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November 2016

Meet you at the Well for "An Evening of Song & Spirit(s)" on 11/19

If you're in or near Detroit, meet you at the Well on November 19?

The Well is an innovative community-building, education, and spirituality outreach program geared toward the needs of young adults and those who haven't connected with other more mainstream institutions. I've wanted to visit for a while, and I'm excited to have the opportunity to do so with my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and our friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg. 

Rabbi Dan Horwitz has graciously invited us to be part of An Evening of Song and Spirit(s) beginning at 8pm on Saturday, November 19. We'll make havdalah and weave together an evening niggunim, stories, Hasidic teachings, and poetry. It will be yummy.

Song and Spirit

If you're interested in joining us, register at Space is limited and tickets are $10/ person. Deep thanks to Rabbi Dan for inviting Rabbi David, Rabbi Elliot, and me to share teachings, songs, stories, and poetry at this havdalah event. Hope to see some of you there!

The woman who used to live at number 9


Sometimes I think about the woman who used to live in the condo that now is mine. I bought this condo from the grown children of a woman named Sally, who died at 91. I never knew her, though this is a small town, and I have encountered many people who did know her. "Oh, you bought Sally's place," they say. Usually after that, people say something like "she was quite a character."

I've heard anecdotes about her climbing over fences, playing golf with celebrities, enjoying a scotch before dinner. The house was empty when I moved in, but hidden in corners that her children had missed I found a few of her things. I kept the coffee mug emblazoned with the logo of the Clark Art Institute; I gave the long, wickedly elegant black and white cigarette holder to Goodwill.

I wonder what she would think about the fact that her home is now inhabited by a single mother and a first grader. Did she have kids when she lived here, or did she move here after her kids were grown? I wonder what she would think of the bright red curtains I hung in the living room, or the wine-colored duvet and pillows in the master bedroom once curtained with a print of pink and green.

In the kitchen I've hung photographs I took in Buenos Aires and in Jerusalem: did she like to travel? Had she ever been to either of those places? What would she make of the music that fills these rooms -- sometimes Nava Tehila, sometimes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, often the theme song to the Pokémon cartoons my son likes to watch? What would she have made of the sukkah I built on the mirpesset?

Sometimes I imagine her keeping company with the people whose furniture I have inherited. My ex-husband's maternal grandmother, for instance: her bedside tables are in my master bedroom now. Or my own maternal grandparents, whose Czech bookcase serves as a dining room sideboard. I imagine them as a friendly chorus of elders watching over me in this new chapter, fondly, from afar.


Back to the beginning


This week we begin again. The cycle of fall holidays is finally over: we have returned to ordinary time. I don't mean by that term precisely what my Christian cousins mean by it -- for them it has a more particular liturgical meaning than it does for us. What I mean is something more like חול / chol, non-sacred time. Usually we speak in terms of שבת וחול / shabbat v'chol, the holiness of Shabbat and the ordinariness of the non-sacred workweek. After the star-studded expanse of the Days of Awe and all that comes before and after them, this first ordinary Shabbat of the new year feels to me almost like a kind of chol. It will be Shabbat, of course, which makes it holy -- but it's a holiness that partakes of the regular rhythms of the year. The smaller ebb-and-flow of Shabbat-and-week, rather than the big peaks from which we have only recently descended. We have returned to normalcy.

As the parent of a first grader, I am conscious of the gifts that come with normalcy and routine. Transitions are hard. Big holidays are disruptions in ordinary time, and they need to be -- we need them to be. We need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to be confronted with experiences that awaken our sense of awe and majesty, that remind us that we are mortal and today might be our last chance to lead the kind of life of which we can be proud because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Jewish tradition is wise in giving us these things, and in giving us so many of them in a row that our emotional and spiritual defenses weaken and let our true hearts begin to shine through. And after so many of them in a row, now we need the return to ordinary time. Just as my son needs to return to the regular rhythms of schoolnight bedtime, so we need to return to our regular rhythms too. 

And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there's still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It's a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.

Through today's door

2662602423_02a5619dd0_zA poem from Adrienne Rich:


Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.


Every moment is a doorway. Between where we've been, and where we're going. Between who we've been, and who we're becoming.

Jewish tradition offers us something to put on a doorway: a mezuzah. 

A reminder to pause. A reminder that transitions can be made holy. A reminder to notice.

And what's inside a mezuzah? A reminder of the Oneness behind all things. A reminder of the importance of love, which accompanies us in all of our journeying. 

Today we pause and touch a mezuzah in time. Behind us: every holiday we've just celebrated. Look back over your shoulder and see them stretching back in time: Sukkot, and before that Yom Kippur, and before that Rosh Hashanah, and before that Elul, and before that Tisha b'Av.

Ahead of us: a fallow period, a time to integrate whatever has arisen in us during the holiday season.

Today is Shemini Atzeret, a day for pausing, the silence after the chant. Today God beseeches us to linger a little longer: the seven days of Sukkot have ended, but God says, "won't you stay in the sukkah with Me one more day, beloveds?" And we do.

In Israel and on the Reform calendar, today is also Simchat Torah. We read the very end of the Torah, and we read the very beginning of the Torah. Torah is a mobius strip whose end brings us back to its beginning. Our lives are like this, too: the end of one chapter is the beginning of the next.

We stand on the threshold between what was, and what isn't yet. 

May we be blessed as we go through this door.


With gratitude to the editors of Mishkan T'filah who put Adrienne Rich's beautiful poem "Prospective Immigrants, Take Note" at the start of the festival morning service.

Image: a wooden door at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

Hoshanot after the end of a marriage


I feel for these willows,
clipped from the tree

they never imagined
would stop being home.

Packaged and moved,
unpacked and shaken:

blackening at the edges,
shriveling and curling

leaves bedraggled now,
ready to come apart.

We beat our branches
against the earth.

I fling myself down too.
Let the rains fall.



From loneliness
wrapped around me like a tallit.

From nights when the house
is too quiet.

From the relentlessness
of responsibility.

From wondering
what I should have done.

From imagining a life
that's not this one.

From self-blame.
From the ocean of grief.

From wishing I had an "us"
I could ask God to save.



The sukkah begins to come apart.
Wind and rains unravel its garlands,

knock the cornstalks askew.
This is its purpose: to remind me

how to celebrate what can't last.
How to grasp its beauty with both hands

and then open my fists, let
the chapter be over. How to trust

there will be more abundance.
How to rejoice in what I don't yet have.

The ebb and flow will carry me to shore,
and I'm not crossing the sea alone.

Salt has scoured me clean. Drench me
with honey, sweeten every decree.


Today is Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. It is its own mini-holiday within the bigger holiday. (For more on that, see Three more holidays at the very end of Sukkot, 2012.)

We beat our branches / against the earth. On this day it is customary to take willow branches and beat them against the ground in an embodied prayer for rain. 

From wishing I had an "us" I could ask to save. The day of this festival means "The Great 'Save Us!'" Today it's customary to recite supplicatory prayers called hoshanot, which ask God in a variety of ways to save us. (See Hoshanot, 2010.) 

The sukkah becomes to come apart. See Pictures and words (Hoshana Rabbah), 2012.

How to rejoice in what I don't yet have. This is the spiritual work that Sukkot asks of us. See Joy Like Our Lives Depend On It by Rabbi David Evan Markus.

The ebb and flow. I learned from my teacher Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg that the Jewish year, and that spiritual life in general, has an ebb and flow; see The year as spiritual practice, 2009.

I'm not crossing the sea alone. Our daily liturgy includes "Mi Chamocha," the song our ancestors sang after crossing the Sea of Reeds. Often from the bimah, as I play the guitar chords that usher us in to the melody we usually use for this prayer, I remind the room (and myself) that whatever we may be facing -- with the Egyptian army behind us and the sea ahead of us, as it were -- we never have to cross the sea alone. We have each other. We have God. We have the presence of love to companion us in our crossings.

Drench me / with honey, sweeten every decree. Some maintain the custom of continuing to eat challah or apples dipped in honey not only on Rosh Hashanah, but all the way through the holiday season until tomorrow. One tradition holds that today is the day when the "decree," the verdict for the world declared on Rosh Hashanah, is finally sealed. I like to think that though we can't avert whatever life has in store for us, we can seek to sweeten it -- for ourselves, and for each other.

Moadim l'simcha -- wishing you joy in the festival; may this be a season of rejoicing.

Lessons Of Divorce in a Cup of Wine


...That was the first part of my divorce ritual that became clear to me: we would pour wine from a single cup into two, symbolizing that our portions in life are now separate. We no longer drink from the same cup. We no longer share life’s joys and sorrows. We do still share a child, and as co-parents to that child we will be connected for the rest of our lives, but each of us drinks now from a separate cup of grief or delight...

That's from my latest in The Wisdom Daily. Read the whole thing: Lessons Of Divorce in a Cup of Wine.


(If this is of interest to you, you might also enjoy the ritual I crafted for ending my marriage.)

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light...



Through the morning clouds
a patch of blue sky beckons
over distant hills.



In the evening
the hillside darkens, purple,
framed by strings of light.


The Sukkot full moon
paints the clouds luminescent,
almost within reach.




Early morning haze
nestles in the near valley.
Sunlight grins, dives in.


The title of this post comes from the evening blessing praising God Who brings on the evening.

(Here's a post containing that prayer, as well as some contemporary renderings thereof, and some poems that work with the same themes: Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light.)

Photos taken from my wee sukkah.

A Hallel for Sukkot


We who serve offer praise.
We who serve by building flimsy houses
out of sticks and string.

We who serve by whisking together honey and coffee,
chesed and gevurah,
to make offerings we bring in cupped hands.

By seeking to sweeten what's bitter.
By speaking our truths, naming what is.
We who serve by hoping for better --

by taking up hammer and nails to build
the redeemed world we didn't inherit:
offer praise.



When we pushed through the narrow place
when we left what had become constriction

we came into our own, we became our own.
Only then could we give ourselves to you.

When we left the household that didn't nurture 
when we left old stories that no longer sustained 

the ground shifted beneath our feet
the hills leapt like baby goats

the river we thought flowed always toward the sea
turned tidal and became sharp with salt.

Mountains, did you savor letting loose?
River, did you rejoice in changing your course?

We too have been transformed
by the presence of the one whose name is change.



Friends, be profligate with blessings!
Spend them freely,
prime the pump for more.

Children, bless us with wonder
at the calliope song of geese overhead.
Elders, bless us with permission.

The skies belong to God
always perfect
and always changing.

The earth is ours to tend.
We can offer praises right here, right now.
What are we waiting for?



Because you hear me, I am never alone.
I lift the cup of my changes:
your presence sweetens what was bitter.
This sukkah is temporary
but the promises I make to you endure.
Wherever I go, you are with me.
Every place becomes Jerusalem.



Everyone, say thank you.
That we are alive at all
is cause to rejoice.



There are more galaxies than I can imagine.
We are made from the same stuff as the stars.

What burns in me: a spark
from the fire that sustains all creation.

And when I say I love you, I mean
you expand my heart to encompass the universe.

Open the door of my heart:
I have feathered my nest with gratitude.

This is the door to who we really are.
Will you walk through?

Today is the only day there is.
Be glad with me.


Here is a pdf file of the psalms of Hallel: in Hebrew, translated into English, and accompanied by commentary. This poem series is rooted in the psalms of Hallel, which we recite daily during Sukkot (and at other times, too -- though these poems draw imagery from Sukkot, rather than from the other seasons when Hallel is recited.) For those who are interested in the poems' references and citations, some notes follow. 

By the by, if you like this kind of thing, you might also like my Six psalms for Hallel written during Pesach several years ago, now published in Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press, 2016.)



We who serve offer praise. See psalm 113, "Sing praises, you servants of Adonai!" [B]uilding flimsy houses..See A sukkah of sticks and string. [W]hisking together honey and coffee. Many recipes for honeycake, a seasonal treat, involve both honey and coffee. [C]hesed and gevurah. Chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (boundaried-strength) are two of the seven divine qualities to which the seven days of Sukkot can be mapped. 

When we pushed through the narrow place. See psalm 114, "When Israel went forth from Mitzrayim..." Mitzrayim, "Egypt," can be translated as "the narrow place." Only then could we give ourselves to you. See Psalm 114, "Judah became God's..." [T] he ground shifted beneath our feet. "The Jordan retreated. Mountains leapt like rams..."  [T]he river we thought flowed always toward the sea. Some rivers are tidal. (The Hudson is one of them.) The one whose name is change. God describes God's-self to Moshe as "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming."

Friends, be profligate with blessings! See psalm 115, though I chose to invert the giving of blessing: in this poem we are the ones who are offering blessing to God, instead of the other way around. The reference to youths and elders also hearkens back to this psalm.  The skies belong to God. "The heavens are the heavens of Adonai..." We can offer praises right here, right now. "The dead cannot offer praises..."

Because you hear me, I am never alone. See psalm 116: "I love knowing that Adonai listens to my cry..." I lift the cup of my changes. "I raise the cup of my deliverance..." That verse is part of the traditional liturgy for havdalahThe promises I make to you... "I will honor my vows to Adonai..." Every place becomes Jerusalem. " the midst of Jerusalem."

Everyone, say thank you. See psalm 117: "Praise Adonai, all nations..."

There are more galaxies than I can imagine. Psalm 118 begins with the assertion that God's love endures forever. L'olam means both space and time, suggesting the infinity of the heavens. Open the door of my heart. "Open for me the door of righteousness." This is the door to who we really are. "This is the door of Adonai..." Today is the only day there is. "This is the day that Adonai has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."


A sukkah of sticks and string


Mirpesset (balcony) sukkah, 5777.

One of the things I knew I would miss about my old house was the sukkah I used to have there. My ex-husband built me a beautiful sukkah -- actually he built several of them, over the years, and he deserves kavod (honor) for that. But at the condo where I now live, we're not allowed to put up structures on the lawns. My son can play soccer with a portable goal, but when he's done we need to bring the goal back to our garage. No swingset, no permanent play structures... and no sukkah, either.

When I moved, I resigned myself to using the synagogue sukkah all week. My shul builds a beautiful sukkah each year, and I live nearby now. It is an entirely reasonable solution. Still, as Sukkot approached, I found myself deeply wistful for the experience of padding out to the sukkah in my pyjamas in the morning to bentsch lulav before breakfast, and the experience of tiptoeing out to the sukkah to gaze at the moon after my son is asleep. I'd gotten spoiled. I liked living with a sukkah in my own backyard.

Then it occurred to me that I could try to build something on my wee mirpesset, a.k.a. the small balcony outside my living room. People build sukkot on balconies in big cities, don't they? I spent a while searching to see what others had done. I looked into fancy tubular sukkah kits of the right dimensions to be built on a small balcony like mine. They tend to be quite pretty, but also quite expensive. I couldn't justify the expense -- not now. Maybe by next year, but it wouldn't be responsible to spend that now.

And then one day I was driving past a local hardware store when I saw tall thin garden stakes, and I remembered a long-ago building project that featured sticks and string. A sukkah made of garden stakes and string might not be stable enough to stand on its own, but because my mirpesset has a railing, I could rely on the existing structure to help hold my sukkah up. It would be a tiny sukkah, of course -- perhaps befitting the inhabitants of a small condo, a downsizing b'chol olamot / in all worlds.

A sukkah is always already a sketch of a house. It's a minimalist line drawing, not an oil painting; its components suggest "dwelling," but it isn't permanent and isn't stable -- indeed, it can't be. A sukkah needs to have a leafy roof through which the stars can be seen, and a certain flimsiness seems appropriate to this harvest festival of impermanence. A sukkah is like the autumn leaves: as soon as it's built in all its splendor it's vulnerable to coming apart at the seams. So, too, are we, of course. 

I don't know whether our mirpesset sukkah will last all week -- whether the roof will hold up the cornstalks, whether wind and rain will tear it apart, whether our decorations will blow away and dance across the lawn. But we have already rejoiced in our sweet, sparkly temporary little house. I feel incredibly blessed to have a place of our own where I can build even a tiny sukkah, and to have a kid who takes pleasure in tinsel and autumn leaves, and to have a holiday that drags me outdoors at this season.

Chag sameach -- a joyous festival to all.



Happy kid in the sukkah!

Letters to God from a little boy


At the end of the summer, not this past summer but the one before, I led davenen at my synagogue with Rabbi David Evan Markus. It was such a spectacular Shabbat morning that we decided to set up chairs outside, beside the little wall that extends beyond our building. When we turned east for the bar'chu, the people who were sitting right next to the wall turned and faced the wall in prayer and suddenly several of us made the exact same mental leap: the wall became our mini-kotel. (I wrote about it at the time.) When the Days of Awe rolled around, I tried an experiment: on Yom Kippur I invited congregants to write kvitlach, notes to God expressing whatever they most needed to say, and to tuck them into the holes in that wall as pilgrims tuck notes into the cracks between the stones at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

So many people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for that practice that I resolved to do it again. This year once again, at the close of Yom Kippur morning services, I invited those who are comfortable writing on chag to write notes to God saying whatever they most needed to say and put them in the wall, and I invited those who do not write on holidays to walk out to the wall and place their hands on the wall and take a few moments for silent prayer. And people did so, and I was glad. When the day came to its close, I went outside to collect the notes in order to burn them as I had promised that I would do... and my son, who is going on seven, followed me outside to see what I was doing. I explained to him what the grown-ups had done, and to my surprise, he got upset. "How come I didn't get to write one?"

Then he brightened. "Hey, can I write one now?" I said yes, of course. He took a pad of paper and a pencil and carefully wrote, in his round first-grade handwriting, three separate notes to God. One of them said "Thank You God for the words that we speak." (I told him I think that's a beautiful prayer.) Another was an apology. And the third he kept to himself, and I don't know what it said. Together we rolled them up, and went outside into the moonlight, and tucked them into the holes in the wall. "I don't want you to burn them yet," he said. "I want them to stay there for a few days, because I just put them there, and maybe God hasn't received them yet." I said okay, and we left them there -- scraps of wadded-up paper, holy messages gleaming as white as his Yom Kippur shirt against the velvety darkness of the night.

The gates are closing: short words for Ne'ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don't feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.


As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.


Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI's tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It's incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

"Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?"

"No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home."

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.


The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn -- teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source -- to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.


[Image source.] Also posted to my congregational blog.

Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning


I don't know how many of you are MASS MoCA fans, but many of you have probably seen the building of LeWitt wall paintings -- yes? It will be on view until 2033, so if you haven't seen it, you still have time.

My favorite floor is the middle floor. The ground floor features works in pencil and chalk; the top floor features works in psychedelic colors so vivid they almost hurt my eyes; but the middle floor features geometric works in colors that are bright but not painful. That's the floor where I spend the most time.

I've said for years that someday I should paint a LeWitt on a wall in my house. How difficult would it be? All one needs are dimensions and instructions. This summer it occurred to me: I could actually do it. I could make a LeWitt, and have something big, bold, vivid, and colorful to brighten my home through the winter.

Maybe it's because of timing: I began work on my faux LeWitt during Elul, as we began the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. But as I worked on the canvases, I couldn't help thinking about teshuvah, that word so often translated as "repentance" though it actually means "return." The work to which we dedicate ourselves today.

Teshuvah is a process of discernment. Who am I, who have I tried to be, where have I fallen short, what kind of course correction do I need, how can I do better next time? Painting, at least for an amateur like me, has a similar trajectory. I sketched on the canvas where I wanted the different colors to be. Some of the lines needed to be erased and drawn again. And then I looked at my brand-new box of paints and realized I would need to learn how to mix colors. That took trial and error, and often the result wasn't quite what I had imagined.

Just so in the work of teshuvah. We draw lines around what we want our behavior to be. Sometimes the lines aren't in the right place and need to be re-drawn. Sometimes they need to be drawn more firmly, because we lose track of where they are. Sometimes we accidentally paint over the lines, and then have to let the paint dry and go back over it with white paint to try to obscure the brush strokes -- though it's unlikely that we ourselves will forget our missteps, even if we're able to obscure them from everyone else's view.

Continue reading "Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »

Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre


We're not here in this life to be small. Our souls yearn to expand, to live into the fullness of all of who we can become. Yom Kippur is here to help set us free.

Tonight we let go of broken promises. "כָּל נִדְרֵי  / Kol nidrei..." All the promises, and the vows, and the oaths. The promises we made that we failed to live up to. The promises we made that it turns out we couldn't keep. 

Unkept promises, both those we make and those made to us, become a weight holding us down. What would it feel like to let that weight go?

My teacher Reb Zalman -- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory -- wrote a script for releasing ourselves from our promises. The petitioner says:

"In the last year I have from time to time made vows, sometimes speaking them out loud, or had an intention, a resolution to change something in my actions, behavior and attitude in my mind. Some of these are in relation to myself, my body, my mind, and my soul. Some of these deal with the way in which I conduct myself in relation to other people. And most of all, there are those that deal with my relation to God..."

You might imagine that he wrote these words for Yom Kippur. Actually, he wrote them to recite before Rosh Hashanah. There's a custom called התרת נדרים / hatarat nedarim, "untangling of vows." Here's how you do it. You assemble a beit din, a rabbinic court of three. And then each person takes a turn being the person requesting release, while the others serve as judges empowered to grant release.

The ritual acknowledges that resolutions are a kind of vow, and that when we fail to live up to our intentions, we need a mechanism for forgiveness. What moves me is the response from the court of friends: "hearing your regret, we release you."

To release ourselves from the promises we couldn't keep, the first step is to name them, with genuine regret. We speak our mis-steps to someone we trust, and that someone whom we trust says "it's okay, you can let it go." Then? We have to believe them. That last step may be the hardest part. 

That ritual is a kind of practice run for the work we're here to do over the next 24 hours, together.

Continue reading "Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre" »

Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart

Open-heartIn this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moshe gives instructions to the children of Israel and to Joshua who will lead them into the land of promise. This year as I read this Torah portion, I was struck by a repeated phrase. חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, "Y'all be strong and resolute," Moshe says to them. And in the next verse, he speaks directly to Joshua and says the same thing in the singular to him: חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒. 

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, "Y'all be strong and resolute." The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra writes that we become able to follow this instruction when we know that God is walking with us in all of the places where our path takes us. No matter where life takes us, when we know that we are not alone, then we can be strong and resolute. Or, as Reb Zalman z"l translates those words, that's when we can be sturdy and make strong our hearts. 

We find that phrasing in his translation of psalm 27, the psalm we've been davening since the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Over Rosh Hashanah (and again this morning) we sang a beautiful setting of one verse from that psalm:

קַוֵּה אֶל-ה׳:
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה׳

Keep hope, keep hope -- keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.

There's a kind of echo effect for me between the verses from Torah, with their repeated refrain of "be strong and resolute," and this verse from the psalm we've been singing. Torah tells us to be strong, whereas the psalm invites us to strengthen our hearts. How do we do that? Our singable translation offers an answer: by opening them, and by cultivating hope. 

We strengthen our hearts when we work to keep them open. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to each other, maybe especially at this time of year as we immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, repentance and returning to our truest selves. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to the unknown future, and to cultivate hope.

The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.

For Rabbi Sacks, hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now.

Hope is built into the structure of Jewish time. Jewishly speaking, a day begins with sundown and moves toward morning. ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר -- "and there was evening and there was morning." Why does a Jewish day begin in darkness? So that the natural trajectory of the day moves from darkness to light. Night represents fear and exile -- which makes perfect sense to any child who has ever been afraid of the dark -- and the coming of day represents the rebirth of hope. Or as the author Anne Lamott teaches (in her book Bird by Bird), “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

The actor Christopher Reeve, of blessed memory, used to say that "once you choose hope, anything is possible." He knew something about situations that look hopeless: he said this about hope after he had the riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. What I find interesting about the quote is that he used the word choose. It takes some work. It's a turn, like teshuvah.

The existential turn of teshuvah is always open to us. The existential turn of choosing hope is always open to us. No matter what cards you've been dealt, you can choose to open your heart wide and keep hoping in the One.


This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning. 

The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

ChangeRosh Hashanah is often translated as "head of the year." That translation isn't incorrect. Of course rosh means head, and shanah means year. The headwaters of a river are where the river begins, and the head of the year is where the year begins. But Hebrew is a deep language. Words that share roots are variations on a theme. And because of that, "Rosh Hashanah" also has a deeper meaning.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program, wrote a book called The Path of Blessing. (That book is in our congregational library.) In The Path of Blessing, she dedicates a whole chapter to each of six Hebrew words: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam.

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here's a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

Maybe you're thinking "blessed." As in, "Blessed are You, Adonai our God..." But baruch also relates to berech, knee. That means baruch can suggest a posture of willingness to be humble before the person to whom I am speaking. Baruch also relates to breicha, a flowing fountain. So baruch can suggest both the cosmic flow of abundance, and the flow of spiritual life. This is why Reb Marcia often translates "Baruch atah" as "A Fountain of Blessings are You..."

Just as baruch holds hints of berech and breicha, hints of bending the knee in grateful humility and drinking from the fountain of divine abundance, shanah holds hints of another word in its word-root family tree: shinui, which means change.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

I've known this linguistic teaching for years. But it speaks to me in a new way this year, my first Rosh Hashanah as someone whose marriage has ended. That's a pretty profound change.

Here are some things I have learned about change since the last time I stood before y'all to offer a high holiday sermon.

Continue reading "The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning" »

#blogElul 29: Return

BlogElul 2016I turn again toward you.
My eyes are clear and open.
I keep you always before me.
Your presence makes me glad.

My eyes are clear, and open
to the future I can't yet see.
Your presence makes me glad
I leap into the unknown.

To the future I can't yet see:
thank you for waiting for me.
I leap into the unknown.
I trust that I won't fall.

Thank you for waiting for me.
With you, I'm never alone.
I trust that I won't fall.
I keep hope in you.

With you, I'm never alone.
Sing to me and I am strong.
I keep hope in you.
I open my heart wide.

Sing to me and I am strong.
I keep you always before me.
I open my heart wide.
I turn again toward you.


Yes, it's another pantoum. (Maybe I need a pantoum category on my blog, to go along with the sestina category.)

Writing these Elul poems has been a gift for me, and has helped me stay connected with my own spiritual life even at this season when my professional life ramps up. I hope that reading them has been sweet for you.

L'shanah tovah -- wishing you a sweet new year.

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.) Read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; you might also enjoy my collection of Elul poems which arose out of #blogElul a few years ago, now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.

For #blogElul 28: Give

BlogElul 2016My poems are a dime
a dozen. I write so many

they must blur together
even in your memory.

I used to think
I should keep silent,

try to take up less room
-- but I'm pretty sure

you don't want me
to shut off the spigot,

keep my words from flowing.
You know what the poems

really are: distillations
of my love for you

offered with every beat
of my aching heart.


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.) Read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; you might also enjoy my collection of Elul poems which arose out of #blogElul a few years ago, now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.