Previous month:
January 2018

Seven poems for ma'ariv

29507891500_b16a1ea0df_zMany years ago, my friend Teju Cole put together a collection of contemporary poems with the intention of praying them daily as though they were liturgy. I remember printing them out and putting them on my desk in my study, and I remember praying them sometimes.

Alas, I no longer remember which poems he chose, though the fact that he had assembled a liturgy out of contemporary poetry was on my mind when I put together a morning service during National Poetry Month that interwove the Shabbat morning liturgy with the work of a variety of contemporary poets. (That liturgy featured Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon -- some of the poets to whom I most often turn when I'm in need of spiritual sustenance.)

I had both of those sheaves of poems in mind -- Teju's, and my own -- when I assembled a collection of my own poems for use in daily prayer. I've written several poems that intentionally riff off of the words, images, and themes of daily Jewish liturgy. One day it occurred to me to see whether I could pull together a handout that follows the matbeah tefilah (structure of prayer -- e.g. the roadmap of themes and ideas that we touch upon in daily Jewish prayer) using my own poems for each of the stops along that daily journey.

What I came up with was this: Seven poems for ma'ariv. [pdf] Ma'ariv is the name we give to evening prayer in Jewish tradition, and these seven poems are intended to follow the themes of our evening prayers.

Why seven? Seven is a symbolic number in Judaism: the seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, the seven "lower" sefirot that we inhabit as we count the Omer, seven wedding blessings (and seven times wedding partners circle one another), seven stops on the way to the grave... to name a few.  

These seven poems are also intended to map to seven specific prayers: 1) the ma'ariv aravim prayer that blesses God Who brings on the evening; 2) the ahavat olam prayer that blesses God Who loves us and expresses that love through Torah; 3) the shema; 4) the ge'ulah blessing for redemption that evokes coming through the Sea; 5) the hashkivenu blessing for God Who spreads a shelter of peace over us as we sleep; 6) the amidah / prayer in which we stand before God and speak the words of our hearts; and 7) the aleinu prayer that closes our evening davenen. 

I pray these poems sometimes as my abbreviated evening service. If you use them, I'm curious to know what works for you and what doesn't. (And if you've ever assembled a series of poems or readings intended to follow the flow of liturgical prayer in this way, I'd love to see it!)

 

A note on God-language:

Please note that that document contains the name יהו''ה, one of my tradition's holiest names for the One; if you print those pages, please treat them with the respect you would give a prayerbook.

I chose to include that Name, and not to translate or transliterate it, for a reason. That Name can be understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." Its untranslatability points us beyond all words. Our Creator is beyond language; our words can only approach the Infinite.

When I see the letters יהו׳׳ה, sometimes I render them aloud as Adonai ("My Lord"), sometimes as Shechinah (the immanent, indwelling Divine Feminine), sometimes as Havayah (the One Who Accompanies) -- and sometimes in still other ways. The unpronounceable / untranslatable Name reminds me that all of our names are only substitutes, and that our Source is beyond any words we can speak.


God in exile, school shootings, and building the mishkan together

Lord+prepare+me+to+be+a+sanctuary+Pure+and+holy +tried+and+trueIn this week's Torah portion, Terumah, we read וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם / "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within them." (Or "among them.") The word "I might dwell" is שכנתי / shachanti -- the same as the root of the name Shechinah, our mystics' name for the Divine Presence that dwells with us, within us, among us.

Jewish tradition teaches that God is both transcendent (far away and inconceivable) and immanent (indwelling and accessible). Our mystics call the transcendent, far-away part of God the Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One of Blessing). The name they give to the immanent, indwelling aspect of God is Shechinah... and they imagine that She is in galut, in exile, with us here in creation.

To say that we are in exile is to say that we live in a state of distance from God. We live in a world of disunity and disconnect. We live in a world that contains trauma and tragedy. A world in which human beings harm other human beings.

That part is true of all human beings: we live in a state of distance from God, and that distance blinds us to the spark of divinity in each other, and that blindness enables terrible things.

We here in this room live also in a nation in which school shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace. A nation in which our government is paralyed and polarized and seemingly unable to act. What can it mean to say that Shechinah dwells with us or among us at a time like this?

The Talmud teaches that Shechinah weeps at our losses. I believe that God feels our grief, and our impotence, and our fury, and our trauma. She grieves at every life cut short. She grieves with every devastated parent.

At other times of trauma over the last year, some of you have asked me: why didn't God stop that from happening? How could a just God allow such injustice to persist?

The only answer I can offer is this: God gave the world over into our hands. Phrased another way: God doesn't intervene to change the natural world. Not to stop a hurricane, not to prevent an abuser from abusing, not to alter the course of a bullet. Because if S/He did intervene, then we would have to ask: why did God spare this child with cancer but not that one, why did God prevent this shooting but not that one?

The God I believe in didn't "allow" Nikolas Cruz to end seventeen lives. That's on us: on human beings, who have made guns -- including assault rifles -- easy to acquire and to misuse. (And as of a year ago, protections that had prevented those with serious mental illness from buying guns have been stripped away.)

And it's on us to make things better. To call Congress, to write letters, to sign petitions, to show up and lobby and protest and demand that our lawmakers create change that will keep our children safer. We don't have the luxury of falling into despair or feeling as though nothing will ever change. Because if we use our feelings of powerlessness as an excuse not to do anything, then nothing will ever change.

And our children need better from us than that. The memories of the seventeen killed in Parkland, Florida this week demand better of us than that. And God needs us to be better than that. Because our hands are God's hands in the world. The only way to soothe the Shechina's tears for Her children is to make the world a place of such justice and righteousness that God won't need to weep with us anymore.

In the first line of this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moshe: tell the people to bring gifts for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where God's presence will dwell. The mishkan requires everyone's contributions.

And building a world redeemed requires everyone's contributions. Building a world in which school shootings are unimaginable requires everyone's contributions. Today is Shabbes, our "foretaste of the world to come," when we strive to live in the "as-if" -- as if the world were already redeemed. For today, we rest and rejuvenate as we are able. Tomorrow when the workweek begins again, we dive back into making this world better than it is today.

Because our schools need to be sanctuaries: safe places where our children can learn and grow without fear. And our synagogues need to be sanctuaries. And our homes need to be sanctuaries. And the whole earth needs to be a sanctuary: a place where God's presence dwells with us and within us, and no longer needs to weep.

 

Related: Prayer after the shooting by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus, October 2017

 

This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Joyful Life As A Religious Minority - on Reports from the Spiritual Frontier

I was interviewed recently for the podcast Reports from the Spiritual Frontier. My episode is live now, and the host -- my friend and colleague Ben Yosua-Davis -- titled it "Joyful Life As A Religious Minority." Here's what he wrote about it:

Artworks_coverJoin us for a conversation with Rachel Barenblat, Co-Founder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, blogger at Velveteen Rabbi, and Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA, as we talk about her experience of life as a religious minority. Hear about the gift of oddity, (9:30) the challenges and joys of being a religious minority (8:30), a more life-giving way to speak into Christian anxieties about Sunday sports, graying populations, and declining worship attendance, (15:00) and what it means to let new generations shape the tradition with their own hands (25:00). Hear more from Rabbi Rachel and other spiritual innovators by visiting us at www.facebook.com/reportsfromthespiritualfrontier or by subscribing to us via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever else you acquire your best listens for your week.

On Facebook he added:

Three reasons why you should listen[...]:

1) She's a calm, deeply grounded presence. If you're panicked about all the change going on in our country right now, she'll help you take a deep breath.

2) If you're particularly anxious about Christian institutional decline, she speaks specifically to our concerns about: worship attendance, money, and graying congregations.

3) If you want a look at how a non-Christian tradition is teaching its young people to "shape the tradition with their own hands."

I'm deeply grateful to Ben for the opportunity and for the fabulous conversation! 

Listen to the podcast here: Rachel Barenblat: Joyful Life As A Religious Minority. (He'll be posting a "B-side" mini-podcast on Thursday, featuring two of my poems from my new collection Texts to the Holy, too.)  And here are all of the episodes.


Gifts from this year's Rabbis Without Borders retreat

27973191_10215036347800075_406905700530029112_nThe first night of this year's Rabbis Without Borders alumni fellows gathering opens with a jam-session-style ma'ariv (evening service). Rabbi Ben Newman of Shtiebl has assembled a set of songs that fit the evening service -- sometimes using English words, often using secular melodies.

(For instance, for our ma'ariv aravim / God-who-brings-on-the-evening prayer, he's set words about evening and transition to the melody of "Good Night, Irene." When people figure out what melody he's chosen, a ripple of satisfaction and laughter flows around the room.) There are a handful of guitars, a tenor ukelele, a djembe, some tambourines, and a couple dozen rabbis singing with gusto. What a glorious way to start the retreat!

The next morning I get to co-lead davenen with Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Evan Krame, two of my Bayit co-founders. Rabbi Evan offers his beautiful singable ashrei variation composed of alphabetical quotes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rabbi David offers the Gettysburg Address in haftarah trope because it's Lincoln's birthday. I offer Listen Up, Y'all, which I wrote for a service I co-led here two years ago at this retreat. We interweave nusach (the weekday melody-system) with melodies. We sing in harmony. I come away beaming.

This is one of the things I love most about gatherings like this one: the opportunity to daven with people who care about these words as much as I do. (Not to mention the opportunity to sing in harmony with friends, which is one of the most emotionally and spiritually satisfying things in the world for me.) I lead davenen regularly at my synagogue, and I always get some good "juice" from praying, but there's nothing quite like davening with friends in harmony while relaxing into the way the words and melodies and shared intentions can buoy me.

About half of the programming this year is provided for us / by us -- sessions on the things we're doing, or our areas of expertise, or various forms of self-care for rabbis. My Bayit co-founders and I offer a session on what we're doing and how we hope our RWB colleagues will partner with us. I attend a terrific session on the tension between pursuing social justice and ministering to a politically diverse congregation, and another on mysticism, shamanism, and folk practices (from angels to hamsas to amulets), and another on experiential pluralism through the lens of complementary flavors.

During our plenary sessions (the theme is "Leading in Challenging Times") we hear from Dr. Connor Wood of Faith In Depth, about conservatism and liberalism and how they play out in the religious sphere. We hear from Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins about vocation, balancing the pastoral and the prophetic, and being a religious leader during turbulent times. We break into small groups and discuss pluralism, how we invest our stories with meaning, where and how we build bridges and where and how we draw our lines. Both speakers are good, though honestly I'm here more for the hevreschaft (collegiality / friendship) than for expert speakers.

And the hevreschaft is sweet and satisfying and enriching b'chol olamot (on all levels). Really what draws me here are the conversations: at mealtimes, on couches in the hallways, over coffee in the morning and other beverages once night falls. We talk about life and relationships and transitions and spiritual practice and texts and Torah -- about what we're reading, how we're davening, what brings us joy in our work -- about innovation and pluralism and the cutting edge of spiritual life and what real spiritual R&D might be. This is what I'm thirsty for, in the ordinary sometimes-isolation of serving a congregational community solo, and I drink it up like a happy plant receiving longed-for rain.

When the time comes for me to take my leave of everyone (a bit early -- before the retreat has officially ended, alas) I'm sorry to go... but grateful to have had this opportunity to replenish mind, heart, and spirit with colleagues who care about spiritual life, innovation, and the Jewish future in some of the same ways that I do.


Off to Rabbis Without Borders (again)

LogoI'm off today to Pearlstone for the annual alumni gathering of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. As always, I'm looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues and friends across the denominational (and trans-denominational) spectrum.

This year we'll be hearing from guest speakers in the morning, on questions of political pluralism and how it interfaces with spiritual pluralism, and the afternoon sessions will be led by us. 

On Monday I'll be co-leading morning davenen (prayer) with Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Evan Krame, and at lunch we'll be sharing with our colleagues about Bayit: Your Jewish Home and opportunities for collaboration between Bayit and RWB. 

I'm looking forward to good conversations, meaningful davenen, and coming home rejuvenated from time spent with others who care about spiritual life, innovation, and the Jewish future as much as I do.


On building and making our tradition our own

Logo-twd-header...The Talmud draws a connection between children and builders. (The connection relies on a Hebrew pun between two words that sound almost the same.) All of us are tradition’s children, inheritors of richness from those who came before us. And all of us can be tradition’s builders. We have the opportunity (maybe even the obligation) to take up our tools and build the Judaism that the future most needs...

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily, on building and making our tradition our own, written in honor of my Bayit co-founders. Read the whole thing: Why Judaism Feels Like Home To Me


February: turning toward the light

26092538528_aee38fbf44_zFebruary can be a tough month. The Jewish spiritual calendar says we've taken our first steps toward the rising sap of spring, but the rising sap -- both literal and metaphorical -- is invisible to the human eye.

In New England where I make my home, we're entrenched in snow and rain and ice. The days are growing longer, but the world is still cold. My windshield is still obscured with its seasonal scrim of road salt. Winter won't unclench for a while yet. 

I've been taking comfort from the pair of hyacinth bulbs in my bedroom window. They were a gift from a friend a few weeks ago, and when I received them they were plain bulbs with root fronds below and only the tiniest nubs of green on top.

But within days they shot up, green leaves yearning toward the sun. And then they bloomed. Oh, their blooms! I've been under the weather for a few weeks now, but even so I can smell their fragrance, and it awes me.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that as plants are heliotropic -- they naturally turn toward the sun -- we human beings are theotropic. It's in our nature to "grow toward God," to turn toward the source of light that enlivens us.

As plants draw sustenance from (soil and water and) the rays of the sun, we draw sustenance from a more metaphorical kind of light. We draw sustenance from the "light" of love and hope and connection.

What do you need to turn toward, as we move deeper into this season? What enlivens you and lifts your heart? What gives you a sense of hope? What would it feel like to turn toward those things, and ride that updraft all the way into spring?

 


In the tradition of Rumi...

I'm proofing the pre-publication galley copy of my next book, Texts to the Holy, due soon from Ben Yehuda Press. (Pre-order a copy now!) Deep thanks to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for these kind words. 

Shabbat shalom to all!