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New at The Wisdom Daily: What do you yearn for?

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay is up at The Wisdom Daily. Writing this essay was really meaningful for me; I hope that reading it is equally so for you. Here's how it begins -- with a story from the beginning of my hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training with ALEPH several years ago:

We sat facing each other, two women who were reasonably friendly but by no means intimate. We were enrolled in a spiritual direction training program together, and this was our first week of class. Our task in this moment was to ask each other one simple question: what do you yearn for?

My partner asked me, and I had a ready answer. I had just learned that I was pregnant, and the yearning at the top of my consciousness was to be a good mother. So that's what I said. Then she asked the question again. I refined my answer. She asked again. I went deeper. She asked again.

After ten minutes of continuing to answer this question, I was weeping. Not in sadness, but in awestruck recognition of how many yearnings I ordinarily keep buried beneath the surface -- and of how remarkable it felt to be able to articulate those yearnings and to have my answers received with gentleness and grace.

If you ask me what I want out of life, I can answer you fairly easily. If you ask me what I hope for, I can answer that too. But yearning feels deeper than either of those. Yearning feels more tender, more vulnerable. Yearning arises from the innermost chambers of my heart...

Read the whole thing: Ask yourself: what do I yearn for?

Against spiritual bypass: statement concerning Marc Gafni

When I was admitted as a rabbinic student at ALEPH, the very first thing that happened was a phone call from ALEPH's head of hashpa'ah / spiritual direction. She interviewed me in order to discern who might be a good spiritual director for me. Every ALEPH student is required to be in spiritual direction during the years we're in the program, and we're strongly encouraged to remain in spiritual direction afterwards, too. (ALEPH also ordains spiritual directors; I hold a second ordination as a mashpi'ah.) 

As far as I know, ours is the only seminary which requires students to be in spiritual direction, to be actively engaged in the work of discernment and teshuvah, throughout our training. One of the reasons why we do this is that we stand firmly against spiritual bypass -- the misuse of spiritual practice or spiritual language to avoid facing painful realities. Reb Zalman z"l used to speak strongly against what he called "whipped cream on garbage:" putting a pretty face on something which is rotten underneath. 

All of this has been on my mind lately given the resurgence of Marc Gafni. ALEPH has released an official Statement of the Jewish Renewal Movement Concerning Marc Gafni. Here's how it begins:

The latest attempted re-emergence of Marc Gafni as self-described spiritual leader galvanizes all who care about genuine spirituality to stand up for high ethical standards, protect the health and safety of students and congregants, and confirm the accuracy of the public record.

Marc Gafni is not a rabbi or spiritual leader recognized by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal...

The whole thing is here: Statement of the Jewish Renewal Movement Concerning Marc Gafni -- please read and share widely.



One of my poems in a salon theatre series in California

LogoJewish Women's Theatre, a Jewish women's theatre collective in California, is putting together a show called "Temptation," which will be a compilation of stories, poems, songs, and short plays, performed by professional actors to an audience of theatre subscribers in their At-Homes Salon Series.

Here's how they describe the show:


A delicious and dangerous discovery of secrets of Jewish women in this shocking and surprising show that will surely evoke laughter and tears, but most of all, remind you how seductive temptation can be. Jan 17-Feb 1.

The show will be performed several times this January in various homes across Southern California, San Francisco and Palo Alto.

And among other things, it will feature my poem "Eating the Apple," which appears also in my collection Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) and in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary American Jewish Poetry (Bloomsbury, 2013).

To purchase tickets for Temptation, click on any of the dates in this list.

Thanks to the JWT folks for soliciting my work!


Crying out, and the possibility of change

CryOfHeart0210 copyThe Exodus from Egypt begins with the deeply-felt cry of the heart. That's what strikes me as I reread this week's Torah portion, Shemot. Torah teaches that the children of Israel, suffering harsh treatment, cried out."They sighed from their bondage, and they cried, and their wails rose up to God" (Ex. 2:23). God took note of their cry, and remembered the covenant with their ancestors. This is the first step in the journey toward freedom which we retell each year at Pesach: a story so core to who we are that we allude to it each week in the Shabbat kiddush, and in our daily liturgy, too.

The first step toward liberation wasn't Moshe seeing the Burning Bush, or going before Pharaoh to demand his people's freedom: it was a krechtz, a heartfelt cry. Torah teaches that we cried out, and God remembered us and answered.  One could quibble with the text: why does God need to be reminded? Wasn't God able to see our suffering before we cried out? But maybe the crying-out was important not so much because God needed to be reminded that God's children were in tight straits, but because we ourselves needed to cry out, to acknowledge our own constriction and our own grief.

We've all heard the parable of the frog who jumped into a pot of cold water and acclimated as the water temperature rose, never realizing that the rising temperature spelled impending death. Apparently it isn't true in any scientific sense, but I think there's spiritual truth in that grisly story. One can become accustomed to tight straits in many forms: to pain, and to suffering; to overwork; to being taken for granted or being mistreated. Like the frog in the story, we may not notice when our circumstances become so toxic that they're dangerous.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that our ability to live with pain -- whether physical or emotional -- is a sign of strength. Sometimes we regret our painful circumstances, but don't see any way out of them, so we make a virtue of necessity and learn to live with them. That's a coping mechanism, and it can serve its purpose well. But the downside of that coping mechanism is that it habituates us to our own suffering. And when we're accustomed to our own pain, we don't cry out... a silence which can easily go hand-in-hand with losing faith in the possibility of anything better than where we are.

Torah teaches that when our ancestors cried out in pain, God's compassion was aroused and the process of the Exodus began. Maybe life's circumstance has taught you that crying out doesn't "help," because it doesn't materially change your reality. I believe otherwise. Spiritual life demands authenticity. Sometimes where we authentically are is a place of grief, or constriction, or pain. We have to be willing to feel that -- and to give voice to the cry which comes from that place. In so doing, we open up the possibility of change.  And conversely, if we can't let ourselves feel where we are, or can't cry out from where we are, it's worth revisiting that frog parable again.

Maybe crying out will catalyze external change, dramatic change, like the children of Israel leaving slavery in Egypt. Maybe it will spark internal change, a change in our relationship with the place where we are, or a change in our ability to hope for better things. This week's Torah portion reminds me this year that when we cry out, we arouse compassion. I believe we arouse compassion in the Holy One of Blessing. But even if you don't "believe" in that kind of God, consider the possibility that when we cry out, we arouse compassion in human hearts, including our own. From that place of compassion -- maybe especially compassion for ourselves -- a different future can arise.


Image source.


Who continually renews

SunshineIn rabbinic school I learned to love the daily liturgy. I love all kinds of variations on that liturgy, and I also love the phrases and images of the liturgy as we've received it.

One of the neat things about davening with a (somewhat) fixed liturgy is that while the words remain the same, the lens I bring to them changes. Words and phrases mean different things to me at different times. Lately when I've been davening, my attention has snagged on one line in the morning prayer which blesses God as creator of light. In Hebrew, it's this:

וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית

In English, these words describe God as the One Who, every day, in goodness, continually renews the work of creation.

"Continually renews the work of creation." Sometimes that phrase suggests to me that God is perennially speaking the universe into being. As Torah teaches that creation began with the words "let there be light," just so, every atom which exists is being spoken-into-being by God in every moment. Sometimes that phrase suggests something different: that every morning we wake to a world which is (or can be) entirely new. No matter what happened yesterday, each day is a chance to begin again.

Today I was struck by the first word in that phrase, which means "in [God's] goodness." God renews creation each day not out of habit, but in goodness. (Or "with goodness" -- the Hebrew could be translated either way.) Goodness is the tool with which God renews creation, or maybe the renewal of creation is itself goodness. It is goodness which brings about renewal, and renewal is perennial. Creation is constantly being renewed, and because we are part of creation, so are we.

I know that sometimes in my life I feel stuck, or I know that someone I love is stuck: in illness, in grief, in a difficult situation that (no matter how I might try) I can't balm or fix. I know that every human life comes with heartache. I know that sometimes the things that hurt feel perennial and never-ending. The hurt can feel as though it will swell until it eclipses everything else.

At those times I need a reminder of precisely what this prayer teaches. I need to be reminded that renewal is foundational and is built in to the fabric of the universe. I need to be reminded that creation didn't just happen once-upon-a-time: it's still happening even now, in every moment. I need to be reminded that (at least, in the view of my tradition) goodness is central to existence as we know it, and that goodness is always unfolding. That God is always unfolding. That creation is always unfolding.

Yesterday morning I davened the morning service at 30,000 feet as I flew back from a few days visiting family. As early sun gilded the beautiful bright tops of the clouds, I blessed God Who creates light: not only the literal light of the star we call the sun, but also the light of wisdom and of insight. And I paused for a while on the line which names God as the One Who every day, in goodness, continually renews the work of creation. I'm glad to have the daily liturgy to remind me that that is so.

The one who sees me


You are the one who sees me.
Please see me in soft focus.

This mirror shows only
what's shameful, worthy of scorn:

every flaw magnified
and stripped of holiness.

As imperfect as I am, how
can I find favor in your eyes?

Yet you watch over my planes
as they take off and land.

When life feels unbearable
you make laughter well up in me.

When I wake from bad dreams
you gentle my pounding heart.

Your voice quickens my pulse
and mends my broken places.

Your steadfast kindness
dissolves me like salt in water.

Help me believe you see me
more gently than I see myself.



In Genesis 16, Hagar names God as אל ראי, which can be rendered as "The One Who Sees Me."

This is another in my ongoing series of poems of yearning, 36 of which will make up Texts to the Holy. (As of now this poem isn't in that manuscript, but it's part of the same work.)

Generosity at the end of the (secular) year

Logo-squareAt this time of year, every nonprofit organization I know of is hoping for end-of-year donations. A lot of people do their charitable giving during December so that they can get a tax write-off for the (secular) year now ending. ALEPH is exceptional in many ways -- I've never served on any other board where there is so much love, caring, and song! -- but in our hopes for fiscal support at this season we're just like everybody else. 

ALEPH and Jewish Renewal changed my life. They gave me a spiritual home and a connection with the Holy One of Blessing. They gave me a rabbinate and the opportunity to serve my community and the world. I can't overstate the impact ALEPH and Jewish Renewal have had on me.

I started blogging not long after I'd found Jewish Renewal, so even those of you who've been reading me since 2003 never knew the "pre-Jewish-Renewal" Rachel. I was spiritually thirsty, and spiritually lonely, too. I was simultaneously desperate for connection with God and tradition, and afraid that the connection I yearned for was impossible. I didn't think I would ever be able to become a rabbi. I wasn't sure I would ever feel spiritually at-home. Then I found Jewish Renewal. Everything else, as the saying goes, is commentary. 

I'm not in a position to become an ALEPH minyanaire, but in addition to donating my time as board co-chair, I donate money as I am able. I hope that you will join me. As you're considering your end-of-year giving, please consider supporting this organization that I love. You can read more about what we've been doing and what we're planning to do next: The Legacy Continues.

If you've ever benefited from a teaching I've shared here; if you've ever used one of my Torah poems, or a piece of liturgy I shared here; if you've ever used my haggadah, which I've been sharing online for free for more a decade; if your spiritual life has been enhanced by Velveteen Rabbi in any way -- please know that all of that is possible because of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal. Thank you for donating to ALEPH as your finances permit. May your generosity arouse the flow of shefa (divine abundance) from on high, and may you rejoice in knowing that you are supporting a vibrant and innovative Jewish future!


Wintertime Praise


For the meadow, softened
by the scrim of fog
and for sun burning through.

For the call
of black-capped chickadees
and for your voice

one lifetime to the next
in the soft wax of my heart.

For your name
written in me, gleaming
when I lift my hands to the light.

For the wonder
of not being alone,
the miracle of being enough.



Hallel is the name given to the set of psalms recited at festivals, including during Chanukah. This poem came to me while I was sitting in meditation and thinking about the psalms of Hallel and their themes of praise. I've written variations on Hallel before; this poem is more "inspired by" than directly arising out of Hallel. On "being enough," see Enough (2007) and Enough (2011).

Shabbat shalom, chodesh tov (happy new month -- the new moon of Tevet will be visible tonight) and chag urim sameach -- wishing you joy during this festival of light!

Aleph Bass

The folks behind Darshan just put out a new single, with a stunning psychdelic animated video:


(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.)

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Sefer Yetzirah and the Jewish mystical idea that because creation is ultimately made up of Hebrew letters, we can use meditative linguistic techniques to un-do language and ascend to union with God. This track draws on those kinds of teachings, so it was guaranteed to be up my alley -- even before the beautiful animation which moves from Middle Eastern cityscapes to the furthest reaches of outer space.

The English words are on the track's YouTube page, and I'll share them here also:

Letters are the building blocks of all of God's creation
Kabbalistic keys unlock the heart of human nature
Metaphysic molecules of mystic nomenclature
Torah is the Tree of Life in musical notation

Speaking into being, existential occupation
For servants of the Source of Light and Root of Revelation
Reading into meaning, covenantal calibration
For students on the path of learning language liberation

The Hebrew words (when they're not a recitation of the letters of the aleph-bet) come from an alphabetical acrostic of praise recited on weekdays as part of the Yotzer Or blessing, the blessing for God Who creates light. (If you can read Hebrew, you'll find the words at the top of this blog post.) It's a neat interweaving of classical text and contemporary form. 

Anyway, enjoy the song on YouTube. (And I believe it's available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, etc, for those who are so inclined.) Happy Chanukah!

Worth reading on Chanukah this year

Those who follow me on Facebook may already have seen these links, but I wanted to share them here as well -- two of my favorite new posts on Chanukah this year, both written by dear friends, fellow ALEPHniks, and fellow Rabbis Without Borders.

First is a post by Rabbi Hannah Dresner:

...Eternal light in the Temple symbolized an uninterrupted connection between God and Israel. The Temple’s desecration ruptured that connection but when the menorah was rekindled with the tiniest amount of remaining oil, the Temple light did not go out! This miracle was an event of great comfort within the Maccabee narrative, and is, to us, in any age.

Imagining the horror of a Godless world prompts me to consider the threats to divine connection in our own time and my role as a partner in maintaining eternal light. Through this lens the holiday has taken on profundity, asking something serious of me, something consequential to the nature of God and to the repair of our world...

-- Hanukkah is coming: Don't Let the Light Go Out

And the second is by Rabbi David Evan Markus: 

Hope, by its nature, transcends perceived reality however bleak. Hope is what remains when the night seems most dark, when the chips seem most down, when the deck seems most stacked against us. Hope sometimes is irrational, propelling us forward (or keeping us afloat) against seemingly endless odds. And yet, time and again, history and spirituality vindicate irrational hope as a powerful force of renewal.

-- Becoming the Light

Read and enjoy.



The moon wanes
and I ache.
Kindle one flame
against the dark.

If I can
say your name
even to myself
I'm not alone.

You remind me
that dwindling hope
is the seed
of hope reborn.

Even down here
where I've fallen --
look: your light
is with me.

Can I awaken
you from below,
give you even
a measure of

what I receive?
Refracted between us --
what a blaze
might we shine?


This is another poem in my ongoing series of poems of yearning for the Beloved. (It may or may not make it into Texts to the Holy -- I already have 36 poems in that manuscript, which seems like the right shape for that chapbook, but I'm considering whether they are the right 36 or whether some of them might need to change. I might swap this one in for one of the existing poems.)

The moon wanes... Tonight we kindle the first light of Chanukah. Chanukah always comes as the moon of Kislev is waning and as we in the northern hemisphere are approaching, or already in, the year's period of greatest dark. You remind me...  At this time of year we are always reading the Joseph story, replete with its themes of descent for the sake of ascent. (I've written about that before.) For Joseph, as perhaps for us, falling into a place which might seem hopeless is the first step toward rising to something better. Can I awaken you... The idea that we can awaken or arouse God from "below," from here in creation, and in so doing heighten the light or blessing which God pours into creation (אתערותא דלתתא) comes from the Zohar.

May your Chanukah be filled with light.

The Angels of San Bernardino: prayer after a shooting


The angels of San Bernardino
Were busy on their appointed rounds:

One hovering atop each blade of grass
Calling forth its skyward stretch,

One ready to tap the lip of each baby
About to be born into holy amnesia,

One giving directions to a lost passerby,
One restarting a paralyzed heart,

One for each shooter’s right shoulder
Desperate to redirect their savage aim,

One at the lifeless feet of each victim
As God took them with a kiss and a tear.

Help us to feel the angels now among us
Even when they seem absent or late.

Help us draw strength from their presence
Even when we feel most alone and unsure.

Help us be Your messengers for each other,
Your holy agents of justice, healing and hope.


Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Co-chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal


Busy on their appointed roundsTradition imagines that each angel is created for a single mission or purpose (Gen. Rabbah 50:2).  Hovering atop each blade of grass –“Not even a blade of grass is without an angel that taps it and says, ‘Grow'” (Gen. Rabbah 10:6). Tap the lip – From the Talmudic legend that all babies learn the wisdom of holiness in the womb, but before birth an angel touches the lip and they are born forgetting what they learned (Talmud, Niddah 30b).  One giving directions to a lost passerby – When Joseph was lost looking for his brothers, the angel Gavriel redirected Joseph and changed the course of history (Rashi Gen. 37:15).  Lifeless feet of each victim – An angel attends the feet at the moment of death (Deut. Rabbah 11:11). God took them with a kiss – No less than for Moses himself (Talmud, Bava Batra 17a).


This liturgical poem, co-written by ALEPH's co-chairs, originally appeared at Kol ALEPH.

On self-care and the needs of others, in The Wisdom Daily

Logo-twd-headerMy latest piece for The Wisdom Daily has gone live -- a short meditation on self-care. Here's a tiny taste:

Fasten your own mask before tending to the child's... It makes sense. If I were traveling with a small child and there were a need for oxygen, and I tried to fasten their mask first, I might run out of air myself and lose consciousness before I could fasten my own.

Though I will admit that now that I am a parent, I suspect I would find the instruction difficult to carry out. I understand it, sure. But if my kid were gasping for air, my heart would yearn to fix that, even though my head would understand that I had to tend to my own needs first. When my beloveds are gasping for air - whether literally because of illness, or metaphorically because they're in a difficult place where the emotional air feels thin - my heart yearns to fix that, too.

And when my heart is yearning to help someone else, it can be difficult to remember my own oxygen mask...

Read the whole thing here: Is Putting Your Own Needs First Ok?

Not to make oneself afraid

20524443011_6e82e3b421_zDo you know the song "כל העולם כולו / Kol Ha'Olam Kulo"? It's a setting (by Baruch Chait) of a quote from the Hasidic master known as Reb Nachman of Breslov. Here are the words as I learned them many years ago:  כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד / והעקר לא לפחד כלל, usually translated as "All the world is a very narrow bridge / the important thing is not to be afraid." (If you don't know the song, you can click over to my 2008 post about it.) 

I've just discovered that I've been singing it wrong all these years -- and while I like the song the way I learned it, the correct lyric is much more powerful for me.

I learned the lyric as לא לפחד כלל - "[the important thing is] not to fear at all." But it turns out that the original song lyric is different. In place of לפחד (to fear) it says להתפחד, which is a reflexive verb; it means something like to make oneself afraid, to "fear-ify" oneself. The important thing is not to make oneself afraid, not to live in a constant state of fear, not to act and think and make choices from a place of fear.

That works for me so much better than the injunction not to be afraid. "The important thing is not to fear at all" -- it has a nice ring to it, but who among us can live by that motto all the time? Sometimes fear is the only reasonable response to the situation in which one finds oneself. Sometimes fear is necessary. Sometimes fear is inevitable. And pretending that one isn't afraid -- trying to pretend any emotion away, no matter what it might be! -- is not spiritually healthy.

But "The important thing is not to make oneself afraid," or "not to live from a place of fear" -- that speaks to me. Reb Nachman isn't teaching that I should hide my fear from myself, or pretend I never fear, or berate myself when I do feel fear. What's important is that I not allow the fear to rule me. What's important is that I not allow my fears to limit me, to dictate the contours of my hopes, or my dreams, or my choices. 

There will be times in every life when the world feels like a narrow bridge over a deep chasm, a fragile and uncertain pathway with risk on every side. In those times, we're called not to eschew fear but to inhabit it... and to remember that if we don't let our fears rule us, we will be able to cross over to the other side.