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February 2018

A glimpse of the Ben Yehuda Press poetry reading in Tarrytown

On Sunday, March 18, I had the opportunity to "launch" Texts to the Holy at a Ben Yehuda Press poetry reading at the JCC in Tarrytown, New York.

The reading was organized by Maxine Silverman, a fellow Ben Yehuda Press poet. To open the reading, Maxine offered a few poems from her gorgeous collection Shiva Moon (all poems that will appear in Beside Still Waters, the mourning-and-shiva volume that Bayit is co-producing with Ben Yehuda). After that, the reading featured me alongside Yaakov Moshe, author of Is: heretical Jewish blessings and poems. (Yaakov Moshe is a heteronym for Jay Michaelson.) Jay read, and then I read, and then we traded poems for a while, riffing off of each others' work, which was neat. 

Larry Yudelson (our editor and publisher at Ben Yehuda) took some video at the reading and has shared some of it online. Here's me reading "The One Who Sees Me" from Texts to the Holy :

And here's "Awake," from the same collection:


I think he'll be posting more videos soon of all three poets; follow Ben Yehuda on Facebook, or follow the Jewish Poetry Project on YouTube, if you're so inclined.

Deep thanks to Larry at Ben Yehuda, and to Dr. George Kraus and Maxine Silverman at the Shames JCC on the Hudson, for making the reading happen! (Buy my new collection online here for a mere $9.95: Texts to the Holy / Ben Yehuda Press 2018.)

The week before spring

40132104624_1bf0a393cd_zThis is the time of year when I am most eager for the coming spring.

This year has felt scrambled. We had unseasonable warmth in February, and now that it's March we've gotten socked by a few nor'easters in a row. It feels like winter has settled in for the long haul, precisely now that we're all starting to crave the coming spring (or at least I am.)

But there's beauty in this snow-covered March landscape, if I have eyes to see. The snow reveals the passage of animals of whom I would otherwise be unaware -- little rabbit footprints outside the synagogue and outside my front door, bird footprints beneath my kitchen window feeder.

The icicles gleam when they catch the light.  At shul (seen here) the melting effects of the sun have caused icicles to form at surprising angles: not pointing downward like they do at my house, but curving inward, a thicket of clear points that look like spun glass, eaves decorated by Chihuly.

Though the world is still mostly monochrome -- the white of snow, the grey of clouds, the grey-brown of bare branches -- color is beginning to return to the palette. Every now and then there is a glimpse of blue sky. The willow branches have a pale gold quality to them that makes them look sunlit even on a cloudy day.

And friends who live just a few hours south report that they've started seeing robins, harbingers of spring, scattered across their lawns. I'm glad the robins haven't made it here yet -- everything is so covered in snow, where would they go for worms? -- but I expect to see them soon. 

The coming week will bring the spring equinox. The northern hemisphere is tilting toward summer, toward green, toward light. In another few months these snowbanks and icicles will be an improbable memory. For now my challenge is to see the beauty in them, even when I'm eager for what's next.

"For one who truly loves..."

39911307485_352177954a_z"For one who truly loves, there is the commandment-like need to provide goodness for the beloved that turns the love from sentiment to substance."

My Wednesday morning coffee shop hevruta group is reading Mesillat Yesharim ("The Path of the Upright"), by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone. This morning, one of the sentences that leapt out at me came from Stone's commentary -- the line I cited, above.

"Love of God" can be an abstract concept. What does it mean to "love" the infinite source of all? But we can understand love of another human being. The love of a (healthy) parent for a child, the love of a friend for a beloved friend. If we are lucky, we know what it is to love.

And when one loves, there is a yearning to do for the beloved. Not because it's "commanded," but because one just wants to. I give to my child not because anyone told me to, and not because of anything he will do for me in return, but just because my heart calls me to care for him.

It's easy to say "I love you." But far more important, for Luzzatto, are the actions that underpin our words. It's not enough to say; we also need to do. In relationship with a human beloved, we do whatever we can to bring sweetness to that beloved. That's what "turns the love from sentiment to substance" -- that makes it real.

Our mystical tradition teaches that each of us is enlivened by a nitzotz Elohut, a spark of divinity. The love I feel -- that motivates me to yearn to provide goodness for those whom I love -- is, in a way, love of God. Because when I love another human being, I'm also loving the spark of God within them, whether I'm aware of it or not.

(That intersection between loving others and loving God is the place out of which Texts to the Holy was written.)

Our daily liturgy reminds us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. Saying those words is easy. More important, though, is doing those words. I think Luzzatto is saying that we (should) express love of God through seeking to act in a way that brings the Beloved joy. In this, we ourselves find joy. 

It's a tall order. In every moment of my day I have an opportunity to choose to follow my yetzer ha-tov, my "good impulse," rather than my yetzer ha-ra (my ego, my drive, my "evil inclination"). I know how often I fall short. It's easy to fall into asking, who am I to imagine that I can give God joy?

But when trying to bring joy to God feels like more than I can grasp or manage, I can shift focus from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the cosmic Beloved to my smaller human beloveds. And then my anxiety vanishes, and I can feel the channels of my heart opening, and it is the easiest thing in the world to let love pour through.


Sweetness from an extraordinary Shabbaton

Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024Many people, upon turning sixty, might choose to celebrate by throwing a party... or taking a trip somewhere... or perhaps trying to pretend the milestone birthday away. Not my friend and Bayit co-founder Rabbi Evan Krame.

What he wanted for his sixtieth birthday was to learn with Rabbi Art Green, one of the Jewish world's shining lights -- and to share that learning with the community he co-founded (The Jewish Studio) and with friends, ranging from elementary school buddies with whom he's still in touch, to more recent rabbinical school friends like me.

So he planned a Shabbaton with Reb Art as the scholar-in-residence. He invited Shir Yaakov to come and share his music. And a group of his (and my) friends and colleagues stepped forward to lead prayer and offer our spiritual, musical, and liturgical gifts.

We spent Shabbes at Rockwood Manor, a house near the Potomac where I saw what were for me the year's first signs of spring -- daffodil shoots poking from the ground, flowering trees just beginning to bloom. 

Reb Art taught several times throughout the weekend. He taught texts from two Hasidic masters (the Sfat Emet and the Me'or Eynayim) about the mishkan (the dwelling-place for God's presence, sometimes translated as "tabernacle") and about the inner light that enlivens Torah. R' Evan interviewed him on Saturday after lunch, and we all got to bask in the learning from that conversation about God and journey and spiritual life.

A rotating group of about a dozen rabbis and musicians co-led prayer four times over the course of our 24 hours together. (I was among them -- I got to share my "Listen Up, Y'all" on Friday night, and to lead part of the service on Shabbat morning.) This group had never led prayer together before in this configuration. I don't know how the davenen felt to the kahal (the community), but for me as one of the leaders it felt both seamless and real. Seamless as though we had been sharing leadership for years, and real because we weren't "performing," we were honest-to-God praying. (Which is as it should be!)

I think the reason it flowed so smoothly was that we were leading lich'vod (in honor of, or for the reason of,) Shabbat, and God, and the friend-and-colleague who had brought us together. None of us was leading in order to shine as an individual gem. We were leading together in order to create something more than the sum of our parts. (As I write these words it occurs to me that that's not unlike the mishkan, the tabernacle, described in the Torah portions we've been reading -- for which each person brought their own gifts as a free will offering.) That was deeply nourishing for me. 

Our Saturday morning davenen was inspired by the last verse in the book of Exodus. When we were in rabbinical school, our friend and colleague Hazzan Daniel Kempin wrote a musical setting for that verse, which we taught at the start of the morning. Five of us each gave over a vort, a short teaching, about that passage over the course of the morning -- each of us shining light on a different facet of what that verse could mean. R' Evan had commissioned sketchnote artist Steve Silbert to illustrate that verse, and Steve's artwork offered a visual accompaniment to our words and our prayer.

On Shabbat afternoon, during the time between one learning session and another, some folks did yoga, while others went for a walk, while others chatted in the sunshine. (I sat in the gazebo with a handful of friends and studied some gemara with another of my Bayit co-founders,  Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, which was delicious.) Reb Art taught one final time, about the red heifer and connecting with the supernal light of Torah. As the day grew dark and Shabbat prepared to depart, we harvested blessings from our time together that we will carry forward into our weekday lives. And then we made havdalah, singing our way into the new week.

I'm grateful to R' Evan for choosing to celebrate his birthday in such an extraordinarily generous way: sharing food and prayer and song and learning with so many (including me!) It was a beautiful weekend, and one I know I will carry with me for a long time. 


Image: the Torah sketchnote commissioned from Steve Silbert.

On "keeping the Pesach," and gradations of practice

Xmatzah1_0.jpg qitok=9eX4cdDO.pagespeed.ic.SlytqcygAaPesach begins three weeks from tomorrow, and maybe some of you are considering "keeping the Pesach" this year. Maybe you have some anxiety about what exactly that means, or how to do it, or whether you're going to "do it wrong." What is keeping the Pesach?

In Exodus 12:15 we read:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.

At its simplest, "keeping the Pesach" means 1) eating matzah and 2) removing leaven. In some Jewish contexts there are clear guidelines for how to remove leaven from one's home, and you either follow them or you don't. But in the community that I serve there are many gradations of practice. I don't see "keeping the Pesach" as a binary. I see it as a spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum, you go to a seder or two, but otherwise your dietary practices are unchanged that week.

At the other end of the spectrum, you remove all leaven (and items made from the five leaven-able grains) from your home, and eat only natural foods (fruits and vegetables don't need a hechsher, a kosher certification marking) or foods certified as "Kosher For Passover" by a trusted rabbinic authority, and you eat on special plates that you reserve only for this week of the year, plates that have never touched a leavened grain.

There's a lot in between those choices. For instance:

1) You might choose to avoid bread for a week. Just leavened bread. If you would look at it and say, "Yep, that's bread," then don't eat it. In that case, you might still eat pasta (after all, spaghetti isn't bread). You might still eat breakfast cereals made from grain (they, too, are not bread.) But your diet would shift enough that you would notice, all week long, that this is a special time.

2) You might choose to also avoid not only actual bread but also bread-like things, from bagels to English muffins. Even sweet muffins, like blueberry or pumpkin muffins, are leavened -- so you'd avoid them too. You might choose to avoid beverages that have fermented, like beer or kombucha. In this case too, the pastas and the cereals might still feel okay to you, but the class of foods you're avoiding would be a larger one.

3) You might choose to remove from your home all things made from the five grains that our tradition considers "leaven-able." (That's wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye.) If water spilled into a container of flour and you left it there, the flour would eventually grow its own sourdough starter, which means that flour is "leaven-able" -- it is capable of becoming leavened under the right circumstances. Anything made from leavenable grains, you would remove from your home for a week. 

4) You might choose to eat special "kosher for Pesach" pasta... or you might avoid it because it looks like and acts like "regular" pasta, and you want your diet this week to feel different.

5) No matter what your dietary practices are, you might choose to get a set of special Pesach dishes, to use during that week only, and to remind you that this is a special time, a week that is set-apart from ordinary life.

6) You might choose to eschew kitniyot (corn, rice, beans, and peas -- which have long been part of Sephardic Pesach dietary practice, but used to be forbidden in Ashkenazic practice, though today they are accepted in Reform and Conservative communities)... or you might embrace them wholeheartedly. 

All of these are legitimate Jewish ways of experiencing Pesach. (My own family of origin spans that spectrum from one end to the other.) My invitation to you is to choose consciously what you want your Pesach practice to be this year... and to pay attention not only to the contents of your pantry, but also to your heart and soul. Whatever practices you take on should (ideally) serve the purpose of awakening you to the festival and its meaning (at least some of the time.)

The Jewish renewal practice of hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) invites us to ask: where is God for you in this? (If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: meaning, or holiness, or love.) How does this experience connect you with something greater than yourself? How will this practice renew your heart and soul -- how will it align you with holiness -- how will it open you up to transformation?

The haggadah teaches that it's incumbent on each of us to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been freed from slavery. Pesach comes to teach us that we can experience liberation from our narrow places, from life's constraints and constrictions. Pesach is about leaving slavery and taking the first steps toward covenant. It's about taking risks, leaping when the time is right, venturing into the unknown even though it's unknown. It's about crossing the Sea and finding ourselves in an unfamiliar wilderness on the other side. It's about new beginnings, and spring, and trust, and hope.

The word chametz (leaven) comes from the Hebrew l'chimutz, "to sour or ferment." In one Hasidic understanding, chametz represents the internal puffery of ego. Chametz can mean all of our old narratives, our baggage, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. Chametz can mean our own sour places, the old psychological and spiritual and emotional "stuff" that we need to clean out and throw away in order to be ready to experience freedom. Whatever you're doing with the literal chametz in your pantry, ask yourself: what is the internal chametz I need to throw away before Pesach begins?

Whatever your Pesach dietary choices are this year, may they bring you more fully into awareness of the holiday and its meanings, and may they open you more fully to transformation.




Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Four Worlds

 4worldsWhen you hear the phrase "the Four Worlds," what comes to mind?

Maybe you think of action, emotion, thought, and spirit. 

Maybe you associate the four worlds with the Tu BiShvat seder, which is often organized as a journey through the four worlds.

Maybe thanks to Tu BiShvat you associate the four worlds with the four seasons of the year, or with the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire. 

Maybe you associate the four worlds with the four letters of God's holiest name, יהו׳׳ה.

Or maybe the phrase doesn't mean much to you, or leaves you confused. 

The four worlds paradigm is core to Jewish renewal as I've experienced it over these last many years. For a while now I've been wanting to craft a short, (hopefully) clear explanation of the four worlds to share with y'all.

There's a new page on the Bayit website that I hope will serve this purpose: The four worlds.

If you're familiar with the four worlds: does this description work for you?

If you're not familiar with the four worlds: does this description make sense to you?

If you have questions, we'd love to hear them. Let me know!


Related: A teaching from Joel Segel on equalizers of heart and soul, 2016

Texts to the Holy: reading in Tarrytown

J with GeorgeoI shared poems from Texts to the Holy at a handful of readings and events while the volume was being written and revised and prepared for print.

But the first reading from the new collection since it actually came out will take place later this month.

It's part of the "Sundays @ The J with George and Friends" series, and it's a Ben Yehuda Press reading featuring three Ben Yehuda poets: Yakov Moshe (also known as Rabbi Jay Michaelson), author of Is; Maxine Silverman, author of Shiva Moon; and myself. The reading will be hosted by Dr. George Kraus. 

You can read about it on the Shames JCC website: Sunday Poetry: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Yakov Moshe (Jay Michaelson), and Maxine Silverman. Or, for those who don't want to click through, here are the most salient details:

Sunday, March 18


Tarrytown JCC

Free for members; $10 non-members

Books will be available for sale and signing after the reading. 

If you're in or near Tarrytown, I hope you'll join us!

Choose life: what Ki Tisa teaches us about Shabbat

32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zThe Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [or: was ensouled].

That's in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many of us know these words because they have become a part of our Shabbat liturgy, as the prayer we call by its first word, V'shamru. We sing these words on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings before kiddush.

Immediately before these familiar verses, there is another instruction to keep Shabbat as a sign between us and God. But this one contains some more challenging language:

You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on Shabbat shall be put to death.


The medieval commentator Rashi (d. 1105) clarifies that the death sentence only applies if the person does work on Shabbat in the presence of witnesses, AND if the person was warned, immediately before doing the work, what the penalty would be. This is a pretty common rabbinic move: taking something in Torah that startles us with its harshness, and adding qualifying stipulations that make it much harder for the harsh law to be applied.

The Sforno (d. 1550) is less apologetic about the starkness of this command. He writes that anyone who deliberately desecrates Shabbat thereby denies God Who created all things including rest. Someone who performs secular tasks on Shabbat has clearly lost consciousness of what Shabbat means, and therefore deserves execution. You make your choices, you live with the consequences.

I agree with the Sforno that our choices have consequences, but I read these verses a little bit differently. I see them not as prescriptive, but descriptive.

Another way to translate "מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת," usually rendered as "will be put to death," is "he will surely die." This passage comes to teach us that one who doesn't honor Shabbat, who doesn't honor the holiness of resting from workday acts and workday consciousness, will bring themselves closer to death. One who works constantly, and lives in a state of workday consciousness 24/7, will be deadened thereby.

Every week when Friday night and Saturday roll around, we make choices. Will we disengage from work, and from our worries, and from 24/7 cable news, and from all the things that make us feel trapped like rats in a maze? Will we set aside our burdens and welcome the presence of that extra Shabbat soul enlivening us and enabling us to take a full, deep breath? Will we affirm that connecting with our deepest selves and with our Source matters more than our to-do lists and our deadlines?

That's the choice. We can let Shabbat transform us, or we can stick with the rat race. And if we choose the endless rat race, we're going to wind up feeling dead inside.

Choose rest. Choose Shabbes. Choose life.


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



Source of Mercy, untie my tangled places.
I'm a fine gold chain so knotted and snarled

I've forgotten how it feels to fall straight,
to let Your abundance cascade through.

Protector of Israel, when someone wounds
my beloveds I turn into an angry lioness.

Forgive me: I don't want to outgrow
this furious yearning to protect those I love.

Eternal Friend, help me relinquish my grudges,
especially those I hold against myself.

You know every hope and every ache.
All I want to want is You, and if I have You

I have all I need. Through time and space
Your glory shines, Majestic One.



This is a prayer-poem I began writing a couple of years ago to which I returned this morning. It began as a re-visioning and mashup of two pre-existing prayers: Ana B'Choach, which some recite on Friday nights, and the bedtime prayer of forgiveness which appears in the nightly shema liturgy.

My poem borrows some phrases from Reb Zalman z"l's translations of both of those prayers. It also grapples with the piece of the bedtime forgiveness prayer that challenges me most: the articulation of forgiveness not for those who have harmed me, but for those who have harmed those whom I love. 

There are four names of God, or epithets for God, in this prayer-poem. Three of them are names that Reb Zalman z"l used often, and the fourth appears in traditional daily liturgy. The fact that there are four names of God was a conscious choice made in revision; I like how it evokes the four worlds

Shabbat shalom to all!


On saying bedtime prayers with my son

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay for The Wisdom Daily is a meditation on saying bedtime prayers with my son, and how that experience has changed. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

...In recent days he’s shifted the language of his prayers. Not the shema or the angel song, but the “God bless…” section of the evening ritual. That litany used to begin with “Mommy and Daddy.” Then came both of his sets of grandparents, followed by “and all of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, and everybody else, amen.”

Most of the litany is the same as it ever was. But recently he chose to add his father’s new partner to the prayer list. Then he decided he wanted to add our cat and his father’s new cat. The new litany begins with “Mom,” on a line by itself, followed by “Daddy and [Girlfriend].” Then come the two cats, then come the grandparents, then everybody else...

Read the whole thing: After My Divorce, My Son's Bedtime Prayer Is A Nightly Reminder That I'm Alone.