual writing program for clergy in which I was blessed to teach this past summer.

If you can't see the embedded video, here's a link to the video on YouTube.

Watching the video reminds me of what a lovely experience it was to teach there. If you're curious about Beyond Walls, the video will give you a good sense for what the program was like.

I won't be teaching at Beyond Walls in summer 2016 -- it's at the same time as the 2016 ALEPH Kallah -- but I'm planning to return in 2017, for sure.


The specialness of the ordinary

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Those who pay close attention to the Jewish calendar, or who pay close attention to the night sky, may have noticed that the moon has started waxing again -- which means we've entered a new lunar month. After the intense constancy of the month of Tishri -- which contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah -- comes the month which contains no holidays other than Shabbat, that holiest day of the year which recurs every seventh day.

Some call this lunar month חשון / Cheshvan. Some call it by the name מרחשון / Marcheshvan, and interpret that name as "bitter Cheshvan" -- mar means bitter -- because there are no holidays this month besides Shabbat. Though Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor-Mater noted recently that "The name of the month derives from the Akkadian waraḥ-šamnu meaning 'eighth month' (think cognate to ירח שמיני). Remember, last month Tishri, though first, is actually seventh, and so Marḥeshvan is eighth."

(What does she mean about Tishri being both first and seventh? Well, it depends on which new year you're counting from. The Talmud lists four different new years. If the new year is at Pesach, then Tishri is the seventh month; if the new year is at Rosh Hashanah, it's the first month. Her point is that Marcheshvan can't mean "bitter Cheshvan" because its etymology clearly implies "eighth month." Still, far be it from me to object to a poetic interpretation, as long as we know that it's poetry.)

Still others call this month רמחשון / Ram-cheshvan, "High Cheshvan," suggesting that this month is high and holy precisely because its holiness is hidden, or suggesting that this month's true holiness will make itself known in a time to come. (I believe that teaching originally came from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l.) I like the inversion. The fact that this month has no overt holidays doesn't make it lesser-than. Quite the opposite, in fact. What appears to be most ordinary is in fact most special.

It makes me think of one of my favorite teachings from the Slonimer rebbe about the holiness of the white space. (This is a Shemini Atzeret teaching; I've posted about it here before.) He talks about how the letters of the Torah are holy, and so is the parchment on which they are written. The black fire is holy, and so is the white fire within which it is contained. The days of our festivals are holy -- and so is the context of chol, of ordinary time, within which our days of kedusha, holiness, are cradled.

I like the idea that this month's specialness is hidden. Like a secret language which only those who care will learn to speak. Like secret music which most people don't bother to make the effort to hear. Who knows what opportunities for connection might lurk beneath this month's overtly ordinary exterior? No festivals, no shindigs, no fancy observances -- just a month during which we can reconnect ourselves with the rhythms of weekday and Shabbat, and rediscover the holy opportunities of ordinary time.

 

Related:

The year as spiritual practice, 2009

The empty month, 2010

Seasonal, 2013

Cheshvan, 2014


Coming home into Shabbat

Kabbalat Shabbat feels like coming home. Or it can -- and this past Friday night, it did. I was in Boston for the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour (note the spiffy new webpage!) and was blessed to daven with a shtibl (home-based minyan) which met in Rabbi Art Green's living room. He greeted us, handed out siddurim (prayerbooks), and we began to daven. As others arrived, they joined in.

The siddur was one I had never used before. It featured beautiful Hebrew typesetting, and some nifty nusach Sfard changes from what I usually daven with. I didn't know most of the people in the room -- though of course there were a few souls there (including an ALEPH board member, and of course David, my co-chair) who are already very dear to me; my Renewal hevre (friends) are chosen-family.

But what really felt like a homecoming was diving into the words in a room full of people who were also diving deep. When I am with people who are welcoming Shabbat with heart and intention, I am home. No matter what melodies we're using, no matter what siddur, no matter where I am -- when we're singing to welcome the Shabbat bride, ushering in Shabbat consciousness, my soul comes home.

We davened. We dined. And then after Shabbat dinner there was a lull in the conversation, and Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel offered a new niggun she had recently written. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful. We sang it and sang it. Harmonies arose, and we kept time gently on the table. And then came the sweet, satisfied pause after the song, and Rabbi Art reached for a Hasidic text to give over some Torah.

He taught about how each of us writes a Torah with our own deeds, and how collectively we all fulfill all of the mitzvot which none of us could fulfill alone. As we sang the niggun again to seal the learning in our hearts, I felt as though I were sitting at a Shabbes table on high with the angels. What a gift it was to welcome Shabbat together into our midst, and to welcome ourselves home into Shabbat.

I'm grateful to be doing the Listening Tour for a lot of reasons. One reason is that I'm already learning a lot about the depth and breadth of Jewish Renewal's impact in the world. Another is that it's giving me the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the future of Judaism. And a third reason is Shabbat evenings like that one, where I get to be in community in a way that nourishes my soul.


Bringing the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour to Boston!

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This weekend, my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and I are bringing the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour to Boston! Via emails, video chats, phone calls, coffee dates, and weekend visits to a variety of places around North America, we're spending our first year as ALEPH co-chairs actively listening to what people want Jewish Renewal, and Judaism writ large, to be in years to come.

Everywhere we go, we bring the set of questions we posed at the beginning of this adventure: What do you most cherish about Jewish Renewal, and what would you change? How can we cultivate continued spiritual and organizational innovation, both within ALEPH and in the broader phenomenon which is the continued renewing of Judaism? Given that Renewal is bigger than ALEPH, what role should ALEPH play, and how can we best bring together different people, places, and institutions doing the kind of heart-centered and innovative work we value? What are ALEPH's strengths and weaknesses? And what question should we be asking which isn't on this list -- and how would you answer it?

The format we've evolved for Listening Tour weekends features some public events and some small-group events. This weekend a small group will daven together on Friday night at a home-based minyan, and share Shabbat dinner afterwards, hosted by Rabbi Art Green. On Shabbat morning we'll meet at B’nai Or, an established Jewish Renewal community, for joyful and spirited davenen. Afterwards there will be a Lunch & Learn / Open Mike during which David and I will share about the Listening Tour and will harvest hopes, dreams, and feedback from the community. (If you're in the Boston area and want to be part of the conversation about the future of Jewish Renewal, please join us! Shabbat morning, and the Open Mike / Lunch & Learn, are open to all.)

On Shabbat afternoon and Sunday morning we'll host small-group sessions for a curated group of invited guests. We're making a practice of ensuring that in every place where we go, some of the people in our curated group are "within" ALEPH / Jewish Renewal, while others come from outside the self-identified Jewish Renewal community. All are interested in the future of Jewish life generally and heart-centered innovation particularly, and all are leaders who have a stake in what ALEPH and Renewal are and become. Shabbat afternoon's conversation will be a Vision conversation, aimed at big-picture dreaming. Sunday morning's conversation will be a Tachlis (practical details) conversation, aimed at taking Saturday's vision conversation and bringing it into reality.

We've been honored by the caliber of people who've been part of these conversations thus far. When we did this in New York, our curated group included Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, Rabbi Jeff Fox (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Mahara”t), Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Amichai Lau-Lavie (of Lab/Shul), and Maggid Peninnah Schram (among others), and our Boston group is equally luminous. This coming Shabbes, we get to sit down at a table with Rabbi Art Green from Hebrew College, Rabbi Jill Hammer from the Academy for Jewish Religion, and Joel Segel who with Reb Zalman z"l co-authored Jewish With Feeling and Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer (among others) to talk about the future of Judaism! We both feel incredibly blessed to be able to have these conversations.

Our New York weekend was co-hosted by Romemu (where I just went for Simchat Torah) and by Yeshivat Mahara”t, the groundbreaking seminary ordaining Orthodox women to serve as kli kodesh ("holy vessels," e.g. spiritual leaders.) Our Boston weekend will be co-hosted by transdenominational seminary Hebrew College,  by B’nai Or, and by transdenominational mikveh Mayyim Hayyim. Later this fall we'll be doing something similar in Philadelphia and in Washington, DC. And in the secular new year, if we can secure the funding and can make everyone's calendars line up, we're hoping to visit Montreal, Boulder, southern California, northern California, Seattle, and Vancouver.

(For those who aren't in any of these places but would like to chime in about what you hope the future of Jewish Renewal will be, you're always welcome to email us at chair@aleph.org.)

David and I have made a commitment to a year of receptive listening, a practice which is familiar to both of us from the pastoral work we do in our rabbinates. Our job is to be open and to receive what people have to say -- the things we're happy to hear, and also the things we may not be thrilled to hear -- about Jewish Renewal in general and ALEPH in particular. And our job is also to connect that conversation with a broader conversation about the future of Judaism in decades to come.

It seems likely to us that the future of Judaism won't have the same top-down, denominational shape that's become familiar to us over the last century. We think that the future of Judaism is going to be co-created by a variety of people and institutions working together -- not a hierarchy, but a network. We hope that the future of Judaism will be characterized by the kind of meaningful innovation which has been a hallmark of Jewish Renewal from the beginning -- and we want to partner with others who are engaging in that kind of work. The Listening Tour is both an opportunity to hear from our constituency about what they want from Jewish Renewal, and a step toward bringing together some of the people and institutions doing the work of renewing Judaism across the board so that we can brainstorm together about what we want our Jewish future to be.

And when we say "our constituency," we mean both those who already self-identify as part of ALEPH or part of Jewish Renewal, and also those who don't. We want to hear from everyone who has a stake in the success of this pivot point in Jewish life – whatever your denominational affiliation may be, and regardless of whether or not you see yourself as part of Jewish Renewal now.  The fact that you are reading this post is proof that you are part of the circle of people from whom we want to hear.

If you think what we're doing is worthwhile and want to support the Listening Tour and help launch the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, please donate to ALEPH. (You can earmark your donation for the Listening Tour in the comments field at the bottom of the page.) And if you're in the Boston area, I hope to see you at B'nai Or for Shabbat davenen and the Open Mike / Lunch & Learn to follow.


A Jewish Renewal Simchat Torah

The sanctuary is full of people. A voice calls out "Ana Adonai, hoshia na!" ("Please, God, bring salvation!") and the whole room echoes it. "Ana Adonai, hatzlicha na!" ("Please, God, help us!") and the whole room echoes it. And then the band strikes up and everyone is singing "Aneinu, aneinu, b'yom koreinu" ("Answer us, answer us, on the day when we call!") Then the band shifts seamlessly into a wild whirling Hasidic niggun, and the whole room is singing, and all along the aisle people are standing with their hands raised to make a kind of London Bridge, and people dance beneath the raised hands carrying Torah scrolls. All around the sanctuary there is dancing: circle dancing, spiral dancing, people hoisting the Torah scrolls up like a wedding couple. The whole room is singing and dancing and rejoicing as though the Torah were the most joyful thing imaginable. It is wild. It is sweet. It is a kind of celebratory Jewish mosh pit. It is unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

Welcome to Simchat Torah at Romemu.

Here's the livestream. The Torahs come out of the ark around the 35-minute mark. Scroll to minute 45 to get a sense for what the hakafot were like. (If the embed isn't showing up for you, you can go to the video.)


One of the challenges of smalltown life is that it's not always easy to convene a quorum when minor holidays roll around. Maybe especially when those holidays come at the tail end of a dense and action-packed season of religious observance. The final holiday in the long round of fall observances is Simchat Torah, the festival of "rejoicing in the Torah." On Simchat Torah we sing and dance with the Torah. Sometimes we read the end of the Torah, followed immediately by the beginning.

Some communities unroll a Torah scroll from beginning to end, and people (wearing protective gloves so as not to hurt the parchment) hold it up in a giant circle, and then someone looks for a blessing for each person based on the verses near where their hands happen to be. (We did that here, some years ago.) Many communities dance seven circuits of the room while carrying the Torah -- one for each day of the week, one for each color of the rainbow, one for each of seven sefirot  / qualities of God.

Sometimes there's a special aliyah, an "ascent" to the Torah, for children. Sometimes there's constant singing and dancing. Sometimes the Torah is carried in a kind of festive parade around the sanctuary, preceded and followed by kids waving flags. One way or another, Simchat Torah is meant to be big, celebratory, raucous, joyful...and those things can be hard to provide in a small town shul, especially one where most people (including me!) have never experienced a big Simchat Torah celebration.

Plus, by this time of year, a lot of people have holiday fatigue. First there was Selichot, then the  cemetery service, two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, five services on Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret services with Yizkor, and what, you mean there's another holiday after all of that?! The last few years, it's been challenging to get anyone to show up for Simchat Torah. So we've let the holiday go, at least for now. In a small town community it's hard to do everything.

I had resigned myself to not having a Simchat Torah this year. But then I had an unexpected opportunity, at the last minute, to celebrate Simchat Torah with friends at Romemu, my friend Rabbi David Ingber's big Jewish Renewal shul in New York city. The invitation came, and I thought "...wow, that sounds amazing, I wonder whether that's possible?" Against all odds the stars aligned and I was able to make the trip. And holy wow, am I glad that I did. It was every bit as awesome as I had hoped.


During ma'ariv, the evening service, some of the niggunim which became liturgical melodies had a hauntingly familiar ring to them. Oh, wait, that wasn't festival nusach, that was the "Gilligan's Island" theme! And the theme to the "Brady Bunch!" There was a lot of laughter, and that was a wonderful way to begin the evening together. Laughter, and prayer, and singing with our arms around each other. The evening service was short and sweet and delightful -- a warm-up to the main event.

And then Reb David (Ingber, not Markus -- I am blessed with a lot of Reb Davids in my life) spoke about Simchat Torah. It's been a difficult week, he said. In a lot of places. And yet on this day we sing and dance with the Torah -- in the manner of the Hasidic masters, who also knew profound suffering, and who made the existential choice to sing and dance and rejoice not as a way of ignoring the suffering, but with full awareness of our broken places. We bring our brokenness into the dance.

And then the ark was opened, and the Torah scrolls came out, and Reb David invited everyone in their 70s to come up and lead the first hakafah, the first circle-dance with the Torah around the sanctuary. And a voice called out "Ana Adonai, hoshia na!" and the room echoed the traditional call-and-response which is part of our liturgy of celebratory psalms. And the voice called out "Ana Adonai, hatzlicha na!" and the room echoed. And then the band began to play, and everyone began to dance.


When the call came for everyone in their 40s to come up and lead a hakafah, I went. We sang the call and response, and the band began to play, and I joined the chain of people who ducked, laughing, to dance beneath the raised arms of the community. The human tunnel stretched halfway around the sanctuary. And then when we emerged from beneath those raised hands, we joined hands and danced a hora, a grapevine dance, a spiral dance, circles within circles with the Torahs in the middle.

I did a do-si-do with one of my best friends, and then with one of my beloved teachers, and then with my friend again. I danced and sang and spun until I was dizzy and out of breath and my heart was pounding like the bass and the drums and my heart vibrated like the saxophone and guitar. I collapsed into a seat, laughing and singing. I got up and danced again. I hugged people I love who I don't see very often (none of whom knew I was coming to the city, because this was such a last-minute miracle.)

This is what it means to be a Jew: not only to wrestle with Torah, not only to study and argue with Torah, but to dance with Torah. To dance with our story. The last letter of Torah is ל and the first letter is ב and when we put them together, end-to-beginning, we get לב, lev, which means heart. Torah is at the heart of who we are, and even when our hearts are broken, we embrace our story, we embrace each other, and we dance. By the time we had danced all seven hakafot, my whole being was uplifted.

And this morning I rode that spiritual updraft all the way back home.


Navigating transitions with grace - at the Wisdom Daily

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...Watching my son learn to navigate transitions has given me more compassion for myself as I navigate my own emotional landscape. I have more life experience than he does, so I should be able to face transitions with less anxiety and more grace. And frequently I do. But I also struggle with beginnings and endings. I think everyone does.

One season gives way to the next. Summer vacation gives way to school. On the Jewish calendar, we've just moved from an old year into a new one. All of these transitions come bearing gifts - as well as challenges. And if that's true for annual transitions like the shift from summer to fall, how much more true it is for emotional transitions which may not follow any calendar or arise predictably....

That's a taste of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Click through to read the whole thing: Can You Learn to Love Navigating Transitions?


All I have

All I have is love.
It doesn't feel like enough.
What can I give you?
I'm trying not to hide my light.

It doesn't feel like enough.
(I'm working on this,
and trying not to hide my light.)
What do you need?

I'm working on this:
can't I make offerings?
What do you need
to sweeten this day?

Can't I make offerings:
rose petals in your path
to sweeten this day?
I want to lay my words

like rose petals in your path,
the work of my hands.
I want to lay my words
at your feet, to nourish you.

The work of my hands.
What can I give you
at your feet, to nourish you?
All I have is love.

 


I'm spending some time revising the poems of yearning I've written in recent months -- many of which were written for #blogElul, others over the course of the summer -- into a rough draft of a chapbook manuscript. (Working title: Texts to the KBH. That's short for Kadosh Baruch Hu, "Holy One of Blessing" -- a common name for God.) This is one of the #blogElul poems which is undergoing some transformation; now it takes the form of a pantoum. (Here's the original.) If you like one version better than the other, let me know.