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May 2018

#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


When words fail

I keep trying to write something about the current state of affairs in my country and being too daunted to begin. My words fail me. What wisdom can I possibly offer about migrant children torn from their parents and held in cages? All I have is heartbreak.

But the fact that I am stunned and horrified and sickened by what's happening in my nation is no excuse for my silence. If I can't find words of my own, the least I can do is point to words by others. Here are five tweets I've signal-boosted in recent days (the first one of these is a thread -- click through to read the whole):

 

 

If you want to know what you can do to make this better, here's a list of seven groups supporting children at the border that need our help. Donating to organizations like these doesn't feel like enough, but if the choice is between "doing something insufficient" and "doing nothing at all," I believe the former is better than the latter.


Evening sky

Skiesherecould go outside and watch the sky change in the wintertime, but I rarely do.

Sunset is early in winter, and the air is too cold for my comfort most of the time, and my mirpesset fills up with snow and I can't open the door until that snow melts in the spring.

But in summer my balcony is one of my favorite places to be, and one of my favorite ways to spend evening time: gazing at the always-perfect and always-changing sky.

On the one hand sky-gazing can feel frivolous. There's so much that needs doing. On the micro scale there are household chores; on the macro scale there's the badly broken world.

But it's exactly because the work is endless that taking a pause from that work is so important. It's the same principle as taking a Shabbat: ideally it restores me for the week.

And even when I don't daven a full ma'ariv service I can pause to notice, and bless the One Who evens the evenings, mixing the changing colors of the evening sky.


On holding a printer's proof of Bayit's "Beside Still Waters"

42748909712_4ac3fbcfdc_zOne of the enduring mysteries of publishing, for me, is how different a manuscript feels once it's typeset and bound.

This shouldn't be news to me. I've been privileged to work with several fine publishers, from Pecan Grove Press (who published my first chapbook in 1995) to Phoenicia Publishing (who published 70 faces: Torah poems and Waiting to Unfold) to Ben Yehuda Press (who published Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy.)  And yet every time I hold a new printer's proof in my hands, I'm always awestruck by how real the volume feels, and how different that is from a PDF on my computer screen.

The volume in question this time is a printer's proof of the first third of Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, the volume for mourners being co-published by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press.  This book contains poems, prayers, readings, and meditations from some 39 people -- including some of the poets, liturgists, and rabbis I most admire. (There's a list of contributors on the book's webpage.) That they entrusted us with publishing their work is humbling.

And I think this book will meet a real pastoral need, and that's a humbling responsibility, too. Beside Still Waters is something that I need as a congregational rabbi who ministers to people throughout the mourner's journey. It's something that I need as a person who will someday walk the mourner's path myself. And I think it will meet the needs of a lot of people, across and beyond the denominational spectrum, in synagogues and chavurot, hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes.

42748909682_f9467be788_zMourning is at once deeply personal and -- at least in Jewish tradition -- also communal. The whole custom of shiva minyanim and kaddish is designed to embed a mourner in community. (Many meaningful books have been written about how  saying kaddish daily for a year changed someone's sense of self, God, and community.) Beside Still Waters is designed to help individual mourners on the mourner's path, but even more than that, it's meant to be used b'tzibbur, in community settings.

There are still several stops remaining on the journey toward publication. Based on this partial proof we've made definitive choices about fonts and typesetting style. Now the other two-thirds of the book needs to be typeset and designed. There's proofreading and copyediting work to be done, in English and in the transliteration and in the Hebrew (where sometimes nekudot, vowel dots and markings, get subtly shifted as an artifact of file transfer.) 

But seeing this partial proof makes the book feel real. I can imagine sharing the "Healing of Body, Healing of Spirit" and "Before Death" sections with someone who is dying. I can imagine leading a shiva minyan with the liturgy we've collected here. I can imagine using the book for yahrzeit and yizkor and times of remembrance. I can imagine this book going out into the world and making a difference in people's lives... and that gives me the energy I need to keep the behind-the-scenes work going.

I'm endlessly grateful to our publishing partner Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press, and to my hevre at Bayit, and to everyone who contributed their work to this book. I can't wait to bring it into the world and share it with all of you.

 

You can pre-order Beside Still Waters on the Ben Yehuda Press website. If you're interested in a bulk order for your community, let me know -- discounts are available.


Even legal limbo can be spiritual

...I blinked and the judge was wishing us well in whatever may unfold next for each of us. We walked out of the courtroom, and I was so dazed that I tried to put my purse back through the security scanner even though I know they don’t search you on the way out of the building. We agreed on the precise time and location of our next kid hand-off. We got into our separate cars and drove away...

That's a glimpse of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: reflections on the spiritual valance of being in legal limbo, and finding holiness in life's transitions.

Read the whole thing here: Finding what lifts my spirit as I wait for my divorce to be finalized.


The Sabbath Bee

6x9-1-416x624"Shabbat is different every week because we are different every week. Sometimes Shabbat shows up with dancing shoes, other times with a cup of cocoa and a bedtime story," writes Wilhemina Gottschalk in her introduction to The Sabbath Bee, her luminous new collection of prose poems, just released by Ben Yehuda Press. (It's part of the same Jewish Poetry Project beneath whose umbrella my Texts to the Holy was published earlier this year.)

"Some weeks Shabbat might be happy to give me a quick hug and let me return to my conversation with friends, while other nights the prospect of a mystical joining is so exhilarating that Shabbat and I sneak away together to the nearest janitor's closet." 

And that's just the introduction.

I adore this book of prose poems. If you've picked up a copy of the book, you already know that, because here's the blurb I offered for the back:

"Torah, say our sages, has seventy faces. As these prose poems reveal, so too does Shabbat. Here we meet Shabbat as familiar housemate, as the child whose presence transforms a family (sometimes in ways that outsiders can’t understand), as a spreading tree, as an annoying friend who insists on being celebrated, as a child throwing water balloons, as a woman, as a man, as a bee, as the ocean… Through the lens of these deft, surprising, moving prose poems, all seventy of Shabbat’s faces shine."

I love this book because these prose poems are familiar and surprising all at once. I love it because it shows how Shabbat can be different for us every time she comes, and it offers a window into what it can feel like to welcome Shabbat week after week: with bliss and with frustration and with joy.

Shabbat in this volume is a bride, a husband, a child, a storm, a blanket, a lover, a pair of dancing shoes. In one of the most delightfully surprising prose poems in the volume, Shabbat is a person and I become a puppy in her arms. 

Many of the pieces in this volume stand on their own as delicious little prose poems, but for me the real beauty of the collection is how each prose poem reflects and refracts the experience of Shabbat in conversation with the others. No one of these poems could stand in for the whole collection, because part of the point is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. 

If you are a fan of prose poems (which I am, and have been ever since David Lehman introduced me to them in graduate school some 20 years ago!), and/or if you know Shabbat, or love Shabbat, or perhaps once flirted with Shabbat, this book is worth your time. Available for $9.95 at Ben Yehuda Press

 


A Shabbes in the Garden

Our sages compare Shabbat to a garden. Shabbat is called both a foretaste of the world to come and a return to Eden, the primordial garden of abundance and bliss. What more perfect place to experience the sweetness of Shabbes than a garden? 

This past Shabbat I joined with folks from Temple Beth-El of City Island and Shtiebl (and their spiritual leaders Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Ben Newman) for Shabbat in the Garden, a prayerful adventure to delight body, heart, mind, and soul.

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We met at the front entrance to the New York Botanical Garden. After getting ourselves organized, we walked in contemplative silence -- marveling at the spectacular beauty all around us -- until we reached a shady place where it made sense to stop.

Beneath a spreading tree we sang a shehecheyanu: "Oh, Mystery • Grace unfolding • Oh, Miracle • It's You alone. / Oh, Mystery • Grace unfolding • Oh, Miracle • You bring us home!" Humming that melody we walked some more, past greenery and blooms.

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Beside a tiered reflecting pool we stopped again in the shade. After the story of Reb Zalman's daughter asking "When we're awake, can we wake up even more?" we sang "Awaken, arise to the wholeness of your being!" We woke up some more.

More walking, more quiet singing. Where we stopped to stretch up to the sky and pray nishmat kol chai, "the breath of all life praises Your name!" we were accompanied by the song of a waterfall and the basso profundo of a bullfrog in the pond.

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Beneath a shaded pavilion overlooking a meadow dotted with butterflies we sang the bar'chu. "As I call on the light of my soul, I come home." Reminded of the angel who encourages every blade of grass to grow, we sang holy holy holy like the angels do.

We sang Mi Chamocha, the song that Torah teaches we sang upon crossing the Sea, as we crossed the Bronx River. Our Amidah, the standing prayer, unfolded in silence overlooking the spectacular riotous blooms of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. 

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On an enormous expanse of rock we listened to mystical teachings on the week's Torah portion. We rose there to sing our closing prayers. We blessed wine and challah. And then we savored a celebratory oneg and impromptu conversation about God.

And when our community time together was done, Rabbi David and I walked through the most spectacular rose garden I have ever seen. More kinds of roses than I can describe, every shape and configuration and color and scent, and all of them in bloom. 

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All photos courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.


A blessing for blowing the candle out

41enBytTguL._SY355_I love sitting with my son on the mirpesset in the evenings. He doesn't have a ton of patience for just sitting and watching the sky change colors, but I can usually entice him out for at least a little while.

Last night we sat on the mirpesset and I lit the citronella candle on his request. When it came time to go inside for his bath, he wanted to blow it out, but then he paused.

"We should say a blessing," he suggested. 

Generally speaking we make blessings when we light candles, not when we extinguish them, but I didn't say that. (I don't ever want to quash his spiritual impulses.) I said, "Okay, go for it."

"Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam," he began ("Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of creation" -- the opening words to many Jewish blessings), and then paused. "Wait. I don't know the rest of the words."

"You get to use your own words," I told him.

He thought for a moment.

"Thank You God for the light of the candle. When I blow it out, may Your strength flow through me," he intoned.

"Beautiful," I murmured.

And then he blew out the candle. (Which took a few tries; they're designed to be resistant to breezes!) When the flame went out, a plume of smoke rose and curled and danced up and around, revealing hidden currents. "Look, Mom," he said, "there's God's strength, flowing through the air!" 

Talk about sanctifying the ordinary.

Thank You, God, for the privilege of nurturing this extraordinary soul.


A week of learning, planning, and dreams

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A week of Torah study lishma (for its own sake), hevreschaft (collegiality and deep friendship), dreaming about the Jewish future and how best to empower people to build that future together, visioning and strategic planning for Bayit: Your Jewish Home, and also the beach and the sun and great food and davenen and singing: sounds like olam ha-ba / the World to Come!

It may indeed be a description of heaven. (At least for me -- I can't think of a sweeter way to spend a week.) It's also a description of what I'll be doing on my summer vacation! Bayit's founding builders are renting a house on the seashore during the first week of July, and we'll spend a week together learning, praying, playing, and dreaming big about the things we hope to build. 

We're bringing teachers from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Yeshivat Maharat so we can nourish our souls with Torah study. We'll do vision and strategic planning work to support not only the work we're already beginning to do (in publishing, in ritual resources, and in innovation / R&D) but also the work that is as-yet only in the early dreaming stages. 

We'll dive into big questions: what does the Jewish world most need? What does genuine innovation look like, and how can it be fostered and shared? What structures will best support the flowering-forth of renewal in Judaism and in spiritual life writ large? I can't imagine more meaningful conversations to be having -- nor better hevre with whom to build on those conversations.

The learning and visioning week will be once again be sponsored by The Jewish Studio, under whose umbrella Bayit is housed. I don't know what I'm most excited about: the Torah study, the seashore, the time with my hevre, the conversations, the vision and strategic planning work... or maybe the integration of all of those, which will add up to more than the sum of their parts.

 


Cloud and fire, waiting and leaping


Vayakheil-Pkudei-768x1024In this week's Torah portion, B'ha'a'lot'kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.

"Whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp."

The commentator known as the Sforno -- Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 -- notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.

So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.

The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn't just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It's also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.

The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don't have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it's time to sit with what is, and when it's time to leap into the unknown. That's discernment work we have to do on our own -- maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)

The new Jews we're celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say "beginning to learn" because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition -- including me.)

And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.

In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.

This week's Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we're in a period of waiting and discernment, we'll be able to tell when it's time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we're in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we're headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness -- and that we can always course-correct as needed.

And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don't have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.

This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l'hitpallel, literally "to discern oneself." It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it's time to sit still and when it's time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for his teachings Waiting to Exhale and The Soul of Waiting.

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: Steve Silbert's Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.


Ordinary days

41753113654_88f5c5d3af_zWhere we live, school won't end until late June, but the end is beginning to be in sight. My kid is starting to talk about becoming a "rising third grader," which boggles my mind. I'm finalizing plans for his day camp adventures this summer,: there will be scavenger hunts and arts & crafts and swimming in ponds surrounded by rolling green hills. The first distribution week at our beloved CSA is coming up soon, and I'm eager to return to the profoundly holy spaces of its fields and gardens and barn.

All of these are sweet -- and none of them is particularly noteworthy. But they are part of spiritual life even so. Ordinary days are part of spiritual life too: not just the highs and the lows, but the stretches in between. These days offer the challenge of sanctifying the ordinary: walks on the dirt roads behind my condo, making supper for my child, unpacking groceries, watering the plants on my small mirpesset where last fall and the fall before I set up a sukkah festooned with tinsel and sparkling lights.  

From the morning's modah ani and m'chayei ha-meitim to the evening's ma'ariv aravim, every day offers countless opportunities to wake up and offer blessing -- and countless opportunities to get bogged down (in scheduling, laundry, the frequently grief-inducing daily news) and forget. It can be easy (or easier) to offer words of blessing at high times. And at low times, the heart may demand to cry out and be heard (mine often does). But much of life is in between those two extremes. 

And that in turn means that much of the work of spiritual life is in that in-between place. It's the work of staying mindful, cultivating gratitude, doing what I can to make the world a better place, reminding myself to rest. It's the work of the everyday, the ordinary, the weekly rhythm of Shabbat and chol. It's the work that happens in traffic (even though where I live "traffic" is likelier to mean a slow tractor on route 43 than a surfeit of cars on the road) and waiting to check out at the grocery store. 

It's not glamorous. It's not the stuff of soul-stirring sermons. But it is the stuff of daily life. It's like parenting: my kid's childhood is made up of mornings and bedtimes and school days and play dates. It's easy to focus on the big milestone moments: starting school, or going on a big vacation, or becoming b'nei mitzvah... but childhood is more than those, and the work of being a parent is more than those. Parenting is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. 

And spiritual practice is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. Now that we've made it through Shavuot, the celebration of covenant that is the culmination of the journey of freedom we began at Pesach, the Jewish calendar quiets down for a while. Just in time for northern-hemisphere summer, a season of long days and splashing in the pool and doing all of the quiet ordinary things that make up a life. Here's to sanctifying ordinary time.

 

Image: the beginnings of summer where I live.